TIME Military

Concern Over Iran’s Nukes Drowns Out Its Growing Role in Iraq

Iraqi security forces and Shia militias against Daesh
Ali Mohammed / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images Iraqi security forces and Shi'ite militias move out against ISIS near Tikrit on Tuesday.

Tehran helps Baghdad try to retake Tikrit as U.S. watches

Consternation over Iran boiled Tuesday on Capitol Hill as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Tehran’s push for nuclear weapons “could well threaten the survival of my country.” But over at the Pentagon, the Iran focus wasn’t on Netanyahu but Iraq. That’s because Iran is playing a key role in Baghdad’s fight to retake Tikrit from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, while the U.S. is confined to the sidelines.

After the U.S. invested $26 billion rebuilding the Iraqi army over the past decade, some Pentagon officials found it disconcerting to see Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias leading the charge into Saddam Hussein’s hometown. The Iranians, of course, are relishing the opportunity: Hussein was running Iraq when it launched the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that ended in a stalemate in 1988 with roughly 200,000 killed on each side.

American concern is justified: having Iranian-backed Shi’ite forces storm largely-Sunni Tikrit risks turning the conflict against the Sunni ISIS forces into a sectarian conflict that could balloon into a civil war. “It’s absolutely key that [the Iraqi government] make sure that they have provisions in place to accommodate the Sunnis,” Army General Lloyd Austin, chief of the U.S. Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee Tuesday. “That lack of inclusion is what got us to this point, and I think the only way that we can ensure that we don’t go back there is if we have the right steps taken by the government.” Fewer than 1,000 of the 30,000 fighters battling ISIS for Tikrit are Sunni tribal fighters, according to Iraqi estimates.

The populations of both Iran and Iraq are primarily Shi’ite. Since Saddam’s hanging in 2006, the Sunnis of western Iraq have been treated poorly by the Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad. Many Sunnis welcomed ISIS’s move into the region last year, when it killed more than 1,000 Iraqi Shi’ite troops who had been stationed at a base known, when the Americans were there, as Camp Speicher. Some of the Shi’ites attacking Tikrit are bent on revenge for the slaughter, which could exacerbate intra-Muslim tensions.

Iran, according to reports from the front and Pentagon officials, is backing Iraqi forces with air power, artillery fire and advisers guiding Shi’ite militiamen, who account for perhaps 10,000 of the fighters trying to retake Tikrit. “This is the most overt conduct of Iranian support, in the form of artillery and other things,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told the Senate Armed Services Committee later Tuesday. “Frankly, it will only be a problem if it results in sectarianism.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. — which has conducted thousands of air strikes against ISIS targets since August — has been grounded in the battle to retake Tikrit. The daily U.S. tally of air strikes launched Wednesday ticked off targets around al Asad, Bayji, Mosul, Ramadi and Sinjar. But there were no strikes in or around Tikrit, although U.S. drones are keeping a nervous eye on the fighting (“We have good overhead imagery,” is how Austin put it).

Iran has reportedly dispatched commanders notorious for their killings of Sunnis to the fight. That may lead Tikritis to view those seeking to free their city from ISIS’s grip not as rescuers but as bloody vengeance-seekers.

As the U.S. and Israel work to keep Iran’s nuclear genie bottled up, both Washington and Tehran have said they are not operating together inside Iraq. “We don’t coordinate with them,” Austin, whose command oversees U.S. military forces inside the country, repeated Tuesday.

In other words, they’re allied, but not allies. “The battle between Iran and ISIS doesn’t turn Iran into a friend of America,” Netanyahu told Congress on Tuesday. “Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam … They just disagree among themselves who will be the ruler of that empire.”

TIME isis

Hear Jihadi John Defend Himself Against Charge of Extremism

Mohammed Emwazi, the Londoner who has become the face of ISIS, describes being interrogated

Mohammed Emwazi denied he was an extremist and denounced extremism in a 2009 interview he gave to an advocacy group.

The man who became known as Jihadi John and the masked face of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) after appearing to kill hostages in a series of videos, complained that he was victimized after he was deported from Tanzania and questioned by the security services.

Emwazi went to the London-based group CAGE, which works with people affected by what they call “the war on terror,” after being questioned by an British counterterrorism officer. In the recording of the interview with CAGE, Emwazi recounts the interrogation: “He started telling me what do you think of 9/11? I told him: ‘This is a wrong thing. What happened was wrong. What do you want me to say? If I had the opportunity for those lives to come back then I would make those lives come back.”

