Tag Archives: Turkey

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

Spotlight on Global Jihad

Spotlight on Global Jihad

Secretary of State Tillerson and Foreign Minister Lavrov at the press conference (US Department of State website, April 12, 2017)

Secretary of State Tillerson and Foreign Minister Lavrov at the press conference (US Department of State website, April 12, 2017)

Bodies of children from the villages of Al-Fu'ah and Kafraya and a destroyed bus at the scene of the attack. Left: charred cars at the scene (Haqq, April 15, 2017)

Bodies of children from the villages of Al-Fu'ah and Kafraya and a destroyed bus at the scene of the attack. Left: charred cars at the scene (Haqq, April 15, 2017)

Suicide bomber condenamed Abu Ibrahim Al-Iraqi, who carried out a suicide bombing attack in the Al-Thwara neighborhood (Haqq, April 17, 2017).

Suicide bomber condenamed Abu Ibrahim Al-Iraqi, who carried out a suicide bombing attack in the Al-Thwara neighborhood (Haqq, April 17, 2017).

Dropping a bomb by a drone on Iraqi forces in the town of Tal Zalt, about 25 km southwest of Mosul (Haqq, April 17, 2017)

Dropping a bomb by a drone on Iraqi forces in the town of Tal Zalt, about 25 km southwest of Mosul (Haqq, April 17, 2017)

Scene of the suicide bombing attack in Saint George Church in Tanta (Haqq, April 9, 2017).

Scene of the suicide bombing attack in Saint George Church in Tanta (Haqq, April 9, 2017).

Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, who carried out the suicide bombing attack in the St. Petersburg subway (simulacra deorum @digitalfolklore Twitter account, April 6, 2017)

Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, who carried out the suicide bombing attack in the St. Petersburg subway (simulacra deorum @digitalfolklore Twitter account, April 6, 2017)

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.

Spotlight on Global Jihad (March 30 – April 5, 2017)

Spotlight on Global Jihad

Spotlight on Global Jihad

SDF off-road vehicle on fire west of Al-Karamah area, southeast of Al-Raqqah, after being hit by an ISIS anti-tank missile (Haqq, April 1, 2017).

SDF off-road vehicle on fire west of Al-Karamah area, southeast of Al-Raqqah, after being hit by an ISIS anti-tank missile (Haqq, April 1, 2017).

Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani visits the Hama area (Al-Hadath News, April 2, 2017)

Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani visits the Hama area (Al-Hadath News, April 2, 2017)

Top: ISIS operatives fighting against the Iraqi security forces in west Mosul (Haqq, April 2, 2017). Bottom: Two suicide bombing attacks against the Iraqi security forces in the western part of the city (Aamaq, March 30, 2017)

Top: ISIS operatives fighting against the Iraqi security forces in west Mosul (Haqq, April 2, 2017). Bottom: Two suicide bombing attacks against the Iraqi security forces in the western part of the city (Aamaq, March 30, 2017)

Salameh Abu Adhan al-Tarabin al-Ansari, one of the founders of ISIS’s Sinai Province, killed in an airstrike (Haqq, April 1, 2017)

Salameh Abu Adhan al-Tarabin al-Ansari, one of the founders of ISIS’s Sinai Province, killed in an airstrike (Haqq, April 1, 2017)

Spreading leaflets on behalf of ISIS’s Sinai Province threatening the inhabitants not to collaborate with the Egyptian government (Haqq, April 1, 2017)

Spreading leaflets on behalf of ISIS’s Sinai Province threatening the inhabitants not to collaborate with the Egyptian government (Haqq, April 1, 2017)

ISIS operative codenamed Abu Faruq the Persian describes the persecution of the Sunni Muslims by the Safavid dynasty, which embraced Shia in the 16th century.

ISIS operative codenamed Abu Faruq the Persian describes the persecution of the Sunni Muslims by the Safavid dynasty, which embraced Shia in the 16th century.

Main events of the week[1]

  • The pressure on ISIS in Iraq and Syria is increasing:
  • Following the takeover of the Tabqa Dam and the airfield to its south, SDF forces operating with American support advanced to the city of Tabqa, which is controlled by ISIS (around 60,000 residents). The city was almost completely besieged. Its fall would symbolize the loss of another vital territory for ISIS, and the intensification of the pressure on ISIS’s stronghold in Al-Raqqah.
  • After several weeks of fighting, the Syrian forces took over the town of Deir Hafer, located on the road from Al-Bab to Lake Assad and the Euphrates Dam. At this stage, it is not yet clear whether the Syrian Army will try to take advantage of its success and continue to advance eastward, in view of the pressure exerted by the rebel organizations on the Syrian regime in core areas of Damascus and Hama.
  • Fighting in west Mosul continues to focus on the Old City, with no significant change on the ground. ISIS is apparently displaying resolute fighting and its operatives, who are skilled in fighting in built-up areas, are making it difficult for the attacking Iraqi forces. In any case, the Iraqi political leadershippublicly expresses optimism. Iraq’s interior minister declared that the liberation of Mosul from ISIS would be achieved within a few weeks.
  • This week, Turkey announced the successful conclusion of Operation Euphrates Shield.During the operation, Turkey managed to create a security zone in the area west of the Euphrates River, formerly controlled by ISIS, and to create a buffer zone between the Kurdish control zone east of the Euphrates River and the Kurdish enclave in the west (the Ifrin region.) Turkey’s success is overshadowed by its failure to take over the city of Manbij and its environs, which remained a sort of Kurdish-dominated enclave in the Turkish security zone, and by the US preference for the Kurdish-dominated SDF forces over Turkey.

 

The Coalition countries

Turkey announces the successful conclusion of Operation Euphrates Shield
  • At the end of a meeting chaired by Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish National Security Council announced the successful conclusion of Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria (which began in August 2016). The objectives of the operation, according to the announcement, were to ensure Turkey’s national security, to return Syrian refugees to their homes, and to remove the threat of ISIS from the Turkish-Syrian border (Anatolia News Agency, March 29, 2017).
  • Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that despite the successful conclusion of Operation EuphratesShield, Turkish Army forces would not soon withdraw from the territories that they had taken over. He said that before the withdrawal of the troops, the urban areas in the region should be rehabilitated and the local security forces should be trained and equipped (Anatolia News Agency; Hürriyet, April 1, 2017).Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık stressed that the Turkish forces were not about to withdraw since the threats against Turkey had not ceased. He added that Turkey would not hesitate to launch another operation if it felt threatened (Dimashq al-Aan, March 31, 2017).
  • From Turkey’s perspective, Operation Euphrates Shield ended successfully. The rebel forces (the Free Syrian Army), supported by the Turkish Army, took over most of the area that had been under the control of ISIS west of the Euphrates River, creating a Turkish-influenced security zone. Another achievement, from Turkey’s perspective, is the creation of a buffer zone between the Kurdish control zone east of the Euphrates River and the Kurdish enclave in the west (the Ifrin region.) From Turkey’s perspective, however, these achievements are overshadowed by two failures: one, due to the intervention of US and Russia, Turkey and its supporters did not manage to take control of the city of Manbij and its environs(which remains a sort of Kurdish-controlledenclave in the Turkish security zone west of the Euphrates River); and the second, the Kurdish-dominated SDF forces, with US support, are conducting the campaign to take over Al-Raqqah, while Turkey remains (at least for the time being) out of the game. Both of these issues are expected to be raised in talks between Turkey and the United States.

 

US Secretary of State meets with senior Turkish government officials
  • The day after the Turkish announcement about the conclusion of Operation Euphrates Shield, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Turkey and met with senior government officials. At the meetings, the two sides discussed coordination in the continuation of the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. At a press conference held by Tillerson after his meeting with the Turkish foreign minister, he said that the two countries had examined a number of options and alternatives in order to continue fighting against ISIS and take over Al-Raqqah. However, Tillerson admitted that the United States was facing tough choices about its partners in the struggle against ISIS (cbsnews.com, March 30, 2017).

Main developments in Syria

The Syrian Army’s advance towards the Euphrates Valley
  • After several weeks of fighting, on March 29, 2017, the Syrian forces took over the town of Deir Hafer, on the route leading from Al-Bab to Lake Assad and the Euphrates Valley. They have also taken over several towns and villages in the Deir Hafer area. ISIS operatives began to retreat from the area (Al-Durar Al-Shamiya, March 24, 2017). In the campaign for the takeover of Deir Hafer, hundreds of ISIS operatives were reportedly killed or wounded, and dozens of armored vehicles were destroyed. According to reports, there were ISIS headquarters in the town, as well as military workshops and hospitals (all4syria, March 29, 2017). At this stage, it is unclear whether and to what extent the Syrian advance will continue eastward toward the Euphrates Valley, in view of the pressure exerted on the Syrian regime in Damascus and Hama (see below).
The campaign for Al-Raqqah
The encirclement of the city of Al-Tabqa
  • Following the takeover of the Tabqa Dam and the airfield to its south, the SDF forces, with US support, advanced towards the city of Al-Tabqa. The city, which is held by ISIS, has 60,000 inhabitants. On March 31, 2017, the SDF forces and US Special Forces advanced towards Al-Tabqa from the military airfield south of the city. At the same time, the forces also advanced from the Tabqa Dam northeast of the city. On April 3, 2017, they reached the eastern entrance of Al-Tabqa and encircled it almost completely. Battles are still ongoing in the area (ARA News, April 3, 2017).

 

  • Aircraft of the anti-ISIS international coalition scattered leaflets in Al-Raqqah calling on the inhabitants to evacuate and on ISIS operatives to surrender. According to several sources, a “safe passage” was opened for the inhabitants through the Euphrates River Dam to allow them to flee Al-Raqqah to areas held by the SDF forces (Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath, March 31, 2017). At the same time, there are still reports that ISIS evacuates its people from the city. According to a website affiliated with ISIS opponents, ISIS operativesevacuated their families taking advantage of the flow of refugees coming out of the city. The number of ISIS operatives that have left the city is estimated at several hundred. They were reportedly transferred to the city of Al-Mayadeen, down the Euphrates Valley, southeast of Deir ez-Zor (Raqqa-sl.com, April 3, 2017).
Recommissioning the military airfield south of Al-Tabqa
  • Following the takeover of the military airfield (March 26, 2017), USengineers and technical teams started the recommissioning work on the airfield. According to an SDF commander, the anti-ISIS international coalition forces will use the airfield during the operation to liberate the city (Sputnik, March 29, 2017). Kurdish senior officials noted that after the recommissioning of the airfield, it would be able to use it as a base for sending supplies, weapons and forces fighting in the campaign for the takeover of Al-Raqqah (Voice of America, April 2, 2017).
  • ISIS operatives continue to wage guerrilla warfare against the forces in the airfield, even after it has been taken over.On March 31, 2017, ISIS announced that thirty SDF operatives were killed and military vehicles were destroyed in an attack against SDF outposts near the military airfield of Al-Tabqa (Haqq, April 1, 2017). SDF forces reported that they had intercepted near the airfield an ISIS drone carrying bombs (Khotwa, April 3, 2017).
Damascus area
  • This week as well, fighting continued in the eastern neighborhoods of Damascus. The rebel organizations’ momentum subsided, and the Syrian forces have managed to retake several sites taken over by the rebel organizations at the beginning of the attack. Although the Syrian Army declared that it had regained control of the Jobar neighborhood, the rebel organizations reportedly managed to repel an attack of the Syrian regime forces in the neighborhood’s industrial area (Al-Sham Network, 2017). It was also reported that Syrian fighter planes supported by Russian aircraft had carried out intense airstrikes against targets in the Jobar neighborhood (Local Coordination Committees, April 3, 2017). Fighting in the eastern neighborhoods of Damascus is still ongoing.
Hama
  • In the area north of Hama, the momentum of the rebel organizations’ attack also subsided. The Syrian forces reportedly retook several towns and villages from the rebel organizations. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Syrian forces, supported by Iran and Hezbollah, managed to retake 75% of the territory taken by the rebel organizations north of Hama (Al-Arabiya, April 1, 2017).

A Twitter account released a photo of Iranian Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani visiting the Hama area. Soleimani reportedly met with the commander of the Syrian forces in the area (Al-Hadath News, April 2, 2017). His visit was apparently madeas part of Iran and Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian effort to halt the rebel attack north of Hama (in late March, Iranian media reported the death of two IRGC commanders in battle in the area of Hama).

Main developments in Iraq
The campaign for the takeover of Mosul
  • Fighting in west Mosul continues, focusing on the Old City, with no significant change in the situation on the ground since last week. The Iraqi Army continues to fight in the streets near Al-Nuri Mosque, which is a site of symbolic importance for ISIS. The Iraqi interior minister declared that Mosul would be liberated from ISIS within a few weeks. According to him, ISIS currently holds only about 25%-30% of the territory of west Mosul (Sputnik, April 1, 2017).
  • ISIS continues making widespread use of car bombs. A video released on March 29, 2017, shows two suicide bombing attacks carried out one after the other in the west Mosul neighborhood of Al-Yarmouk. According to ISIS, they were carried out by two of its female operatives (Aamaq, March 29, 2017). Another video, released by ISIS on March 30, 2017, shows another suicide bombing attack in the western part of the city (Aamaq, March 30, 2017).
Killing senior ISIS operatives
  • This week, it’s been reported that several ISIS operatives have been killed:
  • The Iraqi Air Force commanderannounced that Ayad Al-Jumaili, described as ISIS’s “war minister” and the deputy of ISIS leader, had been killed in an Iraqi forces’ airstrikein the Al-Qaim area (near the border between Iraq and Syria).
  • The US Army reported that on March 25, 2017, Ibrahim al-Ansari, who headed ISIS’s propaganda apparatus, had been killed in the Al-Qaim area. Four of his aides were reportedly killed along with him. According to US officials, Al-Ansari had played a major role in recruiting foreign operatives to ISIS and instigating terror attacks against the United States and Turkey (US Department of Defense, March 30, 2017).
  • The Iraqi Federal Police commander said that its forces had killed ISIS’s “health minister” Saad Abu Shoeib. He was shot dead by police forces when they targeted his vehicle near a hospital in the Old City of Mosul (Sputnik, March 29, 2017).
Sinai Peninsula
  • In early April 2017, the Egyptian security forces carried out a widespread “security operation” in the Al-Arish neighborhood of Al-Samran with the objective of detaining wanted men and terrorist operatives (Al-Watan, April 2, 2017). In the ITIC's assessment, the operation was intended to restore security and strengthen Egyptian governance in Al-Arish, which has recently been the main target of terrorist activity for ISIS’s Sinai Province.
  • The Egyptian security forces reported that 18 ISIS operatives had been killed in airstrikes. One of the dead was Salameh al-Ansari, one of the founders of ISIS’s Sinai Province, who had been in charge of training operatives and equipping them with weapons (official Facebook page of the Egyptian Armed Forces, April 2, 2017).
  • ISIS’s Sinai Province announced the death of Salameh Abu Adhan al-Tarabin al-Ansari, senior ISIS operative and one of its founders, in an airstrike (Al-Araby al-Jadeed, April 1, 2017).
  • Operatives of ISIS’s Sinai Province stopped a bus carrying female teachers working in Rafah, ordered them to put on veils and threatened that they would be punished (Sola Press, March 28, 2017). ISIS’s Sinai Province spread leaflets threatening the inhabitants not to collaborate with the government. ISIS operatives also executed several inhabitants accused of spying.

