Spotlight on Global Jihad (March 9-15, 2017)

Issued on: 15/03/2017 Type: Article

Main events of the week

  • The pressure on ISIS in Iraq and Syria is increasing:
  • In Mosul, the Iraqi forces continue to expand their control in the west of the city. ISIS still holds the northern part of west Mosul, but the areas under its control are shrinking. At the same time, the Iraqi Army and Shiite militias are tightening the siege on the city. According to an American report, the main road leading to Mosul (from Tal Afar) has been blocked.
  • In Al-Raqqah, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with US support, continue to cleanse the area to the north and east of the city, in an attempt to isolate it and prepare the ground to take it over. According to American media, the US is sending 400 American soldiers as reinforcements to support the SDF in its takeover of Al-Raqqah.
  • In the area east of Aleppo, the Syrian Army, with Russian air support, continues to advance from the Al-Bab area to the area of Lake Assad in the Euphrates Valley. This week, the Al-Jarah Airport was taken over by the Syrian Army, which is now fighting to take over the town of Deir Hafer (northwest of the airport). In addition, the Syrian Army advanced eastward from the city of Palmyra, which it has taken over, towards the city of Al-Sukhnah, which is held by ISIS. The main road from Al-Sukhnah leads to Deir ez-Zor, an enclave held by the Syrian Army in an area under ISIS’s control.
  • ISIS is attempting to halt the advancing forces by means of fierce fighting and the use of car bombs. However, it seems that the resistance that ISIS is displaying is ineffective. ISIS does not address the strategic pressure exerted simultaneously on it in several arenas by various forces supported by the United States and Russia. According to reports from Al-Raqqah, ISIS has built embankments on the main streets of the city, and many citizens have been forced to leave their homes. There have also been reports of civilians fleeing from the city and, on the other hand, an influx of refugees to the city from Mosul, Palmyra and the area east of Aleppo.

 

The United States and Russia

Reinforcement of the US troops in northern Syria
  • According to US media reports, around 400 US soldiers have been sent to Syria as reinforcements. These reinforcements are supposed to reach the SDF staging zone and support the SDF in its campaign to take over Al-Raqqah. In addition, an infantry force was sent to the area of Manbij, in order to prevent friction between the Free Syrian Army, which is supported by Turkey, and the SDF, which holds Manbij and the surrounding area. The number of US troops in northeast Syria is soon expected to reach around 1,000 combatants, equipped with heavy artillery and armored vehicles.[1] Most of the US force in Syria is supposed to support the SDF in the campaign for Al-Raqqah.
Establishing improved channels of communication between the US and Russia
  • On March 6-7, 2017, a meeting was held in Antalya between the chiefs of staff of the United States, Russia and Turkey. At the meeting, it was agreed, among other things, that the channels of communication between the parties would be improved.This is in view of the high potential for friction in the Manbij region, and the progress in the campaign to take over Al-Raqqah from ISIS. The spokesman for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff noted that the new channel of communication would be managed by more senior figures than the current channel. Its goal will be to manage the efforts to prevent friction effectively, especially by improving the exchange of intelligence between the parties.
President Assad’s position towards Turkish and US involvement in Syria
  • The Syrian President said in an interview with a Chinese television channel that any force that operates in Syria without the approval of the Syrian regime and without consulting him is a “foreign invader.” Assad added that the Turks are operating on Syrian soil without its approval and that the Syrian Foreign Ministry had sent a letter on the subject to the UN Security Council, demanding that it take action to force the Turkish troops to withdraw from Syrian territory. Regarding the United States, Assad said that he does not see a possibility of practical cooperation with the US administration, as the American military operations on Syrian soil were being carried out without the approval of the Syrian regime, including the sending of reinforcements to the area of Manbij (Phoenix TV, March 11, 2017).

Main developments in Syria

The area of Manbij
  • The city of Manbij and its surrounding area are still held by the (predominantly Kurdish) SDF. In spite of the pressure on the ground and the Turkish threats, the SDF forces still refuse to evacuate the Manbij area, which represents a Kurdish enclave in the region west of the Euphrates River (where Turkey is gradually establishing a “security zone” under its influence). The SDF forces welcome the prominent presence of US, Russian and Syrian army units in their enclave, in an attempt to deter Turkey and the Free Syrian Army from taking over Manbij.

