Written by ITIC
Main Events of the Week
- An important event of the week was the conquest of the city of Idlib, in northwestern Syria. The city was conquered by a coalition of jihadi/Islamist groups, the most prominent of which is the Al-Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria). The Syrian Army withdrew from the city but is still in the vicinity. According to media reports, there have already been initial disagreements between the Al-Nusra Front and its Islamist partners over the nature of the control over the city.
- The conquest of the city of Idlib, which once numbered 165,000 inhabitants, is a major blow to the Assad regime and an important achievement for the Al-Nusra Front, which led the campaign over the city. The conquest of Idlib endangers the regime’s strongholds in the coastal area and threatens the strongholds of the Syrian regime and its allies in the Aleppo area.
- In the important city of Tikrit, the fighting is drawing to a close. The prime minister of Iraq and the Iraqi media announced that the Iraqi forces are in the city center. It seems, however, that the fighting is not yet over.
- This week, the US began to support the battle for Tikrit with airstrikes, after the Shiite militias, supported by Iran, evacuated the front and were replaced by the Iraqi Army. Nevertheless, the Shiite militias, and Iran that supports them, are still a strong and dominant factor among the Iraqi forces attacking the city.
The international campaign against ISIS
US and coalition airstrikes
This week, the US and coalition forces continued their airstrikes against ISIS targets. Several dozen airstrikes were carried out in Syria and Iraq. Following are the locations of the main airstrikes (CENTCOM website):
- In Syria, the airstrikes were concentrated in the area of Kobani. The airstrikes damaged ISIS tactical units, positions, vehicles, anti-aircraft weapons systems, and a bulldozer.
- In Iraq, the US began to provide air support to the Iraqi Army in its attempt to capture the city of Tikrit (see below). Airstrikes were also carried out in Baiji, near Fallujah, Sinjar, Mosul, Tal Afar and Tikrit. Among other things, the airstrikes damaged ISIS tactical units, anti-aircraft weapons systems, launching positions, vehicles (including a car bomb), bridges, obstacles and roadblocks.
Summary of US airstrikes
According to a summary of the US airstrikes (from March 18, 2015), a total of 5,314 targets have been attacked to date. The targets destroyed or damaged in the airstrikes included: 73 tanks, 282 armored vehicles, 408 gathering areas of ISIS operatives, 1,652 buildings, 1,003 combat positions, 151 oil installations, 1,745 other targets (US Department of Defense website, March 18, 2015).
Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee, CENTCOM Commander Lloyd Austin said that in his opinion, the most serious threat in the Middle East today is ISIS. He stressed that the organization must be defeated. According to Lloyd Austin, up to now, the US and coalition countries have made significant progress in the campaign against ISIS, which has lost the ability to capture and hold new territories in Syria and Iraq. This, Austin said, had prompted ISIS to expand its activity to North Africa (US Department of State website, March 26, 2015).
Distribution of leaflets near Al-Raqqah by US planes
Associated Press reported that US Army F-15 aircraft dropped 60,000 leaflets near Al-Raqqah (ISIS’s stronghold in northern Syria) as part of a propaganda campaign designed to prevent residents from enlisting in the ranks of ISIS. The leaflets read: “If you allow yourself to be recruited by ISIS, you’ll find yourself part of a meat grinder.” The picture shows young people standing in line under a sign reading “ISIS recruiting office”. A man with a monstrous face greets the recruits and another man puts a human being in a giant meat grinder (AP, March 26, 2015).
Example of the leaflets dropped by the US Army near Al-Raqqah, which was released to the media
Main developments in Syria
After around ten days of fighting, a coalition of rebel groups known as Jaysh al-Fatah (the Army of Conquest) announced that it had managed to take over the city of Idlib (a large city in northwestern Syria, which once numbered 165,000 inhabitants). This coalition is made up of several jihadi/Islamist groups, the most prominent of which is the Al-Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria).
