3 Feb 2014

Five Reasons Why It Is Stupid To Say ISIL Instead of ISIS for Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria

Some in the media continue to refer to the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Here are five reasons why that's stupid: (joking, don't shoot).

1. "Al-Sham" is a word often used for Syria, and more specifically for Damascus. "Bilad al Sham", on the other hand, is Levant or Greater Syria. 

2. When the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra spoke about their move from Iraq to Syria to form Jabhat al-Nusra, he spoke of moving to "al-Sham".

3. When ISIS was formed, they certainly didn't mean the group would operate in all of Greater Syria or Levant. It was only recently that they announced they would open a branch in Lebanon.

4. Often when there are Arabic words whose translation into English is disputed, it's better (academically speaking) to use the Arabic word and explain what it is – in this case, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (still ISIS).

5. If we concede again that "al-Sham" means not only Syria, then there is a name for that: Greater Syria. When we use the older term "Levant", that should be used alongside the older name "Mesopotamia" for Iraq. When you use modern "Iraq", use the modern term "Greater Syria" -- in that case, it's the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (still ISIS).


27 Jan 2014

Hizbollah’s misleading anti-takfiri rhetoric gains traction

Since its inception after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Hizbollah has presented itself as a resistance movement for all Lebanese people. Historically, it has enjoyed widespread support inside and outside the country, but that image started to unravel as it aligned itself with the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war.

The perception of Hizbollah as a nakedly sectarian party took a while to sink in among people in the region, but eventually the shift occurred. This led some to predict the demise of Hizbollah, and say that its clout in Lebanon has been significantly diminished. But what if the opposite is happening? There are reasons to believe that Hizbollah’s relevance is on the rise, not only in Lebanon, but in the region.

Hizbollah recognises that promoting itself as a resistance or a non-sectarian movement has become a hard sell, so it has opted for the next best bet: being an anti-takfiri party. By “takfiris”, Hizbollah refers to radical Salafis, a group that is equally despised by both Sunnis and Shias. This shift in rhetoric – which can be felt in Hassan Nasrallah’s recent public statements and in media outlets close to the party – is gaining traction.

By adopting this rhetoric, together with the rising sectarian tensions in Lebanon and regionally, Hizbollah can ensure two things: it will strengthen its leadership of the Shia community in Lebanon, as it positions itself as the most capable defender of the community, compared to the pacifist or moderate Shia political and religious strands in Lebanon. The party will also find sympathisers for its cause among Sunnis who fear the rise of Al Qaeda.

In this sense, Hizbollah can still reconcile its image as a sectarian militia with its potential value as a counterweight to Sunni jihadis. If it does, it might compensate for the political and ideological capital it has lost following its gamble in Syria.

While many are rightly concerned about Hizbollah’s ambitions, they also still view it as a rational, responsible party that has often shown restraint when violence escalated in Lebanon. They also view it as a militia with which they can work to contain unruly Sunni jihadis. As jihadis gain ground in the region, and as official armies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon continue to falter or fail to provide security, fewer people inside and outside the region will find it necessary for Hizbollah to hand over its arms or see it marginalised.

Indeed, Hizbollah and the Syrian regime emphasised the need to reach out to individuals and groups that share their sentiments towards takfiris. A pro-Hizbollah writer, in a recent column in the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, pointed out that “there are Sunni (and Christian) forces, parties and individuals who are enlightened and nationalist in Lebanon and in the Arab world and who oppose takfiris and their supporters”. Such a call was echoed this week by Bashar Al Assad during a meeting with Lebanese Sunni religious clerics in Damascus. Mr Al Assad called on moderate clerics to fight Wahhabi and takfiri thought.

It is worth noting that because the Syrian conflict is continuing, Hizbollah’s role in the civil war heightens the contempt it is held in by some in the region.

For Hizbollah, the new rhetoric can be more sustainable and convenient than its previous ones. Sectarian tensions and religious extremism are steadily rising. Shia in the Levant and Iraq are more religiously and politically polarised than ever. For the first time in history, Shia militias cross borders to fight for a religious cause in Syria. As Hizbollah positions itself as a formidable militia and political actor that can face down the Sunni extremists, it can establish itself as a more relevant player in the region – even if the Assad regime falls.

In terms of the balance of power, a mistake is often made by observers that as a minority religious sect, it is not in the interest of Shia groups to alienate majority Sunnis by being more active politically and militarily. But groups such as Hizbollah have advantages over the majority with which they live, regionally speaking; their militias are better trained and politically more equipped to rally up other minorities with them against Sunni extremists.

The change in Hizbollah’s rhetoric, of course, was not a conscious decision in the beginning. Its intervention in Syria predated the rise of jihadis in the country. But, just as the Assad regime has done, it has successfully used the rise of these groups to its advantage.

It was clear that Hizbollah was initially concerned about the colossal damage to its image caused by its alignment with the Assad regime. But that concern started to fade as extremists dominated the Syrian conflict. And Hizbollah’s concern has been replaced by confidence, evident in its leader’s recent public pronouncements.

