FEBRUARY BRIEFS

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 2

Salim Idriss fired and blamed for Free Syrian Army battlefield setbacks (Source The Guardian)

MUHAMMAD MAJID AL-KHATIB: A RISING LEADER IN THE FREE SYRIAN ARMY 

Nicholas A. Heras 

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) fired its military chief Salim Idriss on February 16 for being “ineffective,” saying that he “lacked the military experience to run operations on the ground” (al-Jazeera, February 18). The FSA announced by video that Idriss had been replaced by Brigadier General Abd al-Illah al-Bashir, a rebel leader from the south-western Syrian governorate of al-Quneitra. His promotion has brought attention to the increasing importance of southern Syria, including al-Quneitra and Dera’a provinces, to the operations of the FSA (Reuters, February 16). Currently, several armed opposition groups that are not formally associated with the FSA are waging a military campaign called Ma’rakat Fajr al-Tawhid (Battle of the Dawn of Holy Unity) against the Syrian military in the southern areas of al-Quneitra (al-Dorar al-Shamiyya [Damascus], February 9). One of the most important armed opposition groups currently waging the Fajr Tawhid campaign against the Assad government in Quneitra governorate is Alwiya al-Furqan (The Criterion Brigades). 

Alwiya al-Furqan is an independent Islamist organization that claims to be the “largest Islamist faction” currently operating in the Quneitra theatre. [1] The constituent brigades within Alwiya al-Furwan are concentrated in the suburbs of Damascus, including the areas around the southwestern suburb city of Darayya, the eastern suburb of Ghouta and the southern and eastern districts of al-Quneitra governorate that border northern Dera’a governorate. There is currently no agreed-upon figure for the number of fighters within Alwiya al-Furqan. However, the author’s review of video footage shot by the organization and posted on its YouTube page, the geographic distribution of its constituent militias in the suburbs of Damascus and al-Quneitra, the organization’s participation in battles in those areas and the ongoing Fajr al-Tawhid campaign indicate that a reasonable estimate is in the range of 2,000. [2] 

The leader of Alwiya al-Furqan is Muhammad Majid al-Khatib (a.k.a. Abu al-Qassam, “Clinton” and “Red Eagle”). Al-Khatib, in his late 20s, is from the village of Kanakir, in the southwest exurb of Damascus and studied Shari’a in college. He states that he and other youth from his area were inspired to join the revolution by the demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt and the violent response of the Syrian security forces. [3] Al-Khatib has one of the more youthful personas among Syrian armed opposition leaders, frequently appearing online and in the media in street clothes that are associated with young people and maintaining an active Facebook page. [4] 

Under al-Khatib’s leadership, Alwiya al-Furqan has been associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and with the now defunct Damascus area armed opposition coalition Tajammu Ansar al-Islam (Gathering of the Partisans of Islam), which included Shaykh Zahran Alloush’s Jaysh al-Islam (for more information on Shaykh Zahran Alloush see MLM Briefs, October 2013). [5] Al-Khatib and Alloush sat next to one another at the September 2013 announcement of the formation of the “Operations Rooms to Overthrow Assad in the Area of Damascus,” which included Jaysh al-Islam, Alwiya al-Furqan and the militant Salafist group Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (Islamic Movement of the Free Ones of the Levant), during which Alloush thanked the “Board of Supporters of the Syrian Revolution in Kuwait” for their material and moral support in the formation of the new operations room. [6] 

There is evidence that al-Khatib has gained the respect of and built working relationships with several of the most important Islamist armed opposition commanders in Syria, including those groups that form the Islamic Front (IF). These leaders include Zahran Alloush, Suqur al-Sham’s Shaykh Ahmad Issa and the now deceased leader of Liwa al-Tawhid, Abd al-Qadr al-Salah (see MLM Briefs, September 2013; October 2013; November 2013). In photographs taken prior to al-Salah’s death and the formation of the IF in November 2013, al-Khatib can be seen happily embracing al-Salah and Shaykh Ahmad Issa while at a meeting with Alloush, Issa, and al-Salah. [7]  

Al-Khatib expressed disappointment over his organization’s exclusion from the IF soon after the announcement of its formation in a letter. He asserted that he had left Syria to join other rebel commanders in planning the formation of the organization that would become the Islamic Front: 

The exclusion of Alwiya’ al-Furqan astonishes me and gave me a great shock, and obliges me to send a message to the brothers of the Shura Council of the Islamic Front and its leader Shaykh Ahmad Issa, demanding the clarification for the circumstances and reasons to exclude or freeze the membership of Alwiya al-Furqan… and to apologize before God and the people. [8] 

Al-Khatib frequently produces sermons and commentaries on the state of the Syrian revolution, Syrian society and the political machinations of its factions in addition to promoting his organization’s prowess on the battlefield. [9] In a September 2013 message attributed to al-Khatib and addressed to the “Mujahideen Rebels in Syria,” he asserted that they are building an Islamic Caliphate and that the Syrian mujahideen would need to ask themselves how they would act to emulate the behavior of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions to prepare for the Caliphate’s establishment. [10] 

Al-Khatib, although not yet of the stature of Syria’s most noted rebel commanders, is a rising leader in the Islamist armed opposition. Alwiya al-Furqan has been one of the most active armed opposition organizations in the strategic battleground around Damascus and the increasingly important fronts in southern Syria around al-Quneitra. Although a relatively young leader, his past experience working closely with Syria’s most prominent Islamist armed opposition commanders to build a unified military structure for the rebellion and his charismatic leadership style are qualities that are likely to continue to lead him to greater prominence within the Syrian armed opposition in the near future. 

