UK firm ’employed former child soldiers’ as mercenaries in Iraq

The Guardian reports: A former senior director at a British firm says that it employed mercenaries from Sierra Leone to work in Iraq because they were cheaper than Europeans and did not check if they were former child soldiers.

James Ellery, who was a director of Aegis Defence Services between 2005 and 2015, said that contractors had a “duty” to recruit from countries such as Sierra Leone, “where there’s high unemployment and a decent workforce”, in order to reduce costs for the US presence in Iraq.

“You probably would have a better force if you recruited entirely from the Midlands of England,” Ellery, a former brigadier in the British army, told the Guardian. “But it can’t be afforded. So you go from the Midlands of England to Nepalese etc etc, Asians, and then at some point you say I’m afraid all we can afford now is Africans.” He said the company had not asked recruits if they were former child soldiers.

Aegis Defence Services, which is chaired by Sir Nicholas Soames, a Tory MP and Winston Churchill’s grandson, had a series of contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to provide guards to protect US military bases in Iraq from 2004 onwards. From 2011 the company broadened its recruitment to take in African countries, having previously employed people from the UK, the US and Nepal.

Contract documents say that the soldiers from Sierra Leone were paid $16 (£11) a day. A documentary, The Child Soldier’s New Job, to be broadcast on Monday in Denmark alleges that the estimated 2,500 Sierra Leonean personnel who were recruited by Aegis and other private security companies to work in Iraq included former child soldiers. [Continue reading…]

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Everything we knew about this ISIS mastermind was wrong

Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan writes: The Pentagon calls him Haji Imam. His other nicknames include Abu Ali al-Anbari, Abu Alaa al-Afri, Hajji Iman, or simply the Hajji, the Arabic word for “pilgrim” but one that is colloquially used to refer to a revered person or gray eminence. Iraqi and American security officials were so confused by his multiple noms de guerre that they identified him as two distinct high-level leaders of the so-called Islamic State; Wikipedia even has two biographies, and two photographs for the one jihadist whose obscurity was in direct proportion to his significance. For Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Shakhilar al-Qaduli — that’s his legal name — is known as a man of many talents. He’d have to be to attain the rank of second-most powerful figure in ISIS, next to the caliph himself.

The U.S. military announced that al-Qaduli—who oversaw ISIS’s intelligence operations — was killed in an airstrike in Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria, on March 25. Although his death was proclaimed at least four times before by the Iraqi government and twice by the U.S.-led coalition, this time it might be real. Several ISIS supporters eulogized him on social media, and new details about his curriculum vitae and all-important role within the organization have been disclosed, possibly because operational security is no longer a priority.

That the No. 2 man in the world’s most dangerous terror organization may be dead matters almost as much as we’ve only been able to learn about him in death. Al-Qaduli’s biography has been cloaked in rumor, myth, and misinformation — or disinformation, given that much of what had been produced on his history came from disgruntled al Qaeda sources looking to ruin his reputation following the bin Ladenist’s split from ISIS in 2014. [Continue reading…]

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Will Jabhat Al Nusra and ISIS join forces?

Hassan Hassan writes: In a two-part interview with Al Jazeera in May, Mohammed Al Jolani of Jabhat Al Nusra revealed that Al Qaeda’s central leadership had issued instructions against using Syria as a launch pad for attacks against the West. Although the anti-ISIL air campaign frequently struck his cells in northern Syria, Al Jolani said he was still committed to the strict orders.

Almost a year after the interview, much has changed in Syria and the wider neighbourhood. The organisation’s leadership continues to be pounded by the US-led campaign, which targeted operatives most qualified to plan and launch attacks against the West, loosely dubbed by the Americans as the “Khorassan Cell”. According to Hassan Abu Haniya, an observer of Islamist groups from Jordan, the cell’s commanders in Syria have been all but decapitated after a series of high-level killings. This has caused profound anger among Jabhat Al Nusra and Al Qaeda supporters, who started to question the current live-and-let-live strategy in Syria.

