Building damaged by the Syrian army artillery fire in the village of Al-Hawiz (Ibaa, March 23, 2019)
Syrian army soldiers preparing to fire artillery at the rural area south of Idlib (SANA, March 20, 2019).
ISIS vehicles hit at the formerly ISIS-controlled Al-Baghouz Camp (Furat Post, March 23, 2019)
Senior SDF commanders with Al-Baghouz and the organization flag in the background (Furat Post, March 23, 2019).
A Popular Mobilization sapper near a mine which he located southeast of Mosul (al-hashed.net, March 21, 2019)
Photo with the inscription “Soldiers of the Caliphate in Burkina Faso.” The logo in the photo is the logo of the West Africa Province (Shabakat Shumukh, March 22, 2019).
Main events of the week
- The area of the village of Al-Baghouz fell this week into the hands of the SDF forces, ending the campaign which lasted more than six months to take over ISIS’s control area in the Lower Euphrates Valley. SDF fighters are carrying out patrols and manhunts for ISIS operatives hiding in the area.
- The main statements made at the end of the campaign:
- SDF spokesmen announced the destruction of ISIS and the end of ISIS’s control in the last “pocket” of Al-Baghouz. They noted that the Islamic Caliphate no longer existed and that the SDF forces would continue to pursue the remains of the organization until its absolute destruction.
- President Trump and senior US officials announced that the United States and its allies had liberated all the areas that had been under ISIS’s control in Syria and Iraq. However, according to them, the fighting has not yet ended and the United States and its allies remain committed to pursuing and destroying the remains of ISIS.
- At the propaganda level, ISIS continues its efforts to address its defeat. Noteworthy messages this week: The campaign has not yet ended; The Islamic State will not disappear. Moreover, it will expand and grow; The fighters for Allah will enter Paradise. ISIS continued to call on its supporters throughout the world to carry out attacks against the “Crusaders” (i.e., the West) in revenge for the cruelty displayed by the Coalition in its airstrikes on Al-Baghouz.
- The loss of ISIS’s control area in the Lower Euphrates Valley marks the end of a process in which ISIS lost the rest of its control areas in Syria over the past year. The areas that ISIS lost are the area of the Yarmouk refugee camp south of Damascus, the southern part of the Golan Heights in southern Syria, and an enclave northeast of As-Suwayda (where a small number of ISIS operatives still remain). Most of the ISIS operatives in Syria are now concentrated in the desert area between Al-Sukhnah and the Euphrates River, which is perceived by ISIS as a staging zone and base for guerrilla warfare against the Syrian forces and its other enemies. Due to the loss of its control areas in Syria, ISIS is expected to change its character and become a terrorist and guerrilla organization as it was in its early stages. Evidence of this can be found in the guerrilla activity carried out by ISIS in the Upper Euphrates Valley, in northern Syria, and in the deserts of Al-Sukhnah.
- Against the backdrop of the fall of ISIS in Syria, the intensive activity of the organization’s provinces throughout the world is salient. Prominent events that took place this week: In Sinai, ISIS’s intensive guerrilla activity continues against the Egyptian security forces in the north and center of the peninsula; In Afghanistan, suicide bombings, shootings and IED attacks continue against Shiite targets, figures affiliated with the Afghan government, and the Taliban; ISIS’s West Africa Province is apparently expanding its activity to Burkina Faso (where ISIS’s activity has spilled over from Nigeria); ISIS’s Somalia Province detonated an IED in the open market in Mogadishu against a vehicle carrying members of the Somali police force.
US involvement in Syria
US reactions to the takeover of Al-Baghouz
- US President Donald Trump announced that the United States and its allies in the Coalition countries have liberated all the areas that had been under ISIS’s control in Syria and Iraq (“100% of the Caliphate”). The President added that the United States would continue its global counterterrorism efforts against ISIS until it is ultimately defeated. The United States will continue to work with its partners and allies until the radical Islamic terrorists are completely destroyed.
