French plan to hold Israel-Palestine conference postponed indefinitely

Middle East Eye reports: A conference on the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, due to be held on 30 May in Paris, has been postponed, French President Francois Hollande said on Tuesday.

“[US Secretary of State] John Kerry cannot come on May 30 so it has been delayed. It will take place in the summer,” he told French radio.

Hollande said it was vital for France to take “a strong initiative” in the dispute.

“If not… what will happen? Settlement building, attacks,” he said.

The original date for the conference falls on the US Memorial Day holiday honouring members of the armed forces who died in combat.

“We’re in discussions right now with the French about any possible alternative date that might better work for the secretary,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday, though he added that Kerry’s agenda is currently “jammed”.[Continue reading…]

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Israel tells France it’s not interested in multilateral peace talks

The Washington Post reports: French officials said Sunday that they will continue to press ahead with plans to host a multilateral Middle East peace conference later this year, despite hearing, in blunt language, that Israel doesn’t really like the idea.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday to promote what diplomats are calling the “French Initiative,” a still evolving and admittedly vague diplomatic project that seeks to bring global attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and find consensus among the international community on how to move forward with a two-state solution.

The French are planning to host about 30 foreign ministers — from Europe and the Middle East as well as Russia, China and India — at a preparatory meeting at the end of this month, which could lead to a peace conference later this year.

Neither Israel nor the Palestinians, who support the French Initiative, will attend the May meeting in Paris.

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has not said whether he would be there.

Israeli officials have been pressing Washington to pour cold water on the French effort, which seeks to fill the vacuum left behind by the Obama administration, which declared that it would not be making any major move to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. [Continue reading…]

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Suspects linked to the alleged ringleader of the Paris attacks go on trial in Belgium

The Wall Street Journal reports: Islamic State sent at least three Belgians who had joined its ranks in Syria back to Europe in 2014 to carry out an attack that was narrowly foiled, according to evidence revealed Monday by Belgian judges at the start of a trial involving at least 16 people implicated in the plot.

The plot appears to foreshadow the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris: The men were taking orders from a man they called Omar, the judges said, identified by authorities as Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian Islamic State operative who led the group that attacked Paris.

The alleged plot, whose target is unclear, was foiled in January 2015, when elite Belgian and French police killed two of the men at a safe house in the eastern Belgian town of Verviers and arrested several others.

Authorities failed to catch Mr. Abaaoud, allowing him to rebuild his network in Europe for the terror attacks he orchestrated in Paris in November.

The judges presented evidence at the start of a three-week trial in the Brussels courthouse. Nine of the defendants weren’t present: They are believed to be fighting in the ranks of Islamic State in Syria or, authorities fear, back in Europe.

Belgian security services had been listening to the men’s telephone calls after discovering that one of the defendants—, Souhaib El Abdi, who authorities allege has numerous connections to known Islamist radicals in Belgium—had recently returned from a brief stay in Turkey, suggesting he may have gone to Syria, the judges said.

“I was there on vacation,” Mr. El Abdi said Monday at the trial.

Prosecutors labeled four of the men on trial as leaders of the plot. Among them are Mr. El Abdi, Mohammed Arshad Mahmood Najmi, a former tram driver in the Brussels transport system, and Marouan El Bali.

Mr. Najmi has admitted to spending several weeks in the ranks of Islamic State in September 2014, his lawyer says. He has told police interrogators that an Islamic State commander sent him back to Europe to carry out an attack, according to people familiar with his testimony. [Continue reading…]

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Birmingham men in court accused of funding Paris attack suspect

The Guardian reports: Two men from Birmingham have appeared in court charged with giving £3,000 to Mohamed Abrini, who was allegedly involved in the terrorist attacks on Paris and Brussels.

Abrini, captured on camera wearing a hat during the bombing of the Brussels airport in March, got the cash for terrorist purposes, British prosecutors have said.

The claims of alleged British links to those behind the November 2015 attacks on Paris that killed 130 people and the attacks on Brussels earlier this year, came during the first court appearance of the two men. [Continue reading…]

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Belgian police knew since 2014 that Abdeslam brothers planned ‘irreversible act’

Politico reports: Belgian police had information as early as mid-2014 that Paris attackers Salah and Brahim Abdeslam intended to carry out “an irreversible act,” according to a classified police watchdog’s report on the country’s response to the Paris attacks.

