ISIS captures Tora Bora, once Bin Laden’s Afghan fortress

The New York Times reports: Tora Bora, the mountain redoubt that was once Osama bin Laden’s fortress, fell to the Islamic State early Wednesday, handing the extremists a significant strategic and symbolic victory, according to Afghan officials and local elders and residents.

Taliban fighters who had previously controlled the extensive cave and tunnel complex fled overnight after a determined, weeklong assault by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, according to villagers fleeing the area on Wednesday.

Hazrat Ali, a member of Parliament and a prominent warlord from the area who helped the Americans capture Tora Bora from Al Qaeda in 2001, said that the offensive was prompted by the American decision to drop the so-called mother of all bombs on an Islamic State network of tunnels in Achin District in April. The 20,000-pound bomb was thought to be the largest non-nuclear bomb ever deployed.

The Islamic State then decided to shift its refuge to the Tora Bora caves and tunnels, Mr. Ali said. “Some 1,000 ISIS militants were gathered close to Tora Bora, to capture the area,” Mr. Ali said. “I informed government forces to target them, and I told them they are trying to capture Tora Bora, but they did not pay attention.” [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s newest flashpoint is bringing U.S. and Iran face to face

The Wall Street Journal reports: Southern Syria, once the quietest corner of the country’s multisided conflict, has unexpectedly become the most volatile flashpoint between America and Iran as the two countries vie for control.

The U.S. military has moved mobile artillery-rocket launchers into southern Syria for the first time, as American troops in the area face increasing dangers from Iran-backed forces. Iran’s best-known military commander, meanwhile, was photographed praying with allied fighters in Syria, a visit seen by some U.S. officials as a public taunt by Tehran. Worried that the situation may spiral out of control, top U.S. military commanders are pressing Moscow to step in.

“This is rapidly developing, it’s not settled at all and I don’t even know that there’s a good direction determined yet,” one U.S. official said. “Everybody’s trying to figure out what to do here. It’s in nobody’s interest for us to get into an active fight with these pro-regime forces.”

For years, the U.S. military has focused its firepower in Syria on defeating Islamic State and largely avoided direct confrontations with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and his Iranian allies. But the risks of a combustive confrontation in southern Syria have unexpectedly increased as the U.S. has ramped up its operations against Islamic State.

The jostling is partly driven by a view among some U.S. officials that the vast desert could become a staging ground for Mr. Trump’s nascent efforts to counter Iranian influence in the region, including Tehran’s efforts to establish firm control over weapons supply routes running through Iraq, Syria and into Lebanon.

Elite U.S. special operations forces have stepped up training and brought in more firepower to a small garrison known as al Tanf, near a key border crossing with Iraq. About 150 U.S. special operations forces are rotating in-and-out of the training base, U.S. officials said. In Syria’s north, more than 750 U.S. Marines and soldiers are using helicopters, artillery and airstrikes to help Syrian fighters push Islamic State from Raqqa, the extremist group’s largest remaining stronghold in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Raising tensions, Iranians again link Saudis to terror attacks in Tehran

The New York Times reports: Turning up the heat in an already tense standoff, several Iranian officials on Tuesday renewed accusations against Saudi Arabia, suggesting that the Persian Gulf kingdom was behind last week’s twin terrorist attacks in Tehran.

Iran’s most influential military figure, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari, the commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, told the semiofficial Fars news agency that Iran had “precise information” that Saudi Arabia “has asked terrorists to carry out operations in Iran.”

He offered no further details.

The deputy chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Brig. Gen. Masoud Jazayeria, a hard-liner, made similar assertions against Saudi Arabia, accusing the Saudis of “governmental terrorism.”

Other officials have echoed those remarks. [Continue reading…]

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‘Staggering’ civilian deaths from U.S.-led air strikes in Raqqa, says UN war crimes investigator

Reuters reports: Intensified coalition air strikes supporting an assault by U.S.-backed forces on Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa in Syria are causing a “staggering loss of civilian life”, United Nations war crimes investigators said on Wednesday.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group of Kurdish and Arab militias supported by a U.S.-led coalition, began to attack Raqqa a week ago to take it from the jihadists. The SDF, supported by heavy coalition air strikes, have taken territory to the west, east and north of the city.

