Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz: A Caucasus Emirate Group in Latakia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Relatively little news comes out these days from northeast Latakia province, which remains outside of regime control despite the recapture of the Armenian town of Kassab in June. However, it is important to observers of jihadi groups as what I would call ‘the muhajireen’s hangout’. For example, the Moroccan group Harakat Sham al-Islam- now a part of the independent jihadi coalition Jabhat Ansar al-Din- engages in da’wah outreach to locals in the area. It is also where the group Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham (led by Abu Obeida al-Masri) headed after being forced to leave the locality of Azaz in northern Aleppo province by the Islamic Front. The continuing importance of northeast Latakia as a place for muhajireen groups to congregate is illustrated by the emergence of Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz (‘The Caucasus Soldiers’ Group’).

Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz, as confirmed to me in an interview, is affiliated with the Caucasus Emirate, which also counts Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar of the Jabhat Ansar al-Din coalition as among its affiliates. However, Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz also claims to operate independently and not to be part of Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar and Jabhat Ansar al-Din. It is an interesting question to ponder why that is so. As my colleague Caleb Weiss of The Long War Journal suggests to me, Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz’s operating status may have to do with the Caucasus Emirate’s encouragement of group independence. In keeping with the general trend of an anti-fitna (i.e. anti jihadi infighting) stance on the part of non-Islamic State [IS] and non-Jabhat al-Nusra [JN] muhajireen groups, Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz officially claims to have no problems with other jihadi groups.

Thus, to quote from my interview with a media representative: “We not have a [formal] link with anyone [in Syria] but we work with all- thanks to God- and we have no problems with any of the other jihadi groups like [Jabhat] Ansar al-Din, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State.” Note the reflection of the anti-fitna stance in referring to IS as simply ad-dawla al-islamiya [‘The Islamic State’] rather than JN’s disparaging ‘jamaat ad-dawla‘ [‘group of the state’]. Concomitant with such official anti-fitna posturing is the group’s stated aim on its Facebook page:

“Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz is a Caucasus mujahid group aiming to gather the Caucasians in the totality under the banner of jihad against the enemies of Islam in the totality. It operates in Latakia.”

I suspect though that were my interviewee to leave Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz and become completely independent, he might express a much more negative view of IS, which had rejected outreach attempts by Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar’s Salah ad-Din ash-Shishani. Indeed, my interviewee for Jabhat Ansar al-Din, Abu Mo’atasem al-Shami- once affiliated with Jabhat Ansar al-Din sub-component Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiya- has since resigned from Jabhat Ansar al-Din’s media office, and has conveyed to me his desire to set up an outlet to document and expose the crimes of the regime and IS (now referred to by the derogatory Arabic acronym Da3esh).

In the context of Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz, it is also notable that the group’s Facebook page has advertised JN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani’s recent interview (see below), but does not similarly advertise media content from IS, hinting that in practice, relations are closer with JN than they are or ever can be with IS.

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Below are some photos put out by Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz of its presence in Latakia province.

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Two Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz fighters in Latakia: on left, Abu Obeida al-Sharkasy [the Circassian]; on right, Abu Sewar al-Abkhazi [the Abkhazian].

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Training for Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz fighters, purportedly Circassians.

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Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz fighters in the Latakia forest. 

The Factions of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab)

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Media attention has somewhat focused away from the city of Kobani as the intense wave of coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS) first helped to slow down the group’s advance into Kobani. That said, the Democratic Union Party (PYD)’s project of an autonomous canton centred Kobani has been destroyed, and IS, in spite of the setbacks, still remains within the southern and eastern parts of the city (specifically in the latter, the industrial quarter), which IS has renamed Ayn al-Islam. At this point, for IS to capture the actual city would be little more than a symbolic victory to bolster the reputation of ‘baqiya wa tatamaddad’ (‘remaining and expanding’). Ideological belief in the ‘final victory’, so to speak, among IS members is best reflected in the comments of IS member Abu al-Yaman al-Shami, who tweeted on 18 November: “[We will be] victorious in Ayn al-Islam. We expect victory more than any time. For we have perceived their weakness and seen their propensity to defeat. So nothing has remained except victory. Indeed the victory of God is near.”

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IS graphic from media wing al-Itisam Media: “Inside Ayn al-Islam [Kobani].”

