Spotlight on Global Jihad (February 23-March 1, 2017)

Spotlight on Global Jihad

Spotlight on Global Jihad

Meeting of members of the Russian Navy with President Putin.

Meeting of members of the Russian Navy with President Putin.

The Russian President speaking at the ceremony (Kremlin website, February 23, 2017)

The Russian President speaking at the ceremony (Kremlin website, February 23, 2017)

The city of Al-Bab from above (Sham Front YouTube account, February 25, 2017)

The city of Al-Bab from above (Sham Front YouTube account, February 25, 2017)

Russian sappers removing mines in Aleppo (Russian Defense Ministry website, eng.mil.ru)

Russian sappers removing mines in Aleppo (Russian Defense Ministry website, eng.mil.ru)

Iraqi warplanes attack ISIS targets in Abu Kamal and Al-Qaim (Russia al-Youm, February 25, 2017)

Iraqi warplanes attack ISIS targets in Abu Kamal and Al-Qaim (Russia al-Youm, February 25, 2017)

Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the military commander of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, reading his organization’s claim of responsibility for the terrorist attack in Homs (YouTube, February 27, 2017).

Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the military commander of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, reading his organization’s claim of responsibility for the terrorist attack in Homs (YouTube, February 27, 2017).

Damaged cars at the scene of the attack (Souriat, February 26, 2017)

Damaged cars at the scene of the attack (Souriat, February 26, 2017)

Iraqi Army forces at Mosul’s airport (Al-Mayadeen, February 24, 2017).

Iraqi Army forces at Mosul’s airport (Al-Mayadeen, February 24, 2017).

ISIS operatives turning themselves in to the Iraqi forces at the Al-Ghazlani military base (Al-Sumaria, February 24, 2017)

ISIS operatives turning themselves in to the Iraqi forces at the Al-Ghazlani military base (Al-Sumaria, February 24, 2017)

Iraqi Army soldiers in the Al-Mamoun neighborhood, where fighting is concentrated in southwest Mosul (Al-Sumaria, February 24, 2017)

Iraqi Army soldiers in the Al-Mamoun neighborhood, where fighting is concentrated in southwest Mosul (Al-Sumaria, February 24, 2017)

ISIS operative fires an RPG rocket at Iraqi security forces in the Al-Tayaran neighborhood (Aamaq, February 27, 2017)

ISIS operative fires an RPG rocket at Iraqi security forces in the Al-Tayaran neighborhood (Aamaq, February 27, 2017)

Abu Zakariya al-Baritani in his way to carry out the suicide bombing attack.

Abu Zakariya al-Baritani in his way to carry out the suicide bombing attack.


Main events of the week

  • In the second week of the campaign over west Mosul, the Iraqi forces took over the airport to the south of the city, as well as a nearby military base. From there they proceeded to the southern neighborhoods of Mosul, taking over some of them. In the fighting, ISIS made extensive use of car bombs detonated by suicide bombers. ISIS also made use of drones that attacked Iraqi soldiers in the west and east of the city.
  • The military pressure exerted on ISIS in Syria has also increased:
  • The Free Syrian Army and the Turkish Army announced the completion of the takeover of Al-Bab from ISIS. This means the loss of ISIS’s last significant stronghold west of the Euphrates River and the strengthening of Turkey’s direct and indirect control in this area (where Turkey seeks to establish a security zone under its influence).
  • The US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces continued to cleanse the region north and east of Al-Raqqah, ISIS’s stronghold in Syria. While visiting the forces, the Commander of the US Army Central Command said that the United States would probably increase the scope of its involvement in the campaign over Al-Raqqah.
  • This week, for the first time, Iraqi warplanes attacked ISIS targets in the Syrian city of Abu Kamal, near the Syrian-Iraqi border, and the Iraqi city of Al-Qaim, on the other side of the border. According to the Iraqi Prime Minister, the terrorist attacks carried out in Baghdad were directed by ISIS’s headquarters in these cities.
  • After the takeover of Al-Bab, Turkey apparently intends to complete its takeover of the city of Manbij, west of the Euphrates River, which is held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Speaking at a press conference, the Turkish President said that Turkey may mount a campaign to liberate Manbij and Al-Raqqah if it reaches an understanding with Russia and the US. A Turkish attempt to take over Manbij is liable to create tension that would compromise the effectiveness of the campaign to take over Al-Raqqah.

