Analyzing Foreign Influence and Jihadi Networks in Nigeria

After France intervened militarily in Mali on January 11, a move that hastened the deployment of Malian soldiers and African partners to northern Mali, many expected a kind of ripple effect expanding outward from Mali. This was driven out of concern both that such a move would push militants into neighboring countries, and draw negative responses from Muslims around the world. Yet hordes of angry protestors have thus far not materialized, and the response so far among jihadist groups in the sub-region’s other prominent hotspot for violent extremism, Nigeria, has been decidedly mixed. The Boko Haram splinter group Ansaru, whose full name is Jama’atu Ansaril Muslimina fi Biladis Sudan, or “Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa,” attacked a group of Nigerian soldiers heading to Mali on January 20, killing two officers. Meanwhile, a Boko Haram spokesman announced a ceasefire after a brief increase in violence, to the general surprise of observers. However, these different responses may give us a window to examine differences between Ansaru and Boko Haram, the role that groups like al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have and have not played in shaping these groups, and the frameworks analysts apply when examining jihadist militancy.

While Boko Haram’s violence and links to regional militant groups like AQIM has garnered significant attention in Nigeria, Africa, and the West, Ansaru, which announced its dissidence from Boko Haram in January 2012, has kept a somewhat lower profile. Though the group distanced itself from Boko Haram due to the latter’s attacks against Muslims, violence Ansaru’s first statement termed “inhuman,” it has since become known for its similarities and suspected links to AQIM and allied groups like the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). In addition to the attack on Nigerian soldiers, Ansaru claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of a French engineer in the state of Katsina, an operation involving 30 men assaulting a compound. In a statement, the group said the operation was prompted by ” the stance of the French government and the French people on Islam and Muslims,” including France’s ban on the niqab and partial ban on the hijab, as well as  “France’s major role in the (planned) attack on the Islamic state in northern Mali.”

This was the second kidnapping believed to have been carried by Ansaru, with the first coming in May 2011 when gunmen seized two men, a Briton named Christopher McManus and an Italian named Franco Lamolinara, from Birnin-Kebbi. Though the kidnapping was claimed by “Al-Qaeda in the Lands Beyond the Sahel” the British government suggested in October 2012 when it declared Ansaru a terrorist organization that the group was actually behind the seizure, which ended tragically in the deaths of both hostages in a failed rescue attempt in March 2012. As Jacob Zenn points out, this kidnapping was similar to to previous AQIM operations, and certainly looked very similar to the kidnapping of a German engineer in Kano, an operation claimed directly by AQIM (though I have lingering doubts about AQIM directly carrying out a kidnapping in Nigeria, as opposed to being allowed to claim credit for an action carried out by a group like Ansaru or another jihadist or criminal faction).

Regardless, the pattern of attacks, the available evidence, and denials of involvement from Boko Haram’s leadership suggest a certain kinship between Ansaru and AQIM, though Boko Haram has its own share of assumed, reported, and occasionally confirmed links to the array of groups operating in northern Mali. It is this international aspect to Ansaru’s activities and rhetoric that seems to define it for some analysts. Yet there is a distinct aspect to Ansaru that has gone largely unexplored: Its specific ideological links to AQIM and its particular brand of international jihadism — though I prefer Jean-Luc Marret’s characterization of the group as “glocal.”

Current writing about AQIM tends to obscure or leave out altogether important components of its history, namely that its predecessor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) was itself a splinter group of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which formed in the late 1990’s largely in response to the uncontrolled violence perpetrated by the GIA against Algerian civilians. It is striking that, given the aspirational and possibly operational closeness between Ansaru and AQIM, Ansaru’s stated justification for its split from Boko Haram was largely the same as that of the GSPC in leaving the GIA.

With that in mind, let’s re-examine Ansaru’s admittedly brief history. Broadly speaking, there are two ways of interpreting the May 2011 kidnapping in particular, as well as the December 2012 kidnapping and the January attack on Nigerian troops. On the one hand, the choice of name used to claim the May 2011 kidnapping, as well as the choice of tactics and target for that and subsequent actions, can be seen as overtures to AQIM, a means of showing agreement and a desire to cooperate by mirroring the more prominent organization. The other way to evaluate Ansaru’s actions is as a sign of pre-existing links with AQIM and associates of the group that in turn shaped the group that would eventually become Ansaru.

