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Meet Saudi Arabia’s Special Security Forces

These forces don’t pull their punches

In March 2013, photographer Lynsey Addario, along with TIME‘s Africa Bureau Chief Aryn Baker, gained access to Saudi Arabia’s highly secure and secretive Special Security Forces’ training grounds. They witnessed how the elite soldiers’ intense exercise regimen has prepared them to face all forms of terrorism or threats in the Kingdom. Following the death of King Abdullah, Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef, who leads his country’s counterterrorism program and oversees these forces, was named Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. He is now second-in-line to the throne.

Every country has its moment of reckoning. For Saudi Arabia, it was May 12, 2003, when heavily armed militants affiliated with al-Qaeda attacked residential compounds in Riyadh, killing 36, including nine Americans. That assault was just the beginning of a terror epidemic that unleashed car bombings, suicide attacks and targeted assassinations on a country that had known relative calm for nearly a decade. The number of attacks climaxed in 2004, when more than 60, including several foreigners, died throughout the country in a campaign of violence orchestrated by al-Qaeda militants bent on destroying the Saudi monarchy. The government responded by bolstering its Special Security Forces, crack anti-terror teams that work under the Ministry of Interior to root out terrorists in the Kingdom.

For three years, the Special Security Forces battled with militants in the country’s urban expanses, until the threat died down with the capture and killing of the al-Qaeda chief and hundreds of other militants in “pre-emptive” strikes in late 2006 and early 2007. Lessons learned from those early days now form the core of Saudi Arabia’s Special Security Forces curriculum. The forces, which number about 10,000, go through a rigorous training program designed to prepare soldiers for every possible contingency, from an attack on a VIP convoy to hostage search and recovery, bomb clearance, storming militant hideouts, pinpoint parachute landings, precision shooting and surveillance. In March 2013, TIME was granted rare access to a demonstration that put the newly trained recruits through their paces. “2003 to 2007 was a good lesson for us. The kind of training we have now reflects the new era of terrorism,” said Major Ahmad Hakimi, as he guided us through the purpose built facilities just outside Riyadh.

The facility boasts a massive, foam-covered and bullet proof shooting arena with adjustable housing configurations, to mimic urban house clearing. The adjoining warehouse features an entire airplane fuselage so commandos can practice combatting would-be hijackers. Outside recruits practice dropping from helicopters into fake compounds, in the style of the bin Laden capture. They climb up and rappel down water towers and practice hand-to-hand combat with designated “enemies.” They don’t pull their punches either—learning to take a gut punch is part of the training.

Basic military training lasts three months, followed by another month of basic security training and an additional specialization that can last for anything from two months to seven. There is a strong focus on explosives, and Hakimi seemed to take particular delight in having his visitors inadvertently set off pyrotechnic “bombs” triggered by every day objects, from the tab on a can of Pepsi to a doctored Koran or a small briefcase. None of the disguised bombs were invented, he explained. Militants had used each at one time or another in the Kingdom, to devastating effect. “It’s important to realize that anything has the potential to set off a bomb. We have to be aware,” he said.

Saudi society is strictly segregated along gender lines. Even when it comes to security issues, female police deal with women and male police, men. I asked if there were any women in counterterrorism training. Hakimi laughed, and pointed out that there would be no need in Saudi society. So what happens in the case of female terrorists? I asked. Hakimi, our voluble guide with an answer for everything, was momentarily stumped. “I guess,” he allowed, “we deal with terrorists as terrorists. It doesn’t matter when they are trying to harm our nation.”

Lynsey Addario, a frequent TIME contributor, is a photographer represented by Getty Images Reportage.

Michelle Molloy, who edited this photo essay, is a senior international photo editor at TIME.

TIME Middle East

Peek Inside Kobani After Kurds Claim Victory Over ISIS

"There's only debris left"

Two days after Kurdish fighters declared victory over Islamist militants in the battle for Kobani, following months of U.S.-led air strikes, a group of journalists was allowed into the besieged Syrian border city for a closer look at what’s left.

Bulent Kilic, a Turkish photojournalist with Agence France Presse who has watched the battle against militants of the group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) play out from along the Turkish border, was among the few to enter the ravaged town.

“It’s not a city anymore,” says Kilic, who TIME named Wire Photographer of the Year in 2014. “I saw all the bombs that were dropped on Kobani during this battle. And there’s only debris left, especially in the eastern part of the town from where ISIS tried to get in.”

