Saturday, January 31, 2015

US drones kill 4 AQAP fighters in southern Yemen (05:30PM)

The US killed four suspected al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters in a drone strike today in southern Yemen. The strike is the second reported in Yemen this week.

The remotely piloted Predators or the more deadly Reapers fired missiles at a vehicle as it traveled in Al Saeed in Shabwa province, Reuters reported. Four suspected AQAP fighters were killed in the attack, according to The Associated Press.

The identities of those killed in the US counterterrorism operation have not be disclosed. AQAP has not released an official statement announcing the death of senior leaders or operatives.

The strike is the second in Yemen this week, as well as the second so far this year. Last year, US drones hit 23 targets in Yemen. AQAP's leadership has remained intact and the group has remained a threat to Yemen as well as the international community, despite a concerted US air campaign that was ramped up in 2009. AQAP claimed credit for directing the recent terrorist attack in Paris, France.

The last strike, on Jan. 26, is controversial as one of the three purported AQAP fighters who was killed was just 13 years old. According to The Yemen Times, AQAP said that the 13 year-old, identified as Mohammed Saleh Duaayman, was a member of the group and that the family receives support from the jihadist group after his father and a brother were killed in a US drone strike late last year.

"Mohammed's family emphatically deny that he was a member of Al-Qaeda," The Yemen Times reported. But "Their home is covered in Al-Qaeda flags ..."

Both strikes this year took place after Houthi rebels overran the capital of Sana'a and forced President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the government to resign. Hadi was a staunch supporter of US counterterrorism efforts, including drone strikes, despite local and international criticism.

The Houthis, a Shiite minority that is backed by Iran, is no friend of the United States. The group's motto is "Death to America," and it is expected that support for US operations will wane as Houthi influence grows.

Additionally, Sunni tribes who oppose the Houthi incursion into central and western Yemen may turn to AQAP in the absence of a Sunni-led government. Earlier this week, AQAP claimed it conduct joint operations, under the guise of Ansar al Sharia, its political front, against the Houthis in Marib. AQAP release a statement titled "Tribes of Marib and Ansar al Shariah Repel a Houthi Campaign in Marib of Northern Yemen," which was obtained by the SITE Intelligence Group. AQAP claimed it assassinated a Houthi leader in Sana'a during the "campaign."

Al Nusrah Front battles Western-backed rebels outside Aleppo (09:51AM)

The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, has fought against Harakat Hazm (the Hazm Movement) outside of Aleppo in recent days. Hazm is one of the few rebel groups to receive limited American aid in the Syrian war.

Leaders of the Hazm Movement have praised Al Nusrah in the past. And the two organizations have fought side-by-side at times, drawing into question Hazm's reliability as a Western partner. Hazm has also partnered with other al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups.

But Al Nusrah is repeating the tactics it has employed in the recent past by attempting to take ground from Hazm. Late last year, Al Nusrah turned on the Syrian Revolutionaries' Front (SRF), another Western-backed rebel group that has repeatedly fought alongside al Qaeda in Syria. Just as Al Nusrah took towns and villages from the SRF in Idlib, it is now seizing Hazm positions outside of Aleppo. And the fighting between Al Nusrah and the Hazm Movement is reportedly spreading elsewhere.

When Al Nusrah launched its offensive against the SRF in late October 2014, one of the organization's propaganda arms on Twitter released videos and statements accusing the SRF of committing various crimes against Syrian civilians. Al Nusrah also justified its attacks by claiming that its fighters had been unjustly imprisoned by the SRF.

Al Nusrah's propaganda, which is intended to portray its offensive as just, repeats these same themes with respect to Hazm.

Al Qaeda's Syrian branch has released a 3 minute, 27 second video accusing Hazm of shelling civilians and torturing prisoners. The video introduces several witnesses, who discuss their alleged mistreatment by Hazm. Images of the purported damage done by Hazm's shelling are also shown. While it may be true that Hazm abused the prisoners, Al Nusrah is not known for treating its captives gently.

Several screen shots from the Al Nusrah Front video are shown below.

In a separate statement released via Twitter on Jan. 30, the Al Nusrah Front says it has reclaimed the Sheikh Salman Camp from the Hazm Movement. Al Nusrah claims that Hazm seized the camp three months ago and has held several Al Nusrah fighters captive there. Al Nusrah argues that, along with other factions, it participated in "liberating" the camp two years ago. Al Nusrah alleges that the Hazm Movement shelled civilian areas in the surrounding villages as it battled for control of the camp.

The Hazm Movement has used its social media pages to respond. On Jan. 29, the group released a statement on its Facebook page saying that it would withdraw "from all the positions" its fighters were defending on the fronts surrounding Aleppo. Hazm appealed to other rebel groups to intervene, and enforce an agreement that prevents rebel infighting in and around Aleppo. Hazm also accused Al Nusrah of being "takfiri," and of following an "extremist ideology."

The Islamic Front, an alliance of several rebel groups, has attempted to act as an intermediary between Al Nusrah and the Hazm movement. A statement released on the Islamic Front's official Twitter feed on Jan. 29 is signed by two groups, Ahrar al Sham and Suqur al Sham.

The organizations say they are saddened by the news of the infighting between their Muslim "brothers," and recommend that the conflict be settled in an independent sharia court. The statement implicitly takes Al Nusrah's side in the fight, however. "We are prepared to reclaim the rights claimed by our brothers in Al Nusrah Front against Harakat Hazm," the Islamic Front statement reads. The representatives from Ahrar al Sham and Suqur al Sham say they "trust" the Hazm Movement will not refrain from "settling any wrongs done by them."

Ahrar al Sham, an al Qaeda-linked organization, is the most powerful organization in the Islamic Front, holding key leadership positions in the coalition.

In another statement, dated Jan. 30, the Hazm Movement says that it has "confidence" in the Islamic Front to end the dispute. But Hazm also says that the Islamic Front should deal first with the "attacker," meaning the Al Nusrah Front, and not the defender.

As the infighting has raged on, the Levantine Front, another rebel coalition that operates outside of Aleppo, has released its own statement saying the Hazm Movement has joined the alliance. Hazm's move is likely intended to provide it with cover in the face of the jihadists' advances.

The Al Nusrah Front's strategy for northern Syria was made clear late last year, when its forces moved against the SRF, consolidating its hold on positions throughout Idlib in the process.

The Hazm Movement now finds itself in the same crosshairs.

Al Nusrah's propaganda video seeks to undermine Hazm Movement

The Al Nusrah Front's propaganda video introduces several witnesses, who allege that the Hazm Movement shelled civilian areas during the infighting and also tortured its prisoners. The video is the same type of production Al Nusrah released last year when it was fighting the Syrian Revolutionaries' Front in Idlib. The claims made in the video should not be taken at face value, as they are an attempt to claim the moral high ground in the fight against the Hazm Movement.

Screen shots from the video can be seen below:

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Friday, January 30, 2015

Islamic State's Sinai 'province' claims simultaneous attacks on Egyptian military, police (11:42AM)

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Wilayat Sinai, or the Sinai Province of the Islamic State, claimed responsibility for a series of attacks throughout the Sinai yesterday via posts on Twitter. In a statement released earlier today, the organization said the operations were revenge against the Egyptian government for imprisoning the "sisters" (Muslim women). Two pictures of the attacks, one of which can be seen above, were posted with the statement.

The same justification has been offered by Ajnad Misr ("Soldiers of Egypt") for its operations in Cairo and elsewhere. The jihadists claim that devout Muslim women are being oppressed by the government and, therefore, need to be avenged.

Wilayat Sinai said in its statement today that complex assaults were carried out against the Egyptian military and police in El Arish, Sheikh Zuweid, and Rafah. The raid in El Arish appears to have been the most sophisticated, as it involved three explosives-laden vehicles.

Interestingly, the group says that it launched the assaults, utilizing almost one hundred fighters (a claim that cannot be independently verified), after nighttime curfews went into effect. It did so to supposedly minimize the loss of civilian life.

The Islamic State and its so-called "provinces" are not known for their concern for civilian casualties in the Muslim majority world. In contrast, Al Qaeda and its branches have attempted to steer their violence away from Muslim civilians. And, interestingly, Wilayat Sinai's claim in this regard is again similar to how Ajnad Misr says it carries out its operations inside Egypt.

Ajnad Misr, which was designated as a terrorist organization by the State Department in December, is an offshoot of Ansar Bayt al Maqdis ("ABM") and has not sworn allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's organization.

ABM's Sinai faction, however, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State last November and was quickly rebranded as the group's Sinai "province."

The number of casualties caused by the attacks varies across press accounts.

According to an Egyptian health official who spoke with Agence France Presse (AFP), at least 40 people were killed and dozens more were injured. Other reports say the number of casualties was lower. Wilayat Sinai's statement implies that the number of people killed or wounded is much higher.

Regardless, the attacks are clearly the deadliest ones conducted by the group since it swore allegiance to the Islamic State.

The New York Times reports that the series of raids were carried out on the North Sinai security directorate headquarters, an army base, various security checkpoints, a hotel, the capital of the province, and a security camp.

Wilayat Sinai claimed several terrorist operations in late December, one on a natural gas pipeline that extends into Jordan and two others on Egyptian military vehicles.

The group has repeatedly targeted the Egyptian military in the Sinai, and killed dozens of soldiers in October, leading security forces to impose curfews in the North Sinai. Wilayat Sinai specifically mentions those curfews in today's statement.

According to CNN, hundreds of police and troops have been killed in the last year and a half, since the military's ouster of President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013.

According to one report in the Financial Times, Wilayat Sinai's large-scale operations may have spurred smaller cells in other cities to also strike targets in Suez, Cairo, and Port Said.

Despite the military's crackdown since October, security forces are clearly unable to prevent these types of significant, multi-stage assaults from happening, highlighting flaws in Egypt's ability to combat the jihadists.

Following Thursday's raids, Egypt's Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) released a statement on the army spokesman's Facebook page announcing it would ramp up operations to crackdown on militants in the Sinai. And President Abdul Fattah al Sisi cut his trip to an African Union summit in Ethiopia short due to the attacks.

In addition to the photo shown above, Wilayat Sinai released this photo from yesterday:

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Al Qaeda sharia officials address Caucasus defectors in joint statement (10:04AM)
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Ibrahim al Rubaish (left) and Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari (right) are both AQAP ideologues. Along with eight other jihadists, including two from the Al Nusrah Front, they issued a statement addressing the Caucasus jihadists who have defected to the Islamic State. This image is taken from an AQAP video that was posted online last July.

When a senior Islamic Caucasus Emirate (ICE) commander in Dagestan and others swore allegiance to the Islamic State in mid-December, it caused an uproar among jihadists in the Caucasus. The emir of ICE, Ali Abu Muhammad al Dagestani, issued a stinging rebuke, saying the defections were a "treacherous act" and "caused a split among the mujahideen."

More than one month after the defections, the controversy is still an issue for al Qaeda and its allies.

On Jan. 28, a statement from ten veteran jihadist ideologues was posted on the web site for Vilayat Dagestan, which is one of ICE's so-called "provinces." The jihadists denounce the defections and argue that the Islamic State's self-proclaimed "caliphate" is illegitimate because it was not established according to sharia law.

Their statement was first obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Two of the signatories are Harith al Nadhari and Ibrahim Rubaish, both of whom are senior ideologues in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Nadhari, one of AQAP's most senior sharia officials, has become a fierce critic of the Islamic State. Rubaish, an ex-Guantanamo detainee, provides the ideological justifications for AQAP's attacks and plays a key role in collecting donations for the group.

Two others who signed the release are Sami al Uraydi, the senior sharia official for the Al Nusrah Front in Syria, and Abu Mariya al Qahtani, another Al Nusrah sharia official. Qahtani was once one of the jihadist group's highest ranking sharia officials, but he was reportedly replaced in that capacity. He has been highly critical of al Qaeda's response to the Islamic State's rise, but is apparently still in Al Nusrah.

The participation of sharia officials from both AQAP and Al Nusrah demonstrates a degree of coordination across al Qaeda's branches. And this is not the first time officials from two al Qaeda branches have coordinated their messaging with respect to the Islamic State. In mid-September, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and AQAP published a joint statement encouraging jihadist unity in the face of American-led airstrikes in Syria. Both AQIM and AQAP have rejected the Islamic State's "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria but wanted the jihadists to unite against their common enemies. The gambit failed, as the Islamic State remains opposed to all other groups in Syria.

Other well-known jihadist ideologues who signed the statement include Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, an al Qaeda-linked cleric who works closely with Al Nusrah, and Hani Sibai, a longtime ally of Ayman al Zawahiri dating back to the days when they were both in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). Four others signed it as well.

The ten signatories say that they "have received the recent news" out of the Caucasus "about the arrival of the sedition of the [Islamic] State and the splitting" of the jihadists' ranks, and they "fear that the rifle will be turned away from the enemy that assails the religion and honor, to be turned against the chests of your mujahideen brothers," SITE's translation reads.

The "declaration by the [Islamic] State of a Caliphate is invalid" according to sharia law, they argue, because Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's organization did not build a proper consensus within the Ummah (community of worldwide Muslims) before making its announcement.

They contend that the Islamic State did not consult with "the honest scholars of the Ummah and their sincere local leaders and their ilk" before declaring Baghdadi to be "Caliph Ibrahim." The Islamic State's jihadist critics have consistently made this same argument against the group.

The authors repeat a common al Qaeda argument: Declaring the establishment of an Islamic emirate (or state) is foolish as long as the US remains a global power. They say that Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri ("the mujahid sheikh"), and Attiyah Abd al Rahman (a deceased al Qaeda leader) all held this view. It is, therefore, "vanity" to establish emirates "under the shadow of the global system of disbelief led by America," because this system does not "stop interfering in the lands of the Muslims."

The ideologues go on to cite an anti-Islamic State booklet by another al Qaeda ideologue, Abu Qatada, as well as an AQAP-produced lecture series starring Nadhari to further buttress their arguments.

The statement's signatories also discuss the ICE jihadists' pledge of allegiance to the emir of the group, Ali Abu Muhammad al Dagestani. The Caucasus jihadists who swore allegiance to the Islamic State broke their oaths to Dagestani, but the authors do not want this to lead to more jihadist infighting. They argue that "breaking the pledge" to Dagestani "does not give permission for sacred blood to be shed," according to SITE. In other words, the authors do not want the infighting that has hampered the jihadists' efforts in Syria to spread to the Caucasus.

Still, Dagestani is lauded in the statement, which describes his appointment as the emir of ICE as a "blessing." The authors say that Dagestani "is following the steps of the previous trustworthy ones," including Ibn Khattab, Shamil Basayev, Abu al Walid, and Doku Umarov. All of those named as Dagestani's predecessors are deceased al Qaeda-linked jihadi leaders who served in the Caucasus. Umarov was Dagestani's immediate predecessor as the head of ICE.

Given that Dagestani is an appropriate leader for ICE, the ideologues argue, the Caucasus jihadists' "loyalty" to him is "required by sharia" and "it is forbidden to break it."

It is unclear what, if any, effect the joint statement will have on tensions in the Caucasus.

The Vilayat Dagestan web site is currently trumpeting additional statements from the same al Qaeda ideologues who jointly authored the message.

Taliban claim insider attack at Kabul Airport that killed 3 US contractors (08:34AM)

The Taliban claimed last evening's attack at Kabul International Airport that killed three American contractors. The insider or green-on-blue attack, where a member of the Afghan security forces kills Coalition personnel, is the first of its kind recorded this year.

The attacker, who was dressed in an Afghan military uniform, killed the three contractors and wounded one, Major General Haq Nawaz Haqyar, the commander of Afghan police at the airport, told Pajhwok Afghan News. An Afghan was also killed in the shooting, Haqyar said. It is unclear if the Afghan who was killed was the shooter.

The US Department of Defense confirmed that three Americans and an Afghan were killed in the shooting.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Muhajid claimed the attack in two statements on his Twitter account, and said it was executed by Ihsanullah, an "infiltrator ... from Laghman province working inside Kabul airport."

"The attack killed 3 American terrorists and wounded 4 others before the infiltrator was martyred by return fire," Muhajid claimed. The tweet included the hashtag "Khaibar," a reference to the Taliban's offensive that was announced in May 2014. The Taliban said it will continue to launch insider attacks, as well as encourage Afghan soldiers to execute such operations.

The Taliban have devoted significant effort into attempts to kill NATO troops and foreigners by infiltrating the ranks of Afghan security forces. Mullah Omar affirmed this in a statement released on Aug. 16, 2012, when he claimed that the group had "cleverly infiltrated in the ranks of the enemy according to the plan given to them last year [2011]," and he urged government officials and security personnel to defect to the Taliban as a matter of religious duty. Omar also noted that the Taliban had created the "Call and Guidance, Luring and Integration" department, "with branches ... now operational all over the country," to encourage defections. [See Threat Matrix report, Mullah Omar addresses green-on-blue attacks.]

Overall number of insider attacks still unknown

The last known insider attack took place on Sept. 16, 2014 in the western province of Farah. In that attack, an Afghan soldier gunned down a Coalition trainer inside a military base.

The previous attack occurred on Aug. 5 at a training center in Kabul. An Afghan soldier killed a US major general and wounded 16 more military personnel, including a US brigadier general, a German general, five British troops, and at least one Afghan officer. The Taliban did not claim credit for the attack, but praised the Afghan soldier who executed it.

There were four insider attacks recorded in Afghanistan in 2014, according to The Long War Journal's statistics. The number of reported green-on-blue attacks on Coalition personnel in Afghanistan has dropped steeply since a peak of 44 in 2012. In 2013, there were 13 such attacks. [For in-depth information, see LWJ special report, Green-on-blue attacks in Afghanistan: the data.]

The decline in attacks may be due to several factors, including the continuing drawdown of Coalition personnel, reduced partnering with Afghan forces, and the adoption of heightened security measures in interactions between Coalition and Afghan forces.

However, many insider attacks remain unreported. If an attack by Afghan personnel does not result in a death or injury, and it is not reported in the press, the Coalition will not release a statement on the incident.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which was disbanded at the end of 2014, told The Long War Journal in March 2012 that "these statistics," the number of attacks that did not result in a casualty, are "classified."

"[A]ttacks by ANSF on Coalition Forces ... either resulting in non-injury, injury or death ... these stats as a whole (the total # attacks) are what is classified and not releasable," Lieutenant Colonel Jimmie Cummings, ISAF's former Press Desk Chief, told The Long War Journal. Cummings said that ISAF is "looking to declassify this number." The number was never declassified.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Analysis: Former US Marine killed by Islamic State's Tripoli 'province' (03:11PM)

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Note: A version of this article was first published at The Weekly Standard.

Two gunmen entered the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli Tuesday morning. When their shooting rampage was over, at least ten people had been killed. For jihadists in Libya, the hotel was an inviting target. Foreign diplomats, Western tourists and officials from Libya's rival governments are known to frequent it. Indeed, the victims were five foreigners, including an American, and five Libyans.

The American killed in the attack has been identified as David Berry. According to The New York Daily News, Berry is a former US Marine who worked as a security contractor for Crucible, LLC. The company's web site says that Crucible "provides high-risk environment training and global security solutions to employees of the U.S. Government, NGOs, and multinational corporations who live and work in dangerous and austere locations worldwide." The company has not identified the client Berry was working for at the time of his death.

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In the past, it could take weeks or months for a terrorist organization to take credit for an attack. Sometimes there is no claim of responsibility at all. Before the siege of the Corinthia Hotel had even been ended, however, a group calling itself the Islamic State's province in Tripoli claimed on Twitter (see image above) that the attack was the work of its members. In short order, the group posted photos of the two gunmen (seen on the right), identifying one as a Tunisian and the other as being from the Sudan.

The Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that controls much of Iraq and Syria as a self-declared "caliphate," announced the establishment of several "provinces" in North Africa and the Middle East in November of last year. The group's provinces are more aspirational than real, as none of them controls much territory.

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who heads the Islamic State, argues that all other jihadist groups, and indeed all Muslims, in his provinces' territories owe him their loyalty now that the caliphate has expanded. From Baghdadi's perspective, this means that more established jihadist groups, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, are now null and void. AQAP, which rejects Baghdadi's assumed role as "Caliph Ibrahim," naturally takes offense to the Islamic State's proclamations. An already heated rivalry became even testier after the Islamic State's announcement in November.

Baghdadi's international sway is often exaggerated. The Islamic State has failed to usurp the power of organizations such as AQAP and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), both of which remain loyal to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. AQIM and its allies maintain a strong presence in Libya. And we cannot be sure how much of an operational relationship there is between the Islamic State's headquarters in Iraq or Syria and the groups that fight in Baghdadi's name in Libya and elsewhere.

Regardless, the Islamic State's international network, and the threat it poses to American interests, is real. The establishment of "provinces," which was intended to cut into al Qaeda's dominant share of the global jihadist market, has had some success.

In fact, Berry is not the first American victim of the Islamic State's provinces.

Late last year, the Islamic State's province in the Sinai claimed responsibility for the death of a petroleum worker named William Henderson. The Sinai province was formed by a faction of another group, Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM), which split over the rivalry between al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Henderson was actually killed in August 2014, before ABM's Sinai presence officially swore allegiance to the Islamic State's Baghdadi. But there are credible reports of cooperation between ABM and the Islamic State before their formal alliance.

The Sinai province has launched a string of attacks already this year, focusing on Egyptian security forces and others.

Earlier this week, Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al Adnani, announced the formation of a province in the "Khorasan," a geographical region that covers Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of neighboring countries. A former Pakistani Taliban leader was named as the Khorasan province's "governor." His deputy governor is a former Guantanamo detainee known as Abdul Rauf Khadim.

The Islamic State's Khorasan province is not the strongest jihadist organization in its home turf. The Taliban, al Qaeda and their allies have a much firmer foothold in South Asia. And the Khorasan province's leaders include jihadists who lost internal power struggles in their previous organizations, paving the way for the Islamic State to garner their allegiance. Khadim, for example, was once a senior Taliban commander. After Khadim was forced out of the Taliban, Khadim and his supporters threw their lot in with Baghdadi. It wasn't the pull of the Islamic State that led Khadim to switch allegiances, so much as the Taliban's push, which was caused by Khadim's disagreements with his fellow jihadists.

Still, Khadim has been an effective commander and the Khorasan province is already active in southern Afghanistan. There have been skirmishes between Baghdadi's followers and their rivals in the Taliban, which is clearly gunning for Khadim. One report says that the Taliban has captured Khadim and dozens of his followers, but that has not been confirmed.

In the months to come, the Islamic State's provinces will claim more victims, including perhaps more Americans.

Video shows Hezbollah Brigades convoy transporting American M1 tank (12:18AM)


American-made M1 Abrams shown flying the Hezbollah Brigades' flag while being transported by the group.

A video uploaded to YouTube appears to show a large Hezbollah Brigades convoy transporting weapons, troops, and armored vehicles to the front to fight the Islamic State.

Several American-made military vehicles, including an M1 Abrams tank, M113 armored personnel carriers, Humvees, and Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAP), as well as Iranian-made Safir 4x4s and technicals (armed pickup trucks) are in the convoy.

The Hezbollah Brigades is US-designated foreign terrorist organization that has been involved in killing American soldiers in Iraq.

At one point in the video, a transport truck is shown carrying an M1 Abrams tank. The Hezbollah Brigades' flag is flying over the tank and other US-made vehicles. The M1, which is the main battle tank of the US Army, has been sold to and utilized by the Iraqi Army.

The screen shot above marks the first evidence of Iranian-backed militias having M1 tanks at their disposal. It is unclear if the Hezbollah Brigades seized the M1 from an Iraqi Army unit that dissolved in the face of the Islamic State's onslaught, or if the Iraqi military gave the militia the tank. Several Iraqi M1s have been photographed after being destroyed by the Islamic State.

The Hezbollah Brigades, or Kata'ib Hezbollah, receives funding, training, logistics, guidance, and material support from the Qods Force, the external operations wing of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. The radical militia has joined the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. In addition, other Iranian-supported Shia militias, such as Asaib al Haq, Badr Organization, and Muqtada al Sadr's Promised Day Brigades have played a prominent role on the battlefield. these militias have played key rolls in securing Amerli, Baiji, and Jurf al Sakhar, and are on the forefront of the fighting in Diyala province.

The United States designated the Hezbollah Brigades as a terrorist organization in July 2009. On the same day, the US added a Qods Force commander who supported the "Special Groups," such as the Hezbollah Brigades, to the list of specially designated global terrorists. The so-called Special Groups are responsible for the deaths of hundrends of US and allied soldiers between 2004 and 2011. [For more information, see LWJ report, US sanctions Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades and Qods Force adviser.]

The organization has also been responsible for several American deaths during the war in Iraq. The US State Department described the Hezbollah Brigades as "a radical Shia Islamist group with an anti-Western establishment and jihadist ideology that has conducted attacks against Iraqi, US, and Coalition targets in Iraq."

The group has been directly linked to the murder of two UN employees in November 2008. Additionally, the Iranian-backed extremists conducted attacks against US and Iraqi forces, using explosively-formed penetrators and improvised rocket-assisted mortars, which have been described as flying improvised explosive devices.

Despite this, the group was assisted by US airstrikes when Iraqi and Kurdish forces broke the siege of Amerli in Salahaddin province. The US military said it launched airstrikes against the Islamic State outside of the town "[a]t the request of the Government of Iraq" and "in support of an operation to deliver humanitarian assistance to address the humanitarian crisis and protect the civilians trapped in Amerli." [See LWJ report US aided Hezbollah Brigades in breaking Islamic State siege of Iraqi town]

Video of Hezbollah Brigades convoy:

'Foreigners' among 7 jihadists killed in US drone strike in Pakistan (12:02AM)

Several foreign fighters were among seven suspected jihadists who were killed in the latest US drone strike in Pakistan's Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan.

The CIA-operated, remotely piloted Predators or Reapers fired two missiles at a compound and a vehicle in the Shawal Valley, killing "seven suspected militants," Dawn reported.

"The compound was razed to ground whereas a vehicle inside the compound was blown into pieces," the Express Tribune reported.

Three of those killed are said to be "foreigners," a term used to describe foreign fighters from Arab countries or from regional groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or the Turkistan Islamic Party. Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups have not announced the deaths of any senior leaders, commanders, or operatives.

The Shawal Valley, which is administered by Taliban commander Hafiz Gul Bahadar and spans both North and South Waziristan, is a known haven for al Qaeda and other terror groups operating in the region. A number of Taliban, Pakistani, and foreign terrorist groups gather in the Shawal Valley and then enter Afghanistan to fight US, NATO, and Afghan government forces.

The US has launched 24 drone strikes in the Shawal Valley since September 2010. Abdul Shakoor Turkistani, the former emir of the Turkistan Islamic Party, was killed in a strike in August 2012; while three al Qaeda military trainers were killed in an attack there in August 2013.

US strikes in Pakistan

Today's drone strike in North Waziristan is the third reported in Pakistan this year. The last attack, on Jan. 15, targeted a compound belonging to Sajna Mehsud, a Taliban commander in South Waziristan. Two Uzbek fighters were reported killed in the strike.

Last year the US launched 24 airstrikes inside Pakistan; 19 of those strikes took place in n North Waziristan and four more in South Waziristan. The number of operations has decreased since the program's peak in 2010, when 117 attacks were recorded by The Long War Journal. [See LWJ report, Charting the data for US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 - 2015.]

The US continues to target and kill al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Pakistan's tribal areas despite previous claims by Obama administration officials that al Qaeda has been decimated and only two "core" al Qaeda leaders remain active. Al Qaeda also remains active outside of Pakistan's tribal areas in the provinces of Baluchistan, Punjab, and Sindh, where US drones do not operate.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Islamic State is forced from Kobane (08:58PM)


Flags of the People's Protection Units and the Free Syrian Army's Dawn of Freedom Brigade can be seen flying above Kobane.

The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and elements from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) have driven the Islamic State out of the battleground city of Kobane in northern Syria.

After beginning an assault on the city in September of last year, Islamic State fighters were forced to retreat after a continued campaign of resistance by the YPG, backed by elements of the Free Syrian Army and US airstrikes. Kurdish fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a US-designated terrorist organization to which the YPG is affiliated, and fighters from the Iraqi Peshmerga also assisted YPG forces in Kobane.

In a statement released by the YPG, the organization said "For 134 days, our fighters of the People's Defense Units (YPG)/Women's Defense Units (YPJ), men and women of Kurdistan, lovers of freedom from four parts of Kurdistan and other countries, came to a heavy battle, and conducted a great resistance against Daesh's [a term for the Islamic State] terrorism."

The YPG continued by thanking those who fought with them, saying, "At first we are grateful to our people in Kurdistan who relentlessly supported the resistance, especially our people in Bakur (North Kurdistan). We would like to thank the members of the Anti-Daesh International Coalition who contributed an active support with airstrikes. We thank the Burkan al Furat joint operations room and those brigades of the Free Syrian Army who fought shoulder to shoulder with our forces. We repeat our thanks to our Peshmerga brothers who were of a great support to us in this battle."

The Burkan al Furat is an alliance of YPG forces, elements of the Free Syrian Army, and elements from the Islamic Front which formed to fight the Islamic State in northern Aleppo province. The Islamic Front is a coalition of Islamist and jihadist groups that is closely allied with the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria.

US Central Command (CENTCOM), which backed the forces fighting the Islamic State in Kobane with airstrikes, made clear that the fight in the area is still not decided.

"While the fight against ISIL [Islamic State] is far from over," CENTCOM said, "ISIL's failure in Kobani has denied them one of their strategic objectives." CENTCOM also makes clear that around 90 percent of the city is cleared of Islamic State fighters. While anti-Islamic State forces are largely in control of the city, the Islamic State still controls a good portion of the countryside outside the city.

A now deleted YouTube video uploaded by 'Amaq News,' an unofficial Islamic State propaganda outlet, proclaimed to show the Islamic State still controlling the Aleppo road into Kobane as of Jan. 25. So far, no other propaganda has been released by the Islamic State about the situation in Kobane.

Kobane central to Islamic State and Coalition's information campaigns

The Islamic State made its push to take control of Kobane in September. An Islamic State military force, which included tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, and infantry, began moving on villages (more than 350) surrounding Kobane. By the beginning of October, the villages were under Islamic State control and Kobane was surrounded from three sides; the fourth side borders Turkey, and it was sealed.

The US and allied forces began launching airstrikes in Kobane on Sept. 27, 2014. The targets of the air campaign included armored vehicles, troop concentrations, fighting positions, ammunition dumps, command, control, and communications centers, and training facilities. Despite the air campaign, the Islamic State advanced into Kobane in the beginning of October.

By mid-October, more than one third of Kobane was under Islamic State control and fighters had advanced to the city center.

FSA and Peshmerga reinforcements began arriving via Turkey by the end of October. By mid-November, the YPG and its allies launched their counteroffensive, and retook the city center. On Jan. 23, after more than two months of heavy fighting, the YPG controlled 70 percent of Kobane and forced the Islamic State to withdraw the bulk of its forces from the city.

Both the Islamic State and the US-led Coalition have invested significant resources during the battle for the Kurdish enclave. The town, while of little strategic significance, came to symbolize the Coalition's fight against the Islamic State in Syria.

The US-led Coalition has launched 606 airstrikes on the Islamic State in Kobane between Sept. 27, 2014 and Jan. 20, 2015, according to data compiled by The Long War Journal and Military Edge. That represents more than 71 percent of the total number of coalition airstrikes in Syria during that timeframe.

The Islamic State has also emphasized the fight in Kobane. In the past the jihadist group has been keen to promote its successes in the area. The Islamic State has even used John Cantlie, a captured British reporter, to counter claims that it was losing ground in October 2014. [See LWJ report, Islamic State uses British hostage in propaganda video to rebut Western, Kurdish claims.]

The Islamic State has also poured significant resources into Kobane. While no official estimate of the number of its fighters killed has been provided, it is likely in the hundreds based on press reporting. And the Islamic State has also lost some key local commanders during the fighting, including two Saudis known as Sultan al Safri al Harbi and Sheikh Othman al Nazeh.

US Central Command press releases also indicate that scores of Islamic State tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery pieces were destroyed during the fighting.

It is unclear what the impact of the loss of Kobane will have on the Islamic State. The jihadist group has made advances in other areas of Syria and in Anbar province, Iraq during the battle near the Turkish border, indicating that despite taking casualties and the destruction of a number of its armored vehicles, the group has not spent its entire force and can remain on the offensive elsewhere.

Videos from Kobane

Video showing Kurdish forces celebrating in Kobane:

Another video showing Kurdish forces celebrating in Kobane:

Video showing the FSA group Dawn of Freedom Brigade celebrating with Kurdish forces:

Video showing the YPG flag flying over Kobane:

Islamic State appoints leaders of 'Khorasan province,' issues veiled threat to Afghan Taliban (04:21PM)

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An organizational overview of the Khorasan Shura. The Islamic State has appointed Hafez Saeed Khan as the Governor of Khorasan province.

Abu Muhammad al Adnani, a spokesman for the Islamic State, announced the group's "expansion" into the lands of "Khorasan" -- modern day Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of the surrounding countries -- and declared former Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan (Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan or TTP) commander Hafez Saeed Khan as the "governor" of Khorasan province. Khan had previously served as the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan's emir for the tribal agency of Arakzai.

Adnani made his announcement in a nearly seven minute audio taped speech titled, "Say, Die in Your Rage!" which was published on Jan. 26 2015 by the Islamic State's Al Furqan media outlet. [For a translation of the speech, by Pieter Van Ostaeyen, see 'Audio Statement by IS Spokesman Abu Muhammad al-'Adnani as-Shami.']

The declaration comes only a few weeks after a conglomeration of former TTP officials formed the Khorasan Shura and pledged bayat, or allegiance, to the Islamic State. [See Long War Journal report, Pakistani Taliban splinter group again pledges allegiance to Islamic State.]

The Islamic State spokesman acknowledged Khan's pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi as Commander of the Faithful and the Caliph of Muslims, and claimed that Baghdadi had accepted the pledge and appointed Khan as the province's governor and Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim as the deputy governor. Khadim, a former Guantanamo detainee and former senior Taliban commander in southern Afghanistan, has reportedly been operating in Helmand province on behalf of the Islamic State. [See Long War Journal report, Ex-Gitmo detainee leads contingent of Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan.]

Adnani further urged the "mujahideen in Khorasan" to come forth and obey the commands of Khan and Khadim. Notably, Adnani also urged caution in his call to arms, noting that "the factions will assemble against you and the rifles and bayonets fixed against you will multiply." He encouraged the mujahideen to stand firm against "factionalism and disunity" and to meet these challenges by "unsheathing your swords and spears." Although not clearly stated, Adnani was issuing a veiled threat to the Taliban factions, both Afghan and Pakistani, that opposed the creation of the Khorasan Shura and who were opposed to the Islamic State.

The Afghan Taliban movement has been consistent in avoiding recognizing the Islamic State and its Caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi since the reclusive leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, has previously held the title of Commander of the Faithful position since 1996.

Adnani's declaration and Baghdadi's reported approval for the Islamic State to expand into Afghanistan and Pakistan could incite divisions within the various Taliban factions operating in both countries. The cohesion of many Taliban factions has been compromised over the past few years, mostly due to attrition and leadership decapitations, as well as ideological differences and personal feuds.

Analysis: Islamic State sleeper cells a threat to Turkey (03:02PM)

A leaked Turkish National Police intelligence report reveals alarm in Ankara about potential attacks by Islamic State sleeper cells across the country.

The police report, which was disclosed by Jane's Intelligence Weekly, warns of 3,000 operatives living in Turkey who are directly linked to the jihadist organization. The report also lists a number of vulnerable cities, including the country's political and cultural capitals of Ankara and Istanbul.

This threat was all too predictable. In an effort to bring down the regime of Bashar al Assad in Syria, Turkey opened its southeastern border to a wide range of Syrian rebels beginning in 2011. As the war has dragged on, the fighters came to include jihadist groups like the Islamic State, which has since conquered large swaths of Syria and Iraq, as well as the Al Nusrah Front, which is al Qaeda official branch in Syria. Today, Turkey's 565-mile border with Syria is the transit point of choice for the illegal sale of Islamic State oil, the transfer of weapons to various fighting factions, and the flow of foreign fighters to jihadist groups of all stripes.

This problem is now more than four years old. Extremists have by now had ample time to establish infrastructure in Turkey to facilitate this illicit activity. In the process, they have also established cells and other logistical bases throughout the country. The Turkish National Police now seem to acknowledge this threat.

Turkish and America media have been reporting for months about Islamic State recruitment activity in Turkey. For example, a report by the Turkish daily Hurriyet from September 2014 identified Islamic State activities in cities such as Istanbul and Kocaeli in the western portion of the country, and Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, and Diyarbakir to the east. A New York Times report also detailed how the Islamic State was recruiting militants in Ankara, located in central Turkey.

The anti-AKP and Kemalist newspaper, Aydinlik, noted that Islamic State militants were operating in other towns, such as Konya, which is known for its conservative Islamic culture. As Newsweek explained, other conservative pockets in Turkey, such as Dilovasi neighborhood in Ankara, are particularly susceptible for recruitment.

One jarring metric is the raw number of Turks who have joined the Islamic State. Just last week, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that there are about 700 Turkish citizens fighting for the radical group. Without question, the Islamic State's ideology and recent expansion are luring many conservative Turks to fight. But financial inducements may also play a role; according to one New York Times report, the Islamic State offers $150 a day to Turkish recruits who agree to fight.

In addition, Turkey is home to many IS sympathizers. Ali Ediboglu, a Turkish opposition deputy, claims that "at least 1,000 Turkish nationals are helping ... foreign fighters sneak into Syria and Iraq to join ISIS." YouTube videos depict Islamic State gatherings in Istanbul and demonstrations of support by Turkish citizens for the jihadist fighters in Syria, including those with the Islamic State. Last fall, it was reported that some 20 people with black masks on their faces and bats in their hands attacked an Istanbul University demonstration against IS. The group, identified in the article as "Musluman Gencler" (Muslim Youth), reportedly returned to campus for more attacks.

There is also reason to fear the radicalization of Syrians living in Turkey. As a result of the civil war, Turkey is now home to more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees, and that number may be a low-ball estimate. Reports suggest that the Islamic State may be targeting young men and boys in refugee camps for recruitment.

Turkey recently had a glimpse of what the future could hold if the Islamic State launches concerted assaults on its territory. On January 6, a suicide bomber who attacked a police station in Istanbul's historic district of Sultanahmet is believed to have had ties to the Islamic State. As commentators noted, a spate of such attacks could do irreparable damage to Turkey's vital tourism sector, and sow fear into the hearts of Turks country-wide.

As the Janes report notes, the Islamic State also has much to lose by attacking Turkey. Indeed, the terror group benefits greatly from illicit oil sales to Turkey, the flow of foreign fighters, cash and weapons over the border into Syria, and a rather permissive environment in southeastern Turkey, where authorities don't seem terribly alarmed over the presence of extremists. The leaders of the Islamic State are also fully aware of the fact that Ankara has refused to play an active role in the US-led coalition that is now bombing Islamic State fighters. In fact, Turkey has refused to even allow its bases to be used for that purpose. The Islamic State would like to keep it that way.

This modus vivendi notwithstanding, the existence of Islamic State sympathizers and operatives inside the country puts Turkey at risk. The longer the conflict plays out in Syria, the higher the likelihood that Turkey gets dragged into it. If the Islamic State strikes back by activating its local assets, Ankara will only have its own policies to blame.

Islamic State's 'province' claims responsibility for attack on hotel in Tripoli (10:42AM)

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Gunmen stormed the Corinthia hotel in Tripoli early this morning, killing at least five foreigners and three guards, according to initial reports. Foreign government officials, including those serving as diplomats, and tourists have frequented the hotel in the past, making it an attractive target for jihadists.

The terrorists responsible for the raid reportedly met resistance from security forces. As of this writing, however, the siege was not over.

The Associated Press reported that a car bomb was part of the attack. Images posted online show what appears to be an explosion outside of the hotel. Some of the photos have been published on Good Morning Libya, a Twitter feed that is run by supporters of General Khalifa Haftar, whose forces have been battling jihadists throughout Libya. One of the photos can be seen at the beginning of this article. Online jihadists are claiming that suicide bombers were used in the car bombing.

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According to the SITE Intelligence Group, the Islamic State's so-called "Tripoli Province" claimed responsibility for the attack in a short message that was posted on Twitter. The message stated that "heroes of the Caliphate" are responsible for the operation, which has been named the "Battle of Abu Anas al Libi."

An image published online by the organization's media operatives can be seen to the right.

Al Libi was a core al Qaeda operative who was captured in Tripoli in early October 2013 and subsequently held in the US for his role in al Qaeda's bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998. Al Libi passed away while awaiting trial earlier this year, and jihadists blame the US government for his death, even though he died of natural causes.

Al Libi's capture in Tripoli by US forces was denounced by many in Libya. By naming the attack after al Libi, the Islamic State's "Tripoli Province" is attempting to capitalize on the manufactured controversy surrounding his capture and death.

In some ways, the choice of name for the attack is ironic. The Islamic State's "provinces" in Libya and elsewhere are part of emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's attempt to build international support for his caliphate, and the Islamic State's supporters are openly confrontational toward al Qaeda. Indeed, the Islamic State's "provinces" are intended to draw support away from al Qaeda's international network of official and unofficial branches.

However, al Libi was a loyal al Qaeda operative. Documents recovered in Osama bin Laden's compound show that Al Libi was appointed to al Qaeda's security committee after he was released from Iranian custody in 2010. He sought permission from al Qaeda's most senior leaders before relocating to his native Libya. They granted al Libi's request and he moved back to Libya in 2011.

An unclassified report published by the Library of Congress in August 2012 identified al Libi as a key player in al Qaeda's strategy for building a fully operational network in Libya.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Al Nusrah Front, Western-backed rebels overrun key regime base south of Damascus (01:26PM)

In the past two days, Syrian rebels overran a base belonging to Brigade 82 of the Syrian Army in the southern province of Deraa. The Brigade 82 facilities, which sit close to the town of Sheikh Maskeen and a highway connecting Damascus with Jordan, were considered a key part of the Assad regime's defenses. The Assad government has responded to the rebel takeover by pounding the insurgents' positions inside the base and Sheikh Maskeen with its military jets and helicopters.

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The base reportedly housed surface-to-air missiles and other heavy weaponry, at least some of which appears to have fallen into the rebels' hands. Unverified photos posted on Twitter show rebels in possession of various missiles and launchers. For example, Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, a popular al Qaeda-linked Saudi cleric in Syria, has praised the rebels' takeover and posted photos of missiles that have purportedly fallen into their possession. The photos, which have been tweeted and retweeted by a number of people, can be seen to the right.

A number of insurgency groups have posted videos and photos online showing their fighters taking part in the assault on the base.

The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, and the Islamic Front, an alliance of Islamist groups, are among them. Ahrar al Sham, an al Qaeda-linked organization, leads the Islamic Front.

Screen shots and photos from the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic Front are included at the bottom of this article.

Western-backed rebels, including fighters from the First Army, also participated in the raid on the Brigade 82 base. The First Army issued a statement before the operation was launched saying its men were going to take part in the rebels' new southern offensive. The First Army also released a statement afterwards saying that the base had fallen.

A leader of the First Army identified as Colonel Saber Safar spoke with Reuters about the significance of the base falling into rebel hands. "This advance will help us cut supply routes of the regime forces in the south from their supplies in the north to be able to eventually take over Deraa city," Safar told Reuters, which described the First Army as "a major faction of Western-backed rebels in the 'Southern Front' grouping."

In early January, Asharq Al Awsat reported that the First Army was formed by three rebel groups, each of which had operated as part of the Free Syrian Army. Asharq Al Awsat described the three groups that make up the First Army as "moderate rebel factions," which said they wanted to "unify all FSA factions under a joint military command." The publication cited a commander in the group as saying that they would not only fight Bashar al Assad's regime and its proxies, but also work to contain the growing influence of extremists, meaning the Al Nusrah Front.

The battle for Brigade 82's base, however, shows that the First Army and other "moderate" rebels continue to cooperate with al Qaeda and its extremists allies in southern Syria.

Several pictures and screen shots of other rebels taking part in the raid are published below.

Al Nusrah Front photos and videos from the capture of Brigade 82 base

In a tweet on one of its official feeds, Al Nusrah announced that the base had fallen under the rebels' complete control on Sunday. The photo below accompanied the tweet:

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This screen shot from one of the Al Nusrah Front's videos shows a fighter participating in the battle:

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In one of its videos, the Al Nusrah Front shows fighters pulling down a statue that appears to be a bust of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad:

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Al Nusrah showcases some of the weapons and ammunition it took possession of inside Brigade 82's base:

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More "booty" recovered at the base by Al Nusrah:

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The Islamic Front's and Ahrar al Sham's propaganda videos

One video posted on the Islamic Front's official Twitter feed shows fighters launching mortar rounds at Brigade 82:

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Smoke in the distance indicates where the mortar round struck:

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In a separate video, an Islamic Front fighter celebrates after launching a shoulder-fired missile:

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An Islamic Front fighter rallies his fighters from inside Brigade 82's base:

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Videos showing the First Army and other rebel groups participating in the attack

Shaam News Network has posted several videos of fighters walking through the captured base. One video shows fighters walking by the same arms cache that the Al Nusrah Front featured in its own production:

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A short video posted online purportedly shows fighters from the First Army firing on the base:

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A video that is just over one minute long shows fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army at the Brigade 82 base:

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Boko Haram takes key town in northern Nigeria, advances on Maiduguri (11:38AM)

Major attacks by Boko Haram, from 2014 through present. Map created by Laura Grossman for The Long War Journal.

