Saddam al-Jamal, born in al-Bukamal, a town near the Iraqi border in Syria’s the Deir Ezzor province, became a prominent example of a rebel against Bashar al-Asad’s regime who joined the Islamic State in 2013. It has now reported that al-Jamal has been arrested by the Iraqi government after an operation involving Turkey and the United States lured him into a trap.
THE ORIGINS OF THE UPRISING IN DEIR EZZOR
The Ba’th Party had swept to power in 1963 as the vanguard of the dispossessed. Deraa and the wider Horan Plains, Deir Ezzor, and “other neglected towns had been incubators of the Baath Party and the regime it spawned”, the late Fouad Ajami noted in his book, The Syrian Rebellion. But once in power, it was an “all-too-familiar story of how the hitherto excluded carry themselves”, Ajami wrote. “A partnership was forged between the Alawi officers in the army and the security services, and the Sunni merchant class. … The gap between city and country widened as the regime grew disinterested in the rural provinces.” When the revolt came, it was no accident that it was triggered in Deraa and travelled through places like Douma, an overpopulated and under-resourced town on the outskirts of Damascus, out east to the towns of the Euphrates River Valley, and north through Rastan, Talbiseh, and Marat al-Numan, to Idlib and Sunni coastal towns like Baniyas.
Hassan Hassan, whose hometown is also al-Bukamal, wrote of the “combination of marginalisation, incompetence and limited development” the Ba’th regime had brought to the peripheral areas that had carried it into office. “The region making up Raqqa, Hasakah and Deir Ezzor is jointly referred to as ‘manatiq na’yiah’, or the distant areas. In those areas, high-school graduates were given certain perks that only emphasised the inferiority of their education. For example, every student from those areas would be given three extra marks to match up the scores of their peers in other provinces.”
The Syrian revolution’s beginning is often dated to 15 March 2011, when the children of Deraa, who has been arrested for scrawling anti-regime slogans on their school, were released, having been visibly tortured, inciting protests that spiralled into weekly demonstrations, beginning that Friday, 18 March. But there had been stirrings of the uprising earlier.
Two prior events are especially notable. There was the 28 January 2011 self-immolation of Hasan Ali Akleh, a Kurd from Qamishli, who was emulating Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian vendor whose death ignited the “Arab spring”. And the spontaneous demonstration at Al-Hamidiya Souk in Damascus on 17 February, when shoppers intervened to stop the security forces beating up a fellow citizen. A video of people defying the secret police, chanting, “The Syrian people will not be humiliated”, went viral, and set the stage for the events of a month later.
Deir Ezzor was involved early on, as Ben Taub has explained in The New Yorker: after someone wrote “Down with Bashar” on a water pipe “along a remote stretch of highway near Deir Ezzor” on 4 February 2011, the intelligence apparatus in the province spent most of the month searching for the perpetrator. On 18 March, coinciding with the first Friday protest, a football match served as the springboard for political protest. By April 2011, Asad’s forces were using lethal force against demonstrators in Deir Ezzor.
Syria’s interior has four major cities: Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and Hama. Homs. While Homs had become the “capital of the revolution”, and the suburbs of Damascus and the countryside of Aleppo had risen against the regime, it would take some time for elements of the urban centres of Syria’s two largest cities to give way to rebellion. Hama was a case apart, the site of a three-week siege and massacre in February 1982 that ended the first rebellion against the House of Asad, setting the precedent—“Hama rules”, Ajami called it—that kept the country quiet for the next three decades.
It was the memory of 1982 that kept Hama city largely aloof from the protest movement until the end of April, and which seemed to spook the regime into a withdrawal after clashes with protesters on 3 June (p. 85-6). Asad then gave his 20 June 2011 speech, his third since the crisis began, where he had memorably said, “Conspiracies, like germs, reproduce everywhere”. On 1 July, the largest protest to date, 400,000 strong, took place in Hama, with signs saying things like, “Here we are, the germs of Syria”. A week later, for the second Friday in a row, Hama rallied again against the regime, an even larger protest, one famously visited by U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, who was greeted with flowers and olive branches. And a week after that, on 15 July, between Hama and Deir Ezzor, there were perhaps a million people on the streets for the Friday protests, and similarly huge crowds turned out in both places on 22 July.
