The fighting in rural Kobani.
The fighting in rural Kobani.
Two battle zones in the area of Aleppo, marked with a red circle: Kweiris airbase east of Aleppo, and the city of Handarat, north of Aleppo (blogspot website)
Video published by ISIS documenting a Konkurs antitank missile hitting a Humvee belonging to the Kurdish forces (YouTube, March 17, 2015)
Photos published by the Al-Nusra Front.
Photos published by the Al-Nusra Front.
The town of Falita (circled in red), in the area of Al-Qalamoun
Map of Iraq (Google Earth). The red circles are the areas of the fighting in Tikrit and Samarra.
Photos of the execution (ISIS-affiliated Twitter account, March 20, 2015)
The location of the city of Rutba (marked in red) on the road leading to Syria and Jordan (Source: Google Maps)
Cross being removed from a church (https://mdwn.me, March 16, 2015)
Hoisting the ISIS flag.
Destruction of a picture of the Virgin Mary (https://mdwn.me, March 16, 2015)
Fatalities at the scene (theshamnews.com website, March 21, 2015)
Main events of the week
The international campaign against ISIS
US and coalition airstrikes
- This week, the US and coalition forces continued their airstrikes against ISIS targets. Several dozen airstrikes were carried out in Syria and Iraq. Following are the locations of the main airstrikes (CENTCOM website):
- In Syria, airstrikes were carried out near Al-Hasakah, Al-Raqqah and Kobani. The airstrikes destroyed ISIS battle positions, vehicles and a network of tunnels.
- In Iraq, airstrikes were carried out in the areas of Kirkuk, Mosul, Fallujah, Baiji, Ramadi, Al-Assad, Al-Qaim, Haditha and Rutba. The airstrikes targeted operatives, weapons, heavy machinery, rocket launching and storage sites, bridges, a workshop for manufacturing weapons and a network of tunnels. A UAV was also destroyed.
Summary of US and coalition operations
- According to the Pentagon, between August 8, 2014, and March 19, 2015, a total of 2,893 airstrikes were carried out against ISIS targets (i.e., more than 400 airstrikes per month).Of these airstrikes, 1,631 were carried out in Iraq and 1,262 in Syria. About 80% of all the airstrikes (2,320 airstrikes) were carried out by the US Air Force. These airstrikes attacked thousands of targets, including tanks (some US-manufactured, which had been seized by ISIS), an oil infrastructure, battle positions and more.
- CIA Director John Brennan estimated that ISIS’s progress in Syria and Iraq was contained as a result of the efforts of the US and Iraq (www.ibtimes, March 22, 2015). According to the Pentagon, following the attack on ISIS’s oil infrastructure, ISIS’s revenues from the sale of petroleum products are no longer its main source of income (Reuters, March 19, 2015).
Deployment of Iranian weapons in Iraq
- American officials, whose identity was not revealed, said that in recent weeks, they have noticed that Iran has deployed rockets and advanced missile systems on Iraqi territory. These weapons are intended for the campaign against ISIS. According to a senior American military official, the exact quantity of missiles and rockets is unknown. The official also said that at this stage, the deployment of the missiles is not a significant problem. However, he expressed concerns about possible collateral damage (i.e., to the civilian population), if inaccurate artillery and weapons are operated (New York Times, March 16, 2015).
International economic warfare against ISIS
- On March 19-20, 2015, the first conference of a group led by the United States was held in Rome. The group is working to coordinate efforts to harm ISIS’s economic activity. The group, known as the Counter ISIL Finance Group (CIFG), has26 member countries (including Italy and Saudi Arabia). Several international organizations are also members of the group. The group intends to meet regularly to consult about measures for an economic war against ISIS. The group’s next meeting will be held in Saudi Arabia in May 2015 (US Treasury website, March 20, 2015).
- The Lebanese media reported that Daniel Glaser, the US Treasury’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes, came to Beirut as the head of a delegation. The delegation’s visit was intended to warn the Lebanese banks against involvement in the transfer of funds for ISIS and against using the Lebanese banking system for money laundering. During his visit, Daniel Glaser met with Lebanese government officials and with senior figures in the Lebanese banking system. He called on Lebanon to join the CIFG group led by the United States, which met recently in Rome (Al-Akhbar, March 18, 2015).
Main developments in Syria
- In the rural area of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab), fighting continues between the Kurdish militias (YPG) and ISIS. This is part of the Kurdish forces’ efforts to cleanse ISIS’s remaining pockets of resistance in the area, after the fall of the city of Kobani into their hands.
- ISIS called on the residents of the Al-Raqqah province to join the fighting in its ranks. It was also reported that ISIS set up an office in the city of Tell Abyad, near the Turkish border crossing, to monitor civilians’ identity cards and find recruits to fight on the various fronts (All4Syria, March 23, 2015).
- In the Aleppo province, battles were waged between the Syrian Army and ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front and other rebel organizations. In this context, ISIS’s attempt to attack the Kweiris airbase (also known as Deir Hafer) to the east of the city of Aleppo was thwarted; ISIS operatives attacked four Syrian Army checkpoints on the main road to Aleppo, killing 15 Syrian soldiers; in the area of Handarat, north of Aleppo, there were battles between the Syrian Army and Al-Nusra Front operatives and another rebel group (Ahrar al-Sham). According to Syrian government officials, the fighting in the area of Handarat ended with the Syrian Army gaining absolute control of the area.
- In the province of Al-Hasakah, battles continue between the YPG Kurdish forces and ISIS. On March 17, 2015, ISIS published a video documenting an attack carried out by its operatives on a PKK vehicle (a Humvee), using a Konkurs antitank missile (YouTube, March 17, 2015).
- On March 20, 2015,two car bombs exploded in the Kurdish Al-Mufti neighborhood in the north of the city of Al-Hasakah, during the Nowruz (the Iranian New Year) celebrations. More than a hundred people were killed and a few dozen were wounded. Some of the casualties were women and children. According to initial reports, the ISIS operatives who blew themselves up inside the car bombs were disguised as YPG fighters. Social networks and the media blamed ISIS for the car bomb explosions. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the incident and sent his condolences to the families of the victims (UN website, March 20, 2015).
- Al-Nusra Front operatives claim to have captured at least four Syrian helicopter crewmen. This was after their helicopter made an emergency landing in the Idlib province, due to a technical problem. One crew member was executed by shooting at the site where the helicopter landed. The fate of the rest of the crew is unknown (syriahr, March 22, 2015). The Al-Nusra Front published photos, which it claims are of the helicopter crew.
The area of Al-Qalamoun (the Syrian-Lebanese border)
- There have been reports on social media about an extensive attack carried out by the Al-Nusra Front on Hezbollah strongholds and Syrian forces around the town of Falita, in Al-Qalamoun. According to the reports, Al-Nusra Front operatives took control of five outposts and destroyed a tank, machine gun and other weapons. The Al-Nusra Front reportedly killed 12 operatives of the forces that fought against it (Al-Nusra Front-affiliated Twitter account, March 19, 2015). According to the reports, Hezbollah significantly reinforced its forces in the region in response to the attack.
Main developments in Iraq
Salah al-Din province
- According to media reports, the Iraqi Army and Shiite militias are now in the final stages of the campaign to regain control of the city of Tikrit.According to the reports, after managing to take control of villages and towns on the outskirts of Tikrit, the military forces began to fight against ISIS in the city itself. On March 19, 2015, an Iraqi security source reported that Iraqi Army forces had managed to repel an attack by seven ISIS suicide bombers in western Tikrit (Al-Ghad, March 19, 2015).
- On March 22, 2015, the Iraqi Defense Ministry issued a video documenting an Iraqi Air Force airstrike on ISIS vehicles in the area of Samarra, south of Tikrit. According to the Iraqi Defense Ministry, the attack killed at least 17 ISIS operatives (Iraqi Defense Ministry website, March 22, 2015).
Left: An ISIS vehicle which was attacked from the air. Right: Another ISIS vehicle before it was attacked from the air in the area of Samarra (Iraqi Defense Ministry website, March 22, 2015)
Photo from the fighting in the Salah al-Din province. Left: ISIS mortar fire. Right: ISIS tank fire (justpaste.it, March 23, 2015)
- On March 21, 2015, ISIS announced that its operatives had attacked a convoy of a senior Iraqi Army commander in the Salah al-Din province, by means of two suicide bombers. The terrorists blew themselves up inside car bombs, one of which was a booby-trapped ambulance. According to ISIS, 23 Iraqi Army soldiers were killed in the operation (http://theshamnews.com, March 21, 2015).
