Displaying items by tag: Terrorism

Ominous signs of an Asian hub for Islamic State in the Philippines

MARAWI CITY — Dozens of foreign jihadis have fought side-by-side with Islamic State sympathizers against security forces in the southern Philippines over the past week, evidence that the restive region is fast becoming an Asian hub for the ultra-radical group.

A Philippines intelligence source said that of the 400-500 marauding fighters who overran Marawi City on the island of Mindanao last Tuesday, as many as 40 had recently come from overseas, including from countries in the Middle East.

The source said they included Indonesians, Malaysians, at least one Pakistani, a Saudi, a Chechen, a Yemeni, an Indian, a Moroccan and one man with a Turkish passport.

"IS is shrinking in Iraq and Syria, and decentralising in parts of Asia and the Middle East," said Rohan Gunaratna, a security expert at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"One of the areas where it is expanding is Southeast Asia and the Philippines is the center of gravity."

Mindanao has been roiled for decades by bandits, local insurgencies and separatist movements. But officials have long warned that the poverty, lawlessness and porous borders of Mindanao's predominantly Muslim areas mean it could become a base for radicals from Southeast Asia and beyond, especially as Islamic State fighters are driven out of Iraq and Syria.

Although Islamic State and groups affiliated to the movement have claimed several attacks across southeast Asia in the last two years, the battle in Marawi City was the first long drawn-out confrontation with security forces.

On Tuesday, a week after the fighting began, the government said it was close to retaking the city. As helicopters circled, troops cleared rebel positions amid explosions and automatic gunfire, moving house by house and street by street.

Last year, southeast Asian militants fighting for Islamic State in Syria released a video urging their countrymen to join the cause in the southern Philippines or launch attacks at home rather than attempting to travel to Syria.

Jakarta-based terrorism expert Sidney Jones passed to Reuters some recent messages in a chatroom of the Telegram app used by Islamic State supporters.

In one, a user reported that he was in the heart of Marawi City where he could see the army "run like pigs" and "their filthy blood mix with the dead bodies of their comrades."

He asked others in the group to pass information on to the Amaq News Agency, a mouthpiece for Islamic State.

Another user replied, using an Arabic word meaning pilgrimage: "Hijrah to the Philippines. Door is opening."

The clash in Marawi City began with an army raid to capture Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of Abu Sayyaf, a group notorious for piracy and for kidnapping and beheading Westerners.

Abu Sayyaf and a relatively new group called Maute, both of which have pledged allegiance to Islamic State, have fought alongside each other in Marawi City, torching a hospital and a cathedral, and kidnapping a Catholic priest.

The urban battle prompted Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to impose martial law across the whole island of Mindanao, an area roughly the size of South Korea with a population of around 21 million.

Fighters from Middle East

The head of the Malaysian police force's counter-terrorism division, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, named four Malaysians who are known to have travelled to Mindanao to join militant groups.

Among them were Mahmud Ahmad, a Malaysian university lecturer who is poised to take over the leadership of Islamic State in the southern Philippines if Hapilon is killed, he said.

Security expert Gunaratna said that Ahmad has played a key role in establishing Islamic State's platform in the region.

According to his school's research, eight of 33 militants killed in the first four days of fighting in Marawi City were foreigners.

"This indicates that foreign terrorist fighters form an unusually high component of the IS fighters and emerging IS demography in Southeast Asia," Gunaratna said.

According to an intelligence brief seen by Reuters, authorities in Jakarta believe 38 Indonesians travelled to the southern Philippines to join Islamic State-affiliated groups and about 22 of them joined the fighting in Marawi City.

However, an Indonesian law-enforcement source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the actual number of Indonesians involved in the battle could be more than 40.

Indonesia officials believe some militants might have slipped into Marawi City under the cover of an annual gathering of the Tablighi Jamaat just days before the fighting erupted. The Tablighi Jamaat is a Sunni missionary movement that is non-political and encourages Muslims to become more pure.

An Indonesian anti-terrorism squad source told Reuters that authorities have beefed up surveillance at the northern end of the Kalimantan and Sulawesi regions to stop would-be fighters travelling by sea to the southern Philippines and to prevent an influx of others fleeing the military offensive in Marawi City.

"The distance between Marawi and Indonesian territory is just five hours," the source said. "It should not get to the point where they are entering our territory and carrying out such (militant) activities."  Reuters


Vladimir Putin is a bigger threat than Isis, John McCain says

  • Published in U.S.

 The Guardian.

Video link: 170529McCain_desk.mp4


Russia's leader Vladimir Putin is a bigger threat to the United States than islamist terrorism, US senator John McCain says.

