A Mediterranean Presence: The Islamic State’s Sirte Strategy

Andrew McGregor

AIS Tips and Trends: The African Security Report

June 30, 2015

Libya’s Islamic State (IS) group exploited its seizure of the Mediterranean port city of Sirte in May by moving south from the city to Ghardabiya to claim Libya’s largest air-base and one of its largest reservoirs of fresh water.  A one-time Qaddafist stronghold some 450 kilometers east of Tripoli, Sirte has seen many of its residents flee to evade the IS takeover, a repetition of the 2011 exodus when the city was under attack by revolutionary anti-Qaddafi forces.

SirteWeeks of fighting around Sirte preceded the Islamic State’s mid-May breakthrough. The decisive action was the result of an IS counter-attack that overran the 166 Brigade’s camp in Sirte following the collapse of a Misratan offensive against IS forces (libya-analysis.com, May 25, 2015).

166 Brigade, part of the Libya Dawn coalition of militias supporting the Islamist-dominated General National Congress (GNC) government in Tripoli, arrived in Sirte from Misrata in March in an effort to expel an estimated 500 IS fighters from the city but encountered stiff resistance almost immediately, beginning with a deadly ambush (al-Jazeera, March 18, 2015).When the 166 Brigade withdrew from Sirte on May 28, IS forces moved quickly to take the military prize, the Ghardabiya airbase, a joint military/civilian facility that Libya Dawn was using to mount airstrikes on the Libyan National Army (LNA). The base was badly damaged in a March 2011 airstrike by U.S. B-2 Spirit stealth bombers during the Libyan revolution.

It is uncertain whether any military or civilian aircraft were still present at the airbase when it was abandoned, though a 166 Brigade spokesman insisted that only a single “non-functioning and unrepairable warplane” remained when IS forces moved in. Misratan officials blamed the withdrawal on the GNC, claiming the rival government had failed to provide the necessary support to the Misratan militia (Libya Herald, May 29, 2015).

Great Man Made River MapIS also succeeded in seizing al-Gardabiya Reservoir, a vast water storage facility of 15.4 million cubic metres roughly a kilometer wide. The second-largest in Libya, the reservoir forms a terminus point for Libya’s Great Man-Made River (GMMR), an underground network of pipes that pumps water from sandstone aquifers beneath the desert to coastal cities where most of the population is concentrated.

A Libya Dawn spokesman explained the differing approaches of Libya Dawn and General Khalifa Haftar’s Operation Dignity forces supporting the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR, the internationally recognized government of Libya): “We are against terrorists in all forms, but not to do it Haftar’s way, which is to destroy a city and make families flee, all to end a couple of hundred terrorists” (al-Jazeera, March 18, 2015). Libya Dawn’s approach has led to accusations from Operation Dignity supporters that Libya Dawn is not serious about countering the Islamic State threat. However, Libya Dawn’s approach to IS underwent significant changes after the May 31 IS suicide bombing at the Dafniyah checkpoint outside Misrata that killed five Libya Dawn security personnel (Libya Herald, May 31, 2015). The attack followed a May 21 IS suicide bombing at another Misratan Libya Dawn checkpoint that killed two guards.

Sirte 2Much of Sirte was destroyed in the 2011 fighting.

These attacks appear to have shattered any perception within Libya Dawn and the GNC that a more tolerant approach to the Islamic State would allow the Libya Dawn coalition to concentrate their forces against the HoR and Operation Dignity. Libya Dawn aircraft have sought revenge for the IS suicide bombings by striking a former Qaddafi regime security headquarters in Sirte used by IS fighters on June 22, followed by another raid on IS positions in Sirte by aircraft from Misrata on June 24 (Reuters, June 22, 2015; Libyan Herald, June 24, 2015).

Projections

Rampant insecurity, inability to market Libya’s much-diminished oil production, an absence of central financial control, electricity shortages, labor unrest, the flight of foreign workers and the destruction or incapacitation of necessary infrastructure has led Libya to the brink of full economic collapse, with the accompanying collapse of Libya’s last remaining civil institutions not far behind.

The West continues to decline any role in expelling or otherwise defeating Islamic State forces that threaten Western interests daily, a curious contrast to the rapid mobilization of Western military forces in 2011 against the regime of Mu’ammar Qaddafi, which no longer posed any threat to the West. NATO air power was decisive in Qaddafi’s overthrow by a mish-mash of poorly-organized militias without any cohesive ideology other than hatred of Qaddafi. Europe must now deal with the prospect of the IS using its control of a major port and a significant portion of coastline to launch overloaded boats full of African migrants, achieving the dual purpose of financing the IS while destabilizing European security.

