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.”



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)


Russia says will target U.S.-backed fighters in Syria if provoked

A fighter from Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) sits in a military tank in Raqqa, Syria September 16, 2017. REUTERS/ Rodi Said

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia warned the United States it would target areas in Syria where U.S. special forces and U.S.-backed militia were operating if its own forces came under fire from them, which it said on Thursday had already happened twice.

Russia was referring to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias fighting with the U.S.-led coalition, which Moscow said had diverted from the battle for control of Raqqa to Deir al-Zor, where Russian special forces are helping the Syrian army push out Islamic State militants.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the SDF had taken up positions on the eastern banks of the Euphrates with U.S. special forces, and had twice opened fire with mortars and artillery on Syrian troops who were working alongside Russian special forces.

“A representative of the U.S. military command in Al Udeid (the U.S. operations center in Qatar) was told in no uncertain terms that any attempts to open fire from areas where SDF fighters are located would be quickly shut down,” Major-General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.

“Fire points in those areas will be immediately suppressed with all military means.”

The Russian warning underscores growing tensions over Syria between Moscow and Washington. While both oppose Islamic State (IS), they are engaged, via proxies, in a race for strategic influence and potential resources in the form of oilfields.

In eastern Syria’s Deir al-Zor province, IS is battling two separate offensives with the SDF on one side and the Syrian army and its allies on the other.



In a sign of escalating tensions, the Russian Defense Ministry this week accused U.S. spies of initiating a jihadi offensive against government-held parts of north-west Syria on Tuesday.

The ministry, in a Wednesday evening statement, said 29 Russian military policemen had been surrounded by jihadist as a result and that Russia had been forced to break them out in a special operation backed with air power.

“According to our information, U.S. intelligence services initiated the offensive to halt the successful advance of government troops to the east of Deir al-Zor,” said Colonel-General Sergei Rudskoi.

The Syrian army, backed by Russian war planes, has captured about 100 km (160 miles) of the west bank of the Euphrates this month, reaching the Raqqa provincial border on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Syrian troops also crossed to the eastern side of the river on Monday where the SDF has been advancing.

The convergence of the rival offensives has increased tensions in Deir al-Zor.

The U.S.-backed militia said on Saturday they had come under attack from Russian jets and Syrian government forces, something Moscow denied.

On Monday, the SDF warned against any further Syrian army advances on the eastern riverbank, and Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that the waters of the Euphrates had risen as soon as the Syrian army began crossing it, suggesting this could only have happened if upstream dams held by the U.S.-backed opposition had been opened.


(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Gareth Jones and Hugh Lawson)


Islamic State begins to leave Syria-Lebanon border zone

Hezbollah fighter walk near a military tank in Western Qalamoun, Syria August 23, 2017.

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A convoy of Islamic State fighters and their families began to depart the Lebanon-Syria border zone on Monday under Syrian military escort, surrendering their enclave and leaving for eastern Syria after a week-long battle.

A line of ambulances and buses were shown on Syrian state television driving slowly through the arid countryside, the border’s pale hills behind them, as they departed.

It will end any Sunni militant presence on the border, an important goal for Lebanon and the Shi’ite Hezbollah group, and is the first time Islamic State has publicly agreed to a forced evacuation from territory it held in Syria.

Islamic State agreed a ceasefire on Sunday with the Lebanese army on one front and the Syrian army and Hezbollah on the other after losing much of its mountainous enclave straddling the border, paving the way for its evacuation.

Both Hezbollah and Lebanese officials have billed the evacuation as a surrender by the jihadist group.

“We do not bargain. We are in the position of the victor and are imposing conditions,” Lebanese Internal Security General Abbas Ibrahim said on Sunday.

Hezbollah, a Lebanese group, has been a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through Syria’s six-year civil war. The Lebanese army said its offensive against Islamic State did not involve coordination with Hezbollah or the Syrian army.

A commander in the pro-Assad military alliance said Syria and Hezbollah had accepted Islamic State’s evacuation rather than a fight to the end to avert a bloody war of attrition.

