Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces advance toward Islamic State positions in Seif Al Dawla, district of Raqqa, Syria August 9, 2017. Photo by Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS.

When Raqqa falls: the Syrian war after the Islamic State


As U.S.-backed forces make advances against I.S., concern mounts over the possibility of another humanitarian catastrophe in Syria

A military offensive targeting the capital of the Islamic State’s self-declared “caliphate” is paying dividends, with Brett McGurk—U.S. special envoy for the coalition against I.S.—revealing that about 45% of Raqqa has been recaptured. “Today, [the Islamic State] is fighting for every last block…and fighting for its own survival,” he affirmed. “They most likely will die there.”

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces—mainly compromised of Kurdish militias known as YPG—launched an operation on June 6 to liberate Raqqa, which was seized by I.S. in 2014. The loss of its “headquarters” would be a second consecutive major setback for the jihadist group, which was driven from its Iraqi bastion of Mosul last month.

In total, McGurk stated that the I.S. has lost 78% of the territory it previously held in Iraq and 58% in Syria. The envoy attributed “dramatically accelerated” progress in the campaign to positive changes implemented by U.S. President Donald Trump. The key factors cited were the White House’s willingness to delegate decision-making to battlefield commanders; the application of a so-called “annihilation” tactic, in which coalition ground forces surround I.S. strongholds so that enemy fighters cannot escape; and a push to increase the burden-sharing among the 73 members of the anti-I.S. coalition.

Speaking to The Media Line, Dr. Ely Karmon, a Senior Research Scholar at Israel’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, predicted that Raqqa will inevitably fall; after which, there will be an effort by I.S. to relocate and reorganize. “Afghanistan will be a very important place for I.S., which has upped its activities there already, including the [May 31] bombing in Kabul that killed [over 150 people and wounded over 400 others]. They are also already in Libya, where leaders have been dispatched. There is Yemen, where so far I.S. has not been as successful because al Qaeda controls territory.” Moreover, Dr. Karmon noted Iraqi intelligence reports suggesting I.S. is already trying to regroup in the country after its defeat in Mosul—by organizing underground, clandestine operations to attract the support of local Sunni fighters who remain engaged in conflict with Shia militias.

While Dr. Karmon acknowledges that the Islamic State “will be more scattered” once Raqqa falls, he nevertheless contended that “the terror group was always largely decentralized, as most of its associates and factions were quite independent.” Accordingly, “there is no doubt that I.S. will try to encourage [so-called ‘lone wolf’] attacks on the U.S. and EU, as this is one of their best weapons.”

Nature abhors a vacuum and what comes after the I.S. in Raqqa may yet spell trouble, with analysts predicting that competing entities will wage subsequent battles to fill the void. The likely scenario will pit American-backed Kurdish and Arab rebels against those supported by Turkey, which is committed to preventing the Kurds from carving out an autonomous enclave along the shared Turkish-Syrian border. There is also the Assad regime’s army, which coupled with Iranian-backed militias will likewise press to secure their own interests.

Fears over the prospect of another humanitarian disaster are thus rising. The immediate focus is the battle for Raqqa City itself, where the United Nations estimates that between 20,000 and 50,000 civilians remain. Speaking to The Media Line, David Swanson, an Information Officer at the UN’s Regional Office for the Syria Crisis, confirmed that “as military operations continue, our concern is further civilian casualties; all the more so as ISIL [another acronym for the Islamic State] has allegedly used civilians as human shields.”

With respect to the “day-after-liberation” plan U.S. envoy McGurk recently alluded to, Swanson revealed that “in the period after ISIL is pushed out [of Raqqa City], and as soon as conditions permit access, UN activities are foreseen to focus on urgent life-saving assistance for 90 days.… It is expected that the majority of civilian infrastructure, such as health facilities and schools, will be found looted, damaged and/or destroyed. [Improvised Explosive Device] contamination is also expected to be high, making the early response particularly challenging.”

As per the larger numbers of people already displaced throughout the province, Swanson continued, “humanitarian partners have developed and are regularly updating a plan for Ar-Raqqa Governorate which outlines preparedness and response to meet the needs of an estimated 440,000 people who may be affected by the offensive.” These and many more may indeed find themselves in the cross hairs of the current battle, or ensuing ones.

The Syria conflict, now in its seventh year, is one of the most complicated crises—both geopolitically and in terms of human suffering—since World War II. On one side of the equation, the primary players are U.S.-backed Sunni Gulf Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, as well as Turkey; on the other is the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah Shiite axis, supported by Russia. On the ground are dozens of fighting groups, fluid in nature, with ever-changing loyalties, and some more extreme than others. The obvious complexities that have evolved have created a veritable Gordian Knot, a quagmire with no apparent “out-of-the-box” solution, even when taking into consideration the prospective victory over I.S.

More than 400,000 civilians have lost their lives in this maze of human misery, with another 11 million displaced and nearly 15 million in urgent need of life-saving assistance. For many observers, the unending carnage is a blight on humanity itself—a tragedy which, in this so-called modern day and age, could never have happened until it did.

Via Souad Mekhennet/Facebook

A crash course in extremism


Of all the dangerous situations a single woman of marriageable age could enter into, interviewing Islamist extremists could easily top the list. 

But for reasons even she cannot explain, journalist Souad Mekhennet has been spared the grim fate of so many others, including many women and journalists who have not survived their encounters with Islamic jihad. 

In the early pages of her best-selling memoir, “I Was Told to Come Alone,” Mekhennet admits that her background makes her an “outlier” among those covering global jihad and claims it has given her “unique access to underground militant leaders.”

Though she was born and raised in Germany, she is a Muslim of Turkish-Moroccan descent who is well versed in the principles of Islam and speaks both Middle Eastern and North African Arabic. She also considers herself Western, liberal and feminist. As a child, she dreamed of becoming an actress.

It was the film “All the President’s Men” that led her to a career in journalism. Today, as national security correspondent for The Washington Post, Mekhennet’s manifold identity has played a role not only in her entrée to the dangerous, unpredictable and clandestine world of jihad but in her motivations for covering it. 

“Sometimes it’s really tiring,” she said when I met her during a recent book tour to Los Angeles. “Sometimes it hurts. Because I try to challenge; I try to somehow build bridges.”

Her work is reportage, but it’s also personal. Mekhennet tries to explain jihad to the West and the West to jihadists, often finding herself in the peculiar position of mediator. Not everyone wants to hear what she has to say: that violent extremists are people too; that they have stories to tell, beliefs that can and should be interrogated but which can be accessed only if we, Westerners, would listen.

For almost two decades, Mekhennet has searched for the answers to why and how individuals become radicalized. She began her work just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the widow of a 9/11 firefighter told a group of journalists she blamed them, in part, for why her husband was killed.

“She said, ‘Nobody told us there are people out there who are hating us so much,’” Mekhennet recalled. “And she looked at me, because I was the only person of Arab-Muslim descent there. And she was waiting for an answer, and I couldn’t give her one.”

Mekhennet’s investigation has taken her all over the world, from the insular terrorist cells of Europe to the front lines of wars in Iraq and Syria. Along the way, she has struggled to understand those who use Islam to justify violence and to explain their motivations to a stupefied West. She tries to reconcile a perversion of Islam with the one she inhabits, claiming religion doesn’t radicalize people, people radicalize religion.

Throughout her encounters, Mekhennet finds herself in talmudic-like disputes with extremists, challenging them over their interpretation of the Quran. She told one ISIS commander, “This is not the jihad, what you’re fighting. Jihad would have been if you’d stayed in Europe and made your career. It would have been a lot harder. You have taken the easy way out.”

Her methods may seem audacious, even dangerous for someone who often finds herself in isolated areas beyond the rule of law of any government. And how many Western journalists could argue like that with a terrorist and live to tell the tale? Only someone educated in Islamic teaching could even mount such an argument, and one of the lessons of Mekhennet’s book is that knowledge of one’s subject is essential to ferreting out truth.

The question is: To what end?

No explanation can justify brutality. Plenty of people have suffered injustice and not taken up weapons and killed innocents. If Mekhennet’s version of Islam is compatible with modernity, then why is it also compatible with a murderous caliphate?

“When it comes to violent acts or terrorism, it is unfortunately the reality that [some] people are using Islam or call themselves Muslims and commit acts of violence,” she said. “There is a problem that we have within our Muslim communities where we need to have an honest conversation about who is speaking on behalf of Islam, and what kinds of interpretations and ideologies are out there, and how can we deal with that [as a community]?”

Mekhennet’s book is a cri de cœur to the West to try to understand “the hearts and minds” of extremists to better defeat them. She believes current policies are misguided, and that simplistic generalizations portraying a clash of civilizations are playing into the hands of recruiters who exploit Western antipathy to Islam to indoctrinate young jihadists.

For many radicals, she says, “it’s too late; there is a point of no return.” But others, she believes, can be saved.

“This is not a clash of civilizations or religions,” she said. “This is a clash between people who want to build bridges and look at what we have in common and those who want to preach divides.”

She recounted the time she went to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage. Next to the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, is another place of honor where it is believed Abraham set foot. Having spent years studying religious divides, “this was a moment, where I said to myself, ‘Why are people not getting it? We’re connected.’”

"Churchill" Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

8 interesting films to see this summer


Some of this summer’s more notable films explore Middle East terrorism, World War II battles and global warming, while others tell the life stories of seminal figures in music and photography. And there’s a bittersweet movie that is mainly in Yiddish to top it off.

“CITY OF GHOSTS”

The campaign to expose the ISIS takeover of Raqqa, a Syrian city on the Euphrates River, is the subject of “City of Ghosts.” Using their cellphone cameras, a small collection of amateur journalists, who call their group “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Slowly (RBSS),” photographed the atrocities by ISIS troops bent on establishing a caliphate in the city. These citizen reporters then uploaded the footage to the internet for the world to see what was happening in their homeland.

In the production notes, filmmaker Matthew Heineman is quoted as saying he learned of the group in 2015, made contact with it, gained its members’ trust and began filming interviews with them and using their videos and stills. “I knew almost immediately that I wanted the spine of the story to be deeply personal verité footage, captured as the activists escaped Syria after the assassination of several members by ISIS.

“Since ISIS took over the city in March 2014, journalists have been unable to enter the region, enabling the caliphate to control the narrative of what is happening inside the city with its slick propaganda videos. So, RBSS’ footage — including some that has never been released — provides a unique, up-close and visceral window into daily life in Raqqa,” he said.

The film traces the RBSS movement back to the Arab Spring of 2011, when Raqqa was a center of protests against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Some 15 friends began reporting on the protests, using their phone cameras and their computers.

Then, in 2014, ISIS troops rolled into the city and quickly instituted a reign of terror, with public executions (shootings and beheadings) and dead bodies strewn on the streets. But, wanting to project an image of a peaceful, beautiful life in the city, ISIS produced increasingly sophisticated videos, disseminating them largely for recruitment purposes.

In reaction, the small band of lay reporters formed RBSS, a website and social media presence, and went undercover to record the brutality. When it became dangerous, some fled to Turkey, then to the relative safety of Germany, where the documentary shows them continuing to receive footage from secret operatives in Raqqa and to post the images on the internet.

“The contrast of ISIS’ videos, which proclaim a fully functioning and prosperous state, with those of RBSS, which captured the dysfunction and violence of everyday life, is shocking. In a sense, it’s a war of ideas, a war of propaganda, a war being waged with cameras and computers, not just guns,” according to Heineman’s statement in the press notes. The filmmaker adds that the film’s themes broadened beyond the war into “the immigrant experience, the strength of brotherhood, and one’s haunting relationship with trauma.”

In one particularly horrific section, the group member named Hamoud watches a video of his father, who is tied to a post, being shot to death by ISIS. Although Hamoud remains stoic, blood begins spurting from his mouth.

Todd McCarthy, in his Hollywood Reporter review, writes, “Heineman offers up a double portrait of devastation, of a truly destroyed city and of partially decimated survivors, leaving the viewer with an empathetic sense of deep sorrow.”

“City of Ghosts” opens July 14.

“CHURCHILL”

A largely unknown view of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is presented in Jonathan Teplitzky’s World War II drama, “Churchill.” The action takes place just days before D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe at Normandy, on June 6, 1944.

As the film opens, Churchill (Brian Cox) is strolling near the seashore and suddenly has a vision of the water running red with blood. The movie portrays Churchill’s unwillingness to accept the Allies’ invasion plans, fearing catastrophic losses, together with his own emotional issues and depression.

During an interview with the Journal while on another shoot in Australia, Teplitzky said he was invited onboard the “Churchill” project late in the movie’s development and was very drawn to the story.

“In many ways, in my view, his personal struggles only made his public and political achievements all the more remarkable and substantial, because he stops being a myth and we can see him more as a human being with human flaws,” the director said.

Cox re-creates Churchill’s physicality and his speech patterns, but Teplitzky said he and the actor wanted much more. “Brian and I both wanted a complex and deeply layered character, one whose humanity, vulnerabilities and flaws reveal themselves to us and the audience. We wanted to use the iconic stuff, the physical look and mannerisms, his speech rhythms, etc., as a doorway into this intimate human portrait. His big obsession, I think, comes from guilt in his role in a number of operations, and in particular Gallipoli, which resulted in massive loss of life.”

Churchill was a commander at the Battle of Gallipoli, a World War I disaster that cost hundreds of thousands of British, French, Australian and New Zealand casualties.

“But by now in 1944, with the U.S. in many ways running the Allied war effort, Churchill was somewhat sidelined, so it diluted his influence and ability to enforce change,” Teplitzky said. “This coupled with his depression, the two working off each other and fueling each other, was a big factor in his psychological state. I also think there is an element in the film which is about a man getting old and questioning his relevance.”

Churchill’s reservations about D-Day led him to clash openly with the supreme Allied commander, U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery), as well as British Gen. Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham) and other officers. The prime minister succumbs to one of his periodic attacks of depression and self-medicates by drinking excessively.

It is his strong, assertive wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson), feeling overlooked and marginalized by her husband, who reminds Churchill that Eisenhower, Montgomery and the others have a great deal of war experience — just as he has.“Don’t complain when someone tells you the truth,” she says.

