Human Rights Watch reports: Just before 7 p.m. on March 16, 2017, US aircraft attacked the Omar Ibn al-Khatab mosque near al-Jinah, a village in Aleppo province in northern Syria, where about 300 people had gathered for religious lectures and the Muslim Isha’a, or night prayer. The attack completely destroyed the service section of the mosque and killed at least 38 people.
US military authorities have acknowledged that they carried out the strike, saying that they targeted a meeting of al-Qaeda members. A US military spokesperson said that the US military carried out extensive surveillance before the attack and that they take “extraordinary measures to mitigate the loss of civilian life” in such operations. However, Human Rights Watch research suggests that US authorities failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize civilian casualties in the attack, a requirement under the laws of war.
While US officials acknowledged that there was a mosque nearby, they claimed that the targeted building was a partially constructed community hall. But information from local residents, photographs, and video footage of the building before and after the attack show that the targeted building was also a mosque. While the mosque did not have a minaret or a dome that would have been visible by aerial surveillance, local residents said that dozens, if not hundreds, of people were gathering in the building at prayer times. Aerial surveillance of the building should have shown this. Local residents also said that the mosque was well known and widely used by people in the area. Any attempt to verify through people with local knowledge what kind of building this was would have likely established that the building was a mosque. [Continue reading…]
The Hill reports: The Pentagon carried out roughly 20 strikes in Yemen against al Qaeda militants since last week, putting the total number of strikes past 70 in a little over a month, a Defense Department spokesman said Monday.
The strikes are aimed at al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni al Qaeda branch that is considered the terrorist organization’s most lethal branch.
“We continue to target [al Qaeda] in Yemen, and this is done in the interest of disrupting this terror organization that presents a very significant threat to the United States,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters.
The United States conducted multiple airstrikes in Yemen this past weekend, according to reports out of the area. Davis would not say specifically how many airstrikes took place, instead saying that there have been 20 additional strikes since the middle of last week.
“Since Feb. 28, we’ve conducted more than 70 precision airstrikes against AQAP militants’ infrastructure, fighting positions and equipment,” he added. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The United States military said that it had carried out an airstrike against a meeting of Qaeda militants on Thursday in Syria and that a number of the extremists had been killed.
The American military statement came as Syria activists reported that a mosque had been bombed and that scores of innocent civilians had been killed and wounded.
A spokesman for the United States Central Command said the American aircraft had struck a nearby building, but did not hit the mosque.
“We did not target any mosques,” said Col. John J. Thomas, a spokesman for the Central Command, which has responsibility for American military missions in the Middle East. “What we did target was destroyed. There is a mosque within 50 feet of that building that is still standing.”
But one local activist, Mohamed al Shaghel, said the people who had been struck had “no affiliation with any military faction or any political side.”
“I passed by the hospital,” he said. “I was told that about 50 were killed and 50 wounded. Rescuers are still looking for bodies under the rubble.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the airstrike took place in Al Jinah, a village between the cities of Idlib and Aleppo. It said 42 people had been killed, most of them civilians, and described the attack as a “massacre.” [Continue reading…]
Charles Lister writes: After six years of conflict, Syria and its people have been completely transformed. The effects of a crisis that has killed nearly a half-million people and forced nearly 11.5 million more from their homes are now etched into the many identities to which Syrians attach themselves. While a majority of Syrians vigorously resist the formal breakup of their country, it is impossible to ignore how the brutal and protracted war has instilled deep divisions in a once-cohesive society.
In many areas of the country, battle lines remain physically drawn among villages that once lived in harmony. And the sectarian dynamic that was once supported only by extremist fringes has started to decisively shape the mainstream opposition.
The origins of this dynamic lie with President Bashar al-Assad, who was quick to label the peaceful protest movement of early 2011 as a “foreign conspiracy.” This conspiracy, Assad claimed in mid-2011, was one being led by Sunni “terrorists” — many dozens if not hundreds of which he had released from prison in March, May, and June 2011. Assad’s sectarian framing of the crisis and his cynical positioning of himself as the protector of Syria’s minorities not only allowed him to bolster his base, but also guaranteed that extremists within the opposition would gradually see their sectarian narrative thrive.
And that is, more or less, what has happened. The Syrian opposition is at its weakest point since 2012, and international trends are moving against it. The United States has distanced itself from the “Assad must go” narrative and seen its attention diverted by its own election; Europe is distracted by refugees and Brexit; and Turkey has done an about-face and, in effect, sold Aleppo to Russia. Meanwhile, Moscow, Tehran, and Hezbollah have methodically enhanced their military commitments to the Assad regime, guaranteeing at minimum its survival.
Amid these challenges, Syria’s opposition has entered into a period of introspection and great internal strain. Placed under concerted pressure — whether by Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the south, or by Turkey and Qatar in the north — and faced with few other options, Syria’s non-al-Qaeda armed opposition demonstrated their pragmatism by agreeing to attend political talks in Kazakhstan and Switzerland, even though their popular base remained deeply opposed to such signals of “compromise,” and few of the attendees expected the talks to succeed.
But Syria’s armed opposition is also changing as a result of internal pressures. Al Qaeda’s Syrian representatives — rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) in July 2016 and then renamed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) after subsuming several other groups in January — have been relentless, and patient, in pursuing their long-term objective: a merger of all armed Syrian opposition groups under its broad transnational Islamic umbrella. Al Qaeda has commonly called this goal a “uniting of the ranks.” [Continue reading…]
Shiraz Maher writes: On 9 February, a grey-bearded and balding Syrian rebel commander wearing military dress appeared in an internet video calling for greater unity among the forces opposing President Bashar al-Assad. This was unremarkable. Syria’s rebel groups frequently issue unity statements, merge units and create umbrella groups – many of which, like the fruit of the medlar tree, turn rotten before they turn ripe.
Yet the message from Hashem al-Sheikh – a native of Aleppo imprisoned by Assad in 2005 for his jihadi beliefs and then released along with other Islamist prisoners in 2011 in an attempt to poison the nascent uprising against the regime – was hugely important in the context of the Syrian Civil War: it signalled the potential subsuming of the entire Syrian opposition to radical and reactionary forces, and to al-Qaeda in particular.
In the video, Hashem al-Sheikh announced the creation of a powerful, extremist-dominated entity known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), or the “Committee for the Liberation of the Levant”.
One of the main groups that joined the new committee is Nur al-Din al-Zenki, a corrupt and brutal Islamist movement that was once backed by the CIA as a “vetted organisation”, though this designation was later revoked. In July last year, five months before Aleppo fell to Assad’s forces, the group’s members were filmed beheading Abdullah Tayseer in the eastern part of the city. Tayseer was a 13-year-old boy whom they accused of fighting for the regime.
Far more significant was the folding into HTS of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), which until July was known as Jabhat al-Nusrah – and which represented al-Qaeda on the ground in Syria. JFS, comprised mainly of local fighters, had earned a degree of popular support among civilians because of its fighters’ valour and lack of corruption. The rebranding was an attempt by its leaders to recast it as a broader part of the overall uprising, and to capitalise on ordinary Syrians’ hatred of Islamic State (IS), which is widely seen as having usurped the revolution and diverted its aims.
Consequently, al-Qaeda has pursued an audacious line of messaging that seeks to portray the group in Syria as a responsible actor that follows a “middle path” between acquiescence and extremism. The corollary is clear: that it is both authentic and organic. “JFS is not a fringe group that exists on another planet,” wrote a spokesman, Mostafa Mahamed, shortly after it rebranded in 2016. “It is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people.” [Continue reading…]
Amanda Erickson writes: The way al-Qaeda tells it, the West is locked in an existential war with Islam. This is how the terrorist group justifies its violence and its fundamentalist ideology. And now it has found a Westerner to back them up — top Trump adviser Steve Bannon.
Bannon graced the cover (above the fold!) of the most recent al-Qaeda-linked Al Masra newspaper. That prominence, University of Oxford researcher Elisabeth Kendall told Quartz, is “striking.”
The piece focused on Bannon’s views of Islam, saying he believes that “the forces of Islam cannot be stopped by peaceful means.” The paper cited a conversation Bannon had with a Danish journalist in May 2016. It also claimed that Bannon believes that the struggle is really between Christianity and Islam, not just Islam and the West. And it suggested that Bannon has “lost confidence in secular Europe, and sees Muslim immigrants as partially responsible for the retreat of traditional Christian values.” [Continue reading…]
Amarnath Amarasingam writes: Nine days after 9/11, George W. Bush declared during an address to a joint session of Congress that every nation now “has a decision to make,” that “either you are with us or with the terrorists.” Jihadists saw his statement as a gift from God. They argued that with this line drawn in the sand, members of the Muslim community now had a clear view of the parade of sellouts, hypocrites and “white-washed” Muslims among them. It would be obvious who was on the side of the Muslim community and who, as ISIS wrote in the seventh issue of its English-language magazine Dabiq, would rush “to serve the crusaders led by Bush in the war against Islam.”
