Destabilization fears grow as hundreds of armed ISIS fighters enter Iraq from Syria

Islamic State ISISIntelligence officials warn that Iraq’s fragile stability may be at risk, following reports that as many as a thousand armed Islamic State fighters have entered Iraq from Syria in recent weeks. The organization calling itself the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq an Syria, or ISIS) is on its last legs in Baghouz, a Syrian village located on the banks of the Euphrates River near the Syrian-Iraqi border. Its fighters are report by a large number of American-backed forces led by Syrian Kurds, in what appears to be the Islamic State’s last territorial stronghold in the Middle East.

Many or the militant Sunni group’s fighters, however, have managed to slip past the American-led coalition’s offensive lines and are now making their way across the border into Iraq’s Sunni-majority northwestern provinces. To prevent this, the Shiite-led Iraqi army has reportedly deployed more than 20,000 soldiers across the 370-mile border with Syria. But the size of the border, as well as the region’s rugged and inhospitable terrain, are making it very difficult to police it. A major surrounded published by the Associated Press late last week claims that hundreds of Islamic State fighters are slipping across the border into Iraq at night, or using tunnels that were constructed by the Islamic State in 2013 and 2014. Others are making their way into Iraq disguised as women or local farmers. Most are armed, says the Associated Press, or know where to go to dig up weapons caches and money, which the Islamic State buried as it retreated into Syria last year under concerted attacks by the Iraqi army.

The Associated Press report quotes three Iraqi intelligence officials and a United States military official, who say that more than 1,000 ISIS fighters entered Iraq from Syria since last September. Iraqi intelligence sources allegedly estimate that between 5,000 and 7,000 armed ISIS fighters are now present in Iraq. Many of them remain in hiding, but others are engaged in systematic efforts to revitalize the group’s presence in Iraq’s Sunni-majority provinces. This was confirmed in a recent press briefing by a senior Iraqi Army spokesman, Brigadier General Yahya Rasoul, who warned that “ISIS is trying to assert itself in Iraq, because of the pressure it is under in Syria”. At least nine major ISIS attacks were recorded in Iraq in January, and several have taken place in February, including the recent killing of five fishermen in Najaf Province, which prompted officials to warn that ISIS may be making a comeback in the region. Iraqi intelligence officials told the Associated Press that the attacks are aimed at warning locals not to share intelligence with the Iraqi military, and to “restore the extortion rackets that financed the group’s rise to power six years ago”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 February 2019 | Permalink

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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

Shiite militias ‘acting like mafia gangs’ in Iraq’s former ISIS-held areas

Popular Mobilization ForcesThe Shiite militias that fought in the war against the Islamic State are now “engaged in mafia-like practices” in former Islamic State strongholds, enraging Iraqi Sunnis and sparking fears of another Islamist insurgency, according to a leading article in The Washington Post.  In 2014, the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria —ISIS, later renamed Islamic State— was largely aided by Sunni Arabs’ belief that they were second-class citizens in a Shiite-dominated Iraq. Popular support for the Islamic State among Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority took the Iraqi government by surprise and almost enabled the militant group to conquer Baghdad in 2015. Today, after the destruction of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, Iraq’s Shiite-dominated security and intelligence services have returned to Sunni-majority regions that were once ruled by ISIS.

But there signs that about 50 Shiite militias, which were supported by the Iraqi state throughout the war against ISIS, are now becoming highly autonomous armed gangs that are undermining the central government in Baghdad. These militias —many of which are politically aligned with Iran— are essentially armed wings of Shiite political parties that control more than a quarter of the seats in the Iraqi parliament. In 2014, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government attempted to utilize the power of the militias by uniting them under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). PMF troops participated in every major front of the war against ISIS and today are an officially recognized military force with rank and salary structures that are equivalent to those of the Iraqi military and police. Technically, the PMF operate under the command of the Iraqi prime minister. In reality, however, the militias that make up the PMF are led by their respective Shiite commanders, many of whom are ideologically allied to Tehran.

The PMF militias are today in control of much of Sunni-dominated Western Iraq, which they helped retake from ISIS. According to Washington Post correspondents Tamer el-Ghobashy and Mustafa Salim, the militias are now using their newfound territorial power to make large sums of money. Various PMF militias operate countless checkpoints across Western Iraq, on roads between cities or —increasingly— within cities such as Mosul, imposing toll fees on supply trucks and even on individual motorists. The two Washington Post correspondents warn that these militia members are beginning to exhibit “mafia-like” behavior, establishing protection rackets and kidnapping motorists at night in order to release them for a fee paid by their families.

