John Rosenthal is a European-based journalist covering EU politics and transatlantic security issues. He is fluent in German and French and reads altogether five European languages apart from his native English. He created and edited the international news translation program of the news site World Politics Review, and he has been a regular contributor to such publications as Policy Review, World Affairs, the Weekly Standard and National Review Online. HisMore ↓Less ↑
While the Obama administration reportedly is moving toward recognizing the recently formed and supposedly “inclusive” Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, recent reports from the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo make clear that Syrian rebel forces on the ground consist almost exclusively of jihadists, including self-avowed veterans of the al-Qaida-led insurgency against American forces in Iraq.
In a report that appeared last week in the French leftist daily Libération, correspondent Jean-Pierre Perrin describes visiting with one of the rebel militias that have infiltrated Syria’s largest city and erstwhile economic hub.
The name of the group? The Lords of Tawhid Battalion. Tawhid is a core Islamic notion signifying the unity and indivisibility of Allah, a concept that Islamists contrast to the Christian Trinity.
The term is frequently employed by jihadist groups. For instance, the original name of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s notorious Iraqi al-Qaida affiliate was the Tawhid and Jihad Group, the Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad.
The names of some of the other rebel militias present in and around Aleppo include The Aleppo Islamic People’s Brigade [Liwa Halab ash-Shahba ul-Islami], The Islamic Dawn Movement [Harakat Fajr ul-Islami], The Battalions of Islam [Kataa'ib ul-Islam], The Army of Muhammad Brigade [Liwa Jaish Muhammad], The Sultan Muhammad Battalion [Katiebat as-Sultan Muhammad], The Shield of Islam Brigade [Liwa Dara' ul-Islam], and The Pearls of the Ummah [Liwa Dur ul-Ummah]. The ummah is the Arabic expression for the Islamic community.
The names are given in a video statement issued by the rebel groups in November. In the statement, the groups rejected the authority of the Syrian National Coalition and pledged to establish an Islamic state or caliphate.
In Aleppo, Libération reporter Perrin spoke with the commander of the Lords of Tawhid Battalion, Hajj Abdou. Perrin notes that Abdou is “no newcomer to holy war.”
He confides that he has already participated in [holy war] in Lebanon, fighting with the Palestinians against Israel, and in Iraq: notably, in Fallujah and Ramadi, cities that are emblematic of the Sunni uprising against the American army.
Details like this from the European press are particularly telling, since as a rule the reporters and their editors make no secret of their sympathies for the rebellion. Thus Perrin’s report in Libération is heroically titled “With the Resistance Fighters of the Old City of Aleppo.” (For a related example concerning rebel forces in and around Aleppo, see the Investigative Project on Terrorism.)
The stylization of the rebels into the “resistance” – with echoes of the French resistance to German occupation during WWII – is especially dubious in the case of Aleppo. Rebel groups slipped into Aleppo in July, in effect pressuring government forces to attack a city whose inhabitants were known to be largely loyal to the regime. (See, for instance, this Nov. 5 report from the Los Angeles Times, which notes that the rebels themselves are regarded by the locals as occupiers.)
Perrin is not the only journalist to have encountered a jihadist veteran of the battle of Fallujah among the rebel forces in Aleppo. In an article that appeared in September in the British daily The Guardian, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reported meeting a rebel commander in Aleppo who went by the name of Abu Salam al-Faluji ["Abu Salam, the Fallujan"]. Jihadists frequently use place names that are connected to their biographies as part of their pseudonyms or noms de guerre.
Abu Salam explained that he “had fought the Americans in Fallujah when he was a young man” and “later … joined al-Qaida in Iraq and spent many years fighting in different cities before moving to Syria to evade arrest.” Abdul-Ahad cites Abu Salam berating one of his Syrian comrades for failing to take out a T72 Syrian army tank with an RPG: “Don’t say it didn’t go off. Say you don’t know how to fire it. We used to shoot these same RPGs at the Americans and destroy Abrams tanks. What’s a T72 to an Abrams?”
Abdul-Ahad’s Guardian report makes an artificial distinction between “jihadists” – i.e., foreign jihadists – and native Syrian members of the so-called Free Syrian Army. But Syria has itself been a major exporter of jihadists, notably to Iraq, and there is abundant evidence that the native Syrian components of the rebellion are as committed to jihadist ideology as the “immigrants” or muhajiroun who have rallied to their cause.
Thus, for instance, Hajj Abdou, the veteran of the Iraqi jihad and commander of the Lords of Tawhid Battalion, is identified in Jean-Pierre Perrin’s Libération report as a native Syrian.
Not only rebel militias, but even anti-regime demonstrators in Syria have persistently flown the black banner of jihad with the shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith, inscribed on it.
A video clip that recently emerged is said to show demonstrators in the region of Idlib, a rebel stronghold. The demonstrators wave the black jihadist flag and repeatedly chant:
Islamic, Islamic. … Our revolution is Islamic./In spite of you, Obama, it will return Islamic.” (English sub-titles at video link.) The chant leader continues, “Where are you, partisans of Allah, to see this sight?/Our revolution is that of Islam, we want a Caliphate…/Don’t try, Obama, to steal our revolution/It is our religion that binds us and unites our force.
See the video:
Translations from French by the author. Unless otherwise indicated, translations from Arabic by Maureen Millington-Brodie.