Who is Tunisia’s Salafi Cleric Shaykh al-Khatib al-Idrisi?

Tonight it was reported by Express FM that Shaykh al-Khatib al-Idrisi was arrested in Sidi Ali Ben Aoun (in the governorate of Sidi Bouzid), where there has been recent violence in the past couple of days. On Wednesday afternoon after an exchange of fire occurred between militants and national guardsmen, six national guard officers were killed and four were wounded. Contrary to the article from Express FM, al-Idrisi is not the founder of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST). In fact, he’s not even a member of the group at all. He is though one of, if not the most well-respected Salafi clerics within Tunisia as well as North Africa writ-large. More importantly, though, he is also viewed as a key unaffiliated spiritual guide for members of AST. His arrest will likely further galvanize those in AST and harden their belief that the state is at war with Islam and will never allow them to practice it as they see fit. It also could push AST away from its dawa-first approach and move into a more terrorism-first approach (something that Daveed Gartenstein-Ross has been hypothesizing would eventually happen), which would make it more like a classical jihadi organization.

Who Is He?

According to the biography that al-Idrisi has self-posted on his official Facebook page, al-Idrisi was born in 1373 H (1953/1954) in the city of Sidi Bouzid and is blind. In 1406 H (1985) al-Idrisi traveled to Saudi Arabia to learn Islamic scholarship under Wahhabi clerics. He studied with Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id al-Qahtani, Shaykh ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin Baz, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, Shaykh Salih al-Luhaydan, and Shaykh Sa’id Shafa, among others. He spent nine years studying and focused on the sciences of shari’ah and ethics. According to al-Idrisi, he was influenced by the Saudi sahwa movement, which is viewed by scholars as politico-Salafis. When he returned to Tunisia in 1415 H (1994) he wanted to apply their strategy to Tunisia.

Al-Idrisi’s return to Tunisia has been viewed as a turning point where Salafism begins to pick up a larger following within Tunisia, especially around the university. According to Allison Pargeter, unlike the violent trends, Ben Ali’s regime looked the other way with regard to the non-violent Salafis. After the December 2006-January 2007 showdown between Tunisian security and a jihadi cell named Jund Asad ibn al-Furat (more famously known as the Sulayman Group), the Tunisian state arrested al-Idrisi for allegedly penning a fatwa that sanctioned jihadi activity (though there are many who believe these were made up charges and that al-Idrisi was actually against these attacks). He was sentenced to two years in prison and was released from prison in January 2009.

Post-Tunisian Revolution

Since the fall of the Ben Ali regime, al-Idrisi appeared to be gaining even more popularity within Tunisia and the greater Salafi world. His work has been posted to Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s Minbar at-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad’s website, which is a library of Salafi-jihadi primary sources. Al-Idrisi has also been loosely affiliated with al-Qayrawan Media Foundation, which was established in April 2011 and gained accredation on global jihadis’ premiere forum Shamukh al-Islam in January 2012. There is also a large affinity for al-Idrisi by individuals in AST (more on this below). Based on al-Idrisi’s recent interactions with Salafi-jihadi scholars, while not as popular, one can compare him to the likes of al-Maqdisi, Shaykh Abu Basir al-Tartusi, Shaykh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, or Shaykh Abu Qatadah al-Filistini insofar as although they promote and sympathize with the global jihadi cause they are more interested in the intellectual and scholarly aspects of the movement rather than joining the battlefield.

Relations With AST

Based off of field research I have conducted, I have learned that one of the first things that the original AST core did after being pardoned from prison in March 2011 was to reach out to al-Idrisi. Although there is more public distance between al-Idrisi and AST currently, when AST first began, al-Idrisi promoted its existence and early activities via his official Facebook page. AST’s early outreach to al-Idrisi highlights that it wanted strong backing from the ‘ulama to legitimize its cause. Since the spring of 2012, al-Idrisi has been less public in his support for AST. There are rumors that al-Idrisi and Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, the leader of AST, differed over strategies and tactics partially because Abu Iyadh was viewed as too activist and political for him. It appears that the current relationship between the two is more seen as an unaffiliated outside spiritual guide and that Abu Iyadh is the link between al-Idrisi and grassroots AST members. Al-Idrisi is who AST members look to for religious advice since they view him as one of the few legitimate clerics out there.

What’s Next?

