Tag Archives: al Qaida

Rebels Launch Aleppo Offensive to Break Government Siege

This is the second attempt by rebels to break Assad’s siege. They opened a corridor to the east for the month of August after pro-government forces first applied a blockade in July.

Fierce fighting broke out around the Syrian city of Aleppo Friday as rebels announced a large-scale offensive to break the government’s siege of opposition-held areas.

A reporter inside the city on the pro-government Mayadeen TV channel reported attacks on “all sides” of the city, “from the furthest points north to furthest south.”

Continue reading Rebels Launch Aleppo Offensive to Break Government Siege

Advertisements

Islamic State Declares Foothold in Russia’s North Caucasus

The Islamic State terrorist group announced the creation of a new “governorate” Tuesday that it says will span several regions of Russia’s North Caucasus, a U.S. think tank said in a report.

The report by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War cited Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, a spokesman for the fundamentalist group, as naming Abu Mohammad al-Qadari the leader of the newly created entity and congratulating “the soldiers of the Islamic State” in the Caucasus.

The announcement came two days after an audio statement was circulated on Twitter in which Islamic State supporters from the Russian regions of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia — which all have large Muslim populations — pledged allegiance to the group.

These areas are also claimed by the al-Qaida-affiliated Caucasus Emirate group, which was first declared in 2007 and whose aim is to establish a state there based on sharia law. In recent months several militant commanders from the Caucasus Emirate have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State.

The Caucasus Emirate has claimed responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks in Russian cities, including the 2011 bombing of Domodedovo Airport that killed 37 people.

Up to 2,000 Russians are fighting for the Islamic State abroad, Yevgeny Lukyanov, deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, told Interfax on Wednesday.

“The [future] return to Russia of militants who are nationals of our country will also be a problem,” he said. “And they are already returning.”

American Who Sent $67K to Al-Qaida Gets 15 Years in Prison

A New Yorker who sent $67,000 to al-Qaida and pledged his support to the terror group has been sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Federal Judge Kimba Wood in Manhattan sentenced Brooklyn-born Wesam El-Hanafi (WAH’-suhm el-HAN’-awf-ee) on Tuesday. The sentence was less than the 20-year maximum term prosecutors had sought and three years less than his co-defendant received.

El-Hanafi pleaded guilty in June 2012, two years after he was brought to the United States from Dubai.

Prosecutors say El-Hanafi pledged loyalty to al-Qaida and sought to teach the group how to evade detection on the Internet. He went to Yemen in 2008 and met with al-Qaida representatives.

El-Hanafi said he regrets his actions and is embarrassed.

Isis kills hundreds of Iraqi Sunnis from Albu Nimr tribe in Anbar province

Iraqi security forces guard a checkpoint in Ramadi, Anbar province.

Tribal militia had played prominent role in fighting al-Qaida and offshoots since 2007

The bodies of more than 150 men killed by Islamic state (Isis) militants were recovered from a ditch in the city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, on Thursday in the latest of a series of mass executions of tribal figures who oppose the group.

Iraqi officials said the men had been captured in the town of Heet, west of Ramadi, over the last week. All were members of the Sunni Albu Nimr tribe, which had faced off against Isis and had played a prominent role in fighting al-Qaida and its offshoots in Anbar province since 2007.

At least 60 more tribal members were killed in Heet earlier this week, in an execution videotaped and uploaded to the internet by the executioners.

Mass killings have become synonymous with the jihadists’ rampage through western Iraq and eastern Syria, in which large numbers of captured soldiers and civilians on both sides of the border have been murdered and their bodies gruesomely displayed.

Human Rights Watch reported that up to 600 prisoners, all Shia, were executed when the group overran Iraq’s second city, Mosul, in June. The Shias were separated from Sunni prisoners and a small number of Christians, all of whom were spared. The NGO said it had spoken to 15 Shia prisoners who survived the massacre and said that those killed had been forced to kneel next to a ravine before being shot.

Since then up to 800 captured Syrian troops have been murdered after their bases were overrun in eastern Syria. And at least 1,000 Iraqi troops – all Shia – remain missing after they were captured in Tikrit.

Interior ministry intelligence chief General Ali al-Saede said Isis felt gravely threatened by a tribal revolt, which is seen as perhaps the only way to force it from large parts of the country it has conquered.

“They are trying to consolidate in the desert areas and in Falluja and Ramadi,” he said in an interview. “They know that the tribes are allying with us and that will be their downfall.”

Iraqi officials are trying to raise a national guard that would be led by Sunni tribal leaders and partnered with the beleaguered national army. However, tribal leaders say they have yet to be formally approached about the idea and that their fight against Isis is largely piecemeal. “Nobody has talked to me about a new awakening, of forming a national guard,” said Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, the leader of a tribal revolt in Anbar in 2007 that forced an earlier incarnation of Isis to leave the province.

