Monitoring of terrorism threats has risen, official says

The New York Times reports: A senior European counterterrorism official said on Thursday that spy services in several countries had increased their monitoring and surveillance, and governments had put heightened security measures in place, even before recent arrests in Belgium and Turkey.

Hours after the official spoke, the police in the southern German city of Munich evacuated two train stations and warned residents to avoid large groups of people, citing “concrete hints” of a possible terrorist attack amid New Year’s celebrations.

Joachim Herrmann, interior minister for the state of Bavaria, of which Munich is the capital, told reporters early Friday that the German authorities had been tipped by a foreign intelligence service that the Islamic State was linked to a plot to carry out attacks in Munich.

Hubertus Andrä, head of the Munich police, said officials suspected that several suicide bombers had planned to carry out the attacks. [Continue reading…]

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Why has the AK-47 become the jihadi terrorist weapon of choice?

The Guardian reports: In the early years after 9/11 the suicide belt, the car bomb and the homemade explosive device were the weapons of choice for jihadis: hidden, brutal and hard to counter.

But as 2015 heaves to a close, its atrocities littered across the calendar – Charlie Hebdo, Sousse, Garissa, Tunis, Copenhagen and Paris – it is the AK-47 that has come to the fore.

Across Europe more terrorist attacks have been carried out with Kalashnikov-type assault rifles this year than with any other device. In the 13 November Paris attacks, suicide bombers killed few but gunmen killed many. Further afield, in Tunisia and Kenya, it was also automatic weapons that did the damage.

The widespread availability of these guns has been known for years. But it took the scale of death meted out in Paris last month to force Europe to address the threat.

Now law enforcement officers across the continent are trying to establish some basic truths. Where do they come from? Who are the middlemen that deal in these deadly weapons? And why have they become so popular again? [Continue reading…]

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A century after Sykes-Picot

Eugene Rogan writes: The British wartime alliance with the sharif of Mecca would be concluded after months of increasingly anxious negotiations, with both sides driven by wartime fears. Sharif Hussein had reason to believe the Young Turks sought his overthrow. Moreover, to realize his ambitious goal of carving an independent Arab kingdom from Ottoman domains, he needed Great Power support. The British feared their recent string of defeats to the Ottomans would encourage colonial Muslims to rebel against the Entente Powers. War planners in Cairo and Whitehall hoped that an alliance with the custodian of Islam’s holiest shrines would neutralize the appeal of the Ottoman sultan-caliph’s jihad at a moment when Britain’s military credibility was at its lowest point since the start of the war.

On the eve of the Arab Revolt, the Anglo-Hashemite alliance offered far less than both sides originally believed they were securing on first entering into negotiations. The British were not the invincible power they had appeared to be in early 1915 when first setting off to conquer Constantinople. The Germans had inflicted terrible casualties on the British on the western front, and even the Ottomans had dealt them humiliating defeats. Sharif Hussein and his sons had every reason to question their choice of ally.

Yet the Hashemites were in no position to bargain. All through their correspondence with Sir Henry McMahon, the high commissioner in Egypt, Sharif Hussein and his sons had presented themselves as leaders of a pan-Arab movement. By May 1916 it was apparent that there would be no broader revolt in Syria and Iraq. The most the sharifs could do was challenge Ottoman rule in the Hijaz. Success depended on their ability to mobilize the notoriously undisciplined Bedouin to their cause.

Arguably, the alliance survived because the Hashemites and the British needed each other more in the summer of 1916 than ever. Sharif Hussein had strained relations with the Young Turks to the breaking point; he knew they would seize the first opportunity to dismiss—even murder—him and his sons. The British needed the sharif’s religious authority to undermine the Ottoman jihad, which officials in Cairo and Whitehall feared recent Turkish victories had strengthened. Whatever the results of a Hashemite-led revolt, the movement would at least weaken the Ottoman war effort and force the Turks to divert troops and resources to restore order in the Hijaz and possibly in other Arab provinces. For their own reasons, both the British and the Hashemites were in a hurry to launch the revolt. [Continue reading…]

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French police make 2,700 raids in month, raising tension with Muslims

The New York Times reports: The French authorities have conducted more than 2,700 police raids under a nationwide state of emergency instituted after last month’s deadly terrorist attacks in Paris.

