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Studying Syria's Radical Islamist Organizations
Storify is allowing me to more easily compile events from around the world. Please check out my storify page if you are interested in my research:
In a recent article for the National, Hassan Hassan deftly noted the seriousness surrounding the Islamic State’s (IS) announcement of a Caliphate. Many suggest that the announcement will be the downfall of the radical Islamist group.
There are certainly many jihadist organizations in Syria opposed to the move made by IS. Yet, those who claim this is because of IS’ harsh tactics - beheadings, torture, strict shari’a law - miss some of the underlying reasons for such opposition. Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) is one of nine groups that declared IS’ announcement null. JN, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, has many reasons to denounce a new caliphate, none more so than its own legitimacy.
For, as an IS fighter Abu Omar summarized in an online chat with the New York Times, “Al Qaeda is an organization and we are a state. Osama bin Laden, God have mercy on him, was fighting to establish the Islamic state to rule the world, and — praise God — we have achieved his dream.”
Of course, one fighter’s words do not reflect the actuality of the situation. However, Hassan Hassan notes that Baghdadi, the leader of the caliphate, provides the most radical challenge since the emergence of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. As The Boston Globe: reported, IS has created a clear—and to some, compelling—idea of citizenship and state-building in a region almost completely bereft of either.
It is compelling to certain people because IS has provided a clear outline of its intentions. A 16-point communique signed by Baghdadi encouraged individuals to look at the failures of the past: “People tried secular forms of government: republic, Baathist, Safavids,” ISIS declared. “It pained you. Now is time for an Islamic state.” The underlying point here is that nowhere in the modern Middle East has there been a place that has constructed a true national identity. IS’ message appeals in particular to Sunni Muslims. As the Globe states, IS has “enlisted [Sunnis] in a project to assert the power of their religious community over the Shia, who currently dominate the territory from Iran to Lebanon.”
Still, those who dismiss the announcement claim that it is only an idea. This is, of course, correct. It is an idea long held by Islamists, and as the IS fighter Omar said, it was the goal of Osama bin Laden. Critics claim that there simply isn’t enough support, or that those who sympathize with the movement do so passively. This unfortunately disregards the effects that social media has on such a movement.
The New York Times recently quoted Hassan Abu Hanieh, a Jordanian expert on Islamist movements, who stated that, “It is clear that the first and second generation that started Al Qaeda, most of them are supporting Zawahri, but the new generation is more radical and closer to ISIS.”
A new generation may be more radical, but perhaps of more importance is their ability to connect with one another in cyberspace. As Spiked recently reported, “The online jihadist community is not confined to a few hundred hardcore militants. It embraces a far wider audience of passive supporters who at least emotionally identify with their active brethren.”
Yes, the article uses the word ‘passive’, but here another point needs to be made. The IS announcement has shifted the way Muslims regard such jihadist activity. As Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution expressed following the announcement, “People don’t have to like it, but they have to respond to it…Now that there is an actual caliphate with a caliph, a lot of Muslims are going to have to talk about what that means, and there is going to be some sympathy.”
Hassan Hassan would agree. He states that “The whispers of support to a caliph in Afghanistan are now replaced by clear words and acts, amplified by social media. Jihadism has evolved significantly. It is no longer limited to narrow “elitists” who travel to distant countries to wage jihad. Today’s jihad is more sophisticated and individualised and can be waged everywhere.”
Today’s jihadists all have a Facebook page, says Paris journalist David Thomson. “Many speak European languages. And they can instruct recruits exactly how to come - down to what plane and bus to take and where to cross the border.”
Days after the announcement of the new caliphate, Baghdadi released a speech in which he called on “Those who can immigrate to the Islamic State should immigrate, as immigration to the house of Islam is a duty,” he said in an audio recording released on a website used by the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.”
It was released first in Arabic, but translations in English, French, Russian, German and Albanian quickly followed. These translations show that IS understands the problem that has long plagued organizations such as itself; how to spread your message to the West when the majority of the world cannot understand Arabic. Furthermore, it underlies the fact that IS knows what areas are prone to its messages.
The French government estimates between 700 and 800 French citizens have gone to fight or are now fighting alongside jihadists in Syria since the uprising began there three years ago. Omar al-Shishani, one of hundreds of Chechens who have been among the toughest jihadi fighters in Syria, has emerged as the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, appearing frequently in its online videos. Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the main KGB successor agency known under its Russian acronym FSB, said last October that about 500 militants from Russia and hundreds more from other ex-Soviet nations are fighting in Syria. Officials at the Bavarian state unit of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the agency responsible for monitoring extremist activity in Germany, say they have identified jihadist handbooks recommending the recruitment of fellow prisoners and that they have observed Salafist prisoners trying to convert other inmates.