Other countries

The Philippines
  • On March 31, 2017, ISIS claimed responsibility for the detonation of an IED against a vehicle of the Philippine Army, killing six soldiers and wounding others. The terrorist attack occurred in Mamasapano, an autonomous region in the Muslim Mindanao, south of the Philippines (Haqq, April 1, 2017).

Counterterrorism activity

Turkey
  • A joint operation of the Turkish security forces led to the arrest of Safwan Qahwati, a Syrian citizen suspected of being a senior ISIS operative who recruited foreign fighters from European countries to the ranks of ISIS and trained them. His wife was arrested along with him. According to reports, on March 15, 2017, the two illegally entered from Syria into the Hatay Province in southern Turkey. They traveled to Istanbul in order to reach Europe from there. The Turkish authorities discovered a connection between the operative and two other senior ISIS operatives: Mohammad Laban, a Danish citizen who was arrested in Adana on February 10, 2017; and a Swedish citizen named Mohammad Tawfiq Saleh (Anatolia, March 29, 2017).

Propaganda activity

ISIS threats against Iran
  • On March 27, 2017, ISIS’s Diyala Province (in Iraq) released a 35-minute video containing threats against Iran. The video is in Farsi with Arabic subtitles. It shows a Farsi-speaking ISIS operative codenamed Abu Faruq the Persian, who notes that the Safavid dynasty, which embraced Shia in the 16th century, encroached on territories of Iraq, Azerbaijan and Khorasan (today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan) and forced many of the Sunni Muslims to become Shiite. Another speaker in the video, codenamed Abu Mujahed the Baluchi, who also speaks Farsi, notes that “infidel” Iran serves as a center for concocting schemes against Sunni Muslims in the world. Yet another speaker calls (in Arabic) on the Sunnis in Iran to initiate jihad against the Iranian regime (Haqq, March 27, 2017).
  • Mohsen Rezaee,Secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council, referred in his Instagram page to ISIS’s threat against Iran. Rezaee threatened that if ISIS carries out any step, even the smallest one, or acts against the Iranian interests, Iran would retaliate forcefully. He pointed out that the lesson that ISIS would learn from that would be even greater than the defeat it incurred in Mosul and Aleppo (Fars, April 2, 2017).
Findings of a study in a British research center: decrease in the scope of ISIS propaganda and changes in its content
  • Charlie Winter, a senior researcher at the ICSR British research center, conducted a comprehensive study on propaganda publications on ISIS’s media outlets. The study covered the propaganda publications during February 2017 (January 30 – February 28) in comparison with the period of July 17 – August 15, 2015 (when ISIS was in its heyday). The study reveals that recently there has been a significant decrease (about 36%) in the scope of propaganda activity by ISIS and there have been changes in the propaganda content.
  • Following are several insights from the study:
  • The vast majority of ISIS propaganda materials were produced in Iraq and Syria. The scope of propaganda materials produced in ISIS’s other provinces is limited.
  • Emphasis was placed on publications dealing with the fighting: ISIS completely changed the narrative on which its propaganda focused. Recently, mainly prominent are propaganda materials dealing with the fighting(80% in February 2017), overshadowingthe descriptions of life in the Caliphate, which represented a significant part of ISIS’s publications in the past (53%).
  • Change in the content of the propaganda regarding the campaign for Mosul: During the first months of the fighting in Mosul, ISIS disseminated videos showing daily life in the city, which, as the organization claimed, was not adversely affected by the fighting. Recently, the dissemination of such videos decreased. Currently, ISIS disseminates mainly videos that focus on the destruction of the city and the suffering of its inhabitants.
  • In the ITIC's assessment, the changes in the scope and content of ISIS’s propaganda result from the heavy pressure under which ISIS finds itself in Iraq and Syria. The death of senior operatives in ISIS’s propaganda network, the loss of vital territories, along with the decrease in the revenues of the terror organization, adversely affected ISIS’s capabilities in the battle for hearts and minds. The utopian vision of idyllic life in the Islamic Caliphate was replaced by military-oriented propaganda, intended to deter ISIS’s enemies and raise the morale of the operatives in the various combat zones, first and foremost in Mosul. The ITIC believes that the videos showing destructionand suffering of inhabitants were intended to strengthen the Sunni-Muslim population’s support of ISIS, instill hate among the local population against the US and the international coalition, and at the same time evoke internal criticism among the Western countries with the hope that this will affect the airstrikes on ISIS.

[1]Due to the Passover vacation, Spotlight on Global Jihad will not appear next week. We wish all our readers a happy holiday.

Hamas’s military wing uses foreign aid funds sent to the Gaza Strip: The case of the head of the Gaza Strip office of the Turkish aid organization TIKA

Muhammad Murtaja, head of TIKA’s Gaza office (palsawa.com, February 13, 2017)
Muhammad Murtaja, head of TIKA’s Gaza office (palsawa.com, February 13, 2017)

Overview

1.     In February 2017, the Israeli security forces arrested Muhammad Faruq Sha’aban Murtaja, a resident of the Gaza Strip, the head of TIKA’s Gaza office. TIKA is a humanitarian aid organization operating on behalf of the Turkish government throughout the world, including in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.  Murtaja was arrested on suspicion of having worked for the military wing of Hamas in his capacity as head of TIKA’s Gaza office (Israel Security Agency, March 21, 2017).

2.   During his interrogation,it emerged that Murtaja had been recruited to Hamas in late 2008 and that he had worked for its military wing since 2009. As part of his activity as a Hamas operative, he received military training and stored weapons in his house. Murtaja was detained while passing through the Erez Crossing on his way to Ankara. His interrogation revealed that the purpose of his trip to Turkey was to participate in TIKA in-service training.However, his trip was also intended to obtain information that would help Hamas improve the accuracy of its rockets (Israel Security Agency, March 21, 2017). According to the indictment filed against him at the Beersheba District Court, he was sent to Turkey by the military wing of Hamas in order toobtain maps based on Turkish satellite photos (Haaretz Israeli daily, March 22, 2017).

3.   In 2012, about three years after joining Hamas’s military wing, Murtaja was appointed head of TIKA’s Gaza office. Hamas apparently encouraged him to accept this position from the perspective that it would be able to use him to advance its interests. During Murtaja’s interrogation, it emerged that since joining TIKA, he had transferred to Hamas funds and resources intended for humanitarian purposes or civilian projects in the Gaza Strip, in the amount of millions of dollars. He transferred funds to Hamas operatives and their families and allocated homes to Hamas operatives in a building project designated for the needy (Israel Security Agency, March 21, 2017).

Muhammad Murtaja, head of the TIKA branch in the Gaza Strip (second from left), meeting with the heads of the Hamas-affiliated Dar al-Quran al-Karim wal-Sunnah organization. The purpose of the meeting was to strengthen the ties between the two organizations (Website of Dar al-Quran al-Karim wal-Sunnah, April 23, 2014).
Muhammad Murtaja, head of the TIKA branch in the Gaza Strip (second from left), meeting with the heads of the Hamas-affiliated Dar al-Quran al-Karim wal-Sunnah organization. The purpose of the meeting was to strengthen the ties between the two organizations (Website of Dar al-Quran al-Karim wal-Sunnah, April 23, 2014).

4.   The phenomenon of “wearing two hats,” i.e., officials of international aid organizations who also serve in Hamas and promote its interests, is well known from the past (recently in the form of senior Hamas activists working for UNRWA).Stealing resources from TIKA and transferring them to Hamas’s military wingis also a known phenomenon. In the past, it was reported that the World Vision aid organization had employed an engineer by the name of Muhammad Halabi who secretly transferred some of the humanitarian aid funds to Hamas’s military wing. Another example: An engineer by the name of Wahid Abdullah, who worked for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), transferred money to Hamas’s military wing, inter alia for the construction of a military port in the northern Gaza Strip. In addition, Murtaja’s interrogation also revealed that during the years that he served as deputy head of the Gaza branch of IHH, an anti-Israel Turkish aid organization, he regularly transferred aid funds from Turkey to Hamas’s military wing.

