Sunday, August 31, 2014

Al Nusrah Front announces detention of 45 UN peacekeepers (07:10AM)
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The Al Nusrah Front published the two pictures above along with a statement claiming responsibility for the capture of 45 UN peacekeepers. The photo on the left shows the hostages. The photo on the right shows their identification cards. Photos courtesy of the SITE Intelligence Group.

In a statement released on its official Twitter feed on Aug. 30, the Al Nusrah Front announced its responsibility for the detention of 45 members of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).

The peacekeepers were captured during recent fighting at the Quneitra border crossing, which connects Syria to the Israeli-controlled portion of the Golan Heights. The key crossing was captured by a coalition of rebel forces, including the Al Nusrah Front, earlier this week.

The announcement by Al Nusrah, which is al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, was first obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Al Nusrah attempts to justify the capture of the men by arguing that the UN has failed to support the Syrian people during the rebellion against Bashar al Assad's regime. The al Qaeda branch also accuses the UN of looking the other way when it comes to Assad's crimes.

During the course of the Syrian war, Al Nusrah's statement alleges, the UN "has pretended to stand alongside the people of Sham in their revolution and their fight against the Nusayri [a derogatory term for Alawites] criminal regime." According to SITE's translation, Al Nusrah argues that the UN "has not given to the people of Sham but bare statements and hollow words, completely ignoring all that the Nusayri enemy committed of brutal crimes and massacres against the vulnerable Muslims from among elderly, women, and children."

Al Nusrah goes on to list crimes by the Syrian regime that the UN has supposedly failed to adequately address, including the use of chemical weapons and torture.

Imagined conspiracy "against Muslims"

Al Nusrah portrays itself as standing up for Muslims in Syria and elsewhere against the UN. The group claims that the UNDOF was established "to ensure the safety and protection of the borders of the Zionist entity," or Israel. In reality, the UNDOF has helped maintain a ceasefire agreement between Israel and the Syrian regime since 1974.

Al Qaeda's Syrian arm attempts to further justify the peacekeepers' detention by claiming that the UN only uses its power under Chapter VII of its charter "against Muslims." Chapter VII outlines the UN's responsibilities with respect to determining "the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression." The chapter also states that the UN will "decide what measures shall be taken ... to maintain or restore international peace and security."

The "crimes of Muslim extermination in Central Africa and Burma are happening before the eyes and ears of the world, and the United Nations did not move a muscle," Al Nusrah claims, adding that the UN has not condemned the "Zionist Jews" for their "bombing of Gaza and the massacring of the people there."

"The crimes of the unjust Nusayri regime and its allies from Hezbollah of Iran and others are happening every day with the acknowledgment of the international organizations and others, and we did not hear of Chapter VII," Al Nusrah's statement continues.

Al Nusrah argues that the UN acts in this manner as part of a grand conspiracy against Muslims. The statement reads: "This is so the Muslims know that such international resolutions are only used against them and against their jihad so that they remain submissive to the powers of global infidelity to pillage their resources and the fortunes of their land, and to control their necks and lives as they wish."

The announcement echoes the words of Abu Firas al Suri, Al Nusrah's spokesman, who released a speech on Aug. 27. Al Suri, a longtime al Qaeda veteran, accused the UN of serving a "Zio-Protestant alliance" that seeks to thwart the development of an al Qaeda-style Islamic state in Syria and elsewhere.

The group's arguments are, of course, based on a highly selective and biased version of history. While attempting to build moral legitimacy for its actions, Al Nusrah ignores the role that al Qaeda and its branches have played in spilling Muslim blood. Most of al Qaeda's victims since the group's founding in 1988 have been Muslims.

Al Nusrah's argument that the UN is not acting against Iran and Hezbollah despite acknowledging their crimes is also rich given that top Nusrah leaders have themselves worked with the Iranian regime. [See, for example, LWJ reports: Treasury designates 2 'key' al Qaeda leaders and Senior al Qaeda facilitator 'back on the street' in Iran.]

Hostages seized during raid by Al Nusrah and allies

The UN was initially reticent to identify the group responsible for the detention of its peacekeepers.

"We are dealing with nonstate armed actors," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. "The command and control of these groups is unclear. We're not in a position to confirm who is holding whom," Dujarric added. "Some groups self-identified as being affiliated with Nusrah, however, we are unable to confirm it."

However, Al Nusrah's announcement of responsibility makes it clear that the hostage-taking was sanctioned by the top leadership of the group. The statement was released via Al Nusrah's official channels, including on its Twitter feed.

The al Qaeda branch cooperated with other Islamist and jihadist groups in seizing the Quneitra border crossing. The Islamic Front, a coalition of several groups, also participated in the raid. One of the most powerful factions within the Islamic Front is Ahrar al Sham, which is linked to al Qaeda.

In a video celebrating the raid on Quneitra, the Islamic Front included footage of the UN's outpost.

Despite claiming that it has the right to hold the UN's men as hostages, Al Nusrah says they are being treated well.

"We assure that the detainees are in a safe place, and they are in good health, and that we have given them what they need of food and treatment, for our good Islamic religion urges use to be charitable with the prisoners," Al Nusrah claims, according to SITE's translation.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Senior IMU leader captured by ISAF in 2011 now leads fight in northern Afghanistan (04:43PM)

A senior leader of the Taliban and al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who was captured by Coalition forces in the spring of 2011 is now leading more than 300 jihadists in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz. The IMU leader once served as the top commander of the jihadist group's network in Afghanistan.

Qari Bilal, the IMU leader, was freed by the Afghan government at the direction of President Hamid Karzai, Afghan officials in Kunduz have told TOLONews, which identified Bilal as "a senior al-Qaeda leader who was released from prison on two separate occasions." He leads more than 300 fighters in Kunduz province and "has masterminded numerous suicide attacks and overseen the planting of roadside bombs throughout the province. "

The Afghan news service reports that Bilal "fled to Pakistan after the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001 but was then invited to return to Kunduz by the Peace Council chaired by Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, the former Afghan President." Since his return to Afghanistan, Bilal has been detained two times, and both times was freed after President Hamid Karzai issued orders for his release.

Bilal has also been captured at least once by the International Security Assistance Force. Three years ago, ISAF announced the capture of a senior IMU leader and "two of his associates" during a special operations raid in the Khanabad district in Kunduz on April 20, 2011 after "multiple weeks of intelligence gathering and coordination with Afghan security forces." [See LWJ report, ISAF captures Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan's top commander for Afghanistan.]

Although Bilal was not directly named by ISAF, Afghan officials later identified him to the press. [See Pajhwok Afghan News report, Senior IMU leader captured in Kunduz.]

In its April 2011 statement announcing his capture, ISAF said Bilal had escaped from a jail in Pakistan sometime in 2010, "and also assisted others in escaping from incarceration, including paying bribes for their release." He entered Afghanistan shortly after escaping from the Pakistani prison and, along with another IMU leader, took overall command of the IMU's network.

According to ISAF, Bilal served as "a key conduit between the senior IMU leadership in Pakistan and senior Taliban leadership in Afghanistan." ISAF also said that Bilal "assisted both groups by directing insurgent movement for training and operations between the two countries, coordinating suicide, explosive device, and mortar attacks against Afghan and coalition forces throughout northern Afghanistan."

Bilal is from Uzbekistan and was seized at the home of another IMU leader known as Qari Sibghatullah, Kunduz's police chief told Pajhwok Afghan News in 2011. Bilal was previously based in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's Balochistan province.

Bilal "was given special treatment at Taliban's meetings in the Chahar Darah district, where the militants had a training centre in the Ainul Majar," the Afghan news agency reported at the time.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is a key ally of al Qaeda and the Taliban, and has been involved in supporting their operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan and plotting attacks in Europe. The IMU is known to fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan and has integrated into the Taliban's shadow government in the north. [For more information on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, see LWJ report, IMU cleric urges Pakistanis to continue sheltering jihadis in Waziristan.]

