Report highlights al Qaeda affiliates’ role in Syrian atrocities

A new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), “You Can Still See Their Blood,” documents “serious abuses committed” by Syrian insurgents during an offensive that began in Latakia on Aug. 4.

Latakia is a coastal stronghold for the Assad family. But the rebels did not target only regime assets in the offensive, dubbed the “Operation to Liberate the Coast.” They also unleashed sectarian-motivated violence in more than 10 Alawite villages.

HRW “has collected the names of 190 civilians who were killed by opposition forces in their offensive on the villages, including 57 women and at least 18 children and 14 elderly men.”

Of the 190 civilians, at least 67 were summarily executed or “unlawfully killed” by the rebels. “There is no evidence that they could have posed, or could have been perceived to pose, any threat to the fighters,” HRW writes.

Al Qaeda’s two affiliates in Syria, along with allied extremist groups, led the offensive in the Latakia countryside and were principally responsible for the slayings. Free Syrian Army fighters also took part in the operations, but HRW found that their precise role in the attacks on civilians is not clear.

Twenty or more groups participated in the rebel operations. However, HRW lists five groups as “among the principle planners, fundraisers, and executors of the offensive” in Latakia.

The list includes both of al Qaeda’s affiliates in the country, the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS). Two other groups that are known to be closely linked to al Qaeda’s affiliates, Ahrar al Sham and Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar (or “Army of Emigrants”), helped lead the fight. And the fifth group is Suquor al Izz, which is openly jihadist.

According to HRW, the evidence shows that “members of all five of these groups” are directly linked “to specific incidents that amount to war crimes.”

Weeks after Syrian forces pushed back the rebel offensive, the ISIS and Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar have continued to hold hostages from the villages. To this day, “over 200 civilians, the vast majority of whom are women and children” are being held by these two groups, which “led the opposition offensive.”

According to “an opposition military leader from Latakia” interviewed by HRW, Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar transferred “control over the hostage file” for negotiations to Ahrar al Sham sometime in late September.

Other rebel groups took part in offensive

HRW lists the other rebel groups that took part in the fighting, but emphasizes that their role in the abuses is unknown.

Fighters under the command of Salim Idriss, who heads the Free Syrian Army, joined the rebel offensive. But one source told HRW that they did not show up until after Aug. 4, when the atrocities are thought to have been committed, and their overall role in the fighting was “limited.” Still, Idriss was eager to highlight the FSA’s role, releasing a video on Aug. 11 that was “apparently filmed” in the Latakia countryside.

Among the other rebel groups that fought in Latakia is Sham al Islam, which is led by a former Guantanamo Bay detainee known as Ibrahim Bin Shakaran.

A leaked threat assessment authored by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) identified Bin Shakaran as a “high-ranking member” of the theological commission of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization. The Defense Department has said that Bin Shakaran became a recruiter for al Qaeda in Iraq after his transfer from Guantanamo to his native Morocco in 2004. Another ex-Guantanamo detainee, known as Abu Hamza al Maghrebi, was killed while fighting for Sham al Islam.

Foreign fighters, funding, and other support

The HRW report warns that Turkey continues to serve as a gateway for foreign fighters entering Syria. During the operation in Latakia, “Abu Suhaib, the Libyan local leader of Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar, and his men … reportedly received medical treatment in Turkey,” the report reads.

HRW “identified several individuals, principally from Gulf countries” who financed the rebels’ operations. The financiers include Kuwaiti sheikhs and other foreign actors. According to HRW, there “is no evidence that the fundraisers and financiers knew at the time that they gave their support about the abuses that would or were taking place in Latakia countryside.”

Al Qaeda’s affiliates still cooperating in Syria

Although a leadership dispute between the Al Nusrah Front and the ISIS erupted in April, the two al Qaeda affiliates continue to cooperate throughout Syria. In addition to the offensive in Latakia, the groups collude against their common Kurdish enemies in Hasaka and Raqqah provinces. They have also reportedly fought alongside one another against Assad’s forces in Aleppo, and cooperated in Deir Izzor.

