Tuesday 15 July 2014

What is Bellingcat

This week I've launched the Kickstarter for my new website, Bellingcat, which I hope will solve one issue I've come across again and again.  Often I've been invited to various events where people who have developed great tools and techniques for working with open source information have spoken in front of a crowd of eager journalists, activists, researchers, etc, who listen to the presentation, then go home and forget about it.  With Bellingcat I'm trying to do something that will keep those people engaged with those tools and techniques, and also show others how to use them.

Bellingcat has contributors writing for the site on a variety of subjects, but all using open source information for their work.  Over the last two years I've used open source information to investigate the conflict in Syria, but it's not just about conflict zones, with the OCCRP demonstrating the use of open source information to investigate cross-border crime and corruption.

I want to engage Bellingcat's contributors with the tools and techniques organisations like the OCCRP have developed, but also teach others how to use them.  Along with news and analysis, Bellingcat has guides and case studies so anyone can learn the same techniques we've used in our investigations, creating new investigators.

We also plan to have ongoing projects which Bellingcat readers can get involved in, learning about tools and techniques while contributing to the projects in a meaningful way.  In the coming weeks I hope to provide information about these projects, and how Bellingcat readers can get involved.

Bellingcat is as much about the readers as it is the contributors.  We only have to look at what's happening with Ukraine and Gaza to see why it's important to understand open source information and why verification is important.  If you agree, then please donate to the Bellingcat Kickstarter.

Tuesday 1 July 2014

Brown Moses Announces Bellingcat - Open Source Investigations For All

Update - The Bellingcat Kickstarter is now live, with more details on Bellingcat.  Donate £5 or more to get access to the Bellingcat website, with exclusive content and podcasts.

I have big news to announce. I will be launching a website called Bellingcat.

As a champion of open source tools, I cannot imagine bringing this website to life in any other way than appealing to my community of supporters who have brought me to where I am now. So, we will be launching a crowdfunding campaign on July 14.

Bellingcat is a website that triumphs the power and potential of using open source information.

It focuses on two main objectives:

1. It will bring together a group of writers and activists who through using open source tools have transformed journalism and solidified themselves as experts in their fields, such as (might already be familiar with these great people): Peter Jukes; my anonymous phone hacking contributor; Jonathan Krohn; Phillip Smyth; Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi; and more.

2. It will be a place that will attract others to come and learn how to use these same tools, techniques, and processes. Bellingcat will include how-to guides, case studies, articles, and other media such as webinars on the latest tools and technologies, which will aid others in becoming citizen open source investigators.

For me, Bellingcat is about giving other people out there, just like me, a chance to learn what I've learnt over the last two years by trial and error in one place, making it as easy as possible to investigate the things they are passionate about. I also want to help support the people who are already doing the same kind of work on a variety of subjects, and get them involved with the opportunities I'm presented with on a regular basis— new technology projects, contacts with all sorts of organisations and individuals who could benefit from their expertise.

I welcome any of your ideas for the crowdfunding page. The success of this open source endeavor relies on participation. YOUR participation. Please join me in making this a reality.

To be part of the Bellingcat mailing list, sign up here.  You can also follow Bellingcat on Twitter.

Please contact brownmoses@gmail.com with any media queries.

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.

Sunday 1 June 2014

Evidence Of A Possible Failed Chlorine Barrel Bomb Attack Two Months Before The First Reported Attacks

During a recent review of the many Syria related photographs I've downloaded from a variety of sources, I came across the following photographs from Muzeireeb, Daraa, posted to Facebook on February 11th 2014


A quick search through the Muzeireeb YouTube channel came up with this video showing the same bomb

It's unclear if the locals took a closer look at the remains of the unexploded bomb, and they may have (sensibly) decided to leave the huge unexploded bomb alone.  It's described as the remains of an unexploded barrel bomb, nothing too unusual in Syria, but there's something about this example that makes it very interesting.

Still from video
The front of the bomb has two slots cut into the side, and a metal bar with two long bolts running through it.  This is a very unusual feature which also appears in some of the chlorine barrel bombs used since April 11th

Bomb dropped on Kafr Zita on April 18th
The assumption is the bar was to hold the end of the cylinder away from the ground, so it would have enough room to release the gas contained in the cylinder on impact, with the slots on the side allowing the gas to escape.  If that's the case, then it seems likely the example from Muzeireeb was also a chemical barrel bomb, used two months before the first attack in Kafr Zita on April 11th, and hundreds of miles away in Daraa.  It begs the question whether other reported chemical attacks since (and even before) February were chemical barrel bombs, and how long these have been in use by the Syrian air force.

