The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are preparing a final assault against Islamic State’s last enclave in the part of Syria where a U.S.-led coalition has been supporting operations against the group, an SDF official told Reuters. The offensive is planned to go on Saturday.
The United States said on Jan. 29 that Islamic State (ISIS) was expected to lose the final part of occupied territory within a couple of weeks.
“The battle will be launched this evening and its mission will be to eliminate the last remnants of the terrorist organization,” Mustafa Bali, the head of the SDF media office, said, describing it as the “last battle”.
He said in the last 10 days SDF soldiers had handled the battle “patiently” as more than 20,000 civilians were evacuated from the besieged enclave comprising two villages near the Iraqi border. The SDF, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, has driven Islamic State out of a occupied territory in northern and eastern Syria.
After defeating the jihadists from their Syrian headquarters at Raqqa in October 2017, the SDF advanced southwards into Deir al-Zor province, attacking them in territory on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River. That territory is known as their ‘last stand’ because they are unable to retreat from there.
Islamic State (ISIS) still has a territorial foothold in Syria west of the Euphrates in a part of the country otherwise held by the Syrian government and its allies.
How an American citizen became a senior ISIS commander in Syria?
In April 2015, the son of a New Jersey pizza shop owner left the United States. His destination was an Islamic State training camp in Syria. Shortly after arriving, he allegedly emerged in a video posted to social media, beheading Kurdish fighters captured by ISIS. Now, Zulfi Hoxha may be in command of ISIS fighters in the country.
How Islamic State fighters survive the onslaught from American, Kurdish, Syrian, Russian, Iranian, and/or Turkish forces is baffling to many, but Zulfi Hoxha has managed to stay alive through it all, even after the fall of the ISIS capital at Raqqa and the subsequent collapse of the terrorist “caliphate.”
Hoxha now goes by the name Abu Hamza al-Amriki, the last being a nod to his country of origin. He’s been seen in a number of pro-ISIS jihadist propaganda videos, doing everything from encouraging “lone wolf” attacks in the United States to actually beheading enemy soldiers captured in combat. At just 26, he’s being touted as one of the most dangerous recruiting tools of the declining Islamic State.
“We used to joke around like, ‘We know you can’t stand us Americans.’ And he would laugh like, haha, ‘Yeah, we can’t stand you Americans,'” former coworker Joseph Cacia told Philadelphia’s NBC10. “But you didn’t think he was serious. You thought he was playing along.”
Only a few dozen Americans have left the U.S. to join international terrorist organizations. Hoxha is significant in that he is now a major propaganda star and is featured as a senior commander of the Islamic State forces. But since the apogee of ISIS’ rise to power in 2014, the group has lost the kind of success that would attract followers like Hoxha.
Having graduated from an Atlantic City, N.J., high school in 2010, youth like Hoxha saw ISIS in control of some 34,000 square miles of territory cut out of Iraq and Syria – a territory roughly the size of Maine. In the years since, the group has lost most of that territory, along with the prestige, money, and followers that kind of success attracts. In previous years, ISIS members like Hoxha were propaganda stars on social media, but after the worldwide effort to curb ISIS recruiting, jihadists are more likely to be found on dark websites than on Twitter.
Hoxha has had minimal contact with former friends and family back in New Jersey. He sent a message to one friend shortly after leaving the United States to tell him that he had arrived in “the Safe House.” He also told his mother that he was going to be training for three months. Now he is one of just a few Americans who rose to a leadership position in the Islamic State and other jihadist organizations.
Many of the others are dead, most killed by U.S. airstrikes.
ISIS Kills 4 Americans In Manbij, Syria
An ISIS suicide bomber killed four Americans in Manbij, Syria, on Wednesday. The terror group claimed responsibility for the attack through its Amaq news agency, which it said was done by a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest. Initial reports said more than a dozen people were killed in the blast.
Two American service members, one DoD civilian, and one DoD contractor were killed in the blast, according to U.S. Central Command. Three more service members were injured.
“An explosion hit near a restaurant, targeting the Americans, and there were some forces for the Manbij Military Council with them,” one witness told Reuters.
Army Col. Sean Ryan, a spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, confirmed that U.S. troops were killed “during an explosion while conducting a routine patrol in Syria.”
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan read a statement about the attack during his meeting Wednesday with Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya.
“Allow me to extend on behalf of the Department of Defense, our thoughts and prayers to the families and team members of those killed and wounded during today’s attack in Manbij,” Shanahan said. “Our fight against terrorism is ongoing and we will remain vigilant and committed to its destruction.”
“Today is a stark reminder of the dangerous missions that men and women in uniform perform on our behalf each and every day.”
Shanahan did not answer a question from Task & Purpose about whether the Manbij attack would affect the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, which President Donald Trump announced in December – prompting former Defense Secretary James Mattis to resign the following day.
Vice President Mike Pence said on Wednesday that both he and President Trump condemn the attack against U.S. troops in Manbij.
“Our hearts are with the loved ones of the fallen,” Pence said in a statement. “We honor their memory and we will never forget their service and sacrifice.
“Thanks to the courage of our armed forces, we have crushed the ISIS caliphate and devastated its capabilities. As we begin to bring our troops home, the American people can be assured, for the sake of our soldiers, their families, and our nation, we will never allow the remnants of ISIS to reestablish their evil and murderous caliphate – not now, not ever.”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters the president has been briefed on the attack and referred questions to the Pentagon. In a statement, Sanders said, “our deepest sympathies and love go out to the families of the brave American heroes who were killed today in Syria. We also pray for the soldiers who were wounded in the attack. Our service members and their families have all sacrificed so much for our country.”
Master Sgt. Jonathan J. Dunbar – reportedly a member of the Army’s elite Delta Force – and a British service member were killed on March 30, 2018 in Manbij. Dunbar was on a mission to capture or kill an ISIS member when an improvised explosive device went off.
“ISIS has a network of sleeper cells across formerly ISIS-held terrain and is activating them as part of a planned resurgence,” Jennifer Cafarella, of the Institute for Understanding War think tank, told Task & Purpose. “ISIS’s attack in Manbij demonstrates the threat ISIS poses in its insurgent form and foreshadows the resurgence that will occur as security gaps grow after an American withdrawal.”
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