The public emergence of Twelver Shi`a[1] foreign fighter militias operating with Syrian government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, together with the recent public admission by Lebanese Hizb Allah that it is also operating alongside them, is the latest in the increasing sectarianization of Syria’s civil war. Sectarianism has long been a tool used for social and political mobilization by a variety of actors, and has historically been employed as much in struggles within the same community as in struggles between different communities.[2] Historically, sectarianism has been driven by politics and competition over group identity, and has been a part of social processes to mobilize large numbers of people against other groups. This remains true today. As conflicts break down along sectarian or ethnic lines, identifiers (differentiating one group from another)—such as religious affiliation, nationality, or tribe—become increasingly salient. Mobilization frames, which draw upon cultural idioms, are created and utilized to drive social mobilization.[3]

This article examines the gradual sectarianization of the Syrian civil war with a particular focus on the emergence, composition, mobilization frames and media campaigns of pro-Assad Shi`a militias.[4] Close attention is paid to the historical and cultural significance of the mobilization frames and idioms used to inspire support from a broad public, particularly Shi`a, for these groups’ participation. Understanding these frames and their historical and cultural resonance, referred to as “frame resonance” in social movement theory literature,[5] is vital to comprehending the drivers of the mobilization and recruitment of Shi`a foreign fighters in Syria. It finds that these frames, in turn, are the central element at play in the formulation of a sectarian counter-narrative aimed at delegitimizing the Syrian opposition and Sunni rebel groups as well as attracting Shi`a foreign fighters from abroad to fight for al-Assad.

Gradual Sectarianization
Reports of Hizb Allah and other Shi`a militias’ involvement in the war in Syria have led to new calls from influential Sunni religious leaders—such as the Qatar-based, Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Yusuf al-Qaradawi—for able-bodied Sunnis to travel to Syria to fight a military jihad against the Syrian government and its allies, chiefly Iran, Hizb Allah, and other Shi`a militias.[6] Prominent political actors and religious officials—including Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the grand imam of al-Azhar seminary in Egypt, Ahmed al-Tayeb—have also become increasingly blunt in their rhetoric toward Shi`a, who they accuse of supporting sectarianism in Syria.[7] The creeping sectarianization of the Syrian conflict is a windfall for the Syrian Islamic Front, an umbrella organization for a number of Syrian Salafist rebel groups.[8]

Iran and its regional allies, including Hizb Allah and Shi`a militias in Syria, are actively trying to sway Shi`a worldwide toward viewing the conflict in black-and-white terms, portraying all Syrian rebel groups as being virulently anti-Shi`a and in league with the “neo-imperialists,” namely the United States, European powers, and Israel.[9] These attempts are meant to frame the Syrian conflict as one having dire repercussions for Shi`a worldwide, a messaging tool that has historically proven both vital and successful in the recruitment of foreign fighters and “international brigades.”[10] Reports of attacks on Shi`a in Syria, the destruction of some Shi`a mosques and shrines or the tombs inside them, and claims that major Shi`a shrines such as those of Sayyida Zaynab and Sakina bint Husayn have been damaged are mobilizing Shi`a around the world to support the al-Assad regime.[11] These events have been continuously highlighted and spun in the news coverage in the hopes of further inflaming the public opinion of Shi`a generally.[12] Such attacks or even reports of them are issues of concern for many Shi`a, not only those supportive of Iran and its allies, and this has been a boon for the latter, making it more likely that their mobilization frames will resonate with their intended audience.[13]

The ongoing production of pro-Shi`a militia artwork and media such as poetry recitations (anashid) set to song as well as the increasing numbers of recruits and volunteers to fight in Syria are evidence of the resonance of these groups’ mobilization frames.[14] While focusing on the Shi`a fighters’ “defense” of shrines such as Sayyida Zaynab’s, militia media operations conceal these fighters’ reported involvement in military operations in other parts of the country.

