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Terrorism

The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham

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The group under consideration in this paper–like al-Qa’ida central under Usama bin Ladin and subsequently Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Tehrik-e-Taliban of Waziristan, and others–is part of what one might term the “global jihad” movement.

This movement is not a coherent whole organized by a strict central hierarchy, but rather one defined by a shared ideology. This ideology aims firstly to reestablish a system of governance known as the Caliphate–an Islamic form of government that first came into being after Muhammad’s death under Abu Bakr and saw its last manifestation in the Ottoman Empire–across the entire Muslim world. From there, the intention is to spread the Caliphate across the entire world.[1]

This worldview is one of many answers formulated to answer a question posed in the wider Muslim world: Namely, what has been the cause of decline of the Muslim world–and the Arab world in particular–in contrast to the apparent success of the West since the nineteenth century? The answer formulated by ideologues of the global jihad movement is that the cause of this decline is rooted in the Muslim world’s deviation from the path of Islam by not applying Islamic law to governance in its totality. This is to be contrasted with the “Islamic Golden Age” in Islam’s first five centuries or so–idealized in different ways by others not of this orientation–when the Muslim world was supposedly uncontaminated by foreign influences. Of course, given that era’s exploitation of the classical Greek heritage through the translation movement under the Abbasids- the global jihad movement’s portrayal of this era is blatantly unhistorical. Nonetheless, the perception is what matters.

In light of the ISIS’ ambitious goals, it is imperative to consider the group’s fortunes in Syria, which in turn will allow policymakers to assess what threat, if any, the group poses to the wider international order in the long-term.

BACKGROUND: QUARRELS AT THE LEADERSHIP LEVEL

Prior to the announcement of ISIS by the leader of Iraq’s al-Qa’ida affiliate, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the main al-Qa’ida-aligned group operating in Syria was Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) under the leadership of Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. JN, which had initially been established in January 2012 with financial and manpower support from the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI),[2] had enjoyed a fair degree of success throughout Syria in conducting operations and establishing a foothold in areas freed from regime control.

The success was partly rooted in the manner in which JN has portrayed its efforts in Syria–namely, as a defensive jihad to protect the Muslim population in the face of oppression.[3] Thus, outreach to locals became and still remains an important part of JN’s strategy. For example, media reports widely noted JN’s running of bakery services for locals in places such as Aleppo,[4] and one jihadi news outlet–the Himam News Agency–regularly puts out videos of JN’s provision of public services in towns such as Binnish in Idlib, where JN fighters run garbage collection and disposal.[5]

In terms of JN’s overall position in Syria, while it was clear that the group had a presence in operations throughout the country from Dar’a in the far southwest to Hasakah in the far northeast, the evidence suggested that the group was best established in the Aleppo and Deir al-Zor governorates. However, it by no means follows from this assessment that JN somehow controlled a substantial amount of territory in either of these provinces. Moreover, JN had faced a degree of resentment and backlash from locals, as occurred in the town of Mayadin in the Deir al-Zor governorate–though such demonstrations of opposition could easily be met with counter-rallies by JN supporters.[6] In March 2013, JN along with the Salafi battalion Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya played a key role in the takeover of the provincial capital of the Raqqa Governorate in the north.

April 2013 then saw the unexpected development of the announcement by ISI leader Baghdadi of a merger between ISI and JN to form ISIS. In the speech released on April 8, 2013, by ISI’s official outlet al-Furqan Media, Baghdadi described Jawlani as “one of our soldiers” and stated that Jawlani had established his organization “from our sons.”[7] Baghdadi went on to explain that while there had been no explicit statement of the links between ISI and JN, the time had now come to declare that JN was simply an “extension” of ISI “and a part of it.”[8] Thus, Baghdadi announced the “cancellation of the name Islamic State of Iraq and the cancellation of the name Jabhat al-Nusra, and the joining of the two under one name: the “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.”[9]

Baghdadi’s words, therefore, confirmed long-standing suspicions among Western intelligence officials that JN had been established as the Syrian arm of the ISI, something that was also corroborated in a prompt response released by JN’s official media wing al-Manara al-Bayda (“The White Minaret”) on 10 April.[10] In his response, Jawlani denied that either he or anyone in JN had been consulted on or had sought the announcement of Baghdadi’s merger, while admitting that the beginnings of JN lay in ISI, as indicated by the following remark: “We accompanied the jihad in Iraq as military escorts from its beginning until our return [to Syria] after the Syrian revolution.”[11]

Jawlani further stated, “We learnt lessons from our experience there [in Iraq] concerning what is the secret of the hearts of the believers in the land of al-Sham under the banner of Jabhat al-Nusra… I did not want to leave Iraq before seeing the banners of Islam flying on high over the land of the two rivers but the speed of events in ash-Sham interfered between us and what we wanted.”[12] Jawlani also spoke of “our brothers in jihad in Iraq” and respectfully addressed ISI’s leader as “Sheikh Baghdadi, may God protect him.” He then concluded by reaffirming JN’s pledge of allegiance to al-Qa’ida’s central leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, affirming that the “banner of Jabhat al-Nusra will remain.”[13]

The controversy over whether ISI and JN should be merged remained unaddressed until June 2013. During that time, both JN and ISI’s media arms stopped releasing official content. In addition, tracking the activities of JN and those going by the name of ISIS required reliance on unofficial media, most notably YouTube videos.[14]Zawahiri then issued a letter in early June 2013 urging for the separation of ISI and JN, while stressing that the two organizations should cooperate.[15] Yet Baghdadi rejected the ruling of separation in a speech entitled “Remaining [Steadfast] in Iraq and al-Sham,” wherein he insisted that Zawahiri’s letter had problems of legitimacy and methodology, hinting at a cast of doubt of authenticity on the letter.[16]

Then another audio recording was released by al-Furqan Media, featuring a speech by Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami, a Syrian jihadi believed to be from Idlib[17]and identified by al-Furqan Media as the official spokesman for ISIS.[18] Adnani reaffirmed Baghdadi’s rejection of Zawahiri’s ruling in more forceful terms, insisting on “one front, one leadership,” and that “the borders will not separate between the two [i.e., the jihad fronts in Iraq and Syria].” Adnani also vowed that ISIS would target the “Rafidites” (Shi’a) with bombs “from Diyala to Beirut.”[19] On multiple occasions, Adnani references the “defection” (inshiqaq) that has hurt the ranks of the mujahidin in Syria–a not-so-subtle attack on Jawlani’s refusal to accept a merger with ISI to form ISIS.

As of the writing of this article, no further directives have been issued from Zawahiri in an attempt to resolve the dispute. Indeed, Baghdadi’s rejection of his ruling essentially amounts to a humiliation of Zawahiri. In Iraq itself, written statements are no longer put out in the name of ISI, but ISIS. Further, while officially approved jihadi forums such as Shamukh Islam were initially deleting posts put out in ISIS’ name after Zawahiri’s ruling, this is no longer the case. Nonetheless, al-Furqan Media, which now puts out videos on ISIS activities in both Iraq and Syria,[20] still explicitly avoids describing itself as the media arm of ISIS, but instead keeps a silence on the naming controversy in its videos.

Besides al-Furqan Media, some unofficial pro-ISIS outlets have come to the forefront, such as al-Sham media (which put out a string of purported ISIS videos in May 2013, and is based in Raqqa) and Baqiyya Media (named after Baghdadi’s speech that rejected Zawahiri’s ruling). In any event, Baghdadi has successfully challenged Zawahiri in that in practice ISIS is now accepted as a reality on the ground alongside JN.

As a final prefatory note, the Baghdadi-Jawlani fitna aside, it should be emphasized that as al-Qa’ida affiliates, both ISIS and JN are ultimately committed ideologically to a transnational project for a caliphate that should first span the Muslim world and then dominate the entire world. However, it is undoubtedly true that ISIS in Syria is much more open about these goals than JN.[21] The question now arises of how ISIS’ relationship with other groups plays out on the ground.

