Tanks and artillery of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham transferred from Idlib to fight rival rebel organizations (Furat Post Facebook page, February 27, 2018)
Tanks and artillery of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham transferred from Idlib to fight rival rebel organizations (Furat Post Facebook page, February 27, 2018)
ISIS operatives detained in Mosul (Iraqi News Agency, February 25, 2018)
The weapons found in an ISIS cache (Al-Sumaria News, February 22, 2018)
Diyala Province Operations Commander Maj. Gen. Mazhar al-Azzawi (Al-Sumaria News, February 23, 2018)
Egyptian Armed Forces Spokesman Colonel Tamer al-Refai at the press conference (Official Facebook page of the Egyptian Armed Forces Spokesman, February 22, 2018)
Main events of the week
- The focus of the fighting in Syria has been moved to the area of eastern Ghouta (east of Damascus), where the Syrian forces are attacking (with Russian air support) in order to remove the threat of the rebels from the Syrian capital. The fighting in eastern Ghouta continues even after the UN Security Council resolution on a general ceasefire throughout Syria and President Putin’s order of a daily “humanitarian pause.”
- The shift in the focus of the fighting to eastern Ghouta gave a timeout to the rebel organizations in the Idlib region, mainly the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham. The pause was utilized by the organization for making preparations on the ground for the (anticipated) Syrian attack on Idlib. At the same time, internal clashes continued between the rebel organizations in the Idlib region, weakening the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham.
- In various provinces in Iraq, the Iraqi security forces continue to exert pressure on local ISIS networks. This week, many ISIS operatives were killed and detained and weapons were seized. ISIS still finds it difficult to adequately respond to the Iraqi activity.
- According to Jordanian media reports, the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate uncovered an ISIS network of 17 operatives in November 2017. The network planned to carry out attacks on a number of targets, including Israeli businessmen who regularly visit a clothing factory in Jordan.
Russia and the United States
The arrival of two advanced fighter planes in Syria
- According to Russian media reports, two Su-57 fighter jets landed at Hmeymim base on February 12, 2018, along with four Su-35s and an A-50 early warning aircraft. Su-57 is a two-engine fighter aircraft with stealth capability, equipped with new generation advanced missile systems (Wikipedia; Zvezda TV website, August 11, 2017). A source at the Russian Ministry of Defense said that the aircraft arrived as part of a “mission to test the aircraft’s performance under real conditions” (RBK, February 22, 2018). Russian military sources said that the aircraft would not participate in the fighting in Syria (Sputnik, February 26, 2018).
Damage to a Russian site in eastern Ghouta
- According to a report by the Russian Center for Reconciliation, “armed groups” operating in the area of eastern Ghouta fired at residential areas and hotels in the suburbs of Damascus. On February 20, 2018, more than ten mortar shells were fired at the Russian Center for Reconciliation (Russian Defense Ministry website, February 20, 2018). According to a source close to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the attackers belonged to the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and the attack caused minor damage to the infrastructure of the Russian Center for Reconciliation (Kommersant, February 20, 2018). At present, it is not clear whether the Russian Center for Reconciliation was the target of the attack, or whether it was a case of collateral damage.
The United States
- Daniel R. Coats, US Director of National Intelligence (DNI), presented the US intelligence community’s Worldwide Threats Assessment. The document estimates that ISIS and Al-Qaeda will continue to pose a threat to the interests and partners of the US around the world. With regard to ISIS, the estimate is that in the coming year, the organization is expected to focus on reorganizing in Syria and Iraq while strengthening its global presence. ISIS’s claim that it has a functioning caliphate that controls a population is incorrect. However, the organization’s core is still operating in Iraq and Syria, as part of its long-term strategy of reestablishing the Caliphate. According to the document, it is likely that ISIS will continue to prioritize terrorist attacks abroad. This is because its leadership may believe that if ISIS attacks continue to dominate the public discourse, and if the organization’s narrative continues to be popular, it will be hard for the Coalition to present ISIS as a defeated organization (DNI website, Worldwide Threats Assessment, February 13, 2018).
Main developments in Syria
The fighting in Eastern Ghouta
- The UN Security Council resolution notes that the ceasefire does not apply to military operations against ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and other organizations described by the Security Council as “terrorist organizations” (the UN official website, February 25, 2018). Excluding these organizations from the ceasefire agreement gives legitimacy to the Syrian regime (and Russia, which supports it) to carry on with the military activity against the rebel organizations in eastern Ghouta.
The campaign to take over the Idlib area
- Shifting the main site of the fighting to Eastern Ghouta allowed the rebel organizations, mainly the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, a temporary lull in the Idlib area. The operatives used the temporary lull to prepare for defense against the Syrian forces. The preparations on the ground focused on the town of Saraqib, about 16 km southeast of Idlib. The town is situated on an important junction near the main Damascus-Hama-Aleppo highway. The rebel organizations blocked the roads leading to Idlib with embankments of sand and earth; placed snipers on areas dominating the routes, and reinforced the checkpoints on roads leading to Idlib (Butulat Al-Jaysh Al-Suri, February 26, 2018). On the other hand, the Syrian forces, which finished mopping up most of the area east of the Hama-Aleppo road, halted their advance toward Aleppo for the time being and shifted their attention to the fighting in eastern Ghouta.
- In the meantime, internal confrontations between the rebel organizations in the Idlib area continue. The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, which is the dominant organization in this area, moved armored vehicles and heavy weapons from Idlib to fight against the “Front for the Liberation of Syria” (a rebel organization which was established recently by merging the Ahrar Al-Sham and Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki organizations). The trigger for this move was the Ahrar Al-Sham organization’s takeover of a hangar belonging to the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham near the Turkish border, about 35 km north of Idlib (Furat Post Facebook page, February 27, 2018).
Yarmouk refugee camp area
- According to a Syrian opposition news website, ISIS recently sent a number of operatives to the area south of Damascus. The arrival of these operatives had an effect on the confrontations between ISIS and the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham. One of the new arrivals is called Abu Ahmad al-Iraqi, the new official in charge of ISIS’s Sharia office in southern Damascus. At the same time, ISIS operatives south of Damascus received large sums of money, allowing the organization to pay salaries, which were recently denied from its operatives (revospring.com, February 21, 2018).
- A Lebanese news website and Syrian media outlets reported that an agreement had been reached between the Syrian regime and operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham on the operative’s evacuation from the Yarmouk refugee camp. According to the agreement, operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham will be evacuated to northern Syria (probably to the Idlib area). In return, dozens of wounded people (according to another version, 160 wounded and sick people) will be evacuated from the besieged Shiite villages of Kafraya and Al-Fu’ah (about 7 km northeast of Idlib). The Red Crescent will supervise the implementation of the agreement. Furthermore, according to the agreement, several operatives of the militias supporting the Syrian regime, who are currently detained by the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, will be released. The sides are reportedly still discussing the manner of implementation of the agreement (Al-Modon, February 21, 2018); Khotwa; Al-Durar Al-Shamiya, February 25, 2018).
- The agreement was reportedly reached about a week after ISIS operatives had carried out a large-scale attack against positions of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham in the northwestern part of the Yarmouk refugee camp. Following this attack, the operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham now control a limited territory in the northwestern part of the refugee camp, about 5%-15% of the camp (Al-Modon, February 21, 2018).
The Albukamal area
- In the area north of the city of Albukamal, clashes continued between ISIS operatives and the SDF forces. ISIS released several photos showing an armored vehicle attacking an SDF position on the outskirts of the village of Abu Al-Hassan, about 20 km north of Albukamal.
ISIS armored vehicle shells an SDF position north of Albukamal
(Nasher, a file-sharing website, February 26, 2018)
- Four ISIS operatives reportedly escaped from a detention facility of the SDF forces in northern Syria. According to the report, thousands of ISIS operatives, most of them Syrians, are being held in SDF detention camps. In addition, about 500 ISIS foreign fighters from forty different countries are also held there (Enab Baladi, February 24, 2018).
The Golan Heights
- On February 24, 2018, the Syrian Army’s Military Information released a video documenting the foiling of an attack by operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham against Syrian army positions around Madinat Al-Baath (about 6 km northeast of Quneitra). The video shows anti-tank missiles being fired at an armored vehicle belonging to the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (SANA’s YouTube channel, February 24, 2018).
