Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Hidden Dangers Of The Fight Against Islamic State

Iraqi forces help civilian families in Iraq's Anbar Province after they fled Fallujah during a major operation by pro-government forces to retake the city from Islamic State militants.

James Miller

The fight against extremists from the Islamic State (IS) militant group is heating up on two fronts. 

Since May 23, a coalition consisting of the Iraqi army and primarily Shi'ite militias, backed by U.S. air strikes, has advanced towards Fallujah, 40 kilometers west of Baghdad. 

There are estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians remain in the city, and some residents told USA Today that IS fighters are using them as human shields. 

"The Islamic State began moving families living in the outskirts to the center," resident Salem al Halbusi said by telephone. "They are locking some families down inside the hospital building," added al Halbusi, who did not want other information about him disclosed to protect his safety.

The civilian populace could slow Fallujah's liberators down, but those who have successfully fled the city told Reuters that the trapped population could starve before Islamic State is defeated, or be killed while they are trying to flee. Either way, all eyes will be on the coalition that the United States has helped build. 

As David Patrikarakos wrote earlier this week for RFE/RL, even if the IS militants are defeated quickly in Fallujah, there is a risk that sectarian tension could be inflamed further in the process. Defeating IS militarily is just the first step toward healing Iraq's and Syria's sectarian wounds and ensuring that another, similar group does not emerge. 

A similar pattern is playing out in the battle for Raqqa in northeastern Syria, the capital city for the self-declared Islamic State. As Wladimir van Wilgenburg explained earlier this month, efforts to defeat IS on the Syrian side of the border are being led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition that includes both Arab and Kurdish fighters. But while the SDF is diverse -- and becoming more so -- it is still dominated and led by the People's Protection Units (YPG), the fighting branch of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is closely associated with Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). 

Escalation In Turkey

The problem with this is that the PKK -- which is designated as a terrorist organization by both the United States and Turkey -- is effectively at war with Turkey, a NATO ally and a major stakeholder in the outcome of the war in Syria. In April, U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby told the press corps that "YPG's not a designated foreign terrorist organization. PKK is. Nothing's changed about that."

Crucially, however, Turkey does not see a distinction between the PKK and the YPG. Neither do several experts whom RFE/RL consulted in researching this article. One source in territory controlled by the Kurds, who wished to remain anonymous due to security concerns, told RFE/RL that there is no doubt that the YPG reports directly to the PKK's guerrilla leadership. 

A report by The Atlantic Council's Aaron Stein and Michelle Foley has established the link between the YPG and PKK, and Kurdish fighters have also confessed that the two are part of the same organization. That report suggests that Turkey was willing to tolerate the YPG as long as IS and the Kurdish group were fighting each other, but that tolerance has reached its end as the fighting between Turkey and the Kurds has heated up.

U.S. soldiers are supporting the YPG on the ground in Syria. Photos taken this week by an AFP photographer show U.S. Special Forces soldiers operating alongside Kurdish fighters near the front lines in Raqqa Province. Some of those soldiers are wearing patches of the YPG and their all-female battle unit the YPJ -- patches that, as Syrian expert Michael Weiss points out, are derived from the PKK's flag. 

On May 27, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told journalists that "wearing an insignia of a terrorist organization by U.S. soldiers, who are our ally and are assertive about fighting against terrorism, is unacceptable. Our suggestion to them is that they should also wear Daesh [IS], al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda insignias during their operations in other regions of Syria. They can also wear the Boko Haram insignia when they go to Africa.”

Hours later, U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the U.S.-led coalition against IS, announced that the soldiers had been instructed to stop wearing the patches, a reversal from statements made by the military just the day before.

Images from the AFP news agency appear to show U.S. soldiers in Syria wearing the patches of local Kurdish fighters
Images from the AFP news agency appear to show U.S. soldiers in Syria wearing the patches of local Kurdish fighters

Fighting between the PKK and Turkey has escalated in recent weeks. 

On May 13, a PKK fighter shot down a Turkish AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter with a Russian-made shoulder-fired SA-18 missile. Experts at The Aviationist and in Turkey said this was the first time the PKK has successfully used an antiaircraft weapon against a Turkish aircraft. 

While the source operating in Kurdistan told RFE/RL that the PKK have had such weapons for some time, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War suggested that, while the weapon could have come from Syria or Iraq, "more likely that the PKK acquired the weapon from an external actor." 

A likely candidate for supplying the weapon is Russia, which has seen its relationship with the Turkish government disintegrate since the Russian air campaign in Syria began last September. Tensions rose when the Turkish air force shot down a Russian jet in November following several warnings from Turkey that Russian jets were violating its airspace. 

The idea that Russia -- or its allies in Syria and Iran -- could be arming the PKK has been amplified through the Turkish press. The Anadolu Agency has reported that, according to its sources, such efforts began sometime in December after the Russian jet was shot down. Regardless of whether this is true, such accusations could fuel a proxy war between Turkey and Russia, which could further inflame the region.

Pyrrhic Victory?

But which side of that proxy war does the United States take if its main allies in the fight against IS in Syria are the very fighters that Turkey says are waging war against them across the border? 

In February, there were heavy clashes between YPG fighters in northwestern Syria and multiple rebel groups, which had been backed and trained by the CIA and Turkey. One now-infamous video showed a rebel group, Liwa' Suqour al-Jabal‎ (The Mountain Hawks Brigade), firing a U.S.-made TOW antitank missile into a YPG tank in the town of Azaz. This led some analysts to conclude that the United States was "in a proxy war with itself" in Syria since it supports some Syrian rebel groups and, via the SDF at least, the Kurdish YPG. 

This has two potentially dangerous consequences. The first is that Turkey is a NATO ally that is already under immense pressure. Turkey has signaled that it feels abandoned, or even betrayed, by U.S. policy in Syria, a sentiment which could weaken the NATO alliance. But Turkey is also a Sunni state, and the Sunnis already feel that they have been the victims of U.S. policy in Iraq and Syria. Both of the major offensives against IS, in Syria and in Iraq, could further exacerbate this dynamic. 

The sectarian tension between groups that the U.S. currently backs -- whether it's the Shi'ite/Sunni tensions in Iraq or the Kurdish/Sunni tensions in Syria -- should not be easily dismissed. One should remember that it was sectarian tension in both Iraq and Syria which gave rise to Islamist extremism and sectarian violence there, and the Islamic State militant group is just the newest and most radical incarnation of that tension. Victory over Islamic State is important, but if it weakens the NATO alliance or sets the stage for future sectarian conflicts, it could only be a Pyrrhic victory.

Will The Battle For Fallujah Heal Or Exacerbate Iraq's Sectarianism?

Iraqi Shi'ite fighters from a Popular Mobilization unit use mobile artillery near the city of Fallujah as part of an assault aimed at taking back the city of Fallujah from Islamic State.

David Patrikarakos

The battle for Fallujah has begun. Late on May 23, Iraqi troops, comprising a combination of the government's Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and a combustible mix of Shi'ite militias, backed by U.S. air strikes, attacked the city, seeking to wrest it from the control of the extremist group Islamic State (IS).

Fallujah is one of the last remaining large cities under the Iraqi part of what IS calls its "caliphate." Lying only 65 kilometers from Baghdad, it is also of considerable strategic importance. An attack was inevitable. But its timing is interesting.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi needs a win. He is perceived as weak. Since taking over from Nouri al-Maliki, who fractured Iraq's already fragile political unity with his vicious sectarianism, Abadi has been unable to bring either political stability or security to Iraq. This is painfully highlighted by the recent spate of bombings in Baghdad -- the latest coming only last week, 
when Sunni terrorists associated with IS killed at least 70 people in a largely Shi'ite district. 

But there is a broader issue at work here. While the ISF has been taking the fight to IS, it is the Shi'ite militias -- notably those under the main umbrella group, Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi (The Popular Mobilization or PMU) -- that have dominated the fight against the terror group over the past couple of months or so, specifically the conflict around Fallujah.The infighting between the ISF and PMU is intense and some form of de-escalation is needed, but it's not clear whether this battle will help accomplish that or just make things worse.

Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland, uses the example of World War II's Operation Market Garden -- in which a mixture of British, American, Polish, and Dutch troops were parachuted into the Netherlands under the command of British General Bernard Montgomery, with U.S. Lieutenant General Lewis H. Brereton also taking a leading role.Like Market Garden, the battle for Fallujah features parallel command structures with a mix of troops on the ground. And the diversity of the fighting forces is not just a question of the ISF and the militias. 

Iraq In Microcosm

The Shi'a militias themselves are far from homogeneous, with many overtly Iranian proxies like Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Harakat al-Abdal and, most prominently of all, Kata'ib Hizballah in the field alongside militias like Firqat al-Abbas and Liwa Ali al-Akbar – which are loyal to Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Ali al-Sistani, who rejects Iranian influence in Iraq. 

Iraq's other leading Shi'ite cleric is the infamous Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia, Saraya al-Sala'am, is also involved in the battle for Fallujah and has also fallen out with the Iranians. Perhaps no figure in Iraq is more synonymous with sectarian tension that Sadr, who in 2013 described Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Qasem Soleimani as "the most powerful man in Iraq."

According to Smyth, it's clear from open-source materials that it is the Iranian proxies calling the shots in the advance on Fallujah, but the other organizations do have a degree of independence. The result is, of course, a mess: it's Iraq in microcosm, with a seemingly endless number of sectarian groups with varying networks of external allegiances vying for control. 

But there is a potential positive: When you have a mix of different, often opposed, forces then one way you can de-conflict these groups is through a concerted, combined campaign against a common enemy. While it failed to achieve its ultimate objective, Market Garden is an example of the coordination of such a mix of commanders and troops -- although they were not hostile to one another. The battle to take Fallujah is a strategic necessity but it's also an attempt to deal with the sectarian and logistical problems facing Iraq's armed forces. 

And this problem will have to be dealt with. As much as the Iraqi government and Washington would love to rid themselves of the problem of the Shi'ite militias, they simply can't. The militias have proved to be one of the most effective 'pro-government' fighting groups on the ground -- far better than the ISF. In addition, they have infiltrated many government units and are also strongly present in the social and political spheres -- the militias have everything from popular songs to their own NGOs to members in the Iraqi parliament. They have built a diverse multitude of support bases within Iraq. 

Beat Them Or Join Them

For the Iraqi government it's either beat them or join them; and it is not going to be able to beat them any time soon. But the fact that so many of these groups answer to the Iranians makes governing the country even harder. 

Abadi and the United States badly need a win in Fallujah, but so do the militias. The ISF needs to show the Iraqi population that it is a strong national force -- it is not -- and Washington is desperate for them to prove this as well. 

Meanwhile, the militias want to continue to demonstrate that they are in fact the forces that are saving Iraq from Islamic State. This is a narrative that the Iranians are also strongly pushing: it's good geopolitical propaganda for them across the Middle East. According to Smyth, the Iranian message is clear: "It's our proxies' forces that are defeating [IS]. The United States says it wants to fight IS but what has it really done? In fact it has an ulterior motive, and that is simply to get more Iraqis killed.”

