Spotlight on Global Jihad (March 19-25, 2020)

Turkish army bulldozers clearing dirt and boulders blocking the M-4 highway (Idlib Plus Facebook page, March 19, 2020)

Turkish army bulldozers clearing dirt and boulders blocking the M-4 highway (Idlib Plus Facebook page, March 19, 2020)

Turkish army vehicles on the first patrol without an escort of Russian vehicles (Enab Baladi, March 20, 2020)

Turkish army vehicles on the first patrol without an escort of Russian vehicles (Enab Baladi, March 20, 2020)

Popular Mobilization operatives during activity to locate ISIS guesthouses (al-hashed.net, March 21, 2020)

Popular Mobilization operatives during activity to locate ISIS guesthouses (al-hashed.net, March 21, 2020)

Popular Mobilization fighters near the ISIS weapons depot located southwest of Samarra (al-hashed.net, March 19, 2020)

Popular Mobilization fighters near the ISIS weapons depot located southwest of Samarra (al-hashed.net, March 19, 2020)

Photo from the summit: French President Emmanuel Macron next to the leaders of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad (Al-Jazeera, January 13, 2020)

Photo from the summit: French President Emmanuel Macron next to the leaders of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad (Al-Jazeera, January 13, 2020)

Rifles seized by ISIS in the attacks (Telegram, March 24, 2020)

Rifles seized by ISIS in the attacks (Telegram, March 24, 2020)

One of the Mozambican army and police forces attacked by ISIS (Telegram, March 24, 2020)

One of the Mozambican army and police forces attacked by ISIS (Telegram, March 24, 2020)

ISIS operative preparing the rockets fired at Bagram military airbase.

ISIS operative preparing the rockets fired at Bagram military airbase.

The rockets fired at the airbase (Telegram, March 21, 2020).

The rockets fired at the airbase (Telegram, March 21, 2020).

Overview
  • In the Idlib region, the ceasefire was generally maintained, with the exception of local incidents, one of which resulted in the deaths of two Turkish soldiers. The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham continued to disrupt the joint M-4 highway patrols agreed upon between Russia and Turkey. On the other hand, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham enabled Turkish army patrols without the participation of the Russians. The demonstrators who blocked traffic on the highway allowed the Turkish patrols to pass and removed dirt embankments that had been erected on the highway.
  • In the meantime, there is an imminent threat of an uncontrollable outbreak of the coronavirus in the Idlib region, where there are about one million refugees, living in substandard conditions in refugee camps and makeshift facilities. There is concern among Syrian doctors that the virus has already reached refugee camps in the Idlib region. In the ITIC’s assessment, a coronavirus outbreak in the Idlib region is liable to spread to other places in Syria and possibly to countries bordering on Syria, especially Turkey.
  • In the Euphrates Valley, ISIS continued its activity in the form of sniper fire, launching rockets at an SDF headquarters, eliminating an “agent,” and activating an IED against a vehicle. This week, the SDF released 80 Syrian ISIS operatives who had been held in detention camps. The reason for their release was fear of the coronavirus and the spring festival (Nowruz), which took place this week. It should be taken into account that some of the operatives who were released may rejoin ISIS in a region where ISIS is already carrying out intensive activity.
  • ISIS operatives in the various provinces continued their routine activity this week. Noteworthy activity included rocket fire at an airport north of Kabul where American soldiers are stationed. About a month ago, ISIS carried out a rocket attack on this base. In the ITIC’s assessment, ISIS’s activity is intended to disrupt the realization of the agreement between the US and the Taliban.
The Idlib area
The ceasefire agreed upon between Russia and Turkey

Overview

As a rule, the ceasefire in Idlib is being maintained, and both sides are refraining from resuming offensives. However, the artillery exchanges and local incidents are more intensive than last week. In one incident, two Turkish soldiers were killed, apparently by artillery fire from one of the jihadi organizations. All of the above is overshadowed by the threat of a widespread outbreak of the coronavirus in the Idlib region which, in the ITIC’s assessment, could spread to other provinces in Syria and possibly to countries bordering on Syria, especially Turkey.

Artillery fire at a Turkish army force

  • On March 19, 2020, the Turkish Ministry of Defense announced that “radical organizations” had fired artillery at a Turkish army force in the Idlib region. Two Turkish soldiers were killed and another was wounded. In response, the Turks returned fire (Anatolia News Agency, March 19, 2020). The Turks blamed the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Guardians of the Religion Organization for the shooting. According to another version, the Turkish soldiers were killed when two IEDs were activated against a Turkish army convoy (Enab Baladi, a Syrian news website affiliated with the rebel organizations, March 20, 2020).

