Malaysian teacher seen as new ’emir’ of pro-Islamic State militants

Soldiers distribute pictures of a member of extremist group Abu Sayyaf Isnilon Hapilon, who has a U.S. government bounty of $5 million for his capture, in Butig, Lanao del Sur in southern Philippines February 1, 2017.

By Rozanna Latiff and Joseph Sipalan

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – The battlefield deaths of two leaders of an Islamic State alliance in the southern Philippines could thrust a Malaysian who trained at an Al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan as the militant group’s new regional “emir”, experts and officials say.

Intelligence officials describe Malaysian Mahmud Ahmad as a financier and recruiter, who helped put together the coalition of pro-Islamic State (IS) fighters that stormed Marawi City in May.

Isnilon Hapilon, Islamic State’s anointed “emir” in Southeast Asia, and Omarkhayam Maute, one of two Middle East-educated brothers at the helm of the militant alliance, were killed in a raid on a building in Marawi and their bodies recovered on Monday, Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.

Philippine authorities said they were still searching for Mahmud.

“Based on our information, there is still one personality, Dr. Mahmud of Malaysia, and he is still in the main battle area with some Indonesians and Malaysians,” military chief, Gen. Eduardo Ano, said on Monday. “But their attitude is now different, they are no longer as aggressive as before.” He did not elaborate.

Ano urged the 30 militants remaining in a shrinking combat zone to surrender and free hostages as troops stepped up their fight.

Abdullah Maute, the alliance’s military commander, was reported killed in August, though no body was found.

Intelligence officials in Malaysia believe Mahmud left Marawi months ago.

Malaysia’s police counter-terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay told Reuters in July that Mahmud “managed to sneak out from Marawi city to another safe place with his followers”.

The 39-year-old Mahmud, who holds a doctorate in religious studies and was a university lecturer in Kuala Lumpur, was Hapilon’s second-in-command in the IS’s Southeast Asia “caliphate”, according to a July report by Indonesia-based Institute of Policy Analysis and Conflict (IPAC).

 

RECRUITMENT AND FINANCING

Sitting in the inner circle of the Marawi command center, Mahmud controlled recruitment and financing, the IPAC report said.

He was the contact for foreigners wanting to join the fight in the Philippines or with IS in the Middle East, it said.

“It wasn’t just Indonesians and Malaysians contacting Dr. Mahmud … he was also the contact for Bangladeshis in Malaysia who wanted to join the fighting in Mindanao,” IPAC’s director Sidney Jones told Reuters.

Rohan Gunaratna, an analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, described Mahmud as

“the most important IS leader in Southeast Asia”.

Ahmad El-Muhammady, a lecturer at the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM) and a counter-terrorism advisor to the police, said Mahmud often solicited funds for IS operations.

“He’s always the one asking people “does anyone have any money they’d like to donate?”, and he will usually reply when followers in the region ask him about the situation in the Philippines,” Ahmad said.

 

Men identified by Philippines Intelligence officers as Isnilon Hapilon (2nd L, yellow headscarf) and Abdullah Maute (2nd R, standing, long hair) are seen in this still image taken from video released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines on June 7, 2017.

FILE PHOTO: Men identified by Philippines Intelligence officers as Isnilon Hapilon (2nd L, yellow headscarf) and Abdullah Maute (2nd R, standing, long hair) are seen in this still image taken from video released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines on June 7, 2017. Armed Forces of the Philippines/Handout via REUTERS TV/File Photo

 

‘JUST DISAPPEARED’

Mahmud grew up in Batu Caves, a crowded Kuala Lumpur suburb, famous for a Hindu temple housed in a large complex of caverns.  Mahmud’s wife and three children were last known to be living there, although Reuters could not locate them.

Before leaving Malaysia in 2014, Mahmud taught young Muslim students at a tahfiz, a school to memorise the Koran, in Nakhoda, a village near Batu Caves, residents said.

