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)

Explainer: Does Islamic State still pose a threat?

FILE PHOTO: Islamic state members walk in the last besieged neighborhood in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Islamic State looks about to lose its last foothold on the banks of the Euphrates in Syria, but though its era of territorial rule may have been expunged for now, there is near universal agreement that the group remains a threat.

WHAT HAS ITS TERRITORIAL DEFEAT ACCOMPLISHED?

Islamic State’s possession of land in Iraq and Syria set it apart from other like-minded groups such as al Qaeda and became central to its mission when it declared a caliphate in 2014, claiming sovereignty over all Muslim lands and peoples.

Destroying the quasi-state it built there denies the group its most potent propaganda and recruiting tool as well as a logistical base from which it could train fighters and plan coordinated attacks overseas.

It also freed its former subjects from summary executions and draconian punishment for breaking its strict laws or, for some minorities, sexual slavery and slaughter.

Warfare wiped out thousands of its fighters. And, financially, its defeat deprives it of greater resources than any modern jihadist movement has enjoyed, including taxes on its inhabitants and the proceeds of oil sales.

WHAT THREAT DOES ISLAMIC STATE STILL POSE IN IRAQ AND SYRIA?

In its previous guise as an al Qaeda offshoot in Iraq a decade ago, it navigated adversity by going underground, biding its time to rise suddenly again.

Since suffering devastating territorial losses in 2017, IS has steadily turned again to such tactics. Sleeper cells in Iraq have staged a scatter-gun campaign of kidnappings and killings to undermine the Baghdad government.

The group has also carried out many bombings in northeast Syria, which is controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, including one that killed four Americans in January. Kurdish and U.S. officials say its threat there persists.

In Syria, its fighters still hold out in the remote desert area near the road from Damascus to Deir al-Zor.

WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO ITS LEADERS, FIGHTERS AND FOLLOWERS?

The fate of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remains a mystery. The U.S. government’s top experts strongly believe he is alive and possibly hiding in Iraq, U.S. sources recently said. Other top-echelon leaders have been killed in air strikes.

Thousands of its fighters and civilian followers have also been killed and thousands more captured. An unknown number remain at large in both Syria and Iraq.

Iraq is putting on trial, imprisoning and often executing Islamic State detainees. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) holds around 800 foreign fighters. More than 2,000 Islamic State wives and children are in its hands too. Many low-level local operatives have been released in Syria.

The SDF complains that Western states are reluctant to take back the foreign fighters, who are widely seen as a security threat at home but who might be hard to legally prosecute.

CAN IT STILL ORGANIZE OR INSPIRE ATTACKS OVERSEAS?

As Islamic State clung to its last scrap of land, the head of Britain’s spy agency MI6 warned that the group would return to “asymmetric” attacks.

Even after it began losing ground militarily, the group still claimed responsibility for attacks made in different countries, though often these have been blamed on “lone wolves” without its direction.

It started years ago to call on followers abroad to plan their own attacks, rather than focusing purely on ones staged by trained operatives supported by the group’s hierarchy.

In early 2018 the head of U.S. military central command said Islamic State was resilient and remained capable of “inspiring attacks throughout the region and outside of the Middle East”.

WHAT DOES ITS FALL MEAN FOR THE FUTURE OF GLOBAL JIHAD?

Although Islamic State’s core territory was in Iraq and Syria, jihadists fighting in other countries, notably Nigeria, Yemen and Afghanistan, pledged their allegiance to it.

Whether those groups will still wear its mantle, especially if Baghdadi is captured or killed, is an open question, but there seems little chance they will soon end their campaigns.

Al-Qaeda also retains numerous franchises around the world and other militant Islamist groups operate in countries where normal governance has broken down.

Jihadist ideology has long proven itself able to mutate as circumstances change, and there is no shortage of warfare, injustice, oppression, poverty, sectarianism and naked religious hatred for it to exploit.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Tom Perry and Gareth Jones)

Syrian rebels and Iran reach deal to evacuate villages: sources

FILE PHOTO - People that were evacuated from the two villages of Kefraya and al-Foua walk near buses, after a stall in an agreement between rebels and Syria's army, at insurgent-held al-Rashideen, Aleppo province, Syria April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian rebels and Iranian-backed negotiators have reached a deal to evacuate thousands of people from two rebel-besieged Shi’ite villages in northwest Syria in return for the release of hundreds of detainees in state prisons, opposition sources said.

