Fox News reports: Kurdish fighters and leaders are intent on carving an independent state out of Northern Iraq after they wrest back vital territory from the Islamic State “whether the U.S. likes it or not,” according to American and international security forces on the ground.
Kurdish forces, whose commanders say they aren’t getting enough help from the U.S. and other allies, have been making headway against ISIS. But while re-taking Mosul from ISIS was seen as a key achievement by the U.S., the new focus is squarely on holding Kirkuk, a northern Iraqi city claimed by many to be the cultural Kurdish capital.
“They are pushing hard in Kirkuk to hold Kirkuk and keep ISIS out and once that is done, they will move forward with plans for their country,” one operator on the ground with direct connections to Kurdish leaders told Fox News. Another source, who is directly advising Kurdish leaders, said “they have only one goal, whether the U.S. likes it or not.” [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Jolted by the deaths of 30 British tourists in Tunisia at the hands of a gunman professing allegiance to the Islamic State, Prime Minister David Cameron is considering joining the United States in bombing the group’s forces in Syria.
Mr. Cameron’s spokeswoman, Helen Bower, briefing reporters on Thursday, said that the prime minister wanted members of Parliament to “be thinking about” authorizing Britain to do “more in Syria.”
Ms. Bower said Mr. Cameron thought that “there has been and continues to be a case for doing more in Syria” against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Britain is already conducting bombing runs against the group in Iraq. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Days after the Islamic State called for attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, terrorists targeted sites in France, Tunisia and Kuwait on June 26, leaving a bloody toll on three continents. The group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, claimed responsibility for the attacks in Tunisia and Kuwait, but it is unclear if the militants are also responsible for the attack in France.
The group’s declaration of a caliphate, or Islamic state, last June marked the launch of its global strategy, which has resulted in attacks or arrests in more than a dozen countries. ISIS is focused on three parallel tracks:
- inciting regional conflict with attacks in Iraq and Syria;
- building relationships with jihadist groups that can carry out military operations across the Middle East and North Africa;
- and inspiring, and sometimes helping, ISIS sympathizers to conduct attacks in the West.
“The goal,” said Harleen Gambhir, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, “is that through these regional affiliates and through efforts to create chaos in the wider world, the organization will be able to expand, and perhaps incite a global apocalyptic war.”
Beginning last fall, ISIS made repeated calls for attacks on the West, especially to followers in countries taking part in the American-led airstrike campaign in Iraq and Syria. So-called lone wolves have responded to these calls with relatively low-tech assaults — shootings, hostage takings, hit-and-runs — that tend to get a lot of attention.
“Al Qaeda always wanted to do spectacular attacks, but ISIS has reversed it,” said Patrick M. Skinner, a former C.I.A. operations officer now with the Soufan Group. “They don’t do spectacular attacks. They do attacks that generate spectacular reaction.” [Continue reading…]
Ian Black writes: “If you think you understand Lebanon, you haven’t been properly briefed”. Thus went the advice dispensed by the spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in the wild south of the country in the mid-1980s. The same worldly-wise adage applies these days to the entire Arab region, wracked by collapsing states, terrorism, sectarianism, proxy wars and alliances of the strangest bedfellows.
It takes patience, clarity and perspective to explain the whole grim picture and the links between its constituent parts. These qualities are on impressive display in an important new book by the French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu. His particular skill is to describe the development, survival and resurgence of the Arab “deep state,” the security agencies that have kept it going and the “monster they helped create” – in its most extreme form the jihadis of the Islamic state (Isis).
Filiu traces how autocrats in Syria, Egypt and Yemen used their experience of managing internal dissent to unleash their own thugs – different names in different countries, same vicious methods – to enforce their will when the call went up to reform or change their regimes. Anyone who experienced the heady events of 2011 will recognise the bitter truth in his admission that the excitement of the Arab spring obscured the prospects of successful counter-revolution.
I thought I had seen it all from the Arab despots. Their perversity, their brutality, their voracity. But I was still underestimating their ferocity and their readiness to literally burn down their country in order to cling to absolute power.
Following the departure of Hosni Mubarak, counter-revolution triumphed in Egypt with the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood. The overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, compared with the success of Rachid Ghannouchi in Tunisia, provided an instructive lesson, Filiu argues: Islamists who succeed at the ballot box, in complex and volatile circumstances, must not take their electoral victories as a “blank cheque.” To ignore that is to invite the backlash that brought Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi to power and forged a reality even worse than under Mubarak. [Continue reading…]
Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan write: ISIS’s latest snuff video was shot with characteristically high production value and edited to more resemble a Michael Bay summer blockbuster than terrorist agitprop.
