Iraq now using Russian intelligence in war against Islamic State

Baghdad IraqThe Iraqi government is now using intelligence supplied by the Russian military in its war against the Islamic State, according to officials in Baghdad. As intelNews reported in September, the Iraqi Joint Forces Command announced it had entered a formal intelligence-sharing agreement with the governments of Russia, Syria and Iran. The purpose of the collaboration was to defeat the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that currently controls a third of Iraq’s territory and much of neighboring Syria. Many were surprised by last month’s announcement, as it was the first time that Iraq, an American ally, had entered an alliance with Washington’s Cold-War adversary Russia, as well as with Iran and Syria, two countries with which the United States has no diplomatic relations.

According to US media reports, the headquarters of the intelligence-sharing center is located in Baghdad’s so-called Green Zone, where US forces were stationed until 2012. Each of the member states has six officers at center, who are given intelligence by their respective countries’ militaries with the intent of sharing it with the other three participating militaries. In addition to these officers, there are two Russian one-star generals stationed at the center, according to The Washington Times, which cited “an Iraqi official who asked not to be identified”.

Back in September, when the four-partite agreement was announced, the US said it respected Iraq’s freedom to enter into security pacts with regional governments, but warned that Syria was a major violator of human rights and should not be part of the intelligence-sharing treaty. On Tuesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said he could see no reason why Baghdad would want to enter into an intelligence-sharing agreement with Moscow, given that the US-led coalition had been sharing intelligence with Iraq for over a year. The coalition’s intelligence collaboration with Baghdad had “worked effectively with the Iraqis to make progress against [the Islamic State] inside of Iraq”, he said.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 October 2015 | Permalink

Russia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, sign intel-sharing agreement against Islamic State

Tartus SyriaThe governments of Russia, Syria and Iran have entered a formal intelligence-sharing agreement with Iraq, in an effort to defeat the Islamic State, it has been announced. Intelligence-sharing has been practiced for a while between Russia, Syria and Iran; but this is the first time that Iraq, an American ally, has entered the alliance. According to the Baghdad-based Iraqi Joint Forces Command, the agreement entails the establishment of a new intelligence-sharing center in the Iraqi capital. It will be staffed with intelligence analysts from all four participating countries, who will be passing on shared information to their respective countries’ militaries.

Iraqi officials said on Sunday that the intelligence-sharing agreement had been forged by Moscow, which was “increasingly concerned about the presence of thousands of terrorists from Russia undertaking criminal acts” as members of the Islamic State. The announcement of the agreement comes as Russia has been reinforcing its military presence in Syria, by deploying troops in Latakia. Security observers have interpreted the move as a strong message by the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin that it is prepared to safeguard the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The latter also enjoys strong support from Iran, which has poured billions of dollars in aid to support the regime in Damascus, and has deployed hundreds of Hezbollah advisers and militia members in defense of Assad.

Speaking from Baghdad, Colonel Steve Warren, the American spokesman for the Western-led military campaign against the Islamic State, said that Washington was respectful of Iraq’s need to enter into security agreements with other regional governments. But he added that the US objected to the Syrian government’s role in the intelligence-sharing agreement, because it was “brutalizing its own citizens”. The US government has also protested against the Russian government’s expansion of its base in Tartus and its increased military presence in Latakia. But, according to Foreign Policy, US officials have privately expressed support for the move, saying that “it could, in the short term, help rein in the Islamic state”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 September 2015 | Permalink

Islamic State forces are engaging in chemical warfare, says German intelligence

Mustard gas chemical warfareGermany’s foreign intelligence agency says it has evidence that the Islamic State is making use of chemical weapons in northern Iraq, according to media reports. The German Federal Intelligence Service, known as BND, says its operatives in the Middle East were able to collect biological samples from Kurdish fighters engaged in battles against the Islamic State forces. The samples pointed to chemical poisoning that most likely came from sulfur mustards, more commonly known as mustard gas. The chemical, which is banned from use in warfare by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, causes skin irritation that gets progressively worse until sufferers develop debilitating blisters filled with yellow fluid.

Earlier this month there were unconfirmed reports that the Islamic State had used a type of poisonous gas against fighters in the Syrian town of Marea, a stronghold of the Free Syrian Army that is located just north of Aleppo. But no evidence was provided at that time to show that the poisonous substances were indeed chemical weapons. On Monday, however, the Director of the BND, Gerhard Schindler, was quoted in the German press as saying that his officers had gathered credible “information that the Islamic State used mustard gas in northern Iraq”. Schindler said that the information was derived from blood samples that were voluntarily provided by Kurdish fighters that suffered blisters during battles against Islamic State forces.

The BND has not yet answered the question of where the Islamic State managed to acquire its mustard gas supplies. Some allegedly believe that they came from old stockpiles produced during the regime of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, for use by the Iraqi armed forces. Others claim that Islamic State scientists produced the mustard gas from scratch using laboratories in the University of Mosul, a largely Kurdish city that has been occupied by Islamic State forces since the summer of 2014. Asked to comment on the BND report, a spokeswoman for the United States Department of Defense refused to “comment on intelligence or operational matters”, but added that, if confirmed, the use of chemical weapons “by any party […] is an abhorrent [and] reprehensible act”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 September 2015 | Permalink

Analysis: Having taken Ramadi and Palmyra, ISIS is now unstoppable

ISIS forces in RamadiThe capture by Islamic State forces of the Iraqi city of Ramadi, on May 17, has given the organization a fortified urban base less than an hour’s drive from Baghdad. Its near-simultaneous takeover of the central Syrian city of Palmyra, points to the organization’s permanence and demonstrates its widening operational span, which now ranges from Western Libya to the Iranian border. Without an all-out war effort by outside forces, such as Iran, or the United States, it is difficult to see how the Islamic State could be stopped from permanently establishing itself as a major actor in the region, especially since no outside force appears willing to confront it directly.

On Tuesday, Iraqi government forces launched a major offensive to recapture Ramadi from the Islamic State —which is widely referred to in the West as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Such an effort, however, will be extremely difficult and costly, both in terms of lives and material requirements. Ramadi is a sizable city of over 900,000 people —although several thousand civilians have left— and presents an attacker with an urban-warfare setting that can be extremely arduous to operate in. Moreover, Ramadi is a solidly Sunni city, with strong ties to the pre-2003 Iraqi military establishment that date back to the early days of Saddam Hussein’s rule. Even if they do not necessarily see eye-to-eye with ISIS, Ramadi’s Sunni inhabitants are bound to fight doggedly against the Iraqi army, which is currently dominated by Shiites. Thus, if ISIS decides to hold on to Ramadi for reasons of strategy, or to defend its prestige, it will be very surprising if the Iraqi army manages to recapture it. Even if ISIS is driven out of the city, most likely with significant Iranian and American assistance, there is no guarantee that the local population will be Q Quotepacified. Iraqi government forces will almost certainly face a protracted armed campaign by a mixture of heavily armed groups in the city. Some of these groups are led by ISIS, some are inspired by al-Qaeda, while others are motivated by a broader anti-Shiite sentiment, which is currently the predominant political ideology in Anbar Province.

On May 20, ISIS forces also captured the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. The choice of target was neither spontaneous nor unexpected. Located right in the center of Syria, Palmyra forms one of two major land routes used by the government of Iran to transport military materiel to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hezbollah, which, like Iran, supports the Syrian government in Damascus, also acquires Iranian weapons through that route. The second main route, which passes through Deir el-Zor, and Raqqah, is already controlled by ISIS. Therefore, the Syrian regime, which depends largely on Iranian support for its survival, simply has to retake Palmyra if it wants to win its war against ISIS. The Islamists know this, however, and they will persistently resist any attempt by the Syrian troops to regain control of the city. As is typical in these situations, time will be crucial here. The more time ISIS has on its hands, the better it will be able to fortify and defend Palmyra. The Syrian military will most likely resort to bombing the city from the air, but this is not as easy as it used to be, because ISIS now has formidable antiaircraft capabilities. Moreover, at some point land forces will have to be used, and that is precisely where ISIS has the upper hand in Syria.

