Thursday, November 20, 2014

Jihadist group 'Soldiers of Egypt' claims responsibility for attack on police near university (03:53PM)

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Ajnad Misr, or the "Soldiers of Egypt," has claimed credit for a terrorist attack on a police post near Helwan University in Cairo earlier today. Initial accounts say that five policemen were injured in the bombing, and several other bystanders were wounded as they fled the scene.

Ajnad Misr released its claim of responsibility on its official Twitter feed, and the claim was also picked up by other jihadist websites. The group first claimed attacks earlier this year. In a statement issued on Jan. 24, Ajnad Misr said it was responsible for two attacks that occurred in November 2013, as well as subsequent attacks in January. The jihadist organization then executed a string of additional attacks in Cairo and elsewhere in the months that followed, mainly focusing on Egyptian security personnel.

The bombing outside of a university is consistent with Ajnad Misr's modus operandi, as it has targeted security personnel in and around universities in the past. The jihadist organization struck Cairo University in October, and its justifications were nearly identical to those offered for today's bombing.

"This blessed operation comes after a rise in killing and maltreatment incidents against students," Ajnad Misr said in a statement released after the bombings last month. "And we have been avoiding targeting the criminal apparatus near universities ... til it was proven that they are carrying out systematic crimes [against students] without justification," the statement reads.

In its statement claiming responsibility, Ajnad Misr justified today's attack by saying that it witnessed female students being dragged away by security forces.

A Twitter feed that claims to serve as Ajnad Misr's media arm posted an image of women being dragged away, saying today's attack was revenge for the "sisters" who were assaulted. The image can be seen above.

Ajnad Misr has repeatedly stated that it is attempting to avoid civilian casualties as it lashes out at Egyptian officials. In April, for instance, the group said that it delayed the detonation of one of its bombs near Cairo University because it wanted to avoid striking the civilians in the area. Ajnad made the same claim in October, saying that it used less powerful explosives in order to avoid innocent citizens.

Another Egyptian jihadist group, Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM), or Ansar Jerusalem, is headquartered in the Sinai, and a faction from the group has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that controls large portions of Iraq and Syria. ABM has rebranded itself as the Islamic State's province in the Sinai.

In the past, ABM has described Ajnad Misr as "our brothers," but it is not clear what, if any, relationship there is between the two organizations currently. Ajnad Misr has not sworn allegiance to the Islamic State, and many details about the group remain unknown.

US launches drone strike in North Waziristan (02:11PM)

The US killed five suspected "militants" in the latest drone strike in Pakistan's jihadist haven of North Waziristan. The strike is just the second by the US in Pakistan this month.

The CIA-operated, remotely piloted Predators or Reapers fired a pair of missiles at a compound "believed to be a hideout of suspected militants" in the Datta Khel area of North Waziristan, Xinhua reported.

Pakistani officials told Dawn that five "militants," including an unnamed "high value target," were killed in the strike. Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and other jihadist groups known to operate in the area have not released a statement announcing the death of any of the groups' leaders.

The Pakistani government, which has condemned US drone strikes in the past, including a Nov. 11 strike in Datta Khel, has not released a statement on today's attack. Several "foreign militants" were reported killed in the Nov. 11 airstrike.

The Datta Khel area of North Waziristan is one of several hubs for al Qaeda and other jihadist groups in North Waziristan. Some of al Qaeda's top leaders have been killed by drone strikes in the area, 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 information on Datta Khel.]

The Datta Khel area is administered by Hafiz Gul Bahadar, the top Taliban commander for North Waziristan. Bahadar provides shelter to senior al Qaeda leaders as well as terrorists from numerous Pakistani and Central Asian terror groups.

The US has launched 19 drone strikes inside Pakistan this year. Nine of those strikes have taken place in Datta Khel.

All 19 strikes have taken place since June 11. The US drone program in Pakistan was put on hold from the end of December 2013 up until June 11, 2014, as the Pakistani government attempted to negotiate a peace deal with the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, an al Qaeda-linked group that wages jihad in Afghanistan and seeks to overthrow the Pakistani state.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

UN recognizes ties between Ansar al Sharia in Libya, al Qaeda (09:12PM)

The United Nations Security Council today added Ansar al Sharia in Libya to its al Qaeda sanctions list. "As a result of the new listings," the UN announced, "any individual or entity that provides financial or material support to" Ansar al Sharia Libya, "including the provision of arms or recruits, is eligible to be added to the Al Qaeda Sanctions List and subject to the sanctions measures."

The UN notes that the Ansar al Sharia chapters in Benghazi and Derna are associated with one another, but lists them separately under a heading that reads, "Entities and other groups associated with Al Qaeda."

Despite their separate listings, the two Ansar al Sharia groups operate together and have published their propaganda under a shared brand. Ansar al Sharia fighters from both Benghazi and Derna participated in the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack on the US Mission and Annex in Benghazi. Four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed during the assault.

According to the UN, both Ansar al Sharia groups in Libya are "associated" with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an official branch of al Qaeda that remains loyal to Ayman al Zawahiri. They are both also tied to Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia, which orchestrated the assault on the US Embassy in Tunis on Sept. 14, 2012.

The UN added Ansar al Sharia Tunisia to its al Qaeda sanctions list in September. The UN found that, like its sister organizations in Libya, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia has "links to" AQIM.

There are well-established ties between Ansar al Sharia in Libya and Tunisia. The UN notes in its designation that Ansar al Sharia in Libya has a "support network in Tunisia."

In addition, the Benghazi chapter is tied to Al Mourabitoun, which is led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former AQIM commander who established his own jihadist group. Belmokhtar is openly loyal to Zawahiri and, according to a previous designation by the UN, still works with AQIM despite his differences with the group's leadership.

Earlier this month, Agence France Presse obtained a copy of a dossier that was submitted to the UN to justify today's action. The documents provided to the UN show that 12 of the 24 jihadists who participated in the January 2013 siege of the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria were trained in Ansar al Sharia camps in Benghazi.

Belmokhtar commanded the terrorists responsible for the In Amenas siege and claimed responsibility for the raid on behalf of al Qaeda.

Britain, France, and the US moved to have Ansar al Sharia Libya added to the UN sanctions list earlier this month, and all 15 members of the UN Security Council had until today to agree to the sanctions. A consensus was reached and the sanctions were approved.

UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond praised the UN's decision in a statement. Hammond said that the Ansar al Sharia groups in Benghazi and Derna both "have links with Al Qaeda and are responsible for acts of terror in Libya, including bomb attacks, kidnappings, and murder."

Ansar al Sharia camps in Derna and Benghazi have been used to funnel foreign fighters to Syria, according to the UN. The camps in Benghazi have also shipped jihadists off to Mali.

