A UK-based activist group, which is monitoring the conflict in Syria and recent territorial gains by Islamic State (IS), reported Friday that Iraqi pilots who have joined IS are now training IS members in Syria to fly three captured fighter jets.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), witnesses have reported seeing planes being flown around the Al-Jarrah military airport, which is located east of the contested city of Aleppo. Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the SOHR, disclosed Friday that IS militants were using Iraqi officers, who were pilots under ex-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, to train fighters in Syria. He added, “people saw the flights, they went up many times from the airport and they are flying in the skies outside the airport and coming back.”
While it remains unknown just how many Iraqi pilots have defected and what the trainees’ previous level of familiarity with flight is, it is known that IS has three planes in its possession, which they captured earlier on the ground in Aleppo and Raqqa.
If IS is indeed using Iraqi pilots to train its fighters, such a move could have a major impact on global security, and could see the militant group attempt to hijack planes in Europe and the United States. With officials in Europe already warning that a number of EU nationals have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside IS militants, the jihadist group could be training militants with EU passports on how to hijack planes and carryout terrorist attacks similar to 9/11.
Meanwhile Iraqi forces have launched an attack on IS militants stationed near Tikrit. The Iraqi government reported Friday that its troops have gained ground to the northern and western regions of Tikrit, effectively cutting an important IS supply route. The city is amongst those areas that were seized by IS in Syria and Iraq earlier this year.
Kurdish forces, backed by US-led air strikes, are continuing to fight the militants in the northern Syrian town of Kobane. On Friday, US-led warplanes targeted jihadists attacking Kobane as Pentagon officials disclosed that despite a recent wave of deadly bombings in Baghdad, there was no imminent threat to the capital city.
Pentagon officials announced Friday that despite recent advances made by the militant group to the west of Baghdad, IS was not poised for an assault on the capital city. The battle for the town of Kobane has been seen as a major test for the US-led coalition’s air campaign and whether it will be able to successfully push back the militant group.
Two of al-Qaeda’s most prominent branches in North Africa and Yemen issued an unprecedented joint statement Tuesday, calling for jihadists operating in Syria and Iraq to join forces against the threat emanating from the US-led coalition that is targeting Islamic State (IS) fighters in the region. The statement comes as a supporter of IS militants warned of attacks against the United States and its allies.
Al-Qaeda Branches Issue Joint Statement
Two of al-Qaeda’s most prominent branches in North Africa and Yemen issued an unprecedented joint statement Tuesday, calling for jihadists operating in Syria and Iraq to join forces against the threat emanating from the US-led coalition that is targeting Islamic State (IS) fighters in the region.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) urged their “brothers” in Iraq and Syria to “stop killing each other and unite against the American campaign and its evil coalition that threatens us all.” AQIM and AQAP have also called on the citizens of ten Arab countries that have joined the coalition to prevent their governments from acting against the terrorist group, which has recently achieved lightening territorial advances in Iraq and Syria. AQAP and AQIM have also promised “dark days” to the “alliance of infidelity and evil,” and have urged Syrian rebels to keep up their fight against President Bashar al-Assad, warning them to “beware of being tricked by America…and thus being diverted from your path” and becoming its “pawns.”
Tuesday’s joint statement however marked a significant change in al-Qaeda’s strategy as under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor, al-Qaeda disavowed IS. Both the Yemeni-based AQAP, which is seen by Washington as the network’s most dangerous branch, and AQIM have rejected IS’ June declaration of an Islamic caliphate, adding that they remained loyal to al-Zawahiri. Al-Qaeda also has its own branch, the al-Nursa front, that operates in Syria. While the network’s joint statement called for differences to be set aside in the face of a new growing coalition, the statement did not explicitly offer support for IS. Instead it is likely an attempt by al-Qaeda’s affiliates to maintain relevant in Washington and within IS. Similar statements of solidarity issued by other Islamist militant groups will likely surface as the US continues airstrikes in the region, however such statements do not necessarily mean that global support for IS is growing.