Speaking to the ABC's 7.30 program on Monday night, Mr McCain - who is in Canberra for security talks - said Mr Putin is "the premier and most important threat, more so than ISIS".

"I think ISIS can do terrible things, and I worry a lot about what is happening with the Muslim faith," Mr McCain said.

"But it's the Russians who tried to destroy the very fundamental of democracy, and that is to change the outcome of an American election. I have seen no evidence they succeeded but they tried and they are still trying.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began examining possible Russian interference in the 2016 election, before FBI head James Comey was fired by President Donald Trump.

Mr Putin has denied Russia attempted to meddle in the election.

Despite this, Mr McCain said there should be further sanctions on "the Russians" as they are "the far greatest challenge that we have".

"We need to have increased sanctions and hopefully when we come back from our recess the Senate will move forward with sanctions on Russia, and enact other penalties for Russian behaviour," Mr McCain said.

The 80-year-old, who is the chair of the senate armed services committee, also addressed mounting tensions with North Korea, saying the world could face another Cuban Missile Crisis if tensions are not diffused.

​"The key to it is China. China can restrain North Korean behaviour," Mr McCain said. "This could be a very serious crisis, along the lines of the Cuban missile crisis, unless we do everything we can to restrain North Korean behaviour."

He said the impending crisis requires all countries to work together to ensure North Korea is never in a position where they can threaten the US, America, Australia or any allies with a nuclear weapon.

During Mr McCain's visit, Australia announced an additional 30 troops will be sent to Afghanistan.

Asked why security in the middle east seemed to get worse, not better, after US intervention, Mr McCain was scathing of former president Barack Obama's approach.

"We have not pursued a strategy for victory. The Obama administration's strategy was' don't lose'," Mr McCain said.

Meanwhile, he believes President Donald Trump's advisors have the capacity to achieve victory.

"I believe that this national security team that is around the President now, General McMaster and General Kelly and General Mattis, I think they are developing a strategy and that strategy means victory," he said.

Mr McCain said Mr Trump accepted the advice of his team "most of the time".

"Can I tell you that he does all the time? No," Mr McCain said. "Can I tell you that it bothers me? Yes, it bothers me."


Hunt for Manchester Bombing Accomplices Extends to Libya

  • Published in World

MANCHESTER, England — The police accelerated their hunt Wednesday for co-plotters of the Manchester concert bombing, making at least a half-dozen arrests in Britain, searching for a possible clandestine bomb factory and extending the investigation to Libya, where two of the bomber’s relatives were detained.

The developments indicated that the bomber, Salman Abedi, 22, was part of a wider and more sophisticated plot than was initially thought and that finding the bomb’s origins had now become a priority in a country still reeling from the terrorist attack, the worst in Britain in more than a decade.

New details about the bomb, based on forensic photographs from the blast site, showed it may have been hidden in a blue backpack, had been made with cunning care to inflict horrific shrapnel damage, and had even been equipped with a backup detonation system.

A portrait of Mr. Abedi also came into focus, showing him to be a Manchester United fan, a college dropout and an occasional marijuana smoker who had visited his family in Libya last month, returned to Manchester as recently as last week, and may have been radicalized two years ago. 

These details of his life emerged as the police sought what they called his “network” — the first official confirmation that investigators believed Mr. Abedi had help.

Continue reading the main story

“It seems likely — possible — that he wasn’t doing this on his own,” said Britain’s home secretary, Amber Rudd. Speaking to the BBC, she also said the bomb “was more sophisticated than some of the attacks we’ve seen before.”

Chief Constable Ian Hopkins of the Greater Manchester Police said, “There’s an extensive investigation going on, and activity taking place across Greater Manchester.”

Mr. Abedi detonated the bomb Monday night as fans were leaving a pop concert by the American singer Ariana Grande at Manchester Arena. The explosion killed 22 people, including a police officer and an 8-year-old girl. The bomber’s remains were found at the scene, and the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. 

At least 64 people were wounded, a third of them critically. Many victims were teenagers and young girls, with parents in tow, who idolized Ms. Grande.

She officially canceled all concerts on her “Dangerous Woman” European tour through June 5 and asked fans to support “all those families affected by this cowardice and senseless act of violence.”

The race to find co-conspirators and the place where the bomb had been made appeared to be the main reasons behind the British government’s decision on Tuesday to raise the terrorist threat warning to critical, its highest level since 2007, over fears that more bombs could be detonated in crowded places.

The police arrested five men and one woman in the Manchester area — bringing the total number of people in British custody to seven, including Mr. Abedi’s older brother. 

In Libya, Mr. Abedi’s father was arrested by a militia, the Special Deterrence Forces, which said it also had detained Mr. Abedi’s younger brother, Hashem Abedi, 20.

