Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Gang warfare in Jihadi-land

Then, on Sunday February 23, 2014, Abu Khalid al-Suri, senior al-Qaeda operative and one-time confidant of Osama bin Laden, was killed by a suicide bomber.  Reuters reported that during fratricidal fighting near Aleppo, five members of ISIS entered the headquarters of Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist brigade that al-Suri helped set up, and as four of them fought with guards, one ISIS fighter blew himself up. He took al-Suri, and half-a dozen of al-Suri’s colleagues, with him to the paradise and the 72 virgins he had been promised for martyring himself.

ISIS is not a branch of al-Qaeda” ran Zawahiri’s statement, posted on jihadist websites, “and we have no organizational relationship with it.”  As a result, it added, al-Qaeda is no longer responsible for the “actions and behaviours” of ISIS, which has been fighting a bloody campaign against other rebel groups in Syria while imposing strict Islamic law on the parts of Syria it controls, often executing people it finds to be insufficiently pious.

Al-Suri’s killing is further evidence that ISIS leader al-Baghdadi has no intention of caving in to al-Qaeda’s top leadership, and means to maintain the gang warfare that is fracturing the jihadist movement and, incidentally, represents the biggest challenge it has faced since US special forces disposed of bin Laden. 

“This is going to make the infighting worse,” says Akram al-Halabi, spokesman for the Islamic Front, a coalition of half-a-dozen Islamist brigades, some which have links with al-Qaeda.  He is right.

According to Thomas Joscelyn of the US-based think tank ‘The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’: “The longer al-Baghdadi lasts, the stronger ISIS becomes as a rival to the al-Qaeda-backed groups. This has turned into a full-fledged blood feud.”

ISIS is not having it all its own way, however.  Just weeks ago ISIS, which claims tens of thousands of fighters among its ranks, appeared the dominant military force in northern Syria. More recently, though, its attempt to impose the severest form of Sharia in the areas under its control, its public executions, and the unutterable brutality with which its deals with its opponents, have turned opinion against it. 

Islam Aloush, spokesman for the Islamic Front, a new more moderate grouping of anti-Assad interests, told CNN that ISIS’s activities had become unacceptable and has generated a backlash.  Recently, rebels besieged at least 100 ISIS fighters at a police station used as a base by the group in the key Salheen neighbourhood of Aleppo. Elsewhere in the province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, ISIS surrendered bases and withdrew from towns and villages.

"ISIS cannot withstand the losses they are taking and the numbers now held as prisoner of war," said Aloush, claiming that his organization, the Islamic Front, far outnumbered ISIS. The Islamic Front boasts an estimated 40,000 fighters, making it probably the single largest rebel command.

In Raqqah, the first provincial capital under rebel control, full-scale fighting resulted in losses for ISIS on February 18. Just a day earlier insurgents freed at least 50 people held in an ISIS detention facility, while further to the west, in the Zawiya Mountain region, rebels executed at least 34 foreigner jihadists from ISIS.

According to CNN all this infighting further complicates matters for international observers such as the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which announced in January that it will cease updating the death toll for the Syrian civil conflict. It can no longer verify the sources of information that led to its last count of at least 100,000 in July 2013 nor, it said, said could it endorse anyone else's count, including the widely quoted figures from the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.  Their latest tally is more than 130,000 killed in violence in Syria since March 2011.

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