At this stage, it becomes pertinent to ask which factions are present and active in Kobani to push back against IS, besides the PYD’s “People’s Protection Units” (YPG) and Peshmerga fighters brought in from Iraq: that is, the interest here is in which ‘rebel’ factions, if any, are still operating in Kobani. Most broadly, the rebel groups in question fall under the ‘Euphrates Volcano’ umbrella that was announced on 10 September (prior to the major IS assault on Kobani later that month) between the YPG (together with its female wing the YPJ/’Woman’s Protection Units’) and the following claimed select rebel groups to push back against IS in northeast Aleppo province: those groups were named as Liwa al-Tawhid (eastern section), Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa, Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal of the Dawn of Freedom Brigades coalition, Saraya Jarabulus, Jabhat al-Akrad, Liwa ‘Umana al-Raqqa, Liwa al-Jihad fi Sabeel Allah and Jaysh al-Qasas.

However, at least two of these groups denied being part of the ‘Euphrates Volcano’ initiative. Thus Liwa al-Jihad fi Sabeel Allah (aligned with the opposition-in-exile):

“Statement from Liwa al-Jihad fi Sabeel Allah on the subject of the formation of a joint operations room recently in the eastern region of the Aleppo countryside as well as Raqqa and its countryside under the name of ‘Euphrates Volcano’ on 10 September 2014. The brigade’s leadership announces the following:

We reject joining the joint operations room for a number of reasons, the most important of them being:

1. We were not consulted about the joint room and for reasons of being alone in the opinion of the region’s leadership.

2. There was no preceding coordination with us and we were not informed of all the details.

3. The lack of existence of an honorary charter detailing all the rights in the area between the commanders.

For the record, Liwa al-Jihad fi Sabeel Allah has had and continues to have as a fundamental aim fighting the criminal regime and Baghdadi’s mercenary gang [Da3esh] on all the territories of the region until the realization of victory.

We wish the joint operations room all the best.”

Similarly Liwa ‘Umana al-Raqqa denied participation in ‘Euphrates Volcano':

“Statement from Liwa ‘Umana al-Raqqa on the subject of the formation of a joint operations room recently in the eastern region of the Aleppo countryside as well as Raqqa and its countryside under the name of ‘Euphrates Volcano’ on 10 September 2014. The brigade’s leadership announces the following:

We reject joining the joint operations room for a number of reasons, the most important of them being:

1. We weren’t informed about the issue of the joint operations room and not all the necessary conditions in the region have been fulfilled.

2. We were not made aware of all the details put forward at the joint leadership table in the region; and there was no coordination.

3. And most importantly, lack of existence of an honorary charter detailing all the rights in the area between all the present commanders.

Also we have not ceased to be loyal to the revolution and we will remain loyal by God’s permission in steadfast word and deed; and our arms will always be directed against the tyrant Bashar the criminal and his troops and mercenary hirelings from the gangs of Da3esh in every place in our precious land.

We entreat God to bless this operations room that was formed with what He loves and is pleased with: that is, what is best for the land and the servants [of God]. And God is the guarantor of success in every matter.”

We can therefore rule out Liwa ‘Umana al-Raqqa and Liwa al-Jihad fi Sabeel Allah as participants in the fight against IS in Kobani. Of the other groups of ‘Euphrates Volcano’, the ones consistently mentioned according to multiple sources as present in Kobani are Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa and Jabhat al-Akrad. The last of these three is merely a front group for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), from which the PYD derives, and the YPG to act as a liaison group with the rebels: were the tide of the civil war to turn decisively in the rebels’ favour, one would find that the Jabhat al-Akrad brand would become much more prominent.

Thus, the two most important rebel groups in Kobani are Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal- part of the Dawn of Freedom coalition that developed out of Liwa al-Tawheed and other local Islamic Front affiliates in north Aleppo province after localities such as Manbij were seized by what was then the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) at the start of this year- and Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa (led by one Abu Eisa), an ex-Jabhat al-Nusra affiliate that had sought out allegiance with Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate to protect itself from the encroachments of ISIS during the summer and fall of last year. Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa tried to move against ISIS in January but ended up being expelled from the city (and from Jabhat al-Nusra), being forced to seek refuge with the YPG to the west of Tel Abyad.

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Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal leader in Kobani- Abu Layla- with Peshmerga fighters. Photo from Abu Layla himself: 11 November.

Clearly having a close working relationship, the combined numbers of Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa and Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal can be put at 150-250 fighters at most. While one of Dawn of Freedom’s leaders (Abu al-Layth) had put the initial contingent of his own coalition that went to Kobani at 250 fighters, it was notable, as I have mentioned previously, that the numbers steadily went down over time, from 160 fighters in a subsequent conversation down to 70 in an interview with a local representative for Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal. In a later conversation (28 October) with the Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal representative in Kobani, manpower numbers were put at “approximately 180 fighters with all the crews” (“taqrīban 180 muqātilin ma kulli l-ṭawāqim”), likely in reference to the rebel groups working together.

