Nature of Las Ramblas attack provides harsh lessons in fight against terror

Jason Burke writes: The precise motivation and the identity of the Barcelona attackers will become clear in the next few hours. Islamic State has claimed responsibility on its Amaq news agency, though in recent months such claims have become highly unreliable.

Individuals close to Isis and active on social media have been celebrating the attack, but this does not necessarily indicate a direct connection between the attacker or attackers and the group.

Tactics spread among militants when they are seen to work. There is no skill needed to drive a vehicle into a crowd, nor any difficulty involved in obtaining one. This makes a car, van or lorry an ideal weapon for today’s terrorists, who are often inspired by a group but are not actually part of it, and for the most part, lack the training and means necessary for more complex attacks.

The second lesson is that there is now little discrimination in targeting. This means tourists are very much in the line of fire. A decade or so ago, Islamic militant groups sought to send specific messages through their violence. Random attacks against unarmed civilians were seen as ineffective, and even counter-productive in terms of garnering public support in the Muslim world. The 9/11 attack was launched against targets seen by al-Qaida as symbols of US economic, political and military power.

In 2004, Spain was the target of the bloodiest jihadi attack on European soil when commuter trains were bombed by al-Qaida sympathisers in Madrid. One aim was to undermine Spanish support for military intervention in Iraq, and influence an election. Spain was also a particular target because of the historic resonance for militants of the Islamic kingdom of Andalusia, lost to Christendom 900 years ago.

This has changed. Isis has led a broader shift towards attacking anyone, anywhere, anyhow. Public spaces, always inherently vulnerable, are now more at risk than ever. Music fans in Manchester, summer revellers in Nice, pub-goers in London, and of course tourists, whether taking pictures on Westminster Bridge, on a beach in Tunisia, or on an airplane returning to Russia from Egypt. [Continue reading…]

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‘Terror’ struck Barcelona, according to Trump. Charlottesville? ‘Call it whatever you want.’

Callum Borchers writes: Within hours of a vehicular attack in Barcelona that killed at least 13 and injured dozens of others on Thursday, President Trump called it “terror.”


Yet at a news conference three days after a similar episode in Charlottesville, where an alleged Nazi sympathizer drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring 19, the president would not definitely assign the same label.

“Was this terrorism?” a journalist asked on Tuesday.

“Well, I think the driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family and this country,” Trump replied, “and that is — you can call it terrorism, you can call it murder, you can call it whatever you want.” [Continue reading…]

However each attack gets labelled, the more important question is how they are related since it’s hard to dismiss the temporal sequence as purely coincidental.

The reality is that an attack of this kind requires very little planning and thus the first attack could indeed have triggered the second. Moreover, the attacker in Barcelona would surely have been fully aware of the attack in Charlottesville and thus seen global media attention as ripe for the picking through an escalation of violence.

Was the latest attack conceived as a way of mocking (and goading) American Islamophobic terrorists — as if to say, your brutality is no match of ours?

Was it intended to highlight Trump’s hypocrisy in his responses to violent attacks?

What seems least likely is the possibility that Charlottesville was nowhere within the considerations of the perpetrator(s) of today’s deadly attack in Barcelona.

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Funding terrorism: Antiquities looted by ISIS are destined to be bought by Western art collectors

The Wall Street Journal reports: A stream of plundered antiquities flowing out of Syria and Iraq to Western art collectors is dependent on men like Muhammad hajj Al-Hassan.

Mr. Al-Hassan, a 28-year-old Syrian, says he started to trade antiquities in 2015 after being contacted by a top official of Islamic State who sought his archaeological expertise to find Western buyers.

Later, he became a cog in an international supply chain smuggling art looted by ISIS.

