U.S. unleashes ‘Mother of All Bombs’ — and a press release

The Daily Beast reports: U.S. Special Operations Forces dropped one of the world’s most powerful non-nuclear bombs on ISIS fighters in eastern Afghanistan on April 13, defense officials told The Daily Beast on Thursday.

The bombing could mark a shocking escalation of America’s war in Afghanistan—one that places more civilians in greater danger than ever before, though military officials insist they wouldn’t have acted if they had spotted civilians nearby.

American forces were trying to root out deeply entrenched ISIS fighters when a U.S. Air Force MC-130 commando transport dropped the Massive Ordinance Air Blast munition in Achin district in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan at 7:32 in the evening, local time.

ISIS has an estimated 600 to 800 fighters in Afghanistan, many of them in Achin, according to Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump. One U.S. commando died in a firefight in the district just a few days ago, on April 8.

But this was no act of retribution, the Pentagon insisted. “This operation was planned prior to the loss of a 7th Group Green Beret last week,” U.S. military spokesman Navy Capt. Bill Salvin explained from Kabul.

Stump said the massive bombing could hinder ISIS in Afghanistan. “It really restricts their freedom of movement.”

Pentagon officials say the generals have had the authority to whatever ordnance they had in theatre against ISIS since January last year, but President Donald Trump’s comfort level with delegating new decision-making on counterterrorism strikes surely played into their thinking. The general “ordered” the weapon for use in during the Obama Administration, according to Slavin, who said it was only delivered in January this year.

“Appropriate notifications were made. This is not a new authority. This does not reflect a new policy or authority,” U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. John Thomas emailed The Daily Beast. [Continue reading…]

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Who are the new jihadis?

Olivier Roy writes: There is something new about the jihadi terrorist violence of the past two decades. Both terrorism and jihad have existed for many years, and forms of “globalised” terror – in which highly symbolic locations or innocent civilians are targeted, with no regard for national borders – go back at least as far as the anarchist movement of the late 19th century. What is unprecedented is the way that terrorists now deliberately pursue their own deaths.

Over the past 20 years – from Khaled Kelkal, a leader of a plot to bomb Paris trains in 1995, to the Bataclan killers of 2015 – nearly every terrorist in France blew themselves up or got themselves killed by the police. Mohamed Merah, who killed a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, uttered a variant of a famous statement attributed to Osama bin Laden and routinely used by other jihadis: “We love death as you love life.” Now, the terrorist’s death is no longer just a possibility or an unfortunate consequence of his actions; it is a central part of his plan. The same fascination with death is found among the jihadis who join Islamic State. Suicide attacks are perceived as the ultimate goal of their engagement.

This systematic choice of death is a recent development. The perpetrators of terrorist attacks in France in the 1970s and 1980s, whether or not they had any connection with the Middle East, carefully planned their escapes. Muslim tradition, while it recognises the merits of the martyr who dies in combat, does not prize those who strike out in pursuit of their own deaths, because doing so interferes with God’s will. So, why, for the past 20 years, have terrorists regularly chosen to die? What does it say about contemporary Islamic radicalism? And what does it say about our societies today? [Continue reading…]

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Attacks show ISIS’ new plan: Divide Egypt by killing Christians

The New York Times reports: Grief and rage flowed through Egypt’s Christian community on Monday as tear-streaked mourners buried the victims of the coordinated Palm Sunday church bombings that killed 45 people in two cities. The cabinet declared that a state of emergency was in effect. A newspaper was pulled off newsstands after it criticized the government.

It was just the reaction the Islamic State wanted.

Routed from its stronghold on the coast of Libya, besieged in Iraq and wilting under intense pressure in Syria, the militant extremist group urgently needs to find a new battleground where it can start to proclaim victory again. The devastating suicide attacks on Sunday in the heart of the Middle East’s largest Christian community suggested it has found a solution: the cities of mainland Egypt.

Since December, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has signaled its intent to wage a sectarian war in Egypt by slaughtering Christians in their homes, businesses and places of worship. Several factors lie behind the vicious campaign, experts say: a desire to weaken Egypt’s authoritarian leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi; a need to gain a foothold in Egypt beyond the remote Sinai deserts where jihadists have been battling the army for years; and a desire to foment a vicious sectarian conflict that would tear at Egypt’s delicate social fabric and destabilize the state.