The Emergence and Composition of the Shi`a Militias
Media reports of Shi`a foreign fighters in Syria first surfaced in the autumn of 2012 and were largely based on interviews with militiamen participating in the fighting as well as Iraqi government officials.[15] Videos supporting Shi`a fighters began to appear on websites such as YouTube around the same time.[16] These included videos dedicated to those slain fighting “for Sayyida Zaynab,” the daughter of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Shi`a imam and cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as footage of funeral prayers for them inside the Sayyida Zaynab shrine.[17]

The fighters are primarily affiliated with Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (hereafter the al-Abbas Brigade), a militia composed of fighters from a variety of nationalities including Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqi refugees in Syria, other Arabs, and Afghans.[18] Exact numbers of fighters are impossible to verify, but in an interview in late October 2012 an unnamed militiaman said that about 200 Iraqi recruits had traveled to Syria.[19] Most were drawn from groups that splintered from the mainstream Sadr Movement (Tayyar al-Sadr) led by Moqtada al-Sadr, as well as Iranian-supported militias originally formed to fight U.S. and coalition military forces in Iraq.[20] The latter include Asaib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous/People of Truth) and Kataib Hizb Allah (Party of God Brigades).[21] The involvement of these groups can be verified through martyrdom statements, reports of funerals of Iraqi fighters slain in Syria, and reports on pro-militia websites.[22] Photographs of martyrs are often emblazoned with the emblems of the groups to which they belonged.[23] The exact breakdown of the affiliation of al-Abbas Brigade fighters is unclear, although a video commemorating some of its slain fighters purported to show each individual’s group affiliation.[24]

An unnamed official in the Badr Organization, a powerful Iraqi Shi`a political movement originally trained and supplied by Iran in the 1980s to fight Saddam Hussein, claimed that Shi`a militias were acquiring “new and advanced” heavy weapons for use in case the conflict escalates.[25] In an early October 2012 interview, Abu Hajer, an al-Abbas Brigade commander who had been living in Syria as an Iraqi refugee, said that the al-Abbas Brigade comprised 500 fighters.[26] According to interviews with unnamed Iraqi Shi`a leaders, the Syrian and Iranian governments have provided the militias with weapons, and the latter has organized the travel of Iraqi recruits.[27] Training camps for recruits are reportedly located in Iran, and fighters are aided by local contacts inside Syria.[28]

In a March 2013 interview with Russia Today, a state-funded satellite television network, Abu `Ajib, who is identified in media reports and militia media materials as the leader or secretary general of the al-Abbas Brigade, said that the militia was formed “months before” to defend Sayyida Zaynab’s shrine from rebel attacks.[29] Brigade commander Abu Hajer has said that the brigade has carried out joint military operations against rebel groups when fighting erupted in the Sayyida Zaynab district near the shrine.[30] Although its leaders have said that they are not concerned with other internal fighting except with regards to the Sayyida Zaynab shrine and other Shi`a shrines, a brigade fighter, Abu Mujahid, said that the militia also carried out joint attacks with the Syrian military against bases of militias belonging to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) umbrella group.[31]

Photographs and artwork released on pro-brigade websites feature fighters in front of posters and portraits of Bashar and Hafiz al-Assad and other pro-al-Assad pieces of artwork, including a comparison of Hizb Allah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and Bashar al-Assad, who are both shown reading the Qur’an with divine light emanating from the pages onto their faces.[32]

The al-Abbas Brigade is composed of several smaller fighting units named after figures from Islamic history who are particularly revered by Shi`a, such as the Twelve Imams recognized by Shi`a as the world’s legitimate religious and temporal authorities.[33] These units include the Ali Akbar Brigade, Brigade of the Awaited One (named after an honorific title of the twelfth imam, Muhammad bin Hassan), al-Qasim Brigade, and the Brigade of Malik al-Ashtar.[34] Units likely affiliated with the al-Abbas Brigade include the Brigade of Zaynab’s Protector and the Zulfiqar Brigade, which share members based on photographs released online on pro-brigade websites, primarily on Facebook.[35] At least one unit is named after an al-Abbas Brigade martyr, Ahmad Kayara, of which some photographs have been released on pro-brigade websites. Members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and other Iraqi Shi`a groups—such as the Brigades of the Prince of Martyrs (Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada),the Imam Husayn Brigade, the God’s Soldiers Brigade, and the Brigade of Ammar bin Yasir—are also reportedly active militarily inside Syria.[36] Full details, however, regarding the internal organization of the al-Abbas Brigade, its individual fighting units, and other Shi`a militias are unclear.

