WASHINGTON — A U.S. warplane shot down an armed drone linked to Syrian regime forces, the Pentagon said Tuesday, the latest in a series of incidents between U.S.-backed forces and the regime of Bashar Assad that threatens to escalate the conflict there.
The drone, a Shaheed-129, was shot down by an F-15E Strike Eagle after it “displayed hostile intent and advanced on coalition forces,” the U.S. military said in a statement.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the Syrian Democratic Forces militia is close to fully capturing the city of al-Tabqah from the Islamic State as its offensive to free Raqqa escalates.
Attack in subway likely also known in advance by Belgian and Western agencies; attack plan was formulated at de-facto ISIS capital of Raqqa, in Syria.
The Belgian security services, as well as other Western intelligence agencies, had advance and precise intelligence warnings regarding the terrorist attacks in Belgium on Tuesday, Haaretz has learned.
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The security services knew, with a high degree of certainty, that attacks were planned in the very near future for the airport and, apparently, for the subway as well.
Despite the advance warning, the intelligence and security preparedness in Brussels, where most of the European Union agencies are located, was limited in its scope and insufficient for the severity and immediacy of the alert.
As far as is known, the attacks were planned by the headquarters of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Raqqa, Syria, which it has pronounced as the capital of its Islamic caliphate.
The terror cell responsible for the attacks in Brussels on Tuesday was closely associated with the network behind the series of attacks in Paris last November. At this stage, it appears that both were part of the same terrorist infrastructure, connected at the top by the terrorist Salah Abdeslam, who was involved in both the preparation for the Paris attacks and its implementation.
Abdeslam escaped from Paris after the November attacks, hid out in Brussels and was arrested last week by the Belgian authorities.
Abdeslam’s arrest was apparently the trigger for Tuesday’s attacks, due to the concern in ISIS that he might give information about the planned attacks under interrogation, particularly in the light of reports that he was cooperating with his captors.
The testimony of the detained terrorist, alongside other intelligence information, part of which concerned ISIS operations in Syria, should have resulted in much more stringent security preparedness in crowded public places in Brussels, along with a heightened search for the cell.
As of now, the search is focused on the terrorist Najim Laachraoui, who created the explosive vests used by the bombers and escaped from the airport at the last moment.
There is concern, however, that other cells connected to ISIS in Western Europe will attempt to carry out additional attacks in the near future, either in Belgium or in other countries involved in the war against the terror organization in Syria and Iraq.
At least 31 people were killed and 260 wounded in the terrorist bombings at the Brussels airport and in the subway system on Tuesday. Responsibility for the attacks was claimed by ISIS.
Belgian authorities have named the two airport attackers as brothers Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui. Laachraoui, who was photographed with the brothers at the airport and was observed fleeing the scene, is the subject of a massive manhunt.
Signs of discontent are evident across the ‘caliphate’ as people tire of its taxes, prices caps and shoddy services
At first glance, Iraq’s second city of Mosul looks like a model of success for its new rulers from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), the world’s most feared jihadi group. Well-swept thoroughfares bustle with cars, the electricity hums and the cafés are crowded.
But in the back alleys, litter fills the streets. The lights stay on, but only because locals rigged up generators themselves. And under the blare of café televisions, old men grumble about life under Isis’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
“When I was seven years old the war against Iran started. Since then, we’ve been at war,” says Abu Ahmed, a quiet 40-year-old with a long grey moustache. “We’ve endured international sanctions, poverty, injustice. But it was never worse than it is now.”
Like those of others interviewed for this article, the name of Abu Ahmad, an honorific, was changed for his safety.
Abu Ahmed at first welcomed the takeover by Isis, which seized more than a quarter of Iraq and Syria this summer. He was not alone: Sunni Muslims in both countries have long felt discriminated against by regimes dominated by rival sects — in Baghdad, Iraq’s Shia majority; in Damascus, the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Isis supporters have tolerated everything from public stonings and beheadings to daily air strikes by the US-led coalition. But without an economy that gives people a chance to make a living, many say Isis has little more to offer than the authorities they replaced.
“Compared to past rulers, Isis is a lot easier to deal with. Just don’t piss them off and they leave you alone,” says Mohammed, a trader from Mosul. “If they could only maintain services — then people would support them until the last second.”
