Main events of the week
The international campaign against ISIS
US and coalition airstrikes
- This week, the US and coalition forces continued their airstrikes against ISIS targets. Many dozens of airstrikes were carried out by fighter planes, attack aircraft, and UAVs. Following are the main airstrikes (according to the US Department of Defense):
- Syria– the airstrikes were concentrated in the following areas: Al-Raqqah, Hawl, Ain Issa, Manbij, Marea, Al-Hasakah and Deir al-Zor. The airstrikes targeted ISIS operatives, vehicles, staging zones, command and control positions, outposts, and anti-aircraft positions, among other things.
- Iraq– the airstrikes were concentrated in the following areas: Fallujah, Habbaniyah, Mosul, Ramadi, Sinjar, Sultan Abdullah, Tikrit, and Kisik. The airstrikes targeted ISIS operatives, battle positions, rockets, boats, vehicles, staging zones and armories, among other things.
The United States
- John Kirby, Spokesperson for the United States Department of State, said that Russia’s actions in Syria continued to strengthen the Bashar Assad regime instead of supporting the peace process in Syria. According to Kirby, the US is interested in Russia concentrating its airstrikes on ISIS targets and not on Syrian opposition groups (Anatolia News Agency, February 5, 2016).
- According to a recently published US intelligence report, there are now 20,000-25,000 ISIS operatives in Syria and Iraq. This is in comparison with estimated 19,000 to 31,000 operatives about a year ago. According to a senior US government official, the number of ISIS operatives has remained more or less as it was (Fox News, February 4, 2016).
- Canadian government officials, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, announced that Canada would stop its airstrikes in Iraq and Syria as of February 22, 2016. However, they noted that during the next two years, Canada would increase the ranks of its Special Forces designed to train the Iraqi forces. According to the Canadian Prime Minister, airstrikes only lead to short-term achievements but do not lead to long-term stability for the local communities (CBS, February 9, 2016).
- Although Canada does not play a significant role in the airstrikes (it has allocated five aircraft for offensive missions), its departure may be of symbolic significance. This is because it is the first time that a member of the coalition formulated by the United States against ISIS has announced the termination of its participation in the airstrikes.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States
- According to Saudi sources, Saudi Arabia and its allies are preparing to attack ISIS. It was reported that Saudi Arabia was planning to train some 150,000 soldiers, most of them Saudis, who would be joined by military forces from Egypt, Sudan and Jordan.Additional countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and Qatar also committed themselves to send ground troops to fight against ISIS. According to Saudi sources, the airstrikes will not be enough to neutralize ISIS, and Saudi Arabia is currently reconsidering its fighting plans (CNN, February 4, 2016).
- According to Bahrain’s ambassador in Britain, Bahrain is prepared to deploy ground forces in Syria as part of the international coalition force in the war against ISIS. According to him, the UAE is also prepared to deploy similar forces (Ahram Online, February 6, 2016). In the ITIC’s assessment, Saudi Arabia’s ability and willingness to deploy a significant ground force in Syria is questionable.
Russian involvement in the civil war in Syria
- During the week, Russian aircraft attacked a large number of targets. Most of the effort was concentrated in the area of Aleppo as support for the Syrian Army’s ground operation north of Aleppo (see below). The attacks were carried out mainly around the cities of Marea, Manbij, and A’zaz, north of Aleppo. Airstrikes were also carried out in the areas of Latakia, Hama, Idlib, Daraa, and Homs. Last week, the Russian Air Force reportedly attacked 900 targets in Syria (Daily Mail, February 6, 2016).
- A Russian soldier was killed by a mortar shellin the fighting in Syria, when the force that he was accompanying became involved in a heavy exchange of gunfire. This is the third Russian soldier killed in the fighting in Syria. According to a Russian source, the Russian soldier served as an advisor and instructor to the Syrian Army on the operation of Russian-made weapons (RT, February 4, 2016). According to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Russian soldiers are not operating as ground forces in the fighting against terrorist organizations in Syria. According to him, there are Russian soldiers on the ground training the Syrian Army with regard to the operation of the equipment and weapons sent from Russia (Sputnik, February 4, 2016).