Ceasefire violations by the Syrian army

  • Media outlets affiliated with the rebel organizations reported ceasefire violations by the Syrian army:
    • On March 23, 2020, the Syrian army fired artillery at two villages about 30 km southwest of Idlib (Edlib Media Center – EMC, March 23, 2020).
    • On March 21, 2020, the Syrian army fired rockets at two villages in Jabal al-Zawiya (about 20 km south of Idlib) and two other villages in the rural area north of Latakia (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, March 21, 2020). No casualties were reported.
    • On March 19, 2020, a Syrian army force attempted to infiltrate into the village of Al-Bara, about 25 km south of Idlib. The Syrian army and the local rebel force exchanged fire, in which Syrian soldiers were killed and wounded (EMC website, March 22, 2020).

Patrols along the M-4 highway (the Aleppo-Latakia highway)

  • Following the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham’s campaign to disrupt the joint patrols, Turkish army patrols began on March 19, 2020, without the participation of Russian forces. This was after demonstrations by local residents (sent by the rebel organizations) permitted them to pass and removed dirt embankments that had been erected on the highway.
Turkish army bulldozers clearing dirt and boulders blocking the M-4 highway (Idlib Plus Facebook page, March 19, 2020)      Turkish army bulldozers clearing dirt and boulders blocking the M-4 highway (Idlib Plus Facebook page, March 19, 2020)
Turkish army bulldozers clearing dirt and boulders blocking the M-4 highway
(Idlib Plus Facebook page, March 19, 2020)

Turkish army vehicles on the first patrol without an escort of Russian vehicles (Enab Baladi, March 20, 2020)
Turkish army vehicles on the first patrol without an escort of Russian vehicles
(Enab Baladi, March 20, 2020)

  • On March 21 and 22, 2020, four more Turkish patrols were carried out without the participation of Russian forces. The patrols were carried out on a section of the M-4 highway west of Saraqeb to the village of Masibin, about 9 km south of Idlib (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, March 21, 2020).
  • On March 23, 2020, the Russian army carried out a patrol from the city of Saraqeb to a village about 2 km west of it. The Russian patrol did not continue on its way due to a demonstration by local residents sent by the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham. This was the Russian army’s second attempt to carry out a patrol (Ibaa, March 23, 2020).

Reinforcements sent to the Idlib area

  • According to Syrian media outlets affiliated with the rebel organizations, both sides are sending reinforcements to the Idlib region. According to reports, on March 19 and 22, 2020, two Turkish army convoys comprising about 110 armored vehicles and tanks entered Syria (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, March 19, 2020; EMC, March 22, 2020). On the other hand, the Syrian army sent dozens of tanks and armored vehicles to the Idlib region. In addition, groups of Hezbollah operatives and militias handled by Iran reached the city of Saraqeb (Khotwa, March 22, 2020).
  • On March 23, 2020, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that since the new ceasefire agreement, 1,585 Turkish army vehicles and thousands of soldiers have entered Syrian territory. The Turkish reinforcements also included tanks and armored vehicles. In total, 9, 900 Turkish soldiers entered the Idlib and Aleppo regions.

The threat of the coronavirus spreading

  • In the Idlib region, where there are about three million residents, the outbreak of the coronavirus may be extremely deadly. This is because about a million refugees are living there in substandard conditions, in refugee camps and makeshift facilities, without running water, with sewage flowing in the streets and no organized garbage collection. In addition, there is no effective government, the health system is collapsing, there is a major lack of basic medical equipment such as masks and coronavirus test kits, and a lack of awareness about maintaining hygiene (The New York Times, March 19, 2020; voanews, March 20, 2020).
  • According to David Lepeska, a journalist who has been covering Turkey for many years, it is only a matter of time until the coronavirus reaches Idlib. According to him, there are not enough hospital beds in the region. Local residents are afraid that when the virus reaches the Idlib region, they will have nowhere to escape. Ibrahim al-Hajj, a White Helmets volunteer, said that “the virus can spread like wildfire. It is very crowded everywhere, and people cannot just stay at home or inside their tent” (Ahval, March 19, 2020).

