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The Islamic Caucasus Emirate's (ICE) leader in Dagestan, Said Arakanskiy, denounced the jihadists who defected to the Islamic State in a newly-released video. Arakanskiy's short speech, totaling two minutes and 30 seconds, was released via the Vilayat Dagestan's official web site and on its Twitter feed on Feb. 14.
A screen shot from the video, showing Arakanskiy, can be seen above.
The Vilayat Dagestan is one of ICE's official "provinces." Its former leader and some of his allies broke their allegiance to ICE emir Ali Abu Mukhammad al Dagestani late last year. This provoked a swift backlash from Dagestani, who quickly appointed Arakanskiy as ICE's new leader in Dagestan. [See LWJ report, Dagestani jihadist swears allegiance to Islamic State, invoking backlash.]
In the new video, Arakanskiy makes it clear that he is an ICE loyalist who will not be following the defectors.
"I, emir of Vilayat Dagestan of the Caucasus Emirate, pledge allegiance to our emir Sheikh Abu Mukhammad [al Dagestani], may God protect him, [and I swear] that I will obey him and follow him in trouble and joy whether I like it or not, as long as he follows Koran and the Sunnah [the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed]," Arakanskiy says, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal.
Arakanskiy continues by addressing the "mujahideen brothers who have renounced their allegiance to" Ali Abu Mukhammad al Dagestani and "sworn allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi," the leader of the Islamic State. He argues that these defectors "should not split the ranks of mujahideen because it makes non-believers happy and weakens jihad." Not only do they no longer follow Dagestani, they have abandoned the "scholars of jihad," Arakanskiy says.
The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has created an interesting dynamic in the jihadists' world. Baghdadi's henchmen have tried to peel off some of the jihadists allied with al Qaeda's international network. They have had some success in this regard, as demonstrated by Vilayat Dagestan's leadership crisis.
By the same token, however, the Islamic State's rivalry with al Qaeda has also further exposed the degree to which al Qaeda commands the loyalty of jihadists who have not been publicly recognized as being a part of Ayman al Zawahiri's organization.
Al Qaeda is known to hide its hand in some groups. For instance, the Al Nusrah Front in Syria was a part of al Qaeda's network well before its formal allegiance to al Qaeda was exposed in April 2013. Zawahiri had prohibited any official recognition of al Qaeda's presence in Syria. While careful observers could detect al Qaeda's influence in Al Nusrah from the get-go, it was not until after the dispute between the emirs of the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State became public that Al Nusrah's close ties to al Qaeda's senior leadership were widely recognized.
Similarly, ICE's loyalty to al Qaeda has become more clear as a result of the Islamic State's challenge.
The "scholars of jihad" Arakanskiy references are likely the same al Qaeda ideologues who have denounced the Islamic State and endorsed Ali Abu Mukhammad al Dagestani as ICE's emir. In January, top sharia officials from both the Al Nusrah Front and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) issued a joint statement saying the ICE defectors were mistaken and that Dagestani was a well-qualified leader for the group. One of the statement's signatories was Harith al Nadhari, a senior AQAP sharia official who was a staunch critic of the Islamic State.
In early February, the Vilayat Dagestan openly mourned Nadhari after AQAP issued a statement saying he had been killed in a US drone strike. The Vilayat Dagestan's web site continues to feature Nadhari's commentaries, as well as messages and videos featuring other pro-al Qaeda, anti-Islamic State thinkers, such as Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi.
ICE emir: Zawahiri "our leader"
Ali Abu Muhammad al Dagestani, who succeeded Doku Umarov as the emir of ICE in March 2014, has steadfastly supported al Qaeda and the Taliban throughout the controversy over the Islamic State's rise. He has continued to do so even as some Chechen jihadists, including Abu Omar al Shishani, have risen to prominent positions within Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's organization.
In 2013, Abu Omar al Shishani helped found Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, or the Army of the Emigrants and Helpers, before officially joining the Islamic State.
Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, which is led by Chechens but includes other fighters as well, remains loyal to Dagestani. The group has tried to remain neutral in the conflict between the Islamic State and its jihadist rivals in Syria. However, like Vilayat Dagestan, Jaish al-Muhajireen awl Ansar and its allies in Ansar al Din, a coalition of several Syrian rebel groups, mourned the loss of Nadhari earlier this month. [See LWJ report, Rebel coalition in Syria mourns al Qaeda official killed in US airstrike in Yemen.]
In late June 2014, Dagestani released a video in which he discussed the efficacy of suicide bombings and the necessity of avoiding civilian casualties. Dagestani referred to Ayman al Zawahiri as "our leader" in the video and noted that Zawahiri has "urged rebels to avoid places where civilians gather."
The ICE emir was likely referencing the jihadist guidelines issued by al Qaeda under Zawahiri's direction. Al Qaeda is attempting to limit the jihadists' civilian casualties in the Muslim majority world as it tries to build a broader base of popular support.
In September 2014, Dagestani released another video addressing Zawahiri and other leading jihadist ideologues as the "scholars of the ummah," or international community of Muslims. All of the other scholars addressed by the ICE head in the video back al Qaeda in its rivalry with the Islamic State. The other scholars included: Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, Hani al Sibai, Tariq Abd al Halim, and Abu Qatada al Filistini, all of whom have criticized Baghdadi.
Dagestani referred to the "scholars" collectively as "our valued brothers, the loved ones, the delights of our eye." It is likely that he addressed them in these glowing terms as a reply, of sorts, to the Islamic State and its supporters, who have been accused of slandering the veteran jihadist ideologues for not supporting the Islamic State.
"We rely on you in our jihad and follow you as our paragon," Dagestani said, addressing the jihadist leaders. "Therefore, do not forget us in your provision of advice and guidance whenever this is feasible and possible for you."
In late September and early October of last year, Dagestani played a leading role in promoting a jihadist truce initiative in Syria. He joined some of the same ideologues he had praised in publishing "An Initiative and Call for a Ceasefire Between Factions in Syria." The proposed truce aimed to take advantage of the America-led bombing campaign in Syria to promote a ceasefire between the Islamic State and its foes. The Islamic State did not formally agree to such a deal. [See LWJ report, Pro-al Qaeda ideologues propose truce between Islamic State, rivals.]
When denouncing the defectors who have sided with the Islamic State, both Dagestani and Abu Usman, ICE's top sharia judge in Dagestan, have referred to the jihadists' scholarly consensus concerning the Islamic State's "caliphate." They argue that the defectors have ignored the opinions of leading jihadist thinkers in swearing bayat (oath of allegiance) to Baghdadi.
Said Arakanskiy's new video echoes this argument.
A video released by the Islamic State shows fighters from one of its so-called provinces in Libya beheading 21 Egyptian Copts. The mass murders were advertised by Islamic State's media operatives over the past couple of days. And the latest edition of the organization's English-language magazine Dabiq, which was released last week, implied that the men had been killed.
In a scene that is similar to past videos from Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State's victims are ritualistically walked along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea before being forced to kneel with their captors standing behind them.
An English-speaking fighter then talks, saying that he and his fellow jihadists are sending a message from "the south of Rome," thereby threatening Italy. In recent weeks, members of the Italian government have called for more aggressive international intervention in Libya.
The fighter then says that the Islamic State and its allies will continue to fight the "Crusaders" until Jesus comes again. This is a reference to the apocalyptic Islamic belief that Jesus will reappear at the end of days.
The Islamic State's head executioner says that the West hid Osama bin Laden's body in the sea, and so the jihadists will mix the West's blood in the same sea.
After the men are beheaded, the English-speaking fighter raises his knife to the water and swears that the Islamic State will conquer Rome.
The fighter's reference to Osama bin Laden stands in stark contrast to the Islamic State's denunciation of Ayman al Zawahiri, bin Laden's successor as al Qaeda chief, in the latest edition of Dabiq.
The Islamic State claimed in Dabiq that the kidnapping of the 21 Egyptian men came "almost five years after the blessed operation against the Baghdad church." That attack was launched in late 2010 by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the predecessor to the current Islamic State. The ISI claimed at the time that the suicide assault, which left dozens of people dead, was revenge for the supposed mistreatment of women in Egypt.
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's propagandists repeated this claim in Dabiq. But the Islamic State added that al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn, referred to by his nom de guerre Azzam al Amriki, condemned the act "in some of his letters" to the group. The Islamic State accused Gadahn of acting "on his personal rancor towards the Islamic State as soon as he became a top leader of [al Qaeda] after the martyrdom of" Osama bin Laden. Gadahn's critique of the Islamic State's practices are well-known, and his role in al Qaeda's senior ranks predates bin Laden's death.
The authors of Dabiq also accused Zawahiri of defending the Copts. "I want to restate our position towards the Coptic Christians. We do not want to get into a war with them because we are busy in the battle against the greatest enemy of the Ummah [America] and because they are our partners in this nation, partners whom we wish to live with in peace and stability," the Islamic State quoted Zawahiri as saying.
"So while the Islamic State targeted the Catholics in revenge for the sisters imprisoned by the Copts, Azzam al Amriki's commander [Zawahiri] was wooing the war-waging Copts themselves with feeble words," Baghdadi's men claimed in Dabiq.
The Islamic State has accused al Qaeda of being soft on Iran, as well as the Shiites in Iraq and Yemen. In executing the 21 Egyptian Copts, Baghdadi's organization extended this argument further, claiming that al Qaeda weakly opposes, or does not oppose at all, Egypt's Christians.
Thus, the beheadings shown in the newly released video were intended to intimidate both Egypt and Italy. And the Islamic State hopes to portray al Qaeda's leaders as being weak-minded in their pursuit of jihad.
Images from the Islamic State's new video and the latest edition of Dabiq magazine
The lead executioner points his knife at the Mediterranean Sea, promising that the Islamic State will conquer Rome:
In a scene reminiscent of the beheading videos to come out of Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State's victims are lined up in front of their murderers:
The video includes the same scenes portrayed in the latest edition of Dabiq, the Islamic State's English-language magazine:
The latest edition of Dabiq, which was released last week, included this image from the mass slaying:
One of the Islamic State's so-called "provinces" in Libya claims to have captured the town of Nawfaliyah. The group has released a photo set showing a large convoy entering the town. The military-style parade likely took place earlier this month. One of the photos can be seen above and the rest are at the end of this article.
In addition to the jihadists' purported gains in Nawfaliyah, the organization's fighters seized several key buildings, including radio and television stations, in the city of Sirte. Separate photos posted on social media show the Islamic State's province broadcasting propaganda from one of the captured media facilities. The WAL News Agency in Libya reports that the radio station has been broadcasting a speech by Abu Muhammad al Adnani, the Islamic State's spokesman.