The IMU has been heavily targeted by ISAF in its raids against al Qaeda and allied groups. In the 338 raids publicized by ISAF from 2007 until the summer of 2013, when ISAF ended it reporting, the IMU was targeted 139 times. Some of the IMU's top leaders in Afghanistan were killed or captured during those operations. [See LWJ report, ISAF raids against al Qaeda and allies in Afghanistan 2007-2013.]

It is unclear when Bilal was released from Afghan custody. Given that he was captured by ISAF, he was very likely held at the Parwan Detention Facility. The US transferred control of the Parwan Detention Facility to Afghanistan in March 2013. Shortly afterward, the Afghan government began releasing Taliban commanders and fighters from prison. Thousands of detainees are said to have been freed from Parwan.

The release of Taliban and other jihadist commanders and fighters has not been without controversy. In February of this year, the US government and the military strongly protested the release of "65 dangerous individuals from a group of 88 detainees." Seven of those freed may have been involved in the green-on-blue, or insider attacks that have resulted in the deaths of Coalition personnel. It is not known if Bilal was one of the "65 dangerous individuals" freed by the Afghan government.

Other jihadist leaders who have been freed by the US and the Afghan government have returned to command forces for the Taliban and other groups. Some have been involved in the Taliban's recent offensive to retake control of remote districts in Afghanistan. [See Threat Matrix report, Taliban commander behind Ghor executions was freed from prison 3 months ago.]

Friday, August 29, 2014

Islamic Front and Al Nusrah Front promote 'liberation' of border crossing (11:05AM)

In a series of posts on their official Twitter feeds, the Islamic Front and the Al Nusrah Front are promoting the "liberation" of the Quneitra border crossing between Syria and the Israeli-controlled portion of the Golan Heights. The Islamic Front is a coalition of several rebel groups, including Ahrar al Sham, which is linked to al Qaeda. The Al Nusrah Front is al Qaeda's official branch inside Syria.

Both organizations have produced video tours of Quneitra, showcasing the defeat of Bashar al Assad's forces and their control over the area. The alliance of Islamist and jihadist groups launched a military offensive in Quneitra earlier this week.

The video shown above was released on one of Al Nusrah's official Twitter feeds. Toward the beginning of the video, a narrator says that "your brothers" in Al Nusrah will attack Quneitra because it is controlled by Assad's army and is a "strategic point" connecting Syria to the Golan Heights, which has been "occupied by the Jews" for nearly 50 years.

A montage of footage showing Al Nusrah's fighters assaulting Quneitra is then played. In one scene, a jihadist destroys a poster of Bashar al Assad. Al Nusrah's black banner is then raised over a Syrian government building.

About two minutes into the video an Al Nusrah Front leader, accompanied by several fighters, claims credit for the successful raid, referring to his organization as both Al Nusrah and as Al Qaeda in the Land of the Levant.

"We give the Islamic ummah news of the liberation of the Quneitra crossing, the Syrian-Zionist crossing, by the lions of monotheism from the Al Nusrah Front -- Al Qaeda in the Land of the Levant -- and their mujahideen brothers in other Islamic factions," the leader says, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal.

Al Nusrah's "mujahideen brothers in other Islamic factions" include members of the Islamic Front. A separate video, released by the Islamic Front, offers viewers a two-minute, 14-second tour of Quneitra after its "liberation."

Just over two minutes into the video, a brief scene of what appears to be a UN peacekeepers' outpost is shown.

Syrian rebels captured 43 UN peacekeepers during the raid on Quneitra, but thus far the UN has not named the groups responsible for their detention. It is not immediately clear what the purpose of the Islamic Front's footage is. A screen shot of the scene can be seen immediately below.

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The Islamic Front and Al Nusrah have promoted the capture of the Quneitra border crossing in a string of other posts to their social media accounts. Below are pictures and screen shots from their official Twitter accounts.

The Islamic Front has been promoting the battle for Quneitra on both its English and Arabic Twitter feeds since Aug. 27, when the organization first announced the launch of the operation. The four screen shots below were taken from the Islamic Front's English-language Twitter feed:

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The Al Nusrah Front announced the "liberation" of Quneitra in "collaboration" with other factions on one of its Twitter feeds on Aug. 27:

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In this tweet on Aug. 28, the Al Nusrah Front announced that it had "liberated" the Quneitra border crossing in "conjunction" with other "brigades" from the region:

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Al Nusrah raises its banner over the Quneitra border crossing:

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This scene is from "within the ruined ancient city of Quneitra":

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The logo on this captured jacket reads, "Counter Terrorism Unit":

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In this photo, the Al Nusrah Front shows its "emir," or leader for the region, fighting during the battle for Quneitra:

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Still other scenes shown on the Twitter feeds of both the Islamic Front and Al Nusrah highlight the two organizations' involvement in the Quneitra operation.

Ansar Jerusalem beheads 4 Egyptians accused of being Israeli 'spies' (09:35AM)
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A masked Ansar Jerusalem terrorist is shown standing behind four blindfolded Egyptian civilians, who were accused of being Israeli "spies." All four were beheaded later in the same video.

Ansar Jerusalem, (also known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis), has released a video displaying the graphic beheadings of four Egyptian civilians the group accused of being "spies" for Israel. According to Ansar Jerusalem, Israel has supposedly killed the group's members in cross-border drone strikes launched in the Sinai, including an alleged bombing on July 23. Egyptian government officials have denied Israeli involvement.

The video was first released on Ansar Jerusalem's official Twitter feed, which has since been taken down.

At the beginning of the video, a masked terrorist is shown reading a statement while standing behind the four civilians, who are kneeling and blindfolded. The video then cuts to images of slain Ansar Jerusalem members and a photo of a burned vehicle, which the group says was struck by an Israeli missile.

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A vehicle Ansar Jersualem claims was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike.

Much of the video is then devoted to showing the four men's "confessions." They say that they gave information to Israeli intelligence in return for payments. Their confessions are made under clear duress, and should not be accepted at face value.

After the footage of the four purported confessions is aired, the video returns to the scene of the masked terrorist and others standing behind them. The men are then beheaded and their decapitated heads are placed on their corpses.

In the past, Ansar Jerusalem has published videos showing members of Egyptian security forces and other alleged spies being executed. But the new video marks an escalation in the violent tactics the group is willing to broadcast in its propaganda.

The video comes just over one week after the Islamic State, which claims to rule over a "caliphate" stretching over large portions of Iraq and Syria, released a video featuring the beheading of American photojournalist James Foley.

Ansar Jerusalem's own execution video is comparable to the Islamic State's, and the group may have decided to release it after Foley's death received so much international attention.

Earlier this year, an Ansar Jerusalem leader voiced his support for the Islamic State. And the Egyptian press has published rumors that Ansar Jerusalem has sworn bayat (an oath of allegiance) to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the Islamic State's emir. But these rumors are, thus far, false. Ansar Jerusalem did not publicly endorse, let alone swear allegiance to, Baghdadi after his subordinates claimed in late June that he now rules as "Caliph Ibrahim." It is likely that some members of Ansar Jerusalem do support the Islamic State, but the extent of that support is unclear. And there are other indications that the group is allied with al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda avoids beheading videos

Al Qaeda has shied away from videos such as the ones produced by the Islamic State and now Ansar Jerusalem. In 2005, for example, Ayman al Zawahiri wrote a letter to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who was then the head of al Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi was notorious for his barbaric executions, which were recorded for the world to see. But Zawahiri argued that such tactics, while they may be justified, were counterproductive when it comes to building popular support for the jihadist ideology.

"Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable ... are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages," Zawahiri wrote to Zarqawi. Zawahiri continued: "You shouldn't be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shiekh of the slaughterers, etc. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq, and of you in particular by the favor and blessing of God."

Zawahiri did not argue that Zarqawi should spare his hostages; he simply didn't want Zarqawi to carry on with his over-the-top executions, which sicken the stomachs of even potential supporters.

"[W]e can kill the captives by bullet," Zawahiri wrote, because "[t]hat would achieve that which is sought after without exposing ourselves to the questions and answering to doubts." Simply put, Zawahiri argued, "We don't need this." Zawahiri comprehended that "more than half of" the jihadists' "battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media," and unspeakable acts of barbarism can be a liability, no matter how justifiable they are from the jihadists' perspective.

Al Qaeda and its various branches have executed hostages and they will continue to do so. In 2002, for instance, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed beheaded Daniel Pearl, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. And al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has executed hostages as well. However, al Qaeda's senior leaders do not think that graphic snuff videos are an effective means for promulgating their message.

The difference in tactics can be seen in how al Qaeda has handled the captivity of Warren Weinstein, an American who has been held by the group since 2011, and the recent release of Peter Theo Curtis by the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria.

Earlier this month, al Qaeda released a message directed at Weinstein's family. "We are not interested in retaining the prisoner in our protection; we are only seeking to exchange him in return for the fulfillment of our demands that we have conveyed," the message reads. Al Qaeda did not threaten to behead Weinstein if its demands were not met. The organization encouraged Weinstein's family to "pressurize" the American government into bartering for his release.

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Al Qaeda has not threatened to kill Warren Weinstein, an American who has been in the group's custody since 2011.

Al Qaeda's message was likely inspired by the success the Taliban had in exchanging Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for the top five Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo.

Interestingly, As Sahab, al Qaeda's official propaganda arm, included the hashtag #JamesFoley in one tweet that featured the message to Weinstein's family. Al Qaeda seemed to be inviting a comparison between Weinstein's captivity and Foley's.

And just days after the Islamic State released its video of Foley's execution, the Al Nusrah Front released Curtis from its custody. The deal to release Curtis was brokered by Qatar, which provides a permissive fundraising environment for Al Nusrah and other jihadist groups. Although the deal to free Curtis had been in the works prior to the release of the Foley execution video, the difference between Curtis' fate and Foley's says much about how the rival jihadist groups are approaching hostage operations.

Some supporters of the Islamic State, which is at odds with Al Nusrah, have even denounced Curtis's release on their social media accounts.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Analysis: Boko Haram focuses on seizing territory (12:11AM)

As Boko Haram has continued to unleash its violence across northern Nigeria, the group seems to be gaining ground. Under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram has evolved from a terrorist group into an insurgency that seeks to establish an Islamic state. And Boko Haram's tactics have changed accordingly, from smash and dash attacks, killing thousands, into attempts to grab and hold territory.

In a video obtained last weekend by Agence France Presse (AFP), Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau celebrated the group's recent successes and gave a warning to those opposed to him and his ideology. Shekau is shown standing in front of three SUVs, wearing military fatigues with a Kalashnikov slung across his body, as he rants, in a mixture of Arabic and Hausa, to the camera. He holds a notebook in his left hand from which he reads.

After Shekau's video was released, it was widely reported that he had declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate covering significant parts of Nigeria. Shekau's video came less than two months after Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State, declared that he now rules as "Caliph Ibrahim" over large swaths of Iraq and Syria. With that in mind, Shekau's appearance was widely interpreted as either an attempt to hitch his group to Baghdadi's bandwagon, or to grab the spotlight for himself by capitalizing on caliphate fever.

But a careful analysis of Shekau's recording shows that his words were likely misinterpreted. According to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal, Shekau highlights recent attacks perpetrated by his group throughout Nigeria. "Thanks be to God who gave victory to our brethren in Gwoza and made it a state among the Islamic states," Shekau says. "Thanks be to God who brought grief to the unbelievers like Israel and Britain, or England, and their father America."

While translations may vary, it does not appear that Shekau uses the specific word "caliphate," as was reported. A "state among the Islamic states" in Gwoza, which is in northeastern Nigeria, is far short of being a caliphate. And later in the same video Shekau says that he and his followers belong to the "State of Islam" and do not recognize Nigeria as a nation-state. This again falls short of being a "caliphate," as Shekau is simply repeating the jihadists' argument that the Muslim community cannot be divided according to national boundaries because it is one "country" that "is governed by Allah's Book and by the traditions of our Prophet."

Perhaps Shekau intended to claim that Gwoza, which was seized by Boko Haram earlier this month, is now part of the jihadists' imagined caliphate. But this interpretation falls short as well. Shekau does not use any of the terminology associated with the jihadists' caliphate. He does not use the phrase "emir of the believers," which is usually how the caliph is addressed. In fact, no other jihadist leader is named in the video. The only leader named is Shekau himself. But Shekau says he is the leader of Boko Haram, or the "People of the Sunna Group for Advocacy and Jihad in the country called Nigeria." Shekau does not describe himself as a caliph, or even as the head of an Islamic state.

There is also no evidence in the video that Shekau intended to associate Boko Haram with Baghdadi and his Islamic State, as has been speculated. Baghdadi is not named, let alone addressed as the "emir of the believers." He does not mention the Islamic State. And he mentions Iraq only in passing, noting that America is opposed to the jihadists' imposition of sharia law in that country. Shekau has previously praised the jihadists' advances in Iraq, but in this video he does not even do that.

Much of Shekau's speech is a diatribe against democracy. Shekau draws a sharp distinction between his group and those who live under any form of democracy, which he defines very broadly. Shekau says the people of Nigeria cannot be Muslims unless they disassociate themselves "from democracy and other similar sacrileges." He declares that democracy "is worse than sodomy ... adultery ... [and] paganism." Shekau repeats the common jihadist argument that democracy is based on "man's laws," "made by man for fellow men." Democracy is wrong, in Skekau's view, because it is opposed to the sharia-based governance that Boko Haram seeks to impose based on supposedly divinely-ordained laws.

Shekau threatens to continue Boko Haram's attacks because the rulers in Nigeria and neighboring countries refuse to forswear what he calls "democracy" and govern according to sharia.

Boko Haram's territorial ambitions

Boko Haram's offensive reveals that it is intent on holding territory and gaining new turf. The majority of the group's attacks have taken place in Nigeria's northeast, where the jihadists have repeatedly targeted security forces and anyone else opposed to its violent agenda. But Boko Haram's violence is not without purpose and the group has an extensive reach beyond its strongholds in northern Nigeria. Shekau's terrorists have, for instance, launched attacks in the capital of Abuja, including hitting a UN office in 2011 and a shopping center ahead of a World Cup match in June.

While Boko Haram has the capacity to strike throughout Nigeria, Shekau has placed greater emphasis in recent months on capturing territory. Boko Haram has attacked towns in northeastern Nigeria and sought to hold the land. The jihadists have hoisted their flags in Damboa, Gwoza, Buni Yadi, Gamboru, and Madagali, among other locations. The Nigerian armed forces have been struggling to regain control in the areas, reportedly recapturing Damboa and surrounding areas in early August. (In his recent video, Shekau claims that it is a "lie" to say that Boko Haram has been defeated in Damboa.)

The group is continuing its offensive in and around Nigeria's northeastern Borno State. Yesterday the Biu local government council reported that insurgents targeted communication masts in the area, burning them down, and stole a vehicle. Cutting the area's communications abilities may be a sign that the group intends to take control in Biu.

Additionally, state radio in Cameroon announced that the country's army killed 27 Boko Haram fighters in continued clashes near Fotokol in Cameroon's Extreme North region. Boko Haram attacked the neighboring Nigerian border town of Gamboru and an army barracks nearby on Aug. 25, sending over 400 Nigerian soldiers fleeing into Cameroon. The Nigerian press reported yesterday that fighting is ongoing between the Nigerian military and Boko Haram fighters around the strategically important border crossing area.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Islamic State documents takeover of Syrian airbase (10:12AM)


The Islamic State released photographs that document its recent takeover of the Syrian Air Force's base in Tabqa in Raqqah province.

The photographs, which were published yesterday on the Internet, show the aftermath of the Islamic State's latest conquest against the Syrian military. Islamic State fighters overran the Tabqa airbase last weekend. [See LWJ report, Islamic State fighters assault last Syrian stronghold in Raqqah.]

Tabqa was the last bastion for Syrian military forces in Raqqah province, which is now fully under the control of the Islamic State.

The photographs from Tabqa show what appear to be the bodies of dozens of Syrian soldiers who were killed during the fighting. The Islamic State also provides images of several Syrian soldiers, including at least one pilot, who were captured during the assault.

One photograph shows seven captured soldiers kneeling on the ground as Islamic State fighters shoot them from behind. The Islamic State has previously released similar photographs of Iraqi soldiers who were executed by the jihadist group.

Additionally, the Islamic State published photographs of various weapons systems and munitions that were captured or destroyed during the takeover of the airbase. At least three MiG fighters, as well as anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons systems, tanks, and anti-aircraft guns, were seized or destroyed by the Islamic State.

Photographs from Tabqa

Islamic State fighters stand on top of a tank as the bodies of dead Syrian soldiers lie in the foreground:


An Islamic State fighter brandishes a knife in front of a group of captured Syrian soldiers:


Islamic State fighters execute captured Syrian soldiers:


An abandoned Syrian Airforce MiG fighter:


Two abandoned Syrian Airforce MiG fighters in a shelter:


Missiles seized by the Islamic State at Tabqa:


Crates of munitions now under the control of the Islamic State:


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Taliban splinter group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar forms in northwestern Pakistan (09:19AM)

A group of commanders from the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan has broken away from the organization and formed Jamaat-ul-Ahrar. The creation of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar is a blow to the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, as a top commander from Mohmand and his followers are among those who have defected.

The announcement of the formation of the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan) was posted on the Twitter pages of Ihsanullah Ihsan, the former spokesman of the TTP, and Omar Khorasani, the "Personal Assistant" of Omar Khalid Khorasani, the former emir of the TTP in Mohmand. Omar Khalid was a senior leader in the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar released a lengthy video (1:25) that was published on YouTube as well as Ihsan and Omar's Twitter pages. The new group includes Taliban factions from the tribal agencies of Mohmand, Bajaur, Khyber, and Arakzai, and the districts of Charsadda, Peshawar, and Swat.

The group is headed by emir Maulana Qasim Khorasani, and Ihsan is its spokesman. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar's shura, or executive council, includes: Omar Khalid al Khorasani, the powerful commander from Mohmand; Mansoor Nazim Shura and Maulana Haidar from Arakzai; Maulana Adbullah from Bajaur; Qari Ismail from Khyber; Qari Shakil Haqqani from Charsadda; Mufti Misbah from Peshawar; and Maulana Yasin from Swat.

Qasim, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar's emir, says that "the leadership of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan is a victim of narrow, personal objectives."

One of the commanders "says the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan was formed for a purpose but the organization made mistakes and there were some internal differences," Arif Rafiq, an Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute, told The Long War Journal. "So they are forming a new group to serve its original purpose of establishing an Islamic state."

Omar Khalid is a powerful commander who was in the running to take over the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan after the death of then emir Hakeemullah Mehsud in a US drone strike late last year. Omar Khalid is close to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, and has said that the Taliban seek to overthrow the Pakistani government, impose sharia, or Islamic law, seize the country's nuclear weapons, and wage jihad until "the Caliphate is established across the world." [For more information on Omar Khalid al Khorasani, see LWJ report, Quetta airbase attacks carried out by Pakistani Taliban, IMU.]

Omar Khalid al Khorasani's defection from the Movement of the Taliban has been telegraphed for some time. In February, he announced the execution of 23 Pakistani troops as the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan was engaged in negotiations with the government. The Taliban had called for all of its branches to halt attacks during negotiations.

The formation of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar indicates that some Taliban leaders either "see [TTP emir Mullah Fazlullah] as weak and want to have a more consolidated leadership of like-minded folks, or they took advantage of the fracturing and are now asserting their autonomy/independence," Rafiq said. Fazlullah has largely been silent since taking control of the Movement of the Taliban late last year. He is thought to be hiding along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and has been spotted in Nuristan several times.

The Mehsud branches of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, which are primarily based in South and North Waziristan, are also "opposed to Fazlullah," Rafiq said. The Mehsud and the Taliban in Kurram are also said to have broken away from the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, according to Jamaat-ul-Ahrar.

Rafiq observed that "[t]his new organization seems to represent a rejection of Fazlullah's leadership and is an attempt to create a counter-umbrella organization."

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar is the second splinter group to break away from the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan this year. In February, Ahrar-ul-Hind, which isalso headed by Maulana Qasim, a former leader in the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, was formed after the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan opened peace talks with the Pakistani government. The group claimed to be based in Pakistan's "urban areas." Less than one month after announcing its formation, Ahrar-ul-Hind took credit for a suicide assault on a courthouse in Islamabad.

Asad Mansour, the spokesman for Ahrar-ul-Hind, declared, "It is very clear that Shariah can never be attained through talks." [See LWJ report, Pakistani jihadists form Ahrar-ul-Hind, vow to continue attacks.]

The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan was established in December 2007 with the goals of overthrowing the Pakistani government, establishing an Islamic state, and imposing sharia law. The group's first emir, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a US drone strike in 2009. The group is closely tied to al Qaeda and attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in New York City in May 2010.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Boko Haram's new caliphate (02:19PM)

In a continuing escalation of violence, Boko Haram has now taken its campaign to another level, seizing and controlling large swaths of land in Nigeria's northeast. The group's five-year rampage has killed over 10,000 people, and the government's declaration of a state of emergency last year in the northeastern states of Yobe, Borno, and Adamawa has done little to quell the violent insurgency. Boko Haram capped its recent takeover of Gwoza, a Borno town with a population of 50,000, by declaring an Islamic caliphate in the region.

Celebrating this achievement, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau released a video over the weekend, which was obtained by AFP. In the 52-minute film, Shekau declares the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria, asserting that "[f]or us there is nothing like Nigeria but Islamic Caliphate." He does not mention the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi or his recent declaration of a caliphate.

In Boko Haram's latest video, Shekau is shown standing in front of three SUVs, wearing military fatigues with a Kalashnikov slung across his body, as he rants to the camera while holding a notebook in his left hand from which he reads. He claims: "Allah commands us to rule Gwoza by Islamic law. In fact, he commands us to rule the rest of the world, not only Nigeria, and now we have started." Filmed in what looks to be a forest clearing, the video does not clearly indicate whether Shekau is in Gwoza or at some other location.

As in other Boko Haram videos, Shekau appears flanked by four of his fighters who each stand at attention, wearing a mask and holding the muzzle of a rifle. He declares that Boko Haram is responsible for recent attacks in Abuja, Damaturu, Damboa, and other areas of the country, and thanks Allah for their success.

Shekau further declares that the areas of Nigeria under Boko Haram's control now constitute a caliphate, stating, "We are in an Islamic Caliphate. We have nothing to do with Nigeria. We don't believe in this name." The UN humanitarian office, OCHA, confirmed reports earlier this month that Gwoza was controlled by the rebels.

During the first week of August, Boko Haram stormed Gwoza, killing at least 50 people, and raising its flag over the area. At the time of the attack, there were no Nigerian forces present to protect civilians.

Gwoza and its surroundings are no stranger to Boko Haram. In February, 121 people were killed in the village of Izghe, and on May 25, over 20 churchgoers were killed in Gwoza town during a service. The following day, six churches were among many properties set alight in Gwoza by the insurgents. Gwoza's emir, Alhaji Idrissa Timta, was shot and killed by Boko Haram members in May. His successor, who is also his son, went missing in the Boko Haram attacks on Gwoza that occurred on Aug. 6.

Since early August, the Gwoza area has been subject to several more attacks. On Aug. 23, Boko Haram hit a police training academy outside of Gwoza for the third time this month. In the latest attack, at least 35 Nigerian police officers went missing. The Nigerian government has "refused to confirm whether the officers were killed in the raid, taken by Boko Haram, or had gone in hiding from the armed fighters," however.

The video also contains footage of Boko Haram fighters raiding villages, and Nigerian soldiers running away from the insurgents. Boko Haram members are shown walking alongside and behind several trucks and vehicles mounted with heavy machine guns. The video also shows that Boko Haram has more than one armored personnel carrier for its operations. And footage is included of Boko Haram fighters pillaging what looks to be a recently raided military base; the viewer is shown boxes of bullets and other ammunition, mortars, and other artillery being loaded into trucks.

In the latest message, Shekau vows to strike back at local community members who have joined vigilante groups in the region to protect themselves and their families. Going further, Shekau threatens:

And I swear by Allah that we will never stop killing you, because Allah commanded us to kill people like you. If we pity you and spare you, one day you will become infidels. So, to us, having pity on you is an act of disbelief. You can continue to run or hide your identities in women's attire, but we will get to you and remove the women's clothing off of you. Then, while you are shouting for mercy, we will strike, smash your heads and kill you all. Even if you don't do anything to us we will kill you .... We would do it even to avenge our brethren. You killed our brethren in large numbers.

He also vaguely threatens the United States, Israel, and France, saying: "Who is America in the sight of Allah? .... We don't fear you at all. .... We were the ones who carried out all these attacks. Not just Gwoza, all the attacks you see in Borno or any country we are the ones carrying them out. This is the life for us; it is our world and we are living it out.... This is the speech I have to make; which is a warning for worse things to come. Better submit to Allah before it becomes too late."

At the end of the video, Boko Haram includes gruesome footage showing approximately 20 men in civilian clothes lying on their stomachs with their hands tied behind their backs being executed by gunfire at close range. Two other men are beaten to death with shovels after they allegedly tried to escape dressed as women.

Responding to the video, the Nigerian military rejected Shekau's claims, releasing a statement on Twitter stating that Nigeria's "sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Nigerian state is still intact." The military has also promised to mount an offensive in the northeast "soon."

In addition to Gwoza, several other areas in Nigeria's north, particularly in Borno state, as well as one town in Yobe state, are thought to be under Boko Haram's control.

The video provides the first reported instance of Shekau referring to a larger caliphate, a term and goal frequently mentioned by Islamic terrorists around the world, but it may suggest that Boko Haram's aims are not exclusively local. In a video released last month, Shekau had voiced his support for Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State, as well as for leaders of al Qaeda and the Taliban.

It is unclear whether Shekau's declaration of a caliphate in Nigeria amounts to an attempt to link his group to the Islamic State caliphate recently claimed in Syria and Iraq by al Baghdadi, or "if he is referring to a separate Nigerian caliphate."

Today the BBC reported that some 480 Nigerian troops have fled Boko Haram and crossed over the border into the Cameroon, and are being accommodated in the town of Maroa. The soldiers are said to have fled clashes with Boko Haram in the border towns of Gamboru Ngala and Banki in Borno state; the terror group killed over 300 people in Gamboru Ngala in May. The Nigerian military dismissed reports of a rout or mass defection and claimed the soldiers were conducting a "tactical manoeuvre."

Al Nusrah Front video features captured members of Lebanese security forces (07:25AM)

On Aug. 22, the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, posted a short video featuring nine captured members of Lebanon's security forces. Al Nusrah is using the kidnapped men in its propaganda war against Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist organization that is fighting alongside Bashar al Assad's forces in Syria.

The video, titled "Who Will Pay the Price?," shows the nine hostages sitting on the ground in front of Al Nusrah's black banner. The first of the hostages to speak is a recruit who signed up to fight for the Lebanese army. He calls on the people in his home village to protest until all of Hezbollah's fighters are removed from Syria. If Hezbollah does not exit the Syrian war, he is made to say by Al Nusrah, all of the hostages will be killed.

A second Lebanese soldier then speaks, echoing the threat made by the first: Hezbollah must remove its forces from Syria, or the hostages will be killed. He says that he is a Shiite and he wants his family and all Shiites in Lebanon to protest against Hezbollah.

Two more soldiers then call on upon their family members and fellow citizens to blockade the roads in Lebanon, making it more difficult for the group to operate. One of them accuses Hezbollah of targeting Sunni families in Lebanon.

Another hostage says that Al Nusrah will answer every one of Hezbollah's operations in Syria with an attack against Shiites in Lebanon. And still another addresses Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, asking him if it is acceptable within Islam to kill Muslim women and children. Of course, al Qaeda and its branches have killed many Muslim women and children.

Toward the end of the video, the first hostage is shown again and he claims that he and his fellow hostages were not coerced into making their statements. Still another hostage closes out the video by praising Al Nusrah. The statements made by the hostages should not be accepted at face value, however, as the video is a propaganda ploy by Al Nusrah.

The hostages were all reportedly captured in early August, during intense fighting in Arsal, which is in northern Lebanon on the Syrian border. Interestingly, fighters from both the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State, the al Qaeda offshoot that is at odds with Al Nusrah, participated in the operations against Lebanese security forces.

According to Gulf News, the two jihadist groups are believed to be holding 28 hostages. Eighteen of them are being held by Al Nusrah, while the remaining 10 are being held by the Islamic State. In total, 26 of them have been identified. [For more on the hostages, and attempts to free them, see LWJ report: The Muslim Scholars Committee and the Lebanese tinderbox.]

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Islamic State fighters assault last Syrian stronghold in Raqqah (11:01AM)

Iraqi and Syrian towns and cities seized by the Islamic State and its allies. Map created by Patrick Megahan and Bill Roggio for The Long War Journal. Click to view larger map.

The Islamic State is close to cementing its control in the eastern Syrian province of Raqqah today after it overran the Tabqa military airport. The airbase is the last Syrian military stronghold in Raqqah.

Islamic State fighters "took control over wide areas of the airbase" after launching a massed assault earlier today, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. A number of Syrian soldiers and allied "militiamen" withdrew "towards Athraya Area" after heavy fighting. Syrian warplanes attacked Islamic State fighters inside and outside of the airbase, indicating the military has lost control of the facility.

This Islamic State removed a nearby checkpoint to allow Syrian forces "an attempt to give the regime forces a path in order to retreat from the airbase and to avoid the violent clashes with them inside the airbase," the Observatory later reported. "The warplanes that were in the airbase of [Tabqa] have been towed to another airbase in the Syrian Badeya and to the Military Airport of Deir Ezzor."

The jihadists "took control" of the base "almost completely," the Observatory said in a later update.

The Islamic State took heavy casualties during the fighting. According to the Observatory, over 100 Islamic State fighters were killed and 300 more were wounded. Twenty-five Syrian soldiers were killed and dozens more were wounded.

The city of Tabqa, which is just north of the city, and the nearby Thawra Dam have been under the control of Islamist forces since February 2013. The Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda's branch in Syria, seized the city and dam, and control was transferred to the Islamic State sometime after the two Islamist groups split over the dispute over who controlled the jihad in Syria.

The Islamic State currently controls the city of Raqqah, the provincial capital and its de facto capital in Syria, and other towns and cities along the Euphrates River.

Earlier this month, the Islamic State defeated the 93rd Brigade of the Syrian Army. The unit was deployed from Idlib province to Raqqah in 2012 to reinforce the military's weakening position in the province. On Aug. 23, the Islamic State published a video of "its brutal execution of Syrian soldiers" captured during the fighting, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. One soldier was beheaded.

