It has become common knowledge that the Islamic State is operating in an 'insurgent phase' in Iraq and Syria following its loss of formal control of territory. To try to gain some sense of this insurgent activity, various methods of research are pursued, such as gathering monthly data on operations claimed by the Islamic State and then mapping out those claims, conducting interviews with locals, and so on.
Even with this research though, it can often be difficult to gauge a precise sense of Islamic State insurgent activity. Is the group 'resurging'? This question often arises in media outlets but tends to be based on observation of an immediate incident or a short-term trend while overlooking the longer-term data. But the longer-term data do not necessarily provide definite answers. Not all operations may be claimed by the Islamic State for various reasons, and one cannot simply count all operations as though they are the same in nature. Interviews with local sources may produce some interesting testimonies but can also be limited: people will say different things according to place and time, and the end result is that it can be difficult to draw broader conclusions and make definite claims as to whether the security situation is getting 'better' or 'worse.'
From monitoring of numbers of operations claimed by the Islamic State over the long-term, the Deir az-Zor area in eastern Syria is generally identified as the main hotspot of Islamic State insurgent activity. As it happens, this week's issue of the Islamic State's al-Naba' newsletter features an interview with one Abu Mansour al-Ansari, described as the 'amir of the security units' (i.e. insurgent cells) in al-Khayr region of Wilayat al-Sham (i.e. Deir az-Zor region in Syria). In this context, however, it would seem that the al-Khayr region is only identified as the areas of Deir az-Zor on the eastern side of the Euphrates River and controlled by the U.S.-backed 'Syrian Democratic Forces' (here just called the 'PKK').
The main points Abu Mansour makes are as follows:
. The state of affairs in the area is lamentable in terms of the control of the 'PKK' and its removal of the rule of Islamic law. The living situation is also very bad and the 'PKK' is plundering resources quickly as though it expects it will lose control of the area soon. People do not feel secure for themselves amid kidnappings and other crimes perpetrated by the 'PKK' and its personnel, but at the same time the 'PKK' and its personnel do not feel safe because of the Islamic State's operations.
. Most of the people in the region resent the 'atheists' of the 'PKK' for various reasons: some are genuine believers, others are 'apostates' who hoped to benefit from their rule but ended up with little, and others still are 'hypocrites' who currently do not show hostility to the 'believers' or the 'apostate' collaborators of the 'PKK' but only care about money, and since the living situation is bad, they resent the 'PKK.' However, if the 'PKK' and its collaborators could grant the 'hypocrites' wealth and power, they would be loyal to them. Only the senior collaborators of the 'PKK' who are the beneficiaries really support the system.
. The Islamic State's operations vary by time and place, and it is the Islamic State that decides when, where and how it conducts operations. The Islamic State may reduce its operations in a certain time or in a certain place on account of security campaigns launched by the 'PKK' with American support, but the Islamic State makes sure that it does not lose the reins of the initiative to its enemies and makes sure that it is not forced into an open confrontation that is not in its interest right now.
. The security campaigns of the 'PKK' are in reality failures amid the claims to arrest Islamic State operatives and capture their weapons, as most of the people arrested actually are not part of the Islamic State and are soon released.
. The Islamic State's operations have pushed many to 'repent' of disbelief (kufr) and many who worked in non-military/security sectors have abandoned their employment out of fear of the Islamic State's operatives. One finds that many of the 'apostates' do not go about in their towns and villages wearing military uniform out of fear of being targeted, so they have become 'invisible' in their disbelief after they previously flaunted it. If the force of the mujahideen increases and it gains power, then one will see more people repenting.
Now, from this interview, do we necessarily gain more insight into the nature of the Islamic State insurgent activity in the areas of Deir az-Zor controlled by the SDF? Do we get a definite sense that the security situation is getting 'better' or 'worse' for the SDF? Not really. All we can be sure of is that (i) Islamic State still does not exert any formal control of territory in those areas, (ii) many insurgent operations occur (unsurprising given that these areas were the last in Syria to remain under Islamic State control) but the frequency and location vary according to multiple considerations we cannot know in full, (iii) the group feels some pressure from the security campaigns launched by the SDF with American support but at the same time claims it has the initiative for conducting operations and is not on the back-foot where it cannot plan operations let alone execute them, (iv) the group does not feel it can win an open fight with the SDF at the present time, and (v) the eventual hope is that the insurgent operations will wear out the SDF.
In my view, we can only say so far that there is a steady ongoing insurgency in the area and it is unlikely to be eradicated for the foreseeable future. Real improvement in the security situation would have to show a significant long-term decline in operations, while a major deterioration would involve ever more ambitious operations that can kill large numbers of SDF personnel or something like the development of a 'mafia'-style network in which the general population ends up paying extortion money to Islamic State.
