How the Pentagon’s cyber offensive against ISIS could shape the future for elite U.S. forces

Dan Lamothe reports: The U.S. military has conducted cyber attacks against the Islamic State for more than a year, and its record of success when those attacks are coordinated with elite Special Operations troops is such that the Pentagon is likely carry out similar operations with greater frequency, according to current and former U.S. defense officials.

The cyber offensive against ISIS, an acronym for the Islamic State, was a first and included the creation of a unit named Joint Task Force Ares. It focused on destroying or disrupting computer networks used by the militant group to recruit fighters and communicate inside the organization. Such offensive weapons are more commonly associated with U.S. intelligence agencies, but they were brought into the open in 2016 after then-Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter pressured U.S. Cyber Command to become more involved in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State.

The move sparked a debate in the U.S. government over whether American allies would object to the U.S. military’s altering computer networks abroad, The Washington Post reported in May. Some intelligence officials argued that using such weapons in other countries could jeopardize the cooperation of international partners on which U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies depend.

But the cyber attacks were approved and launched anyway, and the campaign recently received the full-throated endorsement of Army Gen. Raymond A. “Tony” Thomas III, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command. [Continue reading…]

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In Raqqa, the stench of death amid hopes for life

Der Spiegel reports: On Dalla Square, where uniformed teens sit around a chipboard fire at the first checkpoint into the city, Abdullah al-Arian notices that the smell is still there. The smell of the “caliphate.” The smell of the military offensive. The smell of death.

It’s a Tuesday morning in November and Arian, a lawyer, is attempting to navigate his SUV around the piles of rubble and mounds of earth to get into the city he once called home. He is driving into the devastation, into the stench — into Raqqa. The city lies deathly quiet and empty beneath the autumn sun. He is driving slowly into the graveyard that was once the “caliphate’s” Syrian stronghold. Behind the SUV is a gray minibus carrying two pharmacists and a doctor, all of whom are staring silently out the windows.

Arian, a small, 54-year-old man in jeans and a black leather jacket, looks in stunned silence at the ruins. He watched as his city was destroyed, first by the brutality of Islamic State and then by American bombs. Now, he wants to rebuild it. No longer capable of laughing, his face remains marked by shock and fear.

The further into the city they drive, the stronger the sickly-sweet smell of decaying corpses becomes. Raqqa was once a thriving city of 200,000, located in the heart of Syria’s breadbasket. Now, it’s like an intermediate realm where life and death, the past and the future, meet. One is not quite over, and the other cannot really begin.

The men in the bus are members of the health committee set up by the civil council that now controls Raqqa and they are looking for the clinics where IS used to treat its fighters. And they are also looking for any materials they can use to rebuild the old state-run hospitals. Everything is in short supply. Indeed, residents have only been allowed back into two city districts, one in the east and one in the west, while the rest of the city is mined, destroyed or both. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan president under fire as critics chafe at overdue vote

The New York Times reports: Over the past year, as Afghanistan’s strained power-sharing government struggled in the face of intense criticism, Western officials repeatedly stepped in to urge patience.

American and European diplomats shuttled to the blast-wall-protected villas of the country’s political elite, asking them to give President Ashraf Ghani some space to keep pursuing the reforms that had rankled so many. In return, Mr. Ghani would finally deliver parliamentary elections (already delayed by two years) before the next presidential vote.

But the year is closing with little progress toward the elections, still scheduled for next July, although now almost certain not to occur then. Mr. Ghani’s critics — and there are more than ever — are losing patience, turning to public demonstrations, issuing ultimatums or threats, and joining in calls for a nationwide, traditional referendum on his authority.

The Afghan president, in return, has reacted in ways that many Western officials see as panicked. He has ordered sudden corruption investigations against critics, barred government employees from joining demonstrations and been accused of grounding the flight of a powerful northern governor to keep him from joining an opposition meeting.