Along with their fighting prowess, the Shi'ite militias bring with them their own sectarian baggage, which complicates the process of re-taking Fallujah – a staunchly Sunni city. The animus between Sunni and Shi'a, exacerbated by Maliki, has only increased due to the often brutal tactics of the militias towards their Sunni fellow Iraqis. When the militias retook Tikrit from IS late last year they deliberately set about destroying hundreds of homes and shops in the city as well reportedly abducting 200 Sunni residents -- 160 of whom still remain unaccounted for. 

The Sunnis don't forget. Indeed, part of the reason that IS gained so much traction in Iraq in the first place is that the anti-Sunni policies of the Iraqi government and behavior of the Shi'ite militias drove many Sunni Iraqis into its arms. 

The residents of Fallujah are trapped. Islamic State is using them as human shields against the air and ground attacks that began on May 23, but they also know that if Islamic State is defeated then what is coming may be almost as bad. 

Al-Qaeda's Ayman Al-Zawahri Plays Politics

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahri has made it clear that Syria is now the center of the jihadist world.

Sam Heller

When the self-proclaimed Islamic State declared the establishment of a global Muslim “caliphate” in 2014, the move accelerated a race for legitimacy within the international jihadist movement. IS’s rival Al-Qaeda -- which had long held out a righteous Islamic state as a far-off ideal, not something that could be realized in June 2014 in the Syrian desert -- faced new pressure to deliver on jihadist aspirations and shore up its own credibility.
Yet, unlike IS, Al-Qaeda could not do it alone. IS has imposed jihadist unity at the point of a sword, crushing its militant rivals and monopolizing control within its “caliphate’s” borders. In contrast, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, like Syria’s Al-Nusra Front, have attempted to manage a complex set of relationships with local factions and, wherever possible, rally them behind Al-Qaeda’s leadership.

This was the impetus for Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri’s May 8 audio message called Hasten To Syria, in which he urged Syria’s “mujahedin” (holy warriors) to unify, calling it “a matter of life and death.”
While Zawahri used the recording to speak to various constituencies, his primary audience seems not to have been the Al-Nusra Front or the Salafi-jihadist hardcore. Rather, Zawahri was apparently addressing Syria’s other Islamist rebels -- chiefly opposition faction and Islamist movement Ahrar al-Sham -- groups which have rejected IS but which have been wary of Al-Nusra Front’s affiliation with Al-Qaeda.
Syria, Zawahri made clear, is now the center of the jihadist world.

“Syria today is the hope of the Muslim nation,” he said, “because it is the lone popular revolution of the Arab Spring revolutions that has adopted the correct path.”

Syria’s fighters are on their way to erecting a righteous Islamic state -- not IS’s tyrannical, false “caliphate,” he suggested. But he warned against the conspiracies of what he termed Crusader enemies and their Arab puppets. 
Zawahri did deliver at least one message aimed at the jihadist base, affirming that the IS’s members are “Khawarij,” a historical Muslim sect of hyper-extremist deviants. Labeling the Islamic State group as such has been controversial within Salafi-jihadism -- theorist Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi has resisted it -- in part because it requires jihadists to act on the Prophet Muhammad’s prescription for dealing with the Khawarij: “qatl Ad,” or total extermination. Zawahri has now come down firmly on one side of this intra-jihadist debate.
But much of the rest of the recording was implicitly directed at Syrian rebels outside the narrow circle of Salafi-jihadism, whom Zawahri attempted to reassure about Al-Qaeda’s intentions. Zawahri emphasized that Al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda are not interested in monopolizing power in Syria but rather in championing God’s law and an Islamic state chosen by Syria’s people. “We are not -- by the grace of God -- seekers of power, but rather seekers of the rule of God’s law,” said Zawahri. “We do not want to rule Muslims; rather, we want to be ruled, as Muslims, by Islam.”
And if it were necessary to establish this righteous Islamic government, Zawahri said, then “organizational membership (i.e., Al-Nusra Front’s Al-Qaeda affiliation) would never -- God permitting -- be an obstacle to these great aspirations.”
Some in the media thought this meant Zawahri was giving Al-Nusra Front the green light to cut ties with Al-Qaeda. But, in fact, Zawahri was laying out a trade: The dissolution of Al-Nusra Front’s Al-Qaeda affiliation is conditional on the erection of an Islamic government that meets Al-Qaeda’s purist standards.
This was no real concession, but rather an endorsement of Al-Nusra Front’s existing stipulations for breaking its Al-Qaeda link. In fact, Zawahri’s arguments were entirely in line with those of Al-Nusra Front and its chief, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, who made the same point in an interview with Al-Jazeera in June 2015:

“We’ve said to all the [rebel] factions: When we really come together and create an Islamic government -- and these are not my words, these are the words of Dr. Ayman [al-Zawahri] himself -- he said that when Syria has a righteous Islamic government approved by the consensus of its factions, when it is governed by consultation, when the law of Greatest God is the authority, then we will be the first soldiers of this righteous government.”

Short of this condition, Al-Nusra Front has refused to break with Al-Qaeda. That is what apparently scuttled rebel merger talks in January, when Ahrar al-Sham’s insistence on breaking the Al-Qaeda ties and Nusra’s refusal brought negotiations to an impasse.
With that in mind, Zawahri’s discussion of an Islamic government seemed mostly theoretical. He was speaking broadly about the mujahedin’s ultimate aim in Syria, not issuing an urgent call for the creation of an Islamic emirate.
Zawahri did not say this explicitly, but there are a number of obstacles to the declaration of an Islamic emirate in the near term, including rebels’ current preoccupation with a defensive battle against the Syrian government and its allies. But -- more pertinent in this case -- an emirate also requires the consensus endorsement of Ahl al-Shoukeh (the People of Influence), including Syria’s most important rebel factions. So long as Ahrar al-Sham and others continue to object to Al-Nusra Front’s Al-Qaeda link and refuse to jointly declare a jihadist emirate (and thus become international pariahs), then an emirate is off the table.
In the meantime, Zawahri seemed unperturbed by the controversy over Al-Nusra Front’s Al-Qaeda link, which he dismissed as the product of foreign dictates, “an attempt,” he said, “to distract the mujahid Muslim community in Syria from its real enemies.”
Just as Al-Nusra Front’s leader Jolani did in his June 2015 interview, Zawahri questioned what good it would do if the group somehow split from Al-Qaeda. Would that be enough, Zawahri asked rhetorically, or would these “Crusader criminals” extract a series of more and more humiliating concessions from its members before ultimately tossing its members in prison, as happened with the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Geneva talks, truces -- all of these are conspiracies, Zawahri said. And he warned rebels who have been partnering with regional patrons and tentatively engaging in the political process not to listen to “the whispers of these subservient, puppet, apostate governments.”
Zawahri instead called on rebels to emulate the Taliban’s Mullah Omar, who famously sacrificed his emirate rather than surrender Osama bin Laden to the West. According to Zawahri, this steadfastness is what defeated the “Crusader” military apparatus, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq.
And therein lies the tragedy when Al-Qaeda has adopted your cause: Al-Qaeda operates in a frame of reference in which Syria has been the lone success story of the Arab Spring, not an insane bloodbath; in which Afghanistan and Iraq were victories, not permanently destroyed countries and societies.
Now, Zawahri said, Al-Qaeda has wed its fortunes to that of the Syrian revolution.

“Your victory is our victory,” he said, “your honor is our honor, and your empowerment is our empowerment.”

And while he may ultimately aspire to an Islamic state -- not more butchery and death -- he and Al-Qaeda are clearly ready to pay a terrible human cost along the way.

Sam Heller is a Beirut-based freelance writer whose work has been published by VICE News, The Daily Beast, World Politics Review, War on the Rocks, IHS Jane's, and elsewhere. Follow Sam on Twitter at @abujamajem

Why Islamic State Militants Care So Much About Sykes-Picot

IS's English-language propaganda outlet, Al-Hayat, released a video called The End Of Sykes-Picot, which showed the destruction of the border between Iraq and Syria. An IS fighter provided a video tour, in clear English, of the border crossing that Iraqi soldiers had abandoned.

James Miller

One hundred years ago, on May 16, 1916, representatives from the United Kingdom and France (with the agreement of Russia) met in secret and signed what has come to be known as the Sykes–Picot Agreement. The pact, signed amid World War I, divided the Ottoman Empire into spheres of imperial control, and is often held responsible for establishing the current borders of the Middle East.

The agreement has been widely criticized in recent years, particularly after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, because to many its borders are not just a symbol of foreign imperialism but also reflect what they see as the lack of understanding of the Middle East -- then and now -- demonstrated by world leaders. Ethnic groups were split across borders and when sectarian violence erupted in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, many blamed Sykes-Picot for pitting ethnic groups against each other.

Understanding Sykes-Picot is also central to understanding the ideology (or at least the propaganda) of the Islamic State (IS) militant group. In the summer of 2014, the terrorist organization had seized large amounts of territory in both Iraq and Syria. The group had recently pronounced that it was changing its name from Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Greater Syria) to just "Islamic State."

According to IS's well-crafted message, it was no longer an organization operating within two countries: It was its own state, and by establishing an Islamic caliphate in the region, it was actively destroying the vestiges of foreign imperialism. IS's English-language propaganda outlet, the Al-Hayat Media Center, released a video called The End Of Sykes-Picot, which showed the destruction of the border between Iraq and Syria. An IS fighter provided a video tour, in clear English, of the border crossing that Iraqi soldiers had abandoned. The "so-called border," according to the IS fighter, was established by Arab leaders and Western imperialists. There is no border, he said, the world belongs to Allah, "we are all one country," and IS-held territory should not be divided. He quoted IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as saying he was "the breaker of barriers."

In the propaganda video, IS was echoing and amplifying the sentiment that Sykes-Picot is a symbol of foreign meddling, but the militant group was also modifying this message for their own purposes, and crucially accusing Muslim leaders of complicity in these crimes, a key theme of IS propaganda.

The reality, however, is much more complicated. There's an argument to be made that the agreements made at the 1920 San Remo conference -- attended by leaders from Britain, France, Italy, and Japan -- rather than the Sykes-Picot deal, are ultimately responsible for the internal borders we know today. Regardless, those agreements didn't actually establish the internal borders -- only the larger imperial ones. As such, Sara Pursley, a historian who works on the modern Middle East, has pointed out that the map drawn by Sykes-Picot actually more closely resembles the map used by IS than the current geopolitical borders we're familiar with. The internal borders were established over a long period of time and the process had a great deal to do with local power struggles, rather than simply foreign imperial meddling.

There's another major flaw in IS's logic: Sykes-Picot actually placed Deir-ez-Zour -- the regional capital in eastern Syria and an IS stronghold -- outside of the territory that we now know as Syria. Pursley points out that it was actually an internal conflict that eventually landed Deir-ez-Zour in Syria. Pursley writes that the then-Ottoman province was placed on the French side of the border, but after a conflict with the Arab army in Syria local leaders appealed to the British to annex the region, which they did, but locals soon petitioned Damascus to reincorporate the region in Syria.

