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

Advertisements

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

Dozens of successor groups forming in wake of ISIS defeat, experts warn

Hamrin Mountains IraqThe collapse of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is giving rise to a host of successor groups, which are quickly regrouping, recruiting members and launching increasingly sophisticated attacks against government forces, according to experts. A military victory in the war against ISIS was officially declared by the Iraqi government in December of last year. In recent weeks, United States President Donald Trump has repeated his government’s claim that American forces are “knocking the hell out of ISIS”. The Sunni militant group, which rose to prominence in 2014 after conquering much of Syria and northwestern Iraq, is clearly on the retreat, having lost every major urban center that it used to control. However, the collapse of the organization has led to the emergence of numerous insurgent groups that are quickly forming in Iraq and Syria.

Many of these highly agile groups are operating in the sparsely inhabited and remote southern district of Iraq’s Kurdish region, which includes the Hamrin Mountains. Others are found in Iraq’s arid regions west of the Euphrates. All are engaged in recruitment, propaganda and —increasingly— attacks against government forces and rival Shiite militias. Writing on Sunday, BuzzFeed’s Turkey-based Middle East correspondent Borzou Daragahi profiled one such group, the so-called White Flags. The group was formed in late 2017 through the union of two ISIS commanders, Khaled al-Moradi, an Iraqi Turkman, and Hiwa Chor, a former member of Ansar al-Islam, a predominantly Kurdish jihadist group that was active in northern Iraq after 2003. Daragahi notes that the White Flags have managed to carry out strikes in Baghdad and Kirkuk, and have repeatedly ambushed Iraqi government forces and members of Shiite militias. Senior White Flag members have been involved with ISIS for years and have “a wide range of experience [and] a high level of training”, says Daragahi. They are one of several post-ISIS armed groups that are recruiting members from Iraq’s disaffected Sunni Arab minority, while promising to protect them from the ire of the almost exclusively Shiite Iraqi government.

In a separate but related development, two analysts with Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters —the country’s primary communications interception agency— have warned that ISIS remains a “significant threat” to the West. The two analysts spoke on Britain’s Sky News television, using only their first names, Ben and Sunny. They recognized that ISIS has lost much of its territory in recent months, but cautioned that it continues to be “a very advanced adversary”, primarily due to its technological dexterity. Operational planners of ISIS have “pushed the bar and raised the bar” in terms of the “technology they have used and the ways in which they have used it”, said one of the analysts, adding that British intelligence agencies have to keep adapting their techniques to remain “one step ahead” of ISIS operatives. IntelNews regulars will recall that last year this blog advised Western counter-terrorism officials to “actively and immediately prepare” for attacks by ISIS militants using chemical weapons.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 3 April 2018 | Permalink

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

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