Main Events of the Week
- The main event of the week was a series of combined attacks against Egyptian targets in Al-Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah in northern Sinai. Around 30 soldiers and civilians were killed and a few dozen were wounded. The terrorist attacks were carried out by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the ISIS branch in the Sinai Peninsula. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. The President of Egypt announced the formation of a unified military headquarters to fight terrorism, which will be in charge of the forces fighting against terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula.
- ISIS admitted this week that it had suffered a defeat in the Kurdish city of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab). This was ISIS’s worst defeat since the international coalition began its campaign against the organization. Although the United States and its allies focused their airstrikes on Kobani, the ITIC believes that most of the credit is due to the Kurdish forces, which displayed military skill combined with a high level of motivation during the prolonged fighting in the city.
- This week, ISIS executed the second Japanese hostage and the Jordanian pilot, whose plane was shot down during an airstrike in northern Syria. The Jordanian pilot was executed by ISIS in a particularly cruel way (he was burned to death inside a cage), primarily to intimidate and deter ISIS’s opponents. In response, the Jordanians executed two terrorists from the Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq, who were sentenced to death in Jordan. One of them was the female suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi, whose release was demanded by ISIS.
- ISIS continues to call on Muslims in the West to carry out attacks in their home countries. This week, ISIS added a threat to harm a significant Saudi infrastructure. In the ITIC’s assessment, this refers to the Saudi oil industry.
The international campaign against ISIS
Attacks by the US and the coalition and their outcomes
- US and coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq continued during the week. This week, US and coalition aircraft carried out dozens of airstrikes in Syria and Iraq using fighter planes, bombers and unmanned aircraft. Following are the locations of the airstrikes (CENTCOM website):
- In Syria, airstrikes centered mainly in the area of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab), Al-Raqqah and Deir al-Zor. The airstrikes destroyed ISIS units, vehicles, crude oil refining positions, battle positions and deployment areas.
- In Iraq, airstrikes were carried out in a large number of places, including Kirkuk, Rutba, Mosul, Ramadi, Sinjar, Al-Assad and Tal Afar. The airstrikes damaged an ISIS tactical unit, vehicles, buildings, checkpoints, battle positions, heavy weapons, a rocket launcher and more.
- On January 30, 2015, the Central Command of the US Army reported that an airstrike carried out in the region of Mosul killed Abu Malik, who was described as an ISIS chemical weapons engineer. Abu Malik was an operative in the Islamic State in Iraq, and later in ISIS. In the past, until 2005, he worked at a chemical weapons production site under the regime of Saddam Hussein (CENTCOM website, January 30, 2015).
- ISIS used chemical weapons against Kurdish militias during the fighting in Ayn al-Arab (Kobani) on October 21 and 22, 2014. According to various symptoms exhibited by the victims, it was either chlorine gas or a different chemical weapon. It was previously reported that ISIS used chlorine gas in Iraq as well.
- US President Barack Obamasaid that he absolutely rejects the notion that the United States is in a state of religious war against Islam. He said most of the world’s Muslims reject the radical interpretation of Islam by ISIS and others of its ilk. He also said that the US should not overinflate the impact of terrorist organizations and create the impression that they are an “existential threat to the United States or the world order” (CNN, February 1, 2015).
- In an interview with CNN, US Secretary of State Chuck Hagel said that all the options for the Iraqi ground forces should be considered, including sending ground forces to perform tasks such as intelligence collection and identifying ISIS targets.He said there is currently no need for this; however, it is possible that such a need will arise in the future, and it will be given serious consideration (CNN, January 31, 2015).
- ISIS admitted this week that it had suffered a defeat in battle in the Kurdish city of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab). On January 30, 2015, ISIS operatives issued a short video showing two ISIS operatives who fought in the city of Kobani against the Kurdish forces. They admitted that their forces had withdrawn from the city of Kobani. They both claimed that this was not a loss in battle but rather a retreat, which was carried out due to coalition airstrikes (Aamaq News Agency, January 31, 2015).
