Turkey blames Kurdish militants for Ankara bomb; vows reprisals


Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu blamed a Syrian Kurdish militia fighter working with Kurdish militants inside Turkey for a suicide car bombing that killed 28 people in the capital Ankara, and he vowed retaliation in both Syria and Iraq.

A car laden with explosives detonated next to military buses as they waited at traffic lights near Turkey's armed forces' headquarters, parliament and government buildings in the administrative heart of Ankara late on Wednesday.

Davutoglu said the attack was clear evidence that the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia that has been supported by the United States in the fight against Islamic State in northern Syria, was a terrorist organization and that Turkey, a NATO member, expected cooperation from its allies in combating the group.

Within hours, Turkish warplanes bombed bases in northern Iraq of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state and which Davutoglu accused of collaborating in the car bombing.

Turkey's armed forces also shelled YPG positions in northern Syria on Thursday, a security source said. Davutoglu said the artillery fire would continue and promised that those responsible for the Ankara attack would “pay the price”.

“Yesterday's attack was directly targeting Turkey and the perpetrator is the YPG and the divisive terrorist organization PKK. All necessary measures will be taken against them,” Davutoglu said in a televised speech.

President Tayyip Erdogan also said initial findings suggested the Syrian Kurdish militia and the PKK were behind the bombing and said that 14 people had been detained. 

The political arm of the YPG, denied involvement in the bombing, while a senior member of the PKK said he did not know who was responsible.

The attack was the latest in a series of bombings in the past year mostly blamed on Islamic State militants.

Turkey is getting dragged ever deeper into the war in neighboring Syria and is trying to contain some of the fiercest violence in decades in its predominantly Kurdish southeast.

The YPG militia, regarded by Ankara as a hostile insurgent force deeply linked to the PKK, has taken advantage in recent weeks of a major Syrian army offensive around the northern city of Aleppo, backed by Russian air strikes, to seize ground from Syrian rebels near the Turkish border.

That has alarmed Turkey, which fears the advances will stoke Kurdish separatist ambitions at home. It has been bombarding YPG positions in an effort to stop them taking the town of Azaz, the last stronghold of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels north of Aleppo before the Turkish frontier.

Hundreds of Syrian rebels with weapons and vehicles have re-entered Syria from Turkey over the last week to reinforce insurgents fending off the Kurdish-led assault on Azaz, rebel sources said on Thursday.

TENSIONS WITH WASHINGTON

The co-leader of the YPG's political wing denied that the affiliated YPG perpetrated the Ankara bombing and said Turkey was using the attack to justify an escalation in fighting in northern Syria.

“We are completely refuting that. …Davutoglu is preparing for something else because they are shelling us as you know for the past week,” Saleh Muslim told Reuters by telephone.

Washington's support of the YPG – it views the group as a useful ally in the fight against Islamic State – has strained relations with Turkey. Both Erdogan and Davutoglu have called on the United States to cut ties with the insurgents.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Washington was not in a position to either confirm or deny Turkey's charge the YPG was behind the attack. He also called on Turkey to stop shelling the YPG.

Turkey has said its shelling of YPG positions is a response, within its rules of engagement, to hostile fire coming across the border into Turkey, something Saleh Muslim also denied.

“I can assure you not even one bullet is fired by the YPG into Turkey … They don't consider Turkey an enemy,” he said.

The co-leader of the PKK umbrella group, Cemil Bayik, was quoted by the Firat news agency as saying he did not know who was responsible for the Ankara bombing. But the attack, he said, could be an answer to “massacres in Kurdistan”, referring to the Kurdish region spanning parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Turkey has been battling PKK militants in its own southeast, where a 2-1/2 year ceasefire collapsed last July and pitched the region into its worst bloodshed since the 1990s. Six soldiers were killed and one wounded on Thursday when a remote-controlled handmade bomb hit their vehicle, the military said.

WARNING TO RUSSIA

Davutoglu named the suicide bomber as Salih Necar, born in 1992 and from the Hasakah region of northern Syria, and said he was a member of the YPG. 

A senior security official said the alleged bomber had entered Turkey from Syria in July 2014, although he may have crossed the border illegally multiple times before that, and said he had had contact with the PKK and Syrian intelligence.

Davutoglu also accused the Syrian government of a hand in the Ankara bombing and warned Russia, whose air strikes in northern Syria have helped the YPG to advance, against using the Kurdish militant group against Turkey.

“I'd like to warn Russia, which is giving air support to the YPG in its advance on Azaz, not to use this terrorist group against the innocent people of Syria and Turkey,” he said. 

“Russia condemned yesterday's attack, but it is not enough. All those who intend to use terrorist organizations as proxies should know that this game of terror will turn around like a boomerang and hit them first.” 

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told a teleconference with reporters that the Kremlin condemned the bombing “in the strongest possible terms.”

Kerry believes 2016 will see Islamic State ‘seriously dented’


Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday he believed Islamic State's military capabilities in Iraq and Syria would be seriously weakened by the end of 2016.

Asked at a media roundtable on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, whether this year would see the end of Islamic State, Kerry replied, referring to the militant group by an Arabic acronym:

“I think that by the end of 2016, our goal of very seriously denting Daesh …will be achieved. I think we are on track.”

Kerry said Islamic State has already lost 20-30 percent of its territory in Iraq and Syria combined and about 40 percent in Iraq.

The jihadist group lost control of the western Iraqi city of Ramadi last month, in a sorely needed victory for U.S.-backed Iraqi forces.

But critics, including some in the U.S. Congress, say the U.S. strategy is still far too weak and lacks sufficient military support from Sunni Arab allies, while Islamic State has also established a foothold in other countries in the region, notably Libya and Yemen.

Kerry said the coalition had upped its engagement significantly, noting that defense chiefs from the United States, France, Britain and four other countries had pledged to intensify the fight.

Kerry said he planned to meet on Feb. 2 with foreign ministers from 24 of the nations that were the most active in the anti-Islamic State coalition to get additional commitments.

Israel cracks down on Islamic State volunteers


Ayoob Kara, a deputy Israeli cabinet minister, used to double as an unofficial intermediary with the few of his fellow Arab citizens who have left to join Islamic State insurgents in Syria or Iraq.

Negotiating discreetly through relatives and go-betweens, he would offer them reduced jail terms if they returned to Israel, cooperated with security services and helped deter other would-be Islamic State recruits by publicly disavowing the group.

A half-dozen volunteers took the deal, Kara says. 

But with the number of Islamic State sympathizers in Israel growing from its initial trickle, and some accused of trying to set up armed cells within the country's 18-percent Muslim minority, the deputy minister no longer sounds so accommodating.

“I used to work hard to dissuade people from joining ISIS, but now I say that there's no point,” he told Reuters in an interview, using an acronym for the insurgents. 

“If, by this point, when the dangers are abundantly clear to everyone, they still want to go, then they are beyond saving and it's a one-way ticket for them. It's literally a dead end.”

Kara, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was expressing a hardening of government policy against Islamic State, which, though preoccupied with battling Syrian and Iraqi regime forces, has recently inveighed against Israel.

“Jews, soon you shall hear from us in Palestine, which will become your grave,” promised a Dec. 26 voice recording on social media attributed to Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 

In October, two video clips surfaced in which Islamic State gunmen threatened to strike Israel. They spoke in near-fluent, Arabic-accented Hebrew, suggesting they were among the several dozen Israeli Arabs who the Shin Bet domestic intelligence service estimates have joined the group abroad.

Israel sees a major cross-border attack on it by Islamic State as unlikely. But it is less sanguine about support for the group inside Israel, which is already beset by Palestinian street violence that has surged in the last three months, stoked in part by strife over a contested Jerusalem mosque complex. 

“It (Islamic State influence) is beginning to spread here as well,” Intelligence Ministry director-general Ram Ben-Barak told Israel's Army Radio on Sunday. “The ISIS scenario we worry about is ISIS cells arising in Israel to carry out terrorist attacks.”

Among Israel's Muslim minority, pro-Palestinian sympathies are common but political violence rare.

PARAGLIDER, EX-ARMY DEFECTOR AMONG RECRUITS

Still, a series of spectacular incidents involving Israelis and Islamic State has unsettled the Shin Bet. 

One Arab citizen who had volunteered to serve in Israel's army later defected to the insurgents' ranks in Syria, it emerged this month – a blow for a military that regards itself as a sectarian melting pot in the Jewish-majority country.

Separately, an Israeli Arab used a paraglider to fly into Syria in what the Shin Bet said was a bid to join Islamic State, and three others were arrested on suspicion of trying to set up an armed cell to carry out attacks in Israel on orders from two Israeli Arabs who are already with Islamic State in Iraq.

The paraglider incident prompted Netanyahu to order the revocation of Islamic State volunteers' Israeli citizenship. Such a move, if it passes higher court review, would effectively shut the door on their return, a step that also has been a controversial topic of debate in European nations whose citizens have been fighting for Islamic State.

It marks a policy shift for Israel, which last year repatriated Marhan Khaldi, an Arab citizen wounded while fighting for Islamic State in Iraq and who made his way back to Turkey, where Israeli diplomats replaced the passport he had discarded en route to the war zone.

Israel jailed Khaldi for 42 months, a sentence comparable to previous cases of citizens who joined Islamic State abroad. 

Prosecutors had sought an 8- to 12-year prison term for Khaldi and appealed to the Supreme Court to harshen his punishment, saying in a statement that due the risk posed by Islamic State “the time is ripe to get tough on such offences”. The Supreme Court's ruling on the appeal could take months.

Khaldi's lawyer, Hussein Abu Hussein, said Israeli judges lacked court precedents on which to base sweeping new sentences due to the fact that the country outlawed Islamic State only in September 2014 – a delay he attributed to the Netanyahu government's reluctance to take sides in Syria's civil war. 

Israeli legislation introduced in December 2014 that would raise the maximum jail sentence for joining foreign groups like Islamic State to five years is still under parliamentary review.

“It has taken time for the monstrousness of ISIS to dawn, so while Israel is seeking greater penalties for joining it, this had been taking time too,” said Abu Hussein, who also heads the Israeli Arab civil rights group Adalah. 

Abu Hussein said the Shin Bet appeared to be refocusing its anti-Islamic State efforts on social media activity by Arab citizens that might flag up nascent sympathizers for arrest.

According to Kara, the value to Israeli intelligence of Arab citizens who came back from Islamic State's fiefdoms had waned – meaning any returnees had less to bargain with for clemency.

“There was a time when someone would come back and provide useful information on their camps and recruitment, et cetera,” Kara said. “But that's in the past now. The whole world is fighting Islamic State and everything is pretty much known.”

Islamic State says ‘Schweppes bomb’ used to bring down Russian plane


Islamic State's official magazine carried a photo on Wednesday of a Schweppes drink it said was used to make an improvised bomb that brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula last month, killing all 224 people on board.

The photo showed a can of Schweppes Gold soft drink and what appeared to be a detonator and switch on a blue background, three simple components that if genuine are likely to cause concern for airline safety officials worldwide.

“The divided Crusaders of the East and West thought themselves safe in their jets as they cowardly bombarded the Muslims of the Caliphate,” the English language Dabiq magazine said in reference to Russia and the West. “And so revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe in the cockpits.”

Western governments have said the plane was likely brought down by a bomb and Moscow confirmed on Tuesday it had reached the same conclusion, but the Egyptian government says it has still not found evidence of criminal action.

Islamic State also published a photo of what it said were passports belonging to dead Russians “obtained by the mujahideen”. It was not immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the published photos.

The group, which has seized large swathes of Syria and Iraq, said it had exploited a loophole at Sharm al-Sheikh airport, where the plane originated, in order to smuggle a bomb on board.

The airport is widely used by budget and charter airlines to fly tourists to the nearby resorts on the Sinai coast.

Islamic State said it had initially planned to bring down a plane belonging to a country participating in the U.S.-led coalition bombing it in Syria and Iraq, but it changed course after Moscow started its own air strikes campaign in Syria.

“A bomb was smuggled onto the airplane, leading to the deaths of 219 Russians and five other crusaders only a month after Russia’s thoughtless decision,” it said.

Egypt's interior minister told a news conference in Sharm al-Sheikh on Tuesday that there was “no information” about security lapses at the airport.

Islamic State's Egyptian branch, Sinai Province, claimed responsibility for the attack the day it happened but Egyptian officials were quick to dismiss talk of a bomb as premature.

NO SAFETY IN MUSLIM LANDS

Egypt is battling an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai, a strategic peninsula bordering Israel, Gaza and the Suez Canal. But Islamic State said the airline attack was primarily planned as a response to Russian and Western air strikes.

“This was to show the Russians and whoever allies with them that they will have no safety in the lands and airspace of the Muslims,” the group wrote. “That their daily killing of dozens in (Syria) through their air strikes will only bring them calamities.”

Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, launched air strikes against opposition groups in Syria including Islamic State, on Sept. 30.

Since the attacks on Paris, both Russia and France have stepped up the tempo of air strikes.

The downed aircraft, an Airbus A321 operated by Metrojet, had been carrying Russian holidaymakers from the Egyptian resort to St Petersburg when it broke up over Sinai.

On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to hunt down those responsible for blowing up the plane and offered a $50 million reward for information leading to those responsible.

“We will find them anywhere on the planet and punish them,” Putin said of the plane bombers at a somber Kremlin meeting.

Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia's FSB security service, said traces of foreign-made explosive had been found on fragments of the downed plane and on passengers' personal belongings. He said the bomb probably contained around 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of TNT.

Egypt has not officially given a reason as to why the plane was brought down, calling on all sides to await the official results of an investigation carried out by an Egyptian-led team.

The government said it would “take into consideration” Russia's findings but that it was yet to find any evidence of criminal action bringing down the plane.

Uncertainty grips Middle Eastern markets


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

The impact of the Middle East’s ongoing woes on the region’s tourism businesses has been well documented. The industry’s standing has been tarnished not just by continuing conflicts, but also by repeated terrorist attacks against foreign tourists in a number of countries in the region. What has been less discussed is the downturn in the Middle East’s industry, business, and inter-regional commerce.

Syria, the focal point for much of the violence in the region, was described by the World Bank as a “lower middle income country,” with agriculture and petroleum exports making up the bulk of its trade in 2010. Five years later, its economy has been characterized as anywhere between collapsed and as a ‘war economy’. But the country is hardly the only state whose financial position is hugely affected by the sectarian conflict raging in, and across, its borders.

In a research paper for the World Bank published last year, Elena Ianchovichina and Maros Ivanic described how the impact of the war has been felt chiefly by Syria and by Iraq. With stretches of its western provinces captured by the Islamic State, including areas of oil production, it is hardly surprising that Iraq has suffered large scale economic regression. Ianchovichina and Ivanic also discussed a second tier of affected countries — Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — neighboring Syria and Iraq, who have taken in the bulk of the war’s refugees.

Despite the scale and the length of the conflict the economic repercussions onto global markets have not been large, Jason Tuvey, a Middle East economist at Capital Economics Research Company, told The Media Line. Syria’s economic output was far more relevant to its direct neighbors, Lebanon and Jordan, than to global markets, Tuvey said.

As well as a loss of trade both countries have borne the brunt of Syria’s refugee exodus. Lebanon has taken in so many Syrians that refugees are now 25% of the population and in Jordan the Zaatari refugee camp is so crowded as to constitute the country’s fourth largest city, the economist explained.

Turkey too has taken in large numbers of refugees but is more financially stable than the two smaller host nations.

Whether or not Syria’s reduction in trade has adversely affected the broader Middle East the war is still hampering the region’s economy due to the uncertainty it produces, Colin Foreman, news editor at MEED Middle East Business Intelligence, told The Media Line. Similar to the early years of the Arab Spring – the pro-democracy protests that took place throughout the Middle East in 2011 – the Syrian war creates uncertainty in Middle Eastern markets, Foreman said.

The difference is that in 2011 petroleum prices were stable, so uncertainty actually benefited exporting nations, whereas now the cost of a barrel of oil is low and so the market is more adversely affected, the editor explained.

Conflict in Syria is not the only cause of this situation as political turmoil in Egypt and war in Yemen also add to the uncertainty, Foreman said.

Escalating the uncertainty yet further is the Islamic State (ISIS). “The situation in Syria has deteriorated particularly since mid-2014 with ISIS taking a foothold,” Foreman argued. This has led to the refugee crisis and to a significant downturn in the value of the Iraqi oil industry, the editor suggested.

Tuvey was not as sure that the impact of the Islamic State was felt strongly on Iraqi oil exports. “In Iraq most of its oil fields are in the south away from ISIS – Iraq has actually been increasing its oil production over the last year or so,” he explained.

He went onto suggest the current price of petroleum may be limiting the damage ISIS can cause to global markets.

“It has not had an enormous impact because we’re now in an era when we have a huge glut of oil – ten years ago it might have been more concerning,” he said.

‘They’ll think we are the enemy’: refugees in Germany fear backlash


Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Germany fear that the attacks in Paris could further shift public opinion against the Berlin government's welcoming asylum policy.

About a dozen men, smoking heavily, discussed the deadliest attacks in Europe since 2004 outside Berlin's Tempelhof airport, an imposing structure built by Hitler to showcase Nazi power and now functioning as a shelter for asylum-seekers.

The backdrop to their conversation on Monday was a chorus of demands by right-wing European politicians to halt the flow of migrants into Europe, which some see as providing ideal cover for Islamic State to smuggle in militants — even if there is as yet no proof. 

Nabil, 27, a Syrian from Islamic State's self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, finds it hard to believe a Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the Paris gunmen. He believes this was a conspiracy, a common thought in the Arab world.

“And France is known for having extremists. I worry about public opinion,” he added, tucking his hands into the pockets of his red jacket on a cold evening, as two children aged no more than six walked past in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops.

Nizar Basal, a Syrian from a town near Hama, was surprisingly frank.

“There are of course ticking bombs coming in with the refugees,” said the 49-year-old, who worked as a private teacher of computer science in Abu Dhabi before coming to Germany last month.

“But the question is, what will happen to us? What will people think about us? They will think we are the enemy.”

The German government said after the attacks, in which at least 129 people were killed on Friday night, that its security agencies had intensified monitoring of radical right-wing activists, fearing a backlash against refugees.

German media also reported that the government wants to tighten security at refugee shelters. German police have detained an Algerian man at one shelter in connection with the Paris attacks, officials said on Monday. 

There have been more than 690 arson and other attacks on refugee centres so far this year, as Germany expects up to one million asylum seekers. The influx has increased pressure on the government to reverse some of its welcoming policies and strained German Chancellor Angel Merkel's coalition. 

Mohammad, 31, who worked in a sweet shop in Syria before the war there, fears a hardening of German public opinion.

“We fled death, we don't want anyone to die. This is a problem that will affect the refugees,” he said.

Falah, 48, who owned a watch shop in Baghdad before fleeing to Turkey, put things into perspective.

“There is a suicide bombing every 15 minutes in Iraq,” he said. He then pointed to a picture of Merkel on his mobile phone and said: “She is our hope.”

Basal, the teacher, said he would have attended a weekend vigil in Berlin for the Paris attack victims if he had heard about it in advance. 

“We don't have much time to think about it. There are no showers here, we haven't had a shower for two weeks.”

Everyone’s talking ISIS at the UN, leaving Netanyahu glaring


All anyone attending the United Nations General Assembly opening seemed to want to talk about was the threat posed to the world by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

That was much to the consternation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who argued in his speech before that body on Thursday that Iran, beyond the benefits accrued to it because of the sanctions relief for nuclear restrictions deal, was benefiting from the intensified focus on ISIS.

“When your enemies fight each other, don’t strengthen either one, weaken both!” he said.

In one of the most dramatic moments of the week of speeches, Netanyahu charged the assembled world leaders with silence in the wake of Iranian provocations, including calls for Israel’s disappearance, before and after it reached the deal in July with six major powers.

He held up what he said was a 400-page tome by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which anticipated Israel’s demise.

“The response from this body, the response from every one of the governments represented here, has been absolute silence, utter silence, deafening silence,” the Israeli leader said.

Netanyahu then glared, silent, his eyes moving back and forth across the chamber, for 44 seconds.

He was not precisely correct in suggesting that no other leader had called out Iran. President Barack Obama, speaking Monday, focused on Iran’s perpetuation of mischief even in the wake of the deal.

Iran “continues to deploy violent proxies to advance its interests,” Obama said. “These efforts may appear to give Iran leverage in disputes with neighbors, but they fuel sectarian conflict that endangers the entire region, and isolates Iran from the promise of trade and commerce.”

Obama called on Iran to choose a “different path.”

“Chanting ‘Death to America’ does not create jobs or make Iran more secure,” he said. “If Iran chose a different path, that would be good for the security of the region, good for the Iranian people and good for the world.”

Still, Netanyahu had reason to be concerned that the Obama administration was preparing to pivot toward a gentler accommodation of Iranian ambitions in the region, precisely because of shared interests in confronting the Sunni extremist ISIS.

Prior to the formal opening of the General Assembly, Secretary of State John Kerry met in New York with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, for the first time since the July deal was announced – and made clear that the U.S. had more to discuss with Iran than just nuclear compliance.

“We have a lot of issues to talk about,” Kerry said on his way into the meeting. “I view this week as a major opportunity for any number of countries to play an important role in trying to resolve some of the very difficult issues of the Middle East. We need to achieve peace and a way forward in Syria, in Yemen, in the region itself.”

The success of ISIS, and the wave of Europe-bound refugees it has created, preoccupied many of the speakers, chief among them Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who sparred over best practice: Targeting ISIS while seeking the ouster of the the Iran-backed Bashar Assad regime in Syria, as Obama counseled, or embracing Assad as a useful partner in defeating ISIS, as Putin advised.

“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict,” Obama said.

“But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo,” he said in his General Assembly address. “Let’s remember how this started: Assad reacted to peaceful protests by escalating repression and killing that, in turn, created the environment for the current strife.”

Putin, speaking soon thereafter, likened Obama’s insistence on Assad’s ouster to his Soviet predecessors’ notorious interference in smaller states.

“We should all remember what our past has taught us,” Putin said. “’Social experiments’ for export, attempts to push for changes within other countries based on ideological preferences, often led to tragic consequences and to degradation rather than progress.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, speaking Tuesday, also dedicated much of his speech to the threat that he said ISIS posed.

“The gravest and most important threat to the world today is for terrorist organizations to become terrorist states, for the destiny of nations to be determined by arms and terror rather than the ballot box,” he said. “No country should be allowed to use terrorism for the purpose of intervention in the affairs of another country.”

As if anticipating Netanyahu’s direst warnings, Rouhani welcomed the nuclear deal as an entree into the international community while continuing Iran’s tradition of lobbing anti-Israel rhetorical bombs at the United Nations.

“The agreed-upon deal is not the final objective but a development which should be the basis of further agreements to come,” he said.

Rouhani warned the assembled leaders “not to allow the Zionist regime to remain the only impediment in the way of realizing this important precedent.”

Having failed to stop the nuclear deal, Netanyahu appeared to realize that his best bet is to encourage its close supervision. He made clear that keeping a close eye on Iran would be high on his agenda when he meets with Obama at the White House on Nov. 9.

“Israel deeply appreciates President Obama’s willingness to bolster our security, help Israel maintain its qualitative military edge and help Israel confront the enormous challenges we face,” he said. “Israel is grateful that this sentiment is widely shared by the American people and its representatives in Congress, by both those who supported the deal and by those who opposed it.”

Canadian-Israeli woman returns from fighting ISIS in Syria, Iraq


This article first appeared on

Kerry visits Riyadh to soothe fears of stronger Iran under nuclear deal


Secretary of State John Kerry flies to Riyadh this week to try to reassure King Salman that any nuclear deal with Iran will be in Saudi interests, despite the kingdom's fears that it may boost Tehran's backing for Shi'ite Muslim groups in the region.

Convincing Saudi Arabia to accept any agreed nuclear deal is important to President Barack Obama because he needs Riyadh to work closely with Washington on a host of regional policies and to maintain its role as a moderating influence in oil markets.

While the main critics of the U.S. push for a nuclear deal with Iran are Israel and Congressional Republicans, Sunni Muslim powerhouse Saudi Arabia is also concerned that an accord would allow Iran to devote more cash and energy to Shi'ite proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, escalating conflicts.

“The Saudis fear Obama will give the Iranians a deal whatever the cost because it is important for his legacy and that Iran will get a certain regional status in exchange for an agreement,” said one diplomat in the Gulf.

Kerry met Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Montreux, Switzerland, on Monday and Tuesday and the two are expected to sit down again on Wednesday as they try to meet a late March deadline to achieve a framework nuclear agreement.

Kerry then flies to Saudi Arabia, where on Thursday he meets the new king, deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef and foreign ministers of the six Gulf Cooperation Council nations: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The main purpose is to brief them on the state of the Iran talks and to make the case that a diplomatic solution to the long-festering crisis over Iran's atomic programme will make them more secure rather than less.

Saudi Arabia's anxiety about an agreement has fuelled a flurry of diplomacy in recent days to bolster unity among Sunni states in the Middle East in the face of shared threats including Iran, analysts say.

Washington shares Arab concerns about Iran's role, particularly in Syria and Yemen and through its ties to Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, a senior U.S. official said, on condition of anonymity, but added that there was a “very substantial” U.S. military commitment to Gulf allies.

“What we need to do is have the appropriate strategies to counter any provocative and destabilising behaviour … It's going to depend on what can we do effectively in places like Syria and Yemen,” he said.

A second senior U.S. official told reporters a nuclear deal would not necessarily lead to a closer U.S.-Iran relationship and less influence for Sunni Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, nor would it diminish U.S. efforts to counter Iranian influence.

“You can't read into the nuclear negotiation any kind of determination of where the U.S. relationship with Iran may go in the future,” he said. “Regardless of what happens with the nuclear file, we will continue to confront aggressively Iranian expansion in the region, Iranian aggressiveness in the region.”

ANXIOUS

However, U.S. officials are unwilling to outline what strategies might curb Iran's regional influence, and the U.S. record in Iraq, Syria and Yemen – where armed Iranian allies have since flourished – has caused Saudi Arabia great anxiety.

The country's trust in Washington during the Iran talks is also still recovering from the sudden move in late 2013 towards a nuclear deal, when Saudi officials were blindsided by the revelation of months of secret talks between the U.S. and Iran.

“They are very, very nervous about the way we are moving forward,” said a Western diplomat who tracks the issue closely. The diplomat said Riyadh feared a “lose-lose situation” in which Iran either gained an atomic weapon or was freed from sanctions.

Riyadh has long been worried about Iran gaining nuclear weapons capability, something that once led the late King Abdullah to ask Washington to “cut off the head of the snake” by striking Iran, diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks showed.

But it now sees Iran's involvement in Arab countries, particularly its backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, its support for Iraqi Shi'ite militias and its ties to the Houthi group that has seized control in northern Yemen, as a more urgent problem.

A senior State Department official told Reuters: “Secretary Kerry will make clear we understand the concerns they have about the region's security, concerns that we also share.”

Meanwhile, King Salman is working to forge a united front among Sunni states against what Riyadh sees as the dual threat from Iran and Islamic State militants, analysts say.

Over the past week Salman has met the leaders of all Saudi Arabia's Gulf Arab neighbours, the king of Jordan and the presidents of Egypt and Turkey, the two most populous and militarily powerful Sunni states in the region.

“The understanding is that we will face a more aggressive Iran if they sign an agreement. All the restrictions on it will be lifted and it will be much stronger. This is an issue that needs some sort of unity,” said Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security analyst with ties to the Saudi Interior Ministry.

New Defense Secretary hosts U.S. gathering on Islamic State strategy


New U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter is gathering top U.S. military commanders and diplomats for talks in Kuwait on Monday about the battle against Islamic State, as America's military effort approaches major hurdles in both Iraq and Syria.

Carter says he hopes the roughly six hours of largely unscripted discussions will help assess the war that he is inheriting after swearing-in on Tuesday as President Barack Obama'sfourth defense secretary.

“I'm trying to assess the situation in Iraq, Syria and the region more generally,” Carter told reporters during his first trip abroad as defense secretary.

Carter's meeting at a U.S. Army camp in Kuwait comes against the backdrop of a fierce debate inside the United States about the U.S. strategy, which Obama's Republican critics say is far too limited militarily to succeed.

It also comes at a moment of increasing concern about the group's spread, with Libyaemerging as a battleground for militants loyal to Islamic State.

Among the long list of participants are General Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. forces in the Middle East, retired General John Allen, Obama's envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition and U.S. ambassadors to countries including Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Still, a senior U.S. defense official traveling with Carter stressed the gathering was a learning tool — not a sign of his concern about the strategy or a prelude to an overhaul.

“I am not expecting a major re-write of our strategy. I'm just not. He just wants to understand it and he's the kind of guy where he needs to … dig into it,” the official said, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity.

The United States is now restricting the role of ground troops in Iraq to advising and training local forces, focusing American firepower on a U.S.-led coalition air campaign against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.

But Carter could soon be asked to make a recommendation about whether to send American forces closer to the fight, possibly as spotters for air strikes during an offensive to retake the city of Mosul that could begin in April or May.

“I'm always open to advice from our military commanders about what the best way to achieve success is,” Carter said. “That is a question that will come down the road.”

The Pentagon is also preparing to start training Syrian rebels next month at sites outside of Syria.

Chaos is my Heaven: Q-and-A with Itai Anghel


Rob Eshman: What year did you first meet Commander Media, the leader of the female militia you film in your documentary.

Itai Anglel: 2010.  She was already a commander. So when I saw her now, it was very good, you know. It meant for her, you know, that, “Okay, it’s fine. He can join us. “

Rob: And you just crossed into Syria?

Anghel:  I’ve been to Iraq four times and I’ve been to Syria two times. I have an American passport. I was born in the United States, but I never lived actually in the States because my parents have been studying in Columbia University in New York for six years.

Rob: But it still must give you an extra level of, I don’t know, caution or fear thinking what people would do to you in these places if they found out you were Israeli somehow.

Itai: Yeah. Of course. I deal with it a lot. I actually, you know, do some sort of techniques in order to make my way through all these very tense places. The way I see it is like that, I mean, if I will attract attention, then it is the beginning of the end. The thing is try not to attract attention. I mean, I try not to be interesting. I’m working on not being interesting when I’m working in journalism.

If I try to summarize it in one sentence, you know, whenever you feel anxious, whenever you look scared — and I’m scared, I’m scared to death — but whenever you look scared, then all the attention is on you, all eyes on you because you look like someone who has done something bad. You look like you’re guilty of something.

[MORE: The brave Israeli interviewing ISIS fighters in Syria]

When you hang around in places where there are a lot of conspiracies among other people going on, so when they see someone look at his face, immediately, “Okay, who’s this guy? Why does he look like that?” So although I feel very scared of this outside I got to a point where, you know, when I got from the border of Pakistan to Afghanistan, it was exactly on the day that America began bombarding there and there was a lot of hostility in this specific place that I had to go through. They were chanting, “Death to Israel. Death to America!” and I would put my camera and there were like hundred men. And they burned the flag of Israel and they burned the flag of the United States. 

So you know, the instinct is just to run away, but actually it’s not the place to run away. Running away was something that attracts attention. So I do exactly the other thing. I try to look at them, respond to, you know, even the problematic people around them. For example, one burned the Israel’s flag and they go straight to me. “Hello, who are you?” “I can speak some Arabic, I can speak English, I can speak whatever language you speak.”  

He was smoking a cigarette, so I asked for a cigarette. I do not even smoke, by the way, but you know the circumstance. And I think in every moment — not in every moment — in every second back there I’m engaging myself in what they are thinking about me and how they see me. And when I ask him for a cigarette, I mean, obviously he doesn’t know me, but he has an idea of, “Oh, this guy looks cool. He probably used to come in here, probably know people in here.” And this is how I make my way. And I realized, I mean, the flag of my country is melting in front of me, so what I feel in my stomach is one thing, and the outrage is one thing, but on the outside I stepped on this flag, this part of this flag that is being melted as it had nothing with me.

And I talked to him and I give him the impression like, “Oh, great that you’re here. I’ve been looking for you. What are you doing right now?” and then, you know, it’s sort of a dance  between us begins. This is actually the beginning for everything that I’ve done anywhere. I’ve been to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Gaza, whatever. This is the way I’ve been around, absolutely in contrast to what you would accept, contrary to what I would do, you know, normally. Now the situation is not normal, so you have to think out of the box. It’s what I’ve been doing in the past 20 years.

Rob: The fact that you have an American passport in a lot of these places doesn’t really protect you either. It’s not like America is that popular.

Itai: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the American passport enables me to put a step on the map, like when the Americans invaded Iraq, so with the American passport I could go inside. While inside it doesn’t have to do with nationality and it doesn’t have to do with your religion. It has to do with you being a human being. The way you manage to handle yourself socially. Normally, they don’t even ask you where you’re from. Really.  And if they ask, I tell them that I’m an American.  In Fallujah, for example, where they’re fighting against the Americans. I was there by the way, when the Iraqi sniper [Mustapha,made infamous in the American Sniper movie], you know, shot Marines.

Rob: From 'American Sniper.'

Itai: I tell [the Iraqis] that I’m an American. And they say, “Hey, hey, American is not good.” But I tell them in Arabic, “I’m an American, but I’m not a soldier. I’m not from the Army, I’m a journalist.” And when I speak in Arabic, believe me, they’re amazed, because it’s not that they saw during the 10 years that the Americans have been there someone speaking Arabic, without a professional translator.

So immediately the next question is, “How come you know Arabic?” And I told them that I studied, and then, immediately the next question that I know will be asked is, “Why do you study Arabic?” because they never saw an American make an effort to speak Arabic. And I told him, “Because I want to speak with you, I want to talk to you.”

And then something happened, you know. “Okay.” They see me. I’m alone usually. I’m also the cameraman and the soundman … I do everything by myself. So I’m not intimidating. I will never be intimidating.  

Rob: But [ISIS] seems to especially hate journalists, right?

Itai: Yeah. This is in the specific territory of ISIS. I’ve been with the Kurdish guerrilla while I was taping them and knowing, without any doubts, that if I was caught within ISIS territory, I’m dead. So I went with a Kurdish fighter. I was in the front line but still with the Kurds. Had something happened to the Kurds, some sort of attack by ISIS and they would’ve managed to capture me. I mean, I didn’t even try to fool myself. I know what might’ve happened. But I trusted this guy.

Rob: Did the Kurds know that you were Israeli or Jewish?

Itai: I had, in this specific place, two people that they knew who I am. They knew the truth of me being Israeli, and because of my visit in 2010 and some Kurdish friends.

After the massacre in Sinjar, which was the biggest massacre that ISIS committed against the Iraqi Kurds, I talked to a friend and I felt like I really needed to go again and tell the story again. I tried to verify whether there is a possibility for me to hang around there. And a friend told me, “Yeah, why not?” I mean, it’s okay. I was not sure whether I really needed it, but slowly but surely I knew a conflict was built. It was two people, a man and a woman, and one of them from Syria and one of them from they were very interested in  an Israeli coming there, but they knew who I am, because of my previous work. So they said okay, and they told me that I can absolutely trust them. So I trusted them. It proved to me the right assessment. And then, you know, I got in.

Rob: And these were Kurds? The people you trusted they were Kurds?

Itai: Obviously, yeah. Absolutely. So among them … they told me, “Listen, don’t share too much that you’re an Israeli because we know there are also, within the Kurdish area, a lot of Sunni Muslims that would’ve liked ISIS to capture the place. So if there is a rumor that is spread about an Israeli in here, it would be a problem.” 

But little by little more people realized who I am. It was good, because normally I hide my identity and I occupy myself 24 hours a day, every minute and every second with what they think about me and how do a look. And it’s difficult because I’m a very honest man, but you have to live this part of lying and never tell the whole truth of who you are. I mean, I am an American with an American passport, but it’s not the whole story. You meet people, and you make friends, but you cannot tell them who you are. Even if I absolutely trust them, I cannot.

Rob: Right.

Itai: And  this specific trip was amazing. It was a great relief because they knew who I am. They knew who I am. I didn’t have to engage myself in pretending.

Rob: So, say, like the female commander Media, she knew you were Israeli?

Itai: Yeah. Definitely.  And then we kept another segment of this commander when she’s saying something specific about it because she knew that I’m an Israeli. She said, “The other people who suffer, the only people who suffer, the only community who suffer more than the Kurds, are the Jewish people. So we would’ve expected you, more than any other nation, to sympathize and to be our allies.” And we share the same enemies, by the way. And you, out of this genocide, managed to fight back to win, to have a state, an important state in the world. And this is the model we are looking for because this is our war for independence.” I was amazed.

Rob: Why did you cut that out of the documentary?

Itai: I don’t know. Instead of putting it inside the documentary, we decided, you know, when we go to the studio—because everybody was watching it live—and then you go to the studio and everybody is in love with this commander. “So now this is what this commander has to say about us.” And then we brought it up, so everybody saw it. 

Rob: I see.

Itai: She referred mainly to the fact that Israel provided a lot of weapons to Turkey and a lot of drones to Turkey and these drones are used in order to shoot and kill people like her.

Even when I was there four and a half years ago, 2010, and I hung around where they take refuge  and hide, there were drones, you know, even there. And they were Israeli drones!

Rob: Crazy.

Itai: They were operated by Israelis. Even in the toughest times of the relationship between Turkey and Israel, you still have the kid in Ashdod with joysticks between the Israeli army and the Turkish army.

Rob: So you could’ve been killed by an Israeli drone.

Itai: Yeah, exactly! That went through my head, you know. “If I’m killed now, it would be done by an Israeli weapon driven by Israeli people.”

Rob: It could be your cousin.

Itai: So, yeah, so this is, you know, she was referring to that.

Rob: And do you know if Israel is now helping the Kurds in the ISIS territory at all?

Itai: I don’t know too much about the [government], but after this documentary we made a lot of difference. So I mean, everybody was in love with the Kurds and everybody supported the Kurds…

Kurds have been enemies of Syria, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, our same enemies, and they share values like democracy and human rights. And then they see the Commander Media and then they see the respect for Israel — so everybody is absolutely in love with them. And everybody is very much enraged when they realize what we’ve done when they heard the commander. There was a lot of reaction right now.

Rob: How long total were you inside doing this documentary? How long were you inside Iraq and Syria doing the documentary?

Itai: Two weeks.

Rob: Two weeks.

Itai: More or less one week in Iraq, one in Syria.

Rob: Did you go in thinking it was going to be focused so much on this woman, or is that something you discovered when you got there?

Itai: No, I knew about [Media]. I wanted to make all the efforts to meet the woman. Obviously I didn’t know that I would be able to meet her. It was by chance. They told me, “Listen, there is a city of Mahmour that was held by ISIS and is liberated. We’re going in and we’re going to see the commander.” 

And the commander I realized she is a woman, and Media. And I told the interpreter, “Why didn’t you tell me that the commander is a woman?” And they looked at me as if, you know, something is wrong with me, because they don’t differentiate. In Hebrew you say, Mefaked or Mefakedet (Male or Female Commander).

Rob: Right.

Itai: In Kurdish there is one word for male or female. So I was surprised. This is amazing! Nowhere else in the world.  

Rob: You interviewed a man who said the woman are actually better fighters than men.

Itai: You know, in terms of feminism, it’s not that male fighters are their enemy. This is not like it happens with Western feminism. No, no, absolutely it’s like brothers and sisters are fighting together, trusting each other. It’s amazing.  So I knew about all of the women because I saw them fighting two and a half years ago. I was very, very happy to meet the commander.

Rob: America and Israel have women in their armies, but these are really hardcore combat troops. I mean, they’re—

Itai: They are absolutely frontline. In Israel, you know, the idea to say that a women have liberty to make something big of themselves in the army, which is — I hate to say it — it’s bullshit. Everybody knows it’s bullshit …

ISIS is a very serious, complicated mission for the Kurdish guerrilla. It’s not that you’re looking for the most macho male. No. Sometimes it is the women who are doing all the jobs. And Mahmour was liberated only by women. They left more than 300 bodies of ISIS behind, and ISIS ran away, even from the neighboring region. And what is amazing is that women happen to frighten the [ISIS] men because, according to their perception, the theological perception of ISIS, if you get t killed in a combat, what is called “jihad”, you go to heaven.

Rob: Right, right.

Itai: But if a woman kills him, because a woman is not exactly a human being according to their perception of Islam, so you will not go to heaven. And therefore the ISIS panic by the presence of women. So if they engage in a battle they will try to kill the women first, and they’re thinking would be, as an ISIS fighter, “I have to kill the women, because if later on I would be killed by a man it’s okay because I would be in heaven. If a woman would kill me, then this is really the end. So, you know, I will try to make the effort to kill the women.” The women know that the ISIS fighters are getting panicked when they are out, so they signal them that they are there. We call it in Hebrew, if you’re like at an Oriental wedding, we call it hululu.

Rob: The war cry.

Itai: Yeah. So this is what the Kurdish women are doing. I think it’s a very, very crazy situation that these women make this scream you know only from—

Rob: Weddings, right.

Itai: —Parties. It was so crazy. And at night, when we were sitting by the fire one km from the ISIS lines.  And I told them that I was Israeli and that these voices, you know, we call it hululu. We shout it at wedding and parties. They were laughing because they told me, “Listen, it’s not hululu, it’s pilili. That’s the way they call it. And it’s not so fun. It’s like a—

Rob: —War cry.

Itai: Yeah. Exactly.  Even in the funerals — unfortunately you have a lot of funerals of male and female fighters there. It’s very emotional.

Rob: That was part of the documentary.

Itai: Yeah. You hear in the megaphone they make this pilili, because that’s a cry to show ISIS, “You can kill us, but we’re not backing off. We will put up a fight.”  

Rob: The other really powerful part of the documentary is the interrogation of the ISIS fighters. 

Itai: They were prisoners. And to me is very emotional because, you know, I knew, not as a friend, but I saw him as a filmmaker three times, James Foley. James Foley was the first one to be beheaded by them.

Rob: Right.

Itai: And when he entered Syria it was November 2012. He entered from Turkey to Syria, and this is exactly what I’ve done in November 2012, four or five days after he did it. Me and my colleague found out what is the distance between the route he had taken and mine: About a kilometer and half. So back then we realized it was very lucky. 

But when we came in — because I saw him, you know, like three times and it was only, “Hey, take care. How are you? Take care.” We were not trying to mingle or to make friends in those places, because you know, I’m an Israeli and I want the least number of  people to know about it.

Rob: Right.

Itai: My friend told me that he was a great guy and you could trust him.. So I tell him of this specific situation in our country. And then, you know, you hear that he has gone.  When they [the prisoners] came in, you know, immediately I thought about him. What they might have done with him or not. 

And then they’re talking so openly about how they beheaded, and how killed, how they just decided to tell, which was completely crazy, completely crazy, but I have to tell you it was also very, very, very interesting. I mean, besides the initial shock of mine, it was so interesting. 

And I was given 20 minutes to talk to them, because even the process of getting this interview was, it was very abrupt. So we did the interview, and asked all the possible questions. And I can speak Arabic, but my Arabic is okay enough to get by. It’s not perfect, as I cannot understand every word, especially Iraqi Arabic. 

Rob: What drugs did they take?

Itai: Hallucinogens. He was hallucinating. This is what he was saying. And one of them told that he remembers that he killed specifically three under drugs and he cannot tell how many women he raped. The one that was in Iraq told me that he doesn’t remember exactly if it’s 60, 70 or 80 people beheaded and killed.

Rob: But they almost said it with almost no emotion. Like nothing, just like kids talking about a book report or something? Was that shocking?

Itai: No, it was not shocking. You undergo under such a brainstorming. You do what God wants you to do.  And they use a knifewhich is not so sharp, in order to increase the suffering of the one you’re beheading, “This is exactly what prophet Mohamed would’ve done, would’ve like you to do,” which, you know, according to any other Muslim in the world is completely far from it. According to them this is it. So they are good and they are fine.

Rob: They didn’t seem to be that educated. They didn’t seem to be that learned or even that religious.

Itai: Most of the soldiers anyplace are exactly like that, if you think about it. Most, the great mass of soldiers are people like that. But never in the history of the Middle East  was such a conquest of territory in such a short period of time. They inflict terror among the population with a video clip. So all the people who are supposed to go out and fight them, watch it and run  away in order to not to be burned or not to be beheaded. And the Kurds are the only ones to fight, which is amazing,  the female and male fighters.

Rob: When I lived in Israel I knew some Jewish Kurds.

Itai: The Kurds are a nationality, and this is most important to more than 90 percent of the Kurds. But when you talk about religion, most of them by the way by origin are Muslim. But for them religion is not relevant. If they’re in guerilla, [religion] doesn’t even exist. 

So you have the majority are Sunni Muslim, you have some Shia Muslim, you have Yazidi, and you have almost 200,000 Jews now in Israel and maybe in Jerusalem. And by the way, the relationship between Jews and Kurds over the years was amazing. Look at even the US warfare in Iraq. You had like 4,500 Americans killed, not one in Kurdish territory. I mean, it’s something there within this darkness of region you have like a light.

Rob: Are they observant at all?  

Itai: No. I mean, they have mosques, you know, when you go to like big cities like Erbil. You hear them. But, you know, it’s not a factor. In the guerrilla army  it doesn’t exist at all. 

Rob: It’s all about the nationality.

Itai: It does exist, and you have also Christians by the way. And you have a very, very tiny minority who even go to ISIS. So you have some Muslim Kurds who are going to ISIS but then it’s a very tiny minority, but it exists.

Rob: When you told the ISIS prisoner  that you were Jewish or Israeli, it looks like he couldn’t even process it.  

Itai: Yeah.  Unlike what people think in Israel and the government, we are not like the first priority of ISIS.

Rob: Right.

Itai: They told me, “Listen, we never encountered anything like it.” And when I ask them they specifically said, “Yeah, Israel is a Muslim territory, so we have to fight and kill the Israelis.’ But this is something they would say about Sweden and China and whatever.

Rob: Did the two ISIS prisoners, the two of them did they think they were going to be killed or executed?

Itai: I don’t know. Good question. When they were brought to the room they were blindfolded. And I think by then they realized that the Kurds are not killing them, but they didn’t know what they are coming to. And when my translator told them, “Listen, we’re journalists and I’m the translator.” “Okay, okay.”  They realized that the Kurds are not killing them, not executing them.

Rob: So the Kurds really do just keep their prisoners. 

Itai: A translator of mine walked out while the interview took place. Apparently she couldn’t go on sitting there when they were explaining how they take women, kidnap women and provide these women to the commander. And now they’re being raped and now they’re being sold for $20 if a woman is old, or $70 for a [12-year-old] because she’s worth more. She went out of the room and she was very, very emotional and upset. She’s very liberal and very intellectual. She said [just shoot them]. Why provide them with good conditions and later on, you know, there will be a prisoner’s exchange. 

Rob: As an Israeli, it has to be surreal for you walking through Syria. I’m assuming you were alive in ‘73 or…? How old are you?

Itai: I’m 46. 

Rob: But you remember the ’73 war, right?

Itai: Yes, I was 5 years old.

Rob: But, I mean, it must be surreal, right? 

Itai: Totally. I was growing up with the idea that all Iraqis want to kill you, that all Syrians want to kill you. And then when I went to these places and see the reality  to be different from what was being said. And I liked it very much, because they realized that the journalist every time I go to a place I learned something new and my knowledge multiplies by ten.

So I become only more curious every time there is place I think I  know something about … I know it when I will be there. I will know for what is going on. And obviously there is a great curiosity.

Rob: And even, you’re giving these people voices. 

Itai: Yeah, definitely.

Rob: Even the ISIS fighters, you’re not so much yelling at them or screaming. You’re just letting them talk.

Itai: Never. I mean, I’m talking a place where to me it was very clear the good guys and the bad guys, but normally it doesn’t exist. I gave a lot of voice to Palestinian because I’ve been a lot to Gaza and the West Bank from people from all over. Even when I began, in Bosnia. Each and every faction has something interesting to tell me. Because I’m coming from a land of disputes, so I know that there is not one complete black and white story.  So I go to all the warring factions. There’s only two times I was not able to do that. I was not able to go into ISIS territory, but I was able to talk to the prisoners. I was listening to them, not proving them wrong, I’m hear to understand what they are doing. 

Rob: Right. Do you have family?

Itai: No, I do not have children yet. I hope, you know, it will come soon. I have a girlfriend. But not married. You know, children hopefully, you know, will come soon. In this way of life it is very difficult–

Rob: I was going to say–

Itai: [But] … I still have something to do with this world regarding this job of mine.

Rob: Are you worried that ISIS knows how to use the internet just like you know how to use the internet. Are you worried they’ll see this and it’ll be harder to be discrete and go to these places without being recognized?

Itai: Well, obviously I’m burning myself little by little. I mean in Israel, where I’m more  famous and everybody knows me, they think I’m committing suicide.  But again it’s like everybody in Israel is thinking everybody in the world is watching Israeli television. No, nobody is watching. Only intelligence services. And I go only to countries where the intelligence in the country itself is completely in chaos. All the places I’ve been to — and I’ve been to dozens of places — are only in the moment where everything is crashed, the system is crashed, and anybody who is supposed to spot me is running away for his life.

Rob: So the safest time for you is when everything is in chaos?

Itai: Chaos is my heaven.

New Saudi king seeks to reassure on succession and policy


Saudi Arabia's new King Salman pledged continuity in energy and foreign policies on Friday and moved quickly to appoint younger men as his heirs, settling the succession for years to come by naming a deputy crown prince from his dynasty's next generation.

King Abdullah, who died early on Friday after a short illness, was buried in an unmarked grave in keeping with local religious traditions.

By appointing his youngest half-brother Muqrin, 69, as Crown Prince and nephew Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, as Deputy Crown Prince, Salman has swiftly quelled speculation about internal palace rifts at a moment of regional turmoil.

Oil prices jumped in an immediate reaction as news of Abdullah's death added to uncertainty in energy markets. [O/R]

Salman, thought to be 79, takes over as the ultimate authority in a country that faces long-term domestic challenges compounded by the plunging price of oil in recent months and the rise of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria, which vows to toppled the Al Saud ruling family.

Salman must navigate an intense rivalry with Shi'ite Muslim power Iran playing out in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain, open conflict in two neighboring states, a threat from Islamist militants and bumpy relations with the United States.

In his first speech as king, shown live on Saudi television, Salman pledged to maintain the same approach to ruling the world's top oil exporter and birthplace of Islam as his predecessors and called for unity among Arab states.

“We will continue, God willing, to hold the straight course that this country has followed since its establishment by the late King Abdulaziz,” he said.

Salman becomes the last Saudi ruler to be born before the discovery of commercial quantities of oil in the world's top crude exporter.

And Mohammed bin Nayef becomes the first grandson of the kingdom's founding monarch, King Abdulaziz, known as Ibn Saud, to take an established place in the line of succession.

All Saudi kings since Abdulaziz's death in 1953 have been his sons and the need to move to the next generation had earlier raised the prospect of a palace power struggle. King Salman also appointed his own son, Mohammed bin Salman, Defense Minister and head of the royal court.

The rapidity of the decisions startled Saudis, used to a delay of up to several months before top appointments following the deaths of their monarchs. The choice of Mohammed bin Nayef was seen by some as a reflection of his strong record in counter-terrorism in his role as interior minister.

“Times are dangerous,” said Joseph Kechichian, a scholar of Gulf Arab ruling families. “Mohammed bin Nayef's appointment shows Salman feels it's important to speak quickly with a single determined voice in the face of all these threats.”

U.S. President Barack Obama, moving to cement Washington's long alliance with Saudi Arabia, was expected to speak to Salman in the coming days.

Reputedly pragmatic and adept at managing the delicate balance of clerical, tribal, royal and Western interests that factor into Saudi policy making, Salman appears unlikely to change the kingdom's approach to foreign affairs or energy sales.

Despite rumors about Salman's health and strength, diplomats who have attended meetings between the new king and foreign leaders over the past year have said he has been fully engaged in talks lasting several hours at a time.

His nominated successor, Crown Prince Muqrin, is a former fighter pilot and a relative progressive who grasps the need for long-term reform, but who also has traditionally hawkish views on Iran.

REFORM LEGACY

In a country with a young population, many Saudis will be unable to recall a time before King Abdullah's rule, both as monarch from 2005 and as de facto regent for a decade before that.

His legacy was an effort to overhaul the kingdom's economic and social systems to address a looming demographic crisis by creating private sector jobs and making young Saudis better prepared to take them.

“I think (Salman) will continue with Abdullah's reforms. He realizes the importance of this. He's not conservative in person, but he values the opinion of the conservative constituency of the country,” said Jamal Khashoggi, head of a news channel owned by a Saudi prince.

However, Abdullah's reforms did not stretch to politics, and after the Arab Spring his security forces clamped down on all forms of dissent, imprisoning outspoken critics of the ruling family alongside women drivers and Islamist militants.

As the Saudi population grows and oil prices fall globally, the royal family will increasingly struggle to maintain its generous spending on social benefits for ordinary people, potentially undermining its future legitimacy in a country where there are no elections, analysts say.

King Salman has previously spoken against the idea of introducing democracy in Saudi Arabia in comments to American diplomats recorded in embassy cables later released by WikiLeaks.

He is expected to focus on creating jobs and big infrastructure projects to prevent falling oil prices from causing social tensions or undermining business confidence.

UNMARKED GRAVE

In keeping with Muslim traditions, Abdullah's body, clothed in white and shrouded in a plain cloth, was carried on a stretcher by relatives to rest in a mosque before being taken to a cemetery and buried in an unmarked grave.

Prayers in the mosque were led by King Salman and attended by Muslim heads of state and other senior figures.

Among those who went to Riyadh were Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb and Qatar's emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Iranian media said Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would also attend.

Non-Muslim dignitaries will visit to pay respects to the new monarch and crown prince, and other members of the Al Saud dynasty, in the coming days.

Later, following the evening prayer an hour after sunset, King Salman and Crown Prince Muqrin will receive pledges of allegiance from other ruling family members, Wahhabi clerics, tribal chiefs, leading businessmen and other Saudi subjects.

In the kingdom's strict Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, ostentatious displays of grief are frowned upon, although there was an immediate surge of sorrowful messages from Saudis on social media.

Foreigners fighting Islamic State in Syria: who and why?


While illegally crossing the Iraqi-Syrian border, Canadian Peter Douglas was adamant that his incursion was for humanitarian reasons – to help the people of Syria.

Douglas is one of a growing band of foreigners to dodge authorities and join the fight against Islamic State militants who have killed thousands and taken vast parts of Iraq and Syria, declaring a caliphate in territory under their control.

Many of these fighters argue they are there for humanitarian reasons but they say their decision to take up arms to fight for the Syrian people will not be viewed as such by some.

“I want to fight the Islamic State, although it might be the last thing I do,” said Douglas, 66, from Vancouver, as he prepared to board a boat crossing a remote stretch of the Tigris River .

“I know I have 10 years to live before I will start develop dementia or have a stroke so I wanted to do something good,” he added, although he acknowledged that taking up arms was new on the list of jobs and occupations he has previously pursued.

So far an estimated few dozen Westerners have joined Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State in northern Syria, including Americans, Canadians, Germans, and Britons.

The Syrian Kurdish armed faction known as the YPG has not released official numbers confirming foreign or “freedom fighters” and academics say it's hard to assess the total.

But the number pales compared to an estimated 16,000 fighters from about 90 countries to join Islamic State since 2012, according to the U.S. Department of State figures.

The United Nations has warned extremists groups in Syria and Iraq are recruiting foreigners on an “unprecedented scale” and with a commitment to jihad who could “form the core of a new diaspora” and be a threat for years to come.

FIGHTING FOR A CAUSE?

Western governments are closely monitoring foreign fighters but law enforcement agencies are acting differently towards those joining Islamic State or those linking up with the Kurdish resistance whose motivations are far more diverse.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has made it clear there is a fundamental difference between fighting for the Kurds and Islamic State. British law stipulates fighting in a foreign war is not automatically an offense and depends on circumstances.

Two British military veterans, Jamie Read and James Hughes, returned to England last month after several months with the YPG, saying they were fighting for “humanitarian purposes”, and no action has been taken against them on their return.

They signed up outraged by a series of chilling videos showing the murders of two U.S. journalists, a U.S. aid worker, and two British aid workers and by the plight of millions of Syrians caught between Islamic State and government forces.

British-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, estimates in six months the radical Sunni group has killed about 1,878 people in Syria off the battlefield, mostly civilians.

More than 200,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war, which started when President Bashar al-Assad's forces cracked down on peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011.

“We went there to help innocent people and to document the YPG struggle against ISIS,” Hughes, 26, who spent five years in the British army, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We had a warm welcome home. Everybody thought we were heroes. They were proud of us. I also received hundreds of messages of people wanting to join the YPG,” he said, adding he planned to return to Syria in coming months.

Still many foreign YPG fighters are concerned about legal repercussions when they return home so seek to stay anonymous.

“We might get in trouble with our governments,” said one U.S. veteran who ensured all his financial and legal affairs were in order before heading to Rojava, the area controlled by the YPG in Syria.

Many are concerned how the media portrays them at home and wanted to clarify they are volunteers, not mercenaries. They say they are not paid but are there as they believe in the cause.

Many have some military experience and have signed up to the battle through contacts on Facebook.

Lorenzo Vidino, an analyst at the Institute for the International Political Studies in Italy, said foreign fighters might argue they are joining the battle against Islamic State for the good but they were not effective militarily.

“Westerners joining the YPG are a very small phenomenon especially if compared to Islamic State. The IS recruitment machine works better and you can see evidence of that in terms of numbers,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

U.S. fighter Dean Parker, 49, joined after watching video footage of the blitz on Sinjar in northwest Iraq in August when Islamic State militants killed or captured thousands of minority Yazidis.

“I saw the fear and terror on this child eyes who was looking directly at me through the camera … I never been moved by anything like that in my life,” he said in an email exchange, one of several foreign fighters from Syria interviewed on location, by email or by phone in November and December.

Canadian-Israeli woman Gill Rosenberg, 31, from Tel Aviv, said in a recent interview with Israel Radio that she decided to join the YPG for humanitarian and ideological reasons.

But not all foreign fighters are motivated by the same cause.

Jordan Matson, 28, a U.S. army veteran from Winconsin who joined the YPG about four months ago, said he joined because he was running away from a “civilian” life he didn't really like.

“Here, instead, everything makes sense,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a YPG base near to Derik, a town in Syria's northeastern Kurdish region.

Lebanon detains wife of Islamic State leader


The Lebanese army detained a wife and daughter of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as they crossed from Syria nine days ago, security officials said on Tuesday, in a move seen as likely to put pressure on the Islamist chief.

The woman was identified as Saja al-Dulaimi, an Iraqi, by a Lebanese security official and a senior political source.

The Lebanese newspaper As-Safir reported she had been detained in coordination with “foreign intelligence.”

A Lebanese security source said the arrest was “a powerful card to apply pressure” in negotiations to secure the release of 27 members of the Lebanese security forces captured by Islamic militants – a view shared by other Lebanese officials who confirmed the arrest.

However, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed any suggestion that Washington might also try to use similar tactics to free prisoners. “We do not engage in that type of negotiation. Period,” he told a news conference in Brussels.

A senior Lebanese security official said Baghdadi's wife had been traveling with one of their daughters, contradicting earlier reports that it was his son. DNA tests were conducted to verify it was Baghdadi's child, the official said.

They were detained in northern Lebanon after Baghdadi's wife was found with a fake passport, officials said. Investigators were questioning her at the Lebanese defense ministry.

There was no immediate reaction from Islamic State websites, although some supporters rejected the report.

Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, said the arrest indicated that the American-led coalition seemed to have solid intelligence in Syria and Iraq.

“I talked to a few people who told me this was a coordinated arrest between American intelligence services and the Lebanese army,” he told Reuters.

“If I were Abu Bakr Baghdadi, I would be very anxious that they are getting very close,” he said. “This is a development … that is very alarming for ISIS, in particular the top leadership.”

A U.S. government source said Washington was not sure how recently the woman had been with Baghdadi, and how much useful information, if any, she might have.

The U.S. embassy in Lebanon said: “This was an operation by the government of Lebanon.” It had no further comment.

Dulaimi was one of 150 women released from a Syrian government jail in March as part of a prisoner swap that led to the release of 13 nuns taken captive by al Qaeda-linked militants in Syria, according to media reports at the time.

A source with contacts with Iraqi intelligence said the captured woman was an Iraqi wife of Baghdadi’s, but could not confirm her name. There was cooperation between Iraqi and Lebanese authorities leading up to her capture, the source said.

Baghdadi has three wives, two Iraqis and one Syrian, according to tribal sources in Iraq.

CALIPHATE

Islamic State has declared a caliphate and seized wide areas of Iraq and Syria, Lebanon's neighbor to the east.

The Lebanese security forces have cracked down on the group's sympathizers and the intelligence services have been extra vigilant on the borders with Syria.

They have arrested dozens of Islamic militants suspected of staging attacks to expand Islamic State influence in Lebanon.

On Tuesday, at least six Lebanese soldiers were killed by gunmen from Syria who attacked an army patrol near the border.

A U.S.-led alliance is seeking to roll back Islamic State's gains in Iraq and Syria, where the group is seeking to reshape the Middle East according to its radical vision of Islam.

An Islamic State fighter denied Baghdadi's wife had been arrested. “I have checked with our leaders and they said it was false news,” he said from inside Syria.

Spillover from the Syrian conflict has repeatedly jolted neighboring Lebanon. Militants affiliated to the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and Islamic State are demanding the release of Islamists held by the Lebanese authorities in exchange for the captured members of the Lebanese security forces.

The United States is offering $10 million for information on Baghdadi, an Iraqi, whose real name is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarai.

Baghdadi called for attacks against the rulers of Saudi Arabia in a speech purported to be in his name last month.

A CV of Baghdadi published on social media in July by Islamic State sympathizers described him as married but gave no further details.

Born in 1971, Baghdadi comes from a family of preachers and teachers, according to a biography on Islamist forums that says he studied at the Islamic University in Baghdad.

According to U.S. media reports, Baghdadi had been detained at Camp Bucca, a U.S.-run prison in Iraq, before becoming head of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2010, a predecessor to Islamic State, which expanded into Syria in 2013.

In June this year, his group named him “caliph for the Muslims everywhere”. Although he is rarely pictured, a video released in July showed him preaching in a mosque in Mosul.

Additional reporting by Saif Hameed, Mark Hosenball and Lesley Wroughton; Writing by Sylvia Westall and Tom Perry; Editing by Samia Nakhoul, Janet McBride, Giles Elgood and David Stamp

Islamic State fight now costing U.S. $8.3 million per day


The Pentagon said in updated figures on Monday the average daily cost of the fight against Islamic State militants has risen to $8.3 million, or a total of $580 million between Aug. 8 and Oct. 16.

The new average reflects an increase in the intensity of U.S. operations against the group in Syria and Iraq. The Pentagon said a week ago the average daily cost was $7.6 million, or a total of $424 million since Aug. 8.

Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Doina Chiacu

U.S. reports more air strikes against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq


U.S. aircraft carried out six strikes against Islamic State militants near the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani on Thursday and Friday, the U.S. military's Central Command said.

It also said U.S. and allied forces had launched 12 air strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq, including near Mosul Dam, near the Baiji oil refinery and near Falluja, since Thursday.

Reporting by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Jim Loney

Cartoon: The journey ahead will be long


U.S. and Arab allies launch first strikes on fighters in Syria


The United States and its Arab allies bombed Syria for the first time on Tuesday, killing scores of ISIS fighters and members of a separate al Qaeda-linked group, opening a new front against militants by joining Syria's three-year-old civil war.

In a remarkable sign of shifting Middle East alliances, the attacks encountered no objection – and even signs of tacit approval – from President Bashar Assad's Syrian government, which said Washington had notified it in advance.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) said Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates participated in or supported the strikes against ISIS targets. All are countries hostile to Assad but now fearful of the fighters that have emerged out of the anti-Assad rebellion they backed.

U.S. President Barack Obama said in a televised statement that the breadth of the coalition, including the five Arab states, showed the United States was not alone.

The White House said some of the strikes had been conducted to disrupt an al Qaeda affiliate known as the Khorasan Group which it said had been plotting an imminent attack either in the United States or in Europe.

“Once again, it must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people,” Obama said before leaving the White House for the United Nations in New York, where he planned more talks to enlarge his alliance.

Warplanes and ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles struck dozens of targets including fighters, training compounds, headquarters and command and control facilities, storage sites, a finance center, trucks and armed vehicles, CENTCOM said.

“I can tell you that last night's strikes were only the beginning,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman, told reporters. The overnight attacks had been “very successful”, he said, but gave few details and would not discuss casualties.

Washington also said U.S. forces had acted alone to launch eight strikes in another area of Syria on the Khorasan Group, which U.S. officials have described in recent days as posing a threat similar to that from ISIS.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria, said at least 70 ISIS fighters were killed in strikes that hit at least 50 targets in the provinces of Raqqa, Deir al-Zor and Hasakah.

It said at least 50 fighters and eight civilians were killed in strikes targeting al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, in northern Aleppo and Idlib provinces. The Observatory said most of the Nusra Front fighters killed were not Syrians.

The air attacks fulfill Obama's pledge to strike in Syria against ISIS, a Sunni Muslim group that has seized swathes of Syria and Iraq, slaughtering prisoners and ordering Shi'ites and non-Muslims to convert or die.

It remains to be seen how effective air strikes can be against ISIS in Syria, where Washington lacks a strong ally to fight the group on the ground. The militants vowed reprisals, and an allied group is threatening to kill a French hostage captured in Algeria.

“COMMON ENEMY”

In a sign of how ISIS' rise has blurred conflict lines, the Syrian government said Washington had informed it hours before the strikes in a letter from Secretary of State John Kerry sent through his Iraqi counterpart.

The Pentagon said the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, had informed Syria's envoy in advance but there had been no coordination and no communication between the two countries' armed forces.

The Syrian foreign ministry refrained from criticizing the U.S.-led action. State media reported that a senior Iraqi envoy briefed Assad on the next steps and the Syrian leader said he supported any international effort to fight terrorism.

Only a year ago Washington was on the verge of bombing the Syrian government over the use of chemical weapons, before Obama canceled the strikes at the last minute.

Tightly-controlled Syrian state TV interviewed an analyst who said the air strikes did not amount to an act of aggression because the government had been notified. “This does not mean we are part of the joint operations room, and we are not part of the alliance. But there is a common enemy,” said the analyst, Ali al-Ahmad.

Syria's closest ally, Iran, responded cautiously. President Hassan Rouhani said in New York that without a U.N. mandate or a request from the government of the affected state, military strikes “don't have any legal standing.” However, he neither condemned nor endorsed the action.

Residents of the city of Raqqa, ISIS' de facto capital in eastern Syria, said by telephone that people were fleeing for the countryside after the bombs fell overnight.

ISIS vowed revenge against the United States. “These attacks will be answered,” a fighter told Reuters by Skype from Syria, blaming Saudi Arabia's ruling family for allowing the strikes to take place.

The Sunni fighters, who have proclaimed a caliphate ruling over all Muslims, shook the Middle East by sweeping through northern Iraq in June. They alarmed the West in recent weeks by killing two U.S. journalists and a British aid worker, raising fears that they could attack Western countries.

PITCHED INTO CIVIL WAR

The action pitched Washington for the first time into the Syrian civil war, which began with “Arab Spring” democracy protests in 2011 but has descended into a sectarian conflict that has killed 200,000 people, displaced millions and drawn in proxy forces backed by countries across the region.

The Syrian military pressed its campaign against the rebels unabated on Tuesday, shelling and carrying out air strikes in the southern province of Deraa and the outskirts of Damascus, as well as Raqqa and Idlib provinces, the Observatory said. Rebel and loyalist forces fought in the northern city of Aleppo.

U.S. forces have previously hit ISIS targets in Iraq, where Washington supports the government, but had held back from a military engagement in Syria where Obama still calls for the downfall of Assad. Washington has said it would not coordinate action against ISIS with Assad's government.

ISIS fighters, equipped with U.S. weapons seized in Iraq, are among the most powerful opponents of Assad, a member of a Shi'ite-derived sect. They are also battling rival Sunni groups in Syria, the Shi'ite-led government of Iraq and Kurdish forces on both sides of the border.

In recent days they have captured villages from Kurds near Syria's Turkish border, sending nearly 140,000 refugees across the frontier since last week. The United Nations said it was preparing for up to 400,000 people to flee.

The Western-backed Syrian opposition and Syrian Kurdish groups, which are fighting both Assad and ISIS, welcomed the air strikes and said they need more support.

“There is an exodus out of Raqqa as we speak,” a resident said by phone. “It started in the early hours of the day after the strikes. People are fleeing towards the countryside.”

The city's two-storey main administrative building had been hit by four rockets, which were so precise that nearby buildings were not damaged, said the resident, named Abo Mohammed. He said hundreds of fighters, who had been visible in the streets controlling traffic and security, had now vanished.

The main Syrian Kurdish armed group said ISIS fighters were redeploying from areas hit by the U.S. strikes towards territory controlled by the Kurds.

ARAB PRESENCE KEY, TRADITIONAL ALLIES ABSENT

The presence of Arab allies in the attacks was crucial for the credibility of the American-led campaign. With the backing of Jordan and the Gulf monarchies, Washington has the support of Sunni states hostile to Assad.

None of Washington's traditional Western allies has so far joined the campaign in Syria. Britain, which joined the United States in war in Iraq and Afghanistan last decade, said it was still considering its options. France has struck ISIS in Iraq but not in Syria, citing legal constraints.

NATO ally Turkey, which is alarmed by ISIS but also worried about Kurdish fighters and opposed to any action that might help Assad, has refused a military role in the coalition.

Assad's ally Russia, whose ties with Washington are at their lowest since the end of the Cold War, said any strikes in Syria are illegal without Assad's permission or a U.N. Security Council resolution, which Moscow would have the right to veto.

Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz and Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Roberta Rampton, Susan Heavey, Lesley Wroughton, Steve Holland and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Paul Taylor, Janet McBride and David Stamp

ISIS urges attacks on U.S., French citizens, taunts Obama


ISIS urged its followers on Monday to attack citizens of the United States, France and other countries which have joined a coalition to destroy the ultra-radical group.

ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani also taunted U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western “crusaders” in a statement carried by the SITE monitoring website, saying their forces faced inevitable defeat at the insurgents' hands.

The United States is building an international coalition to combat the extremist Sunni Muslim force, which has seized large expanses of territory in Iraq and Syria and proclaimed a caliphate erasing borders in the heart of the Middle East.

Adnani said the intervention by the U.S.-led coalition would be the “final campaign of the crusaders,” according to SITE's English-language transcript of an audio recording in Arabic.

“It will be broken and defeated, just as all your previous campaigns were broken and defeated,” Adnani said, according to the recording, which urged followers to attack U.S., French, Canadian, Australian and other nationals.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the group's call showed once again, “if it needed to be shown, the barbarity of these terrorists, and shows why we must fight them relentlessly…” In a statement, he added, using an Arabic acronym for the militants: “We must also eliminate the risk that Daesh represents to our security.”

U.S. and French warplanes have struck ISIS targets in Iraq, and on Sunday the United States said other countries had indicated a willingness to join it if it goes ahead with air strikes against the group in Syria too.

Washington has also committed $500 million to arm and train Syrian rebels and to send 1,600 U.S. military advisers to Iraq to help fight ISIS, while stressing the U.S. personnel would not engage in combat.

Adnani mocked Western leaders over their deepening military engagement in the region and said Obama was repeating the mistakes of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

“If you fight it (ISIS), it becomes stronger and tougher. If you leave it alone, it grows and expands. If Obama has promised you with defeating the ISIS, then Bush has also lied before him,” Adnani said, according to the transcript.

“DRAGGED TO DESTRUCTION”

Addressing Obama directly, Adnani added: “O mule of the Jews, you claimed today that America would not be drawn into a war on the ground. No, it will be drawn and dragged … to its death, grave and destruction.”

Obama, who has spent much of his tenure since 2009 extracting the United States from Iraq after its costly 2003 invasion and occupation, is sensitive to charges that he is being drawn into another long campaign that risks the lives of U.S. soldiers.

While Obama has ruled out a combat mission, military officials say the reality of a protracted campaign in Iraq and possibly Syria may ultimately require greater use of U.S. troops, including tactical air strike spotters or front-line advisers embedded with Iraqi forces.

In his statement, Adnani criticised Kurdish fighters who are battling the ISIS militants in both Syria and Iraq.

“We do not fight Kurds because they are Kurds. Rather we fight the disbelievers amongst them, the allies of the crusaders and Jews in their war against the Muslims,” Adnani said.

He added that there were many Muslim Kurds within the ranks of the ISIS army.

On Monday, Syrian Kurdish fighters halted an advance by ISIS to the east of a predominantly Kurdish town near the border with Turkey, a spokesman for the main Kurdish group said.

Adnani also condemned Saudi Arabia, whose senior Muslim clergy have denounced ISIS and whose ruling royal family has joined other Arab states in a pledge to tackle militant ideology as part of a strategy to counter the group.

Adnani condemned Western inaction over Syria's conflict, in which President Bashar Assad's forces have been embroiled in civil war with mainly Sunni Muslim fighters since 2011. He said the West had “looked the other way” when barrel bombs were dropped and chemical weapons were used against Muslim civilians.

“So know that – by Allah – we fear not the swarms of planes, nor ballistic missiles, nor drones, nor satellites, nor battleships, nor weapons of mass destruction.”

Additional reporting by Ali Abdelaty in Cairo and Mark John in Paris; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Islamic State shows captive British journalist in new video


Islamic State militants fighting in Iraq and Syria released a video on Thursday that they said shows British journalist John Cantlie in captivity saying he will soon reveal “facts” about the group to counter its portrayal in Western media.

The Islamic State, which controls territory in Syria and Iraq, has already beheaded two American journalists and one British aid worker in recent weeks in what it said was reprisal for U.S. air strikes against it in Iraq.

But in the new roughly three-minute video posted on social media sites, the man identified as Cantlie appears in good health and promises to “convey some facts” in a series of “programs,” suggesting there would be further installments.

“Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, 'He's only doing this because he's a prisoner. He's got a gun at his head and he's being forced to do this.' Right?” the man in the video, wearing an orange shirt and closely-cropped hair, says.

“Well, it's true. I am a prisoner. That I cannot deny. But seeing as I've been abandoned by my government and my fate now lies in the hands of the Islamic State, I have nothing to lose.”

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said he had heard reports of a video on social media and said authorities would look closely at any material released online.

“These videos can be very distressing for the families of the individuals involved,” he told reporters during a visit to Copenhagen.

U.S. President Barack Obama has been trying to build an international coalition to destroy Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim extremist group which has exploited the chaos of Syria and Iraq to seize swathes of territory in both countries.

The United States has already carried out scores of air strikes against the group in Iraq and Obama said in a policy speech he would not hesitate to strike it in Syria as well.

In the new video, titled “Lend Me Your Ears, Messages from the British Detainee John Cantlie,” the man identified as Cantlie says he was captured by the Islamic State after arriving in Syria in November 2012.

He says he worked for newspapers and magazines in Britain including the Sunday Times, the Sun and the Sunday Telegraph.

“After two disastrous and hugely unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, why is it that our governments appear so keen to get involved in yet another unwinnable conflict?” the man says in the video.

“I'm going to show you the truth behind the systems and motivation of the Islamic State, and how the Western media, the very organization I used to work for, can twist and manipulate that truth for the public back home.”

Cantlie said other Western governments have negotiated for the release of their hostages but that the British and U.S. governments chose to do things differently.

“I'll show you the truth behind what happened when many European citizens were imprisoned and later released by the Islamic State, and how the British and American governments thought they could do it differently to every other European country,” the man in the video says.

“They negotiated with the Islamic State and got their people home while the British and Americans were left behind,” he says.

PREVIOUS CAPTURE

The United States resumed air strikes in Iraq in August for the first time since the withdrawal of the final U.S. troops from the country in 2011.

The raids followed major gains by Islamic State fighters who have seized a third of both Iraq and Syria, declared war on the West and seek to establish a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved on Wednesday Obama's plan to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels in a message of support for his military campaign to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State

Britain has delivered humanitarian aid, carried out surveillance, given weapons to Kurds and promised training in Iraq. On military action, Britain supports U.S. air strikes and British Prime Minister David Cameron has repeatedly said Britain has ruled nothing out except combat troops on the ground.

Cantlie had previously been taken hostage in July, 2012 along with Dutch photographer Jeroen Oerlemans while working near the Syrian border with Turkey. They were released the same month after a group of “Free Syrian Army” fighters freed them.

Cantlie told media after his release they were threatened with death unless they converted to Islam, and both were shot and slightly wounded when they attempted to escape. He was shot in the arm, Oerlemans in the leg.

At the time, Cantlie wrote in the Sunday Times that the group of about 30 militants had been made up of different nationalities, many British and none Syrian, and that the British jihadists had treated him the most cruelly in captivity.

On Saturday, Islamic State released a video showing the beheading of British aid worker David Haines. A black-clad man in the video said another hostage, identified as Alan Henning, would be killed if Cameron continued to support the fight against Islamic State.

Thursday's video made no mention of Henning.

“Maybe I will live and maybe I will die,” the man identified as Cantlie says. “But I want to take this opportunity to convey some facts that you can verify. Facts that, if you contemplate, might help preserving lives.”

Additional reporting by Michael Holden,; editing by Samia Nakhoul and Dominic Evans

U.S. sees Middle East help fighting ISIS, Britain cautious after beheading


Washington said countries in the Middle East had offered to join air strikes against Islamic State militants and Australia said it would send troops, but Britain held back even after the group beheaded a British hostage and threatened to kill another.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been touring the Middle East to try to secure backing for U.S. efforts to build a coalition to fight the Islamic State militants who have grabbed territory in Syria and Iraq.

The United States resumed air strikes in Iraq in August for the first time since the 2011 withdrawal of the last U.S. troops, fearful the militants would break the country up and use it as a base for attacks on the West.

The addition of Arab fighter jets would greatly strengthen the credibility of what is a risky and complicated campaign.

“We have countries in this region, countries outside of this region, in addition to the United States, all of whom are prepared to engage in military assistance, in actual strikes if that is what it requires,” Kerry said.

“And we also have a growing number of people who are prepared to do all the other things,” he said in remarks broadcast on Sunday on the CBS program “Face the Nation.”

Offers of Arab air participation have been made both to U.S. Central Command overseeing the American air campaign and to the Iraqi government, a senior State Department official said.

The official said the offers were not limited to air strikes on Iraq. “Some have indicated for quite a while a willingness to do them elsewhere,” the official said. “We have to sort through all of that because you can’t just go and bomb something.”

As of Saturday, U.S. fighter jets had conducted 160 air strikes on Islamic State positions in Iraq. The United States will present a legal case before expanding them into Syria, U.S. officials said, justifying them largely on the basis of defending Iraq from militants who have taken shelter in neighboring Syria during its three-year civil war.

Australia became the first country to detail troop numbers and aircraft to fight the militants in Iraq. It said it would send a 600-strong force and eight fighter jets to the region but did not intend to operate in Syria.

Russia, at odds with the West over Ukraine, has said any air strikes in Syria would be an act of aggression without the consent of President Bashar al-Assad or an international mandate.

Britain has often been the first country to join U.S. military action overseas and is under pressure to get much tougher with IS after video footage of the killing of Briton David Haines by the militants was released on Saturday.

In footage consistent with the filmed executions of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, in the past month, they also threatened to kill another British hostage.

Speaking after chairing a meeting of the government's emergency response committee in London, Prime Minister David Cameron called the killing of Haines, a 44 year-old Scottish aid worker, callous and brutal and hailed him as a “British hero.”

“We will hunt down those responsible and bring them to justice no matter how long it takes,” he said, calling IS “the embodiment of evil” and saying his government was prepared “to take whatever steps are necessary” against the militants.

SUNNI 'ANVIL'

But he did not announce any air strikes, mindful of war-weary public opinion, parliament's rejection last year of air strikes on Syria, and sensitivities surrounding Scotland's independence referendum on Thursday.

U.S. allies are skeptical of how far Washington will commit to a conflict in which nearly every country in the region has a stake, set against the backdrop of Islam's 1,300-year-old rift between Sunnis and Shi'ites. Many fear there is not enough emphasis on ensuring the Iraqi government is strong and united enough to overcome sectarian divisions and run the country effectively after any intervention.

Britain and the United States have ruled out sending ground troops back into Iraq and Kerry did not say which countries had offered.

“We're not looking to put troops on the ground,” he said. “There are some who have offered to do so, but we are not looking for that at this moment anyway.”

On the CNN program “State of the Union,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough was asked if the coalition would need ground troops beyond opposition forces in Syria and Kurdish and government forces in Iraq.

“Ultimately to destroy ISIL we do need to have a force, an anvil against which they will be pushed – ideally Sunni forces,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

'EXTREMELY ENCOURAGED'

On Thursday, Kerry won the backing for a “coordinated military campaign” from 10 Arab countries – Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and six Gulf states including rich rivals Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

“This is a strategy coming together as the coalition comes together and the countries declare what they are prepared to do,” Kerry said in the interview, taped on Saturday in Egypt.

“I've been extremely encouraged to hear from all of the people that I've been meeting with about their readiness and willingness to participate,” Kerry added.

France has offered to take part in air strikes in Iraq and is expected to give more details this week on what it is willing to do, although its financial resources and forces are already stretched with more than 5,000 soldiers in West Africa.

Michael McCaul, a Republican who chairs the House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, told the same CBS program that Prince Faisal bin Al Hussein of Jordan told him “he is ready to put his troops into Syria to fight ISIS”.

Washington could also try to persuade Egypt to put troops in Syria, McCaul said.

John Kerry will meet British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond during a conference on Iraq in Paris on Monday. The conference brings Iraqi authorities together with about 30 countries and organizations to coordinate their response to Islamic State.

“It will also be the first time to really gauge what Russia thinks and is ready to do,” a French diplomat said.

The diplomat said Syria was a different case.

“The situation is not the same either legally or militarily. We do not want to strengthen Assad, so we have to be sure that strikes there don’t do that,” the diplomat said. “We are ready to help Iraq’s government, which has asked for our help, but not Assad’s dictatorship.”

Additional reporting by Jason Szep and John Irish in Paris, Timothy Gardner in Washington, Morag MacKinnon in Perth, Australia and William Maclean in Dubai; Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Anna Willard, Peter Cooney and Mohammad Zargham

Islamic State releases video showing beheading of UK hostage David Haines


Islamic State militants fighting in Iraq and Syria released a video on Saturday which purported to show the beheading of British aid worker David Haines.

Reuters could not immediately verify the footage. However, the images were consistent with that of the filmed executions of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, in the past month.

Haines, a 44-year-old father of two from Perth in Scotland, was kidnapped last year while working for the French agency ACTED.

The video entitled, “A Message to the Allies of America,” opened with UK Prime Minister David Cameron talking about working with the Iraqi government and allied Kurdish Peshmerga forces to defeat Islamic State.

“This British man has to pay the price for your promise, Cameron, to arm the Peshmerga against the Islamic State,” said a masked man dressed in black with a British accent, standing over Haines, who was shown kneeling and wearing an orange jumpsuit.

The video then showed the beheading of the kneeling man.

At the end of the video, another hostage was shown and the masked man said he would be killed if Cameron continues to support the fight against Islamic State.

Cameron condemned the killing and said he would bring the killers to justice.

“This is a despicable and appalling murder of an innocent aid worker. It is an act of pure evil. My heart goes out to the family of David Haines who have shown extraordinary courage and fortitude throughout this ordeal,” he said in a statement released by Downing Street.

“We will do everything in our power to hunt down these murderers and ensure they face justice, however long it takes.”

In Washington, White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said she had no comment on the video and referred queries to the British government.

In the video, Haines also spoke, saying Cameron was responsible for his execution. “You entered voluntarily into a coalition with the United States against the Islamic State, just as your predecessor, Tony Blair, did,” he said.