Today's action by the UN confirms The Long War Journal's reporting and analysis. Numerous pieces of evidence tie the Ansar al Sharia organizations in Libya and Tunisia to al Qaeda's international network. See, for example, LWJ reports:

US military continues to claim al Qaeda is 'restricted' to 'isolated areas of northeastern Afghanistan' (12:34AM)

A recently issued report on the status of Afghanistan by the US Department of Defense has described al Qaeda as being primarily confined to "isolated areas of northeastern Afghanistan." But information on Afghan military and intelligence operations against the global jihadist group contradicts the US military's assessment.

The Defense Department released its "Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan" in October. The report, which "covers progress in Afghanistan from April 1 to September 30, 2014," contains only nine mentions of al Qaeda. Five of those mentions simply reference the mission to conduct "counterterrorism operations against remnants of core al Qaeda and its affiliates."

The US military's report states that "[s]ustained ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] and ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] counterterrorism operations prevented al Qaeda's use of Afghanistan as a platform from which to launch transnational terrorist attacks during this reporting period."

Then the report goes on to describe al Qaeda as "isolated" in the northeastern part of the country, a reference to the remote mountainous provinces of Kunar and Nuristan.

"Counterterrorism operations restricted al Qaeda's presence to isolated areas of northeastern Afghanistan and limited access to other parts of the country," the report continues. "These efforts forced al Qaeda in Afghanistan to focus on survival, rather than on operations against the West. Al Qaeda's relationship with local Afghan Taliban organizations remains intact and is an area of concern."

Al Qaeda's operations contradict US military claims

For years, the US military has claimed that al Qaeda is constrained to operating in northeastern Afghanistan, but ISAF's own data on raids against the terrorist group and its allies has indicated otherwise. According to ISAF press releases announcing operations between early 2007 and June 2013, al Qaeda and its allies were targeted 338 different times, in 25 of 34 of Afghanistan's provinces. Those raids took place in 110 of Afghanistan's nearly 400 districts. [See LWJ report, ISAF raids against al Qaeda and allies in Afghanistan 2007-2013.]

Continuing this pattern, while the latest DoD report, which covers the period between April 1 and Oct. 30 of this year, claims that al Qaeda is restricted to northeastern Afghanistan, reported Afghan military and intelligence operations during the same time period indicate that al Qaeda remains active beyond Kunar and Nuristan.

The most high-profile operation against al Qaeda was conducted in Nangarhar province in October. Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security reported that al Qaeda leader Abu Bara al Kuwaiti was killed in a US airstrike in Lal Mandi in Nangarhar's Nazyan district. The airstrike took place at the home of Abdul Samad Khanjari, who was described as al Qaeda's military commander for the province.

Abu Bara likely served in al Qaeda's General Command. He was close to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, and had served as an aide to Atiyah Abd al Rahman, al Qaeda's former general manager who was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan in August 2011. Abu Bara wrote Atiyah's eulogy, which was published in Vanguards of Khorasan, al Qaeda's official magazine. US intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal that Abu Bara was the most senior al Qaeda leader killed in Afghanistan in years. [See LWJ report, Senior al Qaeda leader reported killed in US airstrike in eastern Afghanistan.]

Another senior al Qaeda leader known to operate in Afghanistan is Qari Bilal. In August, Afghan officials said that he commands more than 300 fighters in the northern province of Kunduz, where several districts are controlled or contested by the Taliban. Bilal is also a member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an al Qaeda-linked group that has integrated its operations with the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.

Bilal escaped from a Pakistani jail in 2010, entered Afghanistan, and was subsequently captured by ISAF special operations forces in 2011. He was later freed by Afghan officials and rejoined the fight. [See LWJ report, Senior IMU leader captured by ISAF in 2011 now leads fight in northern Afghanistan.]

This month, Afghan officials announced the capture of Eqbal al Tajiki, a citizen of Tajikistan who served with al Qaeda's network in Kunduz. Sediq Sediqi, the spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said that Eqbal "is an active member of the al Qaeda network" who was "transferred by his colleagues to northern parts of Afghanistan to carry out terrorist activities," according to Afghan Channel One TV. Sediqi said Eqbal had "received terrorist training in North Waziristan for three years."

Eqbal may have been a member of the Qari Salim Group, "a high-profile Al Qaeda affiliate" that is commanded by Qari Khaluddin, Pajhwok Afghan News noted in October. Khaluddin "had recently trained in Pakistan's city of Quetta." The group is said to have been plotting to attack a military base in Kunduz.

Another al Qaeda group known to be operating in Afghanistan is Junood al Fida. In early October, Junood al Fida released video that purported to show the group taking control of the district of Registan in the southern province of Kandahar.

Junood al Fida, which is comprised of Baluch jihadists, has sworn loyalty to the Taliban but also describes Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri as "Our Shaykh al Habeeb" [beloved leader] and its "Ameeruna" [our chief]. The group's propaganda routinely attacks the US. [See LWJ reports, Baloch jihadist group in southern Afghanistan announces death of commander and Jihadist group loyal to Taliban, al Qaeda claims to have captured Afghan district.]

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb video features French, Dutch hostages (09:35AM)

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Qaeda's official branch in North Africa, has released a new video that showcases two Western hostages. The hostages, a French national and a Dutch national, both appeal to their respective governments to intervene in order to free them.

The video was produced by Al Andalus Media, AQIM's media wing, and then disseminated online. The video has been translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

The first hostage to speak, Serge Lazarevic, appears to be positioned in a vehicle with al Qaeda's black flag situated in the background. Speaking to the camera, Lazarevic says: "I seize this opportunity to solemnly call on Francois Holland, President of the Republic of France, to do everything to free me. I am very sick. My stomach hurts. I suffer from high hypertension, asthma, a knee ulcer. I feel that my life is in danger since the French intervention in Iraq. I ask you, Mr. President, to do all you can for my liberation, because you are responsible for all that will happen to me."

Lazarevic then mentions that five Taliban leaders were exchanged for US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. He notes: "In the past you freed all the French, and I am the last. I hope not to be the eighth on the list of the French killed in the Sahel. Obama liberated the only American soldier in exchange for five Taliban leaders."

He ends by addressing his family: "I say hello to my family, my mother [unclear], my daughter Diane Nihatovitch, her husband, the children, and my sister. I ask that everything be done for my release. I also ask the French people to help my family for my freedom. Thank you."

Lazarevic, who holds both French and Serbian citizenship, was seized in 2011 in Mali by AQIM forces there. He was kidnapped along with another French national, Philippe Verdon, who was killed last year by AQIM in Mali.

The second hostage to speak is Sjaak Rijke, the Dutch national. Rijke, who has been held captive for more than 1,000 days, appears to be speaking from location separate from Lazarevic's. Sitting in front of a white sheet, Rijke identifies the date as being Sept. 26, 2014, indicating that he was still alive as of almost two months ago.

Rijke says his health is deteriorating, and he also mentions the Bergdahl prisoner swap. He states: "I want to send a message to my government and inform them that until now, I've not received anything official with respect to the negotiations while at the same time we see that the American government released five Taliban captives to get one American rescued, captive returned. I'm suffering from serious back problems and I'm not well emotionally. I'm in extreme circumstances and a difficult security situation. As of today, I hold my government responsible for any harm that comes to me."

Rijke ends by appealing to his family and the citizens in Holland, saying, "[P]lace as much pressure to the government so that they take serious steps to come to a quick solution and that they respond to the demands of the mujahideen. Please help me. Please."

Rijke was abducted by AQIM in Mali in 2011. He was kidnapped at a hotel in the Malian city of Timbuktu along with a German national, a Swede, and a South African. The status of the other hostages is unclear.

AQIM has a history of taking Western hostages

AQIM has a long history of taking hostages to fund its activities. In 2010, Michel Germaneau, a French hostage held by AQIM, died while in captivity. And in 2013, four French hostages were released by AQIM after being held for three years; it is speculated that a ransom of 20 million Euros was paid to free them.

Before that, AQIM was responsible for the kidnapping of Spanish nationals in Mauritania and an Italian and French national in Mali in 2009, as well as many more abductions throughout North Africa.

The al Qaeda branch's prolific kidnappings have even led senior al Qaeda leaders to tighten their control over the hostage-taking operations.

In November 2010, AQIM emir Abdelmalek Droukdel made a surprising claim in a video that was aired on Al Jazeera. Droukdel said that France would have to negotiate with Osama bin Laden himself to secure the release of several French hostages. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Al Qaeda central tightened control over hostage operations.]

Monday, November 17, 2014

Analysis: Islamic State snuff videos help to attract more followers (09:59AM)

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In a video released on Nov. 16 that showed the execution of Syrian soldiers and the severed head of an American, the Islamic State highlighted the oaths of allegiance that jihadists from several countries swore to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi last week.

Editor's note: A version of this article was originally published at The Daily Beast.

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's Islamic State, the al Qaeda offshoot that controls large portions of Iraq and Syria, has claimed to have beheaded yet another Western hostage, along with more than a dozen captured Syrian soldiers. In a newly-released video, a henchman for the group stands over what appears to be the severed head of Peter Kassig, a former US Army Ranger turned aid worker who was kidnapped in Syria in late 2013.

From the Islamic State's perspective, such videos serve multiple purposes. They are meant to intimidate the organization's enemies in the West and elsewhere, show defiance in the face of opposition, and to convince other jihadists that Baghdadi's state is the strong horse. Al Qaeda, the Islamic State's rival, long ago determined that graphic beheading videos do more harm than good for the jihadists' cause, as they turn off more prospective supporters than they earn. But the Islamic State has clearly come to the opposite conclusion, cornering the market on savagery.

There is no doubt that the Islamic State's ranks have swelled over the past year. Young recruits, in particular, have been attracted to the organization's brazen violence. But Baghdadi has had much less success in attracting the allegiance of established jihadist organizations, many of which remain openly loyal to al Qaeda.

At first blush, Baghdadi had a big day on Nov. 10. Jihadists from Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen all swore allegiance to Baghdadi in what was intended to be a show of global support for the self-appointed caliph. The Islamic State has been attempting to win the support of jihadists at the expense of al Qaeda, so the messages were widely heralded by Baghdadi's boosters. Indeed, the group highlighted the oaths of allegiance in yesterday's beheading video.

Baghdadi accepted the various loyalty oaths three days later in an audio message released on Nov. 13. The Islamic State leader's speech served multiple purposes. It demonstrated that he was alive, contradicting thinly-sourced claims that he had been killed in airstrikes earlier in the month. And it gave Baghdadi the opportunity to praise his new minions, blessing them as his official representatives.

Baghdadi offered "glad tidings" as he trumpeted "the expansion of the Islamic State to new lands, to the lands of al Haramain [meaning Saudi Arabia] and Yemen, and to Egypt, Libya and Algeria." Baghdadi accepted "the bayat (oath of allegiance) from those who gave us bayat in those lands" and pronounced "the nullification" of all other jihadist "groups therein." He also announced the creation of "new wilayah [provinces] for the Islamic State" in all five countries, adding that the group would appoint "wali [provincial leaders] for them." All jihadists in these areas, and indeed all Muslims, must now obey the Islamic State's official representatives, according to Baghdadi and his supporters.

Of course, the Islamic State doesn't really have provinces stretching from North Africa through the heart of Arabia. But how strong is Baghdadi's network in all five countries? The short answer is: We don't really know.

In three of the five countries--Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen--the jihadists who swore loyalty oaths to Baghdadi were anonymous. And they don't represent any well-established terrorist organizations either.

For instance, the Islamic State has failed, thus far, to garner the allegiance of Ansar al Sharia Libya, which is notorious for its role in the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attacks in Benghazi and remains one of the most powerful jihadist organizations in eastern Libya. None of Ansar al Sharia's allies in the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, the Islamist coalition fighting General Khalifa Haftar's forces for control of territory, pledged allegiance to Baghdadi. The Islamic State has supporters in Libya, particularly among the jihadist youth. But other groups are still, by all outward appearances, more entrenched.

Similarly, the messages from Saudi Arabia and Yemen were attributed generically to the "mujahideen" in both countries. Baghdadi and his supporters have attempted, and failed, to woo al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) on multiple occasions.

AQAP, which is headquartered in Yemen, is the strongest jihadist group in the heart of Arabia. Some have assumed that the only person keeping AQAP loyal to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri is Nasir al Wuhayshi, a protégé of Osama bin Laden who serves as both AQAP's leader and as al Qaeda's global general manager. There is no basis for this assumption. There are al Qaeda loyalists throughout AQAP's chain-of-command.

A few AQAP ideologues have been quite vocal in their support for the Islamic State, but there was an interesting twist in this part of the story this past week.

Mamoon Hatem has been the Islamic State's most zealous supporter within AQAP. Hatem frequently uses his Twitter feed, which has been suspended multiple times, to sing the Islamic State's praises. Hatem encouraged Baghdadi to proclaim himself the new caliph even before the Islamic State's caliphate announcement in late June. Before this past week, it was reasonable to assume that Hatem may break away from AQAP to form his own branch of the Islamic State.

That is still a possibility. Curiously, however, Hatem refused to endorse the group of unknown "mujahideen" in Yemen who swore allegiance to Baghdadi on Nov. 10. In a series of more than 20 tweets, Hatem admitted that he tried to get AQAP to switch allegiances from Zawahiri to Baghdadi. But Hatem explained that he failed for a number of reasons. And he said that the pro-Islamic State message out of Yemen would only exacerbate the many difficulties AQAP currently faces inside the country. This was no time to jump ship, Hatem argued, given that AQAP is hunted by the US while also embroiled in a vicious fight against the Houthis, Shiite rebels who have barnstormed throughout the country.

Hatem said he still wants the Islamic State to expand the territory under its control, including to parts of the Arabian Peninsula. But he doesn't want Baghdadi to do so in a way that further divides the jihadists. Hatem said the men loyal to Baghdadi inside Yemen include "students," but offered few other details. Hatem's tweets indicate that, once again, the Islamic State is attracting the jihadist youth while failing to secure the loyalty of more seasoned fighters.

