THE CHANGING FACE OF HARAKAT AL INTIQAM AL ISLAMI
Harakat Al Intiqam Al Islami (the “Islamic Revenge Movement”) is a little known militant group that's been actively claiming attacks in Northern Syria since early 2019. Their online presence is tiny, with a Twitter account of just 500 followers, an inactive Facebook page from before their shift to Harakat Al Intiqam Al Islami, and a now-deleted Telegram account. But since December 2019 the group has been claiming more and more attacks in the Turkish "buffer zone" around NE Syria, Afrin, and Idlib. The group is noticeably opaque when it comes to their allegiances, with multiple conflicting backgrounds on who they are.
So, who exactly is Harakat Al Intiqam Al Islami?
The varying different flags used by the group seems to coincide with their ideological development. Their now-deleted Telegram channel featured multiple old logos and names for the group.
Their original logo had the name of the group as the “Revenge Movement”. It featuring a red star and hawk, something that is usually reminiscent of a PKK or YPG aligned group. This original name also matches a defunct Twitter account that only referred to them as the “Revenge Movement”. Their current Twitter handle goes by Harakat Al Intiqam.
After the hawk and star logo, the group briefly changed to another hawk logo on June 4th 2019. They kept the original name of the “Revenge Movement”. After this, there was relative silence. They failed to showcase any real operational presence outside of a highly dubious claimed attack against Turkey in Jarablus.
It's worth noting here that the only posts from this early period seem more opposed to outside repression and resistance to occupation, rather than being overtly sectarian or religious.
The largest shift in the group comes with their adoption of a new muddy yellow flag with crossed black swords above the same name “Revenge Movement”. This was the logo the group began to display in the media releases.
This adoption of a new flag marks a noted shift in the group as it's when they begin to show a small physical presence. For example they post a photo where they hold up notes on paper with their name on it in the areas they claim to be attacking, and two members give a recorded video speech with their identities obscured.
While still referring to themselves as the “Revenge Movement” in what was essentially their first proof of existence video, Harakat Al Intiqam Al Islami also begins using more overt sectarian language. They begin referring to Turkish backed militias (also known as the SNA) as "mercenaries", the Kurds as "atheist Kurds" or "PKK", and the Syrian Regime as the "Nusayri Regime" in a video with almost comic usage of some dramatic stock music.
The group also begins frequently referring to the Turkish backed militias as "Ottoman Dogs". This period is also marked by the group beginning to refer to themselves as Mujahideen, something they hadn't done previously. In a now-deleted Telegram post they state that they're await the return of "The State" (ostensibly referring to the ISIS) to Northern Syria.
The group has also claimed several non-verifiable car bomb attacks across Northern Syria during this period, intended to again reinforce their operational presence (even if the claims are pure propaganda).
The group, however, remains largely quiet after this, except for one video of an execution (warning: graphic) of a claimed agent of the Assad Regime in Idlib in August 2019. The group’s name is written on paper as proof.
The group resurfaces in 2019 to yet again change its flag in a small update, changing the name from the “Revenge Movement” to “Islamic Revenge Movement”. They also seem to have a much more professional design at this point. They then go quiet until December.
The group then comes back in December 2019, following the Turkish invasion of NE Syria. They claim a wave of unverifiable car bomb attacks in Suluk, Til Hanzir, and Jarablus. Their rhetorical stance at this point has taken on a completely jihadist bent, as well as now referring to Turkish forces as "Zionist Ottomans", or the "Infidel Turkish State".
Their output continues into January with their first real "professional" looking propaganda release, which in contrast to the first extremely low quality releases has graphics and sound effects alongside a nasheed used extensively in ISIS propaganda.
This potential connection to ISIS resurfaces again in the final flag of Harakat Al Intiqam AlIslami. They adopt a variation of the Black Standard flag.
While not necessarily unique to the ISIS, the flag has strong ties to the group across the world now, especially to its many victims to Iraq and Syria. The adoption of this flag with “Islamic Revenge Movement” underneath seems designed to give the impression that there is some connection to the murderous legacy of ISIS. In addition, the imagery of a fighter in black wielding a knife seems designed to evoke the terror of ISIS.
During this period they’ve continued to claim attacks, including one on the Turkish backed militias in Afrin. For this they showed a video release in which they state the outrageously dubious claim of having killed over 200 individuals in attacks.
The seeming contradictions of Harakat Al Intiqam Al Islami throughout their ideological development are strange to say the least. Why would a group now aligned to ISIS start off using a flag that looks a lot like a PKK or YPG faction? Their area of operations also largely overlaps with both organisations: with ISIS networks still active around Jarabalus and the YPG of course still active across NE Syria.
There's a possibility the group could be made up of disaffected Turkish backed militia elements, or even disgruntled locals. Another explanation is that this is an amateurish ISIS inspired group that became more and more radicalised.
With the opacity of the group's historical record, and lack of clarity on membership or leadership, there's little way to definitively know.
As it stands, who's actually behind Harakat Al Intiqam Al Islami is an open question.
• • •