 

Turkey’s response

5.   Turkey’s response (so far) has been characterized by a low profile. Turkey has refrained from turning the affair into a bone of contention between the two countries.

6.   Even before the gag order was lifted, Israel provided the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Turkish Embassy in Israel with the details of the indictment. On February 23, 2017, the Anatolia News Agency reported that the Israeli authorities had arrested Muhammad Murtaja on February 12, 2017, and claimed that they were preventing him from meeting with a lawyer (Anatolia News Agency, February 23, 2017). The Turkish press published informative reports on the arrest of Muhammad Murtaja on charges of “supporting terrorism” (Milliyet; Yeni Şafak, March 21, 2017). The Turkish media quoted the Israel Security Agency’s announcement that TIKA had not been aware of Murtaja’s activities within Hamas and that Murtaja had defrauded his employers and had taken advantage of the organization’s budget (Anatolia News Agency, February 23, 2017).

7.   Hüseyin Müftüoğlu, Spokesperson of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, issued a statement noting that Murtaja was an employee of TIKA’s Gaza office since 2012. According to the statement, he was arrested at the Erez Crossing on February 12, 2017, after receiving a permit from Israel to attend a professional seminar in Ankara for the organization’s employees. According to the spokesman, Turkey asked Israel for complementary information about Murtaja. Meanwhile, all relevant legal support necessary for protecting Murtaja’s rights is being provided. The spokesman said that TIKA’s development assistance activities in Gaza are being carried out with Palestinian authorities’ consent and with the knowledge of the Israeli government. Therefore, any attempt affecting the security of the parties has never been tolerated or allowed. The spokesperson concluded that “TIKA will continue, in the future as in the past, its projects with diligence and devotion in order to alleviate the plight of Palestinian people, including in Gaza, which emanates from the 50-year-long occupation” (Turkish Foreign Ministry website, March 22, 2017).

Hamas’s response

8.   Hamas Spokesman Fawzi Barhoum issued an official statement in response to Murtaja’s arrest. According to the statement, Israel has targeted international organizations and is arresting their directors. The statement notes that Israel recently arrested the head of TIKA’s office in the Gaza Strip and is disseminating accusations and lies about him. According to the statement, these steps are part of an “extensive Zionist campaign” to impose a siege on the Gaza Strip and terrorize international institutions so that they will not provide services to the destitute, children and owners of demolished homes in Gaza (Hamas’s official website, March 21, 2017).

Appendices

9.   Attached are three appendices:

A.Appendix A: The TIKA aid agency and its activities in the Palestinian arena

B.Appendix B:Hamas’s theft of TIKA’s aid funds by means of Muhammad Murtaja

C.Appendix C: Further examples for the theft of aid funds by Hamas

1)    IHH

2)    World Vision

3)    UNDP

Spotlight on Global Jihad (March 16-22, 2017)

Spotlight on Global Jihad

Spotlight on Global Jihad

Map of the areas of control in the area of Al-Raqqah and Manbij (marked with red circles), updated to March 16, 2017: In brown, the area controlled by ISIS; In yellow, SDF; In red, the Syrian Army; In green, the Free Syrian Army (under the protection of Turkey) (NORS Center for Strategic Studies, March 16, 2017).

Map of the areas of control in the area of Al-Raqqah and Manbij (marked with red circles), updated to March 16, 2017: In brown, the area controlled by ISIS; In yellow, SDF; In red, the Syrian Army; In green, the Free Syrian Army (under the protection of Turkey) (NORS Center for Strategic Studies, March 16, 2017).

ISIS surface-to-surface missile being fired at an American base west of the Tel al-Saman area (Haqq, March 17, 2017)

ISIS surface-to-surface missile being fired at an American base west of the Tel al-Saman area (Haqq, March 17, 2017)

Aerial photo released by the US Department of Defense proving that the mosque was not hit (US Department of Defense photo, March 17, 2017).

Aerial photo released by the US Department of Defense proving that the mosque was not hit (US Department of Defense photo, March 17, 2017).

Hashem al-Sheikh (Abu Jaber) in the video, threatening to reach the regime strongholds in Damascus (YouTube, March 18, 2017)

Hashem al-Sheikh (Abu Jaber) in the video, threatening to reach the regime strongholds in Damascus (YouTube, March 18, 2017)

Operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham fighting in the Jobar neighborhood (Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, YouTube, March 20, 2017)

Operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham fighting in the Jobar neighborhood (Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, YouTube, March 20, 2017)

The area of the old courthouse in central Damascus, the scene of the deadly suicide bombing attack (Twitter, March 15, 2017)

The area of the old courthouse in central Damascus, the scene of the deadly suicide bombing attack (Twitter, March 15, 2017)

The Iraqi security forces in west Mosul’s fighting zones (Nineveh Information Center, March 19, 2017)

The Iraqi security forces in west Mosul’s fighting zones (Nineveh Information Center, March 19, 2017)

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivers a sermon at Mosul’s Grand Mosque (YouTube, July 5, 2014)

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivers a sermon at Mosul’s Grand Mosque (YouTube, July 5, 2014)

Main events of the week

  • The main focus of the fighting in Syria this week was an attack on several neighborhoods in eastern Damascus by the rebel organizations, aimed at establishing their control of the area. In the ITIC’s assessment, the attack was well planned. It was preceded by a public warning by the head of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (an umbrella organization dominated by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Fateh al-Sham Front) that his organization was about to escalate its activity and attack the regime’s strongholds in Damascus. The attack was also preceded by two suicide bombing attacks in the city of Damascus. Two days later, a coalition of rebel organizations, with the participation of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, launched an attack north of the city of Hama.
  • While ISIS is becoming weaker and is on the strategic defensive, Fateh al-Sham Front, the rival jihadi organization affiliated with Al-Qaeda, is becoming stronger and is participating in offensive initiatives in Damascus, Hama and Daraa, alongside other rebel organizations that consider it as a legitimate and essential force. The attack exposed a salient Achilles heel of the Syrian regime: the “short blanket” at its disposal which forces it to split the Syrian Army forces between many fronts. The Syrian regime is recording achievements in northern and eastern Syria, with the support and encouragement of the Russians. However, the core of the regime in the Damascus region remains exposed to the offensive initiatives of the rebel organizations, and the Syrian regime is having difficulty finding a fundamental solution to this problem.
  • In the meantime, the pressure on ISIS is mounting:
  • In Al-Raqqah, ISIS’s stronghold in Syria, the siege of the SDF is intensifying, with the support of the United States (which has apparently decided to rely on the Kurdish force rather than on Turkey). According to US media reports, in the weeks ahead, another 1,000 soldiers will be sent to Syria in preparation for the takeover of Al-Raqqah, thus doubling the scope of the American presence in Syria (boots on the ground, contrary to Obama’s policy).
  • In Mosul, the Iraqi security forces continue to expand their control over the western part of the city (they have already taken over about two-thirds of its territory). This week, the fighting was concentrated in the Old City of Mosul, and the Iraqi forces nearly reached the Grand Mosque of Al-Nuri. This is a site of symbolic importance, since it is where ISIS’s leader announced the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate in July 2014. Thus, the fall of the mosque will have symbolic significance and represent a blow to ISIS’s morale.