On that critical measure, locals say, Isis is losing its lustre: to traverse the ostensibly unified “caliphate,” a traveller needs three different currencies; aid groups provide medicine to much of the area; and salaries are often actually paid by Iraq and Syria — governments with which Isis is at war.
Rather than take over the reins of state, Isis is often contributing to its dysfunction by engaging in extortion rackets.
“In the Syrian cities of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor they may be functioning something like a state, but there’s nowhere in Iraq where they’re operating anything like a state,” says Kirk Sowell, president of Uticensis Risk Services. “They’re operating like something between a mafia, an insurgency and a terror group. Maybe they thought six months ago they were going to function as a state. But they don’t have the personnel or manpower.”
Isis’s repression and restrictions on media make it difficult to fully portray the group’s administration system, but through a series of more than a dozen interviews with residents, and visits to Isis-ruled areas by a local journalist, the FT found its attempt at state-building has so far failed to win over locals.
In some cases they say Isis takes credit for systems in place before it seized power. In others, locals say it is stealing the resources of the region it seeks to rule.
Last June, Isis fighters bulldozed Syrian-Iraqi border posts and declared “the end of Sykes-Picot”, the agreement that divided the Middle East between French and British control. The group posted videos of volunteers handing out sacks of wheat stamped with their black and white seal. They even announced plans to issue a currency, posting a design for a new gold dinar on Mosul’s streets and handing out pamphlets in Raqqa, in Syria’s north.
From the outside, these projects look impressive — especially to people living in chaos in northern Syria, where rival rebel groups trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad’s government have been at war and unable to impose order.
Yet for those travelling the bumpy dirt road between Mosul and Raqqa, the borders have not changed, even if Isis reduced the crossings to rubble. Travelers must stock up on Iraqi dinars to use in Iraq, US dollars for the road and Syrian pounds once they arrive.
It is as if Isis is financing itself partly through a pyramid scheme, and this has begun to falter
If Isis’s “caliphate” were a state, it would be a country of the poor. Most Syrians in the territory are struggling to get by on about $115 a month. Isis’s foreign fighters make as much as five times that. In Syria, the price of bread has nearly doubled to almost a dollar — about a third of the daily income for
Syrian civilians. Even though Mosul was cut off from Iraq’s power grid when Isis took the city this summer, the electricity stayed on. But this is mostly thanks to the efforts of locals, who bought and set up generators to keep the power running in their neighbourhoods.
In Isis-controlled Syria, electricity still functions a few hours a day — courtesy of Mr Assad’s regime. Mahmoud, an engineer, and his colleagues still file into the same power plants where they worked for years before Isis took over. But while the militant group’s oil and gas authority now oversees them, the Damascus government still pays their wages. Thousands of civil servants have similar arrangements in Isis-controlled Syria and Iraq, where locals risk long and dangerous drives to pick up their pay in Baghdad.
Isis seized control of three dams and at least two gas plants in Syria used to run state electricity. Rather than risk blowing out swaths of the power grid, Damascus appears to have struck a deal.
“Isis guards their factories and lets state employees come to work,” Mahmoud says. “It gets to take all the gas produced for cooking and petrol and sell it. The regime gets the gas needed to power the electrical system, and also sends some electricity to Isis areas.”
Not only does the Assad government pay the gas plant staff, but workers say it sends in spare parts from abroad and dispatches its own specialists to the area for repairs. “I’m against Isis with all my heart,” Mahmoud says. “But I can’t help but admire their cleverness.”
Sajad Jiyad, an independent researcher in Iraq, says that Isis struggles to balance its books, but services continue to function because of the money Baghdad still pays to former civil servants in Mosul. Isis taxes those employees at up to 50 per cent of their salaries.
“Isis is dependent on its ability to seize territory and resources to continue funding its existing areas,” he says. “Its expansion is sometimes operated through affiliates who use the Isis brand but are in effect local mercenaries. It is as if Isis is financing itself partly through a pyramid scheme, and this has begun to falter.”
Basic services function poorly, but fear prevents anyone from speaking out. “Electricity, fuel, medicine, water are in low supply but people are surviving,” he says.
When they (Isis) are not there, we charge a higher price. Locals understand. The prices can’t always be what Isis says
Though many now question Isis’s economic management, its military prowess and organisational skills are clear. Despite the coalition’s strikes, which have stalled its advances, Isis holds huge swaths of territory that encompass up to a third of Iraq and a quarter of Syria.