Beyond their cooperation with one another, the Latakia offensive shows that al Qaeda’s affiliates and their extremist allies often lead other brigades into battle as well.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • m3fd2001 says:

    There has recently been a systematic effort to characterize the Syrian rebels as Al-Qaeda affiliates, who are accused of all types of atrocities. A little tip, both sides are involved in these acts. It’s the nature of war, and a civil war in particular. The FSA is forced to affiliate with the more radical elements in this war in order to get ample arms to defend their villages and families. The Syrian regime has used its fire power supremacy to blast rebel (majority of Syrians) neighborhoods into rubble. The regime doesn’t have the manpower to engage in infantry assaults. They are taking about 200 casualtiees (KIA/MIA/WIA) a day. It reminds of the bay of pigs, when Kennedy left the anti-castro elements out to dry. The majority of Syrians (and Arabs as a whole) do not support the Salafists/Wahabbis, nothing close. But, these guys are dedicated (and very dangerous) fighters, and are feared and respected by the street. Note: I have no idea what the Turks are doing. It looks like they are supporting ISIL units to mess with the Kurds. If it were up to me, I’d arm the Kurds to the teeth (covertly of course!), and say to the hell with the Ergodan, Khomeni, and Maliki. There needs to be a greater Kurdistan, encompassing eastern Turkey, western Iran, and northern Iraq.

  • panzerfaust says:

    Usually I do not feel the need to express my humble opinion. However, when reading garbage as posted above, I must.
    [There has recently been a systematic effort to characterize the Syrian rebels as Al-Qaeda affiliates,]
    That’s because they are, in ideology, organizational structure, symbolism, rhetorics, internationalism, etc.
    [who are accused of all types of atrocities]
    Are you now suggesting these are mere accusations? Are you trying to whitewash their horrible acts as reported by HRW?
    [The FSA is forced to affiliate with the more radical elements in this war in order to get ample arms to defend their villages and families.]
    That is wild speculation and sounds very illogical for various reasons.
    On a side note: there is no such thing as ‘the FSA’. The FSA are 80 defected officers residing in a Turkish bathing resort pretending to be important while they are not. As such, the FSA is a entity only existing in Western press and international conferences. On the ground there are brigades that superficially accept FSA umbrella, but do whatever they want to do.
    [The Syrian regime has used its fire power supremacy to blast rebel (majority of Syrians) neighborhoods into rubble.]
    A March 2013 NATO intelligence report indicated that 70 percent of the Syrian population is supportive towards the Assad regime. That is of course not because of its non-repressive attitude, strong rule of law or pre war socio-economic equality but because of the ‘rebels’ (in Iraq 2008 they would all have been labelled terrorists) brutality, sectarianism, simplistic interpretation of Islam, criminal attitude and administrative incompetence.
    Moreover, I wish to add that SAA uses old Soviet doctrines on urban warfare and that the rebels use assymetrical tactics like entrenching themselves in urban, populated zones.
    [The regime doesn’t have the manpower to engage in infantry assaults.]
    The regime has plenty of manpower, although it did face serious attrition in this vicious war. However, with the SAA getting overstreched, depopulated and demoralized in the first stage of the war the regime is now increasingly relying on Popular Committees (neighbourhood watches), NDF (trained by Iran/Hezbollah – 60 000 strong, number continues to increase) leftist militias like the one headed by Mihrac Ural (responsible for the Banias massacre) and foreign Shi’i jihadists (according to some now 10 000 – 15 000 strong)
    [They are taking about 200 casualtiees (KIA/MIA/WIA) a day.]
    Complete nonsense
    [The majority of Syrians (and Arabs as a whole) do not support the Salafists/Wahabbis, nothing close. But, these guys are dedicated (and very dangerous) fighters, and are feared and respected by the street.]
    Absolutely right, and guess who are now dominating the rebellion thanks to petrodollars and imperialistic Gulf ideologies?

  • sundoesntrise says:

    Speaking of garbage, the original source for that “NATO report” offered, when asked, absolutely ZERO evidence to back up it’s assertions. This may seem wild to say in 2013, but….. it’s the Internet, anyone can use a shady news web site to parrot their narrow views. Simply typing empty claims on a shady, unsourced web site does not satisfy people that are looking for objective information. The website never ever replied to any requests to see sample data, nothing.
    If you want to label what others post as garbage then please don’t post it yourself, thanks.

  • Celtiberian says:

    Interesting piece on the latest alliances in rebel side:
    – The largest and most powerful brigades in the North (including AQ-Al Nusrah, salafists and the largest ex-FSA brigades) are forming the Army of Mohammed.
    .Largest and most powerful around Damascus are forming the Army of Islam
    – Statetement fo Army of Mohammed: Army of Mohammad would “adopt the Sunni doctrine as the basis of the army, and will exclude any person belonging to other sects or factions.” So much for the ‘popular’, ‘secular’ rebellion in a land with large christian communities and shias and druzes…
    – Leadership composition of Armies of Islam/Mohammed: “A number of the leaders of the Islamic brigades and their cadres had also been among those who fought U.S. forces in Iraq.”