Friday 23 May 2014

Hersh's Ghouta: Conspiracy, Dismissal, and Denial

A guest post by Jett Goldsmith.

In blogging, expectations are lowered; not only in terms of quality, but in terms of accuracy and professionalism. Plenty of bloggers maintain a standard of quality and accuracy in light of their profession, like Mr. Higgins and the dozens of other remote reporters on the Syrian conflict -- who blur the lines between amateur and professional, and who still manage to break stories sometimes hours before mainstream sources, despite unfavorable odds. But for every journalist who has embraced the massive soapbox of the internet with open arms and an eye for quality reporting, there remain those who choose otherwise; riding on the coattails of legitimacy touted by reliable bloggers, misusing the unquestioning arms of the internet to inject falsehoods, poor research and shoddy journalism into what tries its best to be a proper field.

Enter Seymour Hersh. A once-famed investigative journalist noted for exposing the Mỹ Lai Massacre by U.S. troops in Vietnam. Perhaps one of the first true “bloggers” of his time, who chose to work as a contributor rather than a professional staff writer. But unlike today’s bloggers, Higgins and the like included, Hersh never truly adapted to the standard of accuracy which most would expect from a seasoned contributor. His career was frequently tainted by allegations of poor research and dubious sources. Claims he made, while typically taken on faith, had the remarkable tendency to be proven false. And nowhere more egregious were these lapses in credibility than his commentary on the Syrian Civil War.

In early April, Hersh released a report entitled “The Red Line and the Rat Line,” which called into question the role of the Syrian government in the devastating August 21st Ghouta chemical attack which killed and injured over 4,000 people, many of them civilians. The popular sentiment was obvious: Intelligence agencies and officials from France, Israel, the United States, Germany, Turkey, the UK, the Arab League and even the independent Human Rights Watch placed blame for the attacks on Assad’s Syrian Arab Army. An independent United Nations report, while failing to directly pin blame (as per its design), heavily supported the conclusion that Assad was responsible. But Hersh refused to sit on the side of credibility. Instead of following the authority and ethos of nearly every accredited world government and human rights organization in existence, he chose the path of conspiracy -- sitting in the company of such bastions of truth and knowledge as Mint Press News, Russia Today and Infowars.

Hersh’s main argument is one of denial, interlaced with effrontery and a small touch of paranoia. His claim is straightforward: Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda-affiliated rebel group, were the true culprits of the August 21st Ghouta attack -- and they were supplied by Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan. Hersh’s argument is debunked and rebutted in CBRN specialist Dan Kaszeta’s “Hersh and the Red Herring,” and in Higgins’ “The Knowledge Gap - Seymour’s Hersh of Cards,” and even in a statement by United States National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden -- all of which are unsurprising. In reality, Hersh’s argument is no different than those made by the questionable creatures trolling the depths of the AboveTopSecret forums, or the murky waters of PressTV’s government-fueled newsrooms. They differ in allegations, sure: AboveTopSecret claims the CIA did it; PressTV points at a “US-approved false-flag operation conducted by Saudi Arabia in collusion with Israel;” and the like-minded Seymour Hersh blames Jabhat al-Nusra and Turkey. But their variances in blame are all connected by one factor: the attempted vindication of the Assad regime, and the unabashed embrace of conspiracism, faulty logic and dangerous assumptions to accomplish it.

Bashar al-Assad needs no vindication. The Syrian conflict is complex: both sides have committed atrocities, and the lines of morality are becoming increasingly blurred. For many, a rebel victory may not be the best possible scenario for Syria. But to vindicate a brutal, murderous dictator -- one who gasses his own people, executes the systematic torture and murder of detainees, and drops thousands of pounds of explosives on the homes of families, men, women and children -- that is the true crime against humanity.

As for Hersh? His credibility erodes at a stunning pace. He is long gone from the days of the Mỹ Lai Massacre, and even further from his brief period of respectability as an investigative journalist. Once heralded amongst the likes of Pulitzer winners and Polk recipients, he lives on amongst those of paranoid pundits and crazed conspiracists. And although serving as a sort of glorified blogger for the tenure of his career, Hersh will never meet the standards of any credible journalist, neither in accuracy nor in quality. His unabashed defense of a regime which has killed thousands of civilians and destroyed the lives of millions more has no place in any legitimate discussion, and it certainly has no place as an accolade under the belt of a once-famed investigative journalist.

Thursday 22 May 2014

Three Chemical Barrel Bomb Attacks Reported On The Day The UNSC's Vote On Referring Syria To The ICC Is Vetoed

Today, as Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to refer the Syrian government to the International Criminal Court, there's been more reports of chemical barrel bomb attacks on towns in Syria.  Following a reported attack on Kafr Zita on May 19th (videos here), Kafr Zita was reportedly attacked this morning and this evening, along with Al Tamanah, scene of three earlier attacks.  Videos of the Kafr Zita attacks can be seen here and here, and the Al Tamanah attack here.

The videos show what have become now familiar scenes in Syria of choking victims being treated in medical centers, but one video stood out from the rest.

It appears in this video yellowish-green chlorine gas may be visible, the first time footage has been shot on the ground showing the gas shortly after impact.

To me, it's difficult not to see three chemical attacks on the same day an attempt to refer the Syria to the ICC is vetoed as the Syrian government thumbing its nose at the international communities' attempts to hold it to account.  Given the flaccid reaction to chemical barrel bomb attacks it seems future attacks of this type are more than likely.

Monday 12 May 2014

Photographs From Daniele Raineri Of Chemical Barrel Bombs In Syria

Today, the Daily Telegraph published a pair of articles on chemical barrel bombs in Syria, "Syrian chemical weapons use backed-up by second investigation", and "Found: the bombs that delivered Syria's chlorine gas" by Daniele Raineri.

Daniele took a number of photographs of the remains of the barrel bombs, some of which were published in the Daily Telegraph.  He's now given me permission to publish the remaining 59 photographs online, the full collection of which can be found here.

The following pictures shows the remains of a cylinder that has a number of interesting features

This appears to be the same chemical barrel bomb featured in this video from Kafr Zita on April 18th

As I noted in an earlier post, det cord has been wrapped around the neck of the cylinder, shown below

It would appear the function of this is to blow off the end of the cylinder using the least explosive power possible, reducing the among of chlorine gas destroyed in the explosion.  One photograph may show an example where this configuration has functioned as intended

Another interesting feature of the same barrel bomb is the metal bar with two large bolt which sits in front of the cylinder

The same metal bar and bolt assembly is visible in a video from another reported attack in Telmens on April 21st

I believe the function of this assembly is to hold the cylinder away from the base of the bomb, so during impact the cylinder doesn't end up buried in the ground, preventing the release of gas.  There's also a slot in the casing of the barrel bomb, next to the end of the cylinder, which could be there to allow gas to be released on impact.  This would strongly suggest more effort has gone into the design of these munitions than simply placing a gas cylinder inside a barrel bomb.

More videos showing the remains of chemical barrel bombs can be found here, and the remaining Daniele Raineri photographs can be found here.

Sunday 11 May 2014

Key Updates on Iraq’s Sunni Insurgent Groups

By Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi

In January I provided a lengthy overview of the Sunni insurgent groups currently operating in Iraq. What dynamics have changed since then?

Jamaat Ansar al-Islam’s Emergence in Anbar

In the previous piece I noted how Jamaat Ansar al-Islam (JAI)- the main rivals of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) despite the common ideology- lacked a meaningful presence in Anbar province and was primarily based in the Mosul and Kirkuk areas. However, that is no longer true as clear evidence has emerged showing the JAI banner and fighters in the Fallujah area in particular, as can be seen below.

