TIME Asia

In China, Deadly Bomb and Knife Attack Rocks Xinjiang Capital

Security personnel inspect the explosion site outside Urumqi South Railway Station in Urumqi in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, April 30, 2014 after an explosion that killed some people and injured some.
Security personnel inspect the explosion site outside Urumqi South Railway Station in Urumqi, northwest China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, on April 30, 2014 An He—EPA

At least three people were killed and 79 others injured after an explosion and knifing spree near a train station in northwestern China, seemingly the latest attack orchestrated by the autonomy-seeking Uighur minority

Just hours after China’s President Xi Jinping was wrapping up a rare visit to the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang, an explosion and knifing spree near a train station in the regional capital Urumqi left at least three dead and 79 injured. The detonation at Xinjiang’s largest train station, which occurred at around 7:10 p.m. on April 30, emanated from a clutch of luggage left between the station’s exit and a nearby bus stop, according to China’s official news agency Xinhua, which quoted one man saying the blast was so powerful he mistook it for an earthquake. Xinhua also reported that “an initial police investigation showed knife-wielding mobs slashed people at the [station’s] exit.” On Thursday afternoon, the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, reported that two of the three fatalities were “mobsters [who] set off bombs on their bodies and died,” while the third casualty was a bystander.

Witness photos of the aftermath, including those of bloodied bags strewn on the ground, were quickly deleted on Chinese social media by government censors. Hours after the attack, Xinhua quoted Xi taking a strong stance: “The battle to combat violence and terrorism will not allow even a moment of slackness, and decisive actions must be taken to resolutely suppress the terrorists’ rampant momentum.” But Xinhua’s own social-media alerts on the rail attack were later censored by one Chinese portal as well.

The homeland of the Turkic-speaking Uighur people, Xinjiang has simmered with unrest in recent years. At least 100 people have died in battles and raids that have centered on symbols of the state, like police stations. But violence has also spread to other parts of China. Last year, an SUV plowed into crowds at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing two tourists. Police said the car’s occupants, who also died after flames engulfed the vehicle, were Uighur separatists — a man, his wife and his mother. In March, in the most shocking incident to date, 29 passersby were slashed to death at another train station, this time in Kunming, the capital of southwestern Yunnan province. Chinese authorities have released few details about that incident but blamed a gang of knife-wielding separatists from Xinjiang for the deadly strike.

During Xi’s four-day “inspection tour” of Xinjiang — his first since assuming power in 2012 — he decried the spasms of violence that have convulsed the region. Once a vital way station on the Silk Road, part of Xinjiang briefly claimed independence from China early last century as the Republic of East Turkestan. Xi vowed a “strike-first” strategy in the restive region and saluted local police, who hail mostly from China’s Han ethnic majority, as the “fists and daggers” in the battle against terrorism and separatism. “Sweat more in peacetime to bleed less in wartime,” Xi was quoted as saying in Chinese state media. But the Chinese President also showed a softer side, with state TV broadcasting images of Xi smiling as he chatted with Uighur men wearing traditional prayer caps.

A Muslim ethnicity that takes cultural cues from Turkic Central Asia rather than Han China, the Uighurs complain of religious and social repression by the Chinese government. (It is a grievance shared by Tibetans, some 130 of whom have burned themselves to death in horrifying self-immolations.) Some Uighurs also say they have been overwhelmed by a mass migration of Han to Xinjiang, which has turned Uighurs into a minority in their own homeland and left them with fewer job options.

But the escalation of bloodshed, in which innocent civilians have perished, has made the Uighur campaign for sympathy — much less meaningful autonomy — a tougher sell. And each bout of violence brings another security crackdown that may only serve to alienate more Uighurs. After 2009 ethnic riots in Xinjiang, in which some 200 people died, Internet access was shut down for months. Since then, hundreds of Uighurs have been arrested, and exile groups complain of a lack of judicial due process. In the case of the Kunming attack, only the name of the alleged ringleader of the attackers has been released; the case was declared “solved” just two days after the killing spree.

Shortly after Wednesday’s Urumqi explosion, Dilxat Raxit, the spokesman for the German-based World Uyghur Congress, a leading exile organization, told Reuters he deplored the heavy security clampdown in Xinjiang and fretted that “such incidents could happen again at any time.” A May 1 Xinhua editorial, with imperfect English translation, responded furiously: “Could he be more licentious by being not even bothered to gloss over his bloodlust? Anyone who preaches killing one’s own kind is a murder.”

TIME Terrorism

Al-Qaeda Still a ‘Serious Threat,’ State Department Says

Al-Qaeda militants in Yemen
Al-Qaeda militants Sami Dayan, right, and Farhan al-Saadi, third from right, are escorted by soldiers during the sentence hearing at the state security court in Sana’a, Yemen on April 22, 2014. Yahya Arhab—EPA

In the Middle East and North Africa, groups that are financially independent from core al-Qaeda leadership have become more aggressive despite losses among its core leadership in Pakistan, the State Department said in its annual report on global terrorism

Al-Qaeda and its affiliates still present a “serious threat” to the U.S. despite losses among its core leadership in Pakistan, the State Department said in its annual report on global terrorism.

The report said the al-Qaeda terrorist threat “has evolved” and is now dispersed across the Middle East and North Africa, where some operationally autonomous affiliates are growing increasingly aggressive and taking advantage of instability in the region. The groups are also increasingly financially autonomous from the core al-Qaeda leadership, raising their own funds through illegal operations like kidnapping for ransom and credit card fraud.

According to the State Department, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is primarily active in Yemen, “continues to pose the most significant threat to the United States and U.S. citizens” among al-Qaeda affiliates. The leader of the group, which carried out roughly 100 attacks in Yemen last year and has attempted multiple attacks on the U.S., was designated the deputy to al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2013.

Terrorism in 2013 — particularly amid the civil war in Syria — was increasingly fueled by sectarian motives, which the report called “a worrisome trend.”

The report also found a “resurgence” of activity by the Iranian intelligence and security forces connected primarily to Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria and for its ally in Lebanon, Hizballah, which is a designated terrorist group that has sent fighters to Syria to back Assad.

In Israel, the number of rocket and mortar attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza dropped significantly since 2013, according to the report. There were 74 launchings last year from Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula, down from 2,557 a year earlier, which is the the lowest number in more than a decade.

TIME Kenya

Four Killed in Kenya Car Bomb

A general view shows the scene of an explosion outside the Pangani police station in the capital Nairobi
A car exploded outside the Pangani police station in Kenya's capital Nairobi on April 23, 2014, killing four people. © Thomas Mukoya—Reuters

Chief of Kenya's police vows war on terrorism after car bomb explodes in a northeastern suburb of the capital Nairobi

Four people, including two police officers, were killed when a car bomb exploded in Kenya’s capital Nairobi Wednesday night, the Interior Ministry said on its Twitter account.

The two officers stopped a car for a traffic violation and escorted the vehicle to a police station in the Pangani district of Nairobi where it exploded, killing the two occupants and the police officers.

“I mourn the loss of the the two gallant officers who’ve died in their line of duty as they were defending and protecting our beloved country,” David Kimayo, the Inspector General of Kenya’s national police, wrote on his Twitter account.

He stressed that the vehicle could have caused “huge damage” had it exploded somewhere else.

Kimayo suggested that terrorists were responsible and said “I fully declare war” on terrorism.

In recent years Kenya has been the target of terrorist attacks conducted by the Somalian terrorist group al-Shabab in retaliation for Kenya’s involvement in Somalia. Last September, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for an attack on a Nairobi shopping mall that resulted in 67 deaths, with dozens wounded.

TIME Terrorism

Air Strikes Kill Dozens of al-Qaeda Members in Yemen

People inspect the wreckage of a car hit by an air strike in the central Yemeni province of al-Bayda on April 19, 2014. Reuters

A "massive and unprecedented" series of joint U.S.-Yemeni airstrikes was launched against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula over the weekend, reportedly killing some 55 militants but also at least three civilians in the country’s southern and central regions

Updated 1:12 p.m. ET

Air strikes killed about 55 suspected al-Qaeda operatives in southern Yemen on Sunday, officials said, in what was called an “unprecedented” series of strikes.