According to jihadists, this opportunity to unearth the true Muslims, those who had the community’s back and those who didn’t, was a gift from above. As Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden claimed at the time in an interview, which was also later reproduced in the same Dabiq article, this line in the sand basically meant that “either you are with the crusade or you are with Islam.”
Sixteen years later, what do jihadists think of Donald Trump? It’s an important question to explore and pose to jihadists themselves, because it influences their propaganda and their stance toward the United States, and may predict how they behave in relation to Western states. Over the past three years, on a variety of text-messaging applications and social media platforms, I have been interviewing foreign fighters from Western countries who are fighting in Syria and Iraq.
After Trump’s election victory, I asked five fighters for their thoughts on Trump. Initially, they weren’t convinced that Trump would be different from any other American president, who, since 9/11, has been, according to them, bombing Muslims and killing civilians. But then Trump spoke, put forth executive orders and seemed to fan the flames of the far right.
As time went on, these jihadists began to argue that Trump represents “real” America. Trump was saying what Americans and politicians always privately thought about Muslims but were too afraid to say in public. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: The biggest surviving rebel stronghold in northern Syria is falling under the control of al-Qaeda-linked extremists amid a surge of rebel infighting that threatens to vanquish what is left of the moderate rebellion.
The ascent of the extremists in the northwestern province of Idlib coincides with a suspension of aid to moderate rebel groups by their international allies.
The commanders of five of the groups say they were told earlier this month by representatives of the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey that they would receive no further arms or ammunition until they unite to form a coherent front against the jihadists, a goal that has eluded the fractious rebels throughout the six years of fighting.
The freeze on supplies is unrelated to the change of power in Washington, where the Trump administration is engaged in a review of U.S. policy on Syria, U.S. officials say. It also does not signal a complete rupture of support for the rebels, who are continuing to receive salaries, say diplomats and rebel commanders.
Rather, the goal is to ensure that supplies do not fall into extremist hands, by putting pressure on the rebels to form a more efficient force, the rebel commanders say they have been told.
Instead it is the extremists who have closed ranks and turned against the U.S.-backed rebels, putting the al-Qaeda-linked groups with whom the moderates once uneasily coexisted effectively in charge of key swaths of territory in Idlib, the most important stronghold from which the rebels could have hoped to sustain a challenge to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Moderate rebels still hold territory in southern Syria, in pockets around Damascus, and in parts of Aleppo province where they are fighting alongside Turkish troops against the Islamic State.
But the loss of Idlib to the extremists has the potential to prolong — or at least divert — the trajectory of the war at a time when the United Nations is reconvening peace talks in Geneva aimed at securing a political settlement. The talks opened Thursday with little sign that progress was likely. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: In a series of conversations in Qaeda safe houses in Yemen in 2009, Anwar al-Awlaki carefully sized up a young Nigerian volunteer, decided the man had the diligence and dedication for a “martyrdom mission” and finally unveiled what he had in mind.
Mr. Awlaki, an American-born cleric who had become a leading propagandist for Al Qaeda, told the man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, that “the attack should occur on board a U.S. airliner,” according to the account Mr. Abdulmutallab gave the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Mr. Abdulmutallab told F.B.I. agents that he “was resolved to killing innocent people and considered them to be ‘collateral damage.’” With “guidance” from Mr. Awlaki, he said, he had “worked through all these issues.”
Newly released documents, obtained by The New York Times after a two-year legal battle under the Freedom of Information Act, fill in the details of a central episode in the American conflict with Al Qaeda: Mr. Abdulmutallab’s recruitment by Mr. Awlaki and his failed attempt to blow up an airliner approaching Detroit on Christmas in 2009 using sophisticated explosives hidden in his underwear.
The documents’ detailed account of Mr. Awlaki, who stars in Mr. Abdulmutallab’s story as both a religious hero and a practical adviser on carrying out mayhem, is particularly important. The government allegation that Mr. Awlaki was behind the underwear bomb plot — never tested in a court of law — became the central justification that President Barack Obama cited for ordering the cleric’s killing in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
Mr. Awlaki became the first American citizen deliberately killed on the order of a president, without criminal charges or trial, since the Civil War. Some legal scholars questioned whether the order was constitutional. Mr. Obama argued that killing Mr. Awlaki was the equivalent of a justified police shooting of a gunman who was threatening civilians.
