May 04, 2023
Salafi-Jihadi Movement Weekly Update, May 4, 2023
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Data Cutoff: May 4, 2023, at 10 a.m.
Iraq and Syria. The Turkish raid on an alleged ISIS safe house in northwestern Syria on April 28 likely killed an ISIS leader, but not the “caliph.” The US Defense Department said it “could not corroborate” Turkey’s claims that the raid killed the “caliph.” The continued targeting of ISIS leadership is helpful, but it fails to address the group’s ability to embed itself within local populations. ISIS could leverage opportunities in US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-controlled areas to cultivate relationships with local tribes opposed to SDF governance. The SDF approach to governance is counterproductive and causes resentment among local tribes.
Sudan. The al Qaeda and Islamic State networks in Africa will likely seek to use the Sudan conflict to improve their position on the continent. Numerous inmates escaped from a prison in Khartoum city beginning on April 22 amid clashes between Sudan’s two warring factions. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have previously used conflicts elsewhere in Africa to improve their position on the continent.
Pakistan. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants based in Afghanistan continue to direct TTP activities in Pakistani cities far outside of TTP’s recent attack zones. Police arrested two TTP militants for extortion in Karachi on April 26. Police said that TTP leadership in Afghanistan directed the militants to extort Pashtun traders. Pakistan will be unable to counter the TTP as TTP leadership continues to provide support from Afghanistan. Pakistan will also be unable to weaken the TTP in Pakistan as the TTP grows its attack capabilities and Islamabad cuts its military expenses.
Afghanistan. A former Taliban official close to Taliban Minister of Interior and Haqqani Network leader Sirajuddin Haqqani called on Taliban supporters in Europe and America to kill critics of the Taliban government. This official claimed the Taliban already had volunteers in Europe and America who could be organized to carry out assassinations of Taliban critics. A stated intent to establish networks to facilitate Taliban-ordered assassinations abroad presents a direct threat to critics of the Taliban—including US and European citizens.
Iraq and Syria.
Turkey conducted a raid on ISIS in Jinderes, northwestern Syria, on April 28 that likely resulted in the death of an ISIS leader, but not the group’s “caliph.” The raid’s target detonated a suicide vest during the raid. ISIS mid-level and senior leaders frequently detonate suicide vests to prevent capture. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed Turkey killed IS “caliph” Abu al Hussein al Husseini al Qurayshi during the raid. However, the US Defense Department said it “could not corroborate” Turkish reports. Anonymous US officials also told Voice of America that the United States has “so far . . . seen nothing to suggest” Turkey killed the Islamic State “caliph.” Turkey has a record of misreporting the deaths or capture of Islamic State leadership. Turkey claimed in May 2022 that it arrested al Qurayshi’s predecessor. However, Syrian government-backed militants killed the previous “caliph” in October 2022 in southwestern Syria.
Erdogan may seek to inflate his military successes in Syria to improve his standing ahead of Turkey’s presidential election on May 14. The Turkish president is currently losing according to election polls. Erdogan has emphasized the importance of the Turkish mission in Syria in countering “terrorists,” which includes both Kurdish groups and Salafi-Jihadi groups. The successful elimination of the ISIS “caliph” would give Erdogan a verifiable success against terrorists that he has been unable to achieve through another incursion into SDF territory or the elimination of the SDF leadership.
Northeastern Syria. The US-backed SDF and the Bakkara tribal confederation are in conflict over oil revenues in Deir ez Zor province, which likely presents ISIS with the opportunity to remove SDF forces from Bakkara areas. The Bakkara tribal confederation issued a statement calling for an equal share of oil revenues between the confederation and the SDF on May 1. The SDF-backed Deir ez Zor Military Council retaliated by deploying forces to Izba, a town in Bakkara territory, and clashing with locals on May 3. The Deir ez Zor Military Council deployed additional forces to the town and cordoned it off after the clash. Bakkara tribesmen have previously protested unequal SDF shares of oil revenues, and from December 2022 to January 2023 they called for the establishment of a Bakkara military council that would give the tribe greater control over oil revenues.
ISIS operates in Bakkara tribal territory, where it aims to cultivate support by driving out the SDF and exerting control over locals through acts of intimidation, such as assassinations and executions. ISIS has used a combination of tribal outreach and coercive measures to exert control over tribes since at least 2014. ISIS can already exert control over the population for a limited duration in certain areas. ISIS fighters demanded a pair of women veil in Zughair, a town in Bakkara territory, in November 2022. Rising tensions between the Bakkara and the SDF unintentionally benefit ISIS. The brother of the Deir ez Zor Military Council commander murdered two Bakkara women on December 16, 2022. Bakkara tribesmen defected from the SDF and called for revenge against the Deir ez Zor Military Council commander on December 22, 2022. Bakkara people in Zughair expelled the SDF on December 23. ISIS also claimed an attack on the spokesperson of the Deir ez Zor Military Council commander’s tribe on January 9.
