TIME Iraq

The Iraqi Government Seems Helpless to Stop ISIS’s New Caliphate

The Sunni militant group says it has created its own Islamic empire. Their hold is less than secure, but Iraq's government seems helpless

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With the upload of an audio recording, radical Sunni militants on June 29 declared a new Islamic caliphate, a religious superstate, stretching from eastern Iraq to the Syrian city of Aleppo. The group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is now simply the Islamic State, dropping the names of the two countries whose sovereignty it doesn’t recognize.

After weeks of laying claim to Iraqi territory, the group’s spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said on Sunday that they had everything necessary to proclaim their state. The Caliph — or leader — is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi-born ISIS leader who appears to be giving al-Qaeda chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a run for his money. “Listen to your leader and obey him,” said al-Adnani in the online statement. “Support your state, which grows continuously.”

But despite massive Sunni discontent with the Shi‘ite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a caliphate run by a Caliph whose location is unknown and whose representatives regularly order beheadings may still be too much for many Iraqis. “They put up the new rules at all the mosques,” said one resident of Mosul, an Iraqi city that has fallen to ISIS. “Now it’s no smoking, no argileh pipes, and they sent the women home from government jobs.”

Even more troubling than the strict Shari‘a law ISIS is known to enforce with public lashings and executions is the militant group’s assertion of sovereignty over the territory it controls. There are many Islamists and well-armed Sunnis within ISIS’s self-declared borders who won’t be keen to swear allegiance to al-Baghdadi and his black flag.

Until now, Sunni tribes and the old guard of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party have been playing along with ISIS against a common enemy: Baghdad and al-Maliki’s Shi‘ite-led government. But “there are a lot of tribes that don’t want to be part of a caliphate,” said Kenneth Pollack, a specialist in Middle East political-military affairs and a former CIA analyst. And it may be their resistance, rather the Iraqi army, that will prove the true obstacle for ISIS. “This is exactly the thing back in 2006 when they were al-Qaeda in Iraq that got them in to trouble and helped push the Sunni tribes back into the arms of the Americans.”

But as ISIS defends its new territory, its assertion of dominance may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as an increasing number of fighters join the group seen as winning on the ground. “The events of the last three weeks have really boosted ISIS’s stock among the global jihadist movement,” said Pollack. “These guys took Mosul. When was the last time al-Qaeda did anything that impressive? So if you’re some young would-be jihadi I think there is a good likelihood you’re going to choose ISIS as opposed to the old al-Qaeda.”

ISIS fighters continue to battle Iraqi government troops, particularly for the strategic northern city of Tikrit. Despite outnumbering the jihadists, the Iraqi national army has retaken little ground, and is desperately reaching out to the international community for military support. Russia was quick to deliver a small fleet of warplanes over the weekend, and U.S. advisers are already in country to support the Iraqi military.

But al-Maliki’s choice of military force rather than political negotiation is failing, and calls for him to step down here are being heard in Tehran, and even in Iraq among his Shi‘ite support base. On July 1 Iraq’s parliament will reconvene and there will be a lot of pressure on al-Maliki to make the concessions suggested by U.S Secretary of State John Kerry and British First Secretary of State William Hague when they visited Iraq recently. Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities say the current government has a sectarian agenda and the Kurds are more interested in autonomy than a new deal with Baghdad.

“We are in a new reality now, and it’s clear Iraq will never be ruled by one man, one sect, or party,” said Hiwa Osman, an analyst and writer based in Erbil. “The new Iraq is to be managed, not ruled. Managing the relationships between the various regions is the only way forward if the country wants to stay together.”

A political solution out of the parliament tomorrow is unlikely. Not only has al-Maliki shown he’s unwilling to compromise, but Osman says those Sunnis who will be sitting in the opening session on Tuesday don’t have the necessary influence in the areas of the newly declared caliphate.

“If they were really the players, they would be on the ground in Mosul, in Tikrit, in Nineveh,” said Osman. “Not in Baghdad.”

TIME Pakistan

Unbelievably, There Are Now Refugees Fleeing to Afghanistan

The Pakistani military’s offensive against insurgents in North Waziristan has sparked a humanitarian crisis, with thousands of Pakistanis concluding that Afghanistan is just a far safer place to be right now.

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The Pakistani military has begun operations against Islamic insurgents in the North Waziristan region, delivering the offensive that Washington has been requesting for a decade, and sparking a massive exodus of refugees — some of whom are fleeing to neighboring Afghanistan to escape the fighting.

Militants, who have long inhabited the mountainous tribal area, have found themselves the target of heavy artillery bombardment and airstrikes for the past fortnight, in what the military’s PR chief Major-General Asim Bajwa termed “the beginning of the end of terrorism in Pakistan.”

Reports began to surface on Thursday in the Pakistani press that ground troops had started moving into North Waziristan to clear out the insurgent forces.

Washington says militants have been using North Waziristan for years as a base from which to attack NATO forces in Afghanistan and to wage a terrorist insurgency against the Pakistani state.

Senior members of the Pakistani Taliban (the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan), the Haqqani Network and Al Qaeda’s central command — along with a smattering of militants from as far away as western China’s Xinjiang province and Chechnya — are believed to be holed up in the area. All are on Islamabad’s kill list.

“For the military, there’ll be no discrimination among Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, Haqqani network or any other militant group,” Major-General Bajwa told reporters during a press conference in Rawalpindi on Thursday.

The mountainous border dividing Pakistan and Afghanistan has been home to martial tribes for centuries. However, the presence of heavily armed insurgents and foreign jihadis is the notorious legacy of American and Saudi intelligence agencies, who used the fighters as proxy forces during the clandestine war with Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan in the 1980s.

“This is famously the powder keg, which has led to everything going wrong in the region and the beginning of heavily armed militant Islam,” William Dalrymple, the historian and author of nine books on South Asia, tells TIME. “Obviously in retrospect [it’s] one of the great mistakes of American foreign policy.”

The Pakistani secret service (ISI) is alleged to have helped insurgent elements fleeing the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, using those militant groups to maintain pressure on the newly formed government in Kabul, which they believed harbored pro-Indian sensibilities.

“The Pakistan Army, or elements within ISI, always continued to support the Taliban as a way of getting rid of the Karzai government and a way of installing a pro-Pakistani Taliban regime in Kabul,” says Dalrymple.

That policy appears to have backfired. In 2007, the Pakistani Taliban launched a fresh insurgency against Islamabad that to date has been responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Pakistanis and at least 15,000 security personnel.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif campaigned last year on the promise of peace talks with the Taliban, but any hope of negotiations has been extinguished by a recent string of humiliating attacks, including a brazen assault on Karachi airport, deep in the country’s commercial hub.

The perennially stretched Pakistani state is now attempting to deal with the massive humanitarian fallout from the new offensive. In the less than two weeks of fighting, more than 450,000 people have been internally displaced. Officials estimate that the number will surpass 500,000 soon.

In a bizarre reversal of the norm, tens of thousands of Pakistanis have reportedly flooded into war-torn eastern Afghanistan to escape the fighting on the Pakistan side of the border.

“The [Afghan] government estimates there are over 60,000 thousand for now,” says Babar Baloch from U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees.

The exodus has also ignited fears that the polio epidemic rampant in North Waziristan for two years could spread to other parts of the region.

Meanwhile, analysts have already begun to criticize the new military campaign for not being part of a broader vision of Pakistan’s future.

“There isn’t yet a clear national strategy,” says Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. That means “operations are going to be tactical at best.” He adds: “The civilians were not brought in at the planning stage. And they’re not prepared in any way to take over from the military once the clearing has taken place.”

TIME Iraq

Syria Bombed ISIS Fighters in Iraq, Maliki Confirms

Syria has joined the conflict in Iraq by launching air strikes against the insurgents, the Iraqi Prime Minister confirms

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki confirmed Thursday that Syria bombed Islamic militants in the Iraqi border town of al-Qaim on Tuesday, the BBC reports.

Though Maliki claimed he didn’t request Syria’s support, he said he “welcomed” any action against the insurgents, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who now control large parts of northern and western Iraq.

Syria’s strikes may displease U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who on Wednesday warned outside actors in the Middle East against intervening in Iraq.

