Killing the leader may not be enough to stamp out Islamic State

Killing the leader may not be enough to stamp out Islamic State
By Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The killing of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is of considerable importance, experts believe, but the underlying reasons for his jihadist group’s existence remain and attacks in the Middle East and beyond are not likely to stop.

Baghdadi’s death at the hands of the United States is likely to cause Islamic State to splinter, leaving whoever emerges as its new leader with the task of pulling the ultra hardline group back together as a fighting force.

Whether the loss of its leader will in itself affect the group’s capabilities is open to doubt, analysts in the region say. Even if it does face difficulties in the leadership transition, the underlying ideology and the sectarian hatred it promoted remains attractive to many.

Where once they rode around in armored vehicles, brandished rifles, flew black flags and indulged in acts of spectacular cruelty, the Sunni Muslim militants are now prisoners or scattered stragglers whose leader was chased down in a tunnel during a raid by American special forces.

“Operationally it doesn’t affect much, they are already broken and globally their attacks have receded,” said Rashad Ali, resident senior fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think-tank. “They are mostly concentrated in the Iraqi-Syria borderlands.”

“It doesn’t make much of a difference other than the symbolism,” he said. “If you think taking out one terrorist (matters) while failing to address the root causes that led this ideology to take hold, you are mistaken.”

But some of those grievances are very much on show today. Sunni Muslims in Iraq are angered at their treatment by a ruling Shi’ite elite they see as under the influence of Iran and the Iranian-backed militias that now roam their provinces unchecked.

RECRUITMENT

In Syria, recruitment to groups such as Islamic State is encouraged by the killing of Sunnis by Syrian government forces backed by Iran and Russia.

Islamic State’s effectiveness arises from its members’ loyalty to its ultra-fanatical Islamist ideology, and this may not be much affected by the killing of its leader, said Fadhil Abu Ragheef, an Iraqi political analyst and security expert.

He said Islamic State’s 9-man Shura Council, or leadership group, was expected to meet and appoint a leader from among five candidates.

Among the front runners are Abu Abdullah al-Jizrawi, a Saudi, and Abdullah Qaradash, an Iraqi and one of Baghdadi’s right-hand men, also a former army officer under Saddam Hussein. Also mentioned is Abu Othman al-Tunisi, a Tunisian.

“The new leader will start working to pull together the group’s power by relying on new recruits and fighters who fled the prisons in Syria. He is expected to launch a series of retaliatory attacks for the killing of Baghdadi,” said Abu Ragheef.

It is possible that whoever takes over as the head of the group, which experts say has been beset by internal disputes, will cause it to splinter within months because he is unacceptable on grounds of nationality to some factions.

“For sure they will fight among themselves over resources. I predict the Iraqi faction will win because they have more money,” said Iraqi analyst Hisham al-Hashemi, an expert on jihadist groups.

A security source with knowledge of militant groups in Iraq said the killing of Baghdadi would splinter the group’s command structure because of differences between senior figures and lack of confidence among group members who were forced to go underground when the caliphate collapsed.

“We are aware that killing Baghdadi will not lead to the disappearance of Islamic State because eventually they will pick someone for the job,” the source said. “But at same time whoever follows Baghdadi will not be in a position to keep the group united.”

OPERATIONS

The new leader will attempt to restructure the group by encouraging followers to launch operations not only in Iraq but in other countries to raise morale among existing and new followers, the source said.

By franchising its name, Islamic State has attracted followers in Africa, Asia and Europe. Incidents such as one in London, where attackers used easily obtained weapons such as motor vehicles and knives, show that lack of organizational backing is not an obstacle.

In South East Asia, where Islamic State has spread its influence, officials believe the group’s ideas will have to be fought even after Baghdadi’s death.

“His death will have little impact here as the main problem remains the spread of the Islamic State ideology,” Malaysian police counter-terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay told Reuters.

“What we are most worried about now are ‘lone wolf’ attacks and those who are self-radicalised through the internet. We are still seeing the spread of IS teachings online. IS publications and magazines from years ago are being reproduced and re-shared,” he said.

In Iraq, where Baghdadi proclaimed his caliphate from the Grand al-Nuri Mosque in 2014, authorities have pursued a policy of taking out senior Islamic State figures as an effective way of keeping the group on the back foot.

Hashemi argues that more is needed.

“They have the ability to regroup. The way to stop that is through real fostering of democracy and civil society, truly addressing grievances, in short, creating an environment that repels terrorism,” he said.

