MESOPOTAMIA NEWS INTEL BY MEIR AMIT INTELLIGENCE & TERRORISM INFORMATION CENTER – ISRAEL / Spotlight on Global Jihad (August 29 – September 4, 2019)

Main events of the week
  • On the morning of August 31, 2019, a unilateral ceasefire entered into effect in the Idlib area. The ceasefire was announced by the Syrian army, with the involvement of Russia. With the exception of sporadic shooting incidents, as at September 3, 2019, tense quiet was maintained in the area. The rebel organizations did not comment on the ceasefire but are reportedly opposed to it. Bouthaina Shaaban, political and media advisor to Syrian President Bashar Assad, has made it clear that this is a temporary ceasefire, after which the campaign in Idlib will continue as part of the number one strategy of liberating Syria from “terrorism” and the occupying forces.
  • The Syrian announcement of a ceasefire was preceded by the takeover of 10 communities, including the town of Al-Tamanah, east of Khan Shaykhun. Thus, the Syrian army’s takeover of the southern Idlib region is coming to an end. In the ITIC’s assessment, the ceasefire is a tactical move by the Syrian army for the purpose of reorganizing its forces, after which it will continue to advance northwards toward Idlib, with the goal of taking over the entire Idlib region.
  • In the Iraqi arena, ISIS’s intensive activity continues. Its activity included the activation of IEDs (the common modus operandi), mortar shell fire, sniper fire, attacks against the Iraqi security forces’ military facilities and checkpoints, and targeted killings.
  • ISIS’s provinces in Africa and Asia continued to carry out “routine” attacks. This week, attacks were reported in the Sinai Peninsula, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Chad, the Philippines, and Yemen.
Idlib region
Ceasefire following the takeover of villages east of Khan Shaykhun

After the failure of the rebel counterattack east of Khan Shaykhun, the Syrian army continued to mop up the southeastern part of the Idlib region. Until August 30, 2019, the Syrian army took over the town of Al-Tamanah (8 km east of Khan Shaykhun) and ten additional villages and hills, including Al-Khuwain and Al-Sakik, east of Khan Shaykhun (see map). Thus, the Syrian army is nearing a complete takeover of the southern Idlib region. Following these achievements, Russia and the Syrian army announced a unilateral ceasefire, which entered into effect on August 31, 2019. Since the announcement of the ceasefire, tense quiet is maintained in the Idlib region.

The town of Al-Tamanah and the villages of Al-Sakik and Al-Khuwain al-Kabir east of Khan Shaykhun, which were taken over by the Syrian army (Wikimapia – Bing Satellite)
The town of Al-Tamanah and the villages of Al-Sakik and Al-Khuwain al-Kabir east of Khan Shaykhun, which were taken over by the Syrian army (Wikimapia – Bing Satellite)
  • The attack against Al-Tamanah lasted two days (August 29-30, 2019). Media outlets affiliated with the Syrian regime reported that during the attack, fortifications and tunnels of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham were destroyed. In addition, it was reported that 37 operatives were killed in the attack. The operatives belonged to the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, the Guardians of Religion Organization (affiliated with Al-Qaeda), and the Islamic Turkestan Party (Uyghur operatives from China). Several armored vehicles were destroyed, and weapons and ammunition were seized (Muraselon, August 30, 2019; SANA, August 31, 2019). In addition to Al-Tamanah, the Syrian army took over ten villages and hills east of Khan Shaykhun (Sputnik, August 30, 2019).
The Syrian army announces a unilateral ceasefire
  • On August 30, 2019, the Russian Center for the Reconciliation of Conflicting Parties, operating from the Hmeymim base, reached an agreement with the Syrian army on a unilateral ceasefire in the Idlib region, which would enter into effect on August 31, 2019. The Syrian News Agency announced that the Syrian army would hold fire starting at 0600. However, it said, it would reserve the right to respond to any violation of the ceasefire (TASS; Sputnik, August 30, 31, 2019; Al-Watan, September 1, 2019; Khotwa, August 31, 2019). The rebel organizations did not make any comments on the ceasefire. Yet, they were against it. Following the announcement, tense quiet was maintained in the Idlib region. As at September 3, 2019, with the exception of several local incidents, tense quiet was maintained in the area.[1]
  • According to Bouthaina Shaaban, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s political and media advisor, the ceasefire in Idlib is not the first of its kind and it’s a “routine move in an ongoing military campaign.” She added that the ceasefire was temporary and was intended to serve the regime’s number one strategy, which is the liberation of the entire Syrian territory from “terrorism” and the occupying forces. Therefore, Shaaban noted, the campaign [in Idlib] will continue (Al-Watan, September 1, 2019).