As evidence to support the latter conclusion, observers have pointed to the role that a man known as Khalid al-Barnawi (alternately spelled Barnawy or Barnaoui) reportedly played in the kidnapping. Barnawi was designated as a “global terrorist” by the U.S. State Department in June 2012. The Mauritanian news service Agence Nouakchott d’Information (ANI) reported after the two men were killed that they were held by a group led by Barnawi, adding that Barnawi was one of the first  Nigeriens* to join the GSPC and participated in the assault on the Mauritanian army post at Lemgheity in June 2005. His reported participation has in part led Zenn (see footnote 45) and Morgan Lorraine Roach to conclude that al-Barnawi is a leader in Ansaru. Another interesting indication of possible links to AQIM is that, again according to ANI, the negotiator handling talks for a ransom payment to free Lamolinara and McManus was none other than Mustapha Ould Limam Chaffi, a Mauritanian opposition figure, special counselor to Blaise Compaoré, and negotiator who handled multiple AQIM hostage takings. However Chaffi came to be part of the negotiations (assuming the ANI story was correct), his presence bolsters the anecdotal evidence of certain ties between Ansaru, or at least factions of Boko Haram, and AQIM.

The possibility of ties between AQIM in northern Mali and Ansaru, or a Boko Haram faction that would later become Ansaru, raises a significant question about Nigerian jihadis in Mali. Nigerians have been reportedly training with the GSPC and AQIM for years, though the last two years and specifically the last nine months have seen a proliferation of reports placing Boko Haram fighters specifically in northern Mali, working alongside AQIM and allied groups. I’ve questioned these reports in the past, and while it seems certain at this point that Nigerian jihadis have been flowing in some numbers into northern Mali, whether to train, join AQIM/MUJAO, or cooperate with them, I have often wondered how exactly  the journalists reporting these stories came to identify these fighters specifically as Boko Haram members. Did the fighters identify themselves as Boko Haram members? Did local witnesses hear fighters speaking Hausa, and assume that they were from Boko Haram? Did intelligence agencies tracking known Boko Haram members or Nigerian jihadis find evidence of movement into and out of Northern Mali? With relatively few exceptions, we just don’t know. But I would posit that given the anecdotal evidence and the ideological affinity between Ansaru and AQIM/MUJAO, at least some of the fighters in Mali identified as belonging to Boko Haram may actually have been with — or subsequently joined — Ansaru.

While this may seem like a very nitpicky point (because it is) it could influence the relative strength of the groups in question, as well as their future operations. After all, different groups, even splinters that maintain ties, still have different motivations and make different cost/benefit calculations about operations based on different factors. Which ultimately goes to show that, counter to what some might think, not all Muslims think and react the same way to complex and rapidly evolving events. Not even Nigerian jihadis.

*There seems to be some disagreement over Barnawi’s origin. The State Department refers to Barnawi as being from Nigeria, and indeed his name *could* signify that he is from the Nigerian state of Borno. However, as Alex Thurston pointed out last year, “Khaled al-Barnawi” is roughly the equivalent of “Bob from Maine” in terms of helping actually identify someone. Additionally, this name could simply mean that al-Barnawi spent time in Borno, something that would in no way be unusual for a Nigerien. While the U.S. Government may have specific information on Barnawi’s origins to which I am not privy, ANI is generally well-informed on security and terrorism issues, and cited a source close to AQIM for the story I linked to above. 

Primer on Jihadi Players in Algeria & Mali

Below is a primer I put together on the four main jihadist groups currently operating in Algeria and Mali for Jihadica, who have been kind enough to solicit and post my work from the past week. Fellow al-Wasat editor Aaron Zelin was kind enough to compile the 4-part series, and links to the original posts appear at the bottom of the post. 

The brazen assault and hostage taking in southern Algeria has brought about a sudden surge of interest in the region’s jihadist groups, especially given the complex history of the man reportedly behind the assault, Mokhtar Belmokhtar. This, in turn, has led to a good deal of questioning about Belmokhtar’s past, his “new” jihadist group, and the other militant groups currently occupying northern Mali. Here’s a quick explainer:

al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb

The best-known of the groups operating in northern Mali is almost certainly al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, led by Abdelmalek Droukel (Abu Musab Abdelwadud). Renamed in 2007 after officially merging with al-Qaeda, AQIM was previously known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC in French), itself created in 1998 as a rejection of the brutal behavior and takfirist stance of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA in French). The GIA was the first Algerian jihadist group to send fighters (including Mokhtar Belmokhtar) to the Sahel, though it was the GSPC that first truly implanted itself in the region and in northern Mali in particular. There it recruited fighters, set up training camps, sowed deep ties with some local communities, got deeply involved in local and regional smuggling networks, and kidnapped foreigners for ransoms (the first such operation took place in southern Algeria in 2003). The GSPC also engaged in military activities, notably the 2005 attack on a Mauritanian military base in Leimgheity. Among the many young Mauritanians who joined the organization after police crackdowns in 2004 and 2005 was Younis al-Mauritani, who helped facilitate the GSPC’s merger with al-Qaeda in 2006 and was a key operational leader in al-Qaeda Core in Pakistan until his arrest in Quetta in 2011.

