Mass grave of Islamic State's victims reportedly found in eastern Syria
An activist group and online sources reporting from inside Syria claim that a mass grave filled with approximately 230 corpses has been discovered in eastern Syria. The victims are reportedly members of the Sheitaat tribe, which has been battling the Islamic State in the province of Deir Ezzor.
The fog of war makes it difficult, if not impossible, to fully verify accounts of human rights atrocities and other aspects of the conflict. The Long War Journal cannot independently verify accounts of the mass grave.
The Sheitaat tribesmen have waged fierce battles against the Islamic State, which claims to rule over a caliphate across large parts of Iraq and Syria, since earlier this year. There have been multiple reports in the past several months detailing the Islamic State's mass executions and other barbaric acts in eastern Syria.
Images of the newly discovered mass grave began surfacing on Twitter feeds within the past day. And the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR) has released a statement saying that "reliable" sources have informed the group that the site of the atrocity "was found in al-Keshkeyyi Desert in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor."
"It is worth mentioning that hundreds of the people were killed after arrest, some of them were beheaded, and others had been pursued and executed in the villages and towns that they escaped to in the countryside of Deir Ezzor," the SOHR statement reads. "The SOHR could document dozens of names."
The SOHR previously reported that 700 other Sheitaat tribesmen had been slaughtered in August. If that figure and the latest account are accurate, then the Islamic State has killed more than 900 members of the tribe this year, the group points out.
The United Nations has also documented the mass killings that occurred in August. The conflict between the Islamic State and the Sheitaat tribe "was perpetrated in a struggle for control of oil resources near the town of Mohassan," the UN reported in November. A survivor described the scene, saying there were "many heads hanging on walls while I and my family escaped." And a "[p]ublished video" indicates that Islamic State fighters "conducted a mass execution of fighting-age male members of the" tribe.
The UN says that on Nov. 6, 2014, the emir of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, "issued a statement, granting members of the [Sheitaat] tribe permission to return to their homes, upon the condition that they do not assemble, surrender all weapons and inform on all 'apostates' to" the Islamic State. Baghdadi added that all "traitors" would be executed.
The images below have been posted on various Twitter feeds by individuals inside Syria.
The Long War Journal is posting the images, some of which are graphic, because they document the Islamic State's alleged war crimes. The photos do not independently corroborate the casualty count reported by various sources.
*Warning: Graphic images below*
US airstrike targets Pakistani, Afghan Taliban in Nangarhar
The US killed 11 members of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban in an airstrike in the eastern province of Nangarhar yesterday. The strike is the fifth that has targeted Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan fighters and leaders operating inside Afghanistan since the last week of November.
Four members of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan and seven Afghan Taliban fighters were killed in the "drone strike" that targeted a pickup truck, Mahlem Mashuq, the governor of Shirzad district in Nangarhar, told Reuters.
The airstrike, which could have been carried out by the remotely piloted Predators or Reapers, or a variety of strike aircraft that operate in Afghanistan, was confirmed by Hazrat Hussain Mashriqiwal, the spokesman for police forces in Nangarhar. At least one of the jihadists killed in the attack was an important commander, Mashriqiwal told Khaama Press. He did not indicate if the commander was a member of the Afghan or Pakistani branch of the Taliban.
Yesterday's strike took place as a suicide assault team from the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan attacked a high school in Peshawar and killed everyone in their path. Officials stated that 132 students and nine teachers were killed during the rampage. The Afghan Taliban released an official statement condemning the attack while not mentioning the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan by name. [See LWJ reports, Pakistani Taliban assaults military high school in Peshawar and Afghan Taliban releases statement condemning attack on Pakistani school.]
Yesterday's airstrike in Nangarhar is the fifth since Nov. 24 that has targeted Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan fighters and leaders operating in eastern Afghanistan, and the fourth in Nangarhar. On Nov. 24, the US targeted Mullah Fazlullah, the emir of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, in the Nazyan district. Fazlullah was not killed. On Dec. 1 and Dec. 2, the US attacked the Pakistani Taliban group in the Shirzad and Lal Pur districts. [See LWJ report, US airstrikes in eastern Afghanistan target Pakistani Taliban.] On Dec. 7, the US launched another airstrike in the Shigal district of Kunar province.
The US has targeted Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan fighters and commanders operating inside Afghanistan over the past several years, but the strikes have been infrequent. The most high-profile airstrike took place on Aug. 24, 2012, when the US killed Mullah Dadullah (a.k.a. Maulana Mohammad Jamal), his deputy Shakir, and 10 Taliban fighters in an airstrike in Kunar's Shigal district. [See LWJ report, Bajaur Taliban leader, deputy killed in airstrike in eastern Afghanistan.]
The US killed Baitullah and Hakeemullah Mehsud, the previous two emirs of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, in drone strikes in Pakistan's Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan. Baitullah, the group's founder, was killed in August 2009, and Hakeemullah, who organized the Times Square bomb plot, was killed in November 2013.
The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, which has been weakened of late due to internal divisions and defections, has had a presence in eastern Afghanistan since the organization was founded in late 2006. The jihadist group, which is closely allied with al Qaeda and has sworn allegiance to Mullah Omar, the emir of the Afghan Taliban, has waged jihad on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan has increased its footprint in eastern Afghanistan recently due to Pakistani military operations that have targeted its strongholds over the border in North Waziristan.
Afghan Taliban releases statement condemning attack on Pakistani school
The Afghan Taliban has released a statement, attributed to "Zabihullah Mujahid," the group's official spokesman, condemning the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan's attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar today.
The statement was released on the Afghan Taliban's official Urdu website. The Pakistani Taliban is not named in the short statement, but the Afghan Taliban says it expresses "sorrow over the tragedy and grief for the families of the victims."
"Innocent men, women and children were killed intentionally" and this is against "Islamic principles." The Afghan Taliban claims it has "always condemned the killing of innocent people and children."
Of course, the Afghan Taliban regularly kills innocent people. For example, the United Nations reported in July that there were approximately 4,853 civilian casualties in Afghanistan in the first six months of 2014. The UN attributed 74 percent of these casualties to anti-government elements, including the Taliban, and said that the "onus" was on the Taliban and other anti-government forces to reduce civilian casualties.
Still the Afghan Taliban, led by Mullah Omar, has been attempting to avoid high-profile attacks on civilians. In a message celebrating the end of Ramadan earlier this year, Omar stressed, "Every caution should be taken to protect life and property of the public during [jihadist] operations, so that, God forbid, someone is harmed." Omar said that the Taliban's "Department of Prevention of Civilian Casualties should seriously pay attention to its task to prevent civilian casualties." [See LWJ report, Analysis: Mullah Omar addresses governance of Afghanistan, war against 'invaders' in new message.]
Omar's speech shows that the Afghan Taliban is sensitive to the criticism that its operations cause far more damage to civilians than its opponents do. Like al Qaeda and other jihadist groups, the Afghan Taliban is attempting to win additional hearts and minds for its cause. And the attack on the school in Peshawar, where dozens of children were slaughtered, will likely reduce, not increase, popular support for the jihadists' goals.
The inner workings of the relationship between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban groups are not clear. The Pakistani Taliban and its leader, Mullah Fazlullah, are openly loyal to Mullah Omar.
In October, for instance, several Pakistani Taliban commanders reportedly swore bayat (oath of allegiance) to the Islamic State's Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, thereby breaking their previous allegiance to Omar. The circumstances surrounding this defection remain murky. [See LWJ report, Discord dissolves Pakistani Taliban coalition.]
However, the Pakistani Taliban released a statement saying that Mullah Fazlullah had previously pledged his organization's loyalty to the "Emir of the Believers Mullah Muhammad Omar." This was a not so subtle indication that the Pakistani Taliban's existing leadership was not going to break ranks with the Afghan Taliban leader in favor of Baghdadi.
It remains to be seen if the Afghan Taliban's condemnation of the school assault has any additional ramifications, or is merely rhetoric.
Pakistani Taliban assaults military high school in Peshawar
A suicide assault team from the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan (or Pakistani Taliban) stormed a military high school in Peshawar today. It is one of the deadliest jihadist attacks in the country's history. According to initial reporting, the attackers have killed more than 140 people, including scores of children.
At least nine Taliban fighters armed with assault weapons and suicide vests entered the Army Public School in Peshawar, the capital of the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, this morning. The fighters fanned out through the school and killed everyone in their path, according to press reports.
Shahrukh Khan, a child who survived the attack by feigning death after being shot in both legs, told Agence France Presse (AFP) that the Taliban fighters were instructed to kill the students. The terrorists deliberately executed students who were already wounded.
"There are so many children beneath the benches, go and get them," one Taliban fighter told another, according to Khan.
"The man with big boots kept on looking for students and pumping bullets into their bodies. I lay as still as I could and closed my eyes, waiting to get shot again," Khan stated. The fighters shouted "Allahu Akbar," or Allah is greatest, as they executed the children.
Pakistani officials have stated that 132 students and nine teachers have been killed, but warned that the death toll may rise, Reuters reported.
At least 15 explosions were heard during the fighting, Dawn reported. Pakistani security forces surrounded the building and assaulted as the Taliban continued to execute students and staff. The military claimed it killed nine Taliban fighters, but more may have been involved in the attack. Troops are still searching the building for Taliban fighters and survivors.
Muhammad Khurasani, the official spokesman for the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, claimed the gruesome assault and admitted that his fighters intentionally targeted civilians.
"We selected the army's school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females," Khurasani said, according to Reuters. "We want them to feel the pain." Khurasani is referring to the current Pakistani military operation in the tribal agencies of North Waziristan and Khyber, which are adjacent to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Pakistani military is targeting the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan and jihadist organizations such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, but is leaving groups such as the Haqqani Network and the Hafiz Gul Bahadar Group alone.
The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan has targeted military high school students in the past. In 2009, the jihadist group kidnapped hundreds of students as they fled their military school in Ramzak, North Waziristan. The Taliban ultimately released the students as part of a prisoner exchange.
The Taliban has also launched numerous attacks on soft targets such as churches, mosques, shrines, markets, hotels, and even hospitals. Thousands of civilians have been killed in those attacks since the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan was formed in late 2006.
The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan has also plotted against the US. In an email first sent to The Long War Journal, the group claimed responsibility for the May 2010 attempted bombing in New York City's Times Square. [See LWJ report, Pakistani Taliban claim credit for failed NYC Times Square car bombing.]
The US has targeted the organization's top commanders as part of its drone campaign. Baitullah Mehsud, the group's founder and first leader, was killed by an American missile in August 2009. In late 2013, Baitullah's successor, Hakeemullah Mehsud, was also killed in an American airstrike. Hakeemullah had gloated over the failed Times Square attack in the group's propaganda prior to his demise.
Hakeemullah was replaced by Mullah Fazlullah, but his appointment as emir of the Pakistani Taliban proved to be unpopular within the terrorist group's ranks. Earlier this year, key constituencies that were part of Baitullah's original coalition began peeling away to go on their own. Much of the group founded by Baitullah no longer answers to Fazlullah. One of the larger blocs to break away from Fazlullah's leadership has rebranded itself as the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan Jamaat-ul-Ahrar. Other commanders have reportedly pledged their allegiance to Islamic State emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
[For more on the dissolution of the original Pakistani Taliban alliance, see LWJ report: Discord dissolves Pakistani Taliban coalition.]
Al Nusrah Front, Ahrar al Sham advance in northwestern Syria
Al Nusrah Front tank being used in the battle at Wadi al Daif in Idlib province
The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, Ahrar al Sham, and elements of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army have advanced on regime positions in the northwestern province of Idlib.
The Al Nusrah Front, supported by jihadist groups Ahrar al Sham and Jund al Aqsa, and units from the Free Syrian Army, today claimed to have overrun Wadi Al Daif, a Syrian Army base located just east of the city of Maa'rat al Nu'man. In addition, Ahrar al Sham, Al Nusrah, and the Free Syrian Army also advanced on Al Hamadiya, which sits just south of the city; the groups claimed to have taken partial control of Al Hamadiya.
Control of the two bases is critical for the Syrian military as they straddle the M5 highway, the main road from Aleppo to Damascus. The military uses the highway to supply its forces in Aleppo, Idlib, and other areas in northern Syria. The Syrian military and rebels fought over the two bases from October 2012 until April 2013, when the military broke the siege of Wadi Al Daif and Al Hamadiya.
The recent round of fighting for control of the two bases intensified over the weekend. Yesterday, two regime checkpoints near the bases were reported to have fallen into the hands of the jihadists and the Free Syrian Army. And today, the Al Nusrah Front reported that its fighters completely overran the regime at Wadi al Daif, while Ahrar al Sham claimed its forces overran a large portion Al Hamadiya. In a video posted to YouTube, an Ahrar al Sham leader says that the group captured 10 tanks and killed dozens of regime soldiers during the fighting. The claims cannot be independently verified.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported that at least 31 Syrian solders and 12 fighters from Al Nusrah Front, Ahrar al Sham, and "Islamic battalions" were killed at Wadi al Daif. The Observatory noted that fighting is still going on for the headquarters of the Al Hamadiya Camp.
The Al Nusrah Front claimed it committed significant resources during the fighting at Wadi al Daif. Yesterday, the jihadist group stated on its official Twitter page for Idlib operations that its fighters stormed Wadi Al Daif with 12 tanks. Other tweets detail the use of 23-millimeter cannons as well as mortars. In several photographs, Nusrah shows a number of its fighters moving to the front lines of the battle. The group also claimed that it destroyed several Syrian Army BMP infantry fighting vehicles during the battle.
Ahrar al Sham, a unit in the Islamic Front that is closely allied with al Qaeda's branch in Syria, coordinated with Al Nusrah by attacking the nearby Al Hamadiya camp. Tweets on the Islamic Front's official Twitter page feature photos and several YouTube videos showing Ahrar al Sham fighting in Al Hamadiya. Another video shows a T-55 tank operated by the jihadist group firing on regime positions near the camp. A video uploaded today showcases many weapons, including howitzers and tanks, that Ahrar al Sham captured during the fighting.
Units from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army also fought alongside the jihadist groups in Idlib. A Free Syrian Army group known as Division 13 aided Al Nusrah in Wadi Al Daif. In a video uploaded to YouTube, fighters from Division 13 fire a BGM-71 TOW antitank missile at a regime BMP. Another Free Syrian Army group, the Supporters of Truth Brigade, uploaded a video to YouTube that shows its fighters assisting Ahrar al Sham near the Hamadiya camp. A group from the Authenticity and Development Front, a coalition of rebel groups outside of the Free Syrian Army, also helped Al Nusrah at Wadi al Daif.
Free Syrian Army units have fought alongside the Al Nusrah Front and allied jihadist groups since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, and continue to do so to this day. Over the past several months, Free Syrian Army units have aided Al Nusrah and other groups on several fronts. On Oct. 7, the US-funded Hazm Movement assisted the Chechen-led Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar against the regime in Aleppo. On Oct. 5, several Free Syrian Army units utilized their TOW anti-tank missiles to help Al Nusrah and Ahrar in southern Syria. And in August, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front helped Al Nusrah and Ahrar in taking the Quneitra border crossing with the Israeli-held Golan Heights.
Pictures from Al Nusrah Front regarding the battle in Wadi Al Daif
A map showing three regime positions taken in Wadi Al Daif:
Al Nusrah's new map showing all of Wadi al Daif captured:
Al Nusrah fighters moving towards the battle:
Al Nusrah tanks being used in the battle:
Tanks captured by Al Nusrah at Wadi al Daif:
Picture of the Saudi al Qaeda cleric Abdullah al Muhaysini before the battles; video was uploaded to YouTube showing him giving a speech to inspire the fighters:
Pictures from Ahrar al Sham showing the fighting in Al Hamadiya
Ahrar fighters moving towards the battle:
An Ahrar T-72 being used in the battle:
Ahrar showing its fighters near a checkpoint in the Al Hamadiya camp:
Ahrar al Sham members inside Al Hamadiya:
Picture showing Jund al Aqsa assisting Al Nusrah at Wadi al Daif by firing mortars
Taliban attacks in Afghanistan surge as Coalition ends combat mission
The Taliban followed up two deadly attacks in Kabul earlier last week with a series of bombings, assaults, and suicide attacks in the capital and four provinces over the weekend. Twelve de-mining personnel, 11 Afghan soldiers and police, two Coalition troops, and a Supreme Court official are among those killed.
On the night of Dec. 12, the Taliban killed two Coalition soldiers in an IED attack in the Bagram district in the central province of Parwan. TOLONews reported that the slain soldiers were Americans. The US relinquished control of the Parwan Detention Facility just two days prior after transferring the prison's remaining three foreign detainees, including Pakistani Taliban commander Latif Mehsud, to Pakistan. On Dec. 11, the US had conducted two airstrikes in Parwan that are said to have killed 12 Taliban fighters and five civilians.
On Dec. 13, the Taliban launched two major attacks in Kabul and another in the southern province of Helmand. In Kabul, a suicide bomber attacked an Afghan Army bus and killed six soldiers. Also, gunmen riding a motorcycle shot and killed the chief secretary of the Supreme Court of Afghanistan.
In Helmand, the Taliban gunned down 12 workers who were clearing land mines. According to TOLONews, the de-miners were based out of Camp Bastion, which was turned over from Coalition to Afghan control at the end of October. By the end of November, the Taliban attacked the base, penetrated the perimeter, and fought Afghan forces for nearly four days before being defeated.
Today, six Taliban fighters and five Afghan security personnel were killed during a Taliban ambush in the northwestern province of Faryab.
Also today, Afghan Taliban fighters backed by units from the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, "launched [a] coordinated attack on security forces check posts" in the district of Dangam in Kunar province, Khaama Press reported. Afghan officials claimed that eight Taliban fighters were killed, while the Taliban claimed three Afghan soldiers were killed in the fighting.
The clashes over the weekend were preceded by two Taliban suicide attacks in Kabul on Dec. 11. In one of the attacks, a suicide bomber killed six Afghan soldiers as they rode on a bus. In the other, a teenage Taliban fighter purportedly detonated an underwear bomb at a French-run high school in the capital, killing a German citizen. The bombing took place during the performance of a play that criticized suicide attacks.
The Taliban have increased offensive operations in Kabul and the provinces as the US and NATO are ending the combat mission in Afghanistan. The rise in violence has forced the US to change the rules of engagement for next year and allow forces to conduct combat missions, as well as keep an additional 1,000 troops in country (10,800 troops will remain in Afghanistan as opposed to the planned 9,800).
As the US and allied countries withdraw their forces, the Afghan National Security Forces have taken the brunt of the casualties. This year, Afghan forces have suffered the highest casualty rates since the war began in 2001. As of Nov. 5, "4,634 Afghan security forces were killed in action this year, up from 4,350 last year," USA Today reported, based on a briefing by Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson. The number of wounded personnel and those who have gone AWOL, or absent without leave, was not disclosed. Anderson said the high casualty rate for the Afghan security forces "is not sustainable."
AQAP blames Obama administration for death of Luke Somers
"A Message for the American People regarding the Killing of an American hostage in Yemen." Source: Al Malahem Media Foundation.
In a newly released video produced by the media wing of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the terrorist group's senior officials addresses the American public and comments on the recent US rescue operation to free American hostage Luke Somers and South African hostage Pierre Korkie. Al Ansi criticizes the US government's decision to carry out that operation and blames President Barack Obama for the deaths of the two hostages.
Last week, al Ansi appeared in a video message in which he threatened to kill Luke Somers if the US government would not meet AQAP's demands. Al Ansi refers to this ultimatum in the most recent video, and alleges that President Obama made "the wrong decision" in carrying out the attempted rescue operation, "which was considered as a signature of the execution order of the American citizen [Somers]."
Although the previous AQAP video did not detail the terrorist group's demands for the release of Somers, in the video released today al Ansi asserts that "Obama and his government know the fairness of our demands." He suggests that the American government could have instead negotiated with AQAP regarding specific clauses or details of the ultimatum but instead chose to go ahead with a military operation.
Al Ansi alludes to several imprisoned terrorists who may have figured in the terrorist group's ultimatum. "Is it not our right to request the release of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman?" al Ansi asks. Abdel Rahman, also known as the "Blind Sheikh," was the spiritual head of the two leading Egyptian jihadist groups, Gamaa Islamiyya (IG) and Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). The latter group was headed by Ayman al Zawahiri, who merged his organization into al Qaeda. Rahman has long been revered by al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden, who was influenced by the Blind Sheikh, repeatedly demanded his release. He was convicted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a follow-on plot against New York City landmarks and is currently detained at a federal prison.
"Can they explain the fate of imprisoned Aafia Siddiqui," al Ansi continues, "and can they free her after two long years of injustice, torture, and arrest?" Siddiqui was sentenced to prison in the US after grabbing a gun and firing at two Americans in July 2008 in Afghanistan. The Americans were attempting to question Siddiqui about her many nefarious ties. According to American intelligence and law enforcement officials, Siddiqui was a member of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's al Qaeda network and was involved in its plotting against the US after Sept. 11, 2001.
The demand to free Rahman and Siddiqui is a common one, especially from al Qaeda-linked groups, despite the slim to nonexistent chance that either will be released. In January 2013, the al Qaeda-affiliated group responsible for a raid on a natural gas field in eastern Algeria demanded the release of the two AQ figures from US custody. The same demand was issued previously by al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri in a September 2012 video.
Al Ansi also addresses the video appeal from Somers' family released last week shortly after AQAP announced its ultimatum. Although Somers' family had appealed to AQAP to spare Luke's life, arguing that he was not responsible for any US government action in Yemen, al Ansi claims that "it was appropriate to appeal to Obama and his government, not to us." He puts the blame squarely on Obama, saying that AQAP had desired a different outcome but that Obama's decision forced AQAP's hand.
Al Ansi concludes that "it is impossible to reach an understanding with the American government except in a single manner, a direct manner of killing and standing up to tyranny, which will put the lives of all Americans in danger, inside and outside America."
French troops kill MUJAO founder during raid in Mali
Map of al Qaeda-linked attacks in Mali and Niger for 2014. Map made by Caleb Weiss for The Long War Journal.
The French military killed Ahmed el Tilemsi, the co-founder of the al Qaeda-linked Movement for Tawhid [Unity] and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, during a special operations raid in Gao in northern Mali today. Tilemsi, who was a senior leader in al-Murabitoon, was one of two leaders of the group who were listed by the US government as Specially Designated Global Terrorists in December 2012.
Gilles Jaron, a French Army spokesman, said that a dozen terrorists, including Tilemsi, were "neutralized," a euphemism for killed, in a midnight raid.
"Following an intelligence opportunity," Gilles said, "French forces led an operation in the Gao region in coordination with the Malian authorities."
The raid that killed Tilemsi comes a day after French hostage Serge Lazarevic was freed from captivity. Lazarevic was kidnapped in Mali in 2011 by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). He was taken along with another French national, Philippe Verdon, who was killed last year by AQIM. Lazerevic and Dutch hostage Sjaak Rijke were featured in an AQIM video released last month. [For more information on the video, see LWJ report Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb video features French, Dutch hostages.]
Al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups have remained active in northern Mali and Niger over the past year despite losing overt control of the region after a French offensive in 2013. At least 28 attacks have occurred this year, with 13 occurring since Oct. 3 [see map above].
Tilemsi founded MUJAO, merged with Belmokhtar's brigade
MUJAO was founded by Hamad el Khairy and Ahmed el Tilemsi in late 2011 as an offshoot from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa, in order to wage jihad in western Africa. While MUJAO was created partly as the result of a leadership dispute with AQIM, the two groups cooperated during the jihadist takeover of northern Mali in March 2012. At the time of its formation, MUJAO expressed affinity to al Qaeda and its founder, Osama bin Laden, and Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Tilemsi, a Malian citizen who had previously served as MUJAO's military emir, and Khairy, a Mauritanian citizen who was the group's top sharia or Islamic law official, were listed as Specially Designated Global Terrorists by the US government on Dec. 7, 2012. MUJAO was listed as a terrorist group that same day. The US stated that Tilemsi was responsible for the kidnapping and deaths of aid works in Algeria and a French national in Niger in 2011, and offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture and prosecution.
Tilemsi is said to have led the Osama bin Laden Battalion, one of four units in the Ansar al Sunnah Brigade that was formed by MUJAO in late 2012 or early 2013. [See LWJ report, West African jihadist group forms 4 'battalions,' names 3 after al Qaeda leaders.]
In August 2013, MUJAO merged with the al-Mulathameen Brigade, which was led by veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and formed al-Murabitoon. Tilemsi and Belmokhtar ceded leadership to an unnamed jihadist commander who is said to have waged jihad in Afghanistan. Al-Murabitoon then swore allegiance to al Qaeda. [See Threat Matrix report, Al Qaeda group led by Belmokhtar, MUJAO unite to form al-Murabitoon.]
The merger of the two jihadist groups was telegraphed in the spring of 2013. MUJAO conducted a joint suicide operation with the Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade (the al-Mua'qi'oon Biddam, a sub-unit of Belmokhtar's al-Mulathameen Brigade) in Niger in late May 2012. The attacks targeted a military barracks in Agadez and a uranium mine in Arlit that supplies French reactors. The Agadez attack was executed by a five-man suicide assault team; 18 Nigerien soldiers and a civilian were killed. Belmokhtar said the attacks were carried out to avenge the death of Abou Zeid, an AQIM commander killed by French forces in northern Mali.
Islamic State overruns Badr Brigade position near Samarra
An Islamic State fighter displays the patch of a Badr Brigade militiaman killed in Mukayshfah.
Over the past week, the Islamic State has launched a series of attacks against Iraqi troops and allied Iranian-backed Shiite militias near the key central city of Samarra. The attacks include an operation that resulted in a defeat of the Shiite Badr Brigade militia, and a series of suicide bombings that were executed by foreign jihadists from France, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.
In the town of Mukayshfah, which sits on the main highway between Samarra and the Islamic State-controlled city of Tikrit, the jihadist group clashed with the Badr Brigade, killed at least 11 fighters, and captured weapons, ammunition, and pickup trucks after overrunning a unit. The Salahaddin division of the Islamic State released photographs of the fighting in Mukayshfah on its social media accounts yesterday.
The photos, some of which are extremely graphic, show Islamic State fighters firing on Badr Brigade positions, its fighters patrolling the streets, the corpses of Badr militiamen, and weapons, vehicles, and other items captured during the fighting. Several of the photos show Badr militia flags and vehicles emblazoned with Badr's logo.
The current status of Mukayshfah is unclear. In the photos, Islamic State fighters appear to control the town, but they may have withdrawn after the attack.
Islamic State suicide bombers Abu Anas al Firansi, from France; Abu Nayef, from Saudi Arabia; and Abu Omar, from Syria. Photos via the SITE Intelligence Group.
Also yesterday, the Islamic State released images of three suicide bombers from France, Saudi Arabia, and Syria who conducted attacks in Huweish, Mukayshfah, and Al Buduour, respectively. The three towns are all located near Samarra, along the main highway to Tikrit.
"The French fighter, Abu Anas al Firansi, detonated an explosives-laden vehicle against Shiite militia elements in Huweish, while Abu Nayef, the Saudi, hit a similar target in al-Mukayshfah, and Abu Omar targeted Iraqi soldiers in the area of Al Buduour," the Islamic State said, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. The exact date and results of the attacks have not been disclosed. The Islamic State has featured attacks by foreign fighters as part of an effort to attract jihadists from outside Iraq and Syria to join its ranks, as well as to promote the organization as a global jihadist group. [See Threat Matrix report, German, Saudi, and Turkish Islamic State fighters launch complex suicide attack.]
The Islamic State also launched a suicide assault yesterday in Dijla, a town just south of Mukayshfah which is also situated on the road to Tikrit, and killed 12 Shiite militiamen in the operation.
"The militia fighters were killed when Islamic State militants commandeered an armored Humvee, rigged it with explosives and drove it into a school where the fighters were based near Dijla district, 20 km (15 miles) south of the city of Samarra," Reuters reported. "They followed up with mortar and machine gun fire, a source at the Samarra Operations Command said, and clashes continued."
The Islamic State has stepped up its attacks in Samarra, despite suffering a setback farther north after it lost the city of Baiji during a joint Iraqi military and Shiite militia assault last month.
Samarra is strategic terrain for both the Islamic State and the Iraqi government. The Islamic State attempted to seize Samarra just prior to launching its June offensive that saw the group seize most of Ninewa province, including Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, as well as Salahaddin province. [See LWJ reports, ISIS takes control of areas in central Iraqi city and ISIS' advance halted at Samarra.]
Qods Force Commander Qasem Soleimani posing with a Badr Brigade militiaman in Samarra.
The Islamic State seeks to control Samarra and towns and cites to its south in order to secure the northern Baghdad belt. Jihadist control of this area would make it difficult for Iraqi forces to resupply and reinforce military units north of the city. Additionally, the Islamic State would use this area to disrupt security in Baghdad.
The Iraqi government has allowed Shiite militias, including the Badr Brigade, Hezbollah Brigade, Asaib al Haq (League of the Righteous), and Muqtada al Sadr's Promised Day Brigade, all of which are supported by Iran's Qods Force, to reinforce beleaguered and demoralized Iraqi forces in Samarra. These militias have remained on the front line and have secured cities and towns, many of which are predominantly Sunni communities, along the road from Samarra to Baghdad.
Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's Qods Force, the special operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, has been spotted numerous times in Samarra directing military operations there. He has been photographed alongside Shiite militiamen in Samarra as recently as last month. The Qods Force commander has also been spotted on other key fronts as Shiite militias assume a larger role in fighting the Islamic State.
The Shiite militias appear to be girding for a major battle in and around the city. Hadi al Ameri, the leader of the Badr Brigade who is close to Soleimani, is traveling to Samarra to aid in organizing the city's defense. He is said to be accompanying an Iraqi armored brigade from the 11th Division.
Muqtada al Sadr, the leader of the Promised Day Brigade, which is the successor of the Mahdi Army, released a statement to his forces telling them to be "prepared for combat within the next 48 hours" in Samarra.
Photographs from the Islamic State in Mukayshfah
An Islamic State fighter stands next to a Badr Brigade Toyota Hilux captured during the fighting:
Vehicles seized during the fighting:
Another Badr Brigade vehicle seized in Mukayshfah:
Islamic State fighters patrol the streets of Mukayshfah:
6 Guantanamo detainees transferred to Uruguay were part of al Qaeda's network, files allege
The Defense Department announced on Dec. 7 that six Guantanamo detainees had been transferred to Uruguay. Four of the six are citizens of Syria, one is a Tunisian, and the sixth is from the Palestinian-controlled territories.
In its final recommendations, issued in January 2010, President Obama's Guantanamo Review Task Force recommended that all six be transferred "to a country outside the United States that will implement appropriate security measures."
Prior to the establishment of the task force in early 2009, Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), which oversees the detention facilities in Cuba, wrote threat assessments for all six of the now former detainees. The threat assessments were subsequently leaked online.
JTF-GTMO deemed five of six to be "high" risks, who are "likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests, and allies." Only one was determined to be a "medium" risk, "as he may pose a threat to the US, its interests, and allies."
Interestingly, the intelligence contained in JTF-GTMO's files linked all six transferred detainees to Abu Zubaydah, who has been the subject of much controversy. Zubaydah was captured in 2002 and subjected to harsh interrogation techniques. Some have claimed that Zubaydah was not really a senior al Qaeda leader at the time of his capture, but this argument is contradicted by dozens of pieces of intelligence contained in the JTF-GTMO files, among other evidence.
The dossiers compiled by the US government for each of the six transferred detainees include multiple pieces of evidence pointing to their ties to both Abu Zubaydah and al Qaeda. Four of the former detainees were members of the so-called "Syrian Group," which was based at a guesthouse funded by Zubaydah. A fifth detainee was allegedly part of Zubaydah's "Martyrs Brigade," which sought to attack US forces in 2002. And the sixth was identified by Zubaydah as a trainee at the Khaldan camp, which was run by Zubaydah and his comrade in arms, Ibn Sheikh al Libi.
Members of the "Syrian Group," tied to Abu Zubaydah
The four Syrians transferred -- Ahmed Adnan Ahjam, Ali Husein Shaaban, Abd al Hadi Omar Mahmoud Faraj, and Jihad Ahmed Mujstafa Diyab -- were all allegedly members of the so-called "Syrian Group." The JTF-GTMO files describe the "Syrian Group" as "comprised of dismantled terrorist cells that escaped Syrian authorities and fled to Afghanistan (AF) in 2000."
Part of the reporting in the JTF-GTMO files on the so-called "Syrian Group" came from the Syrian government, which was opposed to this particular group of jihadists but also eventually allied with al Qaeda in the fight against American forces in Iraq. Ultimately, in a form of blowback, that one-time alliance would fracture.
Syrian intelligence authorities under the Assad regime reported that Abu Musab al Suri, a senior al Qaeda ideologue, was the head of the "Syrian Group," whose members traveled to Afghanistan for training in al Suri's and al Qaeda's camps. One camp established by al Suri, known as the al Ghuraba camp, provided training in electronics, including the building of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Al Suri is reportedly still in the Syrian government's custody today. Al Qaeda members consistently say "may Allah free him" when discussing al Suri. This is a strong indication that he is alive and still in custody. While Bashar al Assad's forces have been willing to free dozens of other senior al Qaeda figures, they have apparently held onto Abu Musab al Suri.
Perhaps the biggest red flag in the leaked threat assessments for the four Syrians is their reported ties to Sheikh Issa al Masri, one of al Qaeda's most dangerous ideologues. Issa was responsible for indoctrinating jihadist recruits in al Qaeda's ideology, and convincing new members of the justifications for suicide attacks. A large number of suicide operatives had their minds infected with Issa's teachings. Status reports concerning Issa's students were regularly sent to senior al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden.
During their time in custody, at least three of the detainees transferred on Dec. 7 -- Ahmed Adnan Ahjam, Ali Husein Shaaban, and Abd al Hadi Omar Faraj -- allegedly admitted to studying under Issa in Afghanistan. For instance, Faraj purportedly "admitted spending two weeks at [Sheikh] Issa's home in Kabul receiving religious training." A fourth member of the Syrian group who was once detained at Guantanamo, Maasoum Abdah Mouhammad, also allegedly admitted his ties to Issa. Mouhammad implicated some of his fellow Syrians in the training as well. Mouhammad was transferred to Bulgaria on May 3, 2010.
The Syrian detainees attempted to "minimize the importance of their contact with" Sheikh Issa. But JTF-GTMO's analysts did not believe their explanation, writing: "...due to the fact that they were in the Syrian Guesthouse for over a year, they probably completed [Sheikh] Issa's training."
The JTF-GTMO files for each of the four Syrians highlight the intelligence connecting them to Zubaydah and al Qaeda.
Ahmed Adnan Ahjam (internment serial number 326) "is assessed to have participated in hostilities against US and Coalition forces" at Osama bin Laden's Tora Bora Mountain complex "under the command of" Ibn Sheikh al Libi, who was detained in Libya until his death in 2009. JTF-GTMO's analysts concluded that Ahjam "received suicide operations training at" a Syrian guesthouse funded by Abu Zubdaydah, "at which currency and document forgery operations were also conducted." Ahjam allegedly "received money from" Zubaydah "during his time in Afghanistan and received basic and advanced training at several al Qaeda-affiliated training camps."
Ahjam received "basic training" at al Qaeda's al Farouq training camp on "pistols, AK-47s, M-16s, rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), and hand grenades." Al Qaeda documents also indicate that Ahjam "received the advanced, tactics training course and completed mortar training at the Abu Musab al Zarqawi training camp in Herat." Zarqawi went on to found and then lead al Qaeda in Iraq until his death in 2006.
In "late 2000 or early 2001," Ahjam traveled through Iran to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he visited Osama bin Laden's "legal college for three days." JTF-GTMO identified the "college" as being the Islamic Institute of Kandahar, which was run by Abu Hafs al Mauritani, a "religious advisor" to bin Laden. The school indoctrinated jihadists in al Qaeda's ideology. From there, Ahjam explained to authorities, he traveled to Kabul, where he "stayed at a Syrian guesthouse for over a year." He met Sheikh Issa al Masri, one of al Qaeda's chief ideologues, during this time. Sheikh Issa would "teach the Koran to the Syrians." Ahjam also worked for al Wafa, a charity that was really a front for al Qaeda, during this time.
US officials found that Ahjam's alias was included on a "class roster" for a tactics training course held in March 2001. Ahjam "confirmed it was his alias on the list." Intelligence cited in the files indicates that Abu Khalid al Suri, a senior al Qaeda operative who was killed earlier this year in Syria, was an instructer at Abu Musab al Suri's camp, where the Syrian group was trained. Abu Zubaydah told authorities that Abu Khalid al Suri "was a very good friend of Abu Musab al Suri and was a pistol trainer at Abu Musab al Suri's training camp."
JTF-GTMO also found that "[v]ariations of [Ahjam's] name and alias were found on a document recovered from raids on suspected al Qaeda guesthouses in Pakistan." The "list identifies the contents of [Ahjam's] trust account as a passport, ID cards, and photographs."
Ali Husein Shaaban (ISN 327) "has threatened US personnel upon release and is assessed to have participated in hostilities against US and Coalition forces in" Osama bin Laden's Tora Bora Mountain complex "under the command of" Ibn Sheikh al Libi. Shaaban is "assessed to have received suicide operations training provided by" bin Laden "associate" Sheikh Issa al Masri "at the Syrian Guesthouse funded by" Abu Zubaydah. Shaaban "acknowledged receiving AK-47 training in Afghanistan" and is thought to have trained at Abu Musab al Suri's al Ghuraba training camp, as well as al Qaeda's al Farouq training camp. Shaaban "may have received additional training at the training camp in Afghanistan operated by [the] deceased leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi."
The JTF-GTMO threat assessment for Shaaban includes specific allegations linking him to Abu Zubaydah, who "supported the guesthouse" where Shaaban and his fellow Syrians stayed. Shaaban is "assessed to have received money from" Zubaydah during his stay, the file reads.
Additional information sourced to Zubaydah is included in the JTF-GTMO file, but it is not clear how it is relevant to Shaaban's story.
During debriefings that apparently took place in 2002, Zubaydah told officials that Abu Musab al Zarqawi "was willing to use his network of operatives and trainers to assist al Qaeda." Zubaydah and Zarqawi "worked out a plan to smuggle operatives into Israel to conduct operations, and to train Palestinian groups on explosives, poisons, remote-controlled improvised devices (IED), and suicide operations." Zarqawi "originally suggested that a special group be formed of men from 'al-Sham,'" meaning "the region comprising primarily Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan." It is not clear from the files if Shaaban and other members of his group were considered potential recruits for this Zarqawi-Zubaydah venture.
Abd al Hadi Faraj (ISN 329) has a similar background to his fellow Syrians, according to the JTF-GTMO files. Faraj is "assessed to have participated in hostilities against US and Coalition forces in" Osama bin Laden's Tora Bora Mountain complex under the command of Ibn Sheikh al Libi and "to have received suicide operations training provided by" Sheikh Issa at the Abu Zubaydah-funded Syrian guesthouse. The details of Faraj's training compiled by JTF-GTMO are identical to the two Syrians detailed above. He is thought to have received training at Abu Musab al Suri's al Ghuraba Training camp, al Qaeda's al Farouq camp, and may have been trained at a camp run by Abu Musab al Zarqawi as well.
Faraj's name "appears on a list of foreign fighters as Abu Omar Muhammad, a butcher who had received basic training at an al Qaeda camp in Kandahar." Faraj told authorities that "he worked as a butcher prior to traveling to Afghanistan." The list of foreign fighters "was recovered from the al Qaeda Office of Mujahideen Affairs," and it was assessed that the camp Faraj trained at was al Farouq, al Qaeda's primary training facility in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. A separate list contained a "variation" of Faraj's "name and alias." Faraj's identification "was one of 324 names" included on this document, which was recovered "during a September 2002 raid on a suspected al Qaeda safe house in Karachi."
Jihad Ahmed Mujstafa Diyab (ISN 722) is described as a "document forger who provided services to the network operated by" Abu Zubaydah, "supporting European, North African, and Levant extremists" by "facilitating their international travels." Diyab is an "associate of several other significant al Qaeda members to include" Ibn Sheikh al Libi, 9/11 recruiter Mohammed Zammar, and "other facilitators and identified document forgers."
Intelligence cited by JTF-GTMO indicated that Diyab "provided assistance to Abu Musab al Zarqawi during hostilities in Afghanistan." Diyab was also "assessed to have received training at the al Farouq Training Camp." The JTF-GTMO files connect Diyab to a variety of other al Qaeda actors. One is Sulayman Khalid Darwish, who was Zarqawi's uncle and a senior figure within al Qaeda in Iraq until he was killed.
A significant part of the JTF-GTMO assessment of Diyab is sourced to Abu Zubaydah and Hassan Ghul, who served as an al Qaeda courier and operative. Ghul, who was captured in Iraq and detained for a time, was connected to the highest levels of al Qaeda. After being captured in Iraq in 2004, Ghul gave up crucial intelligence concerning the identity of Osama bin Laden's courier. That intelligence would later be used to hunt down bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Ghul was eventually killed in northern Pakistan in October 2012.
Zubaydah described Diyab "as an expert document forger who was also a long-time associate of" Ibn Sheikh a Libi. Zubaydah explained that Diyab "used computers for falsifying travel documents and sought training through" Zubaydah at Khaldan. Diyab was captured alongside a Tunisian, known as Abu Zur al Tunisi, whom Zubaydah identified as an "al Qaeda document forger" and said "specialized in European visas." Tunisi and Diyab "were close friends," according to Zubaydah.
Zubaydah provided a number of other details concerning Diyab's career, saying the two first met in the mid-1990s. Zubaydah "photo-identified" Diyab "as an associate who was also possibly a member of Ansar al Islam," an al Qaeda-linked group operating in Iraq. Diyab sought training at the Khaldan camp, but Zubaydah believed that Diyab ended up being trained elsewhere. Diyab "escorted" 9/11 recruiter Muhammad Zammar "to Jalalabad" after the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, Zubaydah explained.
And The JTF-GTMO file alleges that Diyab "sought medical assistance from Dr. Amer Aziz." Zubaydah told authorities that Aziz was a "Lahore-based doctor" who served as Osama bin Laden's "personal doctor." According to Zubaydah, Aziz "provided or coordinated treatment to other key al Qaeda personnel, and recruited a network of doctors and scientists to provide medical services for al Qaeda members and [to] support al Qaeda's chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons programs." Aziz's al Qaeda role has been widely reported.
Ghul told authorities that he knew Diyab as "Abu Wa'il al Suri," and the pair met in Kabul or Khost shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. After Diyab was captured in 2002, his wife contacted Ghul "for money." She received "help" from the wife of Ibn Sheikh al Libi in contacting Ghul.
Two other detainees tied to Abu Zubaydah were transferred
In addition to the four members of the "Syrian Group," two other Guantanamo detainees were transferred to Uruguay. According to the leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessments, they were also tied to Abu Zubaydah.
Mohammed Abdullah Tahamuttan (ISN 684), who is originally from the West Bank, is the only one of the six transferred detainees who was deemed a "medium" risk by JTF-GTMO. Tahamuttan was captured during the same raids that netted Abu Zubaydah in late March 2002. The safe houses where Tahamuttan, Zubaydah and others were captured were operated by Lashkar-e-Taiba, an al Qaeda-linked jihadist group in Pakistan. JTF-GTMO concluded that Tahamuttan was a member of Zubaydah's "Martyrs Brigade," which was created for the "purpose of returning to Afghanistan to conduct improvised explosive devices (IED) attacks against US and Coalition forces."
The leaked JTF-GTMO file for Tahamuttan includes multiple references to the debriefings of Zubaydah. For instance, the file notes that Zubaydah "described his escape from Afghanistan with a group of other al Qaeda operatives...with the assistance" of Lashkar-e-Taiba's network of "facilitators." Zubaydah also explained to authorities that his "original plan was to flee Afghanistan and travel via Pakistan to Iran, where he would set up a base of operations for the Brigade." Zubaydah also offered details about the IED training, including which jihadists conducted and received the lessons.
Known al Qaeda operatives were part of Zubaydah's "Martyrs Brigade." One of them is Ghassan Abdullah al Sharbi, who is still a detainee at Guantanamo. According to JTF-GTMO, a poem al Sharbi wrote, and that was found in his possession, praises Zubaydah as a man "who is pushing us to glory." The poem also references the jihadists who were captured along with al Sharbi in late March 2002, saying that he has a "special place in my heart" for the man "from Palestine, Muhammad." JTF-GTMO concluded this was a reference to Tahamuttan.
Tahamuttan allegedly explained to authorities during his time in US custody that two of his uncles were well-known members of Hamas who were arrested by Israeli authorities "numerous times." JTF-GTMO found intelligence indicating that Tahamuttan himself was a Hamas member and originally traveled to Afghanistan to support the Taliban.
Abdul Bin Mohammed Bin Abess Ourgy (ISN 502), a citizen of Tunisia, is the sixth and final detainee transferred to Uruguay. "Detainee is assessed to be a member of al Qaeda and a finance operative for the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG)," the JTF-GTMO threat assessment reads. The TCG is a forerunner of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, the group responsible for the Sept. 14, 2012 assault on the US Embassy in Tunis. And the intelligence collected on Ourgy showed that he worked with some of the senior TCG officials who would go on to form Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, including the group's founder, Abu Iyad al Tunisi, and Sami Ben Khemais Essid, a longtime al Qaeda operative.
Ourgy "spent about four years in Afghanistan (AF) and Pakistan and was a senior explosives trainer for al Qaeda," JTF-GTMO found. Ourgy's "name appears on al Qaeda documents and he admitted he was recruited by an al Qaeda recruiter, his travel was arranged by al Qaeda facilitators, and he trained at al Qaeda training camps." One of the al Qaeda documents that identified Ourgy as an al Qaeda operative was found on 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's hard drive. The document listed Ourgy, using his alias, "as a captured al Qaeda member-fighter who escaped during the movement of prisoners."
During his time in captivity, Ourgy apparently revealed his foreknowledge of the Sept. 9, 2001 assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance's leader. Massoud's assassination was orchestrated by al Qaeda and the TCG in order to pave the way for the attacks in the US two days later. Massoud's slaying removed a key adversary of the Taliban from the battlefield before the US could launch its own counteroffensive against the al Qaeda-Taliban axis.
"Senior al Qaeda facilitator Abu Zubaydah and senior trainer Ibn al Sheikh al Libi both photo-identified detainee as a trainee at the Khaldan camp during the late 1990's," the JTF-GTMO file reads. The US analysts noted that Zubaydah and al Libi gave "different periods for [Ourgy's] training, but both identified him by the alias Abu Musab." Separately, a "Tunisian government report" identified Ourgy as an extremist who "attended the Derunta and Khaldan camps."
Therefore, according to JTF-GTMO's files, all six recently transferred detainees were tied to Abu Zubaydah before their detention in Cuba.
AQAP claims double suicide attack at military base in Hadramout
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) carried out a double suicide bombing early this morning at the First Military Command base in Seyoun, the capital of Yemen's eastern Hadramout province. Yemeni security sources reported that two attackers detonated separate vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) at the base, killing at least five soldiers and wounding between four and eight others.
A Twitter account affiliated with AQAP promptly claimed credit for the bombings and alleged that "tens" of soldiers were killed in the attacks. Although Yemeni security officials indicated that soldiers had prevented the explosives-laden vehicles from entering the facility, AQAP claimed that one car bomb exploded at the base's gate and the other detonated inside the compound.
AQAP identified the first suicide attacker as Humam al Qarqa al Awlaki, also known as Julaybeeb al Awlaki. According to the group's statement released this morning, Awlaki detonated a Suzuki Vitara laden with half a ton of explosives at the gate of the base at around 8:40 a.m. About two minutes later, the second suicide attacker, Nasser bin Ganam al Si'ri, also known as Mansour al Si'ri, detonated a Toyota Hilux carrying 1.25 tons of explosive material inside the command headquarters, allegedly killing "tens" of soldiers and disabling a number of military vehicles.
AQAP stated that its fighters had been monitoring the base prior to the operation and noted that a military convoy that included high-ranking officials had entered the facility about 30 minutes before the attacks.
Yemeni officials told Arabic news outlets that a military truck was also attacked last night in the city of al Shihr, about 150 miles south of Seyoun. Two soldiers were killed and one wounded in the incident, according to officials.