President Trump’s declaration on the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq
(John Bolton’s Twitter page, March 23, 2019)
- Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM), said: “U.S. Central Command congratulates the Syrian Democratic Forces for leading the final battle in eliminating the so-called caliphate. The meticulous approach to the campaign was a multi-year effort conducted in a complex environment led by our Iraqi and Syrian partners, and supported by the U.S.-led multi-national Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve. […] We recognize the fight is not over. We remain committed to continuing our efforts to pursue and destroy remnants of Daesh, which are attempting to live on as an insurgency. We will continue our collective fight to bring about the enduring defeat of ISIS.” (CENTCOM website, March 23, 2019).
- US National Security Adviser John Bolton tweeted that the ISIS Caliphate had been defeated and that the US would continue to closely monitor the remnants of ISIS (John Bolton’s Twitter page, March 23, 2019).
The Idlib area
Exchanges of fire continue between the Syrian army and the jihadi rebel organizations
- This week as well, exchanges of fire continued between the Syrian army and the jihadi rebel organizations, apparently more intensely than before. Following are the main incidents:
- The Syrian army fired artillery at vehicles of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham on the eastern side of the Al-Ghab Plain. Several operatives of the organization were killed, and vehicles and military equipment were destroyed (SANA, March 23, 2019). The Syrian army operated against positions of “terrorist operatives” about 25 km north of Hama. Many “terrorist operatives” were killed or wounded, and positions, weapons and ammunition were destroyed (SANA, March 23, 2019). The Syrian army fired at a concentration of forces of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham about 35 km south of Idlib, destroying hideouts, weapons and ammunition (SANA, March 24, 2019). The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham reported that the Syrian army had fired at the Al-Ghab Plain and hit many civilians. As a result of the fire, residents of one of the villages had to leave (Ibaa, March 23, 2019). The Syrian army fired artillery at the town of Kafr Zeita, north of Hama, hitting several buildings (Khotwa, March 23, 2019).
Syrian army artillery fire at the town of Kafr Zeita (Khotwa, March 23, 2019)
- The “Awaken the Believers” operations room (affiliated with Al-Qaeda) announced that it had fired at Syrian army positions in the Al-Ghab Plain, northwest of Hama (Telegram, March 20, 2019). The jihadi organization Ansar Al-Tawhid (“supporters of the oneness of Allah”) announced that it had fired artillery at Syrian army positions north of the Abu ad-Duhur airbase, killing and wounding several Syrian soldiers (Telegram, March 26, 2019).
A Russian UAV shot down by a jihadi organization
- The jihadi organization “The Army of Glory” (Jaysh al-Izza), affiliated with the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, released a video showing a Russian reconnaissance UAV in the rural area north of Hama being hit by an anti-aircraft gun (YouTube channel of the Army of Glory, March 22, 2019).
Right: Operative of the Army of Glory firing an anti-aircraft gun at the Russian UAV. Left: Russian reconnaissance UAV being hit falling down attached to a parachute (Jaysh al-Izza YouTube channel, March 22, 2019)
The campaign against ISIS in the Lower Euphrates Valley ended
- On March 23, 2019, the SDF forces completed the takeover of the Al-Baghouz area from ISIS. Thus, the campaign for mopping up the Lower Euphrates Valley from ISIS, which lasted for over six months, reached its end.
