Monitoring and focusing on ISIS ‘international fighters’

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Tracking and targeting ISIS 'foreign fighters'

They had been as soon as thought-about “Lions of the Caliphate,” the vanguard of an unprecedented military of roughly 40,000 international fighters from around the globe who had been drawn to the black banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). When U.S.-backed Arab and Kurdish forces tightened the noose round ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa this previous summer season, lots of these remaining foreigners tried to slide via the siege in makeshift convoys, usually with households and different civilians in tow as “human shields.”

Some blended in with a stream of refugees fleeing southeast to dusty cities alongside the Euphrates River. A contingent of French-speaking jihadists had been reportedly besieged in Deir al-Zour, and a hardcore group of British fighters made it to al-Mayadin. Some have made it so far as al-Bukamal on the Syria-Iraq border, the place prime ISIS leaders are thought to have sought refuge. Nonetheless different international fighters are reportedly stranded on the northern border within the metropolis of Idlib, unable to bribe their means into Turkey. Plenty of Britons and at the very least one American tried to slide via Kurdish traces and had been captured and transferred to coalition intelligence companies

One member of the ISIS international fighter exodus was of explicit curiosity to U.S. and British intelligence businesses. Since ISIS’s Phoenix-like rise from the ashes of the Syrian civil conflict in 2014, counterterrorism specialists have been particularly alarmed on the group’s social media savvy and skill to recruit and encourage Western jihadists on-line. In Britain alone, greater than 800 principally younger males joined the group, and lots of others professed fealty. Not coincidentally, ISIS has claimed credit score for a string of bloody jihadi assaults in Nice Britain this 12 months, together with the March automobile assault on the Westminster Bridge and stabbing exterior of Parliament that killed 4 and injured greater than 50 others; the suicide bombing in Manchester at an Ariana Grande live performance that killed 22 individuals, lots of them youngsters and kids; and a van assault and stabbing rampage by three jihadis close to the London Bridge in June that killed eight individuals and injured greater than 40 others.

So when surveillance indicated that one member of the Raqqa international fighter exodus was a girl often known as “the White Widow,” U.S. counterterrorism forces swung into motion. Sally-Anne Jones was a middle-aged Briton and former punk rocker whose prowess in recruiting British fighters and makes an attempt to encourage assaults on her homeland had been native legend. Jones had been married to Junaid Hussain, additionally a Briton, an achieved hacker who had risen to go ISIS’s cyber operations, and was considered one of Britain’s most wished terrorists earlier than he was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2015. Someplace alongside the Syria-Iraq border final June, the scream of one other Hellfire missile hire the sky, and U.S. intelligence officers knowledgeable their counterparts in Britain’s safety companies that Sally-Anne Jones had met the identical violent finish as her late husband. Tragically, her 12-year-old son, Jojo, was additionally believed to have been killed within the blast.

The whirlwind romance, path of terror and violent deaths of Junaid Hussain and Sally-Anne Jones hint the arc of ISIS’s personal meteoric rise and spectacular collapse as its as soon as mighty “caliphate” crumbles in Iraq and Syria. The jihad that led Junaid and Jones and tens of hundreds of different international fighters to Syria was distinctive within the annals of terrorism. In its savvy use of social media and the web to recruit fighters and encourage atrocities by homegrown “lone wolves,” ISIS far surpassed al-Qaida. It constructed on the teachings of the propaganda grasp Anwar al-Awlaki, an extremist American cleric and chief of al-Qaida within the Arabian Peninsula who was killed by a U.S. drone in 2011. ISIS even referred to as its exterior operations group tasked with recruiting and propaganda “the Awlaki Brigade.”

Anwar al-Awlaki at a mosque in Falls Church, Va., Oct. four, 2001. (Photograph: Tracy Woodward/Washington Publish through Getty Pictures).

However ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s darkish imaginative and prescient additionally included the seeds of its personal destruction. His medieval caliphate was removed from the promised Islamist paradise, and its circus of beheadings, torture and sexual enslavement steeled the desire of the civilized world towards it, and gave the U.S.-led coalition a identified deal with to focus on. Persevering with terror assaults directed or impressed by ISIS led to an unprecedented degree of intelligence-sharing amongst companions within the anti-ISIS coalition. Largely in consequence, a majority of international fighters met the identical destiny as Junaid Hussain and Sally-Anne Jones.

