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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.”

Terrorism

Impact of Terrorist Organizations in the Middle East

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Terrorism is a significant variable in security studies and it is hindering a wide range of safety. Likewise, because of the emotional expansion in psychological militant assaults in the course of the most recent twenty years, have economies have found a way broad ways to work on the political, social, and financial circumstances by diminishing outer struggles and fear monger assaults.

The Global Terrorism Database (GTD) distinguishes psychological oppression as a danger or genuine utilization of illicit or vicious power by a non-administrative individual or gathering to accomplish a political, monetary, strict, or social objective through dread. This is on the grounds that these exercises are intended to make mental impacts and their belongings go past the survivors of fear-monger occurrences.

Definitions of terrorism are dubious because of issues of marking activities as psychological warfare advances the judgment of the entertainers, which might  reflect philosophical or political predisposition. Definition of terrorism as characterized by the Global Terrorism Database  (GTD) is  termed  as “a  non-state  entertainer’s  compromised  or  genuine use  of unlawful authority and viciousness to attain a political, monetary, strict, or social purpose through dread, coercion, or scaring.” The people in issue, or the victims of fear-based oppression, have little in common with the fear-mongers, but they address a larger human population whose response the fear-mongers need. It is critical to comprehend that fear mongers are sane entertainers. They have a particular reason for their utilization of savagery and guess that it will make a response from the crowd that they are focusing on.

According to the GTD (2018), the Middle East has accumulated the greatest number of losses on the planet, notably since roughly 2001. Due to challenges such as high unemployment rates, money shortages, single-item financial elements, low levels of per capita payments, and slow monetary growth in the Middle East, these countries must rely on foreign speculation to beat these problems. Given the financial needs of these countries, bringing in an unfamiliar endeavour can play an important role. Differentiating the effects of capital flight and fear- based negative events in these countries might help policymakers improve or maintain business as usual.

In 2016, Iraq had 2,965 terrorist attacks, Afghanistan had 1,342, and Syria had 366. Conversely, there were 30 fear-monger assaults in all of Western Europe around the same time. However, the Global Terrorism Database notes that the number of fear-mongering attacks in Europe is increasing, the situation in the Middle East is far more concerning—a region where assaults are a piece of day-to-day existence for some residents.

The costs of psychological warfare, on the other hand, go far beyond literal annihilation. There are also significant social and financial consequences in the Middle East. ISIS has scoured a large number of historical heritage places in Iraq and Syria. Given their social and historical significance, the worth of many of these locations is incalculable. According to some sources, the sale of stolen antiques on the black market may be ISIS’ second-largest source of revenue, after oil. Some of these antique relics have been discovered in London’s antique shops. UNESCO has added a number of important locations to its list of endangered places due to pillage and obliteration, including six new sites in 2013.

The emotional drop-off in the travel business inside Syria and Iraq adds to these disasters. The Syrian Ministry of Tourism has attempted to aid the tourism business by distributing a series of YouTube recordings. The recordings show Syria’s recognisable blue waves and beautiful seashores, in an effort to rehabilitate a country that many associate solely with war atrocities. In 2011, just before the Syrian civil war reached its most destructive stage, 8.5 million tourists visited the country, contributing almost $8.3 billion to the economy (around 13.5 percent of Syria’s GDP). In 2014, however, only 400,000 tourists visited Syria. Several nations, including Tunisia and Egypt, have seen similar drops in the travel industry following psychological oppressor attacks, causing massive economic damage.

Oil is one of the Middle East’s most basic endeavours, and terrorism has a huge impact on it. Oil offices have been identified by psychological militants in a few Middle Eastern countries, causing supply shortages. Because of ISIS attacks, Iraqi oil production dropped by as much as 320,000 barrels per day at one time. Various oil offices are included in ISIS’ jurisdiction. The profits from oil sales go to the psychological militant group, diverting funds that would otherwise go to public foundation programmes. ISIS held 60% of Syria’s oil reserves in 2014, and the group made approximately $3 million per day from the illegal oil trade. Despite the fact that ISIS has recently lost a lot of territory, it still controls large wells in northern Iraq, preventing Baghdad from collecting much-needed cash.

