Proposed buffer zone leads al Qaeda to withdraw fighters from northern Aleppo province

An Al Nusrah Front fighter on the lookout in Aleppo.

An Al Nusrah Front fighter on the lookout in Aleppo.

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, Aug. 10, 2015:

The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, has released a statement saying its fighters have been ordered to withdraw from their frontline positions north of Aleppo. Al Nusrah’s jihadists had been fighting against the Islamic State in the area. The move comes in response to Turkey’s attempt to establish a buffer zone for forces fighting Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization.

The statement, which was released via Twitter on August 9, does not indicate that Al Nusrah is siding with the Islamic State in the multi-sided conflict. The group makes it clear that it will continue to fight Baghdadi’s men elsewhere. Instead, Turkey’s cooperation with the US-led coalition, which has targeted veteran al Qaeda leaders in northern Syria, has forced Al Nusrah to change tactics.

The al Qaeda arm says it is relinquishing control of its territory in the northern part of the Aleppo province. Other rebel groups will step into the void.

Al Nusrah criticizes the proposed buffer zone in its statement, saying it is intended to serve Turkey’s national security interests and is not part of a real effort to aid the mujahdeen’s cause. The Turkish government fears a Kurdish state on its southern border, according to Al Nusrah, and that is the real impetus behind its decision. The Kurds are one of the Islamic State’s main opponents and have gained territory at the expense of Baghdadi’s jihadists in recent months.

The al Qaeda branch also says it cannot find religious justifications for cooperating with the joint US-Turkey initiative.

There is an even simpler explanation for Al Nusrah’s rejection of Turkey’s buffer zone: the US has been striking select al Qaeda operatives in Al Nusrah’s ranks.

The Pentagon announced earlier this month that it had begun flying drones out of the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Some of the air missions are reportedly backing up US-trained rebel forces on the ground. Those very same fighters have battled Al Nusrah, which has killed or captured a number of the “moderate” rebels.

In late July, for instance, Al Nusrah claimed that it had captured members of a group called Division 30, which has reportedly received American assistance. Other members of Division 30 were killed during clashes with Al Nusrah after the al Qaeda arm raided the group’s headquarters north of Aleppo. Subsequently, a statement attributed to Division 30 disavowed any role in the US-led coalition’s campaign. The statement also said that Division 30 would “not be dragged [into] any side battle with any faction, as it did not, and will not, fight against Al Nusrah Front or any other faction.”

Regardless, the Defense Department is providing air support to US-backed rebels, who have been dubbed the New Syrian Force. And Al Nusrah has made it clear that any American effort to influence the anti-Assad and anti-Islamic State insurgency will be treated as a hostile act.

Separately, the US has also repeatedly targeted senior al Qaeda leaders in Al Nusrah’s ranks. Labeled the “Khorasan Group,” this cadre of al Qaeda veterans has been plotting attacks in the West.

Al Qaeda’s view of cooperation with Turkey, independent from US-led coalition

From al Qaeda’s perspective, tactical cooperation with Turkey, or elements of the Turkish government, is one matter. Working with the US-backed coalition, which Turkey supports in some ways, is another issue altogether.

Consider what Nasser bin Ali al Ansi, an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) official who alsoserved as al Qaeda’s deputy general manager until his death in April, said about Turkey earlier this year. In a question and answer session that was released online, al Ansi was asked how the jihadists should deal “with countries like Qatar and Turkey, whose policies tend to benefit the mujahideen.” Al Ansi replied that there “is no harm in benefiting from intersecting interests, as long as we do not have to sacrifice anything in our faith or doctrine.” However, al Ansi warned, this “does not alleviate their burden for collaborating with the Americans in their war against the mujahideen.” The jihadists “need to be attentive to this detail,” al Ansi explained.

In other words, al Qaeda’s members and like-minded jihadists can benefit from working with Turkey and Qatar, as long as those nations do not cross the line by advancing America’s “war against the mujahideen.” Given the circumstances described above, this is exactly how Al Nusrah now views Turkey’s proposed buffer zone.

However, as Al Ansi made clear, this does not preclude the possibility of tacit cooperation between al Qaeda’s Syrian branch and parts of the Turkish government on other matters. Indeed, because of their “intersecting interests” in Syria — namely, both want to see Bashar al Assad’s regime toppled — Turkey has been slow to recognize Al Nusrah as a threat in its own right.

In September 2014, Francis Ricciardone, the former US ambassador to Turkey, accused the Turks of working with Al Nusrah. “We ultimately had no choice but to agree to disagree,” Ricciardone said of his discussion with Turkish officials. “The Turks frankly worked with groups for a period, including Al Nusrah, whom we finally designated as we’re not willing to work with.”

