Jund al-Aqsa ("Soldiers of al-Aqsa," referring to the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem) is a jihadi group that was first set up in 2013 and primarily operates in Idlib and Hama provinces in northwestern Syria. Though it has publicly made clear its ideological alignment with al-Qa'ida, its hardline conduct in dealing with other Syrian rebel factions means that it is often accused of being secretly in league with the Islamic State. It is certainly true that the rank and file has had Islamic State sympathizers, at least some of whom have formally joined the Islamic State. Once a valued member of the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition set up in 2015 that drove out the regime from most of Idlib province, Jund al-Aqsa finds itself widely disliked among the Syrian insurgency, most notably clashing with Ahrar al-Sham, with a round of clashes occurring in October 2016 and now this month again.
The last time the clashes happened, Jund al-Aqsa appeared to have sought protection through pledging allegiance to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the rebranded Jabhat al-Nusra that has ostensibly dropped ties with al-Qa'ida. Yet it seems that the renewal of clashes and pressure on Jabhat Fatah al-Sham to disown Jund al-Aqsa have led to a new statement from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham disavowing the group and issuing a clarification on that apparent allegiance pledge, affirming that it was actually rejected at the time by many people in Jund al-Aqsa, but for reasons of fear of a renewal of clashes and hope that the group could be controlled by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, it was decided until now not to make an announcement about the matter.
The existence of people in some parts of the Middle East to the north of the Arabian Peninsula (i.e. to the north of Saudi Arabia) who are ethnically black but Arab in culture and language has been documented in wider media to a certain extent. For example, in the southern Iraqi port city of Basra, a considerable population of such black people can be found, thought to be descended from slaves brought to the area from Africa during past centuries. Known by the Arabic terms zanji or 'abd (plurals zanj and 'abid respectively- the latter considered more derogatory with the connotations of slavery), black Iraqis have suffered problems of discrimination at the hands of their lighter-skinned compatriots.
Besides black Iraqis, there are also black Palestinians, whose presence in Gaza was the subject of an al-Monitor article in late 2013. Multiple origin accounts are given for these black Palestinians, some noting the slave trade (as is the case with the Iraqis), and others pointing out migrations from Sudan and Egypt to serve in the Ottoman Empire's army. These black Palestinians, like the black Iraqis, have also experienced at least some racism and discrimination from the wider population.
Much more obscure though- indeed, practically undocumented as far as I can tell- is the existence of a population of black Syrians. I first came across the matter in photos put out by the Islamic State-affiliated Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed based in the Yarmouk Basin (Arabic: Hawdh al-Yarmouk) in southwest Deraa on the border with the Golan Heights and Jordan. Observe the two photos below. A black man can clearly be identified in the crowd of spectators in each case.
Ajnad Media is the Islamic State's media wing that produces Arabic-language nasheeds and recitations of sections of the Qur'an. The outlet released a new nasheed yesterday. The content of the nasheed is very generic in nature and echoes many prior themes in Islamic State nasheeds. I have provided a preliminary translation of the nasheed below, and have given some explanation of phrases that might seem obscure or odd at first sight.
The attack in Jerusalem yesterday that killed four young Israeli soldiers has been claimed in a circulated statement by a Palestinian group calling itself the "Baha' Alyan Groups." Its statement of responsibility can be read below, with brief explanatory notes in square brackets:
"The Martyr Baha' Alyan Groups
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful:
'Fight them: God will torment them at your hands and ruin them, giving you victory over them and healing the hearts of believing people' [Qur'an 9:14].
Masses of our defiant people, our people on ribat in Bayt al-Maqdis [Jerusalem]. With all pride and honour, in the highest signs of glory and greatness, from the pure land of Palestine, where al-Faruq Omar [Omar bin al-Khattab, the second Caliph after the Prophet's death] cried Allahu Akbar, we present to you in the Martyr Baha' Alyan Groups:
Our martyrdom operative commando son Fadi Ahmad al-Qanbar, son of Jabal al-Mukaber, who carried out the major truck operation that brought down by God's help and power more than 30 Zionist soldiers among the killed and wounded, and prompted 300 others to flee like frightened rats. This operation that came as an extension of the heroic acts of the commando sons of al-Quds [Jerusalem] in the al-Quds Intifada, the last of whom was the martyr hero Masbah Abu Sabih the lion of al-Aqsa who brought down the occupying Zionists.