It is likely that one will begin to see an online campaign for the release of al-Idrisi, not only from AST and other jihadis, but also from more mainstream Salafis as well who respect him as a scholar. This arrest, if it is true, and is not one where is he released quickly, could further push AST up the escalation chain of radicalization and into more overt violence. It is still too early to know exactly how this will play out, but no doubt it will be another key turning point in the relationship between AST and the state.

Tunis Designates Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia

Since the assault on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis on September 14, 2012, a collision course has been set between the Tunisian state and the salafi-jihadi organization Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST). It highlights the utter failure of the Ennahda-led government to fully appreciate or understand AST as a movement. Ennahda believed it could use a light touch approach and attempt to co-opt AST and bring them into the political system. This strategy was fraught with false assumptions; most notably that AST itself stated repeatedly it is against the democratic process since it contravenes Islam and places men on the same level as God. Today, Tunis designated AST as a terrorist organization. How the Tunisian government uses this new mandate against AST will likely provide more information on AST’s connections to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) and/or the extent to which it has a secret fighting apparatus.

AST’s Public Persona

Following the founding of AST in April 2011, it has promoted an image of an organization only interested in conducting da’wa (missionary activities). The leader of AST Sayf Allah bin Hussayn (better known as Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi) continually noted that Tunisia was not a land of jihad, but a land of da’wa and that his movement did not carry weapons. Abu Iyadh also emphasized that the media distorted AST and that one should “hear from them, not about them.” While it is true that the majority of AST’s activities have been related to da’wa like passing out religious literature, providing food and medical services to the needy, and putting on lectures, among other things, from the beginning there has been a more nefarious side of the group, too.

Ties to the Global Jihad

Most notably, Abu Iyadh previously was involved in the jihadi counter-culture of “Londonistan” in the 1990s where he studied under al-Qaeda’s European cleric Abu Qatadah al-Filistini. Further, in the late 1990s, Abu Iyadh traveled Afghanistan and was in charge of the Jalabad House, which housed Tunisian foreigner fighters and co-founded the Tunisian Combatant Group with Tarek Maaroufi, who is also now a leader, though, with a less public role within AST. Abu Iyadh and Maaroufi are responsible for the planning, recruitment, and facilitation of the assassination of Ahmad Shah Messud, the leader of the Northern Alliance and ally of the West, two days prior to 9/11 in anticipation of the America’s response in Afghanistan. Maaroufi, along with Sami Ben Khamis Essid and Mehdi Kammoun, who are also leaders in AST, were a part of al-Qaeda’s recruitment and facilitation networks in Brussels and Milan in the 1990s.

In terms of post-AST founding, there have also been signs of duplicity. In interviews in the winter of 2012, Abu Iyadh hinted that he was inciting and recruiting members of his organization to fight abroad so as to provide different roles for members who were not interested in only conducting da’wa. There are reports that AST members were in northern Mali and there is evidence that AST members are fighting jihad in Syria. Further, AST’s official news Facebook page since its inception has promoted news and propaganda on and from the “mujahidin” in the various fronts from Afghanistan to Yemen to Iraq to Syria to Libya to Mali as well as typical anti-Western and anti-Arab ‘tyrant’ regime rhetoric. AST even had the London-based jihadi and former leader in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad Hani al-Siba’i Skype into their second annual conference in May 2012.


Moreover, while AST has not called for jihad in Tunisia, some of its members have been involved in vigilante-type activities going all the way back to late spring 2011:

June 2011: In response to the Tunisian film “No God, No Master,” individuals protested and rioted on Avenue Habib Bourghiba in the heart of Tunis because AST and other Islamists viewed the film as blasphemous.

October 2011: Similarly, only a few months later, in the run up to the Constituent Assembly election, the private station Nessma TV, aired the movie Persepolis. It is about one young woman’s experience of the Islamic revolution in Iran and contains a scene in which God is depicted in human form — a blasphemous act for religious Muslims. This led AST’s leader Abu Iyadh to incite his followers to violence against it and activists looted the home of Nessma’s owner.

November 2011 – March 2012: Following the election, a small group of Salafi students, the ring leader being Muhammad Bakhti a member of AST, started a sit-in at Manouba University to force the dean Habib Kazdaghli to allow women to wear niqab in the classroom and during tests. This led to a violent confrontation with Kazdaghli who was recently acquitted of any wrong doing during the incident.

