Estimates based on jihadist social media accounts, press reporting, and statements released by the US Central Command (CENTCOM) and the French Ministry of Defense (MoD) suggest that there are currently more than 90 jihadist training camps in Iraq and Syria (see map above). The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, runs at least 20 camps, while jihadist groups allied to Nusrah run 31 camps. The other 41 camps are ran by the Islamic State. At least 10 camps overall are exclusively for children. Furthermore, there are likely more camps in operation in Iraq and Syria that are not publicized and have not been publicized. However, some camps are likely to no longer be in operation.
According to CENTCOM and the French MOD, Coalition aircraft have conducted strikes on training camps in Iraq and Syria at least 21 times. Of these, at least 19 airstrikes have targeted camps ran by the Islamic State, while at least two strikes targeted camps ran by Al Nusrah's "Khorasan Group".
In September, when the U.S.-led coalition launched strikes in Syria, the U.S. forces expanded their strikes to the "Khorasan Group", which was allegedly plotting attacks on Western targets. Further strikes were conducted on the group in November, which the Defense Department says, " was plotting to attack in Europe or the homeland, and we took decisive action to protect our interests and remove their capability to act." Despite this expansion of strikes beyond IS, many jihadist training camps remain untouched by American bombs.
The camps are important targets because they are crucial for recruitment, propaganda and training. These very same tactics allow these groups to make significant gains on the battlefield. The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency recently said that Al Nusrah stands the very real potential to gain ground in Syria in 2015. Undoubtedly, the methods and tactics taught these camps help in that endeavor. However, these same tactics have the potential to be used in attacks on the West.
In light of the revelation that at least one of the Paris attackers attended an al Qaeda training camp in Yemen, or the attackers in this week's deadly attack in Tunisia attending a jihadist training camp in Libya, the danger of jihadist training camps in Iraq and Syria should be even more evident. While al Qaeda has traditionally trained recruits for local insurgencies or to help allied groups, it has allocated some recruits to external operations such as the "Khorasan Group". The Islamic State could very well do the same.
Military tactics taught in the camps
Looking at training camps ran by Al Nusrah, the Islamic State, as well as its Sabri's Jamaat, Junud al Sham, Jamaat Ahadun Ahad, and Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, one can get a good idea of the military tactics being taught to new jihadist recruits. As said above, these tactics are taught mainly for use on the battlefield, but bear the very real potential of being used in terror attacks in the native countries of these recruits.
The Al Nusrah Front, which runs training camps in Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, Hama, Damascus, Daraa and Quneitra, often shows off the tactics shown in its camps. However, in its most recent picture series, it showed off it weapons training for new recruits. Recruits, as seen below, are shown learning how to properly handle and shoot AK-47's.
The Islamic State also likes to tout its training camps. A prime example is that of its Sabri's Jamaat, a unit comprised of Dagestani's, Uzbek's and other Central Asians. In a video uploaded to YouTube, the unit showed off its fighters partaking in a series of physical exercises and weapons training. However, the end of the video showed fighters learning more advanced skills, such as clearing buildings. The photo below shows fighters from Sabri's Jamaat rehearsing forced entry techniques using what appears to be a flashbang grenade.
Additionally, the Islamic State has showcased its training for snipers near Kirkuk in Iraq. These pictures showed several recruits with Dragunov SVD sniper rifles in a wooded training camp named after Abu Omar al Baghdadi, the former emir of al Qaeda in Iraq. Islamic State snipers are commonly advertised in IS propaganda, including most recently with more advanced US-made Mk. 14 EBR rifles – likely seized from Iraqi special forces.
Junud al Sham, a Chechen-led group in Latakia allied with Al Nusrah and headed by the US-blacklisted Muslim Shishani and veterans of the Chechen jihad, has promoted other examples of tactics being taught in jihadist camps. In recent photos released by the group, Muslim Shishani is shown teaching some of his fighters in how to conduct reconnaissance missions. Fighters can be seen wearing ghille suits for concealment, while other fighters are practicing stalking adversaries in a wooded environment. According to the group, the fighters shown make up its "Recon Team 1" implying that they have multiple reconnaissance teams.
Jamaat Ahadun Ahad is another Chechen group allied with Al Nusrah and Junud al Sham which operates in Latakia. Not much is known about the group as they prefer not to publicize their activity. However, in August 2014, a video was uploaded to YouTube showing a training camp ran by the group. In several scenes, its fighters are shown practicing small unit tactics. These tactics include learning setting an ambush, as well as methods to properly maneuver on the battlefield.
The group Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, is a small Uzbek group that operates alongside Al Nusrah and the larger Uzbek group, Imam Bukhari Jamaat, in Aleppo. In its training camp video uploaded to YouTube two months ago, its fighters are shown being instructed on how to operate a heavy machine gun mounted on a technical (armed pickup truck), how to clear buildings, and even kidnapping techniques. A video uploaded later to it channel also shows the group teaching recruits how to build and set improvised explosive devices.
Several groups have showcased training with western weapons, including the Islamic State and Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar (JMA). JMA, which considers itself the Syrian branch of the al Qaeda-affiliated Caucasus Emirate, has shown at least one fighter training with the Heckler and Koch HK416. The Islamic State, on the other hand, has showed off its use of the M16 on numerous occasions; the M16 were likely captured from the Iraqi Security Forces. How a fighter in JMA obtained an HK416 remains unclear.
Considering Turkey’s porous border and the number of foreign fighters believed to be in Syria and Iraq, it should be worrying that so many terrorist training camps lie on Europe’s doorstep. Lessons learned in a training camp in Iraq or Syria bears the potential of being used in a terrorist attack when these foreign fighters return to their native countries. The international coalition should do more to target these camps in both Iraq and Syria to help mitigate this threat.
Special thanks to Patrick Megahan of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in helping to edit this article.