They said the negotiators from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a rebel coalition spearheaded by Syria’s former al Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had reached the secret deal, under which all residents would be evacuated from the mostly Shi’ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province.

“An initial agreement has been reached but talks are ongoing,” said an Islamist rebel source familiar with the secret negotiations that Turkey was also involved in and which builds on a deal reached last year that was never fully implemented.

In April 2017 thousands of people in the two Shi’ite towns were evacuated to government-held areas in a swap deal that in exchange freed hundreds of Sunnis living in former rebel-held Madaya and Zabadani that were then besieged by Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah group.

But the evacuation of the remaining 7,000 people in al-Foua and Kefraya in exchange for the release of 1,500 detainees prisoners never went through.

The resumption of talks now to complete the deal was to ward off a possible military campaign by the Syrian army and Iranian backed militias to end the siege of the two Shi’ite towns, another opposition source said.

“Over 1,500 civilian and rebel prisoners held in regime prisons will be released,” said an opposition source familiar with the talks told Reuters.

The deal also includes release of thirty four prisoners captured by Hezbollah during its siege of the Madaya and Zabadani.

There was no official word on the deal but state-owned Ikhabriyah television station said there were “reports of an agreement to liberate thousands from the two towns”.

Iran, which backs President Bashar al Assad against the mainly Sunni insurgents and has expanded its military role in the country, has long taken a interest in the fate of its co-religionists in the two-besieged towns.

It has arranged dozens of air lifts of food and equipment to circumvent the siege by rebels of the two towns.

Past deals have mostly affected Sunni Muslims living in former rebel-held areas surrounded by government forces and their allies after years of crushing sieges that have in some cases led to starvation. Damascus calls them reconciliation deals.

Rebels say it amounts to forced displacement of Assad’s opponents from Syria’s main urban centers in the west of the country, and engenders demographic change because most of the opposition, and Syria’s population, are Sunni.

But backed militarily by Russia and Shi’ite regional allies, Assad, a member of Syria’s Alawite minority, has negotiated the deals from a position of strength.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

FBI nabs man it says planned July 4 attacks on Cleveland, Philadelphia

Fireworks at Morningside 7-4-17

By Makini Brice

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The FBI has arrested a man who it said planned to bomb Cleveland’s Fourth of July celebrations and then stand by and watch “it go off,” federal officials said on Monday.

Demetrius Pitts, 48, who had expressed allegiance to the al Qaeda militant group, was arrested on Sunday after a meeting with an undercover FBI agent where he said he planned to plant a bomb at a parade celebrating the U.S. Independence Day holiday and intended to target other locations in Cleveland and Philadelphia.

Many major American cities mark the holiday with fireworks and parades, and typically ramp up security around such events.

An undercover FBI agent helped Pitts pick the location for his planned attack, near a planned fireworks show and multiple U.S. government buildings, the FBI said.

“I’m gonna be downtown when the – when the thing go off. I’m gonna be somewhere cuz I wanna see it go off,” Pitts told an undercover FBI agent who he believed was affiliated with al Qaeda, the FBI said in court documents.

Pitts also suggested giving the children of military personnel remote control cars packed with explosives during the parade so the kids would unwittingly detonate the bombs, the FBI said.

Pitts was charged with attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

An FBI source gave Pitts a bus pass and a phone to conduct surveillance ahead of his planned attack, prosecutors said.

Pitts, who lives in the Cleveland suburb of Maple Heights, also discussed possibly traveling to San Francisco for reconnaissance for al Qaeda, the FBI said.

It was not immediately clear if he had retained a lawyer, and relatives could not be reached for comment.

“This defendant, by his own words and by his own deeds, wanted to attack our nation and its ideals,” said Justin Herdman, the U.S. attorney for northern Ohio.

Officials said Pitts is an American citizen who had been radicalized in the United States.

In 2015, U.S. law enforcement officials said they had arrested more than 10 people inspired by the Islamic State militant group ahead of the Fourth of July holiday, saying the arrests had disrupted planned attacks.

A pair of ethnic Chechen brothers inspired by al Qaeda killed three people and injured more than 260 with a pair of homemade bombs at the Boston Marathon in 2013.

(Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg and Diana Kruzman in New York; Editing by Scott Malone, Jeffrey Benkoe, Frances Kerry and Jonathan Oatis)

Saudi Arabia says revamping education to combat ‘extremist ideologies’

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's then Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reacts upon his arrival at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, June 24, 2015. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia is revamping its education curriculum to eradicate any trace of Muslim Brotherhood influence and will dismiss anyone working in the sector who sympathizes with the banned group, the education minister said.

Promoting a more moderate form of Islam is one of the promises made by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman under plans to modernize the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom.

The education ministry is working to “combat extremist ideologies by reviewing school curricula and books to ensure they do not reflect the banned Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda,” Ahmed bin Mohammed al-Isa said in a statement issued on Tuesday.

It would “ban such books from schools and universities and remove those who sympathize with the group or its ideology from their posts,” he added.

In September, a large Saudi public university announced it would dismiss employees suspected of ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, adding to concerns that the government is clamping down on its critics in academia and beyond.

Earlier this month, Crown Prince Mohammed told CBS in an interview that Saudi schools have been “invaded” by elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been designated by Saudi Arabia as a terrorist organization along with other militant groups such as al Qaeda and Islamic State.

INTERNAL THREAT

The young crown prince has already taken some steps to loosen Saudi Arabia’s ultra-strict social restrictions, scaling back the role of religious morality police, permitting public concerts and announcing plans to allow women to drive.

The ruling Al Saud family has always regarded Islamist groups as a major internal threat to its rule over a country where appeals to religious sentiment resonate deeply and an al Qaeda campaign a decade ago killed hundreds.

Since the kingdom’s founding, the Al Saud have enjoyed a close alliance with clerics of the ultra-conservative Wahhabi school of Islam who have espoused a political philosophy that demands obedience to the ruler.

By contrast the Brotherhood advances an active political doctrine urging revolutionary action.

A political Islamist organization founded in Egypt nearly a century ago, the Muslim Brotherhood says it is committed to peaceful activism and reform through elections, and its adherents span the region, holding elected office in Arab countries from Tunisia to Jordan.

Brotherhood members fleeing repression in Egypt, Syria and Iraq half a century ago took shelter in Saudi Arabia, some taking up roles in the kingdom’s education system and helping to establish the Sahwa or “Awakening” movement which agitated in the 1990s for democracy.

The Sahwa mostly fizzled, with some activists arrested and others coaxed into conformity, though admirers and its appeal lingered.

(Adds dropped first name of education minister in paragraph 3.)

(Reporting by Marwa Rashad; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Andrew Heavens)

Iran denies Saudi allegations of harboring bin Laden’s son

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: A display featuring missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen at Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran September 27, 2017. Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi/TIMA via REUTERS

LONDON (Reuters) – Tehran denied on Tuesday allegations made by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that Iran was harboring Osama bin Laden’s son and supporting him as the new leader of al Qaeda.

Decades-old animosity between Sunni Muslim kingdom of Saudi Arabia and revolutionary Shi’ite Iran has deepened in recent years as the two sides wage proxy wars in the Middle East and beyond, including in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Iran’s murky and fluid relationship with al Qaeda has contributed to tensions with Riyadh, which previously accused Tehran of backing al Qaeda and sheltering its members.

Prince Mohammed told CBS in an interview that Iran was protecting al Qaeda operatives, including some of bin Laden’s relatives.

“This includes the son of Osama bin Laden, the new leader of al Qaeda. He lives in Iran and works out of Iran. He is supported by Iran,” he said.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi called crown prince’s comments a “big lie”.

Hamza bin Laden was one of several bin Ladens who ended up in Iran after the September 11 attacks on New York in 2001. Documents recovered from his father’s compound in Pakistan after he was killed in a U.S. raid in 2011 said Hamza was, at least for a period, held under house arrest Iran. His current whereabouts are not known.

Since Osama bin Laden’s death, al Qaeda has been led by his former deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Nonetheless Hamza has issued a number of messages on behalf of the network in recent years, threatening further violence against the West.

The group has been sidelined significantly by its rival and foe, the militant organization Islamic State.

Iran’s Qasemi said that after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan began in 2001, some al Qaeda fighters had crossed into Iran illegally, but that they had been arrested and extradited to their countries of origin. These included bin Laden family members with Saudi citizenship.

“Bin Laden’s daughter was extradited to the Saudi embassy in Tehran,” Qasemi was quoted as saying by Tasnim news agency.

