Main events of the week
- Syria: in the Idlib area, routine incidents continued, consisting mainly of exchanges of artillery fire between the Syrian army and the rebel organizations, chiefly the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham.
- ISIS’s provinces in Africa and Asia continued their routine attacks. Noteworthy activity during the past week:
- In Iraq, the intensity of ISIS’s attacks this week decreased, after several weeks of intensive activity. However, the Iraq Province continues to be the epicenter of ISIS’s activity.
- In northern Sinai, the Egyptian army appears to have regained control of most of the area of Rabi’a. At the same time, ISIS’s activity against the Egyptian army is still ongoing, but at low intensity. This week, local residents reportedly began to return to their villages.
- In Mozambique, the security forces of Tanzania and Mozambique failed to regain control of the port of Mocimboa da Praia, in the northeast of the country. According to ISIS, 20 Tanzanian soldiers were killed or wounded in the failed counterattack.
- In Tunisia, ISIS operatives carried out a ramming and stabbing attack near the Mediterranean resort town of Sousse. A member of the Tunisian National Guard was stabbed to death and another was wounded. Tunisian security forces surrounded the attackers and killed three terrorists. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. In recent years, ISIS has carried out several terrorist attacks in Tunisia, most of them suicide bombing and shooting attacks, mainly in the city of Tunis and the resort town of Sousse.
ISIS’s activity in the various provinces around the world
Summary of ISIS activity this week
- On September 3, 2020, ISIS’s Al-Naba’ weekly published an infographic entitled “The Harvest of the Fighters,” summarizing ISIS’s activity on August 27 until September 2, 2020. During this period ISIS carried out 82 attacks around the world, compared to 71 in the previous week (i.e., an increase of about 15% in the scope of the attacks). A total of 58 attacks were carried out in Iraq, 16 of them in the Diyala Province. Attacks were also carried out in ISIS’s other provinces in Africa and Asia: Syria (10); the Sinai Peninsula (6); West Africa (5); Central Africa (1); Khorasan, i.e., Afghanistan (1); and East Asia (1) (Al-Naba’ weekly, Telegram, September 3, 2020).
- Over 204 people were killed and wounded in these attacks (similarly to last week). The largest number of casualties (117) was in Iraq. The other casualties were in the following provinces: West Africa, mainly Nigeria (35); Syria (22); the Sinai Peninsula (15); Central Africa (mainly the Democratic Republic of the Congo) (9); Khorasan, i.e., Afghanistan (5); and East Asia (the Philippines) (1) (Telegram, August 27, 2020).
The Syrian arena
The Idlib region
Left: Syrian army artillery fire at a village southwest of Idlib (Idlib Plus Facebook page, September 2, 2020). Right: Syrian army artillery hitting Ariha, south of Idlib (Idlib Plus Facebook page, September 6, 2020).
Sniper fire by the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham at the Syrian army
- On the evening of September 3, 2020, a sniper squad equipped with thermal binoculars infiltrated an area under Syrian army control about 4 km southwest of Saraqib (about 14 km southeast of Idlib). Two soldiers were killed. In addition, snipers fired at forces supporting the Syrian army about 40 km south of Idlib. Several fighters were killed and others were wounded (Ibaa, September 4, 2020).
Various perceptions of jihadi Islamist organizations: the controversy between the realists and the purists
- In June 2020, a conflict broke out between the HTS and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din (the Guardians of the Religion Organization), which operate in the Idlib region.. For now, the dispute has been resolved. But perhaps the conflict goes a bit deeper, and could be a milestone for the jihadi project itself. Maybe it is an indication of where the Jihadi project might be heading towards. This small clash may be the beginning of the battle for the heart of Jihadism. This is a conflict between the inflexible purists who are meticulous when it comes to Salafist-jihadi Islam and oppose any deviation from it and the more realistic ones who are willing to compromise and adopt a pragmatic approach.
The realists, led by Abu Muhammad al-Julani
- The establishment of ISIS was a milestone for those who believe in the establishment of an Islamic state that implements sharia. It was an attempt to establish a “moral state,” while establishing an orderly (in their view) but merciless administration and government. This venture was a resounding failure. But the fact that it was crushed showed other Jihadists that perhaps it could not succeed without a heavy dose of realism.
- HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani appears to be flexible in his conduct: he maintains a dialogue not only with Al-Jazeera reporters, but also with the International Crisis Group, an NGO seeking to resolve conflicts around the world. Al-Julani is aware that the organization that he heads will not survive unless it adapts itself to the international political reality. Abu Qatada al-Filistini, the famous jihadi ideologue, also conveyed a clear message that the current climate is not conducive for an Islamic state, let alone a Jihadi project to flourish. According to him, for the time being, it is better not to establish such a state, because its establishment would require the creation of a geopolitical change in the region, in order for it to be able to survive and develop, and therefore it is better to establish a statelet or quasi-state in the meantime.
- In practice, HTS, which operates in Idlib, is germinating and fast becoming a quasi-state: it controls the arms of state, taxation, administration and aspects of the judiciary. HTS has been forced to come to terms with the existing world order, postponing the optimal jihadi venture to sometime in the future. This is on the assumption that the fighters for the Islamic venture will not succumb to the pleasures of the good life that will be created for them within the governmental framework. In order to become a full-fledged Islamic state in the future, it is essential for such a statelet to possess an army, police and security forces, and so on. Indeed, the statelet headed by Al-Julani has begun to take control over armed groups that are not subordinate to it. The most important of these is the Guardians of the Religion Organization, which is loyal to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Expectations of the future
- The author estimates that the conflict which broke out in June 2020, which is currently limited in scope, may be a spark that will develop into a broader conflict in scope between the realists and the purists. This is because the purists will not accept an Al-Julani-style statelet. They are liable to wonder whether the bloodshed that took place and the large amount of money that was spent justify the creation of such an Islamic statelet. Such a conflict could have implications for other countries where jihadist elements operate, such as Somalia and Afghanistan.
ISIS activity in the Syria Province
The area of Deir ez-Zor, Al-Mayadeen, and Albukamal
- On September 6, 2020, hand grenades were thrown at an SDF vehicle about 20 km southeast of Al-Mayadeen. Three SDF fighters were wounded.
- On September 6, 2020, an ISIS operative shot and killed an SDF fighter about 45 km south of Al-Mayadeen.
- On September 5, 2020, an SDF commander was targeted by machine gun fire about 14 km north of Al-Mayadeen. He was killed.
- On September 5, 2020, an IED was activated against an SDF vehicle about 5 km east of Al-Mayadeen. The vehicle was damaged.
- On September 4, 2020, an SDF vehicle was targeted by machine gun fire about 20 km southeast of Al-Mayadeen. An SDF commander was killed and two others were wounded.
- On September 4, 2020, an IED was activated against an SDF vehicle about 14 km north of Al-Mayadeen. The vehicle was damaged.
- On September 3, 2020, an SDF commander was targeted by machine gun fire about 14 km north of Al-Mayadeen. He was killed.
- On September 3, 2020, an IED was activated in the house of a mukhtar (head of a commune) collaborating with the SDF in a village about 10 km northeast of Albukamal. The house was damaged.
- On September 2, 2020, ISIS operatives activated an IED inside the building of an SDF local council about 30 km southeast of Al-Mayadeen. The building was damaged.
- On September 4, 2020, two SDF vehicles were targeted by machine gun fire about 80 km south of Al-Hasakah. One SDF fighter was killed and two others were wounded.
Counterterrorist activities: ISIS squad captured in Al-Mayadeen
- The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that on September 5, 2020, a joint force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), the Homeland Defense Forces and the Syrian Military Security closed the entrances and exits of the open market in the city of Al-Mayadeen. During this activity, the force surrounded a car with the IRGC emblem. There were five armed men inside the car, dressed in IRGC uniforms. The five were detained. Their interrogation revealed that it was an ISIS squad arriving from the desert area disguised as IRGC members to buy groceries and additional equipment in the market. The squad members had previously managed to enter Al-Mayadeen, buy groceries in the market and return to the desert (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, September 5, 2020).
Expansion of ISIS’s activity in the desert region in central Syria (the Badia)
The importance of central Syria and ISIS’s activity in the “post-caliphate” period
- In the “post-caliphate” period, ISIS continued to act against the Syrian regime and its allies in the desert region of central Syria. It is a large region, comprising most of the area of Homs, northeastern Hama, southern Al-Raqqah and the western provinces of Deir ez-Zor. The region is important because it contains most of Syria’s gas resources, which make it possible to supply electricity to the country.
- ISIS’s cells in Badia are considered to operate independently, compared to ISIS’s cells operating in other regions of Syria. The author analyzed 268 attacks carried out by ISIS operatives in central Syria between January 2019 and July 2020, resulting in the deaths of 406 Syrian soldiers and their allies. Most of the attacks during this period took place in Homs and Deir ez-Zor, but as of December 2019, there has been a significant increase in such attacks in southern Al-Raqqa, eastern Hama and southern Aleppo as well.
- In April 2019, ISIS launched its biggest attack of the insurgency, ambushing a special forces battalion on the southern slope of Jebel Bishri and killing more than a dozen men including the battalion commander. On August 18, 2020, Russian Major General Vyacheslav Gladkikh was killed alongside a senior Syrian regime commander and four others while driving through the Tayem Gas Field near Deir Ez Zor city. These were the 20th and 21st high ranking officers killed by ISIS in central Syria since January 2019. Consequently, the Syrian regime decided on a containment strategy towards ISIS in the desert region. Thus ISIS was left in de facto control of Jebel Bishri and the main road connecting Damascus to Deir ez-Zor.
Right: Jebel Bishri (Google Maps). Left: Jebel Bishri (Facebook, April 11, 2019)
The expansion of ISIS attacks
- When the Syrian regime withdrew its forces as part of the containment strategy, ISIS took advantage of the opportunity to expand its activity. Operations carried out against ISIS actually presented its cells with many new targets, since most of the ISIS fighters in the desert region are local residents. These residents are familiar with the area and the access roads to it, and avoid encounters with the security forces. However, ISIS foreign fighters also operate in the region. ISIS relies on assistance from the local population. It maintains close contact with smugglers, who supply it with people and weapons. ISIS is also forcing major traders to pay protection fees and is apparently also utilizing them for smuggling.
The structure of ISIS in the desert region
- It is widely believed that ISIS’s fighters in the desert region are organized into 15 to 20 networks operating in Al-Raqqah, Homs, and Deir ez-Zor. Approximately 70% of all the fighters are located in the urban belt along the western bank of the Euphrates River. The Badia insurgency is believed to be led by a former mid-level Syrian Arab Army (SAA) officer from Jobar, Damascus, who deserted in 2013. This man’s real name is unknown, but he goes by various codenames: Abu Abdallah, Sheikh Qaduli, Soleiman Rahman, and Dr. Rahman Zaid al-Shami.
The reasons for the Syrian regime’s lack of success in coping with ISIS in the desert region
- So far, the Syrian regime has not been able to make significant progress in its fight against ISIS in the desert. This is due to a shortage of manpower and equipment, which means that the regime does not conduct frequent patrols in the area. Instead, it relies on various militias, which are poorly trained and equipped. This is in addition to the lack of drones and the inefficiency of the Russian air support.
- In 2020, there were two significant changes in the Syrian regime’s operations: Russian ground forces initiated a military campaign against ISIS and helped the regime recapture Jebel Bishri in February 2020. The Syrian regime and Iranian forces also began building fortified strongholds on the west bank of the Euphrates River in March 2020.
Summary and Conclusions
The Iraqi arena
Map of the provinces in Iraq (Wikipedia)
ISIS’s attacks in the various provinces
- On September 6, 2020, Popular Mobilization fighters were targeted by sniper fire west of Khanaqin, about 100 km northeast of Baqubah. A Popular Mobilization commander was killed and another fighter was wounded.
- On September 3, 2020, a sticky bomb was activated against a Popular Mobilization vehicle in central Miqdadiya, about 40 km northeast of Baqubah. Two fighters were wounded.
- On September 7, 2020, an IED was activated against an Iraqi police vehicle in Fallujah, about 50 km west of Baghdad. Four policemen were killed and three were wounded.
- On September 2, 2020, ISIS operatives ambushed and fired at an Iraqi Border Police force, near the border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Seven fighters were killed. Five other fighters, including an officer, were wounded. In addition, weapons and ammunition were seized.
- On September 6, 2020, ISIS fired two rockets at a Shiite procession about 20 km southwest of Kirkuk. One Shiite was killed and four others were wounded.
- On September 7, 2020, an Iraqi federal police compound was targeted by machine gun fire about 50 km southwest of Kirkuk. One federal policeman was killed and another was wounded.
- On September 7, 2020, an Iraqi police compound was targeted by machine gun fire about 40 km southwest of Kirkuk. One policeman was killed.
- On September 6, 2020, an IED was activated against an Iraqi police vehicle about 40 km southwest of Kirkuk. Two federal policemen were wounded.
- On September 1, 2020, a car bomb was detonated against a checkpoint of the Iraqi security forces on the Tikrit-Kirkuk highway. According to Iraqi media, one woman was killed and three security personnel were wounded. After the attack, ISIS claimed responsibility for deploying a car bomb driven by a suicide bomber. The terrorist, codenamed Ikrima al-Iraqi, blew himself up at an Iraqi police checkpoint at the entrance to the city of Kirkuk. According to ISIS, several policemen were killed or wounded (Telegram, September 2, 2020).
Counterterrorist activities by the Iraqi security forces
- On September 6, 2020, the Iraqi security forces located a weapons depot (implicitly of ISIS) about 100 km northwest of Mosul (near the Iraqi-Syrian border). They found weapons and explosives (Facebook page of the Iraqi Defense Ministry, September 6, 2020).
- On September 5, 2020, the Iraqi security forces captured 24 wanted ISIS operatives in various areas in the Nineveh Province. Under interrogation, they admitted having carried out several attacks against the Iraqi security forces and Iraqi civilians (Al-Sumaria, September 5, 2020).
- On September 7, 2020, the Iraqi security forces killed two ISIS commanders and captured two others about 30 km south of Kirkuk (Al-Sumaria, September 7, 2020).
- On September 6, 2020, the Iraqi police captured four wanted ISIS operatives in various areas in the Kirkuk Province. Under interrogation, they admitted having carried out several attacks against the Iraqi security forces and Iraqi civilians (Al-Sumaria, September 6, 2020).
Salah al-Din Province
- On September 6, 2020, the Iraqi security forces located an ISIS guesthouse about 80 km north of Baghdad. They found weapons. The guesthouse and weapons were destroyed (Facebook page of the Iraqi Defense Ministry, September 6, 2020).
- On September 7, 2020, an Iraqi Special Force captured two ISIS operatives about 30 km northwest of Baghdad (Al-Sumaria, September 7, 2020).
- On September 4, 2020, the Iraqi army located an ISIS weapons depot containing IEDs and ammunition in the area of Hit, in western Iraq (Facebook page of the Iraqi Defense Ministry, September 4, 2020).
IEDs and ammunition located in the area of Hit
(Facebook page of the Iraqi Defense Ministry, September 4, 2020)
- On September 6, 2020, the Iraqi security forces located explosives and IEDs in Al-Qaim, near the Iraqi-Syrian border (Facebook page of the Iraqi Defense Ministry, September 6, 2020).
IEDs and explosives found in Al-Qaim
(Facebook page of the Iraqi Defense Ministry, September 6, 2020)
- On September 4, 2020, the Popular Mobilization deputy commander of the Al-Anbar Operations announced that several Popular Mobilization brigades, with Iraqi air support, had carried out a large security operation in the Western Desert of the Al-Anbar Province. Six ISIS tunnels were located and destroyed. Two people suspected of being ISIS operatives, possessing light weapons, were detained (al-hashed.net, September 4, 2020).
The Sinai Peninsula
Fighting in the Rabi’a area – Overview
Last week, it was reported that the Egyptian army regained control of the area of the village of Rabi’a (or most of it). This week, residents reportedly returned to the village of Janain, south of Rabi’a, in the meantime without their families. It appears that ISIS activity in the area of the villages still continues, albeit at low intensity (ISIS reported sniper fire in the village of Qatiya on September 2, 2020, killing an Egyptian soldier).
Local residents start to return
- It was reported that families without their children had returned to their homes in the village of Janain, in the Rabi’a area. The return of the residents was intended to give them a sense of security, so that their children would be able to return later (Shahed Sinaa al-Rasmia Facebook page, September 4, 2020). A civilian in the village of Qatiya, who was abducted by ISIS, returned to his home (Anbaa Sinaa Facebook page, September 6, 2020).
Sheikh Zuweid area
- On September 4, 2020, an Egyptian army checkpoint was targeted by sniper fire south of Sheikh Zuweid. An Egyptian soldier was killed (Shahed Sinaa al-Rasmia Facebook page, September 4, 2020). So far, no organization has claimed responsibility for the attack. However, ISIS was probably behind it.
ISIS’s activity around the globe
Driver’s licenses of two Tanzanian soldiers killed in an attack against ISIS in Mocimboa da Praia (Telegram, September 5, 2020)
- Official sources in Mozambique and Tanzania have not reported (at least for now) the failed attempt to regain control of the port area. However, local media in Mozambique claimed that the Mozambican army had repelled an attempt by ISIS to expand its control to the Muidumbe area, southwest of the port city of Mocimboa da Praia (clubofmozambique.com, September 5, 2020).
The city of Muidumbe (circled in black) southwest of the port city of Mocimboa da Praia (marked in red) (Google Maps)
- On September 2, 2020, ISIS operatives ambushed and fired machine guns at a Nigerian army convoy about 50 km west of the Nigeria-Chad-Cameroon tri-border area.
More than 10 soldiers were killed and others were wounded. In addition, weapons and ammunition were seized.
- On September 2, 2020, ISIS operatives attacked a Nigerian army compound in the city of Baga, about 25 km southwest of the border between Nigeria and Chad, in northeastern Nigeria. Several soldiers were killed.
- On September 1, 2020, ISIS operatives attacked a Nigerian army compound in a town located about 40 km northwest of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State. A force that arrived at the scene to provide assistance was also attacked. At least 10 soldiers were killed and others were wounded. The compound was set on fire and a tank and armored vehicles were damaged. In addition, weapons and ammunition were seized.
Nigerian army weapons and ammunition seized by ISIS on September 1, 2020 (Telegram, September 5, 2020)
- On September 2, 2020, an IED was activated against a Nigerian army vehicle in Yobe State. Three soldiers were killed.
- On September 6, 2020, a hand grenade was thrown at a Somali police checkpoint in the capital Mogadishu. Three policemen were wounded (Telegram, September 6, 2020).
- On September 6, 2020, three operatives carried out a combined ramming and stabbing attack against a National Guard force, subordinate to the Tunisian Interior Ministry, about 10 km northwest of the resort town of Sousse. One of the National Guard members was stabbed to death and another was wounded. Tunisian security forces surrounded the attackers and exchanged fire with them. All three attackers were killed. Photos published after the attack show the bodies of the three operatives lying on the roof of the building to which they had fled (Chebbi @ Alchebbi Twitter account, September 6, 2020).
- ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. According to the claim of responsibility, its operatives carried out an attack in the city of Sousse, in eastern Tunisia. At least one Tunisian policeman was killed in the attack, and others were wounded (Amaq News Agency as posted on Telegram, September 7, 2020).
The city of Sousse, in northeastern Tunisia (Google Maps)
- On September 8, 2020, ISIS operatives took a Pakistani intelligence operative prisoner near the city of Peshawar, about 40 km east of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. He was shot to death (Telegram, September 8, 2020).
- On September 2, 2020, a Taliban operative was shot and killed southwest of Jalalabad in the Nangarhar Province (Telegram, September 3, 2020).
- After the Houthi rebels spent the past month waging intensive battles against ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the Al-Bayda Province, ISIS’s stronghold in Yemen, the Houthi rebels announced that they had finally mopped up the Al-Bayda Province from the presence of ISIS. The Houthis inflicted a severe blow on ISIS’s Yemen Province with the killing of ISIS’s leader in Yemen and the capture of 40 operatives, including ISIS’s commander in the Qifah region (August 20, 2020). However, ISIS has previously demonstrated its ability to recover from the blows that it has suffered. It is therefore likely that its operatives have again gone underground and will tone down their activity in the Al-Bayda Province for the time being.
Counterterrorism and preventive activity
- On September 5, 2020, the Lebanese army announced that the Directorate of Military Intelligence had exposed members of an ISIS-affiliated terrorist network. The network operatives had planned to carry out attacks on Lebanese soil. The commander of the network is Khaled al-Talawi, whose car was used to carry out an attack in the northern Lebanese village of Kaftoun (about 20 km south of Tripoli) on August 21, 2020. The members of the network had received military training. They carried out several robberies to finance their activity (Al-Nahar, September 5, 2020).
 Tam Hussein, Into the heart of Jihadism. MENA ETC – A Blog about Middle Eastern & North African Politics, Society and Culture. 19 July 2020: https://www.tamhussein.co.uk/2020/07/into-the-heart-of-jihadism/ ↑
 In late June 2020, there were violent clashes in the Idlib enclave between the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and the Guardians of the Religion Organization and other Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadi organizations. The reason for the clashes was the effort by the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham to impose its control over the other jihadi organizations, coupled with the fear of an imminent attack by the Syrian army. ↑
 Sheikh Omar Mahmoud Abu Omar, AKA Abu Qatada al-Filistini, is considered a key ideologue of radical Islamic movements. He influenced Al-Qaeda and Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the founding father of ISIS. ↑
 According to claims of responsibility posted on Telegram. ↑
 Gregory Waters, Strengthening and Expanding: ISIS’ Central Syria Campaign. Center for Global Policy. 19 August 2020: https://cgpolicy.org/articles/strengthening-and-expanding-isis-central-syria-campaign/. The author is a non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute also works as a research analyst at the Counter Extremism Project. ↑
 The author uses quotation marks in the phrase “post-caliphate,” referring to the period after the fall of Al-Baghouz and the collapse of the territorial Islamic Caliphate. ↑
 For details on the importance of central Syria and the implications of the threat posed to it by ISIS – see: Charles Lister, The Growing Threat of ISIS in Syria’s Badia. Middle East Institute, 17 April 2020. Ahttps://www.mei.edu/publications/growing-threat-isis-syrias-badia ↑
 The height of Jebel Bishri is about 825 meters (Wikipedia). In the mountain area there is a large deposit of natural asphalt that is supposed to meet Syria’s needs for decades to come (Syria.sy, December 12, 2013). ↑
 According to claims of responsibility posted on Telegram. ↑
 For details of ISIS’s takeover of the port, see Spotlight on Global Jihad, August 27 – September 2, 2020. ↑
 According to claims of responsibility posted on Telegram. ↑
 On August 21, 2020, a car without license plates entered the town of Kaftun, in northern Lebanon. Two policemen and the mayor’s son, who suspected the vehicle and its passengers, were shot dead (Lebanon24.com, August 22, 2020). ↑