Spotlight on Global Jihad (June 4-10, 2020)

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A convoy of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham en route to Jabal Zawiya, south of Idlib (Ibaa, June 8, 2020)

A convoy of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham en route to Jabal Zawiya, south of Idlib (Ibaa, June 8, 2020)

A convoy of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham en route to Jabal Zawiya, south of Idlib (Ibaa, June 8, 2020)

A convoy of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham en route to Jabal Zawiya, south of Idlib (Ibaa, June 8, 2020)

SDF fighters during Operation Deterrence of Terrorism against ISIS (SDF Press, June 6, 7, 2020)

SDF fighters during Operation Deterrence of Terrorism against ISIS (SDF Press, June 6, 7, 2020)

Armed ISIS operatives behind two Tribal Mobilization operatives before executing them west of Hit.

Armed ISIS operatives behind two Tribal Mobilization operatives before executing them west of Hit.

One of the Tribal Mobilization tents set on fire by ISIS operatives (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, June 5, 2020)

One of the Tribal Mobilization tents set on fire by ISIS operatives (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, June 5, 2020)

Overview
  • In the past two weeks, there has been a decrease in ISIS’s activity in the various provinces, after it concentrated its effort on carrying out the wave of attacks in the second half of May (the Raids of Attrition). In addition, there have been disruptions in ISIS’s media system, which has difficulty disseminating claims of responsibility for attacks shortly after they are carried out. The reason for these disruptions is the closure of several important ISIS-affiliated accounts by Telegram, which is a key platform for ISIS for disseminating propaganda materials and claims of responsibility.
  • In the Idlib area, the erosion of the ceasefire agreement reached between Russia and Turkey is evident. This week, a serious incident occurred in which jihadi organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda attacked Syrian army positions south of Idlib. There were also exchanges of artillery fire and Russian airstrikes. The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, the central source of power among the rebel organizations in the Idlib region, is preparing for an expected (from its perspective) attack by the Syrian army.
The Idlib region
Overview

The Russian-Turkish ceasefire was violated several times this week. The most severe incident occurred south of Idlib. The “Awaken the Believers” operations room, comprising jihadi organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda, attacked and took over Syrian army positions, holding them for several hours. Russian airstrikes and exchanges of artillery fire also took place. The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham sent reinforcements to Jabal Zawiya, about 20 km south of Idlib, as part of the preparations to halt an expected Syrian army attack. The joint patrols of the Russian and Turkish armies on the M-4 highway continued as usual.

Jihadi organizations attack Syrian positions
  •  On June 8, 2020, operatives of the “Awaken the Believers” operations room[1] attacked Syrian army positions in two villages in the Al-Ghab Plain, about 20 km south of Idlib. The attack was accompanied by artillery support and also involved car bombs and suicide bombers. The attacking force managed to take over the Syrian positions and hold them for several hours. However, due to massive artillery fire and airstrikes, the operatives of the jihadi organizations were forced to withdraw from the positions (Khotwa; Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, June 8, 2020).

The fighting zone in the Al-Ghab Plain (Google Maps)
The fighting zone in the Al-Ghab Plain
(Google Maps)

  • A total of 19 Syrian soldiers and six jihadi operatives were reportedly killed in the attack by the jihadi organizations (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, June 8, 2020). In addition, the Syrian army seized weapons of the jihadists (SANA, June 8, 2020).
Vehicles of the operatives of the “Awaken the Believers” operations room which were destroyed by the Syrian army (SANA, June 8, 2020)   Vehicles of the operatives of the “Awaken the Believers” operations room which were destroyed by the Syrian army (SANA, June 8, 2020)
Vehicles of the operatives of the “Awaken the Believers” operations room which were destroyed by the Syrian army (SANA, June 8, 2020)
Reinforcements of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham sent to Jabal Zawiya, south of Idlib
  •  The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham announced that on June 8, 2020, it had sent reinforcements to Jabal Zawiya, about 20 km south of Idlib. The reinforcements were sent as part of the rebel organizations’ preparations to halt an expected Syrian army attack. The rebel organizations expect such an attack after having observed the deployment of Syrian forces and Syrian army preparations in towns and villages south of Idlib (Ibaa, June 8, 2020).[2] Abu Khaled al-Shami, the military spokesman of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, announced that his organization had taken advantage of the relative calm to make preparations for a confrontation with the Syrian army and the forces supporting it (Ibaa, June 8, 2020).

