Biden to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, officials say

By Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden plans to withdraw the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, 20 years to the day after the al Qaeda attacks that triggered America’s longest war, U.S. officials said on Tuesday.

The disclosure of the plan came on the same day that the U.S. intelligence community released a gloomy outlook for Afghanistan, forecasting “low” chances of a peace deal this year and warning that its government would struggle to hold the Taliban insurgency at bay if the U.S.-led coalition withdraws support.

Biden’s decision would miss a May 1 deadline for withdrawal agreed to with the Taliban by his predecessor Donald Trump. The insurgents had threatened to resume hostilities against foreign troops if that deadline was missed. But Biden would still be setting a near-term withdrawal date, potentially allaying Taliban concerns.

The Democratic president will publicly announce his decision on Wednesday, the White House said. A senior Biden administration official said the pullout would begin before May 1 and could be complete well before the Sept. 11 deadline. Significantly, it will not would be subject to further conditions, including security or human rights.

“The president has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe in staying in Afghanistan forever,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in a briefing with reporters.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are expected to discuss the decision with NATO allies in Brussels on Wednesday, sources said.

Biden’s decision suggests he has concluded that the U.S. military presence will no longer be decisive in achieving a lasting peace in Afghanistan, a core Pentagon assumption that has long underpinned American troop deployments there.

“There is no military solution to the problems plaguing Afghanistan, and we will focus our efforts on supporting the ongoing peace process,” the senior administration official said.

The U.S. intelligence report, which was sent to Congress, stated: “Kabul continues to face setbacks on the battlefield, and the Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory.”

The Taliban declined comment, saying the group has not been notified of the U.S. decision.

The May 1 deadline had already started to appear less and less likely in recent weeks, given the lack of preparations on the ground to ensure it could be done safely and responsibly. U.S. officials have also blamed the Taliban for failing to live up to commitments to reduce violence and some have warned about persistent Taliban links to al Qaeda.

It was those ties that triggered U.S. military intervention in 2001 following al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks, when hijackers slammed airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington, killing almost 3,000 people. The Biden administration has said al Qaeda does not pose a threat to the U.S. homeland now.

‘ABANDON THE FIGHT’

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell accused Biden of planning to “turn tail and abandon the fight in Afghanistan.” It was Trump, a Republican, who had agreed to the May 1 withdrawal.

“Precipitously withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan is a grave mistake,” McConnell said, adding that effective counter-terrorism operations require presence and partners on the ground.

There currently are about 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of more than 100,000 in 2011. About 2,400 U.S. service members have been killed in the course of the Afghan conflict and many thousands more wounded.

It remains unclear how Biden’s move would impact a planned 10-day summit starting April 24 about Afghanistan in Istanbul that is due to include the United Nations and Qatar. Taliban representatives have not yet committed to attend.

Officials in Afghanistan are bracing for the withdrawal.

“We will have to survive the impact of it and it should not be considered as Taliban’s victory or takeover,” said a senior Afghan government source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Although successive U.S. presidents sought to extricate themselves from Afghanistan, those hopes were confounded by concerns about Afghan security forces, endemic corruption in Afghanistan and the resiliency of a Taliban insurgency that enjoyed safe haven across the border in Pakistan.

Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States could cut off financial assistance to Afghanistan “if there is backsliding on civil society, the rights that women have achieved.” Under previous Taliban rule, the rights of women and girls were curtailed.

Democratic Senator Jack Reed, chairman of Senate Armed Services, called it a very difficult decision for Biden.

“There is no easy answer,” Reed said.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Steve Holland, Trevor Hunnicutt, Patricia Zengerle and Jonathan Landay in Washington, Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul, Editing by Will Dunham)

Biden to name special Yemen envoy, end support for Saudi-led coalition, aide says

By Jonathan Landay and Jarrett Renshaw

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday will announce a new special envoy for Yemen and an end to U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations in that country’s civil war, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.

The moves show that Biden plans to intensify the U.S. role in diplomatic efforts to close out the grueling conflict between the Saudi-backed government and the Iranian-align Houthi movement that has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Biden “is going to announce an end to American support for offensive operations in Yemen,” Sullivan told a White House briefing. “That is a promise he made in the campaign that he will be following through on.”

Sullivan also said that Biden would name a new special envoy for Yemen, but he did not disclose the person’s name. A source familiar with the matter said the U.S. president was expected to tap veteran U.S. diplomat Timothy Lenderking for the new post.