One fear is that the rising factional animosity could lead to open mutiny — in the middle of a raging war against the Taliban and Islamic State loyalists — against a government that Western officials have gone all out to hold together. [Continue reading…]

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Putin in Syria: Victory and desolation

In an editorial, The Guardian says: Vladimir Putin went on a victory lap of Syria and the Middle East this week, intent on showcasing his ability to secure the upper hand against the US in the region. On a surprise visit to a Russian airbase on the Syrian coast, he demonstratively embraced the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, whose hold on power Russia’s military intervention has all but saved. “Friends, the motherland is waiting for you,” Mr Putin told a detachment of Russian soldiers. “You are coming back home with victory.”

Meanwhile, in eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus where Russia had announced earlier this year that a ceasefire would take hold, children living under siege are starving. Despite the “de-escalation” deal, Syrian government forces continue to pound the area, backed by Iranian and Russian allies in an attempt to score a decisive victory. These two scenes spoke volumes about Russia’s calculus, and about the realities it has helped create on the ground. That the Russian president has now announced a substantial troop withdrawal must be taken with a barrel of salt. Similar pledges have been made before and remain unfulfilled. On Tuesday a Kremlin spokesperson said Russia would retain a sizable force in Syria to fight “terrorists”. Russia’s definition of “terrorism” in Syria is like that of the Assad regime, which equates it to political opposition.

Mr Putin is keen to speak of victory. In Moscow he has announced that he will run for re-election next year. Bringing back some of the Russian forces – who are reportedly deployed alongside thousands of Kremlin-connected private contractors – can only be good for his political prospects. Russian casualties in Syria are a closely guarded secret, as are the financial costs of the operation. In geopolitical terms Mr Putin’s war in Syria has been a profitable investment for the Kremlin. He has capitalised on western strategic disarray and America’s reluctance to get drawn deeper into the conflict, an instinct that predated the volatile Donald Trump. After Syria, Mr Putin travelled on to Cairo, where he met Egypt’s president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, demonstrating Russia’s new clout in a country that since the 1970s has had privileged ties with the US. There is now talk of Russian military aircraft being able to use Egyptian bases.

It is no small irony that Mr Putin has claimed victory over Islamic State: the bluster does little to hide the fact that his forces focused much more on targeting the anti-Assad opposition than they did the jihadi insurgency. The retaking of Raqqa was not a Russian accomplishment, but the result of a Kurdish-Arab ground offensive, supported by US-led coalition airstrikes. [Continue reading…]

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Putin makes first visit to Syria, lauds victory over ISIS and announces withdrawals

The Washington Post reports: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday made a surprise visit to Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Syria, announcing an imminent drawdown of Russian forces in the wake of his declaration of victory in its intervention in the Syria war.

In his first visit to the air base since Russian warplanes secretly flew to Syria in late 2015, Putin ordered his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, to begin the “withdrawal of Russian troop contingents” to their permanent bases.

But Putin left open the door to a continued Russian presence in Syria, saying that both Russia’s air base at Khmeimim and naval base at Tartus would keep operating. He promised further strikes in the future “if terrorists raise their head again” — an apparent reference to forces in Syria’s long civil war that sought to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“We will deliver such strikes on them that they have not seen yet,” he said in remarks to military personnel at the air base.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria bolstered Assad’s government and gave Syrian forces a critical edge against rebel factions backed by the West and its Middle East allies. Iran, another key supporter of Assad, provided military advisers and other aid.

Putin, who declared last week that he would run for a fourth term as president, has largely staked his legacy on Russia’s revival as the dominant military power in its region. [Continue reading…]

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The crisis of the Iraqi state

Yezid Sayigh writes: The liberation on November 17 of Rawa, the last significant Iraqi town held by the Islamic State, promises the end of a particularly dangerous phase in the history of a country that has experienced three especially destructive wars since 1980 and almost incessant armed conflict in between. But rather than an era of peace and stability, what Iraq faces next is a far more complex and potentially fateful struggle. For three years since the Islamic State’s dramatic surge and capture of the northern city of Mosul, the military campaign to defeat it has obscured the three challenges that truly threaten the cohesion and integrity of the Iraqi state from within.