The continuing attacks against both ISIL and Al Qaeda, and their affiliates across the region, have led some sympathisers to wonder why the two jihadist groups do not collaborate. In addition to encouragement by ordinary extremist supporters, prominent jihadist ideologues offered help to narrow differences between the two groups. Abu Qatada Al Filistini from Jordan, for example, called for “management of differences” among warring jihadist and Islamist groups, while Abu Muhammed Al Maqdisi, also from Jordan, recently wrote on Twitter that he was willing to revise his position towards ISIL and join it “to spite the whole world” if it stopped labelling other jihadists as apostates. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS revenue drops nearly a third after loss of territory shrinks tax base

AFP reports: Islamic State’s revenues have dropped about 30% since mid-2015, forcing the group to introduce a range of new taxes, a research group has said.

“In mid-2015, the Islamic State’s overall monthly revenue was around $80m,” said Ludovico Carlino, senior analyst at IHS, which issues regular reports on Isis-controlled territory.

“As of March 2016, the Islamic State’s monthly revenue dropped to $56m,” Carlino said.

An IHS report also said oil production in areas controlled by Isis jihadists was 21,000 barrels a day, down from 33,000 barrels a day.

This was due largely to airstrikes by the US-led coalition and Russia, although IHS warned the decline was only an “interruption of production” because jihadists were able to repair infrastructure quickly. [Continue reading…]

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The hell after ISIS

Anand Gopal writes: Falah sabar heard a knock at the door. It was just before midnight in western Baghdad last April and Falah was already in bed, so he sent his son Wissam to answer. Standing in the doorway was a tall young man in jeans who neither shook Wissam’s hand nor offered a greeting. “We don’t want you here,” he said. “Your family should be gone by noon tomorrow.” For weeks, Wissam, who was 23, had been expecting something like this, as he’d noticed a dark mood taking hold of the neighborhood. He went to get his father, but when they returned, the stranger was gone.

Falah is tall and broad-shouldered, with salt-and-pepper hair. At 48, he was the patriarch of a brood of sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. He sat down with Wissam to talk things through. They had been in Baghdad for just three months, but that was long enough for the abiding principle of refugee life to imprint itself on Falah’s psyche: Avoid trouble. When Wissam had managed to find a job at a construction firm, Falah had told him to be courteous, not to mix with strangers, and not to ask too many questions. If providence had granted them a new life in this unfamiliar city, it could snatch that life away just as easily.

Six months earlier, isis had seized their village, in Anbar province, the Sunni heartland of Iraq, blowing up houses and executing civilians as they fled. A few hundred families had managed to escape and were now scattered across Iraq. Many had wound up in squalid refugee camps near the front lines. The Sabars considered themselves lucky to have landed in Baghdad, a city solidly under the control of anti-ISIS forces.

But they soon realized that their new home offered little shelter from the conflicts erupting on distant battlefields. As the Islamic State spread its brand of Sunni extremism, their new Shiite neighbors seemed to cast blame on all Sunnis, even those who had lost homes or loved ones to ISIS. By March, when ISIS was battling Iraqi forces in Tikrit, 120 miles north, Falah could feel the city changing. In the market, neighbors began to look away from him. At police checkpoints, the family’s IDs were examined more closely. Sometimes, beige pickup trucks with burly Shiite militiamen in the back circled the block. Black banners proclaiming OH HUSSEIN! — the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, revered by Shias — began appearing on the storefronts of Sunni-owned businesses. Falah wondered whether the flags were taunts, or had been placed there for protection by the shopkeepers themselves. [Continue reading…]

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Iraqi leaders bicker and brawl in parliament as political crisis grows

The Washington Post reports: Schoolyard-style chaos descended on Iraq’s parliament Wednesday as lawmakers scuffled and threw water bottles at one another amid a political crisis that is destabilizing the country.