Notes 

1. “Official Operations Room al-Quneitra,” Alwiya’ al-Furqan Information Office, December 2, 2013, http://alfurq4n.org/archives/1692.

2. For extensive video footage of Alwiya al-Furqan’s military activities, see the Alwiya al-Furqan YouTube page: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCdiidS1jUkBqPFvwUPvUhFA.

3. “Syrian People Channel – Alwiya al-Furqan’s Commander with Shaykh Haroun al-Zoubi,” YouTube, June 13, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8c0Pa49iPI.

4. For Muhammad Majid al-Khatib’s Facebook page, see: https://www.facebook.com/pages/%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%A6%D8%AF-%D8%A3%D9%84%D9%88%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%81%D8%B1%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%85%D8%AD%D9%85%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AE%D8%B7%D9%8A%D8%A8/634110289951151.

5. “Gathering of the Partisans of Islam in the Heart of Damascus,” YouTube, August 8, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9m_aX-NYz0.

6. “Statement-The Main Damascus Operations Room,” YouTube, September 22, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Grf-xJRHOfY#t=57.

7. “The World’s Trials Testing the Patience of the Blessed,” Alwiya al-Furqan Commander Muhammad al-Khatib Facebook Page, November 14, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/634110289951151/photos/a.678264595535720.1073741828.634110289951151/740818105947035/?type=1&theater; “They Took Up the Banners of the Nation, Spears of God in the Land,” A3lam Mansiah Facebook Page, October 1, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/AlamMnsyh2/photos/a.413126962116911.1073741828.413013525461588/492200280876245/?type=1.

8. “Message from Alwiya al-Furqan’s Commander to the Islamic Front,” al-Watan, November 20, 2013, http://watananews.net/post-70288.htm.

9. For examples, see: “Speech – Alwiya’ al-Furqan’s Commander Muhammad Majed al-Khatib on the Creation of Factionalism,” Alwiya’ al-Furqan YouTube page, February 18, 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9iPQB6qALw; “Message, Fifth Edition – Alwiya al-Furqan’s Commander Muhammad Majid al-Khatib,” Alwiya al-Furqan website, September 14, 2013, http://alfurq4n.org/archives/1578; “Speech – Alwiya al-Furqan’s Commander to the Families of the Martyrs on the Occasion of the Eid,” Alwiya al-Furqan YouTube page, August 8, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_RX5kGqh0Q.

10. “Alwiya al-Furqan’s Commander tells the Syrian People of the Caliphate,” Jazan News, April 21, 2013, http://www.jazannews.org/news.php?action=show&id=28329.

MUJAHIDEEN INDONESIA TIMUR SUB-COMMANDERS KILLED IN CENTRAL SULAWESI 

Jacob Zenn 

Indonesia’s National Police Chief, General Sutarman, announced on February 7 that two sub-commanders of Mujahideen Indonesia Timur (MIT – Mujahideen of Eastern Indonesia) were killed in Poso, Central Sulawesi (Antara News [Jakarta], February 7). MIT is led by Santoso, Indonesia’s most wanted terrorist (see Militant Leadership Monitor, August 2013). Typical of Santoso’s fighters, the two sub-commanders were targeting Indonesian police officers in an ambush, but the Mobile Brigade (Brimob) noticed irregular movements, suspected Santoso’s fighters were about to launch an attack and repelled the militants. 

According to Brigadier General Ari Dono Sukmanto, these fighters must have been in Santoso’s network because MIT is the only militant group operating in Poso. However, he is concerned that Santoso’s network is expanding to other more populated Indonesian islands, such as Java or Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo. In October 2012, for example, hackers in Santoso’s network posted a message on the East Kalimantan government website saying “You should not dare shoot and arrest our unarmed members… If you are really men, then face us” (Borneo Post, October 18, 2012; Antara News [Jakarta], February 7). 

On January 21, Indonesian anti-terror Special Detachment Densus 88 captured two MIT militants in Surabaya, Java’s second largest city (Surya Citra Televisi [Jakarta], January 21). The two men were found at a gas station with two detonation-ready homemade bombs, other bomb-making materials and several books on jihad. The Inspector General said that the militants were planning to target cafés and entertainment venues in Surabaya, including its red-light district (Surya Citra Televisi [Jakarta], January 21). 

Following the arrests in Surabaya, Indonesian police carried out operations to search for other suspected members of Santoso’s network in Madura, a small island north of Java (Tribunnews [Jakarta], January 21). While it was unclear whether any arrests were made, the security officers halted traffic on the bridge connecting Surabaya to Madura and confirmed that there were concerns about MIT militants escaping from Java to Madura (Antara News [Jakarta], January 21). 

While Santoso’s successful attacks on police officers in Indonesia have been mostly confined to Central Sulawesi and, more recently, to Jakarta, his network’s recent failed operations in Surabaya and possibly in Madura or Kalimantan suggest that Santoso may be preparing to carry out more attacks with a wider geographic reach.  With Indonesian elections scheduled for mid-2014, Santoso has a strong motivation to disrupt the vote and create insecurity to make democracy fail so people chose an Islamic state as an alternative. However, thus far, Densus 88 has managed to stay on top of Santoso’s network, while he remains at large somewhere in Central Sulawesi.