“Upon consultation with Saudi Arabia, other members of Bin Laden family were deported through the same border they had illegally entered Iran,” he added.

Shi’ite Muslim Iran and strict Sunni militant group al Qaeda are natural enemies on either side of the Muslim world’s great sectarian divide. Yet intelligence veterans say that Iran, in pursuing its own ends, has in the past taken advantage of al Qaeda fighters’ need to shelter or pass through its territory.

In Sunday’s interview Prince Mohammed also accused Iran of having recruited some of the Saudis who took part in the 9/11 attacks on New York, with the aim of creating a “schism between the Middle East and the West, between Saudi Arabia and the United States of America.”

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Senior Yemen Qaeda leader calls for knife and car attacks on Jews

Defying warnings of new conflict, Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital

DUBAI (Reuters) – A senior leader of al Qaeda’s Yemen branch has called for knife and car attacks on Jews in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the U.S. SITE monitoring group said on Tuesday.

Citing a video recording by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s al-Malahem media foundation, SITE said that Khaled Batarfi, believed to be the number two man in AQAP after Qassim al-Raymi, also warned that no Muslim had the right to cede any part of Jerusalem.

“The Muslims inside the occupied land must kill every Jew, by running him over, or stabbing him, or by using against him any weapon, or by burning their homes,” Batarfi said in the 18-minute-long recording entitled “Our duty towards our Jerusalem”, according to SITE.

“Every Muslim must know that the Americans and the disbeliever West, and on top of them Britain and France, are the original reason behind the existence of the Jews in Palestine.”

Trump enraged Muslims last month when he announced that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and said he intends to transfer the U.S. embassy there.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, on a regional visit, said on Monday that the U.S. Embassy will be moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv before the end of 2019.

Batarfi was one of some 150 jailed AQAP members who were freed when the militant group, regarded by the United States as one of the deadliest branches of the network founded by Osama bin Laden, captured the Yemeni port city of Mukalla in 2015, where he was held.

Yemeni forces, baked by a Saudi-led coalition have since recaptured Mukalla and driven AQAP out, but Batarfi, who has since assumed a senior position in the group, remains at large.

AQAP has plotted to down U.S. airliners and claimed responsibility for 2015 attacks on the office of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. AQAP also has boasted of the world’s most feared bomb makers, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, and the Pentagon estimates it has between about 2,000 and 3,000 fighters.

Batarfi said Muslims in Western countries, including the United States, were obliged to target the interests of Jews and the Americans.

“They must be eager to prepare themselves as much as possible, and to carry out jihadi operations against them,” he added, according to SITE.

Palestinians seek East Jerusalem, including the walled Old City with its holy sites, as the capital of their own future state. Israel, which annexed East Jerusalem after capturing it in 1967 in a move not internationally recognized, regards all of the city as its “eternal and indivisible capital”.

(Reporting by Sami Aboudi)

The Battle against the fanatical Islamic State

A boy who just fled a village controlled by Islamic State fighters cries as he sits with his family on a bus before heading to the camp at Hammam Ali south of Mosul, Iraq, February 22, 2017.

(Reuters) – It was an awkward coalition riven by political and sectarian differences, facing an elusive, fanatical enemy dug into an urban maze of narrow streets and alleyways. So, could Iraq’s government really deliver on its vow to vanquish Islamic State?

In the end, the army, Shi’ite Muslim paramilitaries and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters mustered rare unity to end Islamic State’s reign of terror in Iraq’s second city Mosul, seat of the ultra-hardline Sunni insurgents’ “caliphate”.

Baghdad’s victory in July 2017 after nine months of fighting was the coup de grace for the caliphate and came three years after a jihadist juggernaut seized one third of Iraq.

Smoke rises after an air strike during fighting between members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Raqqa, Syria, August 15, 2017.

Smoke rises after an air strike during fighting between members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Raqqa, Syria, August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File Photo

But even with supportive U.S. air strikes, Baghdad’s triumph came at a devastating cost for the once-vibrant, multicultural city in northern Iraq and the surrounding region.

When Islamic State militants first arrived in Mosul in June 2014 after sweeping aside crumbling Iraqi army units, many Mosul residents initially welcomed them.

The militants were Sunni Muslims, like many in Mosul who had accused the forces of then-Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of widespread sectarian abuses.

