Jabhat al-Nusra

Mission Improbable: The Failure of the US Train and Equip Program Appears to be in the Ability to Evaluate Risk

Camie Condon, Ph.D.  and Jeff R. Weyers, Ph.D. Candidate. iBRABO.com

For the second time in less than two months an American trained Rebel unit has been intercepted in Northern Aleppo according to multiple sources within Aleppo. This appears to be just the latest failure in a series of problems plaguing the troubled US “train and equip” mission.

Division 30 and the “Atareb Rebels”

This past weekend several reports claimed that a US trained group going by the name of “Atareb rebels” had crossed into Syria. The group comprised of 75 fighters was quickly intercepted and detained by the Turkish supported Shamiya Front. On the 21st of September several sources including Jabhat al Nusra (Nusra) members indicated on twitter that the group had handed over their weapons, ammunition and vehicles to Nusra to “atone for the sins” of training with the US. Today Jabhat al Nusra members began posting images on Twitter of weapons it claims to have taken from the unit.

Jabhat al-Nusra Weapons Seizure

Jabhat al-Nusra Weapons Seizure

JN announce seizure

Interestingly Twitter shut down many of the accounts initially announcing the seizure of weapons from the US trained rebels (like the one above). It is unknown if this was at the request of the government or due to the fact they were accounts directly linked to Nusra.

The leader of the US trained group, Anas Obaid, reportedly told Nusra he had deceived the US in order to obtain the weapons and pledged to issue a statement declaring his abandonment of the US project. It is impossible to know if these are simply the words of an individual staring down the barrel of a gun or if this was his true intent from the start.

Last month Pentagon officials were reportedly “shocked” when the AQ affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra, attacked the US trained and equipped Division 30 in Aleppo; kidnapping many of its members. The spokesperson argued the attack had been “unprovoked” by the group.  This is a bit of a stretch given the US and coalition forces have been bombing Nusra targets throughout Syria for nearly a year.

Aftermath of Coalition Airstrike on Jabhat al-Nusra HQ

Aftermath of Coalition Airstrike on Jabhat al-Nusra HQ

From Nusra’s perspective they likely feel highly “provoked” and thus the targeting of newly US trained rebels last month, and again on Monday, is a predictable consequence. Ironically a chorus of analysts have called into question the logic of putting US trained troops of such small number into Syria. Nusra has thousands of fighters in Idlib and Aleppo and have repeatedly demonstrated a strong intelligence network. Conversely the operational security around the US trained rebels has been porous and the groups could be tracked entering Syria by anyone with a twitter account.

High Ranking Departure

Division 30 Chief of Staff Statement

Division 30 Chief of Staff Statement

In a statement released this past week the chief of staff of Division 30, Colonel Muhammad al-Daher, quit the Train and Equip program citing a number of program failures. It is hard to envision how the impact of his departure along with several critical failures (noted below), will not cause the demise of the program.

  1. Slow implementation of the Division 30 training program and failure to process sufficient numbers of trainees
  2. Failure to secure the basic needs required for the Division’s work
  3. Lack of seriousness in carrying out the project to establish Division 30
  4. Poor censoring of Division 30 supporters present on the ground
  5. Imprecise and haphazard selection of Division 30’s cadres
  6. Ideological disunity among trainees regarding the realization of Division 30’s founding purpose

 

The Nusra Conundrum

While targeting Nusra is justified as long as it continues to affiliate with al-Qaeda, this will continue to complicate any attempts to put small poorly supported groups on the ground. As US policy drifts towards engagement with Russia and refuses engagement with groups like Ahrar al Sham (seeking dialog) it is likely to diminish the potential of any US Train and Equip mission moving forward. This will also result in further engagement with extremist elements by moderate groups in order to advance movement in the region. Nusra’s role in the capture of Idlib province and the stability of the northern Aleppo corridor with Turkey is well documented. It is ironic that without Nusra, the Islamic State would have captured much more of Syria than it currently holds. However Nusra’s hold on the territory is entirely dependent on cooperation with groups that may moderate their extremist nature. There are numerous examples of moderate rebel units cooperating with and pushing back against Nusra when appropriate.  It is these moderating elements that pose the greatest potential for stabilizing the conflict in the region and ensuring the Nusra and ISIS’ hold is contained.

Unsustainable Direction

Given all the recent failures and the newly disclosed loss of yet another US trained rebel unit there are few conceivable scenarios by which US trained rebels will be allowed to operate effectively in Syria. Continuing to do so would not only put rebel trainee lives at risk but could also embarrass the US Government were another misstep to occur resulting in the further loss of military equipment to extremist actors.

About the Authors:

Dr Camie Condon is an Intelligence Analyst and a post-doctoral researcher with the Tactical Decision Making Research Group at the University of Liverpool. She is also an Analyst with the Intelligence Research Group iBRABO.