“We don’t need anything to take place that might exacerbate the sectarian divisions that are already at a heightened level of tension,” said Kerry while speaking at a NATO summit. Kerry previously ruled out U.S. airstrikes in Iraq.

Syria’s bombings in Iraq have been interpreted as the two countries uniting over a common enemy, ISIS. ISIS, which is opposed to Syria’s President Bashar Assad as well as Iraq’s Maliki, controls territory in northern Syria in addition to the land it’s recently claimed in Iraq, which includes border crossings between the two neighboring nations.

Reports have also suggested that Iran is aiding Iraq’s government by sending military supplies and launching surveillance drones over the country. Iran has also reinforced its western border with Iraq.

The Iraqi government has been struggling to halt ISIS’ progress. The group is believed to be only an hour’s drive north of the capital Baghdad.

Facing the mounting military might of ISIS on top of growing political and diplomatic pressure internally and from allies, Maliki has announced plans to form a new government when parliament reconvenes in the capital next week. He has also purchased Russian warplanes as the U.S. has persistently delayed Iraq’s attempts to buy American fighter jets.

[BBC]

TIME Iraq

Sorry, Jihadis, but You Won’t Be Able to Buy ISIS T-Shirts on Facebook

A fighter of the ISIL holds a flag and a weapon on a street in Mosul
A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) holds an ISIS flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul, Iraq, on June 23, 2014 Reuters

T-shirts for terrorists get a ton of dislikes

Facebook has blocked the attempted sale of ISIS hoodies, T-shirts and toy figurines on the social network.

The shirts include the Sunni militant group’s logo and slogans like “We Are All ISIS” and “Fight for Freedom, Until the Last Drop of Blood,” and cost around $10.

The group is currently embroiled in all-out insurgency in Iraq, where it has seized several key areas.

Facebook was swift to respond. “Where hateful content is posted and reported, Facebook removes it and disables accounts of those responsible,” a spokesperson told CNN via email.

ISIS merchandize is also available on Twitter, but CNN reports that the microblogging site declined to comment.

Many of the manufacturers selling ISIS paraphernalia come from Indonesia, where there is some support for the extremist group, but it’s not clear whether revenue from the merchandise is going to sympathizers, opportunistic entrepreneurs or ISIS itself.

Terrorism researcher J.M. Berger says he wouldn’t be surprised if profits go to the latter. “ISIS has a big base of support in Southeast Asia — a long history with Islamism and jihadism. A number of foreign fighters come from the region,” Berger stated to CNN.

The Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict published a report in January stating that conflict in the Middle East is attracting fighters from Indonesia.

“Indonesian extremists are more engaged by the conflict in Syria than by any other foreign war in recent memory, including Afghanistan and Iraq,” the report said.

[CNN]

TIME Asia

China Arrests 380 in First Month of Yearlong Antiterrorism Campaign

China Terrorism Crackdown
Armed paramilitary policemen ride on a truck during an antiterrorism oath-taking rally at the Grand Bazaar in Urumqi, China, on May 23, 2014 AP

In general, the names of those arrested are not released, and they are likely to face trial in secret

China has arrested at least 380 people in its first month of a yearlong campaign against terrorism, state-run media said on Monday.

The crackdown was triggered by a suicide attack blamed on Islamic militants that left 39 people dead in the restive western province of Xinjiang in May.

The Ministry of Public Security said in a statement that the campaign to avert the spread of religious radicalism would last until June 2015, “With Xinjiang as the center, and with cooperation from other provinces.”

China Central Television (CCTV) stated that the campaign began with the disbanding of 32 terrorist groups in the western province, confirming Beijing’s promise that “terrorists and extremists will be hunted down and punished,” AFP reported.

Along with arrests that concentrated on suspected militants in Xinjiang but spread throughout the country, police also seized 264 devices that could discharge 3.15 tons of explosives, CCTV reported.

Most of the violence in Xinjiang apparently stems from rising tensions between the predominantly Muslim Uighur minority and majority Han Chinese migrants. Human-rights groups also blame increasing economic disparity and religious discrimination against the Uighurs, although Beijing claims that the government has helped improve the local economy and infrastructure.