Jabal Zawiya (Wikimapia)
Jabal Zawiya (Wikimapia)

  • According to Syrian and Turkish media outlets, Russian fighter jets carried out over 20 airstrikes in three villages in Jabal Zawiya (Nidaa Suriya; Edlib Media Center, June 8, 2020; TRT World, June 9, 2020).
Northeastern Syria
The area of Deir ez-Zor, Al-Mayadeen, and Albukamal
  • On June 9, 2020, an IED was activated against a tanker carrying oil for the Syrian regime on the road leading to the oil field, about 14 km north of Al-Mayadeen. The tanker, which belonged to Al-Qaterji, a Syrian MP and a commander in the Home Defense Forces, was put out of commission (Telegram, June 9, 2020).
  • On June 9, 2020, an IED was activated against an SDF vehicle on the road leading to the Al-Omar oil field, about 14 km north of Al-Mayadeen. The passengers were killed or wounded (Telegram, June 9, 2020).
  • On June 6, 2020, a motorcycle bomb was activated against an SDF checkpoint about 40 km northwest of Albukamal. Several fighters were wounded (Telegram, June 8, 2020).
  • On June 5, 2020, an IED was activated against an SDF vehicle about 14 km north of Al-Mayadeen. The passengers were wounded (Telegram, June 6, 2020).
The Al-Raqqah area
  • On June 7, 2020, an SDF vehicle was targeted by machine gun fire about 10 km west of Al-Raqqah. The passengers were killed or wounded (Telegram, June 8, 2020).
SDF counterterrorist activity
  • On June 4, 2020, the SDF forces launched Operation Deterrence of Terrorism in the region extending from the rural area south of Al-Hasakah to the Euphrates Valley (the Al-Baghouz area). Ground forces of the SDF and the International Coalition countries operated in coordination with Coalition aircraft and the Iraqi forces near the Iraqi-Syrian border.
  • During the first two days of the operation, the forces mopped up an area 70 km long and 60 km wide, where there are close to 100 villages. Nearly 30 ISIS operatives with Syrian or Iraqi citizenship were apprehended during the mopping up activities and in special commando operations. In addition, firearms were seized, including handguns with silencers which were used for targeted killings and mines manufactured by ISIS. Several tunnels in desert areas where ISIS operatives used to hide were also found (SDF Press, June 6, 2020).
  • According to the SDF reports, additional 37 ISIS operatives were captured between June 7 and June 9, 2020. In addition, large quantities of weapons were found (reports by the SDF Press, June 7-9, 2020).
The Iraqi arena
ISIS’s recovery in Iraq and Syria
  • Islamic movement researcher Hassan Hassan published an article addressing ISIS’s recent recovery in Iraq and Syria. According to the author, this stage can be characterized as a new, unstable stage in which ISIS is demonstrating its strength and increasing mobility in rural and suburban areas in both countries. However, ISIS has not yet established a foothold enabling it to carry out simultaneous large-scale attacks in Iraq and Syria.[3] Following are the main points of the article:
ISIS’s recovery in Iraq and Syria and its significance
  • There has recently been a sharp increase in ISIS’s activity in parts of Syria and Iraq. In Iraq, the increased activity took place in the areas of Diyala, Salah al-Din and north of Baghdad. In Syria, in the rural areas in Homs and Deir ez-Zor. ISIS’s recovery is happening about six years after the organization controlled extensive territory extending from the Diyala Province in northeastern Iraq to the area of Aleppo in northwestern Syria, but gradually lost control of those areas.
  • In late March 2020, ISIS released a video documenting the attacks carried out by its operatives against forces loyal to the Assad regime and pro-Iranian militias in Syria and the border between Iraq and Syria. The forces of the Syrian regime suffered heavy losses after ISIS ambushed them on their way to Sukhnah. The exchange of fire continued for several hours, and ISIS demonstrated its ability to operate freely, in a manner that required the intervention of the Russian Air Force. These attacks were reminiscent of the videos released by ISIS in the past, demonstrating its ability to attack local military forces.
  • However, these widespread and coordinated attacks do not indicate that ISIS has completely recovered. It appears to be entering a new, unstable phase of recovery, in which it demonstrates its strength from time to time, as well as its increasing mobility, in rural areas and suburbs in Iraq and Syria, as it did in the past. However, it is still under military pressure and has not yet reestablished its presence in either country. Moreover, its attacks in remote areas and abandoned villages do not necessarily indicate a significant change in its situation.
Expressions of military resistance to ISIS in Iraq and Syria
  • Following the loss of Al-Baghouz, its last stronghold in Syria (March 2019), ISIS had been forced to cope with intensive military operations against it in both countries, which have weakened it and reduced its scope of activity. The Iraqi authorities and US-led International Coalition have initiated military operations against ISIS in Iraq since July 2019 under the slogan “Will of Victory.” The operations took place in light of ISIS’s increasing activity, especially at night, and Iraq’s fear that ISIS fighters fleeing their last stronghold in Syria had crossed the border into Iraq. The climax of the operations against ISIS was the killing of two of its most famous senior officials, the organization’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and its spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, in October 2019, which made ISIS more vulnerable to pressure from within and without. However, ISIS still managed to maintain its internal structure and organizational capability.
  • Despite the military assaults against it, which created incessant pressure on it, ISIS gradually began to regain its operational capabilities. However, a careful look shows that the prolonged military activity against it in Syria and Iraq has weakened. Additionally, ISIS has managed to recover in remote areas barely accessible to the Iraqi and Syrian armies. ISIS also began to benefit from several positive developments, from its perspective, which began in October 2019: The US announcement of the withdrawal of its troops stationed in Syria; The Turkish invasion of parts of northern Syria, which targeted the Kurds, who form the majority of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting against ISIS; and the mass demonstrations against the Iraqi government, which caused instability in Iraq for several months.
Summary, conclusions, and expectations
  • Despite the deaths of Al-Baghdadi and Abu Hassan Al-Muhajir and the military activity against it in Syria and Iraq in the past year, ISIS appears to be recovering. However, until recently, it has not yet established a foothold enabling it to carry out simultaneous large-scale attacks in Iraq and Syria. If that happens, it may place ISIS in a position similar to that of 2012-2013 but it will not reach its peak intensity as was the case in 2014. The dilemma now facing Iraq and Syria is that curbing the uptrend in ISIS’s activity on their soil requires more intensive and more prolonged military involvement on the part of the US-led International Coalition. At present, the chances of this happening in the coming year appear to be slim.

