TIME Syria

U.S. Drone Strike Kills Senior ISIS Leader

Mideast Syria Islamic State
Uncredited—AP This photo provided by a website of the Islamic State militants, taken June 25, 2015, shows fighters of the Islamic State group infiltrate toward Syrian government forces positions in the predominantly Kurdish Syrian city of Hassakeh, Syria

Tariq bin Tahar al-'Awni al-Harzi, a Tunisian, was killed along with another fighter

(WASHINGTON) — A coalition airstrike in Syria has killed a senior Islamic State leader, who has been responsible for moving fighters and weapons from Libya to Syria, the Pentagon said Thursday.

A senior U.S. official said that Tariq bin Tahar al-‘Awni al-Harzi, a Tunisian, and another fighter with him were killed by a U.S. drone strike and that there were no reports of any civilian casualties in the operation. The official was not authorized to discuss the operation publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

According to Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, al-Harzi was killed June 16 in Shaddadi. He said that al-Harzi coordinated the use of suicide bombing attacks in Iraq, and helped with the movement of foreign fighters back and force across the Syria-Iraq border.

Davis said al-Harzi’s death will hurt the Islamic State’s ability to move foreign fighters in and out of the region.

According to the military joint task force coordinating the operations in Iraq and Syria, there were airstrikes at four locations in Syria that day, including two near Al Hasakah, which is near Shaddadi. Thestrikes near al Hasakah hit an Islamic State tactical unit and destroyed a vehicle and two antenna arrays.

Last September, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed economic sanctions on al-Harzi and seven other individuals that it said have helped finance or facilitate the movement of foreign fighters joining the Islamic State and the Nusra Front. Both groups have been targeted by coalition strikes in Syria.

Treasury officials designated al-Harzi a global terrorist, saying he was based in Syria. The Treasury statement identified him as the Islamic State group’s “amir of suicide bombers,” saying he recruited foreign fighters for suicide attacks in Iraq and Syria.

In a related matter, Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi Thursday to talk about the ongoing efforts to defeat Islamic State militants.

TIME conflict

Food Aid to Syrian Refugees Cut in Half Due to Funding Crisis

Mideast Lebanon Syrian Refugees
Bilal Hussein—AP Syrian refugee children play in the dirt street of a Syrian refugee camp in the town of al-Faour, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, Saturday, June 20, 2015.

The crisis may lead to a full halt to all food support for most refugees in Jordan

(AMMAN, Jordan) — The World Food Program says it had to cut in half food aid for Syrian refugees in Lebanon because of a funding crisis and may soon have to halt all food support for most refugees in Jordan.

Lebanon and Jordan are among five countries that host some 4 million Syrian war refugees. The U.N. refugee agency says funding levels for them have dropped dangerously low.

The WFP, which had to make cuts before because of a cash crisis, says that in July refugee food aid in Lebanon will drop to $13.50 per person per month. Those in Jordan escape cuts this month, but 440,000 urban refugees could be left empty-handed if funds don’t arrive by August.

The program says it needs $139 million to keep helping Syrian refugees through September.

TIME conflict

Report: 30,000 New Refugees Flee Syrian Conflict Zones

Syrian refugees
Uygar Onder — AFP/Getty Images Syrian refugees cross the Syria-Turkey border, as they return to the northern Syrian town of Tal Abyad, on June 22, 2015.

Thousands are fleeing fighting between the Islamic State group and Syrian army in the city of Hassakeh

(BEIRUT) — A member of an international aid group says fighting between the Islamic State group and Syrian army in the northeastern city of Hassakeh has displaced at least 30,000 people.

Iraq-based Sam Duerden of International Rescue Committee says people in the city need food, water, shelter and medical assistance.

The Islamic State group attacked and captured several government-held neighborhoods of Hassakeh on Thursday. The fighting has continued since then, leaving dozens dead, according to activists.

Duerden said via Skype on Monday that many people are fleeing to nearby villages and towns, adding that there are at least 10,000 who have nowhere to go and are staying in schools or community centers.

State news agency SANA said government air strikes killed large numbers of IS fighters in Hassakeh on Monday.

TIME Military

The Islamic State Celebrates Its First Birthday

ISIS flag Raqqa
Reuters A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa on June 29, 2014.

The durability of the terror proto-state proves daunting

Military commanders like to say that “quantity has a quality all its own.” It’s a shorthand way of saying that greater numbers of inferior weapons or troops often can beat smaller, superior forces. Given that Monday marks the first birthday of the declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, it’s also worth noting that the passage of time, too, has a quality all its own.