[AFP]

TIME Foreign Policy

Kerry Presses for Iraq Peace but Warns Militants Could Force U.S. Action

Secretary of State John Kerry met with top Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish political leaders in Baghdad on Monday. He warned that the threat from militants storming across Iraq could force the U.S. to take military action, even as he pressed the country's leaders to cede more power to opponents and forge a political solution to the crisis

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Updated 3:18 p.m. E.T.

Secretary of State John Kerry warned Monday that the threat from militants storming across Iraq could force the U.S. to take military action, even as he pressed the country’s leaders to cede more power to opponents and forge a political solution to the crisis.

“They do pose a threat,” Kerry said of fighters from the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). “They cannot be given safe haven anywhere.

“That’s why, again, I reiterate the President will not be hampered if he deems it necessary if [political reconciliation] is not complete,” Kerry added.

Kerry’s comments came during an unannounced visit to Baghdad, during which he met with the country’s top officials and urged Shi‘ite leaders to cede more power to their rivals as Sunni insurgents plunge the country into chaos.

Kerry had a 90-minute closed-door meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom U.S. officials pushed to be more inclusive in his government to bridge the country’s sectarian divide, worsened by years of policymaking that slighted Sunnis and the Kurdish minority in the north. Kerry said afterward that al-Maliki, along with other government officials, had committed to meet a July 1 deadline to build a new power-sharing government.

He also met with top Shi‘ite cleric Ammar al-Hakim and one of Iraq’s most senior Sunnis, parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi. “These are difficult times,” he said in the meeting with al-Nujaifi, while reaffirming the Obama Administration’s commitment to stabilizing Iraq’s security. “But the principal concern is for the Iraqi people — for the integrity of the country, its borders, for its sovereignty.”

Kerry spoke about the unrest playing out in Iraq the day before while in Cairo. “This is a critical moment where together we must urge Iraq’s leaders to rise above sectarian motivations and form a government that is united in its determination to meet the needs and speak to the demands of all of their people,” Kerry told reporters.

The Middle East trip comes days after President Barack Obama confirmed the U.S. would send 300 military advisers to assist in the training of the Iraqi military as it attempts to beat back the ferocious assault spearheaded by ISIS extremists. Those troops, Obama said, would not engage in combat missions.

— Additional reporting by Zeke J Miller and Michael Crowley

TIME Australia

You’ll Never Guess Which Country Is the Biggest Per Capita Contributor of Foreign Jihadists to ISIS

Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) celebrate on vehicles taken from Iraqi security forces, at a street in city of Mosul
Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) celebrate on vehicles taken from Iraqi security forces, at a street in city of Mosul, June 12, 2014. © STRINGER Iraq / Reuters—REUTERS

It isn't in the Middle East or Central Asia or even in Europe. It's Down Under

A startling number of Australian citizens and residents have left the country to join jihadist factions in the ongoing crises in the Middle East, prompting the Australian government to launch a statewide effort to crack down on “home-grown terrorism” fostered within its borders.

“This is one of the most disturbing developments in our domestic security in quite some time,” Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop told the Australian Broadcasting Service. “There’s a real danger that these extremists also come back home as trained terrorists and pose a threat to our security.”

Authorities believe that around 150 Australians are currently fighting alongside ISIS in Iraq and Syria, making the country the highest foreign per capita contributor to the violence. Many more have left the country for the Middle East in recent weeks, though their intent in doing so has not yet been determined.

“We will do everything we humanly can to stop jihadist terrorists coming into this country and if they do return to this country, we will do everything we reasonably can to ensure that they are not moving amongst the Australian community,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott told the Australian press on Monday.

Abbott’s government has thus far canceled a number of passports held by those Australians who have joined the conflict, and is working to fortify a border security system that has a history of being more permeable than desired. It was a “customs failure” last year that permitted convicted terrorist Khaled Sharrouf to escape the country with his brother’s passport and head to Syria and then Iraq, where he has had a hand in the recent mass executions of Iraqi soldiers.

As for the suspected or confirmed terrorists still at large within the Australian borders, the government has mulled over the idea of providing national intelligence agencies greater access to the country’s internet traffic — a potentially controversial move, considering the outcry over the government’s mobile data surveillance plan in 2012.

