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)

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)