New Jihadist Group Emerges in Syria

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 12

The Syrian news agency (SANA) reported on June 9 that security authorities had been engaged in a three-hour armed confrontation resulting in the death of Abu Umar, the leader of a cell of the previously unknown Tanzim Jund al-Sham lil-Jihad wal-Tawhid, (Organization of the Army of [Greater Syria] for Jihad and Monotheism). Alongside a stash of weaponry, documents seized at the scene of the raid, at a residential apartment in southern Damascus, indicated that the new group was engaged in preparing areas in Damascus and the surrounding region for future operations and for sending its members abroad for training [].

The 42-year-old shopkeeper and leader of the group killed in the June 9 assault, Abu Umar, was a radical takfiri, anathematizing not only the Syrian state and its institutions, but also the shaykhs of mosques and the institution of the Friday prayer. The raid on the apartment follows closely on an earlier raid which first established the existence of a wide-ranging takfiri Islamist organization bearing the title Tanzim Jund al-Sham lil-Jihad wal-Tawhid, replete with publications, administrative structure and weaponry. Syria has been witness recently to a growing takfiri threat, as evidenced by the death of Sheikh Muhammad al-Khiznawi. Suspected of being tortured and killed in custody, a report by the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat indicates he died at the hands of takfiri members who claimed his death was due to ‘cultural differences’ [].

According to details given in the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, the Tanzim Jund al-Sham lil-Jihad wal-Tawhid group is said to have already divided up Syria into five zones, each constituting an ‘Islamic emirate’ with its own emir and organizational structure. However, the scope of the group was also said to extend beyond Syria’s borders to the area not only of ‘Greater Syria’ (which includes Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan) but also Iraq and Egypt []. The division of Syria into operational zones suggests an Algerian model. Algeria has been similarly divided up by the mujahideen and the close connection between members of jihadist groups in the two countries was illustrated recently by the capture at Damascus on May 25 of Sakir Adil, the Algerian webmaster of the GSPC website [].

Syrian security had been tracking the group for some time, according to some reports ever since November last year, when a member was killed attempting to plant a roadside bomb. One report states how a valuable lead came from the mother of the would-be bomber, who is said to have alerted the authorities after overhearing her widowed daughter-in-law discussing with Abu Umar using the granddaughter as a live bomb.

The obscurity surrounding the group provoked speculation as to whether its existence was a fabrication of the Syrian secret services, designed to curry favor abroad and improve the regime’s image as a ‘victim’ of terrorism. However, a Saudi analyst writing for Al-Hayat highlighted how the group’s name goes back to 1999 and Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s training camp, which he set up in the western Afghan city of Herat. The name ‘Jund al-Sham’ dates from this time and indicated the future theatre of action envisaged by the group. The analyst focuses on the nature of the doctrinal literature discovered in the raided apartment. In particular on the use of the Qur’anic verse: “Fight those of the disbelievers who are near to you, and let them find harshness in you” [IX:123] as opposed to the emblematic sura used by bin Laden: “Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you” [II:190] [ and].

The group should be distinguished from others bearing similar names, such as Tanzim Jund al-Sham that claimed responsibility for the bombing at the Doha theatre in Qatar in March, or the Jund al-Sham that operated in the Ain al-Helwa Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and which claimed the killing of a Hezbollah member.