Iraqi Kurds claim they have captured senior Turkish intelligence officers

Cemîl BayikThe Turkish government has refused to comment on reports from Iraq, which suggest that Kurdish forces have captured at least two senior Turkish intelligence officers. News of the arrests first emerged in mid-August, when pro-Kurdish media in Turkey’s Anatolia region claimed that an armed Kurdish group in Iraq had captured two members of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), Turkey’s principal intelligence agency.

According to the reports, the Turkish intelligence officers had used forged identity papers to travel from eastern Turkey to the northern Iraqi city of Erbil. From there, they went to Sulaimaniyah, a metropolitan center in Iraq’s Kurdish north. Allegedly, the Turkish officers traveled to Iraq in order to assassinate Cemîl Bayik, a co-founder and senior leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Founded in 1978, the PKK is a leftwing secessionist paramilitary organization that seeks an independent homeland for Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Iraq’s Sulaimaniyah region is controlled by another Kurdish armed group, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which has close relations with Iran. But a rival Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Democrat Party (KDP), which is supported by Turkey and opposes the PKK’s secessionist aims, also has a strong presence in the area. It is not known whether KDP forces were aware of —or even assisted— the Turkish intelligence officers in Sulaimaniyah.

Kurdish sources claim that the two Turkish intelligence officers were arrested by PUK forces. Notably, media reports suggest that one of arrestees serves as the MİT’s deputy undersecretary for foreign operations, while the other heads the MİT’s PKK desk. The PUK is now threatening to publish photographs of the two men, which would blow their cover. But there has been no comment on this story from Ankara, where Turkish government officials refuse to confirm or deny that the arrests happened or that the two men are indeed MİT employees. Some observers, however, note that the Turkish government shut down the PUK’s office in the Turkish capital on August 23, and expelled the organization’s representatives. The group has maintained an office in Ankara since 1991, so the Turkish government’s surprising move may signify that the media reports about the arrests of the two MİT officers are indeed accurate.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 September 2017 | Permalink

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Senior Iraqi intelligence official rejects Russian claims that ISIS leader is dead

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiA senior Iraqi intelligence official has rejected assurances given by Russia that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of the Islamic State, is dead, insisting instead that the Iraqi-born cleric is alive in Syria. In mid- June, Russia’s Ministry of Defense said that, according to its sources, al-Baghdadi had been killed. Subsequently, many Russian officials and political figures appeared to confirm Moscow’s report. On January 23, Russian media quoted Viktor Ozerov, chairman of the Committee of National Defense of the Federation Council (the Russian Duma’s upper house) as saying that the likelihood that al-Baghdadi was dead was “close to 100 percent”. Last week, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it too was in a position to confirm that al-Baghdad had been killed, adding that the Islamic State had admitted as much in a statement issued to its senior commanders.

But Western governments, including the United States, have been reluctant to accept the Russian reports as accurate, saying that they prefer to wait for concrete proof of the Islamic State leader’s demise. On Sunday, the Iraqi government appeared to side with the skeptics. In an interview with the Baghdad-based daily Al-Sabah, senior Iraqi intelligence official Abu Ali al-Basri claimed al-Baghdadi was very much alive. Al-Basri, who supervises the Falcon Intelligence Cell, a US-trained counterterrorist unit operating under the Ministry of the Interior, said that the reports recently circulated about the rumored death of al-Baghdadi were “simply untrue”. He added that the founder of the Islamic State was “still living in Syria”, possibly at an Islamic State military facility on the outskirts of the organization’s de facto capital city of Raqqa.

Born in Iraq in 1971, al-Baghdadi has never been seen in public after his historic speech in June 2014, in which he proclaimed the creation of a so-called Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Speaking from the Grand Mosque in the old city of the Iraqi city of Mosul, which his forces had just conquered, al-Baghdadi issued a public call for supporters of the Islamic State around the world to join its ranks. But he never reappeared in public in the ensuing years, giving rise to occasional speculation that he may have been seriously wounded or even killed.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 July 2017 | Permalink

Islamic State leader al-Baghdadi abandons Mosul, say intelligence sources

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiThe leader of the Islamic State has abandoned the city of Mosul and is hiding in the desert zone of western Iraq, according to intelligence sources. Meanwhile Mosul, once the most populous city under the Islamic State’s control, is now reportedly being defended by a diminishing cadre of fewer than 3,000 Sunni militants, who are facing a 110,000-strong invading army.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the center of worldwide attention in July of 2014, when Islamic State troops swept rapidly through western Iraq and captured the region’s largest city, Mosul, in a spectacular coordinated attack. Soon after Mosul was captured by the Islamic State, al-Baghdadi led Friday prayers at Mosul’s Great Mosque and proclaimed himself caliph —emperor of the world’s Muslims. In the following months, the Islamic State reached the height of its power, commanding large expanses of land that stretched from the northern regions of Syria to the outskirts of Iraq’s capital Baghdad. Soon after al-Baghdadi’s public appearance in Mosul, the United States government set up a joint task force aimed at killing or capturing him. The group, which is still operational today, includes representatives from the Armed Forces, the National Security Council, and the Intelligence Community. Al-Baghdadi is believed to have stayed in Mosul, but has proven difficult to trace. He almost never uses electronic communications and is constantly on the move, sleeping at different locations every night.