  • M3fd2002 says:

    A little harsh responce, but i don’t take it personally. My point was that all parties are involved in questionable tactics. My observation is that the west is rationalizing (not judging) its inaction by demonizing one side specifically. Syria has developed into a human catastophy of scale. Why? I dont know for sure, but it is my belief that the west has encouraged the rebellion through their rhetoric, however, when it was time to walk the walk, they balked. This left tens of thousands of active combatents, and their families extremely exposed to retribution. Consequently, these people will reach out to anyone and anything that will give them a chance to survive.

  • Reader says:

    And the US Govt wants to arm them!!
    Yeeeeet… Kill them on other regions.
    It’s amazing the world hasn’t come after US!

  • David says:

    The US is contemplating arming some of them in the hope that they can NOT arm these violent crazies, but still fight the violent crazies on the other side, who have committed a ton of atrocities of their own. You think the US is alone wanting to arm them? The US is reluctantly being pulled into this by many other countries, who have expressed a far more zealous desire to finish off the Assad regime, in particular France, Britain, Turkey, and a host of Arab countries. So who in the world should be coming after us? Russia and Iran? They already are. Good luck with that.

  • panzerfaust says:

    I am happy you don’t take my response personally, because it was not meant personally.
    Instead, the agitated undertone comes forth out of being bothered with US stances during the Syrian Civil War, and the narrative that is being constructed by the Obama Adminstration – a discourse your post reflects.
    I don’t know what you are talking about, maybe you could elaborate on this alleged bias?
    All I know is that NATO’s intelligence service is one of the most credible, independent and thorough services active. For me, that is a big plus regarding the reliability of this report. Political bias is therefore unlikely, all the more when Rasmussen’s statements of the Ghouta chemical attacks are taken into account.
    Moreover, the news outlets that have decided to publish extracts of this report are regarded as having the highest standards in international journalism (Guardian, BBC, etc.)
    A third point that I would like to make is the Qatari origin of the newspaper. With the ruling dynasty having a firm grip on virtually all media outlets (accept the internet, to a certain extent of course) it is surprising that the results of this survey were published anyway. However, to suggest that the poll’s outcomes were manipulated or even fabricated is one bridge too far.

  • sundoesntrise says:

    Once again, I will repeat myself: There is absolutely no data to support such assertions! Anybody, including me and you, can write an article on a shady website claiming that “NATO sources” support our assertions. This is the Internet. The website in question was constantly asked to provide it’s sources and data for it’s claims and it never did. In the real world, that means their claims are empty until they can back them up.
    “For me, that is a big plus regarding the reliability of this report.”
    It’s really sad that you don’t understand what I’m saying. Text on a screen does not prove how ”
    reliable” something is. Facts and statistical data do, however. The LWJ is constantly cited by news outlets because they provide almost exhaustive data, available to the public, on various issues of the Long War. If the LWJ did not provide evidence for their reports they would not be taken seriously, that is elementary logic 101.
    “However, to suggest that the poll’s outcomes were manipulated or even fabricated is one bridge too far.”
    How? Why? You’re just literally typing that. You have provided nothing to substantiate your point of view or the claims made by the site in question, you are just taking one side over the other because it’s convenient for you. And let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the site went into pro-Assad areas to take the survey. Is that a truly accurate poll? Pro-Assad outlets travel to regime controlled areas all the time to make reports reflective of their positions, and they use what is available to them to produce their works. I wouldn’t completely trust those reports just like I wouldn’t completely trust opposition reports unless there is an independent, objective verification of all available data. Syria is a brutal war-zone and it’s very, very, very hard to interview civilians without being at some type of risk. With all things considered I simply cannot take what a source says as absolute truth especially when it refuses to disclose it’s methods.
    I hope you’ll take what I said into consideration and come to understand my points, but I’m not betting on it.

  • Moose says:

    I completely agree with you on the Kurdish issue. We need an ethnic paradigm shift in that part of the world that weakens both the Arabs and Iranians. Involving an independent Kurdistan will drastically change that paradigm to our advantage.


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