“There’s a significant propaganda factor to this,” said Mokhtar Awad, a militancy expert at George Washington University. “ISIS wants to show that it can attack one of the Arab world’s most populous countries.” [Continue reading…]

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McMaster: U.S. eager for regime change in Syria

Politico reports: White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster says that while the U.S. would push for regime change in Syria, “We’re not the ones who are going to effect that change.”

“What we’re saying is, other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions,” McMaster said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.” “Russia should ask themselves, ‘What are we doing here?’ Why are we supporting this murderous regime that is committing mass murder of its own population and using the most heinous weapons available?’”

McMaster characterized Thursday’s U.S. airstrike on a Syrian airfield as an opportunity for Russia to reevaluate its continued support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, adding that addressing both Assad’s actions and routing ISIS could be done simultaneously.

“I think, as you saw with the strike, that there has to be a degree of simultaneous activity as well as sequencing of the defeat of ISIS first,” McMaster said. “What you have in Syria is a very destructive cycle of violence, perpetuated by ISIS, obviously, but also by this regime and their Iranian and Russian sponsors.” [Continue reading…]

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After reports of civilian deaths, U.S. military struggles to defend air operations in war against militants

The Washington Post reports: The Pentagon has struggled in recent weeks to explain what lies behind a surge in reported civilian casualties in its air campaign against the Islamic State, fueling speculation that the new Trump administration is pursuing policies resulting in a greater loss of life.

Military officials insist there has been no significant change to the rules governing its air campaign in Iraq and Syria, and ­instead attribute the string of alleged deadly incidents to a new, more intense phase of the war, in which Islamic State fighters are making a final stand in densely populated areas such as the Iraqi city of Mosul.

But some in Iraq and Syria are left wondering whether the higher death count is a product of President Trump’s bare-knuckle military stance and his suggestions that the United States should “take out” militants’ families.

The recent incidents, and the attention surrounding them, have generated concern within the military that the strikes have undermined the United States’ ability to fight the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt declares state of emergency, as attacks undercut promise of security

The New York Times reports: Rattling a country already wrestling with a faltering economy and deepening political malaise, two suicide bombings that killed 44 people at Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday raised the specter of increased sectarian bloodshed led by Islamic State militants.

The attacks constituted one of the deadliest days of violence against Christians in Egypt in decades and presented a challenge to the authority of the country’s leader, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who promptly declared a three-month state of emergency.

Security is the central promise of Mr. Sisi, a strongman leader who returned on Friday from a triumphant visit to the United States, where President Trump hailed him as a bulwark against Islamist violence. Mr. Trump made it clear that he was willing to overlook the record of mass detention, torture and extrajudicial killings during Mr. Sisi’s rule in favor of his ability to combat the Islamic State and defend minority Christians.

On Sunday, Mr. Sisi found himself back on the defensive, deploying troops to protect churches across the country weeks before a planned visit by Pope Francis. Mr. Sisi rushed to assure Christians, who have traditionally been among his most vocal supporters and now fear that he cannot protect them against extremists. [Continue reading…]

Mokhtar Awad writes: Four months after an Islamic State suicide bomber killed 28 Christian worshipers in Cairo, the group struck Egypt’s Christians again—this time with a double church bombing on Palm Sunday that left at least 44 dead and scores injured. The attacks, only hours apart, targeted a church in the Delta city of Tanta as well as a church in Alexandria where Coptic Pope Tawadros II was leading a service. It was the single deadliest day of violence directed against the Middle East’s largest Christian community in decades.

When the ISIS claim of responsibility came within hours of the attacks, it wasn’t a surprise. For months, the Islamic State has been accelerating the import of Iraq-style sectarian tactics to Egypt. In doing so, the group hopes to destabilize the Middle East’s most populous country and expand the reach of its by now clearly genocidal project for the region’s minorities.

Egyptian authorities have thus far been unable to keep up with this escalating threat. This may be largely due to their own incompetence, but it also reflects the increasing sophistication of ISIS assets directed at Egypt. As the group goes on the defensive elsewhere, mainland Egypt is too attractive a potential front in its jihad to pass up. It appears that the group is now focusing more time, resources, and most importantly ISIS talent on Egypt, making the situation likely to worsen in the future.

