The Daily Beast reports: The Iraqi government, which has been shaken by weekly protests that charge its senior leadership with corruption, needed to win a military victory to try to salvage its political reputation. Thus was begun the Third Battle of Fallujah.
The city that had been the symbolic capital of Sunni resistance to American occupation and Shia domination has collapsed into a network of bombed-out homes, criss-crossing sand berms, and half-finished cement structures. Thousands of bullet casings, water bottles, and other discarded items litter the landscape. The Iraqi Security Forces have turned what remains of Fallujah, the City of Mosques, into an ash heap.
Last week, although scattered resistance by fighters from the so-called Islamic State continues in parts of the city, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi felt confident enough to declare Fallujah liberated on June 17 after the elite U.S.-trained soldiers of the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service (ICTS) recaptured a former government headquarters in the city center. [Continue reading…]
Shiraz Maher writes: The first signs of a Western-backed attempt to recapture Raqqa, Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, came a fortnight ago when fighter jets dropped leaflets over the city telling residents to leave. “The time has come,” the warnings read, alongside an illustration of residents evacuating the city as incoming forces overran IS fighters.
Although up to half of Raqqa’s residents fled when IS first took control of the city in 2014, the militants have made it increasingly difficult for the people who stayed behind to leave. Following the US-led coalition’s warnings of an impending attack, however, the jihadis relaxed their restrictions on movement. Citizens were allowed to disperse into the nearby countryside. The idea was to spare them whatever onslaught was planned against Raqqa while keeping them within IS territory.
Ever since the latest offensive against IS began in Syria and Iraq in late May, it has become clear that the group will not concede territory easily around Raqqa – or elsewhere. It might lose small villages from time to time, but all of its major urban centres remain well fortified. Few observers expect them to fall any day soon. IS has too much invested in Raqqa, as well as Mosul in Iraq. Occupying the cities fuels the group’s prestige by projecting the impression of viable statehood and by allowing it to house fighters and military equipment. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: In the days leading up to the storming of Falluja by Iraqi forces, Brig. Gen. Hadi Razaij, the leading Sunni police commander in the campaign, sat on a cot in an abandoned house near the front line. He described the resistance that lay ahead: a determined force of hundreds of jihadists that had months to prepare.
General Razaij’s presence on the battlefield shows that local Sunnis, and not just the Shiite forces that now dominate Iraqi politics, are fighting to liberate their own communities, and has helped tamp down fears that the battle for Falluja would heighten sectarian tensions.
He was dispassionate as he described the challenges, but for him the fight was personal, too. General Razaij’s brother stands accused of being a member of the Islamic State and is in a prison cell after being arrested at a checkpoint with a car full of explosives.
In northern Iraq, Nofal Hammadi, the governor-in-exile of Mosul, is working with the United States to plan for that city’s liberation from the Islamic State. He, too, has family in the fight: Mr. Hammadi’s brother is an Islamic State official, having appeared in a video pledging his allegiance to the terror group and disowning his brother.
Even as the central question of Iraq remains unanswered — whether the country’s Sunni minority and Shiite majority can ever peacefully coexist in a unified state — the experiences of General Razaij, Mr. Hammadi and others add a troubling corollary: It is not clear that Iraq’s divided Sunnis will ever be able to find peace among themselves after a conflict that in many ways is playing out as a war within families.
After all, when Iraqi Sunnis talk about fighting the Islamic State, it is not a discussion of some shadowy and unknowable force. It is about sons and brothers, nephews and neighbors. [Continue reading…]
Hassan Hassan writes: For the first time since U.S.-led coalition operations began two years ago, almost all of the group’s vital strongholds in Syria, Iraq, and Libya have come under serious pressure. In a recent statement, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the group’s spokesman, even alluded to the fact that followers should be prepared for losses, from Sirte to Mosul.
But while the group’s performance has hit an all-time low, its appeal does not seem to have diminished. CIA Director John Brennan recognizes this fact: “Despite all our progress against ISIL on the battlefield … our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach,” he told the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 16, using another term for the Islamic State. “[A]s the pressure mounts on ISIL, we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda.”
Brennan also confirmed that the CIA had found no “direct link” between Omar Mateen, the gunman in Orlando, and the Islamic State. This is no surprise, as Mateen does not seem to fit familiar patterns of dogmatic support for the group. In the space of three years, he had supported Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State. His profile suggests that he belongs in the category of sympathizers who are only superficially influenced by the organization’s ideology, but who nonetheless can be inspired to carry out attacks in its name.
