No signs of ISIS decline despite Western efforts, say US spy agencies

ISIS forces in RamadiInternal reports by American intelligence agencies say that the Islamic State remains strong in Iraq and Syria, and that the group has been able to effortlessly replace its 10,000 fighters who have been killed in the past year. Despite the over $1 billion spent in the war against it by the Syrian and Iraqi governments, as well as by the West, the militant group is “fundamentally no weaker” than it was a year ago, when the United States began a bombing campaign targeting Islamic State strongholds, according to the reports. The Associated Press, which published a summary of the assessment, said that it represents the views of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and other members of the US Intelligence Community. Citing anonymous US officials, the news agency said that the overall assessment of the situation could be described as a “strategic stalemate”.

If the leaked assessment is accurate, it would directly contradict the views expressed recently by retired US Marine Corps General John Allen, who is serving as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS. Speaking last week at the annual Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, General Allen argued that the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) was “losing”. He added that “we have seen some significant progress” in the war against the group and said he believed that its “momentum has been checked strategically, operationally and, by and large, tactically”.

 But according to the Associated Press, US defense officials have seen “no meaningful degradation” in the numbers of ISIS fighters. They put the group’s current strength at between 20,000 and 30,000 uniformed troops, a number that is practically identical to that of August 2014, when the administration of US President Barack Obama initiated an air bombing campaign against ISIS targets. The intelligence assessments suggest that, not only is ISIS able to replenish its fighter ranks with new recruits from around the world, but that the group’s finances have not been significantly affected by the US air campaign. American fighter jets have repeatedly attacked ISIS-controlled oil installations in recent months; but the group has been able to rebuild its oil-drilling and -refining capacities, and continues to earn over $40 million a month from the sale of oil.

The reports go on to state that, based on current trends, it could take more than a decade before ISIS became weak enough to justify expectations that it could retreat from its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 August 2015 | Permalink

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Army colonel who joined ISIS was trained in the United States

Gulmurod KhalimovA former army colonel and police commander in Tajikistan, who features in a new Islamic State propaganda video, was trained in counterterrorism by the United States government, according to officials. Until earlier this year, Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov was a commander in Tajikistan’s Special Purpose Mobile Units. Known commonly as OMON, these elite units are a cross between anti-riot corps and counterterrorism forces. They date from the Soviet era and are common features of the law enforcement architecture of most former Soviet republics, including Tajikistan, whose population is 98 percent Muslim.

The government of Tajikistan launched an extensive search campaign in April of this year, following the mysterious disappearance of Colonel Khalimov. But the police commander reappeared on Wednesday in a video published online by the militant group Islamic State, which also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). In the video, Khalimov is seen wearing a black ISIS combat uniform and brandishing a sniper rifle. Speaking in Russian, he warns Russian and American citizens that ISIS will “find your towns, we will come to your homes and we will kill you, God willing”. He also states in the video that he participated in a number of counterterrorist training programs on American soil between 2003 and 2007. At least one of these programs, which were presumably funded by Washington, took place in the US state of Louisiana. Khalimov adds —without providing details— that it was the things he experienced during these training programs that led him to join ISIS.

On Saturday, a spokeswoman for the US Department of State told CNN that Khalimov was indeed among an elite group of Tajik counterterrorism operatives who took part in five training courses funded by the US government. The funding was reportedly provided under the Department of State’s Diplomatic Security and Anti-Terrorism Assistance program, which is designed to “train candidates in the latest counterterrorism tactics”. Ironically, these tactics are meant to be employed against groups like ISIS, which Khalimov appears to have joined. A report on CNN notes that counterterrorism experts are now concerned that Khalimov’s defection to ISIS will give the group invaluable insider’s knowledge of counterterrorism techniques, as taught by US instructors.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 June 2015 | Permalink: https://intelnews.org/2015/06/01/01-1706/

Analysis: Having taken Ramadi and Palmyra, ISIS is now unstoppable

ISIS forces in RamadiThe capture by Islamic State forces of the Iraqi city of Ramadi, on May 17, has given the organization a fortified urban base less than an hour’s drive from Baghdad. Its near-simultaneous takeover of the central Syrian city of Palmyra, points to the organization’s permanence and demonstrates its widening operational span, which now ranges from Western Libya to the Iranian border. Without an all-out war effort by outside forces, such as Iran, or the United States, it is difficult to see how the Islamic State could be stopped from permanently establishing itself as a major actor in the region, especially since no outside force appears willing to confront it directly.