ISIS’s territorial grip is fading fast: Iraq has declared victory over the terrorist group in Mosul and ISIS is fighting to hold its self-proclaimed Syrian capital Raqqa—the last major city under its control. But the group’s legacy of looting will linger for many years, law-enforcement officials say, in much the same way that art looted by the Nazis continues to surface 70 years later. The ancient statues, jewelry and artifacts that ISIS has stolen in Syria and Iraq, are already moving underground and may not surface for decades, according to these officials and experts in the trade.

Once a smuggled artifact lands with an art dealer in Europe or the U.S., the journey is still not over. To “launder” their origin, smuggled artifacts can be stored in warehouses for years and an ownership history is fabricated, according to a French security official and the Bulgarian report.

In the June House Committee hearing, Mr. Daniels said that it could take six to nine years for the art now being smuggled to hit public sale. A U.S. security official involved in investigations into art trafficking said it could take over 10 years in some cases.

Traffickers often use old typewriters to backdate certificates of ownership, another French official said. Objects are also moved from dealer to dealer to create a fake paper trail that makes their ownership harder to prosecute, said Mr. Danti, the director at the Cultural Heritage Initiatives.

There are around 20 major art galleries and trading houses in Western European cities that offer smuggled artifacts, the Bulgarian report said, without naming them. “The trade’s main target buyers are, ironically, history enthusiasts and art aficionados in the United States and Europe—representatives of the societies which ISIS has pledged to destroy,” Mr. Fanusie told Congress last April.

The FBI has a $5 million reward for any information about looted materials coming into the U.S. from Syria and Iraq. No one has come forward to claim a reward, law-enforcement officials say. [Continue reading…]

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In Mosul, 350,000 children return to school

Rudaw reports: Approximately 350,000 students have returned to school in both east and west Mosul, which is bisected by the Tigris river, despite the heavy destruction and fear of unexploded bombs, especially in western Mosul where the damage is 30 times higher than the east.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared west Mosul liberated on July 10 therefore announcing the full liberation of the city from ISIS militants following months of military operations.

A UK-based education charity announced earlier this week that as many as 83 schools have reopened in west Mosul, accommodating 58,800 students.

Their World stated that damaged buildings, unexploded bombs, and overcrowding are the main problems facing the return of education to the war-torn city.

In eastern Mosul, which was liberated in late January by the Iraqi Security Forces with lesser damage to the infrastructure, the charity says that at least 336 schools are back in service providing education to 288,500 students. [Continue reading…]

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Children of ISIS fighters face threat of Mosul revenge attacks

The Guardian reports: For the past seven months, Abu Hassan, an army medic, has treated the damaged and desperate people of the Iraqi city of Mosul as they arrived from the cauldron of war.

Soldiers, women and children often trembled in fear in front of him, hours after escaping the bloody clashes, as Iraqi forces battled to wrest control of the city from Islamic State fighters. But not nine-year-old Mohammed.

“He wasn’t a normal boy – he didn’t seem scared,” Hassan said shortly after treating Mohammed, one of the last to flee west Mosul earlier this month. “I chatted with him. I asked him normal questions, like: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ He said: ‘I want to be a sniper.’”

“I was shocked,” said Hassan. “It’s not a normal thing for a child to say. I asked him: ‘What did your dad do?’ He said he was a sniper emir – the emir of snipers.

“[Later] I received a lot of information from people from Mosul saying his father was important. The special forces found the boy in a basement with several [dead] Isis fighters. The soldiers brought the boy to me.”

Since the recapture of Iraq’s second city earlier this month, the toll the terror group’s occupation took on the city’s residents – and especially its young – has begun to emerge.

Hundreds, potentially thousands, of children have been left orphaned by war. And some bear a second burden – an ideology that has stripped them of innocence. To many in their own society, they are the devil’s spawn; stateless outcasts, unworthy of basic care. Aid agencies and state welfare systems do not want to acknowledge them. [Continue reading…]

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From ISIS-lands to the Netherlands: Jihadists try to get the press to help them come home

The Daily Beast reports: Now that the self-proclaimed caliphate of the so-called Islamic State is falling apart in Syria and Iraq, many European jihadists are looking for ways to come home—and some of the Dutch ones have been reaching out to the media, hoping it will save their lives.

