New Evidence on Ansar al-Sharia in Libya Training Camps

Over the past few years there have rumblings about training camps in Libya that are run by jihadi entities such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib in southern Libya as well as ones by Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL), the organization most likely responsible for the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi last September. It has been difficult to confirm these camps due to the secretive nature of these groups and the lack of self reported evidence by these groups. For the first time, though, on August 6, 2013, credible sources within Libya have confirmed such camps exist.

On Facebook, Moaoya EL Wrffli, posted two videos of two separate Tunisians that had been detained by locals in the Darnah region and later interrogated. The two videos below provide fascinating insights into Ansar al-Sharia in Libya and its non-publicized activities as well as facilitation networks as it relates to the war in Syria. Based on the information given in the these videos, even though they were just posted online, it is likely that they are from late spring/early summer 2012. Highlighting that ASL was already at that point very active with training fighters for Syria as well as other likely nefarious activities in light of what we know would eventually happen in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.

First Detainee:

The first individual mentions that his name is Usama al-Jufayr and admits that he is of Tunisian descent. Says he entered Benghazi, Libya in May 2012 and his purpose was for training to go fight in Syria. al-Jufayr states that the group running these camps is Katibat Ansar al-Sharia, which was the name used by ASL prior to consulate attack and only changed it afterwards for rebranding purposes. The detainee claims that the regime in Tunisia needs reform, but the set up in Libya is “al-hamdullilah,” suggesting good or permissive to the activities they are undertaking. It is likely that al-Jufayr is indeed a jihadi because he notes that parliamentary systems are contrary to the Islamic sharia, which in his eyes is the only acceptable system of governance. Further, he notes that those training with him had not been involved in military jihad previously and come from civilian backgrounds. The program takes twenty days and only included up to that point weapons training and no religious schooling.

Second Detainee:

The second individual does not give his name, but claims he is Tunisian as well. This man entered Benghazi, Libya by plane on April 20, 2012 and also joined the ASL camp in Benghazi. He notes that it is more like army training than police training. He also highlights that he was recruited to this camp by a man named ‘Abd al-Rahman from Tunis and had previously not known about it. Unlike al-Jufayr, the second detainee suggests that there is other types of training noting that he had been involved with learning guerilla warfare, booby traps, and surprise attacks. This training was supposed to last for about a month. In the end, his goal was to go to Syria and fight with the Free Syrian Army, illustrating that he might not be a jihadi and wanted to join up for more altruistic reasons, though, it is impossible to know for sure.

These two videos show that although ASL’s public image has been tied to its da’wa (missionary work) over the past eleven months, it is likely that they are also still active in training individuals to fight in Syria. Moreover, it shows in the case of the second detainee that there are active facilitation networks between recruiters in Tunisia and training camps to get fighters prepared for Syria before they head off to the front lines. These two videos likely only scratch the surface. While some might be skeptical of these videos, based on the level of detail, and what we generally know about how these groups and networks operate, I am confident that they are legitimate. That being said, more information is definitely needed to fill gaps in what we know about all these types of activities. Hopefully, this is the first of other leaks that uncovers more information related to the nexus of  these jihadi recruitment and facilitation networks.

Thanks to Adam Heffez, a research assistant at the Washington Institute, for helping with some of the translations of the Libyan/Tunisian Arabic. 

 

A Few Notes on Shi’ism in Syria and the Emergence of a Pro-Asad Shi’i Militia, Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas (Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas)

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas martyr  كرار عبد ألامير أبو أسدLiwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas “martyr” Karrar ‘Abd al-Amir Abu Asad: “We’re [all] Your ‘Abbas, O’ [Sayyida] Zaynab

-By Christopher Anzalone (Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University)

July 26, 2013: Read my article, “Zaynab’s Guardians: The Emergence of Shi’a Militias in Syria,” CTC Sentinel (July 2013)  HERE.

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UPDATED MAY 22

A few initial notes/observations about Shi’i historical presence in Syria and the emergence of a pro-Syrian government militia, Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas (Brigade of Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas/Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas; Liwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas)  in Syria:

(1) It is clear that the Iranian government has an interest on the part of the Iranian government and its regional allies in expanding their sphere(s) of influence in the Middle East and North Africa and the wider world, particularly in Muslim-majority countries and among Muslim communities, Shi’i and Sunni.  While recognizing this desire and organizational, economic, and military support from the Iranian government to allied groups in countries such as Iraq, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, it is important to also understand the goals of these local actors in accepting such support.

Iranian government missionary activity and the emergence of Qum as the premier location of Twelver Shi’i religious education following the expulsion of foreign students and intensification of Iraqi Ba’th targeting of the Shi’i religious leadership and political activists in the late 1970s has allowed the Iranian government to expand its influence to other parts of the Middle East and North Africa as well as to Western Europe, West Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia.  It is important to recognize, however, that the Iranian government’s goals are not shared by all Twelver Shi’is and the claimed religious authority of ‘Ali Khamenei is not universally recognized.  Critiques of the late Grand Ayatullah Ruhollah Khumayni’s conception of wilayat al-faqih emerged the very year of Iran’s Revolution and have continued to be written to the present day.  The politics of Iranian government attempts to expand its sphere of influence and the local factors aiding and hindering such expansion are complex and should be considered in any analysis of Twelver Shi’i communities and political activism.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas 1A photograph showing members of Liwa Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas with men who appear to have been performing one of the mourning rituals involving bloodletting during the Muharram mourning for Imam Husayn and his party.  Not all Twelver Shi’is perform these rituals and Shi’i mujtahids have taken different positions on the permissibility of such rituals.  Some have noted that none of the Twelve Imams, according to Shi’i tradition, performed such rituals, even in mourning for the Ahl al-Bayt.  The rituals are particularly popular among segments of the South Asian, Iraqi, and Afghan Twelver Shi’i communities as well as followers of the Lebanese AMAL party and adherents (Shiraziyyin) to the Shirazi family of religious scholars, a member of whom founded Damascus’ Zaynabiyya seminary (hawza).

(2) Individual motivations for joining groups such as Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas may differ from the reasons the Iranian government or other state or powerful non/quasi-state actors have for supporting, organizing, or backing such groups.  As Thomas Hegghammer has noted in his studies of the Muslim foreign fighter phenomenon, it is often very difficult to know exactly what the motivations were for specific individuals in becoming a “foreign fighter” since martyr biographies and accounts (martyrologies) released after their deaths often address/justify their decision and involvement in certain conflicts after the fact.  Thus, they are not always reliable in understanding the actual motivations, outside of hagiographical narratives.  There may (and in my opinion, likely are) personalized pietistic reasons (from the viewpoint of volunteers/recruits) at play in the decision of at least some of the individual Shi’is fighting under the Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas banner.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Ali in bullets)“[Imam] ‘Ali”

(3) It’s very important to note the deep-rooted reverence and love Twelver Shi’is have for Zaynab bint ‘Ali (Sayyida Zaynab), which, in my view, almost certainly has played a role in motivating at least some of the individuals who have traveled to Syria to, as they see it, defend her shrine and other important Shi’i shrines from destruction and desecration by some of the Syrian rebel groups.

