Wednesday 11 June 2014

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi - Saraya al-Madina al-Munawara: A Revived Iraqi Insurgent Brand

Logo of Saraya al-Madina al-Munawara
The name of this group translates to “The Honored City’s Brigades.” Its origins lie in the days of the Sunni insurgency of the Iraq War, though it is quite clear that it was an independent group. For example, in this posting from September 2007, it is identified as one of the “jihadi groups not rallying under any front,” contrasting with, most notably, the “Islamic State of Iraq” umbrella that included al-Qa’ida in Bilad al-Rafidayn. Like the Jaysh al-Mujahideen, Saraya al-Madina al-Munawara has begun advertising its military activities more openly on social media with the revival of the broader Sunni insurgency since the beginning of this year.

According to a media representative for Saraya al-Madina al-Munawara whom I interviewed, the group “was established after the beginning of the occupation, and continued fighting until the occupier left. After the occupier left, it undertook secret work, and when the battle in Syria began, some of the youth went to Syria to fight there, and a contingent within Iraq remained to prepare for the occasion to go to Syria, and after that the battle began in Iraq.”

To be sure, the media representative’s claims of secrecy post-American withdrawal in 2011 explain the lack of media material demonstrating a supposed presence within Syria. A contingent fighting in Syria hardly comes as a surprise if true. Tying the Iraq and Syria struggles together is not solely the preserve of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS), but also articulated by ISIS’ rivals in Jamaat Ansar al-Islam (which has ideological affinity with ISIS and has openly deployed a contingent to Syria), the Islamic Army of Iraq, and Jaysh al-Mujahideen.

However, unlike these aforementioned groups, Saraya al-Madina al-Munawara does not see itself at odds with ISIS, as indicated to me in the interview in response to a question I posed on relations with ISIS: “Our program is the book [i.e. the Qur’an] and the Sunnah. We have no disagreement with any of the mujahideen. Our aim is the establishment of justice and a rightly-guiding Caliphate.” At the same time the representative expressed hopes to me for unity among the insurgent groups, saying that if such unity were achieved, they could reach Baghdad “within days.” The testimony thus related points to a clear Islamist outlook, though the open-source discourse does not place emphasis on establishing the Caliphate in the manner stressed by ISIS and Jamaat Ansar al-Islam.

There is no reason here not to accept the claims of good relations with ISIS. Though I have documented tensions with groups like Jamaat Ansar al-Islam and Jaysh al-Mujahideen (who, incidentally, have taken advantage of the chaos ensuing the fall of Mosul to launch a new coordinated offensive in the Hawija area of Kirkuk), it is apparent that others are willing to work with ISIS and even hail their efforts.

 ”Jaysh al-Mujahideen unite with their al-Ansar [i.e. Jamaat Ansar al-Islam] brothers,” as part of Operation “Kirkuk is being liberated.” 
An instructive case-in-point is the local Mosul franchise for the General Military Council (GMC), which is a front group for the Ba’athist Naqshbandi Army (JRTN). With the Mosul branch having previously hailed ISIS as “lions of the desert,” the GMC recently released a statement on the fall of Mosul in which it claimed that “the rebels of Mosul in all their factions- by God’s preference- seized complete control of the right side of Mosul [i.e. the side west of the Tigris River]…and all the political and security leadership fled.” The GMC also released some photos showing capture and destruction of Iraqi army equipment in the wider Ninawa province.

GMC photo claiming captured military equipment in Ninawa province, 10th June
GMC photo claiming seizure of an army Hummer in Ninawa province, 10th June
Though there is good reason to be skeptical of the GMC’s claims to have participated in the takeover of Mosul in light of past stealing credit from ISIS for new insurgent offensives launched in Anbar province (most notably in al-Zuba’ and al-Karma, with the record subsequently clarified in ISIS’ favor here), two conclusions are to be drawn here: first, neither JRTN nor its front groups wish to confront ISIS, regardless of true feelings towards ISIS, and second, other groups are clearly exploiting the vacuum created by the ISIS-dominated takeovers of new areas in Ninawa, Kirkuk and Salah ad-Din provinces. 

There is a possibility that the eventual arrangement in Mosul may parallel Fallujah, where there is sharing of the city between ISIS and other insurgent groups but as per a virtual agreement on ISIS’ terms, or parallel to the nebulous co-existence between the Assad regime forces and the PYD in Qamishli. 

Coming back to Saraya al-Madina al-Munawara, it remains to discuss the group’s area of operations. According to the media representative I interviewed, the group does not openly proclaim or advertise many of their operations, but from what can be gathered from published material, it would appear the group primarily operates in Anbar (to be more specific, the wider Fallujah and Ramadi areas), and like other minor insurgent groups its attacks are mostly limited to mortar strikes and hit-and-run style operations. This does not exclude the possibility of their operating in the wider area.

”Hitting army headquarters in Anbar.” Saraya al-Madina al-Munawara photo
As above
As above
Though dwarfed by the size and capabilities of ISIS, the case of Saraya al-Madina al-Munawara does illustrate the complexity of intra-insurgent dynamics going beyond the well-known rivalries such as the tensions between Jamaat Ansar al-Islam and ISIS, further eroding any government hopes of making gains against ISIS and the wider insurgency. 

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.


  1. Has all of Mosul been overrun/captured by the Sunni Insurgents? I don't/can't believe that has happened.

    I could see the insurgents taking the western side of Mosul (on the west side of the Tigris river) without to much trouble. The east side of Mosul (on the east side of the Tigris river) was heavily dominated by the Kurds and they would definitely put up a serious fight before losing ground. I would bet that most of the Iraqi Government Military Forces that got routed/folded were in western Mosul. Also, I would not be surprised if these forces simply bugged out to eastern Mosul or other Kurdish controlled areas to the east/northeast by crossing the bridges over the Tigris River to seek Kurdish protection.

  2. I was reviewing video of recent Iraqi Air Force Strikes, and the below video struck me as curios. The explosions are singular - and appear far too large for the S-8, Hellfire, and 9M120 missiles currently employed by Iraqi aircraft. Could these be barrel-bomb strikes filmed by the Iraqi Air Force?

    1. After reviewing some Hellfire missile strike videos as well as some barrel bombings, my best speculation is that the explosions in the video you linked are from missiles. The explosion may appear bigger in the video due to the infrared camera's exposure to the sudden brightness. Also, you can see a distinct "flash" several seconds before the explosion. This is a classic indication of a missile being launched whereas a barrel bomb is simply dropped and has no projection system. Again, this is only my speculation based on what I have seen.

  3. any comment on story that Isis executed iraqi's with weapon supplied by america to syrian rebels? Story and picture here?

    1. Link appears to be broken, although if people are getting excited about ISIS having US weapons they should settled down. They've been taking this stuff off Iraqi forces for months.

  4. Thank you - it's the AP photo that shows Iraqi soldiers just before they are killed with an M16 rifle. Is there any evidence in the claim that Americans have been secretly supplying weapons to rebel groups in Syria, now used in Iraq?