The past week or so has seen a sudden upsurge in videos on Youtube purporting to come from an entity known as ‘The Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham’ (ISIS). This name, it should be recalled, is the one bequeathed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at the start of April when he announced that Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) are one and the same.
Sheikh Jowlani of JAN replied that he had not been consulted on this announced merger, and in this regard he is to be believed. The order for the merger likely came from Sheikh Aymenn al-Zawahiri and had been planned months in advance. The problem, as Aaron Zelin has noted, is simply an issue of time delay in arriving to Baghdadi from Zawahiri.
One of the main outlets for the current upsurge in ISIS videos is coming from a channel called ‘ash-Sham’. Here is one of those videos- in an unspecified desolate area of Syria (but likely the eastern desert of the country, as I will explain below) where the flag of ISI is flying.
Another video shows the manufacture of hand grenades by the group, while there are also videos purporting to show members of ISIS in Deir ez-Zor, a team firing mortars in an unspecified ‘eastern area’, and finally in Homs. On the last one in particular, we should note in comparison a video that emerged at the beginning of 2012 of members of a rebel battalion in Homs who displayed sympathies for al-Qa’ida with ISI flags.
Outside of the channel ‘ash-Sham,’ we have a video dedicated to one Abu Fatima ash-Shami- a Syrian fighter described as a martyr for ISIS and killed fighting the Iraqi army in Mosul around a week ago.
In addition, here is an ISIS propaganda video based in the Syrian town of Abu Kamal, which is situated on the Euphrates River and borders Iraq. Finally, there is the now widely circulated video from Raqqah featuring the execution by gunmen bearing the ISI flag of three men in revenge for the massacres in Baniyas.
As Shami Witness and I both noticed, the general observation to draw is that these videos of ISIS primarily come from eastern Syria. The propaganda video from Abu Kamal is particularly pertinent to this point, given that the town is situated on the Euphrates along the Iraqi border.
One should also note that videos where the Jabhat al-Nusra moniker and flag appear have been drying up in the east of the country. Indeed, it has now been established that the JAN execution video from Deir ez-Zor is at least a couple of months old in origin.
In contrast, there is still ample evidence of the use of the designation and flag of JAN in western areas, which can be observed in videos from Deraa and the announced Battle of Furqan initiative in eastern Damascus. Note also the collection of photos released featuring Jabhat al-Nusra fighters and flags in the ‘revenge of Baniyas’ operation. Even so, none of these videos has been released through the official JAN channel al-Manaarah al-Baydaa, which also had a site featuring written articles on JAN’s activities. That site has since been taken down. Further, all al-Manaarah al-Baydaa video footage currently doing the rounds on Youtube dates back several months.
All this evidence suggests that JAN’s name and symbols are beginning to be replaced by that of ISIS, and this trend has become particularly apparent in the east of the country. Concerns about this trend may be one reason why an assortment of bodies for Syrian ‘ulama have only issued a statement this month urging JAN to renounce the pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri. Like the rebel battalions who have issued statements on this matter, the ‘ulama make clear that they still appreciate JAN’s efforts against the Assad regime.
The question remains of how to interpret this evidence of the emerging ISIS in Syria. Is it a splinter group from JAN? Are the two simply interchangeable, with the use of ISIS or JAN nomenclature and symbols purely a matter of preference? Is JAN disintegrating, with members either being gradually subsumed into ISIS or joining other rebel groups?
In my view, given the extremely fragmented nature of Syria at the present time- even in rebel-held areas- it is impossible to come up with a single explanation. JAN- like other rebel groups- does not have a rigid centralized command structure whereby leaders can monitor everything that those who identify as part of the group do in various parts of the country.
Thus, I would say that perhaps some use the name of ISIS and flag without thinking they are somehow taking a stand against Jowlani and JAN, but it is probable that others have taken up these symbols intentionally in opposition to Jowlani and JAN.
As I noted above, I have never doubted Jowlani’s sincerity in denying consultation on merging JAN with ISI. Further, if Mariam Karouny’s report for Reuters is to be believed, Baghdadi is now in Syria and has taken up the role of leader of ISIS.
Likely in corroboration of Karouny’s report, one should note that an apparent split between Jowlani and Baghdadi has not escaped the notice of some jihadi forum users, who are now urging for unity to advance the jihadist cause in Syria.
In sum, we have a portrait here of an emerging ISIS presence that is at least partly in opposition to JAN and Jowlani, and geographically speaking, the division is more or less east versus west. That is, the further east one goes, the more likely it is that one will observe an ISIS presence.
Further, on the basis of an apparent cessation in output from al-Manaarah al-Baydaa, I would say that ISIS has the support of Zawahiri over JAN. In short, at the minimum, the Red Cross’ observation of the fragmentation of JAN appears to be vindicated.
While I do believe that other lines of evidence (e.g. the Youtube videos linked to above along with the jihadi forum posting) corroborate some idea of JAN-ISIS tensions, I urge the exercise of caution over Karouny's report in some respects. One should in particular note the context of the impending issue of JAN and Jowlani coming under global UN sanctions as per a British and French proposal.
Thus, it should be little surprise that some rebels with links to JAN would want to play up the idea of Sahwa militias (a cliché I debunked in my latest post for Jihadology) and exaggerate a good deal the idea of a rapidly decaying and disintegrating JAN in the face of a sinister ISIS force, whose strength is liable to be overplayed. Further, I share the skepticism of analyst @Syrian_Scenes that Baghdadi has somehow relocated to Aleppo. More generally, fragmentation is a problem that afflicts numerous rebel groups, and not just JAN.
In any event, I draw the readers' attention to my warning that no single paradigm of analysis should be sought over the appearance of ISIS naming and symbols. Some of them- as I emphasize above- could be using this brand without any intention of opposition to JAN at all. In corroboration of this point, I would draw attention to the fact that many pro-JAN social media pages (including some that borrow the al-Manaarah al-Baydaa logo) have recycled these recent ISIS videos.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org