Since early on the rebellion against the Assad regime, Turkey has permitted large numbers of foreign jihadists to travel into Syria. At various points, this benefitted not only Al Nusrah, but also al Qaeda’s rivals in the Islamic State, which Turkey now opposes.

For instance, in October 2013, The Wall Street Journal reported on meetings between US officials, Turkish authorities and others. “Turkish officials said the threat posed by [Al Nusrah], the anti-Assad group, could be dealt with later,” according to US officials and Syrian opposition leaders who spoke with the newspaper. Officials also told the publication that the US government’s decision to designate Al Nusrah as a terrorist group in December 2012 was intended “in part to send a message to Ankara about the need to more tightly control the arms flow.”

Eventually, in 2014, Turkey also designated Al Nusrah as a terrorist organization. Turkish authorities have also reportedly launched sporadic raids on al Qaeda-affiliated sites inside their country.

Still, al Qaeda has found Turkey to be a hospitable environment in the past. According to the US Treasury Department, al Qaeda has funneled cash and fighters through Turkish soil to Al Nusrah.

In October 2012, Treasury said that a network headed by al Qaeda operative Muhsin al Fadhli was moving “fighters and money through Turkey to support al Qaeda-affiliated elements in Syria.” In addition, al Fadhli leveraged “his extensive network of Kuwaiti jihadist donors to send money to Syria via Turkey.” (The Defense Department believes that al Fadhli was killed in an airstrike on July 8.)

It remains to be seen how Al Nusrah will react to Turkey’s latest moves, beyond rejecting the proposed buffer zone. In the meantime, groups allied with Al Nusrah will likely take over its turf.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracy and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal.

Also see:

U.S.-Funded Free Syrian Army Unit Shows Off Its Kidnapping Skills in New Training Video

PJ Media, by Patrick Poole, July 23, 2015:

A training video released today by Liwa Fursan al-Haqq (Knights of Justice Brigade) of the “vetted moderate” Free Syrian Army (FSA) opens with the group’s special forces practicing their abduction and kidnapping skills. And yet FSA units, funded, supported and armed by the U.S., have been repeatedly implicated in the abduction and kidnapping of U.S. citizens in Syria.

Here you can see them putting their U.S.-funded training to practice:

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Also shown are critical military skills, such as standing on the back of a motorcycle while shooting two U.S.-funded AK-47s one-handed:

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Of course no jihadist training video would be complete without the requisite traversing of the monkey bars:

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Or the “Fiery Ring of Death”:

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Delta Force and the Navy SEALs have nothing on Liwa Fursan al-Haqq. Yet all three elite units are funded by U.S. taxpayer dollars!

You can watch the whole 10 minute video in all of its glory:

What makes the video of U.S.-funded FSA units being trained in kidnapping and abduction so important to note is that FSA units have repeatedly been implicated in the abduction of American citizens who were later traded to Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, as well as the Islamic State.

That would include American journalist James Foley, beheaded by the Islamic State last year in its first such grisly video, who reportedly came into ISIS custody when the FSA-aligned Dawud Brigade that kidnapped and held Foley pledged allegiance to ISIS and delivered him to ISIS as a token of their submission.

That, however, is not the only such documented incident of FSA units abducting Americans.

In late October, American journalist Theo Padnos — who was captured by the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) and then given over to Jabhat al-Nusra — told the story of his two-year captivity in the New York Times Magazine.

At one point, Padnos says he escaped from his Al-Qaeda captors and found himself back in the hands of the FSA, who then, again, promptly turned him back over to the terror group.

Padnos also relates this exchange with some U.S.-trained FSA fighters that exposes the glaring weaknesses of the CIA’s vetting system:

I returned to the FSA troops. One told me that his unit had recently traveled to Jordan to receive training from American forces in fighting groups like the Nusra Front.

“Really?” I said. “The Americans? I hope it was good training.”

“Certainly, very,” he replied.

The fighters stared at me. I stared at them.

After a few moments, I asked, “About this business of fighting Jebhat al Nusra?”

“Oh, that,” one said. “We lied to the Americans about that.”

An NBC News crew taken captive in Syria in December 2012, and who later repeatedly claimed they had been held by an Assad regime militia, later admitted – following a New York Times investigation – that they were in fact held by an FSA criminal network.

Also, there is evidence that NBC News executives knew from the time of the crew’s capture that they were held by U.S. allies, but allowed the blame to fall on Assad since that didn’t conflict with the Obama administration’s position at the time.

