ADEN, Yemen, May 18 -- Yemen's security forces managed to capture one of the most prominent al-Qaida leaders during an anti-terrorism operation launched on Saturday in the country's southwestern province of Taiz.
"An elite anti-terrorism security operation managed to capture one of the most dangerous al-Qaida leaders named Bilal Ali Wafi who is wanted as a global terrorist," officer Abdul-Basit Baher said. He added that the anti-terrorism security troops raided an old house in the western countryside of Taiz province and succeeded in capturing Wafi who refused to surrender himself and attempted to use children and women as human shields. A security member was injured during the shooting that erupted while attempting to capture Wafi in his hometown village, he added. Yemeni security authorities previously accused Wafi of masterminding a series of attacks and assassinations against the country's security and government officials. Wafi was operating as a prominent member of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and participated in a terrorist attack in 2012 against a military parade in capital Sanaa, killing more than 100 soldiers and injuring nearly 300 others, Yemeni authorities said.
In October 2017, the United States and other Gulf countries designated 11 Yemenis including Wafi as terrorists who were wanted by security authorities. The Yemen-based al-Qaida branch AQAP, which mostly operates in eastern and southern provinces, has been responsible for many attacks against security forces in the country. The provinces of Abyan and Shabwa, former main strongholds of AQAP, have also been the scene of sporadic attacks or heavy clashes between the United Arab Emirates-backed security forces and al-Qaida militants from time to time. The AQAP, seen by the U.S. as the global terror network's most dangerous branch, has exploited years of deadly conflicts between Yemen's government and Houthi rebels to expand its presence, especially in the southern and southeastern provinces. Enditem
WASHINGTON, May 8 -- U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said Monday that the deployment of U.S. military assets was to counter a "credible threat" from Iran.
The deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the U.S. Central Command region of responsibility represented "a prudent repositioning of assets in response to indications of a credible threat by Iranian regime forces," Shanahan tweeted Monday. "We call on the Iranian regime to cease all provocation," the acting Pentagon chief noted, adding "we will hold the Iranian regime accountable for any attack on U.S. forces or our interests."
U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton said late Sunday that his country is deploying a carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the Middle East, aiming "to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force." The New York Times on Monday cited senior U.S. officials that new threats by Iran against U.S. troops in Iraq were behind the sudden deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group and Air Force bombers to the Persian Gulf. Following the exit from the Iran nuclear deal in May last year, the U.S. government has kept piling up pressure on Iran through a series of sanctions.
On April 22, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the 180-day U.S. waivers for major importers of Iran's oil formally expired on May 2, which aggravates the impacts of tough pressures on Iran. Iranian semi-official Fars news agency reported on Monday that Tehran would soon announce a set of retaliatory measures in response to the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and re-imposition of sanctions against Iran.
Tensions between Tehran and Washington has flared up in recent months, following U.S. decisions to designate Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) a "foreign terrorist organization" and to reimpose sanctions on Iran. In response to the U.S. moves, the Iranian parliament also passed a bill blacklisting the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) forces in West Asia as a "terrorist group," pledging to fight back any provocation by Washington.
COLOMBO, May 7 -- Every suspect connected to the Sri Lankan Easter Sunday suicide bombings has either been arrested or killed, authorities said.
"All those terrorists directly involved in the bombings are either dead or under arrest," Sri Lanka's acting Inspector General of Police Chandana Wickramaratne said in a statement late Monday. The announcement comes two weeks after coordinated bomb attacks ripped through three hotels and three churches throughout the country, killing 257 people and injuring many. The National Thowheeth Jama'ath terrorist organization has been blamed for the attacks and the Islamic State has claimed responsibility. Wickramaratne said among the dead were two bomb experts linked to the attacks and police also uncovered explosives stashed to be used in future attacks. He also said life will slowly return to normal, adding that security measures were being beefed up at schools, the Sunday Times reported. "This is not because there is a direct threat on schools," he said. "But everyone must understand the manner in which security measures must be undertaken."
He also urged the public to disregard what they read on social media and rely directly on the security forces for information. Wickramaratne was appointed acting inspector general last week by President Maithripala Sirisena, who had demanded the resignation of Pujith Jayasundara, the former inspector general, for failing to uphold his duties by not thwarting the Easter Sunday bombings. Wickramaratne's Monday announcement follows the government having declared a state of emergency April 22 that allowed police and military forces to detain and question potential suspects without a court order. Meanwhile, Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake said the military has also increased national security measures under the emergency declaration while urging the public to return to their regular, daily activities.
