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Friday, February 6, 2015

INTELWIRE Weekly Brief, 2/6/2015

In the wake of the so-called Islamic State's latest atrocity, the horrific death by fire inflicted on Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh, a now-familiar refrain began to circulate through the media: "ISIS has miscalculated, and the backlash against this video may be its undoing."

Variations on this statement have been heard for months and months, appearing like clockwork with each iteration of ISIS's graphically violent propaganda. It was an understandable opinion last year, when ISIS was releasing videos of prisoners being forced to dig their own graves before being executed. By the time the James Foley video came out in the summer, it should have been clear that the backlash was not something ISIS had omitted from its calculations, but an integral part of the effect it was trying to achieve.

Nevertheless, many people, including myself at times, have reached for this comforting, if wrong, formulation. When ISIS executed British aid worker Alan Henning, everyone solemnly proclaimed that this time ISIS had gone too far, miscalculated and the backlash would devastate them. When they killed American Abdul Rahman Kassig, a convert to Islam, everyone lined up to say this time ISIS had gone too far, miscalculated and the backlash would devastate them.

When ISIS publicizes its inhuman horrors, its goal is to infuriate and horrify its enemies, to create divisions within the coalition fighting it, and to draw more and more countries ever deeper into the conflict. The "gone too far" theme may be reassuring, but it's dangerous. We shouldn't be congratulating ourselves for reacting to ISIS propaganda exactly as ISIS intends.

-- JMB


While ISIS once again dominated the headlines (its strongest asset as a terrorist group), It was a strong week in research on the broader but often less covered aspects of the Syrian war:

The Shiite Jihad in Syria and Its Regional Effects
The web of Iran-backed Shiite proxies is exceedingly complex, with much overlap and many changing aliases. In this new Institute study, Phillip Smyth -- a prominent blogger and University of Maryland researcher -- deftly navigates these many groups, exploring topics such as the narrative of pan-Shiite jihad, the range of Shiite clerical views on the jihad, recruitment techniques, and weapons used. His discussion compellingly shows why pursuing U.S. regional interests must involve targeting not only ISIS but also its Shiite adversaries.

Behind the Syrian Conflict's Digital Front Lines
Physical conflicts increasingly have a cyber element to them. This report highlights how Syrian opposition forces fell victim to a well-executed hacking operation targeting secret communications and plans. FireEye researchers uncovered these stolen documents as part of our ongoing threat research. Between at least November 2013 and January 2014, the hackers stole a cache of critical documents and Skype conversations revealing the Syrian opposition’s strategy, tactical battle plans, supply needs, and troves of personal information and chat sessions belonging to the men fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. While we do not know who conducted this hacking operation, if this data was acquired by Assad’s forces or their allies it could confer a distinct battlefield advantage.

A False Dichotomy? Mental Illness and Lone-Actor Terrorism
Emily Corner and Paul Gill University College London test whether significant differences in mental illness exist in a matched sample of lone- and group-based terrorists and whether there are distinct behavioral differences between lone-actor terrorists with and without mental illness.The odds of a lone-actor terrorist having a mental illness is 13.49 times higher than the odds of a group actor having a mental illness. Lone actors who were mentally ill were 18.07 times more likely to have a spouse or partner who was involved in a wider movement than those without a history of mental illness. Those with a mental illness were more likely to have a proximate upcoming life change, more likely to have been a recent victim of prejudice, and experienced proximate and chronic stress. The results identify behaviors and traits that security agencies can utilize to monitor and prevent lone-actor terrorism events.


The Microsoft of Terrorism: Al Qaeda Loses Touch
Put simply, al Qaeda’s traditionally preeminent position in the jihadi hierarchy, long on the wane, is slipping still further. U.S. officials, for their part, are increasingly focused on the Islamic State, or ISIS, which continues to deliver a steady flow of battlefield victories and brutal beheadings. Yet al Qaeda has a clear path back to contention: a dramatic follow-up to the Hebdo attack. And with the group’s need for a win so great, Washington would be mistaken to count it out.

After Jordanian pilot’s death, king signals he will escalate fight against Islamic State
Jordan’s King Abdullah II vowed Wednesday that his military forces would hit Islamic State militants with “relentless” strikes upon “their own homes,” an escalation that could place Jordan in the middle of the Syrian civil war.

Reluctant Islamic State fighters choose between death, jail
While foreigners from across the world have joined the Islamic State militant group, some find day-to-day life in Iraq or Syria much more austere and violent than they had expected. These disillusioned new recruits also soon discover that it is a lot harder to leave than to join. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the Islamic State group has killed 120 of its own members in the past six months, most of them foreign fighters hoping to return home.

In Islamic State Stronghold of Raqqa, Foreign Fighters Dominate
In Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, a Syrian city on the banks of the Euphrates, few Syrians hold positions of power these days. Running the show, residents say, are the thousands of foreigners who have converged there to establish an Islamic utopia they believe will soon conquer the planet.

Islamic State Tightens Its Grip on Shaky Libya
The U.S. war against Islamic State has not yet extended to Libya. But the terror group is rapidly expanding its presence and activities there, and the embattled government is asking for Washington to include Libya in its international fight against the Islamic extremists.

Westerners join Kurds fighting Islamic State group in Iraq
As Kurdish fighters gathered around a fire in this damp, frigid mountain town in northwestern Iraq, exhausted from battling the Islamic State group, a surprising recruit wearing a tactical vest with the words "Christ is Lord" scribbled on it joined them. The fighter, with a sniper rifle slung over his shoulder and a Rambo-styled bandanna around his head, is 28-year-old Jordan Matson from Sturtevant, Wisconsin, a former U.S. Army soldier who joined the Kurds to fight the extremist group now holding a third of Iraq and neighboring Syria.

ISIS captors cared little about religion, says former hostage
A French journalist's ISIS captors cared little about religion, Didier Francois -- who spent over 10 months as the group's prisoner in Syria -- told CNN's Christiane Amanpour in an exclusive interview on Tuesday.


Declaring War on Radical Islam Is Not a Counterterrorism Strategy
Some members of Congress and noisy portions of the media and blogosphere are vexed by President Barack Obama’s refusal to declare war on “radical Islam.” Their distress seemed to be only exacerbated by the President’s measured and sensible response to Fareed Zakaria during a CNN interview last Sunday when asked, “Are we in a war with radical Islam?” The President’s response, worth rereading in full, was just what it should be: a serious discussion with the American people about a complex problem with no easy solutions, including a clear explanation of why terminology can be dangerous.

Yemen Political Limbo Deepens as Negotiations Fail
The country fell deeper into political limbo on Wednesday after rival Yemeni factions missed a deadline to agree on a new governmental setup in the wake of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s January resignation.

Boko Haram goes on rampage
Nigerian Boko Haram fighters went on the rampage in the Cameroonian border town of Fotokol on Wednesday, massacring civilians and torching a mosque before being repelled by regional forces.

Boko Haram Refugees Recount Brutality and Random Killings in Nigeria’s North
Refugees flocking into this besieged provincial capital describe a grim world of punishment, abduction and death under Boko Haram in the Islamist quasi state it has imposed in parts of northern Nigeria.

Rebels bombard Damascus, regime responds with air strikes
Syrian rebels fired dozens of mortar rounds at Damascus on Thursday, killing at least five people, with government forces responding with air strikes that killed eight people. At least 63 mortar rounds hit multiple districts of the capital, prompting the closure of Damascus University, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.


Pre-order ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger. Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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