“Following a trend amongst our British Prime Ministers who can't find the courage to say no to the Americans. Unfortunately, it is we, the British public, that will in the end pay the price for our Parliament's selfish decisions.”

Foley and Sotloff made similar speeches to U.S. President Barack Obama which have been dismissed as scripted by Islamic State and delivered under duress.

The purported executioner appeared to be the same British-accented man who appeared in videos with Foley and Sotloff, and it showed a similar desert setting. In both videos, the captives wore orange jumpsuits.

HELPING VICTIMS

The United States resumed air strikes in Iraq in August for the first time since the withdrawal of the final U.S. troops from the country in 2011.

The raids followed major gains by Islamic State, which has declared an Islamic Caliphate in areas it controls in Syria and Iraq.

Obama is now calling for a coalition of Western and Middle Eastern countries to fight Islamic State and has said the U.S. intends to bomb Islamic State positions in Syria.

Britain has delivered humanitarian aid, carried out surveillance, given weapons to Kurds and promised training in Iraq. On military action, Britain supports U.S. air strikes and Cameron has repeatedly said Britain itself has ruled nothing out except combat troops on the ground.

Haines' family appealed earlier on Saturday to his captors to respond to their messages.

“We are the family of David Haines,” relatives said in a statement released by Britain's Foreign Office.

“We have sent messages to you to which we have not received a reply. We are asking those holding David to make contact with us.”

Paris-based ACTED has previously said Haines had been engaged in humanitarian work since 1999, helping victims of conflicts in the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East and that he was taken hostage in March 2013 in Syria.

Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in London; Editing by Bernard Orr

Israel provides intelligence on Islamic State, Western diplomat says


Israel has provided satellite imagery and other intelligence in support of the U.S.-led aerial campaign against Islamic State in Iraq, a Western diplomat said on Monday.

Once “scrubbed” of evidence of its Israeli origin, the information has often been shared by Washington with Arab and Turkish allies, the diplomat said.

Israel's Defence Ministry neither confirmed nor denied involvement in any international efforts against the militant group.

“We don't comment on any assistance by us, or if there is such assistance, in the fight against ISIS,” said Yaacov Havakook, spokesman for ministry, using one of Islamic State's former names.

The spread of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the insurgent group's foreign volunteer contingent and the execution of two U.S. journalists have jolted Western powers into military intervention.

Israel, worried that Islamic State could eventually reach its borders and keen to repair international ties frayed by its policies towards the Palestinians, has offered to help.

SATELLITES AND DATABASES

The Western diplomat said Israeli spy satellites, overflying Iraq at angles and frequencies unavailable from U.S. satellites, had provided images that allowed the Pentagon to “fill out its information and get a better battle damage assessments” after strikes on Islamic State targets.

Israel had also shared information gleaned from international travel databases about Western citizens suspected of joining the insurgents, who could be potential recruits for future attacks in their native countries.

“The Israelis are very good with passenger data and with analysing social media in Arabic to get a better idea of who these people are,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Underscoring Israel's backstage role, it is not among countries being visited by U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel this week as he builds the anti-Islamic State coalition.

But the Israeli-supplied intelligence would reach the U.S. partner “with the Hebrew and other markings scrubbed out” to avoid raising hackles among Arabs, Turks and perhaps even the Iranian forces who also view Islamic State as a foe, the diplomat said.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet, told a conference hosted by the IDC Herzliya college near Tel Aviv that Israel should “build a coalition of sanity” in which Israeli intelligence “is part of the regional effort” against Islamic State, Lebanon's Hezbollah group and al Qaeda.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Tom Heneghan

Obama says U.S. will ‘degrade and destroy’ Islamic State


The United States plans to fight Islamic State until it is no longer a force in the Middle East and will seek justice for the killing of American journalist Steven Sotloff, President Barack Obama said on Wednesday.

He added destroying the militant group will take time because of the power vacuum in Syria, the abundance of battle hardened fighters that grew out of al-Qaida in the Iraqi war, and the need to build coalitions, including with local Sunni communities.

Islamic State released a video on Tuesday showing the beheading of the U.S. journalist, the second American hostage to be killed within weeks, in retaliation for U.S. air strikes in Iraq.

“The bottom line is this, our objective is clear and that is to degrade and destroy (Islamic State) so that it's no longer a threat not just to Iraq but also the region and to the United States,” Obama told a news conference.

“Whatever these murderers think they will achieve with killing innocent Americans like Steven, they have already failed,” Obama said. “They failed because, like people around the world, Americans are repulsed by their barbarism. We will not be intimidated.”

U.S and British officials both examined the video, showing the same British-accented executioner who appeared in an Aug. 19 video of the killing of U.S. journalist James Foley, concluding it was authentic.

The United States resumed air strikes in Iraq in August for the first time since the pullout of U.S. troops in 2011 and Obama said the strikes are already proving effective.

“Those that make the mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget and that our reach is long and that justice will be served,” he said.

“This is not going to be a one-week or one-month or six month proposition because of what's happened in the vacuum of Syria, as well as the battle hardened elements of (Islamic State) that grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq during the course of the Iraq war … it's going to take time for us to be able to roll them back.”

The White House said late on Tuesday that Obama was sending three top officials — Secretary of State John Kerry, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco — to the Middle East “in the near-term to build a stronger regional partnership” against Islamic State militants.

Editing by Jeremy Gaunt

Islamic State’s appeal presents Jordan with new test


He had a good job and a loving family, but it wasn't enough for a 25-year old Jordanian who abandoned his life of privilege in Amman to join the Islamic State group that has seized swathes of neighboring Iraq and Syria.

Handsome, courteous and highly regarded in his profession as a radiologist, the man, whose name has been withheld for security reasons, disappeared in early August after the Muslim Eid holiday. He did not tell his family where he was going.

He later called his parents from an undisclosed location to say he had “forsaken his life for the glory of Islam”, said a relative. “His father is heartbroken, and his mother is in hospital from shock,” he said.

He is among the first known cases of Jordanians joining Islamic State since the group declared a “caliphate” in June after dramatic territorial gains in Iraq and Syria.

His story points to the widening support for Islamic State among Jordanian Islamist fundamentalists inspired by its recent advances in countries that border Jordan to the east and north. With that support come new risks for a U.S. ally mostly unscathed by the Middle Eastern turmoil of recent years.

Jordan's powerful intelligence services appear to be deploying their full range of tools to counter the threat. King Abdullah has said the country has never been better prepared to face the radical threat sweeping the region.

Islamic State's gains have sparked a fierce debate among Jordanian Islamists from the ultra-orthodox Salafist movement on whether to back the group, whose brutality has been criticized even within radical Islamist circles.

But buoyed by territorial gains, Islamic State’s sympathizers appear to be winning the argument.

“Many youths have changed their distorted view of the Islamic State after they saw their actions on the ground, their achievements, and how the West has ganged up against it,” a well-known Jordanian militant told Reuters under the assumed name Ghareeb al-Akhwan al-Urduni.

“A DREAM” REALIZED

Since the civil war erupted in neighboring Syria in 2011, hundreds of Jordanians have joined a Sunni Islamist-led insurgency against President Bashar Assad. More than 2,000 men, ranging from underprivileged youths to doctors and – in one case – an air force captain, have abandoned Jordan for jihad in Syria, according to Islamists close to the subject.

At least 250 of them have been killed there.

But the Islamic State's recent accomplishments are helping to galvanize support like never before among radical Islamists who dream of erasing borders across the Muslim world to establish a pan-Islamic nation.

It raises the prospect of yet more Jordanians crossing the border to fight, but also the risk of Islamic State sympathizers striking in Jordan itself – a country that has suffered Islamist militancy before, notably bomb attacks on Amman hotels by al Qaeda-linked militants during the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

The appearance of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared “caliph”, calling for the support of Muslims in the pulpit of a mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul last June acted like a magnet for young Jordanian Islamists.

“Their dream was setting up the caliphate, and now they see it being achieved. This made people consider very seriously joining, especially since the Islamic State had officially invited them,” said Bassam Nasser, a Jordanian Islamist scholar.

The roots of Islamic State can, in one sense, be traced to Jordan. It was Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian, who founded the Iraqi arm of al Qaeda that would eventually mutate into Islamic State. Al Qaeda has now disavowed the group.

In the impoverished Jordanian town of Zarqa, Zarqawi's birthplace and a traditional stronghold of Islamist fundamentalists, support for Islamic State was on full display during Eid prayers that marked the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan in late July.

Scores of men dressed in the kind of Afghan-style clothing often worn by radical Islamists waved Islamic State's black flag as they gathered in an open field to listen to Jordanian Islamist Sheikh Amer Khalalyeh praise the group.

“Oh Baghdadi, you who has spread terror in the hearts of our enemies, enlist me as a martyr,” chanted the sheikh over a microphone. The footage was captured in a video posted on YouTube.

“SLEEPER CELLS”

In the assessment of one senior regional security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, Jordan could be home to “hundreds if not thousands of potential sympathizers” who could turn into “potential sleeper cells and time bombs”.

The roots of radicalisation in Jordan mirror those commonly cited as its primary cause across the Middle East and include a lack of political liberty and economic opportunity.

King Abdullah, a steadfast U.S. ally who has safeguarded his country's peace treaty with Israel, is seeking to ease concerns in Jordan about the threat posed by Islamic State.

“I am satisfied with the preparations of the armed forces and security agencies. We had planned for surprises several months ago and we were ahead of others. I can assure you -politically, securitywise and militarily our position today is stronger than in the past,” he told politicians.

In an indirect reference to Islamic State, he warned Jordanians not to fall prey to outside parties seeking to exploit their grievances.

In recent weeks, the Jordanian intelligence services have tightened security around sensitive government areas, stepped up surveillance of Islamist fundamentalists and arrested activists seen as a threat, diplomats and officials say.

At least a dozen people have been arrested for expressing support for Islamic State on social media.

It is a new test for the Jordanian security services, which have been a major U.S. partner in fighting radical Islamists.

Jordan's approach to confronting the risk has set it apart from some other Arab states. Its dependence on sophisticated intelligence gathering rather than arbitrary arrests have been credited for sparing Jordan the kind of vendetta-fueled Islamist insurrections seen in states such as Egypt and Syria.

The authorities last month released a prominent Islamist scholar, an influential figure in militant circles, who is one of the leading Islamist opponents of Islamic State.

Sheikh Abu Mohammad al Maqdisi's release has added an influential voice to the debate, but also revealed divisions among Jordan's previously cohesive hardline Islamist community of ultra-orthodox Salafist Muslims.

Maqdisi has mocked Baghdadi's caliphate and expressed outrage at the brutality unleashed by Islamic State.

“It is giving our jihad a bloody texture that we cannot accept. These images of decapitations are painful. This is something we cannot accept, nor Allah (God). Mercy with the infidels dominated during the spread of Islam,” he said this month in an audio message.

That has triggered an avalanche of attacks by Islamic State supporters who have shown none of the deference usually reserved for senior scholars such as Maqdisi. They say he was released not because he had served out his five-year jail term, but with a specific remit to attack Islamic State.

The row has sparked verbal and physical conflict. Two radical Islamists who spoke out against Islamic State's decapitations and indiscriminate killings of Shi'ite Muslims were recently physically beaten by the group's supporters.

Islamic State's black flag was also raised in June by supporters in the historically volatile city of Maan, a tribal stronghold of over 50,000 people about 250 km (156 miles) south of the capital.

Here, crosscurrents of crime, smuggling and tribal disaffection are a combustible mix for the government, which is resented for neglecting the area's development. That has provided fertile ground for Islamist recruitment.

But Mohammad Shalabi, a militant Salafist from Maan who has encouraged Islamists to go to Syria to fight, said Jordan was not a target for Islamic State.

“The Islamic State … have no interest in targeting Jordan. When I have not consolidated my presence firmly enough in Iraq and Syria I cannot move to Jordan,” said Shalabi, also known as Abu Sayyaf. He spent 10 years in prison for militancy including a plot to attack U.S. troops in Jordan.

Shalabi, a respected figure by locals in the city who mediates with tribal chiefs in disputes with the authorities, said his followers had no interest in destabilizing Jordan, unless the government provoked them. “If we felt, God forbid, that injustice is going to befall us or that the circle of injustice is expanding, we will not sit with our hands tied.”

Editing by Tom Perry and Will Waterman

Facing Islamist threats, Arab nations tilt toward Israel


Between the war in Gaza and gains by Islamic militants in Iraq, Syria and Libya, there’s plenty of cause these days for pessimism about the Middle East.

But amid all the fighting, there’s also some good news for Israel.

If it wasn’t obvious before, the conflagrations have driven home just how much the old paradigms of the Middle East have faded in an era when the threat of Islamic extremists has become the overarching concern in the Arab world. In this fight against Islamic militancy, many Arab governments find themselves on the same side as Israel.

A generation ago, much of the Middle East was viewed through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Then, during the Iraq War era of the 2000s, the focus shifted to the Sunni-Shiite divide and the sectarian fighting it spurred. By early 2011, the Arab Spring movement had become the template for the region, generating excitement that repressive autocratic governments might be replaced with fledgling democracies.

Instead, the Arab Spring ushered in bloody civil wars in Syria and Libya, providing openings for violent Islamists. Egypt’s experiment in democracy resulted in an Islamist-led government, prompting a backlash and coup a year ago and the restoration of the old guard.

After witnessing the outcomes of the Arab Spring, the old Arab order appears more determined than ever to keep its grip on power and beat back any challenges, particularly by potent Islamist adversaries.

The confluence of events over the summer demonstrates just how menacingly Arab regimes view militant Islam. A newly declared radical Islamic State, known by the acronym ISIS, made rapid territorial gains in Syria and Iraq, brutally executing opponents and capturing Iraq’s second-largest city. In Libya, Islamic militants overran the Tripoli airport while Egypt and the United Arab Emirates carried out airstrikes against them.

Concerning Gaza, Arab governments (with one notable exception) have been loath to offer support for the Islamists who lead Hamas.

Let’s consider the players.

Egypt

Having briefly experienced a form of Islamist rule with the election and yearlong reign of President Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the pendulum has swung back the other way in Egypt.