“When he (Mahmud) started the school, he did stay there for the first one or two years, but then he just disappeared,” said 50-year-old Zainon Mat Arshad, a Nakhoda resident who went to the mosque where Mahmud prayed.

“When he was at the tahfiz school, he kept mostly to himself and if he had come over to pray on Friday, I don’t think anyone would have recognized him,” said Zainon. “He didn’t mingle with the local community.”

Security experts say Mahmud studied at Pakistan’s Islamabad Islamic University in the late 1990s before going to Afghanistan where he learned to make improvised explosive devices at an al Qaeda camp.

In 2000, he returned to Malaysia to get a doctorate, which earned him a post as a lecturer in the Islamic Studies faculty at the University of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.

Former students described Mahmud as a quiet person who kept to himself.

“He wasn’t the kind of lecturer who hung out at cafes with his students as some others did,” said one former student, who declined to be identified.

 

WROTE JIHAD BOOK

The few signs of his militant beliefs were discovered later, including a book he wrote on jihad under his nom de guerre, Abu Handzalah, said Ahmad, the IIUM lecturer.

He was put on Malaysia’s most-wanted list in April 2014 after leaving the country with several others, including his aide, a Malaysian bomb maker named Mohammad Najib Husen, to work with the Abu Sayyaf group, notorious for violent kidnappings and beheadings in the southern Philippines, Ahmad said.

Mahmud received funding for the Marawi operation directly from IS headquarters, through the group’s Southeast Asian unit led by Syrian-based Indonesian militant Bahrumsyah, the IPAC report said.

In a video released by the Philippines army in June, Mahmud is seen alongside Hapilon as well as Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute – the pair of brothers who orchestrated the Marawi siege.

 

 

(Editing by Praveen Menon and Bill Tarrant)

 

Death toll from Somalia bomb attacks tops 300

A general view shows the scene of an explosion in KM4 street in the Hodan district of Mogadishu, Somalia October 14, 2017.

By Abdi Sheikh

MOGADISHU (Reuters) – More than 300 people died after twin bomb explosions in Mogadishu, an official said on Monday, as locals packed hospitals in search of friends and relatives caught up in Somalia’s deadliest attack in a decade.

The death toll has steadily risen since Saturday, when the blasts – for which no organization had claimed responsibility by Monday morning – struck at two busy junctions in the heart of the city.

“We have confirmed 300 people died in the blast. The death toll will still be higher because some people are still missing,” Abdikadir Abdirahman, the director of the city’s ambulance service, told Reuters on Monday.

Aden Nur, a doctor at the city’s Madina hospital, said they had recorded 258 deaths while Ahmed Ali, a nurse at the nearby Osman Fiqi hospital, told Reuters five bodies had been sent there.

Nur said 160 of the bodies could not be recognized. “(They)were buried by the government yesterday. The others were buried by their relatives. Over a hundred injured were also brought here,” he told Reuters at the hospital.

Some of the injured were being evacuated by air to Turkey for treatment, officials said.

Locals visiting their injured relatives or collecting their bodies filled every available space in Madina hospital.

“My last time to speak with my brother was some minutes before the blast occurred. By then he told me, he was on the way to meet and was passing at K5,” Halima Nur, a local mother, told Reuters, referring to one of the junctions that was struck.

“I am afraid he was among the unrecognized charred bodies that were buried yesterday. I have no hope of getting him alive or dead. But I cannot go home.”

Somali government forces and civilians gather at the scene of an explosion in KM4 street in the Hodan district of Mogadishu, Somalia October 15,

Somali government forces and civilians gather at the scene of an explosion in KM4 street in the Hodan district of Mogadishu, Somalia October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

DEADLIEST SINCE INSURGENCY BEGAN

Saturday bomb attacks were the deadliest since Islamist militant group al Shabaab began an insurgency in 2007.