According to the nation’s High Security Committee, the operation focused on “terrorist elements [who] were planning to target vital civilian and military installations.” An unnamed high-level Yemeni official told CNN that the “massive and unprecedented” strike involved commandos who are now “going after high-level AQAP [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] targets.” He said the operation was launched in collaboration with the U.S., though wouldn’t confirm the use of drones in the attack. The U.S. is known to have conducted drone strikes in Yemen.

Predawn strikes targeted a mountain ridge in the southern province of Abyan, according to the official, while Yemen’s state news agency SABA said three strikes hit an al-Qaeda training camp around 450 km south of the capital Sana‘a.

AQAP is one of the terrorist group’s most lethal wings.

TIME Terrorism

Bangkok Terrorism Arrests Could Mark Latest Setback for Hizballah and Iran

A senior U.S. official once called Hizballah "The A-Team of terrorists" but the Lebanese militia and its Iranian sponsors are struggling

The arrest of two Lebanese men in Thailand, allegedly for plotting to target Jewish tourists on a busy Bangkok street on behalf of the Lebanese Shiite group Hizballah, could mark the latest failed effort by the militia to resume terror attacks overseas. The latest plot, revealed in the Thai press on Friday, ended almost before it began. The two men reportedly arrived in Bangkok April 13 and were detained by Thai police on information supplied by Israeli intelligence. Both men allegedly carried passports of third countries (Philippines and France); Hizballah has previously shown it prefers its operatives to carry second passports. Media reports say one of the men admitted a plot to detonate explosives on Bangkok’s Khao San Road, a nexus for international backpackers, including young Israelis. The suspect also agreed to lead investigators to “bomb-making equipment” in the province of Rayong, southeast of the capital, the Bangkok Post reported.

Police were seeking third man, and The Post quoted an unnamed investigator as saying nine Hizballah agents are thought to be somewhere in the country.

The incident serves to underscore the apparent gap in operational abilities of the Iranian-backed Hizballah’s covert forces – which lately have shown little of the disciplined success that built the organization’s reputation as the “terrorist A-team” – and its uniformed militia. The troops are fighting on the side of President Bashar Assad in the civil war in Syria, and making a significant impact. Meanwhile, except for the 2012 bombing of a tourist bus carrying Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria – a “soft target” – Hizballah has suffered a number of setbacks that reveal what one analyst called “an atrophying of the group’s operational capabilities.”

“What I had been hearing from numerous sources is they just did not have the bandwidth to keep up the pace of the attacks because of Syria,” says Matthew Levitt, a former Treasury Department and FBI terrorism specialist, author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God. “They are all in Syria. And once that started in Syria in earnest, then [covert operations] became something that was less critical, it wasn’t their priority.”

One reversal came in Bangkok in January 2012, when a Hizballah agent (with a Swedish passport) led authorities to a 8,800 pounds of chemicals being assembled into explosives, apparently for shipment abroad in bags labeled as kitty litter. And Bangkok was the scene of the group’s biggest fiasco, a debacle in February 2012 that involved an Iranian agent blowing off his own legs while trying to escape a safe house where the roof had just blown off by a bomb-making accident. Three agents of the Quds Force, the branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps that operates overseas, were detained in the safe house incident. Inside the building, investigators found magnetic “sticky bombs” like the kind Israeli agents had attached to the cars of Iranian nuclear scientists. The Quds Force agents apparently intended to do the same to Israeli diplomats.

Phone records and other evidence gathered by four governments in a joint report detailed by the Washington Post link the Bangkok plan to Iranian plots against Israeli targets in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and India, all of which ended in failure and arrests. Other plots were thwarted in Kenya, South Africa, Cyprus and Bulgaria – and Texas, where an Iranian-American used car salesman tried to plot the assassination by bomb of Saudia Arabia’s ambassador in Washington D.C.

From Iran’s perspective, the flurry of attacks was intended both to avenge the death of the Iranian scientists and to demonstrate what in the way of “asymmetrical warfare” the West might face if there were a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Levitt wrote in a paper for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But neither Quds nor Hizballah proved as formidable in the field as they had had been before 9/11, when they drew back from terrorist strikes. When they resumed, the world had become more security-conscious, and both Hizballah and the Quds Force were both rusty and hasty, mounting 20 plots in the 15 months from May 2011 to July 2012.