COLOMBO, April 30 -- The first Sunday church services after a series of terror attacks will be held in Sri Lanka’s Catholic churches on May 5, Agence France-Presse (AFP) tweeted on Tuesday, citing a source.
The country’s authorities earlier recommended the island churches suspending religious services until security conditions are improved in the country. Last week the National Security Council cancelled lessons at Sri Lanka’s schools and universities until May 6. On April 21, the heaviest in the country’s history series of terror attacks occurred in Sri Lanka. Eight explosions shook the cities of Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, in particular in Catholic churches during Easter services and in hotels. It was earlier reported that 359 people were killed in the attacks, but it later emerged that physicians set these figures too high by mistake. According to latest information, about 250 people were killed in the terror attacks.
BEIRUT, April 26 -- The U.S.-backed assault to drive Islamic State from its Syrian capital Raqqa in 2017 killed more than 1,600 civilians, 10 times the toll the coalition itself has acknowledged, Amnesty International and the monitoring group Airwars reported.
Amnesty and Airwars, a London-based group set up in 2014 to monitor the impact of the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State, spent 18 months researching civilian deaths including two months on the ground in Raqqa, they said. “Our conclusive finding after all this is that the U.S.-led coalition’s military offensive (US, UK and French forces) directly caused more than 1,600 civilian deaths in Raqqa,” they said. They said the cases they had documented probably amounted to violations of international humanitarian law and called for coalition members to create a fund to compensate victims and their families. The coalition has previously said it takes great care to avoid civilian casualties and that it investigates accusations that it has done so.
Islamic State seized Raqqa in early 2014 during its lightning advance through Syria and Iraq in which it built a self-proclaimed caliphate characterized by summary executions of opponents. Its mass killing and enslavement of minorities was described as genocide by the United Nations. The group, which controlled a third of both Syria and Iraq in 2014, has since been driven from all the territory it controlled by military campaigns waged by an array of enemies including the Syrian and Iraqi governments, the United States, its European allies and their rivals Russia and Iran. It was defeated by U.S.-backed fighters in its last Syrian stronghold this year. Despite no longer controlling territory, it is still seen as a threat to launch attacks around the world. An international coalition led by Washington has given military support to both the Iraqi government and a Syrian militia, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF captured Raqqa in October 2017 after a five month offensive backed by U.S.-led air strikes and special forces. Amnesty said last year that there was evidence coalition air and artillery strikes in Raqqa had broken international law by endangering the lives of civilians, but until now had not given an estimate of the death toll during the battle. Reuters reporters in Raqqa during and after the campaign said that bombardment had caused massive destruction in the city, laying waste to entire districts.
ST.PETERSBURG, April 18 -- Some 1,500 foreign terrorists, who took part in combat actions in the Middle East, are in Europe now, Director of Russia’s Federal Security Service Alexander Bortnikov told a conference on countering international terrorism on Thursday.
"Some 1,500 out of 5,000 terrorists have arrived in the European Union from the Middle East, according to experts’ estimates. A significant number of them are gunmen, who have been sent by chieftains to Europe to continue terrorist attacks," Bortnikov told the conference organized by the Commonwealth of Independent States’ Interparliamentary Assembly. Despite major losses in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State and Al Qaeda terrorist groups, outlawed in Russia, and military groups affiliated with them still pose a serious threat, he said. "They managed to operate their forces based on a network principle. Interconnected and autonomous cells spread from the Middle East to Europe, Central and South East Asia, and major militant groups go deep into the African continent, in particular to Libya," Bortnikov noted. According to the FSB chief, the situation in Afghanistan is of special focus. Illegal terrorist groups there are joined by terrorists from Syria, creating a threat for the Central Asian region’s states.
LONDON, April 16 -- Shamima Begum was a member of the Isis morality police, a feared group which enforced the terror organisation’s strict interpretation of Islamic law – and she also tried to recruit other young women to join the jihadist group.