Recruitment of fighters has escalated in Iraq, with different Shi`a groups, including the Sadr Movement, forming committees to seek volunteers.[37] Convoys of buses said to be carrying pilgrims have instead been filled with fighters and military supplies bound for the front in Syria.[38] In October 2012, a recruitment committee in Iraq’s Diyala Province, the site of much sectarian strife between Iraqi Sunnis and Shi`a and a stronghold of the Islamic State of Iraq, a jihadist/insurgent umbrella group dominated by al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI), claimed that it had sent 70 fighters to Syria.[39]

Although the majority of fighters seems to be drawn from Shi`a communities, al-Abbas Brigade-affiliated sources, including leader Abu `Ajib, have claimed that the group’s fighters comprise members of multiple groups including Sunni and Shi`a Muslims and Druze.[40] Determining the truth of these claims is not possible. The mobilization frames and historical and cultural repertoire from which the al-Abbas Brigade draws and the way in which they are deployed is distinctly Shi`a, which brings into question whether it can successfully recruit outside its Shi`a base.

Unity within the brigade has also reportedly come under increasing strain.[41] Emerging internal divisions show that while communal and sectarian identities can be used to initiate social and militant mobilization, they are not sufficient enough by themselves to ensure long-term unity.

Maintaining social movement cohesion and group unity in the longer term is difficult. Sectarian, ethnic, and other group identities are often not enough by themselves to maintain unity, and political and economic interests often come into play. Divergent political and economic interests can then trump shared sectarian and group identity. Localism is also often a factor in militant recruitment and the formulation of strategic goals and ideological positions.

Mobilizing Historical Memory and Popular Piety
The mobilization frames used by Shi`a actors in Syria play an integral role in their media operations, which are aimed at both attracting recruits as well as more non-military and more passive types of support from Shi`a communities globally. This includes the creation of pro-militia artwork, video montages, and other media as well as legitimizing, in the public sphere, the militias’ involvement in Syria.

In formulating its mobilization frames, the al-Abbas Brigade and other Shi`a militias draw upon the deep reservoir of historical and cultural memory of Shi`a Islam. The heroic figure of Zaynab, the sister of Imam Husayn, and the other historical persons referenced by the brigade and its supporters evoke the tragedy of Karbala in 680 CE when Imam Husayn and many of his closest supporters and male family members were slain in battle against a larger force sent by the Umayyad Caliph Yazid I.[42] Brigade and pro-brigade media output contains numerous Shi`a historical and cultural symbols, including paintings of Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas[43] and Zaynab, Ashura artwork, and flags and standards (`alam) representing that of al-Abbas.[44] Popular religious songs based on poetry and videos produced by brigade supporters and possibly the brigade itself feature frequent mentions of Zaynab and other Shi`a holy figures such as al-Abbas.

Shi`a consider Zaynab to have been the individual most responsible for keeping Imam Husayn’s message, and thus the purest form of Islam, alive after his death.[45] The pledge of loyalty, “labbayk ya Zaynab,” (“we are at your service, O’ Zaynab”) and vow from fighters that “we sacrifice our souls for you, O’ Zaynab” are frequent features in pro-brigade artwork and videos.[46] In a bid to counter anti-Assad activists, pro-brigade activists have even modified a slogan used previously by an anti-Assad Facebook campaign, “From [location], here is Damascus,” followed by a declaration of loyalty to Zaynab.[47]

In the media operations of the al-Abbas Brigade and its supporters, Shi`a militiamen fighting in Syria are portrayed as “Zaynab’s guardians” (hurras Zaynab) who are defending her shrine and, in turn, her honor, through self-sacrifice (fida’) from Salafist/Wahhabi hordes, which is how Syrian rebels are described in the discourse of the militias and their supporters; they are equated with historical villains such as the Umayyads.[48] Salafist creedal beliefs are virulently anti-Shi`a, and thus there is a long history of polemics between the two groups. By portraying all Syrian rebels as Salafists, the Shi`a militias and their supporters are essentially arguing that dialogue is hopeless. Brigade and pro-brigade media materials frequently include photographs of slain members and commanders from various rebel factions including the AQI-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.[49]