The Islamic State's province also seized control of a passport office in Sirte, demanding that its employees "repent" for their failure to swear fealty to the "caliphate."
Assessing the extent of the Islamic State's presence in Libya and elsewhere is difficult, as the group's propaganda machine has exaggerated its fighters' gains. (The same is true for the Islamic State's jihadist rivals.) For instance, press reports said late last year that the Islamic State's supporters had taken over the city of Derna, with a population of about 100,000 residents. But this wasn't true.
While the Islamic State has a significant presence in Derna, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's followers are not in control of the entire city. Other jihadist groups that are not allied with the Islamic State, including the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade (ASMB), remain deeply entrenched in Derna. In December, the ASMB announced the creation of the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) of Derna, a jihadist alliance that has not sworn allegiance to Baghdadi. The United Nations has even erroneously reported that Ansar al Sharia in Derna, which is part of al Qaeda's network and allied with the MSC, has defected to the Islamic State. This isn't true either, as Ansar al Sharia's leadership has not come out in favor of Baghdadi.
Still, the Islamic State's network in Libya has been growing. And independent reports confirm that the group has been operating in and around Sirte.
In early February, gunmen attacked an oil field south of Sirte, killing 12 people. The French oil company Total owns a stake in the field, and French officials blamed the attack on the Islamic State's followers.
The Islamic State's jihadists have also kidnapped 21 Egyptian Coptic workers in Sirte. The Guardian (UK) reports that the men were captured in two separate operations in December and January.
The Coptic hostages were featured in the latest edition of Dabiq, the Islamic State's English-language magazine, which was released last week. Photos in Dabiq show the men being marched along the coastline as their captors brandish knives. The images are reminiscent of how the Islamic State has paraded and then beheaded its captives in Iraq and Syria.
Dozens of Toyota trucks are pictured in the Islamic State's photo set from Nawfaliyah. The photos suggest a large presence of Islamic State fighters, perhaps totaling in the hundreds.
Islamic State propaganda photos showing military parade in Nawfaliyah, Libya
The town of al Baghdadi in Iraq's Anbar province sits close to the Al Asad airbase where over 300 US Marines are stationed.
The Islamic State has taken control of large portions of the town of al Baghdadi in Iraq's Anbar province. The town, which is 50 miles northwest of Ramadi, has been under siege for months after the Islamic State launched an offensive in Anbar last summer and took control of the nearby town of Hit.
According to Reuters, a district manager said that "Ninety percent of al-Baghdadi district has fallen under the control of the insurgents." Reuters goes on to say that the Islamic State attacked from two directions, and then proceeded to advance into the town. The Washington Post reported that an estimated 1,000 fighters took part in the offensive in al Baghdadi. This number cannot be independently verified, however, given the strategic importance of the objective, it is likely that a large numbers of Islamic State militants are taking part in the offensive.
Other Iraqi officials claimed that Iraqi Security Forces and their Sunni tribal allies in the Awakening were able to drive the Islamic State attackers back. However, Sheikh Naim of the Albu Nimr tribe countered these claims by saying that the Islamic State now controls large portions of al Baghdadi, according to Almada. Naim goes on to say that, "the security forces did not launch until now any military operation to retake areas seized by the organization [Islamic State]."
Additionally, a small group of Islamic State fighters attacked the nearby Al Asad airbase after gaining ground in al Baghdadi. The Washington Post reported that eight jihadists, including three suicide bombers, launched a suicide assault on the base but were all killed. No significant damage to the base was reported.
The Islamic State took credit for attacking Al Asad, in a message released in its daily radio announcements.
"In addition, the army of the Caliphate made progress in the area of al Baghdadi, as soldiers of the Islamic State targeted the Safavid [a derogatory term for Shiites referring to the ancient Persian dynasty] al Asad Base in al-Baghdadi, where the American military trains forces of the Safavid army," the statement, which was translated by SITE Intelligence Group, said.
The Islamic State also talked about its advances the town in the same statement. "Also, soldiers of the Caliphate took control over the Citizenship Department, in which the Safavids had fortified themselves," the statement said, "and the al Baghdadi police station, and a barracks of the Safavid army, and the shameful Awakenings [Sunni tribal allies of the ISF] on the Wahid bridge in Jubah, and also cut off the al Baghdadi - Haditha highway."
The Islamic State was able to advance into al Baghdadi despite Coalition air support in the area. US officials confirmed that American troops based at Al Asad did not directly engage the Islamic State attackers on the ground. However, Coalition aircraft launched "five airstrikes" near Al Asad "between 8 a.m. yesterday and 8 a.m. today" and "struck four ISIL [Islamic State] tactical units and destroyed an ISIL VBIED, an ISIL checkpoint and an ISIL armored earth mover," according to a statement by US Central Command.
Currently, around 320 US Marines are stationed at Al Asad. The Marines are there to train and reorganize the Iraqi Security Forces and Sunni tribal fighters to fight the Islamic State. Al Asad also hosts the Iraqi Army's 7th Division, which has suffered several setbacks in the region. [For more, see LWJ reports Islamic State ambushes Iraqi military column near Ramadi, Islamic State overruns Iraqi military base in Anbar, Islamic State photos highlight group's grip on Ramadi, and Islamic State photos detail rout of Iraqi Army at Camp Saqlawiya.]
The Iraqi Army and police were demoralized and largely defeated in northern, central, and western after the Islamic State launched its offensive beginning in June 2014. Several divisions have been rendered combat ineffective due to heavy losses and desertions. The Iraqi government has turned to Shiite militias to bolster the security forces. The militias, which are backed by Iran and include groups that are listed by the US as Foreign Terrorist Organizations, have been instrumental in reinforcing Iraqi forces, and have helped retake some areas in Iraq, including Jurf al Sakhar and Amerli.
The Islamic State released the seventh issue of its English-language magazine, Dabiq, this week. This issue includes an interview with Hayat Boumediene, the girlfriend of Amedy Coulibaly, the jihadist who killed a policewoman and attacked a kosher market in eastern Paris on Jan. 9.
Coulibaly launched the assault two days following the attacks on French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. Before he was killed by the police, Coulibaly told a French television channel that he had been working with the Kouachi brothers, who assaulted the Charlie Hebdo offices.
The interview, presented in a question and answer format, begins with a brief introduction explaining that Coulibaly sent Boumediene to Syria prior to carrying out the Paris attack. The magazine refers to Boumediene as Umm Basīr al Muhājirah, which translates to "mother of the discerning, the immigrant." Because Boumediene is a woman, the jihadist group will not show her picture and the magazine uses a photograph of Coulibaly instead.
Coulibaly, who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in a video, was killed when police stormed the deli. In the Islamic State's release, Boumediene notes that prior to his death, Coulibaly asked her not to show him Islamic State videos because "it would make him want to perform hijrah immediately and that would have conflicted with his intent to carry out the operations in France." Hijrah refers to the migration of jihadists to the Islamic State's 'caliphate.'
Boumediene encourages her "sisters" to "be bases of support and safety for your husbands, brothers, fathers and sons." She also states that women should learn their religion and read the Quran. "It is essential for you to love Allah and His Messenger more than your own selves, your husbands, your children, and your parents," she says.
Boumediene's emphasis on the need for women to study the Quran echoes the manifesto recently released by the Islamic State's all-female al-Khans'aa Brigade, in which the author(s) stresses the importance for women to study religion and Islamic history. In the interview, Boumediene expresses her happiness with living in Syria, stating, "living in a land where the law of Allah is implemented is something great." Similarly, the manifesto also praises living under Shariah law in the 'caliphate.' [See LWJ report, Islamic State al-Khans'aa Brigade publishes manifesto for women.]
According to the BBC, Turkish authorities said Boumediene arrived in Turkey prior to the Paris attacks and crossed into Syria on January 8, one day before Coulibaly attacked the kosher market in Paris. French authorities say Boumediene exchanged over 500 phone calls with the wife of one of the Charlie Hebdo gunmen, Cherif Kouachi, in 2014. Boumediene was known to French authorities for her links to Islamic extremists, according to multiple press reports.
Cherif and Said Koauchi reportedly had ties to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Before he was killed by the police in a printing factory, Cherif Kouachi claimed he had been sent to carry out the attacks by al Qaeda in Yemen, and that he went to Yemen on a trip funded by Anwar al-Awlaki, according to CNN. Said Kouachi also reportedly met with Awlaki on a trip to Yemen in 2011. [See LWJ report, Paris terrorist reportedly claimed ties to Anwar al Awlaki, AQAP.]
AQAP claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attacks last month through a speech by senior official Nasser bin Ali al Ansi. In the speech, al Ansi states that the "emir of the operation" worked with Awlaki. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claims responsibility for Charlie Hebdo attack.]
The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan claimed responsibility for today's suicide assault that targeted a Shiite mosque in the northwestern provincial capital of Peshawar. At least 20 people were reported killed in the deadly attack.
Four Taliban fighters armed with assault rifles and suicide vests entered the mosque during morning prayer, according to Dawn. Reports of what happened next are unclear. Pakistani officials claimed that one suicide bomber detonated his vest, one was killed by security forces, and another was wounded and subsequently captured. Witnesses told Dawn that one suicide bomber detonated, while three others opened fire on the crowd.
Initial reports indicate that at least 20 people were killed and more than 50 were wounded in the Taliban assault.
Muhammad Khurasani, the spokesman for the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, claimed credit for today's attack, and said it was executed "to avenge the killing of Usman," according to a statement received by The Long War Journal. Khurasani is referring to Dr. Usman, the Taliban commander who led the assault and siege on Pakistan's Army General Headquarters in October 2009. The Pakistani government executed Dr. Usman at the end of December.
"This is a series that will continue to draw blood for blood," the Taliban spokesman said, warning of "more severe" attacks in the future.
In a separate email which included a photograph of the four-man suicide assault team, Khurasani described the attack as a "blessed operation." Khurasani also sent a short video of the suicide bombers.
Today's attack is the second by jihadist groups that have targeted a Shiite mosque in the past two weeks. On Jan. 31, Jundullah, the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan splinter group that purportedly joined the Islamic State last November, attacked another mosque in Shikarpur, killing at least 49 people. (Note: Jundullah was not included in the Islamic State's announcement that declared the establishment of Khorasan province; see LWJ report, Islamic State appoints leaders of 'Khorasan province,' issues veiled threat to Afghan Taliban.)
"Our target was the Shia mosque ... They are our enemies," Jundullah spokesman Fahad Marwat told Dawn while claiming the operation.
The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan and allied groups such as Jundullah have not let up their attacks against civilian targets since the former launched a suicide assault on a military high school in Peshawar on Dec. 16, 2014. More than 140 children and teachers were killed in the horrific attack.
