TIME Pakistan

Pakistan Executes Seven Militants During John Kerry’s Visit

John Kerry Sartaj Aziz
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks as Pakistani Prime Minister's Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz looks on during their joint press conference in Islamabad, Pakistan on Jan. 13, 2015. Anjum Naveed — AP

The secretary of state’s trip to the country comes a month after the Peshawar school massacre

Pakistani officials oversaw the execution of seven convicted militants across the country on Tuesday morning, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began the second day of his trip to the South Asian nation aimed at ramping up security and intelligence cooperation.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif rescinded the country’s moratorium on capital punishment in the wake of the Taliban’s savage assault on a school in Peshawar last month, which left at least 147 dead, including 130 children.

Those executed Tuesday included militants convicted of launching deadly sectarian assaults and foiled assassination plots, according to AFP. Kerry has yet to comment publicly on their fate.

Earlier this week, Kerry unveiled a plan to provide $250 million in emergency aid to Pakistanis displaced by Islamabad’s ongoing military operations targeting Islamic militants by the country’s restive northwest frontier, according to the New York Times.


TIME National Security

State Department Shuts Down Unclassified Email System Over Hacker Attack

The department's classified systems, however, remain unaffected

The U.S. State Department disabled its entire unclassified email system on Friday in the face of a cyberattack, a senior official said.

Technicians are working to repair the potential damage caused to the system by hackers and the State Department is expected to address the closure early this week once those repairs are made, the Associated Press reports.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said unusual activity was first detected in the system in October, around the same time hackers targeted the White House computer network. The U.S. Postal Service and the National Weather Service are among the agencies that have since reported similar attacks.

The department’s classified systems remained unaffected, and the unclassified email is expected to be operational again by Monday or Tuesday.


TIME Immigration

Over 11 Million Played the U.S. Green Card Lottery This Year

Program may be nixed if Senate overhauls federal immigration policy

More than 11 million people applied for the annual U.S. visa lottery this year, up 11 percent from a year earlier even as the program appears to be on the verge of ending.

Less than than .5 percent of applicants will receive the opportunity to become permanent residents through the popular program, which has provided green cards to lottery winners since 1990.

But the lottery, which accounts for roughly 5 percent of legal immigration according to the Wall Street Journal, may be eliminated if the Senate passes an overhaul of immigration policy this year, with critics arguing that the lottery can be a security risk, provides residency to low-skilled immigrants, and is unfair to foreigners with family connections to the U.S.

Its backers say the system is particularly beneficial for communities with fewer connections to the United States.

“We must continue our tradition of welcoming people from around the world to the United States,” Rep. Yvette D. Clarke, a Democrat from Brooklyn, told the Journal. “I will work to expand the program, which has been critical for many people from Africa, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe who would not otherwise have the opportunity to come here.”

TIME State Department

Clinton Aides Faulted for Strong-Arming State Investigations

Key Speakers At 2014 The DreamForce Conference
Hillary Clinton, former U.S. secretary of state, speaks during the DreamForce Conference in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

A State Department investigation has found that aides to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton contributed to the “appearance of undue influence and favoritism” in three departmental investigations related to alleged sexual conduct by officials in the field.

In the highest-level case, the department’s inspector general found that senior State Department officials declared an allegation that the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium had solicited a prostitute in a public park as a “management issue.” The move effectively halted an investigation by the department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. The ambassador, Howard Gutman, was recalled to Washington from Belgium to meet with Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy and Clinton Counselor and Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills, according to the report.

“At the meeting, the Ambassador denied the allegations and was then permitted to return to post. The Department took no further action affecting the Ambassador.” But the inspector general report finds that department officials offered varying reasons for declaring it a “management issue,” and that the diplomatic security investigation was halted before all potential witnesses, including the Ambassador, were interviewed.

In the second case, department managers were found to have interfered in the investigation into a Regional Security Officer accused of sexual misconduct and harassment. In the third, the Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security was found to have improperly delayed for four months a diplomatic security interview with Brett McGurk, the Obama administration nominee’s to be Ambassador to Iraq in 2012. McGurk withdrew his nomination after flirtatious emails were leaked between him and a then-Wall Street Journal reporter while the two were based in Baghdad in 2008. The inspector general said the investigation into the leak was brought to a temporary standstill until McGurk could be interviewed.

The revelations were first reported in a 2013 leaked draft of the inspector general report.

Republicans, looking for any ammunition to use against Clinton as she prepares for a likely presidential run in 2016, are likely to attempt tying Clinton to the report’s findings, though the inspector general did not find any direct link to the former secretary.

TIME foreign affairs

The State Department’s Twitter War With ISIS Is Embarrassing

A member loyal to the ISIL waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa

Rita Katz is the director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which studies jihadi extremists’ behavior online.

An English-language outreach program is not only ineffective, but also provides jihadists with a stage to voice their arguments

Thirteen years into the war on terror, it is distressing to see certain ways the U.S. government is combating domestic radicalization by groups like al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS). Among the more embarrassing of these ventures is the “Think Again Turn Away” campaign, launched in English in December 2013 by the United States Department of State as part of an effort to enter the war of ideas and win over hearts and minds of jihadists on social media. (Earlier efforts began in Arabic and Urdu in 2011.) And while the State Department is making a great step in the right direction by recognizing the importance of social media in jihadi recruitment, the Think Again Turn Away campaign has been anything but valiant—particularly on Twitter. This outreach by the U.S. government is not only ineffective, but also provides jihadists with a stage to voice their arguments—regularly engaging in petty disputes with fighters and supporters of groups like IS (also known as ISIS), al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, and arguing over who has killed more people while exchanging sarcastic quips.

U.S. Department of State

The Think Again Turn Away Twitter account has over 7,300 followers and has made more than 1,900 tweets since it was created in December 2013—roughly six to seven tweets per day. The account uses two approaches: tweeting counter messaging material and addressing prominent jihadist accounts.

The account’s counter-message material is mostly taken from the media, with articles related to the jihadi threat. For instance, on September 15 the account sent tweets touting articles such as “Grassroots citizen effort to defeat #ISIS using technology to track them”; “US President condemns murder of David Haines; his brother says #ISIS not about Islam, only terror”; and “Girls marry jihadis, frequently widowed, subject to polygamy; see non-Muslim female slaves.”

Though these messages are unlikely to be effective coming from the State Department, I would accept the argument that they’re not actually doing any harm. However, the account’s second approach of directly addressing and engaging with jihadist accounts is where things start to get ridiculous.

Illustrating these discussions is, for instance, one initiated on September 4 when an IS-supporting account, under the handle @de_BlackRose, showed gruesome pictures of tortured prisoners from the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal in 2003-2004 along with the message: “REMEMBER HOW YOU AMERICA ARRESTED AND HUMILIATED OUR BROTHERS IN IRAQ AND HUMILIATED THEM IN THEIR OWN COUNTRY!!”

Following a couple of messages of support, the Think Again Turn Away account responded, “US troops are punished for misconduct, #ISIS fighters are rewarded,” along with a collage of U.S. soldiers interacting happily with children in the Middle East.

Not surprisingly, the user, along with other IS followers, jumped on the opportunity to drag the U.S. government in a discussion about the Abu Ghraib scandal. @de_BlackRose, along with likeminded others, rebutted to Think Again Turn Away’s response with such replies as, “loool in spilling their bloods only a misconduct? Well that’s not enough,” “poor children where Americans fooling them with their smiles,” and “well only in june did isis crucify one if its fighters for robbing civilians at checkpoint.”

Even then, Think Again Turn Away persisted through the conversation, tweeting, “This is what children see under #ISIS rule, this brand of honor and respect,” and included a picture of children standing around a crucified soldier in the street of an unidentified city. From here, over a dozen anti-American tweets were made at the account, most of which from @de_BlackRose, stating, “looool you dont know about shariah.. better think again and turn away..”; and, “i rather my children see this so they know whats their fate when they aganst shariah of ALLAH, than democazy.”

Now, while no one would doubt that the Abu Ghraib scandal was a brutal act of torture on the part of American soldiers in Iraq, the topic is one the U.S. government should probably avoid conversing about on Twitter—especially to an audience it is trying to sway. Yet, the State Department showed no such tact.

Think Again Turn Away’s involvement in counterproductive conversations has been a regular occurrence for some time now. Some of the most tragic of these conversations are often shared with “Amreeki Witness,” a pro-IS user and a follower of late jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki. Amreeki Witness’s Twitter account profile pictures directly mock that of Think Again Turn Away: the Arabic text from the IS banner inside of the Department of State seal and the IS flag on top of the White House. The page info section reads: “Dedicated to raising awareness about the upcoming conquest of the Americas, and the benefits it has upon the American people.