Additionally, PMF commanders make arbitrary decisions about which of the nearly 2 million Iraqi Sunnis, who were displaced in refugee camps due to the war, are allowed to return to their homes. Many of these homes and land that used to belong to Iraqi Sunnis are now being expropriated by PMF commanders, who claim that their previous owners collaborated with ISIS, often without evidence. This practice, say el-Ghobashy and Salim, is rapidly altering the demographic balance between Sunnis and Shiites throughout Western Iraq. The two authors forewarn that these mafia-like practices by the PMF are “fostering local resentments […] and revive the kind of Sunni grievances that underpinned the Islamic State’s dramatic rise three years ago”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 January 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Iraq’s revenge campaign against Sunnis fuels new pro-ISIS wave

Iraq security forcesA campaign of revenge by Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government against Sunni Arabs in regions once controlled by the Islamic State is aiding Islamists and fueling another rebellion in the country, according to a new report. In 2014, the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria —ISIS, later renamed to Islamic State— was largely aided by the strong belief among Iraqi Sunnis that they were second-class citizens in a Shiite-dominated Iraq. In addition to its Sunni credentials, the Islamic State was also able to appeal to Iraqi Sunnis by portraying itself as pious, efficient and trustworthy. This image was in a sharp contrast to the widespread provincial view of politicians in Baghdad as corrupt, indifferent and ineffectual. Popular support for the Islamic State among Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority took the Iraqi government by surprise and almost enabled the militant group to conquer Baghdad in 2015.

Today, after the destruction of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, Iraq’s Shiite-dominated security and intelligence services have returned to Sunni-majority regions that were once ruled by ISIS. But their systematic campaign of human-rights violations against Sunnis, whom they see as ISIS collaborators, is playing into Islamist propaganda and fueling a new wave of rebellion against Baghdad, according to a new report by the Washington-based Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The report, authored by The New Yorker staff writer Ben Taub, warns that the Iraqi government has no strategy on how to reach out to Iraq’s disaffected Sunni Arabs. Even worse, a state-sanctioned campaign of revenge and intimidation is taking place throughout western Iraq, in which “hundreds of thousands of civilians are suffering at the hands of their liberators”, says Taub.

In areas that until a few months ago were ruled by ISIS, anyone —regardless of age or sex— perceived as having previously supported ISIS is outright killed or sent to concentration camps. For Iraqi security forces, says Taub, civilians who did not flee ISIS are seen as inherently suspicious. Bearded men are often viewed as displaying evidence of ISIS support, even though the militant group had a policy of punishing any man who did not grow a beard in accordance with Quranic directives. Most of these people, says Taub, are fired from their jobs, sent to prison, or worse are executed by the dozens and even hundreds. A handful are tried in a court of law each month, but these are usually show trials with a conviction rate of 98 percent, he adds. Family members of the accused rarely show up in court, fearing immediate arrest and imprisonment, which appears to be a regular occurrence. It is “not uncommon for relatives [of accused ISIS supporters] to be rounded up by the security forces and sent to remote desert camps, where they are denied food, medical services, and access to documents”, reports Taub.

These arbitrary arrests are happening alongside an untold number of battlefield executions —many captured on video by jubilant Shiite soldiers and militia members— and killings of prisoners in detention centers. Taub quotes an anonymous senior official in the Iraqi intelligence services who says that “this is not just revenge on ISIS. It is revenge on Sunnis”. The widespread criminality and brutality of the Iraqi security and intelligence forces “plays directly into the jihadis’ narrative”, says Taub, by convincing Sunni Arabs that they “cannot live safely under a government dominated by Shiites”. Ultimately, what is at stake is “whether the Iraqi government can win over the segment of the population for whom ISIS seemed a viable alternative”, concludes Taub, and warns of the possibility of another armed rebellion against Baghdad by what is left of Iraq’s Sunni minority.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 December 2018 | Permalink

ISIS evolving into ‘effective clandestine organization’ US Pentagon warns

ISIS forces in RamadiA report from the United States Department of Defense warns that the Islamic State is swiftly returning to its insurgent roots, as observers in Iraq and Syria caution that the group is witnessing a revival. It has been four years since the Islamic State —known then as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS— conquered much of eastern Syria and more than a third of Iraq’s territory. But by the end of 2017, virtually the entirety of ISIS’ self-styled ‘caliphate’ had been obliterated by an ‘unholy alliance’ of US-backed Iraqi government forces, Iranian-supported Shiite militias, Kurdish guerillas and Western airpower.

However, experts warn that, despite its loss of territorial control, the Islamic State maintains an active force of as many as 30,000 armed fighters in Iraq and Syria. Additionally, a recent US government report argues that, having been driven out of nearly all of the territory that it once held, the Islamic State is promptly “returning to its insurgent roots”. The report, authored by analysts at the US Department of Defense, claims that the militant Sunni group is “re-emerging as a guerrilla force”. In the place of what used to be a de-facto state, an “effective clandestine ISIS organization appears to be taking hold”, it states. The Pentagon document, summarized in a Financial Times article on Thursday, appears to be backed by information from the ground in Iraq and Syria. Iraqi military sources told The Times that ISIS appears to have more fighters in its ranks than initially thought, and that the group’s organizational structure that helped it grow in the first place “has not been eliminated”.

