Shiite militias ‘acting like mafia gangs’ in Iraq’s former ISIS-held areas

Popular Mobilization ForcesThe Shiite militias that fought in the war against the Islamic State are now “engaged in mafia-like practices” in former Islamic State strongholds, enraging Iraqi Sunnis and sparking fears of another Islamist insurgency, according to a leading article in The Washington Post.  In 2014, the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria —ISIS, later renamed Islamic State— was largely aided by Sunni Arabs’ belief that they were second-class citizens in a Shiite-dominated Iraq. 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 there signs that about 50 Shiite militias, which were supported by the Iraqi state throughout the war against ISIS, are now becoming highly autonomous armed gangs that are undermining the central government in Baghdad. These militias —many of which are politically aligned with Iran— are essentially armed wings of Shiite political parties that control more than a quarter of the seats in the Iraqi parliament. In 2014, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government attempted to utilize the power of the militias by uniting them under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). PMF troops participated in every major front of the war against ISIS and today are an officially recognized military force with rank and salary structures that are equivalent to those of the Iraqi military and police. Technically, the PMF operate under the command of the Iraqi prime minister. In reality, however, the militias that make up the PMF are led by their respective Shiite commanders, many of whom are ideologically allied to Tehran.

The PMF militias are today in control of much of Sunni-dominated Western Iraq, which they helped retake from ISIS. According to Washington Post correspondents Tamer el-Ghobashy and Mustafa Salim, the militias are now using their newfound territorial power to make large sums of money. Various PMF militias operate countless checkpoints across Western Iraq, on roads between cities or —increasingly— within cities such as Mosul, imposing toll fees on supply trucks and even on individual motorists. The two Washington Post correspondents warn that these 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.

Additionally, PMF commanders make arbitrary decisions about which of the nearly 2 million Iraqi Sunnis, who were displaced in refugee camps due to the war, are allowed to return to their homes. Many of these homes and land that used to belong to Iraqi Sunnis are now being expropriated by PMF commanders, who claim that their previous owners collaborated with ISIS, often without evidence. This practice, say el-Ghobashy and Salim, is rapidly altering the demographic balance between Sunnis and Shiites throughout Western Iraq. The two authors forewarn that these mafia-like practices by the PMF are “fostering local resentments […] and revive the kind of Sunni grievances that underpinned the Islamic State’s dramatic rise three years ago”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 January 2019 | Permalink

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Barcelona on high alert after US State Department terrorism warning

Las Ramblas BarcelonaPolice in Barcelona have intensified security checks in some of the Spanish city’s most recognizable landmarks, following a security warning from the United States Department of State. The surprise warning came in the form of a post on the popular social networking site Twitter on Sunday, December 23. In the tweet, the Department of State advised travelers to “exercise heightened caution around areas of vehicle movement, including buses”. It added that terrorists could “attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, and other public areas”. It is rare for the Department of State to issue warnings for specific locations, unless the US government is in possession of critical intelligence pointing to the possibility of a terrorist attack.

Hours after the Department of State’s warning, Miquel Buch, Minister of the Interior for Spain’s Catalonia region, told a radio station in Barcelona that local authorities were “engaged in assessing the warning” by the US authorities. Local media reported that increased police presence was visible around bus, minibus, train and metro stations throughout the Catalonian capital. Heavily armed police presence was also notable in Barcelona’s most popular tourist landmarks, including the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, the Gothic Quarter, and the mile-long Las Ramblas pedestrian Boulevard at the city’s center. There was no information about the precise nature of the US warning, but there were reports in Catalonian media on Tuesday that the alert notice involved the possibility of a vehicular attack by Islamists during the Christmas holiday season.

In August of 2017, Younes Abouyaaqoub, a 22-year-old Moroccan-born Islamist drove a van into large crowds of tourists at Las Ramblas, killing 14 and injuring nearly 150 people. Abouyaaqoub’s attack was followed by another assault by five men in Cambrils, a small seaside town south of Barcelona, who drove a car into a crowd of pedestrians, killing one and injuring six more. All six men were members of the Islamic State. They were shot and killed by police and security forces.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 December 2018 | Permalink

Islamic State issues drone bomb warning following London airport chaos

Islamic State dronesOn the heels of chaotic scenes at Britain’s Gatwick Airport, which remained closed for three days due to reported sightings of drones, the Islamic State has released images on social media showing drones carrying packages to large Western cities. The images, which appear to be PhotoShopped, have reignited concerns that the group may be close to launching attacks on civilian targets around the world using drones. Known formally as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones have become increasingly accessible to private consumers in recent years. They range from miniature toy models that can be controlled via smartphone applications to highly sophisticated models that can carry significant loads to high altitudes.

In recent years, it has been reported that several militant groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Pakistan, have made use of drone technology for surveillance and combat purposes. But observers believe that the Islamic State may have the most advanced drone arsenal of any non-state group in the world. The militant Sunni-Muslim organization launched an experimental armed drone campaign in Iraq in 2016. A year earlier, Islamic State fighters had been seen making use of commercially purchased drones for surveillance purposes in the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. In 2016, the Islamic State built several workshops to modify commercially purchased drones, and eventually to build its own models. In January 2017, the group announced the establishment of a new unit called “Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahideen”, which operated a sizeable fleet of modified combat drones. The following month, the Islamic State claimed to have killed with the use of drones nearly 40 Iraqi soldiers in a single week. The militant group said it did so by using drones to drop three-pound mortar shells on Iraqi troop positions.

