New York woman charged with laundering money to help Islamic State

By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) – U.S. prosecutors said Thursday that they had charged a Long Island, New York woman with laundering more than $85,000 in fraudulently obtained money through Bitcoin to help Islamic State.

Zoobia Shahnaz, 27, was arrested Wednesday on charges of bank fraud, conspiracy and money laundering, the office of Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget Rohde in Brooklyn announced. Shahnaz pleaded not guilty on Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kathleen Tomlinson in Central Islip, New York, according to John Marzulli, a spokesman for Rohde’s office.

A lawyer for Shahnaz, Steve Zissou, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Prosecutors said that between March and July of this year, Shahnaz obtained a loan and multiple credit cards by making false representations to financial institutions, and used them to buy Bitcoin.

They said she then laundered the money through illicit transactions involving shell companies in Pakistan, China and Turkey with the ultimate goal of using the money to benefit Islamic State.

In July, prosecutors said, Shahnaz sought to travel to Syria, but was stopped and questioned by law enforcement at John F. Kennedy International Airport when she tried to board a flight to Islamabad, Pakistan.

The most serious charge, bank fraud, carries 30 years in prison, according to Rohde’s office.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)

Homegrown attacks rising worry in U.S. as Islamic State weakens abroad

Homegrown attacks rising worry in U.S. as Islamic State weakens abroad

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The online video’s message was clear: Supporters of Islamic State who could not travel overseas to join the militant group should carry out attacks wherever they were in the United States or Europe.

Bangladeshi immigrant Akayed Ullah, 27, followed those instructions on Monday when he tried to set off a homemade bomb in one of New York’s busiest commuter hubs, in an attack that illustrates the difficulty of stopping “do-it-yourself” attacks by radicals who act alone.

While harder to stop than attacks coordinated by multiple people – whose communications may be more easily monitored by law enforcement or intelligence agencies – they also tend to do less damage. Ullah was the person most seriously wounded when his bomb ignited but did not detonate in an underground passageway linking the Port Authority Bus Terminal and the Times Square subway statin; three others sustained lesser injuries.

“They tend to be less organized and less deadly,” said Seamus Hughes, a former adviser at the U.S. government’s National Counterterrorism Center. “That’s because you’re dealing with more, for lack of a better word, amateurs.”

The do-it-yourself style of attack is on the rise in the United States, according to research by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, where Hughes is deputy director.

The United States has seen 19 attacks perpetrated by Islamic State-inspired people since the group declared a “caliphate” in June 2014 after capturing broad swaths of Iraq and Syria. Of those, 12 occurred in 2016 and 2017, almost twice as many as in the two preceding years.

“You’re going to see continued numbers of plots and, unfortunately, attacks,” Hughes said.

Ullah began immersing himself in Islamic State propaganda as early as 2014, three years after he arrived in the United States as a legal immigrant, according to federal prosecutors who charged him with terrorism offenses. They said in court papers that Ullah’s computer records showed that he viewed ISIS videos urging supporters of the group to launch attacks where they lived.

Experts said the success of Western allies in retaking most of Islamic State’s territory could inspire more attacks out of anger or vengeance.

“No group has been as successful at drawing people into its perverse ideology as ISIS,” Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray said in congressional testimony last week. “Through the internet, terrorists overseas now have access into our local communities to target and recruit our citizens.”

National security analysts generally divide such perpetrators into three broad categories.

Some attackers act at the direction of a group, like the Islamic State-backed militants who carried out coordinated attacks in Paris in 2015, killing 130; others have some limited contact with an organization but act largely on their own. A third type has no communication with a group but engage in violence after being radicalized by online propaganda.

It is easier for trained, battle-hardened ISIS fighters to travel from the Middle East to Europe than for them to reach the United States. That helps explain why U.S. attacks have largely been the work of “self-made” terrorists, said Brandeis University professor and radicalization expert Jytte Klausen.

“In these recent cases, we’ve seen very few indications that there was any type of direct training,” Klausen said.