- Following the takeover of the area, the SDF forces are now searching Al-Baghouz and its environs. Several ISIS operatives who hid in tunnels and trenches turned themselves in to the forces. It is possible that some of them are still hiding in the Al-Baghouz hills (ANHA, March 24, 2019; Al-Ghad Channel, March 24, 2019). At the same time, SDF trucks began to remove ISIS equipment from Al-Baghouz to Al-Hasakah, behind the lines of the Kurdish control area, among other things, in order to prevent ISIS from reorganizing in the area (Furat Post, March 24, 2019).On March 23, 2019, the SDF forces held a press conference where SDF commander Mazloum Kobani announced that ISIS had been destroyed and its control over the last “pocket” in Al-Baghouz was over. He added that 11,000 SDF fighters were killed in the battles [against ISIS] and 21,000 others were wounded (Deir ez-Zor 24, March 24, 2019). According to SDF Spokesman Mostafa Bali, they are declaring to the world that the Islamic State no longer exists. The SDF forces will continue to hunt down the remnants of ISIS until the complete destruction of the organization. In an additional announcement (in English), Bali noted that “Syrian Democratic Forces declare total elimination of so-called caliphate and 100 percent territorial defeat of ISIS” (Mostafa Bali’s Twitter account, March 22, 2019).
ISIS’s media response
- Following are the main messages from a video released by ISIS on the eve of the fall of Al-Baghouz (Akhbar Al-Muslimeen, March 21, 2019) and another video produced by an ISIS supporter:
- The campaign has not ended yet – victory will be achieved by adhering to the path of Allah.
- Fighters for Allah’s sake will be rewarded with Paradise: The fighters for Allah are waging the campaign of truth against lies and will be rewarded with Paradise. The video includes praise for the ISIS operatives remaining in Al-Baghouz who were ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of Islam.
- The Islamic State will not disappear. Moreover, it will expand and grow. An operative codenamed Abu al-Harith al-Ansari addresses the United States on the video, saying that it will not succeed to destroy the path of jihad, and if jihad ends in one place, it will reappear in another.
- Call on all jihadists around the world to carry out terrorist attacks against the “Crusaders” (i.e., the USA and the West) and against those who abandoned Islam. The video features photos from various scenes of terrorist attacks against the West.
- The cruel attacks demonstrate the “Crusader” enmity (i.e., on the part of the USA and the West) towards Islam. ISIS shared a video (March 22, 2019) entitled “The Catastrophe of Al-Baghouz,” which was probably produced by one of ISIS’s supporters. The video shows airstrikes and artillery fire. Also shown are dead and wounded children (Shabakat Shumukh, March 23, 2019).
Abu al-Harith al-Ansari calling on all supporters of the oneness of Allah around the world to carry out attacks against the “Crusaders” and against those who abandoned Islam (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, March 21, 2019)
ISIS’s guerrilla warfare in the Syrian Desert (Al-Sukhnah Desert)
- ISIS’s guerrilla warfare in the area between the city of Al-Sukhnah and the Euphrates River continues. Following are several ISIS reports about the activity of its operatives:
- On March 17, 2019, ISIS operatives set up an ambush for a Syrian-Russian convoy on the road between Al-Sukhnah and Deir ez-Zor. Clashes between the two sides lasted for several hours. ISIS claimed that six Russian soldiers and 19 Syrian soldiers were killed, and a large quantity of weapons and equipment was seized. Syrian TV reported that ISIS had implemented measures for disrupting the communications, which caused loss of communications between the Syrian-Russian force and its headquarters (Shabakat Shumukh, March 21, 2019; Syrian TV, March 19, 2019).
- ISIS reported that its operatives had set up an ambush for a Syrian army force about 20 km south of Palmyra. Four Syrian army soldiers were killed and their vehicle was seized (Shabakat Shumukh, March 21, 2019).
Attack against an SDF checkpoint at the entrance to Manbij
- ISIS’s Al-Sham Province in the Aleppo area announced that on the night of March 25-26, 2019, ISIS operatives had attacked an SDF checkpoint in the western part of the city of Manbij. Nine SDF soldiers were killed and weapons and ammunition were seized (Telegram, March 26, 2019).
- One of the members of the Manbij Military Council told AP that fighters at one of the entrances to Manbij had been attacked (AP, March 26, 2019). The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the attack had probably been carried out by an ISIS sleeper cell, against a checkpoint of SDF forces on the Manbij-Aleppo road. Seven fighters were killed and three others wounded (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, March 26, 2019).
