The Taliban is learning from ISIS and al-Qaeda

by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.

isw-november-afghanistan-partial-threat-assessment_1While the Taliban is seeing its greatest successes in over a decade, the world’s two largest terrorist organizations are on the decline. ISIS has failed to recover from defeats in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, the Philippines, and Syria. Al-Qaeda has suffered setbacks in Somalia and Yemen and lost its affiliate in Syria, the strongest of the terrorist organization’s branches.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban captured Kunduz, one of the country’s largest cities, for several days last year and encircled it again this year. The insurgents are also threatening Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand, the country’s largest province and the center of Afghanistan’s illegal drug trade. These events have forced Afghanistan’s Western allies to reconsider their long-held plans for withdrawal.

As American advisors return to Lashkar Gah to bolster the Afghan policemen and soldiers besieged there, Western countries experienced in combating ISIS and al-Qaeda are struggling to counter the Taliban’s rapid advances. In fact, there is a relationship between the militants’ fortunes: the Taliban’s methods mimic ISIS’s military strategies and al-Qaeda’s political tactics, their strongest points.

The Taliban Fights Like ISIS
Unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS achieved fame and notoriety not for its spectacular acts of terrorism but for its startling victories as an irregular military. Before Western intervention in 2014, ISIS had routed the Syrian opposition, the Iraqi and Syrian militaries through a combination of blitzkrieg and guerilla warfare. It ambushed, outmaneuvered, and overwhelmed them.

The Taliban has used a similar strategy on the battlefield. It mixes constant hit-and-run attacks with force concentration and shock and awe (often in the form of car bombs). Like ISIS, the Taliban uses commandos and other special operations forces as well as suicide attacks to overpower ill-trained Afghan policemen and soldiers and surprise their Western advisers.

Similar to ISIS, the insurgents cite Islam to justify violent strategies and provide religious legitimacy. “Martyrdom operations have had a very effective, influential impact in the history of Islamic jihad,” said Muhammad Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, in reference to the Taliban’s use of suicide attacks. He asserted that Islamic theologians had condoned “martyrdom operations” (see also David Bukay, “The Religious Foundations of Suicide Bombings“, Middle East Quarterly 13, no. 4, Fall 2006, p. 27–36).

For practical and propagandic effect, ISIS and the Taliban infiltrate the enemies whom they label apostates. ISIS has maintained disguises and sleeper cells to strike as close as Syria or as far as Europe. The Taliban has relied on double agents in the Afghan Local Police, the Afghan National Army, and the Afghan National Police to attack its foreign and local enemies.

On a wider level, the Taliban and ISIS understand the military relationship between money and territory. Whereas ISIS has leveraged the oil-rich desert between Iraq and Syria, the Taliban has focused much of its energy on Afghanistan’s opium-producing farmland. The insurgents seized most of Helmand, which funds the Taliban by supplying the majority of the world’s opium.

Following in the footsteps of all successful drug cartels and terrorist organizations, the Taliban rarely tolerates rivals. It has subdued other Afghan insurgents, including some of ISIS’s affiliates in Afghanistan. These methods have ensured the Taliban’s hegemony in the insurgency against the Afghan government. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS has used the same strategy with much success.

Reinvigorated in economic and military terms by these ISIS-style strategies, the Taliban controls a fifth of Afghanistan and influences half of it. “The Taliban has grown stronger, and is now able to concentrate larger forces over a greater swath of Afghanistan than since its ouster in 2001,” Professor Jason Lyall, who studies violence and war at Yale University, wrote for the Washington Post.

Taliban attack on Afghanistan police cadets near Kabul kills dozens end of June 2016.

Taliban attack on Afghanistan police cadets near Kabul kills dozens end of June 2016.

The Taliban Thinks Like al-Qaeda
Al-Qaeda, unlike ISIS, has emphasized political flexibility at the expense of its Islamist ideology. The Syrian Civil War offers an important case study. There, al-Qaeda’s affiliate worked with other rebels — even Western-backed secularists — to overthrow the Syrian government rather than establish an Islamic state. Grassroots support worked better than did top-down control.

Later, al-Qaeda’s leadership allowed its Syrian affiliate to sever ties to the terrorist organization for political and tactical benefits: without links to an Egyptian-heavy leadership based in Pakistan, the former affiliate could better cooperate with other Syrian rebels. Al-Qaeda has prioritized local political considerations in Syria over an emirate or a worldwide caliphate.

The Taliban seems to have taken these lessons to heart in Afghanistan. Because the insurgents lost so much popularity in the later years of the country’s civil war, they are working on outreach and public relations. They have even taken to social media, posting on Facebook and Twitter and running channels and chatrooms on Telegram and WhatsApp in six languages.

Ahmadi, the Taliban spokesman, condemned an ISIS suicide attack against Afghanistan’s Shias earlier this year during a conversation on Viber. Though the Taliban had massacred this same minority in 1998, Ahmadi argued: “These people [ISIS] strive to exacerbate our regional, linguistic, and religious differences. We would never do [what the suicide attackers did]”.

An injured victim is aided after a suicide bomb attack on a protest by ethnic Hazaras (Shias), in Kabul (Photo: Hedayatullah Amid).

An injured victim is aided after a suicide bomb attack on a protest by ethnic Hazaras (Shias), in Kabul (Photo: Hedayatullah Amid).

The rebels frame themselves as local, Muslim revolutionaries fighting a foreign, Islamophobic enemy: the Americans and their Afghan proxies. According to them, they represent all Afghans (even Shias) in a jihad against infidels. In a nod to al-Qaeda’s local shift in Syria, Zabihullah Mujahid, another Taliban spokesman, claimed that the Taliban “does not interfere in the affairs of that country”.

Just as al-Qaeda was willing to coordinate with American-friendly moderates in Syria, the Taliban has cooperated with current and former enemies to realize its goals. The Western news media accused the insurgents of sharing intelligence on ISIS with Iran, which has fought the Taliban, and Russia, which had invaded Afghanistan and killed hundreds of thousands during the Cold War.

A deft manipulation of propaganda and realpolitik has brought the Taliban gains at home and abroad even if its popularity has yet to improve. The Afghan government’s own corruption and weakness has allowed the insurgents to make inroads in once-peaceful regions, where locals see the Taliban as an anti-government, Islamic alternative to cronyism and despotism.

The Quadrilateral Coordination Group, an intergovernmental organization composed of the Afghans, the Americans, the Chinese, and the Pakistanis and focused on bringing peace to Afghanistan, has given more ground to the Taliban in the hope that the insurgents will participate in the peace process. The American government has asked them to join negotiations even as it kills Taliban leaders.