Self-directed perpetrators are the hardest for investigators to identify. Their ranks appear to include Ullah, as well as two other recent New York attackers: Ahmad Rahimi, the man who injured 30 with a homemade bomb in Manhattan in September 2016, and Sayfullo Saipov, the Uzbek immigrant accused of killing eight by speeding a rental truck down a bike lane in October.

While that type of attacker typically is less destructive, there are important exceptions. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols killed 168 people, and Omar Mateen gunned down 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando last year.

“A single individual or two can still create a lot of damage,” said Max Abrahms, a professor at Northeastern University who studies terrorism. “But they’re not able to wage sustained terrorist campaigns.”

(This story has been refiled to restore dropped word “as” in 6th paragraph)

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

Philippine Congress gives Duterte green light to extend martial law in south

Philippine Congress gives Duterte green light to extend martial law in south

By Martin Petty

MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine lawmakers on Wednesday overwhelmingly backed President Rodrigo Duterte’s plan to extend martial law for all of next year in Mindanao, an island he called a “flashpoint for trouble” and atrocities by Islamist and communist rebels.

The extension, until Dec. 31 next year, would mark the longest period of martial law since the 1970s era of late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, one of the darkest and most oppressive chapters of the country’s recent history.

At a joint session of Congress, 240 out of 267 lawmakers agreed with Duterte on the need for tough measures to stop Muslim militants recruiting fighters and preparing a new wave of attacks after occupying Marawi City for five months this year.

Duterte thanked Congress for its support and said the communist New People’s Army and militants loyal to Islamic State were equally threatening.

“There is a need for me to come up with something, otherwise Mindanao will blow apart,” he told reporters.

The government worries that mountainous, jungle-clad Mindanao, a region the size of South Korea that is home to the Muslim minority, could attract international extremists.

The Marawi City assault was the Philippines’ biggest security crisis in decades, killing more than 1,100 people, mostly militants. The armed forces took 154 days to win the battle, and 185 extremists are estimated to still be at large.

Duterte enjoys massive public support, but his frequent threats to expand martial law are contentious in a country that suffered nine years of oppression under Marcos before his ouster in 1986.

AUTHORITARIAN STREAK

Marcos was accused of inventing security threats to justify tightening his grip on power and crushing detractors. Duterte has frequently praised the leadership of Marcos.

Duterte’s opponents lament his authoritarian streak and speculate that his end game is to emulate Marcos by declaring martial law nationwide, as he has often threatened.

Asked several times on Wednesday if he was prepared to go that far, he said, “It depends on the enemies of the state.”

Minority lawmakers said the extension of martial law was illegal because Duterte had cited security threats, rather than rebellion or invasion, the conditions under which martial law can be invoked.

Duterte scoffed at the notion that the conflict in Mindanao, his home for most of his life, did not constitute rebellion.

“There is actually rebellion in Mindnanao, it is ongoing, the fighting is going on,” he said.

Congressman Tom Villarin said martial law would cost a huge amount of money, calling broad support for it a “death blow to our democracy”.

“We have made martial law the new normal, absent of any proof of invasion or rebellion,” he said. “Martial law now desensitizes the people to wrongly equate it with good governance and democracy.”

In his request to Congress on Monday, Duterte had argued that a little-known operative active in Mindanao, Abu Turaifie, was “said to be” Islamic State’s potential point man in Southeast Asia.

(Additional reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Seeking to extend martial law in Philippine south, Duterte says militants regrouping

Seeking to extend martial law in Philippine south, Duterte says militants regrouping

By Neil Jerome Morales

MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday asked Congress to extend martial law on the southern island of Mindanao for a year, arguing that Islamist militants have been regrouping since a five-month urban conflict ended there in October.

He said fighters who survived the battle for Marawi City were determined to establish a Southeast Asian ‘wilayat’ – or governorate – for Islamic State and named militant Abu Turaifie as potentially the radical group’s next regional “emir”.

The previous “emir”, Isnilon Hapilon, and another rebel commander loyal to Islamic State were killed in October as the military closed in on fighters who had occupied the heart of Marawi since May 23.

More than 1,100 people – mostly militants – were killed and 350,000 displaced by the Marawi unrest.

In his letter to the Senate and House of Representatives, Duterte said militants were radicalizing and recruiting local people, reorganizing themselves and building their finances.