Using extraordinary powers granted by France’s National Assembly, officers have conducted searches without warrants of dozens of homes, arrested hundreds of people and even shut down mosques and Muslim prayer rooms for fear they were preaching radicalization.

The use of such tactics has increased tensions between the government and Muslim communities.

“The Muslim minority in France feels like it’s being treated as the public enemy,” said Yasser Louati, spokesman for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France. “They are afraid of the government.”

At least 20 court complaints have been filed against the government, Reuters recently reported, citing six independent lawyers involved in the complaints. And Muslim leaders in France have said that the police tactics are excessive and unfairly target Muslims. [Continue reading…]

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Trump and Le Pen grow in strength with the help of ISIS

Roger Cohen writes: America, like Europe, is rattled by Islamic State terrorism and unsure how to respond to the black-flagged death merchants. Its polarized politics seem broken. The right of Donald Trump and the right of France’s Marine Le Pen overlap on terrorism and immigration. On the American left, Bernie Sanders sounds like nothing so much as a European social democrat. But that’s another story.

Le Pen is now a serious candidate for the French presidency in 2017. Her strong first-round performance in regional elections was not matched in the second round. She faded. But as with Trump, she answers the popular call for an end to business as usual after two Paris massacres this year in which the Islamic State had a role. The three jihadists who killed 90 Friday-night revelers in the Bataclan club were French citizens believed to have been trained in Syria.

“Islamist fundamentalism must be annihilated,” Le Pen says. People roar. “France must ban Islamist organizations,” she says. People roar. It must “expel foreigners who preach hatred in our country as well as illegal migrants who have nothing to do here.” People roar.

There is no question Le Pen is being taken seriously in France. Europe’s watchword is vigilance. Its entire postwar reconstruction has been premised on the conviction that peace, integration, economic union and the welfare state were the best insurance against the return to power of the fascist right.

That conviction is shaken. The rise of the Islamic State, and the Western inability to contain it, leads straight to the Islamophobia in which Trump and Le Pen traffic with success. It would be hard to imagine an atmosphere better suited to the politics of fear. Americans say they are more fearful of terrorism than at any time since 9/11.

“Every time things get worse, I do better,” Trump says. He does. They may get still worse. [Continue reading…]

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Marine Le Pen lost this time, but the mainstream is still flowing in her direction

Christopher Dickey writes: So, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front party, which placed first in six of 13 French regions last week, failed to win the second round in a single one this week.

But there’s no joy in the mainstream French political establishment, or in the mainstream French media that worked hard to defeat Le Pen and her candidates, because the mainstream is still flowing in her direction, and everyone knows it.

Indeed, traditional politicians here regard Le Pen with something like the same horror that the American mainstream regards Donald Trump, and for some of the same reasons. Seen as sly, anti-immigrant, implicitly racist populists, both are portrayed in the political language of Europe as “fascists.” But there are limits to the analogy.

The National Front, whose platform would do away with open European borders, the euro currency, and indeed “Europe” itself, has become not just a third party in the multi-party French system, it has become the third party. And when presidential elections roll around about 18 months from now, there is every chance that Le Pen will make it into the sudden-death second-round run-off. [Continue reading…]

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Living as a Muslim in the West’s ‘gray zone’

Laila Lalami writes: It was probably not a coincidence that the Paris attacks were aimed at restaurants, a concert hall and a sports stadium, places of leisure and community, nor that the victims included Muslims. As [ISIS’s magazine] Dabiq makes clear, ISIS wants to eliminate coexistence between religions and to create a response from the West that will force Muslims to choose sides: either they “apostatize and adopt” the infidel religion of the crusaders or “they perform hijrah to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens.” For ISIS to win, the gray zone must be eliminated.