Brahim Abdeslam blew himself up in Paris last November during the attacks that killed 130 people, while Salah fled and was captured in Brussels last month, four days before the terror attacks in Brussels.

The conclusions of the report, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO, says the brothers’ radicalization, links to Paris attacks mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud, and their intention to commit some sort of act were known to Belgian security forces well before the attacks.

The police’s anti-terror unit argued that it could not file a report on the brothers into the central police database because it could not be established with certainty which brother was involved.

But the watchdog questions that argument, saying the names of both Abdeslam brothers, who lived in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, were already in the database. [Continue reading…]

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Paris terror suspect views life like Grand Theft Auto video game, says his lawyer

Ishaan Tharoor writes: Salah Abdeslam, the 26-year-old French national of Moroccan origin suspected of involvement in November’s terrorist attacks in Paris, was transferred to French custody by Belgian authorities Wednesday. According to French officials, he’ll be placed in solitary confinement in a maximum-security facility as investigative judges determine his eventual charges.

Abdeslam, as my colleague James McAuley noted, was seized March 18 in the troubled Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, which is home to a large, impoverished Muslim minority population. He was arrested for his suspected role in the Paris attacks, which claimed 130 lives, but his capture also preceded — and potentially inspired — a grim set of bombings in Brussels on March 22. Both assaults were believed to have been carried out by proxies of the Islamic State extremist group.

In an interview with the French daily Liberation, Sven Mary, Abdeslam’s Belgian attorney, heaped opprobrium on his departing client, whom Mary described as having “the intelligence of an empty ashtray — an abysmal emptiness.” [Continue reading…]

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Should states take legal action against people who went to fight in Syria but haven’t committed terrorist acts?

The New York Times reports: Ten young Muslim men, bored by a mundane life in France and haunted by a “feeling of uselessness,” as one put it, were seduced by a leading Islamic State recruiter in Europe in 2013. Within months, they were in Syria under the watchful eyes of hooded, Kalashnikov-wielding militants, doing push-ups, fiddling with weapons and imbibing the ideology.

But the harsh regimen, most have since told investigators, was not to their liking, and it was not long before they hastened back to their families in the Strasbourg area, where they were almost immediately picked up by the French authorities.

What to do with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such young men in Europe is now among the biggest challenges facing governments and security services.

After the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks, which were carried out in part by Europeans who had spent time in Syria with the Islamic State, France and other countries are grappling with how far to go in tightening laws to prosecute, monitor and restrict the movements of returnees.

At the heart of the debate is whether to take pre-emptive legal action against people who have not committed terrorist acts or even been implicated in a plot, but who have simply been to Syria and possibly received training in Islamic State camps. [Continue reading…]

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Half of all French soldiers are now deployed on streets at home

The Guardian reports: After last year’s terrorist attacks on Paris, the president, François Hollande, declared that France was at war and swiftly saturated the streets of main cities with soldiers standing guard in full military fatigues to make people feel more secure. The now permanent presence of thousands of soldiers in khaki across the capital and major cities has transformed the image and mood of France.

Operation Sentinelle, in which combat troops patrol streets and protect key sites – from synagogues to art galleries, nursery schools to mosques and Métro stations – is the army’s first wide-scale peacetime military operation on mainland France.

Sentinelle was launched after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket in Paris in January 2015. But after November’s attacks that killed 130 people, Hollande increased the presence to 10,000 troops across the nation, with about 6,500 of them in the Paris area.

But while 79% of French people approve of Sentinelle in a country with a very positive view of its army, political opposition on the right and left has begun to question not the soldiers themselves but the government’s use of the military. Political commentators and ex-military figures have started to query whether deploying soldiers in what one rightwing senator called a mere security guard role is an efficient use of a highly trained – and now highly stretched – army.

The constant presence of camouflage uniforms everywhere from quiet neighbourhood streets to Métro carriages, patrolling past schools at home-time or milling through markets, has transformed the cityscape – and the relationship of the French to their soldiers. People now bring hot drinks and food offerings to men in military fatigues at the end of their street. The elite troops of the foreign legion are invited into a barmitzvah in a street of synagogues that they normally guard. There are now military medals for serving on the streets of French towns and many more young people applying to join the army.