HUMANITARIAN CALAMITY

The end of U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations does not extend to efforts to neutralize al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, Sullivan said.

“It extends to the types of offensive operations that have perpetuated a civil war in Yemen that have led to a humanitarian crisis,” he said.

The new U.S. administration, he noted, already has halted two sales of precision-guided munitions and kept regional allies in the region informed of actions to avoid surprises.

The civil war in Yemen has claimed tens of thousands of lives, including large numbers of civilians, and left 80% of the country’s 24 million people in need, according to the United Nations.

The Saudi-led coalition intervened in March 2015 on the side of the government and enjoyed the backing of the Trump administration, with the war increasingly seen as a proxy conflict between the United States and Iran.

But the mounting civilian death toll and growing humanitarian calamity fueled demands by Republican and Democratic lawmakers for an end to U.S. support for Riyadh.

Biden pledged during the 2020 presidential campaign to curtail U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign, including arms sales.

The U.N. has been struggling to broker peace talks between the government and the Houthis, an effort that Lenderking likely would be tasked to boost.

“Any move that reduces the number of weapons, military activity, is to be welcomed and will give more space and more hope not only to the (peace) talks, but importantly more hope to the people of Yemen,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

The State Department is reviewing the Trump administration’s designation last month of the Iran-aligned Houthi group as a foreign terrorist organization.

The United States last week approved all transactions involving Yemen’s Houthi movement for the next month as it carries out the review. But the United Nations is still hearing concerns that companies are planning to cancel or suspend business with Yemen despite the move.

The U.N. and aid groups have called for the designation to be reversed, warning it would push Yemen into a large-scale famine.

(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Alistair Bell and Paul Simao)

Pompeo says Al Qaeda has new home base in Iran

By Humeyra Pamuk and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday, without providing hard evidence, that al Qaeda had established a new home base in Iran and the United States had fewer options in dealing with the group now it was “burrowed inside” that country.

Pompeo alleged that Iran has given safe haven to al Qaeda leaders and support for the group, despite some skepticism within the intelligence community and Congress.

The New York Times reported in November that al Qaeda’s Abu Muhammad al-Masri, accused of helping to mastermind the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, was gunned down by Israeli operatives in Iran. Iran denied the report, saying there were no al Qaeda “terrorists” on its soil.

Pompeo told a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington that he was announcing publicly for the first time that al-Masri died on Aug. 7 last year.

Pompeo said his presence in Iran was no surprise, and added:

“Al-Masri’s presence inside Iran points to the reason that we’re here today … Al-Qaeda has a new home base: it is the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

On Twitter, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed Pompeo’s accusations as “warmongering lies.”

Iran has been a target throughout the Trump administration and Pompeo has sought to further ratchet up pressure on Iran in recent weeks with more sanctions and heated rhetoric.

Pompeo added that he was imposing sanctions on Iran-based al-Qaeda leaders and three leaders of al-Qaeda Kurdish battalions.

He also announced a reward of up to $7 million under for information leading to location or identification of Iran based al Qaeda leader Muhammad Abbatay — also known as Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi.

Earlier accusations by the George W. Bush administration of Iranian links to al Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States have been discredited. But reports have surfaced over the years of al Qaeda operatives hiding out in Iran.

A former senior U.S. intelligence official with direct knowledge of the issue said the Iranians were never friendly with al Qaeda before or after the Sept. 11 attacks and any claims of current cooperation should be viewed warily.

Shi’ite Iran and al Qaeda, a Sunni Muslim group, have long been sectarian foes.

(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, David Brunnstrom and Arshad Mohammed Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Alistair Bell)

Trump to withdraw most troops from Somalia as part of global pullback

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump has ordered the withdrawal of nearly all American troops from Somalia by Jan. 15, U.S. officials said on Friday, part of a global pullback that will also see him draw down forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The United States has about 700 troops in Somalia focused on helping local forces defeat the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab insurgency. The mission has received little attention in the United States, but is considered a cornerstone of the Pentagon’s global efforts to combat al Qaeda.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. troops remaining in Somalia would be located in the capital, Mogadishu.

“While a change in force posture, this action is not a change in U.S. policy,” the Pentagon said.

“The U.S. will retain the capability to conduct targeted counterterrorism operations in Somalia, and collect early warnings and indicators regarding threats to the homeland.”

