Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Ansar al-Sunna Shifts Its Jihadist Rhetoric

The Ansar al-Sunna organization—one of the insurgent groups that US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad had held secret talks with in Amman—has caught up with the talking-points of other jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic Army in Iraq by shifting its jihadist rhetoric from being predominately anti-American towards focusing on the Shi'a threat, as evidenced in a new propaganda video released on the internet this week.

Previously, Ansar al-Sunna had tried to market itself as an anti-occupation and anti-government rebel group that took long strides not to harm civilians. I am not aware of an instance where that they had adopted anti-Shi'a rhetoric prior to this video.

The 29 minute video, produced by the ‘Information Bureau’ of the Ansar al-Sunna Group (ASG), is titled the ‘Blessed Raid of Buhruz.’ However the raid, conducted on an Iraqi National Guard station, did not actually occur in the sleepy rural town of Buhruz in Diyala Province, but rather took place in the nearby village of Imam Mansour, as the insurgents clarify later.

The timing of this video was probably meant to answer the Iraqi government’s assertion of delivering a powerful blow to the ASG after capturing many of their top leaders, including the ‘Emir of Baqouba’ who was identified as Ali Hussein ‘Ali ‘Abdullah al-Zendi.

Ideological highlights: The video begins and is interspersed with jihadist chanting. There is then an opening segment containing basic geographical and sociological trivia about Diyala Province, such as “the city of Baqouba…is called the city of oranges,” “…the surface area is 120,813 Km2, “…Most of the population is Sunni with some presence of Shi'a villages,” “…its people are known for their good manners” …etc., that appear as bullet-points. This video is clearly intended for a non-Iraqi audience.

A masked ASG leader, identified by a pseudonym as ‘Abu Shahad al-‘Azzawi—the Emir of Diyala’ (the ‘Azza tribe is one of the most prominent—although not largest—of Diyala’s tribes; there is some dispute among genealogists as to whether the Diyala ‘Azzawis are indeed descended from the Arab ‘Azza stock), explains that the motivation for attacking this particular Iraqi National Guard (ING) unit, manned by ‘heretics’ as he put it, was their alleged provocation of writing the names of the first three caliphs—Abu Bakir, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman—on the soles of their shoes. Shi'as revile the first three caliphs and see them as usurpers who denied the patron saint of Shi’ism, ‘Ali, his right to be the temporal heir to the Prophet Muhammad (Sunnis also revere ‘Ali, the fourth caliph, but put him on an equal footing with the first three caliphs). The soles of shoes (or feet) are considered dirty in Arab society and it is taboo to expose them in the direction of others.

Al-‘Azzawi also says that the ING blocked the villagers from the riverfront and denied them water for drinking and irrigation.

Another masked ASG leader, identified as ‘Abul-‘Abbas al-Qaisi—Military Commander of Baqouba’ (the Qaisis are similar in numbers and obscure origins to the ‘Azzawis; many of them in Diyala are of Circassian origin), further explains that the ING soldiers harassed the village women as they collected water from the river (contradicting al-‘Azzawi’s account about being denied water) and would yell out inappropriate catcalls. Hence, the jihadists had to respond to both these affronts on the Sunni caliphs and the womenfolk’s honor.

The video ends with images of triumphant insurgents riding several sedans and a mini-truck while shouting insurgent slogans as they slowly make their way along a country road and pass some houses. The caption reads: “The grandchildren of Abu Bakir, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman and ‘Ali happily wander the streets of Diyala to [celebrate] Allah’s victory.”

Also towards the end, another ASG leader, identified as ‘Abu Anes—the Sharia Overseer of the Unit’ (appearing with a blurred-out face and wearing a headdress in what appears to be the Salafist fashion), quotes the 13th-century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya and says “…the Crusaders always enter the land of Islam through the aid of the rafidha [Ed. derogatory term for Shi'as].” Abu Anes then says “[the Shi'as] were the ones who pointed out to the Christian Americans and the [Israeli] Mossad the places of the mujaheddin, the homes of the mujaheddin, the warehouses of the mujaheddin, and the training camps of the mujaheddin, so fighting [the Shi'as] is more obligatory than fighting the Jews and Christians.”

Abu Shehed al-‘Azzawi makes his final appearance to say “I say to…the heretics and the Forces of Betrayal [Ed.: the jihadist term for the Badr Brigade], and the Mahdi Army…come back to the religion of Muhammad…” and if not “then we kill you all if you persist in your heresy and waywardness and idolatry…”

The video also introduces ‘Abu Ayeh al-Kurdi—Commander of the Raiding Platoon’ who speaks in Kurdish (Sorani dialect from what I can tell) with translated Arabic subtitles. I think it is interesting that the ASG is making a point of highlighting Kurdish involvement. Kurds, both Sunni and Shi'a, form a sizable minority in Diyala Province.

Military highlights: As the ASG jihadists explain, 30 fighters took part in this military operation. The engagement lasted a total of 3 hours and was conducted at night. The fighters were evenly divided into two groups: a raiding party and a diversionary party. The diversionary party used mortars and heavy machine guns (mostly BKCs but there was at least one truck-mounted machine gun heavier than a BKC) to engage what they described as ‘towers.’ The ING unit in Imam Mansour was housed in the village school. It seems to have been a temporary location since the perimeter walls did not even have barbed wire on them and were easily scalable.

The fighters were first shown preparing their arms and then holding two sets of prayers—dusk prayers outside in the fields and the dinner prayers indoors in a mud hut. Al-Kurdi was the commander of the raiding party, and ‘Abu Hussein al-Dayini’ (the Daineh clan is prominent in Diyala Province) commanded the diversionary party. Al-Dayini explains that the ING defenders initially thought that this was a long-distance attack with mortars and machine guns. They did not expect al-Kurdi’s party to come up from the back and scale the school wall into the central courtyard, where we later see the bunk-beds of the Iraqi soldiers. At least one of the insurgents was shown speaking with a non-Iraqi accent ahead of the attack as the insurgents got into Mitsubishi pick-up trucks and then trudged the rest of the distance over fields and ditches towards the ING base.

The insurgents explain that the Iraqi soldiers had expended most of their ammunition while fending off the diversionary party and were thus forced to withdraw, leaving many dead and much booty, according to the insurgents.

During the raid, most of the shouting was in Kurdish. At least one insurgent was shown slumped dead across the wall, and then his lifeless body seems to fall off and lie on the opposite side. However, the insurgents conceded only one fatality: the cameraman. Text comes up to explain that just as the cameraman—who had been following another insurgent shouting (in a heavy Kurdish accent) “is this Maliki’s government?” while pointing to several burning vehicles in the courtyard—was about to enter the building, a wounded and dying soldier fired a single bullet and killed him. Thus, all the dead bodies of the ING soldiers and the booty were not captured on film. But this excuse is contradicted by al-Kurdi who later says that the cameraman was killed as the raiding party was exiting the location. Plus, there was footage of the insurgents retreating and carrying the body of the cameraman, which meant that the cameras kept rolling.

There is also footage of the cameraman’s corpse being buried during the next day.

The insurgents say that they had to retreat because a “large relieving force of 40 trucks” of the Iraqi Army was approaching the ING base. This force was held back for a while when the diversionary team opened fire on them allowing the raiding team to escape. The insurgents were carrying walkie-talkies.

Afterwards when the various commanders are interviewed about the skirmish, it is alleged by al-Azzawi that the villagers saw 50 bodies of ING soldiers being removed from the site.

The fighting skills and distribution of the raiding team seemed very clumsy and erratic. However, it is lamentable that the ING had not even secured their perimeter with something as rudimentary as barbed wire. The relieving force came in several hours into the fight, and there was clearly no air cover, which would have finished off the insurgents or at least destroyed their vehicles.

But the insurgents are also revealing some weaknesses by trying to pass the attack as one on Buhruz when it was only a small village, and on a poorly defended ING satellite base at that. They also make claims about casualties among the ING but fail to show any footage and go to lengths to explain why.


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