- ISIS’s attack on the Kurdish city of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab)beganin mid-September 2014.In order to take over the city, ISIS put together a force of several thousand combatants, aided by tanks and artillery. On October 7, 2014, ISIS managed to enter Kobani and take control of its eastern and southern outskirts. However, its troops encountered fierce opposition on the part of the Kurdish forces (YPG), which waged fierce street battles against them, with air support by US and coalition aircraft.
- ISIS’s defeat in Kobani was its worst defeat since the US-led international coalition began its campaign against the organization. In the ITIC’s assessment, the main reason for the defeat is ISIS’s difficulty fighting over time in built-up areas against the Kurdish forces, whose people are trained, highly motivated and very familiar with the area. The intensive US and coalition airstrikes harmed ISIS but, in the ITIC’s assessment, ISIS’s claim that these airstrikes are the reason for its defeat in Kobani is not correct and is designed to try to minimize the significance of the Kurdish forces and to explain to ISIS’s supporters the magnitude of defeat suffered by the organization.
Statements by US officials about the fighting against ISIS
Main developments in Syria
Kobani (Ayn al-Arab)
On January 28, 2015, a report was published on the death of Younis Dasouki, a Palestinian whose codename was Abu Khadija al-Joulani, who served as an Al-Nusra Front commander in the area of Aleppo. He was killed on January 24, 2015, by two missiles that were fired at his car while he was driving in the area of Idlib. Younis Dasouki, a Palestinian by birth, was born in a refugee camp in Aleppo in 1982. In 2003, he went to Iraq to fight against the US Army. He returned to Syria after he was wounded, was imprisoned in Syria for a year, and was released in 2005 (Twitter account affiliated with the Al-Nusra Front, January 28, 2015).
Dara province (southern Syria)
It was reported last week that the Al-Nusra Front and other rebel organizations have taken over the 82nd Air Defense Brigade of the Syrian Army, which is deployed around the town of Al-Sheikh Maskin (north of the city of Dara). Their success has enabled the Al-Nusra Front and other rebel organizations to establish themselves near the Syrian-Jordanian border and the Syrian Golan Heights and is disrupting communication between the Damascus regime and its forces in the city of Dara. This week, the Syrian regime charged a number of Syrian Army soldiers with treason and assisting the rebel organizations, enabling them to take over the 82nd Brigade (Al-Durar al-Shamia, January 29, 2015).
The Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, continues its efforts to establish its presence in southern Syria, including the Syrian Golan Heights. On January 28, 2015, photos that were probably taken at one of the Al-Nusra Front’s camps in southern Syria were published. The photos show operatives practicing firing, jumping over obstacles and more (Twitter account affiliated with the Al-Nusra Front, January 28, 2015)
On February 1, 2015,a suicide bombing attack was carried out on a bus near the Al-Hamidia Souq (open market) in Damascus. The passengers on the bus were Lebanese Shiite pilgrims who had come to visit the Shiite holy sites in Syria. Between 6 and 12 people were killed and around 20 were wounded (Al-Arabiya TV, February 1, 2015). The terrorist attack was carried out by a terrorist wearing an explosive belt, who blew himself up near the bus. The Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria,claimed responsibility for the attack in revenge of the Sunnis in Syria against Hezbollah (Twitter account affiliated with the Al-Nusra Front in the area of Damascus, February 1, 2015).
In Syria there are several Shiite holy sites such as the Shrine of Al-Set Zaynab and Al-Sayyida Ruqayya, which are pilgrimage sites for Shiites from around the world. Global jihad organizations, especially the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS, have often called for an all-out war against the Shiites and, in the past, attempted to damage Shiite holy places in Syria, with an emphasis on the Shrine of Al-Set Zaynab, south of Damascus (which is visited by many Shiite pilgrims, including from Iran and Lebanon). In the past, Iran used Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias to protect the Shrine of Al-Set Zaynab and other Shiite holy sites in Syria and Iraq.
