Iraqi spy chief warns of impeding ‘catastrophe’ as ISIS rebuilds Middle East network

Saad Mozher Al-AllaqIn a rare interview, the head of Iraq’s military intelligence has warned of an impending “catastrophe” as the Islamic State continues to edge ever-closer to rebuilding its networks of fighters and supporters in the Middle East. Lieutenant General Saad Mozher Al-Allaq, head of Iraq’s Military Intelligence Directorate, gave a rare interview to the American news network CNN, which was aired on Monday.

In his interview, General Al-Allaq claimed that his agency was able to intercept recent communications from senior operatives of the Islamic State —also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The communications allegedly refer to “Operation BREAK DOWN THE FENCES”, which he said is a plan by ISIS to storm numerous prisoner of war camps that are located across northwestern Iraq and Kurdish- or Turkish-controlled northern Syria. These camps hold as many as 10,000 men, many of whom are believed to be ISIS fighters. Other camps hold nearly 100,000 women and children who are connected to male ISIS fighters. According to General Al-Allaq, ISIS seeks to rebuild its powerbase in the region by freeing and re-arming these prisoners.

In addition to guarding against the possibility of a mass exodus of alleged ISIS prisoners and their families, the Iraqi spy chief said that his force has been working with Turkish authorities to neutralize networks of ISIS operatives in Turkey. Several senior ISIS “emirs” —senior members of the organization, with significant political influence and funding power— were able to bribe smugglers to take them to Turkey, where they are currently reorganizing the militant group’s illicit networks. The Iraqi government recently notified Ankara of the whereabouts of nine such ISIS “emirs”, said Al-Allaq.

The Iraqi spy chief concluded his interview by warning of an impending “catastrophe”, should ISIS be able to implement Operation BREAK DOWN THE FENCES and rebuild its support base in the region. Representatives of the Turkish government told CNN that Ankara was looking into the Iraqis’ allegations of ISIS “emirs” operating inside Turkey.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 November 2019 | Permalink

Iranians may have used female spy to ‘honey-trap’ dissident living in France

Ruhollah ZamThe Iranian government may have used a female intelligence officer to lure a leading Iranian dissident from his home in France to Iraq, where he was abducted by Iranian security forces and secretly transported to Iran. Iranian authorities announced the arrest of Ruhollah Zam on October 15. On that day, Iranian state television aired a video showing a blindfolded Zam surrounded by officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Zam, 46, was a prominent online voice of dissent during the 2009 Green Movement, an Iranian youth-based reform campaign whose leaders called for the toppling of the government in Tehran. He joined other young Iranians in launching AmadNews, a website whose stated purpose was “spreading awareness and seeking justice” in Iran. Soon after its emergence, AmadNews became the online voice of the Green Movement. Following a brief period of detention in 2009, Zam fled Iran and settled in France, from where he continued his online work through AmadNews and its successor, a website and Telegram channel called Seda-ye Mardom (Voice of the People).

Earlier this month, the Iranian government announced that Zam had been captured in a “complicated intelligence operation” that used “modern intelligence methods and innovative tactics” to lure Zam out of France and into the hands of the IRGC. But it did not provide further information about the method that was used to convince Zam to travel to Iraq, whose government is closely aligned with Iran’s. A few days ago, however, the London-based newspaper The Times claimed that the IRGC used a woman to gain Zam’s trust and lure him to Iraq.

Citing exiled Iranian activists that work closely with Zam, the British newspaper said that the woman entered his life nearly two years ago, thus pointing to a lengthy intelligence operation by the IRGC. Over time, she won his trust and eventually convinced him to travel to Jordan on October 11, and from there to Baghdad, Iraq, on October 12. The reason for his trip was that, allegedly, the woman convinced him that Ali al-Sistani, one of the most prominent Shiite clerics in Iraq, had agreed to fund Zam’s online activities. However, the cleric needed to confer with the exiled dissident in person before agreeing to fund his work, according to the woman. It is not known whether Zam and the unnamed woman were romantically involved.

The Times also alleged that Zam’s abduction and arrest was met with “at least tacit approval” by the French intelligence services. The latter now expect that two French academics, who have remained imprisoned in Iran for alleged espionage activities for over a year, will be released as part of a swap with Zam.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 October 2019 | Permalink

Iran abducts France-based dissident in ‘complex intelligence operation’

Ruhollah ZamIranian authorities have announced the capture of a Paris-based Iranian dissident, who was reportedly lured out of France and then abducted by Iranian agents in a third country. The kidnapped dissident is Ruhollah Zam, 46, son of  Mohammad-Ali Zam, a well-known reformist cleric who served in top Iranian government posts after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But in 2009 the younger Zam distanced himself from this father and sided with the so-called Green Movement, whose leaders called for the toppling of the government in Tehran. Around that time, Zam was part of a group of Internet-savvy Iranians who launched AmadNews. The website’s stated purpose was “spreading awareness and seeking justice” in Iran, and it soon became the online voice of the Green Movement.

