Logo of the 1920s Revolution Brigades. The slogan on the black flag reads: "Victory is from God and conquest is near."
The 1920s Revolution Brigades is one of the traditional insurgent brands dating back to the days of the Iraq War. As its name implies, referring to the Iraqi nationalist revolts against British imperial rule in the 1920s, the group espouses a nationalist outlook, albeit tinged with Sunni Islamist language. In the latter regard there is undoubtedly influence from the growth in religiosity among Sunni Arabs in the last decade or so of Saddam's rule, partly encouraged by his regime and analogous to the trends in Syria under Bashar al-Assad in the decade preceding the current civil war.
In this context, it should also be mentioned that contrasting with Jaysh al-Mujahideen as a Salafi faction, some pro-insurgent media list the 1920s Revolution Brigades as "Ikhwani" (i.e. Muslim Brotherhood-aligned). Instructive in this regard is to look at the nasheed productions of the 1920s Revolution Brigades (e.g. "Baghdad, oh focus of the revolutionaries"): they are not a capella productions associated with the Salafi and jihadi aversion to use of musical instruments.
Like the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI), the 1920s Revolution Brigades was severely weakened by the fact that large numbers of its fighters became part of the Sahwa movement that rolled back the Islamic State's (IS) predecessor the Islamic State of Iraq in the period 2007-9. Indeed, commenting on a graphicthat attempted to link all of Iraq's insurgent groups together except IS, an unofficial Jamaat Ansar al-Islam account commented, "A group waging jihad is not grouped with whosoever established the Sahwa and betrayed the Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jamaa' in Iraq. We do not welcome seeing out banner with the 1920s Revolution Brigades and others besides it." Perhaps the most well-known Sahwa leader to come from the 1920s Revolution Brigades was one Abu Ma'aruf al-Zuba'ie (as his name suggests, from Zuba' in Anbar province).
Contemporary reporting from 2007-9 also noted the role members of the 1920s Revolution Brigades had in forming the Sahwa forces in areas such as Baqubain Diyala province, though the 1920s Revolution Brigades' political office wing officially denied that the group had a part in the Sahwa movement, with political office director Abdullah Suleiman al-Omari affirming in an interview in 2007 that the group "opposes al-Qa'ida and the Sahwa movement that Sunni Iraqi tribal sheikhs formed to fight alongside American forces against fighters from this organization." To quote him directly in the report, he described the Sahwa movement as "active to expel al-Qa'ida and passive to the resistance [al-muqawama] because it has prevented us from working in its areas but there have been no armed confrontations between us."
This interview came at a time the 1920s Revolution Brigades had joined with seven other Sunni insurgent groupings (most notably "Jaysh al-Rashadeen") to form the "Jihad and Change Front." Unlike groups such as Jaysh al-Mujahideen, the 1920s Revolution Brigades espouses Sunni Arab interests but does not feature anti-Shi'ism as a component of its ideology, as Omari declared that the group supported Muqtada al-Sadr's attacks on the Americans in Sadr City in 2004 but opposed the subsequent ethnic cleansing of Sunnis the Mahdi Army committed in Baghdad in the 2006-7 period.
Following the U.S. withdrawal, the stance of the 1920s Revolution Brigades on participation in the political process seems to have been ambiguous, unlike the IAI's clear establishment of the Sunni Popular Movement activist wing seeking to advance the goal of a Sunni federal region through peaceful means. In February 2012, the outlet Niqash reported on a joint Sunni-Shi'a religious scholars initiative designed to prevent a return to civil war, of whom one participant on the Sunni side was Mahdi al-Sumaida'ie (denounced elsewherein pro-insurgent circles as an "apostate collaborator of the Persians").
He told Niqash that the majority of Sunni armed factions would join this reconciliation initiative, singling out the 1920s Revolution Brigades and the Naqshbandi Army (JRTN) as the sole rejectionists, though his statement needs to be taken with caution as Jaysh al-Mujahideen, contrary to what he affirms, never joined any religious or political initiatives that aimed to work within the status quo system.
In the 1920s Revolution Brigades' own words from this time, the group's political office railed against the government and affirmed in February 2012that the "solution consists of putting an end to the projects of the occupation and replacing them with the Iraqi national project that the Iraqi resistance and forces opposing the occupation called for. Thus do we call on the Iraqi people to greater endurance and frankness in seeking their usurped rights and continuing to reject all forms of oppression…and expressing this rejection by all methods." This statement did not therefore rule out violent means to achieve the group's goals. Even so, there is little evidence for any meaningful militant activity by the 1920s Revolution Brigades in this period, even as local media in 2012 reported the arrest of some members in the Kirkuk area on "terrorism" allegations.
In practice, the 1920s Revolution Brigades was hoping for some kind of advancement of Sunni Arab interests through working within the system, declaring in a statement on the Hawija massacre in April 2013: "We affirmed previously that we respect the choice of our people [i.e. the Sunnis] in these protest squares to demonstrate peacefully." In the aftermath of this incident, the group also affirmed the right to engage in 'self-defense,' declaring that "we are today in a state of defending ourselves and our people." Following on from the Hawija incident, still little evidence emerges of militant activity, but six members of the group were reportedly arrested in the Abu Ghraib area in July of last year.
The revival of the 1920s Revolution Brigades to some meaningful degree has only come about this year, similar to the IAI. Both groups have representation on the military council in Fallujah that shares power with IS. The pro-government outlet al-Masalah further reports that the 1920s Revolution Brigades has a presence in Mosul. The group also participated in fall of the Tikrit area from government control, with the local commander subsequently killed according to local reports. More recently, clashes may have taken place between the 1920s Revolution Brigades and IS in the Baquba area of Diyala province.
The question now arises of under what framework, if any, the 1920s Revolution Brigades is operating on the battlefield. It seems most likely that this framework is the General Military Council for Iraq's Revolutionaries, which, as I have outlined before, comes from local JRTN "tribal military council" fronts and has a political wing where the links to JRTN are hardly denied.[i] Even so, at the military level the General Military Council can provide a broader umbrella under which other insurgents can congregate, and in this context there are clear links with the Sunni cleric Harith al-Dari and his status among the traditional "Iraqi Resistance" under which the 1920s Revolution Brigades fell (hence the repeated references to al-muqawama al-iraqiya in past statements).
Thus it should in fact come as no surprise that the 1920s Revolution Brigades would work militarily under the General Military Council rubric. Two pieces of evidence point to this development. First, in the group's latest magazine issue, photos of rebel operations were simply recycled from the General Military Council. Second, a 1920s Revolution Brigades account on Twitter does not advertise separate military operations for the group, but simply retweets operations reports from the General Military Council.
For now therefore, in so far as the General Military Council works with IS in multiple localities, so the 1920s Revolution Brigades is not yet at war with IS. Overall, there is too little to suggest that the group plays a key role in the overall Sunni insurgency and it is unlikely to be able to form a successful anti-IS rebel movement within Iraq.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org.
[i] JRTN sources (e.g. one I interviewed from Kirkuk area) readily advertise and admit that the General Military Council's political wing is part of JRTN, but formally distance the military wing from JRTN, which makes sense for the General Military Council to reach out to others within the Sunni insurgent circles, whether actual fighters or supporters. One should compare with the Kurdish PYD's formal distancing from its affiliated YPG militias, which have also incorporated people beyond the PYD itself (e.g. Syrian Yezidis).
NB: The series "Iraq Insurgent Profiles" on my site is dedicated to the further documentation of Iraq's various Sunni insurgent groups.