"Ironically, it was the Iraqi nationalist officers of al-Ahd al-Iraqi who were ultimately responsible for the inclusion of Dayr al-Zur within Syria. They hoped to use the region as a base for launching attacks from Syria on British occupation forces in Iraq -- and that is what they did, thereby helping to spark the 1920 revolt. In 1923, Baghdad-based Iraqi nationalist Muhammad Mahdi al-Basir explained the Dayr al-Zur decision: 'Iraqis [in Syria] were working for the liberation of Iraq, even if that required annexing much of its land for the Syrian government.' Leading British officials, including Acting Civil Commissioner in Iraq at the time, A.T. Wilson, later asserted that Britain's acquiescence at Dayr al-Zur -- i.e., the evacuation of its troops and relinquishing of the province to the Arab army in Syria -- helped precipitate the entire 1920 revolt, not only by providing the Iraqi nationalist officers in Syria a base for cross-border military operations but also by giving other opponents of the British Mandate within Iraq a sense of Britain's vulnerability."

In other words, discord between Muslims living in the heart of what is now IS territory led to the border being established where it is now. Western imperialism played a key role, but only in so much as they were reacting to political realities on the ground.

Crucially, however, IS's message is not working. If the militant group's goal is to inspire others to break down these borders and unify under a single Islamic state, there does not seem to be any sign IS is tapping into a wider collective desire.

Anthropology professor Jon W. Anderson of the Catholic University of America says that the borders established after World War I are widely accepted by those in the Middle East, and with each passing generation they become more firmly established.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Anderson said that, save for the wishes of Islamic State militants, "there doesn't seem to be much sentiment for revision" of the borders. He points out that "the longest-running internecine conflict, the Lebanese civil war, was over dominance within those boundaries and resulted in a settlement affirming them." Jordan and Israel are not going anywhere, either. Neither is Syria -- in fact, the Syrian opposition that opposes IS has also vocally opposed the breaking up of Syria, as has Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Despite IS's propaganda, and 100 years after Sykes-Picot, it seems there is little appetite to rewrite the map of the Middle East.

Putin Is Selling A Narrative On Syria And Some Media Organizations Are Buying It

Russian conductor Valery Gergiev leads a concert in the amphitheatre of the ancient Syria city of Palmyra earlier this month, an event which was covered uncritically by a number of Western news outlets.

James Miller

It's been a banner week for the Kremlin's propaganda machine. At home, and across the border in the parts of Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists, Russian military hardware was out on display for the May 9 Victory Day parade marking the defeat of the Nazis in World War II. 

But the biggest propaganda victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin may not have been broadcast by his state-run propaganda outlets like RT, but by Western news outlets which accepted Russia's offer to report exactly what the Kremlin wanted them to in Syria.

Earlier this year, the Russian military and Russian private mercenaries played a key role in helping the Syrian government recapture the central Syrian city of Palmyra, a fabled and ancient city known for its historic ruins, from the hands of Islamic State (IS) extremists. 

In the first few days of May, the Russian military escorted teams of international journalists across the war zone to observe a concert in Palmyra's ancient amphitheater. The reporters were treated to a magnificent performance of famed musicians conducted by Valery Gergiev, the conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and a fierce supporter of Putin. 

The Washington Post's Andrew Roth detailed the entire trip, focusing on the steps that the Russian government took to ensure that the journalists who participated in this guided tour only wrote positively and on the subject that their Russian minders desired. Other news agencies seemed more than happy to toe the Russian line.

Glowing Reports

CNN's article on the event nearly glows, highlighting the significant military operation needed to get the journalists to a concert near the front lines of the battle against IS fighters. It notes that just this past July, IS militants filmed themselves executing 25 prisoners in the same theater. There is only one line in the article that even resembles criticism -- that famed cellist Sergei Roldugin, "who was recently named in the Panama Papers as having moved hundreds of millions to offshore companies, a claim he denies," played in the concert. 

Euronews posted a similar story, though the French news outlet did note a caveat: its media facility in Syria is "provided by the Russian Ministry of Defence and our reporting is not subject to any military control." That article carried a quote from the head of St Petersburg's State Hermitage museum who told the audience that the UNESCO heritage site could have been saved.

Without naming names he appeared to criticize the US-led coalition.

"Look at its geographical situation. The battle for Palmyra went on for so long and many of the exhibits were able to be smuggled out. [The militants] approaching Palmyra could have been bombed into the ground in an instant, but they weren't. Well our guys weren't there back then!" said Mikhail Piotrovsky, the museum's director.

Curiously that quote was published without noting that Palmyra's "geographical situation" is at the center of the country on a key road between the Syrian government's capital city, Damascus, and Iraq -- far from the U.S.-led coalition's campaigns against IS strongholds in northeastern Syria and western Iraq. 

Neither CNN nor Euronews note that, according to new documents obtained by Sky News, the Russian-led offensive to retake Palmyra culminated in a deal between the Syrian government and IS forces that allowed the terrorists to remove their heavy weaponry in exchange for the retaking of the city.

Neither report notes that the main target of both Russian and Syrian air strikes are groups that have fought IS, not IS itself. And neither article mentions the fact that, according to the detailed database maintained by the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, at least 100 civilians were killed by the Assad regime in Palmyra prior to IS's arrival, most of whom were killed while in detention. 

No Wider Context

Instead, both articles read exactly how the Russian government would like them to read -- Russia helped Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad liberate this ancient city from the most brutal terrorists. 

Worse yet, the wider context of events in Syria is completely missing from both the CNN and Euronews reports. While Russian cellos were playing mournful tunes for those killed by Islamic State terrorists, at least 30 refugees were killed as bombs tore through a camp for internally displaced persons near the border with Turkey. Activists said air strikes -- possibly Russian -- were to blame. Euronews, however, ran a special report on how Russian soldiers are demining the ruins. That report does not ask the question that Reuters asks -- if IS planted the mines so that they would explode when the Syrian and Russian soldiers captured the city, why didn't any of them go off? 

CNN also reported that the Russian mission in Syria is much larger than media reports had previously suggested. The CNN correspondent noted that he was impressed by the "professionalism of the troops and the pristine state of the equipment they were using," and concluded that "while the exact size of Russia's military presence in Syria is still unclear, the things we saw while embedded with them indicate that it is bigger and more sophisticated than most believe." 

That the Russian government is brazenly showing off its forces in Syria should come as no surprise. Independent analysis conducted by our team at The Interpreter, an RFE/RL partner, advanced the argument months ago that, when Putin was claiming that he was withdrawing from Syria, large numbers of Russian forces were staying to fight.

When Putin announced his withdrawal from Syria, he wanted the world to think he was serious. He wasn't. Now Putin wants to send a different message: he's not going anywhere. And uncritical reports from the front lines only help him to underscore this message.

The Syrian Kurds Could Be A Key Ally In The Fight Against Islamic State 

Kurdish fighters celebrate taking control of an area in Syria's Raqqa region last year.

Wladimir van Wilgenburg

QAMISHLI, Syria -- The Kurds have never been lucky with geography, being landlocked and divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. However, due to the Syrian crisis and the threat of an Islamic caliphate bordering Kurdish areas in Syria, the Syrian Kurds have become one of the most reliable coalition allies against the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Most likely they will play a prominent role in capturing the IS capital of Raqqa. 

The Kurds seem to fit perfectly into the current U.S. strategy of focusing on defeating jihadist groups and not Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is the focus of most moderate rebel groups. Supporting some moderate rebel groups presents problems for Washington as those groups have partnered with the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front and the Salafist Jaish al-Islam to fight against Assad. Some rebel groups have also given U.S. supplies to jihadists. 

While IS fighters have recently defeated rebel offensives in northern Syria, the Syrian Kurds have been more successful on the battlefield, having proven themselves able to fight IS near the Turkish border. "They've been courageous. They have been successful," U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby recently said in Washington. Battered by Syrian and Russian air strikes, the rebels were quite successful in defending their territory for years, but have been unable to make many in-roads against IS.

While anti-Assad rebels have been losing battles near the Turkish border, the Kurds have been on the advance in northeastern Syria. Colonel Talal Silo, the official spokesperson of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), says they have three possible directions for campaigns after finishing the Shadadi operation last February: west toward Manbij, south to liberate the countryside around Raqqa, or southeast toward Deir el-Zour. Some critics have suggested that the SDF is unwilling to expand beyond traditional Kurdish areas, but when I asked Silo about the subject he rejected this, saying: "Our goal is not only Kurdish cities. The target of the SDF is not only to liberate Kurdish regions, because for example the countryside of Shadadi and the southern region of Hasakah that were liberated, were completely Arabic." "Our forces do not only contain Kurds, but also Arabs, Christians, Turkomans. It's for everyone," Silo said. 

One of the main goals of the SDF is to take control of northern Syria, including opening a corridor from Kobani to the Kurdish enclave of Efrin. This conflicts with the goals of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels that want to use the countryside of northern Syria as a supply line to Aleppo, currently besieged by Syrian regime forces. Recently, fierce clashes erupted again when Aleppo's rebels tried to recapture Tel Rifaat from Kurdish-led SDF forces, leading to the deaths of dozens of rebels, especially from the Jaish al-Sunna group that originates from Homs.

Multiethnic Ideology

The Syrian Kurdish fighters are dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is close to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the militant left-wing organization which is banned in Turkey. That is a problem for Turkey as Ankara is against any form of coalition support for the Syrian Kurds, even more so after the cease-fire between Turkey's Kurds and the Turkish state collapsed in July 2015. Therefore, Turkey has tried to back rival rebel groups and even jihadist groups to defeat the PYD and the People's Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, without any real results. 

In February, Turkey started to shell Kurdish-led groups in Aleppo,  after the Kurds took advantage of Russian bombings of Syrian rebel groups near Azaz and took the Menagh air base. Turkey has also shelled the YPG-allied forces trying to cross the river into the IS-held city of Jarabulus in July 2015. Off the battlefield, Turkey managed to exclude the Kurdish PYD from the peace talks in Geneva. 

However, the PYD, unlike the Iraqi Kurdish parties, follows a multiethnic ideology and its leaders have realized that it's better to also recruit Arabs in a region that is not predominantly Kurdish. In March, the PYD announced its desire to establish a federalized Syria, where all of northern Syria, not only Kurdish "Rojava" -- Syrian Kurdistan -- would be represented. Therefore, they have appointed Mansour Saloum, an Arab from Tal Abyad, as the co-head. "We are all people living in this area, and all the ethnic groups will work together to achieve this project," Saloum said. 

The move was condemned and rejected both by the Syrian opposition and the Assad government. This plan also contrasts with the approach taken by the rival Kurdish National Council (KNC), which is part of the Syrian opposition and wants a Kurdistan region, similar to the one in Iraq. As a result the KNC condemned the recent announcement by the PYD and its allies and accused the PYD of seeking "Syrian federalism," instead of the establishment of a Kurdistan federal zone.

The support for federalism may have gained the YPG new enemies. In the mixed city of Qamishli, where there were clashes between the Syrian regime and the Kurds in late April, many of the local fighters are Arabs not Kurds. There have been low-level clashes before between the regime and Kurds in Aleppo, Hasakah, and Qamishli, but this was the first time that the clashes spread throughout Qamishli and the surrounding countryside. Kurds there think the Syrian regime attacked them because the regime feels stronger due to Russian support and to show the Kurds that they reject any form of federalism.