Ultimately, Churchill is reconciled to D-Day, and when the Allies start winning, he broadcasts a speech over the BBC, telling the nation they have pushed back the Nazis. He states this is not a war for glory, but a war for freedom in which England will never surrender.

Teplitzky believes the film still has much to say about contemporary issues. It explores a man “at the center of momentous events, who presents a flawed but brilliant personality and the way such a personality impacts on people’s lives. We can only understand and learn from history if we look at it from many points of views, not just from a prescriptive and often conservative angle.”

“Churchill” opens June 2.

“LONG STRANGE TRIP”

The documentary “Long Strange Trip“ examines another form of personal demons as it chronicles the 30-year run of the iconic rock group the Grateful Dead and the troubled life of one of the band’s co-founders, Jerry Garcia.

Some audiences may find the four-hour length, broken by an intermission, somewhat intimidating, but the group’s die-hard fans, known as Deadheads, undoubtedly will hang on every word. In addition to many interviews, the film is replete with archival footage, photos, macabre cartoons centered on images of death and, of course, the music.

However, director Amir Bar-Lev, a fan of the band since he was 13, is quoted in the promotional materials as saying he wanted the film to appeal to an audience beyond Deadheads.

“For decades, when Deadheads were pressed as to what was so special about the band,” he states, “they could simply answer something along the lines of, ‘I can’t explain it. You have to go to a show to understand.’ I wanted to challenge myself to do better than that, so I reached out to the most articulate people I know around the Dead scene.”

Just as the band’s music was largely improvisational, the film has the feel of being loosely structured. Band members, a music producer, Garcia’s daughter and others offer unique perspectives on the band and its fans.

The band itself was eclectic, with the original members coming from various musical traditions, so the Dead’s music encompassed jazz, R&B, folk, blues, rock ’n’ roll and other genres.

Garcia, the group’s de facto leader, eschewed the idea of being in charge and envisioned the band as a collective with no preset rules. The disparate bunch he assembled in 1965 was called the Warlocks at first, but when they learned another band had the same name, they became the Grateful Dead, a phrase they found in the dictionary. Early on, they began using the mind-altering drug LSD and soon moved to the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco, home to the burgeoning Beat-influenced counterculture of the period.

From there, the film follows the band’s unsuccessful first steps under contract to Warner Bros. Records, its eventual recording triumphs and its decision to focus on being a touring band. There is footage of the now legendary performance at London’s Lyceum Theatre on May 23, 1972, during which Garcia performed a guitar solo of “Morning Dew” with tears running down his face.

But things ultimately got out of hand due to the group’s lack of structure, as well as the unwieldy party atmosphere that evolved among the fans.

There also was heavy drug use. Garcia became increasingly isolated and dependent on heroin until, in 1995, at age 53, he died in his sleep of a heart attack at a rehab center in Marin County.

In the press notes, Bar-Lev responds to a question about whether he was aware that the history of the Dead in many ways mirrors the history of America in the second half of the 20th century. The filmmaker answers by referring to what he calls Garcia’s “radical pluralism” and pointing to the “traveling counter-cultural city” that the band inspired.

He concludes, “It all strikes me as quintessentially American. The Grateful Dead are the musical Statue of Liberty.”

“Long Strange Trip” opens May 26.

“THE B-SIDE: ELSA DORFMAN’S PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY”

On a softer level, we have filmmaker Errol Morris’ homage to 80-year-old portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman. With this documentary, Morris departs from his usual weightier fare. His past projects examined such figures as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who admits his mistakes regarding the Vietnam War in “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” and Fred A. Leuchter (“Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.”), an adviser to prisons on executions who wrote a report denying that gas chambers were used for mass murder at Auschwitz.

With “The B-Side,” Morris has crafted a gentle, sweet work that becomes something of a memoir for Dorfman, one of the last photographers working in an analog format when most photography has gone digital. As the movie progresses, she brings out photograph after photograph and reminisces about her life and work.

After college, Dorfman got a job in New York as a secretary at Grove Press, and there she met famous Beat Generation writers and poets, including Allen Ginsberg, who became a lifelong friend and frequent photographic subject.

As a self-described “nice Jewish girl” from Massachusetts, Dorfman says in the film that the New York world of artists was too much for her, so she returned to Cambridge and went into teaching. It wasn’t until she was 28, in 1965, that she started taking pictures — and in the early1980s, she began using Polaroid’s giant 20×24 camera, shooting large color portraits.

Although Dorfman never garnered the fame of such photographers as Richard Avedon, Milton Greene or Annie Leibovitz, she nevertheless photographed many luminaries in addition to Ginsberg, including poet, painter and activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti, essayist Anaïs Nin, musician Bob Dylan, poet W.H. Auden, and radical feminist and writer Andrea Dworkin.

She also took a series of self-portraits and added captions at the bottom of the photographs. On her cyberjournal, Dorfman writes: “I make self-portraits on my birthday and every now and then when I have only one shot left in the case of film. (I think it is good for me to experience what my subjects are going through — and it is wild to see how I have changed.)”

Whenever she photographed paying clients, she shot two exposures. The customers would choose the one they liked and she would keep the other one, which she dubbed “the B-Side,” hence the film’s title.

Unfortunately, Polaroid went bankrupt and stopped making film for the 20×24 camera. So, as the movie was being shot, Dorfman was facing retirement.

She sums up her approach by saying on her cyberjournal that she doesn’t try to uncover people’s souls. “As a photographer I am not interested in pointing my camera at the pathos of other people’s lives. I don’t try to reveal or to probe. I certainly don’t try to capture souls. (If any soul is revealed, it’s mine.)

“For me the key word is ‘apparently.’ All I hope my photographs say is this person lives and this person was here.”

“The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” opens June 30.

ALSO OF INTEREST

“An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” — This film is a follow-up to the 2006 Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” in which former Vice President Al Gore made his case for the need to reverse global warming. The sequel tracks the progress made in addressing climate change. The documentary follows Gore as he continues to inspire people to get involved in the movement for alternative, safer forms of energy. Opens July 28.

“Dunkirk” — Here is another World War II film. This one focuses on the evacuation of 300,000 British, French, Belgian and Dutch soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, in May 1940, as the Nazis invaded. The Allied soldiers were saved with the help of every available British military and civilian ship. Director Christopher Nolan is quoted in Variety as saying, “Dunkirk and the legend of it is something that British people grow up with — it’s in our DNA.” Opens July 21.

“13 Minutes” — Returning again to the second world war era, this movie from Germany is based on the true story of a free-spirited German carpenter, Georg Elser, who planted a bomb set to go off during a speech given by Adolf Hitler on Nov. 8, 1939. But Hitler unexpectedly left 13 minutes before the explosion, and eight unintended victims were killed. Although Elser acted alone, the heads of the Gestapo and the Criminal Police believed he was part of a larger plot and had him tortured, hoping to get the names of co-conspirators. When no names were forthcoming, Elser was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and then to Dachau, where he ultimately was executed. Opens June 30.

“Menashe” — Loosely based on the life of its star, Menashe Lustig (a YouTube comedian), the movie takes place in Brooklyn’s Chasidic community and is filmed almost completely in Yiddish. The title character, who works in a kosher supermarket, has become a widower and, according to tradition, cannot raise his son without a woman in the house. Pressured either to find a wife or let his married brother-in-law raise the boy, Menashe struggles to prove himself worthy of being a parent. Opens July 28.

Emergency responders arriving at the Manchester Arena following a bomb attack at an Ariana Grande concert on May 22. Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images

In Manchester, Jews have been preparing for an attack for years


Britain’s bloodiest terrorist attack in over a decade occurred Monday just two miles from Rabbi Yisroel Cohen’s synagogue.

Yet one day after the deadly bombing in Manchester, Cohen told JTA he has no intention of changing security arrangements at his congregation.

In fact Cohen, a Chabad emissary who works in a Jewish enclave in the northern part of the city surrounded by a heavily Muslim area, said there is little room for improving security across his tight-knit community.

After all, the Jewish community in Manchester — one of the U.K.’s fastest-growing spots thanks to an influx of immigrants and young couples seeking alternatives to pricey London — has been on its highest alert since long before the explosion that killed 22 people and wounded 50 at an Ariana Grande concert. On Tuesday, ISIS claimed responsibility for the act.

“Well, the radio equipment is working, the residents have been briefed, police are patrolling, security professionals from the Jewish community have been in place since the attacks in Belgium” last year, Cohen said when asked about security. “There is only so much you can do – except pray.”

On Kings Road, a busy street of the heavily Jewish borough of Prestwich, residents keep an eye out for strangers. Any abnormal behavior – particularly photography or the gathering of information — quickly invites polite but firm inquiries by both passers-by as well as shopkeepers who cater to the local population of haredi and modern Orthodox Jews.

The vigilance in Jewish Manchester owes much of its preparation and training to the local police, the Community Security Trust organization and other groups. But it is also born of circumstance: Manchester’s some 30,000 Jews are concentrated in a relatively small area. This makes them an easy target, but it also means that the community’s institutions are easier to protect and vigilance is easier to instill.

While there are also concentrations of Jews in North London, in Manchester — a city of 2.5 million, where 15.8 percent of the population is Muslim — there is added tension because the Jewish and Muslim communities live in close proximity. Kings Road, for example, is sandwiched between the Judaica World bookstore on its western end and the Masjid Bilal mosque on its eastern one.

This juxtaposition in recent years has generated some friction, including in the harassment of Jews on the street and the occasional violent incident.

At least one more premeditated plan to attack Manchester Jews was uncovered and foiled five years ago. In 2012, a British judge imprisoned a Muslim couple, Mohammed Sajid  and Shasta Khan, for seven years for gathering intelligence on Manchester Jews for an attack.

 

“That incident came at a time of reassessment about the threat to Jews in Manchester, and it was one of the reasons that led to a complete overhaul,” Cohen said.

“So today, we in the Jewish community are perhaps less surprised than others at what happened,” the rabbi added, though he also said that Mancunian Jews are “shocked at the horror” witnessed at the concert.

Paul Harris, editor of the city’s Jewish Telegraph weekly, told JTA he generally agrees that Manchester’s Jewish community is well prepared to deal with any emergency or fallout thereof, but he also flagged one weak point: On evenings and afternoons, observant Jews in the city congregate outside synagogue — a habit that makes them an easy target and which, for that reason, has largely been abandoned in at-risk communities in France and beyond.

“Maybe that will change now,” Harris said.

In a statement Tuesday following a suspect’s arrest, Prime Minister Theresa May said the bombing was a “callous terrorist attack” that targeted “defenseless young people.” Police believe a homemade explosive vest was detonated by a suicide bomber who may or may not have been working alone.

The explosion ripped through the 21,000-seat Manchester Arena at 10:30 p.m. after Grande, a 23-year-old pop singer from the United States, had already left the stage. At least 12 of the 22 killed in the attack were children younger than 16. News of the explosion sent worried parents to the arena, where children, teenagers and young adults streamed out of the main exit in a state of panic.

Cohen said that Chabad was not aware of Jewish fatalities in the attack.

The attack happened a little over two weeks before the June 8 general election in which hardliner Theresa May from the Conservative Party is running against Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party. The attack may further increase May’s lead in the polls on Corbyn, a left-leaning promoter of outreach to Muslims who has called Hezbollah and Hamas his friends.

Last year Corbyn — amid intense criticism in the media and from members of his own party for his perceived failures in curbing expressions of anti-Semitism within Labour’s ranks — said he regretted expressing affection to the two Islamist terror groups. Following the attack Monday, all parties agreed to suspend campaigning for three days.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint news conference Tuesday in Jerusalem with President Donald Trump, who was visiting Israel, referenced the attack in criticizing incitement to terrorism by the Palestinian Authority under its president, Mahmoud Abbas.

“President Abbas condemned the horrific attack in Manchester,” Netanyahu said while standing next to Trump. “Well, I hope this heralds a real change, because if the attacker had been Palestinian and the victims had been Israeli children, the suicide bomber’s family would have received a stipend from the Palestinian Authority. That’s Palestinian law. That law must be changed.”

Speaking in Bethlehem, Trump joined other world leaders who condemned the attack.

“I won’t call them monsters because they would like that term. I will call them losers,” he said.

Back in Manchester, Rabbi Shneur Cohen of the Chabad Manchester Center City organized a food and drinks distribution to police officers who were stationed outside the arena where the attack took place.

“We are Manchester, we stand together,” Cohen told reporters at the scene.

But Harris, the Jewish Telegraph editor, said that despite such gestures, “there is definitely a silence, a shocked silence” in the city following the attack.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on May 22. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Trump tells Netanyahu he ‘never mentioned Israel’ in meeting with Russians


President Donald Trump told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he “never mentioned Israel” in a meeting with Russian government officials in which he was alleged to have revealed highly classified information.

“Just so you understand, I never mentioned the word or the name Israel,” Trump said Monday at a photo op with Netanyahu at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel on the second leg of his first overseas trip as president. “Never mentioned it during the conversation, they’re all saying I did, so you had another story wrong. Never mentioned the word Israel.”

By saying “you,” the president seemed to be addressing the media, collectively.

No one had alleged that Trump mentioned Israel in the meeting two weeks ago with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in the Oval Office.

Reports last week said that Trump revealed details of intelligence on Islamic State that could compromise an ally that had shared the intelligence with the United States. The ally was later reported to have been Israel.

There was no reporting that Trump had revealed the source of the intelligence with the Russians. Instead, the concern was that the level of detail in Trump’s account could be used to deduce sources and methods.

It was not clear from what during the photo op prompted Trump’s statement. Just before he brought up the information, Netanyahu said — apparently responding to a reporter — “The intelligence cooperation is terrific.”

There were concerns after last week’s revelations that Israel could limit its intelligence cooperation with the United States because of Trump’s alleged carelessness.

President Donald Trump is flanked by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office of the White House on May 10. Photo by Russia Foreign Minister Press Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Trump blew it, big-league


The New York Times has a new feature called “Say Something Nice About Trump.”