Zam was promptly arrested and jailed for urging Iranian protesters to topple the government. He was eventually released thanks to his father’s status and reputation. He quickly fled Iran and settled in France, from where he continued his online work through AmadNews and its successor, a website and Telegram channel called Seda-ye Mardom (Voice of the People). The Iranian government accuses Zam of inciting violence against the state and claim that his online agitation is funded by the intelligence services of countries like France, Israel and the United States.

On October 15, Iran’s state-owned media network aired a video showing a bound and blindfolded Zam surrounded by armed officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Iranian government announced that Zam had been captured following a “complicated intelligence operation” using “modern intelligence methods and innovative tactics” to lure Zam out of France and into the hands of the IRGC. It eventually emerged that Zam had flown from France to Jordan on October 11, and from there to Baghdad, Iraq, on October 12. He appeared to be under the impression that he would travel to the Iraqi city of Najaf in order to meet Ali al-Sistani, arguably the most senior Shiite cleric in Iraq.

In the same video, Zam is shown sitting in an armchair next to an Iranian flag, making a statement. He calmly looks at the camera and says that he “fully regrets” his actions directed against Iran. He then says that he made the mistake of entrusting his security to the intelligence services of France. Finally, he warns other dissidents who are involved in agitation against the Iranian state to not trust foreign governments. He names the latter as “the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey”. Iranian officials have not responded to questions about Zam’s current status and fate.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 October 2019 | Permalink

Shia militia blames US and Israel for mystery explosions throughout Iraq

Popular Mobilization ForcesIraq’s largest Shia militia, which controls parts of Iraq’s territory that were aptured from the Islamic State, has accused the United States and Israel for a series of mystery explosions at its arms depots around the country. Much of the territory captured from the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) in northern Iraq is currently controlled by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a collection of around 40 Shia militias consisting of over 150,000 armed fighters. The Iranian-supported PMF proved instrumental in the territorial defeat of ISIS. However, the group’s leadership is ideologically aligned with Iran, and many of its members will not cooperate with the Iraqi Armed Forces because they view them as American-supported.

In the past month, however, there have been at least three mystery explosions at arms depots controlled by the PMF throughout Iraq. On July 19, Arab media reported that a blast killed two Iranian military engineers at a PMF facility. Then on August 12 a massive explosion destroyed part of the al-Saqr military base in Baghdad, killing at least one person and injuring 30. The base reportedly housed an arms depot that was shared by the Shia-dominated Iraqi federal police and the PMF (the two are often indistinguishable in post-ISIS Iraq). On August 20 two more explosions were reported at a PMF arms depot located about 55 miles north of Baghdad. It is not known if anyone was killed or injured in the latest attack. Prior to the August 20 explosions, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi had banned all unauthorized flights over Iraq in an attempt to prevent further attacks on arms depots. But the move did not prevent yet another mystery attack.

In recent days, Iraq has been rife with rumors and conspiracy theories about who could be behind the attacks. Many are accusing the United States and Israel, while some are blaming ISIS or Iraqi militias who are competing against the PMF for control. A leaked Iraqi government report into the incidents claimed that they were caused by drone strikes. On Wednesday, a spokesman for the PMF said that the attacks had been carried out by Israeli drones with American intelligence support in order to weaken Shia influence in Iraq. When asked about the mystery explosions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “Iran has no immunity anywhere […]. We will act and are currently acting against Iran wherever necessary”. Meanwhile, the PMF pledged to use “all means at its disposal to deter and prevent [future] attacks” on its facilities.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 August 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Tension grows between Iraqi state and Shiite militias that helped fight ISIS

Popular Mobilization ForcesA powerful alliance of about 50 Shiite militias, who helped Iraq defeat the Islamic State, is resisting calls by the Iraqi government to surrender its weapons and join civilian life, according to observers on the ground. Much of the territory captured from the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) in northern Iraq is currently controlled by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a collection of around 40 different Shiite militias consisting of over 150,000 armed fighters. The militias began to form in the summer of 2014, after Sayyid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shiite community, issued a fatwa (religious degree) that called or the destruction of ISIS. The Iranian-supported PMF proved instrumental in the territorial defeat of ISIS. However, the group’s leadership is ideologically aligned with Iran, and many of its members will not cooperate with the Iraqi Armed Forces, because of the latter’s proximity to the United States.

According to the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, northern Iraqi cities like Mosul, Bashiqa and Nineveh are largely under the command of the PMF today, a full 18 months after they were recaptured from ISIS. All political and economic activity in the region is controlled by PMF fighters operating under the command of the 30th Brigade, which is one of the most hardline pro-Iranian militias in the PMF. It is alleged that the militias receive economic kickbacks from Shiite-owned Iraqi firms who are awarded multi-million dollar contracts to rebuild the city. Meanwhile, as The Washington Post and other news media have reported, PMF 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. There are also allegations, made by Deutsche Welle and other Western media, that the PMF has conducted mass executions of Iraqi Sunnis as part of its goal to rid Iraq of Sunni Islam.