Indeed we in the Martyr Baha' Alyan Groups, as we pledge to our people to move forward on the path of the martyrs and prisoners, affirm the following:
1. This operation is not the first our groups have carried out, and a powerful stream of major operations will follow it, supporting our Quds, in revenge for our noble [/free] people, and as a promise to our martyrs and prisoners.
2. The Martyr Baha' Alyan Groups is a contingent of the youth heroes of Palestine, who have arisen heeding the call of their Aqsa and land, and they are not affiliated to any groups outside Palestine, and indeed the lies of the occupation are nothing but a failing attempt to distort the resistance of our intrepid people.
3. We call on our people and Ummah to gather around the choice of resistance, and rise up to support al-Aqsa, the holy sites and the noble [/free] people of Palestine.
4. The occupation must wait for surprises, and let it look for its weak flanks and await the coming knight of Palestine.
al-Quds is free for us...The resistance is our right
The Martyr Baha' Alyan Groups
With the regime's recapture of Aleppo city in its entirety, the wider insurgency finds itself in a moment of crisis. The rebellion's main centre is now the rural northwest province of Idlib, as the regime also looks set to clear up remaining pockets in the wider Damascus area, thereby firmly cementing its control over the two most important conurbations in the country.
It is not unreasonable to put down many of the failings of the rebellion to a lack of unity among the various factions on the ground. Though many of the factions are capable of issuing joint political statements, such actions do not translate to actual unity inside the territories they control.
To be sure, many unity initiatives have been tried in the past, such as the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) set up in late 2014. Despite looking superficially impressive in terms of the number of factions involved, its significance was overstated. The RCC failed to bring about real mergers and eventually the entire body was quietly forgotten over the course of 2015.
Of all jihadi groups, the Islamic State is by far the most productive in media output, releasing dozens of photos, news bulletins and other items on a daily basis that can overwhelm the analyst and general reader. We have seen much analysis and statistics regarding the themes of Islamic State propaganda material, and by now the output is fairly predictable. A consensus has been established, for example, that as the Islamic State has lost momentum and territory, the propaganda has become more military-focused in nature. Of course, one can still find items photo series illustrating ordinary life in territories controlled by the Islamic State, but the emphasis on them has definitely been diminished.
Besides broad themes and statistics, interesting nuggets can emerge sometimes in the photo series and videos. The Italian journalist Daniele Raineri, for example, has a knack for finding Islamic State notables making appearances in various media items, and his Twitter feed is well worth checking out in this regard.
The Islamic State-linked Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed that is based in the Yarmouk Basin in southwest Deraa on the border with the Golan Heights and Jordan follows Islamic State themes and production style in its media output. Since the area is a rather small enclave and has a small population in comparison with the rest of Islamic State territory, one can say that it is perhaps easier to identify recurring characters in the media output. Below are some notable figures in the group I have been able to identify, which I will update accordingly if I come across new information.
The Jabal al-Summaq area in northern Idlib province was originally Druze but the original inhabitants were forced to convert to Sunni Islam under pressure from ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham) in late 2013 and then redeclare their conversion at the hands of al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in early 2015. Currently, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham- the rebranded Jabhat al-Nusra that was announced at the end of July 2016 with a supposed breaking of ties with al-Qa'ida- remains in control of the Jabal al-Summaq area.