Social networks posted photos and videos showing the rebel coalition operatives celebrating the conquest of the city. Syrian Army troops, who had held the city, withdrew to its southern neighborhoods and the surrounding countryside. The media reported that they were preparing for a counterattack. It was also reported that the provisional Syrian government (an overall framework of the opposition to the Syrian regime) intended to transfer its seat to Idlib.
According to initial reports, originating in the Lebanese media, there have already been disagreements between the Al-Nusra Front and other rebel groups fighting alongside it (Jaysh al-Fatah). They were surprised when an Al-Qaeda flag was hoisted above the provincial headquarters. A photo from the provincial governor’s palace documenting a meeting of Al-Nusra Front operatives, with an Al-Qaeda flag in the background, was also posted on social networks. On the other hand, it was reported that Jaysh al-Fatah commanders had set up a unified security force to patrol the city and protect its residents. It was also reported that they were planning to have a joint legal-religious committee set up an Islamic court in Idlib (Al-Akhbar, March 31, 2015). Patrols by the rebel groups protect the residents’ property and help them equip themselves with water and food (Akhbar al-Aan, March 31, 2015).
The conquest of the city of Idlib is the most significant failure of Assad’s army since the city of Al-Raqqah fell into the hands of the rebels (March 2013). The conquest of the city endangers the regime’s controlled areas along the coast and threatens the strongholds of the regime and its allies in the Aleppo area. It is not yet clear what pattern of control the rebel groups will attempt to impose in the city (assuming the city remains in their hands): Will the influential Al-Nusra Front attempt to develop a model of governance based on its dominance and the imposition of Islamic law (the way ISIS did in Al-Raqqah); Or will it allow (at least for the time being) the rebel groups to present the appearance of a coalition government with more moderate characteristics in terms of its conduct.
Kobani Province (Ayn al-Arab)
Fighting between Kurdish forces and ISIS around the city of Kobani continues, although its intensity has diminished. At a meeting between John Allen, International Coalition Coordinator against ISIS, and the prime minister of Turkey and Turkish officials, it was reported that Turkey had agreed to allow Kurdish Peshmerga forces to pass through Turkey to reach Kobani in order to fight ISIS (Zaman, March 28, 2015).
This is not the first time that Turkey has allowed Peshmerga forces from Iraq to reinforce the forces fighting in the area of Kobani. At the beginning of the campaign over Kobani, Turkey refused to allow Kurdish reinforcements to pass through its territory on their way to the city. Since the second half of October 2014, Turkey changed this policy, apparently under pressure from the United States. At the end of October 2014, Turkey allowed Kurdish Peshmerga forces from the Kurdish autonomy in Iraq to enter its territory and reinforce the YPG Kurdish force fighting in Kobani. Thus, even after the conquest of Kobani, Kurdish reinforcements continue to travel to Iraq through Turkish territory to support the Kurdish forces in the battle over the rural areas of Kobani.
On March 29, 2015, an online ISIS forum posted a video documenting the execution of eight prisoners captured by ISIS. The video shows the prisoners (whose organizational affiliation was not mentioned) being led to the execution site with youths armed with Kalashnikov rifles guarding them. Before the execution, an ISIS spokesman quoted verses from the Quran and statements by clerics calling for the beheading of enemies (Shabakat al-Jihad al-Alami forum, March 29, 2015). Recently there has been an increase in the number of photos distributed by ISIS showing youths carrying out military-terrorist missions, including involvement in executions.
ISIS attacked several checkpoints and positions of the Syrian security forces near the T-4 military airfield (east of Homs). Eight soldiers were killed and around seven were abducted. During the fighting, ISIS operatives took over the weapons of the Syrian security forces, such as tanks, artillery and rockets (All4Syria, March 27, 2015).
The area of Al-Qalamoun (the Syrian-Lebanese border)
Around the town of Falita, near the border between Syria and Lebanon (see map), clashes continue between the forces of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, and the jihadi organizations. The Lebanese Army, which also intervened in the conflict, fired heavy artillery fire at armed ISIS and Al-Nusra Front operatives in Wadi al-Rihani, in the Arsal region (Al-Qabas, March 26, 2015).
