U.S.-backed forces announce anti-ISIS push in Syria’s oil-rich east

The Washington Post reports: U.S.-backed forces in Syria announced a fresh offensive around the Islamic State’s most important remaining stronghold Saturday, accelerating a global scramble for control of the country’s oil-rich east.

Islamic State militants are under pressure from all sides in the border province of Deir al-Zour, facing down competing offensives involving almost all of the six-year war’s major players, as the extremist group’s self-declared caliphate crumbles across Syria and Iraq.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-dominated militia supported by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, said Saturday that they would clear the Islamist militants from territory east of the Euphrates River. [Continue reading…]

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Why do people die fighting for a cause?

Science reports: To beat your enemies, you must understand them intimately. And so anthropologist Scott Atran and his colleagues have spent the last 2 years interviewing Islamic State group fighters and their opponents on the front lines. For a study published yesterday in Nature Human Behavior, Atran, director of research at Artis International, a research institute based in Scottsdale, Arizona, and his research team personally talked with extremists in the field, whom they’d reached through local leaders. They also conducted online surveys with thousands of Spanish citizens in order to include a more pacific population. Science spoke with Atran, who also holds positions at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, and France’s CNRS in Paris, about his work. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What makes someone willing to die fighting for a cause?

A: Well, lots of things, but what best predicted willingness to die on the battlefront was both devotion to a tight-knit group of comrades—fusion with them—and commitment to sacred values. But the values actually trumped the group, which may be the first time that was shown. Because most of the military sociology and psychology, at least since World War II, has said that will to fight is based on camaraderie and fighting for your buddies.

In September 2014, [then-President Barack] Obama’s national security director said the greatest mistake the U.S. made in Iraq was underestimating ISIS’s will to fight, and he said it was similar in Vietnam. And then he said will to fight is an imponderable, which is why we undertook this study.

Q: What are sacred values?

A: They are moral values. We’ve shown in lots of different contexts that sacred values are immune or resistant to material trade-offs. You wouldn’t sell your children or sell out your country or your religion for all the money in China. Another aspect is that they generate actions because they’re the right thing to do, so you’re not really worried about risks or rewards or cost or consequences. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. role in the fight to oust ISIS from Raqqa raises questions about what will follow victory

Borzou Daragahi reports: The Trump administration has dramatically increased US military and political involvement in northern Syria, providing air and ground support to local forces camped out in abandoned buildings on the outskirts of Raqqa as they seek to oust ISIS from the capital of its self-declared caliphate.

Under President Donald Trump, the US-led coalition has developed closer coordination with a collection of militias and tribes called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), directing air and ground assaults. Senior State Department and USAID officials have visited Raqqa’s outskirts to coordinate efforts to help displaced civilians and secure the city’s future once ISIS is driven out. US officials have also carved out a semipermanent diplomatic presence close to the northern Syrian city of Kobane.

US and other Western security officials grill captured ISIS fighters, most of them held at a prison near Kobane, to glean intelligence on the jihadis, their future plans, and their ties to other fighters in the Middle East and the West, according to SDF fighters and Kurdish intelligence officials, as well as a former US military official. The efforts have made Trump popular among many of Syria’s autonomy-minded Kurds, with some praising him as a patron of their project to build a self-ruled enclave.

The ground war, launched late last year with skirmishes on the outskirts of Raqqa before reaching the city in early June, has become a grueling street battle, with tens of thousands of Syrian militiamen approaching from the east, west, and south. Each day, the SDF — a multiethnic, multireligious collection force mostly led by Kurdish commanders — struggles to force its way into the city, while US-led coalition planes circle overhead and laser-guided howitzer artillery guns manned by Marines stand ready. The SDF is strongly under the sway of the YPG, a Syrian offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a fact that creates huge tensions with the US’s NATO partner Turkey and may precipitate a raft of political problems once ISIS is defeated. But for now the SDF’s fighters are Washington’s best allies in northern Syria, risking their lives under extreme conditions in the slow, brutal effort to take Raqqa.

