Since Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) in April as a merger between Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) and Islamic State of Iraq, one question that has arisen is the composition of fighters under the banner of ISIS. Some media reports- most notably the Reuters analyses by Mariam Karouny- have drawn a dichotomy of foreign mujahideen behind ISIS and native Syrians in JAN.
It is of course true that JAN is largely composed of native Syrian fighters (a point often missed in commentary, as my friend Charles Lister noted on Twitter recently). But how far is the notion of ISIS as a foreign force true?
It is my contention that the most useful way for an observer to look into this question is through examining the list of claimed martyrs for ISIS. Though it is only through self-reporting by jihadis so one shouldn't conclude too much from it either since they could not want to report certain deaths. The title of this study- 'ISIS Cavalcade'- is a tribute to Phillip Smyth's 'Hizballah Cavalcade', which has in part given lists of fighters for Hizballah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and Iraqi proxies of Iran killed in Syria, with helpful links to sources and insightful commentary.
The ISIS Cavalcade will take the following format: name, nationality, and further comments with sources and a photo where possible. Disputes as regards affiliation will be noted.
1. Name: Waleed Midawi al-Asiri (nom de guerre: Abu Dajana al-Azadi)
Nationality: Saudi (Bilad al-Haramain)
Comments: According to a report by the pro-ISIS channel ash-Sham, al-Asiri was responsible for the first martyrdom operation in the name of ISIS in the Latakia region, attacking a checkpoint and housing belonging to 'Nuṣayri officers and their families.' The claimed death toll of the operation- carried out by means of a car bomb laden with 4 tons of explosives- amounts to 'at least 90 Nuṣayris.'
To an extent, ash-Sham's account is corroborated by this Youtube video in which al-Asiri is said to appear- featuring him in a room with a banner on the wall entitled 'Room of operations of the Mujahideen: Latakia.' As a further point, I would note that the Latakia area has been an active area of operations for foreign fighters affiliated with the battalion Katiba al-Muhajireen (KAM).
If al-Asiri was also under the banner of ISIS, that would provide evidence for my contention that the relationship between KAM and ISIS is rather like that between Kata'ib Hizballah and Hizballah in Iraq- namely, that the two entities are not separate, but mirror fronts for one another.
Conversely, here is a purported JAN statement- dated 25 May, one day before ash-Sham's report- claiming al-Asiri as a JAN fighter. The authenticity of this statement is strongly disputed by a forum user, while the original poster on said forum purports to defend it as emanating from JAN's official channel al-Manārah al-Bayḍā. However, the fact is that the channel was officially offline during this period when Asiri's martyrdom was announced and has only resumed recently. My overall judgment is therefore that Asiri likely belonged to KAM/ISIS.
Figure 1: A photo of Waleed Midawi al-Asiri (source: ash-Sham)
2. Name: Abu Yaqub al-Tunisi
Comments: The jihadi forum Ansar al-Mujahideen featured a post on 14 May containing a short biography of Abu Yaqub al-Tunisi. He is said to have 'abandoned the contemptible world in the land of the West and returned to Tunisia. From there he migrated to the land of ash-Sham.' He was killed in a fight with regime forces in the Aleppo area.
The original biography can be traced to the pro-Al-Qa'ida page Qaḍaaya al-Ummah, though no affiliation with ISIS is explicitly mentioned there. That claim goes back to ash-Sham, as well as several pro-ISIS Twitter users. In contrast, the outlet Tanit Press cites Tunisian Salafist sources to say that Abu Yaqub al-Tunisi belonged to Jabhat al-Nusra, as do a few other Twitter users. There is thus a possibility that al-Tunisi was originally JAN but declared affiliation with ISIS after the latter was announced by Sheikh Baghdadi.
Figure 2: Photo of Abu Yaqub al-Tunisi (source: Twitter and Facebook).
