After last week’s arrest in France of a former “Army of Islam” spokesman, Orwa Khalife recounts the gruesome history of the militia, from kidnappings in the Damascus suburbs to ethnic cleansing in the Turkish border zone.
[Editor’s note: Last week, a former spokesman of the Syrian “Army of Islam” militia was arrested in Marseilles, France, on war crimes charges. The below article, first published in Arabic on 9 December, 2019, charts the bloody rise and multiple transformations of the group from its founding in late 2011 to the present day.]
On 10 April, 2018, buses filled with displaced residents of the Damascus suburb of Ghouta arrived at an internal border crossing in the Aleppo countryside, near the city of al-Bab.
The passengers were surprised to see two pick-up trucks equipped with heavy machine guns parked on the other side of the crossing, flying the flags of the Jaysh al-Islam (“Army of Islam”) militia, which had ruled over them back in Ghouta. It turned out the militia had borrowed the vehicles for a week from a local faction just to station them at the crossing point and raise their flags, to send a message to the new arrivals: “We’re here, too.”
The same year, after the Bashar al-Assad regime occupied the Eastern Ghouta suburb in its entirety, displacing thousands of its residents, a large part of Jaysh al-Islam and its leaders relocated to northern Syria. Specifically, they moved to the countryside north of Aleppo, where Turkey exerts strong influence, in a zone known as the Operation Euphrates Shield area. Their relocation to this particular region, rather than Idlib, was the result of bloody conflict between Jaysh al-Islam and the powerful Jabhat al-Nusra jihadist group back in Ghouta. The leaders of Jaysh al-Islam—or what was left of it—believed al-Nusra would pose an existential threat were they to turn up in Idlib.
Today, the group has even bigger problems to worry about.
From “squadron” to “army”
The founding of Jaysh al-Islam dates back to September 2011, six months after the outbreak of Syria’s revolution, when the protest movement was still primarily peaceful. A military group of Salafist Islamists in Douma, northeast of Damascus, established what they called Sariyyat al-Islam (“the Islam Squadron”). Their initial cell chiefly comprised adherents to the so-called “purist” school of Salafism, usually hailing from local families known to sympathize with the same. That the members all shared similar backgrounds was a key factor in building the firm walls that surrounded the organization. In the absence of doctrinal differences among its founders, fierce disputes over power and influence would emerge between its members, who would fight and even assassinate one another multiple times in the years to come.
At the head of the group was Zahran Alloush, who the Assad regime had released from Saydnaya prison some two months previously. Alongside him were such figures as Isam Buwaydani, the group’s current leader; Abu Anas Kanakiri, who would later leave the group after its exit from Douma, settling in Turkey; and Samir Kaake, the group’s mufti. Notable members of the Dalwan and Ajwa families were also included. The Squadron represented the nucleus of an organization that would combine purist Salafist ideology (drawn from Saudi clerical doctrine) with organizational thinking under the umbrella notion of “jihad,” tied in with large families well-known in Douma. The combination helped shape the group into its consolidated form, which has survived and preserved its structure ever since.
By early 2013, the group—then known as Liwa al-Islam (“the Islam Brigade”)—was still not the premier military force in Douma. That distinction went to the Douma Martyrs faction led by Abu Subhi Taha, which led the liberation of Douma from the regime, and was also heavily based on links between large local families. It wasn’t long, however, before this power balance would be inverted. The first time this author personally encountered Liwa al-Islam was in March 2013, through brochures distributed to various brigades in Ghouta bearing the organization’s name. These brochures prohibited the utterance of “blasphemies,” claiming they were punishable by execution under Islamic law.
2013 was a seminal year in the development of what would become Jaysh al-Islam, in that it had seen the Syrian conflict cease to be a merely internal or domestic one, with the arrival of Lebanese Hezbollah militants and other non-Syrian factions backed by Iran. This was a prime opportunity for Jaysh al-Islam and its ideological movement, which depicted itself from the beginning as representing “Sunnis” in a broader sectarian conflict, deeming this conflict the root cause of the problem in Syria. (Democracy, Alloush once contemptuously declared, was “beneath his feet.”) This decisive year for the group’s growth and expansion was capped on 29 September, when the “Brigade” promoted itself to an “Army,” formally rebranding as Jaysh al-Islam.
The group used two main methods to overcome its opponents. The first was clandestine violence, in the form of assassinations, kidnappings, arrests, and death threats. The second was overt military action to eliminate factions rivaling it for primacy in Douma and Ghouta. Political and civil activists in Ghouta were the key targets of the first kind of activity; perhaps the best-known example was the abduction of Razan Zaitouneh, Samira al-Khalil, Wael Hamada and Nazem Hammadi (the “Douma Four”) from the office of the Violations Documentation Center in Douma exactly six years ago today. Jaysh al-Islam was clearly responsible for the abduction, as Yassin al-Haj Saleh—the husband of Samira al-Khalil—documented at length in a report published by Al-Jumhuriya in 2016.