 

The United States and Russia

  • At the request of US President Donald Trump, United States Secretary of Defense James Mattis provided an initial plan for accelerating the campaign against ISIS. The plan apparently includes increasing the scope of the US Army forces involved in the campaign and other measures designed to harm ISIS’s financing methods. Pentagon Spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said that this is an extensive plan developed in collaboration with various partners and is not limited to just Syria and Iraq (CNBC, February 27, 2017).
  • According to Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, the top US Air Force commander in the Middle East, the US government seeks to increase cooperation and coordination between it and Russia with regard to airstrikes in Syria.Harrigian said that US aircraft “on occasion get out of the way” of Russian jets (The Washington Post, February 23, 2017). General Herbert J. Carlisle, commander of the US Air Force Air Combat Command, also said that the dialogue between the parties should be increased, because the situation will become more complex as the coalition forces exert greater pressure on ISIS and recapture more territory from ISIS (The Washington Post, February 24, 2017).
  • Speaking at a meeting with members of the Russian Navy participating in the operation in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that Russia’s fighting in Syria had created conditions to promote the political process. He called for maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity, while refraining from interfering in its internal affairs. Putin also noted that according to initial information obtained from the General Staff and other security agencies, some 4,000 fighters from Russia and 5,000 fighters from the former Soviet Union have joined terrorist organizations and are currently fighting in Syria. According to him, the visa-exemption agreements that Russia has with most of the countries of the former Soviet Union pose a genuine threat of terrorism to the country (Kremlin website, February 23, 2017).

Main developments in Syria

The area of Al-Bab
  • On February 23, 2017, the Free Syrian Army reported that its troops had completed the takeover of the city of Al-Bab (Khotwa, February 23, 2017). According to Ahmad Othman, the commander of the forcesISIS operatives left the city, and the Free Syrian Army is now engaged in removing mines from the residential neighborhoods. On February 24, 2017, the Turkish Army General Staff officially announced that all of the neighborhoods of Al-Bab were under the complete control of the Free Syrian Army (Al-Jazeera, February 24, 2017).[1] It seems that after the takeover of Al-Bab, Turkey and the Free Syrian Army are planning to advance to the east, aiming to take over the city of Manbij, which is held by the SDF.

 

  • According to one of the fighters, Al-Bab was liberated after about two months of fighting, including about one month of fighting in the city’s rural area, and about 20-25 days of fighting in the city. He added that during the fighting in the city, ISIS detonated 15-20 car bombs (Sham Front YouTube account, February 25, 2017).
  • Around that time, on February 27, 2017, in the town of Tadif, about 1.5 km southeast of Al-Bab, clashes reportedly took place between the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Army. According to the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian Army sustained 22 fatalities. A day earlier, the Syrian Army took over the town of Tadif from ISIS (Aranews, February 27, 2017). Turkish media reported that the Syrian forces (“the Assad Army and the bands supporting it”) had created a “security zone” south of Al-Bab, preventing the Turkish Army from advancing toward areas held by ISIS (aa.com.tr, February 27, 2017). At the same time, the Syrian Army continues cleansing areas controlled by ISIS north of the town of Deir Hafer, southeast of Al-Bab.
  • At a press conference, Turkey’s President Erdoğan demanded that the Kurdish forces be transferred to the east bank of the Euphrates River. He ruled out possible cooperation of Turkey with the SDF. According to Erdoğan, Turkey may start a campaign to liberate Manbij and Al-Raqqah from the “terrorist operatives” if it reaches understanding with Russia and the US-led international coalition (Reuters; ITAR-TASS, February 28, 2017).Turkish media even reported on preparations for the takeover of Manbij.[2] In the ITIC's assessment, an attempt by the Turkish Army and the rebel organizations supported by it to take over Manbij is liable to create tension mainly between Turkey and the US, and compromise the effectiveness of the campaign to take over Al-Raqqah.

 

Aleppo
  • The Russian coordination center reported that Russian sapper teams were still operating on the ground and assisting in removing mines and IEDs in east Aleppo. Deputy Head of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the opposing sides Andrei Kotyonok said that although the Russians had trained a Syrian military unit for the removal of mines, it was not enough, and they have to complete most of the missions themselves. Special emphasis is placed on removing mines and IEDs from residential areas, in order to allow the population to re-inhabit them (TASS, February 27, 2017).
Al-Raqqah
  • The SDF continued cleansing the area north and east of Al-Raqqah. The forces reportedly took over several villages north of Al-Raqqah, and ISIS operatives withdrew (Khotwa, February 24, 2017). Syrian media reported that ISIS operatives and their families had fled Al-Raqqah towards the city of Abu Kamal, east of Deir ez-Zor, near the border with Iraq (the Local Coordination Committees, February 24, 2017).