While the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan fractured after a leadership dispute that emerged after the appointment of Mullah Fazlullah as the group's emir in November 2013, the jihadist group is still capable of plotting, organizing, and executing deadly operations such as today's assault in Peshawar. [See LWJ report, Discord dissolves Pakistani Taliban coalition.]
The suicide assault, or coordinated attack using one or more suicide bombers and an assault team, is a tactic frequently used by the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, al Qaeda and its branches, allied groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Shabaab, and by the rival Islamic State. Suicide assaults are commonly executed by jihadist groups in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Nigeria.
At the beginning of a newly-released video, Abu Muhammad al Julani, the emir of the Al Nusrah Front, is heard speaking to a fighter who is about to carry out a suicide operation. Julani is rarely heard in his organization's propaganda and never seen. The latest video continues this trend with a silhouette standing in for Julani. A still image of the fighter who is about to die, a "commando" known as Abu al Zubayr al Hamawi, is also shown. (The image can be seen above.)
"These moments are historic for the Islamic umma. Do not let them pass by, brother," Julani reassures the fighter from an "operations room." Julani says Hamawi's blood will not be spilled in vain, as it is the "price" to be paid for raising the jihadists' black banner over Syria and implementing sharia law in the country.
Hamawi's replies come across as confident. And the exchange is an effective piece of propaganda, as it shows an Al Nusrah "martyr" accepting his fate while also endorsing Julani's leadership.
Hamawi gives Julani his "final will," telling the Al Nusrah Front leader that "the land of the Levant is a trust in your keeping, sheikh." Hamawi repeats the same phrase seconds later, adding that he wants Julani to strike all of Allah's enemies, including the Alawites (Shia who support Bashar al Assad) and the Kharijites, a derogatory term used to denounce "extremists." In this context, Hamawi is almost certainly using the word to describe the Islamic State's leaders and members, who have openly warred with the other jihadist factions in Syria since 2013.
The back and forth between Julani and Hamawi lasts only a minute and a half. But it is a key introduction for the rest of the video, which is 48 minutes long in total. The Al Nusrah Front production, entitled "The Path to Survival in the Face of Conspiracies," is part of Al Nusrah's attempt to regain some of the steam the organization has lost in the propaganda war with its larger, more infamous foe, the Islamic State. Even some of Al Nusrah's staunchest supporters have wondered out loud on Twitter about Julani's media arm, questioning its reaction time and production capabilities.
Indeed, the latest production was first advertised online on Feb. 5, but was not released until Feb. 11. It was not posted directly on Al Nusrah's most prolific Twitter feeds, which belong to its so-called "correspondents network." Instead, it was first tweeted on a more obscure Al Nusrah Front-linked account (with only 1,540 followers, as of this writing) and then retweeted by the more popular correspondents' page.
While Al Nusrah's media arm, Al Manarah al Bayda for Islamic Media, does not have many popular jihadist hits of late, Julani's fighters have had better fortune on the actual battlefield. And the latest video trumpets these successes with digital maps showing their advances in both northern and southern Syria. The maps show Al Nusrah and its allies pushing Assad's forces and others out of areas in Idlib in the north and Daraa in the south.
Many of the scenes center around this fighting, as battlefield images dominate the presentation. But there are other noteworthy portions as well. (A collection of images from the video can be seen at the bottom of this article.)
The Al Nusrah Front again criticizes the United Nations Security Council's decision to designate it as a terrorist organization. One clip points to Security Council Resolution 2170, which called on Al Nusrah "and all other entities associated with" al Qaeda to "cease all violence and terrorist acts, and immediately disarm and disband." The same sentence in the resolution contains a reference to the Islamic State as well, but that part was removed from the excerpt shown in the video.
After introducing the UN's anti-Al Nusrah Front actions, the video immediately cuts to a clip of Abu Firas al Suri, an al Qaeda veteran who has served as Al Nusrah's spokesman. Abu Firas assumed a more significant media profile for the organization last year. He was called upon to denounce the UN's resolution targeting Al Nusrah and other actors in Syria.
After a leaked audio recording of Julani surfaced online in July 2014, Abu Firas attempted to quell the ensuing controversy. Julani gave a fiery speech in the recording, promising that Al Nusrah would build an Islamic state inside Syria. Julani's words were interpreted as meaning that he would no longer seek to work closely with other rebel groups and that Al Nusrah was going to unilaterally establish an emirate (state). Abu Firas promised this wasn't true in a speech released weeks later. He said that Al Nusrah would only declare an Islamic emirate in Syria after it had received its fellow jihadists' blessings.
Abu Firas has been relatively quiet for the past several months. It is not clear why he has taken on a less active public role, but his inclusion in Al Nusrah's latest propaganda shows that the group still holds him in high regard.
The video closes with a short clip of Ayman al Zawahiri. The snippet is from a previous recording released by As Sahab, al Qaeda's propaganda arm. Zawahiri calls on jihadists to unite under the principle of Tawhid, or the oneness of Allah. This has been widely interpreted as a call for the jihadists in Syria to come together in opposition to their common enemies, whether it be Bashar al Assad's regime or the Islamic State.
Leading up to the release of the video, jihadists speculated that something bigger was afoot. Wild rumors were circulated. Some claimed that Julani was about to break his oath of allegiance (bayat) to Zawahiri and fold Al Nusrah into a new coalition of rebel groups. One allegation held that Al Nusrah and other anti-Assad jihadists were about to declare the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Syria. Others claimed that Julani was going to submit to the Islamic State, a drastic move that is highly unlikely and would be totally out of character for Julani. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State, was once Julani's superior, but Julani forged his own working relationship with senior al Qaeda leadership. The personal animosity that resulted between Baghdadi and Julani is now somewhat legendary in jihadist circles.
While Al Nusrah may or may not be planning a significant announcement, the various rumors were at odds with one another and lacked any credible sourcing. The speculation even drew some denials from well-connected jihadists such as Sheikh Abdullah Muhammad al Muhaysini, one of Al Nusrah's closest allies in Syria. In one tweet, Muhaysini said that he had spoken to Al Nusrah's leadership and that all of the rumors being passed around were untrue.
There is no evidence in "The Path to Survival in the Face of Conspiracies" that Al Nusrah is leaving al Qaeda's ranks. If anything, the organization's reliance on footage of Zawahiri to close out the production demonstrates its ongoing role in al Qaeda's international network. Moreover, al Qaeda has seeded veteran leaders in Al Nusrah's most senior positions, meaning that Zawahiri loyalists continue to direct the group.
Images from the Al Nusrah Front's "The Path to Survival in the Face of Conspiracies"
The video closes with a short clip of Ayman al Zawahiri calling for unity:
Abu Firas al Suri, an al Qaeda veteran who has served as the Al Nusrah Front's spokesman, is shown in the video:
Al Nusrah denounces the UN for calling on the group to cease its violence in Syria. Al Nusrah cut the UN's reference to the Islamic State out of the passage shown below:
Much of the video is devoted to combat footage. The next several images show heavy weaponry being used by Al Nusrah in battle:
Some of the clips show Al Nusrah Front training camps:
One scene shows a facility where Russians had been allegedly stationed before it was overrun. The footage shows maps on the walls of the facility and a torn Russian flag that was sitting on a desk.
Early this morning, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) seized control of the Yemeni Army's 19th Infantry Brigade Base located in the Bihan region of Shabwa province.
According to a statement released by AQAP, the assault on the military base began at 4:00 a.m. when clashes between AQAP fighters and Yemeni soldiers initially erupted. AQAP penetrated the base using a well-established tactic of ramming a vehicle packed with explosives into the perimeter, then "storming" it with well-armed fighters. At around 5:30 a.m., an AQAP suicide bomber named Abu Suhaib al Adani detonated his vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED or suicide car bomb) at the base's main gate.
AQAP claimed that in the course of fighting that followed the suicide bombing at the base, the group managed to take control of three guard towers, incapacitate one tank, and take six Yemeni soldiers hostage. AQAP also said that clashes continued for three additional hours until their fighters managed to assert complete control over the base. Moreover, jihadists reportedly captured another group of Yemeni soldiers during the fighting.
A secondary statement released only an hour after the first claimed that the base's commander along with all the troops in the base voluntarily surrendered to AQAP, who ultimately released them all following negotiations with the tribes of Bihan.
This secondary statement also provided some more alleged results of this morning's attacks. AQAP claimed that five Yemeni soldiers were killed and many others wounded. Additionally, the jihadist group indicated that one of its fighters, Abu Turab al Qayfi, was killed and that nine others were lightly wounded. Armored vehicles, light and heavy weaponry - including Kalashnikov rifles, DShK anti-aircraft machine guns, ZSU-23-4 anti-aircraft weapon system, and a cache of ammunition - were allegedly taken by AQAP as booty.
Local news outlets in Yemen reported this morning that between one and three Yemeni soldiers and four terrorists were killed in the AQAP attack. Moreover, some news organizations claimed that the base was being surrounded by local tribal forces, who appear to be attempting to contain AQAP forces at the base.
AQAP's justification for the attack was that it had received information indicating that the base was about to be handed over to Houthi control. The Iranian-backed Shia Houthis rebels and the Sunni jihadist group are enemies and have been battling in central Yemen.
AQAP said the assault was designed to "foil the Houthi plan to seize control of it [the base], and make it a launching base for attacks on the Muslims of Shabwa in the same manner as what occurred in Yemen's northern regions."
AQAP previously controlled much of Shabwa and neighboring Abyan province between the spring of 2011 and the summer of 2012. Yemeni forces, backed by US airpower, which included drone strikes, drove AQAP from overtly controlling much of the two provinces. Since losing control of the south, the jihadist group has been waging a guerrilla campaign against security forces and the government in southern and central Yemen.
Yemen continues to spiral out of control
AQAP is flexing its muscles in southern Yemen as the Houthis overran the capital of Sana'a and forced President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the government to resign. Hadi was a staunch supporter of US counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, including drone strikes against AQAP, despite local and international criticism.
The Houthis, a Shiite minority that is backed by Iran, is no friend of the United States. The group's motto is "Death to America," and it is expected that support for US operations will wane as Houthi influence grows.
The security situation has gotten so bad in Yemen that yesterday the US and British embassies in the capital of Sana'a were closed and staffs were evacuated. The US State Department said that "Recent unilateral actions disrupted the political transition process in Yemen, creating the risk that renewed violence would threaten Yemenis and the diplomatic community in Sana'a." The British Embassy shut down operations because "[t]he security situation in Yemen has continued to deteriorate over recent days."
