ISW INTELLIGENCE SUMMARY: April 4 – 10, 2015 – Reviewing the Week – Compiled by Sasa Hezir
Key Take-away: The Iraqi Security Forces launched an operation to retake Anbar province from ISIS on the eve of Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi’s visit to Washington, DC. Vice President Biden previewed that visit in a speech this week in which he assessed that the Iraqi government with help from the U.S. is making progress against ISIS and withstanding Iranian influence in Iraq. Abadi’s visit provides an important opportunity for the U.S. to solidify its place as Iraq’s key foreign partner. Meanwhile ISIS’s expansion in Syria north of Aleppo and in the Yarmouk camp in Damascus were likely attempts to regain the initiative and balance against its losses in Iraq. Regional proponents of the Saudi-led coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen conducted regional diplomatic engagements to bolster support for the coalition in response to a lack of progress in bringing Houthis to the negotiating table. Egypt dispatched diplomats to Pakistan while the U.S. approved arms sales to both Egypt and Pakistan. Iranian officials later visited Pakistan this week to lobby against Pakistan’s potential involvement in the coalition. Arab states view the coalition as a bulwark against multiple threats including Iranian influence and terrorist groups in the region, including AQAP. The ability of the Arab coalition to muster effective ground operations will determine their success.
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) began operations to recapture Anbar province, the traditional heart of Sunni insurgency on April 7. Prime Minister Abadi said that the ISF will have complete ownership over the operation and that support from local tribal fighters will be critical to recapturing and holding territory from ISIS. Iranian-backed Shi’a militias, specifically Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Nujaba Movement, and Badr Organization, stated that they are awaiting an invitation by PM Abadi to participate, provided that air support from the U.S.-led coalition is not involved. Another militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah, claimed to be conducting independent attacks near Ramadi. PM Abadi’s decision to rely on local Sunni tribal fighters rather than more powerful and better equipped Iranian-backed militias indicates his confidence in an ISF-led operation in Anbar will be successful, as was the case in Tikrit. CENTCOM has not yet officially reported airstrikes near Ramadi, though conditions appear to be set for U.S. support to the ISF going forward. Iranian-backed militias will likely attempt to undermine security cooperation between the ISF and the U.S. Meanwhile, violent clashes between ISIS fighters and the ISF in areas east of Tikrit, including a deadly ambush in the Hamrin Mountains that resulted in 70 “Popular Mobilization” casualties, indicating that ISIS will likely pose a threat to cities like Tikrit after they have been cleared. Clearing and holding operations will be key to the ultimate success of the anti-ISIS campaign. PM Abadi’s visit to the U.S. will present an important opportunity to reinforce this outcome.
See: “Iraq Situation Report: April 7-8, 2015“; “Iraq Situation Report: April 4-6, 2015.” Direct press or briefing requests for Iraq analyst Sinan Adnan here.
ISIS increased its operations this week in Aleppo and Damascus, expanding into new fronts while taking loses in Iraq. ISIS seized a majority of the Yarmouk Refugee Camp in southern Damascus with the alleged cooperation of elements from al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). This indicates that JN continues to calculate its relationship to ISIS according to local realities and does not view tactical ISIS advances inside the capital as inherently threatening. ISIS also conducted two SVBIEDs against JN and Islamist rebels in the northern Aleppo countryside on April 7 in an apparent first phase of an offensive to seize the former ISIS stronghold of Azaz on the Turkish border. This pressure by ISIS may threaten the ability of JN and rebels to defend against the regime in Aleppo City. Civilians in Aleppo called for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate by JN and Islamist rebels as an alternative to “secular” rebel governance. This is a major step forward in JN’s counter-narrative against the ISIS Caliphate, and may provide momentum for JN’s effort to increase the role of Shari’a governance in “liberated” Idlib. Finally, the Moscow II negotiations concluded on April 9 by reiterating the Geneva I framework for resolving the Syrian conflict. The negotiations had no participation from Syria’s armed opposition.
See: “Syria Situation Report: April 1-8, 2015“; “ISIS in Syria Campaign Update: March 31, 2015”; “Control of Terrain in Syria: March 31, 2015”; “Assad Regime Loses Idlib to Jabhat al-Nusra and Rebel Offensive,”by Jennifer Cafarella, March 31, 2015; Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria: An Islamic Emirate for al-Qaeda, by Jennifer Cafarella, December 18, 2014. Direct press or briefing requests for Syria analysts Jennifer Cafarella or Chris Kozak here.
ISIS is encouraging and directing attacks in the West in order to exacerbate cultural tensions. Authorities raided ISIS-linked cells in Spain, Malaysia, and Romania, indicating the continued latent presence of ISIS in the Far Abroad. While the arrests are encouraging, state reports indicate that ISIS networks in Europe and Southeast Asia have also begun to change character as more jihadist recruitment cells appear to possess lethal means to conduct Far Abroad attacks, in some cases with the help of returned foreign fighters from Syria. This change indicates an increased threat of direct attacks in the West. Also in the Far Abroad, a pro-ISIS hacking collective called the Cyber Caliphate halted the broadcast of a major French television network, the largest cyberattack by a pro-ISIS group to date, allowing ISIS to remain in headlines despite losses in Iraq. ISIS’s Far Abroad campaign to terrorize and polarize appears to be having an additional desired effect of polarizing populations in Australia, as shown by anti-Islamic and anti-minority “Reclaim Australia” protests and counter-protests over the last week.
See: “ISIS Global INTSUM,” by Harleen Gambhir, February 19, 2015; “The Islamic State’s Global Ambitions,” by Harleen Gambhir and Jessica Lewis McFate, Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2015 (subscribers only). Direct press or briefing requests for Counter-terrorism analyst Harleen Gambhir here.