The Egypt of President Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who seized power from Morsi, is far more hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood than Hosni Mubarak’s was before the coup that toppled him from the presidency in 2011. Sisi’s Egypt has outlawed the Brotherhood, arrested its leaders and sentenced hundreds of Brotherhood members to death.

The Brotherhood’s pain has been Israel’s gain. During the Morsi era, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula became a staging ground for attacks against Israel and a conduit for funneling arms to Hamas, a Brotherhood affiliate. But after Sisi took charge, he all but shut down the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, clamped down on lawlessness in the Sinai, and ended the discord that had taken hold between Cairo and Jerusalem.

When Hamas and Israel went to war this summer, there was no question about where Cairo stood. For weeks, Egyptian mediators refused to countenance Hamas’ cease-fire demands, presenting only Israel’s proposals. On Egyptian TV, commentators lambasted and mocked Hamas leaders.

With its clandestine airstrikes in Libya over the last few days, Egypt has shown that it is willing to go beyond its borders to fight Islamic militants.

Saudi Arabia

It may be many years before Israel reaches a formal peace agreement with the Arab monarchy that is home to Islam’s two holiest cities, but in practice the interests of the Saudis and Israelis have aligned for years – particularly when it comes to Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.

Saudi and Israeli leaders are equally concerned about Iran — both are pressing the U.S. administration to take a harder line against Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. With Iran’s Shiite leaders the natural rivals of Saudi’s Sunni rulers, the kingdom is concerned that the growing power of Iran threatens Saudi Arabia’s political, economic and religious clout in the region.

Saudi antipathy toward Iran and Shiite hegemony accounts for the kingdom’s hostility toward Hezbollah, the Shiite terrorist group that serves as Iran’s proxy in Lebanon. After Hezbollah launched a cross-border attack that sparked a war with Israel in 2006, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal blamed Hezbollah for the conflict.

Hezbollah’s actions are “unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible,” Saud said at the time. “These acts will pull the whole region back to years ago, and we simply cannot accept them.”

More surprising, perhaps, was Saudi criticism this summer of Hamas, a fellow Sunni group. While former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al Faisal condemned Israel’s “barbaric assault on innocent civilians,” he also blamed Hamas for the conflict overall.

“Hamas is responsible for the slaughter in the Gaza Strip following its bad decisions in the past, and the haughtiness it shows by firing useless rockets at Israel, which contribute nothing to the Palestinian interest,” Saud told the London-based pan-Arab newspaper A-Sharq Al-Awsat.

Saudi rulers oppose Hamas because they view it as an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they believe wants to topple Arab governments. Likewise, when ISIS declared earlier this summer that it had established an Islamic caliphate, al-Faisal called ISIS “a danger to the whole area and, I think, to the rest of the world.”

The Wahabbis who rule Saudi Arabia may be religiously conservative, but they’re not so extreme as to promote overtly the violent export of their fundamentalist brand of Islam through war, jihad and terrorism.

Of course, just because their interests are aligned doesn’t mean the Saudis love Israel. The Saudi ambassador to Britain, Prince Nawaf Al-Saud, wrote during the Gaza war that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “will answer for his crimes before a higher authority than here on earth.”

But common foes increasingly are bringing Saudi and Israeli interests together.

Qatar

At first glance, Qatar may seem like a benign, oil-rich emirate of 2 million people living in relative peace, spending heavily on its media network, Al Jazeera, and planning to wow the world with construction for the 2022 World Cup.

But Qatar is also a major sponsor of Islamic extremism and terrorism. The country funnels money and weapons to Hamas, to Islamic militants in Libya and, according to Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, to groups in Syria affiliated with al-Qaida.

In an Op-Ed column in Monday’s New York Times, Prosor disparaged Qatar, which is home to Hamas leader Khaled Mashal and serves as a base for Taliban leaders, as a “Club Med for Terrorists.”

“Qatar has spared no cost to dress up its country as a liberal, progressive society, yet at its core, the micro monarchy is aggressively financing radical Islamist movements,” Prosor wrote. “Qatar is not a part of the solution but a significant part of the problem.”

Syria

When the uprising against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad began, champions of democracy cheered the revolution as yet another positive sign of the Arab Spring. It took a while, but the Obama administration eventually joined the chorus calling for the end of the Assad regime.

In Israel, officials were more circumspect, fretting about what might come next in a country that despite its hostility had kept its border with Israel quiet for nearly four decades.

Three years on, the conflict in Syria is no longer seen as one of freedom fighters vs. a ruthless tyrant. Assad’s opponents include an array of groups, the most powerful among them Islamic militants who have carved out pieces of Syrian territory to create their Islamic State.

Now the Obama administration is considering airstrikes to limit the Islamists’ gains — and trying to figure out if there’s a way to do so without strengthening Assad’s hand.

For Israel, which has stayed on the sidelines of the Syrian conflict, the prospect of a weakened but still breathing Assad regime seems a better alternative than a failed state with ISIS on the march.

Iran

Where is the Islamic Republic in all this? Compared to the newest bad boy on the block, this one-time member of the “axis of evil” looks downright moderate.

Iran is negotiating with the United States over its nuclear program, and both view ISIS as a foe and threat to the Iraqi government (which Iran backs as a Shiite ally).

Last week, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf indicated that the United States may be open to cooperation with Iran in the fight against ISIS, which is also known by the acronym ISIL.

“If they are interested in playing a constructive role in helping to degrade ISIL’s capabilities, then I’m sure we can have that conversation then,” Harf said.

Whether working with Iran is good or bad for Israel depends on one’s view of the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

If you think the talks have a realistic chance of resolving the nuclear standoff with Iran diplomatically, the convergence of U.S.-Iran interests may ultimately serve the goal of addressing this existential threat to Israel. If you think Iran is merely using the negotiations as a stalling tactic to exploit eased sanctions while it continues to build its nuclear project, then Iran-U.S. detente may distract from the larger issue.

Where all this turmoil will leave the region is anyone’s guess. One thing is certain, as made clear by the U.S. decision to intervene against ISIS: Ignoring what’s happening in the Middle East is not an option.

American man suspected of fighting with Islamic State is killed


An American man suspected of fighting with Islamic State militants operating in Iraq and Syria has been killed in the region, a U.S. security official said on Monday.

The official, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters that the FBI was investigating the death of 33-year-old Douglas McAuthur McCain.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department would not confirm media reports that McCain had been killed in Syria but said the department had been in contact with his family and was providing “all consular assistance.”

Family members told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that McCain's mother had been called by an official from the State Department reporting that he had been killed in Syria over the weekend.

The newspaper reported that the family had been concerned with McCain's expressions of support of the Sunni Muslim militant group Islamic State, which has seized large areas of Iraq and Syria to the alarm of the Baghdad government and its allies in the West.

The Star Tribune and NBC News reported that McCain graduated from high school in the Minneapolis area in 1999 before moving to San Diego, where he attended community college.

Reporting by Mark Hosenball and Warren Strobel in Washington, Marty Graham in San Diego, David Bailey in Minneapolis and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh

Obama says rooting out Islamic State will not be easy


President Barack Obama on Tuesday vowed to go after the Islamic State killers of American journalist James Foley and said rooting out the militant group in Iraq and Syria will not be easy.

“America does not forget, our reach is long, we are patient, justice will be done,” Obama told veterans gathered at a convention of the American Legion in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Obama, who ordered airstrikes against the militant group in Iraq and may expand them into Syria, said he would do whatever is necessary to go after those who harm Americans.

“Rooting out a cancer like ISIL won't be easy and it won't be quick,” he said, referring to an acronym the United States uses for Islamic State.

Reporting By Mark Felsenthal Steve Holland; Editing by Mohammad Zargham

In the new Middle East, an embarrassment of evils


One of the crazy things about following the Middle East is trying to keep track of all the bad guys. Remember when Iran was the big bad Islamic wolf? Or al-Qaida? Or Hezbollah? Or the Muslim Brotherhood? Or Hamas?

Now, as if in a flash, along comes ISIS to become the evil flavor of the month. Seriously, how much evil can one region generate?

A screenwriter couldn’t make up such a cocktail of hatred. Just for starters, you have Shias against Sunnis, Persians against Arabs, Arabs against Turks, Turks against Persians, Iraqis against insurgents, Syrians against insurgents, insurgents against insurgents, Lebanese against Syrians, Egyptians against Qataris, Saudis against Iran — and everyone against the Jews.

I’ll leave it to the scholars to explain how each shade of evil differs from the next. I know that a lot of people these days are into the “Who’s worse? Hamas or ISIS?” game, but from where I sit, whether you chop people’s heads off or hide behind children to murder other children, evil is evil.

Even that old standby, “the enemy of your enemy is my friend,” doesn’t really hold up anymore. Just look at ISIS and Syria.

One of the sworn enemies of ISIS just happens to be … yeah, the biggest murderer of the new century, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who’s responsible for the deaths of nearly 200,000 of his own people.

I know ISIS is the height of evil, but can I really cheer for that Syrian butcher against anybody?

Same with the Jew-hating Holocaust deniers in Iran – they also hate ISIS. Aside from the fact that we belong to the same species, do I really want to have anything in common with the nuclear mullahs of Persia—even if it’s a common enemy?

It’s hard to fathom that one of the nastiest, Jew-hating threats to Israel – Hezbollah – could now be fighting in Syria against one of the nastiest, Jew-hating threats to Israel—ISIS.

Consider also Saudi Arabia, presumably in the “moderate” camp of the Mideast jungle. We’re now supposed to be buddy-buddies with the Saudi royalty because they’re the enemies of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. But wait. Guess who for years has been funding the most violent strains of Islam in the region? That’s right, the Ferrari-driving House of Saud.

Those turkeys are surely coming home to roost.

The craziness is everywhere. Remember when the Muslim Brotherhood was running the show in Egypt and helping smuggle lethal weaponry to their Hamas brothers in Gaza? Well, the Brotherhood became so hated in Egypt that most of them are now in jail. So, guess who’s now Egypt’s sworn enemy? That’s right, Hamas, the sworn enemy of Israel.

Of course, the Egyptian people are not exactly crowding into Tahrir Square to cheer on the Zionist army as it fights Hamas. But cheering privately? Highly likely.

We saw another example of the new Middle East craziness a few weeks ago when Egypt first tried to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

On one side you had Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and (yes!) Israel—all sworn enemies of Hamas– and on the other side you had Turkey, Qatar and (yes!) the United States. Why would the U.S. be on the “wrong” side?

The best analysis I’ve read is that President Obama is obsessed with closing a nuclear deal with Iran, and since the Egyptian-led coalition is strongly opposed to Iran, Obama was reluctant to poke Iran in the eye by empowering the anti-Iran coalition on any issue.

In any event, now that ISIS has crossed the line by beheading an American journalist, Obama is facing some serious cognitive dissonance: Should he align with the evil mullahs of Iran or the butcher of Damascus against the evil killers of ISIS, at least covertly? Good luck with that one.

I knew things were getting hairy when I asked my daughter in Tel Aviv how she was holding up with all the latest Hamas rockets, and she replied: “We’re worried about ISIS now.”

This is what the new Middle East has come down to– an embarrassment of evils. ISIS may be a new brand of evil, but when I look at longtime murderous entities like Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran or Syria, all I can think is: Pick your poison, folks.

If a sinister game designer wanted to create a new video game to capture what’s going on right now in the Middle East jungle, that’s a good name right there: “Pick your poison.”

There wouldn’t be any good guys in this game– just an orgy of bad guys. The whole fun would be in deciding who the baddest guy is at any moment, and knocking down as many of these guys as possible.

The ultimate goal would be to take down the baddest “bad guy” of them all, the one the whole world really hates: Israel.

U.S. forces tried but failed to rescue hostages in Syria


U.S. forces tried to rescue journalist James Foley and other American hostages during a secret mission into Syria and exchanged gunfire with Islamic State militants only to discover the captives were not there, officials said on Wednesday.

The mission, authorised by President Barack Obama based on U.S. intelligence, took place earlier this summer, the officials said. The details were disclosed a day after a video surfaced showing a militant beheading 40-year-old Foley.

Syria's government on Thursday denied any such operation had taken place inside its territory, though it does not control large areas where Islamic State operates.

U.S. officials would not say exactly when the operation took place but said it was not in the past couple of weeks.

They said U.S. special forces and other military personnel, backed up by helicopters and planes, dropped into the target zone in Syria and engaged in a firefight with Islamic State militants, several of whom were killed.

The incident appeared to be the first direct ground engagement between the United States and Islamic State militants, seen by Obama as a growing threat in the Middle East.

Lisa Monaco, Obama's top counterterrorism aide, said in a statement that Obama authorized the mission because it was his national security team's assessment that the hostages were in danger with each passing day.

“The U.S. government had what we believed was sufficient intelligence, and when the opportunity presented itself, the president authorized the Department of Defense to move aggressively to recover our citizens. Unfortunately, that mission was ultimately not successful because the hostages were not present,” said Monaco.

The National Security Council said later on Wednesday it had never intended to disclose the operation.

“An overriding concern for the safety of the hostages and for operational security made it imperative that we preserve as much secrecy as possible,” the NSC statement said. “We only went public today when it was clear a number of media outlets were preparing to report on the operation and that we would have no choice but to acknowledge it.”

The Syrian government dismissed the reports of the raid.

“It did not happen that American war planes attacked terrorist positions in Syria, and that will not happen without the consent of the Syrian government,” Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi said in remarks published by the Syrian news agency SANA.

Islamic State controls roughly a third of northern and eastern Syria.

OTHER CAPTIVES SOUGHT

Among the hostages sought in the mission was Steven Sotloff, the American journalist who was threatened with beheading in the same video that showed the grisly execution of Foley. Several other captives were also sought, a senior administration official said.

The families of the hostages were informed about the operation, “but only when it was operationally safe to do so,” a senior administration official said.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the mission was focused on a “particular captor network” within the Islamic State militant group. He did not provide specifics.

“As we have said repeatedly, the United States government is committed to the safety and well-being of its citizens, particularly those suffering in captivity. In this case, we put the best of the United States military in harm's way to try and bring our citizens home,” he said.

He added: “The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people, and will work tirelessly to secure the safety of our citizens and to hold their captors accountable.”

Additional reporting by Jason Szep and Warren Strobel in Washington and Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Peter Cooney, Bernard Orr and Eric Beech