“Killing leaders is definitely a good thing but it does not prevent their return, only creating such an environment does,” he added.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein; Writing by Giles Elgood, Editing by William Maclean)

‘This isn’t over’: Islamic State loyalties linger despite defeat

Women sit with their children near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Ellen Francis

DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – Having joined Islamic State in Syria four years ago, the Algerian woman only abandoned the jihadists’ last scrap of besieged territory when her daughter was shot in the leg.

“I don’t regret it, even now … If my daughter was not injured, I would have stayed,” said the woman, speaking behind a full face veil as her 19-year-old daughter lay on a mattress nearby unable to walk.

At a checkpoint operated by U.S.-backed forces some 30 km (20 miles) from Islamic State’s last enclave at Baghouz, a village on the Euphrates, she described her faith in a movement that once held and terrorized large swathes of Syria and Iraq.

“Even if I’m here because I have no choice, I still believe, and I know this isn’t over,” added the woman, who finally joined the exodus from Baghouz on Monday evening.

The pro-Islamic State loyalties among evacuees showed the potential risk it still poses despite territorial defeat.

The militants once redrew the map of the region with a cross-border “caliphate” amounting to roughly a third of Iraq and Syria. But this has shrunk to Baghouz – a collection of hamlets and farmland – since they lost the bulk of their territory in 2017.

The group has been adapting for some time and has mounted a spate of guerrilla-style attacks in Syria of late.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main partner of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria, says it wants to be certain all civilians have been evacuated from Baghouz before it launches a final assault to capture the area.

Numbers of evacuees have surpassed initial SDF estimates, and there was no sign of the evacuation ending on Tuesday when dozens of trucks ferried more out along dirt track roads.

People coming from Baghouz in recent days have shown more open loyalty to Islamic State than those who left earlier on, according to a volunteer medic at the checkpoint where they are subjected to preliminary security screening.

“Now they are more hardcore,” the medic said.

GUNSHOTS AND MORTARS

All the women at the checkpoint on Tuesday were dressed head-to-toe in black including the full face veil, or niqab.

A handful of tents on the desert ground were not enough to accommodate all gathered there. Warplanes with the U.S.-led coalition could be seen overhead.

Some children, their faces covered in dirt, cried.

The Algerian woman said there had there had been more gun-battles and mortar shelling than air strikes of late.

Her husband and two other children had been killed by shelling earlier in the war.

She had no desire to return to Algeria, where the government fought a civil war with Islamists in the 1990s.

“I can’t return to people who do not like me and who I don’t like,” said the woman, who lived in France for a time.

Asked why she went to Syria, she said: “This is what I believe in … the laws of God.”

Islamic State used its ultra-radical interpretation of Sunni Islam to justify atrocities including enslavement, mass killings, and draconian punishments including crucifixion.

The evacuees from Baghouz were being taken to a camp for internally displaced people at al-Hol, a town near the Iraqi border. The SDF wants foreign governments to help repatriate Islamic State activists, saying the burden and risk of holding them is growing.

Adnan Afrin, an SDF official, said the civilian convoys from Baghouz have included a growing number of surrendering militants. They are searched for bombs and mines before being allowed to go any further, he said.

The SDF estimates about 30,000 people have left Baghouz. It aims to eliminate or force the surrender of remaining fighters, who, according to the SDF, have dug defensive tunnels.

Many fighters remain, according to Afrin.

“We know from the civilians who came out that there are a big number, mostly European and Asian jihadists.”

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Britain strips citizenship from teenager who joined Islamic State in Syria

FILE PHOTO: Renu Begum, sister of teenage British girl Shamima Begum, holds a photo of her sister as she makes an appeal for her to return home at Scotland Yard, in London, Britain February 22, 2015. REUTERS/Laura Lean/Pool/File Photo

By Guy Faulconbridge and Paul Sandle

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain stripped a teenager who traveled to join Islamic State of her citizenship on security grounds, triggering a row over the ramifications of leaving a 19-year-old mother with a jihadist fighter’s child to fend for herself in a war zone.

The fate of Shamima Begum, who was found in a detention camp in Syria last week, has illustrated the ethical, legal and security conundrum that governments face when dealing with the families of militants who swore to destroy the West.

With Islamic State depleted and Kurdish-led militia poised to seize the group’s last holdout in eastern Syria, Western capitals are trying to work out what to do with battle-hardened foreign jihadist fighters, and their wives and children.