3. Name: Ali al-Qadhdhāfi (Nom de guerre: Abu Junaid)
Comments: On 19 May, the Youtube user Abu Thabit al-Ansari uploaded a video of Alī al-Qadhdhāfi, featuring footage of him pictured with the ISIS banner, clearly indicating his affiliation with ISIS, which is further corroborated by the fact that on 11 May via Twitter, his death was reported to have taken place in Iraq rather than Syria. This particular martyrdom is important to note, for it still indicates the role of foreign fighters- and Libyans in particular- in the al-Qa'ida insurgency in Iraq.[i]
Figure 3: A photo of Ali al-Qadhdhāfi (source: here).
4. Name: Hamoud Mohammed al-Bdaiwi (nom de guerre: Abu al-Yazin)
Nationality: Saudi (Bilad al-Haramain)
Comments: The Facebook page 'Kamishli' (pro-regime) reported on 23 June that al-Bdaiwi was one of those behind attacks in the Damascus area on that day: specifically, in the neighborhood of Bāb al-Muṣallā, which- as authors George Atiyeh and Ibrahim Oweiss note- 'constitutes the main part of Lower Mīdān.'
On the other hand, the Facebook page 'Al-Ghurabā fī ath-thawra as-Sūrīya' claims that he was killed in Aleppo. I remain agnostic as to the precise location of his death, but neither city is implausible, for ISIS has a presence in both Aleppo and Damascus.[ii]
The source for the photo of him given below goes back to the outlet Burydah News, which appears to have been the first outlet to report his death. However, no specific location within Syria for his martyrdom is given. As ever, the pro-ISIS channel ash-Sham claims him as a martyr for ISIS, but no pro-JAN sources to my knowledge have claimed him for JAN. Further, ash-Sham describes the circumstances of his death as a 'martyrdom operation,' indicating that perhaps he died in a suicide attack.
Figure 4: Photo of Hamoud Mohammed al-Bdaiwi
5. Name: Marwan bin al-Haj Saleh (Nom de guerre: Abu Ismail al-Tunisi)
Comments: The pro-ISIS channel ash-Sham reported on 24 June that he was killed in Aleppo. His affiliation with ISIS is proven by his appearance alongside ISIS banners in the photo of him given below. The Facebook page Qaḍāya al-Ummah gives more precise details as to the circumstances of his death: namely, that he was killed during the rebel assault on Mannagh airport- an operation in which ISIS is known to be participating in coordination with other battalions.[iii]
Figure 5: Photos of Abu Ismail al-Tunisi, including poses with the ISIS banner (source: Qaḍāya al-Ummah).
6. Name: Abu Abdullah al-Tunisi
Comments: The pro-ISIS channel ash-Sham states that he was killed in the Duwerineh district of the Aleppo area. See my prior post at Jihadology on ISIS in Aleppo, which provides further video evidence corroborating the ISIS presence in this part of Aleppo in clashes with regime forces. It would appear that he is not to be confused with another Abu Abdullah al-Tunisi- a well-known Salafist figure in Tunisia. As far as I know, the story of Abu Abdullah al-Tunisi the martyr of Aleppo is original to ash-Sham.
Figure 6: Photo of Abu Abdullah al-Tunisi (source: ash-Sham).
7. Name: Rami al-Yahya (nom de guerre: Abu al-Mālik)
Nationality: Saudi (Bilad al-Haramain)
Comments: He was killed on 23 June in the battle for Mannagh airport in the Aleppo area (see above). Here is a video of a speech he gave to fellow mujahideen. Only pro-regime sources have tried to claim him as a supposed martyr for JAN.
Figure 7: Photo of Rami al-Yahya (Source: ash-Sham).
8. Name: Faiz bin Mut'ab al-Hamdāni al-Surhāni
Nationality: Saudi (Bilad al-Haramain)
Comments: Like Rami al-Yahya, he was killed in the battle for Mannagh airport. The local Saudi news site Khabr al-Jawf (Arabic) adds that he was from Jawf Province in northern Saudi Arabia (bordering Jordan). He was 45 years of age and had entered Syria via Turkey.
