Tag Archives: attacks

IS pledge video consistent with group’s decentralization into newer territories, will spur state crackdown – Azerbaijan Analysis

Executive Summary

A recent propaganda series from Islamic State (IS) included a pledge video from Azerbaijan to the group’s leader on July 2.

While the capabilities of IS-inspired cells in Azerbaijan are limited, there is a potential that this video may sustain increased online messaging among disaffected Sunni youth, with the latent chance of culminating in lone-wolf attacks by sympathizers.

The government will step up its crackdown on potential radicalization, particularly in the country’s north, on unlicensed Islamic schools nationwide, and step up its monitoring of social media.

Travel to Azerbaijan can continue while maintaining vigilance due to the latent risk of crime and militancy. 

Please be advised

Islamic State (IS) media released a video as part of its “The Best Outcome is for the Righteous” series on July 2. The video features three individuals believed to be from Azerbaijan pledging allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi while calling on Muslims in the country to stage attacks.

In the video, the main speaker is identified as “Shaykh” Abu Yusuf al-Azeri. The individual provides an exposition of selected passages from the Hadith denouncing polytheism and calling for revenge for the alleged killing of Muslims.

In 2017, Azerbaijani State Security indicated that at least 900 citizens had traveled abroad and joined militant groups in Syria and Iraq. At least 250 have returned since, per independent estimates. State security officials also indicated in 2018 that dozens of Azerbaijanis have joined militant groups in the North Caucasus, while the number of those traveling to Afghanistan and Pakistan for the same purpose stands at 300.

Assessments

Video consistent with IS’ decentralization efforts, utilizing local appeal to push global message

The video gains significance when compared to the low frequency of official IS propaganda released involving Azerbaijan as the group’s on-ground presence in the country has been considerably muted. Given that it is the sixth in an ongoing series from the group’s affiliates across the globe, it stands to reason that this release is part of efforts by IS Central to increase propaganda in newer territories. This trend has grown since the release of a video featuring al-Baghdadi for the first time in five years in April. In Asia, the group’s recent declaration of Wilayats, or provinces, in India and Pakistan is consistent with these decentralization efforts. The media release is further notable as it is the only video in the series thus far which is not dedicated to a Wilayat but to a separate country. This may be an indication of IS’ long term ambitions in Azerbaijan and the South Caucasus as it attempts to further its regional presence.

The video appears to be made by local radicalized individuals with links to IS Central, possibly through networks facilitated by Azerbaijani foreign fighters. In terms of content, the speaker does not make explicit references to President Ilham Aliyev or the perceived local suppression of Muslims, but instead touches on more universal Salafist doctrines and provides general exhortations for attacks against unbelievers. Given that this is one of the first major IS videos on Azerbaijan in recent years, it is likely intended to establish the broad outlines of IS’ creed for possible new audiences in Azerbaijan and serve as an entry point for future propaganda engagement. However, a reference to the government’s cooperation with regimes abroad, particularly Iran, reiterates the close adherence to IS’ sectarian ideology with regards to the Shiite majority state as well as “crusader” Western governments. The overlay of stock images of US forces and of President Aliyev in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the video are intended to underscore this message. It is also notable that the video ends with a bay’ah or pledge in Azeri, as opposed to Arabic. This minimal use of Arabic, apart from subtitles, is also intended to maintain local appeal.

Northern Sunni communities to be target of messaging, may result in increased online activity by disaffected youth

Azerbaijani foreign fighters in Syria have typically come from the country’s conservative Sunni communities in cities such as Sumqayit, Shabran, and Qusar. Police reports have also mentioned Khachmaz, Zaqatala, Qax, Yevlax, Oguz, Quba, and Sheki as notable hotspots for recruitment in the past. Mostly being border areas, radical elements may have crossed over to Russian territories in Dagestan to collaborate with actors who are a part of IS’ Wilayat Kavkaz. That said, the establishment of an active Islamist operational presence locally in Azerbaijan has been limited as a result of close state monitoring and preemptive security operations against suspected cells.

