Islamic Army of Iraq Interview by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

4-9-2014 – To recap, the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI: more accurately, ‘in Iraq’- reflecting the Arabic ‘al-Jaysh al-Islami fil Iraq’, which I will discuss below), as I have outlined before, is a Salafi nationalist insurgent group that dates back to the days of the Iraq War, having fought against both U.S. troops and the Iraqi government’s forces. The group saw a significant number of its members and commanders become part of the Sunni ‘Sahwa’ forces that pushed back against what was then the Islamic State in/of Iraq (ISI) from 2007 onwards. Following the U.S. withdrawal, the group demobilized and set up an activist front- the Sunni Popular Movement- that aimed to push for a Sunni federal region, participating as a subsidiary within the “Herak Six Provinces” movement of the Sunni Arab protests of 2013. This year, the IAI has returned to full-blown militancy. From the evidence that can be gleaned, the group has been primarily operating in Diyala and Salah ad-Din provinces, with some activity also in Anbar and north Baghdad provinces.

10556397_1493383234243874_903258483083169285_n (1)
IAI fighter in Salah ad-Din province. Examples of localities in that province with reported IAI activity include Yathrib and Ishaqi.

IAI, north Baghdad province.

Below is an interview I conducted with IAI online media activist Abu Zakaria al-Sufyani, with accompanying commentary.


Q: What are the goals of the IAI? To establish a Sunni region or free Baghdad from Shi’a rule?

A: Establishment of a Sunni region in which the law of God rules and the Ahl al-Sunna are enlightened. After that, returning Iraq in its entirety from Safavid rule.* And after that? We cross borders into neighboring lands by God’s permission.**

Q: How are relations with the Islamic State? Is there cooperation against government forces?

A: Cooperation was present and we worked together*** but the Dawla turned against us and against the rest of the brothers in a number of areas.****

Q: What is IAI’s opinion on ‘Kata’ib al-Mosul’ and ‘Kata’ib al-Hamza’ that say they are fighting to liberate areas from the Islamic State?

A: We have not heard of any faction fighting the Dawla during this stage and if anyone is fighting them we declare our innocence to God from this fighting because we and most people know that the enemy is taking up positions against us and is hoping that we fight each other. Therefore, when the Dawla has killed from among our youth in a number of areas, we have not responded and killed from among our youth and we have not taken revenge to stir up fitna. We do not want infighting and we do not want to leave our enemy alone. And thank God, we are operating and fighting the enemy despite our simple capabilities.*****

Q: Is there cooperation with the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia?

A: On the subject of cooperation, we work with every Muslim if he is content with the rule of the Book [the Qur’an] and the Sunna.


*- IAI discourse, in truth, is not making a distinction between Safavid and Shi’a, and as I have discussed previously, the group is also openly using the derogatory word ‘Rafidite‘ for Shi’a (NB: my interviewee also uses this term for Shi’a). As for the revolutionary goal, compare with IAI field commander Ahmad al-Juburi’s remarks in June: “There is no value to these battles in which these successes have been realized unless they culminate in the liberation of Baghdad from Shi’a rule.” Also compare with the testimony of an IAI supporter I spoke to in late July:

“The goal has become greater than a Sunni region, after God blessed the mujahideen with this victory and we have gained the ability to take away rule from the Shi’a.”

In short, IAI has become ever more hardline over time even as I do not doubt that at least some of its members would likely give up the fight if there were a real offer of a Sunni federal region.

**- The expression of this ambition has relevance to IAI’s name. As mentioned above, a more accurate translation than “Islamic Army of Iraq” is “Islamic Army in Iraq.” For me-influenced as I am by Latin grammar where we would have to render by genitive anyway (i.e. exercitus Mesopotamiae Islamicus)- the “of/in” is interchangeable in meaning and implications. Yet my friend Abu al-Jamajem rightly notes that ‘of’ may at first sight misleadingly imply geographical limitations rather than geographical incidence, particularly in the case of the Islamic State’s prior incarnation of al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil Iraqi wa ash-Sham (a title used consistently in the group’s releases: “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” or ISIS).

The point is, the “Islamic Army” might operate in Iraq for now but it can also expand in the hope of fulfilling the Salafi hope, however distant, of uniting the Muslim Ummah under one entity. All that said, ISIS’ prior incarnation ISI could often be observed to use the name “Dawlat al-Iraq al-Islamiya” (i.e. with genitive, Islamic State of Iraq: e.g. here) and with supporters expressing the ultimate ambition of world domination anyway.

“Strategic plan to reinforce the political position of the Islamic State of Iraq,” featuring a graphic of the world under the group’s banner (cf. mural set up by the Islamic State in Deir Hafer, Aleppo province, this year, showing the same thing).

***- cf. Ahmad Dabash of IAI to Ruth Sherlock and Carol Malouf in June on IAI’s working with the Islamic State.

****- e.g. Fallujah city, where the IAI initially had a presence but has now been subsumed by the Islamic State. Also compare with Tikrit where the Islamic State has moved against Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, a rival jihadi group; and al-Karma where the Salafi nationalist Jaysh al-Mujahideen was forced to withdraw from the city in the wake of attacks by the Islamic State.

*****- In terms of capabilities and manpower, IAI certainly does not compare with the Islamic State, which is also likely one reason why IAI is trying to avoid fighting the Islamic State (i.e. fear of total annihilation). This should be contrasted with Dabash’s tendency towards the grandiose.