Just last week two fighters contacted TV shows in the Netherlands to announce their return to Dutch soil, a third contacted the police.

The grim irony of such a ploy is obvious. Many would-be holy warriors from European backgrounds have been associated with organizations that took journalists hostage, ransomed some, tortured and beheaded others. When they thought their groups were on a roll, jihadists bragged to their Western enemies “we love death as you love life.” And all too many times in France, Britain, Belgium, and Germany they have slaughtered innocents by the score.

But the three from the Netherlands are part of a group of 10 presumed jihadists who have criminal court cases pending against them. Dutch public prosecutors believe most of them are still to be found in what’s left of ISIS-land. After a Rotterdam court recently decided they could be present at their hearing, their trial was postponed until January 2018, allowing them time to return. [Continue reading…]

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How Trump got it wrong in saying the NYT ‘foiled’ killing of ISIS leader

The New York Times reports: President Trump wrongly tweeted on Saturday that The New York Times had “foiled” an attempt by the United States military to kill Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State.

“The Failing New York Times foiled U.S. attempt to kill the single most wanted terrorist, Al-Baghdadi,” the president wrote. “Their sick agenda over National Security.”

Mr. Trump’s statement appeared to be based on a report by Fox News; he is known to be an avid viewer, and a version of the story was broadcast about 25 minutes before he posted. The report said that The Times had disclosed intelligence in an article on June 8, 2015, about an American military raid in Syria that led to the death of one of Mr. Baghdadi’s key lieutenants, Abu Sayyaf, and the capture of his wife, who played an important role in the group.

That Fox News report cited comments by Gen. Tony Thomas, the head of the United States Special Operations Command, in an interview conducted Friday by the network’s intelligence correspondent, Catherine Herridge, at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.

General Thomas said that a valuable lead on Mr. Baghdadi’s whereabouts “was leaked in a prominent national newspaper about a week later and that lead went dead.” He did not name The Times.

But a review of the record shows that information made public in a Pentagon news release more than three weeks before the Times article, and extensively covered at the time by numerous news media outlets, would have tipped off Mr. Baghdadi that the United States was questioning an important Islamic State operative who knew of his recent whereabouts and some of his methods of communication. Further, the information in the Times article on June 8 came from United States government officials who were aware that the details would be published.

A White House spokesman had no comment on Mr. Trump’s tweet. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday that he believed Mr. Baghdadi, whose possible death has been the subject of repeated rumors, was still alive.

Here are the facts. [Continue reading…]

Politico reports: The New York Times on Sunday took the unusual step of requesting an apology from a competitor, asking “Fox & Friends” to retract a report that the Times was to blame for the 2015 escape of an ISIS leader. Fox subsequently updated the story on its website with the NYT letter. [Continue reading…]

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Blaming religion for Middle East violence ignores nuance and absolves governments of their responsibility

Tristan Dunning writes: As the Islamic State group’s territorial project slowly but inexorably comes to an end in Iraq and Syria, the White House is once again trotting out the twin rationales of foreign fighters and the impending apocalypse to absolve itself of any responsibility for the rise and spread of extremist militant Islam.

Last week, US Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk revealed that the US-led coalition was compiling a database of foreign jihadists fighting for IS, thereby signalling that the White House may be preparing to shift the focus of its operations from the ongoing recruitment bazaars of Iraq and Syria, to the putative eschatological battle against extremist militant Islam on a global level.

In similar vein, White House Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka asserted earlier this year that IS propagated the idea that Judgement Day was nigh and that now was the last chance to engage in jihad and thereby ascend to Paradise.