In this context, the recent messaging may presage a revival in messaging and online chatter, particularly among disaffected Sunni youth in the northern districts who may see the video as an encouragement to oppose the Aliyev administration’s crackdown on radical Islamic doctrines. Returning foreign fighters and those who attempted to travel to Syria but failed will likely be key influencers in this trend. This was noted in 2018 when a local named Eldaniz Mammadov was arrested and tried for posting pro-IS propaganda on social media platforms; the suspect is believed to have traveled to Syria at an unspecified previous time.

Past Militancy Recruitment Hotspots in Azerbaijan

State response to focus on potential for radicalization on social media, unauthorized religious schools

It is important to note that at present, identified IS-inspired cells still remain marginal in numbers and have not demonstrated the capability for staging major attacks in the country.  However, the video will raise concerns regarding the risk of lone-wolf attacks by sympathizers. Issues such as the state-controlled introduction of Islam as a subject in schools and universities in April may serve as flashpoints for disaffection as more conservative communities view this as an effort by the government to marginalize doctrines it perceives to be radical while increasing its hold on systems of religious education. As part of its crackdown, the Aliyev administration will likely step up its monitoring of suspected radicalized individuals across the country, making a series of arrests over the coming months.

The focus of the crackdown will include the closures of unauthorized Islamic theological schools and the detentions of Sunni Islamic scholars trained abroad as part of its continued efforts to prevent the influence of perceived external theology in the country. Measures will also include a scale-up of social media monitoring and tighter security along the country’s northern border to prevent the movement of radicalized individuals towards IS-linked interests in the North Caucasus. Tighter scrutiny into the movement of firearms and explosives material, particularly via smuggling networks in the north, is also expected to follow. Areas such as Khachmaz and Qusar Districts will particularly draw the focus on the security apparatus, given the operations of Sunni extremist groups such as the Khachmaz Jamaat.

The government is also liable to step up its coordination with neighboring states on counter-militancy strategies. Typically, the Aliyev administration has used counter-militancy as a means to forge common ground with economic allies, such as Turkey and Russia. The country is also an ally in NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan, providing airspace to cargo transportation for peacekeeping operations. The mention of Iran in the video and IS’ sectarian orientation will raise concerns regarding the possibility for plots targeting the country’s Shiite-majority. Such intentions, while not IS-linked, have been noted among Sunni extremists who have previously sought to target Shiite places of worship, such as the Meshedi Dadash Mosque in Baku. Closer security coordination between Tehran and Baku and a crackdown on smuggling networks along the southern border can also be expected in the foreseeable future.

Recommendations

Travel to Azerbaijan can continue while maintaining vigilance due to the latent risk of crime and militancy.

Avoid posting content that may be perceived as controversial or anti-state when operating or residing in the country due to the risk of prosecution.

Avoid all travel to border areas near the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region due to continued ceasefire violations and the risk of conflict.

IS attack against Tazirbu police station on November 23 indicative of increase in militant group’s ranks, capabilities in Libya – Libya Analysis

Executive Summary

The modus operandi of the November 23 attack against the Tazirbu police station is very similar to the October 28-29 Islamic State (IS)-claimed attack against a police station in al-Fuqaha, Jufra District. The scale of these attacks, combined with the short time span within which they occurred make them highly noteworthy.

This shift in IS strategy from localized small-scale attacks across Libyan territory towards more focused large-scale attacks against towns in southern Libya, which witness lower security presence, indicates that the militant group has to some degree managed to reinforce its ranks as well as rebuild its capabilities over the past year.

Similar to the al-Fuqaha attack, IS militants kidnapped ten people, including government officials and security personnel from Tazirbu. IS’ increased focus on kidnappings can be attributed to its interest in using the abductees as bargaining chips for ransom. This would allow the group to replenish its revenues, purchase supplies and weaponry, and ramp up its operations in Libya.