Main developments in Iraq
The Mosul area
Al-Arabiya TV reported that the governor of Mosul on behalf of ISIS was killed in a coalition airstrike on Mosul Airport (Al-Mayadeen, January 29, 2015).The ITIC cannot verify the reliability of this report.
The Kirkuk area
Over the past few days there have been reports of fierce battles in the Kirkuk province between ISIS on the one hand and Iraqi Army forces fighting together with Kurdish Peshmerga forces on the other. “Iraqi sources” claimed that over 300 ISIS operatives were killed in these battles over the past few days. However, the same sources admitted that the Peshmerga forces have suffered heavy losses and have lost two senior officers, one of whom was a major general and the other a brigadier general (Al-Arabiya TV, February 2, 2015).
On February 2, 2015, a Twitter account affiliated with ISIS posted photos of Kurdish prisoners, members of the Peshmerga forces, who were captured by ISIS in the battles in Kirkuk on January 30, 2015 (Twitter account affiliated with ISIS, February 2, 2015).
Left: Photos of a commander of the Peshmerga forces in Kirkuk, Amid (Brigadier General) Sherko Shwani, and a senior Peshmerga commander, Hajji Ahmad Rash, who were killed in battles with ISIS in Kirkuk (Twitter account affiliated with ISIS, January 30, 2015) Right: Kurdish Peshmerga fighters captured by ISIS in the battles in Kirkuk on January 30, 2015 (Twitter account affiliated with ISIS, February 2, 2015)
On January 31, 2015, it was reported that ISIS operatives had taken over the Khabbaz oil field in the province of Kirkuk.Fifteen of its employees were captured by ISIS (Ilaf, January 31, 2015). A day later it was reported that coalition forces began to carry out airstrikes in the area and that the Kurds managed to regain control of the oil field. A short time later, the employees who were taken prisoner by ISIS were also released (Reuters, Daily Star, February 1, 2015).
The Khabbaz oil field is one of the largest in the area of Kirkuk, producing 35,000 barrels of oil per day. Exports of oil products from the oil fields taken over by ISIS in Syria and Iraq are one of ISIS’s main sources of income. Its profits from oil exports are estimated at several million dollars a day, but following the coalition airstrikes on the oil infrastructure, ISIS’s profits have dropped. In the ITIC’s assessment, ISIS’s attempts to take control of other oil and gas fields in Iraq and Syria are intended to increase its revenues, which have decreased, and, at the same time, to harm the regimes in Iraq and Syria.
On January 28, 2015, there were reports of intense fighting between ISIS operatives and the Shiite militia, fighting together with the Iraqi Army, in Al-Sadd al-Azim (“the huge dam”) located on the Tigris River, about two km north of the city of Dahouk (about 133 km northeast of Baghdad). According to the reports, ISIS operatives, who used suicide bombers, gained control of several nearby villages (Twitter account affiliated with ISIS, January 28, 2015).
ISIS continues its efforts to cleanse the pockets of resistance of the Iraqi Army (which is supported by airstrikes by the coalition forces and the Iraqi Air Force) in the Sunni province of Al-Anbar, ISIS’s stronghold in Iraq. This week, there were reports of fighting in several locations in the province of Al-Anbar:
According to reports by Iraqi military sources, coalition aircraft attacked an ISIS headquarters in the city of Al-Qaim. The attack reportedly destroyed the headquarters and killed 45 operatives (Al-Quds al-Arabi, January 31, 2015).
On January 30, 2015, there were clashes between ISIS operatives and Iraqi Army forces in the area of Fallujah. On February 1, 2015, it was reported that ISIS operatives had used anti-aircraft fire to shoot down an Iraqi Army helicopter in an area located about 40 km south of Fallujah (approximately 104 km west of Baghdad) (Forum affiliated with ISIS, February 1, 2015).
The Al-Anbar province of the Islamic Caliphate published photos showing its operatives attacking Iraqi forces in the area of Arqaban, on the border between Iraq and Jordan. The photos show figures launching rockets at an Iraqi position. According to the Iraqi media, the Iraqis responded with airstrikes. The Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman said that ISIS’s attempted attack on the border between Jordan and Iraq met with resistance by Iraqi Army forces (Ma’an News Agency, January 27, 2015).
Main developments in Lebanon
Report on the announcement of the Emirate of Lebanon by ISIS
On January 28, 2015, a report originating from the Lebanese news website Al-Joumhouria was published, stating that ISIS intends to take military action in Lebanon.It was also reported that ISIS will soon announce the establishment of the “Emirate” of Lebanon and appoint Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir al-Husseini as the Emir of Lebanon. Sheikh al-Husseini is a Lebanese Salafist Sunni sheikh from Sidon. The source of the last name “al-Assir” (“the prisoner”) is one of his grandfathers, who was imprisoned in Malta by the French during their mandate in Lebanon (Twitter account affiliated with ISIS, Al-Joumhouria, January 28, 2015). The report on the establishment of the emirate in Lebanon has not been verified.
The conduct of the Islamic State
ISIS has executed a second Japanese hostage
On January 31, 2015, ISIS’s Al-Furqan Media Foundation issued a video documenting the beheading of the second Japanese hostage, Kenji Goto. The ISIS operative who appears in the video, with a British accent, says that this is the beginning of Japan’s nightmare and the war against the Japanese people wherever they are (Al-Furqan Media Foundation, January 31, 2014). This is the execution of the second Japanese captive captured by ISIS, following the rejection of the ultimatum set by ISIS.
In response to the killing of the two Japanese hostages, the Japanese Prime Minister said that Japan would cooperate with the international community to make ISIS’s operatives pay for their crimes. He also noted that Japan would not give in to terrorism (AFP, February 1, 2015). Western heads of state (the US, Britain) and the Secretary General of the UN expressed shock at the execution and sent condolences to the families.
The execution of the Jordanian pilot
On February 3, 2015, ISIS published a video showing the execution by burning of Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh, whose plane was shot down on December 24, 2014, in the area of Al-Raqqah, Syria. The video shows the pilot being burned to death inside a cage (Al-Furqan Media Foundation, February 3, 2015).
Jordanian officials confirmed the death of the pilot. King Abdullah II of Jordan said that ISIS is “criminal and cowardly” and an organization which does not respect the laws of Islam (Jordanian TV channel, February 3, 2015). The Jordanian Army spokesman said that according to the information in their possession, ISIS executed the pilot on January 3, 2015. If this is true, then ISIS negotiated with Jordan over an exchange between the pilot and the female suicide bomber imprisoned in Jordan at a time when the pilot was no longer among the living (Al-Mayadeen, February 3, 2015).
In response to the brutal killing of the pilot, in the early morning of February 4, 2015, Jordan executed two terrorists affiliated with the Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq: the female terrorist Sajida al-Rishawi, whose release was demanded by ISIS, and Ziad al-Karbouli, who was close to Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. At the same time, the coalition forces, including Jordanian Air Force planes, carried out a massive assault against ISIS targets in Al-Raqqah, ISIS’s stronghold in northern Syria (Daily Mail, February 4, 2015).
Left: The Jordanian pilot in the cage, watching the flames grow closer. Right: The Jordanian pilot before being put into a cage and set on fire. Masked ISIS operatives are visible in the background (Al-Minbar al-I’lami al-Jihadi)
Announcement of the establishment of the Khorasan province by ISIS
In a new audiotape released by ISIS, the organization’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, announced the expansion of the Islamic State. He said that conditions are ripe for the announcement of another province of the Islamic State, called the Khorasan province. This province will include Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as parts of their neighboring countries. The audiotape said that an “Emir” by the name ofSheikh Hafez Sa’id Khan was appointed for the new province, and that his deputy is Sheikh Abd al-Raouf Khadem Abu Talha (ISIS Media Foundation, January 26, 2015).
Sheikh Hafez Sa’id Khan is a former Taliban operative and currently heads a network which set up an entity by the name of the Khorasan Shura a few months ago. Sheikh Hafez Khan has pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State. Abu Mohammad al-Adnani called on other operatives in Khorasan to pledge allegiance to Sheikh Hafez Khan and obey his orders.
ISIS’s foiling efforts continue
ISIS’s efforts to increase internal security in the areas under its control continue. On February 1, 2015, a blog affiliated with ISIS posted a video about the exposure of a cell that operated in the city Al-Raqqah, ISIS’s stronghold in Syria. The six-man cell was exposed by the ISIS security bureau (“Al-Maktab al-Amni”) and was said to be affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). According to the video, the cell operatives purchased a vehicle, made IEDs and transferred them to Al-Raqqah in order to use them against ISIS. The blog claimed that the activity was coordinated from Turkey (i.e., by the PKK) and that the cell operatives were paid for their activities. The six cell operatives were executed (blog affiliated with ISIS, YouTube, February 1, 2015).
Left: The execution of the six cell operatives. Right: The cell operatives who allegedly planned to operate against ISIS in Al-Raqqah (blog affiliated with ISIS, February 1, 2015)
Palestinians and Israeli Arabs
Arrest of two Israeli Arabs who returned from fighting in Syria
In January 2015, Israeli security forces arrested two Arabs, residents of Israel, after they spent time in Syria and Iraq and fought alongside jihadi organizations (Israel Security Agency website, February 1, 2015).
On January 2, 2015, Amin Ahmed Salah Snobar, 24, a resident of Kafr Yasif, was arrested after returning from Syria. During his interrogation, he admitted that he traveled to Turkey on July 7, 2014, and continued from there to Syria. In Syria, he presented himself at an Ansar al-Sham base and tried to enlist in the organization. He stayed at the headquarters of the Al-Nusra Front and Ansar al-Sham, where he underwent military training. Among other things, he was trained to prepare explosives for IEDs and underwent physical fitness training. He also said that he assisted the said organizations by performing various tasks assigned to him. After spending some six months in Syria, he decided to return to his family and returned to Turkey and from there to Israel.
On January 10, 2015, Mahran Khalidi, 19, from Nazareth, was arrested after he returned from Syria and Iraq, where he fought in the ranks of ISIS. He traveled to Turkey in October 2014. After making contact there with an ISIS operative through Facebook, he received instructions how to cross the border into Syria with the help of a smuggler. Having crossed the border, Khalidi was sent to a reception camp where he underwent physical fitness training and weapons classes. He was then stationed in the area of Fallujah in Iraq, where he took part in five battles. He was injured, apparently seriously, in an airstrike by the coalition forces. He went for treatment at a hospital in Fallujah, which is under the control of ISIS. Around three weeks later, he received permission to return to Syria.
Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula
Attack by ISIS operatives
On January 30, 2015, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ISIS’s Sinai province) carried out a series of integrated and orchestrated attacks against a number of targets in Egypt, in Al-Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah, in northern Sinai. The operation included attacks on Egyptian police buildings, a hotel used by the Egyptian military forces, and Egyptian army checkpoints. The attacks included the use of car bombs, rockets, RPGs and mortar shells, as well as raids carried out by operatives on foot. They also included a heavy exchange of fire between Egyptian security forces and ISIS operatives. Around 30 soldiers and civilians were killed, and a few dozen were wounded (Al-Youm al-Sabea, January 30, 2015).
This is the biggest and most complex attack carried out by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis against the Egyptian security forces in the Sinai Peninsula.An initial investigation of the events revealed that the terrorist attack was carried out by around 60 operatives, mainly from Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. The Egyptians media claimed that some of the operatives came from the Gaza Strip to the Sinai Peninsula several days before the attack (Masrawy, January 30, 2015).
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ISIS’s Sinai province) claimed responsibility for the integrated attacks throughout the northern Sinai Peninsula.In a video posted on its official Twitter account and entitled “The Lions of the Struggle,” the announcer said that the end of the Egyptian Army would be in Sinai (borrowing from Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s statement that the end of the US Army would be in Iraq). The video also conveyed the message to ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, that its operatives in Sinai are ready to carry out any command from him (January 31, 2015).
