10 February—Earlier today, Jordan deployed thousands of ground troops to its border with Iraq as the kingdom ramps up its campaign against ISIS militants. The troops will stay at the border to prevent infiltration of ISIS militants into Jordan. Jordanian forces have also redoubled their efforts in targeting ISIS strongholds since the release of a brutal video showing the burning death of Lieutenant Kasasbeh. The pilot was captured in December and had been held hostage for months as the Jordanian government attempted to negotiate his release.
It is believed that the gruesome burning death of Kasasbeh was filmed at least a month prior to its release. ISIS continued with negotiations in an attempt to retrieve two al Qaeda linked fighters that had been imprisoned in Jordan, while also doing “post-production” editing to their latest video, which is considerably more high quality and . Following the release of the video, the detained fighters were immediately transferred to a Jordanian prison that handles execution. They were executed the following day.
The video of Kasasbeh’s death sparked outrage in Jordan. King Abdullah has vowed a “strong, earth-shaking and decisive” response. On 8 February, Jordanian forces conducted 56 airstrikes on ISIS targets. Abdullah has also sought to send ground troops into Syria, however Syrian president Bashar al Assad will not allow foreign ground troops. Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said, “So far, there is no coordination between Syria and Jordan in the fight against terrorism […] as for press reports about ground troops entering Syria, we say clearly that… we will not permit anyone to violate our national sovereignty by intervening to fight IS.” He added that the Syrian Arab Army would undertake the task of eradicating ISIS.
The refusal to allow Jordanian forces into Syria does not come as a surprise. Syria’s government has accused the kingdom of supporting terrorism, because Jordan has been supportive of the uprising against Assad which began in 2011.
Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates announced on Saturday that they would resume their efforts in the coalition airstrikes against ISIS. The emirate’s official news agency says that in re-joining the airstrikes, they “reaffirms [its] unwavering and constant solidarity with Jordan.” The UAE has sent a squadron of F-16 jets to Jordan so that its pilots can fly sorties alongside those from Jordan. In addition to providing additional fighting power, by moving the squadrons to Jordan, they are able to shorten their flight distances and intensify air-strikes against ISIS. The UAE halted their efforts in December after Kasasbeh was shot down during a mission over Syria. It has been reported that the UAE dropped out of the coalition because there were no significant search and rescue assets in place for the recovery of downed planes or fighters.
The UAE says the renewed effort is an attempt to stop “the brutal terrorist organization that showed all of the world its ugliness … through abominable crimes that exposed its false allegations and drew outrage and disgust from the Arab peoples,” according to the news release by WAM, Emirates News Agency. The release also said the initiative comes from the “deep belief in the need for Arab collective cooperation to eliminate terrorism … through the collective encountering of these terrorist gangs and their misleading ideology and brutal practices.”
Even in the midst of the intensified efforts, ISIS today has released a new propaganda video which shows British journalist John Cantlie. The video features an ISIS member calling on Muslims to carry out more attacks in France. Cantile has been held captive for more two years by ISIS militants. He has previously been shown in a range of videos, including a series called “Lend Me Your Ears.”
Cantile speaks about a range of topics, including education, drone strikes and Sharia law. Addressing other Muslims living in France, he urges them to carry out further “lone wolf” strikes. The video is the second documentary-style video in the “Inside…” series, following videos from Kobane, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq. Cantile’s family have called on ISIS to set him free, with Cantlie’s father Paul, 80, sending a message to ISIS appealing for his son’s freedom. He died shortly afterwards. Jessica Cantlie, his sister, has previously appealed for “direct contact” with the extremist militants holding him.
Finally, the US has confirmed that American hostage Cayla Mueller has been killed. Shortly after the Jordan campaign, ISIS released a statement that Jordanian missiles had resulted in the aid worker’s death. The US has not yet confirmed Mueller’s cause of death.
The looting and illegal sale of antiquities has become a new profit centre for ISIS. In early December, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated that the looting of cultural property and antiquities, particularly in Iraq and Syria, has become a matter of international security. Ban told a UNESCO-hosted conference on threats to cultural heritage and diversity, “The protection of cultural heritage is a security imperative.”
Gangs of looters have taken advantage of the upheaval in Iraq and Syria, and have hired people, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, to carry out illegal excavations in search of historic or religions artefacts. The newly found pieces are then immediately to middlemen or antiquities smugglers. This instant profit has become a significant source of funding for ISIS, which uses the revenues for the purchase of weapons and other items. Analysts speculate that the trafficking of such antiquities is increasing as the fighting between ISIS and coalition forces continues. US Secretary of State John Kerry said, “Ancient treasures in Iraq and in Syria have now become the casualties of continuing warfare and looting.”
