Kata’ib al-Farouq al-Islamiya: A Key Armed Opposition Group in the Battle to Cut Assad Off from Damascus

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 18

Kata’ib al-Farouq al-Islamiya (KFI – Islamic al-Farouq Brigades) is a newly formed Syrian Islamist armed opposition group that constitutes an important faction within the powerful umbrella rebel organization Jabhat Tahrir Suria al-Islamiya (SILF-Syrian Islamic Liberation Front). This fighting group is currently growing in public visibility as part of an important armed opposition campaign in the strategic central-western Syrian governorates of Homs and Hama. As part of the SILF, the KFI is nominally seeking to defeat the al-Assad government, secure the unity and independence of Syria as a distinct entity and to utilize Islamic law as a reference point for governance. [1] 

The group was started by fighters who once belonged to the national umbrella armed opposition organization Kata’ib al-Farouq. Osama Juneidi, the commander of Kata’ib al-Farouq, stated that the KFI split from its parent organization under the leadership of local religious figure Shaykh Amjad al-Bitar, who had joined Kata’ib al-Farouq through the support of some expatriate and clerical supporters of the movement. Shaykh al-Bitar, who according to Juneidi was not a senior commander in Kata’ib al-Farouq, had disagreements with the leadership of the organization and decided to voluntarily leave Kata’ib al-Farouq and form the KFI with members of Kata’ib al-Farouq that supported him, including some brigades of local Sunni Arab tribesmen (for more information on Osama Juneidi see Militant Leadership Monitor, August 2013). [2] 

In spite of this separation, the KFI remains an ally of Kata’ib al-Farouq in the SILF. [3] The association of the group with the SILF is an integral part of its identity formation and its logo is the same green spiked-shield of the SILF, with the name “Kata’ib al-Farouq al-Islamiya” written upon it. Through its official media content, the movement positions itself as a pious Islamist fighting organization waging jihad against the Assad government. Kata’ib al-Farouq fighters are referred to as mujahideen (those waging jihad) and are shown in prayer before battle. In some of its media content, KFI fighters wave the black flag of jihad, and display the jihadist flag popularized by the Islamic State of Iraq. [4] The group also depicts itself as a professionally-organized military force with a strong esprit de corps grounded in Islamic piety. The group’s media shows its fighters in control of substantial military hardware, including tanks and rockets mounted in pick-up trucks. [5] 

Beyond the spiritual guidance of Shaykh Amjad al-Bitar, the group appears to have several military leaders. At the present time, there is no known or cited estimate for the number of fighters that belong to KFI. A review of the social media content produced by the organization indicates that it might have a fighting force of hundreds of fighters, a number of whom appear to be defected Syrian soldiers.    

The KFI officially released its first video in late March and purports to depict its fighters at an undisclosed location firing upon a Syrian military aircraft from the back of a pick-up truck. [6] The KFI has steadily increased the frequency of its participation in attacks against the Syrian military and its armed auxiliaries in the areas east of the Syrian cities of Homs and Hama. The KFI first gained notoriety in the Arabic language press for its role in freeing four foreign nationals (Ukrainian, Moldovan and Dominican) from an alleged opposition paramilitary operating in eastern Hama governorate. The KFI alleged that the kidnappers were actually agents of the Assad regime from Lebanon who intended to execute their prisoners in order to frame the armed opposition for their deaths (al-Jazeera [Doha], June 17).   

Currently, the KFI portrays itself as one of the most active opposition organizations in two multi-faction rebel campaigns in western Syria: 

  • The recent Ma’rakat al-Jasad al-Wahad (One Body Battle), which was launched at the end of April in the fertile al-Ghab plain region of western Syria that includes southwestern Idlib, northern Hama and southwestern Lattakia governorates.
  • Inspired by the Ma’rakat al-Jasad al-Wahad is the ongoing Ma’rakat Qadimun (Coming Battle) which is developing in the semi-arid steppe-land district of Salamiyya in eastern Hama governorate and the desert districts of al-Mukharram and Tidmur northeast of the city of Homs in eastern Homs governorate. The Ma’rakat al-Jasad al-Wahad was proclaimed by several armed opposition factions, including constituent brigades of the national umbrella organizations Harakat Ahrar al-Sham (Movement of the Freemen of the Levant) and Alwiyya Ahfaad al-Rasul (Descendants of the Prophet), Liwa al-Haqq (Divine Truth Brigade), and member groups of the SILF including Suqur al-Sham (Falcons of the Levant), Liwa al-Tawhid (Holy Unity Brigade) and the KFI. The campaign is intended as a means of coordinating a rebel-led retaliation against the government of Bashar al-Assad in response to the massacres of 248 Sunni Muslim civilians in the western coastal city of Banias and its suburb of al-Bayda in April. [7] 

Rebel fighters participating in Ma’rakat Qadimun have stated that they are seeking to prevent the formation of a dawlat nusayriya (Alawite State) and are attempting to cut off the Syrian military in Homs and Hama from Damascus by seizing parts of the inter-governorate M5 Highway that links the capital to pro-government regions of coastal western Syria and the M3 Highway that links the Syrian military-controlled outpost in the central desert city of Palmyra to Homs. The rebels are also seeking to liberate the cities of Homs and Hama and their hinterlands from the control of government forces. [8] The KFI has received increased attention as a result of its active participation in the Ma’rakat Qadimun and its recent success in seizing territory from the Syrian military in eastern Hama governorate. 

These multi-factional battlefronts are intended to apply pressure to the core, western governorates where the Assad government might form an Alawite-led statelet in the event that it loses control over Damascus and is forced to contract its rule. Although a relatively new armed opposition group, the KFI has firmly placed itself into the order of battle of the SILF. A great test of the offensive capabilities and the asabiya (social solidarity) of the constituent organizations participating in the Ma’rakat Qadimun, including the KFI, has yet to come as this campaign has not yet mounted a significant challenge to the Assad regime’s control of the strategic Damascus-Homs corridor and its environs. 

Nicholas A. Heras is an independent analyst and consultant on Middle East issues and a former David L. Boren Fellow. 

Notes 

1. Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, “Who are we?” http://syrialiberationfront.net/%D9%85%D9%86-%D9%86%D8%AD%D9%86-%D8%9F-2/.

2. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJIda5B1QHU.

3. Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, “Components of the Front,” http://syrialiberationfront.net/%D9%85%D9%83%D9%88%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D8%A8%D9%87%D8%A9/.

4. Kata’ib al-Farouq al-Islamiya YouTube Page, “The Prayer Before Going Out for the Battle,” May 29, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdCCEZnwqvk; Kata’ib al-Farouq al-Islamiya YouTube Page, “Kata’ib al-Farouq al-Islamiya Mujahideen,” April 26, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmvYHBcGgvg&desktop_uri=%252Fwatch%253Fv%253DwmvYHBcGgvg&app=desktop; Kata’ib al-Farouq al-Islamiya YouTube Page, “Friday Sermon to the Mujahideen of Kata’ib al-Farouq al-Islamiya in an Underground Trench,” June 8, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhjcviNo5uA.

5. Kata’ib al-Farouq al-Islamiya YouTube Page, “Rejoicing Mujahideen Heroes on Tanks Looted from the Village Salba,” June 4, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FTn_1hV3e0; Kata’ib al-Farouq al-Islamiya YouTube Page “Kata’ib al-Farouq al-Islamiya and Kata’ib al-Islam Repel a Night Convoy in Hama Countryside,” May 16, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6cdpk–LPTA.

6. Kata’ib al-Farouq al-Islamiya YouTube Page, “Kata’ib al-Farouq al-Islamiya Addressing the Surveillance Aircraft,” March 27, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fiOEqzL18r8.

7. For the Banias and al-Bayda massacres see “No One’s Left: Summary Executions by Syrian Forces in al-Bayda and Baniyas,” Human Rights Watch, September 13, 2013, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2013/09/13/no-one-s-left-0; For the motivation behind the launching of the Ma’rakat al-Jasad al-Wahad see “Statement of the Beginning of the First Stage of the One Body Battle,” Ma’rakat al-Jasad al-Wahad YouTube page, April 23, 2013, Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=srdCUThjrvY; For updates on the ongoing Ma’rakat Qadmun, refer to the “Ma’rakat Qadmoon” Facebook Page, https://www.facebook.com/Alqadmoon.Combat.

8. Syrian opposition media sources have been covering the developing Ma’rakat Qadimun campaign in some depth. See: Coordinating the Eastern Hama Countryside YouTube page, “Ali Muhammad: Report on the Town of ‘Aqreebat, Liberated in the ‘Coming Battle’ and the Humanitarian Situation Resulting from the Bombing,” September 11, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qHTb20U3DU&desktop_uri=%252Fwatch%253Fv%253D1qHTb20U3DU&app=desktop; Faroq Syria YouTube page, “Orient News-‘Coming Battle’-Eastern Hama Countryside-Kata’ib al-Farouq in Syria,” August 28, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_t2ro_TNGs&desktop_uri=%252Fwatch%253Fv%253Dh_t2ro_TNGs&app=desktop; Orient News YouTube page, “Orient News: Progress of the Revolutionaries in the ‘Coming Battle’ to Lift the Siege of Homs,” August 25, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9kLUT4LDy8&desktop_uri=%252Fwatch%253Fv%253DN9kLUT4LDy8&app=desktop.