Counterterrorism specialists are concerned about what they see as the Islamic State’s “growing ambition” to use drones in the battlefield. But they doubt that the use of drones can by itself affect the outcome of battles. A much larger concern is the possibility that the Islamic State could transfer its drone knowledge outside the battlefield. It has long been confirmed that Islamic State militants have systematically discussed the possibility of deploying drones in civilian areas to drop explosives or even weaponized chemical substances. In October of this year, Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray told the United States Congress that the threat of the use of drones by a group like the Islamic State against American tarets was “steadily escalating”. Wray said that the FBI assessed drones “will be used to facilitate an attack in the United States against a vulnerable target, such as a mass gathering”. He added that his assessment was based on several factors, such as the retail availability of the devices, the “lack of verified identification requirement to procure” drones, their ease of use, as well as the experience in the use of drones that militant groups have been amassing abroad.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 December 2018 | Permalink

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

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 fighters might declare new caliphate in Philippines, experts warn

Battle of MarawiThe number of foreign Islamic State fighters entering the Philippines is growing, and the momentum they generate among local Islamist groups may prompt them to declare a new caliphate, according to experts. British newspaper The Guardian cited “a high-ranking intelligence officer” who said that between 40 and 100 foreign fighters have joined the Islamic State in the southern Philippines in the past 12 months. Most of them come from neighboring countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. But there are also fighters from Pakistan, Bangladesh and several Middle Eastern countries, said the intelligence officer. One of them, a Moroccan militant, carried out a suicide bombing in Lamitan City, located on Basilan Island south of Mindanao, in July of this year, killing 11 other people. There are fears among experts that the Islamic State might declare a new caliphate there soon, as local support for militant Islamism is growing.

Such a declaration has been made before. Following the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, later renamed Islamic State) in 2014 in the Middle East, several Islamist groups in the Philippines declared allegiance to the Islamic State’s emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They included fighters from Abu Sayyaf, Ansar al-Khilafah, the Maute Group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and other smaller factions active in the southern Philippines’ island of Mindanao. In May 2017, these fighters launched a joint attack on Marawi, the capital city of Mindanao’s Lanao del Sur province. Within 48 hours, they had occupied the entire city of 200,000 people and declared it the capital of the “East Asia Wilayah”, an overseas province of the Islamic State. Among them were an estimated 80 foreign fighters from dozens of countries. Upon the declaration of the caliphate, the insurgents issued several calls on social media for foreign Islamists to join them. Many dozens from the Muslim world and from Western Europe attempted to do so, according to Philippines police.

The violent takeover of Marawi prompted a counter-attack by the Philippine Armed Forces, which launched a large-scale urban-warfare operation on May 23, 2017. Hostilities ended on October 17, 2017, when the Philippine government declared victory against the Islamic State. The military operation became known as “the battle of Marawi” and is believed to have been the longest urban battle in the post-World War II history of the Philippines. More than 1,200 people died in the five-month battle, most of them civilians. Hundreds of thousands remain displaced to this day as a result of the fighting.

According to The Guardian, intelligence gathered from local and foreign Islamist fighters in the country suggests that support for the Islamic State among local Muslims is growing, as a result of three factors: first, the arrival of dozens of battle-hardened foreign fighters who urge the locals to fight. Second, the disaffection of the local Muslim population as a result of the harsh economic conditions in the Philippines’ depressed southern regions. Third, widespread dissatisfaction with the increasing levels of corruption among government officials in the southern provinces. One expert, Zachary Abuza, south-east Asia analyst at the United States National War College, told The Guardian that southern Philippines is an important sanctuary for the Islamic State, because “there is enough ungoverned or very poorly governed space” there. In the next few months, another declaration of a caliphate may be issued, he added.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 November 2018 | Permalink

ISIS using Turkey as strategic base to reorganize, Dutch intelligence report says

Turkey ISISIslamic State cells are using Turkey as a strategic base in which to recuperate, rebuild, and plan an underground war in Europe, according to a new report by Dutch intelligence. This assessment is featured in a report published on Monday by Holland’s General Intelligence and Security Service, known as AIVD. The document, which is available in the Dutch language on the website of the AIVD, is entitled The Legacy of Syria: Global Jihadism Remains a Threat to Europe.

The 22-page report argues that the government of Turkey does not see Sunni Islamist groups, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), as a pressing national security threat. Instead, Turkish security services are far more concerned with the ethnic Kurdish insurgents of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. Therefore, although Turkish authorities do sometimes take action to combat al-Qaeda and ISIS, “Turkish interests do not always correspond with European priorities on the field of counter-terrorism”, says the report. For that reason, Turkey served as a large transit center of tens of thousands of foreign fighters who poured into Syria to fight for Sunni Islamist groups during the height of the Syrian Civil War. At least 4,000 of those fighters are believed to be Turkish citizens, according to the AIVD report.

Today Turkey is home to tens of thousands of sympathizers of both al-Qaeda and ISIS —two organizations that maintain an active presence throughout the country— claims the report. The hands-off approach of the Turkish government is giving these groups “enough breathing space and freedom of movement” to operate relatively freely on Turkish soil. Additionally, al-Qaeda and ISIS members exploit the relative peace and stability of Turkey to forge plans to attack Western target, claims the AIVD report. It is from Turkey, it argues, that the Islamic State plans to shape and direct its pending underground war on the European continent.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 November 2018 | Permalink