In Iraq’s Biblical lands, scattered Christians ask ‘should I stay or go?’

By John Davison

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – A jihadist message, “Islamic State endures,” is still graffitied on the front gate of Thanoun Yahya, an Iraqi Christian from the northern city of Mosul, scrawled by Islamist militants who occupied his home for three years when they ruled the city.

He refuses to remove it, partly in defiance of the militants who were eventually beaten by Iraqi forces, but also as a reminder that Iraq’s scattered and dwindling Christian community still lives a precarious existence.

“They’re gone, they can’t hurt us,” said the 59-year-old, sitting in his home which he reclaimed when Islamic State was driven out in 2017. “But there aren’t many of us left. The younger generation want to leave.”

Yahya sold the family’s metalwork shop to pay a ransom for his brother, kidnapped by al Qaeda militants in 2004 at a time when Christians were being abducted and executed.

Since then, he has watched siblings leave for foreign countries and work and income dry up.

Of 20 relatives who once lived in the neighborhood, only his family of six remain.

Iraq’s Christians have endured unrest over centuries, but a mass exodus began after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and accelerated during the reign of Islamic State, which brutalized minorities and Muslims alike.

Hundreds of thousands left for nearby areas and Western countries.

Across Iraq’s northern Nineveh Plains, home to some of the oldest churches and monasteries in the world, the remaining Christians often live displaced in villages that fell easily to Islamic State in 2014 or in enclaves of bigger cities such as Mosul and the nearby self-run Kurdish region.

The Islamists’ rule over almost a third of Iraq, with Mosul as their capital, ended in 2017 in a destructive battle with security forces.

‘ONLY GOD CAN HELP’

Physical and economic ruin remain. Iraqi authorities have struggled to rebuild areas decimated by war, and armed groups that the government has not been able to control vie for territory and resources, including Christian heartlands.

Christians say they are left with a dilemma – whether to return to damaged homes, resettle inside Iraq or migrate from a country that experience has shown cannot protect them.

“In 2014, Christians thought their displacement would last a few days,” said Cardinal Louis Sako, head of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church.

“It lasted three years. Many lost hope and migrated. There’s no security or stability.”

Iraq’s indigenous Christians are estimated to number around 300,000, a fifth of the 1.5 million who lived in the country before the 2003 invasion that toppled Sunni Muslim leader Saddam Hussein.

Christians were tolerated under Hussein, but singled out for kidnappings and killings in the communal bloodshed of the mid-2000s onwards.

Pope Francis is to visit Iraq on an historic trip that eluded his predecessors. He will say a prayer for the victims of conflict at a site in Mosul where old churches lie in ruins, once used as religious tribunals by Islamic State.

Christians welcome the visit, but do not believe it will improve their lot.

“The pope can’t help us, only God can,” Yahya said.

DISPLACED, DISTRUSTFUL

Yahya’s family, who fled to Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region during Islamic State’s rule, is one of just a few dozen that have returned to Mosul out of an original population of some 50,000 Christians, according to local clergy.

His two teenage sons help out at the local church, the only one fully repaired in Mosul, which fills to about half its modest capacity on Sundays.

Firas, his eldest, finds little more than a day a week of casual labor and sees no future in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

“If I want to marry, I’ll have to leave. Christian women from here are displaced to other areas and don’t want to come back,” he said. “Ideally, I’d go to the West.”

The experience of Islamic State, which told Christians to convert, pay a tax or be killed, and the inability of Iraqi and Kurdish security forces to prevent the group marauding through their hometowns, has left many Christians distrustful of any but their own.

The nearby Christian town of Hamdaniya boasts its own militia, which local officials say is necessary because of the proliferation of Shi’ite Muslim paramilitary groups which seek control of land, and Islamic State militants who remain in hideouts across northern Iraq.

“If there were no Christian militia here, no one would come back. Why should we rely on outside forces to protect us?” said a local militia leader, who requested anonymity.