The F.B.I.’s decision in 2010 to keep the interview summaries secret led some critics to question the quality of the evidence against Mr. Awlaki. The 200 pages of redacted documents released to The Times this week, on the order of a federal judge, suggest that the Obama administration had ample firsthand testimony from Mr. Abdulmutallab that the cleric oversaw his training and conceived the plot.
The detailed reports of Mr. Abdulmutallab may also play into the debate President Trump has renewed about whether torture is ever necessary to get useful information from terrorism suspects. Most experienced interrogators say no, and their arguments would receive support from these interviews. [Continue reading…]
AFP reports: President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday said Raqa is not a priority target for his forces, saying his goal is to retake “every inch” of Syrian territory.
“Raqa is a symbol,” Assad said in an interview with French media, while asserting that jihadist attacks carried out in France were “not necessarily prepared” in the Islamic State group (IS) stronghold in Syria.
“You have ISIS close to Damascus, you have them everywhere,” Assad said, using another acronym for IS.
“Everywhere is a priority depending on the development of the battle,” he said, as a new round of peace talks was set to kick off in the Kazakh capital Astana.
“They are in Palmyra now and in the eastern part of Syria,” he said in the interview in Damascus with Europe 1 radio and the TF1 and LCI television channels.
“For us it is all the same, Raqa, Palmyra, Idlib, it’s all the same.”
The Syrian leader said it was the “duty of any government” to regain control of “every inch” of its territory. [Continue reading…]
BBC News reports: The Syrian jihadist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), known as al-Nusra Front until it broke off formal ties with al-Qaeda last July, has merged with four smaller Syrian factions and rebranded itself as “Tahrir al-Sham”.
The new group’s leader has been named as Hashim al-Sheikh, who previously served as the head of the powerful Islamist rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham.
Ahrar al-Sham itself has refused to join the new body and has been at loggerheads with JFS in northern Syria.
On 9 February, al-Shaikh delivered the group’s first leadership message in which he insisted the new entity was independent and not an extension of former organisations and factions.
By reinventing itself again, JFS appears to be trying to distance itself from its al-Qaeda past and embed itself more deeply within the Syrian insurgency.
No mention has been made of JFS leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani in any of the new group’s communications. But he is widely believed to be serving as its military commander. [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: President Donald Trump has set out to crush Islamic State when it is already at a low ebb, but Islamists and some analysts say his actions could strengthen the ultra-hardline group by creating new recruits and inspiring attacks on U.S. soil.
IS has been weakened in recent months by battlefield defeats, the loss of territory in Iraq, Syria and Libya, and a decline in its finances and the size of its fighting forces.
Trump’s pledge to eradicate “Islamic extremism” looks at first sight to be yet another blow to Islamic State’s chances of success.
But Middle East experts and IS supporters say his election triumph could help revive the group’s fortunes. They also believe his move late last month to temporarily ban refugees and bar nationals from seven mainly Muslim countries could work in the group’s favor.
The executive order, on which IS has been silent, is in limbo after being overturned by a judge. But whether or not it is reinstated, it has angered Muslims across the world who, despite Trump’s denials, see it as evidence that he and his administration are Islamophobic. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Angry at the civilian casualties incurred last month in the first commando raid authorized by President Trump, Yemen has withdrawn permission for the United States to run Special Operations ground missions against suspected terrorist groups in the country, according to American officials.
Grisly photographs of children apparently killed in the crossfire of a 50-minute firefight during the raid caused outrage in Yemen. A member of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, Chief Petty Officer William Owens, was also killed in the operation.
While the White House continues to insist that the attack was a “success” — a characterization it repeated on Tuesday — the suspension of commando operations is a setback for Mr. Trump, who has made it clear he plans to take a far more aggressive approach against Islamic militants.
It also calls into question whether the Pentagon will receive permission from the president for far more autonomy in selecting and executing its counterterrorism missions in Yemen, which it sought, unsuccessfully, from President Barack Obama in the last months of his term. [Continue reading…]
U.S. military: Trump approved first counterterrorism op without sufficient intel, ground support or adequate backup
Reuters reports: The U.S. military said on Wednesday it was looking into whether more civilians were killed in a raid on al Qaeda in Yemen on the weekend, in the first operation authorized by President Donald Trump as commander in chief.