Main developments in Iraq
The battle over Tikrit
In the important city of Tikrit, the Iraqi attack appears to be coming to an end.The Iraqi prime minister, quoted in the American media, said that the Iraqi Army was in the city center. Videos on YouTube show the Iraqi flag flying over administration buildings in the city. However, the entire city has not fallen into the hands of the Iraqi forces and fighting still continues (as of the morning of April 1, 2015).
This week, the US began to provide direct support for the battle for Tikrit, by means of airstrikes. This was made possible after Shiite militias, supported by Iran, vacated the front line and were replaced by the Iraqi Army which, according to media reports, now leads the battle for Tikrit (although, in the ITIC’s assessment, the Shiite militias remain a strong and dominant force behind the scenes.) The Pentagon spokesman welcomed the withdrawal of the Iran-affiliated militias, saying that the United States was not interested in their presence on the ground from the very beginning. According to American media reports, the decision to directly support the attacks on the city was made by President Barack Obama in response to a request by the prime minister of Iraq.
This hesitant American involvement accurately reflects the dilemma of the US in the campaign that it is waging against ISIS in Iraq: on the one hand, the conquest of Tikrit is of major importance, from a military standpoint and from the aspect of morale. Moreover, conquering it would be a springboard toward the campaign to liberate Mosul, which the Americans announced is approaching. On the other hand, in the ITIC’s assessment, the dominant force in the field are the Shiite militias supported by Iran, and air support could be interpreted as coordination between the US and Iran. In any case, in the ITIC’s assessment, the occupation of the city of Tikrit is expected to strengthen the position of the Shiites and of Iran in the internal Iraqi arena and to make it more difficult for the central government in Baghdad (with its Shiite character) to enlist the support of the Sunni population, which is the power base of ISIS.
Fighting continues between the Iraqi Army and ISIS in and around the city of Ramadi, in the Sunni province of Al-Anbar. Over the past few days, the clashes have centered on the route between Ramadi and Fallujah (which is controlled by ISIS). The Iraqi Army is attempting to take control over this route in order to cut off ISIS from its supply routes (Al-Marbad, March 27, 2015). On March 28, 2015, the Iraqi Army announced that it had killed forty ISIS operatives in the city of Ramadi (Al-Sumaria, March 28, 2015). ISIS, on its part, claimed that it had taken over Al-Sajariya, in the east of Ramadi (YouTube, March 26, 2015).
On March 28, 2015, ISIS carried out a combined suicide bombing attack, with four suicide bombers who blew up their vehicles in the gathering area of the Iraqi Army near the city of Ramadi (Shabakat al-Jihad al-Alami, 28 March 2015). Based on their codenames, at least three of the suicide bombers were foreign fighters from Arab countries: the Lebanese Abu Khattab, the Saudi Abu Harith, and the Tunisian Abu Abdallah (Shabakat al-Jihad al-Alami, March 28, 2015).
On March 30, 2015, a file sharing site used by supporters of ISIS, among others, published photos documenting an attack on an Iraqi Army outpost north of Baghdad (DUMP TO, March 30, 2015).
On March 29, 2015, the Iraqi Interior Ministry reported that five Iraqi Army soldiers were injured, some of them fatally, when a bomb exploded while they were on a motorized patrol north of Baghdad (Al-Mada Press, March 29, 2015). The day before, ten civilians were injured, two of them fatally, when an IED exploded in the town of Dora, south of Baghdad. ISIS is believed to be behind these attacks (Al-Mada Press, March 29, 2015).
On March 24, 2015, ISIS posted a video announcing the establishment of a commando unit in the Nineveh province and documenting part of the unit’s activity. According to the ISIS operative who appears in the video, the unit will specialize in breaking into buildings and using medium and heavy weapons (YouTube, March 24, 2015).
