Tuesday 29 April 2014

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi - Key Updates on Albukamal (Abu Kamal)

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

I have previously documented in-depth the various militia factions that exist in the town of Albukamal (Abu Kamal: on the border with Iraq in Deir az-Zor province) here and here, in addition to giving an account of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham’s (ISIS) unsuccessful assault on the town earlier this month. Factional dynamics are never static, of course, so below are the key updates and clarifications to understand the current situation in Albukamal.

1. Liwa Allahu Akbar no longer exists: Previously I have mentioned Liwa Allahu Akbar as the local Supreme Military Council (SMC)-aligned faction in the town. However, it turns out that once the group’s leader- Saddam al-Jamal- became the local leader of ISIS, members of Liwa Allahu Akbar either joined him in ISIS or became part of other factions. Thus the formation was dissolved.

2. Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin separate from Kata’ib Allahu Akbar: In my overview of the factions of Albukamal I described Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin as an apparent subsidiary unit of the local Authenticity and Development Front faction Kata’ib Allahu Akbar. However, if that were the case before, it is quite clear now that the group is separate from Kata’ib Allahu Akbar. This is illustrated in two ways. First, note in a recent joint statement by factions in the Albukamal area (town and countryside), Liwa Fatah al-Mubin emerges as a signatory distinct from Kata’ib Allahu Akbar.

Joint statement issued on 27th April 2014 for the formation of a Shari’a commission in light of ISIS’ actions. The signatories are Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya, Kata’ib Allahu Akbar, Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar
In an interview at the end of March, the group’s spokesman clarified to me that the group is independent but uses the FSA-banner, adding that “we work to remove oppression from our people, to make the phrase- ‘There is no deity but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God’- supreme, and to build a free Syrian state devoid of the gangs and shabiha of Assad.” In other words, the group espouses a vague Sunni Islamist ideology, characterized also by rejection of the opposition-in-exile. 

In the weeks since the interview, Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin has subsequently defined itself as part of the Euphrates [Islamic] Liberation Front coalition, a conglomeration of FSA-banner groups along the Euphrates River, including members in the Manbij countryside area in Aleppo province who have been fighting ISIS. This fighting has included limited coordination with Jabhat al-Akrad (a YPG/PKK front-group) and Liwa Thuwar Raqqa, an ex-Jabhat al-Nusra affiliate (FSA-banner in origin) that was never quite properly integrated into Jabhat al-Nusra likely responsible for the unofficial statement put out in Jabhat al-Nusra’s name in Raqqa at the beginning of the infighting with ISIS in Raqqa city. The group has since January been an independent formation, invalidating ISIS claims of supposed PKK-Jabhat al-Nusra coordination against ISIS in the northern Euphrates area near Kobani (Ayn al-Arab).

Logo of the Euphrates Islamic Liberation Front. I put ‘Islamic’ in square brackets above because it is used interchangeably with Euphrates Liberation Front. In an interview, a media activist for the coalition from Aleppo explained to me that the grouping consists of more than 20 brigades, supposedly including Christian fighters. The Euphrates Islamic Liberation Front defines itself as FSA.
Members of Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin, 27th April.
Another photo of members of Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin on the same day.
Members of Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin before heading out to fight, 27th April.
Though a signatory to the joint statement noted above, it should be pointed out that Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin does not appear to be part of the coalition of factions governing the town itself, but is primarily based in the surrounding countryside, and is arguably the most influential in that area.
The five factions of the town of Albukamal: Kata’ib Allahu Akbar, Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna, Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya, Kata’ib Junud al-Haq (Jabhat al-Nusra), Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar. In my first article on Albukamal I noted there was once an FSA-banner faction in the Albukamal area called Katiba Junud al-Haq that coordinated with Jabhat al-Nusra. It turns out this group was the direct predecessor of Kata’ib Junud al-Haq, which became an affiliate of Jabhat al-Nusra.
3. Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna in reformation: It will be noted in the 27th April joint statement that Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna’s signature is absent. This is because the group is currently undergoing a reformation process following a change of leadership, which also led to the dismissal of some of the group’s members. Hence it is otherwise inactive.

4. New convoy heading out from Albukamal to fight ISIS: In light of the ongoing fighting between ISIS and other factions in the al-Markadah area of southern Hasakah province and western localities of Deir az-Zor province like Kabajeb, the factions of Albukamal are sending out new convoys to fight against ISIS. 

Saddam al-Jamal in a recent ISIS al-Itisam Media video, accusing Jabhat al-Nusra of working with other factions (in particular the Hay’at al-Arkan: i.e. SMC) to form a united front against ISIS. A particular purpose in this video is to highlight Jabhat al-Nusra’s supposed inconsistency in Jowlani’s pronunciation of takfir on SMC-aligned groups while working with them in the eastern region (e.g. the Deir az-Zor locality of Muhessen) against ISIS.  Saddam proudly speaks of being a “soldier” in ISIS and his “repentance” in joining ISIS. He also rejects allegations of indiscriminate killing by ISIS, and accuses the other factions, on whom he pronounces takfir, of fighting “for the sake of dunya [the material world], while we fight for the sake of martyrdom and the Hereafter.” He concludes by emphasizing ISIS does not want to fight but is just striving for the arbitration of God’s law.
ISIS officially justified its assault on Albukamal as an operation to free prisoners.
Part of the new rebel convoy heading out from Albukamal on 28th April to fight ISIS. In the photo are vehicles belonging to the independent group Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar
Part of the new convoy including Jabhat al-Nusra to fight ISIS.

In short, the factions currently governing the town of Albukamal are:

- Jabhat al-Nusra
- Kata’ib Allahu Akbar (Authenticity and Development Front)
- Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya (independent, close to Jabhat al-Nusra)
- Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna (independent, close to Jabhat al-Nusra).
- Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar (independent).

But in the surrounding countryside more factions exist.

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


  1. The statement put out in Jabhat al-Nusra's name in January in Raqqa, officially denounced by Jabhat al-Nusra:


  2. Hello, I have valued your work and thank you for all your writings. I am curious if you will be writing about this new video which seems to clearly show rebels have used gas. I see no blood in this video but lots of government soldier bodies. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=by_uyBHNpc4 What is your opinion? It is important to write about the human rights crimes of all sides in this horrible conflict.

    1. I've discussed this on various places, and the points I made include
      - The bodies have been clearly looted (pockets opened, all ammo missing), so it seems likely the gas masks were just pulled out and discarded during the looting.
      - The red marks on some of the faces seem more like livor mortis, suggesting the bodies were rolled over during the looting several hours after their death. This could have also hidden injuries sustained.