We advised against all travel to the southern outlying areas of Libya at this time due to the general lack of governance and security protocols in this region, which makes it conducive for militant activity and attractive targets for attacks.

Current Situation

According to reports, suspected IS militants aboard ten armed vehicles launched an attack targeting a police station in Tazirbu, located in the Kufra District, during the night hours of November 23.
At least nine civilians and policemen were killed, and 15 were wounded as a result of the attack.
Reports further indicate that the militants kidnapped at least ten people, including the Mayor of Tazirbu and a member of the municipal council, and fled the scene.
The Libyan National Army (LNA) has diverted forces from other parts of Kufra District towards the town of Tazirbu to secure it.

Assessments & Forecast

The modus operandi, target, and location of the attack suggest that it was carried out by IS militants. The Sunni jihadist militant group recently conducted a very similar attack against the al-Fuqaha police station, located in the Jufra District, during the overnight hours of October 28-29. The scale of these two attacks, along with the short time span within which they occured make them highly noteworthy. In the time period between IS’ complete loss of territories in Libya in December 2016 and October 2018, the majority of the militant group’s attacks had been relatively small-scale as well as spread out over a long period of time and territory. The majority of these attacks utilized suicide vehicle-borne IEDs (SVBIEDs) against security checkpoints or small-scale raids against police stations. For instance, the July 24 raid against the al-Uqaylah police station killed two LNA soldiers and wounded three others, while the June 2 raid against the al-Qunan police station killed one civilian and wounded five others.

Over the past year, IS was likely operating in groups of 10-12 fighters in the country. This allowed its militants to avoid attracting security forces’ attention and move relatively undetected across a larger swathe of territory. The lack of sufficient personnel and weaponry may have compelled IS to operate in this manner, which, in turn, had an impact upon their ability to launch larger-scale attacks. The recent attacks in al-Fuqaha and Tazirbu may indicate that IS has managed to bolster its ranks, partly through militants fleeing the group’s territorial losses in Syria and Iraq and partly through new recruits who now consider Libya as a more attractive arena. This has allowed IS to concentrate its forces towards launching larger-scale attacks against entire towns, rather than just security checkpoints or isolated government infrastructure, for example, in Tripoli in May and September as well as in Misrata in October 2017.

While, on the one hand, this indicates that IS has managed to rebuild its capabilities in Libya to some degree since its loss of territories to Misrata forces in December 2016, the location of the recent attacks suggest that these capabilities are still limited. Although al-Fuqaha and Tazirbu are both located within LNA-held territories, the towns witness relatively lower security presence as compared to areas located further north in the Sirte Basin and the Oil Crescent. The security forces of southern towns are largely comprised of local militias, who maintain small armed fighting units that are neither well-equipped nor well-trained. Therefore, it is possible that IS decided to focus its efforts in southern Libya, as this would increase the militant group’s chances of success.

As witnessed in the attack on the al-Fuqaha police station, the focus on conducting kidnapping of government officials and security forces stands out in the recent incident. Unconfirmed reports from November 10 indicated that IS is seeking to negotiate the release of four out of the ten hostages abducted in the attack on al-Fuqaha. If confirmed, this would suggest that through such kidnappings-for-ransom, the Sunni jihadist militant group is aiming to replenish its revenues, which, in turn, would allow it to purchase supplies and weaponry to ramp up its operations in Libya. This would also explain the recent kidnapping of the Mayor of Tazirbu, who by the prerogative of his position within society would demand a higher ransom. Aside from the ransom, such an abduction allows IS to project the Libyan authorities as incapable of securing its own civilians, thereby allowing the group to showcase its relatively higher capabilities.
FORECAST: IS will claim responsibility for the attack over the coming hours, as its scale will allow the militant group to significantly raise its profile in Libya. Meanwhile, the LNA will divert forces towards Tazirbu in order to secure the town over the coming hours and days. It will increase security protocols in Kufra District, which may include increased security checkpoints along main roads. The LNA may also tighten security along Libya’s southern borders with Sudan and Chad, as the porosity of these borders allows militant organizations to engage in the cross-border movement of fighters, supplies, and weaponry. While this may facilitate LNA forces in gathering vital intelligence and intercepting IS convoys, it will also provide the militant group with additional targets for attacks. On a more strategic level, the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) may utilize this attack to highlight the LNA’s inability to secure its held territories and attempt to leverage this in its political negotiations with the latter.

