ISIS controls 50% of Syria after seizing historic city of Palmyra

The Guardian reports: Islamic State now holds sway over half of Syria’s landmass after its seizure of Palmyra, where it has begun massacring a rebellious tribe and faces no opposition to its entry and sacking of the historic city’s ancient ruins.

“There are no forces to stop them [entering the ruins],” Rami Abdul Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, said. “But the important thing also is they now control 50% of Syria.”

Isis seized Palmyra on Wednesday night after a week-long siege that led to the collapse of forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. The militants are drawing closer to his strongholds of Homs and Damascus and severing supply lines to Deir Ezzor in the east, which faces an overpowering Isis crackdown.

Local activists said Isis had imposed a curfew and was sweeping the city for remnants of Assad’s forces. Isis has also massacred members of the Shaitat tribe, which fought alongside the Assad regime in Palmyra and had railed against Isis in Deir Ezzor – a rebellion in which the militant group killed 800 members of the tribe.

Control of Palmyra leaves Isis with unopposed access to the city’s magnificent ruins, amid fears that they will destroy significant chunks of Syria’s heritage as they did in Iraq.

But more significantly, Isis controls vast swaths of Syria, from Palmyra to Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in the country’s west, a tract that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates to be 95,000 sq km, or more than half Syria’s landmass. With its seizure of the Arak and al-Hail gas fields near Palmyra, it also controls much of the country’s electricity supply – those two fields power much of the Syrian regime’s strongholds in the west. [Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast adds: According to Khaled Omran, a member of the Palmyra’s anti-Assad Coordinating Committee, the regime tried to reinforce its collapsing front lines Wednesday with detainees from the notorious Tadmour Prison. Most, however, ran away from the ISIS onslaught rather than stay and fight for their jailers. “I saw about 10 busloads of prisoners being driven to the front,” Omran said Wednesday evening via Skype. “Maybe 1,000 men.” They added to the regime’s “thousands” of soldiers and forcibly conscripted tribal militias who were used, in Omran’s words, as “cannon fodder.”

Assad’s military were stationed throughout the city and its outlying districts, which are home to several security installations, including an important airbase that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps has used in the past to deliver resupplies to its overstretched and attrited ally, and the Syrian air force has used to wage sorties on mostly civilian and non-ISIS targets in the war-torn country. However, the use of prisoners to defend against ISIS stands as an interesting contrast to how the terror army did the jailbreaking in Ramadi earlier in the week in order to swell their own ranks.

“Four days ago, ISIS started their preparations to storm” Palmyra, Omran explained. “Regime forces called in reinforcements, mainly to the military security branch and the citadel, but relied heavily on their air force. The number of ISIS fighters was quite small—they were in the hundreds. They weren’t very heavily equipped, save for antiaircraft guns mounted on trucks in six positions around the city.” These rudimentary air defenses were enough to deter to the fighter planes and attack helicopters. “I didn’t see them down any jets, but the guns were enough to deter most of the aerial assaults.” [Continue reading…]

Oryx Blog says: With the strategically important town of al-Sukhna falling just over a week before, and the Iraqi city of Ramadi just days before Tadmur, it appears the Islamic State is far from being under control, and possibly attempting to revive the seemingly unstoppable upmarch of last summer.

Tadmur [Palmyra], which is also home to Tadmur airbase, is of high strategic importance due to its position at the base of the vital M20 highway, which leads through the recently fallen al-Sukhna to the regime’s last holdout in the East of the country: Deir ez-Zor. Without access to this highway and with little prospect of retaking both of the Islamic State’s newest gains, the Assad-regime will face extreme difficulty in keeping its troops in Deir ez-Zor supplied, and the fall of the city and associated airbase might soon become inevitable.

The town of Tadmur is best known for the ancient Roman monuments and ruins, which, given the Islamic State’s history with the destruction of historical sites, is now feared to be a target for vandalism. Although this aspect will likely incite a lot of coverage from Western media, it should not be forgotten that there are also thousands of lives at stake, with hundreds of casualties reported so far and many dead, despite earlier reporting from Syrian State Media that citizens were being evacuated. Of course, with mainstream media eager to find new stories that might interest a diverse public, events such as renewed poison gas attacks and the current offensive are less likely to be covered than a story on ancient Roman ruins in danger of destruction.