March 2012: On a day when AST had called for a peaceful protest to honor the Qur’an, most Tunisians will remember the images of young protesters who climbed a clock tower at Tunis’s main intersection to raise al-Qaeda’s black flag. Some of these demonstrators also attacked and harassed a troupe performing in front of the city’s municipal theater.

June 2012: An art exhibit in La Marsa, a suburb of Tunis, which showed allegedly explicit images became the center of attention for AST and Salafis alike. They viewed it as an attack on the ‘holy’ and led to a riot for a few nights and confrontation with the police.

September 2012: Most notoriously, almost a year ago, members of AST as well as other Islamists attacked the U.S. Embassy. Had the attack gone on much longer, it is likely that more American diplomats would have been killed similar to what occurred at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi a few days prior.

February 2013: Following the assassination of leftist political leader Chokri Belaid, AST activated what it dubbed ‘Neighborhood Committees’ and ran around at night in different neighborhoods of major cities and smaller villages waving al-Qaeda’s black flag and serving vigilante justice against anyone they felt was misbehaving. How these individuals would assess this is unknown.

These are likely just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we know since there have likely been other smaller and unreported incidents, especially in the interior of the country. In addition to this, the Tunisian government believes that members of AST have been involved in the fighting against the military in Jebel Chaambi on the Tunisian-Algerian border over the past few months. It has also claimed that AST was responsible for the assassinations of leftist political figures Belaid and Muhammad Brahmi in February and July 2013. Both accusations are unverifiable and need more independent corroboration, but would not be at all surprising if true.

What Next?

Put together, it is understandable why the government would designate AST. Dealing with groups that use da’wa as a tactic to ingratiate themselves to the local population and therefore make it more difficult to crackdown on the movement is something quite familiar to the United States and its allies as it has tried to deal with groups like Hizballah and Hamas in the past. How the Tunisian government deals with the da’wa aspects of AST will likely show if they plan to fully crackdown on the organization or use a more judicious approach as it relates to actual members that have connections to terrorist activities or associates of AQIM. This will be a difficult balancing act since the Tunisian government if it fails could create a full-blown insurgency, which it is unlikely to be able to deal with due to not having the proper training as well as being stretched thin as it is. We will likely know more about the trajectory of how AST and the government/military respond to this new designation mandate in the coming weeks and months.

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. 


Al-Qaeda in Iraq Enters the Syrian Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Night’s Watch: Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia’s ‘Neighborhood Committees’


Following the untimely assassination of Chokri Belaïd (Shukri Bilayd), a Tunisian lawyer, opposition leader with the left-secular Democratic Patriots’ Movement and one of the leader’s of the Popular Front to which his party had adhered when the coalition was formed, there was a sense that security within Tunisia could break down. Although it appears, for now, that the situation has calmed down and many are returning to their normal everyday activities, on February 7th, Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia (AST) for the first time activated its ‘Neighborhood Committees.’ The mobilization of these committees within a mere few hours illustrated the strength of AST’s organizing structures as well as its memberships obedience to orders coming from the top.

The ‘Neighborhood Committees,’ which were originally called ‘Security Committees,’ were announced and set up on October 6, 2012 as a preemptive precautionary measure in case there was a security vacuum within the country. In other words, aspirationally, the establishment of a de facto non-state controlled martial law force if need be (more on if they were successful in their first mobilization below). The original intent of these committees was to safeguard and protect individuals in case the country spiraled out of control on October 23, 2012, which was the one year anniversary of the Constituent Assembly Election. No security issue or vacuum developed and the date passed without the activation of AST’s committees.

This changed last week, though, in light of the assassination, as well as the tense environment on the streets of Tunisia. Some individuals attempted to take advantage of this and began to loot, but many have since been arrested for these crimes. As a consequence of the perceived lack of security, AST called on its followers to mobilize their ‘Neighborhood Committees,’ stating the goal was to protect individuals, their money and property, and ward off thieves and looters. AST also urged followers to remain vigilant and cautious in light of potential gangs and criminality. Within a few hours, AST was able to mobilize members in Sfax and Hammamet for the night of the 7th. The mobilization was even swifter on the 8th whereby committees in addition to the former two came to the streets in al-Zahra’, al-Wardiyyah, al-Qayrawan, Sousse, al-Qalibiyyah, Mahdia, Ariana, Sidi Bouzid, al-Tadhamin Neighborhood, Beni Khayr, Southern Suburbs (Tunis), al-Kef, Diwar Hishur, al-Dandan, al-Nur Neighborhood, Jendouba, the Western Suburbs (Tunis), Matar, the Braka Coast, al-Khadra’ Neighborhood, and Qarbah (excuse the literal transliterations from Arabic in some cases, I’m fully aware they are spelled differently in the French rendering). AST conducted some of their patrols with the League for the Protection of the Revolution (LPR), believed to be a hardline faction associated with Ennahda.

