Tag Archives: Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)

A Strategy of Fear: boko 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

The Genius Puppetry behind the Syrian War

By most accounts, America’s efforts to covertly train and supply moderate rebels in Syria aren’t going so well. Apart from the obvious (Assad is still firmly entrenched in power and continuing to receive ever-growing external support),The New York Times recently reported that some arms provided by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Saudi Arabia haven’t quite reached their intended targets. According to the report, some individuals in Jordan’s intelligence bureau — ostensibly partnering to funnel weapons to Assad’s opponents — stole weapons destined for U.S.-backed rebels and instead sold them on the black market…..

American involvement in Syria comes in two main flavors. The first is a limited covert operation to support moderate rebels in their quest to unseat Assad. The second is an overt military campaign to combat ISIL. .

Deliberations over what the United States ought to do militarily in Syria began as early as 2012. The first rebels trained, funded, and armed by the CIA — a small “50-man cell” of fighters — were reported to have arrived in the fall of 2013, a few months after Obama gave the green light. Since then, America’s CIA covert operation against the Syrian regime, known as Timber Sycamore, has grown substantially. In 2014, reports suggested that the United States was “ramping up” its support to the rebels through the provision of TOW anti-tank guided missiles. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that America wasn’t acting alone. Timber Sycamore had become a joint effort with Saudi Arabia: The Saudis provided cash and arms, while the Americans provided training.

To date, efforts to replace Assad or bring him to the negotiating table haven’t succeeded….[and]America’s efforts to replace Assad are further complicated by a parallel but distinct effort to degrade and destroy ISIL…

Covert intervention allows major powers to “back stage” their role. As a result, any escalatory incidents or clashes can be obscured from the “audience” (i.e. domestic publics and third party states), which preserves face-saving ways to de-escalate. “Back-staging” outside meddling can protect the “front stage” performance of a localized war with limited geopolitical stakes and the potential for diplomatic resolution. The CIA’s Timber Sycamore program embodies this logic in key respects. By rejecting an overt and acknowledged relationship with Syrian rebel groups, the Obama White House has retained greater flexibility to tweak the program as the war evolves. Even relatively porous secrecy may help to evade the daily media reporting, public justifications, and regular congressional involvement that so often accompany overt programs. Moreover, by embracing a “back stage” role in Syria, the United States has avoided a naked geopolitical challenge to other states. Doing so reduces the chances of a public diplomatic crisis should American-supplied weaponry advertently or inadvertently be used in a clash with, say, Iranian personnel in Syria. Russia’s “front stage” air intervention and American overt air strikes against ISIL only strengthens this limited war logic. With Russian and American pilots in the skies, keeping the American program against Russia’s ally in Damascus low-profile makes U.S.-Russian crisis prevention measures easier.

Excerpts from AUSTIN CARSON AND MICHAEL POZNANSKY, THE LOGIC FOR (SHODDY) U.S. COVERT ACTION IN SYRIA, from War on the Rocks, July 21, 2016

Airstrikes on Money Vaults: Monsul

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

ISIS Money

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, WSJ, Nov. 19, 2015

The New Saddam Husseins

[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

A State from Scratch: the Islamic State

f 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

How to Manipulate People in War

“We have, in my view, exquisite capabilities to kill people,” said Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland. “We need exquisite capabilities to manipulate them.”  Psychological subtlety and the US military don’t always go hand-in-hand. Worldwide, we’ve become better known for drone strikes and Special Operations raids to kill High Value Targets. But that wasn’t enough for the last 13 years of war, according to a RAND study …“We’ve built a great apparatus for terrorism and to some degree we’ve got to be careful that doesn’t create blind spots,” Cleveland said… during a panel discussion at RAND. “There’s a cottage industry that’s built up around it [counter-terrorism]. You run the risk of basically taking on an entrenched infrastructure” whenever you try to broaden the focus killing and capturing the bad guys, he said, but we have to try.

“I don’t think we understand completely the fight we’re in,” Cleveland said. …In the US, though, “we’re horrible at ‘influence operations,’” said Cleveland. The US approach is “fractured” among multiple specialties and organizations, he said. Some key elements are in Cleveland’s USASOC — civil affairs, for example, and Military Information Support Operations (MISO), formerly known as psychological operations — while others lie entirely outside — such as cyber and electronic warfare.

To the extent US forces address psychology, propaganda, and politics at all, we tend to do it as an afterthought. “We routinely write a plan for kinetic action, and buried in there is the information operations annex,” said William Wechsler, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and combating terrorism. “Many times, it should be the opposite…. When you’re dealing with these types of adversaries [e.g. ISIL], that is often the decisive line of operations.”

That’s just one example of how the US ties its own hands with organizations, processes, even laws — indeed, an entire national security culture — designed for a very different kind of warfare. All warfare is a clash of wills, Clausewitz famously said, but Americans tend to fixate on technology and targets, not winning — or intimidating — hearts and minds….” Even when unconditional surrender is the goal, victory always means convincing the enemy to stop fighting….

Likewise, local partners are rarely reliable allies, but they aren’t the enemy either. Commanders need to understand the good, bad, and ugly of partners who may be corrupt, inept, or grinding their own political axes on the heads of rival ethnic groups. US intelligence, however, is still geared to figuring out “the enemy,” defined as a clear-cut foe. “…Where combat advisors are allowed, their roles must be negotiated between the host government and the US country by country, case by case, and there are usually strict restrictions — often imposed by American political leaders fearful of putting US troops in harm’s way.  “Putting people on the ground to do this kind of work is inherently more risky than flying an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and dropping a Hellfire, but we have to learn how to accept that risk, because this at the end of the day is much more often the decisive line of operation,” said Wechsler….

“We are shooting behind the target in almost every case,” said Hix, because we have to grind through our methodical, outdated planning process while adversaries innovate. A new Joint Concept does away with the traditional “Phase 0″ through “Phase 5″ system, which conceives the world in terms of before, during, and after major conflicts, Hix told me after the panel. In the new world disorder, “we need those resources and authorities in what we consider to be ‘peace,”” he said. If you don’t have them, he warned, “your enemy’s playing chess while you’re playing checkers.”

By SYDNEY J. FREEDBERG JR., Killing Is Not Enough: Special Operators, Breaking Defense, Dec. 16, 2014