The first of these is the deeply problematic reality of key state institutions, which suffer high levels of corruption and political factionalism, and have repeatedly proved themselves dysfunctional. The abrupt collapse of the armed forces that allowed a small number of Islamic State fighters to capture Mosul in June 2014 demonstrated this most graphically, but similar problems afflict the security sector that comes under the ministry of interior. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s use of the armed forces and counter-terrorism units to spearhead his interventions in local government and replace civilian councils in several provinces further undermined the functioning of state institutions. Remedial steps to rebuild and retrain the army since 2014, led by the United States, focused on select elite units and did little to transform the overall defence and internal security sectors or reform the pattern of civil-military relations that proved so damaging under Maliki.

The second major challenge facing Iraq is the enduring failure of state institutions –and of the political class responsible for running the executive and legislature – to deliver key public goods and services. This is true for all sectors of the Iraqi population. Indeed, the worst rates of deep poverty and unemployment are registered in the three overwhelmingly Shia provinces south of Baghdad, despite the common perception among its detractors that Iraq is ruled by a Shia government. According to Iraqi economists and parliamentarians, not a single new hospital or power plant was built between 2003 and 2013 despite the spending of $500 billion in public funds, and the country’s top finance and oil officials confirm that $300 billion was actually paid to contractors for projects that were never completed. As seriously, the government has failed almost entirely to develop the business sector and diversify economy, and has actually regressed in terms of the overwhelming dependence of public finances on oil revenue.

Last but not least, as many commentators have correctly noted, Iraq faces the challenge of achieving genuine political reconciliation between social communities. But although the focus is commonly on reconciling Sunni Arabs and reintegrating them within the central state under a government they distrust, intra-community divisions are at least as deep and pose no less a threat to the viability of Iraq as a nation-state. Political disagreement among Sunni Arabs or among Shia Arabs is at least as acute as it is between the two denominations over the desired nature and identity of the state: whether it should be Islamic or secular, unitary or federal, closer to Iran or other Arab countries or neutrally balanced between the two. In some respects, Iraq has reverted to the destabilizing linkage between its regional alignments and domestic politics that characterized its turbulent politics up to 1970. The potential for a return to openly adversarial relations between the central and Kurdish regional governments and the opening that provides for external involvement only adds to the risks. [Continue reading…]

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An undercover historian and blogger risked his life to document the rule of ISIS in Mosul

The Associated Press reports: For nearly two years, he’d wandered the streets of occupied Mosul, chatting with shopkeepers and Islamic State fighters, visiting friends who worked at the hospital, swapping scraps of information. He grew out his hair and his beard and wore the shortened trousers required by IS. He forced himself to witness the beheadings and deaths by stoning, so he could hear the killers call out the names of the condemned and their supposed crimes.

He wasn’t a spy. He was an undercover historian and blogger. As IS turned the city he loved into a fundamentalist bastion, he decided he would show the world how the extremists had distorted its true nature, how they were trying to rewrite the past and forge a brutal Sunni-only future for a city that had once welcomed many faiths.

He knew that if he was caught he too would be killed.

“I am writing this for the history, because I know this will end. People will return, life will go back to normal,” is how he explained the blog that was his conduit to the citizens of Mosul and the world beyond. “After many years, there will be people who will study what happened. The city deserves to have something written to defend the city and tell the truth, because they say that when the war begins, the first victim is the truth.”

He called himself Mosul Eye. He made a promise to himself in those first few days: Trust no one, document everything. [Continue reading…]

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Trump tells Turkish president U.S. will stop arming Kurds in Syria

The Washington Post reports: The Trump administration is preparing to stop supplying weapons to ethnic Kurdish fighters in Syria, the White House acknowledged Friday, a move reflecting renewed focus on furthering a political settlement to the civil war there and countering Iranian influence now that the Islamic State caliphate is largely vanquished.

Word of the policy change long sought by neighboring Turkey came Friday, not from Washington but from Ankara. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters at a news conference that President Trump had pledged to stop arming the fighters, known as the YPG, during a phone call between Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Mr. Trump clearly stated that he had given clear instructions, and that the YPG won’t be given arms and that this nonsense should have ended a long time ago,” the Associated Press quoted Cavusoglu as saying to reporters following the call.