Two more rebel factions can be identified as having operated or still operating in Kobani at this point, minor in significance even in comparison with Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa and Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal. The first of these is Saraya Jarabulus (‘Jarabulus Brigades’), formed out of rebel remnants from the town of Jarabulus which became an ISIS stronghold in June 2013 after being seized from the local rebel group “The Family of Jadir.” Rebels from a number of factions including the Islamic Front tried to take Jarabulus from ISIS in January this year but failed as ISIS regrouped and killed dozens of rebels in the own using a local suicide bomber named Shadi Jassim on 15 January.

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Shadi Jassim prior to his life as an ISIS suicide bomber. Photo reportedly in Beirut.

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Emblem of Saraya Jarabulus

According to a media representative for Dawn of Freedom (not in Kobani), Saraya Jarabulus is a very small independent faction. The Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal representative in Kobani subsequently clarified to me that Saraya Jarabulus was initially operating in the city but now it has no presence.

Jaysh al-Qasas is in origin a rebel faction from Deir az-Zor city, some of whose members took refuge with the YPG as IS(IS) gradually took over Deir az-Zor province, having consolidated its control over all rebel-held territories in the province (including within the city) by July of this year. On 3 November, the group announced that three of its fighters had been killed in Kobani fighting IS.

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The three reported fallen fighters of Jaysh al-Qasas against IS in Kobani: Nader Rawayli, Uqba al-Manfi and Ammar al-Mustafa

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Emblem of Jaysh al-Qasas

On a final note, one should comment on the initiative announced by Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi [aka Abu Muhammad]- a one-time touted leader of the ‘FSA’ in Aleppo province- to send in 1300 ‘FSA’ fighters to Kobani to push back against IS. This gesture should be taken with a pinch of salt, partly rooted as it is in Oqaidi’s regret at having worked with and defended ISIS last year and partly in Oqaidi’s desire to make himself still look like a relevant rebel figure even as he spends the majority of his time in Turkey. There is indeed a contingent present in Kobani representing Oqaidi but its presence is symbolic. As a Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal representative put it to me, “Oqaidi’s group only eats and drinks.” As of now, Oqaidi’s small following remains the only external rebel contribution outside of Euphrates Volcano: claims that Islamic Front groups like Jaysh al-Islam were planning to send fighters to Kobani have proven unfounded.

In short, an overview of the rebel factions operating in Kobani at the present time shows that YPG-rebel cooperation is still local and exceptional in nature, and does not point to a fundamental shift in the dynamics of the conflict. More generally, ultimately conflicting goals, widespread rebel dislike of the “Kurdish parties”-with suspicion of cooperation with the regime* and a separatist agenda to divide Syria- and the practicalities of being able to send fighters to Kobani (it can only be done via Turkey) inhibit notions of a wider, more coordinated YPG-rebel alliance for the foreseeable future.


Note

*- The very first airstrikes that were reported in the Kobani area by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights were likely the work of the regime, whatever denials might come from PYD media. In light of the ineffectiveness of such airstrikes against IS, there was a turn to the international coalition for help. It would appear that the PYD had initially reached out to the regime via Muqawama Suriya leader Mihrac Ural (hat-tip: Ceng Sagnic)- an unsurprising intermediary choice (if we go with Ural’s testimony on 20 September), as Ural had facilitated contacts between Hafez al-Assad and the PKK. Despite Ural’s apparent negative feelings about the PYD’s autonomous administration project that has come at the expense of regime authority in areas like Qamishli city, he has been keen to portray himself as a figure standing in solidarity with Kurds against the IS threat.

“What Motivates European Youth to Join ISIS?” by Loretta Bass

What Motivates European Youth to Join ISIS?
By Loretta E. Bass, University of Oklahoma

“Push” Factors Helping ISIS Recruitment

Western governments are concerned about stemming the wave of foreign fighters flocking to join ISIS’s ranks. They worry that fighters, who hold Western passports, will return to their native or adoptive lands and commit acts of terror. Some 15,000 foreign fighters are estimated to have gone to Syria. Of these, some 5,000 are believed to be young people of immigrant descent from European Union countries2. Bernard Cazeneuve, Frances’s Interior Minister, estimates that 36 French citizens have died fighting for ISIS and another 930 are either currently a part of ISIS or trying to join the IS effort in Syria and Iraq3. The numbers from other Western countries are also worrying: 800 from the United Kingdom, 300 from Germany.

