Spotlight on Global Jihad (December 29, 2016-January 4, 2017)

Issued on: 04/01/2017 Type: Article

Main events of the week

  • This week, the ceasefire worked out by Russia and Turkey entered into effect in Syria. The ceasefire was intended as a preparatory stage for the talks on a political settlement which are due to be held in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. The Fateh al-Sham Front and ISIS are not included in the ceasefire, which is its main weakness. Fighting on the ground has significantly decreased throughout Syria, but clashes continued in several sites (mainly in Wadi Barada, southwest of Damascus, where the city water sources are located).
  • ISIS continues its efforts to carry out showcase terrorist attacks in response to the pressure exerted on it. This week, an ISIS operative carried out a mass-killing attack in an Istanbul nightclub (39 dead). In Baghdad and other cities in Iraq, ISIS carried out deadly suicide attacks where over a hundred people were killed, most of them Shiites. These terrorist attacks served as an indication that ISIS continues to maintain high terrorist-operational capabilities in Iraq and around the globe, despite the loss of a considerable part of its control territories and in spite of the severe pressure it is subject to. 

 

Main developments in Syria

Evacuation of Aleppo completed
  • On December 30, 2016, the Syrian Army announced that a ceasefire had been reached with the rebel organizations throughout Syria. The ceasefire, which entered into effect on midnight, was worked out by Russia and Turkey. According to the announcement, the agreement does not include ISIS, the Fateh al-Sham Front (Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria) and affiliated jihadi groups. The agreement also fails to include the YPG Kurdish forces.[1] The objective of the agreement is to serve as a preparatory stage for the talks on a political settlement of the crisis in Syria, which are to be held in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan
  • The Russian minister of defense announced that seven rebel organizations, including 60,000 operatives, had signed the ceasefire agreement (Syria Mubasher; TASS, December 29, 2016). According to Russia’s President Putin, three documents have been signed: an agreement between the Syrian government and the “armed opposition” regarding a ceasefire in Syria; a document specifying the means to supervise the agreement; and a document stating an intention to start negotiations for a political settlement (Sputnik, December 29, 2016). About a month after the ceasefire enters into effect, the parties are expected to arrive for talks in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, with the participation of Turkey, Russia, Kazakhstan, and a representation on behalf of the UN. The UN Security Council unanimously adopted on December 31, 2016, Resolution 2336, welcoming the Russian and Turkish efforts to promote a ceasefire in Syria (Sputnik, December 31, 2016).
  • A major weakness of the ceasefire agreement, which, in the ITIC's assessment, will represent a major obstacle for its implementation, is its failure to include the Fateh al-Sham Front. The Fateh al-Sham Front is an organization of high military capabilities which is a major component in the various frameworks of the rebel organizations. Failing to include it in the agreement is expected to make it difficult to distinguish between the Fateh al-Sham Front and other rebel organizations which are party to the ceasefire. The continuation of the fighting of the Syrian forces (and Russia) against the Fateh al-Sham Front may bring back the other rebel organizations into the fighting and sabotage the current ceasefire (as happened with previous ceasefires).
  • Indeed, the Fateh al-Sham Front was quick to repudiate the ceasefire agreement immediately after it had been announced. Hussam al-Shafi’i, the spokesman for the Front, stressed that the Front had neither attended the negotiation session nor signed the ceasefire agreement. According to Al-Shafi’i, the agreement did not include the Iranian militias and Russia, although Russia is one of the countries that guarantee the agreement. Hussam al-Shafi’i emphasized that the solution (for the fighting in Syria) was overthrowing the Syrian regime through jihad. He called for patience and noted that any political solution that strengthens the regime represents treason (Al-Durar al-Shamiya, December 30, 2016).
  • Other rebel organizations also expressed their reservations about the agreement, although they did so more mildly than the Fateh al-Sham Front:
  • The Free Syrian Armyreleased an announcement, according to which the version of the agreement they signed is different from the one signed by the Syrian regime.[2] The organization announced that it was committed to a comprehensive ceasefire, without excluding any region or organization (implying that it was against the exclusion of the Fateh al-Sham Front and other jihadi rebel organizations from the ceasefire). The organization called on the Security Council to take responsibility for the agreement (Halab al-Youm, December 31, 2016). 
  • The spokesman for the Revolution Army, a large rebel organization in Daraa, declared that the rebel organizations in south Syria were committed to the ceasefire agreement. This was true, he said, although they were not invited to sign the agreement and despite the fact that the regime forces violated the ceasefire in several areas, including the city of Daraa. According to him, all the “liberated” areas in the provinces of Daraa and Quneitra are under the Free Syrian Army’s control, except the area of the Al-Yarmouk basin, which is under the control of the Khaled bin al-Walid Army (which is affiliated with ISIS). The spokesman claimed that there were no territories under the Fateh al-Sham Front’s control in south Syria (Zaman al-Wasl, January 1, 2017).
  • Sources in the Ahrar al-Sham movement reported that their reservations about the ceasefire were not related to the cessation of fighting but to the fact that the political activity suggested was vague, as its characteristics and source of authority were not defined. According to these sources, such policy may cause a change in the foundations on which the political solution is based (Al-Durar al-Shamiya, December 30, 2016).
  • During the days that passed since the ceasefire was declared, fighting in Syria significantly decreased, except in several sites where local clashes took place. A prominent site of clashes was Wadi Barada, about 15 km northwest of Damascus, where the water sources of the city are located. Several rebel organizations claimed that the Syrian Army was violating the ceasefire in this area on the pretext that operatives of the Fateh al-Sham Front, which was not included in the agreement, were staying there. Sergei Ivanov, a representative of the Hmeymim coordination center, stated that an attack by the Syrian Army in Wadi Barada did not count as a violation of the ceasefire agreement because Fateh al-Sham Front operatives were staying in the area (Dimashq Al-Aan, January 1, 2017). In spite of these violations, and despite the differences of opinion between the various parties, the ceasefire is still in force.
  • Due to the violations of the ceasefire agreement, especially in the area of Wadi Barada, the Free Syrian Army announced that the organization was freezing its participation in the negotiations that will take place in Astana. According to the announcement, the talks will resume only if the Syrian regime commits to the ceasefire agreement (Al-Jazeera, January 2, 2017). Other organizations operating in the Wadi Barada area announced that if the ceasefire was not respected in that area, they would violate the ceasefire in other areas and resume the fighting (Syria Mubasher, January 2, 2017).
Removing mines and IEDs in Aleppo
  • The Russian forces continue to remove mines and IEDs from the city of Aleppo. The Russian Defense Ministry reported that during December, Russian sappers neutralized 16,000 mines and IEDs (Sputnik, December 30, 2016).
The Palmyra region
  • This week as well, clashes continued between the Syrian Army and ISIS operatives in the area of the T-4 military airfield, west of Palmyra. The fighter plane traffic in the airfield was reportedly almost shut down completely due to the siege imposed by ISIS on the airfield (Zaman al-Wasl, December 28, 2016). On the other hand, the Syrian Army announced that it took over the village of Sharifa, about 9 km west of the airfield. In addition, ISIS reportedly sustained losses in a Syrian Army attack against gatherings and traffic routes of its operatives (Syrian TV, December 30, 2016).
Al-Raqqah
  • This week, clashes continued between ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the area of the villages of Al-Mahmoudli and Tell Saman north of Al-Raqqah (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, December 31, 2016). The SDF forces reported that they had taken over additional villages in the area (Khatwa, January 2, 2017).
  • The US-led coalition increased its airstrikes against ISIS outposts in Al-Raqqah. The US CENTCOM reported that during the past week, a total of 83 airstrikes were carried out in the area of Al-Raqqah. Among the targets attacked were fighting positions, vehicles, artillery, radar facilities, tankers and oil facilities (CENTCOM website, December 27, 2016).
The city of Al-Bab
  • This week, clashes continued on the outskirts of Al-Bab between ISIS operatives and the Free Syrian Army supported by Turkey. The Turkish Army announced that a senior ISIS commander called Abu Hussein al-Tunisi was killed in a Turkish airstrike on December 29, 2016 (Turkiye Post, December 31, 2016). In addition, according to a Turkish Army source, at least 18 ISIS operatives were killed in Turkish Air Force airstrikes in north Syria (Anatolia, January 3, 2017).
South Syria
  • In an interview with the BBC in Arabic, Jordan’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff Mahmoud Freihat said that the ISIS-affiliated Khaled bin Al-Walid Army, whose operatives are deployed in the Al-Yarmouk basin close to the border with Jordan, presents a permanent and imminent danger to the kingdom. According to Freihat, the organization operatives are at a distance of about one kilometer from the border, possessing tanks, APCs, anti-aircraft weapons and machine guns, all in the range of the Jordanian Army’s frontline positions (Al-Ghad, December 30, 2016).

