Meeting of senior Russian Defense Ministry officials. From left to right: Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu; Russian President Vladimir Putin; Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov (Russian Ministry of Defense website, December 22, 2017)
The Defense Minister (center) and Interior Minister (left) upon their return from the Al-Arish airport (YouTube Channel of the Egyptian Defense Ministry, December 19, 2017)
ISIS suicide bomber codenamed Mohsen al-Khorasani, who blew himself up at the headquarters of the Afghan National Directorate of Security (December 25, 2017)
Abu al-Bara al-Kashmiri against the background of an ISIS flag bearing the inscription Kashmir Province, calling on the various jihadi groups to pledge allegiance to Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Haqq and file-sharing website, December 25, 2017)
Map of ISIS’s Kashmir Province that appeared in the video (Haqq and file-sharing website, December 25, 2017)
Zakir Rashid Bhat AKA Commander Musa, leader of Ansar Ghazwat ul-Hind (“supporters of the Indian raid”), which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Kashmir (Fast Kashmir, August 31, 2017)
Main events of the week
- In Syria, battles continue between the Syrian forces and the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, as part of the campaign to liberate Idlib. In the northern Golan Heights, a surrender agreement was reached. According to the agreement, the operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham will leave the villages on the slopes of Mount Hermon (the Mazraat Beit Jann area) close to the border with Israel and will be evacuated to the Idlib area (other rebel organizations will be evacuated to the Daraa area). The agreement is expected to be implemented in the days ahead. In Iraq, clashes continued between Iraqi security forces and ISIS operatives operating in various areas of Iraq. In light of this “routine,” this week ISIS concentrated mainly on its activity abroad.
- In Afghanistan, the series of attacks in ISIS’s Khorasan Province (Afghanistan/Pakistan) continued. This week, a suicide bomber blew himself up near an office of the National Directorate of Security in Kabul. ISIS also carried out an attack among Shiite civilians in the city of Herat, in western Afghanistan. Zamir Kabulov, head of the Asian countries department at the Russian Foreign Ministry, said that ISIS had significantly enlarged its force in Afghanistan. According to him, ISIS operatives, including those who came from Syria and Iraq, are also concentrated in northern Afghanistan, in the provinces bordering on Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. He said that this posed a serious security threat for the countries of Central Asia and the southern regions of Russia.
- This week, ISIS announced the establishment of its Kashmir Province in India, as part of the ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate in the Indian subcontinent. ISIS’s Kashmir Province is the first province to be established in the wake of the fall of the Islamic State. It was established against the backdrop of the long-standing conflict between India and Pakistan over control of the Muslim Kashmir region and the rivalry between local ISIS operatives and Al-Qaeda, which also established an organization operating in Kashmir some six months ago. The rivalry between ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and the current political tension in the region, are liable to lead to efforts on the part of these organizations to carry out terrorist acts. In the ITIC’s assessment, these attacks will be carried out mainly against India.
- On December 26, 2017, the ISIS News Agency released a video produced by ISIS operatives in Somalia. The video calls on supporters of ISIS around the world to carry out mass killing attacks against the Christians (“Crusaders”) in their places of residence. The video details a series of possible methods of operation, including ramming attacks, derailing trains, attacking nightclubs, attacking open markets, sniper fire from the roof of a skyscraper, and more.
Russia and the United States
Summary of the campaign against ISIS in the Russian President’s speech
- Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech at a meeting of senior officials from the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Russian army. The issues addressed by Resident Putin included the campaign in Syria. President Putin thanked the Russian troops who fought in Syria and said that during the fighting in Syria, the Russian army had shown great courage and innovative high-level capability, which had played a decisive role in helping to eliminate the activity of ISIS, a terrorist organization with high-level fighting capability. He noted that ISIS was a direct threat to Russia and the entire world and that it operated like a regular army. According to him, ISIS’s operatives were well organized, unified, trained and well-armed. President Putin stressed that the Russian forces, in cooperation with the Syrians, had liberated nearly all of Syria from the terrorist organizations, saved hundreds of thousands of lives, preserved Syria’s political status and prepared the ground for a political settlement process (Kremlin website, December 22, 2017).