Strong And Diverse Coalition

The PYD's cooperation with Arabs is not new. They have focused on working with Arab tribes since they captured the Syrian-Iraqi border with fighters from the Shammar tribe in October 2013. Relations with the United States were established later, when IS tried to capture Kobani and were pushed back, losing hundreds of fighters due to U.S.-led coalition air strikes and ammunition supplies. After receiving U.S. support, they have achieved several victories, such as defeating IS in Tal Abyad, Al-Hawl, Al-Shaddadi -- all of them Arab areas.
From my observations, the SDF is focusing on recruiting more Arabs for future operations. Although U.S. officials have spoken about the Syrian Arab Coalition, in reality these are the Arabs that have joined the SDF. So far, I haven't met anyone who claims to be representing the Syrian Arab Coalition in northern Syria. "What's the Syrian Arab Coalition?" asked Bandar al-Humaydi, from the Arab Sanadid forces allied to the YPG. Arabs most likely join the SDF for financial reasons, or due to the fact that it is the strongest force in northern Syria. Moreover, it's one of the few forces that can really confront Islamic State in northern Syria -- having both a strong ideology and military force. Nevertheless, the command and control of the SDF is still dominated by Kurds from the YPG, and Arabs do not play a large role in the military leadership.

In the former IS-stronghold of Al-Shaddadi, two Arab members of the local police whom I interviewed told me they receive a salary of around $80 per month. "I joined to liberate the city from Daesh [IS]," said Xalaf Mohammed, a 23-year-old Arab. Although human rights organizations have accused the SDF of rights violations against Arabs, in many Arab regions of Hasakah, local civilians have welcomed the SDF forces.
"In the beginning the Kurdish percentage [of soldiers in the SDF] was like 60 percent, now it's changed, because the people that are joining the SDF now are mostly Arabs," Silo said. 

At a former government-controlled prison in Alaya, Arabs who have joined the Kurdish security police, are now protecting the facility. "Arabs are working against the regime, because the regime has oppressed them, and they have seen humanity from our side," said Bave Egid, a Kurdish police officer stationed at the prison.

The SDF is a strong and diverse coalition and one that, for the foreseeable future, will likely be a key partner in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria.

Wladimir van Wilgenburg is currently in Qamishli, in northern Syria, conducting a research project for the Iraqi Institute for Strategic Studies (IIST), funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) on Syrian Kurds.

U.S. Sending More Troops To Syria, But Islamic State Already Preparing For The Storm

A Syrian government soldier displays an Islamic State (IS) group flag after Syrian troops regained control the previous day of Al-Qaryatain, a town in the province of Homs, earlier this month.

James Miller

On June 29, 2014, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gave a speech from the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq, announcing the formation of an Islamic caliphate, the newly proclaimed "Islamic State" did indeed have many of the hallmarks of an actual state.

It had borders, patrolled by its agents. It had a military, special-forces units, police, an intelligence apparatus, a press office, tax collectors, engineers, a stratified leadership, and both foreign and domestic policies. Unlike its predecessors Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had only been able to establish a state of mind among their followers, Baghdadi's organization had managed to capture and rule actual territory, not just individual cities or neighborhoods.

That is no longer the status quo. If an observer were giving a State Of The So-Called Islamic State speech, one would have to acknowledge that the "state" is weak. The United States estimates that Kurdish forces and the Iraqi military have taken back 40 percent of the territory held by Islamic State (IS). An unnamed U.S. defense official recently told USA Today that IS oil revenues had been cut by 50 percent. U.S. Major General Peter Gersten said that a series of coalition air strikes have destroyed as much as $800 million in cash that IS was hiding in various safe houses and hidden stockpiles, and that there had been a 90 percent increase in IS defections.

Gersten also said that there has been a massive drop in the flow of foreign fighters to IS, from a high of about 2,000 per month just a year ago to about 200. If true, it is now likely that the U.S.-backed coalition is killing IS extremists faster than foreign fighters can join the organization's ranks.

To make matters worse for IS, many of the militant group's top leaders have been killed by coalition air strikes. In March, a strike killed Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, IS's "top financier." Earlier that month, another air strike killed Umar al-Shishani, or "Omar the Chechen," the "minister of war" for IS.

A slew of less infamous IS leaders has also been killed, including the IS-appointed "governor" of the Al-Hamadaniya district of Iraq, Barzan al-Husam, and many other field commanders. While the big names make the headlines, the killing of local governors and military commanders and the strikes that hit IS in the pocketbook may have a more tangible impact on disrupting local governance, and thus shaking the perception that IS is indeed a state rather than just a terrorist insurgency.

Not Dead Yet

However, for all the military defeats IS has suffered, it is far from dead -- and a number of challenges for the United States remain.

The United States has had a military presence in one form or another in Syria for months. While U.S. soldiers have been in Syria since late last year, working with coalition members on the ground to "tighten the squeeze" on IS and establishing a headquarters at the Rmeilan air base in northern Syria, it appears that this mission may be expanding. U.S. President Barack Obama has announced that the United States will deploy 250 Special Forces soldiers to Syria.

One key challenge is that the United States does not have adequate intelligence on the ground to effectively target its air strikes. According to recent statements by U.S. Central Command's (CENTCOM) Colonel Pat Ryder, the anti-IS coalition has flown 91,000 sorties and conducted 12,000 air strikes -- that sounds like a lot until you realize that only about 13 percent of coalition sorties end in air strikes. As IS shrinks on the battlefield, it will only become more difficult to find, identify, and destroy targets from the air.
IS's leaders have also adopted a simple-yet-sinister plan to block U.S. air strikes -- militants are reportedly covering the roads of cities they occupy with canvas roofs. An activist news agency covering the IS occupation of Raqqah, its so-called capital, has posted pictures of these canvas awnings, which make it impossible for coalition drones or jets to follow the movement of IS fighters below.

It could become very difficult, then, to differentiate the terrorists from the civilians that they are terrorizing. Worse, if this strategy works we can expect to see it copied in other locations IS controls, a move that could prove to be far more effective at stopping U.S. air strikes than even the most advanced antiaircraft weapons. IS may be hemorrhaging money, but tarps are a lot cheaper than guns.

Changing U.S. Tactics

To help defeat IS, the United States may be attempting to refine its tactics and address a sectarian dynamic that is working against Washington.

Last week, pro-IS social-media accounts tweeted pictures they say show that U.S. fighter jets and A-10 Warthogs have been supporting the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime who have been locked in heavy battle with IS for months but are currently backed up against the Turkish border.

Earlier in the year, a coalition of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) troops, Hizballah fighters, and Iraqi Shi'ite militias fought side by side with the Syrian military to break the battle lines of the anti-Assad rebels who have held northern Syria for years. IS took full advantage of this situation and launched its own offensive, capturing large amounts of territory as its fighters pushed west from their strongholds and north toward the Turkish border. Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters to the west also launched an offensive against the struggling anti-Assad rebels, and a small group of those rebels are now trapped.

The rebels in the area east of Azaz had been making gains against IS in early April, but by the middle of the month that progress had now been reversed. While it's dangerous to ever take the word of jihadist propaganda as truth, the presence of the A-10 in this area would suggest that the United States is providing close air support for the anti-Assad rebels as they push back against IS -- a level of coordination between the United States and local ground forces typically reserved for Iraq or eastern Syria.

If the United States is conducting air strikes against IS, and in support of anti-Assad rebels, it may be an attempt to protect the Turkish border and reassure a frustrated NATO ally. However, IS is still making gains. On April 27, there were reports that IS had captured five rebel-held villages, including Dudyan, west of Al-Rai and right on the Turkish border. IS is now close to closing off and destroying the anti-Assad rebels who are defending their most important border crossing -- and the only one they still control in northern Aleppo.

IS, even more so than Al-Qaeda before it, which survived 15 years of the war on terror, has proven its ability to constantly adapt to both its victories and its defeats. Despite military victories against IS over the last 20 months, even the commanders of the U.S. coalition admit that there are new challenges ahead. IS is currently exploiting the military weakness of one of its principal enemies, the anti-Assad rebels, and it is digging in to its positions in both Syria and Iraq.

The next phase of this fight is far less straightforward, and IS clearly knows that the storm is coming and is preparing accordingly -- with new offensives and canvas tarps.

Reading The Terrorism Tea Leaves

November's issue of Dabiq, titled Just Terror, was published less than a week after the Paris attacks and was heavily focused on the incident. The issue following the Brussels attacks was less so.

James Miller

The last few months have seen considerable change in the struggle against Islamic-extremist terrorism. On the battlefields in Syria, forces supporting President Bashar al-Assad recaptured the historic city of Palmyra from Islamic State (IS) fighters. In Iraq, IS was pushed from the city of Ramadi in late January, and the key northern city of Mosul is the next target for the U.S.-backed coalition. The area that IS terrorists physically govern in Iraq and "Sham," or greater Syria, is shrinking. And it's the prevailing wisdom that militarily, IS is weakening.

But while the territory controlled by IS bears many of the hallmarks of an actual state, the "caliphate" that IS wishes to establish is not just physical. One of its goals is to conduct terrorism outside of the Middle East. If the memory of November's horrible terrorist attack in Paris was fading into memory, the March 22 airport and subway bombings in Brussels were a devastating reminder that IS is capable of striking areas far from its strongholds in Syria and Iraq.

It remains to be seen whether the terrorist cell (or cells) that conducted this attack have been effectively disrupted, and no one can be certain that there are not more IS sleeper cells within Europe. Furthermore, defeating IS on the battlefield may or may not discourage copycat IS-inspired attacks like the shooting in San Bernardino, California, in December.

In other words, it's not clear whether IS is being defeated militarily, but it's even less clear whether the extremist group's other power -- the power of its ideology -- has suffered setbacks.

Nowhere is this tension more evident than on the pages of Dabiq, the highly polished magazine published at irregular intervals by the terrorist organization. At its core, Dabiq is a publication aimed at those sympathetic to IS who live in the West. Its message follows a careful ideological construct -- that "the Islamic State" is a real location, but also a religious and spiritual reality that exists beyond its physical borders.

Muslims who live in the West can be citizens of the Islamic State, then, by traveling to its strongholds in the Middle East, by creating terrorist cells abroad, or even by conducting suicide attacks on their own. Previous episodes have, for instance, underscored that it is easy to acquire a gun and serve the ends of IS without leaving one's country. The magazine is also an intimidation tactic -- the professional pages, surprising readability, and the global message are designed to give the impression that IS is powerful, legitimate, and operating everywhere all at once.

The latest issue of Dabiq is titled The Murtadd Brotherhood -- "murtadd" meaning "apostate." The main theme is the definition of that term. The authors define true Islam as the path that has brought about Islamic State, and they also name many enemies of that ideology. Most of this issue is dedicated to the Muslims who resist this ideological radicalism -- those the terrorist group considers the true apostates because, in its eyes, they have betrayed their religion.

The cover story is focused on Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, setting the ideological stage for IS's battle against the Egyptian government, which is ongoing. One article lists a large number of Muslim leaders, many of whom live in the West, by name. These leaders preach a peaceful version of Islam, one that condemns the violence of IS. Since Dabiq's purpose is to convince Western Muslims to conduct terrorist attacks, these leaders are portrayed by the magazine as the worst kinds of traitors. Dabiq is laying out one key fact that is often missed by Western media coverage -- the majority of those fighting against IS on the battlefield, and arguably the most important ideological voices countering the message of IS, are Muslims.

The latest issue, which was published last week, is an interesting case study in how IS propaganda deals with both its achievements and its defeats.

