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Swimming in a Turbulent Sea? Non-State Threats to the Islamic State

Publisher Jamestown Foundation
Author Nicholas A. Heras
Publication Date 19 December 2014
Citation / Document Symbol Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 24
Cite as Jamestown Foundation, Swimming in a Turbulent Sea? Non-State Threats to the Islamic State, 19 December 2014, Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 24, available at: [accessed 2 June 2023]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The focus of this analysis is Syria, specifically the territory under the control of the Islamic State organization in eastern and northern Syria. Moving from Aleppo's eastern suburbs in northwest Syria to what was once the Syrian-Iraqi border, this territory includes large areas of eastern Aleppo governorate, a majority of Raqqa governorate, the southeastern regions of al-Hasakah governorate and the majority of Deir al-Zor governorate. In these areas, the Islamic State has been actively seeking to install itself as a state authority with a monopoly on the use of violence, although not without meeting resistance both within its territory and on the borders of its potential territorial expansion.

Newly installed as the predominate armed opposition faction and socio-political authority in a large area of eastern Syria, the Islamic State uneasily wears the mantle of rulership over a region where its organization is currently, but not necessarily indefinitely, the most powerful "tribe". It is estimated that the size of the territory that the Islamic State currently has authority over includes 35 percent of Syria's prewar population (Radio Sawa [Dubai], November 24). The degree to which the Islamic State is able to influence the socio-political and ideological orientation and to exert direct control over the populations of the communities over which it claims authority in both Syria and Iraq is likely to vary considerably within this.

The Syrian military and its auxiliary forces represent a threat to the Islamic State's monopoly of force in the regions of Syria where it is seeking to build its jurisdiction. Relatively isolated but functional Syrian military units operate from air bases and artillery positions near the city of al-Hasakah and al-Qamishli in al-Hasakah governorate and at a military airbase in the city of Deir al-Zor, allowing the remnants of the Syrian military in the region to continue to apply pressure to the Islamic State (al-Masdar, November 28; al-Safir [Beirut], October 15; al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 15; Reuters, September 15). Loyalist militias organized under the National Defense Force (NDF) network, such as those which include Sunni Arab tribesmen from the ethnically and religiously mixed northeastern Syrian cities of al-Hasakah and al-Qamishli and their suburbs, generally supported by Syrian military artillery or airpower deployed from local military airbases, also pose a threat to the expansion of the Islamic State organization (al-Masdar, November 20; Daily Telegraph [London], November 16; ARA News [Sanliurfa], November 14).

Islamic State: The Most Powerful Tribe?

The majority of the population in northern and eastern Syria upon which the Islamic State is exerting its rule is composed of Arab Sunni tribes (Reuters, November 27; Radio Sawa Dubai], November 24; Reuters, October 13; al-Quds al-Arabi, October 11). [1] Arab tribal populations in Iraq formed the core of the Sahwa (Awakening) movement militias that, with significant U.S. assistance, confronted and weakened the Islamic State of Iraq, a predecessor of the Islamic State. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey acknowledged the Islamic State's effort to subordinate and integrate Syrian and Iraqi tribes into its socio-political structures of authority when he said "ISIL [the Islamic State] actually has tribal objectives, it eats its way tribe-by-tribe as it goes." [2] The Islamic State is highly conscious of the need to prevent the formation of a Syrian Sahwa movement and readily brands its rivals for power derogatorily as "Sahwa" (Reuters, November 27; Syria Direct [Deir al-Zor], January 30).

Aware of the damage that the resistance of tribally-organized and directed militias did to its past efforts at ruling a state, the Islamic State organization has been especially concerned with being seen to be associated with both providing order and social welfare as part of its governance in Syria, as well as being feared as a harsh and vengeful enforcer of its rule (Orient News [Dubai], November 24; Reuters, August 12). [3] To date, the largest and most famous rebellion against the Islamic State occurred in July, when the al-Sha'ytat clan, which is located in both eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq and has ties to the larger Shammar and Aqaidat tribal confederations, rose up in a series of villages near the city of al-Mayadeen, southeast of Deir al-Zor (al-Hayat, October 3; al-Alam [Tehran], July 31). Al-Sha'ytat tribesmen rebelled due to grievances over issues including the control of local oil wells, the right of tribesmen to bear arms and other socio-political animosity toward the Islamic State. An estimated 700-800 al-Sha'ytat were killed in the fighting or were executed by the Islamic State (Anadolu [Ankara], November 9; Reuters, August 16). Thousands of displaced al-Sha'ytat were reportedly given permission to return to their homes and were granted limited autonomy by the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in return for giving oaths of non-aggression, active prosecuting fellow tribesmen that conspire against the Islamic State and following a promise by al-Sha'ytat tribesmen to obey the Islamic State's commands (Daily Star [Beirut], November 7).