The Pentagon statement, which was unsigned, said some forces could be reassigned outside of East Africa. An unspecified number would be repositioned into neighboring countries, allowing for cross-border operations, it said.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Steve Holland; Editing by Leslie Adler and Daniel Wallis)

Islamist violence escalates in Burkina Faso, making widespread hunger worse

By Edward McAllister

DORI, Burkina Faso (Reuters) – Habibou Sore had to pause for breath as she ran barefoot from the approaching gunmen. She was pregnant with twins, due any day.

Soon after arriving at a nearby town in northern Burkina Faso, her feet cut and swollen, Sore gave birth. Then her battle with hunger began.

Attacks by Islamist groups with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State have killed thousands of people this year in Africa’s Sahel region, an arid belt to the south of the Sahara Desert.

The escalating bloodshed has worsened food shortages that threaten millions in a region already hit by climate change, poverty and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sixteen months after fleeing her village, Sore lives with relatives in the town of Pisilla and eats one small meal a day.

Her twin sons Hassan and Housein each weigh 7 kg (15.5 pounds), the equivalent of a healthy 4-month-old. Their bony legs are covered in sores, their scalps bare in patches. They scream for the milk their mother cannot provide.

“I am worried about them,” Sore said, as she rocked the boys on her lap in a clinic in the town of Kaya, surrounded by paintings showing mothers how to breastfeed and the foods required for a balanced diet. “They are not doing well.”

Over 7 million people face acute hunger in a vast area comprising landlocked Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, as armed groups cut off access to supplies and farmland, figures from the United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP) show.

Burkina Faso is deteriorating fastest. Over half a million children under 5 are acutely malnourished, U.N. figures show. WFP said in October that over 10,000 people were “one step short of famine”.

“This year has been worse than anything we have seen in the last decade, a worsening situation that is obviously connected to growing conflicts,” said Christelle Hure, spokeswoman for the Oslo-based Norwegian Refugee Council, which offers shelter for the displaced.

‘GREAT LOSS’

This summer’s rainy season was one of the heaviest in years, bringing life to the hilly northern savannah where neem, eucalyptus and acacia trees tower over a sea of waist-high golden grass. Farmers say the conditions are perfect for crops and cattle – if only they could reach them.

Sayouba Zabre should be harvesting 10 hectares of millet and sorghum and tending dozens of cattle near his hometown in the Soum region. Instead he is in a camp for displaced people in the Center-North region after fleeing an attack this year.

Camp residents collect wood and dry hibiscus pods on the roofs of their makeshift tents – anything to make money. Zabre planted millet and peanuts, but it is not enough to feed his family.

“This is a great loss. There is a lot out there this year,” he said, referring to his farm. “I should be there.”

Many citizens rely on food from aid agencies that cannot reach some of the worst-hit areas.

Twice this year, food deliveries were hijacked, said Antoine Renard, WFP’s country director in Burkina Faso.

Dozens of health facilities have closed and about 200 others are operating at minimum staff levels, government figures show.

Malnutrition is overwhelming the clinic in Kaya where Sore took her twins. Before the crisis, it had about 30 child patients. Now it has 500.

“Every day we take children, every day we have severe cases,” said midwife Aminata Zabre.

Mothers come regularly for sachets of baby food, though sometimes there is little improvement.

“I asked one woman ‘why is your child still coming to us?’,” Zabre said. “She told me her father-in-law was eating the child’s rations.”

(Reporting By Edward McAllister; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Trump may settle for partial Afghan withdrawal, despite Pentagon shakeup: sources

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s new Pentagon leadership team has not yet signaled an imminent, total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, raising expectations among allies that Trump might settle for only a partial reduction this year, sources said.

Trump fired his defense secretary, Mark Esper, and appointed other top Pentagon officials last week after longstanding concerns that his priorities were not being dealt with urgently enough at the Defense Department.

They included ending the 19-year-old Afghan engagement by Christmas, an ambitious target that opponents of the country’s longest war welcomed but which Trump’s critics warned could be reckless given ongoing militant violence plaguing Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has featured in a flurry of introductory calls by acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, Esper’s replacement, to U.S. allies’ defense ministers and chiefs of defense, a senior U.S. defense official told Reuters.

“It was a part of many of them because it is of great importance to our NATO allies, our allies in the region and also just global security and protecting the American homeland,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But the official, speaking after the calls with allies, suggested that Trump would not push a withdrawal faster than conditions on the ground allow.

