Exclusive - Extremist ‘Guardians of Religion’ Group Poses New Headache for Iraq

Exclusive - Extremist ‘Guardians of Religion’ Group Poses New Headache for Iraq

Saturday, 5 January, 2019 - 08:00
Iraqi security forces. (AFP)
Baghdad, Cairo – Hamza Mustafa and Walid Abdulrahman
The Guardians of Religion Organization, which rose from al-Qaeda’s shadow in northwestern Syria in 2018, is beginning to pose a security threat to Iraq.

Extremist groups experts fear that the organization could be a new form of al-Qaeda after it managed to recruit to its ranks in Iraq foreign elements of what was left of the pro-Qaeda al-Nusra Front and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham groups in Syria. The Guardians also includes several smaller units under its wing and although their numbers may be small, they are a threat to stability in Syria and Iraq because they rely on guerrilla warfare.

The formation of the Guardians of Religion Organization was officially announced in February 2018. It called for saving the residents of Syria’s Eastern Ghouta from a then-imminent regime offensive. It also pledged to wage attacks against the regime.

On its profile on the Telegram website, the organization describes itself as a product of the “Syrian revolution that seeks to defend Muslims.” It did not declare any allegiance to al-Qaeda, but observers are certain of its affiliation to the terrorist group.

Shortly after this announcement, several Qaeda cells and units in Syria, specifically in the Idlib and Latakia regions, pledged their allegiance to the Guardians.

An Egyptian study found that the Guardians includes defectors from the Fatah al-Sham group, former ISIS members and foreign fighters. It said that the Guardians brings together al-Qaeda’s traditional strategy of fighting the enemy from afar and from close range at the same time. It also highlighted its reliance on guerrilla tactics given the small number of its members. The study, compiled by Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta, said that the group boasts no more than 1,000 members.

The members are former ISIS fighters and terrorists who had seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, it continued. They have a lot of experience in war and are probably skilled at gathering intelligence information. Their experience in Afghanistan probably bolstered the Guardians ties with al-Qaeda central leaderships.

ISIS, has meanwhile, denounced the Guardians, accusing its members of being “infidels” and of affiliation to the Taliban movement.

Radical groups expert Rasmi Ajlan told Asharq Al-Awsat that despite its low number of members, the Guardians is a threat to Syria and Iraq because of its guerrilla tactics. He added that the group has worked on recruiting foreign fighters and it enjoys the support of al-Qaeda’s central command and regional affiliates.

A number of researchers at Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta explained to Asharq Al-Awsat that the names “Guardians of the Religion” indicates that al-Qaeda can take on “different organizational forms without giving up its alleged role as the leading defender of the Islamic ummah.”

Other observers said that the emergence of the Guardians reflects the depth of the divisions within al-Qaeda in Syria. The first of these cracks emerged when Abou Mohammed al-Joulani announced in 2016 that the Nusra Front was defecting from al-Qaeda. It then changed its name to the Fatah al-Sham Front.

This development, said observers, led to other major defections in the Front.

In Baghdad, the parliamentary security and defense committee voiced its determination to investigate the emergence of the Guardians in Iraq.

Committee member Abbas Sarout said Friday that the body had only heard of the organization through the media.

“We have not received any security or intelligence reports that confirm its presence in Iraq,” he added.

He said that when parliament begins to hold regular sessions, it will hold an expanded meeting with security and military commanders to determine whether the group was indeed in Iraq. The necessary measures will then be taken.

Security sources said that the Guardians has joined the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order that is based in Iraq’s Salaheddine province and is active in the Tuz Khurmatu, Nineveh, Kirkouk and Diyala regions.

A senior security source told Asharq Al-Awsat on condition of anonymity that the Guardians is trying to portray itself as another version of ISIS after the terrorist group was defeated in Iraq in late 2017.

It is clear that even though ISIS has lost its territories in Iraq, it still has room to maneuver through launching occasional attacks, he continued. It has also shown an ability to infiltrate Iraq and Syria.

“Claims of the emergence of another version of ISIS under various names have proven to be great exaggerations,” he said.

Former head of the parliamentary security and defense committee Hakem al-Zameli told Asharq Al-Awsat that on the ground, the Guardians does not seem to exist.

“We are still dealing with ISIS, which we have defeated militarily and whose remnants we are still pursuing,” he added.

“The Guardians is nothing more than a media ploy,” he stated.

Armed groups expert Dr. Hisham al-Hashemi echoed these remarks.

He told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Guardians exists “more in the virtual world than the real one.”

“It exists on the internet and its rhetoric reveals that it is a mix of Sufi and Baathist members, who appear from time to time under different guises and names,” he explained. The majority of these figures are not even present in Iraq.

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