Tag Archives: Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)

A Strategy of Fear: boko haram

Bpko Haram

In July 2011, the Nigerian government unveiled plans to make telecommunications companies dedicate toll-free phone lines so civilians could report Boko Haram activity. Months later, insurgent spokesman Abu Qaqa threatened to attack service providers and Nigeria Communication Commission (NCC) offices.

Eight months later, Boko Haram made good on Qaqa’s threat. The militant group launched a two-day attack on telecommunications towers belonging to several providers in five cities: Bauchi, Gombe, Kano, Maiduguri and Potiskum…. Institute for Security Studies (ISS) researcher Omar S. Mahmood told ADF …’it’s a pretty powerful message if Boko Haram comes out and says, ‘I’m going to attack X because of this,’ and then they go out and they do it,” Mahmood said. “It just serves to make their next warning even more intimidating and effective.”

Mahmood, in his March 2017 paper for the ISS titled “More than propaganda: A review of Boko Haram’s public messages,” showed that a significant number of Boko Haram messages between 2010 and 2016 issued warnings and threatened violence. In fact, warnings and threats constitute the second-most-common theme of the group’s messaging out of the 145 messages studied…

Boko Haram demonstrated this tendency further in its threat against schools. In January 2012, Shekau complained publicly about alleged mistreatment of Islamic schools and students, and he threatened to launch attacks.  Again, Boko Haram followed through. From January to early March 2012, militants destroyed at least a dozen schools in the Maiduguri region of Borno State…

Ties between messaging and attacks also can be seen in Boko Haram’s assault on Nigerian media and the nation’s oil industry. As Qaqa complained that the media misrepresented Boko Haram, insurgents bombed This Daynewspaper offices in Abuja and Kaduna in April 2012…In June 2014, a suicide bomber detonated a bomb outside a Lagos oil refinery.

Boko Haram’s highest-profile action is the kidnapping of 276 Chibok schoolgirls in 2014. On April 14, militants attacked a boarding school in Chibok, Borno State, in the middle of the night. Insurgents raided dormitories, loaded girls into trucks and drove away. Some girls jumped into bushes as trucks rushed away, leaving 219 children held captive. The atrocity drew worldwide condemnation and parallels a long-standing grievance of Boko Haram: the desire for the release of incarcerated members.

In October 2016, after months of negotiations, Boko Haram released 21 of the Chibok girls in exchange for a monetary ransom, Daily Trust reported. In May 2017, insurgents swapped another 82 of the girls for five militant leaders.

The 2015 ISIS alignment was the beginning of big changes in messaging for Boko Haram…Boko Haram’s most powerful period was from 2013 to 2015, when it was capturing and holding territory, and dealing setbacks to military forces.   By late 2015 and through 2017, Nigerian and regional military assaults began to take their toll on Boko Haram…

In August 2016, Boko Haram split into two factions: One is led by pugnacious spokesman Shekau; the other by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, ISIS’ choice for leader….The split also has left al-Barnawi’s ISIS-aligned faction the clear winner in terms of potential longevity and lethality, Mahmood said. Shekau’s wing is just trying to survive, but it still uses ISIS logos in messages.

Excerpts from From Message to Mayhem, A Study of Boko Haram’s Public Communications Can Offer Hints About Its Strategy, Africa Defense Forum, Mar. 2018

All for the Hard Drive

The Pentagon has quietly ordered new commando deployments to the Middle East and North Africa amid an unprecedented series of American airstrikes in Yemen, counterterrorism officials tell ABC News.  The moves appear to signal that the U.S. military is kicking off a more aggressive counterterrorism campaign… against Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS strongholds in Syria and areas in North Africa.

The Trump administration in late January 2017 launched the first known ground force operation in Yemen in two years followed by an unprecedented two-dozen or more airstrikes the first week of March 2017 targeting al-Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate, including airstrikes March 2, 2017 night. This week also saw the killing of al-Qaeda’s overall deputy leader in a U.S. drone strike in northwestern Syria….

Un-announced fresh deployments of elite American commando units from the Army’s Delta Force and Navy SEAL teams continue…

But the first known ground force operation in two years on Jan. 28, 2017 raid by the Navy’s “black ops” counterterror unit, SEAL Team Six, came at a high price.  The experienced operators were caught in a withering mountain gunfight with fighters from AQAP, the only terrorist group which has succeeded three times in smuggling sophisticated bombs aboard U.S.-bound jetliners, which were defused before they exploded.

“There were women straight up shooting at the SEALs,” said a counterterrorism official briefed on the fight, describing the unusual battle, which resulted in one SEAL killed in action, some children in the compound killed by crossfire as the SEALs tried to search buildings and then broke contact, leaving the site aboard MV-22 Osprey aircraft. One Osprey had to make a hard landing, which injured three SEALs and the aircraft had to be destroyed in place by the operators….

One computer hard drive and phones containing a wealth of contact information for al-Qaeda operatives around the region were recovered by the SEALs…While the Yemen operation has become politicized in Washington as having “failed,” with some Democrats questioning whether any intelligence gains were worth the high cost of SEAL Ryan Owens’ life, a $75 million aircraft crashed and children killed in crossfire, military analysts continue “docex” — document exploitation — in an eavesdrop-proof sensitive compartmented information facility….

Excerpts from JAMES GORDON MEEK,US special ops step up strikes on al-Qaeda and ISIS, insiders say, Mar. 3, 2017

 

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 Death Toll for Destroying ISIS Cash

A 2,000 lb BDU-56 bomb being loaded (2004) Image from wikipedia

In an extremely unusual airstrike, the U.S. dropped bombs on January 10, 2016 in central Mosul, Iraq, destroying a building containing huge amounts of cash ISIS was using to pay its troops and for ongoing operations, two U.S. defense officials told CNN.  The officials could not say exactly how much money was there or in what currency, but one described it as “millions.”Two 2,000-pound bombs destroyed the site quickly. But the longstanding impact may be even more significant. The officials said the U.S. plans to strike more financial targets like this one to take away ISIS’s ability to function as a state-like entity.  This is a similar expansion to the target list as happened several weeks ago, when U.S. warplanes began hitting ISIS oil trucks…U.S. aircraft and drones watched the site for days trying to determine when the fewest number of civilians would be in the area.  Because civilians were nearby during the daylight hours, and ISIS personnel were working there at night, the decision was made to strike at dawn on Sunday.

U.S. commanders had been willing to consider up to 50 civilian casualties from the airstrike due to the importance of the target. But the initial post-attack assessment indicated that perhaps five to seven people were killed.  In recent weeks, the U.S. has said it will assess all targets on a case-by-case basis and may be more willing to tolerate civilians casualties for more significant targets.

Excerpts from U.S. bombs ‘millions’ in ISIS currency holdings, CNN, January 11, 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

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