ISIS AND OTHER REBELS: RELATIONS AND OPERATIONS

JN AND ISIS

In light of the quarrels at the leadership level between Baghdad and Jawlani, the immediate issue that comes to mind is ISIS’ relationship with JN on the ground. A common paradigm of analysis in this case is to posit a polarized dichotomy whereby ISIS is an entity composed of foreign fighters as opposed to a native Syrian JN. This view is primarily based on some media reports that estimate that 80 percent of muhajirin (foreign fighters) in Syria have joined the ranks of ISIS.[22]

In this author’s view, the estimate is likely to bear a good degree of resemblance to the reality on the ground, but it would be erroneous to conclude from it that ISIS is primarily a group of foreign fighters. To be sure, from the current author’s own documentation of claimed martyrs for ISIS up to the beginning of July 2013,[23] as well as examination of subsequent records on this issue,[24] it can be shown that at the minimum, foreign fighters are disproportionately represented in its ranks and constitute the most experienced and effective fighting force within ISIS, while perhaps playing a key role in leadership in various localities. Yet in Raqqa province, one anti-ISIS activist identified as Ahmed al-Asmeh told the news site Syria Deeply that only “30 percent of their [ISIS’] members are muhajiroun [foreigners].”[25] Likewise, a reporter who visited the northern ISIS stronghold of Jarabulus in the Aleppo governorate along the border with Turkey found that most of ISIS’ members in the town are native Syrians.[26]

In short, therefore, the strict dichotomy of ISIS as a group of foreign fighters versus a native Syrian JN is not accurate. As far as relations on the ground go, the relationship defies a simple polarity reflecting the tensions at the leadership level. The current author has already documented the ISIS-JN relationship in a number of governorates: notably Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir al-Zor, and Dar’a.[27] Details of the relationship by governorate need not be repeated at length, but to summarize: In Aleppo and the city of Deir al-Zor, the entities of JN and ISIS are clearly separate. In Dar’a, only a JN presence is to be found. In the Raqqa governorate and areas of the east outside Deir al-Zor, the boundaries between JN and ISIS are more blurred, such that in many parts the two names and their symbols can be considered interchangeable.[28]

That said, since having documented the JN-ISIS relationship in the Raqqa province, it should be noted that in mid-July 2013, reports emerged among activist circles that the ISIS commander in the city of Raqqa itself–known as Abu Sa’ad al-Hadrami–had decided to renounce his position in ISIS and reaffirm the banner and name of JN as a separate identity and the only legitimate one, withdrawing from the city in the process with a number of mujahidin under his stead. Hadrami, who had previously been identified as JN’s amir in Raqqa[29] prior to the announcement of ISIS, was said to have defected from ISIS on account of his dissatisfaction with ISIS’ conduct in the city, specifically in relation to detaining rebels from rival battalions (e.g. Farouq), which had sparked some demonstrations in the city against ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham.

Hadrami was also said to be unhappy with the fact that continuing the name of ISIS amounted to disrespectful disobedience of Zawahiri’s orders.[30] At the start of July 2013, signs of a split in the Shari’a committee in Raqqa between JN and ISIS supporters were reported by purported local sources to the pro-Asad Arabic news site al-Hadath News.[31] The contingent reaffirming a separate JN identity under Hadrami apparently took refuge in the city of town of Tabqa (also known as al-Thawra). Confirmation of the JN-ISIS split within Raqqa province was recently confirmed by a statement from JN announcing a return to the city of Raqqa, yet it remains unclear whether this split applies across the whole governorate.[32]

In terms of ongoing major operations, it remains to consider the two governorates of Damascus and Hasakah as regards the JN-ISIS relationship, the latter of which will be discussed on the subject of conflict with Kurdish forces. In the Damascus area, it is quite clear that JN and ISIS are separate entities. This is most apparent as the two groups launched their own “revenge” operations in response to the alleged chemical weapons attacks by the regime in the East Ghouta area. JN’s initiative–as announced by Jawlani in a statement through al-Manara al-Bayda–is called “An Eye for an Eye” and has entailed operations not only in the Damascus area[33] but elsewhere in the country, such as the Aleppo governorate.[34]

The ISIS-led revenge initiative goes by the name of “Volcano of Revenge.” It has entailed firing a number of mortar rounds and Katyusha rockets at regime-held areas of Damascus, including parts identified as inhabited by Alawites, and even struck the vicinities of the Russian embassy and the Four Seasons hotel, where UN weapons inspectors were staying.[35] The operation was coordinated with a variety of battalions operating in the Damascus area, including Ahrar al-Sham, the Jesus Son of Mary Battalions, the Furqan Brigades, and the Brigades and Battalions of the Beloved Mustafa.[36]Of these groups, Ahrar ash-Sham can be identified as part of the Salafi Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), while the Furqan Brigades are known for an Islamist but nationalist outlook under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). However, the other two can be identified as independent formations but ideologically sympathetic to ISIS.

Thus, the Jesus Son of Mary Battalions’ logo features ISIS imagery, most notably in its use of the central white logo with the inscription “Allah, Prophet Muhammad” (see the Appendix, Figure 1). On Facebook pages set up for various battalions and news networks, ideological affinity is often indicated by banners featured at the top of the page. For example, a pro-Asad page will normally feature the current flag of Syria. In the case of factions sympathetic to ISIS’ project of a transnational Islamic state, alignment will be shown by featuring the ISIS banner, known as the “Banner of Tawhid” in jihadi circles, with the first half of the Islamic shahada underneath: “There is no deity but God.” This is the case for the Jesus Son of Mary Battalions (see Appendix, Figure 2). As for the Brigades and Battalions of the Beloved Mustafa, sympathy for the ISIS project is indicated by a statement released in June 2013 urging “our brothers and our sons to join immediately and enter the arenas of jihad.” The statement featured an image of Syria under the ISIS banner (Appendix, Figure 3).

Despite the ISIS-alignment, the two groups have also coordinated with JN and more mainstream groupings like Liwa al-Islam as part of a new series of revenge operations entitled “Ayyam al-Qadisiyya” in the Damascus area.[37] However, elsewhere in the Damascus region, multiple reports have emerged from jihadi sources of joint JN-ISIS operations. The most notable case is that of the Sayyida Zaynab area, where both groups are said to be fighting the Iranian proxy Shi’i militia group known as Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas [LAFA].[38] For example, on August 17, 2013, a local outlet for ISIS in the southern Damascus region reported a joint JN-ISIS-Liwa al-Islam operation in the Sayyida Zaynab area, claiming a death toll of more than 250 Shi’i militiamen.[39] However, there is nothing to corroborate anything resembling these figures from LAFA sources.[40]

On the other hand, the same ISIS outlet has featured photos of LAFA militiamen that ISIS has purportedly killed in the Sayyida Zaynab area in this period, and it would seem that pro-LAFA sources do corroborate the individual cases to an extent, such as one LAFA fighter called Abu Hadi Hassan (Appendix, Figure 4). Yet given that the operations against LAFA in mid-August 2013 were reported as joint ISIS-JN-Liwa al-Islam, it is possible that Abu Hadi could have been killed by a fighter from either of the latter two battalions, or perhaps in a joint operation by all three groups.

On August 30, 2013, the local ISIS outlet also released a video showing the carrying out of a joint JN-ISIS car bomb operation against LAFA in Sayyida Zaynab. Besides displaying the car used to trigger the explosion, scenes were also shown from the Sayyida Zaynab area of gunfire.[41] In short, one might accept the idea of JN-ISIS collaboration (perhaps with other battalions) in the Sayyida Zaynab area, with the caveat that local sources affiliated with ISIS are prone to exaggerate the scale of operations against LAFA and the death tolls therein.

Another notable area of JN-ISIS cooperation comes in the Qalamoun area of rural Damascus. Here, this cooperation has come in the form of working with another battalion called “The Green Battalion.” This group is an independent militia[42] led by Saudi muhajirin and ideologically aligned with ISIS (Appendix, Figure 5). It is thus a similar formation to the western rural Homs battalion Jama’at Jund al-Sham, which was founded by Lebanese muhajirin sharing ISIS’ ideology but independent from ISIS (Appendix, Figure 6, cf. Figure 7).

These two groups can thus be distinguished from the prominent group of foreign fighters known as Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa Ansaruhu [JMWA], which has been a front group for ISIS under the direction of ISIS’ amir for Aleppo, northern Idlib, Raqqa, and Latakia–Abu Umar al-Shishani.[43] In any case, the joint JN-ISIS operation in Qalamoun with the Green Battalion was first reported by the latter group in a Facebook posting on August 7, 2013: “Jabhat al-Nusra and the Green Battalion undertook with the help of the Islamic State… in the assault on the storehouses of Danha in rural Damascus.”[44]

To sum up, the relationship between JN and ISIS in Damascus can be described as comprising separate entities that are clearly capable of cooperating with each other and working with other battalions. More generally, there is nothing to suggest as of yet signs of overt conflict emerging between JN and ISIS, where the two are clearly separate entities–regardless of how unhappy many JN members may feel about Baghdadi’s April announcement of a merger.

ISIS and FSA

As regards ISIS’ relations with battalions under the banner of the FSA, this article is primarily concerned with how they have played out in the Raqqa and Aleppo governorates, where vast amounts of territory are under rebel control.[45] Previously, the current author has documented the expansion of ISIS into rural areas of Aleppo and Idlib, particularly in the border areas.[46] This has entailed clashes with battalions under the banner of the FSA, such as the “Family of Jadir” in Jarabulus, from whom ISIS seized power in mid-June 2013, and FSA groupings in al-Dana.[47]

Elsewhere, ISIS clashed in August 2013 with the Raqqa branch of a group of brigades under the banner of FSA known as Ahfad al-Rasul (“Descendants of the Prophet,” AAR). The ISIS presence has also sparked civilian protests against the group in a number of localities, including al-Dana, Manbij, and Azaz.[48]

It would appear that the clashes began after AAR tried to ride the wave of discontent in the form of sit-ins and rallies against both Ahrar al-Sham[49] and ISIS on account of the long-standing issue of detention of rival rebels. AAR’s sympathies were shown by the fact that its Facebook page for Raqqa shared a video of these demonstrations in early August 2013.[50] Clashes were reported by the Lebanese news site to have begun on August 8, 2013, with some ten people killed on both sides.[51]

A video was then circulated in pro-ISIS circles purporting to show the confession of an officer in AAR’s ranks admitting to having received support from France, in particular to fight the ISIS.[52] From this alleged confession (which was quite clearly made under duress), pro-ISIS circles began to refer to AAR as “Ahfad Faransa” (“descendants of France”), and eventually denounced them as “apostates.” They also accused AAR of trying to form a Sahwa (“Awakening”) movement, supposedly equivalent to the anti-al-Qa’ida trend that took off in Iraq among Sunni militiamen from 2007 onwards.