Some of the group’s policies are seen as better than the previous regimes. Isis allows easy movement through its territories to facilitate trade. Trucks passing through are taxed about 10 per cent of the value of their cargo. Some businessmen in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, who drive shipments through the group’s territory, see the scheme as “Isis’s business-friendly face”.
It is also relatively easy to start a business — there are no start-up fees for those who want to open a store, though they have to pay a 2.5 per cent tax on their revenue after each year.
But to locals, these policies produce little benefit. There are few business opportunities in a conflict zone where people are scraping by, usually with help from relatives who fled abroad.
In Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province, home to most of Syria’s oil wells, locals also complain about Isis commandeering their resources. “If they don’t take it, they tax you for it,” jokes the gas engineer Mahmoud. Isis, which he estimates controls nearly 40,000 barrels a day of oil production in eastern Syria, is believed to be the richest militant group in history, making perhaps $1m a day on oil and extortion rackets.
The coalition has been trying to bomb makeshift oil refineries to hurt Isis’s finances, but locals say that has little impact. Isis makes the bulk of its money from selling crude from the oil wells to Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian middlemen. Local partners refine the oil and sell it.
But other than these traders, most residents say they see little of that oil wealth.
Bassem, a hospital worker in Deir Ezzor, says when civil war first spread to eastern Syria two years ago, the region went from an impoverished backwater to a boomtown as rebels and tribes took control of oil wealth previously extracted and used by the regime. “You saw fancy cars, new stores. People were doing really well,” he says, speaking to the FT via Skype.
But under Isis, economic conditions steadily worsened, he says: “There’s no ‘economic administration’ with Isis — there is only people who take oil, divide it between the emirs and send it out. Where? We don’t know. Only a very tiny portion comes back to the people.”
Isis has tried to shape itself as a just ruler by setting prices on everything from bread to caesarean sections, which go for about $84. But locals routinely ignore the caps, Bassem says, because such prices are impossible to maintain given the skyrocketing costs of fuel and transportation. “Isis doesn’t study the market, it doesn’t calculate costs . . . these price caps are just comical.”
As a conservative Salafi Muslim, he was sympathetic to Isis’s ideology when they first took over, but was quickly disillusioned as economic conditions worsened. “I may be a Salafi, but I’m not an idiot,” he jokes.
Bassem’s hospital works round the price caps by charging patients for everything from the electricity to drugs. “When they (Isis) are not there, we charge a higher price,” he says. “Locals understand. The prices are not always what Isis says, because they can’t be.”
International aid groups often send in medicines and supplies, which Isis tolerates out of necessity. Iraqis see the practice in Mosul hospitals, too.
While it is impossible to know how deeply the frustration with Isis policies runs — as some are undoubtedly benefiting from them — all those interviewed say signs of discontent were rising.
When Isis members recently came to collect taxes for electricity in Raqqa, a car mechanic became so enraged he shouted as they approached his garage: “How can you ask for fees on a service only available a few hours a day?”
Further east, at a mosque in Syria’s city of Meyadeen, a former activist who once organised anti-Assad protests says he witnessed an eerily familiar scene. After Friday prayers, an imam mimicked a practice common in the era of Assad control, when congregants were made to pray for their president. This time, they were told to pray for Isis’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
From the back of the room came faint but audible whispers: “Screw him.”
They used to sneak in weapons and blackmarket oil. But now eastern Syria’s smugglers are seeking profit from a new illicit product: cigarettes.
It is forbidden under the austere religious law imposed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, but smoking is a habit many Syrians find hard to break. Despite its military might and its control of nearly a third of Syria and neighbouring Iraq, Isis faces an uphill battle tackling smoking in a region where roughly 40 per cent of the population is addicted.
“When you have as many worries as people living through war — and under Isis — of course we are just going to smoke even more than before,” says one smoker from Deir Ezzor. “Now, you’ll never see someone smoking in the street. You can be fined [$65] and beaten, imprisoned or even sent to the front lines as labour, like digging trenches.”
Yet cigarettes offer a rare business opportunity for those ready to take the risk — from desperate refugees trying to fund their escape from war-torn cities to large smuggling rings seeking higher returns.
In the northern town of Tabqa, Abu Ayman, who like all those interviewed did not want his real name published — uses his pickup truck to smuggle in cigarettes, stuffing packs into the seats, tyres and packages of food he pretends are his main product for trade.
