The International Institute for Counter-Terrorism Monthly Summary of Events – March 2017
During the month of March, the wave of terrorist attacks continued against civilians and security forces throughout the West Bank and Jerusalem. According to the Shin Bet, there was an increase in the number of attacks, most of which were carried out in the form of rammings, stabbings, explosives and shootings. In one stabbing attack that was carried out at Lion’s Gate, two Border Police Guard officers were injured, and a 15-year-old girl was injured in an attempted ramming attack at a hitchhiking post in Gush Etzion.
In addition, it was released for publication that the Shin Bet, in cooperation with the IDF and the Israel Police, arrested a resident of Qalqilya suspected of being recruited by Hezbollah in order to kidnap civilians in the name of the organization. It should be noted that this incident, which constitutes the third this year involving Hezbollah, indicates an increase in the number of attempts by the organization to recruit local fighters to carry out terrorist attacks within the territory of the State of Israel. In previous incidents, eight Palestinians who were recruited by the organization via Facebook during the month of August were arrested, and several residents of the village of Ghajar were arrested in October after they were instructed by members of the organization to plant explosives throughout the north of the country.
Alongside these incidents in the West Bank and Jerusalem, the trend of escalation continued in the area surrounding the Gaza Strip. During the month, rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip (three launches in contrast to four last month) into the territory of the State of Israel. Salafist organizations identified with the Islamic State claimed responsibility for all of the rocket launches. Meanwhile, several roadside bombs were discovered next to the fence along the border between Israel and neighboring countries and there were several shooting incidents against IDF patrols who were moving along the fence. In response, IAF planes and armored forces attacked Hamas posts and targets in the Strip. In another significant incident that took place in the Gaza Strip, a senior Hamas member was killed by assassin fire outside his home. The organization was quick to accuse Israel of the assassination and even threatened to take revenge by attacking senior Israeli security officials.
During the month, the IDF continued to act, with the help of the IAF, against efforts by Hezbollah to arm itself in Syrian territory. In the first of two attacks that took place during the month, three SA-5 anti-aircraft missiles were fired at IAF planes, while one of the missiles – whose flight path was destined for the Jordan Valley – was shot down by an Arrow missile. In addition, it was reported that a senior member of one of the Shi’ite militias operating in the Syrian Golan Heights was killed by an Israeli UAV.
In addition, the Counter-Terrorism Bureau published a travel warning ahead of the Passover holiday in which it called on Israelis visiting Sinai and Turkey to leave these countries immediately for fear of an imminent terrorist attack.
During the month of March, air coalition planes continued to attack IS and Tahrir al-Sham targets throughout the country, with emphasis on Al-Bab, Raqqah, Palmyra, Al-Shaddadah, Deir Ezzor, Tabqa, Manbij and Abu Kamal. In total, coalition planes carried out 378 air strikes throughout the country, which constitutes a 30% decrease in the number of attacks as compared to the month of February. Meanwhile, the US deployed Marines forces in northern Syria in order to launch artillery fire at the city of Raqqah, which is under IS control, while rebel forces supported by the US captured the Tabqa military airfield near the city towards the end of the month.
At the same time as air coalition strikes, the Russian and Syrian Air Forces continued to attack rebel faction targets near the city of Hama, Palmyra and the suburbs of the capital, Damascus. On the other hand, a Syrian MiG-23 aircraft was shot down near the border with Turkey. In addition, Syrian army forces aided by the Russian Air Force captured the old city of Palmyra from the IS.
During the month, global jihadist organizations operating in the Syrian arena continued to carry out terrorist attacks throughout the country. For instance, Tahrir al-Sham claimed responsibility for an attack in Damascus, in which over 40 people were killed and over 120 others were wounded in a double suicide bombing near a bus of Shi’ite pilgrims from Iraq, and another attack near a court in the capital in which over 30 people were killed.
In addition, during the month, it was reported that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards had directed the Iraqi Shi’ite militia known as “al-Nujaba” to establish a corps in order “to liberate the Golan”.
During the month, clashes continued between Palestinian factions in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp during which a number of residents were killed and injured. Meanwhile, a Palestinian was killed and several others were injured in clashes that erupted in Bourj el-Barajneh, which is located in the suburbs of Beirut.