At present, Turkish military intervention in northern Syria, as well as the ongoing political and security vacuum in Iraq and Syria are strengthening ISIS, which strives to establish its global jihad campaign. Its recovery can easily be curbed through renewed military pressure and targeted counterterrorism operations against it. However, in view of the political and military state of affairs in Iraq and Syria, there appears to be a greater chance of ISIS’s apparent recovery.

ISIS’s activity in Iraq and other provinces
  • On June 4, 2020, ISIS released an infographic entitled “The Harvest of the Fighters,” summing up its activity in the various provinces between May 28 and June 3, 2020. A total of 61 attacks were carried out by ISIS around the world, a figure significantly lower than the number of attacks in the period preceding the Raids of Attrition. A total of 30 attacks (about 49%) were carried out in Iraq, 9 (about 14%) in Syria, 7 in the West Africa Province, 4 in the Sinai Province, 4 in the Central Africa Province, 3 in the Khorasan Province, 2 in the Libya Province, 1 in the Yemen Province, and 1 in the East Asia Province (in Indonesia) (Al-Naba’, as published in Akhbar al-Muslimeen, June 4, 2020).
  • According to the infographic, a third (10) of the attacks in Iraq were carried out in the Al-Anbar Province, in western Iraq. In addition, 6 attacks were carried out in the Salah al-Din Province. Only two attacks were carried out in the Diyala Province, which is usually the focal point of ISIS’s attacks in Iraq.
Main activities carried out by ISIS in the past week

Al-Anbar Province

  • On June 3, 2020, ISIS operatives fired machine gun fire at a residence about 20 km west of Hit, where a meeting of Tribal Mobilization operatives was taking place. Four operatives were killed. In addition, weapons and ammunition were seized (Al-Naba’, as published by Akhbar al-Muslimeen, June 4, 2020). Photos released by ISIS, documenting the course of the attack, show ISIS operatives executing three Tribal Mobilization operatives (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, June 5, 2020).
Weapons and ammunition seized by ISIS (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, June 5, 2020)    Armed ISIS operatives behind two Tribal Mobilization operatives before executing them west of Hit.
Right: Armed ISIS operatives behind two Tribal Mobilization operatives before executing them west of Hit. Left: Weapons and ammunition seized by ISIS (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, June 5, 2020)
  • On June 2, 2020, ISIS operatives attacked an Iraqi army compound about 70 km east of Al-Rutba. One soldier was killed and several others were wounded. In addition, an IED was activated against an Iraqi army vehicle in the same area. Four soldiers were killed (Telegram, June 3, 2020).

Diyala Province

  • On June 5, 2020, two Tribal Mobilization operatives were targeted by machine gun fire about 80 km northeast of Baqubah. They were both killed (Akhbar Al-Muslimeen, June 5, 2020).

Kirkuk Province

  • On June 7, 2020, ISIS operatives activated an IED in the home of an Iraqi policeman about 40 km southwest of Kirkuk. The house was destroyed (Telegram, June 7, 2020).

Erbil Province

  • On June 4, 2020, an IED was activated against a vehicle of the Iraqi government counterterrorist unit in the Makhmur area, about 60 km southwest of Erbil. The passengers were killed or wounded (Telegram, June 6, 2020).

Salah al-Din Province

  • On June 6, 2020, an IED was activated against an Iraqi army vehicle about 20 km north of Baghdad. Five soldiers were killed (Telegram, June 8, 2020).
Counterterrorist activities by the Iraqi security forces

Large-scale searches for ISIS operatives in the Salah al-Din and Kirkuk provinces

  • The Iraqi Joint Operations Headquarters announced that the Iraqi security forces had carried out large-scale searches in the Salah al-Din and Kirkuk provinces. During the searches, four ISIS operatives were killed, 58 ISIS hiding places were located, 40 IEDs were neutralized, and explosives and military equipment were found. In addition, six tunnels and three car bombs were destroyed (SecMedCell Facebook page, affiliated with the Iraqi Prime Minister’s Office, June 4, 2020).

Iraqi security forces activity (SecMedCell Facebook page, June 3, 2020)
Iraqi security forces activity
(SecMedCell Facebook page, June 3, 2020)

Al-Anbar Province

  • On June 6, 2020, a Popular Mobilization force captured an ISIS commander about 30 km northwest of Baghdad (al-hashed.net, June 6, 2020).
  • On June 5, 2020, an Iraqi army force with Iraqi Air Force support located weapons and ammunition in the Al-Rutba Desert (Al-Sumaria, June 5, 2020).
Underground container where weapons were hidden (Al-Sumaria, June 5, 2020)   Weapons, ammunition and military equipment seized by the Iraqi army.
Right: Weapons, ammunition and military equipment seized by the Iraqi army. Left: Underground container where weapons were hidden (Al-Sumaria, June 5, 2020)

Diyala Province

  • On June 6, 2020, a Popular Mobilization force located an ISIS hiding place about 100 km northeast of Baqubah. They found documents of Islamic nature (prayers and words of praise for Allah) in Arabic and Spanish (al-hashed.net, June 6, 2020).
A document of a religious nature in Arabic and Spanish (al-hashed.net, June 6, 2020).     ISIS’s hiding place.
Right: ISIS’s hiding place. Left: A document of a religious nature in Arabic and Spanish
(al-hashed.net, June 6, 2020).
The Sinai Peninsula
ISIS activity
  • On June 3, 2020, operatives of ISIS’s Sinai Province ambushed an Egyptian army force west of Rafah. The two sides exchanged fire. The ISIS operatives fired at military boats arriving to provide assistance. An officer and two soldiers were killed and several others were wounded (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, June 4, 2020).
ISIS’s activity around the globe
Africa
Nigeria
  • On June 7, 2020, ISIS operatives attacked Nigerian soldiers about 70 km north of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State. Several soldiers were killed and several others were wounded (Telegram, June 8, 2020).
Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • On June 5, 2020, ISIS operatives ambushed Congolese army foot patrol in the Beni region in northeastern Congo. Six soldiers were killed and others were wounded. In addition, weapons and ammunition were seized (Telegram, June 5, 2020).
  • On June 4, 2020, ISIS operatives fired machine guns at Christian civilians in the Beni region in northeastern Congo. Seven Christian civilians were killed (Telegram, June 5, 2020).
Cameroon
  • On June 6, 2020, ISIS operatives attacked a Cameroonian army compound in northern Cameroon, near the border between Cameroon and Nigeria. Several Cameroonian soldiers were wounded (Telegram, June 6, 2020).
Somalia
  • On June 7, 2020, a Somali police foot patrol in Mogadishu was targeted by machine gun fire. Two policemen were wounded (Telegram, June 8, 2020).
Mali
  • French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly announced that the Algerian Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of Al-Qaeda in North Africa, had been killed in Mali on June 3, 2020. Droukdel was killed in an operation by French forces northeast of the city of Tessalit, in northeastern Mali (about 60 km southwest of the border between Mali and Algeria). Many of his close associates were killed along with him. Previously, in May 2020, French forces in Mali apprehended a senior ISIS commander (France 24, June 5, 2020).
The city of Tessalit, near the place where Droukdel was killed (Google Maps).      Algerian Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of Al-Qaeda in North Africa (Sahafat Biladi, Tunisian newspaper covering North Africa, June 6, 2020).
Right: Algerian Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of Al-Qaeda in North Africa (Sahafat Biladi, Tunisian newspaper covering North Africa, June 6, 2020). Left: The city of Tessalit, near the place where Droukdel was killed (Google Maps).
Libya
  • On June 3, 2020, operatives of ISIS’s Libya Province in the area of Fezzan (southern Libya) fired a rocket at a base of the Libyan National Army under the command of Haftar, about 30 km northeast of Sabha (Telegram, June 4, 2020).
Asia
The Philippines
  • On June 5, 2020, operatives of ISIS’s East Asia Province ambushed Philippine soldiers and fighters supporting the army in the northern part of Jolo Island, in the southern Philippines. A total of 15 soldiers and fighters were killed and several others were wounded. In addition, weapons and ammunition were seized (Telegram, June 5, 2020).
The battle for hearts and minds