Targeting Egypt’s Christians is a cold and calculated strategy for the group. ISIS hopes that inflaming sectarian strife in Egypt will be the first step in the country’s unraveling. Several explosions have rocked Cairo and the Delta since 2013, carried out by both ISIS and its precursor group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which pledged its allegiance to Raqqa in 2014. Yet despite this, Islamic State efforts had before now largely floundered in mainland Egypt—where nearly 97 percent of the population resides—due in part to the strength of the central government, the amateur nature of Islamic State assets, and perhaps most importantly, the relative cohesiveness of Egyptian society. The group has fared much better in the remote North Sinai, where it has killed over a thousand government troops in recent years, but the area is simply too far away from Cairo to constitute an existential threat to the government. [Continue reading…]

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Putin calls U.S. Syria strike aggression, ends airspace pact

Bloomberg reports: Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned American air strikes on Syria in response to an apparent chemical attack as an act of “aggression against a sovereign state” and suspended an agreement with the U.S. to avoid hostile incidents in the skies above its Syrian ally.

The sudden escalation between the two nuclear-armed powers catapulted tensions to the highest level since Donald Trump took office in January. The Kremlin said the U.S. action will cause “considerable damage” to ties between Moscow and Washington. The U.S. said it had worked to minimize the risk of causing Russian casualties in the attack, which killed at least six Syrian servicemen.

The Shayrat Airfield was hit early Friday morning by 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from the USS Porter and USS Ross, two Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea, in what the U.S. said was a limited strike against the airbase from which the suspected chemical attack was launched. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS says U.S. ‘being run by an idiot’

Reuters reports: Islamic State said on Tuesday the United States was drowning and “being run by an idiot”.

In the first official remarks by the group referring to President Donald Trump since he took office, spokesman Abi al-Hassan al-Muhajer said:

“America you have drowned and there is no savior, and you have become prey for the soldiers of the caliphate in every part of the earth, you are bankrupt and the signs of your demise are evident to every eye.”

“… There is no more evidence than the fact that you are being run by an idiot who does not know what Syria or Iraq or Islam is,” he said in a recording released on Tuesday on messaging network Telegram. [Continue reading…]

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If Trump’s looking for a Mideast winner, he’s made a bad bet on Sisi

Bel Trew reports: “Are you Christian?” were the only words the masked men asked Misaq, 58, an Egyptian hospital worker, as they poked their machine guns through the car windows.

Moments before, the Coptic father of four and his Muslim colleague had passed through an Egyptian military check point, and then watched as an Egyptian army vehicle passed them.

They were on their daily drive home to Arish city in North Sinai from the government hospital where they both work. Driving the short distance between two official checkpoints, it hadn’t occurred to them to be on the lookout for fighters from the so-called Islamic State. But now they were looking at the barrels of ISIS guns.

Misaaq, a devout Copt, refused to lie to the jihadists, his friend later told the family. The ISIS fighters, perhaps taken aback by the man’s bravery, demanded to see his ID card, which confirmed his religion. They even checked the cross tattoo on his wrist, which most Coptic Christians have.

“Convert, infidel, and we will spare your life,” they told him, as they dragged him out of the vehicle and forced him to his knees. But again he refused. So they shot him 14 times and left the corpse in the desert.

“The terrorists have no schedule. They appear out of nowhere. They hunt us down,” Misaq’s impoverished widow, Magda, 52, said as she described the nightmare Christians are forced to live in Arish. It is the largest city in North Sinai, a region that has been a battleground for four years between the Egyptian army and insurgents.

Magda’s is one of the nearly 300 Christian families who fled their hometown in February, after ISIS murdered seven Copts in less than three weeks. The majority, like Magda, fled to Ismailia, a Suez Canal city where they are now in partial hiding in ramshackle flats.

“This ISIS checkpoint appeared between two military checkpoints,” she told me. “The soldiers must have heard the shots. They have towers, they could have easily seen what was going on. My husband was driving behind a military vehicle but it never turned back. No one came to help him.”

Magda, echoing other families who spoke to The Daily Beast, said the security forces were worried about their own safety. “They are targets, too. They are often too scared to do anything.”