Figure 1. Assessed ISIS Activity Near Deir ez Zor City
Source: Brian Carter.
CTP observed an uptick in kinetic activity in Bakkara territory between December 2022 and January 2023 that is attributable to ISIS and the SDF. ISIS claimed some of the attacks, such as an attack targeting the SDF in Hawaij Bousamat—the site of some Bakkara protests—on December 26. ISIS did not claim other attacks with targets that suggest the group’s involvement. These attacks include the killing of an SDF Civil Council member and SDF fighter separately in Muhaimidah, three miles southeast, on December 28 and 29 respectively. The SDF attacked Bakkara tribesmen in Zughair in retaliation for their anti-SDF protests. The SDF previously retaliated for anti-SDF protests in Raqqa city in late January 2023 by arresting more than 300 people. That the SDF released a number of the people it arrested after claiming they were “ISIS members” strongly suggests the arrests were politically motivated. Local media also reported that the arrests were a response to the protests.
Tensions that emerge between the SDF and Bakkara through protests and unrest in Bakkara tribal territory likely will enable Iran and its proxies to entrench further in SDF-controlled Deir ez Zor. Iran sees Deir ez Zor as a strategically important region in Syria from which it can strengthen its position in the country and, like ISIS, has used popular outreach to tribes and coercive measures to extend its control in the province. Iran has used tribal outreach and Shi’a proselytization to engage local tribes and cultivate proxies, including the Bakkara. Iran co-opted Nawaf al Bashir by 2017, and opposition outlet NPASyria reported that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps used Bashir to help establish offices for the Hashemiyoun militia in regime-controlled Deir ez Zor. Bashir said that he was “waiting for Damascus” to issue orders for him to enter SDF-controlled Deir ez Zor during a meeting with regime security officials on December 24, 2022.
Northern Iraq. ISIS could take advantage of the lack of safeguards for internally displaced persons (IDP) and the militia-fueled sectarian tension by choosing to activate attack cells in Ninewa province. ISIS likely chooses not to attack in Ninewa to avoid risk to its ground lines of communication (GLOC). ISIS already moves through Ninewa province, and its GLOC connect into an arc stretching from Sinjar through to Diyala. It uses these GLOC to move people and supplies to sustain attacks. However, if ISIS chose to attack in Sinjar, ISIS attacks could spur retaliatory sectarian killings, especially given the robust Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) presence in the area. Iranian-backed PMF units have retaliated against local Sunnis for ISIS attacks historically. ISIS has previously conducted opportunistic attacks to engender sectarian tit-for-tat killings, which help its ability to recruit amongst Sunni communities.
Iranian-backed militia Asaib Ahl al Haq’s reactions to the return of IDPs are fueling sectarian tension in Iraq. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-affiliated Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) organized a protest on April 27 against the return of Sunni IDPs from the Maytout clan to Sinjar district at a mosque in Sinjar town. The protesters threw stones at the responding 20th Iraqi Army Division, which quickly brought the situation under control. A woman accused one returnee of ISIS membership, resulting in the 20th Division quickly arresting him. US-designated terrorist organization and Iranian-backed militia Asaib Ahl al Haq’s media arms amplified claims denigrating Sunni IDPs on April 27. A Yazidi journalist close to Iranian-backed militias accused unspecified actors of a conspiracy attempting to introduce ISIS fighters into Sinjar to “provoke the Yazidis.” The same journalist claimed that the return of Sunni IDPs to Sinjar district was part of an “electoral and sectarian project” orchestrated by Sunni power broker Khamis al Khanjar.
The Iraqi government’s haphazard approach to returnees is exacerbating sectarian tensions. The Iraqi government chose to close the Jedaa 5 IDP camp southwest of Mosul city on April 18 without notifying the IDPs, UN, or other stakeholders. Iraq has previously executed similarly haphazard IDP camp shutdowns. ISIS takes advantage of IDP flows to hide fighters, and the Iraqi government’s choice to release IDPs rapidly and without any real structure means that the government is unable to do its due diligence in ensuring no ISIS fighters are present. Local communities already view all Sunni IDP returnees as ISIS members, and the Iraqi government’s IDP policy does not put in place effective safeguards to protect these returnees.
Figure 2. Likely ISIS Ground Lines of Communication and Iraqi Security Forces Positions
Source: Brian Carter.
Note: KSAS is Iranian-backed Iraqi militia Kataib Sayyid al Shuhada and YBS is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party–backed Sinjar Resistance Units.
Figure 3. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in the Middle East
Source: Kathryn Tyson.
Al Qaeda– and Islamic State–linked militants may have escaped from prison amid the ongoing fighting in Sudan. Numerous inmates have escaped from Kober prison, North Khartoum, since at least April 22. Al Jazeera reported that thousands of inmates escaped during clashes in the vicinity of the prison on April 23. The Sudanese government has imprisoned IS militants at Kober prison since at least 2015 and released an al Qaeda–affiliated militant from the prison in January 2023.
