Zac Goldsmith’s ‘smear’ campaign against Sadiq Khan could increase ‘risk of terrorism and radicalisation’, says prominent Muslim Tory

The Independent reports: An attempt by the Conservatives to “smear” Sadiq Khan during the London mayoral election campaign has increased the chance of terrrorist attacks on the UK and could radicalise more young British Muslims, one of the UK’s most prominent Tory Muslims has said.

Mohammed Amin, chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum – an organisation established to attract more Muslims to the party – wrote on the Conservative Home website that he was “disgusted” by Zac Goldsmith’s “risible” campaign, which repeatedly tried to paint Mr Khan as a security risk and even a friend of terrorist sympathisers.

One such alleged ‘sympathiser’ was Suliman Gani, an imam, who was accused by David Cameron of being a supporter of Isis, comments later reinforced by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. Mr Gani has now said he is planning to take legal action against Mr Fallon and is seeking a “public retraction” of his comments.

Speaking as he celebrated becoming the new Mayor of London, Mr Khan said he had met many people from ethnic minorities who had told him they were discouraging their children from going into politics because of the tenor of the Tory campaign.

But Mr Amin went much further.

“Zac’s attempts to smear Khan have probably increased our risks of suffering terrorism. Isis are perpetually seeking to radicalise and recruit young British Muslims to their cause,” he said.

“At the margin, I believe there is a risk that young impressionable British Muslims who witnessed Khan being smeared in this manner will thereby be made more vulnerable to radicalisation than they were before.” [Continue reading…]

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Mainstream Syrian rebels torn between giving up or joining extremists

The Wall Street Journal reports: Ali Othman is among a shrinking band of Syrian rebels in the mountains across from this border town who face an agonizing choice: accept a settlement with a regime they revile or fight alongside al Qaeda’s Islamist allies.

The Syrian army defector and his fellow fighters say they are weakened and cornered after enduring months of bombardment from Russian forces buttressing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Peace talks ended last month without progress amid a major escalation in violence in the northern city of Aleppo. On Thursday, a day after the U.S. announced a deal with Russia on a fresh cease-fire in Aleppo, Islamist groups targeted regime-held areas of the city with rocket, mortar and sniper fire, according to Syrian state media and U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“My wife begs me almost each day to leave the mountains,” Mr. Othman, 26 years old, said during a recent visit with his family in Turkey. “She keeps asking me: `Why are you still fighting?’”

The fate of Syria’s moderate rebels is critical to American efforts in the region. If rebels quit the fight or join forces with Islamist extremist groups fighting the regime, the U.S. will lose leverage to shape the war’s outcome — and potential allies against Islamic State.

Some rebel commanders close to the U.S. warn that the diplomatic deadlock and renewed airstrikes against rebel-held areas would push people into the arms of the extremists, including Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate that, like Islamic State, is designated a terrorist organization by the United Nations Security Council and excluded from any potential settlement with the regime. [Continue reading…]

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How to stop prisons from turning criminals into terrorists

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Cullen Thomas writes: Each time I learn of another terrorist who spent time in prison, I’m taken back to my own prison time. In 1994, I was caught smuggling hashish into South Korea and spent three and a half years imprisoned there. Since then I’ve struggled to understand the nature of confinement and its effects on the individual.

It’s a striking and clear pattern that many of the most notorious terrorists of the modern era spent time in prison. Salah Abdeslam, the suspect behind the Paris and Brussels terror attacks, was imprisoned in Belgium with Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who lead the Friday the 13th attacks in Paris last November.

Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, responsible for the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks in Paris earlier in 2015, were imprisoned in France’s massive Fleury-Mérogis, Europe’s largest prison.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, before he became right-hand man to Osama bin Laden, was radicalised in Egyptian prisons. As Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006), put it, Zawahiri ‘entered prison a surgeon. He came out of it a butcher.’ [Continue reading…]

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An army captain takes Obama to court over war on ISIS

The New York Times reports: A 28-year-old Army officer on Wednesday sued President Obama over the legality of the war against the Islamic State, setting up a test of Mr. Obama’s disputed claim that he needs no new legal authority from Congress to order the military to wage that deepening mission.