“These activities are geared towards the conduct of intensified atrocities and armed public uprisings,” he said, adding that they were aimed at establishing a global Islamic caliphate and a ‘wilayat’, not only in the Philippines but the whole of Southeast Asia.

A group led by Turaifie – who heads a splinter group of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and, according to Duterte, is “said to be Hapilon’s potential successor” – was planning bombings in the Cotabato province south of Marawi.

Intelligence reports indicate that militants are plotting to attack another city, Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said on Monday.

Duterte placed restive Mindanao, which has a population of 22 million, under military rule after the attack on Marawi, and martial law was due to be lifted there on Dec. 31.

Lawmakers will vote on his request for a one-year extension at a joint session on Wednesday, Congress majority leader Rodolfo Farinas told reporters.

Continuing martial law beyond the initial 60-day limit requires lawmakers’ approval, but the constitution does not limit any extensions.

Martial law allows for tougher surveillance and arrests without warrant, giving security forces greater rein to go after suspected extremist financiers and facilitators.

Duterte has long warned that Mindanao faced contamination by Islamic State, and experts say Muslim parts of the predominantly Catholic southern Philippines are fertile ground for expansion, due to their history of marginalization and neglect.

Critics of Duterte, who has held open the possibility of extending military rule to the whole country, have slammed the imposition of martial law in Mindanao as a misuse of power and evidence of the president’s authoritarian tendencies.

Martial law is a sensitive issue in the Philippines, bringing back memories of the 1970s rule of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was accused of exaggerating security threats to justify harsh measures to suppress dissent.

Human rights group Karapatan questioned why martial law should be extended in Mindanao nearly two months after the military’s victory in Marawi City.

“This is a dangerous precedent that inches the entire country closer to a nationwide declaration of martial rule,” it said in a statement.

(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Iraqi PM says Islamic State completely ‘evicted’ from Iraq

Iraqi PM says Islamic State completely 'evicted' from Iraq

By Maher Chmaytelli and Ahmed Aboulenein

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Saturday that Iraqi forces had driven the last remnants of Islamic State from the country, three years after the militant group captured about a third of Iraq’s territory.

The Iraqi forces recaptured the last areas still under IS control along the border with Syria, state television quoted Abadi as telling an Arab media conference in Baghdad.

“Commander-in-Chief @HaiderAlAbadi announces that Iraq’s armed forces have secured the western desert & the entire Iraq Syria border, says this marks the end of the war against Daesh terrorists who have been completely defeated and evicted from Iraq,” the federal government’s official account tweeted.

In a separate tweet later, Abadi said: “Our heroic armed forces have now secured the entire length of the Iraq-Syria border. We defeated Daesh through our unity and sacrifice for the nation. Long live Iraq and its people.”

The U.S.-led coalition that has been supporting Iraqi force against Islamic State tweeted its congratulations.

“The Coalition congratulate the people of Iraq on their significant victory against #Daesh. We stand by them as they set the conditions for a secure and prosperous #futureiraq,” said the tweet. Daesh is the Arabic name for Islamic State.

Last month Iraqi forces captured Rawa, the last remaining town under Islamic State control, near the Syrian border.

Mosul, the group’s de facto capital in Iraq, fell in July after a grueling nine-month campaign backed by a U.S.-led coalition that saw much of the northern Iraqi city destroyed.

Islamic State’s Syrian capital Raqqa also fell to a U.S.-backed Kurdish-led coalition in September.

The forces fighting Islamic State in both countries now expect a new phase of guerrilla warfare, a tactic the militants have already shown themselves capable of.

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who in 2014 had declared in Mosul the founding of a new Islamic caliphate, released an audio recording on Sept. 28 that indicated he was alive, after several reports he had been killed. He urged his followers to keep up the fight despite setbacks.

He is believed to be hiding in the stretch of desert in the border area.

Driven from its two de facto capitals, Islamic State was progressively squeezed this year into an ever-shrinking pocket of desert, straddling the frontier between the two countries, by enemies that include most regional states and global powers.