The Asad regime had prepared for a crackdown by moving military hardware to surround Hama at the beginning of July. A cruel offensive was unleashed by the regime against Hama and Deir Ezzor on 31 July, killing more than 80 people on the first day, an event now remembered now as the “Ramadan massacre”. The regime, having besieged both cities, first focused on Hama, with the main assault on Deir Ezzor coming on 7 August: nearly fifty people were killed in a few hours. “The city has never witnessed a day like this”, a resident told The New York Times. Defying the intimidation, Deir Ezzor joined many other towns to come out to protest on Friday 12 August; violent suppression on that day caused the decisive break between Asad and the Saudi-led Gulf bloc. Contrary to the conspiracy theories, Saudi Arabia had not been aggressively working for Asad’s ouster from the beginning of the uprising. Riyadh had been trying to mend fences with Asad after his agents, in collaboration with Hizballah, had assassinated Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005.
DRIFT TOWARDS ARMED REBELLION
With protests near-impossible under the suffocating occupation of the regime’s troops and secret police, the opposition was forced underground and had to pick up weapons to defend itself. There had been sporadic incidents before, but September 2011 marked the beginning of significant militarization within Syria’s opposition. Throughout the month, there were guerrilla attacks in Deraa, in Damascene suburbs like Harasta, in Deir Ezzor, Rastan, and Idlib. Over a five-day period, from 27 September to 1 October, insurgents seized large parts of Rastan, before they were driven back. In mid-November, defectors from the regime’s army, adopting the Free Syrian Army (FSA) branding, attacked an important military base in Harasta. By the end of 2011, with an armed insurrection underway, the regime was struggling with a problem that bedevils it to this day: it had insufficient manpower—and local support—to garrison all restive areas, and as soon as troops were moved from a “pacified” area, rebels captured the terrain all over again.
In January and February 2012, Asad moved against the Damascus suburbs, notably Zabadani, and Homs, with a particular focus on the district of Baba Amro. The atrocities in Homs received some international notice when Asad’s troops murdered Marie Colvin, who was covering the Syrian war from inside the city for The Sunday Times of London, and French freelance photojournalist Rémi Ochlik on 22 February. The victories proved temporary, and within months insurgents had retaken much of what the regime gained in these offensives. The gaps in security, however, caused by the diversion of troops to the south-west, meant that the countryside of Deir Ezzor was out of the regime’s hands by April 2012.
The rebel hold on Deir Ezzor’s countryside strengthened into the summer, with protests and probing attacks continuing in the provincial capital. On 19 July 2012, in the wake of the mysterious bombing in Damascus that killed three senior officials and the onset of a rebel offensive in Aleppo city, the rebellion captured all the remaining border posts between Syria and Iraq, including al-Bukamal. Into August, the tug-of-war continued in al-Bukamal, lasting until the fall of nearby Hamdan military airport and the town of al-Mayadeen to the rebellion in November 2012. The regime was left, then, in control of just one airport in Deir Ezzor, contained in an outpost in Deir Ezzor city that would, improbably, hold on for the next five years.
The most notable events in Deir Ezzor in early 2013 were the rebels overrunning al-Kibar, the nuclear site blown up by Israel in 2007, in February, and the destruction of the famous Deir Ezzor suspension bridge in May by regime shelling. The overarching dynamic of this period was the final effort for unity among the nationalist and Islamist-nationalist opposition across the country. The Supreme Military Council (SMC) was formed in December 2012 as a coordinating body, but was undone by the competition between the Gulf states, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar sponsoring favourite units outside SMC channels.
Deir Ezzor’s rebels, composed of tribal actors, many funded from the Gulf, either by remittances from relatives working there or donations to charities with varying levels of closeness to official power, were particularly affected by these policies. Deir Ezzor was also a crucial battleground after the public emergence of IS in April 2013, and its increasingly-violent contest with its schismatic subordinate, Jabhat al-Nusra. The intra-jihadist warfare, plus Hizballah’s open intrusion at Qusayr in May and the massive chemical attack in Ghuta in August 2013, sowed considerable discord within the insurgency and bolstered the most sectarian elements. It was in this context that al-Jamal joined IS.