Aftermath of 2005 Riots in Suburbs of Paris

Although the media is slowly picking up on this threat, there has been little analysis or insight into the motivation of these recruits, aside from attributing some mystical marketing skills to ISIS. In fact, research suggests that there is a significant “push” factor providing a conducive context for ISIS recruitment in Europe. ISIS has been able to capitalize on the lack of social integration of young people of Muslim immigrant descent in Europe, who are often victims of discrimination and stymied from full participation in European labor markets and societies. The “elephant in the room” is in fact Europe’s inability to welcome fully and integrate its immigrant populations. The irony is that many recruits are Westernized second-generation immigrants, who grow up having a non-Western, “immigrant other” status thrust upon them. This may arise by virtue of physical characteristics such as skin color or ethnic background, or by having a name such as Mohammed or Abdoulaye, or because they practice Islam in public. The failure to integrate immigrants creates a translocal phenomenon by which individuals raised in a local context (say, a working class neighborhood in the suburbs of Paris or London) are pushed into adopting a transnational identity and association not truly their own. This explains why ISIS recruits are so varied in terms of background, culture, education, and even class.

The danger of ISIS fighters returning to Europe has already been felt in France, and a recent headline in France’s leading newspaper, Le Monde, even publicly asks what the Islamic State is capable of in Europe.4 A current example of this danger can be found in the case of Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old French citizen and second-generation immigrant, who was arrested for killing three people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May of this year. It is believed that he fought for ISIS in Syria in 2013. Nemmouche grew up in Roubaix, a city in northeastern France with a substantial immigrant population and limited economic opportunity.  His profile was by no means unusual. An immigrant mother reported that she and her family live in “another France” where they experience a lower economic level and an immigrant typecast due to their physical characteristics that mark them as outsiders.5 If one is perceived to be both Muslim and immigrant, there is a compound effect that carries a stigma resulting in an entire array of lower life chances.

France represents a bellwether in its effort to integrate non-Western immigrants compared to other European countries. In October 2005, three weeks of rioting erupted within the immigrant community in the Clichy-sous-Bois suburb of Paris to demonstrate against unequal treatment. The violence spread to 300 urban areas in France and, to a lesser extent, to immigrant communities all over Western Europe. France has the largest immigrant population and the largest Muslim population proportionally and in absolute numbers in Europe. Immigration accounts for 25 percent of the annual population growth rate, and immigrants and second-generation children represent 19 percent of the total French population, or about 11.8 million people.6 Among immigrants, 67 percent come from overwhelmingly Muslim countries in North Africa, the Maghreb and Turkey, and another 20 percent come from West African countries with substantial Muslim populations.7 Muslims are estimated to be 7.5 percent of the French population today and anticipated to reach 10.3 percent by 2030.8 Overall immigrant integration, and particularly the incorporation of Muslim immigrants, remains an important challenge for French society and other European countries. Not meeting this challenge has meant recurring protests in France’s immigrant suburbs in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2013.

Although France has seen the worst of such demonstrations, other European countries generally have developed rather rigid policies as a response to Muslim immigrants’ cultural differences. As notable examples, Switzerland and Austria put laws into place since 2009 that eliminate the construction of mosques with minarets9, both France and Belgium have passed laws banning the wearing of a full-face veil in public, and at the city and regional levels in Spain, Switzerland, and Italy, laws banning face veils have been adopted.

Policies such as these are both examples and symbols of hostility toward immigrants that inform a whole range of treatment and outcomes, from missed educational opportunities and joblessness to discrimination in housing. The result is that second-generation immigrants growing up culturally similar to their local French, British, or German neighbors come to inhabit a translocal space where their identities are defined not by their own assimilation or even varied immigrant roots but the expectations of the majority population treating them like a generic Muslim “other.” As an example, the Brighton, England 19-year-old black youth, Ibrahim Kamara, the son of an immigrant from Sierra Leone, joined ISIS in February 2014.10 His biography illustrates a path to recruitment that could have been diverted. He endured a childhood punctuated with racial abuse and name calling in the white-majority residential area where his mother rented their home. A product of public schools, Ibrahim struggled at school and failed from his computer engineering program in 2013. He then switched to an easier course of study that would lead to fewer career opportunities. It was in this context that he became radicalized in his local neighborhood and through ISIS internet recruitment materials. Ibrahim was killed in Syria in late September. His bewildered mother learned of his death on Facebook.

In France, young people of both North African and Sub-Saharan descent talk about being, “French on the inside, African on the out,” because even though they have taken on “French” values and ideals, they still are perceived and treated by the larger society as outsiders. Sayad10 describes this ambiguity:

I am Algerian despite my French papers; I am French despite my Algerian appearance…I was not born in Algeria, I was not brought up in Algeria, I’m not at home in Algeria (or I don’t have Algerian habits), I don’t think like an Algerian…but I feel Algerian all the same.

