TIME Yemen

Drone War Doesn’t Stop Al-Qaeda’s ‘Obsession’ With Striking U.S.

People inspect the wreckage of a car hit by an air strike in the central Yemeni province of al-Bayda
People inspect the wreckage of a car hit by an air strike in the central Yemeni province of al-Bayda April 19, 2014. Stringer—Reuters

Experts say Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains focused on striking the United States, and targeted attacks by American drones and Yemeni commandos have so far failed to weaken the dangerous group

Al-Qaeda is so many places these days that it’s easy to overlook the one spot on the globe arguably most dangerous to the West. But the stony hills of southern Yemen stood out vividly in the video that surfaced on the Internet last week, as did the scores of jihadi fighters who gathered to chant and pray in a brazen open-air meeting. The leader of al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, a former secretary to Osama bin Laden named Nasser al-Wuhayshi, sat on a rock and held forth on the importance of striking America—“the bearer of the cross.” Pick-ups carried black Qaeda flags fringed in gold, like the campaign standards of a regular army, all in the clear light of day.

“Many wondered, myself included, where were the drones during such a public display of al-Qaeda’s power?” Charles Schmitz, a Yemen specialist at Towson University in Maryland, tells TIME.

“Last weekend was the answer.”

The U.S. and Yemen launched joint attacks late Saturday that continued through Monday. The attacks served as a reminder of the persistent terror threat in Yemen, the ancestral homeland of bin Laden and a stronghold of al-Qaeda’s “old school”—militants focused not on sectarian warfare within Islam, but on “the far enemy,” meaning the West and, especially, the United States. Waves of American aircraft—identified by Yemeni officials as drones—targeted militants in vehicles, while Yemeni commandos poured from Russian-made helicopters steered by U.S. Special Operations pilots. The government of Yemen said 55 militants were killed, a sizable number that analysts said may also be significant.

“It’s significant if they’re senior people,” says Magnus Ranstorp, who directs research at the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College.

DNA tests were underway to nail down identities, Yemeni president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi told reporters on Wednesday. Initial reports indicated that the dead may include Ibrahim al-Asiri, the bomb-maker U.S. officials dubbed “the world’s most dangerous terrorist” because of his talent for getting explosives past security. Among al-Asiri’s innovations were the “underwear bomb” that a militant failed to detonate on an airliner over Detroit in 2009, as well as explosives hidden in computer printers shipped to the U.S. Earlier in 2009, al-Asiri dispatched his own brother on a suicide mission aimed at a Saudi interior ministry official.

“They are a serious terrorism threat, given the technical capability, the level of innovation in delivery,” Ranstorp says. “They almost have an autistic obsession with striking civilization.”

That alone distinguishes AQAP from other al-Qaeda branches, many of which are more interested in winning territory or waging sectarian war on Muslims they regard as apostates, often followers of the faith’s Shiite tradition. Qaeda fighters took over much of Yemen’s south in the security vacuum that followed the Arab Spring uprisings, only to be pushed into the mountains by government forces in 2012.

But the terror group remained focused on striking overseas. “AQAP appears to be the only one that’s still vectored toward, ‘We gotta hit the US, we gotta go after the Far Enemy,’ and that was al-Qaeda’s original banner,” says Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and officer at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

Watts says there are indications that young members of AQAP, many of them Saudis who fought in Iraq, appear to be arguing for greater involvement in sectarian conflicts, and building a state based on Sharia law. And indeed, in the video that surfaced earlier this month, several militants speak of concentrating their attention within Yemen, where a Shiite uprising supported by Iran festers in the north.

But Watts says “the old guard” remains in control. “That’s the track record, and they’re the group that’s committed to external operations against the U.S. and the West,” he says.

That also explains the cascading U.S.-Yemeni joint strikes last weekend, which, based on the relative complexity involved, Watts says appeared to have been in the works for some time. U.S. Special Forces, both in Yemen and across the Bab-al-Mandab (Gate of Tears) in Djibouti, have worked closely with Yemen’s military and intelligence since 2001, and more openly since Hadi became president. But Schmitz, the Towson professor, says Yemenis harbor the same concerns about their sovereignty and civilian casualties that plagued the American drone campaign in Pakistan. And in Yemen, al-Qaeda has consistently bounced back, in recent months overrunning military installations, attacking the Ministry of Defense, and breaking 19 militants out of the capital’s central prison.

“These operations seem to show that al-Qaeda was alive and well,” Schmitz says. “In spite of five years of drone warfare and three years of direct confrontation with the Yemeni military in which many people have been killed, al-Qaeda shows great resourcefulness and resilience.”

TIME Israeli-Palestinian negotiations

Israel-Palestine Peace Talks Mired in Uncertainty

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on April 6, 2014.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on April 6, 2014. GALI TIBBON—EPA

Analysts say Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's disclosure that Israel would halt the negotiations with Palestinians, following the announcement this week that rival factions Fatah and Hamas would seek to form a unity government, could just be a tactical move

Israel’s decision to suspend peace talks with the Palestinians might appear to signal the end of negotiations between the two sides—but the move has only served to create yet more uncertainty about their future.