The seizure of Sirte has enabled the Islamic State to achieve several strategic objectives, including the seizure of a small port, a military airbase and a massive reservoir of fresh water. Besides dealing their Misratan and Libya Dawn opponents a devastating blow, control of Sirte has also allowed IS to cut the vital coast road at a point almost in the middle of the country. Though it is possible the airbase no longer had any aircraft at the time it was abandoned to IS, the ineffectiveness of General Haftar’s LNA air-force and the absence of a Western no-fly zone (as was implemented during the anti-Qaddafist revolution) leave open the possibility that new aircraft could be flown in by IS operatives, giving the extremists an air element for use in combat operations or suicide bombings against civilian targets, possibly even beyond Libya’s borders.

The Battle for Tripoli: Can it bring Libya’s Civil War to an End?

Andrew McGregor

Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report

May 30, 2015

Armed groups supportive of Libya’s internationally recognized House of Representatives (HoR) government in Tobruk are slowly closing in on positions around Tripoli defended by armed groups supportive of the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC), an Islamist-dominated rival government formed by parliamentarians who did not accept the results of Libya’s June 2014 elections. However, real military progress is still impeded by factionalism and tribalism in the pro-HoR Operation Karama (“Dignity”) military coalition that opposes the Islamist and pro-GNC militias gathered under the Fajr Libya (“Libya Dawn”) umbrella.

Tripoli MapThe military pressure on Tripoli appeared to be working in terms of eliciting a more conciliatory approach from the GNC to a UN-recommended unity government (Anadolu Agency, April 17; April 18, 2015). However, hardliners in the GNC seem to have come out on top after quickly rejecting a UN peace plan that was eight months in the works but heavily favored the HoR in its details. Part of the plan called for the replacement of local militias by Libyan National Army (LNA) units currently under the command of General Khalifa Haftar, who is widely distrusted in Tripoli.

The HoR launched an offensive designed to retake Tripoli in mid-March. By April 3, pro-government forces were struggling to take control of Aziziya, 35 kilometers south-west of Tripoli (AFP, April 3, 2015). LNA forces under the command of Colonel Idris Madi (the commander of LNA operations in western Libya) claimed to have taken Aziziya by April 5, with the LNA’s use of superior French-made guided missiles cited as playing a major role in the victory (Middle East Eye, April 5, 2015).

Tripoli 1Fighting Southwest of Tripoli

Fighting inside Tripoli proper began in mid-April in two anti-Libya Dawn districts, the central Fashloum district and the eastern suburb of Tajura. The HoR claimed that authorities in Tripoli were using power and water cuts to pressure the residents of the two districts (Reuters, April 18, 2015; AFP, April 18, 2015). A pro-HoR rising in Fashloum lasted several days before it was smashed by Libya Dawn forces. Abdullah Sassi, the leader of the rising and commander of Tajura’s 101 Brigade, was captured and apparently killed – photos of a bloodied and seemingly lifeless Sassi with Libya Dawn slogans and insults such as “Dog of Karama” crudely written on his face with markers appeared widely on social media, though Libya Dawn leaders later claimed he was still alive and had simply had a “fit” (Libya Herald, April 19, 2015). A Twitter message allegedly sent by Sassi on April 19 accused General Haftar, Colonel Madi and the Zintanis of having “duped” the Tajurans by failing to provide promised military support.[1]

The central district of Fashloum endured three days of fighting in which Libya Dawn forces emerged victorious after destroying much of the district. According to GNC Interior Minister Muhammad Shayter, the destruction of Fashloum was the responsibility of supporters of the HoR: “In the Fashloum district, murderers and criminals who support [LNA commander General Khalifa] Haftar and Operation Dignity closed roads and started shooting workers and simple people, including revolutionaries” (Middle East Eye, April 23, 2015).

With Tripoli’s International Airport out of action since July 2014, control of Tripoli’s Mitiga International Airport, a former airbase lying between the city center and Tajura, has become of major importance for the continued existence of the GNC and Libya Dawn. It was struck by a mortar on April 3 and was the target of an airstrike by LNA forces on April 15, though, typically, little damage was done by the airstrike. The airport has been used by Libya Dawn to launch its own (generally ineffective) airstrikes on LNA targets, including an April 15 airstrike on a military base in Tajura, east of Tripoli (for Libya’s “air war,” see Tips and Trends for March, 2015).

