The New York Times reports: When the Islamic State identified a promising young recruit willing to carry out an attack in one of India’s major tech hubs, the group made sure to arrange everything down to the bullets he needed to kill victims.
For 17 months, terrorist operatives guided the recruit, a young engineer named Mohammed Ibrahim Yazdani, through every step of what they planned to be the Islamic State’s first strike on Indian soil.
They vetted each new member of the cell as Mr. Yazdani recruited helpers. They taught him how to pledge allegiance to the terrorist group and securely send the statement.
And from Syria, investigators believe, the group’s virtual plotters organized for the delivery of weapons as well as the precursor chemicals used to make explosives, directing the Indian men to hidden pickup spots.
Until just moments before the arrest of the Indian cell, here last June, the Islamic State’s cyberplanners kept in near-constant touch with the men, according to the interrogation records of three of the eight suspects obtained by The New York Times.
As officials around the world have faced a confusing barrage of attacks dedicated to the Islamic State, cases like Mr. Yazdani’s offer troubling examples of what counterterrorism experts are calling enabled or remote-controlled attacks: violence conceived and guided by operatives in areas controlled by the Islamic State whose only connection to the would-be attacker is the internet. [Continue reading…]
Yassin al-Haj Saleh writes: Some American friends wanted me to visit in the summer to speak about a book of my essays on Syria and the Syrian revolution that is about to be published. The prospect of traveling to the United States made me uneasy. I had heard stories of Syrians being singled out for interrogation at American airports. And I wasn’t certain I would be able to get travel documents and an American visa anyway: Because of my political activities, I am a man without a passport. But then, after President Trump signed an executive order barring even Syrians with valid passports and visas from the United States, I knew I wouldn’t be able to visit my American friends any time soon.
Mr. Trump’s decision pronouncing Syrians dangerous and undesirable seemed quite similar to the way our own dictator, President Bashar al-Assad, has treated me and my countrymen. I have never had a passport. I was explicitly denied one by Mr. Assad’s regime because I am a writer who opposed his father and opposes him. In 1980, I was a 19-year-old student of medicine at the University of Aleppo when I joined the protests against the Hafez al-Assad regime. I was jailed along with hundreds of fellow left-wing students and activists. I spent 16 years in prison.
After my release in 1996, I returned to Aleppo and my medical studies. After graduating in 2000, I decided not to practice medicine, moved to Damascus and worked as a writer. In March 2011, Syrians rose up against the Bashar al-Assad regime. I decided to write without any self-censorship in support of the revolution. The cost of writing with freedom was that I had to leave my home in Damascus, hide in myriad places across the country, and eventually seek refuge in Turkey. To live in exile without a passport or travel documents is to live with the knowledge of limited mobility in a world of militarized bureaucracy.
The international disdain for Syrian refugees comes close to Mr. Assad’s approach to his ill-fated subjects. Most Syrians were never issued passports. For the Assad regime, passports are political and disciplinary tools.
For Syrians, Mr. Trump is merely pushing to extremes a process that has been going on for years. The situation of the refugees, and the underprivileged in general, has been worsening everywhere for a generation. Syria exemplifies a greater global failure. [Continue reading…]
As Iraqi forces attempt to retake Mosul from Isis, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad joins their elite Golden Division on the frontline, speaking with civilians, soldiers and Isis suspects. At constant risk from Isis snipers and suicide bombers, can commander Munthadar and his men ever bring peace to Mosul? And if they do, will the exhausted civilian population trust them?
Kimberly Dozier writes: Team Trump’s travel ban, or pause, or whatever reverse politically correct term you want to call it, has sparked simmering fury among America’s Muslim allies. The media splash meant to show that President Donald Trump means business about keeping America safe, and keeping his campaign promises, is ironically damaging the very campaign against terrorism he wants to put into overdrive.
Key allies in the fight against the so-called Islamic State are dumbfounded, but few are making official statements, unwilling to pick a fight with the pugnacious new White House.