Three men in orange jumpsuits are marched into a sedan by two ISIS jihadists dressed in desert digital camouflage. The camera then shoots over the shoulder of another jihadist, this one in a balaclava, as he aims his rocket launcher at the sedan. The RPG tears clean through the steel frame of the car—captured from three different angles—setting the vehicle and its occupants on fire. The screams of the men inside are heard as the car burns.
It’s one of a series of intricately-choreographed mass murders, designed to shock the viewer to attention—and distract from the terror army’s monstrous rule over its self-proclaimed Islamic State. [Continue reading…]
Benjamin Bahney, Patrick B. Johnston, and Patrick Ryan write: In the weeks since the Islamic State captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi, a loud and diverse chorus of voices, including the New York Times editorial board, has called for the Iraqi government and the United States to arm Sunni militias to fight the extremist group’s advance. The administration increased the number of U.S. trainers last week, adding an additional 450 as early as this summer to the 3,100 American troops already in Iraq. Regardless, current political and military dynamics on the ground may merit giving arms to Sunni fighters if the Islamic State can’t be pushed back soon.
But the decision to hand weapons over to the Sunni militias also poses risks. Before directly arming more ethnic- or sectarian-aligned militias, both U.S. policymakers and the public should have a deeper understanding of our potential allies’ past and their possible future interests. And what the unintended consequences of arming these Sunni militias might be.
Newly declassified documents from the Islamic State’s predecessor, captured during a U.S.-Iraqi raid in 2010 and published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, suggest that some of Iraq’s most prominent Sunni politicians collaborated with the Islamic State’s predecessor in 2009, when the group faced its darkest hour. Some of these senior figures may have worked with the Islamic State to benefit themselves, some to benefit the Sunnis, and some to weaken the hand of the Kurds in Iraq’s ethnically mixed areas in the country’s north. While the threat of the Islamic State has moved these dynamics to the back burner today, they will likely reemerge if and when the security environment improves. And now some of these same politicians are lobbying the United States to send money and weapons to the militias from their territories.
While most of the U.S. public hadn’t heard of the Islamic State before its breakout last summer, the group declared an “Islamic State of Iraq” back in 2006 and maintained a presence in the northern city of Mosul through the U.S. military’s withdrawal in 2011. Conventional wisdom says that the Islamic State’s place in Iraq’s sectarian political strife rose out of the disarray that followed the U.S. withdrawal. It was at that moment that Iraq’s Sunnis were left to fend for themselves against the domineering, Shiite-oriented central government. The Islamic State’s resurgence in Iraq in 2013 and 2014 came at a time when the country’s Sunni minority was ripe to accept the group as a bulwark against political marginalization and crackdowns at the hands of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government.
In this telling, which has dominated U.S. media and policy circles, Maliki and his Shiite allies in the Iraqi government bear the brunt of the blame for inciting the renewed sectarian tensions that enabled the Islamic State to reemerge and unleash the brutal campaign that has arrested the world’s attention.
The new documents published by the CTC suggest the need to approach this conventional wisdom with caution. They have important implications for understanding Iraq’s sectarian schism and for informing the ongoing policy debate on how to stabilize the war-torn country.
A key document sent to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who preceded Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the group’s leader, suggests that the Islamic State established cooperative relationships with key Sunni politicians by 2009 that gave it access to extortion opportunities, kickbacks, and other revenue-generating activities in and around Mosul. Assuming the document is authentic — for the moment, there is no evidence to suggest it is not — these revelations should give pause to those recommending that the Iraqis train and equip local Sunni forces under the auspices of the provincial governments in Nineveh and Anbar. Reporting from Mosul indicates that similar ties between Sunni government officials and the Islamic State likely continued after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, and Maliki’s government began to intensify its repression of Sunni political leaders.
It is impossible to know the specific motivations of these officials — Sunni politicians may simply have been buying themselves protection in an environment where no other party was able or willing to provide it. But what is clear is this: For the Islamic State, these relationships enabled the group to access tens of millions of dollars to finance its operations in 2009 and after, some of which may have been diverted from Western reconstruction aid through political favors and phony contracts. The Islamic State likely used these funds to expand its extortion and intimidation networks in Mosul even prior to the 2011 U.S. withdrawal. This would go far in explaining how it had become so rich, even before it seized over $400 million from Mosul’s bank vaults last June. [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press reports: Parading across a desert base, hundreds of Sunni tribesmen who graduated a crash training course stood ready to take on the Islamic State group on behalf of a government that many believed left them to die at the hands of the extremists.
