Explosions at Nigerian bus station kill 23, wound scores more
At least 23 people were killed this morning when explosions ripped through a bus station in Gombe in northeastern Nigeria. Many more were injured in the blast.
Gombe's police chief, Abdullahi Kudu, announced that three suspects were arrested shortly after the incident. Multiple witnesses saw them drive into the station and drop three bags filled with explosives before exiting. The bags were placed between buses as they were filling up with travelers around 9:00 a.m. today.
Although no one has yet claimed responsibility for the bombing, Boko Haram is suspected of orchestrating the attack. The group has targeted transportation centers before. In April, Boko Haram detonated a car bomb at the Nyanya Motor Park bus station in Abuja that killed at least 70 people and injured many more.
Gombe has been targeted by Boko Haram in the past. The terrorist group claimed responsibility for a shooting at the town's Deeper Life Church in January in which six people were killed. In June, a suicide bomber detonated a device near the governor's house, killing himself and four others.
The attack at the bus station comes on the heels of the Nigerian government's announcement two weeks ago that it was negotiating a ceasefire agreement with Boko Haram. The terrorist group also reportedly issued a ceasefire around the same time. At the time, reports indicated that the release of the 219 school girls kidnapped from Chibok in April was part of the negotiations. Another report came out today in the Nigerian press that the girls release may be imminent.
But the ceasefire, if there even was one, seems to have been short-lived. This past week, Boko Haram has launched attacks in numerous towns across northeastern Nigeria. On Oct. 26, gunmen attacked a market in Miringa, part of Borno state's Biu Local Government Area, killing five people. The next day, the group reportedly hit Kukawa in Borno, setting fire to a police station and government buildings, and razing 300 vehicles.
On Oct. 29, reports emerged that Mubi in Adamawa state had fallen to Boko Haram and the group had taken over the headquarters of the Nigerian army's 234 battalion located there. The Nigerian Defence Headquarters confirmed that the entire battalion stationed in Mubi had fled the scene. The timing of the attack was favorable for Boko Haram, as the army had recently decided to launch operations against the terrorist group from Mubi and had stocked the base with five artillery tanks. The army has since launched an investigation into the battalion's actions.
1 French commando and 20 militants killed in Mali, 9 Nigerien troops killed in Niger
Map of significant al Qaeda-linked attacks in Mali this year. Map made by Caleb Weiss for The Long War Journal.
Jihadist groups operating in northern Mali have stepped up attacks over the past several months against French troops and UN peacekeepers operating in the region.
On Oct. 29, one French commando was killed after a fierce firefight in the Adrar Tigharghar mountain range in the northern Mali province of Kidal. The soldier, Thomas Dupuy, an Afghanistan war veteran, was killed when his unit came into contact with "30 Islamists," about 20 of whom were killed in the firefight, according to the French government. Dupuy is the 10th French soldier to die since January 2013.
It is unclear which group the French Army came into contact with in Kidal. However, the mountains of northern Mali have been a traditional stronghold of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In early 2013, al Qaeda leader Abdel Mejid Abou Zeid was killed in the region after retreating there in the face of the French-led intervention. [For more, see LWJ's report, France confirms death of senior AQIM commander Abou Zeid.]
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) is also known to operate in the Kidal region of Mali. MUJAO has been behind several attacks and kidnappings in Kidal since its inception in late 2011.
On Oct. 30, near the border with Mali, nine Nigerien troops were killed after also clashing with al Qaeda-linked militants. The militants attacked a Nigerien prison, a Malian refugee camp, and a patrol of Nigerien troops in three simultaneous attacks in Niger. During the attack on the prison, several inmates were freed from their cells.
It is unclear which group was responsible for these attacks, but al Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar has undertaken operations inside Niger before. In late May 2013, Belmokhtar's group, the al Mua'qi'oon Biddam (Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade) launched suicide attacks inside Niger, killing 18 Nigerien troops. Mokhtar Belmokhtar's group has since joined forces with another Malian al Qaeda group, MUJAO, to form the al Mourabitoun Brigade, and has reaffirmed his allegiance to al Qaeda emir, Ayman al Zawahiri. [For more on Mokhtar Belmokhtar's groups, see LWJ reports, Belmokhtar's unit participated in Niger suicide attacks, 9 UN troops killed in Mali ambush, African al Qaeda leader sides with Zawahiri in Syrian dispute, and US adds Belmokhtar's brigades to terrorist lists.]
On Oct. 3, French special forces arrested members of the al Mourabitoun Brigade in two operations in Mali and Niger. The Malian region of Gao, which borders the Tillaberi region of Niger, is known as a hub for al Mourabitoun.
Militant activity increasing in Mali
On Oct. 3, nine UN troops were killed in an ambush in the Gao region of Mali. A few days later, a MUJAO spokesman, Sultan Ould Bady, claimed responsibility for the attack. The ambush came just two weeks after five Chadian troops were killed when they drove over a mine in the Kidal region of northern Mali.
On Sept. 2, four UN peacekeepers were killed in a roadside bomb attack near the city of Kidal. The attack came just days after AQIM had taken responsibility for several attacks in Mali, including an Aug. 16 suicide bombing that killed two UN troops in Ber, a town close to Timbuktu, and three other attacks near Timbuktu in June and July.
Earlier, on July 15, a French soldier was killed in an IED attack in northern Mali. Several other attacks in Mali have also been attributed to al Qaeda-linked forces this year. The Long War Journal has compiled a map of significant al Qaeda-linked attacks this year. Based on the data gathered from local Malian news sites or wire services such as Reuters, most attacks have happened in northern Mali, with at least five occurring near the city of Timbuktu. Ten of the compiled 18 attacks have taken place since August, with half of those occurring in the month of October. Furthermore, three attacks were carried out in the last week alone.
In light of increased activity, the French have launched a "large-scale operation" in northern Mali, according to French Army spokesman Gilles Jaron. The operation is intended to clear out jihadists in northern Mali. The French intervention mission in Mali was recently replaced by a counterterrorism operation, Operation Barkhan, in which French special forces will work in conjunction with several Saharan and Sahelian states to tackle terrorism in Mali.
Arab, Haqqani Network commanders reported killed in latest drone strike in South Waziristan
The US is reported to have killed a "senior Arab commander" in a drone strike today in Pakistan's Taliban-infested tribal agency of South Waziristan. The strike took place in an area where, less than two years ago, the US killed a Taliban commander who was supported by the Pakistani state.
Today's drone strike took place in the Birmal area of South Waziristan, a known Taliban stronghold. The remotely piloted Predators or Reapers killed five jihadists, including one described by a villager as "a senior Arab commander," in a strike on a compound, Reuters reported.
"The bodies were taken to an unknown location after the attack," the news agency stated. A number of "foreign guests," a reference to al Qaeda and other jihadist groups from outside of Pakistan, were meeting at the compound.
The Arab commander was identified as "Adil," according to Dawn.
Additionally, Pakistani intelligence officials claimed that a Haqqani Network commander known as Abdullah Haqqani was also among those killed in the strike, Khaama Press reported. Abdullah is said to run suicide bombers into Afghanistan. The Haqqani Network is a Taliban subgroup that is closely allied with al Qaeda, and is also considered by the Pakistani government to be "good Taliban."
Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other jihadist groups known to operate in the area have not released a statement announcing the death of a senior leader.
The US has launched three other drone strikes in Birmal since June 2011. The most recent strike, on Jan. 3, 2013, killed Mullah Nazir, a Taliban commander in South Waziristan who openly identified as an al Qaeda leader. Nazir was supported by the Pakistani state because he was considered to be part of the "good Taliban," or Taliban groups that wage jihad against the West and in Afghanistan but do not advocate attacking the Pakistani state.
The US government has a different view of Nazir and his network. Just two months Nazir's death in a drone strike, the US added the Mullah Nazir Group and a subcommander to the list of global terrorists. And in August 2013, the US added Bahawal Khan, the new leader of the Mullah Nazir Group, to the terrorism list. Some of al Qaeda's top leaders have been killed by US drones in areas under the control of the Mullah Nazir Group. [For more information on the designations and the so-called "good Taliban," see LWJ reports, US adds Mullah Nazir Group, subcommander to terrorism list and US adds emir of Pakistan-based Mullah Nazir Group to list of global terrorists.]
US strikes in Pakistan
Despite US government officials' claims that al Qaeda has been "decimated" in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the CIA continues to target the group's command and control in the region.
The CIA, which operates the drone program in Pakistan, has launched eight strikes in North and South Waziristan in October. This is the highest number of strikes in Pakistan a single month since January 2013, when seven were launched. The US has averaged between two to three strikes a month, excluding a gap in 2014 between January and May, when no strikes were launched.
In the last drone strike, on Oct. 11, the US killed Sheikh Imran Ali Siddiqi (a.k.a. Haji Shaikh Waliullah), a senior leader in al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, al Qaeda's newest branch. The strike, which took place in North Waziristan, also killed a "good Taliban" commander who served in the Hafiz Gul Bahadar group. [See LWJ reports, US drone strike kills veteran jihadist turned senior AQIS official and AQIS leader, 'good' Taliban commander killed in 2 US drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas.]
The US has carried out 17 drone strikes inside Pakistan this year; all 17 have taken place since June 11. The US drone program in Pakistan was put on hold from the end of December 2013 up until June 11, 2014 as the Pakistani government attempted to negotiate a peace deal with the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, an al Qaeda-linked group that wages jihad in Afghanistan and seeks to overthrow the Pakistani state.
Eight of the 17 strikes have occurred since Oct. 5. Five of the strikes have taken place in North Waziristan, and there have also been two in South Waziristan and one in Khyber.
Al Nusrah Front offensive in Idlib targets Assad regime, fellow rebels
The Al Nusrah Front has produced a propaganda video justifying its offensive against the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF). This man, who claims that he was attacked at an SRF-controlled checkpoint, is featured as an anti-SRF witness.
The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, has launched an offensive in recent days targeting its fellow rebels as well as Syrian regime forces in the eastern province of Idlib. In particular, Al Nusrah is targeting the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) and has reportedly seized territory from the group.
In one propaganda video released online, Al Nusrah attempts to justify its offensive against the SRF. The 9 minute, 22 second video was posted on one of Al Nusrah's official Twitter feeds on Oct. 28. It is titled, "Testimonies on Syrian Liberation Front Attacks on Citizens."
The video begins by showing a man sitting on a couch with an al Qaeda black banner behind him. Underneath the Islamic shahada ("There is no god but God. Mohammed is the Messenger of God.") on the flag, the text appears to read: "Al Qaeda Central, Al Nusrah Front."
The man, who is portrayed as a witness for the Al Nusrah Front, says he was accosted at a checkpoint controlled by forces loyal to SRF leader Jamal Maarouf. The SRF fighters allegedly stole his vehicle and the flour he was transporting. While the man got his vehicle back, with help from Al Nusrah, he lost his cargo to the SRF.
This man is also featured in the Al Nusrah Front's anti-SRF video. He gives a tour of a bakery that he says was ransacked by the SRF.
A second man is introduced as an anti-SRF witness. This man walks the cameraman through a bakery that he says was ransacked by SRF fighters, who supposedly looted and shot up the place.
The Al Nusrah Front video is, of course, a one-sided account and is intended to portray the SRF in the worst possible light. The purpose behind it is truly interesting.
The SRF, which is part of the Free Syrian Army and has been portrayed as a "moderate" rebel force, has long fought alongside Al Nusrah in the Syrian battlefields.
In an interview published by The Independent in April, for instance, Maarouf explained that he was "not fighting against al Qaeda," because "it's not our problem." Maarouf also admitted that the SRF had shared weapons with the Al Nusrah Front.
Throughout August and September, the SRF fought alongside Al Nusrah and its other allies as the jihadists took control of the Quneitra border crossing in southern Syria and engaged in other fierce combat.
In recent days, however, this alliance has not held in Idlib.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reports that Al Nusrah and SRF forces have fought at various checkpoints in the countryside of Idlib this week. The clashes are likely what prompted Al Nusrah to produce its propaganda video alleging that the SRF has been attacking civilians.
Seven Syrian towns and villages were captured during the Al Nusrah Front's offensive, according to SOHR. The captured territory had been controlled by the SRF, sources cited by Reuters say.
Al Nusrah has not just targeted the SRF in the countryside of Idlib, but has also launched operations against Bashar al Assad's forces inside the city of Idlib as well. The SOHR reports that Al Nusrah used four suicide bombers during its assault on Idlib. The al Qaeda branch and its allies temporarily captured the Governor's mansion and a police headquarters, but both buildings were reportedly recaptured by government forces. Al Nusrah reportedly executed 70 Syrian Army soldiers before withdrawing.
Some accounts have suggested that the Islamic State, which is Al Nusrah's bitter rival, has sent reinforcements to Idlib to buttress the jihadists' advances. But this has not been confirmed and seems unlikely. Other groups, such as Jund al Aqsa, have been assisting Al Nusrah in the fighting.
French warplanes bomb Islamic State camp in Iraq
Map of known provincial locations of training camps run by the Islamic State, the Al Nusrah Front, and allied jihadist groups since 2012. Map created by Caleb Weiss and Bill Roggio.
The French Air Force has joined US and allied countries in targeting jihadist training camps in Iraq and Syria. The Long War Journal has identified 39 camps in Iraq and Syria as being operational at one point in time or another since 2012.
The French Ministry of Defense announced on Oct. 23 that it struck an Islamic State camp in Hawijah in Salahaddin province. Hawijah is currently controlled by the Islamic State. The camp is used for the "training of terrorists," as a recruitment center and as an IED "factory," according to a translation of the press release by The Long War Journal.
"At about 10:30 p.m. Paris time, a patrol of Rafale [jets], each armed with six AASM(1) bombs and equipped with the Damocles targeting pod, launched 12 AASM[s] at the target," the French MoD press release says. "This air raid, in which our allies participated, resulted in the destruction of an Islamic State complex that was serving as a factory for homemade bombs and as a center for the recruitment, formation, and training of terrorists. The airstrikes were complemented by simultaneous strikes by our allies on two other strategic Islamic State sites, dealing a heavy blow to their logistics."
The Islamic State is known to operate four camps in Salahaddin province. The Long War Journal has identified other facilities in Samarra, Baiji, and the Hamrin Mountains.
US Central Command, which is directing air operations in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State, noted that it struck a "training camp" in two airstrikes near Baiji between Oct. 23-24. Hawijah is 20 miles northeast of Baiji.
Jihadist camps in Iraq and Syria
Since the beginning of 2012, a total of 39 camps have been identified as being operational, according to data compiled by The Long War Journal. Information on the camps has been obtained from jihadist videos, news accounts, and US military press releases that note airstrikes against the training facilities. It is unclear if all of the training camps are currently in operation. In addition, this analysis is compiled using publicly-available evidence. It is likely that some training camps are not advertised.
Of those camps, 28 have been located in Syria and 11 in Iraq.
The Islamic State has operated 22 camps (12 in Syria and 10 in Iraq). The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch, has operated seven camps in Syria. Various allied jihadist groups, including Ansar al Islam, Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar, and Junud al Sham, have operated 10 camps (nine in Syria and one in Iraq).
Historically, al Qaeda has used its training facilities to fuel local insurgencies while selecting individuals from the pool of trainees to conduct attacks against the West. [See LWJ report, Jihadist training camps proliferate in Iraq and Syria, for more information on the camps; and Islamist foreign fighters returning home and the threat to Europe, on the threat that jihadists training at camps in Iraq and Syria pose to the West.]
Fighting between jihadists, Haftar's forces escalates in Benghazi
Footage purportedly shot inside the February 17th Martyrs Brigade base in Benghazi
In the last week, Benghazi has seen a sharp increase in violence after the former Libyan general, Khalifa Haftar, began a renewed offensive with the Libyan army against jihadists in the city.
The Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, the largest alliance of jihadist groups, met the offensive with harsh resistance. According to Reuters, 130 people have been killed in the last 10 days.
Al Arabiya reports that the fighting is now mainly taking place in the Ras Obeida district of Benghazi. Haftar's forces took the February 17th Martyrs Brigade base and pushed back jihadists near the Benina International Airport on Oct. 25.
However, several videos and photos have been released purportedly showing fighters from Ansar al Sharia, an al Qaeda-affiliated group in the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, inside the February 17th Martyrs Brigade base.
In some pictures, fighters are shown at the entrance of the base holding signs that are dated Oct. 25, 2014.
In other pictures released by online jihadists who support Ansar al Sharia, several vehicles can be seen that were allegedly captured from Haftar's fighters recently. The pictures are shown below.
Fighting is also taking place in the eastern Benghazi district of Garyounis, as a newly-released video shows a heavy firefight between Haftar's forces and Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council fighters.
Some reports claim that the leader of Ansar al Sharia, Mohammad al Zahawi, was killed in the recent fighting, but that is doubtful. The claims cannot be verified and no firm evidence has surfaced indicating that Zahawi has, in fact, been killed. Ansar al Sharia has not issued a statement confirming or denying these reports, and Zahawi has been reported killed before, only to later resurface.
Fighting in Benghazi
The recent fighting in Benghazi is just the latest violence to have rocked the city since the end of the civil war in 2011. In May of this year, Haftar launched a major offensive in the city to "cleanse" it of jihadists. The operation, dubbed "Operation Dignity," was initially successful but has since reached a bitter stalemate.
In July, the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council was able to overtake a Libyan special forces base in the city. On its official Twitter feed, Ansar al Sharia posted a video of its leader, Mohammad al Zahawi, discussing his group's "victory." The group also posted photos of the weapons, or "booty," it captured, as well as scenes from the assault on the base. [See LWJ's report, Ansar al Sharia, allies seize Libyan special forces base in Benghazi.]
According to a map made by Twitter analyst @MaliWitness and his colleague, Ansar al Sharia and Haftar's forces each control around half of Benghazi, with large parts also being contested.
Earlier this month, the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council was reportedly responsible for a series of suicide bombings in and around the city, including several at the Benina International Airport. Al Jazeera reported that up to four vehicle-borne explosive devices (VBIEDs) were used on the airport, which killed 40 Libyan troops. Four troops were also killed in a separate attack in the eastern part of Benghazi. [For more, read LWJ's report, Jihadists launch multiple suicide bombings in Libya.]
The Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council
The Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), which is fighting against Haftar's forces, is an alliance of several jihadist groups in the city. The main four groups in the alliance are Ansar al Sharia, the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, Libya Shield 1, and the Rafallah al Sahati Brigades.
Ansar al Sharia, an al Qaeda-linked jihadist group, is likely the overall leader of the alliance. The group gained widespread attention after its fighters took part in the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi. [For more on Ansar al Sharia's links to al Qaeda, see LWJ reports: Al Qaeda and the threat in North Africa and State Department designates 3 Ansar al Sharia organizations, leaders.]
The February 17th Martyrs Brigade is another large militia in Benghazi and was once considered an ally of both the Libyan government and the US in eastern Libya. The Brigade was also paid to provide security for the US Mission in Benghazi around the time of the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attacks.
Libya Shield 1, which was originally part of the larger Libya Shield Forces, is another militia within the BRSC. The Shield has been led by Wissam Bin Hamid, who was initially considered an American security ally in Benghazi, but failed to intervene on the night of the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack. He is currently fighting alongside Ansar al Sharia and has been featured in the group's videos and propaganda. [See LWJ reports: Ansar al Sharia ally a key figure in Benghazi security failures and Ansar al Sharia video features jihadist once thought to be US ally in Benghazi.]
The Rafallah al Sahati Brigade is the last major group in the BRSC. It is an Islamist brigade that has been closely allied with Ansar al Sharia.
The pictures below were released by online jihadists who support Ansar al Sharia and allegedly show vehicles recently captured from Haftar's forces:
Islamic State uses British hostage in propaganda video to rebut Western, Kurdish claims
Update: The Islamic State video of John Cantlie in Kobane, which was included above, has been removed from YouTube. It has been replaced with an image from the video.
The Islamic State has released a video featuring John Cantlie, a British war reporter who has been held hostage since 2012, in what is claimed to be the Syrian border town of Kobane. An image of Cantlie from the video can be seen above.
The US and its coalition partners have launched a number of airstrikes against the Islamic State's forces in and around the town. And Kurdish forces are battling the jihadists on the ground.
Western and Kurdish sources have claimed in the press that they have pushed back the Islamic State's advances. But Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's organization uses Cantlie to say this is not the case.
In the 5 minute, 32 second video, titled "Inside 'Ayn Al-Islam," Cantlie appears to be stationed somewhere in Kobane during broad daylight. At one point he points to the Turkish flag in the distance.
Cantlie is made to say, contrary to the claims made by UK and US officials, that the Islamic State's "mujahideen" are near victory. The jihadists are "definitely not on the run," and all Cantlie can see around him are the group's mujahideen -- not their Kurdish opponents.
The video begins with an aerial shot supposedly taken by the "Drone of the Islamic State Army." The aerial footage shows a town that has been ravaged by warfare.
The video then cuts to a scene of Cantlie, who says that he is standing in the "heart" of the PKK's "so-called safe zone, which is now controlled entirely by the Islamic State."
The PKK, as it is known, is the Kurdistan Workers Party, which is fighting against the Islamic State's guerrilla forces. The PKK has been designated a foreign terrorist organization by the US government.
Despite the American airstrikes, Cantlie is made to say that "the mujahideen have pushed deep into the heart of the city" and are controlling the eastern and southern sectors.
Cantlie then briefly looks around, noting that he can't see any Western journalists. He cites a number of accounts in the Western media, and quotes US officials, before dismissing them.
"There are no journalists here in the city, so the media are getting their information from Kurdish commanders and White House press secretaries, neither of whom have the slightest intention of telling the truth of what's happening here on the ground," Cantlie says.
He claims that because the coalition's airstrikes have prevented the Islamic State from using its heavy artillery, the group has adjusted and is using lighter armaments, moving from house to house. It is for this reason, the Islamic State has Cantlie say, that the bombings are not enough to defeat the jihadist group in Kobane or elsewhere.
The Islamic State also has Cantlie mock the US, noting its "hopeless" Air Force has resupplied the mujahideen by dropping two crates of weapons to the group. Cantlie is referencing recent footage showing crates of weapons, which were intended for the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), but mistakenly dropped into the Islamic State's hands. The YPG is the Syrian branch of the PKK.
Cantlie concludes by saying that the battle for Kobane is "coming to an end," as the Islamic State is "mopping up" now in the streets.
The New York Times: Cantlie and other hostages endure "excruciating suffering"
The Islamic State's video of Cantlie is a propaganda device, and is intended to undermine Western claims about the efficacy of the airstrikes. The fog of war makes any clear-eyed assessment of the situation difficult.
There is no telling what treatment Cantlie has been subjected to while in the Islamic State's custody. A recent article by The New York Times' Rukmini Callimachi pieced together the hostages' stories from multiple sources, concluding that they experienced "excruciating suffering."
Cantlie was abducted alongside James Foley, an American who was subsequently beheaded by the Islamic State in August. According to the Times, Cantlie and Foley were initially held by the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in the country. They were guarded by "an English-speaking trio whom they nicknamed 'the Beatles,'" and which "seemed to take pleasure in brutalizing them."
Eventually, both Foley and Cantlie became the Islamic State's hostages.
AQAP profiles slain media operative tied to Ayman al Zawahiri's brother
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has released a short biography of Mustafa Ali (a.k.a. Humam al Masri), a jihadist who served in the group's media department before he was killed in a US drone strike in late 2013.
The AQAP biography was released on Twitter. It was first obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
Ali was imprisoned for five years under Hosni Mubarak's regime, according to AQAP. He was released in the wake of the Egyptian revolution in 2011. Ali then emigrated to Yemen at the beginning of 2012 in order "to join his mujahideen brothers in Ansar al Sharia."
The biographers point out that Ansar al Sharia, which is a political front and alias for AQAP, ruled "over large areas in Abyan and Shabwa provinces in southern Yemen" at the time of Ali's emigration to Yemen. Ali then "joined the Sharia and military training courses."
"Due to [Ali's] specialty in studying the media, and mastering the work with picture programs, design, and graphics, our martyr was chosen to be a member of the media department," AQAP explains, according to SITE's translation.
Ali moved from the media department to AQAP's military department, but was then killed in a US drone strike in the Hadramout province.
Sought "knowledge" from Mohammed al Zawahiri while imprisoned
AQAP's biography of Ali contains an interesting note concerning his imprisonment in Egypt. "He invested his time in prison in seeking knowledge and meeting with the experienced mujahideen such as sheikhs Mohammed al Zawahiri and Abdul Hakim Hasaan, may Allah preserve both of them and release them," SITE's translation reads.
Mohammed al Zawahiri is the younger brother of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. The younger Zawahiri was himself imprisoned in Egypt for years, only to be released after the uprisings against the Mubarak regime.
After his release from prison, the younger Zawahiri became a prolific advocate of al Qaeda's ideology. He publicly denounced Western democracy and espoused al Qaeda's supposed virtues while preaching in Tahrir Square, as well as during appearances on Egyptian television and radio programs. He also did interviews with Western journalists.
Mohammed al Zawahiri's activities garnered additional scrutiny following the protest outside of the US Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11, 2012. Zawahiri and several other al Qaeda-linked jihadists helped instigate the event, which was pro-al Qaeda from the first and led to the embassy's walls being breached. The American flag was torn down and replaced with an al Qaeda-style black banner as protesters chanted, "Obama, Obama, we're all Osama [bin Laden]!"
Four months later, in January 2013, Mohammed al Zawahiri orchestrated a less eventful protest outside of the French Embassy in Cairo. Banners of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri were flown outside of the embassy, as protesters objected to France's intervention in Mali. Zawahiri repeatedly threatened France and the West at the time.
Despite his overt support for al Qaeda, Zawahiri claimed he was not really a member of his brother's organization. Evidence collected by Western intelligence officials told a different story. Mohammed al Zawahiri was connected to jihadists across al Qaeda's international network, and he reportedly helped Egyptian terrorists contact his older brother. One of his followers was killed during an attack on Malian soldiers in May 2013.
Mohammed al Zawahiri was rearrested by Egyptian authorities in August 2013. But during his time free from prison he was a prominent speaker at events hosted by Ansar al Sharia Egypt, an organization that advocated the imposition of al Qaeda-style sharia law. Ansar al Sharia Egypt was founded by a longtime comrade of the Zawahiri brothers.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Mustafa Ali would be drawn to Ansar al Sharia in Yemen, where al Qaeda first used the Ansar al Sharia brand in the post-Arab Spring world.
AQAP says in its biography that Mustafa Ali was influenced by another imprisoned jihadist known as "Abdul Hakim Hasaan." That same alias is used by a senior al Qaeda official more commonly known as Sheikh Issa al Masri, but it is not clear if AQAP was referring to Sheikh Issa or some other jihadist. There have been conflicting reports about Sheikh Issa's status, with some accounts placing him in custody. Sheikh Issa was operational throughout much of Mustafa Ali's time in Egyptian custody.
Drone strike in Hadramout on Nov. 19, 2013
AQAP did not specify which US air strike killed Mustafa Ali, but indicated that the bombing took place sometime in late 2013. It is likely that Ali was killed in the Nov. 19, 2013 drone strike in Hadramout. Reports at the time indicated that 3 AQAP fighters had been killed, but the slain jihadists were not publicly identified. [See LWJ report, US drones kill 3 AQAP fighters in Yemen airstrike.]
It is not known if the US was targeting AQAP media operatives, military figures within the group, or both. While AQAP's biography indicates that Ali had worked for the Al Malahem Media Foundation, the group's propaganda arm, it also says that he had moved on to the "military department."
Drone strikes in Yemen have killed both AQAP military commanders as well as media operatives. In September 2011, for instance, the US killed Anwar al Awlaki, the American propagandist, ideologue, recruiter, and operational commander, and Samir Khan, an American who ran Inspire Magazine, in an airstrike in Al Jawf province.
Pro-al Qaeda Saudi ideologue criticizes jihadist leaders in Syria, calls for unity
Dr. Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, as pictured on his Twitter feed.
The ability of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's Islamic State to garner new recruits has become such a problem that one of Baghdadi's most influential critics has been forced to weigh in.
Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, a popular al Qaeda-linked cleric from Saudi Arabia, has criticized the leadership of the Islamic State's jihadist rivals in Syria for failing to provide a unified plan. Muhaysini argues that because of the "disorder" in the jihadists' ranks, young recruits have been forced into the arms of Baghdadi's Islamic State.
The Saudi sheikh, who relocated to Syria in 2013, is no fan of Baghdadi or the Islamic State, which he has criticized for following the "wrong" jihadist program. Muhaysini has been closely allied with the leaders of the Islamic State's jihadist opponents in Syria, including the Al Nusrah Front, which is al Qaeda's official branch in the country. But this hasn't stopped Muhaysini from publicly criticizing those same leaders for failing to prevent the "youth" from falling under the Islamic State's sway.
Muhaysini's critique, therefore, provides an interesting look at the jihadists' shortcomings in Syria, from the perspective of an ideologue associated with al Qaeda.
Muhaysini's criticisms were first published on his Twitter feed, which has more than 330,000 followers, on Oct. 20. The tweets were then collated into a single statement that was distributed online.
The ideologue begins by saying that he is providing a comment "on some of our beloved ones pledging allegiance to the State Organization," meaning Baghdadi's group. Muhaysini writes that he is still "determined to distance" himself from discussing the Islamic State. This is not because its jihadist program is the right one. Instead, Muhaysini says, he doesn't want to address the Islamic State's deficiencies right now because all of the jihadists in Syria are "in defiance of the Crusaders and their Arab agents," who are bombing targets in the country.
Regardless, Muhaysini writes that he is compelled to address the defections to the Islamic State because it is his "duty" to clarify the situation.
Muhaysini does not name any specific jihadists who have joined the Islamic State, but it is clear that he is primarily talking about foreign fighters. He says the Islamic State's recruits "emigrated from their homelands" intending to "establish" Allah's sharia law and restore "the lost caliphate."
The Islamic State's messaging has focused unambiguously on these themes. The entire purpose behind the rebranding of Baghdadi's organization from the Islamic State of Iraq, to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), to simply the Islamic State, was to capitalize on the claim that the organization has resurrected the caliphate.
Still, according to Muhaysini, some withheld their allegiance to the Islamic State after hearing experienced jihadists "speak against it," "criticize" it, and "warn against pledging allegiance" to Baghdadi. So, the emigrants waited, especially after seeing the Islamic State's spilling of Muslim blood.
It is at this point that the Islamic State's rivals failed, according to Muhaysini. The foreigners "expected" groups such as the Ansar al Din Front (which includes foreign contingents), Ahrar al Sham, and Al Jund al Sham, as well as others, "to launch the project for which they emigrated." But all the emigrants found was "disarray, dissent," "selfishness," and poor conditions among the alternatives to the Islamic State.
The jihadists who emigrated to Syria compared these groups to the Islamic State and chose "the order" of the latter.
Muhaysini says that Abu Muhammad al Julani (Al Nusrah Front's emir), Abu Jabir (the leader of Ahrar al Sham), and the leaders of Ansar al Din and Al Jund al Sham all "need to understand this."
Specifically addressing these leaders, Muhaysini warns they "must understand that they will be accountable before Allah for these young men who had to choose between a rock and a hard place." That is, the new recruits had to pick between the Islamic State, with its "order" and "wrong program," and the other factions' "disorder" and "correct program."
Muhaysini blames the jihadist leaders' "disorder and failure to launch" their project for problems among the youth, and warns the leaders that they "will be questioned on Judgment Day" about it. He claims that although the youth do not agree with the Islamic State's decision to deem its fellow jihadists as un-Islamic, they have had no choice.
And, in what appears to be a critique of the Al Nusrah Front, Muhaysini says that he repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, appealed to the group's leadership to reform its media arm and regional management. This is an implicit acknowledgment that the Islamic State has advantages in both regards.
If his problems with the Islamic State were merely administrative, Muhaysini says, he would have joined the organization long ago. But his disagreements with Baghdadi and his subordinates go well beyond management issues. The Islamic State declares Muslims "to be infidels," spills their blood, rejects arbitration with other groups in a common sharia court, and unilaterally decided to declare a caliphate "without consultation" among Muslims. For all of these reasons, Muhaysini says, the Islamic State adheres to the wrong jihadist program.
Muhaysini pleads with the "brothers" who joined the Islamic State to attempt to reform it from within. He warns them not to be silent when it comes to the Islamic State's violence towards Muslims. And he says they should listen to what established jihadist authorities have to say, listing 11 influential scholars as righteous guides. The scholars include well-known critics of the Islamic State, such as Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, Abu Qatada, and Hani al Sibai.
The Saudi says that nothing would make him happier than if the Islamic State reformed its ways, not even the deaths of one million Alawites [Bashar al Assad and his followers] and Crusaders.
In separate tweets and statements in the days that followed his critique of the Islamic State's rivals, Muhaysini said that he would again visit all of the top jihadist leaders in Syria. Muhaysini says he wants to unify the jihadists' ranks against their common enemies.
But he has attempted, and failed, to bring about a reconciliation on multiple occasions in the past.
Iraqi forces, Kurds claim success against Islamic State near Baghdad and Mosul
Iraqi and Syrian towns and cities seized by the Islamic State and its allies. Map created by Patrick Megahan and Bill Roggio for The Long War Journal. Click to view larger map.
The Iraqi military and the Kurdish Peshmerga said their forces have driven the Islamic State from Jurf al Sahkar south of Baghdad and the town of Zumar northwest of Mosul over the weekend. The two towns have changed hands several times over the past few months.
The Iraqi military, backed by Iranian-supported Shiite militias, claimed to have cleared the Islamic State from Jurf al Sahkar, a contested town in northern Babil province, on Oct. 25 after heavy fighting. Iraqi officials said that 300 Islamic State fighters and 67 soldiers and Shiite militiamen were killed, according to Reuters. Islamic State fighters are said to have withdrawn to nearby towns.
Farther north, near Mosul and Sinjar, Kurdish forces, backed by US airstrikes, wrested control of Zumar and two nearby towns from the Islamic State yesterday. US Central command launched 10 airstrikes "west of the Mosul Dam" and hit "four small ISIL [Islamic State] units, one large ISIL unit, destroyed an ISIL building, six ISIL fighting positions and four ISIL staging locations."
Kurdish and Iraqi casualties during the fighting in Zumar were not disclosed. But Islamic State fighters killed seven Peshmerga fighters in an IED attack in a nearby village, according to Reuters. Additionally, 17 Islamic State fighters were captured in another nearby town.
Two towns have changed hands several times
Control of the towns of Jurf al Sakhar and Zumar has alternated between the Islamic State and the Iraqi government or Kurdish forces over the past several months.
