Tension in Iraq as government arrests members of powerful Shi’a militias

Popular Mobilization ForcesThere was growing tension in Iraq over the weekend, as the government in Baghdad announced it had arrested over a dozen members of a powerful Shi’a militia backed by Iran. The arrests marked the first time that the Shi’a dominated Iraqi government moved to curtail the growing power of these heavily armed groups, which some say are threatening the cohesion of the country’s fragile state institutions.

Most of Iraq’s paramilitary groups are members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a collection of around 40 different Shiite militias consisting of over 150,000 armed fighters, who helped the Iraqi government defeat the Islamic State in 2017. The militias began to form in the summer of 2014, after Sayyid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shiite community, issued a fatwa (religious degree) that called or the destruction of the Islamic State. The Iranian-supported PMF proved instrumental in the territorial defeat of ISIS. However, the group’s leadership is ideologically aligned with Iran, and many of its members have called for the end of American military and diplomatic presence in Iraq.

In January of this year, many of these groups declared war on the United States, after Washington launched a drone strike that killed the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the Kita’ib Hezbollah (KH). KH is one of the most powerful Shia militias in Iraq, and controls much territory around the country. In a surprise move on Thursday, Iraqi counterterrorism forces announced they had arrested 14 members of KH, after receiving an intelligence tip. According to the government, the KH members were planning to launch large-scale attacks on Baghdad’s Green Zone, a heavily fortified area of the Iraqi capital that houses the headquarters of most ministries, as well as several embassies.

The arrests were reportedly ordered by Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, former director of Iraq’s National Intelligence Service, who assumed his new duties on May 7. His appointment ended a prolonged political impasse, as the country had struggled to replace the government of his predecessor, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who resigned in 2019 following a wave of popular protests. Al-Kadhimi is known to have good relations with Washington, while also being in good standing with Tehran. However, he vouched last month that he would “crush” the paramilitaries, who he views as enemies of Iraqi democracy.

In response to al-Kadhimi’s pronouncements, Shi’a militias have been launching constant small-rocket attacks targeting the Green Zone in recent weeks. Observers warned on Saturday that arrests of KH members have never been known to take place before, so this may be the opening shots of an open war between al-Kadhimi and Iraq’s Shi’a paramilitaries.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 June 2020 | Permalink

ISIS forces now patrolling nearly all of northern Iraq, says intelligence official

ISIS IraqThe Islamic State has regrouped, rearmed and refinanced itself, and its forces are now actively patrolling nearly all of northern Iraq, according to a senior intelligence official in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. The Islamic State, which is also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), used to control territory in the Levant that equaled the size of Germany. But its forces were pushed back by an international coalition of state armies and militias, a development that prompted several heads of governments, including United States President Donald Trump, to announce that ISIS had been defeated.

However, senior military and intelligence officials been warning in recent years that ISIS is far from defeated. In an new article published on Sunday, the BBC reports that Kurdish intelligence officials see ISIS as a resurgent organization. The report relies heavily on the views of Lahur Talabany, the head of Iraqi Kurdistan’s Information Protection Agency, which serves as the primary security and counterterrorism organization of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government.

Talabany told the BBC that ISIS is today “like al-Qaeda on steroids”. The group has “better techniques, better tactics and a lot more money at their disposal” than the al-Qaeda of old, he said. The abundance of financial resources allows ISIS to “buy vehicles, weapons, food supplies and equipment”, said Talabany, adding that he is not sure about the precise source of the funds.

In addition to utilizing its strong finances, ISIS has exploited an ongoing dispute between the Kurds of northern Iraq and the central government in Baghdad, which has left large regions of north-central Iraq without an effective government presence. The militant group’s forces are therefore able to carry out daily patrols over “a huge territory, from Diyala to Mosul, which encompasses nearly all of northern Iraq”, said Talabany.

