Shammar tribe in Iraq confronts ISIS attempts at new insurgency
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
What follows is an exclusive interview with Ali Nawfil Al-Hasan a leader of the Shammar tribe, from its Al-Aslam section of the tribe, and President of the Council of Dour district. The Al-Aslam tribe is one of the biggest of the Shammar sub-tribes. The interview was conducted in Arabic, translated by Kareem Botane and then edited for clarity by Seth J. Frantzman. Notes were also added below. An attempt was made to transliterate many local Arabic names of riverbeds, towns and areas in Saladin governorate. Arabic spelling was provided for some of them.
[NOTE: The Shammar tribe are a Sunni Arab tribe spread throughout the Middle East in Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. They are one of the largest tribes in the region and were opponents of ISIS of Syria and Iraq. The interview was conducted on June 21, 2018 after ISIS members, disguised with military uniforms set up a fake checkpoint on the road near Ayn el-Azim village and Al-Shirqat near al-Hadar island south of Mosul and kidnapped six people, including four workers and two members of the Hashd al-Shaabi. ISIS then executed them. In another incident on June 19, ISIS kidnapped 30 members of the Shammar tribe in Saladin (Salahuddin صلاح الدين) governorate and executed seven of them in Al-Dour (AlDor) district. A report noted, "According to the head of the Salahuddin council, Ali Nawaf, the majority of those abducted were from the local Shammar tribe. Nawaf added that 7 bodies of the abductees were found on Tuesday morning, handcuffed and left in the desert."
The Shammar tribe appealed to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for weapons to fight ISIS. Shammar has been carrying on low level clashes with ISIS as security appears to deteriorate. In the following days there were clashes in Seneia town near Baiji. It raises questions about how the Iraqi Security Forces, a year after re-taking Mosul from ISIS, have allowed strategic areas in Iraq to slip back into insecurity and the hands of extremists. After the Iraqi elections on May 12 the country has been without a new government amid court challenges and it continues to suffer from controversies over Shi'ite militias (PMU) disputes with the US Coalition. On June 22 Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, leader of Kata'ib Hezbollah, condemned the US.]
Can you describe the aftermath of the kidnapping and the situation the Shammar face?
I will now talk about not only the Shammar tribes but also the current situation in the eastern area of the Saladin Governorate (صلاح الدين). It is extremely bad. The security situation is very bad, in these areas ISIS is coming and going as they want freely. They move about as they wish. The areas they are based in is the Dour district all the way to the Hamrin Mountains to Ein Al-Hasan (عين الحسن), Slabkha, Al-Mamlaha (مملحة), Mutayibija (مطيبيجة), Wadi al-Azim (وادي عظيم), Wadi Al-Dour and in Hamrin mountains themselves. In addition the areas east of Samarra and in eastern Saladin Governorate as well as Jalam al-Dour (جلةم الدور).
[SF NOTE: The geography here consists of the Tigris river flowing north from Baghdad through Samarra, Tikrit and then Baiji where it breaches the Hamrin mountains and flows north toward Shirqat and Mosul. To the east of the river is Hawija and Kirkuk and to the West the desert. The Saladin governorate takes in this entire area of river from just north of Baghdad to Shirqat. ISIS took parts of this area during its June 2014 offensive. The Iraqi army liberated Tikrit in March 2015 and Baiji in October 2015. But the army didn’t take areas around Shirqat until September of 2016 and Hawija until October 2017. ]
The situation has been going on for many years but in the last few days in mid June it has become an issue that the media is talking about. We have been in this situation for a long time and the media only recently began to focus on it and talking more honestly about what is happening. In Door neighborhood about 30 people were kidnapped and 8 killed. That is what happened recently. In the area called Al-Jazeera, which is an area stretching up to Mosul and a part of Shirqat in Saladin Governorate is what was affected in recent weeks.
