MESOP NEWS INTEL BACKGROUNDER BY MEIR AMIT INTELLIGENCE AND TERRORISM INFORMATION CENTER – ISRAEL (II)
The Syrian forces, with Russian air support, continued the campaign to take over the Idlib area, which is controlled by the rebel organizations (under the leadership of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham). They appear to be concentrating their efforts on taking over the Abu ad-Duhur military airbase southeast of Idlib, which is an important interim target.
This week, the Russians foiled an attempted attack by 13 UAVs, targeting the Hmeymim airbase and the naval base in Tartus. In late December 2017, a number of rockets and mortar shells were fired at the Russian base in Hmeymim. The Russians claimed that the Islamic terrorist organization Ahrar al-Sham, which is deployed in the Idlib region, was responsible for launching the UAVs. This requires verification.
In the ITIC’s assessment, the attacks were carried out by the rebel organizations in the Idlib area. Their objective was to ease the pressure on them in the eastern part of the enclave and in the rural area south of Idlib. These attacks made it clear to Russia that despite its declarations of victory in Syria and the withdrawal of some of its forces, the civil war in Syria is still far from over.
This week, ISIS’s Sinai Province released a video filmed in northern Sinai severely criticizing the “infidel” Hamas. The video documents several Hamas operatives who fled the Gaza Strip and joined the ranks of ISIS in Sinai. It documents the execution of a smuggler from Egyptian Rafah who was accused by ISIS of transferring weapons to the military wing of Hamas. The video also includes a threat to the Jews. The Egyptian media presented the video as proof that Hamas continues to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip through Sinai, and that it has a network of operatives carrying out these smuggling operations.
Main developments in Syria
Series of attacks against the Russian bases in Hmeymim and Tartus
Recently, Russian Air Force’s Hmeymim base and the Russian naval base in Tartus have been attacked by UAVs, rocket and mortar shells. Following are details of the attacks (according to the Russian media):
The Russian Ministry of Defense issued a statement that between January 5 and 6, 2018, a combined “terrorist attack” against the Russian Air Force base in Hmeymim and the Russian Navy’s logistics center in Tartus was foiled. The attack was carried out by 13 UAVs equipped with self-manufactured IEDs. Ten UAVs attempted to attack the base in Hmeymim and three others attempted to attack the (naval) base in Tartus. According to the Russians, none of the UAVs hit the target. Seven UAVs were shot down by the Russian air defense system and six were landed by the Russian army’s electronic warfare systems (three of them exploded upon landing).
According to the statement issued by the Russian Ministry of Defense, the UAVs were launched from a distance of about 50 km and were equipped with innovative navigation and assault equipment. This was the first massive use of this type of aircraft. According to the Russians, the technology for operating the UAVs was apparently obtained from a third country with high-level technological capabilities (Facebook page of the Russian Ministry of Defense, January 8, 2018).
On December 31, 2017, a number of mortar shells were fired at the Russian airbase in Hmeymim. On January 4, 2018, the Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed that there had indeed been an attack against the Hmeymim base. According to the report by the Ministry of Defense, a “mobile group of armed saboteurs” carried out the attack, killing two soldiers. The Russian Ministry of Defense has denied reports that Russian aircraft were destroyed in the attack (TASS News Agency, January 4, 2018). The daily newspaper Kommersant reported the incident, noting that it was one of the most serious incidents since the beginning of Russia’s involvement in Syria. Until this attack, there was no significant damage to Russian equipment, and this was the first time that the Russian air defense systems had malfunctioned (Kommersant, January 3, updated on January 4, 2018).
Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova reported that on December 27, 2017, “militants” had fired a number of rockets at the international airport in Latakia and at the Russian Air Force base in Hmeymim. Two of them were intercepted by the Russian air defense system. A third rocket that was fired deviated from its course and landed on the outskirts of the city of Jableh (Russian Foreign Ministry website, December 28, 2017).
So far no organization has claimed responsibility for the UAV attacks. However, military sources told the daily Kommersant that it was highly likely that the Islamic rebel organization Ahrar al-Sham was behind the attacks. The organization had previously attempted to mount a UAV attack on Syrian army military engineering units in the city of Homs (an attempt that failed). According to the military sources, the decoding of the UAV’s data provided “partial proof” of Ahrar al-Sham’s involvement in the latest attack (January 5-6, 2018). The Russian Ministry of Defense issued an official statement that the UAVs involved in the attempted attack on the Russian bases in Hmeymim and Tartus in Syria were launched from the small town of Al-Mawzarah (around 32 km southwest of Idlib).