Islamic State consequently presented itself as Mosul’s savior. But as jihadists brandishing AK-47 assault rifles began imposing an Islamist doctrine even more brutal and mediaeval than al Qaeda, its popularity soon faded.

Maliki’s successor, Haider al-Abadi, had long been seen as an ineffective leader who could not make tough decisions.

However, a U.S.-backed campaign against IS in Mosul offered Abadi a chance to emerge as a steely statesman capable of taking on a group that had terrorized a sprawling city with beheadings in public squares while staging deadly attacks in the West.

A man cries as he carries his daughter while walking from an Islamic State-controlled part of Mosul towards Iraqi special forces soldiers during a battle in Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017

A man cries as he carries his daughter while walking from an Islamic State-controlled part of Mosul towards Iraqi special forces soldiers during a battle in Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo

REIGN OF TERROR

Just smoking one cigarette, an act IS saw as anti-Islamic, earned you dozens of lashes. Children were used as informers. Women in minority communities were turned into sex slaves.

But taking back Mosul was never going to be easy.

Long before the first shot was fired, Abadi and his advisers and military commanders had to tread cautiously, taking into account sectarian and ethnic sensitivities that could splinter the united front he urgently needed to establish.

Iraqi and Kurdish intelligence agencies had recruited informers inside Mosul, from ex-soldiers and army officers to taxi drivers, who would face instant execution if caught.

Even if an alliance of convenience was struck, glossing over sectarian splits, Mosul itself posed formidable physical obstacles.

Key districts consisted of ancient little streets and alleyways inaccessible to tanks and armored vehicles, and they were so densely populated that U.S.-led coalition air strikes risked heavy civilian casualties.

So, street by street, house by house, fighting was unavoidable.

Such challenges first popped up in Mosul’s hinterland as Kurdish forces slowly advanced against fierce IS resistance.

In one village, a single IS sniper hunkered down in a house held up hundreds of Kurdish fighters, the U.S. special forces advising them and 40 of their vehicles. Eventually, his rifle went silent after three air strikes on the house.

As pro-government forces inched forward, the United Nations warned of a possible humanitarian disaster and expressed fear that jihadists could seize civilians for use as human shields, and gun down anyone trying to escape.

IS fighters – both Iraqis and foreigners – were experts at carrying out suicide bombings and assembling homemade bombs. Many houses were booby-trapped. Iraqi military commanders had to factor these lurking perils into their gameplan.

In interviews, IS insurgents shed light on what Iraqi forces were up against. They were quite open about their ideology and what they were willing to do to transform the Middle East.

One man said he had used rape as a weapon of war against more than 200 women from Iraqi minorities, and had killed 500 people.

Iraqi Special Operations Forces arrest a person suspected of belonging to Islamic State militants in western Mosul, Iraq, February 26, 2017.

Iraqi Special Operations Forces arrest a person suspected of belonging to Islamic State militants in western Mosul, Iraq, February 26, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani/File Photo

DEADLY OBSTACLE COURSE

After months of grueling fighting, Iraqi forces finally attained the outskirts of Mosul, but any celebrations were premature. Bombs littered dusty roads. Car bombs were exploding.

A Mosul resident explained that his child no longer flinched as explosions shook his street because many people, including the young, had grown numb to the daily bloodshed.

Each side resorted to desperate measures to gain an edge.

In north Mosul, people walked by fly-infested, bloated corpses of militants who had been left on roadsides for two weeks. Iraqi soldiers explained that the stinking bodies had been left there to send a clear message to residents – don’t join IS or you will suffer the same fate.

A woman injured in a mortar attack is treated by medics in a field clinic as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State militants, in western Mosul, Iraq, March 2, 2017.

A woman injured in a mortar attack is treated by medics in a field clinic as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State militants, in western Mosul, Iraq, March 2, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File Photo

Caught in the middle were civilians who had suffered under the IS reign of terror for three years and were now wondering if they would survive a relentless battle to “liberate” them.

Parents waited patiently after weeks of fighting for a largely unknowable right moment to make a dash for Iraqi government lines, clutching their children, risking a run-in with jihadists from places as far away as Chechnya.

As much of east and west Mosul was pulverized by coalition air strikes or IS truck and car bombs, the city was reduced to row after row of collapsed or gutted housing.