ISIS has controlled Raqqa for more than three years, building a network of tunnels, secret passages, and fortified positions. Field commanders say the fight isn’t just house to house, it’s often room to room. There is Raqqa, and then a second Raqqa hidden underground and in the cracks, said one commander who described a 14-hour battle just to get to the second floor of a building after taking control of the first floor. Unlike Iraqi troops operating in the recently liberated city of Mosul, few if any of the SDF fighters have body armor. [Continue reading…]

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Syria: ‘Deadly labyrinth’ traps civilians trying to flee Raqqa battle against ISIS

Amnesty International reports: Thousands of civilians trapped in Raqqa, northern Syria, are coming under fire from all sides as the battle for control of the city enters its final stage, Amnesty International said following an in-depth investigation on the ground. The warring parties must prioritize protecting them from hostilities and creating safe ways for them to flee the frontline.

In a report released today, the organization documents how hundreds of civilians have been killed and injured since an offensive began in June to recapture the “capital” and main stronghold of the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS).

Survivors and witnesses told Amnesty International that they faced IS booby traps and snipers targeting anyone trying to flee, as well as a constant barrage of artillery strikes and airstrikes by the US-led coalition forces fighting alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) armed group. At the same time, survivors recounted how Russian-backed Syrian government forces also bombarded civilians in villages and camps south of the river, including with internationally banned cluster bombs.

“As the battle to wrest Raqqa from Islamic State intensifies, thousands of civilians are trapped in a deadly labyrinth where they are under fire from all sides. Knowing that IS use civilians as human shields, SDF and US forces must redouble efforts to protect civilians, notably by avoiding disproportionate or indiscriminate strikes and creating safe exit routes,” said Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International, who led the on-the-ground investigation. [Continue reading…]

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After victory over ISIS, Mosul discovers the cost: Homes were turned into graves

The Washington Post reports: Aya Abosh found her sister in the house where she spent her final moments, trapped with her boys as shells fell from the sky and caved in the roof.

They were lying there, in the detritus of floral blankets and twisted railings. “Hammoudi,” Abosh said, somehow recognizing her 6-year-old nephew, Mahmoud. Recovery workers toiled around her, struggling to find a zipper on a body bag, then straining to wrap remains disfigured by trauma, time and sun.

Sajjida, the sister, was 28 and devoted to God, Abosh said. Bakr, the other boy, was 9. In the heat and stench and swirling dust, Abosh quietly stared at the bodies before the workers spirited them away. It was early yet, and there were many more bodies to uncover in the Old City of Mosul.

This was the site of Iraq’s landmark military victory just weeks ago that ended the Islamic State extremist group’s wrenching occupation of Mosul and crippled the militants’ odious ambitions for the Middle East, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said. There were noisy, flag-waving celebrations, even as the prime minister reminded the nation that there had been “blood and sacrifices,” too.

Only now is the terrible cost of the victory emerging, in quarters of the Old City ground to rubble by airstrikes and shelling and suicide bombs. For under the barrage were thousands of homes packed with families. Hundreds of the houses were transformed into graves. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-led airstrikes are killing hundreds of civilians in the battle for ISIS-held Raqqa

The Washington Post reports: U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria are killing hundreds of civilians each month, according to monitoring groups, deepening already grave concerns for thousands of families trapped inside the city.

At least 725 civilians have been killed in coalition airstrikes since the offensive to retake Raqqa began June 6, according to Airwars, a London-based monitoring organization that works with local activists, human rights groups and the Pentagon.

“We had been flagging for months prior to the offensive that far more civilians were dying around Raqqa than we would have expected even a few months earlier,” said Chris Woods, the director of Airwars.

“Since the assault began, we have seen a casualty count that is relatively high compared to the rest of the coalition’s war against ISIS,” he said, using another name for the Islamic State. “In Raqqa, this means high numbers of identifiable civilians, many of them women and children.” [Continue reading…]

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Extremism is surging. To beat it, we need young hearts and minds

Scott Atran writes: The last of the shellshocked were being evacuated as I headed back toward Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s famed tourist-filled walkway where another disgruntled “soldier of Islamic State” had ploughed a van into the crowd, killing at least 13 and injuring more than 120 from 34 nations. Minutes before the attack I had dropped my wife’s niece near where the rampage began. It was deja vu and dread again, as with the Paris massacre at the Bataclan theatre in 2015, next door to where my daughter lived.

