Main events of the Week
- ISIS continues its efforts to establish its presence in the northern and southern outskirts of Damascus. In the Al-Yarmouk refugee camp, clashes continue between ISIS and other rebel organizations and Palestinian pro-Syrian organizations. According to media reports, ISIS still controls a significant part of the camp. In addition, ISIS reportedly attempted to take over a few neighborhoods north of Damascus, but met with opposition from other rebel organizations, mainly Jaysh al-Islam (the Army of Islam).
- In Iraq, fighting continues in the refinery compound in the city of Baiji, north of Baghdad. The Iraqi government announced that it had managed to repel ISIS from the area. However, ISIS published a video showing its operatives moving around inside the compound. The actual situation on the ground is unclear at this stage. In the city of Ramadi, capital of the Anbar province, fighting continues between the Iraqi Army and Shiite militias, and ISIS.
- There are additional indications that Turkish authorities have stepped up their counterterrorism measures against jihadi operatives who enter their territory in order to join ISIS. This week, additional operatives were arrested or deported from Turkey, including British and Spanish nationals. However, these measures have not yet stopped the flow of jihadi operatives flocking to Syria and Iraq via Turkey.
The international campaign against ISIS
US and coalition airstrikes
This week, the US and coalition forces continued their airstrikes against ISIS targets. Several dozen airstrikes were carried out in Syria and Iraq. Following are the locations of the main airstrikes (CENTCOM website):
Syria– the airstrikes were concentrated in Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) and Al-Hasakah. The airstrikes targeted ISIS positions and units, vehicles, including a car bomb, a tunnel and a bunker, among other things.
Iraq– airstrikes were carried out in Baiji, Fallujah, Mosul, Ramadi, Sinjar, Tal Afar, Rutba and Al-Assad. The airstrikes damaged or destroyed buildings, rocket launching positions, ISIS units, vehicles, including car bombs, heavy machinery, bridges and checkpoints.
Statements by senior US officials about the campaign against ISIS
In a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi during his visit to the United States, US President Barack Obama said that the main interest of the US is defeating ISIS and ensuring Iraq’s independence. The US President also announced that the US would grant Iraq additional aid in the amount of USD 200 million dollars (White House website, April 14, 2015).
At a press conference held by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, the Chairmansaid that the Iraqi Army was advancing in the right direction. He praised the Iraqi Army’s successes in the attack in Tikrit, saying that the US would continue to advise the Iraqi leadership on how to plan and carry out operations. He also noted that much work still remained to integrate the Iraqi militias [i.e., the Shiite militias] under the command and control of the country.
US Army Central Command spokesman Patrick Ryder said that the campaign against ISIS was progressing according to expectations. He said that although ISIS is on the defensive in Iraq, it is expected to attack as it did in Baiji and Ramadi, in an attempt to occupy additional areas and attract media attention. He said that the fighting around the refineries in Baiji was still continuing, even though the refineries were controlled by Iraqi forces, who receive air support from the coalition forces (Kuwaiti News Agency, April 18, 2015).
Main developments in Syria
ISIS’s attempts to establish itself in the outskirts of Damascus
ISIS’s main centers of activity: The Al-Qaboun, Barzeh and Tishreen neighborhoods north of Damascus; the Al-Yarmouk refugee camp and the Al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood south of Damascus (Google Earth)
The Al-Yarmouk refugee camp
After a lull of several days, fighting resumed in the Al-Yarmouk refugee camp on the southern outskirts of Damascus (about 10 km south of the city). According to media reports, despite reports that Palestinian forces have regained control of most of the camp, ISIS operatives still control large parts of it (Al-Mayadeen, April 18, 2015). According to one news report (April 17, 2015), Palestinian organizations control nearly 50% of the refugee camp (Al-Akhbar, April 17, 2015).
According to the Syrian and Lebanese media, several thousand residents have fled from the camp in the direction of neighboring towns. However, according to the reports, about 10,000 residents still remain in the camp (Al-Mayadeen, April 19, 2015).