Eastern Syrian tribes, in addition to that of al-Sha'ytat, are also reported to be revolting. A sub-tribe of the large Dulaim confederation, one of the largest and most powerful tribes in western Iraq, supposedly expelled local Islamic State fighters from their village of Namlia east of Deir al-Zor city, seized Islamic State arms depots in the village, formed a new tribal militia called Liwa Thuwar al-Deir al-Ahrar (Free Deir al-Zor Revolutionaries' Brigade) and erected checkpoints outside of the village to prevent Islamic State counterattacks. Liwa Thuwar al-Deir al-Ahrar declared that it wants to be the hub of a tribal rebellion against the Islamic State in its area of Deir al-Zor governorate (Syria Mubasher [Deir al-Zor], November 19; al-Dorar al-Shammiya [Beirut], November 18).

Prior to the capture of Mosul in Iraq in June and the popular momentum that it gained from that offensive that then led to the fall of Syrian city of Deir al-Zor in July, the Islamic State shared influence and authority over the predominately tribal population of southern al-Hasakah governorate and Deir al-Zor governorate, with several other armed opposition organizations (al-Jazeera [Doha], July 15; The Daily Star [Beirut], July 15; AFP, July 14). The most prominent among these factions was the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN - Victory Front), while various other tribally-organized militias ranging from the militant Salafist Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (Islamic Movement of the Free Ones of the Levant) to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its affiliated militias also existed in these regions of Syria in cooperation and competition with the Islamic State (then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)). ISIS's cooperation with these factions, particularly in Deir al-Zor, was driven by a motivation to prevent the pre-existing tribal conflicts held by the members of its local affiliates from escalating into more widespread conflict between ISIS and the other armed opposition factions in the area (Zaman al-Wasl [Deir al-Zor], April 21; al-Safir [Beirut], March 31).

In particular, Jabhat al-Nusra was a powerful competitor to the Islamic State in and around the city of Deir al-Zor and in the southeastern districts of al-Hasakah governorate along the Khabur River prior to the defection of or displacement of the majority of its tribal militia affiliates to the Islamic State (Syria Direct, August 5; al-Safir [Beirut], July 15; Masar Press Agency [al-Hasakah], April 24; al-Arabiya [Dubai], April 19). As a result of the ideological competition presented to the Islamic State by Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State organization has sought to aggressively co-opt or displace JN influence in these newly-conquered regions of eastern Syria, in a manner similar to when the Islamic State seized control over the Syrian city of Raqqa in July 2013 (al-Akhbar [Beirut], November 5, 2013).

Traditional lines of Arab tribal leadership in eastern and northern Syria have been weakened by decades of Ba'ath Party policy designed to undermine competition to its rule by the tribes, in addition to endemic economic deprivation and stresses resulting from the Syrian civil war. [4] The military and social organization of the Islamic State organization and JN, prior to the Islamic State's July 2014 offensive in eastern Syria, have utilized the pragmatism of these weakened Syrian Arab tribal groups to assertively co-opt the region's generally under-networked tribal militias. [5] Further compounding the complexity of the armed opposition to the Islamic State in eastern Syria is that prominent tribal opposition leaders such as the important Baggara tribe's Shaykh Nawaf al-Bashir, who at one point was believed to head an armed organization affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, have failed to organize or sustain a rebel opposition movement to counter militant Salafist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. There have also been significant defections of tribesmen to these militant Salafist organizations (al-Safir [Beirut], May 14; Zaman al-Wasl [Homs], March 23, 2013; al-Safir [Beirut], February 21, 2013).