The chief Washington D.C. cheerleader for the Syrian rebels, Charles Lister of the Brookings Institution, happily announced the Liwa Fursan Al-Qaqq video release earlier today:

Lister tweet

As I noted back in April here at PJ Media, Lister finally admitted what he and most of the other Western supporters of the Syrian rebels have well known for a long time — that vast majority of Syrian rebel groups have been associated with Jabhat al-Nusra, a fact mostly concealed by the D.C. “smart set”:

This latter alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra has been a consistent facet of insurgent dynamics in Syria, but not only in terms of conservative Salafist groups like Ahrar al-Sham. In fact, while rarely acknowledged explicitly in public, the vast majority of the Syrian insurgency has coordinated closely with Al-Qaeda since mid-2012 – and to great effect on the battlefield. But while this pragmatic management of relationships may have secured opposition military victories against the regime, it has also come at an extraordinary cost. The assimilation of Al-Qaeda into the broader insurgency has discouraged the U.S. and its European allies from more definitively backing the ‘moderate’ opposition. That, by extension, has encouraged the intractability of the conflict we see today and the rise of jihadist factions like Jabhat al-Nusra, IS, and many others.

In fact, it was just a year ago yesterday that Liwa Fursan Al-Haqq announced they were separating from Jabhat al-Nusra. Nusra had been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. in December 2012.

As a result of that separation, that gave the U.S. the go-ahead to begin supplying them with heavy weaponry, such as TOW anti-tank missiles, which you can see them using in the video below:

So the next time that an American citizen finds himself kidnapped by a FSA unit, possibly ending up starring in the Islamic State’s latest beheading video, he can take comfort that his captors have received the best training and received the most advanced weaponry courtesy of his own country’s support.

Your U.S. taxpayer dollars hard at work!

Islamic State’s Dabiq 10 Emphasizes Global Jihad over Islamist Nationalism

dh110Center for Security Policy, by Jennifer Keltz, July 15, 2015:

The Islamic State recently released the tenth issue of its online magazine, Dabiq, titled “The Law of Allah or the Laws of Men.” Dabiq 10, the magazine’s Ramadan edition, focuses primarily on the Islamic State’s Muslim opponents, whom the group accuses of disregarding the word of Allah.

Dabiq 10 addresses two audiences. The first is the general global Muslim population and the second consists of other Islamist and nationalist organizations who have fought against the Islamic State. The Islamic State is trying to convince both to join its campaign of jihad against non-Muslims.

To the global Muslim population, Dabiq 10 stresses the authority of the Caliphate. In its opening remarks, the magazine states that

The call to defend the Islamic State – the only state ruling by Allah’s Sharī’ah today – continues to be answered by sincere Muslims and mujāhihīn around the world prepared to sacrifice their lives and everything dear to them to raise high the word of Allah and trample democracy and nationalism.

Repeatedly, Dabiq 10 denounces nationalism and calls upon Muslims to pledge their allegiance to the Islamic State, which serves Allah above men and nations. The magazine emphasizes the importance of Shariah and points to a hierarchy within Islamic law; it sees itself as having a monopoly over the understanding of this hierarchy. For example, it talks of the Islamic duty to honor one’s parents. However, the magazine notes that children must disobey parents that order their children to defy Shariah,  specifically addressing situations when children are forbidden by their parents to participate in jihad, saying,

Ibn Qudāmah said, “If jihād becomes obligatory upon him then the permission of his parents is not taken into consideration because the jihād has become fard ‘ayn and abandonment of it is a sin. There is no obedience to anyone in disobedience of Allah.”

The Islamic State believes that it represents the only legitimate source of Shariah jurisprudence as a result of having established the Caliphate under AbuBakr Al-Baghdadi. As a result, its declarations “to the sincere Muslims around the world to march forth and wage war against the crusaders and apostates who seek to wipe out the Sharī’ah” carry with them the force of religious obligation and law.

Continuing on this theme of its religious superiority, Dabiq 10 specifically talks about Muslim women whose husbands are either not Muslim or who are Muslim but fight against the Islamic State. These women are instructed to abandon their husbands and family. According to the magazine,

It is not permissible for you in any case to remain under the same roof with someone who has removed the noose of Islam from his neck, and the marriage contract between you and him was nullified the moment when he apostatized from the religion of Islam. …As such, any relationship you have with him is a relationship that is impermissible according to the Sharī’ah. Rather, it amounts to zinā (fornication), so beware.

Fornication carries with it severe punishments, including possibly stoning, so this represents  a thinly veiled threat to both the Islamic State’s enemies, and their spouses.

When addressing other Islamist and nationalist organizations, Dabiq 10 is fiercely critical of the numerous Kurdish nationalist groups and Al Qaeda-affiliated groups. It acknowledges that Kurdish fighters have had some success against its own armies, but it says that Kurdish gains have come at the cost of complete submission to the American “crusaders.” It puts forth the additional point that these Kurdish victories will be short-lived because they have a nationalist, rather than Islamist, agenda. The magazine says,

It should be noted here that all nationalist agendas in the Muslim’s usurped lands are ultimately doomed to fail, even those that seek to unite the members of one nation, or even one ethnicity as in the case of the Kurdish murtaddīn. This includes the agenda of the “Islamist” nationalists, who would readily sacrifice their religion for the sake of temporary political gain, in contrast with the mujāhidīn of the Khilāfah who would readily cut off the heads of the murtaddīn from their own people in defense of Allah’s Sharī’ah.