In addition, during the month, it was reported that Iran had built underground facilities for assembling missiles for Hezbollah in Lebanese territory. In addition, dozens of masked members of Hezbollah’s “social security department” were documented during a night operation to arrest drug dealers in the Bourj el-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in the suburbs of Beirut, an operation that was carried out without the knowledge or consent of the Lebanese security forces.
In addition, during the month of March there was a generational exchange in the leadership of the Druze community in the country when Walid Jumblatt passed the leadership on to his son, Taymour.
During the month of March, the Egyptian army continued to operate in northern and central Sinai against IS targets. In the framework of Egyptian Air Force air strikes in the northern Sinai Peninsula – with emphasis on Al-Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and Egyptian Rafah – dozens of IS fighters were killed. In contrast, several officers, soldiers and other Egyptian security forces were killed in attacks by the IS, most of which took the form of roadside bombs planted along traffic routes but also included instances of sniper fire. In addition, it was reported that the IS set up roadblocks in central Al-Arish to show its presence.
In addition to a thwarted attack planned to take place in the capital of Cairo, in the framework of which Egyptian security forces killed four militants, one person was killed and four of his relatives were injured in an explosion in Al-Maadi in the capital. In addition, security forces in the Alexandria airport reported that they arrested a Russian man who tried to bring an improvised explosive device onto a flight to Turkey.
During the month, Jordan hosted the annual conference of the Arab League in the area of the Dead Sea. In contrast to last year, in which Hezbollah was declared a terrorist organization, no significant decisions were made this year.
During the month of March, the campaign led by the Iraqi army to capture the city of Mosul from IS control continued. The Iraqi army, with assistance from Shi’ite militia forces, continued to operate in the city’s western neighborhoods and even reported that Special Forces were placed near the mosque in which the leader of the organization, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had declared the establishment of the Caliphate. It should be noted that the IS was reported to have used chemical weapons in the framework of the battle in the city. Alongside ground operations, the air coalition led by the US continued to carry out air strikes throughout the country against IS targets, with emphasis on the areas of Baiji, al-Qaim, Mosul, Kirkuk, al-Huwayja, Kisik, Tal Afar, Qayyarah, Haditha and Rawa. In total, coalition aircraft carried out 240 air strikes throughout the county during the month of March, 32 less than the previous month.
In addition, terrorist attacks continued throughout the country during the month. In the city of Tikrit, over 20 people were killed in a double suicide attack, and over 20 others were killed in a car bombing in southwest Baghdad.
In addition, during the month of March, Turkish Air Force planes continued to attack Kurdish PKK targets in northern Iraq, with emphasis on the area of Qandil.
In the beginning of March, the Sidra oil terminal was captured by the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB) but was later liberated by Libyan National Army (LNA) forces, as was the Ras Lanuf oil terminal.
In the framework of other operations this month, Khalifa Haftar’s forces captured the southwest part of Benghazi from militants and a MiG-21 aircraft was shot down by the LNA over Tobruk.
During the month of March, Iranian government officials continued to speak out against the US government, including threats against US Navy forces operating in the Persian Gulf. In the field, Navy forces belonging to the Revolutionary Guards continued to harass US Navy forces in the area.
During the month, Houthi rebels in Yemen continued to fire ballistic missiles at military and civilian targets in Saudi Arabia, with emphasis on the Jizan area. Most of the missiles that were launched in response to the Saudi Air Force’s attacks in Yemen were shot down by Saudi anti-aircraft forces.
During the month, battles continued between Yemeni army forces – with assistance from the Sunni coalition – and Houthi rebel forces throughout the country, mostly in Al-Jawf, Al-Bayda, Ma’rib, Sana’a, Najran and Taiz Provinces. In response to successes by coalition forces along the Red Sea shores in the country, it was reported that the rebels, aided by Iranian advisors, had started to scatter navel mines in the area. In addition, during the month, a naval mine exploded next to a Yemeni army guard ship that was patrolling near Al-Mokha port, killing two sailors and injuring eight more.
