Friday, June 13, 2014

Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdi and his possible Môsul past

With the massive gains that the Islamic State in 'Irâq and the Levant (widely known as ISIS and before that as Islamic State of 'Irâq or ISI) has made within the last days in 'Irâq - especially the major city of Môsul - Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdi the ISIS Amîr al-Mu`minîn (Commander of the Faithful) has become one of the most powerful jihadists ever.

Intriguingly, his real identity is still not clear without a doubt - Abû Bakr al-Badghdâdî being a nom de guerre. The US has identified him as Dr. Ibrâhîm 'Awâd Ibrâhîm al-Badrî. There is a jihadist biography that seems to confirm that claim. Pieter van Ostaeyen has covered it in detail. According to the biography Abû Bakr studied at the Islamic University in Baghdâd and holds a PhD in Islâm. He is alleged to have been a founder of the small Sunni insurgent group Jaysh Ahl al-Sunna wa-l-Jama'a that joined the Mujâhidîn Shûrâ Council - the predecessor to the Islamic State - in 2006.


Unverified identity

But can we take this information at face value? I think not. The US has a mixed record of identifying their opponents in 'Irâq. While announcing that Abû Hamza al-Muhâjir was in fact Abû Ayyûb al-Masrî immediately after he became Amîr of Qâ'idat al-Jihâd fî Bilâd al-Râfidayn (AQI) the US for some time spread the theory that the first Amîr of the Islamic State of 'Irâq Abû 'Umar al-Baghdâdî did not exist and the voice messages in his name were read out by an actor.

The 'Irâqî government was even worse in this regard and killed Abû 'Umar at least twice before arresting this poor fellow who also did not turn out to be the right one (by the way does anyone know what happened to him?). Finally, an 'Irâqî unhappy with Abû 'Umar posted his real name - Khâlid al-Zâwî - to a forum, the information turning out to be true when Abû Hamza and Abû 'Umar were killed in 2010.

But what about the biography posted by jihadists? Well, there is a certain reflex to quote something as confirmed jihadist content because of it being posted on a jihadist forums. I for one have no idea where this biography was posted. An official ISIS outlet? Someone on Twitter or in the forums who is known to have inside information on ISIS? Or just some dude with a black flag avatar without any known connections to ISIS? I believe it's the latter because that is what the majority of the people in the forums are (directly followed by law enforcement and journalists).

The person posting the biography may in fact believe that al-Badrî is Abû Bakr - because he heard so on the news. Add an uncle who knew someone who once studied in Baghdâd and knows someone from university who says that old Ibrâhîm was his fellow and... you get where I am going. 


The prison claim and the video

Within the last weeks I noticed that a new line of information is frequently quoted by experts and media alike, namely that Abû Bakr had been imprisoned by the Americans from 2005-2009. While many of the Islamic State's leadership served time in prison - among them the first Amîr Abû 'Umar and the current spokesman Abû Muhammad al-'Adnânî - I have an objection to the mentioned time frame for Abû Bakr's stay in prison. 

The objection is that I believe that he appeared on video in that time. On April 3rd 2008 the Islamic State's al-Furqân media published the video Usûd al-Sharâ 1. The nearly half-hour-long video shows ISI fighters preparing for a raid, the actual attack on 'Irâqî barracks and the aftermath. The video opens up with the firing up speech of the responsible field commander whom I believe to be Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdî. The video must have been filmed between late 2006 when the Islamic State was announced and early 2008 - I suppose it is 2007.

Comparing the voice pattern, intonation and style from the above video clip to any of the available audio speeches released by al-Furqân convinced me that this is in fact him. But on top of the voice al-Furqân did us the favour to identify the speaker in a video caption: Commander of the raid: Abû Bakr al-Ansârî. Ansârî (supporter) in ISIS language means a local - in this case an 'Irâqî - while Muhâjir (emigrant) is used to identify foreign fighters. The information value of the caption therefore is Abû Bakr from 'Irâq.

The Islamic State's use of al-Baghdâdî (the one from Baghdâd) for their first Amîr Abû 'Umar who had nothing to do with Baghdâd shows that Baghdâdî is used as a synecdoche for 'Irâqî by replacing the country with its capital. The information value of Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdî is therefore also Abû Bakr from 'Irâq.

There is precedent for ISIS respectively its predecessors to have a mid-level commander in a speaking role in video releases who then turns out to be the new big-shot, namely Abû Hamza al-Muhâjir. He appeared at the end of the 2005 video release Usûd al-Tawhîd. A year later he would become AQI's Amîr.

"One of the military commanders of al-Qâ'ida in the Land of the Two Rivers" - Abû Hamza al-Muhâjir in a 2005 video release


The Môsul connection

When the recent ISIS offensive took Môsul one of its aims was to open the famous Bâdûsh prison. The Italian journalist Daniele Raineri came across an interesting rumour:

While I do not necessarily believe that Abû Bakr was physically involved in the latest raids he has a connection to Bâdûsh - the video Usûd al-Sharâ 1 shows an attack in the Bâdûsh area. 

"Storming the barracks of the Heathen Guard (a ploy on words: watanî = national/ wathanî = heathen) in Qât'i al-Jazîra - Bâdûsh" 

If my assumption is correct and Abû Bakr has indeed experience as field commander in Môsul it seems likely that he was involved in the planing of the takeover and choosing Môsul as primary target may also appear as influenced by the personal knowledge of Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdî. Intimately knowing the terrain may have been a major advantage to ISIS.



While I am skeptical of taking reports that have not been proven as of now for the final truth I do not categorically deny that Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdî is in fact Ibrâhîm al-Badrî. I do not know enough about 'Irâq and AQI to do so and I do not have access to classified documents which are the base for that claim. 