February’s mass exodus of Christians from the troubled peninsula, which followed the ISIS-claimed bombing of a major Cairo cathedral in December, are stark reminders of how the government is not winning its heavily-touted war against terrorism. [Continue reading…]

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Removing Assad no longer a priority for U.S.

BBC News reports: The US representative to the United Nations has said that the US is no longer prioritising the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Ambassador Nikki Haley told reporters on Thursday “we can’t necessarily focus on Assad the way that the previous administration did”.

Under President Barack Obama, the US said Assad must go and backed rebels fighting against him.

But US resources shifted after the rise of the so-called Islamic state.

“Our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” said Mrs Haley.

“Our priority is to really look at how do we get things done, who do we need to work with to really make a difference for the people in Syria,” she added.

BBC State Department correspondent Barbara Plett Usher says Mrs Haley is stating something quite bluntly that has quietly been US policy for some time.

The battle against IS in Syria became the overriding priority in the last year of the Obama administration, says our correspondent. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: A United States military spokesman said Thursday that Islamic State fighters had been herding local Iraqi residents into buildings in western Mosul, calculating that rising civilian casualties would restrain the United States from using airstrikes to help retake that half of the city.

“What you see now is not the use of civilians as human shields,” said Col. Joseph E. Scrocca, a spokesman for the American-led task force that is battling the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. “ISIS is smuggling civilians into buildings so we won’t see them and trying to bait the coalition to attack.”

An episode this week in which Islamic State fighters forced civilians inside a building, killing one who resisted, was observed by American surveillance aircraft. Islamic State fighters then positioned themselves inside the same structure to fire on Iraqi forces, according to an account provided in a briefing for Pentagon reporters by Colonel Scrocca. [Continue reading…]

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Shell-shocked Mosul survivors tell of intense airstrikes

The Guardian reports: Covered in dust, their hands raw from digging, Ali Assad and his cousin made a desperate choice – to leave their family under the rubble of their west Mosul home and flee while they still could.

The two men were among hundreds to be evacuated on Sunday, during a lull in the fighting prompted by outrage over the high civilian toll caused by multiple airstrikes that have battered the city and its trapped population over the past eight days.

With the ground war now suspended as a result, families that have sheltered in ruins or taken their chances in what is left of their homes have been leaving Mosul in droves, many arriving shell shocked and starving at refugee processing centres on its southern outskirts, where they spoke of more than a week of terror.

“There are six of my family still under our house,” said Assad, 32, cupping his raw hands. “My father, I saw him die in front of me, my brother, two sisters and two cousins. My mother survived, but then she was hit by some other explosion and a concrete slab fell on her. She’s badly hurt.” [Continue reading…]

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Iraq suspends Mosul offensive after coalition airstrike atrocity

The Observer reports: Iraqi military leaders have halted their push to recapture west Mosul from Islamic State as international outrage grew over the civilian toll from airstrikes that killed at least 150 people in a single district of the city.

The attack on the Mosul Jadida neighbourhood is thought to have been one of the deadliest bombing raids for civilians since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Rescuers were still pulling bodies from the rubble on Saturday, more than a week after the bombs landed, when the US-led coalition confirmed that its aircraft had targeted Isis fighters in the area.

They carried out the attack on 17 March “at the request of the Iraqi security forces”, and have now launched a formal investigation into reports of civilian casualties, the coalition said.

British planes were among those operating in western Mosul at the time. Asked if they could have been involved in the airstrikes, a spokesman did not rule out the possibility of British involvement, saying: “We are aware of reports [of civilian casualties] and will support the coalition investigation.” [Continue reading…]

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U.S. investigating Mosul strikes said to have killed up to 200 civilians

The New York Times reports: The American-led military coalition in Iraq said Friday that it was investigating reports that scores of civilians — perhaps as many as 200, residents said — had been killed in recent American airstrikes in Mosul, the northern Iraqi city at the center of an offensive to drive out the Islamic State.

If confirmed, the series of airstrikes would rank among the highest civilian death tolls in an American air mission since the United States went to war in Iraq in 2003. And the reports of civilian deaths in Mosul came immediately after two recent incidents in Syria, where the coalition is also battling the Islamic State from the air, in which activists and local residents said dozens of civilians had been killed.