As a result, we know next to nothing about the jihadists in Saudi Arabia and Yemen who now claim to take orders from Baghdadi. The Islamic State may have cadres of fighters in both countries, but no one can publicly identify them at this point and there is no reason to believe they are nearly as strong as al Qaeda.

We do know something about the Islamic State's adherents in Algeria, as they first swore allegiance to Baghdadi well before their announcement on Nov. 10. They are veteran jihadists who have defected from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). When they first came out in support of Baghdadi earlier this year, they identified themselves as AQIM's "central division," a little-known faction within AQIM. They now call themselves Jund al Khalifa, a name that is intended to explicitly connect them to Baghdadi's caliphate. Jund al Khalifa has already beheaded a French hostage in service of the Islamic State's cause, but there is no way of telling how many fighters are under its control.

The announcement out of Egypt was the most significant, as it came from a faction of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), otherwise known as Ansar Jerusalem. No jihadist group in Egypt is more prolific than ABM, which has been responsible for dozens of attacks against members of the Egyptian military and security services, Sinai tribesmen, Israelis, and others. Oddly, however, the ABM jihadist who pledged to obey Baghdadi was not identified in his message. Neither his alias, nor his role within ABM, was given. Credible accounts, including one by The New York Times, point to divisions within ABM. The Sinai faction of ABM has been itching to join the Islamic State since earlier this year, but their Nile Valley counterparts remain loyal to al Qaeda. Thus, at least part of ABM remains in al Qaeda's corner.

This is not to suggest that the Islamic State's gains in the Sinai should be dismissed. It is likely that Baghdadi has officially gained the allegiance of a number of fighters. The Islamic State's influence in the Sinai has long been clear. Both Egyptian officials and ABM leaders have said that the group has been working with the Sinai jihadists for months, thereby increasing their operational capacity. And a video released on Nov. 14 portrays ABM as the Islamic State's new province in the Sinai.

In the days and weeks that follow, we will likely learn more about the jihadists who now represent the Islamic State in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Baghdadi emphasized in his message on Nov. 13 that his organization now has provinces in each of these five countries. And because his caliphate has spread into those nations, Baghdadi argues, existing jihadist organizations have been nullified.

The logical implication of Baghdadi's argument is that the official branches of al Qaeda--such as AQAP in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, as well as AQIM in Algeria and Libya--are now illegitimate if they do not submit to the caliphate's claimed authority. This makes it incumbent upon the Islamic State's leadership to demonstrate that their network's presence in these nations is meaningful, and goes beyond audio messages from unknown figures.

The Islamic State's international network is real. It remains to be seen just how strong it really is. With more videos released like yesterday's, young jihadists will continue to flock to Baghdadi's cause. While a smattering of established jihadists around the globe have backed Baghdadi, the Islamic State's base of support is found in new recruits. That is, Baghdadi's followers are predominately hotheads, young men and women who are emboldened by horrific beheadings.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Islamic State releases new execution video, purportedly kills American (10:45AM)

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The Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that controls large portions of Iraq and Syria, has released a new video showing the mass beheadings of Syrian soldiers. The video also includes a scene purportedly showing the severed head of Peter Kassig, who was kidnapped in late 2013. Kassig is a former US Army Ranger who was serving as an aid worker in Syria at the time of his disappearance.

As in past videos, the Islamic State's executioner, a man dubbed "Jihadi John" in the press because he speaks with an English accent, is featured. He taunts the West, saying that the Islamic State cannot wait to face American ground troops.

Unlike previous videos, however, the gruesome beheading of Kassig is not the centerpiece of the production. He had already been killed by the time the video cuts to his corpse.

The Islamic State's media department begins by offering a selective history of the Islamic State and its predecessors, starting with the creation of Abu Musab al Zarqawi's organization in Iraq. Zarqawi, who was killed in June 2006, swore allegiance to al Qaeda emir Osama bin Laden in 2004, officially merging the two organizations. The current Islamic State evolved out of Zarqawi's group.

After scenes of fighting in Iraq and Syria, the video shows the mass beheadings of Syrian officers and pilots.

A group of Islamic State fighters dressed in camouflage is shown leading the Syrians to their slaughter. They are led by the head executioner, "Jihadi John," who presumably killed Kassig. One by one the Islamic State executioners select knives from a bin. (The image at the beginning of this piece shows "Jihadi John" selecting his knife.)

"Jihadi John," the head executioner then speaks, addressing President Obama directly as the "dog of Rome."

"Today, we are slaughtering the soldiers of Bashar, tomorrow we'll be slaughtering your soldiers," the executioner says. He claims that the Islamic State will end this "final crusade" and then begin slaughtering people on "your streets."

The scene of the mass execution of the Syrians is shot in a sadistic fashion, so as to highlight the drama of the moment, with closeups of the soldiers' faces and the Islamic State's henchmen fondling their knives before they begin cutting their victims' necks.

Although the terrorists committing these war crimes are not specifically identified, they clearly come from various ethnicities and nationalities around the globe.

Last week, jihadists from Algeria, the Sinai in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen all swore allegiance to Baghdadi in audio messages that were clearly coordinated by the Islamic State. The new video highlights these oaths, playing excerpts from the audio messages as the production moves from location to location on a map intended to represent the Islamic State's claimed territorial expansion.

The video also replays audio of a speech by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi that was released on Nov. 13. Baghdadi accepted the oaths of allegiance in that speech, saying the Islamic State had expanded "to new lands, to the lands of al-Haramayn [Saudi Arabia] and Yemen to Egypt, Libya and Algeria."

With less than two minutes left in the 16-minute video, "Jihadi John" returns, standing over the head of a man he claims is Kassig. He says that Kassig fought against Muslims during the war in Iraq. He taunts Kassig by saying the dead man "doesn't have much to say," as his "previous cellmates have already spoken on his behalf."

Again addressing Obama, the terrorist says: "[Y]ou claim to have withdrawn from Iraq four years ago. We said to you then that you are liars, that you had not withdrawn. And that if you had withdrawn you would return after some time."

"You returned," he says to Obama, "here you are, you have not withdrawn." America has hid behind its proxies, "Jihadi John" claims, but its forces "will return in greater numbers than before."

Citing Zarqawi, the Islamic State's executioner says the "spark has been lit in Iraq" and that they are "eagerly awaiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive."

Scenes from new Islamic State video, titled "although the disbelievers dislike it"

The video highlights the oaths of allegiance that jihadists from several countries swore to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi last week:

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The video replays part of Baghdadi's audio message, released on Nov. 13, during which he accepted the oaths of allegiance and claimed that the Islamic State's "caliphate" had expanded into new lands:

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The video begins with a highly selective history of the Islamic State's evolution from al Qaeda in Iraq:

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The Syrian soldiers executed in the video are lined up with their executioners standing behind them:

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The Islamic State's fighters play with their knives before beheading the Syrian soldiers:

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Saturday, November 15, 2014

US airstrike targets al Qaeda in Syria (08:48AM)

The US targeted al Qaeda's network in Syria in one of the 20 airstrikes that took place between Nov. 12 and Nov. 14. While the US military has said the strike was carried out against al Qaeda's so-called Khorasan Group, the targets indicate that local infrastructure used by the Al Nusrah Front were hit.