The US abandonment of its embassy appears to have been hastily conducted as military and diplomatic personnel were forced to leave on a civilian rather than a military flight. US Marines who guarded the embassy destroyed their crew-served and personal weapons before boarding a civilian flight out of Sana'a, according to USA Today. Twenty-five embassy vehicles were confiscated by Houthi rebels. US personnel at the embassy destroyed files at the embassy to prevent confiscation.
The Yemeni military and security services, which have been fighting AQAP in southern, eastern, and central Yemen, have been unable to halt the Houthi advance from the north, which began late last summer. Yemen's security forces are said to be in disarray as they face duel threats from both the Houthis and AQAP.
The US military has attempted to paint a positive picture of the status of Yemen security forces despite their recent losses. Just one day before the US and British embassies closed, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said that security cooperation would continue with the Yemeni military.
"[W]e still have special operations forces in Yemen, we continue to conduct counterterrorism training with Yemeni security forces, and we are still capable inside Yemen of conducting counterterrorism operations," Kirby stated when asked if US forces could continue operations in Yemen despite the Houthi advances.
President Obama previously praised the US counterterrorism strategy in Yemen as "one that we have successfully pursued." Despite launching 109 drone and conventional airstrikes against AQAP's leadership, the core of the group, including its leader, Nasir al Wuhayshi, who doubles al Qaeda's general manager, remain alive.
On Jan. 31, the US scored a small victory as Yemen continues to collapse. US drones killed Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari, a senior and influential AQAP sharia official, in a strike in southern Yemen.
The following pictures were released by AQAP along with the statements claiming credit for the attack:
A group of Yemeni soldiers held hostage by AQAP:
AQAP fighters taking "spoils" from the base:
Shortly before his own death in a US airstrike on Jan. 31, Harith al Nadhari, a senior sharia official in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), recorded an audio eulogy for another slain jihadist, Mohammed al Zahawi. Ansar al Sharia Libya confirmed earlier in the month that Zahawi, the group's leader, had died of wounds he suffered while fighting in Benghazi. And Nadhari wanted to make it clear that al Qaeda considered Zahawi to be a "martyr."
Nadhari's audio recording, which was released via Twitter on Feb. 6, has been translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
"Sheikh al Zahawi, may Allah have mercy on him, began his march in [the] mid-nineties," Nadhari explained, according to SITE. "Allah guided him [to] meet the reviving Imam Osama bin Laden when Osama was in Sudan. Zahawi took from his determination and learned from his methodology, then he was captured quickly by the Saud government, the traitor to Allah and His Messenger."
Zahawi's meeting with bin Laden in the 1990s is a strong indication that he had long operated within al Qaeda's network. His dossier since then buttresses the point.
Nadhari did not explain why Zahawi was detained by the Saudi government, but the implication is that Zahawi was involved in jihadist activities inside the kingdom. Nadhari said that Zahawi was delivered to Muammar al Qaddafi's regime, which "harmed" him during his "years of imprisonment," but "did not weaken his strength nor lessen his determination nor destabilized his faith."
Nadhari also offered a call for jihadist unity in Libya, saying that the mission was not completed when Qaddafi fell. Some of Nadhari's audio message appears to implicitly address the infighting between the Islamic State's supporters in Libya and the jihadists in Ansar al Sharia and other groups who refuse to swear allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
In his eulogy of Zahawi, the deceased AQAP official called on the "mujahideen in all your different groups, factions, and brigades" to come together to fight General Khalifa Haftar's forces and the West, which supposedly seeks to prohibit the implementation of sharia law in Libya. "Align the rank and unite the purpose," Nadhari said, adding that the jihadists should "overcome" their "passing disputes...despite the differences in affiliations and individual opinions."
AQAP is not the only official branch of al Qaeda to mourn Zahawi. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) issued its own eulogy for the deceased Ansar al Sharia Libya leader online.
Ansar al Sharia Libya part of al Qaeda's international network
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, a popular meme held that Ansar al Sharia was just a "local" jihadist group and was not part of al Qaeda's international network. Abundant evidence at the time indicated that this was false.
For instance, a report published in August 2012 by the Library of Congress and the Defense Department's Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO), "Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile," connected Ansar al Sharia to al Qaeda's clandestine network inside Libya. The report's authors pointed out that one prominent Ansar al Sharia leader in Derna, Sufian Ben Qumu, is an ex-Guantanamo detainee who served as an al Qaeda operative before his detention by US forces. Other facts demonstrated Ansar al Sharia's ties to al Qaeda as well.
Ironically enough, the participation of Ansar al Sharia fighters in the 9/11/12 Benghazi attack was itself an indication that the group was, at a minimum, colluding with various al Qaeda branches. At least three other al Qaeda groups took part in the raid on the US Mission and Annex that night. Jihadists from both AQAP and AQIM were involved in the assault, as were members of the so-called Muhammad Jamal Network (MJN). AQAP and AQIM are formal branches of al Qaeda, while the MJN was led by an Egyptian who was first trained by al Qaeda in the late 1980s and had long been a subordinate to Ayman al Zawahiri.
Ansar al Sharia's role in al Qaeda's global network was eventually recognized by the United Nations's Security Council, which added the group to its al Qaeda sanctions list in November 2014. The UN did not directly sanction Zahawi, but did identify him as Ansar al Sharia's leader in Benghazi. The UN also noted that Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi works closely with AQIM and Al Mourabitoun, an AQIM offshoot that remains loyal to Ayman al Zawahiri.
The US military confirmed that it killed the Islamic State's deputy emir for 'Khorasan province' in an airstrike in southern Afghanistan on Feb. 9, and the head of Shabaab's external operations and intelligence branch in a separate drone strike in southern Somalia on Jan. 31. The US continues to rely on airstrikes as the core of its effort to defeat jihadist groups worldwide.
The confirmation of the deaths of Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, who was appointed the deputy governor of the Islamic State's Khorasan province in January, and Yusuf Dheeq, the chief of Shabaab's Amniyat, or intelligence service, was disclosed in a briefing yesterday by Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby.
Khadim's leadership role in Islamic State was short-lived
Kirby stated that on Feb. 9, "US forces in Afghanistan conducted a precision strike in Helmand province, resulting in the death of eight individuals, to include Abdul Rauf Khadim, a former Taliban commander."
Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security immediately confirmed Khadim's death on Feb. 9. The Islamic State has not released a martyrdom statement for Khadim.
Khadim was captured by US forces in December 2001, held by the US military at Guantanamo Bay up until he was transferred to Afghan custody in December 2007, and subsequently freed by the Afghan government in 2009. After his release, he was quickly appointed to a senior position within the Taliban. In 2010, he served as the Taliban's shadow governor for Uruzgan province and is also reported to have been a member of the Taliban's Quetta Shura Council.
Khadim, who was one of Mullah Omar's top deputies and military commanders, is said to have severed ties with the Taliban last year after losing an internal power struggle. He is said to have joined the Islamic State earlier this year. On Jan. 26, the spokesman for the Islamic State said Khadim swore allegiance to emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, and was appointed the deputy governor of the Khorasan province. The Khorasan is a geographical region that covers Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of neighboring countries.
The Pentagon spokesman described the Islamic State's presence in Afghanistan as "nascent at best" and "aspirational."
"In fact, I would say more aspirational than anything else at this point," Kirby continued. "This guy Khadim, we assess that he decided to swear allegiance to ISIL [Islamic State] probably no more than a couple weeks ago. And he didn't have a whole lot of depth to any network resources or manpower when he did it."
Khadim was perhaps one of the most active Islamic State commanders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is said to have had scores of fighters under his command and was operating in Kajaki district in northern Helmand province, where he was killed.
Second leader of the Amniyat killed in less than 2 months
Dheeq, the Shabaab leader, "and an associate" were killed in an operation that utilized "unmanned aerial aircraft and Hellfire missiles," Kirby confirmed. The Pentagon first noted on Feb. 3 that Dheeq was targeted several days earlier, but was unable to confirm his death. Somali officials reported that Dheeq was killed within 24 hours of the strike. [See LWJ report, US drone strike targets Shabaab's external operations chief
The Amniyat is a key organization within Shabaab. It is instrumental in executing suicide attacks inside Somalia as well as in Kenya and other African nations, conducting assassinations, providing logistics and support for operations, and integrating the group's local and regional commands. A top Amniyat official known as "Hassan" is said to have received direct instructions from al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri on training operatives in Africa. [See LWJ report, UN warned of Shabaab ally's 'new and more complex operations' in Kenya, and Threat Matrix report, Zawahiri's man in Shabaab's 'secret service'.]
The Amniyat is also responsible for protecting Shabaab's emir, and in the past has carried out executions for the group's leader.
The US has targeted and killed several top leaders of the Amniyat in the recent past. The US killed Tahlil Abdishakur, the previous leader of the Amniyat, in an airstrike in Somalia on Dec. 29, 2014.
US continues to rely on tactic of decapitation vs counterinsurgency
The deaths of Khadim and Dheeq, as well as Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari, a senior al Qaeda sharia official in Yemen on Jan. 31, highlights the US government's abandonment of counterinsurgency to fight the spread of jihadist movements throughout the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. President Barack Obama ordered the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq at the end of 2011, and will pull US forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
Instead of fighting the jihadist groups on the ground, the US has relied on airstrikes, and in many cases, unmanned aerial vehicles that are more commonly called drones to target senior and mid-level leaders of the jihadist groups. This tactic has been used against al Qaeda, the Taliban and allied groups in Pakistan since 2007, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen since 2009, and Somalia since 2006.
While the airstrikes have killed some top al Qaeda, Taliban, and allied leaders, they have not stopped the spread of jihadist groups across Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. Nor have they denied these groups territory, which is crucial for the group to train fighters, maintain local insurgencies, and plot attacks against the West. Despite years of airstrikes against al Qaeda and its allies, the groups still control territory in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, and they are waging active insurgencies in Nigeria, Mali, Egypt, the Caucasus, and elsewhere.
The al-Khans'aa Brigade, the group of women within the Islamic State's 'caliphate' known for enforcing dress codes and strict rules of law in the group's stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, released a manifesto on January 23.
The document, which is broken into three parts and was recently translated by the Quilliam Foundation, is a piece of propaganda claiming to describe life under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's 'caliphate,' while also trying to recruit female supporters. The first part of the report describes how Islamic women should lead their lives while the second portion is a case study of Islamic women currently living under the caliphate. The third section compares Saudi Arabia, or what the author(s) refers to as "the hypocritical state," to the Islamic State.
The author(s) of the document states that it has not been officially adopted by the caliphate's leadership, but that its intentions are to "clarify the role of Muslim women and the life which is desired for them," "to clarify the realities of life and the hallowed existence of women in the Islamic State, in Iraq and in al-Sham, and to refute the rumours that detractors advance against it, using evidence supported and experienced by women living there," and "to expose the falsity of the tawheed in the Arabian Peninsula."