The 19-year-old British citizen, who fled her home in Bethnal Green four years ago with two other schoolgirls, has claimed that she was only a “housewife” during her time living with the group in Syria.
But according to a report in The Sunday Telegraph she played a much more active role in the organisation’s reign of terror as a member of the “hisba” – which metes out punishment to those found flouting Isis laws on how to dress and behave.
One activist quoted by the newspaper said Begum had been seen holding an automatic weapon and shouting at Syrian women in the city of Raqqa for wearing brightly coloured shoes. “Members of our group from Raqqa knew her well”, said Aghiad al-Kheder, an activist from Deir ez-Zor who founded an anti-Isis collective that published information about Isis crimes from sources on the ground. “There were lots of young European women in the hisba. Some of them were very harsh and the local population became very scared.” There were separate allegations that Begum stitched suicide bombs onto explosive vests, so they could not be removed without detonating. The Mail on Sunday reported that the prime minister and home secretary had been briefed on intelligence received by the CIA and Dutch military intelligence.
DAMASCUS, March 23 -- U.S.-backed forces said they had captured Islamic State's last shred of territory in eastern Syria at Baghouz on Saturday, ending the group's self-proclaimed caliphate after years of fighting.
"Baghouz has been liberated. The military victory against Daesh has been accomplished," Mustafa Bali, a Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) spokesman, wrote on Twitter, declaring the "total elimination of (the) so-called caliphate".
However, a Reuters journalist at Baghouz said there were still some sounds of shooting and mortar fire. The final battle lasted weeks as huge numbers of civilians poured out, and for many Kurdish fighters in the SDF, victory was sweeter as it coincided with their "Now Ruz" new year. Though the defeat of Islamic State in Baghouz ends the group's grip over the jihadist quasi-state straddling Syria and Iraq that it declared in 2014, it remains a threat. Some of its fighters still hold out in Syria's remote central desert and in Iraqi cities they have slipped into the shadows, staging sudden shootings or kidnappings and awaiting a chance to rise again. The United States believes the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is in Iraq. He stood at the pulpit of the great medieval mosque in Mosul in 2014 to declare himself caliph, sovereign over all Muslims. Further afield, jihadists in Afghanistan, Nigeria and elsewhere have shown no sign of recanting their allegiance to Islamic State, and intelligence services say its devotees in the West might plot new attacks. Still, the fall of Baghouz is a big milestone in a fight against the jihadist group waged by numerous local and global forces - some of them sworn enemies - over more than four years. It also marks a big moment in Syria's eight-year war, wiping out the territory of one of the main contestants, with the rest split between President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey-backed rebels and the Kurdish-led SDF.
Assad and his Iranian allies have sworn to recapture all Syria, and Turkey has threatened to drive out the SDF, which it sees as a terrorist group, by force. The continued presence of U.S. troops in northeast Syria might avert this. Islamic State originated as an al Qaeda faction in Iraq, but it took advantage of Syria's civil war to seize land there and split from the global jihadist organisation. In 2014, it suddenly grabbed Iraq's Mosul, one of the region's great historic cities, as well as Syria's Raqqa, and swathes of land each side of the border. It declared an end to modern countries and called on supporters to leave their homes and join the jihadist utopia it claimed to be erecting, trumpeting its currency, flag, passports and military parades. Oil production, extortion and stolen antiquities financed its agenda, which included slaughtering some minorities, public slave auctions of captured women, grotesque punishments for minor crimes and the choreographed killing of hostages. Those excesses brought an array of forces against it, forcing it from Mosul and Raqqa in a year of heavy defeats in 2017 and driving it, eventually, down the Euphrates to Baghouz. Over the past two months some 60,000 people poured out of that dwindling enclave, fleeing SDF bombardment and a shortage of food so severe that some said they were reduced to cooking grass. Intense air strikes throughout the campaign have levelled entire districts and rights groups have said they killed many civilians, allegations the coalition has often disputed. A mass grave the SDF discovered last month showed there were other dangers in the enclave, though it has released no details on the identities of the victims or how they died. Civilians made up more than half the people leaving Baghouz, the SDF said, including Islamic State victims such as women from the Iraqi Yazidi sect whom the jihadists had sexually enslaved.