I dispute the 2005-2009 prison episode that has been mentioned lately as I do not think that Abû Bakr got vacation days from jail. If Ibrâhîm al-Badrî was in fact imprisoned at that time I'd be fairly convinced that al-Badrî is not Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdî based on the video above.

In the end this discussion boils down to the verifiability of sources and the astonishing fact that we are not sure of Name, DoB and PoB of one of the most influential players in the Middle East. I leave you with a screenshot of the man I believe to be the mysterious Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdî.

"Rousing speech by the commander of the raid Abû Bakr al-Ansarî" or should I say al-Baghdâdî?

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Turkistân Islamic Party eulogizes Doku Umarov and...

The author of this blog has „obtained“ a visual-audio message by Turkistân Islamic Party (TIP) Amîr ‘Abdullah Mansûr eulogizing the deceased Amîr of the Caucasus Emirate (CE) Doku Umarov. The message is about 7 minutes in length. Mansûr speaks in Uyghur with Arabic subtitles in one version and a Russian voice-over in the other version. The Arabic title means “Eulogy to the martyr Doku ‘Umar Abû ‘Uthmân – Amîr of the Islamic Emirate in the Caucasus.

The video opens with clips of Doku Umarov with his fighters. This is followed by a short clip of deceased AQAP scholar Anwar al-‘Awlaqî interpreting the Quranic verse 3:140 on martrs. A still of Mansûr whose face is blurred out takes up the screen for the rest of the video. The film is dated as 04/2014.

The deceased Amîr of the Caucasus Emirate Doku Umarov as shown in the recent TIP video

Interestingly the message has not been released officially (by the “shadowy AQ media front” al-Fajr on the known forums) at this time. This seems to be a growing pattern with the TIP as well as al-Qâ’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Both groups have released videos on YouTube or one of the many uploading services in recent months. 

While the occasional pre-release is not unheard of the magnitude seen a the recent months seems to indicate that either the groups have learned from the Syrian example – Accounts on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube suffice – or there is something wrong with al-Fajr. 

At the moment I tend to the latter as the split between the Islamic State in ‘Irâq and the Levant (ISIS) and al-Qâ’ida Central (AQC) has led to a high number of defections from forum administrations (Shumûkh) and in some cases a general disruption of any efforts by the forum staff (Ansâr).

Regardless, the more interesting point about the video is the TIP’s growing interest in Russian speaking recruits, Russia and the Caucasus itself. While the mostly Uyghur group has shown Russian speaking members and translated some of its videos to Russian the new release is new step in this direction. Most of the video is taken up by the usual text modules on the virtue of fighting and martyrdom but there is a major development in the speech:

Mansûr gives condolences to “Commander ‘Abdullah” whom he calls “the representative of the Caucasus Emirate in Khurâsân”. He thereby confirms that there actually is a group of fighters in Afghânistân and Pâkistân (AfPak) that is loyal to the Caucasus Emirate.

'Abdullah in the March 2014 release, the caption reads "'Amîr of the Mujâhidîn of the Caucasus Emirate in the territory of Khurâsân

‘Abdullah had come forward in March 2014 claiming to be right that but there was no way to confirm this. See a great article on the North Caucasus Blog. Coincidentally, or rather not coincidentally the YouTube channel that released the two videos of Commander ‘Abdullah has also uploaded the Russian version of Mansûr’s speech.

After establishing a foothold in Syria via Jaysh al-Muhâjirîn wa-l-Ansâr and revealing this association early this year the Caucasus Emirate has also revealed a presence in AfPak thereby completing the metamorphosis from a national insurgency in the 1990s to a global-jihâdist group in the 2010s. It is obvious that they have linked up with the foreign fighter nexus in the AfPak region, amongst them the resurging TIP which has been responsible for a number of attacks in China in recent months.

This could well be the beginning of a renewed flow of know-how and money to the Caucasus as seen in the late 1990s. In my opinion foreign fighters in Afghânistân will have rather save bases to train and rather little fighting to do in a year or two from now.

The TIP's Amîr 'Abdullah Mansûr, notice that TIP's media group Islâm Awâzî (Voice of Islam) uses a new logo since April 2014.

Many of them will search for new battlefields and with Syria being a place of jihadist infighting the mountains of the Caucasus clouded in the ultimate jihadist legend of Commander Khattâb may be one of their destinations. Mansûr may even hint at this while saying that he is “with the Chechens in their fight against the Russians”.


 The Caucasus Emirate faction in AfPak was likely sent to the region as early as 2010. One of the videos showing 'Abdullah - the CE representative in Afghânistân has been released with an Arabic voiceover. One scene shows Doku Umarov and his deputy Sufyan Abdullayev in a video dated as August 2010. According to the Arabic voiceover (I don't speak Russian) Umarov and Abdullayev directly adress 'Abdullah as CE representative in Afghânistân and Pâkistân.

The fact that the clip is dated as August 2010 is very interesting. August 2010 was the beginning of a power struggle between Umarov and the main Chechen field commanders who withdrew their oaths to Umarov. It has been argued that this was the result of them not sharing Umarov's idea of an Emirate and having the wish to return to a more Chechen independence struggle.

Umarov and Abdullayev as seen in the recent video release of the Caucasus Emirate group in Afghânistân

This was refuted by the dissident commanders themselves who claimed to support the Emirate idea but not Umarov as its Amîr. When the power struggle ended about one year later with Umarov on the winning side the split was explained as the result of personal mistakes of Umarov regarding the allocation of funds and similar things.