Stamping out peaceful civic and political activism in Ghouta was among Jaysh al-Islam’s top priorities. The disappearance of the Douma Four was a major blow to this kind of activism in Douma and Ghouta, which never recovered from the fear of abduction or assassination by Jaysh al-Islam’s “security” apparatus.
The group’s stranglehold over Douma and Ghouta would have been incomplete, however, without also eliminating the Free Syrian Army factions in the areas, particularly the Douma Martyrs brigade which, in the fall of 2014, had formed the “Jaysh al-Umma” coalition with other local factions in Douma, Harasta, and their surroundings. In a bid to do away with this key rival, Jaysh al-Islam fought a series of battles that ended with the dissolution of both Jaysh al-Umma and the Douma Martyrs brigade in 2015, and the killing of Jaysh al-Umma’s deputy commander, Abu Ali Khayba, in a public execution by Jaysh al-Islam in Douma’s al-Ghanam Square. The fighting also led to the arrest of Jaysh al-Umma’s leader, Abu Subhi Taha, who remained in Jaysh al-Islam’s prisons until his release shortly before the fall of Ghouta in 2018.
While these battles led to Jaysh al-Islam’s complete domination of Douma, they also left a deep, unresolved conflict between it and factions elsewhere in Ghouta, especially in Harasta. It was this that eventually led to Jaysh al-Islam’s expansion to the east and south of Douma, towards the Marj and Nashabiya areas, before it fought further bloody campaigns against Faylaq al-Rahman, a Sufi faction controlling the central sector of Ghouta, including Arbin, Ain Tarma, Saqba, Hamouriya, and other towns.
In parallel with this phase, the sectarian character of Jaysh al-Islam’s violence grew clearer than ever. Following a military advance in December 2013 toward the Adra industrial zone carried out by the group in alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra’s jihadists and other factions, a number of sectarian mass killings and abductions of religious minority members by Jaysh al-Islam showed an inclination towards the genocidal. Most of the crimes committed at Adra have still not been uncovered, though multiple sources have stated they included the incineration of civilians alive in furnaces—a crime echoing the worst of ISIS’s atrocities, and reminiscent also of the Assad regime’s sectarian massacres in al-Houla, al-Bayda, and elsewhere.
Thereafter, Jaysh al-Islam was unable to expand any further, causing it to settle in Douma and its environs. It was at this time that internal liquidations began. Defectors from Jaysh al-Islam have accused its leaders, especially Isam al-Buwaydani, of assassinating their peers, including Zahran Alloush himself, the group’s founder, killed in December 2015. Abu Anas Kanakiri, for instance, has accused certain Jaysh al-Islam leaders of responsibility for Alloush’s killing, suggesting the latter occurred not in a Russian airstrike, as widely reported, but rather with a pistol during a meeting. Proponents of the theory argue Alloush’s body showed no signs of having been bombed, but rather was fully intact, in a manner irreconcilable with death by airstrike.
Whatever the truth of that particular claim, internal liquidations were certainly a key feature of Jaysh al-Islam’s conduct right up until the group’s departure from Douma. On 2 April, 2018—just a week before they left—two officials responsible for administration and finance; Muhammad al-Ajwah and Nu’man al-Ajwah, respectively; were assassinated.
Post-Douma: Hired guns and ethnic cleansers
In northern Syria, following the 2018 displacement, there were fewer opportunities available to the semi-dismantled Jaysh al-Islam, which was forced to borrow two pickup-mounted machine guns to feign a modicum of prestige to the civilians arriving from Douma and Eastern Ghouta. The group was rescued from irrelevance, however, by its involvement in the so-called Syrian National Army militia sponsored by Turkey, having made clear it was prepared to engage in anything that would sustain it, no matter the specifics. It opened military camps north of Aleppo, and later joined other Turkish-backed factions in the conquest of Afrin, controlling certain parts of the mostly Kurdish district directly. This enabled it to survive, in tandem with the steady stream of Turkish support, which turned Jaysh al-Islam into one of numerous Syrian militias now directly subordinate to Ankara, carrying out tasks at its bidding, most recently in connection with Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring” east of the Euphrates River.
In Afrin and northern Aleppo, Jaysh al-Islam continued to commit abuses, and was fully engaged in the forced displacement, murder, and detention of Afrin’s civilian population. Proxy warfare appears to suit the faction, which made its start as a recipient of Saudi money, and lives today off the Turkish faucet, as well as the riches of its leaders, initially amassed in Ghouta and seemingly multiplying today.
What started more than eight years ago as a group of committed Salafists in Douma has wound up as little more than a gang with no ideological orientation. Murder, assassination, forced disappearance, and mercenarism are now synonymous with the “Army of Islam;” a marauding pack expropriating the land of fellow Syrians in Afrin, declaring their perpetual readiness to join any fight for whichever side can offer them a slice of money and influence.