Dabiq 10 uses a similar argument to criticize Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, its affiliate in Yemen. These groups are faulted for working with nationalist militias and for failing to enforce Shariah law in areas they control. It accuses these groups of following the laws of men and paying no heed to the laws of Allah, because

Some of those mentioned had fallen into apostasy… like those who permit partaking in the shirkī democratic elections, or those who seek intercession from the absent and dead, or those who take the Arab and non-Arab tawāghīt as well as the Crusaders as close allies, or those who deny some of the obvious, definite laws of the Sharī’ah.

Muslims fighting in nationalist groups against the Islamic State are called upon to “repent to Allah and wake up, for by Allah you are fighting the Sharī’ah whether you realize it or not. So gather your brothers, rise in unison, and kill those who order you to fight against those who rule with the Sharī’ah.”

The magazine focuses more closely on Jahbat al-Nusra, whom it calls the “Jawlānī front” in reference to the group’s leader Abu Muhammed Al-Joulani.  It calls Nusra out for Joulani’s recent interview with Al Jazeera, where he specifically stated that the group is not attacking the Druze in Syria. Dabiq 10 features its own interview with Abū Samīr al-Urdunī, a former member of the organization who defected to the Islamic State. According to Urdunī, Nusra fighters were tricked into fighting the Islamic State because they were deceived into believing that Islamic State fighters were members of the pro-Assad Syrian army. Urdunī provided an anecdote to this effect, saying,

One of the soldiers saw a signboard that had drawn on it the flag of the Islamic State. So he shouted, “The Islamic State will remain!” So Abū ‘Abbās stopped the convoy and said to the soldier, “What are you saying?” He said, “The Islamic State will remain. These are our brothers.” He said to him “Do you not know where you are going?” He said “I don’t know.” He said “How do you not know? You are going to fight the Islamic State…” The soldiers said, “We do not want to fight the Islamic State and we don’t agree with fighting it. They told us that we were going for ribāt at the 17th.”

Ribat typically refers to border or guard duty. The 17th is likely a reference to the 17th Syrian division, an Assad regime army unit which had been stationed at a base near the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa.

The remaining Islamist organization that Dabiq 10 addresses is the Taliban. It publishes a question from a member of the Taliban who is unsure if he should remain loyal to the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Omar, or if he should defect to the Islamic State. The article makes clear the Islamic State’s stance on the ongoing feud between the two groups over control of Islamist activity in Afghanistan. The magazine describes the Taliban as a nationalist movement, pointing out that Taliban leader Mullah Omar has been at best circumspect about his global ambitions, and never publicly declared his position as Caliph. In contrast, the Islamic State is a global movement which purports to have established the Caliphate, therefore rendering the Islamic State the supreme and ultimate authority. Also notable is the claim by the Islamic State that the Caliphate position must go to a Quraysh, which is the tribe of Islam’s prophet Mohammed. Mullah Omar has openly declared his ancestry, which is not Quraysh, and Al-Baghdadi claims (almost certainly falsely) that he is Quraysh and that he does meet this important requirement.

Throughout the entirety of Dabiq 10, the power of the Islamic State and its supreme authority over all of Islam is repeatedly emphasized. It is upon this mantle of religious authority as the reestablished Caliphate that the Islamic State claims the right to target and killed other Muslims who do not recognize their authority and so views even other dedicated jihadist organizations as apostates.

Brookings Goes to Bat for Al Qaeda-linked Group…Again

1720491514 (1)Center for Security Policy, by Kyle Shideler, July 15, 2015:

Fresh off their annual U.S.-Islamic World Forum that proved to be a who’s who meeting of Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, The Qatari-funded Brookings Institute is once again going to bat for an Al Qaeda-linked group of militants known as Ahrar Al Sham. Author Charles Lister takes the occasion of the publication of an Op-Ed in the Washington Post by Ahrar Al-Sham’s “head of foreign political relations” Labib  al-Nahhas to laud recent Ahrar Al Sham statements of “moderation”:

While clearly being sharply critical of current U.S. policy, Nahhas’ most powerful message was a genuine call for political engagement—“we remain committed to dialogue,” he said. Coming from an armed Islamist group that came close to being designated and whose facilities have been targeted by U.S. aircraft at least once, this call does show an extent of political pragmatism. Ahrar al-Sham has not called for American support one key Ahrar al-Sham decision-maker told me, but instead desires “the chance for a new start, in which we acknowledge the mistakes of the past and make it clear that a political track is possible, but with the right players and the right principles.”