Through over a decade’s worth of patience and a well-managed insurgency in the style of ISIS and al-Qaeda, the Taliban turned Afghanistan’s war to its advantage. Whatever happens to those two preeminent terrorist organizations as they decline, diminish, and disappear, Afghanistan’s insurgents have ensured the Taliban’s military and political longevity in the War on Terror.

More information
Austin Michael Bodetti, “The U.S. must stop the Taliban’s Rise“,, 18.10.2016.

Posted in Afghanistan, Austin Michael Bodetti, English, Security Policy, Terrorism | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Islamic States’ limited anti-air and anti-tank capabilities won’t turn the tide of battle

Just two and a half week into the ongoing operation to recapture Islamic States’ (ISIS) primary, and last, Iraqi urban stronghold Mosul, the militants successfully took an American-made Iraqi Army M1A1 Abrams tank out of action with an anti-tank missile – some reports say by a Russian-made 9M133 Kornet missile, likely seized from the Iraqi inventory by ISIS when the Iraqi Army infamously fled ISIS advances in the summer of 2014, but it remains unclear.

Then on November 8, ISIS reportedly managed to take out two Russian-made Iraqi T-72 tanks as the army slowly advanced against the militants in Mosul’s east.

These were some of the heaviest blows ISIS has been able to afflict against the incoming Iraqi Army in the Mosul battle. It indicates that the deeper Iraqi forces push into the Mosul metropolis the harder and more costly the fighting will be as ISIS use all available weapons they have in a last ditch effort to repel their enemies from territory they have conquered in the last two-and-a-half years.

The strike on the Iraqi tank highlights the growing proliferation of a weapons system in limited use by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan during the height of the U.S.-led wars there but is rapidly solidifying itself as an enduring threat on the battlefields of the future. — Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “This Video Shows ISIS Destroying an Advanced U.S.-Built Tank Outside Mosul“, The Washington Post,03.11.2016.

ISIS had already demonstrated that they have anti-tank missiles, which can have a devastating affect on enemy armor. In Syria they used such weapons to devastating affect against much older, and arguably far inferior, Turkish M60 Patton tanks which Ankara spearheaded its ongoing Operation Euphrates Shield campaign with (“ISIS Rockets Hit Turkish Tanks Near Syrian Border“, NBC News, 07.09.2016).

Using such missiles in an asymmetrical war can enable a much weaker enemy to exert a high cost on its attacking adversary, possibly even too high of a cost for that adversary to tolerate. Potentially enabling that weaker opponent to stave off what would otherwise be an ultimate defeat. As ISIS is increasingly surrounded by incoming enemies on multiple fronts it would make sense for them to unleash any weapon they can in an attempt to exert untenable costs on its opponents in hopes they can avoid a total defeat on the battlefield.

The militants have also demonstrated that they are not completely powerless when it comes to resisting air attacks. In late September the British Royal Air Force reported that their jet fighters have been targeted by ISIS launched surface-to-air missiles over Mosul, likely shoulder-launched ones. They had anticipated this since the US-led air campaign against the militants began in August 2014. Again, the fact they weren’t used until this late stage in the war appears to indicate the militants were keeping them in reserve for when they needed every tool at their disposal to try and defend areas they cannot retreat from, or cannot afford to retreat from.


More worryingly in Syria’s Palmyra region, ISIS were able to shoot down a Syrian Mi-25 Hind helicopter gunship piloted by Russian instructors, killing them both back in July. In that incident the helicopter had run out of ammunition engaging the militants on the ground before it was shot down, reportedly by an American-made BGM-71 TOW heavy anti-tank missile (likely stolen from one of the Syrian opposition groups the US, the Saudis and others have supplied with such weapons), as it was turning to return to base.

Unlike the Russians in Syria the US-led coalition against ISIS has used such aircraft sparingly. In fact the AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships the US have deployed to Iraq in 2014 were only used on two occasions before their deployment in the current battle for Mosul. Once in October 2014 to force ISIS back from an attempted attack from Anbar Province on Baghdad International Airport and once last June in support of Iraqi forces fighting ISIS in Qayyarah south of Mosul. Their use in the current operation for Mosul is also reported to be minimum. This sparing use of helicopter gunships (which are great for providing close air support) may indicate the coalition is being extremely cautious over flying too many low altitude missions against ISIS, instead relying overwhelming on fighters and bombers to target ISIS from higher altitudes in support of the coalitions allies on the ground.

Nevertheless it’s also worth noting that the Iraqis on the other hand used their Russian-made Mi-28 and Mi-35s in the Fallujah operation against ISIS in support of ground forces over the summer without any losses.

While these separate incidents are themselves worrying put together they indicate little more than that ISIS is a formidable opponent when cornered. But ISIS’s possession of limited numbers of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles alone won’t be enough to tip the balance against its vastly larger and superiorly equipped adversaries. The best the group can hope to do is temporarily hinder and bog down their ultimate loss of the territory over which their black flag currently flies.

More information
Dan Goure, “Are Tanks Obsolete?: YouTube Video Makes The Case For Active Protection Systems“, The National Interest, 01.11.2016.

Posted in English, International, Iraq, Syria, Terrorism | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Predictability versus Chaos: Where China and Russia Diverge

During Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Beijing on June 25, 2016, he and Chinese President Xi Jinping underlined the Sino-Russian strategic partnership and cooperation. Putin said that “Russia and China stick to points of view which are very close to each other or are almost the same in the international arena”. This is why Darien Cavanaugh in “The Cold War is Back, and China’s Going to be a Bigger Player This Time” and Patrick Truffer in “The U.S. Pivot to Nowhere” see a sort of partnership of convenience if Russia and China put under pressure by the U.S. and it allies.

This interesting article by Marcin Kaczmarski focus on the diverging interests of Russia and China. He is a lecturer at the University of Warsaw’s Institute of International Relations who has researched Russian foreign policy for over ten years. He was previously a research fellow at Aberystwyth University as well as the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek and worked as an analyst for the Center for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw. Since 2014 he is Head of the China-EU Programme at the OSW. This article was first published at “Between Moscow and Beijing“, Marcin Kaczmarski’s personal blog.

Chinese and Russian marines on May 20, 2015 during exercise Joint Sea 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea.

Chinese and Russian marines on May 20, 2015 during exercise Joint Sea 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea.

China and Russia have often been bundled together as representing the single most serious challenge to the West. Without doubt these two states share a number of views on world politics and also have a host of similar interests. But it is where they differ that is more telling about their relationship with the West and the international order in general.

An interesting pattern has been unfolding for the past couple of months. Russia has been betting on growing chaos in the West. It cheered both Brexit and Donald Trump’s election victory. Russian support for populist forces in Europe can be traced back to the establishment of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in Paris in 2008.

China, in turn, has been much more cautious. It chose predictability, favoring the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union and tilting toward Hillary Clinton as a slightly better option, even though there were voices in the Chinese debate favoring Trump.