Jurf al Sakhar is a key piece of terrain for both the Islamic State and the Iraqi government. The Islamic State seeks to control it to facilitate the flow of fighters and weapons from Anbar to other cities and towns in northern Babil and southern Baghdad province. Additionally, control of Jurf al Sakhar allows the jihadist group to launch attacks into the Shiite holy city of Karbala and other cities and towns farther south.
In the past eight months, the Iraqi military has claimed to have liberated Jurf al Sakhar numerous times. The Iraqi military has also claimed to have killed hundreds of fighters in the town. [See LWJ report, US air campaign against Islamic State expands to southwestern Baghdad.]
Zumar has also changed hands several times since the beginning of August. The Islamic State took control of the town on Aug. 2 during an offensive in the north that put the group in control of Sinjar, the Mosul Dam, and a host of other towns north, west, and east of Mosul. On Aug. 10, the Peshmerga, backed by US airstrikes, retook Zumar. But Kurdish forces abandoned the town in September after another Islamic State offensive.
3 AQAP fighters reported killed in US drone strike
The US reportedly killed three al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters today in a province in central Yemen where the jihadist group is battling Shia Houthi rebels who have advanced southward after taking control of the capital of Sana'a last month.
The remotely piloted Predators or Reapers killed the three fighters in a strike in the Manasseh area near the city of Rada'a in Baydah province, Reuters reported. The strike targeted Ansar al Sharia, AQAP's political front in Yemen. The US State Department described Ansar al Sharia as an "alias" of AQAP in its designation of the former group in 2012.
It is unclear if any senior al Qaeda or Ansar al Sharia leaders were killed in the US drone strike. AQAP has not announced the death of any of its senior leaders or operatives.
The Manasseh area in Baydah is a known haven for AQAP fighters and leaders. The US has launched three other airstrikes in Manasseh since late December 2012. The last such attack took place on Aug. 30, 2013. The US killed Kaid al Dhabab and two fighters in a strike on a vehicle in that airstrike. Kaid served as the group's emir for Baydah.
Today's strike is the first since Oct. 15. Four AQAP operatives, including Mahdi Badas, the group's emir for Shabwa, were reported to have been killed in a strike that targeted a vehicle in the southern province of Shabwa.
The US has launched four drone strikes in Yemen since Shia Houthi rebels, which are backed by Iran and are enemies of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, took control of the capital of Sana'a on Sept. 22. The Houthis have since advanced southward and taken control of the port city of Hodeidah and the central Yemeni city of Dhamar. The Houthi rebels also seized areas outside of Radaa in Baydah before halting their advance.
AQAP and the Houthis have since been battling outside of Radaa and elsewhere in Yemen. AQAP has positioned itself as the defenders of Sunnis in Yemen as the government and military have collapsed in the face of the Houthi advance.
Jihadist training camps proliferate in Iraq and Syria
Map of known provincial locations of training camps run by the Islamic State, the Al Nusrah Front, and allied jihadist groups since 2012. Map created by Caleb Weiss and Bill Roggio.
Since the Syrian civil war began in the spring of 2011, the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and other allied jihadist groups have operated more than 30 training camps inside Iraq and Syria. While global jihadist groups have primarily used camps to indoctrinate and train fighters for local insurgencies as part of the effort to establish a global caliphate, in the past al Qaeda has used its camps to support attacks against the West.
The Long War Journal has compiled information on the camps from jihadist videos, news accounts, and US military press releases that note airstrikes against the training facilities. It is unclear if all of the training camps are currently in operation. In addition, this analysis is compiled using publicly-available evidence. It is likely that some training camps are not advertised.
Since the beginning of 2012, a total of 38 camps have been identified as being operational. Of those camps, 28 are in Syria, and 10 are in Iraq.
The Islamic State, the al Qaeda splinter group that was disowned by al Qaeda's general command in February 2014, operates the largest number of training facilities, with nine camps in Iraq and 12 more in Syria.
In Iraq, the Islamic State has operated three camps in Anbar province, three in Salahaddin, two in Ninewa, and one more in Kirkuk.
In Syria, the Islamic State has run six facilities in Aleppo province, two in Deir al Zour, and one each in Hasakah, Raqqah, Latakia, and Damascus.
The Al Nusrah Front, which is al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, has run seven camps in the country; two each in Deir al Zour and Aleppo, and one each in Idlib, Homs, and Daraa. The camps in Deir al Zour and Raqqah are thought to be no longer operational after the Islamic State took control of the areas. The Al Nusrah Front camps are also likely the same camps used by the so-called Khorasan group, which is led by senior al Qaeda leaders and is embedded within Al Nusrah. Al Qaeda's Khorasan group seeks to conduct attacks against the West.
Ten more camps are run by jihadist groups allied with the Al Nusrah Front. Nine training facilities are in Syria, and one, run by Ansar al Islam, is in Iraq. Two of the camps in Syria are operated by Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar and Junud al Sham. In September 2014, Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar was listed by the US as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group, and Murad Margoshvilli, the leader of the Junud al Sham, was named a global terrorist.
Training for insurgencies and for terrorist attacks
In the past, al Qaeda has used its network of camps not only to train fighters to battle in local insurgencies, but also to identify potential recruits as well as support a host of allied jihadist groups.
The 9/11 Commission Report detailed how al Qaeda used its sanctuary in Afghanistan prior to the attacks on the US to operate camps and expand its ties to jihadist groups throughout the world:
The alliance with the Taliban provided al Qaeda a sanctuary in which to train and indoctrinate fighters and terrorists, import weapons, forge ties with other jihad groups and leaders, and plot and staff terrorist schemes. While Bin Ladin maintained his own al Qaeda guesthouses and camps for vetting and training recruits, he also provided support to and benefited from the broad infrastructure of such facilities in Afghanistan made available to the global network of Islamist movements. U.S. intelligence estimates put the total number of fighters who underwent instruction in Bin Ladin-supported camps in Afghanistan from 1996 through 9/11 at 10,000 to 20,000.
In addition to training fighters and special operators, this larger network of guesthouses and camps provided a mechanism by which al Qaeda could screen and vet candidates for induction into its own organization. Thousands flowed through the camps, but no more than a few hundred seem to have become al Qaeda members. From the time of its founding, al Qaeda had employed training and indoctrination to identify "worthy" candidates.
Al Qaeda continued meanwhile to collaborate closely with the many Middle Eastern groups -- in Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Somalia, and elsewhere -- with which it had been linked when Bin Ladin was in Sudan. It also reinforced its London base and its other offices around Europe, the Balkans, and the Caucasus. Bin Ladin bolstered his links to extremists in South and Southeast Asia, including the Malaysian-Indonesian JI [Jemaah Islamiyah] and several Pakistani groups engaged in the Kashmir conflict.
While al Qaeda was building its network, some senior US military leaders tasked with assessing the threat of al Qaeda dismissed its network of camps in Afghanistan as rudimentary facilities not worthy of attention. According to the 9/11 Commission Report:
Members of the Small Group found themselves unpersuaded of the merits of rolling attacks. Defense Secretary William Cohen told us Bin Ladin's training camps were primitive, built with "rope ladders"; General Shelton called them "jungle gym" camps. Neither thought them worthwhile targets for very expensive missiles.
Today, US officials clearly view the camps in Iraq and Syria as a direct threat to US national security. US and allied countries have targeted this network of training camps in Iraq and Syria in air and cruise missile strikes.
Since Aug. 7, when the US air campaign against the Islamic State began, the US has targeted multiple Islamic State training centers in 11 airstrikes. Islamic State training camps were hit in US airstrikes in Mosul on Sept. 18; Raqqah, Abu Kamal, Dier al Zour, and Hasakah on Sept. 22; Raqqah on Sept. 27; Manbij on Sept. 29; again in Raqqah on Oct. 3 and Oct. 8; near Kobane on Oct. 10; and near Fallujah on Oct. 23.
The US has also targeted training camps run by the Al Nusrah Front. On Sept. 22, the opening day of US airstrikes in Syria, the US launched 46 cruise missiles at eight different targets associated with the al Qaeda branch. In a press release announcing the strikes, the US military said it targeted more than one training camp associated with the "Khorasan Group," which is merely a name for a cadre of established Al Nusrah Front leaders and al Qaeda operatives who are coordinating attacks against the West. [See LWJ reports, Senior al Qaeda strategist part of so-called 'Khorasan group' and Al Qaeda leader claims key operative in so-called 'Khorasan group' was killed.]
Abu Yusuf al Turki, an Al Nusrah Front commander with experience in Turkey and Afghanistan who trained fighters how to become snipers, was killed in the Sept. 22 airstrikes. Al Turki, whose real name is Ümit Yaşar Toprak, was involved in a 2004 plot to assassinate former President George W. Bush during a NATO summit in Istanbul. He also fought in Afghanistan. [See LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front trainer suspected of plotting against 2004 NATO summit killed in US airstrikes.]
