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

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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

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

After India province, Islamic State proclaims a new province in Pakistan

ISIS PakistanThe group calling itself the Islamic State has announced the establishment of a new overseas province in Pakistan, just days after proclaiming another new overseas province in northern India. Until recently, the Islamic State’s operations in Asia were conducted under the banner of the Islamic State – Khorasan Province, or IS-KP. The shadowy group was founded in early 2015 and was led by former Taliban warlords who pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the spiritual leader and self-proclaimed emir of the Islamic State. Since that time, at least two of IS-KP’s leaders have been killed by United States forces, while the group has been engaged in a war against rival militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, notably the Taliban.

Last week, the Islamic State announced the establishment of a new overseas province in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state. The announcement was made by Amaq, which serves as the news agency of the Islamic State. According to the news release, the Islamic State named the new province “wilayah al-Hind” (province of Hind). It is based in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, which is located in one of the three administrative divisions of the Indian administered state of Jammu and Kashmir. On Wednesday a new press release by Amaq proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic State – Pakistan Province. In the same press release, the Islamic State said that the new overseas province’s first action was the killing of a Pakistani police officer in Mastung, a mountainous town located in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province. In addition to killing the police officer, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for an armed attack at a gathering of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Pashtun-dominant Taliban group that operates on Pakistani soil. The attack took place last week in Quetta, the largest urban center and provincial capital of Baluchistan.

Last month, the Islamic State said it was behind a suicide attack at a Quetta outdoor marketplace, which killed 20 and injured over 50 people. The attack was targeted Pakistani Hazara Muslims, who are seen as heretical by several militant Islamist groups that operate in the region. The latest announcement of a new Islamic State overseas province may be seen as evidence that the Islamic State is gradually moving its center of operations to the eastern regions of Asia. In April the militant group said it was behind a barrage of synchronized suicide attacks in Sri Lanka, which killed over 250 people.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 May 2019 | Permalink

Video shows alleged Sri Lanka suicide bombers posing with ISIS flags

National Thowheeth Jama'ath NTJA video posted online by supporters of the Sunni militant group Islamic State appears to show the suicide bombers who carried out Sunday’s bloody attacks in Sri Lanka posing alongside Islamic State flags. Three Catholic churches and three five-star hotels were targeted on Easter Sunday by a total of nine separate blasts, which killed nearly 260 people and injured over 500. The near-simultaneous attacks struck locations in Sri Lanka’s western and eastern coasts and are believed to constitute the bloodiest terrorist attack in the country’s history.

All seven suicide bombers who carried out Sunday’s attacks have been identified as Sri Lankan nationals and members of the Sunni jihadist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ). The Sri Lankan group has claimed responsibility for no more than a handful of mostly sabotage-themed operations in its three-year history. It is believed to have been established by hardline Islamists in 2016. It made its first public appearance in 2018, in response to a series of anti-Muslim pogroms that were led by Sinhalese Buddhists in the island country. There are reports suggesting that Sunday’s blasts were part of a much wider operation aimed at destabilizing Sri Lanka. Police said they found nearly 100 bomb detonators at the Central Colombo bus station on Monday, while an unexploded bomb was found inside a parked vehicle at another church in the Sri Lankan capital. An unexploded pipe bomb was also discovered in the vicinity of the Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo on Sunday night.

Indian intelligence officials were the first to openly draw a connection between Sunday’s attacks and the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). One Indian official told the Hong Kong-based Asia Times newspaper that “the NTJ were only foot soldiers and the controllers were someone else”. On Monday, a video appeared on an online channel associated with supporters of ISIS, which contains a montage of the aftermath of Sunday’s attacks, interspersed with still images of masked men brandishing rifles in front of ISIS flags. The video names the men and implies they carried out the suicide blasts. The video claims to come from ISIS and issues threats against “Crusaders” —an anti-Western term often used by Sunni jihadists. The video also warns that the Islamic State’s “armies remain everywhere and [continue to] blast the fortresses of the infidels”.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government declared a state of emergency on Monday night, which is expected to last several weeks. The announcement of the state of emergency was made by the country’s President, Maithripala Sirisena, following a meeting of the National Security Council, which he chaired.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 April 2019 | Permalink

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

India, Pakistan used terrorist groups to attack each other, says Pakistan ex-president

Jaish-e-MohammedThe government of Pakistan employed terrorist groups to attack India, according to Pakistan’s former president, Pervez Musharraf, who also accused India of doing the same. Musharraf, 75, took power in Pakistan in 1999 through a coup d’état supported by the country’s military leadership. The four-star Army general ruled as Pakistan’s 10th president until 2008, when he resigned from power to avoid being impeached. He currently lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates and is wanted in Pakistan for alleged crimes, including high treason. His critics accuse him of arresting several judges in 2007 and suspending the country’s constitution.

On Tuesday, Musharraf spoke on the flagship news program of Hum News, a 24-hour news channel headquartered in the Pakistani capital Islamabad. Speaking in Urdu on a phone line from Dubai, Musharraf praised the current Pakistani government of President Imran Khan for launching a crackdown on Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) the militant group that is believed to be responsible for killing more than 40 Indian soldiers in Indian-administered Kashmir. The attack sparked a tense standoff between India and Pakistan, as the two countries engaged in aggressive military maneuvers against each other. “This constitutes a step forward”, said Musharraf, referring to the JeM crackdown. “It is a terrorist organization and they tried to assassinate me with a suicide attack”, he added, referring to an attack on his presidential convoy in 2003, which has been blamed on JeM.

In early 2002, Musharraf officially banned the JeM and arrested some of its leaders, after the group participated in two high-profile attacks in Indian Kashmir. But all JeM leaders were eventually freed, after the courts decided that the government had failed to provide sufficient evidence of their participation in terrorism. Musharraf told Hum News that he eventually lost interest in cracking down on JeM. When asked by the reporter why his government did not take further action against the group, Musharraf said that “those were different times”. Instead of stopping groups like JeM, both Pakistan and India used them to carry out a “clandestine struggle” against each other, said Musharraf. Groups like JeM “carried out bombings in each other’s territory”, said the former president, adding that Pakistan’s “intelligence agencies were involved in it”. Both India and Pakistan thus used militant groups, including JeM to carry out “tit-for-tat” operations targeting each other, he concluded. The former Pakistani leader went on to say that he was “very pleased to see the [Pakistani] government adopting a strict policy” against JeM.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 08 March 2019 | Permalink