On Tuesday, Iraqi government forces launched a major offensive to recapture Ramadi from the Islamic State —which is widely referred to in the West as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Such an effort, however, will be extremely difficult and costly, both in terms of lives and material requirements. Ramadi is a sizable city of over 900,000 people —although several thousand civilians have left— and presents an attacker with an urban-warfare setting that can be extremely arduous to operate in. Moreover, Ramadi is a solidly Sunni city, with strong ties to the pre-2003 Iraqi military establishment that date back to the early days of Saddam Hussein’s rule. Even if they do not necessarily see eye-to-eye with ISIS, Ramadi’s Sunni inhabitants are bound to fight doggedly against the Iraqi army, which is currently dominated by Shiites. Thus, if ISIS decides to hold on to Ramadi for reasons of strategy, or to defend its prestige, it will be very surprising if the Iraqi army manages to recapture it. Even if ISIS is driven out of the city, most likely with significant Iranian and American assistance, there is no guarantee that the local population will be Q Quotepacified. Iraqi government forces will almost certainly face a protracted armed campaign by a mixture of heavily armed groups in the city. Some of these groups are led by ISIS, some are inspired by al-Qaeda, while others are motivated by a broader anti-Shiite sentiment, which is currently the predominant political ideology in Anbar Province.

On May 20, ISIS forces also captured the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. The choice of target was neither spontaneous nor unexpected. Located right in the center of Syria, Palmyra forms one of two major land routes used by the government of Iran to transport military materiel to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hezbollah, which, like Iran, supports the Syrian government in Damascus, also acquires Iranian weapons through that route. The second main route, which passes through Deir el-Zor, and Raqqah, is already controlled by ISIS. Therefore, the Syrian regime, which depends largely on Iranian support for its survival, simply has to retake Palmyra if it wants to win its war against ISIS. The Islamists know this, however, and they will persistently resist any attempt by the Syrian troops to regain control of the city. As is typical in these situations, time will be crucial here. The more time ISIS has on its hands, the better it will be able to fortify and defend Palmyra. The Syrian military will most likely resort to bombing the city from the air, but this is not as easy as it used to be, because ISIS now has formidable antiaircraft capabilities. Moreover, at some point land forces will have to be used, and that is precisely where ISIS has the upper hand in Syria.

On Sunday, United States Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told CNN that, in his view, Ramadi fell to ISIS because “the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight”. Carter was right, except when he used the term “Iraqi forces”, he really meant Iraqi Shiites. There are currently almost no Sunnis left in the Iraqi Armed Forces. Most are unwilling to offer allegiance to a state that is dominated by Iran, which they see as not representing them, or indeed threatening their very existence. For that same reason, many Sunnis are now actively fighting in support of ISIS, or for Sunni tribes that Q Quoteare aligned to it. Iraqi Sunnis believe that if they lose the fight against the Iraqi military they will be extinct as a people, which explains why they are fighting with more zeal and determination than their Shiite compatriots.

Meanwhile the international anti-ISIS alliance is plagued by too many disagreements and political bad blood to be effective. The United States wants ISIS to lose, but no American president would consider sending large numbers of US troops back in the Middle East, after the fiasco in Iraq. Additionally, Washington does not want to be seen to cooperate with what is perhaps ISIS’ most formidable adversary, namely Iran. Saudi Arabia is nominally against ISIS, but it also knows that if ISIS loses in their war against the Iranians, the latter will simply dominate the region, and nobody in Riyadh wants this. Like Saudi Arabia, Turkey is ostensibly against ISIS, but it is also against the Kurds, who are currently being assisted by Iran to fight ISIS. It is therefore not assisting the war effort as much as it could.