If both China and Russia are dissatisfied with the West, why these stark differences?

The short answer is that China has much more to lose from the West’s decline than Russia.

The case of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant is a case in point. Brexit and the resulting change of the British government almost deprived China of its first nuclear power investment in the developed world. Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, put her predecessor’s decision on hold, demonstrating reservations toward foreign investment in strategic sectors.

We will doubtless have a long wait before we learn whether it was pressure exerted by China that made May reconsider her decision, but the Chinese ambassador’s open letter left little doubt that Beijing would retaliate should London block the investment. Nonetheless, it was highly plausible that China could have suffered losses here.

For Russia, Brexit was a clear gain, not least because the EU’s attention was drawn away from the Ukrainian conflict.

Handshake between Jean-Claude Juncker, Li Keqiang and Donald Tusk at the EU-China summit, 29 June 2015.

Handshake between Jean-Claude Juncker, Li Keqiang and Donald Tusk at the EU-China summit, 29 June 2015.

Trade war
The same logic applies to China’s relative preference for Clinton over Trump. Trump’s anti-free trade rhetoric is aimed directly at China. A trade war could undermine Chinese exports, especially given that the US is the largest external market for China and the biggest source of its trade surplus.

Even a possible breakdown of the American system of alliances in East Asia, which would strengthen Beijing’s hand in regional geopolitics, may be expected to bring as many challenges as benefits to Beijing. South Korean elites are already pondering the acquisition of nuclear weapons in the face of a growing North Korean threat. If Trump were to follow through with his threat to dump America’s Asian allies (and it is at least a possibility), other states, such as Japan, could embark on remilitarization.

In the case of Russia, the risks related to the election of Trump are much vaguer and the possible gains are rather far-reaching. The volume of Russian-American trade is negligible while the chaos which Trump’s election may unleash in the West could help Russia achieve its long-term goal of dividing the transatlantic community.

Populists in Europe
The Kremlin’s support for European populist, anti-establishment and far-right parties also carries little risk for Russia and offers a number of benefits. Representatives of these movements openly declare support for Putin’s “strong leadership”, see Russia as the last barrier against the “debasement” of Europe and support Russia’s anti-American foreign policy.

China, in turn, expressed anxiety about the rise of populist forces as early as the 2014 elections to the European Parliament. Anti-establishment European parties see China’s economic expansion as one of the major culprits for Europe’s economic stagnation and the loss of jobs.

The European Commission’s anti-dumping tariffs targeting Chinese steel production are only the first sign of protectionism, which China expects will dominate Europe’s economic policy if far-right and far-left parties seize power.

Chilly body language on display as President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G-8 Summit at Lough Erne in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, on June 17, 2013.

Chilly body language on display as President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G-8 Summit at Lough Erne in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, on June 17, 2013.

Differing interests
Putin’s recent speech at the Valdai Club meeting offers some clues with regard to Russia’s policy. It is ready to embrace the anti-globalist movement, stir up discontent and fear against the supranational bureaucrats, global oligarchs and transnational companies. The invocation of terms such as “a simple man” and the “silent majority”, allegedly disenfranchised by their own elites, portrays Russia as markedly different from the allegedly corrupt Western elites, detached from their own societies. Russia expects to thrive on the potential chaos beyond its borders.

Such chaos makes it far easier to blame the outside world for Russia’s own failures and enables the mobilization of popular support for the Kremlin against the new “world disorder”. It also makes it easier for Putin to divide the Western community by cherry-picking potential partners.

The Chinese Communist Party, as much as it is able to despise Western democracy, needs the capitalist system to remain in power. China relies on open trade and stable markets, as well as on the growing, or at least not decreasing, wealth of Western consumers. It needs constant Western demand for its goods and capital.

The challenge to the West and its liberal values is real and comes from both Russia and China. It would be a mistake, though, to disregard the differences between the autocrats in Moscow and those in Beijing and to assume that their interests are the same.

Posted in China, English, Marcin Kaczmarski, Russia | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Infographic: A long journey for the Kuznetsov – November 21 “Extended” Update

by Louis Martin-Vézian of CIGeography (Facebook / Twitter).

The November 21 “Extended” update adds two more panels to the infographic: The transit of two Buyan-M-class corvette from Sevastopol to Baltiysk in October (the panel was already included in the first edition of the infographic, but had to be removed in the last update due of space problem) and the Russian strikes in Syria from November 16, launched with Kalibr-NK missiles from the Admiral Grigorovich. Additional strikes were made with 3M-55 Oniks — an anti-ship missile with land attack capabilities — fired with a land based Bastion AShM battery and with FAB-500 M-54 delivered by Sukhoi Su-33.

The deployment of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov to the Eastern Mediterranean, which started mid-October near Severomorsk, is not a surprise. By winter, the Kuznetsov is usually deployed somewhere southward. She made her first Mediterranean deployment between 23 December 1995 and 22 March 1996. Because of extensive service work, absent funding and the explosion and sinking of the nuclear-powered submarine Kursk, the second Mediterranean deployment was more than ten years later, between 5 December 2007 and 3 February 2008. Further deployments to the Mediterranean were between 5 December 2008 and 2 March 2009, 6 December 2011 and 17 February 2012, 17 December 2013 and 17 May 2014. It seems that the Russian Navy abstained of another deployment at the end of 2015 because the 100th Shipborne Fighter Aviation Regiment with its MiG-29KR light fighters and MiG-29KUBR combat-capable trainers was not adequate trained for air operations from the carrier (Sergey Ishchenko, “Admiral Kuznetsov Preparing for Syria Duty“, South Front, 17 January 2016). The MiG-29KR/KUBR should replace the ageing Sukhoi Su-33 in the long-term.

According to the Russian classification the Admiral Kuznetsov is called a heavy aircraft-carrying missile cruiser instead of an aircraft carrier, essentially because according to the 1936 Montreaux Convention, passage of “aircraft carriers” through the Turkish Straits is prohibited (Robin J. Lee, “A Brief Look at Russian Aircraft Carrier Development“, 9 January 1996; see also: F. David Froman, “Kiev and the Montreux Convention: The Aircraft Carrier That Became a Cruiser to Squeeze through the Turkish Straits“, San Diego Law Review 14 (1976): 681-717). The Annex II of the Convention states that “Aircraft-Carriers are surface vessels of war, whatever their displacement, designed or adapted primarily for the purpose of carrying and operating aircraft at sea. The fitting of a landing-on or flying-off deck on any vessel of war, provided such vessel has not been designed or adapted primarily for the purpose of carrying and operating aircraft at sea, shall not cause any vessel to fitted to be classified in the category of aircraft-carrier.” Indeed, in contrast to U.S. carriers, the Admiral Kuznetsov was designed specifically to sail alone and carries offensive firepower (especially worthy of mention are the 12 long-range surface-to-surface anti-ship Granit cruise missiles). Consequently, the Kuznetsov’s carrier battle group is rather small and comprises a Kirov class nuclear battlecruiser (Pyotr Velikiy), two Udaloy I class anti-submarines destroyers (Severomorsk and Vice-Admiral Kulakov), three replenishment oilers and two rescue tug. The battle group has been joined by the Admiral Grigorovich, the flagship of its class, a Kashin class destroyer (Smetlivy), an additional replenishment oiler and two rescue tug coming from the Black Sea in November 5. The Admiral Grigorovich, which was commissioned only in March 2016, is a frigate armed with Kalibr-NK missiles (“Russia’s state-of-the-art frigate Admiral Grigorovich sets off to Syria“, Pravda, 03.11.2016).

