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

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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

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