Main developments in Iraq

The campaign for the takeover of Mosul
  • The Iraqi Army Head of Counterterrorism Forces General Abd al-Ghani Al-Asadiannounced on December 29, 2016, the beginning of the second stage in the operation for the liberation of the city of Mosul’s eastern part (Al-Sumaria, December 29, 2016). According to Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, ISIS will be completely removed from Iraq within three months. In the ITIC's assessment, the statement of the Iraqi prime minister is too optimistic, given the difficulties the Iraqi Army is facing in the campaign for Mosul.
  • After some time of static fighting, the Iraqi Army resumed its advance in east Mosul. The Iraqi forces reportedly liberated the east Mosul neighborhoods of Al-Quds and Al-Intisar (Al-Jazeera, January 1, 2017). Then it was reported that the Iraqi forces took over the neighborhoods of Al-Karamah and Al-Mithaq (Al-Mayadeen; Al-Alam, January 3, 2017).
ISIS’s response
  • ISIS continued to carry out suicide attacks against the Iraqi forces in east Mosul. At the same time, it also initiated an orchestrated wave of deadly suicide attacks throughout Baghdad and in a Shiite town south of Al-Najaf(about 160 km south of Baghdad). Most of the terrorist attacks targeted Shiite population centers with the objective of undermining the stability of the Iraqi regime and detracting sources and attention from the campaign for Mosul. In its recent wave of terrorist attacks, ISIS proved that it continues to maintain high terrorist-operational capabilities, even though it had lost a considerable part of its control territories and in spite of the severe pressure it is subject to in Mosul.
  • On January 1, 2017, ISIS claimed responsibility for carrying out two suicide bombing attacks in east Mosul by car bombs. One of the attacks was carried out by an operative codenamed Abbas al-Moslawi in the neighborhood of Al-Intisar. Another attack was carried out by an (East Asian?) operative codenamed Abu Fawzan al-Muhajer, near the neighborhood of Sada, in northeast Mosul (Haqq, January 1, 2017). In west Mosul, the Iraqi security forces detonated two car bombs and claimed to have shot down two ISIS drones (Al-Ahed, December 29, 2016).
  • Between December 29, 2016, and January 2, 2017, ISIS carried out a large-scale campaign of terrorist attacks in Baghdad:
  • On December 29, 2016, five people were killed as a result of the explosion of two car bombs detonated in various areas in Baghdad.
  • On December 31, 2016, two suicide bombers carried out an attack in the Al-Sinak open market, in downtown Baghdad. A total of 28 people were killed in the attack, and several dozens were wounded (Al-Sumaria al-Arabiya, December 31, 2016). ISIS claimed responsibility (Haqq, December 31, 2016).
  • On December 31, 2016, a car bomb exploded in the neighborhood of Baghdad al-Jadida, in east Baghdad. According to Iraqi sources, there were no casualties (Al-Sumaria, December 31, 2016; Al-Arabiya, December 31, 2016). ISIS claimed responsibility, claiming that nine Shiites were killed in the attack, and 17 others were wounded (Haqq, December 31, 2016).
  • In the Shiite neighborhood of Madinat Sadr, a suicide attack was carried out in a crowded market. The attack was carried out only a few hours after the French president arrived for a visit in Iraq. Over 30 people were killed, and 61 others were wounded. Nine of the dead were women who traveled on a bus to the market. ISIS claimed responsibility. The attack was reportedly carried out by an operative codenamed Abu Hassan al-Iraqi (Haqq, January 3, 2016; France 24, January 2, 2017).
  • That same day, another attack was carried out in Madinat Sadr, by a car bomb parked behind Al-Jawar Hospital. A similar attack was carried out in Falastin Street, in east Baghdad, by a car parked behind Al-Kindi Hospital (Al-Sumaria; Al-Hurra, January 2, 2017).
  • That same day, other car bombs were detonated in Baghdad: One car was detonated in the neighborhood of Al-Zafaraniyah in the southeast of the city, and another car was detonated near the Umm al-Tubul Mosque in west Baghdad. The explosion near the mosque was probably directed against Iraq’s Sunni Grand Mufti Sheikh Mahdi al-Sumaidaie, who was not hurt. In addition, five IEDs reportedly exploded throughout Baghdad (Al-Masa, January 2, 2017).
  • Another scene of attacks was the Shiite town of Al-Mashkhab, south of Al-Najaf (about 160 km south of Baghdad). This is an area where most of the residents are Shiites. ISIS claimed responsibility for carrying out five suicide attacks simultaneously, by five suicide bombers (three Iraqis and two Syrians). Four of the terrorists were wearing explosive belts and the fifth detonated a car bomb. According to ISIS’s claim of responsibility, over a hundred people were killed or wounded in these attacks (Haqq; Aamaq, January 1, 2017).