In addition, during the month, the US continued to act against AQAP with the help of UAV’s and fighter jets, with emphasis on Al-Bayda, Abyan, Hadramawt and Shabwa Provinces. In the framework of over 30 air strikes carried out by the Americans, dozens of AQAP fighters were killed. In addition, it was reported that another raid by US Special Forces against AQAP targets was aborted at the last minute (the previous raid took place at the end of January 2017). It is important to note that US operations against AQAP targets were on the rise over the first three months of 2017 and apparently stem from the change of government in the US and from intelligence information that also led to the publication of new flight guidelines for passengers arriving from counties in the region (for more details, see “Europe and the United States”). In contrast, AQAP continued to carry out attacks throughout the month. For instance, AQAP fighters attacked a Yemeni Border Guard post approximately 90 kilometers from the border crossing with Saudi Arabia. According to the report, the target of the attack was the ammunition and equipment in the provisions. In addition, several soldiers were killed and others were injured in a suicide attack in an army building in Lahj Province.
The Persian Gulf States
During the month, security forces in Bahrain arrested a terror cell with ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and to one of the Shi’ite militias in Iraq.
North and West Africa
During the month of March, three jihadist organizations operating in North Africa announced their unification under one leadership after swearing allegiance to Al-Qaeda.
In addition, during the month, several civilians were wounded in an attack by Ansar al-Islam fighters on two villages in North Burkina Faso, and in Casablanca, Morocco, local security forces arrested two IS fighters.
During the month of March, Al-Shabab continued to carry out terrorist attacks throughout the country. In the capital of Mogadishu, at least five people were killed in a car bomb explosion near the presidential palace, and close to 20 soldiers were killed in an attack by the organization at a military camp in the city of Barawe. In addition, there were increasing reports that Al-Shabab fighters were beginning to distribute food to residents in hunger-stricken areas under the organization’s control in an effort to gain popular support. In contrast, Somali army and African Union forces continued to operate against Al-Shabab fighters and even killed dozens of them in raids on training camps in the Jubaland and Afmado areas.
In addition, for the first time since 2012, Somali pirates managed to hijack an oil tanker this month off the coast of Somalia, but it was freed after several days by security forces.
During the month of March, Boko Haram continued to attack military and civilian targets throughout northeast Nigeria, with emphasis on the city area of Mogadishu where at least four people were killed in an explosion at a refugee camp, while a triple suicide attack was prevented as a result of a work accident. Meanwhile, the leader of Boko Haram vowed to apply shari’a in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Benin and Mali. In contrast, the Nigerian Air Force attacked Boko Haram targets in the city of Sambisa.
During the month of March, the Taliban continued to operate throughout the country and it was even reported that the organization captured Sangin District in Helmand Province. In the framework of another operation by the organization in the capital of Kabul, over ten people were killed in a combined attack that included a car bombing and suicide bombers at a police station, military base and intelligence headquarters. In Zabul Province in southern Afghanistan, eight soldiers were poisoned and shot by fellow members of their unit as instructed by the organization. In Khost Province, an attempted penetration of an Afghan Air Force base was thwarted but in another incident at a different base in the province, one soldier was killed and others were injured in a car bomb explosion. In addition, three American soldiers were injured at a military camp in Helmand Province in a shooting attack carried out by an Afghan soldier who served with them. Also in Helmand Province, several members of a militia belonging to Afghan intelligence were killed in a car bombing. In contrast, over 40 Taliban fighters were injured during air strikes in Helmand Province in addition to 12 fighters who were killed in American drone strikes in Paktika Province.
In addition, the IS carried out a shooting attack inside a military hospital in the capital of Kabul, killing over 30 doctors and patients. In other incidents that took place during the month of March, four female suicide bombers were killed by security forces during an attempt to attack the Indian Consulate in Jalalabad, an incident that included a car bomb explosion at the entrance gate to the Consulate. Meanwhile, 10 Haqqani militants were killed in a gun battle with the Afghan army in Paktika Province.
During the month of March, Pakistani security forces continued an operation against terrorist centers in response to the wave of attacks that befell the country last February. During one of the counter-terrorism operations in Lahore, security forces thwarted an attack that was supposed to be carried out at the airport in the city when they caught a vehicle that was carrying a great deal of weapons at a checkpoint at the entrance to the airport itself. In contrast, several border guards were killed in a double suicide attack in northwest Pakistan.
During the month, it was also reported that two people were killed in a strike by an American remote manned aircraft inside the country near the border with Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Pakistani government announced that work had begun on building a fence along the border with Afghanistan in order to prevent the free passage of terrorists between the two countries.
