Spotlight on Global Jihad (July 30 – August 5, 2015)

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Main Events of the Week

  • According to reports this week, the city Al-Hasakah in northeastern Syria has been liberated from ISIS by the Kurdish forces, with US and coalition air support. If this is confirmed, it represents a further achievement for the Kurdish forces, which are establishing a contiguous territorial area under their control along the border with Turkey. This development is giving rise to concern in the Turkish government, which fears the creation of a Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Syria, which would strengthen Kurdish aspirations for a country of their own in the territory of Syria, Turkey and Iraq.
  • The Al-Nusra Front announced that its operatives had captured a number of operatives who had been trained in Jordan by the United States and subsequently entered Syria. On the other hand, US spokesmen claimed that no combatant in the unit supported by the United States had been taken prisoner. In any case, the US government has announced its decision to provide air support to the rebels in Syria who have been trained by it, if they are attacked by the Syrian regime or other (rebel) groups. Such support, in the ITIC’s assessment, has the potential to expand the extent of US involvement in the fighting in Syria.
    There were no significant changes in the other combat zones in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt.

The international campaign against ISIS

US and coalition airstrikes

  • This week, the US and coalition forces continued their airstrikes against ISIS targets. During the week, dozens of airstrikes were carried out in Syria and Iraq by means of fighter planes, attack aircraft and UAVs. Following are the main airstrikes (CENTCOM website):
  • Syria– the airstrikes were concentrated in the area of Al-Hasakah, Idlib, Deir al-Zor, Aleppo and Kobani. The airstrikes damaged ISIS tactical units, battle and control positions, motorcycles, heavy machine guns, vehicles, staging and training areas, bridges and more.
  • raq– the airstrikes were concentrated in the areas of Al-Qaim, Baiji, Habbaniyah, Haditha, Makhmur, Mosul, Ramadi, Sinjar, Tal Afar and Hawija. The airstrikes damaged ISIS staging areas, tactical units, buildings, machine guns, launching systems, weapons (including anti-tank rockets and anti-aircraft weapons), vehicles (including car bombs), heavy machinery and more.
  • According to a report published recently by an organization that monitors the airstrikes of the coalition forces, 5,866 airstrikes have been carried out to date as part of the air campaign (3,591 in Iraq and 2,275 in Syria). An estimated 15,000 ISIS operatives were killed in the airstrikes. Between 489 and 1,247 civilians have reportedly been killed (airwars.org, August 4, 2015). In the ITIC’s assessment, the number of ISIS operatives allegedly killed is highly exaggerated.

Change in the coalition’s policy of attack

  • The US government has announced its decision to provide air support to the rebels in Syria who have been trained by it, if they are attacked by forces affiliated with the Syrian regime or with other (rebel) groups.This issue arose after a number of operatives who had been trained by the US were attacked by Al-Nusra Front operatives, and the US was forced to carry out an airstrike in order to protect them. If the decision is implemented on the ground, then it may lead to increased US involvement in Syria. The decision was preceded by a statement by the US that it would cooperate more closely with Turkey against ISIS in Syria, includingcarrying out airstrikes from bases in Turkey (Financial Times, August 3, 2015).

The new policy of attack means that permission was granted to carry out airstrikes against those who attack US allies in Syria. Such attacks may be directed against other organizations, including the Al-Nusra Front (and not only against ISIS), thereby expanding the scope of US involvement in the civil war in Syria. According to the American media, the decision ends a debate that has taken place over the past few months among the US leadership about the role that the US Army should play in support of its few allies in Syria without coming into direct conflict with the Assad government (Wall Street Journal, August 2, 2015).

  • British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, who recently visited Iraq, announced that Britain had decided to extend its airstrikes in Iraq until March 2017. He said that so far the RAF had carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Iraq against ISIS targets (ibtimes, August 4, 2015).

Change in Turkish policy regarding ISIS and the PKK

  • Further to the Turkish operations against ISIS, the spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry announced that Turkey had signed an agreement to allow US-led coalition aircraft to use the Incirlik military air base in southern Turkey to attack ISIS targets. According to the Turkish media, the agreement applies only to fighting against ISIS and does not include air support for Kurdish forces in northern Syria (Hürriyet, July 29, 2015). It was also reported that the agreement included the establishment of de facto buffer zones along the Turkish-Syrian border but not within the territory of Syria, which is what Turkey wanted (Hürriyet, August 2, 2015).
  • According to an announcement by the governor of Kilis province, in southern Turkey, areas along the Turkish border with Syria have been declared closed military zones to which entrance is forbidden as of July 30. For example, the area between the border police in Öncü and the border police in Inanli and between the cities of Gaziantep and Kilis, etc. (Timeturk, July 28, 2015). This area includes routes used by jihadi organizations to enter and leave Turkey. Declaring it a closed military zone is liable to hamper their movement in the area.

Main developments in Syria

Aleppo province

  • This past week there were clashes in the area of A’zaz, north of Aleppo,between Al-Nusra Front operatives and a rebel group known as Division 30. According to Arab media reports, some Division 30’s operatives were trained by the US. On its Twitter page, the Al-Nusra Frontposted a message claiming to have captured a number of operatives who had been trained by the US Army (Twitter page of the Al-Nusra Front, July 31, 2015).
  • The Al-Nusra Front’s official media outlet, Al-Manarah al-Bayda (The White Minaret), issued a statement condemning US involvement in Syria, which finds expression in the CIA training program.According to the statement, a group that had completed the training program and was earmarked to form the core of the “national army” entered Syria a few days ago. According to the statement, Al-Nusra Front operatives detained a number of combatants from this unit for questioning, in order to understand the nature of the group. The statement claims that there is coordination between the operatives trained by the US and the coalition aircraft attacking the Al-Nusra Front’s positions (Al-Manarah al-Bayda, July 31, 2015).
  • On the other hand, US spokesmen claimed that no combatant in the unit supported by the United States had been taken prisoner. They added that the objective of the training program was to strengthen the moderate Syrian rebels in their war against ISIS (Wall Street Journal, August 1, 2015).

The (contradictory) statements may be an indication of the expected difficulties for the Syrian operatives trained by the US and sent from Jordan to the battlefields in Syria. Their number so far is not large (several dozen) and, in the ITIC’s assessment, they are not a significant factor among the rebel organizations. On the other hand, they are liable to be perceived as hostile by the Al-Nusra Front, ISIS and other jihadi groups because of their ties with the United States and the West. The US intention to provide pro-US organizations with air support could lead to the expansion of US involvement in Syria beyond the declared goals of the campaign against ISIS.

Al-Hasakah province

  • The Kurdish forces (YPG) announced that the city of Al-Hasakah, in northeastern Syria, had been liberated after having been held by ISIS for 33 days.According to the Kurds, 386 ISIS operatives were killed in the fighting, including several commanders. According to the Kurdish announcement, the operation for cleansing the city included three stages: recapturing ISIS’s positions in the city, cutting off ISIS’s supply routes and roads to Al-Hasakah, and finally the complete liberation of the city from the presence of ISIS (Daily Mail, August 2, 2015). The liberation of the city was carried out under air cover, including international coalition airstrikes (Al-Jazeera, August 2, 2015).

The liberation of Al-Hasakah from ISIS, if confirmed, represents another achievement for the Kurdish forces (YPG) and the US-led coalition. This achievement follows the liberation of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) and Tell Abyad from ISIS. This means the creation of a contiguous territorial zone controlled by the Kurds along the Syrian-Turkish border. It appears that the Kurdish forces will now seek to complete their establishment by taking over Kurdish areas north of Aleppo. This development is giving rise to concern in the Turkish government, which fears the creation of a Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Syria.

The area of Idlib – Latakia

  • According to Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese media reports, Jaysh al-Fatah forces, led by the Al-Nusra Front, have taken over the last outpost of the Syrian Army east of the city of Jisr al-Shughur. Jaysh al-Fatah forces also took over the Zeyzoun Dam and a thermal power plant in the Al-Ghab plain in the area of Jisr al-Shughur (see map) (Al-Akhbar, July 29, 2015).
  • According to Arab media reports, Jaysh al-Fatah and the Al-Nasser Brigade fired artillery at the town of Qardaha, stronghold of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Hits were reported in the town and several nearby villages. According to one of the commanders, the force opened fire in support of the rebel forces besieged in the city of Al-Zabadani and intend to continue firing (aljazeera.net, August 2, 2015).
  • According to reports on social networks on August 3, 2015, a Syrian Army Mig-23 aircraft was shot down by anti-aircraft fire by Jaysh al-Fatah in the city of Ariha, east of Jisr al-Shughur. The wreckage of the aircraft, which apparently fell in the center of the city’s open market (in an area controlled by Jaysh al-Fatah), killed and injured a few dozen people. According to later reports, Jaysh al-Fatah captured the two pilots (All4Syria, August 3, 2015). The Syrian authorities claim that the plane crashed as a result of a technical failure (Twitter pages, Damascus al-Aan Facebook page, August 3, 2015).