The plaintiff, Capt. Nathan Michael Smith, an intelligence officer stationed in Kuwait, voiced strong support for fighting the Islamic State but, citing his “conscience” and his vow to uphold the Constitution, he said he believed that the mission lacked proper authorization from Congress.

“To honor my oath, I am asking the court to tell the president that he must get proper authority from Congress, under the War Powers Resolution, to wage the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” he wrote.

The legal challenge comes after the death of the third American service member fighting the Islamic State and as Mr. Obama has decided to significantly expand the number of Special Operations ground troops he has deployed to Syria aid rebels there. [Continue reading…]

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How U.S. troops fight ISIS while Obama plays down their role in combat

The New York Times reports: The battle in Teleskof began early Tuesday when volleys of mortar shells and blasts from rocket-propelled grenades disrupted meetings that the SEALs were having in the town with officials from the pesh merga, the Kurdish force battling the Islamic State in northern Iraq. Soon, a force of more than 100 Islamic State fighters punched through Kurdish checkpoints and overwhelmed the defenses on the southern edge of Teleskof, a largely Christian town about 14 miles north of Mosul.

The fighters from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, had taken the town by surprise, forcing many local fighters to retreat north of the town as it was overrun. The attackers “were able to very covertly assemble enough force” to “sprint towards Teleskof,” said Col. Steve Warren, the American military spokesman in Baghdad.

The SEALs were grossly outnumbered, and radioed that they were in a “troops in contact” situation — military jargon for a firefight. Colonel Warren said that American fighter planes, bombers and drones were sent to the town, along with a second group of SEALs. That group included Petty Officer Keating.

Matthew VanDyke, who runs a security firm, Sons of Liberty International, that is training local Iraqi forces — the Nineveh Plain Forces — said that the SEALs arrived in a convoy of sport utility vehicles from the north and drove directly into Teleskof.

“They went directly into combat,” he said.

Mr. VanDyke said that one of the trucks in the SEAL convoy appeared to get hit by a rocket- propelled grenade, and that the SEALs then got out of the S.U.V.s and went further into the town on foot.

A pitched battle continued, with the SEALs moving among buildings in the town and calling in airstrikes. About 9:30 a.m., Colonel Warren said, one of the SEAL team members radioed for medical help. Petty Officer Keating had been shot by an Islamic State sniper in the side, in an area not covered by his bulletproof vest.

Two Black Hawk helicopters arrived, drawing fire from Islamic State fighters, but were able to evacuate Petty Officer Keating to the American military’s medical mission in Erbil. He was pronounced dead shortly afterward.

The SEALs eventually pulled out of the town after they ran out of ammunition, Mr. VanDyke said.

Eventually, several hundred Kurdish pesh merga and other local fighters were able to mass for a counteroffensive. By the end of the day, those militias had managed to expel the Islamic State fighters from Teleskof.

Although American officials have used linguistic contortions for months to present the American military role in Iraq as something other than direct combat, Mr. Carter did not hesitate on Tuesday to call Petty Officer Keating’s death a “combat death.” [Continue reading…]

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Al Qaeda prepares to establish its first sovereign state in northern Syria

Charles Lister writes: Al Qaeda has big ambitions in Syria. For the past three years, an unprecedented number of veteran figures belonging to the group have arrived in the country, in what can only be described as the covert revitalization of al Qaeda’s central leadership on Europe’s doorstep. Now the jihadi group’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front — having spent nearly five years slowly building deep roots in the country — is laying the groundwork for al Qaeda’s first sovereign state.

The Islamic State and al Qaeda use different tactics in Syria, but their ultimate objective there is the same: the creation of an Islamic emirate. Whereas the Islamic State has imposed unilateral control over populations and rapidly proclaimed independence, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate has moved much more deliberately, seeking to build influence in the areas they hope to rule. This is a long-game strategy that the terrorist group began adopting in the late 2000s, first in Yemen, in 2011, and then in Mali, in 2012.