“Safe haven is always high on the list of a terrorist organization’s sources of strength, and ISIS exercising state-like dominion over much of the territory of Iraq and Syria, with all its economic and energy resources, was in many ways the ultimate safe haven. That was incredibly dangerous from a counterterrorism perspective,” Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the Nationwide Counterterrorism Heart, mentioned in an unique interview with Yahoo Information. “Combine that with ISIS’s unique ability to attract fighters from outside Iraq and Syria, which was far beyond anything al-Qaida ever aspired to, and suddenly we were dealing with a mass terrorist movement.”

Whereas U.S. officers all the time believed that the U.S.-led coalition would ultimately recapture ISIS-held territory, Rasmussen mentioned, they apprehensive that because the caliphate collapsed, the tens of hundreds of international fighters would return to their homelands to wreak havoc on a mass scale. “We assumed the foreign fighters that flowed out from the caliphate would roughly equal the numbers that joined ISIS, and we have rethought that analysis. We now think most of them will stay and fight and die in the caliphate. That’s good news. The bad news is that some small number are likely to make their way out, and these individuals may have a unique skill set and networks back home that will enable them to carry out attacks in their homelands.”

It’s troublesome to overstate the alarm that Western counterterrorism officers felt in the summertime and fall of 2014. After ISIS’s irregular, black-clad military had overrun a lot of northern Syria and Iraq in one of the vital unbelievable army offensives in historical past, its chief al-Baghdadi appeared within the Nice Mosque of al-Nuri within the Iraqi metropolis of Mosul. There on June 29, 2014, he proclaimed himself the caliph of ISIS’s new homeland for true Islam, and that message resonated deeply within the international jihadi motion, whose networks started buzzing with extraordinary exercise. Intelligence officers had been quickly monitoring roughly a thousand foreigners who joined ISIS every month, ultimately from greater than 100 totally different international locations.

This picture from a video posted on a militant web site exhibits Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi talking on the Nice Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq, on June 29, 2014. (Photograph: Courtesy of AP)

The hundreds of Europeans who had been drawn to the caliphate and will journey to the USA with out visas had been of particular concern. For years, U.S. counterterrorism officers had acknowledged Europe as an acute terrorism vulnerability. There are pockets of poorly assimilated Muslim youth in ghettoes scattered all through Europe, from Moss Aspect in Manchester, England, to Molenbeek in Brussels. Alienated younger males from these neighborhoods had been usually radicalized by well-known extremist preachers and imams who took benefit of Europe’s liberal free-speech legal guidelines. Within the current report “For Caliph and Country: Exploring How British Jihadis Join a Global Movement,” researchers for the Tony Blair Institute for International Change examined the biographies of 113 women and men who embraced jihad, discovering that 67 p.c had ties to simply six radical Islamist preachers or facilitators.

In the USA post-9/11 reforms had eradicated lots of the obstacles to intelligence-sharing amongst U.S. intelligence and legislation enforcement businesses. Intelligence sharing in Europe, nonetheless, remained fractured and disjointed among the many European Union’s 28 international locations and myriad nationwide, provincial and native businesses. The EU’s porous exterior borders and lack of inner border controls, its proximity to the battlefields of the Center East and an inflow of greater than one million principally Muslim refugees between 2014 and 2015, primarily from the wars in Syria and Afghanistan, all added to the risky combine.

In the summertime and fall of 2014, the sense of alarm elevated after a person wearing black, his face hidden behind a masks and talking with a British accent, started showing in a collection of grotesque beheading movies. On August 19, 2014, the group’s media arm launched a video exhibiting him murdering American journalist and ISIS hostage James Foley. A string of comparable beheading movies adopted all through the autumn, depicting the murders of six extra hostages. The knife-wielding terrorist on the heart of the bloody executions was nicknamed “Jihadi John” by the press, and his British-accented accomplices had been dubbed “the Beatles” by a few of the hostages. Their reign of terror provoked one of the vital intense terrorist manhunts for the reason that dying of Osama bin Laden in 2011.

“The appearance of Jihadi John in videos of all these people having their heads cut off was a watershed moment, because they really were damn shocking, and the British especially were trying to wrap their heads around the fact that so many of their disenfranchised youth were showing up in Syria with ISIS,” mentioned a U.S. intelligence supply. “The British government poured every resource you can imagine into identifying this guy and his accomplices, and getting after them. It was a very big deal, because everyone was worried about what the hell we were going to do when these ISIS foreign fighters returned home.”