Recommendations

It is advised to defer all travel to Tripoli and Benghazi at this time due to ongoing violence, threats against foreigners, and the risk of a broad deterioration of security conditions. We advise at this time that those remaining in Tripoli and Benghazi should initiate contingency and emergency evacuation plans due to deterioration in the security situation. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support plans.

For those remaining in Tripoli, we advise to avoid nonessential travel to the outskirts of the city, particularly the Janzour and Tajoura neighborhoods, as well as to the Mitiga and Tripoli International Airports, given that these are focal points of ground clashes in the city.

Avoid the immediate vicinity of government buildings, police stations, media outlet offices, and political party and militia headquarters, given that these locales have been targeted by militia groups in the past and recently by militants, and thus remain at increased risk for violence and unrest.

We advised against all travel to the southern outlying areas of Libya at this time due to the general lack of governance and security protocols in this region, which makes it conducive for militant activity and attractive targets for attacks.

Westerners, particularly US citizens, operating in Libya are advised to maintain a low profile and exercise heightened vigilance in light of prevailing anti-Western sentiment and increasing attacks against foreigners.

Nationwide, take precautions to mitigate the risk of being targeted for kidnapping. Refrain from traveling in luxury vehicles and maintain a generally low profile. Routinely alter travel routes and refrain from divulging sensitive itinerary information to strangers.

New military campaign in North Sinai likely linked to upcoming March 2018 presidential elections – Egypt Analysis

Current Situation

On February 9, the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAAF) Spokesperson announced the commencement of a large-scale “comprehensive” military operation to “eliminate all terrorist elements” across the country, called “Operation Sinai 2018”, with special emphasis placed on the Sinai Peninsula, Nile Delta, and Western Desert. The Spokesperson also announced an increase of the country’s alert level due to the operations.

As part of the of the campaign, the Egyptian Air Force (EAF) intensified the frequency of its airstrikes targeting militant hideouts throughout North Sinai Governorate, especially in the Rafah-al-Arish-Sheikh Zuweid triangle and Central Sinai District. The Egyptian Navy increased its activity along Sinai’s coastal region, while heightened security protocols were recorded at ports and border crossings. Security forces also increased presence in the vicinity of vital infrastructure and installations. Reports from February 9 indicate that civilian Suez Canal crossings from mainland Egypt to the Sinai, including by vessel and through tunnels, have been closed to civilian traffic due to the military campaign.

On March 8, the EAAF Spokesperson stated that Operation Sinai 2018 had yielded the deaths of 105 Islamic State (IS)-affiliated Wilayat Sinai fighters and the arrests of hundreds of the group’s militants, and that 16 soldiers had also been killed since the beginning of the campaign. The Spokesperson also announced that the EAAF destroyed 1,907 hideouts and weapon storehouses.

Assessments & Forecast

The Egyptian government has achieved partial success in containing militancy threats over the past year, with a reduction in the overall number of attacks. However, the persistence, albeit reduced frequency, of attacks in North Sinai Governorate and mainland Egypt likely motivated this recent operation, demonstrating efforts to mitigate threats from multiple groups, particularly the IS-affiliate Wilayat Sinai. The large-scale attack at a mosque in North Sinai’s Bir al-Abd on November 24, 2017, which killed over 300 people, also likely triggered the operation, and it took a period of months to prepare and mobilize for the current operation.