But the Nusra Front in Syria has proved the first potentially successful test case. After years of painstaking work to increase its sway in northern Syria, Nusra Front recently launched consultations within its own ranks and among some sympathetic opposition groups about proclaiming an emirate. Given the stakes involved, al Qaeda has recently transferred a number of highly influential jihadi figures from its central leadership circles into Syria. Their mission is to assuage the concerns expressed by other Syrian Islamist movements and those members of Nusra Front who, for now, oppose the idea of an independent emirate.

The presence of a militarily powerful and socially accepted al Qaeda emirate in northwestern Syria, led by several dozen veteran al Qaeda figures and heavily manned by local Syrian fighters, could have significant consequences for the Syrian crisis and for international security.

The formalization of Nusra Front’s power in northern Syria would harden the group’s stance toward Syria’s moderate opposition. Proclaiming an emirate would require the group to assert overwhelming control — including the imposition of a strict interpretation of sharia — in the territories over which it would be asserting sovereignty. In all likelihood, incidents of capital punishment would dramatically increase, civilian freedoms would be restricted, and Nusra Front’s tolerance of nonreligious, nationalist, and civil opposition bodies would decline.

The international implications of an emirate proclamation would be even more significant. The combination of an al Qaeda emirate and a revitalized al Qaeda central leadership in northern Syria would represent a confidence boost for the jihadi organization’s global brand. Al Qaeda would present itself as the smart, methodical, and persistent jihadi movement that, in contrast to the Islamic State, had adopted a strategy more aligned with everyday Sunni Muslims. Eventually, the decision would be made to initiate the plotting of foreign attacks, using Syria’s proximity to Europe and al Qaeda’s regional network to pose a far more urgent threat than the group ever posed in Yemen and Afghanistan. Should the Islamic State continue to suffer losses to its territorial claims in Iraq and Syria, we might also see some defections to the emboldened al Qaeda affiliate next door.

How close is al Qaeda to proclaiming a Syrian emirate? Nusra Front seems to have slowed its emirate plans, at least temporarily, during Syria’s recent cessation of hostilities. That had allowed Syrian Islamist opposition groups to express their hostility to the group’s emirate plans. Some even raised the idea that Nusra Front should break its ties to al Qaeda in order to further integrate into the mainstream “revolutionary opposition.”

“For a short time, some consultation began outside of al-Nusra, but the response was very negative,” one well-connected Syrian Islamist said. “Syrians do not want an emirate.” [Continue reading…]

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Poverty driving Syrian men and boys into the arms of ISIS

The Guardian reports: Poverty, desperation and the desire for revenge are the key factors pushing young Syrians to join Isis and other extremist groups – and are more significant than ideological or religious motivation, according to research by a peace-building group.

Adolescent boys and young men between the ages of 12 and 24 were found to be most at risk, along with children and young adults not in education, internally displaced people and refugees without supportive family structures.

Interviews with more than 300 young Syrians – in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey – point to factors of both vulnerability and resilience to recruitment by Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate), which are both proscribed as terrorist organisations by the UN.

“Radicalisation is not an explanation for joining a violent extremist group per se,” said the study by International Alert (pdf). “For many young Syrians, belief in extreme ideologies appears to be, at most, a secondary factor in the initial decision to join an extremist group. Religion is providing a moral medium for coping and justification for fighting, rather than a basis for rigid and extreme ideologies.” [Continue reading…]

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ISIS files reveal Assad’s deals with militants

Sky News reports: Islamic State and the Assad regime in Syria have been colluding with each other in deals on the battleground, Sky News can reveal.

Our exclusive investigation into leaked secret IS files suggests one piece of co-operation was over the ancient city of Palmyra.

The files also show that the militant group has been training foreign fighters to attack Western targets for much longer than security services had suspected.

The revelations underscore fears in the United States that a network of sleeper cells is spread across Europe, avoiding detection, and is planning further Paris- and Brussels-style assaults.

IS defectors, meanwhile, have told Sky News that Palmyra was handed back to government forces by Islamic State as part of a series of cooperation agreements going back years.