Despite the rebranding, the imposed conversion policy has not been modified. In addition, despite the fact that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham no longer regards the original inhabitants as Druze but rather as Sunni Muslims in light of the conversion policy, the original inhabitants face legal discrimination from the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham judiciary department (Dar al-Qada) in being obliged to organize and ratify buying and selling contracts for agricultural and residential real estate through the Dar al-Qada in Salqin. This obligation is also imposed on non-Muslims deemed musta'min (e.g. Christians) but not on those who were born Sunni Muslims- something that I have confirmed through subsequent contact with the Dar al-Qada in Salqin.
The Dar al-Qada ('Abode of Judges') serves as the de facto judicial branch of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria's official al-Qa'ida wing), whatever claims might be made of its supposed independence. Though the Dar al-Qada operates in certain areas where it enjoys wider backing (e.g. Hureitan in north Aleppo countryside), it primarily exists in strongholds of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham like Salqin in north Idlib countryside, which is the branch that issued the statement under consideration here.
This statement from the Dar al-Qada in Salqin that I have obtained was distributed recently (around two weeks ago) in the villages of Jabal al-Summaq, which, as I have documented previously, is an originally Druze area whose inhabitants have been forced to declare conversion to Sunni Islam twice, first under pressure from the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in late 2013 and then under Jabhat al-Nusra at the beginning of 2015.
The latest statement follows on from administrative decisions by the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham amir for Jabal al-Summaq- al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm- to prevent those living in regime-held areas from benefiting from renting out their properties in Jabal al-Summaq, while those in the army or regime's security apparatus are barred entirely from their homes, unless they abandon their affiliation and return. These decisions have also been applied to agricultural lands in the area.
In short, the new statement as distributed for the original inhabitants of Jabal al-Summaq is intended to ensure that they ratify and organize all contracts of buying and selling of residential and agricultural property through the Dar al-Qada in Salqin, which appears to be the nearest functioning Jabhat Fatah al-Sham judicial body for the Jabal al-Summaq area. Note the language of the statement in speaking of "newly Muslim sects like what was known as the Druze," referring to the conversion of the Druze in Jabal al-Summaq to Sunni Islam. This illustrates the continuity in policy towards the people of Jabal al-Summaq, in that the imposition of Sunni Islam remains in place despite the rebranding from Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
Following the assassination of Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Waleed's amir Abu Hashim al-Shami, the speculation of an inside job has given way to open infighting within the group. In terms of what has taken place on the ground, the security apparatus has arrested a number of figures within Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Waleed, most notably Ábu Obeida Qahtan, a Palestinian-Syrian jihadi veteran who had fought in Afghanistan and connected early on/from the outset with al-Khal, the original leader of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk that is presently the largest component of Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Waleed. Qahtan was an important source of financing from the beginning for Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk, but contrary to this report in the pro-rebel outlet All4Syria, he did not come to Syria from Jordan in 2014 but was rather in Syria much earlier, even before the battles in early 2013 that culminated in the capture of the locality of Jamla near the border with the Golan Heights, from which Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk originates. He took over the leadership of the group following al-Khal's assassination in mid-November 2015, but was then replaced by the Saudi Abu Abdullah al-Madani dispatched by the Islamic State in March 2016 on account of administrative failings. More recently, Qahtan notably survived an assassination attempt in August 2016 that wounded him. The incident was reported by the Islamic State's auxiliary news outlet Amaq News, as per below.
After a long hiatus, the Islamic State's Ajnad Media, which produces the Arabic nasheeds, has finally released a new production (the last ones being 'Praise be to God' released in July 2016, 'In the path of God' released in May 2016 and 'The Dawla has arisen' released in January 2016). It is possible the small output partly reflects a disruption to the Islamic State's media production in terms of killing potential Arabic language munshids, while al-Hayat media has continued to produce nasheeds in languages besides Arabic.
Below is a preliminary translation by me of this new nasheed: 'Mawkab al-Nur' ('The Convoy of Light'). The themes here are very general and oft-recurring: the glorious past, subduing the disbelievers etc. In addition, the Arabic used here is very straightforward.
The convoy of light has called us. Take the initiative, our hand-mill [of war] has turned.
*- The verb used here can also mean 'to say 'la illah ill Allah' (there is no deity but God).