The al-Abbas Brigade takes its name from Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, who was Imam Husayn’s half-brother and standard bearer at Karbala.[50] Al-Abbas is the quintessential selfless hero of the Karbala story, and his sense of duty is emphasized in Shi`a accounts of his role as the defender of Husayn’s family and his refusal to allow Husayn’s standard to fall to the ground until al-Abbas could no longer stand.[51] A popular slogan in al-Abbas Brigade artwork is “kuluna `Abbasak, ya Zaynab” (“we are all your Abbas, O’ Zaynab”).[52]

The names of units within or affiliated with the brigade are taken from other heroes and symbols prominent in Shi`a Islam. These include units named after Imam `Ali’s famous two-pronged sword, Zulfiqar, and the Brigade of Zaynab’s Protector (Kafil Zaynab), the latter of which again emphasizes the defense of Zaynab’s honor by defending her shrine.[53] The 12th Shi`a imam, Muhammad bin Hassan al-Mahdi, who is a messianic figure in Shi`a eschatology, also has a militia unit named after him, the Brigade of the Awaited Savior (Katibat al-Mahdi al-Muntazar).[54]

Other Shi`a heroes after whom Shi`a units fighting in Syria are named include Ali Akbar, the teenage son of Imam Husayn, and al-Qasim, his nephew and son of his predecessor, Imam Hassan, both of whom were martyred at Karbala.[55] Malik al-Ashtar and Ammar bin Yasir, two of the supporters of the Prophet Muhammad who became ardent followers of the first Shi`a imam, `Ali, also have fighting units named after them.[56]

For their part, Sunni rebel groups have drawn upon historical narratives and polemics to counter the information operations and messaging of the al-Abbas Brigade, Hizb Allah, and other Shi`a actors in Syria. Rebel discourses refer to them and sometimes Shi`a generally as being guilty of polytheism (shirk) and unbelief (kufr) because of their belief in the line of the Twelve Imams. They also refer to Shi`a as the “fire worshippers” or Zoroastrians since they allege that Shi`a Islam is nothing more than an offshoot of pre-Islamic Iranian religions. Rebel videos showing military operations against the brigade often feature captured Shi`a cultural artifacts such as paintings of the imams and Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, Shi`a religious writings and multimedia, and tablets of clay used by Shi`a during prayer.[57]

Information on Shi`a militias operating in Syria is limited, despite the relative wealth of information on pro- and quasi-militia websites. In particular, information on the individual motivations of recruits remains unknown due to the paucity of available primary sources.[58] Even when such sources are available, the declared intentions of fighters need to be evaluated carefully since these declarations are not necessarily truthful or accurate.[59] Martyr biographies are also usually highly and posthumously hagiographical in their depiction of the deceased and their motivations.[60]

The rise of Shi`a militias and their political backers in Iran and Iraq also present a potential challenge to the authority of Shi`a maraji` al-taqlid (Shi`a religious authorities), such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq. Although the most recognized senior Shi`a jurists, such as al-Sistani, have not yet addressed the appearance of these militias or related questions regarding the religious legitimacy of their claims to be engaged in military jihad, it is important not to exaggerate these jurists’ ability to guide the public’s behavior, even that of individuals who ostensibly follow their religious opinions and rulings. In 2006, for example, following the first bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in the Iraqi city of Samarra, where two of the Twelve Imams are buried, Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani issued several statements calling for patience and forbidding acts of revenge and retaliatory violence, explicitly mentioning sectarian attacks against Sunnis.[61] He and Najaf’s three other resident grand ayatollahs were ultimately trumped by powerful Iraqi Shi`a political actors who, together with Iraqi and foreign Sunni militants, led Iraq down the path of sectarian conflict.

