How ISIS will react to the Mosul Offensive

October 18th, 2016 - In recent weeks I have had the chance to speak to several knowledgable and interesting people. I can't identify most of them by name and therefore won't identify any of them just to be on the safe side.

Suffice it to say that one of them says of himself that he is an ISIS member (full bai'a and all); that two more consider themselves supporters of ISIS and know a number of people who formally joined and/or are currently in Syria or Iraq; that another two are former Baath era military officers and that three of them are members of Syrian rebel groups.

Of course this is a group of truly varied backgrounds. The interesting thing, however, is that they largely agreed on how ISIS has prepared for the battle of Mosul and what might be happening next.

This is what they largely agree on:

* ISIS will not waste a significant number of fighters in the defense of Mosul. The lowest estimate was as low as 300.

* ISIS will try and make the unavoidable fall of Mosul as expensive as possible for the attackers: They will encounter massive amounts of booby traps; perhaps snipers.

* ISIS will try and exfiltrate into a) those desert areas of Iraq that are close to communities where there is a certain degree of tacit or open support for them and b) those areas of Syria and Iraq still under their control including some that have probably been prepared for that purpose in advance like al-Qaim but also the lesser known area of Bir Qassab in Syria.

* ISIS will not be destroyed by the loss of Mosul at all but is quite capable of surviving and perhaps even making a come-back after a while, especially when Mosul and the liberated areas can't be pacified properly.

* Foreign fighters of ISIS will have a hard time leaving the theatre of war: Most of their passports would have been burnt a long time ago, most of their governments know them and would immediately arrest them. This means they will either die fighting or try and lay low with the local contingent.

* ISIS will soon return to guerrilla tactics, especially in Iraq, attacking "everyone not IS" with all means possible, ranging from sniping attacks to IEDs and skirmishes.

Some of this may not be super exciting stuff and you may have come across it elsewhere. But I found it interesting that a group that diverse would agree on so many things.

IS claims Ansbach attacker was a member for years

A few hours ago, IS'S al-Naba newspaper published a one-page profile of the man who committed a suicide attack in Ansbach in Germany a couple of days ago. Here are the points that I find most interesting. (And this is all according to al-Naba and the IS. Nothing of this has been verified yet!)

* The man's name is given as Abu Jusuf al-Karrar, which sounds like a Kunya to me. 
* He is said to have fought as a "Mujahid" from the very start of the Syrian civil war
* In particular, he is said to have formed a cell specialized in grenade and molotov cocktail attacks on the regime
* He is reported to have worked / fought with several groups before joining the IS 
* Around the time of the split between Jabat al-Nusra and IS, he was wounded in or near Aleppo and was brought out of the country for treatment
* Next, he is placed in Europe by al-Naba, from where, they say, he unsuccessfully tried to rejoin the Syrian battlefield and the IS several times
* Because he didn't manage to get back to Syria, he then decided to perpetrate an attack in Germany
* He is reported to have first placed with the idea of attacking cars
* Then he started to build his explosive device, in which, Al-Naba says, he spent 3 months
* During this period allegedly German police raided the "Makan", which I would read as the place where he lived, so rather the facility than his particular room. In any case, they didn't detect his plans. 
* A day before the attack, he is said to have done reconaisance of the location
* He is also said to have been in constant touch with "one of the soldiers" of the IS. 

Al-Naba's issue featuring the Ansbach attacker
If the basic facts check out, this would point to the attacker not having been a refugee who radicalized after coming to Europe but to having been a dyed-in-the-wool jihadist who hid is intentions and beliefs. 

If it is furthermore true that he was in direct touch with the IS, the question will arise why that was never detected. (I know that is difficult, but the question will arise nonetheless.) 

If the basic story checks out, it would also mean that the Ansbach attacker would have to be placed somewhere between what we already have learnt are different prototypes of IS-inspired or -directed attackers in the West: He would not have been sent here with orders to disguise himself as a refugee in order to perpetrate an attack like some of the Paris plotters and attackers. But he would also be different from, e.g. the Wuerzburg attacker, who for all we know radicalized here. 

Some of the claims, I am confident, the security services will be able to check out and then we will know more. It is likely that the IS exaggerates some aspects. It is in my opinion also unlikely, however, that the IS completely fabricates a story like this. 

