Indian intelligence infiltrated Islamic State in ‘unprecedented operation’

New Dehli IndiaA joint Indian-American counterintelligence operation, described as “unprecedented in its scale and scope”, reportedly foiled a major suicide attack by the Islamic State in New Delhi and helped achieve “a string of victories” against the group in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Citing “top diplomatic and intelligence sources”, the New Delhi-based daily The Indian Express said that the “audacious” operation took place a year ago, but details about it were only made available to its reporters in recent days.

The paper said that the operation lasted 18 months and involved the systematic surveillance of numerous suspects in Dubai, New Delhi and several cities in Afghanistan. It also involved substantial intelligence-sharing between Indian and American security agencies, as well as constant intelligence-gathering by as many as 80 Indian physical-surveillance experts. Intelligence gathered from physical surveillance was reportedly combined with information collected through telephone intercepts. Eventually it became clear that the Islamic State had recruited and trained 12 suicide bombers across several secret camps in Pakistan. The recruits were tasked with carrying out suicide bomb attacks throughout Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.

One such recruit, the 25-year-old “son of a wealthy [Afghan] businessman”, had been sent by the Islamic State to New Delhi to carry out his deadly mission. In order to escape the attention of the authorities, he had enrolled in a private engineering college in New Delhi. But he was arrested by Indian intelligence and quickly transported to Afghanistan, where he was interrogated by American officers. According to The Indian Express, intelligence gathered from these interrogations helped the United States-led coalition in Afghanistan achieve “a string of successes” against former Taliban forces aligned with the Islamic State. The Afghan would-be suicide bomber remains in Afghanistan under US custody, according to the paper.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 July 2018 | Permalink

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Spy chiefs from Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan hold high-level meeting

Sergei NaryshkinIntelligence directors from Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan met on Tuesday to discuss regional cooperation with particular reference to combating the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Information about the high-level meeting was revealed yesterday by Sergei Ivanov, media spokesman for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). Ivanov told Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency that the meeting was held in Pakistan and included the participation of SVR director Sergei Naryshkin. TASS reported that the meeting was held under the auspices of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate and was attended by “senior intelligence officials” from Pakistan, Russia, Iran and China.

Ivanov said that discussions during the meeting “focused on the dangers arising from a buildup of the Islamic State on the Afghan territory”. The Islamic State announced the formation of its Afghan province (wilayah in Arabic) in January 2015, using the term “Khorasan Province”. By July 2016, two of its most prominent leaders had been killed in coordinated drone strikes by the United States, but the group continues to launch operations to this day. Its core is thought to be made up of nearly 100 fighters from the Islamic State’s former strongholds in Syria and Iraq. According to Russian reports, security officials in China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran are concerned that the Islamic State’s Afghan command is becoming stronger as fighters from the group are leaving the Middle East and moving to Afghanistan.

Tuesday’s high-level meeting in Islamabad follows an announcement last month by the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that it would adopt a more active stance on security issues in Afghanistan. Early in June, Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani described the SCO as “an important platform for anti-terrorist cooperation and enhancing regional connectivity” in Central and South Asia. President Ghani made these comments shortly before traveling to China to attend the annual summit of the SCO, of which Afghanistan is an observer country.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 11 July 2018 | Permalink

Analysis: The Islamic State is far from dead; it is regrouping and rebranding itself

Islamic State ISISIn a recent series of interviews to promote his new book, Anatomy of Terror, former FBI special agent and current counterterrorism expert Ali Soufan insists that the Islamic State remains potent and dangerous. Speaking last week to the British newspaper The Guardian, Soufan warned that, even though the Islamic State was unable to hang on to its self-described caliphate in the Middle East, the group has ample opportunities to regroup. In the days of al-Qaeda, “we only had one vacuum, in Afghanistan”, from where Osama bin Laden’s organization operated from and spread its message, said Soufan. “Now we have so many vacuums —Syria, Yemen, Libya, northern Nigeria, Tunisia, the Philippines— and it’s expanding. That’s very dangerous”, he warned.

Soufan, a well-read analyst and complex thinker, who today presides over The Soufan Group and oversees the Soufan Foundation, is right to warn against the notion that the Islamic State is on its way out. The group’s meteoric rise marked a watershed moment in the modern history of militant Sunni Islam. Even if it is militarily annihilated —a prospect that is far from certain— its physical absence will in no way erase its impact and influence among its millions of supporters and sympathizers. In fact, experts warn that the group is —like al-Qaeda before it— proving to be resilient and able to withstand intense military pressure from its enemies. Currently, all signs show that the Islamic State is actively reorganizing under the command of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The prolonged absence of the Iraqi-born al-Baghdadi has prompted wild speculation about this supposed demise or severe incapacitation. There are even some who claim that he was killed by an Islamic State faction in an internal coup.