Among her roles in Shi’i tradition, Zaynab is believed to have been one of the main reasons that the message of Husayn (Hussein, Hussain), the third Shi’i Imam, and thus Islam (according to the Shi’i point of view) was preserved even after his martyrdom at the hands of the Umayyad army of Yazid bin Mu’awiya.  Her defiant speech in front of the Umayyad caliph himself is particularly heralded in the Shi’i tradition, particularly during the annual Muharram rituals of ‘Ashura, which commemorate the death of Imam Husayn and many of his small party (including his half brother, al-‘Abbas, whose honorific “Abu al-Fadl”/”father of” denotes his eldest son, Fadl.)  His mother, Fatima bint Hizam al-Kilabiyya, was one of Imam ‘Ali ibn Talib’s wives and, according to Shi’i tradition, raised his sons by Fatima al-Zahra/Fatima bint Muhammad (the Prophet) as if they were her own.  Al-‘Abbas, to Shi’is, is one of the heroes of Karbala, of whom portraits are painted and nasheeds and mourning recitations (latmiyas) recited during Muharram.

Sayyida ZaynabSayyida Zaynab bint ‘Ali

(3) The neighborhood around Sayyida Zaynab’s shrine in Damascus has long been a center for a community of Twelver Shi’is and popular devotees to the Ahl al-Bayt (the Prophet Muhammad’s family), both residential and scholastic (it’s been the site of a seminary, the Zaynabiyya, affiliated with the Shirazi family of scholars since the 1970s) as well as a center of Shi’i pilgrimage. Shi’i shrines, however, are also located in other areas of the city, such as that of Ruqaya bint ‘Husayn and Sukaina bint Husayn.  These shrines have benefited from Iranian and Syrian governmental funding of restoration and expansion projects, but their importance as local holy sites and the sites of pilgrimage for the region’s Shi’is predates the advent of Iran’s “Islamic Republic.”   These sites, however, have benefited from state patronage, which helped them become fully integrated as regular stops for Shi’i pilgrims from abroad (at least before the start of the uprising against Bashar al-Asad).  Before the Syrian civil war, it and other important shrines in Damascus were regular sites of Shi’i pilgrimage, often as part of pilgrimage (ziyarat) trips that also visited Shi’i shrines in Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

Iranian and Syrian state support and promotion of the Syrian Shi’i shrines in the 1980s was a part of both countries’ shared opposition to the Iraqi Ba’th government, which had imposed itself on the Shi’i shrines in Iraq, going as far as to appoint its own officials to “supervise” the sites in cities such as Najaf, Karbala, and Kufa.  Similarly, the Zaynabiyya hawza benefited from an influx of seminary students, including a number of Afghan Hazara Shi’is, from neighboring Iraq expelled by Saddam in the second half of the 1970s.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Wahhabis)“We’re coming, O’ Zaynab…Thirsty for blood of the Wahhabis (al-wahhabiyya)…BANNER: We Heed Your Call/are at your service, O’ Zaynab,” denoting the Salafi foes that, according to the few available sources, Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas see themselves as fighting.  Pro-Brigade Facebook pages and Internet postings often include photographs of killed “Wahhabis” and members, the sites claim, of puritanical Salafi rebel groups such as the Al-Qa’ida in the Land of the Two Rivers (Iraq)-connected Jabhat al-Nusra.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas“We Heed Your Call/are at Your Service. O’ Asad”

(4) Shi’i presence and shrines have existed in Syria, including in the north, from much earlier periods.  Many of the Sunni rulers during the medieval period also had pro-‘Alid inclinations even if they themselves were not Shi’is.

(5) Syrian Sunnis (or some of them) also revere these figures. Salafis, due to their iconoclasm, oppose such shrines to varying degrees, the most extreme being actively targeting them for destruction.

(6) Some individual members and supporters are likely swayed by the claimed “axis of resistance” image heralded by the Iranian and Syrian governments as well as Hizbullah in Lebanon.  According to this worldview, support for the besieged Syrian government is a way of resisting what is seen as U.S. hegemony in the region and the broader world.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Hasan Nasrallah & Bashar al-Asad)An Internet poster from a pro-Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas Facebook page showing Hizbullah’s secretary-general Hasan Nasrallah (right) and Syrian president Bashar al-Asad.  The photograph of Nasrallah was taken after the 2006 Hizbullah-Israel war and has clearly been edited to show light emanating from the book (presumably the Qur’an).  The same is true of the posed image of al-Asad.  Both are shown by the designer as pious (thus, presumably, deserving of support).

(7) The membership (and death) of a number of Iraqi Shi’is with Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas in Syria may have much to do with both the presence prior to the civil war of a large Iraqi expatriate community and contention in Iraq over who truly represents the legacy of the late grand mujtahid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr.  Though one of his sons, Muqtada, leads what can be termed the “mainstream” Sadrist trend (Tayyar al-Sadr, al-Sadriyyun), which is composed of political, social, and paramilitary branches, he faces competitors from among those who studied or claimed to have studied (and excelled) with this father in the seminary.  These include movements with varying degrees of messianist outlook such as that led by Mahmoud al-Hasani as well as individuals widely considered (or who consider themselves) mujtahids or grand mujtahids such as Kazim Ha’iri and Muhammad al-Ya’qubi.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Qays al-Khaz'ali, Qais Khazali), Ali Khamenei, & Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr“Lion of the League [of the Righteous], Yahya Sarmud Muhammad al-Fayli,” pictured with the late Iraqi mujtahid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (top left), Iran’s supreme leader (rahbar) ‘Ali Khamenei (top right), and ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq secretary-general Qays al-Khaz’ali/Qais Khazali (bottom right).

Others, such as Qays al-Khaz’ali (leader of the Iraqi Shi’i militia ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq/League of the Righteous, which is believed to enjoy Iranian state support), have donned the turban (‘amama) in a bid for religious scholarly legitimacy, despite often questionable education credentials.  Though a number of the pro-Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas videos, many which appear to have been made and uploaded by “fans,” include photographs of Muqtada, it is possible that intra-Sadrist (using the term “Sadrist” to refer very broadly to a number of different movements claiming at least part of their legitimacy from the contested legacy of the late Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who is considered a martyr at the hands of the Iraqi Ba’th, who assassinated him and two of his sons in February 1999) is also at play in the organizing of volunteers/recruits to fight in Syria.

Qays Khaz'aliQays al-Khaz’ali (seated to the right) in front of a picture of the man whose legacy he claims to be upholding, Grand Ayatullah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr.

Qays al-Khaz'ali (Facebook)“His eminence, the Shaykh Qays al-Khaz’ali, the general-secretary of the Islamic Movement of the Righteous [People of Truth].”

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Hasan Nasrallah, Ali Khamenei, Qays Khazali)Liwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas martyr Karrar ‘Abd al-Amir Abu Asad (lower left) pictured with Iran’s supreme leader (rahbar) ‘Ali Khamenei (top), Hizbullah’s secretary-general Hasan Nasrallah (right), and ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq secretary-general Qays al-Khaz’ali (far right).  There is also part of a verse (13) from the Qur’an, chapter (surah) al-Saff (The Ranks): “Help from God and victory is near.”

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas 2 (Surah al-Kahf)Liwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas martyr Karrar ‘Abd al-Amir Abu Asad (lower left and right) pictured with the logo of ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, which includes a part of a verse (13) from the Qur’an, chapter (surah) al-Kahf (The Cave), which reads: “Lo, they were young men who believed in their Lord and We [God] increased them in guidance! [We/God guided them].”

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas martyr Muthanna Ubays Khafif‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq “joyful martyr” (al-shahid al-sa’id) Muthanna ‘Ubays Khafif (right) pictured alongside ‘Ali Khamenei.  Khafif is listed as having “self-sacrificed” (istishhad) in defense of the holy places (al-muqaddasat) on May 15, 2013.

