Intro and Analysis
Jamaat Ansar al-Islam (JAI)- a jihadi group most well known in its history and prior incarnations for operating in Iraq- expanded into Syria in under a contingent called "Ansar al-Sham" (more formally, 'Jamaat Ansar al-Islam in Bilad al-Sham'), claiming to have participated in the siege of Mannagh airbase in Aleppo province that eventually fell to an offensive led by the Islamic State (IS). As I documented in a post yesterday, though JAI's Iraq branch has not entirely pledged allegiance to IS, it has been significantly weakened by defections particularly in Ninawa province- facilitated by IS displays of power and ideological overlap between the two groups. Indeed, one JAI source described to me the situation as follows: in Mosul, JAI has a presence but "has no ability to operate because of IS." Similarly in Tikrit, where JAI assisted IS in a subordinate role in the insurgent takeover of the town, IS quickly asserted its authority, arresting and killing members of JAI, such that JAI (the same source relates to me) has been forced to go underground in the area.
It should be noted that there is no distinction between JAI in Syria and Iraq, rather than the former being a mere identical brand name. Like IS in its previous manifestation as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), JAI propaganda has portrayed Syria-Iraq as one battlefield for its goal in reestablishing the Caliphate. Further, as expected when we recognize the two branches are the same entity, a number of proclaimed 'martyrs' for JAI in Syria have come from Iraq and traversed both countries, though it should also be noted the group undoubtedly drew in some foreign fighters from elsewhere who entered Syria via Turkey.
Pro-JAI graphic: Iraq and Syria as one battlefield
Abu Ahmad the Iraqi of Samarra, killed during his return to Aleppo from Hasakah
Abu Suleiman of Samarra, killed on his return to Iraq from Syria
Abu Abdullah of Mosul, killed in the siege of Mannagh airbase
Abu Jibril the Tunisian, killed in the siege of Mannagh airbase.
Of particular interest here is Abu Suleiman of Samarra, as he was killed alongside Abu Muhammad al-Muhajir, whose life is documented below via a JAI source. One of the most important lessons to draw from this obituary for Abu Muhammad is the limitation of open source material on jihadi groups. Although JAI's Syrian contingent has advertised itself as having been involved in operations from 2012, it becomes apparent here that JAI members and commanders actually entered into Syria and were conducting groundwork there from the outset. In a similar vein, although no other Iraq insurgent groups have openly advertised a presence in Syria, their operating cannot be ruled out- indeed a Saraya al-Madina al-Munawara media rep had claimed to me in an interview some fighters went to Syria, even as there are no photos or videos to show this.
What of JAI Syria division's future prospects? From the obituary below, we can trace out a development of JAI's Syrian contingent beginning in Hasakah province and then expanding westwards into Aleppo and Idlib provinces. The problem for JAI Syria now is that the IS presence in Raqqa and Hasakah provinces effectively blocks links with Iraq, unless one supposes that JAI and IS are perhaps cooperating against a common enemy in Hasakah province. In fact, JAI Syria affirms it is no longer operating in Hasakah or Raqqa provinces, but solely Aleppo and Idlib provinces now; moreover, for a number of 'martyrs', JAI Syria declares they were 'killed in treachery'- likely a reference to IS. In short, the rise of IS has significantly hurt JAI in both Iraq and Syria, and the group's long-term viability seems somewhat in doubt.
Two photos of Abu Muhammad al-Muhajir: the first unofficial, the second official. JAI has not officially and openly advertised Abu Muhammad al-Muhajir's real role in JAI's activities in Syria (as opposed to the obituary below I obtained), but has merely named him as one of the group's 'martyrs.'
(Translation of the obituary my own, as always)
To the commander Abu Muhammad al-Muhajir, may God have mercy on him.
One of the founders of JAI in Bilad al-Sham, and the military commander for the group in Bilad al-Sham, fingertips are incapable of writing to describe this heroic lion, the proud mountain. The arts of leadership were epitomized in his personality...for he was among the best in planning, organization, administration, operations, as well as in building, making comparisons and general relations...Bilad al-Rafidayn (Iraq) knew him as a commando lion, as a commander and leader when he drew up plans, oversaw and led many special operations, inflicting great massacres on the Crusader, Rafidite [Shi'a] and apostate enemies. And Baghdad bears witness to his special operations, as well as Fallujah, Tikrit, Kirkuk and many other areas of Bilad al-Rafidayn.