Since their rapid expansion over the summer, the primary source of income for ISIS has been oil. The group controls as many as eight oil fields in Syria; in October, it was estimated that ISIS was gaining between one and two million dollars a day in black market oil revenue, making it the most well funded and richest terrorist organisation in history. The US-led coalition strikes have conducted targeted strikes on ISIS-controlled energy infrastructure, including refineries and distribution centres, in an attempt to dwindle this source of funding. Recent reports from Washington suggest these efforts have been successful. Further, the strikes have reportedly scared would-be smugglers who would transport black market oil through the region. Transport of black market oil is also being halted by ground forces which have increased the monitoring of oil smuggling routes into Turkey and Kurdistan. The combined efforts have reportedly cut sharply into ISIS revenues.
Apart from oil, ISIS has profited from other avenues, including kidnap for ransom, extortion, donations, and imposing heavy taxes in the regions which they control. However the looting and immediate sale of black market antiquities has become an increasingly lucrative source of revenue. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, said, “There can be no purely military solution to this crisis. To fight fanaticism, we also need to reinforce education, a defence against hatred, and protect heritage, which helps forge collective identity.” UNESCO is promoting broad measures to stem the tide of loss and destruction, including the establishment of “protected cultural zones” which would be monitored by local and central governments, as well as international parties. Other measures include an international ban on the illicit trafficking or sale of antiquities from Syria, and the creation of a global registry of antiquities that are being placed on the market. The latter would force buyers to prove the item’s legitimacy and send “a strong message that artefacts with questionable origins will be subject to severe scrutiny and ethical conduct investigation.” The registry would drive down the value of ill-gotten antiquities.
A recent report revealed the annual income and its sources for ISIS as well as other terrorist groups. ISIS earns approximately $2 billion US from oil, tolls and taxes making it the richest terrorist group in the world. At a distant second, the Afghan Taliban profits from donations and drug sales to the tune of $400 million annually. Al-Shabaab revenues total $100 million from the sale of charcoal and the imposition of taxes; Boko Haram has raised approximately $10 million, predominantly from kidnap for ransom.
Meanwhile, a recent report also suggested that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other Sahel terrorist groups are working with Colombian drug cartels to transport drugs across North Africa and into Europe. Leaders of AQIM have reportedly met several times with representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). “Narco-jihadists” transport cargo by road through a triangle that includes Libya, Niger, Algeria, Mali, and Mauritania. Statistics indicate that AQIM has received sums amounting to 15% of the total sold by smugglers. Who pay the terrorist groups to provide secure passage of their drug convoys, before the contraband is transported to Europe through organised crime networks. In June 2013, an Algerian security report warned of the growing ties between terrorist groups and drugs smuggling gangs, as authorities revealed a relation between drug smugglers and terror financing cells.
13 November– A seventeen-minute video released by extremist group ISIS today features a message from their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In the video, the so called ‘caliph’ issued a call to his supporters to “erupt volcanoes of jihad.” The recording has been qualified as “authentic and recent” by counterterrorism consultancy groups. The video was shared across jihadist websites comes days after social media was ablaze with rumours that Baghdadi had been injured or killed in a coalition led air-strike. It is unknown when the video was recorded, but it does make reference to the Egyptian militant group Ansar Beit al Maqdis, a Sinai based group that has been responsible for targeting Egyptian security forces since 2013. In recent months, an Ansar Beit al Maqdis spokesman stated that the group was receiving advice from ISIS; the group officially pledged allegiance to Baghdadi in October. Baghdadi’s message says, “O soldiers of the Islamic State, continue to harvest the soldiers. Erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere. Light the Earth with fire.” Baghdadi also directed his attention to the US-led coalition bombing campaigns over Iraq and Syria. Calling the campaigns unsuccessful, Baghdadi said, “America and its allies are terrified, weak, and powerless,” and adding that ISIS fighters would “never abandon fighting…They will be triumphant, even if only one man of them is left.” Baghdadi also announced that the “caliphate” he created over the summer would expand across the Arab world, and called on supporters of ISIS to conduct attacks in Saudi Arabia, targeting ruling leaders and Shiites. Baghdadi described Saudi leaders as “the head of the snake.” As a measure of the video’s newness, Baghdadi makes mention of US President Barack Obama’s announcement that the US would deploy an additional 1,500 troops to Iraq. Obama’s decision was announced after the air strike on Mosul that sparked the rumours of Bagdadi’s injuries. In recent days, there have been additional pledges of allegiance to Baghdadi from militant groups in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. Just prior to the video’s release, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testified before a House Armed Services Committee hearing about the new war. “Since I testified before this committee two months ago, our campaign against ISIL has made progress. ISIL’s advance in parts of Iraq has stalled, and in some cases been reversed, by Iraqi, Kurdish and tribal forces supported by U.S. and coalition airstrikes.” Hagel stated that the war against ISIS will intensify: “As Iraqi forces build strength, the tempo and intensity of our coalition’s air campaign will accelerate in tandem.”