Also, the Islamic State has shown itself adept at working in an environment of socio-political, ideological and violent competition among competing armed groups and the group has willingly participated in the complex ethnic conflict that has flared into violence between Arabs and Kurds on the northern and western borders of its territory (Daily Telegraph [London], November 13; ARA News [Sanliurfa], August 17; Al-Monitor, August 6, Rudaw [Erbil], April 14). [6] Complicating the militant group's attempt to achieve dominance in Syria, however, are forces loyal to the Kurdish-majority militia network the Yekiniyen Parastina Gel (YPG - People's Protection Units) and the YPG and Arab FSA affiliates' joint operations command centers in and around the area of the city of Kobane (known as Ras al-Ayn in Arabic) (al-Arabiya [Dubai], November 30; Sputnik News Agency [Moscow], November 27; Reuters, November 27). [7] The potential cooperation between local Sunni Arab tribal militias and Kurdish forces in al-Hasakah governorate as a counter-balance to the Islamic State, such as those raised by branches of the Shammar tribal confederation, could present another potential Arab tribal threat to the Islamic State organization (ARA News [Sanliurfa], June 8). Shammar tribal fighters from Iraq, together with their Syrian kinsmen, recently cooperated with Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces to seize the Iraqi side of an important Iraqi-Syrian border crossing from the Islamic State in September, underlining the potential value of such alliances (Reuters, September 30).

A Possible Assassination Campaign against the Islamic State

In addition to potential for armed tribal uprisings against the Islamic State in Syria, there are reports of the formation of networks of anti-Islamist State fighters who are seeking to engage in a war of attrition against the group. The most noteworthy of these organizations is Saraya al-Kufn al-Abyad (White Shroud Brigade), which announced its formation in the area of the eastern Syrian-Iraqi border town of Abu Kamal in late July (al-Aan [Dubai], July 28; Tahrir Sooria [Deir al-Zor], July 24). [8] Styling itself as a popular resistance, Saraya al-Kufn al-Abyad claims to conduct irregular warfare against the Islamic State, using targeted assassinations, kidnapping and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They also claim to have killed over 100 Islamic State fighters (Reuters, October 13; ARA News [Sanliurfa], September 10).

Some of al-Sha'ytat tribal youth who had participated in the uprising against the Islamic State have been reportedly recruited into Saraya al-Kufn al-Abyad, including Syrian opposition activists who had not been previously rebel fighters (Shaam Times [Damascus], October 22; al-Hayat, October 13; Reuters, October 13; al-Akhbar [Beirut], October 1). The organization's messaging emphasizes that it is composed of local Syrians, hence their mantra of Saraya being part of a people's rebellion against the Islamic State, and it strongly decries the abuses of the foreign fighter battalions that are part of the Islamic State organization (al-Aan [Dubai], July 28). It is also reported that some fighters from three of the ideologically Salafist rebel groups that had existed in Abu Kamal prior to the Islamic State's rise predominance in the area may have joined the purported Saraya al-Kufn al-Abyad network. [9]

The narrative of an organized network of Syrian armed opposition guerilla assassins seeking bloody revenge against the Islamic State has been questioned by Syrian opposition media. A sardonic editorial in Orient News, a media outlet that typically supports the objectives of the Syrian revolutionary movement, derided the publicity surrounding the potential existence of an organized network of anti-Islamic State assassins under the command and control of a Saraya al-Kufn al-Abyad network. It referred to the purported leader of Saraya al-Kufn al-Abyad as a "cowboy of revenge," and derided stories in the media about the network's existence as the stuff of a movie plot with "action and excitement" (Orient News [Dubai], October 17).

Related to the reported existence of Saraya al-Kufn al-Abyad are claims that FSA operatives, posing as cooks for the Islamic State, infiltrated a major training camp in Deir al-Zor governorate, which is said to have a training capacity of 1,500 Islamic State fighters, and poisoned food intended for Islamic State fighters. Heralded as a victory for the FSA in the region, "tens" of Islamic State fighters were reported to have died as a result (al-Arabiya [Dubai], October 6).

The Islamic State in a Turbulent Sea?