In the pictures and videos AST has posted to its official Facebook page, it shows men either hanging around certain parts of streets or riding on scooters and motorcycles through the center or outskirts of cities. In all cases they are waving the flag made famous by al-Qaeda in Iraq that has the first half of the Muslim testament of faith on the top and under it Muhammad’s official seal. For added effect in the videos, AST adds anashid that provide an even more visceral emotion that is meant to bring out pride for their efforts in “protecting” the average citizen in the particular neighborhood, village, or city. The amount of AST members that helped on patrols varied by place, but has ranged anywhere from 10-50 (if not more). Their largest turnout was in al-Qayrawan, where they also rode through the center of the city during the day this past Saturday in a convoy of scooters and cars holding up Rayyat al-Tawhid (what jihadis call the black flag). AST framed all of this in terms of securing the residents and being the true bearers of stability in the country in comparison with the state and using the slogan ‘Your Sons Are at Your Service.’ As I have argued previously, AST has been in the process of building a state within a state going back to their founding in March 2011. The addition of security patrols to their social welfare provides them a strong selling point for many dissatisfied with the government or Islamists disillusioned with Ennahda.

While this is the perception that AST wants to foster, especially for those not necessarily in these locations, the truth is slightly different. Based on conversations with a few individuals in Tunisia (whom I will keep anonymous), indeed AST members were out in the streets, but their actions were on the whole no more than photo-ops. It is true that in some places they were standing “guard” all night, but truly securing a neighborhood, village, or city seems a bit exaggerated at this juncture, especially since, although many worried that more violence would erupt, on the whole, while things are tense, there has not been any type of descent into chaos. Sure there were a few scuffles and AST claimed they caught a thief with a knife going after a women in Sousse, but overall, one should not extrapolate too much from this episode. As AST’s strength grows, though, and it continues to try and co-opt more hardline elements within Ennahda that are perplexed by the concessions to the secularists in the writing of the constitution and the perceived to-be moderate stances of Prime Minister Jebali. AST is preparing the groundwork for the potential split within Ennahda. It is therefore possible that AST could one day truly impose some type of non-state martial law in some locations. Based on the evidence thus far, though, it would be too soon to ascribe these capabilities to AST.

That being said, the mobilization does illustrate that AST is a strong organization. It highlights its ability to call on its followers in a rapid manner in a variety of locations within Tunisia to respond to a request made by the leadership of the group. As AST continues to provide social welfare services, it is likely that they will be able to further project power in even more locations as well as being able to call on more individuals to back whatever plan AST might have going forward. It seems for now that the ‘Neighborhood Committees’ have been decommissioned until the next crisis (since they have not posted anything related to it in more than a day now and if they were still doing them you can bet they would promote it, though it is certainly possible the committees are still activated), but one thing is for certain, AST continues to gain prestige and credibility among a certain segment of the Tunisian population. Therefore, expect more cases where AST attempts to show it is out hustling the state and other Islamist rivals.

Salafis Consolidate Power in Syria


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


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.

Distinguishing Between Foreign Fighters in Syria


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Tunisia’s Contentious Transition

Since Tunisians overthrew former president Ben Ali’s regime in January 2011, its transition to democracy has been pointed to as a shining example in contrast to more tenuous situations in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Libya. While the elections for its constituent assembly went off without a hitch in October 2011, the past six months have proven far more contentious and difficult. A political, economic, and security malaise has cast a shadow over the prospects of a Tunisia living up to its expectation of providing a positive pathway to the rest of the region for transitioning to first stable and most progressive Arab democratic state.