US Central Command, or CENTCOM, noted that it "struck terrorists associated with a network of veteran al Qaeda operatives, sometimes called the 'Khorasan Group,' who are plotting external attacks against the United States and our allies" in one of the attacks.

The airstrike took place "in northwest Syria west of Aleppo." The exact target of the strike was not disclosed, nor was the result of the operation. The strike took place on Nov. 13, according to CNN.

The Khorasan Group is part of the Al Nusrah Front, which is al Qaeda's official branch in Syria. It is comprised of a group of senior al Qaeda leaders and operatives who are embedded within Al Nusrah. The al Qaeda veterans have been attempting to identify Western recruits who joined Al Nusrah and can be repurposed for attacks in their home countries or elsewhere abroad. [For more information on the Khorasan Group, see LWJ report, Analysis: CENTCOM draws misleading line between Al Nusrah Front and Khorasan Group.]

The US has targeted the Khorasan Group on two other occasions since launching airstrikes in Syria on Sept. 22. The US launched eight airstrikes against al Qaeda west of Aleppo on Sept. 22, and another five strikes in Sarmada on Nov. 5.

In its announcement explaining the Sarmada airstrikes, CENTCOM went out of its way to note that it "did not target the Nusrah Front as a whole," but instead the attacks were "directed at the Khorasan Group whose focus is not on overthrowing the Assad regime or helping the Syrian people."

In reality, there is no firm dividing line between al Qaeda's so-called Khorasan Group and the rest of Al Nusrah. Indeed, the US military's airstrikes on Sept. 22 and Nov. 5 hit the Al Nusrah Front 's infrastructure, which is used to wage its local insurgency against the Assad regime. Among the targets hit were IED-making facilities, a munitions production facility, a communication building, command and control facilities, training camps, staging areas for fighters, and vehicles.

One of the first reported casualties in the Sept. 22 airstrikes was an al Qaeda veteran named Abu Yusuf al Turki, who trained snipers for the Al Nusrah Front. While the snipers could be repurposed in Mumbai-style attacks in the West, their primary focus has been combatting Bashar al Assad's forces and their Iranian-backed allies. [For more on Abu Yusuf al Turki, see LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front trainer suspected of plotting against 2004 NATO summit killed in US airstrikes.]

The Al Nusrah Front has posted photos from the Sept. 22 and Nov. 5 airstrikes on its official Twitter feeds. In the accompanying tweets, the group describes the targets hit as belonging to Al Nusrah, including buildings that have served as its headquarters.

Ahrar al Sham officials have claimed on Twitter that their facilities have also been hit in the US airstrikes. This has not been confirmed. If true, this is further evidence that the US military's offensive is hitting targets that are associated with al Qaeda's insurgency against the Assad regime. Ahrar al Sham is an al Qaeda-linked group that is primarily focused on overthrowing Assad. It is closely allied with the Al Nusrah Front.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Sinai-based jihadist group rebranded as Islamic State's official arm (03:53PM)

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On Nov. 10, an unidentified jihadist from Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM), otherwise known as Ansar Jerusalem, declared his group's allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who leads the Islamic State. As The Long War Journal reported at the time, ABM quickly began marketing itself on its official Twitter feed as the Islamic State's wilayat, meaning province (or state), in the Sinai.

The group's Twitter feed was subsequently taken down, but quickly replaced as part of a regular cat and mouse game played by the social media company and the jihadists.

Earlier today, the Sinai jihadists returned to Twitter with a new video that shows the group again marketing itself as the Islamic State's official wilayat. The banner shown above was used to advertise the video on Twitter.

The video, which is nearly 30 minutes long, shows the Islamic State's clear influence in terms of branding and production style. It is possible, if not likely, that Islamic State media operatives created the video.

Little is known about the ABM faction that swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi earlier this week. And the organization's latest production does not offer any additional details on how the relationship is actually organized.

According to credible reports, while an ABM faction in the Sinai has been itching to join the Islamic State since earlier this year, another ABM group in the Nile Valley remains loyal to al Qaeda's senior leadership.

Baghdadi and the Islamic State are attempting to usurp the authority of any non-aligned jihadists by claiming that, once the group's "caliphate" has spread into new a territory, existing jihadist organizations are nullified. This is the significance of the Sinai jihadists being rebranded as the Islamic State's official arm inside Egypt. According to Baghdadi and his supporters, now that the Islamic State has a presence inside the Sinai, all other jihadists and even all other Muslims who live there owe their loyalty to Baghdadi's representatives.

In an audio message released earlier this week, Baghdadi said that his group would identify a leader for each one of its so-called provinces, including in the Sinai. It is not immediately clear if any such leader is shown in the video.

Towards the beginning of the new video, as well as in scenes thereafter, the Sinai jihadists execute alleged spies in a brutal fashion. For some unknown reason, however, the group decided not to show scenes from a previous video produced this past summer in which the Sinai jihadists beheaded several men accused of being spies. ABM's beheading video was likely influenced by the Islamic State, which had decapitated an American journalist shortly beforehand. [See LWJ report, Ansar Jerusalem beheads 4 Egyptians accused of being Israeli 'spies'.]

Much of the Sinai jihadists' new video focuses on the group's attacks against Egyptian security forces, using mortars, grenades, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other weapons in its assaults. Special effects have been added to highlight the devastation wrought by some of the jihadists' attacks.

The video highlights the jihadists' animosity for the US (showing a clip of President Obama), Israel, as well as the Egyptian government and military.

A screen shot of the Twitter page on which the video was first posted can be seen below. Also shown are various pictures taken from scenes in the video.

A Twitter feed representing ABM in the Sinai reappeared online earlier today:

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The video shows Sinai jihadists firing mortars:

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Multiple scenes show IEDs destroying Egyptian security vehicles and other targets. This scene showed a vehicle immediately after an IED was detonated:

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The scene immediately above was replayed in slow-motion and backwards to emphasize the devastation caused by the jihadists' attack:

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A jihadist is shown with his face obscured to protect his identity. He is wearing a shirt that is made to look like the Islamic State's flag:

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A jihadist raises an Islamic State black banner over a tank:

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A jihadist speaks, kneeling before arms and ammunition, for a couple of minutes towards the end of the video:

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A short clip of President Obama is shown in the video:

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The Sinai jihadists have launched attacks against Israel and the group's animosity for Israel is made clear once again in the new video:

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Iraqi forces, Iranian-suported militias report success in Baiji (07:59AM)


Photographs were disseminated on Twitter purporting to show Iranian Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani alongside Shi'ite militiamen in Jurf al Sahkar in late October.