A militant recognized by the Washington Publish as a Briton named Mohammed Emwazi brandishes a knife on this picture from a 2014 video. (Photograph: SITE Intel Group/handout through Reuters)

The USA has lengthy loved an in depth intelligence-sharing relationship with the opposite “Five Eyes” international locations (Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada), and none was nearer than with Britain’s MI6 (international) and MI5 (home) intelligence companies. Collectively, they got down to catalogue the entire international fighters who had joined ISIS, partly in hopes of figuring out Jihadi John and his fellow vacationers. Throughout that intelligence operation, they uncovered proof of the unlikely Could-September romance of 20-something Junaid Hussain and a middle-age Sally-Anne Jones.

A Birmingham-born hacker of Pakistani descent, Hussain was already on the radar of Britain’s MI5. Working beneath the moniker “Trick” in a hacker group that referred to as itself “Team Poison,” Hussain spent six months in jail in 2012 for hacking former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s deal with e book and publishing its contents on-line. Staff Poison additionally hacked the MI6 antiterror hotline, throughout which Trick might be heard laughing and proclaiming “You’re being phone-bombed right now, mate.” In 2013, Hussain jumped bail and fled to Syria to hitch ISIS, however not earlier than beginning a torrid romance with Jones, a mom of two from Kent who dabbled in witchcraft. The intercepted phone conversations of those supposedly pious Islamic warriors had been sufficient to make a sailor blush, mentioned one supply. The 2 married and Sally-Anne Jones adopted her husband to Syria along with her then Eight-year-old son JoJo in tow.

Based mostly largely on their laptop hacking and social media expertise, Hussain and Jones rose shortly via the ranks of ISIS international fighters. He grew to become head of the group’s “cybercaliphate” operations, and she or he was a gifted recruiter and propagandist for English-speaking audiences. In response to intelligence sources, Junaid hacked into the pc system of U.S. Central Command, and printed on jihadi web sites the names and addresses of U.S. service members dwelling abroad as a part of a “doxing” assault. He was additionally linked to Elton Simpson, considered one of two ISIS-inspired gunmen killed as they tried to stage a bloodbath at an occasion in Texas displaying controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

For her half, Jones recruited ladies to ISIS by extolling the virtues of the caliphate and its fearsome warriors, and sought to encourage “lone wolf” assaults in Britain. She routinely issued threats via posted messages resembling “You Christians all need beheading with a nice blunt knife and stuck on the railings at Raqqa. … Come here, I’ll do it for you.”

“ISIS is good at spotting talent, and they quickly recognized that Hussein’s hacking skills and connectivity to the hacking underworld were valuable commodities, as was Jones’s recruiting and propaganda skills on social media,” mentioned an intelligence supply. “In that sense, Hussain and Jones became poster children for the ISIS narrative, and they were given far more clout in the organization than most Westerners.”

Remarkably, one other ISIS-inspired love story despatched alarms ringing via U.S. counterterrorism networks at the moment. In 2014, the FBI had had one other Western international fighter beneath surveillance named Denis Cuspert, a former German rapper who glided by the rap identify “Deso Dogg.” A pretend video Cuspert produced purportedly exhibiting U.S. troopers raping a Muslim lady reportedly impressed an assault on 4 U.S. service members in Germany in 2011. In the summertime of 2014, Cuspert emerged as an ISIS recruiter and cheerleader in Syria, and ISIS movies depicted him holding the severed head of an executed ISIS prisoner.

Rapper Denis Cuspert, aka “Deso Dog,” in Berlin in 2004. (Photograph: Imago through ZUMA Press)

In June, the FBI found that Daniela Greene, considered one of its translators who held a prime secret clearance and was monitoring Cuspert’s on-line actions, had disappeared whereas on international journey to Germany. She quickly reappeared having secretly traveled to Syria to marry Cuspert. As CNN reported, on Aug. 1, 2014, a little bit over a month after Greene disappeared, federal authorities issued a secret warrant for her arrest, stating that the “defendant was at large in Syria or Turkey in the company of the leader of a terrorist group.” Inside weeks of marrying Cuspert, Greene had second ideas about life within the caliphate and fled again to the USA, the place she was instantly arrested.

In the meantime, any doubts concerning the depravity on the heart of Junaid Hussain and Sally-Anne Jones’ love story had been dispelled when an ISIS video emerged exhibiting her son JoJo executing a hostage with a gun. He was 12 years previous.

