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

US spy agencies pore over intelligence acquired in raid that killed al-Baghdadi

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiAmerican intelligence agencies are studying up to seven terabytes of data that were captured by Special Operations Forces during last week’s nighttime raid that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria. Officials in Washington told The New York Times on Monday that Delta Force commandos confiscated “a large amount of material” from the raid that killed the Islamic State leader. The material allegedly includes several laptops and cellphones, which contain an estimated “four to seven terabytes of data”, according to one United States official who spoke anonymously to the paper.

It is believed that al-Baghdadi changed hideouts across northern Syria every few days, so it is unlikely that he and his entourage carried with them a large printed archive of Islamic State files. However, even a few hard drives or memory sticks could contain extensive information, said The Times. The commandos that carried out the nighttime raid reportedly spent two hours on the ground collecting intelligence from the site. All of it has now been delivered to experts in the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency and other elements of the US Intelligence Community, who are currently “conducting a preliminary review of the confiscated documents and electronic records”, said the paper.

The information may shed light on questions such as if and how al-Baghdadi ran the Islamic State, how he communicated with the group’s military commanders across Iraq and Syria, and how he exchanged information with other senior Islamic State officials in the Middle East and beyond. There are also questions about al-Baghdadi’s links with the leaders of Islamic State affiliates around the world. Essentially, to what extent did the core leadership of the Islamic State under al-Baghdadi direct the operations of the group’s affiliates abroad? There may also be documents among the confiscated information material that discuss the Islamic State’s changing strategy following the collapse of its territorial base in the Middle East.

In addition to the confiscated information, American troops captured two of al-Baghdadi’s lieutenants who were guarding his compound during last weekend’s raid. The two men are currently being questioned by American interrogators and are eventually going to be handed over to the Iraqi government to face justice, according to The Times.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 October 2019 | Permalink

ISIS quickly replaces dead leader with former Saddam loyalist, say sources

Abdullah QardashBarely a day after the United States announced the killing of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the militant Sunni group has replaced him with an Iraqi former military officer, according to sources. US President Donald Trump said on Sunday that al-Baghdadi, the self-styled Caliph of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), died by detonating an explosive vest. He reportedly did so after being cornered by American Special Operations Forces troops at his hideout in the northwestern village of Barisha, which is located in the Syrian province of Idlib near the border with Turkey.

Since Sunday’s announcement by the White House, ISIS has remained silent. But an intelligence source reportedly told Newsweek that the Sunni militant group had appointed a new leader just hours after al-Baghdadi’s killing. The American newsmagazine cited a “regional intelligence official” who asked “not to be identified by name or nation”. The official said that al-Baghdadi had been replaced with Abdullah Qardash (pictured), a former high-ranking officer in the Iraqi army, who served under the country’s late leader Saddam Hussein. Qardash’s name is often spelled Karshesh in English, and he is also referred to in some documents as Hajji Abdullah al-Afari —presumably his ISIS moniker.

In August of this year, al-Baghdadi reportedly nominated Qardash to lead ISIS’ religious affairs engagement office, known as “Muslim Affairs”. The nomination is believed to have been accepted, and was even announced in Amaq, the militant group’s semi-official news agency. But Qardash’s name has not been mentioned again in subsequent ISIS communiques. According to Newsweek, the former Iraqi Army officer had already “taken over a number of duties from al-Baghdadi” prior to the latter’s demise. The anonymous regional intelligence officer told the newsmagazine that al-Baghdadi’s role within ISIS was “largely symbolic” in recent months. He was “a figurehead [and] was not involved in operations day-to-day. All he did was say yes or no —no planning”, added the intelligence official.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 October 2019 | Permalink

Concerns about mass breakouts of jailed ISIS fighters if Turkey invades northern Syria

Turkey ISISOfficials in the United States, Europe and the Middle East have warned that thousands of jailed members of the Islamic State could escape from Kurdish-controlled prisons in northern Syria if Turkey invades the region. For more than two years, the area has been controlled by American-supported Kurdish militias, who were instrumental in helping Washington defeat the Islamic State —also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. But the growing strength of the Kurdish forces has alarmed Turkey, which views Kurdish nationalism in the region as a bigger threat than Salafi jihadism. Ankara has repeatedly threatened to invade northern Syria and disarm the Kurdish groups, which it sees as terrorist.

