|Figure 1: Scene from Abu Kamal during a recent period of heavy rain.
It has been out of regime hands since last year, as regime forces- aware of the inability to hold out if spread too thinly- retreated from a number of northern and eastern localities to concentrate on defending provincial capitals. The question now arises of who exactly controls or is present in the town.
In my own research, I have identified a number of factions operating in the town of Abu Kamal and sharing power in the local revolutionary coordination committee: namely, Kata’ib Junud al-Haq, Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna, Kata’ib Allahu Akbar, Liwa Allahu Akbar, Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar, and Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya. So what is the nature of each of these groups?
Kata’ib Junud al-Haq
Translating to “Battalions of the Soldiers of Righteousness,” this faction is the local Abu Kamal affiliate of Jabhat al-Nusra. However, it has not exclusively remained in the Abu Kamal area but has rather sent fighters as far afield as the town of ash-Shaddadi in al-Hasakah province to the north and Sakhna in the desert area of Homs governorate, besides the major front of the city of Deir az-Zor itself further up the Euphrates.
|Figure 2: Kata’ib Junud al-Haq raid on ash-Shaddadi (the town was taken over by Jabhat al-Nusra) featuring captured regime fighters.
|Figure 3: Kata’ib Junud al-Haq in Sakhna, Homs governorate, after capturing a checkpoint.
|Figure 5: Video released in mid-May while Kata’ib Junud al-Haq was affiliated with ISIS.
|Figure 6: A logo of Kata’ib Junud al-Haq prior to the announcement of ISIS.
|Figure 7: The logo for Kata’ib Junud al-Haq adopted after the announcement of ISIS.
|Figure 8: An old Kata’ib Junud al-Haq logo readopted in September.
|Figure 9: Copy of jabhat al-Nusra statement released on 16 September for the people of Abu Kamal.
And matters were made worse by what members of Liwa Allahu Akbar undertook last Friday in preventing members of the Front from praying in the mosques, so whenever a member of the Front entered, they prevented him from entering saying it was an order from Saddam [leader of Liwa Allahu Akbar]. An apology and treaties follow on their part from all these incidents of aggression, while we were not responsible for any acts of harassment and aggression during the course of these months against Liwa…but because we are a symbol for Islam, we want to offer an example of forgiveness for the people.
Where is Jabhat al-Nusra in all these happenings: a group in Deir az-Zor fighting and bringing forth martyrs, and a group in rural Homs attempting to the best of its ability to defend the honor of Muslims, and when the matter came to our attention regarding the preventing of us from praying in the mosques and the manifest aggression, it was thus that we summoned members from the fighting fronts to protect what remained of our members in Abu Kamal after we saw what Liwa Allahu Akbar was planning from acts of aggression in preparation to fight the Islamists and that is because its leadership is in Turkey, their alliances are well-known; and their ambition to rule Syria and establish a secular state is not concealed from anyone, and for the sake of this there has been established what is called the alliance of Ahfad al-Rasul.”
After describing in-depth the alleged sequence of events on the Saturday whereby Liwa Allahu Akbar opened fire on Jabhat al-Nusra and the latter responded in defense of its members and headquarters in Abu Kamal, the statement documents the following post-clash conditions:
“1. Embracing a ceasefire on our part and an end to armed demonstrations on our part in defense of the souls of the innocent civilians in accordance with the demand of the wise and judicious of Abu Kamal.
2. Whoever attacks us, we will respond to him in kind or greater, as this is the path of God- the Almighty has said: ‘For whosoever attacks you, attack him just as he attacked you.’
3. Entrusting a committee composed of the different battalions in Abu Kamal to investigate the disappearance of Khattab al-Rakheetah as per a request from Saddam.
