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.
On 14 January, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo’s which killed 12 last week. In a speech by AQAP senior official Nasser bin Ali al Ansi entitled “Vengeance for the Messenger of Allah,” Al Ansi says, “We in the Organization of Qa’idatul Jihad in the Arabian Peninsula claim responsibility for this operation as a vengeance for the Messenger of Allah.”
Al Ansi and AQAP take responsibility for selecting the target, planning and financing the operation. He adds that the operation was under the “order of our general emir, the generous Sheikh Ayman bin Muhammad al Zawahiri.” and the “will” of Sheikh Osama bin Laden.
AQAP had threatened Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier in the past. The editor was named specifically in a poster enclosed in a 2013 issue of Inspire magazine. The poster listed names of individuals wanted, “Dead or Alive For Crimes Against Islam.” Charbonnier, was killed in the attack.
While taking responsibility for attacks on the magazine conducted by brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, al Ansi denies any connections to the killings conducted by Ahmed Coulibaly, who conducted an attack at a kosher grocery store in Paris, killing four, including a French police officer. Al Ansi calls it “tawfeeq” (good fortune) that the operation coincided with the attack conducted by Coulibaly.
Al Ansi’s description of the Kouachi brothers is consistent with other evidence. Cherif Kouachi gave an interview to a French tv station while hiding in a printing factory after the Paris attack. He stated, “I was sent, me, Cherif Kouachi, by al Qaeda in Yemen. I went there and Sheikh Anwar al Awlaki financed my trip.”
It is believed that the brothers may have travelled to Yemen and met directly with Awlaki. Some reports have indicated that Cherif, the younger of the brothers, was the aggressor in the attacks. It has also been suggested that the brothers received training and financing from AQAP.
Separately, in an interview with a French television station, Ahmed Coulibaly said he was a member of ISIS. A video posted online after Coulibaly’s death shows him pledging allegiance to the terrorist group and its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Coulibaly claimed no ties to al Qaeda, which has an intense rivalry with ISIS
6 January – A top figure from within ISIS police forces has been has been found decapitated in Syria. The man was an Egyptian national, believed to be the deputy “emir” of the al-Hesbah force in a Syrian province. His body was found near a power plant in Deir-al-Zor province, where heavy fighting has taken place in the last month. Reports indicated that his body showed signs of torture; the head was allegedly found with a cigarette left in its mouth, while the sentence “O Sheikh this is munkar (hateful and evil thing)” was written on his body. It is believed that ISIS has banned residents in areas under its control from drinking or smoking. Shop owners found guilty of selling cigarettes in some of its strongholds have been publicly flogged. It is unknown whether the man was killed by ISIS, local residents, or foreign fighters.
The alleged beheading comes after ISIS released gruesome photos purporting to show the brutal execution of Iraqi police and men it accused of informing on the group. A video entitled ‘Day of Retribution’ showed eight captives wearing microphones before being shot dead by 12 militants. The officers were accused of spying on ISIS on behalf of the Iraqi military, and identifying targets for US led coalition strikes on ISIS targets. In the video the men are seen in kneeling on the ground wearing orange uniforms, similar to those worn by prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
The officers are shown blindfolded and handcuffed as ISIS fighters march them along the edge of a river. The men were forced to kneel on the shore underneath a bridge and executed with a bullet to the back of the head.
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.
The Syrian Electronic Army has returned, and a copycat army of hackers has sprung up in Egypt.
The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) is a group of hacktivists that support the Syrian government and its president, Bashar al Assad. On 27 November, the group targeted Gigya, a company which manages online comment platforms and Identity and Access Management for nearly 700 clients. The SEA breached Gigya’s account and redirected visitors to an SEA website.
The hack impacted 21 major websites including media outlets Aljazeera, the Chicago Tribune, CNBC, CNN Money, the Evening Standard, the Los Angeles Times, Microsoft, National Geographic, NBC, the New York Daily News, the Guardian, and the Independent. The breach also impacted tech companies including Dell, DirecTV, Logitech, Microsoft, and Verizon Wireless. For three and a half hours, visitors to the hacked sites received a message stating, “You’ve been hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA),” and were then redirected to an image of the SEA’s logo and a Syrian flag.
In response to the attack, Gigya CEO Patrick Salyer said, “To be absolutely clear: neither Gigya’s platform itself, nor any user, administrator nor operational data has been compromised and was never at risk of being compromised.”
On the SEA’s website, the pro-Assad hacktivists said the attack was launched in response to reports that Syrian airstrikes in Raqqa hit civilians, “while the truth the strikes hit the ISIS terrorists.” Raqqa, a city in northern Syria, is the headquarters for terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham. On Twitter, the group messaged, “Happy thanks giving, hope you didn’t miss us. The press: Please don’t pretend #ISIS are civilians.”
In a second Tweet, the SEA provided users with information on how to prevent hacking: “We’re the good guys so this was harmless but just in case the bad guys copy us, use NoScript with Firefox: noscript.net.”
Since their emergence on the hactivist scene in 2011, the SEA has caused disruption to numerous websites, but they are best known for hacking Twitter account of the Associated Press’ in April 2013. The group posted a tweet claiming that Barack Obama had been injured, causing Dow Jones Industrial Average to immediately plunge 143 points in response.
Meanwhile in Egypt, a copycat group has risen and is targeting ISIS and its online propaganda. In late November, less than 24 hours after ISIS social media accounts posted a threatening message from the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the Egyptian Electronic Army (EEA) replaced the audio recording with a song, and replaced the ISIS transcript with a logo resembling that of the Egyptian military, accompanied by a writing in Arabic that read “Egyptian Cyber Army.”
The modus-operandi was nearly identical to the methods used by the Syrian Electronic Army, which has inspired the group. However the hacktivists do not have any connection to one another. According to a spokesman for the group, a man claiming to be a 37-year-old former Cairo police officer who goes by the name “Khaled Abubakr”, the EEA group’s members are all Egyptian. Many come from a military or police background, and all support the Egyptian government led by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. It is unclear whether the group is state sanctioned.
The EEA seeks to defend al-Sisi’s governments against opponent such as the Muslim Brotherhood or ISIS. The broad anti-ISIS perspective in the nation has brought a mass of hacktivists to the group who want to counter the terrorist group’s influence on the Internet. The spokesman said that Baghdadi “was delivering a message to all extremists all over the Middle East and my country that you have to use your weapons in the faces of the government and our people, so we took it down and replaced it with a very popular song. All the people instead of hearing this pig heard our song and laughed.”
The group has also claimed to have infiltrated top ISIS web forums, and American pro-democracy websites including the Open Society Foundation and the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative, however there is no solid evidence of these activities. A security researcher says that some of the EAA’s supporters appear to have highly capable technical background.
The EAA has refused to disclose how the attack was conducted. A spokesman for the Internet Archive said that no outside account “made any modifications” to the files other than the original uploader. But that doesn’t rule out the possibility that the account was taken over by the hackers. The group claims they will continue to conduct hacktivist activities. The EAA spokesman said, “We have our people spying on al-Furqan, [the media arm of ISIS] which is the media of the terrorists and this will not be the last thing we are going to do. They must expect us any time.”