TIME Terrorism

Syria Conflict Spawning ‘New Generation of Terrorists,’ Report Warns

A rebel fighter walks on a street in the Syrian city of Aleppo following a reported bombardment with explosive-packed "barrel bombs" by the government forces on April 27, 2014
A rebel fighter walks on a street in the Syrian city of Aleppo following a reported bombardment with explosive-packed "barrel bombs" by the government forces on April 27, 2014 Baraa Al-Halabi—AFP/Getty Images

In just three years, 12,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria to fight, according to a new report by the Soufan Group — and most arrive already steeped in extremism

The civil war in Syria already appears to have drawn more foreign fighters than the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and may prove an even more dangerous incubator for terrorism in the long run, according to a new report by a private security company.

The report, by the Soufan Group, estimates that 12,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria. The estimate is up sharply from 7,000 that U.S. and Israeli intelligence estimated at the start of 2014, and more than the 10,000 thought to have fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, the decadelong conflict that spawned al-Qaeda.

The greatest concern about terrorism resides in the perhaps 3,000 fighters the report says traveled to Syria from Western countries to fight with rebel groups dominated by Islamic extremists. Though arrayed against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Iranian allies, the fundamentalists might in time choose to direct violence against Western targets, “the far enemy” in the parlance of al-Qaeda — and recruit those battle-hardened foreign fighters to return to their home countries and carry out attacks.

“Leaving aside what may happen in Syria, if al-Qaeda can maintain a network of even a small number of motivated returnees, or recruit fighters to its terrorist agenda while they are still in Syria, it may once more pose a significant global threat,” the report says.

Most of the foreign fighters in Syria arrived from Arab countries, with 3,000 alone from Tunisia and another 2,500 from Saudi Arabia. But 700 fighters are thought to have traveled to Syria from France; 400 from the U.K.; and around 250 each from Belgium, Australia and Germany, the report says, quoting estimates by the nations ’ own governments.

The study says about 70 fighters from the U.S. have traveled to Syria, quoting an FBI statement from May. Last Friday, the conflict recorded its first known American suicide bomber, when Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a recent resident of Florida, detonated the truck he was driving in an attack for al-Nusra Front, an extremist Sunni force.

Study author Richard Barrett, a former British intelligence official and U.N. specialist on al-Qaeda, writes that that leaders of groups that attract most foreign fighters — al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) — were previously members of al-Qaeda. He adds that the process of indoctrination in extremist thought may well be accelerated by social media, as young would-be fighters reinforce their views in self-limiting Twitter, Facebook and other feeds. In any event, most already are familiar with the extremist ideology that recruits learned from Osama bin Laden and his acolytes.

“The progression from foreign fighter to terrorist is not a linear one, nor is it inevitable, and the majority of people who return from the fighting in Syria may pose no terrorist threat,” Barrett writes. “But the difficulty remains how to distinguish those who will from those who won’t.”

The only known attack outside Syria by a foreign fighter occurred in Belgium in May, where a French citizen who had fought for a year in Syria with ISIS killed three people at a Jewish museum on May 24. But if the experience after the Soviet war in Afghanistan is any example, the report says, “the Syrian war is likely to be an incubator for a new generation of terrorists.”

TIME Africa

Nigeria Bomb Blast Kills at Least 14

The strike targeted a TV-viewing center for soccer matches, and Boko Haram is the prime suspect. Over 500 civilians have died in attacks since the Islamic militant group kidnapped over 200 schoolgirls on April 14

A bomb blast in northeastern Nigeria on Sunday killed at least 14 and wounded 12.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, which hit a television-viewing center for soccer matches, but the Islamic militant group Boko Haram is a prime suspect, Reuters reports.

The outfit, fighting for an Islamic state in Nigeria’s north, caused global outrage when it kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls on April 14. Since then, a string of strikes have killed at least 500 civilians.

Last weekend saw a botched attempt by a suicide bomber to strike an open-air viewing of a soccer match in the central city of Jos, which was ravaged by a twin bomb explosion days before, killing 118.

Neighboring country Cameroon claimed on Sunday to have killed some 40 Boko Haram militants in clashes in the country’s far north.