The continuous presence of American troops in northern Syria has served to dissuade Turkey from invading. Yesterday, however, the White House surprised observers by announcing its sudden decision to pull its troops from northern Syria. Washington’s unexpected move drew criticism from Kurdish commanders who spoke of betrayal, as well as by members of both political parties in Congress. Security officials also expressed fears that Turkey’s focus on the Kurds could allow ISIS to regroup in northern Syria. A statement issued by the White House on Monday said that Turkey would assume control of over 10,000 captured ISIS fighters who are currently being held in Kurdish-administered prison camps in northern Syria. But experts said that the wider Kurdish-controlled region of northern Syria, which Turkey intends to capture, is home to dozens of prisons with over 60,000 captured ISIS supporters in them. What will be the fate of these prisoners under Turkish control?

Security observers have repeatedly accused Turkey in the past of turning a blind eye to ISIS, whose members fought a prolonged and bloody war against Iraqi and Syrian Kurds from 2016 to 2018. There are no guarantees that the Turks will not utilize a resurgent ISIS to suppress Kurdish nationalism in the region. In fact, some experts, including retired American generals, warned on Monday that a Turkish invasion of northern Syria would give ISIS “a golden chance to regroup”. There are concerns of mass breakouts of ISIS members from Kurdish-controlled prisons in Syria, amidst the widespread chaos caused by a Turkish military onslaught. Such breakouts have been encouraged by ISIS leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself. Escaped prisoners would most likely join the nearly 20,000 estimated ISIS fighters who are still at large in Iraq and Syria, thus contributing to a potentially catastrophic regeneration of the militant Sunni group, according to experts.

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

Tens of thousands of ISIS members are re-radicalizing inside Kurdish prison camps

Islamic State womenTens of thousands of supporters of the Islamic State, many of them women and children, are re-radicalizing inside vast Kurdish-run prison camps with inadequate security and almost no infrastructure or provisions. In a shocking report published last week, The Washington Post exposed the dire conditions at the al-Hawl prison camp in northern Syria, which the paper described as “a cauldron of radicalization” and “an academy” for captured supporters of the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS). Over 70,000 people are being held at the prison camp, of which 20,000 are believed to be women and 50,000 are children. Male members of the Islamic State are being held separately. Most of the 70,000 inmates in al-Hawl are Syrian and Iraqi citizens. An estimated 10,000 consist of Africans, Asians, Europeans and Arabs from countries other than Syria and Iraq. They are held in a separate annex of the prison camp and are believed to be the most radical of all the inmates.

The inmates of the al-Hawl prison camp are guarded and provided for by no more than 400 Kurdish fighters of the Western-supported Syrian Democratic Forces, according to The Post. The paper cited fourteen people, including inmates, Kurdish officials and aid workers, who claimed that the 400 guards are unable to enter the camp or provide even a semblance of law and order. Instead, law and order inside the prison is maintained by the women, who remain fully committed to the principles of the Islamic State, said the paper. They continue to follow the strict rules of the Islamic State and impose brutal punishment on those women and children who do not follow these rules. Women who speak to people from outside the prison camp, including journalists and lawyers, are later beaten and tortured; some have even been executed as a form of punishment, said The Post. Many of the Kurdish guards have also been attacked by the women and have been stabbed with makeshift weapons or had their arms and legs broken by them.

Islamic State paraphernalia, including black flags and pro-ISIS banners, are regularly confiscated from inmates. The latter have even managed to smuggle video messages to the outside world. In one such video message, a group of veiled al-Hawl inmates are seen holding the banner of the Islamic State and urging the group’s male members to “light the fire of jihad and free us [women] from these prisons”. The women in the video call themselves as “women of the mujahedeen” and issue a warning against “the enemies of Allah”: “you think you have imprisoned us in your rotten camp. But we are a ticking bomb. Just you wait and see”, they say. Responding to these messages, a Kurdish intelligence official told The Post that the Syrian Democratic Forces could “contain the women, but we can’t control their ideology”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 September 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