U.S. and Afghan officials are warning of troubling levels of violence by Taliban insurgents and persistent Taliban links to al Qaeda.

It was those ties that triggered U.S. military intervention in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks, which al Qaeda carried out. Thousands of American and allied troops have died in fighting in Afghanistan since then.

Some U.S. military officials, citing U.S. counter-terrorism priorities in Afghanistan, have privately urged Trump against going to zero at this point and want to keep U.S. troop levels at around 4,500 for now.

“The president has acted appropriately in this, has never said: ‘Hey, we’re going to zero. Let’s go tomorrow.’ It has always been a conditions-based effort and that effort continues,” the senior U.S. defense official said, without explicitly detailing future drawdown plans.

The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

‘SEE FIGHT TO THE FINISH’

Over the past four years, predicting Trump’s policy pronouncements has not always been easy.

On Oct. 7, Trump said on Twitter: “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!”

But U.S. officials say he has yet to issue orders to carry that withdrawal out. Doing so now would be difficult for the U.S. military to execute, especially given the reliance of NATO allies on the United States for logistical support, they add.

One NATO official, who asked not to be named, said the belief was the United States could soon announce a drawdown to 2,500 to 3,000 troops by Christmas.

National security adviser Robert O’Brien already raised such a possibility, saying last month the United States would go down to 2,500 by early 2021, in comments overshadowed by Trump’s Christmas timeline.

A NATO diplomat said Miller, in his introductory call with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, did not suggest a complete withdrawal but instead a reduction of troops.

The senior U.S. defense official said U.S. withdrawals from Afghanistan had been carried out in an “educated way so as not to revisit the Iraq withdrawal that failed in 2011.”

Then-President Barack Obama withdrew troops against military advice, only to return them to Iraq three years later.

Regardless of what Trump might do, Taliban militants, fighting against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, have called on the United States to stick to a February agreement with the Trump administration to withdraw U.S. troops by May, subject to certain security guarantees.

Violence has been rising throughout Afghanistan, with the Taliban attacking provincial capitals, in some case prompting U.S. airstrikes.

In Kabul, there is growing fear of a precipitous withdrawal that could further embolden the Taliban and undercut already sputtering peace talks, sources say. Miller, in a message to the U.S. armed forces released over the weekend, echoed Trump’s desire to end America’s overseas engagements by saying “it’s time to come home.” But he did not offer a timetable and stressed the need to finish the fight against al Qaeda.

The Taliban harbored al Qaeda’s leaders and the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan said the Taliban had not fulfilled their February accord commitment to break ties with al Qaeda.

“We are on the verge of defeating al Qaeda and its associates, but we must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish,” wrote Miller, a former Green Beret and counter-terrorism official.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington, Robin Emmott in Brussels and John Irish in Paris; Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

U.S. halts military cooperation with Mali as coup supporters celebrate

By Tiemoko Diallo and Aaron Ross

BAMAKO (Reuters) – The United States said on Friday it had suspended cooperation with Mali’s military in response to the overthrow of the president, as thousands gathered in the capital to celebrate the junta’s takeover.

The ousting of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on Tuesday has dismayed Mali’s international partners, who fear it could further destabilize the former French colony and West Africa’s entire Sahel region.

“Let me say categorically there is no further training or support of Malian armed forces full-stop. We have halted everything until such time as we can clarify the situation,” the U.S. Sahel envoy J. Peter Pham told journalists.

The United States regularly provides training to soldiers in Mali, including several of the officers who led the coup. It also offers intelligence support to France’s Barkhane forces, who are there to fight affiliates of al Qaeda and Islamic State.

Pham said a decision on whether Washington would designate the actions a coup, which could trigger a cut-off of direct support to the government, had to go through a legal review. A Pentagon spokesperson referred on Friday to the events as an “act of mutiny”.

Supporters of the junta filled Independence Square in the capital, Bamako, which has been largely peaceful since Tuesday’s turmoil. Many of them sang, danced, tooted vuvuzelas and waved banners thanking the mutineers.

“It’s a scene of joy. God delivered us from the hands of evil, we are happy, we are behind our army,” said a 59-year-old farmer who gave his name only as Souleymane.

Some protesters also showed their disapproval of different foreign powers. One sign had the words “Barkhane” and “MINUSMA” crossed out, the latter a reference to the U.N. peacekeeping force in Mali.

Meanwhile a couple of Russian flags could be seen waving in the crowd. Russia’s ambassador to Mali has met representatives of the junta, Russian state news agency RIA reported.