[Reuters]

TIME White House

Republicans Criticize White House Over Bergdahl Exchange

Ted Cruz, Mike Rogers and others say the terms of Bergdahl's release could put the U.S. in a dangerous position

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A day after the country celebrated U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s return to American custody after nearly five years in captivity, the White House found itself playing defense Sunday for failing to notify lawmakers in advance before transferring five Guantanamo Bay detainees in exchange for Bergdahl’s freedom.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) accused President Barack Obama in a statement Saturday of breaking the law by failing to give Congress proper notice of the transfers. The law requires the White House to tell lawmakers about Guantanamo transfers 30 days in advance. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, however, told Congress about the five Bergdahl transfers Saturday morning, just hours before the prisoners were on a plane and headed to Qatar.

“In executing this transfer,” McKeon and Inhofe said, “the President … clearly violated laws which require him to notify Congress thirty days before any transfer of terrorists from Guantanamo Bay and to explain how the threat posed by such terrorists has been substantially mitigated. Our joy at Sgt. Berghdal’s release is tempered by the fact that President Obama chose to ignore the law, not to mention sound policy, to achieve it.”

Obama himself signed the 30 days rule into law last year. He also wrote a controversial signing statement along with that law in which he said he believes the President is allowed to “act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers.” The Bergdahl deal is the first in which he’s put this belief into practice. (It’s also worth noting Obama campaigned in 2008 against the use of signing statements to enhance the executive branch’s power).

Hagel, along with White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice, were out playing defense for the White House on Sunday. Hagel said while en route to Afghanistan Sunday that Bergdahl’s worsening health meant the White House needed to move quickly to make the exchange. And Rice, making the Sunday show rounds, told CNN’s Candy Crowley that the administration had previously told Congress a Bergdahl-style scenario was a possibility.

” … this opportunity is one that has been briefed to Congress when we had past potential to have this kind of arrangement,” said Rice on CNN’s State of the Union.

“So it wasn’t unknown to Congress,” Rice continued. “The Department of Defense consulted with the Department of Justice. And given the acute urgency of the — the health condition of Sgt. — Sgt. Bergdahl and given the president’s constitutional responsibilities, it was determined that it was necessary and appropriate not to adhere to the 30 day notification requirement, because it would have potentially meant that the opportunity to get Sgt. Bergdahl would have been lost.”

Other Republicans, meanwhile, knocked the White House over what they said was a move that will put U.S. troops at risk in the future. Republican Texas Senator and potential 2016 presidential candidate Ted Cruz pounded home that point Sunday on This Week, saying the administration paid a “dangerous price” to retrieve Bergdahl.

“How many soldiers lost their lives to capture those five Taliban terrorists that we just released?” Cruz asked ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “Ambassador [Susan] Rice basically said to you, yes, U.S. policy has changed. Now we make deals with terrorists. And the question going forward is, have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers? What does this tell terrorists, that if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists we’ve gone after?”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), meanwhile, said during Sunday State of the Union that “if you negotiate here, you’ve sent a message to every al-Qaeda group in the world — by the way, some who are holding U.S. hostages today — that there is some value now in that hostage in a way that they didn’t have before.”

And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former P.O.W. himself, was also skeptical of the exchange. “I am eager to learn what precise steps are being taken to ensure that these vicious and violent Taliban extremists never return to the fight against the United States and our partners or engage in any activities that can threaten the prospects for peace and security in Afghanistan,” said McCain in a statement.

TIME Syria

Suicide Bomber in Syria Was American Citizen

The man went by the name Abu Hurayra al-Amriki

A man who detonated a suicide truck bomb in Syria on Sunday was an American citizen, the Obama Administration confirmed Friday.

“I can confirm that this individual was a U.S. citizen involved in a suicide bombing in Syria,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

Syrian rebels released a video earlier this week after an attack on a Syrian military checkpoint. In the video, they claimed one of the bombers involved was an American who fought under the nom-du-guerre Abu Huraya al-Amriki. (al-Amriki translates to “the American.”)

Rebel groups said the attack was carried out in coordination with the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaeda.