Last October, US-backed Iraqi government troops, Shiite militias and Kurdish forces launched a large-scale military operation to recapture Mosul and drive out the Islamic State from the region. The assailants, whose combined forces are said to exceed 110,000 troops, reclaimed much of eastern Mosul earlier this year, and are preparing to launch a large-scale military advance on the western half of the city. While the operation to complete the recapture of Mosul is underway, American and Iraqi intelligence sources report that al-Baghdadi has not been public heard from since early November of last year. This leads many analysts to believe that the Islamic State leader has left the city and is now hiding in the vast and inhospitable desert that stretches along the Iraqi-Syrian border. Moreover, intelligence analysts claim that the Islamic State’s online activity has fallen sharply, to about half of what it was during the group’s peak in late 2014. This leads to the conclusion that the Islamic State is now increasingly focusing on essential functions aimed simply at the survival of the regime. The group has reportedly lost at least 3,000 fighters in Mosul, but an estimated 2,400 armed men have vouched to defend the city to the very end.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 10 March 2017 | Permalink

Spy agencies deploy extra staff to analyze ‘treasure trove’ of ISIS computer data

Iraqi forces in MosulWestern military and intelligence agencies are deploying extra analysts to comb through unprecedented amounts of digital data collected from Iraqi regions that have recently been recaptured from the Islamic State. The information is contained in thousands of laptops, hard drives, flash drives and cell phones left behind by retreating Islamic State forces in and around the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

In an article published this week, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Defense, Sir Michael Fallon, said he had authorized a significant increase in numbers of military intelligence analysts deployed to the Middle East, in response to “a trove of data” captured from the Islamic State. He added that the amount of digital data was expected to increase even further “when Mosul falls”. The British intelligence analysts will join hundreds of American specialists —including analysts, linguists and computer technicians— who are stationed in neighboring Jordan and have for over a year been analyzing digital and printed data captured from the Islamic State. Much of that information is eventually disseminated to allied intelligence agencies.

The largest collection of digital data and documents captured from the Islamic State dates from last summer, when Kurdish Peshmerga forces seized nearly 1,000 electronic devices belonging to the militant group. The material was found in and around the city of Manbij, near Aleppo in northwestern Syria. By late August, the Kurds had collected 20 terabytes of computer data and more than 120,000 documents stored on 1,200 devices that once belonged to ISIS officials or operatives. According to Western officials, the data led to intelligence operations against the Islamic State in 15 countries in North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. In November of this year, Iraqi forces operating south of Mosul captured the digital archives of the Islamic State’s Agricultural and Animal Resources Authority. In addition to an extensive notary archive, the collection included information on the Islamic State’s commercial transactions with entities in neighboring countries, and was described by Iraqi government sources as “a real treasure”.

According to the British government, digital data and printed documents currently being gathered from Islamic State strongholds in and around Mosul are expected to provide critical intelligence on the group’s structure and chain of command. They are also likely to give insights on the existence of Islamic State cells abroad, and will most likely help international prosecutors build legal cases against Islamic State commanders in the near future.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 December 2016 | Permalink

Flow of foreign fighters to ISIS drops to near zero, intel assessments show

ISIS meetingThe transfer of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State and other Sunni militant groups has been all but eliminated in countries across the world, according to intelligence assessments. In previous years, it has been estimated that nearly as many as 2,000 foreign recruits, both men and women, crossed into Syria each month, mainly from Turkey, with the intention of joining armed Sunni groups. By the end of 2015, it was believed that over 30,000 foreign nationals from close to 90 countries had entered Syria and Iraq to fight for one of the Sunni-inspired opposition groups taking part in the Syrian civil war. Most of these foreign recruits joined the Islamic State, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

But current intelligence assessments produced by analysts in the US Intelligence Community suggest that the total inflow of foreign recruits has trickled down to a total of just 50 since the beginning of 2016. Many European countries, notably Belgium and Britain, have not seen any of their nationals leaving for Syria or Iraq this year, while fewer than 10 Americans have done so since January. According to The Washington Post, which last week published a report on the subject, this unprecedented trend is largely attributable to the shrinking territory —and presumably operational strength— of the Islamic State. Some experts note that, like al-Qaeda before it, the Islamic State is now seen as “failing entity” by Sunnis, prompting many aspiring jihadists to not wish to be associated with the group. It has also becoming more difficult for individuals to enter Syria, as Western governments and Turkey have grown progressively vigilant of young men and women seeking to travel to regional warzones. The Islamic State has also lost its control over regions that are adjacent to Turkey’s borders, which discourages Turkish and Syrian smugglers from attempting to transfer people across the notoriously porous border.

