On Dec. 28, 2014, a video was uploaded to YouTube showing off a training camp ran by a relatively unknown and obscure group. The group, Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, was shown practicing firing light machine guns (see picture above), shooting from technicals, martial arts, and how to repel down a building. But who exactly is this group?
I reached out to Elijah Magnier of Al Rai, a Kuwaiti newspaper, who told me that while he does not know much about the group, he does know that they seem to operate in Qalamoun and in Aleppo. This was further evidenced by a video showing its fighters in Qalamoun in the Damascus countryside and another showing its participation in Zahra and Nubl in Aleppo.
I also reached out to Joanna Paraszczuk of From Chechnya to Syria and Under the Black Flag over at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. While she also told me that she did not know much about this group, she did, however, confirm to me that they appear to be an Uzbek group. The language of its media wing is in Uzbek and its fighters speak in Uzbek when on camera. She also told me that the group is likely small as she reiterated that the major Uzbek group in Syria is the Imam Bukhari Jamaat. This group fights alongside Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, and has its bayah (loyalty) to Mullah Omar of the Taliban.
Knowing that Tawhid wal Jihad operates in Qalamoun and Aleppo, which are two places Al Nusrah Front operates, it is likely they operate alongside them. Indeed, this is evident by the video showing its participation in the Zahra and Nubl assault--which also saw Ansar al Islam and Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar (the Caucasus Emirate's Syrian branch) participating. However, it was later found that the group actually used to be a part of Al Nusrah before allegedly splitting with them to become its own independent group. It is also not known when the group split from Nusrah, but the uploader of the video on Facebook said this below:
If the group has split from Nusrah, it is likely it still enjoys good relations with other allies of Al Nusrah, specifically the aforementioned Imam Bukhari Jamaat. On its official YouTube page, Imam Bukhari has released three videos of a lengthy of a lengthy speech made by a figure named Abu Saloh Hafizahulloh. In a screen grab from one of these videos, the viewer can clearly see Al Nusrah's flag sitting behind him (seen below).
In various videos produced by Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad on YouTube, a similar figure is shown. In the video from Zahra and Nubl, he is shown speaking to the camera near the frontline. In another video, he is shown before almost two dozen fighters again speaking to the camera. Abu Saloh also makes an appearance in the training camp video. And in one video released by Imam Bukhari, he was identified as the emir of this group.
So it appears to be a relatively small Uzbek group that used to be an Uzbek jamaat (group) within Al Nusrah. It seems unlikely that this is the same Uzbek jamaat within Nusrah that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an al-Qaeda affiliated group that operates in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has recruited for in the past. That Uzbek group is called Seyfuddin Uzbek Jamaat and is lead by Abu Hussein according to my friend and colleague Bill Roggio over at The Long War Journal.
While it is not known when this group allegedly split from Nusrah, if such an event did occur it is likely the two groups still operate alongside each other. This is based on operational history of the group, its area(s) of operations, appearances in allied media, as well as quite possibly personal relationships of Abu Saloh. Additionally, we know that the group has several dozen fighters in its ranks. From the video in Sept., almost two dozen fighters are shown. In the training camp video, which was just released last week, around the same number is shown.
In the coming weeks and months, hopefully more information can be gathered on this group.
In a new YouTube video uploaded by the group, it seems likely that a split did indeed happen between this Uzbek faction and the Al Nusrah Front. The group is going by the name Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad and it even has its own logo now. It would also appear that the group does still operate alongside Al Nusrah, as the same video features its fighters involved in the new offensive at Zahra and Nubl in Aleppo. The video shows the group operating at least one tank and several technicals, as well as several large DIY mortars to support Al Nusrah and other allied groups.
Older videos of the group usually showed fighters beneath or alongside the Al Nusrah flag, in the recent videos uploaded by the group this flag is nowhere to be found. This also indicates a split was likely to have happened.
One video shows the leader, Abu Saloh, behind the group's flag whilst giving a speech. While the good majority of the group's name is blocked, one can still see it bears the group's name as well as the traditional black standard flag used by Al Nusrah. This same flag is seen throughout the full length video showing it's training camp in Aleppo. It is unclear if the recruits shown in the video are also Uzbeks or other Central Asians or if the recruits are native Syrians. Stills from these videos can be seen below.
In a recently released video by the Imam Bukhari Jamaat, Abu Saloh makes another appearance. The video shows Imam Bukhari fighter before a battle, burying their dead, as well as surveying the battlefield. At around the 2:00 minute mark, Abu Saloh makes his appearance. While other faces are blurred out throughout the video, his face is not.
It is very possible that Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad cooperates and coordinates with Imam Bukhari, as both are Uzbek groups and both have mutual ties to Al Nusrah. Not only that, but their areas of operations is very similar in that they both operate in Aleppo province and both have taken part in the Zahra and Nubl offensives.