“It’s quite hard to know what to tell children already traumatised and confused by the terrorist attacks,” said the concierge at one central Paris building in a neighbourhood where soldiers are regularly posted. “My five-year-old daughter would shush me and try to hide whenever she saw a soldier. I asked her why. ‘They’re the killers!’ she said. I told her they weren’t at all, but she just replied: ‘But they’ve got guns!’” [Continue reading…]

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One woman helped the mastermind of the Paris attacks. The other turned him in

The Washington Post reports: All of Europe was looking for Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the planner of the Paris attacks, when two women approached his roadside hiding place, guided by the voice of someone secretly watching from a distance and giving directions by phone.

“Go forward. Walk. Stop,” the voice said. “He can see you. He’s coming.”

It was 9:30 p.m., two days after the bombings and shootings in November that left 130 people dead. France had closed its borders and launched a massive manhunt. But Abaaoud emerged from behind a bush and strolled toward the women as if there were nothing unusual about this rendezvous.

One of the women, Abaaoud’s cousin, jumped into his arms, saying, “Hamid, you’re alive!”

But her companion, who had come without knowing who they were to meet, felt a shudder of recognition. “I’d seen him on TV,” she later told police, referring to videos from Syria that showed Abaaoud dragging dead bodies behind a truck.

The meeting, which was described by the woman in an interview and confirmed in French investigative files obtained by The Washington Post, set in motion a three-day sequence that culminated in a raid on an apartment in Saint-Denis, north of Paris. Abaaoud, 28, was killed in that operation by authorities who subsequently learned that he was plotting additional attacks.

His plans were derailed largely because of his decision to involve two women whose impulses when faced with the choice of trying to help him or stop him were immediately at odds.

His cousin, a troubled 26-year-old woman named Hasna Aitboulahcen, helped Abaaoud elude authorities for days and died with him in the Saint-Denis apartment, where one of the cornered militants detonated a suicide bomb.

The other woman, who had served as a surrogate mother to Aitboulahcen for several years, secretly called and met with police, providing information that probably helped authorities stave off another wave of attacks.

The relationship between the two women in many ways reflects broader tensions in Muslim communities across Europe over interpretations of their religion, degrees of loyalty to their countries and the insidious appeal of the Islamic State.

In a Nov. 18 news conference, François Molins, the Paris prosecutor, said that a key witness helped identify Abaaoud on French territory and that investigators “were led to this apartment” by that crucial source. French police declined to elaborate or comment further on the case.

But until now, the public has been unaware that the critical tip in the hunt for Abaaoud came from a Muslim — one of millions who now face a backlash in Europe fueled by anger over the attacks in Paris and Brussels, as well as fear and resentment of a rising tide of refugees.

“It’s important the world knows that I am Muslim myself,” the woman said, citing that as a reason for being willing to speak to The Post. “It’s important to me that people know what Abaaoud and the others did is not what Islam is teaching.” [Continue reading…]

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Revelation on Brussels attackers fuels fears of new assaults

The New York Times reports: The announcement on Sunday that the plotters of last month’s Brussels terror attacks had originally intended to hit Paris again only heightened the concern among police and intelligence agencies that shadowy Islamic State networks could unleash new attacks at any time, not only in France and Belgium but in other European capitals.

As intelligence experts and officials took stock of what they have learned since the Nov. 13 assaults in and around Paris, which killed 130 people, several things have come into focus. The scale of the Islamic State’s operations in Europe are still not known, but they appear to be larger and more layered than investigators at first realized; if the Paris and Brussels attacks are any model, the plotters will rely on local criminal networks in addition to committed extremists.

Even as the United States, its allies and Russia have killed leaders of the Islamic State, and have rolled back some of the extremist organization’s gains on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State appears to be posing a largely hidden and lethal threat across much of Europe. [Continue reading…]

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How French secularism became fundamentalist

Robert Zaretsky writes: For nearly a century, laïcité [which originally assured “the liberty of conscience” for all French citizens] worked well enough. It ensured public space for both those who believed — not just Catholics and Protestants, but Jews as well — and those who did not. But with the 1980s and 1990s came a growing number of immigrants, most of whom were Muslim, from North Africa. And so a different kind of conflict between the French state and established religion began to take shape.