Russian Ministry of Defense reports the end of the withdrawal of the Russian forces from Syria
- At a meeting of senior officials from the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Russian army, Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu announced the end of the withdrawal of the Russian forces from Syria. According to him, members of the Air Force and Engineering Corps, medical personnel, Military Police and Special Forces have returned to Russia, as well as a total of 36 airplanes, four helicopters and six Tu-22 strategic bombers.
- The Russian Minister of Defense provided details on the scope of the Russian military presence remaining in Syria. According to him, there remain two permanent Russian bases: the Air Force base in Hmeymim, where an air force will be stationed, and a permanent naval base at the Port of Tartus, where there will be a presence of ships and submarines equipped with long-range precision weapons. In addition, three battalions of the Military Police will continue to supervise the de-escalation zones and the Russian Center for the Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in the Syrian Arab Republic, which is intended to aid in the political settlement process and in restoring stability to the country (Russian Ministry of Defense website, December 22, 2017).
American summaries about the campaign against ISIS
- The New York Times interviewed senior US officials who summed up the campaign against ISIS and spoke about how it would continue (December 24, 2017):
- According to US officials, the three-year American campaign in Syria and Iraq has largely achieved its goal of defeating ISIS and liberating the territories that it had taken over. However, the officials warned that ISIS still constituted a threat in Syria, Iraq and the entire world. According to their estimates, at least 3,000 ISIS operatives are still hiding in Syria.
- General Joseph L. Votel, Commander of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), predicted that ISIS would adopt guerrilla warfare methods following the loss of its territories. According to him, despite the severe blow that it suffered, ISIS is a highly adaptable organization. According to Nicholas J. Rasmussen, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, despite its current situation, ISIS remains a deadly global force that is still capable of both directing terrorist attacks and inspiring others to carry them out. He noted that in his opinion, the current and most common threat (abroad) would be lone-wolf terrorism by individuals acting on their own initiative and not waiting for guidance from ISIS.
- Even after the defeat of ISIS, the US continues its air operations against ISIS east of the Euphrates River, near the Iraqi border. A total of 300 aircraft, including UAVs and reconnaissance aircraft, are working with Kurdish and Arab forces to locate ISIS operatives who fled, and senior operatives in particular. Some of the operatives are hiding in Sunni enclaves along the Euphrates River, while others fled through the deserts to the Anbar Province in Iraq, to areas south of Damascus, and Turkey.
- According to official US sources, the number of US airstrikes being carried out at present is significantly lower than at the height of the campaign, and the airstrikes themselves are more focused and selective. According to Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, Commander of the US Air Force in Syria and Iraq, the large quantity of (air) forces operating in a small area makes the operation in Syria more complex, since in addition to the US forces, Russian, Syrian and Iranian forces are operating in a small airspace, and this can lead to air incidents.
Main developments in Syria
Battles continue between the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and ISIS
- Battles continued between the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (formerly the Al-Nusra Front) and ISIS, whose operatives are in an enclave northeast of Hama. Forces of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham took over several sites controlled by ISIS in the east and northeast of the enclave. ISIS reportedly sustained nine fatalities (Baladi; Ibaa News Agency, which is affiliated with the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, December 22, 2017). In view of their success, the operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham continued to advance in order to take over the entire enclave. It seems that the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham aspires to take over the enclave currently controlled by ISIS, as an interims stage prior to the campaign to take over Idlib.
Operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham fighting against ISIS, on the eastern side of ISIS’s enclave (Ibaa News Agency, December 22, 2017)
The campaign to take over Idlib
- The Syrian army reported that its forces had repelled an attempt by operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham to advance towards positions of the Syrian troops on the route between Khan Touman and Al-Mustawda’at (i.e., the weapons depots south of Aleppo). According to the Syrian army report, over forty operatives were killed, and many weapons were destroyed. The route where the battles took place serves as the main supply route for the operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham. From that route, it is also possible to reach Abu Ad-Duhur airfield, the interim target of the Syrian forces in their campaign to take over Idlib (Butulat Al-Jaysh Al-Suri, a blog affiliated with the Syrian army, December 24, 2017).
The area between Al-Mayadeen and Albukamal
- During the week, clashes continued between ISIS operatives and SDF forces on the east bank of the Euphrates River, about 46 km north of Albukamal.