Such engagement in any form does not have to be a prerequisite for the provision of support, but can be merely of value in and of itself. In the case of Ahrar al-Sham specifically, such engagement would not come without its inherent risks, but it may also prove practical in ensuring at the very least that al-Qaida does not come out on top in Syria.

For this reason and others, Ahrar al-Sham’s senior leadership has been managing a gradual process of external political moderation—or some might say maturity—for at least the last 18 months.

That Ahrar Al-Sham is some how moderating, maturing, or distancing itself from Al Qaeda is a bag of goods that Brookings authors have been attempting to sell for some time. In January of last year, Brookings authors Michael Doran and William McCants, together with co-author Clint Watts, published an article calling Ahrar al Sham the “Al Qaeda-linked Group Worth Befriending”.

Lister denigrates evidence that Ahrar Al-Sham was led by an Al Qaeda leader and confidante of Ayman Al-Zawahiri as “a popular claim”, and attempts to pass along the claim by Ahrar Al Sham and other Islamist groups that they only fight alongside the Al Qaeda linked group in order to provide a “subtle counterbalance”.

Lister also quotes one local Syrian rebel describing Ahrar Al Sham  as “too “intellectually close” to the Muslim Brotherhood”, a description which ironically seems to fit Brookings Institute just as well.

Yet even while reminding us that “actions speak louder than words,” Lister doesn’t find fit to mention that Ahrar Al Sham has recently joined yet another coalition together with Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al Nusra and other AQ-linked outfits in Syria in order to form Ansar Al Sharia, coincidentally (or not) the same cover name used by Al Qaeda in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen.

Perhaps the last word on whether or not to take Ahrar Al Sham’s statements of moderation seriously comes from the Al-Qaeda linked group themselves. The group’s military commander Abu Saleh Tahhan recently tweeted in reference to their association with Al Nusra,

“Anyone who thinks we would sell out those close to us in exchange for the approval of strangers is an idiot, anyone who imagines that we would privilege a neighbor over someone from our own home is a fool…”

The Extreme View that IS and Al Qaeda Can Become Moderate

1569667742CSP, by Jennifer Keltz, June 15, 2015:

Last week, articles suggesting the US should ally itself with Al Qaeda and should consider the Islamic State (IS) as a legitimate power were published by the prominent news sources The Wall Street Journal and Foreign Policy. These articles are part of a growing trend, demonstrated by an earlier 2014 Foreign Affairs article, calling for greater US complacency in regards to violent jihadist groups.

The recent pieces present different, equally dangerous ideas, and should be addressed individually.

Yaroslav Trofimov, of the Wall Street Journal, reports influential policy thinkers and U.S. Allies are discussing the possibility of a US alliance with the Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra). They say that many secular, Western-backed militants fighting in Syria already work closely with Nusra on the battlefield. They also point to Middle Eastern governments, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, that work closely with Nusra to help topple IS and the Assad regime, which has a horrible human-rights record. This perspective fails to recognize that these are Sunni states and their backing of Nusra has more to do with their desire to weaken Shia Iran and Syria than to help Syrian civilians.

The report presents Nusra as the lesser of two evils: in comparison to IS, its religious views are “certainly radical” but “aren’t nearly as extreme.”

The policy-makers in question lack a greater perspective of the Syrian conflict and of Nusra and Al Qaeda. Its Al Qaeda affiliation demonstrates that, while it may have local goals now, it ultimately wants to install Islamic regimes all over the world, and indeed has the same end goal as IS.

The only reason why Nusra is not attacking the West is because Al Qaeda Central ordered it to refrain from doing so. That does not mean that it is not planning to attack in the future. Any group that must be ordered to not attack the US is not a group with which the US should be aligned.

In an unrelated op-ed in Foreign Policy, Stephen M. Walt, a Harvard professor, asks his audience to consider what the US should do if IS “wins.” He believes IS is likely to establish itself and retain power, similarly to how the USSR and People’s Republic of China started as revolutionary movements before establishing themselves as states.

Walt believes the US should treat IS and its worldview in the way that it treated the USSR and communism throughout the twentieth century – with containment. He ignores history: the Soviets never abandoned efforts to violently spread their ideology, from the 1919 invasion of Poland to the 1989 retreat from Afghanistan.

Walt states that IS is not powerful on a global scale, and its foreign recruitment of 25,000 from a world population of 7 billion is not that large. In fact, he says he would rather see all of the people that desire to join IS actually join it because this would put them all in one place, where they can be isolated from the rest of society. Unfortunately, he only considers IS’s foreign recruitment. Size estimates of the organization range from the tens- to hundreds-of-thousands.

Walt ignores IS’s calls for its international followers to attack Western people and civilizations, and that its followers are listening. A quick Google search shows that it inspired attacks in Texas, New York (where one woman “couldn’t understand why U.S. citizens like herself were traveling overseas to wage jihad when they could simply ‘make history’ at home by unleashing terrorist attacks”), Australia, Canada, and elsewhere.