“If they did, they would know that we need a lot more than we have now to fight them properly.”

More than four months into the insurgency that has seen large parts of Iraq fall out of government hands, much of Anbar remains dominated by Isis. Falluja and Ramadi, the two largest cities in the province, are mostly in insurgent hands, as are towns and villages in the desert that sprawls to the Syrian border.

Heet was one of the last towns to fall to the group. A large Iraqi military base near the town was abandoned as the jihadists advanced, yielding a haul of US-supplied advanced weapons, such as seven M-1 Abrams tanks, which have now become targets of US air force jets.

Meanwhile, in north-eastern Syria around 100 Kurdish peshmerga have assembled near Kobani, on the border with Turkey, to reinforce Kurdish fighters who have been battling Isis for more than a month. Kobani, which is known as Ain al-Arab in Arabic, has been a key battleground in Syria’s civil war.

US-led air strikes have regularly beaten back Isis, but it still controls at least half the town – the third largest urban centre for Syrian Kurds. The fall of Kobani would be a huge boost for Isis and a serious blow for the Kurds, the US and its allies, who have focused much of their air campaign on saving it.

Bodies of 150 Sunni Tribesmen Found in Anbar Province Mass Grave

Hit Anbar Province Iraq ISIS

Iraqi security officials have reported that the bodies of 150 members of an Iraqi Sunni tribe fighting the Islamic State (Isis) alongside the military have been found in a mass grave in Iraq’s restive Anbar province.

The development came one day after Islamic State reportedly lined up and shot dead 30 Sunni men in the same area.

Anbar provincial chairman Sabah Karhout said the Sunni tribesmen, allied with the government and members of the security forces, were captured when jihadists conquered the town of Hit, which is 140km (85 miles) west of the capital, Baghdad.

Earlier in October, Iraqi troops helped by Sunni fighters from the Albu Nimir tribe were forced out from the town, Anbar’s fifth-largest city, after heavy clashes with IS.

During its advance, in September IS seized the Iraqi military base of Camp Saqlawiyah, 45 miles (70km) west of Baghdad, amid claims the government failed to provide adequate support to its troops stationed there.

The Obama administration and Iraq have teamed up with some Sunni tribesmen to fight against IS in the hope of rekindling the same Sunni uprising that shattered an al-Qaida-linked group at the height of Iraq’s sectarian civil strife between 2005 and 2007.

At the time, the US military recruited and paid Sunni tribes to lead the struggle against the jihadists. But the Shi’ite-dominated government of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki fuelled sectarianism and disenfranchised the Sunni community from power, driving them to support IS in the first instance.

The US believe Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s newly formed government can be more inclusive of Sunni Muslims and Kurds, helping the American-led coalition to stop IS.

U.S. air strikes in Syria targeted French agent who defected to al Qaida

Mideast Syria US Airstrikes

— A former French intelligence officer who defected to al Qaida was among the targets of the first wave of U.S. air strikes in Syria last month, according to people familiar with the defector’s movements and identity.

Two European intelligence officials described the former French officer as the highest ranking defector ever to go over to the terrorist group and called his defection one of the most dangerous developments in the West’s long confrontation with al Qaida.

The identity of the officer is a closely guarded secret. Two people, independently of one another, provided the same name, which McClatchy is withholding pending further confirmation.

 

All of the sources agreed that a former French officer was one of the people targeted when the United States struck eight locations occupied by the Nusra Front, al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate. The former officer apparently survived the assault, which included strikes by 47 cruise missiles.

U.S. officials have acknowledged that the assault on the Nusra Front locations, which came as the Americans and coalition partners also struck Islamic State positions elsewhere, was aimed at members of what the Obama administration has dubbed the Khorasan group, a unit of top-level terror operatives who had been dispatched to Syria to plot attacks on the West.

The only member of that unit U.S. officials have identified is Muhsin al Fahdli, a 33-year-old one-time confidant of al Qaida founder Osama bin Laden.

The United States offered a $7 million reward in October 2012 for information leading to Fahdli’s death or capture. Twitter accounts associated with jihadi sympathizers have said Fahdli was killed, but U.S. officials have said that information remains unconfirmed.

The former French officer may have been a more important target. Syrian rebels battling to topple President Bashar Assad said that U.S. officials had told them before the strikes that they were closely monitoring the defector’s movements.

European intelligence officials said the former officer had defected from either French military intelligence or from France’s foreign intelligence agency, the General Directorate for External Security, known by its French-language acronym as the DGSE.