Over the weekend, Boko Haram launched a series of attacks in the latest part of its vicious campaign to take control of Nigeria and build its caliphate. Concentrated in the northeast, a number of villages came under fire within hours of an official visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry to Lagos.

Around 8 pm on Saturday evening, Boko Haram executed several attacks on villages in the Michika Local Government Area in eastern Adamawa State. Targeting Mbororo, Shahu, Liddle, Garta, Kamale and Ghumci, the insurgents arrived on motorcycles and in vans and then went house to house slaughtering villagers. The Islamists also set fire to many homes after looting them. It is not clear how many people were killed or how many were able to escape into the mountains.

Shortly after midnight on Sunday, Boko Haram launched a three-pronged attack on Borno State's largest city and capital, Maiduguri. Nigerian security forces engaged in fierce fighting with the terrorists, keeping them from taking the city. The attackers reportedly tried to take control of Maiduguri's airport, which in addition to hosting civilian flights services Nigeria's air force.

The exchanges of gunfire reportedly stopped at around 3:30 a.m. as the jihadists retreated. Boko Haram fighters subsequently returned around 5:40 a.m., re-engaging with Nigerian forces. The air force then deployed jets around 11 a.m. to push back the renewed jihadist offensive. The day before the battle, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan had visited Maiduguri on campaign stop ahead of presidential elections on February 14. With the retreat of Boko Haram, a city-wide curfew was lifted today. However, analysts have noted that hardships are likely not over yet for residents of Maiduguri as the city has strategic value for the terrorists.

A short while later on Sunday morning, insurgents from Boko Haram also attacked and took control of the town of Monguno, 80 miles northeast of the state capital. Monguno has served as a buffer between Bokon Haram strongholds in the north, and Maiduguri.

The 243 Battalion of the Nigerian army, comprised of about 1,400 solders stationed in Monguno, was overwhelmed by the insurgents. Military sources reported to Sahara Reporters after the battle that "We still don't know what has happened to them [Nigerian soldiers], but we know that Boko Haram now controls the barracks and Monguno town." Today, Nigerian forces are reportedly fighting to take back control of Monguno through air strikes.

About 24 miles southeast of Maiduguri, Boko Haram also hit Konduga on Sunday. However, the Nigerian military claimed that it repelled the attack.

As northeastern towns were being targeted on Sunday, American Secretary of State John Kerry touched down in Lagos to meet with President Jonathan and his rival candidate Muhammadu Buhar to express support for the upcoming elections. Kerry noted "The fact is that one of the best ways to fight back against Boko Haram and similar groups is by protecting the peaceful, credible, and transparent elections that are essential to any thriving democracy, and certainly, essential to the largest democracy in Africa. It's imperative that these elections happen on time as scheduled, and that they are an improvement over past elections, and they need to set a new standard for this democracy."

In a press briefing after the meetings, Secretary Kerry spoke of the United States' "deeply engaged" relationship with Nigeria. He noted that the US is "helping Nigeria to increase the capability of its military; to improve its counter-incident explosive detection and civil-military operations capacity; and to carry out responsible counterterrorism operations." He also pointed to additional law enforcement assistance and ongoing crisis management training.

Interestingly, Secretary Kerry highlighted that the United States' most recent assistance in the fight against Boko Haram was not in fact given to Nigeria. According to the Secretary of State, "Most recently, we've worked with Nigeria's neighbors Cameroon, Chad, and Niger to develop institutional and tactical capabilities that will increase the joint efforts between our countries in order to be more effective."

The New York Times reported ahead of Kerry's visit that relations were "so strained" between American military trainers and the Nigerian military that "the Pentagon often bypasses the Nigerians altogether, choosing to work instead with security officials in the neighboring countries of Chad, Cameroon and Niger." The report also noted that the US does not include raw data in intelligence shared with Nigeria due to concerns about Boko Haram's infiltration of the government. In 2014, the US also prevented Israel from reselling American-made helicopters to Nigeria. The US was acting on concerns regarding the Nigerian military's maintenance capabilities and potentially inhumane treatment of civilians.

As Nigeria's battle with Boko Haram pushes forward, its success may well be dependent upon the support it receives from its regional allies and other international partners, including the United States. Given both the Nigerian military's poor track record against the terrorist outfit, local security forces are in need international support.

US drone strike kills 3 suspected AQAP members (09:15AM)

The US reportedly killed 3 suspected members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in a drone strike today that took place in a border region between the provinces of Shabwa and Marib. The strike is the first reported in Yemen in more than two and a half months.

Arabic-language reports indicated that the strike targeted a Suzuki Vitara carrying AQAP operatives, allegedly resulting in the complete destruction of the vehicle and the deaths of at least three individuals.

The remotely piloted Predators or the more deadly Reapers fired four missiles at the vehicle, according to media reports. Tribal and security sources in Yemen's Marib province confirmed that a vehicle had been targeted by a US drone.

Today's strike is the first since the Nov. 12, 2014 strike in Shabwa province that reportedly killed 7 suspected AQAP members as they gathered "under a group of trees" in Azzan. Today's strike is also the first in Yemen in 2015, as well as the first since the resignation of the Yemeni government, including President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, last week.

The resignations came amid reports that the Houthi rebels, who have been challenging the central government since late September, had kidnapped Yemen's chief-of-staff and were placing many Yemeni ministers under house arrest, including President Hadi.

Today's strike in Yemen also comes just one day following President Barack Obama's remarks in India regarding Yemen, in which he claimed that the current instability in Yemen due to the Houthi rebel offensive will not affect US counter-terrorism efforts in the country.

Last week, counterterrorism officials and Yemen analysts suggested that the collapse of the Yemeni government, a staunch ally of the United States' war on terror, might render efforts to counter AQAP in Yemen "paralyzed." Some US officials even claimed that the current unrest in Yemen had forced the US to suspend some operations in the country in light of the fact that it relied heavily on intelligence provided by the Yemeni government and military.

The following pictures of the vehicle targeted in today's strike were released by the Arabic media (Source: Al Masdar Online):