Documents show ISIS plans sleeper cell attacks in Middle East, Europe

Islamic State - IADocuments acquired from retreating Islamic State fighters in Syria appear to show that the militant group is planning a series of high-profile attacks in Europe and the Middle East, using newly formed sleeper cell units. The information was revealed over the weekend by the British newspaper The Sunday Times. The London-based broadsheet said that the information was found last month in flash drive, which was left behind by retreating Islamic State forces in Syria, and acquired by Kurdish militia forces. The flash drive was found to contain dozens of internal documents belonging the militant group, which is also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Among them, said The Times, are several memoranda authored by an ISIS leader and operations planner known as Abu Taher al-Tajiki. In his memoranda, al-Tajiki informs the group’s senior leadership that he commands numerous fighters who are willing and able to carry out strikes “far away” from the Islamic State’s strongholds in the Middle East and Africa. He states that he is in regular communication with them and that they are awaiting instructions to “undertake the operations”. Al-Tajiki then calls for the creation of a Foreign Relations Office under the Islamic State’s Department of Operations, which would be tasked with launching attacks throughout Europe. He adds that the new Office can also count on the assistance of computer hackers and other technically literate Islamic State members. In another memorandum, al-Tajiki suggests the creation of what he calls “crocodile cells” in Syria and Iraq. These cells will “lurk beneath the surface” and “attack at the right moment to assassinate the enemies of Allah”, says al-Tajiki.

The Times report comes as experts warn that the Islamic State retains significant financial power, despite the loss of its territories in the Middle East. In a well-informed article in The Atlantic, David Kenner reports from Beirut that the Islamic State without its territories is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the group cannot rely on taxation and oil revenues that used to enrich its coffers by $1 million per day during the height of its power. On the other hand, argues Kenner, the loss of its territory has freed the Islamic State from the costs associated with state-running and allows it to devote its financial resources “exclusively to terrorist activity”. These resources —cash and other assets— are formidable, says Kenner. In the words of Howard Shatz, senior economist at the Rand Corporation and an expert on ISIS’ finances, we “don’t know where it all went” after ISIS lost its territory. We do know that much of it has been invested in “legitimate commercial enterprises”, says Shatz, with the help of profit-oriented middlemen with access to markets that are as far away as Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. A lot of it is hidden in suitcases and boxes throughout Iraq, Syria and Turkey. All of it is intended to be used to fund terrorist attacks, warns Kenner.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 25 March 2019 | Permalink

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Dutch counterterrorism report sees rise in Islamist recruitment in the West

NCTV HollandHolland’s chief counterterrorism agency has warned that, despite losing its territories in the Middle East, the Islamic State continues to recruit operatives and is ready to launch attacks in the West “at a moment’s notice”. The warning is contained in a report published last week by the Dutch National Coordinator of Counterterrorism and Security (NCTV). Established in 2005 as the Dutch National Coordinator for Counterterrorism, and renamed in 2012, the NCTV works under Holland’s Justice and Security Minister. It is responsible for analyzing terrorism threats and assessing the country’s domestic terrorism threat level.

In its most recent report (.pdf), entitled Terrorist Threat Assessment Netherlands, the NCTV warns that it is not only the Islamic State (known also as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) that remains highly active, but also al-Qaeda. The two groups are riding a wave of Salafist Muslim extremism that appears to be on the rise throughout Europe, says the report. ISIS, in particular, continues to engage in extensive recruitment drives in the West, which take place mostly through the dissemination of propaganda material online. There is also a proliferation of an underground recruitment movement in conservative Muslim schools and mosques across the West, says the report (.pdf).

But the most serious short-term threat to European and North American security, according to the NCTV document, comes from so-called returnees, citizens of European countries who joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and are now returning —or trying to return— to their home states in the West. The majority of these men and women remain faithful to the idea of the caliphate despite the failure of their efforts in the Middle East. There is a risk that, upon their return to the West, they will connect with existing —and growing— Salafist underground networks there, and remain active in radical circles. The report also notes that both ISIS and al-Qaeda are showing increasing interest in developing chemical and biological weapons for use against civilian and military targets.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 March 2019 | Permalink

Destabilization fears grow as hundreds of armed ISIS fighters enter Iraq from Syria

Islamic State ISISIntelligence officials warn that Iraq’s fragile stability may be at risk, following reports that as many as a thousand armed Islamic State fighters have entered Iraq from Syria in recent weeks. The organization calling itself the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq an Syria, or ISIS) is on its last legs in Baghouz, a Syrian village located on the banks of the Euphrates River near the Syrian-Iraqi border. Its fighters are report by a large number of American-backed forces led by Syrian Kurds, in what appears to be the Islamic State’s last territorial stronghold in the Middle East.

Many or the militant Sunni group’s fighters, however, have managed to slip past the American-led coalition’s offensive lines and are now making their way across the border into Iraq’s Sunni-majority northwestern provinces. To prevent this, the Shiite-led Iraqi army has reportedly deployed more than 20,000 soldiers across the 370-mile border with Syria. But the size of the border, as well as the region’s rugged and inhospitable terrain, are making it very difficult to police it. A major surrounded published by the Associated Press late last week claims that hundreds of Islamic State fighters are slipping across the border into Iraq at night, or using tunnels that were constructed by the Islamic State in 2013 and 2014. Others are making their way into Iraq disguised as women or local farmers. Most are armed, says the Associated Press, or know where to go to dig up weapons caches and money, which the Islamic State buried as it retreated into Syria last year under concerted attacks by the Iraqi army.

The Associated Press report quotes three Iraqi intelligence officials and a United States military official, who say that more than 1,000 ISIS fighters entered Iraq from Syria since last September. Iraqi intelligence sources allegedly estimate that between 5,000 and 7,000 armed ISIS fighters are now present in Iraq. Many of them remain in hiding, but others are engaged in systematic efforts to revitalize the group’s presence in Iraq’s Sunni-majority provinces. This was confirmed in a recent press briefing by a senior Iraqi Army spokesman, Brigadier General Yahya Rasoul, who warned that “ISIS is trying to assert itself in Iraq, because of the pressure it is under in Syria”. At least nine major ISIS attacks were recorded in Iraq in January, and several have taken place in February, including the recent killing of five fishermen in Najaf Province, which prompted officials to warn that ISIS may be making a comeback in the region. Iraqi intelligence officials told the Associated Press that the attacks are aimed at warning locals not to share intelligence with the Iraqi military, and to “restore the extortion rackets that financed the group’s rise to power six years ago”.

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

Analysis: Women becoming growing force inside Islamic State, says expert

Islamic State womenThe role of women inside the Islamic State is growing, as the Sunni militant group is transmuting into an underground organization, according to a Harvard University terrorism expert. Since its meteoric rise in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has been known for advocating for strict segregation between men and women. In the early stages of the group’s emergence, combat roles were exclusively performed by men, while women’s roles were limited to childbearing and housework. But according to Vera Mironova, Visiting Scholar in the Economics Department at Harvard University, and former Associate of the International Security Program at Harvard’s Belfer Center, the Islamic State’s policy on gender roles is shifting rapidly.

Mironova, who has carried out research in Iraq while embedded with the country’s Special Operations Forces, argues that the Islamic State has been “quietly shifting its insistence of strict gender hierarchy” and is now “allowing, even celebrating, female participation in military roles”. In an article published earlier this week in The New York Times, Mironova states that early indications of this shift were visible as early as 2017. In October of that year, ISIS publications issued calls for “women to prepare for battle”. Within a year, the group was publicly praising its women fighters and even published a video showing veiled Islamic State female fighters firing AK-47 assault rifles. The video praised women fighters for “seeking revenge for [their] religion and for the honor of [their] sisters”.

In her article, the Harvard terrorism expert says that it is not possible to estimate with accuracy the number of women who have picked up arms on behalf of the Islamic State. But she adds that interviews with Iraqi military and police officials suggest that female Islamic State fighters are now “a regular presence that no longer surprises, as it did a few years ago”. There is a tradition of fervent women supporters of the militant group that dates from its very beginning, claims Mironova. She gives the example of female radicals who insisted that their husbands or sons join the Islamic State, or who sought to marry Islamic State combatants in order to be part of “mujahedeen families”. Recently, however, the relative scarcity of male fighters in the ranks of the militant group has led to calls for females to take their place in the front lines. As the Islamic State is transmuting into an underground organization, women are also becoming more useful as covert operatives because they attract less attention by Iraqi or Syrian government troops.

In many cases, women supporters of the Islamic State who lost male family members in the ongoing war pick up arms or put on suicide vests in order to extract revenge. In other cases they do in order to secure protection, favors or money for their families from the insurgents. The fact is, says Mironova, that women fighters are becoming more prominent in the Islamic State’s combat lines and are even participating in the group’s suicide bombing campaign. The latter continues unabated in Iraq and Syria, despite the near-complete loss of the Islamic State’s territorial control, says Mironova.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 February 2019 | Permalink

‘Illusion of safety’ blamed for deaths of four US service members in Syria

Manbij SyriaThe “illusion of safety” has been blamed for the death of four American service members in northern Syria last week, after a suicide bomber attacked a restaurant, killing at least 19 people and wounding countless others. The deadly attack happened in Manbij, a small Kurdish-majority town near the Syrian-Turkish border, which American forces previously viewed as an oasis of security in the war-torn country. American troops fought alongside a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters who in 2016 took control of Manbij from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Since then, American forces have remained in the area —mostly to prevent a military invasion by Washington’s ally Turkey, which views the Kurds as terrorists and has threatened to destroy their armed forces.

The relative stability of Manbij was violently disrupted last Wednesday, when a man detonated a suicide vest inside the Palace of the Princes restaurant in downtown Manbij. Until that moment, United States forces had lost just two members during the Syrian Civil War. Four more Americans died in Wednesday’s blast, including two service members, a military contractor and a civilian intelligence officer working for the Pentagon. Three other Americans were wounded and were airlifted out of the country. In an insightful article published last week, The New York Times quoted a US Special Forces member who wondered whether the US troops in northern Syria have “developed a false sense of security” in what remains a dangerous conflict zone. “The illusion of safety”, said the anonymous commentator, had caused the behavior of American service members in Manbij to fall into predictable routines. That became a vulnerability that the Islamic State was able to exploit, he said.

The Sunni militant group targeted the Palace of the Princes, one of the most popular eateries for Americans in Manbij. The Times quoted locals who said that American troops appeared to eat there nearly every time they patrolled the city, “often many times a week”. They would even park their military vehicles outside the restaurant while dining there, they said. The paper commented that many US troops had “grown complacent and should have varied their […] routes or increased their operational security” while on patrol. Unfortunately, however, their presence —and lack of adequate security— was noticed by the Islamic State, which targeted them on Wednesday.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 January 2019 | Permalink

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

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