At a seafront promenade south of Barcelona, a car of five knife-wielding kamikaze mowed down a woman before police killed them all. One teenage attacker had posted on the web two years before that “on my first day as king of the world” he would “kill the unbelievers and leave only Muslims who follow their religion”.

Mariano Rajoy, the president of Spain, declared that “our values and way of life will triumph” – just as Theresa May had proclaimed “our values will prevail” in March when yet another petty criminal “born again” into radical Islam drove his vehicle across Westminster Bridge to kill and wound pedestrians.

In Charlottesville the week before, the white supremacist attacker who killed civil rights activist Heather Heyer mimicked Isis-inspired killings using vehicles. “This was something that was growing in him,” the alleged attacker’s former history teacher told a newspaper. “He had this fascination with nazism [and] white supremacist views … I admit I failed. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country.”

The values of liberal and open democracy increasingly appear to be losing ground around the world to those of narrow, xenophobic ethno-nationalisms and radical Islam. This is not a “clash of civilisations”, but a collapse of communities, for ethno-nationalist violent extremism and transnational jihadi terrorism represent not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their unravelling. [Continue reading…]

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How 12 young men from a small town secretly plotted the deadliest terrorist attack in Spain in more than a decade

The Washington Post reports: The Spanish interior minister boasted Saturday that the terrorist cell that had carried out attacks in Barcelona and a nearby seaside village has been “completely dismantled.” But in the mountain town where the conspiracy was born, people wanted to know how it all had started.

At the center of the mystery here: How did a dozen young men from a small town — some friends since childhood — come together to plot in secret and carry out the deadliest terrorist attack in Spain in more than a decade, considering some were barely old enough to drive and most still lived with their parents.

As many as eight of 12 young men named as suspects in the terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils are first- and second-generation Moroccan immigrants from the picturesque town of Ripoll, perched high in the forests at the edge of the Pyrenees, a two-hour drive on the highway from Barcelona.

Parents of the young men here told The Washington Post they fear their sons were radicalized by a visiting cleric who spent the last months praying, preaching — and possibly brainwashing gullible youngsters who spoke better Spanish than Arabic. [Continue reading…]

 

Christopher Dickey writes: According to the JTIC [Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre], Spanish police have arrested at least 20 suspects connected to the Islamic State. “Notably, 11 of the suspects detained in 2017 have been arrested in Catalonia, where the latest attack occurred,” the JTIC reports. “Of 38 counter-terrorism operations conducted in 2015 and 2016, 10 operations leading to the arrests of 24 suspected Islamist militants were conducted in Catalonia. Since the start of 2015, 43.2 percent of arrests targeting Islamist militants recorded by JTIC have taken place in Catalonia, highlighting it as a hub of Islamist activity in Spain.”

Yet, for all that, “the two attacks and the relatively large geographic dispersal between Barcelona and Cambrils, the involvement of a larger number of people [than in other attacks in Europe in 2016 and 2017] and the potential discovery of a site to prepare powerful explosives in Alcanar suggest a much higher level of coordination than has been typically present in previous attacks.”
Spain has been on its next-highest level of alert since 2015, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks early that year.

But the autonomous Catalan government has been pressing forward with plans for a highly contentious referendum on complete independence scheduled for October 1, and its secessionist sentiment, though by no means universal, may have had particular relevance to these attacks.

Hugo Micheron, a researcher who has interviewed scores of jihadis in French prisons and elsewhere, notes that those operating in Europe often see elections as key moments for their operations. “ISIS wants to destabilize the democratic process,” he says. [Continue reading…]

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Iraqi forces start offensive to retake Tal Afar from ISIS

The New York Times reports: A month after liberating Mosul from the Islamic State, Iraqi forces began a new offensive Sunday to retake Tal Afar, one of the last big cities in Iraq under control of the extremists.