For young people who are citizens of immigrant descent, growing up as an “other” in society, especially when combined with insults, discrimination, and joblessness, can push them to seek a home where they belong and feel respected and valued. It is in this context that ISIS finds susceptible recruits.

The reasons for ISIS’s recruiting successes are likely as varied as the recruits themselves, including youth unemployment and globalization itself. But clearly many European recruits are pushed toward joining ISIS by their failure to be assimilated, accepted, and respected by their adoptive countries. The challenge for Europe going forward will be to change its treatment of immigrants even as it rightfully recognizes the danger some within those ranks pose.

* Loretta Bass’ most recent book is, African Immigrant Families in Another France (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014). Loretta can be contacted at: lbass@ou.edu and is presently on sabbatical in Frankfurt, Germany.

References:

  • CNN, 2014, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency data, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/11/world/meast/isis-syria-iraq/
  • IJR, 2014, International Journal Review, “Meet the Youngest Jihadists in ISIS: The Little Girls Being Recruited by Islamic State to Wage War,” by Kyle Becker (9/17/2014) http://www.ijreview.com/2014/09/176894-young-jihad/
  • The Economist. “French Jihadists Self-service,” Pp. 28-9. October 11, 2014.
  • “De quoi l’Etat islamique est-il capable en Occident?” Le Monde.fr 23.09.2014, http://www.lemonde.fr/proche-orient/article/2014/09/23/quelles-menaces-fait-peser-l-etat-islamique_4492250_3218.html?xtmc=l_etat_islamique_nemmouche&xtcr=8
  • Bass, Loretta E., African Immigrant Families in Another France. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.
  • Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques [INSEE] (2008) National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies [French census data], http://www.insee.fr
  • Gbadamassi, F. 2009, Solis Conseil, published in Afrik.com, “Les personnes originaires d’Afrique, des Dom-Tom et de la Turquie sont 5,5 millions dans l’Hexagone,” http://www.afrik.com/article16248.html
  • Pew Research Center, 2011, “The Future of the Global Muslim: Population,” Projections for 2010–2030, http://pewforum.org/The-Future-of-the-Global-Muslim-Population.aspx
  • A 2009 referendum passed by 57.5 percent of the Swiss population amended the constitution to eliminate the construction of mosques with minarets at a time when there were four minarets in the Switzerland. A similar law bans minarets in two Austrian provinces. Simcox, R. 2009, “The nativist response to the Swiss minaret ban – The Centre For Social Cohesion,” Socialcohesion.co.uk.com, 2014, 27 Sept., “Bewildered Fury of the Brighton Mum Whose Teenage Son Ran Off to become a Jihad,” http://www.abreakingnews.com/world/bewildered-fury-of-the-brighton-mum-whose-teenage-son-ran-off-to-become-a-jihadi-he-should-have-been-at-college-but-this-week-ibrahim-was-killed-by-a-us-bomb-in-syria-h234609.html
  • Sayad, Abdelmalek, 2004 [1999], The Suffering of the Immigrant, English translation of A. Sayad (1999) La double absence, Malden, MA: Polity Press.

The Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra: A Looming Grand Jihadi Alliance?

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

The international coalition- led by the U.S.- against the Islamic State [IS], with additional American airstrikes targeting the ‘Khorasan’ al-Qa’ida group in Syria (in reality just al-Qa’ida veterans from the Afghanistan-Pakistan embedded with Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra [JN])- has prompted media speculation of a wider truce, alliance or even merger between IS and JN. For example, on 28 September, Martin Chulov of The Guardian cited a “senior source” claiming “war planning meetings” held between JN and IS leaders.

More recently, a report in The Daily Beast cited “senior Syrian opposition sources” claiming merger talks between JN, IS and ‘Khorasan’, with further allegations, also claimed by the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights, that IS provided military assistance to JN in the recent JN moves against the Syrian Revolutionaries Front [SRF], Harakat Hazm and other perceived Western-backed rebel groups in Idlib province, noting that this development was supposedly the result of an agreement struck just west of Aleppo between IS and JN in a meeting overseen by ‘Khorasan’, attended also by the independent, anti-jihadi infighting group Jund al-Aqsa, and some members of Ahrar al-Sham. Finally, a report for the Associated Press has just come out, citing an ‘FSA’ commander in Aleppo province and an opposition official, claiming an agreement between IS and JN to end infighting and cooperate to destroy common enemies, including the Kurds and SRF. Present at the meeting, as in the Daily Beast report’s claims, were ‘Khorasan’, Jund al-Aqsa and some members of Ahrar al-Sham.