Though its ranks may be small in comparison to the world population, with its strategic use of the internet and media it has permeated through Western society. The US is not as far away from IS’s violence as Walt wants to think. The widespread use of the Internet means that containment can never truly happen and its ideas will still spread, leading more people to want to join. Additionally, recognizing IS as a state would legitimize it, leading to increased recruitment.

He states IS has few resources, and can now no longer surprise its enemies. However, it brings in millions of dollars daily from oil alone, and it has other sources of income. It is also much larger and better-resourced than Al Qaeda was at the time of the 9/11 attacks, which had a core membership between 500-1000 people. IS is therefore expected to have capabilities far beyond those of Al Qaeda in the early 2000s.

Walt’s argument that IS would self-moderate if it became an actual country is important to his argument for containment. He explains it would need to self-moderate in order to gain legitimacy amongst other nations and to be welcomed into international politics and the world economy. This argument lacks an understanding of the IS worldview.

Cole Bunzel, in “From State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State,” describes it as “the view that the region’s Shi’a are conspiring with the United States and secular Arab rulers to limit Sunni power in the Middle East.” In IS’s declaration of return of the caliphate, “This is the Promise of Allah,” they laid out its founding principles and described it in verse:

“We took it forcibly at the point of a blade/…We established it in defiance of many./ And the people’s necks were violently struck,/ With bombings, explosions, and destruction,/ And soldiers that do not see hardship as being difficult…”

Fundamental to IS’s beliefs is that they cannot be compromised because they are mandated by Allah.  Founded upon religious beliefs, which do not appeal to logic but instead to faith, IS cannot and will not become more moderate. Its members view the western concept of “moderation” as the antithesis of what their divinely-conceived worldview requires. It already operates as a pseudo-state anyway; international recognition is irrelevant to its purpose for existence.

The points of view expressed in the two op-ed pieces mentioned are dangerous if left unaddressed. They display a shallow and dangerous understanding of the nature of the Jihadist organizations, their methods, and their goals.

Islamic State’s Expansion into the Caucasus Region

May 31, 2015 / /

The other day we were discussing the Islamic State’s (IS) expansion into the Caucasus region with our good friends at American Jihad Watch, who pointed out that the al-Hayat Media Center (HMC) had established a Russian language magazine titled “ISTOK” or “the Source.” The first big shout out IS gave to the Caucasus was in Dabiq #7, but ISTOK is important because its specifically catering to the people in that region. None of this is surprising since the best fighters in the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra ranks are Chechens. Chechen fighters are so prized for their fighting prowess that the IS Military OPs Emir is a Chechen (Omar al-Shishani aka “the Ginger Jihadist”). We assess that this is the first phase of IS’ engagement strategy to establish a permanent presence in the Caucasus and fill the void being left by Imarat Kavkaz (IK), a jihadist organization that represents Russia’s primary terror threat – but has been in decline since 2013. In this piece we’ll take a look at why the intelligence community may want to take a closer look into what these guys are about, and why IS’ interest in the region is significant.

ISIS-Dabiq-Issue-no.-7

Cover of ISTOK Magazine Source: American Jihad Watch

Cover of ISTOK Magazine
Source: American Jihad Watch

Screen shot taken from Dabiq #7 Source: Dabiq #7

Screen shot taken from Dabiq #7
Source: Dabiq #7

Another screen shot of ISTOK Magazine Source: American Jihad Watch

Another screen shot of ISTOK Magazine
Source: American Jihad Watch

So what exactly is IK, anyway? IK is a jihadist organization that was established in 2007 by Doku Umarov, who the Russians had dubbed the “Osama bin Laden of the Caucasus.” The group’s goal is to expel the Russians from the North Caucasus and establish an “Islamic Emirate.” For years IK had been causing trouble in Russia executing attacks throughout Chechnya, Ingushtia, Dagestan – even Moscow itself.

Profile: Caucasus Emirates
http://www.adl.org/combating-hate/international-extremism-terrorism/c/profile-caucasus-emirates.html

Six North Caucasus Insurgency Commanders Transfer Allegiance To Islamic State
http://www.rferl.mobi/a/islamic-state-north-caucasus-insurgency-commanders-allegiance/26773615.html

Pro-Rebel Website Posts Transcript of Interview with Doku Umarov
http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=37956#.VWrD92A-DVo

Doku Umarov Source: The Fine Report

Doku Umarov
Source: The Fine Report

Here’s the highlights from the more recent attacks:

– DEC 2014 Grozny fighting.

– DEC 2013 Volgograd Bombings.

– OCT 2013 Volgograd Bus Bombing.