Psychological oppression has a considerably greater impact on the Middle East’s economy than it does on the European economy. Given that the Middle East has seen the sharpest increase in illegal intimidation over the past 15 years, it appears to be a basic mistake that assessments have not attempted to gauge the absolute cost of psychological tyranny.

Organizations in Western nations which store these investigations are, maybe justifiably, more concerned about the impact of psychological persecution on their own countries. It is simple for the Western world to excuse the expense of psychological warfare in the Middle East since it is both far away and a piece of day-to-day existence for the area’s kin. Interestingly, demonstrations of terrorism in the West are considered perilous abnormalities.

While the actual effects of terrorism in the Middle East should be the primary focus of counterterrorism efforts, the financial consequences should not be disregarded. Estimating the cost of psychological warfare as a means of identifying knowledge gaps and obstacles has merit. Counterterrorism authorities should help alleviate the excessive financial repercussions that fanatic gatherings have on the Middle East by recognising and securing vital territorial income streams like the tourism industry and oil.

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Terrorism

The Deadliest Enemies: China’s Overseas Military Bases in Central Asia and Uyghur’s Turkestan Islamic Party

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Abdul Haq al Turkestani, the leader of Uyghur Jihadists

Amid the burgeoning sentimental relationship between Beijing and the resurrected Taliban’s Emirate 2.0, the al Qaeda-affiliated Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) has aggravated its propaganda war against Communist China, hence cleverly concealing its historically faithful jihadi bonds with the Afghan Taliban. Despite the Taliban’s assurances of non-interference in China’s internal affairs, Beijing is building up its military presence in post-Soviet Central Asia. One example is its establishment of military bases in the Af-Pak-China-Tajik strategic arena near the isthmus of the Wakhan Corridor in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan province.

Although China did not camouflage its contentment with the failed US policy in Afghanistan and sought to leverage the Taliban victory as its foreign policy asset, Beijing has faced the Taliban’s elusive stance in curbing the Uyghur jihadists challenges. Today, the Celestial is well conscious of its harsh realities. With the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan, Beijing lost a safe buffer zone in the strategically critical Afghan-Chinese borders area in Badakhshan, which has afforded with free secure area for over 20 years. While the US’s presence in the region disturbed China, it nevertheless provided Beijing with relative stability and protected from the infiltration of global al Qaeda elements into the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Therefore, by showcasing its concern over its instability in the neighboring country, Beijing prefers to pressure Taliban on security matters, claiming that Afghanistan should not become a safe haven for terrorist organizations such as the Turkestan Islamic Party. On October 25, during the bilateral meeting in Qatar’s Doha, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pressed Taliban’s Acting Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi to make a clean break with Uyghur jihadists of TIP and to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a hotbed of global terrorism.

The Taliban’s Interim government is accustomed in responding to such external pressures from its neighbors and the international community. The typicality of its response lies in the denial of the presence of Central Asian and Uyghur terrorist groups on Afghan soil, further wittily dodging the topic of its ties with al Qaeda. Taliban strategists seeking international recognition have apparently developed cunning tactics to carefully conceal their ties to al Qaeda and Central Asian jihadi groups, while maintaining the bayat (oath of allegiance) of veteran strategic partners in holy jihad.

And this time, Taliban representative Suhail Shaheen voiced a stock answer, stating “many Uyghur fighters of TIP have left Afghanistan because the Taliban has categorically told them there is no place for anyone to use Afghan soil against other countries, including its neighboring countries.” But the Chinese authorities are well aware of the Taliban’s insincerity on this matter. In turn, the Taliban realized that the authorities of China and Central Asian states did not believe their statements. As a consequence, Beijing denied the Taliban’s claims, claiming that approximately 200-300 Uyghur militants of TIP currently live in the Takhar province near Baharak town.