Nearly 30,000 Christians, half of Hamdaniya’s population, have returned, including a small number from abroad, and began rebuilding infrastructure thanks to foreign aid. It is a rare bright spot.

In the neighboring village, Christian leader Sako said most Christians were unable or unwilling to return out of fear of a local Shi’ite militia, and because non-Christians had bought their property in their absence.

Some have showed interest in resettling in Hamdaniya, but local officials generally reject this, fearing it would weaken Iraqi Christians’ presence.

“If people move here from their own villages, it empties those areas of Christians,” said Isam Daaboul, the mayor of Hamdaniya.

“This threatens our existence in areas we’ve been for generations.”

(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

First big suicide attack in Baghdad for three years kills at least 32

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Two men blew themselves up in a crowded Baghdad market on Thursday, killing at least 32 people in Iraq’s first big suicide bombing for three years, authorities said, describing it as a possible sign of the reactivation of Islamic State.

Reuters journalists arriving after the blasts saw pools of blood and discarded shoes at the site, a clothing market in Tayaran Square in the center of the city. Health authorities said at least 110 people had been wounded.

“One (bomber) came, fell to the ground and started complaining ‘my stomach is hurting’ and he pressed the detonator in his hand. It exploded immediately. People were torn to pieces,” said a street vendor who did not give his name.

Suicide attacks, once an almost daily occurrence in the Iraqi capital, have halted in recent years since Islamic State fighters were defeated in 2017, part of an overall improvement in security that has brought normal life back to Baghdad.

“Daesh terrorist groups might be standing behind the attacks,” Civil Defense chief Major General Kadhim Salman told reporters, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

A video taken from a rooftop and circulated on social media purported to show the second blast scattering people gathered in the area. Images shared online, which Reuters could not independently verify, showed several dead and wounded.

Thursday’s attack took place in the same market that was struck in the last big attack, in January, 2018, when at least 27 people were killed.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi held an urgent meeting with top security commanders to discuss Thursday’s suicide attacks, the premier’s office said in a brief statement. Iraqi security forces were deployed and key roads blocked to prevent possible further attacks.

Suicide attacks against civilian targets were a near-daily tactic of mainly Sunni Muslim insurgents during the U.S. occupation of Iraq after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, and were later employed by Islamic State, whose fighters swept across a third of the country in 2014.

By 2017 the fighters had been driven from all territory they held, although they have continued to wage a low-level insurgency against Iraqi forces and attack officials mainly in northern areas.

(Reporting by Baghdad newsroom; Writing by Ahmed Rasheed and John Davison; Editing by Catherine Evans and Peter Graff)

UK court lifts bar on evidence transfer over Islamic State ‘Beatles’

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s Supreme Court on Wednesday lifted a bar which prevented the government from giving evidence to U.S. authorities about an alleged Islamic State execution squad, nicknamed “the Beatles”, after reassurances were given that the men would not face the death penalty.

The U.S. Department of Justice is seeking the extradition of Britons Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, who are accused of the killing and torture of Western hostages in Syria.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said last week that U.S. prosecutors would not seek the death penalty against the men or carry out executions if they were imposed, an issue which had been a stumbling block for Britain handing over captured militants.

In March, Britain’s Supreme Court had ruled that data protection laws meant Britain could not provide material to the United States or other foreign countries in cases which could lead to a death penalty. That decision followed legal action brought by Elsheikh’s mother, Maha El Gizouli.

The British courts imposed a block on the transfer of evidence while her case was ongoing. But the Supreme Court said it had released an order on Wednesday which formally ended El Gizouli’s action and thus ended the legal prohibition.

“The order concludes the proceedings in the Supreme Court, which means that the stay or the stop on providing material to the U.S. government is removed,” a court spokeswoman said.

There was no immediate response from Britain’s Home Office (interior ministry).

Kotey and Elsheikh are being held by the U.S. military in an unidentified overseas location after they were captured in 2019 but Barr said it was becoming untenable to continue to hold them.

The pair were members of a four-strong Islamic State unit that was known as the Beatles because they were English speakers.