- In Mosul, ISIS continues to prepare for a possible attack by the Iraqi Army, with the support of the coalition.ISIS operatives are reportedly digging trenches around the city, which they call “the walls of the Caliphate”. They are designed to protect the city from attack (Al-Sumaria News, March 18, 2015). These are apparently anti-tank trenches, which are designed to make it hard for Iraqi armored forces to enter the city.
- On March 20, 2015, an ISIS-affiliated Twitter account published photos of three Kurdish prisoners who were beheaded by ISIS (ISIS-affiliated Twitter account, March 20, 2015). The three were apparently executed in the city of Mosul. Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurds in Iraq, has promised to take revenge on ISIS (Al-Mada Press, March 22, 2015). US Vice President Joe Biden expressed his condolences to the Kurds.
- Coalition forces attacked an ISIS UAV in Fallujah. The UAV was on an ISIS vehicle which it had landed on after being in the air for a short time. American sources have confirmed that on March 16, 2015, a UAV operated by ISIS was destroyed near Fallujah. American sources said that this model of UAV is sold commercially. They confirmed that the UAV was not shot down but was attacked from the air while it was on the ground (Reuters, March 19, 2015).
- On March 17, 2015, ISIS published photos entitled “Decorating the streets of [the city of] Rutba,” located on the main road leading to Jordan and Syria. ISIS flags were hung at the entrance to the city and squares were decorated with ISIS posters and flags (theshamnews.com, March 17, 2015).
Left: A square in the city of Rutba, with a large ISIS poster with the words “We will win despite the international coalition”. Right: ISIS flags welcoming those entering the city of Rutba (theshamnews.com, March 17, 2015)
Left: A sign, hung on a bridge near the city, reading “The Caliphate according to [the spirit of] the Prophecy”. Right: A square in the city of Rutba, with a large sign showing an armed ISIS operative and the inscription “We will win despite the international coalition” (theshamnews.com, March 17, 2015).
The conduct of the Islamic State
Harming Christian institutions and cultural elements
- ISIS’s media arm in the Nineveh province, Iraq, published photos showing ISIS operatives damaging Christian elements in a Christian cemetery and a church. Other photos show operatives flying the ISIS flag in place of the cross that they had removed from a church, and destroying Christian artworks (ISIS-affiliated Twitter account, March 16, 2015; website used by ISIS operatives, https://mdwn.me, March 16, 2015).
Trafficking in stolen vehicles
- ISIS senior officials have reportedly taken control of the car market in the areas under ISIS’s control in Iraq. ISIS operatives are in contact with brokers and traffickers from the countries bordering on Iraq, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia. ISIS operatives traffic in cars illegally, without control or registration at customs. It was further reported that trafficking in stolen cars is now one of ISIS’s main funding sources (Al-Arabi al-Jadeed, March 22, 2015).
Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula
The campaign against jihadi terrorism
- Egyptian security forces continued up their counterterrorism and preventive activities against jihadi terrorism centers in the northern Sinai Peninsula. In this context, it was reported that 28 Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis operatives were killed in a security operation and another 12 were injured (Al-Youm al-Sabea, March 18, 2015). Several dozen jihadi operatives were killed in another security operation, and several dozen were injured. In addition, cars and motorcycles were confiscated, and explosive devices were defused (Al-Masri al-Youm, March 18, 2015).
- Egyptian media reported that as part of the operation, Egyptian security forces uncovered 194 new tunnel openings in northern Sinai, near the border with the Gaza Strip. These included two wide, so called “strategic tunnels,” equipped with control rooms, with underground telephone lines, power cables and fuel pipes running through them (Facebook page of the Egyptian forces, March 21, 2015).
The global jihad in other countries
- On March 18, 2015, several armed men carried out a mass terrorist attack in the Bardo National Museum, near the parliament building in the capital, Tunis. These attacks killed 23 people, at least twenty of them tourists. According to reports, the attackers initially tried to break into the Parliament compound, but after an exchange of fire with the security guards there, they fled to the museum building near the Parliament building. At the museum, they held several dozen hostages for a few hours. The incident ended when the Tunisian security forces overcame the terrorists, cleared the museum and released the hostages (theshamnews.com website, March 21, 2015).