In a day of bickering and brawls in Baghdad, more than 100 members of parliament signed a petition calling for the resignations of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, President Fouad Massoum and the speaker of parliament, Salim al-Jubouri, lawmakers said. About the same number are staging a sit-in in the parliament building.

In reaction, Jubouri said he was looking to dissolve the assembly, raising the prospect of early elections. The move would give a “new generation” of lawmakers the ability to bring about reform, his spokesman said. [Continue reading…]

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Sex slave legacy: The children of ISIS

Der Spiegel reports: At night, when Khaula lies in bed and finally falls asleep, she often dreams of her child. Each time, the same images appear before her: She sees her hands clasped together in front of her chest, forming a hollow. When she lifts her upper hand, a bird is sitting beneath it. She sees its body and its feathers, but the bird doesn’t look at her, and there is no song to be heard from its throat. Its tiny head is missing.

“Every time I have this dream, I can’t move for a time,” says Khaula. After eight months as an Islamic State (IS) captive, she gave birth to a baby girl. The child’s father had been her tormentor, an Iraqi IS fighter from Mosul. He had plenty of daughters already and had wanted Khaula, a Yazidi woman kidnapped by IS, to give him a son.

That was 12 months ago. Khaula is now living in Germany, without her child. She’s sitting in the side room of a café in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, where she has come to share her story. She’s a quiet woman of 23 with black curls and enjoys wearing Kurdish garments.

Khaula shares a dormitory with other women who have been freed. The location must be kept secret, and the name “Khaula” is an alias. With IS sympathizers in Germany as well, the women are endangered here too.

The state of Baden-Württemberg has taken in around 1,000 women and children from Iraq to help them come to terms with that happened to them. Psychologist and trauma specialist Jan Ilhan Kizilhan, of the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University in Villingen-Schwenningen, selected those most in need of help in Iraq, where he has traveled a dozen times. In the past, he has worked with rape victims in Rwanda and Bosnia.

“Only the most seriously traumatized women were allowed to come to Germany,” Kizilhan says. They include women like a Yazidi whose child was locked in a metal box by an IS fighter and set in the direct sun in front of her until it died. Another woman’s infant was beaten to death by an IS man who broke its spine.

In August 2014, Islamic State invaded northern Iraq’s Sinjar region, murdering and kidnapping thousands of women and girls who then became sex slaves for its fighters. Hundreds of women who managed to escape their tormenters returned pregnant. The children of IS fighters can be found today in Syria, in Iraq, in Germany — and possibly even in Turkey, Lebanon and other countries where refugees have sought safe haven. The number is believed to be in the hundreds. In the Kurdish-controlled region of Iraq alone, doctors estimate that figure to be somewhere between 40 and 100 infants. Given the sheer number of women who have been kidnapped in the region, that figure appears to be low. [Continue reading…]

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Report: ‘Iraq may soon reach a point beyond repair’

Al Jazeera reports: Without a coherent strategy to address the urgent needs of displaced Iraqis, the opportunity to rebuild parts of the country liberated from ISIL may be lost, a new report has warned.

The report from the Minority Rights Group International and the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights, released on Wednesday, highlights the dire situation facing millions of Iraqis amid the country’s ongoing war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.

“In the context of limited governance and continued insecurity, the opportunity afforded by the retaking of territory from ISIS is being lost,” the report states. “If communities are unable to co-exist, Iraq may soon reach a point beyond repair.” [Continue reading…]

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As ISIS is pushed back in Iraq, worries about what’s next

Reuters reports: As U.S.-led offensives drive back Islamic State in Iraq, concern is growing among U.S. and U.N. officials that efforts to stabilize liberated areas are lagging, creating conditions that could help the militants endure as an underground network.

One major worry: not enough money is being committed to rebuild the devastated provincial capital of Ramadi and other towns, let alone Islamic State-held Mosul, the ultimate target in Iraq of the U.S.-led campaign.