Begum, who gave birth to a son at the weekend, prompted a public backlash in Britain by appearing unrepentant about seeing severed heads and even claiming the 2017 Manchester suicide attack – that killed 22 people – was justified.

She had pleaded to be repatriated back to her family in London and said that she was not a threat.

But ITV News published a Feb. 19 letter from the interior ministry to her mother that said Home Secretary Sajid Javid had taken the decision to deprive Begum of her British citizenship.

“In light of the circumstances of your daughter, the notice of the Home Secretary’s decision has been served of file today, and the order removing her British citizenship has subsequently been made,” the letter said.

The letter asked Begum’s mother to inform her daughter of the decision and set out the appeal process.

When asked about the decision, a spokesman said Javid’s priority was “the safety and security of Britain and the people who live here”.

Begum was one of three outwardly studious schoolgirls who slipped away from their lives in London’s Bethnal Green area in February 2015 to fly to Turkey and then over the border into the cauldron of the Syrian civil war.

LONDON TO SYRIA

Islamic State propaganda videos enticed her to swap London for Raqqa, a step she still says she does not regret. She fled the self-styled caliphate because she wanted to give birth away from the fighting.

“When I saw my first severed head in a bin it didn’t faze me at all. It was from a captured fighter seized on the battlefield, an enemy of Islam,” she told The Times which first discovered her in the camp in Syria.

She was equally harsh when describing the videos she had seen of the beheaded Western hostages, The Times said.

Begum has named her newborn, Jerah, in accordance with the wishes of her jihadist husband, Yago Riedijk, a Dutch convert from Arnhem. He was tortured on suspicion of spying by Islamic State but later released.

Another son, also called Jerah, died at eight months old. A daughter, Sarayah, also died aged one year and nine months, The Times said.

Her family’s lawyer said he could seek to challenge the British government’s decision to deprive her of citizenship.

“We are considering all legal avenues to challenge this decision,” said lawyer, Tasnime Akunjee.

British law does allow the interior minister to deprive a person of British citizenship when conducive to the public good, though such decisions should not render the person stateless if they were born as British citizens.

Police in Bangladesh said they were checking whether Begum was a Bangladeshi citizen, and Britain’s opposition Labour Party said the government’s decision was wrong.

“If the government is proposing to make Shamima Begum stateless it is not just a breach of international human rights law but is a failure to meet our security obligations to the international community,” Diane Abbott, Labour spokeswoman on home issues.

Ken Clarke, a former Conservative minister, said he was surprised that Javid’s lawyers had given him such advice.

“What you can’t do is leave them in a camp in Syria being even more radicalised… until they disperse themselves through the world and make their way back here,” he said.

“I think the Germans, the French and ourselves have got to work out how to deal with this difficult and, I accept, dangerous problem,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Ruma Paul in Dhaka, Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

For Yazidi survivors of Islamic State killings, the nightmares go on

Yazidi women prepare bread at a refugee camp in Mount Sinjar, Iraq February 4, 2019. Picture taken February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

By Ayat Basma and Kawa Omar

SINJAR, Iraq (Reuters) – Ever since Islamic State visited death and destruction on their villages in northern Iraq nearly five years ago, Yazidis Daoud Ibrahim and Kocher Hassan have had trouble sleeping.

For Hassan, 39, who was captured, it is her three missing children, and three years of imprisonment at the hands of the jihadist group.

For Ibrahim, 42, who escaped, it is the mass grave that he returned to find on his ravaged land.

“They burnt one house down, blew up the other, they torched the olive trees two-three times…There is nothing left,” the father of eight told Reuters.

More than 3,000 other members of their minority sect were killed in 2014 in an onslaught that the United Nations described as genocidal.

A Yazidi man walks through the ruins of his house, destroyed by Islamic State militants near Sinjar, Iraq February 5, 2019. Picture taken February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

A Yazidi man walks through the ruins of his house, destroyed by Islamic State militants near Sinjar, Iraq February 5, 2019. Picture taken February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

Ibrahim and Hassan lived to tell of their suffering, but like other survivors, they have not moved on.

She will never set foot in her village of Rambousi again. “My sons built that house. I can’t go back without them…Their school books are still there, their clothes,” she said.

‘THEY WANT TO BE BURIED’

As U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to announce the demise of the Islamist group in Syria and Iraq, U.N. data suggests many of those it displaced in the latter country have, like Hassan, not returned home.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim and his family live in a barn next to the pile of rubble that was once their home. He grows wheat because the olive trees will need years to grow again. No one is helping him rebuild, so he is doing it himself, brick by brick.