Kilic was in the first group of journalists allowed inside Kobani for a couple of hours Wednesday. “We had been asking authorities to go inside,” he says. “The only other way is the illegal way, which can be very dangerous—you can get shot. This morning, however, [the Kurdish fighters] told us they would arrange some time inside the city.”

Once there, he was free to roam around town, meeting some of the few inhabitants who chose to stay despite months of intense fighting. And while people were happy to see the constant bombardment come to a stop, they weren’t celebrating, says Kilic. “[This war] was very violent, and many people died—their friends, their families.”

Kilic is back in Turkey now—“AFP asked me not to stay the night because it has strict rules about reporting in Syria”—but the 35-year-old photographer will be back.

“I feel like I’ve finished the war-part of this story, and now, as refugees look to go back, I want to follow the rebuilding,” he says. “It’ll be hard. There’s no heating, no electricity, no water, no shops. I don’t know how they will manage, but that’s the story I want to do now.”

Read next: ISIS Still Strong Despite Major Defeat in Kobani

TIME Middle East

Israel and Hizballah Step Back From the Brink After Tit-for-Tat Attacks

Israeli artillery fire toward targets in Lebanon near Har Dov area, on the Israeli-Lebanese border, Jan. 28, 2015.
Israeli artillery fire toward targets in Lebanon near Har Dov area, on the Israeli-Lebanese border, Jan. 28, 2015. Atef Safadi—EPA

Israel appeared to expect Wednesday's attack and was satisfied with a limited response

Skirmishes between forces in Lebanon and Israel are a regular occurrence that only occasionally result in death. But when there are fatalities, the need to retaliate can spiral into war quickly, as it did in 2006.

The exchange of fire on Wednesday between the Lebanese Shiite militia Hizballah and the Israeli army left two Israeli soldiers and a United Nations peacekeeper in Lebanon dead. The attack, which was initiated by Hizballah, appears to have been a response to an Israeli operation in Syria earlier in the month.

On Jan. 18, Israeli missiles hit a convoy of cars driving near Quneitra in Syria, just below Israeli positions in the Golan Heights. Israel remained silent about the attack but the news emerged that six members of Hizballah and an Iranian general were killed.

“A group of fighters and Islamic Resistance [Hizballah] forces were with General Mohammad Ali Allahdadi as they visited the region of Quneitra. They were attacked by a military helicopter of the Zionist regime. This brave general was martyred in this attack alongside some members of Hizballah,” according to a statement issued by Iran’s Fars news agency.

The rhetoric of revenge in the Middle East is fairly predictable. Soon after the Jan. 18 attack a Hizballah official said: “Hizballah’s leadership cannot accept the blow it received from the Israeli strike and the killing of officials. Hizballah’s leadership will choose how and when to respond to this criminal Israeli attack.”

Israel knew, however, that this time the rhetoric would probably result in an attack and had been waiting ever since.

Ron Ben-Yishai, a military analyst with the Israeli news site Ynet, gave his forecast of Hizballah and Iran’s likely response on Jan. 19:

So what is likely to happen? Hizballah will not remain silent. In a few weeks, we may encounter an explosive device on the border fence with Syria, or on Mount Dov, or perhaps even on the northern border with Lebanon. Another possibility is rocket fire towards population centers in the Golan, in the hopes that Israel will not escalate the situation. There could also be an anti-tank missile against an IDF [Israeli military] patrol in the Golan fired by a pro-Assad Palestinian group. The organization may also respond with a symbolic act, such as flying a drone into Israeli territory – an action that would harm the IDF’s prestige but not cause a disastrous response that would push the region into war.

And so it came to pass on Wednesday that Hizballah ambushed an Israeli border convoy and fired anti-tank missiles at it killing two and injuring seven and reducing two armoured vehicles to blazing wrecks. Israel launched an artillery attack in response, killing the Spanish soldier at his U.N. base in southern Lebanon.

As the artillery died down on Wednesday, Israeli army spokesman Peter Lerner issued this tweet: “We have responded to Hizballah’s escalation, IDF will continue to operate in order to safeguard Israel.” His use of the past tense in the first sentence implied that as long as there are no further attacks on Israel the Israeli military would hold fire.

Ben-Yishai explained Israel’s thinking on Wednesday: “Does Israel now enter into a broader conflict with Hizballah or should it let it go on the grounds that this is Hizballah settling their account with us? It’s cruel to say, but this is frequently this way: When they have shed enough Israeli blood, they will have apparently responded sufficiently enough to stop.”

For now it appears that honor has been satisfied. In 2006 a similar Hizballah attack led to the 34-day Second Lebanon War that left 165 Israelis and thousands of Lebanese dead and both sides at a stalemate. This time, a similar escalation appears to have been averted.

