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).
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).
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)
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)
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivers a sermon at Mosul’s Grand Mosque (YouTube, July 5, 2014)
Main events of the week
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).
- 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.
- 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). 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).
- 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).
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).
- 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).
Counterterrorism and preventive activity
- 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.
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).