The most obvious trend in Dabiq is the frequency of publication. The magazine was first published in July 2014, arguably as IS's military success in Iraq and Syria was approaching its height. The second issue came out just 22 days later, while subsequent issues were published roughly every 30-50 days. That is, until late 2015, when more than 100 days passed between the August and November issues, then another 62 days before the January publication. And this latest issue came out on April 13 after an 85-day lapse.

Why the sudden long gaps? Simply put, IS fighters have been losing ground in both Syria and Iraq, and it's been harder to spin the bad news. IS lost Ramadi in December, U.S. raids have captured or killed several high-ranking members of the organization, Kurdish YPG rebels have made inroads against the terror group in northern Syria, the U.S.-backed coalition is closing in on Mosul, and -- most recently -- the Syrian government coalition recaptured Palmyra in March. It's no coincidence then that the November issue was released just days after the attacks in Paris and April issue just three weeks after the Brussels bombings.

Analyzing the content of the latest installment of Dabiq provides a clue as to how its publishers are changing their marketing strategy. November's issue, titled Just Terror, was published less than a week after the Paris attacks and was heavily focused on the incident. By contrast, this latest edition praises the perpetrators of the Brussels bombings, was published three weeks later, and it largely buries the incident in other articles that discuss IS ideology more broadly. The Brussels attack is listed as just one of the terrorist organizations many battles and accomplishments.

The effect on the reader is that as big as the Brussels attack was in the Western media, the bigger story of IS's activities is not being accurately portrayed. IS may also be downplaying expectations, since the Paris and Brussels cell that conducted these attacks may have been largely or completely depleted in both the attacks and subsequent arrests.

Even in the biographies of the Brussels attackers, titled The Knights Of [Shahada (Martyrdom] In Belgium, Dabiq stressed their battlefield accomplishments in the Middle East, particularly Syria, more than the European attack. For instance, here is part of what they wrote about one of the Brussels attackers, Najm al-Ashrawi (Abu Idris al-Baljiki). Note how their fight is put in ideological context. The Assad government is not mentioned, but is instead called "the Nusayri regime," a derisive term for Shi'ite Muslims. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is "apostates," traitors of Islam. The Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) is instead called "Jabhat al-Jawlani," a reference to its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, whom IS considered to be an enemy (this issue seems to again close the door to any possible merger of the two groups.) In this framing, Paris and Brussels were only two "battles" among many that Abu Idris al-Baljiki fought against ideologies that are a threat to IS.

"He participated in several battles against the Nusayri regime before the FSA apostates started to fight the mujahidin. Proving himself steadfast during the sahwah in Sham, he fought them until the order came to withdraw to ar-Raqqah. He continued to participate in raids until he suffered a bullet wound to his leg in a raid against Jabhat al-Jawlani in alKhay," it says.

"After healing for several months, he began to train in order to realize his dream of returning to Europe to avenge the Muslims of Iraq and Sham for the constant bombing by crusader warplanes. Upon completing his training, he traveled the long road to France to execute his operation. It was Abu Idris who prepared the explosives for the two raids in Paris and Brussels."

One section is a description of battles fought by IS fighters or terrorists, "battles" being broadly defined to that they include terrorist attacks -- a key theme is that, according to Dabiq, killing civilians in Paris or opponents in Syria is all part of the same struggle.

The section gives the impression that IS fighters who have been killed died to achieve Allah's goals and took out plenty of "apostates" in the process. This is an important theme, since the next section, "affliction and faith," which features a photograph of an air-dropped bomb falling somewhere in the Middle East, focuses on struggle (or, in a word Dabiq would never use, defeat). No direct reference to the many recent military defeats IS terrorists have suffered is given, but the article no doubt was designed to restore confidence in the terrorist organization that is failing to make headway in either Iraq or Syria at the moment.

The military defeats of IS extremists have been many, but it's not yet clear if they will be permanent. Last week I argued that Russia and Assad cannot be relied upon to wage war against terrorism. It's been nearly a month since Palmyra fell to the pro-Assad coalition, but Assad and his allies have not pushed further toward the IS strongholds in eastern Syria and show no signs of doing so. IS has regained momentum in northern Syria near the Turkish border, and it's not clear whether the U.S. coalition is gaining or losing momentum near Mosul in Iraq.

But IS has gained new strength in Libya, and Boko Haram has recently pledged allegiance to the terror group. Dabiq wants its readers to ignore some of the details. Its message is that Islamic State is both a literal state and a state of spiritual being, and both are under siege -- by Muslim "apostates" and foreign "crusaders." Every battle counts if it leads to the deaths of nonbelievers, and there's plenty of death -- in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Paris, Brussels, and San Bernardino -- to go around.

The unanswered question is whether Dabiq and the message of terrorist propaganda will have an impact if the perception in the media is that the terrorists are losing the war. One thing is clear, though: as long as IS can successfully conduct terror attacks, and as long as it controls large amounts of territory in the Middle East, IS will at least be able to convince some impressionable and disillusioned people to join its cause. Clearly, defeating terrorism at home and abroad, then, is vital.

But Dabiq has another strategy -- ideological fundamentalism. Its brand of Islam is simple -- nonbelievers need to be killed, believers who refuse to do that work are traitors and apostates and need to be killed. And since dying is part of the plan of this ideology, killing terrorists alone will not defeat this radical and dangerous death cult. IS's message must also be countered through ideological battles, a war that has proven at least as difficult to fight as the literal battles in the Middle East.

This Week Under The Black Flag

Iraqi-backed militia gather in the desert of Anbar as they prepare to depart for Mosul to fight against Islamic State (IS). The battle to retake the northern Iraqi city from IS has seen increasingly intense fighting in recent weeks.

James Miller

Here's a brief snapshot of the headlines this week from Iraq, Syria, and other locations impacted by Islamic State:

-- The battle for Mosul, in northern Iraq, continues to heat up but is far from over. The city is very important for many reasons. Before Islamic State took over in June 2014, it was Iraq's third largest city, and while it was a diverse city, it is also located at the western edge of what is commonly known as Iraqi-Kurdistan. Mosul is on an important crossroad as it is located on the Tigris River and is not far from Irbil, Iraq's fourth largest city.

-- The U.S. military has been arming and training the Kurdish Peshmerga who are preparing to assault the city.

-- Islamic State (IS) terrorists destroyed a 2,000 year-old architectural landmark, the Mishqi Gate, in the city of Nineveh, just north of Mosul.

-- French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian gave a speech in Baghdad this week where he said that Islamic State's strongholds in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, must fall this year. There are indications that Mosul could fall, but the defeat of the Islamic State in its capital in Syria is still a long way off.

-- Brookings Institute's Kenneth Pollack wrote that Islamic State is "taking a beating" near Mosul and Fallujah thanks to U.S. airstrikes, made possible by a change in strategy by the U.S.-Iraqi coalition, but warns that "Baghdad's announcement that the liberation of Mosul has begun is a bit premature."

-- The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has warned that the Iraqi government is showing signs of collapse as political infighting has seriously damaged Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi's ability to govern.  Iraq's political developments could have a significant impact on the country's battlefields, which is one reason why the United States is looking to other sources, like the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria, to lead the charge against Islamic State.

-- In ISW's "Iraq Situation Report" from April 5 to April 11, they reported that Washington is considering building additional firebases to break IS lines near Nineveh since momentum in the area has stalled:

"The proposal would provide necessary assistance for the ground offensive while demonstrating U.S. support for the Iraqi Security Forces and the Iraqi government, though these additions may not be significant enough factors to make up for the limited number of ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] members currently engaged in operations."

-- In Syria on April 11, IS forces recaptured the northern town of Al-Rai, close to the border with Turkey, captured from IS by rebel groups under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner on April 7. The BBC reports that IS was able to push west of Al-Rai and capture six other villages, halting the momentum of FSA rebels who were pushing east toward IS strongholds. Prior to the reversal, FSA rebels had reportedly pushed within 10 kilometers of the key northern town of Dabiq. 

-- The Daily Beast has written a profile of the misunderstood Abd Al-Rahman Mustafa Al-Shakhilar Al-Qaduli, a man commonly known as Haji Imam, reportedly from Islamic State and described as "the No. 2 man in the world’s most dangerous terror organization."

Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan write that "he was one man, not two. He had at least seven names, and was mistakenly pronounced dead four times. But the fog surrounding [IS's] No. 2 is finally beginning to part." 

The report warns that the death of high-ranking IS officials is important but, if the two-decade campaign against Al-Qaeda is any indication, this may not even be the beginning of the end:

"For a decade, since the killing of its top leaders in 2006 (Al-Zarqawi) and 2010 (Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and his war minister Abu Ayyub al-Masri), [IS] has adapted to changing wartime exigencies (the al-Anbar Awakening, the "surge," the U.S. military withdrawal, the Syrian revolution) and regrouped. It went from being a foreigner-led insurgency to a cosmetically "Iraqized" one to a genuinely Iraqi-led caliphate enterprise. With its renewed emphasis on attacking Western targets inside the West, [IS] has similarly undergone a quiet transformation under the past two years, which is really more of a bifurcation into two organizations."

If The Goal Is To Defeat Islamic State, Don't Rely On Russia To Help

Syrian rescue workers and residents help an injured woman following a reported air strike by government forces on the rebel-held neighborhood of Haydariya in the northern city of Aleppo on April 10.

James Miller

Three historic developments have taken place in Syria in the last month and a half. The first was the declaration of a nationwide cease-fire, agreed upon by President Bashar al-Assad as well as most nonjihadist factions of the Syrian opposition. The second, Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement that Russian forces would begin a partial withdrawal from Syria. The latest historic moment was the Assad government's recapture of the central city of Palmyra, which had been occupied by Islamic State (IS) extremists for most of the past year.

Any of these events could have substantial impact on the collective efforts to combat IS, but each of them is clouded in myth, distortion, and broken promises. While world leaders debate the next steps to resolve the Syrian crisis, and while public focus on IS may be fading as the group's March 22 attacks in Brussels recede from short memories, a considerable amount of disinformation about Syria's current events could mean that the best efforts of the international community are just castles made of sand.

The promise made in Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran is that a successful cease-fire in Syria will allow Assad's forces to concentrate their efforts on IS.

It is not a coincidence that after the cease-fire took effect, the first targets of the pro-Assad coalition -- which includes Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commandos, Lebanese Hizballah fighters, Iraqi Shi'ite militias, Russian private military contractors, and of course Russian air and ground units -- were IS targets in Aleppo, followed soon thereafter by a ground campaign, supported by Russia's air power as well as mercenaries, against Palmyra.

These efforts had the appearance of being the first wave of a new anti-IS campaign. The reality, however, is that Russia and Assad have already moved on to other goals that have nothing to do with defeating Islamic extremism and may in fact empower the terrorists.

Immediately following the Syrian government's victory over IS in Palmyra, I conducted a thorough analysis of Russia's actions in Syria that shows that the facts on the ground dispel the narrative that Russia is fighting terrorism.

Before Putin declared mission accomplished in Syria, Russia's bombing campaign had broken the backs of Western-supported rebel groups. Somewhere between 80 percent and 90 percent of Russia's air strikes hit areas where IS is not in control. Those air strikes worked, and right before Putin declared the partial withdrawal, he drove the major nonjihadist rebel groups to accept a cease-fire.

