US Targets Khorasan GroupSeptember 26, 2014 in Syria
On 22 September, the US began targeted strikes against ISIS in Syria, and conducted a separate mission to target the “Khorasan group.” The Khorasan group, a.k.a Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) is a militant group which according to the Pentagon, is comprised of seasoned al Qaeda veterans.
The Khorasan group has gained public attention in the past week; however they are believed to have been operating in Syria for over a year. U.S. Central Command believes the core group, which has fewer than 100 members, is using the anarchy in Syria to create a haven from which to “plot attacks, build and test roadside bombs and recruit Westerners to carry out operations.” Michael Leiter, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said, “Khorasan is less of a threat to the region and more of a threat to the U.S. homeland than ISIS.” The group is known to be actively recruiting Westerners for plots against American and European interests. Recently, the group was known to be working bomb makers from al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate to test new ways to slip explosives past airport security. Earlier this year, a recent ban on uncharged mobile phones arose from information that al Qaeda was working with Khorasan.
The name Khorasan is an ancient Islamic historical term used to describe the areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. The group have been known to be operating in Syria for the past year, led by 33 year old Muhsin al Fadhli. In 2012, the US State Department offered a $7 million reward for information on Fadhli’s whereabouts. He was known to be an al Qaeda financier with ties to Osama bin Laden, and among the few who knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks. Fadhli arrived in Syria in April 2013 and joined with al-Nusra Front, however at some point in the past year, they parted ways. It is believed the Khorasan Group is mimicking the social media tactics used by ISIS to recruit Westerners, with the goal of training them and sending them home to target locales in the West.
The US Director of Operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated that they had been watching Fadhli and the group for some time, and believed they were “nearing the execution phase of an attack either in Europe or the homeland.” The intelligence community discovered the plots against the United States in the past week, but did not identify the target. Sources did add that the plot may have involved a bomb made of clothes dipped in explosive material.
On 23 September, the US dropped 40 Tomahawk missiles, striking eight targets to the west of Aleppo. The targets were believed to be Khorasan group strongholds. The US is currently assessing whether Fadhli was killed in the airstrikes. One anonymous US official stated “We believe he is dead,” however it has not been independently confirmed, and such confirmation could take time.
The U.S. attack on Khorasan Group targets this were a strategic surprise, as the US intended to catch the group off guard by mixing strikes against ISIS with strikes against Khorasan group targets.
CIA revises ISIS numbersSeptember 16, 2014 in Iraq, Syria, United States
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.
AQ, ISIS Compete for South Asian PrimacySeptember 11, 2014 in Afghanistan, Asia, India, Pakistan
On 5 September, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video announcing the formation of a new South Asian branch of AQ, “Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent.” Zawahiri stated the group will “raise the flag of jihad” across the Indian subcontinent, as well as Myanmar and Bangladesh, and called upon Muslims “to wage jihad against its enemies, to liberate its land, to restore its sovereignty and to revive its caliphate.” Zawahiri states that a south Asian wing would benefit Muslims in Myanmar, Bangladesh and in the Indian states of Assam, Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir, who would be freed from “injustice and oppression.”
In his message, also Zawahiri also announced that Pakistani militant Asim Umar would be the emir of al Qaeda’s South Asian wing, entrusted with reviving the network in the area spanning from Afghanistan to Myanmar. Little is known of Umar: he is believed to be in his mid-forties and is perceived as an ideologist and intellectual rather than a fighter. He is thought have had a crucial role in creating radicalized seminaries and madrassas, and he is known to have strong connections with Islamic seminaries in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is believed that Umar organised Osama bin Laden’s move to a safe house in Abbottabad, where the 9/11 mastermind he lived for years prior to his capture by U.S. forces.
Zawahiri’s announcement signifies an attempt for AQ resurgence in south Asia, where the group was considerably weakened over a series of targeted attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan by the US and allied forces. While the core group was diminished, affiliates have gained momentum in the Middle East and Africa. The group took advantage of power vacuums created during the 2011 Arab uprisings that swept the Middle East and North Africa to spread their ideologies. Thus, while AQ central has become weaker, the group’s affiliates have gained strength in several places including Mali, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. In Africa, AQ has affiliates have gained in Somalia through al-Shabaab, which has spread chaos into Uganda and Kenya, and in Nigeria through Boko Haram, which has affected north-eastern Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger. These affiliates are now considerably stronger than the core AQ group. The announcement of a new AQ wing in South Asia indicates that the group has accepted this new ‘business model’ and seeks to reassert its relevance in the region by opening a new branch.
Following the release of Zawahiri’s 55 minute video message, India’s intelligence bureau issued security alerts across several provinces in the county. Zawahiri’s announcement came just hours after several news reports announced that the militant group ISIS was also conducting recruitment operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The news reports indicated that ISIS militants were distributing pamphlets in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region; the pamphlets called for the establishment of a caliphate in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Zawahiri’s speech appeared to emphasise that the formation of the branch was not in direct response to ISIS, but the culmination of a longer process. In his message, he said, “This entity was not established today but is the fruit of a blessed effort of more than two years to gather the mujahedeen in the Indian sub-continent into a single entity.”
ISIS influence in India
Prior to the news reports on 5 September, ISIS was believed to focus its efforts on developing a ‘caliphate’ in areas the group had conquered in Iraq and Syria. In July, the group called for Muslims around the world to join them in establishing their new location. However it appears now that ISIS agents have been widening their efforts to recruit members of India’s Muslim community, the second largest in the world, with over 175 million Muslims.
In a speech on 5 July, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ‘caliph’ of ISIS, made three specific references to India, first stating that Muslim rights in the nation were “forcibly seized”, then referencing atrocities committed against Muslims in Kashmir. Finally, he included India in a reference that the caliphate had “gathered the Caucasian, Indian, Chinese, Shami, Iraqi, Yemeni, Egyptian, Maghrabi, American, French, German and Australian” recruits. It is known that some Indians have already left their nation to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. On 25 August, Indian engineering student Arif Ejaz Majeed became the first Indian reported to be killed while fighting for ISIS in Iraq. He and three friends reportedly went missing in May, and made contact with their families in June to notify them that the quartet had travelled to Iraq to join the radical group.
ISIS does not have a physical presence in India, yet through social media, the group is seeking to develop a ‘fringe’ subculture amongst potential followers in the region. Like other extreme groups, ISIS has cultivated a message which exploits the emotions of socially or economically marginalised people while simultaneously issuing a welcome for Muslims into their caliphate. The tactic is intended to attract dissatisfied members of Indian Muslim community and encourage those disenchanted individuals to do the ‘heavy lifting’ to attract others. An example of this effort already taking shape is a group called al-Isabah Media Production. The media production group is under the umbrella of a new group called Ansar ut-Tawhid fi Bilad al-Hind (Supporters of Monotheism in the Land of India). This group translates ISIS propaganda into Hindu, Urdu and Tamil, and then delivers the messages through social media. While al-Isabah’s social media profiles on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were removed after discovery, they still spread information through online chat rooms and other forums. This shows that ISIS does not necessarily need a physical presence in order to gain momentum in the region. This momentum has been most visible in the highly disputed region of Kashmir, where reports emerged that ISIS flags were being raised by young Muslim protestors in Srinagar. During two instances in July, young men in black masks raised the ISIS flag during protests of the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza. The incidents raised concerns in Kashmir, where Sunni and Shi’a Muslims have lived together harmoniously, that the introduction of ISIS ideology could create a sectarian divide. India has a very strong moderate Islamic core which is unlikely to allow space for ISIS or AQ, however, the instances where the militant groups have gained sympathy indicate that there are areas where troubles are significant enough for the groups to exploit by introducing an artificial identity crisis.
Competition or Unity
ISIS, formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq, severed ties with AQ in early 2014. ISIS quickly gained prominence through masterful use of propaganda and their rapid advancement through Iraq and Syria. The divergent groups have since been competing for new recruits, but AQ has been left overshadowed by ISIL’s media savvy. In part, AQ has been consistently overshadowed because its leader, Zawahiri, has remained underground, while ISIS has brazenly announced is movements. It could be this distinction that drove Zawahiri into making his rare appearance last week.
