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.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Islamic State beheads American reporter (06:44PM)


The Islamic State beheaded an American reporter who was captured in Syria in 2012, and threatened to kill another if the US military does not halt its air campaign against the jihadist group in northern Iraq.

Today the Islamic State posted a video of the beheading of James Wright Foley, a journalist who was captured by the group in Binesh, Syria on Nov. 22, 2012. The English-language video, which is titled "A Message to America," was released by the Al Furqan Media Foundation, a media arm of the Islamic State, and obtained by the SITE Intelligence Group.

The video begins with a clip of President Barack Obama explaining the reasoning for the US military's re-engagement in Iraq. Then, the video cuts to Foley, whose hands are cuffed behind his back and is wearing an orange jumpsuit, and an Islamic State fighter dressed in black.

Foley blames the United State for his death because it launched airstrikes against the Islamic State, and urges his brother, who is in the US Air Force, to quit the military.

"I guess all in all, I wish I wasn't an American," Foley says just before the Islamic State fighter brandishes a knife and begins to saw off his head.

The video then shows Foley's body on the ground, with his head placed on top of it.

Before he beheads Foley, the Islamic State executioner says, in non-native English with a British accent, that the American journalist is to be killed because the US attacked Muslims in Iraq. The Islamic State fighter also says that the US is now fighting "an Islamic Army."

"You're no longer fighting an insurgency, we are an Islamic army and a State that has been accepted by a large number of Muslims worldwide, so effectively, any aggression towards the Islamic State is an aggression towards Muslims from all walks of life who have accepted the Islamic Caliphate as their leadership," he says.

"So any attempt by you, Obama, to deny the Muslims their rights of living in safety under the Islamic Caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people."

After beheading Foley and displaying his mutilated corpse, the Islamic State fighter then appears with Steven Joel Sotloff, another American journalist who was captured in Syria on Aug. 4, 2013.

"The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision," the Islamic State fighter says as he grasps the collar of the orange jumpsuit worn by a terrified Sotloff.

The Islamic State is clearly seeking to deter the United States from conducting further airstrikes in Iraq. The US began airstrikes against the Islamic State on Aug. 7 after President Obama directed the military to halt the Islamic State's advance on Irbil, the Kurdish capital, and support humanitarian operations to the Yazidi minority trapped on Mount Sinjar. US military operations were expanded on Aug. 15 by Obama to support a Kurdish offensive to retake the Mosul Dam and surrounding villages. The US military has destroyed numerous Islamic State armored personnel carriers, armored vehicles, artillery pieces, technicals and pickup trucks, and fixed fighting positions in the airstrikes.

Islamic State repels Iraqi military's 3rd attempt to retake Tikrit (11:58AM)

One day after suffering a defeat at the Mosul dam by the Peshmerga and US and Iraqi forces, the Islamic State and its allies beat back an Iraqi Army assault that was designed to retake control of the central city of Tikrit. The Islamic State and its allies have now repelled three Iraqi military attempts to regain Tikrit, the capital of Salahaddin province, which has been out of government control for more than two months.

Earlier this morning, Iraqi forces launched "a wide military campaign to liberate the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State," All Iraq News Agency reported. "The security forces will liberate the city and eliminate the ISIL [Islamic State] terrorists," an Iraqi official told the news agency.

But the Iraqi forces, which attacked Tikrit from several directions, broke off their assault by the afternoon after taking "heavy machine gun and mortar fire" from the south, and encountering "landmines and snipers" west of the city, Reuters reported.

"Residents of central Tikrit said by telephone that Islamic State fighters were firmly in control of their positions and patrolling the main streets," Reuters noted.

The Islamic State and its Baathist allies in Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit have defeated two other attempts by the Iraqi military and supporting militias to reestablish government control of the provincial capital, which fell to the Islamic State and its allies on June 11.

At the end of June, Iraqi forces air assaulted into Tikrit University to the north of the city while ground forces advanced from the south. That offensive stalled and Iraqi forces withdrew from the city after heavy fighting.

And on July 15, Iraqi soldiers and supporting militias advanced on the city from the south, but withdrew one day later after being drawn into a deadly complex ambush that included IED traps, suicide bombers, and snipers.

The latest failed Tikrit offensive highlights the poor state of the Iraqi armed forces. The military has often been forced to cobble together units since at least four of Iraq's 16 regular army divisions are no longer viable. The Long War Journal estimates that at least seven divisions have been rendered ineffective since the beginning of the year [see Threat Matrix report, US advisers give dark assessment of state of Iraqi military].

In many areas of Iraq, the military is fighting alongside poorly trained militias who are ill-suited to conducting offensive operations. Additionally, SWAT and special forces, while highly trained and likely more motivated than regular forces, are often being misused as infantry.

The Iraqi military and the government have been unable to regain control of large areas lost in Ninewa, Salahaddin, and Diyala provinces after the Islamic State and its allies began their offensive on June 10. Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, and other major towns and cities in northern and central Iraq are firmly under the control of the Islamic State or contested.

The Islamic State also holds most of Anbar as well as northern Babil province. Fallujah and other cities and towns fell after the Islamic State went on the offensive in Anbar at the beginning of January. The Iraqi military has been unable to retake areas in Anbar lost earlier this year. Half of Ramadi, the provincial capital, is said to be under the Islamic State's control. The military recently airlifted 4,000 militiamen to Ramadi, a further indication that the two Iraqi divisions stationed in Anbar, the 1st and the 7th, are no longer cohesive fighting forces.

The only places where the Islamic State and its allies have lost ground are in some areas of northern Iraq where they encroached into territory controlled by the Kurdish Peshmerga. Earlier this month, the Islamic State took over the Mosul Dam, the city of Sinjar, and a series of towns and villages north and east of Mosul after the Peshmerga retreated, often without a fight. The Peshmerga recently retook the Mosul Dam and those same villages, but only after the US military intervened and launched a series of airstrikes that targeted Islamic State armored personnel carriers, technicals, convoys, mortar pits, and other military targets.

US government adds Gaza-based jihadist 'umbrella' group to terrorist designation lists (10:39AM)

The US government today added the Mujahidin Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem (MSC) to the foreign terrorist organization list and labeled the group a specially designated global terrorist entity.

In its announcement, the State Department describes the MSC as "an umbrella group composed of several jihadist terrorist sub-groups based in Gaza" and notes that it "has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks on Israel since the group's founding in 2012."

One of the group's first high-profile attacks came on June 18, 2012, when MSC fighters launched a cross-border attack on an Israeli construction site. One civilian was killed in the raid. The group dedicated the attack as a "gift" to Ayman al Zawahiri and its "brothers" in al Qaeda, adding that it was "retaliation" for the killing of Osama bin Laden. Addressing "Sheikh Zawahiri," the group said it was "continuing with our pledge of allegiance on the path of jihad."

In February 2013, the MSC released a video portraying one of the jihadists killed in the June 2012 attack as an al Qaeda "martyr." An online banner advertisement for the video included a picture of the MSC jihadist, as well as photos of lead 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and Anwar al Awlaki, the AQAP ideologue who was killed in a US drone strike.

On March 21, 2013, the MSC launched several rockets into Israel. The attacks coincided with a visit by President Barack Obama to the country. In advance of the president's trip, the MSC condemned the US and Israel on its social media pages, labeling Obama the new leader of the "Crusaders."

During a joint press conference held with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shortly after the MSC's rocket strikes, President Obama mentioned the attacks. "We saw the continuing threat from Gaza again overnight, with the rockets that targeted Sderot," Israel, Obama said. "We condemn this violation of the important cease-fire that protects both Israelis and Palestinians -- a violation that Hamas has a responsibility to prevent."

While Obama said that Hamas should prohibit such violence, he did not outright accuse the group of launching the rockets. And indeed the MSC claimed responsibility, calling the president a "Roman dog."

The MSC also claimed rocket attacks against Israel in April and August of 2013.

"In addition to these physical attacks," the State Department notes, "the MSC released a statement in February 2014 declaring support for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)," or ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham).

The MSC's statement of support for the ISIS was dated Feb. 2, the same day that al Qaeda's general command disowned the ISIS. In its statement, the MSC blamed the ISIS' rivals in Syria for the infighting between jihadists. In a string of tweets that were also written on Feb. 2, the MSC defended the ISIS after the group rejected an initiative by Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, who had attempted to broker a peace deal between the ISIS and its jihadist foes.

Although the MSC's statement of support for the ISIS shows that some of the group's members have been in the ISIS camp, the current status of the relationship between the two jihadist organizations is unclear. It does not appear that the MSC has sworn allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the emir of ISIS, which was rebranded as simply the Islamic State in late June. At the time, Baghdadi's supporters declared that he ruled as "Caliph Ibrahim" over a caliphate that stretches across much of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State has demanded the allegiance of all other jihadist groups as part of its caliphate claim.

Interestingly, the same month that the MSC expressed its support for Baghdadi's organization, the group also issued statements mourning the deaths of al Qaeda "martyrs." One of them was Abu Khalid al Suri, who served as Ayman al Zawahiri's chief representative in Syria before he was killed in late February 2014. It is widely suspected that the ISIS was responsible for al Suri's death, as the al Qaeda veteran was a prominent critic of Baghdadi and his followers.

Monday, August 18, 2014

US airpower supports Peshmerga, Iraqi forces to retake Mosul Dam (12:30PM)

The US military is launching airstrikes in support of the recent push by Iraqi special forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga to retake the Mosul Dam and surrounding towns lost to the Islamic State earlier this month. Invoking the War Powers Act, President Barack Obama said the strikes, which "will be limited in their scope and duration," are designed to protect US personnel based hundreds of miles downriver from the Mosul Dam.

The US airstrikes near the dam started on Aug. 16, when the US military noted in a press release that it was conducting airstrikes "near Irbil and the Mosul Dam." US Central Command, or CENTCOM, said the nine airstrikes, which "destroyed or damaged four armored personnel carriers, seven armed vehicles, two Humvees and an armored vehicle," were launched "under authority to support humanitarian efforts in Iraq, as well as to protect US personnel and facilities."

CENTCOM issued two more press releases on Aug. 17, both noting that airstrikes took place "near the Mosul Dam." CENTCOM said the strikes destroyed "ten ISIL armed vehicles, seven ISIL Humvees, two ISIL armored personnel carriers, and one ISIL checkpoint."

In the Aug. 17 press release, the military added that the strikes were launched "to protect critical infrastructure" and "support Iraqi security forces and Kurdish defense forces, who are working together to combat ISIL [the Islamic State]."

And today, CENTCOM said the military launched 15 more strikes in the Mosul Dam area. "The strikes damaged or destroyed nine ISIL fighting positions; an ISIL checkpoint; six ISIL armed vehicles; an ISIL light armored vehicle; an ISIL vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft artillery gun, and an IED emplacement belt," CENTCOM said.

Since the US air campaign around Mosul Dam began three days ago, American forces have conducted a total of 40 reported strikes: nine on Aug. 16, 16 on Aug. 17, and 15 today, according to The Associated Press.

Evolving US mission in Iraq

The missions of protecting "critical infrastructure" and supporting Iraqi Army and Peshmerga offensive military operations were not part of President Obama's initial reasoning for launching airstrikes against the Islamic State in northern Iraq. Obama authorized the use of force to protect minority Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar and halt the Islamic State's advance on Irbil, the capital of Kurdistan, where US personnel are based.

Obama invoked the War Powers Act in a letter to Congress that was released yesterday to explain the reasons for expanding the strikes to support offensive military operations by Kurdish and Iraqi forces.

"On August 14, 2014, I authorized the US Armed Forces to conduct targeted air strikes to support operations by Iraqi forces to recapture the Mosul Dam," Obama stated in the letter. "These military operations will be limited in their scope and duration as necessary to support the Iraqi forces in their efforts to retake and establish control of this critical infrastructure site, as part of their ongoing campaign against the terrorist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)," which is now called the Islamic State.

Obama said further that "the failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, endanger US personnel and facilities, including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services to the Iraqi populace."

The US air campaign appears to be having some success. The Peshmerga, backed by Iraqi Special Forces, SWAT units, and aircraft, are said to have retaken several towns and villages north of Mosul, including Batmay and Telskef.

Iraqi and Kurdish officials are saying the Islamic State forces at the dam have been been defeated, but the complex cannot be occupied as there are still IEDs seeded throughout. Fighting is said to be taking place on the west bank of the dam, The Washington Post reported. The Islamic State has denied reports that its forces have withdrawn from the Mosul Dam.

Up until Aug. 7, the Obama administration resisted entering the fray in Iraq. The US sat on the sidelines and resisted Iraqi pleas for air and other support as the Islamic State and its allies seized control of much of Anbar in January and then stormed through Ninewa, Salahaddin, and Diyala provinces beginning in June. Additionally, the Islamic State has consolidated its control of several provinces in Syria and entered into areas it lost there earlier this year.

President Obama had campaigned on withdrawing all US forces from Iraq by the end of his first term, and kept his campaign promise when he failed to negotiate a deal to keep US forces in country after December 2011. Obama referred to the Islamic State as the "jayvee team" in an interview with The New Yorker that was published in January of this year. Since then, the "jayvee team" has stormed throughout Iraq and Syria and has taken control of significant territory in both countries. This has forced Obama to reengage militarily in Iraq, even if only in the north.