Below is the interview in al-Naba' with Abu Mansour al-Ansari fully translated along with the original text.
Discussion with Sheikh Abu Mansour al-Ansari (may God protect him)
Amir of the security units in al-Khayr in Wilayat al-Sham
In the beginning, could you clarify to us in summary the state of the area amid the control of the PKK apostates of it?
Praise be to God and prayers be upon His Messenger and whoso is loyal to him, as for what follows.
The state of the area today is lamentable from all angles, and there is no power or force except in God. For the religion has been lost by the imposition of the Jahili rulings by the apostates on the area, and they strive heavily to corrupt the doctrines of the people and enter them into the religion of atheism that they profess, and that is through the media, education and other means, and the corruption of ethics and the acts of disobedience are spread very much. And you do not find the one to condemn it, or to command what is right, amid the preoccupation of the people with the matters of this world over the Afterlife. And the one who compares its state with what it was upon when the soldiers of the Islamic State controlled it will be struck with wonder at the rapid change of its state, and despite that there is still good we hope for in the people- by the permission of God Almighty- from those who have learnt Tawheed and are still keen for their religion, and avoid the kufr of the atheists or loyalty to them. We ask God to make them steadfast and to derive benefit through them.
And likewise in terms of the livelihood, the area's situation is very bad, for the apostates' only concern is to steal oil and many resources present in it, and rob the people of their wealth in various ways, so there are no good services, or available work opportunities, or new projects, and as though the atheists are convinced of their departure from it soon- by the permission of God Almighty- so they are dedicated to stealing what they can in the quickest time without spending anything. They think that they will not remain to benefit from it later.
And what about the security state that dominates the area today?
The state in terms of the security angle is very bad with regards to the apostates, for they- thanks be to God Almighty- do not feel secure over themselves to proceed at east in all the areas of al-Khayr, as they are killed by the ambushes and IEDs of the mujahideen. Indeed they do not feel secure over themselves even inside their homes, so long as the soldiers of the Islamic State assault them and kill them while they are on their beds.
And likewise the masses of the people in the area lack security for themselves and their wealth from the criminals, as the operations of kidnapping and highwaymanship grow numerous night and day, just as the tribal vengeances that died down during the days of the rule of the Islamic State over the area have returned. And these vengeances have taken the lives of dozens of people and planted fear and enmity between them during the past tw years. And all this is happening amid deliberate neglect by the Crusaders and the atheists, for they deliberately sow divisions and wars between the people, and even help some sides against others according to the degree of loyalty to them. It has also been established that many of the gangs of kidnapping and robbery that attack the lives and wealth and honour are composed of personnel of the PKK and its intelligence apparatuses, or of those who are protected by them from their apostate allies. May God destroy them all.
And the one who compares the state of the area today with its state in the days of the rule of the Islamic State, remembers how the Muslims and the people of the dhimma would traverse the steppes and towns night and day while being secure over themselves and their wealth. We ask God Almighty to restore the rule of the Shari'a to this land soon, so the Muslims will be safe through it. Indeed He is capable of that.
On the basis of this, what is the nature of the relation between the people and the apostates ruling the area?
The relation between the two sides is not dominated by affection, as has appeared to the people through the recent protests that the area has seen, contrary to the claim of the atheists and their allies who have previously promised the people security, wealth and services by merely removing the rule of the Shari'a from the land. Then they broke their promises and became preoccupied with their masters in stealing, plundering and getting close to the Crusaders, leaving the circumstances of the people to grow worse day after day, such that the resentment against them grows because of that.
And the people here by their nature are divided. Among them are the Muslims who devote themselves to the service of God Almighty by hatred of the Crusaders and the apostates, and hatred of their rule of kufr, and they are hostile to them in the religion not for the sake of worldly gains and benefits, for they hate the atheists and whoso is loyal to them even if they were to spread security and pour wealth upon the people, so just consider then when they have spread fear and corruption and have put a stranglehold on the people in their livelihood.
And among them are the apostates who have sold their religion for the sake of their material world, but when they found that they would not obtain anything from the material world of the atheists and Crusaders, they came to resent them, and these people were promised before that they would have a big share of the revenues of oil of the area, or come to possess authority in them, then they came out from the matter empty handed after they expended their lives and wealth in the path of the Taghut, and the only people among them who have benefited are a small minority of the senior agents and spies whom the atheists have made a face for their rule. As for the rest, they are despised slaves who have only crumbs, scarce salaries they receive in return for their disbelief in God Almighty and their enmity against the Muslims. And there are the hypocrites who have not shown loyalty to the apostates or supported them against the Muslims, and at the same time they are not hostile to them for their religion, so they are slaves of the dirham and dinar. If they are given, they are content, and if they are not given, they are angry, preoccupied as they are with this world and not wanting to show hostility to the Muslims or hostility to the apostates, keen to preserve their material world, but their hostility to the atheists is there so long as the living situation for them is bad, but if the Crusaders and apostates please them with positions among them or some false power or something of wealth, they will turn to allies for them, and show in that disbelief in the religion.
And the state of affairs we have clarified about the area makes all the kinds of people in a state of hostility to the atheists- thanks be to God Almighty- except small groups of the beneficiaries or the senior criminals who are protected by the atheists and fear the vengeances of the Muslims that will afflict them sooner or later by the permission of God as a reward for what their hands have committed against the oppressed.
So the Muslims are hostile to them for their kufr and their war against the religion, and the apostates and hypocrites are hostile to them for what they have caused from corrupting the livelihood of the people, and for their monopolisation of wealth and authority without them. And we are striving to increase the confronting enmity against the Crusaders and the atheists through various means, through terrorising the allies of the atheists, and killing those who help them in the local councils to deceive the people and to pacify the enmity with them. And the efforts of your brothers in this field have brought about great success thanks to God Almighty, and some of their results are well-known and established, and some others are hidden and veiled, with review of them by the people of the affair from the mujahideen. And God Almighty the Lord of the Worlds knows them.
In discussing the work of the soldiers of the Islamic State in the area, we notice that the manner of work varies from time to time, and from one place to another. What is the reason for that?
Your mujahideen brothers in al-Khayr are working in very difficult circumstances, for the apostates have tamkin in the land, and they have spread in it great numbers of their person in the area and they have distributed them over many checkpoints and military points. Also they have been aided in that by many of the apostates who have become eyes and spies for them, looking out for the activities of the mujahideen and transmitting news of them to their masters, and the Crusaders control the skies through reconnaissance aircraft that observes the area, and helicopters and fighter jets that provide air cover for the ground movements. And there is no power or force for us except in God Almighty. But despite that, the soldiers of the Islamic State have managed during the past three years to carry out hundreds of operations, by the grace of God Almighty alone. In these operations they have inflicted great losses on the Crusaders and apostates, and they have prevented them from achieving the stability that is the foundation of imposing their complete control.
As for the issue of the change of the manner of work and its distribution, this is due to multiple reasons, among them that the mujahideen determine sometimes to intensify the work in a certain area or against a certain type of targets for reasons they consider. And they consider at other times to freeze the work in a certain area for a time, and the choice may be for them to move the gravity of the war from one area to another. And all that is subject to the assessments of the brothers from the amirs of the mujahideen.
And in addition to that, the campaigns of the Crusaders and apostates are almost unceasing in the area, as they continually try to watch out for the mujahideen, pursue them with killing or imprisonment in order to stop their jihad, or at leas to put them in a position of flight that impedes their freedom to plan offensive operatives let alone implement them. And this matter may slow sometimes the activity of the security cells of the soldiers of the Caliphate in a certain time or place.
But as the people see, the mujahideen thanks be to God soon enough restore their activity after every campaign and return to target the apostates and force them into a state of defensiveness for a time, until the leadership of the apostates is compelled to mobilise great forces in various areas to undertake a campaign against the mujahideen accompanied by the American Crusader army and its intense aircraft, so the brothers avoid confrontation with them. Then the matter returns to its prior state after a time, so we and they are in fight and flight until we wear them our and God Almighty gives us victory over them. And they have despaired- thanks be to God- about stopping the operations of the mujahideen in the area, so the utmost of their hopes today is to reduce the losses in their ranks, and grace be to God before and after.
The apostates announce after every military campaign they undertake the inflicting of great losses on the mujahideen. What is the truth of the matter?
In every campaign they announce the arrest of a number of people they claim are of the mujahideen and their amirs, and they show some of the weapons they claim belong to the mujahideen, in order to portray to the people that they have weakened their force and reduced their danger and have come on the verge of destroying them. And is the practice of the apostates anything but lying?!
And it has been better for them to stop these lies that have made them the laughing stock of the people of the area, who know the detained and the circumstances of their arrest and know the truth about the weapons that appear in the reports of the atheists on the basis of being weapons of the mujahideen.
There is no greater evidence for their lie than the fact that after every campaign in which they arrest dozens of the people soon enough release most of them during a few days, so it becomes clear to all that they actually arrested them to make them numbers in the miserable results of their campaigns. Indeed they have arrest in the recent campaigns some of the personnel of their intelligence apparatuses and their spies and others who are the most loyal to them. May God destroy them all.