- On March 19, 2015, an ISIS-affiliated group calling itself the Army of the Islamic Caliphate in Tunisia published a statement claiming responsibility for the attack. At the same time, ISIS also claimed responsibility for the attack, although the statement was not signed by an official ISIS media outlet.
- According to ISIS’s statement, the codenames of the terrorists who carried out the attack are Abu Zakariya al-Tunisi and Abu Anas al-Tunisi (Abu Zakariya the Tunisian and Abu Anas the Tunisian). According to the statement, the two men entered the museum armed with machine guns and hand grenades, and attacked the people there. In its statement, ISIS addressed “All the infidels in Tunisia,” warning them that this attack is only the beginning and that the infidels in Tunisia will not be able to sleep peacefully (ISIS forum, March 19, 2015).
- Yemen, simultaneous attacks were carried out in three mosques frequented by worshippers affiliated with the Houthi forces. The Houthis, supported by Iran, are based among the Zaydi Shiites, a Shiite sect whose members make up about 30% of the population of Yemen. The attack was carried out during Friday prayers. Two attacks were carried out in the capital, Sanaa, and another attack was carried out in the northern city of Saada, controlled by the Houthis. According to reports, 142 people were killed and 351 injured (AFP, March 20, 2015).
- ISIS’s information office in the Sanaa province issued a statement claiming responsibility for the string of attacks carried out simultaneously in Sanaa, against a few Houthi mosques. The statement said that the attacks were carried out by five operatives, who entered three mosques, armed with explosive belts. The statement also warned the Houthis in Yemen that ISIS operatives would not rest until the “Houthis are uprooted”. According to the statement, the current attack is “one drop of rain of the actions” to come (ISIS forum, March 20, 2015).
- An announcement in November 2014 by the leader of ISIS claimed that a jihadi organization in Yemen had joined its ranks. It should be noted that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda, is firmly established in Yemen, and that ISIS does not yet have a significant territorial foothold there. This is the first time that ISIS’s branch in Yemen has claimed responsibility for an attack in Yemen. AQAP was quick to issue a statement denying any connection with the attacks at the mosques. According to the statement, AQAP is bound by the instructions of Al-Qaeda, which it is a part of. According to these instructions, it is forbidden to attack mosques, open markets or public places where innocent Muslims are liable to be harmed.
Carrying out deadly suicide bombing attacks against Shiite religious institutions, and against the Shiite population in general,is the legacy of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the “founding father” of ISIS in Iraq.From the outset, when Al-Zarqawi established his presence in Iraq, Al-Qaeda objected to the strategy of attacking Shiites indiscriminately. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy Al-Zawahiri feared that indiscriminate attacks on Muslim civilians could compromise public support for Al-Qaeda in Iraq and in the entire region. In retrospect, this dispute can be seen as the first sign of tension between Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and Al-Qaeda’s central leadership. Al-Zarqawi’s legacy of killing and the differences of opinion stemming from it are manifested in Al-Qaeda’s opposition to ISIS’s conduct, including the recent terrorist attacks in Yemen.
- On March 17, 2015, the Khorasan province of the Islamic State published a 12-minute video confirming the death of Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, former deputy governor of Khorasan, who was killed on February 9, 2015, in a US Air Force airstrike. The video includes a short biography of Abdul Rauf Khadim, AKA Abu Talha al-Khorasani. In the video, Hafiz Saeed Khan, governor of the Islamic State’s Khorasan province, promises that the death of Khadim will be avenged.
- The Afghan defense ministry announced that on March 16, 2015, Afghan military forces killed the commander of the Islamic State in southern Afghanistan, Hafiz Wahidi.He allegedly replaced Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, who was killed on February 9, 2015, as deputy governor of the province (www.khaama.com, March 16, 2015).
On January 26, 2015, ISIS announced the establishment of a new province of the Islamic State, called Khorasan. The announcement stated that the province would include Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries. The announcement reflected ISIS’s efforts to establish a presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan through local operatives and organizations, taking advantage of internal disagreements in the Taliban leadership. In the ITIC’s assessment, ISIS’s efforts to establish a presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan still encounter difficulties from the governments of Afghanistan (with the support of the US Army) and Pakistan, and from local jihadi organizations, especially the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
Counterterrorism and preventive activity
France announced that it had blocked ISIS websites
- France has blocked five websites affiliated with terrorism. One of the blocked websites was that of ISIS’s Al-Hayat Media Center. ISIS-affiliated websites call on French operatives to join the ranks of the organization. According to French estimates, around 1,400 French citizens have already joined the fighting in Syria and Iraq, or plan to do so (AFP, March 16, 2015).
