Main events of the week

  • This week, ISIS continued to withstand severe pressure exerted on it on various fronts in Iraq and in Syria: the Iraqi Army continued its cleansing of the city of Ramadi and its environs; the Syrian Army is approaching the important city of Al-Bab (northeast of Aleppo) and the city of Al-Qaryatayn, southeast of Homs. At the same time, ISIS’s oil production and marketing infrastructure was damaged, primarily as a result of Russia’s airstrikes. ISIS’s response was reflected in an increased effort to carry out guerrilla warfare, deploying suicide bombers and car bombs against the Iraqi Army, the Syrian Army and the Kurdish forces.
  • While suffering blows in Iraq and Syria, ISIS continues to expand in Libya.This week, there were reports of the takeover of the city of Bin Jawad, west of the important oil infrastructure of the Al-Sidr Port and Ras Lanuf. After the takeover, ISIS attacked the Al-Sidr Port (Libya’s biggest oil port) and the city of Ras Lanuf.It seems, therefore, that ISIS now seeks to advance eastward from its territorial control base in the region of Sirte and to take control of the oil infrastructure and later the oil fields as well, in order to enhance its financial, political and military capabilities.

The international campaign against ISIS

US and coalition airstrikes
  • This week, the US and coalition forces continued their airstrikes against ISIS targets. During the week, dozens of airstrikes were carried out by means of fighter planes, attack aircraft, and UAVs. The main airstrikes:
  • Syria– the airstrikes were concentrated in the areas of Al-Raqqah, Deir al-Zor, Albu Kamal (southeast of Deir al-Zor), Manbij (northeast Aleppo), Marea (north of Aleppo), and Ain Issa (north of Al-Raqqah). The airstrikes targeted ISIS operatives, oil and gas facilities, heavy machinery, buildings, battle positions, a weapons manufacturing and storage facility, and vehicles, among other things.
  • Iraq– the airstrikes were concentrated in the area of Ramadi, as support for the Iraqi security forces cleansing the city and its environs from the presence of ISIS. Airstrikes were also carried out in Fallujah, Hit, Kisik, Mosul, Kirkuk, Al-Baghdadi (northwest of Ramadi), Sultan Abdullah (southeast of Mosul), Qayyarah (south of Mosul), Tal Afar, and Albu Hayat (west of Ramadi and Sinjar). The airstrikes targeted ISIS operatives, IED manufacturing sites, firing positions, weapons, buildings, bridges, bunkers, tunnels, vehicles and car bombs, and checkpoints, among other things (US Department of Defense website, December 31, 2015 – January 3, 2016).
The role of France and Germany
  • According to a report on Al-Arabiya TV from January 1, 2016, French fighter planes took off from an army base in Jordan, attacking ISIS oil targets near the city of Al-Raqqah (Al-Arabiya TV, January 1, 2016). On the night of January 2-3, 2016, French aircraft reportedly destroyed an ISIS rocket manufacturing site 10 km east of Aleppo.
  • According to a report from January 3, 2016, Germany is sending Turkey command and control aircraft for reconnaissance missions over Syria. These aircraft are expected to arrive from Germany to the Konya military (and civilian) airport in southern Turkey (Russia Today, January 3, 2016).

Russian involvement in the civil war in Syria

  •  According to Russian Ministry of Defense Spokesman Igor Konashenkov, Russian warplanes carried out more than 120 sorties over the past week, attacking over 420 terrorist targets. The airstrikes destroyed 424 terrorist targets in the areas of Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia, Hama, Homs, Damascus, Daraa, and Deir al-Zor. According to the Russians, a training camp near the village of Mheen, southeast of Homs, was hit during the airstrikes (TASS, December 30, 2015). The village had been controlled by ISIS and fell into the hands of the Syrian Army.
  • Russia’s airstrikes continue to focus on ISIS’s oil production and marketing network. At the same time, Russia is conducting a propaganda campaign whose purpose is to emphasize Turkey’s key role in ISIS’s oil trade. This week, Russian sources reported the following airstrikes:
  • In the area of Idlib,Russian planes destroyed a convoy of 20 fuel tankers moving towards the border with Turkey (TASS, December 30, 2015).
  • In the areas of Deir al-Zor and Aleppo, six targets related to the oil trade and oil production were destroyed (TASS, December 30, 2015; report by Russian Ministry of Defense Spokesman Igor Konashenkov).
  • Concurrently with the airstrikes, the Russians are conducting a propaganda campaign against Turkey and the coalition countries:
  • In a newspaper interview, Mahmud Ghazi Tatar, who had been recruited in Turkey, joined ISIS and was captured by the Kurdish forces, reveals details about Turkey’s involvement in the oil trade with ISIS. He says that every day, dozens of trucks carrying illegal oil cross the border to Turkey: “Many trucks cross the border from Turkey to Syria every day and return full of fuel.” According to him, the oil trade is carried out by businessmen. He adds that ISIS has oil reserves that will last for a long time (RT, January 2, 2016).
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense mentioned the US-led coalition’s inability to achieve results on the ground in the battle against the Islamic State.According to the spokesman, the coalition is only pretending to fight ISIS. As evidence of this allegation, the speaker pointed out that American planes do not attack oil convoys on their way to Turkey and refrain from attacking known strongholds of the Islamic State in Iraq (TASS, December 31, 2015).