As he has done frequently during the three-year military campaign against the Islamic State, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi appeared on state television in the dark hours — close to 3 a.m. Sunday, a time chosen to heighten the drama — wearing a black uniform in the style of Iraqi special forces to announce that the operation had begun.

Using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, Mr. Abadi addressed the militants directly. “I would say to Daesh fighters, you have no choice: Either surrender or die,” he said.

Tal Afar, once a remote military outpost for the Ottoman Empire, fell to the Islamic State in 2014. It was strategically significant for its location along a supply route between Mosul and Syria, where the militant group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is also on its heels as it defends its de facto capital there, Raqqa. [Continue reading…]

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Nature of Las Ramblas attack provides harsh lessons in fight against terror

Jason Burke writes: The precise motivation and the identity of the Barcelona attackers will become clear in the next few hours. Islamic State has claimed responsibility on its Amaq news agency, though in recent months such claims have become highly unreliable.

Individuals close to Isis and active on social media have been celebrating the attack, but this does not necessarily indicate a direct connection between the attacker or attackers and the group.

Tactics spread among militants when they are seen to work. There is no skill needed to drive a vehicle into a crowd, nor any difficulty involved in obtaining one. This makes a car, van or lorry an ideal weapon for today’s terrorists, who are often inspired by a group but are not actually part of it, and for the most part, lack the training and means necessary for more complex attacks.

The second lesson is that there is now little discrimination in targeting. This means tourists are very much in the line of fire. A decade or so ago, Islamic militant groups sought to send specific messages through their violence. Random attacks against unarmed civilians were seen as ineffective, and even counter-productive in terms of garnering public support in the Muslim world. The 9/11 attack was launched against targets seen by al-Qaida as symbols of US economic, political and military power.

In 2004, Spain was the target of the bloodiest jihadi attack on European soil when commuter trains were bombed by al-Qaida sympathisers in Madrid. One aim was to undermine Spanish support for military intervention in Iraq, and influence an election. Spain was also a particular target because of the historic resonance for militants of the Islamic kingdom of Andalusia, lost to Christendom 900 years ago.

This has changed. Isis has led a broader shift towards attacking anyone, anywhere, anyhow. Public spaces, always inherently vulnerable, are now more at risk than ever. Music fans in Manchester, summer revellers in Nice, pub-goers in London, and of course tourists, whether taking pictures on Westminster Bridge, on a beach in Tunisia, or on an airplane returning to Russia from Egypt. [Continue reading…]

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‘Terror’ struck Barcelona, according to Trump. Charlottesville? ‘Call it whatever you want.’

Callum Borchers writes: Within hours of a vehicular attack in Barcelona that killed at least 13 and injured dozens of others on Thursday, President Trump called it “terror.”


Yet at a news conference three days after a similar episode in Charlottesville, where an alleged Nazi sympathizer drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring 19, the president would not definitely assign the same label.

“Was this terrorism?” a journalist asked on Tuesday.

“Well, I think the driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family and this country,” Trump replied, “and that is — you can call it terrorism, you can call it murder, you can call it whatever you want.” [Continue reading…]

However each attack gets labelled, the more important question is how they are related since it’s hard to dismiss the temporal sequence as purely coincidental.

The reality is that an attack of this kind requires very little planning and thus the first attack could indeed have triggered the second. Moreover, the attacker in Barcelona would surely have been fully aware of the attack in Charlottesville and thus seen global media attention as ripe for the picking through an escalation of violence.

Was the latest attack conceived as a way of mocking (and goading) American Islamophobic terrorists — as if to say, your brutality is no match of ours?

Was it intended to highlight Trump’s hypocrisy in his responses to violent attacks?

What seems least likely is the possibility that Charlottesville was nowhere within the considerations of the perpetrator(s) of today’s deadly attack in Barcelona.

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Funding terrorism: Antiquities looted by ISIS are destined to be bought by Western art collectors

The Wall Street Journal reports: A stream of plundered antiquities flowing out of Syria and Iraq to Western art collectors is dependent on men like Muhammad hajj Al-Hassan.

Mr. Al-Hassan, a 28-year-old Syrian, says he started to trade antiquities in 2015 after being contacted by a top official of Islamic State who sought his archaeological expertise to find Western buyers.