Ahrar al-Sham, which has been accused by the Russians, is an Islamic rebel organization established at the beginning of the civil war in Syria following the unification of several Islamic rebel organizations. After the attempted UAV attack, the Russians turned to Turkey, which supports the organization. The organization’s center of power is in the Idlib area, where the dominant organization is the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (formerly the Al-Nusra Front). In July 2017, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham carried out a military campaign against Ahrar al-Sham in the Idlib, following which it positioned itself as the dominant organization in the Idlib area. It appears that in light of the campaign for the takeover of Idlib, Ahrar al-Sham is working in cooperation with the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, albeit in separate combat zones.
Summary and Conclusions
The attacks against the Russian base in Hmeymim and the naval base in Tartus were carried out by the rebel organizations operating in the Idlib area. In the ITIC’s assessment, their objective was to ease the pressure of the Syrian forces which, with Russian air support, are attempting to take over the Idlib enclave and are exerting pressure mainly on its eastern part. It is possible that Ahrar al-Sham carried out the attempted UAV attack, but this still requires verification.These attacks made it clear to Russia that despite its leaders’ declarations of their victory in Syria and despite the withdrawal of a small part of the Russian forces, the civil war is still far from over. It also made it clear that Russia’s strategic outposts in the coastal strip, mainly Hmeymim and Tartus, are highly vulnerable to attacks by the rebel organizations that control the Idlib area.
The campaign to take over Idlib
The Syrian army and its allies continued their activity in the Idlib area, mainly in the rural area south of the city and in the eastern part of the Idlib Province:
After clashes with operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and the organizations supporting it, the Syrian forces took over a large number of towns and villages in the rural area south of Idlib (the Syrian Military Information, January 7, 2018). The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham reportedly sustained many losses in weapons and military equipment (SANA, January 7, 2018). According to the news agency of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, elite forces of the organization killed 35 Syrian soldiers about 52 km south of Idlib (Ibaa News Agency, which is affiliated with the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, January 8, 2018).
At the same time, the Syrian army and the forces supporting it continued to operate in the eastern part of the Idlib Province, in the rural area north of Hama. According to reports, since the campaign started on October 22, 2017, the Syrian forces took over 87 towns and villages in the region (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, January 6, 2018).
It seems that the Syrian forces’ main effort is now directed at the takeover of Abu Ad-Duhur military airbase, which represents an important interim target in the campaign to take over the Idlib region. This airbase, one the largest in northern Syria, was taken over by the rebel organizations in 2015.
Detonation of a car bomb in Idlib
On January 7, 2018, a car bomb exploded on Al-Thalatheen Street in Idlib. At least 43 people were killed and dozens of others were wounded. The dead include 27 civilians, most of them children (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, January 8, 2018). In addition, at least four buildings were damaged (Ibaa News Agency, January 7, 2018). For the time being, no organization claimed responsibility. The explosion reportedly occurred in front of a military headquarters of an organization named Armies of the Caucasus (Al-Jazeera, January 7, 2018; Ibaa News Agency, January 7, 2018).
The Armies of the Caucasus (Ajnad Al-Qawqaz) is an armed organization whose operatives come from Chechnya, the Caucasus, and the Balkans. The organization commander (at least since August 10, 2015) is Abd al-Hakeem al-Sheeshani (i.e., the Chechen), born in 1983, from the Chechen capital Grozny (Arabi 21, August 10, 2015).
Car bomb neutralized in central Palmyra
The Syrian army reported that it neutralized an ISIS car bomb about 20 km southeast of Palmyra. It was an SUV of the kind used by ISIS operatives. It contained many IEDs, including explosives in excess of 500 kg. The explosives also included many anti-tank mines (SANA’s YouTube channel, January 4, 2018).
The vehicle with anti-tank mines around it (SANA’s YouTube channel, January 4, 2018) ISIS car bomb neutralized by the Syrian army southeast of Palmyra.
