Spotlight on Global Jihad October 29 – November 4, 2015

Weekly Report from The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC) on the Global Jihad from Muslim forces.

  • The main event of the week was the crash of a Russian plane in northern Sinai, in which its 224 passengers (Russian tourists) were killed. ISIS has claimed responsibility for downing the plane. There is no final verification for this claim of responsibility, but the possibility that it was indeed an ISIS attack that caused the plane crash cannot be ruled out.Note: After the Hebrew version of this document was published, CNN reported that a US intelligence official assessed that there was a high probability that the crash was caused by an explosive charge that went off on the plane.
  • The Syrian Army’s ground offensive in northwestern Syria, with an emphasis on the rural area south of Aleppo, failed to progress this week as well.ISIS operatives managed to take over most of the city of Al-Safirah, south of Aleppo, thereby threatening the Syrian Army’s supply line to Aleppo. There have been no significant developments in the areas of Idlib and Hama, which were also targets of the Syrian attack.
  • In Iraq, fighting continues between the Iraqi security forces and ISIS around three important cities: the area of Ramadi in the Al-Anbar province, which the Iraqi Army is seeking to take over (so far unsuccessfully); the area of the oil city of Baiji, where ISIS is trying to take over key areas in its vicinity, after Baiji fell into the hands of the Iraqi Army; and the area of the city of Samarra, south of Baiji, where ISIS began an attack against the Iraqi forces.

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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, a few dozen airstrikes were carried out by means of fighter planes, attack aircraft, and UAVs. The small number of airstrikes in Syrian territory relative to previous weeks was salient.
  • Following are the main airstrikes (CENTCOM website):
  • Syria– the airstrikes were concentrated in the areas of Al-Hasakah, Al-Raqqah, Deir al-Zor and Marea. The airstrikes targeted ISIS tactical units, car bombs, battle positions, and operatives.
  • Iraq– the airstrikes were concentrated in the areas of Kisik (west of Mosul), Ramadi, Sinjar, Baiji, Mosul, Tal Afar and Sultan Abdullah (south of Mosul). The airstrikes targeted ISIS assault positions, operative gathering points, tactical units, battle positions, artillery, artillery positions, and a car bomb.
US policy in Syria and Iraq
  • Why have the US-led coalition countries reduced their air activity in Syria? According to one version, this is due to Russia’s intensive air activity. On the other hand, US officials claimed that there has been no change in the characteristics of the American activity in Syrian territory, and that the scope of the airstrikes has been reduced due to a lack of effective targets (The Financial Times, October 30, 2015).
  • Following are a number of statements made by senior American officials regarding US policy in Syria and Iraq:
  • Testifying before the Senate Armed Forces Committee, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced that the US was making changes in its campaign against ISIS. He said that the US would focus on airstrikes in the areas of Al-Raqqah in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq, and on promoting ground operations. He also said that the US intended to continue supporting “local moderate forces” (which the US is currently having trouble locating and training). He stressed that despite the agreement to prevent friction with Russia, the United States was not cooperating with Russia and would not let Russia affect its operations in Iraq (The Washington Post, October 27, 2015).
  • It was reported that for the first time, US President Barack Obama gave an order to send a group of American soldiers to operate on Syrian territory. The force to be sent will comprise up to 50 members of the Special Forces. They will be annexed to opposition units in the north of the country and will help coordinate the operations of the local forces and the coalition forces against ISIS. The US administration stressed that this was not a change in policy and that the American forces would not take part in combat missions (The Guardian, October 28, 2015). US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the Special Forces sent to Syria would fight ISIS alone and would not be involved in the civil war in the country (AP, October 31, 2015).
  • White House Spokesman Josh Earnest stressed that the mission of the Special Forces would consist solely of training and transferring weapons and ammunition. He said that the opposition forces had already demonstrated their ability to succeed in combat when they managed to regain control of Kobani after receiving American logistical support. He noted that the American support would also include stationing A-10 and F-15 aircraft at the Incirlik Air Force base in southern Turkey. In addition, the US will deploy Special Forces in the Kurdish region in Erbil, in northern Iraq, in order to isolate Mosul. The US will also help the government of Iraq to regain control of Ramadi (aawsat.com, October 31, 2015).