 

  • On February 24, 2017, Iraqi warplanes attacked ISIS targets in Syria in the area of Abu Kamal. This airstrike, the first of its kind, was reportedly carried out in coordination with Syria (Al-Sumaria, February 24, 2017). Its objective was to hit ISIS headquarters in the area of Abu Kamal in Syria and Al-Qaim, on the Iraqi side of the border. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced that it had been ISIS headquarters in Abu Kamal and Al-Qaim that directed the terrorist attacks in Baghdad (Russia al-Youm, February 25, 2017). 
  • This week General Joseph Votel, Commander of the US Army Central Command, visited a number of countries in the Middle East. During his visit with the attacking forces in Al-Raqqah (i.e., the SDF), he said that the United States might increase the scope of its involvement in the fighting and might send more troops to Syria. He said that the forces fighting against ISIS in Al-Raqqah “don’t have as good mobility, they don’t have as much firepower, so we have to be prepared to fill in some of those gaps for them and that may involve additional fire support capability” (CBS, February 22, 2017). It was also reported that Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, secretly visited the US and Kurdish forces stationed in northern Syria to examine the progress of the campaign against ISIS (Fox News, February 23, 2017).
Homs
  • Six suicide bombers wearing explosive belts carried out a suicide bombing attack against two Syrian security facilities in Homs. General Hassan Daabul, a high-ranking intelligence officer in the Syrian Army who was a close associate of President Bashar Assad,was killed in the attack. Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi stated that 32 people were killed in the attack, and 24 others were wounded. According to eyewitnesses, one of the suicide bombers entered Hassan Daabul’s office and blew himself up (Al-Jazeera, February 25, 2017).
  • On February 27, 2017, a video was released on YouTube, in which Fateh al-Sham Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani claimed responsibility for the attack in Homs. He said that the targets of the attack were the Military Security Branch and the General Security Directorate in Homs. Al-Julani added that the attack was carried out by five operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, who managed to kill fifty people (“enemies of Allah”), and first and foremost Hassan Daabul, chief of the Military Security Branch and chief of the Security Directorate. Abu Mohammad al-Julani lashed out against the “defeatist politicians” taking part in the conferences in Astana and Geneva and emphasized that the “criminal [Syrian] regime only understands the language of power, blood, and sacrifice…”. He ended his statement saying that his organization will continue jihad and sacrifice and that the suicide bombing attack in Homs was the first in a series of attacks to come.
Idlib
  • According to reports in Twitter accounts, Ahmad Hassan Abu al-Khayr, 59, codenamed Abu al-Khayr al-Masri (i.e., the Egyptian), who had been the deputy of Al-Qaeda leader, was killed in a US airstrike carried out by a drone. The attack was carried out while he was driving his car near Idlib, in northern Syria. So far, Al-Qaeda refrained from addressing the attack.
  • Hassan Abu al-Khayr, born in Egypt, was married to Osama bin Laden’s daughter. He fled Egypt in the 1980s, fought in Bosnia, and then moved to Afghanistan. After the 9/11 attacks he fled to Iran, where he was arrested in 2003. After his release in March 2015, he moved to Syria. Hassan Abu al-Khayr was responsible for a large number of terrorist attacks, including the attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 (Daily Mirror, February 26, 2017).
Sothern Syria
  • Fighting continued in the city of Daraa between the rebel organizations and the Syrian forces. The rebel organizations are trying to complete their takeover of the Manshiya neighborhood in southwest Daraa. The Syrian media reported that Syrian Army units foiled an attempt by Fateh al-Sham Front to advance toward military facilities in the Manshiya neighborhood. Dozens were reportedly killed among the rebel organizations, including senior operatives (Syrian News Agency; Al-Ahed, February 26, 2017). The rebel organizations’ operations room reported that the Manshiya neighborhood had been partly liberated and that a network of tunnels dug there by the Syrian Army and its allies was uncovered in the neighborhood (Orient Channel, February 27, 2017).
  • In the Yarmouk basin, in the southern Golan Heights, the ISIS-affiliated Khalid bin Al-Walid Army operatives took over several villages and towns from the rebel organizations, including the town of Jillen and Tal al-Jamu’, which they had lost before (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, February 28, 2017).

Main developments in Iraq

The campaign for the takeover of Mosul
Overview
  • The Iraqi forces took over this week the airport south of Mosul and the Al-Ghazlani military base nearby. ISIS blew up the buildings and the runway at the airport. At the Al-Ghazlani military base, dozens of ISIS operatives surrendered themselves to the Iraqi forces. From there, the Iraqi forces continued toward Mosul’s southwestern neighborhoods and took over some of them.