ISIS supporters used similar terminology to denounce their FSA opponents in the Idlib town of al-Dana, but it should be noted that neither AAR in Raqqa nor the FSA fighters in al-Dana referred to themselves as a Sahwa movement. Indeed, considering the word’s connotations of working with Americans and the Iraqi government, the latter of which in Syria is widely viewed as an Iranian agent by virtue of its support for the Asad regime, it is hardly surprising that rebels deemed “mainstream” should want to avoid using this term to describe themselves.

By August 14, 2013, ISIS had killed a prominent AAR commander in the Raqqa area by the name of Fahad Husayn al-Kajwan, and had expelled AAR from its headquarters in the city of Raqqa.[53] AAR, however, continued to fight with ISIS elsewhere in the province, attacking an ISIS checkpoint in the town of Tabqa.[54]

By August 17, however, AAR announced that it would cease all operations against ISIS, “to preserve frontline unity.”[55]An AAR commander who spoke with Swedish analyst Aron Lund also confirmed that the AAR-ISIS clashes were limited to the Raqqa area and that the two groups had cooperated elsewhere: most notably in the failed Latakia offensive into the Alawi heartland. One should further note in particular here the role of Ahrar al-Sham: as this author’s friend Shami Witness noticed, the group essentially stood aside and let ISIS do the “dirty work” of eliminating a common foe.

In some other parts of the Aleppo and Raqqa governorates, ISIS has maintained friendly relations with battalions under the FSA banner, most notably the then FSA Military Council in Aleppo, headed by one Colonel Oqaidi, who refused to denounce the ISIS and admitted that ISIS was the group that led the rebel takeover of the Mannagh airbase.[56] It is of course true that the FSA-banner groups, such as the Northern Storm Brigade, had besieged the Mannagh airbase for quite some time. Nonetheless, the contributions of ISIS and its then front group JMWA proved decisive in the eventual fall of the airbase. Early on after the fall of the airbase, pro-ISIS outlets released photos attempting to demonstrate that the ISIS had led the takeover of Mannagh (Appendix, Figures 8 and 9).

Noteworthy also from the fall of the Mannagh airbase is a video released by the battalion Liwa al-Fatah, described by one writer as a “moderate Islamist”[57] group. A quick glance at the video quickly demonstrates that in analysis, the term “moderate Islamist” in this context is quite meaningless. First, Abu Jandal al-Masri, the leader of the JMWA contingent–identified immediately by the speaker who filmed the video as synonymous with ISIS–is seen to be embracing a member of Liwa al-Fatah. Abu Jandal then proclaims, “I swear by God we will not leave a single Alawite alive in Syria… state of Islam, state of the Caliphate.” This is all proclaimed to the assent of “God is great” from the other fighters, including the Liwa al-Fatah member who filmed the video.[58]

Another prominent FSA battalion in the Aleppo area with which ISIS generally maintains cordial relations is Liwa al-Tawhid, whose ideological orientation is in line with that of the Ikhwan.[59] In July 2013, rumors began circulating–in origin from pro-Supreme Military Command circles (affiliated with General Salim Idriss)–that the rebel icon from Jarabulus, Abu Furat, had been killed by “Islamists” (i.e., JN/ISIS). However, Liwa al-Tawhid soon issued a statement denying that this was so, describing such rumors as an attempt by Western powers to stir up fitna (discord) in rebel ranks through the Arabic news channel al-Arabiya.[60] More recently, an image was put out showing a member of Liwa al-Tawhid in Aleppo engaging in a friendly arm-wrestling match with an ISIS fighter (Appendix, Figure 10). Yet not all supporters of Liwa al-Tawhid view ISIS favorably. Some held a demonstration in the northern Aleppo town of Marea calling for the expulsion of ISIS from the town, under the slogan, “The people want Liwa al-Tawhid.”[61]

In short, the foregoing data should demonstrate that there can be no sweeping answers to the question of ISIS-FSA relations, but rather point to a good deal of variation according to locality. Not all the potential conflicts that can arise are necessarily rooted in ideology, and by no means do all battalions under the banner of the FSA oppose ISIS simply because of their transnational vision. The issue of FSA-ISIS relations is also relevant to the question of conflicts with Kurdish forces, to which will be covered in the following section.

ISIS and the Kurds

Prior to the announcement of ISIS, clashes between jihadi fighters and Kurdish forces–most notably the People’s Protection Groups (YPG) affiliated with the PYD–had not been unknown. For example, clashes between JN allied with a battalion of muhajirin known as Ghuraba al-Sham and the PYD had erupted in the northeastern border town of Ras al-Ayn (Hasakah province) in November 2012.[62] However, these clashes tended to be localized and never erupted into an overall wider conflict. To be sure, the conflict in Ras al-Ayn persisted for quite some time, but by the end of February 2013, a truce had been successfully negotiated, thanks to the efforts of Christian opposition activist Michel Kilo.[63]

A dramatic shift occurred in July 2013 with the renewed outbreak of clashes in Ras al-Ayn between YPG forces and fighters deemed members of ISIS/JN. This culminated in the expulsion of the latter from the town, with rumors that YPG fighters, after taking over the ISIS/JN headquarters, had defiled the banner of jihad by trampling on it with their shoes.[64] One should note the way in which this incident and subsequent events in al-Hasakah involving jihadi-YPG fighting have been reported. That is, the names of JN/ISIS are generally used interchangeably with frequent claims of joint operations. Based the current author’s own research on the JN-ISIS relationship in eastern Syria that looked at the town of al-Shaddadi in the Hasakah province,[65] the apparent confusion and claims of joint operations in Hasakah appear to be the result of the fact that the boundaries between JN and ISIS are blurred, as is the case in the Deir al-Zor governorate outside the city of Deir al-Zor.

In any case, following the expulsion of JN/ISIS from Ras al-Ayn, fighting between JN/ISIS and YPG forces quickly expanded, not only throughout Hasakah province but also the Raqqa and Aleppo governorates, where YPG forces existed in various localities–albeit not with the connections that exist in the northeast Hasakah governorate. For example, prior to the clashes, ISIS had tolerated a limited PYD presence in its northern stronghold of Jarabulus, even after defeating the Family of Jadir. However, once the fighting in Ras al-Ayn erupted, ISIS rallied supporters in Jarabulus to denounce the PKK (seen in jihadi circles as synonymous with and identical to the PYD).[66]In collaboration with local FSA groupings, ISIS proceeded to crack down on the PYD presence in the Jarabulus area, arresting numerous Kurds who were charged with being PKK/PYD activists.[67] YPG forces proceeded to launch an offensive against ISIS in a village near the town of Jarabulus,[68] but were ultimately unsuccessful.

Other battalions quickly joined in taking ISIS’ side against the PKK/PYD. Thus, on August 2, 2013, a group of battalions from an area stretching from Manbij to Jarabulus (where YPG forces have been most active in the Aleppo governorate) issued a joint statement against the PKK/PYD, saying that there is no doubt that the PKK was a “party affiliated with the idolatrous, criminal regime of Bashar al-Assad.”[69] As a result, the coalition decided on a policy of “cleansing out the armies of the PKK present among our lines… considering the highway road between Manbij and al-Hasakah a military zone requiring liberation from PKK checkpoints… stopping all negotiations and political meetings between us and any front considered to be representing the PKK.” Signatories to this statement included the ISIS, Liwa al-Tawhid, Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa al-Yarmouk,[70] and Suqur al-Sham.[71]

As can be seen, battalions of a variety of ideological affiliations have taken ISIS’ side against the PKK/PYD. Dislike of the latter was further corroborated in Colonel Oqaidi’s interview with NOW Lebanon, where he likewise accused the PYD of being an agent for the Asad regime.[72] It is this allegation that proves crucial to the rhetoric of ISIS and other rebel factions against the PYD in an attempt to show they are not against Kurds as a people. Thus the joint statement against the PKK/PYD also has the signatories emphasize that they have nothing against Kurds who are not connected with the PKK.[73]