IS Supporter Warns of Attack Against US and Allies
A supporter of IS militants has warned of attacks on the United States and its allies if they continue to carry out military action against the group in Iraq and Syria. The message, which was posted on the Minbar Jihadi Media website, a well-known Islamist militant online forum, is just one of a few responses from supporters of IS to last week’s announcement by Washington indicating that it was preparing to extend airstrikes against the group into Syria.
The message condemned “intervention in the affairs of other peoples,” adding that “it will lead to an equal reaction of the same strength in targeting the American depth and also the nations allied to it and in all aspects.” The posting, by a supporter referred to as “Amir al-Thul,” also stated “I directed a sternly worded warning to each of those nations involved with America, or that are allied with it in their war against the Islamic Caliphate, that their local and international interests will be legitimate targets.”
While the message also called on the public in the US and its allies to oppose government actions against the group, it remains unclear what influence, if any, the author has on the actions of IS.
On 12 September, a CIA assessment revealed that ISIS ranged has the capacity to muster between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters across Iraq and Syria. This number is three times higher than the previous estimates, which indicated that there were approximately 10,000 militants fighting for the group. According to the CIA, the sharp increase is the result of stronger recruitment after ISIS conducted a battlefield campaign across northern Iraq, gaining a large swath of territory and declaring a caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
The information released from the report does not appear to specify who is considered a ‘fighter’, such as women or youths. Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a former Iraqi national security adviser and current parliament member said that ISIS is targeting youths “as young as 8 and 9 years old,” giving them AK-47s and brainwashing them with “this evil ideology.” Al-Rubaie added that this was similar to the method that al Qaeda in Iraq recruited in the past, but on a larger scale.
The CIA report does not suggest whether the fighters are actually members of ISIS, or militants currently fighting against the Syrian government, but could be called upon to fight with ISIS. According to the report, approximately 15,000 foreign fighters have joined the militant group, representing some 80 countries. The number includes as many as 2,000 Westerners. Al-Rubaie estimates that among foreign fighters, Iraqis and Syrians comprise over 70%, adding that “thousands” of Iraqis joined ISIS after their capture of Mosul in June.
It is believed that many fighters have crossed into ISIS-controlled territory in northern Iraq through Turkey. It is expected that they could permeate the borders of Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, causing elevated national security threats in those nations.
The revised estimate of fighters comes after a series of unmanned reconnaissance flights over the region. The US has increased the number of surveillance flights to nearly 60 per day over Iraq, in order to gather intelligence regarding whether and where to launch airstrikes in the region. The Pentagon has also announced it would begin “armed and manned” flights for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance purposes. The crafts would fly from the Kurdish regional capital, Erbil, as supplements to the unmanned flights.
Pentagon spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, said the increased estimates will not alter how the United States approaches ISIS, stating,” We’re not just simply about degrading and destroying … the 20 to 30,000 (ISIS fighters). It’s about degrading and destroying their capabilities to attack targets, particularly Western targets. It’s about destroying their ideology.” One unnamed US official said the military can launch airstrikes at any time if there is a ‘target of opportunity’. The US has already conducted over 150 airstrikes against ISIS. Additional tactics would involve targeting the group’s leadership, which the US has not yet done.
A coalition of nations has been assembled with the aim of eroding the power of ISIS, and eventually destroying the group. Nearly 40 nations have joined the coalition; however it is unknown what specific roles each nation will play. In large part, members of the coalition have agreed to send equipment and/or humanitarian aid, or conduct surveillance missions, but none have committed to putting boots on the ground. Those who are willing to engage in ground battle include Iraqi Kurdistan’s Peshmerga forces and other indigenous forces from Syria and Iraq, including trained Syrian rebels, Iraqi forces, Kurdish forces and Sunni tribes.