Neither it nor any other group had claimed responsibility, but al Shabaab, which is allied to al Qaeda, stages regular attacks in the capital and other parts of the country.

The group is waging an insurgency against Somalia’s U.N.-backed government and its African Union allies in a bid to impose its own strict interpretation of Islam.

The militants were driven out of Mogadishu in 2011 and have been steadily losing territory since then to the combined forces of AU peacekeepers and Somali security forces.

But Al Shabaab retains the capacity to mount large, complex bomb attacks. Over the past three years, the number of civilians killed by insurgent bombings has steadily climbed as al Shabaab increases the size of its bombs.

Some of those seriously injured in Saturday’s bombing were moved by ambulance to the airport on Monday morning to be flown to Turkey for further treatment, Nur added.

Workers unloaded boxes of medicine and other medical supplies from a Turkish military plane parked on the tarmac, while Turkish medical teams attended to the cases of injuries moved from the hospital for evacuation.

 

 

 

(Writing by Duncan Miriri; editing by John Stonestreet)

 

Ex-Nusra vows to fight on in Syria, denounces de-escalation deal

Smoke rises from an emergency service point after an airstrike at the rebel-held village of Maar Zita in Idlib province, Syria April 27, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The former al Qaeda branch in Syria has pledged to keep fighting government forces and their Russian and Iranian allies, and denounced ceasefire talks in Kazakhstan.

Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed on Friday to deploy observers on the edge of a “de-escalation” zone in Syria’s Idlib province, which is largely under the control of Islamist insurgents.

While they hailed the agreement as a breakthrough after months of talks in the Kazakh capital Astana, they gave few details. The move falls under a broader deal in which they would set up four such zones across Syria.

The de-escalation plan has eased fighting in parts of western Syria between rebel factions and government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

But the ex-Nusra Front said the Astana process amounted to the surrender of rebel-held pockets, and what had started with a ceasefire would “end with restoring Bashar’s rule to the areas”.

The group cut ties with al-Qaeda last year, rebranded, and now spearheads the Tahrir al-Sham jihadist alliance, controlling parts of the northwestern Idlib province, on the border with Turkey.

At least two million people live in Idlib, the largest populated area held by rebels – including some nationalist Free Syrian Army factions that have taken part in the Astana talks.

Idlib’s has population ballooned as thousands of civilians and fighters have left areas the Syrian army seized, with the help of Russian jets and Iran-backed militias.

UPPER HAND

Tahrir al-Sham criticized FSA rebels who have attended the Astana meetings, which began with Moscow-led diplomatic efforts separate from U.N.-based peace talks in Geneva.

“We fear the day will come when those factions will line up alongside Russian warplanes and fight those who reject Assad and his regime,” it said in its statement.

Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior aide to Assad, said on Friday that attempts to divide Syria had failed, and repeated the government’s vow to take back the entire country, including “Idlib and other areas”.

Assad has gained the military upper hand against an array of rebel groups, including some that have received backing from the United States, Turkey and Gulf monarchies.

Damascus views any presence of Turkish forces as illegitimate, Syrian state news agency SANA cited a foreign ministry source as saying on Saturday.

“The deal for Idlib is temporary. Its main goal is reviving the old Damascus-Hama-Aleppo road…and for all kinds of traffic to flow to Aleppo,” the source said. The government took full control of Aleppo city, east of Idlib, last year in a major blow to rebels.

Critics have described the de-escalation plan as de facto partitioning of Syria after years of multi-sided conflict. Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara deny this and say the zones will be temporary, although they could extend beyond the initial six-month term.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Andrew Bolton)

American al Qaeda suspect to face trial on U.S. terrorism charges

American al Qaeda suspect to face trial on U.S. terrorism charges

By Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK (Reuters) – An American citizen will go to trial in federal court in Brooklyn on Tuesday on charges that he supported al Qaeda and helped prepare a 2009 car bomb attack on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan.

Muhanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, 31, has pleaded not guilty to charges that include conspiring to murder Americans and use a weapon of mass destruction, and supporting a foreign terrorist organization. If convicted, he could face life in prison.

Jurors were scheduled to hear opening arguments in the case Tuesday morning. U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan is presiding over the trial, which is expected to last two weeks.

U.S. prosecutors in 2015 accused Al Farekh, who was born in Texas, of conspiring to support al Qaeda by traveling with two fellow students from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada to Pakistan with the intention of fighting against American forces.

They also charged that Al Farekh helped prepare a vehicle-borne explosive device used in a Jan. 19, 2009 attack on a U.S. base in Afghanistan. The base was not identified.

Prosecutors have said an accomplice detonated one device, while Al Farekh’s fingerprints were found on packing tape for the second device, which another accomplice carried but failed to detonate.

One of the other university students Al Farekh traveled with in 2007, Ferid Imam, has also been indicted, though his whereabouts are unknown.

Prosecutors said Imam provided training at an al Qaeda camp in Pakistan in 2008 to three men later found guilty of plotting a bombing attack in the New York City subway system.

Authorities have said that before going to Pakistan, Farekh and Imam frequently watched videos promoting violent jihad, including online lectures by Anwar Al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born, Yemen-based militant preacher affiliated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who was killed in a U.S. drone attack in 2011.

(Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. says ‘grave’ consequences if Syria’s al Qaeda dominates Idlib province

A general view taken with a drone shows the Clock Tower of the rebel-held Idlib city, Syria June 8, 2017. Picture taken June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – The United States warned a takeover of rebel-held northwestern Idlib province by Syrian jihadists linked to a former al Qaeda affiliate would have grave consequences and make it difficult to dissuade Russia from renewing bombing that recently stopped.

In an online letter posted late on Wednesday, the top State Department official in charge of Syria policy, Michael Ratney, said the recent offensive by Hayat Tahrir al Sham, spearheaded by former al Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front, had cemented its grip on the province and put “the future of northern Syria in big danger”.

“The north of Syria witnessed one of its biggest tragedies,” said Ratney who was behind secret talks in Amman with Moscow over the ceasefire in southwest Syria announced by U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in July. It was the first such U.S.-Russian effort under the Trump administration to end Syria’s civil war.

“In the event of the hegemony of Nusra Front on Idlib, it would be difficult for the United States to convince the international parties not to take the necessary military measures,” the top State Department diplomat said.

Mainly Islamist rebels swept through Idlib province in 2015, inflicting a string of defeats on the Syrian army until Russia stepped in to reverse the tide of the civil war in favour of President Bashar al Assad.

Idlib province, the only Syrian province that is entirely under rebel control, has been a major target of Russian and Syrian aerial strikes that caused hundreds of civilians casualties.

The agricultural region had a respite since a Russian-Turkish brokered accord reached last May approved four de-escalation zones across Syria, among them one in Idlib province.

Many locals fear the jihadists’ hold on Idlib will again make the province a target of relentless attacks by Russian and Syrian forces and turn it into another devastated Aleppo or Mosul.

More than two million people live in Idlib, which has become an overcrowded refuge for many of the displaced, including rebel fighters and their families.

“JOLANI AND HIS GANG”

“Everyone should know that Jolani and his gang are the ones who bear responsibility for the grave consequences that will befall Idlib,” said Ratney, referring to former Nusra head Abu Mohammad al Jolani who effectively leads Hayat Tahrir al Sham.

In less than three days Jolani’s fighters overran their powerful rival, the more mainstream Ahrar al Sham group, seizing control of a strategic border strip with Turkey in some of the heaviest inter-rebel fighting since the start of the conflict.

An emboldened Hayat Tahrir al Sham has sought to allay fears it did not seek to dominate the whole province but suspicions run high among many in the region about their ultimate goals to monopolise power.