Initially, the administration’s national security team appeared surprised by the Turks’ announcement and uncertain what to say about it. The State Department referred questions to the White House, and hours passed with no confirmation from the National Security Council.

In late afternoon, the White House confirmed the weapons cutoff would happen, though it provided no details on timing.

“Consistent with our previous policy, President Trump also informed President Erdogan of pending adjustments to the military support provided to our partners on the ground in Syria, now that the battle of Raqqa is complete and we are progressing into a stabilization phase to ensure that ISIS cannot return,” the White House statement said, referring to the recent liberation of the Syrian city that had served as the Islamic State’s de facto capital.

The decision to stop arming the Kurds will remove a major source of tension between the United States and Turkey, a NATO ally. But it is likely to further anger the Kurds, who already feel betrayed since the United States told them to hand over hard-won territory to the Syrian government. [Continue reading…]

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In Egypt, furious retaliation but failing strategy in Sinai

The New York Times reports: After militants massacred 305 people at a packed mosque on Friday in a stunning assault on a sacred place, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi responded as he knows best.

Mr. Sisi went on television vowing to “take revenge” and strike back with an “iron fist.” Moments later, Egyptian warplanes swooped over the vast deserts of the Sinai Peninsula, dropping bombs that pulverized vehicles used in the assault. Soldiers fanned out across the area.

But that furious retaliation, which follows years of battle in Sinai against a vicious Islamic State affiliate that downed a Russian passenger jet in 2015 and has regularly attacked Egyptian security forces there, revived the most troubling question about Mr. Sisi’s strategy in the desert peninsula: Why is it failing?

One of the most striking aspects of the carnage that unfolded on Friday, the deadliest terrorist attack in Egypt’s modern history, was how easy it was for the militants to carry it out. In a statement issued on Saturday, Egypt’s prosecutor general, Nabil Sadek, described the grisly scene in forensic detail.

Between 25 and 30 gunmen, traveling in five vehicles and carrying an Islamic State flag, surrounded a Sufi mosque on all sides in Bir al-Abed, a dusty town on a road that arcs across the sandy plain of North Sinai.

After an explosion, they positioned themselves outside the main entrance of the mosque and its 12 windows, spraying the worshipers with gunfire. Seven parked cars were set ablaze to prevent victims from escaping. Among the dead were 27 children.

For Sinai residents, the attack deepened an abiding sense of dread about life in a part of Egypt where many feel trapped between barbarous militants and a heartless military. At a hospital in nearby Ismailia, survivors recounted how they leapt through windows as militants raked them with gunfire, or of watching their friends and relatives die.

“If even mosques are being targeted, then where are we safe?” said Mohamed Abdel Salam, 22.

For Sinai experts, the assault sharpened scrutiny of Egypt’s counterinsurgency tactics against a dogged Islamist insurgency that has surged in strength since 2013, after Mr. Sisi came to power in a military takeover. [Continue reading…]

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Terrorism flourishes where totalitarianism prevails


Statement from the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt: …. (Oh, Donald Trump has yet to appoint an ambassador.)

Statement from the White House: The United States condemns in the strongest terms today’s horrific terrorist attack at a mosque in Egypt’s North Sinai province. We offer our condolences to the families of those killed and wounded, and we stand with the people and government of Egypt against terrorism. There can be no tolerance for barbaric groups that claim to act in the name of a faith but attack houses of worship and murder the innocent and defenseless while at prayer. The international community must continue to strengthen its efforts to defeat terrorist groups that threaten the United States and our partners and we must collectively discredit the extremist ideology that forms the basis of their existence.


The United States can either stand with the victims of global terrorism or it can build a wall and ban ordinary people from visiting the U.S. on the basis of their national origin.

The United States either acknowledges that it belongs to an international community or it shuts itself away from the rest of the world.

