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Making sense of the various factions in the global Sunni Jihad.

The Al-Qaeda flag. Widely referred to as “The Flag of Jihad.”by Kyle Rogers

Making sense of the major players in the Jihad
by Kyle Rogers

The current use of the black flag, as “Flag of Jihad,” was started by Jihadists fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The most famous of which was Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda. The reason Bin Laden chose a black flag for his Al-Qaeda network is because of prophecies from the Hadith.

The Hadith is a collection of writings that make up supplemental material to the Qur’an. There are several lines about an army rising up in Khorasan, using a black flag, and liberating the Muslim world. Khorasan is a historical region in central Asia. It includes much of what is now Afghanistan.

The Al-Qaeda flag is similar to the green flag of Saudi Arabia and the white flag of the Taliban. They all say “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.”

There is an alternative version of the flag which has a white circle with three words written vertically. They read “Allah, messenger, Muhammad.” This is the official flag of ISIS, however some Al-Qaeda affiliates have also used it.

There are other groups using the same flag as Al-Qaeda. Some are self-styled copycats. Some are groups that fought side by side with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

What is Al-Qaeda?

Al-Qaeda was established by a multi-millionaire Saudi, Osama bin Laden, to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. It was a pan-Arab Jihadist army. The group was supported and armed by the United States and Pakistan. In the 90s, the US government also inserted Al-Qaeda into the Caucasus region to fight Russia, and into Kosovo to fight the Serbs.

While Al-Qaeda was founded as a pan-Arab army, it now includes a wide range of ethnic groups as members.

The Al-Qaeda leadership is believed to operate out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The biggest affiliates are Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] and the al-Nusra Front in Syria.

al-Nusra is the dominant Jihadist group in Northwestern Syria and around the Aleppo metropolitan area. Around Aleppo, they keep the peace between all the smaller rival Jihadist groups.

The FSA and SRF networks, which are funded and armed by US/NATO/Turkey/Saudi Arabia/Qatar, actively co-operate with Al-Nusra. Many Al-Nusra fighters started out in the FSA.

In early 2014, ISIS was actively fighting Al-Nusra around Aleppo. It appears that ISIS has recently agreed not to interfere with Al-Nusra in the area. It’s now widely rumored that ISIS and Al-Nusra are fighting side by side against Hezbollah and Christian militias near the mountainous northern Syria/Lebanon border.

Al-Nusra is currently engaged in battle with the Syrian national army in the Golan Heights.

AQAP controls large amounts of territory in Yemen, in what has become a three way civil war. Shiite militias are also taking over northwestern Yemen. It is likely that Yemen will split back into two separate nations, one Sunni and one Shiite.

Al-Qaeda also has affiliate groups all over central Asia and the Philippines. Most of these are believed to be only a few hundred people.

Some of the largest Al-Qaeda affiliates in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa appear to have switched their affiliation to ISIS. After 9/11, Al-Qaeda was the group that all Jihadists wanted to be. Now, ISIS has stolen the spotlight.

ISIS left, Al-Nusra Front, right. Al-Nusra uses the Al-Qaeda flag with extra writing across the bottom.

What is ISIS?

ISIS and al-Nusra have a shared origin. They start out as an Al-Qaeda copycat, opposing Saddam Hussein, founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 1999. In 2004, they became an official al-Qaeda affiliate known as “The Organization of Jihad’s Base in Mesopotamia.” In the western media they are called al-Qaeda in Iraq [AQI]. They bombed a major Shiite shrine triggering civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. They engaged in a massive insurgency against US forces.

US General Petraeus devises a plan to reduce support for AQI. Starting in 2005, Sunni Arab tribal militias are put on the US payroll. A network of US backed militias called “Sons of Iraq” is established. They are armed and paid by the US government in exchange for not attacking US troops, not supporting AQI, and provided the US government with intelligence on AQI.

al-Zarqawi is killed in 2006 and AQI fighters begin retreating to Mosul. They merge with other smaller groups to form the Islamic State in Iraq [ISI]. They become increasing violent against civilians to maintain control of their territory. This sparks a backlash from the Iraqi people.

In 2010, ISI appeared to be defeated. The pentagon claims that 42 of the top 50 leaders had been killed or captured. The top two leaders were both killed and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the new leader. al-Baghdadi was a former US prisoner that was part of a large group released by Obama in 2009.