Iraqi parliamentarians have called for similar bans against U.S. citizens, and Iranian-backed militia groups have called for American troops to be ejected from their country.
But the Iraqi government, managing a fragile and fractious multi-ethnic coalition against ISIS, is treading carefully. Government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi told the AP that Iraqis are hoping the “measures will be temporary and for regulatory reasons and not permanent at least for Iraq.”
Other allies? Not so diplomatic.
“This is an insult to us all,” said one Afghan official reached Sunday. “To treat all as terrorists is not what inspires support and confidence among friends.” [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: Jihadist groups on Sunday celebrated the Trump administration’s ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, saying the new policy validates their claim that the United States is at war with Islam.
Comments posted to pro-Islamic State social media accounts predicted that President Trump’s executive order would persuade American Muslims to side with the extremists. One posting hailed the U.S. president as “the best caller to Islam,” while others predicted that Trump would soon launch a new war in the Middle East.
“[Islamic State leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi has the right to come out and inform Trump that banning Muslims from entering America is a ‘blessed ban,’” said one posting to a pro-Islamic State channel on Telegram, a social-media platform. The writer compared the executive order to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Islamic militant leaders at the time hailed as a “blessed invasion” that ignited anti-Western fervor across the Islamic world. [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: Candace Wheater, a 60-year-old retired school cafeteria worker from Spring Lake, Michigan, also referenced the attacks in Brussels and Paris.
“Look at what’s happening in Europe,” she said. “I don’t dare travel there, out of fear.”
Steve Hirsch, 63, from Manassas, Virginia, drove to Washington’s Dulles airport on Sunday to pick somebody up, rather than to protest as hundreds of others did.
He said he supported Trump’s order. “A country is not a country if it doesn’t have borders,” he added.
He lauded Trump’s actions as a calculated step toward the larger goal of tightening border security.
“He probably went as far as he thought he could,” Hirsch said. “You can’t ban everybody in the world, but I think it’s prudent considering the conditions in certain places in the world.”
Trent Lott, a former Senate Republican leader from Missouri who is now a lawyer in Washington, D.C., said the orders made sense to “working-class Americans in the real world.” [Continue reading…]
Peter Bergen writes: On Friday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that effectively suspends the entry of Syrian refugees into the United States indefinitely. As he signed the order, President Trump said that this was “to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States.”
This order will achieve absolutely nothing because there is no evidence of terrorists among the Syrian refugees who are settling in the United States.
All the lethal acts of jihadist terrorism in the States since 9/11 have been carried out by American citizens or legal residents, and none of them have been the work of Syrian refugees.
That shouldn’t be too surprising, because the United States has accepted only a minuscule number of Syrian refugees, even though the Syrian civil war is one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II and has generated a vast outflow of nearly 5 million refugees from Syria.
The United States has taken only around 15,000 Syrian refugees, amounting to a tiny 0.2% of the total number of refugees, the large majority of whom are women and children.
Not only are these Syrian refugees not terrorists, but they are fleeing the brutal state terrorism of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and the brutal non-state terrorism of ISIS.
The refugees are the victims of terrorism, not the perpetrators of terrorism. [Continue reading…]
Shadi Hamid, William McCants, and Rashid Dar write: Five years after the start of the Arab uprisings, mainstream Islamist groups — which generally seek to operate within the confines of institutional politics — find themselves brutally repressed (Egypt), fallen from power (Tunisia), internally fractured (Jordan), or eclipsed by armed groups (Syria and Libya). Muslim Brotherhood and Brotherhood-inspired movements had enjoyed considerable staying power, becoming entrenched actors in their respective societies, settling into strategies of gradualist democratic contestation, focused on electoral participation and working within existing state structures. Yet, the twin shocks of the Arab Spring — the Egyptian coup of 2013 and the rise of ISIS — have challenged mainstream Islamist models of political change.