The announcement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Thursday arrived as a thunderclap: after a five-hour meeting of the diplomatic-security cabinet, the vote to suspend the negotiations that have been championed by the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was unanimous. But analysts said they understood the suspension to be just that—a pause in the negotiations “until the make-up of the new Palestinian government and its policy become clear,” Barak Ravid wrote in Haaretz, the respected Israeli daily.

Netanyahu was incensed that Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate who heads both the Palestinian Authority and the secular Fatah party, had agreed to patch over a seven-year rift with Hamas, the militant Islamist group whose charter denies Israel’s right to exist. The reconciliation announced on Wednesday caught the Israeli government by surprise.

But does that mean the talks—which are set to expire on April 29—are over? “No, of course not,” says Efraim Inbar, the conservative head of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, outside Tel Aviv. “We’ll see what happens with Hamas.”

Kerry had to coax both sides into participating in the talks, which began in July, and neither has reported substantial progress. When U.S. efforts to extend them through the end of the year failed three weeks ago, Kerry said the Obama administration would re-assess its investment in the effort.

Still, both Netanyahu and Abbas have indicated they want to continue talking, and as a practical matter, Palestinian unity might even improve the prospects of a deal. The European Union welcomed the pact nominally ending the factional rift, which had divided the Palestinian public both politically and territorially, with Hamas governing the Gaza Strip, where 1.7 million Palestinians reside, while Fatah held sway on the West Bank, home to another 2.5 million.

A senior Fatah official on Thursday said the unity pact with Hamas was made with the understanding that the group would support the peace talks, regardless of what its charter says. “We wouldn’t have been prepared—or able—to sign a reconciliation agreement without it being clear to all the Palestinian factions that we are leading our nation to a two-states-for-two-nations solution,” former PA security chief Jabril Rajoub told Israel’s Army Radio. Rajoub tried to turn the tables on Netanyahu, pointing out that parties in his own governing coalition rejected the idea of a Palestinian state, yet talks proceeded anyway.

Inbar, who supports Netanyahu, says he understood the Israeli cabinet’s decision as a tactical move, calculated to push back at Abbas after the Palestinian leader took the initiative.

“It’s good for domestic politics,” Inbar says, of the Israeli cabinet vote. He adds that it could also stir the Obama administration to intercede on Israel’s behalf. “Maybe the Americans will wake up, I don’t know.”

For the time being, the Israelis have seized on the extremist reputation of Hamas as an opportunity to cast Abbas as the reckless party. After the reconciliation deal was announced, a post on Netanyahu’s Facebook page showed a photo of Osama bin Laden alongside an picture of Abbas shaking hands with a senior Hamas official who had publicly lamented the terror mastermind’s death. Below ran the caption: “This is President Abbas’ new partner.” What analysts call “the blame game” has played out in the background of the negotiations since their start, with each side quietly angling to avoid being seen as responsible for their assumed eventual collapse.

For most of that time, Israel appeared most vulnerable to the blame, largely because, as the talks proceeded nominally toward establishing a Palestinian state, Netanyahu steadily expanded the approximately 200 Jewish settlements on the West Bank territory where that state was expected to stand. Kerry appeared to seal that assumption earlier this month when he told a Senate committee that Israel’s approval of 700 more units in a settlement undermined U.S. efforts to extend the talks.

But as long as the fate of the talks remains unclear, so does the answer to the question of who might bear the blame for their end. For all the drama of Thursday’s cabinet vote, its announcement felt more incremental than final to many observers.

“It could be tactical leverage, or maybe something more substantial,” says Pnina Sharvit-Baruch, a former Israeli peace negotiator, now at the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank at Tel Aviv University. “It could be a way to make sure that Hamas doesn’t gain too much influence inside whatever government emerges.”

TIME TIME 100

Turkey Reaction To Gul on TIME 100 Notes Absence of Erdogan

Turkey's controversial Prime Minister is more used to the spotlight than his ally and rival, President Abdullah Gul

First reactions in Turkey to the inclusion of President Abdullah Gul on the 2014 TIME 100 list of the world’s most influential people took note of the absence of Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s most powerful political figure, from the list. “TIME 100: Gul is there, Erdogan Isn’t,” read the headline on the Hurriyet news site. Said the daily Vatan: “Flash! Gul is on the list, Erdogan doesn’t exist!”

Twitter – the social media site that Erdogan ordered shut down in Turkey after it posted links to apparently incriminating corruption wiretaps — echoed with skepticism of the choice: “JOKE OF THE DAY: Turkish President Gul in Time’s “The most influential people in the world” list..:) :)@TIME > Influential for what??” wrote @GayeAkarca

“Is he even influential in Turkey? Discuss,” quipped Bloomberg’s Turkey bureau chief, Benjamin Harvey @benjaminharvey.

In a mainstream media largely intimidated by Erdogan’s heavyhanded attentions, most early reports cited what novelist Elif Shafak had written on Gul without further comment. Gul has tacked his own course through the controversies that have erupted around Erdogan over the past year. The two men were among the founders of the moderately Islamist Justice and Development Party that has dominated Turkish politics for almost a dozen years, but Erdogan has strongly signaled his interest in running for the president’s office that Gul now holds.