As the U.S. approaches the end of a second decade of trying to destroy terrorism by military means and given that ISIS has just lost its territorial grip on Iraq and Syria, Donald Trump (were he not a moron) would recognize that continuing terrorist attacks are not the consequence of an inadequate military response. On the contrary, they demonstrate the fact that terrorism cannot actually be eradicated by military means. Moreover, it has been fueled by the very people who profess their desire to destroy it.

The butcher in Cairo didn’t make Egypt safe, just as the butcher in Damascus didn’t make Syria safe. Likewise, the butcher-friendly buffoon in Washington can’t make America safe.

Strongmen of all stripes exploit violence to justify the violence they use to hold onto power.

Shortly before the latest atrocity, CNBC reported:

Islamic State (ISIS) is looking a shadow of its former self, having lost almost all trace of its self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

But experts are predicting that the militant organization will regroup and return should the political and physical reconstruction of those two countries be unsuccessful.

Fearful of a resurgence of ISIS and its aims of setting up a religious state, analysts have warned an “Islamic State 2.0” or “al-Qaeda 3.0” could emerge.

“The Islamic State is almost defeated, but a radical Islamist insurgency will remain in both Iraq and Syria as the fighters turn to traditional terrorism,” Ayham Kamel, practice head of Middle East and North Africa at Eurasia Group, told CNBC on Thursday.

“However, losing the pillars of its state, ISIS no longer represents a strategic threat to the integrity of either Iraq or Syria. There’s even a possibility of alliances with al-Qaeda in Syria (the Nusra Front) as these configurations are usually fluid,” he said.

“The danger here is that (with) absent reconstruction aid, terrorism will remain a key challenge. The core challenge is that the world continues to focus on military tools to defeat a problem that transcends an armed challenge.”

On Thursday, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, speaking at the Westminster Counterterrorism Conference, organized by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), made the following observations:

“Although the Middle East was once a region of peace and coexistence, it has unfortunately been transformed into a region of turbulence and totalitarianism where extremism flourishes.

“We need to learn from history and build on perspective and experience to discover how to end the spread of extremism. So, who is the enemy and what is the root cause of terrorism? Tyranny, totalitarianism, aggression and the absence of justice. [My emphasis.]

“Regional conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa are threatening the lives of 24 million children, most of whom live in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. Recent examples of the catastrophes created by evil ideologies can be found across my region. Children who have lived through the mass atrocities of the Syrian regime, ISIS in Iraq and Syria or the war in Yemen are now young adults with little hope for better future.

“It is time for the international community to say enough is enough. We have to work together to end the discourse and begin rehabilitating these children. If we don’t act quickly, those desperate children will fall prey to the distorted ideologies of extremism.”

Terrorism has never been more prevalent than during the era in which presidents, governments, and military leaders across the world have so volubly expressed their commitment to ending terrorism.

As a president who has never met an authoritarian ruler he didn’t like (I guess it’s the camaraderie of bullies), Trump is incapable of digesting this fundamental truth: violence cannot be destroyed through the systematic use of violence.

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‘Somebody had to tell these stories’: An Iraqi woman’s ordeal as an ISIS sex slave

The Washington Post reports: Islamic State militants have lost the last of their strongholds, but for Yazidi survivor Nadia Murad, a new battle is just beginning.

Three years after escaping militants in northern Iraq, Murad is unveiling a harrowing memoir, “The Last Girl,” about her ordeal as a sex slave.

Murad’s disturbing personal account is part of her effort, represented by human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, to bring Islamic State members to justice for war crimes and genocide against the Yazidi people.

“This is not something I chose,” Murad, 24, said in an interview in the lounge of a posh London hotel. “Somebody had to tell these stories. It’s not easy.”