Last week, I was all set to do so. As President Donald Trump was preparing to embark on his first official trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, I found myself thinking nice things. It occurred to me that on the Israel-Palestinian issue, Trump had come out of the gate in a far more effective way than his predecessors.

On May 8, for instance, I was on a phone call with Dennis Ross, the former United States ambassador who served four American presidents as a Middle East envoy and negotiator. And this is what Ross said: Donald Trump has a better chance than President Barack Obama did at making peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Despite Trump’s support from the anti-two-state-solution crowd, despite the fact Trump’s own ambassador to Israel called pro-two-state groups “worse than kapos,” Ross said Trump has handled the Middle East diplomatic dance better than Obama so far. He said Trump has impressed the Palestinian leadership, gained their trust. And he had the Israelis in his pocket.

For someone who has seen Trump as dangerous to Israel’s future and ill-informed on Middle East affairs, it was surreal —but heartening.

“What is going on,” Ross said of the president, “is he continues to emphasize that this is a deal he really wants to do. Only last week, he said he couldn’t think of a single reason why he can’t reach agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. I think what he meant by that, not that there weren’t differences, but that ultimately those differences shouldn’t prevent a deal. In any case, this is one of those challenges that is deeply rooted [for Trump]. What the president has done is make [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] more relevant, which is important at a time when he does not have a lot of popularity.”

Ross’ call, arranged by The Israel Project, came on the eve of Trump’s visit in Washington with Abbas. The remarkable part was that Ross outlined a clear way forward toward an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, out of the long and dangerous impasse between the sides. And the Moses who could lead them? Donald J. Trump.

Trump has leverage, Ross said. He is seen as someone who can deliver and, beyond that, someone who, unlike Obama, will exact a cost if he’s rejected. So Trump can make tough demands of Abbas, including ending payments to the families of terrorists, and — in private — can ask for difficult sacrifices from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

I was listening, shaking my head, wondering if I had completely misjudged Trump when it comes to Middle East policy. Perhaps I had overestimated the hard-line attitude of his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Perhaps I hadn’t taken into account the moderating forces of Trump’s childhood friend, Ron Lauder.

But more likely, I had forgotten my cardinal rule for understanding Donald J. Trump: The man will say anything in a room to make a sale. Alec Baldwin is not Trump. Trump is Alec Baldwin — in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

“Because only one thing counts in this life!” Baldwin’s real estate huckster character says. “Get them to sign on the line which is dotted!”

To get elected, Trump had to appeal to evangelicals and pro-Israel hard-liners like Sheldon Adelson. But to sell a bigger deal as president, he has new constituencies. The Saudi vote isn’t big in Florida or Wisconsin, but it sure matters in the Middle East.

“The more the administration, the president and his representatives are dealing with the Arab leaders, the more what they’re hearing from them is they’re prepared to work with them,” Ross said. “But on [the Palestinian-Israeli] issue, they’re asking for a two-state outcome.”

So in the spirit of saying something nice about Trump, I was all set to assert that he would continue to confound the very people who trusted him to do exactly what hard-liners in Israel, and their American armchair Golanis, want him to do.

But then, Trump happened. That is, shortly before his trip abroad, the president gave sensitive intelligence information to the Russians, intelligence that was revealed to have come via Israel.

Here’s how bad this is: Israeli intelligence had somehow penetrated ISIS command well enough to get detailed knowledge of its upcoming terror attacks. Now those methods and sources are burned, thanks to the president of the United States. The fact that Russia can now discern the methods and sources for that intelligence and pass it on to their allies the Iranians, who can funnel it to Hezbollah, is a criminal act against Israel.

This disaster will shadow Trump’s trip, shuffle the equation in ways that are now impossible to imagine — even if no other shoes drop between now and when he touches down in Israel.

The evidence was building that Trump was not going to be the hand puppet Sheldon Adelson thought he bought Bibi for Chanukah. Now, flying across the Atlantic with a self-inflicted puncture to his competence and credibility, Trump needs Bibi more than ever to keep his credibility afloat.

A week ago, Trump was positioned perfectly to land in Israel and shake things up. Now he will arrive, shaken, weakened, vulnerable, neutered.

I tried so hard to say something nice. It’s still not the time. And there’s no one to blame but Donald Trump.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.

President Donald Trump. Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

What Trump told the Russians, and why allies like Israel are worried


As of Tuesday morning, thanks to the unfiltered confessional that is Twitter, we now know this: President Donald Trump shared information with Russia about “terrorism and flight safety,” as he put it.

Trump was responding, after about 12 hours, to a Washington Post report that he shared highly classified information with the Russian foreign minister and Russian ambassador when he met with them last week. The information, sources told the Post and confirmed to other outlets, could be used to reveal sources of an ally’s intelligence on the Islamic State terrorist group.

Which ally has not been revealed: The New York Times, in following up the Washington Post’s scoop, said it is a Middle Eastern ally known to be wary of sharing its intelligence. Israeli commentators already were speculating the impact if Israel was the country in question, although it is hardly the only ally fitting the bill.

Trump in his tweets confirmed that he shared the information but did not say whether or not it was classified. However, he specified that he had an “absolute right” to share the information, which could refer to laws that exempt the president from restrictions on revealing classified information.

“As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety,” Trump said. “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.” ISIS is an acronym for the Islamic State terrorist group.

A lot of questions are not yet fully answered:

What did Trump reveal?

According to the Washington Post, Trump shared information about Islamic State plans to bomb aircraft with laptops. The Trump administration has banned laptops as carry-on luggage on U.S.-bound planes originating in some Middle Eastern countries, and reportedly plans to extend the ban to Europe.

The crux is in the details of what he shared.

“He described how the Islamic State was pursuing elements of a specific plot and how much harm such an attack could cause under varying circumstances,” the Washington Post reported, and “revealed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat.” The Times said the information Trump relayed was “granular” — that is, highly specific.

Is the White House denying it?

Not quite. Officials have said the story, “as reported,” is “false” — but things get murkier on the details. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, and Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, who were in the room, said Trump did not discuss “sources, methods or military operations.” But the newspapers’ accounts do not allege that sources or methods or military operations are what were revealed. Instead, the concern is that the Russians and their allies could use details in the information to track down the source.

How likely is it that the Russians could trace the information to its source?

According to reports, the White House is taking seriously the threat that the information could be sourced. Thomas Bossert, Trump’s assistant for counterterrorism, alerted the CIA and the National Security Agency, and one of his subordinates said the information should be removed from internal summaries of Trump’s meeting.

What are the stakes?

Huge. It’s been enormously difficult to infiltrate the Islamic State, which cultivates only the truest believers for its operations.

Do we know which Middle Eastern ally provided the information?

No. Any one of the United States’ Middle East allies — Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, the Gulf states — could fit the bill of a country that would prefer that the U.S. closely hold whatever intelligence it shares.

Trump had a call scheduled with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Tuesday morning, but it may have been set up previously, ahead of Trump’s Middle East tour next week.

Israelis were wondering if it was their country that was potentially burned in the exchange. Ronen Bergman, the well-connected Yediot Acharonot reporter, reposted on Twitter a January story revealing that intelligence officials in the outgoing Obama administration warned Israeli counterparts to be careful about what kinds of intelligence they shared with the Trump administration because of alleged ties between Russia and some members of Trump’s entourage.

“The president has full authority to reveal classified information, but what will the ally think,” Keren Betzalel, an editor on Israel’s Channel 2, wrote Tuesday morning on Twitter.

Danny Yatom, a former director of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, told The Jerusalem Post that he did not know if Israel was the ally, but expressed concerns about Trump’s revelations.

“If the information is sensitive, it can harm the security of the intelligence source or lead to other damage,” he said.

Alan Dershowitz, the pro-Israel activist and constitutional law professor who has been counseling patience and restraint to a U.S. Jewish community rattled by Trump’s flirtations with the far right, has now had it with the president.

“This is the most serious charge ever made against a sitting president of the United States,” he told CNN. “Let’s not underestimate it.”

Dershowitz also speculated that either Israel or Jordan was the unnamed country potentially compromised as a result of the incident.

So if the ally is Israel, what’s at stake?

One of the closest U.S. intelligence relationships is with Israel. It was launched in 1956 when Israel secured Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” to a Communist congress denouncing Stalin’s reign of terror, signaling an evolution in how the Soviet Union would conduct its domestic and foreign policies. Speech in hand, the first stop for Mossad director Isser Harel was the CIA.

More recent cooperative successes reportedly include Stuxnet, the computer virus that crippled Iran’s uranium enrichment program in 2009-10, helping to bring the country to the negotiating table to talk about curbing its nuclear program, and the 2008 assassination of Hezbollah’s operations chief Imad Mughniyeh, as well as the exposure and frustration of multiple planned Hezbollah strikes in Europe and elsewhere. As parlous as diplomatic relations between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government could get, officials in both countries agreed — and often emphasized — that intelligence sharing intensified over recent years.

Why would the Russians burn Trump?

The information is about the Islamic State, purportedly an enemy shared by the United States and Russia. Despite Russia’s claimed aim of crushing the Islamic State, its focus has been fending off others seeking the removal of Russia’s longtime ally in Syria, Bashar Assad. Defeating the terrorist groups is not the priority for Russia that it is for the United States, perhaps because keeping the Islamists in place could decrease international pressure to bring down Assad.

How (ticked) off are folks?

(Ticked) off. David Cohen, until recently the deputy director of the CIA and a veteran of both Republican and Democratic administrations, published an extraordinary op-ed in The New York Times on Tuesday lambasting the Trump administration for cozying up to autocracies like Russia’s Putin regime and describing the risks it posed. Citing the revelations of Trump’s conversations with the Russians as an example, Cohen said: “No one can say how many potential spies will decide that working for America is not worth the risk. But the administration’s rejection of the American idea will surely mean that some will say no.”

Trump’s support among Republicans and conservatives who had backed him through other controversies in his young presidency also appears to be eroding.

“They’re in a downward spiral right now and they’ve got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was quotedby Buzzfeed as saying.

Hugh Hewitt, the conservative radio host, said on Twitter: “This is very bad. Very, very bad.”

What does this mean for Trump’s Middle East tour?

Trump visits Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian areas next week. The pomp and circumstance — including stops at the Western Wall, Masada and Bethlehem — are likely to stay in place.

What we won’t know, for now, is how the conversations typical of such tours between lower-level officials — among them those who deal with intelligence — will play out. Will the Saudi, Israeli and Palestinian intelligence agencies be as ready to dish?

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on May 3. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Trump, Abbas link renewed peace talks to countering Islamic State


President Donald Trump and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks would help bring about the defeat of the Islamic State terrorist group.

“I know President Abbas has spoken out against ISIS” and other terrorist groups, Trump said Wednesday at a White House ceremony welcoming Abbas, using one of several acronyms for the Islamic State. “We must continue to build our partnerships with the Palestinians’ security forces to counter and defeat terrorism.”

Abbas said a final status agreement that included a two-state solution would help defeat the terrorist threat scourging Israel’s Arab neighbors.

“For us to bring about a comprehensive and just peace based on the two-state solution, such matter would give a great impetus to the Arab Peace Initiative and the other international initiatives, as well as be able to fight and deter terrorism and to fight the criminal ISIS group … which has nothing to do with our noble religion,” he said.

The Arab Peace Initiative refers to the 2002 proposal by Saudi Arabia to trade an Israeli-Palestinian settlement based on the 1967 borders for a comprehensive Israeli peace with most of its Arab neighbors.

Trump, with the encouragement of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has embraced the concept of a broader peace that encompasses both the Palestinians and other Arab neighbors, partly as a means to better confront the threats posed by the Islamic State as well as Iran.

The U.S. leader said he was optimistic that he could pull off the deal that has frustrated at least four of his predecessors, with the most recent collapse of talks in 2014 followed by the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“We will get it done, we will be working so hard to get it done,” Trump said.

Abbas’ remarks Wednesday underscored key differences, however. Netanyahu has not embraced the Arab Peace Initiative, in part because of the breadth of its compromise, based on the 1967 lines. Abbas said the 1967 lines remained the predicate for a peace deal. Abbas’ explicit citation of the two-state solution also suggests a nuanced difference with Trump, who has retreated from 15 years of U.S. policy favoring the two-state outcome.

Trump praised Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, which the United States helps fund.

“They get along unbelievably well,” he said. “I was very impressed and somewhat surprised at how well they get along.”

Trump did not address — at least in the public portion of the meeting — a demand by Netanyahu that Abbas stop Palestinian Authority payments to families of terrorists killed or jailed by Israel. He did call on Abbas to address incitement.

“There can be no lasting peace unless the Palestinian leaders speak in a unified voice against incitement to violence and hate, there’s such hatred, but hopefully there won’t be such hatred for very long,” he said.

Abbas said his government was teaching its young people peace.

“We are raising our youth, our children and our grandchildren, on a culture of peace,” he said.

How complicated is Syria? Trump just helped ISIS


We like our problems clean and direct. Good versus evil. Good fights evil. Good wins.

The Syrian regime of President Assad is evil. Its use of chemical weapons to murder children was barbaric. It makes sense to not let him get away with it. So, you can argue that President Trump was right to order missile strikes against the regime.

This satisfying moral action, however, should not make us dumb down a complicated conflict. The dominant reality of the Syrian conflict today is that it represents evil vs evil. You can get rid of one evil only to see something worse replace it.

On one side of the conflict, you have the Assad regime, supported by Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. A few years ago, Assad was on life support. Now, with his strong partners, he’s made a comeback.

On the other side of the conflict are anti-regime rebel groups who fight each other as much as they fight the Assad regime.

The largest is ISIS, with 25,000 to 80,000 fighters. ISIS has become the enemy par excellence in the Western world. Trump has talked incessantly about destroying them. Now consider this: By striking Assad, Trump ended up helping ISIS. Complicated enough?

Besides ISIS, there are groups like Al-Nusra Front (15,000 to 20,000 fighters), Jaysh al-Islam (17,000 to 25,000), Ahrar ash-Sham (10,000 to 20,000), Asala wa-al-Tanmiya (13,000), Jaysh al-Fatah (10,000), Sham Legion (4,000) and Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union (3,000).

