Analysis: Al-Qaeda shifts strategic focus to Syria while still seeking to attack West

Jabhat al-NusraIn an effort to remain relevant, al-Qaeda has shifted its strategic focus from Yemen to Syria but continues to pursue a globalist agenda by seeking ways to attack Western targets, according to an expert report. Following the meteoric rise of the Islamic State in 2014, al-Qaeda found it difficult to retain its title as the main representative of the worldwide Sunni insurgency. But in an argue published last week on the website of the RAND Corporation, two al-Qaeda experts argue that the militant group is rebounding.

The authors, Middle East Institute senior fellow Charles Listeris and RAND senior political scientist Colin Clarke, editorial that al-Qaeda followed a pragmatic and patient strategy after 2014. Specifically, the group remained on the margins and “deliberately let the Islamic State bear the brunt of the West’s counterterrorism campaign” they argue. At the same time, al-Qaeda has sought to remain relevant by shifting the center of its activity from Yemen to Syria. That decision appears to have been taken in 2014, when the group began to systematically transport assets and resources from its traditional strongholds of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Levant, the authors argue.

Observers are still evaluating the implications of al-Qaeda’s strategic shift. Listeris and Clarke note that counterterrorism experts have yet to fully understand them. What appears certain is that al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, “proved to be the most potent military actor on the battlefield” in the Levant. It did so by operating largely independently from al-Qaeda central, which allowed it to act with speed in pursuit of a strictly localized agenda that attracted many locals. At the same time, however, al-Nusra’s independence effectively separated it from its parent organization. Many al-Qaeda loyalists accused the group of abandoning al-Qaeda’s principles and left it when it rebranded itself to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Levantine Conquest Front) in 2016 and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Organization for the Liberation of the Levant) in 2017.

Al-Qaeda itself denounced Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in 2018 and today supports a number of smaller militias that operate on the ground in Syria. These smaller groups appear to be extremely professional and experienced, and are staffed by “veterans with decades of experience at al Qaeda’s highest levels”. What does this mean about al-Qaeda’s strategic priorities? Listeris and Clarke argue that Syria remains al-Qaeda’s priority. But the group remains focused on attacking the West while also pursuing guerrilla warfare in Syria, they say. This reflects al-Qaeda’s overarching narrative, namely to fight in local conflicts while pursuing the “far enemy” (the West), which it sees as a mortal enemy of Islam.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 September 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

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

ISIS evolving into ‘effective clandestine organization’ US Pentagon warns

ISIS forces in RamadiA report from the United States Department of Defense warns that the Islamic State is swiftly returning to its insurgent roots, as observers in Iraq and Syria caution that the group is witnessing a revival. It has been four years since the Islamic State —known then as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS— conquered much of eastern Syria and more than a third of Iraq’s territory. But by the end of 2017, virtually the entirety of ISIS’ self-styled ‘caliphate’ had been obliterated by an ‘unholy alliance’ of US-backed Iraqi government forces, Iranian-supported Shiite militias, Kurdish guerillas and Western airpower.

However, experts warn that, despite its loss of territorial control, the Islamic State maintains an active force of as many as 30,000 armed fighters in Iraq and Syria. Additionally, a recent US government report argues that, having been driven out of nearly all of the territory that it once held, the Islamic State is promptly “returning to its insurgent roots”. The report, authored by analysts at the US Department of Defense, claims that the militant Sunni group is “re-emerging as a guerrilla force”. In the place of what used to be a de-facto state, an “effective clandestine ISIS organization appears to be taking hold”, it states. The Pentagon document, summarized in a Financial Times article on Thursday, appears to be backed by information from the ground in Iraq and Syria. Iraqi military sources told The Times that ISIS appears to have more fighters in its ranks than initially thought, and that the group’s organizational structure that helped it grow in the first place “has not been eliminated”.

Moreover, the group is “still well-funded” and its operations remain lethal, said the paper, especially in Iraq, where it continues to undermine the government’s efforts to improve the country’s security. Islamic State fighters are systematically targeting regional leaders, said The Times, in an effort to prevent the government from delivering economic development in Iraq’s Sunni-majority western regions. A similar pattern of activities is being observed in Syria, where a resurgence of ISIS activity has prolonged the deployment of around 2,000 US military personnel there. What is more, ISIS fighters frequently cross the Iraq-Syria border and spend much of their time in safe houses and other hideouts. The paper quotes Yahya Rasool, spokesperson for the Iraqi Army’s Joint Operations Command, who says that “our war on ISIS today is an intelligence war, not a military war. We are searching and raiding their hide-outs”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 December 2018 | Permalink

US delegation met secretly with Syrian intelligence chiefs, newspaper claims

Ali MamloukA delegation of senior American government officials met secretly with Syria’s spy chiefs in an effort to lay out the terms of a possible deal between Washington and Damascus, according to a Lebanese newspaper. Relations between the United States and Syria have been strained since the late 1950s, when Damascus blamed Washington for a failed coup and expelled America’s ambassador there. In 2012, the US shut down its embassy in the Syrian capital in response to the government’s violent suppression of protests. Since then, Washington has carried out missile strikes on Syrian soil at least twice, while openly supporting armed groups that are opposed to the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

But according to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, a group of senior American officials held a secret meeting in Damascus with Syrian spy chiefs. If true, the move could signify a major shift in US-Syrian relations. The paper, which supports the pro-Assad Shiite paramilitary group Hezbollah, and is close to the Syrian government, published news of the alleged meeting on Tuesday. It said that the meeting took place in complete secrecy during the last week of June and that it was facilitated by intermediaries from Russia and the United Arab Emirates. The latter used a UAE government airplane to fly the US delegation —whose names Al-Akhbar did not reveal— to the Syrian capital. The visiting delegation, which according to the paper “included [senior] officers from many US intelligence and security agencies”, was transported to a secret Syrian government facility in the dead of night by “a huge procession of black SUVs”, said the paper. The Syrian delegation at the meeting was reportedly headed by Ali Mamlouk, special security adviser to President al-Assad and head of the National Security Bureau of the governing Ba’ath Party. Other participants from the Syrian side included Mohammed Dib Zeitoun, director of the General Security Directorate, and Muwaffaq Asaad, the deputy chief of staff of the Syrian Armed Forces, said Al-Akhbar.

During the meeting, the two sides allegedly attempted to lay out the foundations of a possible post-civil war deal between Washington and Damascus. According to the Lebanese paper, the US delegation offered to withdraw American Special Forces from Kurdish-controlled northern Syria. In return, they allegedly asked for the removal of Iranian troops from Syrian regions that are adjacent to the Israeli border. The two sides also discussed the resumption of intelligence sharing on matters relating to Sunni radicals operating in Syria. No decisions were taken during the meeting, said Al-Akhbar, but the two sides decided to continue to share proposals and ideas about a possible bilateral agreement.

The French news agency Agence France Presse said on Tuesday that it could not independently confirm Al-Akhbar’s claims, as its attempts to contact the US departments of State and Defense were not fruitful. It noted, however, that both Mamlk and Zeitoun feature on the US government’s list of sanctions against Syrian government officials that are believed to have directly participated in human-rights abuses against political opponents since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 August 2018 | Permalink