Profiling Ansar al-Islam: Kurdish Jihadists Threatening Russian Forces in Syria
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 8
Ansar al-Islam (AAI) is a jihadist group that formed in September 2001 in Iraqi Kurdistan from the merger of two small groups: Jund al-Islam, which was then led by Abu Abdullah al-Shafi’i, and a splinter group of the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan, which was led by Mullah Krekar. In time, Krekar would become AAI’s leader. AAI initially comprised around 300 fighters, who were mostly Kurdish veterans of the 1980s war against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan, operating in the Mosul and Kirkuk areas independently for more than a decade, despite having clear links to al-Qaeda. The group also took part in the insurgency against the Iraqi central government until 2011.
With the rise of the Islamic State (IS) and some defections within its ranks in 2014, AAI’s leadership decided to expand, standing up a new branch in Syria in February 2015. The Syrian branch was concentrated particularly around Damascus and Quneitra, absorbing into its ranks some Syrian Islamist brigades in those areas (SyriaTV, June 25, 2022). Later, these fighters moved between the Idlib governorate and the northern countryside of Latakia (Ennabaladi, May 9, 2020). Three years later, in the second part of 2017, AAI conducted numerous rocket attacks against pro-government Shia militias in the Hamrin Mountains area between the governorates of Salah al-Din, Diyala, and Kirkuk in Iraq (ArabNews, December 14, 2017).
One year later, in September 2018, the Syrian branch of AAI joined the “Rouse the Believers Operations Room” along with other groups close to al-Qaeda, Hurras al-Din, Ansar al-Tawhid, and Ansar al-Din Front to oppose any attempt to demilitarize northwestern Syria; this had previously been stipulated by the Russian-Turkish agreements signed that same month in Sochi (Ennabaladi, July 4, 2019). However, it was not until October 30, 2019, that AAI claimed its most recent attack in Iraq. AAI attacked a Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) vehicle in Diyala governorate, northeastern Iraq with an improvised explosives device (IED) (Al-Ansar Media, October 30, 2019).
Since 2021, the group has operated completely independently and has clashed several times with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), leading HTS to arrest some of AAI’s leaders (The New Arab, May 22).  However, HTS did not dismantle AAI either because it was not able to, with AAI showing too much resilience and resistance, or because the group indirectly assists HTS by fighting the Syrian army. To that point, since February 2022, AAI has begun to strike Syrian government targets—and has become the most active group in Syria attacking the government’s Russian allies.
AAI Media, Objectives, and Operations
AAI’s official media channel is Al-Ansar Media, which disseminates various types of material, in particular video and photo reports showing military operations, training, claims of military operations, and summary infographics. Over the past years, Al-Ansar Media released several products, including:
- Three propaganda videos, including “So Flee to God,” which quickly retraced events of the last 11 years of the Syrian war and then showed the most important military operations conducted over the preceding decade in Syria (Al-Ansar Media, September 26, 2022). There was also another video announcing the launch of a program entitled “Series of Insights for the Mujahid: Asking for Knowledge.” The last and most important was the third video, which was about 8 minutes long and was released on January 29, 2023. In the video, which was entitled “The Battle between Disbelief and Faith: No Peace,” the group rejected any possibility of reconciliation with the government of Bashar al-Assad and promised to continue the struggle (Al-Ansar Media, January 29).
- Two training videos, the first of which showed the training and education of AAI youths between the ages of 10 and 18, showing scenes which highlighted the study of the Quran and the discussion of local history and politics (Al-Ansar Media, November 5, 2022). The second was entitled “Invisible Soldiers” and showed the operations of the group’s snipers (Al-Ansar Media, July 5, 2022).
- Five videos claiming operations conducted against the Syrian army and their Russian allies, the first of which was published in January 2022 and called “Targeting the Enemy Stronghold in Goren and Around” (Al-Ansar Media, January 3). The last was published in November 2022 (Al-Ansar Media, November 17, 2022).
- 35 statements claiming attacks against the Syrian army, allied militias, and Russian forces in the Hama, Latakia, and Idlib governates. 
- Six high-quality photo reports showing a celebration of the Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha holidays, the training of fighters (including children) in the use of weapons in ribat (the act of guarding fortresses), artillery attacks, and sniper operations in the Latakia, Hama, and Aleppo governorates (Al-Ansar Media, September 26, 2022).
- Two infographics to summarize operations, with the first published in September 2022 to claim all operations conducted by the group in the previous three months (Al-Ansar Media, September 28, 2022). The second infographic released in early March 2023 showed the results of its sniper operations carried out from January 23 to March 2. The infographic showed 15 dead and wounded among the ranks of the Syrian government army and the areas of AAI sniper activity in the Idlib, Aleppo, and Latakia governorates (Al-Ansar Media, March 9).
The initial membership of AAI was mainly comprised of Kurdish Iranians, Syrians, and Iraqis. However, during the years of its Syrian operations, it began to include Arab Iraqis, Turks, Saudis, Yemenis, and many Syrian Arab fighters. Previously, the leadership of the group also consisted mainly of Kurdish and Iraqi commanders, but now their leaders are mostly Iranian and Syrian Kurds.
In terms of numbers, AAI fields between 250 and 350 fighters, who are highly trained veterans; many have high levels of experience operating due to their years fighting in the Iraqi insurgency after 2003 and the Syrian conflict since 2015. Also fielded by AAI are veterans from other jihadist groups, such as Junud al-Sham and Hurras al-Din, or Islamist rebel groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham. The leader of AAI in Syria appears to be Abu al-Hassan al-Kurdi, an Iranian Kurd, and his deputies are Abu Saeed al-Kurdi, also an Iranian Kurd, and Abu Abdullah al-Kurdi (al-Mejas, July 18, 2022). Further, in AAI’s leadership there is an Iraqi who is also named Abu al-Hassan al-Kurdi and is in Syria. This figure never appears in propaganda or on the battlefield, and adopts very strict security measures by only interfacing in person with the rest of the top leadership, eschewing the use of any electronic devices.  Although AAI’s leadership is all in Syria, it has maintained contacts and a logistical network with its cells in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Rival Relations with HTS
Originally, when AAI was formed, the group’s objective was to carry out armed jihad to expel Jews and Christians from Kurdistan, and to govern the region through the strict application of sharia law, which would also protect Kurds’ rights (Ansar Media Center, March 20, 2003). After officially moving to Syria, and especially following the clashes with IS, around 50 commanders and fighters left AAI to join IS. AAI then became more tolerant, moderate, and attentive to relations with the local population; this drove the group to reshape its military objectives and make changes in its structure and leadership. Due to this reorganization and reorientation, the group was able win recruits, establish more brigades, and increase the tempo of military operations. Since 2017, AAI has stopped supporting operations outside Syria altogether, and since 2020, it no longer supports al-Qaeda operations either. AAI has grown increasingly independent in terms of propaganda, operations, and decision-making since 2021. This is especially pronounced by January 2022.
HTS wanted to dismantle AAI between 2021 and 2022 for AAI’s refusal to swear allegiance to their group or at least to align with its directives, and thus arrested several AAI senior leaders, as previously mentioned (The New Arab, May 22; SyriaTV, June 25). Nevertheless, HTS failed in its objective and only succeeded in limiting the operations of Ansar al-Islam. HTS decided to avoid entering a full military confrontation with AAI because AAI enjoys popularity in many of HTS’s operating areas. Moreover, AAI is no longer an excessively rigid and extremist group, and has avoided local internal rebel or intra-jihadist struggles. 
AAI’s strongholds, leadership headquarters, and training camps are all distributed in different areas of Syria, but especially in Jisr al-Shughour, the western part of Idlib governorate, the Kurdish area of Dweir within the al-Ghab plain area, the western part of Hama governorate, and Jabal al-Turkman in the north-east of Latakia governorate. Iraqi cells of AAI are in and around the villages of Biyara and Tawela and northeast of the town of Halabja in the Hawraman region of Sulaimaniya province, which is itself on the border with Iran. Since February 2022, AAI has been conducting military operations against Russia’s interests in the country, particularly at Syrian military posts and checkpoints where Russian soldiers are present.
AAI’s military operations and propaganda pass through alternating phases. In the first, they conduct numerous attacks of different types and then publish media material. In the second, the group is silent, not conducting attacks for periods as long as several weeks. The group has had to face several difficult moments, splits, and losses, but has always managed to reorganize itself, renounce its extreme components, and reshape the leadership of the group. The most delicate moment in AAI’s history was between May and July 2022, when its leadership faced arrest by HTS and its territory was under assault by HTS offensives. AAI, however, has shown resilience and has forged strong relationships with local communities and clans to gain their support and loyalty. This is largely due to the aid it provides to these communities, as well as their increasing moderation and policy of relative non-interference in local affairs.
In military terms, AAI combines experience with constant ideological, religious, and military training. Its snipers are among the deadliest of jihadist forces in Syria. Moreover, AAI was the first jihadist group to realize the weakness of Damascus’ Russian ally on the Syrian front after the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, and thus intensified its attacks against Russian military personnel. As the strongest military supporter of the al-Assad government, Russia, with the invasion of Ukraine, has had to shift its focus away from Syria in terms military personnel and equipment, at least in part.
AAI hopes that by increasing attacks and pressure against Russian positions or personnel, a Russian military disengagement (in particular, they hope to cut support from the Russian Air Force) in northern Syria may follow. This would give AAI opportunities to militarily engage with the Syrian army and pro-government militias from a position of relative strength. Therefore, AAI should not be underestimated in analytical and security terms when assessing Syria’s jihadist and counterinsurgency environment, both in terms of external actors and the local and regional security environment.
 Members arrested by the HTS General Security Service include Abu al-Darda al-Kurdi, Abu Abdul Rahman al-Kurdi, Ammar al-Kurdi, Abdul Rahman al-Shami, Abdul Mateen al-Kurdi, and Abu Ali al-Qalamoun.
 For all disseminated claims see Eyes on Jihadism. Monitoring Jihadist Propaganda at https://danielegarofalo.substack.com/
 Information received from the author’s sources in the field and the context of analysis.
 Interview with Muzamjir al-Sham. See https://danielegarofalo.substack.com/p/al-qaeda-syrian-jihadism-and-foreign.