When the Islamic State swept into northern Iraq in 2014, thousands of Yazidis were killed and thousands more were kidnapped, including women and girls who were taken as sex slaves. U.N. officials have said the violence committed against the minority sect constituted a genocide, and the U.N. Security Council has created a task force to collect evidence of atrocities in Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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What Trump really told Kislyak and Lavrov after Comey was fired

Howard Blum writes: On a dark night at the tail end of last winter, just a month after the inauguration of the new American president, an evening when only a sickle moon hung in the Levantine sky, two Israeli Sikorsky CH-53 helicopters flew low across Jordan and then, staying under the radar, veered north toward the twisting ribbon of shadows that was the Euphrates River. On board, waiting with a professional stillness as they headed into the hostile heart of Syria, were Sayeret Matkal commandos, the Jewish state’s elite counterterrorism force, along with members of the technological unit of the Mossad, its foreign-espionage agency. Their target: an ISIS cell that was racing to get a deadly new weapon thought to have been devised by Ibrahim al-Asiri, the Saudi national who was al-Qaeda’s master bombmaker in Yemen.

It was a covert mission whose details were reconstructed for Vanity Fair by two experts on Israeli intelligence operations. It would lead to the unnerving discovery that ISIS terrorists were working on transforming laptop computers into bombs that could pass undetected through airport security. U.S. Homeland Security officials—quickly followed by British authorities—banned passengers traveling from an accusatory list of Muslim-majority countries from carrying laptops and other portable electronic devices larger than a cell phone on arriving planes. It would not be until four tense months later, as foreign airports began to comply with new, stringent American security directives, that the ban would be lifted on an airport-by-airport basis.

In the secretive corridors of the American espionage community, the Israeli mission was praised by knowledgeable officials as a casebook example of a valued ally’s hard-won field intelligence being put to good, arguably even lifesaving, use.

Yet this triumph would be overshadowed by an astonishing conversation in the Oval Office in May, when an intemperate President Trump revealed details about the classified mission to Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and Sergey I. Kislyak, then Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. Along with the tempest of far-reaching geopolitical consequences that raged as a result of the president’s disclosure, fresh blood was spilled in his long-running combative relationship with the nation’s clandestine services. Israel—as well as America’s other allies—would rethink its willingness to share raw intelligence, and pretty much the entire Free World was left shaking its collective head in bewilderment as it wondered, not for the first time, what was going on with Trump and Russia. (In fact, Trump’s disturbing choice to hand over highly sensitive intelligence to the Russians is now a focus of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s relationship with Russia, both before and after the election.) In the hand-wringing aftermath, the entire event became, as is so often the case with spy stories, a tale about trust and betrayal. [Continue reading…]

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Assad and Putin meet, as Russia pushes to end Syrian war

The New York Times reports: Thanking Russia for the military intervention he credited for “saving Syria,” President Bashar al-Assad met with President Vladimir V. Putin amid preparations for new talks aimed at ending the civil war.

Mr. Assad’s visit on Monday to the Russian resort town of Sochi was made public on Tuesday, a day before a summit meeting there for the leaders of Iran, Turkey and Russia, who have taken an increasingly prominent role in diplomacy with Syria while the United States has put Mr. Assad’s fate on the back burner.

Russian officials have said that their aim is to ensure Mr. Assad’s support for a political process to end a conflict that began more than six years ago. But Mr. Assad has consistently resisted compromise with his Syrian opponents, and doubts remain about how much Russia is willing, or able, to push him to accept significant changes like substantive power sharing or reforms.

In another signal that political change in Syria is less and less an international priority, in a phone conversation with Mr. Putin on Tuesday that lasted more than an hour and was mostly about Syria, President Trump did not bring up the issue of political transition, an administration official said. Instead, the White House said the two leaders agreed on the importance of stability, ending the war, fighting terrorism and allowing refugees to go home.

The declarations of military victory may also be premature: The Islamic State has lost much of its territory, but its fighters remain an insurgent threat and armed opposition groups still hold significant sections of the country. [Continue reading…]

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After the liberation of Mosul, an orgy of killing

The intrepid, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, writes: One hot and sticky evening in July, in the dying days of the battle for Mosul, a group of Iraqi army officers sat for dinner in a requisitioned civilian house not far from the ruins of the mosque where, three years earlier, the leader of Islamic State had announced the creation of a new caliphate.