List of Islamic State training camps in Iraq:
- The Islamic State is known to operate training camps in the Hamrin Mountains. The Hamrin Mountains extend from Diyala province to Salahaddin province.
- The Islamic State operates a training camp near Haditha. On Aug. 21, 2012, the Islamic State (then known as al Qaeda in Iraq) released an extremely graphic video showing graduates from this camp killing dozens of Iraqi policemen in a nighttime raid. This camp is known as the "Sheikein Camp".
- In late 2013, an Obama administration official said that al Qaeda in Iraq (now known as the Islamic State) "has a presence in terms of camps and training facilities" in Anbar province.
- The Islamic State is also known to operate training camps in Samarra. On Feb. 10, 2014, 22 Islamic State fighters were killed in a training camp near Samarra while receiving instruction on how to make bombs for suicide attacks.
- An Islamic State training camp in Ninewa was announced on July 22, 2014. Eight squads of 11 to 13 men were shown in pictures of this camp. The Islamic State released a video of a training camp in Ninewa province on Oct. 12, 2014. The video showed over 100 recruits in the camp, but it is unclear if it is the same camp.
- On Sept. 18, 2014, US Central Command said airstrikes targeted an Islamic State training camp "southeast of Mosul."
- On Oct. 3, 2014, the Islamic State released photos from the "Shaykh Abu Omar al Baghdadi Camp" in Kirkuk. The pictures showcased a graduation of a cadre of fighters.
- On Oct. 23, 2014, US Central Command said it targeted an Islamic State training facility near Fallujah, Iraq.
- On Oct. 24, 2014, US Central Command said it targeted an Islamic State training facility near Baiji, Iraq.
List of Islamic State training camps in Syria:
- The Lions of the Caliphate Battalion, a group that has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State, posted pictures of a training camp on social media in late 2013. The group was based in Latakia province and it is unclear if the camp is still operational.
- The Shaykh Abu al Nur al Maqdisi Brigade, an Islamic State group mainly comprised of Gazans, released photos of a training camp in Syria earlier this year. The camp was likely in Aleppo, but it is unclear if the camp is still operational.
- On Jan. 25, 2014, a video was released on YouTube showing a training camp belonging to Sabiri's Jamaat. This group is comprised mainly of Uzbek and Dagestani fighters and has since sworn allegiance to the Islamic State.
- On May 8, 2014, the Islamic State released a video from the "Zarqawi Camp" on the outskirts of Damascus. The camp is named after the founder of al Qaeda in Iraq (now known as the Islamic State), Abu Musab al Zarqawi. This camp also hosts a section for the "Zarqawi Cubs"; "cubs" refers to children trained to wage jihad.
- The Islamic State released pictures of a training camp in Aleppo on July 26, 2014. The pictures showed scores of fighters after graduating from the camp.
- In early September 2014, the Islamic State released photos from the "Shaddad al Tunisi camp" in Aleppo province. The camp trains children and teens.
- On Sept. 23, 2014, US Central Command said that US and coalition aircraft targeted Islamic State "training compounds" in the vicinity of Raqqah, Deir al Zour, Abu Kamal, and Hasakah.
- On Sept. 29, 2014, US Central Command said that US and coalition aircraft targeted an Islamic State training camp near Manbij in Aleppo province.
- On Oct. 10, 2014, US Central Command said that US and coalition aircraft targeted an Islamic State training camp near Kobane in Aleppo province.
List of training camps belonging to the Al Nusrah Front:
- In 2013, the Al Nusrah Front released a video showing a training camp in the Homs region. The video featured trainees learning how to fight in hand-to-hand combat. It is unclear if this camp is still operational.
- On March 17, 2014, the Al Nusrah Front released videos from two training camps in eastern Syria. These camps were named the "Ayman al Zawahiri camp" and the "Abu Ghadiya camp." It is unclear if these camps are still operational.
- On May 27, 2014, the Al Nusrah Front released photos from a training camp in Daraa province in southern Syria. The facility, dubbed the "Ibn Taymiyyah camp," trains children.
- On Sept. 22, 2014, the US launched 46 cruise missiles at eight locations in Aleppo that included Al Nusrah training camps. These strikes also targeted camps belonging to the "Khorasan Group." It is likely that a sniper camp run by al Qaeda veteran Abu Yusuf al Turki was also targeted in these strikes.
- On Oct. 10, 2014, the Al Nusrah Front released photos from one of its training camps in Idlib. On Oct. 18, a video was released from the same camp. On Aug. 24, 2014, the Al Nusrah Front released photos from another training camp in Idlib.
- Sayfullah Shishani's Jamaat, a Chechen-led group within the Al Nusrah Front, is known to operate camps in Aleppo province to train fighters to become snipers and use other weapons.
List of training camps belonging to other jihadist groups in Syria or Iraq:
- On July 23, 2013, the Islamic Front's Ahrar al Sham released a video of one of its training camps in Daraa province in southern Syria. The video showed dozens of recruits at the camp.
- On Sept. 7, 2013, the Islamic Front's Ahrar al Sham released a video of a training camp in Raqqah province. It is likely that this camp is no longer operational as the Islamic State controls most of Raqqah.
- On Oct. 6, 2013, the Syrian group Harakat Fajr al Sham al Islamiya released a video of a training camp that was presumably in Aleppo province. This group has since joined the al Muhajireen Army, Harakat Sham al Islam, and Katibat al Khadra (the Green Battalion) to form the Ansar al Din Front.
- In late December 2013 and again in March 2014, Ansar al Islam touted the "Shaykh Rashid Ghazi Camp" in northern Iraq by posting pictures and a video of the camp on Twitter. Ansar al Islam, while based in Iraq, is also known to operate in Syria.
- On March 25, 2014, the Islamic Front's Ahrar al Sham released a video of a training camp presumably in Aleppo in northern Syria. The camp is said to be a "special forces" training facility. A follow-up video was posted to YouTube on Oct. 20, 2014.
- On April 2, 2014, the Chechen group Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar (the Muhajireen Army) released a video of a training camp in Aleppo. The video showed, along with traditional training, instruction in the manufacture of bombs. This group may run more than one camp in Aleppo. Al Muhajireen was designated a terrorist group by the US State Department in September 2014.
- On June 3, 2014, the Uzbek Imam Bukhari Jamaat released video of a training camp in Aleppo province. This group is allied with the Al Nusrah Front, the Muhajireen Army, and the Seyfuddin Uzbek Jamaat (a unit with ties to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) within Al Nusrah.
- In early August 2014, a Chechen-led group named the Jamaat Ahadun Ahad, or the "Group of the One and Only," released a video of a training camp in Latakia. Little is known about this group, as it apparently prefers to have a minimal social media presence so as to avoid the jihadist infighting and focus on battling the Assad regime.
- On Aug. 13, 2014, the Islamic Front's Jaish al Islam released a video of a training camp in Damascus. The video shows scores of recruits training in the camp.
- Junud al Sham, a Chechen-led group based in Latakia headed by Muslim Shishani, is known to operate training camps for foreign fighters, according to the US State Department. Junud al Sham also runs a training center for children in Latakia, according to From Chechnya to Syria.
Analysis: Al Qaeda's 'Resurgence' focuses on Indian Subcontinent
On Oct. 19, al Qaeda finally released its new English-language, online magazine "Resurgence." The organization announced the forthcoming publication in March, but the first edition was not released until seven months later.
The reasons for the delay in its release are not publicly known. At 117 pages, the magazine covers a variety of jihadist topics. But the content of the magazine is heavily focused on recent events, especially al Qaeda's activities in the Indian Subcontinent.
It was produced by As Sahab, al Qaeda's propaganda arm. However, "(Subcontinent)", has been appended to As Sahab's name, suggesting that the media wing has rebranded at least part of its operation to focus on the region.
Al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri and other senior jihadists announced the creation of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), al Qaeda's newest regional branch, in early September. Much of "Resurgence" is devoted to AQIS propaganda.
The cover story is an article by al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn titled, "Besiege Them!" Gadahn writes of the "practical steps" that must be taken to "liberate" Palestine and restore the Islamic caliphate. Gadahn's suggestions range from boycotting Western business interests to establishing an al Qaeda-style Islamic economy that is independent from the global financial system.
References to the possibility of resurrecting the caliphate are sprinkled throughout the rest of the magazine. A piece by the magazine's editor, identified as Hassaan Yusuf, argues that "the restoration of the Caliphate and the liberation of Al Aqsa is an increasingly plausible ideal."
While such standard jihadist themes are explored, "Resurgence" returns to the Indian Subcontinent as its point of reference.