Threats against Qatar

  • On June 4, 2020, ISIS published an infographic threatening the rulers of Qatar, entitled “The Date of Everything is Recorded in the Book, O Tyrants of Qatar.”[4] The infographic is based on statements made by ISIS Spokesman Abu Hamza al-Muhajir in a recent audiotape[5]. The infographic mentions all the so-called crimes of Qatar (from ISIS’s perspective), including the presence in Qatar of the US army airbase that serves as the command center for the fight against ISIS in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan. The rulers of Qatar are accused of funding Iraqi militias loyal to the Shiites and to the International Coalition; funding the project of the tribal militias in Syria and using it against ISIS; funding the Iraqi government’s war against the Sunnis and funding the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Popular Mobilization in Iraq so that they will to “continue to massacre Muslims […]” (Al-Naba’, as published by Akhbar al-Muslimeen, June 4, 2020).

Infographic threatening the rulers of Qatar, entitled “The Date of Everything is Recorded in the Book, O Tyrants of Qatar” (Al-Naba’, as published by Akhbar al-Muslimeen, June 4, 2020).
Infographic threatening the rulers of Qatar, entitled “The Date of Everything is Recorded in the Book, O Tyrants of Qatar” (Al-Naba’, as published by Akhbar al-Muslimeen, June 4, 2020).

Counterterrorism and preventive activity
US promises rewards for information about senior ISIS operatives
  • On June 4, 2020, the US Department of State announced a reward of up to $5 million to anyone providing information about ISIS leader Amir Muhammed Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla and four other senior figures in ISIS’s leadership:
    • Abu Muhammad al-Shimali: the ISIS official in charge of migration and logistics; he was involved in smuggling foreign ISIS operatives to Syria and Iraq via Turkey. He also handled the transfer of money and logistics equipment from Europe, North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
    • Sami Jasim Muhammad al-Jaburi: he started out in Al-Qaeda in Iraq. He arranged funding for ISIS’s terrorist activity in his capacity as ISIS’s so-called finance minister in Mosul.
    • Gulmurod Khalimov: he publicly called for violent activity against Americans. Former colonel in Tajikistan’s special operations unit and served as a police commander. Served as commander of a special quasi-military unit of the Tajik Interior Ministry. Khalimov is also wanted by the government of Tajikistan (Note: According to Russian sources, Khalimov was killed in the area of Deir ez-Zor on September 8, 2017, Wikipedia).
    • Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi: ISIS’s leader in the Sahara region, a branch of ISIS that was established in May 2015 after Abu Walid and his supporters split from the Al-Mourabitoun organization[6].

ISIS commander (top center) and four other senior ISIS officials. A reward has been offered to anyone providing information about them (Rewards for Justice@RFJ_USA Twitter account, June 4, 2020)
ISIS commander (top center) and four other senior ISIS officials. A reward has been offered to anyone providing information about them (Rewards for [email protected]_USA Twitter account, June 4, 2020)

[1] The “Awaken the Believers” operations room comprises four jihadi organizations led by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Guardians of Religion Organization.

[2] Jabal Zawiya is a mountain range south of Idlib whose highest peak is Al-Nabi Ayyoub, 939 meters above sea level.


[3] Hassan Hassan, ISIS in Iraq and Syria: Rightsizing the Current ‘Comeback’. Center for Global Policy’s Nonstate Actors and Geopolitics (NAG) Program. 12 May 2020. See:https://cgpolicy.org/articles/isis-in-iraq-and-syria-rightsizing-the-current-comeback/


[4] The phrase, “The date of everything is recorded in the book” appears in the Quran in Surat al-Ra’ad (Surah 130, “The Thunder”), Verse 38.


[5] For more information about the tape distributed by ISIS’s spokesman see Spotlight on Global Jihad, May 27 – June 3, 2020


[6] The Al-Mourabitoun organization was established on August 23, 2013 in northern Mali. It is affiliated with Al-Qaeda’s Salafist-jihadi ideology (Wikipedia)



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