The Islamic State "had also reported the killing of an IS [Islamic State] media member, Abu Usama al Ansari, during the operation," SITE reported. "Footage shows one of the suicide bombers, Abu Hajer al Jazrawi, reading his will, and shows fighters storming the area and killing the soldiers it encounters." Based on his name, the suicide bomber appears to be a Saudi.

The Islamic State controls most of eastern Syria and has recently advanced further into Aleppo province, where it is threatening the Al Nusrah Front as well as the allied Islamic Front. In Iraq, the jihadist group controls much of Anbar, Ninewa, Salahaddin, and Diyala provinces, as well as areas in northern Babil.

The US began launching airstrikes against the Islamic State in the northern areas of Ninewa after ignoring pleas by the Iraqi government to help halt the advance of the jihadist group for the past year. The Islamic State first took over areas in Anbar
in January, then launched its blitzkrieg in the north in June. The US intervened only after the Islamic State seized the Mosul Dam and advanced into areas controlled by the Kurds. The airstrikes have helped the Kurds and the Iraqi military retake the dam and surrounding areas.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Treasury designates 2 'key' al Qaeda financiers (11:18AM)
Sanafi al Nasr picture 2.jpg

Sanafi al Nasr is sitting on the far left in the picture above.

The US Treasury Department today imposed sanctions on two jihadists who act as "key financiers" for al Qaeda and the Al Nusrah Front, which is al Qaeda's official branch in Syria.

One of the two, Abdul Mohsen Abdullah Ibrahim al Sharikh, is a senior al Qaeda leader whose role in the terrorist network was first exposed by The Long War Journal in March. Sharikh is known as Sanafi al Nasr, or the "Cultivator of Victory." US intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal that he leads al Qaeda's victory committee, which is responsible for al Qaeda's strategic planning and policy. [See LWJ report, Head of al Qaeda's 'Victory Committee' in Syria, for more background on Nasr and his al Qaeda role.]

Treasury does not note Nasr's role as the head of the victory committee, but it does say that he became one of the Al Nusrah Front's "top strategists" and a "senior" leader in the group after relocating to Syria in the spring of 2013. Prior to the move, Nasr served "as a key financial facilitator" for al Qaeda in Pakistan and then, temporarily, as the head of al Qaeda's network in Iran.

Along with "other al Qaeda fighters," Nasr moved to Syria just before the rivalry between the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State reached a boiling point. Nasr is fiercely opposed to the Islamic State, which has been disowned by al Qaeda's general command.

Treasury cites Nasr's prolific use of Twitter in its designation, noting that he "has used social media posts to demonstrate his aspiration to target Americans and US interests." His Twitter feed currently has almost 22,000 followers. Nasr has also used Twitter to provide updates on al Qaeda's leadership. In April 2013, he reported that Abu Ubaydah Abdullah al Adam, who served as al Qaeda's intelligence chief, was killed in a drone strike. And in July 2014, he tweeted that six of his "dearest comrades" were killed in an airstrike in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Nasr identified three of them as Taj al Makki, Abu Abdurahman al Kuwaiti, and Fayez Awda al Khalidi.

The Treasury Department also reveals new details about Nasr's role in al Qaeda's network in Iran. In "early 2013," Nasr served as the "chief of al Qaeda's Iran-based extremist and financial facilitation network."

Nasr held this position until Yasin al Suri, another senior al Qaeda figure, was allowed by the Iranians to resume his role in that same capacity. Al Suri was temporarily removed as the head of the Iran-based network after the US government exposed his position and offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture in 2011.

Like Nasr, another former head of al Qaeda's Iranian presence, a Kuwaiti named Muhsin al Fadhli, has also reportedly relocated to Syria.

In March, jihadists on Twitter, including Al Nusrah Front officials, falsely claimed that Nasr had been killed while fighting Bashar al Assad's forces. While Nasr was severely wounded in the fighting, he survived and made his escape from death known on his Twitter feed.

Nasr has long been included on Saudi Arabia's list of most wanted terrorists and extremists. According to US intelligence officials previously contacted by The Long War Journal, Nasr is one of Osama bin Laden's third cousins. He comes from a family of al Qaeda jihadists, and two of his brothers were once held at Guantanamo. Nasr's well-established jihadist pedigree and ties in the Gulf have contributed to his fast rise within al Qaeda's ranks.

Kuwaiti national also designated

A Kuwaiti national named Hamid Hamad Hamid al 'Ali was also designated by the Treasury Department today. Al 'Ali has "referred to himself" as an "al Qaeda commando," according to Treasury, and has raised funds for both Al Nusrah and its parent al Qaeda.

Al 'Ali "has raised tens of thousands of dollars to help" the Al Nusrah Front "purchase weapons and supplies as well as directed donors in Kuwait to send financial and material support to the terrorist organization." He has personally "traveled to Syria to deliver funds to" Al Nusrah and has also "used students in Kuwait to courier funds to the group."

In addition to his fundraising activities, al 'Ali has "facilitated the travel to Syria of individuals wishing to fight for" Al Nusrah and "provided these individuals with money to deliver to the terrorist organization."

Earlier this month, the Treasury Department designated three other financiers, at least two of whom are Kuwaiti nationals. The third has been linked to Kuwait and also works with al Qaeda's Iran-based facilitators. Kuwait grants jihadists a permissive environment in which they can raise funds.

On Aug. 6, the United Nations adopted Resolution 2170 condemning human rights abuses by extremist groups in Iraq and Syria and sanctioned six individuals associated with those groups. Both Sanafi al Nasr and Hamid Hamad Hamid al 'Ali have been added to the list of terrorists designated under the resolution.

Al Nusrah Front attempts to thwart Islamic State's advances north of Aleppo (08:59AM)

A short video released on Twitter on Aug. 21 features three fighters from the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, shortly before they head off to fight the Islamic State's forces north of Aleppo.

The Islamic State, which was disowned by al Qaeda's general command in early February and has been fighting Al Nusrah for months, seized a number of towns north of Aleppo earlier this month. According to some accounts, the group managed to capture 13 towns in a surprise offensive that began on Aug. 13, catching its jihadist rivals off guard. In recent days, the Islamic State has advanced on the town of Marea, which is considered a key hub for jihadist and Islamist groups opposed to Bashar al Assad's regime.

It is in this context that the Al Nusrah Front's video was produced by its so-called correspondents network. The video is titled, "Quick Words from Muhajirin and Ansar Heading to Repel the Aggression of the Kharijites." The title means that both foreign fighters (Muhajirin) and local jihadists (Ansar) are heading off to counter the Islamic State, whose members are described as "Kharijites," a derogatory term that refers to extremists who justify the killing of their co-religionists.

"We in the Al Nusrah Front only fight to raise the word of Allah, to make the oppressed triumphant," the first fighter shown in the video says. "We only fight to get rid of the enemy Bashar and his soldiers. We have come to fight them so that we can impose Allah's laws on the country. We have not come to oppress people, steal from people, or take their property ... we have come to impose Allah's laws."

The fighter's words highlight a key distinction between Al Nusrah and the Islamic State. Whereas Al Nusrah has focused most of its resources on opposing the Assad regime, and embedding itself within the insurgency, the Islamic State has concentrated on seizing territory, often at the expense of its fellow jihadists and other rebels. This land grab in Syria, coupled with its stunning advances in Iraq, has fueled the group's claim that it now rules over a caliphate with its emir, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, being called "Caliph Ibrahim." The Islamic State has demanded the loyalty of all other jihadists in service of its self-declared caliphate.

"I advise the members of the Islamic State, your emirs and sharia experts, I advise you to not listen to them," the first fighter continues. "They are misrepresenting the matter to you. They have said that we are apostates and that we are a community of apostasy .... By Allah, I ask you by Allah, come to us and give us one proof that we are apostates or that we have fallen into apostasy. We have not fallen into apostasy and we have not fought alongside the apostates or infidels, in any shape or form."

