Islamic State says it beheaded Christian captives in Nigeria

MAIDUGURI/CAIRO (Reuters) – Islamic State released a video purporting to show its militants beheading 10 Christian men in Nigeria, saying it was part of a campaign to avenge the deaths of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and its spokesman.

The militant group posted the footage on its online Telegram news channel on Thursday, the day after Christmas, with Arabic captions but no audio.

The video showed men in beige uniforms and black masks lining up behind blindfolded captives then beheading 10 of them and shooting an 11th man.

An earlier video seen by Reuters said the captives had been taken from Maiduguri and Damaturu in Nigeria’s northeastern state of Borno, where militants have been fighting for years to set up a separate Islamist state.

In that video, the captives pleaded for the Christian Association of Nigeria and President Muhammadu Buhari to intervene to save them.

Reuters could not verify the authenticity of either video.

Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) split from the militant group Boko Haram in 2016 and has become the region’s dominant jihadist group. Islamist insurgents have killed about 30,000 people in northern Nigeria in the past decade.

Islamic State leader Baghdadi died during a U.S. military raid in Syria and Muhajir in a separate military operation, both over the same weekend in late October.

(Reporting By Maiduguri newsroom and Ahmed Tolba in Cairo, writing by Libby George; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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)

 

Marawi standoff enters third month, underlining crisis in Philippines

FILE PHOTO: An explosion is seen after a Philippines army aircraft released a bomb during an airstrike as government troops continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group in Marawi city June 27, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo

By Martin Petty

MANILA (Reuters) – Two months after Islamist militants launched an assault on one of the biggest southern cities in the Philippines, the fighting is dragging on, and President Rodrigo Duterte says he is prepared to wait for a year for it to end.

The defense top brass admits it underestimated its enemy and is struggling to finish off the highly organized, pro-Islamic State fighters who swept through Marawi City on May 23 and have held parts of it despite sustained ground attacks by hundreds of soldiers and daily pummeling by planes and artillery.

On Saturday, lawmakers approved Duterte’s request to extend martial law to the end of the year on the island of Mindanao, granting greater powers to security forces to go after extremists with a reach that goes far beyond Marawi.

But it remains unclear how exactly Duterte plans to tackle extremism after troops retake Marawi, where about 70 militants remain holed up in the debris of what was once a flourishing commercial district, along with many civilian hostages.

More than 500 people have been killed, including 45 civilians and 105 government troops. After missing several self-imposed deadlines to re-take the city, the military says its options are limited because of the hostages.

Duterte has said he had asked to military to avoid more civilian casualties.

“I told them ‘do not attack’. What’s important is we do not want to kill people,” he said on Friday. “If we have to wait there for one year, let us wait for one year.”

The southern Philippines has been marred for decades by insurgency and banditry. But the intensity of the battle in Marawi and the presence of foreign fighters fighting alongside local militants has raised concerns that the region may be becoming a Southeast Asian hub for Islamic State as it loses ground in Iraq and Syria.

Militants from neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia, both Muslim-majority nations, are fighting in Marawi.

About 5 million Muslims live in the Catholic-majority Philippines, mostly on Mindanao. Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana indicated on Saturday that after Marawi, the government would strengthen surveillance in the region, widening the net to detect rebel training camps and movements of militants.

“We need communications equipment, high-tech communications equipment that we can use to monitor cellphones of the enemies. We also need drones,” he told Congress.

OVERHAUL

Security experts say the government needs a strategic overhaul after failing to act on warnings long ago that radical ideology was taking hold in Mindanao, and luring foreign fighters unable to join Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

“Things have changed dramatically … our country must pursue some paradigm shifts,” said analyst and retired police intelligence officer Rodolfo Mendoza.

“We have to counter the spread of terrorism not only by supporting use of intelligence or counter intelligence, but tackling the root causes.”

The Marawi assault was planned and executed by a relatively new group, Dawla Islamiya, better known as the Maute Group, which wants recognition from Islamic State as its regional affiliate.

Led by two brothers, the Maute Group want a “Wilayah”, or province of Islamic State, in Lanao del Sur province, where it has engaged in fierce, days-long battles with the military since 2016, each time suffering heavy losses before regrouping months later.

The brothers, Abdullah and Omarkhayam Maute, have been joined by Isnilon Hapilon, the anointed Southeast Asian “Emir” of Islamic State and leader of a faction of another Mindanao group, Abu Sayyaf.

The Marawi fighting has been much publicized across militant networks and experts say it could attract more fighters to the region.

“It has inspired young extremists from around the region to want to join,” the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict said in a report on Friday, adding the fighting had “lifted the prestige of the Philippine fighters in the eyes of ISIS Central”.

Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science professor at Manila’s De La Salle University, said the military is seeking to neutralize the Maute brothers to buy time to disrupt recruitment and stop fighters regrouping.

Moderate separatist groups from Mindanao should be co-opted to counter the extremist message, he said, while the military should work closer with the United States and Australia, which have provided operational advice and surveillance planes.

The Marawi crisis erupted not because of intelligence failures, but the policy priorities of Duterte, Heydarian added.

He said Duterte, who came to power a year ago, channeled security resources into a war on drugs instead of countering Islamic radicalization in the south, an issue the president himself has himself flagged in the past.

“They were all aware of this. It was just a matter of time,” Heydarian said.

(This version of the story was refiled to remove the extraneous word “should” in paragraph 21)

(Edited by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Protesters Storm Afghan Presidential Palace over Recent ISIS Beheadings

Thousands of protesters marched outside the palace compound in Kabul on Wednesday to denounce recent abductions and killings of seven members of the Hazara Shiite minority.

Before arriving at the palace gates, the protesters walked for almost four hours carrying the green-draped coffins of  seven Hazaras who had been kidnaped and beheaded — four men, two women and a nine-year-old girl, Shukria. Many chanted “Death to the Taliban,” ”Down with the Government” and “Death to Pakistan.” The government is convinced the deaths were caused by an Islamic State group.

10,000 people marched to demand justice for the Shiite minority and called on the government to do more to ensure the nation’s security or step down. The protests come from the growing discontent at the government’s inability to counter groups such as the Taliban and Islamic State-inspired factions.  

According to news reports, at one point, presidential guards opened fire as some of the protesters who tried to scale the walls and get into the palace grounds. The president’s deputy spokesman, Zafar Hashemi, said the shooting wounded 10 people.

Shortly afterward, Ghani went live on national television, appealing for calm and promising that the Hazara deaths would be avenged. “The nation’s pain is my pain,” he said, vowing the authorities would have “no mercy” on the killers.

“Like you, I will not calm down until the perpetrators of these crimes are brought to justice. We shall revenge the blood of our brothers and sisters,” he said, adding that the “enemies of Afghanistan” are trying to create disunity and “bring ethnic and sectarian violence” to the country.