The Role of the Warshefana

A surprising development in the struggle for the capital was the withdrawal of the Misratan pro-Libya Dawn Halboos Brigade from western Tripoli sometime between April 22 and April 25 after reaching an agreement with Warshefana elders, a move that angered the brigade’s Libya Dawn allies in Janzur, the Mobile Forces and the Janzur Knights militias. Once the Misratan forces had pulled out of the region south-west of Tripoli, Warshefana militias assisted by pro-HoR militias from Zintan began to make solid gains, working themselves closer to the western Tripoli suburb of Janzur. The Warshefana generally occupy the region south of Tripoli and are regularly identified by their rivals as having pro-Qaddafist tendencies. The Misratans may have decided to focus on defeating the Islamic State extremists with which it is clashing in both Misrata and in Sirte, east of Tripoli (Reuters, March 25, 2015).

Warshefana military leader General Omar Tantoush had earlier announced “all of Warshefana and the surrounding villages will be under official Army control and the capital’s city center will be only 13 kilometers [away] with all of the main entry points surrounded.”[2] However, Tantoush has stated that his forces have no intention of entering the capital and seek only to consolidate control over traditional Warshefana territory (which could include Janzur) (Libya Herald, April 29, 2015). On April 29, armed men kidnapped Tantoush’s cousin Mohamed Tantoush in Tripoli as retaliation for Warshefana advances (Libya Herald, April 29, 2015).

For now, the offensive seems to have slowed; further progress into Janzur will likely be met by heavy resistance from Libya Dawn-allied militias still occupying the district (Libya Herald, April 30, 2015). Warshefana militias may decide to postpone an attack on Janzur until it can be mounted as part of a broader offensive on the Tripoli region coordinated with the Libyan National Army (LNA) and its allies. The LNA is also active in the Warshefana region, advancing on Tripoli’s international airport and fighting battles for control of the coastal highway between Zawia and Tripoli (Libya Dawn, April 22, 2015). Control of the road means control of petroleum supplies to the capital, where power cuts are already common due to the Warshefana clashes. Water is also in short supply since the power cuts have affected the pumps on the Man-Made River that supplies water to Tripoli. In the meantime, Warshefana elders appear to have had several successes in negotiating the withdrawal of various Libya Dawn militias from Warshefana communities.

Tripoli 2Bombing Damage inside Tripoli’s al-Quds Mosque (Reuters/Ismail Zitouny)

The Role of Islamist Extremists

Islamist extremists seeking to disrupt ongoing Libyan peace negotiations in Morocco are now targeting foreign embassies in Tripoli, though most missions are empty due to the instability in Tripoli:

  • The Islamic State organization used social media to claim responsibility for an attack by gunmen on the South Korean embassy that killed two Libyan security guards (Reuters, April 12, 2015).
  • The Islamic State organization used Twitter to claim responsibility for an April 13 bombing of the Moroccan embassy (AP, April 13, 2015).
  • Social media accounts again claimed responsibility for the bombing of the Spanish embassy on April 20 (Reuters, April 20, 2015; IBT, April 21, 2015).

Earlier this year, Islamic State militants carried out bomb attacks on the Iranian and Algerian embassies. Islamists are also believed to be responsible for the bombing of Tripoli’s al-Quds Mosque, a leading place of worship for Tripoli’s many Sufi Muslims, whose religious sites are frequently targeted by Salafist extremists (Andolu Ajansi, April 23, 2015).

PROJECTIONS

The threat of urban warfare and its attendant civilian suffering and damage to buildings and infrastructure is becoming particularly acute in Tripoli, one of the world’s oldest cities, founded by Phoenician traders in the 7th century BC to take advantage of its natural harbor. With clashes already breaking out in the city center, public life and the local economy are both suffering from bombings, blockades and roaming gangs of masked gunmen seeking out opponents of Libya Dawn.

For Libya Dawn, the successful defense of Tripoli is an imperative. While keeping control of the city will not ensure Libya Dawn’s eventual victory on the national stage, its loss is a virtual guarantee of the collapse of the GNC and the dispersion or surrender of Libya Dawn militias, some of which might decide coming to a negotiated arrangement with the LNA/HoR that will allow them to retain their arms and some continued measure of self-importance would be the best way to survive. While sparing Tripoli, such an arrangement will only postpone an eventual reckoning between the emerging LNA and the unruly but well-armed militias. Integration of most Libya Dawn fighters in a unified LNA seems unlikely due to the polarizing presence of LNA commander-in-chief Khalifa Haftar, who is commonly described by Libya Dawn commanders as “a terrorist.”

Notes

[1] https://twitter.com/Liberty4Libya/status/589870760942051328

[2] https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?id=1649305608630612&story_fbid=1664134897147683 (April 15, 2015).