Also of great importance are the massive weapon depots located in Tadmur, one of the largest in Syria. While the exact contents of the depots remain unknown, there are reports of ballistic missiles being stored here. Should this be the case, it is likely images of such missiles in Islamic State’s hands will surface again soon, even though it is unlikely that they will get any to work. Perhaps more of interest is the fact that many other types of weaponry captured by the fighters of Islamic State as Ghaneema (spoils of war) will provide the means for future offensives, allowing the Islamic State to exert pressure on fronts throughout the region. [Continue reading…]

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Islamist rebel leader says if regime is toppled, Syrian people can choose their form of government

Zahran Alloush, head of the Army of Islam, a Syrian rebel militia, in his first interview with U.S. news media spoke to McClatchy in Istanbul: The charismatic Alloush, who has a master’s degree in Shariah law from the Islamic University in Medina, Saudi Arabia, and spent two years in a regime jail on suspicion of “religious activity,” said that as leader of a major militia but also a religious scholar, he had to be part of the debate.

“I have the right to discuss. In any discussion, I would express my own views and others theirs,” he said.

In his interview with McClatchy, he adhered to the moderate line: “If we succeed in toppling the regime, we will leave it to the Syrian people to choose the form of state they want,” he said. “As for coexistence with minorities, this has been the situation in Syria for hundreds of years. We are not seeking to impose our power on minorities or to practice oppression against them.”

Another aide said that Alloush, to improve his image, was ready to dispense with the black and white Islamic flag and adopt the Syrian flag used by other rebel forces.

Whatever comes of the shift in his public stance, Alloush doesn’t expect to receive any aid from the U.S. government.

“Frankly speaking, the current administration is a hindrance to the Syrian people,” he said. “It prevents it from getting its freedom.”

He charged the U.S. with maintaining a “double standard” – ousting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein under the pretext that he had chemical weapons while not punishing Assad even after he’d used chemical weapons. He also said the U.S. had blocked a shipment of anti-aircraft weapons that had been due to come from Libya.

“We have been in contact with them many times,” he said, “but we have reached the conclusion that the current administration doesn’t care about the Syrian people. They see atrocities happening in Syria and do nothing. They don’t allow us to defend ourselves.”

In fact, he said the Army of Islam had been in direct touch with Daniel Rubinstein, the Obama administration’s special envoy for Syria, an assertion the State Department confirmed.

Alloush was especially bitter about the U.S. government sending him a message in February that asked him to halt rocket attacks on Damascus. [Continue reading…]

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European nations unify laws to prevent foreign fighters

The Associated Press: European governments agreed Tuesday to synchronize their laws to bar citizens from going abroad to fight for the Islamic State group and other extremists.

A document signed by foreign ministers from the 47-nation Council of Europe requires countries to outlaw specific actions, including intentionally taking part in terrorist groups, receiving terrorist training or traveling abroad for the purpose of engaging in terrorism.

Analysts say European laws vary, with some countries like France charging people with crimes if they plan to leave to join a violent extremist group, and others, such as in Scandinavia, lacking a legal way to prevent their citizens from becoming foreign fighters.

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1,850 killed, over 500,000 displaced in Yemen: UN

AFP: The United Nations said on Tuesday that some 1,850 people had been killed and more than 500,000 displaced as a result of the conflict raging in Yemen since late March.

As of May 15, 1,849 people had been killed and 7,394 had been injured, the UN humanitarian agency said citing numbers from Yemen health facilities.

The UN has repeatedly stressed that many of those injured and killed do not pass through health facilities, meaning the actual toll could be higher.

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Germany’s struggle for the soul of returning Islamists

Der Spiegel reports: When Emrah was furious at Germany, he used the name Schmitz and called the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). He said that al-Qaida was planning to attack the Reichstag, the German parliament building in Berlin. It was during the autumn of 2010, and Emrah was often making calls to Germany, his old home, which he had left to fight against. It was a fight for al-Qaida, against the West.