- The campaign in the Euphrates River area continues to take its toll among operatives of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards operating in the area along with the Shiite militias. It was reported that Mohammad Akram Ebrahimi, AKA Raouf Mohammad Akram, had been killed in the clashes with ISIS in the area of Albukamal. Ebrahimi was a senior commander in the Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigade and the head instructor in the training camps of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force.
Right: Mohammad Akram Ebrahimi with Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani (Tasnim, December 20, 2017).
Left: Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigade fighters carrying Mohammad Akram Ebrahimi’s coffin (Orient News, December 22, 2017)
Agreement for the evacuation of operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and other rebel organizations from villages on Mount Hermon
- Al-Mayadeen Channel, which is affiliated with Lebanese Hezbollah, reported that the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and affiliated rebel organizations had surrendered to the Syrian army after being encircled by the Syrian troops. The Syrian army’s military information office reported that in view of this development, the Syrian army had stopped its military operations on the road between Maghar Al-Mir and Mazraat Beit Jann (Al-Mayadeen, December 26, 2017). The agreement reached includes the area of Mazraat Beit Jann, Maghar Al-Mir and Tell Marwan. Syrian army and police forces will enter the evacuated areas (Butulat Al-Jaysh Al-Suri, December 26, 2017).
- The Syrian army’s information office stated that according to the surrender agreement, the “armed operatives” belonging to the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham would be transferred to the Idlib area and those belonging to the Free Syrian Army to the Daraa area. The agreement will be implemented in the next few days. The reporter of the Al-Mayadeen Channel noted that following the military achievements of the Syrian army, operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham had asked to reach a settlement, and then negotiations took place between the reconciliation delegation comprising dignitaries of the towns and villages (where the rebels were staying) and senior Syrian army officers (Al-Mayadeen, December 26, 2017; Al-Hadath Suriya, December 26, 2017).
- Sources on the ground informed a reporter of the Al-Ahed newspaper (affiliated with Hezbollah) that operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham had agreed to vacate the Mazraat Beit Jann area and move to the Idlib area (which is under the control of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham). Their transfer will be implemented in several phases, starting on December 27, 2017, on condition that the “armed operatives” commit to a ceasefire that will include their withdrawal from all villages in the area of Mount Hermon (Al-Ahed, December 26, 2017). It was agreed that the “armed operatives” who will be evacuated would be allowed to carry their personal arms (Al-Ahram, December 27, 2017). A senior official in the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham said that the organization operatives in Mazraat Beit Jann had reached a breaking point. He said that the rebel organizations had sustained dozens of casualties and that the Syrian army had taken several prisoners (Hossein Mortada’s website, December 26, 2017).
Main developments in Iraq
ISIS guerrilla warfare and terror activity and Iraqi counterterrorist activities
Last week, clashes continued between the Iraqi security forces and ISIS operatives operating in small pockets of resistance in the various provinces of Iraq. ISIS operatives continued their terror and guerrilla operations mainly against the security forces and the Shiite militias, but also against the civilian population.
- Following are the main incidents of the passing week:
- Diyala Province: Nine fighters of a Sunni militia framework known as the Tribal Mobilization were shot dead by ISIS operatives in the village of Al-Asakrah, about 60 km north of Baqubah (Haqq, December 21, 2017).
- Salah al-Din Province:
- ISIS operatives infiltrated an outpost of the Tribal Mobilization in the area of Al-Samum, northwest of Samarra, and set it on fire. According to ISIS, the Tribal Mobilization forces had sustained at least five dead (Haqq, December 22, 2017).
- ISIS reported that its operatives had set up an ambush to a patrol of Iraqi security forces in the area of Jillam al-Dawr, about 25 km southeast of Tikrit. An Iraqi army force that came to the rescue of the attacked patrol exchanged fire with the ISIS operatives. Popular Mobilization operatives and Iraqi army soldiers were killed and wounded, and weapons were seized (Akhbar Al-Muslimeen, December 24, 2017).
- On the night of December 24, 2017, ISIS operatives attacked a Popular Mobilization force in the area of Jillam al-Dawr. Six Popular Mobilization operatives were killed and six others were wounded. The attacking operatives fled the scene (Sawt Al-Iraq, December 24, 2017).
- Western Al-Anbar Province: ISIS operatives fired anti-tank missiles at positions of the Iraqi Border Police on the border between Iraq and Syria. The Popular Mobilization forces sent reinforcements to the area. Brigade 13 of the Popular Mobilization fired rockets and mortar shells at the ISIS positions and destroyed them (Al-Sumaria News, December 22, 2017).
Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula
Anti-tank missile hits the airport in Al-Arish (update)
- On December 19, 2017, an anti-tank missile, probably a Kornet missile, was launched at the airport in Al-Arish during the visit of Defense Minister Sedki Sobhy and Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar. Two Egyptian officers – a lieutenant colonel and a colonel – were killed in the blast. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack and released a short video (33 seconds) showing the launch of the missile by an ISIS operative and its hit near the helicopter’s cockpit (Akhbar Al-Muslimeen, December 21, 2017).
The Defense Minister (center) and Interior Minister (left) upon their return
from the Al-Arish airport (YouTube Channel of the Egyptian Defense Ministry, December 19, 2017)
According to a report in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, ISIS operatives in the Sinai Peninsula have an arsenal of about fifty advanced Kornet anti-tank missile systems. According to the report, the systems originally belonged to the Libyan army. After the fall of the Qaddafi regime, they fell into the hands of various parties and were transferred to the Egyptian territory and then to the Sinai Peninsula. The systems were brought to the region in 2011-2013 in several phases and were intended to reach the Gaza Strip. About two-thirds of the systems reached the Gaza Strip, and about a third remained in the hands of ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula. ISIS made use of the missiles on nine occasions, the last of which was the launch at the Al-Arish airport. ISIS’s missile systems are stored in underground caches in the area of Sheikh Zuweid (Al-Masry Al-Youm, December 22, 2017).
ISIS activity in other countries
ISIS suicide bombing attack in the office of the Afghan National Directorate of Security in Kabul
- On December 25, 2017, a suicide bomber blew himself up near an office of the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) in Kabul. At least four civilians and two security personnel were killed in the attack (Afghanistan Times, December 26, 2017).
- On December 25, 2017, ISIS announced that an ISIS suicide bomber codenamed Mohsen al-Khorasani had blown himself up with an explosive vest in the headquarters of the Afghan intelligence agency. Al-Khorasani passed the main entrance to the headquarters, reached a crowd of people and blew himself up. As a result, more than 30 people were killed, and others were wounded (Note: the number of fatalities is apparently exaggerated, as has been the case with ISIS’s recent claims of responsibility) (Haqq, December 25, 2017).
Motorcycle bomb attack on Shiite civilians
- A motorcycle bomb exploded in the Shiite area in the city of Herat, in western Afghanistan. According to the Herat police, four civilians were killed and six others were wounded (The Washington Post, December 22, 2017). According to an announcement by ISIS, its operatives deployed a motorcycle bomb at a gathering of Shiites in the city of Herat, killing and wounding 25 of them (Twitter, December 21, 2017).
The establishment of ISIS in central Asia
Zamir Kabulov, head of the Asian countries department at the Russian Foreign Ministry, said that ISIS had significantly enlarged its force in Afghanistan. According to Russian data, there are now over 10,000 ISIS operatives in Afghanistan. Other operatives continue to arrive in the area, including operatives from Syria and Iraq who have acquired extensive combat experience. Kabulov stressed that the operatives are concentrated mainly in northern Afghanistan, in the provinces bordering on Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. According to him, Russia was particularly concerned about the Jowzjan and Sar-e Pol provinces in northern Afghanistan, where ISIS operatives who are citizens of Algeria and France have recently been seen. According to Kabulov, ISIS clearly aspires to expand its influence beyond Afghanistan. He said that this posed a serious security threat, mainly for the countries of Central Asia and the southern regions of Russia (RIA, December 23, 2017).
ISIS announces the establishment of the Kashmir Province in India
On December 25, 2017, ISIS announced the establishment of its Kashmir Province in India. The announcement was made in a video released by the organization. The video features a masked operative codenamed Abu al-Baraa al-Kashmiri. The operative is wearing a shirt with an ISIS flag and is shown against the background of an ISIS flag and the inscription Kashmir Province.
