Jamaat Ansar al-Islam (JAI)

Introduction

Jamaat Ansar al-Islam (JAI) originated as an al-Qaeda-linked group in Iraq in 2007, but has been operating in Syria since 2011.* JAI traces its origins to the 2003 Iraqi Kurdish Islamist group Ansar al-Islam and the Iraqi Islamist group Ansar al-Sunna, both which had ceased to exist by 2006 due to operations by U.S.-led Coalition forces.* The new iteration of JAI retained its Kurdish Islamist roots through occasional Kurdish-language publications, but was largely staffed by Iraqi Arabs and operated for the most part in the region between Baghdad and Mosul.* While JAI concentrated most of its rhetoric around resistance to the Maliki regime in Iraq, the group quickly tied its struggle to that of other Sunni rebels in Syria, and fought there as early as 2011.* JAI commanders initially set up a training camp in al-Hol, Hasakah, and gradually spread into neighboring Raqqa and into northwest Syria.* By 2012, JAI had also begun operations in Damascus city and the nearby Quneitra countryside.* JAI is ideologically close to ISIS but was always at odds with the group.* As ISIS grew in power in eastern Syria, it severed the transit routes linking JAI forces operating in Syria and Iraq.* Mass defections to ISIS resulted in JAI becoming all but non-existent in Iraq by 2014, leaving only its Syrian branch in northwest and southern Syria.* The remaining JAI members fought alongside al-Nusra Front in northwest Syria.* As Nusra broke ties with al-Qaeda, JAI fighters grew closer with other pro-al-Qaeda militants in Idlib. The group began working with the al-Qaeda loyalists in Hurras al-Din (HaD) soon after it formed, joining HaD-led operations rooms in 2018 and then again in 2020, alongside three other small pro-al-Qaeda factions opposed to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Turkish presence in Idlib.* However, facing pressure from both Turkey and HTS, JAI broke with HaD in 2021 and now operates as an independent faction in Idlib while abiding by the rules set forth by HTS.* The group denies having any organizational ties to al-Qaeda and claims that its goals reside solely within Syria.*

Leadership

Abu al-Darda’ al-Kurdi (deputy commander)*

Base of Operations

Idlib province in Syria (currently), Damascus and Quneitra provinces in Syria (formerly)*

Website

N/A

Membership Size and Relevance

JAI is a 15-year-old militant group with origins in the al-Qaeda movement in Iraq that has been operating in northwest Syria since 2012.* Today, it is a small independent group consisting mostly of Syrian Kurdish Islamists.* For many years, the group fought alongside the then-al-Qaeda aligned al-Nusra Front in northwest Syria.* However, as Nusra’s leadership distanced themselves from al-Qaeda, tensions with JAI began to rise. In October 2018, the group joined the anti-HTS operations room “Incite the Believers,” led by the pro-al-Qaeda HaD, and is a founding member of the subsequent “So be Steadfast” HaD-led operation room which opposed both HTS and the Turkish intervention in northwestern Syria.* HTS’s defeat of HaD and pressure on JAI led the group to break from the other pro-al-Qaeda factions in Idlib. JAI currently exists as an independent group bound by the policies set forth by HTS.*

Recruitment and Propaganda

Like other extremist groups, JAI engaged in proselytizing efforts in attempt to recruit and built loyalty with local populations. Pictures published by their official media outlets shows JAI dawa pamphlets that the group distributed in northwest Syria in 2014.* While the faction originated among Iraqi Kurdish Islamists, it drew more heavily from Iraqi Arabs by the mid-2000s.* Once in Syria, however, JAI was able to recruit somewhat within the Salafist Syrian Kurdish population.*

Violent Activities

JAI has fought extensively against Syrian regime, Russian, and Iranian forces in southern and northwestern Syria. The group was responsible for several large bomb attacks on regime security buildings in Damascus in 2012.* In April 2022, JAI claimed responsibility for a raid against a Syrian regime military position in Hama, in violation of the Turkey-Russia ceasefire. *This raid triggered a crackdown from HTS, and the JAI deputy commander was arrested on March 24, 2022.*

Rhetoric

  • August 2014 obituary for one of the founders of JAI: “Bilad al-Rafidayn (Iraq) knew him as a commando lion, as a commander and leader when he drew up plans, oversaw and led many special operations, inflicting great massacres on the Crusader, Rafidite [Shi'a] and apostate enemies. And Baghdad bears witness to his special operations, as well as Fallujah, Tikrit, Kirkuk and many other areas of Bilad al-Rafidayn.”*
  • August 2014 obituary for one of the founders of JAI: “Further, he worked to open up military, security and intelligence sessions- including in chemical warfare- with his brothers to train staff for the jihadi groups in order to raise their capability and nurturing in sought-after skills.”*
  • Statement in support of the formation of Jabhat Ansar al-Din: “For after the announcement of the Jabhat Ansar al-Din coalition composed of: Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar, The Green Battalion, Harakat Sham al-Islam, Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiya. And the announcement that the foremost intention behind the formation of this coalition is the establishment of the original law of God in liberated areas, to defend the precepts of religion and to support the oppressed among our people in the blessed land of al-Sham. So we in Jamaat Ansar al-Islam in Bilad al-Sham bless this gathering of these allied battalions which we reckon for the best and we commend no one to God.”*

Daily Dose

Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.

Fact:

On January 23, 2019, two car bombs exploded outside of a mosque in Benghazi, Libya, killing 41 people and injuring 80 others. No group claimed responsibility for the blast, but remnants suggested an ISIS affiliate was responsible.  

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