Following the terrorist attacks in the Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi issued an order for the formation of a unified military headquarters to fight terrorism. The new headquarters will apparently be in charge of all the forces fighting terrorism in Sinai. El-Sisi also announced the allocation of USD 1.3 billion to the war against terrorism in Sinai (Al-Ahram, February 2, 2015).
The battle for hearts and minds conducted by ISIS
ISIS continues to call on Muslims in the West to carry out attacks
In an audio speech released by ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, he praised the terrorist attacks carried out in recent months in Belgium, Australia, Canada and France. Al-Adnani called on ISIS’s supporters to harm the countries of the West (ISIS Media Foundation, January 26, 2015). This is a continuation of ISIS’s and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) calls on Muslims in the West to carry out attacks in their home countries.
ISIS’s threats against Saudi Arabia
On January 27, 2015, a poster in Arabic and English was published, with the inscription “Soon… with the help of Allah [there will be] a surprising event in Saudi Arabia.” The poster reads, “The Islamic State has set itself the goal of damaging Saudi Arabia’s main infrastructure; wait for this.” In the ITIC’s assessment, the threat may be aimed at the Saudi oil industry (forum affiliated with ISIS, January 27, 2015).
Poster threatening to harm a Saudi infrastructure, with the inscription, “The Islamic State has set itself the goal of damaging Saudi Arabia’s main infrastructure; wait for this.” It says: “Soon… with the help of Allah [there will be] a surprising event in Saudi Arabia.” On the left, there is part of the map of Saudi Arabia, and on the right, the words “Flames of War” in English; On the bottom left, it says: “Soon, with the help of Allah” in Arabic and “Coming Soon” in English (Forum affiliated with ISIS, January 27, 2015)
Counterterrorism and preventive activity
Turkey’s intelligence services reported that they have uncovered a plan by ISIS to attack foreign diplomatic missions in Istanbul.As a result, the level of alert was raised at foreign diplomatic missions in Turkey. The targets mentioned included thediplomatic missions of the United States, France and Belgium.According to intelligence sources, ISIS sent a team of 17 operatives from the city of Al-Raqqah to Turkey. They entered Turkey illegally on various dates in December 2014. These operatives collected intelligence and performed surveillance activity in order to plan the attacks. The surveillance team was headed by Sufian Yassin, a French national (Daily Sabah, January 25, 2015).
The Turkish police force has revealed to journalists the methods that it uses to locate operatives who come to Turkey on their way to Syria.According to the Turkish police force, it is doing everything it can to tighten supervision of the country’s borders; the Turkish police also called on Western countries to increase their ability to prevent operatives from their countries from reaching Turkey. According to the Turks, they have set up risk centers at international airports and central bus stations. They say that these centers have monitored 1,500 suspects to date, and that approximately one third of them were sent back to their home countries (Hürriyet, February 1, 2015).
Turkey serves as a “lifeline” for jihadi organizations operating in Syria. Most of the foreign fighters come to Syria via Turkey, which has a long and open border with Syria (approximately 900 km in length). Getting to Turkey through Europe is convenient and inexpensive. Most of the foreign fighters travel to Turkey by air, on commercial flights. Turkey can also be reached by land transport, without a passport or visa (it is sufficient for the foreign fighter to possess an ID card). Until recently, it was relatively easy for the foreign fighters to pass through Turkey, since the Turkish authorities turned a blind eye. Western countries have recently begun to criticize Turkey and accuse its government of not doing enough to prevent the flow of foreign fighters through the country. The announcement by the Turkish police about preventing operatives from traveling to Syria has yet to be put to the test.
The weekly publication Spotlight on Global Jihad monitors developments among ISIS and global jihad organizations in Syria and Iraq and in the Middle East as a whole. The publication also monitors terrorist activities around the world, directed, supported or inspired by the global jihad organizations in the Middle East.
 In the ITIC’s assessment, the US and the coalition focused their airstrikes in Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) at the expense of other combat areas. Out of the 900 airstrikes carried out in Syria, more than 600 were carried out in this area.