Taken together, the surge of reported civilian deaths raised questions about whether once-strict rules of engagement meant to minimize civilian casualties were being relaxed under the Trump administration, which has vowed to fight the Islamic State more aggressively.

American military officials insisted on Friday that the rules of engagement had not changed. They acknowledged, however, that American airstrikes in Syria and Iraq had been heavier in an effort to press the Islamic State on multiple fronts. [Continue reading…]

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No surprise that London attacker Khalid Masood was born in UK

Jason Burke writes: The news that the London attacker was born in Britain and inspired by extremist Islamist ideology was entirely predictable, as was his criminal record.

The standout detail from the sketchy profile we have of Khalid Masood is his age: 52, nearly twice that of most contemporary attackers.

The attack was claimed on Thursday by Islamic State. The group has been selective with such statements, which are credible, and careful in its vocabulary.

Significantly, Isis described a “soldier” who responded to its “call”, indicating the group probably did not have prior contact with Masood before the killings.

The same terminology has been used to describe people such as Omar Mateen, who opened fire in a nightclub in Florida in June and claimed allegiance to Isis during the attack, and Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who drove a truck into a parade in Nice in July. [Continue reading…]

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Warnings of a ‘powder keg’ in Libya as ISIS regroups

The New York Times reports: After B-2 bombers struck an Islamic State training camp in Libya in January, killing more than 80 militants, American officials privately gloated. On the heels of losing its coastal stronghold in Surt the month before, the Islamic State seemed to be reeling.

But Western and African counterterrorism officials now say that while the twin blows dealt a setback to the terrorist group in Libya — once feared as the Islamic State’s most lethal branch outside Iraq and Syria — its leaders are already regrouping, exploiting the chaos and political vacuum gripping the country.

Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, told a Senate panel this month that after their expulsion from Surt, many militants from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, were moving to southern Libya.

“The instability in Libya and North Africa may be the most significant near-term threat to U.S. and allies’ interests on the continent,” General Waldhauser said. “Even with the success of Surt, ISIS-Libya remains a regional threat with intent to target U.S. persons and interests.”

Libya remains a violent and divided nation rife with independent militias, flooded with arms and lacking legitimate governance and political unity. Tripoli, the capital, is controlled by a patchwork of armed groups that have built local fiefs and vied for power since Libya’s 2011 uprising. Running gun battles have seized Tripoli in recent days.

“Libya is descending into chaos,” said Brig. Gen. Zakaria Ngobongue), a senior Chadian officer who directed a major counterterrorism exercise here in the Chadian capital last week involving 2,000 African and Western troops and trainers. “It’s a powder keg.” [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s frightening trifecta: ISIS, Erdogan & U.S. nukes

Christopher Dickey writes: Immediately after the coup [last July], which involved some Turkish air force officers, the Incirlik air base used by the United States in the war against the so-called Islamic State was cordoned off and effectively shut down for several days. Its Turkish commander was placed under arrest and frog-marched off the base.

Given the Turkish government’s behavior and the country’s evident instability, it’s of no small concern that under NATO’s “nuclear sharing” program, an estimated 50 to 90 atomic weapons reportedly are located at Incirlik (PDF). Although these B61 munitions are considered “tactical” weapons, each thermonuclear device has a potential blast yield of about 340 kilotons—more than 20 times that of the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

In the immediate aftermath of the Incirlik blockade and arrests last summer, spurious reports played up by Russian propagandists claimed the nukes had been moved from Incirlik to Romania. That was not the case. But there remains wide sentiment among security analysts that those nukes should be moved somewhere more secure.

As a Congressional Research Service report (PDF) noted at the time, concerns were based on “both the ongoing political uncertainties in Turkey, including the evolving state of U.S.-Turkish relations, and the base’s proximity to territory controlled by ISIS.”

The Syrian border is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Incirlik. Towns like Al Bab and Dabiq, until recently under the control of the so-called Islamic State, are slightly further.

The argument for leaving the nukes in Turkey was to reassure Ankara against a threat from Russia. But given the obvious and growing rapprochement between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Erdogan’s increasingly overt hostility toward his NATO allies, leaving thermonuclear weapons on the bomb racks of Incirlik seems to many a pointless and dangerous exercise. [Continue reading…]

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