The beginning of the release features a general manifesto on Muslim life followed by one directly addressing Muslim women. The author(s) first addresses the concept of materialism and capitalism and how both have detracted from the ability to lead a faithful life. The manifesto specifically references UNESCO and the World Health Organization as groups who have corrupted Muslims with their "worldly sciences."
The section addressing Muslim women states that women are not fulfilling their fundamental role in society, which, according to the author(s), is in the home, raising the next generation of children. According to the report, women must be educated to fulfill this obligation.
Education for women, as outlined in the manifesto, should take place between the ages of seven and fifteen. From seven to nine, girls should study fiqh (or Islamic jurisprudence), Arabic, and the natural sciences. From ten to twelve, girls should study more fiqh as it relates to women, specifically marriage and divorce. At this time, girls will also learn basic household skills, which include knitting and cooking. From thirteen to fifteen, "there will be more of a focus on Shariah, as well as more manual skills and less of the science." During this period the girls should also study Islamic history.
According to the document, western influence has corrupted Muslims, claiming that "the model preferred by infidels in the West failed the minute that women were 'liberated' from their cell in the house." Women are to live a sedentary lifestyle in the home while men are meant for "movement and flux," the report says.
These strict rules for women have three exceptions, according to the manifesto. Women may leave the house and enter the community to wage jihad, to study religion, or if they are a doctor or teacher. But "to have a job is a task reserved only for men."
The report likens equality between men and women to an inconvenience for women. In discussing circumstances where women must work outside the home, the manifesto states: "women gain nothing from the idea of their equality with men apart from thorns." Girls are eligible for marriage at the age of nine and "most pure girls will be married by sixteen or seventeen, while they are still young and active."
The second section of the document, the case study, attempts to paint a happy picture of life under the Islamic State's rule in Raqqa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq. This section includes pictures and captions, showing different aspects of life in the two cities.
The author(s) explains that "despite the raging war and the continued coalition against the Islamic state, the bombing planes in the skies flying back and forth, despite all this destruction, we find continued, patient and steadfast construction, thanks be to God." The Brigade refers to the coalition forces as "soldiers of the Antichrist."
According to the section of the case study detailing life in Mosul, women's return to wearing the hijab across the caliphate has brought a new sense of decency. The author(s) purportedly claims that when the Islamic State took over the swaths of land it now controls, "the people regained their rights, none more so than women."
As the case study describes various aspects of life within the caliphate, it maintains that many of the problems Mosul's citizens faced before the Islamic State's leadership assumed power are no longer an issue. These problems include poverty, access to medicine, electricity, and the state of public services.
As for conditions in Raqqa, known as the Islamic State's stronghold, the case study describes a place where those who have migrated to Syria from around the world live harmoniously together under Shariah law.
The manifesto concludes by comparing the Islamic State to Saudi Arabia, which it refers to as "the hypocritical state." In this section, the Brigade points out issues (poverty, injustice, and westernization) women living in Saudi Arabia face, and further claims that such issues do not exist under the caliphate.
Despite the Brigade's attempt to describe normal life under Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's rule, it fails to mention the gross human rights abuses at the hands of the Islamic State. Recently, a United Nations watchdog reported to several news outlets that Iraqi children are being sold as sex slaves, while others are being crucified and buried alive. And in November, the United Nations released a report detailing the Islamic State's many atrocities.
In December, the Islamic State published its own pamphlet detailing how to treat female slaves. Among its many disturbing rules, the document states that captors can have sex with female slaves who have not yet reached puberty "if she is fit for intercourse" and that beating slaves is also permissible.
After seizing Mount Sinjar in August, the Islamic State captured between 1,500 and 4,000 Yazidi women and girls. Women who have managed to escape from the jihadist group have testified about awful conditions in captivity, including sexual slavery and forced marriages to the group's fighters.
Activists working inside Raqqa describe the al-Khans'aa Brigade as a direct threat to their efforts to expose the brutality of the caliphate and its leadership. A recent report in the Wall Street Journal claims that members of the all-female brigade are on the hunt for activists like those working for the group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. Because the women wear black niqabs, activists and residents alike cannot differentiate between who may or may not be an informant.
The State Department announced today that Denis Cuspert, a German member of the Islamic State, has been added to the US government's list of specially designated global terrorists. Cuspert previously performed as a rapper, going by the name of Deso Dogg, and even briefly toured with the popular American performer known as DMX.
Some of Cuspert's music is still available for purchase in the US and elsewhere online. However, State explains that as a result of his designation as a terrorist "all property subject to US jurisdiction in which Cuspert has any interest is blocked and US persons are prohibited from engaging in transactions with him or to his benefit." US citizens cannot, therefore, legally purchase his rap songs online if he receives proceeds from the sale.
According to State, Cuspert is "a foreign terrorist fighter and operative for ISIL," or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. (The group calls itself the Islamic State, but the US government refers to it by the acronym of its previous name, or ISIL.) "Cuspert joined ISIL in 2012 and has appeared in numerous videos on its behalf, the most recent dating from early November, in which he appears holding a severed head he claims belongs to a man executed for opposing ISIL."
Cuspert, who is 39 years old, "spent time in jail for various offensives" in Germany before traveling to Syria. He is still "wanted by the German government on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activities in his home country."
Cuspert is also known as Abu Talha al Almani.
The State Department says that he "pledged an oath of loyalty to ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and appears to serve as an ISIL recruiter with special emphasis on recruiting German speakers to ISIL."
Foreign fighters have played a leading role in some of the Islamic State's "most egregious crimes," including massacres of tribesmen in eastern Syrian and Western Iraq, State notes. And "Cuspert has been a willing pitchman for ISIL atrocities."
There has been some controversy over whether or not Cuspert is really alive. He has been reported dead in the past. Some of the confusion is owed to Cuspert's nom de guerre, Abu Talha al Almani, which has been used by other Islamic State jihadists, including one who was killed in Syria last year.
A video was posted on YouTube earlier this month purportedly showing Cuspert calling for Germans to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State's caliphate.
The video, which is not an official Islamic State production, can be seen above. The Long War Journal cannot independently verify that it is indeed Cuspert who is shown in the video, but it appears to be him. In addition, it is not clear when the video, which was likely captured on a cell phone, was recorded. It may not be new footage.
"Come here and enjoy life under the flag of tawhid [or the oneness of God]," the man identified as Cuspert says, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal. "Feel the freedom. And, inshallah, if you come here with honest intentions, you will receive shahada [martyrdom] and then eternal Paradise." Cuspert adds, "Do not miss it, rather get a ticket, come by train, come by plane, come by bicycle, come by car, just come."
Cuspert publicly pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the emir of the Islamic State (or ISIL) in April 2014. Since then he has appeared in a number of propaganda videos and photos online. For example, he was pictured at the Mosul Dam in Iraq after the Islamic State overran the city last summer.
The Ansar al Din Front, a coalition of several jihadist groups in Syria, released a statement on Feb. 7 mourning the death of Harith al Nadhari, a top sharia official in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). On Feb. 5, AQAP confirmed that Nadhari had been killed in a US drone strike in southern Yemen just days earlier.
The statement, titled "Let Tears Flow Over Likes of Al Nadhari," was first published on Ansar al Din's official Twitter feed. "We have been mired in grief upon receipt of the news of martyrdom of our brother, Sheikh Harith Bin Ghazi al Nadhari, in an oppressive crusader shelling of Muslims in general, and of the mujahideen in particular," the group says, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal.
Ansar al Din lavishes praise on Nadhari, saying he was a "kind person" who "led a life full of sacrifices" in service of jihad and dawa (the call to submit to Allah). Ansar al Din says Nadhari gave sage "advice to the mujahideen and the entire ummah [worldwide community of Muslims]." And the jihadists lament the loss of Nadhari, arguing that the "absence of the ulema [Islamic religious scholars] and peacemakers adds to the gravity of the disaster." The jihadist "field urgently needs" sheikhs such as Nadhari today "more than ever."
The Ansar al Din Front is an alliance of four jihadist groups that was formed in 2014. Its constituent groups include the Jaish al Muhajireen awl Ansar (JMA), Sham al Islam, Al Katibah al Khadra, and Fajr al Sham.
The State Department added the JMA and Sham al Islam to the US government's list of specially designated global terrorists in September 2014. A large contingent of jihadists from the Caucasus serve as JMA leaders and fighters. Sham al Islam is mainly comprised of fighters from North Africa and was founded by ex-Guantanamo detainees from Morocco. Saudis have led Al Katibah al Khadra.
This coalition of foreign fighter-dominated jihadists has attempted to stay neutral in the rivalry between the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that controls large portions of Iraq and Syria as a "caliphate," and the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria.
While Ansar al Din has tried to steer clear of the Islamic State, members of both organizations have fought against one another. Meanwhile, Ansar al Din has fought alongside Al Nusrah against their common enemies on multiple occasions. And Ansar al Din's statement mourning Nadhari is a clear indication that the coalition is at least allied with al Qaeda's global network.
Nadhari was a staunch critic of the Islamic State. And as the rivalry between the Islamic State and AQAP heated up last year, AQAP increasingly turned to Nadhari to argue that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's "caliphate" lacked the necessary theological justifications.
Ansar al Din's statement contains echoes of Vilayat Dagestan's eulogy for Nadhari. This is unsurprising given Ansar al Din's strong ties to the Caucasus.
The Vilayat Dagestan is a "province" of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Caucasus Emirate (ICE) and has also been affected by the rivalry between the Islamic State and al Qaeda. Late last year, Vilayat Dagestan's leader defected to Baghdadi's organization. This move provoked a harsh verbal backlash from ICE's emir, Ali Abu Muhammad al Dagestani, who quickly appointed a new ICE chieftain for Dagestan.
Vilayat Dagestan remains loyal to ICE and al Qaeda. The group was one of the first to openly mourn Nadhari's death. In its eulogy, Vilayat Dagestan said Nadhari "left us exactly at a time when we acutely need scholars like himself" and that he was working to reestablish the caliphate "on the path of the Prophet." This is undoubtedly an allusion to the controversy surrounding the Islamic State's "caliphate," which al Qaeda thinkers argue was not established according to the Prophetic method.
Without directly mentioning the "caliphate" controversy, Ansar al Din's message contains some of these same elements, especially the part about how the "absence of the ulema [Islamic religious scholars] and peacemakers adds to the gravity of the disaster." After the US-led coalition's airstrikes in Syria began last September, Nadhari and AQAP attempted to bring the Islamic State together with other jihadist groups in Syria to form a united front against the West. This effort, like previous AQAP attempts to reconcile the warring jihadists, failed. Nadhari was also one of ten leading jihadist ideologues who released a letter in January denouncing the Vilayat Dagestan's defectors.