Right: ISIS car bomb neutralized by the Syrian army southeast of Palmyra. Left: The vehicle with anti-tank mines around it (SANA’s YouTube channel, January 4, 2018)
Clashes continue north of Albukamal
Clashes between the SDF forces and ISIS operatives east of the Euphrates River continued this week. According to ISIS, twenty SDF fighters were killed and four were taken prisoner during clashes about 37 km northwest of Albukamal (Akhbar Al-Muslimeen, January 9, 2018).
Evacuation of the rebels from the Beit Jinn enclave – implementation of the agreement
During the week, the implementation of the agreement to evacuate the rebel enclave in the area of Beit Jinn continued. As part of the process, the Syrian army seized several outposts at the foot of Mount Hermon, on the border between Israel and Syria, including an outpost in the area of Mazraat Beit Jinn (Syrian TV, January 5, 2018). Dozens of the rebel forces in the town of Beit Jinn and Mazraat Beit Jinn decided not to leave and stay in their homes (SANA, January 7, 2018). The Syrian forces reportedly started to regulate their status, and they handed over their weapons to the Syrian army (Syrian TV, January 7, 2018).
Main developments in Iraq
ISIS guerrilla warfare and terror activity and Iraqi counterterrorist activities
This week as well, Iraqi security forces continued to conduct intensive military activity against ISIS operatives scattered throughout northern Iraq, in enclaves and sporadic pockets. North of Baiji, three ISIS operatives were killed by the Iraqi security forces. One of them wore an explosive belt (Iraqi News Agency, January 5, 2018). Twelve ISIS operatives, members of sleeper cells of the organization who were hiding in the city of Kirkuk, were detained by the Iraqi security forces (Iraqi News Agency, January 7, 2018).
This week there were several prominent attacks carried out by ISIS operatives against the Iraqi security forces. ISIS did not issue an official claim of responsibility for some of the attacks, probably for fear of exposing ISIS operatives and maybe due to the damage sustained by ISIS’s communications infrastructure in Iraq. Following are prominent incidents:
ISIS’s media outlets reported the elimination of “an Iraqi government agent.” The “agent” was shot to death on January 6, 2018 by an ISIS operative in the neighborhood of Al-‘Ereibi in northwest Mosul (Akhbar Al-Muslimeen, January 7, 2018).
According to ISIS reports, on January 5, 2018, two members of Iraqi Military Intelligence were shot dead in the neighborhood of Soumar, in south Mosul (Akhbar Al-Muslimeen, January 6, 2018).
A woman was killed and three people were wounded when a car bomb and an explosive belt exploded in a guest compound of the Sheikh of the Al-Nada tribes (Sunni Muslim tribes), about 50 km east of Baqubah. So far, no organization claimed responsibility for the attack. A day earlier, the Sheikh, speaking at a gathering held for tribespeople in the area, called on his audience to fight against ISIS’s sleeper cells (Al-Sumaria News, January 6, 2018).
It is not the first time that a terrorist attack against the Sunni Muslim Al-Nada tribes is taking place. On June 23, 2015, at least 11 people were killed and 29 were wounded when a car bomb exploded at a gathering of sheikhs of the Al-Nada tribes. The gathering was held due to the abduction of the leader of the Al-Nada tribes in Iraq, Sheikh Mutlek al-Turki al-Aleewi, probably by ISIS (Iraq Press, June 23, 2015). In the ITIC’s assessment, the detonation of the car bomb at the guest compound of the Al-Nada tribes wad intended to deter the Sunni Al-Nada tribes from supporting the Iraqi government.
On January 6, 2018, armed operatives attacked several positions of the Iraqi security forces and tribesmen in the Al-Nida Basin, about 55 km east of Baqubah. The Iraqi security forces sent reinforcements to the scene of the clashes. The number of fatalities was not mentioned (Al-Sumaria News, January 6, 2018).
On January 6, 2018, it was reported that ISIS operatives had exploded the home of a council member of the Qarah Tabah District, about 112 km northeast of Baqubah (Al-Sumaria News, January 6, 2018). ISIS did not issue any claim of responsibility.
Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula
The Sinai Peninsula
According to Egyptian security sources, the Egyptian security services in North Sinai declared an emergency in all population centers and security checkpoints in the province. The forces took enhanced security measures, setting up checkpoints on highways and roads and raiding Arish neighborhoods. The security forces also reinforced their presence around security and government sites, police stations, the central jail, and churches (Facebook page of the Union of Sinai Tribes, January 6, 2018). Alert intended to prevent the infiltration of terrorist operatives was also declared in the mountain roads and wadis in southern Sinai (Sinai News Facebook page, January 6, 2018).