The quantity of time counts, as days turn into weeks, and months have become a year. Time isn’t an inert presence, either on the physical battlefield or in the war of ideas. It’s a measure of will, a magnet to attract followers, and a manifestation of reality. Bottom line: persistence produces power.

This isn’t good. The Pentagon has adopted a go-slow approach, with its modest air campaign and turgid training schedule, in part to prod Iraq to do the fighting. That’s fine, so long as you believe ISIS is a slow-growing tumor, confined to Iraq and Syria. But as last Friday’s attacks in France, Kuwait and Tunisia that killed at least 60 make clear, it’s a malignancy that’s spreading.

“They’ve been able to hold ground for a year,” says retired Marine general James Mattis, who served as chief of U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013. “The longer they hold territory it become this radioactive thing, just spewing out this stuff as fighters go there and then come home again.”

“Listen to your caliph and obey him,” ISIS spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani said of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a recording released June 29, 2014. “Support your state, which grows every day.”

Chillingly, al-Adnani issued a call last Tuesday calling on Muslims to mark the holy month of Ramadan by making it “a month of disasters for the kuffar”—non-Muslims. He pledged those carrying out such attacks “tenfold” rewards in heaven in exchange for their martyrdom. Last week’s attacks followed. ISIS took responsibility for the beachfront attack in Tunisia that killed at least 38; an ISIS affiliate claimed credit for the blast at a Kuwait City mosque that took 27 lives; the suspect in the French attack reportedly told police of his ties to the Islamic State after decapitating his employer.

IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency CentreThis map shows where Islamic state and its affiliates are located. The black borders delineate where Islamic State has formally announced a wilaya (province) and the red shows attacks carried out in the name of Islamic State between the declaration of a caliphate on June 29, 2014, and June 22, 2015.

After a year in existence, ISIS continues to keep its grip on the huge swatch of land straddling what used to be the border between eastern Syria and western Iraq. “After awhile, possession is nine-tenths of legitimacy,” Anthony Cordesman, a military scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says of ISIS’s first anniversary. “Just being there, visible, over time gives you more and more influence and ability to create more extremists.”

This represents a new kind of threat. “The Islamic State is not an insurgency like the United States fought from 2003 until its departure from Iraq,” Rand Corp. analyst David Johnson notes in the latest issue of Parameters, the Army’s professional journal. “Rather, it is an aspiring proto-state bent on taking and holding territory.”

The U.S. actually has been fighting ISIS and its forebears for years. “Washington continues to fail to recognize the persistence of this organization going back to the declaration of what was then called the Islamic State of Iraq,” Brian Fishman of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center told the House Armed Services Committee last Wednesday. “We don’t often recognize our long history of fighting ISIS, but we have effectively been fighting this organization for a decade already.”

As ISIS grew and began controlling greater swaths of Iraq and Syria, there was a sense its days were numbered. Following its seizure of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, just over a year ago, Pentagon officials repeatedly said that Iraqi forces, perhaps aided by small numbers of U.S. troops accompanying them to call in air strikes, would take back the city sometime in the first half of 2015. That hasn’t happened. And for every Tikrit that Iraqi forces, aided by Iranian-backed Shi’a militias, have taken from ISIS by military force, ISIS has attacked and occupied a city like Ramadi, capital of Iraq’s Anbar province.

Despite President Obama’s pledge to “degrade and destroy” ISIS last summer, little has changed. “Very little consequential territory has been reclaimed,” says retired general Jack Keane, who served as the Army’s second-ranking officer from 1999 to 2003. “ISIS still enjoys freedom of maneuver to attack at will, whenever and wherever it pleases.”

While the U.S.-led air campaign has led pretty much to a stalemate on the ground, ISIS’s survival has attracted supporters to its ranks, and led others around the world to claim membership. “What we see very frequently in Afghanistan, with respect to [ISIS], is a rebranding of people who are already in the battlefield,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Thursday in Belgium. They’re donning the ISIS label because “they regard as a better replacement for names they’ve had in the past.”

ISIS’s continuing existence is also generating American recruits, according to an alert last month from the Department of Homeland Security to U.S. law enforcement agencies shortly after police killed a pair planning to shoot up a “draw Muhammad” contest in Garland, Texas. “We judge … that [ISIS’s] messaging is resonating with US-based violent extremists due to its championing of a multifaceted vision of a caliphate,” the agency warned. A key reason for its success in attracting followers, DHS added, is “the perceived legitimacy of its self-proclaimed re-establishment of the caliphate.”

