war on the rocks

A Glimpse into the Islamic State’s External Operations, Post-Caliphate

May 29, 2019

“The territory once held by [the Islamic State] in Syria and Iraq is now 100 percent liberated,” President Donald Trump announced on Mar. 23, as the U.S.-led international coalition and its local Syrian partners captured the last territorial redoubt of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIL) in eastern Syria. “Thanks to the defeat of the ‘caliphate,’” said Trump, “[ISIL] now lacks a territorial base to launch attacks overseas and recruit foreign fighters.”

ISIL’s rejoinder came in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, Apr. 21: a set of coordinated suicide attacks on churches and hotels across the island — the group’s deadliest-ever international terrorist attack.

Even as ISIL has lost its territorial “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, it has persisted in a modified, reduced form. In both countries, ISIL has resorted to insurgent warfare and periodic terrorist attacks. It has also established “provinces” in Nigeria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere — mostly local militant groups that have declared allegiance to ISIL and adopted the global movement’s symbolism. In some cases, they seem to have benefited from ISIL’s expertise, even as they continue to work autonomously. Still, the Sri Lanka attacks have been ISIL’s most definitive claim to continued, post-caliphate relevance. The precise role of ISIL’s transnational organization in engineering the attacks is still unclear. But while it was Sri Lankan militants who carried out the attacks, their complexity and successful execution suggests they received at least some international support and guidance.

How was ISIL able to generate an attack of this scale even as it was losing its last territorial foothold? In Syria and Iraq, the group stubbornly holds on, but it has been substantially degraded. It no longer has a de facto capital city like Syria’s Raqqa that can host a large administrative and technical infrastructure and from which it can plot and direct “external operations.” Its members are mostly on the run, hiding in mountainous and desert wilderness. If a “de-territorialized” ISIL could still have a hand in the Sri Lanka attacks, what international threat does the group now pose?

A little-noted press conference by then-Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk in December 2018 holds some clues. Machnouk described — with extraordinary transparency and detail — how Lebanese security forces ran a double agent whose ISIL handler in Syria’s Idlib province attempted to remotely direct attacks in Lebanon. Machnouk’s presentation shows how a non-territorial ISIL might be able and motivated to attempt more such attacks and suggests how we might understand ISIL’s responsibility for them.

“Operation Deadly Cheese”

On Dec. 10, 2018, Nohad Machnouk convened the local press in Beirut to lay out “Operation Deadly Cheese,” carried out by the Interior Security Forces’ Information Branch. After brief opening remarks, he introduced a slide show that laid out the operation with remarkable granularity, going so far as to show surreptitiously recorded video of Information Branch officers taking possession of explosive shipments from Syria and even the ISIL handler’s instructional video on how to assemble and detonate an improvised explosive device.

It is unclear why Machnouk described the Information Branch operation in such explicit detail. At the time, the department was beset by controversy after its attempt to bring in a recalcitrant parliamentarian for questioning devolved into a shootout. At the presser, the former interior minister repeatedly emphasized that one of his reasons for laying out the operation was to assure the public that the Information Branch was working normally and apolitically despite the controversy, although he denied the press conference was specifically prompted by the department’s earlier snafu.

Information Branch inventories components of first explosive device

According to Machnouk’s presentation, “Deadly Cheese” began when a Syrian resident in Lebanon working for the Information Branch made contact with ISIL via the Internet in early 2018 and established his bona fides. The agent asked for help to come to Syria and join ISIL, but his new ISIL handler, “Abu Omar,” instead urged him to remain in Lebanon and carry out bombings in the group’s name there. Abu Omar directed the Information Branch agent to scout gatherings of so-called “Nasara” (a derogative term for Christians) and targets related to Hizballah or the Lebanese military. He requested photos of the planned target and approved targeting a church, then sent the agent a disassembled explosive device concealed in a bucket of cheese via a taxi driver. The agent contacted the driver using a phone number and codeword sent by Abu Omar, and the Information Branch then collected the bucket from him in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. Abu Omar had sent a roughly 4kg device, complete with detonator, remote control, and loose metal bolts. The Information Branch’s experts judged that it would have been effective and deadly if detonated in a public place.

Abu Omar’s video instructions on assembling the device

Abu Omar sent the Information Branch agent video instructions on assembling and using the explosive device, which Machnouk allowed the audience of journalists to watch at length. The instructions were basically idiot-proof — very deliberate and very explicit. Abu Omar repeatedly emphasized connecting one component to the next “bi-shakl jayyid” (properly). In just one excerpt, Abu Omar reminds the agent of how to put a battery into a remote control before using it to trigger the explosive device:

First, put the charge at the target location properly. Then you distance yourself approximately 400 meters, or less, according to what you’re able to do. You place this battery properly [in the remote control] — pay attention to the negative and positive — you place it properly in the device. Then, when you’re far from the target and prepared to execute, you open this [antenna], then [press] Option 1, ‘A.’ When you’re ready, [say] ‘In God’s name, God is great,’ execute, and we ask God Almighty to accept our [deeds] and yours, and to bless us in this action, and may God’s peace and mercy be upon you.