Certainly, to calm Chinese concerns and encourage deeper economic cooperation with Beijing, the Taliban has removed TIP Uyghur jihadists from the 76-kilometer Afghan-China border area in Badakhshan to the eastern province of Nangarhar in early October. The Taliban’s double play testifies their walk on a fine line between pragmatism and jihadi ideology, especially when they simultaneously want to look like a state and maintain a historical relationship with al Qaeda.

A short look at Taliban-China relations

Since the mid-1990s, the Af-Pak border arena has remained at the center of China’s security and counter-terrorism strategy. Chinese policymakers were concerned that the TIP’s Uyghur militants found refuge in Afghanistan’s border region of Badakhshan and are waging a decades-old holy jihad to liberate Eastern Turkestan from the iron claw of Beijing. Within this framework, China’s counter-terrorism policy aims to prevent the challenge of the TIP Uyghur jihadists who have been deeply integrated into global al Qaeda’s structure over the past quarter-century. This undertaking surfaced on Beijing’s agenda since the collapse the pro-Moscow regime of Mohammad Najibullah in 1992 and became extremely acute after the Taliban’s lightning seizure of power in August 2021.

In order to break the long-standing and trusted jihadi ties between TIP and the Taliban, Beijing has emerged as a pragmatic backer of the Taliban’s new rule, promising economic and development support through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For its part, the Interim Afghan government, seeking international recognition, has called China a most important partner and pushed for deeper cooperation with Beijing.

Following the steps of its historical diplomacy of flexibility and pragmatism from the Qing dynasty, Beijing has forged a pragmatic and operative relationship with the Taliban for nearly thirty years. Since Taliban’s first rise to power in 1996, this pragmatic relationship has been centered in China’s counterterrorism strategy. Guided by the “Art of War” strategy of the ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, Beijing decided to “defeat the enemy without fighting”. In 1999, China launched flights between Kabul and Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur region, and established economic ties with the Taliban who patronized Uyghur militants of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM – now TIP).

In December 2000, China’s Ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin met with the Taliban’s founder leader Mullah Omar in Kandahar, in which Lu voiced Beijing’s position on the need to stop harboring Uyghur jihadists operating in Afghanistan. Consecutively, the Taliban anticipated that China would recognize their government and prevent further UN sanctions. During the meeting, Mullah Omar assured Lu that the Taliban “will not allow any group to use its territory for any activities against China.” But this deal was only half materialized. While Omar did restrain Uyghur jihadists to attack China’s interests in Af-Pak zone, he did not expel them from Afghanistan. And Beijing did not oppose new UN sanctions against the Taliban, it only abstained.

Following the collapse of Mullah Omar’s so-called Sharia regime after 9/11, China did not sever its ties with the Taliban leaving room for strategic change in the future. Putting eggs in different baskets, in 2014-2020, China secretly hosted Taliban delegations in Beijing several times and provoked them to active struggle against foreign invaders for the liberation of the country. However, China’s central focus in their contacts with the Taliban has always been to curb the Uyghur jihad against the Celestial and build a first line of defense in the Wakhan Corridor along the Af-Pak-China-Tajik strategic arena.

Hence, according to China’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy, securing BRI strategic projects overseas from TIP attacks and blocking the Salafi-Jihadi ideology in Xinjiang became even more important for Beijing since the Taliban overtook the power. Counterterrorism and concerns of Islamic radicalization were the justification for China’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, where the CCP has imprisoned more than 1.5 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz Muslim minorities in concentration camps, manically depriving them of their religion, language and culture since 2014.

China’s military footprint in Central Asia

Predictably, the abrupt US withdrawal from Afghanistan encouraged Beijing to continue its aggressive and assertive foreign policy toward Central Asia to expand its BRI projects in the region. If before, in exchange for its economic assistance, Beijing demanded from Central Asian nations to adhere the “One-China policy” (recognition Taiwan as part of PRC) and support its war against “three evils” (separatism, religious extremism and international terrorism), then now it is also stepping up the military footprint in the region.

