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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the facts. [Continue reading…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ISIS was a symptom. State collapse is the disease

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

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

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

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

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

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This is what it’s like inside liberated Mosul

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

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

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

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ISIS, despite heavy losses, still inspires global attacks

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

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

Now, their state is crumbling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mosul liberation will not be end of ISIS

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

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

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

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Iraq: The battle to come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mattis: After Raqqa, the Syrian battlefield will only get more complicated

The Washington Post reports: As the fight against the Islamic State moves beyond its de facto capital in Raqqa, the Pentagon is readying itself for an increasingly complex battlefield in northern Syria, where U.S.-backed forces, pro-Syrian government troops and Russian jets will likely all be fighting near one another.

Speaking to reporters on his way to Germany on Monday to meet with European allies, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis spoke broadly about the U.S. military’s future operations against the Islamic State in the Euphrates River Valley, adding that it will take “more precision” to stave off any incidents between the disparate forces operating there.

“You have to play this thing very carefully,” Mattis said. “The closer we get, the more complex it gets.”

Mattis also acknowledged that the U.S. would continue to supply Kurdish forces in the north with weapons despite objections by U.S. ally Turkey. “When they don’t need them anymore we’ll replace them with what they do need,” he said. [Continue reading…]

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These are the civilian victims of the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS

Mike Giglio reports from Mosul: Residents of this quiet street in eastern Mosul sometimes see their former neighbor return to his rubbled home. He cuts a lonely figure as he climbs through the crushed concrete and twisted iron, stooping to dig for mementos — a photo, a scrap of clothes. Then he sits and cries.

Hassan Ali Hassan, 45, is a Jordanian who has lived for three decades in Mosul, where he married a local woman and raised a family. In June 2014, after ISIS captured the city, he tried to escape with his wife and three daughters to Amman, but the militants seized their passports and ordered them to stay.

Hassan and his family were still trapped in the city on Dec. 14, 2016, as Iraqi forces pressed their US-backed offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS. The fighting had not yet reached their neighborhood, and the family shared a late breakfast before Hassan stepped out to get gas for their generator. Barely a minute had passed when a massive explosion erupted behind him. He ran back to find his home demolished and engulfed in flames, pulverized by an airstrike carried out by the US-led coalition fighting ISIS. Body parts of his wife and daughters littered the street.

“We found some on the other houses here,” recalled a neighbor, Yasir Mohamed, on a recent afternoon, as some semblance of life returned to their neighborhood, called Hay al-Sukar, which was freed from ISIS in January. Reached later by phone, Hassan still seemed to be in shock. “Just everything was in pieces,” he said. “Everyone was dead.”

“Everything happened before my eyes,” he kept repeating.

Homes like Hassan’s riddle Mosul’s streets as Iraqi forces push into the last ISIS-held districts of the city. The US-led air campaign has taken a devastating toll on civilians — and there has yet to be an accounting of its extent. In any neighborhood, residents can quickly point the way to the wrecked houses nearby, detailing which ones held ISIS militants and which ones held only civilians. In late May, a reporter and photographer from BuzzFeed News visited seven sites where witnesses alleged that civilians were killed by airstrikes from the coalition. US warplanes lead the air campaign, but allies such as Britain, Australia, Canada, and France also participate.

The battle has seen some of the deadliest urban combat since World War II — and it has been defined by airstrikes. As of June 3, the coalition had launched some 24,464 munitions into Mosul since the offensive began in October 2016, according to US Department of Defense statistics, and the intensity of the strikes has increased under the Trump administration. In the two years prior to the offensive the US-led coalition launched roughly 13,000 strikes in Iraq. But it’s not just airstrikes that have been raining down on Mosul, endangering civilian lives. The US army has deployed advanced HIMARS rocket launchers, capable of firing six guided missiles from a range of more than 40 miles away. Both sides have used mortar bombs and other artillery. Iraqi jets have carried out airstrikes too. [Continue reading…]

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Rival groups vie for supremacy as fight against ISIS reaches tipping point

The Guardian reports: Iraqi forces have advanced to the base of the toppled minaret of Mosul’s Great Mosque of al-Nuri, hours after it was destroyed by Islamic State militants, as the bitter eight-month battle to recapture the city reached a tipping point.

The destruction of the mosque marked a pivotal moment in the war against Isis, which declared its now withered caliphate from there three years ago. The terror group’s wanton act of sabotage was widely seen as a harbinger of its imminent defeat.

Across northern Iraq, only a portion of Mosul’s old city and a small adjoining neighbourhood remain under Isis control. The nearby towns of Tel Afar and Hweija, both of which are surrounded, make up the remainder of the group’s territory, a mere sliver of the lands over which it had lorded at the height of its power in mid-2014.

As its fortunes have turned, the group’s remaining members have fled Iraq for the deserts of Syria. So rapid has been their capitulation that plans are now being drafted for a decisive battle later this year, somewhere between the Syrian and Jordanian borders, areas far from those that Isis had coveted.

Lined up in pursuit are a range of players who had have staked claims throughout the fight with Isis, as well as parallel regional conflicts, and have waited for the time to consolidate. As the organisation crumbles, all sides have now started competing for an edge, who gets to define what emerges from the collapse of Isis is a prize bigger than winning the war itself. [Continue reading…]

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The U.S. is destroying whole neighborhoods in Raqqa

The Daily Beast reports: The U.S.-led bombing and shelling of Raqqa, the city claimed by the so-called Islamic State as its capital in eastern Syria, is destroying entire neighborhoods but doing nothing for desperate residents and those trying to flee for their lives, according to a well-known human rights group that reports on the situation there.