On Sunday, United States Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told CNN that, in his view, Ramadi fell to ISIS because “the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight”. Carter was right, except when he used the term “Iraqi forces”, he really meant Iraqi Shiites. There are currently almost no Sunnis left in the Iraqi Armed Forces. Most are unwilling to offer allegiance to a state that is dominated by Iran, which they see as not representing them, or indeed threatening their very existence. For that same reason, many Sunnis are now actively fighting in support of ISIS, or for Sunni tribes that Q Quoteare aligned to it. Iraqi Sunnis believe that if they lose the fight against the Iraqi military they will be extinct as a people, which explains why they are fighting with more zeal and determination than their Shiite compatriots.

Meanwhile the international anti-ISIS alliance is plagued by too many disagreements and political bad blood to be effective. The United States wants ISIS to lose, but no American president would consider sending large numbers of US troops back in the Middle East, after the fiasco in Iraq. Additionally, Washington does not want to be seen to cooperate with what is perhaps ISIS’ most formidable adversary, namely Iran. Saudi Arabia is nominally against ISIS, but it also knows that if ISIS loses in their war against the Iranians, the latter will simply dominate the region, and nobody in Riyadh wants this. Like Saudi Arabia, Turkey is ostensibly against ISIS, but it is also against the Kurds, who are currently being assisted by Iran to fight ISIS. It is therefore not assisting the war effort as much as it could.

This fragmentation within the anti-ISIS front will continue. It seems that everyone in the region is waiting for a new administration to emerge in Washington after the 2016 national elections, in the hope that the US will engage more directly in the war effort. However, unless ISIS directly attacks the US in a 9/11-type attack, it is difficult to see Washington taking a more active stance in this chaotic and unpredictable war. It is difficult to see this amidst the bloody suffering of the local people, but this war is in essence a multifaceted chess game, in which there are no genuine alliances. Every actor involved appears to be trying to promote their own narrowly defined national interests.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 May 2015 | Permalink:

ISIS leader al-Baghdadi mortally wounded in airstrike, say sources

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS |
The spiritual leader of the Islamic State is wounded so severely that he is no longer able to command the group’s daily activities, according to sources in Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a Sunni Islamic cleric who grew up in Samarra, Iraq, was appointed leader of the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), in May of 2010. Since that time he has served as the public face of the group, which has conquered territory in Iraq and Syria that is equal to that of Great Britain.

For over a month now, reports have emerged in various Arab media suggesting that al-Baghdadi is seriously hurt and fighting for his life. But there has been no confirmation of his whereabouts or fate. On Tuesday, however, British newspaper The Guardian said it had concrete information that the ISIS leader is wounded so gravely that he is unable to supervise the day-to-day operations of the group.

Citing sources in Iraq, including an Iraqi adviser and a Western diplomat posted there, the British broadsheet said al-Baghdadi was seriously wounded on March 18 during an airstrike on an ISIS convoy. The attack allegedly took place in al-Baaj, a Sunni-dominated tribal region of Nineveh Province, in northwestern Iraq. The area is located near the Syrian border, 200 miles west of the city of Mosul, a Sunni stronghold that is currently ruled by ISIS forces. According to the The Guardian’s sources, the ISIS convoy was attacked by jet fighters for routine tactical reasons. Neither the pilots, nor the commanders of the operation, were aware that al-Baghdadi was among the convoy’s passengers. The ISIS leader sustained life-threatening injuries and was unconscious when he was taken at a nearby hospital. Since then he has been recovering, but his life is still under threat.

One source told The Guardian that at one point last month, senior ISIS commanders called for an urgent meeting to appoint a new Emir (leader) for the group, because they were convinced that al-Baghdadi was on the verge of death. They eventually decided, however, to wait until after al-Baghdadi’s demise before appointing a new Emir. Since the ISIS leader’s wounding, the group’s Shura (consultative) councils have taken on an increasingly prominent decision-making role, says the paper.

Captured files reveal new information about structure, history of ISIS

A folder of secret documents, drafted by a senior commander of the Islamic State, reveals previously unknown information about the origins, meticulous planning and intelligence structure of the organization. Among other things, the documents show that the organization, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), had plans to capture territory in both countries as early as 2010 —several years before its existence was even known. The folder belonged to Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, a military general and political ally of Iraq’s late leader, Saddam Hussein. Better known as Haji Bakr, the former Baathist general became a founding member of ISIS and helped shape the organization until his death in a firefight in 2014. Following his demise, an unnamed informant stole the documents and secretly smuggled them into Turkey. It was there that German investigative newsmagazine Der Spiegel accessed them. On Saturday, following months of research, the newsmagazine published its findings based on the stolen documents. They reveal important information about the history and structure of the mysterious organization known as ISIS.

