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: http://intelnews.org/2015/05/27/01-1704/

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

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
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

ISIS parade in SyriaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
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 | intelNews.org
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.

News you may have missed #888 (CIA edition)

YemenBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
►►CIA said to have bought Iraqi chemical weapons. The CIA, working with US troops during the occupation of Iraq, repeatedly purchased nerve-agent rockets from a secretive Iraqi seller, part of a previously undisclosed effort to ensure that old chemical weapons remaining in Iraq did not fall into the hands of terrorists or militant groups, according to current and former US officials. The extraordinary arms purchase plan, known as Operation AVARICE, began in 2005 and continued into 2006, and the US military deemed it a nonproliferation success.
►►CIA fears enemy will gain control of the weather. The CIA is worried that a foreign power may develop the ability to manipulate the global climate in a way that cannot be detected, according to Professor Alan Robock, a leading climatologist. Robock claimed that consultants working for the CIA asked him whether it would be possible for a nation to meddle with the climate without being discovered. “At the same time, I thought they were probably also interested in if we could control somebody else’s climate, could they detect it”, he said.
►►CIA scales back presence and operations in Yemen. The closure of the US Embassy in Yemen has forced the CIA to significantly scale back its counterterrorism presence in the country, according to US officials, who said the evacuation represents a major setback in operations against al-Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate. The spy agency has pulled dozens of operatives, analysts and other staffers from Yemen as part of a broader extraction of roughly 200 Americans who had been based at the embassy in Sana’a, officials said. The departures were triggered by mounting concerns over security in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, where Houthi rebels have effectively toppled the government.

Islamic State shuts down phones in Mosul to stop informants

Mosul, IraqBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The Islamic State has cut off all telephone service provision in the largest city under its control, reportedly in an effort to stop spies from passing information to Syrian, Iraqi and American intelligence services. Militants from the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), conquered the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June. They encountered almost no resistance upon entering the Sunni city of over a million inhabitants, as the crumbling Iraqi military kept hastily retreating south. Today Mosul is the most populous urban center under direct Islamic State rule. In July, the group’s seldom-seen leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, used Mosul as the backdrop of his propaganda video, in which he announced the official establishment of the Islamic State, a militant Sunni caliphate that is administered strictly through sharia law. Just weeks later, on August 8, the United States military began conducting airstrikes in Mosul, targeting senior Islamic State personnel there. The precise effects of these airstrikes are under debate in strategy circles in Washington, Baghdad and elsewhere. Last Thursday, however, residents of Mosul told the Associated Press news agency that Islamic State authorities had decreed the temporary termination of all telephone provision in the city. The measure was allegedly taken in order to prevent informants in and around Mosul from tipping off adversary intelligence agencies as to the physical whereabouts of senior Islamic State commanders. The measure was reportedly announced in the evening of Wednesday, November 26, through a radio station in Mosul that acts as the official news organ of the Islamic State in the Iraqi city. The Associated Press reported scenes of “chaos” and “paralysis” in the streets of Mosul on Thursday, as businesses came to a virtual standstill following the decision by the Islamic State to terminate telephone provision throughout the city. Some observers note that this move by the Islamic State constitutes a drastic change from the group’s standard tactic so far, which has centered in the efficient provision of basic services to the Sunni populations under its control, in an effort to win over their ideological support and political allegiance. Moreover, Mosul, whose population is almost uniformly Sunni, and is viscerally opposed to the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, is generally believed to be an Islamic State stronghold. If the militant group is finding it difficult to ensure the allegiance of Mosul’s population, then this could be a sign of fragmentation within the ranks of its supporters in all of northern Iraq. The Associated Press said some residents of Mosul are reportedly still able to access the Internet, which operates through a network that is separate from that of the telephone system.

Analysis: Well-trained spy agency adds to strength of Islamic State

ISIS parade in SyriaBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
The militants of the Islamic State, who now control large parts of Syria and Iraq, boast a well-trained and agile intelligence apparatus that is partly responsible for the group’s continuing expansion and strength. Sources on the ground in Iraq report that many of the intelligence officers that staff the Islamic State’s spy agency are former employees of the Syrian and Iraqi governments. They were trained by either Russian or American spies during their government service, and are now lending their advanced intelligence skills to the Islamic State. Al-Monitor’s Ali Mamouri, who is based in Iraq, writes that the Islamic State’s intelligence agency is similar to other government intelligence apparatuses around the world in both structure and operational tactics. Principal among its tasks is political protection of the militant regime’s senior commanders, several of whom have already been killed in Mosul and other cities of northwestern Iraq. Islamic State intelligence officers have tightened security precautions in recent weeks, advising Islamic State leaders to limit their public appearances and arresting individuals suspected of acting as informants for Kurdish or other opposition groups linked to the Iraqi or Syrian governments. Another task of the Islamic State’s intelligence apparatus, Mamouri reports, is counterintelligence —i.e. detecting and preventing attempts by Iraqi and Syrian government spies to infiltrate Islamic State governing structures or military outfits. The intelligence agency also works closely with armed groups reminiscent of the German Nazi Party’s Sturmtruppen (Stormtroopers), namely uniformed street thugs whose task is to identify, monitor and physically eliminate opponents of the regime. The list of undesirables includes Shiites, moderate Sunnis, as well as leaders of tribes who cooperated with the Syrian or Iraqi governments in the recent past.

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