An Egyptian commander of an Al Nusrah Front faction in the border town of Albu Kamal in Syria’s Deir al Zour province has recently sworn allegiance to the rival Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham. The pledge to ISIS may help ISIS cement its control of both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border along the Euphrates River.
The pledge of allegiance to the ISIS by Abu Yusuf al Masri, the former Al Nusrah commander, was reported on various Twitter accounts managed by jihadists, as well as by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), an independent news organization that reports on the Syrian civil war. Photographs of Abu Yusuf and an unnamed “Chechen commander,” who looks to be none other than Omar Shishani, a top ISIS military leader, have been published on Twitter.
Abu Yusuf appears to have two Twitter accounts: @M24544344 and @M2544344. An analysis by The Long War Journal indicates that both accounts appear to be run by Abu Yusuf. These accounts both follow and are followed by established jihadists. And the angry response by other jihadists associated with the Al Nusrah Front, including one who is photographed by the erstwhile Al Nusrah commander, suggests that Abu Yusuf’s tweets are legitimate.
Up until June 17, Abu Yusuf tweeted at an account called “Victory Front” (@M24544344, Jabhat al Nusrah); his last post that day was a retweet of al Qaeda ideologue Abu Musab al Suri’s treatise on guerrilla warfare. He resumed tweeting on June 23, but on a new account called “Abu Yusuf al Masri” (@M2544344). On his new account, he justified his decision to join ISIS by claiming that Ansar al Islam, which has clashed with ISIS and its predecessors for 10 years, has come to a truce with ISIS and joined “the State.”
“Ansar al Islam after fighting between it and the State that lasted for 10 years, its clerics and leaders agreed that this stage cannot bear the conflict so they united under the banner of the State two days ago,” he wrote.
Abu Yusuf’s claim of an agreement between ISIS and Ansar al Islam has not been corroborated, and it is unclear how he would be privy to such information. Neither ISIS nor Ansar al Islam has publicly disclosed such an agreement. But the two groups are operating as part of an alliance against the Iraqi government and have seized territory in Iraq’s Ninewa, Salahaddin, and Diyala provinces.
Abu Yusuf also urged that the differences between jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria be resolved before the US re-enters the conflict.
“We were one group, we differed in opinions and the hearts disputed, and blood was shed and the voice of reason fell silent and the sound of the artillery rose. By Allah, the blood of the mujahideen is above all theories and interpretations,” he tweeted.
“The matter is not related to an individual but to a subdued nation [ummah] that does not have the ease of the conflict, the enemy is gathering and America is planning, and it [America] will not distinguish between factions, soon America will come to promote virtue,” he continued.
An established jihadist known as Abu Hassan al Kuwaiti, who previously was pictured with Abu Yusuf (see picture above) expressed anger and disappointment with Abu Yusuf’s decision to defect from the Al Nusrah Front.
“How does he [Abu Yusuf] have the heart to betray his brothers besieged by ISIS in the city of Deir [al Zour?] who are being killed by the nusayri [Assad] regime, and he is extending his hand to shake with the killer ….” Abu Hassan wrote in a tweet today.
In another tweet today, Abu Hassan noted that “the blood of the Muslims and mujahideen has yet to be wiped off the land of Albu Kamal, so what heart does he have that he places his hand in the hand of he who kills them!”
Responding to arguments that Abu Yusuf joined ISIS in order to “unite the ranks” of the Muslims, Abu Hassan retorted, “Tomorrow he will join the rafida [Shi’ites] as well and Hezb al Shaytan [Hezbollah] and say that we were commanded to unite the ranks! What school of jurisprudence is this that allows one to leave Sunni groups and move over to the banner of the shockingly heretical ISIS?!”
Abu Yusuf’s defection was also noted by SOHR director Rami Abdurrahman, who commented that ISIS’ position along the Iraqi-Syrian border is now strengthened. “We cannot say (ISIS) controls Albu Kamal but we can say they are now in Albu Kamal,” he said.
Existing tensions between jihadist factions in Deir al Zour and possible repercussions
It is unclear how many Al Nusrah fighters have joined ISIS in Albu Kamal. Jihadists on Twitter indicated that Abu Yusuf commanded 65 fighters. ISIS has scores of fighters outside of Albu Kamal and controls several villages in the area, according to reports.
Over the past few days, SOHR reports from Deir al Zour have indicated the emergence of tensions between rebel fighters, including some associated with Al Nusrah and the Islamic Front, who are joining ISIS and those who are still resisting the group, after months of infighting between jihadist groups in the province. Yesterday, SOHR reported that ISIS and “local militiamen” clashed violently with Al Nusrah and the Islamic Front near Mo Hasan, and that Al Nusrah “executed a defected first lieutenant who is the commander of An Islamic brigade because he swore allegiance to ISIS.”
The day before, ISIS designated the towns of Khesham and Tabia as military areas, and distributed a statement in eastern Deir al Zour refuting rumors that ISIS considers other rebel fighters in the province to be infidels. Interestingly, the Islamic Front in Albu Kamal in Deir al Zour demanded that Al Nusrah clarify its position regarding ISIS after reports that ISIS and Al Nusrah cooperated in the city.
And on June 21, ISIS executed three Free Syrian Army officers in Deir al Zour (the vice-leader of the provincial military council and two commanders in the Al Haq group). The day prior, ISIS took over Mo Hasan and other strategic towns in eastern Deir al Zour, including the headquarters of the rebel battalions’ military council.
As SOHR’s Abdurrahman told Reuters on June 20, the only remaining strategic town for ISIS to take over in Deir al Zour is Albu Kamal. Clearly, the fighters from Al Nusrah and other rebel factions in the area have been under heavy ISIS pressure to either join the ISIS ranks, per the conciliatory ISIS statement mentioned above, or be overrun. SOHR reported today that ISIS and Al Nusrah are fighting in various locations in Deir al Zour, and that “[i]t is expected that ISIS will storm the city of Albu from Al Qaim area destination.”
ISIS continues to advance in Iraq
Abu Yusuf’s defection to ISIS may help the group to consolidate its control of both sides of the border, thus adding an additional source of revenue as well as command over what passes between the two countries.
ISIS has taken control of the town of Al Qaim, just across the border from Albu Kamal, as well as the border crossing after Iraqi forces abandoned the town earlier this week in what they called a “tactical retreat.”
ISIS continues to slowly advance in other areas in Iraq, reportedly taking over the town of Al Alam north of Tikrit as well as the oil facilities nearby at Ajeel. Also, ISIS is said to have surrounded the Balad Air Base and launched attacks on it from three sides.
Lisa Lundquist contributed to this report.