The State Department responded to an August 6 tweet by Amreeki Witness stating, “IS has flaws, but the moment you claim they cut off the heads of every non-Muslim they see, the discussion is over.” Though the discussion was not addressed to them, Think Again Turn Away replied, “#ISIS tortures, crucifies & shoots some- ISIS also gives ultimatums to Christians: convert, pay or die- Some flaws u say?”

Amreeki Witness, thrilled to be noticed by the U.S. Government, and given a stage on which to launch radical jihadist views toward Think Again Turn Away’s thousands of followers, provided a long series of rebuttals, some of which linking to form lengthy attacks. The Think Again Turn Away account, instead of ignoring the claims of a pro-IS jihadist, dignified them by responding, “#ISIS confiscated food, houses, stole millions from banks & has only brought suffering and death to innocents- Join reality!”

Of course, the State Department’s intent here is to hijack the audience of accounts like Amreeki Witness in order to address the moderate Muslims on the fence regarding jihad—their real target audience. However, these exchanges, as illustrated by the overwhelming response from Amreeki Witness as compared to that of Think Again Turn Away, frequently backfire by providing jihadists legitimacy and a stage on which to project their messages.

The State Department account is not only a gaffe machine, but in fact some of its tweets walk dangerous ethical lines. On September 11, for example, Australian cleric Abu Sulayman, an official leader within AQ al-Nusra Front in Syria, tweeted, “On this day, in 2001, the USA’s largest economic shrine, the idol of capitalism was brought to the ground..the toll of injuctice is hefty.”

To this tweet, by the AQ official, the Think Again Turn Away account jumped in, tweeting, “Nobody’s a bigger fan of the fruits of capitalism than so-called #ISIS Caliph” and provided a picture pointing out IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s watch, stating it was a “Rolex.”

Now, al-Muhajir, an AQ and al-Nusra Front religious leader, is among the most prominent opposing figures of Baghdadi and IS, who has been fighting IS and its leadership for more than a year, and constantly fight against the group physically and religiously. So why would the State Department tweet to the AQ leader bashing a figure he already opposes?

Even worse, Sulayman is not just another AQ supporter, but an AQ official! The irony is ugly: When State Department makes a series of tweets about the horrors of 9/11 and attacking those that committed it, it also tweets directly to an AQ leader, providing legitimization to the account of the same people who committed the attacks.

Any competent foreign policy analyst knows that the al-Nusra-IS feud is one all jihadists are attuned to, so the State Department’s tweet to Sulayman and his 18,000 followers could only suggest that the U.S. is clueless to the jihadi landscape.

On July 30, responding to an IS fighter discussing the training of newcomers at IS training camps, the Think Again Turn Away tweeted, “everything #ISIS does is hardest on their victims & families- #alqaeda ideology shames humanity,” and provided a link their video titled, “Welcome to the ‘Islamic State’ land (ISIS/ISIL).” The video, widely discussed by the media in recent weeks, is a grim parody of IS recruitment materials, sarcastically stating that Muslims should come to the Islamic State wherein one “can learn useful new skills for the Ummah [Nation],” which include “Blowing up mosques” and “Crucifying and executing Muslims.”

Videos like this clearly illustrate that the U.S. government lacks the basic understanding of recruitment of young Westerners, that these ghastly scenes of executions and destruction are exactly what groups like IS have been using as recruitment propaganda.

The video prompted anti-American responses, including a counter-spoof video, published on September 7, by jihadi Twitter account of “tawheedvlag,” telling viewers, “Run Do not walk to US Terrorist State…Where you can learn usefull new anti Islam skills.”

In order to counter a problem, one must first study it before adopting a solution. Had the people behind Think Again Turn Away understood jihadists’ mindsets and reasons for their behavior, they would have known that their project of counter messaging would not only be a waste of taxpayer money, but ultimately be counterproductive.

To be fair, I acknowledge that the State Department’s project, at the very least, may serve as a noble undertaking by those in power to fight an idea while preserving free speech. Sadly, though, that’s all the credit I can give it. I would much rather see the State Department’s online ventures involved in projects that explain the great things American policies have achieved—not arguing with jihadi fighters on who killed more innocent Muslims.

Rita Katz is the director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which studies jihadi extremists’ behavior online.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Foreign Policy

Barack Obama’s Social Media Flame War Against ISIS

U.S. Department of State

As Islamic militants flood social media, the State Department has ramped up efforts to neutralize jihadist propaganda online

The video is grisly. It shows corpses crucified on makeshift crosses, and dead bodies being chucked into a ravine. Mosques explode. Masked assailants lash writhing victims and execute kneeling prisoners. A quartet of severed heads line a ledge, surrounding a decapitated body.

