Viewing conflicts through the eye of Counterinsurgency COIN – Since 2007
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IS (Daesh/ISIS/ISIL) 2002 – present
A brutally violent theocratic group that grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq, merging with several smaller groups to form the Islamic State of Iraq. It was originally affiliated with al-Nusra Front, but infighting broke out when leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared that the Syrian organization was “merely an extension of the Islamic State of Iraq and a part of it.” Al Qaeda’s global leader said the groups should remain separate and formally denounced ISIS after al-Baghdadi refused (plus, the group’s revolting tactics were considered bad for the Al Qaeda brand).
ISIS claims to have established a caliphate in Iraq and Syria and is now fighting with most other rebel groups as well as the Assad regime.
NUMBERS: More than 12,000; some estimates say as many as 100,000.
U.S. STANCE: At the request of the Iraqi government, the U.S. began conducting airstrikes against ISIS in August, after the militants captured large swaths of the country and stepped up their persecution of ethnic and religious minorities.
ISIS is mainly terrorizing people in Iraq and Syria right now, but in a speech last month, President Obama noted that “while we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies.” ISIS draws many foreign fighters from Europe and North America and has beheaded two American journalists and a British aid worker.
Since mid-September the U.S. and its allies have been hitting ISIS targets in both Iraq and Syria.
NOTABLE AFFILIATIONS: Formerly allied with Jabhat al-Nusra.
Jama’at al-Tawhid wa’l Jihad was formed by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi in 2002 as a militant group in Jordan. Shortly afterwards, the group entered Northern Iraq, pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda and changing its name to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in October 2004. In 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took control of AQI. In 2014, al-Baghdadi announced that AQI had begun operation in Syria, would soon merge with Al Nusra Front, and would change its name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri publicly rebuffed al-Baghdadi’s statement and ordered that the group limit its operations to Iraq. After al-Baghdadi spoke against al-Zawahiri’s statement, al-Zawahiri renounced all connection between ISIS and AQ Central. ISIS has recently experienced military success, taking the cities in both Syria and Iraq, including Raqqa, Fallujah and Mosul.
Al Qaeda (AQ) 1980s – present
Formed in the late 1980s by Osama bin Laden. Made up of Salafist jihadists, Al Qaeda is a radical Sunni Islamist movement carrying out a global jihad, and seeks the strict imposition of Shariah law.They seek the ridding of foreign influence in Muslim countries, and the creation of a worldwide Islamic caliphate. The group is most well-known in the West for its September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, but it has also carried out numerous attacks since 1992 in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and North America. The group’s headquarters have shifted between Sudan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as necessitated by outside pressure. Al Qaeda has worked with many known terrorist organizations to carry out attacks and continue resistance movements, and has helped spawn many ideologically aligned militant organizations across the globe.
Suqour al-Sham 2011 to present
Suqour al-Sham is a member of Islamic Front umbrella organization and has been a powerful opposition force in the Syrian Civil War. Originally one of the strongest rebel groups in the country, Suqour al-Sham has been weakened after fighting with ISIS.
Jabhat al-Nusra Front(or the al-Nusra Front) 2012 +
Al-Nusra Front is a Sunni jihadist militant organization whose goal is to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria and replace it with a Sunni Islamic government. Al-Nusra is Al Qaeda’s only official affiliate in Syria. Al-Nusra wants to establish a religious state. Al-Nusra is one of the most effective groups fighting the Assad regime. It is said to have good relations with other rebel groups, both religiously based and secular, though it has also hurt the opposition by making other nations hesitant to come to the rebels’ aid.
NUMBERS: 5,000 to 6,000
U.S. STANCE: Though al-Nusra has expressed interest in fighting an explicitly Syrian civil war (which is one of the reasons for its break with ISIS), the U.S. has designated it as a terrorist organization. American officials also believe that factions of al-Nusra Front may pose an immediate threat to Western nations. The U.S. has targeted al-Nusra in recent airstrikes, killing its leader, Abu Yousef al-Turki, and dozens of fighters.
NOTABLE AFFILIATIONS: Khorasan Group
WHAT: A subgroup of Jabhat al-Nusra that is believed to be planning attacks on America and other Western targets. It is made up of veteran Al Qaeda members and may be under the control of Al Qaeda’s central leadership. U.S. officials only acknowledged its existence a few weeks ago, and little is known about the group. (Some conservatives claim it doesn’t exist.) It may be known as al-Nusra’s “Wolf Unit,” but the name “Khorasan” doesn’t make sense in Arabic, and it’s unclear if that’s how the group refers to itself.