JAI in Fallujah area
JAI in Fallujah area
JAI in Fallujah area
Though these official photos date back to early April, some earlier unofficial photos from JAI social media circles exist claiming a presence in Anbar. Concomitant with these new photos are some officially claimed operations in Anbar, such as a sniper attack on an Iraqi soldier in the al-Sijr area of Fallujah on 6th April, as well as an IED attack on the Iraqi army in the same place on 29th March. However, the frequency of such JAI operations in Anbar does not compare with JAI activities in Mosul or Kirkuk. Indeed, it seems most probable that in Anbar JAI has merely been taken up as a name and banner for fighters opposed to ISIS to rally around.
JAI fighters pose with a flag in early March, claimed to be in Anbar province. Though the exact area is not specified, it is most likely from the Fallujah area, which is the main stronghold for all insurgents in Anbar.
JAI fighters allegedly training in Anbar province, early March.
JAI’s Continued Infighting with ISIS; Expansion in Syria

As of now, tensions between JAI and ISIS remain unresolved. To summarize from my earlier work, the roots of the dispute are thus: ISIS members and supporters claim JAI is a criminal group that does not actually support the project of a Caliphate, while JAI counters that it is in favour of this project but regards ISIS’ claims to already be a state and its attempts to subjugate JAI under its wing as problematic. This is why JAI has always insisted on calling ISIS and its predecessor jamaat ad-dawla- “group of the state,” which is now standard from al-Qa’ida circles that had previously accepted the Islamic State of Iraq as a state entity. 

When I asked one JAI member- going by the name of Ibrahim al-Ansari- whether Iraqi press rumours of fighting between JAI and ISIS in Diyala province were true, specifically regarding a supposed JAI war declaration on ISIS northeast of Baquba, he affirmed: “In every place, not only Diyala.” Also in this context one should note Iraqi press reports of clashes between JAI and ISIS in the al-Rashad area of southwest Kirkuk province. 

Though there was an attempt by ISIS to bring about a ceasefire with JAI in late April, JAI stipulated that there should be a neutral Shari’a court acceptable to both parties to settle the disputes, but ISIS went back on any pledge to adhere to such conditions. It should be noted that this behavior exactly mirrors ISIS’ conduct in Syria, where it has similarly rejected all attempts at independent arbitration of its rivalries with other rebel groups (e.g. Sheikh Muheisseni’s Ummah Initiative). This relates to JAI’s fundamental complaint about ISIS: namely, the fact it already considers itself a state and therefore above other groups and not having to answer to third-party authority.

In Syria, JAI has now become much more open about its presence, no longer calling itself the “Ansar ash-Sham” contingent. The group most notably played a role in the capture of Jabal Shwayhana and Kafr Hamra in Aleppo province in March in coordination with other rebels including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, with which JAI is closely aligned. There is also some limited fighting with Kurdish YPG forces.

JAI in Kafr Hamra, 25th March.
JAI in Jabal Shwayhana, 22nd March.
A Mistubishi vehicle owned by JAI in Syria.
A BMW X5 owned by JAI in Syria.
Inside a JAI-owned BMW.
An Izuzu owned by JAI in Syria.
Da’wah material distributed by JAI in Syria.
A JAI member in Syria prepares food. JAI in Syria also calls itself the “Soldiers of Abu Hashim Al Ibrahim,” in reference to the overall leader. Photo from early February.

The Anbar and General Military Council: Naqshbandi Army Front-Groups

In my previous analysis, I noted that there was a strong case that most of the various “Military Councils for the Revolutionaries of the Tribes” that were announced across the country should be viewed as front groups for the Ba’athist Naqshbandi Army (JRTN), evidence for which included the release of most of the declaration videos via JRTN’s activist wing Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq and the use of limited cross-sectarian messaging that is unique to JRTN among the Sunni insurgent groups (e.g. purportedly Shi’a tribal military councils) on account of the Ba’athist ideology.

At the time, it was on the other hand possible to see the Anbar Military Council, which emerged before the other military councils, as its own independent grouping, as it appeared to place sole emphasis on notions of self-defense and seemed to have a social media output separate from Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq. I also argued that it was possible to view the General Military Council that emerged from the Anbar council in the same light. 

However, it has since become clear that the two entities are not distinct, and that the General Military Council is another front for JRTN. Now, there are no more separate Anbar Military Council videos, but instead they are released as part of General Military Council operations, and the political wing of the latter is widely advertised in Ba’athist/JRTN circles, such as on Ba’athist websites like DhiQar. Besides these points, one should further note that the General Military Council operates in areas where Naqshbandi influence has traditionally been strong, such as the Hawija area in Kirkuk province. Linked to this is the overlap with Ba’athist discourse here: whereas ISIS and JAI will refer to Kirkuk province by its current name, the General Military Council calls the area al-T’amim (not to be confused with my tribal name that is spread throughout Iraq), as was the case under Saddam Hussein. 