In the middle of this jungle is the Free Syrian Army, with 100,000 fighters, which was started by former Syrian officers. Everyone seems to fight them.

Geography further complicates the picture. The country has been heavily splintered. Different groups have different power bases. Of course, the more land you can conquer the more power you have.

In the North is the Kurdish group, which is another story altogether, because Kurds are known to be more moderate. But Turkey hates the Kurds. Just as Iran and Syria are supporting the Assad regime, countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey are supporting their own rebel groups.

The point is this: Syria has become a complete, violent mess. When it comes to the most likely winners in this conflict, the choice has become evil versus evil. The good people of Syria who initially rose up against Assad, and the militias they organized, have been slowly crushed.

As much as it may satisfy us to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, it’s important to keep our eye on the whole picture. What can America do? At this point, not much. Six years ago, when the more moderate rebel forces were stronger, we could have given them military assistance and established no-fly zones. Would it have worked? Who knows? There’s no certainty when so many violent forces are at play.

What we do know today is that extremist groups have the upper hand pretty much everywhere and that Russia has established its own military presence. That limits our options. On the humanitarian front, we can certainly help establish safe zones to assist the millions of refugees. We can even order the occasional pinprick attack to show we’re still here and we have our limits, and the use of chemical weapons is one of them.

But let’s be real. There are no good options. The Syrian fire has gotten too big to simply suffocate. Yes, let’s stay vigilant. Let’s make sure things don’t get too out of hand and spill over into other countries (like Israel). But as vexed as I am to say this, when evil fights evil, sometimes the best option is to let them fight it out, and to help ensure no one wins.

As Daniel Pipes writes, “Iranian- and Russian-backed Shi’ite pro-government jihadis are best kept busy fighting Saudi-, Qatar-, and Turkish-backed anti-government Sunni jihadis; because Kurds, however appealing, are not contenders for control of the whole of Syria; and because Americans have no stomach for another Middle Eastern war.”

Trump can go on about how attacking Assad is a “vital U.S. interest,” but who’s he kidding? Is he ready to invite the head of ISIS to the White House for peace talks?


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, left, speaks with Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. before departing for Iraq on April 3. Photo by DoD/Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro/Reuters

Jared Kushner in Iraq for update on fight against ISIS


Jared Kushner, the Jewish son-in-law of President Donald Trump and a senior adviser, is in Iraq to receive an update on the campaign against the Islamic State.

Kushner arrived Monday in the Middle Eastern country with the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, according to the Department of Defense.

National Public Radio reported that White House press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed to its reporter early Monday morning that they had arrived.

Dunford invited Kushner and Homeland Security Adviser Thomas Bossert to receive an update on the campaign against the Islamic State, or ISIS, a spokesman for Dunford told reporters. They will be meeting with Iraqi, American and coalition officials.

The spokesman, Navy Capt. Greg Hicks, also said that Kushner is “traveling on behalf of the president to express the president’s support and commitment to the government of Iraq and U.S. personnel currently engaged in the campaign” against the Islamic State.

Trump has charged Kushner with making peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and has involved him in other foreign policy issues. Kushner also has been tapped to lead a new White House office that would streamline the government, using ideas borrowed from the business world.

A young Yazidi girl rests at the Iraq-Syrian border. Photo by Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

The forgotten genocide: While Yazidis struggle for existence, the world does little to help


It was well before dawn on Aug. 3, 2014, when fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) streamed out of the northern Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tal Afar, heading east. By daybreak, the Kurdish forces protecting the region’s civilian population had melted away. They fled with few warnings to the villagers, most of them Yazidis, members of an ancient and oft-persecuted religious minority.

The hundreds of settlements dotting the region, known together as Sinjar, are the locus of the global Yazidi population, which counts about 1 million souls worldwide. Across the arid expanse, the ISIS fighters who overran it seemed to follow the same script: Men and women were separated. Prepubescent boys were kidnapped for indoctrination as ISIS fighters. Women and their young children were sequestered into sexual slavery. And the men — those older than  12 — were forced to convert or else murdered, either shot in the head, sprayed from behind with bullets or beheaded as their families watched.

The picture painted in United Nations reports is dim. Within days, 5,000 were dead and about half a million displaced from their homes. One report, in June 2016, called the genocide “on-going,” estimating that 3,200 Yazidi women are still held as sex slaves by ISIS — bought, sold and raped by some of the same men who murdered their husbands and fathers. The bulk of Yazidis in Iraq who remain free stay in squalid refugee camps where basic needs are met barely or not all, while an untold number have embarked on the journey west, over perilous seas to the uncertain promise of refuge in Europe or the United States.

What’s worse is that the genocide of this tiny religious group didn’t take its victims by surprise. “We had a sense that it’s going to happen,” one Yazidi activist in Houston, Haider Elias, told the Journal.

In fact, ISIS has been remarkably forward about its genocidal intentions. “Unlike the Jews and Christians, there was no room for jizyah [ransom] payment,” explained an article in Dabiq, a glossy ISIS propaganda magazine. “Their women could be enslaved unlike female apostates who the majority of the fuqaha [Islamic jurists] say cannot be enslaved.”

A group of Islamic law students reviewed the Yazidi question, Dabiq reported, and ruled that unlike Jews and Christians, who are monotheists, Yazidis are pagans to be exterminated in preparation for Judgment Day. (In fact, Yazidis are monotheists whose Mesopotamian creed predates Islam by thousands of years.)

The Obama administration helped break a siege that stranded thousands of Yazidis on Mount Sinjar shortly after the Aug. 3 massacres, but it was a brief show of American airpower. The United States has done little else to ameliorate the situation; the West can claim neither ignorance nor impotence.

A handful of Jewish organizations have raised the alarm, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and at least one, IsraAID, has even offered on-the-ground assistance (see sidebar). But with the global population of forcibly displaced people topping 65 million, most of civil society is tuned to the larger picture. A network of Yazidis in the U.S. seeks its aid and protection for their coreligionists, but their numbers are few.

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to ISIS in the town of Sinjar, walk toward the Syrian border on Aug. 11, 2014. Photo by Rodi Said/ Reuters

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to ISIS in the town of Sinjar, walk toward the Syrian border on Aug. 11, 2014. Photo by Rodi Said/ Reuters

 

Iraq is one of the seven countries whose citizens are banned from entering the U.S. for at least 90 days, according to President Donald Trump’s recent executive order.  The order makes an exemption for religious minorities, but at present, the procedures for exercising that exemption are unclear. At press time, the order had been blocked by the courts and was awaiting appeal, but the constitutionality of a religious exemption appeared murky in the first place. Meanwhile, the president has promised “safe zones” in Syria but the majority of Yazidis in the Middle East are in Iraq.

The persistence of genocide into the second decade of the 21st century makes a cruel joke of “never again,” just as Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia did in the second half of the 20th century. More than two years after the Yazidi genocide began, the question remains: Shouldn’t we do something about it?

‘Nobody helped’

Salem Daoud is Mir of the Yazidis in the United States, the community’s chief religious functionary, serving alongside a council of elders. He speaks a halting English that would be difficult to fully comprehend even if he weren’t describing some of the most trying days of his life. So his son, Seif, who goes by Sam in the U.S., and Rabbi Pamela Frydman, an activist in Los Angeles, joined him on a recent conference call from Glendale, Ariz., to make sure he was understood.

Salem Daoud at the Castle of Mir Ali in northern Iraq. Photo by John Murphy.

Salem Daoud at the Castle of Mir Ali in northern Iraq. Photo by John Murphy.

In such a tiny community, no family is unaffected by an event on the scale of the genocide. Salem’s sister and brother-in-law were kidnapped and then rescued six months later; they’ve never been quite the same since, Salem said. It’s hard to know what to ask a person who sat, more or less helplessly half a world away, while his relatives and countrymen were slaughtered and enslaved.

When Salem’s phone began to ring in early August 2014, there was little he could do to help the man on the other end, a local leader in Sinjar by the name of Ahmed Jaso.

“Till the last minute, till before they killed him, he was calling my dad, like, every, I would say, hour,” Sam said on the phone. “And he’s saying, ‘Do something for us, to save us from their hands.’ ”

Jaso was in a village called Kocho, where ISIS troops were lining up the villagers in groups of 60 or 100 and demanding payment to spare the locals’ lives. When the ransom was not forthcoming, they killed residents in a hail of gunfire, Jaso told Salem. Sam explained that his father has many contacts, people who might have been able to help, “whether here in the U.S., in Iraq, Russia, to people in Germany” — even people close to the White House. “Everybody put their hands on their eyes and their ears,” Sam said.

“[Jaso] would call, ‘[ISIS] said they just killed a hundred, so we need support to save the rest. … They killed another hundred, they need money.’ ” he said. “But nobody wanted to pay.”

“We give the information to a lot of people,” Salem added in his imperfect English. “Just nobody helped. No government, and nobody.”

The village of some 1,800 people was cleared out — the men slaughtered, the young boys kidnapped, the women enslaved.

“Very hard time, that was,” the Mir said. The last time he called Jaso back, the local leader was awaiting his turn at the death squad. “The last time, I hoped I’d be one of these people with them,” Salem said.

The activist

Frydman — known more commonly as Rabbi Pam — is a recent arrival to Los Angeles from Northern California, having moved here in May. There, she started the San Francisco congregation Or Shalom Jewish Community 25 years ago and spent a decade as a social justice activist and educator.

One January morning, Frydman sat down in front of her laptop at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Pico Boulevard. In front of her, a manila folder contained a manuscript of a book about the Holocaust she’s writing that she put on hold two years earlier, when she first learned about the genocide of Yazidis and Assyrian Christians in Iraq and Syria. She finally was finding time to get back to work on the book. Asked to describe how she became active in the struggle for Yazidi survival, she scribbled an impromptu timeline on the back of the manila folder.

Rabbi Pam Frydman. Photo by Bret Putnam

Rabbi Pam Frydman. Photo by Bret Putnam

In November 2014, Frydman saw an email from the Board of Rabbis of Northern California about an event at a Jewish Community Center in the Bay Area. “It said, ‘Act before it’s too late,’ ” she recalled. At the gathering, she saw footage of Yazidis being marched up to the heights of Mount Sinjar, where they were trapped.

“We heard about children who were dehydrated because there just wasn’t enough water,” she said. She heard a story about a woman being driven up the mountain by ISIS forces and struggling to carry both of her children — one of many such stories to emerge from these forced marches. When this particular woman grew too exhausted to hold both children, she put one of them down.

“As soon as she put that child down, the child was slaughtered, was killed, and I said to myself, ‘This is a death march! This is what our people went through in the Holocaust!’ ” Frydman said, her voice wavering. “The fire was in my belly and my heart was shattered, and I felt that I had to do something. And I returned to my home and I started to contact Jewish and interfaith colleagues, and I said, ‘What are we gonna do?’ ”

Soon, she organized a program called Save Us From Genocide, a consciousness-raising campaign for the plight of the Yazidis and Assyrians, hosted by four Bay Area interreligious councils in concert with the United Religions Initiative, a global interfaith network. A project of Save Us From Genocide administered by the Northern California Board of Rabbis, called Beyond Genocide, hopes to gain attention and relief specifically for atrocities perpetrated against Yazidis.

In addition to helping finance university scholarships for Yazidis studying outside Iraq, Beyond Genocide assists in Yazidi migration and resettlement. On that last score, Frydman could describe her efforts only in vague details, out of abundant caution against putting Yazidis in danger.

Asked how much Beyond Genocide had raised for resettlement, she responded, “A very small amount. But with this very small amount, we have performed miracles.”

‘My brother’

Frydman’s resettlement and advocacy work runs primarily through tight-knit networks of American Yazidis such as the one operated by Saeed Hussein Bakr, whom she calls “my brother.” Bakr arrived in the U.S. about five years ago and found his way to Phoenix, where currently he works as a cook for a local Panda Express. As the disaster in Sinjar unfolded, groups quickly sprang up among American Yazidis to help those fleeing for their lives in the Middle East, managed by people like Bakr.

“Yazidis are not a big community,” he said. “So, almost, we all know each other.”

Saeed Hussein Bakr

Saeed Hussein Bakr

Headquartered in places such as Lincoln, Neb., the largest American Yazidi population center, these networks raise money when possible, though the community is in large part newly arrived and not a wealthy one. More often, they deploy contacts in the United States, Europe and the Middle East to help Yazidi migrants who find themselves in trouble.

Bakr’s group, Yazidi Rescue, will alert Coast Guard officials in Greece, for example, when a boatload of Yazidi refugees is abandoned or waterlogged in the Mediterranean or Aegean sea. In other cases, they’ll help Yazidi women escape from slavery or help refugees who are imprisoned abroad. There are no rules or standard operating procedures for this type of operation, only dire phone calls to anybody who might be able to do something, whether civilians or government officials.

“Some nights, I can say we help 1,000 people in one night,” Bakr said.

Bakr first became involved after one of his sons, Layth, on his way to the U.S., got on a boat headed to Greece from Turkey. His boat capsized, and some of the refugees on board with him drowned. “That’s why I work to help those people,” Bakr said.

Remarkably, though, his son’s near-death experience in the Aegean Sea was not the most harrowing episode for Bakr. That would be earlier, in August 2014, when Bakr’s son and other relatives were turned out of their homes and driven up Mount Sinjar.

“For seven days, they were in the mountains, no power, no communications. We don’t know at any time if ISIS, they captured them,” he said. “It was horrible days. Those seven days, they were the worst seven days in my life.”

An ancient people long oppressed

The Yazidis are an ancient people, born in the cradle of civilization. Consecrated to one God, they survived through the ages. In each generation, the yoke of oppression found them, and they cried out for deliverance — except sometimes their savior was a long time in coming.

Sound familiar?

“In each and every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us,” Jews recite each Passover. It would be equally true on the lips of a Yazidi.

The parallels between Jews and Yazidis become uncanny at a point. Both are ethnically distinct religions dating to the birth of monotheism. Both have been singled out by Muslim rulers for persecution based on their strange and foreign faith, slandered as perversions of Islam.