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Given my research focus on martyrdom, the study of political Islam, and Shi’ism in the contemporary period, I hope to write more in both the near future on these topics as well as, probably, down the road for my dissertation.

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.

Salafis Consolidate Power in Syria

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While many focus on the fighting between rebel forces and the Assad regime as well as rightfully the continuing humanitarian tragedy that is wrecking havoc on the daily lives of many Syrians, there have been key organizational changes behind the scenes within the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF). The SIF is a Salafi-jihadi conglomeration of brigades that banded together to create an umbrella organization in late December 2012. After its formation, the combined force of the SIF has become one of the key rebel factions in the battle against the Assad regime. The consolidation of the SIF’s power through mergers and acquisitions will help solidify its growing role in the opposition as a force that has reach throughout the country and is united unlike many other rebel factions that have fractured over time.

The SIF is an organization that calls for an Islamic state and the implementation of sharia based on its Salafi creed after the fall of the Assad regime. In addition, to playing an increasingly important role on the battlefield, the SIF has also been involved in some social welfare through its relief committee where they distribute aid from the Humanitarian Relief Fund (IHH), a government-linked Turkish NGO with ties to Hamas, and Qatar Charity, another government-linked NGO. Their charter has also gotten the stamp of approval from the Syrian jihadi ideologue Shaykh Abu Basir al-Tartusi, who is allegedly affiliated with the SIF. Tartusi also recently spoke with al-Hiwar Channel explaining he was helping advise the creation of sharia courts in “liberated” areas of Syria.

When the SIF was first announced it was made up of eleven brigades, including Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham (which operates throughout Syria), Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyyah (which operates in and around Aleppo), Kata’ib Ansar al-Sham (in and around Latakia), Liwa’ al-Haqq (in Homs), Jaysh al-Tawhid (in Deir al-Zour), Jama’at al-Tali’ah al-Islamiyyah (in rural parts of Idlib), Katibat Mus’ab bin ‘Umayr (in rural parts of Aleppo), and the Damascus-area groups Liwa’ Suqur al-Islam, Kata’ib al-Iman al-Muqatilah, Saraya al-Maham al-Khasa, and Katibat al-Hamzah bin ‘Abd al-Mutalib. It has since shrunk through two larger-scale mergers among some of the eleven brigades and one acquisition from outside its fold. This has helped strengthen the organization through the consolidation of ties and centralization of authority.

First, on January 31, three of the groups (Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyyah, Jama’at al-Tali’ah al-Islamiyyah, and Kata’ib al-Iman al-Muqatilah) merged into Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham (KAS). The four now go under the name Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyyah (HASI). This move can be seen as a victory for KAS’ hardliners, over elements in the group that wanted to join the Supreme Military Council (SMC), an armed affiliate of the U.S.-supported National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC) because groups that merged like Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyyah are seen as more radical. Further indication that rumors of KAS joining the SMC has likely been quashed, the SIF released a statement on February 6 rejecting the SOC president Mu’az al-Khatib’s recent call for talks with the Assad regime.

Second, on February 2, Damascus-based groups Liwa’ Suqur al-Islam, Saraya al-Maham al-Khasa, and Katibat al-Hamzah bin ‘Abd al-Mutalib joined together to become Kata’ib al-Hamzah bin ‘Abd al-Mutalib. Prior to this formation, they had little to no battle record posted online, suggesting were not key players on the ground. It is possible that they joined forces better position themselves on the ground. Since then, the SIF has posted some attacks from this new formation, potentially signifying that the merger was a precursor to a more active plan going forward. The SIF might have also encouraged this due to a new offensive planned by rebel forces in Damascus and its countryside dubbed “Support for Daraya.”

Lastly, on February 5, the Hama-based fighting group Liwa’ al-Iman, which has an online footprint going back to late September 2012, left the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF), an Ikhwani and Salafi umbrella group, and joined HASI within the SIF. This solidifies the SIF’s foothold in Hama since none of the original eleven were based there. It also highlights the strength the SIF is projecting to other rebel forces in contrast to the non-unified SLF, which is viewed as unorganized with a lack of coordination because of the number of large players like Suqur al-Sham and Kata’ib al-Faruq.

As a result of the consolidation, the SIF now stands at six fighting forces. These maneuvers over the past week have helped solidify its organization. It would not be surprising if other mergers and acquisitions occur in the near term because of their prowess on the battlefield as well as their ability to be organizationally disciplined and unified. More than anything, the actions of the SIF illustrate that they are planning for the long-term and will continue to play a key role in the fight against the Assad regime and attempting to shape the post-Assad state of play.

The Syrian Islamic Front’s Order of Battle

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The second half of 2012 saw the radicalization of the Syrian rebel opposition. What started as a mainly secular force with the creation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) slowly fragmented into Islamist cleavages with groups like Suqur al-Sham, Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, among others fighting independently outside the banner of the FSA. While much due attention has been given to Jabhat al-Nusra, which was designated as a terrorist organization by the United States in early December, little has been discussed on another popular Salafi-jihadi group: Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham (KAS). On December 21, it announced the creation of a new fighting force that brought together small jihadi factions under the banner of the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF).

In the statement and video message the SIF released, which was read out by its official spokesman Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Suri, it proclaimed that it followed the way of the salaf (pious predecessor – Muhammad, his companions, and the two generations afterward), planned to topple the Assad regime and its allies, and then institute its interpretation of sharia, which it believes will be just. The post-Assad institutions according to al-Suri would include political, da’wa (Islamic advocacy), cultural education, and humanitarian relief structures.

The new front is made up of the following fighting forces: Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham in all the Syrian provinces, Liwa’ al-Haqq in Homs; Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyyah in Aleppo and rural areas; Jama’at al-Tali’ah al-Islamiyyah in the rural areas of Idlib; Kata’ib Ansar ash-Sham in Ladhakiya and its rural areas; Katibat Mus’ab bin ‘Umayr in the rural areas of Aleppo; Jaysh at-Tawhid in Dayr al-Zur; Katibat Suqur al-Islam; Kata’ib al-Iman al-Muqatilah; Saraya al-Maham al-Khasa; and Katibat Hamzah bin ‘Abd al-Mutalib in Damascus and its rural areas.

At the end of the statement, SIF emphasizes that it is open to other Islamist organizations joining their cause. Afterward, the video announcement continued by showing their fighters in action in Damascus, Homs, Hama, Idlib, Aleppo, and Deir al-Zour, among other places. Since then SIF along with Jabhat al-Nusra has been at the forefront of some of the key battles including the recent one at the Taftanaz airport.

In the latter half of the video, SIF shows off its humanitarian relief efforts by paving new or clearing old road ways, baking bread for the needy (which is exceedingly becoming many in some areas due to the brutality of the Assad regime and lack of local capabilities) as well as other food like corn, candy, and chips. In other soft power efforts, the SIF has also held Qur’anic recitation contests for children. The video also highlights who helps fund these efforts: the SIF is getting the aid from Turkey and Qatar, more specifically, the government-linked NGOs of the IHH (which has links to the American designated terrorist organization HAMAS) and the Qatar Charity Organization.