Invocations of such rationales as official explanations for the rise and persistence of extremist militant Islam are not only misleading, but also potentially counterproductive and dangerous. There are a variety of other more mundane reasons at play aside from supposed religious dogma. [Continue reading…]

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How ISIS nearly stumbled on the ingredients for a ‘dirty bomb’

The Washington Post reports: On the day the Islamic State overran the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, it laid claim to one of the greatest weapons bonanzas ever to fall to a terrorist group: a large metropolis dotted with military bases and garrisons stocked with guns, bombs, rockets and even battle tanks.

But the most fearsome weapon in Mosul on that day was never used by the terrorists. Only now is it becoming clear what happened to it.

Locked away in a storage room on a Mosul college campus were two caches of cobalt-60, a metallic substance with lethally high levels of radiation. When contained within the heavy shielding of a radiotherapy machine, cobalt-60 is used to kill cancer cells. In terrorists’ hands, it is the core ingredient of a “dirty bomb,” a weapon that could be used to spread radiation and panic.

Western intelligence agencies were aware of the cobalt and watched anxiously for three years for signs that the militants might try to use it. Those concerns intensified in late 2014 when Islamic State officials boasted of obtaining radioactive material, and again early last year when the terrorists took over laboratories at the same Mosul college campus with the apparent aim of building new kinds of weapons.

In Washington, independent nuclear experts drafted papers and ran calculations about the potency of the cobalt and the extent of the damage it could do. The details were kept under wraps on the chance that Mosul’s occupiers might not be fully aware of what they had.

Iraqi military commanders were apprised of the potential threat as they battled Islamic State fighters block by block through the sprawling complex where the cobalt was last seen. Finally, earlier this year, government officials entered the bullet-pocked campus building and peered into the storage room where the cobalt machines were kept.

They were still there, exactly as they were when the Islamic State seized the campus in 2014. The cobalt apparently had never been touched.

“They are not that smart,” a relieved health ministry official said of the city’s former occupiers.

Why the Islamic State failed to take advantage of its windfall is not clear. U.S. officials and nuclear experts speculate that the terrorists may have been stymied by a practical concern: how to dismantle the machines’ thick cladding without exposing themselves to a burst of deadly radiation.

More certain is the fact that the danger has not entirely passed. With dozens of Islamic State stragglers still loose in the city, U.S. officials requested that details about the cobalt’s current whereabouts not be revealed.

They also acknowledged that their worries extend far beyond Mosul. Similar equipment exists in hundreds of cities around the world, some of them in conflict zones. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s war against ISIS in Syria: Why Putin, Assad, and Iran are winning

Robin Yassin-Kassab writes: In his inaugural address, U.S. President Donald Trump promised to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”

To be fair, he’s had only about six months, but already the project is proving a little more complicated than he hoped. First, ISIS has been putting up a surprisingly hard fight against its myriad enemies (some of whom are also radical Islamic terrorists). The battle for Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, has concluded, but at enormous cost to Mosul’s civilians and the Iraqi army. Second, and more importantly, there is no agreement as to what will follow ISIS, particularly in eastern Syria. There, a new great game for post-ISIS control is taking place with increasing violence between the United States and Iran. Russia and a Kurdish-led militia are also key players. If Iran and Russia win out (and at this point they are far more committed than the U.S.), President Bashar al-Assad, whose repression and scorched earth paved the way for the ISIS takeover in the first place, may be handed back the territories he lost, now burnt and depopulated. The Syrian people, who rose in democratic revolution six years ago, are not being consulted.

The battle to drive ISIS from Raqqa—its Syrian stronghold—is underway. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by American advisers, are leading the fight. Civilians are paying the price. United Nations investigators lament a “staggering loss of life” caused by U.S.-led airstrikes on the city.

Though it’s a multiethnic force, the SDF is dominated by the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, whose parent organization is the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States (but of the leftist-nationalist rather than Islamist variety) and is currently at war with Turkey, America’s NATO ally. The United States has nevertheless made the SDF its preferred local partner, supplying weapons and providing air cover, much to the chagrin of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Now add another layer of complexity. Russia also provides air cover to the SDF, not to fight ISIS, but when the mainly Kurdish force is seizing Arab-majority towns from the non-jihadi anti-Assad opposition. The SDF capture of Tel Rifaat and other opposition-held towns in 2016 helped Russia and the Assad regime to impose the final siege on Aleppo.

Eighty percent of Assad’s ground troops encircling Aleppo last December were not Syrian, but Shiite militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, all armed, funded and trained by Iran. That put the American-backed SDF and Iran in undeclared alliance.

But those who are allies one year may be enemies the next. Emboldened by a series of Russian-granted victories in the west of the country, Iran and Assad are racing east, seeking to dominate the post-ISIS order on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Iran has almost achieved its aim of projecting its influence regionally and globally through a land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In this new context, Assad and his backers are turning on the SDF. On June 18, pro-Assad forces attacked the SDF near Tabqa, west of Raqqa. When a regime warplane joined the attack, American forces shot it down. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS was a symptom. State collapse is the disease

Thanassis Cambanis writes: The collapse this month of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has been greeted with joy and relief in many quarters, especially among the millions of civilians who directly suffered the extremist group’s rule. Much of the predictable analysis has focused on long-term trends that will continue to trouble the world: the resonance of extremist jihadi messaging, the persistence of sectarian conflict, the difficulty of holding together disparate coalitions like the clumsy behemoth that ousted ISIS from its strongholds in Raqqa and Mosul.

But jihadis and sectarians are not, contrary to popular belief, the most important engines of ISIS, Al Qaeda, and similar groups. Nor are foreign spy services the primary author of these apocalyptic movements — as many around the world wrongly believe.

No, the most critical factor feeding jihadi movements is the collapse of effective central governments — a trend in which the West, especially the United States, has been complicit.

An overdue alliance of convenience mobilized against the Islamic State three years ago, but only after leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had taken over enough territory to declare statehood. The ISIS caliphate was as much as a state — for as long as it lasted — as many other places in the Middle East. Most of the coalition members detested ISIS, but only the local members from Iraq and Syria whose families were dying or suffering under Islamic State rule were fully invested. For the rest of the anti-ISIS coalition, fighting the caliphate was one of many other priorities.

The glacial, slow-moving, coalition united against ISIS but bound by little else. It is sure to dissolve quickly now that the emergency is over. [Continue reading…]

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This is what it’s like inside liberated Mosul

BuzzFeed reports: ISIS has cost Ziad Salem deeply — his job as a guard at the ministry of oil; his marriage to a wife who turned out to be an ISIS sympathizer; and his home once her family tarnished him as an opponent of the caliphate, sending him into hiding. Then, when the war to liberate Mosul began in earnest, he lost his city.

“ISIS promised it would create a caliphate that would stretch from Baghdad to the Philippines,” the 48-year-old said during a walk to see what remained of his shattered hometown. “Instead I lost everything. But above all I lost my city and country.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over ISIS in Mosul this week, emphasizing that the challenge of reconstruction must now get underway. In west Mosul’s topography of pain, loss and destruction, Salem might have gotten off easy. A once proud, relatively prosperous city of an estimated 1.3 million in 2014 has now been reduced to rubble, and all but depopulated. Much of the city’s ancient old quarter, lay in tangled heaps of cement, twisted girders, and electrical wire. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS, despite heavy losses, still inspires global attacks

The New York Times reports: Three years ago, a black-clad cleric named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended a mosque pulpit in the Iraqi city of Mosul and addressed the world as leader of a new terrorist state.

The announcement of the so-called caliphate was a high point for the extremist fighters of the Islamic State. Their exhibitionist violence and apocalyptic ideology helped them seize vast stretches of territory in Syria and Iraq, attract legions of foreign fighters and create an administration with bureaucrats, courts and oil wells.

Now, their state is crumbling.

In Syria, American-backed militias have surrounded Raqqa, the group’s capital, and breached its historic walls. Across the border, Iraqi forces have seized the remains of the Mosul mosque where Mr. Baghdadi appeared and besieged the remaining jihadists in a shrinking number of city blocks.

But the loss of its two largest cities will not spell a final defeat for the Islamic State — also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh — according to analysts and American and Middle Eastern officials. The group has already shifted back to its roots as an insurgent force, but one that now has an international reach and an ideology that continues to motivate attackers around the world.

“These are obviously major blows to ISIS because its state-building project is over, there is no more caliphate, and that will diminish support and recruits,” said Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington and a co-author of a book on the group. “But ISIS today is an international organization. Its leadership and its ability to grow back are still there.”

The Islamic State has overshadowed its jihadist precursors like Al Qaeda by not just holding territory, but by running cities and their hinterlands for an extended period, winning the group credibility in the militant world and allowing it to build a complex organization.

So even while its physical hold slips, its surviving cadres — middle managers, weapons technicians, propagandists and other operatives — will invest that experience in the group’s future operations.

And even though its hold on crucial urban centers is being shaken, the Islamic State is in no way homeless yet.

In Iraq, the group still controls Tal Afar, Hawija, other towns and much of Anbar Province. In Syria, most of its top operatives have fled Raqqa in the past six months for other towns still under ISIS control in the Euphrates River valley, according to American and Western military and counterterrorism officials who have received intelligence briefings. [Continue reading…]

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Mosul liberation will not be end of ISIS

Ali Hashem writes: Beneath the destroyed minaret of Mosul, known as the “hunchback,” rests the rubble of what used to be the great mosque of the city. The historical Grand al-Nuri Mosque was built eight centuries ago by Noureddine Zanki, a medieval Muslim leader who paved the way for Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, to confront the crusaders and take over Jerusalem after the decisive battle of Hattin in 1187 — by making Sunni Muslim orthodoxy prevail over Shiism.

Back then, the Muslims’ lands were annihilated by the crusaders, while their leadership was weak and divided between the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad and the Fatimid rule in Cairo, alongside other small Islamic princedoms scattered from Persia to Mosul to Aleppo. The Shiite-Sunni rift during that period reached its peak, and Zanki played an important role in restoring Sunni power by defeating the Shiite Hamdanid dynasty that ruled from Mosul to Aleppo in today’s Iraq and Syria.

Mosul itself is a place with geopolitical importance throughout history: The Mongols, the Timurids, the Ottomans and the Persians all either occupied or tried to occupy the city over the past centuries. “Mosul” means “connector” in Arabic, which may be the reason why famous 12th-century Arab geographer and biographer Yaqut al-Hamawi described Mosul as “the gate to Iraq, the key to Khorasan and the road to Azerbaijan.” [Continue reading…]

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Iraq: The battle to come

Joost Hiltermann writes: As an eight-month battle to retake Mosul from ISIS is coming to an end in the labyrinthine alleyways of the Old City, a parallel battle to defeat its fighters in the Syrian town of Raqqa is gathering force. But further battles await: downstream along the Euphrates in Deir al-Zour, in the vast desert that spans the Iraq–Syria border, and in a large chunk of territory west of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. To members of the US-led coalition and to Western audiences, this has been a necessary military campaign, directed at a jihadist group whose brutal methods and ambition to carry out attacks in western capitals pose an intolerable threat.

To local people, the picture is decidedly different. ISIS’s military defeat, which Western officials believe will come sometime later this year or early next, will hardly put an end to the conflicts that gave rise to the group. For much of the battle against ISIS has taken place in a region that has been fought over ever since oil was found in Kirkuk in the 1930s. The deeper conflicts here—between Arabs and Kurds, between Shia and Sunni, between neighboring powers such as Iran and Turkey, and among the Kurds themselves—will only escalate as the victors, fortified by weapons supplies and military training provided by foreign governments, engage in a mad scramble for the spoils.