The World Health Organization (WHO) has yet to send coronavirus test kits to the Idlib region, although it sent such kits to the Syrian government about a month ago. There is concern that the delay in the tests has allowed the virus to spread over the past few weeks, uncontrollably and without anyone knowing about it. Syrian doctors believe that the virus has already reached the refugee camps in the Idlib region because there have been patients with symptoms resembling those of the coronavirus, and some of them died (The New York Times, March 19, 2020).

The Euphrates Valley
Summary of three months of ISIS activity
  • ISIS’s Al-Naba’ weekly released an infographic summarizing about three months of activity – targeted killings in the Al-Khayr Province (the Euphrates Valley), from December 27, 2019 until March 19, 2020. During that time, ISIS operatives carried out 34 attacks, killing 40 people and wounding 8. The leading modus operandi was machine gun fire (17 attacks), followed by activating IEDs (5); breaking [into houses] (5); abductions and killings (4); point blank shootings (3).
  • ISIS’s preferred target was [SDF] intelligence personnel – 18, followed by [SDF] commanders – 14; [SDF] “agents” – 10; SDF fighters – 4; and village leaders – 2 (Telegram, from ISIS’s weekly, Issue no. 226, March 19, 2020).
ISIS’s ongoing activity in the area of Al-Mayadeen and Albukamal
  • On March 23, 2020, ISIS operatives broke into the house of a man accused of witchcraft in the village of Sweidan, about 17 km southeast of Al-Mayadeen. He was shot to death (Telegram, March 24, 2020).
  • On March 20, 2020, an SDF fighter was targeted by sniper fire about 18 km southeast of Al-Mayadeen. He was killed (Telegram, March 22, 2020).
  • On March 19, 2020, a rocket was fired at an SDF intelligence headquarters in the village of Al-Susah, about 7 km northeast of Albukamal. The headquarters sustained damage (Telegram, March 19, 2020).
  • On March 18, 2020, ISIS operatives took an SDF “agent” prisoner in the village of Darnaj, about 14 km southeast of Al-Mayadeen. He was interrogated and executed, and his vehicle was set on fire (Telegram, March 18, 2020).
Al-Raqqah area
  • On March 23, 2020, an IED was activated against an SDF vehicle about 16 km west of Al-Raqqah. The passengers were killed or wounded (Telegram, March 23, 2020).
Northeastern Syria
  • On March 22, 2020, two SDF fighters were targeted by machine gun fire about 8 km west of the border between Syria and Iraq (about 80 km southeast of Al-Hasakah). They were both killed (Telegram, March 23, 2020).
Eighty ISIS operatives released by the SDF
  • On March 21, 2020, the SDF released 80 Syrian ISIS operatives held in SDF detention facilities. These operatives had lived in Al-Raqqah, Al-Hasakah, and Deir ez-Zor. Some of them had finished serving their sentences while others were released early (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, March 21, 2020). The decision to release them was made for two reasons: fear of the coronavirus, and the spring festival (Nowruz) on March 21, 2020 (Deir ez-Zor 24, March 21, 2020).

It should be taken into account that some of the operatives who were released may rejoin ISIS or serve as ISIS’s collaborators, mainly in the Euphrates Valley, where ISIS maintains high-intensity activity.

The Iraqi arena

This week, an increase was evident in ISIS’s attacks and its areas of activity (compared to last week).