Below you will find the order of battle for the Syrian Islamic Front:

Syrian Islamic Front:

Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham

Damascus and Its Countryside
Katibat Jund ash-Sham (كـتـيـبـة جند الشام)
al-Zubayr bin al-‘Awam (الزبير بن العوام)
Katibat Fajr ash-Sham (كتيبة فجر الشام)
Katibat Fajr al-Islam (كــتــيبة فجر الإسلام)
Katibat Hadhifah bin al-Iman (كتيبة حذيفة بن اليمان)
Katibat Zayd bin Thabit (كتيبة زيد بن ثابت)
Katibat ‘Abd Allah bin Salam (كتيبة عبد الله بن سلام)
Katibat Muhammad bin Muslimah (كتيبة محمد بن مسلمة)

The Coast
Katibat Nusur al-Sahil (كتيبة نسور الساحل)
Katibat ‘Abadah al-Samit (كتيبة عبادة بن الصامت)
Katibat Nusrah al-Madhlum (كتيبة نصرة المظلوم)
Katibat Ibn Taymiyyah (كتيبة ابن تيمية)

Aleppo and Its Countryside
Katibat al-Shuhaba’ (كتيبة الشـــــــــــهباء)
Katibat Ansar al-Haqq (كتيبة أنصار الحق)
Katibat Burj al-Islam (كتيبة برج الإسلام)
‘Amar bin Yasir (عمار بن ياسر)
Katibat Hasan bin Thabit (كتيبة حسان بن ثابت)

Liwa’ al-Iman
Katibat Abu al-Fida’ (كتيبة أبي الفداء)
Katibat Salah ad-Din (كتيبة صلاح الدين)
Katibat Abu ‘Ubaydah ‘Amar bin al-Jarah (كتيبة أبو عبيدة عامر بن الجراح)
Katibat ‘Amad ad-Din Zanki (كتيبة عماد الدين زنكي)
Katibat al-Hamzah bin ‘Abd al-Mutalib (كتيبة الحمزة بن عبد المطلب)
Katibat al-Zubayr bin al-‘Awam (كتيبة الزبير بن العوام)
Katibat al-Bara’ bin ‘Azib (كتيبة البراء بن عازب)
Katibat Shuhada’ al-‘Arbayyin (كتيبة شهداء الأربعين)
Katibat al-Mulazim Awal Ra’id Muqalid (كتيبة الملازم أول رائد مقلد)
Katibat Tariq bin Zayad (كتيبة طارق بن زياد)
Katibat al-Fatihin (كتيبة الفاتحين)
Katibat Abna’ al-Islam (كتيبة أبناء الإسلام)
Katibat al-Furqan (كتيبة الفرقان)
Katibat al-Qa’qa’ (كتيبة القعقاع)

Homs and Its Countryside
Katibat Junud ar-Rahman (كتيبة جنود الرحمن)
Katibat al-Hamra’ (الكتيبة الحمراء)
Katibat Ansar al-Sunnah wa-l-Shari’ah (كتيبة أنصار السنة والشريعة)
Katibat ‘Adnan ‘Aqalah (كتيبة عدنان عقلة)
Katibat ‘Abad Allah (كتيبة عباد الله)

al-Ghab (Hama)
Katibat al-Sayyidah ‘A’ishah (كتيبة السيدة عائشة)
Katibat ‘Uthman bin ‘Afan (كتيبة عثمان بن عفان)
Katibat ‘Ali bin Abu Talib (كتيبة علي بن أبي طالب)
Ahrar Jiblah (أحرار جبلة)
Katibat ‘Umar bin Khatab (كتيبة عمر بن الخطاب)
Katibat Abu Bakr as-Sadiq (كتيبة أبو بكر الصديق)
Katibat Qawafil al-Shuhada’ (كتيبة قوافل الشهداء)
Katibat Ansar al-Haqq (كتيبة أنصار الحق)

Ariha and the Mountains
Katibat ‘Abad ar-Rahman (كتيبة عباد الرحمن)
Fuwaris al-Sunnah (فوارس السنّة)
Katibat Rijal Allah (كتيبة رجال الله)
Katibat Abu Dujanah (كتيبة أبو دجانة)
Katibat al-Sariyyat al-Jabal (كتيبة سارية الجبل)

Northern Idlib
Katibat Ajnad ash-Sham (كتيبة أجناد الشام)
Katibat Abu Talhah al-Ansari (كتيبة أبو طلحة الأنصاري)
Katibat Jabar bin ‘Abd Allah (كتيبة جابر بن عبد الله)
Katibat Sa’id bin Zayid (كتيبة سعيد بن زيد)
Katibat Sa’d bin Mu’az (كتيبة سعد بن معاذ)
Katibat Ahfad ‘Ali bin Abu Talib (كتيبة أحفاد علي بن أبي طالب)
Abu Darda’ (أبو الدرداء)
Ahbab al-Rasul (أحباب الرسول)
Katibat al-Khadra’ (الكتيبة الخضراء)

Southeastern Idlib
Katibat ‘Abd Allag bin ‘Umar (كتيبة عبد الله بن عمر)
Katibat al-Aqsa (كتيبة الأقصى)
Katibat al-Mujahidin (كتيبة المجاهدين)
Katibat at-Tawhid wa-l-Iman (كتيبة التوحيد والإيمان)
Bayyariq al-Islam (بيارق الإسلام)
Siham al-Layl (سهام الليل)
Katibat al-Husayn (كتيبة الحسين)
Katibat al-Qa’qa’ (كتيبة القعقاع)
Katibat al-Ansar (كتيبة الأنصار)
Katibat al-Ansar (كتيبة الفرقان)
Katibat al-Ahwaz (كتيبة الأحواز)
Katibat al-Riyyah al-Jinah (كتيبة رياح الجنّة)
Katibat Khalid bin al-Walid (كتيبة خالد بن الوليد)
al-Kharsa’ (الخرساء)
al-Murabitin ‘Ala ad-Din (المرابطين على الدين)
Katibat Hamzah Sayyid al-Shuhada’ (كتيبة حمزة سيد الشهداء)
Katibat al-Shahid Yusuf Yasin (كتيبة الشهيد يوسف ياسين)

Dara’a
Katibat al-Yarmuk (كتيبة اليرموك)

al-Jazirah (Northeastern Syria)
Katibat al-Miqdad bin al-Aswad (كتيبة المقداد بن الأسود)
Katibat Ahrar al-Jazirah (كتيبة أحرار الجزيرة)
Katibat Tal Hamis (كتيبة تل حميس)
Katibat al-Qadisiyyah (كتيبة القادسية)
Abu Muhajir (أبو مهاجر)
Musa bin Nasir (موسى بن نصير)
Katibat ‘Ali bin Abu Talib (كتيبة علي بن أبي طالب)

Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyyah

Aleppo
Katibat Sayyuf al-Sunnah (كتيبة سيوف السنة)
Katibat Abu al-Zubayr (كتيبة أبو الزبير)
Katibat Jund ar-Rahman (كتيبة جند الرحمن)
Katibat al-‘Abas (كتيبة العباس)
Sarayah Hudhayfah bin al-Yaman (سرية حذيفة بن اليمان)
Katibat Zayat al-Haq (كتيبة رايات الحق)

Northern Aleppo Countryside
Katibat Abu Hudhayfah (كتيبة أبو حذيفة)
Katibat Dhia’ al-Islam (كتيبة ضياء الإسلام)
Katibat al-Alqsa (كتيبة الأقصى)
Sarayah Abu ‘Abd Allah Li-l-Maham al-Khasah (سرية أبو عبدالله للمهام الخاصة)

Eastern Aleppo Countryside
Tajama’a Jund al-Islam (تجمع جند الإسلام)

Western Aleppo Countryside
Katibat Abu al-Islam (كتيبة أبو إسلام)
Katibat Nusibah al-Ansariyyah (كتيبة نُسيبة الأنصارية)
Katibat Abu Hasan (كتيبة أبو الحسن)
Katibat ‘Az ash-Sham (كتيبة عزّ الشام)

