Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (“Assembly for the Liberation of the Levant”) and the Islamic State have released competing propaganda claims from the Yarmouk camp in the southern part of Damascus this week. The two sides have battled each other for control of the camp, which was once home to more than 100,000 Syrians and Palestinian refugees, for more than two years. But the fighting continues to rage on.
Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) is a joint venture of several organizations that was formed in January. It includes the group formerly known as Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s branch in the country.
On Apr. 24, the propaganda arm for HTS, Ebaa News Agency, released three images purportedly showing a “network of tunnels dug by the Kharijites” that led underneath the areas of Yarmouk controlled by HTS. The Islamic State’s foes often call Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men “Kharijites,” a derogatory reference that is intended to compare them to Muslim forces that rebelled against authorities early in Islamic history.
Ebaa claimed that the HTS jihadists worked their way through the Islamic State’s tunnels, “engaged” and “expelled” Baghdadi’s loyalists, and then “controlled” the tunnels. The self-declared caliphate likely intended to use the network of underground passages to detonate a bomb underneath HTS’ positions or launch other raids deep behind enemies’ lines.
Photos of the tunnel complex, as well as additional images released by both HTS and the Islamic State from Yarmouk this week, can be seen below.
On Apr. 27, the Islamic State countered with its own set of twelve propaganda images, which document the door-to-door street clashes in Yarmouk. The group also released a statement claiming that more than 10 members of the “apostate” HTS had been killed in an inghimasi operation. “After relying on Allah, the soldiers of the caliphate launched an attack on positions of the apostate Hay’at Tahrir al Sham in the Yarmouk Camp south of Damascus,” the statement read. The inghimasi fighters “surprised the apostates from three axes” and three of the “brothers…detonated their explosive vests amid their [HTS] groups.” The Islamic State also said “clashes took place” that resulted in Baghdadi’s men “taking control over two residential blocks.”
Inghimasis are highly-trained jihadists who immerse themselves in the fight and are prepared to commit suicide bombings, if necessary. Both al Qaeda and the Islamic State use inghimasis in their operations.
The team of seven Islamic State inghimasi fighters responsible for the raid on HTS in Yarmouk was shown in a separate photo released via social media.
Not to be outdone, HTS produced a short video of the street fighting. As is the case in the Islamic State’s images, the HTS video featured jihadists firing their weapons into the neighborhood through holes punched in the walls of dilapidated residential buildings. The HTS video documents the devastation wrought in Yarmouk since the beginning of the Syrian war, with some buildings being reduced to rubble.
Multiple factions have clashed in Yarmouk since 2012, but the so-called caliphate saw an opportunity to advance in April 2016 and took it. An offensive by the Islamic State one year earlier, in April 2015, fizzled after local militant groups and Al Nusrah thwarted its expansion. But Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization expanded the amount of turf it controls inside the camp last year, seizing ground from Al Nusrah. The Islamic State’s propaganda arm, Amaq News Agency, crowed about the gains at the time. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Islamic State gains ground from al Qaeda in Syria’s Yarmouk refugee camp.]
The Islamic State’s gains in April 2016 exacerbated the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yarmouk.
“The continuous, highly intense fighting is not only causing civilian casualties and fatalities, but has also acutely aggravated shortages of food and clean water for the approximately 6,000 civilian families residing inside Yarmouk,” Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), said at the time. UNRWA has regularly attempted to supply food, hygiene products and blankets to the residents of Yarmouk and nearby camps, but its mission has been interrupted by the jihadists’ battles.
Most of Yarmouk’s residents have been forced to flee because of the war. UNRWA has delivered aid to the displaced civilians in the surrounding areas.
HTS photos of the Islamic State tunnel complex underneath Yarmouk:
The Islamic State inghimasi team responsible for the raid against HTS in Yarmouk:
The Islamic State released this photoset from the fighting in Yarmouk on Apr. 27:
Screenshots from an Ebaa News Agency video of HTS jihadists fighting in Yarmouk: