The increasing violence in Iraq is a clear sign that the insurgency has made a comeback in the country. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) gets most of the publicity, but there are several other groups active such as the Baathist Jaish Rijal al-Tariqat al-Naqshibandi, Ansar al-Sunna, Hamas Iraq, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Islamic Army, and others. While it would appear that these organizations are all working towards the same goal, overthrowing the government, they have different ideologies and rivalries. In the last two years these differences have slowly been exposed as there has been infighting between them. That mostly involves the smaller ones fighting with the Islamic State.
In April 2014 there were three reports of insurgents fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. April 6, a story ran that 2 ISIS leaders had been killed by Ansar al-Sunna in southern Kirkuk in a half hour gunfight. One of the dead was Abu Bakr the Islamic State’s Wali or governor for the province. The next day a Naqshibandi leader and his son died at the hands of ISIS in the Hamrin region of Diyala. Allegedly the Baathists were complaining to the Islamic State about it kidnapping some of its members in Qara Tapa, and things got out of hand and led to violence and the two deaths. Finally on April 18 another ISIS commander was killed by Ansar al-Sunna in Rashad, Kirkuk. One source told Al-Mada the dispute started with some tribal fighters who were opposed to ISIS. These are the most recent examples, but there are plenty more reaching back into last year. December 27, 2013 Ansar al-Sunna claimed that ISIS had killed 40 of its members. That led Ansar to send a message to Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri calling on him to reign in ISIS. Unfortunately for Ansar, the Islamic State no longer considers itself part of the larger Al Qaeda network. There was fighting between the two in Kirkuk and Mosul afterward. Before that on October 14, 3 fighters were killed and others wounded in the fourth clash in four weeks between Ansar and ISIS. This dispute started when the Islamic State assassinated a local Sahwa commander, which Ansar believed would turn the tribes against the insurgency. That proved true as the Sahwa leader’s tribe did declare war on ISIS. There were also stories that the two groups were arguing over money and weapons. Initially the two sides started off with setting off improvised explosive devices against each other, but that quickly escalated to shootings in September. It’s obvious that Ansar al-Sunna has the biggest problem with the Islamic State. Each considers itself an Islamist group committed to international jihad, both want to establish a caliphate, use sectarian rhetoric to describe Shiites, and are involved in the fighting in Syria. Their major differences are over tactics and ties to the international jihadist movement. Ansar worries that ISIS’s actions in Iraq will eventually turn the population against it like what happened from 2006-2008. Ansar is also connected to Al Qaeda central, as it originally started out as Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish branch of AQ. The Islamic State on the other hand has emerged as an independent organization no longer affiliated with Zawhiri. The two therefore see each other as rivals within the Islamist camp. The Naqshibandi has a completely different ideology based upon Sufism and Baathism. It has said to cooperate with the Islamic State before to carry out operations, but in the Diyala instance it appears the two groups got in a turf war. Since the Naqshibandi is the next largest militant group, and expanding its operations as well with its Military Councils, perhaps more conflicts over territory will happen in the future.
The Islamic State has a poor history of cooperation with other insurgent groups. In both Iraq and Syria it has tried to assert itself as the leader of the militant movement. At first, it initially works with others, but eventually it wants the head role, and turns on those that do not go along with it. There is an obvious rivalry between it and Ansar al-Sunna. Since they have so much in common they must be competing for the same set of supporters. The Naqshibandi on the other hand is the second largest militant group in Iraq. Since ISIS is extending its network across the entire country it must be stepping on the toes of others like the Baathists. It was these differences and disputes that eventually gave rise to the Awakening in Anbar and the Sons of Iraq program across the rest of the country from 2005-2008. Many armed factions became tired of the heavy-handed tactics of then Al Qaeda in Iraq. That might eventually happen again. The problem is the Americans were adept enough to see these differences and play divide and conquer. Baghdad may not be able or willing to do the same since it sees these armed factions as an existential threat. It may thus miss out on a great opportunity to cut into the expanding insurgency.
Buratha News, “The killing of a leader in the terrorist organization “Naqshibandi” and his son at the hands of the elements of “Daash” terrorists northeast of Baquba,” 4/7/14
Al Mada, “The killing of a senior commander in “Daash” in clash with supporters of Ansar al-Sunna south of Kirkuk,” 4/18/14
National Iraqi News Agency, “3 Gunmen killed in fight between Qaeda, Ansar Assuna south of Kirkuk,” 10/14/13
- “Two leaders of the ISIS killed in a clash between Al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sunna south of Kirkuk,” 4/6/14
Al-Qaisi, Mohammed, “Al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sunna clash in Kirkuk,” Al Shorfa, 9/23/13
Al-Tamimi, Aymenn Jawad, “Musings of an Iraqi Brasenostril on Jihad: Comprehensive Reference Guide to Sunni Militant Groups in Iraq,” Jihadology, 1/23/14