Western intelligence agencies see non-Arab as new head of ISIS

Abdullah QardashWestern intelligence agencies have reportedly confirmed that a non-Arab is now leading the Islamic State for the first time in the organization’s history. Rumors of a new leader of the group began to circulate just hours after American forces killed its self-styled Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. On October 27, 2019, Newsweek magazine reported that the militant group, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), had appointed a man known as Abdullah Qardash (pictured) at its helm. According to the magazine, Qardash’s name was sometimes spelled in English as Karshesh. Additionally, he was sometimes referred to by his ISIS moniker, Hajji Abdullah al-Afari.

However, the names reported by Newsweek were not immediately recognizable to Western intelligence officials and other experts who monitor the Islamic State. But now British newspaper The Guardian reports that Western intelligence services have concluded that the man referred to as “Abdullah Qardash” in October is indeed the new leader of ISIS. The paper said on Monday that the new ISIS leader’s birth name is Amir Mohammed Abdul Rahman al-Mawli al-Salbi. He is allegedly not an Arab, but rather an Iraqi Turkman whose family comes from Tal Afar, a northwestern Iraqi city that is close to the borders of Syria and Turkey. In fact, al-Salbi is reported to have a brother in Turkey, who is a prominent member of an ethic political grouping called the Turkmen Iraqi Front.

Al-Salbi, who was allegedly appointed as leader of ISIS just hours after al-Baghdadi’s demise, is believed to be the first non-Arab to ever lead the militant group. Like most of ISIS’ original founders, al-Salbi is believed to have met Baghdadi in 2004 in Camp Bucca, an American-administered prison in Umm Qasr. Similarly to al-Baghadi, al-Salbi’s background is in Islamic education —something that enabled him to quickly rise in the ranks of ISIS ideologues and command significant influence. By 2018, al-Salbi had become a central decision-maker within the group, and was able to shape its activities and policies within its territory in the Middle East and beyond. The Guardian article concludes that al-Salbi is “a hardened veteran in the same vein as al-Baghdadi”, which implies that no major changes in the Islamic State’s strategy are expected to take place under his leadership.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 January 2020 | Permalink

ISIS forces now patrolling nearly all of northern Iraq, says intelligence official

ISIS IraqThe Islamic State has regrouped, rearmed and refinanced itself, and its forces are now actively patrolling nearly all of northern Iraq, according to a senior intelligence official in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. The Islamic State, which is also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), used to control territory in the Levant that equaled the size of Germany. But its forces were pushed back by an international coalition of state armies and militias, a development that prompted several heads of governments, including United States President Donald Trump, to announce that ISIS had been defeated.

However, senior military and intelligence officials been warning in recent years that ISIS is far from defeated. In an new article published on Sunday, the BBC reports that Kurdish intelligence officials see ISIS as a resurgent organization. The report relies heavily on the views of Lahur Talabany, the head of Iraqi Kurdistan’s Information Protection Agency, which serves as the primary security and counterterrorism organization of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government.

Talabany told the BBC that ISIS is today “like al-Qaeda on steroids”. The group has “better techniques, better tactics and a lot more money at their disposal” than the al-Qaeda of old, he said. The abundance of financial resources allows ISIS to “buy vehicles, weapons, food supplies and equipment”, said Talabany, adding that he is not sure about the precise source of the funds.

In addition to utilizing its strong finances, ISIS has exploited an ongoing dispute between the Kurds of northern Iraq and the central government in Baghdad, which has left large regions of north-central Iraq without an effective government presence. The militant group’s forces are therefore able to carry out daily patrols over “a huge territory, from Diyala to Mosul, which encompasses nearly all of northern Iraq”, said Talabany.

A large portion of ISIS’s forces appear to be based in Iraq’s Hamrin Mountains, which are riddled with deep caves and ravines. But the group maintains nearly 10,000 fighters all over Iraq, said Talabany, of which 5,000 operate as members of sleeper cells and another 5,000 are armed and active members of ISIS.