A large portion of ISIS’s forces appear to be based in Iraq’s Hamrin Mountains, which are riddled with deep caves and ravines. But the group maintains nearly 10,000 fighters all over Iraq, said Talabany, of which 5,000 operate as members of sleeper cells and another 5,000 are armed and active members of ISIS.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 December 2019 | Permalink

Denmark arrests 22 in counter-terrorism raids, allegedly with help from Israel

Danish policeLast Thursday Danish authorities arrested 22 terrorism suspects in early morning raids across the country. Reports from Israel suggest that the raids were carried out following a tip from Israeli intelligence. The 22 suspects include men and women. Danish police said they were involved in the final stages of a plot to carry out attacks “in Denmark or abroad”, but have provided no specific information, except to say that the attacks were “thwarted” while they were well underway.

Danish media reported that the early-morning raids by police and intelligence personnel resulted in the arrest of 22 individuals. These have not yet been named in accordance with Denmark’s strict privacy laws. Among them are four men between 21 and 25 years of age, and a 38-year-old woman. All were remanded in a court in Copenhagen on Thursday and Friday of last week. A sixth individual, aged 28, was remanded to custody separately from the other five. His hearing was reportedly held in secret, and no information other than his age and gender has been made public.

The six suspects are accused of trying to build bombs using triacetone triperoxide (TATP) explosive. They are also accused of trying to purchase guns, ammunition and sound suppressors, commonly known as silencers. Danish police said the suspects planned to use the explosives and guns “in connection with one or more terrorist attacks inside Denmark or abroad”. However, no further information has been provided about the targets of the alleged terrorist plot.

Meanwhile on Saturday, Israel’s Channel 12 television claimed that the Danish counter-terrorism raids were sparked by information provided to Danish authorities by the Mossad, Israel’s primary external intelligence agency. The channel, a popular privately owned television station, did not provide evidence of the claim, or any specific information about the alleged intelligence tip.

Danish police said on Monday that 16 of those arrested last week have been released, but remain suspects in the investigation. The remaining six suspects all pleaded not guilty to charges of terrorism on Saturday. They will remain in prison on pre-trial custody while the authorities continue to investigate the alleged terrorist plot.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 17 December 2019 | Permalink

US spy agencies pore over intelligence acquired in raid that killed al-Baghdadi

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiAmerican intelligence agencies are studying up to seven terabytes of data that were captured by Special Operations Forces during last week’s nighttime raid that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria. Officials in Washington told The New York Times on Monday that Delta Force commandos confiscated “a large amount of material” from the raid that killed the Islamic State leader. The material allegedly includes several laptops and cellphones, which contain an estimated “four to seven terabytes of data”, according to one United States official who spoke anonymously to the paper.

It is believed that al-Baghdadi changed hideouts across northern Syria every few days, so it is unlikely that he and his entourage carried with them a large printed archive of Islamic State files. However, even a few hard drives or memory sticks could contain extensive information, said The Times. The commandos that carried out the nighttime raid reportedly spent two hours on the ground collecting intelligence from the site. All of it has now been delivered to experts in the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency and other elements of the US Intelligence Community, who are currently “conducting a preliminary review of the confiscated documents and electronic records”, said the paper.

The information may shed light on questions such as if and how al-Baghdadi ran the Islamic State, how he communicated with the group’s military commanders across Iraq and Syria, and how he exchanged information with other senior Islamic State officials in the Middle East and beyond. There are also questions about al-Baghdadi’s links with the leaders of Islamic State affiliates around the world. Essentially, to what extent did the core leadership of the Islamic State under al-Baghdadi direct the operations of the group’s affiliates abroad? There may also be documents among the confiscated information material that discuss the Islamic State’s changing strategy following the collapse of its territorial base in the Middle East.

In addition to the confiscated information, American troops captured two of al-Baghdadi’s lieutenants who were guarding his compound during last weekend’s raid. The two men are currently being questioned by American interrogators and are eventually going to be handed over to the Iraqi government to face justice, according to The Times.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 October 2019 | Permalink

Far-right terrorism a transnational threat backed by state actors, says US official

Slavic UnionThreats posed by white supremacist and other far-right groups are now global in nature and are increasingly backed by state actors, according to a Congressional testimony by an American former counterterrorism official. The testimony was delivered by Joshua Geltzer, former senior director for counterterrorism at the United States National Security Council. Geltzer, who now directs the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, testified on Friday before two subcommittees of the US House of Representatives. The Subcommittee on National Security and the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a joint hearing entitled “Confronting Violent White Supremacy”.