France said on Thursday that Barkhane’s operations would continue despite the coup.

TRANSITION

The junta leaders have said they acted because the country was sinking into chaos and insecurity that they said was largely the fault of poor government. They have promised to oversee a transition to elections within a “reasonable” amount of time.

Junta spokesman Ismael Wague said on Thursday that the officers were holding talks with political leaders that would lead to the appointment of a transitional president.

They have held Keita since detaining him and forcing him to dissolve parliament and resign.

A United Nations human rights team visited Keita and 13 other senior figures held by the junta late on Thursday, spokeswoman Liz Throssell said.

“There are no indications that these people have been ill-treated,” she told a news briefing in Geneva, where she called for their release.

Earlier on Friday, the mutineers freed Finance Minister Abdoulaye Daffe and the president’s private secretary, Sabane Mahalmoudou, the head of Keita’s party, Bocary Treta, said.

A delegation from the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is expected to arrive in Bamako on Saturday, after the bloc held an emergency summit aimed at reversing Keita’s ouster.

ECOWAS has already suspended Mali’s membership, shut off borders and halted financial flows to the country.

(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo and Aaron Ross; Additional reporting by Felix Onuah in Abuja, David Lewis in London, Stephanie Nebehey in Geneva, Idrees Ali in Washington and Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Toby Chopra, Angus MacSwan and Frances Kerry)

FBI finds evidence linking al Qaeda to 2019 Saudi shooter at Florida naval base: U.S. source

By Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The FBI has found cellphone evidence linking al Qaeda to the Royal Saudi Air Force trainee who killed three American sailors and wounded eight people in a December shooting spree at a U.S. naval base in Florida, a federal law enforcement source said on Monday.

The shooter, Second Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, 21, was killed by law enforcement during the Dec. 6, 2019 attack.

He was on the base as part of a U.S. Navy training program designed to foster links with foreign allies.

Since then, the Justice Department has been working to try and unlock the encryption on the shooter’s phone to get a better sense of his motives and whether he had connections to known terrorist groups.

In February, an audio recording purporting to be from the Islamist militant group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the fatal attack, but it provided no evidence.

Prior to the shooting spree, the shooter also posted criticism of U.S. wars and quoted slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on social media.

The Justice Department has also previously said that Alshamrani visited the New York City memorial to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States – carried out by Saudi hijackers for the Islamist militant group al Qaeda – and posted anti-American, anti-Israeli and jihadi messages on social media, including two hours before the attack.

The FBI’s newly discovered evidence on Alshamrani’s phone signals the end of a spat between Attorney General William Barr and Apple Inc.

Earlier this year, he accused Apple of failing to help the FBI to get Alshamrani’s two cellphones unlocked, an allegation Apple staunchly denied.

Barr has said the Saudi government did not have any advanced warnings of the shooting.

However, in January, Saudi Arabia withdrew its remaining 21 cadets from the U.S. military training program and brought them back to Saudi Arabia, after the Justice Department’s investigation revealed that some of them had accessed child pornography or had social media accounts containing Islamic extremist or anti-American content.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball and Sarah N. Lynch; additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio)

How an Islamist preacher sent gunmen into Burkina Faso’s schools

How a preacher sent gunmen into Burkina Faso’s schools
By Tim Cocks

FAUBE, Burkina Faso (Reuters) – When an Islamist preacher took up the fight in Burkina Faso’s northern borderlands almost a decade ago, his only weapon was a radio station. The words he spoke kindled the anger of a frustrated population, and helped turn their homes into a breeding ground for jihad.

Residents of this parched region in the Sahel – a vast band of thorny scrub beneath the Sahara Desert – remember applauding Ibrahim “Malam” Dicko as he denounced his country’s Western-backed government and racketeering police over the airwaves.

“We cheered,” said Adama Kone, a 32-year-old teacher from the town of Djibo near the frontier with Mali, who was one of those thrilled by Dicko’s words. “He understood our anger. He gave the Fulani youth a new confidence.”

Mostly herders, young men like Kone from the Fulani people were feeling hemmed in by more prosperous farmers, whom they felt the government in Ouagadougou favored. The preacher successfully exploited their conflicts over dwindling land and water resources, and the frustrations of people angered by corrupt and ineffective government, to launch the country’s first indigenous jihadi movement. That cleared a path for groups affiliated with al Qaeda and Islamic State.