He added, “I told him everything that’s been happening is extremism. Everything — the bombs or whatever — that’s happening have been from extremists.”

The recording ends with Emwazi alleging that the agent threatened him and said, “We are going to keep a close eye on you, Mohammed.”

Last week, after Jihadi John’s identity was revealed, CAGE issued statements suggesting the U.K. authorities’ treatment of Emwazi was the cause of his radicalization. CAGE research director Asim Qureshi said in a statement on Feb. 26, “We now have evidence that there are several young Britons whose lives were not only ruined by security agencies, but who became disenfranchised and turned to violence because of British counter-terrorism policies coupled with long standing grievances over Western foreign policy.”

READ MORE: Inside ISIS, a TIME Special Report

TIME Terrorism

‘Jihadi John’ Was a Cold Loner, Says Fellow ISIS Fighter

The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) executioner Mohammed Emwazi, nicknamed Jihadi John, was a cold loner who didn’t talk much, according to an ISIS defector who spoke to the BBC.

Abu Ayman first met Emwazi in Syria about two years ago at a hillside refugee camp in Atmeh in northern Syria. British foreign fighters occupied nearby houses, posting photos on social media of their “five-star jihadi.” Ayman says Emwazi seemed strange from the beginning: “The British fighters were always hanging out together, but he wouldn’t join them.”

“He was cold. He didn’t talk much. He wouldn’t join us in prayer,” he said.

Ayman said ISIS has professional psychologists who “know who to choose from the fighters and how to make them famous.” He pointed out that ISIS offered new weapons, luxury guns, cars and promotions in exchange for following orders and said “there was nothing special about Jihadi John … anyone could have become like him.”

He added that some of his former ISIS comrades joined the group because of their admiration for Emwazi. “He’s a celebrity to attract our Muslim brothers in Europe. But some think he is showing off; they think he’s being used by ISIS.”

MORE: Inside ISIS, a TIME Special Report

Ayman’s description of Jihadi John is at odds with depictions of him from earlier stages in his life. His former high school principal, Jo Shuter, told the BBC that Emwazi was never suspected of being radicalized at school. She said that Emwazi had some issues with being bullied, which were dealt with, and that by the end of his time at high school he was “a hardworking, aspirational young man who went on to the university he wanted to go to.”

After university, Emwazi, a Kuwait-born U.K. citizen, worked as a salesman for a Kuwaiti IT company from 2009 to 2010. His former boss told The Guardian that Emwazi, then 21 years old, was “the best employee we ever had,” a calm, decent young man who was “very good with people.”

[BBC]

TIME Jordan

Jordan’s King Abdullah Says the War Against ISIS ‘Is Our War’

"It has been for a long time," he tells CNN

Jordan’s King Abdullah II has intensified his rhetoric in the kingdom’s fight against ISIS.

“It is our war. It has been for a long time,” King Abdullah told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria during an interview that aired on Sunday.

The King went on to describe the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria’s fighters as “outlaws” of Islam and said ISIS had set up an “irresponsible caliphate to try to expand their dominion over Muslims.”

ISIS forces captured Royal Jordanian Air Force fighter pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh last December and later burned him alive during a notorious video that they published online. The killing sparked retaliatory attacks from Jordan led by King Abdullah personally.

Read more at CNN

TIME Terrorism

Why Terrorism Works: Jihadi John and the Fear Premium

Alan Henning
AP This frame from a video released by Islamic State militants purports to show 'Jihadi John' before the alleged killing of taxi driver Alan Henning, released on Oct. 3, 2014.

It costs a lot to identify future threats

What’s it worth it to keep the world safe from “Jihadi John”? In theory, the vast economic resources and intelligence power of the West should make identifying, tracking and detaining a single, brutal terrorist worth the cost.

But ease of travel, availability of low-tech weapons and our inability to identify future threats from the vast pool of potential terrorists make neutralizing bad guys before they become high-profile killers difficult. The calculation becomes even harder when you realize the enormous cost of counterterrorism investments and how many lives can be saved in other areas of life for the same money.

On the surface, it seems like a simple thing. Mohammed Emwazi, who was identified by the Washington Post Thursday as the ISIS executioner “Jihadi John”, had been questioned and released by British authorities long before he went to Syria to join the group, according to the BBC. Not surprisingly, some are already asking how such a notorious killer could have slipped through authorities’ hands.

