The car bomb explosion in Al-Raqqah (Halab Al-Youm, November 4, 2018)
Hashem al-Mussawi, commander in the Popular Mobilization forces and spokesman for the Nujaba Movement (Furat Post Facebook page, November 5, 2018)
opular Mobilization forces during security activity (Al-Bawaba, November 1, 2018)
Federal Iraqi police force carrying out security activity (Al-Sumaria News, November 2, 2018)
Afghan security guards near the entrance to Pul Charkhi prison in Kabul (www.khaama.com, October 31, 2018)
Main events of the week
- Russian spokesmen and the Turkish foreign minister announced that the implementation of the Sochi Agreement (between Russia and Turkey) was proceeding as planned, without significant interruptions. In practice, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and other jihadi organizations refused to leave the demilitarized zone, and its establishment is still fraught with difficulty. It appears that the optimistic statements were designed to buy additional time in order to prevent or at least postpone, insofar as possible, the launching of a Syrian army campaign to take over the Idlib region.
- In the area north of Albukamal and along the border with Iraq, ISIS operatives are establishing their control after having retaken the village of Al-Susah. The Iraqi army and the Popular Mobilization (Shiite militias) reinforced the border area and built fortifications along it. The SDF have reinforced their forces and are preparing for a new offensive against the ISIS enclave north of Albukamal.
- In ISIS’s former “capital” Al-Raqqah, which was taken over by the SDF about a year ago, ISIS has started increasing its activity. This week, a number of terrorist attacks were carried out in the city: a car bomb attack by a suicide bomber, the assassination of a local dignitary, and the blowing up of a car with an IED. The series of attacks could be an indication of the presence of a network of collaborators with ISIS in the city of Al-Raqqah, and possible tension between the (Kurdish) SDF forces and the local population.
- This week as well, showcase attacks continued in ISIS’s provinces outside Syria and Iraq. In Egypt, minibuses carrying Coptic Christians were attacked in the area of Minya, south of Cairo (at least seven killed and 15 wounded); In Afghanistan, prison guards and security personnel were attacked by a suicide bomber near a prison in Kabul (eight dead and around 20 wounded). At the propaganda level, an ISIS-affiliated media foundation recently published posters threatening the lives of the Pope and Christians.
Briefing of journalists by the Russian Ministry of Defense: Optimistic presentation regarding the implementation of the Sochi Agreement
- On October 31, 2018, Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov briefed journalists on the situation in Syria. Regarding the Idlib issue, he said at the briefing that the Sochi Agreement, which is important for the further preservation of normalization in Syria, was being carried out in practice on the ground. Turkey is making efforts to implement the agreement, although it has not managed to do so completely. According to the briefing, more than 2,450 “extremists” have been removed from the demilitarized zone, along with weapons, including 31 tanks, heavy artillery, 23 mortars and additional weapons. The spokesman noted that within the demilitarized zone, activity is monitored by observation posts: 10 Russian, 12 Turkish, and seven Iranian (Russian Ministry of Defense website, October 31, 2018).
Russian and Turkish announcements that the implementation of the Agreement is proceeding without significant interruptions
- According to Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov, despite the difficulties, the implementation of the Sochi Agreement is not currently under threat. According to him, Russia does not see any genuine threat that would prevent the Turkish-Russian agreement from being implemented. He noted that despite the difficulties, the Turkish side was making an effort to comply with the agreement (ITAR-TASS; Reuters, October 30, 2018).
- At a press conference with the foreign ministers of Iran and Azerbaijan, the Turkish foreign minister stated that the implementation of the Turkish-Russian agreement in Idlib was proceeding as planned, without interruption. He added that if the terrorists or radical groups in Idlib displayed a “different attitude” to the agreement, Turkey would intervene (Reuters, October 30, 2018).
Implementation of the Sochi Agreement in Idlib
Local incidents between the Syrian Army and the rebel organizations
- In the Idlib area, there are still local incidents between the Syrian army and the rebel organizations, especially the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and other jihadi groups. Noteworthy incidents during the past week:
- Operatives of the Turkestan Islamic Party, a jihadi organization originating in China and affiliated with the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, fired mortar shells at the village of Jourin (About 22 km south of Jisr al-Shughour, in the heart of the demilitarized zone) and the village of Maan (in the south of the demilitarized zone). There were no causalities, but damage was caused to property (SANA, November 4, 2018).
- Operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham tried to infiltrate into Syrian army positions through the Atshan route, in the south of the Idlib Province. The Syrian army fired artillery, killing and wounding some of the attackers. The others retreated to where they had come from (Butulat Al-Jaysh Al-Suri, October 31, 2018).