CNN, citing unnamed U.S. officials, reports the man grew up in Florida. U.S. officials have expressed concern about the stream of foreign fighters flowing into Syria’s war, worried they will return to the U.S. both radicalized and dangerous.

TIME White House

White House Proposes $5 Billion Global Anti-Terrorism Fund

U.S. soldiers walks along a ridgeline during a patrol up a mountainside near Forward Operating Base Shank on March 31, 2014 near Pul-e Alam, Afghanistan.
U.S. soldier walks along a ridgeline during a patrol up a mountainside near Forward Operating Base Shank on March 31, 2014 near Pul-e Alam, Afghanistan. Scott Olson—Getty Images

President Obama announced plans for a Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund (CTPF) during a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on Wednesday

Updated 11:35am E.T.

President Barack Obama unveiled a proposed $5-billion “terrorism partnership fund” Wednesday to aid other countries in fighting extremists and other radical groups.

The President said he would ask Congress to support the establishment of a Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund (CTPF) during a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

“These resources will give us flexibility to fulfill different missions,” Obama said, “including training security forces in Yemen who have gone on the offensive against al Qaeda; supporting a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia; working with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya; and facilitating French operations in Mali.”

The fund would add vital resources to help tackle fallout from the ongoing conflict in Syria, he said, where fighting between the regime of President Bashar Assad and opposition forces has attracted extremist Islamist groups seeking to take advantage of a power vacuum. “With the additional resources I’m announcing today, we will step up our efforts to support Syria’s neighbors—Jordan and Lebanon; Turkey and Iraq—as they host refugees, and confront terrorists working across Syrian borders,” Obama said.

The fund would allow the Department of Defense to improve and expand counterterrorism training, assist other countries’ efforts, and collaborate with the State Department to support stable governments around the world in their “efforts to counter violent extremism and terrorist ideology,” the White House said.

During television appearances on Wednesday morning, Secretary of State John Kerry defended Obama’s plans to reduce U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan by the end of the year.

“This is not an abandonment of Afghanistan,” Kerry said on NBC’s Today show. “This is an emboldenment. This is an empowerment of Afghanistan.”

While appearing on CBS This Morning, Kerry said that withdrawing from Afghanistan will allow the U.S. to devote more resources to fighting terrorism around the word. The nation’s foreign policy, he said, should be updated to reflect the “rapidly changing, more complex world where terrorism is the principal challenge.”

Kerry also told Good Morning America on ABC that the U.S. has “people on the ground” and is “working hand in hand with Nigerians” to recover the nearly 300 schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria by Islamic radicals.

TIME Libya

Top Libyan Journalist and Critic of Islamic Extremism Gunned Down

Journalists and others take part in a rally at Tripoli's Martyrs' Square on May 26, 2014 Mahmud Turkia—AFP / Getty

Meftah Bouzid's slaying is the latest in a series of deadly attacks carried out by jihadists in the Islamist stronghold of Benghazi

Meftah Bouzid, a prominent Libyan journalist and vocal critic of the country’s jihadists, was shot dead on Monday in the Islamist stronghold of Benghazi, generating a wave of condemnation from domestic and international rights organizations.

Bouzid had previously been the subject of death threats for his frequent condemnation of Islamic extremists, who since the 2011 revolution have carried out dozens of deadly attacks on prominent figures, officials, foreigners and the armed forces in Benghazi, AFP reports.

Hundreds of people attended the funeral of the slain editor of the weekly newspaper Burniq, as French-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the U.N. mission in Libya called for a prompt investigation into the shooting.

RSF urged “all civilian, military and political actors … to immediately end all attacks on civilians, including all journalists.”

[AFP]

TIME Crime

Prosecutors: Suspected Boston Bombers Used Christmas Lights, Model Car Parts in Explosives

Prosecutors say the sophistry of the explosives gave investigators reason to believe that the suspects may have had accomplices, prompting them to question Dzhokhar Tsarnaev while he was being treated in the hospital.

The suspected Boston Marathon bombers used parts from Christmas lights and model cars to construct the sophisticated explosives used in the attack, federal prosecutors said in a Wednesday court filing.

Federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the two suspects in the April 16, 2013 bombings that killed three people and injured 264 others. His brother and alleged accomplice, Tamerlan, died during a police shootout following the search for suspects.

Prosecutors said in the filing the sophisticated nature of the explosives gave reason to believe that the brothers received assistance, the Boston Globe reports.

“In short, the facts and circumstances known to law enforcement at the time they interviewed Tsarnaev provided ample reason to believe that the Tsarnaevs did not act alone,” the prosecutors said in the filing, according to the Globe.

Prosecutors also said the brothers appeared to have crushed and emptied fireworks containing black powder for the bombs, but investigators did not find significant traces of the powder at the brothers’ residences or cars.

The filing also argues the court should not suppress statements Dzhokhar Tsarnaev made to FBI agents while being treated in a hospital after his arrest because investigators had to determine if the suspect had accomplices who could have posed a threat. Tsarnaev’s defense has argued that the interrogations are inadmissible because he was interrogated without access to a lawyer.

[Boston Globe]

TIME

The Capital of China’s Xinjiang Region Is in Lockdown After a Deadly Blast

Chinese police say an explosion has killed at least 31 people in Urumqi, the capital of China's restive northwest Xinjiang region. This comes just weeks after a bomb and knife attack at the city's rail station was blamed on extremists from the region's mostly Muslim Uighur community

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Urumqi does not want for cops. The capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, in China’s far northwest, is well-guarded. Riot trucks cruise city streets. Armed police stand vigil over Friday prayers. And following a deadly attack last month, the city’s railway station feels like a fortress. But none of this, it seems, has stopped the violence.

At around 7:50 a.m. Thursday two “cross-country” vehicles collided on a street near Renmin Park, about 4km from the city’s main square, sending fire and smoke shooting into the sky, according to state media reports. Witnesses told local press they heard a series of explosions and saw blazing plumes stretching one-story high. Photographs from the scene show shattered market stalls, toppled piles of produce, and bodies lining the road. Police say at least 31 people were killed.

The explosion hit the city at what is usually a quiet, restful time. China officially has one time zone, a fact that is at odds with longitudinal realities. To account for this, people in Xinjiang use both “Beijing time” and “Xinjiang time,” which is two hours behind. Ten to eight in the morning, Beijing time, is effectively 5:50 a.m. to the locals. At this hour, it’s usually only shopkeepers and the elderly who are milling about.

The early-morning chaos comes just weeks after a brutal and bloody attack at an Urumqi railway station. On April 30, a bomb and knife attack at the city’s southern train terminal left three dead — two of them attackers — and 79 injured. Several people have since been arrested in connection with that attack. Although few details have been released, authorities say they were motivated by extremism.

It will probably be days or weeks before we know what exactly happened. The authorities keep a tight lid on information about potentially sensitive subjects, and few subjects are more sensitive right now than the specter of unrest, or terrorism, in Xinjiang.

The vast homeland of the Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim Uighur people has seen a rise in violence in recent years attributed, depending on who you ask, to religious extremism, separatism, or as a reaction to forceful religious and social oppression by the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Many Uighurs feel overwhelmed by the pace of immigration to Xinjiang of China’s ethnic Han majority, with Urumqi now a majority Han city.

For decades, a small minority has waged a campaign against the Chinese government, usually targeting symbols of state power in Xinjiang, including government buildings and police stations.

The violence seems to be spreading. Last fall, a truck plowed through crowds of tourists in Beijing’s Tiananmen square, killing two and injuring dozens. Chinese authorities said the vehicle was driven by Uighur separatists, although few details have been released about the assailants — a man, his wife and his mother. In March, a group of knife-wielding attackers slashed and stabbed their way through a train station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, killing 29. Chinese authorities identified the group as separatists from Xinjiang.

All this has prompted the ruling Chinese Communist Party to tighten its already firm hold on the territory. In a visit to Xinjiang last month, President Xi Jinping promised a “strike first” policy and called police officers, who are disproportionately Han Chinese, the “fists and daggers” in the country’s fight against terrorism and separatism. “Sweat more in peacetime to bleed less in wartime,” he reportedly advised.

