Jihadist groups operating in Iraq and Syria continue to highlight their training facilities in Iraq and Syria. Since Dec. 28, 13 new camps have been identified by The Long War Journal. Of these, four are in Iraq while the other seven are in Syria.
The total number of jihadist training camps that have been identified in both countries is now at 78; at least 10 are thought to be no longer in operation and 15 to 20 have been hit in Coalition airstrikes.
Six of the camps that have been recently identified belong to the Islamic State, the al Qaeda splinter group that now controls significant portions of land in Iraq and Syria. These facilities include:
- The “Abu Abdul Rahman al Bilawi Camp” in northern Babil province, Iraq. This camp is named after the slain Islamic State leader who was killed by the Iraqi Security Forces near Mosul in June 2014.
- The “Sheikh Abu Ibrahim Camp” which is near al Rutbah in Iraq’s Anbar province. The camp was identified after the Islamic State posted pictures showing the graduation of the class “Abu Anas al Ansari,” who was a local emir of the Islamic State before he was killed near the al Walid border crossing in late 2014.
- A camp for children, which was not named, that is located in Tal Afar in Iraq’s Ninewa province. In a translation by SITE Intelligence Group, the video featured a young Turkish boy who said “I have emigrated with my father, my mother, and my brothers from Turkey. We came to pledge allegiance to Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. I wish from Allah to select me as a martyr.”
- The “Abu Musab al Zarqawi Camp” in Kirkuk province, Iraq. Photos showing recruits at the camp showcased physical training, as well as training on clearing buildings. The camp is named after the founder and former emir of al Qaeda in Iraq, which is now the Islamic State. Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2006.
- A camp run by the Islamic State’s “Knights of War Battalion,” which appears to be located at the Tal Afar airbase. In the video released by the jihadist group, recruits for this unit were shown undergoing firearms training, close quarters combat training, and small unit tactics training. Several hangars at the airbase appear to have been destroyed in possible airstrikes, however, these ruins were utilized the Islamic State’s training. On Jan. 20, pictures were released that appear to show fighters training near the city of Tal Afar. The Knights of War Battalion may be another “special unit” of the Islamic State, similar to the Qawat al Muhaam al Khaasa (Special Task Force). It is possible the latter group was also present in the video. [See LWJ report, More jihadist training camps identified in Iraq and Syria.]
- The “Sheikh Osama bin Laden Camp,” which is named after the slain co-founder of al Qaeda, who was killed in a US special operations mission in Pakistan in 2011. The camp, which is thought to be located in Raqqah province, has been in operation since before the Islamic State changed its name from the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham.
Two camps operated by the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, have been identified:
- An unnamed camp in Idlib province in northwestern Syria. On Jan. 9, the Al Nusrah Front released a series of images on its official Twitter account detailing the facility, which appears to be different than previous camps shown by the group in Idlib. The pictures also appeared to have been taken a few weeks prior to release, as the weather conditions in the photos did not match the weather conditions in Idlib at that time. [See accompanying map above for more information on other Al Nusrah Front camps in Idlib.]
- An unnamed camp located in Quneitra province in southern Syria. Al Nusrah released several photos from this camp on its Twitter account for its southern Syria operations. More than three dozen recruits were shown taking part in firing exercises, physical training, and marching.
The following five training facilities are operated by jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria that are allied with the Al Nusrah Front or the Islamic State:
- The al Qaa’qaa Camp in al Hasakah province, Syria. While the camp was showcased in a video released on Jan. 22, it has been in operation for quite some time. Late last year, Ansar al Islam fought alongside the Al Nusrah Front and Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar, the Syrian branch of the Caucasus Emirate, in a key battle in Aleppo province. The al Qaa’qaa Camp is the second camp identified that belongs to Ansar al Islam. The other camp, the Sheikh Rashid Ghazi Camp, is located in Ninewa province, Iraq. [For more information on Jamaat Ansar al Islam, see LWJ report Ansar al Islam coordinating with the Al Nusrah Front, Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar in Aleppo.]
- An unnamed camp that is run by Ansar Sham, a group that operates in Latakia province and is part of the larger Islamic Front coalition, which is closely allied to the Al Nusrah Front. Late last year, Ansar Sham released a video of a training camp it runs in Latakia. In the video, recruits underwent small unit tactics, weapons training, as well as physical training.
- A training camp for children that is run by the al Qaeda and Taliban-linked Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). TIP’s official media wing released photos of the facility, which appeared to be in a captured villa somewhere in the northern Syrian countryside, showing more than a dozen children taking part in the training. The TIP in Syria operates alongside Al Nusrah in Idlib and also likely in Aleppo province.
- A camp run by the Kurdish Islamic Front, a Kurdish faction of the larger Islamic Front coalition> The group showcased the camp in a video released in early April 2014. The video showed its fighters training with weapons as well as learning how to assault and clear a building. On Dec. 8, the Kurdish Islamic Front and Liwa al Haq, another group within the Islamic Front, merged with Ahrar al Sham, which is part of the Islamic Front. Ahrar al Sham is an al Qaeda-ally that closely operates alongside the Al Nusrah Front.
- A camp run by the Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, or Oneness and Jihad Battalion. In a video released by the jihadist group, its fighters were shown receiving training on technicals (armed pickup trucks), how to assault and clear buildings, take people captive, as well as weapons and physical training. This relatively small organization, which broke away from the Al Nusrah Front, largely consists of Uzbek fighters. Even after breaking from Al Nusrah, the two maintain good relations and close battlefield ties. Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad also has ties to the larger Uzbek group, the Imam Bukhari Jamaat.
Jihadist training camps in Iraq and Syria
Since the beginning of 2012, a total of 78 camps have been identified as being operational at one point in time. Of those camps, 58 have been found in Syria, and 20 in Iraq. Ten of these camps are used to indoctrinate and train children.
Information on the camps has been obtained from jihadist videos and images, news accounts, and US military press releases that note airstrikes against the training facilities. It is unclear if all of the training camps are currently operational. At least 10 of the facilities are thought to no longer be in existence. Additionally, between 15 and 20 of the camps, primarily from the Islamic State, are thought to have been hit during Coalition airstrikes; it is unclear if those camps are still operational. It is likely that there are training camps that have not been advertised.
The Islamic State has operated 36 camps (19 in Iraq, 17 in Syria). The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, has operated 16 camps inside Syria. Allied jihadist groups have run 26 other camps (25 in Syria and one in Iraq); nine of those camps are run by jihadist groups from the Caucasus, three by Uzbek jihadist groups, and jihadists from Gaza, Morocco, and Kazakhstan each run one camp.
In the past, al Qaeda has used its network of camps not only to train fighters to battle in local insurgencies, but also to identify potential recruits for attacks against the West as well as support a host of allied jihadist groups.