The global jihad in other countries

Deadly terrorist attack in a nightclub in Turkey
  • In the early morning of January 1, 2017, a terrorist took a taxi to the Reina nightclub, a famous club in the heart of Istanbul frequented by foreign tourists. The terrorist shot and killed a policeman and a civilian who were standing in the doorway to the club. He then entered the club, where around 600 people were celebrating, and opened fire in all directions. The shooter spent around seven minutes in the club and managed to reload his automatic weapon twice. He then took advantage of the commotion and fled the scene. The terrorist is still at large. A total of 39 people were shot to death, mainly foreign nationals. In addition, 40 people were wounded.
  • According to Turkish media reports, the terrorist who carried out the attack was apparently an Uighur.[3] He arrived in Istanbul from Kyrgyzstan on November 20, 2016. Two days later he went to Konya. From there he returned to Istanbul on December 29, to carry out the attack. To avoid suspicion, the terrorist brought his wife and two children with him (Habertürk; Milliyet, January 3, 2017).
  • ISIS claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack.A claim of responsibility was issued first on Twitter and Telegram, and then by ISIS’s Haqq News Agency. The announcement states that as part of the “blessed operations” carried out by the Islamic State against Turkey, which serves the West (“servant of the Cross”), one of the brave soldiers of the Caliphate attacked one of the nightclubs where “the Christians” celebrate. Once again, the announcement includes a threat against Turkey, stating that as long as its aircraft continue to attack Syria, terrorist attacks will be carried out on its soil (“The blood of the Muslims that was spilled in the [Turkish] airstrikes and artillery attacks will ignite a fire in the center of the home [of the Turks] […]”) (Twitter; Haqq, January 2, 2016).
  • Since the beginning of the campaign for Mosul, Turkey has become the key target in ISIS’s effort to carry out attacks outside Iraq and Syria. This is reflected in two deadly terrorist attacks carried out in Turkey (the Reina nightclub attack and the attack in Diyarbakır, in eastern Turkey, on November 4, 2016). In addition, ISIS has repeatedly called for terrorist attacks against Turkish targets. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has joined the campaign calling for terrorist attacks against Turkey. In his speech, he called on ISIS operatives to attack “secular Turkey,” claiming that it has “abandoned Islam.” ISIS’s weekly Al-Naba, published in November 2016, contained an article calling for attacks against Turkish targets, including against Western nationals staying in Turkey (Al-Naba, November 2, 2016).[4]

 

Russia
  • ISIS’s Caucasus Province released a video of the terrorists who carried out the attack in Grozny reading their will.[5]  The video documents 11 operatives who pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In the video, the terrorists call on other Russian Muslims to enlist and carry out attacks against the “infidels,” Jews and Christians, not only in Chechnya but also elsewhere in Russia (they mention the city of Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad) (The Kavkaz-Uzel website, December 28, 2016).

Counterterrorism and preventive activity

Germany
  • The General Prosecutor’s Office in Germany announced the arrest of an ISIS operative in southwestern Germany, near the border with France. The man arrested (referred to as Hassan A.) is an unemployed 38-year-old Syrian refugee.  He entered Germany in December 2014 and applied for refugee status. He was in contact with ISIS operatives in Al-Raqqah.
  • In December 2016, he made contact with ISIS operatives and asked them for the sum of EUR 180,000. He intended to use the money to buy several vehicles, which he intended to disguise as police cars, load with 400-500 kg of explosives, and detonate in crowded areas. According to German police, he was arrested before choosing the scene of the attack (Germany, France, Belgium or the Netherlands). He used Telegram Messenger to communicate with his ISIS handlers (thelocal.de, January 2, 2016).
Jordan
  • According to Jordanian media reports, five members of ISIS’s “Irbid squad” have been sentenced to death by a Jordanian court. Twelve other ISIS operatives who were involved in the squad’s activity were sentenced to terms of imprisonment ranging from seven to 15 years. Four others were sentenced to three years in prison. This is a squad whose operatives were caught in early March 2016, when the Jordanian security forces carried out a raid on a number of targets in Irbid, northern Jordan. During the raid, clashes broke out between the security forces and the militants, who had barricaded themselves in a residential building. Seven wanted men wearing explosive belts were killed in these clashes. According to Jordanian media reports, in the operation in Irbid, Jordanian intelligence managed to thwart ISIS’s plan to attack civilian and military targets in Jordan.

[1]Presumably, the YPG Kurdish forces were not included in the ceasefire as a result of Turkey’s request.
[2]According to the Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath Channel, there are indeed differences between versions of the agreement. Thus, for instance, the version received by the Syrian opposition refers to a ceasefire in all the territories of Syria, while the version signed by the regime states that the agreement will not apply to all territories, although regions where the ceasefire would not apply were not specified (Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath, January 1, 2017). In the ITIC's assessment, reference was made to the territories under ISIS or the Fateh al-Sham Front’s control, to which the ceasefire did not apply.
[3]The Uighurs are a Turkish people from Central Asia, most of whom live in Xinjiang, China. There have been previous reports of Uighur operatives joining the ranks of ISIS in Syria.
[4]For details, see the ITIC’s Information Bulletin from December 18, 2016: “Following the campaign for Mosul, ISIS has been highly motivated to carry out terrorist attacks around the globe.”
[5]On December 18, 2016, several ISIS operatives in central Grozny in Chechnya exchanged fire over the course of two days with members of the security forces and then carried out a suicide bombing attack. Members of the local security forces were killed and wounded in these incidents.

 

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