But somewhere along the ages, the historical arcs of the two people diverge. Whereas the history of Jewish genocide ends after the Holocaust, Yazidis have had no such luck.

Since the 15th century, Yazidis count 74 farmans against them — literally, decrees, calls by rulers for their destruction that inevitably result in mass slaughter. They’ve faced genocide at the hands of Kurds, Turks and Arabs, mostly Sunni Muslims backed by the Ottoman Empire. ISIS is only the most recent in a long line of persecutors.


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Invariably, Yazidi customs and belief are offered as the reason for their oppression. The religion has no central texts that have survived the ages, but its folklore is vivid and distinct from any other faith. Adherents claim to descend not from Abraham but from Adam. Their legend has it that Adam and Eve, as a sort of competition, each placed their seed in a jar. When Eve’s jar was opened, it held an unpleasant stew of filth and insects. Adam’s contained a beautiful baby boy, ibn Jar, literally the son of Jar, who became the ancestor of the Yazidi people.

Ironically, it is their guardian angel that has earned them the fanatical ire of radical Islamists. Yazidis regard as sacred Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel, a fallen angel who refused to bow to Adam when God requested he do so, and who consequently gained dominion over the fates and follies of man. This origin story bears a similarity with that of the Islamic legend of Iblis, the archdevil in Muslim theology. The resemblance between the tales has historically motivated the slander of Yazidis as devil worshippers, a kind of Middle Eastern blood libel that continues to claim the lives of its subjects.

“They have made Iblis — who is the biggest taghut [idolator] — the symbolic head of enlightenment and piety!” the article in the ISIS magazine Dabiq exclaims. “What arrogant kufr [infidels] can be greater than this?”

One irony to emerge from this account is that peacocks don’t exist in the region where Yazidi civilization arose. If the community of nations is not watchful, it’s not inconceivable to imagine a Middle East with no more Yazidis, either.

‘Never again requires a lot of energy’

Google searches for “Yazidis” saw a massive spike in early August 2014 and then returned, but for a few small flutters, to a flatline. But things never went back to normal for Haider Elias, a Yazidi activist in Houston who is the president of Yazda, an advocacy, aid and relief organization.

That’s not the role he’d imagined for himself before ISIS began to wreak catastrophe. A former translator for the U.S. Army in Iraq who immigrated in 2010, Elias was raising three children and studying biology as an undergraduate in the hopes of attending medical school. When his brother was murdered in Iraq and the rest of his family displaced from their homes, he dropped his medical school dreams to dedicate himself to advocacy.

Haider Elias

Haider Elias

Elias and his peers at Yazda run a gamut of programs aimed at helping those displaced by the genocide. They’ve presented on the catastrophe in more than 10 states, including California, and in Europe. In Iraq, the group offers psychological and psychosocial therapy to help reintegrate women who have escaped or been rescued from ISIS. On top of all that, Yazda runs documentation projects to record video testimonies about the genocide and document mass graves.

Elias is still a full-time student at the University of Houston, though he’s switched majors to psychology at the recommendation of some American friends. A social science degree would better suit him for advocacy work, they told him. His days are long and busy, but he’s motivated by the knowledge that his people still face imminent danger.

“Many people want to come back [home] but they’re afraid that the security forces again are going to fail and run away, and this time it’s going to be more fatal, more catastrophic,” Elias said.

And so Yazda now is advocating for international protection for Yazidis, without which resettling Sinjar is unfeasible. “Without some form or guarantee of protection, this community is terrified,” he said.

Elias admits to still being angry. He’s angry with ISIS, naturally, and with the world for standing idly by; but more specifically, he’s angry with the Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga, for abandoning their posts before the Islamists’ murderous advance.

“It’s not a battle and they lost — they ran away,” he said. “They did not tell the population. When you lose many lives and you think you lost the battle, the first thing you do, you inform the population. The second thing, you run away.” To hear Elias and other Yazidis tell it, the Peshmerga didn’t quite bother with the first.

Though most Yazidis are behind Kurdish lines for the moment, their situation remains precarious and their advocates few. Elias made note of a chilling silence in Congress, broken only on occasion by legislators who represent Yazidi population centers, including two Republicans, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

“We need a campaign in 2017 to help the Yazidis, whether to advocate for international protection or accepting Yazidi refugees in the U.S. or sending more humanitarian aid to the areas,” Elias said.

Responding to the genocide, Yazda took up “never again” as a rallying cry. But Elias is not naïve about the prospects of his people.

“Never again requires a lot of energy, a lot of passion, a lot of work,” he said.

‘Save us!’

The Yazidi call for aid is neither subtle nor nuanced. Even before the genocide, theirs was a struggle for existence. There is no conversion into the community, and a child with even one non-Yazidi parent is considered to be outside the faith. The massacres and enslavement of Yazidis compound an already dire population problem.

“An entire religion is being exterminated from the face of the earth,” Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi member of the Iraqi Parliament, told the legislature on Aug. 5, 2014, in a tearful plea that briefly went viral on the internet. “Brothers, I appeal to you in the name of humanity to save us!”

Before she could finish the next sentence, she collapsed, weeping.

The Yazidis interviewed for this story made clear they are open to any help they can get — military, political, financial and otherwise. Currently, Frydman and her colleagues are advocating for a real immigration pipeline to allow Yazidis to come to the U.S. notwithstanding the Trump administration’s refugee policy.

Three men prepare to leave Mount Sinjar. From left: Saeed Hussein Bakr’s sons, Layth Saeed Hussein and Hussein Saeed Hussein, and his nephew, Fuad Shaker Hassow.

Three men prepare to leave Mount Sinjar. Saeed Hussein Bakr’s sons, Layth Saeed Hussein (right) and Hussein Saeed Hussein (left), and his nephew, Fuad Shaker Hassow.

 

The Trump order, before a federal judge blocked the bulk of it on Feb. 3, in theory allowed Yazidi immigration to continue largely unimpeded. In practice, though, the International Organization for Migration, which coordinates refugee admission, has told Yazidi refugees their immigration has been canceled until further notice, Reuters reported. A faith-based exemption raises constitutional questions and its legality is a matter for the courts to decide.

But not all displaced Yazidis want to leave Iraq, anyway. Many simply want to resume their lives in the villages where they were born and escaped death, according to Salem Daoud, the Yazidi Mir. Much of that territory is still held by ISIS.

For now, the totality of a people’s homeland lives in limbo and its diaspora finds only limited means to help them. Often, prayer is the only recourse. Frydman recalled a joint prayer group near Phoenix with Yazidis, Jews and Universal Sufis. After the prayers were over, a Yazidi elder approached her and showed her a tiny book in a plastic pouch. Peering through her bifocals, she discovered it to be the Book of Psalms. A Jewish friend had given it to the elder, he told her, shortly before immigrating to Israel after the declaration of the Jewish state. “He said the prayers in this book will protect me,” the elder told Frydman.

The themes reflected in the Book of Psalms, as it happens, are more topical now for the Yazidi people than they ever have been in recent memory. As it says in Psalm 7:

O Lord, my God, in You I seek refuge; deliver me from all my pursuers and save me, lest, like a lion, they tear me apart, rending me in pieces, and no one to save me.

How to help

LEARN more about the plight of the Yazidis by reading reports from the United Nations, Amnesty International or other news articles.

CALL or write your elected representatives to request that they act on behalf of the Yazidis.

DONATE to organizations working to assist Yazidis through advocacy and direct aid, listed below:

Beyond Genocide
norcalrabbis.org/yezidi-fundraiser
(415) 369-2860

Yazda
yazda.org
(832) 298-9584

IsraAID
israaid.co.il
info@israaid.org

Thank you, Obama


Thank you, President Barack Obama, for serving the country for the past eight years.

Thank you, Obama, for not moving the American embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. You were wise enough to follow the lead of your Democratic and Republican predecessors and realize the chaos such a move could cause would not be worth the cost. There is no doubt the embassy should be in Jerusalem. There is no question that Jerusalem is the eternal and contemporary capital of Israel. But thank you for knowing that not every right must be claimed at any cost.

Thank you for protecting Israel when and where it mattered most: with off-budget millions for Iron Dome, for standing up for Israel’s right to defend itself in the Gaza war, for a record-setting $38 billion in aid. 

Thank you for declaring as eloquently as any president ever has, and in as many international forums as possible, the value and justice of a Jewish state. Thank you for trying to protect that state from pursuing policies that will endanger its own existence.

Thank you for the Iran deal. Before the deal, Iran was weeks from attaining nuclear bomb capability. Now the world has a decade before the mullahs have the capability of developing a bomb. You tackled a problem that only had gotten worse under previous American and Israeli leaders. Despite fierce opposition, you found a solution that even those Israelis who hated it have grown to see as beneficial. 

Thank you for killing Osama bin Laden. And for taking out al-Qaida’s senior leadership. And for stopping and reversing gains by ISIS. You know who’s really happy to see you go? Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 

Thank you for standing up to Vladimir Putin. You saw the expansionist, anti-democratic nature of Putin’s actions in Ukraine and quickly confronted him. Perhaps that opposition slowed what may have been an inevitable march through the Baltics. There is nothing wrong with having positive relations with Russia, but “positive” cannot mean giving the Putin regime a pass. 

Thank you for recognizing our Cuba embargo was a failed policy and that the time for change had come. 

Thank you for steering the country through the recession. Thank you for cutting unemployment in half. And for doing so in the face of Republican obstructionism on the kind of infrastructure bill that your successor now likely will get through. 

Thank you for doubling clean energy production. For recognizing that our dependence on fossil fuels can’t help but degrade our environment and hold us back from being competitive in the green energy future, and embolden corrupt and backward regimes from Venezuela to the Middle East to Russia. 

Thank you for saving the American auto industry. You revived General Motors with $50 billion in loans, saving 1.2 million jobs and creating $35 billion in tax revenue so far. Have you checked out GM’s Chevy Bolt? All electric, 240 miles per charge, drives like a rocket and made in Detroit. They should call it the “Obamacar.”

Thank you for the Paris Agreement to address climate change. Thank you for throwing America’s lot in with the rest of the planet.

Thank you for the Affordable Care Act. It has brought the security of health care to millions. It has saved lives. It has kept the rate of cost increases in premiums lower in the past eight years than they were in the previous eight years. It needs to be fixed — what doesn’t? — but only with better ideas, not worse ones.

Thank you for Merrick Garland. It was a great idea while it lasted.

Thank you for trying to get immigration reform through Congress, and for pursuing the policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which let 5 million people already living and working here come out of the shadows. 

Thanks for Michelle. Not just her brains and biceps, but her choice of causes. Your wife saw all the good the food movement had accomplished from the grass roots up and planted it squarely in the front yard of the White House, where it would grow even more from the top down.

Thank you for trying. You grappled with one great chaos after another, and sometimes you fell short. In Syria, you needed a smarter course of action. In Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, you underestimated the need, early on, to deal with Israeli fears and Palestinian obstructionism. As for ending the Sudan embargo, the jury is out. Stateside, your administration should have put some of the bad guys of the recession behind bars and found fixes that better addressed the wealth gap. 

Time will reveal more blemishes — and heal some of the scars. But in the meantime:

Thank you. Thank you for not embarrassing us, your family or yourself. Though your opponents and their friends at “Fox and Friends” tried to pin scandals to you, none could stick. In my lifetime, there has never been an administration so free from personal and professional moral stain. 

Thank you for the seriousness, dignity, grace, humor and cool you brought to the Oval Office. Thank you for being my president.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.

The enduring spirit of the Sotloffs


The first time Shirley and Art Sotloff played for me the recording in which their son,

In second debate, Trump says Syria regime is not worth confronting


Donald Trump said the U.S. focus in Syria should solely be on the Islamic State terrorist group, arguing that the Assad regime is not worth confronting because its allies, Russia and Iran, effectively control the country.

Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, in the second presidential debate held Sunday night at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, turned a question about what he would do to end the carnage in Syria into an extended attack on his rival, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

He said that she had advised President Barack Obama to back down in 2013 from his “line in the sand” threat to attack Syria if it uses chemical weapons and Clinton corrected him, noting that she was no longer secretary of state at the time.

He then described the situation as he saw it in Syria, but offered no specific prescriptions. He suggested that the Bashar Assad regime, principally responsible for the nearly half million lives lost since the outbreak of civil war in 2011, was not all bad because it was targeting the Islamic State terrorist group, along with its allies, Iran and Russia.

“Iran now and Russia are now against us,” he said. “So she wants to fight. She wants to fight for rebels. There’s only one problem. You don’t even know who the rebels are. So what’s the purpose? And one thing I have to say. I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS. And Iran is killing ISIS. And those three have now lined up because of our weak foreign policy.”

One of the moderators, ABC’s Martha Raddatz, pressed him for a policy answer, noting that his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, said that if Russia continues to back Assad with air strikes on civilian targets, the United States should hit Assad’s military targets.

“He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree. I disagree,” Trump said, referring to Pence. “I think you have to knock out ISIS. Right now, Syria is fighting ISIS. We have people that want to fight both at the same time. But Syria is no longer Syria. Syria is Russia and it’s Iran, who she made strong and (Secretary of State John) Kerry and (President Barack) Obama made into a very powerful nation and a very rich nation, very, very quickly, very, very quickly.”

Trump was referring to the sanctions-relief-for-nuclear-rollback deal reached last year between Iran and six major powers led by the United States. Clinton, who set the stage for the deal by helping to set up the sanctions regime that induced Iran to join the talks, says it has effectively kept Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons power.

Israel is wary of most of the likely outcomes in the Syrian civil war, but one of those it fears most is effectively conceding part of a failed state to Iran, allowing its deadliest enemy in the region to remain indefinitely on its doorstep.

Trump once again accused Clinton of being overly unfriendly to Russia. “I think it would be great if we got along with Russia because we could fight ISIS together, as an example,” he said.

Clinton advocated during the debate confronting both ISIS and the Assad regime through training rebels, creating no fly zones and allying with Syrian Kurds. She noted that the Assad regime and its Russian ally have mostly targeted non-ISIS rebel targets.

