Motorist slams car into Times Square pedestrians, killing one, injuring 22

A vehicle that struck pedestrians and later crashed is seen on the sidewalk in New York City, U.S., May 18, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Segar

By Daniel Trotta and Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A former U.S. Navy sailor slammed his car into pedestrians in New York City’s packed Times Square on Thursday, killing an 18-year-old woman and wounding 22 people, and authorities said there was no indication it was an act of terrorism.

Witnesses said the motorist mounted the sidewalk in a burgundy Honda sedan and sped along more than three city blocks, knocking people over before the car hit a pole and came to rest at 45th Street and Broadway in Midtown Manhattan.

Police who took the driver into custody identified him as Richard Rojas, 26, of the New York City borough of the Bronx. They said he had been arrested twice for drunken driving in 2008 and 2015, and once earlier this month for menacing.

There was “no indication” it was an act of terrorism, Mayor Bill de Blasio told a news conference at the scene.

Initial reports of the incident brought to mind vehicle attacks on pedestrians like those seen in recent months in Britain, France, Germany, Israel and Sweden.

“People were being hit and rolling off the car,” said Josh Duboff, who works at the nearby Thomson Reuters headquarters. He said he leaped out of the way to avoid being struck.

A woman’s body lay covered with a bloodstained blanket. A police officer kept vigil nearby, sadly shaking his head. Shoes were scattered on the sidewalk.

Hundreds of thousands of people, many of them tourists from around the world, pass daily through Times Square, the heart of the Broadway theater district.

The bustling streets are heavily patrolled by police, some on horseback. Many, but not all, sidewalks are lined with barricades and planters for fear of vehicle attacks.

The incident took place close to noon ET on a bright, sunny day. Security camera footage showed the car slam into pedestrians who moments earlier were ambling along, some carrying shopping bags and others pushing baby strollers.

A bouncer from the Planet Hollywood restaurant and a ticket agent were among onlookers who helped police subdue the suspect when he tried to flee the scene, media reports said.

For a graphic on Times Square car crash, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2rvktPe

‘MOWED EVERYONE DOWN’

Court records showed Rojas was also arrested at a naval base in Jacksonville, Florida, in September 2012 after he yelled, “my life is over,” and threatened to kill police.

After Thursday’s incident, authorities cordoned off an area from 41st to 47th streets and from 6th to 8th avenues for several hours, effectively shutting down one of the busiest parts of one of the busiest cities in the world.

The crash occurred near the headquarters of the Reuters news agency, 3 Times Square. Building foreman Rodney Muir said he heard what sounded like a big bang and crunching metal. He said he looked out and saw what appeared to be a body in the street.

One of the injured, Cheryl Howard, had blood dripping down her right arm and a bruise above her left eye. She and her daughter were shopping when the car sped toward them.

“I’m so freaked out!” Howard’s daughter said. “They mowed everyone down.”

One injured woman nearby had a large open wound on her leg.

Times Square was evacuated in May 2010 when a car bomb that failed to explode was found in an SUV. Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized American and Taliban-trained militant, later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Six months ago the city completed a $55 million, nearly 6-year renovation of Times Square that turned roadways into pedestrian zones. It aimed to improve traffic congestion and safety, but not all sidewalks were fitted with safety bollards or barriers to vehicles.

Thursday’s incident revived memories of July last year when a man driving a truck killed at least 84 people, 10 of them children, and injured 202 in the French city of Nice. Islamic State claimed responsibility.

On March 22, five people were killed in London and about 40 injured after a car hit pedestrians and a suspected Islamist-inspired attacker stabbed a policeman near Britain’s parliament.