The first section of the paper analyzes how recent developments in the region are forcing a discussion of the various fault lines within Islamist movements in Muslim-majority countries. The second brings out the challenges faced by Islamist parties, which, once admitted into the halls of power, have had to play politics in circumscribed contexts and make difficult compromises while not alienating their conservative constituencies.
The third section considers how Islamist groups have made sense of ISIS’s rise to prominence. The fourth takes a closer look at the state-centric approaches of Brotherhood-linked movements and how these are either coming under scrutiny or being challenged from various quarters, particularly by younger rank-and-file activists. The paper concludes by briefly considering to what extent Islamist movements will be able to “see beyond the state” in the years (and decades) to come.
The Washington Post reports: In a former high school classroom in this northeastern Syrian town, about 250 Arab recruits for the U.S.-backed war against the Islamic State were being prepped by Kurdish instructors to receive military training from American troops.
Most of the recruits were from villages surrounding the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, and the expectation is that they will be deployed to the battle for the predominantly Arab city, which is now the main target of the U.S. military effort in Syria.
But first, said the instructors, the recruits must learn and embrace the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan, a Kurdish leader jailed in Turkey whose group is branded a terrorist organization by both Washington and Ankara.
The scene in the classroom captured some of the complexity of the U.S.-backed fight against the Islamic State in Syria, where a Kurdish movement that subscribes to an ideology at odds with stated U.S. policy has become America’s closest ally against the extremists.
The People’s Protection Units, or YPG, is the military wing of a political movement that has been governing northeastern Syria for the past 4 1 / 2 years, seeking to apply the Marxist-inspired visions of Ocalan to the majority Kurdish areas vacated by the Syrian government during the war.
Over the past two years, the YPG has forged an increasingly close relationship with the United States, steadily capturing land from the Islamic State with the help of U.S. airstrikes, military assistance and hundreds of U.S. military advisers. [Continue reading…]
The Observer reports: Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, rarely goes on the defensive. Yet in his first public appearance since the New Year’s Eve massacre in an Istanbul nightclub, he felt obliged to publicly reject the notion that his government’s intolerant approach to civil society could possibly have encouraged the attack claimed by Islamic State that left 39 people dead.
Erdoğan was speaking before a regular gathering of elected community leaders, an opportunity he usually uses to glad-hand political support.
However, the shock of the attack has further rent an already divided country. While no one believes that the government is directly responsible, it is accused of creating an atmosphere in which a religious fanatic could get away with murder.
“Nobody should be forced to share the same kind of lifestyle,” said Erdoğan, adding that if anyone had come under pressure to conform to an alien way of life it had been “this brother” – meaning himself.
Erdoğan’s rise from street urchin to inhabiting a palace that architects estimate to have cost more than £1bn has indeed been hardscrabble. In 1998 he was removed from office as mayor of Istanbul and briefly imprisoned for reciting a well-known nationalist poem which the prosecutor deemed “an incitement to violence and religious hatred”.
However, greater obstacles might lie ahead. The difficulties that are already facing Erdoğan’s Turkey hardly need rehearsing. A civil war across the Syrian border has led to an influx of what may be as many as three million refugees. A once booming economy is now ailing. In 2015 – in order to woo the nationalist vote – the government shredded its attempt to secure an agreement with dissident Kurds. On top of this, there is the debilitating drip, drip of terrorist incidents. [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press reports: Turkey’s Parliament on Monday kicked off debate on proposed constitutional amendments that would hand Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s largely ceremonial presidency sweeping executive powers and Erdogan himself the possibility to serve two more five-year terms.
Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for 14 years, has long pushed imbuing the presidency with greater political powers, arguing that strong leadership would help Turkey grow.
The main opposition party fears that if approved, the reforms would concentrate too much power in Erdogan’s hands, turn the country into a de facto dictatorship and move Turkey away from democracy and its anchor in the West. [Continue reading…]
William J Burns (former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and a former Foreign Service Officer who has been called “the quintessential diplomat” and who served in five administrations) writes: In the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, profound grievances, misperceptions and disappointments have often defined the relationship between the United States and Russia. I lived through this turbulence during my years as a diplomat in Moscow, navigating the curious mix of hope and humiliation that I remember so vividly in the Russia of Boris N. Yeltsin, and the pugnacity and raw ambition of Vladimir V. Putin’s Kremlin. And I lived through it in Washington, serving both Republican and Democratic administrations.