"This wave of Jihad that originated in Afghanistan and has spread to Iraq, the Levant and North Africa is also the ultimate hope of the Muslims of the Subcontinent," Yusuf writes. "It was Jihad that brought Islam to the Indian Subcontinent, and it will be Jihad again that will overturn the legacy of imperialism from Pakistan to Bangladesh and beyond."
Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent
Various pieces from other authors are dedicated to waging jihad in the Indian Subcontinent.
For instance, the magazine republishes a statement by AQIS spokesman Usama Mahmood, who has explained the rationale behind the group's thwarted attack on the US Navy in September. Mahmood has previously released multiple statements concerning AQIS' attempted hijackings of two Pakistani ships that were to be used in attacks on both American and Indian ships. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent claims attacks on Pakistani ships were more audacious than reported.]
An "in focus" section gives a "roundup" of news from throughout the Indian Subcontinent. The content portrays Muslims as being under siege in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Burma.
Although some have claimed that the establishment of AQIS is merely a reaction to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, al Qaeda has been attempting to woo Muslims across the Indian Subcontinent for years. Ayman al Zawahiri and other al Qaeda leaders have repeatedly tried to position the terrorist organization as the vanguard of Muslims throughout the region. They are attempting to incite the populace against their local governments, which are allegedly puppets of the West.
In September 2012, for example, Ustadh Ahmad Farooq issued a statement denouncing the alleged genocide being committed against Muslims in Burma and India. Farooq, who is the head of al Qaeda's dawa and communications arm in Pakistan, has two articles in "Resurgence" trumpeting the jihad in South Asia. And, in January, Zawahiri issued a message focused on reported massacres in Bangladesh. Zawahiri also discussed Burma and called on Muslims to defend themselves against this "Crusader onslaught." Other al Qaeda messages have been peppered with references to events throughout the region.
Thus, al Qaeda's propaganda push in the Indian Subcontinent is not new. As can be seen in the banner to the right, "Resurgence" is yet another attempt by al Qaeda to exploit the violence in countries such as Burma.
An article by Aasim Umar, the emir of AQIS, is entitled, "The Future of Muslims in India." Umar has directed messages to Indian Muslims on a number of occasions. In his latest piece, Umar argues that India is "a slave nation" that has committed "countless massacres of Muslims...for over sixty five years" under "Hindu rule." Umar writes that Indian Muslims have "been fooled by the empty slogans" such as "'Indian democracy', 'secular state', 'the land of Gandhi', 'peace', and so on."
"We have little doubt that, sooner or later, the Muslims of India too will come to the realization that their future is inextricably linked to the success of the Afghan Jihad," Umar writes. "The Indian establishment, Brahman intellectuals, and political pundits fully appreciate this fact. They know that the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan poses a significant threat to the future of Hindu political dominance in India."
No explicit denunciation of the Islamic State
"Resurgence" republishes a statement by Mullah Omar, the Taliban's leader, from earlier this year. Omar says that all American and Western forces must be withdrawn from Afghanistan, and he calls on the entire Islamic world to denounce Israel for its supposedly "savage aggression" against "oppressed Palestinians."
In "Resurgence," as in other al Qaeda messages and statements, Omar is called "Amir ul Mominin," or the Commander of the Faithful, a title that is usually reserved for the leader of an Islamic caliphate. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State, has attempted to usurp this title for himself.
In its propaganda, al Qaeda has taken a subtle approach to responding to the Islamic State's claims. The group has pushed its allegiance to Omar, and his presumed role as the rightful caliph.
"Resurgence" does not include any specific denunciations of the Islamic State. But it does reproduce a quote from Zawahiri explaining how a proper jihadist caliphate will be built. After arguing that jihadists are an inseparable part of the ummah, or community of Muslims, Zawahiri writes, "The Islamic State will be established - by the help and will of Allah -- at the hands of the free, sincere and honorable Mujahideen. It will be established with their sacrifices, generosity, consent and collective choice."
This could be read as a thinly-veiled critique of the Islamic State, as one of the pro-al Qaeda jihadists' chief criticisms of Baghdadi is that he has tried to impose his caliphate on all other Muslims, eschewing the type of consensus that al Qaeda believes is necessary to form first. In the context of their rivalry with the Islamic State, senior al Qaeda leaders have reproduced similar quotes from Zawahiri throughout the year.
Another piece in "Resurgence," written by Zawahiri's son-in-law, Muhammad bin Mahmoud Rabie al Bahtiyti (a.k.a. Abu Dujana al Basha), urges Muslims to support the mujahideen in Syria, but also says nothing about the Islamic State. Al Bahtiyti released an audio message warning against the Islamic State in late September. Even though al Bahtiyti clearly sought to undermine Baghdadi's group, he did not explicitly name the Islamic State in that message either.
"On Targeting the Achilles Heel of Western Economies"
One of the lengthier pieces in "Resurgence" is a detailed analysis by a jihadist known as Hamza Khalid, who writes that there is an "energy umbilical cord which [sic] sustains western economies" and "stretches across hundreds of miles of pipelines and sea lanes." This "represents the Achilles heel not just of the energy market, but also of western economies dependent on oil from the Muslim world."
Khalid argues that a strategy of "sustained disruption in this supply system would not only increase insurance costs for international shipping, but also affect the price of oil globally, making the theft of our petroleum resources an expensive venture for the West." Khalid then delves into an in-depth assessment of various "choke points," explaining the relative virtues of striking them.
"After this brief overview of the world's most critical sea lanes," Khalid writes, "one cannot fail to appreciate the strategic opportunity that geography presents for the Mujahideen." But al Qaeda's enemies know this, Khalid warns. The "US has established a network of bases that spans the Muslim world" to protect these interests.
Khalid then discusses America's military bases, and concludes that the jihadists face "challenges" but also have "opportunities." He concludes that the current environment "requires a multi-pronged strategy that focuses not only on attacking [the] American military presence in the Muslim world, but also targeting the super-extended energy supply line that fuels their economies and helps to sustain their military strength."
Khalid believes that the time is coming for a sustained campaign of "economic warfare," in which jihadists from around the world target key infrastructure points. Striking the US Navy is not a fantasy, Khalid claims.
"The recent attempt by a group of Mujahid officers of the Pakistan Navy to carry out a complex and coordinated attack on the American Navy in the Indian Ocean using warships of the Pakistan Navy aptly demonstrates this point," Khalid writes.
The attempted attacks Khalid praises are the same ones carried out by AQIS in early September. The new al Qaeda branch's terror plots tell us much about the organization's approach to waging jihad. And so does al Qaeda's "Resurgence" magazine.
Taliban control 3 districts in Afghan provinces of Wardak and Kunduz
The Afghan Taliban took control of three districts, one in the province of Wardak which is just south of Kabul, and the other two in the northern province of Kunduz, that were heavily contested during the US troop surge that began in 2010 and ended in 2011. One of the districts was the scene of the Taliban's shoot down of a US helicopter that resulted in the deaths of 31 special operations personnel, including 17 US Navy SEALs.
Reports from Afghanistan indicate that the district of Sayyidabad in Wardak as well as the districts of Chahar Darah and Dasht-i-Archi in Kunduz province are under the Taiban's thumb.
A reporter from the BBC recently visited the Tangi Valley in the district of Sayyidabad and noted that the Taliban fully control the district. He was given a tour by Said Rahman, the Taliban's shadow district governor who is "popularly known as Governor Badr."
Taliban fighters openly patrol the district during the daytime, while Afghan troops are confined to a small hilltop outpost. Taliban judges mediate land and other disputes. Taxes are collected. Schools, which are funded by the Afghan government, teach the Taliban's curriculum, while girls are not allowed to attend. [See BBC report, Life inside a Taliban stronghold.]
Further north, in the province of Kunduz, Afghan officials admit that "the Taliban controls virtually all of two out of seven districts in Kunduz - Chahar Darah and Dasht-i-Archi,' Reuters reports.
"It is gaining influence elsewhere, and residents say it has been able to because what little state authority exists is viewed with deep mistrust," Reuters continues.
In Kunduz, the Taliban collects a 10 percent tax from farmers and business, mediates disputes in its courts, and runs the local schools.
A senior tribal elder said that the Taliban is well armed and Afghan security forces no longer pursue the Taliban in the districts.
"The local police force, recruited and armed by Western forces, had stopped trying to fight the Taliban altogether," Reuters notes.
Sayyidabad and Chahar Darah: hotly contested districts in the past
Two of the three districts controlled by the Taliban - Sayyidabad and Chahar Darah - have been major battlegrounds in the past. US special operations forces heavily targeted the Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and al Qaeda in the two districts between 2009 and 2012.
The Tangi Valley in Sayyidabad was the scene of one of the most deadly attacks on US forces since the war in Afghanistan began in late 2001. On Aug. 6, 2011 the Taliban shot down a Chinook helicopter in the district, killing 38 US and Afghan forces, including 17 US Navy SEALS from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (more commonly referred to as SEAL Team 6). More than one month later, the Taliban detonated a massive suicide bomb outside of Combat Outpost Sayyidabad, killing four Afghans and wounding more than 100 people, including 77 US soldiers.