Within the regional vicinity, Turkey is working to cut the financial flow to ISIS, and has denied entry and deported ‘several thousand foreign fighters heading to Syria to join the extremists’. Jordan has agreed to provide intelligence to the West. It is thought that Saudi Arabia, which has already provided $500 toward UN humanitarian efforts, will also host anti-ISIS training camps. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt have been urged to use their television networks to spread anti-ISIS messages as well as encouraging clerics to speak out against the group. The Egyptian government has met with US Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss the “critical role” Egypt will play in countering ISIS ideology, however no public details have been released. Last week, Egypt’s grand mufti, the highest ranking Islamic scholar in the land, condemned ISIS and underscored that their actions are not in line with Islam. Qatar has conducted a number of humanitarian flights.
Iran has declined to join the coalition. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei tweeted that he rejected cooperating with the United States “because (the) US has corrupted its hands in this issue.” Khamanei has vocally accused the United States of planning to use military action against ISIS to “dominate the region.” The absence of Iran in the coalition may put other nations at ease; Iran has been in conflict with Turkey, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia for years.
Nations outside of the Middle East that will join the coalition include Australia, the UK, France, Germany, Canada, Italy, Poland, Denmark, Albania, Croatia, New Zealand, Romania and South Korea.
The battle against ISIS has created strange bedfellows. Most recently, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has joined the fight against the militants. The PKK is formally classified as terrorists due decades of fighting against Turkey for an independent Kurdistan. The conflict killed over 40,000 people between 1984 and 2013. Today, the PKK is working on the same side as Turkey to stop the advance of ISIS, while simultaneously lobbying the international community to remove their terrorist designation. The group has claimed their determination to work with other governments and groups to see the elimination of ISIS. One PKK fighter said, “This war will continue until we finish off [ISIS).” Another stated, “ISIS is a danger to everyone, so we must fight them everywhere.” The PKK’s role in battling ISIS presents a mixed bag for Turkey and the international community. While the group is still considered a terrorist threat, and the PKK has accused Turkey of funding fighters against the Kurds in Syria; an allegation that the Turkish government denies. Yet, they are the ‘lesser’ threat in the face of ISIS. PKKs efforts have been successful in fending ISIS off from Erbil, and have sent forces to Kirkuk and Jalawla. Their armed sister group, the People’s Defence Units (YPG) have successfully protected their autonomous region in Syria, and assisted in evacuating thousands of Yazidis from Mount Sinjar, where they had fled from ISIS. The evacuees had been trapped out the mountain with minimal food or water, relying on airdrops for supplies. However, PKK members are not fighting for Turkey, Syria, Iran or Iraq; they are fighting for Kurdistan, a state which is seeking autonomy for lands that cross each of these nations. Further, the PKK represents a threat to the existing Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which is a long time competitor of the PKK. For now, however, Kurdish Peshmerga, under the KDP umbrella, are working with the PKK and national forces against ISIS, which is heavily armed with weapons from abandoned stockpiles in their captured zones. However KDP leaders fear that PKK involvement in engagement against ISIS will hinder opportunities to gain national autonomy in the long run. In the short run, PKK involvement could prevent nations from sending much needed weaponry to the Peshmerga. Turkish officials have resisted addressing the significance of a resurgent PKK, or the possibility that their involvement will reignite tensions in Turkey, or between Turkey and Kurdistan. One official said, “There is no fear of a division in Turkey or a fear of unification of the Kurdish population outside of Turkey. Since there are no demands through armed conflict or violence from the PKK in Turkey, there is no need to panic.” Currently the PKK is opting for slowly decreasing national powers in the Kurdish region, eventually gaining their autonomy. Further their actions in the fight against ISIS are perceived to be a push toward persuading the international community to remove their terrorist designation. The EU, for its part, will not act without Turkish approval, which is unlikely to be forthcoming. Meanwhile in Syria, ISIS has clashed with Assad’s forces in Aleppo, and Raqqah. ISIS considers Raqqah the ‘capital’ of their state; weapons confiscated in Iraq have been steadily making their way into the city. Raqaa approximately 25 miles from a Syrian-controlled airbase at al Tabaqa, the last remaining government forces in the ISIS controlled zone. Assad’s military has carried out at least a dozen airstrikes, reportedly killing tens of ISIS fighters, and has also sent reinforcements to al Tabaqa. Analysts have differed as to the size of territory ISIS holds. Some believe ISIS has control of approximately 11,000 square miles of territory, roughly the size of Belgium. Others believe ISIS has influence in as much as 35,000 square miles of territory, roughly the size of Jordan. It is believed that 6,300 fighters joined ISIS in July. Among that number, an estimated 5,000 are Syrian, and the remaining are Arab, European, Caucasian, East Asian and Kurdish. It is believed that as many as 1,100 of the 1,300 foreign fighters entered Syria via Turkey. Among ISIS’ most recent recruits, many joined from other radicalised groups such as the al-Qaeda backed Al Nusrah Front, and the Islamic Front. Al Nusrah, the Islamic Front, and Ansar al Din are fighting a battle on two fronts: they are opposed to ISIS and opposed to Bashar al Assad, and clash with both.
