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

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

ISIS will launch ‘complex international attacks’, warns UN intelligence report

Sri Lanka Easter bombingsDespite its military defeat in the Middle East, the Islamic State retains the ability to launch “complex international attacks” and will likely do so this year, according to a new report by a United Nations monitoring team. These attacks will occur in “unexpected locations” around the world, says the report, which was authored by a committee of the UN’s Security Council that monitors the impact of UN-imposed international sanctions designed to weaken the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and groups aligned with them.

On April 21 of this year, the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) claimed responsibility for nine suicide blasts that targeted Catholic churches and five-star hotels in Sri Lanka’s western and eastern coastal regions. The near-simultaneous bombings killed 258 people and injured over 500. They are believed to constitute the bloodiest terrorist attack in Sri Lanka’s history. But the United Nations report published on Wednesday claimed that the Sri Lanka attacks were the beginning of a worldwide campaign by ISIS, which will continue to occur throughout 2019. The absence of major ISIS attacks after April 21 is a temporary “abatement”, says the report, and will likely end before the this year concludes. Between now and then, “more Islamic State-inspired attacks will occur”, it notes. Since the fall of its self-styled caliphate in the Middle East, the militant Sunni group has maintained a sophisticated online media profile and propaganda campaign and continues to “aspire to have global relevance”, according to the report. To achieve this aim, the Islamic State’s leadership believes that the group must continue to carry out large-scale international attacks. In their effort, ISIS planners are assisted by the group’s substantial fortune, which is estimated to approach $450 million. These funds are being used to sponsor terrorist operations by ISIS affiliates in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the report claims.

In an earlier intelligence report published in August of last year, the United Nations warned that the Islamic State had recovered from its recent defeats in the battlefield and retained as many as 30,000 committed members in Iraq and Syria alone. The report appeared to contradict earlier proclamations by the Iraqi government that the war against the group had been won. Similar proclamations were issued last year by United States President Donald Trump, who said that the war against the militant Sunni group was “98 percent” over.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 August 2019 | Permalink

Hundreds of ISIS fighters returning to Iraq to wage low-level insurgency

Islamic State ISISAbout 1,000 Islamic State fighters have returned to Iraq in recent months and are waging a low-level insurgency that threatens to destabilize rural areas and may be the forerunner of a new sectarian war, an expert has warned. Thousands of fighters belonging to the Islamic State —known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS— crossed into Syria in late 2017. In December of that year, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in the war against the militant Sunni group. Since then, however, many of these fighters have been slipping back into Iraq from Syria and are now picking up arms again against the Iraqi state, which they see as being dominated by Iran-allied Shiites.

In an article published on Sunday, The Washington Post cites Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi security advisor to the government in Baghdad, as well as several foreign aid groups, who warns that ISIS is regrouping in Iraq. Al-Hashimi told The Post that approximately 1,000 ISIS fighters are believed to have crossed into Iraq from Syria since December of 2018. Most of them are Iraqi nationals who are essentially returning to the Sunni-majority areas of the country that were considered ISIS strongholds before 2018. Upon their return, the fighters join small ISIS cells that operate mostly in rural areas in central and northern Iraq. They move at night and are intimately familiar with the local terrain, which allows them to utilize effectively a variety of hiding places. These cells can now be found in locations ranging from the city of Kirkuk in the north to the province of Diyala, east of Baghdad. They are responsible for scores of kidnappings, roadside bombings and sniper attacks that target local officials and security personnel. Local observers stress that the re-emerging ISIS cells are too weak to threaten the territorial control of the country by the Iraqi government. However, they are rapidly destabilizing rural areas in the country and appear to be preparing for a protracted insurgency that could potentially lead to another major sectarian war.

The Washington Post report comes a month after a group of researchers with the Institute for the Study of War warned that the Islamic State is capable of making a sudden comeback in the Middle East that could be “faster and even more devastating” than 2014, when the group quickly conquered territory the size of Britain. In a 76-page paper entitled ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency, the researchers said that the militant group had managed to subvert Iraqi and Syrian government efforts to reintroduce stability and safety in areas previously under ISIS domination. Not only were government forces finding it “increasingly difficult to establish durable and legitimate security and political structures” in those areas, but they should be worried about the possibility of ISIS actually reconquering territory in both Iraq and Syria, the report warned.

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

ISIS militant was first-ever Filipino suicide bomber, say police officials

Jolo PhilippinesAn Islamic State militant who blew himself up in the Philippines last week was probably history’s first-ever Filipino suicide bomber, according to police officials. The man was one of two militants who detonated suicide vests in Indanan, a town in the southern Philippines island of Sulu, on Friday. The twin blasts killed six people, in addition to the two suicide bombers. The target of the attack was a military base that houses the 1st Brigade Combat team of the Philippine Army. The 1,500-strong brigade is leading the counterinsurgency campaign in the country’s heavily Muslim southern regions. Three of the victims were 1st Brigade Combat team soldiers, while three civilians who happened to be walking nearby were also killed.

The Islamic State —known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)— claimed responsibility for the attack, leading many to speculate that the suicide bombers were not Filipinos, but other Arab nationals. That would fit the pattern of the two previous suicide bombings that have taken place in the history of the Philippines. In July of 2018, a Moroccan ISIS follower drove a van laden with explosives at an army checkpoint on the island of Basilan, killing ten people. And in January of this year, two Indonesian suicide bombers attacked a Roman Catholic congregation on Jolo Island, killing 23 and injuring over 100 churchgoers. All three suicide bombers were members of Abu Sayyaf, a Filipino Salafi jihadist group that pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014. Moreover, none of the three suicide bombers were native Filipinos; rather they had traveled to the island country in order to carry out terrorist attacks.

