ERBIL, Iraq — “You, leaders of the tribes, you are the masters of the people and the crowns on our heads,” proclaimed an Islamic State (IS) leader March 23 while addressing tribal figures in Ninevah province. This sweet talking was delivered a day after Iraqi forces and Popular Mobilization Units liberated Tikrit, with the support of the US-led coalition launching airstrikes against IS targets.
On April 1, on one of its Twitter accounts (recently taken down by Twitter, as the Web page indicates), IS posted a short video, “The Ninevah Tribes Renew Allegiance and Get Ready for the Confrontation,” documenting the meeting of supposed tribal leaders in Mosul. The men are first seen entering the Engineers Trade Union hall in downtown al-Faisaliah. Six IS leaders from Mosul, all locals except for Omar Mahdi Zeidan, are also in attendance. Zeidan hails from Jordan, where he is well known as an IS theorist. It was his first public appearance since leaving Jordan and joining IS last October. The video ends with the attendees pledging allegiance to Caliph Ibrahim, otherwise known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS. The video claims that 80 men did so and identifies 30 tribes from Ninevah that have pledged their loyalty.
Sheikh Abdullah al-Yawar, leader of the Shammar tribe and the most prominent tribal leader in Ninevah, told Al-Monitor, “Most of them [who pledged allegiance] are not tribal leaders, but rather heads of small tribal factions who only represent themselves, as the actual tribal leaders are easily identifiable.” Speaking from Dahuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan, Yawar, a harsh opponent of IS, added, “Those [men in the video] were chanting what IS leaders had dictated. Unfortunately, all of the city’s residents are being held hostage.”
Ahmed al-Orchani, leader of the al-Hadidi tribe, made similar comments concerning the appearance of a member of his tribe in a video posted to Facebook. In it, his fellow tribesmen are shown meeting with a Kurdish leader to discuss solutions to problems in Arab villages that the peshmerga liberated from IS. He said, “This person, who [said he] spoke on behalf of his tribe, only represents himself. The same applies to the other people [who pledged allegiance to IS].”
Regarding the Ninevah video, Mohammed Salem, a Ninevah parliamentarian, told the Iraqi Media Network, “The positions declared by the tribes in the terrorist group-controlled areas are not genuine. They are taking place under the threat of arms, which IS resorted to to show its popularity in Mosul.” He noted the focus on particular figures with an excellent command of Modern Standard Arabic who cited quotes from the hadith and the Quran to incite jihad. According to Salem, such useage would be alien to the tribal leaders, who typically express themselves in colloquial Arabic.
Informed sources told Al-Monitor that most of the speakers are affiliated with IS, and at least two of them are IS-appointed preachers in Mosul mosques who took their positions after IS expelled religious leaders who refused to obey its commands or believe in the establishment of the caliphate. Since its takeover in June 2014, IS has been promoting its ideas in the mosques, viewed as the easiest, fastest and most convincing way to do so.
The sources noted that it is no coincidence that the video was posted a day after the liberation of Tikrit. Its release is thought to have been an attempt to rally support for IS in the upcoming battle of Mosul after losing Tikrit. Faleh Abdul-Jabar, a sociologist and director of the Beirut-based Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies, has observed an interesting phenomenon in Iraq, namely, that every time a group’s grip on power weakens, it resorts to approaching local forces, particularly the tribes.
IS seems to be adopting this approach, following in the footsteps of Saddam Hussein, who encouraged tribalism and approached tribal leaders as his power began to crumble upon realization that the United States would indeed invade Iraq in 2003. Another example of using the tribes to support authority in Ninevah occurred when Gov. Atheel al-Nujaifi involved the tribes in a confrontation with Iraqi security forces during protests in Ahrar Square in 2013.
Does anyone expect that the Ninevah tribes will fight alongside IS when the time comes? Tribalism in Ninevah is a socio-political phenomenon, not a combat military option. Replicating the recruiting and arming of tribesmen from Ninevah, Anbar, Kirkuk and Salahuddin and other places to fight terrorist organizations, as with the Sahwa forces in the earlier fight against al-Qaeda, has failed in Ninevah. The tribes have not been able to resist IS alone. The proof is that IS has seized the property of leaders, bombed their houses and guesthouses and executed residents of Ninevah villages, but their tribes did not budge.
Yawar, whose properties were confiscated by IS in Ninevah after it took Mosul, said, “I'm confident that the tribes will not fight alongside IS, and IS leaders are mistaken if they think that through this public meeting, our people will fight with it.” In contrast, in a post-liberation era the tribes will likely have roles to play, especially in remote districts, areas and villages, until the security forces regain control of the security situation.