ISIS terrorist attacks in the Al-Mayadeen-Deir ez-Zor area continue
- This week as well, ISIS continued its guerrilla activity in the Al-Mayadeen-Deir ez-Zor area. Following are the main attacks (according to ISIS reports):
- Five SDF fighters were killed and wounded in an ISIS attack (Shabakat Shumukh, March 23, 2019).
- Two SDF fighters were killed 27 km southeast of Al-Mayadeen (Deir ez-Zor 24, March 21, 2019).
- Five SDF fighters were killed and several others were wounded in a shooting attack against a concentration of SDF forces about 5 km east of Al-Mayadeen (Shabakat Shumukh, March 23, 2019).
- Three SDF fighters were killed in a shooting attack at a checkpoint 20 km southeast of Deir ez-Zor (Shabakat Shumukh, March 23, 2019).
- On March 23, 2019, a suicide bombing attack was carried out in Deir ez-Zor against the command post of the Fatemiyoun units (an Iranian-affiliated militia comprising Afghan Shiites operating in Syria). Dozens of fighters were killed and wounded (Deir ez-Zor 24, March 23, 2019; Orient News, March 24, 2019). So far, no organization claimed responsibility, but it would be reasonable to assume that ISIS was behind the attack.
- The Russian Defense Ministry reported that in late February 2019, three Russians serving in Syria had been killed in a shooting attack with “terrorists” (it would be reasonable to assume that these were ISIS operatives). The three men were on their way back after transporting humanitarian equipment to residents in the Deir ez-Zor area. Their vehicle was caught in an ambush, and after a shootout they were declared missing. Subsequently, the death of the three was confirmed (TASS, March 26, 2019).
Main developments in Iraq
ISIS’s terrorist and guerrilla activity
- Following are highlights of ISIS’s activity in the past week (based on ISIS reports):
- Salah al-Din Province: ISIS operatives set up an ambush for members of a Shiite militia called “Peace Battalions” 20 km southeast of Samarra. In the clashes between the two sides, three Peace Battalions operatives were killed and five others wounded. It was also claimed that ISIS operatives had shot down a reconnaissance UAV (Shabakat Shumukh, March 22, 2019).
- Salah al-Din Province: ISIS operatives attached a sticky bomb to a vehicle of the Popular/Tribal Mobilization southeast of Tikrit, killing a Popular/Tribal Mobilization commander and damaging the vehicle (Shabakat Shumukh, March 22, 2019).
- Diyala Province: An ISIS sniper killed an Iraqi soldier about 30 km from Khanaqin (Shabakat Shumukh, March 26, 2019).
Counterterrorist activities by the Iraqi security forces
- Following are the main counterterrorist activities carried out by the Iraqi security forces:
- Six ISIS operatives who planned to carry out terrorist attacks in the Kirkuk Province were apprehended (Iraqi News Agency, March 20, 2019).
- A Popular Mobilization sapper team located and neutralized 45 mines southeast of Mosul (al-hashed.net, March 21, 2019).
- The Peace Battalions Shiite militia fired mortar shells at ISIS operatives 20 km southeast of Samarra. In searches carried out in the area, the bodies of two ISIS operatives were found (Al-Sumaria, March 22, 2019).
- The Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman reported that the Iraqi security forces had located two ISIS hideouts several dozen kilometers southwest of Kirkuk. They found IEDs and activation devices (Al-Sumaria, March 22, 2019).
- The Iraqi security forces carried out security activity against ISIS in the Makhoul Hills, about 14 km north of Baiji. A suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt was killed, and a tunnel used for hiding and carrying out attacks was destroyed. Before that, Iraqi Air Force fighter jets attacked four tunnels in the Makhoul Hills, where ISIS operatives were presumably hiding (al-hashed.net, March 24, 2019).
