On February 19, 2017, the Iraqi forces, with US and coalition air support, opened the offensive to liberate west Mosul. The Iraqi forces opened the attack on Mosul’s western and southern outskirts. In the city of Al-Bab, northeast of Aleppo, fighting continues.
Main events of the week
Main developments in Syria
The area of Al-Bab
- This week as well, fighting was centered in Al-Bab’s western and northern suburbs. Free Syrian Army forces attacked ISIS targets with the support of artillery fire and Turkish Army and Russian Air Force airstrikes (TASS, February 16, 2017). The Syrian forces, which reached the southern outskirts of the city, refrained from entering it and headed southeast. They advanced on the route leading from Al-Bab to Deir Hafer, reached the town of Rasm al-Harmal al-Imam (7 km from Deir Hafer) and took it over from ISIS. They were supported by Russian planes. The Syrian forces are currently on the outskirts of Deir Hafer (Qasiyoun, February 21, 2017).
- On February 19, 2017, Jonathan Jeffrey, codenamed Abu Ibrahim al-Faransi (i.e., the Frenchman), who had been in charge of ISIS recruitment in Europe, was reportedly captured by the rebel forces in the vicinity of Al-Bab (Twitter account, February 19, 2017).
Talks between Turkey and the US on the next moves after the takeover of Al-Bab
- US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford arrived in Turkey for a meeting with Turkish Army Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar. The meeting was held at Incirlik Air Base (Anatolia, February 17, 2017). In their meeting, the Turkish chief of staff informed his counterpart that the Free Syrian Army had taken over most of the territory of Al-Bab (Washington Post, February 17, 2017). He said that he attached great importance to increased support by the US-led international coalition for Operation Euphrates Shield led by Turkey in Syria (Military Times, February 18, 2017).
- According to the Turkish press, during the meeting, the Turkish chief of staff presented to his American counterpart two plans for a joint operation to take over Al-Raqqah. Turkey reportedly prefers the plan, according to which Turkish and American Special Forces, supported by commando forces and Syrian rebels, will enter Syria through the border town of Tal Abyad, which is under Kurdish control. These forces will move southward toward Al-Raqqah through Kurdish-controlled territories. The second option, which is less preferred by the Turks, is to direct the forces from Al-Bab toward the city of Manbij, which is held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, and from there to move toward Al-Raqqah (Habertürk; Reuters, February 18, 2017). These plans take into consideration that the Kurdish forces on the outskirts of Al-Raqqah (see below) would be taken out of commission and removed of their major role in the campaign, and the main control of the operation would be placed in the hands of the Turkish Army and the organizations supported by it.
- The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continue cleansing the area north and east of Al-Raqqah. This activity, accompanied by intense airstrikes, poses a major threat to ISIS infrastructures in its so-called capital, Al-Raqqah. In this context, US Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis stated that the US had evidence that senior ISIS operatives and many officials of the Islamic State had started to leave Al-Raqqah heading to the cities of Deir ez-Zor and Adan (which is situated in the Euphrates River valley, about 65 km southeast of Al-Raqqah, halfway between Al-Raqqah and Deir ez-Zor). According to the Pentagon spokesman, their departure seems to be organized, and it also includes operatives who do not serve as fighters, which indicates that ISIS senses that the fall of the city is imminent (Reuters, February 17, 2017).
- The Syrian regime reported that ISIS had flooded vast areas in the Aleppo region by pumping large quantities of water at Al-Babiri pumping station on Lake Assad. The water is pumped by ISIS through ditches to the rural area east of Aleppo with the intention of flooding villages and causing damage to the residents and their lands. It is also possible that the flooding was intended to hamper the advance of the Syrian forces in the Deir Hafer area. The Syrian regime sent technical teams and heavy equipment to divert the flow of the water and minimize the damage (Syrian TV, February 17, 2017).
- The Russian Defense Ministry reported that on February 17, 2017, TU-95 strategic bombers attacked ISIS targets in the vicinity of Al-Raqqah with cruise missiles. According to the Russians, the bombers took off from a Russian Air Force base, went through the airspace of Iran and Iraq, and attacked military camps, a training center, and a command center of one of ISIS’s main units. The attacking planes were accompanied by Russian Su-30SM and Su-35S planes, which took off from the Hmeymim base in Syria (TASS, February 17, 2017; 1tv website, February 18, 2017).
