ISIS bombs Cairo, retakes Palmyra in fresh impetus
DEBKAfile Special Report
Judging from the rash of reports claiming US-Iraqi military progress in the Mosul offensive against ISIS and the extra American special operations forces personnel posted to Syria for an impending US-Kurdish operation to capture the ISIS Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, the Islamic State ought to be cowering under siege, finally defeated - or at least on the run.
But the facts tell another story. ISIS is on the offensive – so far in the Middle East. Over the weekend, Islamist terrorists accounted for dozens of deaths and injured hundreds more.
Sunday, Dec. 11, at least 25 people worshipping at the Coptic St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s church adjacent to St, Mark’s cathedral in Cairo were killed and scores injured. The Coptic pope often leads the prayers there. DEBKAfile’s counterterrorism sources reveal that the attack was carried out by Islamist terrorists from Raqqa who bided their time until they struck in the Egyptian capital. Saturday, six Egyptian troops were killed by another Islamist bomb near the Giza pyramids.
On the same day, ISIS fighters pushed back into the ancient Syrian town of Palmyra, nine months after their expulsion.
The Raqqa terrorist stronghold is clearly alive and kicking on more than one front. A number of contributing factors enable the Islamic State to unleash a fresh spate of terror.
1. The US-Iraqi-Kurdish drive has stalled without driving ISIS out of Mosul or choking off the terrorist fighters’ freedom to move between Mosul and Raqqa, their Syrian bastion.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who arrived in Baghdad Sunday, Dec. 11, was assigned by the Obama administration to make a last effort to reactivate the Mosul campaign. His chances of success are slim. The military coalition which launched the campaign two months ago has lost a vital component, the Kurdish Peshmerga, which backed out three weeks ago. The Iraqi military units which captured some of the city’s outskirts stopped short when they reached the strongest defense lines set up by the Islamic State and have been unable to break through, even with US air support.
The pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite front which undertook to seize Tal Afar in order to sever the ISIS connecting link between Iraq and Syria are parked outside, having been warned by Turkey not to set foot in the town.
Added to these setbacks, the US CENTCOM which is running the aerial war in Iraq is at loggerheads with the Iraqi Air Force command and has practically grounded all Iraqi warplanes.
Even if Carter can wave a magic wand and resolve all these issues, the momentum and high hopes that actuated the Mosul campaign when it started have been lost and can hardly be recovered before Barack Obama leaves the White House.
At least two of the incoming president Donald Trump’s designated security advisers – Defense Secretary Gen, James Mattis and National security Adviser Gen. Michael Flynn – have criticized the operation in is current form.
2. What is happening in Raqqa doesn’t fit the designation of an offensive. At most, small Kurdish and Syrian rebel groups are mounting sporadic raids against ISIS fighters on the town’s outskirts, with the support of the Obama administration. Our military experts say that Raqqa can’t be captured from the Islamist terrorists by conventional means – mainly because it is spread over a large area of mostly empty desert. ISIS has taken advantage of this terrain to distribute knots of defenders across a vast area ranging hundreds of kilometers from northern to eastern Syria up to the winding, heavily overgrown banks of the Euphrates River.
So when Ash Carter announced Saturday that he would be sending another 200 Special Operations Forces into Syria to join the battle for Raqqa, he had no idea that he, the Russians and the Syrians were about to be caught off guard by a fresh ISIS initiative to reoccupy Palmyra, the ancient Syrian two from which they are thrown out in March.
This was a poke in the eye for Russian President Vladimir Putin who proclaimed Palmyra’s capture from ISIS as a signal coup for the Russian army in its war on Islamist terror.
3. He might well commiserate with Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi. For two years, the Egyptian armed forces have been fighting an uphill battle to crush the ISIS groups infesting the Sinai Peninsula. The jihadists constantly elude punishment with the help of supportive Bedouin tribes.
Every few months, they pose a real threat to the stability of the El-Sisi regime by striking inside Cairo, the capital, with some terrorist atrocity, for which they are aided by the Muslim Brotherhood underground and Palestinian Hamas extremists in the Gaza Strip.
The bombing of the Coptic church Saturday was unusually the work of jihadists deployed from Raqqa, Syria. Egypt has reacted by placing extra guards at Christian sites and declaring three days of national morning for the disastrous bombing attack on Egypt’s largest minority.
The new Islamist drive is looking ominously like the onset of the Christmas-New Year holiday terror onslaught the Islamic State has threatened to unleash in the Middle East and beyond. US and European security services have been placed on high alert in the belief that returning jihadis are programmed to strike at home.