Soon ISI was bigger than ever. They were growing so fast, that in 2011, they created a sister group called al-Nusra to fight against the Syrian government. By 2013, they changed their name to The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS], and ordered al-Nusra to re-incorporate.

The leadership of al-Nusra refused. International al-Qaeda leaders sided with al-Nusra and ISIS became estranged with al-Qaeda.

ISIS began sweeping through the rural areas of Eastern Syria, in part by assassinating the leaders of other Jihadist groups. ISIS absorbed many Jihadists, including ones previously backed by the United States. When ISIS reached the Aleppo, al-Nusra went to war with them and they were pushed back.

Meanwhile, ISIS was quietly taking over Sunni dominated cities in Western Iraq with little media coverage.  Tens of millions of dollars from wealthy Arabs in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, and other places started to pour in.

The Shiite president of Iraq had promised the United States to continue funding the Sons of Iraq militias. In 2013 he stopped paying their salaries and declared them a dangerous fifth column. He also purged Sunnis from government jobs.

In 2014, ISIS forced swept across large areas in Iraq, taking Mosul and numerous other major cities. They offered amnesty to the former members of the Sons of Iraq, if they repented and turned over their weapons to ISIS. Many Sunni tribal militias and militias run by former Ba’athist leaders supported the offensive. The Shiite dominated Iraqi National Army put up little resistance and often fled from small numbers of ISIS fighters without putting up a fight. Huge amounts of American weaponry and armored vehicles were seized by ISIS.

ISIS changed their official name to Islamic State and announced that they had established a new Islamic Caliphate with al-Baghdadi as the leader.

Since announcing their Caliphate, other Jihadist groups have become affiliates. This includes former Nigerian al-Qaeda affiliate Boko Harem. That group recently gained control of any entire state in Northeastern Nigeria.

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a Jihadist group in the Sinai Peninsula also became an ISIS affiliate. That group is engaged in a guerrilla war with the Egyptian military.

Thousands of Libyan Jihadists, who were backed by the US during the war against Libya, have declared their allegiance to ISIS. They are rapidly taking over territory in Northeastern Libya. They are in full control of Derna, a city with 100,000 people. They control parts of Tripoli.

In some Sunni cities in Jordan and Lebanon there is strong public support for ISIS.

Note: ISIS is called “Daʿish” in the Arabic speaking world.

What is Salafism and Wahhabism?

Both Salafists and Wahhabists are hardline Sunni Muslims. The Western media uses the terms interchangeably. These words are also used in the west as interchangeable with “Radical Islam.” Both advocate Sharia law.

Salafists believe they must follow the example of the first three generations of Muslims. Salafi means “predecessors.” In the nation of Qatar, about 45% of the people consider themselves to be Salafists. Al-Qaeda and ISIS both advocate Salafism.

Wahhabism essentially means “fundamentalist” Sunni Islam. Wahhabism could be seen as the Orthodox Jews of the Sunni world. It was started by Sunni scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the 18th century.

Wahhabism is the dominant sect in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi dictatorship is kept in power by what is essentially a Wahhabist cult. al-Wahhab was expelled from what is now western Saudi Arabia and was received by Muhammad bin Saud in what is now eastern Saudi Arabia. The two made a pact. To this day the Wahhabist keep the Saud family in power as a hereditary dictatorship.

ISIS parade in an Iraqi city. It remains to be seen how long Iraq’s ex-Ba’athiss and Tribal militias co-operates with ISIS.

What is a Ba’athist?

Ba’athists are pan-Arab social nationalists. They can be any religion. Saddam Hussein was an Iraqi Ba’athists. While Iraq has a Shiite majority, the Ba’athist party was dominated by Sunni. The government did include Christians in prominent leadership positions. The second most powerful man in Iraq, when the US invaded, was Assyrian Christian Tariq Aziz.

In Syria, the Ba’athist are the opposite of Iraq. Sunni are the majority. The Ba’athist dictator al-Assad is an Alawite, which is a shiite Schism. al-Assad is backed by a coalition of religious minorities including Shiites, Alawites, Druze, and Christians.

When the US invaded Iraq they ordered all members of the Ba’athist party to be fired from government jobs. This included about 50,000 people ranging from school teachers to Generals. After the US left Iraq, the Shiite president began purging Sunnis from the military and government jobs in general.

Many ex-Ba’athist are working with ISIS in the Sunni dominated areas of Iraq. This is because of the persecution of Ba’athist party members, followed by the persecution of Sunnis in general. Many see ISIS as the defender of Sunni rights and dignity.

