‘I only saw America killing”: an IS widow’s view of Syria’s war

Um Walaa, originally from Morocco with French nationality, and widow of an Islamic state fighter, is seen near Baghouz, Syria in this still image taken from a video shot on March 5, 2019. ReutersTV via REUTERS

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – Emerging from Islamic State’s last enclave in eastern Syria, a widow of one of the group’s fighters made no effort to hide her enmity toward the United States as she handed herself over to U.S.-backed Syrian forces besieging the area.

“This is not war. I did not see fighters, people taking up arms and waging jihad against America. No, I only saw America killing – a lot,” French national Um Walaa’s told Reuters TV after being evacuated from Baghouz near the Iraqi border.

“…They used to say we (Islamic State) made the world scared, honestly, I did not see this. I did not see that we terrorized the world.”

Her words offer a snapshot of the feelings harbored by the followers and fighters of the hardline group who have poured out of the enclave by the thousand over the past month.

After subjecting much of Syria and Iraq to a regime whose distinguishing features included mass killing, sexual enslavement and crucifixion, Islamic State is on the brink of losing its last sliver of populated territory.

Founded in 2014, the group’s self-styled caliphate drew followers from across the world and many, like Um Walaa, remain radicalized, their pride in having become adherents undimmed.

Dressed in black from head to toe and her face covered with a full veil, she said she was a French national of Moroccan origin who was born and raised in Belgium. She said her husband had died fighting for the group.

Um Walaa, who gave birth to her daughter in Syria, said she traveled to Islamic State because she wanted to help. “I wanted to see what there was in Syria. And what I saw was terrorism. America kills a lot of people.”


Islamic State fell back to Baghouz as it gradually lost territory in Syria and Iraq to an array of enemies including Iraqi forces, the Russia- and Iran-backed Syrian army, Turkey-backed rebels and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Its biggest defeats came in 2017 when it was driven from the Iraqi city of Mosul and Syria’s Raqqa.

SDF gains in Syria have been backed by ferocious U.S. airpower. Amnesty International has said there is evidence that attacks by the U.S.-led coalition in Raqqa broke international law by endangering civilians.

The coalition says it has applied “rigorous standards” when identifying Islamic State targets and has taken extraordinary efforts to protect non-combatants.

The defeat of Islamic State at Baghouz will mark a milestone in the campaign against the group, but it is still widely believed to represent a security threat, holding pockets of territory elsewhere and able to launch guerrilla attacks.

(Reporting by Reuters TV in Syria; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Tom Perry and John Stonestreet)

Boston Marathon bomber appeals conviction, death sentence

FILE PHOTO: People hold candles during a vigil at the Town Common in Wilmington, Massachusetts, April 20, 2013. REUTERS/Dominick Reuter

By Nate Raymond

BOSTON (Reuters) – Lawyers for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Thursday asked an appellate court to overturn his conviction and death penalty sentence for helping carry out the 2013 attack, which killed three people and wounded more than 260 others.

Lawyers for Tsarnaev, 25, argued in a brief filed with the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston that a lower-court judge’s refusal to move the case to another city not traumatized by the bombings deprived him of a fair trial.

FILE PHOTO: A photograph of Djohar Tsarnaev, who is believed to be Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, is seen on his page of Russian social networking site Vkontakte (VK), as pictured on a monitor in St. Petersburg April 19, 2013. REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk

FILE PHOTO: A photograph of Djohar Tsarnaev, who is believed to be Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, is seen on his page of Russian social networking site Vkontakte (VK), as pictured on a monitor in St. Petersburg April 19, 2013. REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk

The attorneys acknowledged that their client, then 19, carried out the attack along with his now-deceased 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

But they argued that wall-to-wall media coverage of the bombings meant that nearly the entire jury pool was exposed to news about the attacks, which included “heart-wrenching stories about the homicide victims, the wounded and their families.”

“The pre-trial publicity was damning: the more a prospective juror had seen, the more likely she was to believe that Tsarnaev was guilty and deserved the death penalty,” Tsarnaev’s lawyers wrote in a 500-page brief.

They said U.S. District Judge George O’Toole also ignored evidence that two jurors had commented on the case on social media before being picked and prevented the defense from telling jurors about Tsarnaev’s brother’s ties to a 2011 triple murder.