In Zawahiri’s message, he states, “O mujahideen, unite and reject differences and discord, and hold firm to the rope of Allah and be not divided amongst yourselves.” These references to rejecting differences could be a veiled message to encourage the groups to unite. He adds, “This entity, Allah permitting, was established to unite with its mujahideen brothers and the Muslims all over the world, and to crush the artificial borders established by the English occupiers to divide the Muslims in the Indian subcontinent.”
It is possible that Zawahiri is desperate to reunite ISIS and AQ in order to form one organisation rather than competing for a market share of radicalised minds. There is no indication, however, that ISIS intends to reunite with AQ. On the contrary, ISIS has actively urged AQ affiliates to leave their branch and join the newer organization.
ISIS Influencing Militant Groups in EgyptSeptember 9, 2014 in Egypt
On 8 September, Egypt’s Grand Mufti condemned the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), stating that their actions are “far from Islam.” The Grand Mufti’s announcement echoed those of leading Muslim institutions worldwide. Former Deputy Imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Mahmoud Ashour, added that “there is no religion that accepts the killing of a human soul.”
The threat of ISIS is a concern for Egypt, as it is believed that ISIS has been ‘coaching’ militant groups in Egypt, who have over the last three years conducted a series of attacks in the Sinai Peninsula and in major cities in the nation.
An anonymous senior commander from militant group Sinai-based Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, has said that through internet communication, ISIS has “provided instructions on how to operate more effectively.” He added that while ISIS has not sent fighters or weapons, they have provided advice on carrying out operations, including creating cells of five people, where only one person from each cell makes contact with other cells. The commander also stated, “They are teaching us how to attack security forces, the element of surprise,” for example, suggesting that the groups plant bombs then wait 12 hours before detonating, “so that the man planting the device has enough time to escape from the town he is in.”
On 28 August, Ansar Beit al Maqdis released a video announcing that they had beheaded four Egyptians who they claim were providing intelligence to Mossad, the Israel intelligence agency. The militants claim that the intelligence was used by the Israelis to conduct an airstrike that killed three of their fighters. The victims were abducted by gunmen near Sheikh Zuweid near the Gaza Strip.
In the video, armed men wearing black masks are standing over kneeling captives as one of the militants reads out a statement. Following the statement, the men were decapitated. The chilling footage is similar to those released by ISIS following the beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
The connection between ISIS and Ansar Beit al Maqdis has been confirmed by Egyptian security officials who said, “Ansar and Islamic State definitely have ties but there are no Islamic State members in Egypt.” Security officials fear, however, that Egyptians militants who left the nation to fight in Syria may have joined ISIS, and could return home to wreak havoc in Egypt through fighting with the government or recruitment of new members. A potential influx of returning fighters could further stretch Egyptian security forces who have struggled with a series of militant bombings and shootings, in addition to a seemingly unending series of protests –sometimes violent– that have erupted since the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
Worryingly, the Ansar Beit al Maqdis commander added that there were bombings in Egypt that had not been carried out by his group, and he believes there is a flow of militants in both directions across the Libyan border. Senior officials have expressed concerns that Libyan militants, who have also been inspired by Islamic State, may have forged ties with Ansar Beit al Maqdis, causing elevated threats on Egypt’s eastern and western borders.
In a statement released on 7 September, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has warned against foreign intervention in Libya, adding that Egypt does not want Libya to fall prey to terrorism. He called on international support for the incoming Libyan parliament.
While al Sisi has warned that Egypt would not hesitate to defend its national security, there is concern of how to deal with threats that are impacting the nation. Military engagement with militant groups in Libya could cause political backlash by both Egyptians and the international community, and result in a drain on the Egyptian economy, which has taken a severe blow since 2011. Egypt’s permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador Amr Ramadan, has expressed his concern over the escalation of fighting in the region. As governments in the West are beginning to form a ‘coalition of the willing’ to fight the escalating threat of ISIS, it is believed that nations in the region that don’t normally cooperate are beginning to agree to work together to combat threats.
White House deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken has stated that Egypt is expected to join the coalition. If this is the case, the Egyptians will be working alongside Turkey; relations between the two countries deteriorated rapidly following the ouster of Morsi last year. However, Blinken added that Egypt, as well as other governments, will be likely to join because they are “starting to see the [ISIS] threat are the wolf at their door.”
PKK and the battle against ISISAugust 22, 2014 in Iraq, Syria, Terrorism, Turkey
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.