My hypothesis is that the dispatch of CE fighters to Afghânistân is in one way or the other linked to this power struggle. Either the dispatch and the subsequent alignment to the global jihadist cause was one of the problems the dissident field commanders had with Umarovs leadership or it was Umarovs urgent response to the walk-out of most of his Chechen subordinates.

If the former is the case the point of dissidents is obvious: Why would Umarov send of fighters to faraway Afghânistân while not even having enough back home? On top of that the financial resources needed for the trip to Afghânistân would have been felt in their budgets, too.

If the latter is the case it is likely that Umarov hoped to acquire new lines of funding after a potential loss of funding by the Chechen diaspora who would rather support the dissident faction. Another motivation could have been the polishing of his image as an internationally active, respected commander in order to strengthen his position vis-à-vis the more popular younger dissident field commanders.

Apart from this, the fact that CE fighters have been in Afghânistân since 2010 without generating visible positive outcomes for the CE could mean that there won't be any in the future. Maybe there is only a way out for CE fighters and no way back in. If so Russia has not much to worry about the Chechens in Syria.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What’s in the names of terrorist groups (1): Jabhah al-Nusrah li-Ahl al-Shâm min Mujâhidî al-Shâm fi Sahât al Jihâd

For ages I have intended to write a series about the names of terrorist groups and how mainstream media and sometimes even experts tend to misname groups by mistranslating, shortening or even using a foreign appellation as the group’s name. I believe this to be an issue as the name a group uses tells us much about the group’s identity and core beliefs as well as how the group wants to be perceived by its environment. Additionally, using wrong names is just unscientific.

A good example for a group known by a name that is not its official one is “Boko Harâm”. The group calls itself “Jamâah Ahl al-Sunnah li-l-Dawah wa-l Jihâd” and has rejected the name “Boko Harâm”. Still the group is usually referred to as “Boko Harâm” by the media. Alex Thurston has dealt with this group’s name in detail and I’d recommend you to read it.

As already mentioned I planned to write a series and I wanted to start with “Jabhah al-Nusrah li-Ahl al-Shâm min Mujâhidî al-Shâm fi Sahât al Jihâd” (from now on Jabhah al-Nusrah) as the conflict in Syria in which Jabhah al-Nusrah is participating may well be the most crucial conflict of our time.

Introducing Jabhah al-Nusrah

Jabhah al-Nusrah first made news in January 2012 when the group went public on the usual jihâdî internet forums. It had been active since summer 2011 and has since claimed numerous attacks on the Assad party of the Syrian conflict. The group cooperates with various other groups some of them being part of what is known as the Free Syrian Army (from now on FSA) while most of the groups partnering with Jabhah al-Nusrah in battles and operations are salafî or like Jabhah al-Nusrah itself salafî-jihâdî. For more on this see this fine report by Noman Benotman and Roisin Blake for the Quilliam foundation.

In the media Jabhah al-Nusrah is best known for its high profile suicide attacks in the large cities of Syria but the group has participated in most of the famous conventional battlefield successes of the Anti-Assad party of the Syrian Civil War. Furthermore the group is actively engaged in providing civil services to the population in the areas held by the Anti-Assad party.

In December 2012 Jabhah al-Nusrah was designated as a terrorist group by the United States. According to this Jabhah al-Nusrah is nothing but a subsidiary company to the “Islamic State of Irâq” (a shadow-state established by the “Mujâhidîn Shûrâ Council in Irâq” – a coalition of hardline Sunnî Irâqî groups and “Qâ’idah al Jihâd in the Land of the Two Rivers” (Irâq) – and some smaller Irâqî Sunnî groups and tribes) that already was on the US list of designated terrorist groups.

The US were right. In early April it got all the more interesting as the “Islamic State of Irâq” (from now on ISI) announced via its Amîr Abû Bakr al Baghdâdî that Jabhah al-Nusrah had in fact been the creation of the ISI and would now be part of the newly established “Islamic State in Irâq and al-Shâm”.

The release of the audio message of Abû Bakr al Baghdâdî announcing the Islamic State in Irâq and al-Shâm entitled "And give good tidings to the believers" on Ansâr al Mujâhidîn Arabic Forum

Jabhah al-Nusrah acknowledged via its leader (who is interestingly referred to as General Secretary instead of the usual title Amîr) Abû Muhammad al Jawlânî that it had in fact been funded by the Islamic State in Irâq and renewed its oath to the overall Amîr of Tandhîm Qâidah al Jihâd (from now on AQ) Dr. Ayman al-Dhawâhirî. But al Jawlânî was not okay with shedding the name Jabhah al-Nusrah and its flag or to come under the command of the new “Islamic State in Irâq and al-Shâm”.

Speculations are that he thereby wanted to ascertain the independence of Jabhah al-Nusrah from the ISI. His public oath to al-Dhawâhirî thereby would mean the opening of a new AQ group in Syria. It may well be that this was his only way to come clear of the ISI. Still his missing title (not Amîr) baffles me. Maybe the real Amîr had all along been Abû Bakr. But if so why the refusal? Is he a subordinate who wants to be more or a leader who wants to save his group from any ISI fallout (the group had become quite unpopular in Irâq)?

For more very interesting overviews and ideas on this recent development read the following articles and posts by Aaron Zelin, Brian Fishman, Charles Lister, Cole Bunzel and Yassin Musharbash. Be it as it may, this is not today's topic. 

What does their name mean?

People may say: “Fine, so these guys are AQ in Syria.” Organisationally they are just that (in some way which has yet to be determined) but they did not name themselves AQ in Syria but “Jabhah al-Nusrah li-Ahl al-Shâm min Mujâhidî al-Shâm fi Sahât al Jihâd”.