The Iraqi military and Iranian-backed Shiite militias are reported to have liberated the central city of Baiji from the Islamic State and are close to breaking the siege on the nearby oil refinery. The Shiite militias, which are heavily supported by Iran's Qods Force, are playing a key role in recent gains against the Islamic State. US airpower has supported the militias and Iraqi government forces.

General Abdul Wahab al Saadi, the senior commander in the area, announced the "liberation of Baiji" earlier today on Iraqi state television, The Associated Press reported. Several Iraqi military officers also claimed success in Baiji, which hosts Iraq's largest oil refinery.

Iraqi officials told Reuters that security forces have advanced to within one kilometer of the refinery, which has been surrounded by Islamic State fighters since the beginning of the summer. Officers claim that Islamic State fighters who are retreating are being targeted by aircraft.

Security forces and the Shiite militias have killed 17 Islamic State fighters over the past 24 hours, according to All Iraq News.

Asaib al Haq, or the League of the Righteous, a Shiite militia that is responsible for killing hundreds of US soldiers in Iraq between 2006-2011, is known to be fighting in Baiji. Al Ahad TV reported that the militia, along with Iraqi Army units, killed Ala Burhan al Tikriti, an Islamic State commander who "supervised the execution of the massacre at Camp Speicher," an Iraqi base outside of Tikrit where hundreds of Iraqi troops were murdered. Numerous videos of the League of the Righteous fighting alongside Iraqi forces in Baiji have also been published on YouTube and other video sharing sites.

The League of the Righteous was formed in 2006 as an offshoot of Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army. The militia, which has been trained by Hezbollah and Qods Force, was the largest and most powerful of what the US military called the Special Groups, or militias backed by Iran. The group was at the forefront in using EFPs, or explosively formed penetrators, the deadly mines that can penetrate US armored vehicles. Hundreds of US soldiers were killed in EFP attacks.

Three of the group's top leaders, including its military emir, Akram Abbas al Kabi, are listed by the US as Specially Designated Global Terrorists. [See LWJ report, US sanctions Iranian general for aiding Iraqi terror groups.]

Iranian militias spearheading Iraqi assaults against the Islamic State

The Iraqi government has grown dependent on Iranian-backed Shiite militias ever since the Islamic State launched its offensive to take large swaths of northern, central and eastern Iraq in mid-June. The Islamic State's summer offensive, combined with the group overrunning most of the western province of Anbar beginning in January, cause the collapse of nearly half of Iraq's Army divisions.

The militias deployed to Samarra, the provincial capital of Salahaddin, as the Islamic State took control of the nearby cities of Tikrit and Baiji. Samarra is home to the Al Askari Mosque, one of the most revered religious sites in Shia Islam.

Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's Qods Force, the special operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, was spotted in Samarra directing the defense of the city.

The Shiite militias were at the vanguard of the fighting in two other recent successes: driving back the Islamic State from Amerli in Salahaddin province and from Jurf al Sakhar in northern Babil province.

At the end of August, the League of the Righteous and the Hezbollah Brigades, another Iranian-supported militia, supported Iraqi troops in breaking the Islamic State's hold on Amerli. The Hezbollah Brigades is listed by the US as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. [See LWJ reports, US airstrikes in Amerli supported deadly Shia terror group and US aided Hezbollah Brigades in breaking Islamic State siege of Iraqi town.]

At the end of October, the League of the Righteous, the Hezbollah Brigades, and the Badr Brigade, yet another Iranian-supported militia, drove the Islamic State from Jurf al Sakhar.

After the town was liberated from the Islamic State, photographs and videos of the militias celebrating the victory alongside Iraqi troops were published on the Internet. Soleimani was photographed with several members of Shiite militias in Jurf al Sahkar. One photograph purported to show Soleimani along with Hadi al Amiri, the head of the Badr Brigades, The Washington Post reported.

The US, either intentionally or unintentionally, has supported the Shiite militias' gains. US and coalition aircraft launched multiple airstrikes in Baiji, Amerli, and Jurf al Sakhar as the militias and Iraqi forces began their offensives. Most recently, the US conducted 28 airstrikes in Baiji between Oct. 18 and Nov. 12, according to data compiled by The Long War Journal and Qualitative Military Edge.

The deployment of Iranian militias in Sunni areas such as Baiji and Jurf al Sakhar is certain to complicate the fight against the Islamic State. While the Islamic State has lost territory, the jihadist group has positioned itself as the defenders of the Sunnis against Iran and its Shiite proxies in the Iraqi government.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Islamic State leader claims 'caliphate' has expanded in new audio message (11:28AM)

The Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that currently controls large portions of Iraq and Syria, has released a new audio message from its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. The Islamic State's emir is defiant in the recording, saying his group will continue its fight against all of its enemies.

Baghdadi was rumored to have been killed in airstrikes that took place sometime on Nov. 7 and Nov. 8. Some Iraqi officials claimed Baghdadi had been mortally wounded. But no firm evidence emerged to back up those claims. And Baghdadi references events that took place since those airstrikes, thereby demonstrating that he is alive.

On Nov. 10, jihadists in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen swore allegiance to Baghdadi and the Islamic State's caliphate. In the newly-released audio recording, Baghdadi accepts their oaths of allegiance and praises the jihadists who made them.

Baghdadi gives glad tidings and announces "the expansion of the Islamic State to new lands, to the lands of al Haramain [meaning Saudi Arabia] and [to] Yemen, and to Egypt, Libya and Algeria."

Baghdadi accepts "the bayat (oath of allegiance) from those who gave us bayat in those lands," pronounces "the nullification of the groups therein," and announces the creation of "new wilayah [provinces] for the Islamic State, and the appointment of wali [provincial leaders] for them."

The Islamic State's emir calls on "every" Muslim to "join the closest wilayah to him, and to hear and obey the wali appointed by us for it."

Baghdadi's statement is deliberately provocative as he is saying that all other jihadist groups, especially those that have not pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, are nullified. The Islamic State's ideologues have argued that, with the reestablishment of an Islamic caliphate, all other jihadist groups owe their allegiance to Baghdadi as the caliphate expands into their lands.

The Islamic State made this argument in late June, when its leaders announced that the group was now a caliphate. "The legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations, becomes null by the expansion of the [caliphate's] authority and arrival of its troops to their areas," the Islamic State's founding statement reads.

The swearing of bayat from jihadists in several countries on Nov. 10 was, therefore, intended to legitimize the Islamic State's right to rule over the jihadists' affairs within those nations. Long established jihadist groups operating in those countries, including al Qaeda's official branches, obviously do not agree, as they have not sworn allegiance to Baghdadi.

Indeed, in three of the five cases (Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen), the announcements of allegiance to Baghdadi came from unidentified jihadists who do not represent any well-known jihadist groups. In Algeria, the announcement came from a group of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) veterans who have broken away from their parent organization and are now known as Jund al Khilafa. The Algerian-based jihadists had already sworn allegiance to Baghdadi earlier this year.

The announcement from Egypt was made by an anonymous jihadist representing a faction of Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM), or Ansar Jerusalem, in the Sinai.