Exchange of accusations between Russia and Turkey
- Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told a news conference thatRussia had reliable information, according to which Turkey was planning a ground incursion in Syria. The Russian Ministry of Defense published aerial photographs which, according to him, show changes that have taken place on the ground indicating preparations to enter Syria. A senior Turkish government official denied the allegations, stressing that Turkey had no intention of carrying out a ground incursion into Syrian territory. He also stressed that Turkey was part of the international coalition against ISIS, and that it would not act unilaterally (Today Zaman, February 5, 2016).
Main developments in Syria
Developments in the area of Aleppo
- The Syrian Army’s ground operation was accompanied by intensive airstrikes carried out by Russia. The operation was carried out with the ground support of Iran, Hezbollah operatives and Shiite fighters from Iraq and Afghanistan. All of them operated under the command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force. According to estimates by senior US officials, as of October 2015 there were about 2,000 fighters in the region (north of Aleppo), under the command of Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani(ISW, February 7, 2016).
- On February 3, 2016, two days after the attack began, the Syrian Army managed to lift the prolonged siege onNubl and Zahraa (two Shiite villages that supported the Assad regime, which are located in a Sunni Muslim area controlled by the rebels). The Syrian Army also managed to take control of part of the A’zaz-Aleppo international highway, thereby cutting off the rebel organizations’ main supply routes from Turkey to Aleppo.Now the rebel organizations in and around the city of A’zaz and the towns of Tall Rifat and Marea are preparing to halt the Syrian Army’s advance towards the border with Turkey.
In the ITIC’s assessment, the developments on the ground are a blow to the pro-Western rebel organizations as well as to the Al-Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria). This is because the area north of Aleppo that was taken over is controlled by rebel organizations dominated by the Al-Nusra Front. Moreover, the achievements of the Syrian Army and the forces that support it are expected to increase the pressure on the Al-Nusra Front in other areas such as the city of Aleppo and the vital area of Idlib. In contrast, the direct damage sustained by ISIS in the current offensive is (so far) marginal. However, the Syrian Army’s achievements increase the threat to ISIS’s outposts in the Al-Bab, Manbij and Jarabulus region west of the Euphrates.
Humanitarian crisis: tens of thousands of refugees flee from Aleppo
- Following the Syrian Army’s offensive and the Russian airstrikes, tens of thousands of Syrian civilians have fled from the city of Aleppo and the rural area north of the city towards the Turkish border. Most of the refugees were concentrated in Syrian territory in the area of the Bab al-Salama border crossing south of the Turkish town of Kilis.
- The border crossing between Syria and Turkey in the city of Kilis has been closed by the Turks, who refuse to allow the flow of refugees to enter their territory. Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, called on Turkey to accept the refugees. The governor of the Turkish province of Kilis said that the refugees were being taken care of on the Syrian side of the border (Daily Star; Sputnik, February 7, 2016).
- Meanwhile, the siege on the city of Aleppo is being intensified. There are still about 300,000 residents in the eastern part of the city, controlled by the rebels. According to an Israeli media report, there are shortages of food and fuel oil, and the power supply is irregular. The siege on the city, which is being held by the tens of thousands of terrorist operatives who remained there (mostly in the eastern part of the city), is expected to further worsen the living conditions of the residents.
Russian air support
- The Russian Air Force carried out numerous airstrikes in the area north of Aleppo to support the Syrian Army’s offensive. The Russian Defense Minister confirmed that the Russian Air Force had helped the Syrian Army take over the towns of Nubl and Zahraa (Sputnik, February 7, 2016). The recent Russian airstrikes have become another source of contention between the West and Russia.