Russian involvement in the civil war in Syria

  • While the Syrian Army’s ground offensive in northwestern Syria is making no progress (see below), Russian Air Force planes carried out multiple airstrikes in Syria this week. The airstrikes were concentrated on the areas of Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, Hama, Latakia, and Damascus. According to Russian reports, the airstrikes damaged the military infrastructure of ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front. Russia’s Defense Ministry dismissed allegations that the airstrikes also hit civilian targets (TASS News Agency, November 2, 2015).
  • The Russian Army chief of staff said that since the beginning of the airstrikes in Syria, which began on September 30, Russia’s forces had carried out 1,391 sorties in Syria, destroying 1,623 terrorist targets. These targets included 249 ISIS command posts, 51 training camps, and 131 storage sites. He said that ISIS had turned some of the areas under its control into fortified sites, including underground tunnels and shelters. He claimed that the Russian airstrikes had enabled the Syrian forces to attack in Aleppo, Latakia, Idlib, Homs and Damascus, and to liberate extensive areas (Sputnik, October 3, 2015). According to one report, 279 ISIS operatives and 131 Al-Nusra Front operatives were injured in these airstrikes (Twitter, October 29, 2015).

Main developments in Syria

The area of Aleppo
Overview
  • As in recent weeks, most of the fighting between the Syrian Army and the rebel organizations in the region were concentrated in the area south and southeast of Aleppo. However, the fighting there appears to be less intense than in the previous weeks.After taking over most of the city of Al-Safirah, south of Aleppo, ISIS operatives devoted most of their efforts to disconnecting the Syrian Army’s supply line to Aleppo. This was done in order to reduce the pressure exerted on them by the Syrian Army in the area of the Kuweyres Airbase (Al-Mayadeen, October 28, 2015).
Clashes on the road between Khanaser and Ithriya, southeast of Aleppo
  • The Syrian Army reportedly reinforced its forces to try to regain control of the road between Khanaser and Ithriya, southeast of Aleppo, which is controlled by ISIS (Dimashq al-Aan, October 28, 2015). An ISIS-affiliated website posted photos documenting ISIS operatives attacking a roadblock in Ithriya (Muslims-news website, October 31, 2015).  ISIS’s takeover of the Khanaser-Ithriya road and most of the area of the city of Al-Safirah poses a threat to Aleppo from the south and southeast and a threat to the Syrian Army’s supply lines to the city.
The city of Al-Safirah
  • According to a posting on an ISIS-affiliated Twitter account from October 28, 2015, ISIS operatives control more than 90% of the city of Al-Safirah (ISIS-affiliated Twitter account, October 28, 2015). According to a posting on an ISIS-affiliated Twitter account from October 29, 2015, an ISIS suicide bomber detonated a car bomb near a school in Al-Safirah. According to ISIS, Syrian Army soldiers had barricaded themselves inside the school. Several Syrian soldiers were taken prisoner by ISIS operatives (ISIS-affiliated Twitter account, October 29, 2015). The Syrians, on their part, reported that 100 ISIS operatives were killed in the clashes in Al-Safirah (Dimashq al-Aan, October 28, 2015).
Deir al-Zor
  • On October 31, 2015, ISIS’s media foundation reported that its operatives had blown up a booby-trapped tunnel under a building where Syrian forces had barricaded themselves in the Al-Rasafah neighborhood, southeast of Deir al-Zor (a3maqnews.tumblr.com Tumblr account, October 31, 2015). The media reported on the “tunnel war” being waged between the Syrian Army and ISIS in Deir al-Zor.
Homs province
  • On October 31, 2015, ISIS operatives took over the village of Mheen, about 62 km southeast of Homs. The takeover of the village began when two car bombs were detonated near the entrance to the village (Dimashq al-Aan, October 31, 2015). Large numbers of ISIS operatives then attacked Mheen from the direction of the town of Al-Qaryatayn. At least 50 members of the Syrian security forces were reportedly killed in these battles (syriahr.com, November 1, 2015).
  • ISIS’s media foundation issued a video showing the village of Mheen and the surrounding hills after the takeover by ISIS operatives (a3maqnews.tumblr.com Tumblr account; archive.org, November 1, 2015). ISIS’s media foundation also reported that Russian and Syrian aircraft had carried out more than 100 airstrikes against the village of Mheen (a3maqnews.tumblr.com Tumblr account, November 2, 2015).
  • According to a report by ISIS’s media foundation from October 31, 2015, an ISIS operative detonated a car bomb at a checkpoint of the Syrian regime’s forces at the entrance to the village of Sadad (about 49 km southeast of Homs) (a3maqnews.tumblr.com Tumblr account, October 31, 2015). A Twitter account that monitors jihadi groups reported that ISIS operatives had taken over the Syrian military security branch in the village (Twitter, October 31, 2015).
Al-Hasakah province
  • According to a report from October 31, 2015, the Kurdish forces, in cooperation with the Free Syrian Army, attacked the town of Al-Houl, about 38 km east of Al-Hasakah. The attack was carried out with the international US-led coalition air support. ISIS claimed that it had managed to halt the attack (aljazeera.net website, October 31, 2015).
Al-Raqqah province
  • Denis Cuspert, a German rap singer who converted to Islam and joined ISIS, was killed on October 16, 2015, near the city of Al-Raqqah. Since joining the ranks of ISIS, he made use of social networks with the aim of persuading young people and Westerners, especially from Germany, to join ISIS (BBC, October 30, 2015).