In Iraq, the group confronted U.S.-backed Iraqi government forces and Iranian-trained paramilitary groups known as Popular Mobilisation.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli and Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Defector says thousands of Islamic State fighters left Raqqa in secret deal

Defector says thousands of Islamic State fighters left Raqqa in secret deal

By Dominic Evans and Orhan Coskun

ANKARA (Reuters) – A high-level defector from Kurdish-led forces that captured the Syrian city of Raqqa from Islamic State has recanted his account of the city’s fall, saying thousands of IS fighters – many more than first reported – left under a secret, U.S.-approved deal.

Talal Silo, a former commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces, said the SDF arranged to bus all remaining Islamic State militants out of Raqqa even though it said at the time it was battling diehard foreign jihadists in the city.

U.S. officials described Silo’s comments as “false and contrived” but a security official in Turkey, where Silo defected three weeks ago, gave a similar account of Islamic State’s defeat in its Syrian stronghold. Turkey has been at odds with Washington over U.S. backing for the Kurdish forces who led the fight for Raqqa.

Silo was the SDF spokesman and one of the officials who told the media in mid-October – when the deal was reached – that fewer than 300 fighters left Raqqa with their families while others would fight on.

However, he told Reuters in an interview that the number of fighters who were allowed to go was far higher and the account of a last-ditch battle was a fiction designed to keep journalists away while the evacuation took place.

He said a U.S. official in the international coalition against Islamic State, whom he did not identify, approved the deal at a meeting with an SDF commander.

At the time there were conflicting accounts of whether or not foreign Islamic State fighters had been allowed to leave Raqqa. The BBC later reported that one of the drivers in the exodus described a convoy of up to 7 km (4 miles) long made up of 50 trucks, 13 buses and 100 Islamic State vehicles, packed with fighters and ammunition.

The Turkish government has expressed concern that some fighters who left Raqqa could have been smuggled across the border into Turkey and could try to launch attacks there or in the West.

“Agreement was reached for the terrorists to leave, about 4,000 people, them and their families,” Silo said, adding that all but about 500 were fighters.

He said they headed east to Islamic State-controlled areas around Deir al-Zor, where the Syrian army and forces supporting President Bashar al-Assad were gaining ground.

For three days the SDF banned people from going to Raqqa, saying fighting was in progress to deal with militants who had not given themselves up.

“It was all theater,” Silo said.

“The announcement was cover for those who left for Deir al-Zor”, he said, adding that the agreement was endorsed by the United States which wanted a swift end to the Raqqa battle so the SDF could move on towards Deir al-Zor.

U.S. AT ODDS WITH ALLY TURKEY

It was not clear where the evacuees from Raqqa ended up.

The Syrian Democratic Forces deny that Islamic State fighters were able to leave Raqqa for Deir al-Zor, and the U.S.-led military coalition which backs the SDF said it “does not make deals with terrorists”.

“The coalition utterly refutes any false accusations from any source that suggests the coalition’s collusion with ISIS,” it said in a statement.

However, a Turkish security official said that many more Islamic State personnel left Raqqa than was acknowledged. “Statements that the U.S. or the coalition were engaged in big conflicts in Raqqa are not true,” the official added.

He told Reuters Turkey believed those accounts were aimed at diverting attention from the departure of Islamic State members, and complained that Turkey had been kept in the dark.

Ankara, a NATO ally of Washington’s and a member of the U.S.-led coalition, has disagreed sharply with the United States over its support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters who spearheaded the fight against Islamic State in Raqqa.

Turkey says the YPG is an extension of the PKK, which has waged a three-decade insurgency in southeast Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.

Silo spoke to Reuters in a secure location on the edge of Ankara in the presence of Turkish security officers. He said the security was for his own protection and he denied SDF assertions that he had been pressured into defecting by Turkey, where his children live.

A member of Syria’s Turkmen minority, Silo said his decision to speak out now was based on disillusionment with the structure of the SDF, which was dominated by Kurdish YPG fighters at the expense of Arab, Turkmen and Assyrian allies, as well as the outcome in Raqqa, where he said a city had been destroyed but not the enemy.

The Raqqa talks took place between a Kurdish SDF commander, Sahin Cilo, and an intermediary from Islamic State whose brother-in-law was the Islamic State “emir” in Raqqa, Silo said.

After they reached agreement Cilo headed to a U.S. military base near the village of Jalabiya. “He came back with the agreement of the U.S. administration for those terrorists to head to Deir al-Zor,” Silo said.

The coalition said two weeks ago that one of its leaders was present at the talks but not an active participant in the deal which it said was reached “despite explicit coalition disagreement with letting armed ISIS terrorists leave Raqqa”.

(Reporting by Dominic Evans; editing by Giles Elgood)

Russian military: mission accomplished, Islamic State defeated in Syria

Russian military: mission accomplished, Islamic State defeated in Syria

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s military said on Thursday it had accomplished its mission of defeating Islamic State in Syria, and there were no remaining settlements there under the group’s control.

Russian bombers had used unprecedented force in the final stages to finish off the militant group, a senior Russian officer said.

“The mission to defeat bandit units of the Islamic State terrorist organization on the territory of Syria, carried out by the armed forces of the Russian Federation, has been accomplished,” Colonel-General Sergei Rudskoi, head of the general staff’s operations, said on Rossiya 24 TV channel.

Syrian government forces were now combing and de-mining areas where Islamic State had had their strongholds, he said.

“The final stage of the defeat of the terrorists was accompanied by the unprecedented deployment and intense combat use of Russia’s air force,” he said. The air strikes included 14 sorties of groups of long-range bombers from Russia made in the past month, he said.

Russia’s military deployed in Syria would now focus on preserving ceasefires and restoring peaceful life, he said.

(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Christian Lowe and Richard Balmforth)

Bus bomb kills eight in Syria’s Homs city: state media

Bus bomb kills eight in Syria's Homs city: state media

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A bomb blast killed eight people and injured 16 others on a bus in Syria’s Homs on Tuesday, state media said, citing the city’s health authority.

Islamic State claimed the attack, saying the blast killed 11 members of the Syrian army, its official news agency AMAQ said.

Many of the passengers were university students, Homs Governor Talal Barazi told state-run Ikhbariya TV. The blast in the government-held city hit the Akrama district, near al-Baath university.

Footage showed people crowding around the burned shell of a vehicle in the middle of a street. State television said “a bomb that terrorists planted in a passenger bus exploded”.

Islamic State militants had claimed responsibility for a similar attack in Homs in May, when a car bomb killed four people and injured 32 others.

A string of bombings have struck cities under government control in Syria this year, including the capital Damascus. The Tahrir al-Sham alliance — led by fighters formerly linked to al-Qaeda — has also claimed some of the deadly attacks.

“Security agencies are constantly chasing sleeper cells,” the Homs police chief said on Ikhbariya. “Today, it could be a sleeper cell or it could be an infiltration.”

Barazi, the governor, said the state’s enemies were trying to target stability as “the stage of victory” drew near.

The city of Homs went back under full government control in May, for the first time since the onset of Syria’s conflict more than six years ago. Hundreds of Syrian rebels and civilians were evacuated from the city’s last opposition district, al-Waer, which the army and allied forces had besieged.

With the help of Russian jets and Iran-backed militias, the Damascus government has pushed back rebel factions in western Syria, shoring up its rule over the main urban centers. The army and allied forces then marched eastwards against Islamic State militants this year.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Catherine Evans)

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)

 

Islamic State seizes new Afghan foothold after luring Taliban defectors

Islamic State seizes new Afghan foothold after luring Taliban defectors

By Matin Sahak and Girish Gupta

JAWZJAN, Afghanistan/KABUL (Reuters) – When a Taliban commander defected to Islamic State in northern Afghanistan a few months ago, his men and the foreign fighters he invited in started to enslave local women and set up a bomb-making school for 300 children, officials and residents said.

The mini-caliphate established six months ago in two districts of Jawzjan province marks a new inroad in Afghanistan by Islamic State (IS), which is claiming more attacks even as its fighters suffer heavy losses in Iraq and Syria.

Qari Hekmat, a prominent Taliban leader in Jawzjan, switched allegiance around six months ago, according to local people who have since fled, raising the movement’s black flag over the local mosque and forcing residents to swear fealty to IS’s leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

“They started killing a lot of people and warned others to cooperate,” said Baz Mohammad, who fled Darz Aab district after his 19-year-old son was recruited into IS at the local mosque.

IS in Jawzjan has now attracted the attention of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, which will launch an offensive in the north in the next few days, U.S. Army General John Nicholson said on Tuesday.

U.S. air strikes and special forces have been pounding the main Afghan foothold of IS fighters in the eastern province of Nangarhar, but that has not prevented the movement from stepping up attacks.

IS has claimed at least 15 bombings and other attacks in Afghanistan this year, including two in Kabul last month, killing at least 188 people. The number of attacks is up from just a couple nationwide last year.

It is unclear whether the all the attacks claimed by IS were carried out by the group, or linked to its central leadership in the Middle East. Afghan intelligence officials say some of the attacks may in fact have been carried out by the Taliban or its allied Haqqani network and opportunistically claimed by IS.

Yet the sheer number of attacks plus the targeting of Shi’ite mosques, an IS hallmark, indicates the movement is gaining some strength, though their links to the leadership in the Middle East remain murky.

Some analysts see IS as an umbrella term covering groups of fighters in Nangarhar’s mountains, armed gangs in northern Afghanistan and suicide bombers in Kabul. Little is known about what ties them together.

“IS in Afghanistan never was such a solid, coherent organization, even from the beginning,” said Borhan Osman, an International Crisis Group analyst.

“BRUTAL AND BARBARIC”

In Jawzjan, Islamic State gained its pocket of territory in much the same way it did in Nangarhar – through defection of an established militant commander.

Hekmat’s Taliban fighters had long held sway in Darz Aab and Qushtepa districts, with the Afghan government having little control, residents who fled to Shiberghan, some 120 km away (75 miles), told Reuters.

But when Hekmat had a falling-out with the central Taliban leadership and switched allegiance, his men were joined by about 400 IS-affiliated fighters from China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Chechnya and elsewhere, according to Darz Aab’s district chief, Baz Mohammad Dawar.

Foreign militants have long operated in the border areas of Afghanistan, and in Jawzjan they had typically moved from place to place, occasionally cooperating with the Taliban.

But once they came to stay, life changed for the worse, according to three families and local officials who spoke to Reuters, even by the war-weary standards of Afghanistan.

“IS took our women as slaves, or forcefully made them marry a fighter. The Taliban never did that,” said Sayed Habibullah, a Darz Aab resident.

“The Taliban had mercy and we spoke the same language, but IS fighters are foreigners, much more brutal and barbaric.”

The fighters also forced some 300 children into IS training.

“In the school, IS allocated two classes for the children to learn about guns and bombs,” said Ghawsuddin, a former headmaster in Darz Aab who, like many Afghans, goes by one name.

“OUR ENEMY”

Islamic State emerged in Afghanistan more than two years ago, when members of the Pakistani Taliban swore allegiance to the relatively new global Islamist movement that at the time had seized vast swathes of Iraq and Syria.

By June 2015, newly IS-aligned fighters had crossed into Afghanistan and seized around half a dozen districts in Nangarhar, scorching Taliban poppy fields and forcing them to flee. (http://reut.rs/2j2l6Oy)

Soon after, U.S. forces began air strikes and dispatched special forces to assist Afghan troops in fighting Islamic State – also known by the Arabic acronym Daesh.

Nicholson, the commander of NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, said on Tuesday that some 1,400 operations had been conducted against IS since March, “removing over 1,600” from the battlefield and cutting off their outside finance and support.

“Daesh has been unable to establish a caliphate in Afghanistan,” Nicholson said, adding “We see no evidence of fighters making their way from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan, because they know if they come here they will face death.”.

Even if IS is not bringing in new fighters – though that remains a fear – it is another obstacle to Afghan security after 16 years of war against the Taliban.

“Whether it is Islamic State or Taliban, they are our enemy,” said Jawzjan police chief Faqir Mohammad Jawzjani. “And they have to be eliminated.”

(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Kay Johnson and Alex Richardson)