Islamic State fighters were sheltering among civilians and to complete the offensive would have involved great bloodshed, the commander added. “Every battle that ends with negotiation or surrender is a victory,” the commander said.



A total of 600 people, including both Islamic State fighters and their family members, will leave in the convoy, Syria’s state-run Ikhbariya television station reported.

The militants will travel across Syria under heavy security escort to Islamic State lines near Al-Bukamal in the east, a Lebanese security source said.

The Syrian army and Hezbollah were communicating with Islamic State near Al-Bukamal to arrange the transfer of the convoy into jihadist territory, the security source said.

One Hezbollah prisoner and the corpses of five Hezbollah fighters, as well as the bodies of some Syrian soldiers, will be handed over by Islamic State, the security source added.

Islamic State fighters were earlier seen burning heavy equipment and arms which the left in the border enclave.

The deal also involved Islamic State revealing the fate of nine Lebanese soldiers it captured when it overran the town of Arsal in Lebanon in 2014.

A senior Lebanese security official said late on Sunday the soldiers were almost certainly dead after recovering six bodies and digging for two others in areas previously held by Islamic State.

Earlier this month, two other pockets straddling the border were recaptured by Lebanon and Syria after other militant groups accepted similar evacuation deals.

Those agreements were prompted by a brief Hezbollah offensive that began at the end of July against militants of the group formerly known as Nusra Front, which was al Qaeda’s official partner in Syria until last year.

Hezbollah has maintained a strong presence in the parts of Syria near the border with Lebanon for years, helping Assad to recapture several rebel-held towns and villages there.

The threat to Lebanese territory from rebel and militant groups in Syria was evident in the 2014 attack on Arsal. Suicide bomb attacks struck a predominately Shi’ite area in south Beirut, where Hezbollah is widely supported, in November 2015.

Inside Syria, Islamic State is retreating on all fronts, losing territory both to the Syrian army and its allies, and to an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias backed by a U.S.-led coalition.



(Additional reporting by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Alison Williams)


Spain hunts for driver in van rampage, says Islamist cell dismantled

A man lights a candle at an impromptu memorial where a van crashed into pedestrians at Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain, August 19, 2017

By Angus Berwick and Andrés González

RIPOLL/BARCELONA, Spain (Reuters) – Police were searching on Saturday for the driver of a van that killed 13 people when it plowed into a crowd in Barcelona and were trying to determine whether two other suspected Islamist militants linked to the attack had died or were at large.

The Spanish government said it considered it had dismantled the cell behind Thursday’s Barcelona rampage and an attack early on Friday in the Catalan seaside town of Cambrils.

Police arrested four people in connection with the attacks Barcelona and Cambrils, where a woman was killed when a car rammed passersby on Friday. Five attackers wearing fake explosive belts were also shot dead in the Catalan town.

“The cell has been fully dismantled in Barcelona, after examining the people who died, the people who were arrested and carrying out identity checks,” Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido told a news conference.

But authorities have yet to identify the driver of the van and his whereabouts are unclear, while police and officials in the northeastern region of Catalonia said they still needed to locate up to two other people.

Investigators are focusing on a group of at least 12 suspects believed to be behind the deadliest attacks to hit Spain in more than a decade.

In little more than a year, militants have used vehicles as weapons to kill nearly 130 people in France, Germany, Britain, Sweden and Spain.

None of the nine people arrested or shot dead by police are believed to be the driver who sped into Las Ramblas, leaving a trail of dead and injured among the crowds of tourists and local residents strolling along the Barcelona boulevard.

A Moroccan-born 22-year-old called Younes Abouyaaqoub was among those being sought, according to the mayor’s office in the Catalan town of Ripoll, where he and other suspects lived.

Spanish media reported that Abouyaaqoub may have been the driver of the van in Barcelona, but police and Catalan officials could not confirm this.

The driver in the Barcelona attack abandoned the van and fled on foot on Thursday after plowing into the crowd. Fifty people were still in hospital on Saturday following that attack, with 13 in a critical condition.

Many were foreign tourists. The Mediterranean region of Catalonian is thronged in the summer months with visitors drawn to its beaches and the port city of Barcelona’s museums and tree-lined boulevards.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks in Cambrils and Barcelona, a statement by the jihadist group said on Saturday.



Police searched a flat in Ripoll on Friday in their hunt for people connected to the attacks, the ninth raid so far on homes in the town nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees near the French border.

The flat had been occupied by a man named as Abdelbaki Es Satty, according to a search warrant seen by Reuters. Neighbors said he was an imam, a Muslim prayer leader. His landlord said he had last been seen on Tuesday.

Scraps of paper covered in notes were strewn around the flat, which had been turned upside down in the police search.

Three Moroccans and a citizen of Spain’s North African enclave of Melilla have been arrested so far in connection with the attacks.

Apart from Abouyaaqoub, authorities are searching for two other people though it is not certain they are at large.

One or even both of them may have been killed in Alcanar, where a house was razed by an explosion shortly before midnight on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Catalonia’s home affairs department said.

Casting new doubts over the investigation, El Pais said late on Saturday that biological remains of at least three people had been found in the ruins of the Alcanar house. It was not clear whether they could be from the three suspects still sought by the police or if more people were there.

Police believe the house in Alcanar was being used to plan one or several large-scale attacks in Barcelona, possibly using a large number of butane gas canisters stored there.

The Spanish government maintained its security alert level at four, one notch below the maximum level that would indicate another attack was imminent, but said it would reinforce security in crowded areas and tourist hotspots.

Spanish media also said that security at the border with France was being beefed up.



Of the 14 dead in the two attacks, five are Spanish, two are Italians, two are Portuguese, one Belgian, one Canadian and one a U.S. citizen, emergency services and authorities from those countries have confirmed so far.

A seven-year-old boy with British and Australian nationality who had been missing since the attack in Barcelona was found on Saturday in one of the city’s hospitals and was in a serious condition, El Pais newspaper reported.

Spain’s King Felipe and Queen Letizia on Saturday visited some of the dozens injured whose nationalities ranged from French and German to Pakistani and the Filipino. They are being treated in various Barcelona hospitals.

The royal couple are expected to take part in a Catholic mass on Sunday morning at architect Antoni Gaudi’s famous Sagrada Familia church, a Barcelona landmark, in honor of the victims of the attack.

Barcelona’s football team will wear special shirts, bearing the Catalan words for “We are all Barcelona”, and black armbands in memory of victims when they play their opening league game of the season on Sunday evening against Real Betis.


(Additional reporting by Sarah White, Julien Toyer, Carlos Ruano, Rodrigo de Miguel, Alba Asenjo and Adrian Croft, Writing by Sarah White and Julien Toyer; Editing by Janet Lawrence, Edmund Blair and Lisa Shumaker)


Saudi-owned TV drama fights Islamic State propaganda

Women perform in a scene from 'Black Crows' series, believed to be filmed in Lebanon, April 19, 2016.

By Tarek Fahmy and Noah Browning

DUBAI, June 1 (Reuters) – A Saudi-owned television channel has launched a drama series portraying the brutality of life under the Islamic State to counter sleek propaganda from the jihadist group which has won it recruits worldwide.

Beamed across the Arab world by satellite channel MBC, the $10-million project reflects the kingdom’s self-appointed role at the forefront of a Muslim bulwark against extremism which was underlined in a May 20-21 visit by U.S. President Donald Trump.

“Black Crows” shows women and children living under the jihadists and is the first television drama to tackle subjects such as mass murder and rape, contrasting sharply with the idyll of heroism and holy war projected by IS on social media.

“The main audience we target, the most important and dangerous, are those who are prone to support and even join terrorist organizations,” MBC spokesman Mazen Hayek told Reuters in an interview.

“Media is part of their (IS) offensive strategy. Thus media organizations have the right, actually the duty, to face such an offensive – which is well-funded and on the internet and social media – with this series,” he said.

Actors and MBC staff have told local media they received death threats online from IS supporters because of the show.

Filmed in Lebanon, the more-than-20-part series that started on Saturday follows the widow of an Islamic State commander turned leader of a women’s morality police force. There are scenes of gutted homes, mass graves, big explosions and gunmen waving black flags.