For starters, it’s hard to know whom to watch. Investigations into the July 7, 2005 terrorist bombings in London that killed 52 people and injured 700 confirmed that the UK’s domestic security service, MI5, had previously come across some of the members of the plot. But the investigations [pdf] concluded that the huge amount of threat information before MI5 and the lack of evidence of an imminent threat meant “it would not be right or fair to criticise the Security Service for the fact they did not pay greater attention” to the plotters.

Similarly, after the Paris attack at the satirical weekly magazine, Charlie Hebdo, French authorities were criticized for not doing a better job tracking the killers beforehand. Both men had been on U.S. terrorist watch lists, and the French Prime Minister admitted “failings” by intelligence services after the attack. But some estimates say it costs millions to monitor just one terrorism suspect, let alone the hundreds that French authorities say they would have to track to foil every possible future attacker, assuming one could even create a reliable and useful list of suspects.

Some have tried to calculate the total cost of such an effort. A 2014 study by John Mueller of Ohio University and the CATO Institute and Mark Stewart of the University of Newcastle in Australia, did a “back of the envelope” estimate to compare the cost of attacks to the cost of prevention. The authors assumed what they say is a common valuation of a human life of $6 million-$7 million and factored in their calculations the consequences of an attack, its likelihood of success, the risk reduction of terrorism measures and their costs.

Their conclusion: based on an estimated $75 billion increase in annual counterterrorism spending in the wake of 9/11 by the U.S. government, authorities would have to stop “150 Boston-type attacks per year, 15 London-type attacks each year, or one 9/11-type attack every three years” to justify the expense.

Such numbers are more polemical than scientific, of course: dollar costs aren’t the only consequences to factor into the equation. We may decide to pay extra to feel safe from foreign threats, or to fight back against those who directly challenge our political and social structures. We may value humanitarian intervention against terrorists who embrace genocide. Or we may think that the costs of current terrorist attacks could rise dramatically if, for example, bad guys got nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

National security hawks argue that we should pay with diminished privacy to leverage America’s technical superiority in electronic surveillance, which gives a lot of coverage for relatively little money. Mueller points out that the “Transportation Security Administration’s Federal Air Marshal Service and its full body scanner technology together are nearly as costly as the entire FBI counterterrorism budget,” which delivers a regular stream of arrested potential future jihadis.

Ultimately, if all we’re doing is paying extra because we’re afraid, though, Mueller’s numbers highlight the premium that fear factor represents. It costs a lot more to protect you from a terrorist attack that is statistically extremely unlikely to kill you than to minimize many other daily dangers, like auto accidents, gun deaths and falls by seniors.

That of course is the asymmetric idea as far as terrorists are concerned–use cheap but scary methods to trick opponents into costly, ineffectual countermeasures. In other words, terrorism works.

See our cover story this week, “The ISIS Trap” for more on the current calculation before the Obama administration.

TIME Iraq

Know Right Now: ISIS Destroys Artifacts at Iraqi Museum

The video was apparently recorded at a museum in Mosul

ISIS released a new video purportedly showing the destruction of several ancient artifacts in a Mosul museum. Watch Know Right Now to find out more.

TIME Syria

Murdered ISIS Hostage’s Daughter Says ‘Jihadi John’ Is Better Off Dead

Mohammed Emwazi in a still image from a video obtained from SITE Intel Group website February 26, 2015
Reuters Mohammed Emwazi in a still image from a video obtained from SITE Intel Group website February 26, 2015

"All the families will feel closure and relief once there's a bullet between his eyes"

The daughter of British aid worker David Haines, who was murdered by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) last September, has hit out at recently unveiled “Jihadi John,” saying he would be better off dead.

The London-accented militant’s identity was confirmed as 26-year-old Kuwaiti-born Briton Mohammed Emwazi by a U.S. intelligence official Thursday.

“It’s a good step, but I think all the families will feel closure and relief once there’s a bullet between his eyes,” Bethany Haines told ITV News.

Cloaked in a balaclava, Emwazi appeared in the beheading video of Haines’ father, as well as numerous other Western hostages, including James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Alan Henning.

Emwazi became radicalized after moving overseas to escape alienation and harassment in England, joining ISIS in Syria last year, according to reports.

Haines said she is waiting for Emwazi’s capture and does not fault British security for failing to thwart his journey to Syria. “It is shocking, but they’re doing their job, they’re doing the best they can they’ve not dealt with a so-called Islamic State like this before,” she said.

“Once he’s captured there will be a lot of happy faces,” Haines added.

[NBC]

TIME isis

Global Art Community Condemns ISIS Destruction of Artifacts at Mosul Museum

A new video purports to show militants destroying ancient works

A new video purporting to show militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) destroying ancient artifacts at a museum in the Iraqi city of Mosul has sent waves through the global art community.

