Paris terror suspect views life like Grand Theft Auto video game, says his lawyer

Ishaan Tharoor writes: Salah Abdeslam, the 26-year-old French national of Moroccan origin suspected of involvement in November’s terrorist attacks in Paris, was transferred to French custody by Belgian authorities Wednesday. According to French officials, he’ll be placed in solitary confinement in a maximum-security facility as investigative judges determine his eventual charges.

Abdeslam, as my colleague James McAuley noted, was seized March 18 in the troubled Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, which is home to a large, impoverished Muslim minority population. He was arrested for his suspected role in the Paris attacks, which claimed 130 lives, but his capture also preceded — and potentially inspired — a grim set of bombings in Brussels on March 22. Both assaults were believed to have been carried out by proxies of the Islamic State extremist group.

In an interview with the French daily Liberation, Sven Mary, Abdeslam’s Belgian attorney, heaped opprobrium on his departing client, whom Mary described as having “the intelligence of an empty ashtray — an abysmal emptiness.” [Continue reading…]

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Should states take legal action against people who went to fight in Syria but haven’t committed terrorist acts?

The New York Times reports: Ten young Muslim men, bored by a mundane life in France and haunted by a “feeling of uselessness,” as one put it, were seduced by a leading Islamic State recruiter in Europe in 2013. Within months, they were in Syria under the watchful eyes of hooded, Kalashnikov-wielding militants, doing push-ups, fiddling with weapons and imbibing the ideology.

But the harsh regimen, most have since told investigators, was not to their liking, and it was not long before they hastened back to their families in the Strasbourg area, where they were almost immediately picked up by the French authorities.

What to do with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such young men in Europe is now among the biggest challenges facing governments and security services.

After the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks, which were carried out in part by Europeans who had spent time in Syria with the Islamic State, France and other countries are grappling with how far to go in tightening laws to prosecute, monitor and restrict the movements of returnees.

At the heart of the debate is whether to take pre-emptive legal action against people who have not committed terrorist acts or even been implicated in a plot, but who have simply been to Syria and possibly received training in Islamic State camps. [Continue reading…]

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What cyberwar against ISIS should look like

Fred Kaplan writes: Pentagon officials have publicly said, in recent weeks, that they’re hitting ISIS not only with bullets and bombs but also with cyberoffensive operations. “We are dropping cyberbombs,” Robert Work, deputy secretary of defense, is quoted as proclaiming in Monday’s New York Times. Similar, if less colorful, statements have been made by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and,a week ago, President Obama.

What does it mean? And what effects are these new weapons having on the overall war? After dropping his “cyberbombs” bombshell, Work said, “We have never done that before.” But in fact, the United States has done it before, against Iraqi insurgents, including al-Qaida fighters, back in 2007. And, as I discovered while researching my book Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, the effects were devastating.

Standard accounts have credited President George W. Bush’s troop surge and Gen. David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy for turning the Iraq conflict in the coalition’s favor in 2007. These accounts aren’t wrong, as far as they go, but they leave out another crucial factor — cyberoffensive warfare, as conducted by the Joint Special Operations Command and the National Security Agency. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS spreading in Europe, U.S. intelligence chief warns

The New York Times reports: The Islamic State is operating clandestine terrorist cells in Britain, Germany and Italy, similar to the groups that carried out the attacks in Paris and Brussels, the top-ranking American intelligence official said on Monday.

When asked if the Islamic State was engaging in secret activities in those nations, the official, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, said: “Yes, they do. That is a concern, obviously, of ours and our European allies.” He then added, “We continue to see evidence of plotting on the part of ISIL in the countries you named.” ISIL is another name for the Islamic State.