At the head of the table sat the commander, large and burly, flanked by his two majors. The rest of the officers were seated according to rank, with the youngest officers placed at the far end. The commander, who was trying to lose weight, had banned his cook from serving meat at mealtimes, but tonight was a special occasion. The day before, his unit had liberated another block of streets in the Old City without suffering any casualties. In celebration, a feast of bread soaked in okra stew, and roasted meat shredded over heaps of rice flavoured with nuts and raisins, was laid out on a white plastic table.

Over the previous eight months, since the commander and his men had started fighting in Mosul, the caliphate had shrunk to a tiny sliver of the Old City squeezed between the River Tigris and advancing columns of army and police forces. Thousands of Isis fighters, who captured the city in 2014, were now trapped, living without running water or electricity, with dwindling supplies of food and medicine, being bombed day and night by US drones and jets. Caught in the siege with them were thousands of civilians. The few who were managing to escape came out filthy, emaciated and crazed by thirst and the constant bombing.

The officers at dinner that night were all veterans of the war against Isis, but nothing in their long years of fighting compared to what they had experienced over the past few weeks in Mosul, one of the fiercest urban battles since the second world war. They fought in narrow alleyways, old stone houses and dense networks of tunnels and basements. Their advance was sometimes measured in metres, and their casualties were mounting.

“We have one more battle and Mosul will be fully liberated, inshallah,” the commander said as he tucked into his meal. A captain who was still limping from a recent injury said: “Our fathers used to talk about the Iran-Iraq war as the ‘long war’. That one lasted for eight years. Well, soon this war against Isis will surpass it.”

Laughing, the commander asked the officers to open the military maps on their phones and proceeded to explain the plan for the next day’s advance. “You jump into this building, make a fire base here and here at street corners,” he said, giving them the coordinates of the street. “You advance towards this high building. Your flanks will be secured by other units. Once you take the building, you will dominate the whole area with your snipers and we can reach the river in few hours.”

Before leaving, a wiry junior officer named Taha asked the commander: “Sir, what do we do with the two detainees?” The prisoners had crossed the frontlines the night before and taken shelter with a civilian who denounced them to the army. “We tried to hand them to the intelligence service, but they refused to take them.”

“Yes,” the commander said, “they told me: ‘You deal with detainees from your end. We can’t hold them because of human rights and Red Cross inspections.’”

“We worked on them all night,” said the junior officer. “One eventually confessed that he was with Daesh [Isis], but he said he left them two months ago.” At that, everyone in the room laughed. “The other,” the junior officer continued, “we beat him hard but he didn’t confess, so I think he must be innocent.”

“Just finish them,” said a major.

“Release one and finish the other,” the commander said.

The sentence issued, now came the question of who would be bestowed with the honour of executing an Isis fighter. Kifah, a tall and lean soldier, stood next the table and asked to be given the prisoner. But the junior officer suggested that they gift the prisoner to a captain who was still grieving the loss of his brother, killed by Isis a month ago. [Continue reading…]

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Under the gaze of the U.S. and British-led coalition, ISIS fighters were provided safe passage out of Raqqa

BBC News reports: Lorry driver Abu Fawzi thought it was going to be just another job.

He drives an 18-wheeler across some of the most dangerous territory in northern Syria. Bombed-out bridges, deep desert sand, even government forces and so-called Islamic State fighters don’t stand in the way of a delivery.

But this time, his load was to be human cargo. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters opposed to IS, wanted him to lead a convoy that would take hundreds of families displaced by fighting from the town of Tabqa on the Euphrates river to a camp further north.

The job would take six hours, maximum – or at least that’s what he was told.

But when he and his fellow drivers assembled their convoy early on 12 October, they realised they had been lied to.

Instead, it would take three days of hard driving, carrying a deadly cargo – hundreds of IS fighters, their families and tonnes of weapons and ammunition.

Abu Fawzi and dozens of other drivers were promised thousands of dollars for the task but it had to remain secret.