Lise Grande, the No. 2 U.N. official in Iraq, told Reuters that the United Nations is urgently seeking $400 million from Washington and its allies for a new fund to bolster reconstruction in cities like Ramadi, which suffered vast damage when U.S.-backed Iraqi forces recaptured it in December.

“We worry that if we don’t move in this direction, and move quickly, the progress being made against ISIL may be undermined or lost,” Grande said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

Adding to the difficulty of stabilizing freed areas are Iraq’s unrelenting political infighting, corruption, a growing fiscal crisis and the Shiite Muslim-led government’s fitful efforts to reconcile with aggrieved minority Sunnis, the bedrock of Islamic State support. [Continue reading…]

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How the expanding U.S. role in Iraq is kept quiet by pretending it’s not expanding

The New York Times reports: There are roughly 5,000 American service members in Iraq according to current Pentagon estimates, but the number often varies, sometimes daily, by hundreds. That number is higher than the cap the White House set last year, which limited the number of troops to be deployed to Iraq to 3,870. But under policies created by the military after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, service members who are planning to spend less than four months in a war zone are not counted.

Sergeant Cardin [who was killed on March 19] and the Marines [with him at Fire Base Bell, south of Mosul] were scheduled to be deployed in Iraq temporarily, so they did not count against the cap.

At the height of the war in 2007, the United States had roughly 165,000 troops deployed in 500 bases and outposts across Iraq. Mr. Obama, who ran for president in 2008 vowing to end the United States’ involvement, fulfilled his pledge when he pulled all American troops out of the country in 2011. But as the Islamic State has strengthened its hold in the region in the past two years, Mr. Obama has sent thousands of American service members back in. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS sent a child to kill children

The Washington Post reports: The suicide bomber who blew up a youth soccer match late last month left barely a dent in the hard, dry earth, and only a faint scorch on a concrete wall nearby.

But he gouged a chasm of grief in the heart of the small community that lost more than two dozen of its sons in a single moment, at 6:15 on the evening of March 25.

A total of 43 people died in the bombing at the game, according to figures provided by the local government. Of those, 29 were boys younger than 17 who had either been participating in the match or watching their friends play.

The bomber also was a teenager, no more than 15 or 16 years old, judging by the picture of him released by the Islamic State, which asserted responsibility for the bombing, and the accounts of those who saw him at the match. The militants’ statement said the target was a gathering of members of the Shiite paramilitary group known as Hashd al-Shaabi, and the local government said two members of a militia were among the adults who died.

Yet that hardly explains the horror of an attack that inevitably would kill children.

The bomber “was a child, and he came to kill children,” said Mohammed al-Juhaishi, one of the sheiks from the area, who lost five relatives in the blast. “It was a children’s soccer game. Of course he knew he was going to kill children.” [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s expanding ground war in Iraq

The Daily Beast reports: The U.S. military is planning to expand the number of so-called “fire bases” in northern Iraq to prepare for an assault on Mosul, ISIS’s Iraqi capital. The bases will be there to support local Iraqi forces. But they’ll also put U.S. troops near the frontlines of what will likely be the biggest battle of the war with the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Troops at up to three temporary bases, on the north-south route from central Iraq to the northern city of Mosul, would advise Iraqi security forces, provide logistical support so Iraqi troops can move toward Mosul and even ground base support fire, defense officials told The Daily Beast.

The movement of U.S. troops within miles of the ISIS’s Iraqi capital would be yet another indication that the American military is increasingly conducting offensive operations even though President Obama has never publicly acknowledged the U.S. is back at war in Iraq.

On Wednesday, the Pentagon began sending out signals that the U.S. role in Iraq could change, one day after the president led a meeting with his top national security advisers about the war. [Continue reading…]

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Travelling inside ISIS-controlled Syria and Iraq

Jürgen Todenhöfer writes: Abu Qatadah, a German-born Muslim convert, who has brokered our visit to the Islamic State, is almost as wide as he is tall, with a thick, reddish-brown beard. My photographer son Frederic and I load our bags into the bed of the white pickup Qatadah and his driver arrived in. The driver’s head and face are so thoroughly wrapped with a large grey shawl that only his eyes and the contours of his nose are visible. He murmurs a greeting in English in a strikingly rhythmic accent. For security reasons, we can’t use the main roads. The drive to Raqqa takes more than three hours.

