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Birth of New Terrorist Group? Al-Qaida-linked Syrian Groups Could Create their Own Islamic State

Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaida's Affiliate in Syria renames itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or JFS (Front for the Conquest of the Levant)

Rebel fighters of al-Jabha al-Shamiya (Levant Front) have their meal in the rebel-held al-Sheikh Said neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Sept.1, 2016. Image source: VOA

Sept 06, 2016: With the Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq shrinking thanks to land losses to the group’s many foes, its jihadist rival — al-Qaida’s rebranded affiliate in Syria — is marketing its own nation-building and doing so by imitating propaganda techniques employed by its competitor.

And its increased propaganda output is taking aim once again at its struggling rival, apparently in a bid to exploit IS’s mounting problems — including the loss of 40 out of 43 founding senior leaders mainly to U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and battlefield fighting. On Sunday, Turkish officials claimed their military campaign inside Syria to push back IS from border regions had met with success.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in a televised speech Sunday: “Thank God, today, from Azaz to Jarablus, our 91 kilometers of borderline with Syria has been entirely secured. All the terrorist organizations were pushed back — they are gone.”

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FILE - Turkish tanks head toward the Syrian border, in Karkamis, Turkey, Aug. 31, 2016. Image source: VOA
FILE – Turkish tanks head toward the Syrian border, in Karkamis, Turkey, Aug. 31, 2016. Image source: VOA

The beneficiary

One of the beneficiaries of the blows being dealt IS is Jabhat al-Nusra, which announced in July that it was breaking formal ties with al-Qaida after renaming itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or JFS (Front for the Conquest of the Levant).

There has long been a debate in the ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra about whether it should announce officially an emirate in territory it controls in northern Syria, mainly in the province of Idlib to the west of the besieged city of Aleppo.

The group’s leader, Mohammad al-Julani, suggested in a posted audio recording in July 2014 that it was about to do so.

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad walk at a military complex after they recently recaptured areas in southwestern Aleppo, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on Sept. 5, 2016. Image source: VOA
Forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad walk at a military complex after they recently recaptured areas in southwestern Aleppo, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on Sept. 5, 2016. Image source: VOA

Syrian Jihadists make up JFS

For tactical reasons, apparently mainly focused on avoiding disrupting relations and cooperation with other rebel militias in Syria, the group — made up mainly of Syrian jihadists — has held off. But emirate-building aspirations appear once again to dominate much of its recent propaganda and, as IS is pushed back more and more, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has been boosting its criticism of rival jihadists while also engaging more directly with Western media.

The propaganda operations are being overseen by an Australian jihadist preacher, the self-styled Sheik Mostafa Mahamed, who last month appeared on British television to show videos of formally fractured rebel groups fighting together under the banner of the JFS.

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Media wise

Among the techniques JFS is copying is using teasers to boost the audiences for posted videos. Former U.S. ambassador Alberto Fernandez, an expert on jihadist use of the internet, noted as one “interesting example” a graphic released last week to advertise a forthcoming video that accuses IS of having Muslim blood on its hands and being heretical.

“Notice nothing is said about infidel blood,” Fernandez added.

The graphic and video features al-Qaida-linked Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, a Saudi cleric and a highly influential jihadist ideologue in Syria, who in April launched a recruiting campaign for then-Jabhat al-Nusra urging young Muslims to “take up arms, do not sit still.”

JFS helped defend Aleppo

Al Muhaysini has been at the forefront of the calls for all rebel fighters to unite around Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — a call that has even greater pull with rebel militias since JFS’s key role in defending eastern Aleppo from a massive Russian and Iranian-backed Assad regime offensive and managing a breakout last month.

Most Western analysts dismiss JFS’s break with al-Qaida as a feint, seeing it as a long game the jihadist group has been playing for some time across the Middle East and Africa.

JFS long-term strategy

In a paper published earlier this year by the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank, analyst Charles Lister contrasted the Islamic State’s modus operandi of imposing unilateral control over populations and rapidly proclaiming independence, with al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate moving “much more deliberately, seeking to build influence in the areas they hope to rule.”

He argued: “This is a long-game strategy that the terrorist group began adopting in the late 2000s, first in Yemen, in 2011, and then in Mali, in 2012.”

A key group in assisting JFS in its long-term aim to dominate the rebel opposition in Syria is Ahar al-Sham, another jihadist militia that al-Qaida leaders helped to found, according to Jennifer Cafarella and Genevieve Casagrande of the Washington-based Institute of the Study of War, a think tank, and Nicholas Heras, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security.

Group may have its own Islamic State

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, the three analysts say Ahar al-Sham, which has never been formally part of al-Qaida, “Serves as the mortar that binds opposition groups together in northern Syria and is well-positioned to merge these forces with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and solidify sharia-based governance — all without the world realizing that the result would be a major win for al-Qaida’s aims in Syria.”

JFS influence over a swathe of the anti-Assad rebel movement has grown in leaps and bounds thanks to the group’s vanguard role in the defense of civilians in eastern Aleppo. Its popularity is growing despite the harsh penalties the group’s Sharia courts mete out for infringements of a moral and social code not dissimilar to the Islamic State’s.

The analysts in their Foreign Policy article worry that Washington’s inaction in the defense of the eastern half of Aleppo “may inadvertently be paving the way for Syria’s next Islamic State.” (VOA)

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Syrian Militia: End Is Near for Islamic State in Raqqa

Syria ISIS
Smoke rises near the stadium where the Islamic State militants are holed up after an airstrike by coalition forces at the frontline, in Raqqa, Syria. voa

Islamic State is on the verge of defeat in Syria’s Raqqa and the city may finally be cleared of the jihadists Saturday or Sunday, the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia told Reuters Saturday.