Main developments in Iraq

Overview
  • This week, fighting continued between the Iraqi security forces and ISIS in several areas: the area of the city of Ramadi (which Iraqi Army is striving to take control of), the area of the city of Baiji (which is in the hands of ISIS), and the area of the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad (and south of Baiji).
Ramadi
  • The fighting continued between the Iraqi security forces and ISIS in the area of the city of Ramadi, without any significant changes. A “senior Iraqi security source” said that on October 31, 2015, Iraqi security forces carried out two operations against ISIS in the area surrounding the city, with air support provided by the Iraqi Air Force and the international coalition. He said that ISIS suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Iraqi security forces (Al-Hurra TV channel, November 2, 2015).
  • A report from October 29, 2015, announced the deaths of eight Iraqi soldiers and an officer with the rank of Colonel in an attack by ISIS on the Habbaniyah Air Force Base. This base is also used by US aircraft in their sorties against ISIS (Al-Jazeera TV, October 29, 2015).
  • During the night of November 1, 2015, Iraqi Army forces, assisted by the Air Force, attacked ISIS targets in northeastern Fallujah. Seven ISIS operatives were killed (Sky News in Arabic, November 2, 2015).
Samarra
  • Battles were reported between ISIS and the Iraqi security forces near the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad (and south of Baiji). ISIS launched an offensive against the Iraqi forces on October 28, 2015, taking over areas in the western part of the city. Iraqi forces withdrew from these areas. According to ISIS’s media foundation, during the attack, ISIS detonated six car bombs driven by suicide bombers (Aamaq, October 28, 2015; Al-Jazeera, October 29, 2015). On November 1, 2015, an “Iraqi security source” reported that the Iraqi security forces had regained control of the western part of the city (Dar al-Hayat, November 1, 2015).
Baiji
  • One week after the Iraqi government’s announcement that it had gained control of Baiji, the fighting continues around the city. ISIS had some achievements on the ground. According to an Iraqi security source, ISIS took over the area of Al-Fatha, which links Baiji and Mosul (Al-Jazeera, October 29, 2015). Two days earlier, ISIS’s media foundation had announced that ISIS had taken over almost all of Jabal Makhul, a mountainous region located north of the city of Baiji (Aamaq, October 27, 2015).
  • According to a number of reports, the Shiite militias that support the Iraqi Army in the fighting against ISIS carry out robberies and looting in the area of the oil refinery in Baiji. They also reportedly set fire to a Sunni Muslim mosque in the city (Arabi 21, November 1, 2015; Al-Ghadir Channel, November 2, 2015). There have been reports in the past about Shiite militia operatives harassing Sunni Muslims in places that were “liberated” by them and by the Iraqi Army.
Kirkuk province
  • The Islamic State’s Kirkuk province issued a video showing Iraqi and Kurdish fighters being executed with a knife. The execution was apparently in response to the raid carried out by US Army Special Forces in cooperation with Kurdish forces on October 22, 2015, at an ISIS prison near the city of Hawija, in northern Iraq. The raid was carried out in cooperation with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Hostages that ISIS operatives had planned to execute that day were rescued in the operation. One American soldier was killed in the attack (US Department of Defense website, October 22-24, 2015; CENTCOM, October 22, 2015).