But during the period of intense Russian bombardment, IS fighters took advantage of the weakened rebels and launched their own offensives, particularly near Aleppo. While Assad and the Kremlin benefited from IS gains north of Aleppo, this had consequences as IS gains south of Aleppo threatened the government's supply lines to its key bases near the city, particularly the Kweres airport. The very first targets Russia bombed once the cease-fire was in place were IS positions near Kweres, not in northern Aleppo, followed quickly by the assault on Palmyra.

I discussed how Palmyra was geographically and economically significant for the Assad regime, since it lies on a key road between Iraq and the Syrian capital, Damascus, and since it is the only large populated area close to Syria's most important natural gas and (to a lesser degree) oil fields. My colleague Hassan Hassan argued that Assad's primary motive for attacking Palmyra was political, since the quest for a political solution to the Syrian crisis has begun again in earnest and Putin and Assad were trying to position themselves within the international community as leaders in the war on terror.

The belief that Assad and Putin conducted this campaign to help ensure the survival of the Assad government, not to fight terrorism, is one that stems from five years of observing the actions of both the Syrian regime and its ally in Moscow. If that seemed a bold statement to make immediately after a successful campaign to retake territory from IS, events which have taken place since suggest that we were right.

Since their recapture of Palmyra, instead of advancing deeper into IS territory the pro-Assad coalition launched an offensive against rebel groups around Damascus that were party to the cease-fire. In the last week and a half, air strikes have taken place in five regions, leading some rebels to conclude that there is so much fighting it is almost as if the cease-fire had never been signed.

A bigger concern, however, is that the Al-Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria that was also not party to the cease-fire, is on the offensive but is not being bombed by Russian aircraft -- or by any aircraft, for that matter.

Once again we see a familiar pattern: With world attention shifted away from Syria, the pro-Assad alliance is allowing Syria's most radical elements to advance while it is fighting some of the rebel groups who have been enemies of IS and could help restore order to the country in the future.

We will probably continue to see fighting between Assad's forces and IS in the near future, as IS still controls territory between Damascus and Palmyra that is crucial for the government's supply lines. IS fighters have captured a cement factory about 48 kilometers northeast of Syria's capital and have reportedly kidnapped more than 100 workers there. But like Palmyra, these are battles of convenience in territory that is not central to the IS extremist group's operations. The IS heartland in northeastern Syria has largely been ignored by both Russia and Assad.

All of this is coming at a time when new opportunities for fighting extremism have taken root.

Since 2013, as Assad's brutal campaign against the Syrian people was reaching its apex, pro-democracy activists and nonjihadist rebel groups have had an ugly choice to make -- either fight both Assad and religious extremism, or make some sort of acknowledgement that such a position is completely untenable. Uneasy and morally challenging alliances are hardly anything new, but for the Syrians who are making these decisions, the enemy of their enemy is often the one who is now imposing its will on the people within territory they control. In parts of Idlib and Aleppo provinces in particular, even in areas where IS had been militarily ejected by the locals in 2014, the Al-Nusra Front has a major presence.

But that dynamic may be changing. Soon after the cease-fire in Syria took hold, activists once again took to the streets to protest against Assad. In Ma'arrat al-Nouman, a key crossroad where Idlib Province meets Hama Province, supporters of the secular Free Syrian Army clashed with the Al-Nusra Front, who appear to think that now is a good time for them to accelerate the imposing of order on the territory they control, a process which started in 2014.

Since those clashes, there has been significant backlash against the Al-Nusra Front as even some prominent figures have openly criticized the group. Ideological struggles that were shelved as the fight for survival took priority are now emerging once again, but as stated before, Russia and Assad are already voting with their bombs for their candidate in this race.

In the wake of the horrifying attacks in Paris, Brussels, and beyond, worldwide there is considerable urgency in the discussion about how to best combat the black flag of Islamic State. But in a world that is still weary from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, global powers are looking to back foreign champions to bear the brunt of this fight.

The Obama administration, for instance, has backed Kurdish militia groups in northern Syria as its own proxies in the battle against IS, and is providing them with air support and weapons. This has its own geopolitical consequences beyond just the fight against terrorism, but so far it has been effective in regaining at least some territory from IS extremists.

There are also voices calling for different powers to spearhead the fight against IS. Some think more support of non-IS Syrian rebels will be most effective. On April 7, rebel groups seized the northern town of Al-Rai from IS, but on April 11, IS fighters pushed back and recaptured the town -- a key supply line between Turkey and the rebels. Others believe Turkey or Jordan could take a leading role, while still more are skeptical about any of these choices and believe that Western intervention is the only sure way to defeat terrorism that springs from Syria. Still others believe that Assad and its allies in Russia, Iran, Lebanon and Iraq are the only ones who can restore order to Syria.

But many of these options are mutually exclusive, and too many of these conversations are detached from the realities on the ground in Syria. Nowhere is this more obvious than the discussion about the role the Syrian regime plays in this conflict. The facts are clear -- the violence brought to Syria by the Syrian government, violence that started more than two years before IS had a presence in Syria, has created the environment in which radicalism has thrived.

At best, the defeat of IS is not the goal of Assad and his allies, though they fight terrorist groups when it's convenient. At worst, the actions of the government and its allies have enabled groups like IS and the Al-Nusra Front, while dealing a serious blow to forces that have fought against IS in the past. Any strategy to defeat Islamic State that does not accept these facts is a castle made of sand.

IS Central Asian Recruitment Drive A Family Affair

Abu Amina, the veteran militant in the Uzbek recruitment video, emphasizes that he has brought his family with him to wage "jihad," and he is shown with a small boy, apparently his youngest grandson.

Joanna Paraszczuk

Faced with growing competition and rising battlefield casualties, the Islamic State (IS) militant group has taken a family-friendly approach to its efforts to draw fresh recruits from Central Asia.

Two videos released last week by the extremists' Russian-language propaganda wing make use of fatherly -- or grandfatherly -- militants to sell recruits on fighting for IS.

One 30-minute video, in Uzbek with Russian subtitles, features a veteran Uzbek militant in his 60s urging Uzbeks of all ages to come to IS-controlled territory.

A second, shorter, clip shows two Kazakh militants and their sons calling on Muslims to leave Kazakhstan and join them in Syria.

Recruitment Drive

The videos produced by Furat Media are part of an intensified drive by the IS group to recruit Central Asian militants.

This move is likely an attempt to replenish numbers after heavy battlefield losses in both Syria and Iraq.

It is also likely a response to increased competition in the recruitment of Central Asian militants from Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front.

Though IS and Nusra share similar ideologies, they have demonstrated different strategies in Syria: while IS has declared a "caliphate," Nusra has focused on cooperating with other groups to defeat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The focus on fighting Assad is a powerful recruitment message for Central Asians, including those already in Syria. Nusra absorbed a major Uzbek militant group, Katiba Tawhid wol-Jihod, in September 2015.

The drive also comes as IS recruitment of Central Asians is getting tougher amid security crackdowns, including one in which a group of 16 Uzbeks allegedly involved in recruiting for IS were arrested in Moscow on March 30.

Uzbeks living in Turkey, meanwhile, have reported being interrogated after flying home to Uzbekistan as part of heightened counterterrorism measures.

A Family Affair

Each of the new videos emphasizes that families can and should move to IS-controlled territory.

The Kazakh recruitment video opens with shots of militants with their children: a young teen, a toddler, and a baby. Both militants featured in the video say they moved to Syria with their families.

The first militant identifies himself as Marat Maulenov, who according to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service worked as a Russian teacher in a school in the South Kazakhstan region before traveling to Syria with his wife and six children.

The second militant says he is Rinat Zhumabekov, an ethnic Kazakh from Orsk in Russia's Orenburg Oblast. News reports say Zhumabekov disappeared after traveling to Turkey in August 2015 with his 8-year-old son.

Abu Amina, the veteran militant in the Uzbek recruitment video, emphasizes that he has brought his family with him to wage "jihad." He describes how he traveled with his 60-year-old wife, daughters, and grandchildren to IS-controlled Syria in 2015 after fighting for several years with Uzbek militants in Afghanistan. The video features shots of Abu Amina with a small boy, apparently his youngest grandson.

Deirdre Tynan of the International Crisis Group says there have been previous cases in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan where family groups have traveled to Syria, or where some family members have left first and then others have joined later.

"I think this is also a key illustration that the appeal of life in Syria under Islamic State is not confined to those who would seek a combat role," Tynan tells RFE/RL.

Child Militants

A key message of both videos is that teenage militants are among the Central Asians fighting in IS-controlled lands, and that younger children are also getting involved in "jihad."

The Kazakh video shows shots of a teenage boy carrying a gun and a young child who threatens Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

In the Uzbek video, veteran militant Abu Amina boasts that his teenage grandson is fighting alongside him in Syria and he says that boys as young as 14 are on the battlefield.

Prestige, Respect, And Trust

The videos use militants whose backgrounds are intended to inspire respect and trust among potential recruits to make the case that IS has the "correct" Islamist ideology, a tactic that is also a response to increased competition for recruitment with Nusra, which has accused IS of killing Muslims, among other crimes.

Zhumabekov from the Kazakh video says that he is a former law enforcement officer, while Abu Amina from the Uzbek recruitment video says that before joining IS he spent seven years in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he fought alongside the notorious Uzbek militant Najmiddin Jalolov in the Islamic Jihad Union, a militant group affiliated to Al-Qaeda that conducted attacks in Uzbekistan.

Whether the recruitment drive will result in increased numbers of Central Asians joining the IS group remains to be seen. But the two videos have been widely spread online, reflecting Furat Media's increased reach via social media, including on the Telegram messaging service.

NOTE TO READERS: Under The Black Flag

We are discontinuing the live blog. However, Under The Black Flag will be back shortly with even more in-depth coverage of the Islamic State militant group and the crisis in Syria. Stay tuned.

Audio Slide Show Live Blog: Tracking Islamic State

A woman rests near rubble in the Syrian town of Darat Izza in Aleppo Province on February 28.

Jihadists Launch Tech Magazine Focusing On Cryptography

The cover of the German-language online magazine Kybernetiq

Joanna Paraszczuk

A group of German-speaking jihadists has released the first issue of an online magazine that provides information on encrypted communications and Internet security.

The magazine's release highlights the growing awareness of, and interest in, security and encryption among Islamist militants as a tool to help them operate and spread propaganda undetected.

The jihadists' apparent effort to wring opportunity from the greater availability of encrypted communications platforms could enable them to better evade monitoring by government security services.

The magazine, Kybernetiq, is in German and was released on social media on December 28 by a group that claims on its Twitter account to be "not ISIS," an acronym referring to the Islamic State (IS) group. The group told RFE/RL in a direct message exchange on Twitter that "it is enough for you to know that we aren't from ISIS" but would not say if they had an affiliation with any other militant group.

According to the SITE Intelligence group, which translated extracts from the magazine, Kybernetiq includes an article on how jihadists can protect their identities online. One piece of advice tells would-be militants to avoid applications that have "a mujahid branding," -- i.e., a distinct jihadist identity that would identify them as militants to law enforcement. 

According to SITE, Kybernetiq also recommended that jihadists use Tor or Tails, free software that enables users to surf the Internet anonymously.

