Turkistan Islamic Party had significant role in recent Idlib offensive

Video released by the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria

The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), an al Qaeda-linked jihadist group that operates in Syria and Central Asia, played a significant role in the recent offensive in Jisr al Shughur in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib.

Evidence of the TIP’s role in Jisr al Shughur is seen in a video that was produced by Islam Awazi, the TIP’s official media wing. Also, other data released on social media suggest the group lost at least 20 fighters in the battle for the northern Syrian town.

The jihadist group fought in the “Battle of Victory” coalition in the recent offensive, which included the Al Nusrah Front,  Ahrar al Sham, Ansar Sham, Jaish al Islam, the Jabhat Ansar al Din (which includes the Chechen Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar, the Moroccan Harakat Sham al Islam, and the native Syrian group Harakat Fajr al Sham al Islamiyya), Jamaat Ansar al Islam (the Syrian remnant faction of Ansar al Islam), and many others. The coalition claimed victory over Bashar al Assad’s forces in Jisr al Shughur after three days of fighting. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda, jihadist allies declare victory over Syrian regime in key city, and Threat Matrix report, Jihadists celebrate in key Idlib city after defeating Syrian regime.]

The footage in the TIP video, which is nearly 20 minutes long, first shows its fighters gearing up for the battle. The fighters are seen listening to the popular al Qaeda-linked Saudi cleric, Dr. Abdallah al Muhaysini, before moving to the front lines. Several scenes show the usage of mortars, rockets, tanks, anti-aircraft weaponry, and one anti-tank rocket before displaying fighters in street-to-street combat. The video then features what appears to be Abu Rida al Turkistani, a leader within the group, placing the TIP’s flag in the city center. The clip ends showing fighters celebrating while locals rejoice with members of the jihadist group.

The TIP fought alongside the Chechen group Junud al Sham, as well as the small Uzbek group Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad. In a video released by Junud al Sham, the group mentions a “Katibat Turkistani,” or “Turkistani Battalion,” the name that TIP fights under in Syria.

In another video released by Junud al Sham, a TIP member is seen talking to Muslim Shishani, or Murad Margoshvili, an ethnic Chechen from Georgia and leader of Junud al Sham. Shishani is a US-designated foreign terrorist. [See LWJ report, State Department adds Chechen, Moroccan-led jihadist groups to terrorist list, and Threat Matrix report, Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria involved in new Idlib offensive.]

Several jihadists accounts on Twitter mentioned that “Katibat Turkistani” took on large role in the offensive. One account suggested that the group captured two checkpoints, although this has not yet been confirmed. However, the group does engage in heavy fighting against regime forces and several slain TIP fighters are shown in the video. The TIP also confirmed on Twitter that it lost 20 fighters in the offensive, which suggests more than just a supportive role.

Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria

A TIP official claimed that the group has been fighting in Syria since 2012 during an interview with the Turkish news site Anadolu Agency. When asked why the group is in Syria, the official, identified as Ibrahim Mansour, said, “There are several reasons for this. First, here the oppressed Syrian people are our Muslim brothers. [We] have an obligation to help them with jihad.” He continued, “Alhamdulillah [Praise God] with the surrounding Muslims against Bashar, we participate in jihad, united against a tyrant.” Manour went on to say that fighting in Syria gives the TIP training and experience to fight in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.

Ibrahim Mansour also confirmed in the same interview that by extension of the parent organization in Pakistan’s tribal agencies of north and South Waziristan, the TIP fighters in Syria have bayat (allegiance) to Mullah Muhammad Omar of the Taliban. The TIP is not the only group fighting in Syria with allegiance to Mullah Omar; the Uzbek Imam Bukhari Jamaat swore bayat to the Taliban back in early November. Imam Bukhari Jamaat also took part in the recent fighting at Jisr al Shughur.

The TIP has long operated in Idlib alongside the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria. One jihadist account on Twitter has alleged that the group also fights in Latakia province. In May of last year, one of its fighters, identified as Dadullah al Turkistani, detonated himself as part of a coordinated assault with Al Nusrah in the northwestern province. That same operation included a suicide attack by an American Nusrah fighter known as Abu Hurayra al Amriiki.

The group has also highlighted another suicide bomber, Abdulvaris al Turkistani, who also detonated in Idlib alongside the Al Nusrah Front. In addition to Abdulvaris and Dadullah, several other TIP fighters who have been killed in Syria have been promoted by the group’s Twitter feed. Most of the promoted fighters appear to be younger and almost all were killed in Idlib. Only one fighter killed in Jisr al Shughur has been eulogized by the group so far.

The TIP is known to operate at least two training camps in Syria. One camp, which is used to train children, appears to be located in a captured Syrian villa somewhere in Idlib or Latakia province. The other camp is more traditional, albeit rudimentary compared to other camps. [For more information on these camps and others in Syria and Iraq, see this map created by The Long War Journal.]

The Turkistan Islamic Party also operates in China as well as Central and South Asia and is thought to have scores of fighters and its leadership located in Pakistan’s tribal areas and in Afghanistan. The TIP is largely made up of ethnic Uighurs and fights with the aim of creating an Islamic state in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Its leaders and fighters have been killed by Coalition forces in Afghanistan and by US drone strikes in Pakistan.

Several of TIP’s senior leaders have also been appointed to top positions in al Qaeda’s network in Pakistan. For example, Abdul Shakoor Turkistani, the former emir of TIP, was also appointed by al Qaeda to lead its forces in Pakistan’s tribal provinces. [See LWJ report, Turkistan Islamic Party leader thought killed in US drone strike.]

The jihadist group further confirms its place within al Qaeda’s international network by its role in fighting alongside al Qaeda’s official branch and other allied groups in Syria.

Caleb Weiss is an intern at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributor to The Long War Journal.

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