The conduct of the Islamic State

New ISIS textbooks in Syria and Iraq
  • According to a report on an ISIS-affiliated website, ISIS recently published textbooks for its educational system in Syria and Iraq. These textbooks are designed to indoctrinate youngsters with the Salafist-jihadi worldview of ISIS and to train them for war against the so-called infidels (Dawlat al-Khilafah al-Islamiyya website, October 31, 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 counterterrorism activities against operatives of the Sinai province of the Islamic State. As part of the operation, the Egyptian security forces have carried out numerous airstrikes, mainly against terrorist bases in the area of Al-Arish, Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid. During their operation, the Egyptian security forces discovered four bunkers containing a large quantity of army uniforms and two-way radios (Al-Watan, October 27, 2015).  The security forces also destroyed a tunnel on the border with the Gaza Strip (Al-Watan, October 30, 2015).
  • Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi issued a presidential decree extending the state of emergency in several regions in the northern Sinai Peninsula by another three months. As part of the state of emergency, a daily general curfew has been declared, from the afternoon until the next morning (Al-Masry al-Youm, October 28, 2015).
  • Sinai province operatives continued to carry out attacks against the security forces, some of which were thwarted. Following are a number of incidents:
  • On November 1, 2015, the Egyptian security forces defused three IEDs near the Sheikh Zuweid hospital (Veto portal, November 1, 2015).
  • On October 31, 2015, the Egyptian security forces defused two IEDs in the area of Karam al-Kawadis, south of Sheikh Zuweid (Veto portal, October 31, 2015).
  • On October 29, 2015, an attempted attack on a convoy of Egyptian security forces, using mortars operated by remote control, was thwarted (Al-Youm al-Sabea, October 28, 2015).In addition, an IED exploded at the entrance to the city of Al-Arish. Six members of the Egyptian security forces were wounded (Sky News, October 29, 2015).
  • On October 27, 2015, seven Egyptian soldiers were wounded when a bomb exploded in an APC in the area of Al-Arish. The security forces also defused three IEDs (Al-Watan, October 27, 2015).
Crash of Russian passenger plane over Sinai
  • On October 31, 2015, a Russian passenger plane on its way from Sharm el-Sheikh to Russia crashed in the northern Sinai Peninsula. The plane’s 224 passengers, Russian tourists, were killed. The plane crashed around 55 minutes after taking off. Contact with the plane was reportedly cut off 22 minutes after take-off (Al-Watan, October 31, 2015).
  • An ISIS-affiliated news agency and ISIS-affiliated Twitter accounts published an announcement on behalf of operatives of ISIS’s Sinai province, claiming responsibility for downing the plane. The announcement was published in several languages (Turkish, French, Bosnian and German). In the announcement, they claimed that they had managed to down a Russian plane carrying over 220 passengers.According to the announcement, this was in response to Russia’s airstrikes in Syria. The announcement also mentioned that the Russians would have no security on Muslim soil or Muslim airspace (Aamaq News Agency, October 31, 2015). It also included a video ostensibly showing the downing of the plane by armed ISIS operatives (YouTube, October 31, 2015).
  • ISIS’s claim of responsibility has not been verified, but cannot be ruled out.[1] In any case, different and sometimes conflicting declarations by Egyptian and Russian sources as to the cause of the plane crash have appeared in the media to date.  For example:
  • Alexander Smirnov, deputy director of the Russian airline that owns the plane, said that the crash was not due to a technical failure or human error of one of the pilots. At a press conference that he convened in Moscow, he said that the crash was due to “external mechanical impact,” without specifying what that “external mechanical impact” was (Israeli dailies Haaretz and Yediot Ahronot, November 3, 2015).
  • Sources on the commission checking the Russian plane’s black box said that the captain had not sent out a distress call before the crash. They claimed that the reason for the crash was not an external factor but an internal malfunction, causing a fracture in the right side of the plane (Al-Masry al-Youm, November 3, 2015). According to Egyptian Army Spokesman Mohammed Samir, so far, there is no evidence that the plane was shot down by Sinai province operatives and the Egyptian and Russian authorities are currently conducting investigations (The Guardian, October 31, 2015).
  • Note: After the Hebrew version of this document was published, there was an additional report by CNN, whereby an unidentified US intelligence official assesses that there is a high probability that the crash occurred due to an explosive charge going off on the plane. If so, the charge had been planted in the baggage compartment or elsewhere in the plane. However, according to the official, this is not yet a final and official conclusion.
Call by ISIS’s branch in Sinai to harm Jews in Israel
  • On November 1, 2015, the information office of ISIS’s Sinai province released a video entitled “From Sinai to Jerusalem,” in which the speakers emphasized the importance of Jerusalem in the eyes of the jihad fighters. One of the speakers in the video is Sheikh Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior Al-Qaeda commander who was killed on January 29, 2008, in an American attack in the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
  • One operative in the video says that all the activity carried out by the Sinai province is preparation for fighting against the Jews at Al-Aqsa Mosque. Another operative in the video addresses the Muslims in Jerusalem, calling on them to intensify their attacks on Israel. He emphasizes, “We in Sinai have not forgotten you and we swear by Allah not to abandon you.” Another operative, speaking in Hebrew, also sends a threatening message: “My message is to the officers and soldiers and all the Jews, the grandsons of apes and pigs. We are coming from all over the world to slaughter you like sheep” (muslims-news.com, October 31, 2015).
  • The threats by ISIS’s Sinai branch and the calls on the Muslims in Jerusalem to attack Jews are part of ISIS’s campaign of incitement that is being conducted concurrently with the wave of violence and terrorism carried out by the Palestinians. ISIS’s calls to murder Jews and attack Israel are liable to be put into practice by ISIS’s supporters around the world and in the Middle East, including ISIS’s Sinai branch, and this must be taken into consideration.