For his part, Gul has largely refrained from being drawn on the subject, except to signal his reluctance to leave the office in order to take Erdogan’s place as prime minister.

TIME Middle East

Palestinian Unity Deal Met With Skepticism

From left: Fatah movement Leader Azzam Al-Ahmad and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh speak during a press conference following the meeting to end Palestinian divisions between Fatah and Hamas movement in Gaza City on April 23, 2014.
Fatah movement leader Azzam al-Ahmad, left, and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh speak during a press conference following the meeting to end Palestinian divisions between Fatah and Hamas movement in Gaza City on April 23, 2014 Mustafa Hassona—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas have been here before. They've buried the hatchet with "historic pacts" that fizzled twice since 2011. There's skepticism — but also a glimmer of hope — that this time could be different

There’s no shortage of reasons to be skeptical of the reconciliation agreement signed on Wednesday between Hamas and Fatah, the rival Palestinian political factions that split the Gaza Strip and the West Bank between them seven years ago — ending any practical semblance of Palestinian national unity. Twice since 2011, the parties have grandly announced similar “historic pacts” that would supposedly end the rift, and neither has amounted to much: the militant Islamists of Hamas still govern Gaza, the moderate nationalists of Fatah hold sway in the West Bank.

“No, it’s not real,” says Abdullah Zeud, 28, who owns a computer store in Ramallah, in the West Bank. “It’s just like every meeting these guys have held in the past, which ends up with them fighting and not agreeing on anything. They continue to hold their meetings, bring the Palestinian people’s hopes up, and then it all ends up with them disagreeing over everything”

“It is becoming a joke,” says Im Issa, 52, a Ramallah housewife. “Why is this happening now? Is it because they have found themselves going nowhere with the negotiations and want to try and put pressure on Israel?”

It could be. The timing of the announcement, six days before the April 29 deadline for U.S.-sponsored peace talks, suggests Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads Fatah, may have chosen to push back against pressure from Israel and the U.S., which Palestinians see as insisting on new concessions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was angered by the latest announcement, declaring, as he did after the previous pacts, that Abbas “must choose. Does he want reconciliation with Hamas, or peace with Israel?”

By appearing to choose Hamas, Abbas wins points with the Palestinian public (which strongly opposes the factional rift), while perhaps also driving a wedge between the Americans and Netanyahu. “Is he hoping this will raise alarm bells in Washington, and they’ll go back to the Israelis and say, ‘We’ve got to offer him something’?” asks Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies. “Yes, the timing is suspicious.”

But Rabbani also sees evidence that the new pact may well be more credible than those that came before. Both factions, he notes, have lately been weakened — Fatah by the trajectory of the peace talks, Hamas by a cascade of political bad news. First Hamas lost its headquarters in Syria, triggering a sharp drop in financial support from Iran. Even worse was the military’s July 2013 overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, which largely sealed off Gaza’s last remaining open border; the new Egyptian regime declared Hamas a terrorist group.

There’s also the photos of the signing ceremony, which took place in Gaza City. The earlier pacts were inked in Cairo and Doha, and championed by Hamas’ chairman, Khaled Meshaal, who travels the Middle East as a kind of roving ambassador. Both pacts were opposed by Hamas leaders trapped in Gaza — the very Hamas officials beaming with their arms in the air on the dais on Monday.

“The opposition in the past was from the Gaza-based leadership,” Rabbani says, “and this time those are the ones who are signing.”

Significantly, the pact is structured to avoid forcing together the rival parties. It calls for installing a technocratic government in five weeks’ time, which will prepare elections in six months. Meanwhile, Fatah will continue to govern the West Bank through the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas will rule Gaza. In theory, at least, it could work. And some even believe it will.

“From the things I’ve been hearing on the news today, it really sounds as though the two parties are really serious this time,” says Mohammad Ali, 35, a construction worker in the West Bank city of el-Bireh. “I think that the two parties have realized that they don’t have any more options, the negotiations have not achieved anything, and they need to unite with one another in order to confront Israel as one people united with common goals and objectives.”

But as Rabbani points out, and as the last two pacts announced with no less fanfare made clear, “Signing is one thing, and implementation is another.”

— With reporting by Rami Nazzal / Ramallah

TIME Saudi Arabia

Fears Rise Over MERS Outbreak While Saudis Fumble

The deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome has neither no definitive origin, nor a known cure, so global public health officials are becoming increasingly concerned by the Saudi government's sluggish response as the number of human cases continues to rise

The sudden spike in cases of Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, in Saudi Arabia came soon after camel-racing events at the Jenadriyah Festival in Riyadh. That suggested the surge in the incurable coronavirus, which resembles pneumonia but is fatal to 1 in 3 who contract it, confirmed what scientists already knew of the disease: that camels seem to be reservoirs for the virus, and transmit it to humans more easily than humans do to one another.