Every day that the undefeated caliphate persists boosts the chances that its followers will strike targets in the U.S. “The most important way to discredit the appeal of their ideology is by military defeat,” Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told that armed services panel hearing last week. “If they’re not holding terrain, if there is no caliphate,” he said. “There is no Islamic utopia.”

TIME Syria

ISIS Fighters Kill 200 Civilians in Syrian Town

Turkey Syrian Islamic State
Yasin Akgul—AP People standing on the Turkish side of the border with Syria, on the outskirts of Suruc, Turkey, watch as smoke rises over Kobani, in Syria, June 27, 2015.

The victims were mostly shot dead in cold blood, some in their own homes, activists said

(BEIRUT)—Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria fighters who launched a surprise attack on a Syrian border town massacred more than 200 civilians, including women and children, before they were killed and driven out by Kurdish forces, activists said on Saturday.

Kurdish activist Mustafa Bali, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Kurdish official Idris Naasan put at 40-50 the number of elite IS fighters killed in the two days of fighting since the militants sneaked into the town of Kobani before dawn on Thursday.

Clashes, however, continued to the south and west of the predominantly Kurdish town on the Turkish border on Saturday, they said, although the fighting in the south quietened down by nightfall.

Naasan said 23 of the city’s Kurdish defenders were killed in the fighting, but the Observatory put the number at 16. The discrepancy could not immediately be reconciled, but conflicting casualty figures are common in the aftermath of major fighting.

“Kobani has been completely cleared of Daesh, and Kurdish forces are now combing the town looking for fighters who may have gone into hiding,” Bali, using the Arabic acronym for the IS, told The Associated Press by telephone from Kobani. The official Syrian news agency, SANA, also reported that Kobani has been cleared of IS fighters.

The more than 200 civilians killed in the last two days include some who perished in IS suicide bombings, including one at the border crossing with Turkey, but they were mostly shot dead in cold blood, some in their own homes, the activists said.

“They were revenge killings,” Rami Abdurrahman, the observatory’s director, told the AP.

Others were caught in the cross-fire as gun battles raged in the town’s streets or were randomly targeted by IS snipers on rooftops.

Bali, Abdurrahman and Naasan all said the number of Kobani civilians and IS fighters killed was likely to rise as rescue teams continue to search neighborhoods where the fighting took place.

Massacring civilians is not an uncommon practice by the Islamic State group, whose men have slaughtered thousands in Syria and neighboring Iraq over the last year, when its fighters blitzed through large swathes of territory and declared a caliphate that spans both nations.

The Islamic State group often posts on social media networks gruesome images of its fighters executing captives as part of psychological warfare tactics designed to intimidate and inspire desertions among their enemies. Last week, it posted one of its most gruesome video clips, showing the execution of 16 men it claimed to have been spies. Five of the men were drowned in a cage, four were burned inside a car and seven were blown up by explosives.

The killing of so many civilians in Kobani, according to Abdurrahman, was premeditated and meant by the Islamic State to avenge their recent defeats at the hands of Kurdish forces.

The Western-backed Kurdish forces have emerged as a formidable foe of the extremist group, rolling them back in the north and northeast parts of Syria, where the Kurds are the dominant community, as well as in northern Iraq, where they have also made significant gains against the IS.

Kobani has become a symbol of Kurdish resistance after it endured a months-long siege by the Islamic State group before Kurdish forces, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, broke through and drove the militants out in January.

Thursday’s surprise attack on the town and a simultaneous one targeting the remote northeastern town of Hassakeh came one day after the Islamic State group called for a wave of violence during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a time of fasting and piety that is now in its second week.

“You Muslims, take the initiative and rush to jihad, rise up you mujahideen everywhere, push forward and make Ramadan a month of calamities for the nonbelievers,” IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani said in an audio message released Tuesday.

In what also appears to be a response to that call, terror attacks took place Friday across three continents: shootings in a Tunisian beach resort that left 39 people dead, an explosion and a beheading in a U.S.-owned chemical warehouse in southeast France and a suicide bombing by an Islamic State affiliate at a Shiite mosque in Kuwait that killed at least 27 worshippers.

The attacks also came after the group suffered a series of setbacks over the past two weeks, including the loss last week of the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad — one of the group’s main points for bringing in foreign fighters and supplies.

Fighting is continuing in Hassakeh for the third successive day, with government and Kurdish forces separately fighting IS militants who have seized several neighborhoods in the mostly Kurdish town, according to the Observatory. Forces loyal to embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad have brought in reinforcements from the town of Deir el-Zour to the south while the Syrian air force pounded IS positions inside the town.