The jihadists have linked up with Western-backed Free Syria Army (FSA) groups who continue to maintain a foothold in several towns in the province. The south of the region is still in the hands of rival groups, including Ahrar al Sham but the jihadists have been trying to extend their control.

Ratney told rebel groups, who have been forced to work with the jihadists out of expediency or for self preservation, to steer away from the group before it was “too late.”

He said Washington would consider any organisation in Idlib province that was a front for the militants a part of al Qaeda’s network.

The expanding influence of the former al Qaeda has triggered civilian protests across towns in the province with some calling for the group to leave towns and not interfere in how they are run.

Nusra and its leaders would remain a target of Washington even if they adopted new names in an attempt to deny Washington and other powers a pretext to attack them, the U.S. official said.

The jihadist sweep across Idlib province has raised concerns that the closure of some crossing points on the border with Turkey could choke off the flow of aid and essential goods.

Washington remained committed to delivering aid in channels that avoided them falling into the hands of the hardline jihadists, Ratney said echoing similar concerns by NGO’s and aid bodies after their recent gains.

The main border crossing of Bab al Hawa with Turkey which the al Qaeda fighters threatened to take over has however been re-opened with a resumption of aid and goods to the province that has relieved many people.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Andrew Hay)

Islamic State seeking alliance with al Qaeda, Iraqi vice president says

A member of the Iraqi rapid response forces walks past a wall painted with the black flag commonly used by Islamic State militants, at a hospital damaged by clashes during a battle between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants in the Wahda district of eastern Mosul, Iraq,

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Islamic State is talking to al Qaeda about a possible alliance as Iraqi troops close in on IS fighters in Mosul, Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi said in an interview on Monday.

Allawi said he got the information on Monday from Iraqi and regional contacts knowledgeable about Iraq.

“The discussion has started now,” Allawi said. “There are discussions and dialogue between messengers representing Baghdadi and representing Zawahiri,” referring to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda.

Islamic State split from al Qaeda in 2014 and the two groups have since waged an acrimonious battle for recruits, funding and the mantle of global jihad. Zawahiri has publicly criticized Islamic State for its brutal methods, which have included beheadings, drownings and immolation.

It is unclear how exactly the two group may work together, Allawi said.

Islamic State blazed across large swathes of northern Iraq in 2014, leaving the Iraqi central government reeling. Baghdadi declared a caliphate over the territory the group controlled from the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul the same year, which also became a point of contention with al Qaeda.

Last October, Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite volunteer fighters, commonly referred to as the Popular Mobilization Units teamed up with an international coalition, including the United States, to drive Islamic State from of Mosul and the areas surrounding the city.

The group has been pushed out of the half of Mosul that lies east of the Tigris River, but Iraqi soldiers and their allies are now bogged down in tough fighting in the narrow streets of the Old City of Mosul, west of the river, according to Iraqi security officials .

Islamic State has used suicide bombers, snipers and armed drones to defend the territory under their control. The group has also repeatedly targeted civilians or used them as human shields during the fighting, according to Iraqi and American security officials.

The militant group has lost ground in Mosul but still controls the towns of Qaim, Hawija and Tal Afar in Iraq as well as Raqqa, their de facto capital in Syria.

Even if Islamic State loses its territory in Iraq, Allawi said, it will not simply go away.

“I can’t see ISIS disappearing into thin air,” Allawi said, referring to the group by a commonly used acronym. “They will remain covertly in sleeping cells, spreading their venom all over the world.”

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh, editing by Larry King)

New York man gets 13 years prison for trying to join al Qaeda

New York high school senior trying to join al Qaeda

By Nate Raymond

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A New York man was sentenced on Tuesday to 13 years in prison for trying to join the Islamic militant group al Qaeda when he was a high school senior.

Justin Kaliebe, now 22, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Denis Hurley in Central Islip, New York, after pleading guilty in February 2013 to having attempted to provide material support to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Kaliebe had been arrested a month earlier at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where prosecutors said he planned to board a flight to Muscat, Oman, as part of his plot to eventually travel to Yemen.