Such sympathizers are not driven by the Islamic State’s military successes, such as the takeover of Mosul in the summer of 2014. The group built its narrative around Sunni victimization, an idea that both predates its establishment of a caliphate and continues to exert a strong pull on many in the Middle East. The Islamic State has also tapped into the rampant political stagnation and popular grievances to gain popular support beyond the number of people who actually joined its ranks.
Consider, for example, the ongoing offensives against the Islamic State in Fallujah, Raqqa, and Manbij. While Washington insists the onslaughts include forces that represent the Sunni Arab communities that dominate the three cities, the prominence of Iranian-backed sectarian militias and Kurdish groups has triggered outrage in groups that are otherwise hostile to the Islamic State.
Two examples stand out. As the People’s Protection Units advanced on Raqqa, the activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently warned that civilians in the city were drifting toward the Islamic State due to their hatred for the Kurdish group. Meanwhile, Arabic media like al-Arabiya and al-Hayat — which last year described the offensive on the Islamic State-held city of Tikrit as a “liberation” — called the war on Fallujah a sectarian conflict, led by Iranian spymaster Qassem Suleimani.
Many observers throughout the region see Washington turning its back on Sunni civilians in order to cozy up to Tehran and Moscow. Reports in Arabic media have accused the United States of deliberately backing a sectarian war against Sunnis. This narrative invokes old patterns that could again help the Islamic State convert territorial losses into legitimacy among certain segments of the Sunni world. [Continue reading…]
Whenever an act of violence gets widely described as an act of terrorism, the one thing we can be confident about while facts remain hard to come by is that there will be no shortage of “expert” opinion — a lot of it resting on very dubious foundations.
Consider, for instance, this assessment by Robert Pape, the director of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism.
One month after the December 2015 San Bernardino attacks that murdered 14, killers Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik appeared in the pages of [the ISIS magazine] Dabiq. It is almost certain that [Orlando shooter, Omar] Mateen will appear in the next issue.
It may also emerge that Mateen watched ISIS videos that seek to recruit Westerners, an area in which their propagandists have excelled. If so, he was a perfect fit for the profile of previous ISIS recruits.
A male in his late 20s, with a connection to the Middle East, but who is not necessarily a traditionally devout Muslim, Mateen ticked many of the boxes that ISIS looks for. Reports from former co-workers and family members paint the picture of an individual who became increasingly withdrawn and radicalized, but maintained an outsized ego and liked to snap selfies. In other words, prime recruitment material.
ISIS offered Mateen a step-by-step blueprint for terror, from target selection to tactics, and told him that if he followed their instructions he would be a hero.
This guidance has been laid out by ISIS in online communications. “Hit everyone and everything,” wrote ISIS in a March 2015 magazine article, a commandment that the group’s operatives have followed in choosing soft targets like nightclubs, sports stadiums, and airplane terminals in Paris, Brussels, and now Orlando.
This timing as well may be no accident. ISIS posted an audio clip in late May asking its followers to schedule attacks for the holy month of Ramadan, which started on the evening of June 5. The content of the message is especially relevant in the case of Orlando.
In one chilling passage, the speaker states, “The smallest action you do in their heartland is better and more enduring to us than what you would if you were with us. If one of you hoped to reach the Islamic State, we wish we were in your place to punish the Crusaders day and night.”
Orlando brings up a new specter of fear for Americans. Instead of trained ISIS operatives slipping into our country to form sleeper cells, we must now confront the reality that “lone wolf” attackers are far from alone when we consider the world of training and online inspiration at their fingertips.
Mateen’s appearance in the next issue of Dabiq is not “almost certain” — on the contrary, it seems increasingly unlikely.
Mateen may have inadvertently trolled ISIS bad:
-" I pledge allegiance" *kills 50 people*
– Allahu Akbar!
– "Oh and I'm gay"
— Iyad El-Baghdadi (@iyad_elbaghdadi) June 14, 2016
Imagine being the ISIS media guy who has to figure out how to walk back their embrace of Mateen https://t.co/cJ4mxjXPrR
— ((Spencer Ackerman)) (@attackerman) June 14, 2016
If Mateen had ever ventured to Raqqa, he would have risked meeting his own grisly end by getting thrown off a rooftop.