11 November– Last week, airstrikes conducted by the anti-ISIS coalition targeted an assembly of the group’s leaders in Mosul. Reports have emerged that the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was among those in attendance. Iraq’s defence ministry reported that Baghdadi had been injured in the strike, and that his deputy, Abu-Muslim al-Turkmani, was killed. Rumours have circulated that the ISIS “caliph” was either grievously injured or killed. ISIS has not refuted the claim; while copycat ISIS sites claim that Baghdadi was not present, there has been no word from official ISIS channels as to the whereabouts or health of Baghdadi.
Baghdadi oversaw operations that gained ISIS a large swath of territory in Iraq and Syria earlier this year. In June, the leader declared the newly controlled land a Sunni Islamic caliphate, and declared himself the caliph. Baghdadi has scholarly knowledge of Islam, and claims he has ascendency from the Prophet Muhammed.
This self-declaration, particularly based on a bloodline, is in conflict with the premise of Sunni Islam. At the time of Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 AD, many followers believed that his successor should be determined by a community of Muslims. However, a small faction believed that the successor should be a member of his family, favouring Ali, the prophet’s son-in-law. To this day, Sunnis favour consensus appointment of leaders, and Shia’s familial ascendency.
In claiming his right to become caliph based on his bloodline, Baghdadi has dismissed an important tenet of Sunni beliefs, compensating for this only by agreeing that his successor would be appointed. Further, it is unknown whether his claim to the bloodline is real; in the Arab world, it is not uncommon for documents to be falsified to suggest that a family is descended from Prophet Mohammed; it is considered a point of pride among many.
Those joining ISIS blindly follow Baghdadi despite the conflicting nature of his actions. He is perceived as charismatic and convincing, with credentials both academic and relational. Baghdadi has become a symbolic figure as much as a leader, tying together both the actions and ideologies of his followers.
In the event of Baghdadi’s death, the question arises as to what would become of ISIS. Analysts do not believe that a sufficient replacement exists among the group’s ranks. It is unknown whether Baghdadi has selected a successor from among his high-ranking leaders. Among the likely successors is Omar Shishani, a former sergeant for the Georgian army who is now a commander for ISIS. It is widely believed that Shishani is responsible for planning the military operations which led to the rapid gain of territory in Iraq over the summer. Another prosepect is believed to be Shaker Abu Waheeb, who escaped from an Iraqi prison in Tikrit in 2012, and is now an ISIS field commander in the Anbar province.
While both candidates have worked toward seeing Baghdadi’s mission to fruition, neither have the same scholarly credentials, charisma, or bloodline as Baghdadi. It is expected that under their leadership, ISIS would be unlikely to continue with the same momentum or devotion. Further, as Baghdadi’s successor will be determined by consensus, the group could break into factions, weakening the entire entity.
It is suspected that successful targeting of ISIS leadership and controlled resources, including oil refineries, will result in the eventual dissolution of the caliphate. As ISIS weakens, so too could its hold on the territory it currently controls, allowing government forces and opposition fighters an opportunity to retake confiscated lands. In this event, fewer domestic and foreign fighters will seek to join the ranks, and existing membership will either return to their native nations or attempt to join other organisations.
The battle in Kobane (also spelled ‘Kobani’) is being called “the most decisive battle” in the campaign against ISIS, yet help has been slow to arrive. For weeks the town’s residents have been under siege as ISIS has battles to take control of the region, causing thousands of Syrian refugees to flee into Turkey.
Despite the increasing humanitarian crisis and the consequence of letting Kobanefall into ISIS hands, the town has been omitted from US and coalition strategy. Fighting began in the town on 16 September, and while the US has conducted air-strikes around the town, US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Mid October that “Kobane does not define the strategy for the coalition in respect to [ISIL].” It was only on Sunday that the US began to air-drop weapons and supplies to Kurdish fighters. Earlier today, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he had been informed that agreement was reached for 200 Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga reinforcements to pass through Turkey to help defend Kobane. It is expected that ISIS will take heavy losses numbering into several hundreds, yet they are prepared to do so.