In some ways, the terrorist assault in Paris which killed 130 individuals on November 13, 2015, crystalized all fears concerning the ISIS international fighter risk. The ringleaders had been Western Europeans who had traveled to Syria and obtained coaching and help from skilled ISIS leaders. A few of the cell members had efficiently infiltrated again into Europe by hiding amongst tens of hundreds of Muslim refugees. As soon as again in Europe, they activated identified extremist and felony networks, working largely out of the Muslim ghetto in Molenbeek, Brussels. The identical hardened ISIS cell which attacked Paris was additionally accountable for the March 22, 2016, suicide bombing assaults in Brussels that killed 32 civilians and injured extra 300 others. Of 40 terror assaults in Europe since 2015, solely three have been perpetrated by international fighters, in response to U.S. counterterrorism knowledge. However these three have accounted for half of all of the ensuing casualties.

“The Paris attack was a nightmare, and of particular concern because of the direct connectivity between ISIS and the perpetrators. It had all the hallmarks of a centrally planned, organized and directed attack involving top ISIS leadership,” mentioned NCTC’s Rasmussen. The assault prompted Western international locations and intelligence companies to redouble efforts to determine each particular person who had traveled to Syria and Iraq to hitch ISIS, he mentioned, and to place their names into terrorist knowledge bases and watch lists. “We always anticipated that Western fighters who flowed to the conflict zone in Syria would return home at some point, so we spent the first few years on data collection and identification of these people. I feel confident in that work because of extraordinary and really unprecedented cooperation with a lot of our counterterrorism partners around the world.”

Individuals collect in entrance of Le Carillon cafe, a website of terrorist assaults in Paris, Nov. 16, 2015. (Photograph: Jerome Delay/AP)

A central pillar of that unprecedented cooperation was Operation Gallant Phoenix, a U.S.-led initiative to allow the widespread sharing of intelligence on ISIS international fighters that started off with eight international locations and expanded to greater than 20. “Gallant Phoenix allows allied nations not only to share intelligence on the foreign fighter threat, but also to get that information back to their law enforcement and homeland security agencies so they have visibility on the movement of foreign fighters in order to deal with this challenge,” Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Workers, informed the creator in an interview final summer season.

Below the course of Protection Secretary Jim Mattis this 12 months, the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria additionally adopted a brand new “annihilation” technique of fully surrounding ISIS strongholds earlier than attacking, to maintain enemy fighters from escaping.

“When Secretary Mattis looked at our anti-ISIS campaign, he concluded that in some instances we were essentially just pushing the enemy from one location to another. He asked me and the military chain of command to make a conscious effort not to allow ISIS fighters to just flee from one location to another, but rather to deliberately seek to ‘annihilate’ the enemy … and our commanders on the ground have tried to meet that goal,” mentioned Dunford. “But I would never claim that means that all enemy fighters are being killed. One tactic they adopted is to mix in with the civilian population, and that makes targeting them very difficult.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Workers Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., left, and U.S. Secretary of Protection Jim Mattisanswer questions throughout a Pentagon briefing, Could 19, 2017. (Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Pictures)

Different post-Paris reforms embody Europol creating the European Counter Terrorism Heart in January 2016 to function a clearinghouse for intelligence modeled after the U.S. Nationwide Counterterrorism Heart. Since 2014, greater than 60 international locations have additionally handed new legal guidelines making it unlawful to hitch or help terrorist teams, many mirroring the U.S. legislation towards “materially supporting” terrorists teams. In the meantime, higher identification and monitoring of ISIS international fighters made it way more troublesome for them to slide again into Europe undetected.

“There has been a huge shift in the willingness of European countries to share intelligence on the terrorist threat over the past two years, and we are now checking people entering or exiting Europe against common databases of terrorists,” mentioned a senior European Union official, who requested to not be recognized to be able to communicate freely about intelligence issues. “Not even the United States checks exits.”

The result’s that an ISIS international fighter military of roughly 40,000 at its peak has declined to between 1,000 and 1,500, in response to U.S. counterterrorism officers. Greater than 20 ISIS leaders have been efficiently focused, together with Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the senior ISIS spokesman who’s believed to have licensed the phobia assaults in Paris and Brussels, killed in Aleppo in September 2016. Distinguished international fighters caught in that deadly dragnet embody Jihadi John, the British militant and executioner whose actual identify was Mohammed Emwazi, killed in a drone strike in November 2015 — and Hussain and his spouse, Sally-Anne Jones. Her son is believed to have been killed along with her.