Kybernetiq also advised would-be militants to use the Whatsapp or Telegram messaging apps, which have built-in encryption, and praised the GNU Privacy Guard cryptographic software as a "nightmare for intelligence agencies," according to a translation by SITE.

'Security-Aware' Militants

Encrypted platforms like Tor and popular messaging apps like WhatsApp have many desirable uses for the privacy-conscious. They keep user data safe and can allow those living in repressive regimes to communicate without being snooped on, for instance.

But intelligence and law-enforcement agencies have warned that such technologies are also increasingly used by extremists, including IS.

The Twitter page of the German-language online magazine Kybernetiq, released on social media on December 28.The Twitter page of the German-language online magazine Kybernetiq, released on social media on December 28.
The Twitter page of the German-language online magazine Kybernetiq, released on social media on December 28.
The Twitter page of the German-language online magazine Kybernetiq, released on social media on December 28.

Those tracking jihadists' usage of encrypted technology also say the problem is growing.

In recent months, there has been a visible shift by IS militants toward using some of these secure platforms, particularly Telegram, to spread propaganda messages over the web.

A source in the anti-IS Anonymous subgroup GhostSec said that in the past five days alone there has been a surge in the creation of new jihadist chat rooms in Telegram and the hacktivist group is now tracking nearly 300 chat rooms in various languages.

"I feel that their Telegram usage is being overlooked and is a lot more powerful than anyone realizes," the source told RFE/RL.

'Long Tradition'

According to Alex Krasodomski from the Center for the Analysis of Social Media at the London-based think tank Demos, the use of encryption technology by militant groups is not a new phenomenon but part of a "long tradition."

Al-Qaeda released its own encryption software in 2007. (Notably, Kybernetiq advises would-be militants not to use it because it is jihadist-affiliated.)

What is new is the increase in number and availability of apps that use encryption software, many of which -- like messaging apps Telegram and WhatsApp -- can be downloaded for free from the Internet.

So it's not surprising that "wannabe jihadis are early adopters" of such technology, says Krasodomski.

The boom in availability of encrypted communications platforms has raised fears that militants' use of these technologies could pose a serious threat by allowing them to evade monitoring by security services.

In the immediate wake of the November 13 Paris attacks, for which IS claimed responsibility and which killed 130 people, there was speculation that the attackers had used encrypted communications in order to plot and direct the attacks.

But does the increasing use of encrypted communications by jihadists really pose a threat?

Krasodomski points out that, despite the initial fears, signs show the IS networks involved in plotting the Paris attacks used unencrypted technologies -- old-fashioned text messaging -- to communicate.

So laying the blame for the attacks "at the door of cryptography is not the answer," Krasodomski says.

Nevertheless, "encryption is a fact and security services have to have the capability and tools under law to deal with it, that reflect this new reality," says Krasodomski. "But I don't think that [encryption] will paralyze the security services."

It's worth noting that even the authors of Kybernetiq magazine are not convinced that encryption software will make them invulnerable to the security services.

Jihadists should write really important messages down on paper, and these must be "quickly burned," they wrote.

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IS Supporters Praise Paris Attacks On Social Media

A French policeman places flowers outside the Bataclan concert hall in Paris the morning after nearly 100 people were killed there by Islamist gunmen.

Joanna Paraszczuk

Even before the Islamic State (IS) terror group claimed responsibility for the deadly Paris attacks that killed more than 120 people, its supporters took to Twitter to praise the carnage.

When news of the attacks unfolded late on November 13, IS supporters quickly created several Arabic hashtags on Twitter, including "the State of Caliphate Hits France," "France is Burning," and "Paris is Burning."

Twitter appears to have deactivated the first hashtag, but the others remained in use the morning of November 14 despite requests from Twitter users that these hashtags also be banned. The "Paris is Burning" hashtag was also used during the January terrorist attacks in Paris targeting the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine. 

The pro-IS accounts using the hashtag did not attribute responsibility for the attack to IS.

But some used the hashtag to suggest that the Paris attacks were a fulfillment of a promise made in a March 2015 audio message by IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who said that IS "with God's help wants Paris before Rome."

The phrase "Paris before Rome" was repeated in many tweets with some pro-IS supporters saying that now IS would advance "to Rome and all over the world."

Most of the pro-IS accounts used the "Paris Is Burning" hashtag to express praise for the killings and tweeted updates about the death toll.

IS and pro-IS accounts on other social media platforms also praised the Paris attacks.

A Russian-speaking IS militant warned on the VKontakte social network that there would be more attacks in countries involved in the U.S.-led anti-IS coalition in Iraq and Syria.

"If you think that it is only in France then no, it is everywhere where there are countries that went into the coalition," the militant, Amir Amirov, threatened. 

"Now we will not choose who to kill, we inshallah (God willing) will kill anyone. Find a place where you can escape from IS if you can."


Some social media accounts linked to militants fighting alongside Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra also praised the attacks and suggested that Al-Qaeda could be the perpetrator.

An account on the Russian social networking site VKontakte run by Abu Rofik, an Al-Qaeda publicist in Syria, said the Paris attacks were "probably" carried out by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

"Whether it was IS or AQAP makes no difference.... A year ago we saw these creatures with placards [saying] 'We Are All Charlie Hebdo'...mocking our Prophet," Abu Rofik wrote. He was referring to the popular slogan that emerged in support of the victims of the January attacks against the satirical magazine, which had printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

Calls For Attacks

IS has previously used French militants fighting in its ranks to call for attacks against civilians in France. A propaganda video released by the extremist group in November urged French Muslims to carry out terror attacks by any means possible.

"Terrorize them and do not allow them to sleep due to fear and horror," one French militant in the video advised.

Uzbeks Arrested For Allegedly Trying To Join Al-Qaeda Group In Syria

Abu Saloh, the leader of Jannat Oshiqlari (Loving Paradise)

Joanna Paraszczuk

A group of Uzbek citizens arrested in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, were allegedly planning to go to Syria to join a militant group there, according to the 12news.uz news site, which has links to the country's National Security Service (SNB).

A security source told 12news.uz that the group -- whose numbers were not revealed -- had been attempting to join the Jannat Oshiqlari (Loving Paradise) group in Syria.

Recruitment & Propaganda

Jannat Oshiqlari is also known as Tawhid wal-Jihod (TWJ), an Uzbek-led group based in Aleppo Province. The group recently pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda.

The Uzbek reports of the arrest of individuals seeking to join TWJ suggests that the militant group has upped its recruitment efforts in Uzbekistan.

TWJ runs a slick propaganda effort that broadcasts its activities in Syria.

The group has two websites, a Facebook page, and a YouTube channel on which it posts professionally made videos. The videos include footage of battles in which TWJ militants are fighting, as well as speeches by the group's leader, Abu Saloh.

Abu Saloh's YouTube channel
Abu Saloh's YouTube channel

Abu Saloh also has his own YouTube channel, via which he broadcasts frequent audio messages in Uzbek, including lengthy sermons about various aspects of jihad. In a recent audio message, titled War Of Suspicions, Abu Saloh talked about how some Muslims doubt "jihad."

On October 19, TWJ opened a channel on the secure messaging service Telegram.

All of the group's propaganda communications are in Uzbek, indicating that TWJ is targeting a purely Uzbek audience. Some Chechen groups, in contrast, will produce propaganda videos in Chechen with Russian subtitles to reach a broader audience.

TWJ previously had Twitter and VKontakte accounts, though these have been shut down.

Pledge To Al-Qaeda

TWJ was one of several foreign Islamist groups to pledge allegiance to Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front, in September.

Prior to joining Nusra, TWJ had fought alongside it in battlefield coalitions in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.

TWJ's pledge to Al-Qaeda revealed important details about the group's beliefs, its loyalties, and its connections in the so-called jihadi world.

In a video of TWJ's pledge to Nusra, Abu Saloh said that TWJ would be directly subordinate to Al-Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. 

"[Zawahiri] promised us that our next battle will be in Damascus, and after that we will go directly to Palestine," Abu Saloh said.

Abu Saloh also said that before agreeing to pledge allegiance to Al-Qaeda, he had asked for advice from Al-Qaeda-linked ideologue Abu Qatada al-Filistini.

Abu Qatada said that for TWJ to unite with Al-Qaeda would bring "nothing but good," Abu Saloh recalled.

Kyrgyz Connection?

The 12news.uz report claimed that the Uzbek suspects had been advised by a contact in Kyrgyzstan, though no further details were supplied.

Kyrgyzstan banned TWJ -- alongside the Islamic State (IS) group, the Al-Nusra Front, and another Uzbek group, the Imam Bukhari Jamaat, in March. 

The bans indicate that Kyrgyzstan believes TWJ is active in the republic.

Kyrgyzstan's National Security Committee (KNB) claimed in March that some 80 percent of Kyrgyz citizens who have joined militant groups in Syria are ethnic Uzbeks. 

Blame Hizb Ut-Tahrir

The Uzbek security source also told 12news.uz that the detained men had also been in contact with an activist named Abdulaziz Rakhimov from the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization, which is banned across Central Asia and Russia.

The security source alleged that Rakhimov had facilitated communication between Hizb ut-Tahrir and Tawhid wal-Jihod.

Rakhimov had "conducted joint meetings, where there were discussions about ways and means of building a 'caliphate' in Uzbekistan with all the trappings of the Middle Ages," the source was quoted as saying.

This is not the first time that the authorities in Uzbekistan and in other Central Asian countries have suggested that Hizb ut-Tahrir plays a role in a strategy used by Al-Qaeda and IS militants to radicalize young people and recruit them to fight in Syria and Iraq. 

In this case, however, the Uzbek security source alleged that Hizb ut-Tahrir members are directly involved in connecting potential recruits in Uzbekistan with Tawhid wal-Jihod in Syria.

Hizb ut-Tahrir, a London-based Sunni political organization, seeks to unite all Muslim countries into an Islamic caliphate but says its movement is peaceful.

Why Are Russian, Central Asian Militants Vanishing From Social Networks?

Where have all the militants gone?

Joanna Paraszczuk

Russian and Central Asian militants fighting alongside Islamic State (IS), Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban in Syria and Iraq are disappearing from social-networking sites like Odnoklassniki and VKontakte.

Whereas just a few months ago, these networks were abuzz with propaganda and recruitment activity from personal militant accounts and official propaganda pages, many accounts have been banned, gone quiet, or closed.

Where have all the militants gone?

Continual bans -- particularly on VKontakte -- as well as concerns that law enforcement agencies could monitor recruitment efforts likely account for some of the reduction of militant activity.

Some militants may have deleted their own accounts for security reasons.

Another reason for the slowdown in militant activity could be an uptick in deaths.

And there is also evidence that militants are moving over to the new and more secure Telegram messaging service.


Over the past months, IS has shifted at least some of its propaganda and recruitment efforts to the Telegram mobile messaging app. 

More recently, Russian-speaking and Central Asian militants from IS-, Taliban-, and Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have also opened Telegram accounts.

There are at least four official or semiofficial Russian-language IS news accounts on Telegram -- IS News, ShamToday, FuratMedia, and Voenkorr. The IS News account has been advertised on Twitter this week as the official Russian-language IS Telegram group. 

The ShamToday account was opened on September 23 and has just 21 members.