TIME Middle East

See Aftermath of Hizballah’s Attack on Israel

An Israeli military convoy was hit by missile fire Wednesday

Hizballah, the militant organization operating in Southern Lebanon, fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli military convoy along the Lebanese border on Wednesday, killing two Israeli soldiers. Israel retaliated by firing 25 artillery shells into Lebanon, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to respond “forcefully” to attacks across the country’s increasingly tense and volatile northern border.

TIME Middle East

Alleged American ISIS Commander Has Been Killed In The Middle East

It was not immediately clear when or where he died

An ISIS commander who claims to have lived in the U.S. has been killed, according to jihadis in the Middle East.

Abu Muhammad Al-Amriki, who gained notoriety last February when he appeared in a video blasting al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, was a high-ranking figure within ISIS. The name “Al-Amriki” means “American.”

While reports of his death have circulated before, the latest claim is considered “far more reliable” because it originated from jihadis “familiar with ISIS activities in Syria and Iraq” themselves, global security firm and NBC News counterterrorism consultant Flashpoint Intelligence said. NBC News could not independently verify the reports.

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Middle East

Escalation Feared as Hizballah Attacks Israeli Convoy

Israeli soldiers carry an injured comrade after an anti-tank missile hit an army vehicle in an occupied area on the border with Lebanon on Jan. 28, 2015.
Israeli soldiers carry an injured comrade after an anti-tank missile hit an army vehicle in an occupied area on the border with Lebanon on Jan. 28, 2015. Jalaa Marey—AFP/Getty Images

Israel fires dozen of shells into Lebanon after its vehicles were attacked

At least two Israeli soldiers were killed Wednesday when anti-tank missiles were fired at an Israeli convoy on the Golan Heights from Lebanon.

Israel retaliated by firing dozens of artillery shells into southern Lebanon and convened a emergency security meeting in Tel Aviv.

Israeli military said an anti-tank missile was fired at Israeli military vehicle near Lebanese border, the Associated Press reports, leaving two soldiers dead. Lebanese security officials then said Israel fired 25 artillery shells into Lebanon.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister tweeted: “At this moment the IDF [Israeli Defense Force] responds to events in the North. We will not allow terrorists to disrupt the lives of our citizens and threaten their security. We will respond forcefully those who try to challenge us.”

Hizballah claimed on al-Manar TV in Lebanon that they had attacked an Israeli military convoy. In a statement, Hizballah said its fighters destroyed a number of Israeli vehicles that were carrying Israeli officers and soldiers and caused casualties among “enemy ranks.”

It said the attack was carried out by a group calling itself the “heroic martyrs of Quneitra,” — referring to an area in Syria where Israel killed six members of Hizballah and an Iranian general on Jan. 18.

Wednesday’s attack took place near Mount Dov and Shebaa Farms, a disputed tract of land where the borders of Israel, Lebanon and Syria meet.

[AP]

TIME Middle East

See Kurds Celebrate After Victory Is Declared Over ISIS in Kobani

Following a four-month battle for the Syrian border town

Crowds of people celebrated on Tuesday after Kurdish fighters declared victory over the militants of Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) for control of the Syrian town of Kobani. It’s seen as more of a symbolic win than a strategic turning-point in the conflict, as the group still holds large swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Read next: ISIS Still Strong Despite Major Defeat in Kobani

TIME Middle East

ISIS Still Strong Despite Major Defeat in Kobani

Kurdish people hold a picture of a fighter during a celebration rally near the Turkish-Syrian border at Suruc, Turkey on Jan. 27, 2015. The fighter was killed in battle with Islamic state militants in Kobani.
People hold a picture of a Kurdish fighter—killed during a battle with ISIS—during a celebration rally near the Turkish-Syrian border in Suruc, Turkey, on Jan. 27, 2015. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

ISIS boasted about their control of Kobani last year but despite being expelled from the town they still hold land and resources

Kurdish fighters may have declared victory in a 134-day battle for Kobani and described it as the beginning of the end for the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) but the group continues to hold large parts of both countries and the countryside that surrounds Kobani.

The loss of Kobani is certainly a setback for the jihadists, who first targeted the strategic crossing point between Syria and Turkey last year, long before the town took on symbolic status as a focus of resistance against the seemingly unstoppable insurgents.

With the support of air strikes by the U.S. and its allies, and the backing of Iraqi Kurdish armored troops who joined the fight in November, the Syrian Kurds gnawed away at ISIS positions to secure the last occupied pockets of a shattered town whose civilian population mostly fled months ago.