Plot-lines include women from the Yazidi religion being captured and forced into sex slavery, child-soldiers and a woman with a forlorn love-life moving to territory held by the group to become a “jihadi bride”.

Since Islamic State launched its lightning offensive across Iraq and Syria staging beheadings and releasing carefully crafted films to draw in new recruits, Arab and Western governments have sought to counter their message.


During Trump’s Riyadh visit, Saudi King Salman unveiled a Global Center for Combating Extremism to monitor and rebut extremist material online, and now maintains a new Ideological War Center within its defense ministry.

“The media alone is not enough, we need religious institutes, clerics and mosques to work with the media in combating radicalism,” said Najat AlSaeed, a Saudi analyst who has written a book on Arab satellite TV.

“There is progress, but it’s slow and is not enough for the reformists or the global community.”

The show will aim to reach a big audience of Muslim viewers as they break their fast in the evening for the holy month of Ramadan – a prime season for TV dramas. MBC together with its sister entertainment and movie channels are the most watched network in the Arab world.

The subject matter strays widely from traditional programs: Middle East period drama or romantic soaps.

However, Syrian actress Dima Al Jundi who plays the morality enforcer says only art can convey the depth of human suffering the group has wrought in a way viewers need to see.

“If you open YouTube, you’ll find videos of murder or suicide bombings. But the details of their daily life, how they recruit kids, how they abuse women – this you wouldn’t know.”

Saudi Arabia follows the ultra-conservative Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam, but sees the Islamist militants as posing a threat to its own stability. IS denounces the al Saud family as ungodly rulers for their alliance with the United States and has staged attacks in the country.

Senior Wahhabi clerics, whose influence in Saudi society forms part of a covenant with the royal family dating to the kingdom’s founding 250 years ago, endorse execution by beheading for offences that include apostasy, adultery and sorcery, oppose women driving or working and describe Shi’ites as heretics.

The clerics sharply differ, however, from al Qaeda and Islamic State Sunni militants in opposing violent revolt against the government.

Saudi Arabia crushed a campaign of al Qaeda attacks in 2003-06 but has been hit by Islamic State bombings in the past two years. Saudi security police closely monitor Saudis with suspected connections to militants and have detained more than 15,000 suspects in the years since al Qaeda’s campaign.

(Editing by William Maclean and Peter Millership)

The enemy within: Russia faces different Islamist threat with metro bombing

Russian president Vladimir Putin puts flowers down outside Tekhnologicheskiy Institut metro station in St. Petersburg, Russia. REUTERS/Grigory Duko

By Maria Tsvetkova and Denis Pinchuk

MOSCOW/ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) – Akbarzhon Jalilov, the man suspected of blowing up a Russian metro train, represents a new wave of radical Islamists who blend into local society away from existing jihadist movements – making it harder for security forces to stop their attacks.

His pages on the Russian equivalent of Facebook show Jalilov’s interest in Wahabbism, a conservative and hardline branch of Islam. But they give no indication that he might resort to violence, presenting a picture of a typical young man leading a largely secular life.

Fourteen people were killed and 50 wounded in the suicide bomb attack on Monday on the metro carriage in St Petersburg. Russian state investigators said the suspected bomber was Jalilov, a 23-year-old born in the mainly Muslim ex-Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan.

If radical Islamism was indeed his motive, he will be distinct from two previous waves of attackers – those from Russia’s restive North Caucasus region who fought successive rebellions against Moscow; and a later group who went to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside the Islamic State group.

The new generation may take inspiration or instruction from people involved in those previous fights, and are drawn from the same Muslim communities.

However, they are not directly linked to those militant organizations and have not created the trail of arrest warrants, tapped phone calls, travel documents and monitored border crossings on which security forces usually rely to keep tabs on violent Islamist radicals.

“It’s a completely different kind, a different level of terrorist threat from the one that Russian security services are used to dealing with,” said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian expert on the intelligence services.

Security services typically look for an organization and financing network behind a terror attack, he said, but those may not exist in cases such as the metro bombing. “It’s very difficult to counter things like this,” Soldatov said.

