With so many actors in the Iraqi insurgent theater, it is hard to keep track of the various permutations of militant Islamic groups and their alliances. It is going to become all the more difficult given recent splits and conflicts between and within indigenous Iraqi groups and al-Qaeda affiliates. The violence in Iraq has not abated, but the cohesiveness of the insurgency is certainly challenged. Iraqi insurgents are concerned about this given the recent fissure of a prominent indigenous group, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, and the fighting between al-Qaeda and their former allies within the Sunni Arab tribes. All militant groups within Iraq have been frantically calling for unity and insisting that recent splits are amicable, while al-Qaeda has been aggressively and violently demanding allegiance from all involved. Despite their best efforts, the Iraqi insurgency continues to splinter.
1920 Revolution Brigades Splits over Islamic State of Iraq
The most obvious example was the mid March announcement by the 1920 Revolution Brigades that they have split into two groups—one retaining the name of the 1920 Revolution Brigades, and the other calling itself Hamas-Iraq. The division was not just the result of internal disputes within the organization, but also accelerated by disagreements over the group’s relationship with al-Qaeda (al-Hayat, March 31).
On March 27, for example, the leader of the 1920 Revolution Brigades, Harith Dhahir Khamis al-Dari, was killed by al-Qaeda for his reported negotiations with the government and his refusal to pledge allegiance to al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq (https://mohajroon.com, March 27; Terrorism Focus, April 10). While members of his tribe and the 1920 Revolution Brigades denied that he had any dealings with the government, it turns out that the off-shoot organization, Hamas-Iraq, is advocating more political activity, perhaps even modeling itself after the original Palestinian organization Hamas (https://mohajroon.com, April). The 1920 Revolution Brigades, however, denounced strongly Hamas-Iraq’s advocacy of political participation and defended the Islamic State of Iraq. The recent debate in Iraq mirrors the larger disagreement that Ayman al-Zawahiri had with the Palestinian Hamas, in which he criticized their participation in elections (https://muslim.net/vb, March 12).
Islamic Army in Iraq Ridicules Al-Qaeda
The elements of the 1920 Revolution Brigades that are now Hamas-Iraq are not the only ones to have quarreled with al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq. The Islamic Army and Baathist elements within the insurgency, along with tribes making up the al-Anbar Salvation Council, have also conflicted with al-Qaeda (Terrorism Focus, March 28, 2006). The Islamic State of Iraq has come out so forcefully against those who have not submitted allegiance to its leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi that it has created a backlash within indigenous elements of the Iraqi insurgency who resent al-Qaeda co-opting their indigenous struggle for global Islamic goals in which they do not necessarily believe.
In a lengthy statement posted on their website in April, the Islamic Army accused al-Qaeda of killing many of its members and of being behind attempts to discredit the Islamic Army within the insurgency. They even accused al-Qaeda of operating outside the bounds of Islamic law and robbing and killing innocent Sunni civilians. They refuted Abu Omar al-Baghdadi’s claim that the Islamic State of Iraq is the most powerful force operating in the insurgency and claimed that al-Qaeda has killed members of other insurgent groups like Ansar al-Sunna and the Mujahideen Army (https://iaisite.info).
The Islamic Army’s posting states that al-Qaeda rushed to label fellow Muslims as infidels without clear proof and calls on the “leaders of al-Qaeda, especially Osama bin Laden…to purify his faith and honor…it is not enough to declare disavowal of these deeds, but to correct their path” (https://iaisite.info). It is significant that the Islamic Army, after remaining silent about its disputes with al-Qaeda, is now choosing to go public. It even defended its position of being open to negotiating with the coalition under certain circumstances. In fact, the Islamic Army has become so disenchanted that it is now reported by Iraqi government sources that it is also bringing in other insurgent groups like the al-Rashidin Army, the Umar Brigades and the Black Banners to join the fight against al-Qaeda (al-Quds al-Arabi, April 2).
Baathist elements of the insurgency have also come out against al-Qaeda in Iraq. On March 18, al-Jazeera carried an interview by Dr. Abu Mohamed, spokesman for the Baath Party in Iraq. On al-Jazeera, Mohamed denied any relationship with al-Qaeda, saying, “their doctrine, vision and strategy differ from those of the Baath Party and remaining national resistance factions.” The Baath Party has quarreled publicly with the Mujahideen Army and the Islamic Army in Iraq, who resent the Baath Party inflating their role within the insurgency. Both groups have issued statements on their websites and on jihadi forums diminishing the role of the Baath Party and their relationship to it, prompting a rebuttal by Baath leaders (al-Basrah.net, March 24).
Ansar al-Sunna, a powerful group within the insurgency and with past ties to al-Qaeda, has cautioned the insurgent groups against airing their disagreements publicly, warning Iraqis that reports of division are a new deceptive tactic by the Iraqi government and coalition forces (Terrorism Monitor, December 20, 2005). Abu Abdullah, a leader within Ansar al-Sunna, stated that the U.S. and Iraqi governments “found they were left with no other option but to resort to deception, misguidance and playing with words through the media” (Islamic Renewal Organization, March 30). At the same time, Ansar al-Sunna has responded to recent statements that it has allied with the Islamic State in Iraq and denied reports that it has joined a “coordination group” made up of other insurgent elements. Ansar al-Sunna’s message is inconsistent in that it calls for unity, while it has fiercely retained its independence from other groups operating in the Iraqi theater.
Elements of the Iraqi insurgency routinely deny their contacts with the government and downplay the significance of splits within their respective organizations, saying they are for operational expediency. It is in their interest to maintain a public front of unity in many regards. Firstly, many insurgent groups deny contacts with the government so as not to jeopardize their jihadi credentials. Secondly, while divisions within the insurgency are very real, they do not want to air out their dirty laundry in public, believing that it will weaken their position vis-à-vis the government and coalition forces if they are believed to be capitulating. Critical statements of other groups are often couched under the banner of “advice.” Thirdly, insurgent groups, regardless of their internal differences, want to portray reports of their splits as coalition propaganda attempts, revealing the Iraqi government’s weak position, not their own. Nevertheless, divisions within the insurgency cannot be denied and present a critical opportunity for both the Iraqi government and coalition forces to exploit these divisions effectively.