The defendant was also sentenced to 20 years of supervised release.

“I am disappointed and feel that a lesser sentence was warranted,” Kaliebe’s lawyer Anthony LaPinta said in an email.

“Justin is a harmless young man who had many psychological, medical and personal issues that contributed to his criminal conduct,” LaPinta continued. “Justin will make the best of his time in prison. I am certain that he will emerge as a rehabilitated, productive and respected member of society.”

Federal authorities have estimated that 80 percent of Americans linked to activities supporting militant Islamic movements have radicalized themselves with information from the internet.

Prosecutors said Kaliebe, a resident of Babylon, New York, began his plot in 2011, and told an undercover law enforcement operative the following year that he was “doing the J word,” or violent “jihad.”

In June 2012, Kaliebe was recorded as saying that upon arriving in Yemen, he expected to fight “those who are fighting against the Sharia of Allah,” be it the Yemeni army or U.S. forces, prosecutors said.

Kaliebe received support from Marcos Alonso Zea, another Long Island resident who according to prosecutors attempted to fly to Yemen in January 2012 but was intercepted by British customs officials and returned to the United States.

Zea, 28, was arrested in October 2013 and sentenced in April 2015 to 25 years in prison, after pleading guilty to attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Tom Brown)

U.S. authorities warn of al Qaeda threat to election

The rising sun lights One World Trade as it stands over the Manhattan borough of New York.

By David Ingram

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Federal officials have warned authorities in New York City, Texas and Virginia about an unspecific threat of attacks by al Qaeda militants around Election Day, putting local law enforcement on alert days before the vote, officials said on Friday.

A U.S. government source in Washington said some federal agencies sent bulletins to local and state officials flagging the information but that the threat was relatively low level.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates airports, tunnels and bridges around New York City, continues high levels of patrol it has had in place, spokesman Steve Coleman said.

Coleman declined to offer details on the warning, but the New York City Police Department said the threat report lacked specifics and was still being assessed.

“We are aware of the information,” the department said in a statement, adding that it was working with intelligence agencies and the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Although some of the attention of U.S. authorities has shifted to Islamic State-inspired attacks, the al Qaeda network has shown resilience more than 15 years after it was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

Last month, the United States carried out strikes in Afghanistan targeting two of al Qaeda’s senior leaders there,  and al Qaeda’s Yemen branch has posed a risk to merchant ships in waterways nearby.

U.S. intelligence agencies still view al Qaeda and its affiliates as a top counter terrorism priority.

The White House said it was aware of the reported al Qaeda threats and mindful of increased risk of attacks during events such as Election Day.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said in a statement his office was monitoring the situation and urged Texans to remain vigilant. In Virginia, Brian Coy, a spokesman for Governor Terry McAuliffe, said: “We are doing everything we can to keep Virginians safe, and we’re confident they are going to be able to vote safely on Election Day.”

The task force issued a notice identifying the three states as possible targets of an al Qaeda plot, a New York law enforcement official said on condition of anonymity. The official said the type of threat was common but authorities were giving it more attention because of Tuesday’s election.

CBS News first reported the threat of attacks, which it said were possible on Monday.

Authorities were assessing whether there was a plot and whether the states named were real targets or misdirection. “Another possibility is that this is just an attempt to inspire someone here to mount an attack,” the official said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security did not confirm the reports or comment on details.

In Washington, a Homeland Security official said authorities remained concerned that so-called “homegrown” militants could be inspired to attack within the United States.

“The public should expect to continue to observe an increased law enforcement and security presence across communities in public places,” the official told Reuters.

The potential for violence related to the election has already darkened a rancorous presidential race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, on top of the threat of computer hacking and fears that Russia or other state actors could spread political misinformation online or tamper with voting.

While federal and state authorities are beefing up cyber defenses against electronic threats to voting systems, others are taking additional steps to guard against possible civil unrest or violence.