Ansar al Din itself played a "peacemaker" role last year by attempting to broker and enforce truces between the Islamic State and its rivals.
Ansar al Din concludes its eulogy for Nadhari by offering its "condolences" to ummah, the mujahideen, and Nadhari's family.
Afghanistan's intelligence service has confirmed that the US killed the Islamic State's deputy emir for 'Khorasan province' in an airstrike in southern Afghanistan earlier today. Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, who was appointed the deputy governor of Khorasan province in January, was previously a senior leader in the Taliban and was a former detainee at Gunatanamo Bay.
The National Directorate of Security issued a statement that confirmed Khadim's death, according to Khaama Press. Khadim was traveling in a vehicle in the northern district of Kajaki in Helmand province with his brother and four "Pakistanis" when it was targeted in a US airstrike, Ariana News reported.
The provincial police chief for Helmand, Nabi Jan Mullahkhil, also said that Khadim was killed.
"Six militants including the Taliban key commander in the southern region Mullah Abdul Rauf were killed as aircraft pounded their position in Azan area of Kajaki district at 09:00 a.m. local time today," Mullahkhil said, according to Xinhua.
The US military has not confirmed that it targeted or killed Khadim in an airstrike. The Islamic State and the Taliban have not commented on reports of the jihadist's death.
Khadim, who was one of Mullah Omar's top deputies and military commanders, is said to have severed ties with the Taliban last year after losing an internal power struggle. He is said to have joined the Islamic State earlier this year.
Since his split with the Taliban, Khadim has reportedly clashed with the group in northern Helmand. An unconfirmed report from Afghanistan indicated that he and dozens of his fighters were detained by the Taliban, but his capture was not confirmed.
Abu Muhammad al Adnani, a spokesman for the Islamic State, said that Khadim swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the emir and self-styled caliph of the Islamic State, in a statement issued on Jan. 26. Khadim was appointed to serve as deputy governor of the Islamic State's Khorasan province, while Hafez Saeed Khan, a Pakistani Taliban commander from Aurakzai, was named the governor, according to Adnani. The Khorasan is a geographical region that covers Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of neighboring countries.
Khadim was captured by US forces in December 2001, and was held at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay up until he was transfered to Afghan custody in December 2007. While at Guantanamo, he claimed he was a low level foot soldier in the Taliban when in reality he commanded a Taliban quick reaction force that was deployed to hot spots all over Afghanistan.
He was freed by the Afghan government sometime in 2009, and was quickly appointed to a senior position. In 2010, he served as the Taliban's shadow governor for Uruzgan province and is also reported to have been a member of the Taliban's Quetta Shura Council.
If confirmed, Khadim's death will be a major blow for the Islamic State, which is working to gain a foothold in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Khadim has been one of the few Islamic State commanders in Khoransan province who have been active in fighting the US and Afghan government. The Islamic State has recruited disaffected members of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, but has not been very active in the region.
For more information on Khadim, see the following LWJ reports:
Former Gitmo detainee turned Taliban leader threatens Afghan elders
The Gitmo Files: 2 of Afghanistan's most wanted hid leadership roles while in US custody
Ex-Gitmo detainee leads contingent of Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan
Islamic State appoints leaders of 'Khorasan province,' issues veiled threat to Afghan Taliban
Yesterday, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) confirmed that one of its senior sharia officials, Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari, had been killed in a US drone strike on Jan. 31 in southern Yemen. Jihadists aligned with al Qaeda's international network quickly issued their condolences upon hearing the news.
"He was a worthy son of Islam who worked towards the establishment of a caliphate on the path of the Prophet," Vilayat Dagestan, a "province" of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Caucasus Emirate (ICE), said in a statement on its official web site. "This brother left us exactly at a time when we acutely need scholars like himself," the message continues, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal.
Vilayat Dagestan has been embroiled in a controversy, as its former leader and other ICE members swore allegiance to the Islamic State late last year. It is not clear how much sway they have in Dagestan and elsewhere at the moment, but the group's propaganda arm remains loyal to al Qaeda. The defectors were denounced by ICE's emir, Abu Muhammad al Dagestani, who named a new leader for the jihadist group's Dagestan "province."
Nadhari was one of the ten jihadist ideologues who endorsed Dagestani as ICE's leader, and denounced the defectors, in a statement that was issued shortly before his death. Vilayat Dagestan's statement commemorating Nadhari implicitly recognizes the controversy over the defectors, as it references the supposedly proper way to re-establish the "caliphate" and the necessity of having "scholars" such as him. One of al Qaeda's central critiques of the Islamic State's "caliphate" is that it was not established according to the Prophetic method, as Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and his subordinates did not first build support for their endeavor among recognized jihadist authorities.
Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, an al Qaeda-linked cleric who works closely with the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, openly mourned Nadhari on his Twitter feed. Muhaysini changed the profile image on his Twitter feed, which has approximately 345,000 followers, to a picture of Nadhari.
Muhaysini also posted an image of himself alongside Nadhari to commemorate his fallen comrade. The image can be seen to the right.
The SITE Intelligence Group reports that Sirajuddin Zurayqat, a leader of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades in Lebanon, similarly praised Nadhari in a pair of tweets. "May Allah have mercy on Sheikh Harith al Nadhari and accept him among the martyrs, and may He make our mujahideen brothers stand firm in the Arabian Peninsula," Zurayqat wrote, according to SITE. "Here are American drones flying over the agents of Iran to kill soldiers of the Most Gracious in the Yemen of faith."
The "agents of Iran" referenced in Zurayqat's tweets are the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Houthis are backed, at least in part, by Iran. And AQAP consistently portrays America's actions in Yemen as being part of a supposed Iranian-American axis that is fighting Sunni Muslims throughout the greater Middle East. Zurayqat played upon this same theme in his tweets mourning Nadhari's death.
Note: This article has been updated to note that Foreign Policy has confirmed the US-led coalition launched airstrikes in Raqqa earlier today.
A statement attributed to the Islamic State claims that an American woman who was being held hostage, Kayla Jean Mueller, was killed during Jordanian airstrikes earlier today. The statement contains a photo set showing a building that was allegedly struck by Jordanian bombers.
The claim could not be independently verified and its overall veracity is questionable.
One photo published by the group can be seen above and others at the end of this article. The web page containing the announcement also purports to publish Mueller's address in Arizona, her telephone number and email address.
Several elements of the statement and the photos immediately draw into question the claimed circumstances surrounding Mueller's alleged death.
The Islamic State set off an international controversy when its fighters burned a Jordanian pilot alive. Conveniently, the group now claims that Jordan's bombers killed an American hostage. It is not clear how the Islamic State knows the bombers that supposedly hit this area were Jordanian, as opposed to other coalition aircraft.
Moreover, the statement says that Mueller was killed by the "fire" caused by the bombings. This is, again, convenient given the manner in which Mu'adh Yusuf al Kasasibah was executed. It is an attempt to draw moral equivalency between Jordan's attacks on the Islamic State, and the means by which the Islamic State killed a Jordanian pilot. In fact, the group's supporters have been aggressively making "an eye for an eye" justifications on social media since the grotesque execution video was first aired.
The Islamic State says that Mueller was killed during Friday prayers in the city of Raqqa, which serves as the de facto seat of its "caliphate." The implication is that the Jordanians were bombing during a holy time for Muslims.
The statement also alleges that no jihadists were killed, only Mueller, despite "continuous raids" on the location for more than one hour. This would be an incredibly inefficient use of Jordan's airpower, if true, as its bombers are surely targeting locations that can do the most damage to the Islamic State's positions. And it is not clear how the building shown in the photos could still be standing at all, even with significant damage, if the bombers really struck this precise location for more than one hour.
As of this writing, the coalition had not yet announced any airstrikes in Raqqa today. The latest statement from CENTCOM says that, from 8 am on Feb. 5 to 8 am Feb. 6 (local time), the coalition conducted ten airstrikes. Nine of the airstrikes took place near Kobani, targeting "nine [Islamic State] tactical units" and destroying two of the organization's "fighting positions." The tenth airstrike hit "multiple storage and staging facilities" near Al Hasakah.
Citing a CENTCOM official, however, Foreign Policy subsequently confirmed that the US-led "coalition conducted multiple airstrikes Friday in the Raqqa area against Islamic State targets" and the strikes "involved both US and coalition planes."
Jordan did launch airstrikes in Iraq and Syria today. Citing Jordanian state television, CNN reports that the Jordanian armed forces claimed to have hit Islamic State "training centers, arms and ammunition depots."
While it is certainly possible Mueller has been killed, the Islamic State's description of how she was allegedly killed could very well be a propaganda ploy. Specific details in the Islamic State's message, such as no other deaths caused by the coalition's bombings in Raqqa, do not ring true.
Other photos released by the Islamic State:
Map of known provincial locations of training camps run by the Islamic State, the Al Nusrah Front, and allied jihadist groups since 2012. Map created by Caleb Weiss and Bill Roggio.
Jihadist groups operating in Iraq and Syria continue to highlight their training facilities in Iraq and Syria. Since Dec. 28, 13 new camps have been identified by The Long War Journal. Of these, four are in Iraq while the other seven are in Syria.
The total number of jihadist training camps that have been identified in both countries is now at 78; at least 10 are thought to be no longer in operation and 15 to 20 have been hit in Coalition airstrikes.
Six of the camps that have been recently identified belong to the Islamic State, the al Qaeda splinter group that now controls significant portions of land in Iraq and Syria. These facilities include:
- The "Abu Abdul Rahman al Bilawi Camp" in northern Babil province, Iraq. This camp is named after the slain Islamic State leader who was killed by the Iraqi Security Forces near Mosul in June 2014.
- The "Sheikh Abu Ibrahim Camp" which is near al Rutbah in Iraq's Anbar province. The camp was identified after the Islamic State posted pictures showing the graduation of the class "Abu Anas al Ansari," who was a local emir of the Islamic State before he was killed near the al Walid border crossing in late 2014.
- A camp for children, which was not named, that is located in Tal Afar in Iraq's Ninewa province. In a translation by SITE Intelligence Group, the video featured a young Turkish boy who said "I have emigrated with my father, my mother, and my brothers from Turkey. We came to pledge allegiance to Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. I wish from Allah to select me as a martyr."
- The "Abu Musab al Zarqawi Camp" in Kirkuk province, Iraq. Photos showing recruits at the camp showcased physical training, as well as training on clearing buildings. The camp is named after the founder and former emir of al Qaeda in Iraq, which is now the Islamic State. Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2006.
