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

Study: Who are the Americans fighting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria?

ISIS - JFMuch emphasis has been given to the Islamic State’s Western recruits, but there is almost nothing known about Westerners fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Last week, an investigative website published the first substantial study on the subject, focusing on volunteers who are citizens of the United States. Entitled “The Other Foreign Fighters”, the study focuses on those Americans who have voluntarily traveled to the Middle East to take up arms against the group, which is also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It was authored by Nathan Patin, an independent researcher who often publishes his work through Bellingcat, a website specializing in open-source investigations.

Patin reports that there are roughly 200 Americans who have either entered or attempted to enter Syria and Iraq in efforts to battle ISIS. Of those, at least 108 have spent time the region and enlisted in the various militias and armed groups that are fighting ISIS. Based on open sources, Patin claims that at least two thirds of the Americans fighting ISIS have previously served in the US Armed Forces, mostly in the Marine Corps and Army. Almost all of them are in their 20s and 30s and one of them is female. The majority have spent between one and four months on the battlefield in Iraq, Syria, or both. However, almost a third had little or no military experience prior to joining the war against ISIS. They included Keith Broomfield, 36, who died earlier this year while fighting ISIS in Kobani, Syria.

Almost half of the Americans tracked by Patin have fought for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish group that serves as the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Syria. Others have 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. There are major questions about the legality of the American volunteers’ actions, according to American law. The US Department of State does not include the YPG or the PUK in its official list of foreign terrorist organizations. But the PKK, which cooperates with both groups, is designated by Washington as a terrorist outfit. It is important to note, however that the Bellingcat study does not cover the legality of the American volunteers’ actions in Iraq and Syria. Finally, it is worth pointing out that almost nothing is known about several hundred Westerners from countries other than the US, who are also fighting against ISIS in the region. They include citizens of Finland, Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and many other countries.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 December 2015 | Permalink

Iraq now using Russian intelligence in war against Islamic State

Baghdad IraqThe Iraqi government is now using intelligence supplied by the Russian military in its war against the Islamic State, according to officials in Baghdad. As intelNews reported in September, the Iraqi Joint Forces Command announced it had entered a formal intelligence-sharing agreement with the governments of Russia, Syria and Iran. The purpose of the collaboration was to defeat the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that currently controls a third of Iraq’s territory and much of neighboring Syria. Many were surprised by last month’s announcement, as it was the first time that Iraq, an American ally, had entered an alliance with Washington’s Cold-War adversary Russia, as well as with Iran and Syria, two countries with which the United States has no diplomatic relations.

According to US media reports, the headquarters of the intelligence-sharing center is located in Baghdad’s so-called Green Zone, where US forces were stationed until 2012. Each of the member states has six officers at center, who are given intelligence by their respective countries’ militaries with the intent of sharing it with the other three participating militaries. In addition to these officers, there are two Russian one-star generals stationed at the center, according to The Washington Times, which cited “an Iraqi official who asked not to be identified”.

Back in September, when the four-partite agreement was announced, the US said it respected Iraq’s freedom to enter into security pacts with regional governments, but warned that Syria was a major violator of human rights and should not be part of the intelligence-sharing treaty. On Tuesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said he could see no reason why Baghdad would want to enter into an intelligence-sharing agreement with Moscow, given that the US-led coalition had been sharing intelligence with Iraq for over a year. The coalition’s intelligence collaboration with Baghdad had “worked effectively with the Iraqis to make progress against [the Islamic State] inside of Iraq”, he said.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 October 2015 | Permalink

Russia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, sign intel-sharing agreement against Islamic State

Tartus SyriaThe governments of Russia, Syria and Iran have entered a formal intelligence-sharing agreement with Iraq, in an effort to defeat the Islamic State, it has been announced. Intelligence-sharing has been practiced for a while between Russia, Syria and Iran; but this is the first time that Iraq, an American ally, has entered the alliance. According to the Baghdad-based Iraqi Joint Forces Command, the agreement entails the establishment of a new intelligence-sharing center in the Iraqi capital. It will be staffed with intelligence analysts from all four participating countries, who will be passing on shared information to their respective countries’ militaries.

Iraqi officials said on Sunday that the intelligence-sharing agreement had been forged by Moscow, which was “increasingly concerned about the presence of thousands of terrorists from Russia undertaking criminal acts” as members of the Islamic State. The announcement of the agreement comes as Russia has been reinforcing its military presence in Syria, by deploying troops in Latakia. Security observers have interpreted the move as a strong message by the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin that it is prepared to safeguard the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The latter also enjoys strong support from Iran, which has poured billions of dollars in aid to support the regime in Damascus, and has deployed hundreds of Hezbollah advisers and militia members in defense of Assad.

Speaking from Baghdad, Colonel Steve Warren, the American spokesman for the Western-led military campaign against the Islamic State, said that Washington was respectful of Iraq’s need to enter into security agreements with other regional governments. But he added that the US objected to the Syrian government’s role in the intelligence-sharing agreement, because it was “brutalizing its own citizens”. The US government has also protested against the Russian government’s expansion of its base in Tartus and its increased military presence in Latakia. But, according to Foreign Policy, US officials have privately expressed support for the move, saying that “it could, in the short term, help rein in the Islamic state”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 September 2015 | Permalink

Islamic State forces are engaging in chemical warfare, says German intelligence

Mustard gas chemical warfareGermany’s foreign intelligence agency says it has evidence that the Islamic State is making use of chemical weapons in northern Iraq, according to media reports. The German Federal Intelligence Service, known as BND, says its operatives in the Middle East were able to collect biological samples from Kurdish fighters engaged in battles against the Islamic State forces. The samples pointed to chemical poisoning that most likely came from sulfur mustards, more commonly known as mustard gas. The chemical, which is banned from use in warfare by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, causes skin irritation that gets progressively worse until sufferers develop debilitating blisters filled with yellow fluid.

Earlier this month there were unconfirmed reports that the Islamic State had used a type of poisonous gas against fighters in the Syrian town of Marea, a stronghold of the Free Syrian Army that is located just north of Aleppo. But no evidence was provided at that time to show that the poisonous substances were indeed chemical weapons. On Monday, however, the Director of the BND, Gerhard Schindler, was quoted in the German press as saying that his officers had gathered credible “information that the Islamic State used mustard gas in northern Iraq”. Schindler said that the information was derived from blood samples that were voluntarily provided by Kurdish fighters that suffered blisters during battles against Islamic State forces.

The BND has not yet answered the question of where the Islamic State managed to acquire its mustard gas supplies. Some allegedly believe that they came from old stockpiles produced during the regime of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, for use by the Iraqi armed forces. Others claim that Islamic State scientists produced the mustard gas from scratch using laboratories in the University of Mosul, a largely Kurdish city that has been occupied by Islamic State forces since the summer of 2014. Asked to comment on the BND report, a spokeswoman for the United States Department of Defense refused to “comment on intelligence or operational matters”, but added that, if confirmed, the use of chemical weapons “by any party […] is an abhorrent [and] reprehensible act”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 September 2015 | Permalink