Sunni tribes split over ISIS

Friday 23/10/2015
Iraqi officer hands out weapons to Sunni tribesman

AMMAN - Members of the Albu Ajeel tribe in Iraq’s Saladin province threw their lot be­hind Islamic State (ISIS) militants who invaded and captured their north-central area in June 2014.

Two months later, the al-Jughaifa tribe in the Sunni Muslim heart­land of Anbar province formed an armed force that has since been resisting ISIS, baring the jihadists from entering Haditha.

The stark contrast underlines a split in loyalties among tribes in territories the ISIS controls in Iraq and Syria. The two countries are home to clans from various sects and ethnicities but ISIS considers non-Sunni Muslims to be infidels and has instead focused on recruit­ing from among fellow Sunnis.

In Syria, the country’s approxi­mately 15 Sunni tribes account for about 15% of the population, although many Syrian Sunnis are not affiliated with a tribe. In Iraq, tribal allegiance is important for the country’s Sunni minority and the ruling rival Shia majority.

Abdul-Aziz al-Taei, a criminal law professor at Baghdad’s Al Rasheed University College, said there were several factors that made Sunni tribes in Syria and Iraq fertile ground for ISIS.

“Most significantly is the protec­tion and economic perks which the jihadists offer, the fear factor by intimidating and killing people and the social injustice that isolat­ed many Sunni tribes in Syria and Iraq and left them susceptible to Daesh,” Taei said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

“Tribes are crucial in the fabric of Arab society and they simply can’t be ignored”.

In the book The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Ter­ror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, Pakistani author Akbar Ahmed explained how tribal iden­tity was a critical factor in the re­cruitment of the hijackers in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. He argued that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden “was joined in his movement pri­marily by his fellow Yemeni tribes­men,” ten of whom came from the Asir tribes.

Haian Dukhan and Sinan Hawat, authors of a study on ISIS’s rela­tions with eastern Syria’s tribes, ar­gued that tribal groups who live in border areas between states forge tight relations to others, even mili­tants, providing them with protec­tion and support. They wrote that Iraq’s al-Qaeda sent in Syrian fight­ers and Iraqi guerrilla warfare ex­perts when the Syrian revolution started in 2011.

ISIS’s focus on winning over trib­al support follows in the footsteps of former Syrian president Hafez Assad, father and predecessor of Bashar Assad. Under the elder As­sad, tribes were “co-opted” with official posts and subsidies and “were part of the formidable popu­list powers that shored up the re­gime”, Dukhan and Hawat wrote.

In exchange, they backed the government in confrontations with the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and Kurds seeking autonomous rule. But the relation­ship withered with the economic opening under the younger Assad, which meant fewer state jobs and rising resentment.

“ISIS attempted to fill the gap created by the withdrawal of the state. It provided an alterna­tive structure of clientelism and patronage,” Dukhan and Hawat wrote.

The jihadists also made the cost of disloyalty high. In 2014, when Syria’s Sunni al-Shaitat tribe rose up against ISIS, it slaughtered more than 900 of its members in one go in Syria’s north-eastern Deir ez-Zor province.

In Iraq, similar dynamics are at work, with some tribes inclined to support ISIS because of their anger at being sidelined following the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

The post-war civil US adminis­tration and subsequent Shia-dom­inated Iraqi governments “isolated Sunni tribes, designated us en­emies and stripped us of all ben­efits, like social status and posts in the government, army and police,” said Saleh al-Jughaifa, 54, a Hadi­tha tribal leader.

“As a result, many tribesmen joined Daesh to get revenge from the state,” Jughaifa said.

Among those who have joined ISIS is the Albu Ajeel tribe, which has been accused of participating in the 2014 massacre of up to 1,700, mostly Shia, army recruits at Iraq’s Camp Speicher that rattled the Ira­qi government.

Sheikh Nawaf al-Dulaimi, from the Dulaim tribe, with more than 3 million people one of Iraq’s largest tribes, insisted that loyalty to ISIS is evenly split within the tribe in Iraq and Syria.

“There is no clan or tribe in its entirety that pledged allegiance to ISIS or other militant groups in Syria or in Iraq,” Dulaimi said.

“There are some individuals within the tribes or clans who sup­port them but they do not repre­sent their whole tribe or clan.”