Aboard of the Kuznetsov, there are approximately ten Su-33 of the 279th Shipborne Fighter Aviation Regiment (at the moment, eight are confirmed by their serial numbers) as well as four MiG-29KR and MiG-29KUBR of the 100th Shipborne Fighter Aviation Regiment only set up in January, 2016. Sunday evening, November 13, one of these MiG-29 (most likely the one and only two-seated MiG-29KUBR on the Kuznetsov) crashed into the eastern Mediterranean after takeoff from the carrier because of mechanical difficulties. According to Russian defense officials, a rescue helicopter picked up the pilot, who ejected from the fighter jet (“Russian Navy MiG-29K lost in Mediterranean“, Combat Aircraft, 14.11.2016; Lucas Tomlinson, “Russian fighter jet crashes near its aircraft carrier in Mediterranean, US officials say“, Fox News, 14.11.2016). Additional to the fighter jets, there are approximately four KA-27PL/PS, two KA-29TB, two KA-31 and one KA-52K helicopters on board.

Arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Kuznetsov battle group probably will operate east of Cyprus near the Syrian coast till January, 2017. According of the plans of the Russian general staff, the fighter jets and the combat helicopter of the Kuznetsov should participate in air operations in Syria and in trainings with other Russian-friendly states, most likely with the Egyptian Navy.

• • •

Posted in English, International, International law, Louis Martin-Vézian, Russia, Sea Powers, Syria | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Are mock ISIS weapons deceiving the coalition?

operation-inherent-resolve-sept26-2016The US Department of Defense frequently releases press statements detailing the targets US-led coalition airstrikes have bombed in Iraq and Syria as part of their ongoing war against Islamic State (ISIS) militants. These statements invariably describe how many ISIS vehicles, fighting positions, supply routes and tactical units coalition airstrikes have destroyed on a given day of the air campaign.

Since the Vietnam War-era the US hasn’t “body counts” as an indicator of how well they are doing against a particular adversary. While in this war, they do announce whenever they manage to kill some ISIS leader, they have, for the most part, focused on keeping count of how much damage they are doing to infrastructure in ISIS-held territory and how many of their vehicles and weapons they are destroying. For example the Pentagon announced last September that they had done serious damage to ISIS’s chemical weapon capability by destroying a pharmaceutical plant which they suspected ISIS had been using to produce chlorine and mustard gases in a barrage of airstrikes.

The US military is likely correct in many, if not most, of these cases. However, there is reason to suspect that there is more to these estimates and figures than meets the eye. When Syrian Kurdish-led forces managed to capture the city Manbij from ISIS in August they discovered a large ISIS stockpile of fake weapons, many of them anti-aircraft guns, which were clearly designed solely in order to deceive coalition jets – and possibly divert their attention away from targets which were of actual importance to the militants. The discovery of that stockpile raises serious questions about how successfully ISIS may have managed to fool the coalition about how successful their campaign against the militants is going, or how strong/well-armed the militants have been in the first place.

Although it might surprise at first sight, deception is nothing new in the repertoire of military warfare. Russia has been known to literally place tank-shaped balloons across its territory to trick its neighbours, and potential enemies, into believing its military is much larger than it actually is. In the run-up to D-day in World War II the allies successfully misled the Nazi Germany about where they would invade in Operation Fortitude – which saw the creation of phantom field armies that, to the Nazis, appeared to be massing in preparation to assault different French and Norwegian fronts.

Even though ISIS is unlikely to ever get the upper-hand in this war it could potentially prolong the war against its technological advanced enemy by utilizing clever deceptive tactics as part of a broader range of asymmetrical methods to counter or put a strain on the coalitions resources.

Unlike the Russian Air Force in Syria – who have been dropping unguided “dumb” bombs from their ageing Soviet stockpiles – the US-led coalition has been relying primarily on more expensive precision guided bombs to target ISIS in approximately 12,500 airstrikes until end of May 2016. In total the majority of approximate 42,000 bombs dropped on suspected ISIS targets have been dropped by US aircraft since the start of this war two years ago. This has led the US to raid its stockpiles around the world as this campaign continues and even seek to build another 45,000 for future use, a clear indicator of how depleting sustaining this campaign has proven to be on their reserves (Marcus Weisgerber, “The US Is Raiding Its Global Bomb Stockpiles to Fight ISIS“, Defense One, 26 May 2016).

British Brimstone missiles (which cost between 65,000 and 125,000 a unit, if development and additional costs are excluded) were deployed essentially for use against simple ISIS Toyota pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns (classic technicals) in support of the coalition campaign. The fact that such bombs and missiles could well have been fired against phony ISIS weapons and positions show the risk the coalition might be running of expending large quantities of such expensive ordnance.

Between the beginning of the US-led air campaign against ISIS in August 8, 2014 to September 26, 2016, US Central Command estimates that a total of 31,900 suspected ISIS-related targets, ranging from Humvees to oil infrastructure, have been destroyed by coalition bombing. These estimates are based on the daily reports which have accumulated over the course of the last two years and could well include a number of fake targets.

As ISIS continues to incrementally lose territory and as coalition airstrikes are helping allied forces on the ground advance closer to ISIS’s primary stronghold cities of Mosul and Raqqa the coalition needs to be cautious that such deceptive tactics do not lead it to commit any fatal blunders.

Posted in English, International, Iraq, Syria, Terrorism | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Perfidious urban warfare in Mosul

The video above shows CNN reporter Arwa Damon and photojournalist Brice Laine trapped with Iraqi forces during their push into ISIS-held Mosul for more than 28 hours. The attack on the Iraq forces is typical for the tactic used by ISIS: A mix of conventional and guerilla warfare with a splash of extreme brutality and suicide attacks. According to Petri Mäkelä, ISIS manned the outer settlement of Mosul by less reliable jihadists and allowed attacking force to take them over with relatively light resistance. But in the densely built areas, where the Iraq army was forced to send its motorized light units, ISIS used pre-planned booby-traps and obstacles to funnel these Humvee convoys into kill zones, where they were subjected to intense assaults by ISIS forces using IEDs, VBIEDs, RPGs and small arms fire, as we see in the video above.

More information

Posted in English, International, Iraq | Leave a comment

Small, Cheap UAVs are Making the Pentagon Nervous, so DARPA is Stepping in to Help

by Darien Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh is a contributor for War is Boring and Reverb Press. He serves on the Board of Directors for Auntie Bellum.

Artist's rendition of DARPA's Aerial Dragnet program (Image via DARPA).

Artist’s rendition of DARPA’s Aerial Dragnet program (Image via DARPA).

The Video below, supposedly recorded near Aleppo in August 2016 shows what appears to be drones targeting rebel forces. The 42-second video includes three clips shot from slow-moving, low-flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The first two clips show nearby targets being hit, seemingly, by other drones in the area. In the third clip, you can see what look like submunitions drop from a drone as it films. The submunitions land just outside of a rebel building below, as the occupants run from inside.

Drone strikes in Syria are nothing new. What made this story exceptional was who controlled the drones and what kind of drones they were. The Lebanese-based Islamic militia Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the attack, and they weren’t using anything that comes close to resembling the Predator drones we’ve come to associate with unmanned warfare. According to David Axe at The Daily Beast, Hezbollah most likely used commercial quadcopters that retail for around $200 to drop Chinese-made MZD-2 or similar “grenade-sized” submunitions on the rebels.

The incident added yet another element of chaos to the already exceptionally complex war going on in Syria. “As if Syrian regime forces, Russian airstrikes, and internal squabbling weren’t enough to worry about, Syrian rebels have apparently now come under attack from Hezbollah drones dropping bombs,” Axe writes at the time.

Considering that the United States launched the first successful drone strike in 2001, only fifteen years ago, Hezbollah has a surprisingly long history of employing UAVs. Until recently, paramilitaries and terrorist organizations were particularly known for their use of drones. Hezbollah got off to an early start on this front.

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) reports that Hezbollah began flying spy drones into Israeli territory as early as 2004, “catching Israeli intelligence off guard”. In November of that year, a Hezbollah drone hovered over the town of Nahariya in Western Galilee before returning to Lebanon. The Israeli Air Force failed to intercept it.

Hezbollah flew a Mirsad-1, which FAS describes as an updated version of the Iranian Mohajer reconnaissance drone, during that mission. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s religious and military leader, used the foray as propaganda to lift the morale of his troops and threaten Israel.

Remains of a Hezbollah drone shot down by the Israeli Air Force in October, 2012.

Remains of a Hezbollah drone shot down by the Israeli Air Force in October, 2012 (Source: Dan Gettinger and Arthur Holland Michel, “A Brief History of Hamas and Hezbollah’s Drones“, Center for the Study of the Drone, 14.07.2014).

At a public rally Nasrallah boasted that the drones “can be laden with a quantity of explosives, 40 to 50 kilograms, and can hit any target, be it water or power plant, a military base or airport” and strike “anywhere deep, deep” in Israel, according to a contemporary Associated Press report.

Since 2004, Hezbollah has sent Mirsad and Iranian-made Ababil drones into Israel on several occasions, including an attempted three-drone attack during Israel’s 2006 incursion into southern Lebanon. In that attack, three Ababils, each carrying a “40-50 kilogram explosive warhead”, were shot down en route to three different targets, according to FAS. In 2012, Israel shot down a Hezbollah spy drone right outside of the town of Dimona in the Negev Desert. This, too, surprised Israel, as Dimona is the site of its nuclear launch facilities (see also: “How big of a threat are drones to Israel’s security?“,, 11.08.2016).

Hezbollah adding cheap, readily available drones to its arsenal of more advanced drones is certain to make Israel, Syrian rebels, and any other potential targets in the region uncomfortable. And Hezbollah is not the only organization adopting such drones. For the past several months, the terror organisation “Islamic State” (ISIS) has increasingly used commercial drones for reconnaissance in Syria and Iraq.

For instance, coalition forces destroyed an ISIS drone on 17 March 2015. “It was a commercially available, remotely piloted aircraft, really something anyone can get”, Army spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told Matthew L. Schehl The Marine Times. “We observed it flying for approximately 20 minutes. We observed it land. We observed the enemy place it in the trunk of a car and we struck the car.”

The strike on the car marked the first time coalition forces targeted an “Islamic State” UAV. In the subsequent months, coalition forces have destroyed at least five additional “Islamic State” drones, all of them either commercial or “improvised,” according to The Marine Times.

Iraqi Sergeant Hussain Musa Kathum reportedly shot down an ISIS-controlled DJI Phantom 3 quadcopter near al-Jirashi, in the Anbar province, in April 2016. The Phantom 3 retails for about $1,000.

Iraqi Sergeant Hussain Musa Kathum with the Islamic State Phantom 3 quadcopter he shot down in Anbar province (Photo: Iraqi Ministry of Defense).

Iraqi Sergeant Hussain Musa Kathum with the Islamic State Phantom 3 quadcopter he shot down in Anbar province (Photo: Iraqi Ministry of Defense).

“[T]he militants’ growing use of drones highlights an important battlefield development in the conflict in Iraq and Syria”, writes Schehl. “The enemy is now regularly employing this technology for everything from propaganda videos and surveillance to indirect fire spotting and, possibly, weapons delivery.” It’s this inevitable rise in the deployment of these low-cost UAVs that has the Pentagon worried. As the commercial market for inexpensive drones expands, more and more paramilitaries, terrorist organizations, and individuals will begin using them for reconnaissance and attacks.

The Pentagon has turned to the Defense Advanced Research Programs Agency (DARPA), once again, to address this growing threat. In response, DARPA announced the Aerial Dragnet program in September 2016.

A primary concern in dealing with small, slow, low-flying UAVs like the ones ISIS uses, or the ones Hezbollah used in the attack in Syria, is that traditional radar systems fail to register or track them. In areas with an extended line of vision, this is not as great a concern because soldiers and other potential targets can, hopefully, identify and neutralize or evade the drones. However, in urban environments, where lines of vision can be extremely limited, such UAVs launched from nearby could pose a serious threat.

DARPA’s plan is to create a new type of surveillance network for detecting small, commercial drones. If the plan sound extremely complicated or even far fetched, remember that it was DARPA that brought us drone spy beatles and sponsored the development of plant-eating robots that could, theoretically, endure prolonged missions without needing refueling. If anyone is up to the task, it’s them. “To achieve the technically difficult goal of mapping small UAS in urban terrain, DARPA today announced its Aerial Dragnet program,” reads a September 13 press release on the DARPA website. “The program seeks innovative technologies to provide persistent, wide-area surveillance of all UAS operating below 1,000 feet in a large city.” DARPA notes that while the program will initially be used to protect military personnel, it could eventually be employed by civilian authorities to protect against terrorist attacks.