Although the influence of Shi`a religious leaders is significant, it is not absolute, and recent history has shown that in the midst of sectarian violence they are often overshadowed by virulent sectarian political voices.

Christopher Anzalone is a Ph.D. student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies modern Muslim socio-political movements, contemporary jihadi movements, Shi`a Islam, and Islamist visual cultures. He is also an adjunct research fellow at the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University and managing editor for the center’s new online Islamic Studies platform, Islamium, currently under development.

[1] Shi`a Islam is divided into several different groups: 1) “twelver” or Imami Shi`a who believe in a line of twelve divinely-guided religious and temporal leaders, the imams; 2) Ismaili Shi`a, who believe in the same line of imams as the “twelvers” up until the sixth, Ja`far al-Sadiq, who died in the eighth century CE; and 3) Zaydi Shi`a, whose beliefs lie between Sunni and Shi`a. This article focuses exclusively on Twelver Shi`a, hereafter referred to simply as “Shi`a.” There is no evidence of pro-regime Ismaili or Zaydi Shi`a militias operating in Syria. Yemen is the only country in the Arab world with a significant Zaydi Shi`a population, and Syria’s Ismaili Shi`a have actually participated in peaceful anti-government protests. See Omar Hossino, “Salamiyeh Bombings Strike the Heart of Syria’s Peaceful Revolt,” Syria Deeply, February 14, 2013.

[2] See Ussama Makdisi’s seminal study on the political and social utilization of sectarianism in Ottoman Lebanon: Ussama Makdisi, The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth Century Ottoman Lebanon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000); Marc Lynch, “The War for the Arab World,” Foreign Policy, May 23, 2013; Geneive Abdo, “The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi`a-Sunni Divide,” Brookings Institution, 2013; Mariz Tadros, “Sectarianism and its Discontents in Post-Mubarak Egypt,” Middle East Report, Summer 2011.

[3] For a succinct discussion of mobilization frames and their role in social movement mobilization, see Quintan Wiktorowicz ed., Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004).

[4] This article focuses primarily on Shi`a militias excluding Lebanese Hizb Allah.

[5] Robert D. Benford and David A. Snow, “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment,” Annual Review of Sociology 26 (2000).

[6] “Al-Qaradawi Calls Upon the Able-Bodied to Fight in Syria,”, June 1, 2013; Griff Witte, “New Wave of Foreigners in Syrian Fight,” Washington Post, June 21, 2013; “Sending of Egyptian Mujahideen to Syria Stirs Debate among Religious Scholars and Jihadi Organizations,” Azzaman, May 31, 2013.

[7] “Top Egypt Cleric Condemns ‘Sectarian’ Foes in Syria,” Reuters, June 11, 2013; Lee Keath, “Hezbollah Entry in Syria Fans Shiite-Sunni Fires,” Associated Press, June 7, 2013; Maggie Fick, “Egypt Brotherhood Backs Syria Jihad, Denounces Shi’ites,” Reuters, June 14, 2013.

[8] Aaron Y. Zelin and Charles Lister, “The Crowning of the Syrian Islamic Front,” Foreign Policy, June 24, 2013.

[9] Qays al-Khaz`ali, “Remarks of the Secretary General of the Ahl al-Haqq Islamic Resistance Movement on the Tenth Anniversary of its Founding,” Asaib Ahl al-Haq, May 5, 2013.

[10] David Malet, Foreign Fighters: Transnational Identity in Civil Conflicts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); David Malet, “Why Foreign Fighters? Historical Perspectives and Solutions,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, 2010.

[11] Ruth Sherlock, “Syrian Shias Flee to Lebanon to Escape Sunni Militias,” Telegraph, May 1, 2013; Patrick J. McDonnell and Nabih Bulos, “Syria’s Shiites Offer Different Picture of War,” Los Angeles Times, March 26, 2013.