Are these reports credible? In a word: No. The following should be noted:

– The rift between JN and IS is too great to heal at this point beyond the highly localized alliance between IS and JN in Qalamoun that reflects an exceptional situation where neither group can hold territory alone and both contingents are geographically isolated from members of their groups elsewhere in Syria, in addition to being preoccupied with constant fighting with regime forces and Hezbollah. At the broader level, IS still believes that JN is guilty of “defection” (‘inshiqāq) from IS in refusing to be subsumed under what was then the Islamic State of Iraq [ISI] to form the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham [ISIS] back in April 2013. The zero-sum demands of IS have only solidified with the claimed Caliphate status since 29 June demanding the allegiance of all the world’s Muslims.

In turn, JN refuses even to recognize IS’ claim to be an actual state, let alone a Caliphate. This was made apparent in JN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani’s recent official interview on the “White Minaret” in which he made constantly referred to IS as jamaat ad-dawla (“the group of the state”), which can only be interpreted as an insult by IS, even as Jowlani made clear he believes the international coalition is intending to destroy both JN and IS.

In this context, a careful distinction needs to be made between the situation on the ground and attempts by al-Qa’ida branches elsewhere to engage in some form of solidarity outreach to IS in the face of the international coalition as a supposed war on Islam. Thus, contrasting with Jowlani’s constant use of ‘jamaat ad-dawla’ to refer to IS, both al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM] and al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] simply refer to IS as IS refers to itself: ‘ad-dawla al-islamiya’ [‘The Islamic State’]. However, such attempts at jihadi solidarity are ultimately incoherent ideologically: will AQAP and AQIM actually be willing to extend recognition of the Caliphate if pressed on this issue? Indeed, in the very same areas where AQAP and AQIM are operating, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in his al-Furqan Media speech released yesterday rejoiced in new pledges of allegiance to IS in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sinai, Algeria and Libya, calling for the annulment of any separate group identities and the creation of new wilayāt [‘provinces’] of IS. Will AQAP and AQIM be willing to lose their names and merge with these wilayāt? Nothing suggests any development of this sort.

– The nature of the sourcing and content of the ‘JN-IS alliance’ reports is highly suspect. Chulov’s first report in particular is to be noted for its incoherence. While he has a source claiming war planning meetings between JN and IS, a “senior al-Nusra figure” is also mentioned as having told The Guardian that 73 members of JN had just defected to IS. What sense would there be in holding joint conferences to discuss war strategy if members of JN are at the same time leaving JN to join IS? As for the Daily Beast and Associated Press reports, the degree of overlap in the content of the two pieces- such as which groups are attending the supposed merger talks/alliance discussions- strongly suggests they are relying on the same sources. When one looks at these sources, linked as they are to the opposition-in-exile, it is clear they have an agenda to play on Western concerns about dangers of ‘Khorasan’ and the possibility, however remote, of some kind of unification between JN and IS in order to insist on the urgency of more Western support for ‘FSA’ groups to push back against jihadi forces.

On further examination, details of how this agreement between JN and IS is supposed to work come across as impractical, to put it mildly. For example, how would a joint front against Kurdish forces be opened? Would JN and IS participate in a joint offensive on Afrin? But IS is still not even in the vicinity of Afrin, and needs to retake its former border stronghold of Azaz to get there, or at least secure an access agreement through Azaz. Yet the local group that controls Azaz- Northern Storm- is currently affiliated with the Islamic Front, of which Ahrar al-Sham is still a part. Will members of Ahrar al-Sham now send a request Northern Storm to provide access to IS and cease working with other rebels to fight IS for control of Dabiq and other northern Aleppo localities? As for the other two main areas where there is a Kurdish military presence to fight- Kobani and north-east Hasakah province- there is no JN presence whatsoever, having disappeared in the vicinity of Kobani last year as members of JN in nearby towns such as Jarabulus defected to what was then ISIS, and having disappeared in Hasakah province after being subjugated under what was then ISIS at the start of this year.

On the subject of alleged JN-IS cooperation in Idlib province against SRF, there is no evidence whatsoever beyond hearsay to substantiate the claim, with any supposed photos of an IS presence in this case being the result of photoshop manipulation on social media. More importantly, the Dawn of Freedom Brigades- an ex-Liwa al-Tawheed/Islamic Front grouping primarily based in northern Aleppo province and Kobani but which also had an Idlib contingent- has denied to me the claims of IS military assistance to JN in Idlib, as IS withdrew from the province in the face of infighting with rebels at the start of this year. There might be IS sleeper cells intended to conduct sabotage operations against its rivals, but that does not satisfy the need for reliable evidence for active and open IS assistance to JN as is being claimed.