JOINING THE ISLAMIC STATE
Al-Jamal was born in 1978 in al-Bukamal, according to a biography published in 2015 by Deir Ezzor 24, a local news outlet. Al-Jamal had been involved in the booming smuggling market via the Qa’im border-crossing before the uprising, trading in cigarettes and weapons, and reportedly narcotics. Arrested early in the revolution for involvement in the protests, al-Jamal was one of the earliest to form an armed group in his area, Liwa Allahu Akbar (LAA) or The God is Greatest Brigade. Drawing on captured oil resources, al-Jamal became one of the most powerful actors in the province, involved in taking Hamdan airport, and appointed as the leader of the SMC’s “Eastern Front” (the SMC divided Syria into five command areas).
Within the intra-Gulf rivalry, al-Jamal had fallen into Qatar’s camp. LAA became the local branch of Alwiyat Ahfad al-Rasul (Descendants of the Prophet Brigades), a Qatari-funded rebel franchise. (Interestingly, it was an Ahfad affiliate that made the last stand against IS before the they conquered the city in August 2013.) In terms of doctrine, al-Jamal “had no ideology”, as the Deir Ezzor 24 biography put it. The partying and nightclubs Deir Ezzor 24 mentions clearly put al-Jamal toward the secular end of the spectrum, but it was not a matter of religious or political principle that drove al-Jamal into a fight with the jihadists. Al-Nusra kidnapped his brother, Ahmad al-Jamal, on 12 September 2013, and later killed two other brothers. This called for revenge, and later that month al-Jamal sought it with an attack against al-Nusra. Al-Nusra was forced onto the defensive as it did not have the local population with it.
In the course of events, al-Jamal would lose out to al-Nusra, and he would seek shelter under IS’s roof. Deir Ezzor had embedded jihadi networks by the time the uprising began because, for the prior decade, the area had served as a regime-approved logistics hub for IS. Those networks “flipped” once the Syrian rebellion broke out and, as Hassan and Michael Weiss explain in their book, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, this allowed IS’s advanced guard, al-Nusra, to find fertile ground in that area. When al-Nusra and IS split the division took on a tribal overlay in Deir Ezzor, the authors explain, with, for example, al-Nusra having a strong base among the Shuhail in the eponymous town and IS annexing the Albu Assaf clan from the Albu Saraya tribe and figures like Aamer al-Rafdan of the Bekayyir tribe.
Al-Jamal’s defection was announced on 23 November 2013 in the form of a thirty-minute video recording where al-Jamal answers questions from an IS member. Al-Jamal said the FSA was a creature of foreign intelligence services, not only in America, France, Britain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, but also Israel. Al-Jamal described Saudi Arabia as having taken the lead on the Syria file (which was true) and that the Saudis were seeking to contain the Islamist insurgents in Syria (also true).
An interesting anecdote from al-Jamal was that in meetings with Western intelligence officials, the “most frequent question” was: “why are you growing this beard?” The symbolism of Syria’s rebellion became Islamized over time and beards were an especially notable feature. This was partly in reaction to the availability of funds, with the Western decision to stay out, and partly as a symbol of defiance against a regime that had so systematically repressed religious expression. As one rebel half-jokingly put it in the summer of 2012, “We could never grow them before the uprising. This is the tough rebel look”. Al-Jamal also credibly describes the pitiful degree of support the Americans offered and Turkey’s attempts to get the rebels to go to war with IS by presenting the evidence of IS’s links to Asad.
Al-Jamal then grovelled to his new comrades. “We were ignorant of the [project] as we didn’t know that we were infidels and apostates after we used to meet with the apostates of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and with the infidels of Western nations such as America and France in order to receive arms and ammo or cash,” says al-Jamal. In his ignorance, al-Jamal says he thought IS was a gang of “terrorists and takfiris”, but he knows better “[a]fter Allah granted me the honour of repentance”. “I found that all these claims are false and baseless”, al-Jamal went on. “The treatment I received here is unbelievable, and they considered me more than a brother, and treated my according to the shari’a.”