NUMBERS: Small; only several dozen.
U.S. STANCE: The U.S. began striking Khorasan hideouts in Syria in September 2014, saying that the group posed an imminent threat to America.
NOTABLE AFFILIATIONS: Jabhat al-Nusra
WHAT: An umbrella organization for many Islamist factions fighting in Syria. It was created last November and is considered one of the stronger rebel organizations. Groups largely function on their own, but often coordinate on announcements and may cooperate on attacks. The groups fighting on the Islamic Front banner cover a wide scope of different ideologies, with one big group, Ahrar al-Sham, having some connections to Al Qaeda. Generally, they want to supplant Assad with a religiously based government.
NUMBERS: Over 50,000
U.S. STANCE: The U.S. doesn’t have a working relationship with the Islamic Front, although they have common goals in the war.
NOTABLE AFFILIATIONS: Subgroups include Ahrar al-Sham, Suqour al-Sham, Tawhid Brigade, Haq Brigade, Ansar al-Sham, Islamic Army, and the Kurdish Islamic Front
Ahrar al-Sham 2012 – present
Ahrar al-Sham is one of the largest members of the Islamic Front umbrella group and a powerful opposition force in the Syrian Civil War.
Ansar al-Sham 2012 – present
Ansar al-Sham is one of the many rebel organizations attempting to depose Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Kurdish Islamic Front
Jaish al-Sham 2014 – present
Jaish al-Islam (JaS) was formerly known as Suyouf al-Haq Brigade and was one of the strongest constituent brigades of Suqour al-Sham. JaS broke off from the powerful organization to protest its fighting with ISIS. It first pledged allegiance to ISIS and then declared independence from both Suqour al-Sham and ISIS, and reportedly took members from both organizations to create Jaish al-Sham.
Liwa Dawoud 2014 – present
Liwa Dawoud was originally a constituent brigade within Suqour al-Sham. After protesting the fighting between Suqour al-Sham and ISIS, Liwa Dawoud first defected from Suqour al-Sham to join ISIS, and then distanced itself from both organizations.
Liwa al-Tawhid 2012 – present
Liwa al-Tawhid is one of many rebel groups fighting to depose Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Jaish al-Islam is one of many rebel organizations fighting to depose Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Liwa al-Haqq is one of many rebel groups attempting to depose Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
KIF 2013 – present
The Kurdish Islamic Front (KIF) was established in 2013 by Sheikh Abu Abdullah al-Kurdi with the assistance of powerful Syrian opposition forces like Ahrar al-Sham. The KIF has fought alongside ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham against the Popular Protection Units (YPG), a militia that operates in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northeastern Syria. Shortly after it was created, the KIF became a founding member of the Islamic Front and it remains the smallest affiliated organization in the umbrella group. The Institute for the Study of War estimates that is has fewer than 1,000 members. Its relative weakness suggests that it was included in the umbrella organization to appeal to Kurds and prove that the Islamic Front seeks to include Kurdish people and guarantee their rights in its envisioned Islamic state.
FSA 2011 – present
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is not a single cohesive armed opposition group. The title may refer to any one of the many opposition forces linked to the Supreme Military Council but is also used more broadly to refer to secular or moderate rebel forces operating in Syria who fight to depose Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. began arming some of these groups in 2013. We use the broadest term on this map to show the relationship of Islamist groups with the moderate rebels.
July 2012: Al-Nusra and the FSA begin cooperate on the battlefield early in the civil war, as demonstrated by their July 19, 2012 seizure of a police station and its weapons. Despite the AQ links on al-Nusra’s side and the secular leanings of the FSA, this relationship continues throughout the conflict.
December 2012: When the United States designates al-Nusra as a terrorist organization a number of rebel groups, including members of the Free Syrian Army, demonstrate and sign petitions in protest.
May 2013: FSA fighters have been defecting in the thousands to join the more prestigious al-Nusra, which is better funded and better armed. One commander said that 3,000 men had defected over a few months.
June 2013: An ISIS soldier shoots and kills FSA leader Kamal Hamami when he orders them to take down a checkpoint.
September 2013: After ISIS attempted to detain medical staff at a hospital held by the FSA’s Northern Storm Brigade (NBS) and the NSB refused, a battle broke out that left dozens captive and at least five killed. ISIS control of the area.
January 2014: In early 2014, tensions on the ground between ISIS and other rebel groups begin to develop into conflict on the ground. On January 6th ISIS is driven from Raqqa after fighting with other rebel groups, including al-Nusra, members of the Islamic Front, and members of the FSA.