While there is the potential for a cadre of anti-Islamic State saboteurs, from the FSA or other armed organizations such as Jabhat al-Nusra, to target the Islamic State at the local village level, there is at present no coherent armed opposition network or coalition that has demonstrated that it is ready to lead a broader organized rebellion against the Islamic State in its territory in eastern Syria. Outside of these areas, however, the Islamic State's compelling power is more limited and it is reduced from an organization that demonstrates state-like authority to another competing, albeit powerful, armed opposition faction.

Current political conditions in Iraq, where factions of the Sunni armed opposition movement are still cooperating with the Islamic State, are also likely to strongly impact the calculations of local Syrian tribal groups, especially those of the larger confederations such as the Shammar, Jabbour, Baggara, Aqaidat and Dulaim that are located throughout the eastern Syria and western Iraqi regions. As of the present time, those rebellions that have occurred against the Islamic State have not been effective in dislodging the militant group from those areas where the revolts occurred. These rebellions are likely to not be effective until they become part of a larger, networked armed opposition campaign or part of a momentum-building, general tribal revolution against the Islamic State. Armed opposition to the Islamic State in this region of Syria is just as likely to occur as a result of a resurgence of Jabhat al-Nusra or other militant Salafist and Islamist factions as it is to come from the FSA.

Nicholas A. Heras is a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and an associated analyst for the Jamestown Foundation.


1. For more on Sunni Arab tribes in northern and eastern Syria see Carole A. O'Leary and Nicholas A. Heras, "Syrian Tribal Networks and Their Implications for the Syrian Uprising," Terrorism Monitor, June 1, 2012,[tt_news]=39452#.VHoiAMmOpLU.

2. General Martin E. Dempsey, "Testimony: U.S. Policy Towards Iraq and Syria and the Threat Posed By the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)," U.S. Senate Armed Forces Committee, September 16, 2014,

3. The Islamic State utilized its official magazine, Dabiq, to promote its tribal outreach and social welfare efforts among the local tribal population and to assert that these programs are fundamental to its governance. For an analysis of Dabiq, see Michael W.S. Ryan, "Dabiq: What Islamic State's New Magazine Tells Us about Their Strategic Direction, Recruitment Patterns and Guerrilla Doctrine," in Terrorism Monitor, August 1, 2014,[tt_news]=42702&cHash=0efbd71af77fb92c064b9403dc8ea838#.VHtVssmOpLU.

4. See Nicholas A. Heras and Carole A. O'Leary, "The Tribal Factor in Syria's Rebellion: A Survey of Armed Tribal Groups in Syria," in Terrorism Monitor, June 27, 2013,[tt_news]=41079&no_cache=1#.VHssWMmOpL; Op Cit. Heras and O'Leary, June 1, 2012.

5. Ibid.

6. The Islamic State, for example, offered to provide military support for Arab tribes engaged in ethnic conflict with Kurds in mixed areas of eastern al-Hasakah governorate south of the city of al-Qamishli. See "Arab Tribes in al-Hasakah Sound the Trumpet Against the [Assad] Regime and the Shabiha of the Workers' Party [PKK]," Amir al-Hasakawi YouTube page, February 18, 2014, For more on Arab-Kurdish ethnic conflict and cooperation see Wladimir van Wilgenburg, "Kurdish Strategy Toward Ethnically-Mixed Areas in the Syrian Conflict," in Terrorism Monitor, December 13, 2013,[tt_news]=41754&tx_ttnews[backPid]=684&no_cache=1#.VHs0hMmOpLU; Op Cit Heras and O'Leary, June 27, 2013.

7. See Nicholas A. Heras, "FSA Commander Abu Issa Becomes High Value Target for Islamic State in Syria," in Militant Leadership Monitor, October 31, 2014,[tt_news]=43036&tx_ttnews[backPid]=553#.VHwN2smOpLU.

8. Saraya al-Kufn al-Abyad's original Twitter account,, was focused strongly upon the tribal resistance to the Islamic State in and around Abu Kamal and the symbolism of the fighting between al-Sha'ytat and the Islamic State. That Twitter account has been inactive since July 24, 2014. Saraya al-Kufn al-Abyad currently maintains a different Twitter account,, and a Facebook page,

9. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, "The White Shroud: A Syrian Resistance Movement to the Islamic State," Syria Comment, October 22, 2014,

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