She aimed fire at Trump as she has in the past, alluding to the mutual admiration he and Russian President Vladimir Putin have expressed for one another, and to U.S. government allegations that Russia is intervening in the U.S. elections by hacking and releasing embarrassing emails related to Clinton’s campaign.

“I want to emphasize that what is at stake here is the ambitions and the aggressiveness of Russia,” she said. “Russia has decided that it’s all in, in Syria. And they’ve also decided who they want to see become president of the United States, too, and it’s not me.

The debate, in a town hall format, was unusually bitter, with Trump at one point threatening to jail Clinton over the controversy of her use of private email while she was secretary of state, should he be elected president.

It came on the heels of a bombshell video released Friday in which a 59-year-old Trump is heard bragging to an entertainment reporter about groping women and getting away with it because he is a “star.” In discussing the tape and the Republican politicians who rescinded their endorsements of Trump in the past 48 hours, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, Clinton said Trump’s campaign was “exploding.”

Trump calls Obama, Clinton Islamic State ‘co-founders’


Republican Donald Trump called President Barack Obama and Democrat Hillary Clinton the “co-founders” of Islamic State, ratcheting up his assertion that they are responsible for the rise of the militant group and sparking renewed criticism of his leadership ability.

Clinton's White House campaign on Thursday called the remarks a “false claim,” in her latest response to a series of attacks by Trump in which he has sought to portray America as less safe, blame Democrats and depict himself as the only one who can restore security.

Democrats, in turn, have used Trump's often hyperbolic statements ahead of the Nov. 8 election to argue he is unfit to be president and lacks the temperament to be trusted with matters of national security.

“This is another example of Donald Trump trash-talking the United States,” senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement.

“What's remarkable about Trump's comments is that once again, he's echoing the talking points of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and our adversaries to attack American leaders and American interests, while failing to offer any serious plans to confront terrorism or make this country more secure,” Sullivan said.

For Republicans uncertain about whether Trump has the discipline to stick to an attack against Clinton, the latest comments were concerning. Many see the New York real estate mogul as spending too much time fighting within his own party and have called on him to refocus his campaign message on Clinton. 

“ISIS is a solid GOP message to show contrast with Hillary Clinton and the failures of the Obama-Clinton administration,” said Alice Stewart, a Republican strategist who remains undecided about the nominee, using acronyms for Islamic State and the Republican Party. 

But, she added, “Trump should have simply said that the Obama administration's decision to pull all troops out of Iraq, with no stay-behind agreement, created a vacuum and allowed ISIS to metastasize. It's absurd for him to say that Obama and Clinton are founders of ISIS – and he can't blame the media for this.”

A group of about 70 Republicans, including five former members of Congress, called on the Republican National Committee to stop helping Trump in the wake of his recent remarks and instead focus on getting members of Congress re-elected.

“Trump's divisive and dangerous actions are not only a threat to our other candidates, but to our party and the nation,” the letter stated.

Some Republicans see a small silver lining in Trump talking more about Clinton.

“It is helpful – at least to the rest of the ticket – that he is focusing a little more on Clinton than on other Republicans, whether defeated primary opponents or other elected officials who are on the ballot, for a change,” said former New Hampshire Republican Chairman Fergus Cullen, who is not supporting Trump. 

“But tomorrow, or later today, he could blame (Republican Senator) Jeff Flake for A-Rod's retirement,” Cullen said, referring to Yankees player Alexander Rodriguez's decision to leave professional baseball. “I have zero confidence in Trump's ability to stay on one message or to drive one message for any length of time longer than about 10 seconds.” 

CRITICISM OF IRAQ WAR

Trump has previously criticized Clinton for supporting the Iraq War in 2003 while she was a U.S. senator. Trump frequently says, in contrasting himself with Clinton, that he opposed the war – but in interviews before the invasion he did voice support.

Now, Trump is arguing that in trying to end the war and withdrawing U.S. troops in 2011, Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time, and Obama created Islamic State. 

Republicans frequently trace the birth of Islamic State to the Obama administration's decision to withdraw the last U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011. 

But many analysts argue its roots lie in the decision of George W. Bush's Republican administration to invade Iraq in 2003 without a plan to fill the vacuum created by Saddam Hussein's ouster. It was Bush's administration, not Obama's, that negotiated the 2009 agreement that called for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.

Clinton posted on social media website Twitter that Trump's comments are disqualifying.

“Anyone willing to sink so low, so often should never be allowed to serve as our commander-in-chief,” she wrote.

The White House declined to comment on Trump's claim.

Appearing in Miami Beach, Florida, on Thursday morning, Trump repeated his attack for the third time, saying the U.S. government “has unleashed ISIS.” 

“In fact, I think we'll give Hillary Clinton … most valuable player,” Trump said. “ISIS will hand her the most valuable player award. Her only competition is President Barack Obama.” 

Trump first made the assertion in a speech on Wednesday night in Florida, saying, “I call them co-founders” of Islamic State. 

In an interview on Thursday morning, Trump defended the remarks.

“Is there something wrong with saying that?” Trump told CNBC. “Why – are people complaining that I said he was the founder of ISIS? All I do is tell the truth, I'm a truth teller.”

Trump was also asked by radio host Hugh Hewitt if he “meant that (Obama) created the vacuum, he lost the peace.”

“No,” Trump responded. “I meant he's the founder of ISIS. I do.” 

The Democratic National Committee lambasted Trump's remarks. “Donald Trump should apologize for his outrageous, unhinged and patently false suggestions on the founding of ISIS,” the DNC said in a statement. “This is yet another out of control statement by a candidate who is unraveling before our very eyes.” 

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani defended Trump on CNN, saying his remarks were “legitimate political commentary.”

Islamic State supporters hail deadly Munich shooting on social media


Supporters of the Islamic State militant group celebrated on social media a shooting rampage in a shopping mall in the southern German city of Munich on Friday that killed and wounded many people.

“Thank God, may God bring prosperity to our Islamic State men,” read one tweet in Arabic on an account that regularly favors the radical Islamist movement.

“The Islamic state is expanding in Europe,” read an Arabic-language tweet on another account also known to support Islamic State.

The attack was the third major act of violence against civilian targets in Western Europe in eight days. Previous attacks in France and Germany were claimed by Islamic State and Munich police said they suspected the latest assault was a terrorist attack.

Authorities were evacuating people from the Olympia mall in the Bavarian capital but many others were hiding inside.

A Munich police spokeswoman said multiple people were killed or wounded. “We believe we are dealing with a shooting rampage,” the spokeswoman said.

Bavarian broadcaster BR said six people were dead and many wounded in the shopping mall. NTV television reported the state's interior ministry as saying three people were dead, but the ministry said later it would not confirm this.

It was not immediately clear who carried out the attack, which took place a week after an axe-wielding teenager went on a rampage on a German train, wounding four people before he was shot dead. Islamic State claimed responsibility for that attack.

Paris attack victims to sue French state over surveillance lapses


Victims of last November's Islamic State assault on Paris plan to sue the French state for failing to avert a killing spree by militants who had drawn scrutiny from police and intelligence services, a lawyer for the group said on Tuesday.

Earlier in the day a court in a separate case found the French state partly at fault over the killing of a French soldier in 2012 by Mohamed Merah, a militant whose activities had also been tracked for some time by police and security services. Merah was killed in a shootout with police that year.

Samia Maktouf, a lawyer representing 17 victims of the Paris attacks, said she would take legal action against the state on the grounds that some of the assailants were also people the police and judicial authorities had been keeping tabs on.

“We will do all we can to get the French state convicted for failing to prevent terrorists, some of whom were under judicial surveillance, from carrying out their act,” Maktouf told BFM TV.

Nine militants killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more on Nov. 13, 2015. Some assailants blew themselves up near the Stade de France stadium, others opened fire on downtown cafe terraces and a third group armed with guns and suicide vests killed 90 music fans at the Bataclan rock concert hall.

A parliamentary investigation into the attack ended with the publication of a report last week that highlighted, among other possible failings of the state, the fact that one of the Bataclan attackers had gone to Syria a month earlier despite being under surveillance over a 2012 trip to Yemen.

France has since cracked down on people suspected of going to war zones like Syria to train as jihadist combatants.

A French court last week sentenced several people who returned from one such sortie to between eight and 10 years in jail – including the brother of one of the Bataclan attackers.

In a ruling sure to encourage victims of the November attacks and others, a court in the southern city of Nimes on Monday judged the French state to have been partially at fault for the killing of soldier Abel Chennouf in 2012.

He was one of three soldiers killed that year by Merah, a 23-year-old who said he was inspired by al Qaeda and went on to kill four Jews, three of them school children, before being cornered in a flat and dying in a hail of police bullets.

The judge faulted the French state on the grounds that the police and intelligence services had decided at one point to stop tracking Merah.

“The decision to halt all surveillance of Mohamed Merah … constitutes a mistake for which the state is liable, given the profile of Mohamed Merah and his highly suspect behavior, notably after recent trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Monday's verdict stated.

The judge ruled that the state should as a result provide financial compensation to the wife, child and parents-in-law of the murdered soldier.

US Jewish leaders briefed after Islamic State ‘kill list’ includes Jewish names


U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials briefed Jewish leaders on the inclusion of American Jews on an Islamic State “kill list.”

Some 200 Jewish leaders joined the conference call on Friday organized by the Secure Community Network, the security arm of the national Jewish community, in the wake of the July 3 release of the Islamic State list that included members of synagogues and churches among 1,700 individuals. The names of the synagogue members were pulled from the synagogue websites, among other sources, according to SCN.

The SITE group, which tracks terrorist activity, spotted the list.

“The lists appear to be directed toward ‘lone wolf’ ISIL supporters who may be inspired to carry out attacks,” SCN said in a statement, using one of the acronyms for the terrorist group. “However, there have been no reported incidents to date in which an ISIL-inspired individual has carried out an attack on any individual appearing on these lists.”

The lists are released through online forums. Host websites often remove the lists soon after they appear, but they often crop up again.

Previous lists have targeted business leaders and military personnel. The lists appear culled from the internet. Homeland Security officials are contacting those named on the lists.

SCN is affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

ISIS fighters more vulnerable than its ideology


Turkish officials have confirmed 41 deaths, including 13 foreigners, and 239 wounded, in an attack by three suicide bombers at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport Tuesday night.

Two assailants, one armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, were shot by officers when they approached the entrance security checkpoint in the arrivals section of the international terminal. A third bomber blew himself up in an adjacent parking lot in the airport.

“It’s very clear that there was careful surveillance beforehand and this was carefully planned,” Gareth Jenkins, a senior fellow at the Silk Road Studies Program, told The Media Line. “So I think these three [attackers] were part of a larger network.”

Flights were grounded until early Wednesday morning. Turkey is in its tourism high season now, and Atatürk is Europe’s third busiest airport.

Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said the bombers reached the airport by taxi, and that they’re suspected to be with the Islamic State (ISIS), which has been linked to six other major attacks in Turkish cities over the past year. Last month the group threatened more global attacks during the current Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

“This is classic ISIS,” said Jenkins.

Turkish citizens affiliated with the group targeted Kurdish and leftist civilians in two large suicide bombings last year that killed over 130. The aim was probably to hurt ISIS’s primary enemy in Syria, the mostly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has strong links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey.

This year, Jenkins says, ISIS changed its strategy in order to hurt Turkey. It targeted foreign tourists in Istanbul in January and March, contributing to the country’s worst tourism decline in 17 years, and bombed a police station in Gaziantep in May.

Tuesday’s attack was the group’s first time indiscriminately targeting non-political Turks.

Selim Koru, a researcher at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), says that ISIS aims to hurt Turkey’s economy and cause general unrest.

“If someone wanted to hurt Turkey’s economy and didn’t care about upsetting the international community while doing it, Atatürk airport would be a prime target,” Koru wrote in an e-mail to The Media Line.

The airport has more security than most in the west, with x-ray and metal detector checkpoints at the entrances as well as before the gates.

“I think the security forces acted bravely,” said Aaron Stein, senior resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “I don’t know what else you can do if you’re Turkey,” in terms of security.

“The problem with terrorism is that there’s a million soft targets, and no state has the resources to protect every single one,” Stein told The Media Line.

He says Turkey is particularly vulnerable to attack.

“The barriers to carrying out an attack in Turkey are far lower than they are in Europe, because nobody has to board a plane.”

Stein says the government’s response against this attack will be much of what they’ve already been doing, namely artillery strikes into ISIS’s territory along the Turkish border in Syria, and perhaps joining coalition airstrikes.

“Their position in northern Syria is just so limited,” he says, since the government is very unlikely to move in with ground troops and supports weak and divided rebels.

Koru says security and intelligence services will continue to strike ISIS’s robust presence in Turkey.

“We know that ISIS has been much larger on the radars of Turkish security agencies for some time now, and I’m guessing that this attack will push them to devote more resources against the group.”

On May 19, high-ranking ISIS member Yunus Durmaz blew himself up during a Turkish police raid in Gaziantep, and his brother Haci Ali Durmaz was captured.

But Jenkins says that despite the state’s crackdown against ISIS’s operations that started early last year, it should also fight against the ideology that inspires some Turkish citizens to support the group.

“We’re still not seeing sufficient attention to trying to counter the ideas that ISIS puts forward,” such as de-radicalization programs, he says.

“Whereas we may see some setbacks for ISIS as an organization, I don’t think we’re going to see any change in the threat posed by the ideology of ISIS.”

Koru says the Turkish government and ISIS have a complicated relationship.

“It’s very clear in ISIS media and ideology that Turkey is an enemy, as bad or worse than the ‘crusader’ states of the West. But ISIS shares a border with Turkey and has a clandestine network in the country, so ISIS and Turkey have leverage over each other.”

Koru says ISIS almost never claims its attacks in Turkey, in contrast to other countries, because it may not want to antagonize the government and cause it to clamp down even more on the group.

Phone tap led police to Belgian ISIS cell, court hears


A series of bugged, coded communications over two months led Belgian police to storm a suspected Islamic State cell in the town of Verviers last year, thwarting an alleged plot, a Brussels court heard on Monday.