Emrah was the first Islamist to attract the attention of Germany’s interior minister. After his call, Thomas de Maizière had metal bars installed at the Reichstag and ordered police officers carrying submachine guns to patrol train stations. The fear of Islamist terror had reached the Platz der Republik, the public square in front of the Reichstag building — and it was Emrah’s fault.

Emrah, a 27-year-old convicted terrorist, is now back in Germany. His journey, which began in the western German city of Wuppertal and took him to Asia and Africa, ended in a cell in a Frankfurt maximum-security prison, with 17-meter (56-foot) walls, barbed wire, motion detectors and surveillance cameras. Emrah’s cell in Unit B measures 11 square meters (118 square feet), has gray bars in front of the windows, and is furnished with a blue mattress, a water kettle, a refrigerator and a radio. Emrah now communicates with the German state through a metal button he can push in his cell.

Now that he has returned from fighting abroad, a new battle has begun. At the center of this new struggle is Emrah the returnee, his future, and security in Germany. It is a battle being waged by Islamists like Bernhard Falk, extremism experts like Claudia Dantschke and prison chaplains like Mustafa Cimsit. They are fighting for the souls of Emrah and his brothers in spirit. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt appoints outspoken Brotherhood critic justice minister

Reuters: Egypt appointed a hardline judge and outspoken critic of the Muslim Brotherhood as justice minister on Wednesday in a move decried by a leading opposition figure as a disaster for justice in the world’s most populous Arab country.

Ahmed el-Zend, a former appeals court judge, has in contrast to his predecessor been publicly outspoken in his criticism of the Islamist movement removed from power in mid-2013 by the army and banned as a terrorist organization.

Some Egyptian judges are seen by critics as hardliners whose rulings are in line with the toughest crackdown on Islamists in the country’s history. The judiciary says it is independent.

Liberal activist Shady el-Ghazaly Harb said the appointment was part of a trend towards empowering opponents of the 2011 uprising that ousted veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

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Leaks gain credibility and potential to embarrass Egypt’s leaders

The New York Times reported on May 12: For months, a steady trickle of leaked audio recordings has appeared to offer a rare chance to eavesdrop on embarrassing conversations among the inner circle of army generals around President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt.

Mr. Sisi and the generals can be heard laughing at their Persian Gulf patrons; pulling strings to manipulate the courts, the news media and neighboring countries; and stashing billions of dollars in special military accounts outside the control of the civilian government — if the recordings are accurate.

Now, some evidence has emerged to suggest they are. In three reports given to the British police, a respected audio forensics firm has found “moderately strong” evidence to authenticate Mr. Sisi’s voice on two recordings and the voice of a top general, Mamdouh Shaheen, on another.

There are “no indications” that the recordings were fabricated by splicing together disparate statements out of context, the firm, J. P. French Associates, concluded, calling such editing extremely implausible. [Continue reading…]

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Palmyra and its ancient ruins have fallen to ISIS

The New York Times reports: Islamic State militants swept into the desert city of Palmyra in central Syria on Wednesday, and by evening were in control of it, residents and Syrian state news media said, a victory that gives them another strategically important prize five days after the group seized the Iraqi city of Ramadi.

Palmyra has extra resonance, with its grand complex of 2,000-year-old colonnades and tombs, one of the world’s most magnificent remnants of antiquity, as well as the grimmer modern landmark of Tadmur Prison, where Syrian dissidents have languished over the decades.

But for the fighters on the ground, the city of 50,000 people is significant because it sits among gas fields and astride a network of roads across the country’s central desert. Palmyra’s vast unexcavated antiquities could also provide significant revenue through illegal trafficking.

Control of Palmyra gives the Islamic State command of roads leading from its strongholds in eastern Syria to Damascus and the other major cities of the populated west, as well as new links to western Iraq, the other half of its self-declared caliphate.