– The Boston Bombers were inspired by IK. Other reporting suggests that they had received training at a camp run by IK’s Dagestan Viliyat. Its worth noting that this same IK faction has since pledged allegiance to IS.

– 2012 Makhachkala Attack – 13 people killed.

-Domodedovo International Airport Bombing that killed 36 people.

– 2010 Moscow Metro Bombings that resulted in 39 people dead and over 100 wounded.

– 2009 Nevsky Express Bombing. A second bomb was detonated the following day near the site of the first attack.

North Caucasus group in Russia train bomb web claim
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8390258.stm

Top detective hurt in second blast at train crash site
http://www.breakingnews.ie/world/eymhgbojgbau/rss2/

Chechen rebel claims Moscow attacks
http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2010/03/2010331171748201274.html

Moscow bombing: Carnage at Russia’s Domodedovo airport
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-12268662

Twin bomb attacks kill 12 in Russia’s Dagestan
http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/05/04/us-russia-dagestan-blast-idUSBRE8430E620120504

Female suicide bomber attacks Russian bus, kills six
http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/21/us-russia-blast-idUSBRE99K08G20131021

Dead Boston bomb suspect posted video of jihadist, analysis shows
http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/20/us/brother-religious-language/

Terrorism in the Caucasus and the Threat to the US Homeland
http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/04/terrorism_in_the_cau.php

Assessing Terrorism in the Caucasus and the Threat to the Homeland

Female suicide bomber attack in Volgograd, Russia, as Sochi Winter Olympics approach
http://www.smh.com.au/world/female-suicide-bomber-attack-in-volgograd-russia-as-sochi-winter-olympics-approach-20131229-hv749.html

Gun battles erupt in Chechnya’s capital after militants launch attack
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/04/police-killed-as-gun-battle-erupts-in-chechnyas-capital

Indeed the group was a serious threat to Russian security for several years. However, the tide began to turn in favor of Putin when a major crackdown on IK was launched in 2011. Since the start of the campaign (which remains ongoing) attacks inside Russia have declined by 30%. When Umarov made it clear that he intended to crash the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin unleashed the Spetznaz for what would become a massive surge in counter-terror operations with Chechen terrorists either being killed or “disappeared.” One of the casualties was Umarov himself. Aliaskhab Kebekov aka “Ali Abu Muhammad” would replace him as leader of IK. Kebekov would continue the group’s allegiance to al-Qaida (AQ) that was first established with Umarov.

Caucasus Emirate Leader Calls On Insurgents To Thwart Sochi Winter Olympics
http://www.rferl.org/content/sochi-olympics-terrorism-umarov/25035408.html

Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov ‘dead’
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26634403

Doku Umarov Source: The Fine Report

Doku Umarov
Source: The Fine Report

However, major fracturing within the organization began in DEC 14 when elements began defecting to IS. Problems first emerged as far back as 2012, which Umarov had addressed in NOV 12 rebuking those who had “weakened the jihad in the North Caucasus” by leaving to fight in Syria. Despite his public denouncement, he would later change his tune when it became clear that Syria was “the new Afghanistan.” In 2013, a Chechen commander known as Emir Salahuddin was appointed to the position of “official representative of the Caucasus Emirate in Syria.” This individual would later replace Omar al-Shishani as leader of Jaysh al-Mujahirin when he left the group to join IS. Under Shishani’s command, Jaysh al-Mujahirin developed a reputation for their combat efficiency and viciousness adjacent the “Kufar” or “non-believer.” Shishani and the group was instrumental in al-Nusra’s attack on the Syrian military’s Sheik Suleiman Base located in Western Aleppo and also served as the lead element in the offensive that overran Menagh Airbase. Following Kebekov’s appointment as new leader of the Jaysh al-Mujahirin, he ensured that the group remained an independent entity (much like Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah), although he was still voicing support for AQ. The interesting thing about this Jaysh al-Mujahirin is that Salahuddin has been using the group to “maintain the peace” between IS and al-Nusra – or attempted to anyways. Unfortunately, the influx of Chechen fighters arriving in Syria and Iraq, regardless what faction they served under, also meant that the organization lost a lot of their most competent personnel.

(Check out “Islamic State Military Operations Emir Possibly KIA” and “IS Organizational Breakdown” for additional info on Shishani)

Chechen Militants Fighting in Middle East Remain Split in Their Loyalties
http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=43733&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=7&cHash=935a84fff0cfbde19ce8c07a48523473#.VWrfvGA-DVo

Jaysh al-Mujahirin wal Ansar Leader accuses Islamic State of Creating “Fitna” Between Jihadist Groups
http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/05/jaish-al-muhajireen-wal-ansar-leader-accuses-islamic-state-of-creating-fitna-between-jihadist-groups.php

Islamic State Military Operations Emir Possibly KIA
http://isisstudygroup.com/?p=839