The current ceasefire was declared after the Syrian army had recorded significant achievements on the ground. Bouthaina Shaaban’s statement indicates that the Syrian army regards the current ceasefire (as it regarded its predecessor) as a tactical move for a limited period of time, intended for reorganization purposes. It appears that the Syrian army intends to head northwards, toward Idlib, to take over the entire region. Also on August 2, 2019, the Syrian army unilaterally announced a ceasefire; however, after three days (August 5, 2019), it resumed its offensive moves and since then took over the southern Idlib region.

Reinforcements sent to the Syrian army
  • The Syrian media reported that the Syrian army had reinforced its troops along the contact lines with the Idlib region, including the area west of Aleppo. The reinforcements arrived on the day the ceasefire entered into effect (Enab Baladi; “Hona Halab” Facebook page, August 31, 2019). According to reports, the Syrian army’s purpose is to implement the Sochi Memorandum, open the international highways, and bring about the withdrawal of the operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (the “Al-Nusra gang”) from the front bordering with Aleppo (“Hona Halab” Facebook page which is affiliated with the Syrian regime, August 31, 2019).
Hmeymim base attacked by UAVs
  • The Russian Defense Ministry reported that on the evening of September 3, 2019, two rebel organizations’ UAVs had attempted to attack the Russian airbase in Hmeymim. Russian anti-aircraft fire shot down the UAVs far from the airbase (Russia Today, September 3, 2019).
Iranian UAV shot down by the rebel organizations
  • The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham announced that on August 31, 2019, its operatives had shot down an Iranian Ababil-3[2] UAV about 10 km north of Khan Shaykhun [Note: It was shot down near the Turkish force, which established itself 13 km north of Khan Shaykhun]. According to a report by the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, it was a UAV designed to collect intelligence, with a camera and communications equipment, but it could also be used as an offensive UAV carrying a warhead (Ibaa, August 31 and September 1, 2019). In the ITIC’s assessment, the Iranian aircraft may have been collecting intelligence on the rebel organizations and the Turkish force as part of the support provided by Iran to the Syrian army.
Iranian UAV shot down by operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham. The UAV was loaded on a vehicle and carried away (Ibaa, August 31, 2019)     Iranian UAV shot down by operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham. The UAV was loaded on a vehicle and carried away (Ibaa, August 31, 2019)
Iranian UAV shot down by operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham. The UAV was loaded on a vehicle and carried away (Ibaa, August 31, 2019)
Summary of the losses since the beginning of the Syrian army’s ground attack
  • Since the beginning of the Syrian army’s ground attack in early May 2019, a total of 4,114 people have been killed in the Idlib region. Fatalities included 1,667 rebel organization operatives, including 1,087 operatives of the jihadi organizations [bearing the brunt of the fighting]. Fatalities also included 1,399 soldiers and operatives of the Syrian army and the forces supporting it, and 1,048 civilians (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, August 31, 2019).
Attack against a training compound north of Idlib
  • On August 31, 2019, the US military’s Central Command (CENTCOM) announced that US aircraft had attacked a training compound where senior Al-Qaeda leaders in Syria (AQ-S) were present. According to the statement, the operation targeted AQ-S leaders responsible for attacks threatening US citizens, allies of the US, and innocent civilians. It further states that “northwest Syria [i.e., the Idlib region] remains a safe haven where AQ-S leaders actively coordinate terrorist activities throughout the region and in the West.” The statement ends with the warning that the US “will continue to target violent extremists to prevent them from using Syria as a safe haven” (CENTCOM statement, August 31, 2019).