“We note in particular that the intensification of air strikes, which have paved the ground for an SDF advance in Raqqa, has resulted not only in staggering loss of civilian life, but has also led to 160,000 civilians fleeing their homes and becoming internally displaced,” Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry told the Human Rights Council. [Continue reading…]

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What happens in Tehran doesn’t stay in Tehran

Hooman Majd writes: The terrorist attacks in Tehran on Wednesday — in bright daylight and at two very different yet entirely related locations — up the ante in what has become a battle royale for influence in the Middle East, and in the fight against the terrorists wreaking havoc in the region and in the West. While Iran may seem to Americans a million miles away, what happens in Tehran most definitely does not stay there.

On his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, President Trump joined many of his Arab counterparts in denouncing Iran as the foremost sponsor of terrorism, perhaps unaware of the irony of doing so while being feted in the country of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s ideological forefathers. Qatar, whose emir met with Mr. Trump in Riyadh and who was perhaps alarmed by the carte blanche being given to Saudi Arabia, subsequently reached out to Iran in an attempt to calm tensions in a combustible region. He was rewarded with the cutting off both political and economic relations by a Saudi-led coalition: Arab unity be damned.

Two days later, terrorists struck in Tehran. The timing is significant, but so are the locations: The sites of the Islamic State’s attacks demonstrate what Iran’s enemies hope to destroy and how these goals are tied to the wider instability facing the Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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As ISIS retreats in Syria and attacks Tehran, the U.S. and Iran scramble for control

The Washington Post reports: U.S. and Iran-backed forces are locked in a race to take Islamic State strongholds in southeastern Syria and seize a stretch of land that will either cement Tehran’s regional ambitions, or stifle them.

The scramble for pole position in Deir al-Zour province is likely to be one of the most consequential fights against the extremist group in Syria, posing a regional test for President Trump as his administration turns up the rhetoric against Iran.

While the battle for the Islamic State’s most famous Syrian stronghold of Raqqa is heating up, there are signs that an offensive to seize Deir al-Zour will be tougher, and have greater consequences for the group’s long-term survival as a force holding significant territory.

On the Euphrates River between Raqqa and the Iraqi border, the city of Deir al-Zour is the largest urban center in eastern Syria. Victory for Syrian and Iran-backed forces there would give Tehran control of a large swath of the Syrian-Iraqi border, securing a land route through Iraq and southeast Syria to Damascus in the southwest, and on to its proxy, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: At least 12 people were killed and 42 others wounded Wednesday morning in a pair of devastating attacks on two of Iran’s most potent symbols: the national Parliament and the mausoleum of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The Islamic State immediately claimed responsibility; if that is found to be true, the attacks would be the terrorist group’s first major assault within Iran’s borders. Suspicions in Tehran were also directed at Saudi Arabia, Iran’s nemesis in the region, which has been newly emboldened by a supportive visit from President Trump last month.

In the view of many in Iran, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is inextricably linked to Saudi Arabia. Hamidreza Taraghi, a hard-line analyst with ties to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said, “ISIS ideologically, financially and logistically is fully supported and sponsored by Saudi Arabia.”

“They are one and the same,” he added.

The attacks on Wednesday followed a familiar pattern of Islamic State assaults hitting more than one location. Assailants armed with assault rifles and suicide vests descended on the Parliament and on the Khomeini mausoleum. Six attackers were killed: four at the Parliament, and two at the mausoleum. [Continue reading…]

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Short of allies, Syria’s rebels are down but not out

The Associated Press reports: They are veterans of Syria’s rebellion, trying for years to bring down President Bashar Assad. But these days they’re doing little fighting with his military. They’re struggling to find a place in a bewildering battlefield where several wars are all being waged at once by international powers.

Syria’s civil war has become a madhouse of forces from Turkey, the United States, Syrian Kurds, the Islamic State group, al-Qaida as well as Assad’s allies Russia, Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi and Afghan Shiite militias — all with their own alliances and agendas.