Diyala Province
  • On March 22, 2020, an IED was activated against an Iraqi army vehicle about 20 km northeast of Baqubah. One soldier was killed and two others were wounded. When another force arrived at the scene for assistance, it was targeted by sniper fire. One officer was killed and two others were wounded (Telegram, March 23, 2020).
  • On March 19, 2020, an Iraqi army camp was targeted by sniper fire west of Khanaqin (about 100 km northeast of Baqubah). One soldier was wounded (Telegram, March 20, 2020).
  • On March 17, 2020, mortar shells were fired at homes of Tribal Mobilization fighters about 80 km northeast of Baqubah. They sustained damage (Telegram, March 18, 2020).
  • On March 16, 2020, an Iraqi army vehicle was targeted by small arms fire 40 km northeast of Baqubah. The vehicle was put out of commission (Telegram, March 18, 2020).
Kirkuk Province
  • On March 19, 2020, seven mortar shells were fired at a Shiite neighborhood in the city of Tuz Khormato, about 70 km south of Kirkuk (Telegram, March 19, 2020).
  • On March 17, 2020, five mortar shells were fired at the same neighborhood (Telegram, March 18, 2020).
Al-Anbar Province
  • On March 22, 2020, an IED was activated against an Iraqi army vehicle on the Akashat road (about 80 km north of Al-Rutba – Al-Qaim (near the Iraqi-Syrian border). Three soldiers were killed. When another force arrived at the scene for assistance, there were exchanges of fire. Four other soldiers were killed and one was wounded (Telegram, March 23, 2020).
  • On March 19, 2020, two IEDs were activated against two Iraqi army vehicles near Al-Rutba, in western Al-Anbar Province. Eight soldiers and an officer were killed or wounded (Telegram, March 20, 2020).
  • On March 19, 2020, ISIS operatives fired small arms at an Iraqi army headquarters near Al-Rutba. Three soldiers were killed or wounded (Telegram, March 20, 2020).
Salah al-Din Province
  • On March 20, 2020, two rockets were fired at a position of a Shiite force about 85 km east of Tikrit (Telegram, March 21, 2020).
Erbil Province
  • On March 21, 2020, an Iraqi soldier was targeted by machine gun fire in the Makhmur area, about 60 km southwest of Erbil. The soldier was killed (Telegram, March 22, 2020).
  • On March 18, 2020, an IED was activated against a Tribal Mobilization vehicle west of the Makhmur area. One fighter was wounded (Telegram, March 20, 2020).
  • On March 18, 2020, an IED was activated against an Iraqi army vehicle southwest of the Makhmur area. An officer and three soldiers were killed or wounded (Telegram, March 20, 2020).
Counterterrorism activities by the Iraqi security forces

Nineveh Province

  • On March 18, 2020, a Nineveh police force apprehended seven ISIS operatives at the southern entrance to Mosul, on the Mosul-Baghdad road (Al-Sumaria, March 18, 2020).
Diyala Province
  • On March 21, 2020, an airstrike was carried out against an ISIS hideout in the Hamrin Mountains, about 60 km northeast of Baqubah, killing ISIS operatives (Al-Sumaria, March 21, 2020).
  • On March 19, 2020, Iraqi security forces operating about 12 km northwest of Baqubah located an ISIS arms depot. The depot contained weapons, ammunition, and explosives (Facebook page of the Iraqi Defense Ministry, March 19, 2020).
Salah al-Din Province
  • On March 21, 2020, a Popular Mobilization force operating about 85 km east of Tikrit located several ISIS guesthouses. IEDs and rockets were found inside (al-hashed.net, March 21, 2020).
Popular Mobilization operatives during activity to locate ISIS guesthouses (al-hashed.net, March 21, 2020)     Popular Mobilization operatives during activity to locate ISIS guesthouses (al-hashed.net, March 21, 2020)
Popular Mobilization operatives during activity to locate ISIS guesthouses
(al-hashed.net, March 21, 2020)
  • On March 19, 2020, a Popular Mobilization force operating southwest of Samarra, about 100 km northwest of Baghdad, located an ISIS weapons depot containing light and medium weapons (al-hashed.net, March 19, 2020).
Al-Anbar Province
  • On March 21, 2020, an Iraqi army force located an ISIS arms depot in western Iraq. Weapons, ammunition and explosives were found (Facebook page of the Iraqi Defense Ministry, March 21, 2020)
The Sinai Peninsula
  • On March 19, 2020, an IED was activated against an Egyptian army foot patrol east of Sheikh Zuweid. Two soldiers were killed (Telegram, March 19, 2020).
The activity of ISIS’s provinces

Africa

ISIS’s response to the summit of the five Sahel countries (G5) held in France
  • On January 13, 2020, a summit meeting was held in the city of Pau in southern France, on the initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron. It was attended by the heads of state of Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania (the G5 sub-Saharan countries). The summit meeting was part of France’s assistance to the Sahel (sub-Saharan) countries in their fight against the jihadi terrorism carried out in their territory since 2012.
  • The closing announcement of the summit states, inter alia, that in order to improve the fighting against the jihadi groups, a “coalition for the Sahel” would be formed. The 4,500 French troops participating in the counterterrorism activity will be reinforced by another 220 combatants. It was promised that additional international army forces, organized in special units, would be added in the future. It was also decided that a follow-up summit would be held in Mauritania in June 2020, in order to examine the implementation of these decisions (Christina Okello, France, G5 Sahel Leaders Pledge to Boost Military Cooperation at Pau Summit, RFI, January 14, 2020).
  • ISIS commented on the G5 summit in its Al-Naba’ weekly, in an article titled “Investigation of ISIS’s branch in West Africa” (Telegram, March 19, 2020). As usual, ISIS describes its enemies derogatorily. The presidents of France and the five countries that participated in the summit are described as “tyrants,” France is described as a “Crusader,” and the Muslim rulers of the countries participating in the summit are called “renegades of Islam.” The article states that ISIS’s activity will continue until the conquest of Rome in accordance with the promise made by Allah (Telegram, March 19, 2020).
  • The article describes the G5 summit as the “Summit of Despair,” due to the losses sustained by the French, Malian and Nigerien forces. The article mocks the French president, saying that the French forces could improve their performance and that of the African forces in “a broad region that is equal in size to [the entire] territory of Europe” (Telegram, March 19, 2020).