After a rush of deadly AQIM activity in northern Algeria in 2007 and 2008, Algerian authorities gained the upper hand and were progressively able to restrict AQIM to isolated and mountainous areas east of Algiers. AQIM’s kata’ib(battalions) in the Sahel, however, expanded, as Belmokhtar and Abdelhamid Abou Zeid (a senior AQIM commander) began a run of audacious kidnappings that led to an estimated tens of millions of dollars in ransom payments (more, according to some sources)–money reportedly bolstered by income from cigarette smuggling and taxes from the region’s growing drug trade. AQIM’s southern groups, believed before 2012 to number several hundred fighters, also continued operations across the region, killing tourists, conducting attacks (including suicide bombings) against regional and foreign militaries and government facilities. AQIM fighters are believed to have been heavily involved in fighting in northern Mali after the outbreak of the Tuareg rebellion in January 2012, and have largely controlled the city of Timbuktu since April.

AQIM has for years enjoyed good relationships with some local populations, having strengthened its roots in northern Mali through marriage and business ties. Recently the group announced the creation of a new battalion to be led by a Tuareg, as part of a larger rearrangement of personnel and leadership. The battalion is said to be leading the fighting under the command of Abou Zeid around the town of Diabaly against Malian and French troops. AQIM holds 7 foreign hostages.

Belmokhtar and Those Who Sign with Blood

The man allegedly behind the gas facility attack, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, had, until recently, run AQIM’s Katibat al-Moulathimin (“The Veiled Brigade”), a reference to the practice of male veiling common in parts of the Sahel.  In October 2012 AQIM stated that Belmokhtar had been “suspended” from the command of the group, owing to Belmokhtar’s supposed deviations from the goals of the group’s leadership. Belmokhtar was purportedly at loggerheads with three AQIM leaders: AQIM’s amir Droukdel, the recently-appointed Saharan emir Yahya Abou el-Hammam, and Katibat Tariq Ibn Ziad commander Abou Zeid.

Belmokhtar’s spokesman denied the removal but in December Belmokhtar appeared on video for the first time to announce his departure* from AQIM and his creation of a new group, al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima (“Those Who Sign with Blood”), a reference to the name of the GIA detachment responsible for the 1994 hijacking of an Air France flight. In his video, Belmokhtar said his group aimed to consolidate shari’ah in northern Mali. He also threatened to attack Algeria and France and called on Mauritanian imams to come to the aid of the “Azawad,” a term used largely (but not exclusively) by Tuareg nationalists to refer to northern Mali.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Belmokhtar’s close associate Oumar Ould Hamaha relayed that Belmokhtar remained under the orders of al-Qaeda central. Moreover, the “split” with AQIM does not appear to have inhibited Belmokhtar’s actions; by all available indications he took his fighters with him to his “new” group, and they have reportedly been working alongside jihadist MUJAO group in Gao and in In Khalil (more on them tomorrow). In telephone calls with journalists during the current hostage crisis, jihadis involved in the attack said they were from “al-Qaeda” before specifying their membership in al-Moulathimin and al-Mouakoune Bi-Dima. They further conveyed that the operation had been in the works for two months, suggesting that the supposed internal turmoil in AQIM did not adversely affect the complicated preparations for a major assault staged hundreds of miles away from northern Mali.

Algerian security officials said they took at least one member of the attack team alive, meaning that we may find out more about the group’s structure in the coming days and weeks. We do know that the attack team involved at least two longtime Belmokhtar aides, Abu al-Bara and Aberrahman al-Nigeri, and reports indicate that the hostage takers included Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, as well as possibly a Frenchman and a Canadian.

*CORRECTION: In the video, Belmokhtar does not actually announce a departure from AQIM, only the creation of al-Mouakoune Bi-Dima. Instead, the talk of a “split” came from press accounts, including an Associated Press interview with close Belmokhtar associate Omar Ould Hamaha (h/t @GCTAT on Twitter).

Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa

The Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO, in French) is an AQIM splinter group that publicly appeared in December 2011, when they claimed the kidnapping of three European aid workers in Tindouf, Algeria. Led by the Mauritanian Hamada Ould Kheiru*, an explosives expert, preacher, and longtime GSPC/AQIM member close to Belmokhtar, the group’s stated reason for leaving AQIM was the latter’s purported lack of devotion to jihad and failure to promote non-Algerians to leadership positions.

Ostensibly dedicated to propagating jihad in West Africa, the group’s leadership was originally believed to be largely composed of Mauritanians and Arabs from the Gao region, though recent announcements indicate that the leadership has diversified to include a Saudi, an Egyptian, and a Tunisian, as well as other “foreign fighters”. The group has also reportedly recruited from local populations and some sub-Saharan Africans.