Murasiloun, a current affairs program on the situation in southern Syria broadcast on ISIS’s Al-Bayan Radio, provides a glimpse of the fighting in the Al-Yarmouk refugee camp from the perspective of an ISIS operative. The program featured an interview with Abu Ja’far al-Ghazi, an ISIS operative who fought in the Damascus province. He said that for nine months, ISIS operatives surrounded the Al-Yarmouk refugee camp and made occasional incursions into the camp. However, after ISIS discovered that the Palestinians intended to restore control of the camp to Assad’s forces, ISIS launched a preventive attack, in which its forces entered the camp via several routes, took control over a number of neighborhoods and advanced into the camp (Al-Bayan Radio, April 14, 2015).
In the ITIC’s assessment, ISIS’s attempt to establish its presence in the Al-Yarmouk refugee camp is part of an overall attempt by the organization, designed to gain a foothold in the northern and southern outskirts of Damascus. The ITIC believes that the ISIS operative’s version described above is intended for propaganda purposes. In the ITIC’s assessment, ISIS’s attempt to establish its presence is rooted in the organization’s intention to hold areas near the core of the Syrian regime, to win political and media attention, and to display a significant achievement of ISIS, which would overshadow the series of setbacks in the past few months (in Kobani and Tikrit).
ISIS’s attempts to establish a presence in the neighborhoods north of Damascus
Concurrently with the fighting in the Al-Yarmouk refugee camp, ISIS began deploying armed operatives on the northern outskirts of Damascus. ISIS operatives reportedly took over the Al-Qaboun neighborhood, located around four km from Damascus. There are training camps in the neighborhood, and the Hama- Damascus road passes through it (As-Safir, April 17, 2015).
Arab media reported that the Syrian Army’s Brigade 1, along with a Syrian rebel organization by the name of Jaysh al-Islam, had announced that they were fighting against ISIS in the region northeast of Damascus (Khatwa News Agency, April 16, 2015). On April 18, 2015, it was reported that the rebel forces managed, in less than two days of fighting, to expel the ISIS operatives from most of the positions that they had occupied in the Al-Qaboun, Barzeh and Tishreen neighborhoods (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, April 18, 2015).
On April 20, 2015, it was reported that Jaysh al-Islam operatives had taken over the Al-Qaboun, Barzeh and Tishreen neighborhoods and arrested a large number of ISIS operatives in the area. One of those arrested was Moundher al-Karmi, a senior ISIS operative. His interrogation revealed that he formerly served as an officer in the Syrian regime, and photos showing him with senior figures in the Syrian regime were found in his possession (Zaman al-Wasl, April 17, 2015, Al-Arabiya al-Hadath, April 20, 2015).
Arab media reported that during the week, the Syrian Army continued its efforts to regain control of the city of Idlib, which was occupied by a coalition of rebel organizations (the most prominent of which is the Al-Nusra Front). According to the reports, the Syrian Army is preparing for a major military operation, which will include cutting off access roads to the city (Al-Mayadeen, April 15, 2015). The Syrian Army has managed to take over a number of villages around the city (Sama, April 19, 2015), but has not attempted to enter the city itself.
Al-Nusra Front operatives attacked the Syrian regime’s security headquarters in Aleppo.A video uploaded to social networks shows the organization’s operatives digging a tunnel under the building and blowing it up (YouTube, April 13, 2015). According to the commander of the Al-Nusra Front, the organization’s operatives collaborated with other organizations (Al-Araby al-Jadeed, April 14, 2015). The building explosion killed several dozen members of the Syrian security forces. It also killed 13 Al-Nusra Front operatives (Al-Hayat, April 15, 2015).
nOn April 19, 2015, an ISIS-affiliated Facebook account reported a suicide bombing attack that was carried out using a truck bomb, against a gathering of Kurdish PKK fighters south of the city of Kobani (Ras Al-Ayn). The suicide bomber who detonated the truck bomb was an ISIS operative codenamed Abu al-Athir al-Ansari (ISIS-affiliated Facebook page, April 19, 2015).
Kurdish YPG forces renewed their attacks in the Al-Hasakah region in eastern Syria, in order to liberate it from the control of ISIS. The attacks are carried out with air assistance from the international coalition forces. Kurdish fighters have reportedly taken over a number of villages in the region (Al-Akhbar, April 16, 2015).