An AQAP statement released today alleged that its fighters attacked the military truck with an improvised explosive device (IED) at 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 8 at the western entrance to al Shihr, killing three soldiers and wounding other passengers. The statement also asserted that soldiers from a nearby barracks began firing in the area "randomly" for over an hour after the attack, ostensibly damaging a nearby mosque and several "houses of Muslims in the area."
Bombings in Sana'a
Today's double suicide attack in Hadramout follows a day of AQAP bombings in Sana'a targeting the residences of Shiite Houthi rebel leaders in the city. The jihadist group said that its fighters carried out three nearly identical twin bombing attacks on the morning of Dec. 8 at the residences of Abd al Ilah al Sharqi, Mohammad Dhayf Allah, and a third unnamed Houthi leader, killing a total of 15 Houthis and wounding 36.
Local media outlets reported that five IEDs exploded in several locations in Sana'a on Monday morning, injuring a total of eight people. Two of the IEDs reportedly detonated in the al Sha'ub district of Sana'a at the home of a local carpenter and overt Houthi supporter, Abdul Hamed Dhayf Allah. The first bomb exploded at 6:00 a.m. and the second, attached to a car parked outside the house, went off about 20 minutes later, reportedly injuring eight local residents.
An officer from the Criminal Investigation Bureau in Sana'a claimed that a third IED exploded a short time later at the house of local Houthi leader Abdullah al Sharafi in the capital's Hasaba district. In addition, two IEDs detonated in the al Sayah neighborhood of Sha'ub district yesterday morning, with apparently no injuries.
According to a statement released by AQAP today, its fighters staged three identical bombing operations at the residences of Houthi leaders, each comprised of two staggered explosions at each site.
In the jihadist group's account, the first attack took place at 6:00 a.m. at the residence of Houthi politician Abd al Ilah al Sharqi, where AQAP fighters detonated a rigged motorbike parked outside the house, damaging the building's facade as well as six vehicles. As Houthis gathered at the scene of the initial explosion, AQAP claimed it detonated a second and more lethal IED comprised of 13 kilograms of TNT and 370 pieces of shrapnel. According to the jihadist group's statement, eight Houthis were killed and 14 others were wounded in the secondary attack.
AQAP also stated that it carried out essentially the same operation at the residence of Houthi leader Mohammad Dhayf Allah, remotely detonating the first IED at 6:15 a.m. and the second, a five-kilogram explosive, at 6:30 a.m. The jihadist group also stated that its fighters reenacted this scenario a third time at the house of an unnamed Houthi leader, claiming that seven Houthis were killed and 22 injured in these two attacks.
AQAP has already claimed credit for a total of 25 terrorist attacks throughout Yemen against both Houthi and military targets since Dec. 1, including today's bombing at the First Military Command base in Hadramout. Eight of these attacks (about 30 percent of all AQAP attacks this month) have been directed at the Yemeni military, mostly in Yemen's southern and eastern provinces.
The remaining operations, with the exception of the Dec. 3 bombing at the residence of the Iranian ambassador to Yemen, have been directed at Houthi military positions and/or individual Houthi leaders or their alleged supporters. The majority of these attacks (7) took place in Sana'a, whereas other operations were conducted in Ibb and Baydah provinces.
AQAP has been battling its traditional local enemy, the Yemeni military, and its rising nemesis, the Shiite Houthi rebels, while still managing to threaten the US. On Dec. 4, the jihadist group released a video featuring hostage Luke Somers, threatening to kill the American photojournalist if the US government did not give in to various demands. On Dec. 6, AQAP killed Somers as well as a South African hostage during a rescue attempt by US forces in Shabwa. And two weeks ago, AQAP claimed responsibility for a double IED attack at the US Embassy in Sana'a.
The following photos were released by AQAP along with the statement regarding today's attack at the First Military Command base in Hadramout:
The first suicide attacker - Humam al Qarwa al Awlaki
The second suicide attacker, Nasser bin Ghanam al Si'ri
This image purports to show the second suicide attacker approaching the base
This image purports to show the detonation of the second VBIED
Al Qaeda commander reported killed in drone strike in Pakistan
A senior al Qaeda commander is reported to have been killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan's tribal areas yesterday. If his death is confirmed, it would mean that two al Qaeda leaders have been killed by US and Pakistani forces over the weekend.
The CIA-operated, remotely piloted Predators or Reapers fired a pair of missiles at a compound in the village of Khar Tangi in the Datta Khel area of North Waziristan during the early morning of Dec. 7, killing upwards of six jihadists, according to reports from Pakistan. Several fighters from the Hafiz Gul Bahadar Group, a Taliban faction that is supported by the Pakistani state, are said to be among those killed.
There is some confusion over the identity of the al Qaeda leader who is reported to have been killed. Both Reuters and Dawn identified him as Omar Farooq ("alias Omar Ustad and Ustad Farooq," according to Dawn), who is described as al Qaeda's spokesman and emir for Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Express Tribune also named the slain al Qaeda leader as Omar Farooq, but described him as al Qaeda's "coordinator for the Arab region and Pakistan." The name of al Qaeda's spokesman for Pakistan is Ustad Ahmad Farooq, rather than Omar Farooq. [See LWJ reports, Al Qaeda eulogizes senior commander killed in recent drone strike and Al Qaeda weighs in on the Malala shooting.]
US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal said they are aware of reports of the death of a senior al Qaeda leader in Sunday's drone strike, but would not comment on the identity of who was targeted. One intelligence official noted that Omar Farooq is a common nom de guerre for Pakistani jihadists.
Al Qaeda and its official branch in the region, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), have not released an official statement confirming or denying the death of a senior leader, nor are al Qaeda-linked jihadists discussing reports of the death on social media sites.
If Farooq's death is confirmed, he would be the second al Qaeda leader killed in Waziristan last weekend. On Dec. 6, the Pakistani military claimed it killed Adnan Shukrijumah, al Qaeda's operations chief for North America, in a raid in Spin Warzak, South Waziristan.
The Datta Khel area in North Waziristan, where yesterday's drone strike took place, is a nexus of Taliban, Haqqani Network, and al Qaeda activity. Hafiz Gul Bahadar, the top Taliban commander for North Waziristan, administers the area, but the Haqqani Network, al Qaeda, and other jihadist groups also operate there. Some of al Qaeda's top leaders have been killed in drone strikes in Datta Khel, including Mustafa Abu Yazid, Abdullah Said al Libi, and Zuhaib al Zahibi. [See LWJ report, 'Foreign militants' reported killed in latest US drone strike in Pakistan, for more details on Datta Khel and senior al Qaeda leaders killed there.]
US continues to target al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan's tribal areas
The US has killed three other senior al Qaeda leaders in drone strikes in Pakistan since the beginning of October. AQIS confirmed that Sheikh Imran Ali Siddiqi, a member of the group's shura, or executive council, was killed in a drone strike on Oct. 11. And in mid-November, the US killed AQIS leaders Adil Abdul Quoos and Dr. Sarbaland. [See LWJ reports, AQIS announces death of 2 senior leaders in US operation and US drone strike kills veteran jihadist turned senior AQIS official.]
The ongoing targeting of al Qaeda's leadership cadre by the US in Pakistan's tribal areas refutes past claims from Obama administration and intelligence officials that al Qaeda's core has been "decimated", and that the organization has been "reduced to just two figures whose demise would mean the group's defeat."
US strikes in Pakistan
Yesterday's operation in Datta Khel is the 21st strike reported in Pakistan this year. Ten of those strikes have taken place in Datta Khel, and four more in the in the Shawal Valley of North Waziristan, which is also an al Qaeda and jihadist hub in the tribal agency.
All 21 attacks have taken place since June 11. The US drone program in Pakistan was put on hold from the end of December 2013 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.
Representative of Ayman al Zawahiri reportedly captured in Turkey
An operative who was dispatched to Libya by al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri was reportedly captured in Turkey and is now being held in Jordan.
A Turkish daily, the Milliyet, first reported Azzouz's capture earlier this month. The Milliyet's reporting was subsequently picked up by other Turkish press outlets.
Azzouz was handpicked by Zawahiri to oversee al Qaeda's efforts in post-revolution Libya. According to the Turkish reports, Azzouz was detained in mid-November after the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Turkish authorities located him in the "summer resort" area of Yalova, which is south of Istanbul. Two laptops and a fake passport were captured along with Azzouz.