Qatadah claims business is booming in Isis. Almost all the shops are open and lots of goods are being sold, above all at the markets. We notice the new construction. “In places that are not being bombed, life goes on as normal,” Qatadah tells us. Then he gives us a short lecture on Isis’s version of sharia.

Christians have to pay jizya, a protection tax. It comes to about $300 (£210) a year for poor people and $600 (£420) for the rich. But then that is the only tax. Christians are among the more prosperous inhabitants of the country. All they have to do is sell a couple of sheep to raise the money to cover the tax. [Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast reports: Two senior intelligence analysts at U.S. Central Command say the military has forced them out of their jobs because of their skeptical reporting on U.S.-backed rebel groups in Syria, three sources with knowledge of their claim told The Daily Beast. It’s the first known instance of possible reprisals against CENTCOM personnel after analysts accused their bosses of manipulating intelligence reports about the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS in order to paint a rosier picture of progress in the war.

One of the analysts alleging reprisals is the top analyst in charge of Syria issues at CENTCOM. He and a colleague doubted rebels’ capabilities and their commitment to U.S. objectives in the region. The analysts have been effectively sidelined from their positions and will no longer be working at CENTCOM, according to two individuals familiar with the dispute, and who spoke on condition of anonymity. [Continue reading…]

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Mixed reactions from Iraqis as American troops enter the ground war against ISIS

Mustafa Habib writes: Iraqis found out that just about a week ago at dawn, the US military had entered the “war” against the extremist group known as the Islamic State, for real. In the northern province of Ninawa, near the extremist-held city of Mosul, US ground troops – a group of 200 soldiers from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, according to the US Secretary of Defence, Ashton Carter – used their artillery against the Islamic State, or IS, group’s fighters in the area.

Speaking at a press briefing last Friday, Carter told reporters that the US troops had set up base at an outpost to be named Firebase Bell – as the LA Times newspaper reported, “this would be the first American combat base since the US returned to Iraq in 2014”.

So how did Iraqis feel about the apparent return of US boots to their ground?

“The US troops have finally decided to join in properly,” says Qais al-Saadi, a colonel in the Iraqi army. “Previously they were limited to air raids. I think now they have discovered that these air raids did not affect the Islamic State as much as they hoped and they have become convinced that ground troops are also important.”

Al-Saadi was happy about this, noting that the US was paving the way for the Iraqi army, especially with their recent success in eliminating two senior members of the IS group in quick succession.

Social media lit up with debate on the subject. Some welcomed the US troops, believing they were necessary in order to defeat the IS group. Often Iraqi commentators said that this move by the US was too late and that they should have helped from the beginning. Others were not so happy, saying it was a new occupation. [Continue reading…]

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Moqtada al-Sadr is back, proving that he’s still a force in Iraqi politics

The Washington Post reports: Moqtada al-Sadr, the troublesome cleric whose militia repeatedly battled U.S. troops more than a decade ago, is back in action in Iraq — this time as a champion of political reforms.

And what a comeback it has been, replete with high political drama, bold gestures of choreographed symbolism and moments of nerve-racking tension that have seen Baghdad brace for a potential new war.

Sadr’s return to the limelight began in February, when he emerged from years of self-imposed retirement from politics to lead a mass protest campaign calling for the creation of a new government and an end to the corrupt practices of the country’s despised political elite.

On Thursday, after spending five days holed up in a tent inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone to press his demands, he was handed a victory, in the form of a proposed new government presented to parliament by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The new, streamlined cabinet is to be composed not of politicians but technocrats with the skills required to run ministries — meeting one of Sadr’s top demands. [Continue reading…]

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