In a similar vein, this author’s own discussions with ISIS supporters and jihadi sources have shown a tendency among these circles to portray the PYD as a marginal communist apostate group with little popular support among Syrian Kurds. Likewise, conflict in the Raqqa governorate’s Turkish border town of Tel Abyad between PKK/PYD forces on one side versus ISIS/JN in alliance with Ahrar al-Sham and some FSA groupings–which culminated in the expulsion of the PKK/PYD from the town[74]–saw repeated allegations against ISIS/JN, in particular of systematic looting and destruction of Kurdish property.[75] In response to these repeated claims, ISIS released a statement indicating that its fighters were obliged to protect the property of Muslim brothers, whether Kurdish or Arab, but presumably excluding those affiliated with the PYD/PKK and thus deemed apostates.[76]

As of the writing of this article, the overall picture in the conflict is that YPG forces have suffered serious setbacks in both the Aleppo and Raqqa governorates. Yet they are still holding their own in the Hasakah province. Nonetheless, there have been no major advances by either side, as JN/ISIS has been unable to retake Ras al-Ayn, despite repeated attempts at bombarding YPG positions in the town.[77] Indeed, one ISIS source claimed that ISIS in alliance with FSA battalions had rooted out the PKK/PYD presence from more than 90 percent of the northern Raqqa countryside around the Tel Abyad area and vowed that the PKK/PYD would be eliminated entirely, including from the Hasakah governorate.[78] Some new mujahidin umbrella groupings have been declared dedicated to achieving this objective as well, including in the northern Aleppo countryside[79]and Qamishli area in the Hasakah province.[80]

On some occasions, truces have been announced between FSA-SIF groups and Kurdish forces on account of mediation from delegations claiming to be the “Kurdish Supreme Council” (KSC), but these delegations have never been more than small groups of local Kurds acting unilaterally, and so the truces have lacked real authority and quickly collapsed. Indeed, the coalition of Kurdish opposition groups called the Kurdish National Council (KNC) thus requested that all groups should stop using the KSC name unilaterally.[81] In turn, the PYD, believing Turkey to be the main venue of financial and armed backing to JN/ISIS, has reached out to Ankara in the hope of achieving some sort of ceasefire, or at least a cessation of aid from Turkey to JN/ISIS.[82]

At this stage, successful mediation and a long-lasting truce are unlikely. The conflict has escalated beyond localized clashes and has quite clearly taken on the form of an existential, ideological struggle, with JN/ISIS circles making it abundantly clear that they deem the PYD/PKK “apostates” who should be annihilated. Conversely, many Kurds–both pro- and anti-PYD–view this conflict as an ethnic Kurdish-Arab war. Meanwhile, battalions under the FSA or SIF banner remain convinced that the PYD in particular is an agent for the Asad regime. This is the case even though, from an analyst’s point of view, the fairest assessment is that the PYD is eager to maintain exclusive control over its strongholds and Kurdish areas more generally, and therefore is willing to cut deals with regime forces and rebel groups to achieve that goal–while being prepared to take on both should they encroach on PYD territory.

In the meantime, it is clear that the conflict has provoked the upsurge in Kurdish refugees to Iraq. Unsurprisingly, Turkish media outlets affiliated with the AKP government put the refugee surge down to alleged repression on the part of the PYD.[83] While there may be some truth to the testimony cited in Turkish media, it seems more likely that the bulk of the upsurge has been due to JN/ISIS/FSA/SIF seizure of Kurdish areas in the Aleppo and Raqqa governorates in particular, as well as continued bombardment and attacks on Kurdish areas in the Hasakah governorate in particular.

The seizure of territory has provoked rumors from pro-PYD circles above all of large-scale massacres of Kurds and policies of forced Arabization. Regardless of the truth of these claims (and the stories of massacres are generally uncorroborated), there is a sufficient climate of fear created to prompt a flight of refugees into the safe haven of Iraqi Kurdistan, whose government is now contemplating closer security cooperation with Baghdad in light of the perceived common threat of al-Qa’ida.[84] A further side effect of this conflict is that it has undoubtedly bolstered the PYD’s image in Syrian Kurdistan as the protector of the Kurds, as YPG forces are doing the bulk of the fighting against JN/ISIS and other groups. In short, it is a bleak situation, despite the KNC’s backtracking on its withdrawal from Syrian opposition frameworks in mid-August 2013 as well as the decision to join the Syrian opposition coalition in-exile on preconditions.[85]

CONCLUSION: ISIS’ FUTURE

From the above, it should be apparent that ISIS’ relations with other rebel groups are by no means a case of “al-Qa’ida vs. everyone else.” Two general principles can be drawn. First, in the conflict with the PYD/PKK in particular, one cannot expect other rebel groups–whether under the banner of the FSA, SILF, SIF and the like–to side with the PYD/PKK against the ISIS. Second, SIF groups like Ahrar al-Sham, whose discourse blurs the national/transnational distinction over wider goals, will not openly side with ISIS’ opponents–Kurdish or FSA–in an event of conflict. This is even as some Ahrar al-Sham leaders harbor reservations about ISIS.[86] Among those under the banner of FSA, the staunchest opponents of ISIS remain those with close ties to SMC leader Salim Idriss, who has accused ISIS of being agents for the Asad regime.[87]

Compared with ISIS’ fortunes in Iraq, ISIS has been far more successful in Syria than the Iraqi branch could ever have hoped. The main factor behind this success is undoubtedly the good degree of continuity between JN and ISIS in terms of outreach to locals. Granted, where ISIS and JN are clearly separate entities, JN’s provision of services is more extensive than that of ISIS.

Nonetheless, it is clear that ISIS in Syria has learned from the mistakes of its predecessors and understands that “winning hearts and minds” is a key part of expanding its control. For instance, ISIS has provided toys and days of fun for children during and after Ramadan,[88] along with iftar (evening meal that breaks the fast during Ramadan) dinners (Appendix, Figure 11) and food aid. ISIS has even introduced a rationing system of basic necessities in parts of Aleppo (Appendix, Figure 12), and it provides bus services and schools for children (Appendix, Figure 13).

Despite these advances for ISIS, the current author still maintains the assessment from back in March 2013 that such strongholds are only likely to exist in the north and east of Syria.[89] The picture elsewhere in the country is still one of generalized chaos, and one must be wary of sensationalist claims that al-Qa’ida-aligned factions somehow dominate the armed opposition.

Could there be a Sahwa-style movement against ISIS eventually? One need not completely rule out the possibility, but the only plausible context in which such a development could arise is in a post-Asad order with an extensive foreign troop presence on the ground, perhaps needed for at least a decade in order to build up a viable post-Asad centralized security force. For now, however, it is implausible to suggest that other rebels will team up with either the PYD or regime forces to fight ISIS. This is even as intra-rebel rivalries, including between ISIS and other groups, are inevitable now and in the future, regardless of whether there is a Sahwa movement.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

NOTES

[1] See more on this issue vis-à-vis ISIS in Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s Messages and Self-Presentation in Syria and Iraq,” Jihadology, September, 9, 2013, http://jihadology.net/2013/09/09/musings-of-an-iraqi-brasenostril-on-jihad-the-islamic-state-of-iraq-and-ash-shams-messages-and-self-presentation-in-syria-and-iraq/ (accessed September 9, 2013).

[2] The official name of the al-Qa’ida branch in Iraq.

[3] This issue of presentation of jihad is discussed in Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Jihad in Syria,” Syria Comment, March 22, 2013, http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/jihad-in-syria-by-aymenn-jawad-al-tamimi/. The issue of presentation is particularly relevant when one considers that JN’s full name, Jabhat al-Nusra li Ahl al-Sham, translates to “Protection/Victory Front for the People of al-Sham.”

[4] See, for example, Kelly McEvers, “Jihadi Fighters Win Hearts and Minds by Easing Syria’s Bread Crisis,” NPR Radio, January 17, 2013, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/01/18/169516308/as-syrian-rebels-reopen-bakeries-bread-crisis-starts-to-ease.

[5] Himam News Agency, “Jabhat al-Nusra: Cleaning Services in the Town of Binnish – Idlib,” July 11, 2013, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ut86JXg_R_I (accessed August 31, 2013). The outlet also published a video on JN’s making and provision of bread for fighters in East Ghouta. See “Jabhat al-Nusra: Making of Bread and Its Provision to the Mujahidin on the Fronts in East Ghouta, Rural Damascus,” July 23, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2J9q0oCvHlI (Accessed August 31, 2013).

[6] Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Jihad in Syria.”

[7] Al-Furqan Media, “Announcement of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham: Speech by the Commander of the Believers Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, May God protect him,” YouTube, April 8, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HPQxA3catY (accessed August 31, 2013).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Al-Manarah al-Bayda, “Speech by Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani,” April 10, 2013, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXZ3YpzF4Mw (accessed August 31, 2013).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham,” Brown Moses Blog, May 17, 2013, http://brown-moses.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/jabhat-al-nusra-and-islamic-state-of.html.