- The Syrian army fired at several towns and villages in the demilitarized zone, several dozen kilometers south of Idlib, killing at least eight people, five of them civilians, and wounding about 20 (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, November 2, 2018).
Syrian army rocket launchers in action (Butulat Al-Jaysh Al-Suri, October 31, 2018)
Operatives joining the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham
- According to Syrian sources, several hundred operatives of Faylaq Al-Rahman (Al-Rahman Legion, an umbrella framework of Islamic organizations affiliated with the Free Syrian Army), joined the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham. In the past, they had operated mainly in Eastern Ghouta and then were transferred to northern Syria as part of the surrender agreements. They joined the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and were deployed in the Turkmen Mountain and the Kurd Mountains, northeast of Latakia (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, November 4, 2018). One of the commanders of Faylaq Al-Rahman noted that the decision to join the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham stemmed from the fact that since they left Eastern Ghouta, they were no longer supported financially and weapons and ammunition were not provided anymore (Khotwa, November 13, 2018).
The emblem of Faylaq Al-Rahman: At the bottom there is a Quranic verse, according to which “A nation whose leader is Muhammad shall not kneel down” (Wikipedia)
The Syrian army sustained heavy casualties in the Al-Safa area
- This week, fierce fighting continued between Syrian army forces and ISIS in the Al-Safa area. On October 31, 2018, ISIS reported that over 30 Syrian soldiers were killed and wounded during the clashes (ISIS’s Damascus Province, October 31, 2018). According to a report from November 1, 2018, seven Syrian army soldiers and operatives of the forces supporting it were killed in clashes with ISIS near the Al-Safa area (Al-Badiyah 24 Facebook page, November 1, 2018). During the clashes, a Syrian army tank reportedly fired at a group of the “reconciliation team” – apparently the team running the negotiations to release the Druze abductees and exchange bodies (Al-Badiyah 24 Facebook page, November 2, 2018).
ISIS establishes itself in the enclave north of Albukamal
- After having retaken the village of Al-Susah, ISIS established its presence in the enclave north of Albukamal and extended its control up to the Syrian-Iraqi border area. The SDF forces were reportedly reinforced by hundreds of fighters as they prepare for a new offensive against the ISIS enclave.
ISIS attack north of the town of Hajin
- ISIS operatives launched a large-scale sudden attack against the SDF forces in the Al-Bahra area, north of Hajin, under the cover of the bad weather (rain and fog). According to reports, the SDF forces, having sustained at least 12 fatalities and over 20 wounded, retreated from their front lines of defense in that area (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, November 4, 2018).
ISIS enclave (marked in brown) after the clashes which took place last week with the SDF forces (in yellow). The Syrian army and the forces supporting it are marked in red (SyriaInfo@syria_map Twitter account, probably affiliated with the Iraqi regime, November 1, 2018)
- Coalition airplanes continued to carry out airstrikes against ISIS targets, especially the town of Hajin (ISIS stronghold in the enclave north of Albukamal). As a result of the airstrikes in Hajin, 14 civilians were reportedly killed. Other airstrikes against other targets in the ISIS enclave killed nine ISIS operatives (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, November 3, 2018). In one of those attacks, a car bomb was destroyed and an ISIS suicide bomber killed in one of the neighborhoods of west Hajin (Furat Post Facebook page, November 3, 2018).
Right: Smoke rising after a Coalition airstrike in the town of Hajin (Twitter, November 3, 2018). Left: White smoke rising after Coalition planes had destroyed an ISIS car bomb in the town of Hajin (Furat Post Facebook page, November 3, 2018)
- The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that since the beginning of the attack against the ISIS enclave north of Albukamal, 523 ISIS operatives and 327 SDF fighters had been killed (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, November 4, 2018).
Report of SDF reinforcements
- According to a report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, during October 28-30, 2018, over 500 Kurdish fighters belonging to the YPG People’s Protection Units Special Forces and the YPJ Women’s Protection Units arrived in the Deir ez-Zor Province. In addition, at least a hundred more fighters from the SDF forces arrived on October 30, 2018, from the city of Manbij (about 75 km northeast of Aleppo). These reinforcements are intended to take part in a new attack against the ISIS enclave north of Albukamal (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, October 30, 2018).
ISIS guerrilla warfare against the SDF and its supporters in Al-Raqqah
- ISIS started to increase its activity in Al-Raqqah, its former “capital” in Syria, which was taken over by the SDF forces a year ago (on October 17, 2017). This week, ISIS operatives detonated a car bomb in the center of the city, killed one of the prominent local sheikhs, and blew up a vehicle with an IED attached to it. In all cases, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks and warned the SDF from further actions. The series of attacks may indicate the presence of an ISIS network in the city of Al-Raqqah and also tension between the Kurdish SDF forces and the local Sunni Arab population.