Geltzer said in his testimony [.pdf] that the type of violence perpetrated by white supremacist groups in America cannot any more be characterized as “domestic”, because it is quickly becoming transnational in character. White supremacist violence in America is part of a “global surge” that is “increasingly interlinked and internationalized”. In fact, the attackers themselves internationalize their role in this global movement by referencing white supremacist violence in other parts of the world to justify the use of violence in the US, said Geltzer. He added that the emerging center of this global surge of white supremacist violence appears to be located in Ukraine and Russia. It is there that funds provided by the Russian government are being used to train and educate white supremacist leaders in guerrilla warfare, social media propaganda and various forms of ideological training.

It is therefore imperative, said Geltzer, that the US Intelligence Community begins to examine white supremacist violence within this new transnational context. For instance, it would be helpful if the mission of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was changed to include a concentration in so-called “domestic terrorism”, including white supremacist violence, he argued.

Also on Friday, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) unveiled its new strategy report. The report views “domestic terrorism and mass attacks” as a growing threat to the United States that is equal in magnitude to the threat posed by Islamist terrorists. The report identifies what it describes as “a disturbing rise in attacks motivated by domestic terrorist ideologies”. One of the most powerful drivers of this new wave of domestic violence is “white supremacy”, according to the DHS.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 September 2019 | Permalink

Al-Qaeda is enduring security threat despite Hamza bin Laden’s death, experts warn

Al-Qaeda in YemenAl-Qaeda and its affiliate groups continue to be the most persistent transnational threats to the security of the West, according to experts who spoke after the alleged death of Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza. Last week The New York Times reported that Hamza bin Laden, widely seen as an ascending figure in the group that his father co-founded in the 1980s, was killed sometime after 2017. The paper cited two anonymous United States government officials who said that Hamza bin Laden died in 2017 or 2018 as a result of a military operation led by an unnamed state.

But experts have since warned that the death of Hamza bin Laden has not significantly weakened al-Qaeda. At a briefing in Washington on Thursday, Nathan Sales, a US Department of State acting under secretary who focuses on security and terrorism, stressed that “al-Qaeda is as strong as it has ever been”. The group’s relative quietness in recent years should not be perceived as an indication of weakness or resignation, said Sales. On the contrary, the Sunni militant group remains “very much in this fight”, he cautioned. Unlike the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), al-Qaeda has been patient in the past five years and has strategically allowed ISIS to “absorb the brunt of the world’s counterterrorism efforts”, said Sales. During that time, al-Qaeda patiently rebuilt itself and largely recovered from the blow it suffered in the years leading up to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Today al-Qaeda retains significant territory in northwest Syria and is also present throughout Yemen, where it counts on the support of many thousands of armed fighters, according to Sales. Its affiliate group in Somalia was behind a car bombing in Mogadishu in July, while the group also took responsibility for an armed attack in an upscale suburb of Kenya in January of this year. Another expert, Jason Blazakis, who until last year directed the US Department of State’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism, appears to agree with Sales. In an article published last Friday, Blazakis cautioned that Hamza bin Laden’s demise, if true, “doesn’t mean that al Qaeda no longer represents a critical threat to US national security”. On the contrary, he said, the group’s “strategic patience and focus on the ‘far enemy’”, i.e. the United States, make it “the most enduring transnational threat to US national security interests”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 August 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Are US border security officials ignoring terrorism threat from Canada?

Canada borderSince the election of President Donald Trump, the issue of border security between the United States and Mexico has been a major topic of national debate. But is the incessant focus on America’s southern border by the news media and politicians ignoring security concerns emanating from the country’s northern neighbor, Canada? In a thought-provoking editorial in the English-language Emirati newspaper The National, Stephen Starr employs statistics to argue that the flow of extremism from Canada into the US may represent a greater security concern for Washington than immigration flows from Mexico.

