New Evidence on Ansar al-Sharia in Libya Training Camps

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

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

First Detainee:

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

Second Detainee:

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sayyida ZaynabSayyida Zaynab bint ‘Ali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The Flags

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

FSA background flag

Islamic State of Iraq's flag.

Islamic State of Iraq's flag.

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

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

Who is al-Bara’ ibn Malik?

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

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

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

Contextualizing al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigades Today

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

General Concluding Remarks About the Current State of Jihadism in Syria

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