Despite the clear instructions, the Information Branch agent played at being too dumb to follow through, thereby buying additional time. Abu Omar told him to hurry, as “he had notified his emir (commander) and gotten permission to execute.” But the agent told Abu Omar liquid from the bucket had leaked into the explosive and damaged it beyond repair.

 

 

Abu Omar promised to send the agent another explosive device and, per the slide show, “asked [him] to carry out the operation and film it, so that it can be claimed by Da’esh [ISIL].” Abu Omar sent another device in pieces, this time in a bucket of shanklish, another local cheese. (“It’s good for breakfast,” joked Machnouk.) Abu Omar again sent a phone number and password so the agent could collect the bucket from a bus driver. The Information Branch collected the bucket, which contained a device similar to the first.

In hidden camera footage, Information Branch takes possession of second IED

Then, in June 2018, Abu Omar disappeared. Through their trusted communications channel, the agent was told Abu Omar had been arrested and was asked to destroy the device through which they had communicated.

After surveilling them, the Information Branch arrested both drivers. Under questioning, it became clear they did not know what they were transporting, although the taxi driver had been in contact with Abu Omar, who was from the same town and whom he knew was part of a “terrorist organization.” The bus driver regularly transported people and goods like cheese and olive oil between Syria and Lebanon. He had received the buckets on the highway in northeast Idlib, likely around the towns of Saraqib and Sarmin.

Information Branch identifies Abu Omar in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham execution video

The Information Branch later found Abu Omar: A July 2018 video released by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham showed his execution. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is the latest iteration of former Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah. It is the dominant armed group in Syria’s Idlib, although, through 2018, the area was divided between various zones of factional control. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham had detained a number of ISIL members, including Abu Omar, in a raid on Sarmin after underground ISIL elements had grown increasingly bold in their attacks on Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other factions.

In July, another ISIL handler, “Abu Hajer,” contacted the Information Branch agent and used a secret codeword to establish his identity. He asked the agent to take possession of weapons, grenades, and explosive belts for an attack, but then he went dark.

Abu Hajer resurfaced in September and told the agent that difficult conditions in Idlib had forced him to cut contact. He asked the agent to scout concentrations of “Nasara” and Lebanese military and security bases. Again, he asked for photos of prospective targets. Abu Hajer then directed the agent to the Beqaa Valley and to a canvas bag loaded with AK-47s, ammunition, grenades, and detonators. Abu Hajer asked the agent if he was prepared for an “inghimasi” operation — a kamikaze raid — and if he could recruit a trusted friend to join him. He promised to send explosive suicide belts. Then, again, he disappeared.

Information Branch inventories weapons delivered by Abu Hajer

In November, someone used Abu Hajer’s communications channel to contact the agent and tell him Abu Hajer had been killed. This new party insisted the agent send a copy of his passport and travel immediately to Turkey. The Information Branch, uncertain of who was on the other end of the line, ended the operation.

ISIL’s “De-Territorialized” Threat

It is not clear if “Deadly Cheese” disrupted terrorist plots in Lebanon that would have been initiated absent the Information Branch’s sting operation. ISIL may have just responded opportunistically to the Information Branch agent’s overture. The operation did identify the bus driver, an unwitting conduit between ISIL in Idlib and allies in Lebanon. One certain benefit of the Information Branch operation and Machnouk’s detailed presentation, though, was that it showed us how even a “de-territorialized” ISIL can direct external operations.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Madeleine Blackman have written for War on the Rocks about ISIL’s “virtual planner” model of attacks, in which the group’s operatives remotely recruit and mentor international attackers via the Internet. Gartenstein-Ross and Blackman noted that most prominent “virtual planners” were based in ISIL’s “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, but suggested that the model could also work outside the group’s territorially bounded center.

Machnouk’s presentation shows, first, that ISIL does not need a Raqqa-style safe haven to pursue international attacks. Though ISIL still held ground in Syria’s east throughout 2018, in Idlib it did not. The group largely withdrew from Idlib in 2014, but ISIL militants had latterly crept back into the area as the group lost territory elsewhere in Syria. In early summer 2018, ISIL in Idlib graduated from bombings and assassinations to more overt attacks, including on rival factions’ checkpoints. Still, even at its most aggressive and ambitious, it was semi-clandestine. ISIL was thought to be concentrated in and around the northeast Idlib town of Sarmin, but it never claimed the area outright. “Honestly, I was surprised that the source [of the plotting] was Idlib,” said Machnouk. “I had supposed that Idlib was one of these areas of temporary refuge, more than an ongoing operations room.” The plotting and direction from Idlib of attacks beyond Syria shows that, at least in Idlib, ISIL did not need to graduate to the phase of “tamkin” (territorial control and administration) before looking outward.