Titled “Welcome to the ‘Islamic State’ Land,” the film features grainy footage that looks plucked from the dark recesses of the Internet. Its tone is flecked with snark. “Travel is inexpensive,” a caption declares, “because you won’t need a return ticket!” But the low-budget aspect is by design. The video, first published on YouTube in late July, is a production of the U.S. State Department, which is ramping up its efforts to neutralize the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS)’s success at recruiting over social media. The campaign includes a State Department-branded YouTube channel, which hosts videos that accuse the terrorist group of hypocrisy and war crimes against fellow Muslims. It includes a Twitter account, Think Again Turn Away, that links to stories about women and children harmed by the group. And it has a Facebook page dotted with gruesome images of bloodied civilians.

This digital battlefield has become a vital theater in the war on terrorism, and for the U.S. government, the front lines are the digital outreach team in a small State Department office, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), which began operation in 2011 on orders from President Obama. With a budget of only $6 million, and about two-dozen staffers, the group is spearheading the campaign to combat the sophisticated propaganda ISIS is spreading on social media and Internet bulletin boards. Working in Arabic, Urdu, Somali and now English, its analysts comb the Internet for radical material, wading into everything from Twitter to Yemeni tribal forums to counter and rebut jihadist claims.

What these State Department staffers are looking for is an opportunity to “engage in our very particular brand of adversarial engagement,” says Alberto Fernandez, a former ambassador to Equatorial Guinea who serves as coordinator of the CSCC. (The center reports to the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Richard Stengel, who is a former managing editor of TIME.) Staff try to cast extremist activity in a negative light, tamping down the lure of jihad for ordinary people whose political grievances might draw them toward to groups like ISIS. Sometimes this entails direct confrontation, but such confrontations are not the group’s goal.

“Our target audience is not the extremists,” Fernandez says. “It’s the people the extremists are talking to, trying to influence. It’s people who have not yet become terrorists.”

The program reflects a recognition within the U.S. government that online propaganda is not only a potent way to promote terrorism, but also a necessary tool in preventing it. “There is a connection between what happens in the virtual space and what happens on the ground,” says Fernandez. “You can’t divorce one from the other.”

Which is why the U.S. is fighting to regain territory it has long ceded to extremists. Jihadists were early to grasp the power of technology to promote their cause, dating back to the grainy eight-track tapes that inspired foreign fighters to help roust the Soviets from Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden used direct-to-camera proclamations, distributed by Al-Jazeera, to incite followers. “More than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media,” his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wrote in 2005 to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then the head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

AQI was “the first group to do Internet outreach very effectively,” says Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and counterterrorism expert. Instead of austere sermonizing, Watts says, it used battlefield footage—IED explosions, gun battles with U.S. soldiers—to glamorize jihad. ISIS sprang from that group’s ashes, aping its strategy in the process. It even adopted AQI’s most macabre tactic. A decade before the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff were murdered by a masked ISIS fighter, AQI militants, thought to be led by Zarqawi, beheaded the American contractor Nicholas Berg in a tape that presaged last month’s gruesome videos.

ISIS has refined social-media propaganda to a new level, emerging with “the most sophisticated propaganda machine of any extremist group,” said Matthew Olson, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, who spoke about the threat at the Brookings Institution earlier this month. Its rise corresponds with the migration of digital jihadi activity from password-protected forums to open social platforms, which have low barriers to entry.

ISIS has a smartphone app, called the Dawn of Glad Tidings, and a propaganda arm, the Al-Hayat Media Center, that distributes videos glorifying jihad. The group’s media campaign is a mix of battlefield footage and lifestyle snapshots: jihadis cavorting in luxury buildings, lounging in restaurants or patrolling city streets. Amid the carnage, its fighters also tweet cat pictures and announce their penchant for Western products like Snickers and Nutella.”They’re as sophisticated as anybody out there in how they frame and how they use modern technology,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told CNN.

Much of the terrorist group’s work has taken place on Twitter. “2013 was the year of Twitter for Al-Qaeda and ISIS,” Fernandez says. Since May, more than 60,000 Twitter accounts have been set up to herald the group, including 27,000 since the murder of Foley last month, according to an analysis conducted by Recorded Future, a web analytics firm, for the British media outlet Sky News. ISIS has used the platform both to spread grotesque photos of decapitated heads and bloodied bodies—”jihad porn,” as government officials call it—and to recruit potential conscripts. As Twitter cracked down on some of the gory imagery, an ISIS adherent even called for the murder of the site’s employees.