US adds Islamic State, Al Nusrah Front leaders to list of global terrorists (09:13AM)

The US State Department today added two jihadists to its list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists; one is the spokesman for the Islamic State, and the other supports the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria.

State added Said Arif, an Algerian national who fled France in 2013 while under house arrest to join the Al Nusrah Front, and Abu Mohammed al Adnani, a Syrian who is the Islamic State's top propagandist.

Said Arif

Arif, whose real name is Omar Gharib, has been involved with al Qaeda and other jihadist movements since the early 1990s. He is wanted by both the French and Algerian governments.

"Arif is an Algerian army officer deserter, who travelled to Afghanistan in the 1990s, where he trained in al Qaeda camps with weapons and explosives," the State Department said in a press release announcing the designations. "Arif is a long-time terrorist who was a suspect in the al Qaeda December 2000 plot to bomb the Strasbourg Christmas market."

He is said to have traveled to Pakistan, the Panski Gorge in Georgia, and then Syria, where he worked with al Qaeda in Iraq emir Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Syrian security forces detained Arif and deported him to France in 2004.

French authorities prosecuted Arif and 25 other members of the "Chechen Network," a group of jihadists from France and North Africa who trained with Chechen rebels, in 2006.

"In 2002 the Chechen Network was accused of plotting to blow up the Eiffel Tower and conduct chemical attacks and attacks on malls and police stations in France," State said. Arif was convicted aiding terrorist groups and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

"Arif publicly declared that al Qaeda was planning to attack an American military base in Spain using chemical weapons," State said.

In 2012, he was placed under house arrest. In October 2013, Arif disregarded the house arrest and fled to Syria, where he returned to al Qaeda's fold and joined the Al Nusrah Front.

Abu Muhammed al Adnani

Adnani, a Syrian national, serves as the "official spokesman for and a senior leader of" the Islamic State, the successor to al Qaeda in Iraq that broke with the global terror group after declaring a caliphate in Iraq and Syria in late June.

Adnani is the Islamic State's "main conduit for the dissemination of official messages, including [the Islamic State's] declaration of the creation of an Islamic Caliphate." He announced the formation of the caliphate and the rebranding of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham as the Islamic State on June 29. [See LWJ report, ISIS announces formation of Caliphate, rebrands as 'Islamic State'.]

State described Adnani as "one of the first foreign fighters to oppose Coalition forces in Iraq before becoming [the Islamic State's] spokesman."

Adnani has released several controversial statements as the Islamic State and its predecessor's spokesman. In February 2012, he called for jihadists in Iraq to slaughter the Shia, just as Abu Musab al Zarqawi's forces did from 2005 to 2007. He also threatened to attack the United States.

In May 2014, Adnani railed against al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri and blamed him for the infighting between the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State. He also denied that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the Islamic State's emir, had sworn allegiance to Zawahiri. [Earlier this year, Zawahiri offered evidence that Baghdadi did indeed swear bayat]. Ironically, Adnani released a statement in 2011 praising Zawahiri after he succeeded Osama bin Laden.

Adnani's whereabouts are currently unknown. He is rumored to have been killed on July 24 after the Iraqi military launched an airstrike in Mosul that targeted a large gathering. His death has not been confirmed and the Islamic State has not released a martyrdom statement praising Adnani.

Designations follow UN blacklisting of six Al Nusrah and Islamic State operatives

The State Department's designations take place just days after the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2170, calling for "all United Nations Member States to act to suppress the flow of foreign fighters, financing and other support to Islamist extremist groups in Iraq and Syria." In addition, the Aug. 15 resolution demanded that "ISIL [Islamic State], Al Nusrah Front and all other entities associated with al Qaeda cease all violence and terrorist acts, and immediately disarm and disband."

The UN resolution also blacklisted six Al Nusrah and Islamic State operatives, including Arif and Adnani, and said they had been added to the UN Resolution 1267 al Qaeda Sanctions List.

The other four operatives blacklisted by the UN are, according to Reuters, Abdul Mohsen Abdallah Ibrahim al Charekh, a Saudi who serves as "a leading terrorist internet propagandist" and commander for the Al Nusrah Front in Latakia in Syria; Al Nusrah Front financiers Hamid Hamad Hamid al Ali and Hajjaj bin Fahd al Ajmi, who are both from Kuwait; and Abdelrahman Mouhamad Zafir al Dabidi al Jahani, a Saudi who "runs [the Al Nusrah Front's] foreign fighter networks."

Kuwait's UN envoy, Mansour Ayyad Al Otaibi, who expressed regret at the designation of the two Kuwaitis, assured that the blacklisting can be removed and will not be permanent. The UN designation notes that Kuwaiti designee Hamid Hamad Hamid al Al is associated with both the Islamic State and Al Nusrah. According to the Kuwait Times, al Ali "has collected large donations from Kuwait to support Nusrah Front in Syria, most notably for purchases of arms and equipment.. [and] also arranged travel for a number of foreign fighters to Syria."

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Quetta airbase attacks carried out by Pakistani Taliban, IMU (11:45AM)

A spokesman for the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan's branch in the tribal agency of Mohmand has claimed that the group executed the recent suicide assaults on two Pakistani airbases in Quetta in conjunction with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

The statement was issued by Ihsanullah Ihsan, spokesman for Omar Khalid Khorasani, the leader of the Taliban in Mohmand, and published on the Twitter feed of Omar Khorasani, the leader's "Personal Assistant." The full statement is republished at the end of this article.

"[A] martyrdom operation took place between the night of 14th August and 15th August, by 16 Martyrdom Operators of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (Jamaat-ul-Ahrar), Mehsud Division and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, attacked 2 airbases in Quetta," read the statement, which was released in English. "This attack started from 11:00 at night and carried on till early next morning. In the last news we received it was reported that 1 ammunition depot was destroyed, 2 jets were destroyed and around 35 security officials were killed."

The Taliban also said the group would "avenge the atrocities being carried out in Waziristan and upon the rest of the Pakistan people," referring to the ongoing military operation in North Waziristan that is targeting select jihadist groups, including the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Pakistani officials said that the coordinated suicide assaults on Pakistani Air Force Base Samungli, which hosts two squadrons of F-7 interceptor aircraft, and Khalid Army Aviation Base, were carried out by 14 jihadists, 11 of whom were killed and three were captured. The Pakistani military reported no casualties and said the suicide assault teams did not penetrate the perimeter of the base.

The attack on the Quetta airbases was initially claimed by a jihadist group known as the Fedayeen-i-Islam. [See LWJ report, Fedayeen-i-Islam claims suicide assaults on Pakistani airbases.]

Ihsan's statement does not contradict the Fedayeen-i-Islam's claim of responsibility for the attack, however. The Fedayeen-i-Islam is a mashup of jihadist groups that also includes elements from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

The IMU has conducted joint operations with the Taliban on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the past. The most recent joint attack in Pakistan took place on June 9, when the IMU and the Taliban launched a suicide attack on a terminal at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi that killed at least 18 Pakistanis, including 11 security personnel, and 10 jihadists.

In one of the more prominent attacks, IMU/al Qaeda leader Bekkay Harrach, who was also known as Al Hafidh Abu Talha al Almani, was killed while leading an assault on Bagram Airbase in May 2010. Harrach led a team of 20 fighters assembled from the ranks of al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, according to his martyrdom statement. Before his death, Harrach produced propaganda for al Qaeda in which he threatened to attack Germany.

The IMU has also claimed it executed the May 29, 2013 suicide assault on the governor's compound in Panjshir in concert with the Afghan Taliban.

Mohmand Taliban under command of able leader

Omar Khalid al Khorasani is a top leader in the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, and is considered one of its most effective and powerful commanders in the tribal areas. He maintains close ties to al Qaeda and is believed to have given sanctuary to Ayman al Zawahiri in the past.

Khalid is also allied with Qari Zia Rahman, the dual-hatted Taliban and al Qaeda leader who operates in Pakistan's tribal agencies of Mohmand and Bajaur as well as in Afghanistan's provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. For the past six years, Rahman has eluded US efforts to kill him. Rahman has established and runs suicide training camps used to indoctrinate and train female bombers. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda, Taliban create female suicide cells in Pakistan and Afghanistan]. In August 2011, Khalid claimed credit for a female suicide attack in Peshawar.

Khalid has been active in the Taliban's propaganda machine since the death of Osama bin Laden, and has been vocal in his support of al Qaeda. In mid-May 2011, Khalid vowed revenge on Pakistani and US forces for the death of Osama bin Laden, just two weeks after the Abbottabad raid that resulted in his death.

"We will take revenge of Osama's killing from the Pakistani government, its security forces, the Pakistani ISI, the CIA and the Americans, they are now on our hit list," Khalid said. "Osama bin Laden has given us the ideology of Islam and Jihad, by his death we are not scattered but it has given us more strength to continue his mission."

In early June 2011, Khalid said the Taliban have been behind the spate of attacks in Pakistan, and he again threatened the US.

"Our war against America is continuing inside and outside of Pakistan. When we launch attacks, it will prove that we can hit American targets outside Pakistan," Khalid said.

In the same interview, Khalid said that Ayman al Zawahiri is al Qaeda's "chief and supreme leader." He stated this more than one week before Zawahiri was officially declared emir of al Qaeda.

In March 2012, Khalid released a propaganda tape in which he said 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." [See LWJ report, Taliban commander wants Pakistan's nukes, global Islamic caliphate.]

Khalid initially gained prominence during the summer of 2007, when he took over a famous shrine in Mohmand and renamed it the Red Mosque in honor of the radical mosque in Islamabad whose followers had attempted to impose sharia in the capital.

The Mohmand Taliban took control of the tribal agency after the Pakistani government negotiated a peace agreement with the extremists at the end of May 2008. The deal required the Taliban to renounce attacks on the Pakistani government and security forces. The Taliban said they would maintain a ban on the activities of nongovernmental organizations in the region but agreed not to attack women in the workplace as long as they wore veils. Both sides exchanged prisoners.

The Taliban promptly established a parallel government in Mohmand. Sharia courts were formed, and orders were given for women to wear the veil in public. "Criminals" were rounded up and judged in sharia courts. Women were ordered to have a male escort at all times and were prevented from working on farms. The Taliban also kidnapped members of a polio vaccination team.

In July 2008, Khalid became the dominant Taliban commander in Mohmand after defeating the Shah Sahib group, a rival pro-Taliban terror group with ties to the Lashkar-e-Taiba. The Pakistani military claimed it killed Khalid in January of 2009, but the Taliban denied the report, and he has since surfaced.

The Pakistani government placed a $123,000 bounty on Khalid's head in 2009. But Pakistan has failed not only to arrest or kill Khalid, it has yet to capture or kill any of the terrorist leaders on that bounty list. The US succeeded in killing Baitullah Mehsud, who topped the list, in a drone strike in South Waziristan in August 2009, and Hakeemullah Mehsud, Baitullah's successor, in another strike in November 2013.

Omar Khorasani's tweet and Ihsanullah Ihsan's full statement:

AQAP seeks to capitalize on anti-Israeli sentiment in new English-language magazine (09:24AM)

Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 9.22.32 AM.png

Al Malahem Media, the official propaganda arm of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has released a new English-language magazine titled, "Palestine, betrayal of the guilty conscience." The slickly-produced publication was released online on Aug. 16 and, as a piece of propaganda, seeks to capitalize on anti-Israeli sentiment.

The magazine is similar to AQAP's Inspire magazine, which has encouraged jihadist recruits to carry out individual acts of terrorism. The authors of the 24-page production portray their message as being part of the same "school" of thought that has led to a long line of terrorist attacks against American and Israeli interests, including those planned by al Qaeda's senior leadership.

Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 9.16.15 AM.png

AQAP encourages jihadists to commit a new terrorist attack against American and Israeli interests, portraying the possible new attack as being consistent with a long line of other operations, including those planned by al Qaeda's senior leadership.

"The statements, views and strategies expressed herein are those in line with September 11, [the] Muhammad Merah Operation, the Brussels Museum Shooting and [the] Boston Bombings," the magazine reads. "This booklet is a collection of statements regarding this school plus a couple of ways to arm yourselves," it continues. "This work is prepared to help the reader find a way to support his Muslim brothers in Palestine and Gaza."

As in past AQAP publications, aspiring jihadists are given do-it-yourself instructions on how to build bombs. A section by the "AQ Chef" adapted from the first issue of Inspire shows how to build pressure cooker bombs like those used in the Apr. 15, 2013 Boston bombings. A photo glorifying the Tsarnaev brothers, the perpetrators of the attack, is included.

Another section, adapted from the 12th issue of Inspire, shows readers how to build a car bomb like the one used in the failed May 1, 2010 Times Square attack. That operation was carried out by Faisal Shahzad, who was trained by the Pakistani Taliban, and a photo of Shahzad accompanies the instructions.

AQAP provides a list of potential targets in the US and Britain where a car bomb could be deployed. The list includes specific locations such as Times Square, the Georgia Military College in Milledgeville, Georgia, the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the headquarters for General Atomics in San Diego, California. General Atomics is a defense contractor that develops unmanned aircraft systems and sensors, among other products.

Confronting the imagined Zionist-Crusader conspiracy

AQAP's newest online magazine features the writings of prominent al Qaeda leaders and operatives, both deceased and alive, including Osama bin Laden and Abu Yahya al Libi. A piece by Samir Khan, an American who helped produce Inspire magazine before he was killed in a US drone strike, is also included.

One page includes quotes from Nasir al Wuhayshi, the head of AQAP and general manager of al Qaeda's operations. Wuhayshi's words are excerpted from the AQAP film, "Here We Start, And At Al-Aqsa We Will Meet."

Wuhayshi says that demonstrations are not enough to counter the Zionist-Crusader alliance, a conspiratorial motif that is often included in al Qaeda's propaganda. "No, demonstrations must be followed by explosions, and civil disobedience by military rage, and we must cut aid to the Zio-Crusader and kill those of the Crusaders whom we find on our land, and destroy Western interests until Europe and America stop their support of the Jews and stop the killing there and order their agents, the treasonous rulers, to open the border-crossings to Gaza and Palestine," Wuhayshi says.

Another AQAP leader, Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari, also stresses the importance of confronting the imagined Zionist-Crusader conspiracy. Nadhari's statement first appeared in an audio message released earlier this year. The "cursed state of Jews is nothing without the American aid and support," Nadhari says. "The Jews and the Americans are sharing the same trench in fighting the Muslim ummah [community]. So it is incumbent upon all Muslims to fight this Zio-Crusader enemy who has allied against the Muslim ummah."

"The same way Muslims are obliged to fight and repel the Zionist Jews, they are obliged to fight America and their allies, the allies of the Jews in the killing of Muslims," Nadhari argues.

Nadhari is a prominent AQAP ideologue whose writings have also been featured in al Qaeda publications focusing on the jihad in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

US drone kills 3 AQAP fighters in eastern Yemen (12:17AM)

The US killed three suspected al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters in an airstrike in a province in eastern Yemen where the terror group has been battling the government for control. The strike is the second by the US in Yemen in the past week.

"The three armed men were traveling in a vehicle along a desert stretch between Yemen and Saudi Arabia's border [in Hadramout province] when the drone shot two rockets at them. All three are dead," a local Yemeni official told Reuters.

No senior AQAP leaders or operatives are reported to have been killed in the drone strike. AQAP has not released a statement concerning the strike.

Yemeni officials, including President Hadi, have said in the past that only the US possessed the ability to strike at a moving vehicle inside Yemen.

The ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, Hadramout province has become an AQAP bastion over the past several years. AQAP has regrouped in Hadramout and other provinces after losing control of major cities in Abyan and Shabwa to government forces starting in late spring 2012.

In May 2013, the Yemeni government claimed it foiled a plot by AQAP to establish an Islamic emirate in Hadramout's Ghayl Bawazir area. In July of this year, AQAP distributed leaflets in Seyoun that said the jihadist group is establishing an emirate in Hadramout and will impose sharia, or Islamic law. Heavy fighting between the military and the government has been reported there in the past several months as AQAP seeks to hoist its flag over the province.

Background on US strikes in Yemen

The US has launched 16 strikes in Yemen so far this year. Today's strike is the first since Aug. 7, when the US struck a compound in the Wadi Abida area of Marib. Three AQAP fighters were killed in that strike, which was the first recorded in Yemen in two months.

The US launched 14 drone strikes in Yemen between March 5 and June 14. The timing of the strikes coincided with a Yemeni military offensive to dislodge AQAP from strongholds in Abyan and Shabwa provinces.

The pace of the drone strikes in Yemen decreased last year from the previous year (26 in 2013, versus 41 in 2012). The reduction in the number of strikes coincided with a speech by President Barack Obama at the National Defense University in May 2013. The strikes are being reduced as the US government is facing increasing international criticism for conducting the attacks in both Yemen and Pakistan.

The number of strikes might have been much lower in 2013 were it not for an al Qaeda plot emanating from Yemen that was uncovered by US officials in late July. The scheme, which led the US to close down more than 20 embassies and diplomatic facilities across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, involved AQAP emir Nasir al Wuhayshi, who now also serves as al Qaeda's general manager.

Between July 27, 2013, after the plot was disclosed, and Aug. 10, 2013, the US launched nine strikes in Yemen; no drone strikes were reported for seven weeks prior to July 27. The burst in attacks was intended to disrupt AQAP's plan and take out its top leadership cadre and senior operatives. The US killed Kaid al Dhahab, AQAP's emir for Baydah province, during that time period.

AQAP and al Qaeda still seek to conduct attacks against the US. In a video released earlier this year that featured Nasir al Wuhayshi, the terrorist leader said America remains a target.

"O brothers, the Crusader enemy is still shuffling his papers, so we must remember that we are always fighting the biggest enemy, the leaders of disbelief, and we have to overthrow those leaders, we have to remove the Cross, and the carrier of the Cross is America," Wuhayshi said.

Wuhayshi made the statement in the open to a gathering of more than 100 people.

For more information on the US airstrikes in Yemen, see LWJ report, Charting the data for US airstrikes in Yemen, 2002 - 2014.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Taliban laud Afghan soldier who killed US general (03:51PM)

The Taliban have praised the Afghan soldier who turned his weapon on a group of senior-level Coalition officers on Aug. 5 and killed a US Army major general and wounded more than a dozen troops. The Taliban described the insider, or green-on-blue attack, as "a heroic act" and called on other Afghan security personnel "to take advantage of their positions and their important functions in contributing in jihad against the disbelievers."

The statement was released on Aug. 13 in Arabic on Voice of Jihad, the official website of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," the name the Taliban used while ruling the country up until the US invasion after the 9/11 attack. The statement was obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

The Taliban said that Rafiqullah, the Afghan soldier who killed Major General Harold Greene, deputy commanding general of Combined Security Transition Command - Afghanistan, was a "martyr." Also wounded in the Aug. 5 attack at the Marshal Fahim National Defense University in Kabul was a German brigadier general, two Afghan generals, an Afghan officer, and eight American and two British soldiers.

"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan considers this attack a heroic act on the part of the martyred soldier, and a memorable pride for him, his family, and all the Afghan people."

The Taliban also encouraged other Afghan security personnel to turn on Coalition forces.

"We tell the rest of the soldiers, police, and security men in the Kabul administration to follow the footsteps of these heroes, and to take advantage of their positions and their important functions in contributing in jihad against the disbelievers," the statement concluded.

The Taliban did not claim credit for the attack, but praised it nonetheless, as the group seeks to encourage other members of the security forces to kill foreign forces and then defect if they survive.

Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban, addressed the issue of green-on-blue attacks in a statement released in August 2012. In that statement, Omar claimed that the Taliban "cleverly infiltrated in the ranks of the enemy according to the plan given to them last year." He urged government officials and security personnel to defect and join the Taliban as a matter of religious duty, and then warned that "the day is not far away that the invading enemy will flee Afghanistan."

Omar also noted in 2012 that the Taliban have created the "Call and Guidance, Luring and Integration" department, "with branches ... now operational all over the country," to encourage defections. [See Threat Matrix report, Mullah Omar addresses green-on-blue attacks.]

The attack that killed Greene is the third reported green-on-blue attack in Afghanistan so far this year, and the sixth to have taken place in Kabul since January 2007, according to The Long War Journal's statistics.

The number of reported attacks on Coalition personnel in Afghanistan has dropped steeply since a high of 44 in 2012. Last year there were 13 such attacks. [For in-depth information, see LWJ special report, Green-on-blue attacks in Afghanistan: the data.] The decline in attacks is due to several factors, including the continuing drawdown of Coalition personnel, reduced partnering with Afghan forces, and the adoption of heightened security measures in interactions between Coalition and Afghan forces.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Fedayeen-i-Islam claims suicide assaults on Pakistani airbases (09:25AM)

The Fedayeen-i-Islam claimed credit for yesterday's failed suicide assaults on two Pakistani airbases in Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan.

The two Fedayeen-i-Islam suicide assault teams targeted Pakistani Air Force Base Samungli, which hosts two squadrons of F-7 interceptor aircraft, and Khalid Army Aviation Base, which is also known as Quetta Airfield, in a coordinated attack. Two teams of heavily armed fighters attempted to breach the perimeter of the bases but were repelled by security forces, according to reports.

Eight fighters attacked Samungli and six more attacked Khalid. According to the Inter-Services Public Relations, the public affairs branch of the Pakistani military, "5 Terrorists were killed outside PAF Base Smungli [sic] and 3 were apprehended," and "6 Terrorists were killed outside Khalid Army Aviation Base Quetta." The ISPR said that "a]ll PAF [Pakistani Air Force] and Army Aviation assets remained safe.

Pakistani officials claimed that all of the attackers appeared to be "foreign," or non-Pakistanis. Balochistan's home minister told Dawn that "[a]ll dead terrorists seem to be Uzbeks."

Jihadist groups on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border have viewed air bases and airports as significant targets. Two of the more prominent attacks over the past several years include the Afghan Taliban's assault on Camp Bastion in Helmand in September 2012 (two US Marines were killed, and six Harriers were destroyed and two more were damaged); and the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan's attack on Pakistani Naval Station Mehran in Karachi in May 2011 (10 Pakistani troops were killed, and two US-made P-3C Orion maritime surveillance planes were destroyed and another was damaged).

The last major attack on an airport in Pakistan took place on June 9, when 10 members of a suicide assault team struck Jinnah Airport in Karachi. All 10 attackers and other 18 people, including 11 security guards and four airport workers, were killed during the fighting. The airport was shut down for 12 hours as the fighting took place. Both the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan claimed the attack. The two groups have launched joint assaults in the past in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. [See LWJ report, IMU involved in suicide assault on Karachi airport.]

Fedayeen-i-Islam led by top terrorists in Pakistan

The Fedayeen-i-Islam is a subgroup of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, one of several Taliban groups operating in Pakistan. The Fedayeen-e-Islam is an alliance between the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, the anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and Jaish-e-Mohammed. The group is currently led by Ghalib Mehsud, a commander who was thought to be in the running to replace Hakeemullah Mehsud, the former emir of the movement of the Taliban in Pakistan who was killed in a US drone strike last year.

The Fedayeen-e-Islam's previous emir was Qari Hussain Mehsud, the notorious Taliban commander who trains child suicide bombers; his nickname was Ustad-i-Fedayeen, or the teacher of suicide bombers. He was involved in the May 2010 Times Square bombing plot as well as the December 2009 suicide attack against the CIA at Combat Outpost Chapman in Khost province, Afghanistan. [For more information, see LWJ report, Taliban eulogize Qari Hussain, chief of suicide and international operations.]

Other former leaders of the Fedayeen-e-Islam include Asmatullah Moaviya, the leader of the Punjabi Taliban who also serves as an al Qaeda "company" commander in Pakistan's tribal areas; and Qari Mohammad Zafar, the Lashkar-e-Janghvi commander who was wanted by the US government for his involvement in the Karachi Consulate bombing in 2006 and was killed in a US drone strike in February 2010.

The Fedayeen-e-Islam has been behind several major suicide attacks in Pakistan, including coordinated suicide attacks in Lahore and Karachi in March 2011 that killed 16 Pakistanis, and a suicide assault on a police training center in Lahore in March 2009.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Muslim Scholars Committee and the Lebanese tinderbox (12:33AM)

Last month, Syrian government forces near Qalamoun and Lebanese forces near Arsal had essentially cornered a large number of Islamist fighters in the area. Tensions erupted in Lebanon in early August, when fighting broke out around the Arsal between the Islamists and the Lebanese Army. Before long, a delegation of Salafist clerics from Lebanon's Muslim Scholars Committee appeared on the scene to mediate a ceasefire.

The fighting was allegedly triggered by the Aug. 2 arrest of Imad Ahmad Jomaa, an Al Nusrah Front commander who had recently sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. On Aug. 4, following three days of clashes with Islamist militants around Arsal, the Lebanese army said 14 soldiers had been killed, 86 wounded, and 22 were missing; at least 50 civilians and some 50 militants were also said to have been killed, including Abu Hasan al Homsi, an Islamic State commander. The government vowed to protect Arsal, demanding the militants' withdrawal and refusing to cut a deal.

But soon a delegation from the Muslim Scholars Committee (MSC) traveled to Arsal to negotiate a truce; the government sought the release of 22 soldiers and 21 policemen kidnapped by the militants, and the Islamists wanted the release of Jomaa, who commands brigades affiliated with the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State.

Sheikh Salem al Rafehi, the imam of Tripoli's the Al-Taqwa Mosque and a member of the MSC tasked with negotiating the ceasefire, was wounded when the committee's convoy was reportedly attacked by gunmen on the night of Aug. 4 . Naharnet News reported that the "[t]he three-member Muslim Scholars Committee delegation" had arrived in Arsal after coming under fire; al Rafehi was said to have received a foot injury and the other two, Sheikhs Nabil al Halabi and Jalal Kalash, had received only minor wounds. Muslim Scholars Committee member Sheikh Ihab al Banna said the delegation was "seeking to reach a permanent ceasefire in the area."

On Aug. 6, a ceasefire had been reached; Abou Talal, the deputy of Imad Jomaa, was involved in negotiations. Al Nusrah Front and Islamic State fighters began withdrawing from Arsal, after releasing six kidnapped Lebanese security forces; but the militants still held 17 ISF personnel and 10 soldiers, according to the MSC. Although thousands of refugees had fled the fighting, some 32,000 Lebanese and 50,000 Syrians remained in Arsal.

The truce reportedly allowed most of the roughly 2,000 Islamist fighters to leave the town; a large convoy of Syrian refugees also left. Al Nusrah said that the security forces it was still holding have a "special status."

On Aug. 7, Sheikh Muhieddine Nisbeh, a member of the MSC negotiating party, claimed that the militants with the hostages had "exited Arsal into some mountainous area" and that the committee had lost contact with them.

Sheikh Adnan Amama, another MSC member, said on Aug. 8 that the militants were seeking assurance that the large Syrian refugee camps in Arsal remain "safe," among other demands. The ceasefire allowed the Army to deploy in Arsal on Aug. 8 after the bulk of some 2,000 militants, mainly from the Al Nusrah Front but also including Islamic State fighters, had begun withdrawing on Aug. 6. Residents began returning to Arsal on Aug. 8, and security was stepped up in the town.

Reports said that the Al Nusrah Front militants had left town and the Islamic State militants had crossed over into Syria. The militants were said to be holding at least 35 Lebanese security forces captive, divided between Al Nusrah and IS. MSC member Sheikh Samih Ezzedine confirmed that the hostages had been divided among several militant groups. The militants were said to be demanding the release of 20 Islamist prisoners, including Imad Ahmad Jomaa.

On Aug. 10, MSC member Sheikh Younis Abdel Razzak reportedly claimed that negotiations for the release of some 35 kidnapped Lebanese security forces were progressing, but that his committee is not dealing directly with the kidnappers.

[This video clip of Lebanon's Muslim Scholars Committee appears to show at least 10 men.]

Reactions to the Muslim Scholars Committee's negotiating role

On Aug. 8, a video clip on Monitor Mideast showed former Lebanese minister Wiam Wihab walking out of a telephone interview on Al-Jadeed TV with a cleric from the MSC, which is described as "Saudi-backed." According to the report:

The cleric, identified as Amin Raad, sought to dismiss claims that the MSC is pro-terrorist and pro-ISIS. The Scholars Committee of Lebanon has been under fire lately due to their Saudi backing. During a deal last week brokered by Saudi Arabia, the Grand Mufti of the Committee was ultimately selected after a long-standing feud among various clergymen.

Last week, a number of Saudi-backed Sunni clerics were dispatched to Arsal, Lebanon during clashes between the Lebanese Army (LAF) and ISIS. They sought to mediate between the two sides over a possible ceasefire. However, Saudi Arabia is often accused as a key sponsor of ISIS by various Lebanese political factions. Among them, Wiam Wahhab remains an outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia's government and its role in Lebanon.

The Daily Star also covered the incident, noting that after walking out, Wahhab later accused the MSC of having links to Hassan Qatorji, whose deputy is Abu Omar al Homsi, a detained Al Nusrah commander, and charged that the MSC had allowed the kidnapped security personnel to be smuggled out.

Interestingly, the Muslim Scholars Committee's negotiations were commended by the Syrian National Coalition, in an official statement on Aug. 8, which said, in part:

Hadi Al Bahra, president of the Syrian Coalition, hails efforts made to defuse the crisis in Arsal, home to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. A 24-hour truce was put into effect early on the morning of today, allowing the withdrawal of the militant groups into Syria and the entry of the Red Cross team to evacuate the wounded and deliver relief aid to the town. The truce was brokered through a committee of the residents of Arsal, the Muslim Scholars Association and the Red Cross, who will guarantee that no armed forces will enter the town, and that the Lebanese armed forces are the only side whose task will be restoring security and stability. ... Moreover, we have reached out to the Association of Muslim Scholars, which formed a committee entrusted with reaching a solution that guarantees the safety of Syrian refugees and Lebanese civilians. The committee included several organizations, including life humanitarian organizations, Syrian activists and representatives the revolutionary movement. The committee worked relentlessly on defusing the crisis, and they even risked their lives while trying to enter the besieged the town. Some of its members were injured when their vehicles came under fire on its way to the town."

Islamic scholar organizations in Lebanon, Iraq

The Muslim Scholars Committee in Lebanon is headed by Salafist cleric Sheikh Adnan Amama, a member of the Arsal negotiating delegation who has run a school and mosque in the village of Majdal Anjar in the Bekaa Valley. In late January, Amama expressed displeasure that a delegation from his organization was not allowed to visit detained Sunni cleric Sheikh Omar al Atrash, who had been arrested on suspicion of involvement in car bombings in Beirut as well as funneling Arab suicide bombers to the Al Nusrah Front in Syria.

In late June, Sheikh Nabil Rahim, another member of the MSC negotiating committee in Arsal, protested what his organization saw as the Lebanese government's harshness towards Lebanese Islamist fighters in Syria compared to its treatment of Hezbollah members who crossed over the border to fight.

In late July, the Muslim Scholars Committee called for protests in support of Sunni militants imprisoned in Tripoli, including Sheikh Hussam al Sabbagh, who was arrested on July 20 and has previously been accused of heading al Qaeda in Tripoli. One of the speakers at the demonstrations was Sheikh Mustafa Alloush, Tripoli head of of Jamaa al-Islamiya.

Lebanon's Muslim Scholars Committee is most likely linked to other similar organizations in various countries, including Iraq's Association of Muslim Scholars (AMSI) and the International Association of Muslim Scholars.

The Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq is headed by Harith al Dari, who was added to the US and UN's list of global terrorists in 2010 for his support of al Qaeda in Iraq. In the designation, Treasury stated that al Dari "provides financial, material, or technological support and financial or other services to or in support of AQI including operational guidance for attacks against Iraqi Forces and Coalition Forces in Iraq." Two years earlier, in September 2008, he was designated by Treasury for fueling violence in Iraq. He had previously called al Qaeda in Iraq's front group, the Mujahideen Shura Council, "part of the legitimate resistance."

Two months ago, Al Dari's pro-Sunni, anti-government, "pro-resistance" Rafidayn TV channel was shut down by the Iraqi government, on June 18, according to the BBC. The day before, the BBC ran an article noting that Rafidayn's reporting was describing the Sunni militants in Iraq as "tribal revolutionaries" without mentioning ISIS, and that it highlighted losses inflicted on government troops, and called the conflict "Maliki's war against the people."

In July, another BBC report noted, however, that Iraq's Association of Muslim Scholars, "which gives political guidance to the non-ISIS rebels," criticized the Islamic State for announcing its caliphate, and that AMSI had said: "''Those who announced [the calipate] did not consult the sons of Iraq, or their leaders .... It is not in the interest of Iraq and its unity now, and will be taken as an excuse to partition the country and harm the people. The prerequisites for success need to be prepared - failure will rebound on everybody. None of this has been done, so the oath of allegiance and this situation are not binding on anyone.'"

On Aug. 9, AMSI "severely denounced" the US recent airstrikes in Iraq as a "dangerous development" and omitted any mention that the strikes were targeting the Islamic State. According to a translation of AMSI's statement by the SITE Intelligence Group, the organization concluded its message by blaming Iraq's current chaos on the "American occupation."

Back in late 2007, Iraq's Association of Muslim Scholars disparaged the "declaration of principles" reached by US and Iraqi leaders for enduring military, political, and economic ties after the UN mandate on foreign troops in Iraq expired. AMSI said the Iraqi signatories would be considered "collaborators with the occupier."

There is also an International Association of Muslim Scholars. In October 2008, Hamas official and International Association of Muslim Scholars spokesman Marwan Abu Ras defended the decision of a Palestinian woman to become a suicide bomber for Islamic Jihad, saying that although "'Islam prohibits you from harming yourself ... now we are fighting a war of resistance. If one nation violates another nation's land, it is the obligation of everyone - men, women, and children - to fight back.'"

Another member of the international association, influential Saudi cleric Sheikh Salman al-Awda, said in September 2009 that although praying for the destruction of the unbelievers runs against sharia law generally, it is permissible if they are harming Muslim interests.

The outlook

The Association of Muslim Scholars in Lebanon appears to contain members who are sympathetic to the Islamic State, as well as others who are not. A June 24 article in Al Monitor profiled several members of Lebanon's Salafist community, including Sheikh Malek Jadida, president of the Lebanese organization, who said the practices of ISIS "'have nothing to do with Islam.'"

But the Lebanese group's former president, Salem al Rafehi, who is currently a member of the MSC's negotiating committee in Arsal, claimed: "So Iraq is witnessing a revolution of the Sunnis, and of course there is a role for the ISIS organization. But it is not the major force in what is happening compared with the role of the tribes, the rebels and the other participants. The media, however, is focusing on this organization to eliminate everybody's role and to portray Iraq's Sunnis as extremists and terrorists. And this is part of the great conspiracy against the Sunnis in the Arab region as a whole."

A recent article by Jean Aziz in Al Monitor observes that the ceasefire in Arsal mediated by the Salafist sheikhs' committee, which has left the fate of 39 Lebanese security forces to their Islamist captors and allowed hundreds of Islamist fighters to escape to the hillsides around Arsal, merely marks the end of "the first round of a longer war."

Lebanese army chief General Jean Kahwagi disclosed on Aug. 11 that the Islamic State had planned to use Arsal as a base for attacks Shiite villages, igniting sectarian war and bringing the strife of Iraq to Lebanon, and warned that the terror group presents a "great threat" to his country.

The MSC negotiating committee has now handed the Lebanese government a video showing seven of the captive Lebanese soldiers. Radio reports say that the Islamic State is holding seven captive soldiers and that Al Nusrah is holding nine. Sheikh Amama of the MSC is describing the negotiations as "tough."

Who knows what further concessions the negotiators will seek to extract for their Islamist clients. Indeed, it is unlikely that any deals with the Islamic State will serve to protect Lebanon from its relentless drive.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Islamic State advances against jihadist foes in Aleppo (10:17AM)

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 took control of five towns and villages in northern Aleppo province in Syria after heavy fighting against the Al Nusrah Front for the people of the Levant and other "Islamist battalions."

Islamic State fighters seized Turkman Bareh, Akhtarin, Dabiq, al Masoudia, and al Ghouz, five towns and villages just west of the town of Marea, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported today on its Facebook page.

The towns and villages fell to the Islamic State "after violent clashes with Islamic battalions in the area," the Observatory noted. "Jabhat al Nusrah [Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria] and many Islamic battalions have pulled back from the area." The Observatory often uses the term "Islamic battalions" to describe the Islamic Front, an alliance of jihadist groups that fights alongside the Al Nusrah Front.

"The clashes led to death of many fighters from both sides in addition to capturing many Islamic fighters" by the Islamic State. Fighting is said to be continuing in the village of Arshaf. An Islamist unit known as the Dawoud brigade, "which pledged allegiance to [the Islamic State] was involved directly in the clashes," and fought alongside the Islamic State, the Observatory reported.

The Islamic State's gains directly threaten the hold of Al Nusrah and the Islamic Front on northern Aleppo, a major stronghold for the two groups. According to the Observatory, "Akhtarin is a strategic town because it opens the way for ISIS[ the Islamic State] into Marea town, which is the most important town of the Islamic battalions and Azaz city."

Azaz was controlled by the Islamic State until the group withdrew from the city in February. The Islamic State withdrew from Azaz, the border crossing to the north, Minnigh airbase, and several villages in Aleppo to reinforce Raqqah, the group's de facto capital in Syria, after fighting against the Al Nusrah Front and its allies heated up.

Islamic State gains on all fronts in Syria and Iraq

Today's victory in Aleppo is the latest in a string of successes by the jihadist group on both sides of the border between Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State quickly regrouped from initial losses in Syria after its dispute with Al Nusrah and other Syrian jihadist and rebel groups devolved into open warfare at the beginning of the year.

In January, the Islamic State went on the offensive in Anbar province in western Iraq, and took control of Fallujah with the help of local allies. The Islamic State is now in control of most of Anbar's cities and towns.

The Islamic State also took control of areas in northern Babil province, which is just south of Baghdad, in March. In June, the Islamic State and its allies in Iraq launched a massive offensive that led to the fall of much of Ninewa province, including Mosul, the provincial capital and Iraq's second-largest city, as well as Salahaddin and Diyala provinces. Iraqi forces were either defeated in open battle or fled the field, leaving behind large quantities of weapons, including armored vehicles and artillery, and ammunition. Iraqi forces halted the Islamic State's southward advance at Samarra, but have been unable to regain lost ground.

At the same time the Islamic State advanced in northern Iraq, the group took control of most of Deir al Zour province in Syria. The Islamic State defeated the Al Nusrah Front and its allies in the city of Deir al Zour, in the border town of Albu Kamal, and in a series of cities and towns in between along the Euphrates River. While tribal resistance to the Islamic State has appeared in Deir al Zour, the Islamic State has responded by beheading and crucifying its enemies as part of an intimidation campaign to break the will of resistance forces and warn others not to oppose it. The Islamic State also consolidated gains in Hasakah and advanced into Homs province.

Just last week, the Islamic State advanced further into Ninewa and ejected Kurdish forces from the city of Sinjar, the Mosul Dam, and a series of towns and villages north and east of Mosul. The jihadist group's threat to ethnic Yazidis who fled Sinjar as well as its advance on Irbil, the capital of Kurdistan, forced the US to intervene with airstrikes.

In a recent press briefing, Lieutenant General Bill Mayville, the Director of Operations for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the Islamic State as a capable and dangerous force that has the ability to advance on several fronts in both Iraq and Syria.

"They're very well-organized. They are very well-equipped. They coordinate their operations. And they have thus far shown the ability to attack on multiple axes. This is not insignificant," Mayville said.