Still, even if ISIL will not wait for “tamkin” before pursuing external attacks, Machnouk showed that plotting for even small-scale attacks like the one he described can be frustrated by concentrated pressure. ISIL could make headway toward planning and directing attacks abroad in conditions as permissive as pre-June 2018 Idlib. In conditions comparable to post-June 2018 Idlib — under more serious pressure — maybe not. At least this particular ISIL unit was disrupted by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s crackdown and incapable of effectively managing the Information Branch’s agent in Lebanon.

The Lebanon plots may also show that external attack planning is not the exclusive province of ISIL’s core leadership. These plots were generated and directed from one of ISIL’s geographic satellites, in Idlib, and seemingly not from what was then the organization’s territorial center in eastern Syria. True, we do not know precisely how ISIL in Idlib relates to ISIL’s core territory and leadership. Idlib may not be comparable with some of ISIL’s more far-flung affiliates in, for example, West Africa. It is geographically proximate to ISIL’s core territory, and the local ISIL cell could have been bolstered by militants fleeing areas further east. Indeed, “Abu Omar” himself may have arrived from those areas. ISIL in Idlib thus may have been more tightly integrated into ISIL’s central command than a further-flung “province.” When “Abu Omar” said he secured permission for the operation from his emir, that commander’s location was unclear — Abu Omar may have been in communication with the top of the organization. Other reporting has suggested that entrepreneurial ISIL members may organize attacks independently, then seek permission and material support from senior leaders.

Still, what does seem clear is that this was a case of an ISIL unit operating underground and outside the group’s defined territorial boundaries, that was nonetheless motivated and empowered to repeatedly attempt attacks elsewhere.

The Idlib unit was also technically capable. ISIL arranged to provide materiel to the Information Branch’s agent, from Syria but also — in the case of Abu Hajer’s bag of weapons — potentially from within Lebanon. (Machnouk minimized concerns in that respect, saying that Lebanon is full of weapons.) Again, some of this is likely thanks to geography. Lebanon borders Syria, and the two countries are both socially and economically intertwined. Still, this ISIL unit was able to advise on and supervise attack targeting strategy, build ready-to-assemble explosives, move them using transnational logistical networks, and then provide technical instruction remotely (including by dumbing down techniques for dubiously intelligent would-be terrorists).

ISIL in Idlib also knew enough to direct attacks according to a political logic — at least a rudimentary one — tailored to its Lebanese target. More than a year before the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka, ISIL in Idlib was steering the Information Branch’s agent towards attacks against Christian Lebanese. (In his presser, Machnouk joked that ISIL had seemingly “lost hope” of getting at Lebanon’s Shi’ites.) In addition, Machnouk said ISIL seemed intent on carrying out attacks before or during Lebanon’s May 6, 2018, parliamentary elections, which would have caused maximum chaos.

“ISIL” in Perspective

Machnouk’s presentation thus demonstrates that ISIL does not need much to engage in external operations planning. The group does not need a Raqqa-style capital city or even overt, declared control of a town like Sarmin (although presumably both help, and the threat from a space like Raqqa would be magnitudes larger). An ISIL operating underground, without a territorial foothold, may also remotely organize attacks. The group is likely even more motivated to carry out attacks like Sri Lanka’s since losing the last vestige of its physical “Caliphate.” Now ISIL must work even harder to burnish its militant credibility and compete with al-Qaeda for overall leadership of the global jihadist movement.

Yet we should also bear in mind ISIL’s urgent need to demonstrate its post-territorial relevance as it attempts further terrorist “propaganda of the deed”. ISIL needs to claim deadly attacks worldwide to inflate its real, effective size. But if Machnouk’s presentation of the Lebanon plots is an indication, there may be less to these plots — and to “ISIL’s” international presence — than meets the eye. ISIL’s global network of attackers in reality may resemble less a vast, tentacled secret organization and more Internet-connected ISIL members trying to show semi-competent strangers how to connect wires “bi-shakl jayyid” — though of course the resulting threat can still be deadly and difficult to preempt.

ISIL’s external attack plotting in Lebanon is not necessarily similar to how it managed the Sri Lanka bombings, but it is one way the group clearly can, and in fact has, pursued international attacks even as its territorial control has reduced to nothing. The confusion over how ISIL carries out these shocking attacks seems only to heighten their divisive, terrorizing impact. Machnouk’s presentation can help us demystify ISIL’s external operations plotting and provide us with a real, if partial, understanding of the group’s post-“caliphate” threat.

 

 

Sam Heller is International Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst on Non-State Armed Groups, as part of the organization’s work on Jihad in Modern Conflict. He has researched and written about the Syrian war since 2013 and is based in Beirut. Follow Sam on Twitter: @AbuJamajem.

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons photo