 

Russian presence in Syria

The establishment of a Russian base in the area under Kurdish control in northwestern Syria
  • Redur Xelil, spokesman for the Kurdish forces (YPG), said that the Kurds had reached an agreement with Russia on the establishment of a counterterrorism training base and the administration of training in modern warfare methods. According to him, a Russian force reached the village of Janna, about 12 km northwest of Afrin, and brought equipment with it.
  • Conversely, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, a local branch of the Russian Coordination Center in Hmeymim is to be established in Afrin. Its mission will be to monitor the implementation of the ceasefire between the Turkish-supported rebels and the Kurds. The establishment of the branch is in accordance with an agreement between Russia and Turkey regarding the supervision of the ceasefire in Syria. In the meantime, a Russian force has reportedly entered Afrin (the report was quoted by the Russian media on the basis of a report by the Kurdish Democratic Party, Sputnik, March 20, 2017).

Main developments in Syria

The area of Manbij
  • The power struggles in the Manbij area continued this week at low intensity, with no significant change in the situation on the ground. A map of the areas of control in the area of Al-Raqqah and Manbij, published by the Syrian NORS Institute for Strategic Studies, indicates that no significant progress has been made by any of the various power centers operating in the area (Syrian NORS Institute, March 16, 2017).
Syrian Army advance towards the Euphrates Valley
  • The Syrian Army forces and their supporters, with Russian air support, continued to fight against ISIS operatives in the area of Deir Hafer (on the road leading from Al-Bab to Lake Assad and the Euphrates Valley). This week, the Syrian forces took control of a number of villages to the south and east of the town of Deir Hafer. The Syrian forces reportedly reached a distance of less than 1 km from the entrance to the town (Dimashq al-Aan, March 17, 2017). According to its own reports, ISIS carried out attacks against Syrian Army soldiers, including anti-tank fire and the use of suicide bombers, killing dozens of Syrian soldiers (Haqq, March 19, 2017).
Al-Raqqah
  • The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continued to cleanse the region north and east of Al-Raqqah, in an effort to tighten the siege on the city.The US-led coalition aircraft attacked ISIS outposts in Al-Raqqah, and also attacked boats of ISIS operatives on the Euphrates River (Dimashq al-Aan, March 17, 2017). The SDF forces took control of the town of Al-Karamah, east of Al-Raqqah (Dimashq al-Aan, March 20, 2017). On March 17, 2017, the forces announced that the operation to liberate the city of Al-Raqqah from ISIS would begin in early April 2017 (Al-Jazeera, March 17, 2017).

 

  • ISIS reported that its operatives had fired three surface-to-surface missiles at an American base west of Tel al-Saman, north of Al-Raqqah (Haqq, March 17, 2017).
  • International and regional involvement in the campaign for Al-Raqqah:
  • The United States: The Washington Post, relying on sources at the US Department of Defense, reported (March 15, 2017) that the US Army “has drawn up early plans that would deploy up to 1,000 more troops into northern Syria in the coming weeks” ahead of the campaign to take over Al-Raqqah. This will double the US force in Syria and increase the potential for direct US ground involvement in the battle for Al-Raqqah (boots on the ground, contrary to Obama’s policy).
  • Turkey: Turkish sources report that Turkey has failed to persuade the US and Russia to allow it to be actively involved in the moves to take over Al-Raqqah from ISIS. According to the same sources, all the future scenarios for the takeover of Al-Raqqah do not designate an active role for Turkey (Hürriyet Daily News, March 17, 2017). The activity on the ground indicates that the SDF is currently the only force taking part in the campaign for Al-Raqqah, with American support and without Turkish involvement.Thisis liable to increase tension between Turkey and the United States.
  • Russia: In the ITIC’s assessment, Russia has a clear interest in the Syrian Army having a presence near the Euphrates Valley and in the Syrian regime (with Russian support) playing a role in the battle for Al-Raqqah, in order to prevent an exclusive American achievement. Therefore, in the ITIC’s assessment, the Russians are encouraging the advance of the Syrian Army to Lake Assad (from Al-Bab and Aleppo) and towards Deir ez-Zor (via the Palmyra-Al-Sukhnah route). This creates a difficult dilemma for the Syrian regime, since it is forced to send forces to remote fronts in the east and north of the country at a time when it is subject to the offensive initiatives of the rebel organizations in vital places such as Damascus, Hama and Daraa.
  • Iran: Iran and Hezbollah are not taking part in the campaign for Al-Raqqah and did not take part in the fighting for the area west of the Euphrates River. This exposes the weakness of Iran’s modus operandi of relying on proxy organizations and avoiding massive direct involvement on the ground. This weakness has, and will have in the future, a political price in the struggle for influence in Syria.
Palmyra
  • This week, battles continued between the Syrian Army forces, with Russian air support, and ISIS operatives in the area outside of Palmyra. In these battles, the Syrian Army reportedly took over two dominating sites to the north and northeast of the city. According to Syrian reports, dozens of ISIS operatives were killed in the fighting, and the organization lost a lot of equipment (Syrian TV, March 16, 2017). At the same time, clashes also continued between the Syrian Army and ISIS on the Palmyra-Sukhnah route (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, March 17, 2017).
US airstrike targeting Al-Qaeda operatives southwest of Aleppo
  • On March 16, 2017, US aircraft attacked abuilding in Kafr Jina, about 30 km southwest of Aleppo. According to American reports, the building belonged to Al-Qaeda and hosted a meeting of senior Al-Qaeda operatives. The Pentagon spokesman said that according to military sources, dozens of Al-Qaeda operatives had been killed in the airstrike. The spokesman denied allegations that the attacked building was a mosque where about 300 worshipers were staying, and that 49 civilians were killed (Dimashq Al-Aan; the Syrian observatory for Human Rights, March 17, 2017).[1] The Pentagon released an aerial photo proving that the mosque was not hit (US Department of Defense website, March 17, 2017). However, the spokesman for the US Central Command said that an investigation would be conducted to determine whether innocent civilians were killed or wounded (The New York Times, March 16, 2017).
  • nFollowing the airstrike, Al-Qaeda called for killing Americans “without consulting anyone.” The terrorist organization quoted Osama bin Laden saying that the United States and whoever lives there will never be safe “before we win Palestine, before all the infidel armies leave Mohammad’s land” (Al-Nafir, Al-Qaeda’s organ, March 17, 2017).
Damascus
  • On March 19, 2017, a coalition of the rebel organizations, including the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (an umbrella framework dominated by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Fateh al-Sham Front) in collaboration with the organization of Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel organizations, launched an attack on the east Damascus neighborhoods of Jobar and Al-Qaboun. The rebel organizations managed to take over several sites in the neighborhoods of Jobar and Al-Qaboun, took over Al-Qaboun’s industrial zone, and reached the Al-Abbasiyin neighborhood. The rebels also reportedly took over several sites on the international road between Damascus and Homs (Local Coordination Committees, March 19, 2017). Syrian media reported that the Syrian forces had repelled the rebel attack. However, it seems that fighting is still going on.
  • The attack included terrorist attacks, detonation of tunnels, and rocket fire. In response, the Syrian regime forces attacked supply routes of the rebel organizations between Arbin (east of Al-Qaboun) and Jobar (Dimashq Al-Aan, March 19, 2017). At the same time, local clashes took place between Palestinians supporting the regime and ISIS operatives in ISIS strongholds south of Damascus: Al-Yarmouk refugee camp and the neighborhoods of Al-Hajr al-Aswad and Al-Tadamoun (Dimashq Al-Aan, March 21, 2017).
  • Even though the attack was referred to in the media as a “surprise attack,” it had prior indications. Two days before the attack, Abu Jaber (Hashem al-Sheikh), who heads the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, released a tape on the occasion of the sixth anniversary of the Syrian revolution. In the tape, Abu Jaber presents his organization as the true defender of the Syrian people vis-à-vis the Assad regime. He promises to escalate the operations of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham in the coming days, threatens to reach the Syrian regime’s strongholds in Damascus, and calls for the unification of all rebel organizations under the banner of jihad.
  • On March 15, 2017, four days before the attack, two suicide bombing attacks occurred in Damascus at an interval of two hours between each other. The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham denied any connection to those attacks. However, the modus operandi conforms to that of the jihadi organizations. In one of the attacks, a suicide bomber blew himself up with an explosive belt at the old courthouse, near the Al-Hamidiya open market in central Damascus. The Syrian justice minister’s office is also located in this area. At least 32 people were killed and about a hundred were wounded (Al-Jazeera, March 15, 2017). In the second attack, a suicide bomber blew himself up with an explosive belt at a restaurant in the western Damascus area of Al-Rabwah.A total of 24 people were killed and several dozens were wounded (Al-Jazeera, March 15, 2017).
  • In the ITIC's assessment, the attack in east Damascus was well planned. It was preceded by suicide bombing attacks and a public warning to the regime by the commander of the Fateh al-Sham Front. At this stage, it is not clear how the attack will end. However, it clearly demonstrated that in spite of the Syrian Army’s achievements in Aleppo and in other regionsthe core of the regime in Damascus still remains exposed. While the Syrian regime recorded victory in Aleppo and is advancing toward the Euphrates Valley, in the Damascus area there is still a significant presence of rebel organizations. This includes the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and ISIS, which the Syrian regime (being engaged in other fronts) hasn’t been able to uproot. This makes it easier for the rebel organizations to carry out attacks and suicide bombings against vital targets of the regime, thereby gaining prestige and deflecting efforts and attention from other fronts in Syria. Special attention should be paid to the central role of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, which is based on the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Fateh al-Sham Front. The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham has become a legitimate player among the rebel organizations, which resort to offensive initiatives in Damascus, Hama and Daraa, whereas ISIS is under strategic defensive.

