Tag Archives: Islamic state in Iraq and Syria

How the World Looks Like in 10000 Air Strikes

Amnesty International researchers visited 42 Coalition air strike sites across the ruined city of Raqqa, Syria and interviewed 112 civilian residents who had survived the carnage and lost loved ones.   The accounts detailed in the report, ‘War of annihilation’: Devastating Toll on Civilians, Raqqa – Syria, leave gaping holes in the Coalition’s insistence that their forces did enough to minimize civilian harm….

“IS’s brutal four-year rule in Raqqa was rife with war crimes. But the violations of IS, including the use of civilians as human shields, do not relieve the Coalition of their obligations to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians. What levelled the city and killed and injured so many civilians was the US-led Coalition’s repeated use of explosive weapons in populated areas where they knew civilians were trapped. Even precision weapons are only as precise as their choice of targets.”

Shortly before the military campaign, US Defence Secretary James Mattis promised a “war of annihilation” against IS.   From 6 June to 17 October 2017, the US-led Coalition operation to oust IS from its so-called “capital” Raqqa killed and injured thousands of civilians and destroyed much of the city….Residents were trapped as fighting raged in Raqqa’s streets between IS militants and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters, supported by the Coalition’s relentless air and artillery strikes. IS mined the escape routes and shot at civilians trying to flee. Hundreds of civilians were killed: some in their homes; some in the very places where they had sought refuge; and others as they tried to flee.

US, British and French Coalition forces carried out tens of thousands of air strikes and US forces admitted to firing 30,000 artillery rounds during the offensive on Raqqa. US forces were responsible for more than 90% of the air strikes…

Amnesty International is urging Coalition members to investigate impartially and thoroughly allegations of violations and civilian casualties, and to publicly acknowledge the scale and gravity of the loss of civilian lives and destruction of civilian property in Raqqa…They must disclose the findings of their investigations, as well as key information about the strikes necessary for assessing their compliance with international humanitarian law. They must review the procedures by which they decide the credibility of civilian casualty allegations and they must ensure justice and reparation for victims of violations. They also have a responsibility to assist with gruelling demining and reconstruction work under way in Raqqa in a more meaningful way than at present.

Excerpts Syria: Raqqa in ruins and civilians devastated after US-led ‘war of annihilation’, Amnesty International, June 5, 2018

The Body Count and the Small Footprint

Jan. 14, 2014. Islamic State marching in Raqqa Syria. Image Associated Press

The U.S. assaults… have been far more deadly than is generally recognized. Military sources say that drone strikes have killed between 20,000 and 25,000 Islamic State operatives in Iraq and Syria. U.S. conventional attacks have killed about 30,000 more, for a total “body count” of over 50,000….The CIA and JSOC both conduct roughly the same number of drone flights every day. But the sources said the military’s drones conducted more than 20,000 strikes over the last year, in Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria, while the CIA is said to have struck less than a dozen targets over that same period.

The CIA oversaw much of America’s drone warfare during the first half of Obama’s presidency, when it was targeting al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan. But the agency’s focus on such counterterrorism “direct action” appears to have diminished over the past several years.
Obama’s  preference for special operations forces and their “small-footprint” tactics, as opposed to big conventional assaults….One unlikely legacy of Obama’s presidency is that he made the secret, once-impermissible tactic of targeted killing the preferred tool of U.S. counterterrorism policy.

Excerpt from David Ignatius, Pentagon and CIA in a terror turf war,  Washington Post. Dec 12, 2016

The Money Changers

Gaziantep Turkey, image from wikipedia

More than a year of U.S.-led airstrikes and financial sanctions haven’t stopped Islamic State from ordering supplies for its fighters, importing food for its subjects or making quick profits in currency arbitrage.  This is because of men such as Abu Omar, one of the militant group’s de facto bankers. The Iraqi businessman is part of a network of financiers stretching across northern and central Iraq who for decades have provided money transfers and trade finance for the many local merchants who shun conventional banks….

U.S. Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing Daniel Glaser said these businesses—there are more than 1,600 in Iraq alone—serve as a worrisome portal for Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, to connect with the world outside its declared caliphate…..People pay cash in one office and a recipient draws the equivalent funds at a distant locale, a Middle Eastern practice known as hawala that predates the modern banking system.  Three Iraqi money-exchange operators say they pay Shiite militias, who are at war with Islamic State, to guard cash shipments that travel the road from Baghdad across their front lines to militant-controlled territory in Anbar province. Iraqi Kurdish fighters, also at war with Islamic State, are bribed to grant passage of cash shipments across their front lines into militant-held areas around Mosul. Both Shiite and Kurdish commanders negotiate flat fees from $1,000 to $10,000, the money changers said.

