ITIC | Main Events of the Week
- This week, ISIS suffered two additional blows in the strategically important Iraq-Syria-Jordan tri-border area.On May 17, 2016, the Iraqi Army announced the liberation of the city of Rutba, located near the tri-border area on the Baghdad-to-Damascus highway.Previously (May 13, 2016), the Al-Tanf (Al-Walid) border crossing between Syria and Iraq, near the tri-border area, was taken over by a rebel network known as the New Syrian Army.
- The city of Rutba and the Al-Tanf border crossing are of major importance becausethey control the main route leading from Baghdad to Damascus and Jordan. In the ITIC’s assessment, the takeover of the city and the border crossing may increase the pressure on the presence of ISIS in the large Sunni Al-Anbar Province and disrupt the logistical and operational communication between ISIS in Iraq and in Syria.
- ISIS, on its part, has increased its terrorist attacks against Shiite targets in Baghdad.This week, ISIS carried out a series of attacks that killed nearly 200 people and injured hundreds more. Some of the most noteworthy attacks were car bomb attacks in crowded open markets in the Shiite neighborhoods of Madinat al-Sadr and Al-Shaab. Concurrently, ISIS continues to conduct guerrilla warfare against the Iraqi Army in the areas that it has taken over, especially the Al-Anbar Province.
The US-led Campaign against ISIS
- The US-led international coalition continued to carry out many dozens of airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq. The airstrikes were concentrated in the areas of Baiji, Fallujah, Hit, Mosul, Sinjar, Tal Afar, Baghdadi and Kisik. In Syria, the airstrikes concentrated mainly in the area of Aleppo.
Russia’s involvement in the fighting in Syria
Statements by Russian officials
- Speaking at a meeting with senior government officials, Russian President Putin mentioned Russia’s involvement in the fighting in Syria. According to Putin, the turnaround in the fighting against ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front was achieved thanks to the effective assault by the Russian forces. According to him, since the start of Russia’s involvement in Syria, the Russian Air Force carried out some 10,000 sorties and hit about 30,000 targets, including more than 200 facilities for the manufacture and supply of petroleum and petroleum products. He added that the Syrian Army, with Russian air support, had liberated some 500 civilian communities, including the city of Palmyra. However, the situation in Syria is still complicated and Russia will still have to provide the Syrian Army with considerable support (TASS News Agency, May 10, 2016).
- Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called on Russia’s partners to block the terrorist operatives’ supply routes in Syria, especially on the Syrian-Turkish border (Sputnik, May 12, 2016). According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who spoke at a joint press conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry, more than 90 kilometers along the Turkish-Syrian border are held by ISIS. According to him, Turkey does not allow the Kurds to fight in order to liberate the border area from the hands of ISIS (Sputnik, May 7, 2016). According to US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, the top priority of the US-led coalition forces is now the issue of closing the area along the Syrian-Turkish border, which is used for the passage of foreign fighters (Voice of America, May 15, 2016).
Main developments in Syria
The death of Hezbollah’s top commander in Syria
- The death of Mustafa Badreddine, top commander of Hezbollah’s forces in Syria, was reported on the night of May 12-13, 2016.He was killed in one of Hezbollah’s headquarters near the international airport in Damascus. The circumstances of his death remain unclear. Even the date of his death is uncertain – it may have been May 12, 2016 (Lebanon news website NOW, May 16, 2016). His funeral was held the next day in the southern suburb of Beirut (Dahieh) with the participation of senior Hezbollah figures.
- According to a statement issued by Hezbollah, he was killed in an artillery attack carried out by jihadi rebel organizations (so-called takfiri groups) operating in the region (Al-Ahed, May 14, 2016). The statement refrained from blaming Israel. However, the Al-Nusra Front and other rebel organizations operating in the airport area refrained from claiming responsibility for the killing of Mustafa Badreddine.
Mustafa Badreddine, cousinand brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyeh, was Hezbollah’s most senior military figure. Like Mughniyeh, he also served as an officer in Fatah’s Force 17 in Beirut, and the two operatives joined Hezbollah together. In 1985, he commanded the failed attempt to assassinate the Emir of Kuwait and was jailed for five years in Kuwait. According to the International Court of Justice which investigated the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Mustafa Badreddine played a central role of in the assassination. After the death of Imad Mughniyeh, he was named head of Hezbollah’s operational infrastructure. In this capacity, he was involved in terrorist attacks carried out by Hezbollah abroad. In Syria, he served as the top commander of Hezbollah’s forces fighting alongside the Syrian regime.
The Aleppo area
- Clashes continued between the Syrian Army and the rebel organizations in the Aleppo area. Clashes continued between ISIS and the Turkish Army near the Turkish border.According to a report from May 15, 2016, 27 ISIS operatives were killed in airstrikes by Turkey and the US-led coalition in the Aleppo area (Syria Mubasher, May 15, 2016). According to Turkish President Erdoğan, in the wake of the situation in the city of Kilis, Turkey is preparing to cleanse the Syrian area near the border with Turkey from the presence of ISIS and will not hesitate to take independent measures if necessary (AFP, May 12, 2016).