It is certainly possible that ISIS could see a backlash from regular Iraqi Sunnis. This happened the AQI back in 2006.

Saddam Hussein was hated by the Jihadists. However, when Hussein was executed by the new Shiite government it rehabilitated his image in the Sunni world. Many now romanticize him as a Sunni Martyr.

What is the Taliban?

During the 80s and 90s, the Pakistan Intelligence service trained ethnic Pashtun Jihadists. They were inserted into Kashmir to fight India and into Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union.

Pakistan recruited these Jihadists from the hardline madrassas, which are Islamic schools. The word Talib means “student.”

This policy has exploded in Pakistan’s face. The Taliban is presently waging war against the Pakistani army.

The Taliban is still extremely active in the ethnic Pashtun areas of Afghanistan. They control large pieces of territory and in some cases are actively using infrastructure built by the United States. It is widely believed that the Taliban will regain control of all of southern Afghanistan when US forces leave. The Afghan national army is primarily made up of the former Northern Alliance. Many Pashtuns view the national army as just as much a foreign occupier as the United States.

The Taliban is currently believed to have 60,000 active fighters.

The green Islamic flag of the Muslim Brotherhood

What is the Muslim Brotherhood?

The Muslim Brotherhood is a sixty year old Sunni Muslim group. They support the creation of a Caliphate, however they believe that one can be created by Democratic means.

The Muslim Brotherhood pays lip service to Salafism, but also differentiates itself as having some differences with Salafism.

The Muslim Brotherhood is currently enemies with Al-Qaeda and ISIS. They share many of the same goals. They are at odds over the concept of Qutbism, or “offensive Jihad.”

The black flag Jihadists view the Muslim Brotherhood as too weak, while the Brotherhood views them as too extreme. The Brotherhood believes that Al-Qaeda and ISIS will eventually be crushed militarily, while they will achieve their goals politically over the long term.

The group was suppressed in Egypt by Mubarak. The US State Department supported the Egyptian Muslim brotherhood during the “Arab Spring” despite prosecuting US citizens for donating money to the Muslim Brotherhood in other countries.

After Mubarak stepped down, Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi became president. He was removed from power by the Egyptian military after unilaterally granting himself a laundry list of new powers.

The current government of Egypt accuses Obama of being a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Flag of Hezbollah

What is Hezbollah?

Hezbollah is a Shiite militia. The militia is supported by a Shiite political party called “Loyalty to the Resistance.” The party controls 9% of the Lebanese parliament.

They are backed by Iran, which is Shiite theocracy. Hezbollah is actively fighting Al-Nusra and ISIS in Syria. Hezbollah supports the government of Syria.

Hezbollah is active in training Shiite militias in Iraq.

Most westerners do not understand that Shiites and Sunnis have been enemies for hundreds of years and that Hezbollah is at war with the Jihadists.

What is Hamas?

Hamas is the official political party of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip. They control 56% of the governing body of the Gaza Strip. They have their own militia called al-Qassam Brigades. Usually when the media refers to “Hamas,” they are talking about the al-Qassam Brigades.

The al-Qassam Brigades fought a civil war with Fatah, the armed wing of the Palestinian Authority, in 2007.

Hamas is currently engaged in a propaganda war with ISIS. Many young Palestinians watch ISIS video on the Internet and have become fans of ISIS. Hamas views ISIS as a serious threat to it’s leadership.

What is the Khorasan Group?

The Khorasan Group takes it’s name from the same prophecies that Al-Qaeda based their black flag on. They believe that an Islamic army will rise from the historical Khorasan region, using black flags, and liberate the Muslim world.

The Khorasan group has only come on the scene very recently. They are veteran fighters from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. There goal is to unite Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban as one.

It is believed that Khorasan Group is active in Syria with the intent of playing the role of arbitrator between Al-Nusra and ISIS.

Is there anything more extreme than Al-Qaeda and ISIS?

Al-Qaeda was not the only Jihadist group backed by the USA to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. After the Soviet Union left, some of the other groups moved on to Kashmir. While fighting the Indian military and even more extreme ideology emerged.

Some Jihadist groups in Kashmir advocated the mass genocide of Europe and India. They claimed that Europeans and Indians have had enough time to see the light and convert to Islam. The preached that something was fundamentally wrong with Europeans and Indians that could not be fixed.

This ideology does not appear to have taken off.