Islamic State imposes a 2% tax on cash shipments entering its territory, which buys the smuggler protection on the final leg to the exchange houses….

The Cash Routes:  One begins in the narrow streets behind Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and, via Iraqi Kurdish towns, reaches Mosul, the largest city under Islamic State control. Another connects Jordan’s capital of Amman with Baghdad and Islamic State-controlled parts of Iraq’s Anbar province. A third links the city of Gaziantep in southern Turkey with Syrian regions around Raqqa, the administrative capital of Islamic State…

The US financial containment effort is one element of a campaign that includes U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State oil wells. There have also been strikes on vaults in downtown Mosul, which U.S. officials suspect store cash to pay fighters….The Central Bank of Iraq named 142 currency-exchange houses in December that the U.S. suspected of moving funds for Islamic State. The central bank banned them from its twice-monthly dollar auctions, hoping to keep U.S. bank notes from the terror group, which, like much of Iraq, operates as a cash economy….

Before Islamic State seized Mosul, the city of nearly two million people had 40 banks and around 120 licensed money changers and remittance facilities, according to Iraq’s central bank and money changers.Only banks and remittance facilities are licensed to transfer money domestically or abroad. But money changers have long flouted these rules and provided such services in Mosul, the economic powerhouse of northern Iraq.  Islamic State’s takeover of Mosul in June 2014, followed by other cities in Iraq and eastern Syria, swiftly shut down local banks. The terror group looted bank vaults of hundreds of millions of dollars, according to U.S. estimates.  The U.S. and regional governments took immediate steps to sever bank branches in Islamic State territory from the international banking network, declaring off-limits transactions with the identification code of seized branches.That left money changers as the sole providers for a region covering several million people. A currency office owner from Anbar province said in late summer of 2014 his offices were handling $500,000 a week in money transfers in and out of Islamic State. Fees for such services were 10%, he said. Before the Islamic State takeover, fees were between 3% and 5%….

ISIS  in 2015 banned exchange houses from approving the transfer of funds outside of Islamic State without a receipt showing the client had paid a 10% religious tax, known as “zakat.”..

For years, participants in the twice-monthly dollar auction by the central bank included money-exchange houses that would buy dollars at the official rate and sell them for a profit on the street. The rate difference in the past year was as much as 7 percentage points….

The Central Bank of Iraq has an account at the Fed, funded largely by oil reserves, and regularly withdraws large shipments of new $100 bills from a Fed facility in Rutherford, N.J. They travel by chartered plane to Baghdad.The Fed last summer (2015) temporarily shut off deliveries over concerns the notes were going to Islamic State through the exchange houses. A cash crisis loomed until shipments resumed in August, 2015 when Iraq agreed to turn over more records.

Many exchange companies based in Islamic State territory—or their correspondent offices elsewhere in Iraq—participated in the auctions until mid-December 2015, when the U.S. pressured Iraq to ban dozens of companies believed to be working with the terror group.Money changers who still participate in the currency auction doubt the effectiveness of the black list. Iraq has no mechanism to ensure that the owners of banned companies don’t get around the restrictions by simply opening new firms or by hidden ownership stakes in other exchange firms.“Iraq doesn’t have investigators or auditors,” said Abu Omar, the money-exchange owner. “Iraq has officials who expect bribes.”

Excerpts from Local Cash Network Fuels Islamic State Finances, Wall Street Journal , Feb. 25, 2016

The ISIS Cash

Koban, Syria October 2014

So while Islamic State probably maintains some refining capacity, the majority of the oil in IS territory is refined by locals who operate thousands of rudimentary, roadside furnaces that dot the Syrian desert.  Pentagon officials also acknowledge that for more than a year they avoided striking tanker trucks to limit civilian casualties. “None of these guys are ISIS. We don’t feel right vaporizing them, so we have been watching ISIS oil flowing around for a year,” says Knights. That changed on Nov. 16, 2015 when four U.S. attack planes and two gunships destroyed 116 oil trucks. A Pentagon spokesman says the U.S. first dropped leaflets warning drivers to scatter.

Beyond oil, the caliphate is believed by U.S. officials to have assets including $500 million to $1 billion that it seized from Iraqi bank branches last year, untold “hundreds of millions” of dollars that U.S. officials say are extorted and taxed out of populations under the group’s control, and tens of millions of dollars more earned from looted antiquities and ransoms paid to free kidnap victims….

Arguably the least appreciated resource for Islamic State is its fertile farms. Before even starting the engine of a single tractor, the group is believed to have grabbed as much as $200 million in wheat from Iraqi silos alone.  paid on black markets. And how do you conduct airstrikes on farm fields?  For his part, Bahney contends that the group’s real financial strength is its fanatical spending discipline. Rand estimates the biggest and most important drain on Islamic State’s budget is the salary line for up to 100,000 fighters. But the oil revenue alone could likely pay those salaries almost two times over, Bahney says.

Excerpts from Cam Simpson, Why U.S. Efforts to Cut Off Islamic State’s Funds Have Failed
It’s more than just oil, Nov. 19, 2015

The Non-Secular Saddams

saddam death

[The] intelligence network Islamic State has put in place since it seized vast stretches of Iraq and neighbouring Syria… [is overseen by] former army and intelligence officers, many of whom helped keep former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party in power for years. …The Baathists have strengthened the group’s spy networks and battlefield tactics and are instrumental in the survival of its self-proclaimed Caliphate, according to interviews with dozens of people, including Baath leaders, former intelligence and military officers, Western diplomats and 35 Iraqis who recently fled Islamic State territory for Kurdistan.  Of Islamic State’s 23 portfolios – equivalent to ministries – former Saddam regime officers run three of the most crucial: security, military and finance, according to Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi analyst who has worked with the Iraqi government….In many ways, it is a union of convenience. Most former Baathist officers have little in common with Islamic State. Saddam promoted Arab nationalism and secularism for most of his rule.  But many of the ex-Baathists working with Islamic State are driven by self preservation and a shared hatred of the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad. Others are true believers who became radicalised in the early years after Saddam’s ouster, converted on the battlefield or in U.S. military and Iraqi prisons….

Baathists began collaborating with al Qaeda in Iraq – the early incarnation of what would become Islamic State – soon after Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003. Saddam had run a brutal police state. The U.S. occupation dissolved the Baath Party and barred senior and even middling party officials from joining the new security services. Some left the country, others joined the anti-American insurgency…..By 2014, the Baathists and the jihadists were back to being allies. As Islamic State fighters swept through central Iraq, they were joined by the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, a group of Baathist fighters..That has boosted Islamic State’s firepower and tactical prowess….Emma Sky, a former adviser to the U.S. military, believes Islamic State has effectively subsumed the Baathists. “The mustached officers have grown religious beards. I think many have genuinely become religious,” she said.

Among the most high profile Baathists to join Islamic State are Ayman Sabawi, the son of Saddam Hussein’s half brother, and Raad Hassan, Saddam’s cousin, said the senior Salahuddin security official and several tribal leaders. Both were children during Saddam’s time, but the family connection is powerfully symbolic. More senior officers now in Islamic State include Walid Jasim (aka Abu Ahmed al-Alwani) who was a captain of intelligence in Saddam’s time, and Fadhil al-Hiyala (aka Abu Muslim al-Turkmani) whom some believe was a deputy to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi until he was killed in an airstrike earlier this year.

The group’s multi-layered security and intelligence agencies in Mosul, the biggest city in northern Iraq, are overseen by an agency called Amniya – literally ‘Security’. The agency has six branches, each responsible for maintaining a different aspect of security…..They also run a network of informants, placing children such as 14-year-old Mohannad in mosques and markets, and women at funerals and family gatherings, according to residents of Mosul…

Islamic State execution squads often arrive in a large bus with tinted windows, another resident said. Police seal off streets surrounding the place where a killing is to be carried out. Men dressed in black with balaclavas either shoot people, or behead them with swords.The bodies of those deemed to have committed the worst offences – cursing God or the group – are thrown in an area called al-Khafsa, a deep natural crater in the desert just south of Mosul, residents in the city said. Those killed for lesser crimes are returned to their families wrapped in a blanket.

Excerpts from  Isabel Coles and Ned Parker, The Baathists: How Saddam’s men help Islamic State rule, Reuters, Dec. 11, 2015

The Grinding War against the Islamic State

Islamic State (IS) insurgents, Anbar Province, Iraq. image from wikipedia

Excerpts from David A. Deptula,  How to Defeat the Islamic State, Washington Post

From the U.S. perspective, the most important goal is not the maintenance of the Iraqi government but the destruction of the Islamic State.  The current U.S.-led coalition is following the counterinsurgency model used in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade, but the Islamic State is not an insurgency. The Islamic State is a self-declared sovereign government. We must stop trying to fight the last war and develop a new strategy.
The Islamic State can be decomposed through a comprehensive and robust air campaign designed to: (1) terminate its expansion; (2) paralyze and isolate its command-and-control capability; (3) undermine its ability to control the territory it occupies; and (4) eliminate its ability to export ­terror.

But to do these things, air power has to be applied like a thunderstorm, not a drizzle. In the campaign against the Islamic State, we are averaging 12 strike sorties per day. During Operation Desert Storm in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991, the average was 1,241; in Operation Allied Force in Kosovo in 1999, it was 298; in the first 30 days of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, 691; during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001, 86.

In the past two decades, several strategic victories were brought about by air power operating in conjunction with indigenous ground forces — none of which were better than the Iraqi army. Robust air power, along with a few air controllers, carried the Northern Alliance to victory over the Taliban, at minimal cost in blood and treasure to the United States. Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya similarly involved airstrikes well in excess of those being used against the Islamic State.
Complicating the effort to defeat the Islamic State is an excessive focus on the avoidance of collateral damage and casualties. In an armed conflict, the military establishes rules of engagement designed to balance the moral imperative to minimize damage and unintentional casualties against what’s required to accomplish the mission. Recently reported by pilots actually fighting the Islamic State is that the current rules — which far exceed accepted “Law of War” standards — impose excessive restrictions that work to the advantage of the enemy. The ponderous and unnecessary set of procedures in place is allowing the Islamic State to exploit our desire to avoid civilian causalities to commit atrocities on the ground…

The best way to improve our force effectiveness while still minimizing collateral damage and casualties is to allow them to use their judgment. This is called “mission command,” and the Pentagon should empower our aviators to employ it.

The fastest way to end the inhumanity of war is to eliminate its source — in this case, the Islamic State — as quickly as possible. Gradualism doomed the effectiveness of air power in the “Rolling Thunder” air campaign from 1965 to 1968 during the Vietnam War. The current gradualist approach is worsening the suffering and increasing the loss of innocent life. While unintended casualties of war are regrettable, those associated with airstrikes pale in comparison with the savage acts being carried out by the Islamic State. What is the logic of a policy that restricts the use of air power to avoid the possibility of collateral damage while allowing the certainty of the Islamic State’s crimes against humanity?

This does not have to be a “long war,” as has been claimed by those whose politics benefit from that assertion, as well as those whose experience is rooted in counterinsurgency. The counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan went on for eight and 14 years, respectively. Desert Storm took 43 days; Bosnia’s Operation Deliberate Force, 22 days; Allied Force, 78 days; the decisive phase of Enduring Freedom took 60 days. A robust air campaign can devastate the Islamic State to the point where Iraqi and Kurdish forces can end the occupation.

Excerpts from David A. Deptula How to defeat the Islamic State, Washington Post, June 5, 2015

How to Create a State from Scratch: the Islamic State

Islamic state  flag over the ancient Palmyra city of Syria
If sentiment in the towns in or bordering the so-called “caliphate” of Islamic State (IS) is anything to go by, the jihadists are winning the war. “IS is here to stay,” a doctor in Falluja says of the group’s grip on Anbar, Iraq’s largest province. It is a sharp reversal from just a few months ago, when the campaign against IS seemed to be going quite well…[A]fter the retreat of Syrian regime forces from Palmyra, the black flag of IS now flies over the ancient city; while Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, Iraq, fell on May 17th. The idea that IS was in retreat has thus taken a severe jolt.

Barack Obama describes the loss of Ramadi as a mere “tactical setback”. But a blame game has since broken out.   In any case the group’s [IS] recent successes owe more to the weakness of the forces opposing it than to its own strength. The regime of Bashar Assad in Syria is looking wobblier than at any time since 2012. Its army fled Palmyra. Although Iraq’s Shia militias put up a good fight in places, its Shia-dominated and often badly led army is reluctant to fight and die for Sunni territory. Unless it improves the jihadists may advance further. The government remains reluctant to arm the Sunni tribesmen who might defend their homes.

The recent gains by IS also do little to address its weaknesses. It needs to generate huge funds to maintain its pretension to be a caliphate, yet its income streams, such as those from illicit oil sales, ransoms and looted antiquities, are all vulnerable to concerted pressure and windfalls from conquest are dwindling.

Its top-down structure leaves it vulnerable to “kill or capture” raids by American special forces (like one in Syria on May 15th that resulted in the death of Abu Sayyaf, the outfit’s financial brain). A more concerted air campaign could also set it back. Western forces are managing a meagre 15 strikes a day (compared with the 50 a day NATO carried out against Qaddafi’s less formidable forces in Libya). Mr McCain says that 75% of sorties fail to fire a weapon or drop a bomb, because targets are not identified. That might change if America provided forward air controllers.

The state of the caliphate: The fortunes of war, Economist, May 30, 2015