That evidence, they said, would have supported their sentencing-related argument that Tsarnaev was a junior partner in a scheme run by his older brother, “an angry and violent man” who had embraced radical Islam.

The appeal came after a federal jury in 2015 found Tsarnaev guilty of placing a pair of homemade pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line of the world-renowned race on April 15, 2013, as well as fatally shooting a policeman three days later.

The same jury later found that Tsarnaev deserved execution for six of the 17 capital charges of which he was found guilty, which were related to the bomb he personally placed at the marathon’s finish line.

That bomb killed 8-year-old Martin Richard, the youngest fatality, and 23-year-old Chinese exchange student Lingzi Lu. The bombing was one of the highest-profile attacks on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001.

Tsarnaev’s brother died after a gunfight with police four days after the bombing, which ended when Tsarnaev ran him over with a stolen car.

The manhunt for Tsarnaev ended when he was found hiding in a boat dry-docked in Watertown, Massachusetts.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; editing by Leslie Adler and Tom Brown)

Austria to shut down mosques, expel foreign-funded imams

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and Interior Minister Herbert Kickl attend a news conference in Vienna, Austria June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria’s right-wing government plans to shut seven mosques and could expel dozens of imams in what it said was “just the beginning” of a push against radical Islam and foreign funding of religious groups that Turkey condemned as racist.

The coalition government, an alliance of conservatives and the far right, came to power soon after Europe’s migration crisis on promises to prevent another influx and restrict benefits for new immigrants and refugees.

The moves follow a “law on Islam”, passed in 2015, which banned foreign funding of religious groups and created a duty for Muslim organizations to have “a positive fundamental view towards (Austria’s) state and society”.

“Political Islam’s parallel societies and radicalizing tendencies have no place in our country,” said Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who, in a previous job as minister in charge of integration, steered the Islam bill into law.

Standing next to him and two other cabinet members on Friday, far-right Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache told a news conference: “This is just the beginning.”

Austria, a country of 8.8 million people, has roughly 600,000 Muslim inhabitants, most of whom are Turkish or have families of Turkish origin.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman said the new policy was part of an “Islamophobic, racist and discriminatory wave” in Austria.

“The Austrian government’s ideologically charged practices are in violation of universal legal principles, social integration policies, minority rights and the ethics of co-existence,” Ibrahim Kalin tweeted.

The ministers at the news conference said up to 60 imams belonging to the Turkish-Islamic Union for Cultural and Social Cooperation in Austria (ATIB), a Muslim group close to the Turkish government, could be expelled from the country or have visas denied on the grounds of receiving foreign funding.

A government handout put the number at 40, of whom 11 were under review and two had already received a negative ruling.

ATIB spokesman Yasar Ersoy acknowledged that its imams were paid by Diyanet, the Turkish state religious authority, but it was trying to change that.

“We are currently working on having imams be paid from funds within the country,” he told ORF radio.

One organization that runs a mosque in Vienna and is influenced by the “Grey Wolves”, a Turkish nationalist youth group, will be shut down for operating illegally, as will an Arab Muslim group that runs at least six mosques, the government said in a statement.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Netanyahu says Israel, India both face threat from radical Islam

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi looks on during a signing of agreements ceremony at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India January 15, 2018.

By Sanjeev Miglani

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday he was discussing with India ways to strengthen security cooperation against the menace of from Islamist extremism that both democracies faced.

Netanyahu spoke while on a six-day tour of India, the first by an Israeli premier for 15 years, and is being feted by Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalist party has long admired Israel for its tough posture against terrorism.

India, wary of upsetting Arab nations on which it was dependent for oil, and heeding the sentiments of its own large Muslim minority, kept a distance from Israel for decades. But under Modi, the two sides have embraced a closer relationship based on security and economics.

The right-wing Netanyahu told a security conference that India and Israel were two democracies with a natural affinity, but their open and liberal societies faced risks.

“Our way of life is being challenged, most notably, the quest for modernity, the quest for innovation (are) being challenged by radical Islam and its terrorist offshoots from a variety of corners,” he said.

Both Israel and India have long sought to counter militant Islamists – in Israel’s case, mainly from Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai region and, in India’s case, mainly from Pakistan. Away from the public eye, India and Israel have been cooperating against the threat through, in part, intelligence sharing, officials say.