[12] “Senior Shia Cleric Seyyed Naser al-Alawi Assassinated in Syria,” AhlulBayt News Agency, April 14, 2013; “Holy Shrine of Hazrat [Holiness] Sakina (AS) Damaged by Terrorists in Syria,” AhlulBayt News Agency, February 12, 2013; “The Islamic Resistance, `Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, Condemns the Heinous Crime Against the Shrine of the Prophet’s Companion Hujr bin `Adi, may God bless him, in Syria,” Asaib Ahl al-Haq, May 3, 2013; “Hizb Allah: Where are the Syrian Opposition [Members] Who Said They Wanted to Defend the Holy Sites?” al-Manar, May 2, 2013; “After Threats to Shrine, Iraqi Shiite Fighters Prepare for Sectarian Strife at Home, in Syria,” Associated Press, October 25, 2012.

[13] Attacks on Shi`a Muslims and shrines have been picked up by other Shi`a news sources. See, for example, “Head of Hawza E Zainabia Martyred by Target Killing in Syria,” Jafria News, April 16, 2013; “Desecration of Shrine of Hujr bin Adi al Kindi,” May 3, 2013, available at

[14] Suadad al-Salhy, “Iraqi Shi’ites Flock to Assad’s Side as Sectarian Split Widens,” Reuters, June 19, 2013. Popular reciters of anashid and latmiyat (mourning recitations used in Shi`a ceremonies to commemorate the martyred imams and other Shi`a historical heroes and heroines) include Lebanese munshid (reciter) Ali Barakat and Iraqi munshids Ali Abu Kiyan al-Muwali and Muhammad Abu `Izra’il al-Karbala’i. Barakat has recorded a latmiyya entitled “In God’s Protection,” dedicated to the “martyr-guardians of Sayyida Zaynab,” in which “the Awaited One’s (Imam al-Mahdi) soldiers” are said to be “God’s party (Hizb Allah),” who are congratulated for “achieving God’s gardens [of Paradise].” Al-Muwali’s nashid “O’ Zaynab” has become a staple song used in many pro-Shi`a militia videos posted to video-sharing websites such as YouTube. Al-Karbala’i is identified as a “fighter [of Imam Husayn]” and he has recorded a martial anthem, based on a praise poem (qasida) by poet Muzaffar al-Jabari, dedicated to Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas.

[15] Al-Salhy, “Iraqi Shi’ite Militants Fight for Syria’s Assad.”

[16] This is based on the author’s collection and cataloguing of videos and other media materials produced by or for these militias. It is possible, however, that earlier media uploads on websites such as YouTube were taken down by the uploader or the website administrators.

[17] These videos, which were uploaded online by unknown individuals whose affiliation with the brigade seems likely but is unconfirmed, include: The Prayer over the Martyrs in the Shrine of Sayyida Zaynab, Upon Her Be Peace, September 2012; Presentation to the Souls of the Martyrs of Sayyida Zaynab, Upon Her be Peace, and to the Souls of the Martyrs of al-Asad’s Syria, September 2012; and Presentation to the Souls of the Martyrs of Sayyida Zaynab, September 2012.

[18] This is based on the militia’s media materials, pro-militia media materials, and media reports, including: “Syria..National Defense Brigades’ Specific Tasks,” Russia Today, March 26, 2013; Figures 12 and 34 in “Visual References,” Views from the Occident blog, June 23, 2013, available at Afghan Shi`a seminary students expelled from Iraq in the 1970s settled in the Sayyida Zaynab district where many of them restarted their studies at the Zaynabiyya Hawza. See Laurence Louër, Transnational Shia Politics: Religious Networks in the Gulf (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

[19] “After Threats to Shrine, Iraqi Shiite Fighters Prepare for Sectarian Strife at Home, in Syria.”

[20]  Ibid. This is also based on martyrdom statements released by Iraqi Shi`a militias.

[21]  Ibid.

[22]  Representative statements include: “Statement: The Martyr, Ahmad Mahdi al-Shuwayli,” Kataib Hizb Allah, April 15, 2013; “Statement: The Martyr  Riza Khudayr al-Khalidi,” Kataib Hizb Allah, May 6, 2013.

[23]  See Figures 13-15 in “Visual References.”

[24]  Martyrs of Liwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-`Abbas, June 2013. In addition to the Sadr Movement, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Kataib Hizb Allah, the video also purports to show martyred fighters from two other militias, the God’s Soldiers Brigade and Brigade of the Force of Haydar, an honorific title meaning “lion” in Arabic used by Shi`a for Imam `Ali.