[15] For a full translation of Zawahiri’s letter, see Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Sheikh Aymenn al-Zawahiri Annuls Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham,”

June 9, 2013, http://www.aymennjawad.org/2013/06/sheikh-aymenn-al-zawahiri-annuls-islamic-state (accessed August 31, 2013).

[16] Al-Furqan Media, “Remaining [Steadfast] in Iraq and al-Sham,” YouTube, June 14, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7AvJvC8vfs (accessed 31 August, 2013).

[17] See, for example, National Iraqi News Agency, “Al-Baghdadi Appoints Adnani as Amir of Islamic State in Iraq and Levant,” August 18, 2013, http://www.ninanews.com/english/News_Details.asp?ar95_VQ=GJHIHH. It should be noted that the claim that Baghdadi appointed Adnani as ISIS amir was widely reported in Iraqi media, but there exists no evidence in jihadi circles to corroborate this claim.

[18] Al-Furqan Media, “Speech by Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, Spokesman in the Name of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham: ‘Scatter Them and What They Believe’,” YouTube, June 20, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWZKnOzFXn4 (accessed August 31, 2013.

[19] It should be noted that the phrase “from Diyala to Beirut” was used recently in pro-ISIS circles (e.g., by ISIS Twitter user @reyadiraq) to celebrate the bombings that struck a Hizballah stronghold in southern Beirut on August 15, 2013. It appears that observers have not yet realized that the origin of this ISIS slogan goes back to Adnani’s speech in June 2013.

[20] For example, note an al-Furqan Media video released as part of a recent series entitled “Messages from Ard al-Melaham [Syria: literally “The Land of Epic Battles”].” It features an interview with a man who is supposedly ISIS’ eldest fighter. He is introduced as one of those who took part in the ISIS-led capture of Mannagh military airbase in the Aleppo governorate. He mentions that one of his children is imprisoned in Iraq. However, nowhere is an affiliation to a group named ISIS affirmed in the video. See “Messages from Arḍ al-Melaham 1: Shaykh al-Mujahid Abu Omar al-Ansari,” YouTube, August 20, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0QJOrQaMCg (accessed December 3, 2013).

[21] For a detailed discussion of this issue, see: Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham’s Messages and Self-Presentation in Syria and Iraq,” Jihadology, September 9, 2013, http://jihadology.net/2013/09/09/musings-of-an-iraqi-brasenostril-on-jihad-the-islamic-state-of-iraq-and-ash-shams-messages-and-self-presentation-in-syria-and-iraq/.

[22] See, for example, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, “Syria’s al-Nusra Front–Ruthless, Organized and Taking Control,” The Guardian, July 10, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/10/syria-al-nusra-front-jihadi.

[23] Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The ISIS Cavalcade: Round-Up of Some Claimed Martyrs for the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham,” Jihadology, July 1, 2013, http://jihadology.net/2013/07/01/musings-of-an-iraqi-brasenostril-on-jihad-the-isis-cavalcade-round-up-of-some-claimed-martyrs-for-the-islamic-state-of-iraq-and-ash-sham/.

[24] That said, a trickle of reported native Syrian martyrs for ISIS has begun to appear. For example, the pro-ISIS outlet al-Saqeel Media reported on August 13, 2013, the martyrdom of one Abu Muhammad al-Hamawi, whose name clearly implies origins from Hama, where he was in fact martyred. See https://www.facebook.com/Alsaqeel/posts/367168850078405. Cf. the case of Hamid al-Sayyid from the Idlib town of Binnish, reported by ISIS source @zhoof21 on August 17, 2013, to have been killed in ISIS’ clashes with rival rebel battalion Liwa Ahfad al-Rasul in Raqqa: https://twitter.com/zhoof21/status/368494016444125184/photo/1.

[25] Alison Tahmizian Meuse, “In Raqqa, Islamist Rebels Form a New Regime,” Syria Deeply, August 16, 2013, http://beta.syriadeeply.org/2013/08/raqqa-islamist-rebels-form-regime/#.UiKKBmakUu8.

[26] Youssef Shaikho, “Jarablos: From Syrian City to Islamic Emirate,” The Damascus Bureau, July 12, 2013, http://www.damascusbureau.org/?p=5569.

[27] See Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Musings of an Iraqi Brasenostril on Jihad,” Jihadology, http://jihadology.net/musings-of-an-iraqi-brasenostril-on-jihad/.

[28] Kata’ib Junud al-Haq in Abu Kamal–likely behind the recent clashes with Abu Kamal’s local Ahfad al-Rasul affiliate, Liwa Allahu Akbar–has been a good example of JN-ISIS crossover in the eastern border areas (on paper, the group previously claimed JN affiliation prior to Baghdadi’s April 2013 statement, then declared itself a part of ISIS, and finally switched back to JN affiliation in name after Zawahiri’s statement, while preserving ISIS banners and imagery).
Yet it should be noted that recently the group has reaffirmed an exclusive JN identity by dropping all traces of ISIS imagery from its emblem and indicating the JN affiliation explicitly. Contrast these three logos, the one on the far left a logo from February 2013; the one in the middle introduced in April 2013, after Baghdadi’s announcement of an ISI-JN merger; and the final one a reworking of the one on the left. It has been used before April 2013, but was being used again as of September 2013 (see Figure 13 in the Appendix).

[29] “The Amir of Jabhat al-Nusra in Raqqa Abu Sa’ad al-Hadrami, May God Protect Himself,” Free Syrian Army Forum, April 1, 2013, http://syrianarmyfree.com/vb/showthread.php?t=39928.

[30] “Liberated Raqqa… Clashes Between Armed Battalion and Great Popular Protests and a Girl Holds a Sit-In Demonstration Alone in front of the State of Iraq and ash-Sham Headquarters,” Syria Frontline Blog, August 11, 2013, http://syria.frontline.left.over-blog.com/article-119493981.html.

[31] “In Raqqa… Jawlani vs. Baghdadi: Jabhat al-Nusra Defects and the Shari’a Committee Is Turning into a Wrestling Arena,” al-Hadath News, July 1, 2013, http://www.alhadathnews.net/archives/88058.

[32] Aleppo Islamic News Network, “Jabhat al-Nusra Statement on Its Return to the Province of Raqqa,” September 13, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1400517533510327&set=a.1376419709253443.1073741831.1375938215968259&type=1&theater (accessed September 15, 2013).

[33] See, for example, al-Manarah al-Bayda, “376: Within the Series of Operations ‘Eye for an Eye’: Demolition of the Tu’ma Checkpoint on the Zamlaka-al-Qabun Road Connecting to Damascus,” August 26, 2013, http://justpaste.it/4lox.

[34] Ibid, “382: Within the Series of Operations ‘Eye for an Eye’: Assault and Cleansing of the Village of al-Himam in the Eastern Aleppo Countryside,” August 30, 2013, http://justpaste.it/5i6c.

[35]Baqiyya Media, “Day One of Operation ‘Volcano of Revenge,'” https://ia801901.us.archive.org/19/items/VolcanoOperation/day1.jpg. The attack on the Four Seasons took place at 9:30 a.m. on August 27, 2013; while the attack on the Russian embassy took place at 10:15 a.m. No casualties appear to have occurred as a result of either strike.

[36] Baqiyya Media, List of Groups Participating in “Volcano of Revenge,” August 27, 2013, https://twitter.com/Baqiya_Media/status/372302620838211584/photo/1.

[37] “Urgent: Battle of Ayyam al-Qadisiyya,” August 31, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/YOUSUFDIAB/posts/426782150774822, (accessed September 3, 2013).

[38] Credit goes to the author’s colleague Phillip Smyth for coining this acronym. It should be noted that not all those who may use the ISIS banner in the Sayyida Zaynab area identify themselves as members of ISIS. On May 25, 2013, a statement was released by a spokesman for the battalion “Commandos of the Soldiers of God” [Maghawir] announcing joint operations with Ahfad al-Rasul and “other battalions” against LAFA in Sayyida Zaynab. See “Announcement of an Attack on the Headquarters of Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas in Sayyida Zaynab,” YouTube, May 25, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4QXmbJ-zcU&feature=youtu.be (accessed September 1, 2013). While Maghawir use the FSA flag in their logo, their sympathies for ISIS are quite apparent with the appearance of the banner of Tawhid in the video. Further, in late June 2013, a video emerged on YouTube, showing Maghawir fighters raising the ISIS banner over a Damascus mosque. The group’s rhetoric has also repeatedly referred to Shi’a as “Rafidites.” See “Raising of the Banner of Jihad over the Mosque of the Companion Abu Obeida bin al-Jarrah After Its Liberation,” YouTube, June 23, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFp55-qMwBk (accessed September 1, 2013).

[39] “Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham: Damascus, Southern Region,” August 17, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/DwltAlaslamFyAlraqWalshamAlmntqtAljnwby/posts/621198794578679. Prior to the announcement of ISIS, there has been JN-Liwa al-Islam cooperation in the Sayyida Zaynab area. For example, see this discussion on the jihadi forum al-Platform Media from January 6, 2013, http://alplatformmedia.com/vb/showthread.php?t=17803.