- Senior NATO officials have accused Russia that its airstrikes in Aleppo are hampering the efforts to put an end to the fighting in Syria. Other officials have blamed Russia, claiming that its airstrikes have led to a wave of refugees fleeing from Aleppo and that Russian planes attacked civilian targets in the city with cluster bombs. In response, Russia said that the targets were legitimate terrorist targets (BBC, February 5, 2016).The Russian Defense Ministry stressed that those allegations had no basis in reality and that Russia is being accused of genocide for no reason (TASS News Agency, February 5, 2016).
Iranian fighters were involved in the attack on the Shiite enclave of Nubl and Zahraa,including senior officers in the Revolutionary Guards. Most of the fighting force consisted of Hezbollah operatives and fighters of the Shiite militias handled by the Iranian Qods Force. The massive involvement of Iran and its proxies stems not only from strategic considerations, but also from religious/ethnic motives, namely – the liberation of the Shiite population, which has been under a prolonged siege by the rebel organizations in the heart of a Sunni Muslim area.
- Over 20 Iranians were killed in the attack in Nubl and Zahraa(Qassem Soleimani’s fansite, February 6, 2016). Hezbollah also incurred losses, including senior commanders. One prominent Iranian fatality is Mohsen Qajarian, a senior officer with the rank of brigadier general who served as commander of the 21st armored brigade (Emam Reza) of the Revolutionary Guards.
- The large numberof Iranian fatalities, including a number of senior officers, indicates the importance of the battle for Nubl and Zahraa from Iran’s perspective.It also indicates that despite the reduction in the number of Iranian fighters in Syria in recent weeks, the Revolutionary Guards fighters are still actively fighting in Syria, in the forefront of the Syrian Army’s ground offensive.
- Following the liberation of Nubl and Zahraa, Mohammad-Reza Naqdi, Commander of the Basij arm of the Revolutionary Guards, congratulated the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, and the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force, Qassem Soleimani. Naqdi prays that he will soon meet the resistance fighters at the gates of Jerusalem. He also says that as a result of the opposition of the Islamic fighters, the mission of the “American-takfiri” terrorists (i.e., jihadis) to protect the Zionist regime will also fail. Hossein-Amir Abdollahian, the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs, also congratulated the people and government in Syria for “liberating the towns that were under siege for four years” (Fars News, February 4, 2016).
ISIS’s guerrilla warfare in the area of Kuweyres
- While the Syrian Army enjoyed successes in the area north of Aleppo, ISIS’s guerrilla warfare in the area of the Kuweyres military airbase east of Aleppo continued. According to a report by ISIS from February 4, 2016, at least 90 Syrian Army soldiers were killed in three deadly bombing attacks carried out by ISIS operatives and in battles with its operatives northwest of the airbase (Aamaq, February 4, 2016). ISIS operatives also reportedly took over a tank and a Kornet missile launcher in an attack on outposts of the Syrian regime’s forces west of the Kuweyres military airbase (Aamaq, February 4, 2016).
- Fighting continues in the city of Deir al-Zor and its outskirts.According to a report from February 5, 2016, warplanes attacked ISIS targets, mainly northwest of the city (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), February 5, 2016).In addition, confrontations continued between ISIS operatives and the forces of the Syrian regime in the area of the Kuweyres military airbase. The forces of the Syrian regime have apparently managed to hit ISIS’s infrastructure and operatives.
- According to a report by ISIS from February 4, 2016, its operatives have taken over the village of Al-‘Alam, located southeast of the Deir al-Zor airport, from the Syrian Army.ISIS published photos showing its operatives fighting and photos documenting a deadly bombing attack carried out by an ISIS operative codenamed Abu al-Walid al-Jazrawiagainst the Syrian Army (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, February 4, 2016).
Main developments in Iraq
This week, the Iraqi Army succeeded in strengthening its control of the city of Ramadi when it managed to liberate the Al-Sajariya neighborhood in the eastern part of the city. The Iraqi Army continues to cleanse the city’s eastern neighborhoods. ISIS, on its part, continues its guerrilla warfare against the Iraqi Army and the Shiite militias that support it in the Al-Anbar province, deploying suicide bombers.