Since Dicko’s first broadcasts, Burkina Faso has become the focus of a determined jihadi campaign by three of West Africa’s most dangerous armed groups who have carved out influence in nearly a third of the country, while much of the world was focused on the crisis in neighboring Mali. Militant Islamist fighters close schools, gun down Christians in their places of worship and booby-trap corpses to blow up first responders. At least 39 people died last week in an ambush on a convoy ferrying workers from a Canadian-owned mine in the country. There has been no claim for that ambush, but the modus operandi – a bomb attack on military escorts followed by gunmen unleashing bullets – was characteristic of Islamist groups. [nL8N27P0IA]

Since 2016, the violence has killed more than 1,000 people and displaced nearly 500,000 – most of them this year.

In 2019, at least 755 people had died through October in violence involving jihadist groups across Burkina Faso, according to Reuters’ analysis of political violence events recorded by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, an NGO. Actual numbers are likely higher – researchers aren’t always able to identify who is involved in the violence.

The teacher Kone is one of many of Dicko’s former supporters who regret their earlier enthusiasm.

“We handed them the microphones in our mosques,” he said. “By the time we realized what they were up to, it was too late.”

He fled to Ouagadougou two years ago, after armed Islamists showed up at his school. More than 2,000 schools have closed due to the violence, the U.N. children’s fund UNICEF said in August.

A LOCAL CHANNEL

A lean, bespectacled Fulani from the north, Malam Dicko broadcast a message of equality and modesty. He reportedly died of an illness in late 2017, but his sermons channeled deep grievances in Burkina Faso’s north where impoverished people have long been frustrated by corrupt officials.

The province of northern Burkina Faso where Dicko lived scores 2.7 on the United Nations Human Development Index, compared with 6 for the area around the capital, Ouagadougou. About 40% of its children are stunted by malnutrition, against only 6% in the capital, according to U.S. AID.

From Ouagadougou to Djibo is a four-hour drive on a road which peters out into a sandy track. Sparse villages dot a landscape of sand and withered trees. Goats devour scrappy patches of grass.

Residents complain that their few interactions with the state tend to be predatory: Bureaucrats demand money to issue title deeds for houses, then never provide the papers; gendarmes charge up to $40 to take down a complaint; there are mysterious taxes and extortion at police roadblocks. Lieutenant Colonel Kanou Coulibaly, a military police squadron commander and head of training for Burkina Faso’s armed forces, acknowledged that northerners “feel marginalized and abandoned by the central government.”

In about 2010 preacher Dicko, who had studied in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, began tapping this discontent, recalled Kone and other former Djibo residents. He denounced corruption by traditional religious leaders and practices that he deemed un-Islamic, including lavish wedding and naming ceremonies.

The movement he created, Ansarul Islam (Defenders of Islam), opened a path to militants from outside Burkina Faso — particularly Mali.

Early in 2013, French forces were pounding northern Mali to wrest control from al Qaeda-linked fighters who had seized the region the previous year. Dicko slipped over the border to join the militants, said Oumarou Ibrahim, a Sufi preacher who knew Dicko and was close to the No. 2 in his movement, Amadou Boly.

In Mali, Ibrahim said, Dicko linked up with Amadou Koufa, a fellow Fulani whose forces have unleashed turmoil on central Mali in recent years. French forces detained Dicko near the border with Algeria; he was released in 2015.

He set up his own training camp in a forest along the Mali-Burkina border, Kone, the teacher, and Ibrahim, the Sufi preacher, told Reuters.

Dicko forged ties with a group of Malian armed bandits who controlled drug and livestock trade routes.

On the radio that year, he urged youths to back him, “even at the cost of spilling blood.”

“WHITES AND COLONIZERS”

For some years Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Compaore, had managed to keep good relations with Mali’s Islamists. But in 2014, he tried to change the constitution to extend his 27-year-rule. Residents of the capital drove him from office.

Without Compaore, Burkina Faso became a target. Barely two weeks into a new presidency, in January 2016, an attack on the Splendid Hotel and a restaurant in Ouagadougou killed 30 people. It was claimed by al Qaeda-linked militants based in northern Mali.

Dicko became even more radical after that: He fell out with associates including his No. 2, Boly.

Ibrahim, the Sufi preacher, said Boly came to his house in Belhoro village in November 2016, agitated because Dicko had ordered him to raise cash to pay for AK-47 rifles and grenade launchers from Mali.