Syrian rebel factions, battered by defeats and as divided as ever, reel around trying to find allies they can trust who will ensure their survival.

“We have become political dwarfs, fragmented groups which hardly have control over the closest checkpoint, let alone each other,” said Tarek Muharram, who quit his banking job in the Gulf to return home and join the rebellion in 2011.

Over the years he fought alongside several different rebel groups, including ones backed by the United States. Now he has now joined the alliance led by the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Rebel leaders have limited options — none of them good. They can line up behind Turkey, which is recruiting factions to fight its own war in Syria against Syrian Kurds primarily, as well as Islamic State militants.

Or they can ally themselves with al-Qaida’s affiliate, the strongest opposition faction. It leads a coalition that is still battling Assad and dominates the largest cohesive rebel territory, encompassing the northwestern province of Idlib and nearby areas.

Or they can try to go it alone.

Despite differences with Washington, all of them hope for support from the United States. But they feel it has abandoned them after deciding to arm and finance Kurdish-led militias to fight IS.

They see an enemy in IS but also potentially in the Kurds, who have carved out their own territory across northern Syria. Now in the fight against IS, the Kurds could capture Sunni Arab-majority regions like Raqqa and Deir el-Zour, to the alarm of the mainly Sunni Arab rebels.

The Associated Press spoke to a series of veteran rebels who move between Syria and Turkey and found them desperate for resources and support but intent on fighting for years to come. [Continue reading…]

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If Trump wants to fight Iran, he’ll soon get the chance in Syria

Bloomberg reports: Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in eastern Syria is surrounded by some of the world’s strongest military powers. Their forces are advancing on several fronts. The battlefield odds aren’t even close.

That’s why the commanders of those armies — in Washington, Moscow and Tehran, as well as Damascus and Ankara — are looking beyond the coming showdown with the jihadists. When they’re killed or driven out, who’ll take over? It’s an especially sharp dilemma for President Donald Trump. Because for the second time this century, the U.S. risks defeating one Middle Eastern enemy only to see another one, Iran, emerge as the big winner.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 toppled Iran’s bitter rival Saddam Hussein and replaced him with a sympathetic Shiite-led government. In Syria today, Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad has survived six years of civil war during which U.S. leaders repeatedly insisted that he had to go. His army, fighting alongside militias loyal to Tehran, is driving into Islamic State-held territory, setting up a race with U.S.-backed forces to liberate it. Even the areas where the Americans arrive first may eventually revert to Assad’s control.

That might not have been a problem for Trump the candidate. Before the election, he vowed to smash Islamic State without getting sucked into a wider war, and said he’d work with Russia, Assad’s other key backer. It could be a problem for the President Trump who told America’s regional allies last week that he’ll help roll back Iranian power — a promise that, in Syria at least, won’t be easy to keep. [Continue reading…]

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Putin is a bigger threat than ISIS, says McCain

The Guardian reports: The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is the biggest threat to global security, even greater than Isis, John McCain has declared on his tour of Australia.

In an interview on ABC’s 7:30 on Monday the Republican senator said president Donald Trump made him “nervous” and expressed concern at reports that White House adviser Jared Kushner allegedly discussed creating a secret communication channel with Russia.

Asked to evaluate the threat to global security posed by Putin, McCain said: “I think he is the premier and most important threat, more so than Isis.”

McCain said that while Isis “can do terrible things and I worry a lot about what is happening with the Muslim faith … but it’s the Russians who tried to destroy the fundamental of democracy and that is to change the outcome of an American election”.

McCain said that he’d “seen no evidence [the Russians] succeeded but they tried and they are still trying to change elections”.

He cited an attempt to influence the French election and said Russia had “dismembered Ukraine, a sovereign nation” as reasons for viewing Putin as the greatest threat. [Continue reading…]

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‘They kill defenceless people’: thousands flee Philippine city of Marawi

The Guardian reports: The CCTV monitor was showing a live feed of gunmen in the hospital lobby. From the safety of another floor, Jan Yamit, a 23-year-old health worker, watched in horror as the militants shot a police officer and then a security guard before storming into the building.