According to US government sources, six foreigners whose names featured on the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) —the central terrorist watchlist maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Terrorist Screening Center— attempted to enter the US from Mexico in the first half of 2018. Starr points out that during that same period no fewer than 41 foreigners who were on the TSDB tried to enter the US from Canada. In the past three and a half years, four Canadian residents have been charged with carrying out or conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks on US soil. They include a Palestinian living in Toronto and a Tunisian living in Montreal, who planned to derail a passenger train making the journey from Ontario to New York. Both were jailed for life. Another resident of Canada, Abdulrahman el-Bahnasawy, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for trying to plant bombs in New York’s Times Square and on a New York subway train. El-Bahnasawy, who was 20 when he was sentenced, was directly guided by Islamic State handlers in the Philippines and Pakistan. Starr notes that nearly 200 Canadian citizens and residents are thought to have traveled abroad to fight for the Islamic State, and that around 60 of those are now back in Canada.

While all this is happening, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, America’s main border control organization, which operates under the Department of Homeland Security, appears to be ignoring the country’s northern border. It is worth noting that the 5,525 mile-long border is the longest in the world, but is monitored by no more than about 2,000 CBP agents. In contrast, over 16,000 CBP agents keep tabs on America’s border with Mexico. Responding to political pressure from the White House, the CBP keeps stationing more agents to the southern border. In the meantime, requests by CBP supervisors along the Canadian border to increase their force by 200 agents remain unfulfilled. This is despite the fact that the number of people detained while trying to enter the US illegally from the Canadian province of Quebec has nearly trebled since 2015, notes Starr.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 July 2019 | Permalink

ISIS could make bigger comeback than 2014 in Iraq and Syria, warns new report

ISIS meetingThe Islamic State is capable of make a sudden comeback in the Middle East that could be “faster and even more devastating” than 2014, when the group quickly conquered territory the size of Britain, according to a new report from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). The Washington-based think-tank’s report is based on the most recent data about the presence in the Middle East of the militant Islamist group, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The 76-page report (.pdf) is titled ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency, and is written by ISW’s researchers Jennifer Cafarella, Brandon Wallace and Jason Zhou.

The authors claim that the Islamic State moved its forces undercover during the multinational military campaign that eventually sacked its self-proclaimed caliphate. They go on to explain that by “deliberately withdrawing and relocating may of its fighters and their families”, the group managed to preserve a large part of its fighting forces, which are “now dispersed across [Iraq and Syria] and are waging a capable insurgency”. The latter is funded through ISIS’ global finance network and armed with weapons and other war materiel that the group managed to hide in tunnel systems and other hidden facilities. Islamic State insurgents have thus been engaged in a broad and largely successful campaign to assassinate village and town elders across Iraq, and have even reestablished a sharia-based taxation system in some of Iraq’s predominantly Sunni areas. The group also retains a significant presence in Syria, where it continues to battle the Syrian regime, US-supported Kurdish forces, and other Sunni militant groups, including al-Qaeda, according to the report.

Through its widening insurgency, the Islamic State has managed to subvert Iraqi and Syrian government efforts to reintroduce a semblance of stability and safety in areas previously conquered by the militant group. In fact, not only are government forces finding it “increasingly difficult to establish durable and legitimate security and political structures” in those areas, but they should be worried about the possibility of ISIS actually reconquering territory in both countries, the report warns. The report’s authors place much of the blame for ISIS’ resurgence at Washington’s door, describing America’s hasty military withdrawal from Iraq and Syria as “a critical mistake”. In its recommendations section, the report calls on the United States to develop and implement a long-term counter-terrorism strategy against ISIS, which will combine military and community-building measures. “Another limited [military] intervention will not be sufficient” to eliminate the threat, the report’s authors claim.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 June 2019 | Permalink

Indian officials admit for first time Islamic State militants are present in Kashmir