- Abu al-Baraa al-Kashmiri conveys a message to the Muslims and jihad fighters in Kashmir who left their homes to fight for Allah and to implement Sharia, in order to ultimately establish the Caliphate in the Indian subcontinent. The speaker attacks those who, according to him, belong to groups handled by the Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) and claims that the agency is exploiting them. He calls on these groups to dissociate themselves from the ISI and pledge allegiance to Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Haqq and file-sharing website, December 25, 2017). Abu al-Baraa appears to represent a group of operatives who broke away from a local jihadi organization in Kashmir and pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Right: ISIS operatives in the video announcing the establishment of ISIS’s Kashmir Province. Left: The logo of Al-Qarar Media, the media outlet that produced the video (Haqq and file-sharing website, December 25, 2017)
- ISIS called on Ansar Ghazwat ul-Hind (“supporters of the Indian raid”), which was established by Al-Qaeda in the Kashmir region in late July 2017, to cooperate with it (Al-Masdar News, December 23, 2017.) In late July 2017, Al-Qaeda published a manifesto declaring that Kashmiri leader Zakir Rashid Bhat AKA Commander Musa, a local jihadi leader in the Kashmir region, would lead Ansar Ghazwat ul-Hind, a new Al-Qaeda organization in Kashmir. This organization was established with the aim of “expelling the Indian forces from the region” (Aram News, July 30, 2017; Global Daily Tribune, July 28, 2017).
The battle for hearts and minds
ISIS publishes infographic summarizing the intensive terrorist activity of Khorasan Province
- ISIS’s weekly organ Al-Nabā’ (Issue 111, page 2) included an infographic summarizing ISIS’s activity in the Khorasan Province (Afghanistan and Pakistan) between September 21, 2017 and December 18, 2017. According to the infographic, during this three-month period ISIS carried out 12 suicide bombing attacks, killing and wounding 1,088 people, among them members of the security forces, Shiites, Sunnis and Christians (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, December 22, 2017). The infographic does indeed reflect the intensive activity of the Khorasan Province in recent months.
Video of ISIS operatives in Somalia calls for attacks abroad against the “enemies of the Muslims”
- On November 26, 2017, ISIS’s Haqq News Agency released a video entitled “Hunt them, O those who believe in the oneness of God.” The video calls for attacks against the “enemies of the Muslims,” especially Christians, around the world. Highlights:
- The video opens with clips of Christmas celebrations. The announcer calls on ISIS supporters to “hunt” the “Crusaders” (i.e., the Christians) while they are drunk. The announcer calls on his audience to choose a “valuable target” such as a party, nightclub, or some type of gathering.
- The video combines segments that simulate a ramming attack, sabotaging railroad tracks with the aim of causing derailment, and causing a deliberate accident. Later in the video, an ISIS operative codenamed Abu Muharib al-Muhajir appears, addressing Muslims living among Christians (“infidels”) in fluent English: “Killing A Kafir is your ticket out of Jahannam.” The speaker adds that the Islamic State will continue to fight until it controls the whole world, from Washington to Moscow, and from Europe to China.
ISIS operative codenamed Abu Muharib al-Muhajir speaking in English to Muslims living
among the infidels: “Killing A Kafir [infidel] is your ticket out of Jahannam [Hell].”
(Haqq and file-sharing website, December 26, 2017).
- Next there is a segment showing the Pope with a target above his head. The announcer says: “Do not hesitate to harm their gatherings, even if there are children there […] Increase the raids on the open markets […] If you are not strong enough [to carry out an attack] for the great cause, remember that even one Crusader [will suffice] […]” The next segment shows a sniper equipped with a sniper rifle on the roof of a skyscraper, with a target on the civilians below.
 The agreement between Russia and Syria on the expansion of the Port of Tartus has reportedly been approved by the Duma (the lower house of the Russian Parliament). Under the agreement, Russia may deploy up to 11 warships and personnel to operate them at the base (TASS News Agency, December 21, 2017). ↑
 As part of an article entitled “The Hunt for ISIS Pivots to Remaining Pockets in Syria.” ↑
 The term Ghazwat Ul-Hind (“the raid of India”) is taken from a hadith (oral tradition attributed to Muhammad) that the day will come when the Muslims will become fed up with the Indian oppression and will carry out jihad against India. The term ghazwa (raid) is given to a war campaign in which the Prophet Muhammad himself participated. Although the Prophet Muhammad knew that he would not be alive when the Indian raid took place, it was nevertheless given the name ghazwa (raid) because this future jihad was perceived as important and unique (Daily Hadith website, December 26, 2017). ↑