Then the lie of their destroying the danger of the mujahideen is exposed with the return of the operations that target the apostates and snatch them on the roads and checkpoints and inside the bases, such that it becomes clear even to their personnel and leaders and indeed their Crusader masters that the results of those great campaigns have become meaningless, and praise be to God before and after.
And the reality is that the mujahideen, as we have mentioned, steer clear of confrontation with the great campaigns, as this confrontation is not in our interest, especially as the reins of initiative are in our hands by the grace of God, so we are the ones who decide after the guarantee of success by God and His facilitation when we light a fire in a certain area under their feet, and when we move the fire to another area in which they think themselves safe so we deprive them of their sleep. And we are the ones who decide the appropriate time for our operations and the method of fighting against them, and we do not allow them to provoke us to battle for which they are the ones who have made the plans.
What is the impact of the jihad of the soldiers of the Islamic State in turning the people away from falling into the kufr of loyalty to the atheists and fighting in their ranks?
Since the beginnings of the retreat of the control of the Islamic State over the land, and the elevation of the Crusaders and the apostates in it, many of the people have fallen into kufr and apostasy by joining the ranks of the apostates of the PKK in desire and terror, and the one who misleads them has been Satan in this direction as they do not find for themselves a deterrer who deters them from it, after the fear of God Almighty has disappeared from their souls, and the keenness for this world has blinded their sights and blotted out their hearts. But- and praise be to God Almighty- since the mujahideen reorganised their ranks and began their blessed jihad against the Crusaders and the apostates, many of the people have felt the danger of the matter upon them, and that whoso does not fear the torment of God Almighty in the Hereafter must fear the torment of His slaves in this world, especially as the damage of the mujahideen on the apostates has increased, and they have begun snatching them in the markets and assassinating them before the sight of the people. Then they plot against the one of them who has hidden in his house so they kill him among his people and clan, and destroy their property for the sake of which they have disbelieved in God Almighty.
So all that has pushed many of the people to declare repentance from loyalty to the apostates and helping them to spread their kufr. Indeed many of those who worked with them in non-military or security sectors have abandoned their employment and looked for a source of provision far removed from them for themselves, as they fear that the hands of the monotheists will strike them. And the grace is to God before and after the Exalted has used us in preventing the people from entering into the religion of kufr in companies.
And whoso has remained in their ranks out of his concern for the crumbles they offer him, that person- thanks be to God Almighty- lives in fear as he does not know when God Almighty will grant His servants power over him, so there are areas not one of them dares to enter. Indeed in all the areas of al-Khayr you find many of the apostates do not go about in their town or village with military clothing, out of fear the mujahideen will observe them and target them. So they become invisible in their kufr today from the people after they proudly flaunted it, and their matter will not be hidden to God Almighty or to His soldiers, and there will afflict them- by the permission of God Almighty- the intense torment in this world and the Hereafter, as a reward for their kufr and what their hands have committed from crimes against the Muslims.
And we are certain that whenever the force of the mujahideen increases, and their damage against the apostates increases, and God Almighty opens up for them more in the land, the numbers of those who abandon the ranks of the atheists will increase, as they announce repentance from their kufr and apostasy, fulfilling the Almighty's words: 'When the victory of God and the conquest come, and you see the people entering into the religion of God in companies' (al-Nasr 1-2), so the victory for the Muslims is accompanied by the entry of the people into the religion of God Almighty in companies, and we ask God Almighty to hasten it for His monotheist allies.
Finally, many of the Muslim youth in the areas of al-Khayr and outside it are looking for the security units of the soldiers of the Caliphate seeking jihad in their ranks and fighting with them. What is your directive to these brothers?
I say to them in the beginning: may God thank your effort and write your reward, and reward you for your just intentions, and the next stage of the jihadist work is your stage, and the greatest turn in it will be your turn by the permission of God (Almighty and Exalted is He), and indeed merely your request to join the convoy of the Caliphate has great damage against the apostates, for they are trying hard to turn away the Muslims from jihad in the path of God through preoccupying them with desires, or misleading them with doubts. So make pure your intentions to God the Exalted, and make your request pure to His noble face, for indeed God is good and only accepts good.
And know that the fields of jihad are within your reach and not far from you, so roll up your sleeves in earnest and be adorned with the spirit of boldness, and be the best successor to the best predecessor, and if it is not feasible for one of you to join the security units of the Islamic State, let him be a security unit for it wherever he is, waging jihad against the disbelievers and the apostates as far as he can, and supporting his brothers as far as he can, and God does not entrust a soul except with what it is capable of, and victory is only from God the Mighty and Wise.
This is so and praise be to God the Lord of the Worlds, and prayers and peace be upon the seal of those sent, our Prophet Muhammad, and on all his family and companions.