Rural Idlib
Katibat al-Bara’ bin Malik (كتيبة البراء بن مالك)
Katibat Suqur al-Sunnah (كتيبة صقور السنّة)
Katibat Sayuf Allah (كتيبة سيوف الله)
Katibat Rijal al-Haq (كتيبة رجال الحق)

Ansar ash-Sham

Ladhakiyyah
Katibat Zayid bin Harith (كتيبة زيد بن حارثة)
Katibat Suqur al-Ladhakiyyah (كتيبة صقور اللاذقية)
Katiat Asad al-Sunnah (كتيبة أسد السنة)
Katibat Sayyuf al-Islam (كتيبة سيف الاسلام)
Katibat Salah ad-Din (كتيبة صلاح الدين)
Katibat at-Tawhid (كتيبة التوحـيـد)
Katibat al-Qawat al-Khasah (كتيبة القوات الخاصة)
Katibat al-Shuhada’ (كتيبة الشهداء)
Katibat Jawhar al-Dudayyif (كتيبة جوهر دودايف)
Katibat Ahfad Muhammad al-Fatih (كتيبة أحفاد محمد الفاتح)
Katibat Abu ‘Ubaydah al-Jarah (كتيبة ابو عبيدة الجراح)

Jisr al-Shughur
Katibat ‘Umar bin Khatab (كتيبة عمر بن الخطاب)

Idlib
Katibat ‘A’ishah Um al-Mu’minin (كتيبة عائشة أم المؤمنين)
Katibat Mus’ab bin ‘Amir (كتيبة مصعب بن عمي)

Rural Aleppo
Katibat Saraya al-Majad (كتيبة سرايا المجد)

Liwa’ al-Haqq

Katibat al-Saqiq (كتيبة الصديق)
Katibat al-Furati (كتيبة الفراتي)
Katibat al-Huda (كتيبة الهدى)
Katibat al-Nasir Li-Din Allah (كتيبة الناصر لدين الله)
Katibat Siba’ al-Bar (كتيبة سباع البر)
Katibat Shuhada’ Baba ‘Umru (كتيبة شهداء بابا عمرو)
Katibat Atba’ al-Rasul (كتيبة أتباع الرسول)
Katibat al-Ansar (كتيبة الأنصار)
Katibat al-Bara’ (كتائب البراء)
Katibat al-Bara’ bin Malik (كتيبة البراء بن مالك)

Jaysh at-Tawhid

Liwa’ Tariq bin Zayad (لواء طارق بن زياد)
Katibat Abu Qasim (كتيبة أبو القاسم)
Katibat Ahbab al-Mustafa (كتيبة أحباب المصطفى)
Katibat Yazid bin Ma’wayah (كتيبة يزيد بن معاوية)
Katibat ‘A’ishah Um al-Mu’minin (كتيبة عائـــشة أم المؤمنين)
Katibat al-Rahbah (كتيبة الرحبة)
Liwa’ al-Mansur (لواء المنصور)

Jama’at al-Tali’ah al-Islamiyyah

Katibat Ahmad ‘Asaf (كتيبة أحمد عساف)
Katibat Shuhada’ (كتيبة شهداء)
Saraya Ahmad Yasin (سرية أحمد ياسين)
Katibat al-Sawarikh (كتيبة الصورايخ)
Katibat al-Ansar (كتيبة الأنصار في بنش)

Katibat Mus’ab bin ‘Umar

Suqur al-Islam

Kata’ib al-Iman al-Muqatilah

Katibat Hamzah bin ‘Abd al-Mutalib

Distinguishing Between Foreign Fighters in Syria

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It is well known now that there are indeed foreign fighters in Syria. It is not yet though a full-fledged foreign jihad and mainly a Syrian contest. Estimates are difficult to come by, but journalists and news sources suggest numbers are at the very least currently in line with estimates from the Bosnian conflict (~1,000) in the 1990s and have yet to reach the levels of Afghanistan in the 1980s (~5,000-20,000) or Iraq this past decade (~4,000-5,000). While the number of foreign fighters in Syria is relatively small compared to Iraq, the rate of the influx is much higher. Most have joined up only in the past 6-8 months. If the conflict in Syria drags on, it will greatly outstrip Iraq. Each conflict though is of course different and within them there have been differing types of foreign fighters that have joined up.

The Syrian Conflict and Limitations

The Syrian conflict has confounded some of the assumptions on foreign fighters regarding conflicts of the Muslim world from the past 30 years. This is because earlier paradigms focused mainly on different shades of Salafis that joined the fight since they were the overwhelming majority. In this way, with regard to Syria, there is a portion of non-Islamist and secular Muslims who are riding the wave of the Arab uprisings and therefore do not necessarily fit in previous schemas. These individuals fought their tyrants at home, some then moved onto Libya to assist in the fight against Qadhafi, while others only came to Syria as their first exogenous action. For instance, recently, a Libyan by the name of Firas told the AFP “in the Libyan revolution, many Syrians fought on our side, so it is now time to return the favor.”

In an overall sense, though, there are major limitations in capturing the percentages of foreign fighters from a variety of ideological and motivational categories. The very nature of tracking foreign fighters will always only provide a snapshot. War makes it difficult to distinguish differing actors since there becomes an overlap effect. A basic spectrum, though, can help provide a map to better under the differing trends.

Typology of Foreign Fighters

Tourists:

These individuals go abroad to help fight with their fellow Muslim brethren and are moved by altruistic motivations. Once the conflict ends they go home and continue their normal lives. This category is where many of the Arab youth of the uprisings fit in. More prominently, are the Libyans in Syria. They are most associated with the Irish-Libyan commander Mehdi Harati, formerly of the Tripoli Brigade in the fight against Qadhafi in Libya and currently the leader of Liwa’ al-Ummah in Syria.

Tribal:

These individuals go abroad because of familial ties that stretch borders. The cases of the tribes on the Syrian-Iraqi border are most notable. Tribesmen have now reversed the flow of their smuggling operations from during the time of the Iraq war.

Jihadis:

There are two main types of foreign jihadis within Syria: homeward bound revolutionaries and outward bound revolutionaries. The former is interested in overthrowing their local “apostate” regime. Homeward bound revolutionaries go to the areas of war to hone their skills and train fighters for their future battle against their state. The latter once the conflict ends will move onto another country where a non-Muslim military is occupying a Muslim territory. The end goal is to return all formerly run Muslim territory back to Muslims. Among these outward bound revolutionaries are a subset that are associated with al-Qaeda’s ideology and worldview and are motivated by not only attacking the West and local apostate regimes, but setting up enclaves or emirates governed by their interpretation of the sharia and to eventually grow into a reestablished Caliphate.

There is only one known foreign fighter-dominated jihadi organization in Syria at this juncture: Fatah al-Islam, fighting under the banner of the al-Khilafah Brigade. Fatah al-Islam is the Lebanese-based organization, which is most known for its fight with the Lebanese military at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in May and June 2007 and later moved to the Ain al-Hilweh camp as a base. While not all Lebanese foreign fighters are associated with Fatah al-Islam, its leader Abdel Ghani Jawhar died in April 2012 constructing a bomb in Syria. Fatah al-Islam has also taken responsibility for two major operations: killing less than thirty Syrian soldiers in rural Aleppo on July 18 and ambushing Syrian army tanks and killing more than thirty in al-Qastal on July 22.