Homs province

  • On July 31, 2015, the owner of a Twitter account affiliated with the Al-Nusra Front posted pictures of a self-manufactured rocket. He said the rocket was launched at villages loyal to the Syrian regime and at concentrations of the militia that supports the Syrian regime in the village of Al-Ghasibiya, northeast of Homs. According to the organization, the rocket was launched “in response to Muslims being bombed with explosive barrels” (Al-Nusra Front-affiliated Twitter account, July 31, 2015).
  • On July 29, 2015, ISIS’s Homs province announced that its operatives had managed to infiltrate a number of outposts controlled by the Syrian Army in the area of the Jazal oil and gas field, east of Homs. Weapons reportedly fell into the hands of ISIS, including tanks, a BMP model armored personnel carrier, anti-tank rocket launchers and ammunition (shabakataljahad.blogspot, July 29, 2015). ISIS operatives blocked the supply route leading to the Jazal oil and gas field (Twitter; YouTube, July 30, 2015). According to ISIS, 23 Syrian soldiers were killed in an ambush set by its operatives around the oil field (a3maqnews.tumblr, July 31, 2015).

Main developments in Iraq

Al-Anbar province

Ramadi
  • US-led coalition forces announced that they had attacked and destroyed two bridges under the control of ISIS in the area of the city of Al-Bukamal in Syria, near the border with Iraq. According to Pentagon spokesmen, these bridges are important to ISIS and their destruction will affect ISIS’s military capabilities in the Al-Anbar province in Iraq (www.military.com, July 31, 2015) In the ITIC’s assessment, the destruction of the bridges may hamper the movement of vehicles and the passage of ISIS reinforcements from Syria to Iraq and vice versa.
  • According to American, Iraqi and Iranian media reports, the Iraqi Army is strengthening its grip in the city of Ramadi and its surroundings. On August 2, 2015, fighting took place between ISIS and Iraqi Army forces in the city of Ramadi itself. An Iraqi Twitter account holder opposed to ISIS reported that ISIS had suffered heavy losses in the fighting (Twitter account, August 2, 2015). It was reported that the Iraqi Army was trying to cut off the access roads between Fallujah and Ramadi, in order to isolate these two cities, which are controlled by ISIS (Al-Alam, August 1, 2015).

According to US Army officials, the Iraqi forces are displaying progress in their effort to regain control of the city of Ramadi, which was captured by ISIS. They said that the effort began on July 12, 2015, with massive airstrikes by the US-led coalition forces. Now phase two is underway, led by the Iraqi Army. This is the phase which aims to cut off ISIS’s communication and supply lines to the city. During the fighting, the coalition forces provide air support to the Iraqi forces (Washington Post, July 31, 2015). The city of Ramadi, capital of the Al-Anbar province, was taken over by ISIS in May 2015. If the Iraqi Army manages to recapture it, this would represent a significant achievement for it as follows the failures that it experienced in the Al-Anbar province.

Salah al-Din province
  • According to “an Iraqi security source,” the Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias that help them are fighting against ISIS north of the city of Baiji.According to the same source, on July 30, 2015, three suicide bombings were foiled north of Baiji. The Iraqi Army killed three foreign suicide bombers wearing explosive belts when they tried to blow themselves up near Iraqi security forces (Shafaq News, July 30, 2015).
  • ISIS posted a video documenting the graduation ceremony of a snipers course held by ISIS in the Salah al-Din province. The video documents sniper fire by ISIS against the Iraqi Army and Shiite militias. The speakers in the video speak an Iraqi dialect of Arabic, indicating that they are from Iraq (archive.org file-sharing website, July 30, 2015).

Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula

ISIS’s Sinai province’s campaign against the Egyptian security forces

  • During the week, the Egyptian security forces continued their intensive activity against operatives of the Sinai province of the Islamic State, including airstrikes. The Egyptian forces reportedly attacked terrorist bases in the areas of Al-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid, hit car bombs and motorcycles, blew up several houses, neutralized IEDs, killed several dozen operatives and detained several dozen suspects. The Egyptian security forces have raised their state of alert for fear that Sinai province operatives will try to carry out attacks during the opening of the new shipping lane of the Suez Canal (Al-Masry al-Youm, July 31, 2015).
  • According to a spokesman for the Egyptian forces, the security apparatus killed Salim Suleiman al-Haram, a senior Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis operative, while he was in the area of Sheikh Zuweid. Al-Haram barricaded himself in his home. When he was ordered to turn himself in, he tried to blow himself up with the explosive belt that he was wearing. The Egyptian forces shot and killed him before he could blow himself up. A large quantity of weapons was found in his possession (Facebook page of the armed forces spokesman, August 1, 2015).
  • Despite the intense activity of the Egyptian security forces, the attempts by operatives of the Sinai province to carry out attacks against the Egyptian security forces in northern Sinai have not ceased. Some of the attacks carried out against the Egyptian forces were successful, but the Egyptians also reported that a number of attacks had been foiled:
  • On July 29, 2015, Egyptian security forces uncovered an IED zone containing 25 IEDs in south Sheikh Zuweid. The IEDs were planted by Sinai province operatives in order to harm the security forces (Akhbar al-Youm, July 29, 2015).
  • On July 31, 2015, a soldier was wounded in the head by sniper fire aimed at a concentration of Egyptian security forces near Rafah. In addition, operatives blew up the home of a policeman in west Al-Arish with an IED planted in the doorway. There were no casualties (Akhbar al-Youm, July 31, 2015).
  • On August 2, 2015, Egyptian security forces defused IEDs intended to harm the security forces. The IEDs that were defused included four that were planted on the Al-Jura road (south of Sheikh Zuweid) and three that were planted in the area of Al-Arish (Al-Watan, August 2, 2015).
  • On August 4, 2015, Egyptian security forces defused six IEDs in south Sheikh Zuweid (Aswat Masriya, August 4, 2015).

ISIS-affiliated networks in the Gaza Strip

Claim of responsibility for rocket fire at Israel

  • In its Twitter account, a Salafist-jihadi network in the Gaza Strip, calling itself Descendants of the Companions of the Prophet [Muhammad] – Greater Jerusalem – Gaza, claimed responsibility for a series of rocket launches into Israel over the past week. Among other things, it claimed responsibility for a rocket launch at the community of Zikim in the western Negev Desert (July 31, 2015), two rocket launches at the community of Be’eri (August 1, 2015), and two rocket launches at the community of Re’im (August 2, 2015) (Twitter, August 1, 2015). It is unclear how many rockets were fired by this network and where they fell.

The global jihad in other countries

Libya

Derna
  • Fighting around the city of Derna continues between a local jihadi organization and ISIS-affiliated operatives(who were pushed out of the city of Derna). According to reports, about fifty operatives from a jihadi organization named the Shura Council of the Derna Rebels, who are fighting against ISIS, were killed in the fighting that took place in the area of Al-Fataih (southeast of Derna) on July 29 and 30, 2015. ISIS operatives have been firing rockets and mortar shells at the city of Derna from the area of Al-Fataih in retaliation for their expulsion from the city about a month ago (Aamaq, July 30, 2015; Akhbar Libya, July 29, 2015).
Sirte
  • ISIS’s Tripoli province in Libya published a video allegedly indicating its control and presence in the city of Sirte (Isdarat al-Dawla al-Islamiyya, July 31, 2015).
  • On July 30, 2015, a blog affiliated with ISIS operatives in Libya posted photos of African Christians who had converted to Islam in the city of Sirte. It is unclear whether they voluntarily converted to Islam or whether they converted to Islam after being threatened that they would be killed as “infidels” (i-libya.blogspot.com, July 30, 2015). On July 31, 2015, the Indian government announced that four of its citizens had been detained in Sirte by ISIS. They are employees at the University of Sirte (Sky News in Arabic, July 31, 2015).

Afghanistan – Pakistan

New Taliban leader
  • The Afghanistan government spokesman has confirmed reports issued over the past two years that Mullah Mohammed Omar, leader of the Taliban, died of natural causes in 2013. He said the Afghanistan government is relying on reliable information according to which he died in a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan, in April 2013. Up to now, Taliban officials have denied his death.
  • Mullah Mohammed Omar, of Pashtun descent, was born in the area of Kandahar. He was part of a group of jihad fighters (mujahideen) that was supported at the time by the US and fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He lost an eye in one of the battles. He then turned against the Americans. He was the Taliban’s spiritual leader and head of state from 1996 until the US Army forces arrived in 2001. His successor is apparently a Shura Council member by the name of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was appointed in secret (CBSNews, July 29, 2015).