An Analysis of 3000 Islamic State Entry Documents

April 7th, 2016 - I have recently had a chance to take a good look at just over 3000 foreign fighter entry documents of the "Islamic State" (IS), a collection that I believe to be partly or even largely identical to the ones that Zaman al-Wasl, SkyNews and several German media have reported about a few weeks ago. I have published an analysis of these documents in today's new issue of DIE ZEIT, the paper I work for. The article can be found online here, but is entirely in German.

For the sake of non-German speakers, I have decided to share my main findings in English here.

I have used two approaches in analyzing the documents. One is a systematic, number-based approach, one is an anecdotal approach. I believe both to be revealing in their own way.

1.- The forms itself 

The forms are standardized and they ask for answers to 23 questions. The IS wants to know about the real name and the kunya of the recruit, they ask for the name of the mother, nationality, date of birth, the blood typ, the point of border crossing, an address, prior Jihad experience and specializations, among other things. Two questions are multiple choice: Does the recruit want to become a) a fighter, b) a suicide bomber or c) an Inghimasi. And the recruit is asked to classify his level of Sharia literacy: a) weak or b) medium or c) student/scholar level. Recruits are also asked for an address or phone number to contact in the case of their deaths. And lastly, there is a column called "comments", which IS cadres have in some cases used to add interesting additional information.

2.- "Statistical" findings

The IS cadres who filled in the forms where not all equally diligent. In many cases, the forms are not fully complete. Also the ways in which answers have been taken down are not 100 per cent coherent. So it can happen that someone who has the kunya "Abu XYZ al-Almani" may not have listed an address in Germany or a German nationality, but a phone number in Tunisia. Is he to be considered a German? And if not: What then?

It is therefor only possible to reach conclusions that cannot be considered hard statistical science. I have nonetheless tried to work the numbers as much as I could.

Here are the most important results:

  • Just under ten per cent offer to die as suicide bombers ("Istishhadi"). Even less want to be an Ighimasi. The vast majority opts to become a "fighter" ("muqatil"). 
  • Roughly three quarters think of their own knowledge of Sharia as "weak". 
  • The large majority of recruits is aged between 20 and 30 and appears to have had no real jobs or jobs that require little training or have had no advanced schooling. 
  • The biggest contingents reflected in the documents are from Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, followed by Libya, Morocca and Egypt. 

3.- Anecdotal observations 

The "comments" that IS cadres added are very revealing even if they are very diverse. Each entry consists of a few words only but sometimes feel like a short story, giving us an idea of the personalities attracted to the IS.

Following is a small list of such comments I found particularly interesting:

  • "Used to be with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan for 5 years"
  • "Can see very well, even in the night, ma shah Allah!" 
  • This brother came spontaneously after he met other brother at the airport who were on their way here
  • Used to be with Jabhat al-Nusra 
  • Radar operator! 
  • "Important ** has chemical experience"
  • This brother has buried 400 moroccan dirhams in Europa before he travelled here
  • The effects of this brother are meant as a present for the Mujahidin when he dies (these effects are listed as 2 phones and 4000 euros worth of currency)
  • "Has switched to 'suicide bomber'"
  • His parents are to be notified of his death, but without mentioning it was a suicide bombing 
  • "Please tell my father and my mother to forgive me"
  • trained on a 23 cannon 

If one looks at the backgrounds and prior occupations of the recruits, other interesting find can be made. Here are a few examples: 

  • a former Kuwaiti soldier
  • a former Saudi soldier
  • a former Cairo Imam 
  • an ex soccer player
  • an unemployed truck driver with six kids
  • a student of Sharia from an Islamic university 

4.- A careful Assessment 

3.000 out of what are possibly 30.000 IS fighters is a pretty good sample but there may be serious distortions we don't know of and we can't say if our sample is fully representative.

Certainly the sample contains little in the way of sensations, even though known terrorists are among those whose entry forms are available like Mohamed Belkaid, recently killed in a Brussels raid. Much rather, the sample solidifies some of our assumptions.

Further research into these docs is needed, for example in order to find out who travelled to the IS with who, something that is especially interesting in regard to European foreign fighters and the terrorist network they have established between France and Belgium.