Yet that name is seldom used in its full length. Instead the phrase “Jabhat al Nusra also known as the Nusra Front” is quite common in the media. To be fair, the group does the same and often just uses "Jabhah al-Nusrah". Still the mentioned phrase leaves out most of the name and only translates 50 percent of the rest. So Jabhah or Jabhat does mean “front.” That is fine, but Nusrah is not some kind of a weird proper name. It has a meaning.

Some people got themselves their dictionaries and came up with “Support Front” or “Victory Front”. Let us ask old Hans Wehr who got it right:

Hans Wehr (4), p. 1138

So victory goes to the ones using “Support Front” – to the others: thanks for trying. I will come back to the meaning of “support” later on. So “Support Front” is the correct translation but what about the rest of the name?

The official name is جبهة النصرة لاهل الشام من مجاهدي الشام في ساحات الجهاد which means: The Support Front for the People of al-Shâm from the Mujâhidîn of al-Shâm in the fields of Jihâd.

First of all, what does al-Shâm mean? Al-Shâm is the historical name for a geographical region that may be roughly translated as “the Levant”. It encompasses modern day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel/Palestine and according to some even parts of Irâq, namely the Anbar province. It may also be used as an alternative name for Damascus as the city was the capital of the early Muslim province of al-Shâm (Encyclopedia of Islam IX, p. 289)

In recent times al-Shâm is sometimes used as a term for the envisioned entity of Lebanon joining Syria. The widely used translation for this is "Greater Syria". As this political understanding of al-Shâm belongs to the secular pro-Assad Syrian Social Nationalists Party it is obvious that al-Shâm in the context of Jabhah al-Nusrah means "the Levant". The group hereby shows that it is not willing to be bound by modern day national borders but will try and support for example Palestinians in the future.

So the “People of the Levant” shall be supported by the “Mujâhidîn of the Levant”. The term “Mujâhid” is to be understood broadly as a Muslim fighting in a religiously acceptable war (See Encyclopedia of Islam II, p. 538-540, E. Tyan). So the bulk of the members of Jabhah al-Nusrah are indentified as being local Levantines. Not necessarily Syrian but as Syria has by far the greatest population of Sunnîs in the Levant it would make sense for Syrians to form a majority in Jabhah al-Nusrah. The self identification as Levantine contrasts articles that stress the participation of foreign fighters with Jabhah al-Nusrah to the point of claiming that the group is mainly foreign.  

The members of Jabhah al-Nusrah are identified further. They are not only Levantine Mujâhidîn, they are Levantine Mujâhidîn in the fields of Jihâd. Fields of Jihâd is a term used by jihâdîs to describe regions where they are in battlefield confrontations fighting against non-Muslims or people that they consider non-Muslims. The most prominent fields of Jihâd for contemporary jihâdists would be Afghânistân, Irâq and Somalia.

In most of these places Syrians and other Levantine Arabs that want to fight there have no option but to join AQ or one of its daughters (Harakah Shabâb al Mujâhidîn in Somalia e.g.), so the name of the group basically told us from the beginning that the founding fathers of Jabhah al-Nusrah had been fighting with AQ before rushing to Syria to “support” the uprising against Assad. 

What do they mean by their name?

Let us look at this on a deeper layer – what is the intended meaning of the name: Jabhah al-Nusrah is there to “support” the uprising. They don’t want to “lead” it – or at least that is what the name says. They show themselves via their name as a group that is not excluding nor imposing. They are not named Ansâr al-Sharî’ah (Supporters of Islamic Law – another interesting name) – a name that would exclude those who do not support Islamic Law. No, they are the supporters of the people obviously they still want sharî’ah but they don’t rub it in with their name.

The flag of Jabhah al-Nusrah appears in demonstrations throughout Syria. Those who carry it are quite often civilian sympathizers. The flag encompasses the Muslim testament of faith: "There is no God but Allah - Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah" in calligraphic style and the group's shortened name "Jabhah al-Nusrah" written below. 

While leaving the maybe somewhat controversial religious or partisan names like al Qâ’idah (tarnished by terrorism), Islamic State (tarnished by the doings of the ISI and quite imposing), Ansâr al-Sharî’ah (a name that jihâdîs deem a good idea in societies that are more conservative compared to Syria) or sth. like that they still use a religious term in their name: One that is quite negatively understood in the West but not so in the Arab and Muslim world namely Jihâd.

They are Mujâhidîn – those who do Jihâd (religious struggle – in this case fighting) – on the fields of Jihâd. Mujâhidîn has a positive, religiously legitimizing ring to it – see here is someone who struggles for the religion – and is furthermore including. Whether you are with the FSA (even one of the rather secular parts of that group mind you) or with an independent Islamist group or with Jabhah al-Nusrah all do use the term Mujâhîd and all may be identified by that term (Granted there was a time when Thuwâr (revolutionaries) was en vogue but no longer so).

All these including, positive and religiously wide terms are quite likely linked to the image problem that AQ suffers from and that even their late Amîr Usâmah bin Lâden mentioned in internal documents that were released by the US after the Abbotabâd Raid. He took special interest in the term Jihâd and Mujâhidîn and was not happy about the media dropping that part of the name of AQ or its daughters (example Harakah Shabâb al Mujâhidin – Movement of the Mujâhidîn Youth but al-Shabâb – The Youth). Well, it happened again with Jabhah al-Nusrah but this time they were clever enough to have the first part of the name to be positive too.

Is there a deeper meaning to their name?