This fragmentation within the anti-ISIS front will continue. It seems that everyone in the region is waiting for a new administration to emerge in Washington after the 2016 national elections, in the hope that the US will engage more directly in the war effort. However, unless ISIS directly attacks the US in a 9/11-type attack, it is difficult to see Washington taking a more active stance in this chaotic and unpredictable war. It is difficult to see this amidst the bloody suffering of the local people, but this war is in essence a multifaceted chess game, in which there are no genuine alliances. Every actor involved appears to be trying to promote their own narrowly defined national interests.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 May 2015 | Permalink: https://intelnews.org/2015/05/27/01-1704/

Al-Qaeda still a more serious threat than ISIS, says ex-CIA official

Al-Qaeda in YemenAl-Qaeda and its affiliates continue to pose the most serious unconventional threat to American security, despite the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, according to a former senior official in the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Michael Morell, who was deputy director of the CIA, and served twice as the Agency’s acting director, did not deny that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, poses a significant threat to the security of the US. However, the militant group “is not the most significant threat to the homeland today”, he said. Morell made the comment while speaking on Monday at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, while promoting his new book, The Great War of Our Time: An Insider’s Account of the CIA’s Fight Against Al Qa’ida.

The former CIA official told his audience that the most serious unconventional threat to the US continues to come from three al-Qaeda groups, all of which remain far cogent and willing to engage the US on its home soil. According to Morell, the three groups consist of the so-called ‘al-Qaeda Central’ in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as its Syrian branch, known as the Khorasan Group, and its Yemen affiliate, which goes by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). He added that the last three serious efforts to strike the US with the intent of causing mass casualties all came from AQAP. Morell was referring to the 2009 so-called ‘underwear bomber’ and the 2010 ‘ink-cartridge bomb plot’, as well as the ‘plastic suicide vest bomb pot’ in 2012, all of which were unsuccessful. The former CIA official said that, unlike ISIS, al-Qaeda has “the ability to bring down an airliner in the US tomorrow”. Most importantly, he added, unlike ISIS, al-Qaeda has shown willingness to confront America on its home soil.

Morell’s argument echoed similar comments expressed in September 2014 by the then-Director of the US National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen. Olsen, who held the US’ most senior counterterrorism post until his retirement last year, opined at a forum in Washington that ISIS did not currently pose a direct threat to America or Western Europe. He added that the risk of a “spectacular, al-Qaeda-style attack” on American or European targets by ISIS was negligible, saying that ISIS was “significantly more limited than al-Qaeda”, especially in the run-up to 9/11.

ISIS leader al-Baghdadi mortally wounded in airstrike, say sources

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The spiritual leader of the Islamic State is wounded so severely that he is no longer able to command the group’s daily activities, according to sources in Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a Sunni Islamic cleric who grew up in Samarra, Iraq, was appointed leader of the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), in May of 2010. Since that time he has served as the public face of the group, which has conquered territory in Iraq and Syria that is equal to that of Great Britain.

For over a month now, reports have emerged in various Arab media suggesting that al-Baghdadi is seriously hurt and fighting for his life. But there has been no confirmation of his whereabouts or fate. On Tuesday, however, British newspaper The Guardian said it had concrete information that the ISIS leader is wounded so gravely that he is unable to supervise the day-to-day operations of the group.

Citing sources in Iraq, including an Iraqi adviser and a Western diplomat posted there, the British broadsheet said al-Baghdadi was seriously wounded on March 18 during an airstrike on an ISIS convoy. The attack allegedly took place in al-Baaj, a Sunni-dominated tribal region of Nineveh Province, in northwestern Iraq. The area is located near the Syrian border, 200 miles west of the city of Mosul, a Sunni stronghold that is currently ruled by ISIS forces. According to the The Guardian’s sources, the ISIS convoy was attacked by jet fighters for routine tactical reasons. Neither the pilots, nor the commanders of the operation, were aware that al-Baghdadi was among the convoy’s passengers. The ISIS leader sustained life-threatening injuries and was unconscious when he was taken at a nearby hospital. Since then he has been recovering, but his life is still under threat.

One source told The Guardian that at one point last month, senior ISIS commanders called for an urgent meeting to appoint a new Emir (leader) for the group, because they were convinced that al-Baghdadi was on the verge of death. They eventually decided, however, to wait until after al-Baghdadi’s demise before appointing a new Emir. Since the ISIS leader’s wounding, the group’s Shura (consultative) councils have taken on an increasingly prominent decision-making role, says the paper.

Captured files reveal new information about structure, history of ISIS

ISIS parade in SyriaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A folder of secret documents, drafted by a senior commander of the Islamic State, reveals previously unknown information about the origins, meticulous planning and intelligence structure of the organization. Among other things, the documents show that the organization, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), had plans to capture territory in both countries as early as 2010 —several years before its existence was even known. The folder belonged to Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, a military general and political ally of Iraq’s late leader, Saddam Hussein. Better known as Haji Bakr, the former Baathist general became a founding member of ISIS and helped shape the organization until his death in a firefight in 2014. Following his demise, an unnamed informant stole the documents and secretly smuggled them into Turkey. It was there that German investigative newsmagazine Der Spiegel accessed them. On Saturday, following months of research, the newsmagazine published its findings based on the stolen documents. They reveal important information about the history and structure of the mysterious organization known as ISIS.