They are alleged to have detained or killed Western hostages, including U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig.

One member, Mohammed Emwazi, known as “Jihadi John”, was believed to have been killed in a 2015 U.S.-British missile strike.

The U.S. Justice Department wants Britain to turn over evidence it has on Kotey and Elsheikh to allow them to be tried in the United States.

Barr had said if Britain did not turn over the material by Oct. 15, the United States would turn over the men for prosecution in the Iraqi justice system.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S. halts military cooperation with Mali as coup supporters celebrate

By Tiemoko Diallo and Aaron Ross

BAMAKO (Reuters) – The United States said on Friday it had suspended cooperation with Mali’s military in response to the overthrow of the president, as thousands gathered in the capital to celebrate the junta’s takeover.

The ousting of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on Tuesday has dismayed Mali’s international partners, who fear it could further destabilize the former French colony and West Africa’s entire Sahel region.

“Let me say categorically there is no further training or support of Malian armed forces full-stop. We have halted everything until such time as we can clarify the situation,” the U.S. Sahel envoy J. Peter Pham told journalists.

The United States regularly provides training to soldiers in Mali, including several of the officers who led the coup. It also offers intelligence support to France’s Barkhane forces, who are there to fight affiliates of al Qaeda and Islamic State.

Pham said a decision on whether Washington would designate the actions a coup, which could trigger a cut-off of direct support to the government, had to go through a legal review. A Pentagon spokesperson referred on Friday to the events as an “act of mutiny”.

Supporters of the junta filled Independence Square in the capital, Bamako, which has been largely peaceful since Tuesday’s turmoil. Many of them sang, danced, tooted vuvuzelas and waved banners thanking the mutineers.

“It’s a scene of joy. God delivered us from the hands of evil, we are happy, we are behind our army,” said a 59-year-old farmer who gave his name only as Souleymane.

Some protesters also showed their disapproval of different foreign powers. One sign had the words “Barkhane” and “MINUSMA” crossed out, the latter a reference to the U.N. peacekeeping force in Mali.

Meanwhile a couple of Russian flags could be seen waving in the crowd. Russia’s ambassador to Mali has met representatives of the junta, Russian state news agency RIA reported.

France said on Thursday that Barkhane’s operations would continue despite the coup.

TRANSITION

The junta leaders have said they acted because the country was sinking into chaos and insecurity that they said was largely the fault of poor government. They have promised to oversee a transition to elections within a “reasonable” amount of time.

Junta spokesman Ismael Wague said on Thursday that the officers were holding talks with political leaders that would lead to the appointment of a transitional president.

They have held Keita since detaining him and forcing him to dissolve parliament and resign.

A United Nations human rights team visited Keita and 13 other senior figures held by the junta late on Thursday, spokeswoman Liz Throssell said.

“There are no indications that these people have been ill-treated,” she told a news briefing in Geneva, where she called for their release.

Earlier on Friday, the mutineers freed Finance Minister Abdoulaye Daffe and the president’s private secretary, Sabane Mahalmoudou, the head of Keita’s party, Bocary Treta, said.

A delegation from the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is expected to arrive in Bamako on Saturday, after the bloc held an emergency summit aimed at reversing Keita’s ouster.

ECOWAS has already suspended Mali’s membership, shut off borders and halted financial flows to the country.

(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo and Aaron Ross; Additional reporting by Felix Onuah in Abuja, David Lewis in London, Stephanie Nebehey in Geneva, Idrees Ali in Washington and Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Toby Chopra, Angus MacSwan and Frances Kerry)

U.S. says Islamic State conducted attack on Kabul hospital

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday blamed Islamic State militants — not the Taliban — for a gruesome hospital attack in Afghanistan this week that killed two newborn babies, and it renewed calls for Afghans to embrace a troubled peace push with the Taliban insurgency.

But it was unclear if the U.S. declaration would be enough to bolster the peace effort and reverse a decision by the Kabul government to resume offensive operations against the Taliban.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ordered the military on Tuesday to switch to “offensive mode” against the Taliban following the hospital attack in Kabul and a suicide bombing in Nangarhar province that killed scores of people.