Whose lives are gray? Mine, certainly. I was born in one nation (Morocco) speaking Arabic, came to my love of literature through a second language (French) and now live in a third country (America), where I write books and teach classes in yet another language (English). I have made my home in between all these cultures, all these languages, all these countries. And I have found it a glorious place to be. My friends are atheists and Muslims, Jews and Christians, believers and doubters. Each one makes my life richer.

This gray life of mine is not unique. I share it with millions of people around the world. My brother in Dallas is a practicing Muslim — he prays, he fasts, he attends mosque — but he, too, would be considered to be in the gray zone, because he despises ISIS and everything it stands for.

Most of the time, gray lives go unnoticed in America. Other times, especially when people are scared, gray lives become targets. Hate crimes against Muslims spike after every major terrorist attack. But rather than stigmatize this hate, politicians and pundits often stoke it with fiery rhetoric, further diminishing the gray zone. Every time the gray zone recedes, ISIS gains ground.

The language that ISIS uses may be new, but the message is not. When President George W. Bush spoke to a joint session of Congress after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, he declared, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” It was a decisive threat, and it worked well for him in those early, confusing days, so he returned to it. “Either you are with us,” he said in 2002, “or you are with the enemy. There’s no in between.” This polarized thinking led to the United States invasion of Iraq, which led to the destabilization of the Middle East, which in turn led to the creation of ISIS.

Terrorist attacks affect all of us in the same way: We experience sorrow and anger at the loss of life. For Muslims, however, there is an additional layer of grief as we become subjects of suspicion. Muslims are called upon to condemn terrorism, but no matter how often or how loud or how clear the condemnations, the calls remain. Imagine if, after every mass shooting in a school or a movie theater in the United States, young white men in this country were told that they must publicly denounce gun violence. The reason this is not the case is that we presume each young white man to be solely responsible for his actions, whereas Muslims are held collectively responsible. To be a Muslim in the West is to be constantly on trial. [Continue reading…]

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What the Paris attacks tell us about ISIS strategy

Der Spiegel reports: For years, experts have worried that the up to 4,000 young men and women from Western Europe who are believed to have gone to Syria and Iraq to either fight with Islamic State or live inside it might one day return and conduct attacks here. European IS fighters have long been using social media platforms to openly discuss their dreams of attacks on their home countries.

“Attacking Europe is in the DNA of many of those who have traveled from Europe to Syria,” says jihad expert Wassim Nasr of French international news channel France 24. Still, he argues, it is very unlikely that individual members like [Abdelhamid] Abaaoud made the decision to actually carry out the attacks on their own. He see it is “an issue of such strategic importance that it has been directed from the highest level of IS.” And it appears that the decision was taken months ago.

It’s not surprising that IS chose France as the target of its first attack in Europe. With around 1,200 current and former fighters, the largest number of IS jihadist from Western Europe originate from France. With its numerous military deployments in Africa and the Middle East, France is very much in the terrorists’ crosshairs. Measured against its overall population, the only country in Europe with a greater per capita number of IS fighters is Belgium. Germany also has several hundred residents who have gone to the region as jihadists.

The Europeans tended to play a relatively minor role in combat for the IS in recent years, but they have an important function in terms of recruitment. And under Islamic State’s new strategy, they are also in charge of bringing the war to Europe. The terrorists who struck in Paris may have spent some time in Syria, but they are the product of our society. In that respect, fighting in Syria to prevent Islamic State terror in the West can only have a limited effect. [Continue reading…]

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Paris attacks plot was hatched in plain sight

The Wall Street Journal reports: Three days before the attacks that ripped through Paris, Djazira Boulanger handed the keys to her row house, across the street from a kindergarten, to a guest who had booked it over the website Homelidays.com. His name was Brahim Abdeslam.

She didn’t know that Mr. Abdeslam was a central figure in plotting the deadly assault. As Ms. Boulanger tended to her two young children at home, authorities say Mr. Abdeslam and a band of cohorts were down the street preparing weapons for an assault on the Stade de France and Paris’s nightlife district.

“Did I suspect something was wrong? Not at all,” Ms. Boulanger said.

A day after he checked in, Mr. Abdeslam’s younger brother, Salah, pulled up to the roadside hotel Appart’City on the southern outskirts of Paris, according to staff, to claim reservations he made on Booking.com — also under his own name. The rooms were for another set of gunmen in the attacks: those assigned to mow down spectators inside the Bataclan concert hall.

Prosecutors suspect the brothers were preparing the logistics for Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged architect of the massacres, to arrive in Paris and swiftly mount one of the deadliest terror attacks in French history. Brahim would later blow himself up during the attacks, while Salah is now the target of an international manhunt.

Mr. Abaaoud was the kind of adversary France had dreaded since the Syrian conflict began drawing European nationals in droves. Mr. Abaaoud — who would die several days after the Paris attacks in a police raid — drew on his experience as a battlefield logistical officer in Syria to launch a guerrilla-style ambush on unarmed civilians in the French capital.

The account emerging from French officials, witnesses and those who interacted with the suspected terrorists shows how the operation hinged on Mr. Abaaoud’s ability to use the tools of everyday modern life to lay the groundwork for the massacre. The ease with which he and his teams moved — all while avoiding detection by France’s security apparatus — suggests the challenges in identifying would-be terrorists and preventing further attacks in the fluid, digital and transnational world of today, especially when they are European citizens. [Continue reading…]

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It’s time for the West to deal with the real problem in Syria

Leela Jacinto writes: if we’re all allies in the fight against the so-called “caliphate,” we can’t seem to agree on the Lion King in Damascus. Over the past few months, there has been much talk of Washington and Paris easing their “President Bashar al-Assad must go” position to “Assad may stay a while” until a transition to the great unknown is hammered out.

In a rousing speech before a special session of parliament the first working day after the Paris attacks, Hollande signaled a shift in France’s hard-line stance when he noted that the country’s new top priority is the fight against the Islamic State.

The Paris attacks have done wonders for Assad. On both sides of the Atlantic, some influential people are starting to warm up to — or at the very least tolerate — him. In an interview with CBS News, former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell acknowledged that Washington’s Syria strategy has not worked and it was “time to look at something else.” Assad, he conceded, was “part of the problem,” but Morell noted that “he may also be part of the solution.”

In France, the calls for Hollande to adopt a realistic approach to Syria have turned into a roar. Former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine did not mince his words in a France Inter radio interview in late September when he said, “Let’s not forget that in the fight against Hitler, we had to ally with Stalin, who killed more people than Hitler.”

That’s a Socialist former minister and a darling in certain French lefty circles talking. In Parisian chattering circles, where speculation of a cabinet reshuffle is rife, Védrine is on top of the speculation charts to replace Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the staunchest defender of the “Assad must go” position.

On the extreme right — a rising force in France — the romance with Assad, the exterminator of “les barbus” (the bearded ones), never faded. [Continue reading…]

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Terrorism response puts Belgium in a harsh light

The New York Times reports: A month before the Paris terrorist attacks, Mayor Françoise Schepmans of Molenbeek, a Brussels district long notorious as a haven for jihadists, received a list with the names and addresses of more than 80 people suspected as Islamic militants living in her area.

The list, based on information from Belgium’s security apparatus, included two brothers who would take part in the bloodshed in France on Nov. 13, as well as the man suspected of being the architect of the terrorist plot, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Molenbeek resident who had left for Syria to fight for the Islamic State in early 2014.

“What was I supposed to do about them? It is not my job to track possible terrorists,” Ms. Schepmans said in an interview. That, she added, “is the responsibility of the federal police.”

The federal police service, for its part, reports to the interior minister, Jan Jambon, a Flemish nationalist who has doubts about whether Belgium — divided among French, Dutch and German speakers — should even exist as a single state. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS is promoting its own form of imperialism

Sunny Hundal writes: It seems as though every atrocity committed against the West by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is followed by claims in the media that such attacks are the result of our military action against them. The former mayor of London Ken Livingstone told the BBC yesterday: “All these terrorist attacks, the statements they make on their websites and so on are all about foreign policy.” He added that the French-led military intervention against the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was “coming back to haunt [it].”