The press release compares Aerial Dragnet, in basic terms, to the systems the Federal Aviation Administration and other aviation organizations currently use to track commercial and private planes. “Commercial websites currently exist that display in real time the tracks of relatively high and fast aircraft—from small general aviation planes to large airliners — all overlaid on geographical maps as they fly around the country and the world”, Jeff Krolik, DARPA program manager, is quoted as saying in the press release. “We want a similar capability for identifying and tracking slower, low-flying unmanned aerial systems, particularly in urban environments.”

Aerial Dragnet is still in its planning stages, and researchers still lack a clear vision of exactly what the details of the program may entail. The press release announcing Aerial Dragnet is riddled with words like “seeks”, “notionally”, and “perhaps”:

The program seeks an array of innovative approaches, but notionally envisions a network of surveillance nodes, each providing coverage of a neighborhood-sized urban area, perhaps mounted on tethered or long-endurance UAS. Using sensor technologies that can look over and between buildings, the surveillance nodes would maintain UAS tracks even when the craft disappear from sight around corners or behind objects. The output of the Aerial Dragnet system would be a continually updated common operational picture (COP) of the airspace at altitudes below where current aircraft surveillance systems can monitor, disseminated electronically to authorized users via secure data links. — “Keeping a Watchful Eye on Low-Flying Unmanned Aerial Systems in Cities“, DARPA, 13.09.2016.

One thing that Aerial Dragnet is predicting and preparing for is the potential widespread demand for the program coupled with the rapidly changing landscape of automated warfare. Israel would likely be interested in Aerial Dragnet or a similar system considering that ISIS and Hezbollah, both of whom are antagonistic to Israel, are right across its northern borders. The Palestinian militant group Hamas has also flown small, domestic-made drones into Israeli airspace in the past. Hamas also reportedly captured an Israeli reconnaissance drone in August of 2015, returned it to an operational status, and is perhaps trying to reproduce it.

“Because of the large market for inexpensive small UAS, the program will focus on combining low cost sensor hardware with software-defined signal processing hosted on existing UAS platforms,” the press release reads . “The resulting surveillance systems would thus be cost-effectively scalable for larger coverage areas and rapidly upgradable as new, more capable and economical versions of component technologies become available.”

DARPA has not provided a timeline for implementing the the Aerial Dragnet program, or suggested what cities it might first be implemented in.

Posted in Darien Cavanaugh, Drones, English, Technology, Terrorism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Will Turkey go to war in Northern Iraq?

Since Turkey’s refusal to withdraw its military forces from its training camp in Bashiqa, Northern Iraq last December relations between Baghdad and Ankara have been at an all time low.

Even after the start of the Mosul operation against Islamic State (ISIS) on October 17 there has been no thaw in these tensions, if anything they are getting worse. The Iraqi government opposes any Turkish participation in the Mosul operation and has made repeated demands for Turkey to withdraw its forces, many in the Iraqi parliament even want the Turkish presence officially labeled an occupation of Iraqi territory.

The Turkish government under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has bitterly condemned Baghdad in response, insisting it has a right to intervene in Northern Iraq wherever, and against whomever, it sees fit. This has raised the prospect of the Turkish military engaging forces other than ISIS in Northern Iraq. Let’s take a look on the possible adversaries in Iraq.

PKK-trained Yezidi militia in Sinjar (Photo: Kurdishstruggle via Flickr).

PKK-trained Yezidi militia in Sinjar (Photo: Kurdishstruggle via Flickr).

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)
At the end of October, Erdoğan stated that Turkey “will go on this [Operation Euphrates Shield] campaign in Syria and Iraq, and now in Kirkuk, Mosul, Tal Afar and Sinjar. Why? Sinjar is about to be the new Qandil [for PKK]. Thus, [Turkey] cannot allow it to happen in Sinjar, because there is PKK there.”

Sinjar and the wider region was where ISIS committed one of its most infamous crimes: the massacre of thousands of Yezidi men, women and children and the clear attempt to eradicate that entire people. The PKK, who have long maintained a base in the Qandil mountain range, fought ISIS to a standstill in Sinjar for over a year. When the city was finally liberated by the Kurdish Peshmerga, the PKK maintained a presence, against the wishes of the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey has been bombing the PKK in Qandil for years, to little avail. A permanent PKK foothold in Sinjar would doubtlessly irk them to the point they would contemplate launching an incursion to rout them out. Whether this will simply consist of a series of airstrikes against the group there or an actual ground attack has yet to be seen.

Shiite fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi, PMU enter the village of Abu Shuwayhah, south of jihadist-held Mosul, on November 1, 2016, during the ongoing operation.

Shiite fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi, PMU enter the village of Abu Shuwayhah, south of jihadist-held Mosul, on November 1, 2016, during the ongoing operation.

The Iraqi militias
There is also no love lost between Turkey and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), the coalition of mostly Shiite militias formed by the Iraqi government following Mosul’s fall in mid-2014. Many militias fighting under the flag of the PMU are backed by Iran and staunchly oppose Turkey’s troop presence in Bashiqa.

When the PMU were allotted the task of securing Mosul’s western periphery – allowing them to play a role in the operation but not to enter the Sunni-majority city itself, to avoid possible sectarian conflict – they immediately announced their aim to take Tal Afar from ISIS. This alarmed Turkey which warned the PMU against committing any abuses against the Turkmen residents of that city, even threatening to intervene against them if they done so.

Since then Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi has said that the PMU will not enter Tal Afar and that the town will be liberated by the Iraqi Army, possibly alleviating a potentially lethal conflict between Turkey and the PMU. However, this does not rule out the possibility of some kind of a clash between Turkey and the Iraqi militias, either directly or indirectly. Turkey’s aforementioned presence at Bashiqa is primarily to train the Nineveh Guard militia (formerly known as the Hashd al-Watani), a Sunni-majority militia commanded by the former governor of Nineveh, Atheel al-Nujaifi. The Iraqi government blame al-Nujaifi for allowing the Turkish Army to Bashiqa and have even went as far as issuing a warrant for his arrest.

The Nineveh Guard may end up clashing with the PMU in the future if their paths collide, or if they choose to target each other. This could see a proxy war of sorts evolve between Iranian proxies and Turkey’s proxy. A direct clash between the Turkish Armed Forces or a future PMU attack on Bashiqa could also be potentially very destabilizing if it escalated and both sides started pouring in more men resources to Nineveh to face off each other. While Turkey might have the initial advantage of being able to target the PMU with artillery and airstrikes the PMU may be able to muster more manpower and declare a jihad against the Turkish outsider, something which would have widely destabilizing affects on the region.