The Palmyra region
- This week, fierce battles continued between ISIS and the Syrian Army. ISIS attacked Syrian troops in the area of Al-Bayda al-Sharqiya Junction, about 25 km east of the T-4 military airfield. Nine Syrian soldiers were killed (Local Coordination Committees, February 16, 2017). The Russian Defense Ministry stated that on February 16, 2017, four Russian soldiers were killed and two others were wounded by an IED which exploded in their vehicle. They were traveling in a Syrian Army convoy on the route leading to T-4 (Reuters, February 20, 2017).
- Fighting continued this week in the city of Daraa between the rebel organizations and the Syrian forces. The rebel organizations are trying to complete their takeover of the Manshiya neighborhood in southwest Daraa. The attacking forces reportedly broke through the Syrian Army frontline defense and took over several key outposts in the neighborhood (Aranews, February 17, 2017). Fighting still continues in Manshiya, with no side gaining the upper hand so far. The rebel organizations announced that since the beginning of their offensive on Manshiya, over a hundred soldiers were killed among the Syrian Army and the militias supporting it, including an Iranian commander (Halab al-Youm; Twitter account, February 19, 2017).
- In the Yarmouk basin, in the southern Golan Heights, near the border with Israel, the ISIS-affiliated Khalid bin Al-Walid Army is attacking the rebel organizations. According to a Khalid bin Al-Walid Army source, the attack is carried out due to the encirclement of the organization’s control areas by the rebel organizations, and due to their prevention of the arrival of supplies to these areas. According to Arab media, the Khalid bin Al-Walid Army employed armored vehicles, including several tanks (Al-Arabiya, February 21, 2017; Aamaq, February 20, 2017).
Main developments in Iraq
The campaign for the takeover of Mosul
- Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced that on February 19, 2017, the Iraqi forces had opened the offensive to liberate west Mosul. The participants in the offensive are the Iraqi Army, elite counterterrorism units, the Iraqi federal police, and the pro-Iranian Shiite militias (Popular Mobilization forces). The attack on west Mosul is carried out from the south and west due to the logistic difficulty involved in advancing from the eastern part of the city to its western part (the bridges on the Tigris River had been destroyed).
- According to senior Iraqi Army officials, the current stage of the campaign to liberate Mosul is expected to be difficult due to the high population density in western Mosul (about 650,000 residents) and the effective fortifications built by ISIS in the western part of the city. About 30,000 soldiers, policemen, and (Shiite) militias are supposed to take part in the campaign (The Guardian, February 19, 2017). ISIS operatives defending the western part of the city are estimatedat a few thousand. In the ITIC’s assessment, the inclusion of Shiite militias in the attacking forces in the campaign over west Mosul may indicate erosion among the Iraqi Army, mainly among its elite units, as a result of the fierce fighting in east Mosul.
- A little while before the offensive on west Mosul, the Iraqi Air Force dropped pamphlets calling on the residents of the western part of the city to prepare for the entry of the Iraqi forces, whose objective is to liberate the residents from the hands of ISIS. The pamphlets also call upon ISIS operatives to lay down their weapons and surrender (Al-Jazeera; Al-Arabiya, February 19, 2017).
- The attack began by intense airstrikes and artillery fire on ISIS targets in west Mosul (BBC in Arabic, February 21, 2017). The Iraqi forces opened an attack on the western and southern outskirts of Mosul. According to the Iraqi spokesman for the campaign, the attacking force took over an area dominating Mosul Airport and the highway leading to the city (AP, February 22, 2017). In addition, the Iraqi forces reportedly took over the main power station southwest of the city, which supplies electricity to west Mosul (Sputnik, February 20, 2017).
- ISIS continues to attack the Iraqi forces that took over east Mosul. An Iraqi Army senior official quoted by a reporter of the Turkish news agency said that ISIS had launched armed drones from west Mosul to the eastern part of the city. Two children were killed and three others were wounded in the attack. In another attack, a medical center was hit, and 13 civilians were killed and wounded (aydinlik.com, February 21, 2017).
- At the same time, ISIS continues to deploy suicide bombers. On February 19, 2017, ISIS operatives carried out two suicide bombing attacks with explosive belts in the east of the city: one of the attacks was carried out in a restaurant against members of the Iraqi security forces, and the other was carried out against an assembly of Iraqi security forces. In addition, ISIS claimed responsibility for the detonation of a car bomb against the Iraqi Army. Suicide bombing attacks in east Mosul were also carried out by many teenage boys, including Yazidi boys who were taken prisoner by ISIS, forcibly converted to Islam, and underwent religious indoctrination. In the ITIC’s assessment, the widespread use of teenage boys may indicate a decrease in ISIS’s pool of suicide bombers operating in Iraq, as they have been extensively used during the campaign for Mosul.