After looking at what the name tells us and what Jabhah al-Nusrah wants to tell their Syrian and wider Arab/Muslim audience with their name let us go to a third layer: What does the name mean for jihâdîs themselves? The last paragraph dealt with the propaganda intent that they most likely had when choosing their name but the people we deal with aren’t mercenaries (unlike Assad's propaganda tries to convey). They fight for a cause that they believe in and that is their religion.

But what are the religious implications of their name? Jihâd and Mujâhidîn are quite obvious. They believe that they are fighting a just Islamic war against non-Muslims. There are books about the meanings of Jihâd and there are certainly different understandings but the one above is theirs and I suppose not that many Sunnî Muslims would disagree with the statement that there is a jihâd going on in Syria.

The first term that I want to look at is Nusrah – support. Obviously the word nusrah and its relative nasr appear often in Islamic literature but one Qur’ânic expression comes to mind when speaking about salafî-jihâdî reasoning for jihad:

وَإِنِ اسْتَنْصَرُوكُمْ فِي الدِّينِ فَعَلَيْكُمُ النَّصْرُ 
 “but if they seek your aid in religion, it is your duty to help them” (Translation: Yûsuf ‘Alî)

This is part of Al Anfâl (8): 72. The sentence is widely used in jihâdî circles to justify defensive jihad. In fact so widely, that when googling it my first page of results included a speech by a Harakah al-Shabâb al Mujâhidîn member using it as the title. As you may know the islamophobic babble about the sword verses in the Qur’ân that talk about offensive jihâd is wrong, those verses are rarely used in jihâdî literature.

Jabhah al-Nusrah believes that helping the Syrian people who asked for their help (nasr or nusrah) is their religious duty. It is not only that they can open a new AQ shop in Syria they feel religiously compelled and honour-bound to help.

But let us look on the complete verse:

 الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَهَاجَرُوا وَجَاهَدُوا بِأَمْوَالِهِمْ وَأَنْفُسِهِمْ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ وَالَّذِينَ آوَوْا وَنَصَرُوا أُولَئِكَ بَعْضُهُمْ أَوْلِيَاءُ بَعْضٍ وَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَلَمْ يُهَاجِرُوا مَا لَكُمْ مِنْ وَلايَتِهِمْ مِنْ شَيْءٍ حَتَّى يُهَاجِرُوا وَإِنِ اسْتَنْصَرُوكُمْ فِي الدِّينِ فَعَلَيْكُمُ النَّصْرُ إِلا عَلَى قَوْمٍ بَيْنَكُمْ وَبَيْنَهُمْ مِيثَاقٌ وَاللَّهُ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ بَصِيرٌ
Those who believed, and adopted exile, and fought for the Faith, with their property and their persons, in the cause of God, as well as those who gave (them) asylum and aid,- these are (all) friends and protectors, one of another. As to those who believed but came not into exile, ye owe no duty of protection to them until they come into exile; but if they seek your aid in religion, it is your duty to help them, except against a people with whom ye have a treaty of mutual alliance. And (remember) God seeth all that ye do.
(8:72; Yûsuf ‘Alî's translation)

Obviously this deals with the situation of the early Muslims who had to leave Makkah for Madînah but maybe Jabhah al-Nusrah members consider themselves to be in the same position. They emigrated from Syria (and the rest of the Levant) to the fields of Jihâd. They fought with their property and their persons but now those who did not leave with them call them for help in religion. That would be quite a powerful allegory.

The other term is al-Shâm. Above the geographical question what is al-Shâm was already dealt with. But al-Shâm has another meaning to jihâdîs. Al-Shâm is according to Muslim beliefs the place where great battles will take place at the end of the world. If you want to read up on the importance of eschatoligical al-Shâm to temporary jihâdîs in English I'd point you to a book by the notorious Shaykh Abû Qatâdah al Filastînî that is entitled: Characteristics of the Victorious Party in the Foundation of the State of the Believers (the Land of Ash-Shām) and available online in an english translation. Abû Qatâdah is by the way considered one of the most influential jihâdî scholars alive. You may have heard about Britain's trouble to change his residence from Belmarsh to Jordan.

Anyways, just to give you an idea about al-Shâm in Islamic eschatology I'll quote one of the most important texts which is the following Hadîth (saying of the Prophet Muhammad) that is already widely used by jihâdîs:

‘Abdullah ibn Hawâlah [Allah's blessings be on him] narrated from the Messenger of Allah [peace be upon him] that he said:

"Matters will run their course until you become three armies: an army in al-Shâm, an army in Yemen, and an army in ‘Irâq". 

Ibn Hawâlah said: "Choose for me, oh Messenger of Allah, in case I live to see that day." 

The Messenger of Allah [peace be upon him] said: "You should go to al-Shâm, for it is the best of Allah's lands, and the best of His slaves will be drawn there! And if you refuse, then you should go to the Yemen and drink from its wells, for Allah has guaranteed me that He will look after al-Shâm and its people!"
 (Imâm Ahmad 4/110, Abû Dawûd 2483)

Here we have a direct order from the Prophet Muhammad to his followers to gather in al-Shâm. The very Hadîth has ironically been used by Abû Basîr Nâsir al Wuhayshî who is the Amîr of Tandhîm Qâidah al Jihâd fî Jazîrah al ‘Arab (idah al Jihâd Organisation on the Arabian Peninsula - AQAP) to get people going to Yemen. Now it is Syria’s time to get their share of eschatologist jihâdîs who believe in the nearing of the world’s end and want to be with the “guaranteed” people of al-Shâm.

Jabhah al-Nusrah alluded to this eschatological thinking right from the beginning by naming its media arm al Manârah al Baydâ´ - the White Minaret. The White Minaret is the place where according to Muslim beliefs Jesus will descend from Heaven to fight the Dajjâl (the anti-Christ) in a great end time battle. Aaron Zelin dealt with this right after Jabhah al-Nusrah announced themselves.

