The Secular Idiot’s Guide to Syria’s Jihadist Groups (Karl reMarks blog, 10/12/2012)

The proliferation of radical Islamist groups fighting in Syria is beginning to resemble the Jihadi Olympics in the words of one observer. (Me). They span the entire political spectrum, from extreme militant Salafist to Nihilist Al-Qaeda franchise. But to the untrained eye it’s difficult to tell them apart or know what each stands for. So we prepared this brief but handy guide to help you differentiate between The Lions of Damascus Brigades and The Damascus Lions Brigade. As a general rule, the more hard consonants there are in a group’s name, the more hardcore they are. Groups with 3 vowels or more are often dismissed as ‘liberals’.

Jabhat Al-Nusra
No doubt the jewel in the crown of all Jihadi groups. Except that they don’t approve of jewels. Or crowns. Or embellishments of any kind. Sometimes they are mistakenly referred to as Jabhat Al-Nusra Front, which literally means The Nusra Front Front. But that makes them sound ridiculous. And if there’s one group you don’t want to piss off it’s the Jabhat Al-Nusra. In fact, don’t piss any of them to be on the safe side.

Liwa’a Al-Tawheed
Liwa’a Al-Tawheed or the Unity Brigades is a splinter group formed out of a spin-off group of members that quit the Free Syrian Army. I know, but irony isn’t their thing.

The Lions of Damascus Brigades
Animal names are popular among Jihadi groups, but mostly lions and eagles, not so much giraffes and hedgehogs. The names are chosen to symbolise their ferocity but also their sympathy with nature and wildlife. The Lions of Damascus is also a semantic device to appropriate the name of President Assad which means ‘lion’ in Arabic. Many Jihadi groups are influenced by post-structuralist theory.

The Damascus Lions Brigade
Before you start making jokes of the “Judean Liberation Front” variety, it’s worth understanding the nuance in this group’s name that distinguishes it from The Lions of Damascus Brigades. There are some things about Jihadi groups that might appear nonsensical or irrational but… (we didn’t find a way to finish that sentence).

The Islamic Dawn Movement
Times of the day are also very common in group names’, particularly ones symbolising newness and beginnings, dawn, morning, mid-morning, that sort of thing. Which is somewhat at odds with groups that draw inspiration from ancient times and have a strong sense of nostalgia about them, but as we have already established semantic consistency isn’t the Jihadists’ strong point.

The Ummah’s Shield Brigade
Shields, swords, sabres and other paraphernalia from Islamic history are quite common among these groups, but for some reason not astronomical instruments , medical implements or any of the multitude of devices that Islamic scientists produced in the past. One might argue that it’s the result of a selective and militarised interpretation of Muslim history but one better be at a safe distance before making such argument.

Sultan Mohamed Battalion
Some might ungenerously assume that this group was named after the Ottoman Sultan because it is sponsored by Turkey, but such cynical conspiratorial interpretations have no place in the modern Jihadi world. In fact the group’s name commemorates the Sultan’s main achievement, conquering Constantinople and defeating the Byzantine Empire. This austere battalion is deeply offended by the Byzantines, “spending hours putting those puzzles together”. (We think they mean mosaics.)

The Free Men of Syria Brigade
Freedom is a strong theme among Jihadist groups, although you need to disassociate it from its Euro-centric meaning in the sense of freedom to drink alcohol, vote or read modern poetry. Freedom here refers to the freedom to impose the righteous way on other people, a human right than is totally ignored by the West. The Free Men of Syria practice what they preach, and they have taken the liberty to destroy several shipments of alcohol already.

We hope this guide was helpful, come back for updates as the groups constantly change shape, reform and split according to their own internal logic. (Nothing to do with where their financial support is coming from as some cynics might argue.) And to the Jihadi groups we say, we’re just doing a public service here, don’t shoot the messenger. I mean, you’ve been known to do it in the past.

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