Jeff Weyers is a Senior Analyst with iBRABO and a researcher with the Tactical Decision Making Research Group at the University of Liverpool.

Canadian Foreign Fighter with ties to Jabhat al-Nusra Identified

Author: Jeff R. Weyers, iBRABO

From iBRABO material recently featured on Enquête | Radio-Canada.ca and The Fifth Estate

It started with a question posed to iBRABO by CBC; are there Canadians from the Montreal area fighting in Syria? Using the Identifying Vulnerable Persons Guidance in our examination of terrorist social media sites we came across several extremist individuals from Canada. One person in particular, Sami Elabi (AKA El Sami, AKA Abu Safwan AlKanadi) from Montreal quickly was identified as an individual who appeared to be fighting with the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. His post and photographs (below) demonstrated that Elabi had been pulled down the same extremist path that so many Canadians have recently also followed. This in fact appears to have been the impetus behind the latest attacks by Canadian radicals on our Canadian military personnel and Parliament building.

Sami Elabi Posing with other Fighters

Sami Elabi Posing with other Fighters

Sami Elabi Firing Rifle

Sami Elabi Firing Rifle

 

Lone wolves like Martin Coutour-Rouleau and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau involved in Canada’s most recent attacks have definitely demonstrated the capacity to carry out the calls of ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra to attack the west. In fact, in the months and weeks leading up the recent attacks in Canada, ISIS had demonstrated a particular interest in Canada on Social media. In their Dabiq Magazine (ISIS’s equivalent of Al Qaeda’s Inspire Magazine) they posted a full page feature on Andre Poulin who died fighting along side ISIS (below). Poulin was later also featured in a well produced five minute recruiting video.

Dabiq Issue 2 Andre Poulin

Andre Poulin Featured in Dabiq

Perhaps of equal concern to western law enforcement agencies is the potential for well trained and battle hardened foreign fighters to return home and use those skills. By all accounts numerous researchers have put the number of foreign fighters fighting for groups like ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra at between 12000-15000. Elabi is just one example of a steady stream of fighters with whom Canada has attempted to intervene. In videos posted by Elabi on his own extremist Facebook page he is actively seen burning and shooting his Canadian passport.

Sami Elabi Burning and Shooting Passport

Sami Elabi Burning and Shooting Passport

In a second video he records fighters blowing up a structure with explosives at an undisclosed location.

Sami Elabi with Fighters Blowing up Structure

Sami Elabi with Fighters Blowing up Structure

While it is unknown if Elabi will ever try to return to Canada he definitely represents the kind of threat Western nations are facing when it comes to citizens engaging with terrorist groups. As has been discussed by many experts this past week it will require the community to assist law enforcement in preventing violent extremism. It will necessitate discussions around early identification of persons on the path to violent extremism and the need to re-examine laws in a thoughtful way without changing the fabric of what it is to be Canadian.

On behalf of iBRABO, our thoughts are with the families of our brave fallen soldiers.

Dutch and Belgian Mujahideen Social Media Sites Relaunch

Author: Jeff R. Weyers,  IBRABO

Nederlandse Mujahideen in Syrie Facebook and WordPress Pages

Abu Talha Al-Maghribi

Abu Talha Al-Maghribi Post on Nederlandse Mujahideen in Syrie Facebook Site

In a follow up to our examination of De Basis – De Base in the Netherlands and Belgium featured on TRAC, this week iBRABO examines the relaunch of two Dutch/Belgian Mujahideen social media sites. The first, Nederlandse Mujahideen in Syrië (Dutch Mujahideen in Syria), was originally created on Facebook in may 2013 and featured in a report on Dutch foreign fighters by Samar Batrawi (2014), but was subsequently torn down by Facebook.

NMIS link to As-Shaam Media

Nederlandse Mujahideen in Syrie WordPress Site

De BanierSince then the site has relaunched on facebook on August 4th, 2014, and has cross-links to its wordpress site Al-Shaam Media which launched September 12th, 2013 (see image above). It claims to be the “Official Page of the Dutch Mujahideen in Syria”. Both sites feature stories of Dutch Mujahideen that have died fighting in the Syrian conflict, all of whom are believed to have been fighting with the Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. On its wordpress site it also hosts a copy of De Banier (The Banner), a book written by Dutch mujahideen used as a recruiting tool to entice new fighters.

 

Nederlandse/Belgische Mujahideen In Shaam – Minbar Tawheed, Dawah & Jihad Facebook Page

Another site that has relaunched this past week is the  Nederlandse/Belgische Mujahideen In Shaam – Minbar Tawheed, Dawah & Jihad (see image below).

NBMIS Header

As with De Basis the primary point of interest for both these sites are in The Hague, Netherlands and Antwerp, Belgium. The primary demographic of interest being males 18-24 years of age (as obtained from Facebooks own analytics on both sites.