The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State said around 100 of the jihadist group’s fighters had surrendered in Raqqa in the last 24 hours and had been “removed from the city,” but it still expected difficult fighting “in the days ahead.”

It did not say how the fighters had been removed or where the fighters had been taken.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said remaining Islamic State fighters were being transported out of Raqqa by bus under a deal between Islamic State, the U.S.-led coalition and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the YPG. There was no immediate comment on that report from the coalition or the SDF.

Fighting since June

Civilians who escaped from Islamic State
Civilians who escaped from Islamic State militants rest at a mosque in Raqqa, Syria. voa

The SDF, backed by coalition airstrikes and special forces, has been battling since June to oust Islamic State from Raqqa city, formerly its de facto capital in Syria and a base of operations where it planned attacks against the West.

The final defeat of Islamic State at Raqqa will be a major milestone in efforts to roll back the group’s self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq, where earlier this year the group was driven from the city of Mosul.

“The battles are continuing in Raqqa city. Daesh (Islamic State) is on the verge of being finished. Today or tomorrow the city may be liberated,” YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud told Reuters by telephone.

In emailed comments to Reuters, coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon said about 100 Islamic State fighters had surrendered in Raqqa in the last 24 hours and were “removed from the city,” without giving further details.

“We still expect difficult fighting in the days ahead and will not set a time for when we think (Islamic State) will be completely defeated in Raqqa,” he said, adding that around 85 percent of Raqqa had been liberated as of Oct. 13.

Some civilians escape

Around 1,500 civilians had been able to safely make it to SDF lines within the last week, he added.

Omar Alloush, a member of a civilian council set up to run Raqqa, told Reuters late Friday that efforts were under way to secure the release of civilians and “a possible way to expel terrorist elements from Raqqa province,” without giving further details.

An activist group that reports on Raqqa, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, said on its Facebook page Saturday that dozens of buses had entered Raqqa city overnight, having traveled from the northern Raqqa countryside.

The Observatory said Syrian Islamic State fighters and their families had left the city, and buses had arrived to evacuate remaining foreign fighters and their families. It did not say where they would be taken.

During the more than six-year Syrian war, the arrival of buses in a conflict zone has often signaled an evacuation of combatants and civilians.

The campaign against Islamic State in Syria is now focused on its last major foothold in the country, the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, which neighbors Iraq.
Islamic State is facing separate offensives in Deir el-Zour by the SDF on one hand, and Syrian government forces supported by Iranian-backed militia and Russian airstrikes on the other. (VOA)

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Kurdish Red Crescent: IS Attacks Kill at Least 50 in East Syria

Syrian Democratic Forces
A female fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces stands near a military tank in the village of Abu Fas, Hasaka province, Syria. voa

Islamic State suicide attackers killed at least 50 people in a triple car bomb attack on Thursday among a group of refugees in northeast Syria, a medical source in the Kurdish Red Crescent said.

A large number of people were also injured by the three car bombs, the source said.

The attack took place at Abu Fas, near the border of Deir el-Zour and Hasaka provinces, said a war monitor, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said earlier that at least 18 people had been killed.

The dead included refugees fleeing the fighting in Deir el-Zour as well as members of the Kurdish Asayish security force, the observatory reported. Syrian state television said dozens had been killed in the attack.

The jihadist group has lost swaths of its territory in both Syria and Iraq this year and is falling back on the towns and villages of the Euphrates valley southeast of Deir el-Zour.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias is pressing it from the north, and a rival offensive by the Syrian army, supported by allies including Iran and Russia, is attacking it from the west.

On Wednesday, Islamic State said it had carried out an attack in the capital, Damascus, where three suicide bombers detonated their devices near a police headquarters, killing two people and wounding six.

Aid agencies have warned that the fighting in eastern Syria is the worst in the country this year and that airstrikes have caused hundreds of civilian casualties.(VOA)

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Iraqi Army continues Offensive on Islamic State to Regain Hawija, Anbar

IS clamed territory Hawija in Iraq
A black sign belonging to Islamic State militants is seen on the road in Al-Al-Fateha military airport south of Hawija, Iraq.

The Iraqi army and its allied Shi’ite militias continue to press for the last pockets of Islamic State in Hawija and Anbar.

In a news conference held in Geneva, on 3rd October 2017, U.N. spokesperson Jens Laerke, said that an estimated 12,500 civilians have fled their homes in Hawija since the start of the Iraqi operation on September 21 and nearly 78,000 people could still be trapped in their homes as the fighting reaches densely populated areas.


Hawija is a Sunni-majority city in the al-Hawija district with a population of about 100,000. It had a population of 500,000 before IS took control in mid-2014 as many residents fled the violence.

Iraqi army and allied Shi’ite Popular Mobilization Forces claim the fight for Hawija has entered its final stages as they recently gained a strategic foothold in the district by capturing an air base from IS on Monday. The base, known as Rashad air base, is about 30 kilometres (20 miles) south of Hawija and serves as a training camp and logistic base for IS in the region.


In western Iraq’s Anbar province, where the Iraqi army launched a separate offensive last month against IS, the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration said it has identified more than 8,500 newly displaced people, raising the number of displaced in the province to more than 54,000 since January 2017.

“People newly displaced from their homes often arrive dehydrated, suffering from hunger and thirst,” said IOM’s Hamed Amro. “Many require psychosocial support and need medical care. Some have chronic illness and exacerbated conditions due to a long-term lack of care, and others suffer from malnutrition. We have also received a few trauma cases.”

Commanders on the ground say IS has set fire to oil wells and has forced civilians who remained to serve as human shields to inhibit airstrikes. (voa)