The logo of Jabhah al-Nusrah's media chapter. The screen reads: With greetings from your brothers in - al Manârah al Baydâ´- Do not forget us in your sincere supplications

Again, this is a topic of great benefit for propaganda efforts and it is already used for recruiting purposes but I am convinced that the founders of Jabhah al-Nusrah themselves believe in this prophecy and may have come to Syria at least in part exactly because of these end time related characteristics of Syria.


Concluding: Besides the obvious political manoeuvring concerning the role of Jabhah al-Nusrah in the wider AQ context I can totally understand Abû Muhammad al Jawlânî in so far as he does not want to let go of the carefully crafted, deeply symbolic, positive and including name that their PR bureau has worked out. Time will tell whether he prevails and Jabhah al-Nusrah keeps its name or has to fold into the Islamic State of Irâq and al-Shâm. At the moment all signs point to the latter.

The flag used by the Islamic State of ‘Irâq as seen in the release information accompanying the announcement of the Islamic State in ‘Irâq and al-Shâm and most likely the one to be used by this new group.

Update: For further interesting reading on Jabhah al-Nusrah in the wider Syrian Islamist context I recommend the pieces by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, Eliot Higgins, Hassan Hassan and Pieter van Ostaeyen. Besides, you should follow all those quoted in this post on Twitter.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Al Qâ’idah casually mentions the death of its commander in Pâkistân

… and nobody cares. About two weeks ago al-Qâ’idah’s media arm al-Sahâb released a new video message – the fourth part of the Urdû language series Sharî’ah or Democracy. The intended audience of the series are the Pâkistânî people whom AQ wants to convince that democracy is bad. The latest instalment has quite some things to say about corruption and rising poverty in Pâkistân.

The interesting thing is the speakers. As most times with AQC releases these days the official AQ spokesman in Pâkistân (Head of the Propagation and Media Department in Pâkistân) Ustâdh Ahmad Fârûq makes an audio appearance on a still image with his face blurred, nothing new here.

1. Fârûq: The caption in the upper left corner reads Ustad (Prof.) Ahmad Fârûq may Allah protect him

The second speaker though is somewhat a surprise. It is Farmân Shinwârî – a Kashmîr veteran who belonged to Harakah al Mujâhidîn and most likely joined AQC alongside the eminent field commander Muhammad Ilyâs Kashmîrî who became AQ’s head in Pâkistân. Shinwârî is reported to have taken that job after both Kashmîrî and his successor Badr Mansûr had been killed in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

And now he is dead, or so al-Sahâb casually informs us by adding the religious phrase “May Allah have mercy on him” to his name – a phrase that is usually used for the deceased (the only exception would be using it on oneself such as the author of a letter adding the phrase to his own name). The still image of Shinwârî is furthermore not blurred. Chatter in Pâkistânî forums says that he has been killed in a drone strike.

2. Shinwârî: The caption in the upper left corner reads Kamândân (Cmdr.) Farmân Shinwârî may Allah have mercy on him

Now, two weeks after the release of the video I have not seen a single report on this quite huge development. While we usually hear about dead AQ big shots just hours after their demise, the by-the-way-announcement that AQ’s commander in Pâkistân has been killed seems to have gone unnoticed.

Is it media incompetence? Is nobody interested in AQC any longer? Does no one bother to watch AQ’s Urdû videos? Or is it that Shinwârî was basically unknown as he never went through a media hyping like Ilyâs Kashmîrî? Finally, was he in fact AQ’s head in Pâkistân? I’m interested in your take on this!

Update: A follow-up discussion with @DonRassler 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The alleged arrest of a maimed terrorist

According to a number of tweets that are now making the rounds on the forums the military commander of Katâ'ib 'Abdullah 'Azzâm - Sâlih al Qar'âwî - has been arrested by the Kingdom of Sâ’udî Arabia (KSA) yesterday morning.

A post on the Ansâr al Mujâhidîn Arabic Forum about the alleged arrest of Sâlih al Qar'âwî

Sâlih al Qar'âwî is the son in law of deceased Egyptian Islamic Group (EIG) big shot Khalîl al Hukâ'imah and was a close companion of Abû Mus'ab al-Zarqâwî. The latter ordered al Qar’âwî to form the ‘Abdullah ‘Azzâm Brigades as an al Qâ’idah (AQ) project for the Levant (Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine/Israel, Syria) after his participation in the Battle of Fallûjah.

A photo showing Sâlih al Qar'âwî as seen in the KSA newspaper al-Sharq al Awsat

The ‘Abdullah ‘Azzâm Brigades are considered a terrorist organisation by the US. The group has claimed rockets strikes on Israel in 2009 as well as a failed suicide attack on a Japanese oil tanker in 2010. Their Amîr is not as sometimes wrongly stated al Qar’âwî but Mâjid bin Muhammad al Mâjid. Sâlih al Qar'âwî himself has been designated as a terrorist by the US and features on the KSA Most Wanted List of the 85.

The first visual-audio release by the 'Abdullah 'Azzâm Brigades Amîr Mâjid bin Muhammad al Mâjid in 2012

His arrest is allegedly a breach of covenant by the KSA. Sâlih al Qar'âwî is said to have suffered multiple amputations and lost an eye following an airstrike on his house in the AfPâk region and was brought back to the KSA after an agreement with the Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nâyif. As commonly known the Ministry of Interior tries to encourage their most wanted ones to turn themselves in. A feat, that nearly got Muhammad bin Nâyif killed.

The suicide bomber 'Abdullah al Asîrî who tried to kill Muhammad bin Nâyif in 2009 hugging his famous brother Ibrâhîm

In this case the deal between AQ and the KSA is said to have been: Al Qar'âwî returns home, he and his family are taken care of; he is neither imprisoned nor questioned. The last point is especially important because Sâlih al Qar'âwî as field commander of the 'Abdullah 'Azzâm Brigades has a lot of important information regarding AQ's plans for the Levant, especially Lebanon.

A video released by the 'Abdullah 'Azzâm Brigades showing a rocket attack on Israel by its Lebanon based Ziyâd Jarrâh Battailon in 2009

The history of al Qar'âwî as an ‘Irâq veteran belonging to the inner circle of al-Zarqâwî who is furthermore linked by marriage to the EIG guy who officially announced the group's merger with AQ and who has a history of imprisonment in Syria and the KSA is evidence for the importance of this arrest. His knowledge about AQ in the Levant is of great importance in the context of the current crisis in Syria.

Muhammad Khalîl al Hukaymah - al Qar'âwî's father-in-law announcing the joining of the Egyptian Islamic Group to al Qâ'idah in a video released by al Qâ'idah's al-Sahâb Media in 2006

The alleged breach of covenant by the KSA may be linked to the recent release of an interview with the Deputy Consul of the KSA in Yemen who is held hostage by al Qâ’idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) since 2012. Unlike earlier messages the latest one included harsh attacks on the KSA and especially the royal family. The arrest of al Qar’âwî could be pure revenge.

The KSA deputy consul in Yemen 'Abdullah al Khâlidî in the latest video release by al Qâ'idah in the Arabian Peninsula's al Malâhim Media

The tweets announcing the arrest do not mention this connection but the same account features the video in question. Be it as it may, the tweets include a dire warning to the KSA to release al Qar’âwî or to face the consequences.   

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Another day, another dead al Qâ'idah leader

Today, April 22nd 2012, al Qâ'idah's publishing house - al Fajr Media Center - announced the death of Shaykh 'Abd al Majîd 'Abd al Mâjid. 

The cover of today's "Statement on the martyrdom of Shaykh 'Abd al Majîd 'Abd al Mâjid"

In a world where the media only speaks about Ayman al-Dhawâhirî, Abû Yaha al-Lîbî and sometimes Khâlid al Hussaynân if it comes to al Qâ'idah Central's (in the following AQC) leadership figures in the Afghânistân/Pâkistân (AfPak) border region, the esteemed reader may not have heard from this particular guy.

This points to the mistake the media does. Appearing on video does not necessarily equal high rank in AQC. 'Abd al Majîd was identified by al Qâ'idah as a member of their majlis al-shûrâ, so he basically belonged to the top ten or twenty decision makers of AQC. While Abû Yahya and Hussaynân are important for AQC's public relations efforts there is no evidence of them being involved in the top echelon of the group that I know of.

'Abd al Majîd was known in e-jihâdî circles as a prolific writer with some credentials as a religious scholar (he apparently had an M.A. in Islamic Studies). He published a number of books through various e-jihâdî groups since 2007/2008. It is worth mentioning that he has his own page with some of his works at the most important salafî-jihâdî website Minbar al-Tawhîd wal Jihâd. Additionally to his books he also wrote articles for the official magazine of Al Qâ'idah in Khurâsân (AfPak) "Talâ`i' Khurâsân" (Vanguard of Khurâsân).

In 2010 he participated in one of the open meetings organized by the jihâdî internet forums that give jihâdîs the possibility to "speak" to their ideological leaders. Also in 2010 he was featured in the third episode of an unofficial AQC (?) audio series entitled "Hidâ` al âhibbah fî Waziristân al âbiyyah" (Chantings of the loved ones in proud Wazîristân). [Hat tip to Kévin Jackson who brought my attention to this audio series and helped out in cases of dead links!]

The release information says he appears at 1:52. His voice is audible at various points in the nearly three-hour audio.

 عنوان الشريط : جلسـة ســمر في وزيرستان ملاحظة : مدة الشريط (ثلاث ساعات إلا 8 دقائق تقريبا) يوجد في أواخر الشريط كلمة للشيخ عبد المجيد عبد الماجد في الدقيقة 1:52

AQC may have been interested in making 'Abd al Majîd a new public face as they urgently needed one and his name and voice was already used in their propaganda. Well, it's not going to happen as he is dead.

Today's statement written by his widow is unfortunately rather scarce on information on his life and death. Let's see the interesting parts:

أتقدم أنا زوجة الشيخ / رافع مصطفى سيد أحمد سليمان (المعروف بالشيخ عبدالمجيد عبدالماجد)(المكنى بأبي المقداد المصري )  رحمه الله  عضو مجلس شورى تنظيم قاعدة الجهاد بتقديم العزاء الخالص للمجاهدين في ساحات النزال وللأمة الإسلامية في استشهاده.
فنعزي أمة الإسلام في شيخنا الجليل: أبو المقداد, ونجليه:
1) المقداد رافع مصطفى ( المكنى بـ أسد الله ) رحمه الله
2) خالد رافع مصطفى ( المكنى بـ سيف الله ) رحمه الله
وذلك يوم الجمعة السادس عشر من ذي القعدة 1432هـــ  الموافق 14 اكتوبر 2011 مـــ

We get to know that 'Abd al Majîd 'Abd al Mâjid - member of the shûrâ council of Qâ'idah al Jihâd - was also known as Abû al Miqdâd al Misrî (the Egyptian, so now we are sure where he came from) while his real name was Râfi' Mustafâ Sayyid Ahmad Sulaymân. He was killed alongside his two sons al Miqdâd (known as Assad Allah) and Khâlid (known as Sayf Allah) on Friday, October 14th 2011.