The Issue of Extremist Social Media Sites Re-Launching

One issue that all of the social media sites have been struggling with is the relaunch of extremist and terrorist sites on their platforms. The nature of their design leaves them open to abuse by terrorist and extremist groups. ISIS in fact has learned methods for hiding their sites from the traditional markers that may lead to them being removed. They have done this to some extent through pseudo naming conventions and abbreviated wordings that would be missed by the typical searches. One example of this is Is_IraQ and Levant which actually has its largest following in Jakarta, Indonesia by males aged 25-34. On this site we also see the use of foreign martyrs like Andre Poulin from Canada to assist in the recruiting message (see below).

abu muslim

Post Featuring Abu Muslim (Andre Poulin) on IS_Iraq and Levant Facebook Site

This is an area that will no doubt require further research and co-operation by corporations, academics and practitioners in order to reduce the use of social media by extremist groups.

The New Battleground for ISIS – Facebook

Authors: Jeff R. Weyers and Camie Condon

The Battle for Hearts and Minds on Social Media

Starting in November of 2013 the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), a terrorist organization currently operating out of Syria, began a massive social media campaign in an attempt to gain sympathy, support and recruit members. iBrabo has been tracking the development and propagation of ISIS’s content on social media and as a result has identified a number of groups and individuals supporting the organization and others at risk of recruitment to the organization.

At the start of this surge several of the ISIS pages seemed to fly under the radar continuing to operate on Facebook spreading their propaganda. In late November Facebook, no doubt aided by law enforcement, began a strong effort to limit the access of ISIS. By some accounts this has been a cyber-war of persistence between Facebook and groups like Bilad al Shaam who has rebuilt their page 45 times  and  “We are all ISIS” who  has rebuilt their Facebook page 38 times (including as recently as April 1st 2014). Many of these pages now maintain sister sites in preparation for their removal linked to the original site.

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Other pages like the Islamic Stat of Iraq and Ash-Sham Media Hub and The Victorious Party in the Land of Ash-Sham appear to have maintained their presence despite their obvious links to ISIS. In addition to its account on facebook, the ISIS hub twitter account also continues to tweet out the progress of ISIS in Syria.

Islamic State of Iraq and Ash-Sham Media Hub FB Page 02Apr2014

Media Men in the Advertising of Terror

On November 29, 2013, an individual believed to be a former French resident named James Rebeiy started a Facebook page entitled, “The Islamic State of Iraq & Sham” with the following facebook address: https://www.facebook.com/groups/228051280704039/ (Last Captured 10 Nov 2013). On the 4th of December 2013, Rebeiy altered the name on his personal facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/james.rebeiy) to Abu Qatada (Almuhajer). The name Abu Qatada is often affiliated with a Jordanian man who has been accused in England, not only of providing a “religious justification for acts of violence and terror”, but also of being a “significant international terrorist, with extensive extremist contacts”, engaging “in conduct which facilitates and give[s] encouragement to the commission, preparation and instigation of acts of terrorism”, and “raising funds for terrorist groups”. It is very likely that REBEIY has used this name in title only.

On his facebook REBEIY identifies his hometown as being: Paris, France and indicates having attended a highschool in Tours, France. His profiles last updated location indicated that he was in Istanbul, Turkey. Much of material Rebeiy posted included what appeared to be original ISIS content not previously seen on other ISIS sites. The nature of this content has an Inspire magazine style and structure in its design and quality which appears to be a trend in the extremist material being generated by ISIS. The content is predominantly being created in English and targeting western audiences (below). Both James Rebeiy’s site and his ISIS page have since been torn down. While his pictures can be seen in various ISIS social media forums, it is unknown if he will take on a reputation for media savvy like that of Inspire Magazine author Samir Khan. Based on the initial observations made of Rebeiy it appears highly likely that he is providing material support to ISIS through his online contributions, including their recruiting and media campaign.

ISIS propoganda

The Path Forward in the fight against Cyber Extremism

As terrorist groups like ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra (JN) continue to utilize social media to their advantage there will be a growing onus on social media companies and law enforcement to have advanced strategies for eliminating their content.  In the past terrorist organizations relied upon their own websites but have quickly found it expensive and unproductive to keep them operational against government efforts to crush them. In contrast as has been noted with “We are all ISIS” and Bilad al Shaam they can literally recreate their pages on social media daily, in little time and at zero cost on systems that are designed for open expression and networking. Perhaps more concerning is that there are 100’s to 1000’s of individuals that rejoin these sites daily as well. This will require social media companies to rethink how they eliminate terrorist sites including the potential for automated identification tools for emerging concerns. No doubt this cyber war is far from over in a battle where vigilance and indeed technology itself may be our best weapon against our enemy. As illustrated below their understanding of the media battlefields and how to use them are quite clear.

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