Mr. Clapper, speaking to reporters at a breakfast meeting organized by The Christian Science Monitor, became one of the most senior Western officials to publicly acknowledge the Islamic State’s extensive reach into Europe, which has set off growing fears among American and European spy services and policy makers. The Islamic State has vowed to conduct attacks in those three European countries. [Continue reading…]

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In effort to defeat ISIS, U.S. and Iran impede one another

The New York Times reports: Iraqi forces, backed by American airstrikes and advised by American officers, have been making strides in Anbar Province, slowly taking back territory from the Islamic State.

But in Falluja, a city in Sunni-dominated Anbar that has been in the hands of the Islamic State longer than any other in Iraq or Syria, civilians are starving as the Iraqi Army and militias lay siege to the city. And elsewhere in the province, Shiite militias supported by Iran are carrying out kidnappings and murders and restricting the movement of Sunni Arab civilians, according to American and Iraqi officials.

For seasoned observers of the American military involvement in Iraq — going back more than 25 years to the start of the Persian Gulf war — it is all part of a depressingly familiar pattern: battlefield gains that do not bring stability in their wake.

“Unfortunately, as has been a trademark of American involvement with Iraq at least since 2003 (and arguably since 1991), military success is not being matched with the commensurate political-economic efforts that will ultimately determine whether battlefield successes are translated into lasting achievements,” Kenneth M. Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a longtime Iraq analyst, wrote recently in an online column.

A growing number of critics are warning that American-backed military victories need to be backed up with political reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite Arabs, something Iran is working against, and with determined efforts to rebuild cities so that civilians can return. In Anbar, they note, the situation is bleak: Shiite militias have worsened sectarian animosities, and hundreds of thousands of civilians have been unable to return home. [Continue reading…]

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Obama warns Europe of the dangers of withdrawing from the world in a challenging age

The Los Angeles Times reports: President Obama challenged European nations on Monday to resist the forces that would divide their increasingly fragile union, calling their cooperation with one another and the U.S. essential to combating a new wave of economic and security trials.

Speaking in Germany on the final day of a three-nation international trip, Obama revived a theme he first expounded on when he visited this country as a candidate eight years ago and spoke of a more collaborative approach to the world’s challenges that would rely on strong European partners. His vision has helped navigate the global economic collapse, forge an international climate agreement and launch a diplomatic approach toward curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Obama said.

“None of those things could have happened if I, if the United States, did not have a partnership with a strong and united Europe,” he argued.

But in the wake of the recent attacks on European capitals by Islamic State, the continued instability of the Middle East that resulted in a refugee crisis that has hit Europe hardest and continued economic insecurity for many, Obama acknowledged a tendency “to withdraw” that was increasingly common on both sides of the Atlantic. Such detachment could only offer “false comfort,” Obama warned. [Continue reading…]

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Fighting erupts in Iraq, and ISIS isn’t part of it

The Washington Post reports: Kurdish troops and Iraqi Shiite forces exchanged mortar and machine-gun fire Sunday in a flare-up that killed at least 12 people and raised concerns about the state’s ability to control an array of armed militia groups as areas are freed from the Islamic State.

The fighting broke out in Tuz Khurmatu, an ethnically and religiously mixed tinderbox town that is 120 miles north of Baghdad. Both sides blamed each other for the conflagration.

The Islamic State was pushed out of the surrounding area in 2014, but the armed groups here have since jostled for control and influence. Keeping militias under state control, and preventing them from turning on one another, is a major test for the Iraqi government as it slowly claws back territory from the Islamist militants. [Continue reading…]

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A Syrian rebel’s slaying in Turkey points to the long, lethal reach of ISIS

The Washington Post reports from Nizip in Turkey: On a drizzly afternoon this month, they gathered in the tree-lined cemetery here to bid farewell to a charismatic rebel and outspoken enemy of the Islamic State.

The mourners wept as they hoisted his coffin, draped in the three-star flag of Syria’s opposition. They proudly recalled his valor in battles against government forces and his defiance of the religious extremists who have tried to overtake their rebellion.

But the way that Zaher al-Shurqat’s life ended filled those at his funeral with dread.

