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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Struggle to define an ‘America First’ foreign policy divides White House

The Washington Post reports: Before President Trump delivered his first major address to Congress, he sat down with H.R. McMaster, his new national security adviser, who had sketched out proposed changes to the address on index cards.

McMaster pressed the president to describe the battle against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda as a global and generational war that the United States would fight in partnership with its Muslim allies, according to a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. And he urged Trump to strike the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” from his remarks.

None of McMaster’s proposed changes made the cut. [Continue reading…]

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Why Raqqa won’t be the end of the road for ISIS

Hassan Hassan writes: To understand American policy short-sightedness in the region, look no further than northern Syria today. One can predict with utmost confidence that the policy that Washington insists on pursuing in Raqqa will do two things. It will heat up a secondary conflict in the broader Syrian civil war to a boiling point, and it will reset the conditions for the return of extremist forces.

A common way to deflect the troubling issues with the policy is to make it principally about Turkey. The overarching concern, though, is how a YPG-led campaign to dislodge ISIL from Raqqa will be perceived locally and beyond, and what the YPG seeks to gain from fighting in a predominantly Arab city that ISIL took from the Syrian rebels after the latter expelled the regime from it in 2013.

A YPG commander, Sipan Hemo, told Reuters on Friday that the attack on Raqqa will begin in early April. Everyone should wish the anti-ISIL forces luck, but it should be made clear that the United States is operating below the credit line politically. By that, I mean two things.

First, the win against ISIL would be purely tactical: the removal of ISIL militants from Raqqa will not damage the group’s image, as it should ideally have been designed to do. If policymakers involved in the campaign think the demise of the group in Raqqa in this manner will undermine its narrative, they will be mistaken and out of touch with reality. [Continue reading…]

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Assad says yet to see real steps on ISIS by Trump, U.S. forces ‘invaders’

Reuters reports: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he had yet to see “anything concrete” from U.S. President Donald Trump over his vow to defeat Islamic State and called U.S. forces in Syria “invaders” because they were there without government permission.

Assad, in an interview with Chinese TV station Phoenix, said “in theory” he still saw scope for cooperation with Trump though practically nothing had happened in this regard.

Assad said Trump’s campaign pledge to prioritize the defeat of Islamic State had been “a promising approach” but added: “We haven’t seen anything concrete yet regarding this rhetoric.”

Assad dismissed the U.S.-backed military campaign against Islamic State in Syria as “only a few raids” he said had been conducted locally. “We have hopes that this administration … is going to implement what we have heard,” he added.

Asked about a deployment of U.S. forces near the northern city of Manbij, Assad said: “Any foreign troops coming to Syria without our invitation … are invaders.” [Continue reading…]

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Who are the Sufis and why does ISIS see them as threatening?

By Peter Gottschalk, Wesleyan University

On Feb. 16, 2017, a bomb ripped through a crowd assembled at the tomb of a Sufi saint, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, in southeastern Pakistan. Soon thereafter, the so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. The Conversation

In recent times, such attacks have targeted a variety of cherished sites and individuals in Pakistan. These have ranged from the 2010 bombing of the tomb of another Sufi saint, Data Ganj Bakhsh, to the murder of a popular Sufi singer, Amjad Sabri, in 2016.

As a scholar of Muslim and Hindu traditions, I’ve long appreciated the various and influential roles that Sufis and their tombs play in South Asian communities. From my perspective, the repercussions of such violence go far beyond the scores of bodies strewn around the damaged shrine and the devastated families in one geographical region.

Many Muslims and non-Muslims around the globe celebrate Sufi saints and gather together for worship in their shrines. Such practices, however, do not conform to the Islamic ideologies of intolerant revivalist groups such as the Islamic State.

Here’s why they find them threatening.

[Read more…]

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With a show of Stars and Stripes, U.S. forces in Syria try to keep warring allies apart

The Washington Post reports: The U.S. military is getting drawn into a deepening struggle for control over areas liberated from the Islamic State that risks prolonging American involvement in wars in Syria and Iraq long after the militants are defeated.

In their first diversion from the task of fighting the Islamic State since the U.S. military’s involvement began in 2014, U.S. troops dispatched to Syria have headed in recent days to the northern town of Manbij, 85 miles northwest of the extremists’ capital, Raqqa, to protect their Kurdish and Arab allies against a threatened assault by other U.S. allies in a Turkish-backed force.