In conclusion, we thank all those who stood by us from the different families and tribes of Abu Kamal and its countryside as well as its distinguished men not out of love for our members but out of love for our Islamic program- may God reward them. So we ask God- Almighty and Exalted is He- to guide the youth of Liwa who are misguided by their leadership…So we ask the families of the youth not to offer their sons and their pure blood for the sake of the glory of this person called Saddam, who will not benefit them in this world in preference to the Hereafter: a man who pushes them into battles and wars so that he can attain power, wealth and fame as they shout: ‘With soul and blood, we defend you oh Saddam!’”
The relevant text of the ceasefire agreement between Liwa Allahu Akbar and Jabhat al-Nusra- signed on 13 September by most of the battalions I listed above- is as follows:
“-Withdrawal of members of Liwa [Allahu Akbar] and Jabhat al-Nusra to their headquarters, with no placing of checkpoints and the leaving of protection and checkpoints to Katiba Amniya [joint security committee with recruits drawn from all factions], Allahu Akbar and the other kata’ib.
- No entry of masked men from any front.
-No raid on any home except by the Shari’a Committee and Katiba Amniya.
-Every week or more the putting in place of a program for a meeting gathering the leadership of the battalions and the brigades with discussion of any incident and accounting for harm on any side.
- Withdrawal of the muhajireen since there is no fighting in Abu Kamal and no need for masked men and armed demonstrations.”
|Figure 10: Text of ceasefire agreement in Abu Kamal.
|Figure 11: Scene in Abu Kamal from early September featuring the funeral of Mohammed Rabie al-Mousli, killed in the city of Deir az-Zor. His body was covered by the Jabhat al-Nusra flag.
Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna
|Figure 13: Emblem of Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna
It was a signatory to the 13 September ceasefire agreement and like Kata’ib Junud al-Haq has deployed fighters beyond Abu Kamal, most notably in the city of Deir az-Zor, where it closely coordinated with the Fatihun min Ard ash-Sham brigade and Jabhat al-Nusra in operations in al-Rashdiya quarter during the autumn, consequently being praised by the former group in October. In November, the battalion sent a further deployment of fighters to al-Rashdiya.
Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna also distributes weekly da’wah (faith outreach) pamphlets for the local population in Abu Kamal.
|Figure 15: Photo from June of fighters from Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna- “Lions of the Sunna”- in the group’s training grounds.
|Figure 16: Photo from Deir az-Zor taken by members of Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna.
|Figure 17: Another scene from Deir az-Zor.
|Figure 18: From October, vehicle from a Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna convoy on its way to Deir az-Zor. Note the ISIS flag on the vehicle, corroborating the testimony related to me regarding the group’s jihadist ideological affiliations.
|Figure 19: Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna preparing to fire missiles at regime forces in Hawiqa, Deir az-Zor, where ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have also operated.
|Figure 20: Scene from military training exercises Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna runs for local children.
Kata’ib Allahu Akbar
|Figure 21: Logo of the Kata’ib Allahu Akbar
Apparently taking its name from calling Abu Kamal “the Allahu Akbar town,” it is led by one Khaz’al al-Sirhan (Abu al-Waleed, who refers to the struggle against “the immoral Nusayri regime”) and it played a role in the capture of Hamdan military airport near Abu Kamal in November of last year, claiming some military defectors in the process. The group also seems to have a subsidiary military unit-Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin- and has participated more recently in fighting for Deir az-Zor military airport.
|Figure 22: Logo of Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin
|Figure 23: Wall mural set up by Kata’ib Allahu Akbar/Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin dedicated to martyrs of Abu Kamal. Note the FSA-banner flags.
|Figure 24: Fighters from Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin in Abu Kamal area.
|Figure 25: Statement in May announcing “Army of the town of Allahu Akbar in Abu Kamal.”
“Of course our ‘aqida like the rest of the Syrian people is Sunni Islam and we want the rule of God’s law and the creation of laws derived from the Qur’an and Sunna of His Prophet- may God’s peace and blessings be upon Him- with the protection of the rest of the rights for the other sects as specified for them by the Shari’a.