Convoy of Iraqi armored forces.

Convoy of Iraqi armored forces.

The Iraqi Armed Forces
The least likely but most dangerous scenario is one that involves a direct clash between the Iraqi and Turkish Armed Forces in Nineveh. Possibly initiated by forceful Iraqi attempts to stop more Turkish deployments in its territory. If Turkey were to escalate such a war it would need to confront Iraqi armor and engage the Iraqi Air Force, which now possesses formidable F-16s and advanced Russian helicopter gunships (Mi-28N and Mi-35M).

The Turkish Armed Forces may be reluctant to do this since their entire F-16 fleet is not currently in operation following the failed July 15 coup attempt and the subsequent purges in the military. In Syria Turkey reportedly temporarily halted air support to its Free Syrian Army (FSA) proxy fighting ISIS and Kurdish forces in northwest Syria since Damascus threatened to target their jets and even deployed anti-aircraft missiles to show it could do so. In addition Ankara has demonstrated a limited ability to readily deploy effective armored forces in Syria.

Also, the Turks would be less likely to take the risk of escalating any clash with the Iraqi Armed Forces into a full-fledged war, especially at a time when the Iraqis are at the forefront of an American-backed war in Mosul.

Posted in English, International, Iraq, Turkey | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Rio 2016: Brazilian Security in the Spotlight

by Michael Martelle. Michael is a masters student studying Security Policy at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs.

Members of the Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) stand guard while children play on top of the Macaco favela in northern Rio de Janeiro (Photo: Sebastiano Tomada / Al Jazeera).

Members of the Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) stand guard while children play on top of the Macaco favela in northern Rio de Janeiro (Photo: Sebastiano Tomada / Al Jazeera).

A week after the truck attack in Nice, France, and two weeks before opening ceremonies in Rio De Janeiro, Brazilian Federal Police announced their success in wrapping up a ring of Daesh sympathizers calling themselves “Defenders of Shariah”, who were “preparing acts of terrorism” during the 2016 Summer Olympics. What initially sounded like an indication of serious organizing activity around the Olympic Games was described by Moraes as amateurish, ill-prepared and unorganized (Rogerio Jelmayer and Reed Johnson, “Brazil Arrests 10 Suspected of Plotting Attacks Timed for Olympics“, Wall Street Journal, 21.07.2016).

The three widely agreed upon elements that go into committing a crime are means, motive, and opportunity. Skipping “means” for now, motive is present, but lightly so. The individuals arrested were, according to Brazilian Federal Police, all born in Brazil, had never traveled to the Middle East, and hadn’t even met each other (see also this criticism about the media and politicians, who ascribe attacks to Daesh — often without specific evidence for its actual involvement).

Brazil's Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes attends a press conference on arrests made in at least two states before the start of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, in Brasilia July 21, 2016 (Photo: Adriano Machado / Reuters).

Brazil’s Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes attends a press conference on arrests made in at least two states before the start of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, in Brasilia July 21, 2016 (Photo: Adriano Machado / Reuters).

Brazil’s Muslim population is incredibly small, not large enough to mention in the CIA World Factbook. According to the US Governmental International Religious Freedom Report, the assessments of the number of Muslims vary enormously: “According to the 2010 census, there are approximately 35,200 Muslims, while the Federation of Muslim Associations of Brazil states the number at approximately 1.5 million. Other observers estimate the number of Muslims to be between 400,000 and 500,000.” The population is considered to be reasonably well-integrated, and there has been a recent influx of converts from the Brazilian populace. In all, hardly a situation where one would expect Daesh sympathizers to be found. According to police, the 10 met, communicated, and learned via websites associated with Radical Islam, so there is a very strong possibility that these individuals felt otherwise disgruntled and saw in Radical Islam an outlet for their feelings.

The question of “means” is where things get weird. The group had no bomb-making materials, had inquired online about buying a single AK-47 rifle from a seller in Paraguay, and had only recently talked about maybe getting some martial arts training. According to Brazilian Police, it was this additional step to “action” and “planning” from what was previously only communication online — for which they were already being monitored — that led to the arrests. That being said, this group was clearly nowhere close to reaching the ability to launch what the world would consider a terror attack, and were arguably a good distance from basic competency in the field. If, as Donn Piatt once suggested, greatness can be measured by one’s enemies, this ring of would-be terrorists was hardly a trophy for Brazil’s security apparatus. So why was this broadcast so widely? The principle security fear surrounding the Rio 2016 Olympic Games had been street crime, or crimes of opportunity. It is precisely these crimes of opportunity that this group of 10 were capable of carrying out.

We expect that if there is a major drop in inequality, homicide rates go down. In 2000, Brazil’s homicide rate was 32.2 per 100,000 residents, and in 2012 it was just over 32.4. — Christopher Mikton, technical officer on the WHO Prevention of Violence Team cited in Vincent Bevins, “In Brazil, homicide rate still high despite increased prosperity“, Los Angeles Times, 22.05.2015.

Despite an improvement in all other economic and social indicators prosperity for the region, Brazil’s crime rates remain exceptionally high. From 2000 until 2012 the homicide rate remained essentially the same while globally the homicide rate dropped 16%. An important detail to this statistic, however, is the fact that homicide rates in wealthier areas of the country have actually dropped significantly due to aggressive, some would say heavy-handed, security policies. One can assume, given the lack of change in the national rate, that the homicide rate in the more impoverished areas has increased. If true, the cause is likely demographic: The primary perpetrators of crime, young adult males, have increased in share of the population.

Brazil’s security forces have been trying to address these fears through “pacification” of the Favelas which began before the 2014 FIFA World Cup and a wide-spread and publicized redeployment of troops and security personnel to the city. The operations in the Favelas have been met with marginal success at best and dubious reactions internationally. Couple these question marks with the Zika Virus, which so far nobody has any answers for, and it can be seen that Brazilian officials may have been looking for a “win”. Ironically, while this case did demonstrate Brazil’s ability to monitor, track, and arrest a group of suspects simultaneously, it also demonstrated the class of criminal that Brazil’s security community considers dangerous enough to warrant an operation of this magnitude. Brazil does not fear Daesh; Brazil fears the street criminal.

Military soldiers patrol external areas and the lobbies of Galeao international airport ahead of Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo: Dado Galdieri / Bloomberg Photo).

Military soldiers patrol external areas and the lobbies of Galeao international airport ahead of Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo: Dado Galdieri / Bloomberg Photo).