Moreover there are Shammar tribes that are distributed in these areas and the Iraqi forces in these areas are very limited and they do not have enough forces to protect the region. This is because most of the Iraqi army has been sent toward the border with Syria in Anbar Governorate border, and to Shingal (Sinjar) and Ba’aj. Our areas are empty of forces. There it needs at least one or two brigades to hold the area from Thartharar between Hathar and Shirqat and Tal-Abta and Hathar. If such a force was here it could hold and capture ground and stabilize the security in the area. We lost around 200 men in this area and only from the Shammer tribe around 80 have been killed due to ISIS attacks in the last two years. If we are talking about houses, there are around 420 houses totally destroyed, and in the areas of Ayn Al-Hasan (عين الحسن) and Mutayibija (مطيبيجة), and those areas the civilians and average people became victims of ISIS.
This is the area that ISIS took over. For example in Mutayibija, which is a kind of regional capital for Islamic State. In all these areas I mentioned ISIS has control, including Sheikh Mohamedia (المحمدية), Hamrin, Mamlaha (مملحة), and Al-Zarqa. But specifically, ISIS has control over Mutayibija (مطيبيجة) which is about 100km from the Saladin governorate’s capital. ISIS carries out their own activities within 40 km of the center of the governorate. The only thing that can bring a salutation to this is if the Iraqi army will bring a brigade to the area and clean it from ISIS and bring back the families who were displaced to their homes. That would mean around 400 families and thousands of people. Then there would be security that would begin to return to the area. But because the Saladin governorate has not provided safety and security, the problem has now extended to the city of Tikrit itself and ISIS will come back to this area. In addition, the situation is also bad in other areas of the governorate and the authorities cannot bring security, which has led us to say that only the Shammar can do it. The Shammar tribesmen in Al-Door, Saladin, Alam (العلم) and Tikrit are those who can aid in bringing security.
One issue we also face is ISIS sleeper cells. They exist everywhere and in every single village in the district and are strongly connected with eachother and the ISIS structure. I already gave to the Iraqi government and army leaders around 1,500 men two years ago who were ready to volunteer and they said the number is too many. So we said we would provide 800 and then offered 250 and asked for permission to arm them. And we got permission for the smaller number. But until now no one has come and supported us and we didn’t receive anything. For example, we even did not get Humvees or heavy weapons or salaries or wages. Our men are fighting with AK-47s and sometimes three men share one rifle. That is not acceptable and the government should take action and the protect our governorate. Reinforce our forces on the ground here and support those who are on the ground and who fighting terrorism. We argue that if the government gives us weapons we will protect and secure out areas and we can protect the countryside.
But until now no one has come and supported us and we didn’t receive anything. For example, we even did not get Humvees or heavy weapons or salaries or wages.
What about the recent victims of ISIS?
Yes, these victims who were killed were members of the Hashd al-Shaabi, but not all of them. Of course some of the tribes here have helped the Iraqi army to liberate their area and to bring families back to the area. Therefore these villages should be left like this and be rebuilt again and their people should come back to them.
We seek to tell our story to newspapers and the media to send our message to the Iraqi government and ask why they did not accept out project and accept the names we sent them. We would like to know if there is someone behind this, what is the reason to not let us liberate our land with our own hands. Why is there a lack of support for 500 fighters, or 1,500 who need support and who are fighting for their land?
Why is there a lack of support for 500 fighters, or 1,500 who need support and who are fighting for their land?
We have many of the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Units PMU) forces here in Saladin with a huge number of fighters but there are no forces on the ground. There are just fake names that have been created, and they are taking money from the government. We are the forces that are actually doing the fighting on the ground for two years, saving civilian lives, without government support. The proof in what I say is that all the army leaders have witnessed this with their own eyes. They were supposed to support us and provide arms after the liberation.
[Note: The PMU were formed in 2014 after a Fatwa by Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Up to 100,000 men, many of Shi'ites, joined a group of militias, many of which had existed before 2014. These included the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kata'ib Hezbollah. In 2016 they began to be incorporated into the official security forces after the parliament in Iraq passed a law. By 2018 they had been incorporated by remained controversial, manning checkpoints throughout areas re-taken from ISIS]
How has Mutayibija became a local ISIS capital?