Kobane’s Importance to ISIS
The fall of Kobane would result in a major strategic win for ISIS for a number of reasons. First, it is a heavily agricultural region. A large percentage of the residents are farmers, and there is significant grain and wheat production. Access to this agricultural resource would be a boon for ISIS, in terms of supporting the population within its own territory and providing another avenue of income.
Second, Kobane sits on the Turkish border with Syria. If ISIS were to capture the town, they would gain a significant and strategic expansion of their territory along the Turkish border. Capture of the region would give ISIS control over a main road that connects Raqqa, the city which headquarters ISIS operations, with Aleppo. Further, it would add an additional border crossing for weapons, supplies, and radicalised fighters to enter into ISIS controlled territory.
Finally, the predominant strategic value of Kobane is that is a majority Kurdish town. An ISIS win at Kobane would weaken the Kurdish resistance. Kobane is one of three administrative cantons of the Syrian Kurds. If it Kobane falls, it will weaken the other cantons which secure Syria’s 1,200 kilometre border with Syria. Effectively, a win in Kobane could potentially allow ISIS to capture full control of the Turkish Border.
Kobane’s Importance to the Kurds
Kobane has become a symbol of Kurdish aspirations for an autonomous state. One analyst states, “Kobane symbolises the Kurdish resistance, not only in Syria but in other parts of the Middle East. Its loss would translate into a defeat for the entire Kurdish nation.”
The Turkish and Syrian Kurdish community remains close in culture, language and proximity. In the early 1900s, Kobane stretched across both Turkey and Syria. In 1921, a border was put in place by Mustafa Kemal, dividing the Kurdish village in two. The demarcation is a railroad that has served as the border between the two nations. Since the siege on the town, over 100,000 refugees from Kobane and other nearby towns have fled to the Turkish side, now called Mursitpinar.
This closeness of Syrian and Turkish Kurds has remained in place. The current crisis has gelled efforts to keep Kobane standing. Over several weeks of fighting, Kobane has resisted falling to ISIS occupation, creating a symbol of resilience against ISIS and hope in the face of others who have denied Kurdish autonomy. Mostafa Minawi, director of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative at Cornell University.”Kobane [now] lies at the heart of a Kurdish dream. It is less connected with history and more connected with future ambitions. Kobane was phase one of the implementation of a wider local-rule model [for both Syria’s and Turkey’s Kurds].”
Kobane’s Importance to Turkey
Despite the threat of an ISIS capture of Kobane and the imminent threat on his border, President Erdogan has appeared slow and reluctant to provide aid to Kurdish fighters. “For Turkey,” one analyst says, “Kobane is essentially a PKK issue.” Erdogan has long opposed the establishment of a Greater Kurdistan, and Ankara has deemed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) a terrorist organization.
Earlier this week, the US delivered air-dropped weapons and medical supplies in Kobane, which were provided by Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government. Erdogan criticized the move. In a statement today, Erdogan criticised the move. In a phone call between Erdogan and US President Barack Obama, Erdogan said, “America did this in spite of Turkey, and I told him Kobani is not currently a strategic place for you. If anything it is strategic for us.”
Several analysts, as well as the Kurdish population have become critical of Erdogan’s intentions. They believe that the Turkish government has purposefully delayed the allowance assistance to Kurdish fighters, allowing ISIS to ‘do the dirty work’ of reducing the gains that Syrian Kurds have made in the power vacuum of the Syrian war. Critics use as evidence Erdogan’s call for the establishment of a buffer zone in Syria, citing it as an attempt to occupy the region.
In fact, Erdogan has used Kobane as a negotiating chip with the PKK. In order for Iraqi Kurds to supply Syrian Kurds with weapons or fighters, their options are to cross through ISIS controlled territory, or go through Turkey. The former is unrealistic; the latter requires permission from the Turkish government, which has been slow coming as Turkey has sought to bolster their position against a Kurdish nation. To this end, peace talks between Kurdish leaders and Turkey have been jeopardised as Kurdish leaders interpret Erdogan’s stance as tacit support for ISIS. Leaders in Ankara deny supporting ISIS but it has become apparent to some analysts that they are using the situation as an opportunity to gain an upper hand with the Kurds.
As a result, Turkey finds itself pressured by the coalition and forced to work in tandem with a group that it opposes. The outcome in Kobane will not only be significant to ISIS, but will have longstanding ramifications for the Kurds in the diaspora and their relationship with Turkey.