Der Spiegel notes in its analysis that Bakr himself is characteristic of the complexity of ISIS, which today controls territory equal to approximately that of Great Britain in both Iraq and Syria. Before the United States invasion, the former Iraqi general was a typical Baathist, who, like the regime he served, expressed strong secular views. But he became violently bitter in 2003, when he found himself unemployed and stripped of his status after the invading US forces dissolved the Iraqi military. He eventually joined a number of other unemployed former Baathist military and intelligence officers and decided to launch a counteroffensive against the predominantly Shiite Iraqi government. In 2010, this group of conspirators decided to inculcate their group with a Sunni religious identity, for reasons of political expediency. It was then that they appointed a highly educated and charismatic Sunni cleric, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the ideological face of the organization. In late 2012, the group began to actively exploit the chaos caused by the Syrian Civil War as an opportunity to capture territory in Syria, and then use it as a base to invade Iraq. The plan worked.

The folder acquired by Der Spiegel contains handwritten fragments from 31 different pages bearing organizational charts, lists of ISIS officials, as well as programmatic schedules. It reveals a hierarchical organizational structure with direct and indirect chains of command, which reach all the way down to local cells. According to the documents, these cells were initially set up in disguised form, so as to resemble Islamic schools or missionary facilities. Today these have expanded to include detention facilities, weapons depots, as well as a complex structure of Sharia-compliant educators, judges and enforcers. The organization also has an elaborate intelligence structure, which appears to undertake daily surveillance and security tasks. The latter depend on an army of officers, agents and informants, many of whom are as young as 16.

The documents detail several ISIS espionage operations in Syria and Iraq, which include meticulous studies of power structures of the local tribes. These were done in an effort to detect what Der Spiegel describes as “age-old faults within the deep layers of [tribal] society]”, and were then used by ISIS to divide and eventually subjugate dissident elements within the territory under their control. In other cases, informants were instructed to detect the personal weaknesses and faults of local leaders, which were subsequently used to blackmail them. Priority was given to recruiting members of powerful families, so as to “ensure penetration of these families without their knowledge”, Spiegel notes.

ISIS has lost control of most oil fields: German intelligence report

Guard at a northern Iraq oil fieldBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The Islamic State has lost control of approximately 95 percent of its oil production capacity following the advancing Iraqi counteroffensive, according to a leaked German intelligence report. Last June, a massive offensive by armed members of the Islamic state, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), conquered much of northern Iraq, including the cities of Mosul and Tikrit. As the crumbling Iraqi army kept hastily retreating south, ISIS forces encountered almost no resistance during their onslaught.

In the past two months, however, a large-scale counter-offensive by Iraqi forces and irregular Shiite militias, supported by Iran and the United States, has reclaimed much of the land previously occupied by ISIS. Earlier this month, Iraqi forces recaptured the strategically located city of Tikrit, in a move that is widely viewed as the greatest victory so far for the anti-ISIS forces.

Along with Tikrit, Iraqi forces have managed to recapture a number of oil fields, which provided ISIS with a lucrative source of income for much of the past year. On Thursday, German broadsheet Süddeutsche Zeitung cited a leaked intelligence report that claimed ISIS had lost control of “a minimum of three oil fields” in northern Iraq. The Munich-based newspaper said it had seen a report on the subject authored by the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND, Germany’s external intelligence agency. According to the report, the Iraqi counteroffensive had reclaimed all but one of the ISIS-controlled oil fields in the country.

The BND documents state that the ISIS government now only controls the Qayara oil field, located in Iraq’s southeastern Nineveh province. The oil field’s daily output capacity of around 2,000 barrels leaves ISIS with only “five percent of the extraction capacity” it had before the Iraqi counteroffensive, says the paper. Moreover, satellite images taken last March show that retreating ISIS forces set fire to two of the largest oil fields in their possession, the Ajil and Himrin facilities. That, according to the BND, shows that ISIS were themselves pessimistic about being able to reclaim these oil fields from the Iraqi forces.