U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad blamed Islamic State for both attacks in a statement issued on Twitter, saying the group opposed any Taliban peace agreement and sought to trigger an Iraq-style sectarian war in Afghanistan.

“Rather than falling into the ISIS trap and delay peace or create obstacles, Afghans must come together to crush this menace and pursue a historic peace opportunity,” Khalilzad said.

“No more excuses. Afghans, and the world, deserve better.”

An affiliate of the Islamic State militant group claimed responsibility for the Nangarhar bombing, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. No one has claimed the hospital attack.

The Taliban denied involvement in either attack, but the government accused the group of fostering an environment in which terrorism thrives or of working with other militant groups who could have been involved, straining U.S. efforts to bring the insurgents and Afghan government together.

The attacks were another setback to U.S. President Donald Trump’s stalled plans to bring peace to Afghanistan and end America’s longest war.

A Feb. 29 U.S.-Taliban deal called for a phased U.S. troop withdrawal and for the Afghan government and Taliban to release some prisoners by March 10, when peace talks were to start.

Intra-Afghan peace talks have yet to occur and there is some bitterness within the Afghan government, which was not a party to the Feb. 29 deal, that the United States undercut their leverage by negotiating directly with the Taliban.

Ghani’s decision to revive offensive operations is supported by many opposition figures, who believe Washington’s sole focus is to keep the U.S. troop withdrawal plan on track to help Trump win a second term in the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election.

(Reporting by Eric Beech and Phil Stewart; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Daniel Wallis)

Pompeo to Iraq PM: U.S. will take action in self-defense if attacked

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iraq’s prime minister that the United States would take measures in self-defense if attacked, according to a statement on Monday after a rocket attack on an Iraqi base that houses U.S. troops helping fight Islamic State.

Pompeo spoke to Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on Sunday, a day after three American troops and several Iraqi forces were wounded in the second major rocket attack in the past week on an Iraqi base north of Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi officials said, raising the stakes in an escalating cycle of attacks and reprisals.

He said Iraq’s government should defend the U.S.-led coalition helping it fight Islamic State, according to the statement from State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.

“Secretary Pompeo underscored that the groups responsible for these attacks must be held accountable. Secretary Pompeo noted that America will not tolerate attacks and threats to American lives and will take additional action as necessary in self-defense,” it said.

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said 33 Katyusha rockets were launched near a section of the Taji base which houses U.S.-led coalition troops. It said the military found seven rocket launchers and 24 unused rockets in the nearby Abu Izam area.

The Iraqi military said several Iraqi air defense servicemen were critically wounded. Two of the three wounded U.S. troops are seriously injured and are being treated at a military hospital in Baghdad, the Pentagon said.

Longstanding antagonism between the United States and Iran has mostly played out on Iraqi soil in recent months.

Iranian-backed paramilitary groups have regularly rocketed and shelled bases in Iraq which host U.S. forces and the area around the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The United States has in turn conducted several strikes inside Iraq, killing top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Kataib Hezbollah founder Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Alex Richardson and Andrea Ricci)

Islamic State attacks Kabul gathering, killing at least 32

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi

KABUL (Reuters) – Islamic State gunmen opened fire at a ceremony in Kabul on Friday, killing at least 32 people in the first major attack in the city since the United States reached an agreement with the Afghan Taliban on a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops.

A top Afghan political leader, Abdullah Abdullah, was present along with other key political figures and escaped unharmed.

Some 81 people were wounded, a government spokesman said, adding that the death toll could rise.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, the group’s Amaq news agency reported on its telegram channel.

The Taliban, who were ousted from power by U.S.-led troops in 2001, denied involvement almost immediately.

The gathering marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Abdul Ali Mazari, an ethnic Hazara leader who was killed in 1995 after being taken prisoner by the Taliban.

Several people were killed in a similar attack on the same commemoration last year, which Islamic State had also said was carried out by its militants.

