Christoph Reuter reports: Aloof. Polite. Cajoling. Extremely attentive. Restrained. Dishonest. Inscrutable. Malicious. The rebels from northern Syria, remembering encounters with him months later, recall completely different facets of the man. But they agree on one thing: “We never knew exactly who we were sitting across from.”
In fact, not even those who shot and killed him after a brief firefight in the town of Tal Rifaat on a January morning in 2014 knew the true identity of the tall man in his late fifties. They were unaware that they had killed the strategic head of the group calling itself “Islamic State” (IS). The fact that this could have happened at all was the result of a rare but fatal miscalculation by the brilliant planner. The local rebels placed the body into a refrigerator, in which they intended to bury him. Only later, when they realized how important the man was, did they lift his body out again.
Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi was the real name of the Iraqi, whose bony features were softened by a white beard. But no one knew him by that name. Even his best-known pseudonym, Haji Bakr, wasn’t widely known. But that was precisely part of the plan. The former colonel in the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein’s air defense force had been secretly pulling the strings at IS for years. Former members of the group had repeatedly mentioned him as one of its leading figures. Still, it was never clear what exactly his role was.
But when the architect of the Islamic State died, he left something behind that he had intended to keep strictly confidential: the blueprint for this state. It is a folder full of handwritten organizational charts, lists and schedules, which describe how a country can be gradually subjugated. SPIEGEL has gained exclusive access to the 31 pages, some consisting of several pages pasted together. They reveal a multilayered composition and directives for action, some already tested and others newly devised for the anarchical situation in Syria’s rebel-held territories. In a sense, the documents are the source code of the most successful terrorist army in recent history. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: An Iraqi provincial governor said Friday that militiamen had killed Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the highest-ranking official from Saddam Hussein’s government who was still on the loose, in clashes in a mountainous region of northern Iraq.
News of Mr. Douri’s death has been announced several times by different authorities over the years, and officials cautioned that confirmation would not come until DNA testing had been conducted.
The announcement was made by the governor of Salahuddin Province. Its capital is Tikrit, Mr. Hussein’s hometown, which was recently liberated from the Islamic State. A representative for one of the militias involved in the fighting on Friday, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, said a body that fighters believed was Mr. Douri’s was on its way to Baghdad on Friday evening for DNA testing. [Continue reading…]
Human Rights Watch: The extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has carried out systematic rape and other sexual violence against Yezidi women and girls in northern Iraq. Human Rights Watch conducted research in the town of Dohuk in January and February 2015, including interviewing 20 women and girls who escaped from ISIS, and reviewing ISIS statements about the subject.
Human Rights Watch documented a system of organized rape and sexual assault, sexual slavery, and forced marriage by ISIS forces. Such acts are war crimes and may be crimes against humanity. Many of the women and girls remain missing, but the survivors now in Iraqi Kurdistan need psychosocial support and other assistance.
“ISIS forces have committed organized rape, sexual assault, and other horrific crimes against Yezidi women and girls,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Those fortunate enough to have escaped need to be treated for the unimaginable trauma they endured.”
Pentagon: Ramadi isn’t about to fall to ISIS, but if it does, it’s not a big deal (unless you live in Ramadi)
The Wall Street Journal reports: U.S. defense officials said a provincial capital in Iraq could soon fall to Islamic State, while America’s top military officer sought to minimize the strategic importance of the city.
At a Pentagon news conference, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that maintaining control of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, isn’t central to the U.S. and Iraqi aims of defeating Islamic State forces.
“The city itself is not symbolic in any way,” Gen. Dempsey said. “It’s not been declared part of the caliphate on one hand, or central to the future of Iraq.”
Earlier this week, Pentagon officials minimized the possibility that Ramadi was going to fall. But U.S. officials have monitored large numbers of civilians fleeing from the city, a sign that residents fear an imminent takeover.
Islamic State fighters have taken over a number of villages surrounding Ramadi, destroyed bridges and other infrastructure and reversed recent gains by Iraqi Security forces, defense officials said Thursday.
The U.S. has been stepping up strikes around Ramadi, but those have been insufficient to blunt the advance of Islamic State fighters.