IS Organizational Breakdown
http://isisstudygroup.com/?p=40

Salahuddin (Left) Source: The Long War Journal

Salahuddin (Left)
Source: The Long War Journal

omar al-shishani 3

Omar al-Shishani
Source: The ISIS Study Group

Kebekov himself was regarded as a weak leader who contributed to IK’s decline. Syria-based jihadists feuded with him because they thought he wasn’t “hardcore enough.” The result was 50% of the group defecting to IS by APR 15 to include at least 10 Jamaat (or local/mid-level) commanders. One of the bigger names that pledged allegiance to Baghdadi was IK Dagestan Emir Rustam Asilderov, who made the announcement in late-DEC 14. Asilderov is currently serving as IS’ point-man for the North Caucasus region with two more representatives operating in the Republic of Georgia – which is a traditional IK facilitation hub. When Kebekov was killed last month with no real replacement capable of preventing any further fracturing, it opened the door for IS – through Asilderov – to begin laying the groundwork for establishing a permanent presence in the region.

Whither Caucasus Emirate?
https://counterjihadreport.com/category/chechnya/

Dagestani Jihadist Swears Allegiance to Islamic State, Invoking Backlash
http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/12/jihadists_in_dagesta.php

New leader of “Imarat Kavkaz” not to be loyal to IS
http://eng.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/31512/

Russian special forces kill North Caucasus rebel leader
http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/04/russian-special-forces-kill-north-caucasus-rebel-leader-150420175353317.html

kebekov

Kebekov
Source: The Counter Jihad Report

Putin’s regime is concerned about Chechen fighters returning from Syria and Iraq giving the guys on the home front a “shot in the arm.” Not surprisingly, Putin blames the Obama administration for the rise of IS. The sad thing is he’s 100% correct. The thing that we should be concerned about on our end is that all Putin’s crackdown has done is purge the most influential AQ-aligned elements from the ranks, which gives IS a “blank slate” to influence with the guys who’ve been networking with the structural leadership in the Middle East. Aside from the fact that IS would want to have a larger presence in the region that the best fighters in their ranks are from, a permanent presence there would enable IS to directly target Russia in retaliation for Putin’s support to the both the Assad and Iranian regimes.

Another factor that makes such an endeavor so attractive to them is the fact that a lot of the Chechen fighters have been traveling to Syria and Iraq through Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan – many with Russian and European passports. This also presents IS with an alternative method of inserting jihadists into Europe for the purpose of conducting attacks. We assess that IS has been forced into trying to balance resources between establishing a solid presence in the region and competing requirements elsewhere – like Yemen, for instance. Meanwhile, the pro-AQ factions of IK have been reaching out to the structural AQ leadership in Pakistan in the hopes of being granted official affiliate status. From what we understand Dr. Zawahiri approves of the idea. So the race is on to see who can establish a permanent presence there first. Keep in mind that both IS and AQ’s efforts will be slowed considerably as a result of Russia’s ongoing counter-terror campaign. Still, this is something that the intelligence community would do well to keep close watch of since those Chechens fighting in the Middle East will eventually start returning home at some point…

San Diego Man Arrested for Working for Al-Qaeda Sharia Court in Syria, Fighting with Terror Group

PJ Media, by Patridk Poole, April 23, 2015:

Yesterday the FBI in San Diego arrested Mohamad Saeed Kodaimati, a naturalized U.S. citizen since September 2008, for making false statements to U.S. Embassy officials, Customs and Border Protection and the FBI related to his time in Syria and Turkey over the past two years. Kodaimati left the U.S. in late December 2012 and returned on March 23.

According to the FBI affidavit in support of the criminal complaint filed today in the case against Kodaimati, the 24-year-old man was caught in a series of lies related to his work on behalf of a sharia court operated by Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria and a U.S. designated terrorist organization, and also his role mediating between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS.

Ultimately, Kodaimati was tripped up by his posts to Facebook.

According to the FBI, he stated in a September 2013 private message on Facebook that he worked for the sharia court in Hanano near Aleppo. He would post media statements from the Nusra-operated sharia court to social media.

The FBI complaint also alleges that Kodaimati was a close associate with a senior ISIS operative in the area, with whom he mediated on behalf of others in the area to resolve conflicts between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. He also posted pictures to his Facebook account (now removed) of him with another known ISIS operative.

In his Facebook communications, he also recounted how he, his father and his brother fought with Jabhat al-Nusra against the Assad regime for four months.

He was initially questioned at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, on March 10 and 11. He was later questioned about his activities in Syria by Customs and Border Patrol upon his reentry to the U.S. at the airport in Charlotte, NC, on March 23, and later by the FBI in Charlotte on March 25. After being questioned at his home in San Diego yesterday, he was taken into custody.

Here’s the FBI complaint:

Kodaimati Criminal Complaint by Stewart Bell