This attitude isn’t isolated. Not long after the Paris attacks, Stop the War Coalition, which organized the million-plus march in London against the war in Iraq in 2003, tweeted an article claiming Paris “reaped the whirlwind of Western extremism.” It was hastily deleted. Writing for Salon, foreign-affairs columnist Patrick L. Smith opined, “We brought this on ourselves,” while in The Guardian yesterday, the Al Jazeera English presenter Mehdi Hasan suggested that the Paris attacks were the result of geopolitcal blowback.

Claiming that terror attacks such as those that shook Paris on Nov. 13, are a “blowback” isn’t just offensive to its (mainly Muslim) victims—it misreads the very nature of ISIL. It amounts to an excusal of the terrorist group’s intentions, as if to say that ISIL would not have done any of this if the US, UK, France, and company weren’t so meddlesome. This is a convenient tale, which is told to push a non-interventionist foreign policy, but it doesn’t reflect reality. [Continue reading…]

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How terror fits into ISIS’s plan

Christoph Reuter writes: What calculations have now led IS to perpetrate attacks in the West? For one, it plays into IS hands for Europeans to ratchet up their skepticism of Muslim refugees. For another, IS has positioned itself in the enormous battlefields surrounding its core territories in a way that it would make it difficult for others to launch a ground offensive against the jihadists. Such an offensive would also require a large number of troops. From Western comments, particularly those of the US, Islamic State strategists know that a ground offensive involving Western troops is extremely unlikely.

Should an offensive be launched anyway, though, IS believes that the attack could, paradoxically, help the group on the long term. Ground troops could likely only be deployed with Russia’s approval, and Moscow supports Assad. And if the West were to change course and suddenly intervene in Syria on Assad’s side, all rebels in the country would immediately become enemies of the West. Were that to happen, Islamic State could pose as the last protectors of Sunnis in the region and expand its influence.

The old saying, that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, no longer applies in Syria and Iraq. In both combat zones, US efforts have been hampered thus far. In northern Syria, America’s Kurdish ally is unfortunately the enemy of another Washington ally, the Turks. In Iraq, Islamic State’s Shiite enemy is also America’s enemy. Shiite militias, under the military leadership of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, are heavily engaged in the battle against IS, but with their ferocity, they are also pushing more supporters into Islamic State arms.

Taken together, the Sunni-Shiite conflict combined with the Turkish bombardment of Kurdish positions has reduced pressure on IS. To be sure, Islamic State has been forced to accept some losses in recent days: It lost the small northern Iraq city of Sinjar not long ago following a 15 month fight with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. In two places, the Kurds have managed to block the most important road connecting the two IS “metropolises” of Raqqa and Mosul. US fighter bombers have likewise destroyed 116 tanker trucks used by Islamic State to transport its oil. In Iraq, IS has slowly been losing territory ever since it launched a lightning strike to take over the provincial capital of Ramadi, just west of Baghdad, in mid-May. In Syria, meanwhile, IS expansion has largely been halted since the end of the summer.

Yet it is still a long way from exhibiting the convulsions of a collapsing empire. The constant muttering about the end times and apocalyptic battles may serve as good Islamic State PR — with respect to both its followers and to the rest of the world. But if destruction was the only goal being pursued by IS, it wouldn’t try to establish a state, it wouldn’t be careful to avoid damaging grain silos when taking them over, and it wouldn’t pursue scrupulous realpolitik, even with its own enemies.

IS strategists look several moves into the future. To defeat the terror group, the West must do the same. It must bring together pro-regime Syrians with the rebels, a project that will not succeed so long as Assad remains in power and which is made all the more difficult by Russia’s intervention. In Iraq, Sunni and Shiite factions divided by fear and hate must be brought together again — though the West can only help, it is the Iraqis themselves that must achieve this. In short, the West — together with Russia, Iran and the Arab Gulf states — must create the conditions that could make a ground offensive against the jihadists possible in the first place. [Continue reading…]

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Women targeted as hate crime against British Muslims soars following Paris attacks

The Independent reports: Muslims living in Britain have suffered more than 100 racial attacks since the terrorist atrocities in Paris, figures prepared for ministers reveal.