On October 27, the Tajik Majlisi Namoyandagon (lower house of parliament) approved China’s proposal to fund the construction of a $10 million military base in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province near the intersection of the Af-China-Tajik borders arena. The agreement which reached between Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry and China’s Public Security Ministry, indicates the new base would be owned by the Rapid Reaction Group of the Interior Ministry.

This is not Beijing’s first overseas military base in Central Asia. China already operates a military base located 10 km from the Tajik-Afghan border and 25 km from the Tajik-Chinese border in the Tajikstan’s Gorny Badakhshan province on the isthmus of the Wakhan corridor. Thus, the Chinese base overlooks a crucial entry point from China into Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In accordance with secret agreements signed in 2015 or 2016 between China and Tajikistan, Beijing has built three commandant’s offices, five border outposts and a training center, and refurbished 30 guard posts on the Tajik side of the country’s border with Afghanistan.

In July 2021, the Tajik government offered to transfer complete control of this military base to Beijing and waive any future rent in exchange for military aid from China. The Chinese military base in Tajikistan has no regular troops of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), but has representatives of the People’s Armed Police (PAP). It is worth pointing out that China, concerned about the activities of TIP’s militants in Xinjiang and their potential links with transnational terrorism, adopted the first counter-terrorism legislation on December 27, 2015. The law provides a legal basis for various counter-terrorism organs, including the PAP, empowering it with broad repressive functions. PAP members currently serve at China’s overseas military base in Tajikistan, the main function of which is counter-terrorism monitoring of Tajik-Af-Pak border movements.

It is imperative to note that China is concentrating its military facilities not in the depths of Tajik territory but precisely on the isthmus of the vital Wakhan corridor at the Af-Pak-China-Tajik borders intersection. In the mid-90s, Uyghur militants fled China’s brutal repression via the Wakhan corridor to join the Taliban, al Qaeda and TIP in Afghanistan. In their propaganda messages, TIP ideologists often mention the Wakhan Corridor as a “Nusrat (victory) trail” through which the “long-awaited liberation of East Turkestan from the Chinese infidels will come.”

The mastery of the Af-Pak-China-Tajik strategic arena is currently critical to Beijing for several reasons. First, the holding the Wakhan Gorge allows China not to depend solely on the will of the Taliban to prevent attacks by Uyghur jihadists of TIP. Secondly, it gives China an additional lever of pressure on the Taliban to sever their ties with Uyghur militants, playing on the contradictions between Tajikistan and the Afghan Interim government. And finally, Beijing is well positioned to protect its future investments in the Afghan economy through the BRI project.

China’s aggressive and assertive move into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence does not make the Kremlin nervous as much as the US military presence in the region. Quite possibly, China’s expansion of its military presence in Tajikistan was coordinated with Russia, which considers Central Asia to be its southern flank. Because Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are part of the Russian-led CSTO military alliance, opening a foreign military base in one of them requires the consent of this military block. Now, the two most considerable regional powers, Russia and China can be expected to pursue common counterterrorism strategies through the coordination and information-sharing on TIP Uyghur jihadists and Russian-speaking fighters based in Taliban-led Afghanistan.

Propaganda war between Communist China and Turkestan Islamic Party

As Beijing tries to fill the power vacuum left by the United States and expand its political and economic influence over the Afghan Taliban’s Interim Government, the veteran Uyghur jihadi group of Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) and newly emerged Katibat al-Ghuraba al-Turkestani (KGT) are respectively intensifying their ideological war against the China’s Communist regime.

The media center Islam Avazi (Voice of Islam), the TIP’s propaganda machine, systematically and vociferously criticizes the Chinese Communist government as “atheist occupiers” and “Chinese invaders” for occupying the lands of East Turkestan. Recently the TIP’s main mouthpiece in its weekly radio program on the Uyghur-language website ‘Muhsinlar’ stated that “China’s overseas military bases are evidence of its evil intentions to occupy new Islamic lands through creeping expansion.” Then the Uyghur speaker insists that “temporarily settling in new lands, the Chinese kafirs (disbeliever) will never leave there, a vivid example of which is the tragic experience of East Turkistan, whose religion, culture and history are Sinicized, and its titular Muslims are being brutally repressed.”

Our research indicates that despite their longstanding involvement in the global jihad in Afghanistan and Syria and their strong alliances through oaths of allegiance (bayat) with al Qaeda, Taliban and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the central ideology of Uyghur Jihadists is the fight against the Chinese Communist regime. The strategic goal of the Turkestan Islamic Party is to liberate the historical lands of East Turkestan, now known as Xinjiang, from the occupation of the Chinese “communist infidels” and to build its own state with Sharia rule there. In their regular statements, audios and videos, TIP propagandists raised the victimization of Uyghur Muslims during China’s occupation of East Turkistan, which has long been a key theme in TIP’s ideological doctrine.

Amid establishing Chinese overseas military bases in Central Asia, TIP’s media center Islam Avazi has sharply intensified anti-Beijing propaganda. Both the Taliban and TIP have double standards in this regard. Criticizing the Chinese Communist regime, TIP deliberately avoids and never condemns Taliban’s recent close ties with the China. At the same time, when the Taliban recently criticized New Delhi for persecuting Muslims in Indian-administered Kashmir and call themselves defenders of the oppressed Muslim Ummah, they tried to sidestep the topic of China’s crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Future of Uyghur Jihad in Post-American Afghanistan

Thus, even though the TIP remains an essential player of global jihad and a vanguard for the Uyghur cause, China’s pressure on the Taliban and its military bases in Central Asia will force Uyghur fighters to curb their jihadi ambitions in post-American Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, as before, the Taliban will continue their attempts to marginalize Central Asian jihadi groups in Afghanistan, making them completely dependent on their will and exploiting them for their political purposes.

It is difficult to predict to what extent the Uyghur jihadists have the strength and patience to withstand Taliban moral pressure and Chinese intelligence persecution in the new Afghanistan. Interestingly, researchers at the Newlines Institute claim the Taliban’s collaboration with Chinese military advisers present in Afghanistan. According to a senior source within the Taliban, “some 40 advisers from China (including some military ones) deployed to Afghanistan on October 3.” Therefore, it will be difficult for TIP to maintain its developed propaganda apparatus, to enhance its organizational capabilities in the new realities of Afghanistan, when Chinese overseas military bases are breathing down its neck.

Beijing’s military footprint on the Af-Pak-China-Tajik border arena will force TIP to demonstrate its diplomatic and strategic ability in seeking support and solidarity from numerous umbrellas jihadi organizations such as al Qaeda, Jalaluddin Haqqani’s Haqqani network, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, HTS, and even Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K). Suppose al Qaeda continues to weaken, and IS-K grows stronger via targeted attacks and successful recruitment. In that case, Central Asian jihadists may change their jihadi flag and join IS-K. The most capable defectors from al Qaeda to ISIS were Uzbek, Tajik and Uyghur foreign fighters in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, as their experience has shown.

Any TIP’s move to take the jihad back to Xinjiang for its liberation, undoubtedly, will face steep odds. Beijing’s repressive security measures, such as high-tech mass surveillance and mass detention of Uyghurs in so-called re-education camps, have long deprived TIP of its network in Xinjiang. Worries that TIP is poised to ravage Xinjiang, therefore, seem overblown. With demographic changes in the Xinjiang region, where the Han population is almost the majority, the TIP has lost its social underpinning and perspective of waging jihad within the country.

In conclusion, wary of antagonizing Beijing and its dependence on Chinese economic largesse, the Taliban Interim government will progressively reduce its support for Uyghur jihadists. The establishment of Chinese military bases on the isthmus of the Wakhan Corridor and the strengthening of its anti-terrorism initiatives, combined with the monitoring of the Af-Pak-China-Tajik arena, call into question the extent to which TIP can conduct operations against China’s BRI.

Lastly, a rapprochement between China and the Taliban leaves TIP cornered, limiting room for maneuver and forcing some Uyghur Muhajireen (foreign fighters) to carry out a hijrah (migration) to Syria’s Idlib province to join their fellow tribesmen from Xinjiang. Nevertheless, despite this grim appraisal of TIP’s prospects in post-American Afghanistan, it can capitalize from its commitment to transnational jihad and expand its international network exploiting the Syrian melting pot. Indeed, given the physical remoteness from China’s overseas military bases, the Syrian quagmire will give the TIP a certain latitude, strengthening its ability to assert itself on the global jihad.

Author’s note: This article was first published by a SpecialEurasia Research Institute, which partners with Modern Diplomacy.

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Terrorism

Can the Taliban tame ETIM?

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Uighur jihadists of Turkestan Islamic Party

The Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) is also known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is a Uyghur Islamic extremist organization founded in the Xinjiang province of China. TIP is the new name, although China still calls it by the name ETIM and refuses to acknowledge it as TIP. The ETIM was founded in 1997 by Hasan Mahsum before being killed by a Pakistani army in 2003. Its stated aim is to establish an independent state called ‘East Turkestan’ replacing Xinjiang. The United States removed it from its list of terrorist Organizations in 2020. The group and its ties to Muslim fundamentalism have compounded Chinese concerns about the rising threat of terrorism within the country.

In Tianjin, the Taliban’s political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar again pledged to “never allow any force” to engage in acts detrimental to China. Suhail Shaheen, the Afghan Taliban’s spokesperson, said in an exclusive interview with the Global Times that many ETIM members had left Afghanistan because Taliban had categorically told them that Afghanistan can’t be used to launch attacks against other countries. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had also asked the Taliban to crack down on the ETIM, which is based out of the Xinjiang province. In view of the Taliban’s pro-China stance on the ETIM, the article will assess the feasibility of the Taliban’s promises of not providing sanctuaries to the groups which are direct threat to the national security of China.

First, this statement surprises the experts in view of the Taliban’s historic relationship with the ETIM.  According to a recent United Nations Security Council report, ETIM has approximately 500 fighters in northern Afghanistan, mostly located in Badakhshan province, which adjoins Xinjiang in China via the narrow Wakhan Corridor. Most of Badakhshan is now under Taliban control, but according to some reports, Tajik, Uzbek, Uighur and Chechen fighters comprise the bulk of the local Taliban rank and file, rather than Pashtun fighters. This scenario appears very challenging for the top leadership of the Taliban to deny sanctuaries to such loyalists.

Second, ETIM is operating in Afghanistan since 1990. It has strong links with the local Taliban commanders. The local Taliban commanders may put pressure on the top leadership or hinder the extradition of ETIM members from Afghanistan. Zhu Yongbiao, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at Lanzhou University, thinks that ETIM members in Afghanistan still have some influence. It may not be easy for the Taliban to fully cut ties with all ETIM members in Afghanistan as it may hurt other military militants that used to support it.

Third, the Taliban’s capacity to tame the ETIM is limited because its all members and leadership have scattered across Afghanistan, Syria and Turkey. Zhang Jiadong, a professor with the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, told the Global Times, “In recent years, the ETIM also changed its living areas overseas. The exact number of ETIM members is hard to know but “its core members are living in countries including Pakistan, Syria, and Turkey. More of them stay in Syria than in Afghanistan and have been keeping a low profile in recent years”.

Fourth, the ETIM has developed close ties with international militant organizations, including Al Qaeda. Moreover, Al Qaeda has significant influence over the Taliban. Al Qaeda has ability and resources to sabotage the extradition of ETIM members from Afghanistan. Some militant organizations including IS-K have developed the ideological differences with the Afghan Taliban. IS-K recently used a Uyghur fighter for suicide campaign in Afghanistan just to show fissure between the Taliban and ETIM. So, this trend can be a challenge for the Afghan Taliban.

The Taliban’s new stance of not providing sanctuaries to the ETIM contradicts with some of its founding principles. The Taliban’s new version on ETIM is not easy to follow. Time will be the true judge of the feasibility of Taliban’s new stance.

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