Left: Commando unit operatives moving in a river, probably the Tigris. Right: ISIS operative announcing the establishment of the commando unit in Nineveh (YouTube, March 24, 2015)
The conduct of the Islamic State Military training for male youths in Al-Raqqah, Syria
Images posted on March 30, 2014 on ISIS websites show dozens of masked men who allegedly graduated from ISIS’s so-called School of Terrorism in northern Syria, apparently in the city of Al-Raqqah. Although the course graduates are masked, it is evident that most of them are boys in their teens (www.dailymail.co.uk, March 30, 2015).
A report issued by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) estimated that ISIS has increased the recruitment of children and youths into its ranks in the past year because it is having difficulty recruiting adults. According to the report, at least 400 children from Syria were recruited by ISIS in recent months.
Construction of roads and bridges by ISIS in northwestern Iraq
On March 28, 2015, an ISIS forum posted photos documenting the construction of bridges and roads by the Center for Services (in Arabic: Markaz al-Khidamat), ISIS’s public infrastructure construction arm. The construction took place in northwestern Iraq, in a province that ISIS calls the Al-Jazira province (Shabakat al-Jihad al-Alami, March 28, 2015)
ISIS continues to implement Islamic law (Sharia) in the places under its control in Syria and Iraq. A file-sharing website used by those affiliated with ISIS recently posted photos taken in the Nineveh province, showing the execution of three civilians who were shot and beheaded. The three were executed after being accused of corruption (ISIS-affiliated file-sharing website, March 30, 2015).
ISIS presents: Ombudsman’s Office in Iraq’s Nineveh province
A video uploaded by ISIS on March 26, 2015, shows the offices of ISIS’s “ombudsman” (in Arabic: Diwan al-Mazalem) in the Nineveh province. The video shows a number of incidents in which civilians filed complaints, which were allegedly handled by the office (YouTube, March 26, 2015).
ISIS is making efforts to establish alternative administrative institutions in the territories under its control. It sets up state infrastructures, provides the daily needs of the citizens, controls prices, regulates commercial activity and enforces Islamic law (Sharia) with an iron fist and in brutal ways (even at the cost of friction with the local population). In the ITIC’s assessment, the images published by ISIS, such as the activities of the “Ombudsman’s Office”, is intended for propaganda purposes, to show that ISIS is attuned to the feelings of the population.
Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula
The Egyptian campaign in the Sinai Peninsula
Egyptian security forces continued their counterterrorism and preventive activities in the Sinai Peninsula. On March 29, 2015, Egyptian border police exposed the opening of a tunnel hidden in the rubble of houses, apparently near the Gaza Strip. The tunnel is 2.8 km long, 1.51 m wide and a few meters deep. According to the Egyptian border police, terrorist operatives use the tunnel for smuggling people, goods, weapons and ammunition (Facebook page of the Egyptian armed forces, March 29, 2015).
Following are some of the operations carried out by the Egyptian security forces against the jihadists in Sinai:
On March 29, 2015, the Egyptian security forces conducted an extensive operation in the south of the Sheikh Zuweid region and in Rafah, in northern Sinai. During the operation, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis operatives were arrested, ten motorcycles were destroyed, and cars were confiscated (Al-Masry al-Youm, March 29, 2015).
On March 30, 2015, the Egyptian security forces found 14 pieces of artillery in a warehouse near Sharm al-Sheikh (Al-Youm al-Sabea, March 30, 2015).
On March 26, 2015, Egyptian Army blew up a large Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis explosives storeroom. The storeroom was uncovered in the village of Al-Mahdiya, near the border with Israel. The storeroom contained approximately ten tons of TNT and C4 (Maan news agency, March 26, 2015).
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis operatives stole an ambulance, which was transported to an unknown location. Following the theft, Egyptian security forces in northern Sinai issued an order terminating the use of ambulances in the area, for fear that the ambulance will be used to carry out a terrorist attack (Mubtada, March 22, 2015). Egypt Army helicopters fired at the ambulance in the area of Sheikh Zuweid and hit it (Uyun al-Akhbar, March 22, 2015).