 The Sahel countries (Google Maps)
The Sahel countries (Google Maps)

Nigeria
  • On March 24, 2020, jihadi operatives (probably ISIS operatives) ambushed Nigerian soldiers in Borno State, in the northeast of the country. At least 70 soldiers were killed (AFP, March 24, 2020). To date, no organization has claimed responsibility for the attack, but in the ITIC’s assessment it was carried out by ISIS.
  • On March 21, 2020, an IED was activated against a Nigerian army vehicle in the town of Baga, about 25 km southwest of the border between Nigeria and Chad. The passengers were killed (Telegram, March 22, 2020).
Mozambique
  • On March 23, 2020, ISIS operatives attacked five Mozambican army and Mozambican police centers. The attacks were carried out about 70 km southeast of the border between Mozambique and Tanzania. According to ISIS, dozens of soldiers and policemen were killed or wounded. In addition, weapons and ammunition were seized. According to the BBC, “Islamist militants” took control of a town and an army base. Mozambican army and police launched a counterattack. The attacks were carried out near an area where a $60 billion natural gas project is being operated by foreign companies (BBC, March 23, 2020).

The town where the attacks were carried out (Google Maps)
The town where the attacks were carried out
(Google Maps
)

Rifles seized by ISIS in the attacks (Telegram, March 24, 2020)      Rifles seized by ISIS in the attacks (Telegram, March 24, 2020)
Rifles seized by ISIS in the attacks
(Telegram, March 24, 2020)
Asia

Afghanistan

ISIS’s Khorasan Province is continuing its efforts to resume operations following the severe blow that it suffered a few months ago. This week, ISIS operatives attacked an airport where American soldiers are stationed. In the ITIC’s assessment, the goal of the attack was to disrupt the agreement between the US and the Taliban.

  • On March 20, 2020, ISIS operatives fired 10 rockets at Bagram Airbase, where US army troops are stationed. The military airbase is located about 40 km north of Kabul (Telegram, March 21, 2020). The rockets apparently landed outside the base (reddit.com, March 20, 2020). This seems to be a second rocket attack on the base within a month[1].
  • On March 21, 2020, a Taliban operative was shot at in the northern Nangarhar Province. He was killed (Telegram, March 21, 2020).
The battle for hearts and minds
ISIS’s call to release its incarcerated operatives due to the coronavirus

This week, ISIS’s Al-Naba’ weekly published an article entitled “The Crusaders’ Worst Nightmare” about the coronavirus and its impact on the entire world and Christian countries in particular. The article asks Muslims to protect themselves and their families from a pandemic. The article also calls on Muslims to work for the release of the “Muslim prisoners” (i.e., ISIS operatives) incarcerated in prisons and camps (ISIS Al-Naba’ weekly, disseminated via Telegram, March 19, 2020).

  • On March 23, 2020, ISIS supporters released a poster on social media presenting the coronavirus as a form of revenge for the battle in Al-Baghouz (the last place in the Euphrates Valley that was retaken from ISIS about a year ago). ISIS supporters released a poster entitled: “The coronavirus – it is indeed [the result of] the prayers of the people of Al-Baghouz whom you burned alive and it is killing you. [Therefore], taste the fruit of your misdeeds [i.e., you will bear the consequences of your misdeeds]” (Telegram, March 23, 2020).

Poster presenting the coronavirus pandemic as revenge for the battle in Al-Baghouz (Telegram, March 23, 2020)
Poster presenting the coronavirus pandemic as revenge for the battle in Al-Baghouz
(Telegram, March 23, 2020)

[1] On February 21, 2020, ISIS operatives fired three rockets at Bagram military airbase, where US army troops are stationed (Telegram, February 22, 2020).