As for the features that distinguished this young man as “prime recruitment material” for ISIS, if those include a liking to take selfies, the pool of potential so-called lone wolves ready to kill for ISIS must now span every corner of the globe.
The ISIS directive to “hit everyone and everything,” certainly leaves a lot of latitude when it comes to the choices made by any individual killer. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t underestimate the capacity of ISIS recruits to engage in some elementary strategic thinking.
After Larossi Abballa murdered an off-duty police officer and his female companion in France this week, the killer took to Facebook to present his goals:
Mr. Abballa’s Facebook post from Monday night made clear that he wanted to terrify and destroy those he deemed “unbelievers,” people he had come to hate. He also wanted to encourage other lone wolves to do the same.
“It’s super simple,” he said, looking into the camera. “It’s enough to wait for them in front of their offices; don’t give them any respite. Know this, whether you are a policeman or a journalist, you will never feel calm again. One will wait for you in front of your homes. This is what you have earned.”
Boasting that he had “just killed a policeman and I just killed his wife,” he called on fellow believers to give priority to killing “police, prison guards, journalists.” He specifically named several writers and journalists, adding rappers to the list because, he said, they “are the allies of Satan.”
Although a gay nightclub in Orlando fits the indiscriminate directive of “everyone and everything,” it wasn’t an obvious target for someone wanting to strike fear across a nation.
Abballa clearly wanted an isolated murder to be treated as a threat to the state. Mateen’s motives, however, remain far from clear. Indeed, an attack on the LGBT community would be an ill-conceived way of attacking America, given that there are so many conservative Americans who are homophobic.
It has been reported that the gunman took his wife at least once to the location of the nightclub for “reconnaissance,” and yet regulars there say he had visited the club repeatedly for several years — so why the need for reconnaissance? If he didn’t want his wife to be aware of his prior connection, this may have been an exercise designed to obscure his familiarity with his target and mislead his wife about his motives.
The specter of lone wolf attacks in America is certainly a fear that ISIS wants to promote, but terrorism experts and the media need to avoid amplifying that fear without due cause. The evidence, so far, indicates that those who plot alone are the exception rather than the rule.
[A] Reuters review of the approximately 90 Islamic State court cases brought by the Department of Justice since 2014 found that three-quarters of those charged were alleged to be part of a group of anywhere from two to more than 10 co-conspirators who met in person to discuss their plans.
Even in those cases that did not involve in-person meetings, defendants were almost always in contact with other sympathizers, whether via text message, email or networking websites, according to court documents. Fewer than 10 cases involved someone accused of acting entirely alone.
The extent of Mateen’s radicalization remains unclear, but anyone who professed to have ties to ISIS, al Qaeda, and Hezbollah at a time when these groups are at war against each other, seems less like a committed jihadist than someone who was clumsily constructing a fake identity.
Lastly, for those who remain fixated on images of scary Middle Eastern guys, it’s worth being reminded that Omar Mateen was in so many regards an ordinary American — as can be seen in this video clip which apparently shows him when he was working as a G4S security guard around 2012.
The Guardian reports: France’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, has defended the country’s intelligence services after criticism that they should have prevented the gruesome double murder of a police commander and his partner by a man with a previous conviction for jihadism who had recently been under surveillance.
Larossi Abballa, 25, who claimed allegiance to Islamic State (Isis), stabbed police commander Jean-Baptiste Salvaing to death outside his home in Magnanville near Paris. He then entered the house and took Salvaing’s partner, Jessica Schneider, and their three-year-old son hostage. Abballa slit Schneider’s throat and streamed a live video of the fatal attack on Facebook. He was killed when police stormed the house and the boy was rescued alive.
French authorities have admitted that Abballa, who was convicted of taking part in a jihadi recruitment network to Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2013 and sentenced to three years in prison, had been under phone surveillance this year in connection to an inquiry about another man leaving for Syria. The state prosecutor said nothing had been found during that phone tapping to indicate he was preparing to carry out a violent act. [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: Once Islamic State is defeated, Iraq should be divided into three separate entities to prevent further sectarian bloodshed, with a state each given to Shi’ite Muslims, Sunnis and Kurds, a top Kurdish official said on Thursday.
Iraqi troops have expelled Islamic State from some cities the militants seized in 2014, and are advancing on Mosul, the largest city under IS control. Its fall would likely mean the end of the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
But even if Islamic State was eliminated, Iraq would still be deeply divided. Sectarian violence has continued for years and a power-sharing agreement has only led to discontent, deadlock and corruption.
Masrour Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Security Council and son of KRG President Massoud Barzani, said the level of mistrust was such that they should not remain “under one roof”.
“Federation hasn’t worked, so it has to be either confederation or full separation,” Barzani told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday in the Kurdish capital Erbil. “If we have three confederated states, we will have equal three capitals, so one is not above the other.” [Continue reading…]
Jeffrey Goldberg writes: It is not a new practice for critics of President Obama to question his commitment to the fight against Islamist terrorism, but Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has cast doubt on Obama’s commitment to this struggle in uniquely florid and bizarre ways. On Tuesday, he claimed that Obama “prioritizes” America’s enemies over the American people; on Monday, he insinuated that Obama is sympathetic to the Islamic State terror group. (Read the previous sentence again and ask yourself: How has it come to this?)
Trump’s recent statements about Obama grow from a neurotic belief in the president’s malevolent otherness: On ISIS, Trump said, Obama “doesn’t get it, or he gets it better than anybody understands.” Barack Obama, to Donald Trump, is, and will forever be, the Manchurian President — Manchuria, by way of Kenya, with a detour in Raqqa.
It is true that Trump’s critique of Obama’s handling of terrorism is, among other things, analysis-free and comprehensively unserious, but it is also true is that there are non-hysterical critiques to be made, and not only critiques that concern Obama’s reluctance to describe the threat as one posed by “radical Islam” (a reluctance the president addressed on Tuesday). Critics to Obama’s right fault him for prematurely withdrawing American troops from Iraq, and for not doing enough to prevent Syria from becoming a safe haven for ISIS. His reluctance to involve the U.S. more systematically in the Syrian civil war, the argument goes, has allowed jihadists to fill the vacuum created by the absence of the world’s sole superpower. Some critics on the right also argue that Obama blanches when confronted by the ugly truth about Muslim dysfunction and extremism; political correctness, in this view, hamstrings the president, and makes him obtuse. Critics to Obama’s left, on the other hand, argue that he is killing too many people, particularly through the use of drone strikes, and that his policies are distressingly of a piece with those of his Republican predecessor. The over-militarization of the so-called war on terror, that argument goes, exacerbates a problem that has already been hyped by “Islamophobic” fearmongers. [Continue reading…]
The media called this statement by President Obama a ‘tirade’ — I’d call it a disquisition, with a hint of frustration born from the fact that the people who need to digest this information are mostly idiots.
Huffington Post reports: President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he refuses to describe the Islamic State and al Qaeda as groups fueled by “radical Islam” because the term grants them a religious legitimacy they don’t deserve.
“They are not religious leaders; they are terrorists,” Obama said during remarks at a White House event on countering violent extremism. “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”
Obama said the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is “desperate” to portray itself as a group of holy warriors defending Islam. It counts on that legitimacy, he said, to propagate the idea that Western countries are at war with Islam, which is how it recruits and radicalizes young people. [Continue reading…]
President Obama’s rebuke yesterday of the Republican’s use of the phrase, “radical Islam,” was good as far as it went. Yet this debate about ISIS, which views it as either the violent heart of Islam or as an utterly un-Islamic perversion of the religion, is simplistic and misleading on both sides.
Hassan Hassan writes: The Islamic State’s extreme ideology can be viewed as the product of a slow hybridization between doctrinaire Salafism and other Islamist currents.
Many of the extremist religious concepts that undergird the Islamic State’s ideology are rooted in a battle of ideas best understood in the context of Saudi Arabia’s Sahwa (Islamic Awakening) movement in the 1970s, and a similar movement in Egypt, as well as in other countries. In those countries, the interplay of Salafi doctrinal ideas and Muslim Brotherhood–oriented political Islamic activism produced currents that still resonate today. Indeed, the commingling of Salafism and Brotherhood Islamism accelerated in the wake of the Arab uprisings of 2011, filling the void left when traditional religious establishments failed to respond adequately to the aspirations and grievances of the Arab masses. The Islamic State and other Islamist and jihadi groups seized the opportunity to enforce their vision of the role of Islam.