Boly refused. Dicko threatened him, Ibrahim said. Boly was either with him, “or with the whites and the colonizers.”

Two weeks later, gunmen assassinated Boly outside his Djibo home. Ibrahim said he fled his own village the next day.

The teacher Kone, whose house was down the street, said he heard the gunshots that day. A wave of killings followed. The militants assassinated civil servants, blew up security posts, executed school teachers.

One day in May 2017, Kone was running late for school when he got a phone call from a colleague. Armed men from Dicko’s movement had come and asked after him.

He shuttered the school and sped to Ouagadougou.

BOOBY TRAPS

Now headed by Dicko’s brother Jafar, Ansarul Islam was sanctioned by the United States in February 2018. None of its leaders could be reached.

It still controls much of Burkina Faso’s northern border areas but two other groups have also built a presence on the country’s borders, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations. Islamic State in the Greater Sahara dominates along the eastern frontier with Niger. And Koufa’s Macina Liberation Front, which is closely aligned to al Qaeda, is active on the western border with Mali.

These spheres of influence can be loose: Fighters for all three are believed to cooperate with each other and with bandit groups.

Their attacks – including the kidnap and killing of a Canadian citizen in January claimed by Islamic State – are becoming more brutal. In one instance in March, a Burkinabe security official told Reuters, militants stitched a bomb inside a corpse and dressed it up in an army uniform, killing two medics – a technique used by Malian fighters.

Recent attacks on churches have killed about 20 people, and a priest was kidnapped in March.

The European Union and member states have committed 8 billion euros ($9 billion) over six years to tackling poverty in the region but so far, responses from Ouagadougou and the West have been predominantly military.

The United Nations has spent a billion dollars a year since 2014 on a 15,000-strong peacekeeping force in Mali. Almost 200 members have been killed – its deadliest mission ever.

France has 4,500 troops stationed across the region. The United States has set up drone bases, held annual training exercises and sent 800 troops to the deserts of Niger. Led by France, Western powers have provided funding and training to a regional counter-terrorism force known as G5 Sahel made up of soldiers from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania.

Despite all this, Islamist violence has spread to places previously untouched by it, as tensions like those that first kindled support for Dicko intensify.

“You have a solution that is absolutely militarized to a problem that is absolutely political,” said Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa project director at International Crisis Group, an independent think tank. “The security response is not addressing these problems.”

CYCLE OF ABUSE

The fact that a large number of recruits are Fulani has triggered a backlash by other ethnic groups, and those who have fled northern Burkina Faso say they had scant protection.

One woman said gunmen on motorbikes attacked her village, Biguelel, last December. The gunmen accused her family of colluding with “terrorists” simply because they were Fulani. They torched her home and shot her husband and dozens of others dead, but she escaped.

The next day the woman, Mariam Dicko, and about 40 others went to a military police post in the nearby town of Yirgou. “They said it was over now, so they couldn’t help us,” said Dicko – a common surname in the country.

Kanou, the military police commander, acknowledged that troops were sometimes not present when needed. “But when patrols are being attacked, it’s more difficult,” he added. “We have to take measures to protect ourselves.”

As Western forces rely increasingly on their Sahel partners, rights groups and residents say they sometimes overlook abuses by locals. Four witnesses described to Reuters summary executions of suspected insurgents during search operations. These included an incident in the village of Belhoro on Feb. 3, in which security forces ordered nine men out of their homes and shot them dead, according to two women who saw the killings.

New York-based Human Rights Watch documented 19 such incidents in a report in March, during which it says 116 men and boys were captured and killed by security forces. The government said the army is committed to human rights and is investigating the allegations. “In our struggle there will necessarily be innocent victims, not because we want to, but because we are in a tough zone,” Kanou said. U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young said America takes up any “mistakes” with the government.

In November 2018, Burkinabe forces raided the village home of a lab technician at a clinic in Djibo, accusing his 60-year-old father of being a terrorist, two friends of his told Reuters.

They killed the father in front of his son.

The following week, the technician, Jibril Dicko, didn’t show up for work. His phone went dead.

Neighbors said he had gone to join the jihad.