 

Yet anotherrebel attack in Hama
  • Two days after the beginning of the attack in east Damascus, the rebel organizations, with the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham among them, started another offensive initiative north of the city of Hama. The attack started on March 21, 2017, when outposts of the Syrian forces were attacked in the towns of Souran and Maardas, 12 and 16 km (respectively) north of Hama. These two towns are near the main route between Hama and Aleppo
  • The rebel forces took over the rural area around these towns, and may have also entered them. During the attack, two car bombs were detonated near Souran, for which the Fateh al-Sham Front claimed responsibility. The Syrian regime responded with airstrikes and artillery fire at the rebel forces in seven villages and towns in Hama’s rural area (Reuters; Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, March 21, 2017). The actual situation on the ground is unclear.

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 more neighborhoods in the western part of the city. Fighting takes place in the Old City, and the Iraqi forces have reached the vicinity of Al-Nuri Mosque (the Grand Mosque), which is of symbolic importance, as it was in this mosque that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate. ISIS’s fierce fighting continues. Speaking at a press conference, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi declared that the campaign for the liberation of Mosul is in its final stages and that ISIS operatives remain besieged in a limited area in the city (Reuters, March 15, 2017). The spokesman for the Iraqi Combined Operations Command announced that the Iraqi forces had taken over 65 percent of the territory of west Mosul (Press TV, March 14, 2017).
  • On March 17, 2017, the Iraqi security forces entered the Old City of Mosul and are waging battles with ISIS (Reuters, March 17, 2017; Nineveh Information Center, March 18, 2017). On March 19, 2017, it was reported that Iraqi police and Special Forces were fighting around Al-Nuri Mosque, in the Old City (Al-Sumaria, March 20, 2017). The Iraqi forces have reached a distance of about 500 m from Al-Nuri Mosque, which is a site of symbolic importance for ISIS, as it was there that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the Islamic Caliphate (Al-Arabiya, March 16, 2017).
  • In the ITIC's assessment, the attack in east Damascus was well planned. It was preceded by suicide bombing attacks and a public warning to the regime by the commander of the Fateh al-Sham Front. At this stage, it is not clear how the attack will end. However, it clearly demonstrated that in spite of the Syrian Army’s achievements in Aleppo and in other regionsthe core of the regime in Damascus still remains exposed. While the Syrian regime recorded victory in Aleppo and is advancing toward the Euphrates Valley, in the Damascus area there is still a significant presence of rebel organizations. This includes the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and ISIS, which the Syrian regime (being engaged in other fronts) hasn’t been able to uproot. This makes it easier for the rebel organizations to carry out attacks and suicide bombings against vital targets of the regime, thereby gaining prestige and deflecting efforts and attention from other fronts in Syria. Special attention should be paid to the central role of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, which is based on the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Fateh al-Sham Front. The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham has become a legitimate player among the rebel organizations, which resort to offensive initiatives in Damascus, Hama and Daraa, whereas ISIS is under strategic defensive.

 

  • At the same time as the fighting in Mosul, ISIS continued its attacks against the Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias in various sites in Iraq:
  • Shirqat(about 90 km south of the city of Mosul): On March 17, 2017, ISIS claimed responsibility for killing 15 Iraqi soldiers north of the city of Shirqat (Haqq, March 17, 2017). Two days later, the Iraqi Air Force attacked ISIS outposts in the city (Iraqi Ministry of Defense, March 19, 2017).
  • Al-Tarmiyah area (north of Baghdad): On March 17, 2017, ISIS claimed responsibility for killing ten Iraqi security personnel, one of them a senior commander of the Popular Mobilization militia (which includes pro-Iranian Shiite militias). According to ISIS’s announcement, four operatives attacked the senior commander and his men, and when they could no longer use their weapons, they detonated their explosive belts (Haqq, March 17, 2017).
  • Hit (northwest of Ramadi, in the Euphrates Valley): On March 17, ISIS claimed responsibility for killing and wounding twenty Iraqi security personnel in central Hit by a car bomb that was parked at the side of the road (Haqq, March 17, 2017).
  • Baiji-Haditha road: On March 17, 2017, ISIS claimed responsibility for attacking forces of the Popular Mobilization on the Baiji-Haditha road. Six people were killed and four others were wounded (Haqq, March 19, 2017).
  • Baghdad: On March 20, 2017, ISIS claimed responsibility for the detonation of a car bomb in the Shiite neighborhood of Al-Amel in the southwestern part of the city. A total of 21 people were killed and 35 others were wounded (Haqq, March 20, 2017).
  • These terrorist attacks were intended to deflect resources and attention from the Iraqi forces fighting in west Mosul, so far without success. However, the guerrilla warfare and terrorist attacks carried out by ISIS in various sites in Iraq concurrently with the fighting in Mosul clearly demonstrate that ISIS still has quite substantial operational capabilities throughout Iraq. These capabilities will allow it to continue operating as a terrorist and guerrilla organization even after the fall of Mosul, while changing its modus operandi and adapting it to the new situation (the transformation from an Islamic state based on holding a territory, into a terror and guerilla organization spread throughout deserts and regions with low governance capability, as it was at its inception).

 

Counterterrorism and preventive activity

Morocco
  • The Moroccan Interior Ministry reported that 15 ISIS-affiliated operatives were detained throughout Morocco on suspicion of planning to carry out terrorist attacks at entertainment sites and public places in several cities in the country. Some of them became experts in manufacturing IEDs and were caught while purchasing the necessary materials for manufacturing them. According to Moroccan security sources, more than 167 squads were uncovered by the ministry between 2002 and 2016. More than 46 of them definitely had ties with terrorist elements in Syria and Iraq and with ISIS in particular (Reuters, March 17, 2017).