New letters obtained by Sky News, in addition to the massive haul of 22,000 files handed over last month, appear to confirm this. [Continue reading…]

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Third U.S. combat death comes as American troops edge closer to the front lines in Iraq

The Washington Post reports: At the base of a rocky ridge rising from the surrounding farmland, the barrels of American artillery poke out from under camouflage covers, their sights trained on Islamic State-held positions.

Less than 10 miles from the front lines in the push toward the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the U.S. outpost, known as Firebase Bell, is manned by about 200 Marines.

“Having them here has raised the morale of our fighters,” said Lt. Col. Helan Mahmood, the head of a commando regiment in the Iraqi army, as his truck bumped along the dirt track that divides his base from the American encampment, ringed by razor wire and berms.

“If there’s any movement from the enemy, they bomb immediately,” he said.

The new firebase is part of a creeping U.S. buildup in Iraq since troops first returned to the country with a contingent of 275 advisers, described at the time by the Pentagon as a temporary measure to help get “eyes on the ground.”

Now, nearly two years later, the official troop count has mushroomed to 4,087, not including those on temporary rotations, a number that has not been disclosed. [Continue reading…]

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How the curse of Sykes-Picot still haunts the Middle East

Robin Wright writes: In the Middle East, few men are pilloried these days as much as Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot. Sykes, a British diplomat, travelled the same turf as T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), served in the Boer War, inherited a baronetcy, and won a Conservative seat in Parliament. He died young, at thirty-nine, during the 1919 flu epidemic. Picot was a French lawyer and diplomat who led a long but obscure life, mainly in backwater posts, until his death, in 1950. But the two men live on in the secret agreement they were assigned to draft, during the First World War, to divide the Ottoman Empire’s vast land mass into British and French spheres of influence. The Sykes-Picot Agreement launched a nine-year process — and other deals, declarations, and treaties — that created the modern Middle East states out of the Ottoman carcass. The new borders ultimately bore little resemblance to the original Sykes-Picot map, but their map is still viewed as the root cause of much that has happened ever since.

“Hundreds of thousands have been killed because of Sykes-Picot and all the problems it created,” Nawzad Hadi Mawlood, the Governor of Iraq’s Erbil Province, told me when I saw him this spring. “It changed the course of history — and nature.”

May 16th will mark the agreement’s hundredth anniversary, amid questions over whether its borders can survive the region’s current furies. “The system in place for the past one hundred years has collapsed,” Barham Salih, a former deputy prime minister of Iraq, declared at the Sulaimani Forum, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in March. “It’s not clear what new system will take its place.”

The colonial carve-up was always vulnerable. Its map ignored local identities and political preferences. Borders were determined with a ruler — arbitrarily. At a briefing for Britain’s Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, in 1915, Sykes famously explained, “I should like to draw a line from the ‘E’ in Acre to the last ‘K’ in Kirkuk.” He slid his finger across a map, spread out on a table at No. 10 Downing Street, from what is today a city on Israel’s Mediterranean coast to the northern mountains of Iraq.

“Sykes-Picot was a mistake, for sure,” Zikri Mosa, an adviser to Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani, told me. “It was like a forced marriage. It was doomed from the start. It was immoral, because it decided people’s future without asking them.” [Continue reading…]

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How the ‘Green Zone’ helped destroy Iraq

Emma Sky writes: While the United States has been fixated on the Islamic State and the liberation of Mosul, the attention of ordinary Iraqis has been on the political unraveling of their own country. This culminated on Saturday when hundreds of protesters breached the U.S.-installed “Green Zone” at the heart of Baghdad for the first time and stormed the Iraqi parliament while Iraqi security forces stood back and watched. The demonstrators, supporters of radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, toppled blast walls, sat in the vacated seats of the parliamentarians who had fled and shouted out demands for the government to be replaced. A state of emergency was declared.

This incident should be a jarring alarm bell to Washington, which can no longer ignore the disintegration of the post-Saddam system it put in place 13 years ago. The sad reality is that Iraq has become ungovernable, more a state of militias than a state of institutions. As long as that state of affairs continues, even a weakened Islamic State, which has been losing territory and support, will find a home in Iraq, drawing on Sunni fears of corruption and incompetence by the Shia-dominated government.