Thousands of the group's unbending supporters also abandoned the enclave while still vowing their allegiance to a ruined caliphate and showing no remorse for its victims. At displacement camps in northeast Syria where they were sent by the SDF, the hardliners, including many foreign women who came to Syria and Iraq to marry jihadists, had to be kept away from other, often traumatized, residents. Their fate has befuddled foreign governments, who see them as a security threat and are loath to accede to SDF entreaties to take them back home.
As the fighting progressed, the convoys of trucks from Baghouz started to include hundreds, and then thousands, of surrendering jihadist fighters, many hobbling from their wounds. The SDF said it captured hundreds more in recent weeks who tried to slip through its cordon and escape into Iraq or across the Euphrates and into the Syrian desert. At the end, they were besieged in a tiny camp full of rusting vehicles and makeshift shelters, pinned against the Euphrates and overlooked by hills held by the SDF. Islamic State released video from inside that squalid, shell-pounded enclave, showing its last fighters still shooting at the SDF as smoke billowed overhead. It was an attempt to shape the narrative of its defeat, portraying it as a heroic last stand against overwhelming odds and a call to arms for future jihadists. But in Baghouz in recent weeks long lines of abject, surrendering fighters sat or squatted in a desolate landscape, their dream of world domination in tatters.
BANGKOK, March 15 -- Countries are grappling with what to do with women who left to join ISIS.
Now, as the organization is driven from its last strongholds in Syria, many of these women have sought to return to their home countries. Shamima Begum, of Britain, was stripped of her citizenship on security grounds last month, leaving her in a detention camp in Syria. Her three-week-old baby died on March 9, the third of the 19-year-old's infant children to die since she traveled to Syria in 2015. Found in a refugee camp in February, an unrepentant Begum sparked a debate in Britain and other European capitals as to whether a teenager with a jihadist fighter's child should be left in a war zone to fend for herself. Iranian-American journalist and writer Azadeh Moaveni works as a gender analyst for the International Crisis Center. She's an expert on gender and Islamic insurgencies and she spoke with Marco Werman about the role women have played in ISIS as many try to re-enter the countries they left when they went to join the militant group.
Marco Werman: Writer Azadeh Moaveni has been considering the case of Shamima Begum. Let me just start with your concerns over how to refer to these young women who joined ISIS. What is the problem with calling them jihadi brides or ISIS brides?
Azadeh Moaveni: Well I think "bride" suggests that their only relationship to this insurgent movement or this militant group was a civilian spouse, whereas many young women joined before they were even married. They joined up as members. They were voluntary recruits because they believed in the ideology and the politics of the organization. So, I think "brides" strips away that agency and that motivation. It doesn't really help us understand the way that recruitment worked. "I think 'brides' strips away that agency and that motivation."
Is there a better terminology that you can think of?
To me, "member" is more clear. It suggests some agency and voluntary affiliation. It doesn't immediately read as operational involvement because in a great many cases, women were not operationally involved or they didn't participate in direct violence, but it reflects that they were part of the organization. They lent their support to it in ways that made it stronger and that helped to recruit.
And why is it important what we call these women?
I mean, some people might say they joined a terrorist organization. In the case of Shamima Begum, she's got no remorse about joining. Why should we pay attention to the words we use to describe them?Well, I think in lots of conflicts around the world, whether it's Boko Haram in Nigeria, ISIS in Syria, or Al-Shabab in Somalia, we are increasingly seeing or are ready to see, prepared to see, and understand how actively women are involved. I think it's really hard to read the deep social base, how the contexts of state collapse affect men and women and bring women to the centers of these insurgencies. So I don't really think we get these conflicts unless we can also map the involvement of women onto them.
So there are the semantics and then perhaps more troubling issues like how should a young woman like Shamima Begum be judged?
Certainly, there is a problem of intelligence and there's really no good solutions when it comes to prosecuting women or men who are coming out of these kinds of conflict zones because some of the evidence against them is inadmissible. There are retroactive ways or new laws that have been instituted, for example, that could lead to higher sentences simply for joining a prescribed organization or for going to a zone where there was this kind of violence going on. I think something that is being turned to in the UK is the stripping of citizenship, which essentially — and this has happened in the case of Shamima — renders her stateless and then foists the problem of all of these jihadists or women militants onto the very vulnerable fragile states like Iraq or Syria itself, which can't be the best solution. So, I think a case-by-case basis, maybe tribunals. I think there certainly are legal systems — like the American legal system, the British, or the European states — that have more robust ways to be able to prosecute. If we leave these women stranded in places like this, they may actually never be punished or see the consequences for what they've done.