While many news outlets have reported that al-Qaeda in Iraq has infiltrated the Syrian rebellion, there has yet to be any proof that they are currently operating there. It is possible that members in individual capacities have joined up in the fight, but organizationally this has yet to occur, but could happen in the coming months. There is one organization in Syria that has been carrying the flag for the global jihadi movement: Jabhat al-Nusrah, which was founded in January 2012. Currently there are no confirmed figures on how many members they have, but news reports suggest that they have a few hundred and some among them are foreign fighters including Lebanese, Jordanians and Iraqis. Foreign jihadis are also believed to be fighting with Kata’ib Ahrar ash-Sham. The jihadi forums have also announced more than thirty martyrdom notices for foreigners since the beginning of the year.

Implications

The first two foreign fighter categories are difficult to pin down currently because they are not organized in the same way as jihadis and far lower key in their efforts. This is also why many have had a difficult time ascertaining differences among foreign fighters and painting them all as hardcore jihadis. The concern in terms of counterterrorism is that the longer the Syria civil war festers there is potential for the overall radicalization of the rebel movement. It is also possible that as the rebels and foreign fighters get more radicalized they could become more susceptible to jihadi ideology that is sympathetic to the worldview of al-Qaeda. That being said, at this point, there is no evidence that jihadis are at the head of the rebellion – they are mainly force-multipliers insofar as experience and expertise in bomb making from past “jihads” procuring funding and weaponry through their networks, and in tactical skill in combat.

Recommendations

Distinguishing among the different types of foreign fighters is important for developing sound policy, especially when thinking about what happens after the conflict against the Assad regime ends.

It is thus crucial for Washington to begin working closely with its allies in Ankara, Beirut, Baghdad, and Amman to help locate any potential fighters with ill intentions when passing through their countries returning home or off to another conflict zone. At the same time, it is important to not make the mistakes of post-Afghanistan 2001 where some individuals were arrested and jailed without actually being associated with a terrorist or insurgent organization. The task will not be easy, but care needs to be put into place so as not to cause a further backlash.

In this light, Washington along with its European counterparts should encourage local governments of the region to provide amnesty to individuals that return in good standing and want to return to their past occupations or even enticing individuals by providing them with jobs in the military or local police force. Washington should also discourage the scenario that enfolded in Yemen when former president Ali Abdullah Salih used “Afghan Arabs” against his enemies in the south in the 1990s after they returned. The use of ex-foreign fighters for local governments’ own ends, as militias, should not be tolerated.

Additionally, Washington ought to continue its pursuit of further deepening intelligence ties with governments of the region to help stem any potential attacks within or originating from a particular country. This is crucial because as noted in “The Wandering Mujahidin: Armed and Dangerous,” an August 1993 declassified report by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), which examined the fallout from the anti-Soviet jihad, showed that the information passed and logistical and financial networks established in the crucible of the war helped spur new avenues for other fights in the Muslim world and the West once the Soviets left Afghanistan.

One potential area of concern and backlash is attempting to work with the current rebels and future government of Syria. As a consequence of not assisting the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and many battalions, which are currently being helped by a contingent of foreign fighters as well as jihadi elements, the future Syria government might not be willing to work with Washington to rid the country of these individuals. At the very least, as the influx of foreign fighters continues, it is necessary for Washington along with its allies to start preparing to contain whatever fallout might occur in the aftermath of Assad’s fall.

Signs Beyond Western Eyes: Unpacking The Announcement of the al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigade

This past Thursday, on February 16, a group of around twenty individuals claiming to be part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), released a video message to YouTube announcing the formation of a new battalion named the al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigade. It should be noted that during the Iraq war, al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) also named one of their battalions the al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigade. There is no definitive proof that the new battalion established by the FSA is connected with the old al-Qa’ida in Iraq networks. That said, one should be cognizant of the expansive facilitation networks there were for foreign fighters attempting to join the Iraq jihad in Syria.

There are many layers to unpack from the video itself as well as the name chosen for the martyr brigade and its potential illusions.

With the recent revelations that al-Qa’ida was allegedly behind a series of suicide bombings in Syria over the past few months, along with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s recent video giving support to the Syrian “mujahidin;” much worry has risen over the specter of al-Qa’ida influencing and/or hijacking the opposition movement in Syria that hopes to topple Bashar al-Asad and his current regime.

The Flags

Many will point to the flag in the background used in the above video as a sign that these individuals are indeed al-Qa’ida since it looks strikingly similar to the one used by al-Qa’ida’s Islamic State of Iraq (For more background on al-Qa’ida’s use of flags and its context in Islamic history read here):

FSA background flag

Islamic State of Iraq's flag.

Islamic State of Iraq's flag.

Indeed, it is a worrying sign. At the same time, one should also note that in the above video, they also bear the old Syrian flag:

As such, for any student of al-Qa’ida and jihadism, the use of a Syrian flag shows direct support of a nationalist project, which is contrary to al-Qa’ida’s worldview. This is because the nation-states carved out were established not by God, but rather by the British and French. From this, one could posit that the al-Qa’ida looking flag used in the above video has become popularized to a broader audience then just a global jihadist one. More specifically, “the Che Guevara-ing” of the flag insofar as it has just become a symbol of resistance than necessarily a sign that the group has allegiance to al-Qa’ida. At the same time, the name used for the martyrs brigade (as AQI did, too) may abrogate or disprove this potential theory.

Who is al-Bara’ ibn Malik?

Prior to discussing the significance of the name of the martyrs brigrade in the context of al-Qa’ida, it is worthwhile to delve into the figure al-Bara’ ibn Malik to try and better understand why the FSA (and AQI) would invoke this figures name. Ibn Malik was one of the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s sahabah (companions) and considered an ansar (supporter) from the tribe of Banu al-Khazraj since they established relations with Muhammad’s nascent movement of mu’minin (believers) following the hijra to Medina (originally Yathrib). Ibn Malik is the brother of the famous sahabi Anas ibn Malik, an aide to Muhammad and who is one of the major narrators of hadith.

al-Bara’ ibn Malik originally took part in the Battle of Yamamah, which was part of the Riddah (apostasy) wars following the death of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. After the ascension of Abu Bakr as-Sadiq as the first Caliph some tribes and individuals apostatsized from Islam and attempted to return to their original religious practices. Abu Bakr called for war against them leading to a series of battles in 632-634 CE/11-13 H. The Battle of Yamamah is most famous for the deaths of a large portion of Qur’anic reciters, which led Abu Bakr to start the codification of the Qur’an into a written mushaf, since beforehand the Qur’an was recited orally. In the latter part of the Battle of Yamamah, when the opposition forces led by Musaylimah (referred in Islamic historiography as al-Kadhab or the Liar) were beginning to lose the battle they hid behind a gated garden. Prior to launching an assault on the garden, al-Bara’ ibn Malik stated: “يا أهل المدينة، لا مدينة لكم اليوم، إنما هو الله، والجنة” or “Oh People of al-Madinah, there is no al-Madinah for you after this day. There is only Allah, then Paradise.” Ibn Malik was hoisted upon a fellow soldiers shield to try and jump over the gate, which he succeeded. He sustained wounds, but was able to break open the gate allowing the rest of the Muslim army to defeat Musaylimah’s men. The episode would later refer to the “Garden of Death.” Although Ibn Malik had injuries, he recovered and later fought and was “martyred” in the Battle of Tustar against the Persian Empire in 640 CE/19 H.