The assault began June 6 with the U.S. declaring its goal as the annihilation of ISIS extremists there. As of Tuesday, the U.S.-led Coalition had carried out 262 airstrikes against the city, with that onslaught augmented by heavy artillery barrages.

“The people of the city describe the situation as Doomsday,” the group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, reported on its web blog. The organization sometimes known by its initials, RIBSS or RBSS, has won worldwide renown for surreptitiously gathering reports on the plight of the mostly Arab civilian population suffering under the rule of the self-proclaimed “Caliphate.” ISIS has responded by hunting down and murdering RIBSS members, and today the group operates under cover.

“The population are in a state of chaos and don’t know which neighborhoods to go to for better protection,” it said in the posting one week ago. “Hundreds of shells and bombs fall on the city arbitrarily every day,” and heavy machine fire “reaches most of the neighborhoods” in the ISIS-held parts of the city. [Continue reading…]

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Destroying Great Mosque of al-Nuri ‘is ISIS declaring defeat’

The Guardian reports: The destruction came as Iraqi troops edged to within 50 metres of the mosque, in a densely packed neighbourhood of central western Mosul, more than eight months into the battle to free the city.

“As our Iraqi security force [ISF] partners closed in on the al-Nuri mosque, Isis destroyed one of Mosul and Iraq’s great treasures,” said Maj Gen Joseph Martin, commanding general of the US-led coalition fighting Isis.

“This is a crime against the people of Mosul and all of Iraq, and is an example of why this brutal organisation must be annihilated. The responsibility of this devastation is laid firmly at the doorstep of Isis, and we continue to support our Iraqi partners as they bring these terrorists to justice.

“However, the battle for the liberation of Mosul is not yet complete, and we remain focused on supporting the ISF with that objective in mind.”

Isis had vowed to defend the city it seized in July 2014 and had been fiercely resisting advancing forces this summer.

“They blew it up because they did not want the place they announced the caliphate from to be the place where the Iraqi military announces its victory over them,” said Hisham al-Hashimi, an author on extremist groups and a former government adviser.

The loss of the site is another devastating blow to Iraq’s heritage, which has been ravaged by 14 years of war since the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein. The militants’ control over northern Iraq has taken a particularly heavy toll, with globally significant archaeological sites being vandalised and pillaged.

“When I looked out of the window and saw the minaret was no longer there, I felt a part of me had died,” Ahmed Saied, a 54-year-old schoolteacher in Mosul, told Reuters.

“In the early morning, I climbed up to my house roof and was stunned to see the Hadba minaret had gone,” Nashwan, a labourer living in the Khazraj neighbourhood near the mosque, said by phone. “I broke into tears. I felt I had lost a son of mine.”

The mosque was destroyed on the Night of Power, one of the holiest dates in the Islamic calendar, when the Qur’an was revealed to the prophet Muhammad. It was built in the 12th century by Noureddine al-Zanki, a famed commander and a contemporary of Saladin, whose family ruled the provinces of Aleppo and Mosul on behalf of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad.

The mosque was one of the great monuments in Islam after the grand mosques of Mecca and Medina, al-Aqsa in Jerusalem and the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, rivalling others such as the Amr ibn al-’As mosque in Egypt and other more modern structures built in recent centuries. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS blows up Mosul mosque where it declared ‘caliphate’

The New York Times reports: The Islamic State on Wednesday night destroyed Mosul’s centuries-old Al Nuri Grand Mosque and its distinctive leaning minaret, one of Iraq’s most famous landmarks, according to the Iraqi and American militaries.

Shortly after the military’s report, the terrorist group used its news agency to claim that the mosque had actually been destroyed by an American airstrike.

Col. Ryan Dillon, an American military spokesman in Baghdad, said that the coalition had confirmed, through drone surveillance footage, that the mosque had been destroyed. “We don’t know how,” said Colonel Dillon, who added that the coalition was investigating.

But shortly afterward, the United States Central Command issued a statement bluntly accusing the Islamic State of destroying the mosque.

“As our Iraqi Security Force partners closed in on the al-Nuri mosque, ISIS destroyed one of Mosul and Iraq’s great treasures,” Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin, the American commander for the operation, said in the statement. “This is a crime against the people of Mosul and all of Iraq, and is an example of why this brutal organization must be annihilated.”

The mosque is where the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ascended a pulpit in 2014 and declared a caliphate after his fighters took control of Mosul and swept through other areas of northern Iraq and Syria. [Continue reading…]

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France’s Macron says sees no legitimate successor to Syria’s Assad

Reuters reports: President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday he saw no legitimate successor to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and France no longer considered his departure a pre-condition to resolving the six-year-old conflict.

He said Assad was an enemy of the Syrian people, but not of France and that Paris’ priority was fighting terrorist groups and ensuring Syria did not become a failed state.

His comments were in stark contrast to those of the previous French administration and echo Moscow’s stance that there is no viable alternative to Assad.

“The new perspective that I have had on this subject is that I have not stated that Bashar al-Assad’s departure is a pre-condition for everything because nobody has shown me a legitimate successor,” Macron said in an interview with eight European newspapers.

“My lines are clear: Firstly, a complete fight against all the terrorist groups. They are our enemies,” he said, adding attacks that killed 230 people in France had come from the region. “We need everybody’s cooperation, especially Russia, to eradicate them.” [Continue reading…]

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