So he, may God have mercy on him, headed to Bilad al-Sham as a muhajir before the beginning of the blessed revolution of al-Sham, and he worked in a general relations administration with his sheikh and amir- the Sheikh Commander Abu Muhammad- may God have mercy on him- the amir of JAI in Bilad al-Sham. But after the beginning of the blessed revolution of al-Sham, the two began to work on building up a jihadi nucleus for the revolution of al-Sham, and work on training, development and refine the staffing of jihadi groups, as well as supporting them with political and military expertise and consultation, along with actions and conflict management.
They were not limited to these capabilities but also undertook work on closing ranks for the group [JAI] and prepare and organize for a division in al-Sham, consisting of muhajireen brothers, so the first training camp was established for Iraqi muhajireen belonging to JAI. This camp was called al-Qaa'qaa camp al-Hewel region in al-Hasakah province. Once a battalion of muhajireen of a variety of nationalities was incorporated, the battalion was characterized by a refined selection of staff, capabilities, forms of expertise and crafts. And the foundational aim from the establishment of the camp was to support and refine the jihad in al-Sham with its various ranks and groups, in addition to leadership and management of joint military operations for the jihadi groups on account of their supreme military expertise that had been acquired from the Iraq arena.
All the groups operating on the eastern front can bear witness to that, for he- may God have mercy on him- was known for his outstanding courage, for he was a lion and hero assaulting the ranks [of the enemy] and looking to kill or die in hardship.
In addition to his skills in the realm of security and intelligence when he worked to establish security cells and detachments inside enemy areas (for that had precedent in the al-Sham arena), and working to carry out special security operations, assassinations and bomb operations inside enemy security areas- and the cities of al-Hasakah and Qamishli testify to that- he also undertook to strengthen and aid some of the groups on establishment, and foremost Ahrar al-Sham for the setting up of security detachments in enemy areas. Further, he worked to open up military, security and intelligence sessions- including in chemical warfare- with his brothers to train staff for the jihadi groups in order to raise their capability and nurturing in sought-after skills. Many graduated from those sessions, of a variety of nationalities. And when the brothers used to ask him why there was no announcement of the name of the group and work to promote it at that time, he- may God have mercy on him- would respond: 'Our foundational aim is to support the jihad in al-Sham. It's not to work to establish groups.' He- may God have mercy on him- was killed during his return from al-Sham to Iraq when the car which he and his companions were using was exposed to an airstrike from an aircraft that was carrying out reconnoitre near Mosul, so he and one of his brothers were martyred.
al-Hewel: in eastern Hasakah province on the border with Ninawa province in Iraq. This area later became known in 2013 as a joint ISIS-Ahrar al-Sham stronghold before wider infighting between ISIS and rebels broke out this year in Syria, resulting in the subjugation of Ahrar al-Sham throughout Hasakah province under ISIS, something facilitated no doubt in part by ideological sympathies for ISIS among Ahrar al-Sham fighters in the area. If we think of prior sympathy for ISIS ideologically among Ahrar al-Sham, then there was very much a west-east gradient of increasing affinity. Even now there undoubtedly remains a significant pro-Caliphate faction within Ahrar al-Sham, and the work with JAI as mentioned in this obituary should come as no surprise.
It is also worth noting that the Ninawa-Hasakah route for the establishment of JAI's Syrian division concords with what we know about JAI in Iraq. As I have documented previously (also here), JAI's strongest presence has traditionally been in Ninawa and Kirkuk provinces, particularly Mosul. Conversely, the group did not have a real substantial presence in Anbar (and there has been no evidence of JAI in Deir az-Zor province), and though a JAI presence has been advertised in the wider Fallujah area this year, it should be pointed out that this is more taking up of a banner rather than an established network with links to Iraq's other provinces, even as JAI's Syrian contingent has had members of Anbari origin. In fact, for Iraq, JAI Syria says the main JAI bases are Kirkuk, Mosul and some of the areas of Tikrit.
cities of al-Hasakah and Qamishli: Fighting not only regime forces but also the YPG (usually dubbed PKK).
Abu Dujana al-Muhajir, killed fighting YPG/PKK in al-Hasakah
chemical warfare: As advertised below: