A new jihadi faction announced its formation in Syria on 27 February 2018: Tandheem Hurras al-Deen, which translates as The Organization for the Guardians of the Religion or the Religious Guardians’ Organization. Hurras al-Deen is, unofficially, the re-emergence of a branch of al-Qaeda in Syria after the schism between al-Qaeda “central” and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The first statement from Hurras al-Deen was released via Telegram and is reproduced below. Continue reading
I released a report today, published by the Henry Jackson Society, Qatar and the Gulf Crisis. The intent was to examine the charges made against the Qatari government by its Gulf neighbours with regard to the funding of terrorism, the hosting of extremists, the dissemination of hate speech and incitement, among other things. Having separated fact from fiction with regards to he accusations against Qatar, the report proposes how Britain might proceed in such a way as to press Doha on issues of concern, while avoiding being drawn into the middle of the Gulf dispute, and trying to foster reconciliation between allies, especially at a time when a united front is necessary to oppose the far larger challenge of the Iranian theocracy. Continue reading
Abdallah al-Muhaysini and Muslah al-Alyani, two senior clerics in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former al-Qaeda branch in Syria, resigned on 11 September 2017 after leaked recordings showed HTS commanders musing about assassinating al-Muhaysini. There is clearly a well-orchestrated campaign underway to weaken HTS by discrediting and dividing it, and the sophistication of the campaign gives every indication of being the work of a state intelligence service, almost certainly Turkey’s. Continue reading
Violence erupted between Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the rebranded al-Qaeda branch in Syria, and Ahrar al-Sham, its long-time ally and its bridge into the Syrian rebellion, beginning on 19 January. These clashes expanded to encompass the mainstream armed opposition on 23 January. Today, al-Maqalaat, a pro-JFS outlet, published a long statement explaining the fighting from JFS’s point-of-view. The salient points of the argument and other interesting elements are highlighted in bold. Continue reading
Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) is an activist group working from within the capital of the Islamic State (or so-called capital of the so-called Islamic State, if you prefer) to bring news to the outside world of the horrors therein. For this they have paid a heavy price. On 22 September, RBSS published a list on Twitter of eighteen Islamic State (IS) operatives who had been killed by the U.S.-led Coalition between 20 August and 21 September 2016. This list, presented below with some notes and context, shows the preparations being made for the rapidly-approaching offensive on IS’s Iraqi capital. Continue reading
The Islamic State’s (IS) weekly newsletter, al-Naba, interviewed a high-ranking al-Qaeda defector, Abu Ubayda al-Lubnani, across two issues in February and March. Abu Ubayda appeared on a list of prominent clerics supporting IS’s caliphate declaration in February 2014, and two months later his defection from al-Qaeda to IS was announced by al-Battar. Abu Ubayda is described by al-Naba—as best as can be told accurately—as having been a member of al-Qaeda’s: Shura [Consultation] Council, a training officer in its Military Committee, and a counter-intelligence officer. Abu Ubayda is advertised as speaking about many secret aspects of al-Qaeda.
Among the topics Abu Ubayda covers is the alleged infiltration and manipulation of al-Qaeda by foreign intelligence services, specifically Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which is not only a violation of jihadist doctrine by collaborating with an “infidel” and illegitimate state but led to the deaths of a number of senior al-Qaeda leaders.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of what Abu Ubayda has to say relates to al-Qaeda’s attempt to take advantage of the Syrian revolution. This persistent campaign has followed a pattern of disguising al-Qaeda’s presence and attempting to influence and eventually co-opt the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. One lever al-Qaeda relied upon, according to Abu Ubayda, was Ahrar al-Sham, an organization that disclaims all connections to al-Qaeda and dissimulates about its ideology. Whatever Ahrar’s dominant ideology, it is simply a fact that it has served as the bridge between the foreign-led jihadists and Syrian Islamists, and its connections to al-Qaeda are evident enough. Abu Ubayda suggests Ahrar’s connections to al-Qaeda are even deeper than they appear. Continue reading
The leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria), Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, whose real name is Ahmad al-Shara, ostensibly broke the link between his organization and al-Qaeda last week. This is another stage in al-Qaeda’s long-term strategy of embedding itself into local societies so that it can more effectively reshape the faith and shield itself from the international community. Continue reading
Whatever pretence there was left in Syria’s “cessation of hostilities” (CoH)—which was never more than a reduction in hostilities—enacted at midnight on 26/27 February is now at an end. Russia and the regime of Bashar al-Assad have never ceased attempts to militarily weaken the armed opposition and escalated with a concerted campaign of aerial bombardment against Aleppo City on 22 April. The insurgency fully mobilized in response on 5 May with a major offensive south of the city. The dynamics set in place by Russia’s intervention—the bolstering of the Assad regime and the strengthening of extremist forces in the insurgency—have been in full view with this latest crisis, as has the longer-term trend of the United States moving toward the position of Assad, Russia, and especially Iran in Syria. Continue reading
In the last month, the Islamic State (IS) has been waging a concerted campaign to shut down all independent sources of information emanating from its statelet. IS’s focus has been on Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), an activist group that began in April 2014 in IS’s de facto capital in northern Syria. RBSS has published information—including pictures and videos, much of it via Twitter—on the crimes of the “caliphate”. IS has now murdered at least five RBSS journalists and activists, two of them on foreign soil in Turkey, plus the father of one of RBSS’s founders. (The sixth case, also in Turkey, is more murky.) The suppression of independent media by IS is necessary to allow the group to maintain social control of the areas it rules and to sustain the narrative that it is building utopia on earth, which attracts in the foreign fighters that help IS maintain and expand its territory.
A version of this article was published at NOW Lebanon.
In early November, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee released a report challenging the British government’s proposal to extend airstrikes from Iraq into Syria against the Islamic State (IS). Among other things, the report asked for a proposed political path to ending the Syrian civil war, a necessary prerequisite to defeating IS. On Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron released a response, part of which said:
Military action against ISIL will also relieve the pressure on the moderate opposition, whose survival is crucial for a successful transition to a more inclusive Syrian government. Syria has not been, and should not be, reduced to a choice between Assad or ISIL. Although the situation on the ground is complex, our assessment is that there are about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups.
This number has blown up into a major political row, with many Members of Parliament and pundits taking their personal unfamiliarity with Syria’s military landscape as evidence that it cannot be so. The Labour Opposition has made the number of non-extremist rebels a focal point of their challenge to the Prime Minister’s proposal for moving forward in Syria, and one of Cameron’s own Conservative MPs referred to the number as “magical”. The challenge to the number is part of a longer-term trend, where a narrative has become prevalent that there are no moderate opposition forces left in Syria. The corollary of this view is usually the argument that the West should side with the “secular” Assad regime as the “lesser evil” to put down a radical Islamist insurrection.
Sidestepping the ignorance that goes into believing a blatantly sectarian regime propped up by an international brigade of Shi’a jihadists is secular: What of this claim that there are no moderate rebels left? It isn’t true, as I recently made clear in a paper for The Henry Jackson Society. Continue reading