TIME Syria

Twitter Users Hijack Syria’s #SummerInSyria Campaign With Grisly War Images

Syria Civil War Damascus
Amer Almohipany—NurPhoto/AP Civil defenses extinguish fires in a building destroyed in Arbin, Syria, on June 23, 2015.

The Syrian government's social media campaign backfired badly

A social media campaign from Syria’s state news agency asking people to share pictures of their summer has backfired as users instead share photos of the country’s bloody conflict.

The English-language wing of the agency asked users to “snap us your moments of summer” using the hashtag #SummerInSyria. But many users have been using the same hashtag to share photos of bomb-site wreckage and injured civilians from the country’s four-year-old civil war:

Even the U.S. Embassy in Syria got in on the action, posting a picture of a bombing to Twitter.

The conflict, which began in 2011 as President Bashar al-Assad brutally cracked down against pro-democracy demonstrations, has killed more than 210,000 people and displaced half the country’s population, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

 

 

TIME Syria

ISIS Destroy 2 Historic Sites in Syrian City

A partial view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, Syria in 2014.
Joseph Eid—AFP/Getty Images A partial view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, Syria in 2014.

Officials says the group has blown up two Muslim mausoleums in Palmyra

BEIRUT — A Syrian official says the Islamic State group has destroyed two mausoleums in the historic central town of Palmyra.

Maamoun Abdulkarim, the head of the Antiquities and Museums Department in Damascus, tells The Associated Press that one of the tombs belongs to Mohammad Bin Ali, a descendant of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad’s cousin Imam Ali.

Abdulkarim said Wednesday that the tomb was just north of Palmyra.

He said the second tomb was of a Sufi scholar known as Nizar Abu Bahaa Eddine, who was in the town 500 years ago. The tomb is close to the town’s famed archaeological site.

Since the Islamic State group captured Palmyra last month, there have been fears that the extremists would blow up archaeological sites as they have in Iraq.

 

TIME United Kingdom

Why Three British Sisters Took Their Children to Join Jihadists in Syria

Bradford sisters syria
Paul Ellis—AFP/Getty Images Akhtar Iqbal, husband of Sugra Dawood, left, and Mohammad Shoaib, husband of Khadija Dawood, react during a news conference to appeal for their return, in Bradford, northern England on June 16, 2015.

“Zohra told me this country was changing too much, and that she was going to take her daughters away because she didn’t see their future here anymore,” a neighbor of one sister tells TIME

The two-story sandstone house at the corner of Hope Avenue, a quiet cul-de-sac in the northern English city of Bradford has been empty for months. Last fall, Zohra Dawood, 32, left the house with her two daughters and moved into her father’s home a little over a mile away. Her husband stayed on for a few weeks before returning to his own father’s home, 4,000 miles away in Pakistan. Neighbors say Dawood changed the locks soon after, but never returned. What happened between members of the family in that house may provide clues for police and relatives who have spent more than a week trying to understand why Zohra Dawood and 11 other family members went missing and are believed to be in Syria.

Dawood, along with her two sisters, Khadija, 29, and Sugra, 34, and their nine children first left the U.K. at the end of May for a pilgrimage to the Saudi city of Medina. They reportedly boarded a flight to Istanbul, Turkey on June 9 instead of flying back to Bradford as planned on June 11. According to a smuggler working for the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) quoted in BBC reports on Friday, the family of 12 has already crossed into Syria in two separate groups.

They are not the first Bradford locals to attempt to travel to Syria. The sisters’ younger brother, Ahmed Dawood, 21, has reportedly been fighting alongside extremists there for more than a year. And on Wednesday, a court heard the case of Bradford teenager Syed Choudhury, 19, who plotted to join ISIS and pled guilty to preparing acts of terrorism.

Situated 200 miles north of London amid Yorkshire’s rolling hills and wild moorland, Bradford is home to some of England’s most deprived neighborhoods, with high unemployment and lower levels of education than the national average. Its golden era as the center of the Victorian wool trade – which helped build the towering neo-Gothic buildings at the heart of the city – is long gone. In 1995, American travel writer Bill Bryson opined that Bradford’s sole purpose “is to make every place else in the world look better in comparison.”

Bradford Britain
Phil Noble—ReutersA woman walks along a terraced road in Bradford, Britain, June 18, 2015.