Logo of the General Political Council for the Revolutionaries of the Tribes, the political wing of the General Military Council.
An example of a regional branch of the General Military Council” the Military Council for the Revolutionaries [of the Tribes] of Salah ad-Din. Sometimes the word “tribes” (asha’ir) is dropped from the title. In any case, the parallel logos are clear. 
It may be asked why JRTN operates numerous front-groups. The answer is that on its own, JRTN cannot appeal to a wide, potentially cross-sectarian support base, because it advocates a specific brand of Sunni Sufism (of the Naqshbandi variety) associated with Saddam’s right-hand man Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. Appeal on the basis of Iraqi nationalist Ba’athism, which, while emphasizing discrimination against Sunnis by the “Safavid” government and supporting the Syrian rebellion, nonetheless can potentially outreach to Iraqis of all sects. In practice, of course, the number of Shi’a or Kurds supporting the JRTN or its front groups is no more than a token figure.

General Military Council video from Taji area in Baghdad, where it frequently conducts operations. Here, a sniper operation against an army soldier.
General Military Council targeting Iraqi army with three 82 mm mortar rounds in al-Karma, Anbar province. Video released 7th May.
General Military Council targeting Iraqi army Hummer vehicle in al-Karma, Anbar province, with an IED. Video released 4th May.
JRTN Tensions with ISIS?

Though ISIS’ initial approach on entering into Fallujah in particular was conciliatory as ISIS most notably spared members of the local police and their families, there have been signs of tensions between the JRTN and its front groups. The most open instance came at the start of April with an official statement from ISIS in Anbar province, accusing the General Military Council of claiming operations in the Zuba’ and al-Karma areas of the province that were in fact conducted by ISIS, and even going so far as to affirm that the group has “no real existence on the battlefield and this is well-known to the Muslims in general.” 

The statement went on to make a clear distinction between ISIS’ aims and that of the General Military Council, declaring: “The time for building the structure of the Islamic Caliphate on the program of the Prophets has begun and anyone who opposes this aim or stands in the way of this goal is an enemy to us.” This is the most explicit affirmation to date by ISIS in Iraq of ISIS’ ideological program, whereas in the past ISIS in Iraq has put far more emphasis on a public image of carrying out “revenge” attacks in protecting the country’s Sunnis from the “Safavid” government and its practices like ethnic cleansing, a grievance that resonates widely with the 2013 protest movement. 

To be sure, ISIS still stresses this image of protector of the Ahl al-Sunna in Iraq with statements claiming operations, and the lack of real strongholds in comparison with Syria means that you will not see ISIS billboards in Iraq proclaiming the building of a Caliphate. However, some other ISIS social media graphics from Iraq have emerged with the theme of establishing a Caliphate, and there is now emphasis on the global nature of the struggle with the advertisement of foreign fighter martyrdoms in Iraq, most of whom have entered into the country from Syria: a process that has been occurring since late last year. 

”Anbar Province: The Muslims’ delight with the mujahideen of the Islamic State”- ISIS-forum graphic released in late February. Note the inscription in the top-right: “The State of the Islamic Caliphate.” 
One of many foreign fighters advertised by ISIS to have conducted suicide operations in Iraq. This individual is Abu Hayder the Tunisian, who carried out an attack on “Jaysh al-Dajjal” (a common ISIS-term for Mahdi Army militiamen- active or demobilized) in Diyala province on 5th February this year.
What of ISIS’ complaint about the General Military Council stealing credit for ISIS operations? It must be said that there is at least some truth to this allegation, for pro-Ba’athist and pro-nationalist insurgent social media pages have frequently taken photos and video footage of ISIS and tried to obscure any indications of ISIS symbols, portraying the operations as the work of fighters they support.

Photo of ISIS operations in Jurf al-Sakhr, Babil province. Note the ISIS logo for what ISIS calls “Wilayat al-Janub” (“Southern Province”- i.e. all points south of Baghdad) has been obscured. This came from a pro-Ba’athist insurgent page- “Al-Qadisiya’s Men Army”- on Facebook in April (now deleted).
Screenshot from footage of an ISIS parade in Fallujah in April. However, the screenshot is such as to render it impossible to tell without knowledge of the original video that the group in question is ISIS. From a pro-Ba’athist/nationlist insurgent page- “Sons of the tribe of Zuba’”- in early April.
Other signs of tension that have emerged more recently include a purported statement at the beginning of this month from the Fallujah Military Council (which jointly shares power with ISIS in the city, and appears to consist of a myriad of the other insurgent groups operating in the wider Fallujah area), urging ISIS (referred to as Jamaat ad-Dawla) to focus on fighting the common enemy rather than consolidating power at the expense of others, with accusations of theft of weapons. 