In the meantime, many of the group’s members have fled the site, terrorism analysts say, for more obscure social-media platforms like Friendica, Diaspora and VK (a Russian social-networking site used by the Boston bombers). The U.S. still finds itself outmatched as it tries to suss out and rebut all this activity. “There is a Mount Everest of radicalizing material” on the Internet, says Fernandez. “There’s a small hill, a hillock, of counter-radicalizing material.”

It is CSCC’s job to push this counter-narrative to people before they are converted into extremists. The expansion of this effort to include English-language sites last year is a reflection of a growing threat. ISIS is filling out the ranks of its army by recruiting disaffected Muslims from around the world, including the West. It has lured more than 100 Americans to fight in its ranks, according to Texas Republican Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. One of them, a 33-year-old native Minnesotan named Douglas MacAuthur McCain, was killed in a battle in Syria last month, the first known American to die while fighting for ISIS. The FBI has arrested more than a half-dozen Americans en route to Syria to enlist in jihad.

But much of the digital outreach takes place in languages other than English. CSCC has 15 fluent Arabic speakers, four working in Urdu, two in Somali and just two exclusively in English. In Arabic, “the CSCC brand is pretty well established,” Fernandez says. In 2012, the Global Islamic Media Front, an Al-Qaeda propaganda outlet, warned participants in jihadist forums to be wary of CSCC’s outreach. The following year, a prominent jihadi created a knockoff State Department account and coordinated an effort to drown the U.S. effort with spam. Such interactions are “proof that we are annoying them, getting into their heads all the time,” Fernandez says.

These are small markers of success for a modest campaign whose overall influence is hard to gauge. It’s virtually impossible to prove that a potential jihadist was deterred from joining because of the U.S. messaging campaign. And as messenger, the U.S. government has obvious weaknesses. ISIS adherents have ignored the coterie of high-ranking clerics inveighing against the group’s treatment of fellow Muslims; it’s hard to imagine them listening to a U.S. government mouthpiece. “It is good that the State Department recognizes the importance of social media in jihadi recruitment,” says Rita Katz, the director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks global terrorism. “However, as the State Department’s ‘Think Again Turn Away’ Twitter account often engages in useless arguments with jihadists fighters and supporters, their efforts are not only ineffective, but also provide jihadist with a megaphone to voice their arguments.”

Fernandez acknowledges that it is difficult to calculate the impact of his cyber-warriors. “You can’t prove a negative,” he notes. But he says the frustration of its enemies is one way to measure the effort. Last week, when a prominent Yemeni journalist fired off a series of tweets critical of Al-Qaeda, the terrorist group responded with a hashtag campaign that branded him a follower of CSCC. “They want to discredit him by linking him to us,” says Fernandez. “That’s a pretty strong recommendation.”

TIME Ukraine

U.S. Warns Against Ukraine Travel

People walk past a building damaged by shelling in Snizhne (Snezhnoye), Donetsk region
People walk past a building damaged by shelling in Snizhne, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Aug. 29, 2014. Maxim Shemetov—Reuters

Escalating conflict in the region prompted the new travel advisory for Americans

The U.S. State Department warned Americans Friday to avoid traveling to eastern Ukraine, in response to the ongoing conflict between Ukraine’s armed forces and Russia-backed separatists.

“The situation in Ukraine is unpredictable and could change quickly,” the statement said. “U.S. citizens throughout Ukraine should avoid large crowds and be prepared to remain indoors and shelter in place for extended periods of time should clashes occur in their vicinity.”

The announcement identified the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have been plagued with violent outbreaks for months, as the key areas to avoid. U.S. citizens have been threatened and detained in the region, according to the release. It also advised Americans to “defer all travel to the Crimean Peninsula.”

The U.S. announcement comes as the conflict in Ukraine continues to escalate with each passing day. Up to 1,ooo Russian troops appeared to enter Ukraine on Friday, and the Ukrainian government responded by instituting a mandatory conscription.

TIME foreign affairs

Congo’s Presidential Entourage Investigated for Beating Protesters in U.S.

The incident was allegedly captured on video and posted on YouTube

The U.S. State Department has taken steps to seek the prosecution of a members of the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s entourage, who were allegedly captured on video Thursday beating a protester in the streets of Washington, D.C.