Detonation of a car bomb by a suicide bomber
- On November 4, 2018, an ISIS suicide bomber detonated a booby-trapped vehicle in the center of Al-Raqqah. According to security officials in the city, one civilian was killed and about ten civilians and “armed men” were wounded. According to some reports, following the explosion there were exchanges of fire and it is possible that there were more casualties than stated (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, November 4, 5, 2018).
- ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. According to its message, an ISIS squad parked a car bomb in a headquarters where SDF fighters arrive to receive their salaries. According to ISIS’s claim of responsibility, about 50 SDF fighters were killed and wounded. ISIS’s message ended with the lines, “Allah willing, we shall make the lives of the infidels and those supporting them bitter, and we shall show no compassion or mercy. What is yet to come will be more dreadful” (ISIS’s Al-Raqqah Province, November 4, 2018).
Shooting to death a local sheikh
- On November 2, 2018, Bashir al-Huwaidi was shot to death in the center of Al-Raqqah. Al-Huwaidi was one of the prominent sheikhs in the Al-Afadla tribe, member of Al-Raqqah’s civil council. The perpetrator, who set by his side in the vehicle, grabbed his gun and shot him to death (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, November 4, 2018).
- ISIS claimed responsibility for the assassination. The organization announced that one of its squads assassinated Bashir al-Faisal al-Huwaidi with a gun. According to ISIS, Al-Huwaidi was one of the main collaborators with the SDF forces. ISIS’s claim of responsibility ended with the words, “We are warning anyone who helps renegades [i.e., the SDF] serving as a shield for them that the soldiers of the caliphate lie in wait for him, and he shall meet his death sooner or later, Allah willing” (ISIS’s Al-Raqqah Province, November 2, 2018).
Blowing up a car with an IED
- On November 5, 2018, an IED attached to an SDF vehicle exploded in central Al-Raqqah. There were no reports of casualties. ISIS claimed responsibility (Enab Baladi, November 5, 2018).
Main developments in Iraq
Popular Mobilization military activity near the Iraqi-Syrian border
- The forces of the Popular Mobilization (Shiite militias) intensified their military activity near the border between Iraq and Syria, following ISIS’s achievements in the battles north of Albukamal and ISIS’s established presence in positions and observation points along the border instead of the SDF fighters, who left the area. The Popular Mobilization forces started to build fortifications and reinforce the defense lines along the border. Operatives of the Popular Mobilization set up a rear checkpoint (on the highway leading to Syria), in addition to the existing checkpoint on the border, and set up several supervision points along the border (Popular Mobilization website, November 1, 2018). In addition, Popular Mobilization operatives fired field guns at ISIS targets in Syrian territory, near the border with Iraq (in the region north of Albukamal).
- Hashem al-Mussawi, commander in the Popular Mobilization and spokesman for the Nujaba Movement (affiliated with Iran), announced that subject to agreement between Syria and Iraq, Popular Mobilization operatives are ready to enter Syria and fight against ISIS (Furat Post Facebook page, November 5, 2018; Radio Al-Nur, November 1, 2018).
Hashem al-Mussawi, commander in the Popular Mobilization forces and spokesman for the Nujaba Movement (Furat Post Facebook page, November 5, 2018)
Iraqi army activity near the border with Syria
- This week, forces from the Iraqi army’s 9th Division were transferred near the border with Syria. The forces were transferred there in order to reinforce the defense on the border after the SDF forces had retreated from all their positions in the border area (in the Albukamal area) and stop the advance of the ISIS operatives to these positions (Deir ez-Zor Now Twitter account, November 2, 2018).
9th Division APCs en route to the Iraqi-Syrian border (Deir ez-Zor Now Twitter account, November 2, 2018)
- Iraqi army forces near the border with Syria fired artillery at ISIS targets inside Syrian territory (Iraqi News, November 3, 2018). According to an Iraqi security source, the ISIS operatives could not cope with the artillery fire by the Iraqi army and retreated from their positions in Al-Baghouz and Al-Susah, about two kilometers from the Syrian-Iraqi border (Iraqi News Agency, November 5, 2018).
Additional activity by the Iraqi security forces against ISIS
- Highlights of the activity carried out by the Iraqi security forces against ISIS in the recent week:
- The Al-Anbar Province: A force of the Popular Mobilization (the Shiite militias) killed 11 ISIS operatives in Wadi al-Tharthar, in northern Al-Anbar Province. In addition, an ISIS hideout was destroyed, and weapons, equipment and IEDs were found (Al-Sumaria News, November 1, 2018).