(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, John Walcott, Doina Chiacu, Ian Simpson and Roberta Rampton in Washington and Nate Raymond in New York; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)

U.S. warns about possible al Qaeda attacks in Virginia, Texas, NY

The rising sun lights One World Trade as it stands over the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S.,

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. intelligence officials have warned local authorities in New York, Texas and Virginia about possible attacks by al Qaeda on Monday, a day before the U.S. presidential election, CBS News reported on Friday, citing unnamed sources.

No specific locations were mentioned, but U.S. intelligence officials alerted joint terrorism task forces about the possible threat, CBS reported.

The FBI did not comment specifically on the report. “The counterterrorism and homeland security communities remain vigilant and well-postured to defend against attacks here in the United States,” it said in a statement on Friday.

The bureau was working closely with federal, state and local law enforcement to identify and disrupt any potential threats, it said.

Reuters could not immediately verify the report, and officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The potential for violent clashes is darkening an already rancorous presidential race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, on top of the threat of computer hacking and fears that Russia or other state actors could spread political misinformation online or tamper with voting.

And while federal and state authorities are beefing up cyber defenses against potential electronic attacks on voting systems ahead of Election Day, others are taking additional steps to guard against possible civil unrest or violence.

Local authorities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin and Florida told Reuters they were not boosting election-related law enforcement personnel or resources above 2012 levels.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu in Washington and Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Gunmen attack American university in Kabul, students flee

A wounded man lies inside an ambulance following an attack at American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, Afghanistan

By Hamid Shalizi

KABUL (Reuters) – Suspected militants stormed the Kabul campus of the American University of Afghanistan on Wednesday with some students jumping from second floor windows to escape the gunfire and explosions, witnesses and officials said.

Foreign staff and dozens of pupils were trapped in the compound hours after the attack began at about 6:30 p.m. (10 a.m. ET).

News of casualties was sketchy, but the head of hospitals in the Afghan capital said at least one person had been killed and 14 students wounded in the assault.

“Many students jumped from the second floor, some broke their legs and some hurt their head trying to escape,” Abdullah Fahimi, a student who escaped, told Reuters. He injured his ankle making the leap.

“We were in the class when we heard a loud explosion followed by gunfire. It was very close. Some students were crying, others were screaming.”

A senior interior ministry official said that elite Afghan forces had surrounded the university and witnesses at the scene said special forces had entered the walled compound where gunfire that had lasted for more than an hour had since stopped.

“There are two gunmen hiding inside the building and a clearing operation is ongoing to eliminate them,” interior ministry spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, said.

CAR BOMB

Ahmad Mukhtar, another student who fled the scene, said the gunmen had got into the university buildings despite security measures including three or four armed guards and watchtowers.

He added that he believed the attack had started at the main gate into the compound.

“I finished my class and was about to leave when I heard a few gunshots and a huge explosion, followed by more gunfire,” he said. “I ran toward the emergency exit with other students, climbed the wall and jumped outside.”

Kabul police chief, Abdul Rahman Rahimi, told Reuters that the attack began with a car bomb and several attackers had entered the campus.

Islamist militant groups, mainly the Afghan Taliban and a local offshoot of Islamic State, have claimed a string of recent atrocities aimed at destabilizing the country and toppling the Western-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani.

No one has claimed the university attack.

It is the second time this month that the university or its staff have been targeted.

Two teachers, an American and an Australian, remain missing after being abducted at gunpoint from a road nearby on Aug. 7.

Taliban insurgents control large swathes of Afghanistan, and local armed forces are struggling to contain them, especially in the provinces of Helmand to the south and Kunduz to the north.

NATO ended its combat mission in December 2014, but thousands of troops remain to train and assist Afghan forces, while several thousand more U.S. soldiers are engaged in a separate mission focusing on al Qaeda and Islamic State.

(Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Louise Ireland)