I would say the largest and best place for ISIS now in Iraq is Mutayibija in the eastern part of Saladin governorate. It’s people have been displaced by ISIS until today. We do not understand why the central government has been silent in dealing with it and why they have not eliminated this spot that is considered to be relatively weak in ISIS ideology and activities. So, because it was not re-taken it has now become the “capital of ISIS” in the area and they are there. Their roots in that area go back to 2006 and they remain today. It is a very strategic place for ISIS because of the geography which consists of a valley, sandy mountains and forest. So these provide them advantages. For instance it is difficult to get forces in there, especially tanks and Humvees. Therefore they know that they are safe out there and no one can reach them. So it has become a stronghold.
We did one operation in the area and we stopped until the government will do something for us. Will the government take a stand and protect the Shammar tribe and the civilians? We as Shammar tribesmen have been quick to respond and we have procedures for the situation on the ground. This includes in Basra, Baghdad, Saladin, Sammara, Karbala and Moscul where our men have gathered to take action against ISIS and which we helped to liberal. So we said after what can the government do for us. These area in northern and central Iraq require heavy weapons to protect, including warplanes and helicopters. A concentrated effort by the army, backed by aerial assets could defeat ISIS in these areas. Instead what we have seen is that every day helicopters take off and fly over the eastern area of Saladin checking it. If this was done systematically it would not give ISIS a space to breathe in.
Two years ago we completed a major operation in eastern Saladin. It was successful and destroyed around 80 ISIS cars of different types. It was done so that people could return to Al-Alam and Al-Dour. ISIS has taken advantage of the urban areas and places far from the city in the desert which are hard to reach, and the Iraqi army is not following through on operations in those areas.
ISIS has taken advantage of the urban areas and places far from the city in the desert which are hard to reach, and the Iraqi army is not following through on operations in those areas.
We have a plan. If the Iraqi government gave us a positive response. The areas that are very dangerous today are the desert between Hathar and Shirqat. Then Tel-Bal, Al-Mujamat, Makhul mountains. This includes the Mosul-Baghdad road. Most of the Shammer families in these area seek to protect them. They should be provided with enough forces to secure them. It cannot be just the Hashd Al-Ashayiri. This area should be secured and protects and the government should rely on the tribes to protect it. But there should also be federal government forces on the ground to secure the areas. In addition, we are not depending on the Tribal Hashd forces al all. It should be Iraqi Federal Police securing the main Mosul-Baghdad road, because this road is very important and used for international aid. The Federal Police are on the road but next to the road are village and they should focus on these villages. I want to make sure that east of Saladin governorate where there is a triangle of ISIS held areas, in the area of Saladin-Baghdad-Diyala province. ISIS are fighters are looking to return to their campaign as they have done in Hawija and Al-Ayn and Shirqat.
Many time I have given warnings to local and central government over the last years. Now I have a warning for the forces in these areas. Specifically the area of eastern Saladin because it is a very important area connecting Mosul and Baghdad and Kirkuk and Baghdad roads. These areas should have Iraqi army and Federal forces, otherwise the situation will continue to deteriorate and ISIS will come back even stronger. Of course ISIS will get stronger, it needs more defensive tools to utilize and grow. The Iraqi army has been using helicopters in these areas. Why are they targeting ISIS at AlbuKamal on the Iraq-Syrian border in Syria more than 100km from where ISIS is. We have ISIS here just 40km away.
My message to the people is to be more aware about the situation, because the government is not telling you everything of what they have intelligence information on. If they saw the suspicious details, then something is wrong, because they have not let forces know about the situation. I called the Chief of Staff of the Iraqi forces and the people in charge to ask them to reconsider the situation that is happening now on the ground, to reinforce and secure both the international roads, Baghdad-Mosul and Kirkuk-Baghdad. These should be secured very well, and then secure eastern Saladin governorate. I tell people not to let ISIS come back we have lost many young men to re-liberate our areas.