“I can only bring in a small amount, but I can sell it for at least double the price that I bought them. It’s a reasonable profit,” he says.
Impoverished by Syria’s four-year civil war, cigarette smuggling offers a lifeline to some. Poor refugees fleeing northern Aleppo, heading to nearby Isis territory to escape ferocious daily government air strikes on their city, sometimes fund their journey with cigarettes. They sell the packs to traders once they arrive.
“The best way to do it is to hide the cigarettes with the women,” Mr Ayman says, because conservative Isis fighters may be reluctant to inspect them. “Just selling one pack will cover the cost of the trip — the demand among customers here is huge.”
Local brands of cigarettes that once sold for the equivalent of 50 cents a pack are now around $1.50 — a lot of money for Syrians, the majority of whom now live on less than $2 a day.
Even more difficult to buy is flavoured tobacco for the water pipes that are ubiquitous in the Middle East. Smokers complain they can usually only find one flavour on the market for about $20 a kilo, six times the usual price.
In Deir Ezzor, locals say the cigarette trade is run by big smugglers whose profitable oil and weapons trade was taken over by Isis.
“Now, they make most of their money from cigarettes. Many of these smugglers themselves pledged allegiance to Isis, perhaps to build some kind of relationship with them,” says a businessman from the eastern city of Mayadeen who called himself Kareem.
Some smugglers pay off Isis checkpoints, others are helped by co-operative smokers in the jihadi ranks in exchange for a steady supply of cigarettes. Isis sometimes asks people it knows are smokers to spy for their morality police, known as the Hisba.
For traders, getting caught is costly but not life-threatening. Whether or not they are beaten, their vehicles are seized and they are fined double the cost of their contraband.
“I tried to pay them in Syrian lira, but they would only accept dollars,” says one smuggler.
Omar, a big cigarette smuggler in Raqqa with an entire network of traders, was caught through an informant last month. He suspects Isis is more interested in raising cash than it is in stopping smugglers.
“They never beat me at all, they never tortured me. They just saw us as a profitable catch,” he says. “They didn’t even try to learn how we smuggled in the cigarettes or who the bigger traders were.”
In Raqqa, residents say Isis has put up billboards encouraging smokers to instead chew branches from the Arak tree, which Islamic tradition says were commonly chewed by the Prophet Mohammed.
Smokers seem unconvinced. Lighting incense to cover the smell of smoke, young men who once gathered in cafes now puff their cigarettes together at home.
“I wish I could quit,” says another smoker. “ But the cigarette is a loyal friend in a time of trouble.”
BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Islamic State militant group has killed 1,878 people in Syria during the past six months, the majority of them civilians, a British-based Syrian monitoring organization said on Sunday.
Islamic State also killed 120 of its own members, most of them foreign fighters trying to return home, in the last two months, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The militant group has taken vast parts of Iraq and Syria and declared a caliphate in territory under its control in June. Since then it has fought the Syrian and Iraqi governments, other insurgents and Kurdish forces.
Rami Abdulrahman, the head of the Syrian monitoring group, told Reuters that Islamic State killed 1,175 civilians, including eight women and four children.
He said 930 of the civilians were members of the Sheitaat, a Sunni Muslim tribe from eastern Syria which fought Islamic State for control of two oilfields in August.
Reuters cannot independently verify the figures but Islamic State has publicized beheadings and stoning of many people in areas it controls in Syria and Iraq. These are for actions it sees as violating its reading of Islamic law, such as adultery, homosexuality, stealing and blasphemy.
The group, an offshoot of al Qaeda, has also released videos of executions of captured enemy fighters, activists and journalists.
It beheaded two U.S. journalists, and one American and two British aid workers this year in attempts to put pressure on a U.S.-led international coalition, which has been bombing its fighters in Syria since September.
Abdulrahman, who gathers information from all sides of the Syrian conflict, said that Islamic State had also executed 502 soldiers fighting for President Bashar al-Assad and 81 anti-Assad insurgents.
He said that 116 foreign fighters who had joined Islamic State but later wanted to return home, were executed in the Syrian provinces of Deir Al-Zor, Raqqa and Hassakeh since November. Four other Islamic State fighters were killed on other charges, Abdulrahman said.
The overwhelming number of the group’s victims have been from the Syrian population.cracked down on peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011.
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