This is not the first time that Australia has taken note of the extremist diaspora out of the country. Last summer, TIME reported that over 200 Australians had joined militant groups fighting to unseat Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country’s ongoing civil war, and that Australian counterterrorism operatives had consequently begun collecting evidence against suspected combatants.

Still, the exodus persists, from Australia and elsewhere: the Economist reported earlier this month that as many as 3,000 foreigners may have joined ISIS forces. The organization and its satellite groups seem intent on making their chaos an international issue, actively soliciting support from Muslims across the world.

In a 13-minute propagandist recruitment video released last week, purported ISIS extremists stated that their fellow jihadists in Iraq and Syria hailed from countries as far afield as Bangladesh and even Cambodia, although some Cambodian officials have disputed the claim.

 

TIME intelligence

CIA Planned To Make ‘Demon’ Osama Bin Laden Action Figure

Terrorists Osama bin-Laden
Osama bin-Laden was the founder of al-Qaeda, the militant Islamist organization that was responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. Bin-Laden was killed in Pakistan on May 2, 2011 by an American Special Forces unit in an operation ordered by President Obama. Getty Images

The CIA confirmed to the Washington Post that three prototypes of the action figure were created

The CIA started to make Osama bin Laden action figures that were intended to spook children and parents into turning against him, the Washington Post reports.

Citing “people familiar with the project,” the Post reports that in 2005 the CIA began developing bin Laden action figures with heat-dissolving material that would peel off and reveal a red-faced, demon-like bin Laden. A batch of the toys were manufactured in China, though exactly how many is a subject of dispute.

A spokesperson for the CIA told the Post that only three action figures were created as prototypes, and the agency decided against moving forward with the project. But a source told the Post that hundreds of toys were sent to Karachi in 2006.

See the Post‘s images of the terrifying toy here.

[Washington Post]

TIME Iraq

Iraq Asks the U.S. to Launch Air Strikes Against Sunni Militants

Iraqi Shiite tribesmen brandish their weapons as they gather to show their willingness to join Iraqi security forces in the fight against Jihadist militants who have taken over several northern Iraqi cities, on June 17 2014, in the southern Shiite Muslim shrine city of Najaf.
Iraqi Shiite tribesmen brandish their weapons as they gather to show their willingness to join Iraqi security forces in the fight against Jihadist militants who have taken over several northern Iraqi cities, on June 17 2014, in the southern Shiite Muslim shrine city of Najaf. Haidar Hamdani—AFP/Getty Images

Baghdad has officially asked the U.S. to consider deploying air support to the country's languishing ground troops

Iraq’s embattled government is clamoring for U.S. air strikes against Sunni militias that continue to capture large swaths of territory north of the capital, Baghdad, including portions of the country’s largest oil refinery.

During an official visit to Saudi Arabia this week, Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari confirmed the U.S. has been officially asked to supply air support to help halt a massive rebel offensive that is being led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

“Iraq has officially asked Washington to help … and to conduct air strikes against terrorist groups,” Zebari told reporters, according to the AFP.

“A military approach will not be enough. We acknowledge the need for drastic political solutions.”

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama met with his National Security Council earlier this week before sitting down with top legislators in the Oval Office on Wednesday.

“The President directed his national security team to develop a range of options, and that work is ongoing,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told a pool of reporters Tuesday.

“But there is no military solution that will solve Iraq’s problems, which is why we’ve been urgently pressing Iraq’s leaders across the political spectrum to govern in a non-sectarian manner.”

A car bomb exploded inside a parking lot in the Iraqi capital’s southeastern Shi‘ite neighborhood of New Baghdad on Thursday, killing three and leaving seven people injured, reports the AP.

On Wednesday, reports circulated that ISIS fighters had seized significant swaths of Iraq’s largest oil refinery in Baiji, despite coming up against stiff resistance from government forces comprising elite Iraqi commandos who had the support of helicopter gunships.

Iraqi officials have continued to deny that the battle for the facility has been lost to ISIS.

Brigadier General Arras Abdul Qadir, who is commanding the battle against the insurgent forces at the refinery, reportedly told the New York Times by phone that his men were still inside the facility and fighting.

However, when asked how long his troops could hold out against the enemy, Qadir replied, “We will see.”

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