“Life is bad. There is no aid,” he said sitting on the edge of the collapsed roof which he frequently rummages under to find lost belongings. On this day, it was scarves, baby clothes and a photo album.

“Every day that I see this mass grave I get ten more gray hairs,” he said.

The grave, discovered in 2015 just outside nearby Sinjar city, contains the remains of more than 70 elderly women from the village of Kocho, residents say.

“I hear the cries of their spirits at the end of the night. They want to be buried, but the government won’t remove their remains.” They and their kin also want justice, Ibrahim adds.

When the militants came, thousands of Yazidis fled on foot towards Sinjar mountain. More than four years later, some 2,500 families – including Hassan and five of her daughters – still live in the tents that are scattered along the hills that weave their way towards the summit.

The grass is green on the meadows where children run after sheep and the women pick wild herbs.

But the peaceful setting masks deep-seated fears about the past and the future.

A general view of the Yazidi refugee camp in Mount Sinjar, Iraq February 4, 2019. Picture taken February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

A general view of the Yazidi refugee camp in Mount Sinjar, Iraq February 4, 2019. Picture taken February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

GRATEFUL FOR THE SUN

Until a year and a half ago, Hassan and five of her children were kept in an underground prison in Raqqa with little food and in constant fear of torture.

She doesn’t know why Islamic State freed her and the girls, then aged one to six, and hasn’t learned the fate of the three remaining children: two boys Fares and Firas, who would be 23 and 19 now, and Aveen, a girl who would be 13.

There is no electricity or running water in the camp where they live today. She doesn’t remember when her children last ate fruit. “Life here is very difficult but I thank God that we are able to see the sun,” she said.

During the day, her children go to school and are happy, but at night “they are afraid of their own shadow”, and she herself has nightmares.

“Last night, I dreamt they were slaughtering my child,” she said.

Mahmoud Khalaf, her husband, says Islamic State not only destroyed their livelihoods. The group broke the trust between Yazidis and the communities of different faiths and ethnicities they had long lived alongside.

“There is no protection. Those who killed us and held us captive and tormented us have returned to their villages,” Khalaf, 40, said referring to the neighboring Sunni Arab villages who the Yazidis say conspired with the militants.

“We have no choice but to stay here…They are stronger than us.”

(Reporting by Ayat Basma; editing by John Stonestreet)

U.S.-backed Syrian fighters advance in clashes with Islamic State: official

FILE PHOTO: Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces ride on trucks as their convoy passes in Ain Issa, Syria October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have seized ground from Islamic State in a fierce battle to capture its last enclave in eastern Syria, an SDF official said on Sunday.

The SDF, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, began the assault on Saturday, seeking to wipe out the last remnants of the jihadist group’s “caliphate” in the SDF’s area of operations in eastern and northern Syria.

The enclave is close to the Iraqi border and comprises two villages. Islamic State (IS) also still retains territory in the part of Syria that is mostly under the control of the Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian government.

SDF fighters had so far seized 41 positions but had faced counter-attacks early on Sunday that had been repelled, Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, told Reuters.

“The clashes are ferocious naturally because the terrorist group is defending its last stronghold.”

President Donald Trump, who is planning to pull U.S. forces out of Syria, said on Wednesday he expected a formal announcement as early as this week that the coalition had reclaimed all the territory previously held by Islamic State.

Bali said 400 to 600 jihadists were estimated to be holed up in the enclave, including foreigners and other hardened fighters.

Between 500 to 1,000 civilians are also estimated to be inside, Bali said. More than 20,000 civilians were evacuated in the 10 days leading up to Saturday, he said.

“If we can, in a short time frame, get the (remaining) civilians out or isolate them, I believe that the coming few days will witness the military end of the terrorist organization in this area,” Bali said.

Senior SDF official Redur Xelil told Reuters on Saturday the force hoped to capture the area by the end of February, but cautioned that IS would continue to pose “great and serious” security threats even after that.

IS redrew the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it declared a caliphate across large areas of Syria and Iraq. But it steadily lost ground and its two main prizes – the Syrian city of Raqqa and Iraq’s Mosul – fell in 2017.

Spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, the SDF has been the main U.S. partner in Syria.

A top U.S. general said last week Islamic State would pose an enduring threat following the U.S. withdrawal, as it still has leaders, fighters, facilitators and resources.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Police hunt through eastern France for Strasbourg Christmas market attacker

French soldiers patrol past the traditional Christmas market in Nice, France, December 12, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

By Vincent Kessler and John Irish

STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) – Police searched through eastern France on Wednesday for a man suspected of killing at least two people in a gun attack on a Christmas market in Strasbourg and who was known to have been religiously radicalized while in jail.

Witnesses told investigators the assailant cried out “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greater) as he launched his attack on the market, the Paris prosecutor said.

The prosecutor, Remy Heitz, also suggested the suspect may have chosen his target for its religious symbolism.

“Considering the target, his way of operating, his profile and the testimonies of those who heard him yell ‘Allahu Akbar’, the anti-terrorist police has been called into action,” Heitz told a news conference.

Police identified the suspect as Strasbourg-born Cherif Chekatt, 29, who is on an intelligence services watch list as a potential security risk.

An investigation had been opened into alleged murder with terrorist intent and suspected ties to terrorist networks with intent to commit crimes, Heitz said.

Two people were killed and a third person was brain-dead and being kept alive on life support, he said. Six other victims were fighting for their lives.

France raised its security threat to the highest alert level, strengthening controls on its border with Germany as elite commandos backed by helicopters hunted for the suspect.

French and German agents checked vehicles and public transport crossing the Rhine river, along which the Franco-German frontier runs, backing up traffic in both directions. Hundreds of French troops and police were taking part in the manhunt.

Deputy Interior Minister Laurent Nunez said he could not rule out that the fugitive had already crossed the frontier.

SERIAL CONVICT

The gunman struck at about 1900 GMT on Tuesday, just as the picturesque Christmas market in the historic city was shutting down.

He engaged in two gunfights with security forces as he evaded a police dragnet and bragged about his acts to the driver of a taxi that he commandeered, prosecutor Heitz said.

No one has yet claimed responsibility, but the U.S.-based Site intelligence group, which monitors jihadist websites, said Islamic State supporters were celebrating.

French and German security officials painted a portrait of Chekatt as a serial law-breaker who had racked up more than two dozen convictions in France, Germany and Switzerland and served time in prison.

“It was during these spells in jail that we detected a radicalization in his religious practices. But we there were never signs he was preparing an attack,” Minister Nunez said.

One German security source said the suspect was jailed in southern Germany from August 2016 to February 2017 for aggravated theft but was released before the end of his 27-month sentence so that he could be deported to France.

“He was banned from re-entering Germany at the same time”, the security source in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg said. “We don’t have any knowledge of any kind of radicalization.”

BORDER CONTROLS

The attack took place at a testing time for President Emmanuel Macron, who is struggling to quell a month-long public revolt over high living costs that has spurred the worst public unrest in central Paris since the 1968 student riots.

The revelation that Chekatt was on a security watchlist will raise questions over possible intelligence failures, though some 26,000 individuals suspected of posing a security risk to France are on the “S File” list.

Of these, about 10,000 are believed to have been radicalized, sometimes in fundamentalist Salafist Muslim mosques, in jail or abroad.

Police had raided the suspect’s home early on Tuesday in connection with a homicide investigation. Five people were detained and under interrogation as part of that investigation.

At the Europa Bridge, the main border crossing in the region used by commuters traveling in both directions, armed police inspected vehicles. Police were also checking pedestrians and trains arriving in Germany from Strasbourg.

“We don’t know where the attacker is and we want to prevent him from entering Germany,” a spokeswoman for the German border police Bundespolizei said.

French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet said there was no need for the government to declare a state of emergency.

Secular France has for years grappled with how to respond to both homegrown jihadists and foreign militants following attacks in Paris, Nice, Marseille and beyond.

In 2016, a truck plowed into a Bastille Day crowd in Nice, killing more than 80 people. In November 2015, coordinated Islamist militant attacks on the Bataclan concert hall and other sites in Paris claimed about 130 lives.

There have also been attacks in Paris on police on the Champs-Elysees avenue, the offices of satirical weekly publication Charlie Hebdo and a kosher store.

A man drove a trunk into a crowd at a Christmas market in Berlin in December 2016, killing 12 people.

(Reporting by Vincent Kessler, Geert De Clercq, Sophie Louet, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Emmanuel Jarry and Richard Lough in Paris, Vincent Kessler and Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg, Sabine Siebold and Andrea Shalal in Berlin; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Insurgents south of Syrian capital surrender, says state TV

Smoke rises from Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, Syria April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Insurgents in the last area outside Syrian government control near Damascus agreed on Friday to withdraw, but the army’s bombardment continued pending a full surrender deal, state media and a war monitor reported.

The development heralds another advance for President Bashar al-Assad’s push to retake remaining enclaves and strengthen his position around the capital after retaking eastern Ghouta this month.

Large puffs of smoke could be seen on state television rising from a row of buildings as an artillery salvo struck home before one collapsed in a cloud of dust, accompanied by the rattle of automatic fire and the sound of distant blasts.

Assad is in his strongest position since early in the seven-year war despite U.S., British and French air strikes on April 14 – their first coordinated action in the war.

The attacks were to punish Assad for a suspected gas attack they say killed scores of people during an advance that captured Douma – the rebels’ last redoubt in eastern Ghouta.

But the single volley of raids, hitting three targets far from any frontline, had no effect on the wider war which has killed 500,000 people and made more than half of Syrians homeless.

International inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) who arrived in Damascus nearly a week ago were still waiting early on Friday to visit the site of the suspected poison gas attack.

However, a Reuters witness saw a vehicle with licence plates used by international organisations and escorted by Russian military police near the site in Douma on Friday, three days after U.N. security personnel doing reconnaissance for the OPCW inspectors was forced to turn back because of gunfire.

Syria and its ally Russia deny using chemical weapons in the assault on Douma. The Western countries say the Syrian government, which now controls the town, is keeping the inspectors out and may be tampering with evidence, both accusations Damascus and Moscow deny.

Physicians for Human Rights, a U.S.-based rights group, voiced “grave concern” over reports that Douma hospital staff had faced “extreme intimidation” after the area came back under government control to stop them talking about the incident.

A man rides on a motorbike along a street at the city of Douma in Damascus, Syria, April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

A man rides on a motorbike along a street at the city of Douma in Damascus, Syria, April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

DISPLACEMENT

The surrender of the enclave in south Damascus, which includes the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, Hajar al-Aswad district and neighbouring areas, will bring the entire area around the capital back under Assad’s control.

Under the deal, Islamic State fighters, who control part of the enclave, will leave for territory the group controls in eastern Syria, while other factions leave for opposition territory in the north, state media reported.

Sporadic shelling persisted, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said. State television said the military campaign was continuing because insurgents had not agreed to all details of the surrender. The Observatory said it was because some of the Islamic State fighters still rejected the deal.

Yarmouk was the biggest camp for Palestinian refugees in Syria before the war. Although most residents have fled, up to 12,000 remain there and in the neighbouring areas under jihadist or rebel control, said the U.N. agency that helps them.

“There are reports that large numbers of people have been displaced from Yarmouk Camp to the neighbouring area of Yalda. There are also reports of civilian casualties,” said Christopher Gunness, the spokesman for the U.N. agency responsible for Palestinian camps.

Jihadist shelling of an adjoining neighbourhood injured five people, Damascus police were cited as saying early on Friday by state television.

Rebels on Thursday began pulling out of Dumayr, an enclave northeast of Damascus, under a surrender deal with the government. Insurgents in another enclave nearby – Eastern Qalamoun – said they had also agreed to withdraw.

Thousands of civilians, including the fighters’ families, are expected to leave with them for northern Syria before the areas come back under Assad’s rule under deals similar to others carried out across the country as government forces advance.

The United Nations has voiced concern that such “evacuations” involve the displacement of civilians under threat of reprisals or forced conscription. The government denies that.

“The U.N. expects further displacements in the near future to northern Syria from other locations controlled by non-state armed groups where negotiations reportedly are happening,” the world body said in a humanitarian note.

Conditions in the opposition-held pocket of northern Syria where the displaced will go are poor.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall, additional reporting by Kinda Makieh in Douma, Editing by Peter Graff, Janet Lawrence, William Maclean)

Teacher tried to create ‘army of children’ to launch terror attacks in London

A man walks across London Bridge as the sun rises behind Tower Bridge in London, Britain, January 19, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – A British supporter of Islamic State was found guilty on Friday of trying to recruit children he was teaching into an “army” of jihadists to help carry out a wave of attacks across London.

Umar Haque, 25, showed the children beheading videos and other violent militant propaganda, forced them to re-enact deadly attacks on the British capital and made them role-play attacking police officers.

“His plan was to create an army of children to assist with multiple terrorist attacks throughout London,” said Dean Haydon, head of the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command. “He tried and he did, we believe, radicalize vulnerable children from the ages of 11 to 14.”

Despite having no qualifications and being employed as an administrator, police say Haque used the guise of teaching Islamic studies to groom 110 children into becoming militants at the Lantern of Knowledge, a small private Islamic school, and at a madrassa connected to the Ripple Road Mosque in east London.

Of those children, 35 are now undergoing long-term safeguarding measures involving social services and other authorities. Six of the group gave evidence at Haque’s trial, detailing how he taught them fighting was good and had given them training such as doing push-ups to build their strength.

His intention was to use them to attack London targets such as the Big Ben tower, soldiers from the Queen’s Guards, a large shopping center, banks, and media stations, prosecutors said.

Believed to have been self-radicalized online, Haque was inspired by an attack in March last year when Khalid Masood plowed a rented car into pedestrians on London’s Westminster Bridge, killing four, before stabbing to death a police officer in the grounds of parliament.

He had discussed with Abuthaher Mamun – a 19-year-old who also taught at the mosque – carrying out a similar attack using guns and a hire car packed with explosives. He had made the children re-enact Masood’s assault and told another co-defendant the public deserved to be annihilated.

ROLE-PLAYING

“He tried to prepare the children for martyrdom by making them role-play terrorist attacks. Part of that role-playing was re-enacting attacking police officers,” Haydon said.

“He had shown them graphic terrorist videos – beheading videos and frightening terrorist activities overseas. He described himself as a loyal follower to IS.”

Haydon said the children had been “paralyzed by fear” into not telling their parents or teachers, with Haque saying he was part of IS and threatening that they would suffer the same fate as those in the militant videos he showed them.

However, Haque’s “ambitious”, long-term plans were in an early stage, he said. No issues had been raised at the school – rated outstanding by government inspectors – prior to Haque’s arrest and when it came to light what was going on, police initially met a wall of silence from the children.

“He shouldn’t have been teaching, so that’s a concern,” Haydon said. “We have had challenges with both the local community and some of these institutions.”

Haque was found guilty at London’s Old Bailey Court of a number of offences including preparing terrorist acts, having previously pleaded guilty to four charges.

Mamun, who police said was involved in fundraising and attack planning, and Muhammad Abid, 27, were also convicted of helping him. They will all be sentenced at a later date.

(Editing by Stephen Addison)

‘Brainwashed’ children of Islamist fighters worry Germany-spy chief

Math and English textbooks found in Islamic State facility that trained children

By Andrea Shalal and Sabine Siebold

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany’s domestic intelligence chief wants the government to review laws restricting the surveillance of minors to guard against the children of Islamist fighters returning to the country as “sleeper agents” who could carry out attacks.

Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the BfV agency, told Reuters that security officials were preparing for the return of Islamic State fighters to Germany along with potentially “brainwashed” children, although no big wave appeared imminent.

Nearly 1,000 people are believed to have left Germany to join up with the Islamist militants. As the group’s presence in the Middle East crumbles, some are returning with family members.

Only a small number of the 290 toddlers and children who left Germany or were born in Syria and Iraq had returned thus far, Maassen said. Many were likely to still be in the region, or perhaps moving to areas such as Afghanistan, where Islamic State remains strong.

He said Germany should review laws restricting surveillance of minors under the age of 14 to prepare for the increased risk of attacks by children as young as nine who grew up in Islamic State schools.

“We see that children who grew up with Islamic State were brainwashed in the schools and the kindergartens of the IS,” he said. “They were confronted early with the IS ideology … learned to fight, and were in some cases forced to participate in the abuse of prisoners, or even the killing of prisoners.”

He said security officials believed such children could later carry out violent attacks in Germany.

“We have to consider that these children could be living time bombs,” he said. “There is a danger that these children come back brainwashed with a mission to carry out attacks.”

Maassen’s comments were the first specific estimate of the number of children affected, following his initial warning in October that such children could pose a threat after being indoctrinated in battlefield areas.

The radicalization of minors has been a big topic in Germany given that three of five Islamist attacks in Germany in 2016 were carried out by minors, and a 12-year-old boy was also detained after trying to bomb a Christmas market in Ludwigshafen.

The German government says it has evidence that more than 960 people left Germany for Iraq and Syria through November 2017 to fight for the Islamic State jihadist group, of which about a third are believed to have returned to Germany. Another 150 likely died in combat, according to government data.

Maassen said Islamic State also continued to target vulnerable youths in Germany through the Internet and social media, often providing slick advertising or age-appropriate propaganda to recruit them to join the jihadist group.

“Islamic State uses headhunters who scour the Internet for children that can be approached and tries to radicalize these children, or recruit these children for terrorist attacks,” he said.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Fresh losses in Syria and Iraq push Islamic State ‘caliphate’ to the brink

Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) fighters fire a cannon against Islamic State militants in Al-Qaim, Iraq November 3, 2017.

By Angus McDowall and Raya Jalabi

BEIRUT/ERBIL (Reuters) – Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate was all but reduced on Friday to a pair of border towns at the Iraq-Syria frontier, where thousands of fighters were believed to be holding out after losing nearly all other territory in both countries.

Forces in Syria and Iraq backed by regional states and global powers now appear on the cusp of victory over the group, which proclaimed its authority over all Muslims in 2014 when it held about a third of both countries and ruled over millions.

On the Syrian side, government forces declared victory in Deir al-Zor, the last major city in the country’s eastern desert where the militants still had a presence. On the Iraqi side, pro-government forces said they had captured the last border post with Syria in the Euphrates valley and entered the nearby town of al-Qaim, the group’s last Iraqi bastion.

A U.S.-led international coalition which has been bombing Islamic State and supporting ground allies on both sides of the frontier said the militant group now has a few thousand fighters left, mainly holed up at the border in Iraq’s al-Qaim and its sister town of Albu Kamal on the Syrian side.

“We do expect them now to try to flee, but we are cognisant of that and will do all we can to annihilate IS leaders,” spokesman U.S. Colonel Ryan Dillon said.

He estimated there were 1,500-2,500 fighters left in al-Qaim and 2,000-3,000 in Albu Kamal.

But both the Iraqi and Syrian governments and their international backers say they worry that the fighters will still be able to mount guerrilla attacks once they no longer have territory to defend.

“As IS continues to be hunted into these smallest areas … we see them fleeing into the desert and hiding there in an attempt to devolve back into an insurgent terrorist group,” said Dillon. “The idea of IS and the virtual caliphate, that will not be defeated in the near term. There is still going to be an IS threat.”

Driven this year from its two de facto capitals — Iraq’s Mosul and Syria’s Raqqa — Islamic State is pressed into an ever-shrinking pocket of desert straddling the frontier.

In Iraq, it faces the army and Shi’ite armed groups, backed both by the U.S.-led international coalition and by Iran. In Syria, the coalition supports an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias in areas north and east of the Euphrates, while Iran and Russia support the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

On the Syrian side, the government victory at Deir al-Zor, on the west bank of the Euphrates, ends a two month battle for control over the city, the center of Syria’s oil production. Islamic State had for years besieged a government enclave there until an army advance relieved it in early September, starting a battle for jihadist-held parts of the city.

“The armed forces, in cooperation with allied forces, liberated the city of Deir al-Zor completely from the clutches of the Daesh terrorist organization,” state media reported, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Engineering units were searching streets and buildings in Deir al-Zor for mines and booby traps left behind by Islamic State fighters, a Syrian military source told Reuters.

Government forces are still about 40km from the border at Albu Kamal, where they are preparing for a final showdown.

“The defeat of Albu Kamal practically means Daesh will be an organization that will cease to exist as a leadership structure,” the military source said. “It will be tantamount to a group of scattered individuals, it will no longer be an organization with headquarters, with leadership places, with areas it controls.”

 

BESIEGED FROM ALL DIRECTIONS

The source added that he did not believe the final battle at Albu Kamal would involve “fierce resistance”, as many fighters had been surrendering elsewhere.

“Some of them will fight until death, but they will not be able to do anything,” he said. “It is besieged from all directions, there are no supplies, a collapse in morale, and therefore all the organization’s elements of strength are finished.”

In Iraq, the military’s Joint Operations Command said on Friday the army, along with Sunni tribal fighters and Iran-backed Shi’ite paramilitaries known as Popular Mobilisation, had captured the main border crossing on the highway between al-Qaim and Albu Kamal.

They had also entered the town of al-Qaim itself, which is located just inside the border on the south side of the Euphrates. The offensive is aimed at capturing al Qaim and another smaller town further down the Euphrates on the north bank, Rawa.

Iraq has been carrying out its final campaign to crush the Islamic State caliphate while also mounting a military offensive in the north against Kurds who held an independence referendum in September.

 

(Reporting by Angus McDowall and Tom Perry in Beirut and Raya Jalabi in Erbil; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Peter Graf)