Among them were tribesmen who watched as Iraqi forces abandoned Ramadi a month ago to the Islamic State group. Their suspicions toward the Shiite-led government in Baghdad could be seen as they pushed forward to receive their first government salary in 18 months, with one brandishing a Kalashnikov assault rifle as he neared the front.
“For a year and a half we told them we need weapons, we need salaries, we need food, we need protection, but our requests were ignored until the disaster of Ramadi happened,” said Sheikh Rafa al-Fahdawi, one of the leaders of the Al Bu Fahad tribe of Anbar province.
But money and weapons alone won’t be enough to repair the mistrust between Baghdad and the Sunni tribes it now needs to battle the Islamic State group, which holds about a third of the country and neighboring Syria in its self-declared “caliphate.” After Iraqi forces abandoned Ramadi and then turned to Shiite militias for help, both sides remain suspicious of each other, threatening any effort to work together. [Continue reading…]
Mustafa Habib writes: Last Saturday was the anniversary of senior Iraqi spiritual leader, Ali al-Sistani’s call to arms. The cleric, who is seen as the leader of Shiite Muslims in Iraq and further afield, called upon all Iraqis to take up arms and defend the country against the extremist group known as the Islamic State, which had just taken control of the northern city of Mosul.
Since then the locals who did as al-Sistani asked have become the last bulwark against the approach of the Islamic State, or IS, group’s fighters. The volunteer militias are now known locally as the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units, and have become both a cause for celebration – as they achieve victories and push the IS group back – and controversy, as they are accused of illegal acts of revenge, looting and generally taking the law into their own hands. The militias are mainly made up of Iraq’s Shiite Muslims and the IS group bases its ideology on a form of Sunni Islam – so the militias’ importance in the fight against the IS group has also become a source of sectarian tension inside the country.
But the tensions do not just exist between Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni Muslims. As the Shiite militias become more powerful, tensions are also increasing within the group. They may have a common enemy and share a religious sect but these militias are far from united. Basically the Shiite militias are split along the same lines as opinions in the main Shiite Muslim political parties. And their disagreements are not just military, they are based on present and future economic and political power. [Continue reading…]
Dr. Madawi Al-Rasheed writes: Saudi Arabia’s aggressive, interventionist foreign policy has so far led it to wage two external wars in addition to an ongoing battle on the domestic front. The government does not appear to be fighting the three campaigns with the same degree of commitment and dedication, but more important, none of its battles is yet to result in victory.
Riyadh’s war against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq — being fought through a commitment to the US-led international coalition challenging the group destabilizing the Levant — has spilled over into the heartland of the kingdom’s oil-rich Eastern Province, prompting the necessity of fighting IS terrorism within its own borders as well as in the Levant. Recent attacks in Saudi Arabia have dismissed any doubt about the limits of IS’ reach. Meanwhile, to the south, the kingdom has been launching airstrikes against the Houthis in Yemen under an umbrella of 10 reluctant, mainly Arab states.
King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud has delegated the management of these multiple wars to two key princes. His son Mohammed, deputy crown prince and minister of defense, is in charge of the Yemeni war, and it seems he has also been asked to improve Saudi foreign relations. He recently visited Russia with the goal, according to Saudi sources, of bolstering relations. The multiple tasks handed the prince seem to blur the boundaries between his role in the war on Yemen and that as foreign envoy. This is not unusual in the kingdom, as previous princes in key positions also combined several roles into one, but this multitasking cannot mask the stalemate of the Yemeni war. After several months and one cease-fire, fighting continues unabated, with neither party able to claim victory. [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press reports: When the Islamic State fighters burst into the Iraqi village of Eski Mosul, Sheikh Abdullah Ibrahim knew his wife was in trouble.
Buthaina Ibrahim was an outspoken human rights advocate who had once run for the provincial council in Mosul. The IS fighters demanded she apply for a “repentance card.” Under the rule of the extremist group, all former police officers, soldiers and people whose activities are deemed “heretical” must sign the card and carry it with them at all times.
“She said she’d never stoop so low,” her husband said.
Buthaina Ibrahim was an outlier in her defiance of the Islamic State. It would cost her dearly.
The “caliphate,” declared a year ago, demands obedience. Untold numbers have been killed because they were deemed dangerous to the IS, or insufficiently pious; 5-8 million endure a regime that has swiftly turned their world upside down, extending its control into every corner of life to enforce its own radical interpretation of Islamic law, or Shariah.
The Islamic State is a place where men douse themselves with cologne to hide the odor of forbidden cigarettes; where taxi drivers or motorists usually play the IS radio station, since music can get a driver 10 lashes; where women must be entirely covered, in black, and in flat-soled shoes; where shops must close during Muslim prayers, and everyone found outdoors must attend.