But with the number of cases picking up, there are worries that may be changing. And if the virus has mutated to increased person-to-person contagion, it has potentially catastrophic implications for another annual festival: the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina known as hajj. More than a million Muslims from around the globe gather in the western Saudi cities during the first week of October, then return to their home countries, which last year numbered 188. In an age when international travel has dramatically exacerbated the spread of new viruses like SARS, virologists say the mounting concern is only too clear.

The worries are aggravated by the performance of the Saudi government, which has failed to confirm whether the virus is, in fact, mutating. The Saudis have either not performed tests that would reveal the changes, or have not shared them with international authorities, virologists complain. On Monday, Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabiah was fired amid mounting criticism of the kingdom’s handling of the budding crisis.

“It’s frustrating,” says Ian Mackay, an associate professor at the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre at the University of Queensland, who compared the Saudi handling of MERS with China’s response to the 2013 outbreak of bird flu. “With the H7N9 virus, China provided almost too much information. You worried about the privacy of some of the patients, given the level of detail that China was providing.

“But we’re seeing the complete opposite extreme in Saudi Arabia, where you can’t even get the sex of the patient in some cases,” Mackay tells TIME. “And the WHO doesn’t seem to be getting that information either.”

Indeed, the World Health Organization as good as confirmed it did not have the latest information from Riyadh in declining to comment on the outbreak on Tuesday afternoon. “Kindly be advised that we cannot comment on latest MERS figures since we do not have the latest case count,” the WHO’s media office says in an emailed reply to questions from TIME. “And we can only communicate and comment on the cases that we have been officially notified of by a member state, namely Saudi Arabia.”

Concerns that the virus may have mutated are focused on two clusters of cases among health care workers: one cluster is in Jeddah, the western Saudi city through which pilgrims pass en route to nearby Mecca. The other cluster is among paramedics in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates.

Mackay, who noted the clusters in his blog, says he can see two possible explanations: “One is a fairly bad but widespread breakdown of infection control and prevention protocols” among the health care workers — that is, nurses or doctors failing to use gloves, surgical masks or other standard measures designed to prevent infection while working with a MERS patient. Such a breakdown would be possible even in a well-equipped and prosperous Gulf nation, Mackay noted, but for both outbreaks to take place at the same time “would be fairly coincidental.”

The other, more alarming possibility? “The other avenue is the virus has changed and become more easily transmitted between humans,” Mackay said.

That is cause for concern way beyond the Middle East. “When humans readily transmit to humans, that’s what will cause a worldwide outbreak,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told National Public Radio. “We are very concerned that … with what we’ve seen over the last two weeks … we may be at that point now.”

Whether the virus has, in fact, mutated dangerously cannot be known until the Saudis examine the genome of the latest samples of the virus and share the results. The WHO has said it is “working closely” with the kingdom, but has not issued any conclusions. Another way to find out if the virus has mutated would be if the number of cases were to skyrocket. But with only 344 cases worldwide so far — a decade ago, SARS infected at least 8,000, and killed 775 — the count remains low, and awareness is growing.

In 2013, concerns over MERS kept many as a million people away from hajj, an obligation that the Koran imposes upon any Muslim who can afford the trip. Saudi authorities discouraged attendance by the very young, the elderly, pregnant women, and people already suffering from chronic illness, a major risk factor for the virus. Still, more than 3 million people circulated at the holy sites for five days, at close quarters. With the risk of mass contagion in the air this year, the world may be hoping for a better reaction from Saudi Arabia than it has got so far.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the name of the institution that scientist Ian Mackay belongs to. He works for the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre.

TIME Abdullah Gul

Turkey’s Gul Rules Out Putin-Style Job Swap With Erdogan

Abdullah Gul - Uhuru Kenyatta meeting
Turkish President Abdullah Gul speaks during a press conference in Ankara, April 8, 2014. Aykut Unlupinar—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The future of Turkish President Abdullah Gul is linked to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has made clear his interest in running for the presidency when the post opens in August. But Gul appeared to cast the idea of a Putin-style job swap

Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul deepened a mystery surrounding the future of the country’s political leadership on Friday, apparently closing off one much-discussed scenario involving a job swap with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but in terms so murky and conditional that it only served to fan speculation about his intentions.

Both Gul and Erdogan belong to the Justice and Development party that has ruled Turkey since 2003. The latter is serving his third term as premier and is barred by internal party rules from seeking a fourth. But he has made clear his interest in running for the presidency when the post opens in August, sparking speculation that he could swap jobs with Gul, who co-founded the party him.

A similar dilemma presented itself to Vladimir Putin in 2008 in Russia, where the constitution barred him from a third consecutive term as president. Putin instead backed his former campaign manager, Dmitry Medvedev, for the job, and when Medvedev won, he appointed Putin prime minister. Putin returned the favor four years later, when he won the presidency again. But on Friday, Gul appeared to cast the idea of a taking part in similar swap.

“I believe that the Putin-Medvedev formula wouldn’t be a completely suitable model in Turkey,” he told reporters.

In nearly the same breath, however, Gul added, “I don’t have any political plan for the future under today’s circumstances.”