And though it is true that many groups have denounced the IS announcement, it is also true that groups in Syria, Iraq and all over the world have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi and the new Islamic State. Videos and statements have emerged from the Philippines, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Libya. Members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as well as from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have defected and thrown their support behind IS. Smaller factions in Lebanon and Syria, as well as many tribal groups in Iraq have also pledged allegiance. Some may argue that small factions don’t matter, but in a region where infighting between rebel factions is rampant, a declaration for a polarizing group like IS says a lot.
To be fair, it is unclear what the future holds for the Islamic State and those involved in its audacious plans. However, a failure to take the groups’ statements seriously is irresponsible. For a group that controls large areas in both Syria and Iraq, IS has proven that it can back up its talk.
On June 29, 2014, ISIS released an audio statement in which spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani declared a caliphate with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the caliph, and that the group will now simply go by the “Islamic State” (IS). Since then, reactions from various jihadist organizations have appeared across Twitter.
Thomas Hegghammer, an expert on jihadists in the region, stated that,
"On the whole, it seems that IS [the "Islamic State"] is so far not succeeding in winning over global jihadi opinion. A substantial number of influential clerics have come out against it, while IS has only a few lightweight figures to show for thus far."
Still, I think it is important to know which groups have pledged Baya’a, because it could have future implications on the size and strength of rivaling organizations.
I’ve taken a couple of these reactions from Hegghammer’s blog, and I’ve placed an ‘*’ next to those. The rest come from my own social media sources.
*Locals in Raqqa began to celebrate:
al-Furqan media published a profile of Sheikh Abdullah Ibrahim Awad al-Badri, aka Abu Bakr al-Quraishi al-Husseini al-Baghdadi, in which they discuss his connections in Sammarah and Diyala, his military expertise, and his ability to connect various tribes through pledges of allegiance.
Here are screenshots of the profile:
Memri put together a great compilation of supporters in the West, which you can view here.
Dr. Saad Al Omari , a Sheikh from Saudi Arabia, has pledged allegiance to IS:
He also tweeted that those close to him in Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen have also pledged allegiance to IS.
*Elsewhere outside the Levant, pro-ISIS supporters in Libya cheered the announcement.
Sheikh Bilal Chaouachi (Ansar al Sharia, Tunisia) allegedly called on Muslims to give Bayah to The Islamic State:
Sheikh Abu Bara ‘al-Shami, the Emir of Jaish al-Sahaba, has also pledged allegiance in a statement posted today. This is a very small group.
The Free Sunnis of Baalbek announced its loyalty to IS.
“We announce our allegiance, with all pride, to the [ISIS chief] Mujahid Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph of the Muslims,” a statement posted on the group’s twitter feed read.
“We also announce our full support for what [ISIS] is doing for Islam.”
The statement added that it was “the duty of all Muslims to work towards finding a caliph who can set up rule by sharia law.”
Hizb-ut-Tahrir, came out against IS’ Khilafa announcement.
A Sheikh in al-bab, Aleppo issued a fatwa that God won’t accept fasting of those who don’t love IS.
*A faction of al-Qaeda’s Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) also announced its allegiance:
Mujahideen of East Indonesia have pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi and IS:
Here is an image from the video:
There are reports that the Albu Fahd clans pledged allegiance as well. However, this would conflict with previous military operations by the tribe that fought against the then Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Nine groups, all of which have long been opposed to the Islamic State, have all rejected the announcement in a statement presented this afternoon, in which they state, "the announcement by the rejectionists [the Islamic State] of a caliphate is null and void," both "legally and logically."
The groups include the Islamic Front, a powerful rebel coalition that includes the al Qaeda-linked Ahrar al Sham, and the Majlis Shura al Mujahideen (MSM) in Deir Izzor. The MSM is an alliance of groups, including the Al Nusrah Front, that is opposed to the Islamic State in eastern Syria.
In a series of tweets in both English and Arabic, Abu Sulayman al Muhajir, a top sharia official in the Al Nusrah Front, sharply criticized the Islamic State’s announcement. While using the hashtag #Khilafah_Proclaimed in his tweets, Abu Sulayman argued that the Islamic State’s failure to consult jihadi leaders before making the announcement “is a clear breach of Islam.”