The expansion of ISIS

  • According to ISIS-affiliated Twitter account holders, operatives from the Hakimullah Mehsud military camp have pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The attached photo shows operatives from the camp next to a poster bearing the ISIS insignia and an inscription stating that the Hakimullah Mehsud military base stands beside the Islamic State (two ISIS-affiliated Twitter accounts, August 3, 2015). According to another report, the commander of the Taliban in Nuristan has also pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Twitter, August 3, 2015).
  • An ISIS-affiliated Twitter page recently posted photos of an ISIS training camp located in the tribal region of northwestern Pakistan. The photos were published by ISIS’s Khorasan province.

Counterterrorism and preventive activity

The United States

  • According to British media reports, a young hacker from Birmingham appears on the Pentagon’s hit list of ISIS operatives. Junaid Hussain, akathe British Abu Hussain, 21, fled to Syria in July 2013 and is now apparently a senior operative in the so-called Cyber Caliphate, ISIS’s hacker unit. In 2012 he was imprisoned in Britain for attempting to steal personal information from Tony Blair. He married a 45-year-old former pop singer who converted to Islam and is now known as the British Umm Hussain. He fled to Syria with his wife and her son. According to a report, the British Umm Hussain is now head of ISIS’s women’s unit that imposes Sharia law in Al-Raqqah, ISIS’s stronghold in northern Syria (Daily Mail, August 2, 2015).

ISIS has a group calling itself the Cyber Army of the Khilafah, which is engaged in the cyber war.This body has reportedly hacked into several websites. Among other things, it has hacked into the website of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and threatened to kill its head, Rami Abdul Rahman. A photomontage uploaded to the website by ISIS hackers shows the SOHR website manager dressed in orange clothes (the attire of those condemned to death by ISIS) and to his right, holding a knife, Jihadi John (ISIS’s executioner).

The United Arab Emirates (UAE)

  • UAE authorities announced that indictments have been filed against 41 people suspected of belonging to a “terrorist organization” which attempted to topple the country’s government and establish a caliphate in its stead. The network consisted of local residents and various foreign nationals, who were planning to carry out attacks inspired by jihadi groups (Al-Sharq, August 3, 2015).

Russia

  • According to Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Russia is very concerned about ISIS’s increasing influence and the way it is spreading to additional territories outside Syria and Iraq. He called for international cooperation in this regard (Reuters, August 4, 2015).

This is not the first time that the Russian authorities have expressed concern about the spread of ISIS’s influence which is manifested, inter alia, in Muslim residents from the Northern Caucasus joining jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq. General Sergei Smirnov, deputy head of the Russian intelligence agency FSS, estimated in April 2015 that some 1,700 Russian nationals had joined jihadi groups in order to fight in Syria and Iraq (www.aina.org, April 11, 2015). Russia’s concerns recently increased after ISIS announced the establishment of four new provinces of the Islamic State: Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia and the KBK Region (consisting of Kabarda, Balkaria and Karachay).

The battle for hearts and minds

ISIS is encouraging its supporters to disseminate its reports over the Internet

  • The owner of an ISIS-affiliated Twitter account called on Internet users who support ISIS to disseminate the information produced by ISIS via the Internet. He did so in an attempt to convince them that the dissemination of information is warfare for all intents and purposes.At the end of the posting there is a hashtag that reads You are a warrior, a media man, and a photo of a Canon camera on the seat of a vehicle next to weapons.

ISIS attaches great importance to the battle for hearts and minds, and invests considerable resources in this area (skilled personnel, large sums of money). It considers the battle for hearts and minds an integral part of the military campaign. ISIS has a highly effective propaganda system that produces a large amount of media products. It is run by Iraqi and Syrian professionals, who work together with Arab and Western professionals. The Internet, and social networks in particular, is the primary means for spreading ISIS’s ideology and political messages in the Middle East and around the world, and an important tool for fundraising and also for recruiting both foreign fighters and an audience of supporters.

Expressions of support for ISIS on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem

  • In light of the latest incidents on the Temple Mount, an ISIS-affiliated Twitter account holder posted a photo of the Dome of the Rock with a person in front of it holding a sheet of paper that reads: “The spirit is here and the body is there, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Al-Aqsa [Mosque] misses you” (Twitter, July 30, 2015). The reliability of the photo is unclear.