The cryptic remark had analysts scrambling to decipher Gul’s intentions. Some spun the remark as a surprise declaration of retirement from public life, “signaling an earlier-than-expected departure from politics when his term ends in August,” as Turkey’s Cihan news agency put it.

Most others focused on “under today’s circumstances,” hearing in the conditionality of the phrase the grinding of gears turning behind the scenes. “The first impression is that Gul wants to be candidate for the presidency again, but I don’t think that it’s possible without an agreement with Erdogan, because Gul always says he’ll speak to Erdogan about this issue,” the Hurriyet Daily News quoted columnist Yalçın Doğan as saying.

Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed. “The Putin-Medvedev inversion is just not possible in Turkey,” he tells TIME. “Gul is not Medvedev right? He’s got his own base. Gul will not be No. 1 but act like he’s No. 2. If Erdogan wants to become president, which he does, he’ll have to appoint a caretaker prime minister, someone he can influence a great deal.”

In Gul’s apparent rejection of a Putin-style job swap, others heard the sound of the President opening the door for Erdogan to remain as prime minister. Indeed, in a meeting last week, Justice and Development lawmakers reportedly were polled both on their views about who should be president and on the three-term limit.

“This might be a signal that they have already decided to stay with the status quo,” Ali Carkoglu, a political scientist at Koc University in Istanbul, tells TIME. Carkoglu discounts rumors that Gul would split the party, either by running against Erdogan for president or challenging him for leadership of a party they founded together.

“If they are divided, then I think they will both lose,” Carkoglu added. “They have all the incentives to work together. And I think they have a camaraderie so far. They’ve been in this sort of risky politics for 25-30 years. We are underestimating the tradition from which they come.”

Cagaptay concurs. “I think their relationship is marked more by collegial competition than by rivalry.”

But other questions loom, including what powers each office will hold. Unlike Russia (or the United States), the presidency is largely a ceremonial post; most political power rests with the parliament, with the prime minister typically chosen from the ranks of the largest party. But Turkey is drafting a new constitution, which Erdogan has said should embrace a presidential system, with a strong executive. “I think the order will probably be that he becomes president and then change the constitution, not the other way around,” says Cagaptay.

There’s also the matter of corruption allegations leveled against Erdogan and other party leaders. Erdogan has worked hard to thwart a judicial probe, dismissing hundreds of police officers and prosecutors, and even banning Twitter and YouTube after the social media sites linked to allegedly incriminating leaks. He took a victory in local elections held last month as a referendum on his leadership, but as long as he remains prime minister he enjoys immunity from prosecution as a member of parliament. Were he to become president, he could be vulnerable to courts that, for instance, have declined to enforce the Twitter ban.

Carkoglu says that, as president, Erdogan would have immunity for anything he does while he holds the post. But, he adds, “for anything he’s done prior to coming into office, there’s uncertainty. We’re not sure. So that would be a legal battle. Is it worth taking all those risks?”

TIME Terrorism

Bangkok Terrorism Arrests Could Mark Latest Setback for Hizballah and Iran

A senior U.S. official once called Hizballah "The A-Team of terrorists" but the Lebanese militia and its Iranian sponsors are struggling

The arrest of two Lebanese men in Thailand, allegedly for plotting to target Jewish tourists on a busy Bangkok street on behalf of the Lebanese Shiite group Hizballah, could mark the latest failed effort by the militia to resume terror attacks overseas. The latest plot, revealed in the Thai press on Friday, ended almost before it began. The two men reportedly arrived in Bangkok April 13 and were detained by Thai police on information supplied by Israeli intelligence. Both men allegedly carried passports of third countries (Philippines and France); Hizballah has previously shown it prefers its operatives to carry second passports. Media reports say one of the men admitted a plot to detonate explosives on Bangkok’s Khao San Road, a nexus for international backpackers, including young Israelis. The suspect also agreed to lead investigators to “bomb-making equipment” in the province of Rayong, southeast of the capital, the Bangkok Post reported.

Police were seeking third man, and The Post quoted an unnamed investigator as saying nine Hizballah agents are thought to be somewhere in the country.

The incident serves to underscore the apparent gap in operational abilities of the Iranian-backed Hizballah’s covert forces – which lately have shown little of the disciplined success that built the organization’s reputation as the “terrorist A-team” – and its uniformed militia. The troops are fighting on the side of President Bashar Assad in the civil war in Syria, and making a significant impact. Meanwhile, except for the 2012 bombing of a tourist bus carrying Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria – a “soft target” – Hizballah has suffered a number of setbacks that reveal what one analyst called “an atrophying of the group’s operational capabilities.”

“What I had been hearing from numerous sources is they just did not have the bandwidth to keep up the pace of the attacks because of Syria,” says Matthew Levitt, a former Treasury Department and FBI terrorism specialist, author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God. “They are all in Syria. And once that started in Syria in earnest, then [covert operations] became something that was less critical, it wasn’t their priority.”