Right: Anti-tank missile fired by the Syrian army at an armored vehicle of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham.
Left: The missile hitting the vehicle (SANA’s YouTube channel, February 24, 2018)
- On February 25, 2018, there were clashes between the rebel organizations and the Khaled bin Al-Walid Army affiliated with ISIS, in various sites in the southern Golan Heights (Khotwa News Agency, February 25, 2018). The Rebel organizations, among other things, attacked a Khaled bin Al-Walid Army checkpoint around the village of Al-Ma. ISIS’s Amaq News Agency reported an attempt to attack a Khaled bin Al-Walid Army position near the village of Jamla, about 2 km east of the Syrian-Israeli border (Enab Baladi, February 26, 2018).
Main developments in Iraq
Activity of the Iraqi security forces against ISIS networks throughout Iraq
- Iraqi security forces’ activity against local ISIS networks continued throughout Iraq. ISIS operatives were killed or detained, and many weapons were seized. ISIS still finds it difficult to adequately respond to the Iraqi activity. Following are highlights of the Iraqi security forces’ activity:
- The city of Mosul: Mohammad al-Biyati, chairman of the security committee in the Nineveh Province council, said that after an intelligence collection effort, eighty ISIS operatives and about 170 people suspected of being affiliated with ISIS had been detained in recent weeks. The detainees were interrogated in the Iraqi security centers, and most of them were tried (Iraqi News Agency, February 25, 2018).
- Tal Afar (northwest of Mosul): The Military Intelligence personnel in the Iraqi Army 15th Division located an ISIS cache of explosives, IEDs and equipment in the Tal Afar area (about 68 km west of Mosul). According to them, the cache contained 15 explosive belts, 12 IEDs, 9 RPG-7 anti-tank rockets, four detonators for explosive belts and IEDs, two hand grenades and one anti-tank missile. The weapons were destroyed by the Iraqi army (Al-Sumaria News, February 22, 2018).
- Diyala Province: Maj. Gen. Mazhar al-Azzawi, Diyala Province operations commander, reported that ISIS’s Diyala Province commander had been killed in an airstrike in the Halawiya area (about 110 km northeast of Baqubah). Al-Azzawi noted that ISIS had lost many of its commanders in airstrikes by the Iraqi Air Force. He said that this was accomplished thanks to pinpoint intelligence possessed by the Iraqi forces (Al-Sumaria News, February 23, 2018).
- Al-Qaim (Iraqi-Syrian border): The Military Intelligence Directorate announced that the Military Intelligence had located an ISIS depot of weapons and ammunition in the city of Al-Qaim. The weapons depot contained, among other things, 167 mortar shells, seven explosive belts, two anti-tank missile launchers, Grad rockets and a mortar (Al-Sumaria News, February 23, 2018).
- Al-Anbar Province (Hit): Two ISIS operatives wearing explosive belts barricaded themselves at a plaster factory in Hit. The four men, who were traced and killed by the Iraqi security forces based on intelligence, intended to carry out terrorist attacks in the area. (Iraqi News Agency, February 26, 2018).
- Baghdad: Dozens of women are being tried in Baghdad courts on charges of supporting ISIS. Fifteen Turkish women were reportedly sentenced to death for being affiliated with ISIS. Another woman was sentenced to life imprisonment (Iraqi News Agency, February 25, 2018). The women admitted that they had married ISIS operatives or provided logistical support to ISIS operatives, including assistance in carrying out attacks (Reuters, February 25, 2018).
ISIS activity in the Kirkuk Province
- On February 24, 2018, ISIS’s Kirkuk Province announced that it had carried out a suicide bombing attack against the headquarters of the Asaeb Ahl Al-Haqq Shiite movement. The attack was carried out by a suicide bomber codenamed Abu Muadh al-Iraqi, who blew himself up with an explosive vest. As a result, many people were killed and wounded (Akhbar Al-Muslimeen, February 25, 2018).
