Spotlight on Global Jihad (April 6-19, 2017)

Issued on: 19/04/2017 Type: Article

Main events of the week

  • nOn April 12, 2017, talks were held in Moscow between US Secretary of State Tillerson and his Russian counterpart Lavrov and President Putin.The talks were held in light of the tension between the two powers, which was created in Syria following the use of chemical weapons against civilians by the Syrian regime and the attack on the Syrian Air Force base Shayrat by the US. The talks led to the announcement of the establishment of mechanisms for dialogue and coordination between the US and Russia, which may lead to a reduction in the media attacks between the two countries. However, the basic differences of opinion between the US and Russia regarding Syria remain unchanged.
  • nThe use of chemical weapons against civilians by the Syrian regime and the firing of the American cruise missiles in response did not lead to significant changes in the situation on the ground in the various battlefields in Syria: In the area north of Hama, the Syrian regime has recorded an achievement against the rebel organizations, while the rebels have the upper hand in Daraa and the fighting continues in the area east of Damascus. In the meantime, the SDF forces are completing the encirclement of the city of Al-Raqqah and are now preparing for the decisive stage of taking over the city.
  • nIn the Old City of Mosul, the fighting is slowly progressing.The Iraqi forces are suffering heavy losses due to ISIS’s fierce resistance. Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation is deteriorating in western Mosul, an area with some 400,000 residents. These residents are trapped among the fighting forces. They are suffering from a shortage of food and are prevented from fleeing from the battle zones by ISIS, which perceives them as a human shield.

 

The United States and Russia

US Secretary of State’s talks in Moscow
  • The talks in Moscow were held in light of the dramatic events in Syria, which began eight days earlier: On April 4, 2017, the Syrian Air Force used chemical weapons (apparently sarin gas) against civilians in the town of Khan Shaykhun (some 54 km south of Idlib) The attack killed at least one hundred civilians and wounded hundreds of others. In response, on April 7, the United States launched 59 cruise missiles from ships in the Mediterranean Sea at the Syrian Air Force’s Shayrat Airbase (some 31 km south of Homs). The American attack on Shayrat Airbase was the first to be carried out against a target of the Syrian regime since the outbreak of the civil war. It constituted a clear signal to Russia and the enemies of the United States that the new American president does not hesitate to adopt new “rules of the game” in Syria, and that he is liable to do so in other conflict zones as well. Russia, on its part, sided firmly with its ally Syria, claiming that the Syrian regime was not to blame for the chemical attack on Shayrat, defending Syria at the Security Council, and demanding the establishment of a commission of inquiry to investigate the incident.

 

  • In the talks held by Tillerson in Moscow, a number of pending issues between the US and Russia in various arenas around the world were discussed, but the latest developments in Syria appeared to be the main topic. After the meetings, Tillerson, Lavrov and Putin held a press conference. Following are the key issues that arose, in the context of Syria (www.state.gov, April 12, 2017):
  • The dispute over the responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Khan Shaykhun: The dispute remained unresolved after the talks. Secretary of State Tillerson stressed that the United States has unequivocal information indicating that the chemical weapons attack was planned, directed and executed by the forces of the Syrian regime. According to him, this attack is the latest in a long series of incidents involving the use of chemical weapons of various kinds by the Syrian regime. On the other hand, Foreign Minister Lavrov rejected the United States’ accusations against the Syrian regime, insisting that Russia was on the verge of carrying out “an objective investigation” on the matter.
  • Prevention of friction between the air forces of Russia and the United States and the coalition operating in Syria: Foreign Minister Lavrovsaid that one of the issues discussed during the talks was the resumption of the operation of the de-confliction memorandum during air operations in Syria by Russia and the US-led coalition.[1] The operation of this mechanism was halted (on April 7, 2017, following the American attack in Syria). According to Lavrov, President Putin confirmed Russia’s determination to put it on track again on the basis of what he called the main aims which are combatting the Al-Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria) and ISIS.[2]
  • The establishment of a working group to examine several issues: Secretary of State Tillerson said that the meeting with President Putin was productive. According to him, the US and Russia are in agreement on a range of issues concerning Syria, including the existence of Syria as a unified and stable state and preventing it from becoming a safe haven for terrorists. However, there are also differences of opinion between the two sides. He said that both sides had agreed to set up a working group to address smaller issues and make progress towards stabilizing the relationship between them.

Main developments in Syria

The campaign to take over Al-Raqqah
  • The SDF forces, with coalition air support, took control of the rural areas to the west, east and north of the city of Tabqa, and completed its encirclement (Al-Mayadeen, April 12, 2017). On April 15, 2017, the SDF forces announced that they had begun to enter the city through its eastern and western neighborhoods. According to an SDF commander, his forces took control of one of the neighborhoods in the southwestern part of Tabqa (Al-Jazeera, April 16, 2017).
  • The SDF announced that its forces had begun the “fourth stage” of the takeover of Al-Raqqah. According to the SDF, the purpose of this stage is to encircle the city and cut it off from the other areas under ISIS’s control (ARA News, Akhbar Al-Alam, April 13, 2017). At the same time, the SDF forces announced the establishment of a body called "the Al-Raqqah Civil Council," which will manage the city after their forces take it over. The first meeting of the council was held in the town of Ain Issa, north of Al-Raqqah (Khotwa News Agency, April 17, 2017).

 

  • On April 11, 2017, coalition aircraft attacked ISIS targets south of Tabqa. In the attack, 18 SDF fighters were accidentally killed. According to an announcement by the US Department of Defense, an SDF fighting position was identified by mistake as an ISIS fighting position. However, it turned out to be an SDF forward fighting position. The coalition is also reportedly assessing the cause for the incident and will take all the appropriate safeguards to prevent similar incidents in the future (defense.gov, April 13, 2017).
The area of Hama
  • In the area north of Hama, the Syrian forces continue to regain control over the towns and villages taken over by the rebel organizations at the beginning of the offensive. Worth mention is the takeover of the town of Soran, located some 16 km north of Hama (near the Damascus-Aleppo international highway), from the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham.
  • According to Syrian regime media, 2,308 operatives of the rebel organizations were killed in the battles between the two sides north of Hama, 1,325 were wounded, and large quantities of weapons were destroyed, including nine tanks and four APCs (Syrian TV, April 17, 2017). On the other hand, the rebel organizations announced that they had bombed the military airbase in Hama, putting it out of commission. According to the announcement, a MiG-23 was destroyed and extensive damage was caused to the facilities at the airbase (Sham News Agency, April 16, 2017).
The city of Daraa
  • After some two months of fighting, the rebel organizations, led by the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, managed to take over most of the Al-Manshiyyah neighborhood in southwest Daraa.The operations room of the rebel organizations announced that it had “liberated” nine building complexes, comprising around 85% of the neighborhood, and that its forces were about to complete the liberation of the neighborhood (Zaman al-Wasl, April 15, 2017). The Syrian Army, on its part, fired artillery at Old Daraa (Daraa al-Balad), which is in the hands of the rebel organizations. According to a Syrian TV report, on April 16, 2017, more than 10 operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham were killed and wounded in Old Daraa.
Aleppo: Detonation of a car bomb against busses carrying Shiite residents from the villages of Al-Fu'ah and Kafraya
  • On April 15, 2017, a car bomb was detonated in the west Aleppo neighborhood of Al-Rashidayn. At least 126 people were killed and dozens were wounded. The terrorist attack was carried out against busses carrying residents from the Shiite villages of Al-Fu'ah and Kafraya, about 8 km north of Idlib. Most of the dead (109) are residents of the two villages, while the others are armed men and escorts (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, April 16, 2017).

 

  • No organization claimed responsibility so far. ISIS reported on the incident, noting that the identity of the perpetrators is unknown (Haqq, April 15, 2017). The families of the dead issued an announcement blaming the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and other rebel organizations which were parties to the evacuation agreement from the Shiite villages (Syrian Army Spokesperson's Office, April 17, 2017).
  • The evacuation of the Shiite villages of Al-Fu'ah and Kafraya was carried out under an agreement reached between the Syrian regime and the rebel organizations. As part of the agreement, local residents and several hundred fighters supporting the Syrian regime were evacuated from two besieged Shiite villages, in return for the evacuation of over 2,000 armed operatives from the town of Madaya and the city of Zabadani, near the border between Syria and Lebanon (Reuters, April 16, 2017).

Main developments in Iraq

The campaign for the takeover of Mosul
  • On April 16, the Iraqi security forces renewed their attacks in the Old City of Mosul. Fighting in the Old City is progressing slowly, and the Iraqi forces sustain many casualties, due to ISIS's fierce resistance and the nature of the Old City, which is densely populated.

 

  • The commander of the Iraqi Federal Police reported that the police had taken over the area of the Al-Nuri Mosque (Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath, April 16, 2017). However, it seems that the mosque itself hasn't been taken over yet by the Iraqi forces. Another Iraqi commander reported that over 60 ISIS operatives had been killed in the mosque area (Sputnik, April 17, 2017).
  • In the meantime, the humanitarian situation is deteriorating in west Mosul, which is home to about 400,000 residents. UN Humanitarian Coordinator Lise Grande noted that according to reports received from the city, ISIS operatives shoot residents who are trying to escape from the areas under ISIS's control. She noted that the Iraqi government should find ways to evacuate the residents, who are suffering from a food shortage (Al-Hayat, April 18, 2017).
ISIS's response
  • ISIS, which is fiercely fighting, employs a variety of fighting tactics against the Iraqi forces: suicide bombing attacks, rocket fire, and the use of drones against Iraqi forces situated outside Mosul.

Sinai Peninsula

Two suicide bombing attacks against Coptic churches
  • On April 9, 2017, ISIS carried out two suicide bombing attacks in two Coptic churches in Tanta (north of Cairo) and Alexandria. The attacks were carried out during festivities before Easter, but suicide bombers who detonated themselves with explosive belts. Over 50 people were killed in the attacks, and over 150 were wounded. According to the Egyptian Interior Ministry, the Coptic Patriarch was staying at the church in Alexandria during the attack, but he was not hurt. Following the terrorist attacks, President Sisi declared a state of emergency for the duration of three months.

 

  • The first attack was carried out on April 9, 2017, at around 11:30 am in Saint George Church in Tanta. It was carried out by a suicide bomber called Mamduh Amin Mohammad Baghdadi, who blew himself up with an explosive belt inside the church. A total of 30 people were killed, and about a hundred were wounded. The second attack was carried out several hours later in Saint Mark Church in Alexandria. A suicide bomber called Mahmud Hassan Mubarak Abdallah blew himself up at the entrance to the church because a security guard prevented him from entering. A total of 20 people were killed and over 50 were wounded (Reuters, April 13, 2017; Al-Masry Al-Youm, April 14, 2017).
  • On April 9, 2017, ISIS claimed responsibility for both attacks. In its announcement, ISIS stated that the two suicide bombers blew themselves up with explosive belts among crowds of "Crusaders" (i.e., Coptic Christians). The announcement ends with a threat that "the account between us and them (i.e., the Copts) is big, and they will pay with the blood of their sons, which will flow like rivers…" (Haqq, April 9, 2017).
  • The attacks were carried out in the light of ISIS's blatant incitement in recent months against the Copts in Egypt. The Copts are portrayed by ISIS media outlets as collaborating with the West against the Muslims. This incitement was accompanied by harassment of the Coptic population in Al-Arish (which led to Coptic residents fleeing the city to adjacent cities, mainly to Ismailiyah) and deadly attacks carried out in Egypt proper (the prominent attack that preceded these two terrorist attacks occurred in a Coptic cathedral in Cairo on December 11, 2016. A total of 25 people were killed).

 

Shooting attack near St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai
  • On April 18, 2017, several armed operatives carried out a shooting attack against an Egyptian force near St. Catherine's Monastery in South Sinai. An Egyptian officer was killed, and four soldiers were wounded (Al-Arabiya, April 18, 2017). According to the Egyptian Interior Ministry, there were exchanges of fire at the scene, and several armed operatives were wounded but managed to escape (Reuters and Arab and Egyptian media, April 18-19, 2017). ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.

Global jihad activity in other countries

Arrest of suspects in the suicide bombing attack in St. Petersburg
  • On April 3, 2017, a suicide bombing attack was carried out on a subway train in St. Petersburg.As a result, 14 passengers were killed and 55 others were injured. According to Russian media reports, the perpetrator of the attack was Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, a Russian and Kyrgyz citizen. The suicide bomber who carried out the attack received military training at ISIS’s camps in Syria in 2015-2016. In the wake of the attack, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested 8 suspects from Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, all of whom are allegedly ISIS operatives. A search of their apartment revealed an IED identical to that used in the subway (TASS News Agency, April 6-7, 2017).
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin noted in response to the attack in St. Petersburg that the possibility of revoking the citizenship of Russian citizens joining the Islamic State is being considered. According to him, there are about 20,000 foreign fighters in Syria, including about 4,000 Russian citizens (TASS News Agency, April 12, 2017). Alexander Bortnikov, head of the FSB, referred to the phenomenon of foreign fighters. According to Bortnikov, 16 acts of terrorism were foiled in Russian territory in 2016, involving citizens of the Former Soviet Union who belonged to around 46 terrorist squads that were neutralized. According to him, most of the operatives in these cells were citizens of the CIS who had come to Russia in search of work. He said that some of them “underwent special training and took part in hostile activities in Syria and Iraq” (TASS News Agency, April 11, 2017).
Bombing of ISIS’s underground system of tunnels and caves in Afghanistan
  • The US Department of Defense announced that on April 13, an attack was carried out on ISIS’s underground system of tunnels and caves in the Nangarhar Province of eastern Afghanistan (near the border with Pakistan). The underground system was attacked by a GBU-23 bomb known as MOAB. According to American media reports, this was the first use of the 9.5 ton bomb, which is capable of penetrating 60 meters of concrete.
  • Both the United States and ISIS attempted to gain media benefits from the incident:
  • White House Spokesman Sean Spicer said that the use of this bomb shows that the US is serious in its struggle against ISIS. The commander of the American forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, said that ISIS’s losses in the region are increasing and that its operatives are being forced to use bunkers to protect themselves (Associated Press and Haaretz Israeli daily, April 14, 2017).
  • ISIS, on its part, issued a statement on April 14 claiming that none of its operatives had been injured in the attack. It boasted that a small IED had killed the 220 passengers of the Russian plane over Sinai, while the American administration had used a huge bomb that failed to kill even one of ISIS’s operatives (Haqq, April 15, 2017).

Counterterrorism and preventive activity

Attempted attack in Paris on the eve of the elections foiled
  • According to Paris Chief Prosecutor François Molins, two French citizens were arrested in Marseilles on April 18. They planned to carry out a terrorist attack on the eve of the French presidential elections. Three kilograms of explosives, handguns, machine guns and an ISIS flag were found in the suspects’ apartment. The two suspects are in their 20s and are known to the police after having served a prison term in a French jail. They converted and became radical Islamists (France 24, April 19, 2017).
Showcase attack in Turkey on the day of the referendum foiled
  • According to Turkish media reports, the Istanbul police counter-terrorism unit raided several neighborhoods in the city and detained five ISIS terrorists. According to other versions, the number of detainees is nine. The detainees are suspected of planning to carry out terrorist attacks at voting stations during the referendum. One of the detainees is a citizen of Tajikistan (aa.com.tr, April 14, 2017; Hürriyet Daily News).

[1]This is a memorandum of understanding signed by the United States and Russia in late October 2015.The memorandum pertains to cooperation in the area of aviation safety during the operations in Syria. The memorandum contained several procedures aimed at preventing accidents between the Russian Air Force and the US-led coalition air forces. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the agreement is of practical importance since it regulates the movement of manned and unmanned aircraft of the various armies in the skies of Syria. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the US Army undertook to convey the memorandum to the rest of the coalition countries (Russian Ministry of Defense website, October 29, 2015).
[2]This is not a common goal of Russia and the US. The goal of America’s involvement in Syria is to fight ISIS and destroy it. The war against the Fateh al-Sham Front (the new name of the former Al-Nusra Front), which cooperates with other rebel organizations, has not been designated as an American goal. The Russians, on the other hand, because of their interest in supporting the Syrian regime, perceive the Al-Nusra Front as an important target in the “war on terrorists” and want to drag the Americans to participate in it.

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