But most intelligence agencies agree that al-Baghdadi —and his core lieutenants— remain very much alive and well. Three weeks ago, The Washington Post cited anonymously a “senior United States counterterrorism official” who confirmed that, by all indications, al-Baghdadi was alive and was coordinating the group’s activities in its last strongholds in eastern Syria. This is supported by communications intercepts, detainee interrogations and statements by informants, said The Post. It is important to note that Al-Baghdadi continues to have alongside him some of the militant group’s most hardened commanders, most of whom were trained in intelligence and military tactics during the reign of Saddam Hussein. Under their guidance, retreating Islamic State forces are leaving behind cell-based formations of underground fighters in areas that are liberated by the fragile US-led coalition. Read more of this post

Joint US-Iraqi intelligence operation used cell phone app to trap senior ISIS figures

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiAn joint operation conducted by American and Iraqi intelligence officers employed a popular messaging app on the phone of a captured Islamic State commander to apprehend four very senior figures in the organization, according to reports. The Reuters news agency said on Thursday that the ambitious intelligence operation began in February, when Turkish authorities captured a close aide to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi-born leader of the group known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). According to Hisham al-Hashimi, security advisor to the government of Iraq, the ISIS aide was Ismail al-Eithawi, also known by his alias, Abu Zaid al-Iraqi. Iraqi officials claim that al-Eithawi was appointed by al-Baghdadi to handle the secret transfer of ISIS funds to bank accounts around the world.

It appears that al-Eithawi had managed to escape to Turkey when the United States-led coalition shattered ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate. But he was captured by Turkish counterterrorism forces and handed over to Iraqi authorities. Baghdad then shared the contents of al-Eithawi’s cell phone with US intelligence officers. The latter were able to help their Iraqi counterparts utilize the popular messaging app WhatsApp, a version of which was installed on al-Eithawi’s cell phone. According to al-Hashimi, the Iraqis and Americans made it seem like al-Eithawi was calling an emergency face-to-face meeting between senior ISIS commanders in the area. But when these Syria-based commanders crossed into Iraq to meet in secret, they were captured by Iraqi and American forces.

According to al-Hashimi, those captured include a Syrian and two Iraqi ISIS field commanders. More importantly, they include Saddam Jamal, a notorious ISIS fighter who rose through the ranks to become the organization’s governor of the Euphrates’ region, located on Syria’s east. Al-Hashimi told reporters on Thursday that Jamal and al-Eithawi were the most senior ISIS figures to have ever been captured alive by US-led coalition forces. The Iraqi government advisor also said that al-Eithawi’s captors were able to uncover a treasure trove of covert bank accounts belonging to ISIS, as well as several pages of secret communication codes used by the militant group.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 May 2018 | Permalink

Britain launched first-ever military-style cyber campaign against ISIS, says spy chief

Jeremy FlemingFor the first time in its history, the United Kingdom has launched its first-ever military-style cyber campaign against an adversary, according to the director of the country’s primary cyber security agency. The target of the campaign was the Islamic State, the militant Sunni Muslim group that is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The existence of the all-out cyber war was announced last week by Jeremy Fleming, the newly appointed director of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s signals intelligence organization. Fleming, a former Security Service (MI5) officer, was speaking at the CYBERUK2018 conference, held in the northern English city of Manchester. It was his first public speech as director of GCHQ.

Fleming told his Manchester audience that the cyber operation that targeted ISIS was a “major offensive campaign” that seriously hampered the group’s ability to launch and coordinate both physical and online attacks against its enemies. The campaign also prevented ISIS from using its “normal channels” online to spread its message, effectively suppressing the group’s propaganda efforts, said Fleming. The new GCHQ director noted that large parts of the cyber operation against ISIS were “too sensitive to talk about”. But he added that the methods used to combat the Sunni Muslim group’s online operations were so aggressive that they “even destroyed equipment and networks” used by ISIS members. He did not specify what he meant by “destroyed equipment”, but his comment brought to mind the so-called Stuxnet virus, which was discovered by researchers in 2010. The virus appeared to have been designed by what experts described as “a well-resourced nation-state”, with the aim of sabotage sensitive hardware components found in centrifuges used by the Iranian government in its nuclear program.

During his Manchester speech, Fleming claimed that the British cyber war against ISIS was conducted in compliance with existing international legal frameworks. He added, however, that the “international doctrine governing the use [of cyber weapons] is still evolving”. The GCHQ director admitted that Britain’s cyber capabilities “are very powerful”, but argued that “we only use them in line with domestic and international law, when our tests of necessity and proportionality have been satisfied, and with all the usual oversight in place”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 April 2018 | Permalink | Research credit: K.B.

Dozens of successor groups forming in wake of ISIS defeat, experts warn

Hamrin Mountains IraqThe collapse of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is giving rise to a host of successor groups, which are quickly regrouping, recruiting members and launching increasingly sophisticated attacks against government forces, according to experts. A military victory in the war against ISIS was officially declared by the Iraqi government in December of last year. In recent weeks, United States President Donald Trump has repeated his government’s claim that American forces are “knocking the hell out of ISIS”. The Sunni militant group, which rose to prominence in 2014 after conquering much of Syria and northwestern Iraq, is clearly on the retreat, having lost every major urban center that it used to control. However, the collapse of the organization has led to the emergence of numerous insurgent groups that are quickly forming in Iraq and Syria.