"The situation has not changed at all here," Abu Sulayman said in one tweet, referring to Syria. "Only difference I see is there is a stronger ‘Islamic’ justification for them [the Islamic State] to kill Muslims." The Islamic State has long justified the killing of other rebel fighters and leaders by arguing that it is the only legitimate authority in Iraq and Syria.
Abu Sulayman, who is from Australia, served as a mediator during al Qaeda’s early attempts to reconcile the ISIS with other jihadist groups in Syria. When those efforts failed, he became a vocal critic of the ISIS and is now a staunch opponent of the Islamic State.
Here is an image of that statement:
Ansar al-Islam, an jihadist group in northern Iraq, pledged allegiance to IS, in a surprise move that came after a previous periods of violent armed conflicts between the two sides about the influence and resources.
This article gives an intimate background of the Islamic State’s (IS) background, including a detailed breakdown of operations in various regions of Iraq.
This article discusses the implications of IS’ announcement of a new Islamic Caliphate.
This article gives three reasons why officials believe IS to be the most dangerous threat out there.
This article lists alleged violent plots in Europe involving Syria returnees since October 2013.
This article gives a background on the SCUD missile seen in images coming from an IS parade in Raqqa today.
This article discusses how IS jihadists have locked down the Syrian city of Raqqa and are shipping in new weapons, including missiles from Iraq.
This article examines how IS is overshadowing al-Qaeda for global leadership of the jihadist movement.
This article looks into how opponents of IS have taken to social media to combat the group’s online presence.
This article (released on the 28th) examins how groups like IS attain their funding.
The Institute for the Study of War released a map/graphic on the 27th of the current situation in Iraq.
This article reports on how IS has assigned a man identified as Abdel Salam al-Ordoni as the organization’s “prince,” i.e. leader in Lebanon.
This article examines how IS’ recent influx in cash and weaponry may affect the battlegrounds in Iraq and Syria.
This article discusses what IS’ declaration of a Caliphate actually means.
This article reports on how IS may have captured over $500 million worth of weaponry that was recently imported into Syria.
This article, by the brilliant Aaron Zelin, discusses Syria’s significance in the future of jihad because of the potential for foreign fighters to export their experience back home.
This article provides analysis on how the US can guard itself from IS or other jihadists attempting to infiltrate the country.
This article provides a detailed report on foreign fighters from the Western Balkans who are currently fighting in Syria.
June 26: Video footage of Islamic Front operations (from June 13) in Jobar Damascus, in which they dug a tunnel and broke into four buildings overlooking the square:
6/27: ISIS released a few new images from around Iraq today.
Image posted by ISIS account of Baiji oil refinery in the background:
Image of armored tanks in Mosul:
A convoy in Hawija:
6/27: Islamic Front released a video of operations in al-Arbaean Mount in the Idlib countryside (with English subtitles):
6/27: The Islamic Front has released footage from a training camp outside of Idlib:
6/27: Al-Nusra Front provides a tour of Dar Hospital in Hama, in what appears to be an evaluation:
6/27: A Number of battalions in Homs came together to form the Legion of Homs in an effort to unify the effort against Assad forces. Here is video of the announcement:
6/27: A defector of ISIS reveals that it uses women to carry out assassinations in Turkey. Using espionage techniques, such as silencers and poison, up to six women have been trained to carry out ISIS assassinations:
6/26: Military leaders in Abu Kamal are denying claims that ISIS has taken control of the city from al-Nusra Front:
The Mujahideen Shura Council in Abu Kamal also released a statement denying the claims that ISIS now controls the city:
6/27: ISIS releases hour long video of its presence in Iraq and Syria:
6/27: ISIS Information Office in the State of Nineveh released images of what they claim to be dozens of former members of Ansar al-Islam who have defected to join the ISIS:
6/27: ISIS released an image of 11 fighters and is claiming to now control the al-Harija area of Deir ez-Zour with only these 11 men:
6/27: ISIS claims to have held violent clashes with forces of the Islamic Front in East Ghouta, the day after Jaysh al-Islam Commander Zahran Alloush announced the formation of a unified judiciary that gave ISIS a 24 hour window to evacuate the area.
6/26: Below is a video of a compilation of clashes that took place in Syria on June 26:
6/26: Warning, extremely graphic footage in the video below. Rebels from Qalamoun claim that frighters from Qara, in conjunction with Liwa al-Qasiir, have killed members of Hezbollah in Jarrod village of Qara, in al-Qalamoun Area in the countryside of Damascus:
6/27: Fighters in East Ghouta targeting Assad forces with mortars along the Damascus/Quneitra highway:
6/27: Here is a report by Al-Jazeera with English subtitles on the state of Mosul after ISIS gained control: