‘The Spielberg of French Islamism’: A Profile of Omar Diaby (a.k.a. Omar Omsen)

Andrew McGregor

July 30, 2016

The Islamic State-inspired Bastille Day atrocity in Nice that killed 84 people and injured over 300 more has brought new awareness of a strain of radical Islam that thrives behind the lights and glamour of life on the French Riviera. Nurtured in hidden mosques in an alienated and unassimilated Muslim community, Islamist extremism has produced scores of jihadists from the Nice region, most of whom have traveled to Syria to take up arms in al-Qaeda or Islamic State combat groups. Most prominent of the recruiters responsible for this flow of French residents to the battlefields of the Middle East is Omar Diaby (a.k.a. Omar Omsen), a Senegalese-born extremist who eventually left for Syria himself to take command of a group of Francophone jihadists.

Diaby 1Omar Diaby: Cyber-Jihadist (CNN)

Early Life

Born in Dakar in 1976, Diaby arrived in the Nice region of France at the age of five. Nice is home to a large Muslim community, many of whom are Tunisian in origin. Though many have poor employment prospects and depend on state assistance, there is also a growing Muslim middle class. Nonetheless, radical preachers find an interested audience for their views in the Islam du caves, mosques that operate out of sight in underground parking garages in heavily-Muslim banlieus (suburbs) like Ariane and St. Roch.

Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration Front National and right-wing French nationalism are particularly strong in the Nice region, partly as a legacy of French pieds noirs settlers expelled from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia settling there after those nations reached independence. Their proximity to Islamists in the Ariane and Saint Roch districts perpetuates a certain amount of inter-communal tension (Guardian, July 18). Jihadist recruiters exploit these tensions to convince young Muslims to abandon their mundane lives in France to take up a more glorious existence as jihadis and martyrs in Syria and elsewhere.

Nice has taken steps to address the problem, providing teams of social workers and psychologists to persuade would-be jihadists to abandon their plans. The city also provides counseling programs to reintegrate returned jihadis (France24.com, July 15). The threat from returnees is serious; in February 2014 one such returnee from the Syrian jihad, an Algerian native who had received bomb-making training in Syria, was arrested after planning to detonate bombs during Nice’s popular carnival (France24.com, July 15).

Diaby was known in the Riviera region as a violent gangster, imprisoned for a 1995 gang-related murder (Diaby deliberately ran the victim down with a car) and again for the 2002-2003 armed robberies of two jewelers in Monaco. In prison, that great incubator of jihadists, Diaby became fascinated with radical Islamist ideology and took the new name Omar Omsen. After his release, Diaby took up preaching and the production of Islamic-themed videos until he joined a group of Salafi extremists using the name Fursan Alizza (The Knights of Pride), a move that brought him new attention from French counter-terrorism forces (Fursan Alizza is now a banned organization in France after a wave of arrests in 2012) (Dakar Actu, June 13). Diaby was again detained in 2011 after a French investigation suggested the recruiter was planning to join the jihad in Afghanistan via Tunisia and Libya (Le Nouvel Observateur, August 10, 2015).

In Nice, Diaby operated a snack bar and football club, which brought him into contact with young men to whom he could distribute jihadist literature and videos (Independent, July 17). Diaby is believed to be responsible for sending as many as 40 Nice residents to Syria before his own departure. Diaby appealed to young men by asserting they would never succeed in France and must go to a Muslim country to thrive. He also justified assault and robbery of non-Muslims in France, “a land of unbelievers,” thus providing religious sanction to petty criminals (BBC, July 16).

Former jihadists recruited by Diaby have described his recruiting methods during their trials in France. Whether early contacts were made in person or by internet, Diaby and fellow recruiters like Fares Mourad would begin by speaking of the importance of making hijra (emigration to Muslim lands), followed by discussions of religious points and end-times prophecies, but jihad was rarely if ever discussed in these initial contacts. Only later did the recruits realize Diaby, a self-styled “preacher,” could not read the Koran in Arabic or even lead his followers in prayer (Le Point, April 6).

“The Spielberg of French Islamism”

To create the right conditions for recruitment, Diaby drew on his talents as a graphics designer and video editor in creating a series of slick, professional looking video productions designed to encourage young Muslims to pursue a more militant response to the West’s alleged persecution of Islam (RFI, August 9, 2015). These videos were part of a project named “19HH” which stands for the 19 terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks, with the ‘HH’ acting as a symbol for the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Diaby’s French-language video productions include “The Truth about Islam” and the three-hour “The Truth about the death of bin Laden,” [1] but it was an April 2013 release that would become famous in jihadi recruitment circles and bring him a reputation as “the Spielberg of French Islamism.” “Histoire de l’Humanité,” as its name suggests, is a broad examination of several themes, including millenarian prophecies, accusations of Christian and Jewish persecution of innocent Muslims, charges of media control, 9/11 conspiracy theories and a defence of Salafism and Takfir (the practice of one Muslim condemning another for apostasy, a basic element in Salafi-Jihadist ideology). The video stitches together various French-language news accounts, movie excerpts and found footage through the use of sophisticated special effects and graphics, the whole overlain with Arabic religious singing. [2]

Diaby uses the video to claim the U.S. government fakes criminal charges to “liquidate [American Muslims] and get them out of the scene,” giving two examples:

  • Imam Jamil Amin (the former H. Rap Brown), a Black-American nationalist militant serving a life sentence for shooting two Black-American police officers in 2000, killing one. Amin converted to Islam while serving an earlier prison sentence in the 1970s for armed robbery, eventually becoming an important figure in the American Muslim community. Famous for once saying “Violence is as American as apple pie,” the evidence in the murder case that brought him a life sentence was overwhelming despite Amin’s claims of a “government conspiracy.”
  • Humeidan al-Turki, a Saudi national living in Denver, was convicted in 2006 of the repeated rape and four-year captivity of a young female Muslim Indonesian house-servant. Sentenced to 28 years (later reduced to eight after Saudi intervention), al-Turki’s defense that he was the victim of American bias against Arab and Muslim cultural norms did nothing to save him from prison, but the charges gained some traction overseas, particularly in Saudi Arabia, where the case became an irritant in U.S.-Saudi relations. At the time he was charged, al-Turki was being investigated at the same time by the FBI in an unrelated terrorism case.

Diaby also uses extensive footage of a 2012 speech by then-French presidential candidate François Asselineau, a veteran politician who indulges in U.S. conspiracy theories while demanding a French exit from the EU and NATO together with a military withdrawal from Syria and Iraq. Asselineau’s claim that Europe is not really menaced by Islam is followed by footage of “European terrorists” from the Basque and Corsican communities.

The moral decay of the West is defined by toleration of incest and homosexuality before praise for the “Minhaj Salafiya,” a discussion of Quranic creationism and suggestions that 9/11 was an American false-flag operation that included a cover-up requiring the death of Osama bin Laden. Most importantly, it makes the claim (over footage of maimed and bleeding children) that “defensive jihad” is fard ayn (individually mandatory) for all Muslims. The video concludes with a display of Diaby’s personal email address for those wishing to obtain further information or subscribe to Diaby’s newsletter.

Diaby 2Omar Diaby: Jihad in Syria (Le Monde)

The Syrian Hijra

Fearing further arrest, Diaby slipped away to Dakar. After arrival in Senegal, Diaby was arrested by the Division des investigations criminelles (DIC), who after a hearing, released him and returned his passport. With ten others, Diaby then travelled via Mauritania and Tunis to Turkey and on to the Aleppo region of Syria. (DakarActu, June 13)

The former recruiter now turned Amir and formed his own katiba (brigade) in the Latakia governorate of Syria, a group composed of some 80 to 100 jihadis of French origin (many from Nice) allied with the Islamist Nusra Front, eventually a rival to the Islamic State organization. After arriving in Syria, Diaby was able to being eight members of his family to Syria from Senegal (Diaby is married and the father of two children) (DakarActu, June 13)

It was not until February 2014 that Diaby finally appeared in a video in person. In footage aired by al-Jazeera, the black-clad jihadist, Kalashnikov at his side, claimed that the Caliphate would be established in Damascus “as the Prophet said” (Le Monde, February 12, 2014). [3] According to Diaby, Muslim armies will use the Syrian capital as a base for operations in other countries. Diaby added that his group was “for the time being” allied with neither the Islamic State or the Nusra Front due to questions regarding their assaults on Muslim civilians: “We have learnt our religion and know that the Prophet warned us against any Muslim killing his Muslim brother. This is a very serious offense as they will both go to hell.” Nonetheless, Dibay insists that hijra is compulsory: “If someone comes to see me to tell me that he wants to go back [to France], I am going to tell him that going back to infidel land is forbidden, that God forbids it. What’s going to happen to them if they go back? They’re going to be arrested.”

Death and Resurrection

Twitter reports from Diaby’s family claimed that the jihadist had been shot and mortally wounded on July 29, 2015 during an attack on Aleppo, with Diaby succumbing to his injuries after a week-long coma (Dakar Echo, August 8, 2015). According to Diaby, the rumors of his death had been spread to allow him to leave Syria for four months of medical treatment in an un-named Arab country he entered under a false identity (L’Express, June 27). Nothing was heard from the jihadist until April 2016, when, after hearing from his cousin that journalist Romain Boutilly was preparing a video feature on jihadi recruiters in France, Diaby contacted Boutilly to announce he was still alive and would like to be included in the France2 documentary broadcast on June 2. [4] A Syrian cameraman was hired to shoot the footage, consisting of an interview with Diaby and views of his katiba’s camp. Once shooting began, Diaby exercised tight control on who and what was shown. (FranceTVInfo.com, June 2).

Relations with the Islamic State

Diaby appears to view al-Qaeda (and the related Nusra Front) as a more serious, intellectually-based movement than the Islamic State organization, whose fighters he characterizes as “ignorant youths without serious religious training [much like Diaby himself] whose deviant behavior springs forth as soon as you put weapons in their hands” (Le Nouvel Observateur, August 10 2015). He also objects to their methods of occupation:”Their understanding of Shari’a is different from ours” (Le Monde, May 29). Despite Diaby’s criticism of the Islamic State, there are indications that the movement is draining off jihadis from Diaby’s katiba to new Francophone Islamic State units (Libération [Paris], August 9, 2015).

Diaby derides the Islamic State’s videos of graphic cruelty as targeting “a reactionary, impulsive audience” through “five-minute clips that merely inspire rage” (France24.com, June 1). Nonetheless, Diaby justified the Islamic State’s November 13, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris (which included the mass shooting at the Bataclan Theatre): “They were made in retaliation for French strikes on women and children… therefore we cannot condemn them, because Allah said “transgress for equal transgression” (Le Monde, May 29).

Al-Qaeda’s January 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris also met with Diaby’s approval:

If defending his Prophet is terrorism, then all Muslims who know their religion are terrorists. Those who insult the Prophet are to be executed, it is Islamic law. The fact that Kouachi brothers [Saïd and Chérif] applied this law does not make them terrorists, but real Muslims… Those who insulted the Prophet were executed. I wish I’d been chosen to do that” (Le Monde, May 31; AFP, May 29).


Breaking new ground in the use of video as a recruitment tool, Omar Diaby bears a large share of responsibility for the recent terrorist outrages in France as well as the emigration of scores of young French Muslims to Syria’s battlefields, from which many will never return. Diaby’s propaganda efforts have fostered a climate of fear and resentment amongst French Muslims, some of whom have become convinced that powerful forces in the Western world are determined to eliminate Islam and slaughter its followers, a belief that can have only one response – jihad against the infidels.


  1. For the latter, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqtODX02TZA
  2. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wT_vJcw39zw
  3. For the video, see: https://www.youtube.com/v/kAtmbfilCjM
  4. The full video is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8OR77WMO7A

This article first appeared in the July 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor

Update: Unwanted Ally: Hezbollah’s War on the Islamic State

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Commentary, February 15, 2016

The Western-led military coalition operating against the Islamic State organization in Syria and Iraq continues to wrestle with the implications posed by having Hezbollah as an active but entirely unwanted ally in the campaign. (1)

Hezbollah in SyriaHezbollah Position in Syria

Some indication of how the West intends to deal with the movement considering its designation as a terrorist group by many NATO partners was given in the text of the International Syria Support Group’s (ISSG) agreement to “cease hostilities” in Syria.(2)

Intended to be implemented within days, the agreement, which falls well short of a monitored ceasefire, allows for continued attacks on the Islamic State, al-Qaeda-backed Jabhat al-Nusra “or other groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United Nations Security Council.” (3) Hezbollah is clearly excluded as a continuing target as it is not a UNSC designated terrorist organization. This carefully worded document indicates the West and its ISSG partners will continue to ignore the presence of Hezbollah in the ground war against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra rather than address the diplomatically difficult but nevertheless essential formation of a policy to deal with the Sunni extremists’ leading opponent on the battlefield. The continued absence of such a policy only invites uncontrolled military interaction that could easily and quickly expand the conflict.

In the meantime, Jordan is leading an ISSG effort to identify terrorist organizations active in Syria, but given the incredible variance among ISSG partners as to who or what actually constitutes a terrorist organization, these efforts are not likely to bear fruit.

Canada is the only coalition state so far to declare a policy on military interactions with Hezbollah in the region, simply stating that there will be no cooperation under a “no contact” policy. Ottawa has withdrawn its CF-18 fighter-bombers from the anti-Islamic State coalition as the new Liberal government of Justin Trudeau backs away from meaningful military commitments alongside Canada’s allies in favor of a “sunny ways” policy that does not involve killing terrorists or even depriving them of Canadian citizenship. Ottawa has announced plans to deploy 100 Canadian troops in Lebanon to act as advisers in the fight against the Islamic State organization. These behind-the-lines advisers in Lebanon and others in Iraq are intended to replace the Canadian bombing mission.

Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan was adamant that the advisers will work only with “the legitimate government of Lebanon,” but not with Hezbollah. Sajjan appeared to be unaware that Hezbollah parliamentarians and two cabinet ministers are part of “the legitimate government of Lebanon.” Although his statement is consistent with Canada’s designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, it remains that it is Hezbollah and not the Lebanese Army that is doing the vast bulk of Lebanese fighting against Islamic State forces, meaning the new advisory mission will have little impact and be an ineffective replacement for bombing runs on Islamic State targets. Those Lebanese Army units that are involved in anti-Islamic State activity along the Lebanese-Syrian border tend to operate joint patrols with Hezbollah, suggesting Canadian troops operating under Canada’s “no-contact” policy with Hezbollah will be restricted to advising rear-echelon formations.

Hezbollah’s campaign against Sunni extremists in Syria has received an important statement of support from Lebanese Christian presidential candidate Michel Aoun, a former Lebanese Army commander who noted that the Lebanese Army was simply not strong enough to defend Lebanon without Hezbollah’s assistance (Gulf News, February 7, 2016). Aoun is relying in some degree on Hezbollah support for his presidential candidacy (by constitutional requirement, Lebanon’s president must come from the nation’s Maronite Christian community), but is growing frustrated with Hezbollah’s somewhat leisurely promotion of his candidacy amidst suspicions in some quarters that Hezbollah would prefer to have no president at all.

Recent musings by Ali Akbar Velayati, Iranian adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, on the possibility of a formal alliance between Iran, Russia, Syria and Hezbollah were dampened by Russian officials, though the Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan conceded: “In the hypothetical sense, [Velayati] is correct: if Hezbollah is doing what we’re doing, then we are principally allies” (Sputnik News [Moscow], February 3, 2016). Russia is still attempting to assure Israel (with whom it signed a defense agreement in September when the Russian intervention in Syria began) that it has no intention of strengthening Hezbollah with heavy weapons, but it clear that it is Russian-Hezbollah-Iranian ground-air coordination on the battlefield that has enabled the Syrian regime to make major strides against both extremists and Western-backed “moderate” rebels in recent weeks.

If the Saudis decide to intervene in Syria militarily in favor of the Sunni rebel groups supported financially by the Kingdom (as they are threatening to do, possibly with military support from Turkey and a number of Arab nations), clashes with Hezbollah and Syria’s Iranian advisers will be inevitable, finally transforming the simmering Sunni-Shiite feud into a full-blown battlefield confrontation. If the “cessation of hostilities” agreement fails, as it seems it must, the potential for massive escalation in Syria holds dire consequences for the entire Middle East.


1. See original article, “Unwanted Ally: Hezbollah’s War on the Islamic State,” Terrorism Monitor, January 22, 2016, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=988
2. ISSG members include the Arab League, China, Egypt, the EU, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and the United States.
3. “Statement of the International Syria Support Group meeting in Munich on February 11 & 12, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/12/syria-cessation-of-hostilities-full-text-of-the-support-groups-communique.

Unwanted Ally: Hezbollah’s War against the Islamic State

Andrew McGregor

January 26, 2016

“There is no future for ISIS. Not in war and not in peace.” These words were spoken not by Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin, but rather by Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, whose Lebanese Shi’a supporters are engaged in a growing battle against the Sunni militants inside Syria (Press TV [Tehran], November 14, 2015). Despite this, few analysts have considered how Hezbollah’s commitment to defeat Sunni extremists in Syria would fit into a larger Western and/or Russian-directed military intervention to destroy the Islamic State terrorists, especially when the movement is itself considered a terrorist organization by many Western states.

Hezbollah Patrol in SyriaHezbollah Patrol in Syria

Nasrallah insists his movement is conducting pre-emptive military operations designed at preventing Sunni extremists from entering Lebanon, but many Lebanese (including some Shi’a) accuse Hezbollah of drawing the terrorists’ attention to Lebanese targets by acting at the command of the movement’s Iranian sponsors (Reuters, September 6, 2013; Jerusalem Post, September 6, 2013) .

Hezbollah (“the Party of God”) addresses these accusations in two ways: by stating that the Syrian intervention is intended to defend all Lebanese, and by describing the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front as tools Israel uses to destroy regional opposition, thus bringing the intervention within the larger anti-Israel “Resistance” agenda that has formed the movement’s core ethos since its formation (Reuters, August 15, 2014).

Hezbollah is correct in one sense; Lebanon and its delicate ethnic and religious balance will indeed be in the Islamic State organization’s gun-sights if it succeeds in establishing a secure base in neighboring Syria. Nonetheless, since joining the war in 2013, Hezbollah has lost lives, resources, and most of the moral authority it once commanded even in Sunni communities in the Middle East after repelling an Israeli incursion into southern Lebanon in 2006.

There was relatively little in the way of confrontation between Hezbollah and the Islamic State organization for some time as Hezbollah tended to operate mainly in western Syria while the Islamic State is strongest in the more lightly populated east. This all changed when the Islamic State took the war to Hezbollah on November 12, 2014 by deploying a pair of suicide bombers against the Burj al-Barajneh district of southern Beirut, a mixed but largely Shi’a neighborhood where Hezbollah has a strong presence, killing and wounding scores of civilians. Eager to punish Hezbollah for its Syrian intervention, the Islamic State promised “the Party of Satan” much more of the same (al-Manar TV, November 12, 2015).
On December 3 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that the Islamic State cannot be defeated without ground forces, but suggested these should be “Syrian and Arab” rather than Western in origin (Reuters, December 23, 2015). Washington’s efforts so far to assemble and train a politically and religiously “moderate” rebel army have been “a devastating failure” according to Nasrallah, who insists that air strikes alone will do nothing to eliminate the Islamic State organization (AP, September 25, 2015).

Who, then, should these ground fighters be? They will certainly not be British Prime Minister David Cameron’s mythical 70,000 “moderate” rebels (Independent, December 1, 2015). Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations regard American-led efforts to restore order in Syria as ineffective and are unlikely partners in a Western-led military initiative; besides, their own resources are currently committed to the ongoing military struggle for Yemen. Syria’s Kurdish militias are capable, but have displayed little interest in campaigning outside their own traditional territories. This leaves regime forces and their allies as the only local groups currently capable of tackling the Islamic State in the field.
Saudi Arabia’s clumsy attempt to create a Saudi-led anti-terrorist military alliance of 34 Islamic nations – mainly by announcing its existence to the surprise of many nations the Kingdom claimed were members – further escalated tensions between Shiite and Sunni communities when it was observed that majority Shi’a nations like Iraq and Iran were noticeably absent from the list of members.

Though Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister Tammam Salam declared Lebanon was part of the alliance, membership was immediately rejected by Hezbollah and most Lebanese Christian parties, the latter correctly pointing out that Lebanon had no status as an “Islamic nation.” A Hezbollah statement claimed the Saudis were unsuitable as leaders of an anti-terrorist coalition as they were involved in state terrorism in Yemen and supported terrorist organizations there as well as in Syria and Iraq. The statement went on to question whether the new alliance would confront “Israeli terrorism” or instead target “the Resistance” (Hezbollah, Iran and Syria) (Al-Manar, December 17, 2015; AP, December 17, 2015). Salam claims to have since received assurances from the Kingdom that the Islamic State and not Hezbollah will be targeted, but vital questions remain concerning how the Sunni alliance would interact with Hezbollah and other Shiite forces on the Syrian battlefield (Daily Star [Beirut] Dec 16 2015). Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to execute Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr, a leading Shiite opposition leader, will only embitter the struggle between Shiites and Sunnis in Syria – Nasrallah described it as “an appalling event” (Reuters, January 3, 2016).

Hezbollah Fighter in Syria

Hezbollah Fighter in Action against Free Syrian Army (AP)

With growing calls for greater Western military intervention in Syria and even to set aside the anti-Assad rebellion in order to allow the Syrian Army to focus on the elimination of the Islamic State, it must be understood that at this point of the war there is no functioning Syrian Army that can be separated and deployed independently of Hezbollah and the Iranian military advisers now running Syrian Army operations.

With few exceptions, Syria’s war does not unfold in a series of set-piece battles, but rather in small actions, “a battle of ambushes, of surprise attacks” as one rebel colonel described it (Reuters, October 30, 2015). This daily war of attrition and a rash of desertions has greatly reduced the size and effectiveness of the Syrian national army. Now most operations are planned by Iranian and Hezbollah advisors using well-trained Hezbollah fighters to stiffen Syrian units in the field.

Hezbollah now has an estimated 6000 fighters in Syria, mostly experienced light infantry well-suited to the war’s pattern of small-level clashes punctuated by the occasional major battle. While losses have been heavy at times, the deployment has given Hezbollah valuable battlefield experience in operating on unfamiliar terrain and in cooperation with the regular forces of other nations (Syria, Iran and Russia).

Hezbollah’s war aims are both declared (protecting Shi’a shrines in Syria) and undeclared, the latter including keeping supply lines from Iran open, preserving the friendly Assad regime and keeping Sunni extremists (al-Nusra, Islamic State, etc.) from entering Lebanon. To mollify those who claim the Syrian adventure has little to do with the anti-Israel “Resistance” agenda, Nasrallah claims that Zionists and Sunni extremists have the same goal – “destroying our peoples and our societies” (AFP, October 18, 2015). The Hezbollah leader also insists that any political solution in Syria “begins and ends” with President Bashar al-Assad (AFP, June 6, 2014).