ISLAMIC STATE TAKES DEIR EZZOR
The IS takeover of Deir Ezzor was not easy. IS had no social base in the province and the wider landscape was turning against them. IS captured Fallujah in Iraq in January 2014, yet simultaneously the rebels went to war with the jihadists on the Syrian side of the border. IS was hit so rapidly from so many directions—losing ground in seven provinces, two of them it has never (overtly) recovered in—that the overall deputy of IS, Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr), was caught out and killed in Tel Rifaat.
For six months, the rebellion fought on against IS at a tremendous cost in lives and resources. In June 2014, when Mosul fell and IS began pouring resources into eastern Syria, one final appeal was made by FSA groups to the United States to help them shore-up the resistance. It was ignored. IS declared its caliphate on 29 June and three days later al-Bukamal fell to IS. On 14 July, IS rolled over the rebels and al-Nusra, conquering most of Deir Ezzor.
Al-Jamal had been used by IS to carry out some of its most grisly actions in the process of securing control of eastern Syria. In April 2014, al-Jamal was involved in the massacre of rebels in his hometown, and in August of the same year, in nearby Abu Hamam, al-Jamal partook in the unmerciful slaughter of the Shaytat tribesmen who rose against IS. IS “shelled, beheaded, crucified and shot” the tribesmen who resisted them, The Washington Post reported. “By the time the killing stopped, 700 people were dead”. The wali (governor) of the Deir Ezzor area, what IS calls Wilayat al-Khayr, during this period, directly overseeing these atrocities, was Ali Aswad al-Jiburi (Abu Ayman al-Iraqi), a man of notorious savagery.
RISE AND FALL
Al-Jamal gained a reputation for brutality as an IS commander. This was solidified by his conduct against the Shaytat, but there were subsequent stories, too. In late 2014, Iraqi officials claimed that al-Jamal had murdered an entire family after the parents prevented the daughter from marrying him. It could well be true; it is also of a piece with the active measures Baghdad runs against visible members of IS.
In September 2015, al-Jamal was appointed deputy to Abu Firas al-Iraqi, the governor of Wilayat al-Furat (Euphrates Province), the only IS administrative unit that includes both pieces of Syria and Iraq, including al-Bukamal and al-Qa’im. Just before this, Ali al-Jiburi had been removed as governor of Wilayat al-Khayr—probably for failing to stop the U.S. raid that killed Fathi al-Tunisi (Abu Sayyaf al-Iraqi)—and replaced with someone less prominent, meaning al-Jamal was one of the most high-profile IS leaders in Syria.
Deir Ezzor 24 reported that al-Jamal was promoted to governor of Wilayat al-Furat at some point in late 2015 or early 2016, and then removed shortly after IS was ejected from Fallujah in June 2016. IS found al-Jamal guilty of failing to support their operations in Fallujah, according to Deir Ezzor 24, and the penalty was six-months imprisonment and 4,000 lashes, to be carried out in various provinces of the caliphate. Assuming Deir Ezzor 24 is correct about its timing, al-Jamal was probably still in office to oversee the defeat of Operation DAY OF WRATH, the U.S.-backed effort, on 28 June 2016, to cut the caliphate in half by pushing IS out of al-Bukamal.
Al-Jamal disappeared from public view until late September 2017, when he was re-appointed as emir for al-Bukamal, with his brother, Muhammad, as his deputy.
At the second attempt in November 2017, the pro-Asad coalition retook al-Bukamal.
Al-Jamal and three comrades were captured on 24 March 2018 by Iraqi forces, it was reported yesterday, falsifying the reports that al-Jamal was dead (July 2015) or captured by the U.S.-led coalition (October 2017). Al-Jamal was the only Syrian among the four detained jihadists. The other three were Iraqis: Umar al-Karbouli, who appears to use the kunya Abu Abdel al-Haq, the head of internal security; Muhammad Hussein Khedeer (or Muhammad al-Qadeer), the emir of al-Mayadeen; and Issam al-Zubai, the “strike force” commander.