The anecdotal observations give un an idea of the spectrum we can find within the IS: veterans of Jihad next to beginners, professionals next to scared people, educated and skilled people next to untrained and probably not very intelligent recruits. Not all of these will turn out to be master warriors, master terrorists or even master administration officials.

I want to conclude this brief post with two quotes. I asked Leah Farrall of Sydney University, a true expert on the history of Jihadism and an author of a great book (The Arabs at War in Afghanistan) for her opinion on the administrative behavior of the IS. Here is what she said:

Al Qaeda bureaucratised the jihad long before Isis, which benefited from inheriting many of its forms and processes when the two split. Poorly organised terrorist groups have short life spans. Al Qaeda turns 30 next year. The mixing of bureaucratised jihadis with former regime elements makes for an even more paperwork driven organisation.

And I asked Thomas Hegghammer of the FFI and Oslo University, who has focused on Foreign Fighters and Jihadist Culture in his work, about what he thinks these anecdotes tell us. He said this:

The files show that the foreigners come from a wide range of backgrounds and bring different skill sets, but they expect the same outcome: death. They also show that IS is combing the recruit population for special skills or connections for use in operations. 

I fully agree with both of them.

Let the debate begin!


Syrian Elephants in the Room

November 29th, 2015 - I acknowledge that the Paris attacks have changed the debate. I understand why France chose to retaliate with air strikes on Raqqa, one of the in fact two capitals of the "Caliphate" the "Islamic State" (IS) pronounced last year. I even get why the German government has decided to support France and all the other countries bombing the IS with reconnaissance capabilities.

However, there still are two elephants in the room when we are discussing fighting the IS, and they ought to be addressed.

The first problematic issue, the first elephant if you so want, is that the IS exists in Syria AND Iraq. Russian President Vladimir Putin has seen to it that currently most politicians in the West talk and argue as if the Caliphate was a problem that is inextricably linked to the fate of "president" Bashar al-Assad. Well, it is not.  As a matter of fact, consider these two things:

1.- If the IS were to be driven out of all Syrian territory tomorrow, with - for argument's sake -  the help of Putin, Assad, the US, all Arabs: Would the IS be defeated? - Clearly not.

2.- If Assad stays in power or not, how much of a difference does it make in terms of the chances of the IS to survive? - Clearly: very little.

What does that mean? It means this: The political future of Syria and the demise of the IS are in fact two mostly separate issues. I know this is counter-intuitive. But looking at it in this way makes the choices in front of us much easier. We do not need Assad to finish the IS. Period.

Which leads me to the second elephant in the room: The fact that the ongoing discussion of whether there should/might/can be a role for Assad or one of his relatives or proxies in the future as a leader of an interim Syrian government that would in one way or another include opposition forces and at a later point in time hand over power to that opposition seems to be based on the idea that Syria still somehow is a state and will be a single united state in the future.

Well... as much as I would like that as somebody who really loves Syria and the Syrians, I believe we should face the possibility that partition, de facto or de jure, is the more likely scenario. Because here is the thing:

1.- Assad is not going to get all of Syria back.
2.- The opposition is not going to be able to get all of Syria under it's control.

This is not purely a matter of military might. It also has to do with legitimacy. Assad has killed hundreds of thousands, but there are millions who support him inside Syria and wish for him to stay in power. It is a fact. These people are spread over a largely coherent mass of land in the country. Most of the rest of the country (not counting IS territory) is strongly against Assad and will not accept a future tole for him or one of his proxies. He has a lot of actual legitimacy in one part of Syria and almost zero legitimacy in the rest of the country.

To put it another way: What if the question is the wrong one? Should we really be discussing a role for Assad for all of Syria at this point in time? I don't think so. But do those people who staunchly support him have a right to be heard? Well, I am not fond of admitting it, but I think they do. (I am saying that even though I personally think he needs to be sent to The Hague.)

It all boils down to this: What is better, a real ceasefire with a de facto partition? Or an agreement pertaining to the whole of Syria, but one that is going to be so feeble that the likelihood it will just jumpstart another round in this terrible war is rather big?

I know, I know, I haven't even discussed the Kurdish issue. And I haven't offered any ideas on Iraq. But hey, there are just a few thoughts.

Good night, Y.

What should we make of the IS claim of responsibility?

1.- Does the incident at all look like a possible "Islamic State" attack? 