There are three key points that should be highlighted from the above description of al-Bara’ ibn Malik: (1) he had an important role in defeating “apostates;” (2) his quote from above shows his willingness for martyrdom in the face of tough odds; and (3) he fought against the Persian Empire, which although Persians were not Muslims or Shi’a for that matter at that time one can imagine the symbolism of Ibn Malik fighting against the Persians. Jihadis today describe Shi’a (many being Persian) today as rawafid (Dissenters/Defectors/Deserters), which is a derogatory term, and do not believe they are true Muslims.

Contextualizing al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigades Today

Returning to the modern context, in both cases (AQI and the FSA), the name of the martyrs brigade fits and alludes to the three points made above regarding the biography of Ibn Malik. Regarding the first point, in both Iraq and Syria the fighters believe they are fighting apostate regimes. In Iraq against the ascendent Shi’a Mahdi Army and newly formed majority Shi’a Iraqi government and in the case of Syria al-Asad’s Alawite regime (seen as a sect of Shi’a Islam and viewed as heretical by even non-jihadi Sunni Muslims). As for the second point, it is quite obvious that they are martyrdom brigades and are therefore willing to sacrifice themselves in the face of great odds. And thirdly, the Iranian government was viewed in the Iraq war as assisting the Shi’a militias, while in the current context in Syria, the al-Asad regime is a known proxy of the Iranian regime. As such, in a round about way, in both the Iraq and Syrian versions of the al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigades they would be fighting the “Persian Empire” similar to Ibn Malik himself.

General Concluding Remarks About the Current State of Jihadism in Syria

The establishment of the FSA’s al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigade should give pause to talk of blindly arming the FSA as an alternative to the failed resolutions in the UN Security Council. That said, it is believed the FSA is a loose confederation without much centralization and therefore this battalion is most likely independent and doing its own thing. With the news of the potential release of Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, the creation of a new local jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusrah, and reports of a foreign fighter from Kuwait being killed in Syria, it is clear Syria has become another important front in the jihadi war. The penetration of al-Qa’ida in Iraq into Syria and potential of foreign fighters arriving, should be watched closely. At the same time, ones support for the uprising to defeat the authoritarian al-Asad regime should not be looked at completely through the prism of al-Qa’ida nor should it preclude or discredit any attempts for supporting some elements within the opposition. There are certainly risks involved, but identifying and vetting elements within the Syrian opposition is something that needs to be further acted upon in a precise manner versus providing weapons haphazardly just because of horrific scenes of slaughter on YouTube that one views without fully thinking through the potential second and third order consequences.

Jabhat al-Nusrah and Jihad in Syria

While debates ramped up over the past two weeks among Middle East specialists over the efficacy of a possible Western intervention in Syria (see here, here, and here), earlier this week, on January 23, the online global jihadi forums posted — in jubilation — a new video message “For the People of Syria from the Mujahidin of Syria in the Fields of Jihad” from a purported new jihadi group named Jabhat al-Nusrah (The Victory Front) via its new media outlet al-Manarah al-Bayda’ (The White Lighthouse) Foundation for Media Production. Before this article discusses the video and reaction to it from Abu Basir al-Tartusi, a Syrian exiled in London, it is worthwhile to look deeper into the significance for why Jabhat al-Nusrah chose al-Manarah al-Bayda’ as the name of its media outlet. The answer is quite fascinating.

al-Fitan wa Ashrat as-Sa’ah

Although many do not look into it, there are many layers usually to why jihadis decide to choose names for their media outlets, forums, battalions, and titles for media releases. On many occasions they allude to historical figures, events, or places as well as allusions to Qur’anic verses and Ahadith. One area that is understudied is the role of millenarianism in jihadi thought. Ali Soufan covered aspects of it related to the black banners and Khurasan in his book The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda. Indeed, the name of Jabhat al-Nusrah’s media outlet al-Manarah al-Bayda’ alludes to a Sahih Muslim hadith #7015, which deals with the end of times. The whole hadith is long so I placed the entirety of it at the bottom of this article, but here is the segment that mentions al-Manarah al-Bayda’:

He (Dajjal) would then call (that young man) and he will come forward laughing with his face gleaming (with happiness) and it would at this very time that Allah would send Jesus, son of Mary, and he will descend at al-Manarah al-Bayda’ (the white lighthouse or minaret) in the eastern side of Damascus wearing two garments lightly dyed with saffron and placing his hands on the wings of two Angels. When he would lower his head, there would fall beads of perspiration from his head, and when he would raise it up, beads like pearls would scatter from it. Every non-believer who would smell the odour of his self would die and his breath would reach as far as he would be able to see. He would then search for him (Dajjal) until he would catch hold of him at the gate of Ludd and would kill him. Then a people whom Allah had protected would come to Jesus, son of Mary, and he would wipe their faces and would inform them of their ranks in Paradise and it would be under such conditions that Allah would reveal to Jesus these words: I have brought forth from amongst My servants such people against whom none would be able to fight; you take these people safely to Tur, and then Allah would send Gog and Magog and they would swarm down from every slope.

The ad-Dajjal figure mentioned in the above quote of the hadith represents a false prophet that comes during the end of times. It is similar to the anti-Christ, but somewhat different at the same time. Islamic tradition states that there are several ad-Dajjal throughout history, but during the end times it is considered the “big” ad-Dajjal (false prophet). According to Jean-Pierre Filiu in his book Apocalypse in Islam, “Throughout the whole of human history, from Adam until the resurrection, no thing or person will have caused greater turmoil than ad-Dajjal.” Additionally, al-Manarah al-Bayda’ or as local Damascenes call it the “Jesus Minaret,” refers to the eastern minaret at the Ummayyad Mosque, also called the Great Mosque of Damascus.

Jabhat al-Nusrah does not directly mention anything related to the hadith and its significance in its video, but it is difficult for one not to wonder about the deeper meaning. As a result of the currently tumultuous situation in Syria and the centrality of Syria in the Islamic apocalyptic literature one would be remiss not to ponder that individuals involved with Jabhat al-Nusrah have the apocalypse on their minds. At the same time, it should be noted that millenarianism is often important for many religious hardliner groups. Without direct knowledge of why Jabhat al-Nusrah chose the name al-Manarah al-Bayda’ for its media outlet,  it is difficult to ascertain its true intent. Understanding this extra layer, though, and its significance in Islamic traditional literature can hopefully provide deeper insights into Jabhat al-Nusrah’s state of their mind versus parsing the banal platitudes they actually discuss in the video.

The Video and Tartusi’s Take

The video Jabhat al-Nusrah released was around sixteen minutes and contained pretty high quality graphics showing that its media department (or one dude in a basement) definitely has some level of skills. For about 5-8 minutes of the video there is an individual named al-Fatih (“The Conquerer) Abu Muhammad al-Juwlani, Jabhat al-Nusrah’s spokesperson. More or less, al-Juwlani repeats the usual jihadi tropes. He also calls out and threatens the United States, the West, the Arab League, Turkey, and Iran for all aligning and collaborating with the al-Assad regime against the (Sunni) Muslims. There are multiples scenes of tens of individuals training with AK-47s in the woods and desert. They also take pose pictures together with large flags with the shahadah (Muslim testament of faith) on it along with either the name Jabhat al-Nusrah at the bottom or an area of operation, including Hamah. Dara is also mentioned by a small cadre pledging loyalty to the group. In a separate video that was released a few days after the official release from Jabhat al-Nusrah, a video was uploaded to YouTube that showed a small group of individuals declaring fealty to Jabhat al-Nusrah. They claim to be from Idlib and go under the banner of Kata’ib Ahrar ash-Sham (The Battalion of Free Syria). If the number of people in the videos can tell us anything, between the YouTube video and the official release there are probably at the low end twenty and at the high end forty individuals involved with Jabhat al-Nusrah.