By last weekend, the police were omnipresent. In Hotan, a dusty city in Xinjiang’s southwest, there were police trucks on each block of the city’s center. Roads to outlying towns and villages were blocked by checkpoints. In the otherwise laid-back and leafy capital, life continues apace, albeit in the presence of armed men. At Urumqi’s southern railway station — which is itself flanked by police stations — men with automatic weapons meet passengers at the ticket gate.

The show of force is mighty, but on this awful morning, you have to wonder if anyone feels safe.

TIME Nigeria

Boko Haram Survivor Tells Story on Capitol Hill

Deborah Peter, 15, recounted how the Nigerian Islamist group had butchered her father and brother as Congress mulls how to counter the group that has abducted over 200 schoolgirls

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Deborah Peter, a 15 year-old Nigerian, has a horrible story.

On the evening of Dec. 22, 2011, she saw her father, a Christian pastor, shot three times in the chest by three members of the Islamist radical group Boko Haram. While her father lay on the floor of his home, the men debated whether or not they should kill her brother Caleb. As her father breathed his last, they killed Caleb too. The men made the young girl lie between the corpses and she stayed there until the next morning, when a local pastor paid for her to get out of the region. That pastor was killed in 2013 — again, by Boko Haram.

Peter recounted her story before the media on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, as Congress debates how to counter the radical Islamist group behind last month’s kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls in Chibok, Peter’s home town. She held up a paper sign reading “#BringBackMySisters” for video cameras and photographers. She then attended a House panel committee to discuss the growing threat of Boko Haram, along with Department of Defense and Secretary of State officials summoned as witnesses.

“I decided to tell the world my story when the Chibok girls were taken because everyone needs to know how horrible Boko Haram is,” said Peter in her statement. “They kill innocent people who never hurt them. I want the world to understand what happened to me. I hope the kidnapped Chibok girls will take courage from my story, and know more of what God says, and know what it means to stand strong in the face of bad people.”

After giving her opening statement, Peter was asked to describe how she felt about Boko Haram after all she had been through. “It’s a hard question; I think they’re bad,” she said, before adding “I can’t judge them.”

Later, TIME asked her why. “The Bible said do not judge,” she replied.

TIME Nigeria

Search For Victims Continues After Nigeria Bomb Toll Tops 118

No one has yet claimed responsibility, but the twin explosions bear the hallmarks of militant Islamist group Boko Haram. President Goodluck Jonathan meanwhile faces increased pressure as terror attacks escalate

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Rescuers are still digging for victims of the two car bombs that killed at least 118 in the central Nigerian city of Jos on Tuesday.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the gruesome attack, but President Goodluck Jonathan indicated he blamed the militant Islamists Boko Haram, which has killed more than 1,000 people this year, and which kidnapped more than 250 schoolgirls last month.

Tuesday’s blasts ripped through a crowded business district about half an hour apart, suggesting that they were coordinated to cause as much carnage as possible. Witnesses describe a chaotic scene suffused with the sickening smell of human flesh, with dozens of bodies strewn about, many of them emergency workers who had just arrived in response of the first explosion.

Jos sits on a fault line between Muslims and Christians, nomads and farmers, and has previously erupted in violence, most notably when several churches were bombed on Christmas Day in 2011.

Some Nigerians are blaming the government for not doing enough to prevent the latest attacks from happening.

Mark Lipdo of the Christian charity Stefanos Foundation told the Associated Press that several people had reported their suspicions about the white van that contained the first bomb, since it was parked for hours in the market place. However, authorities apparently took no action. Lipdo also says they ignored a warning issued by a man arrested with explosives strapped to his body on Saturday.

President Jonathan, who is facing increased pressure over the recent escalation of terrorist attacks, called the perpetrators “cruel and evil” and said that “this administration will not be cowed by the atrocities of enemies of human progress and civilization.”

The Jos bombings, and a separate car bomb in northern Kano that killed 24 people on Monday, took place after regional and Western leaders pledged a “total war” on the Boko Haram at a weekend summit in Paris. The latest attacks also coincide with parliament’s approval of an extension of emergency laws in three of the country’s restive north-eastern states for another six months.

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