Islamic State India KashmirIndian counterterrorism officials have alleged in court that four members of the Islamic State in Indian-administered Kashmir were guided by a handler from Pakistan. The court case involves four young men from Jammu and Kashmir who were arrested last November on terrorism charges. Court documents filed recently identify the four as members of the Islamic State. This development is significant because Indian officials have until recently dismissed as overstated claims that the Islamic State is present in Kashmir. The unfurling of Islamic State banners by anti-government rioters is a regular phenomenon in Indian Kashmir. But government officials dismiss those who wave such banners as impressionable youth who have no access to weaponry or logistical support from the Islamic State. Last November’s arrests, however, highlighted the fact that the Islamic State does in fact have an armed presence on the ground in India.

The four young men have been named as Haris Mushtaq Khan, Tahir Ahmad Khan, Asif Suhail Nadaf and Asif Majid. They were apprehended in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir’s largest city, following the arrest in September of 2018 of two other men who were allegedly affiliated with a group calling itself the Islamic State in Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK). The group has since renamed itself to Islamic State – Khorasan Province, while recently it proclaimed an overseas province in the region, which it calls “wilayah al-Hind” (province of Hind). Three of the four men have been charged with attacking a tourist visitor center in the area with hand grenades. In their official indictment against the four men, officers of India’s National Investigation Agency accuse them of being “confirmed terrorists of the Islamic State”, which amounts to the first confirmation in Indian government documents of the presence of Islamic State militants in India. The 28-page indictment states that the four men were among several locals who “acted as ground workers and […] provided logistics to the ISJK cadres”.

Additionally, two of the men, Haris and Tahir, are accused of having been in contact online with a man identified as Abu Huzefa, an Islamic State recruiter based in Afghanistan. According to the court documents Huzefa is a Pakistani national and “an active cadre of the Islamic State based in Afghanistan”. He was allegedly in regular contact with the two Indian men and provided them with Islamic State literature and other propaganda material. In their indictment the NIA officers also admit that the arrests of the four men point to “a larger conspiracy of these terrorist elements propagating pan-Islamic ideology of IS by recruiting and radicalizing Kashmiri youth towards jihad and targeting security forces”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 20 June 2019 | Permalink

Islamic State announces new overseas province in India for the first time

ISIS IndiaThe group calling itself the Islamic State has announced the establishment of a new overseas province in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state. The announcement was made over the weekend by Amaq, which serves as the news agency of the Islamic State. According to the news release, the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has named the new province “wilayah al-Hind” (province of Hind), and said it is based in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, which is located in one of the three administrative divisions of the Indian administered state of Jammu and Kashmir.

The Amaq report surfaced following an armed clash between a group of Islamist militants and Indian security forces in Amshipora, a village in the district of Shopian, which is in the foothills of the northern Himalayan Mountains. At least one Islamist militant was killed in the armed confrontation, which reportedly lasted two hours. Indian authorities identified the dead militant as Ishfaq Ahmad Sofi, and said he had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The Amaq statement alleged that the militants in Amshipora had “inflicted casualties” on the security forces, but the claim was denied by the Indian government. The Reuters news agency spoke with Rita Katz, an Israeli analyst who directs the SITE Intelligence Group in the United States. She said that the announcement of a new Islamic State province “should not be written off”, but added that “the establishment of a province in a region where [the Islamic State] has nothing resembling actual governance is absurd”.

Writing in the Hong-Kong-based Asia Times, Prakash Katoch, a retired lieutenant general in the Indian Army’s Special Forces, said that the announcement of a wilayah in India was a first for the Islamic State. He warned that after announcing a province in Indian Kashmir, the Islamic State “may also attempt to increase its presence in other Indian states” with a significant Muslim presence, such as Kerala or West Bengal. Katoch noted that “a number of young men and women from Kerala” had been identified as having joined the Islamic State in 2016 and 2017. Several of them even traveled to Syria to fight for the Sunni Islamist group, he added.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 May 2019 | Permalink