These hints of tension culminated in Iraqi press rumours of a JRTN declaration of war on ISIS, which was then promptly denied in an official JRTN statement issued on 4th May: “We absolutely deny issuing any fatwa to incite killing or fighting among the myriad of groups and components of our people and we are not responsible for such a thing, and we have called for resistance to the Zionist-America-Majusi occupation through all legitimate paths and means, and we have declared that since America and its allies first brought their armies together to attack Iraq.” 

JRTN statement denying Iraqi press claims of issuing a fatwa to fight ISIS.
It will be noted that nowhere does JRTN refer to ISIS by name. I have previously noted how the views of supporters of JRTN and its front groups are varied. Even if JRTN’s top leadership dislikes ISIS at heart, it is apparent they are afraid to confront ISIS openly for the moment.

Jaysh al-Mujahideen’s Re-Emergence

Jaysh al-Mujahideen logo.
The Jaysh al-Mujahideen faction in Iraq is one of the older insurgent groups and has a nationalist-Islamist outlook. Unlike the Islamic Army of Iraq (with which Jaysh al-Mujahideen is at odds), the group has always rejected integration into the political process and believes in the complete overthrow of the government, whereas the Islamic Army of Iraq has an activist wing in the “Sunni Popular Movement” and believes in the formation of a Sunni federal region. More recently Jaysh al-Mujahideen is advertising itself more openly on social media, both with photos of operating on-the-ground and martyrdom announcements. That said, the material is confined to one area: namely, al-Karma in Anbar province (near Fallujah). Announcements of operations elsewhere (e.g. in the area between Tikrit and Kirkuk) remain written claims. 

Jaysh al-Mujahideen convoy in al-Karma, Anbar province. Photo from late April.
More Jaysh al-Mujahideen in al-Karma: “The clash with the Rafidite army and the militias.”
Jaysh al-Mujahideen targeting an army Hummer in al-Karma.
Jaysh al-Mujahideen fighters in al-Karma, from mid-April.
Abu Marwan al-Fahdawi, a Jaysh al-Mujahideen commander killed in al-Karma. Death announced on 9th May. His name indicates he is a native. 
Unofficial photo of Jaysh al-Mujahideen member on his walkie-talkie.
The Jaysh al-Mujahideen, whose approach emphasizes cooperation with the local tribes, has traditionally had problems with ISIS. The most recent claims of tensions focus on the al-Karma area. Specifically, it is alleged that the local tribes with Jaysh al-Mujahideen in the vanguard played the main role in freeing the area from government control, while ISIS arrived later on the scene and focused on building up a presence with acquiring new bases while other factions were focused on fighting government assaults. ISIS is then alleged to have stopped the entry of petrol, gas and other basic commodities into the area, so that people would be forced to buy such things from ISIS.

If this situation outlined be the case, then it has a parallel with the case of the Fallujah-area dam that was initially seized by JRTN fighters in January but was subsequently taken over by ISIS alone (H/T: Kirk Sowell). 

Jaysh al-Mustafa?

Logo of the purported Jaysh al-Mustafa

In mid-April on Facebook there emerged pages for a Jaysh al-Mustafa, claiming allegiance to ISIS and operations in a variety of areas including Anbar and Diyala provinces. However, it will be immediately noticed that at least one of the photos put out under this label is a rip-off from another group (namely, the Jaysh al-Mujahideen).

Claimed destruction of an army Hummer on the Ramadi highway area. The photo is identical with a Jaysh al-Mujahideen photo from al-Karma given above.
A purported Jaysh al-Mustafa fighter targeting an army watch tower on 15th April.
However, by the end of April, a pro-ISIS activist released a clarification statement, affirming that “after a number of connections with brothers in the aforementioned regions [Ramadi, Fallujah and Zuba’] it has become clear that this is merely an imaginary army with no existence on the actual ground and all its operations are stolen from the Islamic State, so they are a group of lying media youths. I say: the Islamic State has nothing to do with this lying Ba’athist army.” 