Emblematic of this new tension was a series of battles over a simple strip of clothing. In 1989, a few Muslim girls were expelled from school when they refused to take off their hijabs, or headscarves, which the principal believed was an assault on the secular character of public schools. Shortly after, the French administrative court, the Conseil d’État, ordered them to be reinstated. But two years after 9/11, when similar incidents were repeated at other schools, the court reversed its original finding. While all “ostentatious” signs of religious faith — be they Jewish yarmulkes or Sikh turbans — were declared verboten in public schools, everyone knew that the principal target of the law was the hijab.

In the subsequent sound and fury, the banner of laïcité was unfurled in ways that would surely have been unrecognizable to the 19th-century statesmen like Jules Ferry and Aristide Briand, who helped write the original law. The once-straightforward guarantees of “freedom of conscience” and “free exercise of religious faiths” — rooted in and restricted to the constitutions of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Republics — were transformed under the forces of political passion and mounting existential anguish into the defining French values, and any form of retreat from a fundamentalist interpretation was a failure to defend the republic.

Today, public intellectuals like Alain Finkielkraut, Régis Debray, and Elisabeth Badinter, when discussing laïcité, invoke the very future of France. Badinter, a renowned feminist philosopher, as if in anticipation of the Charlie Hebdo editorial, declared in January that she was not afraid to be called an Islamophobe, arguing that accusations of racism are a weapon against secularism. In a recent essay on secularism, diversity, and national identity titled L’identité malheureuse (“Unhappy Identity”), Finkielkraut confounds myth with history when he declares his sympathy for those “who miss the good old days when native-born Frenchmen and women (Français de souche) mingled with their own kind and who are now shedding a tear over their sepia-colored France that has lost its homogeneity.”

The xenophobic and anti-immigration National Front, too, has weaponized laïcité, turning it into an ideological cudgel to be used against French Muslims. Last year, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the party’s rising star — and granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen — asserted that the National Front is “laïque,” or secular. Yet she then offered an interpretation of the state of religion in France that had very little to do with laïcité as most of the world understands it, exposing the cognitive dissonance shared by the extreme right and left: “If French Muslims wish to practice their faith, they need to accept the fact that they are doing so on soil that is culturally Christian. This means that they cannot have the same rank as the Christian religion.”

Then, last week, the minister for families, children, and women’s rights, Laurence Rossignol, lambasted fashion designers for offering lines of Islamic wear-inspired clothing, including the so-called “burkini,” a full-body bathing suit sold by Marks and Spencer. These brands, Rossignol declared, had “irresponsibly” lent their prestige to clothing designed to oppress women. As for those Muslim women who freely choose to wear religious garb, Rossignol shrugged her shoulders: “There were also American negroes who favored slavery.”

In a single phrase, Rossignol not only let drop a racial slur, but also let slip the implications of how she — a member of government — sees the meaning of laïcité today: No normal French woman, Rossignol seems to believe, would choose to wear Islamic dress as a sign of her religious faith. Tellingly, Rossignol’s use of the word “négre” sparked more outrage in the media than her claim that burkini-wearing women have no place in a truly secular society. [Continue reading…]

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Does ISIS even have a European strategy?

Baghdadi-bw

Benjamin H. Friedman writes: With the bombers dead and investigations just a week old, the motives behind last week’s bombings in Brussels’ airport and metro will remain murky for some time. Of course, reporters and terrorism analysts have offered lots of speculation, much of it focused on how the attacks serve the agenda of ISIS’s leaders. That approach, I believe, overstates ISIS’s coherence and wisdom. If “ISIS” means the would-be state in Syria in Iraq, plus affiliated groups and clandestine networks of sympathizers, then it doesn’t have a strategy; it has strategies, often foolish ones.

Statements claiming responsibility for the attack, attributed to ISIS’s leadership in Syria, blame Belgium for joining in the war in Syria and Iraq and threaten coalition members with similar treatment. The attack, in other words, was meant to coerce foreign powers to quit making war on ISIS.