The victory, like the four-month battle that preceded it, is more symbolic than strategic. That was reflected in a statement from the local Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) militia. “The battle for Kobani was not only a fight between the YPG and Daesh [ISIS],” they declared. “It was a battle between humanity and barbarity, a battle between freedom and tyranny, it was a battle between all human values and the enemies of humanity.”

As much as it was a symbolic victory for the Kurds and their allies, it was a symbolic defeat for ISIS, which has depended on the “propaganda of the deed” — a combination of lightning military victories and brutal terrorism — to rally recruits and to cow both its enemies and the civilian populations that have fallen under its sway.

In October, ISIS posted a video report from Kobani featuring John Cantlie, the British journalist being held by hostage by ISIS. The video boasts of ISIS’ control over Kobani and the failure of any of their opponents to dislodge them. On Tuesday, after the fall of Kobani, rather than boast about controlling a town, ISIS was reduced to threatening to kill a Jordanian pilot and a Japanese journalist that it holds.

It is debatable, however, whether the loss of Kobani marks the beginning of the end for the jihadists, who still hold wide swathes of territory and major cities in both Syria and neighboring Iraq.

“ISIS is still well-entrenched in the areas it controls and still has access to human and other resources,” says Dlawer Ala’aldeen, president of the Middle East Research Institute in Erbil. “It’s not the beginning of the end in any schematic way.”

The positive news from the frontlines in Iraq is that ISIS has been contained and is no longer making territorial gains. Indeed it has lost ground to Kurdish and other Iraqi forces in marginal areas. “But ISIS is by no means reduced enough to retake the big cities,” Ala’aldeen tells TIME in a telephone interview from the Iraqi Kurdistan capital.

In the case of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city that was captured by ISIS last June, “I don’t believe there is an imminent plan to liberate it because the Iraqis in general are not ready to organize the support of the local population,” he says.

There was also little prospect of Kurdish forces going it alone against ISIS in Mosul without first winning over the local Sunni Arab population. “It would be extremely difficult to recapture Mosul and, above all, to retain it,” Ala’aldeen says.

Until ISIS thrust itself into the international consciousness with the capture of Mosul, the declaration of a caliphate, and the widely diffused photos and videos of its beheadings, the threat it posed was largely overlooked.

When shortly afterwards ISIS began an offensive in northern Syria, the autonomous Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria sought vainly for outside support to save Kobani, which was virtually unknown and marked on most maps under its Arabic name of Ain al-Arab.

Turkish and Western governments were suspicious of the nature of the local Kurdish regime, headed by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and linked to Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which is designated a terrorist organisation by the U.S. State Department.

By October, the game was almost up for Kobani’s embattled defenders when an 11th-hour intervention by the U.S. and its allies saw the first of a campaign of air strikes that helped slowly turn the tide against ISIS. Washington and its partners decided that the risks of intervention outweighed the prospect of another ISIS propaganda coup.

The PYD and its militia, along with other Kurdish groups, launched a massive and effective propaganda campaign that mirrored and contrasted with that of ISIS. The Kurds promoted their struggle as one of freedom and democracy and specifically highlighted the role of unveiled women fighters as a symbol of egalitarian secularity in the face of the jihadists’ perceived misogyny. “Save Kobani” became an internationally popularized slogan in the anti-ISIS struggle and dozens of Western volunteers traveled to join the Kurds.

It was not just about symbols. ISIS lost close on 1,000 fighters, having been forced to draft in reinforcements to try to avert defeat. The Kurds lost more than 300, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organisation that monitors events in Syria.

Kobani may not be the Kurdish Stalingrad, as some suggested at the height of the conflict. ISIS still hold the Kobani hinterland and the liberation of the town is not a strategic turning-point. But symbols are important in a war that will depend largely on undermining an image of ISIS invincibility which is popular among some of the local population and foreign sympathizers.

TIME

At Least 2 Rockets From Syria Strike Israeli-Controlled Golan Heights

Israel Golan Heights Syria
Israeli soldiers, take up positions on the Israeli-Syrian border, near Quneitra in the Golan Heights, Jan. 25, 2015. Atef Safadi—EPA

The fire comes after an airstrike last week in Syria attributed to Israel that killed six members of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and an Iranian general

(JERUSALEM) — At least two rockets launched from Syria struck the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights on Tuesday and Israel responded with artillery fire, the Israeli military said.