ISIS is attempting to establish its influence among local tribespeople in the Al-Hasakah province (which it calls the Al-Baraka province). As part of its efforts, operatives from ISIS’s information office were the guests of the Al-Mashahida tribe in the town of Al-Shadadi (located about 63 km south of Al-Hasakah) (ISIS-affiliated Facebook page; Dump file-sharing website, April 19, 2015).
The Al-Mashahida tribespeople live in Syria. The tribe includes several branches headed by sheikhs (tribal leaders). The tribespeople live mainly in the provinces of Deir al-Zor and Al-Hasakah. However, there are also small concentrations of tribespeople in the provinces of Al-Raqqah, Aleppo, Homs, Hama and Damascus (from the tribe’s Facebook page, June 10, 2013. The details are based on comments written by a researcher who is a member of the tribe). The tribe has a militia force in the area of Al-Hasakah which, at least in the past, collaborated with the Al-Nusra Front (Al-Alam, November 17, 2013; Arabi Online, April 21, 2015). This force is now under the control of ISIS, at least around the town of Al-Shadadi, which recently hosted members of ISIS’s information office.
The area of Al-Qalamoun (the Syrian-Lebanese border)
According to reports in the Arab and Lebanese media, ISIS suffered defeats in the fighting in the area of Al-Qalamoun (the Syrian-Lebanese border) and in the town of Arsal (a Sunni town in the northern Beqaa Valley, a stronghold of the jihadi organizations). The media reported the death of the ISIS’s “emir” in Al-Qalamoun and the withdrawal of most of ISIS’s forces to the city of Al-Raqqah, in eastern Syria (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, April 16, 2015; Al-Manar, April 17, 2015).
Main developments in Iraq
Senior US military officials reported that ISIS had lost more than a quarter of the area that it had occupied until the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate last summer. This is due to the coalition forces’ airstrikes combined with ground operations by Iraqi Army forces as part of the campaign against ISIS. A new map published by the US Department of Defense indicates key areas that the Iraqi forces have managed to regain in northern Iraq, in the areas of Tikrit, Sinjar and the Mosul dam. According to the US Department of Defense spokesman, this is an area of almost 15,000 square km (www.voanews.com, April 14, 2015).
Map of the territories of ISIS’s control and influence in Iraq and Syria (US Department of Defense, April 15, 2015)
This week, ISIS continued its attack in the city of Ramadi, the capital of the Al-Anbar Sunni province. According to media reports, large areas in the north of the city have fallen into the hands of ISIS. It was also reported that ISIS’s attempts to take over the town led to a mass exodus of residents from the city (World Bulletin, April 18, 2015).
The Iraqi Army, assisted by Shiite militias and with air support from the coalition countries, is trying to prevent ISIS from taking over the city of Ramadi. On April 19, 2015, the Al-Anbar chief of police announced that the Iraqi Army had repelled an attack by ISIS operatives on government buildings in the city. At the same time, the Iraqi Army began to work to liberate the town of Al-Sufiya, east of Ramadi (Al-Ghadeer Iraqi channel, April 19, 2015; Al-Hadath Iraqi website, April 19, 2015).
According to UN reports, some 90,000 people have fled from the area of Ramadi since the fighting began. Around 4,000 families have fled from the area in the past few days (Al-Jazeera, April 19, 2015). Many of these displaced persons have made their way to the capital, Baghdad. The Iraqi government, which finds it difficult to absorb them, is preventing them from entering the city (Reuters, April 19, 2015; Akhbar al-Iraq, April 18, 2015).
Salah al-Din province
According to Western media reports, Iraqi military forces, with the help of coalition airstrikes, have managed to oust ISIS operatives from the refinery compound in Baiji and have regained absolute control of the site (CNN, April 19, 2015).
On the other hand, ISIS’s mediacontinues to claim that its operatives are still present in the refinery compound. ISIS posted a video on YouTube, entitled: “Islamic State fighters continue to advance in parts of the Baiji refinery”. The video shows ISIS operatives moving cautiously in the refinery compound (YouTube, April 18, 2015).