- Spanish authorities arrested eight operatives in Spain, who they say were part of a terrorist network comprising ten operatives. The operatives used more than fifty different profiles on social networks to send out ISIS propaganda materials. The network operatives, who have been monitored by the authorities since June 2014, were charged with recruiting people to ISIS and encouraging operatives to carry out terrorist attacks in Spain. A video entitled “ISIS Training in Spain” was found in the possession of the operative who headed the network.
According to the Spanish authorities, to date, around one hundred Spanish citizens have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight in the ranks of the Islamic State(Fox News, March 18, 2015). In 2013, the estimated number of Spanish operatives who went to Syria ranged from a few to several dozen. Most of them were from the Spanish enclave in Morocco, where ISIS carried out recruitment activity. Since then, it seems that the number of operatives from Spain who joined the ranks of ISIS has apparently increased significantly. This increase is also characteristic of other countries in Western Europe.
- The Turkish media recently reported that British operatives who come to Turkey have changed their tactics. In the past, they would go directly from the airport in Istanbul to the Turkish-Syrian border. Now they land in Istanbul and travel from there to resort towns such as Marmaris and Bodrum. From there they are taken to various cities, from which they are sent to Syria (sozcu.com.tr, March 19, 2015).
This change in the arrival routes to Syria from Turkey may have been made in the wake of the preventive measures recently taken by the Turkish authorities. Until late 2014, it was relatively easy for the foreign fighters to pass through Turkey, since the Turkish authorities turned a blind eye. However, as the flow of foreign fighters passing through Turkey on their way to Syria increased, concerns about the return of the “veterans of Syria and Iraq” to their home countries also increased, and Western countries began to criticize Turkey and to demand that it employ effective measures against this phenomenon. The Turkish government was accused of not doing enough to prevent the flow of foreign fighters who come to Syria from Turkish territory and not acting to close the border with Syria.
- Jamila Henry, a British Muslim woman who tried to join the ranks of ISIS in Syria, was arrested in Ankara. Jamila Henry, 21, lived for seven months with a British ISIS operative and returned to Britain in late 2014. After her return, she was under surveillance by the British security services but nevertheless managed to leave Britain once again. She was arrested at a bus station in Ankara, Turkey. According to her mother, she used her twin sister’s passport (Telegraph, March 20, 2015).
The battle for hearts and minds conducted by ISIS
Publication of a list of American security personnel
- A group calling itself the “Islamic State Hacking Division”, which claims to be affiliated with ISIS, published on websites names, personal details and photos of a hundred people who it claims are serving in the US Army. The group encourages acts of violence against these people. According to the US security services, some of those listed are indeed on active service. With regard to some of the names, the security services did not confirm that they are military personnel. The US views the publication of the list as propaganda. Nevertheless, they contacted those who appear on it and asked them to be vigilant and take precautions (NBC News, March 22, 2015).
Hacking media websites
- ISIS operatives recently hacked media websites in Arab countries and in some countries around the world, as well as accounts of media entities on social networking websites. The operatives disseminated announcements and messages from ISIS on these websites. On March 21, 2015, ISIS hackers broke into the website of the Saudi daily Okaz, shutting it down for a few hours. The newspaper’s website was covered with a black background, and on it were faces of armed and masked operatives, with the inscription: “[The Islamic State] continues [to exist] and expands” (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, March 23, 2015).
The weekly publication Spotlight on Global Jihad monitors developments among ISIS and global jihad organizations in Syria and Iraq and in the Middle East as a whole. The publication also monitors terrorist activities around the world, directed, supported or inspired by the global jihad organizations in the Middle East.
For details about operatives passing through Turkey to Syria, see the ITIC’s Information Bulletin from March 23, 2015: “Updated security recommendations issued by ISIS to operatives traveling to Syria are designed to address preventive measures by European countries and Turkey. However, the flow of foreign fighters still continues.”