In spite of the intensive activity by the security forces, ISIS operatives continued to operate on the ground and carry out terrorist attacks. On January 4, 2017, a policeman and an Egyptian army soldier were killed after they had been stopped at an improvised checkpoint near Sebeekah, about 32 km west of central Al-Arish (Akhbar Al-Muslimeen, January 5, 2018).
Panel in Egypt presenting the characteristics of terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula in 2017
At a panel on the subject of terrorism in Egypt, Egyptian security and terror experts summed up the terrorist activity in 2017. The experts noted a number of characteristics (Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya, January 7, 2018):
In 2017 there was a decrease in the number of attacks and an increase in the number of foiled attacks. According to the experts, for every attack carried out, two attacks were foiled.
The terrorist attacks changed “from quantity attacks to quality attacks.” Most of the attacks continued to target the Egyptian security forces (army and police), but at the same time an attempt was made to attack civilian institutions and targets. The experts identified an increase in the number of attacks against civilian targets, mainly houses of worship.
Terrorist operatives reached new areas in the northern Sinai Peninsula. ISIS recruited operatives from Egypt proper, from areas such as Cairo, the Nile Valley, and the Nile Delta.
Activity by small mobile squads, which poses a major security challenge for the Egyptian security forces.
With regard to 2018, the security and terrorism experts expect terrorism to be affected by several factors: international developments, tension in various regions around the world, economic, technological and security challenges, and the battles for influence between regional and international entities. As for ISIS, they predict that in the wake of its defeat in Syria and Iraq, it will attempt to reinvent itself in North Africa, including in the Sinai Peninsula.
ISIS activity in other countriesAfghanistan: Another suicide bombing attack in Kabul and the activities of the Afghan security forces
On January 4, a suicide bombing attack was carried out in the northeastern part of the capital, Kabul. A suicide bomber blew himself up among Afghan police who were on duty at a demonstration by shop owners in the area. A total of 13 policemen were killed and 16 others were wounded. Two civilians were also wounded. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack (Afghanistan Times, January 5, 2018).
A total of 20 ISIS operatives were killed in an operation by the Afghan security forces in the Alingar District (in Laghman), about 40 km north of Jalalabad. The operation included artillery fire and airstrikes against ISIS positions in the area. Two other ISIS operatives were killed in a similar operation in the Achin District in eastern Afghanistan, around 36 km southeast of Jalalabad (Afghanistan Times, January 6, 2018).
The battle for hearts and minds
ISIS’s Sinai province released a video severely criticizing Hamas
On January 3, 2018, ISIS’s Sinai province released a propaganda video filmed in northern Sinai, severely criticizing Hamas. Among other things, the video documents Hamas operatives who fled the Gaza Strip and joined the ranks of ISIS (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, January 3, 2018). Highlights of the video:
The video begins with the President of the United States declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Next, against the background of a panoramic view of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the announcer explains the importance of Jerusalem to the Muslims. According to the announcer, Palestine has been neglected and forgotten, and that is how it happened that Trump declared Jerusalem the “capital of the Jews.”
Another part of the video is devoted to denouncing Hamas, “which maintains a regime that is not the regime of religion, fights against jihad fighters and adheres to democracy.” Hamas the “infidel” is also accused of cooperation with Egypt. Next, the Salafist operatives in the Gaza Strip are called upon to renounce and act against the Hamas regime.
The video goes on to attack Egypt for harassing ISIS operatives. The video calls on Salafis in central and southern Egypt to fight the “infidels” and attack their courts and security headquarters. The Salafis in the Gaza Strip must renounce the Hamas regime, which oppresses them and acts against those who believe in the oneness of God (the Salafist-jihadis operating in the Gaza Strip).
The video documents the execution of Musa Abu Zamat, a smuggler from Egyptian Rafah who was accused by ISIS of transferring weapons to the military wing of Hamas.At the end of the video, Abu Kazem al-Maqdisi, an operative in ISIS’s Sinai Province, threatens: “As for the Jews, as for the Jews, we have already pulled out the sharp sword for them and prepared a huge army for them, we will destroy their fortresses in broad daylight and we will send the children, the elderly and the virgins [the Arabic word used here is abkar, which is also the plural form of the Arabic word for firstborn] down to Hell. Tell the treacherous Jews, our morning is coming, our Caliphate exists and you will be buried. Our messages come through daggers, and we will be proud to defeat you, O you cowards, you are scoundrels, and dogs are purer than you are” (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, January 3, 2018).