This pattern may have changed as of last Friday, however. According to local military officials, a Filipino woman identified the remains of one of the two suicide bombers as belonging to her son. The woman reportedly told authorities that her son was named Norman Lasuca and was 23 years old. She also said that he, like his father, belonged to the Tausūg, a million-strong predominantly Muslim ethnic group that includes many recent converts to Islam.

On Tuesday, several Philippine Army commanders gave a press conference in Sulu, where they discussed the latest information regarding last week’s suicide attacks. One of the speakers, Brigadier-General Edgard Arevalo, said that the purported mother of the suicide bomber had provided DNA samples to the authorities, in order to help positively identify the body. If the DNA tests are positive “then […] we can say conclusively that the person is Filipino”, which will be a first, said Arevalo. A positive result would suggest that the ideology of ISIS may be more appealing to local Filipino youth than has generally been assumed by counterterrorism officials, Arevalo concluded.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 July 2019 | Permalink

ISIS could make bigger comeback than 2014 in Iraq and Syria, warns new report

ISIS meetingThe Islamic State is capable of make a sudden comeback in the Middle East that could be “faster and even more devastating” than 2014, when the group quickly conquered territory the size of Britain, according to a new report from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). The Washington-based think-tank’s report is based on the most recent data about the presence in the Middle East of the militant Islamist group, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The 76-page report (.pdf) is titled ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency, and is written by ISW’s researchers Jennifer Cafarella, Brandon Wallace and Jason Zhou.

The authors claim that the Islamic State moved its forces undercover during the multinational military campaign that eventually sacked its self-proclaimed caliphate. They go on to explain that by “deliberately withdrawing and relocating may of its fighters and their families”, the group managed to preserve a large part of its fighting forces, which are “now dispersed across [Iraq and Syria] and are waging a capable insurgency”. The latter is funded through ISIS’ global finance network and armed with weapons and other war materiel that the group managed to hide in tunnel systems and other hidden facilities. Islamic State insurgents have thus been engaged in a broad and largely successful campaign to assassinate village and town elders across Iraq, and have even reestablished a sharia-based taxation system in some of Iraq’s predominantly Sunni areas. The group also retains a significant presence in Syria, where it continues to battle the Syrian regime, US-supported Kurdish forces, and other Sunni militant groups, including al-Qaeda, according to the report.

Through its widening insurgency, the Islamic State has managed to subvert Iraqi and Syrian government efforts to reintroduce a semblance of stability and safety in areas previously conquered by the militant group. In fact, not only are government forces finding it “increasingly difficult to establish durable and legitimate security and political structures” in those areas, but they should be worried about the possibility of ISIS actually reconquering territory in both countries, the report warns. The report’s authors place much of the blame for ISIS’ resurgence at Washington’s door, describing America’s hasty military withdrawal from Iraq and Syria as “a critical mistake”. In its recommendations section, the report calls on the United States to develop and implement a long-term counter-terrorism strategy against ISIS, which will combine military and community-building measures. “Another limited [military] intervention will not be sufficient” to eliminate the threat, the report’s authors claim.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 June 2019 | Permalink

No evidence Islamic State had foreknowledge of Sri Lanka bombings, says official

Sri Lanka Easter bombingsIt is not at all clear that the Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who claimed responsibility of the Sri Lanka bombings in April, had foreknowledge of the attacks, according to a top official. The militant Sunni group claimed it was behind the nine suicide blasts that targeted Catholic churches and five-star hotels in Sri Lanka’s western and eastern coastal regions on April 21. The near-simultaneous bombings killed 258 people and injured over 500. They are believed to constitute the bloodiest terrorist attack in the country’s history. Interestingly, many questioned the authenticity of the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility, which came a full two days following the deadly blasts. The group typically issues statements immediately following attacks by its followers around the world. The 48-hour delay in the case of the Sri Lanka bombings, therefore, was deemed “uncharacteristic” by some experts.

Now The Hindu, India’s most-circulated English-language daily, has claimed that the Islamic State probably became aware of the Sri Lanka attacks after they happened. The Islamic State’s news agency, Amaq, issued a statement of responsibility, accompanied by a video showing the suicide bombers pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi. But The Hindu has quoted “a senior official […] familiar with the probe” into the attacks, who claims that the militant group was contacted by its followers in Sri Lanka only after the attacks made international news headlines. A local Salafi jihadist communicated with the Islamic State on behalf of the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), the local group that carried out the bombings. The Islamic State then secured the video of the suicide bombers “through a third party”, said the senior official. Sri Lankan Salafi jihadists eventually convinced the militant group to issue a statement endorsing the attacks in order to “honor those who sacrificed their lives” for the Islamic State’s cause, said the source. It follows, said the official, that the local suicide bombers “were all sympathizers of the Islamic State. But it remains unclear how they maintained links with the Islamic State, if in fact they did”, he added.

The deadly attacks continue to dominate the headlines in Sri Lanka, despite the passage of more than two months since they occurred. Three separate investigations have been launched by the government —one by former Supreme Court judges appointed by the president; one by the Sri Lankan parliament; and one by the country’s police and security services. None of these probes have uncovered evidence that the NTJ militants were in contact with the Islamic State before they launched their wave of suicide attacks on April 21, said The Hindu.

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