During the month, relations worsened between the Turkish government and European countries, especially Holland and Germany. The weakening of relations stems from Europe’s criticism over the continued attack on Turkish democracy led by President Erdogan. Meanwhile, the Turkish Ministry of Defense reported that it ended its offensive activities in Syria.
The Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia
During the month of March, there was an increase in terrorist attacks and counter-terrorist operations in Bangladesh. Several suspected members of Salafist terrorist groups were arrested in the course of several operations carried out by security forces. In addition, several explosives were thrown at security forces, and in another incident a suicide terrorist blew himself up near the headquarters of an elite police unit in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The other operations took place in the cities of Comilla, Chittagong and Sylhet. In a suicide attack that was carried out by the IS, a terrorist blew himself up next to a police checkpoint near the international airport in the capital, but did not result in casualties. In addition, gunmen assassinated the leader of the Suffis in his home in northern Bangladesh.
In Malaysia, security agencies foiled a plot to assassinate the King of Saudi Arabia who was visiting the country by using several explosives-ridden vehicles. The six detainees were identified as members of the IS. Meanwhile, Malaysian police arrested nine suspected members of the IS for allegedly planning additional attacks in the country.
In India, the first attack attributed to the IS was carried out, in the framework of which 10 civilians were injured in an explosion in a train car on the Bhopal-Ujjain line.
It should be noted that the increase in reports about the presence of IS fighters and terror cells in the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia may indicate the organization’s entry into secondary centers of operation. While the organization loses its grip in Syria, Iraq, North and West Africa, its fighters are establishing their presence in countries such as Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Afghanistan.
Europe and the United States
During the month of March, American and British airport authorities released guidelines prohibiting instruments larger than a mobile phone to be brought in hand luggage onto flights originating from Egypt, Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The prohibition followed information regarding the intention of Al-Qaeda in general, and AQAP in particular, to carry out a terrorist attack against US aerial targets using explosive material inside the batteries of electronic devices.
In London, the capital of England, a policeman and three civilians were killed, and approximately 40 others were injured in a ramming and stabbing attack carried out by an Islamic terrorist in the area of the British Parliament. As a result of the attack, security was increased in the city and a wave of arrests began throughout the country. Despite the fact that the IS claimed responsibility for the attack, it is still not clear if the terrorist acted as an agent of the organization or if he initiated the attack alone (for additional details, see below).
In addition, during the month, European security forces continued to arrest suspected members of terrorist organization for allegedly plotting attacks throughout the continent. For example, police in Belgium arrested a North African man who tried to carry out a ramming attack, and authorities in Italy thwarted the formation of a group that planned to carry out an attack at one of the tourist sites in Venice.
Case Study – The Ramming Attack in London, England
On March 22, Khalid Masood carried out a ramming and stabbing attack in which five people were killed and over 40 others were injured near the British Parliament building. First, Masood ran over passerby on Westminster Bridge in a Hyundai car that he rented in Birmingham several days earlier, and crashed into the fence surrounding the Parliament building. He then exited the vehicle armed with a knife, and ran in the direction of the entrance to the Parliament where he stabbed to death an unarmed police officer before being shot and killed by armed police who were present at the scene. In addition to the police offer who was stabbed, three of the ramming attack victims died at the scene and a tourist who fell from the bridge into the River Thames died from her injuries two weeks later.
Khalid Masood, 52, born in Kent, England, as Adrian Russell Ajao, had a criminal record of minor crimes and violent offenses but no known connection to terrorist activity. Masood spent two years in Saudi Arabia where he worked as an English teacher. It should be noted that even though Mansoor was known to British intelligence officials, he was not under surveillance and it is not known when he became radicalized or joined any terrorist organization.
This ramming attack joins the ranks of similar attacks that have taken place in the European continent and in the United State over the past year, including the ramming attack in Nice, France in July 2016, which killed over 80 people and injured 400 others, the attack in Ohio, in the United States, in November 2016, which injured 11 people, and in Berlin in December 2016, which killed 11 people and injured 45 others.
The attack in London was carried out against the backdrop of increased attempts at jihadist discourse in an effort to raise the motivation to carry out “lone wolf” attacks against western targets. It should be noted that terrorist organization published, and continue to publish, guidelines for carrying out such attacks, thereby increasing the probability of additional attacks.
This article is part of the RED-Alert project, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation Programme under grant agreement No 740688.