Usually, when new groups like Jabhat al-Nusrah appear, some online grassroots jihadi activists are curious about the group’s program, legitimacy, and whether it is okay to support them. Although such questions haven’t been asked of Minbar at-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad’s Shari’ah Committee yet, Abu Basir al-Tartusi was asked by several “brothers” about Jabhat al-Nusrah and its video message on his Facebook page al-Mu’ardah al-Islamiyyah l-l-Nizam al-Suri (The Islamic Opposition to the Syrian Regime). al-Tartusi responded by stating he had never heard of them, but had a few observations and reservations about the group. One of al-Tartusi’s larger critiques was the fact that the men in the video and specifically, the speaker, were all masked and did not show their faces, while Syrians have removed its fear of the al-Assad regime by defying the taghut (tyrant). al-Tartusi also reminds Jabhat al-Nusrah of what happened in the 1980s, which led to much bloodshed and that the mujahidin should be reassuring the masses instead of provoking fear by hiding behind masks. al-Tartusi understands that for the mujahidins safety some have to cover their faces, but a leader needs to show itself, which could hopefully help the masses sympathize with its cause. He also warns that they need to have patience, especially with the Syrians that are looking for international support. Therefore, Jabhat al-Nusrah must show kindness.

al-Tartusi also blasts Jabhat al-Nusrah for proclaiming war against “enemies East and West … it will not benefit the Syrian revolution.” It will only open the mujahidin up to more fronts and greater chance of failure. This harkens back to previous tracts by al-Tartusi on the Syrian uprising, which Joas Wagemakers touches upon at Jihadica. As Wagemakers noted: “What is clear from Abu Basir’s writings, however, is that he obviously cares about Syria. The tone of his work here is not one of fighting against ‘infidel’ rulers who fail to apply the shari’a but much more one of concern for his native land.” It appears al-Tartusi is still most concerned with the goal of seeking the al-Assad regime’s fall. Further echoing the above sentiment, al-Tartusi wonders why parts of the Jabhat al-Nusrah video is translated to English, who are they trying to speak to (al-Tartusi rhetorically asks): the US and the West or the Syrian people? Although he has many questions, al-Tartusi hopes his advice with be fruitful for the mujahidin and that they succeed.

As such, although Jabhat al-Nusrah does not appear to have large support yet, they are a group that one should keep an eye on, especially when thinking in the context of a potential Western intervention. There is much we do not know about Jabhat al-Nusrah, but again, as in other contexts of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, it has provided space for more radical elements to breathe as regimes attempt to hold on at the center while allowing the periphery to fall out of sight. Of course, that does not mean one should support these authoritarian regimes, but rather, one should be aware of the potential short and medium term consequences that citizens of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as policymakers in the West will have to grapple with in the coming years and decade.

Sahih Muslim 7015:

An-Nawwas b. Sam’an reported that Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) made a mention of the Dajjal one day in the morning. He sometimes described him to be insignificant and sometimes described (his turmoil) as very significant rand we felt) as if he were in the cluster of the date-palm trees. When we went to him (to the Holy Prophet) in the evening and he read (the signs of fear) in our faces, he said: What is the matter with you?

We said: Allah’s Messenger, you made a mention of the Dajjal in the morning (sometimes describing him) to be insignificant and sometimes very important, until we began to think as if he were present in some (near) part of the cluster of the datpalm trees. Thereupon he said: I harbour fear in regard to you in so many other things besides the Dajjal. If he comes forth while I am among on, I shall contend with him on your behalf, but if he comes forth while I am not amongst you, a man must contend on his own behalf and Allah would take care of every Muslim on my behalf (and safeguard him against his evil). He (Dajjal) would be a young man with twisted, contracted hair, and a blind eye. I compare him to ‘Abd-ul-‘Uzza b. Qatan. He who amongst you would survive to see him should recite over him the opening verses of Sura Kahf (xviii.). He would appear on the way between Syria and Iraq and would spread mischief right and left. O servant of Allah! adhere (to the path of Truth). We said: Allah’s Messenger, how long would he stay on the earth? He said.. For forty days, one day like a year and one day like a month and one day like a week and the rest of the days would be like your days.

We said: Allah’s Messenger, would one day’s prayer suffice for the prayers of day equal to one year? Thereupon he said: No, but you must make an estimate of time (and then observe prayer). We said: Allah’s Messenger, how quickly would he walk upon the earth? Thereupon he said: Like cloud driven by the wind. He would come to the people and invite them (to a wrong religion) and they would affirm their faith in him and respond to him. He would then give command to the sky and there would be rainfall upon the earth and it would grow crops. Then in the evening, their posturing animals would come to them with their humps very high and their udders full of milk and their flanks stretched. He would then come to another people and invite them. But they would reject him and he would go away from them and there would be drought for them and nothing would be lef t with them in the form of wealth. He would then walk through the waste, land and say to it: Bring forth your treasures, and the treasures would come out and collect (themselves) before him like the swarm of bees. He would then call a person brimming with youth and strike him with the sword and cut him into two pieces and (make these pieces lie at a distance which is generally) between the archer and his target.

He would then call (that young man) and he will come forward laughing with his face gleaming (with happiness) and it would at this very time that Allah would send Christ, son of Mary, and he will descend at the white minaret in the eastern side of Damscus wearing two garments lightly dyed with saffron and placing his hands on the wings of two Angels. When he would lower his head, there would fall beads of perspiration from his head, and when he would raise it up, beads like pearls would scatter from it. Every non-believer who would smell the odour of his self would die and his breath would reach as far as he would be able to see. He would then search for him (Dajjal) until he would catch hold of him at the gate of Ludd and would kill him. Then a people whom Allah had protected would come to Jesus, son of Mary, and he would wipe their faces and would inform them of their ranks in Paradise and it would be under such conditions that Allah would reveal to Jesus these words: I have brought forth from amongst My servants such people against whom none would be able to fight; you take these people safely to Tur, and then Allah would send Gog and Magog and they would swarm down from every slope.

The first of them would pass the lake of Tibering and drink out of it. And when the last of them would pass, he would say: There was once water there. Jesus and his companions would then be besieged here (at Tur, and they would be so much hard pressed) that the head of the ox would be dearer to them than one hundred dinirs and Allah’s Apostle, Jesus, and his companions would supplicate Allah, Who would send to them insects (which would attack their necks) and in the morning they would perish like one single person. Allah’s Apostle, Jesus, and his companions would then come down to the earth and they would not find in the earth as much space as a single span which is not filled with their putrefaction and stench. Allah’s Apostle, Jesus, and his companions would then again beseech Allah, Who would send birds whose necks would be like those of bactrin camels and they would carry them and throw them where God would will. Then Allah would send rain which no house of clay or (the tent of) camels’ hairs would keep out and it would wash away the earth until it could appear to be a mirror. Then the earth would be told to bring forth its fruit and restore its blessing and, as a result thereof, there would grow (such a big) pomegranate that a group of persons would be able to eat that, and seek shelter under its skin and milch cow would give so much milk that a whole party would be able to drink it. And the milch camel would give such (a large quantity of) milk that the whole tribe would be able to drink out of that and the milch sheep would give so much milk that the whole family would be able to drink out of that and at that time Allah would send a pleasant wind which would soothe (people) even under their armpits, and would take the life of every Muslim and only the wicked would survive who would commit adultery like asses and the Last Hour would come to them.

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