Documents show ISIS plans sleeper cell attacks in Middle East, Europe

Islamic State - IADocuments acquired from retreating Islamic State fighters in Syria appear to show that the militant group is planning a series of high-profile attacks in Europe and the Middle East, using newly formed sleeper cell units. The information was revealed over the weekend by the British newspaper The Sunday Times. The London-based broadsheet said that the information was found last month in flash drive, which was left behind by retreating Islamic State forces in Syria, and acquired by Kurdish militia forces. The flash drive was found to contain dozens of internal documents belonging the militant group, which is also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Among them, said The Times, are several memoranda authored by an ISIS leader and operations planner known as Abu Taher al-Tajiki. In his memoranda, al-Tajiki informs the group’s senior leadership that he commands numerous fighters who are willing and able to carry out strikes “far away” from the Islamic State’s strongholds in the Middle East and Africa. He states that he is in regular communication with them and that they are awaiting instructions to “undertake the operations”. Al-Tajiki then calls for the creation of a Foreign Relations Office under the Islamic State’s Department of Operations, which would be tasked with launching attacks throughout Europe. He adds that the new Office can also count on the assistance of computer hackers and other technically literate Islamic State members. In another memorandum, al-Tajiki suggests the creation of what he calls “crocodile cells” in Syria and Iraq. These cells will “lurk beneath the surface” and “attack at the right moment to assassinate the enemies of Allah”, says al-Tajiki.

The Times report comes as experts warn that the Islamic State retains significant financial power, despite the loss of its territories in the Middle East. In a well-informed article in The Atlantic, David Kenner reports from Beirut that the Islamic State without its territories is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the group cannot rely on taxation and oil revenues that used to enrich its coffers by $1 million per day during the height of its power. On the other hand, argues Kenner, the loss of its territory has freed the Islamic State from the costs associated with state-running and allows it to devote its financial resources “exclusively to terrorist activity”. These resources —cash and other assets— are formidable, says Kenner. In the words of Howard Shatz, senior economist at the Rand Corporation and an expert on ISIS’ finances, we “don’t know where it all went” after ISIS lost its territory. We do know that much of it has been invested in “legitimate commercial enterprises”, says Shatz, with the help of profit-oriented middlemen with access to markets that are as far away as Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. A lot of it is hidden in suitcases and boxes throughout Iraq, Syria and Turkey. All of it is intended to be used to fund terrorist attacks, warns Kenner.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 25 March 2019 | Permalink

Dutch counterterrorism report sees rise in Islamist recruitment in the West

NCTV HollandHolland’s chief counterterrorism agency has warned that, despite losing its territories in the Middle East, the Islamic State continues to recruit operatives and is ready to launch attacks in the West “at a moment’s notice”. The warning is contained in a report published last week by the Dutch National Coordinator of Counterterrorism and Security (NCTV). Established in 2005 as the Dutch National Coordinator for Counterterrorism, and renamed in 2012, the NCTV works under Holland’s Justice and Security Minister. It is responsible for analyzing terrorism threats and assessing the country’s domestic terrorism threat level.

In its most recent report (.pdf), entitled Terrorist Threat Assessment Netherlands, the NCTV warns that it is not only the Islamic State (known also as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) that remains highly active, but also al-Qaeda. The two groups are riding a wave of Salafist Muslim extremism that appears to be on the rise throughout Europe, says the report. ISIS, in particular, continues to engage in extensive recruitment drives in the West, which take place mostly through the dissemination of propaganda material online. There is also a proliferation of an underground recruitment movement in conservative Muslim schools and mosques across the West, says the report (.pdf).

