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Islamic State Terrorist Group Showing No Signs of Panic as Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Calls for ‘Total War’

Even civilians who have been rescued from IS say there are few signs the terror group is ready to fall apart

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FILE - Image taken from video shows a man purported to be Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State militant group, delivering a sermon. In an audio recording released late Tuesday, he called on IS fighters in Mosul not to retreat in the face of approaching Iraqi and Kurdish forces. VOA

Fewer than 5,000 Islamic State fighters trying to hold onto the Iraqi city of Mosul are being urged to fight to the death.

“Know that holding your ground with honour is a thousand times easier than retreating in shame,” the terror group’s leader and self-declared caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi exhorted in an audio recording released via social media late Tuesday.

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“Do not retreat,” he said. “This total war and the great jihad only increased our firm belief, God willing, and our conviction that this is all a prelude to victory.”

The message from Baghdadi is the first since last December and comes nearly three weeks into the Iraqi and Kurdish campaign to retake Mosul, which has been under IS control for two years.

U.S. intelligence sources say there is no reason to doubt the audio’s authenticity and agree, based on the content of the remarks, it was likely made recently.

[bctt tweet=”U.S. defense officials say it appears Islamic State Terrorist Group is picking its fights carefully. ” username=””]

IS command and control

A U.S. military spokesman in Iraq said officials there were not yet ready to verify that the voice on the recording was that of the IS leader but acknowledged the message was clearly “an effort to rally the troops.”

Smoke rises from clashes during a battle with Islamic State militants in southeast of Mosul, Iraq, Nov. 3, 2016. VOA
Smoke rises from clashes during a battle with Islamic State militants in southeast of Mosul, Iraq, Nov. 3, 2016. VOA

“This is the type of thing that a leader who’s losing command and control and ability to keep everybody on the same page says,” Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman, Col. John Dorrian told reporters via a video conference from Baghdad.

“We don’t believe that it’s going to work,” he added.

But intelligence officials believe the recording may also be intended to dispel any notions or rumors the reclusive Baghdadi has been killed.

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Some analysts examining the pacing and the rhetoric in the audio message think the significance of the recording could be even greater, suggesting a key shift in the way IS has been fighting up until now.

“Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s statement is the fastest in tempo and strongest among his speeches,” according to a Tweet by Hassan Hassan, a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy who has written extensively about IS.

“The new tone/message tells us clearly that ISIS wants the remaining strongholds to be a big show,” Hassan added in another tweet. “It won’t withdraw as it did before.”

Choosing their fights

There are indications that IS fighters are prepared to make such a stand in spite of overwhelming odds.

“They don’t seem to be panicking,” a U.S. official told VOA.

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said despite the faster than expected advance of Iraqi and Kurdish forces, IS fighters in and around Mosul were showing no signs of abandoning their training or giving up their well-known tactics.

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U.S. defense officials also say it appears IS is picking its fights carefully.

“In some villages, they slice through them like butter, and there’s very little resistance at all, and ISIL up and leaves,” Pentagon spokesman, Capt. Jeff Davis said Wednesday when asked about the type of resistance Iraqi and Kurdish forces were encountering around Mosul.

“There are others that put up quite a fight,” he added.

Iraqis fleeing the conflict in Kokjali are seen on the road east of Mosul, Iraq Nov. 3, 2016. VOA
Iraqis fleeing the conflict in Kokjali are seen on the road east of Mosul, Iraq Nov. 3, 2016. VOA

Even civilians who have been rescued from IS say there are few signs the terror group is ready to fall apart.

“I spoke to this large group of civilians who had been marched by ISIS north,” said Human Rights Watch senior Iraq researcher Belkis Wille after visiting with civilians at Jeddah camp, near Qayyarah airfield south of Mosul.

“They made it sound fairly organized,” she said. “ISIS came door to door, knocked on each door, told people they had to leave. They had vehicles kind of patrolling the group as they were walking.”

How long?

The question is just how long the group will be able to maintain that type of coherence, with the toughest and bloodiest fighting still ahead.

And while in the past IS fighters have often fled in the face of overwhelming force, that may not be the case for those forces left in Mosul.

