Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The mystery of the IS convoy

There is a missing piece in the puzzle of hundreds of Islamic State group militants escaping from the siege of Fallujah in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

A few days after the city of Fallujah was declared fully liberated by the Iraqi security forces from Islamic State (IS) group militants in June, the Iraqi military announced its warplanes had carried out several air strikes on a convoy of IS vehicles fleeing the city, taking out hundreds of vehicles and jihadists.

The aerial operation was hailed as another great victory for the Iraqi security forces as they continued to advance in an all-out offensive to drive the terror group out from territories it had captured across the country more than two years ago.   

The air strikes also came a few days after the Iraqi military announced its troops had recaptured the IS stronghold of Fallujah following fierce fighting with IS militants, many of whom were believed to be zealous foreign jihadists.

But nearly a month later new information and rumours have begun emerging about the air raids on the convoy, raising suspicions about many details in the accounts of the attacks as related by Iraqi and American officials.

It is now believed that some 1,000 militants, including senior IS leaders and some foreign fighters and their families, may have made their way out of the besieged city, escaping the aerial bombardment of their convoy.

The fiasco began unfolding three days after Fallujah was declared fully liberated, when a spokesman for the Iraqi military said Iraqi security forces had hit an IS convoy near Fallujah, destroying hundreds of the militant group’s vehicles.

The first report of the air strikes came on 29 June from Yehya Rasoul, the official spokesman for the Iraqi Joint Operation Command, who said Iraqi jets had raided a convey of IS vehicles overnight while they were trying to leave Fallujah for the desert.

Rasoul said the attack had been carried out after Iraqi surveillance planes had spotted some 500 vehicles leaving Fallujah across the city’s only intact bridge towards the western outskirts.

After blowing up the bridge, the convoy made its way to Halabssa some 10 km west of Fallujah, before making a breach in an earth embankment built by the army to defend the city, he said.

Rasoul said the first sorties were carried out by US-made Cessna Caravan aircraft before helicopter gunships and jets joined the assault. The Iraqi air force is believed to be using C-208 Caravans, a Cessna cargo plane converted to an AC-208 combat aircraft by the US defence firm ATK.

Rasoul said the vehicles were carrying light and medium-size weapons, including anti-aircraft rocket launchers and ammunition. He said “large numbers of [IS] fighters were also in the convoy.”

Hamid Al-Maliki, commander of the army’s Helicopter Corps, later said Iraqi choppers had destroyed a total of 750 IS vehicles that had been moving in an 11-km convoy, killing hundreds of militants.

Al-Maliki said the pursuit had started at 1 am on 29 July after Iraqi spy planes had spotted the convoy. “More than 20 helicopters took part in the mission and were able to destroy more than 138 vehicles,” Al-Maliki said in a video statement released by the Iraqi defence ministry on 29 July.

Those IS fighters who had managed to flee had evacuated wounded militants as they moved on, he said.

Iraqi Defence Minister Khalid Al-Obeidi said 688 IS vehicles had been destroyed and 440 militants killed.

In a video released by his office, Al-Obeidi said the assault had been carried out after “accurate information was received by the troops on the ground about Daesh [fighters] escaping,” prompting them to ask for aerial support to pin them down. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for IS.

Interestingly, Al-Obeidi also said that no US-led coalition planes had taken part in the operation. “Because of the bad weather the coalition could not carry out any direct strikes,” he said.

In another discrepancy, Hakim Al-Zamili, head of the Security and Defence Committee in the Iraqi parliament, said coalition forces had “refused to participate, claiming that there were families in the convoys.”

However, the US command gave a different version of what happened in Fallujah that mysterious night in Iraq’s western desert.

On 30 June, an American spokesperson confirmed that the US-led coalition and Iraqi planes had attacked two IS convoys — one late at night on 28 June and the second the next day.