The global jihad in other countries

Libya
Foreign fighters in the ranks of ISIS in Libya
  • According to Algerian military affairs expert Aqid Ramadan, ISIS’s branch in Libya has recruited over3,000 foreign fighters from more than 30 countries. According to a report from June 2015, 300 Boko Haram fighters are in Libya, and other fighters are waiting at the border between Mali and Niger on their way to Libya (Akhbar Libya, October 24-25, 2015).
Sirte
  • ISIS has announced a general mobilization in order to take over the area of Nofaliya, in eastern Sirte. The announcement came after the Shura Council of the Jihad Fighters, a rival organization affiliated with Al-Qaeda, took it over (Al-Bawaba, October 30, 2015).  It was also reported that unidentified fighter aircraft had carried out attacks in areas controlled by ISIS in southern and western Sirte. According to several reports, Abdel Hamid al-Nuwari, a senior ISIS operative in Sirte, was killed in one of these attacks (Reuters in Arabic, October 29, 2015; Akhbar al-Hadath, October 30, 2015).

Derna

  • The Shura Council of the Jihad Fighters in Derna and its suburbs, which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda, is working to establish its rule in the city of Derna. The organization issued a statement calling on ISIS operatives in the area of Al-Fataeh on the outskirts of Derna to “repent” and lay down their arms, promising them amnesty in return (Akhbar Libya, October 24 and October 30, 2015). The clashes between the two jihadi organizations began in early June 2015, following which the Shura Council of the Jihad Fighters took over most of the city of Derna. Clashes currently occur in the mountainous Al-Fataeh, the ISIS operatives’ last stronghold.
Ajdabiya
  • According to several reports, ISIS operatives launched an offensive against the Shura Council of the Jihad Fighters of Ajdabiya and Libyan Army soldiers. Their goal was to complete ISIS’s takeover of the city of Ajdabiya, located about 355 km southeast of Sirte. In the meantime, ISIS is working to establish its control over the city: it has claimed responsibility for the killing of an imam at one of the city’s mosques, after he had refused to let an ISIS operative deliver a sermon. ISIS also claimed responsibility for killing a senior operative of the Shura Council of the Jihad Fighters of Ajdabiya. According to the city’s residents, around eight people in the city were murdered by ISIS operatives in October (Akhbar Libya, October 24 and October 30, 2015; Al-Bawaba, October 31, 2015).

The battle for hearts and minds

  • Al-Qaeda issued an audiotape of a speech by its leader Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri about the recent events in the Al-Aqsa Mosque (concurrently with the wave of Palestinian terrorism). Al-Zawahiri, who appears with the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the background, begins his speech by saying that what is happening now in Jerusalem is a new jihad war. This war is being waged by the jihad fighters, “who defend Al-Aqsa with knives, stones, cars and whatever they have.” Al-Zawahiri calls on jihadists to set aside their disputes in order to face “the satanic coalition” of the US, Europe, Russia, the Shiites and the Alawites. Al-Zawahiri also calls for a campaign against the secular and national regimes in the Arab world (As-Sahab Foundation, November 1, 2015).
  • Al-Zawahiri’s announcement is in line with ISIS’s campaign calling for the murder of Jews and Israelis. In the ITIC’s assessment, Salafist-jihadi operatives who support Al-Qaeda or ISIS are liable to put these calls into practice in the Middle East and around the world.
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