- A camp run by the Islamic State's "Knights of War Battalion," which appears to be located at the Tal Afar airbase. In the video released by the jihadist group, recruits for this unit were shown undergoing firearms training, close quarters combat training, and small unit tactics training. Several hangars at the airbase appear to have been destroyed in possible airstrikes, however, these ruins were utilized the Islamic State's training. On Jan. 20, pictures were released that appear to show fighters training near the city of Tal Afar. The Knights of War Battalion may be another "special unit" of the Islamic State, similar to the Qawat al Muhaam al Khaasa (Special Task Force). It is possible the latter group was also present in the video. [See LWJ report, More jihadist training camps identified in Iraq and Syria.]
- The "Sheikh Osama bin Laden Camp," which is named after the slain co-founder of al Qaeda, who was killed in a US special operations mission in Pakistan in 2011. The camp, which is thought to be located in Raqqah province, has been in operation since before the Islamic State changed its name from the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham.
Two camps operated by the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, have been identified:
- An unnamed camp in Idlib province in northwestern Syria. On Jan. 9, the Al Nusrah Front released a series of images on its official Twitter account detailing the facility, which appears to be different than previous camps shown by the group in Idlib. The pictures also appeared to have been taken a few weeks prior to release, as the weather conditions in the photos did not match the weather conditions in Idlib at that time. [See accompanying map above for more information on other Al Nusrah Front camps in Idlib.]
- An unnamed camp located in Quneitra province in southern Syria. Al Nusrah released several photos from this camp on its Twitter account for its southern Syria operations. More than three dozen recruits were shown taking part in firing exercises, physical training, and marching.
The following five training facilities are operated by jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria that are allied with the Al Nusrah Front or the Islamic State:
- The al Qaa'qaa Camp in al Hasakah province, Syria. While the camp was showcased in a video released on Jan. 22, it has been in operation for quite some time. Late last year, Ansar al Islam fought alongside the Al Nusrah Front and Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar, the Syrian branch of the Caucasus Emirate, in a key battle in Aleppo province. The al Qaa'qaa Camp is the second camp identified that belongs to Ansar al Islam. The other camp, the Sheikh Rashid Ghazi Camp, is located in Ninewa province, Iraq. [For more information on Jamaat Ansar al Islam, see LWJ report Ansar al Islam coordinating with the Al Nusrah Front, Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar in Aleppo.]
- An unnamed camp that is run by Ansar Sham, a group that operates in Latakia province and is part of the larger Islamic Front coalition, which is closely allied to the Al Nusrah Front. Late last year, Ansar Sham released a video of a training camp it runs in Latakia. In the video, recruits underwent small unit tactics, weapons training, as well as physical training.
- A training camp for children that is run by the al Qaeda and Taliban-linked Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). TIP's official media wing released photos of the facility, which appeared to be in a captured villa somewhere in the northern Syrian countryside, showing more than a dozen children taking part in the training. The TIP in Syria operates alongside Al Nusrah in Idlib and also likely in Aleppo province.
- A camp run by the Kurdish Islamic Front, a Kurdish faction of the larger Islamic Front coalition> The group showcased the camp in a video released in early April 2014. The video showed its fighters training with weapons as well as learning how to assault and clear a building. On Dec. 8, the Kurdish Islamic Front and Liwa al Haq, another group within the Islamic Front, merged with Ahrar al Sham, which is part of the Islamic Front. Ahrar al Sham is an al Qaeda-ally that closely operates alongside the Al Nusrah Front.
- A camp run by the Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, or Oneness and Jihad Battalion. In a video released by the jihadist group, its fighters were shown receiving training on technicals (armed pickup trucks), how to assault and clear buildings, take people captive, as well as weapons and physical training. This relatively small organization, which broke away from the Al Nusrah Front, largely consists of Uzbek fighters. Even after breaking from Al Nusrah, the two maintain good relations and close battlefield ties. Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad also has ties to the larger Uzbek group, the Imam Bukhari Jamaat.
Jihadist training camps in Iraq and Syria
Since the beginning of 2012, a total of 78 camps have been identified as being operational at one point in time. Of those camps, 58 have been found in Syria, and 20 in Iraq. Ten of these camps are used to indoctrinate and train children.
Information on the camps has been obtained from jihadist videos and images, news accounts, and US military press releases that note airstrikes against the training facilities. It is unclear if all of the training camps are currently operational. At least 10 of the facilities are thought to no longer be in existence. Additionally, between 15 and 20 of the camps, primarily from the Islamic State, are thought to have been hit during Coalition airstrikes; it is unclear if those camps are still operational. It is likely that there are training camps that have not been advertised.
The Islamic State has operated 36 camps (19 in Iraq, 17 in Syria). The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, has operated 16 camps inside Syria. Allied jihadist groups have run 26 other camps (25 in Syria and one in Iraq); nine of those camps are run by jihadist groups from the Caucasus, three by Uzbek jihadist groups, and jihadists from Gaza, Morocco, and Kazakhstan each run one camp.
In the past, al Qaeda has used its network of camps not only to train fighters to battle in local insurgencies, but also to identify potential recruits for attacks against the West as well as support a host of allied jihadist groups.
Jordanian officials announced the release of Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, a pro-al Qaeda, anti-Islamic State jihadist ideologue earlier today. And the news was quickly celebrated by Maqdisi's allies on social media.
A Twitter feed associated with Abu Qatada, one of Maqdisi's closest comrades, tweeted the news of the release. One tweet praises Allah and shows a picture of the two longtime jihadist thinkers sitting together. The picture can be seen above, with Maqdisi on the reader's left and Abu Qatada on the right.
The pair has helped lead al Qaeda's ideological attack against the Islamic State, which claims to rule over large parts of Iraq and Syria as a "caliphate." Al Qaeda officially disowned Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's organization in February 2014.
The celebratory tweets posted in Abu Qatada's name were quickly retweeted by other al Qaeda jihadists, including Sami al Uraydi, a Jordanian who serves as the Al Nusrah Front's chief sharia official. The Al Nusrah Front is al Qaeda's official branch in Syria.
Abu Mariya al Qahtani, another official in Al Nusrah, praised Maqdisi's release. And so did Dr. Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, an al Qaeda-linked cleric who works with Al Nusrah in Syria. Muhaysini tweeted the photo shown above as well.
Maqdisi's release comes just days after the Islamic State posted a grotesque video online showing a Jordanian pilot, Mouath al Kasaesbeh, being burned alive.
No official explanation for Maqdisi's release has been given. But a Jordanian "security source" told Reuters that "Maqdisi was expected to denounce the immolation of the Jordanian pilot" as being contrary to "faith values."
And a Jordanian television station is already advertising an "exclusive interview" with Maqdisi, who criticizes the Islamic State once again. He reportedly will say that he tried to negotiate the pilot's freedom in exchange for the release of Sajida al Rishawi, a failed al Qaeda in Iraq suicide bomber. Rishawi was executed by the Jordanian government after Kasaesbeh's death was publicly confirmed.
One of the Islamic State's most influential critics
It has long been assumed that Jordanian authorities are willing to tolerate some of Maqdisi's activities, as he is one of the Islamic State's most authoritative critics within the jihadist community. But such an arrangement puts the Jordanians in the awkward position of being tacitly allied, even if only on occasion, with a thinker who strongly backs al Qaeda and its leader, Ayman al Zawahiri.
In January 2014, Maqdisi denounced the Islamic State's fatwas, which "obligate Muslims to make a grand pledge of allegiance to [Abu Bakr al] Baghdadi as a caliph." Maqdisi also explained that the fatwas from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), as it was known at the time, led to the shedding of Muslim blood and incited jihadists "to disobey the authorities' orders, particularly the orders of Sheikh Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri."
While still imprisoned in May 2014, Maqdisi released a statement blasting the Islamic State as a "deviant organization." The message was promoted online by the Al Nusrah Front.
In the jailhouse letter, Maqdisi revealed that he had attempted to broker an end to the dispute between the Islamic State and al Qaeda, as the two jihadist organizations had been openly at odds since April 2013. He claimed to have advised Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and Zawahiri. Maqdisi even said that he had been in direct contact with Zawahiri, whom he referred to as "our beloved brother, the Sheikh, the Commander." He blamed the failure of his mediation efforts solely on Baghdadi.
Maqdisi has been periodically released from prison, only to find himself behind bars once again. He was released for a time in mid-June of 2014 and, in short order, issued another statement concerning the Islamic State. He refused to disavow his rebuke of the group from the month before, saying the speculation that Jordanian authorities put him up to it was false. Officials in the Al Nusrah Front praised Maqdisi's short-lived freedom at the time.
Jihadists from around the world have attempted to impeach the Islamic State's credentials by relying on Maqdisi's teachings. For instance, Ali Abu Muhammad al Dagestani, the head of the Islamic Caucasus Emirate (ICE), has spoken of Maqdisi, along with Zawahiri and other al Qaeda ideologues, in glowing terms. Some ICE jihadists have defected to the Islamic State, but web sites affiliated with the organization continue to advertise Maqdisi's anti-Islamic State writings.
Maqdisi's animosity for the West and the US is clear. On Sept. 30, 2014, he and other jihadist thinkers released a proposal calling for a ceasefire between the warring factions in Syria. Their main argument was that the Islamic State, Al Nusrah and other groups had a common enemy in the "Crusaders." The US-led coalition began bombing Syria one week earlier. The proposed ceasefire appears to have been rejected by the Islamic State.
Last December, the Guardian (UK) reported that Abu Qatada and Maqdisi had attempted to negotiate with the Islamic State on behalf of Peter Kassig, an American aid worker who was held captive by the group. Their effort failed as Kassig was ultimately beheaded. Some al Qaeda officials objected to Kassig's murder on the grounds that he was assisting Muslims in Syria and had been welcomed by their co-religionists. In their view, therefore, it was illegal under sharia law to kill him.
The Islamic State, however, consistently disregards the sharia arguments made by al Qaeda officials, Maqdisi, and others.
A US drone strike in southern Yemen on Jan. 31 killed Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari, a senior al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) sharia official. Nadhari's death was confirmed in a "martyrdom" statement issued by the group via Twitter and other web sites earlier today.
The AQAP statement announcing Nadhari's death was translated by the SITE Intelligence Group. AQAP confirms that Nadhari worked for its sharia committee, and says that three other fighters were killed in the drone strike.
AQAP portrays the bombing that killed Nadhari as being part of a working agreement between the US and the Shia Houthis rebels who overran Yemeni government positions in recent weeks. The drone strike "came a few hours after the completion of the deal for the Houthis to take control of the administration of the country with an American and regional collusion," the statement reads, according to SITE's translation. "The Houthis have become a loyal partner to America in preserving its interests and executing its plans in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula."
The Houthis receive at least some support from Iran. And AQAP frequently claims that they are part of an alleged US-Iranian axis that is opposing Sunni Muslims throughout the region.