Our program is moderate and for justice and we do not declare takfir on anyone from the Ahl al-Qibla [i.e. those who adhere to the tenets of Islam]…and our school of thought consists of the great ‘ulama of the Ahl al-Salf like Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Baz.”
The ideological vision of Kata’ib Allahu Akbar and the wider Authenticity and Development Front is therefore very much in accord with the Sunni Islamism that has characterized other major rebel groups like Liwa al-Tawhid (at least prior to the latter’s joining the Islamic Front). The most notable overlaps with the recent Salafi-leaning Islamic Front are the claim to protect minority rights within the framework of Shari’a and the claim to follow the likes of Ibn Taymiyya, which partly explains the anti-Alawite sentiment that is very much mainstream in the insurgency. In any event, the head of the military office also made clear to me that Kata’ib Allahu Akbar has good working relations with all factions in Abu Kamal and is currently participating on the same military fronts where they are fighting.
Liwa Allahu Akbar
|Figure 26: Emblem of the Liwa Allahu Akbar
However, a video recently emerged showing Saddam appearing in front of an ISIS flag, claiming his defection from Liwa Allahu Akbar to ISIS. Saddam goes on to document an alleged conspiracy involving Qatari, Turkish, Jordanian, Saudi and Western intelligence agencies whereby the Ahfad al-Rasul movement- originally of non-ideological orientation and just concerned with bringing the downfall of the regime- was co-opted as part of the wider FSA to fight ISIS.
It is of course true that generally speaking, the Ahfad al-Rasul movement lacks a clear manifesto and political program, and as noted above in the conflict with Jabhat al-Nusra, this point has made it the target of criticism for supposedly being only concerned with profiteering and warlordism.
As for ISIS’ accusation of collaboration with Western intelligence, this is a charge ISIS has leveled at Ahfad al-Rasul before during the conflict with the local Raqqa branch of Ahfad al-Rasul that saw the movement expelled from the city in August. Like the video of Saddam al-Jamal, ISIS circles put out a video in August of an Ahfad al-Rasul detainee in Raqqa purporting to document how the movement received aid from France to take on ISIS, whence the derisive name ‘Ahfad Faransa’ (“Descendants of France”) in ISIS circles for Ahfad al-Rasul.
When I asked Kata’ib Junud al-Haq’s spokesman about the video of Saddam al-Jamal, he confirmed to me that it is indeed authentic but pointed out to me he did not defect willingly. Rather, he was kidnapped, though the abduction did not take place in the town of Abu Kamal itself, but in an “unknown location.” More recently, rumors have claimed that ISIS has appointed Saddam al-Jamal as its own local commander for the Abu Kamal area, but I find no evidence from my local contacts to corroborate that.
It should also be noted that even after the ceasefire agreement between Jabhat al-Nusra and Liwa Allahu Akbar, not everything was harmonious, as Saddam al-Jamal escaped an assassination attempt in late September.
|Figure 27: Aftermath of failed assassination attempt on Saddam al-Jamal in Abu Kamal.
Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar
|Figure 28: Emblem of Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar
Like most of the other groups documented above, it was a signatory to the September ceasefire and has played a role in more recent fighting outside of Abu Kamal, most notably in the city of Deir az-Zor. For these recent efforts, Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar was commended by Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna. Interestingly, it has also claimed some martyrs from a deployment sent to aid the wider rebel front in the Qalamoun area of Damascus province.
|Figure 29: Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar convoy on the desert highways of Deir az-Zor province. Photo from late October.
|Figure 30: Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar fighters in Deir az-Zor with Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya, another Abu Kamal-based battalion.
|Figure 31: An FSA flag alongside a Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar banner, yet the group is independent.
|Figure 32: Mohammed Mena’ Aboud al-Mena’, killed in Qalamoun.
|Figure 33: Hamza Sulayman al-Zakarti, another fighter for Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar killed in the Qalamoun area.
Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya
|Figure 34: Emblem of Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya
|Figure 35: Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya and Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar fighters on their way to Homs governorate.
Figure 36: Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya vehicle on its way to the city of Deir az-Zor. Photo taken on 28 October.
While the above factions are the ones with meaningful power in the town of Abu Kamal itself (as corroborated in my interview with Kata’ib Junud al-Haq’s spokesman), the overall area with its surrounding countryside is home to more very small and generally insignificant factions. Some groups appear to be defunct: a case-in-point being the Katiba Junud al-Haq (“Battalion of the Soldiers of Righteousness”), which went by the FSA-label and not only conducted joint operations in 2012 with Jabhat al-Nusra in the Abu Kamal area but also released joint statements, such as a claim in October of that year to have downed a regime fighter jet in a coordinated operation between Jabhat al-Nusra, a member of Katiba Junud al-Haq, and Katiba Dhi al-Nurain. The group has since October 2012 otherwise been inactive, and likely evolved into Kata’ib Junud al-Haq that became a formal Jabhat al-Nusra affiliate. Other groups like Katiba Saraya al-Tawhid- similarly using FSA imagery- were announced to be part of some mergers last year, only never to be heard of again, whether in separate form or as part of the declared FSA mergers in the Abu Kamal area.
|Figure 37: Emblem of Katiba Junud al-Haq, identified as part of the “Free Army.”
|Figure 38: Katiba Suqur al-Islam (“Falcons of Islam Battalion”), another apparently defunct FSA-banner group from the Abu Kamal area.
The Shari’a Committee of Abu Kamal
|Figure 39: Emblem of the Shari’a Committee of Abu Kamal.
|Figure 40: Shari’a Committee statement released this month and addressed to “all the fighting battalions and factions in the Abu Kamal area,” announcing a new session of intensive Shari’a learning at the Sheikh Abdullah Azzam Shari’a Institute.
|Figure 41: The Sheikh Abdullah Azzam Institute for Shari’a Learning.
|Figure 42: A classroom in the Shari’a Institute.
The town of Abu Kamal defies simple characterizations. Indeed, pace Elizabeth O’Bagy’s misleading map in her now infamous Wall Street Journal op-ed, it would be wrong to think of Abu Kamal as a mere stronghold for “extremist groups.” The reality is that there are factions of a range of orientations in Abu Kamal, from non-ideological (Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar and Liwa Allahu Akbar) to standard Islamist (Kata’ib Allahu Akbar) and pan-Islamist/jihadist (Kata’ib Junud al-Haq/Jabhat al-Nusra and Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna). This kind of arrangement can similarly be found in a number of towns with an ISIS presence, such as Tel Abyaḍ in Raqqa governorate, and Idlib towns like Saraqeb, Salqin and Ma’arat an-Na’aman.
As the September ceasefire agreement shows, Jabhat al-Nusra cannot simply do as it pleases in Abu Kamal, but it is not unreasonable to conclude that it is the leading faction in the town, especially in light of its monopoly on the Shari’a committee.
From the Iraqi perspective, there is the additional problem that the ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra split does not really matter in the borderlands- something particularly apparent in the testimony relayed to me and corroborated by the fact that Zawahiri insists on cooperation between mujahideen in Syria and Iraq anyway. The Abu Kamal area is certainly an environment where cross-border exchange of manpower and resources between mujahideen can easily take place.
More generally, the number of factions in the area- considering Abu Kamal’s relatively small size- points to rampant localism across the rebel-held areas of Syria. Go a little further up the Euphrates in Deir az-Zor province and you will find a different set of factions in a town like Mayadeen. It is hard to see any kind of unifying rebel authority- let alone the unrepresentative Syrian opposition-in-exile- being able to assert itself over the expanse of rebel-held lands in Deir az-Zor province any time soon.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org