When ISIS conquered Iraq’s predominantly Sunni Arab areas three years ago, it faced off with Kurdish forces along a frontline that ran through the middle of what one might call the borderlands between Arab Iraq, with Baghdad as its capital, and Kurdish Iraq, which is governed from Erbil in the north. Kurdish leaders claim that significant parts of these so-called disputed territories are “Kurdistani,” by which they mean that even if the local population is not majority-Kurdish, it nevertheless should be incorporated into the Kurdish region—and thus into a desired future Kurdish state. Many local Arabs, on the other hand, insist that these areas are inalienably Iraqi and must remain under Baghdad’s authority. [Continue reading…]

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Mosul mosque where Baghdadi declared caliphate ‘has been recaptured’ as ISIS reverts to its insurgent roots

The Guardian reports: Iraqi forces claim to have recaptured the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul – where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself leader of Islamic State three years ago.

The seizure marks a highly symbolic moment in the war, placing government troops in the heart of the Old City – the last redoubt of Isis in Mosul – and probably within a fortnight of recapturing all of Mosul.

Baghdadi declared a caliphate from the mosque three years ago to the day – 29 June 2014 – at the height of the group’s power. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: The Islamic State has carried out nearly 1,500 attacks in 16 cities across Iraq and Syria after they were declared freed from the militants’ control in recent months, providing new evidence that the group is reverting to its insurgent roots and foreshadowing long-term security threats.

The information was compiled by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point in a study made public on Thursday that warns that any military gains will fall short without increased efforts to restore the security, governance and economies in territory once held by the Islamic State.

“Pushing the Islamic State out as the formal governing party in a territory is not a sufficient development when it comes to ending the group’s ability to enact violence against individuals in Iraq and Syria,” the 20-page report said.

American diplomatic and military leaders say an even greater challenge than ousting the Islamic State, or ISIS, from its self-declared religious state, or caliphate, in eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq may well be the daunting political and economic reconstruction in the years ahead.

Counterterrorism specialists said the new study illuminates a trend that has been emerging for several months, as American-backed ground forces in Iraq and Syria have steadily rolled back territorial gains the Islamic State achieved in 2014 and used as the basis for its global appeal to Muslims to come join the caliphate. Now, its strongholds of Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, its self-declared capital, are besieged, and senior leaders have fled as opposing forces close in.

“ISIS has anticipated the loss of its government for over a year,” said William McCants, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State.” “They are prepared to wage a war from the shadows to reclaim it.” [Continue reading…]

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As ISIS’s ‘caliphate’ crumbles, its ideology remains

Farah Najjar writes: Three years ago on Wednesday, ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stood at the pulpit of Mosul’s Grand Al Nuri mosque, which was destroyed last week amid fighting between the armed group’s fighters and US-backed Iraqi forces, and announced the creation of a Sunni caliphate.

While ISIL proceeded to balloon in size – at its peak it covered territory across Iraq and Syria roughly equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom – it has lost nearly 47 percent of its territory since January, according to Conflict Monitor by IHS Markit, a security and defence observer.

Experts say that despite being seemingly on the brink of military defeat, the group’s widespread ideology will be much harder to erase and may re-emerge in other manifestations.

“The structure of ISIS is destroyed, but the underlying forces are not – they are being worsened,” Rami Khouri, senior fellow and professor at the American University of Beirut, told Al Jazeera, using a different acronym for ISIL.

“The rise of ISIS is a sign of deeper problems,” he said.

Though it is unclear how ISIL may re-establish itself, some believe that poor economic conditions and volatile war-torn areas are the basis for the emergence of such groups.

Khouri said that unless underlying regional issues such as unemployment, human rights abuses and political repression are addressed, the group’s ideology will continue to attract the disenfranchised and politically excluded. [Continue reading…]

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