Al Qaeda or IS’s global networks will likely attempt to use prison escapes to strengthen cells in Sudan or bolster other affiliates. Salafi-jihadi militants have taken advantage of previous crises in Africa to strengthen themselves. Al Qaeda and IS both capitalized on the Libyan civil war to create affiliates that supported attacks on US and European citizens. CTP has not observed indications that Salafi-jihadi militants have attack capabilities in Sudan. However, Salafi-jihadi militants are already present in the transnational trafficking routes in the country and have historical roots in Sudan dating back to the Bashir era.
Figure 4. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Africa
Source: Kathryn Tyson.
TTP militants based in Afghanistan continue to support TTP activities in Pakistani cities. Police arrested two TTP militants for extortion in Karachi—Pakistan’s largest city—on April 26. Police said that TTP leadership in Afghanistan directed the militants to extort Pashtun traders. Karachi police have arrested other suspected TTP militants in Karachi in 2023 who had been in communication with TTP members in Afghanistan.
Figure 5. TTP Attacks and Pakistani Operations Against the TTP
Source: Kathryn Tyson.
TTP leaders in Afghanistan have helped organize TTP activities and masterminded attacks in Pakistan’s cities in some cases. A US drone strike killed TTP leader Maulana Fazlullah in Kunar, Afghanistan, in 2018. The TTP’s spokesperson for Malakand told a Pakistani news outlet in 2012 that Fazlullah was leading TTP attacks from Afghanistan. Unknown actors detonated an improvised explosive device that killed TTP founder Omar Khalid Khorasani in Barmal in southeastern Afghanistan in 2022. Pakistan has struck TTP militants in Afghanistan, and the TTP blamed the attack on Pakistan’s intelligence agency, but Pakistan did not claim responsibility for Khorasani’s death. Khorasani masterminded a TTP attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in 2014 that killed over 130 schoolchildren. Pakistani news sources said that Khorasani was based in Afghanistan during the time of the Peshawar attack.
Pakistan will be unable to counter the TTP as the TTP increases attacks and grows its attack capabilities. The TTP carried out more attacks in April than in any other month in 2023. Suspected TTP militants carried out six coordinated attacks in northwestern Pakistan on April 27, which demonstrates a kind of operational complexity unlike recent TTP attacks in the region. The TTP recently has coordinated approximately two attacks at a time. The attacks on April 27 occurred in Bannu, Lakki Marwat, North Waziristan, and Tank districts and involved rockets, suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, and small-arms attacks. The newly established Tehrik-e-Jihad Pakistan (TJP) and TTP-aligned Jabhat Ansar Mahdi al Khorasan separately claimed attacks on military locations in Lakki Marwat on April 27. The TTP frequently attacks in these districts but has not claimed credit, possibly to avoid appearing to work with the TJP. Senior TTP commander Sarbakaf Mohmand said in an interview that the TJP does not conduct attacks and that the TJP is an online group that claims attacks ”just to grab attention.”
Pakistan also lacks the economic resources to carry out prolonged military operations against the TTP. Pakistan announced a nationwide counter-TTP campaign on April 7. The Pakistani military’s media wing said on April 25 that the military is cutting expenses for fuel, rations, constructions, and training due to economic constraints.
A former Taliban official close to Taliban Minister of Interior and Haqqani Network leader Sirajuddin Haqqani called on Taliban volunteers in Europe and America to kill anyone who criticized the Taliban government. This official, Qari Saeed Khosty, was the spokesperson for the Interior Ministry until March 2022. Khosty previously ran a network of orphanages in southeastern Afghanistan that provided suicide bombers for the Haqqani Network. Khosty stated the Taliban already had hundreds of volunteers in Europe and America, but they require leadership and organization. Khosty initially deleted his tweet but then posted again claiming he stood by his words.
Figure 6. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Central and South Asia
Source: Kathryn Tyson.
 https://www.trtworld dot com/middle-east/decimated-daesh-how-turkiye-helped-take-down-terror-groups-leaders-13052516
 https://www.voanews.com/a/us-not-backing-turkish-claims-islamic-state-leader-is-dead/7073730.html; https://twitter.com/jseldin/status/1653465272404066325?s=20
 https://www.centcom.mil/MEDIA/PRESS-RELEASES/Press-Release-View/Article/3232259/death-of-isis-leader; https://www.hudson.org/islamic-state-deraa-history-present-situation
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 https://www.foi.se/rest-api/report/FOI%20Memo%207984; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/salafi-jihadi-movement-weekly-update-april-12-2023
 https://etanasyria dot org/violent-attacks-and-tribal-protests-hamper-north-east-syrias-oil-sector; https://twitter.com/DeirEzzore/status/1605580978889453571?s=20
 ISIS claims available on request; https://twitter.com/nahermedia/status/1615668306555424772?s=20&t=_nJD8-fYt23D7-EH5zmQMQ; https://www.syriahr dot com/en/268164
 Archived source available on request.
 ISIS claim available on request.
 Author’s research.
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