But even though the decline is sustainable, and marks “an important milestone” in multinational endeavors to combat the growth of the Islamic State, The Washington Post notes that it also raises critical questions about the future of Western security. Specifically, the paper wonders whether the terrorism threat from the Islamic State is easing, or if it is “morphing into a more dangerous new phase”, in which potential recruits are instructed to attack Western targets and former recruits disperse into conflict-prone areas across the world to spread the jihad there.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 September 2016 | Permalink

Recent gains against ISIS are not enough, may actually backfire, say experts

First Post HWestern experts and intelligence officials are warning that the recent military gains made against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are not enough to damage it, and may in fact make the group stronger in the long run. Undoubtedly, the impressive momentum of ISIS, which calls itself the Islamic State, has been curtailed, and the image of invincibility that it once projected is no longer there. Observers estimate that the Sunni militant group has lost nearly a fifth of its territory in Syria, while it is no longer in control of about half of the land it used to occupy in Iraq. As a result of these territorial defeats, ISIS has lost a third of its oil production, which is believed to account for half of its overall revenue. Earlier this month, US President Barack Obama said that, as ISIS continues to concede territory, it is “losing the money that is its livelihood”.

But US intelligence officials do not seem to agree. Speaking on June 16 before the US Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, John Brennan, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, cautioned against triumphalism. He told senators that the efforts of the international military coalition against ISIS “have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach”, adding that ISIS would “have to suffer even heavier losses of territory, manpower, and money for its terrorist capacity to decline significantly”. According to Reuters, a number of US intelligence officials and counterterrorism experts support Brennan’s views. The news agency said on Wednesday that many experts are warning that the military campaign on the ground was “far from eradicating [ISIS] and could even backfire”.

The fact that local troops fighting ISIS are almost completely composed of Shiite Arabs from Iraq and Iran, or are Kurdish Peshmerga, could add legitimacy to ISIS as the protector of the Sunni Arab minority in the region. There are also reports of human rights violations against Sunnis by the advancing Shiite forces, including an unconfirmed allegation that 49 Sunni men of fighting age were executed after surrendering to the anti-ISIS coalition in Falluja. Additionally, if ISIS loses much more territory, it will be tempted to simply abandon conventional fighting tactics and turn into a guerrilla group. Reuters quotes RAND Corporation analyst Seth Jones, who argues: “It looks like the areas that the Islamic State has lost, they are generally abandoning, and that would mean preparing to fight another way”. That could mean that ISIS fighters intend to blend in with the urban population and launch a campaign of sabotage, assassination and disruption of government services.

As ISIS has lost ground in Iraq and Syria, the flow of foreign fighters intending to join the organization has dropped significantly. But that is not necessarily a good thing, says Reuters. These fighters, who in the past were instructed to join ISIS in the Middle East, may now be told to launch lone-wolf terrorist attacks abroad. The Reuters report cites one terrorism expert, Hassan Hassan, of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, who argues that the international appeal of the Islamic State is not connected to the group’s military performance in the Middle East. In other words, its popularity among its Western followers will persist even if all of the group’s territorial strongholds are lost to its adversaries.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 June 2016 | Permalink

British, Irish citizens who fought the Islamic State are released from prison

Joe AckermanTwo British and one Irish citizen, who fought with Kurdish units against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but were imprisoned in Iraqi Kurdistan while they were trying to return to Europe, have been freed. The three men are Joshua Molloy, from County Laois in the Republic of Ireland, Jac Holmes from Bournemouth, England, and Joe Ackerman (pictured), from the West Yorkshire city of Halifax in England’s northern region. All three joined Kurdish militias and saw action in Syria and Iraq in recent months.

Holmes, a former information technology manager, had no military experience when, in early 2015, aged 22, he entered Syria, aiming to join Kurdish forces. He soon enlisted in the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), a Kurdish group that serves as the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Syria. The Englishman from Bournemouth participated in several battles, but returned to the United Kingdom in June 2015, in order to recover from a bullet wound to the shoulder, which he suffered while in the battlefield. As soon as he was cured, he returned to Syria and rejoined the YPG. His compatriot, Joe Ackerman, is a former member of the British armed forces who traveled to Kurdistan last year and joined the YPG after entering Syria illegally. He too was eventually injured when his patrol was struck by a roadside bomb. The third man, Irishman Joshua Molloy, is also a former soldier, having served in the British Royal Irish Regiment, an infantry regiment of the British Army.

Many Western governments, including the British and Irish governments, maintain that their citizens who fight in the Syrian civil war may be prosecuted under counterterrorism legislation, even if they have fought against the Islamic State. But that has not stopped hundreds of Westerners from traveling to Syria and Iraq to join mostly Kurdish, Assyrian and other forces. Last December, intelNews reported on a study that identified over 108 American citizens who had enlisted in the various militias and armed groups fighting against the Islamic State. Nearly half of them had joined the YPG in Syria, while others had enlisted in the peshmerga forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Iraq, as well as in an assortment of Christian militias, including the Nineveh Plains Protection Units and the Dwekh Nawsha.

According to reports, Holmes, Ackerman and Molloy were on their way back to Europe and trying to cross from Syria into northern Iraq, when they were captured by Iraqi Kurdish government forces. They were jailed for over a week in the Kurdish city of Irbil while their captors tried to verify that they were not Islamic State volunteers. They were released on Sunday. In a statement issued last weekend, the British Foreign Office said it was helping its two citizens return to England as soon as possible.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 April 2016 | Permalink