TIME Terrorism

Why Westerners Are Fighting for ISIS

A growing number of Westerners are joining the Islamist militant group— but why?

The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is gaining notoriety for its barbaric methods, after videos showing beheadings and mass killings surfaced online.

Meanwhile, the group has been attracting an increasing number of foreign fighters from the West, analysts say. But why are so many foreigners joining ISIS’s fighting ranks? Among a range of explanations, one of them is that, compared with other jihadist groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS is extremely welcoming to foreigners, says Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma.

“The biggest reason for that is that ISIS philosophically has welcomed all Muslims as equals, as it’s building an Islamic state which does not have particular Syrian angle,” Landis says. “Also, ISIS’s leadership is made of people with very prominent roles that are foreigners so you’re not going to be discriminated against philosophically if you’re foreign.”

Social media also plays a significant role.

While in the past jihadist groups operated in secretive online forums, ISIS spreads its message — both in English and Arabic — on Twitter and Facebook, which are inherently open to the public. With its sleekly produced propaganda videos, ISIS reaches young, restless Muslims or other devotees around the world with a cause that they see is worth fight for, experts say.

“For many people who are lacking a strong sense of identity and purpose, their violent radical global narrative provides easy answers and solutions: it can be very powerful message for people who are looking for answers,” says Matthew Levitt, the director of counterterrorism and intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Their online material shows capturing territory, establishing states, beheading enemies: they show that they are the sexiest jihadi group on the block.”

The U.S. State Department estimates that about 12,000 foreigners have traveled to Syria from at least 50 different countries to fight with a number of different groups, including ISIS. Marie Harf, a deputy spokeswoman for the State Department, told CNN that officials estimate the number of Americans fighting with Syrian-based groups ranges from several dozen to 100.

For more on ISIS’ recruiting techniques, watch the video above with TIME editor Matt McAllester.

TIME Iceland

Look at These Incredible Close-Ups of a Volcanic Eruption in Iceland

Among the first scenes from Bardarbunga's latest activity

Update: Sept. 3, 1:56 p.m.

Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson has been photographing volcanoes in Iceland for four decades, so it makes sense that he’s keeping a close eye on the latest activity at Bardarbunga, which rests on the northwestern edge of the Vatnajokull ice cap.

Bardarbunga, which is classified by Iceland’s meteorological office as its second highest mountain, is topped with glacial ice. Officials say the current bout of seismic activity began on Aug. 16 after a gradual intensification over the past seven years.

While this volcano has not yet led to the same transportation mayhem that the Eyjafjallajokull eruption did in 2010, when more than 100,000 flights were canceled and Europe’s airspace was closed for six days over fears that billowing ash could harm aircraft engines, travel warnings have been elevated to “orange,” which means the volcano “shows heightened or escalating unrest with increased potential of eruption.”

Sigurdsson, 56, of Arctic Images, is based near the Icelandic capital, Reykjavík. He and a friend traveled an hour and a half in a two-seater plane from Akureyri, in the north, to Bardarbunga and the nearby Holuhraun lava field. No one lives at this barren location, but heavy seismic activity to the north has led to closed roads and the evacuation of tourists.

“We flew as close as we possibly could — and legally permitted,” Sigurdsson tells TIME. Officials had briefly raised the warning to “red” after a fresh lava eruption, which barred their aircraft from descending lower than 6,000 ft.

Sigurdsson seated himself behind the pilot and opened a window to shoot. Heavy turbulence made for a rough session, though. “I was strapped down into my seat and was still thrown up to the ceiling,” he says. In terms of gear, Sigurdsson used a Canon 5D Mark III with a 70-200mm lens, as well as two Sony cameras with a 24-70mm lens.

“We would stay upwind at all times,” he says, adding that the plane could only spend just less than an hour at the site. “We did some circles around the volcano, and then we had to leave because the weather was getting so much worse.”

Sigurdsson knows the scenes look intense but relishes working in such extreme environments. “It looks like we are daredevils or Indiana Jones or something,” he says, “but we were playing it safe. We knew exactly what we were doing.” Still, with thousands of earthquakes over the past few weeks, there are concerns that a big one could open up another fissure, which could lead to a large eruption.

He returned the next day under better weather conditions.

TIME will be publishing more exclusive images from Sigurdsson as events progress.

TIME Behind the Photos

Harrowing Images of Liberia’s Ebola Outbreak

The World Health Organization reported on Aug. 19 that more than 1,200 people have died in the massive Ebola outbreak across West Africa, with Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone at the epicenter. The situation, officials say, is considered “out of control.”

John Moore, a photojournalist with Getty Images based in New York, is in Monrovia to document what has quickly become the deadliest Ebola outbreak on record. He speaks with TIME’s Andrew Katz about what he’s seen on the ground. This email interview has been lightly edited for clarity. (This gallery has been updated.)


LightBox: How did you end up covering this Ebola outbreak?

John Moore: I pitched the trip to my editors [at Getty] after I read [about] the Ebola situation in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, described as “catastrophic.” The idea that burial teams were driving around town collecting bodies from people’s homes seemed horrific. Also, most hospitals and clinics have closed, both because many untrained health workers were infected, and because the public is afraid to go to them. This means that sick people who don’t have Ebola are dying as well. It seemed an important story to cover. I got the green light, purchased all my protective clothing, and booked a flight.

LightBox: You’re coming into very close contact with people who are infected or have died from Ebola. How did you prepare for a trip like this? What kind of gear are you wearing around and how concerned are you about accidentally contracting the virus, even though it’s not airborne? And how did those preparations adapt after you arrived?

Getty Images staff photographer John Moore wears protective clothing, knows as personal protective equipment (PPE), before joining a Liberian burial team set to remove the body of an Ebola victim from her home in August 14, 2014 in Monrovia, Liberia.

J.M.: When I have visited isolation wards or have accompanied burial teams into homes where they collect bodies, I have been wearing protective clothing known as personal protective equipment, or PPE. I brought 24 sets of coveralls, masks and boot covers, a half dozen goggles, some rubber boots and about 400 rubber gloves. I also brought various types of hand sanitizer and wipes. When I go into obviously infected areas, I do so with health workers wearing the same outfits. We all dress together and afterward undress, with each piece coming off in a specific order and someone spraying me with disinfectant at each step. It’s tedious and time-consuming, but that’s the way it works. It’s important for people to remember that this is not an airborne virus, but is rather transmitted through bodily fluids, so the protective protocols are not a mystery. As a photographer, I am not coming into contact with bodily fluids, but I take those precautions, of course, anyway.

LightBox: Why did you choose the West Point area?

J.M.: I have been shooting in the West Point slum for a few days because that’s where I found the temporary isolation center, which was set up in a closed primary school originally built by USAID. I was able to gain access to that center, whereas the other larger facilities are more difficult to get into. West Point is extremely poor. People are living in extremely close quarters and conditions are so unsanitary; it’s a place where Ebola could really explode. I met a recognized and respected community organizer who has helped me operate in the area, with a level of safety I’ve felt comfortable with. I have also worked in other areas around Monrovia and in the countryside, and plan to do more of that during my trip.

LightBox: Is there routine to your work or is every day different?

J.M.: Every day is different. A couple days ago, I covered a mob scene. [On Sunday] I photographed at Doctors Without Borders’ new treatment center and then went out with a burial team when they collected a body from a home in a nearby village. Today [Monday], I’ll be going out with a Unicef team as they canvas door-to-door, educating people on ways they can keep from getting sick.

LightBox: You’re getting into homes, following health care workers and moving around—at least it seems—quite freely. The result, for us, has been among the most intimate photographs yet of this outbreak. Who is facilitating your access?

J.M.: I employ a fixer/driver from Monrovia, who has worked with journalists in the past, so he has a general idea of what I am interested in and contacts to find out what’s happening. In the case of West Point, I also worked with the community organizer. He knows, for instance, who is sick in the neighborhood, where deceased people are—and people trust him. He brought along a big friend, who accompanied us at certain points, to deter any potential threats.

LightBox: What is the general sense in the Liberian capital? Is there any normalcy or has fear permeated into all (or certain) facets of life?

J.M.: There is not a sense of panic here, which may be hard to believe from the outside. Although word has gotten out about ways to stay protected, there are a lot of people in denial about the epidemic. Many, especially in the slums, believe it is a hoax cooked up by the government in order to bring in international funds. In other words, a lot of people think it’s a conspiracy, and that patients are dying from common diseases here—like malaria. These attitudes are vexing, but are the result of years of corruption and the distrust that comes from that. That’s why proactive canvasing and education in these areas by both international and local NGOs is so important.

Liberia Battles Spreading Ebola Epidemic
John Moore—Getty ImagesA burial team from the Liberian health department sprays disinfectant over the body of a woman suspected of dying of the Ebola virus on Aug. 14, 2014 in Monrovia.

LightBox: You shot a powerful photograph of burial workers entering the home of a woman who died to spray her body with disinfectant before being removed. You photographed her family members as well. What can you recall from that scene?

J.M.: A local journalist gave me the number of a burial team leader, whom I called. He told me they had just arrived to a location to retrieve the body of a woman who died of Ebola. [Bodies are usually tested and lab results checked before the team is dispatched]. I arrived, asked if I could suit up with them to go inside and they said yes. I spoke with some of the family members and told them how sorry I was and asked if I could take some photos to show the outside world what’s happening in Liberia, and they were fine with that. Some of the neighbors didn’t want their pictures taken and, of course, I respected that. We went inside the house where I stood in the hall and photographed as they sprayed the body with disinfectant, then put it in a bag and brought it out. I didn’t touch anything, other than the floor with high rubber boots on loan to me from my father-in-law. Afterwards, we each took a turn taking every piece of protective clothing off, all the while being sprayed with disinfectant.

LightBox: Can you talk about the holding center that was ransacked by a mob on Saturday? Health officials were also concerned that people suffering from Ebola had escaped that facility, which could mean the virus will spread.

J.M.: A burial team had come to remove four bodies from different houses in the neighborhood. The families of the deceased did not believe Ebola was to blame, as the bodies had not yet been tested. They rallied the neighborhood to drive out the burial team and its police escort. It was a demonstration that turned into a mob and the police had to fire warning shots into the air as they escaped the crowd, which was chanting “No Ebola in West Point.” The mob then moved down the street to the holding/isolation center and forced open the gates to the compound. The terrified patients inside watched from the front door as the crowd entered and told them to come out and join them, that they didn’t have Ebola at all and that the epidemic was not real. One from the crowd grabbed a girl from the front door and carried her out, and the rest of the family then followed. It was a horrific scene. I left shortly thereafter, as I felt it was time. I should stress that I was never physically threatened or harmed in any way. Later on, the mob reportedly looted the facility, including the soiled mattresses and medical equipment. If they didn’t have an Ebola epidemic in their community then, they most certainly do now.

Liberia Battles Spreading Ebola Epidemic
John Moore—Getty ImagesIbrahim Fambulle, sick and weak, tries to stand as a corpse lies nearby in an Ebola ward on Aug. 15, 2014 in Monrovia.

LightBox: The content within your photos is already compelling, but the images shot in a blue room are particularly eye-grabbing. Can you explain what happened there—what did you see?

J.M.: Numerous people died in that classroom, one of them while I was there. Initially, people with symptoms and those without were confined together, but were later separated into different rooms. Several of the sick “escaped” the night before the mob overran it, as they were not receiving any medication, like aspirin, to help with their symptoms. Of those who left, two died in the community the next day. I am not sure where the additional patients are now, as some of them reportedly had been brought from other neighborhoods and would have gone home there. [At least 17 patients have since been found and transferred to a treatment center.]

LightBox: How are you finding the health care workers? Some three dozen have reportedly died in Liberia. Do you see proper precautions being taken?

J.M.: I have only worked with health care workers following careful procedures. Since most of the clinics and hospitals remain closed, many health care workers are not working now. Clearly they all need to be both trained and equipped with proper safety clothing before they come back to work. That’s a big task and time is not on anyone’s side here.

LightBox: Did you have any preconceived notions about this trip that either turned out to be false or skewed? Or has it been quite as you expected?

J.M.: I expected that there would be more panic than there is. And although this epidemic is extremely dangerous, it is killing fewer people than other diseases endemic to this region. The terrifying part is the mortality rate. Chances are, if you contract Ebola, you die – the death rate varies from 55-90 percent. I have worked in many risky places over my career and I always take precautions for my safety. Naturally, my family, friends, colleagues and editors all worry about my wellbeing, but that’s the case whether I am here or some of the other places I have worked this year –Venezuela, Ukraine, Iran – and the Mexican border in my home state of Texas.

LightBox: Is there something that the media is missing or overhyping about this story, in your opinion?

J.M.: An inherent problem with an epidemic is that if it not hyped by aid organizations, then it’s almost guaranteed to become a disaster. If it is hyped, then maybe it doesn’t kill as many people and some would think that the threat maybe wasn’t that real after all. I’d choose the latter.

LightBox: How do you envision your return to New York?

[I’m going to] miss a friend’s wedding a week after my return. I plan on coming back healthy, and people not showing symptoms cannot infect others, but what could be scarier at a wedding reception than a guest who recently hung out in an Ebola isolation ward?


John Moore is a staff photographer with Getty Images.

Andrew Katz is a homepage editor at TIME and reporter covering international affairs. Follow him on Twitter @katz.

Mikko Takkunen, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME.com.


TIME Interview

Inside Gaza and Israel: Two Photographers, One War

As the death toll rises in the war between Israel and Hamas, TIME LightBox profiles two photographers who have spent weeks covering the opposing sides: Andrew Katz interviewed Oliver Weiken of European Pressphoto Agency and Olivier Laurent spoke with Getty Images’ Andrew Burton.


The main border crossing between Israel and Gaza is a long, open-air, fenced corridor that begins in a town called Erez. Since 2007, when the militant group Hamas took control of the coastal enclave half the size of New York City’s five boroughs, Israel has enforced a blockade. Its purpose: to block in Hamas, but it also seals off 1.8 million Palestinians who, in effect, have nowhere to hide when war comes.

For Oliver Weiken, a German photographer based in Tel Aviv, there was “no question” he intended to cover the battle from Gaza. It was just a matter of getting in. He was working the World Cup in Brazil when the fatal abductions of three Israeli teenagers led to an Israeli crackdown on the West Bank and Gaza, followed by an increase in rocket fire from Hamas. The revenge killing of a Palestinian youth exacerbated the situation, with the militant group escalating its attacks and Israel responding with a large-scale military offensive on July 8.

Five days later, Weiken, 30, made the long walk into Gaza, his third visit since the eight-day war in October 2012. “It gives you a bit of time to think about what you want to see, what you don’t want to see and what you probably will see,” he tells TIME. The walk felt familiar, but any similarities to his previous visits soon vanished.

After more than two weeks, Weiken, who stays in the Al Deira Hotel on Gaza’s coastline, has formed a bit of a routine. He doesn’t sleep much — he’s usually out the door by 6 a.m. for first light — and he’s constantly on alert. For the next few hours, he seeks out destruction that might have rained down overnight. After filing his morning batch, he aims for a nap in the afternoon and heads back out when the light is good again. Daytime attacks can end the routine quickly, however, resulting in sudden trips to hospitals, morgues or funerals.

“It’s really hard not to repeat yourself on a daily basis,” he says. That has become increasingly difficult as the security situation has become more precarious, forcing many photographers to travel in small packs. “At this stage of the war, nobody really ventures out alone anymore.”

 

Gaza Strip, Gaza City: My friend Oliver in Shujaya district during the ceasefire on July 26, 2014. ALESSIO ROMENZI
Alessio RomenziOliver Weiken in Shejaiya, in east Gaza City, during a ceasefire on July 26, 2014.

Access hasn’t been an issue, though, as most civilians recognize why he and the other journalists are there. And since hospitals and morgues are dealing with so many injuries or casualties, they’re too busy to check credentials. That was the case on the morning of July 20 when, at the Shifa Hospital morgue, he walked into a room with four bodies on the table and a doctor at the opposite end, wiping tears from his eyes. They were children, three victims of shrapnel and the fourth without a head — just some of the many bodies he saw on what would become the deadliest day yet, until that point, between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants.

Weiken made a picture but he didn’t linger. He doesn’t want to invade anyone’s privacy but realizes he needs to be there: “I try to be as invisible as possible, yet still be close and actually capture a moment.”

During a more stable cease-fire on July 26, he captured a broader scene in Shejaiya that showed the full wrath of Israeli strikes, then took a step back. “Everybody who photographed this general view was simply astonished, put the camera down and stood there for a minute or two to see this destruction,” he recalls, “because it really looks almost apocalyptic.”

He relies on photographers and writers on the ground for information, but also on the radio and social media like Twitter. The latter is not always reliable, he realizes, but it gives him a sense of what’s happening at that moment.

Many times that has meant witnessing horrific scenes. He avoids overly graphic pictures, reasoning there are more efficient ways of illustrating tragedy than by showing gruesome injuries, bloody gurneys or gory streets. “I think people can better relate and better understand by seeing, for instance, the emotions of relatives reacting to a tragedy,” he says. “Every once in a while, you have pictures of dead people, dead children, but I think you also have to do this in a delicate way,” he adds. “I don’t think a picture of a child with their head blown off will change anything, because people will look away.”

In the end, Weiken considers himself a documentarian. He goes out, photographs what he sees, then shows everyone else. “It is still, in many places in this world, about living or dying, and you need people who are there who can document that.” For his part, he’s not sure what will happen, or when. “I hope that this ends soon. But it’s already dragged out longer than I would have guessed.”

For Andrew Burton, a Getty Images staff photojournalist who just returned to the U.S. after covering the conflict from Israel for two weeks, the hope is that if he and his colleagues “cover this story long enough, eventually, there will be a solution.”

An American based in New York, Burton, 27, frequently shoots domestic assignments but has also covered the revolution in Egypt, the war in Afghanistan and he’s spent time in South Sudan. “[When the conflict started] I mentioned to my editor that I’d be interested in going,” he tells TIME. “I like to cover stories where there’s a narrative arc; where there’s the possibility of an ending. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been going on for many decades, and I felt this was an important chapter in their story — hopefully one that would move them closer to peace.”

Two days later, his assignment was approved and he was on his way to Ashkelon, an Israeli town south of Tel Aviv and just 10 miles from Gaza. “The Israel Defense Forces doesn’t have an official embed program for journalists like the U.S. military does, so we spent a lot of time driving side roads alongside the border trying to find Israeli troops, to find images that told the story of what is going on.”