- At the same time, ISIS continued its terror attack throughout Iraq, mainly in the capital, Baghdad:
- In the Al-Baya neighborhood in southwest Baghdad, a car bomb parked in a used car lot exploded, killing 52 people and wounding dozens of others. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, which is the biggest in scope in Baghdad since the beginning of 2017 (Al-Jazeera, February 17, 2017; Haqq, February 16, 2017).
- In Madinat Sadr, the Shiite quarter in Baghdad, a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb, killing 18 people and wounding about 50 others(Reuters, February 15, 2017). ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack (Haqq, February 15, 2017).
Global jihad activity in other countries
Rocket fire at Israel
- On February 20, 2017, two rockets were fired at Israel from the Sinai Peninsula.The rockets fell in an open area near the Egyptian border, in the Eshkol Regional Council. There were no casualties, and no damage was caused. The day before the rockets were fired, ISIS’s Sinai Province reported that an Israeli drone had hit a car and killed five ISIS operatives in the village of Shibana, south of Rafah (Aamaq News Agency, February 19, 2017). On February 21, 2017, ISIS announced that its operatives had launched two Grad rockets at the Eshkol Regional Council (referred to as “settlement”) (Aamaq News Agency, February 21, 2017).
- This week, ISIS issued a video calling for fighting against the Copts in Egypt.A speaker in the video explains that the Christians (i.e., the Copts) in Egypt control the economy, media and politics, and are the spearhead of the “Crusaders” (i.e., the West) in their war against the Muslims. Therefore, according to the speaker, the “holy jihad fighters” must harm them. Later in the video, an operative codenamed Abu al-Zubayr al-Masri (i.e., the Egyptian) encourages those unable to go and fight in Syria and Iraq to attack the Copts (“enemies of Allah are in front of you”). The speaker promises that the attack on the Coptic church in Egypt was just the first operation against the Christians in Egypt, and would be followed by additional operations.
- On February 16, 2017, a suicide bombing attack was carried out at a Sufi temple in the city of Sehwan, in southeast Pakistan (about 177 km north of the capital, Karachi). A suicide bomber activated hand grenades and blew himself up with an explosive vest inside the temple. Around 70 people were killed and some 200 others were wounded (dawn.com, February 17, 2017). The Islamic State’s Khorasan Province claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack (Aamaq News Agency, February 17, 2017).In response to the suicide bombing attack, over 100 terrorist operatives throughout the country were reportedly killed in an operation by the Pakistani Army (Reuters, February 17, 2017).
The battle for hearts and minds
Encouraging suicide bombing attacks
- ISIS’s Nineveh Province released a video encouraging suicide bombing attacks. The video shows foreign fighters from various countries who joined ISIS and decided to become suicide bombers. In the video, they talk about their past and about their training after joining ISIS. The video includes photos of Yazidi children who were abducted by ISIS. The children undergo military training at training camps and attend ISIS’s Islamic law (Sharia) classes. The Yazidi children are sent by ISIS to carry out suicide bombing attacks in Mosul and elsewhere.
Al-Qaeda: Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri’s speech
- On February 18, 2017, the As-Sahab Foundation, Al-Qaeda’s media arm, released a new speech by Al-Qaeda leaderSheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri, devoted primarily to Egypt.Below are some topics that he addressed in his speech:
- Al-Jama’ah Al-Islamiyya (the organization that Anwar Sadat’s assassin belonged to) operatives: Al-Zawahiri calls on them to resume their activity and return to their heyday.
- The Muslim Brotherhood:Al-Zawahiri rebukes and criticizes the movement’s operatives on the grounds that they have “deteriorated” over the years and claims that their conduct, under the leadership of Mohamed Morsi, is inconsistent with Islamic law (Sharia). He says the movement’s operatives must “mend their ways,” abandon the capitulation agreements with Israel and the alliance with the United States, and declare jihad for the sake of Sharia.
- ISIS’s Sinai Province: Al-Zawahiri rebukes ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for the lies that he has told about him.
- At the end of the speech, Al-Zawahiri outlines his priorities with regard to jihadi activity in Egypt and abroad. According to him, American and Jewish interests are the most important targets to attack, followed by the interests of the coalition countries. The next priority is to attack Egyptian government institutions: the security and intelligence forces, journalists, and judges.