A video posted on YouTube shows a man in a dark suit kicking the head of a protester as he lays on the ground near a member of D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department, who appeared to be trying to defuse the situation.

“We are still gathering details on the incident, but are very troubled by reports that protestors were attacked by members of the President’s entourage,” the State Department said in a statement Thursday. “We take the right to freedom of expression very seriously, and violence against peaceful protestors is totally unacceptable.”

The statement went on to commend the efforts of D.C. police for coming to the aide of the protesters. “We have communicated our concern to the delegation from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the strongest possible terms,” the State Department statement continued. “We have requested a waiver of immunity to permit those involved to face prosecution. If it is not granted, we will ask that they leave the United States immediately.”

A spokesman for D.C.’ Metropolitan Police declined to comment, and a spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service said the investigation would be handled by the State Department.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo President Joseph Kabila is visiting Washington, D.C., for an African leader summit at the invitation of President Obama. According to a 2013 State Department human rights report, Kabila was elected in 2011 in an election international observer missions said “lacked credibility.”

“[Non-governmental organizations], including Human Rights Watch, reported security forces killed or arbitrarily detained dozens of citizens prior to the voting,” the report reads. The human rights condition in the country has remained poor since then, despite the appointment by Kabila of a human rights commission.
“Elements of the [state security forces] continued to harass, beat, intimidate, and arbitrarily arrest and detain domestic human rights advocates and domestic NGO workers, particularly when the NGOs reported on or supported victims of abuses by the SSF or reported on the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the East,” the report reads.


TIME Libya

U.S. Evacuates Libyan Embassy

Secretary of State John Kerry blamed the rise of "freewheeling militia violence" in the country where an attack by Islamic militants killed four Americans in 2012

Updated 10:59 a.m. ET

The State Department relocated all personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, on Saturday following an outbreak of violence between Libyan militias, the department announced.

“A lot of the violence is around our embassy but not on the embassy, but nevertheless it presents a very real risk to our personnel,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Paris, ABC reports.

Kerry blamed the “freewheling militia violence” that has flourished since the ousting of former president Muammar Gaddafi.

“We are committed to supporting the Libyan people during this challenging time, and are currently exploring options for a permanent return to Tripoli as soon as the security situation on the ground improves,” deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said in a statement.

U.S. military assisted in the operation and drove personnel to Tunisia. The relocation took five hours and was “without incident,” according a statement from Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby.

Embassy staff will now work out of Washington, D.C., and other locations in the region.

The relocation occurred the same day the State Department issued a new travel warning that strongly advised U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to Libya and to leave immediately if already visiting.

In 2012, an attack on U.S. diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, Libya, by Islamic militants killed four Americans.

“Securing our facilities and ensuring the safety of our personnel are top Department priorities, and we did not make this decision lightly,” Harf’s statement continues. “Security has to come first. Regrettably, we had to take this step because the location of our embassy is in very close proximity to intense fighting and ongoing violence between armed Libyan factions.”

TIME Israel

U.S. Issues Travel Warning for Israel, Gaza and West Bank

Gaza Strip, Gaza City: Palestinian man stands near a damaged building by Israeli airstrike targeting Hamas police chief Tayseer al-Batsh on July 13, 2014 in Gaza City. ALESSIO ROMENZI
A Palestinian man stands near a damaged building in Gaza City, July 13, 2014. Alessio Romenzi

Secretary of State John Kerry also announced $47 million in aid to Gaza

The U.S. State Department on Monday issued a new travel warning for Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while Secretary of State John Kerry announced a $47 million aid package for Gaza amid growing conflict in the region.

The warning, which replaces the one issued in February of this year, recommends U.S. citizens postpone non-urgent travel to the region if possible, and it upholds previous warnings against traveling to the Gaza Strip, where U.S. government employees are not allowed to travel.

Because of security concerns, the embassy in Tel Aviv is working with a reduced staff and limited service, while the embassy in Jerusalem is operating as normal. The full travel warning contains additional details about which areas and neighborhoods within Israel have been recent targets. On Sunday, Israel escalated its ground operations in Gaza, and the two regions have exchanged rocket fire over the past few weeks.

The humanitarian assistance Kerry announced Monday includes $15 million for United Nations relief efforts, $3.5 million for emergency assistance from the USAID’s OFfice of Foreign Disaster Assistance, $10 million in redirected USAID funding and $18.5 million in new USAID funding to address food, shelter and medical treatments for Palestinians in Gaza.

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