Those statements are indications that ISIS’s leaders didn’t know the particulars of the attack in advance, let alone direct it. Like some prior ISIS’s claims of reasonability for attacks, the statements seem to crib from media reports; they arrived hours after attacks without any detail unavailable in public. By claiming that the airport attackers “opened fire” with “automatic rifles,” the statements even repeat errors in initial reporting. [Continue reading…]

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How did we end up here?

Adam Shatz writes: In No Name in the Street, James Baldwin describes how, not long after he settled in France in 1948, he ‘had watched the police, one sunny afternoon, beat an old, one-armed Arab peanut vendor senseless in the streets, and I had watched the unconcerned faces of the French on the café terraces, and the congested faces of the Arabs.’ With a ‘generous smile’, Baldwin’s friends reassured him that he was different from the Arabs: ‘Le noir américain est très évolué, voyons!’ He found the response perplexing, given what he knew of French views about the United States, so he asked a ‘very cunning question’:

If so crude a nation as the United States could produce so gloriously civilised a creature as myself, how was it that the French, armed with centuries of civilised grace, had been unable to civilise the Arab?

The response was breathtakingly simple: ‘The Arabs did not wish to be civilised.’ They, the Arabs, had their own traditions, and ‘the Arab was always hiding something; you couldn’t guess what he was thinking and couldn’t trust what he was saying. And they had a different attitude toward women, they were very brutal with them, in a word they were rapists, and they stole, and they carried knives.’

Aside from ageing veterans of the French-Algerian war, no one in France talks about ‘the Arabs’ any longer. Instead they speak of ‘the Muslims’. But France’s Muslims are the descendants of that Arab peanut vendor – and, all too often, targets of the same racist intolerance. Like the racism Baldwin encountered among his Parisian friends, it often wears an ennobling mask: anti-terrorist, secular, feminist. [Continue reading…]

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Investigators believe at least 22 suspects are still at large following Brussels and Paris attacks

The Wall Street Journal reports: At least 22 radical Islamists from Europe linked to the terror network behind the Brussels and Paris attacks are suspected to be still at large, putting security services on high alert as they rush to prevent Islamic State from striking again in the region.

Many of the fugitives have been involved in previous Islamic State plots, officials say, and almost all of them have spent months or years fighting in Syria.

Interviews and confidential court documents seen by The Wall Street Journal portray the fugitives as part of an extensive web of young men who developed a deep hatred of the West after embracing radical Islam at underground mosques and clandestine meetings in Molenbeek, a heavily Muslim district in the heart of Brussels. They have since become central to Islamic State’s plans to strike the West, according to investigators, who suspect the Brussels network is behind the movement of battle-hardened operatives from Syria to Europe.

“We see many plots and several cells that we now know are part of the same network,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, president of the Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, a Paris think tank. “They’re already here. The problem is how to find them.”

The 22 men investigators are scrutinizing include those prosecuted in absentia during a major terror trial in Belgium last year, as well as several with links to a foiled plot to kill Belgian police last year. But people familiar with investigations say they believe the reach of the Brussels network extends beyond the group to others from the city who went to Syria and their sympathizers who stayed behind. [Continue reading…]

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Report: The foreign fighters phenomenon in the EU – profiles, threats & policies

International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague reports: Despite the widespread media attention for foreign fighters in Europe, very little is known about the phenomenon itself, something also evidenced by the lack of a single foreign fighter definition across the EU.

In a study commissioned by the Netherlands National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV), ICCT addresses this gap by analysing not only the numbers and characteristics of foreign fighters across the EU, but also how the Union and Member States assess the threat of foreign fighters as well as their policy responses regarding security, preventive and legislative measures. The Report also outlines a series of policy options aimed both at the EU and its Member States.

Findings include:

  • Of a total estimated 3,922 – 4,294 foreign fighters from EU Member States, around 30% have returned to their home countries.
  • A majority of around 2,838 foreign fighters come from just four countries: Belgium, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, with Belgium having the highest per-capita FF contingent.
  • There is no clear-cut profile of a European foreign fighter. Data indicates that a majority originate from metropolitan areas, with many coming from the same neighbourhoods, that an average of 17% are female, and that the percentage of converts among foreign fighters ranges from 6% to 23%.
  • The radicalisation process of foreign fighters is reported to be short and often involves circles of friends radicalizing as a group and deciding to leave jointly for Syria and Iraq.

[Continue reading…]

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