One reversal came in Bangkok in January 2012, when a Hizballah agent (with a Swedish passport) led authorities to a 8,800 pounds of chemicals being assembled into explosives, apparently for shipment abroad in bags labeled as kitty litter. And Bangkok was the scene of the group’s biggest fiasco, a debacle in February 2012 that involved an Iranian agent blowing off his own legs while trying to escape a safe house where the roof had just blown off by a bomb-making accident. Three agents of the Quds Force, the branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps that operates overseas, were detained in the safe house incident. Inside the building, investigators found magnetic “sticky bombs” like the kind Israeli agents had attached to the cars of Iranian nuclear scientists. The Quds Force agents apparently intended to do the same to Israeli diplomats.

Phone records and other evidence gathered by four governments in a joint report detailed by the Washington Post link the Bangkok plan to Iranian plots against Israeli targets in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and India, all of which ended in failure and arrests. Other plots were thwarted in Kenya, South Africa, Cyprus and Bulgaria – and Texas, where an Iranian-American used car salesman tried to plot the assassination by bomb of Saudia Arabia’s ambassador in Washington D.C.

From Iran’s perspective, the flurry of attacks was intended both to avenge the death of the Iranian scientists and to demonstrate what in the way of “asymmetrical warfare” the West might face if there were a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Levitt wrote in a paper for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But neither Quds nor Hizballah proved as formidable in the field as they had had been before 9/11, when they drew back from terrorist strikes. When they resumed, the world had become more security-conscious, and both Hizballah and the Quds Force were both rusty and hasty, mounting 20 plots in the 15 months from May 2011 to July 2012.

Since then, Iran appears to have reduced terror operations once again – scaling back as Iran and Western powers began talking seriously about launching diplomatic negotiations addressing Iran’s nuclear program. (Israel has restrained its covert operations, as well.) Hizballah, however, appears to be constrained only by the need to concentrate on Syria. Levitt says the group remains committed to striking Israeli targets to avenge the 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, its talented terrorist leader, whose death was what prompted Hizballah to re-activate its covert operations. In addition, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to strike Israel in retaliation for its most recent airstrike on a convoy carrying advanced weapons; the Feb. 24 attack was the first such airstrike inside Lebanon.

Nasrallah later took responsibility for a March 14 roadside bomb attack on an Israeli patrol that wounded three soldiers. But he called the ambush on the Israel-Lebanon border only “part of the reply” to the airstrike. It’s possible another “part” was what the two Lebanese men were allegedly planning in Thailand, Levitt says.

“The Israelis in particular are very sensitive to any civilian loss,” he notes. “It’s possible the message is let them know there is pressure on every front.”

TIME diplomacy

Israel and Palestinians Look For Way Out of Talks Crisis

Palestinian women walk near Israeli border policemen after Friday prayers in Jerusalem's Old City
Palestinian women walk near Israeli border policemen after Friday prayers in Jerusalem's Old City April 4, 2014. Amir Cohen—Reuters

Peace talks hit another road bump with Israel announcing it would no longer release 26 Palestinian prisoners and Palestinians signing international treaties Israel opposes. Both sides, however, expressed hopes of saving the peace process

The trajectory at least appeared to continue downward Friday for the future of peace talks between Israel and Palestinians. Before heading back to Washington from Morocco, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the American commitment to the talks he has personally championed is not “open-ended,” and said it was “reality check time.” Israel dug in its heels, announcing it was cancelling the proposed release of 26 Palestinian prisoners—the final batch in a promised string of releases whose delay last week prompted the Palestinian leadership to retaliate by signing international treaties Israel regards as threatening.

“Peace Process Crisis” read the headline in Friday’s Sof Hashavua, a Hebrew weekly. And yet, no one was calling it over. Weeks remain before the April 29 deadline for talks originally set to last nine months, and an extension remains a real possibility, according to officials on both sides.

“I would not say that everything collapsed. I don’t think so,” says an Israeli knowledgeable about the negotiations, who spoke on condition of not being identified any more precisely. “I don’t think either party has an interest in collapse. But the question is how can we avert escalation given the dangerous point that we’re at right now.

“We still have till the end of April.”

A face-to-face meeting at midweek was “very tense, but we talk to each other,” the Israeli says. Voices were not raised, the source says, and despite reports in both the Palestinian and Israeli press, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat made no overt threat of pursing Israel in international courts for “war crimes.”

But that is precisely the threat implied by the Palestinians adopting international treaties. And though none of the 15 agreements signed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday directly involved the International Criminal Court, the Israelis complained of being blind-sided by the abrupt move, which the Israeli source said altered the “context” of the talks.

The Palestinians–who ordinarily complain that the status quo in the conflict favors Israel, which has occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967–pretend a certain amount of dismay at Israel’s outrage.

“It’s a non-violent, diplomatic step,” said a Palestinian official close to the negotiations, who also spoke anonymously, citing the sensitivity of the situation. “We are not joining al-Qaeda. We are talking about joining international treaties.”

And the treaties carry obligations for Palestine as well as for Israel, especially in the realm of human rights. On Thursday, right-wing members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition were researching grounds to charge Abbas’ government at The Hague, according to a report in Yedioth Ahronoth, the best-selling Israeli daily.

