Al-Qaeda in Iraq Enters the Syrian Conflict

Earlier this morning, the Islamic State of Iraq, the front name for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), claimed responsibility for a March 4th attack that killed 48 Syrian soldiers and nine Iraqi guards. This was the first confirmed case of AQI announcing its involvement in what is now the greater Syrian conflict. As Syrian jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), which according to the US government was originally established by AQI, continue to consolidate their hold on border posts and regions along the Syrian-Iraqi border, it is likely that more cross-border incidents could occur. This attack also highlights the potential for a more permissive jihadist corridor of open coordination between western Iraq and eastern Syria, the zones where jihadists are strongest in each country.

It is unsurprising that the Syrian-Iraqi border would start to heat up. There is a history going back to the US-led Iraq war last decade that connected eastern Syria to the jihadist front in western Iraq. At the time, the Assad regime turned a blind eye to the staging ground that AQI used in eastern Syria for facilitating training, weapons and fighter trafficking, and document forgery. In other words, eastern Syria was a key hub for the lifeline of AQI’s efforts. Not until 2007 did the Assad regime start cracking down on these networks.

This is also one of the reasons for the rapid rise of JN last year. Unlike other groups, they were not completely starting from scratch. Many of the Syrians that lead JN previously fought with AQI during the height of the jihadist insurgency last decade. Further, according to the US Treasury Department’s designation of JN, in the fall of 2011, AQI sent two senior leaders Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah al-Juburi and Anas Hasan Khattab to help establish and prepare the groundwork for the creation of JN in January 2012. Therefore, while JN is majority Syrian, there are past and present links between it and AQI.

The recent JN seizure of the border post at Yarubiyah on March 2 as well as JN’s leading role in governance and social welfare in the Eastern Region of Syria highlights the soft nature of the Syrian-Iraqi border since jihadists do even not recognize such lines. Put together, it is possible that JN and AQI might start openly coordinating attacks, whereby JN attacks border crossings, Syrian soldiers try to take safe haven in western Iraq, and AQI is waiting on the other side to finish the job.

AQI now also has other motivations for overtly taking part in the fight against the Assad regime. The sectarianization of the Syrian conflict coupled with the nature of the Iraqi Sunni lot has provided an opportunity for AQI to regain its credibility among the Iraqi Sunni community, which turned on it as a result of its excessive violence and perceived foreign implementation of sharia last decade. As the Sunni protests in western Iraq have picked up steam over the past year, AQI has attempted to co-opt it by cultivating a narrative that it is the only true defenders of the Sunni community. They even went so far as calling a video “The Anbar Spring.”

Through the Syrian conflict, by defending the Sunnis there, AQI will try to convince Iraqi Sunnis that they are on their side too against the marginalization of the Shia-led Iraqi government. All of this also feeds into AQI’s master narrative regarding the Iraqi government as truly doing the bidding of the Iranian regime. In light of Iran and Hizbullah going all in on Syria and assisting the Assad regime, what began as local fights in Syria and Iraq, could meld together through the work of AQI and JN.

The announcement of involvement by AQI in killing the Syrian soldiers illustrates how the Syrian conflict is no longer confined to its borders. The longer the fight against the Assad regime continues the more likely more incidents like this are to occur. Jihadist actors have a key motivation for this: they do not see the Syrian conflict through a nationalist lens, but as part of their greater global conflict to reestablish the Caliphate. Through sectarian rhetoric, AQI will use the Syrian fight to try and gain more recruits in Iraq and redeem itself for its lost opportunity last decade. Time will tell if they are successful.

The Ghosts of Sinjar in Tripoli and Benghazi

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A month ago, Ansar al-Shari’ah in Benghazi (The Supporters of Islamic Law; ASB), on its official Facebook page via its official media outlet al-Rayyah Foundation for Media Production uploaded a poster (see above) promoting a demonstration on Sunday December 16 in Tripoli and Benghazi. The demonstration is in support of Libyans currently imprisoned in Iraq. In the past few months there have been other protests in support of Libyans in Iraq, too. Similarly, Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia (AST) has also held demonstrations in the past for Tunisians that are imprisoned in Iraq. What’s fascinating in this case is that the promotional poster contains names of ten individuals. At the suggestion of the blogger/tweeter that goes by the name of Around the Green Mountain I cross-checked these names with the Sinjar Records to see if there were any matches.

For background on the Sinjar Records see the Combating Terrorism Center’s description in their report that first analyzed these records: “In November 2007, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point received nearly 700 records of foreign nationals that entered Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007 … The records contain varying levels of information on each fighter, but often include the fighter’s country of origin, hometown, age, occupation, the name of the fighter’s recruiter, and even the route the fighter took to Iraq.  The records were captured by coalition forces in October 2007 in a raid near Sinjar, along Iraq’s Syrian border.”

When the raw data was checked, four out of the ten names were a match (or had a part of the name): ‘Adil Jum’ah Muhammad al-Sha’lali, ‘Ali ‘Uthman Hamad al-‘Arfi, Hamzah ‘Ali ‘Awad, and Muhammad Saqr Muhammad. Some information about them:

  • All created their own kunyas: Abu ‘Umar, Abu Umar, Abu al-Qa’qa, Abu Hudayfah (listed in same order as regular names above)
  • Three were from Darnah while the other did not list a city of origin;
  • Three listed date of birth: 1981, 1982, and 1985;
  • Two of them mentioned when they arrived in Iraq: October 2006;
  • The same two brought with them 500 and 300 lira respectively;
  • And a different set of two of them stated the work they wanted when joining the Islamic State of Iraq: martyr (which has not obviously come to fruition yet)

Two of the individuals also contained pictures in their Sinjar application for the Islamic State of Iraq. Below, you can see a comparison of the application photo from 2006 on the left and what I am assuming is a relatively recent photo of the same individual in Iraqi custody, which is from the above flier. There are slight differences due to aging and likely poor conditions in Iraqi prisons and the second picture looks closer in similarity to the before and after than the first one. For those reading, what do you think (leave a comment below)?

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‘Ali ‘Uthman Hamad al-‘Arfi: Joining the ISI (left) and During Iraqi Imprisonment (right) 

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Hamzah ‘Ali ‘Awad: Joining the ISI (left) and During Iraqi Imprisonment (right)

It is likely that the other six individuals that ASB is calling for their release were also fighters in the Islamic State of Iraq, but joined at a different time period or were not part of the registration/orientation in Sinjar. Reports from the official Libyan news agency LANA suggest that after the most recent protests, Baghdad has been in negotiation with Tripoli to return the prisoners and have them serve out their time in Libya. Based on the current security dynamic in Libya, if these prisoners, among others I’m sure, are returned can their sentences in prison be preserved? There is a good chance that due to the unstable nature swirling in the country that these individuals could be broken out of jail or even worse are let free once back on Libyan soil due to the weakness of the government in the face of Islamist militias. Time will of course tell.

The above highlights that although some parts of the history of the jihadi movement and US understanding/interaction with these sources seems somewhat dated, as Leah Farrall always notes ‘what’s old is new again.’ In other words, trends/older players return to the fore even if forgotten by analysts. This is especially the case in the post-Arab uprising societies where individuals from the 1990s scene have once again gotten back on the stage. All of this of course illustrates the importance in understanding the history, context, and evolution of the jihadi movement. Only focusing narrowly on the most recent developments will rob many of appreciating how and why events are occurring or repeating themselves.

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