Jihadists in Syria train for urban warfare

Map of jihadist training camps in Iraq and Syria. Map made by Bill Roggio and Caleb Weiss for The Long War Journal.

The Islamic State and its jihadist rival Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, are training forces to conduct urban warfare at camps inside Syria.

Both jihadist groups have released propaganda on social media sites over the past several days that show their personnel drilling in urban warfare tactics. The Islamic State is training its forces inside a city under its control, while Al Nusrah is instructing fighters near the contested city of Aleppo.

The Islamic State showcased jihadists training inside the ancient city of Palmyra (or Tadmur in Arabic) in the Homs desert. The fighters can be seen infiltrating a segment of the city before they practice how to effectively navigate the streets in combat. The trainees use light-machine guns, technicals, and rocket-propelled grenades (RPG’s) as cover fire for during these exercises

Al Nusrah released a video from its Sayfullah Shishani Battalion that shows its fighters training for urban warfare inside buildings in Aleppo Province. The Sayfullah Shishani Battalion includes a large number of fighters from the Caucasus as well as other Russian-speaking militants, and it is named after Sayfullah Shishani, a Chechen military commander within Al Nusrah who was killed fighting in Aleppo with the Battalion early last year. The footage shows the group’s new leader, an ethnic Uzbek, speaking to trainees before they learn how to clear buildings. The Arabic and Russian language video also highlights the use of a US-made M240 light machine gun, which was likely obtained by Al Nusrah from fighting with US-backed rebel groups in the area.

Jihadist groups in Syria have showcased urban warfare training prior to these two propaganda releases. Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar and Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad have both released material showing this type of instruction in Aleppo before their merger into Al Nusrah. The Islamic State’s Sabiri’s Jamaat, a group comprised of Dagestanis and Uzbeks, also released a video showing urban warfare training also in Aleppo early last year.

Jihadist training camps in Iraq and Syria

Since the beginning of 2012, a total of 139 camps have been identified as being operational inside Iraq and Syria at one point in time. Of those, 102 have been found in Syria, and 37 in Iraq; 17 are used to indoctrinate and train children.

Some of the jihadist training facilities may no longer be in operation due to changes in fortunes on the battlefield (lost territory, airstrikes, etc.). At least 16 are thought to be closed and 15 to 22 have been hit in Coalition airstrikes. It is unclear if these camps have been destroyed or if they reopened in the same location or elsewhere. It is also very likely that there are training sites that have not been advertised.

Since June 21, The Long War Journal has identified 22 new training camps. Of these, 17 are located in Syria while the other 5 are in Iraq. Ten of these camps were identified as being run by the Islamic State, with an additional camp operated by the pro-Islamic State Liwa Shuhada al Yarmouk group in southern Syria. Three were identified as Al Nusrah Front facilities, including one camp for children run by the Saudi al Qaeda cleric Abdullah al Muhaysini. Four camps are managed by Ahrar al Sham, while the Turkistan Islamic Party and Harakat Fajr al Sham al Islamiyya each operate one. Two camps that were run by Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad and the Crimean Jamaat have statuses that are unclear, as both of these organizations have since joined Al Nusrah.

The Islamic State has operated 68 camps in the region (35 in Iraq, 33 in Syria). The Al Nusrah Front has operated 26 camps inside Syria. Allied jihadist groups have run 45 other camps (43 in Syria and two in Iraq); 12 of those camps are managed by jihadist groups from the Caucasus, five by Uzbek jihadist groups, three by ethnic Uighurs, and jihadists from Gaza, Morocco, and Kazakhstan each run one camp.

In the past, al Qaeda has used its network of training facilities to instruct fighters to battle in local insurgencies, identify potential recruits for attacks against the West, and support a host of allied jihadist groups. The threat of urban warfare training was illustrated by the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year in Paris. The two gunmen, who were later discovered to have ties to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, displayed professional training during the attack.

Photos released by the Islamic State showing training in Palmyra:







Screenshots from the Sayfullah Shishani Battalion video:












Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal. Caleb Weiss is a research analyst at FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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  • Tony says:

    I recall another more extensive map on this site which mentioned other training camps. Those numbered in the hundreds. What happened to that map? I can’t seem to find it anymore.

  • Ken North says:

    I strongly suspect that these purported “training films” are primarily recruiting hype for the newbies and wannabees. Unless they slept through their OPSEC class.

    There is absolutely no advantage whatsoever in depicting the actual footage of the tactics you would employ against an adversary. Both IS and al Nusrah are far too sophisticated and combat-seasoned to divulge their deployable TTP’s. Additionally, given the fact that some 30%-40% of the techniques displayed here are likely to get you killed – and they know that – you have to wonder if this doesn’t serve the additional purpose of disinformation.

    That point is readily demonstrated by comparing these tactics with the CQB and room-clearing capabilities of al Shabaab and AQI in 2004 on. High speed; low drag.

    We can only hope that the boys they send west are not any better than the troops exemplified here.

  • rtloder says:

    I think it’s a beat up, but, let the best man win, if Russia does a deal with Salman and Abdullah its then up to these people to deal with the Moderates.

  • Arjuna says:

    Good grief, while these jihadis train to wipe out the Assad and eventually, the West, we are now going to use our precious Green Berets to train their allies the (people who pretend to be) moderates (in order to get free weapons). Please tell me I am dreaming and this is just a nightmare. Iraq and Afghanistan are awful enough, but in Syria we are going to be actively fighting for the WRONG SIDE. Unbelievable. Just unbelievable.

  • Arjuna says:

    Wait, it gets better. While the 600 pound gorillas (Putin, Assad, Iran v UAE, Turkey, Saudi et al.) do battle with 4G fighters, WMD and barrel bombs we are going to go insert a few teams to “assist Kurdish and allied actors” who have come together under the “umbrella” of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” to liberate Raqqa. Risible. This is a sad, sick case of “just do something, anything” by the WH, reacting to Russia and acting tactically. The, ahem, Syrian Democratic Forces have as much chance of recapturing Raqqa from IS as I do of bringing down an Su-34 from the safety of this armchair. Using D-boys as human shields is not TRADOC!

  • Arjuna says:

    You nailed it. Nice analysis. The longer they wait for their external ops, the more hardened and effective their operatives will be (and the better-planned the ops themselves will be). It’s terrorism Darwinism. That’s why “degrade” is such a losing strategy. Time favors the enemy.

  • Paul says:

    Let’s hope Russia is handed this info & takes out all these sites. They are serious about eliminating terrorism inside Syria & not playing both sides like Turks, Sauds, & qatars. & even our good ol’ red, white & blue..


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