But if cooler heads do prevail, it remains unclear just how the two sides will find a way to extend the negotiations both privately indicated they prefer to see continue. One route might run through the deep thicket of UN bureaucracy, which the 15 treaties and conventions officially entered shortly after Abbas signed them. The Palestinians say prompt delivery proves they are serious, but the Israeli source appeared to suggest that the action was not yet final, saying, “If those letters of ascension reach their destination and the fact becomes irreversible, then we’re in a different ballgame and I don’t think that will allow us to go back and discuss the terms of an extension.”

A middle ground might be provided by slow, deliberate (or deliberately slow) processing at the U.N., which in accepting the Palestinian documents stated that its priority is to “salvage the two-state solution.”

At the same time, the Palestinians appeared to be making the most of their newly discovered leverage. They expanded their list of demands of Israel as the price for extending the talks, including the release of high profile prisoners and lifting “the siege” on the Gaza Strip, controlled by the militant Palestinian group Hamas.

At the same time, the Palestinian official who spoke to TIME suggested that, if Israel is serious about negotiating a final pact, talks could continue even as Palestine pursues its diplomatic track with sympathetic international bodies.

“What’s the problem with negotiating and going to the United Nations?” the official asks. “Because for the Israelis there seems to be no problem with negotiating while building settlements.”

Still unaddressed, amid the rolling controversies, are the borders of a Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem, and other issues at the heart of the conflict.

TIME Middle East

Middle East Peace Talks Hang by a Thread

Palestinian scouts hold posters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a Fatah rally in support of Abbas in the West Bank city of Nablus on April 2, 2014.
Scouts hold posters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a Fatah rally in the West Bank city of Nablus on April 2, 2014 Abed Omar Qusini—Reuters

The U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian negotiations still have life, but few expect any real progress after both sides up the ante

What Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas intended on Tuesday when he abruptly signed a raft of international treaties was not to sink the peace talks with Israel, but rather to aim a shot across its bow. Israel had failed to live up to its promise to release 26 Palestinian prisoners on Saturday, a goodwill gesture vowed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of the talks in July. The Palestinians entered the talks with a promise of their own: to abstain, for as long as negotiations continued, from joining U.N. agencies that might give Palestinians leverage over Israel in international courts.

So by abruptly signing 15 U.N. treaties and conventions — and doing it on television — Abbas was reminding Israel that a deal’s supposed to be a deal. Even if the deal at hand involves only how to continue talks that so far appear to have gone nowhere.

“We don’t want to confront anyone,” says Xavier Abu Eid, a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization’s negotiations unit. “It’s not a step against the Americans. But Israel was not abiding by its obligations, and therefore we decided we were not obliged to keep ourselves from our rights.”

Abbas made as much clear in his remarks on Tuesday, praising U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s “superb efforts” and vowing to continue the talks. Still, a sense of crisis ensued. The news cycles had been humming with reports that, in order to keep the talks moving beyond the April 29 deadline — and the Palestinians away from the U.N. — President Barack Obama might release Jonathan Pollard, the American sentenced to life in prison for spying for Israel. When Abbas picked up his signing pen, Kerry called off his plans to fly in to consult with the Palestinians. And after a dozen trips to the region and 39 meetings with the Palestinians alone, a canceled session will qualify as news.

Still, there were signs on Wednesday that Abbas’ move would bear fruit. Danny Danon, a hawkish senior member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, said the Prime Minister was now prepared to proceed with the release of the 26 prisoners — a move that Danon had vowed would prompt him to step down as Deputy Minister of Defense in protest.

“Now, the only reason you don’t see the prisoners boarding the buses and me resigning is Abu Mazen is trying to get more,” Danon tells TIME, referring to Abbas by his commonly used kunya, an Arabic honorific. “What we see today is Abu Mazen trying to blackmail more trade-offs.” Danon said in order to continue the talks, the Palestinian leader seeks the release of high-profile prisoners like Marwan Barghouti, a popular leader of Abbas’ secular Fatah party serving multiple life terms on terrorist convictions. Earlier in the week a senior Palestinian official privately hinted that Barghouti’s release may be imminent.

A spokesman for Netanyahu did not respond to a request for comment.

There’s ample time to cobble together the terms of an extension: four weeks remain on the official clock, and both sides have an interest in overtime. Embracing the “peace process” shields Israel from international criticism for its continued occupation of territories captured in 1967. In a conference call arranged on Tuesday by the Israel Project, a nonprofit that promotes Israel’s position, Udi Segal, a diplomatic correspondent for Israel’s leading news station, Channel 2, called the talks “a strategic Israeli weapon against international pressure, especially from Europe.”

And on the Palestinian side, Abbas has long promoted achieving a Palestinian state through negotiations. Most Palestinians think he will agree to an extension, according to a poll released on Wednesday by the well-regarded Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, and almost two-thirds think he should if more prisoners are released. The extension-for-prisoners trade is supported even if it means delaying the diplomatic confrontation in the U.N., the strategy that has the broadest support among the Palestinian public, most of whom have given up on negotiations.