“There are many divisions and internal struggles within the organization,” al-Jamal says in the confession video aired on Iraqi TV yesterday. Identifying himself as governor of Wilayat al-Furat, al-Jamal adds: “Many of the fighters have lost the will to fight.”
A relative of al-Jamal’s, Kasir al-Haddawi, a former IS commander in Deir Ezzor, had been arrested in Izmir with three other IS operatives—identified only as MM, MEZ, and ÖM—on 27 April 2018. Turkey has played up how senior al-Haddawi is and how close to the caliph; it might well be that al-Haddawi has useful information, but the available evidence suggests he is a mid-level amni, rather than a senior leader.
The suspicion that these two events are linked was obliquely confirmed by The New York Times, which reports that al-Jamal was rounded up as part of a “three-month operation” tracking IS jihadists in Syria and Turkey. The four men captured in March had been “directing internal security and running the administrative body that oversees religious rulings”, i.e. the Delegated Committee, according to The Times.
The operation that netted al-Jamal was made possible by the arrest, on 15 February, of another IS leader in Turkey, this time in Sakarya: Ismail al-Ithawi (Abu Zayd al-Iraqi). Al-Ithawi, with IS since the Camp Bucca days, is one of the most senior IS jihadist ever taken alive. (And unlike the case of Abdurrahman al-Qaduli, a.k.a. Abu Ali al-Anbari, al-Ithawi is known to be a top IS operative while in custody.) Al-Ithawi led the “extremists”—as against Turki al-Binali’s more “moderate” faction—on IS’s Delegated Committee, the body charged appointing administrative and security officials. Al-Ithawi reportedly headed the “Fatwa (Religious Edicts) Ministry”, possibly referring to the Office of Research and Studies. It was al-Ithawi’s signature on the fatwa in May 2017 that expanded IS’s already capacious definition of who was a heretic, a decision that was rescinded in September, apparently because the caliph took the reins back. And al-Ithawi also appears to have led the effort to remake the curriculum. Al-Ithawi was deported to Iraq soon after his capture and has since told the courts that he last met with IS’s leader, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), in July 2017, and that he served as a member of the “General Committee”, which is divided into five “emirates”: Iraq, Syria, the Gulf, Africa, and, interestingly, Europe—opening up a whole separate question about the structure of IS’s foreign networks after the collapse of the caliphate.
Despite the ongoing trouble in U.S.-Turkey relations because of the U.S.’s support for the Kurdish YPG/PKK as its Syrian ground force against IS, counterterrorism cooperation remains solid between Turkey and the United States. The Turkish government gave al-Ithawi quickly to the Americans and the Iraqis. This provided the intelligence for the 19 April Iraqi airstrike over the border into Syria, the first of its kind, which destroyed a command centre near Hajin. Iraqi intelligence claims that forty leaders of IS’s “war council” were killed in this raid. That is almost certainly exaggerated but it has been more credibly reported that the strike killed Ali Musa al-Shawakh (Abu Luqman), the former governor of Raqqa. (This was days after a U.S. strike in the same area killed Bahrumsyah, an Indonesian terrorist guide.) The U.S. and/or Iraq then used al-Ithawi’s telephone, passed on by the Turks, to contact al-Jamal over Telegram and ask him to meet. The rendezvous was set up on the Iraqi side of the border, where Iraqi forces were waiting, The Times notes. This is part of an emerging pattern of the U.S. using Iraq as a proxy to reach into Asad/Iran-held areas of Syria to attack IS.
In any taxonomy of IS’s membership, al-Jamal must rank as among the most cynical. Al-Jamal “has always been known as an opportunist”, says Hassan Hassan. “His bay’at [pledge of allegiance] to ISIS came after he saw that it was a losing battle for him, and a way to get back at Jabhat al-Nusra, which killed his brother.” In terms of rank, any suggestion that al-Jamal was close to the caliph in Hajin is not credible, according to Hassan, not least because the caliph has never been in the final IS territorial pocket around Hajin. “Even though [al-Jamal] became loyal to ISIS in terms of fighting on their side, I doubt he was admitted to its inner circles”, Hassan concludes. “Such people would have limited or guarded access to the group’s core.”
Post has been updated