Spokesman for the coalition Chris Garver said the air strikes had targeted two IS convoys leaving Fallujah over two days, destroying about 175 vehicles carrying militants out of the city.

Garver said a large group of vehicles had been detected gathering in neighbourhoods southwest of Fallujah and west of the Tofaha Bridge on 28 June at night. “Iraqi security forces on the ground positively identified the convoy as belonging to IS,” he said.

“Iraqi air force and coalition air strikes attacked the convoy throughout the night and into Wednesday [29 June] morning,” Garver said. “We estimate coalition strikes destroyed approximately 55 Daesh vehicles, and we know the Iraqi security forces destroyed more.”

“When strikes from both Iraqi and coalition air forces hit the convoy, the Daesh fighters abandoned their vehicles and fled on foot,” he said. “We estimate coalition strikes destroyed approximately 120 Daesh vehicles.”

The US media quoted another US official as saying that “the operation required American aircraft because there were a lot of civilians in the area.” Other different or contradictory accounts have also been given by officials on both sides.

As the discrepancies have unfolded, the reports about the air strikes on the IS convoy have raised a lot of serious questions about the conduct of the war against IS and whether so many issues arise from mismanagement, operational mistakes, errors of judgement or policies by the parties involved.

The first fundamental question is how such a large group of IS fighters with their families carrying large supplies of weapons and ammunition could have managed to escape from Fallujah, which had been tightly encircled by Iraqi forces in recent weeks.

By the same token, there is the question of how US reconnaissance planes and satellites and other spying devices working around the clock in Iraq could have failed to observe such a large convoy assembling to escape from Fallujah. 

Iraqi commanders estimate that some 1,800 IS militants were killed in the battle for Fallujah, which lasted for nearly a month. The city, held by IS since January 2014, was a military bastion for the militants, and it was widely believed that several thousand jihadists and other Sunni fighters were entrenched there.

As headlines in the Iraqi media have put it, the remaining militants seem to have been let go without a fight, making this another puzzle in the long and gruesome war against IS.

The key question that remains is why the Iraqi forces encircling the city on all sides, and the Americans watching from the skies, allowed IS fighters to leave the city without a fight or any attempt to kill or arrest them.

Speculation circulating in Baghdad has provided various scenarios to the effect that foul play could have been behind the mass escape of IS militants from Fallujah.

The theories range from a secret deal with IS leaders to allow the militants to leave with a guarantee of safe passage, which conspiracy theorists say explains the relatively quick victory over IS in Fallujah, to a regional or domestic plot to help certain IS activists who it may be politically convenient to have disappear.

Graft has not been ruled out. Corruption is rampant in Iraq, and one of the most corrupt organs of the state is the security forces. Graft has been blamed for the numerous jailbreaks in the country since 2005, which have allowed hundreds of militants to go free.

In July 2013, some 1,000 militants escaped from two prisons, one of them the notorious Abu Ghraib, sparking accusations of collaboration by the security forces.

But it is not just a question of conspiracy theories. The pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat reported on 26 July that some 1,000 IS militants had suddenly disappeared from Fallujah before the city fell to the Iraqi security forces.

Al-Hayat quoted an assistant to the IS commander in Fallujah, only identified as Hamad, who said that female fighters from Russia, Tunisia, Algeria and Asian countries were among the fleeing militants.

Hamad said senior IS commanders and would-be suicide bombers had also vanished from the city shortly before its fall to Iraqi forces.

With the offensives to retake Mosul and IS-held cities in Syria now approaching, the bigger question is the future of IS after the expected collapse of its caliphate.

It is believed that many Iraqi and Syrian militants will be trying to spread out among the local population, while foreign jihadists will flee to other countries.

The spread and exodus of the militants is crucial to securing the group’s long-term aim in moving its soldiers to other places in order to continue its worldwide attacks.

The deadly impact of this movement has been seen in the recent terror attacks in Europe, Turkey and Libya, with several other attacks elsewhere also having been inspired by IS.

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