But the most serious short-term threat to European and North American security, according to the NCTV document, comes from so-called returnees, citizens of European countries who joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and are now returning —or trying to return— to their home states in the West. The majority of these men and women remain faithful to the idea of the caliphate despite the failure of their efforts in the Middle East. There is a risk that, upon their return to the West, they will connect with existing —and growing— Salafist underground networks there, and remain active in radical circles. The report also notes that both ISIS and al-Qaeda are showing increasing interest in developing chemical and biological weapons for use against civilian and military targets.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 March 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Women becoming growing force inside Islamic State, says expert

Islamic State womenThe role of women inside the Islamic State is growing, as the Sunni militant group is transmuting into an underground organization, according to a Harvard University terrorism expert. Since its meteoric rise in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has been known for advocating for strict segregation between men and women. In the early stages of the group’s emergence, combat roles were exclusively performed by men, while women’s roles were limited to childbearing and housework. But according to Vera Mironova, Visiting Scholar in the Economics Department at Harvard University, and former Associate of the International Security Program at Harvard’s Belfer Center, the Islamic State’s policy on gender roles is shifting rapidly.

Mironova, who has carried out research in Iraq while embedded with the country’s Special Operations Forces, argues that the Islamic State has been “quietly shifting its insistence of strict gender hierarchy” and is now “allowing, even celebrating, female participation in military roles”. In an article published earlier this week in The New York Times, Mironova states that early indications of this shift were visible as early as 2017. In October of that year, ISIS publications issued calls for “women to prepare for battle”. Within a year, the group was publicly praising its women fighters and even published a video showing veiled Islamic State female fighters firing AK-47 assault rifles. The video praised women fighters for “seeking revenge for [their] religion and for the honor of [their] sisters”.

In her article, the Harvard terrorism expert says that it is not possible to estimate with accuracy the number of women who have picked up arms on behalf of the Islamic State. But she adds that interviews with Iraqi military and police officials suggest that female Islamic State fighters are now “a regular presence that no longer surprises, as it did a few years ago”. There is a tradition of fervent women supporters of the militant group that dates from its very beginning, claims Mironova. She gives the example of female radicals who insisted that their husbands or sons join the Islamic State, or who sought to marry Islamic State combatants in order to be part of “mujahedeen families”. Recently, however, the relative scarcity of male fighters in the ranks of the militant group has led to calls for females to take their place in the front lines. As the Islamic State is transmuting into an underground organization, women are also becoming more useful as covert operatives because they attract less attention by Iraqi or Syrian government troops.

In many cases, women supporters of the Islamic State who lost male family members in the ongoing war pick up arms or put on suicide vests in order to extract revenge. In other cases they do in order to secure protection, favors or money for their families from the insurgents. The fact is, says Mironova, that women fighters are becoming more prominent in the Islamic State’s combat lines and are even participating in the group’s suicide bombing campaign. The latter continues unabated in Iraq and Syria, despite the near-complete loss of the Islamic State’s territorial control, says Mironova.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 February 2019 | Permalink

Barcelona on high alert after US State Department terrorism warning

Las Ramblas BarcelonaPolice in Barcelona have intensified security checks in some of the Spanish city’s most recognizable landmarks, following a security warning from the United States Department of State. The surprise warning came in the form of a post on the popular social networking site Twitter on Sunday, December 23. In the tweet, the Department of State advised travelers to “exercise heightened caution around areas of vehicle movement, including buses”. It added that terrorists could “attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, and other public areas”. It is rare for the Department of State to issue warnings for specific locations, unless the US government is in possession of critical intelligence pointing to the possibility of a terrorist attack.

Hours after the Department of State’s warning, Miquel Buch, Minister of the Interior for Spain’s Catalonia region, told a radio station in Barcelona that local authorities were “engaged in assessing the warning” by the US authorities. Local media reported that increased police presence was visible around bus, minibus, train and metro stations throughout the Catalonian capital. Heavily armed police presence was also notable in Barcelona’s most popular tourist landmarks, including the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, the Gothic Quarter, and the mile-long Las Ramblas pedestrian Boulevard at the city’s center. There was no information about the precise nature of the US warning, but there were reports in Catalonian media on Tuesday that the alert notice involved the possibility of a vehicular attack by Islamists during the Christmas holiday season.