[40] Cf. discussion with Phillip Smyth on this issue.

[41] Ibid, August 30, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=627461047285787 (accessed September 1, 2013).

[42] Corroborated by discussion with ISIS sources.

[43] That JMWA is a front group for ISIS is shown by numerous lines of evidence. Besides the overlap of Abu Umar al-Shishani’s positions in ISIS and JMWA, jihadi sources always identify the two as synonymous. For instance, see this jihadi forum thread discussing JMWA/ISIS providing religious instruction to children in an Idlib village: “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham: Snapshots from Qur’an Memorization Circles in the Village of Salwa,” Yemen-Forum.net, July 17, 2013, http://www.ye1.org/vb/showthread.php?t=735092 (accessed September 1, 2013). As an epilogue note to this article, it should be pointed out that JMWA has subsequently split between those under Umar al-Shishani, who are now just under ISIS, and those following one Salah al-Din al-Shishani, who has retained the JMWA name and affirmed the group’s new independence from ISIS.

[44] The Green Battalion’s Facebook page, August 7, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/alkatebaalkhadraa/posts/1391729221053168 (accessed September 1, 2013).

[45] The contrast here is with what some commentators term “the southern front” (i.e., Damascus and Dar’a). To an extent, ISIS/JN relations with other battalions have been dealt with in the preceding section. With JN in particular, it is clear that the group can coordinate operations with a variety of battalions, as demonstrated in this author’s Jihadology post on their activities in Dar’a. The same is true to a lesser extent for ISIS. Yet the lack of substantial rebel holdings of territory in Damascus and Dar’a in comparison with the north, together with the fact that the ISIS’ presence is significantly smaller in the southern areas, means that FSA-ISIS relations in the south cannot be discussed in nearly the same depth as northern and eastern areas.

[46] Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham Expands into Rural Northern Syria,” Syria Comment, July 18, 2013, http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/the-islamic-state-of-iraq-and-ash-sham-expands-into-rural-northern-syria/.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid. The most recent gesture of dissatisfaction from these three towns comes from Manbij, where a group of rebels describing themselves as the Manbij military council urged ISIS to turn over its large headquarters in the town to the authority of the council. See Aleppo News Network, “Revolutionary Military Council in Manbij Considers the Islamic State a Faction Like the Other Military Factions,” Halab News, August 26, 2013, http://halabnews.com/news/34583. The statement likely reflects the council’s concerns about ISIS’ expanding power base in the town.

[49] See, for example, “Reporters Without Borders: Demonstration Against Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiya in the Town of Raqqa,” YouTube, August 10, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pjPTyvF-8k. This demonstration of course took place after the ISIS-Ahfad al-Rasul clashes began, but the sentiment among opponents of ISIS is equally directed at Ahrar al-Sham, which is the main rebel group controlling the city.

[50] Ahfad al-Rasul Brigades in Raqqa, August 3, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=201765266649519&id=149528001873246.

[51] “Ahfad al-Rasul and the Islamic State wrestle over Raqqa,” al-Mada News, August 8, 2013, http://www.almada.org/news/index/22468.

[52] “Admissions of a Security Officer of Brigade 201 of Ahfad al-Rasul and the Truth of Being Employed by France and Others for Waging War on Islam,” YouTube, August 9, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6k3W3gfRHp8&sns=tw.

[53] Raqqa News Network, August 13, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=571579696218657&set=a.461964663846828.101588.461902453853049&type=1&theater.

[54] Tel Abyad News Network, August 14, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/tall.abyad.news/posts/492294847528277.

[55] “Ahfad al-Rasul Brigades Announce an End to Their Operations Against the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham,” Aks Alser, August 17, 2013, http://www.aksalser.com/?page=view_articles&id=34f248008e9def7744ca1759b91d5c4a&ar=843842874.

[56] “Col. Oqaidi on al-Qaeda, UN Inspectors, and Kurdish Militias,” NOW Lebanon, August 20, 2013, https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/interviews/col-oqaidi-on-al-qaeda-un-inspectors-and-kurdish-militias. Oqaidi subsequently resigned from his position, citing disunity among rebel ranks and warlordism.

[57] Joanna Paraszczuk, “Getting a Story Right–Free Syrian Army, ‘Jihadist Militants,’ and the Capture of Menagh Airbase,” EAWorldView, August 8, 2013, http://eaworldview.com/2013/08/syria-analysis-getting-a-story-right-free-syrian-army-jihadist-militants-capture-of-menagh-airbase/.

[58] Liwa al-Fatah- Aleppo, “Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa al-Ansar–the Mujahid Abu Jandal al-Masri in Mannagh Military Airport and a Message to Bashar,” YouTube, August 12, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtYqx9wqvLQ#at=140 (accessed September 2, 2013).

[59] Corroborated also from discussion with analyst Jonathan Spyer, who has met members of the battalion on the ground, including its deputy commander.

[60] “Important Statement,” Liwa al-Tawheed, July 20, 2013, http://lewaaltawheed.com/?p=4238.

[61] Aleppo and Idlib News Network, “Aleppo: Marea: Demonstration Demanding the Removal of the State of Iraq and ash-Sham,” YouTube, July 19, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NF7u5RdzaWw. The ISIS presence in the town can be traced as far back as June 2013, when a video was uploaded showing a demonstration in Marea in solidarity with Baniyas, featuring an ISIS flag in the background: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8k1mwPRdKk (accessed September 2, 2013).

[62] Justin Vela, “In Syria, Clashes Between Arab Rebels, Kurds,” The Washington Post, November 28, 2012, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-11-28/world/35508209_1_pyd-rebels-and-kurdish-militants-al-nusra.

[63] Omar Hossino and Kinda Kanbar, “How Michel Kilo Negotiated a Tenuous Truce in Ras al-Ayn,” Syria Deeply, March 5, 2013, http://beta.syriadeeply.org/2013/03/michel-kilo-negotiated-tenuous-truce-ras-al-ayn/#.UiULjmakUu8.

[64] Al-Jewar, “Workers Party [PKK] Tramples with Its Shoes on the Banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham in Fierce Battles in Ras al-Ayn,” July 18, 2013, http://aljewar.org/news-45467.aspx.

[65] Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham: Deir ez-Zor and the Wider East of Syria,” Jihadology, June 27, 2013, http://jihadology.net/2013/06/27/musings-of-an-iraqi-brasenostril-on-jihad-jabhat-al-nusra-and-the-islamic-state-of-iraq-and-ash-sham-deir-ez-zor-and-the-wider-east-of-syria/.

[66] “Demonstration of the Free Men of Jarabulus Against Division, the PKK Party, and for Victory to the Islamists,” YouTube, July 18, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=govsVF4Mofk (accessed September 3, 2013). To make a more accurate distinction between PYD and PKK forces, it should be noted that the PKK has a front-group militia called Jabhat al-Akrad (“Kurds’ Front”), which declares affiliation with the FSA.

[67] “The Official Press Site of Abd al-Basit Ahmad al-Khalf,” August 1, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/A.A.Alkhalaf1/posts/385890114867610 (accessed September 3, 2013).

[68] Via ISIS source @zhoof21: “ISIS: Aleppo: Continuation of Clashes with YPG Apostates in the Village of Zor Maghar near Jarabulus,” August 6, 2013, https://twitter.com/zhoof21/status/364812498618179584/photo/1.

[69] Kata’ib al-Ahrar, “Important Statement from Battalions Fighting in Aleppo as Regards the PKK Militias,” August 2, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/KtaibAlahrar1/posts/508902399185411 (accessed September 3, 2013).

[70] A battalion formed in Manbij last year and with declared affiliation to the FSA Military Council in Aleppo. See this video of the statement of their formation: Omawi News, YouTube, September 24, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJ-llFeKKb0 (accessed September 3, 2013).

[71] Affiliated with the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), a coalition of rebel groups of which many have Ikhwani leanings, though Suqur al-Sham has a more Salafi orientation and consists of many Syrian jihadi veterans of the Iraq War.

[72] “Col. Oqaidi on al-Qaeda.”

[73] Kata’ib al-Ahrar, “Important Statement from Battalions Fighting in Aleppo.”

[74] Orient News, “Return of Ordinary Life to the Town of Tel Abyad After Violent Battles,” YouTube, August 19, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=YrXB_l9Adlw#at=37.

[75] See, for example, Tel Abyad News Network, August 19, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/tall.abyad.news/posts/494402173984211 (accessed September 3, 2013).

[76] Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, “Statement on Events in Tel Abyad,” Muslm.org, July 23, 2013, http://www.muslm.org/vb/showthread.php?516320.

[77] See, for example, @zhoof21, “ISIS: al-Hasakah: Striking the Headquarters of the YPG Apostates in the Town of Ras al-Ayn with Mortar Rounds and Artillery Shells,” August 20, 2013, https://twitter.com/zhoof21/status/369607326778818560.