There have been more than enough illusions on both sides. The United States has oscillated between visions of an enduring partnership with Moscow and dismissing it as a sulking regional power in terminal decline. Russia has moved between notions of a strategic partnership with the United States and a later, deeper desire to upend the current international order, where a dominant United States consigns Russia to a subordinate role.
The reality is that our relationship with Russia will remain competitive, and often adversarial, for the foreseeable future. At its core is a fundamental disconnect in outlook and about each other’s role in the world.
It is tempting to think that personal rapport can bridge this disconnect and that the art of the deal can unlock a grand bargain. That is a foolish starting point for sensible policy. It would be especially foolish to think that Russia’s deeply troubling interference in our election can or should be played down, however inconvenient.
President Putin’s aggressive election meddling, like his broader foreign policy, has at least two motivating factors. The first is his conviction that the surest path to restoring Russia as a great power comes at the expense of an American-led order. He wants Russia unconstrained by Western values and institutions, free to pursue a sphere of influence.
The second motivating factor is closely connected to the first. The legitimacy of Mr. Putin’s system of repressive domestic control depends on the existence of external threats. Surfing on high oil prices, he used to be able to bolster his social contract with the Russian people through rising standards of living. That was clear in the boomtown Moscow I knew as the American ambassador a decade ago, full of the promise of a rising middle class and the consumption of an elite convinced that anything worth doing was worth overdoing. But Mr. Putin has lost that card in a world of lower energy prices and Western sanctions, and with a one-dimensional economy in which real reform is trumped by the imperative of political control and the corruption that lubricates it.
The ultimate realist, Mr. Putin understands Russia’s relative weakness, but regularly demonstrates that declining powers can be at least as disruptive as rising powers. He sees a target-rich environment all around him.
If he can’t easily build Russia up, he can take the United States down a few pegs, with his characteristic tactical agility and willingness to play rough and take risks. If he can’t have a deferential government in Kiev, he can grab Crimea and try to engineer the next best thing, a dysfunctional Ukraine. If he can’t abide the risk of regime upheaval in Syria, he can flex Russia’s military muscle, emasculate the West, and preserve Bashar al-Assad atop the rubble of Aleppo. If he can’t directly intimidate the European Union, he can accelerate its unraveling by supporting anti-Union nationalists and exploiting the wave of migration spawned in part by his own brutality. Wherever he can, he exposes the seeming hypocrisy and fecklessness of Western democracies, blurring the line between fact and fiction.
So what to do? Russia is still too big, proud and influential to ignore and still the only nuclear power comparable to the United States. It remains a major player on problems from the Arctic to Iran and North Korea. We need to focus on the critical before we test the desirable. The first step is to sustain, and if necessary amplify, the actions taken by the Obama administration in response to Russian hacking. Russia challenged the integrity of our democratic system, and Europe’s 2017 electoral landscape is the next battlefield.
A second step is to reassure our European allies of our absolute commitment to NATO. American politicians tell one another to “remember your base,” and that’s what should guide policy toward Russia. Our network of allies is not a millstone around America’s neck, but a powerful asset that sets us apart.
A third step is to stay sharply focused on Ukraine, a country whose fate will be critical to the future of Europe, and Russia, over the next generation. This is not about NATO or European Union membership, both distant aspirations. It is about helping Ukrainian leaders build the successful political system that Russia seeks to subvert.
Finally, we should be wary of superficially appealing notions like a common war on Islamic extremism or a common effort to “contain” China. Russia’s bloody role in Syria makes the terrorist threat far worse and despite long-term concerns about a rising China, Mr. Putin has little inclination to sacrifice a relationship with Beijing.