“If they’re still in Mosul, given that they’ve known there’s a massive buildup of troops in that area, that means they probably want to fight till the end,” said former CIA analyst Aki Peritz, now with George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.

And with the number of likely escape routes shrinking, IS fighters may not have much of a choice. (VOA)

Next Story

English-speaking ISIS Supporters Exploit Messaging App

English-speaking Islamic State supporters are refusing to give up

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English, ISIS, Supporters, Messaging
The Telegram logo is seen on a screen of a smartphone in this illustration, April 13, 2018. VOA

English-speaking Islamic State supporters are refusing to give up on the terror group’s ability to remain a force in Syria and Iraq, according to a new study that examined their behavior on the Telegram instant messaging service.

The report, “Encrypted Extremism: Inside the English-Speaking Islamic State Ecosystem on Telegram,” released Thursday by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, looked at 636 pro-Islamic State channels and groups in the 16 months from June 2017 through October 2018.

It found that even as the terror group was losing ground in Syria and Iraq to U.S.-backed forces, and even as IS leadership was encouraging followers to start looking to progress in IS provinces elsewhere, English-speaking supporters turned to Telegram to reinforce their faith in the caliphate.

“These are supporters that like to fight uphill battles,” report co-author Bennet Clifford told VOA. “What supporters are trying to do when they’re engaging with this conversation is attempt to shift the narrative away from loss and provide justifications for it.”

English, ISIS, Supporters, Messaging
FILE – An Islamic State flag is seen in this photo illustration. VOA

At the same time, these English-speaking supporters sought to amplify their beliefs, supplementing official IS propaganda with user-generated content while also increasing the distribution of instructional material on how to carry out attacks.

“I think it’s part of an attempt in some cases to spin the narrative their way,” Clifford added.

Attraction of Telegram

IS supporters first started flocking to Telegram, an instant messaging service that promises speed and encryption for private communications, in 2015 as social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook began a crackdown aimed at Islamic State’s often violent and gory propaganda.

Since then, IS has been hooked by Telegram’s promise that it will not disclose user data to government officials and by the service’s ability to let supporters organize and share large files, including video.

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“No other platforms appear to have developed the same balance of features, user-friendliness, and basic security that could warrant a new switch,” the report said.

That ease of use has long worried counterterrorism officials, who have watched as IS has used the online ecosystem to help plan and carry out the November 2015 attacks in Paris, attacks on a Christmas market in Berlin in December 2016 and the attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul just weeks later.

English-speaking facilitators

In those cases, the attackers appear to have been given instructions from IS officials in Syria and Iraq. But Telegram has given rise to several key English-speaking facilitators who have been operating on the periphery.

English, ISIS, Supporters, Messaging
FILE – Karen Aizha Hamidon, who allegedly worked to encourage several Indian militants last year to join the Islamic State group in the Middle East, is surrounded by reporters after attending a hearing at the Department of Justice in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 3, 2017. VOA

One of them, according to Clifford and co-author Helen Powell, was 36-year-old Karen Aizha Hamidon, who helped mobilize sympathizers from the United States to Singapore to join the terror group or its affiliates.

Hamidon, who was arrested by Philippine authorities in October 2017, has also been linked to efforts to establish an IS province in India.

Another key player, 34-year-old Ashraf al-Safoo, took a different approach before being arrested last October by the FBI in Chicago.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, al-Safoo was a key member of the Khattab Media Foundation, which used hacked social media accounts on platforms like Twitter to disseminate IS propaganda.

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“Much of the propaganda created and distributed by Khattab promotes violent jihad on behalf of ISIS and ISIS’s media office,” the Justice Department said in a statement using a different acronym for the militant group.

While both Hamidon and al-Safoo are now in custody, showing the ability of law enforcement to penetrate their Telegram operations, others are likely to replace them because of the ongoing need of Islamic State’s English-speaking supporters to communicate and find larger audiences.

“While there are a number of disadvantages for Islamic State supporters in the use of Telegram from a security perspective they’ll continue to do it because their balance of outreach and operational security,” Clifford said. “There’s not another alternative at this point in time.” (VOA)