Back when Bradford’s textile industry was booming, the city drew waves of immigrants from South Asia. Now, more than a fifth of Bradford’s 526, 400 people are Pakistani by origin, the Dawood family among them. The streets of the Little Horton area of Bradford where they live are dotted with sari stores, mosques and bakeries selling naan bread and South Asian sweets. It’s not hard to see why the city has earned the nickname “Bradistan.”

The siblings’ parents – Mohammad Dawood and his wife Sara Begum – have at least eight children, all born and raised in Bradford. In a statement, the members of the family still in Bradford said they were devastated by the news and that they did not “support the actions of the sisters leaving their husbands and families in the U.K. and of taking their children into a war zone where life is not safe to join any group.”

Although there are numerous cases of foreign fighters taking children with them to ISIS-controlled territory, the sisters and their children constitute the largest family group known to have left the U.K. to join the extremist group in Syria. The three women seemingly defied the wishes of their parents and husbands in following their brother to Syria. Khadija, Zohra and Sugra apparently felt stronger ties to one another and their brother in Syria than to the family members they left behind in Bradford.

“An essential aspect of extremism is that it has to have social support,” says Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology and co-founder of the Center of Terrorism at the University of Maryland. “It’s very important that these women left as a group, as a network of sisters supporting their brother. Groups tend to polarize around values, and as a result, they tend to be much more extreme than individuals,” he says. Because families are very close-knit, it’s especially difficult for European security agencies – who are already facing a diverse array of threats – to penetrate these networks.

John Horgan, incoming professor of Global Studies and Psychology at Georgia State University, adds that there is relatively little security officials can do to prevent entire families from traveling together. The idea that the nine Dawood children could soon become “cubs of the caliphate”, as ISIS dubs its junior recruits in internal and external propaganda, is an unsettling prospect, but Horgan believes there will be more such cases in the future. “ISIS is preparing for the future and what they’re trying to do is groom the next generation of fighters,” he says.

One aspect of the radicalization process that experts know relatively little about is timing. “There has to be some kind of push factor,” says Horgan, who has been studying terrorism for twenty years. “A family dynamic, a trigger factor in a personal relationship, something ­­ to make someone leave the sidelines and actually consider going out there.”

Whether there was a series of triggers or if the disappearance of their younger brother was enough to motivate the women to leave their Bradford homes is not yet clear. During an emotional appeal to their wives at a press conference on Tuesday, Akhtar Iqbal appealed to his wife, Sugra, and five children aged between three and 15. “I miss you, I love you, I can’t live without you,” he wept. Khadija Dawood’s husband of 11 years, Mohammad Shoaib, also broke down as he begged his wife to bring their 5-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter home. “We had a perfect relationship, we had a lovely family. I don’t know what happened,” he sobbed.

Zohra Dawood’s husband, Zubair Ahmed, was absent; he was in Pakistan. If he had been present Ahmed would have been unlikely to speak of having a perfect relationship with his wife. His marriage to Zohra Dawood had broken down several months earlier. Reached by telephone on Wednesday, he told the BBC he had moved back to Pakistan after his wife “shunned” him and that he did not know of her plans to leave for Syria.

In conversations with TIME, Zohra Dawood’s neighbors paint a portrait of a private woman who likely turned to her siblings for support once her brother left the country and her marriage broke down.

Zoota Khan, 74, who lived next door to the couple since they moved onto the street in 2009, says the trouble all began once Ahmed Dawood left for Syria. “He was her most important brother and she was very upset,” says Khan, whose own family comes from a village in the same northern district of Pakistan as Zubair Ahmed. He tells TIME that Ahmed came over directly from Pakistan for his arranged marriage to Dawood, his first cousin.

Few Hope Avenue residents say they knew Zohra Dawood well but neighbors describe her husband warmly, saying he was a kind and caring father. “The wife kept indoors. It was the dad who was around, who’d give you the time of day,” says Sharon Wood, 43, who has lived on the street for 10 years.

Alex Firth, 37, says she only ever saw the couple together if they were getting in the car to go somewhere. “For a while, I thought Zubair was a single dad. He used to play outside with the girls, help them with their schoolwork, even do their hair. He really did everything. I never really saw any sign of affection from their mother.”

Another neighbor, a 31-year-old Pakistani woman who asked to remain anonymous for fear of backlash from the community, says Dawood had confided in her last summer that she was unhappy in her marriage and that she and her husband no longer shared a bedroom. She says Dawood also mentioned that she was planning to move to Saudi Arabia. “Zohra told me this country was changing too much, and that she was going to take her daughters away because she didn’t see their future here anymore.”