The greatest threat to Iraq thus comes not from the Islamic State but from broken politics, catastrophic corruption, and mismanagement. Indeed there is a symbiotic relationship between terrorists and corrupt politicians: They feed off each other and justify each other’s existence. The post-2003 system of parceling out ministries to political parties has created a kleptocratic political class that lives in comfort in the Green Zone, detached from the long-suffering population, which still lacks basic services. There is no translation into Arabic of the term kleptocracy. But judging by the protesters chanting “you are all thieves,” they know exactly what it means. [Continue reading…]

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Birmingham men in court accused of funding Paris attack suspect

The Guardian reports: Two men from Birmingham have appeared in court charged with giving £3,000 to Mohamed Abrini, who was allegedly involved in the terrorist attacks on Paris and Brussels.

Abrini, captured on camera wearing a hat during the bombing of the Brussels airport in March, got the cash for terrorist purposes, British prosecutors have said.

The claims of alleged British links to those behind the November 2015 attacks on Paris that killed 130 people and the attacks on Brussels earlier this year, came during the first court appearance of the two men. [Continue reading…]

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Stop viewing the Arab world through a narrow lens

H A Hellyer writes: If, in 2011, the West’s view of the Arab world was grounded in optimism and exhilaration, it’s an entirely different story in 2016. Five years ago, there was still the sense that something was afoot, that the region could change into something better. There was the promise of a region based more on respect for fundamental rights, better governance and freedom – rather than one where these elements were constantly sacrificed to nepotism, autocracy and the cynical exploitation of concerns around security.

Five years on, the situation looks very different.

Now it is far more about security than ever before. It used to be that different Arab leaders would privately and publicly argue that they were better than the alternative of Islamism and that would be enough to get any concerns around fundamental rights of the table for discussion. Today, the equation is the same but different: many simply argue that the alternative to their rule is chaos. And, of course, no one wants chaos – and so the cycle continues.

But the region is not simply a place where one makes short-term exchanges between security concerns and everything else. It is a catastrophic mistake to look at the region in those terms alone. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. special ops kill 40 ISIS operatives responsible for attacks from Paris to Egypt

The Daily Beast reports: As the self-proclaimed Islamic State trumpets its global terrorist campaign, U.S. special operations forces have quietly killed more than three dozen key ISIS operatives blamed for plotting deadly attacks in Europe and beyond.

Defense officials tell The Daily Beast that U.S. special operators have killed 40 “external operations leaders, planners, and facilitators” blamed for instigating, plotting, or funding ISIS’s attacks from Brussels and Paris to Egypt and Africa.

That’s less than half the overall number of ISIS targets that special operators have taken off the battlefield, one official explained, including top leaders like purported ISIS second-in-command Haji Imam, killed in March.

The previously unpublished number provides a rare glimpse into the U.S. counterterrorist mission that is woven into overall coalition efforts to defeat ISIS, and which is credited with crippling ISIS efforts to recruit foreign fighters and carry out more plots like the deadly assault on Paris that killed 130 last fall. [Continue reading…]

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Belgian police knew since 2014 that Abdeslam brothers planned ‘irreversible act’

Politico reports: Belgian police had information as early as mid-2014 that Paris attackers Salah and Brahim Abdeslam intended to carry out “an irreversible act,” according to a classified police watchdog’s report on the country’s response to the Paris attacks.

Brahim Abdeslam blew himself up in Paris last November during the attacks that killed 130 people, while Salah fled and was captured in Brussels last month, four days before the terror attacks in Brussels.

The conclusions of the report, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO, says the brothers’ radicalization, links to Paris attacks mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud, and their intention to commit some sort of act were known to Belgian security forces well before the attacks.

The police’s anti-terror unit argued that it could not file a report on the brothers into the central police database because it could not be established with certainty which brother was involved.

But the watchdog questions that argument, saying the names of both Abdeslam brothers, who lived in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, were already in the database. [Continue reading…]

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