Ansar al Islam (AAI), a jihadist group based in northern Iraq, claimed a string of new attacks in a series of tweets between July 13 and July 21. In one tweet, AAI implied that it had a hand in the death of Major General Najm Abdallah al Sudani, who served as the commander of the Iraqi army’s Sixth division until he was killed earlier this month.
AAI’s responsibility for al Sudani’s death could not be independently verified, however. And some of the few details offered by the group concerning al Sudani’s slaying contradict the version given by the Iraqi government to the press.
In a tweet on July 13, AAI reported that al Sudani had been “sniped,” or shot, near Baghdad. An Iraqi military spokesman told Agence France Presse (AFP) that al Sudani “was killed by hostile shelling.” Other accounts say that al Sudani was killed by mortar fire as well, which seemingly contradicts AAI’s claim that the general was killed in sniper fire.
Al Sudani was killed near Baghdad and, at least in that regard, AAI’s brief account is consistent with other reporting. But even the date of al Sudani’s death given by AAI is inconsistent with other accounts. AAI tweeted that al Sudani had been killed on Saturday, July 5. But press reports say he was killed on Monday, July 7.
Major General al Sudani was one of Iraqi prime minister Nuri al Maliki’s top military leaders. Maliki released a statement saying al Sudani “met martyrdom on the battlefield as he was fighting … terrorists,” according to Reuters. Maliki also personally attended al Sudani’s funeral.
AAI’s tweet concerning al Sudani’s death highlights a persistent problem in covering complicated war zones such as Iraq. The fog of war sometimes makes it difficult to determine the precise details of even high-profile events, such as the killing of a top general. And official government reports can also be inaccurate, for a host of reasons.
Jihadist groups do report accurate information via social media, but they also have an incentive to provide misleading reports that make them seem more accomplished on the battlefield than they really are. It is possible that AAI did kill al Sudani and the precise details have simply been mangled. Or, the group thought it would benefit from attaching itself to a high-profile killing.
Other attacks claimed by AAI on its Twitter feed are less sensationalistic. In two recent tweets, AAI said it fired 82-mm and 120-mm mortar rounds on Shiite militias in Balad, which sits north of Baghdad in Salahaddin province. The tweets include a hashtag, #Tikrit, referring to the provincial capital, and call the Shiites “rafidi,” a derogatory term meaning that Shiites reject Sunni beliefs.
AAI also claimed to have shot an Iraqi major in southern Tikrit and caused the Iraqi army to suffer “heavy losses in lives and equipment,” including four tanks, three armored vehicles, five Hummers, and one army truck.
If AAI’s tweets are accurate, then they reveal that the group is operating far outside of its strongholds in northern Iraq. In one tweet, AAI claimed to have “repelled an attack by” the Iraqi army in Anbar, which is in western Iraq. In another, the jihadist organization said it struck an emergency vehicle with an improvised explosive device (IED) on a bridge named after Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.
While the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot, garners the most attention for its role in spearheading the insurgency, other groups, including AAI, are clearly involved in the fighting as well. As the insurgents’ offensive swept through Iraq in June, AAI claimed a number of attacks against Iraqi government forces on its Twitter feed. [See LWJ reports, Ansar al Islam claims attacks against Iraqi military, police and Ansar al Islam releases propaganda photos showing operations in Iraq.]
AAI is one of the Islamic State’s longest-standing jihadist rivals. As early as 2012, AAI complained to al Qaeda’s senior leadership about the behavior of the Islamic State and its leadership toward their fellow jihadists.
Jihadists circulated a rumor earlier this month saying that AAI had sworn bayat (oath of allegiance) to the Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State. A contingent of AAI fighters reportedly did swear allegiance to Baghdadi’s organization, but AAI quickly released a statement denying that the group as a whole had pledged its loyalty to any other organization.
Oren Adaki, an Arabic language specialist and research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, contributed to this article.