The former officer, according to one rebel source, is an explosives expert who fought in Afghanistan and in Syria with al Qaida and had assembled a group of about five men that was operating out of a mosque in Idlib.

The French operative is “still alive and kicking” after the airstrikes, said one European intelligence official, who described the man as “highly trained in Western intelligence trade-craft and explosives.”

The combination of Western-style intelligence training and devout jihadist beliefs made him among the most dangerous of al Qaida operatives, the intelligence official said.

It was unknown whether the former officer’s al Qaida sympathies were missed during the French vetting process or manifested themselves later.

Four European intelligence agents from a variety of countries with a range of knowledge of the situation were able to confirm or partially confirm the French agent’s existence.

All declined to speak for attribution because of the sensitive nature of the information and because they feared being charged criminally in their home countries for revealing classified information. One called the existence of the French officer “absolutely top secret.”

“I’m rather appalled I’m even having this conversation,” he said.

“We don’t know if he was sleeper [agent] or radicalized after he joined the service,” said another European intelligence official familiar with the man’s background. “I assume my French colleagues are working hard to determine that and if they have figured it out, they certainly aren’t sharing how they ended up in this mess, which as you could expect they find rather embarrassing.”

Two European intelligence sources provided the man’s name but asked that it not be published – one cited possible violence in France against the man’s family. Both independently provided the same name.

When reached for comment on the situation, a U.S. intelligence official refused to provide any information.

Three attempts to discuss the matter with French intelligence services were rebuffed. “There is no way I am going to discuss this matter” was one response.

An intelligence official from a third country, who said that his familiarity with the situation stemmed only from casual conversation and not from an official briefing, said the situation represents an “epic nightmare that we have so far been spared.”

“We’ve seen Arab partners lose well trained people to these groups, and in a handful of cases those defectors have benefited from our training through partnership programs,” he said. “It’s the cost of doing business when you aid some of our regional allies.”

But the French officer’s defection, he said, is the first he’d heard of by “someone with legitimate security clearance and Western-style vetting and training.”

“As embarrassed as the French must be right now, it should be pointed out that the French services are highly regarded within the intelligence community as consummate and loyal professionals,” he said. “This failure, and I do believe this happened, must be seen in the context as an outlier and not anything systematic about the French services.”

One European official directly familiar with the case said the partial confusion over the man’s resume – which has been alternately described as French Special Forces, military intelligence or DGSE – probably stems from the overlapping “seconding” process where specialists move between branches of the government on a fairly regular basis.

“It sounds likely he started as French military and maybe because of an Arabic family background and appearance, language skills and a high degree of competency, he would then be loaned out to different aspects of the French services,” the European official said. “Everyone does that all the time,” he said, citing as an example a member of the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command being assigned to the CIA.

For their part, Syrian rebels, who are already furious at the United States for not notifying them in advance about the strikes and for not including Assad government facilities among the targets, expressed puzzlement at why the U.S. government hadn’t approached them about trying to seize the man.

But a European intelligence official said the decision to try to strike the defector with a missile rather than capture him was in part to keep the French agent’s existence a secret.

“Perhaps some problems are best buried forever under a pile of rubble,” he said.

Major terrorist attack is ‘inevitable’ as Isis fighters return, say EU officials

Gilles de Kerchove

EU’s 28 governments are said to be struggling to respond to threat of Islamist fighters coming back from Iraq and Syria

A major Islamist terror attack in Europe is almost inevitable as European members of Islamic State (Isis) return from Syria and Iraq, according to senior EU officials familiar with the diplomatic, intelligence, and security planning taking place to try to counter the threat.

They said the EU’s bodies and its 28 governments were under intense US pressure to get to grips with the menace represented by thousands of European citizens fighting in Syria, but that Europe was struggling to develop coherent instruments to reduce the risk of an atrocity.

“It is pre-programmed,” said a senior official involved in the policy and security debate over the chances of an attack. “We have clear signals that this is what the foreign fighters are doing. This is the main threat we are facing.” Interior ministers from the 28 countries are to meet in Luxembourg in a fortnight to try to come up with a concerted policy.

“The home affairs council is very aware and very frightened of this … The colleagues in the police administration just don’t know how to cope. They all fear this could be totally out of control. It may already be too late,” the senior official told the Guardian and five other European newspapers.

In a separate interview, Gilles de Kerchove, the Belgian EU official who coordinates the union’s counter-terrorism policy, said executives from the big social media providers, including Twitter, Facebook and Google, would attend the interior ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg in an EU attempt to deprive Isis propagandists of their highly effective exploitation of the internet.

“We want these companies to develop a counter-narrative. There will be a big discussion with the internet players,” said De Kerchove.

He put the number of EU citizens fighting in Syria at around 3,000. “We don’t have harmonised statistics. But the flow of fighters has not dried up. It’s a significant number and it has not stopped,” he said.