- The Iraqi security forces launched an operation about 90 km west of Mosul, killing three ISIS suicide bombers (al-hashed.net, March 24, 2019).
- The Iraqi security forces set up an ambush in the Hit District, Al-Anbar Province, and captured a senior ISIS operative who was in charge of ISIS’s tax collection and finance. The senior operative was wanted for terrorist activity (Iraqi News Agency, March 21, 2019).
The Sinai Peninsula and Egypt
ISIS’s guerrilla operations continue in the northern Sinai Peninsula
- ISIS continues its guerrilla activity against the Egyptian security forces in northern and central Sinai. Following are a number of operations carried out last week (according to reports by ISIS’s Sinai Province):
- ISIS operatives fired a rocket at an Egyptian APC in the Rafah area. The APC was damaged. The ISIS operatives seized ammunition and various weapons on board the APC (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, March 21, 2019) Local Egyptian sources reported that two rockets had been fired at an Egyptian army tank. No casualties were reported (ShahidSinai Twitter account, March 22, 2019).
- ISIS operatives detonated an IED against an Egyptian army foot patrol near Al-Arish Airport. Several soldiers were killed and wounded (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, March 21, 2019)
- ISIS’s Amaq News Agency reported that ISIS operatives in Sinai had activated an IED against an Egyptian army tank in the Rafah area (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, March 22, 2019).
- On March 25, 2019, ISIS operatives detonated two IEDs in the industrial zone south of Al-Arish. The first IED was detonated against a bulldozer and the other against an Egyptian army armored vehicle. Two officers and a soldier were killed and several others were wounded. In addition, ISIS operatives detonated an IED against an Egyptian army patrol. Four soldiers were killed and several others were wounded (Shabakat Shumukh, March 26, 2019).
- Sinai Province operatives attacked Egyptian army development projects in the Jabal al-Maghara area, near the village of Bir Gifgafa in central Sinai. A total of 17 civilians were killed in the attack (Shahed Sinaa, March 26, 2019; Mahmoudgamal44 Twitter account; Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, March 26, 2019).
- According to reports, “a group of armed men” (ISIS operatives, in the ITIC’s assessment) ambushed and detonated IEDs against an Egyptian army convoy in Jabal al-Halal, in the central Sinai (Shahed Sinaa, March 25, 2019).
Video released by ISIS’s Sinai Province following the fall of Al-Baghouz
On March 25, 2019, ISIS’s Sinai Province released a video entitled “Commitment and Steadfastness.” The video conveyed a number of messages that are in line with the media campaign conducted by ISIS following the loss of Al-Baghouz. The video shows Sinai Province operatives renewing their pledge of allegiance (bay’ah) to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Shabakat Shumukh, March 25, 2019).
- The main messages are as follows:
- Although the jihad fighters faced a combined attack by the “Crusaders” (i.e., the Christian West), the Jews, and the “infidel rulers,” Allah will grant them victory and guarantee their reward in Paradise.
- The jihad fighters must be patient, continue with jihad, and “soon, Allah willing, you will see that their path will succeed.”
- A call on ISIS operatives in Syria to adhere to Allah, “for the final result will be in the interest of those who adhere to Allah” (Shabakat Shumukh, March 25, 2019).
Right: Operative codenamed Abu Yahya Al-Masri (i.e., the Egyptian) (in the center) calling on ISIS operatives all over the world to know that Allah is their Master and that their reward in Paradise is guaranteed. Left: Renewal of the pledge of allegiance to ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi (Shabakat Shumukh, March 25, 2019)
Right: Activity of the Sinai Province against the Egyptian army: firing a machine gun mounted on a motorcycle. Left: IED being detonated against an Egyptian army vehicle (Shabakat Shumukh, March 25, 2019)
Jihadi activity in other countries
Detonation of IEDs at a gathering of Shiites in Kabul
- ISIS’s Khorasan Province announced that on March 21, 2019, its operatives had detonated three IEDs against gatherings of Shiites that took place during the holiday (the holiday of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year) near a temple in the western part of the capital Kabul. The explosions killed and wounded around 50 people (Shabakat Shumukh, March 21, 2019).