The change in rhetoric means that the battle against Hizbollah takes a different face. The party cannot emerge as the only player that can fight extremism, in the same way that it should not have been seen as the only one that was willing to “resist” Israel. If the party manages to establish itself as anti-takfir militia, that will make it even more resilient than before.

Fighting extremism and sectarianism must be the business of responsible countries in the region that have no interest in allowing Hizbollah to turn its bloody involvement in the Syrian conflict into a historic opportunity. The battle against Hizbollah must not be limited to measures such as tightening the screws on its financial routes. The battle must be to make it irrelevant.

The article originally appeared in The National

Maliki’s war on Al Qaeda is tainted by sectarian politics

In a lot of ways, Iraq today resembles Iraq in 2005. Many Sunni tribal and religious leaders are standing side by side with the federal government to fight Al Qaeda in the province of Anbar. But, just like the period that followed that momentum, Baghdad and Washington are set to miss a historic opportunity that will eventually play into the hands of Al Qaeda.

There are competing narratives for what has happened in Anbar since Nouri Al Maliki, the prime minister, announced the military offensive on December 25. Some maintain that various Sunni leaders support the military campaign to expel the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). Others say that the Sunni tribes are facing down Mr Al Maliki’s sectarian forces. The reality is more nuanced, and that is where the opportunity lies.

“We don’t like Isis, but we also don’t like to be treated like second-class citizens,” said Falah Al Aissawi, the deputy head of the Anbar provincial council. The reality is that many Sunnis are as opposed to Al Qaeda as everyone else in Iraq. Though they have been alienated by Mr Al Maliki for years, they view him as the lesser of two evils, which is why many prominent Sunni leaders have supported the campaign.

But the way Mr Al Maliki has conducted the campaign seems likely to backfire. The first of his blunders was the speech in which he announced the campaign. He described the campaign as “a fierce confrontation between the supporters of Hussain and the supporters of Yazid” – referring to the killing of the Prophet’s grandson, Hussain (a Shia symbol of martyrdom), by the army of the second Ummayad caliph, Yazid bin Muawia, in Karbala. Then, footage emerging from the campaign showed security forces raising Shia religious banners and slogans.

It was strange for the prime minister to use unequivocally sectarian language while state media broadcast non-stop interviews with Sunni tribal and religious figures who spoke in favour of the military campaign. Such statements and slogans only lend weight to the propaganda from Isis that they are facing a sectarian government that has no interest in integrating them into a fair system. Instead of uttering sectarian language, Mr Al Maliki had a golden opportunity to work with Sunni tribal and religious leaders to stabilise the restive Sunni region. Had he done that, sectarian tensions would be significantly reduced as Sunnis would find the government to be for every Iraqi, regardless of their sect, and Shia who are rightly fearful of Al Qaeda would see that Sunnis can be partners against extremism.

It is naive to think that Mr Al Maliki did not intend to sound sectarian – it was not a passing comment but made in long and coherent sentences. The question is, what is the purpose? There is also a question about the timing of the campaign.

Mr Al Maliki insists that local protest camps have been breeding grounds for extremism and have been used by Al Qaeda as bases to launch attacks in other areas. But these sites have been in place for a year. And sectarian language at the podiums in the camps, by many accounts, was used many months ago and that it was actually toned down later after pressure from some protest leaders. Additionally, Al Qaeda had been more active and deadly before October than when the campaign was announced.

Some say the timing came after officials felt that the population in Anbar was ready to cooperate with the government due to their estrangement by radicals in their areas. But if that is the case, why would the prime minister use sectarian language that would potentially alienate the population. As Iraq analyst Kirk Sowell argued in The National last week, the situation in Anbar had been developing in Mr Al Maliki’s favour: the protests that initially attracted tens of thousands had lost momentum.

The parliamentary election in April should be the starting point for understanding Mr Al Maliki’s motives. Regardless of how the military campaign pans out, Mr Al Maliki is likely to gain. If he manages to defeat Al Qaeda, he will emerge as a national hero who has fought himself into a third term. With the personal networks he has established for himself inside the country’s key security and economic institutions, it will be unimaginable to replace him with another official as the prime minister. Iraq has failed to build the democratic institutions that would make it smooth to take over such a daunting task from Mr Al Maliki. If the campaign fails, the situation in Anbar will possibly deteriorate and might lead to more divisions within the Sunni population between those who supported the government and those who fought against it. Instability in Sunni areas will favour the prime minister, and he will still be seen as a hero for the Shia.

Sadly, such politics comes at the expense of the national reconciliation that was Mr Al Maliki’s ticket into the prime ministership in 2006. Baghdad is not only missing a unique opportunity to move beyond the sectarian equation but it will probably make the situation more favourable for Al Qaeda, which thrives on instability just as Mr Al Maliki does.

Washington has a role to play because it supported the campaign morally and by supplying military equipment. Unlike the dominant narrative in American media, Baghdad’s offensive is not conducted as a state fighting Al Qaeda militants. The campaign is tainted by sectarian language without promises of reform that will help to find a resolution to Sunni grievances.

The article originally appeared in The National

23 Sep 2013

Al Qaeda in Syria: We Fought FSA Because It Conspired With John McCain Against Us

This is an interesting letter issued by the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria ISIS about its battles in Azaz, Aleppo, against the Free Syrian Army's group, Asifat al Shamal (Northern Storm).

"Address: Aleppo, northern countryside, the emirate of Azaz

On Wednesday, we purified the land from what is called Liwa Asifat al Shamal, which God wanted to expose them in front of everyone. These are some examples of their treason before and now:

1. They secured the departure of the Assad army and its tanks that were shelling civilians in Menagh military airbase (which fell after the ISIS sent suicide bombers to kill its defenders on August 5).
2. They called for rule other than what God has prescribed, through democracy, on their official websites.
3. They received Senator John McCain in 'the hangar' and they agreed with him to fight the Islamists.
4. They fought fiercely against Muslims to defend the German spy (presumably a German doctor who helped in medical aid) on Wednesday whose camera had images of the ISIS headquarters, their houses and their women
5. One of the prisoners from Asifat Al Ashamal revealed that the group worked with BlackWater, the anti-Islamic company.
6. A few spies were captured from Asifat al Shamal and we had evidence they worked with the American intelligence and this is documented in a video that we will release online soon.
7. They stole and robbed without distributing the goods on Muslims. They humiliated people although the goods belong to the people.
8. They suffocated people on Salama crossing by taking their money, harassing women and humiliating men.

Based on all that, our jihadi brothers fought them and expelled this criminal gang from Azaz because whoever aligns himself with the Americans will be with them.

We assure people that we are not interested in the border crossing or indeed anything else. We say to Asifat Al Shamal that the door for repentance is open and we have released 30 of their members after they repented and pledged that they will not fight Muslims again.

Anyone who comes to us to repent before we capture him, we accept his repentance. Or else we are determined to uproot them."


Update: Asifat Al Shamal wrote a response to ISIS' accusations, particularly the bit about Senator John McCain. Here:

"The meeting with John McCain was public (knowledge) and took place after consultation with Sheikh Omar Al Shishani (the Chechan, a foreign jihadi) who agreed for the meeting to happen.

We could have met him in a secret place without the knowledge of anyone. Had we wanted to betray our religion and our people, we would have met without consulting with anybody.

Our people, you judge" 

See previous posts on this blog for more details on the subject. And for more updates, follow on Twitter

22 Sep 2013

What happened between the two Al Qaeda affiliates in eastern Syria?

A witness account (from Ibrahim Ali Sultan, on Twitter @aboalialsultan) to what happened between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and Jabhat al-Nusra in Shadadi city, Hasaka. It was reported yesterday (Saturday) that the ISIS stormed the headquarters of Jabhat al-Nusra in Shadadi and killed some of its members. The details below give a picture of how many Al Qaeda members are in the city and the tension between the two groups:
The witness says the news was falsely reported by two people; one of them is a journalist with Jabhat al-Nusra ("and the testimony of an enemy against his enemy does not count") who is 130km from where the incident occurred; the other has abandoned jihad when it is a must.

The witness says he's based in Shadadi city since the presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in the area that included the oil establishments which the two liars say they belong to Jabhat al Nusra exclusively. The two liars exaggerated the incident and made it sound like an assault on the headquarters of Jabhat al Nusra on Shadadi. The liars know that the issue involved Jibsa oil field which is not the "headquarters" of the ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra but all have been there for two months.

One of them said that the number of ISIS fighters in Shadadi are no more than six and that is a lie. He may know that 90% of Jabhat al-Nusra in Hasaka pledged allegiance to the ISIS when it was established, including the emir of Jabhat al-Nusra there; and after Jabhat al-Nusra announced it'd keep its name and after the message of Zawahiri, 40% of them returned to Jabhat al-Nusra. The Syrians who belong to ISIS in Hasaka are about 150 members, 70 of them are in Shadadi alone. The truth of what happened - and I'm only 500m from the site - was that one of the ISIS members wanted to take "maintenance materials" from the field when a member of Jabhat al Nusra tried to prevent him. The ISIS member refused to back out. The dispute escalate to "a verbal brawl". The ISIS member brought 12 muhajireen (foreign jihadists) with him to resolve the issue. The problem ended before the "brothers" intervened. Nothing happened.

The incident was also portrayed as taking advantage of Jabhat al-Nusra's battles in Ras Al Ain and this is also a lie. They both may know that in the battles against the PKK, ISIS is heavily involved in the military action against Tal Hamees. Also, 80 per cent of its forces have been there for about two months.
Read my previous tweet for more details. For more updates, please follow on Twitter.