However, considering the timing of its commencement and execution, the primary motivation for the military campaign is likely political and connected to the upcoming March 2018 presidential elections, in which President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is the leading candidate. President al-Sisi likely initiated the operations in order to boost his status among the Egyptian populace and project an image of power, stability, and intensified efforts to tackle the threat of militancy. Al-Sisi also likely timed the operation to deflect domestic and international criticism away from the election’s perceived lack of legitimacy and toward the issue of counter-terrorism, following the withdrawal or arrest of most of his electoral opponents over the past several weeks. To a lesser but still significant degree, the operation was also likely launched to draw attention away from Egypt’s poor economic conditions and towards a different public issue, namely militancy, and measures taken by authorities to tackle it.

The operations also follow international media reports about Israeli airstrikes against Wilayat Sinai in North Sinai in recent years. The Egyptian government likely intends to use the operations to demonstrate their sovereignty over North Sinai Governorate and their ability to mitigate militant threats with their own forces. This is particularly likely in light of the heightened criticism regarding al-Sisi’s close cooperation with Israeli authorities vis-a-vis the threat of militancy stemming from Wilayat Sinai elements.

Strategically, the nationwide campaign aims largely at isolating Wilayat Sinai militants in North Sinai Governorate. The reported closure of Suez Canal crossings to the movement of civilians, as well as the intensified activity by the Egyptian Navy along the Sinai coastal region, are meant to prevent reinforcements and smugglers from aiding Wilayat Sinai militants, thus putting further pressure on the Sunni jihadist militant group in North Sinai Governorate. The heightened security measures in the vicinity of vital infrastructure and installations likely were put in place to prevent reprisal attacks by militants, which in turn, would embarrass the Egyptian authorities.

FORECAST: The EAAF will likely continue implementing a strategy aimed at further isolating Wilayat Sinai militants in their aforementioned strongholds of Central Sinai Distinct and the Rafah-al-Arish-Sheikh Zuweid triangle. By carrying out simultaneous assaults on these two areas, the EAAF likely seeks to fix militants in their positions, preventing them from reinforcing the two respective areas or conducting attacks to the rear of security forces. The intensified aerial bombardments are meant to hamper militant movements, which in turn, may impede their ability to regroup or conduct attacks in order to force the deployment of Egyptian troops away from the frontlines. Furthermore, tighter inspection is liable to be enforced between Egypt and Gaza at the Rafah border crossings.

Israel permitted Egypt to deploy a large amount of forces into Sinai, as according to the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, Israeli permission is required for such a move. This highlights the increased coordination between the two countries, as they both perceived Wilayat Sinai as a strategic threat. In order to complicate and discourage the security coordination between the two countries, Wilayat Sinai may target southern Israel with rocket fire over the coming days and weeks. While in the short-term, the number of Wilayat Sinai attacks may decrease, given precedent of previous operations by the EAAF in North Sinai Governorate, over the coming months the Sunni jihadist militant group will likely renew its elevated activity in the region. The group will likely lower its profile in order to facilitate this, which would enable it to regroup and carry out multiple attacks against Egyptian security forces.

Recommendations

Travel to Cairo and Alexandria may continue while adhering to all security precautions regarding militancy and civil unrest. Consult with us for itinerary-based travel recommendations.

Avoid all travel to the North Sinai Governorate and border areas with Libya, Sudan, and Israel due to the persistent risk for militant attacks, kidnappings, and general lawlessness.

We further advise to avoid nonessential travel to the Southern Sinai Peninsula, while maintaining heightened vigilance in the Suez Canal Zone, the Upper Nile area, and the Nile Delta region due to an increased risk of unrest and the heightened risk of militant attacks. Before traveling to Sharm al-Sheikh, confirm that flight operations are continuing and have not been impacted by recent militant threats.

As a general security precaution, remain vigilant in areas surrounding and avoid the immediate vicinity of government installations, police stations, and religious centers, particularly churches, as these locations remain under elevated threat of militant attacks. When traveling in central squares, or in areas with persistent police deployments, avoid the immediate vicinity of security forces, particularly fixed traffic booths, as such personnel and facilities have increasingly come under attack by militant elements.