The takeover of the Al-Tanf border crossing
- On May 13, 2016, the so-called New Syrian Army announced that it had taken over the Al-Tanf (Al-Walid) border crossing between Syria and Iraq from the hands of ISIS. The takeover of the crossing was achieved after a fierce battle with ISIS (abna24.com, May 15, 2016). ISIS detonated a car bomb in an apparently unsuccessful attempt to retake the crossing.
- The so-called New Syrian Army is a framework of rebel organizations that includes deserters from the Syrian Army, local tribesmen, and operatives who served in the Free Syrian Army. Its strength is estimated at 1,000 fighters, who operate in eastern Syria (Al-Arabiya TV, March 7, 2016). On March 5, 2016, the New Syrian Army took over the Al-Tanf border crossing but ISIS regained control of it the next day. According to Iranian media reports, the force that took over the crossing on March 5, 2016, came from Jordan, and its fighters received support from the international coalition (ARA News, March 5, 2016).
The Al-Tanf (Al-Walid) border crossing is one of the three crossings between Syria and Iraq. The border crossing is located near the Syria-Iraq-Jordan tri-border area, and the main highway from Damascus to Baghdad runs through it. The loss of the border crossing represents another blow to the logistical and operational communication between ISIS in Syria and in Iraq, especially the Al-Anbar Province, where ISIS is under increasing pressure by the Iraqi Army (see the section on Iraq).
The Palmyra area
- This week, the battles continued in the Al-Sha’ir and Al-Mahr oil and gas fields west of Palmyra. The Syrian Army, which was driven out of the oil and gas fields, is trying to retake them. Russia has reportedly equipped the Syrian regime forces with T-90 A tanks for fighting against ISIS in the area of the Al-Sha’ir oil field (Khatwa News Agency, May 16, 2016).
- Clashes continued in several locations in the city of Deir al-Zor and its environs: in the area of the military airbase, ISIS operatives managed to take over a number of Syrian Army outposts (Local Coordination Committees, May 14, 2016). ISIS detonated a car bomb in the Al-Tahtouh neighborhood in eastern Deir al-Zor. A group of ISIS operatives entered the Al-Assad Hospital in the west of the city and slaughtered the medical staff. The Syrian Army managed to kill the ISIS operatives and regain control of the hospital (SANA, May 15, 2016).
The Idlib area
- Fifteen senior Al-Nusra Front operatives were reportedly killed in an airstrike carried out at the Abu ad-Duhur military airbase (about 50 km southeast of Idlib). The airstrike was carried out during a meeting of senior Al-Nusra Front operatives. The dead included a senior operative code named Abu Hajer the Jordanian (or Azzam al-Shami). According to a Lebanese newspaper report, the first part of the meeting was attended by the Al-Nusra Front’s leader, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, and most of its military and Sharia commanders, all of whom left before the airstrike and were not injured (As-Safir, May 14, 2016).
Main developments in Iraq
The terrorist attacks in Baghdad
- The most deadly attacks in Baghdad were two car bomb attacks in crowded open markets in the heart of Shiite neighborhoods: a car bomb exploded in the Shiite neighborhood of Madinat al-Sadr in eastern Baghdad. A total of 64 people were killed and 74 others were injured (AFP, May 12, 2016). Another car bomb attack was carried out (May 17, 2016) in the Shiite neighborhood of Al-Shaab, in northern Baghdad. Nearly 40 people were killed and at least 140 were injured.
- Below is a (partial) list of other attacks carried out by ISIS throughout Baghdad before the series of attacks on May 17, 2016:
- A suicide bomber blew himself up at a checkpoint at the entrance to the Shiite Kadhimiya quarter, killing 17 people and injuring more than 30 others.
- An IED exploded at the entrance to a shopping center in western Baghdad, killing eight people and injuring around 20 others.
- Six policemen were killed and 14 civilians were injured in a suicide bombing attack carried out by ISIS operatives at the Abu Ghraib police station in western Baghdad.
- On May 15, 2016, suicide bombers carried out an attack at a gas plant in northern Baghdad (Al-Sumaria, May 15, 2016). At least 10 people were killed.
Guerrilla warfare against the Iraqi Army in the Al-Anbar Province
- While the Iraqi regime is trying to expand and establish its control over the Al-Anbar Province, ISIS continued to engage in guerrilla warfare against the Iraqi Army. ISIS operatives attacked the town of Amiriyat Al-Fallujah, which the Iraqi Army uses as a base for launching attacks against the ISIS-controlled city of Fallujah. The Iraqi Army managed to regain control of the town. ISIS detonated a car bomb in northern Ramadi. As a result, 25 members of the Iraqi security forces were killed.
The takeover of Rutba
- On May 16, 2016, the Iraqi Army began an operation to take over the city of Rutba.The city has a population of around 22,000 and is located some 380 km west of Baghdad, near the Iraq-Syria-Jordan tri-border area. The operation was conducted by the 16th Division of the Iraqi Army, with the support of local tribal forces and Iraqi border police, along with air support from the coalition countries and the Iraqi Air Force. According to Iraqi and Arab media reports, the Iraqi forces encountered no significant resistance and on May 17, 2016, they reached the outskirts of the city.