Moreover, the group is “still well-funded” and its operations remain lethal, said the paper, especially in Iraq, where it continues to undermine the government’s efforts to improve the country’s security. Islamic State fighters are systematically targeting regional leaders, said The Times, in an effort to prevent the government from delivering economic development in Iraq’s Sunni-majority western regions. A similar pattern of activities is being observed in Syria, where a resurgence of ISIS activity has prolonged the deployment of around 2,000 US military personnel there. What is more, ISIS fighters frequently cross the Iraq-Syria border and spend much of their time in safe houses and other hideouts. The paper quotes Yahya Rasool, spokesperson for the Iraqi Army’s Joint Operations Command, who says that “our war on ISIS today is an intelligence war, not a military war. We are searching and raiding their hide-outs”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 December 2018 | Permalink

ISIS remains strong with 30,000 members in Iraq and Syria, experts warn

ISIS forces in RamadiThe Islamic State has recovered from some of its recent defeats in the battlefield and has as many as 30,000 committed members in Iraq and Syria, according to two reports by American and United Nations experts. Last month, the Iraqi government announced that the war against the group, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had been won. The statement was echoed by the United States President Donald Trump, who said that the war against the militant Sunni group was “98 percent” over. But now two new reports, one produced by the United States Department of Defense and the other by an expert UN panel, warn that both ISIS and al-Qaeda remain powerful, popular and dangerous in Iraq, Syria, and many other regions of the world.

The UN report was published on Monday by the organization’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, which is tasked with monitoring the impact of UN-imposed international sanctions. The report recognizes that ISIS has suffered unprecedented military defeats in Iraq and Syria in the past year, and that many of its most hardened fighters are dead or have abandoned the conflict zones in the region. But it warns that the militant organization is now morphing into a “covert version” of its former self and that its organizational core remains mostly intact in both Iraq and Syria. What is more, ISIS’ center is backed by as many as 30,000 unreconstructed members, who are split roughly equally between the two countries. The US Pentagon report, which was delivered this week to Congress states that ISIS has as many as 17,100 fighters in Iraq and another 14,000 in Syria. Many of those surviving fighters are citizens of dozens of different countries around the world, according to the report. Some of them are still engaged in armed fighting, while others are “hiding out in sympathetic communities and urban areas”, mostly in Iraq, the UN report states.

There are also tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and supporters in Libya, Afghanistan, Egypt, and in several West African and Southeast Asian countries, according to the reports’ authors. These fighters are led by commanders who remain in contact with senior ISIS leaders and continue to revere Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the group’s central figure. In addition to ISIS, al-Qaeda also remains strong and dangerous, according to the UN report. Its regional structure “continues to show resilience” and in some regions of the world it is far stronger than ISIS. These include several regions of Africa, including areas of Somalia and the Sahel, as well as in Yemen, where al-Qaeda is believed to command as many as 7,000 armed fighters at the moment.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 August 2018 | Permalink

Joint US-Iraqi intelligence operation used cell phone app to trap senior ISIS figures

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiAn joint operation conducted by American and Iraqi intelligence officers employed a popular messaging app on the phone of a captured Islamic State commander to apprehend four very senior figures in the organization, according to reports. The Reuters news agency said on Thursday that the ambitious intelligence operation began in February, when Turkish authorities captured a close aide to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi-born leader of the group known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). According to Hisham al-Hashimi, security advisor to the government of Iraq, the ISIS aide was Ismail al-Eithawi, also known by his alias, Abu Zaid al-Iraqi. Iraqi officials claim that al-Eithawi was appointed by al-Baghdadi to handle the secret transfer of ISIS funds to bank accounts around the world.

It appears that al-Eithawi had managed to escape to Turkey when the United States-led coalition shattered ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate. But he was captured by Turkish counterterrorism forces and handed over to Iraqi authorities. Baghdad then shared the contents of al-Eithawi’s cell phone with US intelligence officers. The latter were able to help their Iraqi counterparts utilize the popular messaging app WhatsApp, a version of which was installed on al-Eithawi’s cell phone. According to al-Hashimi, the Iraqis and Americans made it seem like al-Eithawi was calling an emergency face-to-face meeting between senior ISIS commanders in the area. But when these Syria-based commanders crossed into Iraq to meet in secret, they were captured by Iraqi and American forces.

According to al-Hashimi, those captured include a Syrian and two Iraqi ISIS field commanders. More importantly, they include Saddam Jamal, a notorious ISIS fighter who rose through the ranks to become the organization’s governor of the Euphrates’ region, located on Syria’s east. Al-Hashimi told reporters on Thursday that Jamal and al-Eithawi were the most senior ISIS figures to have ever been captured alive by US-led coalition forces. The Iraqi government advisor also said that al-Eithawi’s captors were able to uncover a treasure trove of covert bank accounts belonging to ISIS, as well as several pages of secret communication codes used by the militant group.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 May 2018 | Permalink