- On February 25, 2018, Iraqi media outlets released a video showing a suicide bomber with an explosive belt wearing a jacket with his hands in his pockets. He was shown approaching the building of the Shiite militia and trying to enter it. The suicide bomber was seen escaping from the entrance when the security guards on the premises shot at him. Several minutes later, he blew himself up at the plaza near the entrance, without any casualties among those at the scene (Al-Sumaria News, February 25, 2018).
Right: ISIS suicide bomber trying to enter the headquarters of Asaeb Ahl Al-Haqq in Kirkuk.
Left: The suicide bomber blowing himself up at the plaza near the entrance (Al-Sumaria News, February 25, 2018)
- On February 24, 2018, an ISIS force attacked the oil police station at the Khabbaz oil field, one of Kirkuk’s five oil fields. Two Iraqi policemen were killed, and a third was wounded (Ilaf; AFP, February 24, 2018).
Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula
Interim Summary of Operation Sinai 2018
- Egyptian Armed Forces Spokesman Aqid (Colonel) Tamer al-Refai held a press conference at which he outlined the achievements of Operation Sinai 2018 to date. According to him, 500 checkpoints have been set up and security patrols have been stationed on the main roads in northern and central Sinai. He noted that the Air Force had destroyed 158 “terrorist targets” and the Armored Corps had hit 413 targets. According to him, 71 terror operatives were captured, 1,282 safe houses and storehouses of terrorist operatives were destroyed, vehicles and motorcycles were confiscated, and two information centers were exposed and destroyed. In addition, a large quantity of weapons and explosives was seized. He said that seven members of the Egyptian security forces had been killed and six others wounded (Official Facebook page of the Egyptian Armed Forces Spokesman, February 22, 2018).
Egyptian Armed Forces Spokesman Colonel Tamer al-Refai at the press conference
(Official Facebook page of the Egyptian Armed Forces Spokesman, February 22, 2018)
ISIS suicide bombing attack foiled near Al-Arish
- Egyptian security forces foiled an attack by a squad of four ISIS operatives, including two suicide bombers wearing explosive belts, against a position of the Security Directorate near Al-Arish. The suicide bombers tried to blow themselves up. The security forces opened fire at them, resulting in an explosion, and the two suicide bombers were killed (Facebook page of the Sinai Tribal Union, quoting Al-Bawaba News, February 23, 2018).
- ISIS’s Sinai Province claimed responsibility for the attack. According to the claim of responsibility, two of the squad operatives were from the Gaza Strip and the other two from Egypt proper. The claim of responsibility also stated that dozens of members of the Egyptian security forces had been killed and wounded in the attack (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, February 22, 2018).
The perpetrators of the suicide bombing attack near Al-Arish
The perpetrators of the attack. Right: Abu Khaled al-Masri [i.e., the Egyptian]. Left: Abu Mussab al-Masri [i.e., the Egyptian] (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, February 23, 2018)
Right: Abu Shamel al-Maqdisi. A green wire with a switch for activating the explosive belt at one end is visible in the photo. Left: Khattab al-Maqdisi (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, February 23, 2018)
ISIS’s fighting tactics
- The weekly organ Al-Nabā’, published by ISIS’s media foundation, included an article on the combat tactics of ISIS operatives in the campaign being waged against them by the Egyptian security forces. The article quoted a “military source” of the Islamic State, who listed four main sectors where ISIS operatives are fighting in the Sinai Peninsula: Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid, Al-Arish, and the southern sector, which includes the Jabal Halal area.
- According to the same “military source,” the combat doctrine of ISIS operatives is influenced by developments on the ground. For example, they sometimes prioritize the use of IEDs to attack a vehicle, but when the Egyptian soldiers abandon the vehicle, they shoot at them with sniper rifles. In other cases, car bombs are used against soldiers moving on foot. Sometimes ISIS operatives let the soldiers reach their destination and only then attack them. The source also noted that the Egyptian convoys move in columns, headed by heavy machinery and mine-sweeping devices, which greatly slows their progress and, by implication, makes them an easy target (Al-Nabā’, February 20, 2018).