Main developments in Syria

  • The Syrian Army and rebel organizations continue to exert pressure on ISIS throughout the Aleppo and Homs regions. The Syrian Army is expanding the area under its control east and northeast of Aleppo and is establishing itself in the rural area south of the city. The Syrian Army also recorded an achievement in the rural area southeast of Homs, following the takeover of the village of Mheen and its environs. In the area between Aleppo and the Turkish border, ISIS faces pressure from the other rebel organizations. ISIS, on its part, is carrying out guerrilla warfare in the form of suicide bombing attacks against its many enemies, including the Kurdish forces.
Aleppo province
  • The Syrian Army has expanded the area under its control east of Aleppo, from the area of the Kuweyres military airbase northward, toward the city of Al-Bab, which is controlled by ISIS. The Syrian Army is located just 10 km from the town of Tadif, south of Al-Bab (ARA News, January 1, 2016). As the Syrian Army continues to advance, ISIS continues to carry out guerrilla operations. According to a report by ISIS this week, an ISIS suicide bomber driving a truck bomb blew himself up north of the Kuweyres military airbase (Aamaq, January 4, 2016).
  • The city of Al-Bab, whose outskirts have been reached by the Syrian Army, is located about 35 km northeast of Aleppo, on an important traffic artery leading to the northeast. The city is an important industrial, agricultural and commercial center in northern Syria. This city, which is an important ISIS stronghold in the area east of Aleppo, has been the target of Russian airstrikes over the past month (all4syria.info, December 17, 2015; Al-Aan, January 4, 2016).
Iranian involvement
  • On December 30, 2015, the Iranian Al-Alam TV issued a short video showing Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Aleppo. Soleimani appears standing on a vehicle and talking with operatives of an Iraqi Shiite militia by the name of Harakat al-Nujaba (a militia of Iraqi Shiite recruits operating alongside the Syrian regime and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards). He speaks in broken Arabic with a heavy Iranian accent. Soleimani congratulates the Shiite operatives and notes that “this is the beginning of our work to save people, not just our people, but all the people in Syria” (Al-Alam TV, December 30, 2015). In the ITIC’s assessment, his appearance reflects the important role played by Soleimani and other Iranian operatives in the campaign waged by the Syrian Army in the Aleppo region.
Homs province
  • After several weeks of fighting, the Syrian Army managed to capture the village of Mheen from ISIS. Mheen is located about 60 km southeast of Homs. The takeover of the village (December 29, 2015) was carried out with Russian air support. The Syrian Army also took over (December 30, 2015) two hills dominating the area southwest of Mheen, and two villages northeast of the town (Hadath and Hawarin) (Twitter, December 30, 2015; Twitter, December 29, 2015; Al-Watan, December 30, 2015).
The Syrian Army’s takeover of the village of Mheen is another setback for ISIS, which is being pushed eastward. In the ITIC’s assessment, the Syrian Army’s next target will be the city of Al-Qaryatayn,[1] an important city controlled by ISIS and located to the east of Mheen.
The Kurdish-controlled region
While the Kurdish forces are making achievements on the ground (the takeover of the Tishreen Dam on the Euphrates River), ISIS is stepping up its guerrilla warfare against them. According to a report from this week, suicide bombers infiltrated the headquarters of the Kurdish forces (YPG) in Tal Abyad (near the Turkish border) and detonated their explosive belts (Aamaq, December 30, 2015). In the town of Ain Issa, south of the Kurdish city of Kobani (near the Turkish border), an ISIS operative detonated a car bomb in a staging zone of the Kurdish forces. According to ISIS, these attacks killed and wounded dozens of YPG and the Free Syrian Army fighters (Aamaq, December 30, 2015). ISIS also reported that its operatives had carried out a number of attacks in the city of Qamishli, in northeastern Syria (Aamaq, December 31, 2015).
The Syrian Golan Heights
Clashes in Al-Shaykh Maskin
  • On January 2, 2016, the Syrian Army retook the village of Al-Shaykh Maskin in the southern Syrian Golan Heights, from the hands of the rebel organizations, including the Al-Nusra Front. The takeover was completed after three days of battles, in which at least 50 militants were killed and about 250 were injured. The Syrian Army also strives to cut off the supply routes of the rebel organizations from Jordan (TASS, January 2, 2016). The takeover of the village poses a threat to the strongholds of the rebel organizations in the southern Syrian Golan Heights and in the area of Daraa.
  • The rebel organizations, on their part, began a counterattack aimed to regain control over the village. According to Syrian and Arab media reports from January 5, 2016, the rebel organizations took over part of the village, and Syrian security forces incurred heavy losses.
Al-Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade announces that there is no connection between it and ISIS
  • The Al-Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, which is affiliated with ISIS and operates in the southern Syrian Golan Heights, issued a statement on social networks stating that it is independent and does not belong to any entity or organization. The statement denied a connection between the brigade and ISIS, despite the media campaign being waged against it (January 2, 2016). In the ITIC’s assessment, this message is designed to reduce the heavy pressure on the brigade by the Al-Nusra Front, the rebel organizations and the Syrian Army. At this stage, it is not clear whether the statement was accompanied by practical measures designed to weaken or even terminate the strong connection between the Al-Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade and ISIS.
Transfer of Al-Nusra Front operatives from Daraa to Idlib
  • According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the transfer of 212 Al-Nusra Front operatives from Daraa to Idlib has been agreed upon.In return, three senior Iranian officials held in Daraa will be released (Voice of Beirut, January 2, 2016). At this stage, there is no information on the implementation of the agreement.

Main developments in Iraq

 The city of Ramadi and the Al-Anbar province
The takeover of Ramadi is not yet complete, and the Iraqi Army continues to cleanse pockets of resistance in the city. Local clashes are still taking place between the Iraqi Army and ISIS operatives inside and outside the city. ISIS’s guerrilla attacks appear to be concentrated in the city’s northern and northeastern suburbs, but ISIS is also making an effort to expand it to other locations in the Al-Anbar province.
  • On January 3, 2016, an attack by ISIS against the Iraqi Army headquarters in the area of Lake Tharthar, north of Ramadi, was repulsed. ISIS operatives had apparently fled from Ramadi to the area. The attack was carried out with six booby-trapped vehicles and suicide bombers, who blew themselves up with explosive belts. According to the Al-Anbar police chief, the Iraqi security forces killed many ISIS operatives (Al-Jazeera TV, January 3, 2016). On December 30, 2015, the Iraqi Army repulsed an attack by ISIS on the Tharthar Dam. Twelve ISIS operatives were killed in the attack (Al-Sumaria, December 30, 2015).
  • In the area of the city of Haditha, there is fighting between ISIS and Sunni tribal forces and the Iraqi Army, with air support by the US and coalition countries. According to a report from January 3, 2016, most of ISIS’s attacks on the city have been halted. However, fighting is still taking place in the east of the city, which has been infiltrated by ISIS operatives. According to the report, ISIS lost many operatives in the fighting, and dozens of its car bombs were destroyed in the area (Al-Arabiya TV, January 3, 2016). The Iraqis claim that ISIS lost 70 operatives in the fighting in Haditha (Dimashq al-Aan, January 5, 2016).
  • ISIS is accompanying its guerrilla activity against the Iraqi Army in the province with media warfare, with the aim of downplaying the blow that it sustained and showing that even after the takeover of Ramadi, the campaign is not yet over. In this context, ISIS issued a video documenting its operatives fighting against the Iraqi security forces, apparently in Ramadi. The video documents mortar and heavy machine gun fire, along with the detonation of car bombs (Akhbar Dawlat al-Islam, January 3, 2016).
  • In response to the tightening of the encirclement of Fallujah, ISIS is carrying out guerrilla warfare against the Iraqi Army in the city. On January 2, 2016, ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack by eight of its operatives, who infiltrated an Iraqi Army base to the east of the city. According to ISIS, dozens of Iraqi Army soldiers were killed in the attack (Akhbar Dawlat al-Islam, January 3, 2016).
Salah al-Din province
  • On January 2, 2016, ISIS operatives attacked the Iraqi security forces west of the city of Samarra. They retreated following an airstrike carried out by the Iraqis or the United States and the coalition (Al-Jazeera TV, January 3, 2016).
  • On January 3, 2016, an Iraqi police officer reported the death of 13 Iraqi policemen in a suicide bombing attack at an Air Force base near the city of Tikrit (Camp Speicher). According to the officer, six suicide bombers in military uniforms infiltrated the base (Al-Arabiya TV, January 3, 2016). ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack (Akhbar Dawlat al-Islam, January 3, 2016).
  • On January 4, 2016, ISIS reported that it had managed to take control over half of the area of the Samarra Dam, located about 44 km west of the city of Samarra (Aamaq, January 4, 2016).

Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula

  • Operation Martyr’s Right was recommenced in early January 2016. As part of the operation, the Egyptian security forces carried out intensive activity in the Sinai Peninsula, mainly in the north (the Rafah – Sheikh Zuweid area) and center (the area of Al-Quseima). Spokesmen for the Egyptian Army and the Egyptian media reported the operation’s achievements so far. According to the Egyptian sources, 29 terrorist operatives were detained, weapons were confiscated, raw materials used in the manufacture of weapons were seized, cars and motorcycles used by terrorist operatives were destroyed, 550 kilograms of drugs were seized, and 18 IEDs were neutralized. Warehouses and explosives were destroyed (The Egyptian Armed Forces Spokesman’s Facebook page; Al-Masry al-Youm, January 3, 2016).
  • According to a report from January 2, 2016, an Egyptian Army force found a cache containing one and a half tons of explosives in Al-Quseima, about 73 km southeast of Al-Arish, near the border with Israel. The explosives were packed in 32 sacks. They also found a large quantity of ammunition, heavy machine guns, two SUVs and two tons of fuel (The Egyptian Armed Forces Spokesman’s Facebook page, January 2, 2016). In addition, police reportedly seized a large weapons storehouse in ISIS’s Sinai province, in the area of Nakhl in the central Sinai Peninsula (Veto portal, January 5, 2016).
  • Despite the intensive activity, ISIS continued its guerrilla activities against the Egyptian security forces:
  • On January 3, 2016, two IEDs exploded south of Al-Arish when an Egyptian security force was passing by. There were no casualties and no damage was caused. That same day, two IEDs exploded in eastern Al-Arish and in the area of Sheikh Zuweid, injuring a medic and a driver (Al-Youm al-Sabea, January 3, 2016).
  • On January 3, 2016, the Egyptian security forces neutralized an IED planted in Al-Arish (Al-Masry al-Youm, January 3, 2016).
  • On January 3, 2016, ISIS claimed responsibility for killing an Egyptian officer and four other soldiers and injuring others in an ambush in Egyptian Rafah (Aamaq, January 3, 2016).
  • On January 4, 2016, a Twitter account affiliated with ISIS’s Sinai branch claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on the Al-Jora checkpoint south of Sheikh Zuweid.
  • ISIS’s Sinai branch claimed responsibility for detonating an IED at an Egyptian police checkpoint in the area of Al-Munib, south of Giza (about 7 km from the center of the capital, Cairo), killing and wounding all the people manning the checkpoint (Aamaq, December 31, 2015).
  • Two Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis operatives who were detained admitted that jihadi organizations intended to carry out a series of bombings and assassinations. These attacks were supposed to be carried out during the celebrations marking the anniversary of the January 25th Revolution (the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi). Large sums of money were allocated for carrying them out. The detainees disclosed the location of arms storehouses and explosives, which were then destroyed by the Egyptian security forces. They also disclosed the names of terrorist operatives who were given the task of carrying out the attacks (Al-Akhbar, December 30, 2015).
  • Despite the pressure exerted by the Egyptian security forces, ISIS’s Sinai branch has indicated that it is continuing to build its infrastructure in the Sinai Peninsula. On December 30, 2015, ISIS’s Sinai province published photos of its sharpshooters course graduation ceremony (Akhbar Dawlat al-Islam, December 30, 2015).

The global jihad in other countries

  • On January 4, 2016, ISIS reported that it had taken over the city of Bin Jawad, located near the area known as Libya’s oil crescent (Aamaq, January 4, 2016). Bin Jawad’s importance is because of its proximity to the Al-Sidr Port, Libya’s largest oil port (around 28 km east of Bin Jawad). Nowadays, the port’s ability to function is limited in light of the ongoing fighting in the region. If ISIS manages to take over the Al-Sidr Port and the oil facilities in Ras Lanuf, this would be a major step in ISIS’s endeavor of take over the oil fields and infrastructure in Libya, thus enhancing its financial, political and military capabilities.
  • After taking over the city of Bin Jawad, ISIS announced (January 4, 2016) that its operatives had attacked the area of the Al-Sidr oil port. One of the operatives carried out a suicide bombing attack at the entrance to the port, using a car bomb. Clashes broke out there between ISIS operatives and the oil facility security force, which suffered losses but managed to repel the ISIS operatives. ISIS reportedly sustained five losses (Twitter; Sky News in Arabic; Africa News portal, January 4, 2016). Some photos published by ISIS show jihadi operatives who managed to take over the oil facilities in Al-Sidr. ISIS also attacked the city of Ras Lanuf (where oil infrastructure is located) but didn’t manage to enter the city (Reuters, January 5, 2016).
  • Saad al-Tira, a senior operative in the Shura Council of the Jihad Fighters of Derna, denied that his organization belongs to Al-Qaeda. According to him, the organization’s operatives are “conservatives” who opposed Qaddafi, and will continue to fight until all opponents of the revolution in Libya are eliminated. He added that the organization’s fighters would depart for Sirte (controlled by ISIS) immediately after liberating Derna from the hands of ISIS (Bawabat Ifriqya al-Ikhbariya, January 3, 2016).
  •  A militia organization in the city of Ajdabiya (to the east of the Al-Sidr Port) by the name of The Shura Council of the Revolutionaries of Ajdabiya and its Suburbs published a statement denying reports that it had pledged allegiance to ISIS. This was in response to a video on social networks showing masked men carrying weapons and waving ISIS flags, one of whom reads a pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. According to the statement, this was an isolated initiative by an operative in the organization, who was subsequently expelled (Akhbar Libya 24, December 31, 2015 and January 3, 2016).
Shooting attack in Dagestan
  • On the evening of December 29, 2015, shots were fired in the city of Derbent in the Republic of Dagestan in southern Russia. Shots were fired at tourists visiting a fort in the old city. The gunfire killed one civilian and wounded 11 others (RT, December 30, 2015). One of those killed in the attack was an officer in the Federal Security Service (FSB) of the Russian Federation.
  • ISIS issued a statement in Arabic and Russian (December 30, 2015) claiming responsibility for the attack. According to the statement, a Russian intelligence officer was killed and others were wounded, while ISIS’s operatives returned safely to their base (Akhbar Dawlat al-Islam, December 30, 2015).
  • According to Ramazan Abdulatipov, Head of the Republic of Dagestan, about 600 residents have left the city of Derbent and joined the ranks of the Islamic State.According to the local police, the number is higher, and 900 residents have left the city to join the fighting (RT, December 31, 2015).

The battle for hearts and minds

ISIS published information about suicide bombing attacks in Iraq and Syria in December 2015
  • On January 2, 2016, ISIS published an infographic with information about the suicide bombings carried out by its operatives in Syria and Iraq in December 2015. According to the figures, ISIS operatives carried out 61 suicide bombing attacks in Syria and Iraq in December 2015. The distribution of the targets is as follows: 32% of all the suicide bombing attacks were against the Iraqi forces; 29% against the Kurdish forces; 22% against the forces of the Syrian regime; 10% against the Kurdish Peshmerga; and 7% against the Syrian rebels (Aamaq, January 2, 2016).
  • According to the figures published by ISIS, most of the suicide bombing attacks were carried out using car bombs (24) and explosive belts (17). Fourteen of the suicide bombing attacks were carried out in the Al-Anbar province, nine in Aleppo, nine in Al-Raqqah, eight in Al-Hasakah, seven in Homs, six in Nineveh, four in Salah al-Din, three in Deir al-Zor, and one in Baghdad. Fifty-seven percent of ISIS’s suicide bombers in December 2015 were Syrian, 33% were of other nationalities, and 10% were Iraqi (Aamaq, January 2, 2016).
In light of ISIS’s setbacks in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has increased the use of suicide bombers in recent months, in an attempt to provide a solution to its military problems. In the ITIC’s assessment, publishing information about suicide bombings is designed to glorify this type of warfare in order to raise the morale of ISIS operatives and to indicate that the fighting continues.
ISIS distributes a video showing the execution of five men, apparently Britons
  • The media foundation of ISIS’s Al-Raqqah province has distributed a video documenting the execution of five men, apparently Britons, on charges of “espionage” (January 3, 2016). The video shows an ISIS operative speaking in English. He threatens British Prime Minister David Cameron and declares that one day ISIS will invade Britain and impose Islamic law (Sharia) there.