The work can be frustrating. “In a lot of cases,” he says, “we’d find a platoon of soldiers and they’d tell us not to take photos, so we’d have to leave.” But, in some cases, especially when Burton met with Israeli reservists, he was allowed to stay for as much as an hour. “From what I could tell, the reservists didn’t mind [being photographed as much as the standing Israeli military].”

Albert Fishman SadikovAndrew Burton photographing Israeli soldiers responding to a missile siren near Kfar Aza, Israel, July 23, 2014.

“I was trying to find the photos that told the story,” he says. “The first week I was there, when the ground invasion had not yet happened, I’d shoot a lot of photos of tanks firing shells or of piles of shells [that had been used]. Once the ground invasion started, it was even tougher because the military locks down large areas of land, deeming them ‘closed military zones’, and you can’t physically get close enough to the border to actually show troops working inside Gaza.” There were also side stories to photograph, he explains, such as groups of Israelis who would watch the military operations from nearby hilltops, as well as Israeli soldiers’ funerals. “I tried to vary the coverage as much as possible, but there was an element of repetition.”

When Burton wasn’t shooting, he closely observed how Israelis behaved in war time: he was surprised to find a particular national mood that permeated all aspects of daily life in Israel. “I saw what you can expect to see when one country goes to war, which is a real national spirit,” he notes. “Many Israelis I met were very proud of protecting their homeland. There was a lot of symbolism, with many people flying Israeli flags on their cars, for example. That said, I also photographed multiple peace protests, where Israeli citizens strongly disagreed with their country’s actions and desired peace and reconciliation.”

And, as opposed to the U.S. where only a minority of the population has fought in a war, creating, over the years, what Burton calls “a disconnect between soldiers and civilians, in Israel, since [nearly] everyone has to serve in the military, there’s a much greater understanding of what it’s like to [defend your country]. There’s a better relationship between civilians and the military, and I picked up on that especially when I was working alongside other Israeli photographers.”

Burton is now back in the U.S., where he feels it’s important to reflect on what he saw and recorded. “When I’m on assignment, I try to have a thorough understanding of the implications of events I’m covering, but it’s hard to get a 30,000-feet view of what’s going on when you’re in it,” he says. “Compared to what’s going on in Gaza, it’s far less emotionally or spiritually taxing to cover this war from the Israeli side, but I still try to take time for myself to process everything.”

For Weiken, meanwhile, a time of reflection will come once the fighting has stopped. “The reconciliation with what you see in situations like this actually comes afterward, when the war is over and you have time to think about it.” That personal, internal reconciliation will likely start, Weiken believes, during the long walk back to Israel. “It’s cathartic.”


Oliver Weiken, a German photographer based in Tel Aviv, is represented by European Pressphoto Agency. Follow him on Twitter @OliverWeiken.

Andrew Burton, a Getty Images staff photojournalist, is based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewBurton.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent.

Andrew Katz is a homepage editor at TIME and reporter covering international affairs. Follow him on Twitter @katz.

Mikko Takkunen, who edited Burton’s and Weiken’s images for this post, is an associate photo editor at TIME.com. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism.


TIME Malaysia

See the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 Crash Site in Ukraine From Space

Malaysia Airlines flight 17 crash site in Ukraine, July 20, 2014.
DigitalGlobe/Getty Images Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash site in eastern Ukraine, July 20, 2014.

Satellite image released by DigitalGlobe shows a main impact site on July 20

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was traveling some 33,000 feet above eastern Ukraine on July 17 when it was struck by a surface-to-air missile believed to have been fired by Russia-backed separatists, resulting in the deaths of 283 passengers and 15 crew members from 12 nations. (Read about the lives lost in the tragedy.)

DigitalGlobe released this image on July 21, one day after its QuickBird satellite captured it. Debris from the plane, which had been traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was scattered over several square miles near the area of Grabovo. (For a closer look, see Jérôme Sessini’s photographs from immediately after the crash.)

President Barack Obama accused the separatists on Monday of removing evidence from the impact site following reports that bodies were not being properly released and international investigators were being blocked from the scene.

TIME Syria

Report Details Hardships Facing Syria’s Refugee Mothers

Syrian Refugees; Lebanon; North Lebanon; refugees
Lynsey Addario—UNHCR Sanaa, 26, washes clothes in a borrowed washing machine at a shelter in Saida, Lebanon, on March 4, 2014.

Some 145,000 refugee households are headed by women

A new U.N. report grimly details the daily plight of thousands of Syrian refugee mothers who have fled civil war and now toil as their household’s primary breadwinner.

Four-fifths of the 2.8 million Syrians who have fled their war-torn homeland since March 2011 are women and children, says the U.N., leading to some 145,000 refugee households headed solely by women. The survey, based on three months of interviews with 135 women in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, provides a snapshot of the complexities they endure while trying to feed and protect their children, find enough work to make rent and retain any semblance of the lives they enjoyed before war broke out.

They represent women who once managed their homes, even as their husbands usually handled physical and financial security, but who now lead households in unfamiliar and often insecure communities. Lebanon, a nation of 4 million, has taken in more than a million people. At least 600,000 have entered Jordan, with most gravitating toward urban areas, an influx that has crushed certain infrastructure. In addition, some 137,000 have made it to Egypt.

António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said “escaping their ruined homeland was only the first step in a journey of grinding hardship” and called their treatment “shameful” as the crisis worsens. “They have run out of money, face daily threats to their safety and are being treated as outcasts,” he added, “for no other crime than losing their men to a vicious war.”

Typically, their first challenge was simply finding a roof. Many make do with overcrowded or makeshift housing, due to few options and difficulties in securing a stable and sufficient income. Only one-fifth of those interviewed had paid work, and many others said they relied on cash assistance from aid groups or generosity from others in their community.

Paying rent is among their top stressors, as is feeding loved ones. With an average of 5.6 people per household, some mothers said their families ate less as a whole or individuals held back so others could eat more. “Rent is more important than food,” one woman who lived with her seven children in Amman told the U.N. “We don’t remember what meat or fruit tastes like,” echoed another, who kept a home of nine people in Giza, Egypt.

The vast majority of women interviewed relied on food vouchers from the U.N. World Food Programme, but very few complained that their households were going hungry.

Among a number of other issues reported were an inability to afford proper medical care, regular instances of verbal harassment and even offers of free accommodation in exchange for sexual favors. A significant portion said they left their homes much less often than they did in Syria.

The U.N. expects these problems to worsen, as it estimates the total number of Syrian refugees will reach 3.6 million by year’s end, unless aid agencies, donors and host governments renew their commitments of support.

TIME Foreign Policy

Kerry Presses for Iraq Peace but Warns Militants Could Force U.S. Action

Secretary of State John Kerry met with top Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish political leaders in Baghdad on Monday. He warned that the threat from militants storming across Iraq could force the U.S. to take military action, even as he pressed the country's leaders to cede more power to opponents and forge a political solution to the crisis

Updated 3:18 p.m. E.T.

Secretary of State John Kerry warned Monday that the threat from militants storming across Iraq could force the U.S. to take military action, even as he pressed the country’s leaders to cede more power to opponents and forge a political solution to the crisis.

“They do pose a threat,” Kerry said of fighters from the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). “They cannot be given safe haven anywhere.

“That’s why, again, I reiterate the President will not be hampered if he deems it necessary if [political reconciliation] is not complete,” Kerry added.

Kerry’s comments came during an unannounced visit to Baghdad, during which he met with the country’s top officials and urged Shi‘ite leaders to cede more power to their rivals as Sunni insurgents plunge the country into chaos.

Kerry had a 90-minute closed-door meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom U.S. officials pushed to be more inclusive in his government to bridge the country’s sectarian divide, worsened by years of policymaking that slighted Sunnis and the Kurdish minority in the north. Kerry said afterward that al-Maliki, along with other government officials, had committed to meet a July 1 deadline to build a new power-sharing government.

He also met with top Shi‘ite cleric Ammar al-Hakim and one of Iraq’s most senior Sunnis, parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi. “These are difficult times,” he said in the meeting with al-Nujaifi, while reaffirming the Obama Administration’s commitment to stabilizing Iraq’s security. “But the principal concern is for the Iraqi people — for the integrity of the country, its borders, for its sovereignty.”

Kerry spoke about the unrest playing out in Iraq the day before while in Cairo. “This is a critical moment where together we must urge Iraq’s leaders to rise above sectarian motivations and form a government that is united in its determination to meet the needs and speak to the demands of all of their people,” Kerry told reporters.

The Middle East trip comes days after President Barack Obama confirmed the U.S. would send 300 military advisers to assist in the training of the Iraqi military as it attempts to beat back the ferocious assault spearheaded by ISIS extremists. Those troops, Obama said, would not engage in combat missions.

— Additional reporting by Zeke J Miller and Michael Crowley

TIME Iraq

Satellite Photo Shows Smoke Billowing From Contested Iraqi Refinery

A satellite view shows smoke billowing from the key oil refinery complex in Baiji on June 18, 2014.
USGS/NASA/Getty Images A satellite view shows smoke billowing from the key oil refinery complex in Baiji on June 18, 2014.

The refinery was overrun earlier this week by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militant group

A satellite photo handed out by the U.S. Geological Survey Thursday shows a plume of smoke billowing from a large oil refinery in Baiji, Iraq that provides much of the region’s fuel for electricity and transportation. The image was taken Wednesday.

The Baiji plant, which lies about 130 miles north of Baghdad, was overrun by insurgents and allies of the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Tuesday as part of their lightning offensive through the Sunni heartland toward the capital. The plant shut down as a result of the fighting, which prevented workers from doing their jobs.

Exactly who’s in control of the sprawling complex after two days of intense fighting remains unclear. An Iraqi military spokesman claimed Thursday that government troops had pushed the militants to retreat and were in control, but workers who escaped the siege said militants were still patrolling part of the grounds. Footage aired on Al-Arabiya appeared to show ISIS’ signature black flags flying above the refinery, signaling it could still be in charge.

 

TIME Iraq

What You Should Know About What’s Happening in Iraq Right Now

6 key things to help you understand the crisis unfolding in Iraq

The recent offensive launched by the Sunni insurgents of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is the most significant threat to Iraq’s security since the American withdrawal in 2011. The al-Qaeda offshoot has united thousands of foreign fighters under its black flag and a desire to redraw Middle East borders in order to create an Islamic state—or Caliphate—governed by an extremist interpretation of Islamic law.

Militants seized a number of cities and small towns in a lightning assault south toward Baghdad over the past week, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and igniting a global debate about how to respond. They boasted of executing 1,700 soldiers, but the authenticity of that claim is in question. As concerns ramp up that one of the world’s top oil producers is again teetering on the brink of a sectarian civil war, here are the main things you need to know about the regional crisis:

1. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the new public enemy No. 1

Little is known about the man shepherding thousands of radicals between Syria and Iraq. Also called Abu Dua, he was aligned with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri before the two broke ties over ISIS’ brutal tactics. Baghdadi is arguably the most successful Islamist terrorist since Osama bin Laden—not even bin Laden managed to control a large stretch of territory in Arab lands—and the State Department is offering a $10 million reward for his capture.

2. Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Prime Minister, has made sectarian tensions worse

Two main reasons why ISIS tore through Iraq’s Sunni heartland so quickly—soldiers ran away when ISIS converged on Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city—can be traced to Maliki. Iraq’s security forces are weak, despite billions of American dollars spent on training, and the absence of national unity has deeply polarized the political landscape. Maliki and his Shi’ite-dominated government are resented by many Sunnis and Kurds for what they see as sectarian rhetoric and policies that have denied them representation and support.

“Maliki has intimidated and driven key Sunni figures out of his government, ignored agreements to create a national unity government, alienated the Kurds and tried to repress legitimate Sunni opposition in ways that have contributed to steadily rising violence and civilian deaths,” write Anthony H. Cordesman and Sam Khazai of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Maliki’s undermining of the judicial system, police and army for his own advantage, they say, have kept the country vulnerable to power grabs. “With nowhere else to go,” writes Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker, “Iraq’s Sunnis are turning, once again, to the extremists to protect them.”

3. The Kurds may inadvertently gain from the ISIS offensive

Iraq’s Kurdish minority enjoys a semi-autonomous enclave in the northeast that has largely been spared the attacks that plague Iraq. But the new strife could heighten friction between the Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’ites since the Peshmerga—the Kurdish security forces—filled the power void in Kirkuk after Iraqi soldiers retreated. The Kurds have long sought control of the oil city, which they call its historical capital.

That development could contribute to Iraq splitting along sectarian lines. “This would be a further prelude for the division of Iraq,” Brig. Halgord Hikmat, spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Peshmerga Ministry, told the Wall Street Journal. “A united Iraq is not the solution at this moment.” Partition would breed a host of other issues, but with Shi’ite clerics encouraging thousands of followers to pick up arms and counter the Sunni insurgents, the Kurds—left off the map after World War I and seeking their own state—could win out.

4. Any crackdown on ISIS could help Syrian President Bashar Assad

The region has been irreversibly impacted by Syria’s civil war. Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon are grappling with humanitarian crises as millions of Syrians have sought refuge in those countries. But Iraq has fared the worst: Parts of its border with Syria have been erased by ISIS, which took the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in January and controls swaths of several provinces, and Baghdad is rocked by regular bombings.

The ultra-extremists have flourished in Syria by seizing territories that were poorly run by opposition factions. Brutal takeovers have been followed by what Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, describes as “soft-power outreach.” ISIS holds anti-regime forums in neighborhood squares and fun activities for children to gain early support, and also hands out charity while promoting its mandate. Zelin adds: “ISIS is attempting to lay the groundwork for a future Islamic state by gradually socializing Syrians to the concept.”

A stronger ISIS bodes ill for Assad. Facing two battles, one to keep or reclaim territory and the other to win back hearts and minds, he could benefit from outside help to beat the insurgency. One idea proposed by a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation is a deal between Damascus and the West to bring peace to vulnerable areas and allow Assad to focus on regaining land: “Assad could help NATO and other willing partners focus time and resources on ISIS, which poses the greatest threat to the Middle East, the United States, and Europe.”