- On May 17, 2016, the Iraqi Army announced the liberation of the city from the hands of ISIS, apart from a few remaining pockets of resistance. The Iraqi Engineering Corps began to remove IEDs left behind by ISIS operatives (Al-Sumaria, May 17-18, 2016).
- ISIS released photos documenting the destruction of Mashki Gate in Mosul. According to ISIS’s announcement, it is a pagan site built in the Assyrian period in the 7th century BC (Akhbar Dawlat al-Islam, May 16, 2016). Mashki Gate is one of the gates of the old city of Nineveh. Its destruction is part of the systematic destruction of archaeological sites carried out by ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula
- During the past week, the Egyptian security forces continued their activity against ISIS’s Sinai Province in the areas of Sheikh Zuweid, Al-Arish, and Rafah. As part of the security operation, suspects were detained and vehicles and weapons were confiscated. The Egyptian security forces destroyed eight tunnels on the border with the Gaza Strip and in the area of Rafah (Veto portal, May 14, 2016). On the other hand, ISIS operatives continued their guerrilla activities against the Egyptian security forces, mainly by planting IEDs.
- According to “legal sources” at the Egyptian Prosecutor’s Office, ISIS’s Sinai Province operatives told interrogators that they had tried to assassinate Ahmed al-Qattan, the Saudi ambassador to Egypt. They had planned to plant a car bomb in the Giza area. They also tried to assassinate Adly Mansour, former president of Egypt. Both of these actions were thwarted (Al-Bawaba, May 12, 2016).
The global jihad in other countries
The town of Abu Qarin
- The operations room for the fight against ISIS in Misrata (operated by the Libyan Dawn militia in coordination with the Libyan Government of National Accord) announced on May 17, 2016, that the forces under its command hadtaken over the town of Abu Qarin from the hands of ISIS (Al-Wasat Portal, May 17, 2016).The announcement still requires verification. ISIS operatives took over the town of Abu Qarin and its environs on May 5, 2016.
- According to an announcement by Morocco’s Interior Ministry, a citizen of Chad who belongs to ISIS was arrested in the city of Tangier in northern Morocco. He was sent to set up a squad of Moroccans and Algerians to carry out attacks on Western diplomatic missions and tourist sites. Before his arrest, he managed to observe a number of sites. He had planned to declare the eastern region of Morocco as a province of the Islamic State. Bags containing materials used in making IEDs and vests used as explosive belts were found in his hiding place, among other things. Instructions for making IEDs and videos of potential targets were also found (Asdaa al-Maghreb, May 13-14, 2016).
- ISIS operatives carried out several attacks against the Yemeni Army forces in Hadhramaut, in the southeast of the country. On May 15, 2016, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive belt at the entrance to the Yemeni Army’s Al-Najda camp in the city of Al-Mukalla, capital of the Hadhramaut Province. Around 100 soldiers were killed and wounded (Yemen Press, May 15, 2016). ISIS’s Hadhramaut Province claimed responsibility for the attack (ISIS-affiliated Twitter account, May 15, 2016).
- According to Irina Yarovaya, head of the Russian Parliament’s Anti-Corruption and Security Committee, 350 Russian youths aged 14-16 have been trained by ISIS in Al-Raqqah (SANA, May 13, 2016). She did not say whether the boys were still in Syria or had returned to Russia.
The battle for hearts and minds
Propaganda directed at the French target audience
- ISIS’s Aleppo Province posted a video that ends with two French-speaking children executing two people accused of collaborating with the Syrian regime. The children are the sons of an ISIS operative codenamed Abu Dajana the Frenchman. He converted to Islam, moved with his family to Syria and was killed by the Syrian Army. One of the children, codenamed Abu Mus’ab, says that he is ready to carry out a suicide bombing attack in Syria or to return to France and carry out an attack to “avenge the blood of the Muslims.” The video shows him firing a sniper rifle at targets with photos of the presidents of France, Russia and the United States, among others (Haqq, May 15, 2016).
Indoctrination of ISIS’s ideology among children
- ISIS recently launched an app called Letters. The mobile phone app, with colorful graphics, is designed to indoctrinate ISIS’s ideology among children by teaching the Arabic alphabet. The letters of the alphabet are represented using military terms such as a gun (the letter B in Arabic) or a tank (the letter D in Arabic). For each letter there is also a sentence in the spirit of ISIS’s ideology, such as “a hero who sacrifices himself for the sake of the Islamic nation” or “heretical depravity” (ISIS-affiliated Twitter account, May 15, 2016; Haqq, May 13, 2016).
A Palestinian educational institution in the Gaza Strip, under the control of Hamas, also used the teaching of the Arabic alphabet as a didactic tool for inculcating an ideology of hatred and violence. See the ITIC’s Information Bulletin from March 30, 2016: “Recent Video Shows Palestinian School Children Subjected to Anti-Israel Indoctrination.”