Following are details of ISIS operatives in Sinai who fled the Gaza Strip and are mentioned in the video (according to Palestinian and Arab sources):
Hamza Adel al-Zamali: The operative in the video who threatens Hamas is codenamed Kazem al-Ghazawi (i.e., the Gazan) or Mohammad Adel al-Kazem or Abu Kazem al-Maqdisi. He was born in 1992 and used to live in the Palestinian part of Rafah. He left the Gaza Strip for Sinai two years ago. He was allegedly called in for questioning several times by the security apparatus in Rafah, which accused him of several criminal offenses (thefts and morality offenses for which indictments were filed against him).
Mohammad al-Dajani AKA Rashad Anwar al-Dajani. Al-Dajani lived in the Shati refugee camp in the western Gaza Strip and was an operative in the military wing of Hamas. After being influenced by ISIS’s extremist ideology, he left the Gaza Strip and moved to Sinai. He is now an operative in ISIS’s Sinai Province. Mohammad al-Dajani is the man who executed Musa Abu Zamat.
Mohammad Munsa AKA Abu al-Rawi: he lived in the Nuseirat refugee camp and was arrested for offenses that he committed. He left for Sinai and joined the ranks of ISIS. He is currently an operative in the Sheikh Zuweid area (Arabi 21; Al-Bawaba News, January 3, 2018).
ISIS’s Sinai Province operative Mohammad al-Dajani pointing a gun at Musa Abu Zamat’s head just before executing him (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, January 3, 2018). Abu Kazem al-Maqdisi speaking before the execution of Musa Abu Zamat (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, January 3, 2018).
Right: Abu Kazem al-Maqdisi speaking before the execution of Musa Abu Zamat (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, January 3, 2018). Left: ISIS’s Sinai Province operative Mohammad al-Dajani pointing a gun at Musa Abu Zamat’s head just before executing him (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, January 3, 2018).
The Egyptians’ reaction to the video
In view of the video and the identification of its participants, the Egyptian press criticized Hamas:
An article in Al-Ahram by Ashraf Abu al-Houl states that the video is proof of the existing link between extremists in Gaza and violence in the Sinai Peninsula. The reporter adds that Hamas did not give Egypt the names of the operatives who joined the ISIS operatives in the Sinai Peninsula. As a result, he raises a question about the extent of Hamas’s sense of commitment to Egypt on the subject of regulating the situation on the border and preventing the passage of terrorists from the Gaza Strip via the tunnels. He also demands an investigation with the Hamas leadership (Al-Ahram, January 8, 2018).
An article in Al-Masry al-Youm claims that the video proves that Hamas uses Sinai to smuggle weapons and that it has a network of operatives carrying out this smuggling activity. Some of the ISIS operatives in the northern Sinai Peninsula are from the Gaza Strip and some are former members of Hamas. Northern Sinai has now become a battleground between Hamas and ISIS. According to the article, there is a movement within Hamas that is trying to distance Hamas from national reconciliation. The article adds that it would be appropriate to examine the requests by Iran and Hezbollah to provide assistance to Hamas as soon as possible, and the talks that Qassem Soleimani has held with Hamas’s military wing and the PIJ in the Gaza Strip (Al-Masry al-Youm, January 9, 2018).
 The city of Idlib, stronghold of the rebel organizations, is located about 85 km (as the crow flies) northwest of the Russian base in Hmeymim. Hence it is reasonable to assume that the launches were carried out in the area south of Idlib, which is controlled by the rebel organizations. ↑
 According to a number of sources, at least seven Russian aircraft were destroyed in the attack (four Su-24 bombers, two Su-35s and an An-72 cargo plane). It was also reported that 10 military personnel may have been wounded. As stated, the Russian Ministry of Defense has denied these reports. ↑
 Mohammad al-Dajani’s family published the following statement: “In the face of this criminal act committed by Mohammad al-Dajani, we emphasize that the family is free of responsibility [innocent] for this act and other acts that are contrary to our righteous religion and the values of our people” (Dunya Al-Watan, January 4, 2018). ↑ www.mesop.de