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

Europol culls thousands of Islamic State online accounts in ‘day of action’

Telegram AppThe law enforcement agency of the European Union, in cooperation with the popular online messaging service Telegram, has culled thousands of Islamic State online accounts in what it described as “a day of action”. The operation was coordinated by the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, better known as Europol. The agency coordinated its activities with the popular instant-messaging service Telegram, which the Islamic State has used as its main platform of mass communication since 2014.

In a press release that appeared on its website on Friday, Europol said that it had managed to locate “a significant portion of key actors within the Islamic State network on Telegram” and “push [them] away from the platform”. The messaging app confirmed the joint “day of action” with Europol and said it took down over 5,000 “terrorist accounts and bots” from its network on November 22 and 23. The company said this was nearly 10 times higher than the usual number of user accounts taken down daily for violating its user agreement.

The BBC said that the removal of the accounts appeared to affect heavily the activities of the Nashir News Agency, an Islamic State propaganda outlet that uses the Telegram app to publicize press releases from the Islamic State. Dozens of online channels and community groups that were moderated by Nashir News Agency editors were also impacted, as their moderators had disappeared from the network. On Saturday, some Telegram users began posting information about replacement accounts for Nashir News Agency press releases, but these too were taken down within hours.

This was the second major “day of action” against online terrorist propaganda that Europol coordinated, with the first one being in April of last year. But critics argue that such efforts are unlikely to have a long-term impact on the ability of terrorist groups to spread online propaganda, unless they are constant and systematic. Meanwhile, Islamic State sympathizers criticized the Telegram service on other social media platforms and warned that moves to silence the group would result in its membership going deeper underground.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 September 2019 | Permalink

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

Al-Baghdadi’s ISIS hideout was equipped with frequently used internet connection

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiThe Islamic State’s Syrian hideout that housed the group’s leader until his demise on October 26, was equipped with a frequently used internet connection, according to Arab media reports. Abu Bakr al-Baghdaid, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, was killed by United States soldiers in Barisha,  a village in the Syrian province of Idlib, which is located just two miles from the Turkish border.

The region that surrounds Barisha is under the control of Turkey and can most accurately be described as a Turkish protectorate inside Syria. Moreover, it is heavily monitored by several intelligence agencies that have been looking for al-Baghdadi for years. It has therefore been generally assumed that the Islamic State leader’s hideout was kept isolated from the outside world and that no digital telecommunications means were used by its inhabitants, out of fear that they would be monitored by the Syrian authorities, Turkey, the United States, or others.

But a new report from the Dubai-based Al-Aan TV claims that the hideout was equipped with a frequently used internet connection and that it was active almost up to the moment US troops stormed the compound. The exclusive report, which aired on Thursday, alleges that the internet connection was set up in February of this year, and that it was used almost daily. The last time it was active was just 12 hours prior to the raid that killed al-Baghdadi and several members of his family.

The bill for the internet connection was approximately $8.00 a month and was paid by Abu Muhammad al-Halabi, a Syrian smuggler whose name also appears on tax records as the owner of the property, according to Al-Aan. The report provides no information about the type of online activity that the internet connection at the Barisha compound was used for.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 November 2019 | Permalink

Turkey’s arrest of al-Baghdadi’s sister is ‘intelligence goldmine’ says official

Rasmiya AwadA Turkish government official has described the arrest of the sister of the late Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as “an intelligence goldmine”. The official was referring to the arrest of Rasmiya Awad, an Iraqi citizen, who was reportedly arrested on Monday. Little is known about al-Baghdadi’s sister. She is believed to have been born in 1954, which makes her 65 years old this year.

Awad was arrested during a raid by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army at a makeshift refugee camp in the suburbs of Azaz, a city of 30,000 located approximately 20 miles northwest of Aleppo. The Aleppo province in northwestern Syria has been under Turkish military control since 2016. Since then, the Turkish military command has relied on the Ankara-backed Free Syrian Army and a selection of smaller pro-Turkish militia to control the region.