An influential al Qaeda ideologue
AQAP's "martyrdom" statement identifies Nadhari as being a senior sharia official in the group, but says little else about his al Qaeda role.
The Long War Journal previously assessed that it is possible Nadhari also served as one of Nasir al Wuhayshi's deputy general managers in al Qaeda's global network. Documents recovered in Osama bin Laden's compound show that al Qaeda's general manager has deputies who are appointed to help him carry out his work. Nasir al Wuhayshi serves as both AQAP's emir and as al Qaeda's general manager, but his deputies have not been publicly identified.
Al Qaeda had consistently elevated Harith al Nadhari's media profile, meaning he was considered a key ideologue for the global organization.
In addition to having his work promoted by AQAP, Nadhari's writings have been featured in Nawa-e-Afghan Jihad ("Voice of the Afghan Jihad"), a magazine that publishes the works of top al Qaeda leaders and their closest allies. For example, an edition of the magazine published last year included a piece from Nadhari on "ideology and teachings."
In addition to the Charlie Hebdo attack, Nadhari regularly commented on events far from Yemen. In August 2013, he discussed the turmoil in Egypt.
In July 2014, Nadhari joined other senior AQAP leaders in defending Ayman al Zawahiri and veteran jihadist ideologues against their critics. Nadhari's message was clearly aimed at supporters of the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that claims to rule as a "caliphate" over large parts of Iraq and Syria. Nadhari was a staunch critic of the Islamic State and he released a series of statements attempting to undermine its legitimacy.
In October 2014, he was among the al Qaeda ideologues who attempted to portray the US-led bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria as part of a "Crusade" against the Islamic world. While preaching jihadist unity, Nadhari also issued a thinly-veiled critique of the Islamic State's "caliphate" in the statement.
In January, Nadhari released guidelines for how jihadists should wage suicide operations. Al Qaeda has been attempting to rein in the violence carried out be its fighters, and his guidelines demonstrated the organization's sensitivity to attacks that alienate the populace.
Shortly before his death, Nadhari joined nine other jihadist ideologues in releasing a statement that addressed defections to the Islamic State in the Caucasus. The statement was co-signed by two AQAP sharia officials, including Nadhari, as well as two sharia officials from the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria.
The director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Lieutenant General Vincent R. Stewart, warned during congressional testimony yesterday that the "security challenges" the US faces are "more diverse and complex than those we have experienced in our lifetimes." Stewart delivered his remarks to the House Armed Services Committee during a hearing devoted to assessing worldwide threats.
While Stewart addressed diverse national security issues, much of his written testimony was focused on what was once called the global war on terror.
Al Qaeda in Syria may "expand its territory," while threatening the West
The Islamic State's advances in Iraq and Syria have understandably garnered most of the headlines since the middle of last year. But the Islamic State's rivals in the Al Nusrah Front, an official branch of al Qaeda, have been gaining ground over the past several months. And the DIA is concerned that Al Nusrah will continue to advance inside Syria and elsewhere, while also enabling senior al Qaeda operatives to plan attacks against the West.
The DIA expects Al Nusrah "will try to expand its territory in 2015 beyond its Syrian operating areas and enhance its operational capabilities in Lebanon, where it already conducts operations."
"As part of the larger al Qaeda network," Stewart writes, "we are concerned about the support Al Nusrah Front provides to transnational terrorist attack plotting against US and Western interests." In particular, he highlighted the threat posed by the so-called Khorasan Group, "a cadre of experienced al Qaeda operatives that works closely with and relies upon al Nusrah Front to provide personnel and space for training facilities in northwestern Syria." The Khorasan Group "is primarily focused on transnational terrorist attack plotting."
In the past, US officials have tried to draw a line between the Khorasan Group and Al Nusrah, as if the two were almost distinct entities. [See LWJ report, Analysis: CENTCOM draws misleading line between Al Nusrah Front and Khorasan Group.] In reality, both are simply al Qaeda. And Stewart's testimony makes it clear that the Khorasan Group's operatives are deeply embedded within Al Nusrah.
The US-led coalition struck Al Nusrah and the Khorasan Group in September of last year, but has not made targeting al Qaeda in Syria a priority since then.
The DIA thinks that the airstrikes "probably killed a number of senior al Nusrah Front and Khorasan Group operatives, but the group almost certainly has maintained some capability to continue plotting against Western interests."
Air campaign damaging, not defeating Islamic State
The implication of Stewart's testimony is that the air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is only somewhat effective in containing the organization. Stewart refers to the group by an acronym of its previous name, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or ISIL).
Since Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's fighters stormed their way through much of Iraq last spring and summer, he writes, "coalition airstrikes have resulted in the removal of a number of ISIL senior leaders and degraded the group's ability to operate openly in Iraq and Syria." And ISIL has hit a natural barrier to its expansion as "[s]eizing and holding Shia and Kurdish-populated areas of Iraq...will continue to be difficult."
However, the DIA expects "ISIL to continue entrenching itself and consolidating gains in Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria while also fighting for territory outside those areas." He predicts that ISIL will "continue limited offensive operations, such as the group's recent operations in Syria and in Anbar province of Iraq."
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government continues to need substantial external support. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) remain "unable to defend against external threats or sustain conventional military operations against internal challenges without foreign assistance," Stewart writes.
A "stalemate" in Afghanistan
US-led forces have been battling jihadists for control of Afghanistan since late 2001. But the jihadists are far from defeated, and the situation is likely to get worse in the wake of America's drawdown in forces. While the DIA expects the Afghan government to be able to protect major urban areas, the jihadists will continue to use their safe havens in rural areas to challenge the state's authority.
The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) "remain stalemated with the Taliban-led insurgency," Stewart explains. The DIA expects the ANSF "to maintain stability and security in Kabul and key urban areas while retaining freedom of movement on major highways."
"However, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and their extremist allies will likely seek to exploit the reduced Coalition presence by pressuring ANSF units in rural areas, conducting high profile attacks in major population centers, and expanding their safe havens," the DIA chief warns.
The Afghan National Army (ANA) "will continue to struggle with permanently denying the insurgents freedom of movement in rural areas," Stewart writes.
Each of the main Afghan organizations charged with battling the insurgents is plagued by serious problems. The ANA is "constrained by its stretched airlift and logistical capacity," and suffers from "[h]igh attrition" rates. The Afghan National Police (ANP) suffers from "manpower shortages, inadequate training, attrition, logistics shortfalls, and the corrosive influence of corruption." And the Afghan Air Force (AAF) "is not a reliable source of close air support and still struggles with recruiting qualified pilots and technicians."
As a result of these problems and the jihadists' resilience, the "Taliban will probably sustain the capability to propagate a rural-based insurgency that can project intermittent attacks in urban areas through at least 2018."
Al Qaeda is eyeing a continuing decline in Western counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan as an opportunity, according to Stewart. Al Qaeda "will continue to use its remaining paramilitary units, trained recruits, and extremist affiliates and allies to target Western interests in South Asia and worldwide."
And Ayman al Zawahiri's organization "also will likely try to expand its limited presence in eastern Afghanistan ... in the face of continued [counterterrorism] pressure from Pakistan" and less resistance from Western forces.
Competition between the Islamic State, al Qaeda
Several parts of Stewart's testimony deal with the competition between the Islamic State (or ISIL) and al Qaeda. The DIA chief says that al Qaeda's "core" is "now focused on physical survival following battlefield losses" and "is trying to retain its status as the vanguard of the global extremist movement, being eclipsed now by ISIL's rising global prominence and powerful competition for adherents."
The notion of a "core" al Qaeda is a fuzzy one in the US government's lexicon, as it is rarely, if ever, precisely defined. And the DIA's assessment is at odds with other conclusions in his testimony.
As Stewart himself testified, al Qaeda will likely try to expand its presence in Afghanistan in the coming months. So its "battlefield losses" have not been that devastating. Moreover, "core" al Qaeda operatives staff the Khorasan group and Al Nusrah, which the DIA believes could continue to grow throughout 2015, while also threatening the West.
"Core" al Qaeda operatives are stationed throughout the world, including inside al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The general manager of al Qaeda's global network, Nasir al Wuhayshi, also serves as the emir of AQAP, a regional branch of al Qaeda. The rise of the Houthis, Shia rebels in Yemen who receive some support from Iran, over a Sunni government allied with US interests, has greatly complicated America's counterterrorism mission. "Current conditions are providing AQAP operational space," Stewart notes.
And the DIA director explains that despite the challenge from ISIL, al Qaeda "core" in Pakistan "continues to retain the loyalty of its global affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, North Africa, Syria, and South Asia."
The Long War Journal assesses that these "affiliates," which al Qaeda refers to as "branches," are currently stronger than ISIL's international network. ISIL has cut into al Qaeda's market share as the "vanguard" of the global jihadist movement, but it has not "eclipsed" al Qaeda.
Still, Stewart and the DIA are rightly concerned about the "spread of ISIL beyond Syria and Iraq." Stewart mentions ISIL "affiliates in Algeria, Egypt, Libya," which give Baghdadi's group "a growing international footprint that includes ungoverned and under governed areas."
In Egypt and Libya, ISIL's followers are a rising threat. The Sinai faction of Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM), which officially joined ISIL in November, has increased its capacity for significant attacks on the Egyptian police and military. Other jihadist groups that are not aligned with ISIL, including Ajnad Misr, remain a problem.
In Libya, ISIL has gained a foothold because of the return of hundreds of foreign fighters from Iraqi and Syrian battlefields. The attack on the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli last month underscores ISIL's growing capabilities inside the country. "ISIL has increased its presence and influence in Libya, particularly in [Derna], where it has begun establishing Islamic institutions," Stewart writes. ISIL does have a significant presence in Derna, but so do other jihadist groups that are not part of Baghdadi's international coalition. The Mujahideen Shura Council in Derna and its constituent groups remain a prominent force, but they are not loyal to ISIL. Similarly, the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council and Ansar al Sharia carry out the bulk of the fighting in Benghazi. They are not part of ISIL's coalition either.
And in Algeria, the jihadists loyal to ISIL have executed some attacks, but they do not yet appear to be a major force.
Pakistan "remains concerned about ISIL outreach and propaganda in South Asia," Stewart explains. ISIL has launched a nascent effort to build up its presence in the region, garnering the support of former Pakistani Taliban commanders and Afghan Taliban castoffs. But here, too, ISIL's reach is not nearly as pronounced as the Taliban or al Qaeda and its allies, few of whom have endorsed Baghdadi's "caliphate" project.
However, Stewart says, the "robust foreign terrorist fighter flow" will continue to benefit ISIL and help the organization expand its international presence.