Russian troops have also shown up in Manbij under a separate deal that was negotiated without the input of the United States, according to U.S. officials. Under the deal, Syrian troops are to be deployed in the area, also in some form of peacekeeping role, setting up what is effectively a scramble by the armies of four nations to carve up a collection of mostly empty villages in a remote corner of Syria. [Continue reading…]

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The Iraqi army is on the brink of defeating ISIS in Mosul

The Economist reports: In a series of lightning advances over the past few days, Iraq’s army has seized control of most of western Mosul, the last redoubt of Islamic State (IS) in the country. On March 7th, a day that may have marked a turning point, army units took Mosul’s main government complex, as well as the city’s famous antiquities museum and about half of the old city. The airport had fallen a week or so earlier, and all roads in and out of the city in which the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared his “caliphate” in June 2014 are firmly in government hands.

In the command centre responsible for the eastern half of the city, which was liberated in December, Brigadier Qais Yaaqoub was jubilant. “They are in full collapse now,” he said. “When an army breaks it happens very quickly. Within a week or two, this will all be over.” He may be speaking prematurely, but probably not by much. The liberation of west Mosul, started only last month, has proceeded much faster than expected. That said, the last part of the fighting could be a lot more difficult. IS clings on in the oldest parts of the city, where streets are narrow, making it hard to manoeuvre vehicles and increasing the risk of ambushes and civilian casualties. However, tens of thousands have been able to make their way to safety.

American officers working closely with the Iraqi army estimate that as few as 500 IS fighters now remain in the city, the others having fled or been killed in a devastating campaign of well-targeted air strikes. The evidence is clear from a tour of east Mosul, on the left bank of the Tigris river, which has split the city in two since IS blew up all its five bridges as it fell back.

Residents point out building after wrecked building that had been used by jihadists, only to be knocked out from above. “This was a shopping centre, but Daesh [IS] took it over,” says Muammar Yunnis, an English teacher. “Then the planes destroyed it.” The liberation, he reckons, “could not have been handled better. Some have died, that happens in a war, but the government and the Americans have been careful.”

Driving IS out of the city may come to be seen as the straightforward part, however. Judging by what has happened in east Mosul, rebuilding will be a slow process. Three months after their liberation, east Mosulites are getting fed up. They are still without running water, and the only electricity comes from private generators. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon plan to seize Raqqa calls for significant increase in U.S. participation

The Washington Post reports: A Pentagon plan for the coming assault on Raqqa, the Islamic State capital in Syria, calls for significant U.S. military participation, including increased Special Operations forces, attack helicopters and artillery, and arms supplies to the main Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighting force on the ground, according to U.S. officials.

The military’s favored option among several variations currently under White House review, the proposal would ease a number of restrictions on U.S. activities imposed during the Obama administration.

Officials involved in the planning have proposed lifting a cap on the size of the U.S. military contingent in Syria, currently numbering about 500 Special Operations trainers and advisers to the combined Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. While the Americans would not be directly involved in ground combat, the proposal would allow them to work closer to the front line and would delegate more decision-making authority down the military line from Washington. [Continue reading…]

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U.S., Hezbollah and Russia operate in de facto alliance as Assad’s forces retake Palmyra

The Washington Post reports: Syrian government forces recaptured the historic city of Palmyra from the Islamic State on Thursday, aided by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Russian military and, indirectly, U.S. airstrikes.

The government victory came nearly three months after the Islamic State marched back into the town in a surprise assault that appeared to have taken the Syrian army unawares.

The Syrian army announced in a statement read on state television Thursday evening that its forces were in complete control of Palmyra after a push on the town in recent days that saw Islamic State defenses rapidly collapse. [Continue reading…]

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Trump has given terrorist groups a propaganda victory beyond their wildest dreams

Amarnath Amarasingam writes: Nine days after 9/11, George W. Bush declared during an address to a joint session of Congress that every nation now “has a decision to make,” that “either you are with us or with the terrorists.” Jihadists saw his statement as a gift from God. They argued that with this line drawn in the sand, members of the Muslim community now had a clear view of the parade of sellouts, hypocrites and “white-washed” Muslims among them. It would be obvious who was on the side of the Muslim community and who, as ISIS wrote in the seventh issue of its English-language magazine Dabiq, would rush “to serve the crusaders led by Bush in the war against Islam.”