The advance, in which residents described soldiers and the police fleeing, wounded civilians unable to reach hospitals and museum workers hurrying to pack up antiquities, comes even as the United States is scrambling to come up with a response to the loss of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province.

The two successes, at opposite ends of a battlefield sprawling across two countries, showed the Islamic State’s ability to shake off setbacks and advance on multiple fronts, less than two months after it was driven from the Iraqi city of Tikrit — erasing any notion that the group had suffered a game-changing blow. [Continue reading…]

Prof Kevin Butcher writes: From modest beginnings in the 1st Century BC, Palmyra gradually rose to prominence under the aegis of Rome until, during the 3rd Century AD, the city’s rulers challenged Roman power and created an empire of their own that stretched from Turkey to Egypt.

The story of its Queen Zenobia, who fought against the Roman Emperor Aurelian, is well known; but it is less well-known that Palmyra also fought another empire: that of the Sasanian Persians.

In the middle of the third century, when the Sasanians invaded the Roman Empire and captured the Emperor Valerian, it was the Palmyrenes who defeated them and drove them back across the Euphrates.

For several decades Rome had to rely on Palmyrene power to prop up its declining influence in the east.

Palmyra was a great Middle Eastern achievement, and was unlike any other city of the Roman Empire.

It was quite unique, culturally and artistically. In other cities the landed elites normally controlled affairs, whereas in Palmyra a merchant class dominated the political life, and the Palmyrenes specialised in protecting merchant caravans crossing the desert. [Continue reading…]

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Anyone telling you ISIS is in decline isn’t paying attention

Hassan Hassan writes: Once again, in less than a year, Iraqi soldiers abandoned their positions en masse and fled in the face of advancing Islamic State forces. The fall of the city of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province, leaves no doubt about the jihadi group’s capabilities: Despite U.S. attempts to paint it as a gravely weakened organization, the Islamic State remains a powerful force that is on the offensive in several key fronts across Syria and Iraq.

Ramadi is far from the only front on which the Islamic State is advancing. The group last week launched an offensive, supported by multiple suicide operations, in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor against President Bashar al-Assad regime’s holdouts in the military air base. In the central city of Palmyra, it attacked a regime base near the ancient Roman ruins. It also recently clashed with Syrian rebels and the regime in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, the provinces of Homs and Hama, and the southern city of Quneitra, near the border with Israel.

Nor are the Islamic State’s gains in Iraq confined to Ramadi. The group has advanced deep into the Baiji oil refinery, the largest in the country. And it has since pushed on from Ramadi, attacking the nearby town of Khalidiya; if the group is successful, that might provide it with the territorial depth to advance on Baghdad.

The Islamic State’s recent advance did not take the world by surprise, as it did when the group captured Mosul and other areas across Iraq last year. This time, the United States said it conducted seven airstrikes in Ramadi, in an effort to prevent its fall, in the 24 hours before the city was lost. Local officials in Ramadi, meanwhile, had repeatedly warned that the city would be overrun if they did not receive urgent reinforcements. But the international and Iraqi support that arrived was simply insufficient to hold the city.

Therefore, the prevalent narrative that the Islamic State is destined to decline appears to be false. Rather than suffering from resource and manpower shortages, the group is only increasing its grip on the local populations in its strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa, Syria; it is also attracting a considerable number of recruits, especially among teenagers. [Continue reading…]

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Fall of Ramadi to ISIS weakens rule of Iraqi premier

The New York Times reports: As Shiite militiamen began streaming toward Ramadi on Monday to try to reverse the loss of the city to the Islamic State, the defeat has given new momentum to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s rivals within his own Shiite political bloc.

At the urging of American officials who sought to sideline the militias, Mr. Abadi had, in effect, gambled that the combination of United States airstrikes and local Sunni tribal fighters would be able to drive Islamic State fighters out of the city as fighting intensified in recent weeks. The hope was that a victory in Ramadi could also serve as a push for a broader offensive to retake the Sunni heartland of Anbar Province.