- The Nineveh Province: An Iraqi federal police force, carrying out searches southeast of Makhmur (about 68 km southeast of Mosul), killed 19 ISIS operatives. They found seven Kalashnikov assault rifles at the scene as well as a food cache (Al-Sumaria News, November 2, 2018).
- Kirkuk Province: On October 28, 2018, Coalition planes attacked an ISIS hideout about 34 km northwest of Kirkuk, killing six operatives. Another airstrike killed 19 ISIS operatives hiding in a 500-meter-long tunnel (Al-Sumaria News, November 4, 2018).
- The Kirkuk Province: An Iraqi federal police force, carrying out searches in the southern Kirkuk Province, found 53 IEDs. Fifty of them were found in an underground cache in the southern part of the province. The IEDs were detonated in a controlled manner (Al-Sumaria News, November 2, 2018).
- ISIS intensified its activity in the Diyala Province, north of Baghdad. Its activity consisted of sniper fire and detonation of IEDs, probably due to difficulties carrying out high-profile attacks against the Iraqi security forces.
- Following are the ISIS reports on their attacks, according to the Diyala Province:
- On November 1, 2018, an Iraqi army soldier was wounded by ISIS sniper fire about 81 km northeast of Baqubah (Amaq, November 3, 2018).
- An Iraqi army soldier was wounded by ISIS sniper fire about 120 km north of Baghdad (Amaq, November 3, 2018).
- An Iraqi army vehicle was destroyed by the detonation of an IED about 120 km north of Baghdad. An Iraqi army soldier was killed and others were wounded (Amaq, November 3, 2018).
The Sinai Peninsula and Egypt
ISIS shooting attack against a bus carrying Coptic Christians
The city of Minya and the Monastery of St. Samuel (Google Maps)
- According to Egyptian media reports, the attack targeted two minibuses carrying Coptic Christian passengers who had left Minya and another vehicle carrying local residents. According to eyewitnesses, four masked men who spoke Arabic in a dialect that was not Egyptian were traveling in an olive green ATV. One of them got out of the vehicle and opened fire at the two minibuses. Other terrorists joined in the shooting. The driver of one of the minibuses managed to drive away. ISIS operatives pursued the fleeing minibus. Eight people were killed and 20 wounded (Al-Masry al-Youm, November 6, 2018; Mada Masr, November 5, 2018).
- ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. According to the claim of responsibility, on November 2, 2018, ISIS operatives ambushed and attacked three buses carrying Christians (i.e., Copts) who were on their way to one of the churches in the Minya area. ISIS operatives fired light weapons at them. According to ISIS, 13 people were killed and 18 wounded. ISIS noted that this was a revenge attack dedicated to “our modest sisters, who were arrested by the Egyptian regime, which has abandoned the path of Islam …” (ISIS’s Egypt Province, November 2, 2018).
- Following the attack, the Egyptian security forces mounted an extensive manhunt for the perpetrators in the desert area of the Minya Governorate. While combing the area, they discovered an ISIS operative staging zone. In the clashes that took place between the Egyptian security forces and ISIS, 19 operatives were killed, some (or all) of whom had been involved in the attack. Rifles, handguns, ammunition and documents were found in their possession (Facebook page of the Egyptian Interior Ministry, November 4, 2018).
Jihadi activity in other countries
- On October 31, 2018, a suicide bombing attack was carried out in Kabul near Pul Charkhi Prison. The attack was carried out against a bus carrying prison guards and security personnel. At least seven people were killed and at least 10 were wounded (www.khaama.com, October 31, 2018). ISIS announced that a suicide bomber had detonated his explosive vest. As a result, more than 30 prison staff members were killed and wounded (ISIS’s Khorasan Province, October 31, 2018).
The battle for hearts and minds
- On October 29, 2018, the ISIS-affiliated Al-Abd al-Faqir Media Foundation published a poster threatening the life of Pope Francis. The poster shows the Pope during a visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp in July 2016, opposite a man with a black armband on his right arm, bearing the text in Arabic: “There is no God but Allah.” The man is shown aiming a gun at the Pope, and the caption in English reads: “Don’t think you are away from our attacks” (Rosanna@RosannaMrtnz Twitter account, October 24, 2018; PJ Media [an American news website], October 29, 2018).
- Previously, around October 24, 2018, the same media foundation published a poster threatening the life of the Pope and the Christians. The poster shows the Pope at the Auschwitz concentration camp, with a masked man holding a Kalashnikov rifle lying in wait for him. The caption in Arabic reads: “O worshipers of the Cross [a derogatory term for Christians], know that there are those lying in wait for you who will soon stop your breathing, you may lie in wait, but there are those among you who are lying in wait for you” (Rosanna@RosannaMrtnz Twitter account, October 24, 2018; PJ Media [an American news website], October 29, 2018).