(Additional reporting by Daniel Bases, Andrew Chung, Grant McCool, Jonathan Spicer, Barbara Goldberg, Joseph Ax, Hilary Russ, Peter Szekely, Letitia Stein, Colleen Jenkins and Emily Flitter; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Howard Goller)

Trump, in tweets, defends his sharing of information with Russians

FILE PHOTO: A combination of file photos showing Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attending a news conference in Moscow, Russia, November 18, 2015, and U.S. President Donald Trump posing for a photo in New York City, U.S., May 17, 2016. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev/Lucas Jackson/File Photos

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday defended his decision to disclose information to Russian officials during a White House meeting last week, saying he had an “absolute right” to share “facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety.”

The president took to Twitter to counter a torrent of criticism, including from his fellow Republicans, after reports that he had revealed highly classified information about a planned Islamic State operation.

Two U.S. officials said Trump shared the intelligence, supplied by a U.S. ally in the fight against the militant group, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak during a meeting last Wednesday.

The disclosures late on Monday roiled the administration as it struggled to move past the backlash over Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating the president’s ties to Russia.

The turmoil overshadowed Republican legislative priorities such as healthcare and tax reform and laid bare sharp divisions between the White House and U.S. intelligence agencies, which concluded late last year that Russia had tried to influence the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor.

Russia has denied such meddling, and Trump bristles at any suggestion he owed his Nov. 8 victory to Moscow.

“As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety,” Trump said on Twitter. “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”

Trump weighed in personally the morning after his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, issued statements saying no sources, methods or military operations were discussed at the Russian meeting.

McMaster said the story, initially reported by the Washington Post, was false.

The U.S. officials told Reuters that while the president has the authority to disclose even the most highly classified information at will, in this case he did so without consulting the ally that provided it, which threatens to jeopardize a long-standing intelligence-sharing agreement.

Bob Corker, the Republican head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the allegations “very, very troubling.”

“Obviously, they’re in a downward spiral right now,” he said on Monday, “and they’ve got to come to grips with all that’s happening.”

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu, Patricia Zengerle, Jeff Mason, Mark Hosenball; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Lisa Von Ahn)

State Dept. seeks tougher visa scrutiny, including social media checks

A person stands at the counter of U.S. Immigration upon arriving at Miami airport March 13, 2013. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

By Yeganeh Torbati and Mica Rosenberg

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. Department of State has proposed tougher questioning of visa applicants believed to warrant extra scrutiny, according to a document published Thursday, in a push toward the “extreme vetting” that President Donald Trump has said is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks.

Questions about social media accounts would be part of the stepped-up criteria, which would apply to 65,000 people per year, or about 0.5 percent of U.S. visa applicants worldwide, the State Department estimated. It did not target nationals of any particular countries.

A set of new questions would apply to visa applicants “who have been determined to warrant additional scrutiny in connection with terrorism or other national security-related visa ineligibilities,” the State Department said in a notice to the Federal Register.

Those applicants would be required to provide all prior passport numbers, five years’ worth of social media handles, email addresses and phone numbers, as well as 15 years of biographical information, when applying for a U.S. visa. Consular officers would not request user passwords for social media accounts, the document said.

If granted, the new criteria would mark the first concrete step toward more stringent vetting that Trump asked federal agencies to apply toward travelers from countries he deemed a threat to the United States in an executive order issued in January and revised in March.

While parts of the travel order, including a temporary ban on the entry of nationals from several majority-Muslim countries, were halted by federal courts, the review of vetting procedures detailed in an accompanying memorandum remains in place.

“Collecting additional information from visa applicants whose circumstances suggest a need for further scrutiny will strengthen our process for vetting these applicants and confirming their identity,” a State Department official said.

The State Department’s proposal also says that applicants may be asked to provide additional travel dates if a consular officer determines they have been in an area which was “under the operational control of a terrorist organization.”

The proposed changes must undergo a public comment period before being approved or denied by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) by May 18. OMB did not respond to a request for comment.

The Department of Homeland Security, which was also tasked with reviewing vetting procedures for visa applicants, said the State Department request does not preclude DHS from identifying new “ways to protect the American people.”

“Some improvement will be classified, others will be public, but the Department has only just begun ways to enhance the security of our immigration system,” DHS spokesman David Lapan said.

SOCIAL MEDIA SNAGS

Immigration lawyers and advocates say the request for 15 years of detailed biographical information, as well as the expectation that applicants remember all their social media handles, is likely to catch applicants who make innocent mistakes or do not remember all the information requested.

They also question whether the time-consuming screening can achieve its intended goal of identifying potential terrorists.

“The more effective tactics are the methods that we currently use to monitor terrorist organizations, not just stumbling into the terrorist who is dumb enough to post on his Facebook page ‘I am going to blow up something in the United States,'” said John Sandweg, a former senior official at DHS who is now with the firm Frontier Solutions, which provides investigatory, crisis management and other services.

Applicants may not necessarily be denied a visa if they fail to provide all the information if it is determined they can provide a “credible explanation,” the notice said.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson first introduced similar measures in a March cable to American consular officers that outlined questions officers should ask in order to tighten vetting of visa applicants.

But Tillerson had to withdraw that guidance just days later because the OMB had not approved those specific questions.

The State Department estimated that the additional screening measures would take approximately an hour per applicant, meaning an additional 65,000 additional hours of work per year.

Tillerson’s cables anticipated delays as a result of the rules implementation.

“Somebody’s got to do the work,” said Greg Siskind, an immigration attorney in Memphis. “It’s going to cause operations at a lot of consulates slow to a crawl.”

(Link to proposal: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/05/04/2017-08975/notice)

(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Writing by Julia Edwards Ainsley; Editing by Yara Bayoumy, Alistair Bell and Leslie Adler)

Bomb in northern Syria kills five outside opposition headquarters: spokesman, monitor

A still image taken from a video posted to a social media website said to be shot on May 3, 2017, shows what is said to be the site of a car bomb in what is said to be Azaz, Syria. Social Media Website via Reuters TV

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A car bomb killed at least five people and wounded several others in a rebel-held town in northern Syria on Wednesday in an attack Syria’s political opposition said targeted its officials and local headquarters.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also put the death toll at five and said it was expected to rise due to the number of people seriously wounded by the blast in Azaz. The town near the Turkish border has long been a major base for rebels, including groups backed by Ankara.

“A booby-trapped car exploded in front of a headquarters for the interim government,” a spokesman for the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition (SNC), Ahmad Ramadan, told Reuters by phone.

One of those killed was a guard, Ramadan said. He blamed the attack on Islamic State.

“It was a direct targeting of the (interim) government because the center includes departments of various ministries and local councils,” he said.

There was no claim of responsibility for the blast.

The opposition’s interim government, allied with the SNC, carries out technical and administrative functions of government from within opposition-held Syria. SNC members also sit on the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the main Syrian opposition body which represents both political and armed groups.

Rebel groups clashed in Azaz in November, one of many incidents that has shown the division among some of the armed opposition, which ranges from Western-backed moderate factions to hardline Islamists, including al Qaeda-linked fighters.

In separate insurgent in-fighting around Damascus since last week, factions are clashing east of the capital in violence that has killed scores of fighters and a number of civilians.

Syria’s six-year-old civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced more than 11 million.

(Reporting by John Davison and Ellen Francis; Editing by Louise Ireland)

London terrorism suspect was on Gaza flotilla ship in 2010: sources

A man is held by police in Westminster after an arrest was made on Whitehall in central London, Britain. REUTERS/Toby Melville

LONDON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A man arrested on suspicion of planning a terrorist act on Thursday, carrying knives near Prime Minister Theresa May’s office, was on a ship raided by Israeli soldiers in 2010, sources familiar with the investigation have told Reuters.

The 27-year-old man was arrested by armed counter-terrorism officers during a stop-and-search as part of an ongoing security operation, British police said.

No one was injured in the incident and police said knives had been recovered from the man, who was being monitored by British intelligence agents and counter-terrorism officers.

He remains in custody on suspicion of terrorism offences and possession of an offensive weapon.

Sources told Reuters on Friday the suspect was Khalid Omar Ali from London.

Ali was on board the Mavi Marmara, part of a flotilla which was challenging an Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip when it was intercepted by the Israeli Defence Forces in May 2010, the sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.

Nine Turkish activists were killed in the raid.

However, one source close to the current investigation said that investigators believed that Ali’s involvement in the boat protest was entirely separate from whatever might have led up to Thursday’s incident.

A man who is identified as Ali also features on a video on an activist’s website from 2010.

In the footage, he states he was among a group who said they were held against their will by the captain of the Greek-managed ship Strofades IV when they tried to take aid by sea from Libya to Gaza some months after the Mavi Marmara incident.

He also talks about joining the Road to Hope convoy which sought to take aid to Gaza in Nov. 2010 via Egypt.

(Reporting by Michael Holden and Mark Hosenball in Washington; editing by Ralph Boulton)

Top Trump aide in Pakistan says terrorism must be fought ‘in all forms’

FILE PHOTO - Newly named National Security Adviser Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster listens as U.S. President Donald Trump makes the announcement at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida U.S.

By Kay Johnson

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser met Pakistan’s prime minister and army chief on Monday and emphasized “the need to confront terrorism in all its forms”, while praising democratic and economic development.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressed hope that the new U.S. administration might mediate between Pakistan and longtime foe India over the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir.

H.R. McMaster was on his first South Asian trip since the new U.S. administration took office in January, earlier stopping in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s war-ravaged neighbor to the west.

Official statements on Monday gave little indication of whether the Trump administration would adopt a new, tougher policy on Pakistan, as some Afghan officials and Islamabad’s arch-foe India would like.

Afghan officials have long accused Pakistan of providing Taliban insurgents shelter, and perhaps support, on its side of the countries’ porous border.

Pakistan denies it shelters the Afghan Taliban and says it fights against all the region’s jihadist groups with equal vigor.

McMaster – a U.S. Army general who served in the American-led international force in Afghanistan – indicated frustration with Pakistan in an interview with an Afghan news channel on Sunday.

“As all of us have hoped for many, many years, we have hoped that Pakistani leaders will understand that it is in their interest to go after these groups less selectively than they have in the past,” he told TOLO News in Kabul.

“And the best way to pursue their interest in Afghanistan and elsewhere is through diplomacy not through the use of proxies that engage in violence.”

In Pakistan, McMaster’s gave no interviews and the official statement on his visit was more diplomatically couched.

“General McMaster expressed appreciation for Pakistan’s democratic and economic development, and stressed the need to confront terrorism in all its forms,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

McMaster met Prime Minister Sharif and Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa as well as top foreign policy and national security officials.

“The prime minister conveyed Pakistan’s readiness to work with the international community to explore ways in which the Afghan crisis can be resolved,” Sharif’s office said in a statement.

It also said Sharif would welcome U.S. mediation in Pakistan’s disputes with India.

“(Sharif) welcomed President Trump’s willingness to help India and Pakistan resolve their difference particularly on Kashmir and noted that this could go a long way in bringing sustainable peace, security and prosperity to the region.”

The Indian-administered side of Kashmir has seen a recent spike in separatist violence amid accusations of brutality against supporters of the 28-year-old insurgency that India accuses Pakistan of fomenting. Pakistan denies the accusation.

The nuclear-armed rivals have fought three wars since their independence from Britain in 1947.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

Four killed by truck driven into crowd in Swedish capital

A view of the site where a truck drove into a crowd and into a department store in central Stockholm, Sweden, April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Dominik Armada

By Johan Ahlander

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – A truck plowed into a crowd on a shopping street and crashed into a department store in central Stockholm on Friday, killing four people and wounding 15 in what the prime minister said appeared to be a terrorist attack.

Swedish police said they had arrested one person after earlier circulating a picture of a man wearing a grey hoodie. They did not rule out the possibility other attackers were involved.

“We have a person who is arrested who may have connections to the event in Stockholm earlier today,” police spokesperson Towe Hagg said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

“I turned around and saw a big truck coming toward me. It swerved from side to side. It didn’t look out of control, it was trying to hit people,” Glen Foran, an Australian tourist in his 40s, told Reuters.

“It hit people, it was terrible. It hit a pram with a kid in it, demolished it,” he said.

“It took a long time for police to get here. I suppose from their view it was quick, but it felt like forever.”

Part of central Stockholm was cordoned off and the area was evacuated, including the main train station. All subway traffic was halted on police orders. Government offices were closed. (Map of attack location – http://tmsnrt.rs/2oguW2M)

“Sweden has been attacked. Everything points to the fact that this is a terrorist attack,” Prime Minister Stefan Lofven told reporters during a visit to western Sweden. He was immediately returning to the capital.

Many police and emergency services personnel were at the scene, said a Reuters witness who saw policemen put what appeared to be two bodies into body bags. Bloody tyre tracks on Drottninggatan (Queen Street) showed where the truck had passed.

The truck had been stolen while making a beer delivery to a tapas bar further up Drottninggatan, Spendrups Brewery spokesman Marten Lyth said. A masked person jumped into the cab, started the truck and drove away.

“We were standing by the traffic lights at Drottninggatan and then we heard some screaming and saw a truck coming,” a witness who declined to be named told Reuters.

“Then it drove into a pillar at Ahlens City (department store) where the hood started burning. When it stopped we saw a man lying under the tyre. It was terrible to see,” said the man, who saw the incident from his car.

Police said four people had died and 15 were injured. National news agency TT said those hurt included the delivery driver, who had tried to stop the hijack.

Several attacks in which trucks or cars have driven into crowds have taken place in Europe in the past year. Al Qaeda in 2010 urged its followers to use trucks as a weapon.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack in Nice, France, last July, when a truck killed 86 people celebrating Bastille Day, and one in Berlin in December, when a truck smashed through a Christmas market, killing 12 people.

Magnus Ranstorp, head of terrorism research at the Swedish Defence University, told Reuters the attacker’s approach was similar to those in Berlin and Nice: “Hijacking a truck, that has happened before.”

“And this is a pretty cunning modus operandi,” he said. “To drive to Ahlens (department store) and stop … There is a way down to the subway just a few meters away from there, and then you … can jump on any train you want and quickly disappear.”

Sweden’s King Carl Gustaf said in a statement: “Our thoughts are going out to those that were affected, and to their families.”

“An attack on any of our member states is an attack on us all,” said European Union chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker.

Stockholmers opened up their homes and offered lifts to people who were unable to get home or needed a place to stay.

The attack was the latest to hit the Nordic region after shootings in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2015 that killed three people and the 2011 bombing and shooting by far right extremist Anders Behring Breivik that killed 77 people in Norway.

Sweden has not been hit by a large-scale attack, although in December 2010, a man blew himself up only a few hundred yards from the site of the latest incident in a failed suicide attack.

In February U.S. President Donald Trump falsely suggested there had been an immigration-related security incident in Sweden, to the bafflement of Swedes.

Swedish authorities raised the national security threat level to four on a scale of five in October 2010 but lowered the level to three, indicating a “raised threat”, in March 2016.

Police in Norway’s largest cities and at Oslo’s airport will carry weapons until further notice following the attack. Denmark has been on high alert since the February 2015 shootings.

Neutral Sweden has not fought a war in more than 200 years, but its military has taken part in U.N peacekeeping missions in a number of conflict zones in recent years, including Iraq, Mali and Afghanistan.

The Sapo security police said in its annual report it was impossible to say how big a risk there was that Sweden would be targeted like other European cities, but that, if so “it is most likely that it would be undertaken by a lone attacker”.

(Reporting by Stockholm newsroom; Writing by Gwladys Fouche; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Turkish prosecutors accuse newspaper of ‘asymmetric war’ on Erdogan

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during a rally for the upcoming referendum in the Black Sea city of Rize, Turkey, April 3, 2017. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Humeyra Pamuk

ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish prosecutors are seeking up to 43 years in jail for journalists from a leading opposition newspaper on charges of supporting a terrorist organization and targeting President Tayyip Erdogan through “asymmetric war methods”.

An indictment seen by Reuters on Wednesday said Cumhuriyet had effectively been “taken over” by the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed for a failed coup last July, and used to “veil the actions of terrorist groups”.

Turkey has purged more than 113,000 people from the police, judiciary, military and elsewhere since the coup attempt, and has closed more than 130 media outlets, raising concerns among Western allies about deteriorating rights and freedoms.

The authorities say the measures are justified by the gravity of the coup attempt, in which rogue soldiers tried to overthrow the government and Erdogan, killing more than 240 people, most of them civilians.

“(Cumhuriyet) started an intense perception operation targeting the government and president of the republic … through asymmetric war methods,” said the 324-page document, parts of which were published by Turkish media on Tuesday.

Cumhuriyet, long a pillar of the secularist establishment, is accused of straying from its principles in the years leading up to the coup attempt and of writing stories that serve “separatist manipulation”.

The indictment named 19 journalists, of whom 12 have already been detained, including well-known columnist Kadri Gursel, and Ahmet Sik, who once wrote a book critical of Gulen’s movement.

Three of the 19 could face up to 43 years in prison for “aiding an armed terrorist group without being members of it.”

The newspaper called the charges “imaginary accusations and slander” and said some of the testimonies in the indictment were from individuals previously seen as close to Gulen.

“Set them free immediately,” said its Wednesday front page.

SOCIAL MEDIA POSTS

Prosecutors are seeking 15 years in prison for former editor Can Dundar, jailed in 2015 on charges of publishing state secrets involving Turkish support for Syrian rebels, but later released. Dundar lives in Germany.

Current editor Murat Sabuncu and other senior staff were arrested late last year over alleged support for the failed coup, sparking protests in Istanbul.

Social media posts including Tweets comprised the bulk of evidence in the indictment, along with allegations that staff had been in contact with users of Bylock, an encrypted messaging app the government says was used by Gulen’s followers.

Some suspects were accused of “serving the interests” of the PKK militant group, which has waged an insurgency in the mainly Kurdish southeast for three decades, and of the far-leftist DHKP/C, which was behind a series of armed attacks in recent years.

“There are lots of organizations in Turkey. The Gulenist organization, the PKK, DHKP-C. We are being blamed for helping them all… and it seems I am the prime suspect,” Dundar said in a video selfie on his website.

He said the fact Cumhuriyet staff had learned about the indictment in pro-government media was “another legal scandal.”

“I stand with all of them and I will continue to be their voice until the end,” he said on the website, which he set up from Germany to keep covering Turkish affairs.

(Editing by Nick Tattersall and Jon Boyle)

Iran rejects U.S. terror claim by Mattis, blames Saudi

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis arrives as his meeting with Ajit Doval, National Security Advisor of India, at the Pentagon in Washington, U.S., March 24, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran rejected an allegation by U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis that it was “the primary exporter of terrorism” and said on Saturday that the main source was U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.

“Some countries led by America are determined to ignore the main source of Takfiri-Wahhabi terrorism and extremism,” foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi was quoted by Iran’s state news agency IRNA as saying.

He was referring to hardline Sunni Muslim groups and Saudi Arabia’s official Wahhabi school of Islam.

Saudi Arabia denies backing terrorism and has cracked down on jihadists at home, jailing thousands, stopping hundreds from traveling to fight abroad and cutting militant finances.

Shi’ite Muslim power Iran and Saudi Arabia, bastion of Sunni Islam and a close U.S. ally, are longstanding religious and political arch rivals and often accused each other of backing terrorism. Relations are fraught as they back each other’s foes in regional wars such as in Yemen, Iraq and Syria.

“Giving a wrong address when referring to the roots and the financial and intellectual resources of terrorism is a main reason for a lack of success by international anti-terror efforts,” Ghasemi added.

Ghasemi was reacting to remarks by Mattis on Friday when he was asked about comments he made in 2012 that the three main threats the United States faced were “Iran, Iran, Iran”.

“At the time when I spoke about Iran I was a commander of U.S. Central Command and that (Iran) was the primary exporter of terrorism, frankly, it was the primary state sponsor of terrorism and it continues that kind of behavior today,” Mattis told reporters.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; editing by Alexander Smith)

‘Near-impossible’ to stop London-style attack: Israeli security expert

FILE PHOTO: A man walks next to a newly erected concrete barriers at the entrance to Jabel Mukaber, in an area of the West Bank that Israel captured in a 1967 war and annexed to the city of Jerusalem, the morning after a Palestinian rammed his truck into a group of Israeli soldiers on a popular promenade in Jerusalem January 9, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

By Luke Baker

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Attacks like the one in London are almost impossible to stop, the former head of VIP protection at Israel’s Shin Bet security agency said on Thursday, acknowledging that even Israel struggled to prevent them.

Despite building a barrier intended to prevent Palestinian attackers protesting against occupation entering from the West Bank, Israel has suffered dozens of low-tech vehicle or knife attacks in the last two years on civilians, police and soldiers.

“What happened in London was basically in a public area and, when it comes to public areas, it’s nearly impossible (to prevent),” said Shlomo Harnoy, who spent 25 years in the Shin Bet, sometimes coordinating protection for U.S. presidential visits. He now directs Sdema Group, a global security consultancy.

“There are ideas to build public areas to counter specific security threats, especially when it comes to explosive materials, but when it’s an attack on a bridge or something like that, it’s very difficult.”

In Wednesday’s attack, the suspect drove his rented vehicle into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge before stabbing a policeman at the entrance to the Houses of Parliament. Four people were killed and at least 40 injured. The attacker, identified by police as British-born, was shot dead.

In Israel, Palestinians have rammed cars and trucks into civilians or members of security forces standing in particular at bus stops, tram stations and security posts.

In January, four soldiers were killed and 17 injured when a Palestinian drove his truck at high speed into a group of cadets waiting by the side of the road in Jerusalem.

BLOCKS AND BOLLARDS

Steel bollards have been put up in sensitive areas, and there are now concrete blocks stopping vehicles from approaching tram stops.

But Harnoy said that “you can’t put concrete blocks and barriers everywhere, especially in the center of a city like London. It can’t be like a military installation”.

“To my mind, the best solution for stopping an attack is having people who know how to use arms, including civilians,” he said.

In Israel, police carry guns, it is not uncommon to see armed soldiers on the streets, and many civilians, most of whom have done army service, carry pistols. When attacks occur, video footage often shows civilians drawing weapons at the scene.

“But of course in Britain that is very difficult,” Harnoy said. “Even most police don’t carry weapons. For me, that is one of the mistakes in Britain, not allowing police to have weapons.”

Even in Israel, Harnoy is not convinced that most civilians who carry a weapon are sufficiently trained to handle an attack.

He also noted that Israel allowed its intelligence services more freedom to dig up background information on individuals than Britain, which had to strike more of a balance with privacy and human rights.

“This is a war,” said Harnoy. “When it comes to intelligence, you need 10 to 15 years of information on people, and in doing that you have to think carefully about their rights, about the balance between freedom and security.

“To implement such an intelligence system, you have to make a different balance with democratic rights.”

(Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Kevin Liffey)