“The attack started with a boom, apparently a rocket landed in the area, Abdullah and some other politicians … escaped the attack unhurt,” Abdullah’s spokesman, Fraidoon Kwazoon, who was also present, told Reuters by telephone.

Broadcaster Tolo News showed live footage of people running for cover as gunfire was heard.

Afghan defense forces continued to fight gunmen throughout the day, finally securing the area by killing about three gunmen in the late afternoon, according to ministry of interior spokesman Nasrat Rahimi.

President Ashraf Ghani tweeted that the attack was “a crime against humanity and against the national unity of Afghanistan”.

Abdullah was runner-up in the last three Afghan presidential elections, each of which he disputed. He has served as chief executive of a coalition government since 2014 and is also a former foreign minister.

Ghani said he had telephoned Abdullah, his longtime political rival. Abdullah is contesting an Electoral Commission announcement last month declaring Ghani the winner of September’s presidential election.

Dozens of relatives gathered at the morgue of a hospital not far from the blast, with many breaking down in tears as they waited to identify their loved ones.

Ambulances and stretchers bustled back and forth at the hospital to deliver the wounded for treatment.

“I was at the ceremony when gunshots started. I rushed toward the door to get out of the area but suddenly my foot was hit by a bullet,” Mukhtar Jan told Reuters from a stretcher at the hospital.

Ali Attayee, at the hospital to support his wounded brother, said: “Those who committed this crime want to destroy our people… We’re sorry for those committing such crimes.”

Representatives of the United States, European Union and NATO condemned the attack.

“We strongly condemn today’s vicious attack…We stand with Afghanistan for peace,” the U.S. charge d’affaires in Kabul, Ross Wilson, wrote on Twitter.

The attack was one of the largest on civilians in Afghanistan in a year.

“Horrific attack in Kabul today…heartbreaking and unacceptable. We are tired of war and violence,” said Shahrzad Akbar, head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Hazaras are mostly Shi’ite Muslims. Minority Shi’ites have been repeatedly attacked by Sunni militants in Afghanistan.

The United States has sought to spearhead efforts toward a lasting peace arrangement. Violence decreased during a seven-day hold-down accord with the Taliban before last Saturday’s deal, though the Taliban have since resumed attacks on Afghan forces.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Orooj Hakimi, Rupam Jain, Samargul Zwak, Sayed Hassib and Hesham Abdul Khalek; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield and Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Robert Birsel, Kevin Liffey, Peter Graff and Nick Macfie)

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)

How an Islamist preacher sent gunmen into Burkina Faso’s schools

How a preacher sent gunmen into Burkina Faso’s schools
By Tim Cocks

FAUBE, Burkina Faso (Reuters) – When an Islamist preacher took up the fight in Burkina Faso’s northern borderlands almost a decade ago, his only weapon was a radio station. The words he spoke kindled the anger of a frustrated population, and helped turn their homes into a breeding ground for jihad.

Residents of this parched region in the Sahel – a vast band of thorny scrub beneath the Sahara Desert – remember applauding Ibrahim “Malam” Dicko as he denounced his country’s Western-backed government and racketeering police over the airwaves.

“We cheered,” said Adama Kone, a 32-year-old teacher from the town of Djibo near the frontier with Mali, who was one of those thrilled by Dicko’s words. “He understood our anger. He gave the Fulani youth a new confidence.”

Mostly herders, young men like Kone from the Fulani people were feeling hemmed in by more prosperous farmers, whom they felt the government in Ouagadougou favored. The preacher successfully exploited their conflicts over dwindling land and water resources, and the frustrations of people angered by corrupt and ineffective government, to launch the country’s first indigenous jihadi movement. That cleared a path for groups affiliated with al Qaeda and Islamic State.

Since Dicko’s first broadcasts, Burkina Faso has become the focus of a determined jihadi campaign by three of West Africa’s most dangerous armed groups who have carved out influence in nearly a third of the country, while much of the world was focused on the crisis in neighboring Mali. Militant Islamist fighters close schools, gun down Christians in their places of worship and booby-trap corpses to blow up first responders. At least 39 people died last week in an ambush on a convoy ferrying workers from a Canadian-owned mine in the country. There has been no claim for that ambush, but the modus operandi – a bomb attack on military escorts followed by gunmen unleashing bullets – was characteristic of Islamist groups. [nL8N27P0IA]

Since 2016, the violence has killed more than 1,000 people and displaced nearly 500,000 – most of them this year.

In 2019, at least 755 people had died through October in violence involving jihadist groups across Burkina Faso, according to Reuters’ analysis of political violence events recorded by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, an NGO. Actual numbers are likely higher – researchers aren’t always able to identify who is involved in the violence.

The teacher Kone is one of many of Dicko’s former supporters who regret their earlier enthusiasm.

“We handed them the microphones in our mosques,” he said. “By the time we realized what they were up to, it was too late.”

He fled to Ouagadougou two years ago, after armed Islamists showed up at his school. More than 2,000 schools have closed due to the violence, the U.N. children’s fund UNICEF said in August.

A LOCAL CHANNEL

A lean, bespectacled Fulani from the north, Malam Dicko broadcast a message of equality and modesty. He reportedly died of an illness in late 2017, but his sermons channeled deep grievances in Burkina Faso’s north where impoverished people have long been frustrated by corrupt officials.

The province of northern Burkina Faso where Dicko lived scores 2.7 on the United Nations Human Development Index, compared with 6 for the area around the capital, Ouagadougou. About 40% of its children are stunted by malnutrition, against only 6% in the capital, according to U.S. AID.

From Ouagadougou to Djibo is a four-hour drive on a road which peters out into a sandy track. Sparse villages dot a landscape of sand and withered trees. Goats devour scrappy patches of grass.

Residents complain that their few interactions with the state tend to be predatory: Bureaucrats demand money to issue title deeds for houses, then never provide the papers; gendarmes charge up to $40 to take down a complaint; there are mysterious taxes and extortion at police roadblocks. Lieutenant Colonel Kanou Coulibaly, a military police squadron commander and head of training for Burkina Faso’s armed forces, acknowledged that northerners “feel marginalized and abandoned by the central government.”

In about 2010 preacher Dicko, who had studied in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, began tapping this discontent, recalled Kone and other former Djibo residents. He denounced corruption by traditional religious leaders and practices that he deemed un-Islamic, including lavish wedding and naming ceremonies.

The movement he created, Ansarul Islam (Defenders of Islam), opened a path to militants from outside Burkina Faso — particularly Mali.

Early in 2013, French forces were pounding northern Mali to wrest control from al Qaeda-linked fighters who had seized the region the previous year. Dicko slipped over the border to join the militants, said Oumarou Ibrahim, a Sufi preacher who knew Dicko and was close to the No. 2 in his movement, Amadou Boly.

In Mali, Ibrahim said, Dicko linked up with Amadou Koufa, a fellow Fulani whose forces have unleashed turmoil on central Mali in recent years. French forces detained Dicko near the border with Algeria; he was released in 2015.

He set up his own training camp in a forest along the Mali-Burkina border, Kone, the teacher, and Ibrahim, the Sufi preacher, told Reuters.

Dicko forged ties with a group of Malian armed bandits who controlled drug and livestock trade routes.

On the radio that year, he urged youths to back him, “even at the cost of spilling blood.”

“WHITES AND COLONIZERS”

For some years Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Compaore, had managed to keep good relations with Mali’s Islamists. But in 2014, he tried to change the constitution to extend his 27-year-rule. Residents of the capital drove him from office.

Without Compaore, Burkina Faso became a target. Barely two weeks into a new presidency, in January 2016, an attack on the Splendid Hotel and a restaurant in Ouagadougou killed 30 people. It was claimed by al Qaeda-linked militants based in northern Mali.

Dicko became even more radical after that: He fell out with associates including his No. 2, Boly.

Ibrahim, the Sufi preacher, said Boly came to his house in Belhoro village in November 2016, agitated because Dicko had ordered him to raise cash to pay for AK-47 rifles and grenade launchers from Mali.

Boly refused. Dicko threatened him, Ibrahim said. Boly was either with him, “or with the whites and the colonizers.”

Two weeks later, gunmen assassinated Boly outside his Djibo home. Ibrahim said he fled his own village the next day.

The teacher Kone, whose house was down the street, said he heard the gunshots that day. A wave of killings followed. The militants assassinated civil servants, blew up security posts, executed school teachers.

One day in May 2017, Kone was running late for school when he got a phone call from a colleague. Armed men from Dicko’s movement had come and asked after him.

He shuttered the school and sped to Ouagadougou.

BOOBY TRAPS

Now headed by Dicko’s brother Jafar, Ansarul Islam was sanctioned by the United States in February 2018. None of its leaders could be reached.

It still controls much of Burkina Faso’s northern border areas but two other groups have also built a presence on the country’s borders, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations. Islamic State in the Greater Sahara dominates along the eastern frontier with Niger. And Koufa’s Macina Liberation Front, which is closely aligned to al Qaeda, is active on the western border with Mali.

These spheres of influence can be loose: Fighters for all three are believed to cooperate with each other and with bandit groups.

Their attacks – including the kidnap and killing of a Canadian citizen in January claimed by Islamic State – are becoming more brutal. In one instance in March, a Burkinabe security official told Reuters, militants stitched a bomb inside a corpse and dressed it up in an army uniform, killing two medics – a technique used by Malian fighters.

Recent attacks on churches have killed about 20 people, and a priest was kidnapped in March.

The European Union and member states have committed 8 billion euros ($9 billion) over six years to tackling poverty in the region but so far, responses from Ouagadougou and the West have been predominantly military.

The United Nations has spent a billion dollars a year since 2014 on a 15,000-strong peacekeeping force in Mali. Almost 200 members have been killed – its deadliest mission ever.

France has 4,500 troops stationed across the region. The United States has set up drone bases, held annual training exercises and sent 800 troops to the deserts of Niger. Led by France, Western powers have provided funding and training to a regional counter-terrorism force known as G5 Sahel made up of soldiers from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania.

Despite all this, Islamist violence has spread to places previously untouched by it, as tensions like those that first kindled support for Dicko intensify.

“You have a solution that is absolutely militarized to a problem that is absolutely political,” said Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa project director at International Crisis Group, an independent think tank. “The security response is not addressing these problems.”

CYCLE OF ABUSE

The fact that a large number of recruits are Fulani has triggered a backlash by other ethnic groups, and those who have fled northern Burkina Faso say they had scant protection.

One woman said gunmen on motorbikes attacked her village, Biguelel, last December. The gunmen accused her family of colluding with “terrorists” simply because they were Fulani. They torched her home and shot her husband and dozens of others dead, but she escaped.

The next day the woman, Mariam Dicko, and about 40 others went to a military police post in the nearby town of Yirgou. “They said it was over now, so they couldn’t help us,” said Dicko – a common surname in the country.

Kanou, the military police commander, acknowledged that troops were sometimes not present when needed. “But when patrols are being attacked, it’s more difficult,” he added. “We have to take measures to protect ourselves.”

As Western forces rely increasingly on their Sahel partners, rights groups and residents say they sometimes overlook abuses by locals. Four witnesses described to Reuters summary executions of suspected insurgents during search operations. These included an incident in the village of Belhoro on Feb. 3, in which security forces ordered nine men out of their homes and shot them dead, according to two women who saw the killings.

New York-based Human Rights Watch documented 19 such incidents in a report in March, during which it says 116 men and boys were captured and killed by security forces. The government said the army is committed to human rights and is investigating the allegations. “In our struggle there will necessarily be innocent victims, not because we want to, but because we are in a tough zone,” Kanou said. U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young said America takes up any “mistakes” with the government.

In November 2018, Burkinabe forces raided the village home of a lab technician at a clinic in Djibo, accusing his 60-year-old father of being a terrorist, two friends of his told Reuters.

They killed the father in front of his son.

The following week, the technician, Jibril Dicko, didn’t show up for work. His phone went dead.

Neighbors said he had gone to join the jihad.

 

(Additional reporting by Ryan McNeill in London and Thiam Ndaga in Ouagadougou; Edited by Alexandra Zavis and Sara Ledwith)

Turkey starts repatriating Islamic State detainees

Turkey starts repatriating Islamic State detainees
By Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey said on Monday it had deported two captives from Islamic State, a German and an American, starting a program to repatriate detainees that has caused friction with its NATO allies since it launched an offensive in northern Syria.

Ankara says it has captured 287 militants in northeast Syria and already holds hundreds more Islamic State suspects. It has accused European countries of being too slow to take back citizens who traveled to fight in the Middle East.

Allies have been worried that Islamic State militants could escape as a result of Turkey’s assault against Syrian Kurdish militia who have been holding thousands of the group’s fighters and tens of thousands of their family members.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu had said last week Turkey would begin to send foreign Islamic State militants back to their home countries starting on Monday, even if the nations the fighters came from had revoked their citizenship.

Ministry spokesman Ismail Catakli said one American and one German were deported on Monday. He did not specify where they were sent, although Turkey has repeatedly said detainees would be sent to their native countries.

The 23 others to be deported in coming days were all European, including a Dane expected to be sent abroad later on Monday, as well as two Irish nationals, nine other Germans and 11 French citizens.

“Efforts to identify the nationalities of foreign fighters captured in Syria have been completed, with their interrogations 90% finished and the relevant countries notified,” Catakli said, according to state-owned Anadolu news agency.

Germany’s foreign ministry said Ankara had informed Berlin of 10 people – three men, five women and two children. A spokesman said he did not know whether any were Islamic State fighters, but did not contest their citizenship. The ministry said seven were expected on Thursday and two on Friday.

“Citizens can rest assured that each individual case will be carefully examined by the German authorities,” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said. “We will do everything possible to prevent returnees with links to IS becoming a threat in Germany.”

The Danish Public Prosecutor said on Monday that Denmark and Turkey were in contact over a Danish citizen convicted of terrorism charges in Turkey.

While German and Danish authorities have confirmed they were aware of the Turkish plans, French Defence Minister Florence Parly said she was not aware of them.

A Dutch court in The Hague ruled on Monday that the Netherlands must help repatriate children of women who joined IS, but the mothers do not need to be accepted back.

SYRIA OFFENSIVE

Turkey launched its offensive into northeastern Syria against the Kurdish YPG militia last month, following President Donald Trump’s decision to move U.S. troops out of the way.

The YPG, the main element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and a U.S. ally against Islamic State, has kept thousands of jihadists in jails across northeast Syria and has also overseen camps where relatives of fighters have sought shelter. Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist group.

The Turkish offensive prompted concern over the fate of the prisoners, with Turkey’s Western allies and the SDF warning it could hinder the fight against Islamic State and aid its resurgence.

Turkey has rejected those concerns and vowed to combat Islamic State with its allies. It has also accused the YPG of vacating some Islamic State jails.

European states are trying to speed up a plan to move thousands of jihadists out of Syrian prisons and into Iraq. Denmark, Germany and Britain have revoked the citizenship of some fighters and family members.

Last week Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying there were 1,201 Islamic State prisoners in Turkish jails, while Turkey had captured 287 militants in Syria.

On Monday, state broadcaster TRT Haber said Turkey aimed to repatriate around 2,500 militants, mostly to EU countries. It said there were 813 militants at 12 deportation centers.

Erdogan said Turkey had captured 13 people from the inner circle of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who died during a U.S. raid last month.

(Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber and Thomas Escritt in Berlin, Nikolaj Skydsgaard and Stine Jacobsen in Copenhagen, Sophie Louet in Paris, Anthony Deutsch and Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Peter Graff)