The fighter then calls on members of Baghdadi's organization to defect. "I advise you, oh Islamic State members, oh Islamic State soldiers, return to the truth. Leave this invalidity .... Leave your ways of fighting the mujahideen and Muslims in order to raise the word of al Baghdadi or Adnani." Abu Mohammed al Adnani is the Islamic State's spokesman and was designated by the US government as a terrorist on Aug. 18. Adnani is known for his fire-breathing rhetoric and fierce denunciations of the Islamic State's rivals, including al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri.

Addressing the foreign fighters who joined the Islamic State, the first fighter says, "Do not waste your immigration to the land of al Sham [Syria]. You have not come to fight the supporters of the religion and Allah or the soldiers of Allah, almighty. Allah almighty, thank Allah, has sent us to the land of al Sham so that we can fight the infidels." The fighter continues, "And now you have changed your location and are now fighting the mujahideen who have come to fight the enemies of Allah. I advise you, return to the truth. Listen to the clerics, they have talked about this issue. You are the ones in the wrong ... some of them have even deemed you khawarij. Listen to the words of the clerics, not those of your emirs or your sharia authorities."

The second fighter shown in the video says the Islamic State has "come to occupy land and make the spilling of blood and property of Muslims permissible and have started to fight Muslims in cold blood."

"They say that every Muslim who does not pledge bayat [allegiance] to Baghdadi is an apostate, and that is in contradistinction to Islamic law," the second fighter continues. "Who placed him a Caliph over the Muslims? Who even declared a caliphate? They by themselves declared a state and then declared a caliphate and began killing Muslims and making their blood and property and honor permissible [to violate]."

A third fighter promises to fight as long as it takes to thwart the Islamic State's advances. "We will remain in the north [as long as] we have to defend ourselves, with Allah's permission," the third fighter says. "We do not run away, with Allah's permission." To the Islamic State's jihadists, the Al Nusrah fighter says, "You have come to fight the mujahideen, lions of jihad who wanted to fight in Allah's cause, and you listen to your emirs and shari'a clerics. By Allah, on the day of resurrection Allah almighty will ask you why did you kill? And Baghdadi, Adnani, and any other sharia cleric among you can help you with this!"

Similar pleas from the Al Nusrah Front and others have not stopped the Islamic State's advances against their fellow jihadists. The Islamic State's rivals have suffered key defeats in eastern Syria, as Baghdadi's group has consolidated its control over a significant amount of territory.

It remains to be seen if the Al Nusrah Front and its allies can turn back the Islamic State's momentum in the intra-jihadist fighting, while also fighting Assad's forces.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

US posts rewards for 5 Haqqani Network leaders (04:06PM)

Pictured, from left to right: Aziz Haqqani, Khalil al-Rahman Haqqani, Yahya Haqqani, and Sirajuddin Haqqani. Images from Rewards for Justice.

Yesterday, the US State Department's Rewards for Justice Program posted new rewards for five members of the Haqqani Network, the dangerous Taliban subgroup that operates in eastern, central, northern, and southern Afghanistan and is based in Pakistan.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the operational leader of the network, had his existing reward raised from $5 million to $10 million. This puts him in the top tier of wanted global jihadists. The other jihadists who have a $10 million reward offered for their capture are: Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, a.k.a. Abu Dua, the emir of the Islamic State; Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban; Hafiz Saeed, the head of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba; and Yasin al Suri, the chief of al Qaeda's network in Iran. Only al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri has a higher bounty, at $25 million.

Rewards for Justice also posted new rewards of up to $5 million each for Khalil al Rahman Haqqani, Yahya Haqqani, Abdul Rauf Zakir, and Aziz Haqqani. Three of them have been designated by the US as global terrorists, and one has not been mentioned by the US in the past.

Khalil al Rahman Haqqani, Siraj's uncle, was added to the US' list of terrorists in February 2011. Khalil is a key fundraiser, financier, and operational commander for the Haqqani Network, and has been crucial in aiding and supporting al Qaeda's military, the Lashkar al Zil, or Shadow Army.

Qari Rauf Zakir, the head of the Haqqani Network's suicide operations in Afghanistan as well as the group's operational commander in Kabul, Takhar, Kunduz, and Baghlan provinces, was designated a global terrorist on Nov. 5, 2012. Zakir is considered to be a close advisor to Siraj, and also runs the network's training program.

Yahya Haqqani, a senior leader who has served as acting emir as well as a key financier and logistician, was designated on Feb. 5, 2014. He has close ties to al Qaeda, and often serves as a liaison with al Qaeda operatives in the region. He also supports Qari Rauf Zakir's operations.

Unlike the other four Haqqani Network leaders, Aziz Haqqani has not been designated as a global terrorist by the US government. He is described as "Sirajuddin's brother and is involved in logistical operations and command decisions involving cross-border attacks on ISAF and Afghan forces."

Additionally, Aziz "also plays a key role in HQN's [Haqqani Network's] operations in Kabul and in major attacks throughout Afghanistan." This means that Aziz is a senior leader in the Kabul Attack Network.

Background on the Haqqani Network

The Haqqani Network is a powerful Taliban subgroup that operates primarily in the Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia, and Paktika, but also has an extensive presence in Kabul, Parwan, Logar, Wardak, Ghazni, Zabul, Kandahar, Baghlan, Kunduz, and Takhar. In addition, the network has expanded its operations into the distant Afghan provinces of Badakhshan, Faryab, and Kunar, according to ISAF press releases that document raids against the network. In central Afghanistan, the Haqqani Network coordinates suicide operations and complex assaults with groups such as the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda, Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, and Lashkar-e-Taiba, in what ISAF used to call the Kabul Attack Network.

The Haqqani Network has close links with al Qaeda, and its relationship with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID) has allowed the network to survive and thrive in its fortress stronghold of North Waziristan. The terror group has also extended its presence into the Pakistani tribal agency of Kurram.

In North Waziristan, the Haqqanis control large swaths of the tribal area and run a parallel administration with courts, recruiting centers, tax offices, and security forces. In addition, the Haqqanis have established multiple training camps and safe houses that are used by al Qaeda leaders and operatives and by Taliban foot soldiers preparing to fight in Afghanistan.

The Haqqani Network has been implicated in some of the biggest terror attacks in the Afghan capital city of Kabul, including the January 2008 suicide assault on the Serena Hotel, the February 2009 assault on Afghan ministries, and the July 2008 and October 2009 suicide attacks against the Indian Embassy.

The terror group collaborated with elements of Pakistan's military and intelligence service in at least one of these attacks. American intelligence agencies have confronted the Pakistani government with evidence, including communications intercepts, which proved the ISID's direct involvement in the 2008 Indian Embassy bombing. [See LWJ report Pakistan's Jihad, and Threat Matrix report Pakistan backs Afghan Taliban, for additional information on the ISID's complicity in attacks in Afghanistan and the region.]

In the summer and fall of 2011, the US and the Afghan government linked the Haqqani Network and Pakistan's intelligence service to the June 28, 2011 assault on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul and the Sept. 13, 2011 attack on the US Embassy and ISAF headquarters. Shortly after the September attack, Admiral Michael Mullen, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accused the Haqqani Network of being one of several "[e]xtremist organizations serving as proxies of the government of Pakistan."

In May 2014, the Haqqani Network orchestrated the release of five senior Taliban commanders who were being held by the US at Guantanamo Bay. All five Taliban commanders have extensive ties to al Qaeda. The five leaders were exchanged for Bowe Bergdahl, a US soldier who abandoned his post in eastern Afghanistan and was held by the Haqqani Network for five years. The Taliban hailed the release of their five leaders as a major victory.