Der Spiegel notes in its analysis that Bakr himself is characteristic of the complexity of ISIS, which today controls territory equal to approximately that of Great Britain in both Iraq and Syria. Before the United States invasion, the former Iraqi general was a typical Baathist, who, like the regime he served, expressed strong secular views. But he became violently bitter in 2003, when he found himself unemployed and stripped of his status after the invading US forces dissolved the Iraqi military. He eventually joined a number of other unemployed former Baathist military and intelligence officers and decided to launch a counteroffensive against the predominantly Shiite Iraqi government. In 2010, this group of conspirators decided to inculcate their group with a Sunni religious identity, for reasons of political expediency. It was then that they appointed a highly educated and charismatic Sunni cleric, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the ideological face of the organization. In late 2012, the group began to actively exploit the chaos caused by the Syrian Civil War as an opportunity to capture territory in Syria, and then use it as a base to invade Iraq. The plan worked.

The folder acquired by Der Spiegel contains handwritten fragments from 31 different pages bearing organizational charts, lists of ISIS officials, as well as programmatic schedules. It reveals a hierarchical organizational structure with direct and indirect chains of command, which reach all the way down to local cells. According to the documents, these cells were initially set up in disguised form, so as to resemble Islamic schools or missionary facilities. Today these have expanded to include detention facilities, weapons depots, as well as a complex structure of Sharia-compliant educators, judges and enforcers. The organization also has an elaborate intelligence structure, which appears to undertake daily surveillance and security tasks. The latter depend on an army of officers, agents and informants, many of whom are as young as 16.

The documents detail several ISIS espionage operations in Syria and Iraq, which include meticulous studies of power structures of the local tribes. These were done in an effort to detect what Der Spiegel describes as “age-old faults within the deep layers of [tribal] society]”, and were then used by ISIS to divide and eventually subjugate dissident elements within the territory under their control. In other cases, informants were instructed to detect the personal weaknesses and faults of local leaders, which were subsequently used to blackmail them. Priority was given to recruiting members of powerful families, so as to “ensure penetration of these families without their knowledge”, Spiegel notes.

ISIS has lost control of most oil fields: German intelligence report

Guard at a northern Iraq oil fieldBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS |
The Islamic State has lost control of approximately 95 percent of its oil production capacity following the advancing Iraqi counteroffensive, according to a leaked German intelligence report. Last June, a massive offensive by armed members of the Islamic state, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), conquered much of northern Iraq, including the cities of Mosul and Tikrit. As the crumbling Iraqi army kept hastily retreating south, ISIS forces encountered almost no resistance during their onslaught.

In the past two months, however, a large-scale counter-offensive by Iraqi forces and irregular Shiite militias, supported by Iran and the United States, has reclaimed much of the land previously occupied by ISIS. Earlier this month, Iraqi forces recaptured the strategically located city of Tikrit, in a move that is widely viewed as the greatest victory so far for the anti-ISIS forces.

Along with Tikrit, Iraqi forces have managed to recapture a number of oil fields, which provided ISIS with a lucrative source of income for much of the past year. On Thursday, German broadsheet Süddeutsche Zeitung cited a leaked intelligence report that claimed ISIS had lost control of “a minimum of three oil fields” in northern Iraq. The Munich-based newspaper said it had seen a report on the subject authored by the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND, Germany’s external intelligence agency. According to the report, the Iraqi counteroffensive had reclaimed all but one of the ISIS-controlled oil fields in the country.

The BND documents state that the ISIS government now only controls the Qayara oil field, located in Iraq’s southeastern Nineveh province. The oil field’s daily output capacity of around 2,000 barrels leaves ISIS with only “five percent of the extraction capacity” it had before the Iraqi counteroffensive, says the paper. Moreover, satellite images taken last March show that retreating ISIS forces set fire to two of the largest oil fields in their possession, the Ajil and Himrin facilities. That, according to the BND, shows that ISIS were themselves pessimistic about being able to reclaim these oil fields from the Iraqi forces.


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