As you said earlier, "jihadi brides" or "ISIS brides" takes away the agency of these women and what they were doing. What do we know about what these women — like Shamima Begam — were actually doing once they were inside the caliphate?
For a lot of women, if they were skilled, educated, or trained in something, they took those skills to Syria. I spent a lot of time in Tunisia where hundreds of women went and there were doctors, language teachers, midwives and graphic designers. They would take their skills and work there because they thought they were building a new society. Less educated and unskilled women either stayed at home or they were involved in these morality police brigades that would essentially terrify and beat into submission the local population by beatings, lashings, fines for little infringements in dress codes. Of course, I think women were active as recruiters as well and were running the infrastructure of women kind of coming in and out of the caliphate. I would say a huge a spectrum of roles; operationally in relation to the group and also the civilian roles of a building society that they believe themselves to be building from scratch.
"They would take their skills and work there because they thought they were building a new society."
As for Shamima Begum, she's been stripped of her British citizenship, but how do you reconcile Begum's desire to return to the UK and her lack of remorse for what she's done?
To me, her lack of remorse is not really surprising. She's highly indoctrinated. This is really the only adult life she has known. But I think she does retain a British socialization, which has taught her that there is a country that has institutions like courts that will follow the rule of law and a healthcare system that will take care of you even if you are jobless. These are great strengths of British society and I think it's quite poignant that she's internalized the fact that a state can provide this in a kind of altruistic way even though she abandoned it. To me, I feel like there's a glimmer of hope that she could be rehabilitated.
A glimmer of hope at home, but how worried are you about what someone like Shamima Begum now becomes?
I think it's very worrisome, certainly, and I think that this is something that countries across the world are going to have to grapple with: How to rehabilitate these women and how to ensure that they do not continue to spread these kinds of ideas and keep them incubated in a way?
KUALA LUMPUR, March 12 -- When bombs started falling around her in the ISIS-controlled territory in Syria, Lidia decided it was time to leave. For the first time in more than four years, the 29-year-old Malaysian longed to return home.
The Mandarin-speaking medical lab technician disappeared from the Southeast Asian nation with her infant son and husband in October 2014 to travel secretly to Syria. Two weeks ago, she sent a text message to her father in the southern state of Johor to tell him she had fled the territory of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) and asked him to help her return to Malaysia. "I never lost hope that one day Lidia would tell me she wants to come home," her father, a Johor-based businessman who declined to be named. Lidia is one of the 13 Malaysians now wanting to come home as an offensive by the United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) enters its final stage in the last ISIS enclave in the village of Baghouz in eastern Syria, and the authorities are working out how to repatriate them. "We are trying to bring them home … yes, it includes Lidia. But you know, the situation is difficult as it involves many parties from different countries," Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, head of counter terrorism for Special Branch, the intelligence arm of the Malaysian police.
Interrogation and rehabilitation
While some countries are attempting to strip former fighters and their families of citizenship and prevent them from returning, Malaysia says citizens will be allowed to come back, provided they comply with checks and enforcement and complete a one-month government-run rehabilitation programme.
"Not everyone will be detained but all returnees will be interrogated," Ayob said. "We will conduct thorough checks and investigation on each returnee. We bring in clerics and psychologists to evaluate their ideology and psychological make-up. "We will compare intelligence which we received from friendly foreign services. If there is evidence that a returnee was involved in ISIS's militant activities, he or she would be charged in court," Ayob added. To date, 11 Malaysians have returned to the country. Eight were charged in court and convicted, all of them men. The other three were one woman and two children aged three and five. "The woman underwent a rehabilitation programme and has now returned to her kampung village," Ayob said. "She continues to be monitored." Even though ISIS has all but collapsed in Iraq and Syria, there are Malaysians who are still willing to fight for the group, according to police. "We are keeping an eye on them," Ayob said. "Those who cannot go to Syria are now setting their sights on Mindanao in southern Philippines where militant groups there have links to ISIS." Meanwhile, 51 Malaysians remain in Syria, including 17 children, according to Ayob.