One unidentified conspirator used the cover name “Fatty”; another in the plot which Belgian authorities have said intended to target police officers, went by the handle “Big Lanky”.

Among seven accused present on the first day of a terrorism trial that began in Brussels under heavy security seven weeks after suicide bombers killed 32 people in the capital was Marouan El Bali. He survived the gunfight in January 2015 when police shot dead two armed men who had returned from fighting with IS in Syria.

In summarizing the case against the 16 accused, nine of whom are still at large, the judge offered details of how security services had used telephone taps to help combat a potential threat from more than 300 Belgians who have fought in Syria.

In a tapped call in November 2014 an unidentified man told another who was on a police watchlist: “I've got everything.”

Six months after a first Islamist attack in Belgium, when a Frenchman shot dead four people at Brussels' Jewish Museum, that was enough to set off an intensive monitoring operation. It led to the Verviers raid, a week after Islamist attacks on the Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish grocery had shocked Europe.

The judge said investigators had heard cryptic messages, some from Turkey and Greece, to various alleged members of the Belgian cell, including those named Fatty and Big Lanky.

Among those involved was Abdelhamid Abaaoud from Brussels, who fought with Islamic State in Syria and is believed to have been an organizer of several attacks in Europe, including those in Paris last Nov. 13. Abaaoud was killed in a gunbattle with French police five days after militants killed 130 people.

Criticized by some for failing to prevent the March 22 IS suicide bombings at Brussels airport and on the city's metro, Belgian leaders have highlighted the operation at Verviers, a rundown industrial town near German border, as a major success.

As well as the two dead gunmen, both from Brussels' Arab immigrant community, police found assault rifles, bomb-making material and items of Belgian police uniform. Abaaoud later boasted online that he had eluded capture and returned to Syria.

El Bali, who was found in the safehouse, has protested his innocence. His lawyer told reporters outside the court on Monday that he had merely been visiting a childhood friend.

He is accused of being a leader in a terrorist group, attempted murder, making and keeping of bombs and planning an attack on a non-specified building, his lawyer said. The trial is expected to last several weeks.

Islamic State kills U.S. Navy SEAL in northern Iraq


Islamic State militants killed a U.S. Navy SEAL in northern Iraq on Tuesday after blasting through Kurdish defenses and overrunning a town in the biggest offensive in the area for months, officials said.

The elite serviceman was the third American to be killed in direct combat since a U.S.-led coalition launched a campaign in 2014 to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State and is a measure of its deepening involvement in the conflict.

“It is a combat death, of course, and a very sad loss,” U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters during a trip to Germany.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the dead serviceman was a Navy SEAL. The SEALs are considered to be among the most able U.S. special operations forces and capable of taking on dangerous missions. The serviceman's identity and rank were not disclosed.

A senior official within the Kurdish peshmerga forces facing Islamic State in northern Iraq said the man had been killed near the town of Tel Asqof, around 28 kilometers (17 miles) from the militant stronghold of Mosul.

The Islamic State insurgents occupied the town at dawn on Tuesday but were driven out later in the day by the peshmerga. A U.S. military official said the coalition had helped the peshmerga by conducting more than 20 air strikes with F-15 jets and drones.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Navy SEAL was killed “by direct fire” while on a mission to advise and assist local forces in Iraq.

Carter's spokesman, Peter Cook, said the incident took place during an Islamic State attack on a peshmerga position some 3 to 5 km behind the forward line.

SNIPERS AND SUICIDE BOMBERS

In mid-April the United States announced plans to send an additional 200 troops to Iraq and put them closer to the front lines of battle to advise Iraqi forces in the war against the Islamic State militant group.

Underscoring the complicated nature of the U.S. role in Iraq, the White House told reporters that even though the serviceman died in a combat situation, he was not on a combat mission.

“He was not on the front lines. But he was two miles away, and it turns out that being two miles away from the front lines between Iraqi forces and ISIL is a very dangerous place to be,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest, using an acronym for Islamic State.

Last month, an Islamic State attack on a U.S. base killed Marine Staff Sergeant Louis Cardin and wounded eight other Americans providing force protection fire to Iraqi army troops.

Such Islamic State incursions are rare in northern Iraq, where the Kurdish peshmerga have pushed the militants back with the help of coalition air strikes and set up defensive lines that the militants are rarely able to breach.

The leader of a Christian militia deployed alongside peshmerga in Tel Asqof said the insurgents had used multiple suicide bombers, some driving vehicles laden with explosives, to penetrate peshmerga lines.

The Kurdistan Region Security Council said at least 25 Islamic State vehicles had been destroyed on Tuesday and more than 80 militants killed. At least 10 peshmerga also died in the fighting, according to a Kurdish official who posted pictures of the victims on Twitter.

The peshmerga also deflected Islamic State attacks on the Bashiqa front and in the Khazer area, about 40 km west of the Kurdish regional capital Erbil, Kurdish military sources said.

The Islamist militants have been broadly retreating since December, when the Iraqi army recaptured Ramadi, the largest city in the western region. Last month, the Iraqi army retook the nearby region of Hit, pushing the militants further north along the Euphrates valley.

But U.S. officials acknowledge that the military gains against Islamic State are not enough.

Iraq is beset by political infighting, corruption, a growing fiscal crisis and the Shi'ite Muslim-led government's fitful efforts to seek reconciliation with aggrieved minority Sunnis, the bedrock of Islamic State support.

Young Arabs see Islamic State as biggest regional challenge


Young Arabs view Islamic State as the biggest challenge facing their region and some blame poor job opportunities for the rise of the militant group, according to a survey published on Tuesday.

Islamic State has declared a “caliphate” over swathes of Iraq and Syria it occupies, has established branches in conflict-ridden Libya and Yemen and has also carried out a series of deadly attacks in western Europe and Arab Gulf states.

The annual survey of people in the 18-24 age bracket across 16 Arab countries showed half of the respondents saw Islamic State as the biggest challenge for the region, up from 37 percent in the 2015 poll and well above other issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and lack of democracy.

Asked if they could imagine supporting Islamic State – also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh – if it used less violence, 78 percent of respondents said they could not, while 13 percent said they could and nine percent said they did not know.

Almost a quarter of respondents blamed high unemployment among young Arabs for Islamic State's success. The Arab world has long been blighted by corruption, wars and political stagnation and has struggled to create jobs for its fast-growing younger population.

Hassan Hassan, an analyst cited in the survey, said the region's economic malaise had clearly helped Islamic State.

“Many people in the region may reject Daesh due to its extreme tactics, but the issue remains that the group exploits existing problems,” he said.

“It did not simply invent the problems the responders identified as factors. Daesh, put another way, is a symptom of a growing disease that needs to be tackled, and not just the disease itself.”

Respondents also cited as reasons for Islamic State's advances the group's belief that its interpretation of Islam is superior to others as well as the confrontation between the Sunni and Shi'ite traditions. Islamic State adheres to a hardline version of Sunni Islam and regards Shi'ites and other Muslims who reject its stance as apostates deserving death.

The survey was based on 3,500 face-to-face interviews carried out by Dubai-based public relations firm ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller in countries ranging from Morocco and Egypt to Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Obama says nuclear terrorism threat remains despite progress


President Barack Obama warned on Friday of a persistent threat of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear materials despite progress in reducing such risks, and called on world leaders to do more to safeguard nuclear facilities.

“There is no doubt that if these madmen ever got their hands on a nuclear bomb or nuclear material, they would certainly use it to kill as many people as possible,” he told a global nuclear security summit in Washington. 

Obama cited concerns about groups such as al Qaeda and Islamic State trying to obtain nuclear materials, saying this was no time for the international community to be complacent.

Obama was hosting more than 50 world leaders for his fourth and final summit focused on efforts to lock down vulnerable atomic materials to prevent nuclear terrorism. North Korea’s nuclear defiance was also high on the agenda.

He has less than 10 months left in office to follow through on one of his signature foreign policy initiatives. While progress has been made, many arms-control advocates say the diplomatic process – which Obama conceived and championed – has lost momentum and could slow even further once he leaves the White House in January.

A boycott by Russian President Vladimir Putin, unwilling to join in a U.S.-dominated gathering at a time of increased tensions between Washington and Moscow over Ukraine and Syria, adds to doubts that the meeting will yield any major decisions.

Deadly militant bomb attacks in Brussels last month have fueled concern that Islamic State could eventually target nuclear plants, steal material and develop radioactive “dirty bombs”.

As official summit meetings began, Obama insisted that “we’ve made significant progress” and said the required 102 countries had ratified an amendment to a nuclear security treaty that would tighten protections against nuclear theft and smuggling.

“Our nations have made it harder for terrorists to get their hands on nuclear materials. We have measurably reduced the risks,” Obama said. But he added that the threat persists and “continues to evolve.”

The United States and Japan also announced they had completed the long-promised task of removing all highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium fuels from a Japanese research project. Japan is an avowedly anti-nuclear-weapons state as the only country ever to have suffered a nuclear attack.

Despite significant strides by Obama in persuading dozens of countries to rid themselves of bomb-making materials or reduce and safeguard stockpiles, much of the world's plutonium and enriched uranium remains vulnerable to theft.

Earlier on Friday, Obama convened a separate meeting of the world powers that negotiated a landmark nuclear pact with Iran last July, a critical component of his nuclear disarmament agenda and a major piece of his foreign policy legacy.

He said efforts to implement the deal, which required Tehran to curb its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief, had shown “real progress” but it would take time for Iran to reintegrate into the global economy.

Obama inaugurated the first Nuclear Security Summit nearly six years ago, after a landmark speech in Prague in 2009 laying out the lofty goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.

When Obama leaves office in January, there is no guarantee that his successor, who will be elected in November, will keep the issue a high priority.

Tense airplane drama dissolves into bedroom farce


Passengers on EgyptAir flight MS181 from Alexandria to Cairo took off into bright skies at 6:30 am, then, rather quickly, noticed the flight veer towards the sea.

There is no body of water between Egypt’s two largest cities which are separated by 179 kilometers of desert.

Thus began a tense episode of time travel back to the 1970s when bell-bottoms, unruly curls, political polemic and dangerous airport standoffs viewed through grainy screens were commonplace.

Initial reports spoke of a man wearing a suicide belt who demanded that the pilots fly to Turkey. After being informed there was insufficient fuel on board, the unlikely hijacker agreed to a diversion to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

Witnesses described a jet on a distant runway, Special Forces concealed behind flimsy walls, a jeep driving around, then a slow stream of passengers, initially women and children, descending from the plane. It may well have been 1973.

Terror in the age of the Islamic State is not usually quite so balmy.

Observing the scene, one Greek analyst ventured to report that “it could be a mental disturbance and have nothing to do with terror, maybe a somewhat unstable man…”

Then, Cypriot media began reporting that the man’s motives were, “um, romantic?” He requested that a letter be delivered to his former wife, resident in a nearby Cypriot village.

Aviv Oreg, the former head of the Israeli army’s Global Jihad desk and a former security officer with El Al Airlines, told The Media Line that the events unfolding in Larnaca, Cyprus’ capital, looked like “a personal thing. This happens from time.”

“I’m not shocked,” he said. “Explosives can be things you buy at the supermarket or pharmacy… anyone online can find instructions on how to make a bomb.”

After several misidentifications, including one involving a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Alexandria, who, alarmed, called the BBC to announce that he was not the hijacker but merely a passenger stuck on the plane, the culprit was identified as Seif Eldin Mustafa, an Egyptian living in Cyprus.

He had told the pilot that he was wearing a suicide belt and threatened to detonate it.

He had given Cypriot authorities a handwritten letter in Arabic demanding the release of political prisoners in Egypt and insisting on a meeting with his former wife.

Mrs. Mustafa was duly transported to Larnaca airport and the Internet into high comedy mode.

Khaled Diab, Egyptian author and blogger, posted a personal message to the man he called the #lovejacker: “Next time, send flowers, you idiot!”

“One man's terrorist is another woman's lover-boy. #EgyptAir” he later added.

A tweeter using the handle @IronyisFunny posted “All moderate ex-husbands must now condemn this #EgyptAir Hijacking!”

Holly Dagres, the Iranian-American commentator, added “After #LoveJacking of #EgyptAir flight, bar is now set extremely high for men to show their love. #Egypt

An Egyptian travel agency called Lion’s Trips cheerfully proposed passengers book a flight to the Egyptian resort town of “Hurghada with us and… possibly end up in Cyprus, or, who knows. France or Italy. It’s a crapshoot!”

Speaking with The Media Line, Diab, who was doing French homework with his son, said that “most people seem to be taking it with a mix of relief and humor, especially jokes about the bad internet connection and postal service that forced the guy to deliver his letter by hand, or jokes about passengers grateful to be in Cyprus.”

“Who knows,” Diab pondered. “I mean, he could be like a lot of bigger-than-tragic figures in Arabic poetry, just a hopeless romantic or a terrible stalker or a combination of the two.”

ISIS reportedly planning ‘imminent’ attack on Jewish school in Turkey


Islamic State terrorists are planning an “imminent” attack on Jewish kindergartens, schools and youth centers in Turkey, according to Sky News.

The most likely target of the attack is a synagogue in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district, which is attached to a community center and school, the British newspaper reported Monday.

The report is likely referring to the Neve Shalom Synagogue, which was previously hit by attacks in 1986 and 2003.

“We don’t know when it’s scheduled for. It could be in the next 24 hours or next few days,” an intelligence source told Sky News. “In light of these circumstances, extraordinary security measures are being taken above and beyond the high alert level already in place by the Turkish police, as well as vigilance within the Jewish community.”

Just hours earlier, Israel warned its citizens living in or visiting Turkey to leave immediately, warning of an Islamic State threat. Last Saturday, March 19, three Israeli tourists on a culinary tour were among five killedin a suicide bombing in Istanbul. It’s not yet known whether Israelis, who often vacation in Turkey, were targeted.

Sky News reported seeing an intelligence report saying the Islamic State was behind the attack in Istanbul as well as the series of bombings in Brussels Thursday.