The Associated Press reported that Awad was detained along with her family, including her husband, her daughter-in-law, and her five children. Five other adults were arrested in the vicinity of the refugee camp, all of them Iraqi citizens, but there is no word yet on whether they are in any way connected with the Islamic State. Turkish officials told the Associated Press yesterday that Awad, her husband and her daughter-in-law were being interrogated.

The news agency quoted one Turkish government official as saying that Awad’s capture was “an intelligence goldmine. What she knows about [the Islamic State] can significantly expand our understanding of the group and help us catch more bad guys”, the official is reported to have told the Associated Press.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 November 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: ISIS leader’s hideout in Turkish-controlled part of Syria raises questions

Turkey SyriaIn 2011, the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad raised questions about Pakistan’s knowledge of his whereabouts. Today it is hardly controversial to suggest that at least some elements in the Pakistani government must have been aware of bin Laden’s location. Last week’s discovery of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a region of Syria controlled by Turkey inevitably raises similar questions about Ankara’s role in the Syrian conflict and its relationship with the Islamic State.

The self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State was found hiding in Barisha, a village in the Syrian province of Idlib, which is located just two miles from the Turkish border. The region that surrounds Barisha is under the control of Turkey and can most accurately be described as a Turkish protectorate inside Syria. The area north of Barisha has been under Turkish control since August of 2016, when Ankara launched Operation Euphrates Shield, a cross-border operation conducted by the Turkish Armed Forces in cooperation with Turkish-baked militias in Syria. In early 2018, Turkish and pro-Turkish forces extended their territorial control further south, capturing Barisha and all surrounding regions. They remain in control of the area to this day.

Turkish-occupied northern Syria is often described as a “proto-state”. It is governed by a collection of local councils of Turkmens and Arabs, with some Kurds and Yazidis also present. These councils elect representatives to the self-proclaimed Syrian Interim Government, which was formed in Turkey by Turkish-backed Syrian exiles and is currently headquartered in Azaz, an Arab-majority city of 30,000 that is under direct Turkish military control. Azaz is also the headquarters of the Turkish-backed “Free Police”, a gendarmerie-style militia that is funded, trained and equipped by the Turkish government.

In addition to the Turkish troops, the region is controlled by the Turkish-funded Syrian National Army. The 25,000 troops of the SNA —which is jokingly referred to by the locals as the “Turkish Syrian National Army”— operate completely under Turkish command. A substantial portion of the SNA’s force consists of former Islamic State fighters who switched their allegiance to the SNA once they saw the writing on the wall. Others are former members of the group that used to call itself Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate that has become the most powerful Salafi-jihadist force in Syria after the demise of the Islamic State.

Turkish-occupied northern Syria is also the base of Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafi-jihadist group consisting of over 20,000 fighters, which is not officially aligned with al-Qaeda, but has similar goals. Since at least 2017, Ahrar al-Sham has effectively operated as a Turkish proxy militia and is in charge of dozens of check points and observation posts throughout the region. Lastly, the area is home to Hurras al-Din, yet another Salafi-jihadist group that is affiliated with al-Qaeda —though its leaders deny it. The group is able to operate in Turkish-controlled areas of Syria with suspicious ease. It was this group, Hurras al-Din, that sheltered al-Baghdadi in Barisha in return for cash.

Given Turkey’s military and political control of Idlib province, the question arises of how the world’s most high-profile terrorist leader was able to enter the region and receive protection from a militia that operates there under the watchful eye of the Turkish military. The New York Times reports that al-Baghdadi had been living in Barisha for several months before last week’s raid, and that Washington had been aware of his hideout location since the summer. Was Turkish intelligence also aware of the Islamic State leader’s whereabouts? If not, how could that be? If yes, why did it take a Kurdish spy, handled by Syrian Kurdish intelligence, to locate him and provide information to the Untited States? More importantly, what exactly is the relationship between Turkey and the al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who seem to operate freely in Idlib and provide protection to senior Islamic State officials in exchange for cash?

There are clearly more questions than answers here. If the United States is serious about combating Islamist extremism in the Middle East, it must press Ankara on these questions as a matter of urgency.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 October 2019 | Permalink