In the end, IS suffered its most decisive defeat and watched their self-proclaimed caliphate evaporate in Iraq, then in Syria as Kurdish-led forces retook Raqqa, IS’s urban stronghold there.

 

FUTURE CHALLENGES

But those victories will be followed by tough questions about the future of both Iraq and Syria.

Preserving the shaky understanding forged between the different communities in the run-up to the Mosul campaign will be essential to saving Iraq as a state in the future.

It did not take long for the Mosul coalition to fray.

In October, Iraqi forces dislodged Kurdish Peshmerga fighters from the oil city of Kirkuk and other disputed areas and Baghdad imposed curbed air travel to and from the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in retaliation for a Kurdish independence referendum held in northern Iraq in September.

The battle for Raqqa, which became IS’s operational base in Syria, had a different feel to it as U.S.-backed Kurds and Arabs in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) tightened their siege.

The fighting seemed slower and more measured, step by step along abandoned streets where journalists were given access.

In the weeks before Raqqa’s fall in October, young female SDF fighters faced off against hardened militants and suffered losses. But that did not curb their enthusiasm and some said they would eventually like to join Kurdish PKK militants in Turkey and help advance their 33-year-old insurgency there.

The victors in Iraq and Syria now face new challenges as they rebuild cities shattered by the showdown with IS.

People cross a makeshift ladder in a village near Raqqa after a bridge was destroyed in fighting between the U.S.-led coalition and Islamic State, in Raqqa, Syria, June 16, 2017.

People cross a makeshift ladder in a village near Raqqa after a bridge was destroyed in fighting between the U.S.-led coalition and Islamic State, in Raqqa, Syria, June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo

After IS’s defeat in Raqqa, Raqqa residents formed a council to run the city but they had no budget when it was first set up, just residents streaming into their tin, run-down headquarters demanding everything from instant jobs to getting their damaged farmland back.

Syrian Kurdish fighters were inspired by the ideas of Abdullah Ocalan, head of the PKK militants who has been imprisoned in Turkey for almost 20 years.

Turkey views the political rise of Syria’s Kurds as a threat to its national security and is fiercely opposed to the idea of Kurdish autonomy on its doorstep.

The Kurdish groups who led the fight against Islamic State in its former capital Raqqa must now navigate a complex peace to avoid ethnic tension with the city’s Arab majority and to secure critical U.S. aid.

So, life for Raqqa’s victors will remain fraught with risk.

 

(Reporting by Michael Georgy; editing by Mark Heinrich)

 

Bangladesh arrests militant suspect in U.S. blogger murder

Bangladesh arrests militant suspect in U.S. blogger murder

DHAKA (Reuters) – Bangladesh police said on Saturday they had arrested an Islamist militant wanted in connection with the 2015 killing of a U.S. blogger critical of religious extremism.

Deputy police commissioner Masudur Rahman said the man, identified as Arafat Rahman, 24, a member of al Qaeda-inspired militant group Ansar Ullah Bangla Team, was suspected of taking part in the killing of writer Avijit Roy.

Roy, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi origin, was hacked to death by machete-wielding assailants in February 2015 while returning home with his wife from a Dhaka book fair. Roy’s widow, Rafida Ahmed, was seriously injured.

Police official Rahman said the detainee, who was identified after analyzing CCTV footage, was arrested by the counter-terrorism police unit on the outskirts of the capital, Dhaka, on Friday night.

“In the primary interrogation, he confessed his involvement in the killing of four other secular activists,” he told Reuters.

It was not possible to contact the detainee to comment as he was in police custody.

Muslim-majority Bangladesh of 160 million people has had a string of deadly attacks targeting bloggers, foreigners and religious minorities.

The most serious recent attack came in July 2016, when gunmen stormed a cafe in the diplomatic quarter of Dhaka and killed 22 people, most of them foreigners.

Police say the Ansar Ullah Bangla Team militant group is behind the murders of more than a dozen secular bloggers and gay rights activists. They believe a sacked army major, who is still at large, was the leader of the group and masterminded the killings.

Al Qaeda and Islamic State have also claimed responsibility for a series of killings over the past few years, including that of Roy.

The government has denied the presence of such groups, blaming domestic militants instead. But security experts say the scale and sophistication of the cafe attack suggested links to a wider network.

Police and army commandos have killed more than 60 suspected militants and arrested hundreds since the cafe attack.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Clelia Oziel)