 

  • So far, the Iraqi forces managed to take over several neighborhoods in the southwestern part of the city, including Al-Tayaran, Wadi al-Hajar and Al-Gawsaq. Most of the fighting is now taking place in the Al-Mamoun neighborhood (Al-Jazeera, February 24, 2017; Al-Sumaria, February 25, 2017; the Nineveh Information Center, February 25, 2017). The Iraqi Army announced that it had taken over one of the bridges that connect the eastern part of the city to its western part, from the western side of the bridge (Al-Sumaria, February 27, 2017).
ISIS’s response
  • ISIS continued to carry out guerrilla warfare against the Iraqi forces while carrying out large-scale suicide bombing attacks. Some of the attacks were carried out in the city’s western neighborhoods, where fighting is taking place (mainly in the Al-Mamoun neighborhood), some of them in the eastern part of the city, and some in the region of Mosul. Following are several examples:
  • ISIS claimed responsibility for carrying out two simultaneous suicide bombing attacks by car bombs against an Iraqi security forces base southwest of Mosul. According to ISIS, at least 12 members of the Iraqi security forces were killed in these attacks (Haqq, February 23, 2017).
  • On February 24, 2017, ISIS announced that it had carried out a suicide bombing attack against the Iraqi forces in the Al-Mamoun neighborhood, insouthwest Mosul (Aamaq, February 24, 2017).
  • On February 24, 2017, ISIS announced that its forces had hit Iraqi Army vehicles and tanks in the Al-Mamoun neighborhood, using a drone (Haqq, February 24, 2017).
  • On February 25, 2017, ISIS carried out two additional suicide bombing attacks in the Al-Mamoun neighborhood (Haqq, February 26, 2017).
  • On February 21, 2017, ISIS announced that it had killed an Iraqi soldier by an IED dropped from a drone in the east Mosul neighborhood of Al-Nur (Haqq, February 21, 2017)
  • On February 27, 2017, ISIS announced that it had killed 17 members of the Iraqi security forces during the fighting in the Al-Tayaran neighborhood in west Mosul (Haqq, February 27, 2017).
  • On February 22, 2017, ISIS announced that a British operative codenamed Abu Zakariya al-Baritani (i.e., the British) had carried out a car bomb suicide attack against the Iraqi security forces. The attack was carried out southwest of Mosul, along with two other suicide bombers. Abu Zakariya was born in Britain by the name of Ronald Fiddler. He converted to Islam when he was a boy. He had previously been detained by American forces in Afghanistan and incarcerated in Guantanamo Prison. He was released in 2004. In 2014, he traveled to Syria through Turkey and joined ISIS. From Syria he moved to Iraq, where he carried out the suicide bombing attack (Haqq, February 22, 2017; Daily Mail, February 22, 2017; Telegraph, February 22, 2017).

Global jihad activity in other countries

Egypt
Harassment of Copts by ISIS
  • Last week, ISIS distributed a video calling for fighting against the Copts in Egypt. Following this video, ISIS operatives began harassing the Coptic residents in Al-Arish and threaten their lives (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, February 26, 2017).[3] Many Copts reportedly fled North Sinai and sought refuge in nearby cities, mainly in Ismailiyah. At first, the governor of Ismailiyah denied these reports, but sources in the Coptic Church reported that the Church had accepted dozens of Copts from Sinai who sought refuge in the city (Rasd, February 24, 2017).

 

  • To assist the Coptic residents, Egyptian Prime Minister Sharif Ismail order the establishment of a special operations room to supervise the provision of support to families that fled Al-Arish (Al-Youm Al-Sabea, February 25, 2017). At the same time, a “security source” stated that the Egyptian Interior Ministry had instructed to increase security measures around churches in Al-Arish and deploy undercover police forces in areas where Copts are living (Al-Akhbar, February 24, 2017).
Documenting rocket fire at Israel
  • ISIS’s Sinai Branch released photos documenting the rocket fire at Eilat on February 20, 2017 (Haqq, February 22, 2017).
Libya
  • According to an article published in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, after its defeat in late December 2016, ISIS managed to collect its operatives, and they are now concentrated west and east of Tripoli. According to the article, the city of Sabratah has turned into a transit station of sorts for operatives arriving in Libya from Tunisia.
  • Furthermore, Al-Qaeda, whose operatives are located in Tripoli’s southern and western suburbs, reportedly suffers from differences of opinion between its commanders, who compete among themselves on weapons, foreign fighters, and weapon depots. ISIS took advantage of these differences of opinion to attempt to deploy its operatives in west Tripoli and move into this area dozens of operatives brought by trucks from Mali (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, February 22, 2017).

[1]On the other hand, according to human rights organizations and rebel sources, the rebel forces took over about half of the city, and parts of it are still in the hands of ISIS (AF, February 23, 2017). These reports are not verified. At any rate, it seems that the campaign to take over the city of Al-Bab has ended or is about to end soon.
[2]According to the Turkish Al-Qana Channel, the Turkish Army and the Free Syrian Army reinforce their troops in the vicinity of the Syrian-Turkish border, prior to sending the forces taking part in Operation Euphrates Shield to take over Manbij (Al-Qana, February 28, 2017).
[3]According to Coptic Church surveys, about 600 Coptic families reside in Al-Arish (Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, February 27, 2017).