The video issued by ISIS about the fighting in the refinery compound in Baiji shows unmanned aircraft used by ISIS commanders for command and control purposes and for locating artillery. Other photos show a number of ISIS commanders in the operations room from which they control their forces.
Another video recently issued by ISIS shows two children operating a US-manufactured M198 155 mm howitzer in the fighting in the Baiji refinery compound. The video shows children launching shells at an Iraqi Army post (The Long War Journal, April 17, 2015).
ISIS routinely uses children and youths for purposes of combat and terrorism (as assistance for adults). In the ITIC’s assessment, this is due to a shortage of skilled manpower. According to a report issued by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), ISIS has increased the recruitment of children and youths into its ranks in the past year because it is having difficulty recruiting adults. According to the report, at least 400 children from Syria were recruited by ISIS in recent months.
The governor of the Salah al-Din province reported that Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, former deputy of Saddam Hussein and one of the symbols of the Baath Party regime, was killed by the Iraqi Army on April 17, 2015, during the fighting against ISIS. Al-Douri was killed in Hamrin, near Tikrit. Al-Douri, 72, succeeded Saddam Hussein in the Baath Party and was on the US wanted list. The Iraqi authorities charged him with providing substantial assistance to ISIS. For the Iraqi Army, his killing is an important symbolic achievement and an achievement in terms of morale in its struggle against ISIS.
There is close cooperation between the Salafist-jihadi ISIS and the officers and officials of the Baath Party, which began in the years of prolonged fighting against the US Army in Iraq. This is a “marriage of convenience” from which both sides benefit: ISIS makes use of the military and bureaucratic skills of army officers and party officials, skills that it sorely lacks. On the other hand, Baath Party officials and officers from the Iraqi Army, which was dismantled by the United States, found themselves a convenient framework for fighting against the Iraqi regime, with its Shiite character, and against the United States and the West.
A number of car bombs were detonated in the city of Baghdad on April 17, 2015.The Iraqi authorities suspect that ISIS is behind the attacks. The explosions killed 27 people and wounded dozens. Most of the car bombs were detonated in public places. One of the car bombs exploded in Habibiya, a Shiite neighborhood in the east of the city. The explosion in the Shiite neighborhood killed 15 people and injured 26 (Fox News, April 17, 2015). In addition, at least eight Iraqi Army soldiers were killed in an attack by ISIS operatives (Al-Jazeera, April 18, 2015).
On April 17, 2015, a car bomb was detonated by a suicide bomber near the US Consulate in the city of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region.Security forces reported that the explosion killed at least three people and wounded five. According to the security forces, the suicide bomber parked the car bomb near the consulate building. Senior US officials said that there were no American casualties and that ISIS was apparently behind the attack (US Department of State website, April 17, 2015). On one of its Twitter pages, ISIS claimed responsibility for the car bomb explosion (Fox News, April 17, 2015).
The conduct of the Islamic State
Imposition of Islamic law in Al-Raqqah
ISIS published photos documenting the public flogging of a man convicted of embezzling charity funds in Al-Raqqah (justpaste.it, April 18, 2015).
Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula
The Egyptian campaign against ISIS’s branch in the Sinai Peninsula
Egyptian security forces continue to carry out extensive security activity to suppress the operation of ISIS’s branch in the Sinai Peninsula, especially in the northern part. As part of this activity, the Egyptian security forces attacked terrorist operatives; detonated explosive charges; confiscated weapons, cars and motorcycles; and attacked terrorist infrastructure. On the other hand, ISIS operatives in the Sinai Peninsula continued to carry out terrorist attacks against the Egyptian security forces.
Following are a number of incidents:
On April 16, 2015, Egyptian security sources announced the arrest in southern Al-Arish of a terrorist network numbering 12 operatives, including foreign fighters. Diagrams and maps were found in the network operatives’ possession. Initial interrogation of the network operatives revealed that it was set up some three months ago by operatives of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ISIS’s branch in the Sinai Peninsula). These operatives were planning to carry out terrorist attacks against the Egyptian security forces and against vital institutions in Cairo (Al-Watan, April 16, 2015).