An apparent Islamic State militant followed the 36-year-old into an alley in the Turkish city of Gaziantep and fired a round into his head. He was the fourth prominent Syrian critic of the Islamic State to be assassinated in the past six months in southern Turkey, far beyond the militants’ stronghold in Syria.

“We’re not safe here in Turkey. ISIS is watching us,” said a 24-year-old former rebel who attended the funeral in Nizip, a town about 30 miles east of Gaziantep. As do many fellow Syrians who have taken refuge in the area, the man spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of the militant group, also known as ISIS and ISIL. [Continue reading…]

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The rise and deadly fall of ISIS’s oil tycoon

The Wall Street Journal reports: Islamic State oil man Abu Sayyaf was riding high a year ago. With little industry experience, he had built a network of traders and wholesalers of Syrian oil that at one point helped triple energy revenues for his terrorist bosses.

His days carried challenges familiar to all oil executives—increasing production, improving client relations and dodging directives from headquarters. He also had duties unique to the extremist group, including approving expenses to cover the upkeep of slaves, rebuilding oil facilities damaged by U.S. airstrikes and counting towers of cash.

Last May, U.S. Special Forces killed Abu Sayyaf, a nom de guerre, at his compound in Syria’s Deir Ezzour province. The raid also captured a trove of proprietary data that explains how Islamic State became the world’s wealthiest terror group.

Documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal describe the terror group’s construction of a multinational oil operation with help from officious terror-group executives obsessed with maximizing profits. They show how the organization deals with the Syrian regime, handles corruption allegations among top officials, and, most critically, how international coalition strikes have dented but not destroyed Islamic State’s income.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter called the May 16, 2015, raid a “significant blow” against Islamic State and heralded the death of Abu Sayyaf, the terror group’s No. 2 oil executive.

In the 11 months since, U.S. and allied forces have launched hundreds more strikes against terrorist-controlled oil facilities and killed dozens of militants working in Islamic State’s oil and finance business. U.S. officials estimate that at least 30% of the group’s oil infrastructure has been destroyed, and taxes have replaced oil as the group’s largest profit center. [Continue reading…]

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Obama ramps up special forces mission in Syria against ISIS

Reuters reports: President Barack Obama announced on Monday the biggest expansion of U.S. ground troops in Syria since the civil war there began, saying he would dispatch 250 special forces soldiers to help local militia to build on successes against Islamic State.

The new deployment increases U.S. forces in Syria six-fold to about 300. While the total U.S. ground force is still small by comparison to other American deployments, defense experts said it could help shift the momentum in Syria by giving more Syrian fighters on the ground access to U.S. close air support.

Obama said the move followed victories that clawed back territory from Islamic State.

“Given the success, I’ve approved the deployment of up to 250 additional U.S. personnel in Syria, including special forces, to keep up this momentum,” Obama said in a speech in the German city of Hanover, the last stop on a foreign tour that has taken him to Saudi Arabia and Britain. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: The United States has opened a new line of combat against the Islamic State, directing the military’s six-year-old Cyber Command for the first time to mount computer-network attacks that are now being used alongside more traditional weapons.

The effort reflects President Obama’s desire to bring many of the secret American cyberweapons that have been aimed elsewhere, notably at Iran, into the fight against the Islamic State — which has proved effective in using modern communications and encryption to recruit and carry out operations.

The National Security Agency, which specializes in electronic surveillance, has for years listened intensely to the militants of the Islamic State, and those reports are often part of the president’s daily intelligence briefing. But the N.S.A.’s military counterpart, Cyber Command, was focused largely on Russia, China, Iran and North Korea — where cyberattacks on the United States most frequently originate — and had run virtually no operations against what has become the most dangerous terrorist organization in the world. [Continue reading…]

Reuters reports: Towering over his Kurdish partner at a checkpoint in northern Iraq, U.S. volunteer John Cole cuts an unusual figure on the road to the newest front in the war against Islamic State.