According to jihadists, this opportunity to unearth the true Muslims, those who had the community’s back and those who didn’t, was a gift from above. As Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden claimed at the time in an interview, which was also later reproduced in the same Dabiq article, this line in the sand basically meant that “either you are with the crusade or you are with Islam.”

Sixteen years later, what do jihadists think of Donald Trump? It’s an important question to explore and pose to jihadists themselves, because it influences their propaganda and their stance toward the United States, and may predict how they behave in relation to Western states. Over the past three years, on a variety of text-messaging applications and social media platforms, I have been interviewing foreign fighters from Western countries who are fighting in Syria and Iraq.

After Trump’s election victory, I asked five fighters for their thoughts on Trump. Initially, they weren’t convinced that Trump would be different from any other American president, who, since 9/11, has been, according to them, bombing Muslims and killing civilians. But then Trump spoke, put forth executive orders and seemed to fan the flames of the far right.

As time went on, these jihadists began to argue that Trump represents “real” America. Trump was saying what Americans and politicians always privately thought about Muslims but were too afraid to say in public. [Continue reading…]

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Revealed near Mosul: An enormous ISIS mass grave

The Daily Beast reports: Even before it became the scene of the Islamic State’s greatest crime, the Khasfa sinkhole stood out among the crevasses that pockmark the uneven desert plains west of Mosul.

Villagers from the surrounding hamlets could not see the bottom of the pit when they peered cautiously into the abyss. In 2003, a farmer’s boy fell into sinkhole, which lies next to a road cutting through the parched landscape, a mile off the Baghdad-Mosul highway.

When the rescue services tried to retrieve the child’s body, a rope 450 meters long was not enough to reach the bottom, local legend goes.

In June 2014, when ISIS took control of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, it quickly began to use this dark place for an even darker purpose. The terror group began hunting down policemen and soldiers almost as soon as the city fell, and an orgy of killing ensued as it slaughtered anyone affiliated with government security forces. [Continue reading…]

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Away from Iraq’s front lines, ISIS is creeping back in

The Washington Post reports: The Islamic State is nearing defeat on the battlefield, but away from the front lines its members are seeping back into areas the group once controlled, taking advantage of rampant corruption in Iraq’s security forces and institutions.

Police officers, judges and local officials describe an uneven hand of justice that allows some Islamic State collaborators to walk, dimming Iraq’s chances of escaping the cycle of violence that has plagued the country since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

In the western city of Ramadi, retaken a year ago, officials say evidence against the accused disappears from police files, while witnesses are too scared to testify. A bribe of as little as $20 can buy a laminated security pass granting access to the city.

In Salahuddin province, a mayor recounted how Islamic State members had returned to his small town, later saying he had received death threats. In Kirkuk, a woman said police were asking for tens of thousands of dollars to release her son, who is accused of helping the militants.

After three years of fighting, security forces are on the cusp of clearing the Islamic State out of Iraqi towns and cities, launching an offensive Sunday for the western half of Mosul, the group’s de facto capital in Iraq. But weakened by graft, the state is struggling to maintain control as the Islamic State and rival groups like al-Qaeda attempt to reestablish themselves in areas where they were once supported. [Continue reading…]

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Canada’s plan to bring in hundreds of Yazidi genocide survivors hailed by refugees

CBC News reports: Canada’s promise to resettle hundreds of Yazidis by the end of the year is being welcomed in Iraq, where Yazidi women and girls have endured horrific abuse and persecution at the hands of ISIS.

Among those who have greeted the news with open arms is Saud Khalid, who was kidnapped by ISIS in August 2014 and sold as a sex slave three times before escaping after a year in captivity.

UN officials recently interviewed the 23-year-old about going to Canada and she’s hoping she and her young son will be among the 1,200 Yazidis and other ISIS survivors accepted by the Liberal government.

“We wish to go and live in Canada because here our situation is not good in general,” she said through a translator on Wednesday. “We live in bad conditions and we want to go.

“If they take me to Canada, I will never come back. And my hope is if my relatives still being held by ISIS, if they escape, I want them to also join me in Canada.” [Continue reading…]

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