Baghdadi praises the jihadists in the Sinai specifically, offering them his congratulations because they "have carried out the obligation of jihad" and "terrified the Jews."

It appears that ABM is already marketing itself as the Islamic State's "wilayah," or province, in the Sinai, as that is how the group refers to itself on its official Twitter feed. ABM's Twitter page has been taken down repeatedly over the past several months. The latest iteration was posted online in the past few days.

The Islamic State leader rails against the "Crusaders" and the "Jews," whom he blames for conspiring to launch the airstrikes against the jihadists.

Baghdadi also references President Obama's decision to send 1,500 additional military advisors to Iraq, claiming that this demonstrates the coalition has been unable to stall the Islamic State's advances with airstrikes alone. The Obama administration announced the president's decision to deploy additional forces on Nov. 7, shortly before Baghdadi was supposedly hit in an airstrike.

Baghdadi concludes by calling on the soldiers of the Islamic State to cause "volcanoes" of jihad to "erupt" everywhere.

Taliban splinter group releases photos of suicide bomber who attacked Pakistani border crossing (09:19AM)

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Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a newly formed Pakistani jihadist group, released photographs of the suicide bomber who attacked the Wagah border crossing to India on Nov. 2.

Ihsanullah Ihsan, the spokesman for Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, sent three photographs of "brother Hanifullah (Hamza)" to The Long War Journal. Hanifullah "carried out successful martyrdom operation on murtad [a Muslim who rejects Islam] army in Wagah Lahore," Ihsan said in the email.

One of the photographs shows Hanifullah sitting in a field. In another photograph, he is sitting in front of a green screen, likely recording his martyrdom statement. The third image appears to be the announcement for his upcoming video.


The Nov. 2 suicide attack at the Wagah border crossing, which is just east of Lahore, killed more than 50 people and wounded over 100. The suicide bomber detonated his vest hundreds of yards from the area where Pakistani and Indian border guards put on a daily display of lowering their flags that attracts thousands of people.

After the attack, both Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and Jundullah both claimed credit for the suicide attack in Wagah. But Jamaat-ul-Ahrar's spokesman immediately identified the suicide bomber as Hanifullah and promised that a video of the attack was forthcoming. He also rejected competing claims of responsibility for the attack by other jihadist groups as "baseless."

Ihsan said the suicide bombing was "the revenge of the killing of those innocent people who have been killed by Pakistan Army particularly of those who have been killed in North Waziristan." The Pakistani military launched an operation in North Waziristan in mid-June and has targeted the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan and foreign jihadist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Other Pakistani Taliban factions such as the Haqqani Network and Hafiz Gul Bahadar Group have not been targeted in the operation.

The Pakistani military has claimed it targeted "terrorists involved in Wagah border suicide attack" in an airstrike in the tribal agency of Khyber on Nov. 11. "Intelligence sources believe that the mastermind and handlers of Wagah border incident might be among the dead," Dawn reported.

Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the newest branch of the global jihadist group, is known to operate in Khyber. On Oct. 11, the US killed Sheikh Imran Ali Siddiqi, a member of AQIS's shura, or executive council, in a drone strike in the tribal agency. AQIS has incorporated various jihadist groups from Pakistan, India, Burma, and Bangladesh, and seeks to overthrow these governments and impose sharia, or Islamic law. [See LWJ reports, AQIS leader, 'good' Taliban commander killed in 2 US drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas and US drone strike kills veteran jihadist turned senior AQIS official.]

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, which was formed in late August after a leadership dispute with the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, is comprised of jihadist factions, including the Mohmand Taliban branch, that have been involved in deadly suicide attacks and assaults throughout Pakistan. Just two weeks before the group officially announced its formation, it participated in a joint suicide assault with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan on two Pakistani military airbases in Quetta. [See LWJ reports, Taliban splinter group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar forms in northwestern Pakistan and Quetta airbase attacks carried out by Pakistani Taliban, IMU.]

Omar Khalid al Khorasani, one of the top leaders of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, is closely allied with al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

US drone strike kills 7 terrorists in southern Yemen (09:14AM)

The US reportedly killed seven al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters in a drone strike early this morning in the southern Yemeni province of Shabwa. The strike took place in the Azzan region of the province, located about 80 kilometers from the coast and long considered an AQAP stronghold in the country.

The remotely piloted Predators or Reapers attacked the AQAP fighters as they were gathered "under a group of trees" in Azzan, according to tribal sources. Some Yemeni military sources reported that the strike targeted AQAP fighters as they were driving a small truck through Azzan. The Yemeni Ministry of Defense claimed that the seven terrorists killed in the operation were in the process of planning an attack in the area using a vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED), a tactic of choice by AQAP.

Local and tribal sources also suggested that two additional strikes took place during the night between Nov. 11 and Nov. 12 between the towns of Azzan and Mayfaa in Shabwa. However, no information regarding those alleged attacks is forthcoming.

While the exact target of the strike has not been disclosed, and it is unclear if any senior AQAP leaders or operatives were among those killed or targeted, it appears the US launched the attack in support of Yemeni military operations against a local AQAP threat.

This morning's operation highlights a continuing trend of the US targeting local AQAP commanders and fighters who are waging a local insurgency against the Yemeni government. This trend was first identified by The Long War Journal in the spring of 2012 [see LWJ report, US drone strike kills 8 AQAP fighters, from May 10, 2012].

This contradicts a US Department of Justice white paper that claimed the drone program will target only those AQAP operatives who "present an 'imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States."

The US has carried out 21 strikes in Yemen so far this year; several of those strikes have targeted AQAP's local network. The US ramped up its air campaign in Yemen in 2009, and has conducted 106 air and cruise missile strikes in the country since the program was expanded. Ten of those attacks took place in 2011, 41 in 2012, 26 in 2013, and 23 so far this year. Prior to 2009, the US launched one airstrike, against al Qaeda in Yemen in 2002.

The US continues to target AQAP, which is considered to be one of al Qaeda's most dangerous branches, despite the virtual collapse of the Yemeni government. The US has relied on the central government and the Yemeni military and intelligence service to provide political support and targeting information in the campaign against the jihadist group's network. But the expansion of Shiite Houthi rebel control into areas of central and western Yemen, the fracturing of Yemen's security forces, and AQAP's positioning of itself as the defender of Yemen's Sunnis may make operations against the terrorist network more difficult over time.

The last strike, on Nov. 4, killed at least 20 AQAP fighters in Baydah province. The AQAP fighters were killed as they were battling the Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

'Foreign militants' reported killed in latest US drone strike in Pakistan (11:27AM)

The US reportedly killed six jihadists today in an airstrike in an area of Pakistan's tribal agency of North Waziristan that has in the past served as an al Qaeda command and control center.

The CIA operated, remotely piloted Predators or Reapers launched a pair of missiles at a compound and a vehicle in the village of Dawa Toi in the Datta Khel area of North Waziristan, The Express Tribune reported. The strike destroyed the vehicle and damaged the compound, according to local tribesmen.