U.S. Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens was killed in the raid on a branch of al Qaeda, also known as AQAP, in al Bayda province, which the Pentagon said also killed 14 militants. However, medics at the scene said about 30 people, including 10 women and children, were killed.
U.S. Central Command said in a statement that an investigating team had “concluded regrettably that civilian non-combatants were likely killed” during Sunday’s raid. It said children may have been among the casualties.
Central Command said its assessment “seeks to determine if there were any still-undetected civilian casualties in the ferocious firefight.”
U.S. military officials told Reuters that Trump approved his first covert counterterrorism operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations.
As a result, three officials said, the attacking SEAL team found itself dropping onto a reinforced al Qaeda base defended by landmines, snipers, and a larger than expected contingent of heavily armed Islamist extremists. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Just five days after taking office, over dinner with his newly installed secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, President Trump was presented with the first of what will be many life-or-death decisions: whether to approve a commando raid that risked the lives of American Special Operations forces and foreign civilians alike.
President Barack Obama’s national security aides had reviewed the plans for a risky attack on a small, heavily guarded brick home of a senior Qaeda collaborator in a mountainous village in a remote part of central Yemen. But Mr. Obama did not act because the Pentagon wanted to launch the attack on a moonless night and the next one would come after his term had ended.
With two of his closest advisers, Jared Kushner and Stephen K. Bannon, joining the dinner at the White House along with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., Mr. Trump approved sending in the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, hoping the raid early last Sunday would scoop up cellphones and laptop computers that could yield valuable clues about one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups. Vice President Mike Pence and Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser, also attended the dinner.
As it turned out, almost everything that could go wrong did. And on Wednesday, Mr. Trump flew to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to be present as the body of the American commando killed in the raid was returned home, the first military death on the new commander in chief’s watch.
The death of Chief Petty Officer William Owens came after a chain of mishaps and misjudgments that plunged the elite commandos into a ferocious 50-minute firefight that also left three others wounded and a $75 million aircraft deliberately destroyed. There are allegations — which the Pentagon acknowledged on Wednesday night are most likely correct — that the mission also killed several civilians, including some children. The dead include, by the account of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Qaeda leader who was killed in a targeted drone strike in 2011. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: President Donald Trump personally approved a US commando raid in Yemen that left one elite serviceman dead and may have killed an eight-year-old American girl, the US military has told the Guardian.
At least 14 people died in Sunday’s raid by the elite Joint Special Operations Command, which is now the subject of a preliminary inquiry to determine if allegations of civilian deaths are sufficiently credible to merit a full investigation.
The operation was launched to gather intelligence on suspected operations by al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula (AQAP), according to Colonel John Thomas, a spokesman for US Central Command. Planning for the raid “started months before”, under Barack Obama’s administration, but was “not previously approved”, he said.
Thomas said he did not know why the prior administration did not authorize the operation, but said the Obama administration had effectively exercised a “pocket veto” over it.
A former official said the operation had been reviewed several times, but the underlying intelligence was not judged strong enough to justify the risks, and the case was left to the incoming Trump administration to make its own judgment.
An eight-year-old girl, Nawar al-Awlaki, was killed in the raid, according to her family. Nawar, also known as Nora, is the daughter of the al-Qaida propagandist and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a September 2011 US drone strike in Yemen. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman was killed in a second drone strike soon afterwards.
On the campaign trail, Trump endorsed killing relatives of terrorist suspects, which is a war crime. “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” he told Fox News in December 2015. [Continue reading…]
Peter Bergen writes: On Friday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that effectively suspends the entry of Syrian refugees into the United States indefinitely. As he signed the order, President Trump said that this was “to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States.”
This order will achieve absolutely nothing because there is no evidence of terrorists among the Syrian refugees who are settling in the United States.
All the lethal acts of jihadist terrorism in the States since 9/11 have been carried out by American citizens or legal residents, and none of them have been the work of Syrian refugees.
That shouldn’t be too surprising, because the United States has accepted only a minuscule number of Syrian refugees, even though the Syrian civil war is one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II and has generated a vast outflow of nearly 5 million refugees from Syria.
The United States has taken only around 15,000 Syrian refugees, amounting to a tiny 0.2% of the total number of refugees, the large majority of whom are women and children.
Not only are these Syrian refugees not terrorists, but they are fleeing the brutal state terrorism of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and the brutal non-state terrorism of ISIS.
The refugees are the victims of terrorism, not the perpetrators of terrorism. [Continue reading…]