But as the setback brought the Shiite militias, and their Iranian backers, back into the picture in Anbar, intensified Shiite infighting appeared to leave the prime minister more vulnerable than ever. And it presented a new example of how developments on the Iraqi battlefield have sometimes instantly shifted political currents in the country.

“Abadi does not have a strong challenge from Iraq’s Sunnis or Iraqi Kurds,” said Ahmed Ali, an Iraqi analyst in Washington with the Education for Peace in Iraq Center. “It’s from the Shia side.” [Continue reading…]

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Fall of Ramadi reflects failure of Iraq’s strategy against ISIS, analysts say

The Washington Post reports: As Islamic State militants repeatedly attacked ­Ramadi this year, police solicited cash from local families and businessmen to buy weapons, one officer recalled. The Iraqi government didn’t pay the police for months, he said.

“We begged and begged for more support from the government, but nothing,” said Col. Eissa al-Alwani, a senior police officer in the city.

The fall of Ramadi amounts to more than the loss of a major city in Iraq’s largest province, analysts say. It could undermine Sunni support for Iraq’s broader effort to drive back the Islamic State, vastly complicating the war effort.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Tuesday reiterated a government pledge to train and arm Sunni fighters to rout the extremists from the predominantly Sunni province. The government had announced a military campaign that envisioned taking back Anbar province in the coming months and then moving on for a climactic battle with the extremists in Mosul, Iraq’s ­second-largest city.

But the plan to form an effective Sunni fighting force was slow to take shape, hobbled by government concerns that some of the Sunnis might be close to the Islamic State, analysts say. [Continue reading…]

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Kurds advance against ISIS in northeastern Syria

Reuters: Kurdish forces backed by U.S.-led air strikes are pressing an attack on Islamic State in northeastern Syria that has killed at least 170 members of the jihadist group this week, a Kurdish official and a monitoring group said on Wednesday.

The official said Kurdish YPG fighters and allied militia have encircled Islamic State militants in a dozen villages near the town of Tel Tamr in Hasaka province. The region is important in the battle against Islamic State because it borders land controlled by the jihadists in Iraq.

The Kurdish YPG appear to be trying to drive Islamic State from a stronghold in the mountainous Jabal Abdul Aziz area to the southwest of Tel Tamr, said Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

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Government appears helpless as hundreds of young Britons click through to jihad

By Natasha Underhill, Nottingham Trent University

We have been hearing for some time now that hundreds of mainly young people have left the UK and found their way to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State. Headlines about young schoolgirls with excellent exam results and bright prospects sneaking across the border from Turkey, or the cold brutality of “Jihadi John” as a representative of Britain’s IS executioners have made for chilling reading.

While the media obsesses about the individual stories behind these defections, the UK government – like those in Australia, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, United States, Spain, as well as a number of northern African states – are desperately seeking a strategy to combat the lure of recruitment to jihad.

Overall, the police have noted that more than 700 potential terrorist suspects have travelled to Syria over the past year.

Meanwhile Scotland Yard reported recently that a record 338 people were arrested for terror-related activities in the UK in the year to march 2015 – almost one per day. This represents a dramatic increase of 33% on the 254 who were arrested in 2013/14 – a shocking statistic. Close analysis of those 338 arrests, shows that more than half were arrested in relation to their activities in Syria. Almost eight in ten of these suspects arrested were British nationals.

[Read more…]

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Russia bans ‘undesirable’ international organisations ahead of 2016 elections

The Guardian reports: Russia’s parliament has passed a law banning “undesirable” international organisations, raising fears of a further crackdown on voices critical of the Kremlin.

According to the legislation, the prosecutor general and foreign ministry can register as undesirable any “foreign or international organisation that presents a threat to the defensive capabilities or security of the state, to the public order, or to the health of the population”.

Blacklisted groups will be forbidden from operating branches or distributing information in Russia and banks will have to notify the prosecutor general and justice ministry of any financial transfers involving them. Although the language of the threat posed was vague, the bill’s authors suggested that international NGOs often work in the interests of foreign intelligence agencies. [Continue reading…]

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Stakes getting dangerously high for Saudi Arabia and its young prince

Bruce Riedel writes: As the war in Yemen resumes after a short humanitarian truce, the stakes are getting higher for Saudi Arabia’s princes.