Militants in the footage are shown pushing statues to the floor and smashing others with hammers. The Guardian reports that a man speaking to the camera then aims to justify the acts, citing how they didn’t exist in the time of the Prophet Muhammad and were worshipped by irreligious people.

The director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art condemned what he called the “catastrophic destruction to one of the most important museums in the Middle East.”

“This mindless attack on great art, on history, and on human understanding constitutes a tragic assault not only on the Mosul Museum, but on our universal commitment to use art to unite people and promote human understanding,” Thomas P. Campbell said in a statement.

Corine Wegener, a cultural heritage officer at the Smithsonian Institution who helps preserve ancient works at risk in war zones, labeled it the “wanton and unnecessary destruction of cultural heritage.”

“[ISIS] has a particular viewpoint about what’s offensive,” she told TIME. Wegener has helped facilitate workshops on how to protect cultural history in Syria and Iraq, in a partnership with the Penn Cultural Heritage Center and other groups. “The fact that they really feel this is something they have to do because they’re emulating the Prophet Muhammad makes our work really difficult.”

She adds, “the best we can do as cultural heritage professionals is to remind everyone that cultural heritage belongs to us all.”

The destruction at the Mosul Museum also prompted the cultural arm of the United Nations to call for the Security Council to hold an emergency meeting on protecting Iraq’s cultural heritage. “This attack is far more than a cultural tragedy,” UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said in a statement, adding, “this is also a security issue as it fuels sectarianism, violent extremism and conflict in Iraq.”

The video showing the destruction of ancient works, including statues from the UNESCO world heritage site Hatra, is among the latest attacks on significant artifacts by the Islamist extremists. ISIS has reportedly destroyed thousands of books and manuscripts from Mosul’s central library.

TIME Terrorism

Masked ISIS Executioner Is Identified

"Jihadi John" appeared in a series of videos that featured the beheading of hostages

The masked Islamist militant who shocked and horrified the world by executing journalists and aid workers in videos that marked a new level of brutality in terrorism has finally been identified, according to multiple reports Thursday.

Friends, authorities and people familiar with the case now believe that the man formerly known only as “Jihadi John” is actually Mohammed Emwazi, from West London, the Washington Post and BBC report. Emwazi is now thought to be the man in front of the camera on the beheading videos produced and circulated by the militant group Islamist State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). He’s believed to be the man who executed American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, British aid worker David Haines, British taxi driver Alan Henning, and U.S. aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig, also known as Peter

“I have no doubt that Mohammed is Jihadi John,” the Post quoted an unnamed friend as saying of Emwazi. “He was like a brother to me. … I am sure it is him.” The New York Times cited an unnamed senior British security official who confirmed Emwazi’s identity.

MORE Inside ISIS: A TIME Special Report

Emwazi is believed to have appeared in multiple videos depicting the gruesome killing of hostages, each time wearing a black garment covering all but his eyes. Now in his mid-twenties, Emwazi was born in Kuwait but grew up in a middle class family in Britain and graduated from college with a degree in computer programming.

Friends told the Post he was radicalized after what they say was a planned safari trip in Tanzania in 2009. His group was detained en route in Somalia and deported. Emwazi later told his friends he was met in Europe by a British intelligence officer who accused him of trying to support the al-Shabab militant group in Somalia and who tried to recruit him, the Post reports.

He became increasingly disillusioned with the West, according to emails he sent to a friend. He later moved to Kuwait, but was detained on a visit to London in June 2010 and prevented from leaving the country.

Security services have known his identity for some time but have not revealed it to the public, BBC reports.

A spokesperson at the British embassy in Washington decline to confirm the identity of “Jihadi John,” citing an “ongoing police investigation,” according to the Post. “Our prime minister has been clear that we want all those who have committed murder on behalf of ISIS to face justice for the appalling acts carried out,” the spokesperson said.

Bernadette Meehan, a spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council, did not confirm Emwazi’s identify.

“The U.S. Government continues to investigate the murder of American citizens by [ISIS],” Meehan said. “We will not comment on ongoing investigations and therefore are not in a position to confirm or deny the identity of this individual. As the President has said, no matter how long it takes, the United States will not rest until we find and hold accountable the terrorists who are responsible for the murders of our citizens. We are working closely with our international partners, including the British Government, to do everything we can to bring these murderers to justice.”

Read next: Don’t Take the Bait: The U.S. Should Not Send Troops to Fight ISIS

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