- The Iraqi Army continues its efforts to cleanse the city of Ramadi from the presence of ISIS operatives and expand its control over the city. On February 6, 2016, Iraqi security sources announced that the Iraqi Army had liberated the Al-Sajariya neighborhood in the east of the city from the hands of ISIS (BBC in Arabic, February 6, 2016). This is one of the main remaining ISIS pockets of resistance in the city. According to a report from February 7, 2016, the Iraqi Army continues to advance east of Al-Sajariya (Al-Jazeera, February 7, 2016).
- On February 5, 2016, ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack carried out against a building in the Ain al-Assad army camp (between Hit and Haditha). According to ISIS,five suicide bombers participated in the attack. They infiltrated the site and activated their explosive belts. According to ISIS, the attack killed at least 50 Iraqi soldiers (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, February 5, 2016).
The area of Fallujah
- The city of Fallujah is still under siege by the Iraqi Army. There have been reports of hunger in the city (Al-Arabi al-Jadeed, February 6, 2016). According to a report from February 7, 2016, eight members of the militias that support the Iraqi Army were killed in a suicide bombing attack carried out by ISIS operatives northeast of Fallujah (Al-Jazeera, February 7, 2016).
Attacks on oil fields east of Tikrit
- According to Arab media reports, dozens of ISIS operatives attacked oil fields located east of the city of Tikrit (which is held by the Iraqi Army). Iraqi Army forces were sent to reinforce the area to prevent the takeover of the oil fields (Al-Arabi al-Jadeed, February 6, 2016). On February 7, 2016, ISIS issued a video documenting fighting between its operatives and the Iraqi Army in the area of the A’las oil field, east of Tikrit, on February 6, 2016 (Aamaq, February 7, 2016).
Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula
- During the week, the Egyptian security forces continued their activity against ISIS targets. Intensive security activity was carried out, mainly in the area of Sheikh Zuweid, Rafah and Al-Arish). Several dozen operatives were reportedly killed and many others were detained. According to the report, weapons were also confiscated (Al-Youm al-Sabea, February 5, 2016). Egyptian security forces reported the collapse of two tunnels in the Rafah area intended for smuggling weapons, in the wake of the security forces’ tunnel flooding operation (Al-Watan, February 4, 2016).
- Noteworthy activity by the Egyptian forces:
- February 8, 2016 – According to Bedouin sources in northern Sinai, Shadi al-Manaei, a senior operative of ISIS’s Sinai province, and two other operatives were killed in an attack on their car from the air (Al-Watan, February 8, 2016).This report has not been confirmed.
- February 7, 2016 – The Egyptian security forces detained seven terrorist operatives. In addition, 50 RPG rockets and two vehicles without license plates were seized, and cars and motorcycles were destroyed (Al-Masry al-Youm, February 7, 2016).
- February 7, 2016 – Egyptian sappers neutralized three IEDs on the Sheikh Zuweid highway and the Rafah highway (Veto portal, February 7, 2016).
- February 6, 2016 – More than 20 terrorist targets were destroyed by the Egyptian Air Force and by artillery fire south and west of Al-Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah. A number of operatives of ISIS’s Sinai province were killed in this operation. In addition, four attempts to harm the Egyptian security forces were thwarted, including by a car bomb, which was destroyed (Al-Youm al-Sabea, February 6, 2016).
- February 5, 2016 – Egyptian security forces managed to thwart a terrorist attack by a suicide bomber driving a booby-trapped car bomb near an Egyptian Army checkpoint in Rafah (Veto portal, February 5, 2016).
- ISIS’s Sinai province continues to post messages about its current conduct at the military and civilian level. This week, it published photos of operatives who had completed their training at the Al-Sheikh Abu Hajar al-Masri base in the Sinai Peninsula (Terror Monitor, February 6, 2016). On February 5, 2016, ISIS announced that its operatives had burned large quantities of cigarettes seized in south Rafah (Aamaq, February 5, 2016).