In Saudi Arabia and in Egypt, the marriage of traditional Salafism and political Islam produced new forms of Salafism that were influenced by, and critical of, both movements. Political Islam became more conservative and Salafism became politicized.
In many instances, Salafi concepts were substantially reinterpreted, appropriated, and utilized by a new generation of religious intellectuals who started to identify with a new movement. In Saudi Arabia, the Sahwa generation moved away from the Najdi school, the adopted name for the Wahhabi clerical establishment.
The practice of takfir, or excommunication after one Muslim declares another an infidel or apostate, became increasingly prominent, first during the 1960s in Egypt and then after the first Gulf War in the 1990s when veterans of the jihad in Afghanistan began to apostatize Saudi Arabia for hosting and supporting Western troops to fight Iraq’s then leader, Saddam Hussein.
Politically submissive Salafism, which had rejected political rebellion, began to give way to political takfirism that carries the banner of caliphate, jihad, and rebellion. At the same time, the growing influence of Salafi ideals led to the Salafization of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sayyid Qutb, an Islamist theorist and leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s, drew on Salafi ideals to create an all-embracing takfiri ideology. Qutb argued that Muslim-majority societies are living in a state of jahiliyya (pre-Islamic obliviousness). He believed that all ideologies—including capitalism, communism, and pan-Arabism—have failed, and that the only system that will succeed globally is Islam. Qutb considered Islam the only reference for society (known as hakimiyya, or sovereignty of God), and he urged Muslim youth to reject their societies and lead change.
Qutbism provided a political ideology that introduced Islamic supremacism and nationalism, and that rejects many aspects of modern Muslim society and political regimes. It took conservative ideas and molded them to serve as the foundations of a political ideology that has little sympathy for views that deviate from Qutb’s understanding of the Islamic way of life. It is inward-looking and prioritizes internal threats over foreign threats.
Qutbist concepts such as hakimiyya and jahiliyya shape the Islamic State’s dealings with the religious and ethnic communities it controls. The Islamic State believes that local populations must be converted to true Islam and that Muslims can accuse one another of apostasy without adhering to traditional clerical criteria, which stipulate a series of verification measures to ensure the apostasy of an accused person. The group also believes in the Qutbist idea that Muslims have fundamentally deviated from the true message of Islam and that correcting this deviation will require a radical, coercive revolution. [Continue reading…]
The Daily Beast reports: Twenty-three days after the Iraqi security forces started a major operation aiming to retake besieged Fallujah, the forces are still fighting to control the first neighborhood of the Anbar city.
Much of the murkiness surrounding the battle to expel ISIS from Fallujah, which lies 64 kilometers to the west of Baghdad and has long been a cynosure of the Sunni insurgency, has to do with who, exactly, is doing the fighting. And that’s a question that touches on Iraq’s ever-parlous sectarianism.
The United States insists that Shia militias, many of whom are avowedly Islamist and fighting for their own version of holy war, must not enter Fallujah and should instead confine their activities to the outskirts or suburbs of the city. The Pentagon has been providing air cover only on the south and western fronts where professional counterterrorism forces, the Iraqi army units, Sunni tribal forces and local police have operated. The northern front, where the militias and Iraq’s Federal Police are located, have seen no U.S. air strikes.
Perhaps for that reason, the south has seen more progress. Al-Shuhada, a neighborhood at the southern doorstep of Fallujah, is still contested with fierce clashes between Iraqi Security Forces and ISIS jihadists. Although earlier statements by Iraqi commanders were claiming they have completely controlled al-Shuhada neighborhood, Sabah Numan, spokesperson of elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), told The Daily Beast, “We are currently in the first al-Shuhada neighborhood and we have been able to liberate 90 percent of it.”
Yet recent violations against Sunni civilians fleeing ISIS’s captivity in the north have complicated efforts to press on.
According to an official investigation carried out by the Anbar governorate, at least 49 people have been killed by Shia militias in two towns: Saqlawiyah, 8 kilometers northwest of Fallujah, and Al-Karmah, 16 kilometers northeast of the city. Additionally, 643 men have been declared missing between June 3 and June 5. The investigation records that have been signed by Sohaib al-Rawi, the governor of Anbar province, also state that “all detainees have been subject to severe collective torture.” Iraq’s Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi tweeted, “Harassment of IDPs is a betrayal of the sacrifices of our brave forces’ liberation operations to expel Daesh [ISIS] from Iraq.” [Continue reading…]