Islamic State has been blamed for four of six bombings in Turkey in the past eight months, including a double suicide attack at a peace rally in the capital, Ankara, in October that killed 103 people.

The information about the planned attack came from six Islamic State operatives arrested in the city of Gaziantep, in southern Turkey, in the past week, according to Sky News.

“Undercover and other covert counter-terror measures are being implemented around the clock. This is a more than credible threat. This is an active plot,” the source is quoted as saying.

On Saturday, Turkish police warned of possible Islamic State attacks against Christians and Jews over the weekend.

Islamic State finance chief, other leaders, likely killed


Islamic State's top finance officer and other senior leaders were likely killed this week in a major offensive targeting the militant group's financial operation, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Friday.

Carter said the United States believes it killed Haji Iman, a senior Islamic State leader in charge of the group's finances as well as some plots and external affairs.

“We are systematically eliminating ISIL's cabinet,” Carter told reporters at a briefing at the Pentagon, using an acronym to refer to the group.

Earlier media reports said Haji Iman, who also went by Abd ar-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli and other aliases, had been killed in a U.S. air strike in Syria, but Pentagon officials gave few details of the operation.

The operations came as U.S. officials said they were helping Iraqis prepare for a major operation in Mosul to take back territory from the militant group, which aims to establish a caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon expects increased capabilities will be provided to Iraqis in preparation for Mosul operations in the coming months.

Suicide bomber kills 26, wounds 71 south of Baghdad


A suicide attacker detonated an explosive belt in a park outside Baghdad on Friday, killing 26 people and wounding 71, said the security head in Babel province where the bomb – claimed by Islamic State – went off.

The blast in Iskandariya, a mixed Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim town 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the capital, happened around 7:15 p.m. (1615 GMT) at the end of an amateur soccer game, said Falah al-Khafaji.

Islamic State militants, who control swathes of territory in Iraq's north and west, were behind the attack, according to Amaq news agency, which is affiliated with the group.

At least 60 people were killed earlier this month in an attack claimed by Islamic State 80 km further south, in Hilla, when an explosives-laden fuel tanker slammed into an Iraqi security checkpoint.

An apparent escalation of large bombings targeting areas outside Islamic State's primary control suggests that Iraqi government forces may be stretched thin after recent gains against the group in the western and northern provinces.

ISIS explains why it’s not attacking Israel — yet


The Islamic State said in its weekly newspaper that it has not focused on attacking Israel because it does not believe the Palestinian cause is more significant than other issues affecting Muslims.

According to the Times of Israel, which cited a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute, a March 15 article in ISIS’ al-Naba said, “If we look at the reality of the world today, we will find that it is completely ruled by polytheism and its laws, except for the regions where Allah made it possible for the Islamic State to establish the religion…. Therefore, jihad in Palestine is equal to jihad elsewhere.”

The article also criticized late secular Arab leaders, such as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, for pressing the belief that “Palestine is the Muslims’ primary cause.”

The article calls for jihadists to fight the “infidels” nearest to them, leaving the fight against Israel to the Muslim Palestinians.

The article argues that jihadis should focus first on toppling the Arab regimes, which it believes defend Israel, and only when that is accomplished should they approach “the borders of [the] Jew[ish] State and confront its army directly,” according to The Times of Israel.

But it notes that Muslims have a religious duty to bring Palestine back into the “house of Islam” and should send aid to Palestinians who are fighting Israel.

The article encourages those unable to travel to the Middle East to fight Israel to attack “the Jews and their allies wherever they find them, [by] killing them, destroying their property, and harming their interests in any way they can.”

Belgium names Brussels bomber brothers, key suspect on run


Belgium's chief prosecutor named two brothers on Wednesday as Islamic State suicide bombers who killed at least 31 people in the most deadly attacks in Brussels' history but said another key suspect was on the run.

Tuesday's attacks on a city that is home to the European Union and NATO sent shockwaves across Europe and around the world, with authorities racing to review security at airports and on public transport. It also rekindled debate about lagging European security cooperation and flaws in police surveillance.

The federal prosecutor told a news conference that Ibrahim El Bakraoui, 29, one of two men who blew themselves up at Brussels airport on Tuesday, had left a will on a computer dumped in a rubbish bin near the militants' hideout.

In it, he described himself as “always on the run, not knowing what to do anymore, being hunted everywhere, not being safe any longer and that if he hangs around, he risks ending up next to the person in a cell” – a reference to suspected Paris bomber Salah Abdeslam, who was arrested last week.

His brother Khalid El Bakraoui, 27, detonated a bomb an hour later on a crowded rush-hour metro train near the European Commission headquarters, prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw said.

Both men, born in Belgium, had criminal records for armed robbery but were not previously linked by investigators to Islamist militants.

At least 31 people were killed and about 271 wounded in the attacks, the prosecutor said. That toll could increase further because some of the bomb victims at Maelbeek metro station were blown to pieces and victims are hard to identify. Several survivors were still in critical condition.

The Bakraoui brothers were identified by their fingerprints and on security cameras, the prosecutor said. The second suicide bomber at the airport had yet to be identified and a third man, whom he did not name, had left the biggest bomb and run out of the terminal before the explosions.

Belgian media named that man as Najim Laachraoui, 25, a suspected Islamic State recruiter and bomb-maker whose DNA was found on two explosives belts used in last November's Paris attacks and at a Brussels safe house used by Abdeslam before his arrest last Friday.

Some media reported he had been captured in the Brussels borough of Anderlecht, but they later said the person detained was not Laachraoui.

Khalid El Bakraoui had rented under a false name the apartment in the city's Forest borough, where police hunting Abdeslam killed a gunman in a raid last week. He is also believed to have rented a safe house in the southern Belgian city of Charleroi used to mount the Paris attacks.

“BLACK DAYS”

The Syrian-based Islamist group claimed responsibility for Tuesday's attacks, warning of “black days” for those fighting it in Syria and Iraq. Belgian warplanes have joined the coalition in the Middle East, but Brussels has long been a centre of Islamist militancy.

A minute's silence was observed across Belgium at noon. Prime Minister Charles Michel cancelled a trip to China and reviewed security measures with his inner cabinet before attending a memorial event at European Commission headquarters with King Philippe, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

“We are determined, admittedly with a strong feeling of pain in our stomachs, but determined to act,” Michel told a joint news conference with Valls. “France and Belgium are united in pain more than ever.”

Valls played down cross-border sniping over security, saying: “We must turn the page on naivete, a form of carefreeness that our societies have known.

“It is Europe that has been attacked. The response to terrorism must be European.”

More than 1,000 people gathered around an improvised shrine with candles and street paintings outside the Brussels bourse.

Belgium's crisis coordination centre kept the level of security alert at the maximum as the man hunt continued. Some buses and trains were running but the metro and the airport were closed, along with key road tunnels in Brussels.

The blasts fuelled political debate across the globe about how to combat militants.

“We can and we will defeat those who threaten the safety and security of people all around the world,” said U.S. President Barack Obama.

Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination to succeed Obama in November's U.S. election, suggested suspects could be tortured to avert such attacks.

After a tip-off from a taxi driver who unknowingly drove the bombers to the airport, police searched an apartment in the Brussels borough of Schaerbeek late into the night, finding another bomb, an Islamic State flag and bomb-making chemicals.

An unused explosive device was later found at the airport.

CLOSING IN

Security experts believed the blasts were probably in preparation before Friday's arrest of locally based French national Abdeslam, 26, whom prosecutors accuse of a key role in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks.

He was caught and has been speaking to investigators after a shootout at an apartment in the south of the city, after which another Islamic State flag and explosives were found.

It was unclear whether he had knowledge of plans for Tuesday's attack or whether accomplices precipitated their action, fearing police were closing in.

About 300 Belgians are estimated to have fought with Islamists in Syria, making the country of 11 million the leading European exporter of foreign fighters and a focus of concern in France and other neighbours over its security capabilities.

Reviving arguments over Belgian policies following the Paris attacks, in which 130 people were killed in an operation apparently organised from Brussels, French Finance Minister Michel Sapin spoke of “naiveté” on the part of “certain leaders” in holding back from security crackdowns on Muslim communities.

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders retorted that each country should look to its own social problems, saying France too had rough high-rise suburbs in which militants had become radicalised. Valls said France had no place teaching Belgium lessons and had its own security problems.

Brussels airport seemed likely to remain shut for several days over the busy Easter holiday weekend, since the departure hall was still being combed as a crime scene on Wednesday and repairs can only begin once investigators are finished.

Islamic State claims Brussels attacks that kill at least 30


Islamic State claimed responsibility for attacks on Brussels airport and a rush-hour metro train in the Belgian capital on Tuesday which killed at least 30 people, a news agency affiliated to the group said.

The coordinated assault triggered security alerts across Europe and drew global expressions of support, four days after Brussels police had captured the prime surviving suspect in Islamic State's attacks on Paris last November.

A witness said he heard shouts in Arabic and shots shortly before two blasts struck a packed airport departure lounge at Brussels airport. The federal prosecutor said one of the explosions was probably triggered by a suicide bomber.

Belgian media published a security camera picture of three young men pushing laden luggage trolleys through the airport and reported that police suspected them of being the attackers. They said two were suspected of having blown themselves up while police were hunting the third.

The AMAQ news agency carried the claim of responsibility. “Islamic State fighters carried out a series of bombings with explosive belts and devices on Tuesday, targeting an airport and a central metro station in the center of the Belgian capital Brussels,” it said.

U.S. President Barack Obama led calls of support to Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel after Brussels went into a state of virtual lock-down.

“We must be together regardless of nationality or race or faith in fighting against the scourge of terrorism,” Obama told a news conference in Cuba. “We can and we will defeat those who threaten the safety and security of people all around the world.”

Michel spoke at a Brussels news conference of a “black moment” for his country. “What we had feared has come to pass.”

The blasts occurred four days after the arrest in Brussels of a suspected participant in November militant attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. Belgian police and combat troops on the streets had been on alert for reprisal but the attacks took place in crowded areas where people and bags are not searched.

TRANSPORT SHUT DOWN

All public transport in Brussels was shut down, as it was in London during 2005 Islamist militant attacks there that killed 52. Authorities appealed to citizens not to use overloaded telephone networks, extra troops were sent into the city and the Belgian Crisis Centre, clearly wary of a further incident, appealed to the population: “Stay where you are”.

Later, people were told that mainline rail stations would open at 4 p.m. (1500 GMT) to let commuters head home.

British Sky News television's Alex Rossi, at the airport, said he heard two “very, very loud explosions”.

“I could feel the building move. There was also dust and smoke as well…I went toward where the explosion came from and there were people coming out looking very dazed and shocked.”

Public broadcaster VRT said police had found a Kalashnikov assault rifle next to the body of an attacker at the airport. Such weapons have become a trademark of Islamic State-inspired attacks in Europe, notably in Belgium and France, including on Nov. 13 in Paris.

An unused explosive belt was also found in the area, the public broadcaster said. Police were continuing to scour the airport for any further bombs or attackers.

Alphonse Youla, 40, who works at the airport, told Reuters he heard a man shouting out in Arabic before the first explosion. “Then the glass ceiling of the airport collapsed.”

“I helped carry out five people dead, their legs destroyed,” he said, his hands covered in blood.

A witness said the blasts occurred at a check-in desk.

Video showed devastation in the hall with ceiling tiles and glass scattered across the floor. Some passengers emerged from the terminal with blood spattered over their clothes. Smoke rose from the building through shattered windows and passengers fled down a slipway, some still hauling their bags.

Public broadcaster RTBF said police were searching houses in the Brussels area.

A Crisis Centre spokesman issued provisional figures of 20 killed in the metro and 10 at the airport. Public broadcaster VRT had said earlier 20 were killed in the train and 14 at the airport.

Many of the dead and wounded at the airport were badly injured in the legs, one airport worker told Reuters, suggesting at least one bomb in a bag on the floor.

Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands, all wary of spillover from conflict in Syria, were among states announcing extra security measures. Security was tightened at the Dutch border with Belgium.

The blast hit the train as it left Maelbeek station, close to European Union institutions, heading to the city center.

VRT carried a photograph of a metro carriage at a platform with doors and windows completely blown out, its structure deformed and interior mangled and charred.

A local journalist tweeted a photograph of a person lying covered in blood among smoke outside Maelbeek metro station, on the main Rue de la Loi avenue which connects central Brussels with the EU institutions. Ambulances were ferrying the wounded away and sirens rang out across the area.

“WE ARE AT WAR”

“We are at war and we have been subjected to acts of war in Europe for the last few months,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said.

Brussels airport said it had canceled all flights until at least 6 a.m. (0500 GMT) on Wednesday and the complex had been evacuated and trains to the airport had been stopped. Passengers were taken to coaches from the terminal that would remove them to a secure area.

All three main long-distance rail stations in Brussels were closed and train services on the cross-channel tunnel from London to Brussels were suspended.

Security services have been on a high state of alert across western Europe for fear of militant attacks backed by Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the Paris attack.

While most European airports are known for stringent screening procedures of passengers and their baggage, that typically takes place only once passengers have checked in and are heading to the departure gates.

Although there may be discreet surveillance, there is nothing to prevent members of the public walking in to the departure hall at Zaventem airport with heavy baggage.

Following an attempted ramraid attack at Glasgow Airport in 2007, several airports stepped up security at entrances by altering the pick-up and drop-off zones to prevent private cars getting too close to terminal buildings.

European stocks fell after the explosions, particularly travel sector stocks including airlines and hotels, pulling the broader indices down from multi-week highs. Safe-haven assets, gold and government bonds rose in price.

The attacks appeared to be linked to the arrest of French citizen Salah Abdeslam – the prime surviving suspect for the Paris attacks on a stadium, cafes and a concert hall – who was captured by Belgian police after a shootout on Friday.

Belgium's Interior Minister, Jan Jambon, said on Monday the country was on high alert for a revenge attack.

It was not clear what failings if any allowed the plan for Tuesday's operation to go ahead and whether the double attack was planned in advance or put together at short notice.

“We know that stopping one cell can … push others into action. We are aware of it in this case,” Jambon said.

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