Though Hezbollah has a polarizing effect on Lebanese politics and a record of terrorist attacks, the movement, unlike the Islamic State organization, is no wild-eyed band of religious fanatics ready to slaughter everyone that does not share their religious preferences. As a political party with a strong social-welfare arm, Hezbollah’s leaders have deftly created a political alliance with Maronite Christian factions, secular Druze and even Shi’a of the Amal Movement with whom Hezbollah waged a bitter war in the 1980s.Lebanese sources indicate that Hezbollah began recruiting Christians, Druze and Sunnis for the fight against the Islamic State in late 2014 (Daily Star [Beirut], November 12, 2014). Nonetheless, opposition to Hezbollah within Lebanon cannot be understated.

To counter the political “normalization” of the movement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proclaimed Hezbollah a global threat that has organized, with Iran, a terrorist network spanning 30 countries on five continents (AFP, July 28, 2015). Nasrallah, in turn, has emphasized the “ISIS monster’s” threat to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, some of them important sources for private donations to the Islamic State and other Sunni extremist groups. According to Nasrallah: “This danger does not recognize Shiites, Sunnis, Muslims, Christians or Druze or Yazidis or Arabs or Kurds” (Reuters, August 15, 2015). Jews are notably absent from the Hezbollah leader’s list of ethnicities under threat as Hezbollah considers Israel’s Jews to be in league with the Islamic State terrorists.

Last month, President Netanyahu abandoned Israel’s traditional policy of refusing to confirm or deny involvement in foreign air-strikes, acknowledging that Israel was targeting Hezbollah arms shipments to prevent the transfer of “game-changing” weapons from Syria to Lebanon. When Israel believes it has missed a weapons transfer, it attacks Syrian arms stocks, inhibiting the Syrian Army’s ability to combat the Islamic State and other rebel groups (DefenceNews, November 18, 2015). Israeli airstrikes have not targeted Islamic State forces or installations in Syria; like al-Qaeda, ISIS appears reluctant to attack Israel directly, insisting that America must first be weakened and an Islamic state established in Iraq and Syria before Israel can be addressed (Arutz Sheva 7, October 7, 2014).

This reluctance to strike Israel only reinforces Hezbollah’s belief that there is cooperation between Israel and the Sunni extremists (Tasnim News Agency [Tehran], December 10, 2015). Bashar Assad himself has joked that no one can say al-Qaeda doesn’t have an air force when they have the Israeli Air Force to attack regime and Hezbollah positions (Foreign Affairs, January 25, 2015).

Last summer, Hezbollah and Syrian government forces succeeded in driving rebel forces from their last positions in the Qalamun region alongside the border with Lebanon after nearly two years of fighting. Islamic State and al-Nusra fighters had used the region for attacks within Lebanon. Since then, Hezbollah has intensified its war against the Islamic State and Assad’s other enemies in coordination with Russian airstrikes. Though initially criticized for focusing on Syrian Turkmen communities and American-supported units of the Free Syrian Army, Russia has expanded its target list to include the Islamic State, the Nusra Front and the Jaysh al-Islam militia.

So far, Russia appears to be tolerating Israeli strikes on Hezbollah targets, but has also been accused by Israeli military sources of supplying anti-ship cruise missiles to Hezbollah, whether directly or indirectly through Syrian middlemen (al-Manar TV [Beirut], January 15; Jerusalem Post, January 14). Moscow’s deployment of powerful S-400 ground-to-air missiles in Syria means Russian objections to specific air operations over Syria will have to be taken seriously. Russia and Israel have made extraordinary efforts to avoid running in to each other in Syrian airspace – the consequences of an accidental clash could be significant; a Russian military alliance with the “Resistance Axis” of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran would change the strategic situation of the Middle East. Russia has indicated it considers Hezbollah to be a “legitimate socio-political force” rather than a terrorist group, suggesting it is prepared to work with the group in Syria (Reuters, November 15, 2015).

Regardless of the number of “moderate” rebels in Syria, Hezbollah remains better trained, better armed and better led. The moderates cannot operate effectively against the Islamic State until and unless they can disengage from their conflict with the Syrian Army and the rest of the “Resistance Axis.” The West’s contradictory war aims in Syria have been noted by former UK chief of defense staff General David Richards, who suggests that the anti-Assad rebellion needs to be set aside in order to allow the Syrian Army, Hezbollah and their Iranian backers to focus on the elimination of the Islamic State (Guardian, November 18, 2015). However, this plan would require somehow persuading anti-Assad factions to abandon or postpone their struggle as well as cooperation with anti-Assad Kurdish forces to be successful, not to mention a degree of political flexibility in the Western allies that does not exist at present.

So what are the West’s options? Hezbollah might be persuaded to leave Syria if it was guaranteed that capable military forces (preferably not Western in Hezbollah’s view) would serve as their replacement in the defense of the Assad regime. There is little political appetite for this proposition in the West at the moment, despite an increasing number of voices suggesting that the Islamic State organization rather than Assad might be the most pressing problem in Syria.

An alternative is to try to find a means of combating the Islamic State on the ground without recognizing or coordinating with Assad/Hezbollah forces engaged in the same battle, a tricky bit of military manoeuvering that is likely to end badly.

A third option would be to confront Assad regime/Hezbollah/Iranian forces simultaneously with attacks on the Islamic State to create a “New Syria,” a move that would run a high risk of confrontation with Russia and Iran, incite international opposition and the expansion of the conflict well beyond Syria’s borders. The resulting power vacuum in the ruins of Syria would be worse than that experienced in Libya and would in the end pose a direct security threat to both the West and the Middle East.

To resolve the Syrian crisis it is essential either to come to terms with Hezbollah or to confront it, knowing in the latter case that the bulk of the movement and its leadership will remain in Lebanon with the means to strike back at its international antagonists. Ignoring its existence or its role in confronting anti-Shi’a Sunni extremist groups like the Islamic State will not be an option in any ground-based effort to crush Islamic State terrorists.

This article first appeared in the January 26, 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Will ISIS Spur New Strategic Directions for Saudi Arabia?

Andrew McGregor

June 26, 2014

In some ways, the recent triumphs of the radical Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) inside Iraq have alarmed Riyadh as much as Tehran. While the Saudis are still willing to support less radical Islamist movements in Syria and Iraq as part of a proxy war against Shiite Iran, there are fears in Riyadh that ISIS extremists, many of whom were recruited in Saudi Arabia, may eventually turn their attention to the Kingdom itself, threatening its hereditary rulers and the stability of the Gulf region.  Iraq and Iran, meanwhile, accuse the Saudis of sponsoring terrorism and religious extremism throughout the Middle East.

Iraqi president Nuri al-Maliki first accused Saudi Arabia of financing Iraqi terrorists in March. Echoing al-Maliki, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi cabinet issued a statement on June 17 in which they held the Saudis “responsible for supporting these [militant] groups financially and morally… [and for] crimes that may qualify as genocide: the spilling of Iraqi blood and the destruction of Iraqi state institutions and religious sites” (Arabianbusiness.com, June 17). Saudi Arabia reacted to the allegations by releasing a statement condemning ISIS as well as the Iraqi government:

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia wishes to see the defeat and destruction of all al-Qaeda networks and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) operating in Iraq. Saudi Arabia does not provide either moral or financial support to ISIS or any terrorist networks. Any suggestion to the contrary, is a malicious falsehood. Despite the false allegations of the Iraqi Ministerial Cabinet, whose exclusionary policies have fomented this current crisis, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia supports the preservation of Iraq’s sovereignty, its unity and territorial integrity (Arab News [Jeddah], June 19).

The Iranian press has clearly stated the Kingdom is the largest sponsor of terrorism in the region (Javan [Tehran], June 14). Tehran considers Riyadh to be in complete support of efforts to drive Iraq’s Shi’a majority from the central government in Baghdad. After Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani announced Iran’s readiness to defend Shi’a holy sites in Iraq, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Sa’ud al-Faisal, warned against foreign interference in Iraq. While also pledging fighters to defend the Shi’a shrines of Iraq, Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah was less eager to accuse the Saudis of directly sponsoring the radical Salafist ISIS movement, saying only: “It is uncertain that Saudi Arabia had a role” (Ra’y al-Yawm, June 17).

Prince Sa’ud al-Faisal  (Reuters)

Syria has also pointed to Saudi Arabian responsibility for arming and funding ISIS operations in that country at the behest of Israel and the United States and in cooperation with Qatar and Turkey. According to Syrian state media: “No Western country is unaware of the role Saudi Arabia is playing in supporting terrorism and funding and arming different fronts and battles, both inside and outside Iraq and Syria” (al-Thawra [Damascus], June 12).

Saudi Grand Mufti Shaykh Abd al-Aziz Al al-Shaykh denounced ISIS on May 27, condemning their recruitment of Saudi youth for the war in Syria (al-Riyadh, May 27). The Kingdom has also stepped up its terrorist prosecutions, diving into a backlog of hundreds of cases mainly related to the 2003-2006 Islamist insurgency. Sentences of up to 30 years in prison are being issued in cases where there once seemed little inclination to prosecute (Saudi Press Agency, June 10). Earlier this year, King Abdullah issued decrees prohibiting Saudi citizens from joining the jihad in Syria or providing financial support to extremists.