A report to the Government’s working group on anti-Muslim hatred, seen by The Independent, shows a spike in Islamophobic hate crime of more than 300 per cent, to 115, in the week following the killings on November 13 in France.

Most victims of the UK hate crimes were Muslim girls and women aged from 14 to 45 in traditional Islamic dress. The perpetrators were mainly white males aged from 15 to35. [Continue reading…]

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Magical thinking about ISIS

Adam Shatz writes: There has been a lot of magical thinking about IS. Liberal hawks, like Roger Cohen in the New York Times, have called for a ground offensive in the usual Churchillian terms – something no Western leader has any appetite (or sizeable constituency) for after Afghanistan and Iraq. Leftists have demanded an end to the drone war, a breaking of ties with Saudi Arabia and the creation of a Palestinian state. According to a writer in the online magazine Jadaliyya, only ‘hallucinating’ neoconservatives could argue that the attacks target the West or France for what they are, rather than for what they do. But IS says very clearly in its communiqué that it’s attacking Paris both for ‘the crusader campaign’ and as ‘the capital of prostitution and vice’ – and it seems obtuse not to take it at its word. To be sure, anger over Western policies is among the drivers of recruitment for groups like IS, but IS is not a purely reactive organisation: it is a millenarian movement with a distinctly apocalyptic agenda. As Elias Sanbar, a Palestinian diplomat in Paris, points out, ‘One of the most striking things about Islamic State is that it has no demands. All the movements we’ve known, from the Vietcong to the FLN to the Palestinians, had demands: if the occupation ends, if we get independence, the war ends. But Daesh’s project is to eliminate the frontiers of Sykes-Picot. It’s like the Biblical revisionism of the settlers, who invent a history that never existed.’ The creation of a Palestinian state is a necessity, above all for Palestinians, but it’s not likely to make much of an impression on IS, which rejects the Middle Eastern state system entirely.

A far more subtle – but in some ways just as wishful – analysis has come from Olivier Roy, who argued in the New York Times that the Paris attacks are a sign of desperation rather than strength:

Isis’s reach is bounded; there are no more areas in which it can extend by claiming to be a defender of Sunni Arab populations. To the north, there are Kurds; to the east, Iraqi Shiites; to the west, Alawites, now protected by the Russians. And all are resisting it. To the south, neither the Lebanese, who worry about the influx of Syrian refugees, nor the Jordanians, who are still reeling from the horrid execution of one of their pilots, nor the Palestinians have succumbed to any fascination for Isis. Stalled in the Middle East, Isis is rushing headlong into globalised terrorism.

It’s an intellectually seductive and almost reassuring argument: IS appears to be on the march, but it’s actually in its death throes, having suffered losses in Kobani and Sinjar. But it’s also an argument that has been made before. After 11 September, it was widely argued that al-Qaida attacked the ‘far enemy’ in the West because it had failed to defeat ‘the near enemy’, the regimes of the Middle East. Today that theory seems less credible. Al-Qaida experienced a regional revival, thanks in large part to the Iraq war. And for IS, an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq, the distinction between near and far enemies is porous: all apostates are enemies. Although it has conquered a significant piece of territory – something bin Laden and Zawahiri never dared attempt – its power is only partly rooted in the caliphate. It is as keen to conquer virtual as actual territory. It draws on a growing pool of recruits who discovered not only IS but Islam itself online, in chatrooms and through messaging services where distance vanishes at the tap of a keyboard. Indeed, the genius of IS has been to overcome the distance between two very different crises of citizenship, and weave them into a single narrative of Sunni Muslim disempowerment: the exclusion of young Muslims in Europe, and the exclusion of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq.

Roy is right that IS can’t ‘win’ in any conventional sense, but it doesn’t have to expand the caliphate in order to remain in business. In the global society of the spectacle, it’s on a roll. [Continue reading…]

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