I’ve learned a few lessons during my diplomatic career, often the hard way. I learned to respect Russians and their history and vitality. I learned that it rarely pays to neglect or underestimate Russia, or display gratuitous disrespect. But I also learned that firmness and vigilance, and a healthy grasp of the limits of the possible, are the best way to deal with the combustible combination of grievance and insecurity that Vladimir Putin embodies. I’ve learned that we have a much better hand to play with Mr. Putin than he does with us. If we play it methodically, confident in our enduring strengths, and unapologetic about our values, we can eventually build a more stable relationship, without illusions.
The Daily Beast reports: With the establishment of ISIS’s “caliphate,” veterans of the Caucasus or Central Asia insurgencies have found a new port of call, and ISIS has even gone so far as to declare a wilayat, or province, on Russian Federation territory, more out of bluster than anything approaching the medieval reality it has been able to impose on now-dwindling areas of Syria and Iraq.
According to Jacob Zenn, a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, “not including al-Qaeda and also not including Uighurs, if you’re looking at Russian-speaking jihadists, you’re looking at mostly Uzbeks.” And very few of them actually come from Uzbekistan but are rather cultivated as migrant laborers inside Russia. “They get picked up by a jamaat,” he said, referring to the Arabic word for an Islamic council, “with professional ISIS recruiters in Russia who get money for each guy they send to ISIS in Syria. The route is through Turkey. There hasn’t been much done about it.”
The reason for that, Zenn says, is that either Russia has willfully turned a blind eye to the exodus or because the FSB can’t keep track of everyone leaving, particularly from networks in Siberia or the Russian regions away from Moscow.
One of the fiercest battalions in ISIS is actually called the Uzbek Battalion; members from it were reported to have fought in Fallujah and kept the city from falling earlier to pro-Iraqi-government forces last year.
“A large number of the Uzbeks in Syria are actually Kyrgyz citizens. Their motivation is the Kyrgyz nationalist movement in Kyrgyzistan.”
Almost all Tajiks join ISIS as opposed to other Islamist or jihadist factions in Syria, according to Zenn.
As for Russians, the total number fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq is impossible to know for sure, as official or semiofficial sources have given varying figures at varying points of time.
Ilya Rogachev, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department on New Challenges and Threats, put the total at “more than 3,200” in November 2016. A year earlier, the FSB estimated that it was closer to 2,900. FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov said in December 2015, that of the 214 jihadists who had repatriated to Russia, “They have all been placed under tight control in law-enforcement agencies: 80 have been tried, 41 more are under arrest.”
Meanwhile, Chechen intelligence, according to the New Yorker, claims that as many as 3,000 to 4,000 Chechens alone have joined ISIS, that is, not counting Russian citizens from other parts of the country.
Indeed, some believe that Chechen republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov, himself a former Islamist insurgent turned Russian state hireling, saw the rise of ISIS as a convenient opportunity to solve his own domestic terrorism problem by exporting it to the Middle East — an allegation that has already been leveled with increasing evidence against Russia’s security services, writ large.
Elena Milashina, a reporter for Russia’s investigative opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, concluded in 2015, based on field research in Dagestan, that “Russian special services have controlled” the flow of jihadists into Syria in the lead-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, when the Kremlin feared a terror atrocity would scandalize the international sporting competition it spent so many millions of rubles hosting. “In our village there is a person, a negotiator,” Akhyad Abdullaev, the head of a Dagestani village, told Milashina. “He, together with the FSB, brought several leaders out of the underground and sent them off abroad on jihad.”
The FSB’s so-called “green corridor” for transiting these violent fighters, as The Daily Beast reported, included helping them to obtain passports and other necessaries to migrate to Turkey and/or Georgia, and then ultimately to Syria. The belief was that they’d either be killed on a foreign battlefield and thus become one less headache for law enforcement to worry about, or they’d be picked up upon their return home. One unnamed FSB officer confirmed this policy to the International Crisis Group: “We opened borders, helped them all out and closed the border behind them by criminalizing this type of fighting. If they want to return now, we are waiting for them at the borders.”