 

(Additional reporting by Ryan McNeill in London and Thiam Ndaga in Ouagadougou; Edited by Alexandra Zavis and Sara Ledwith)

India launches air strike inside Pakistan; Islamabad denies militant camp hit

India's Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale speaks during a media briefing in New Delhi, India, February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

By Abu Arqam Naqash and Sanjeev Miglani

BALAKOT, Pakistan/NEW DELHI (Reuters) –

Pakistan said it would respond at a time and place of its choice, with a military spokesman even India said its warplanes killed “a very large number” of fighters when they struck a militant training camp inside Pakistan on Tuesday, raising the risk of conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbors, although Pakistan officials denied there had been casualties. alluding to its nuclear arsenal, highlighting the escalation in hostile rhetoric from both two sides since a suicide bombing in Kashmir this month.

The spokesman said a command and control authority meeting, which decides over the use of nuclear weapons, had been convened for Wednesday, adding: “You all know what that means.”

The air strike near Balakot, a town 50 km (30 miles) from the frontier, was the deepest cross-border raid launched by India since the last of its three wars with Pakistan in 1971 but there were competing claims about the damage it caused.

The Indian government, facing an election in the coming months, said the air strikes hit a training camp belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the group that claimed the suicide car bomb attack that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in Kashmir on Feb. 14.

Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said “a very large number” of militants were killed in the strikes in northeast Pakistan.

“The existence of such training facilities, capable of training hundreds of jihadis, could not have functioned without the knowledge of the Pakistani authorities,” Gokhale said. Pakistan denies harboring JeM.

A senior Indian government source said that 300 militants had been killed in the strikes and that the warplanes had ventured as far as 80 km (50 miles) inside Pakistan. But no evidence was provided to back up the claims of casualties.

The government said the action was ordered as India said it had intelligence that Jaish was planning more attacks.

Pakistani officials dismissed the Indian claims, saying the Indian aircraft had dropped their bombs in a wooded area, causing no damage or casualties.

Villagers near the town of Balakot were shaken from their sleep by the air strikes. They said only one person was wounded in the attack and they knew of no fatalities.

“We saw fallen trees and one damaged house, and four craters where the bombs had fallen,” said Mohammad Ajmal, a 25-year-old who visited the site.

A resident, who did not want to give his name, said there was a nearby madrasa Islamic college run by Jaish, though most villagers were guarded in talking about any militant neighbors.

JeM is a primarily anti-India group that forged ties with al Qaeda and has been on a U.N. terrorist list since 2001. In December 2001, Jaish fighters, along with members of another Pakistan-based militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, attacked India’s parliament, which almost led to a fourth war.

HOSPITALS ON ALERT

There has been mounting impatience in India to avenge the Feb. 14 attack, which was the most deadly seen in Kashmir during an insurgency that has last three decades, and as news of the raid broke, celebrations erupted across the country.

“I want to assure you our country is in safe hands,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said to cheers at a rally in western India hours after the raid. “I won’t let the country down.”

Pakistan’s top civilian and military leaders rejected India’s comments that it had struck a “terrorist camp” inside Pakistan, warning that they would retaliate.

Pakistan’s National Security Committee (NSC), comprising top officials including Prime Minister Imran Khan and army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, said Khan would “engage with global leadership to expose irresponsible Indian policy”. It also warned that “Pakistan shall respond at the time and place of its choosing” to Indian aggression.

China, Pakistan’s long-time ally, and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged both countries to exercise restraint.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said she had spoken to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Indian diplomats met foreign ambassadors to assure them no escalation was planned.

But as fears grew that the conflict could escalate, hospitals in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province were ordered to set a quarter of beds aside for “a national cause”, officials said.

“We put all hospitals in the province on high alert due to the present situation on the border with India and issued directives to all heads of the hospitals to be prepared for any sort of emergency,” provincial secretary health Dr Farooq Jameel told Reuters.

Indian and Pakistan troops exchanged gunfire along several sectors of their contested border in Kashmir later on Tuesday and local officials on the Pakistani side said at least four people had been killed and seven wounded.

Giving the Pakistan military’s account of the Indian incursion, spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said Pakistani aircraft were patrolling and identified Indian jets on the Indian side of the border near Okara and Lahore in Punjab as well as Muzaffarabad where they crossed and were engaged. They left Pakistani airspace after only four minutes.

He denied the incursion had caused any damage, saying there was no debris, “not even a single brick” and no casualties.

“You have proved you are not a democracy, you have chosen the path of war,” he said, addressing his remarks to India.

(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie, Drazen Jorgic, Asif Shahzad, Fayaz Bukhari, Neha Dasgupta, Aftab Ahmed, Nidhi Verma; and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Alasdair Pal and Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Alison Williams and James Dalgleish)