The deal to let IS fighters escape from Raqqa – de facto capital of their self-declared caliphate – had been arranged by local officials. It came after four months of fighting that left the city obliterated and almost devoid of people. It would spare lives and bring fighting to an end. The lives of the Arab, Kurdish and other fighters opposing IS would be spared.

But it also enabled many hundreds of IS fighters to escape from the city. At the time, neither the US and British-led coalition, nor the SDF, which it backs, wanted to admit their part.

Has the pact, which stood as Raqqa’s dirty secret, unleashed a threat to the outside world – one that has enabled militants to spread far and wide across Syria and beyond?

Great pains were taken to hide it from the world. But the BBC has spoken to dozens of people who were either on the convoy, or observed it, and to the men who negotiated the deal. [Continue reading…]

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Syria declares victory over ISIS

Reuters reports: Syria’s army declared victory over Islamic State on Thursday, saying its capture of the jihadists’ last town in the country marked the collapse of their three-year, hardline reign in the region.

The army and its allies are still fighting Islamic State in desert areas near Albu Kamal, the last town the militant group had held in Syria, near the border with Iraq, the army said.

But the capture of the town ends Islamic State’s era of territorial rule over the so-called caliphate that it proclaimed in 2014 across Iraq and Syria and in which millions suffered under its hardline, repressive strictures.

Yet after ferocious defensive battles in its most important cities this year, where its fighters bled for every house and street, its final collapse has come with lightning speed.

Instead of a battle to the death as they mounted a last stand in the Euphrates valley towns and villages near the border between Iraq and Syria, many fighters surrendered or fled. [Continue reading…]

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A resignation, detentions and missiles: 24 hours that shook the Middle East

CNN reports: When 32-year-old Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman rose to power two years ago, many predicted that change was afoot. The events of November 4 have shown that change would not just be swift, but also seismic, extending unremittingly beyond the kingdom’s boundaries.

A 24-hour sequence of political bombshells began on Saturday afternoon, when Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation from the Saudi capital of Riyadh, blindsiding his country’s political establishment. Hours later, Saudi Arabia’s official news agency reported that the country’s military had intercepted a Yemen-borne ballistic missile over Riyadh. Even as images of the blast were flashing on TV sets around the region, similarly dramatic news began to trickle in: Some of Saudi Arabia’s most high-profile princes and businessmen were being sacked and detained in an anti-corruption drive led by bin Salman.
The events serve as an opening salvo for a new period in the region’s crisis-ridden history, analysts say. They represent an escalation in a yearslong proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, threatening to activate new fronts in the region, with the Saudi show of force beginning with a sweeping consolidation of power from within.

On Friday, ISIS’ last strongholds in Iraq and Syria fell. It marked a major milestone in a fight that saw archrivals converge on the extremist group until its so-called caliphate was on its last legs. On Saturday, regional powerhouses appear to have trained their sights on one another.

“I think the end of ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, does not really mean the end of geostrategic struggles,” London School of Economics Professor Fawaz Gerges told CNN’s George Howell.

“On the contrary, the dismantling of the so-called caliphate will basically intensify the geostrategic struggles between the pro-Iranian camp led by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and its allies in the region, including the United States.” [Continue reading…]

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Authorities locate second man sought in connection with Manhattan attack

The New York Times reports: The F.B.I. said on Wednesday that investigators had found a second Uzbek man they had been seeking in connection with the truck attack this week in Lower Manhattan, as prosecutors filed federal charges against the driver of the truck, Sayfullo Saipov.

The federal charges in civilian court, which detail how Mr. Saipov said he drew inspiration from ISIS videos that questioned the killing of Muslims in Iraq, contradicted calls from President Trump to try Mr. Saipov in military court at the American prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The F.B.I. had earlier released an alert saying they were seeking information about the second man, Mukhammadzoir Kadirov, 32, in connection with the attack.

The criminal complaint against Mr. Saipov said he began planning the attack a year ago and decided to use a truck about two months ago. They said he chose Halloween for the attack because he believed there would be more people on the street.

Police officials said earlier on Wednesday that Mr. Saipov appeared to have connections to people who were the subjects of terrorism investigations. [Continue reading…]

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