In August of 2017, Younes Abouyaaqoub, a 22-year-old Moroccan-born Islamist drove a van into large crowds of tourists at Las Ramblas, killing 14 and injuring nearly 150 people. Abouyaaqoub’s attack was followed by another assault by five men in Cambrils, a small seaside town south of Barcelona, who drove a car into a crowd of pedestrians, killing one and injuring six more. All six men were members of the Islamic State. They were shot and killed by police and security forces.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 December 2018 | Permalink

Analysis: Strasbourg attack raises serious security concerns in Europe

StrasbourgThe terrorist attack in the French city of Strasbourg on December 11 raises important security concerns for Europe’s ability to defend itself against a rapidly evolving Islamist insurgency. The attack lasted 10 minutes, from 7:50 to 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday evening, and targeted shoppers in Christkindelsmärik, a large Christmas market held annually in Strasbourg. The lone shooter, who has since been identified as Chérif Chekatt, a French citizen, was reportedly heard shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) repeatedly as he opened fire on the unsuspecting shoppers. He also tried to stab some of them using a knife. Chekatt eventually exchanged fire with French soldiers and officers of the National Police before fleeing the scene of the attack in a taxi cab. Three people were declared dead at the scene, while 12 others were urgently transported to nearby hospitals. Six of them remain in critical condition. Chekatt remained at large until Thursday evening, when he was shot dead by police in Strasbourg.

It is important to stress that the choice of Strasbourg as the site of the terrorist strike was not accidental, nor was the attack spontaneous. A city and of nearly 500,000 inhabitants in its greater district, Strasbourg is one of the European Union’s de facto capitals. It hosts several European institutions, including the building of the European Parliament. Its geographical location on the French-German border epitomizes the crossroads of Franco-German cultural traditions. Its distinct character symbolizes the coexistence of Europe’s two leading powers, which forms the cornerstone of the European Union project. The majority of Strasbourg’s residents are bilingual and communicate in Alsacien, a peculiar mixture of French and German. The city also exemplifies a distinctive brand of 21st-century Christian unity through the balanced coexistence of Catholic and Protestant religious cultures. The Christkindelsmärik —the venue that was attacked on Tuesday— is Europe’s largest Christmas market and symbolizes precisely that coexistence. Providing that Tuesday’s attack was sanctioned and/or planned by the Islamic State or one of its affiliate organizations, its strong symbolism is apparent.

As Washington Examiner commentator Tom Rogan noted on Wednesday, it appears that the perpetrator of the attack was able to acquire a semi-automatic weapon, as well as grenades. Unlike the United States, accessing these types of weapons in Western Europe is exceedingly difficult. This is so especially in France, a country that has remained in a perpetual state of heightened security since the Paris attacks of November 2015. It is even more perplexing that Chekatt was able to acquire this type of weaponry, given that his name featured on the terrorism watch lists of France’s security and intelligence services. Additionally, says Rogan, one of the operational trademarks of the Islamic State centers on adhering to a sharp division between its arms procurement networks and the individuals who carry out terrorist attacks. This means that a wider Islamist network in France, Switzerland or Germany, was able to armed and possibly trained Chekatt in Europe, since the attacker is not believed to have visited the Middle East or North Africa.

Rogan also points out that Chekatt —a French-born 29-year-old petty criminal— was radicalized while serving time in prison. This raises important questions about Salafist-Jihadi radicalization networks inside Western European prison systems. The security implications of this realization inevitably widens the security considerations of Europe’s counterterrorism agencies. The latter have so far focused primarily on the danger posed by the return of European Islamic State volunteers from the Middle East. The problem, however, appears to be more complicated.

Ultimately, the Strasbourg attack demonstrates that, despite several years of concerted efforts, the ability of European counterterrorism agencies to prevent strikes by Islamist groups on European soil is limited. Meanwhile, European streets are busy during the Christmas season, with indoor and outdoor markets and festivals, concerts, as well as a host of religious observances taking place in thousands of different locations across the continent. Should Tuesday’s attack in Strasbourg mark the beginning of a sustained terrorism campaign by the Islamic State, December could prove to be a deadly month in Europe.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 December 2018 | Permalink