In a statement released on March 23, the newly-formed Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) in Iraq announced that on the previous day a combatant from the “Abu Dujana al-Ansari Brigade” (a unit affiliated to any one of the seven insurgent organizations comprising the MSC) detonated a car near six U.S. Humvees in Amiriyat al-Falujah (on the outskirts Fallujah). The statement claims the attack resulted in “high casualties” (http://albayanat.blogspot.com/2006/03/2332006-1.html).
This attack, alongside many others in March, has focused attention on the MSC as a possible grand coalition of hitherto divided Iraqi insurgents. On January 15, Abu Maysara al-Iraqi, the official spokesman of Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq, announced the formation of the “Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen fi al-Iraq” (Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq), ostensibly a coalition of six insurgent organizations (http://albayanat.blogspot.com/2006/03/14-3-2006-1.html). In its first statement the MSC declared its intention “to liberate Iraq from occupation, to unite and direct all mujahideen efforts and to raise the flag of Islam and Sunnah.”
The MSC was joined two weeks later by a seventh coalition partner, a group calling itself “Jaish Ahlul Sunna wa al-Jamma.” While declarations of unity and coalition-building has been a pronounced feature of the Iraqi insurgency since late 2003, the MSC ranks as the broadest coalition to date.
The MSC includes the following insurgent organizations: al-Qaeda in Iraq, “Jaish al-Taifa al-Mansourah” (Victorious Sect Army), “Saraye Ansar al-Tawhid” (Ansar al-Tawhid Platoons), “Saraya al-Jihad al-Islami” (Islamic Jihad Platoons), “Saraya al-Ghoraba” (the Strangers Platoons), “Kitaeb al-Ahwal (the Calamities Brigades) and “Jaish Ahlul Sunna wa al-Jamma” (Army of Ahlul Sunna wa al Jamma).
At first glance all these organizations appear to be in the Salafi-jihadi orbit and distinctly separate from the Iraqi nationalist resistance. “Al Taifa al-Mansourah” (Victorious Sect) is a classic Salafi designation that is often employed in war. Both Ansar al-Tawhid and Jihad al-Islami are oft-used Salafi-jihadi martial terminologies. Yet the latter is also used by militant Shiites (most notably in Lebanon) and is also the name of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is not Salafi. “Al-Ghoraba” (the Strangers) is a cryptic term alluding to the Salafis’ belief that Islam is led to victory by a very small core of dedicated elites who remain anonymous. In other words they are not effusive about their service and sacrifice. While “Kitaeb al-Ahwal” (the Calamities Brigades) is not an immediately Salafi-jihadi designation, it corresponds to the jihadis’ methods of creating fear and terror in the ranks of their enemies. Finally “Ahlul Sunna wa al-Jamma” is perhaps the most classic Salafi designation, having been appropriated by dozens of organizations around the world.
The central questions revolve around how real this coalition is and whether the declaration of unity is of any consequence to the evolution of the insurgency. An Iraqi source (who wishes to remain anonymous) told Terrorism Focus that only Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq is a widely recognized organization; the others (with the exception of Jaish al-Taifa al-Mansourah) are largely unknown. This does not mean, however, that the names are fictitious, but that the organizations are very small, perhaps not exceeding “a few dozen members.” The smaller organizations are believed to be mostly operating in the southern fringes of Salahudin province and the northern periphery of Nineveh province (particularly in and around Mosul).
While the MSC appears to be overwhelmingly dominated by the Zarqawi network, the declaration of unity—at the very least—points toward the existence of small Salafi-jihadi groups, hitherto independent of al-Qaeda. It could also indicate a tactical ploy by al-Qaeda in Iraq to downplay its centrality to the Salafi-jihadi wing of the insurgency (at a time when sectarian tensions in Iraq are reaching dangerous levels) and provide disproportionate media coverage to small and obscure insurgent groups. Whether this leads to the strengthening of these small Salafi-jihadi networks (and hence to the widening and deepening of Salfi-jihadis’ influence in Iraq) remains to be seen, but Zarqawi’s stature among jihadis both in Iraq and beyond is unlikely to diminish in the foreseeable future.
A review of the MSC’s most recent statements regarding its “military wing’s” operations provides an insight into the scope and effectiveness of its operations. These statements all appear on http://albayanat.blogspot.com, http://www.buraydahcity.net, and http://www.la7odood.com :
March 12: MSC claims its units downed two Apache helicopters south of Baghdad. The first Apache was allegedly shot down in the al-Qaraghol district on March 7. The second was allegedly shot down in the Yousofiyeh district on March 8.
March 11: MSC claims it assassinated Amjad Hamid Hassan (a director at al-Iraqiyah national TV), alongside an unnamed accomplice, on March 11, in the al-Khadraa district of Baghdad.
March 11: MSC claims its military wing attacked a “Crusader’s base” in Baqoubah with 60 mm mortars.
March 10: MSC alleges that it destroyed a police car on the way to Shahraban (Diyala). It reports “death and injuries.”
Marc 8: MSC claims to have destroyed a U.S. Humvee in Baghdad’s western Zoba’a district, on the motorway to Abu Ghraib and Fallujah.
March 6: MSC claims it destroyed an articulated lorry ferrying supplies to the U.S. military, on the left side of the river Tigris in Mosul. The attack occurred in the al-Arabi district on March 6.
March 5: MSC announces it assassinated a police captain on the right side of the river Tigris in Mosul.
While the effectiveness of these operations may be exaggerated, there is no doubt that dozens of such operations are launched against coalition and Iraqi targets on a daily basis by a wide array of insurgent organizations. It is also interesting that the MSC is careful to publicize attacks against U.S. and Iraqi security forces and hence re-focus attention on the struggle against the continuing foreign military presence. This comes at a time when generalized sectarian violence threatens to eclipse the so-called Iraqi “resistance.”