US adds Taliban hawala, owner, and commander to terrorist list (11:50AM)

The US Treasury Department has added a Taliban hawala, or money exchange, that is based in Pakistan, its owner, and a Taliban commander to the US list of global terrorists and entities. The designations are part of the US government's effort to target the Taliban's financial network.

The Treasury designation, which was released today, added the Basir Zarjmil Hawala and its owner Haji Abdul Basir, along with a Taliban commander known as Qari Rahmat to the US government's list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists.

The Basir Zarjmil Hawala and Haji Abdul Basir

The Basir Zarjmil Hawala "is based in Chaman, Balochistan Province, Pakistan," Treasury stated in its designation. Chaman, a Pakistani city that borders Afghanistan's Kandahar province, is known as a forward command hub for the Taliban operating in Afghanistan. Top commanders are known to live in Chaman and direct operations in Afghanistan from the city. [See LWJ report, Senior Taliban commander based in Pakistan detained in Kandahar.] Pakistani officials routinely look the other way as the Taliban conduct their business in Chaman and elsewhere in Pakistan.

"Taliban senior leaders in Quetta, Balochistan Province, Pakistan, and Chaman have preferred to transfer money to Taliban commanders through the Basir Zarjmil Hawala and the Haji Khairullah Haji Sattar hawala, which the Treasury Department and the United Nations sanctioned in June 2012," Treasury stated. [See LWJ report, US Treasury targets money exchanges, owners, for funding Taliban, for more information on the Haji Khairullah Haji Sattar hawala.]

Treasury stated that the Basir Zarjmil Hawala "distributed thousands of dollars to Taliban commanders in Chaman, and in 2012 it conducted thousands of dollars in transactions related to weapons and other operational expenses for the Taliban." Additionally the hawala has "made use of Pakistani banks to provide money to Taliban members."

Basir, the hawala owner, has "transferred money to Taliban elders, and facilitated the travel of Taliban informants to Afghanistan, "[i]n addition to running the money exchange and serving as "the principal money exchanger for Taliban senior leadership in Pakistan."

Qari Rahmat

Rahmat, who "has been a Taliban commander since at least February 2010," is now the Taliban's leader in Achin district in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province. He commands an estimated 300 fighters.

As part of his duties, he has directed attacks again the Afghan government and security forces as well as Coalition forces. He has served as a "facilitator who emplaced improvised explosive devices," and he "collects taxes and bribes on behalf of the Taliban," "provided lethal aid, housing, and guidance to Taliban fighters," and "provides intelligence information to the Taliban."

US has targeted Taliban's financial network in Pakistan in the past

Treasury's designation of the Basir Zarjmil Hawala and its owner are part of an effort by the US government to shut down the Taliban's financial support network that is based in Pakistan.

In February of this year, the US added Saidullah Jan and Yahya Haqqani, two senior leaders in the Haqqani Network, a Taliban subgroup, to the terrorism list for providing financial support to the Taliban and al Qaeda. Both Haqqani Network leaders traveled to the Gulf States to raise funds for the Taliban [See LWJ report, US adds 3 senior Haqqani Network leaders to terrorism list.]

In November 2012, the US added Rahat Ltd., a Pakistan-based hawala, and its owner, Mohammed Qasim, along with the owner and manager of the Quetta, Pakistan branch, Musa Kalim, to the list of global terrorist and entities. [See LWJ report, US adds Pakistani hawala, 2 Taliban financiers to terrorism list.]

And in June 2012, the US added the Haji Khairullah Haji Sattar Money Exchange (HKHS) and the Roshan Money Exchange (RMX), and the owners of HKHS, Haji Abdul Sattar Barakzai and Haji Khairullah Barakzai, to the terrorism list for supporting the Taliban. Both exchanges operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan. [See LWJ report, US Treasury targets money exchanges, owners, for funding Taliban.]

In April 2012, the US designated Mohammed Mazhar, the director of the Al Akhtar Trust, and Mufti Abdul Rahim, the leader of the Al Rashid Trust, for supporting al Qaeda and the Taliban. Both the Al Akhtar Trust and the Al Rashid Trust have provided material support to al Qaeda and the Taliban. [See LWJ report, US designates 2 Pakistanis for running al Qaeda and Taliban charitable front groups.]

In September 2011, the US designated Hajji Faizullah Khan Noorzai and his brother Hajji Malik Noorzai for aiding the Taliban. Treasury described Malik as "a Pakistan-based businessman who, with his brother Faizullah, has invested millions of dollars in various businesses for the Taliban." Faizullah's address is listed as Chaman. [See LWJ report, US adds 5 al Qaeda, Taliban, Haqqani Network, and IMU facilitators to terrorist list.]

Pakistan has done little to crack down on the Taliban and Haqqani Network financiers, who often work openly inside the country.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

US launched raid in Syria to rescue American hostages held by Islamic State (07:19PM)

The US military attempted to rescue "a number of American hostages held in Syria by the Islamic State," the Department of Defense's spokesman said today. The rescue attempt failed as the hostages were not at the location of the raid.

"The United States attempted a rescue operation recently to free a number of American hostages held in Syria by the [Islamic State,or ISIL]," Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement released on the Department of Defense's website. "This operation involved air and ground components and was focused on a particular captor network within ISIL. Unfortunately, the mission was not successful because the hostages were not present at the targeted location."

The exact location of the raid inside Syria, which took place early this summer, was not disclosed by the US military.

Kirby indicated that top tier US special operations forces -- two squads of Army Delta Force -- were involved in the rescue operation, according to The New York Times. "In this case, we put the best of the United States military in harms' way to try and bring our citizens home," Kirby said.

One soldier was wounded in the raid. Kirby indicated that the military will continue to seek to free the US hostages.

"The United States government uses the full breadth of our military, intelligence and diplomatic capabilities to bring people home whenever we can," he said. "The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people, and will work tirelessly to secure the safety of our citizens and to hold their captors accountable."

The Islamic State is known to hold one American journalist, Steven Joel Sotloff, who was captured near the Syria-Turkey border in August 2013. Kirby was clear that there are multiple hostages. At least three other Americans, Austin Tice, and two others who have not been named at the request of their families, are known to have disappeared in Syria. A US intelligence official told The Long War Journal that Tice and the other two Americans are also being held by the Islamic State.

The US has launched at least one other special operations raid in Syria since 2008. In October 2008, special operations forces killed Abu Ghadiya, a senior al Qaeda leader who has been in charge of the group's Syrian network since 2005, and several aides during a raid in Albu Kamal. The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, has named a training camp after Abu Ghadiya.

Military continues airstrikes against Islamic State despite threats

The military's announcement of the hostage rescue operation took place just one day after the Islamic State beheaded James Wright Foley, an American journalist who was captured by the group in Binesh, Syria on Nov. 22, 2012. A videotape of the execution was released on the Internet.

The Islamic State has threatened to kill Soltoff if the US does not end the airstrikes against the jihadist group in northern Iraq.

"The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision," Foley's executioner said as he grasped the collar of the orange jumpsuit worn by a terrified Sotloff.

But the US military said today that it is continuing air operations in Iraq. In a press release issued by US Central Command, the military said it executed 14 airstrikes against Islamic State "terrorists in support of Iraqi security force operations, using fighter, remotely piloted and attack aircraft."

"The strikes destroyed or damaged six ISIL Humvees, three IED emplacements, one mortar tube, and two armed trucks," CENTCOM said.

CENTCOM confirmed that the US military has launched "a total of 84 airstrikes across Iraq ... and of those 84 strikes, 51 have been in support of Iraqi forces near the Mosul Dam."

The US military has aided the advance of the Iraqi military and Kurdish Peshmerga to retake the Mosul Dam and nearby towns after the Peshmerga retreated after putting up little opposition in early August.

Earlier today, US Secretary of State John Kerry referred to the Islamic State as "evil" in a statement condemning the execution of Foley.