Officials compared the city with Kobani, a Syrian city that was on the brink of being taken over before Kurdish fighters, aided by U.S. airstrikes, retook it. [Continue reading…]
Which is to say, Ramadi is like Kobane, minus the Kurdish fighters.
Mary Anne Weaver writes: He was a dreamer, with Che Guevara looks — a jet-black beard and eyes — who built a new persona online, as a Muslim warrior riding into battle in the back of an open-bed truck, dressed in black, his long hair blowing in the breeze, with an AK-47 hanging from his shoulder, strapped to his back. He had just turned 22 — the product of British private schools, a computer aficionado working in customer service at Sky News — when he decided to turn his dream into reality.
In May 2013, Ifthekar Jaman left his comfortable home in Portsmouth, England, explaining to his parents, who emigrated years earlier from Bangladesh, that he wanted to learn Arabic in the Middle East. Instead, he booked a one-way ticket to Turkey. The next time his parents, Enu and Hena, heard from him, he had crossed the Turkish border into Syria and joined the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham — also known as ISIS or ISIL — the most brutal, and now the most powerful, of a dozen or so militant Sunni Islamist groups arrayed against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his equally brutal Alawite government.
Ifthekar was part of the first wave of foreign fighters, whose motives were primarily humanitarian. Everyone — not just Muslims — was outraged by the atrocities of the Assad regime. Both the U.S. and the British governments were calling for Assad to step down. So were France, and Turkey, and a number of nations in the Middle East.
The foreign fighters were arriving by the hundreds to join one of the various rebel groups challenging Assad’s military-backed dictatorship. Many were as naïve and inexperienced as Ifthekar was. Some recruits were fervent believers; others showed scant knowledge of Islam. Ifthekar was pious, though not doctrinaire. He embraced his Bengali traditions, but he appeared well integrated into British life and was popular among his classmates and his non-Muslim friends. As a boy, he spent hours immersed in the tales of “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings.” As a teenager, he played the guitar and was a member of the Portsmouth Dawah Team, which, on weekends, distributed free copies of the Quran. He had a cat, Bilai, that he adored and that, on occasion, would follow him to dawn prayers at the Portsmouth Jami mosque.
Dressed, as he’d planned, all in black, a long, Salafist beard framing his face, a black prayer cap on his head, Ifthekar set out for Syria alone — there were no established routes or support networks then, as there are now — following the dusty road from the Turkish border town Reyhanli to the Bab al-Hawa crossing into Syria. He was intent on joining Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, which was the pre-eminent Islamist group in the early stages of the anti-Assad campaign. The only problem was, he didn’t know how.
A chance encounter with a bearded man would provide the key: As he boarded a bus near the Turkish border, Ifthekar, still lacking any plan, quickly scanned the faces of his companions. “Turkey is a pretty secular country,” he would later explain, “and I only spotted one man with a beard.” Ifthekar approached the man and, as the bus careered down the road, offered him a small bottle of attar, an alcohol-free musk oil popular with Muslims. The two began to talk. The bearded man, a Syrian from Aleppo, asked Ifthekar if he was en route to Syria to do jihad. Ifthekar responded that he was. When the bus stopped on the other side of the border, the bearded man drove him, in his waiting car, to the recruitment office of Jabhat — also known as the Nusra Front.
Ifthekar was devastated when the group turned him down. He didn’t have the required letters of recommendation.
“I got teary,” he later recalled. “This is what I’d come for!” He pleaded with the Tunisian jihadist manning the recruitment desk, even offering to be held prisoner by the Nusra Front while it did a background check on him. It was all to no avail. Finally the Tunisian offered to help him join another Islamist group, Ahrar al-Sham. Ifthekar refused. He knew that Ahrar permitted smoking, of which he most strenuously disapproved.
And so it was that Ifthekar, after being vetted for a fortnight by the group, joined ISIS.
His major complaint — which echoed the complaints of many of the foreigners who had come to these battlefields — was that of boredom. Weeks turned into months, and he and many of his fellow fighters had yet to wage jihad. Many manned roadblocks or checkpoints; others performed menial tasks. Ifthekar, whose father owned a takeout restaurant, had traveled to Syria, at considerable risk, to be drafted as a chef.
Then, in December 2013, seven months after he arrived, Ifthekar was finally sent into battle in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.
He was killed almost immediately. [Continue reading…]
Nancy A. Youssef reports: ISIS is reportedly marching on key Iraqi city of Ramadi—upending the momentum that the U.S.-led military coalition seemed to have just days ago, and threatening to shatter an already delicate recent power shift that both the U.S. and Iraq hoped to exploit.
Until Wednesday’s reports about Ramadi both U.S. and Iraqi officials were examining what effects ISIS’ recent losses could have in future battles. The officials were even talking about where they would take down ISIS next. During his visit to Washington, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi suggested in an interview Wednesday with reporters that his troops could move on both Anbar province—where Ramadi in the local capital—and the oil-rich city of Baiji.
But that was before, according to residents, three cities near Ramadi fell into ISIS hands. Hours later, area security forces reportedly asked for more support from the central government to retain control of the city. Pentagon officials stopped short of saying the city was on the brink of falling. But they didn’t sound confident it would hold, either. [Continue reading…]
The Daily Beast reports: Bombs and shells from all sides continue to rain down on Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, as residents say the so-called Islamic States is taking ever-greater control. The jihadist assault that started April 1 has left residents trapped amid the rubble without medical aid or food while street fighting and heavy shelling by ISIS has overwhelmed Palestinian and Free Syrian Army forces trying to protect the camp. And to make matters works, the Syrian regime has been dropping barrel bombs and intensifying its own artillery barrages, raising fears it will invade with ground forces.
“It’s an absolute horror and I’m terrified,” says 27-year-old Tarek over Skype from near ISIS’s front lines. He is a longtime camp resident who became an activist in 2011 with the anti-regime protest movement. A human-rights organization put The Daily Beast in contact with him and he asked to be quoted only by a pseudonym for obvious security reasons.
Tarek worries that a regime ground invasion could trigger wide-scale massacres committed by the troops of President Bashar al Assad along with jihadist reprisal killings. He describes a situation of chaos in a camp — really a densely populated urban neighborhood — that has been increasingly crippled by the regime’s siege and bombardment since Free Syrian Army forces and Palestinian rebels rose up in December 2012.
“The streets are abandoned and filled with rubble as people hide in their homes,” Tarek says. Many residents have run out of food and water. There are desperate scenes as some of those come out to scour the area under sniper fire and shelling and look for wells. [Continue reading…]
Arash Karami writes: When the fighters of the Islamic State (IS) took over large parts of western Iraq in the summer of 2014, Iran did not hesitate to assist both Iraqi and Kurdish forces in pushing back against the advance of the terrorist group. Iran’s geopolitical decision was also accompanied by what seemed an unofficial media decision: to promote the status of Quds Force Cmdr. Qasem Soleimani in the fight against IS.
Pictures of Soleimani at the front line among Iraqi forces surfaced on social media overnight. The various Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages dedicated to Soleimani had begun to act as his unofficial media arm, and his popularity has soared online. Often he could be seen looking at the camera, making no attempt to conceal that Iran had sent its commander in charge of regional policy to Iraq.
But now it seems that Soleimani has had enough. In an April 11 open letter to an Iranian filmmaker requesting that he cease producing a film about him, Soleimani also denied some of the things said about him on social media and asked officials to control the rumors. [Continue reading…]
Ramzy Baroud writes: Members of my family in Syria’s Yarmouk went missing many months ago. We have no idea who is dead and who is alive. Unlike my other uncle and his children in Libya, who fled the NATO war and turned up alive but hiding in some desert a few months later, my uncle’s family in Syria disappeared completely as if ingested by a black hole, to a whole different dimension.
I chose the “black hole” analogy, as opposed to the one used by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon – “the deepest circle of hell” – which he recently uttered in reference to the plight of Palestinians in Yarmouk following the advances made by the notorious Islamic State (IS) militias in early April. If there is any justice in the hereafter, no Palestinian refugee – even those who failed to pray five times a day or go to church every Sunday – deserves to be in any “circle of hell”, deep or shallow. The suffering they have endured in this world since the founding of Israel atop their towns and villages in Palestine some 66 years ago is enough to redeem their collective sins, past and present.
For now, however, justice remains elusive. The refugees of Yarmouk – whose population once exceeded 250,000, dwindling throughout the Syrian civil war to 18,000 – is a microcosm of the story of a whole nation, whose perpetual pain shames us all, none excluded.
Palestinian refugees (some displaced several times) who escaped the Syrian war to Lebanon, Jordan or are displaced within Syria itself, are experiencing the cruel reality under the harsh and inhospitable terrains of war and Arab regimes. Many of those who remained in Yarmouk were torn to shreds by the barrel bombs of the Syrian army, or victimised – and now beheaded – by the malicious, violent groupings that control the camp, including the al-Nusra Front, and as of late, IS. [Continue reading…]
Channel 4 News: An activist inside Yarmouk camp in Damascus tells Channel 4 News that Islamic State militants have largely withdrawn from the centre of the camp and handed control to other jihadis.
They are still fighting Aknaf Beit al Maqdis, a local militia allied to Hamas, on the outskirts of Yarmouk.
“Today there are no more IS militants inside Yarmouk,” said “Mustafa Ahmed”, who uses a pseudonym to disguise his identity. “Most of the militants are at the frontline between IS and the Aknaf brigades in the south eastern part near the hospital.”
Last Wednesday night Syrian government aircraft dropped barrel bombs on the Palestine Hospital, the only functioning healthcare facility in Yarmouk, after IS militants started to use it as a base.
USA Today: Iraqi forces have pushed the Islamic State out of about 25% of the territory seized during the militants’ lightning advance last year, according to a Pentagon assessment released Monday.
The area represents 5,000 to 6,500 square miles in northern and central Iraq, the assessment said.
The United States has been backing Iraqi forces with daily airstrikes against the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS.
“ISIL is no longer the dominant force in roughly 25 to 30% of the populated areas of Iraqi territory where it once had complete freedom of movement,” the Pentagon said.
The assessment comes as President Obama is to meet Tuesday with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for his first White House visit as prime minister. Al-Abadi has said Iraq needs more international assistance in his country’s fight against Islamic State militants.
Channel 4 News: On March 6, there were reports that Islamic State fighters had looted Nimrud, in Iraq, in one of their several assaults on some of the world’s greatest archaeological and cultural treasures.
In the video uploaded on Saturday, a man said to be an IS militant said: “God has honoured us here in the Islamic State and helped us to destroy anything that used to be worshipped besides God in ancient days. Look at us here, all praise be to God, we are destroying all statues and monuments.”
Standing in front of explosives rigged in front of a stone frieze another man said: “We remove the signs of polytheism and spread monotheism in every single territory we acquire. By God, we will destroy the signs of polytheism and we will destroy the graves and shrines of the rejectionists (Shi’ites) in their homes.
“We will smash the (Christian) crosses and we will demolish the Black House (White House) in the middle of America, the home of infidels.”
This UNESCO video shows Nimrud before its destruction:
AFP reports: The number of Europeans fighting with jihadist groups in Syria could exceed 6,000, a top EU official told a French newspaper Monday.
“At the European level, we estimate that 5,000-6,000 individuals have left for Syria,” EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jouriva told Le Figaro in an interview, adding the true number was likely to be far higher due to the difficulty of tracking foreign fighters in the conflict.
“At the time of the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, we decided not to allow ourselves to be guided by fear,” she said, referring to January’s twin Islamist attacks in the French capital and the subsequent deadly shootings on a cultural centre in Denmark.
Focusing on those seeking to leave for Syria to wage jihad, or those returning from the conflict, meant intervening “too late”, she said.
Jouriva said the EU instead wanted to promote prevention as a means of curtailing the steady flow of European nationals, looking at the diverse reasons of why people joined jihadist groups beyond simply religion.
British research had identified “a desire for adventure, boredom, dissatisfaction with their situation in life or a lack of prospects,” in those who had opted to leave their families behind and head for Syria, the commissioner said. [Continue reading…]
Mehdi Hasan writes: Palestinian refugees are being starved, bombed and gunned down like animals. “If you want to feed your children, you need to take your funeral shroud with you,” one told Israeli news website Ynet. “There are snipers on every street, you are not safe anywhere.” This isn’t happening, however, in southern Lebanon, or even Gaza. And these particular Palestinians aren’t being killed or maimed by Israeli bombs and bullets. This is Yarmouk, a refugee camp on the edge of Damascus, just a few miles from the palace of Bashar al-Assad. Since 1 April, the camp has been overrun by Islamic State militants, who have begun a reign of terror: detentions, shootings, beheadings and the rest. Hundreds of refugees are believed to have been killed in what Ban Ki-moon has called the “deepest circle of hell”.
But this isn’t just about the depravity of Isis. The Palestinians of Yarmouk have been bombarded and besieged by Assad’s security forces since 2012. Water and electricity were cut off long ago, and of the 160,000 Palestinian refugees who once lived in the camp only 18,000 now remain. The Syrian regime has, according to Amnesty International, been “committing war crimes by using starvation of civilians as a weapon”, forcing residents to “resort to eating cats and dogs”. Even as the throat-slitters took control, Assad’s pilots were continuing to drop barrel bombs on the refugees. “The sky of Yarmouk has barrel bombs instead of stars,” said Abdallah al-Khateeb, a political activist living inside the camp.
It is difficult to disagree with the verdict of the Palestinian League for Human Rights that the Palestinians of Syria are “the most untold story in the Syrian conflict”. There are 12 official Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, housing more than half a million people. Ninety per cent, estimates the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa), are in continuous need of humanitarian aid. In Yarmouk, throughout 2014, residents were forced to live on around 400 calories of food aid a day – fewer than a fifth of the UN’s recommended daily amount of 2,100 calories for civilians in war zones – because UNRWA aid workers had only limited access to the camp. Today, they have zero access.“To know what it is like in Yarmouk,” one of the camp’s residents is quoted as saying on the UNRWA website, “turn off your electricity, water, heating, eat once a day, live in the dark.” [Continue reading…]
Newsweek reports: The Assad regime has offered to arm Palestinians within the embattled Yarmouk refugee camp with weapons to beat back ISIS from the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus, according to Palestinian officials.
The camp, where the Syrian and Palestinian population has shrunk from 150,000 to approximately 16,000 during the four-year-long Syrian civil war, was last week overrun by ISIS who took “large part” of the encampment, amid clashes with a Palestinian militia loyal to Hamas, Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis.
The Syrian deputy foreign minister, Faisal Meqdad, met with a Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) delegation in the capital on Tuesday to extend the offer of assistance to the Palestinians fighting the radical Islamists.
Al Jazeera reports: the head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees planned to undertake an “urgent mission” to Damascus on Saturday amid concerns over the humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, most of which has been captured by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL].
Pierre Krahenbuhl, who heads the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA, will discuss the situation in Yarmouk and meet with displaced refugees.
The visit is “prompted by UNRWA’s deepening concerns for the safety and protection of some 18,000 Palestinian and Syrian civilians, including 3,500 children” who remain in the Yarmouk camp, the agency said in a statement.
“Yarmouk remains under the control of armed groups, and civilian lives continue to be threatened by the effects of the armed conflict in the area,” it said.
On April 1, ISIL launched an assault on the Palestinian armed group Bait al-Maqdis, which is one of numerous factions that share control of the district.
After the government claimed that ISIL took over most of the camp – which has been denied by local activists – regime forces stepped up their shelling of the district, further worsening the area’s humanitarian crisis.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, reported on Thursday that since April 4, government helicopters have dropped 36 barrel bombs, which are highly indiscrimate and destructive explosives, on Yarmouk.
(Click “CC” for English subtitles.)
Viyan Peyman, a Kurdish woman fighter with the YPG/YPJ featured in an NBC News report from Kobane in November. This week she was killed in a battle with ISIS near Serekaniye, a town also known as Ras al-Ayn, in northern Syria.
Richard Engel writes: When I saw her lying on her stomach firing through a small hole in a wall in a snipers nest in the town of Kobani in northern Syria, I remember thinking she was one of the strongest and most dynamic women I’d ever met in the Middle East. Sitting among sandbags, the smell of spent rounds hanging in the room, Viyan Peyman told us she was fighting ISIS, but also for women’s rights in the Middle East.
“We stand and fight, especially here in the Middle East where women are treated as inferiors,” Peyman told us. “We stand here as symbols of strength for all the women of the region.”
Peyman wasn’t just a fighter. She was a poet and a singer, a voice of her movement. She sang a song for us about her fallen comrades from the YPG/YPJ, secular Kurdish groups battling ISIS in Syria and demanding greater rights for the Kurdish people.