“We’ve discussed in this visit how we can strengthen our two nations in the civilian areas, in security areas, in every area,” Netanyahu told the conference.

His trip to India comes just six months after Modi made the first trip by an Indian prime minister to Israel, during which he did not go to Ramallah, seat of the self-ruling Palestinian Authority and a customary stop for leaders visiting the region.

Netanyahu toured the Taj Mahal on Tuesday and will also visit Modi’s home state of Gujarat and India’s financial capital Mumbai.

He will join an 11-year-old Israeli boy, Moshe Holtzberg, whose parents were murdered by Pakistan-based militants in Mumbai in 2008, for a memorial event at the Indian financial hub’s Jewish center where the attack took place.

The boy, who lives with his grandparents in Israel, arrived on Tuesday as a guest of Modi.

(Additional reporting by Neha Dasgupta; editing by Mark Heinrich)

German police say arrested man may not be Christmas market attacker

A woman prays near the area where a truck which ploughed into a crowded Christmas market in the German capital last night in Berlin.

By Michelle Martin and Sabine Siebold

BERLIN, Dec 20 (Reuters) – A Pakistani asylum-seeker arrested on suspicion of killing 12 people by mowing through a Berlin Christmas market in a truck may not be the attacker and the real perpetrator could still be on the run, German police and prosecutors said on Tuesday.

The truck smashed into wooden huts serving mulled wine and sausages at the foot of the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church, one of west Berlin’s most famous landmarks, around 8 p.m. on Monday. Forty-five people were injured, 30 severely.

News of the arrest of the 23-year-old Pakistani led politicians in Germany and beyond to demand a crackdown on
immigration, but others warned against jumping to conclusions.

Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters: “There is much we still do not know with sufficient certainty but we must, as things stand now, assume it was a terrorist attack.”

“I know it would be especially hard for us all to bear if it were confirmed that the person who committed this act was someone who sought protection and asylum,” she added.

In a dramatic twist, police later said the suspect had denied the offence and might not be the right man.

“According to my information it’s uncertain whether he was really the driver,” Berlin police chief Klaus Kandt told a news conference.

Berlin police tweeted that they were “particularly alert” because of the suspect’s denial.

Die Welt newspaper quoted an unnamed police chief as saying: “We have the wrong man. And therefore a new situation. The true perpetrator is still armed, at large and can cause fresh damage.”

The truck belonged to a Polish freight company and its rightful driver was found shot dead in the vehicle. The Polish truck driver had arrived hours earlier in the German capital and spoken to his wife about 3 p.m., according to his cousin.

When she called again an hour later, there was no answer.

“At 3.45 p.m. you can see the movement on the GPS (Global Positioning System). The car moved forward and back. As if someone was learning to drive it,” said the cousin, Ariel Zurawski, who was also the boss of the trucking company.

“I knew something was wrong.”

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said a pistol believed to have been used to kill the Pole had not yet been found.

German media said the arrested man had jumped out of the driver’s cab and run down the street towards the Tiergarten, a vast park in central Berlin. Several witnesses called police, including one who chased the suspect while on the phone, constantly updating officials on his whereabouts.


Security officials in Germany and Europe have warned for years that Christmas markets could present an easy target for militant attacks. In 2000, an al-Qaeda plan to bomb the Strasbourg Christmas market on New Year’s Eve was foiled.

There were no concrete barricades at the Berlin Christmas market, as have been installed at a similar venue in Britain.

The attack fuelled immediate demands for a change to Merkel’s immigration policies, under which more than a million people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere have arrived in Germany this year and last.

“We must say that we are in a state of war, although some people, who always only want to see good, do not want to see this,” said Klaus Bouillon, interior minister of the state of Saarland and a member of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU).

Horst Seehofer, leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, said: “We owe it to the victims, to those affected and to the whole population to rethink our immigration and security policy and to change it.”

The record influx has hit Merkel’s ratings as she prepares to run for a fourth term next year and has boosted support for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD). On Twitter senior AfD member Marcus Pretzell blamed Merkel for the attack.

AfD leader Frauke Petry said Germany was no longer safe and “radical Islamic terrorism has struck in the heart of Germany”.

The incident evoked memories of an attack in Nice, France in July when a Tunisian-born man drove a 19-tonne truck along the beach front, mowing down people who had gathered to watch the fireworks on Bastille Day, killing 86 people. That was claimed by Islamic State.

The influx of migrants to the European Union has deeply divided its 28 members and fuelled the rise of populist
anti-immigration movements that hope to capitalise on public concerns next year in elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico said the latest attack would change perceptions of migration. “I think that the cup of patience is beginning to spill over and Europe’s public will rightly expect rather stronger measures,” he said.


On Tuesday morning, investigators removed the black truck  from the site for forensic examination. People left flowers at the scene and notes, one of which read: “Keep on living, Berliners!” One woman was crying as she stopped by the flowers.

Bild newspaper cited security sources as saying the arrested man was Naved B. and had arrived in Germany a year ago. In legal cases German officials routinely withhold the full name of
suspects, using only an initial.

A security source told Reuters the suspect had been staying at a refugee centre in the now defunct Tempelhof airport. Police special forces stormed a hangar there early on Tuesday.

Merkel said Germans must not be cowed by the attack.

“We do not want to live paralysed by the fear of evil,” said Merkel, who discussed the attack by phone with U.S. President Barack Obama and convened a meeting of her security cabinet.

“Even if it is difficult in these hours, we will find the strength for the life we want to live in Germany – free, together and open.”

Several hundred mourners joined a church service near the site of the attack on Tuesday evening to remember the victims.

Other European countries said they were reviewing security.

Austrian Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka called for biometric and fingerprint checks to be introduced along the Balkan route used by many migrants arriving in Europe in order to better control foreign jihadist fighters’ movements.

London police said they were reviewing their plans for protecting public events over the festive period.

Manfred Weber, head of the centre-right European People’s Party, said: “It’s not an attack on a country; it’s an attack on our way of life, on the free society in which we are allowed to live.”

(Reporting by Michelle Martin, Caroline Copley, Joseph Nasr, Emma Thomasson, Paul Carrel, Michael Nienaber, Madeline Chambers in Berlin; additional reporting by Shadia Nasralla in Vienna; Writing by Michelle Martin; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Gareth Jones)

Nice attacker radicalized fast, French PM says as more victims fight for life

People react near flowers placed on the road in tribute to victims, three days after an attack by the driver of a heavy truck who ran into a crowd on Bastille Day killing scores and injuring as many on the Promenade des

y Emmanuel Jarry and Elena Gyldenkerne

PARIS/NICE, France (Reuters) – The man who killed 84 Bastille Day revelers in the French city of Nice by driving a truck at a crowd had been radicalized recently and quickly, France’s Prime Minister told a newspaper as a further 18 victims fought for their lives on Sunday.

Thursday night’s attack at peak holiday time on the Riviera plunged France into new grief and fear just eight months after jihadi gunmen killed 130 people in Paris.

French Health Minister Marisol Touraine said the 18, including one child, were in a critical condition, while about 85 people in total were still hospitalized.

The attacks, along with one in Brussels four months ago, have shocked Western Europe, already anxious over security challenges from mass immigration, open borders and pockets of Islamist radicalism.

Authorities have yet to produce evidence that the 31 year-old delivery driver, Tunisian Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, shot dead by police, had any actual links to Islamic State. The Islamist militant group claimed the attack though, and Valls said there was no doubting the assailant’s motives.

“The investigation will establish the facts, but we know now that the killer was radicalized very quickly,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls said in an interview with newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche.

As of Sunday no evidence had been produced to show how he underwent that rapid transformation from someone with no apparent interest in religion.

Relatives and friends interviewed in Nice painted a picture of a man who at least until recently drank alcohol, smoked marijuana and according to French media even ate pork, behavior that would be unlikely in a devout Muslim.

A report in the Nice Matin newspaper on Sunday said investigators had found no radicalization material in his flat, although they were still looking at his telephone and his computer.

Speaking from his home town in Tunisia, Bouhlel’s sister told Reuters he had been having psychological problems when he left for France in 2005 and had sought medical treatment.

As authorities were trying to better understand his motives, two more people, a man and a woman close to Bouhlel, were arrested in Nice early on Sunday.

Three others arrested previously were still being held, but Bouhlel’s estranged wife was released without charges after being held since Friday.

The Amaq news agency affiliated with the militant Islamist group said on Saturday in claiming the attack that Bouhlel “was one of the soldiers of Islamic State”.

The group, which is under military pressure in its Irag and Syria strongholds from forces opposed to it, considers France a key target given its military operations in the Middle East, and also because it is easier to strike than the United States, which is leading a coalition against it.

France is also home to Europe’s biggest Muslim population, and has been criticized in some quarters for fostering racial, ethnic and religious disharmony through its strict adherence to a lay culture that allows no place for religion and ethnicity in schools and civic life.

Long and open borders with neighboring countries also make it an easy target for attackers who want to melt away afterwards.


Valls defended France’s record on attacks, saying security services had prevented 16 over three years and said the group’s modus operandi of cajoling unstable people into carrying out attacks with whatever means possible was difficult to combat.

“Daesh gives unstable individuals an ideological kit that allows them to make sense of their acts…this is probably what happened in Nice’s case,” Valls said, referring to the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Despite mounting criticism from the conservative opposition and the far-right over how President Francois Hollande’s Socialist government is handling security, Valls said there was no such thing as zero risk and that new attacks would occur.

“I’ve always said the truth regarding terrorism: there is an ongoing war, there will be more attacks. It’s a difficult thing to say, but other lives will be lost.”

With presidential and parliamentary elections less than a year away, French opposition politicians are increasing pressure and seizing on what they described as security failings that made it possible for the truck to career 2 km (1.5 miles) through large crowds before it was finally halted.

After Thursday’s attack, a state of emergency imposed across France after the November attacks in Paris was extended by three months and military and police reservists were to be called up.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazenueve on Saturday called on “patriotic citizens” to become reservists to help relieve exhausted security forces.

But the measures appear to have done little to temper concerns. Highlighting the “serious deficiencies” in protecting French citizens, National Front leader Marine Le Pen demanded that Cazeneuve resign.

“Anywhere else in the world a minister with such a terrible record – 250 deaths in 18 months – would have resigned a long time ago,” she told reporters.

Christian Estrosi, president of the wider Riviera region and a security hardliner, accused the government of failing completely in Nice.

“When the interior minister says there were enough police, it constitutes a blatant lie,” he told i-Tele television. “He said there were 64 national policemen on duty. It’s false and the investigation will show it.”

Valls has said there were no failures, although Cazeneuve acknowledged on Saturday that the truck had avoided the police vehicles blocking the way to the promenade by mounting a kerb.

(Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier and Michel Rose in Paris, Writing by John Irish and Andrew Callus, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Bosnian Children in Syria and Iraq a “Time bomb”

Children play inside a devastated house struck by rocket fire from Syria in Turkey's southeastern border town of Kilis

By Daria Sito-Sucic

SARAJEVO (Reuters) – More than 80 Bosnian children are in Islamic State-held territory in Syria and Iraq and represent a “time bomb” that could pose a major security risk when they return, a study said on Monday.

Bosnian Muslims are the largest group from the Western Balkans fighting for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, alongside fighters from countries such as Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

The study by the non-profit Sarajevo-based Atlantic Initiative, which made an advance copy available to Reuters, found that the number of adult male fighters, estimated at 188 in the three-year period to end-2015, had dropped to 91, after 47 returned to Bosnia and 50 had been killed.

As of April, less than half of Bosnians in Syria were men of military age, while there were also 52 women and 80 children. Some children, who went to the region with their families, have joined Islamic State combat units, the study said.

According to witnesses and social media, boys of 13 or 14 undergo military training before being sent to join fighting formations. At least one minor from Bosnia had been killed as a combatant, the study said, urging Bosnian authorities to prevent children from being taken to conflict zones.

“We are seeing a completely new generation of children who were raised on the battlefield or near the battlefield,” said Vlado Azinovic, a co-author of the study. “They are like a time bomb for any country they may end up in.”

Departures from Bosnia and returns from Syria had almost completely stopped by early 2016 because Bosnian authorities were prosecuting more aspiring fighters as well as those who returned, the study said.

Bosnia’s Muslims are generally moderate but some have adopted radical Salafi Islam from foreign fighters who came to the country during its 1992-95 war to fight alongside Muslims against Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats.

Some of them have formed illegal communities which the moderate national Islamic organization wants to shut down. [L8N1644OR] The study said Islamic community officials or property may become a target of possible retaliatory attacks.

(Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Giles Elgood and Richard Balmforth)