According to an account by the Washington Post, Azzouz was soon deported to Jordan, where he is currently being held.
US intelligence officials are investigating Azzouz's potential ties to the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. If he did have a role in the assault, during which four Americans were killed, then his involvement would be yet another strong piece of evidence pointing to the culpability of al Qaeda's international network.
Fighters from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), two formal branches of al Qaeda, are known to have taken part in the Benghazi attack. Both AQAP and AQIM are openly loyal to Zawahiri.
Members of the so-called Mohammad Jamal Network (MJN) were present among the attackers. The MJN, as it is known by Western counterterrorism officials, was founded by Mohammad Jamal, an Egyptian who was first trained by al Qaeda in the 1980s. Like the leaders of AQAP and AQIM, Jamal swore a bayat (oath of allegiance) to Zawahiri.
Fighters from Ansar al Sharia, an al Qaeda-linked group based in Libya, were also among the jihadists who stormed the embassy. There is abundant evidence tying Ansar al Sharia to al Qaeda's network and these ties have been formally recognized by the United Nations. [For more on the various al Qaeda groups responsible for the Benghazi attack, see LWJ reports, Senate report: Terrorists 'affiliated' with multiple al Qaeda groups involved in Benghazi attack and UN recognizes ties between Ansar al Sharia in Libya, al Qaeda.]
Zawahiri's man in Libya
In September, the State Department added Azzouz to the US government's list of specially designated global terrorists. Azzouz "has had a presence in Afghanistan, the United Kingdom, and Libya."
State noted that Azzouz "was sent to Libya in 2011 by al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri to build a fighting force there, and mobilized approximately 200 fighters." Azzouz "is considered a key operative capable of training al Qaeda recruits in a variety of skills," such as building improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The designation of Azzouz confirmed some of the details previously reported by CNN, as well as by an analysis shop in the Defense Department.
An unclassified report published in August 2012 highlights al Qaeda's strategy for building a fully operational network in Libya, and it identified Azzouz as playing a key role in these plans. The report ("Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile") was prepared by the federal research division of the Library of Congress under an agreement with the Defense Department's Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO).
The report's authors noted that Azzouz had been sent to Libya by Zawahiri and has been close to the al Qaeda leader "since 1980." Azzouz "first visited Afghanistan in the 1990s to join the mujahedin fight against the Soviet occupation." In Libya, according to the CTTSO report, Azzouz "has been operating at least one training center" and has hundreds of men under his command. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda's plan for Libya highlighted in congressional report.]
It is not clear what Azzouz was specifically doing in Turkey at the time of his capture. Turkey is a known crossroads for al Qaeda operatives, including those dispatched by al Qaeda's senior leadership and fighters seeking to join the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria.
AQAP murders 2 hostages, including an American, during US rescue attempt
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) killed American photojournalist Luke Somers and Pierre Korkie, a South African teacher, during a hastily organized rescue attempt by US forces that took place in southern Yemen earlier today. The raid was authorized after AQAP had threatened to kill Somers within 72 hours unless its demands were met.
The rescue attempt and the hostages' deaths were announced by the US Department of Defense in a press release. The operation "was quickly but thoroughly planned," after being authorized by President Barack Obama and the Yemeni government on Dec. 5.
"US Special Operations forces were close to the Yemeni compound when al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula terrorists detected them and murdered American Luke Somers and another Western hostage," the press release stated. "The Yemeni government approved the operation and gave its full support."
"Military, law enforcement and intelligence specialists pinpointed where AQAP was holding the hostages and the threat the terrorists posed to them," the statement continues. "Intelligence indicated AQAP planned to murder the hostages within 72 hours, giving added impetus to the attempt."
The Department of Defense provided some details on the rescue operation. Forty American "special operators" assaulted a "remote compound" in the southern province of Shabwa, an AQAP stronghold, after being dropped off by CV-22 Ospreys "under the cover of darkness." The operation lasted for at least one hour.
"AQAP terrorists detected the special operators as they began their final approach to the compound and they began firing wildly at the Americans," the statement says. An AQAP fighter entered the buildings where the hostages were held and shot them.
The special operations forces overran the building and found Somers and Korkie, both of whom were shot but still alive. The two freed captives were flown to the USS Makin Island. "Surgeons and medics worked on the two men on the way to the ship, but one died en route and the other on the operating table," the statement says.
AQAP threatened to kill Somers
Somers was captured by AQAP in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a one year ago. US special operations forces attempted to rescue Somers and other hostages during a raid in the Hajr as-Say'ar district of Hadramout province during the night between Nov. 24 and Nov. 25. Eight hostages were rescued in that operation, but Somers had been moved prior to the raid.
AQAP reacted to that operation in a speech by senior AQAP leader Nasser bin Ali al Ansi that was released on Dec. 4. In the videotaped speech, Ansi threatened to kill Somers if the US did not give in to a number of undisclosed demands.
Somers then appeared in the video and pled for his life. [See LWJ report, AQAP threatens to execute American hostage.]
"It's now been well over a year since I've been kidnapped in Sana'a," Somers said in the video. "Basically, I'm looking for any help that can get me out of this situation. I am certain my life is in danger. So as I sit here now, I ask, if anything can be done, please let it be done."
Pakistani army kills senior al Qaeda commander tasked with attacking the West
The Pakistani military said it killed Adnan Shukrijumah, a senior al Qaeda leader who was tasked with plotting attacks in North America, during a raid in the Taliban-controlled tribal agency of South Waziristan. Shukrijumah was a member of al Qaeda's external operations council and was involved with the 2008 plot to bomb subways in New York City and another plot to detonate fuel pipelines at JFK International Airport.
The Inter-Services Public Relations branch of the Pakistani military announced the death of Shukrijumah in a press release, and said he was killed in a raid in the Shin Warsak area of South Waziristan.
"In an intelligence borne operation, top al Qaeda leader Adnan Al Shukrijumah was killed by [the] Pakistan Army in an early morning raid in Shin Warsak, South Waziristan today," the ISPR statement, which was obtained by The Long War Journal, said. Additionally, "his accomplice and local facilitator were also killed in the raid." The ISPR also said a soldier was killed during the raid.
The Shin Warsak area is a known haven for al Qaeda, and is controlled by the Mullah Nazir Group, a Taliban faction that is favored by the Pakistani military and government as it does not seek to attack the Pakistani state. The Mullah Nazir Group does wage jihad in Afghanistan and shelter members of al Qaeda and other local and international terrorist groups.
The US has launched four drone strikes against al Qaeda in Shin Warzak since December 2008. In late 2012, the US killed two mid-level al Qaeda commanders, Abdul Rehman al Zaman Yemeni and Sheikh Abdul Bari, in two separate strikes. [See LWJ reports, Al Qaeda commander thought killed in South Waziristan drone strike, and US drones kill 3 'militants' in 1st strike in Pakistan in more than a month.]
Shukrijumah was born in Saudi Arabia and lived in the US for years. He attended a mosque in Florida where he mixed with radicals. At some point, Shukrijumah traveled to Afghanistan where he allegedly received training in al Qaeda's camps and was groomed by senior al Qaeda leaders for future missions. In 2003, FBI and US intelligence officials told the press that Shukrijumah then came back to the US to coordinate terrorist attacks on American soil after Sept. 11, 2001. He was placed on the FBI's most wanted list. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda sleeper agent tied to 2009 NYC subway plot.]
Since 2003, Shukrijumah has been one of the most wanted al Qaeda terrorists in the world. On March 20, 2003, the FBI released a "Be on the Lookout" alert for Shukrijumah (a.k.a. Jafar al Tayyar, or Jafar "the Pilot"). In 2010, the US State Department's Rewards For Justice program offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture and prosecution, putting him in the upper tier of wanted al Qaeda leaders.
Shukrijumah has been identified as being a member of al Qaeda's external operations council and its operations chief for North America.
He is the second member of al Qaeda's external operations council to have been killed this fall. On Oct. 13, jihadists reported the death of Ahmed Abdulrahman Sihab Ahmed Sihab, who is also known as Abdulrahman al Sharqi. Sihab, a wanted Bahraini citizen who was on the US list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists, is thought to have been killed in a drone strike in Pakistan or Afghanistan. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda external operations leader reported killed .]