Islam’s Leading Muftis Condemn the “Islamic State”

Andrew McGregor
September 4, 2014

Egypt’s Grand Mufti (chief Islamic jurist), Shaykh Shawqi Ibrahim Abd al-Karim Allam, has opened a new campaign to combat Islamist militancy of the type promoted by the Islamic State through electronic means such as internet sites, videos and Twitter accounts. The campaign, which will involve Islamic scholars from across the world, aims to: “correct the image of Islam that has been tarnished in the West because of these criminal acts, and to exonerate humanity from such crimes that defy natural instincts and spread hate between people” (Middle East News Agency [Cairo], August 31; September 1; AP, August 25). There were 37 million internet users in Egypt as of September 2013 (Ahram Online, September 1).

Grand Mufti EgyptGrand Mufti Shaykh Shawqi Ibrahim Abd al-Karim Allam

Egypt’s Grand Mufti has also been pulled into the controversial death sentences issued against leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their followers in connection with a series of violent incidents that followed last year’s popular rising/military coup that toppled the rule of Muhammad Morsi and the Freedom and Justice Party (the political wing of the Brotherhood). The specific case in which the Grand Mufti was invited to give his opinion involved death sentences handed down to Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Muhammad al-Badi’e and seven other Brotherhood leaders in June (six others were sentenced to death in absentia, but have the right to new trials if they return) in connection with murder charges related to the clashes at the Istiqama mosque in Giza on July 23, 2013 that left nine people dead.

Egyptian legal procedure calls for all death sentences to be confirmed by a non-binding decision of the Grand Mufti, though in practice such decisions are nearly always followed. Unusually, in this case, the Mufti’s original decision to commute the June death sentences to life imprisonment was returned by the court for reconsideration (Ahram Online [Cairo], August 30; al-Jazeera, August 8). Shawqi Allam declined to take the hint and instead reaffirmed his position that the death penalties were inappropriate given that the evidence consisted solely of unsupported testimony from a police operative (Deutsche Welle, August 30). The Grand Mufti’s actions have been interpreted as a rebuke to the judicial process that has delivered hundreds of death sentences to Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters this year following the group’s official designation as a “terrorist” organization. Muhammad al-Badi’e still faces another death sentence in relation to a separate case regarding the Brothers’ alleged armed response to a July 2014 demonstration at their al-Muqattam headquarters in eastern Cairo.

The decisions of Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta (House of Religious Edicts) are typically closely aligned to official government policy, leading many observers to consider it a quasi-governmental agency. Nonetheless, the office and Egypt’s Grand Mufti remain important sources of spiritual direction throughout the Sunni Islamic world, with thousands of fatwa-s being issued every month in response to questions of faith and practice from around the Islamic world. Compared to institutions such as Cairo’s 10th century al-Azhar Islamic University (also brought under government control in 1961), Dar al-Ifta is a comparatively modern institution, having been created at the order of Khedive Abbas al-Hilmi in 1895.

Grand Mufti Saudi ArabiaGrand Mufti Shaykh Abd al-Aziz al-Ashaykh

In Saudi Arabia, Grand Mufti Shaykh Abd al-Aziz al-Ashaykh, chairman of the Council of Senior Ulema and the General Presidency of Scholarly Research and Ifta (the Kingdom’s fatwa-issuing office), used an August 28 radio interview to respond to the arrest of eight men charged with recruiting fighters for the Islamic State by urging young Saudis to resist calls for jihad “under unknown banners and perverted principles” (Nida al-Islam Radio [Mecca], August 28).

The interview followed a statement entitled “Foresight and Remembrance” made several days earlier in which the Saudi Grand Mufti described members of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State as “Kharijites, the first group that deviated from the religion because they accused Muslims of disbelief due to their sins and allowed killing them and taking their money,” a reference to an early and traditionally much despised early Islamic movement whose advocacy of jihad against rulers they deemed insufficiently Islamic (similar to the takfiri pose adopted by the modern Islamist extremists) led to nearly two centuries of conflict in the Islamic world: “Extremist and militant ideas and terrorism which spread decay on earth, destroying human civilization, are not in any way part of Islam, but are rather Islam’s number one enemy, and Muslims are their first victims…” (Saudi Press Agency, August 19).

The Grand Mufti’s comments reflect a growing concern in Saudi Arabia that the Kingdom will inevitably be targeted by the so-called Islamic State, a development that could shatter the partnership between Wahhabi clerics and the al-Sa’ud royal family that dominates the Kingdom both politically and spiritually. Thousands of Saudis are believed to have left to join Islamic State and al-Nusra Front forces in Iraq and Syria in recent months (Reuters, August 25). The Islamic State poses a direct challenge to the religious legitimacy of the al-Sa’ud monarchy and their rule of the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah by presenting the creation of a caliphate as the true fulfillment the Wahhabist “project” while simultaneously undercutting the authority of Wahhabist clerics such as Shaykh Abd al-Aziz, whom the movement views as having been co-opted by their partnership with a “corrupt and un-Islamic” royal family.

This article first appeared in the September 4, 2014 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.