أخيراً إليكم قصيده كتبها أحد طلابه المحبين له ( زوج ابنته ) منذ ثلاث سنوات ونصف تقريباً , ثم قتل بعد الزواج بسنة ونصف تقريباً, وهو / أكرم محمد أحمد رجاء ( عزام المهاجر اليمني ) رحمه الله  

The six pages statement includes a poem in honour of 'Abd al Majîd written by one of his students known as 'Azzâm al Muhâjir al Yemenî whose real name was Akram Muhammad Ahmad Rajâ`. This guy married one of 'Abd al Majîd's daughters about three and a half years ago only to be killed about one and a half year after his marriage (meaning he died about two years ago).

While the statement does not mention the cause of death there are reports about drone strikes on October 14th, for example this one by Joby Warrick and Haq Nawaz Khan for The Washington Post (October 27th).

Separate strikes Oct. 14 killed Abu Miqdad al-Masri and Abd al-Rahman al-Yemeni, two al-Qaeda veterans tied to the group’s senior leadership and actively involved in planning operations overseas, said two senior U.S. officials familiar with details of CIA operations. The officials said Masri was a former associate of Osama bin Laden.

'Abd al Majîd is actually mentioned. Unfortunately the media does not point out the importance of Abû al Miqdâd. Possibly they - like me - did not have the information that Abû al Miqdâd is in fact no other than 'Abd al Majîd. So "tied to the group's senior leadership" is not entirely correct. Part of the senior leadership is right. Or rather say most senior.

It seems that October 14th was no good day for AQC. They lost not one "Sword of God" (Sayf Allah) but two, the other one being Ahmad, the son of the notorious Blind Shaykh ('Umar 'Abd al-Rahmân).

Other alleged senior militant operatives killed during a flurry of missile strikes Oct.13-14 were previously identified as Ahmed Omar Abdul Rahman, also known as Saifullah, the son of the blind Egyptian cleric tied to the 1993 bombing of New York’s World Trace Center [....]

While I could find no additional information on 'Abd al-Rahmân al Yemenî who was killed with 'Abd al Majîd I believe I found something on his son-in-law 'Azzâm al Muhâjir al Yemenî. Evan Kohlmann may have mentioned him in conjunction with the Yemenî AQ faction in Pâkistân.

Fellow mujahidin comrades of Ghazwan al-Yemeni from the frontline on the Afghan-Pakistani border added their own voices to the chorus of discussion. On March 12, 2010, a registered user on the Falluja Islamic Network calling himself “Abu Abdelrahman al-Qahtani in Waziristan” offered a first-person biography of the late Yemeni al-Qa`ida commander:
“We were not able to recover the first body until midnight, and our mujahid brother Ghazwan al-Yemeni [was one of the dead]. He had not even completed his third year [in jihad]. His journey with jihad and martyrdom began when he was captured in al-Haramain along with his traveling companion Azzam al-Yemeni, due to their activities and communications with their mujahidin brothers. He was in prison in Sana`a for a long period of time and then he was released… 
He turned his gaze towards the precious land of…Afghanistan, passing through a third country where they stayed for a lengthy period awaiting entrance visas to Iran. Eventually, Allah permitted for them to enter, and from the first day here, they enrolled in the training camps… 
I remember the first time I saw him in Wana and he came to learn about explosives from an expert in the Afghani field—in fact, the expert of all aspects of jihad, as they were all the students of Abu Khabab al-Masri… 
eventually, he went back to North [Waziristan] and…settled in Miran Shah, where he organized and trained the Taliban and assisted in making preparations for many of their military needs.“

If this is in fact the same 'Azzâm al Yemenî he would have entered the AfPak region in 2007 after years of trying to go there. He may have gained the trust of AQC's commanders and was married to the daughter of one of them - 'Abd al Majîd - in 2008 or 2009. Then he was killed in 2010, the same year that his travelling companion was killed in.

Concerning 'Abd al Majîd himself Murad Batal al-Shishani pointed out that his name (or most likely his name, Râfi' Mustafâ Sayyid Ahmad instead of Râfi' Mustafâ Sayyid Ahmad Sulaymân) appears on a list of those 1536 Egyptians (mostly Islamists) arrested in September 1981 (one may say the act directly led to the Sâdât assassination and the following civil war like situation in Egypt).

'Abd al Majîd 'Abd al Mâjid a.k.a. Râfi' Mustafâ Sayyid Ahmad, no. 15 on the list of the 1536 arrested in September 1981

We once again see how strong the connections between AQC and the 1980's Islamist movement in Egypt are. For this reason the current political developments in Egypt are so important for the future of AQC.

The obvious news is that AQC took a beating in 2011. From the top of my head there is Usâmah bin Lâden, 'Atiyyah Allah al-Lîbî, Ilyâs Kashmîrî and now 'Abd al-Majîd who were killed in 2011. This may be more than AQC can take. It is quite possible that they are no longer able to replace the losses.

A sign of this may be that today's statement was written by the widow of 'Abd al Majîd instead of a son or another male relative. Two of his sons (how many has he?) were killed with him. The poem in his honour is written by his son-in-law who is also dead. Does this particular jihâdî family have any men left? And if not how representative is this family for AQC in general?

Another important point is the connections jihâdîs build. 'Azzam al Yemenî is not the only jihâdî who became the son-in-law of an AQC big shot. These social and familial links between jihâdîs are important and the media should have a closer look at this topic. Think about it, of those five AQC guys known to have been killed on October 14th 2011 three were the sons of influential jihâdî scholars.