In September 2011, the Taliban took control of Combat Outpost Tangi, which was abandoned by Afghan forces shortly after the massive suicide attack. The Taliban filmed its forces touring the base and released the video on its website.
Later that month, the US killed Qari Tahir, who the International Security Assistance Force described as the Taliban's commander in the Tangi Valley, in an airstrike in the Sayyidabad district. Tahir led the force that was involved in the Aug. 6, 2011 shootdown of the US Chinook.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and al Qaeda are also know to operate in Sayyidabad. In April 2012, the US captured an Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan leader who was planning future large-scale attacks in Kabul, Wardak, and Logar provinces.
In November 2011, the US killed Mujib Rahman Mayar, an Afghan national who served as an al Qaeda facilitator, during a raid in Sayyidabad. Mayar is known to have trained insurgents and acted as a courier delivering messages and money for al Qaeda's network. Two suspected insurgents were also detained and multiple weapons were seized, including bomb-making materials, firearms, grenades, and ammunition.
Chahar Darah district has also been a hotbed of Taliban, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and al Qaeda activity, and is known to have been under Taliban control in the past. US special operations forces targeted the three allied jihadist groups in at least 16 raids between August 2009 and November 2012.
Among those targeted during the US raids in the district were Khadim, an IMU senior leader and Afghan national who was an explosives expert responsible for recruiting and training insurgents for suicide attacks; an unnamed senior IMU leader who facilitates suicide bombers from Pakistan; an unnamed Taliban leader who facilitates foreign suicide bombers, including Chechens and Pakistanis; Saifullah, the Taliban's shadow governor for the district who led a group of al Qaeda fighters and maintained close ties with senior Taliban and IMU leaders in northern Afghanistan and Pakistan; and an IMU foreign fighter facilitator with ties to Iran's Qods Force and local Taliban and Iranian-based Uzbek IMU facilitators.
Taliban seek to regain control of Afghanistan
The three districts in Wardak and Kunduz are the latest to fall under the Taliban's control. The district of Sangin in Helmand province, where US Marines and British troops paid a heavy price to liberate during the surge, was overrun by the Taliban in June. The Afghan military opened peace negotiations with the Taliban in August, a sure sign that it lost its grip on the district. The Afghan military has claimed it regained control of Sangin but the reports cannot be confirmed. Meanwhile, the Taliban claimed on Oct. 20 that it "dismantled" a "strategic joint ANA and police outpost" in the nearby Nawzad district.
In July, the Taliban overran the Char Sada district center in the central province of Ghor. The status of the district is unclear. On Oct. 19, the Taliban claimed that "Arbakis," or pro-government tribal militias, attacked the district, executed civilians, and burned down a village.
In August, the Taliban massed more than 700 fighters to attack Afghan security personnel in the Charkh district in Logar. The status of the district is unclear, but four soldiers and "scores" of Taliban are reported to have been killed in fighting in the district on Oct. 20.
And in early October, Junood al Fida, a group that is loyal to both the Taliban and al Qaeda, claimed it took control of the remote district of Registan in Kandahar province. The claim has not been confirmed.
The Taliban and the Haqqani Network, a subgroup that is closely tied to al Qaeda and Pakistan's military and Inter Services Intelligence Directorate, are thought to control districts in the eastern provinces of Ghazni, Zabul, Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Nangarhar, Nuristan, Kunar, and Badakhshan.
State Department adds Osama bin Laden's doctor to terrorist designation list
Ramzi Mawafi. Image from Al Arabiya.
The State Department today added Ramzi Mawafi, a longtime al Qaeda operative who was close to Osama bin Laden, to the US government's list of specially designated global terrorists.
Mawafi "is an Egyptian national and long-time al Qaeda member best known as the former doctor to Osama bin Laden," the State Department says in its announcement. Mawafi "also served as an explosives expert for al Qaeda."
Mawafi "escaped from an Egyptian prison in 2011, and is now believed to be in the Sinai Peninsula coordinating among militant groups and helping to arrange money and weapons to support violent extremist activity."
US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal say that Mawafi rejoined al Qaeda's hierarchy after his escape from prison three years ago. Al Qaeda maintains a clandestine bureaucracy that exists above regional groups in the terrorist organization's pecking order.
This can be seen in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, where events have exposed some of the personalities in al Qaeda's senior leadership. For instance, Nasir al Wuhayshi is the emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a regional branch of al Qaeda, but also doubles as al Qaeda's global general manager, a role that gives him authority far outside of Yemen. Al Qaeda's deputy general managers serve underneath Wuhayshi in Yemen, holding positions in both AQAP and in al Qaeda's global hierarchy.
Senior al Qaeda leaders were also dispatched to Syria, where they assumed roles within the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official regional branch in the Levant. A jihadist known as Sanafi al Nasr, for instance, heads an al Qaeda strategic planning committee in addition to serving as a senior official within Al Nusrah. Seasoned al Qaeda leaders have assumed roles in other jihadist groups in Syria as well, including those that are not official branches of the organization.
US intelligence officials say that Mawafi holds a position within al Qaeda's covert international enterprise similar to his counterparts in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.
As recognized by the State Department, Mawafi is "coordinating among militant groups" in the Sinai. The most prolific of these is Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM), also known as Ansar Jerusalem, which is connected to al Qaeda's global network. Mawafi has worked with ABM, as well as other jihadist groups, US intelligence officials say.
Al Qaeda's presence in the Sinai Peninsula
Although jihadists have announced al Qaeda's presence in the Sinai on multiple occasions, US officials say the group is hiding the full scope of its organizational ties and other details of its operations. Mawafi has been publicly identified as the head of al Qaeda in the Sinai on multiple occasions, but he does not appear in videos or claim credit for jihadist operations. [See LWJ report, Former bin Laden doctor reportedly heads al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula.]
Ayman al Zawahiri has repeatedly praised the jihadists in the Sinai in al Qaeda's propaganda. And groups such as ABM have returned the favor, portraying their terrorist acts as consistent with al Qaeda's call to arms. (There are also reports that some ABM jihadists are tied to the Islamic State, a former branch of al Qaeda's organization that has been disowned by al Qaeda's general command.)
A group calling itself "Al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula" distributed fliers outside of a mosque in Al Arish in the summer of 2011. The fliers called for the establishment of an Islamic state and said that the "group was planning attacks on the police stations and security forces," according to CNN.
In Dec. 2011, Ansar al Jihad in the Sinai Peninsula announced its formation, vowing to "fulfill its oath" to slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The following month, in Jan. 2012, Ansar al Jihad publicly swore an oath of allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri. US officials said at the time that the group was the military wing of Al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, which was "seeking to coordinate operations" with other groups in the Sinai and Gaza.
Despite these overt ties between jihadists in the Sinai and al Qaeda, Mawafi has tried to remain in the shadows. Egyptian officials have highlighted his position of authority in the press, but neither Mawafi nor al Qaeda have announced his role. They prefer to work through organizations that are not explicitly branded as al Qaeda, US officials say. Mawafi's group acts as a "platform" for pooling the jihadists' resources.
In Aug. 2011, for instance, CNN first reported that Mawafi had set up shop in the Sinai following his escape from prison. Egyptian officials expressed concerned about Mawafi's role because of his expertise in bomb making. Mawafi is known as "the chemist" and, according to an Egyptian general, "had set up his own [explosives] laboratory in Tora Bora with bin Laden" prior to 9/11.
CNN also noted that Mawafi had been in contact with two already established jihadist groups: Takfir wal Hijra and the Palestinian Islamic Army.
In Sept. 2013, the Associated Press (AP) cited Egyptian military intelligence officials who said that Mawafi was working with multiple jihadist groups, and facilitating the flow of funds and weapons to them. The Egyptian officials explained that two jihadists captured in the Sinai, a Yemeni and a Palestinian, "provided information about Mawafi's role while under questioning." And an Egyptian court described Mawafi as "the secretary general of al Qaeda in Sinai."
At least one representative from al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula took part in an al Qaeda "conference call" in the summer of 2013. The communications, which were first reported by the Daily Beast, involved more than 20 al Qaeda operatives from around the world, including Zawahiri and Wuhayshi. It was during the call that Wuhayshi's appointment as al Qaeda's general manager was announced to other terrorist commanders.
The US was forced to close nearly two dozen diplomatic facilities after officials learned of the communications, which utilized a complicated Internet-based infrastructure. The al Qaeda terrorists reportedly planned to attack one or more diplomatic outposts. One of the facilities closed as a precautionary measure was the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, because authorities were concerned that al Qaeda's presence in the Sinai could be used as a staging ground for an attack.