“I can’t explain what I was feeling. I was nervous. I am pissed by those kinds of people. They kill defenceless people,” he said of the attack in Marawi, a city on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

He and his brother, who worked as a lift operator in the building, sneaked from one room to another. Eventually, they found a wooden plank and made a bridge from the third floor to a neighbouring building.

“Those who were killed were Christians,” he said.

The attack on Marawi, a mainly Muslim city of 200,000 people, by the Islamic State-linked Maute group this week has led to a fierce three-day battle, with the army deploying attack helicopters and special forces.

At least 46 people – 15 members of the security forces and 31 militants – have been killed. On Friday, the Maute held its positions on bridges and remained hidden in buildings, despite heavy overnight artillery and airstrikes.

The Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, who cut short a foreign visit to Russia, has imposed martial law in Mindanao and promised bloodshed. “If there’s an open defiance, you will die,” he said on Wednesday. “And if it means many people dying, so be it.” [Continue reading…]

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Coptic Christians: ISIS’s ‘favorite prey’

Samuel Tadros writes: “At this rate Copts will be extinct in 100 years. They will die, leave, convert or get killed,” a friend wrote on Facebook as news broke of the latest bloody attack on Egypt’s Coptic Christians. Less than two months ago, while attending church in Cairo on Palm Sunday, my friend told me she’d mused to herself that it was a blessing her daughter wasn’t with her: If there was a bombing, at least her child would survive. Forty-five Copts were murdered that day by the Islamic State in churches in Alexandria and Tanta. Such are the thoughts of Coptic parents in Egypt these days.

The terrorists chose today’s target well. The Monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor, which I visited a decade ago, is very hard to reach. One hundred and ten miles on the Cairo Luxor desert road, you make a right-hand turn and for the next 17 miles drive on an unpaved road. The single lane forces cars to drive slowly, and, as the only route leading to the monastery, the victims were guaranteed to be Copts. Friday is a day off in Egypt, and church groups regularly take trips there. Outside of a few policemen stationed out front, there is little security presence.

The terrorists waited on the road like game hunters. Coming their way were three buses, one with Sunday school children. Only three of them survived. Their victims were asked to recite the Islamic declaration of faith before being shot.

In the past few months, the Islamic State has made its intentions toward Copts well known. “Our favorite prey” they called my co-religionists in a February video. Their barbaric attacks have left more than 100 Copts dead in the last few months alone. The Northern Sinai is now “Christianfrei,” or free of Christians. [Continue reading…]

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Iraqi troops torture and execute civilians in secret videos

ABC News reports: Officers of an elite Iraqi special forces unit, praised by U.S. military commanders earlier this year for its role in fighting ISIS, directed the torture and execution of civilians in Mosul in at least six distinct incidents caught on tape.

“That’s a murder,” retired Green Beret Lt. Col. Scott Mann told ABC News after reviewing the graphic footage. “There should be punishment for anyone doing it. It’s reprehensible and it shouldn’t be allowed on any modern battlefield.”

The alarming footage was smuggled out of Iraq by a prize-winning Iraqi photojournalist, Ali Arkady, who spent months embedded in combat with the elite Iraqi troops leading the fight against ISIS late last year. Since turning over his cache of photos and videos to ABC News, he says he has received death threats from the soldiers he once considered friends and has now fled Iraq to seek asylum in Europe. [Continue reading…]

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Abedi flew from Istanbul to Manchester 4 days before bombing; UK security services tackle large-scale threat

The Telegraph reports: The security services have foiled five attacks in the past two months since the Westminster attack, a senior Whitehall source has said.

Defending against accusations that MI5 had been repeatedly warned the Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, was dangerous, the source outlined the scale of the job facing counter-terrorism officials.

The source said MI5 is currently managing 500 active investigations, involving 3,000 subjects of interest at any one time. [Continue reading…]

In February, The Guardian reported: In the small pocket of Manchester where the suicide bomber who killed himself in Iraq this week grew up, many before him had trodden the same path.

The handful of streets in Moss Side within a mile of the childhood home of Ronald Fiddler, also known as Jamal al-Harith, have been home to nine who are known to have joined terrorist organisations and have either been jailed, have disappeared or have killed themselves in the name of Islamic State.