Israelis harbor the same reservations. Polls consistently show Jewish Israelis support talks in principle but do not believe they will produce an agreement. And their pessimism appears to be justified by the current contretemps: none of the bargaining is around issues of borders, or refugees or the status of Jerusalem — the core issues of a final pact. Rather, the debate has been about what it would take to keep the talks going, peripheral issues known in the shorthand of the peace process as CBMs, or “confidence-building measures.”

“But they’re not even CBMs because I don’t think anybody is expecting them to build confidence,” says former Israeli negotiator Pnina Sharvit-Baruch. “All these kinds of external elements are a way of gaining time, I guess.”

If there actually has been progress on the core issues, Sharvit-Baruch, now a law professor at Tel Aviv University, says she’s been impressed by the secrecy that both sides maintained since the talks began in late July. But, she adds, “maybe they’re good at keeping secrets because there’s nothing to reveal. I’m not optimistic, unfortunately.”

— With reporting by Rami Nazzal / Ramallah

TIME Middle East

Israelis See Pollard as Hero and Hostage

Sentenced to life in 1987 for spying against the U.S., Jonathan Pollard may become a bargaining chip for U.S. in mediating continued peace talks now even more complicated after a meeting between top diplomats and leaders was called off

The “Free Pollard” signs go up whenever an American official visits Israel, lining the sidewalks on the motorcade route. When President Obama stepped onto the tarmac at Ben Gurion International a year ago, one of the first things he heard was “Please free Pollard.” Two Cabinet ministers in the reception line buttonholed the guest of honor on behalf of the American imprisoned for spying for Israel, giving voice to a popular cause that until this week appeared hopeless.

Jonathan Pollard was a U.S. citizen when he was sentenced to life in 1987 for espionage, but he petitioned for Israeli citizenship while in prison, was granted it, and as the decades passed his incarceration gradually took on the qualities of a vigil. Held by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in the Butner, N.C., Federal Correctional Complex, Pollard was invoked among Israelis in the terms of a captured pilot held by Hizballah in an unknown location — that is, as a hostage. Now it appears that the Obama Administration may be bargaining the terms of his release in exchange for Israel agreeing to extend peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Millions of Israelis would celebrate his release and inevitable arrival in Israel.

Pollard was not working for Mossad when he handed secret U.S. Navy documents to his Israeli handler. He was an agent in a brand new branch of Israeli intelligence, dubbed the Bureau of Scientific Relations and run by a former Mossad agent named Rafi Eitan. But Pollard’s capture was a traumatic event in relations between Israel and the U.S., offending Washington so deeply and obviously that Israeli officials solemnly foreswore any future intelligence operations inside U.S. borders.

By all accounts, the ban has held, even for a Mossad that regards as one of its most potent assets its reputation as omniscient puppet master — the hidden hand behind every unexplained event. Even amid reports that the U.S. National Security Agency had spied on Israeli officials, “we are still extremely cautious on this issue,” Dov Weisglass, who was Chief of Staff to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told me after the Edward Snowden leaks last fall. “We’re still licking our Pollard wounds very strongly.”

Within Israel, meanwhile, Pollard became a household name. His status moved from prisoner to captive to, as reports that his health was failing, potential martyr. In the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, on the slope below the holy high ground Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims know as the Haram al-Sharif, Jewish settlers dubbed their home Beit Yonatan, or House of Jonathan, in honor of Pollard.

The righteousness of his release became a matter of national consensus, endorsed by politicians ranging from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the right to President Shimon Peres, who was Prime Minister when Pollard was recruited. On Monday, a leading Hebrew daily reported that Gilad Shalit, the former soldier held for five years by Hamas, had written Netanyahu urging Pollard’s release — noting his 29 years in prison is “five times longer than my period of captivity, and this is the United States, our great friend.”

And so the bargaining proceeds. Netanyahu freed 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit. He agreed to release another 104 as part of the deal struck with Secretary of State John Kerry to commence the current peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The 104 would be released in four batches. In the three batches completed to date, 78 have walked free. But the talks are due to end on April 29, and absent an extension, Netanyahu has been reluctant to absorb the domestic criticism that will accompany release of the final group.

Winning freedom for Pollard, however, would be at least as popular a move domestically for Netanyahu as the 104 were for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, or the 1,027 were for Hamas. And domestic politics appears to be what the peace talks are actually about — precious little negotiating actually having gone on. The fly in the ointment, at least by some reports, is that the U.S. may make Netanyahu pay a premium for Pollard’s release, obtaining a freeze in the expansion of the Jewish settlements that Palestinians complain are gobbling up much of the West Bank that they hope will become home for their state.

That would explain why Uri Ariel, the minister who told Obama “Please free Pollard” was backtracking on Israel’s Army Radio on Tuesday. Ariel is in the staunchly pro-settler Jewish Home party; his portfolio is housing. He called it “abuse of a man who is ill” to make Pollard’s release a bargaining point in peace talks. “I was told by people close to him,” Ariel said, “that he is personally opposed to being part of such a shameful deal.”

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