FuratMedia has yet to broadcast any messages and appears to be a very new bot. Since the summer, Furat has operated as the de facto official Russian IS propaganda channel, has been repeatedly banned from Facebook and Twitter and has been unable to maintain a presence on VKontakte.

Other militant groups from the former Soviet Union have also recently created platforms on Telegram.

The Uzbek group Tawhid wal-Jihod, which joined Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, has a Telegram group that allows it to broadcast to subscribers and the Taliban-aligned Imam Bukhari Jamaat runs a personal account. 

Why Telegram?

There are several reasons why Russian and Central Asian militants likely prefer Telegram for recruitment and propaganda.

The most important feature is security. Telegram offers "secret chats" that use end-to-end encryption -- so recruiters can chat securely to would-be recruits or donors.

Abu Rofik, a publicist and recruiter for Syria's Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front, instructed wannabe recruits to contact him privately via his Telegram account this week. 

For militants whose propaganda efforts have been hampered by frequent bans from VKontakte, Telegram is also attractive. The messaging service says it does not process any takedown requests relating to Telegram chats and group chats, as these are "the private territory of their respective participants."

So recruiters like Abu Rofik who operate private accounts will not be banned, although Telegram will consider requests to ban public bots that receive complaints including "terrorist (e.g. ISIS-related) bots." 


The noticeable slowdown in militant activity on VKontakte and Odnoklassniki could, at least in part, be a result of an increased number of deaths that has built up over recent months.

The slowdown has been particularly noticeable among Tajik militants, according to RFE/RL's Tajik Service, which noted this week that Tajik activity on social networks has all but completely subsided. 

The Tajik authorities believe that the silence is a result of a large number of deaths among Tajik militants, as well as an uptick in militants who have become disillusioned and tried to return home, according to a law enforcement source.

The source, who spoke to RFE/RL's Tajik Service on condition of anonymity, said 300 Tajiks had been killed in Syria and Iraq and only around 200 remained. The source added that more than 20 parents of individuals who went to Syria had asked for help returning their children, who are on the Turkish border.

It is not possible to independently verify these figures, though the combined total of 500 is the official figure given by Tajikistan's Interior Ministry in June for the number of Tajiks fighting in IS. 

IS does not publish casualty figures for its militants, making it impossible to know how many fighters of each nationality have died. But there have been signs of an increased casualty rate among IS militants over the past months, including of Russian-speaking and Central Asian fighters in IS's offensive at Baiji in Iraq.

"Obituaries" posted on social media over the summer and early fall by Russian-speaking militants indicated that large numbers of IS recruits had been sent to Baiji as "cannon fodder." 

Non-IS sources in Syria claimed that the Baiji offensive was led by IS's ethnic Chechen commander, Umar al-Shishani, who is noted for sending waves of inexperienced fighters to their deaths.

Iraq claimed to have pushed IS out of Baiji last month, and said its forces had found 19 mass graves containing around 365 IS bodies, though it was unclear how long the bodies had been buried there. 


Some IS militants may have removed their VKontakte or Odnoklassniki accounts deliberately, fearing that if they give away their locations or phone numbers they could be targeted in Russian or U.S.-led air strikes.

IS commanders -- including Umar al-Shishani, who has not been photographed for months -- may have issued orders insisting that militants remove their accounts.

In April, IS militants from the Chechen-led Al-Aqsa Brigade accidentally gave away the location of what appeared to be a training camp in Muqla Kabir in Raqqa Province by forgetting to turn off location services on a photograph posted to VKontakte.

'Help A Militant, Avoid Burning In Hell' -- Al-Qaeda's New Fund-Raising Campaign

"Do you think you're safe from the fires of hell?" asks a fund-raising ad published on VKontakte by the Russian-speaking battalion of Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front

Joanna Paraszczuk

"Do you think you're safe from the fires of hell? Give yourself a chance -- help mujahedin on the path of God!"

Thus reads a new fund-raising advertisement published on the VKontakte social network this week by the Russian-speaking battalion of Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front. 

The fund-raising campaign is fronted by Abu Rofik, 23, a self-described "publicist and blogger" who operates as a fund-raiser and trainer for Nusra's Uzbek-led, Russian-speaking battalion, known as Liwa al-Muhajireen or Katiba Sayfullah. 

The main thrust of the campaign is to raise money to help wannabe militants in Russia who have signed up to join Nusra but who cannot afford the travel costs to get to Syria.

'We're Not Millionaires!'

To motivate donors, Abu Rofik accuses Nusra supporters who have not given generously of not caring about "jihad."

"Brothers who wanted to come to us, and who needed support, could not come because of our lack of zeal in the way of God, because of indifference," the campaign reads.

"[There are those] who say, 'Why can't the emir [commander] of your battalion help,' as if we work with millionaires and there's enough [money] left to send to brothers for tickets." 

Unlike in past efforts, the Nusra fundraising campaign does not openly include details of how potential donors can give money. Previously, both Russian-language Nusra and Islamic State (IS) militants openly used the QIWI Koshelek service in Russia. 

Openly Recruiting

The fund-raising campaign asking Nusra supporters to fund travel costs for new militants suggests that Nusra's Russian-speaking battalion is undertaking a recruitment drive.

The recruitment activity follows a period when IS and Nusra social-media accounts warned that it had become harder for would-be recruits to cross into Syria from Turkey.

In another post on November 2, Abu Rofik wrote that "several brothers have successfully arrived here, thank God. There is a route, God willing...."

The Al-Qaeda publicist asked would-be militants not to contact him openly on VKontakte. "Don't post your details and photos here and don't write everything openly," Abu Rofik adds, advising recruits to contact him via the Telegram messaging service instead.

Telegram, which claims to be more secure than other messaging apps like WhatsApp, appears to be becoming more popular among Russian-speaking militants in Syria as concerns about spying and infiltration from security services increase. 

Russia Jails 'IS Militant' For 17 Years -- But Was He Really In IS?

The charges against Gadzhi Magomedov included fighting in an illegal group in Syria and trafficking weapons.

Joanna Paraszczuk

"He served in [Islamic State] and threw rocks at police" is how Russian daily Kommersant described Gadzhi Magomedov, a Daghestani man sentenced to 17 years in a penal colony this week.

A court in Rostov-on-Don found Magomedov, 27, guilty of participating in a 2012 "mass disturbance" in Daghestan, fighting in an illegal group in Syria and trafficking weapons. 

Magomedov admitted participating in the disturbance but denied the other charges. In fact, Magomedov claims never to have been in Syria at all.

That and other elements suggest that Magomedov's case might represent the latest instance of Russian officials deliberately positing an erroneous claim that a suspect who fought in Syria was with the militant group Islamic State (IS). 

Just how strong is the evidence that Magomedov fought alongside IS in Syria?

Details of the prosecution's case suggest that, if Magomedov was indeed in Syria for just over two months with the group they allege him to have fought alongside, it is unlikely he could have been a formal member of IS.

Sabri's Jamaat

The prosecution alleges Magomedov was a member of Sabri's Jamaat (SJ), a Russian-speaking, predominantly Uzbek militant group.

A small group based in Aleppo province, SJ had been involved in the Syrian conflict since at least the first months of 2013: its first leader, Abdurahman, died in a March 2013 battle at Al-Duwaryrineh in Aleppo. The group was one of several groups involved in the July 2013 offensive to capture the Menagh Airbase in Aleppo. 

Sabri's Jamaat pledged bay'ah, or allegiance, to IS in March 2014. 

Kommersant, which published the most detailed account of the prosecution's allegations against Magomedov, said that the Daghestani had returned from Syria to Egypt in March 2014 -- at the same time that SJ pledged allegiance to IS's ethnic Chechen military commander, Umar Shishani.

But if the prosecution's case is true, and Magomedov did go to Syria and did fight alongside SJ -- both allegations he denies -- it is very unlikely that he pledged allegiance to IS.

The Prosecution's Case

The prosecution alleges Magomedov provided clothes and food to militants in Gimry in Daghestan.

In November 2012, Magomedov then took part in a "riot" in the village of Vremmeny in Untsukulsky district, when around 500 protesters blocked a road and demanded that police release three men detained on suspicion of weapons trafficking. When police tried to stop the protest, some protesters -- allegedly including Magomedov -- threw stones.

Magomedov, who worked as a muezzin in a local mosque, testified that he had been returning home from prayers on the morning of the protest, and joined the protesters. 

The prosecution further alleges that, in January 2013, Magomedov returned to Egypt to study at Al-Azhar University, known as a highly influential source of Sunni jurisprudence.

Magomedov testified that he first went to Egypt in 2009 and that he returned there in 2013 after some time in Daghestan.

But he denied allegations that in January 2014 he left Egypt for Turkey and Syria.

According to the prosecution, when he arrived in Syria in January 2014, Magomedov met another Daghestani who took him to the city of Homs, then under government siege. A week later, Magomedov was taken to a base and introduced to a commander who taught him how to fire a Kalashnikov rifle.


Magomedov was allegedly taken to Kafr Hamra in northern Aleppo province, where he joined SJ and met its leader, Abu Usman. SJ then fought against Syrian government troops in Hama, where Magomedov allegedly spent two months guarding "IS checkpoints," though exact locations are not given.

IS -- or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), as it was then known -- did have a presence in some parts of Hama province during January and early February 2014. But IS was then embroiled in infighting with Syrian rebel groups, including Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate the Al-Nusra Front.

It is not impossible that SJ fought alongside IS in Hama province, but it is far more likely that the group was dispatched to fight alongside Nusra and other Syrian groups against government forces. Another Russian-speaking group, the then-Chechen-led Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, was also dispatched to Hama to fight alongside Syrian Islamist groups at that time. 

That SJ fought alongside Nusra and not IS in Hama seems even more likely when the faction's next move is taken into account.

In the first week of February 2014, the group fought alongside Syrian Islamist groups including Nusra in a failed attempt to storm the Aleppo Central Prison (the group's new leader, Abdullah al-Toshkandi, was killed in that operation). IS was not involved in the prison offensive.

The prosecution argues that in March 2014 -- less than three months after Magomedov allegedly came to Syria -- he returned to Egypt.

Magomedov was detained in Alexandria in November 2014, after his foreign passport expired. He was deported to Russia and arrested. A search of his home a month later allegedly revealed detailed instructions for making explosives and ammunition. (Magomedov's defense said the search was undertaken without witnesses and Magomedov's fingerprints were not found on any of the confiscated weapons.)

Blame IS

Whether Magomedov really was in Syria will likely never be known. But this is not the first time that Russia has apparently deliberately made the erroneous claim that someone fighting in Syria was with IS.

Russia says that a Chechen national, Said Mazhayev, was the "first Russian to escape from IS" when he himself said he fought alongside a completely different group.

In Magomedov's case, the allegation he was an "IS militant" possibly reflects a lack of nuanced understanding of militant groups in Syria.

But the prosecution's reference to Islamic State is also part of Russia's strategy of deliberately labelling all groups fighting its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as "IS."

The strategy has been good for domestic counterterrorism narratives. Russia has used the "IS threat" to justify arrests of Muslims and labor migrants. 

Labeling Magomedov -- a Salafist who was active in a local mosque and who studied in Egypt -- as "IS" helps Russia link the local militancy in Daghestan with dangerous foreign Islamists.

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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