Although many have worried about the rise in Salafism in Tunisia, there have been more immediate concerns over the shape and contours surrounding Tunisia’s future political arrangements. The constitution that was originally to be finished this October, a year after the elections has been reported will now be moved back to March 2013. Tunisian officials have yet to change the date of the next parliamentary elections, which are supposed to be at the same time as the completion of the constitution in March. Campaigning while completing a document that will provide the framework for Tunisia’s future is not the most effective way to secure a reasonable and non-politicized document.

Most troubling about the process of writing the constitution as well as developing a competitive political system is the fraying of secular and liberal parties. Party defections and individuals quitting their parties have decimated the two parties, CPR and Ettaktol, whom are in a coalition with the leading Islamist party Ennahda. This has put a wrench in the ability for these groups to apply pressure from the left to moderate Ennahda’s position. Without it, Ennahda has only had to worry about its right flank: the more conservative Islamist and Salafis parties Jabhat al-Islah and Hizb ut-Tahrir as well as the less moderate elements within its own party.

Without a strong secular and liberal opposition the idea of a moderate Islamist party becomes less likely when the only true challenge comes from the right. The failure of the secular/liberals to unite has created such an opening for Islamists. The controversial insertions in the draft of the constitution, which would criminalize blasphemy and limit the rights of women, are the first examples of what might be in store without a strong left-leaning opposition. While some might point to the preamble not including language about shari’a being source of law, Ennahda understands that it does not need it in the constitution because the process of gradual Islamization will take care of it overtime.

Questions surrounding whether Ennahda is up to the task of governing the country and providing a more robust economic future has also come under scrutiny. Many voted for Ennahda due to the belief that they would cleanse the government of corruption. Since in power though Ennahda has acted similarly to the prior regime in terms of nepotistic practices versus a meritocratic process in appointing individuals to governmental posts. Further, the economy continues to sputter yet Ennahda has deceptively reported foreign investment figures to make it appear that they have recovered to pre-revolution levels. However, it did not account for the devaluation of the Tunisian dinar, which was approximately 20%. So in dollar terms, the foreign investment was considerably less than in 2010, but in nominal terms it showed a modest increase.

Another issue many Tunisians are worried about is the very public rise of Salafi intimidation and vigilantism. While much of it is unconnected to organized parties and associations the lack of accountability in response to actions such as harassment of women over clothing choice, confrontation over alcohol consumption, violence over un-Islamic art, and sectarian attacks over Shi’a and Sufi cultural practices has created an emboldened minority. Unfortunately, members of Ennahda have brushed much of this off as a foreign plot or elements within the former regime trying to arouse provocation. The truth is, Salafism has been in Tunisia since the 1980s, it only now has the ability to express itself openly. It is possible Ennahda is also playing politics since they are concerned they could lose votes in the upcoming election to Jabhat al-Islah or Hizb ut-Tahrir.

These actions though are one of the reasons that hinder secular and liberal politicians activists’ willingness to work with Ennahda. They believe as a result of the lack of response from Ennahda they are complicit. While it is questionable and doubtful that there is some conspiracy, the difference in police response when there are secular/liberal demonstrations in comparison to the lack of response when there are Salafi incidents has created a sense that at the very least Ennahda sympathizes with the Salafi causes.

Further, Ennahda’s counter-response to secular and liberal activists’ demonstrating and complaining about these incidents also raises questions over Ennahda’s ability to truly be a credible partner. If Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda and who is viewed as the most moderate of Islamists in the region, is calling his political opponents extremists and enemies of Islam, it is a damning indictment against him, his party, and the notion that moderate Islamism is actually possible once in power.

While there are positive signs that secular and liberal Tunisians are fighting back against this, it is usually in the form of street activism, which does not necessarily translate into electoral or policy successes. The creation of Nida’ Tunis by a former Ben Ali hand Beji Caid el-Sebsi has given some hope that it might unite forces from the Tunisian left. Many are worried thought that because of el-Sebsi’s past it discredits the cause and El-Sebsi’s project is not actually liberal.

The lefts infighting and impotence and Ennahda’s lack of political courage and amateurism have led to an unfortunate state of affairs in Tunisia. Increased political polarization, a stagnant economy, and feelings of insecurity have created a situation in Tunisia where many are worried about the future of the country. It suggests that despite the high hopes regarding Tunisia being an outlier in its transition, it is in fact more in line with the other countries in the region. Tunisia is just not as relatively dysfunctional and there is still a glimmer of hope for a positive outcome. If the current trajectory continues on this course though it does not portend to an optimistic future.