Three Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis operatives were killed during an operation carried out by the Egyptian security forces in southern Al-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid (Al-Masry al-Youm, April 16, 2015). Three other operatives were arrested during an extensive security operation in Al-Arish (Dot Misr, April 16, 2015).
During searches carried out by Egyptian security forces near Rafah, Al-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid (around April 16), a warehouse was discovered, containing quantities of explosives, weapons and communications equipment. In addition, the Egyptian security forces deactivated two explosive charges that had been planted on the road to Sheikh Zuweid (Al-Youm al-Sabea, April 16, 2015).
On April 20, 2015, an Egyptian Army officer and soldier were killed and six other soldiers were wounded in a bomb explosion in western Rafah. ISIS’s Sinai province claimed responsibility for the attack (ISIS’s Twitter page, April 20, 2015).
The battle for hearts and minds
ISIS continues to accompany the fighting in Sinai with intensive media activity.ISIS-affiliated Twitter account holders in the Sinai Peninsula posted a photomontage showing Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in an orange uniform before being executed. ISIS operatives are visible behind him, and below them there is an inscription reading “Coming soon … soon …” (ISIS-affiliated Twitter account, April 19, 2015).
Photomontage showing the Egyptian President before being executed| (ISIS-affiliated Twitter account, April 19, 2015)
An ISIS-affiliated Twitter account posted photos showing ISIS operatives distributing leaflets on behalf of ISIS in the northern Sinai Peninsula, calling on local residents not to cooperate with the Egyptian security forces, which are presented as infidels in Islam.
ISIS operatives distributing leaflets (ISIS-affiliated Twitter account, April 19, 2015)
The global jihad in other countries
According to an official statement by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP),senior AQAP operative Sheikh Ibrahim Suleiman Muhammad al-Rubaish was killed on April 12, 2015, in a “Crusader attack” (i.e., a US airstrike). Other operatives were killed along with him. According to the statement, he was a jihadi operative who had fought in Afghanistan. He was subsequently incarcerated in Guantanamo prison for a few years. After his release, he joined AQAP (AQAP-affiliated forum, April 14, 2015). Ibrahim al-Rubaish was the most senior cleric in the organization, with a USD 5 million bounty on his head offered by the US (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, April 14, 2015).
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a jihadi terrorist organization based in southern Yemen. AQAP is a strong local branch of Al-Qaeda, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri. The organization seeks to take control of Yemen, harm the Saudi regime and turn Yemen and Saudi Arabia into countries that are run according to the Salafist-jihadi perception. AQAP sees the US as a central enemy and has tried several times, unsuccessfully, to harm US aviation. The Americans have designated AQAP as the most active and dangerous of all the Al-Qaeda branches. The attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo (January 7, 2015) was carried out by two Moslem brothers of Algerian extraction affiliated with AQAP.The organization issued a video expressing solidarity with the attack and calling on jihadists to carry out additional attacks in France (although AQAP did not officially claim responsibility for the attack).
On April 20, 2015, ISIS-affiliated Twitter pages published photos documenting an attack carried out by ISIS operatives in Libya against Libyan Army concentrations in the area of Al-Saberi near Benghazi. ISIS’s attack included, among other things, deploying a suicide bomber and firing a machine gun mounted on a vehicle (two ISIS-affiliated Twitter accounts, April 20, 2015).
One of ISIS’s media arms (Al-Furqan) posted a new video showing the execution of two groups of Ethiopian Christians in Libya. ISIS operatives slit the throats of one group and shot the other to death. According to the estimates, one of the groups shown in the video was captured and held in eastern Libya, and the other in the south of the country. The video, which is about half an hour long, shows an armed operative reading out a message from ISIS (Daily Mail, April 19, 2015). Ethiopia did not disclose whether those who were killed were Ethiopian nationals. Two months ago, ISIS issued a video showing the execution of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya.
Counterterrorism and preventive activity
Australian police in Melbourne arrested two youths suspected of planning to carry out an attack using knives or swords during Memorial Day ceremonies in Australia and New Zealand (scheduled to take place on April 25, 2015). The planned attack was apparently inspired by ISIS (AFP, April 18, 2015).