The village of Kafraya (marked in red), northeast of Idlib, near the site of the US airstrike (Wikimapia)
The village of Kafraya (marked in red), northeast of Idlib, near the site of the US airstrike (Wikimapia)

  • According to the Syrian media, the United States attacked senior operatives of the Guardians of Religion Organization (affiliated with Al-Qaeda) and three other organizations, including the jihadi Ansar al-Tawhid.[3] Operatives of these organizations reportedly stayed at a training compound near the village of Kafraya, 7 km northeast of Idlib. The compound was completely destroyed. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a meeting of the organizations’ leaderships was taking place at the site. Several dozens of operatives were reportedly killed in the airstrike (versions differ, ranging from 30 to 50 operatives). The attacking planes took off from Turkey (Muraselon, August 31, 2019; Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, September 1, 2019).

Ruins of the building attacked by the US aircraft (sadikabbara Twitter account, affiliated with the rebel organizations, August 31, 2019)
Ruins of the building attacked by the US aircraft (sadikabbara Twitter account, affiliated with the rebel organizations, August 31, 2019)

  • The Russian Defense Ministry issued a statement condemning the US airstrike. According to the statement, the US attacked a series of targets in Idlib and killed many civilians without advance warning either to Russia or to Syria. The statement further claims that the US airstrike threatens the ceasefire in the Idlib region, which was achieved with considerable effort (Russia Today, September 1, 2019).

It should be recalled that on June 30, 2019, US warplanes attacked senior operatives of the Guardians of Religion Organization at a training compound northeast of Idlib. The compound was completely destroyed. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a meeting of the organization’s leadership was taking place at the site. The US military’s Central Command reported then as well that the attack had targeted operatives planning “external attacks” outside Syria against American “citizens, [America’s] partners and innocent civilians.” The statement ended with a warning that the US would continue to target ISIS and al-Qaeda leaders in Syria “to prevent both groups from using Syria as a safe haven” (CENTCOM statement, June 30 2019).[4] Thus, it appears that the US continues to adhere to a policy of attacking targets affiliated with Al-Qaeda, while refraining from attacking targets of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and other jihadi organizations of a local Syrian nature.

Demonstration in Idlib against the “Astana Agreement”[5]
  • On August 30, 2019, a demonstration was held in Idlib, attended by displaced persons and residents of the city, under the title “Astana is not and shall not be the solution.” The demonstrators demanded from the international community to bear humanitarian responsibility for over a million displaced persons as a result of the hostile military activity against civilians in the Idlib region (i.e., the Syrian army activity). They demanded from the rebel organizations to regain control over the areas taken over by the Syrian army (Khotwa, August 30, 2019). In the ITIC’s assessment, the demonstration was organized by the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and the Free Syrian Army sponsored by Turkey (signs of the Free Syrian Army were visible in the demonstration).
Northeastern Syria
Attacks inside the Kurdish control area
  • On August 28, 2019, an IED was activated against an SDF vehicle about 20 km south of Al-Hasakah. The passengers were killed and wounded (Telegram, August 30, 2019).
  • On August 30, 2019, an IED was activated against an SDF vehicle in southern Al-Hasakah. An SDF commander was wounded (Telegram, August 30, 2019).
  • On September 1, 2019, an SDF fighter in the Al-Mufti neighborhood in northern Al-Hasakah was shot and killed (Telegram, September 3, 2019).
SDF counterterrorist activity
  • On the morning of August 28, 2019, a special SDF force, with International Coalition support, raided an ISIS hiding place in the rural area east of Deir ez-Zor. Several ISIS operatives were captured. They had in their possession passports, communications devices, camera, military uniform and propaganda material (SDF Press, August 28, 2019). During the night of September 2, 2019, a joint force of the International Coalition and SDF fighters was landed in the village of Izba, about 15 km northeast of Deir ez-Zor. Three ISIS operatives were apprehended (Deir ez-Zor 24, September 3, 2019).
Passports, communications devices and propaganda material found in the possession of the ISIS operatives (SDF Press, August 28, 2019)     ISIS operatives captured by the SDF forces east of Deir ez-Zor.
Right: ISIS operatives captured by the SDF forces east of Deir ez-Zor. Left: Passports, communications devices and propaganda material found in the possession of the ISIS operatives (SDF Press, August 28, 2019)
  • The SDF counterterrorism units (YAT) detained Ahmad Mohammad Ahmad (codenamed Abu Rif’ah), ISIS’s operative in charge of finance. Ahmad Mohammad Ahmad held a series of senior positions in ISIS. Many documents were found in his possession, which will assist in uncovering additional ISIS cells (SDF Press, September 3, 2019).
  • Concurrently with the counterterrorism activities, ISIS’s terrorist activity continues in the area of Deir ez-Zor, Al-Mayadeen, and Albukamal. Following are highlights of ISIS’s activity:
  • August 30, 2019: Motorcycle bomb was detonated against an SDF command post in Al-Sour, about 50 km northeast of Deir ez-Zor. Two SDF fighters were killed and three were wounded (Telegram, September 1, 2019).
  • August 30, 2019: An SDF vehicle was hit by machine gun fire in Al-Bahra, 30 km north of Albukamal (on the east bank of the Euphrates). Two SDF fighters were killed (Telegram, September 1, 2019).
  • On August 31, 2019, an SDF fighter in Al-Basira, about 14 km north of Al-Mayadeen, was shot and killed (Telegram, September 2, 2019).
  • On September 1, 2019, an SDF fighter in Daman, about 20 km north of Al-Mayadeen, was shot and killed (Telegram, September 2, 2019).
Capture of a senior ISIS operative, one of the planners of the attacks in Paris (2015) and Brussels (2016)
  • The SDF forces’ counterterrorism units (YATs) captured Anwar Abdel Rahman Haddouchi, a senior ISIS operative who is considered one of the most dangerous ISIS operatives who operated in the rural area east of Deir ez-Zor. Haddouchi, a Belgian citizen, reportedly took part in the preparations and planning of the attacks in Paris (November 13, 2015, 130 dead and 368 wounded) and Brussels (a suicide bombing attack at the airport and the Metro on March 22, 2016, 32 dead and more than 300 wounded) (SDF Press, August 31, 2019). His capture was reportedly made possible following the interrogation of ISF operatives detained by the SDF forces (Khotwa, September 1, 2019).

