Why did Prohibition in America fail? The Pakistani Islamic scholar Abul Ala Mawdudi argued that it was because the law “required people to accept human rather divine reasoning.” What was needed was a harsh and absolute divine mandate to root out evils like alcohol. As the Ottoman empire was being swept away and national-independence movements were about to overrun the Muslim world, men like Mawdudi began articulating a new ideology that would meld medieval and modern concepts. That ideology, Salafi-jihadism, now represents one of the West’s greatest security challenges. Continue reading →
In the past two years, and especially over the last month, the Islamic State militant group has launched a coordinated campaign of terrorism in Europe. Among these recent attacks was the murder of 84 people in Nice by a man who ploughed a truck into Bastille Day crowds, and the brutal killing of a priest in Normandy when two young men stormed a church.
Now, the number of armed police in London, and ultimately across the U.K., is set to increase significantly. These additional forces will patrol landmarks and other areas where large numbers of people congregate. An attack in Britain is “highly likely … a case of when, not if,” according to the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe. A stabbing in the British capital Wednesday is not currently being treated as an extremist act but has underlined the perceived need for an increased police presence. Continue reading →
So the Syrian opposition can unite. Foreign powers have been the major cause of rebel discord. Previous rebel unity initiatives like the Joint Command were pulled apart by the competition between the insurgency’s sponsors—Saudi Arabia and Qatar primarily—and the last rebel umbrella group, the Supreme Military Council, which was identified with Western power, collapsed after President Barack Obama decided not to punish Bashar al-Assad for the massive chemical weapons attack on the population of Ghouta. But under Saudi auspices, an opposition “team” was announced on December 10 after a three-day conference in Riyadh, which includes the political and military opposition and groups with varying ideologies and patrons. This is an achievement. Unfortunately, this team’s task is an impossible one: intended to partake in the Vienna process begun in October, ostensibly to negotiate an end to the war, Syria is not, at present, in a condition where a political agreement can be made and implemented, not least because the Assad regime and its supporters in Iran and Russia have doubled down, and the opposition continues to receive insufficient support to pressure the regime enough to force an agreement. Continue reading →
From top left clockwise: Fadel al-Hiyali, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), Adnan al-Bilawi, Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr), Adnan as-Suwaydawi (Abu Ayman al-Iraqi), Hamid az-Zawi (Abu Omar al-Baghdadi), Abu Hajr as-Sufi
Yesterday, Reuters had an article by Isabel Coles and Ned Parker entitled, “How Saddam’s men help Islamic State rule“. The article had a number of interesting points, but in its presentation of the movement of former (Saddam) regime elements (FREs) into the leadership structure of the Islamic State (IS) as a phenomenon of the last few years, it was a step backward: the press had seemed to be recognizing that the Salafization of the FREs within IS dates back to the Islamization of Saddam Hussein’s regime in its last fifteen years, notably in the 1990s after the onset of the Faith Campaign. Continue reading →
Sharif as-Safouri, a Free Syrian Army commander kidnapped by Jabhat an-Nusra and made to “confess” to receiving support, including weapons, from Israel in an August 2014 video.
Last night The Daily Mail reported, after embedding with Israeli commandos, on Jerusalem’s ongoing effort to treat casualties of Syria’s horrific war. The Mail, however, put a spin on this story that not only reflected badly on the Jewish State, but feeds into a narrative cast by Iran and its allies to the effect that Israel is supporting Salafi militancy in Syria, specifically al-Qaeda, a propaganda campaign that has already had deadly consequences. Continue reading →
A version of this article was published at NOW Lebanon.
Rebels from the Southern Front in northwest Deraa, March 2015
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.
Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr): in Saddam’s intelligence service, in American prison, as a commander of the Islamic State
In the last few months I’ve increasingly focussed on the former (Saddam) regime elements (FREs) within the Islamic State (I.S.). There’s now an entire section on this blog about it, and Aaron Zelin over at Jihadology recently gave me time to elaborate in a podcast.
In studying this topic there is one inescapable name: Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, better-known by his pseudonym Haji Bakr, and sometimes by his kunya, Abu Bakr al-Iraqi. Al-Khlifawi is a former colonel in an elite intelligence unit of the Saddam Hussein regime—focussed on air defence at Habbaniya airbase, though what exactly that entails is murky. Al-Khlifawi was also apparently involved in weapons development.
Al-Khlifawi came to international attention in April when Christoph Reuter published an article in Der Spiegel naming al-Khlifawi as the “architect” of I.S.’s expansion into Syria, and the man who had been “pulling the strings at IS for years.” Continue reading →
William McCants’ The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State is an immensely readable addition to the literature on the most powerful terrorist-insurgent group in the world. McCants covers the Islamic State, often referred to as ISIS, from its inception in Taliban Afghanistan in 1999 to its migration to Iraq in 2002, and through its various stages before its blitzkrieg from Syria across central Iraq in June 2014, which brought ISIS to global attention. McCants shows that ISIS’s evolution is not just a religio-socio-political and military phenomenon, but an intellectual one. ISIS has built the foundations of its statelet on the lessons learned by Salafi-jihadists from their previous battlefronts, such as Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Algeria, and their various mistakes, many of them ISIS’s own. Continue reading →
A couple of days ago, a leader Jabhat an-Nusra issued a statement condemning Ahrar a-Sham. The statement is actually rather milder than initial reports suggested. Nusra is mostly annoyed at Ahrar for working with Turkey and Qatar to acquire money and weapons. Nusra is also displeased that Ahrar, at the instigation of Ankara and Doha, asked Nusra to publicly break its al-Qaeda link. Nusra also felt Ahrar was too willing to publicly distance itself from Salafi-jihadism to gain war materiel. This will no doubt help intensify the debate about Ahrar’s ostentatious “moderation” over the last eighteen months, and what the West should do about Ahrar.
In this post, however, I’d like to focus on the statement’s author, Abu Firas as-Suri, or more precisely on what he represents. Abu Firas is part of a group of (known) agents of al-Qaeda Central (AQC) who were sent into Syria in mid-2013 to mediate the dispute between Nusra and then-ISIS (now the Islamic State, I.S.), and when that failed the AQC veterans stayed, erected a veritable bureaucracy, and sought to forestall Nusra “going local”. Below are mini-profiles of these AQC veterans. Continue reading →