- Government sources in Afghanistan said that three IEDs were detonated in the attack at the temple. According to Reuters, six people were killed and 23 others were wounded (Drexl Spivey@RisboLensky Twitter account; Reuters, March 21, 2019). A year ago, on March 21, 2018, ISIS carried out a suicide bombing attack against Shiite worshipers celebrating the Nowruz holiday in western Kabul, which has a large Shiite population (Reuters, March 21, 2018).
The neighborhood in west Kabul where the attack took place (Drexl Spivey@RisboLensky Twitter account, March 21, 2019)
Tribal leader killed in central Jalalabad
- ISIS’s Khorasan Province reported the killing of Khan Agha Maher, a tribal leader loyal to the Afghan government. He was shot to death in central Jalalabad (Shabakat Shumukh, March 21, 2019).
Agha Maher escorted by Afghan security personnel. The red marking is in the original photo (Drexl Spivey@RisboLensky Twitter account, March 20, 2019)
Attack against Taliban compounds
- ISIS’s Khorasan Province announced that ISIS operatives had attacked Taliban compounds in the Kunar Province of eastern Afghanistan. One Taliban operative was killed in the attack and two others were taken prisoner. It was also reported that four villages had been taken over in the Kunar Province, some 145 km northeast of Kabul (Shabakat Shumukh, March 24, 2019).
West Africa Province
- This week, ISIS published a photo of its operatives in Burkina Faso (south of Mali). The operatives are apparently members of the organization’s West Africa Province since the photo was distributed by the media network of ISIS’s West Africa Province (Shabakat Shumukh, March 22, 2019). Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a weak army and an unstable regime. Over half of the population are Sunni Muslims, and the rest are Christians or members of local indigenous religions. In 2016-2018, around 80 terrorist attacks were carried out in Burkina Faso by regional and international networks representing themselves as defenders of the Muslim population. Most of the attacks were carried out by Ansarul Islam, which also operates in Mali and is affiliated with Al-Qaeda. In recent months, there have been terrorist attacks in the country that originated in Mali, carried out mainly by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). A branch of ISIS’s West Africa Province apparently also operates in the border area between Burkina Faso and Niger and Mali.
Right: Photo with the inscription “Soldiers of the Caliphate in Burkina Faso.” The logo in the photo is the logo of the West Africa Province (Shabakat Shumukh, March 22, 2019). Left: The countries in West Africa where ISIS operates: Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso (Google Maps)
Somalia Province: IED detonated in an open market in Mogadishu
- ISIS’s media outlets reported that an IED had been detonated in the open market in the city of Mogadishu while a vehicle carrying Somali policemen passed by. Three soldiers were killed and four others were wounded (Shabakat Shumukh, Telegram, March 23, 2019).
Yemen Province: ISIS attack against Al-Qaeda headquarters in the Al-Bayda Governorate
- ISIS’s Yemen Province in the Al-Bayda area announced that ISIS operatives had attacked the Al-Qaeda staff and operations headquarters in the Al-Bayda Governorate (around 110 km southeast of the capital Sana’a). Two squads of ISIS operatives stormed the headquarters and exchanged fire with security guards. One of them broke into the building and blew himself up with his explosive vest. Over 20 Al-Qaeda operatives were killed, including several commanders (Telegram, March 25, 2019). According to a separate announcement by the Yemen Province, its operatives attacked a number of Al-Qaeda compounds and headquarters in Al-Bayda Governorate, killing and wounding several Al-Qaeda operatives, and ISIS operatives took control of the entire area (Telegram, March 26, 2019).
 An armed Iraqi Shiite militia established in 2014, it belongs to the Sadri faction led by Muqtada Sadr and operates as part of the Popular Mobilization. ↑