[78] “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham: Damascus, Southern Region,” August 24, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/DwltAlaslamFyAlraqWalshamAlmntqtAljnwby/posts/624664640898761.

[79] Aleppo News Network, “Formation of an Operations Umbrella in the Northern Countryside to Challenge the PKK and PYD,” Halab News, August 14, 2013, http://halabnews.com/news/33413.

[80] Ugarit News, “Hasakah: Statement of the Qamishli Liberation Front,” YouTube, July 18, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DWQ5KkmNvE (accessed September 3, 2013). The transnational jihadi outlook–likely the result of JN/ISIS crossover this author has noted in the Hasakah governorate (note the JN banner)–is made clear with the chanting at the end: “The Caliphate is the promise of God.”

[81] “Exclusive: KNC Decides to Withdraw from all Syrian Opposition Frameworks,” Welati.net, August 18, 2013, http://www.welati.info/nuce.php?ziman=ar&id=9381&niviskar=1&cure=5&kijan=.

[82] See, for example, Amberin Zaman, “PYD Leader to Turkey: Stop Arms to Jabhat al-Nusra,” al-Monitor, August 7, 2013, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2013/08/turkey-still-allowing-weapons-to-jabhat-al-nusra.html.

[83] See, for example, “PYD Forces Syrians to Seek Refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan,” Today’s Zaman, August 25, 2013, http://www.todayszaman.com/news-324526-pyd-forces-syrians-to-seek-refuge-in-iraqi-kurdistan.html.

[84] See, for example, “No Kurdish Peshmerga Forces in Baghdad’s Green Zone,” Shafaaq News, August 6, 2013, http://www.ekurd.net/mismas/articles/misc2013/8/state7254.htm. No formal initiatives have been implemented yet, but plans for cooperation should the need be perceived to arise are on the table. Iraqi Shi’i political figures have also played up rumors of jihadi massacres of Kurds in Syria: e.g., Ali al-Dargham, “Sheikh Jalaluddin al-Saghir: The Approach of Jabhat al-Nusra which Is Killing Kurds Is Takfiri,” Buratha News, August 19, 2013, http://www.burathanews.com/news_article_207465.html.

[85] See, for example, “Kurds Council Joins Opposition Coalition with Preconditions,” ZAMAN ALWSL, August 29, 2013, http://www.zamanalwsl.net/en/readNews.php?id=1267.

[86] The group is a huge movement, as analyst Charles Lister notes, so some diversity of opinion about ISIS is hardly surprising.

[87] Associated Press, “In Syria, Infighting Between al-Qaida Groups and Mainstream Rebels Undermining Revolt,” Fox News, July 15, 2013, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2013/07/15/in-syria-infighting-between-al-qaida-groups-and-mainstream-rebels-undermining/.

[88] See, for example, Max Fisher, “Al-Qaeda Faction in Syria Hands Out Teletubbies and Spiderman Dolls,” The Washington Post, August 13, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/08/13/al-qaeda-faction-in-syria-hands-out-teletubbies-and-spiderman-dolls/, crediting this author for unearthing ISIS’ distribution of Teletubbies dolls to children.

[89] Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Jihad in Syria.”

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Terrorism

Stateless and Leftover ISIS Brides

Sagar N

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While the World is busy fighting the pandemic and the economic devastation caused by it, one of the important problem that has been pushed to dormancy, is the status of the ISIS(Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) brides. The Pandemic has crippled the capacity of the law enforcement and exploiting this the ISIS executed attacks in Maldives, Iraq, and the Philippines. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that terrorists are exploiting the COVID-19 Pandemic. Albeit the ISIS has been defeated, approximately ten thousand of them are in ISIS detention centres in Northern Syria under Kurds. Most of these detention centres are filled by women and children, who are relatives or widows of the ISIS fighters. With their native states denouncing them, the status of the stateless women and children is unclear.

As it stands today states’ counter-terrorism approach has been primarily targeting male militants but women also have played a role in strengthening these terrorist organizations. Women involvement in militant organizations has increased as they perform several activities like birthing next-generation militants/jihadists, managing the logistics and recruiting the new members to the organizations. The world did not recognize women as key players in terrorist organizations until the 1980s when females held major roles in guerilla wars of southern America. Women have either willingly or unwillingly held a variety of roles in these extremist organizations and Islamist terrorist organizations like Hamas and al-Qaeda women do simply provide moral support.

According to the media reports since the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2006 female suicide attacks have been increased and they have been extensively part of ISIS. The ISIS had a female brigade which they called as Al-Khansaa which was established to perform search activities in the state. Both foreign and domestic recruits in the Islamic state have participated in brutal torture. A recently acquired logbook from a guesthouse in Syria provides important information about 1100 females who joined the organization, the western women who are called as ‘the muhajirat’.

When the people from rest of the world joined organizations such as ISIS, they burnt their passports and rejected their national identity. Especially women from western countries who were radicalized online based on their phenomenon ‘ISIS brides/Jihadi brides’ to marry terrorists. Since Islamic State isnot recognized by the world these marriages are not legally valid, apart from this a number of these brides have experienced sexual torture and extreme violence.

While the erstwhile members of the extremist organizations like ISIS and others are left adrift the one challenging question remaining is should states and their societies keep them and reengage or rehabilitate or prosecute them. How firmly the idea of their erstwhile organization is stuck in their minds and especially the followers who crossed the world to join remains a concern to many. The U.S backed Kurdish forces across turkey border hold thousands of these left-behind women and children in their centre. Hundreds of foreign women and children who were once part of an aspirant state, The caliphate are now floating around the concentration camps in Syria, Turkey and Kurdish detention centres and prisons. Many are waiting to return to their origin countries. They pose a unique challenge to their native states like whether to include them or not and even if they include how to integrate adults who at least for a time part of these terrorist organizations and what to do with children who are too young to understand the politics and obstacles keeping them in camps and detention centres where resources are scarce. Women present a problem because its hard to know what kind of crimes they have committed beyond the membership of the terrorist organization.

It is no secret that women also have been part of insurgency across the world, like in ISIS,LTTE,PIRA and PFLP. The responsibility of women in ISIS includes wife to ISIS soldiers, birthing the next generation of jihad and advancing ISIS’ global reach through online recruiting. The International Center for Study of Radicalization (ICAR) estimates that out of 40000 people joined ISIS from 80 different countries nearly 8000 are women and children. After the defeat of ISIS and such extreme organization those who are left behind possess the ideological commitment and practical skills which again a threat upon return to home countries.

The states across the world are either revoking the citizenship or ignore their responsibility. The most famous case of Shamima  Begum a UK citizen married to an ISIS fighter whose citizenship was revoked by the UK government. In other cases like HodaMuthana of the USA and Iman Osman of Tunisia have been the same case. As recently as Tooba Gondal an ISIS bride who now in a detention camp in northern Syria begged to go home in the UK in a public apology.

The American president Donald Trump issued a statement saying women who joined ISIS cannot return. The NATO deputy head said “…returning ISIS fighters and brides must face full rigours of the law”. Revoking the citizenship and making someone stateless is illegal under international law and it is also important to know how gendered these cases are because the UK have successfully prosecuted Mohammad Uddin and the USA has also done it so. Stripping off their citizenship itself a punishment before proper trail and the only good out of it would state can take their hands off in dealing with cases. Samantha Elhassani the only American who repatriated from Iraq so far and pleaded guilty for supporting ISIS. Meanwhile, France is trying to route its citizens who joined the ISIS and extradited few who are under trial in Bagdad.

As experts and political analysts say “countries should take responsibility for their own citizens” because failure to do so will also make the long term situation more dangerous as jihadists will try to a hideout and turn into militant groups for their protection. The children, the second-generation ISIS need cultural centres and rehabilitation centres and this is an international problem. These women known as jihadists brides suffer from a post-traumatic stress disorder and many are pregnant or multiple children born in ISIS territory.

In some countries travelling abroad to join the insurgencies in North Africa and Syria was not always a criminal act, Sweden criminalized such act recently but to prosecute them proof of offences committed in the conflict zone is difficult to collect and most countries in the world do not allow the pre-trial detention for more than 14 days. With problems of different national Lawson extradition and capital punishment and to prosecute them in conflict countries is also a challenge for states. Since Kurdish forces have signalled that they cannot bring all the prisoners into justice the home countries will have to act or else it might create a long term dangerous situation. With the civil war in Syria is about to end it is time to address these issues because since there are more ISIS fighters in Kurdish prisons and detention centres they could be influenced to join rebels who are fighting the regime of Assad in last standing province of Idlib.

If the governments reject the repatriation applications then they will be signalling that their action is essential for national security and thus asserting that failed or poorly resourced states are better equipped to handle potential extremists. The criminal system in Iraq is corrupt and human rights violations have been reported and which creates the risk of further radicalization. One should not forget that even citizenship of Osama bin laden was also stripped but which did not stop him from forming al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. If the citizens commit crimes and forget their responsibility then the states must bring them to justice instead of stripping citizenship. The states must come with a solution for this problem before its too late, setting up an international tribunal to deal with these cases would be a great start but these tribunals are time-consuming and expensive.