The battle for hearts and minds

Call on Muslims in Bengal to join the ranks of ISIS
  • ISIS’s Euphrates Province released a video in Bengali (without subtitles).  The video shows a Bengali ISIS operative who asks the Muslims to join the ranks of ISIS. He says that the Muslims should wake up because they will be required to account for their actions. The video emphasizes that jihad is a duty. According to the video, hijra (i.e., Muslims joining the Islamic Caliphate in Syria and Iraq) is obligatory for those who can do so, but those who cannot must operate in their places of residence. The video notes (by hinting at vehicular attacks) that despite all the existing technology, what the enemy is actually afraid of is a car with a Muslim in the driver’s seat.
Al-Qaeda’s threats to attack France
  • In a video released by the media foundation of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on March 17, 2017, Abu Mus’ab Abdel Wadoud, Al-Qaeda’s leader in the Maghreb, threatens to carry out attacks in France. Abdel Wadoud begins by quoting verses from the Quran and the Hadith praising Muslim unity. At the end of the video, he addresses France, “which crossed the sea in order to invade our land” and which is preventing the Muslims from practicing their religion. He notes that the behavior of France only reinforces the Muslims’ determination to unite, to increase jihad, and to transfer the fighting to French soil so that it will live in fear (Al-Andalus, March 17, 2017). 
Training camp of a jihadi network in northern Syria
  • Ansar Jihad, an organization affiliated with Al-Qaeda comprising operatives from Central Asia and Turkey, released a video showing a training camp in northern Syria. The topics covered in the training include the use of light weapons, assembling IEDs and fighting in small units. Most of the video is devoted to documenting the group’s training in small arms fire near abandoned houses using Kalashnikov assault rifles and firing RPGs. The group, which fought many battles in Syria, is headed by an operative codenamed Abu Omar al-Turkistani, who played a significant role in establishing the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham.

[1]According to the announcement of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the site had served as a da’wah (preaching) center of an international Islamic organization called Jama’at al-Da’wah wal-Tabligh (the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, March 17, 2017). It is an Islamic organization established in the 1920s, which is operating around the Arab and Muslim world to promote preaching and conversion to Islam among non-Muslims (Wikipedia). According to US intelligence officials, this organization has been serving for a long time as a cover for terrorist operatives, for travels and operational activity (longwarjournal.org, March 17, 2017).   

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

Spotlight on Global Jihad

Spotlight on Global Jihad

Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (right), Turkish Army Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar (center) and Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov (left), at a meeting in Antalya (US Department of Defense website, March 6, 2017)

Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (right), Turkish Army Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar (center) and Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov (left), at a meeting in Antalya (US Department of Defense website, March 6, 2017)

American tank with the US flag in the Manbij area (Al-Jadeed News, March 12, 2017).

American tank with the US flag in the Manbij area (Al-Jadeed News, March 12, 2017).

Vehicles of Russian forces in the Manbij area, with Russian and Syrian  flags (Twitter, March 11, 2017)

Vehicles of Russian forces in the Manbij area, with Russian and Syrian flags (Twitter, March 11, 2017)

Russian soldiers beside a Syrian Army soldier near Manbij  (SMART Syrian News Agency, March 13, 2017)

Russian soldiers beside a Syrian Army soldier near Manbij (SMART Syrian News Agency, March 13, 2017)

Shell fired by the Free Syrian Army. The Military Council of Manbij claims that it contained a chemical substance (the Military Council of Manbij and its Rural Area, March 8, 2017)

Shell fired by the Free Syrian Army. The Military Council of Manbij claims that it contained a chemical substance (the Military Council of Manbij and its Rural Area, March 8, 2017)

Firing tank shells at Syrian Army positions in the area of the Al-Jarah Airport  (Haqq, March 9, 2017)

Firing tank shells at Syrian Army positions in the area of the Al-Jarah Airport (Haqq, March 9, 2017)

Boy who won a prize and a certificate of appreciation in a competition organized by ISIS in Al-Raqqah (Haqq, March 9, 2017)

Boy who won a prize and a certificate of appreciation in a competition organized by ISIS in Al-Raqqah (Haqq, March 9, 2017)

ISIS’s fighting in west Mosul (Aamaq, March 11, 2017)

ISIS’s fighting in west Mosul (Aamaq, March 11, 2017)

The scene of the suicide bombing attack near Tikrit (Ahl al-Bayt News Agency, March 8, 2017)

The scene of the suicide bombing attack near Tikrit (Ahl al-Bayt News Agency, March 8, 2017)

Police forces near the mall in Essen (YouTube, March 11, 2017)

Police forces near the mall in Essen (YouTube, March 11, 2017)

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).

Spotlight on Iran

February 26 – March 12, 2017 Editor: Dr. Raz Zimmt
Hojjat ul-Islam Seyyed Mohammad Ali Shahidi, chairman of the Iranian Shaheed (Martyrs) Foundation (Asr-e Iran, March 6, 2017)

Hojjat ul-Islam Seyyed Mohammad Ali Shahidi, chairman of the Iranian Shaheed (Martyrs) Foundation (Asr-e Iran, March 6, 2017)

Rouhani and Erdogan (Tasnim News, March 1, 2017)

Rouhani and Erdogan (Tasnim News, March 1, 2017)

A Mahan Air plane, used to transport wounded fighters from Syria and Yemen to Iran (Tasnim News, February 25, 2017)

A Mahan Air plane, used to transport wounded fighters from Syria and Yemen to Iran (Tasnim News, February 25, 2017)

Esmail Qa'ani (Tasnim News, March 1, 2017)

Esmail Qa'ani (Tasnim News, March 1, 2017)

Abdollahian and Mahmoud (ISNA, March 5, 2017).

Abdollahian and Mahmoud (ISNA, March 5, 2017).

Ali Karimi, the Basij fighter killed in Mosul (Twitter, February 27, 2017).

Ali Karimi, the Basij fighter killed in Mosul (Twitter, February 27, 2017).

Iraqi ambassador to Tehran (center) with the president of the Sepah bank  (banksepah.ir, February 27, 2017).

Iraqi ambassador to Tehran (center) with the president of the Sepah bank (banksepah.ir, February 27, 2017).

The Voice of Bahrain radio station (ABNA, February 28, 2017).

The Voice of Bahrain radio station (ABNA, February 28, 2017).

Weapons confiscated by the Bahrain authorities from the terrorist network  (Asr-e Iran, March 5, 2017).

Weapons confiscated by the Bahrain authorities from the terrorist network (Asr-e Iran, March 5, 2017).

Main Points
  • The chairman of the Iranian Shaheed Foundation said 2,100 fighters deployed from Iran to Syria and Iraq had been killed. The number does not relate only to Iranians, but to all the fighters deployed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to fight in Syria and Iraq, including Afghans and Pakistanis.
  • Despite the tension between Iran and Turkey, Iranian President Rouhani and Turkish President Erdogan met on the sidelines of the Economic Cooperation Organization summit meeting held in Pakistan. Rouhani noted that Iran objected to any action that harmed the territorial integrity of the countries in the region, especially Syria and Iraq.
  • Responding to reports that the American administration planned to designate it as a terrorist organization, senior Iranian officials declared their support for the IRGC.
  • An Iranian opposition website posted photos allegedly showing that planes belonging to the Iranian airline Mahan Air, which has ties to the IRGC, are used to transport Iranian, Syrian and Yemeni dead and wounded to Iran.
  • The military advisor to the commander of the IRGC's Qods Force threatened that Iran would "destroy Tel Aviv and Haifa" if Israel attacked Iran.
  • A Basij fighter was killed in Mosul, Iraq, at the end of February.
  • The authorities of Bahrain exposed an Iranian-supported terrorist network allegedly planning to carry out terrorist attacks against Bahrain's security forces. In the meantime, the Iranian broadcasting authority launched a radio station called "the Voice of Bahrain" to transmit "revolutionary messages" in support of a Shi'ite uprising against the Bahraini regime.