I would put it this way: Downing a Russian airliner is quite conceivably something that the "Islamic State" would be wanting to achieve right now, given that the Russian air force has, among other groups, also hit the IS in recent airstrikes in Syria.

2.- What exactly has the "IS" claimed this far? 

The most important item so far is the written claim of responsibility put out via IS and pro IS Twitter channels. It is in the name of the "Sinai Province" of the IS, of which we know that it actually exists. The format and style of the claim also resemble what we have been seeing in recent months, not only on a daily basis from within IS territories in Syria and Iraq, but also when IS "wilayat" or "provinces" (meaning branches) claimed certain attacks, for example in Kuwait or Tunisia earlier this year. This written claim is therefor either authentic or a fairly sophisticated fake.

In this claim, the IS Sinai province says that "soldiers of the Caliphate" had managed to down the Russian jet, killing all of the "Russian Crusaders" on board. It makes reference to the Russians killing scores of people in Syria every day and goes on to state that the Russians and their allies won't be safe in Muslim lands or in the skies above them.

The IS Headquarters, however, seems to have elevated this claim to another level when it put out an audio version of the claim later today. This audio is a verbatim of the written claim but was published by the official IS radio station "al-Bayan", meaning that the IS central command or Headquarters or leadership or whatever you want to call it echoed the claim of the Sinai Jihadists and thus documented that they thought it was credible enough to amplify it.

Apart from that, the claim was also run prominently on the website of al-Shmukh, a top tier Jihadist internet forum. If they run it, they also think it is likely true.

Then there is, thirdly, a rather obscure video of 20 seconds length. As far as I can see, it was taken off YouTube already, but there is still an embedded version of it to be found here.

In this short clip, a plane is shown that eventually drops out of the sky, apparently hit by a missile or rocket or blown apart by an onboard explosive device. I don't think that anyone can confirm at this point that this video even shows the Russian plane in questions. This video is even more obscure because it carries no audio claim, but features, at the very beginning, the logo of the IS province in the Sinai - albeit an outdated version of it.

This makes me very skeptical of the authenticity of this particular video.

3.- Is the claim by the IS Sinai province credible? 

First of all, it is important to note that the IS Sinai Province claim doesn't contain a single shred of information that would reveal insider knowledge of the attack or the modus operandi. No weapon system is mentioned, no information on what exactly it was that brought the jet down is offered. That is usually not a good sign.

Secondly, a lot of people who know more about jets and weapon systems than I do are saying that the plane was flying much too high for the IS to be able to hit it with the most advanced system at their disposal, which apparently are man pads. I will not weigh in, as this is a technical discussion. But as far as I understand we don't know yet if the jet was perhaps brought down by an explosive device onboard the plane - which leaves us with the theoretical possibility that the IS brought one there. These questions may, however, soon be answered by experts with access to the flight recorder, etc.

What makes me wonder in regard to the credibility of the claim is another thing: The IS usually doesn't lie. It does lie, to be sure, but not as a rule. And as a rule of thumb I believe it is fair to say that the bigger the operation or attack in question, the less likely it has been (so far, at least) that the IS was presenting a complete lie. This record is not impeccable, as especially in the beginning of the IS's expansion in Syria it seems that the IS was sometimes quite happy to claim responsibility for other groups' attacks.

However, the IS HQ is taking a risk here by amplifying the claim published by their Sinai group if it turned out to be a lie. Retaining credibility is of great concern to Jihadist groups: you can quickly loose support and supporters if you are caught claiming stuff you didn't do. It is not sustainable.

Bearing this in mind, I am wondering if the IS for some reason may really believe it was them - even if in reality it may not have have been them. Sounds crazy, I know. Just a thought.

4.- So, what should me make of all of this?  

That's easy:

* This incident should NOT be counted as an IS terror attack (yet).
* We should consider the written claim of responsibility by the IS Sinai province as quite possibly authentic, but not beyond doubt. Furthermore we should bear in mind that even if authentic, it can still be false or untruthful.
* We need to look closely at what the technical investigations will tell us.
* We should look out for IS publications containing credible pieces of insider information.

What to look for when looking at today's terror attacks

June 26th, 2015 - This is going to be a brief blog post. Because we know way too little for any kind of sustainable analysis yet. But there are few points that can be made and which can help in directing and informing our understanding of what happened today.