“We take the threat ISIS’s British fighters will return as the group’s territory is squeezed very seriously, and we have plans to make sure those who do return are arrested. The numbers are small, but very important,” Amber Rudd, the British house secretary, informed the creator at a current occasion sponsored by the Washington assume tank New America. Although the Manchester bomber is assumed to have obtained coaching by an ISIS affiliate in Libya, the opposite ISIS-inspired assaults in Britain this 12 months had been perpetrated by homegrown terrorists radicalized on-line or in native mosques. Early this 12 months, British safety companies revealed that absolutely three,000 individuals with hyperlinks to ISIS or different Islamist extremist teams had been beneath lively investigation, with 20,000 others categorized as posing a “residual risk.” “For both Britain and the United States, we believe the future threat will mostly come from homegrown radicals,” mentioned Rudd.

For his or her half, U.S. counterterrorism officers understand that it took solely a relative handful of skilled ISIS international fighters to perpetrate the terrorist “spectaculars” in Paris and Brussels. Of the greater than a thousand international fighters they now estimate will return to the West, what number of will possess the abilities and networking contacts of an Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian who masterminded the Paris assaults? What number of will embody the dedication to a nihilistic reason behind a Sally-Anne Jones, who turned her personal younger youngster into an unwitting executioner and human protect? Because the Washington Publish lately reported, a whole bunch of feminine immigrants to the Islamic State are actually looking for to return to their native international locations with their youngsters, elevating fears of one other wave of terror assaults.

A boy believed to be Jojo Dixon, son of Sally-Anne Jones is seen (circled) on this Islamic State propaganda video earlier than executing a Kurdish fighter.

“I actually think the West collectively did a good job of cataloguing who these ISIS foreign fighters were, where they were from, and when might they try and come home, but this business is still more of an art than a science,” mentioned Russell Travers, the deputy director of the Nationwide Counterterrorism Heart. “Most will die in the caliphate, but there will still be a trickle of foreign fighters with training in weapons and explosives that return, and they remain a concern. Even if they are arrested and put in jail, the chances are that the sentences will be relatively light in some cases, and they will be out on the streets in a few years. So this is going to be recurring threat.”

In June Sally-Anne Jones and Jojo reportedly made it virtually to the Syrian border city of Mayadin, the final redoubt of the crumbling ISIS caliphate. Britain’s willingness to approve deadly assaults by itself residents had already been established with the deaths of her husband, Hussain, and of Jihadi John in 2015, each killed in joint U.S.-U.Ok. counterterrorism strikes. Intelligence operatives referred to as these operations London’s “Awlaki moment,” referring to a risk that drives a democratic authorities to difficulty an extrajudicial dying sentence to its personal residents, albeit traitorous ones. The USA crossed that Rubicon in 2011, when it focused U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki.

Final June, the identical shadow that stalked her husband was monitoring Sally-Anne Jones. ISIS routinely makes use of civilians as human shields as a part of its commerce craft, and Jones could have thought that her 12-year-old son was insurance coverage towards a deadly strike. Definitely beneath the United Nations constitution Jojo was too younger to be labeled as a soldier. The “rules of engagement” for deadly drone strikes are one of the vital carefully guarded authorities secrets and techniques, and it’s unclear whether or not U.S. counterterrorism officers had been conscious of his presence. A lot as Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman was killed as “collateral damage” in a subsequent U.S. drone strke, Jojo reportedly disappeared within the blast cloud of a missile geared toward Sally-Anne Jones.

Tribesmen stand on the rubble of a constructing destroyed by a U.S. drone air strike that focused suspected al-Qaida militants in Azan, a southeastern province of Yemen, Feb. three, 2013. (Photograph: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

“That operation left a bitter aftertaste, because a lot of us hoped to somehow get Jojo out of Syria alive,” mentioned an intelligence supply. “I have a big issue with a parent who would not only drag their young child into the perverse world of the Islamic State, but also let someone put a gun in his hand and turn him into an executioner. The world is definitely better off without someone like Sally-Anne Jones in it, but I still wish we could have saved Jojo before they pushed him over that threshold.”

James Kitfield is a senior fellow on the Heart for the Research of the Presidency and Congress.

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