Counterterrorism activities in Egypt itself
- On February 3, 2016, the Egyptian security forces surrounded an area in Cairo’s Al-Maadi neighborhood, following reports of the presence of terrorist operatives in the neighborhood. After an exchange of fire lasting around nine hours, the security forces killed three terrorist operatives. The security forces also confiscated a weapons depot, IEDs and explosives. According to an Egyptian security source, ISIS operatives recently carried out a series of terrorist attacks in Cairo and planned to carry out a major attack in downtown Cairo (Al-Bawaba, February 3, 2016).
Palestinians and Israeli Arabs
- On February 8, 2016, charges were filed against Najwan Abu al-Qiyan, from the village of Hura in Israel’s Negev desert. He had planned to go to Syria and join ISIS, together withFadi Abu al-Qiyan. Najwan al-Qiyan was caught in the early stages of carrying out his plan. According to the indictment, his preparations to join ISIS included working out and watching ISIS videos. For some unknown reason, he eventually decided not to go. An additional charge was also filed against Najwan Abu al-Qiyan. In 2014, a friend of his, a resident at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon in southern Israel, asked for his help in joining ISIS. He promised to give him money to finance the plan, but his friend left before receiving the money from him (Haaretz Israeli daily, February 9, 2016).
The global jihad in other countries
Recruitment of operatives from African countries to the ranks of ISIS
- According to senior intelligence officers in the Libyan Army, ISIS is setting up an “army of the poor” in Libya, by recruiting fighters from poor countries in Africa. ISIS is offering migrants from poor African countries like Chad, Mali and Sudan $1,000 each to join its ranks. Official sources in Libya admitted that they did not have the means to stop migrants seeking to enlist in the ranks of ISIS (The Telegraph, February 3, 2016). The inclusion of African fighters in the ranks of ISIS in Libya is a known phenomenon, but it may be gaining momentum.
Training in the Tripoli province
- ISIS’s media foundation in the Tripoli province published photos of its Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Muhajer training camp. The photos show ISIS operatives practicing firing, launching RPG rockets, and firing machine-guns (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, February 5, 2016).
ISIS has set up a training camp infrastructure near major cities in Libya where it has a presence, on the premises of former Libyan Army camps. The center of the training camps is located around the city of Sirte, in the Tripoli province. These camps also train foreign fighters from African countries.
- In the Al-Fataeh region (a mountainous region that dominates Derna), clashes continue between ISIS and operatives of the Shura Council of the Jihad Fighters of Derna and its Suburbs(a jihadi network affiliated with Al-Qaeda). So far, the Shura Council’s efforts to eradicate ISIS’s outposts in the area have failed.
- According to a report from February 2, 2016, ISIS’s religious authority Abu Aisha al-Sudani was killed in the fighting (Al-Wasat Portal, February 2, 2016; Al-Wasat Portal, February 6, 2016; Twitter account affiliated with local jihadis, January 26, 2016). It was also reported that the Shura Council of the Jihad Fighters of Derna and its Suburbs had executed Ayman al-Masmari, ISIS’s former governor in the area of Ras al-Hilal, west of Derna, after he was captured at his home in Derna (Al-Wasat Portal, February 3, 2016; eremnews website, February 3, 2016) .
- ISIS’s media foundation in the Barqa province (eastern Libya) has published a series of photos of Islamic operatives in the city of Derna who joined ISIS and pledged allegiance to its leader (Akhbar Dawlat al-Islam, February 6, 2016). It seems that ISIS is trying to reestablish itself in the region, after having been ousted from the city of Derna and its environs.