Many of these highly agile groups are operating in the sparsely inhabited and remote southern district of Iraq’s Kurdish region, which includes the Hamrin Mountains. Others are found in Iraq’s arid regions west of the Euphrates. All are engaged in recruitment, propaganda and —increasingly— attacks against government forces and rival Shiite militias. Writing on Sunday, BuzzFeed’s Turkey-based Middle East correspondent Borzou Daragahi profiled one such group, the so-called White Flags. The group was formed in late 2017 through the union of two ISIS commanders, Khaled al-Moradi, an Iraqi Turkman, and Hiwa Chor, a former member of Ansar al-Islam, a predominantly Kurdish jihadist group that was active in northern Iraq after 2003. Daragahi notes that the White Flags have managed to carry out strikes in Baghdad and Kirkuk, and have repeatedly ambushed Iraqi government forces and members of Shiite militias. Senior White Flag members have been involved with ISIS for years and have “a wide range of experience [and] a high level of training”, says Daragahi. They are one of several post-ISIS armed groups that are recruiting members from Iraq’s disaffected Sunni Arab minority, while promising to protect them from the ire of the almost exclusively Shiite Iraqi government.

In a separate but related development, two analysts with Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters —the country’s primary communications interception agency— have warned that ISIS remains a “significant threat” to the West. The two analysts spoke on Britain’s Sky News television, using only their first names, Ben and Sunny. They recognized that ISIS has lost much of its territory in recent months, but cautioned that it continues to be “a very advanced adversary”, primarily due to its technological dexterity. Operational planners of ISIS have “pushed the bar and raised the bar” in terms of the “technology they have used and the ways in which they have used it”, said one of the analysts, adding that British intelligence agencies have to keep adapting their techniques to remain “one step ahead” of ISIS operatives. IntelNews regulars will recall that last year this blog advised Western counter-terrorism officials to “actively and immediately prepare” for attacks by ISIS militants using chemical weapons.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 3 April 2018 | Permalink

Analysis: Egyptian Islamist group is emerging as ISIS’ most powerful branch

Wilayat SinaiThrough a series of meticulously planned terrorist strikes and assassinations, Wilayat Sinai has emerged as the strongest international arm of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), according to some experts. Known officially as ISIS – Sinai Province, Wilayat Sinai claimed responsibility for the October 2015 downing of Metrojet Flight 9268. All 224 passengers and crew, most of them Russians, died when the plane blew up in midair over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The incident marked the worst aviation disaster in Russian history. The same group, Wilayat Sinai, was behind last month’s attack on the Al Rawda Sufi mosque in bir al-Abed, Egypt. The massacre resulted in the deaths of 311 people, making it the worst terrorist attack in the history of modern Egypt.

According to leading Israeli defense and security expert Amos Harel, Wilayat Sinai’s most recent strike demonstrates that, aside from operational expertise, the group also possesses formidable intelligence collection capabilities. In an article published on Tuesday in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Harel focuses on the group’s assassination attempt against Egyptian Defense Minister Sedki Sobhy and Interior Minister Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar. The attack took place on December 19 at the Al-Arish military airport in north Sinai. Wilayat Sinai guerrillas fired an antitank missile at a parked Egyptian Air Force helicopter, which had just transported the two ministers to the area. Footage of the attack, released last week by ISIS, shows the helicopter exploding after being hit by the missile. Three people died in the attack, a security guard, a helicopter pilot, and a senior aide to Defense Minister Sobhy. Although neither minister was harmed in the attack, that is not the point, says Harel, and points to the fact that the officials’ trip to northern Sinai was part of a surprise visit, which had not been announced in advance. It seems, therefore, says Harel, “that Wilayat Sinai obtained intelligence information that exposed the minister[s] to attack”.

Interestingly, the group’s membership is not large. American and other Western intelligence sources estimate that its armed nucleus consists of no more than a thousand fighters. However, Wilayat Sinai members have access to advanced weaponry, which is routinely smuggled into Egypt from Libya and the Sudan. It is thus the weaponry, coupled with advanced organization and intelligence capabilities, that makes Wilayat Sinai so dangerous, says Harel. In the past three years, the militant group has killed in excess of 1,500 people in Egypt. But as its attacks become increasingly surgical and sophisticated, Egypt may be forced to respond with increasing firepower, which could further-destabilize the volatile Sinai region. Meanwhile, Israeli security forces are preparing for the possibility of cross-border raids by Wilayat Sinai, warns Harel. The Egyptian-Israeli border region could become the next front in the war against ISIS.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 December 2017 | Permalink