A year later, in May 2016, Reuters also, “identified five other Russian radicals who, relatives and local officials say, also left Russia with direct or indirect help from the authorities and ended up in Syria.”
Many Russian-speaking jihadists have gone on to positions of great prominence in the organization. [Continue reading…]
Last week, Moscow hosted Chinese and Pakistani emissaries to discuss the war. Tellingly, no Afghan officials were invited. However, the trio of nations urged the world to be “flexible” in dealing with the Taliban, which remains the Afghan government’s most dangerous foe. Russia even argued that the Taliban is a necessary bulwark in the war against the so-called Islamic State.
For its part, the American military sees Moscow’s embrace of the Taliban as yet another move intended to undermine NATO, which fights the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State every day.
After Moscow’s conference, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova spoke with reporters and noted that “the three countries expressed particular concern about the rising activity in the country of extremist groups, including the Afghan branch of IS [the Islamic State, or ISIS].”
According to Reuters, Zakharova added that China, Pakistan, and Russia agreed upon a “flexible approach to remove certain [Taliban] figures from [United Nations] sanctions lists as part of efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement.”
Roy Gutman reports: Ten days before the New Year’s attack on an Istanbul night club for which the so-called Islamic State now claims responsibility, it posted a grisly video on social media showing its forces burning two Turkish soldiers alive — and coupled it with a warning of worse atrocities to come.
Turkey “has become the land for Jihad,” a Turkish ISIS fighter calling himself Abu Hasan declared in the immolation video. He urged the group’s sympathizers in Turkey to “burn it, blow it up and destroy it.” It may well have been a signal to proceed with the attack early Sunday, which killed at least 39 and wounded 65.
“A hero soldier of the caliphate attacked one of the most famous nightclubs, where Christians celebrated their pagan holiday” and “transformed their celebration into mourning,” the group said in a message posted on an Internet app early Monday.
The message, a rare example of ISIS taking responsibility for an attack in Turkey, went on to condemn the Turkish intervention in northern Syria, where its forces along with Syrian rebels now encircle the ISIS-held town of Al Bab. “The government of Turkey should know that the blood of Muslims, which it is targeting with its planes and its guns, will cause a fire in its home by God’s will,” it said.
The Turkish government, which has clamped down severely on news reporting on the assault, responded defiantly, vowing to continue the cross-border operation. [Continue reading…]
Mohamad Bazzi writes: Since Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime and its allies forced out the last rebels from eastern Aleppo and regained full control over Syria’s largest city, the six-year-old Syrian civil war has now entered a new phase. The next major battle will be to drive out the Islamic State group from the city of Raqqa, but that fight is far more dependent on the United States than Assad and his allies.
Donald Trump wants to stay out of Syria’s complicated war. But as soon as he’s inaugurated on Jan. 20, the new American president will face a crucial decision: Will he continue the Pentagon’s support and training for a coalition of Syrian rebel groups leading the offensive to oust ISIS from Raqqa, the capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate?
That campaign began Nov. 6 with a mobilization of some 30,000 rebels to encircle Raqqa and cut it off from all sides and deny ISIS the ability to resupply with weapons and fighters. The battle to push the Islamic State out of Raqqa could take months. If it falters under a fledging Trump administration, ISIS would continue to have a safe base from which it would unleash new terror attacks in Syria and Iraq, and inspire and possibly direct operations around the world.
After the fall of eastern Aleppo, there are signs of an emerging division of labor in Syria between the incoming Trump administration and that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia would continue its intensive air strikes and logistical aid to help Assad recapture territory from rebels, while Washington would take the lead in the fight against ISIS. On Dec. 10, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that the Pentagon would send 200 additional special forces to Syria — for a total of 500 US troops on the ground — to help train and advise Syrian opposition groups who are fighting ISIS, especially around Raqqa. [Continue reading…]
— Rita Katz (@Rita_Katz) December 30, 2016