To summarize, the main Sunni insurgent groups operating (in no particular order) are:

- JRTN and its front-groups.
- Jamaat Ansar al-Islam
- Islamic Army of Iraq
- Jaysh al-Mujahideen
- Kata’ib Thuwar al-Sunna
- Jaysh al-Izza wa al-Karama

With the exception of the Islamic Army of Iraq, all these groups are revolutionary in their aims in that they at least seek to overthrow the central government. The Jaysh al-Izza wa al-Karama may be an exception too, though the evidence points to its being a mere banner around which some insurgents can gather, rather than having a real command structure.

The most important in terms of manpower, financial resources (primarily through extortion in Ninawa province, expanded recently in Salah ad-Din province), and deadliness remains ISIS. It is the only group capable of carrying out major operations south of Baghdad, can carry out coordinated bomb attacks to cause mass civilian casualties in one go, and has the most capability to launch incursions and offensives into new territory. Statistically, ISIS can now carry out well over 1000 operations a month. The other groups simply do not compare in this regard, and are primarily limited to carrying out gunfights, IED and mortar attacks. 

ISIS operations by province for the period 2nd January-1st February 2014. The total amounts to 1295 operations, with the most numerous (as expected) in Ninawa province, at 476 operations. Anbar follows second with some 300 operations.
As I expected, total casualties per month are roughly at 1000 deaths or so per month. Meanwhile, whatever tensions exist between the different insurgent groups have not been sufficient to disrupt ISIS’ operations in Iraq. Talk of al-Qa’ida’s impending revival in Iraq as a potential challenge to ISIS is so far unsubstantiated, despite Jabhat al-Nusra leader Jowlani’s boasts of being able to call up new members from Iraq to aid his cause. Some have pointed to Jabhat al-Murabiteen as a possible front-group for a new al-Qa’ida in Iraq, but there is no convincing evidence for this claim. 

What of the future? There is little cause for optimism. The Iraqi army has great difficulty in dealing with the overall insurgency’s guerrilla tactics, and is generally ineffective at winning local cooperation in areas where insurgents operate, engaging in tactics like mass arrests that only fuel a “serves them right attitude” from residents. Problematic also is the government’s reliance to a certain extent on Iranian-backed Shi’a militias, particularly Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, which has already made its fighting in Anbar clear with the recent announcement of a martyrdom for the group.

Graphic dedicated to Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq fighter Muhammad al-Lami, killed in Anbar on 7th May. Video of his funeral here.
Supporters of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq are not shy from reveling in scenes of brutality. This is supposedly the corpse of a slain member of ISIS circulated in some social media circles. 
It should be emphasized that this development does not mean Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq only started fighting in Anbar this month. Credible claims of involvement in Anbar actually go back to the beginning in January, with rumours in Iraqi press circles of members returning from Syria in small numbers to help the government to combat the growing insurgency dating back to at least December of last year. In any event, the group has already been active in the ethnically mixed Diyala province throughout much of last year, as I documented here, partly helping to fuel ISIS’ support base that culminated in the brief takeover of the Buhriz area south of Baquba in late March. The government then retook the area partly relying on Shi’a militiamen, with summary executions following.

"Revenge for our people in Anbar”: the brief ISIS takeover of Buhriz that included hoisting the ISIS flag in local mosques.
In my view, Diyala and the Baghdad belt areas, where risks of ethnic cleansing are highest, are the main places to watch regarding Shi’a militias and the overall insurgency. For Anbar, the involvement seems to be comparatively minor, with Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq supporters I have spoken to estimating that only a few fighters from the group have been killed in Anbar. There are also some clear cases of pro-insurgent Sunni social media circles misrepresenting Shi’a militia fighters who were killed in Syria as fighters slain in Iraq (H/T: Phillip Smyth). 

The pro-insurgent Facebook page from Zuba’ tags this photo thus: “What are you doing in Fallujah? Are you a member of Maliki’s army?” The person in question is one Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq member Salim al-Ghanami, who was actually killed in Syria (cf. this video).
Even so, the overall picture is bleak and looks set to continue for years to come. While military force is undoubtedly part of the solution to dealing with the revived insurgency, reliance on Shi’a militias only perpetuates the problem. A political outreach program, beginning with reforms to de-Ba’athification as proposed last year, as well as reforms to security practices is the way forward.

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