Seven feet (2.1 metres) tall and holding his assault rifle upside down, Cole is among a relatively small band of Westerners who have made their own way to Iraq to take up arms against the militant group – even though Kurdish authorities say they need foreign money and weapons more than men.

Exactly how much fighting Cole has done is unclear, but the 23-year-old said that – unlike most regular U.S. soldiers stationed nearby – he has participated in offensives against Islamic State that involved artillery fire and airstrikes. [Continue reading…]

Al Jazeera reports: Iraq’s military has warned civilians against returning to Ramadi after dozens were killed by mines apparently planted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group in the city’s streets and buildings.

Iraqi forces reclaimed Ramadi from ISIL fighters in December and tens of thousands of residents have moved back to Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, in the past two months.

Most of them have returned from camps east of the city where they took refuge prior to the army’s advance late last year. [Continue reading…]

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An amateur vs. ISIS (and the FBI): A car salesman investigates and ends up in prison

The New York Times reports: By his own account, Toby Lopez was a supremely ordinary guy. He sold Toyotas and lived with his mother in a tidy rancher here with a cherry tree out front. He was proud that he could connect with customers — anyone from a Superior Court judge to, as he put it, “Redneck Bill from down on the farm.” What passed for excitement was the time his young niece won a beauty contest and he chauffeured her in a red Corvette in a local parade.

Then a high school friend was killed in Afghanistan, and the Islamic State began beheading American journalists. Horrified, Mr. Lopez heard on CNN one day in the fall of 2014 that the Islamic State was active on Twitter, and he went online to see what he could find. “I was intrigued,” said Mr. Lopez, 42. “What could they possibly be saying on Twitter?”

What followed was a radical break from his humdrum life. He was pulled into the murky world of Internet jihadists, sparring with them from his office at the car dealership and late into the night at home. Before long, he was talking for hours on Skype with a man who claimed — falsely, as it would turn out — to be a top ISIS military commander, trying to negotiate the release of hostages. Mr. Lopez contacted the F.B.I. and began a testy relationship with counterterrorism agents who came to believe he might pose a danger. In the end, he landed in federal prison, where he was held for nearly 14 months without trial.

The story of one man’s deepening obsession with a terrorist group is a reminder of how the Internet provides easy portals to distant, sometimes dangerous worlds. It shows the complications for law enforcement agents who confront an overeager amateur encroaching on their turf. [Continue reading…]

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The Defense Department made a big gaffe that helps Putin and Assad in Syria

Business Insider reports: The spokesman for the US military operation against ISIS made a comment in a Wednesday press briefing in Baghdad that helps justify Russia’s continued attacks on Syria’s largest city in the midst of a truce.

US Army Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, was asked whether Russian airstrikes on Aleppo, the current epicenter of the war, meant that Moscow was preparing to end the cessation of hostilities (CoH) agreement between government forces and the opposition signed on February 29.

Warren responded that it was “complicated” because al-Nusra “holds Aleppo” and is not party to the agreement.

Warren said of Russia:

I’m not going to predict what their intentions are. What I do know is that we have seen, you know, regime forces with some Russian support as well begin to mass and concentrate combat power around Aleppo. … That said, it’s primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo, and of course, al-Nusra is not part of the cessation of hostilities. So it’s complicated.

As Middle East analyst Kyle Orton noted on Twitter, Warren came “pretty close” to saying that the coalition supports Russia’s airstrikes in the city. Those strikes, however, are aimed at degrading any and all opposition to Bashar Assad — the embattled Syrian president who the Obama administration has repeatedly insisted “has to go.” [Continue reading…]

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The problem with rebuilding a Palmyra ruin destroyed by ISIS – does it simply help Assad?

Adam Taylor writes: London Mayor Boris Johnson unveiled a stunning site in his city’s historic Trafalgar Square on Tuesday: a replica of the 2,000-year-old Arch de Triumph from Palmyra, Syria.