Interestingly, Dawn of Freedom had initially hoped to push back against JN for its moves against SRF and other Western-backed rebels in Idlib, originally intending to issue a 72-hour deadline for JN to withdraw from Jabal Zawiya or face war. However, realizing it was too weak to confront JN militarily, Dawn of Freedom has instead intended to focus its efforts on north Aleppo province, even as its members have now been targeted there too by JN on accusations of being Western-backed. Nonetheless, the group is not playing up any notions of a supposed new JN-IS alliance.

– In questioning the veracity of these reports, I do not intend to imply that there has been no outreach to IS by non-IS affiliated jihadis. As I have outlined previously with respect to the independent jihadi coalition Jabhat Ansar al-Din , ‘neither IS nor JN’ jihadis have generally tried to avoid fighting with IS as far as possible and have tried to avoid getting into any specifics of the JN-IS rift. It would not be surprising if members of these groups and coalitions might try- most likely on their own initiative or perhaps on an unofficial request from some members of other groups- to seek some outreach to and truce with IS on behalf of non-IS jihadis in Syria on the basis of working with IS on the grounds of common ideological end goal or enemies. However, all evidence shows that these initiatives have invariably failed (cf. Muheisseni’s failed ‘Ummah Initiative’ in January and the ‘And don’t separate’ joint jihadi offensive on Kweiris airbase that quickly collapsed), rooted in IS’ absolutism which seeks recognition of IS as the sole authority. This was so even when IS was just ISIS and ISI, which, as members of rival jihadi group Jamaat Ansar al-Islam have noted, consistently insisted on its status as a state and superior authority over others.

In short, the recent reports of supposed merger and alliance talks between JN and IS need to be taken with a pinch of salt as rebel disinformation. From JN’s perspective anyway, an alliance with IS would be strategically disastrous in the long-run, as IS will seek to subjugate it. That JN, Jabhat Ansar al-Din, al-Qa’ida branches and even more mainstream Islamists in general might see the international coalition as a war on Islam is only to be expected, and is certainly relevant to the question of whether the U.S. can build an effective local Sunni fighting force against IS in Iraq, for example. But this debate needs to be distinguished from sensationalist talk of IS-JN mergers and the like that fails to understand IS’ self-perception and how it relates to its interactions at the grand level with other groups.

Al-Qaeda’s Syrian Judiciary—is it really what al-Jolani makes it out to be?

by Maxwell Martin, researcher at ARK, a stabilization consultancy based in Turkey that has implemented justice related programming in northern Syria

The flag of Dar al-Qadaa, the Nusra-backed court network in Syria

The flag of Dar al-Qadaa, the Nusra-backed court network in Syria

On November 4th, 2014, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, the leader of al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, released a recording in which he spoke about what the militant group has been up to lately. While many observers’ attention was focused on what al-Jolani had to say about the Nusra Front’s recent altercation with the Western-backed Syrian Revolutionaries Front in Idlib, the recording was also noteworthy for al-Jolani’s lengthy discussion of Dar al-Qadaa, meaning “the judiciary,” a new network of courts that the group spearheaded in July 2014. It provided the clearest view yet of the thinking behind the establishment of Dar al-Qadaa, including the Nusra Front’s interpretation of the practical and doctrinal problems that the group sought to eschew when it withdrew from other court networks it previously backed with the Islamic Front. But is Dar al-Qadaa all that al-Jolani makes it out to be?

Whither the sharia commissions?

According to al-Jolani, the Nusra Front withdrew from the sharia commissions it jointly backed with Islamic Front factions Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, and Suqur al-Sham because of the crippling influence of factional infighting. “Some looked at the commissions as a way to implement the sharia, which was right,” noted al-Jolani in a not-so-veiled reference to his own group, “while others looked at the commissions as a political front from which they wished to gain. Still others saw some kind of weakness in the commissions and wanted to drag them into cooperation with the [Syrian Opposition] Coalition,” a puppet of the West, according to the group. Previously, the Nusra Front lamented the fact that other factions simply ignored the sharia commissions when it suited them, establishing in-house judicial bodies instead. As a result, the commissions “lost the essential purpose for which they were established.”

