ABU AYMAN AL-IRAQI DIRECTS ISIS OPERATIONS IN EASTERN SYRIA
Nicholas A. Heras
Recent reports from Syrian activists indicate that the militant Salafist armed organization Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has withdrawn its fighters from their positions in the Jabal al-Akrad (Kurds’ Mountain) region of Latakia and Idlib governorates in northwestern Syria, near the Syrian-Turkish border. The ISIS fighters are believed to be moving to areas of eastern Aleppo governorate and Raqqa governorate that are under the control of the militant Salafist movement in order to consolidate ISIS’ positions in those areas (Reuters, March 14). The reported withdrawal from the Jabal al-Akrad region follows several months of fighting between ISIS and Syrian armed opposition groups in the region, including with constituent militias of the armed opposition coalition al-Jabhat al-Islamiya (Islamic Front-IF), the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front-JN) (Zaman Alwasl [Damascus], February 13; al-Safir [Beirut], February 11).
Hostility toward ISIS in the Jabal al-Akrad region has been long simmering. In November 2013, several Syrian armed opposition organizations demanded that ISIS withdraw from Latakia governorate, asserting that ISIS was not abiding by its agreements not to attack members of the other armed opposition organizations in the region (Asharq al-Awsat, November 17, 2013). The armed opposition groups hostile to ISIS in the region also called for the surrender of the ISIS commander in the Jabal al-Akrad region, Abu Ayman al-Iraqi (a.k.a. “Abu Muhannad al-Suweidawi”) (Asharq al-Awsat, November 17, 2013).
Called “Criminal,” by armed opposition groups opposed to ISIS, Abu Ayman al-Iraqi has developed a notorious reputation for brutality in the Jabal al-Akrad region (al-Safir [Beirut], February 11). Enemies of ISIS in the Syrian armed opposition assert that al-Iraqi personally assassinated a locally popular FSA commander named Abu Basir al-Ladkani in July 2013 as well as Shakyh Jalal Baerli, an ethnic Turkmen religious figure and local political opposition leader. Shaykh Jalal was reported to have been assassinated by al-Iraqi while the Shakyh was mediating a prisoner exchange between ISIS and several other armed opposition factions (al-Quds al-Arabi, March 17; The Majalla [London], January 16; Asharq al-Awsat, December 20, 2013). Al-Iraqi is also alleged by a former Saudi jihadist to have ordered the killing of non-Muslim children in Latakia governorate (New York Times, January 7).
Al-Iraqi is considered to be one of ISIS’ most important commanders and a close adviser to the organization’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (al-Akhbar [Beirut], January 14). Iraq’s deputy interior minister, Adnan al-Asadi, stated in a recent interview that al-Iraqi was a former colonel in the Iraqi Air Defense intelligence branch during the Saddam Hussein government who became an insurgent fighter during the Coalition presence in Iraq. He was imprisoned from 2007 to 2010 and following his release from prison he is believed to have fled to Syria, where he joined ISIS (al-Arabiya [Dubai], February 13).
ISIS’ reported re-entrenchment in Aleppo and Raqqa governorates through the withdrawal of fighters from regions of the country such as Jabal al-Akrad is likely to have significant consequences in the Syrian Civil War. A consolidated and strengthened ISIS presence in the central-eastern Raqqa governorate, where the capital city of Raqqa is under the control of ISIS, will allow the organization an opportunity to expand its presence in eastern Aleppo governorate, particularly in the district of Manbij, close to ISIS-controlled districts in Raqqa governorate and to seek control over strategic and contested Aleppo governorate cities, including al-Bab, east of Aleppo city. Assuming that an internal dispute between Abu Ayman al-Iraqi and ISIS commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi does not develop into open conflict within the organization, the presence of an experienced, if reportedly brutal, field commander in the form of al-Iraqi should benefit ISIS’ efforts to protect its holdings in Raqqa and to combat its enemies in the Syrian armed opposition for control over the strategic Aleppo governorate.
SOUTHERN PHILIPPINES MILITANT ISLAMIST MOVEMENT EXPELS VICE-CHAIRMAN
Nicholas A. Heras
The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF, a.k.a. Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement [BIFM]), a southern Philippines militant Islamist armed organization that is a splinter group of the powerful southern Philippines political and militant organization the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), is reported to have expelled its vice-chairman, Muhammad Ali Tambako, because it believes he ordered the beheading of a farmer in September 2013 (Associated Press, February 18). BIFF broke away from MILF in 2008 over doctrinal and political disputes and the group is reported to have between 300-500 fighters primarily located in Cotabato province of the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao (AP, February 18; al-Jazeera [Doha], January 27).
BIFF rejects the proposed peace agreement between the Philippine government and the MILF that would end fighting between the two and lead to the establishment of a Muslim-majority “Autonomous Government of Bangsamoro” region based in the central-western provinces of the island of Mindanao (GMA News [Quezon City], February 4; Rappler [Pasig City], October 7, 2012). BIFF fighters and the Philippine military have clashed repeatedly since the group’s founding, including a recent, large Philippines military and security campaign against BIFF in Cotabato and the western Maguindanao provinces on the island of Mindanao (Manila Times, January 31; al-Jazeera [Doha], January 27). Philippine security forces state that BIFF cooperated with the militant Salafist organization Abu Sayyaf, listed by the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, in a series of armed attacks against the Philippine military on the island province of Basilan west of Mindanao (GMA News [Quezon City], September 12, 2013).
Tambako, believed to be a native of Maguindanao province on the island of Mindanao, is reported to have studied Shari’a in Khartoum, Sudan and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, earning a doctorate in Islamic jurisprudence. He is reported to be militantly Islamist in his ideological outlook (Philippine Daily Inquirer [Makati City], August 21, 2012). It is stated that he did not possess a military background before joining BIFF and he had frequently served as the interim leader of the organization due to illness experienced by the group’s elderly leader, Ameril Umra Kato.  Tambako is reported to have been nearly assassinated in February 2012 by an IED targeting his convoy on its way to a public Islamic studies symposium in the province of Maguindanao (Rappler [Pasig City], October 7, 2012). Kato, Tambako, and more than 100 other members of BIFF are wanted by the Philippine National Police and Criminal Investigation and Detection Unit for crimes including murder, kidnapping and robbery targeting civilians in Mindanao (Daily Tribune [Manila], February 1). Philippine authorities also allege that BIFF leaders, including Tambako, used child soldiers taken from farming communities in Cotabato and Maguindanao provinces (Philippine Star [Manila], February 20).
The removal of Tambako from his position is believed to have been the result of significant pressure put on the BIFF due to its reported connections to Abu Sayyaf (Associated Press, February 18). Although BIFF is a small armed organization at the present time, it has demonstrated that it can create instability in Cotabato and Maguindanao provinces, both of which would be core areas in the proposed Autonomous Government in Bangsamoro. Tambako, reported to be both younger and a more radical ideologue than Ameril Umra Kato, could re-emerge as an important member of another Islamist militant group in the southern Philippines, including Abu Sayyaf, or be re-integrated back into BIFF if the organization feels that he has demonstrated proper contrition for the crime with which he has been charged.
1. “A Day with the Mujahideen of the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters)-2,” TheUnjustMedia.com, April 24, 2012, http://theunjustmedia.com/Islamic%20Perspectives/april12/A%20Day%20With%20The%20Mujahideen%20Of%20The%20BIFF%20%28Bangsamoro%20Islamic%20Freedom%20Fighters%29%20-%202.htm