Later, he became a cog in an international supply chain smuggling art looted by ISIS.

ISIS’s territorial grip is fading fast: Iraq has declared victory over the terrorist group in Mosul and ISIS is fighting to hold its self-proclaimed Syrian capital Raqqa—the last major city under its control. But the group’s legacy of looting will linger for many years, law-enforcement officials say, in much the same way that art looted by the Nazis continues to surface 70 years later. The ancient statues, jewelry and artifacts that ISIS has stolen in Syria and Iraq, are already moving underground and may not surface for decades, according to these officials and experts in the trade.

Once a smuggled artifact lands with an art dealer in Europe or the U.S., the journey is still not over. To “launder” their origin, smuggled artifacts can be stored in warehouses for years and an ownership history is fabricated, according to a French security official and the Bulgarian report.

In the June House Committee hearing, Mr. Daniels said that it could take six to nine years for the art now being smuggled to hit public sale. A U.S. security official involved in investigations into art trafficking said it could take over 10 years in some cases.

Traffickers often use old typewriters to backdate certificates of ownership, another French official said. Objects are also moved from dealer to dealer to create a fake paper trail that makes their ownership harder to prosecute, said Mr. Danti, the director at the Cultural Heritage Initiatives.

There are around 20 major art galleries and trading houses in Western European cities that offer smuggled artifacts, the Bulgarian report said, without naming them. “The trade’s main target buyers are, ironically, history enthusiasts and art aficionados in the United States and Europe—representatives of the societies which ISIS has pledged to destroy,” Mr. Fanusie told Congress last April.

The FBI has a $5 million reward for any information about looted materials coming into the U.S. from Syria and Iraq. No one has come forward to claim a reward, law-enforcement officials say. [Continue reading…]

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In Mosul, 350,000 children return to school

Rudaw reports: Approximately 350,000 students have returned to school in both east and west Mosul, which is bisected by the Tigris river, despite the heavy destruction and fear of unexploded bombs, especially in western Mosul where the damage is 30 times higher than the east.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared west Mosul liberated on July 10 therefore announcing the full liberation of the city from ISIS militants following months of military operations.

A UK-based education charity announced earlier this week that as many as 83 schools have reopened in west Mosul, accommodating 58,800 students.

Their World stated that damaged buildings, unexploded bombs, and overcrowding are the main problems facing the return of education to the war-torn city.

In eastern Mosul, which was liberated in late January by the Iraqi Security Forces with lesser damage to the infrastructure, the charity says that at least 336 schools are back in service providing education to 288,500 students. [Continue reading…]

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Children of ISIS fighters face threat of Mosul revenge attacks

The Guardian reports: For the past seven months, Abu Hassan, an army medic, has treated the damaged and desperate people of the Iraqi city of Mosul as they arrived from the cauldron of war.

Soldiers, women and children often trembled in fear in front of him, hours after escaping the bloody clashes, as Iraqi forces battled to wrest control of the city from Islamic State fighters. But not nine-year-old Mohammed.

“He wasn’t a normal boy – he didn’t seem scared,” Hassan said shortly after treating Mohammed, one of the last to flee west Mosul earlier this month. “I chatted with him. I asked him normal questions, like: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ He said: ‘I want to be a sniper.’”

“I was shocked,” said Hassan. “It’s not a normal thing for a child to say. I asked him: ‘What did your dad do?’ He said he was a sniper emir – the emir of snipers.

“[Later] I received a lot of information from people from Mosul saying his father was important. The special forces found the boy in a basement with several [dead] Isis fighters. The soldiers brought the boy to me.”

Since the recapture of Iraq’s second city earlier this month, the toll the terror group’s occupation took on the city’s residents – and especially its young – has begun to emerge.

Hundreds, potentially thousands, of children have been left orphaned by war. And some bear a second burden – an ideology that has stripped them of innocence. To many in their own society, they are the devil’s spawn; stateless outcasts, unworthy of basic care. Aid agencies and state welfare systems do not want to acknowledge them. [Continue reading…]

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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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