On 19 August, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria published a video called “Message to America,” which showed the gruesome and tragic beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley. The group has threatened the beheading of a second American journalist, Steven Sotloff, who is also being held in Syria if the Obama administration does not stop airstrikes against ISIS strongholds. The speaker in the video of Foley’s execution appeared to have a British accent.
A day before the video of Foley’s execution was released; ISIS released another video directed toward America. The video, “A message from ISIS to US”, states “We will drown all of you in blood.” It goes on to warn that ISIS “will attack Americans anywhere if U.S. airstrikes hit Islamic State militants.” The video shows footage of US military vehicles being targeted by IEDs, and images believed to depict the mass execution of Iraqi troops. Shortly after the US announced airstrikes on ISIS targets in early August, ISIS took to social media to call on sleeper cells to attack US interests around the world.
The US initiated limited airstrikes against ISIS targets two weeks ago, following the capture of Mosul Dam and the mass evacuation of Yazidi Iraqis in Northern Iraq. ISIS has reportedly kidnapped and killed hundreds of Yazidis, and has threatened to kill thousands more. The evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Yazidis into Mount Sinjar escalates Iraq’s appalling humanitarian crises at the hands of ISIS. Nearly 1.2 million Iraqis have been displaced in 2014. Obama has called ISIS “a threat to all Iraqis and the entire region.”
The video depicting Foley’s execution was released a day after Kurdish troops, with the aid of US air strikes, wrested control of Mosul Dam, which had been captured by ISIS in early August. Mosul Dam holds back approximately 11 billion cubic metres of water. In ISIS hands, the dam could be used as a weapon of mass destruction, with the ability to flood Mosul and nearby cities, reaching as far as Baghdad. The structure is intact, now protected by Kurdish forces. Small skirmishes still continue in the area.
ISIS fighters have fallen back on Tikrit, which has been under the militant group’s control for over two months despite multiple attempts by Iraqi forces to retake the city. The repeated failed offensives against ISIS in Tikrit reveal the poor condition of the Iraqi military. ISIS has a firm stronghold on the city; meanwhile, at estimates show that at least seven of Iraq’s 16 army divisions have been rendered ineffective since the start of 2014.
The videos released by ISIS have not slowed US intentions to continue airstrikes in ISIS controlled areas. President Obama has not issued a timeframe for the campaign against ISIS; the US air forces have bombed at least 90 targets, including ISIS vehicle convoys, mobile artillery and fixed positions. The bulk of airstrikes have occurred over the past few days near Mosul dam. Other strikes have been near the Kurdish capital, Ebril, where ISIS forces were attempting to advance; and Mount Sinjar, where the Yazidi population evacuated after ISIS displaced them from their homes.
Meanwhile, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has launched a massive aid operation to reach over half a million people displaced by the fighting in northern Iraq. Aid will be sent to Iraqis through Jordan via air, Turkey via road, and Dubai and Iran via sea. The US, UK and other nations have air dropped food and water in the past weeks; the UNHCR airlift of supplies via Jordan will begin today.