5. Iran wants ISIS stopped

The Islamic Republic has played a major role in propping up the Assad regime. But that assistance has not proven a deal-breaker as Tehran and Western powers work to resolve the nuclear standoff. Political leaders on both sides of those negotiations see ISIS as a growing threat and speculation is rampant they may work alongside each other to quell it.

“We will fight against terrorism, factionalism and violence,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on June 12. Days after a report emerged that units of Iran’s elite Quds Force were dispatched to protect allies in Baghdad and the sacred Shi’ite sites of Najaf and Karbala, Rouhani clarified that Iran is ready to help Iraq—if asked—and would consider “cooperation” with any American efforts. (Military decisions rest with its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.)

6. The U.S. is likely to tread softly

The White House has so far resisted committing serious aid to helping Iraq fight the insurgents. It was criticized for not doing enough to ensure security before its withdrawal, which came after Washington and Baghdad failed to agree on conditions for leaving a residual contingent to, among other priorities, keep training security forces and supporting intelligence efforts against Sunni extremists. Obama wanted America’s bravest back home, but it was an overly stubborn Maliki who ultimately doomed the sensitive negotiations.

What’s happening now is direct fallout, as Iraq couldn’t stand on its own. Obama understands this, saying last week that he wouldn’t “rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria.” Defense officials are now mulling options that don’t include boots on the ground. But if there is any takeaway from Obama’s address on June 13, during which he asserted “we will do our part” while casting blame on Maliki for authoritarian policies that fueled division among the sects, it’s that what is happening in Iraq is no longer America’s problem. That doesn’t mean he won’t work with an adversary or two to solve it.

TIME central african republic

‘A Question of Humanity': Witness to the Turning Point In Central African Republic

Almost six months after thousands of foreign peacekeepers waded into Central African Republic in a bid to control the fallout from street fighting that left hundreds dead in the capital of Bangui, they remain unable to stem the killing and population shift that has begun to redefine its makeup.

Their arrival under a United Nations mandate forced a retreat by the disbanded militants of Séléka, the mainly Muslim rebel coalition that seized control earlier that year and began a campaign of looting and killing largely against non-Muslims. But that power void, exacerbated by a lax justice system, was quickly filled by anti-balaka. The groups of armed vigilantes, initially organized to combat local crime and whose ranks of Christians and animists includes ex-soldiers, have fought back against the militants and furiously targeted the Muslim minority, which they view as complicit in Séléka’s unpunished abuses.

Anti-balaka now stand accused of crimes worse than what prompted their retaliation as the burning of whole villages and gruesome mutilations, among other threats and attacks, have killed an untold number of people and pushed hundreds of thousands of others from their homes. Amid tales of ethnic cleansing in the west and as reports of crude attacks surface in the east, where Séléka remains in control and is regrouping, the country continues to slide into perhaps the bloodiest and most unstable crossroads of its independence.

Italian photojournalist Ugo Lucio Borga, of the Echo Photo Agency, witnessed this turning point first-hand when he arrived in January. He took advantage of a connection with an army sergeant-turned-commander of a Bangui-based anti-balaka militia, who he met years ago in the remote southeast while covering the hunt for Joseph Kony, the elusive leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. With prime access to their day-to-day happenings, he could document the conflict as anti-balaka became more brazen and learn more about the fighters beyond the amulets they wear as “protection.”

“They are really young people without education, without culture, but they needed to do something to stop the violence from the Séléka,” he told TIME. With most schools out of operation and seemingly few families who hadn’t seen bloodshed, he could see why they so easily took up arms. “Now the problem is that they know what war really means and they have become another people. They are now fighters.”

Throughout his trip, during which he also shadowed French troops and peacekeepers from Rwanda and Burundi, Borga saw the effect on children—“after one year of violence, continued violence, they consider the situation normal”—and became more aware of the roots of the conflict. The fighting, after decades of corruption and meddling by external influencers, appeared to take on a more religious undertone and sparked concerns of a partition in a country where Christians and Muslims have historically lived in peace, despite instances of marginalization. But Borga found that not all anti-balaka wanted to outright rid the country of its Muslims. This specific militia told him they targeted foreigners because, among other reasons, Séléka included militants from Chad and Sudan.

Borga left in February having captured a series of raw, intense scenes that stand out for their intimacy. He plans to return ahead of the elections, scheduled for February 2015, but knows that making a big influence is a tall order when the conflict is so neglected on the international stage. Still, it’s the ability to inform that drives him, as well as an innate curiosity as to how it will end: “I think it’s a question of humanity, if it exists somewhere.”

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