States must act as a responsible actor in the international system. Jihadist terrorism is a global problem and states must act together to deal with it because with nearly 40000 fighters joining caliphate from across the world it only shows how global and deeply rooted the phenomenon is. Instead of stripping their citizens’ citizenship, states must find a way to act together for the peace and security of the international community.

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Terrorism

COVID-19: Game-changer for international peace and security

Newsroom

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In Iraq, children look over a wall at clouds of smoke from burning oil wells, the result of oil fires set by ISIL. © UNICEF/Lindsay Mackenzie

The world has “entered a volatile and unstable new phase” in terms of the impact of COVID-19 on peace and security, the UN chief told a virtual meeting with world leaders on Wednesday.

Speaking at one of a series of international meetings among heads of State to enhance global cooperation in fighting terrorism and violent extremism, as part of the Aqaba Process, Secretary-General António Guterres said the pandemic was more than a global health crisis.

“It is a game-changer for international peace and security”, he spelled out, emphasizing that the process can play a key role in “promoting unity and aligning thinking” on how to beat back the pandemic.

Warning lights flashing

Mr. Guterres maintained that the coronavirus has exposed the basic fragility of humankind, laid bare systemic and entrenched inequalities, and thrust into the spotlight, geopolitical challenges and security threats.

“The warning lights are flashing”, he said, pointing out that as the virus is “exacerbating grievances, undermining social cohesion and fueling conflicts”, it is also likely to “act as a catalyst in the spread of terrorism and violent extremism”.

Moreover, international tensions are being driven by supply chain disruptions, protectionism and growing nationalism – with rising unemployment, food insecurity and climate change, helping to fuel political unrest.

A generation in crosshairs

The UN chief also noted that a generation of students is missing school.

“A whole generation…has seen its education disrupted”, he stated. “Many young people are experiencing a second global recession in their short lives.”

He explained that they feel left out, neglected and disillusioned by their prospects in an uncertain world.

Wanted: Global solidarity 

The pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities to emerging threats such as bioterrorism and cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure.

“The world faces grave security challenges that no single country or organization can address alone”, upheld the Secretary-General, “there is an urgent need for global unity and solidarity”.

Recalling the UN’s Virtual Counter-Terrorism Week in July, he reminded that participants called for a “reinvigorated commitment to multilateralism to combat terrorism and violent extremism”.

However, a lack of international cooperation to tackle the pandemic has been “startling”, Mr. Guterres said, highlighting national self-interest, transactional information sharing and manifestations of authoritarianism. 

‘Put people first’

The UN chief stressed that “we must not return to the status quo ante“.

He outlined the need to put people first, by enhancing information sharing and technical cooperation “to prevent terrorists exploiting the pandemic for their own nefarious goals” and thinking “long-term solutions rather than short-term fixes”.

“This includes upholding the rights and needs of victims of terrorism…[and] the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters, especially women and children,  and their dependents to their countries of origin”, he elaborated.

Closing window 

Meanwhile, the risk of COVID-19 is exacerbating the already dire security and humanitarian situation in Syrian and Iraqi camps housing refugees and the displaced.

“The window of opportunity is closing so we must seize the moment”, the UN chief said. “We cannot ignore our responsibilities and leave children to fend for themselves and at the mercy of terrorist exploitation”.

He also expressed confidence that the Aqaba Process will continue to “strengthen international counter-terrorism cooperation, identify and fill capacity gaps, and address evolving security threats associated with the pandemic”, and offered the UN’s “full support”.

Post-COVID rebuilding 

The Secretary-General also addressed the Centenary Summit of the International Organization of Employers (IOE) on how private and public sector cooperation can help drive post-COVID change. 

He lauded the IOE’s “significant contributions” to global policymaking for economic and social progress, job creation and a mutually beneficial business environment, calling it “an important pillar of the International Labour Organization (ILO) since its earliest days”.  

“Today, our primary task is to defeat the pandemic and rebuild lives, livelihoods, businesses, and economies”, he told the virtual Summit.

In building back, he underscored that workers and small business be protected, and everyone be given the opportunity to fulfil their potential. 

Businesses input

The UN chief urged businesses to engage with the multilateral system to create a “conducive global environment for decent work, investment, and sustainability”; and with the UN at the national level, to help ensure that multilateralism “works on the ground”.    

He also encouraged them to actively participate in national and global public-private dialogue and initiatives, stressing, “there must be space for them to do so”. 

Tripartite cooperation

ILO chief Guy Ryder highlighted the need for “conscious policy decisions and tripartite cooperation to overcome transformational challenges”, such as technological change and climate change, as well as COVID-19. 

Mr. Ryder also flagged that employers must continue to collaborate in social dialogue and maintain their commitment to both multilateralism and the ILO.

The IOE represents more than 50 million companies and is a key partner in the international multilateral system for over 100 years as the voice of business at the ILO, across the UN, the G20 richest countries and other emerging forums.

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Terrorism

Traumas of terrorism cannot be erased, but victims’ voices must never be forgotten

Newsroom

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In remembering and honouring all victims of terrorism, Secretary-General António Guterres said the UN stands by those who grieve and those who “continue to endure the physical and psychological wounds of terrorist atrocities”.

“Traumatic memories cannot be erased, but we can help victims and survivors by seeking truth, justice and reparation, amplifying their voices and upholding their human rights”, he stressed.

Keep spotlight on victims, even amid pandemic

This year’s commemoration takes place against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, when vital services for victims, such as criminal justice processes and psychosocial support, have been interrupted, delayed or ended as Governments focus attention and resources on fighting the pandemic.

Moreover, many memorials and commemorations have been cancelled or moved online, hampering the ability of victims to find solace and comfort together. 

And the current restrictions have also forced the first-ever UN Global Congress of Victims of Terrorism has to be postponed until next year.

“But it is important that we keep a spotlight on this important issue,” stressed the UN chief.

“Remembering the victims of terrorism and doing more to support them is essential to help them rebuild their lives and heal”, said Mr. Guterres, including work with parliamentarians and governments to draft and adopt legislation and national strategies to help victims.

The Secretary-General vowed that “the UN stands in solidarity with all victims of terrorism – today and every day” and underscored the need to “ensure that those who have suffered are always heard and never forgotten”.

Terrorism unjustifiable

General Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande saluted the resilience of terrorist survivors and called the day “an opportunity to honour the memories of the innocent civilians who have lost their lives as a result of terrorist acts around the world”.

“Terrorism, in all forms and manifestations, can never be justified”, he stated. “Acts of terrorism everywhere must be strongly condemned”.
The UN commits to combating terrorism and the Assembly has adopted resolutions to curb the scourge while working to establish and maintain peace and security globally. 

Strengthen assistance

Mechanisms for survivors must be strengthened to safeguard a “full recovery, rehabilitation and re-integration into society through long-term multi-dimensional support”, stated the UN official.

“Together we can ensure that you live a full life defined by dignity and freedom. You are not alone in this journey. You are not forgotten”, concluded the Assembly president.

‘Human dimension’ 

Closing the event, Vladimir Voronkov, chief of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, maintained that victims represent “the very human dimension of terrorism”.

While terrorists try to depersonalize victims by reducing them to mere numbers or statistics, Mr. Voronkov maintained that “we have a responsibility to do the exact opposite”.

“We must see victims’ hopes, dreams and daily lives that have been shattered by terrorist violence – a shattering that carries on long after the attack is over”, he stated. “We must ensure their human rights are upheld and their needs are met”.

Reaffirming humanity

While acknowledging the “terrible reality of terrorism”, Mr. Voronkov flagged that the survivors shine as “examples of resilience, and beacons of hope, courage and solidarity in the face of adversity”.

In reaffirming “our common humanity”, he urged everyone to raise awareness of victims needs and rights.

“Let us commit to showing them that they are not alone and will never be forgotten”, concluded the Counter-Terrorism chief.

Survivors remember

At the virtual event, survivors shared their stories while under lockdown, agreeing that the long-term impacts of surviving any kind of an attack is that the traumatic experience never really goes away.

Tahir from Pakistan lost his wife in attack against the UN World Food Programme (WFP) office in Islamabad.  

“If you have an accident, you know how to cope with it. Terminal illness, you know how to cope with it. But there is no coping mechanism for a person who dies in an act of terror”, he said.

Meanwhile Nigeel’s father perished in the 1998 US Embassy attack in Kenya, when he was just months years old. 

The 22 year-old shared: “When you are growing, it really doesn’t have a heavy impact on you, but as life starts to unfold, mostly I’ll find myself asking if I do this and my dad was around, would he be proud of me?”

And Julie, from Australia, lost her 21-year-old daughter in the 2017 London Bridge attack.

“The Australian police came to our house and said ‘we have a body, still not confirmed’, so they recommended that we fly to London”, she recalled. “I can’t describe how devastating as a parent to lose a child in these circumstances is for the rest of your life”.

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