[25]   Ibid.

[26]  Al-Salhy, “Iraqi Shi’ite Militants Fight for Syria’s Assad.”

[27] Yasir Ghazi and Tim Arango, “Iraqi Sects Join Battle in Syria on Both Sides,” New York Times, October 27, 2012.

[28] Mona Mahmood and Martin Chulov, “Syrian War Widens Sunni-Shia Schism as Foreign Jihadis Join Fight for Shrines,” Guardian, June 4, 2013.

[29] “Syria: National Defense Brigades’ Specific Tasks,” Russia Today, March 26, 2013.

[30] Al-Salhy, “Iraqi Shi’ite Militants Fight for Syria’s Assad.”

[31]   Ibid.

[32]   See Figures 16-18 in “Visual References.”

[33]  “News Report: Formation of a Shi’ite Brigade Composed of Iraqis and Lebanese for Defending the Shrine of Sayyida Zaynab South of Damascus,” Russia Today, March 4, 2013.

[34]   See Figures 2-4  in “Visual References.” Also see Clashes of the Al-Qasim Brigade of Liwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-`Abbas, April 2013.

[35] See Figure 5 and 6 in “Visual References.” It is also possible that members of the latter two groups broke away from the al-Abbas Brigade after recent infighting.

[36]   “Formation [Unit] Calling Itself the ‘Prince of Martyrs Brigades’ Rejects Sectarianism and Calls for the Unity of the Iraqi People,” al-Baghdadiyya News Agency, May 8, 2013; “Defection of the Secretary General of the Hizb Allah Brigades [in] Iraq and the Formation of the ‘Prince of Martyrs [Brigade],’” al-Masalah News, April 14, 2013; Marcus George, “Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Commander Says its Troops in Syria,” Reuters, September 16, 2012; “Kazimiyya: The Funeral of a Retired Army Officer who was Killed One Month after His Participation [Began] Fighting in Syria,” al-Mustaqbal News, July 10, 2013; Clash of the Heroes of the `Ammar bin Yasir Brigade in the Countryside of Aleppo, July 19, 2013; Figure 36 in “Visual References.” Ammar bin Yasir was a key supporter and military commander of the first Shi`a imam, Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was martyred fighting for him at the Battle of Siffin in 657 CE.

[37] Ghazi and Arango. Videos of trucks reportedly carrying Iraqi foreign fighter volunteers have also been posted to the internet.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] “News Report: Formation of a Shi’ite Brigade Composed of Iraqis and Lebanese for Defending the Shrine of Sayyida Zaynab South of Damascus.” Also see Figure 1 in “Visual References.”

[41]  Al-Salhy, “Iraqi Shi’ites Flock to Assad’s Side as Sectarian Split Widens.”

[42]   Their martyrdoms are commemorated annually during the first 10 days of the Islamic lunar month of Muharram, which culminates on the 10th day, called the Day of Ashura, when Imam Husayn himself was slain.

[43]  “Abu al-Fadl” is an honorific name meaning “father of al-Fadl,” the name of one of his sons.

[44]  See Figures 24-27 in “Visual References.”

[45]  She is given the honorific sayyida, which in this context translates to “Lady.”

[46]   See, for example, this video uploaded to YouTube and other video sharing websites: Presentation O’ Zaynab: Operations of Liwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-`Abbas, Designated to Protect the Shrine of Sayyida Zaynab, Upon her be Peace, December 2012. Another example is `Ali Abu Kiyan al-Muwali’s song “O’ Zaynab.” One pro-brigade video montage included a part of a scene from a popular Arabic-language film about Karbala, The Caravan of Pride.