MUJAO, which controls the Malian city of Gao, benefits from a close relationship with Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose forces fought with and may have led MUJAO’s successful military attacks against the Tuareg nationalist group the MNLA in Gao in June, and in Ménaka in November. MUJAO and Belmokhtar’s Katibat al-Mulathimeen (Battalion of the Veiled Men) seized the infamous smuggling town of In Khalil (sometimes written as al-Khalil) in late December, and are reportedly involved in the current Islamist offensive in central Mali.

One of the MUJAO’s key military leaders, spokesmen, and favorite quote machine for Western journalists, Omar Ould Hamaha, was a commander under Belmokhtar and was identified for a time as the military commander of Ansar al-Din. Hamaha is also, according to some reports, Belmokhtar’s father-in-law.

While rumors abound that MUJAO receives support from local businessmen and known traffickers, in addition to foreign governments, MUJAO has also made an extensive effort to portray itself as a “true” jihadist organization by instituting hudud punishments in and around Gao, conducting attacks against foreign targets, and adopting a media strategy that includes a web forum, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and battalion names recalling past Muslim leaders, famous jihadist figures, and also a local Muslim organization.

Despite its stated focus on West Africa, MUJAO has conducted 4 operations (including two suicide bombings) in Algeria or against Algerian targets, in addition to the kidnapping of 7 Algerian diplomats from the Algerian consulate in the northern Malian city of Gao. MUJAO currently holds 3 of the 7–after releasing three and killing one–and one French-Portuguese hostage kidnapped in November.

* While some sources indicate that Kheiru founded MUJAO in cooperation with other “dissident” AQIM members, this explanation is not universal. For instance, Mauritanian journalist Mohamed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma’ali, who published a lengthy analysis in May of the various jihadist groups occupying northern Mali, says that the group was founded by the businessman, smuggler, and AQIM member Sultan Ould Bady, with Kheiru subsequently joining the group. Regardless, both were represented as key leaders of the group until recently, when Ould Bady purportedly left MUJAO to join Ansar al-Din. In December the United States Department of State referred to Kheiru (written as Khairy) as a “founding leader” of MUJAO alongside Ahmed el-Tilemsi, when the State Department designated MUJAO a terrorist organization and applied sanctions to Kheiru and Tilemsi (but no other MUJAO leaders).

Ansar al-Din

Ansar al-Din was created in November 2011 by Iyad Ag Ghali, a legendary Tuareg powerbroker in northern Mali who led two rebellions against the Malian government in the 1990′s and in 2006. According to journalistic accounts as well as scholarly writing, Ag Ghali grew increasingly religious and joined the Tablighi Jamaat, the Pakistani Islamic missionary organization known for its piety as well as quietist political views. However, Ag Ghali at some point moved away from the group, and in 2010 Saudi authorities expelled him from his diplomatic post in Jeddah due to suspected contacts with unknown radicals.

Various sources claim that Ag Ghali only founded Ansar al-Din after failing in his efforts to become the leader of the MNLA and of the Ifoghas Tuareg tribe, though as far as I can tell these claims all come from sources close to or within the MNLA.  Initially composed of veteran rebels from the same tribe (and in many cases the same clan), Ag Ghali’s ranks were swollen in early 2012 by the addition of at least 40 AQIM fighters brought by his cousin, an AQIM commander named Hamada Ag Hama (commonly known as Abdelkrim el-Targui).

Ansar al-Din played a key role in fighting the Malian army in Aguelhoc (where nearly 100 Malian soldiers were reportedly executed), Tessalit, and Kidal. After the March 2012 coup and the departure of the Malian army from the north, Ansar al-Din took responsibility for the cities of Kidal and Timbuktu. At least one “Ansar al-Din” leader in Timbuktu, Sanda Ould Boumama (Sanda Abou Mohamed), was a suspected GSPC and AQIM member, and AQIM is largely believed to have exerted real control over the city.

Various Tuareg Ansar al-Din leaders and spokesmen engaged in negotiations in Burkina Faso and Algeria, and Ag Ghali himself endorsed mediation efforts to achieve a political solution to the Malian crisis. Nevertheless, the group’s leadership appears to be divided and has made contradictory remarks about the group’s goals, in particular where they sought to apply shari’ah (in Kidal? In northern Mali? In all of Mali? Across West Africa?). Ag Ghali himself put an end to the ambiguity when he announced the end of a ceasefire in January 2013, and then led an advance of Islamist forces into central Mali on January 10. This in turn prompted the French intervention in Mali the following day.

Original Posts:

Part 1-

Part 2-

Part 3- 

Part 4-

The Syrian Islamic Front’s Order of Battle


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)

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

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

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)

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

The Ghosts of Sinjar in Tripoli and Benghazi


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)?


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

Untitled 3

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.