There is no safe way out. People vanish — their disappearance sometimes explained by an uninformative death certificate, or worse, a video of their beheading. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: In northern Syria, the jihadists of the Islamic State have fixed power lines, dug sewage systems and painted sidewalks. In Raqqa, they search markets and slaughterhouses for expired food and sick animals. Farther south, in Deir al-Zour, they have imposed taxes on farmers and shopkeepers and fined men for wearing short beards.
The group runs regular buses across the border with Iraq to Mosul, where it publicly kills captives and trains children for guerrilla war. Last month, it reopened a luxury hotel in the city and offered three free nights to newlyweds, meals included.
A year after the Islamic State seized Mosul, and 10 months after the United States and its allies launched a campaign of airstrikes against it, the jihadist group continues to dig in, stitching itself deeper into the fabric of the communities it controls. [Continue reading…]
Malise Ruthven writes: In November 2001, two months after the al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, James Buchan, a novelist and a former Middle East correspondent, published an article in the London Guardian in which he imagined the triumphant entry into Mecca of Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist:
It was no ordinary evening, but possibly the holiest in the holiest month of Islam, the so-called Lailat al-Qadr, or the Night of Power, on which, according to the Koran, God’s revelation was sent down to the Prophet Mohammed…. More than 50,000 people had gathered on the hot pavement of the mosque enclosure and in the streets outside to pass the evening in prayer. Millions of others were watching on a live television broadcast at home.
As Sheikh Abdul Rahman, famous all over the Islamic world for the beauty of his voice, mounted the pulpit, a hand reached up and tugged at his robe. There was a commotion, and in the place of the Imam stood a tall man, unarmed and dressed in the white cloth of the pilgrim…, and recognisable from a million television screens: Osama bin Laden, flanked by his lieutenants….
Armed young men appeared from the crowd and could be seen padlocking the gates, and taking up firing positions in the galleries.
So began the insurrection that was to overturn the kingdom of Saudi Arabia….
While the details in Buchan’s fantasy describing “the west’s worst nightmare” have changed, the scenario he outlined appears more plausible today than it did fourteen years ago. Bin Laden is dead, thanks to the action of US Navy SEALs in May 2011, but as Abdel Bari Atwan explains in Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s official successor as leader of “al-Qa‘ida central,” looks increasingly irrelevant. Bin Laden’s true successor is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy caliph of ISIS, the so-called Islamic State. As “Commander of the Faithful” in that nascent state he poses a far more formidable threat to the West and to Middle Eastern regimes—including the Saudi kingdom—that are sustained by Western arms than bin Laden did from his Afghan cave or hideout in Pakistan.
One of the primary forces driving this transformation, according to Atwan, is the digital expertise demonstrated by the ISIS operatives, who have a commanding presence in social media. A second is that ISIS controls a swath of territory almost as large as Britain, lying between eastern Syria and western Iraq. As Jürgen Todenhöfer, who spent ten days in ISIS-controlled areas in both Iraq and Syria, stated categorically in January: “We have to understand that ISIS is a country now.” [Continue reading…]
Robert Ford writes: In August 2014, the United States launched airstrikes against Sunni Muslim militants of the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) to help besieged Kurdish military forces and Yazidi civilians in northern Iraq. Within weeks, ISIS militants beheaded American civilians and, the next month, the United States expanded its operations to hit ISIS militants in Syria. An Administration guided by the principle of “not doing stupid stuff” now finds itself in a new military campaign of unknown duration where the definition of victory is also murky. Congress and the American public more broadly are wondering what exactly we are wading into.
The starting point to the answer is obvious: From Tripoli on the Mediterranean shores of Lebanon to Diyala northeast of Baghdad stretches a Sunni Muslim community that is bitterly aggrieved, insecure, and fearful. They perceive that Iran and its Shia allies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Syria’s Assad regime, which is dominated by Alawis, are killing Sunnis indiscriminately and marginalizing them politically and economically. This would lead any reasonable American to ask: If the militants’ main beef is not with America, why then would they slit the throats of innocent Americans like James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as those of other innocent foreigners who were sympathetic to the sufferings and fears of that community? Americans might also ask what kind of belief system and grievances could lead to such appalling acts and their use as political tools to recruit still more fighters.
Answering these questions correctly and accurately matters. How the U.S. government conducts the campaign against the jihadis, and with whom and for whose benefit it conducts it, will directly affect the calculations of the militants we are fighting and whether we can isolate them from the vast majority of the roughly 24 million Sunni Muslims who live in the Levant and Iraq. President Obama has rightly said that the underlying problem is political; the jihadis feed off resentment. But there are other questions, such as, “Do we understand the resentments correctly?” and “Do we shape our responses appropriately?”