[47] See Figures 20-23 in “Visual References.” For background of the slogan’s origins and use in a major Facebook campaign by opposition supporters, see “Here is Damascus,” The Syrian, May 29, 2013, available at

[48]  See Figures 7, 8, 30, and 31 in “Visual References.” Also see Letter from Hezbollah to the Wahhabis, June 2013, available at One internet poster from a pro-brigade website compared Syrian rebels, by association with rebel commander-turned-symbolic cannibal Abu Sakkar, with Hind bint `Utba, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s most virulent enemies before his conquest of Mecca in 630 CE. For Abu Sakkar’s reported cannibalism, see Drishya Nair, “Syria’s Cannibal Commander Abu Sakkar: Why I Ate My Enemy’s Heart,” International Business Times, May 15, 2013. For the poster, see Figure 35 in “Visual References.”

[49] See Figures 28-30 in “Visual References.”

[50] An alternative name for the brigade is Katibat Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Brigade of the Standard of Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas), which emphasizes his role as Imam Husayn’s standard bearer at Karbala. See Figure 19 in “Visual References.”

[51] Sayyid Najmulhasan Karrarvi, Biography of Hazrat Abbas (Karachi: Peermahomed Ebrahim Trust, 1974), particularly pp. 49-51 and 78-90. Also see the film Karbala: When the Skies Wept Blood.

[52]   See Figure 9 in “Visual References.”

[53]  “‘Zulfiqar Brigade,’ Second Militia for the Defense of the Shrine of Sayyida Zaynab!” Orient News, June 9, 2013; ‘Zulfiqar Brigade’…Formation of a New Shi’i [Militia], June 9, 2013, available at As with many Islamic historical figures and symbols, Zulfiqar is a contested symbol and some anti-Assad Syrian rebel groups have also taken it as part of their name. See Statement on the Formation of the Zulfiqar Brigade of the Brigade of the Martyrs of Rusafa following the Military Revolutionary Council [in] Deir al-Zur, Zulfiqar Brigade, June 2013; With God’s Help, the Formation of the Zulfiqar Brigade in the Free City of Jarablus, following the `Amr bin al-`As Brigade, Zulfiqar Brigade, September 2012; Zulfiqar Brigade of Colonel Muhammad Ziyad Qasimu, Zulfiqar Brigade, April 2013; Shield of Zulfiqar Brigade Responding to the Hordes of al-Asad in the Towns of Karnaz and the Countryside of Hama, Shield of Zulfiqar Brigade, February 2013.

[54] See Figure 3 in “Visual References.” Shi`a Muslims believe that the 12th imam, Muhammad bin Hassan, is the last imam in a line of divinely-appointed successors to the Prophet Muhammad who possess both religious and temporal authority over the Muslim community.

[55]  Clashes of the Qasim Brigade of Liwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-`Abbas, April 2013, available at See Figure 2 in “Visual References.” Al-Qasim is known among Shi`a as the “Bridegroom of Karbala” because it is said he was married on the morning of the day he was martyred at Karbala.  This account first appears, it seems, in the 16th century, Persian-language elegiac martyrology of Husayn Va`iz Kashifi, Garden of the Martyrs. See Syed Akbar Hyder, Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); David Pinault, Horse of Karbala: Muslim Devotional Life in India (New York: Palgrave, 2001). It has been published numerous times in various languages. See Husayn Va`iz Kashifi, Garden of the Martyrs (Qum: Daftar-i Nashr-i Navid-i Islam, 2000 or 2001).

[56] See Figure 4 in “Visual References.” Malik was appointed governor of Egypt. Malik was poisoned while traveling to Egypt on the orders of Ali’s chief rival for leadership of the Muslim state, Mu`awiya ibn Sufyan, who is reviled by Shi`a but considered one of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions by Sunnis.

[57]   The Free [Syrian] Army Raids One of the Headquarters of Liwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-`Abbas in the Damascus Countryside, April 2013.

[58]   Christopher Anzalone, “A Few Notes on Shi’ism in Syria and the Emergence of a Pro-Asad Shi’i Militia, Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-`Abbas,” al-Wasat blog, May 22, 2013.

[59] Thomas Hegghammer, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists’ Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting,” American Political Science Review 107:1 (2013).

[60]   This is based on the author’s analysis of contemporary written and audiovisual Sunni and Shi`a martyrologies.

[61]  `Ali al-Sistani, statements, February 2006 and February 2007.

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