Unsatisfied with the sharia commissions’ performance and commitment to implementing an acceptable interpretation of Islamic law, the Nusra Front undertook “to establish an alternative to the sharia commissions with stricter rules.” To rectify the internal friction that hindered the sharia commissions’ work, al-Jolani turned to other jihadi factions to help prop the new court network up and to ensure a kind of cross-factional legitimacy. Other hardline factions were invited to join the project, but al-Jolani insisted that “those who participate in Dar al-Qadaa must agree with [the Nusra Front] on the goals and the means to achieve those goals.”

Despite the Nusra Front’s controlling influence over the new project, the court network was to be separate from armed factions, and al-Jolani promised that Nusra Front fighters would be the first to submit to the new court’s authority. Dar al-Qadaa claims to be entirely independent, and jihadi fundraiser and hype-man ‘Abdullah al-Muheisini’s reported involvement in shopping the project around would seem to underscore the court’s nominal autonomy. In the past, al-Muheisini has insisted that initiatives in which he has been involved not have any affiliation with any particular faction. As such, Dar al-Qadaa’s denunciation of “the repugnant system of factional quotas” that prevailed in the sharia commissions highlights that at least on its face, Dar al-Qadaa is not intended to be a multilateral factional enterprise, but an unaffiliated, salafi-jihadi project.

The Nusra Front’s—and other jihadi groups’—renewed focus on governance and on the law was also spurred by other developments in the opposition judiciary. Al-Jolani noted that other groups, including lawyers unions, were striving to fill the justice vacuum by implementing man-made laws instead of the sharia, a grave offense in the Nusra Front’s worldview. Even the Aleppo Sharia Commission, the most prominent of the commissions in which the Nusra Front had participated, was considering taking up the Unified Arab Code, a codified version of Islamic law that is unacceptable to salafi-jihadis of al-Qaeda’s persuasion.

The challenge of multi-factional justice

Dar al-Qadaa, however, has its detractors. Last week, a former jurist in the court’s Latakia branch blasted the new judicial body, saying that it was already corrupt and beset by factionalism. The jurist, Salman al-‘Arjani, was originally of Sham al-Islam, a mostly Moroccan foreign fighter jihadi outfit, but has since defected to the Islamic State. His litany of complaints against Dar al-Qadaa included the story of how a Nusra Front emir got away with a vicious assault on a married couple because the group’s judge let him out of jail, fearing retribution if he did not, before absconding to a nearby Nusra Front stronghold in Idlib. Al-‘Arjani also complained that the Nusra Front judge unlawfully set a Free Syrian Army commander free, infuriating the independent judges in the Latakia branch of Dar al-Qadaa and leading them to suspend their work.

But al-‘Arjani went further, accusing the same emir of apostasy for replacing a cross that jihadis had torn down inside a church during a recent offensive against the mostly-Christian town of Kassab. Al-‘Arjani and other hardliners were so incensed, he said, that “some of the mujahidin were determined to kill” the emir. The result of these acts, insisted al-‘Arjani, was that the Nusra Front had “made a mockery of God’s law.”

Whether or not we take al-‘Arjani at his word, his critique implies that Dar al-Qadaa may be suffering from some of the same problems that drove the Nusra Front to establish it in the first place. The Nusra Front’s admitted oversized role in the court may tempt it—or at least individual influential members—to skirt the rules when doing so is in their interest. At the very least, it reveals the difficulty groups face when jointly attempting to govern, even among an ostensibly like-minded group of salafi-jihadis; Unlike the Islamic State—which enjoys nearly unchallenged “sovereignty” where it governs—the Nusra Front must balance between a diverse set of highly opinionated jihadis—including, apparently, ones that are more extreme than the Nusra Front itself. The process can result in a fragile consensus, challenging the overall coherence of the Nusra Front’s approach to governance and resulting in the same kind of discord that frustrated the sharia commissions’ aspirations to judicial supremacy.

Striving for Society’s Embrace

As the Nusra Front expands its footprint in northern Syria and replaces other, more nationalist-oriented armed groups—the rule of which was marred by accusations of thuggery and banditry—the performance of its judicial arm in Dar al-Qadaa will be critical. Whether the Nusra Front is seen as fair in its administration of opposition-held territories will have implications for its ability to generate popular support, or al-hadina al-sha’biyya—society’s embrace—that the group has at times deemed necessary for its success, both on the battlefield and in Islamizing Syrian society in al-Qaeda’s image. However, the group will have to balance what they deem popular and religiously acceptable governance with other, harder-line views within the coalition of non-Islamic State-aligned jihadi groups of how to best implement Islamic law, a process that could see the Nusra Front dragged further out of synch with the populations it hopes to court.