Shortly after the opening ceremonies, which featured an ironic tribute to “favela culture”, a Federal Police squad car took a wrong turn and wound up in a favela near the airport. It is unknown whose “territory” this was but Brazil’s most powerful gang, Red Command, is reported to hold ground near the same airport. The car was targeted by machine gun fire and one officer was killed. Brazilian officials later claimed the identity of the killer was known, though he had not been brought into custody (“Olympic officer who was shot in head after wrong turn into slum dies“, Chicago Tribune, 11.08.2016).

[…] [W]hen Brazil wakes up from the Olympic reverie, it will have to face the same bitter political struggles as before, coupled with the deepest recession in decades. — Alex Cuadros, “Why Brazilians Are So Obsessed with the Ryan Lochte Story“, The New Yorker, 18.08.2016.

At around the same time a prison and the town around it erupted into violence in response to a crackdown on cell reception within the prison and subsequent measures by authorities to disrupt communications to, from, and between gang members in prison. The government was forced to send a sizable force, 1,000 army soldiers and 200 marines, to quell the unrest (Jonathan Watts, “Brazil deploys over 1,000 troops in response to spate of gang-related attacks“, The Guardian, 03.08.3016).

Perhaps the most visible security event during this year’s Olympics was the saga of Ryan Lochte and his team-mates. Brazil’s reaction to this event and specifically to Lochte’s story seemed to suggest a sensitivity to stereotypes of dangerous street crime of opportunity.

If the reaction to Ryan Lochte showed what stereotypes Brazilians are embarrassed by, the arrest of 10 terrorists, albeit amateur, may have been an attempt to display strength and security while in the public spotlight. The situation in the favelas and the prison riot turned insurrection suggest Brazil’s security apparatus still has a ways to go in facing crime-based security challenges before it can credibly stand shoulder to shoulder with counterparts in other regional powers.

Posted in Brazil, English, Michael Martelle, Organised Crime, Security Policy, South America, Terrorism | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Iraq’s notorious militia is setting up camp west of Mosul

Militias of the Popular Mobilization Units south-west of Mosul at the beginning of November 2016.

Militias of the Popular Mobilization Units south-west of Mosul at the beginning of November 2016.

Since its official inception shortly after the beginning of the war against the terror organisation “Islamic State” (ISIS) in Iraq in the summer of 2014 the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU; aka Hashd) has garnered its fair share of controversy. Human rights reports have documented their use of child soldiers and their abuse and torture of Sunni civilians in areas recaptured from ISIS.

Given the Iranian support to these militias, the US has refused to work with them or act as their supporting air force, in the same way they have been for the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga. They also fear that PMU participation in operations in Sunni-majority parts of Iraq would turn local Sunnis against the Iraqi military and the coalition, which would seriously complicate efforts to uproot and defeat ISIS.

In March 2015 the PMU single-handedly launched an offensive against then ISIS-occupied Tikrit. They told the Iraqi Army they were welcome to participate provided they forbid the US from joining up. This was an attempt to demonstrate that they could fight ISIS without Washington’s support. The stunt ended in abject failure for them. They withdrew under ISIS fire and the Iraqi Army moved in with US air support and recaptured the town in one of their first major victories against the militants since the war began (Kenneth M. Pollack, “Iraq’s Mr. Abadi Comes to Washington“, Brookings Institution, 13 April 2015).

By May 2016 the PMU had spent two years besieging ISIS in Bashir, a small farming village in the province of Kirkuk. They only succeeded in retaking that village after playing a small supporting role to the Kurdish Peshmerga, who managed to rout the militants in just a few days.

In the operation to recapture Fallujah (in May and June of this year) Baghdad allotted the PMU a supporting role in the operation, in hopes of keeping them out of the actual city. But in that role they still abused and brutalized some of the approximate 50,000 civilians who fled that bombed and ruined city throughout the course of that assault.

Since the end of October 2016, the PMU had launched an offensive towards the west of Mosul. Their goal is to cut off any option of retreat by ISIL insurgents into neighboring Syria or any reinforcement for their defense of Mosul.

Since the end of October 2016, the PMU had launched an offensive towards the west of Mosul. Their goal is to cut off any option of retreat by ISIL insurgents into neighboring Syria or any reinforcement for their defense of Mosul.

In the present operation in Mosul, a Sunni Arab-majority city with a remaining population of up to 1.2 million people in the hands of between 3,000 and 5,000 ISIS militants, the coalition is again supporting the Iraqis in their endeavours against ISIS while opposing PMU participation.

The PMU have been given again a supporting role. In the two-week old operation, Iraqi and Kurdish forces have been taking towns and villages from ISIS to the north, east and south, moving in closer to the city limits. Nobody has covered the west, leading to some speculation that the coalition secretly wants ISIS to evacuate Mosul to Syria to avoid a long drawn out and destructive battle in that metropolis.

Now, however, the PMU are moving in to Mosul’s west, fighting to capture Tal Afar (which has a large Turkmen population) and close off ISIS’s only escape route. This in turn means that two possible scenarios could come to be: ISIS doubles down and decides to fight to the death in Mosul knowing it has no exit route back to Syria, increasing the chance that more of Mosul will be destroyed and more civilians will be killed or ISIS tries to escape to Syria by trying to break through PMU lines.

The second scenario would be a particularly interesting one. While ISIS did fight sustained battles in Fallujah and the Syrian city of Manbij. In both cases they began withdrawing when it was clear they stood no chance. When leaving Fallujah their withdrawing convoys were bombed by both Iraqi and US coalition aircraft. From Manbij they managed to escape since the US suspected they had civilians with them as human shields.

Militia fighters entered the village of Abu Shuwayhah, south of Mosul, on Tuesday, during the operation to retake Mosul, the last major ISIS stronghold in Iraq (Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP).

Militia fighters entered the village of Abu Shuwayhah, south of Mosul, on Tuesday, during the operation to retake Mosul, the last major ISIS stronghold in Iraq (Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP).

If ISIS were to make a similar move in Mosul while the PMU remain the only force standing to their west that raises the question how the US and the coalition would respond. For one the coalition does not want to work with the PMU and the PMU do not in any way want to be seen working with the Americans – since they oppose their presence in Iraq to begin. Simply bombing ISIS as they try to break through PMU lines to get back to Syria increases the chance that the US kills PMU through lack of coordination, like it did to at least 62 Syrian soldiers in the city of Deir Ezzor when they mistook them for ISIS militants in the same vicinity in September. This would likely inflame the PMU and could lead them to target American forces and interests in Iraq in retaliation, as they have already threatened to do.

As the battle for Mosul progresses and looks set to last at least another few weeks, if not months, the role of the PMU should be carefully observed given the important positions they are now beginning to occupy.

More information
Hauke ​​Feickert, “Iraqis argue over war strategy“,, 04.08.2015.

Posted in English, International, Iraq | Tagged , , | 7 Comments