Australia and Iran have agreed to share intelligence about Australians fighting in Iraq.Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that the agreement would help both countries in their efforts in the war against ISIS. Under the agreement, Australia will have access to intelligence collected by Iranian operatives in Iraq. According to Ms. Bishop, Australia began to look for ways to share intelligence with Iran as long ago as 2014. The matter became more important after the attack in December 2014, when an Iranian refugee took 18 people hostage in a café in Sydney. The foreign minister said that the agreement with Iran would be of assistance in the war on terror because she believes that Iran has the information that the Australians are looking for, and is willing to share it with them (BBC, April 20, 2015).
Asif Malik, 31, and his partner Sara Kiran, 29, residents of Berkshire, Britain, disappeared with their four young children some two weeks ago. Asif Malik is a former member of Al-Muhajiroun, an organization that is banned in Britain. He is close to organization leader Anjem Choudary, a prominent figure in Britain who encourages Moslems to join the ranks of the jihadists in Syria and Iraq (see below). The family was photographed by security cameras boarding a ferry in Dover (see below). From there the family travelled through Europe by train until they arrived in Istanbul, from where they apparently departed for Syria (The Mirror, April 19, 2015).
Anjem Choudary is a prominent figure who encourages Moslems to join the ranks of the jihadists in Syria and Iraq. He was born in Britain (1967) to a family of Pakistani descent, studied medicine at the University of Southampton (but it is unclear whether he graduated and was certified as a doctor), attended law school and became a lawyer. Subsequently he headed the Society of Muslim Lawyers. He was assistant to jihadi cleric Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad (who now lives in Lebanon and keeps in touch with him), who founded Al-Muhajiroun, an organization that is banned by the British authorities. He later helped found Al-Ghurabaa, another organization that is banned. In 2008, he established Islam4UK and became its spokesman. The organization was shut down by the British authorities in 2010. He has criticized Britain’s activity in Iraq and Afghanistan and has praised Osama bin Laden. In May 2012, he visited the Netherlands to promote the establishment of Sharia4Holland, an organization encouraging foreign fighters to go to Syria (www.militantislammonitor.org, July 12, 2013).
Further to Turkey’s efforts to block the flow of operatives travelling through Turkey to Syria, Turkish authorities deported eight British citizens, four of them children, from the airport in Antalya, after they tried to enter Syria illegally to join the fighting. Another Briton, the son of Labour Party activist, was also deported from Dalaman Airport (World Bulletin, April 15, 2015).
A couple, both Spanish citizens, were arrested in Turkey on suspicion of being ISIS operatives. The couple, a man of Moroccan descent and a woman from Spain, lived in Spanish Morocco. They regularly encouraged operatives to travel from Spain to Syria and join ISIS (Zaman, April 18, 2015). The foreign fighters who join ISIS include Spanish nationals from the Spanish region on the northern coast of Morocco.
Turkish authorities recently stepped up their counterterrorism measures against jihadi operatives who enter Turkey. These measures apparently make it harder for the foreign fighters to join the ranks of ISIS. But so far, they have failed to stop the flow of operatives who join ISIS and other jihadi organizations in Syria and Iraq.
The battle for hearts and minds conducted by ISIS
Threats against the US
On April 13, 2015, ISIS issued a video entitled “We will burn America,” in which the organization warns that it will carry out an attack against America like the attack on the World Trade Center.In the video, ISIS calls on its supporters to operate as lone wolf terrorists on American soil. The video shows the attack on the World Trade Center and says that the operatives are now much stronger and have more resources than before and could “burn” the United States once again. The end of the video includes a number of beheadings (including that of US citizen James Foley) and the burning of the Jordanian pilot (KP, Afghani News Agency, April 13, 2015).
The establishment of ISIS’s media branch in the Homs province
An ISIS-affiliated Facebook account posted a photo documenting the establishment of ISIS’s media branch in the Homs province, Syria. The branch is located in a small building and the video details the media material available there, including, among other things, written publications, audiotapes, the Quran, Islamic hymns, photos and graphic designs, indoctrination leaflets, and Islamic CDs (ISIS-affiliated website, April 18, 2015).