Seeking answers to these questions could lead many to turn to the experienced Middle East hand Patrick Cockburn, who has reported for years for British media from Iraq, and whose 2008 book on Muqtada al-Sadr and Iraq was full of new insights into the history of the modern Shia political parties in that country. In The Jihadis Return, a much briefer book, Cockburn breaks little new ground in describing the nature of the Islamic State now ensconced in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, his blaming of Saudi and even Pakistani actions in helping to facilitate the Islamic State’s rise absolves Iran and its allies of much responsibility. His is a misleading perspective that — to the extent that it influences our policies — could add gasoline to the conflagration, as it would aggravate the resentments among Sunni Arabs that erupted onto the scene in 2014 and gave rise to the Islamic State in the first place. [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: Bosnian fighters returning from Syria and Iraq are forming regional militant networks that pose a direct threat to security in the Balkans and beyond, a study warned on Thursday.
The returnees have formed links extending to Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo, said the non-profit Sarajevo-based Atlantic Initiative, and may be radicalizing youngsters on the margins of society.
“Once a destination country for foreign fighters in the 1990s, Bosnia is now the country of origin for volunteers in other people’s wars,” said Vlado Azinovic, a co-author of the report. [Continue reading…]
Nancy A. Youssef writes: President Obama’s decision to send an additional 450 troops to Iraq is the latest example of a strategy mired in double paradox. The U.S. wants to save a unified Iraq—by strengthening the ethnic and religious militias that could tear the country apart. And to pull it off, Washington is counting on the cooperation of groups divided by a chasm of suspicion.
In its announcement Wednesday, the Obama administration said the additional American troops are supposed to help more Sunnis come forward and eventually receive U.S. military training. The goal is for those Sunnis to align with the largely Shiite government in Baghdad to drive out the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the Sunni-dominated terror army that controls the region where they live.
But there’s a major catch. Several, actually. For these Sunni fighters, fighting ISIS not only means going to war against their fellow Sunnis. It also means teaming up with the central government in Baghdad—a government dominated by their Shiite rivals with a long history of mistreating Sunnis. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The United States is considering establishing additional military bases in Iraq to combat the Islamic State, the top American general said on Thursday, a move that would require at least hundreds more American military advisers to help Iraqi forces retake cities lost to the militant Sunni extremist group.
President Obama’s decision this week to send 450 trainers to establish a new military base to help Iraqi forces retake the city of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, could signal the beginning of similar efforts in other parts of the country, said Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Speaking to reporters aboard his plane to Naples, Italy, General Dempsey described a possible future campaign that entailed the establishment of what he called “lily pads” — American military bases around the country from which trainers would work with Iraqi security forces and local tribesmen in the fight against the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]
Foreign Policy reports: Perhaps it is little wonder that Iraq feels its fight against the Islamic State does not have the West’s full support. For all the tough talk this week at the G-7 summit in Germany about defeating the extremists, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi left with little more than securing new help from 125 British troops and a lecture from U.S. President Barack Obama about how Baghdad has hindered a strategy for the war.
And then, of course, there was this: A video of Obama seemingly oblivious to Abadi patiently waiting to talk to him before giving up and walking away as the American president happily chats with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and IMF chief Christine Lagarde.
“I have to look at this as the Iraqi people would see it,” Iraqi Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri said Tuesday, watching a clip of the video during an interview in Washington with Foreign Policy. He smiled ruefully and shook his head. “Ignoring us and our problem — it is very clear,” he said, as translated by a State Department contractor. “It’s really as if the United States is not really looking at our problems or not paying attention to us.” [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: In a major shift of focus in the battle against the Islamic State, the Obama administration is planning to establish a new military base in Anbar Province, Iraq, and to send up to 450 more American military trainers to help Iraqi forces retake the city of Ramadi.
The White House on Wednesday is expected to announce a plan that follows months of behind-the-scenes debate about how prominently plans to retake Mosul, another Iraqi city that fell to the Islamic State last year, should figure in the early phase of the military campaign against the group.
The fall of Ramadi last month effectively settled the administration debate, at least for the time being. American officials said Ramadi was now expected to become the focus of a lengthy campaign to regain Mosul at a later stage, possibly not until 2016.
The additional American troops will arrive as early as this summer, a United States official said, and will focus on training Sunni fighters with the Iraqi Army. The official called the coming announcement “an adjustment to try to get the right training to the right folks.” [Continue reading…]