British police have run into similar problems investigating the case of Khalid Masood, who sped across Westminster Bridge in a car last month, killing three pedestrians and injuring dozens more, before stabbing a policeman to death. Shot dead by police, Masood also had no known links to jihadist groups.


Jalilov is typical of millions of young Muslim men living in Russia. There was nothing apparent from his background and lifestyle that made him stand out for the authorities.

An ethnic Uzbek from the southern Kyrgyzstan city of Osh, he moved with his father to St Petersburg for work several years ago, according to neighbors in Osh.

In Russia, he worked with his father as a panel beater in a car repair shop, they said. An acquaintance from St Petersburg said Jalilov had worked for about a year in a chain of sushi restaurants. A second acquaintance said he was a fan of sambo, a form of martial arts popular in Russia.

He owned a Daewoo car, according to a source in the Russian authorities, and was registered at an apartment in a quiet, upscale neighborhood of suburban St Petersburg.

A person who said he was a representative of the apartment’s owner said Jalilov had never lived there, but that he had granted him with a temporary registration at the flat as a favor to some mutual acquaintances.

Jalilov’s page on VKontake, a Russian social media website, has photographs showing him wearing stylish Western dress, in a restaurant with friends and smoking a hookah pipe. His listed interests included a pop music radio station and mixed-martial arts. His page had a link to the home page of boxer Mike Tyson.

But he also had an interest in religion: the page had links to a website in Russian called “I love Islam” which features quotations from the Koran, and another called, which said it aimed to help people get to know Islam.

Another VKontakte page which belonged to Jalilov included links to a site featuring the sayings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th century preacher on whose teaching Wahabbism is based.


Security officials and people involved in radical Islam say the earlier generations of violent Islamists are now largely out of the picture.

Militant in the North Caucasus are hounded by security forces, pushed into forest hideouts, and too pre-occupied with staying alive to be able to launch attacks on Russian cities.

Meanwhile, the thousands of people from Russia and ex-Soviet republics who fought alongside Islamic State in Syria and Iraq are on the radar of Russian intelligence. Tipped off by Turkish intelligence which tracks jihadists’ movements into and out of Syria, Russia arrests them when they return home or prevents them from entering the country.

An attack near Moscow last year may have marked the emergence of the new generation of radicals.

Usman Murdalov, 21, and his friend Sulim Israilov, 18 traveled from their home in Chechnya, in the north Caucasus, to a Moscow suburb, armed themselves with axes, and attacked a traffic police post. They were shot dead.

Their families said they had no idea they were involved in radical Islamism. But in a video posted online a day later, they professed loyalty to Islamic State, and made reference to the Russian military intervention in Syria.

“We are calling this a revenge operation, revenge because you are killing our brothers, because you are killing our brothers and sisters every day in Iraq and Syria,” one of the two attackers said in the video.

Islamic State, its grip on territory in Syria and Iraq weakening, has switched its focus to inspiring sympathizers elsewhere. Avenging Russia for its role in the Syria conflict has been a prominent theme on the group’s social media sites.

Shortly after Russia launched its military operation in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2015, the group released a video where it threatened to attack Russia very soon, described Russians as kafirs, or unbelievers, and said that “the blood will spill like an ocean”.


That propaganda finds fertile ground inside Russia among the millions of Muslims from Russia’s North Caucasus and Muslim migrants from ex-Soviet central Asia. Many do menial, low-paid jobs; they are regularly stopped by police for document checks, and they often face racial discrimination.

Two men from central Asia who fought alongside Islamist radicals in Syria described how they had been radicalized while they were working in Russia.

One, who gave his name as Boburjan, spoke to Reuters in a jail in Osh in 2015 where he was serving a sentence for his activities in Syria. He said he had come to Moscow to work on a construction site. At a Moscow mosque, he was approached by a man who showed him videos of Middle Eastern conflicts.

“That man said: ‘Look, infidels are killing us, they rape our women and children, and we must defend our fellow Muslims’,” he said.

The second man said he was working as a cook in an Uzbek restaurant in central Moscow. “Some of the guys I knew said: ‘We must go and wage jihad’,” said the 22-year-old man, who gave his name as Khalijan.

(additional reporting by Svetlana Reiter, Polina Nikolskaya, Olzhas Auyezov, Hulkar Isamova and Olga Dzyubenko; writing by Christian Lowe; editing by David Stamp)

Facing jihadist attack, Syrian rebels join bigger faction

Syrian Islamic Rebels firing missiles at Bashar al Assad

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham said on Thursday six other rebel factions had joined its ranks in northwestern Syria in order to fend off a major assault by a powerful jihadist group.

The hardline Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, once allied with al Qaeda and formerly known as the Nusra Front, attacked Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups west of Aleppo this week, accusing them of conspiring against it at peace talks in Kazakhstan this week.

Ahrar al-Sham, which presents itself as a mainstream Sunni Islamist group, sided with the FSA groups and said Fateh al-Sham had rejected mediation attempts. The Ahrar statement said that any attack on its members of was tantamount to a “declaration of war”, and it would not hesitate to confront it.

Rebel factions Alwiyat Suqour al-Sham, Fastaqim, Jaish al-Islam’s Idlib branch, Jaish al-Mujahideen and al-Jabha al-Shamiya’s west Aleppo branch said in a statement they had joined Ahrar al-Sham.

The Ahrar al-Sham statement also mentioned a sixth group, the Sham Revolutionary Brigades, and “other brigades” had joined alongside these five.

Ahrar al-Sham is considered a terrorist group by Moscow and did not attend the Russian-backed Astana peace talks. But it said it would support FSA factions that took part if they secured a favorable outcome for the opposition.

The attack by Fateh al-Sham had threatened to wipe out the FSA groups which have also received backing from countries opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad such as Gulf Arab states, Turkey and the United States.

Internationally viewed as a terrorist group, Fateh al-Sham has been excluded from all diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian conflict, including the recent truce brokered by Russia and Turkey. Since the new year, the group has been targeted by a spate of U.S. air strikes.

While Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has often fought in close proximity to FSA rebels against Assad, it also has a record of crushing foreign-backed FSA groups during Syria’s complex, almost six-year conflict.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Tom Perry; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Syrian rebels seize ‘doomsday’ village where Islamic State promised final battle

A view shows an office that was used by Islamic State militants in Turkman Bareh village, after rebel fighters advanced in the area, in northern Aleppo

By Angus McDowall and Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian rebels said they captured the village of Dabiq from Islamic State on Sunday, forcing the jihadist group from a stronghold where it had promised to fight a final, apocalyptic battle with the West.

Its defeat at Dabiq, long a mainstay of Islamic State’s propaganda, underscores the group’s declining fortunes this year as it suffered battlefield defeats in Syria and Iraq and lost a string of senior leaders in targeted air strikes.

The group, whose lightning advance through swathes of the two countries and declaration that it had established a new caliphate stunned world leaders in 2014, is now girding for an offensive against Iraq’s Mosul, its most prized possession.

The rebels, backed by Turkish tanks and warplanes, took Dabiq and neighboring Soran after clashes on Sunday morning, said Ahmed Osman, head of the Sultan Murad group, one of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions involved in the fighting.

“The Daesh myth of their great battle in Dabiq is finished,” he told Reuters, using a pejorative name for Islamic State.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman said that Dabiq’s liberation was a “strategic and symbolic victory” against Islamic State.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter also welcomed the retaking of Dabiq as both a military and symbolic blow to Islamic State and thanked Turkey for the role it played. “Its liberation gives the campaign to deliver ISIL a lasting defeat new momentum in Syria,” Carter said, using an alternative name for the group. ‎

The Free Syrian Army is an umbrella group for rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad in a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions, dragging in regional and global powers and creating space for jihadists.

An Islamic prophecy names Dabiq as the site of a battle between Muslims and infidels that will presage doomsday, a message Islamic State used extensively in its propaganda, going so far as to name its main publication after the village.

It also chose Dabiq as the location for its killing in 2014 of Peter Kassig, an American aid worker held hostage by the group, by Mohammed al-Emwazi, better known as Jihadi John.

However, it has appeared to back away from Dabiq’s symbolism since advances by the FSA groups backed by Turkey had put it at risk of capture, saying in a more recent statement that this battle was not the one described in the prophecy.

The village, at the foot of a small hill in the fertile plains of Syria’s northwest about 14 km (9 miles) from the Turkish border and 33 km north of Aleppo, has little strategic significance in its own right.

But Dabiq and its surroundings, where the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Islamic State had brought 1,200 fighters in recent weeks, occupied a salient into territory captured by the Turkey-backed rebels.


Ankara launched the Euphrates Shield operation, bringing rebels backed by its own armor and air force into action against Islamic State, in August, aiming to clear the group from its border and stop Kurdish groups gaining ground in that area.

“Euphrates Shield will continue until we are convinced that the border is completely secure, terrorist attacks against Turkish citizens out of the question and the people of Syria feel safe,” Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said.

The Turkish-backed forces would now continue their advance toward the Islamic State-held town of al-Bab, southeast of Dabiq, he said.

A Turkish military source said that while Dabiq was largely under control, some rebels had been killed in blasts by landmines and other bombs.

The rebels and Turkish military were working to secure Dabiq’s surroundings to prevent any remaining Islamic State fighters trapped in the area from escaping.

Since early 2016 Islamic State’s territorial possessions in Syria have been steadily eroded by the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella group of Kurdish and Arab militias backed by the United States, which in August took the city of Manbij.

Turkey’s campaign has since cut the jihadist group off from the Turkish border, long its most reliable entry point for supplies and foreign fighters.

Meanwhile air strikes have killed a succession of Islamic State leaders in Syria, including its “war minister” Omar al-Shishani and Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, one of its leading strategists and an architect of its shift toward plotting attacks in Europe.

In Iraq the army backed by Shi’ite Muslim militia groups has this year recaptured Falluja and is now poised for an offensive on Mosul, where Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 2014 declared himself heir to Islam’s caliphs.

However, the militants still hold most of Syria’s Euphrates basin, from al-Bab, 26 km southeast of Dabiq, through the group’s capital of Raqqa and to the Iraqi border.

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun in Ankara and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Greg Mahlich and Sandra Maler)

Saudi Arabia’s new jihadists; poorly trained but hard to stop

A damaged car is seen after a blast near the U.S. consulate in Saudi Arabia's second city of Jeddah July 4, 2016. Picture taken July 4, 2016. Saudi Press Agency/

By Angus McDowall

RIYADH (Reuters) – Technical hitches limited the death tolls in three suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia but the apparent coordination of the blasts suggests jihadis have the tools to sustain their bombing campaign.

Three young Saudis detonated explosive vests near a Shi’ite mosque in Qatif last Monday, killing only themselves, while an attack by another young Saudi suicide bomber at the Prophet’s mosque in Medina killed four policemen.

Before dawn the same day a 34-year-old Pakistani driver had blown himself up in a car park outside the U.S. consulate in Jeddah but only injured two security guards.

“Technically these people are poor. Psychologically they are very poor. Training-wise they are poor,” said Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security expert at the Jeddah-based Gulf Research Centre with ties to the Saudi Interior Ministry.

“Out of five suicide bombers, four killed themselves for nothing.”

Nevertheless, that five individuals were able to build or acquire explosive vests and to plot three attacks on the same day points to a command chain and supply network that presents a formidable threat, security analysts say.

The attacks were not claimed by any group although the government believes Islamic State is responsible after detaining 19 suspects linked to the five attackers.

The coordination but poor training appear to be a sign of Islamic State’s operational model in Saudi Arabia, recruiting would-be jihadists online and managing plots remotely with minimal involvement in training.

An Islamic State recruit inside the kingdom will then seek friends or relatives to join him in an attack, while his handlers in Syria or Iraq suggest a target and help to provide explosives and instructions on how to make a bomb.

That low profile makes it very difficult for the security forces to identify networks or uncover attacks before they are carried out, and Islamic State’s minimal investment in operations means it has little to lose if a plot goes awry.


Unlike during an al Qaeda campaign a decade ago there is no network of interconnected cells under a central leadership in Saudi Arabia that can be infiltrated or rolled up by the security services.

“They ask young people to stay in Saudi Arabia and create sleeper cells and this is a very dangerous thing because you do not know who is in a sleeper cell or who is a lone wolf,” a senior Saudi security officer told Reuters last year.

Traces of nitroglycerine were found at the locations of each of last week’s explosions and preliminary investigations suggest the explosives were of a type used by the military.

Police at present believe they came from the same source, said Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Mansour Turki.

“We’re talking about highly organized attacks under a central command (outside Saudi Arabia) and with a chain of supply,” said Alani.

However, he said the lack of an in-country leadership able to carefully select and groom recruits, provide training, centralize bomb making and prepare attackers psychologically meant that many of its operations were ineffective.

The attackers in Jeddah and Medina were both approached by police in car parks near their likely targets because their nervous behavior attracted suspicion. The Jeddah bomber detonated his device too far from the police to kill them.

After the attack in Qatif, police found explosive packs intact, Alani said, indicating that only the detonators had exploded, killing the bombers but not causing wider damage. Turki said he was unable to confirm that some devices did not properly explode.


Saudi Arabia’s success in clamping down on al Qaeda since its 2003-06 attacks has forced Islamic State towards its model of remote control for lone wolves or sleeper cells.

Western diplomats say the kingdom has developed one of the most formidable counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Interior Minister.

The security police, known as the Mubahith, closely monitor Saudis with suspected connections to militants and have detained over 15,000 suspects since the al Qaeda campaign began.

The rate of arrests slowed near the end of last decade but accelerated again after 2011, when Arab Spring uprisings and civil wars across the Middle East impelled thousands of young Saudis to head overseas to join the fight with many returning home after, officials said.

“The Saudis have come up with a successful strategy with dealing with this sort of problem and they have mounted a highly effective public education campaign in the mosques,” said former U.S. ambassador Chas Freeman.

“And second, they have very effective internal security mechanisms that have enabled them to spot people in the process of turning to terrorism.”

Security tactics have been accompanied by softer measures too. So-called “rehab” centers for militants employed Wahhabi clerics to preach that obedience to the king trumped individual decisions to go and fight in defense of Muslims overseas.

Meanwhile, Saudi media were given access to young men who had returned from fighting overseas whose stories of the brutal reality of life among jihadist groups were broadcast in an effort to dissuade others from militancy.


But sympathy towards fellow Sunni Muslims fighting the war in Syria has created a new generation of young Saudi jihadists.

They support the idea of an Islamic State caliphate and view Saudi Arabia’s rulers and the army and clergy which back them as infidels who betray true Islam.

The government crackdown has forced Islamic State has found new ways to reach potential recruits from a distance, for example through online computer games that are hard for security services to monitor.

Mohammed, a 15-year-old in Riyadh, was contacted by jihadists while playing games on his desktop computer and messaging other online players, his father told Reuters earlier this year, asking to keep his anonymity.

He was chatting with someone who started to send him messages about the injustice faced by Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria. “Come play with us for real,” the person said, and sent Mohammed some films showing Islamic State attacks.

His parents blocked the contact. Reuters was not able to confirm who had contacted Mohammed.

“Daesh is trying to be very active in social media, but I think we are winning thanks to their stupid operations. How can you defend somebody who kills innocents in mosques?” said the senior security official.

(Story refiles to add dropped word in paragraph 10.)

(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Washington; editing by Anna Willard)

Tunisia Arrests 23-Member Terror Cell

Tunisian officials announced that a 23-member terror cell has been arrested in connection with the attack on the Bardo Museum that left 20 tourists and police dead.

All of the members of the jihadist network were Tunisian.  Officials say they are looking for another Tunisian, two Moroccans and an Algerian who have connections to the terrorist networks.

The Tunisian man was identified as Maher Ben Mouldi Kaidi, also known as the “third attacker”, that provided the weapons for the terror attack.

The investigators say they have confirmation that the group was connected with Al-Qaeda, not ISIS as originally believed by some investigators.  The group was working with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

AQIM had been the segment of the terrorist group that had been in control of much of Mali until French forces drove them out of the major cities and into the mountains.