Six "local and foreign militants" were killed and three more were wounded in the attack, the Pakistani newspaper reported. The identities of those killed were not disclosed. Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other jihadist allies known to operate in the area have not announced the deaths of senior leaders or commanders.

Pakistan "condemns" drone strike

Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs was quick to denounce today's drone strike in Datta Khel.

"The Government of Pakistan condemns the US drone strike that took place at Dawa Toi, North Waziristan Agency on 11 November 2014 at 1546 hours," a press release by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs states. "Pakistan considers such strikes a violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, especially at a time when our authorities are engaged in taking decisive action against terrorist elements in North Waziristan Agency. Pakistan demands a cessation of such strikes in future."

The Pakistani government routinely denounces US airstrikes as "a violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity," even though it is known that the government has given the US permission to launch strikes against al Qaeda in North and South Waziristan.

The Pakistani government typically objects to strikes that target the so-called "good Taliban" such as the Haqqani Network and the Hafiz Gul Bahadar Group. These Taliban factions do not advocate attacking the Pakistani state, but do support jihadist groups that wage war on the government. The so-called good Taliban also support and wage jihad in Afghanistan and India. [See Threat Matrix report, Pakistan condemns drone strike that targeted 'good Taliban.]

Datta Khel an al Qaeda hub

The US has carried out 18 drone strikes inside Pakistan this year. Eight of those strikes have taken place in Datta Khel.

All 18 strikes have taken place since June 11. The US drone program in Pakistan was put on hold from the end of December 2013 up until June 11, 2014 as the Pakistani government attempted to negotiate a peace deal with the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, an al Qaeda-linked group that wages jihad in Afghanistan and seeks to overthrow the Pakistani state.

The Datta Khel area is administered by Hafiz Gul Bahadar, the top Taliban commander for North Waziristan. Bahadar provides shelter to senior al Qaeda leaders as well as terrorists from numerous Pakistani and Central Asian terror groups.

Datta Khel is a known hub of Taliban, Haqqani Network, and al Qaeda activity. While Bahadar administers the region, the Haqqani Network, al Qaeda, and allied Central Asian jihadist groups are also based in the area. The Lashkar al Zil, al Qaeda's Shadow Army, is also known to operate a command center in Datta Khel.

Some of al Qaeda's top leaders have been killed in drone strikes in Datta Khel, including Mustafa Abu Yazid, a longtime al Qaeda leader and close confidant of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri; Abdullah Said al Libi, the commander of the Shadow Army; and Zuhaib al Zahibi, a general in the Shadow Army. Yazid, al Libi, and al Zahibi were killed in 2010.

Despite US government claims that al Qaeda's core has been "decimated" in Pakistan's tribal areas, leaders of the terror group continue to operate in the region, including in Datta Khel.

The US killed six al Qaeda leaders and operatives in a drone strike there on July 10. Their deaths were reported by Sanafi al Nasr, a senior al Qaeda leader based in Syria who communicates with al Qaeda's leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He identified three of those killed as Taj al Makki, Abu Abdurahman al Kuwaiti, and Fayez Awda al Khalidi. [See LWJ report, 6 al Qaeda operatives thought killed in recent drone strike in Pakistan.]

Another strike, on July 19, killed eight militants, including two commanders from the Punjabi Taliban, a conglomeration of jihadist groups from Pakistan's Punjab province. The Punjabi Taliban commanders' names were not disclosed by Pakistani officials. Asmatullah Muawiya, the leader of the Punjabi Taliban, also serves as an al Qaeda commander and he has been agreeable to conducting peace talks with the Pakistani government. [See LWJ report, US drones target 'Punjabi Taliban' in North Waziristan strike.]

And an Aug. 6 strike killed five jihadists, including unnamed "foreigners," a term reserved for al Qaeda and other allied groups not originating in Pakistan.

Suicide attack at Nigerian school kills at least 48 students (10:19AM)

At least 48 students were killed and 79 injured when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device at a high school in Potiskum, Yobe State in northeastern Nigeria. The blast occurred during the Monday morning assembly at the Government Comprehensive Secondary Science School. The bomber was dressed as a student and he reportedly hid the explosives in a type of backpack popular with students.

When Nigerian soldiers arrived at the scene, they were pelted with rocks by community members who accused the military of not doing enough to protect them from terrorist attacks launched by Boko Haram.

Boko Haram was designated a terrorist group by the U.S. Department of State in November 2013. The group, whose name loosely translates to "Western education is sin," has been engaged in an increasingly violent campaign against the Nigerian government and Western interests to create an Islamic caliphate in northeastern Nigeria.

In recent months, Boko Haram has continued taking control of cities and villages across northeastern Nigeria. In August, the jihadist group took control of Gwoza in Borno State and Buni Yadi in Yobe State, amongst other villages. Continuing its assault, the group took over Michika in Adamawa State in October and more recently, captured Mubi, the commercial center of Adamawa State. SaharaReporters reported that as of Nov. 10, the group took control of the Maiha Local Government Area in Adamawa state.

Over the weekend, Boko Haram released a new video highlighting their control over northeastern Nigerian towns. The video, sent to AFP, showed a somewhat different side of the jihadist group and its leader, Abubakar Shekau. Though he typically dresses in army fatigues, Shekau is shown wearing light blue vestments with an olive green robe while he stands on a makeshift pedestal speaking under the arched doorway of a room. In his speech, Shekau dismissed earlier Nigerian government claims of a ceasefire and celebrated, "We have indeed established an Islamic caliphate."

The video also includes footage of Boko Haram fighters driving a tank and other vehicles in various unidentified towns. The release shows what looks to be a combination of townspeople and Boko Haram fighters cheering the group as members drove a tank in the street.

Shekau also used the video to express his support for jihadist groups around the world. Towards the end of the clip, a photograph of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is shown with an excerpt of a statement wherein the group proclaimed a caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

The video is just the latest in a string of releases. Shortly after kidnapping over 200 school girls from their boarding school in Chibok, Borno State, Boko Haram released a video wherein Shekau took responsibility for the mass abduction and threatened to sell the girls. A few months later, Shekau mockingly fired back at the worldwide social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls in another video, saying "Nigerians are saying BringBackOurGirls, and we are telling Jonathan [Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan] to bring back our arrested warriors, our army." Despite recent government assurances that a deal to free the captives was in the works, the girls remain in Boko Haram's captivity, and Shekau declared that they had been converted to Islam and "married ... off."

As part of its campaign, Boko Haram has repeatedly targeted schools and other parts of the education system, echoing yesterday's attack. The Chibok kidnapping was perhaps the most notorious incident, but not the first. Bornn State's school had been closed earlier in the year to protect students from the increasing violence. The kidnapped girls had returned that week to sit for their final exams. Since 2011, Boko Haram has "reportedly killed over 70 teachers and destroyed 900 school buildings since 2011" in Borno State alone. In September, the jihadist group attacked a teacher training college in Kano, killing at least 15 people.