The original arch, once part of the internationally famous UNESCO world heritage site in Palmyra, was destroyed in an explosion by the Islamic State after it took control of the city last year. This new 20-foot-tall re-creation of the monument was crafted by the Institute of Digital Archaeology, a joint venture among Harvard University, the University of Oxford and Dubai’s Museum of the Future, which used 3-D imaging technology to map the arch and digital tools to carve it out of Egyptian marble.

During the unveiling ceremony, Johnson told spectators that they were gathered “in defiance of the barbarians” who destroyed the arch, the BBC reports. But despite the triumphant nature of the day and the clear delight that many had in the rebuilding of the historic ruin, some were concerned about what, exactly, Palmyra had come to represent.

Although few would argue that the ancient sites of Palmyra shouldn’t be protected, there are concerns that the city’s ancient wonders could become a propaganda tool for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Annie Sartre-Fauriat, an expert on Syrian heritage who works with UNESCO, said the Palmyra site should be evaluated and perhaps restored once the conflict is over.

“For the moment, we should not be fooled of the manipulations of opinion by a bloody dictator,” Sartre-Fauriat said.

Syria’s government declared just last month that it had forced the Islamic State from Palmyra after a prolonged campaign. “The liberation of the historic city of Palmyra today is an important achievement and another indication of the success of the strategy pursued by the Syrian army and its allies in the war against terrorism,” Assad said at the time.

For Assad and the Syrian regime, the capture of Palmyra seems to have been not only a symbol of the newfound prowess the Syrian military had on the battlefield with Russian air support, but also a claim that Syrians were the only ones who could protect Syria’s heritage. Palmyra itself had relatively little strategic value for the Islamic State, Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum think tank, told Al Jazeera as the city was liberated. “Palmyra is more important for the regime, symbolically, to present itself as the defender of civilisation against barbarism,” Tamimi said.

This message has an international audience, too. The Islamic State’s destruction of Palmyra had created a global outcry. Now the Syrian regime and its Russian backers were able to portray themselves as the protectors of the ancient cultural site. In the days after their troops took Palmyra, the Syrian regime quickly took Western journalists to the ancient city to show them what the Islamic State had destroyed and what, by extension, Syrian troops had saved.

In doing so, the Syrian regime was ignoring the damage it had caused to Palmyra, Sartre-Fauriat said. Assad’s troops had inflicted their own damage on the site, Sartre-Fauriat explained, firing shells and rockets into ancient sites and also looting graves. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS’s reply to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s peace message — photo of beheaded man

The Times of India reports: piritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar said on Thursday that he tried to open a dialogue with the Islamic State group but it rebuffed him by sending him a photograph of a beheaded man.

“I tried to initiate peace talks with the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) recently but they sent me a photograph of a beheaded body of a man. Thus, my effort for a peace dialogue with the ISIS ended,” he said.

“I think the ISIS does not want any peace talks,” he told the media in Agartala. “Hence, they should be dealt with militarily.” [Continue reading…]

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Bangladeshi university professor hacked to death

BBC News reports: A university professor has been hacked to death in Bangladesh, in an attack police say is similar to killings of secular bloggers and atheists by suspected Islamist extremists.

AFM Rezaul Karim Siddique, 58, was a professor of English at Rajshahi University in the country’s north-west.
He was attacked with machetes as he left home to go to work.

So-called Islamic State militants say they killed him for “calling to atheism” in Bangladesh.

The claim was made by IS-linked Amaq Agency, cited by US-based SITE Intelligence Group which monitors jihadist groups.

However, Siddique’s colleagues earlier said that he had not written anything controversial and was not an atheist, unlike previous victims.

Police believe that he may have been targeted by suspected Islamist extremists because he was involved in cultural activities.

The BBC’s Dhaka correspondent Akbar Hossain says hardline Islamist groups dislike anyone involved in the cultural field. [Continue reading…]

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