Senior US intelligence and homeland security officials have been attending recent meetings of EU policy-makers, alarmed that some of the European fighters could be easily infiltrated into the US.

“The Americans are very worried about Europeans entering freely under the visa waiver programme. They are looking into this very seriously,” said De Kerchove.

In addition to the dilemmas posed by extremists returning to Europe, EU capitals and Washington are aghast not just at the brutal prowess shown by Isis in Syria and Iraq, but also at the claimed arrival in Syria of senior al-Qaida operatives from havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan grouped in the so-called Khorasan group. They are said to include the Saudi explosives expert Ibrahim al-Asiri.

“This guy seems to be one of the best bomb-makers in the world,” said De Kerchove. “This small group of veterans linked to al-Qaida is a concern. We know some flew from Afghanistan/Pakistan to Syria.”

Confronted with these dilemmas, EU interior ministry, intelligence and police officials are meeting regularly in various combinations. But the attempts to come up with a coherent policy and instruments are dogged by institutional, national and departmental rivalries and differing priorities, senior officials said.

The EU has been trying to come up with a counter-terrorism strategy for the past 18 months. The current emergency is jolting the process, but officials are intensely pessimistic that the results will be too little, too late.

Various schemes are under discussion, most notably an EU-wide Passenger Names Record (PNR) for all air travel within the EU supplying up to 15 parameters that are mixed in a computer algorithm to help identify suspects.

The scheme is opposed in the European parliament on civil liberties grounds as it would monitor millions of ordinary travellers. The Germans, sticklers for data protection, are also lukewarm on the idea but are keener on reintroducing tighter border controls within the passport-free Schengen zone.

“We think PNR is one of the few tools allowing detection of suspicious travellers,” said De Kerchove. “But many people think it’s a dangerous slippery slope, collection of data on the innocent.”

At recent EU meetings with his counterparts in the EU, Thomas de Maiziere, the German interior minister, has also been urging more rigorous screening of all passports and ID cards at airports, the officials said. The proposal was also opposed on the grounds that it would cause massive queues.

A police database known as SIS or Schengen Information System is also available as a tool for flagging up suspicious travellers and identities that have been entered into the system. The intelligence services, the sources said, are wary, however, of contributing information to this system for fear of compromising their material, thus rendering it less effective.

Britain, the source of around one quarter of the European jihadis believed to be in Syria, is not party to the SIS system because it opted out of all the instruments under the EU’s justice and home affairs portfolio and still has to negotiate what bits it will rejoin.

But according to De Kerchove, the British are nonetheless among the most active and insistent in pushing a tough concerted EU strategy.

“We should have the UK plugged into the SIS. That’s very important, but it has not happened yet. The Home Office says they want to be in. I was in London last week. They push and push. On counter-terrorism, the UK is one of the countries supporting us the most. They’re very, very committed and they have excellent information.”

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said the UK authorities believed “more than 500 UK-linked individuals have now travelled to Syria and Iraq since the uprising began. Obviously, it’s very difficult to give precise numbers on this.”

De Kerchove said he had asked Theresa May, the home secretary, and had not received precise figures. Nor was it clear how many had returned from Syria or Iraq to Britain.

According to the French authorities, the number of native jihadis in Syria and Iraq has soared from 555 to 932 this year. Of those, 118 have returned to France. According to experts consulted by European officials involved in the effort, an estimated one in nine of those returning represents a terrorist threat.

Officials point to the killing of four people at Brussels’s Jewish Museum in May as a portent of things to come and of the mishaps afflicting the Schengen system. The suspect awaiting trial in Belgium, Mehdi Nemmouche, 29, a French national of Algerian heritage, had spent a year in Syria. He flew from Turkey to Frankfurt in Germany.

 

German customs officers identified him from the SIS system and alerted the French. He was allowed to travel further and allegedly came to Brussels where he is suspected of opening automatic machine-gun fire on the museum before being arrested later in Marseille.

The number of EU nationals fighting in Syria is put at 3-4,000. The senior official said that in post-9/11 Afghanistan there were an estimated 100 Europeans fighting with al-Qaida and the Taliban and that presented a big problem then.

Two Dutch nationals of Turkish origin were also arrested by the Belgians last month on their return from the Middle East, with Dutch television reporting at the weekend that they were plotting an attack on the headquarters of the European commission in Brussels.

The officials said there was no evidence to support this.

On Thursday the mayor of Brussels, Yvan Mayeur, said the threat of returning jihadis “is not virtual for us, it is concrete, it is real”.

He said he was examining 14 files on the issue of suspected extremists from Belgium, which is believed to have the highest per capita rate in the EU of fighters in Syria.