A Guardian investigation has found that 16 convicted or dead terrorists have lived within 2.5 miles of al-Harith’s home address. It is understood that they were part of a radical network and some of them prayed at the same mosque.

In a nearby gym a group of young men are sweating and sparring through a Friday afternoon boxing session. The scene could easily be one of those glossy local authority propaganda pictures that tells the story of a community trying to shed its guns-and-gangs reputation.

Former champion boxer Maurice Core has trained young men there for decades and acknowledges that terrorism is stalking the area’s disaffected youth.

One of those who is understood to be dead after joining Isis is Raphael Hostey. The 24-year-old was a member of Core’s gym and knew al-Harith. He died last year after leaving Moss Side in 2013. [Continue reading…]

Sky News reports: Abedi and Hostey hung around on the same estates and worshipped in the same Didsbury mosque, before they became disaffected with life in the West.

Counter-terrorism sources have told Sky News they have established a “significant” connection between the two men as they investigate the murder of 22 concertgoers and search for possible accomplices. [Continue reading…]

Financial Times reports: [Abedi] flew from Istanbul to the UK via Dusseldorf’s international airport, a German intelligence official said. A senior Turkish official said the Turkish government sent a file on Abedi to British authorities on Wednesday morning, but declined to discuss the details of the communication. [Continue reading…]

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Manchester bombing suspect likely did not act alone

NBC News reports: [A] U.S. intelligence official who has direct knowledge of the investigation had told NBC News that Abedi’s device was “big and sophisticated,” using materials hard to find in Britain — meaning “it’s almost impossible to see he didn’t have help.”

Abedi — a 22-year-old British national whose family is of Libyan descent — had ties to al Qaeda, received terrorist training abroad and traveled to Libya within the last 12 months, the source added.


A “follow-on” attack is possible, the official said.

France’s interior minister said Wednesday that Abedi was believed to have traveled to Syria and had “proven” links to ISIS. He did not provide details. [Continue reading…]

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Intelligence deficit: Trump flags Israel as country whose name he didn’t divulge to the Russians

Bloomberg reports: President Donald Trump said he never named Israel during an Oval Office conversation with Russian officials in which he reportedly revealed sensitive intelligence gathered by an unidentified U.S. ally.

His off-the-cuff remarks to reporters in Jerusalem before a meeting Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to confirm Israel as the source. And it took Trump off script on a trip in which the president for the first few days had maintained an uncharacteristic discipline in his public comments.

Trump blurted out a defense of his conduct in the May 10 meeting with the diplomats when a U.S. reporter asked Netanyahu at a photo session whether the Israeli prime minister was concerned about sharing sensitive intelligence with the U.S.

Netanyahu said U.S.-Israeli “intelligence cooperation is terrific and it’s never been better.”

As reporters were preparing to leave, Trump interjected.

“I never mentioned the word or the name Israel, never mentioned during that conversation. They’re all saying I did,” Trump said. “So you have another story wrong. Never mentioned the word Israel.” [Continue reading…]

As was reported earlier by the Daily Beast, White House staff are now characterizing Trump as “a complete moron.”

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Flynn’s Turkey connection is the case worth pursuing

Noah Feldman writes: What’s been missing so far in the scandals surrounding the Trump White House is a concrete act taken at the behest of foreign powers. Now there’s strong evidence of one: Michael Flynn reportedly stopped an attack on the Islamic State capital of Raqqa by Syrian Kurds, a military action strongly opposed by Turkey, after receiving more than $500,000 in payments from a Turkish source. The Kurds’ offensive had been greenlighted by Barack Obama’s administration, and is now back on track, reapproved by President Donald Trump sometime after Flynn was fired.

If this story proves accurate then it’s a game changer for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. It demonstrates that, at least while Flynn was national security adviser-designate and until he was fired after 24 days in office, U.S. government policy on a core matter of national security was open to the highest foreign bidder. That’s a form of bribery that could land Flynn in prison and, potentially, give Mueller leverage to get Flynn to testify about whatever else he knows. [Continue reading…]

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