Figure 8: Photo of Faiz bin Mut'ab al-Hamdāni al-Surhāni (Source: aljouf-news.net).
9. Name: Omar al-Tunisi
Comments: The pro-ISIS channel ash-Sham has just released a video of Omar's martyrdom operation against regime forces in Deir ez-Zor. Crucially, the video begins by noting that it is 'Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham in cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra.' This illustrates not only that ISIS and JAN are two separate entities in Deir ez-Zor- as I emphasized in my previous post for Jihadology on Deir ez-Zor- but also that the two entities- even where separate- are quite capable of collaborating, contrary to a recent media narrative promulgated by Reuters that warned of looming open conflict between the two groups.
10. Name: Abu Muslim ash-Shishani
Comments: On 18 June, the pro-ISIS channel ash-Sham announced his martyrdom- said to have been killed in the rebel assault on Aleppo central prison, in which ISIS is known to have participated.[iv] Chechens have a prominent role in KAM in northern Syria. The fact that ash-Shishani is claimed as a martyr for ISIS illustrates an earlier point I have made about the boundaries between ISIS and battalions like KAM not being clear-cut.
Figure 9: Photo of Abu Muslim ash-Shishani (source: ash-Sham).
11. Name: Abu al-Hasan al-Urduni
Comments: See this post to which I contributed and provided information at the Brown Moses blog. His martyrdom demonstrates ISIS is active in the Damascus area as I have noted above.
Overall Conclusions from the ISIS Cavalcade
1. There is truth to the idea that significant numbers of foreign fighters[v] have flocked under the banner of ISIS, which lends credence to an extent to Karouny's reports of a foreign vs. native dichotomy in the question of ISIS-JAN relations.
However, I would also highlight my previous posts at Jihadology that note where ISIS and JAN are interchangeable and the fact that ISIS has native Syrian supporters. In any event, the disproportionate presence of Saudis and Tunisians in ISIS ranks corroborates stories of problems for Saudi Arabia and Tunisia in trying to stop or restrict outflow of jihadists to fight in Syria.
2. One cannot draw a definite distinction between ISIS and al-Qa'ida-aligned battalions like KAM.
3. Even where ISIS and JAN are clearly separate- as in Deir ez-Zor- the two entities are quite capable of cooperation. The same goes for the Aleppo area.
4. ISIS operations are particularly intense in the Aleppo area, in turn reinforcing my long-held point about a strong concentration of foreign fighters in the Aleppo area. However, the group's presence in areas like Damascus, where one might think that JAN is the dominant banner, cannot be overlooked.
[i] For further evidence of continued Libyan contributions to insurgents fighting in Iraq, see this recent post on one Hassan Boubeiḍa- a member of Benghazi's Ansar ash-Shari'a killed in Iraq at the beginning of June. As for al-Qadhdhāfi, I should note that he is not the only martyr claimed for ISIS within Iraq: cf. this post I wrote for the Brown Moses blog back in May.
[ii] For evidence of Damascus operations, see this video, which shows a rebel battalion in cooperation with ISIS raising the ISIS banner (aka the 'banner of Tawhid/Islam') over a mosque in Damascus. ISIS has also fought the Liwaa Abu el-Fadl al-Abbas in the Sayyida Zainab in cooperation with the battalion that helped raise the ISIS banner over that Damascus area (cf. here with fighters under the ISIS banner issuing a statement in late May on attacking Liwaa's headquarters at Sayyida Zainab). Further note this video of ISIS in Damascus where the name is explicitly mentioned.
[iii] E.g. See this recent video.
[iv] See my Jihadology post on ISIS and JAN in Aleppo, linked to in the main piece.
[v] While not a martyr, this photo that has emerged of a converted German fighter for ISIS provides further interesting testimony on the matter (note his banner with the inscription of 'Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham').