Civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes in Syria now ‘nearing Russian levels’

Charles Davies writes: somehow, someway, the news from Syria invariably manages to get worse, for those not yet fatigued by the routine of atrocity.

“It’s the worst week we’ve ever tracked,” Chris Woods, director of the monitoring group Airwars, told The Daily Beast. He was referring to a threat that emerged nearly two years ago: U.S. airstrikes, aimed at the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, but exacting a deadly toll on those stuck between ostensibly religious and ostensibly secular extremists.

Ahmad Mohammad, a 24-year-old Syrian activist, described it as a “massacre”: On July 19, over 90 civilians in the northern Syria village of Tokhar, just outside the town Manbij, were killed by suspected U.S. airstrikes as a U.S.-backed coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces, is fighting to reclaim the area along the Turkish border from the Islamic State.

When the uprising in Syria began in 2011, Mohammad said his goal was to spread “news of the revolution”; in 2016 his activism takes the form of “documenting abuses” — in this case, he sent along photos of women and children being buried in a mass grave, “human beings like all of us,” he said, whose only offense was living in a town occupied by terrorists from abroad.

In a statement, U.S. Central Command confirmed it carried out airstrikes in the area. “We are aware of reports alleging civilian casualties in the area,” it said. “If the information supporting the allegation is determined to be credible, we will then determine the next appropriate step.”

The CENTCOM-supported SDF, meanwhile, has dismissed reports of mass casualties in Manbij as “fabricated news” circulated by groups who “support terrorism,” according to a statement obtained by the Kurdish media network Rudaw.

Independent monitors and anti-ISIS activists on the ground, by contrast, insist that air support for the SDF has killed hundreds of innocents.

According to Airwars, the human beings dumped in that hole, along with corpses on streets and under rubble in and around Manbij that could not be afforded even a mass burial, bring the civilian death count from U.S.-led airstrikes in the area up to at least 190 since May 31.

Local activists claim the number is at least 368, and an activist with the Free Manbij Media Center told The Daily Beast the death toll on July 19 alone was “more than 150 people, mostly women and children” who were “killed while in their homes.”

The latest airstrikes have grabbed international headlines, but they are nothing new for Syrians. Since the U.S.-led coalition began bombing Syria, Airwars states there are credible reports of between 682 and 942 civilian deaths, meaning that nearly a third of what the military terms “collateral damage” has occurred in the last two months. It has gotten “so bad,” Woods said, “that we’re nearing Russian levels” (between 1,098 and 1,450 “likely” dead civilians since September 2015). The U.S. has thus far confirmed just 24 civilian deaths from its campaign in Syria. Like Russia, none of its partners — Australia, Bahrain, France, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom, among others — has admitted to any. [Continue reading…]

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Jihad and the French exception

Farhad Khosrokhavar writes: Whether Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, who killed more than 80 people during Bastille Day celebrations in Nice, was an agent of the Islamic State or an unhinged loner who borrowed the group’s jihadist symbols, the slaughter raises the same fundamental question: Why do so many more attacks of this magnitude occur in France than in other European countries?

Belgium has also been hit recently, but less often. In Britain and Spain no terrorist attack has killed more than 10 people in over a decade. In Germany, there hasn’t been a major attack at all.

Failures in the French security and intelligence services cannot account for the difference, because communication problems afflict such services throughout Europe. The answer lies elsewhere: When it comes to jihad, too, there is a French exception.

France’s distinctiveness arises in part from the ideological strength of the idea the nation has had of itself since the French Revolution, including an assertive form of republicanism and an open distrust of all religions, beginning, historically, with Catholicism. This model has been knocked around over the years, first by decolonization, then by decades of economic hardship, the growing stigmatization of cultural differences, the fervent individualism of new generations and globalization, which has narrowed the state’s room for maneuver.

Above all, France hasn’t been able to solve the problem of economic and social exclusion. Its system, which is too protective of those people who have jobs and not open enough to those who don’t, breeds angst all around. Young people in the banlieues, marginalized and with few prospects, feel like victims. They become prime targets for jihadist propaganda, often after a stint in prison for petty crimes. [Continue reading…]

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The misguided logic of keeping calm in the face of terror

Emile Simpson writes: Statistically, there is a minuscule individual chance of being killed by terrorism in the West.

Commentators will delight in finding comparisons that capture the apparent absurdity of being frightened by terrorism — perhaps telling us that more people are killed by bee stings than terrorism, or that there is more chance of being killed in a car crash than having your kids crushed by a terrorist-driven truck, or such like. Be resilient, they’ll say. Statistically speaking, we’re good here. Statistically speaking, we should all calm down, keep cool heads, and celebrate peace in the West.

But the statistical approach utterly misses the point. The essence of terrorism is that it is not just any sort of crime. It is a crime against the very fabric of the state, as the timing of the attack on Bastille Day was perhaps intended to emphasize.

To view terrorism through the lens of the personal risk of death implies an impoverished, almost nonexistent, view of the state — that is, the community of citizens that is the basis of all political life. In the statistical view, the state evaporates into a collection of atomized individuals who care only about themselves. A peace that requires — even applauds — a sort of numb, cold acceptance in the face of events like Thursday’s and calls it resilience is a rather pathetic peace to celebrate.

Peace depends on the stability of the political order. That political order has an identity in its own right. There is, in other words, a nation behind the state; when the state is attacked, the nation is attacked. Responding to terror with a cold, individualized, statistical message only opens the doors to Europe’s populists, who then appear the only ones not allergic to the recognition that the nation, a body with its own history, culture, and identity, has been wounded. Their response to that is identity politics, which is the path to social disaster. But until the political mainstream stands up for the idea that the state does have certain basic values that demand the loyalty of all its citizens — not just in terms of the law but in spirit as well — they can’t expect to tame today’s populist zeitgeist. [Continue reading…]

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Nice attacker had fascination with extreme violence

The Wall Street Journal reports: The man who killed 84 people in Nice was a violent drinker and drug taker with an “unbridled sex life” who developed a fascination with Islamic State and other terrorist propaganda, prosecutors said as they deepened their probe into whether a broader network fostered his radicalization.

François Molins, the chief Paris prosecutor overseeing the investigation into the Bastille Day attack, said Monday that police haven’t found any evidence that Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel explicitly pledged allegiance to Islamic State or had links to any people associated with the Sunni Muslim militant group.

However, the prosecutor painted a picture of a man who underwent a rapid transformation in the weeks leading up the massacre and became suddenly enthralled with extremist messages and ultra-violent images.

Data recovered from Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s computer included pictures of militants draped in Islamic State flags and corpses as well as photos of Osama bin Laden and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the head of an al Qaeda-aligned group called Murabitun. His computer also turned up searches for “horrible car accidents” and “shock videos,” Mr. Molins said. [Continue reading…]

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The Nice attack heralds a new kind of terror — one we can’t define

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Peter Beaumont writes: After attacks such as Nice, we demand answers. A requirement to understand is necessary both to protect ourselves in the future and to deal with the consequences of horror. What was the motivation? Are there links to other individuals? How did the killer arrive at the decision to kill?

That desire to understand is hardly a new phenomenon, although modern media have made it more pervasive. Joseph Conrad, in the complex character of Verloc – the anarchist bomber, double agent and provocateur of the The Secret Agent – was an early explorer of this territory.

White people who buy guns to shoot up cinemas and schools are put into one category: “lone wolves”. And inevitably the focus is on psychological and social problems. Individuals from a Muslim background are instantly placed in another category: “terrorists”. But when it comes to attacks such as those in Nice and Orlando, the distinction is increasingly unclear.

If those two attacks – as seems very possible – were as much about the inadequacies of the attackers as about Islamic State; if Isis, or simply the fact of the attention given to such mass killings claimed by Isis, is no more than a nudge that legitimises, in the perpetrator’s mind, mass killing – then perhaps there is no meaningful distinction. [Continue reading…]

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Coup attempt highlights widening faultlines in Turkish alliance with U.S.

Martin Chulov reports: US jets have resumed operations in the fight against Islamic State after being grounded for two days at an airbase in southern Turkey amid uncertainty over what the country’s failed coup might mean for bilateral ties and for the war itself.

The early signs were confusing. While Barack Obama spoke out in support of his counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as Friday night’s plot unfolded, dialogue since has underlined a mistrust that has plagued the fight against Isis and left two nominal allies once again struggling to find common ground.

Erdoğan’s demands that his foe, Fethullah Gülen, in self-imposed exile in the US, be extradited over claims that he drove the plot, were perceived as a slight in Washington. Officials quickly disavowed links to Gülen, demanded evidence of any connections, and rejected an implication that the US itself may have been involved. [Continue reading…]

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Moqtada al-Sadr tells followers to target U.S. troops fighting ISIS

Reuters reports: Powerful Shi’ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr instructed his followers on Sunday to target U.S. troops deploying to Iraq as part of the military campaign against Islamic State.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Monday the Pentagon would dispatch 560 additional troops to help Iraqi forces retake the northern city of Mosul in an offensive planned for later this year.

Sadr, who rose to prominence when his Mahdi Army battled U.S. troops after the 2003 invasion, posted the comments on his official website after a follower asked for his response to the announcement.

“They are a target for us,” Sadr said, without offering details. [Continue reading…]

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Police and academics search Nice attacker’s history for a motive

Jason Burke writes: Lahouaiej-Bouhlel certainly matches the classic profile of French violent Islamic extremist in many ways – though he is a relatively recent arrival rather than born in the country of immigrant parents, as is more usually the case. He was a young, male petty criminal. He was also not devout, all witnesses so far agree. He did not fast during Ramadan, ate pork, drank, and was never seen at any local mosque.

This lack of piety among militants may seem confusing. It is, however, the rule rather than the exception. It was true of the dozen or so French and Belgian young men involved in bombings and shootings earlier this year, and of Mohammed Merah, who committed the first major attack in France in 2012. Other examples beyond France include that of Omar Mateen, who killed 49 in a Florida nightclub last month.

This apparent paradox has prompted a keen debate among experts. The argument has major policy implications. In France, it has been bitter. Olivier Roy, a well-known French scholar currently at the University of Europe in Florence, suggests those drawn into violent activism are already “in nihilist, generational revolt”. This is why so many are criminals, or marginal. Extremist Islam gives them a cause and frames anger and alienation in the way extremist leftwing ideologies did for some in the 1960s and 1970s. The new militants are thus not victims of “brainwashing” by cynical and fanatical recruiters. This is the Islamisation of radicalism, Roy says, not the radicalisation of Islam.

Many disagree. Some say Roy naively ignores the impact of intolerant and reactionary doctrines on Muslim communities in the west. Others suggest he underestimates the historical impact of western colonialism as well as that of more recent western policies in the Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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How ISIS is getting beaten at home — and taking terror abroad

Mark Perry writes: Just 24 hours after a Tunisian-born French citizen killed more than 80 people in Nice, President Obama is coming under fire from critics for “fiddling around” against the Islamic State, as former CIA Director James Woolsey said on Thursday night on MSNBC. While it isn’t yet clear whether the Nice attack was ISIS-ordered or inspired, Woolsey questioned Obama’s commitment to destroying the jihadist group, saying “we haven’t taken the gloves off.”

In fact, according to several senior serving and retired military officers, Woolsey has it wrong. “ISIS is reeling and their fighters are fleeing the battlefield,” a senior officer of the U.S. Central Command (Centcom), told me last week. “We don’t have a victory yet, but we’re winning and it’s not even close. The campaign is absolutely relentless, very violent. We’re killing a lot of their people. That’s a fact, and it’s undeniable.” In recent weeks Iraqi forces have taken back the city of Fallujah and regained control of key positions near the city of Mosul.

Unfortunately, this same officer says, the success of the anti-ISIS, U.S.-led air campaign is having some unintended, but predictable, consequences. One of them is the increasing vulnerability of European countries, particularly those (like France) that are participants in the air campaign. [Continue reading…]

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Who was Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the French-Tunisian suspect behind the Nice attack?

 

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Why does France keep getting attacked?

Jason Burke writes: So once again, there will be the tricolour flag projected on buildings around the world, a hashtag expressing solidarity with France, and declarations of sympathy.

There will also be the question: why is France suffering a wave of extremist violence that is more intense – certainly more lethal – than any other seen in the west since the 9/11 attacks almost 15 years ago?

Though it is still unclear if the driver of the truck in Nice was linked to any broader network or organisation – prosecutors on Friday said only that his actions were in line with an Isis call to action – his attack is a grim reminder of the bloodshed on Paris just months ago.

One reason that France is a particular target is down to a specific decision by Islamic State to target it. In September 2014, shortly after the beginning of airstrikes by a US-led coalition which includes France, the chief spokesman for Isis, Mohammad al-Adnani, singled out the “spiteful French” among a list of enemies in a speech calling for the group’s sympathisers to launch attacks across the west.

Undoubtedly, the role France has historically assumed as standard bearer of western secular liberalism has also put the nation in the spotlight. Islamic extremists may see the US as a source of moral decadence and economic exploitation, but France is seen as an atheist power which is both defending western ideals such as human rights, free speech and democracy and, in the eyes of jihadis, trying to impose them on the Islamic world.

We know from interrogations of Isis returnees that the group started planning strikes in France even before it seized the Iraqi city of Mosul and declared a caliphate in 2014. [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s deadly spillover

James Denselow writes: Recent deadly events in the Middle East have taken attention away from the central Syrian conflict.

Suicide bombers have struck three Saudi cities, multiple suicide attacks have hit a Christian village in North-Eastern Lebanon, Turkey is still reeling from the attack on its international airport in Istanbul, Jordan has declared its Syria border a closed military zone while Iraqis are still getting over the huge attack that killed 292 people in Baghdad.

While the conflict inside Syria is fluid, multi-layered and deadly, it has been relatively, and somewhat surprisingly, contained over the past five years. This can no longer be said to be the case and a new European Council on Foreign Relations report has warned of a “regional contagion” as the delicate balance of power in Syria’s neighbours and the wider Middle East beings to wobble. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. reveals ISIS ‘minister of war’ was not killed in March airstrike

The Guardian reports: The Pentagon has admitted it did not kill a senior Islamic State operative in a March airstrike that the Obama administration made a talking point for success in the two-year war in Iraq and Syria.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters on Thursday that Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili, also known as Abu Omar al-Shishani or Omar the Chechen, is now believed to have attended a 10 July meeting of Isis officials near Mosul, the jihadist army’s Iraqi capital, that was targeted in a US airstrike.

Cook said he was “not able to confirm” that Shishani was killed this time, although on Wednesday Isis announced through its propaganda agency that Shishani was dead.

“Indications [are] he was present” at the targeted 10 July meeting, Cook said, adding that earlier intelligence “led us to believe he had been killed” in March. [Continue reading…]

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Inside ISIS: Quietly preparing for the loss of the ‘caliphate’

The Washington Post reports: Even as it launches waves of terrorist attacks around the globe, the Islamic State is quietly preparing its followers for the eventual collapse of the caliphate it proclaimed with great fanfare two years ago.

In public messages and in recent actions in Syria, the group’s leaders are acknowledging the terrorist organization’s declining fortunes on the battlefield while bracing for the possibility that its remaining strongholds could fall.

At the same time, the group is vowing to press on with its recent campaign of violence, even if the terrorists themselves are driven underground. U.S. counterterrorism experts believe the mass-­casualty attacks in Istanbul and Baghdad in the past month were largely a response to military reversals in Iraq and Syria. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS defectors hold key to countering group’s recruitment

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The Intercept reports: While the Islamic State continues to lose territory on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the appeal of its apocalyptic ideas has proven more enduring. Since 2014, the group, also known as ISIS, has managed to attract as many as 30,000 recruits from around the world, including several thousand men and women from Europe and North America.

A significant number of these individuals are believed to have been recruited online using social media.

A new project focused on interviews with individuals who joined and later defected from ISIS might offer a way of stifling the appeal of the group. The ISIS Defectors Interview Project, conducted by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, compiles video and written testimony from former members of the group. Between September 2015 and May 2016, Anne Speckhard, a research psychologist at Georgetown University, and Ahmet Yayla, a former counterterrorism head of the Turkish National Police, met with 32 former ISIS members who escaped the group and have since fled to Turkey.[Continue reading…]

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