In a Facebook post, the militia said that Hashem Abedi had been a member of the Islamic State, was tied to the Manchester plot and was en route to withdrawing 4,500 Libyan dinars (about $560 on the black market) sent by the bomber when he was arrested on Tuesday night by the militia.

The militia said that Hashem Abedi had traveled from Britain to Libya on April 16, that he had been planning an attack in Tripoli and that he had been in daily contact by phone with his older brother.

The militia’s claims about the younger brother could not be immediately verified. The militia is affiliated with the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord, one of three administrations vying for control of Libya, but it has been accused by human rights groups of abusing prisoners. 

Besides the younger brother, the authorities were pursuing many leads. The BBC reported that officials believed Salman Abedi may have been a “mule,” carrying a bomb made by someone else. The officials also said they were looking into Mr. Abedi’s relationship with Raphael Hostey, a British recruiter for the Islamic State believed to have been killed in a drone strike in Syria last year.

In Washington, a senior American official said Mr. Abedi had links to a radical preacher in Libya identified as Abdul Ghwela, whose son had joined the Islamic State in Libya and had died fighting in Benghazi. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose intelligence information, said Mr. Abedi had not left Libya until May 17.

In addition, officials were looking into reports that people who knew Mr. Abedi — including an imam at his mosque — had contacted the authorities as early as 2015 with concerns that he may have been recruited by extremists.

The heightened warning of additional, possibly imminent attacks was visible nationwide. The government suspended public tours of Parliament and canceled the guard-changing ceremony at Buckingham Palace, a tourist favorite. Soldiers patrolled locations including Downing Street, where the home and office of the prime minister are, and foreign embassies. 

Manchester, a city of half a million and the hub of Britain’s second-largest metropolitan region, is home to a sizable community of people of Libyan descent. Many fled the regime of the longtime dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in the 1980s. The violent overthrow of Colonel Qaddafi in 2011 during the tumult of the Arab Spring created a power vacuum, and the Islamic State and other extremist groups have since gained support.

Many Libyan expatriates are clustered in Manchester, creating one of the largest Libyan communities outside Libya, according to Nazir Afzal, who until 2015 was the chief prosecutor for northwest England, based in the city.

Among them was the Abedi family, which moved to Britain in 1993. Salman Abedi was born there a year later.

Reached by phone in Libya on Wednesday, Ramadan Abedi, his father, expressed shock and denied that his son was the bomber. 

“I don’t believe that it was him,” he said. “His ideas and his ideology were not like that.”

Mr. Abedi confirmed that his son had been distressed by the murder of a friend, Abdul Wahab Hafidah, in May 2016 at the hands of suspected gang members. But he said it did not drive him toward radicalism.

The father’s account was contradicted by several people who knew the family, including one quoted by the BBC who said Salman Abedi had expressed approval of suicide bombers a few years ago, leading neighbors to call an antiterrorism hotline.

The French interior minister, Gérard Collomb, said on Wednesday that Mr. Abedi had “most likely” gone to Syria and that he had “proven” links to the Islamic State. 

Mr. Abedi’s parents, who moved back to Libya after Colonel Qaddafi’s downfall, had become worried about their son’s radicalization, and they had even seized his British passport, according to a friend in Manchester who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety.

Mr. Abedi had told his parents that he wanted to visit the holy city of Mecca, so they returned his passport. But instead he returned home, the friend said.

The father denied that account. “He was a man and I trust the man that he was,” he said. A short while later, the father was arrested in Tripoli, according to the same Islamist militia that announced the younger brother’s arrest.

A number of Libyans from Manchester have waged jihad abroad, according to Raffaello Pantucci, a terrorism expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London. The Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group had a contingent in Manchester, Mr. Pantucci said. And in 2010 and 2011, as the anti-Qaddafi uprising in Libya intensified, a number of Libyan-Britons left Manchester for Libya as foreign fighters, he said. More recently, he said, a cluster left for Syria.

In Fallowfield, a neighborhood south of the Manchester city center, residents recalled Mr. Abedi as quiet, respectful and passionate about soccer, often wearing a T-shirt with a Manchester United emblem.

Officials at the Manchester Islamic Center, also known as Didsbury Mosque, where the Abedi family worshiped, have condemned the attack, but declined to talk about the family. 

“The horrific atrocity that occurred in Manchester on Monday night has shocked us all,” a mosque trustee, Fawzi Haffar, told reporters. 

In 2015, according to a neighbor who spoke on the condition of anonymity over concerns about safety, an imam at the mosque, Mohammed Saeed, delivered a sermon condemning terrorism for political causes. The sermon prompted a heated discussion among congregants and some, including Mr. Abedi, objected to it.

“He was angry,” the neighbor said. “He scared some people.”



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