The fire comes after an airstrike last week in Syria attributed to Israel that killed six members of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and an Iranian general. Israel has braced for a response to that strike, beefing up its air defenses and increasing surveillance along its northern frontier.

Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said the fire “appeared to be intentional.” He declined to comment on whether the fire may have been connected to the strike last week.

A message on Lerner’s Twitter account said Israel “responded with artillery towards the positions that launched the attack.”

The military said sirens sounded in communities in the Golan Heights earlier Tuesday. It said that it had evacuated and closed a popular ski resort following the strike. No injuries were reported.

Israel captured the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau overlooking northern Israel, from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed it.

Fighting in neighboring Syria’s civil war has spilled over to Israel in the past. Mortar shells have exploded sporadically inside Israeli territory since the conflict began, sometimes causing minor damage.

Israel believes most fire is errant shots but has at times accused Syria of aiming at Israeli targets. Israeli troops have returned fire on several occasions.

TIME Japan

Japan Attempts to Verify ISIS Hostage Message

Japan Islamic State
A passer-by watches a TV news program reporting two Japanese hostages, Kenji Goto, left, and Haruna Yukawa, held by the Islamic State group, in Tokyo, Friday, Jan. 23, 2015. Eugene Hoshiko—AP

The purported message claims one hostage has been killed and demands a prisoner exchange for the other

(TOKYO) — A visibly shaken Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said early Sunday that Japan was working to free two hostages held by the extremist Islamic State group, calling a new online video purporting to show that one had been killed “outrageous and unforgivable.”

The message claimed one of the Japanese hostages, Haruna Yukawa, had been killed and demanded a prisoner exchange for the other, Kenji Goto. But the post was deleted quickly Saturday, and militants on a website affiliated with the Islamic State group questioned its authenticity.

The Associated Press could not verify the contents of the message, which varied greatly from previous videos released by the Islamic State group, which now holds a third of both Syria and Iraq.

The Islamic State group had threatened on Tuesday to behead the men within 72 hours unless it received a $200 million ransom. Kyodo News agency reported that Saturday’s video was emailed to Goto’s wife.

Citing the release of the photo claiming to show hostage Yukawa had been killed, Abe said after a late-night Cabinet meeting: “Such an act of terrorism is outrageous and unforgivable. We feel strong indignation, and vehemently condemn the act.”

Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said officials were trying to verify the video and the photo shown in it.

Patrick Ventrell, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said U.S. intelligence officials were also working to confirm whether it was authentic. “We stand in solidarity with Japan and are coordinating closely,” he said, and called for the immediate release of people held by the Islamic State group.

Abe said the government of Japan will not succumb to terrorism and will continue to cooperate with the international community in the fight against terrorism. He said Japan is still taking every possible step to win the release of both hostages and will continue the effort.

Japan has been struggling to find a way to secure the release of Goto, a 47-year-old journalist, and Yukawa, a 42-year-old adventurer fascinated by war. Japanese diplomats left Syria as the civil war there escalated, compounding the difficulty of reaching the militants holding the hostages.

Abe spoke by phone with Jordanian King Abullah II on Saturday, the state-run Petra news agency reported, without elaborating on what they discussed. He also called the two hostages’ families.

Goto’s mother, Junko Ishido, told Japanese public broadcaster NHK in a televised interview that in the purported message her son, “seemed to be taking seriously what may be happening to him as well.”

“This is no time to be optimistic,” said Ishido.

But Ishido also was skeptical about the voice claiming to be Goto. “Kenji’s English is very good. He should sound more fluent,” she said.

One militant on the Islamic State-affiliated website warned that Saturday’s new message was fake, while another said that the message was intended only to go to the Japanese journalist’s family.

A third militant on the website noted that the video was not issued by al-Furqan, which is one of the media arms of the Islamic State group and has issued past videos involving hostages and beheadings. Saturday’s message did not bear al-Furqan’s logo.

The militants on the website post comments using pseudonyms, so their identities could not be independently confirmed by the AP. However, their confusion over the video matched that of Japanese officials and outside observers.

Japanese officials have not directly said whether they are considering paying any ransom. Japan has joined other major industrial nations in opposing ransom payments. U.S. and British officials said they advised against paying.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said he planned to issue a safety warning to all Japanese citizens traveling outside the country through its embassies around the world.

The nightmarish situation had left him, “at a loss for words,” Kishida said.

Nobuo Kimoto, a business adviser to Yukawa, told the Japanese broadcaster NHK: “I don’t believe this. The world is far from a peaceful place,” he said. “I wish this was some kind of a mistake.”

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