It remains unclear what finally prompted Dawood to leave her husband last fall. Ahmed told his neighbor Khan it was a misunderstanding and he was praying she would come home. In November, a few weeks after his wife left, Ahmed returned to his hometown of Tajak, about 60 miles west of Islamabad, to take care of his elderly father, who suffered a stroke. “He calls from time to time to ask if I have seen the children, how they are doing,” says Khan.

The Pakistani neighbor who asked to remain anonymous, says her children regularly attended Quran classes in Dawood’s home and were upset to hear the news of Dawood’s disappearance. “Zohra had real Islamic knowledge. She knew much more than us,” she says. By all accounts, the couple were religious. But whereas Dawood usually wore a headscarf with Western clothes, once she moved back into her father’s home she was only ever spotted wearing a full veil and gloves.

Surprising as it may seem, Horgan says research on radicalization has shown that sibling bonds trump ideological bonds time and time again. Psychologists tell TIME that strained personal relationships can often strengthen sibling bonds. The fact that the Dawood sisters always lived within walking distance of one another – and both Zohra and Khadija even shared the same family house for the past seven months ­– make it more likely that they saw themselves less as part of nuclear family units with their husbands and children, but rather as part of an extended family network. Understanding these bonds may well be essential to making sense of what drew the sisters together as they made their decision to leave for Syria,

As this sprawling saga plays out, more and more questions will emerge. Many will likely never be answered. And for the husbands devastated by the disappearance of their wives and children, it’s all too clear that the ties that bind a family can quickly become the ties that destroy them.

TIME Syria

British Family of 12 Has Crossed Into ISIS Territory in Syria

Sugra Dawood Khadija Dawood ISIS Syria England
Paul Ellis—AFP/Getty Images Akhtar Iqbal, husband of Sugra Dawood (L), and Mohammed Shoaib, husband of Khadija Dawood, react during a news conference to appeal for the return of their wives and children, in Bradford, northern England, on June 16, 2015.

The three women left their husbands to bring their nine children to join a brother with ISIS

A smuggler in charge of the border operation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) confirmed to the BBC that three sisters from Bradford, U.K., and their nine children have split into two groups and crossed into Syria. The first group went in on Wednesday and the second on Thursday.

The sisters, Khadija, Sugra and Zohra Dawood, and their children were reported missing on June 11 following a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

It was also reported that one of the sisters, Zohra, had sent a message to her family saying that she was inside Syria but did not detail where.

Two of their husbands, Akhtar Iqbal and Mohammed Shoaib, made an emotional appeal during a press conference on Tuesday imploring their families to return home.

The women’s brother is believed to to be fighting with ISIS in Syria.

TIME United Nations

There Have Never Been More Displaced People Across the World Than Now

If the number of displaced persons formed a nation, it would be the 24th largest country in the world

The total number of people forcibly displaced by war, conflict and persecution rose to a record 59.5 million at the end of 2014, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) has said.

The agency’s annual Global Trends Report: World at War, released Thursday, found forced displacement worldwide has reached unprecedented levels, with a record annual rise of 8.3 million more displaced people since 2013. Some 38.2 million of the total were internally displaced in their own countries.

If the number of displaced persons formed a nation, the report said, it would be the 24th largest country in the world.

Speaking in Turkey on Thursday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres confirmed worldwide displacement was at the highest ever recorded.

“When you see the news in any global network, we clearly get the impression that the world is at war,” he said. “Indeed many areas of the world are today in a completely chaotic situation and the result is this staggering escalation of displacement, the staggering escalation of suffering, because each displaced person is a tragic story,” he said.

Syria overtook Afghanistan to become the biggest source of refugees last year, with 1.77 million Syrians having fled the nation’s ongoing civil war.

Just over half of all refugees under UNHCR’s responsibility worldwide came from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. The report also pointed to new and continuing conflicts in South Sudan, Ukraine and Iraq, among others, which have caused suffering and widespread displacement.

Guterres warned that humanitarian organizations were “no longer able to clean up the mess.”

“U.N. agencies, NGOs, the Red Cross — we no longer have the capacities and the resources to respond to such a dramatic increase in humanitarian needs,” he said.

Turkey overtook Pakistan to become the nation hosting the most refugees in the world with 1.59 million people currently displaced within its borders. Guterres praised Turkey’s willingness to keep its frontiers open and called on richer countries to do more.

“That has a special meaning in a world where so many borders are closed or restricted,” he said. “And where new walls are being built or announced.”

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