 

  • The power struggles in the Manbij area continued this week, without any significant change on the ground:

 

  • The US reinforced its troops in the Manbij area. Infantry force and armored vehicles, including tanks, are deployed in the area. According to a report from March 12, 2017, a total of 43 US tank carriers arrived in the outskirts of Manbij (Al-Jadeed News, March 12, 2017). The American soldiers’ mission is to prevent clashes between the SDF and the Turkish-supported rebel forces (Al-Arabiya, March 12, 2017).
  • Russia continues its attempts to transfer the control of Manbij from the SDF to the Syrian Army. Arab media reported that Russia also had sent a military force including soldiers and vehicles to the area west of Manbij, where the Syrian forces are deployed. The Russian force arrived at the frontline between the Turkish-supported forces and the coalition-supported forces, with the purpose of preventing the outbreak of fighting (Al-Arabiya, March 14, 2017).
  • The Turkish-supported Free Syrian Army fired artillery toward the villages of Bughaz and Al-Khalidah, west of Manbij. The Manbij Military Council reported that apparently, most of the shells contained a chemical substance (website of the Military Council of Manbij and its Rural Area, March 8, 2017). The ITIC currently doesn’t have a confirmation for that.
Syrian Army advance toward the Euphrates River Valley
Overview
  • Syrian Army troops arenow advancing from the Al-Bab area to the southeast, towards Lake Assad and the Euphrates Valley. In the ITIC's assessment, the purpose of this force is twofold: the main purpose is to threaten ISIS’s strongholds in the Euphrates Valley, thereby enjoying prestige and joining the forces that take part in the campaign for Al-Raqqah. Another purpose is to establish an area controlled by the Syrian regime south of the Turkish “security zone,” from which to remove ISIS presence and by which to curb the Turkish expansion.

 

The campaign in the Al-Jarah Airport and Deir Hafer
  • This week, a Syrian Army force advancing from the outskirts of Al-Bab attacked the Al-Jarah Airport, about 50 km southeast of Al-Bab. The airport area changed hands for several days:On March 8, the Syrian Army reportedly took it (Khotwa, March 8, 2017). Three days later, ISIS reportedly retook the airport (Al-Durar al-Shamiya, March 11, 2017). It seems that the airport is now held by the Syrian Army (updated to March 15, 2017).
  • According to a report from March 13, 2017, the center of fighting between the Syrian Army and ISIS shifted to the area of the town of Deir Hafer, behind the Al-Jarah Airport, where ISIS operatives are still fighting (Al-Markaz al-Suhufi al-Suri, March 13, 2017; Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, March 13, 2017).The Syrian Army, supported by the Syrian and Russian air forces, is now trying to isolate Deir Hafer from the logistic routes, as a preliminary stage prior to its takeover (Al-Watan Online; Al-Jazeera, March 14, 2017).
  • In order toalleviate the pressure on Deir Hafer, on March 15, 2017, ISIS attacked the Kuweyres Airport, north of the main route leading from Aleppo to the east. ISIS operatives attacked Syrian Army positions south of the airport. ISIS claimed that 29 Syrian soldiers were killed (Haqq, March 14, 2017). Fighting is still taking place in the airport area.
Al-Raqqah
  • The SDF continued to cleanse the area north and east of Al-Raqqah, in an attempt to tighten the siege on the city. The forces reportedly took over several towns and villages east of Al-Raqqah (Khotwa, March 8, 10, 2017). ISIS detonated car bombs to stall the advance of the SDF. Syrian media reported that ISIS had closed Al-Raqqah’s main streets by an embankment, declared them a closed military zone, and demanded that the inhabitants leave the city (Dimashq al-Aan, March 13, 2017).
  • About 300 people, family members of ISIS foreign fighters, reportedly fled Al-Raqqah toward the south bank of the Euphrates River in inflatable boats and ferries. They made their way to the Deir ez-Zor Province and the rural area east of Hama (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, March 12, 2017). There are also reports of refugees from Mosul, Palmyra and villages east of Aleppo moving toward Al-Raqqah. These refugees are filling the streets and the parks. Some of them decided to set up tents in the city (Raqqa-sl.com, a website run by people opposing ISIS and the Syrian regime who fled Al-Raqqah to Europe, March 11, 2017). ISIS, on its part, is trying to convey the false propaganda message of “business as usual” in Al-Raqqah (Haqq, March 9, 2017).
Palmyra
  • After the Syrian Army’s announcement that it had regained control of the city of Palmyra, clashes continued with ISIS operatives outside the city. This week, the Syrian forces expanded their control area from Palmyra eastward, and are advancing toward the city of Al-Sukhnah, about 66 km east of Palmyra (from which the road is leading to Deir ez-Zor). The Syrian forces are reportedly on the outskirts of Al-Sukhnah, having advanced without facing ISIS resistance (Dimashq al-Aan, March 13, 2017; Qasiyoun, March 14, 2017). In Palmyra, Russian soldiers are taking part in defusing IEDs and mines, especially from the antiquities site (TASS, March 10, 2017).

 

Damascus
  • On March 11, 2017, two IEDs exploded near buses in the area of the Bab al-Saghir Cemetery in the Old City of Damascus. One of the explosions was caused by a suicide bomber and the other by the detonation of an explosive charge. According to reports, there were over 40 dead and 120 wounded, most of them pilgrims from Iraq. Syrian Army soldiers were also among the dead (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, March 11, 2017).
  • The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, an umbrella framework dominated by the Fateh al-Sham Front (affiliated with Al-Qaeda) claimed responsibility for the attack. It announced that both operatives who carried out the attack were acting against the “Iranian militias” and the Defense Forces of the Homeland in Syria. Furthermore, according to the announcement, the attacks were carried out in revenge for the Iranian support of Bashar Assad’s tyrannical regime (Twitter account of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, March 12, 2017)[2].
  • Indiscriminate suicide bombing attacks against Shiites, in Syria and other countries, are identified with ISIS (part of the “legacy” of its “founding father” Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi). The attack against the Shiite pilgrims is a deviation from the modus operandi of Al-Qaeda and its Syrian branch, which have so far refrained from indiscriminate killing of Shiites. In 2015, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri criticized those attacking the Shiite population, thus distinguishing Al-Qaeda from ISIS.

 

Main developments in Iraq

The campaign for the takeover of Mosul
  • The Iraqi security forces continued to expand and strengthen their control of west Mosul. This week as well, they liberated several neighborhoods, the last of which being Al-Mosul Al-Jadidanear the Tigris River (Al-Sumaria, March 13, 2017). A map of the territories liberated from ISIS (see below) indicates that ISIS is still holding the northern half of west Mosul.

 

  • Brett McGurk, Deputy Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, reported that the Iraqi Army had taken over the last road leading to Mosul. Thus, apparently, the logistic route between Mosul and Tal Afar in the east was cut off, and ISIS operatives are now finding themselves trapped in the area under their control in Mosul, which is shrinking.
  • The Iraqi Army’s advance in west Mosul is supported by coalition airstrikes. On March 8, 2017, coalition warplanes attacked one of ISIS’s main headquarters in west Mosul, killing and wounding dozens of ISIS operatives (Al-Sumaria, March 8, 2017). On March 11, 2017, coalition warplanes attacked a workshop for manufacturing explosives in the western part of the city (Al-Sumaria, March 11, 2017). Northwest of Mosul, coalition warplanes attacked three ISIS car bombs which had been moved from the eastern part of the city (Al-Sumaria, March 11, 2017).
ISIS’s response
  • ISIS continued to conduct guerrilla warfare against the Iraqi forces while carrying out suicide bombing attacks. Most of the attacks were carried out in the city’s western neighborhoods, where fighting is taking place against the Iraqi Army forces. Quite a significant part of those who carried out the suicide bombing attacks in the past week were older adults in their sixties (Haqq, March 11, 2017). The use of older adults for suicide bombing attacks, and the recent use of children, may indicate a shortage of manpower and a decrease in ISIS’s pool of suicide bombers.
  • ISIS continued to carry out suicide bombing attacks also elsewhere in Iraq:
  • On March 9, 2017, a total of 26 people were killed in a double suicide bombing attack with explosive belts during a wedding near the city of Tikrit, northwest of Baghdad (Reuters, March 9, 2017). ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. According to ISIS, the suicide bombing attacks were intended to hit operatives of the pro-Iranian Shiite militia (“Popular Mobilization”) assisting the Iraqi government in the fighting against ISIS (BBC in Arabic, March 9, 2017).
  • On March 13, 2017, an IED exploded in a shopping area in southern Baghdad (Al-Sumaria, March 13, 2017). One man was killed, and four others were wounded. At this stage, ISIS hasn’t claimed responsibility.
Russian reports that ISIS is using chemical weapons
  • Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharovasaid in an interview with Russian media that Russia had presented to the UN Security Council findings indicating the use of chemical weapons by ISIS in east Mosul. According to Russian media, reports published by the World Health Organization indicate that patients hit by chemical weapons are being treated in a hospital near Mosul (Sputnik, March 11, 2017). On the other hand, the authorities in Iraq announced that they have no information on the use of chemical weapons.

Global jihad activity in other countries

Egypt
  • ISIS’s Sinai Province claimed responsibility for the assassination of Brigadier General Yasser Mohammad Munir Hadidi, commander of the security forces in Al-Arish. The attack was carried out by roadside charges which were activated against Al-Hadidi’s convoy. Two companions who traveled with him were wounded (Al-Bawaba News, March 9, 2017). The following day, ISIS announced that two Egyptian police officers, one of them a senior officer with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, had been killed and four other officers wounded in the explosion of an IED activated against an Egyptian armored vehicle traveling on the Al-Arish coastal road (Haqq, March 10, 2017).
  • Following the assassination, the Egyptian security forces declared an emergency situation. They reinforced their presence in the area and closed Al-Arish’s entrances and exits. Inside the city, searches for the perpetrators of the attacks were conducted, and large-scale detentions of suspects were carried out (Al-Watan, March 9, 2017). At the same time, the Egyptians tookmeasures to win the support of the local population in North Sinai: Egyptian media reported that on the orders of Egyptian President El-Sisi, the security forces in the area of Al-Arish, Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid distributed food packages to the residents (Al-Masry al-Youm, March 9, 2017). Egyptian Prime Minister Sharif Ismail decided to set up a committee to provide financial assistance to those in need in North Sinai (Al-Fajr, March 12, 2017).
  • On March 11, 2017, armed ISIS operatives set up a checkpoint in central Al-Arish. The operatives at the checkpoint stopped passersby and asked them to show their documents. According to the operatives, they had set up the checkpoint in search of Coptic residents (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, March 13, 2017). The ISIS-affiliated Haqq website published photos showing armed operatives near a checkpoint they set up in Al-Fateh Square in central Al-Arish (Haqq, March 11, 2017). If the report about the checkpoint is true, it indicates the governance difficulties of the Egyptian security forces in Al-Arish, in spite of their intense security activity.
Afghanistan
  • Five ISIS suicide bombers attacked a military hospital in Kabul, killing several dozens and wounding many others. The attack began when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest in front of the hospital’s main gate. Immediately afterwards, the other terrorists stormed the hospital, dressed as doctors, and shot to death doctors, hospitalized patients and their families. After exchanges of fire that lasted several hours, the Afghan security forces killed the assailants (Afghanistan Times, May 8-12, 2017).

Counterterrorism activity

Germany
  • On March 11, 2017, the German security forces closed a large shopping mall in Germany, in the heart of the city of Essen. The mall was closed following “concrete indications” of a possible terrorist attack. Two suspects were detained, and one of them was released. The German interior minister claimed that the Islamic State had been behind the attack that was foiled. According to the minister, the instructions for the attack were given by a German citizen who left for Syria.

Media activity

ISIS’s incitement against Egyptian Copts continues, and threats against Algeria
  • ISIS’s weekly Al-Naba published an article with blatant incitement against Christians residing in Egypt. According to the article, these Christians do not content themselves with war crimes against the Muslims, but they also collaborate with any enemy or tyrant and do not miss any opportunity to kill Muslims. The Christians, according to the article, represent a pretext for the West to take over and destroy Muslim countries. Furthermore, the Christians desire to take over the rich soils in Egypt and Sinai in order to establish an independent Christian state similar to the “Zionist Jewish state” (Al-Naba, issue No. 71, March 9, 2017).
  • The same issue of the Al-Naba weekly also featured an article threatening Algeria. The article said that caravans of suicide bombers from ISIS’s Algeria Province would soon carry out attacks. According to the article, in the next few days, Algeria and “its tyrants” will soon witness so many attacks that they will be uprooted, and Islamic religious law (Sharia) will be implemented there.

[1]According to a source in the SDF, more than 1,000 US soldiers are currently deployed in Syria. The same source said that the first group of a US Marine Brigade, which includes more than a hundred soldiers, arrived at Rmeilan Airport (northeast of Al-Hasakah, an area under Kurdish control). The source added that 400 more soldiers from the Marine Brigade are expected to reach the staging zone of the SDF forces via Iraq's Kurdish region (Al-Mayadeen, March 14, 2017)
[2]According to an Arabic-language announcement on behalf of the US Department of State, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham is part of Al-Qaeda in Syria, and the leader behind that organization is Abu Mohammad al-Julani. In response, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham released an announcement stating that it is independent (Al-Durar Al-Shamiya, March 12, 2017).

Additional Bulletins