ISIS’s activity around the world
ISIS threatens to attack Christians in the Muslim republics of Russia
- An article in ISIS’s weekly Al-Nabā’ contained threats to carry out attacks against Christians living in the Muslim republics of the Former Soviet Union. The article argues that Russia occupied the Islamic countries and worked to convert the population or deport them to areas with a Christian majority. At the same time, Russia settled Christians in occupied territories such as the Caucasus, Crimea and Central Asia, in order to establish its hegemony. The article notes that the operation carried out by Khalil the Dagestani signaled the start of a series of bloody attacks against Christians in all the Muslim countries occupied by Russia. According to the article, in order to carry out such attacks, there is no need for large groups of trained fighters equipped with weapons, and every available weapon can be used (Al-Nabā’, February 20, 2018).
- A suicide bomber blew himself up near the National Directorate of Security (NDS) compound located in the diplomatic area of central Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The explosion took place in a secured area near NATO Headquarters and the US Embassy. Three people were killed and five others were wounded. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack (Afghanistan Times; Samaa TV [Pakistani news channel], February 24, 2018).
Right: The scene of the ISIS suicide bombing attack near the diplomatic area in Kabul (Twitter, February 23, 2018).
Left: ISIS operative codenamed Abu Bakr al-Khorasani who carried out the suicide bombing attack (Nasher, file-sharing website, February 24, 2018)
- Two suicide bombers driving car bombs blew themselves up at the entrance to the Counterterrorism Headquarters in the Al-Tawahi region south of Aden. After the explosion, several other armed terrorists tried to force their way into the building. According to the Aden police, the terrorists were liquidated before they reached the outer entrance gate to the headquarters. At least 14 members of the Counterterrorism Unit were killed and 40 others were wounded (Al-Arabiya, February 24, 2018).
- ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. According to the claim of responsibility issued by ISIS’s Aden Abyan Province, the attack was carried out by two suicide bombers driving two car bombs and their passengers, two terrorists equipped with light weapons. The two suicide bombers blew up the car bombs in front of the Counterterrorism Headquarters. Two other terrorists, who had previously gotten out of the cars, exchanged fire with the survivors of the car bomb explosions (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, February 24, 2018).
- ISIS’s Barqa Province in eastern Libya announced that 15 fighters from the Libyan National Army headed by Khalifa Haftar were killed or wounded, and two vehicles were destroyed, in the explosion of an ISIS car bomb at a checkpoint in the Al-Jafra area in central Libya (553 km southwest of Benghazi). The car bomb was driven by an ISIS operative codenamed Abu Muhammad al-Muhajir (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, February 22, 2018).
Counterterrorism and preventive activity
Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate uncovers ISIS network that had intended to carry out showcase attacks, including against businessmen
- On February 27, 2018, the Jordanian media reported that the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate had uncovered an ISIS network of 17 operatives in November 2017. The network operatives were divided into three groups: the first was in charge of observing the targets; the second was in charge of providing technical assistance and carrying out insignificant attacks; and the third was supposed to carry out showcase attacks, including suicide bombing attacks (Al-Rai, February 27, 2018).
- According to the reports, the targets of the attacks were: the Ruaya News Channel and its employees; the French Entrepreneurship Center; a nightclub in the Shmeisani neighborhood in Amman; the tunnels of a phosphate company near the Al-Rusayfah intelligence building; the US Embassy in Amman; a church in the Marka area, and Israeli businessmen who regularly visit a clothing factory.
 Ghouta is the name of the orchard area that surrounds the city of Damascus on the east (eastern Ghouta) and on the west (western Ghouta). These orchards are irrigated by canals from the Barada River, which have turned Damascus, located on the outskirts of the desert, into an oasis. Villages were established in the area of the orchards. Over the years, the villages grew into towns and cities located in the Damascus region. The Arabic word ghouta means fertile oasis located in a valley with streams, gardens and vegetation. ↑
 On February 18, 2018, a man armed with a hunting rifle and a knife opened fire outside a church in the city of Kizlyar in Dagestan (near the border with the Chechen Republic). He fired at the worshipers who were leaving the church. The perpetrator of the attack was Khalil Khalilov, 22, a local resident. He was shot to death by police after a struggle. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that it was carried out by an ISIS operative codenamed Khalil the Dagestani. ↑