Saudi foreign minister Prince Sa’ud al-Faisal recently told an Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) gathering in Jeddah that Iraqi claims of Saudi support for terrorism were “baseless,” but warned there were signs of an impending civil war in Iraq, a war whose implications for the region “cannot be fathomed” (Arabianbusiness.com, June 18; al-Arabiya, June 19). The Saudi government has blamed “the sectarian and exclusionary policies implemented in Iraq over the past years that threatened its stability and sovereignty” (al-Akhbar [Beirut], June 10). Officially, Saudi Arabia disavows sectarianism in Iraq and calls for a unified Iraqi nation with all citizens on an equal basis without distinction or discrimination (al-Riyadh, June 18).

Prince Turki al-Faisal

Saudi authorities hold the Maliki government responsible for the present crisis and its sometimes bewildering implications, a stance summed up by former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal:

Baghdad has failed to stop the closing of ranks of extremists and Ba’thists from the era of Saddam Hussein… The situation in al-Anbar in Iraq has been boiling for some time. It seemed that the Iraqi government not only failed to do enough to calm this situation, but that it pushed things towards an explosion in some cases… One of the possible ironies is to see the Iranian Revolutionary Guard fighting alongside U.S. drones to kill Iraqis. This is something that makes a person lose his mind and makes one wonder: Where are we headed? (al-Quds al-Arabi, June 15; Arab News, June 14).

When Prince Bandar bin Sultan was removed from his post in April and replaced by Prince Muhammad bin Nayef it was interpreted as a sign Riyadh was prepared to vary from the hardline approach to Iran taken by the ex-intelligence chief (Gulf News [Dubai], May 21). The change reflects the Saudi government’s appreciation of the strategic situation it finds itself in as Washington shows greater reluctance to intervene directly in the affairs of the region. The lack of American consultation with the Kingdom during initial U.S.-Iranian discussions has convinced many in Riyadh that their nation must forge its own relationship with Iran to avoid a wave of conflict that could threaten the traditional Arab kingdoms of the Gulf region. The election of new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has presented new possibilities in the Saudi-Iranian relationship, including a common approach to Turkey, whose Islamist government has supported the Muslim Brotherhood, now defined as a destabilizing threat in both Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, this remains conjecture at this point, as Riyadh follows a cautious approach to an Iranian rapprochement. While improved relations might prove beneficial, the Kingdom cannot afford to risk its self-adopted role as the guardian of Sunni Islam.

The rapprochement with Iran began tentatively earlier this year, with a series of secret meetings in Muscat and Kuwait followed by more official encounters between the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers (National [Abu Dhabi], May 19). Diplomacy between the two nations appears to have been spurred by American urgings and the Kingdom’s realization that a reactive rather than pro-active foreign policy could leave the Saudis outside of a recalibrated power structure in the Middle East. There are fears in Riyadh that ISIS offensive may result in Iranian troops joining the fight against Sunni extremists in Iraq, followed by the breakup of the country (al-Quds al-Arabi, June 15).

While Saudi Arabia appears to have backed off from its covert financial support of ISIS, private donations likely continue to flow from donors in the Kingdom and other Gulf states, though the recent looting of bank vaults and consolidation of oil-producing regions in Syria and Iraq mean that ISIS will be largely self-supporting from this point. Saudi anxieties over political change in the Middle East are reflected in the Kingdom’s growing defense budget, which now makes the nation of under 30 million people one of the world’s top six military spenders (Arabianbusiness.com, June 14).

This article was first published in the June 26, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Syria’s Army of the Muhajirin Pledges Allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria

Andrew McGregor

December 12, 2013

On December 2, the Islamist Army of Muhajirin and Ansar in Bilad al-Sham issued a statement announcing it had declared its baya’a (oath of allegiance) to the Amir al-Muminin (commander of the faithful) Abu Bakr al-Husseini al-Qurayshi al-Baghdadi, leader of the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). [1] According to the document, the decision to come under ISIS command came after the Muhajirin (“emigrants”) and ISIS had conducted a number of joint operations. The statement was signed by the “former Amir of the Army of the Muhajirin and Ansar, Omar al-Shishani” and the “former Shari’a judge of the Amir of the Muhajirin and Ansar, Abu Jafar al-Hattab.”

Omar al-Shishani

The Muhajirin are dominated by fighters from the Northern Caucasus, led by Abu Omar, an ethnic-Chechen from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge who has established a reputation for honesty as well as fighting skills due to his rejection of abuses by foreign fighters against Syrian civilians (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, August 9).  Besides Chechens (estimated to form at least half of the Muhajirin), the group includes a reported large number of Daghestanis and ethnic Tatars and Bashkirs from the Middle Volga region (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, September 25). Those components of the Ansar al-Muhajirin listed as giving their approval of the baya’a include the Arab mujahideen, the Turkish mujahideen, the mujahideen from the Caucasus, the European mujahideen, the heavy arms detachment, the commando detachment and the administrative council.