Last month, Iraqi Armed Forces tried to dismantle PMF-controlled checkpoints into Mosul, but was confronted by armed PMF forces who refused to cede contro. Following the failed attempt to recapture the checkpoints, Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi warned the PMF that it had until July 31 to disband. Its members were called to join a newly established gendarmerie under the command of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. Failure to do so would mean that the militias would be considered outlaws and would be treated as such by the Iraqi Armed Forces, the prime minister warned. But the PMF has requested more time to lay down its weapons, as some of its more moderate commanders are trying to convince the Iran-aligned militias to declare allegiance to a state army that they consider to be pro-American. The future will show how likely that is to happen.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 August 2019 | Permalink

Hundreds of ISIS fighters returning to Iraq to wage low-level insurgency

Islamic State ISISAbout 1,000 Islamic State fighters have returned to Iraq in recent months and are waging a low-level insurgency that threatens to destabilize rural areas and may be the forerunner of a new sectarian war, an expert has warned. Thousands of fighters belonging to the Islamic State —known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS— crossed into Syria in late 2017. In December of that year, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in the war against the militant Sunni group. Since then, however, many of these fighters have been slipping back into Iraq from Syria and are now picking up arms again against the Iraqi state, which they see as being dominated by Iran-allied Shiites.

In an article published on Sunday, The Washington Post cites Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi security advisor to the government in Baghdad, as well as several foreign aid groups, who warns that ISIS is regrouping in Iraq. Al-Hashimi told The Post that approximately 1,000 ISIS fighters are believed to have crossed into Iraq from Syria since December of 2018. Most of them are Iraqi nationals who are essentially returning to the Sunni-majority areas of the country that were considered ISIS strongholds before 2018. Upon their return, the fighters join small ISIS cells that operate mostly in rural areas in central and northern Iraq. They move at night and are intimately familiar with the local terrain, which allows them to utilize effectively a variety of hiding places. These cells can now be found in locations ranging from the city of Kirkuk in the north to the province of Diyala, east of Baghdad. They are responsible for scores of kidnappings, roadside bombings and sniper attacks that target local officials and security personnel. Local observers stress that the re-emerging ISIS cells are too weak to threaten the territorial control of the country by the Iraqi government. However, they are rapidly destabilizing rural areas in the country and appear to be preparing for a protracted insurgency that could potentially lead to another major sectarian war.

The Washington Post report comes a month after a group of researchers with the Institute for the Study of War warned that the Islamic State is capable of making a sudden comeback in the Middle East that could be “faster and even more devastating” than 2014, when the group quickly conquered territory the size of Britain. In a 76-page paper entitled ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency, the researchers said that the militant group had managed to subvert Iraqi and Syrian government efforts to reintroduce stability and safety in areas previously under ISIS domination. Not only were government forces finding it “increasingly difficult to establish durable and legitimate security and political structures” in those areas, but they should be worried about the possibility of ISIS actually reconquering territory in both Iraq and Syria, the report warned.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 July 2019 | Permalink

ISIS could make bigger comeback than 2014 in Iraq and Syria, warns new report

ISIS meetingThe Islamic State is capable of make a sudden comeback in the Middle East that could be “faster and even more devastating” than 2014, when the group quickly conquered territory the size of Britain, according to a new report from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). The Washington-based think-tank’s report is based on the most recent data about the presence in the Middle East of the militant Islamist group, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The 76-page report (.pdf) is titled ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency, and is written by ISW’s researchers Jennifer Cafarella, Brandon Wallace and Jason Zhou.

The authors claim that the Islamic State moved its forces undercover during the multinational military campaign that eventually sacked its self-proclaimed caliphate. They go on to explain that by “deliberately withdrawing and relocating may of its fighters and their families”, the group managed to preserve a large part of its fighting forces, which are “now dispersed across [Iraq and Syria] and are waging a capable insurgency”. The latter is funded through ISIS’ global finance network and armed with weapons and other war materiel that the group managed to hide in tunnel systems and other hidden facilities. Islamic State insurgents have thus been engaged in a broad and largely successful campaign to assassinate village and town elders across Iraq, and have even reestablished a sharia-based taxation system in some of Iraq’s predominantly Sunni areas. The group also retains a significant presence in Syria, where it continues to battle the Syrian regime, US-supported Kurdish forces, and other Sunni militant groups, including al-Qaeda, according to the report.

Through its widening insurgency, the Islamic State has managed to subvert Iraqi and Syrian government efforts to reintroduce a semblance of stability and safety in areas previously conquered by the militant group. In fact, not only are government forces finding it “increasingly difficult to establish durable and legitimate security and political structures” in those areas, but they should be worried about the possibility of ISIS actually reconquering territory in both countries, the report warns. The report’s authors place much of the blame for ISIS’ resurgence at Washington’s door, describing America’s hasty military withdrawal from Iraq and Syria as “a critical mistake”. In its recommendations section, the report calls on the United States to develop and implement a long-term counter-terrorism strategy against ISIS, which will combine military and community-building measures. “Another limited [military] intervention will not be sufficient” to eliminate the threat, the report’s authors claim.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 June 2019 | Permalink