Anwar Abdel Rahman Haddouchi, detained by the SDF forces (SDF Press, August 31, 2019)
Anwar Abdel Rahman Haddouchi, detained by the SDF forces
(SDF Press, August 31, 2019)

Southern Syria
ISIS activity in the Dara area
  • ISIS’s Al-Sham Province – Hawran area announced that the operatives had arrested Hassan Radiman al-Alyan, a member of the Syrian Military Intelligence, on the road between the towns of Azra’a and Al-Harak (about 20 km east of Daraa). After his interrogation, he was executed (Telegram, September 2, 2019).

Temporary security card issued by the Syrian army’s Intelligence Division, which was found in Hassan Radiman Al-Alyan’s possession (Telegram, September 3, 2019)
Temporary security card issued by the Syrian army’s Intelligence Division, which was found in Hassan Radiman Al-Alyan’s possession (Telegram, September 3, 2019)

Main developments in Iraq
ISIS’s terrorist and guerrilla activity
  • Following are ISIS’s main terrorist and guerrilla operations (according to ISIS’s claims of responsibility):
    • Diyala Province: An IED was activated against an Iraqi army vehicle 8 km south of Baqubah (Telegram, August 28, 2019).
    • Diyala Province: Three mortar shells were fired at an Iraqi army force some 45 km east of Baqubah (Telegram, August 28, 2019).
    • Diyala Province: An IED was activated against an Iraqi army foot patrol some 35 km northeast of Baqubah. Two soldiers were wounded (Telegram, August 29, 2019).
    • Diyala Province: Mortar shells were fired at Tribal Mobilization forces some 35 km northeast of Baqubah. Two Tribal Mobilization operatives were wounded (Telegram, August 29, 2019).
    • Diyala Province: An Iraqi police outpost in the area of Jalula, some 30 km northeast of Baqubah, was hit by sniper fire. One policeman was killed and two others were wounded (Telegram, August 29, 2019).
    • Diyala Province: A checkpoint of the Iraqi army and the Popular Mobilization west of Khanaqin was attacked with small arms and machine guns. Two soldiers and two Popular Mobilization operatives were wounded (Telegram, August 31, 2019).
    • Salah al-Din Province: A convoy escorting Tawfiq Al-Janabi, a Baghdad police commander, was ambushed some 30 km north of Baghdad. A number of security guards and officers who escorted him were wounded in the exchange of fire (Telegram, August 29, 2019).
    • Salah al-Din Province: An IED was activated against a Tribal Mobilization vehicle in the area of Shirqat, some 90 km south of Mosul. Three Tribal Mobilization operatives were wounded (Telegram, August 30, 2019).
    • Nineveh Province: An IED was activated against an Iraqi army foot patrol some 40 km south of Mosul. Two soldiers were killed and another was wounded (Telegram, August 29-30, 2019).
    • Diyala Province: An attack was carried out against a camp of an elite unit of the Iraqi Interior Ministry some 90 km north of Baqubah. One fighter was killed and another was seriously wounded (Telegram, September 1, 2019).
    • Salah al-Din Province: ISIS ambushed a vehicle of a militia belonging to the Popular Mobilization northwest of Samara. All the passengers were killed. The vehicle was set on fire (Telegram, September 2, 2019).
    • Fallujah Province: ISIS operatives attacked the quarters of Iraqi soldiers in the area of Al-Dabetiyah, some 15 km northwest of Baghdad. In the exchange of fire, two soldiers were killed and a few others were wounded. In addition, an IED was activated against a military vehicle. Three soldiers were killed (Telegram, September 3, 2019).
    • Salah al-Din Province: Two fighters of the Saraya al-Salam militia, which belongs to the Popular Mobilization, northwest of Samara were killed by sniper fire (Telegram, September 2, 2019).
    • Salah al-Din Province: An IED was activated against a vehicle of the Saraya al-Salam militia, which belongs to the Popular Mobilization, northwest of Samara. All the passengers were killed (Telegram, September 2, 2019).
    • Salah al-Din Province: An IED was activated against a vehicle of the Iraqi police, whose duties include protecting the oilfields in the area of Al-Alas, some 40 km northeast of Tikrit. All the passengers were killed (Telegram, September 2, 2019).
Counterterrorist activities by the Iraqi security forces
  • On August 27, 2019, the last phase of Operation the Will to Win ended. The goal of the operation was to mop up northern and western Iraq from the presence of ISIS operatives. During the last phase of the operation, 25 ISIS positions were uncovered and six tunnels were destroyed. Two ISIS operatives were killed and six were detained (Al-Sumaria, August 27, 2019).
  • Al-Anbar Province: A Popular Mobilization force operating in the Wadi Horan Desert in the Al-Anbar Province killed ISIS’s governor of Baghdad Abd Al-Salam Hamad Hamud (AKA Abu Noor). His aide blew himself up, and six of his security guards were detained (al-hashed.net, August 29, 2019).
  • Diyala Province: The Iraqi army announced that for the first time, ISIS used booby-trapped cows in an attack in which one man was wounded. The attack took place in the area of Jalula, some 30 km northeast of Baqubah. Iraqi security forces fear that this is a new modus operandi (Al-Jazeera, September 1, 2019).
ISIS operatives in Iraq renew their pledge of allegiance to ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi
  • This week, a video was released documenting ISIS operatives in Iraq renewing their pledge of allegiance to the organization’s leader (Telegram, September 2, 2019). The video, which is entitled “The [welcome] results will benefit the adherents [of Islam],” shows armed and masked ISIS operatives. One of them notes that the fighting against the “Crusaders” [i.e., the Christian West] began more than 20 years ago and continued until they fled Iraq. He notes that Allah stands alongside those with patience and that victory will eventually be achieved by ISIS operatives who cling to their religion. At the end of the video, groups of operatives throughout Iraq are shown renewing their pledge of allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Telegram, September 2, 2019).
  • This is another video in a series of videos recently issued by ISIS documenting operatives in various provinces renewing their pledge of allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Operatives renewing their pledge of allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Telegram, July 2, 2019)   The speaker in the video is speaking.
Right: The speaker in the video is speaking. Left: Operatives renewing their pledge of allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Telegram, July 2, 2019)