1.- The attack in Kuwait was an IS attack - and it may be connected to the attack in Tunisia. 

The claim of responsibility published a few hours ago fits the bill. I believe it to be authentic and I consider the attack on a Shiite mosque in Kuwait City an IS attack for the time being.

As for the attack in Tunisia's tourist paradise in Sousse: In this case IS sympathizers, or people who would call themselves actual members of the IS, are the most likely perpetrators. The IS has called for attacks in Tunisia on several occasion, destabilizing the only country that actually made a democratic turn after the events of 2011 is a prime target for the group. There are several thousands of Tunisians who are fighting on behalf of the IS in Syria and Iraq; they have ab extensive networks of supporters and sympathizers in the country; and the IS has struck there before - in March, in the capital Tunis.

It is not unlikely that the Kuwait attack and the Sousse attack have been co-ordinated, at least roughly. We saw a similar thing in March, when a mosque in Sanaa in Yemen and a museum in Tunis were struck within 48 hours - and, intriguingly, the respective IS claims of responsibility bore a very high degree of similarity. In the case of the Sousse attack, we don't have a claim of responsibility yet. So let's wait and see.

2.- The attack in France resembles other plots and attacks by self-recurites sympathizers

It seems to have been rather amateurish (the perpetrator did not manage to instigate the massive explosion he probably had in mind); it seems to have been executed by a single person; it seems to have had a personal dimension untypical of attacks planned by networks in that the murdered and decapitated victim appears to have been the alleged perpetrator's boss.

As Thomas Hegghammer and others have pointed out, most attacks and plots executed and hatched in the West in the past few years go back originated with self-recuited sympathizers. Right now, this seems to be the most likely scenario. It would also mean that there is likely no connection to the attacks in Sousse and Kuwait.

3.- The attacks in Kobane are separate from these other attacks 

I don't know this for a fact, it is just an assumption. But I am rather sure that even if the IS leadership in Syria/Iraq did have prior knowledge of the fact that something was planned in Tunisis and Kuwait, they would not have chosen to stage an offensive in Kobane just to amplify that signal. My reading is that the IS in the theatre can't really afford to coordinate his attacks inside the theatre with what people may be planning in the larger region. Other criteria for plotting apply, synchronization is not relay of importance.

4.- Please bear in mind the following 

It is still very early. Findings may soon change the hypothesis I have laid out here. If that happens, I will re-calibrate accordingly. 

Don't fall for the "Islamic State's" attempt at coining our opinion

June, 23rd 2015 - I have said it before, I will say it again: Let's try to not fall for the "Islamic State's" attempt at coining our opinion.

Earlier today the terror group published a new horrific video. It shows how the Jihadists murder a number of men who they claim have been "spies". The men are killed in three different ways: One group is being shot at with an RPG while forced to sit in a car; the second group is drowned to death by lowering the cage in which they are all placed into what appears to be a pool (while a mounted camera keeps filming under water); a third group is being murdered through an explosive charge that the terrorists ignite after the necks of the men have been connected to each other with a long wire.

I am certain that these methods, never shown in a high-end IS production before, have only been devised for one reason: So that the international public agrees that they constitute an escalation in brutality. The Jihadists want to increase the fear they instill in others by convincing them that they are acting ever more cruelly. (They did a very similar thing in January, when they filmed the burning to death of a Jordanian pilot.)

The problem is that many observers, including journalists, actually concur. And while I can understand anyone who finds these videos despicable and heinous (I find them such myself), I believe it is important we don't fall for this. We shouldn't follow the IS's intended lead and rank methods of murder according to brutality. I, for one, don't agree that any of the methods shown in the new video is in fact more brutal than many other methods that the IS has been employing for quite some time. Is any of this really more brutal than cutting someone's head of? Throwing someone off a high building? Stoning a woman to death?

If we accept the IS's suggestion that it is, we are actually helping them in shaping their own image. But we shouldn't allow the IS to coin our opinions in such a way.

As far as I am concerned, my disgust for the IS cannot be raised by videos like this.

PS: I know that I wrote a very similar piece in January, when the video of the killing of the Jordanian pilot was published. But I think this is so important that it is worth writing about it twice.