 

General Information
  • Hojjat ul-Islam Seyyed Mohammad Ali Shahidi, chairman of the Iranian Shaheed Foundation, said 2,100 of the fighters deployed by Iran to Syria and Iraq, the so-called "defenders of the shrines," had been killed (Asr-e Iran, March 7, 2017). The number does not relate solely to Iranians, but also to fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan who were deployed to Syria and Iraq by the IRGC. In November 2016 Shahidi said the number of Iranians killed in Syria had passed the 1,000 mark (Tasnim, November 22, 2016).
  • On March 1, 2017, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met with Turkish President Erdogan on the sidelines of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) summit meeting held in Pakistan. Rouhani told Erdogan that Iran opposed any action that harmed the territorial integrity of the countries in the region, especially Syria and Iraq. The two discussed bilateral relations (Tasnim, March 1, 2017). The meeting was held under the cloud of tension following accusations made by Erdogan and Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, the Turkish foreign minister, of Iran's regional subversion. The accusations resulted, at the end of February, in the Iranian foreign ministry's summoning the Turkish ambassador to Tehran for clarifications. A spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry said in a statement that there was a limit to Iran's patience in dealing with Turkey's positions.
  • Responding to reports that the American administration planned to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization, senior Iranian officials declared their support for the IRGC. Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, said it was not in the United States' best interests to designate the Corps as a terrorist organization because the entire world knew the IRGC provided the most support to Middle Eastern countries fighting terrorism (Mehr, February 25, 2017). Ali Larijani, chairman of the Majlis (the Iranian parliament), also defended the activities of the IRGC, claiming they defended the Islamic Revolution at home and Iranian interests abroad (Tasnim, February 27, 2017). Rasoul Sanaeirad, deputy commander of the IRGC for political affairs, also reacted to the possibility that the United States would designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization, saying that the support and advice the IRGC gave Syria and Iraq was given at their governments' request . He said announcing the American intention to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization was a publicity stunt, and that Iran had exploited the sanctions imposed previously as an opportunity to increase its defensive capabilities (yrc.ir, March 5, 2017).
  • Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, Tehran's substitute Friday prayer leader warned in his March 3, 2017 sermon against attempts made by the enemy, especially the United States, to divide the countries of the Middle East. He said he opposed the West's intentions to establish no-flight zones in Syria, because, he claimed, that would facilitate the infiltration of terrorist operatives into Syria and lead to a division of the country. He claimed that without Iran, ISIS would already have established governments in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (IRNA, March 3, 2017).
  • 5. On February 25, 2017, the amadnews.com website, which is affiliated with the Iranian opposition, posted pictures allegedly documenting the use of planes belonging to the IRGC-affiliated Air Mahan airline to transport dead and wounded Iranian, Syrian and Yemeni fighters to Iran. The website claimed it had received the pictures from "a source within the IRGC," and that the airline had covered the seats to protect them from the blood of the wounded. During the past year Mahan Air has flown dozens of planes from Iran to Syria, used, according to Western intelligence sources, to routinely deliver weapons to the Syrian regime and Hezbollah.
Iranian Intervention in Syria and Lebanon
  • At a memorial service for fighters of the Fatemiyoun Brigade killed in Syria, Esmail Qa'ani, deputy commander of the IRGC's Qods Force, praised the brigade, which fights under the supervision of the IRGC. He said the Fatemiyoun Brigade knew no boundaries and fought wherever it was necessary to defend the values of Islam. He added that the Brigade was fighting in Syria but its influence went far beyond Syria, and expressed the "culture of the resistance" against the West. Syria and Aleppo, he said, were only part of the goals of the fighters, and their main objective was to institute a global government lead by the "Hidden Imam." He added that today the Americans and Israelis mourned the regional blossoming of the culture of resistance and that the United States would not have agreed to negotiating the future of Syria had it not been for the might of the Fatemiyoun Brigade fighters on the battlefield (Tasnim, March 1, 2017).
  • Hossein Amir Abdollahian, special international affairs advisor to the speaker of the Majlis, issued in an announcement after the city of Palmyra had been retaken from ISIS by Syrian army forces. He said there was no doubt but that Iran would continue its strong support of Syria, which stood at the front of support for "the liberation of Jerusalem" (Mehr, March 3, 2017). Meeting with Adnan Mahmoud, the Syrian ambassador to Tehran, Abdollahian said the liberation of Palmyra from the control of terrorists was proof of the strong resistance and stance of the Syrian army and the "resistance forces" in the fight against ISIS terrorism. Regarding the conference for the support of the Palestinian intifada which met in Tehran at the end of February, Abdollahian said it showed the need for Muslim unity, the continued support of the Palestinian people, and preparing the ground for a condemnation in the international arena of the "inhuman, illegitimate actions of the Zionist regime" (ISNA, March 5, 2017).
Iranian Intervention in Iraq and the Gulf
  • An IRGC Basij fighter was killed in Mosul, Iraq, at the end of February.
  • Mohammad Kazem Choghazardi, general manager of the Sepah bank, in a meeting with Rajeh al-Mousavi, Iraqi ambassador to Tehran, said the bank was prepared to broaden its connections with banks in Iraq (banksepah.ir, February 27, 2017).
  • In view of the ongoing protest of Bahraini Shi'ites to the local authorities, the Iranian broadcasting authority launched a new radio station called the Voice of Bahrain to export the "message of the revolution" to Bahrain. The station will broadcast news, commentary on political and social issues, and provide information about confrontations between the authorities and the opposition. It will operate through the Internet, social networks and smartphone apps (Fars, March 4, 2017).
  • Bahrain authorities announced the exposure of a network of 54 terrorists who, with Iranian support, were planning to carry out attacks on the country's security forces. According to Bahrain's attorney general, the leader of the network, who lives in Germany, helped the group organize trips for its operatives from Bahrain to Iran and Iraq for training in IRGC camps (ABNA, March 4, 2017). A spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry strongly rejected Bahrain's accusations. Since the outbreak of the popular uprising in Bahrain in 2011, the authorities have accused Iran of supporting the rebels and planning terrorist attacks. In the summer of 2015 Bahrain announced it had uncovered a direct connection between Iran and Hezbollah to an attack in which two member of the Bahraini security forces had been killed when an IED exploded. In October 2015 Bahrain announced it had recalled its ambassador from Tehran and expelled the Iranian chargé d'affaires from Manama in protest against the involvement of the IRGC in planning terrorist attacks in Bahrain.
  • Hossein Amir Abdollahian, special international affairs advisor to the speaker of the Majlis, meeting with Wolfgang Amadeus Bruelhart, assistant state secretary and head of the Middle East and North Africa division in the Swiss foreign ministry, said the claims that Iran was supplying weapons to Yemen by sea were baseless. He said that for Iran the only resolution for the crisis in Yemen was political talks and honoring the decisions of the Yemeni people (Mehr, March 8, 2017).
Iranian Intervention in the Palestinian Arena
  • Ahmad Karimpour, military advisor to the commander of the IRGC's Qods Force, warned that Iran would destroy Tel Aviv and Haifa in the case of Israeli "aggression" against Iran. At a memorial service for Iranian martyrs, Karimpour said Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had not been joking when he said that if necessary, Iran would turn Tel Aviv and Haifa into dust in seven seconds. He said the Iranian armed forces had identified all the important centers in Israel and could attack them with their Sijil and long-range Shehab-3 missiles within seven and a half minutes. He added that no one in the world had the courage to speak out against Israel, but that Supreme Leader Khamenei had made it plain Iran would support anyone who helped the Palestinians (dolatebahar.com, March 2, 2017).

[*]Spotlight on Iran is an Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center bulletin illuminating Iran's activities to establish its influence in the Middle East and beyond. It is based on reports in the Iranian media and written for the ITIC by Dr. Raz Zimmt, an expert on Iran's politics, society, foreign policy and social networks.