The global jihad in other countries
Tunisian security forces arrested 23 suspects, including one woman, on suspicion of involvement in the terrorist attacks at the National Museum. One of those arrested was Mohamed Amine Guebli, commander of the cell (of global jihad operatives). Several other suspects were also arrested, including a Tunisian suspected of supplying weapons to the cell operatives. Three other operatives, an Algerian and two Moroccans, are still at large (AFP, March 26, 2015).
On March 28, 2015, “jihadi sources” in Libya said that the Libyan Abu Abdallah, the codename of a senior religious authority in the jihadi organization Ansar al-Sharia, had pledged allegiance to the leader of ISIS (Shabakat al-Jihad al-Alami, March 28, 2015). It is unclear whether ISIS accepted the pledge and what it means.
Counterterrorism and preventive activity
The United States
Two cousins from Chicago were arrested by the FBI on suspicion of conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks on US Army bases. They are former National Guardsman Hasan Edmonds, 22, and his cousin Jonas Edmonds, 29. Hasan Edmonds was reportedly on his way to Egypt to join ISIS. It was further reported that Jonas Edmonds was going to use his cousin’s National Guard uniform to enter a military base in northern Illinois and carry out an attack there. They were apprehended after revealing their plans to an undercover FBI agent (AP, March 26, 2015).
Hans-Georg Maassen, head of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany’s domestic security agency, said that more than seventy German women, nine of them school aged, had left Germany and gone to Syria.Forty percent of these women were under the age of 25. In his opinion, ISIS focuses on recruiting young women through social media posts showing a romanticized view of life at ISIS’s camps. According to Maassen, in most cases, the women who reach Syria are isolated upon their arrival and their passports and phones are taken away from them. He added that the women who join ISIS are generally low class and have a low level of education (rt.com, March 29, 2015).
Women who join ISIS are generally employed as an auxiliary force, providing services and carrying out administrative work, and sometimes serve in the internal security services (supervising the implementation of Islamic law by women). They also serve as spouses of ISIS operatives. Some of them leave for Syria alone or in small groups. Some travel with their spouses or join their spouses who are already in Syria or Iraq.
According to reports, the German intelligence services estimate the number of people leaving Germany for Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of ISIS at around 650. According to the German intelligence services, around 200 of them have returned to Germany. Action has already been taken against some of those who returned, while others are being monitored (rt.com, March 29, 2015). In early 2014, the BfV estimated the number of foreign fighters in Germany at over 200. The current estimate reflects the significant increase in the number of operatives from Germany as well as from other Western European countries joining ISIS.
The battle for hearts and minds conducted by ISIS, ISIS addressed target audiences in Italy and Russia
Italian police are investigating a document published online by ISIS in Italian, entitled “A Valid Caliphate or Not?” At the end of the document there is a signature, “Your brother in Allah, Mehdi,” which appeared in the past on another document in Italian. Italian police claim that these documents were written by Madhi el-Halili (his name appears elsewhere as Mehdi), a 20-year-old Italian of Moroccan descent who previously planned a terrorist act (ANSA, March 26, 2015).
In an attempt to recruit operatives from Russian-speaking countries, ISIS published a pamphlet in Russian entitled “How to Make Hijrah [migration] to the Islamic State”. The pamphlet was written by an operative named Mohammad Abu Barud the Dagestani. The pamphlet provides information for those interested in joining the ranks of ISIS. It tells how to cross from Russia into Turkey and how to act in Turkey (www.themoscowtimes.com, March 27, 2015). ISIS recently issued updated security recommendations intended for operatives from European countries who travel to Syria via Turkey.
The various publications and instructions distributed by ISIS to diverse target audiences in the West and in Russia are designed both for propaganda purposes and to encourage foreign fighters to join its ranks (and if this is not possible – to encourage them to attack Western targets in their places of residence). The instructions are also designed to address the security-related difficulties involved in travelling to Syria due to the intensified preventive measures taken by Turkey and European countries.