The Royal Saudi Air Force and its allies resumed their bombing campaign this week after a five-day cease-fire to allow humanitarian supplies into Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s 29-year-old Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman has staked his future and his country’s on achieving some kind of victory in the kingdom’s war in Yemen. A truce that leaves Sanaa under the control of what the Saudis claim is an Iranian protégé regime is clearly not a decisive victory for the royals.

Instead — after weeks of air attacks on the Zaydi Shiite Houthi rebels and their allies — the prince’s war looks like a stalemate. The immense damage done to Yemen’s weak infrastructure has created considerable bad blood between Yemenis and their rich Gulf neighbors that will poison relations for years. Yemenis always resented their rich brothers, and now many will want revenge. Iran is scoring a victory on its Gulf rival without any cost to Tehran and with only limited Iranian assistance to the Zaydis. [Continue reading…]

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Wanted in Saudi Arabia: Executioners

The New York Times reports: Job seekers in Saudi Arabia who have a strong constitution and endorse strict Islamic law might consider new opportunities carrying out public beheadings and amputating the hands of convicted thieves.

The eight positions, as advertised on the website of the Ministry of Civil Service, require no specific skills or educational background for “carrying out the death sentence according to Islamic Shariah after it is ordered by a legal ruling.” But given the grisly nature of the job, a scarcity of qualified swordsmen in some regions of the country and a rise in the frequency of executions, candidates might face a heavy workload.

Saudi Arabia’s justice system punishes drug dealing, arms smuggling, and murder and other violent crimes with death, usually by beheading in a public square.

Although the law also mandates that thieves in some cases have their hands cut off, that punishment is rarely carried out because judges consider it distasteful, according to Saudi lawyers.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia beheaded a man for a drug offense, making him the 85th person to be executed this year, according to a count by Human Rights Watch based on Saudi government statements. That is almost as many people as the country executed in all of last year, when 88 people were beheaded. Thirty-eight of this year’s executions, including the one on Sunday, were for drug-related crimes with no allegations of violence, according to Adam Coogle, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.

In the United States, 35 prisoners were executed in 2014. [Continue reading…]

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Israeli scheme to ban Palestinians from buses tantamount to apartheid

The Guardian reports: Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has cancelled a pilot scheme banning Palestinian workers from Israeli buses in the occupied territories – denounced as tantamount to apartheid – only hours after it was announced.

The plan had been approved by Netanyahu’s defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, but was cancelled amid fierce criticism from Israeli opposition figures, human rights groups and a former minister in Netanyahu’s own party, who said it was a “stain on the face Israel” that would damage its international image.

The move had been enthusiastically welcomed by settler groups and pro-settlement MPs who had long been lobbying for the ban.

The three month pilot scheme – which had been due to come into force on Wednesday – would have imposed strict new controls on thousands of Palestinians with permits to work in Israel, insisting they travel home through certain designated checkpoints and banning them from using Israeli run buses in the occupied West Bank.

The timing of the scheme’s launch – during visits by world football head Sepp Blatter and the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini – had seemed bizarre. Blatter is seeking to defuse moves to have a vote on Israel’s suspension from Fifa for alleged discrimination against Palestinians. [Continue reading…]

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Defense Intelligence Agency report in 2012 warned about rise of ISIS in Iraq

Fox News reports: Seventeen months before President Obama dismissed the Islamic State as a “JV team,” a Defense Intelligence Agency report predicted the rise of the terror group and likely establishment of a caliphate if its momentum was not reversed.

While the report was circulated to the CIA, State Department and senior military leaders, among others, it’s not known whether Obama was ever briefed on the document.

The DIA report, which was reviewed by Fox News, was obtained through a federal lawsuit by conservative watchdog Judicial Watch. Documents from the lawsuit also reveal a host of new details about events leading up to the 2012 Benghazi terror attack — and how the movement of weapons from Libya to Syria fueled the violence there. [Continue reading…]

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