- This week, fighting continued in the city of Benghazi between the forces of Khalifa Haftar, operating on behalf of the Tobruk government, and ISIS operatives and the operatives of the Shura Council of the Revolutionaries in Benghazi. On February 2, 2016, ISIS claimed responsibility for detonating three IEDs against Haftar’s forces, killing 22 of his soldiers (Akhbar Libya 24, February 1, 2016; the Libyan News Agency, February 2, 2016).
- According to an announcement by ISIS’s Barqa province, ISIS operatives located west of the city of Es-Sider managed to halt an attack from the south by Khalifa Haftar’s troops. According to Libyan media reports, an ambush by the guards of the oil facilities in the area of Es-Sider encountered ISIS operatives advancing toward the city. Following the clash, the ISIS operatives fled from the scene (Akhbar Dawlat al-Islam, February 1, 2016; Twitter account of the Libyan Channel 218TV, January 31, 2016).
- According to a report from this week, Jalal Bal’idi al-Maraqeshi, founder and commander of ISIS’s branch in Yemen, was killed by a UAV southeast of Sana’a, the capital. Jalal Bal’idi, former commander of the Yemen branch of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in March 2015 (Al-Bawaba, February 4, 2016).
Counterterrorism and preventive activity
International activity against ISIS’s financial system
- At a meeting of foreign ministers of the coalition countries held in Rome, the ministers discussed, among other things, ways to disrupt ISIS’s economic systems. According to the participants, those who provide money-changing services to ISIS should also be targeted. That’s because in the wake of increasing pressures on ISIS with regard to banking, it has begun to rely more and more on money-changing bureaus. Iraq reportedly began to implement this policy in December 2015, when the Iraqi central bank took steps against some 150 Iraqi money-changing bureaus, mostly in areas controlled by ISIS (Ajel News, February 6, 2016).
- Germany has detained four suspected members of an ISIS terrorist network that was planning a showcase terror attack in Berlin.The four detainees, three men and one woman, are Algerian. According to the German media, the attack was planned to be carried out in Berlin’s Alexander Square or at historic border crossing Checkpoint Charlie, both of which are crowded places.
- The authorities seized computers and mobile communications devices belonging to the detainees, among other things, but apparently did not find any weapons or explosives.One of the detainees had recently made several visits to the Molenbeek quarter in Brussels, the jihadi terrorist center that the perpetrators of the terror attacks in Paris came from. The detainees were under surveillance for several weeks, in the wake of information received from the intelligence services in Algeria (The New York Times, February 4, 2016).
- The Russian security services (FSB) detained seven ISIS operatives in the city of Yekaterinburg. Some of them were Russian nationals and some Central Asian nationals. The detainees were planning to carry out major terrorist attacks in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The FSB seized homemade explosives, parts of an IED, hand grenades, rifles and subversive materials belonging to the detainees. According to reports by the Russian authorities, the group’s leader came to Russia via Turkey. They said that after the attack, the squad operatives had planned to flee to areas controlled by ISIS in Syria (RT, February 8, 2016).
Disruption of ISIS’s activity on Twitter
- According to US media reports, Twitter has announced that during the past six months it has adopted a more assertive position towards terrorist groups and has closed more than 125,000 user accounts affiliated with ISIS. They were closed after posting material that encourages terrorism. This is the first time that the company has disclosed the number of accounts that it closed as part of its efforts to reduce ISIS’s online presence. Twitter’s policy does not permit uploading content that includes images or videos that encourage terrorism. The company says it has increased its staff dealing with the matter, and this has reduced the response time for closing accounts (The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2016).
The battle for hearts and minds
Publication of a manual for the British
- ISIS published a manual with instructions for British nationals operating as lone wolves or in small cells, who seek to carry out attacks similar to those carried out in Paris. The 58-page English-language manual states, among other things, that locals wishing to carry out terrorist attacks must take care to integrate into the Western lifestyle, avoid looking like Muslims, wear a cross, shave off their beards and not to attend public prayers. The manual recommends carrying out attacks in crowded clubs (The Daily Mail, January 11, 2016).