Since then, Iran appears to have reduced terror operations once again – scaling back as Iran and Western powers began talking seriously about launching diplomatic negotiations addressing Iran’s nuclear program. (Israel has restrained its covert operations, as well.) Hizballah, however, appears to be constrained only by the need to concentrate on Syria. Levitt says the group remains committed to striking Israeli targets to avenge the 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, its talented terrorist leader, whose death was what prompted Hizballah to re-activate its covert operations. In addition, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to strike Israel in retaliation for its most recent airstrike on a convoy carrying advanced weapons; the Feb. 24 attack was the first such airstrike inside Lebanon.

Nasrallah later took responsibility for a March 14 roadside bomb attack on an Israeli patrol that wounded three soldiers. But he called the ambush on the Israel-Lebanon border only “part of the reply” to the airstrike. It’s possible another “part” was what the two Lebanese men were allegedly planning in Thailand, Levitt says.

“The Israelis in particular are very sensitive to any civilian loss,” he notes. “It’s possible the message is let them know there is pressure on every front.”

TIME Terrorism

Al-Qaeda’s Second-in-Command Seen in New Video

A video that surfaced recently on Islamist websites purports to show al-Qaeda fighters meeting in an open-air gathering

A video published recently on Islamist websites purports to show a large group of al-Qaeda fighters, including the terrorist group’s second in command, gathering in an open air location.

Counterterrorism authorities are scrutinizing the video for clues to potential plots, the Washington Post reports, citing unnamed U.S. officials. Officials told the Post the video appears to be recent and authentic. They declined to explain why there had been no U.S. strike on the gathering in an undisclosed, open location.

Nasir al-Wuhayshi, al-Qaeda’s leader in Yemen, is said to appear in the video without a mask, along with other group leaders. Some faces in the footage are blurred out, raising fears the organization may be seeking to protect the identities of recruits being trained for attacks.

The video evokes footage shot in the late 1990s of al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. The terrorist network’s Yemen affiliate has generally avoided open-air meetings.

The United States has carried out eight strikes in Yemen so far this year. A U.S. strike there in December killed a dozen people in a wedding caravan.

[Washington Post]

TIME National Security

Judge Says a Radical Cleric’s 9/11 Comments Can Be Used as Evidence

Muslim cleric Mustafa Kamel Mustafa prays in a street outside his Mosque in north London, on March 28, 2003.
Muslim cleric Mustafa Kamel Mustafa prays in a street outside his Mosque in north London, on March 28, 2003. Alastair Grant—AP

A judge has ruled that jurors at the trial of Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, a fundamentalist and former imam who's known as Abu Hamza al-Masri, will be allowed to hear comments he made to praise the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks

Jurors at the trial of radical Islamic cleric Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, who is also known as Abu Hamza al-Masri, will be privy to comments the suspect made praising the 9/11 terrorists attacks, a judge ruled this week.

Mustafa is accused of trying to establish al Qaeda training camps in Oregon in the late 1990s and of aiding extremists who kidnapped a group of foreigners, including two American tourists, in Yemen in 1998.

According to an undated interview with a British television station, Mustafa stated: “Everybody was happy when the planes hit the World Trade Center.” And according to U.S. District Judge Katherine B. Forrest, who is presiding over the case, these comments can be presented as evidence in court.

“Expressing clear and unequivocal support for terrorism is no doubt prejudicial. However, the defendant is charged with just those sorts of crimes,” Judge Katherine B. Forrest said in a written decision earlier this week.

Jury selection for the case concludes on Monday, while opening statements for the trial are set to commence on Thursday morning.

[AP]

TIME Nigeria

Report: 100 Schoolgirls Abducted In Nigeria

Nigerian soldiers patrol in the north of Borno state close to a Islamist extremist group Boko Haram former camp on June 5, 2013 near Maiduguri.
Nigerian soldiers patrol in the north of Borno state close to a Islamist extremist group Boko Haram former camp on June 5, 2013 near Maiduguri. Quentin Leboucher—AFP/Getty Images

The Islamist extremist group Boko Haram is suspected of kidnapping about 100 girls from a school in Chibok, a town in the country's northeastern Borno state, on Monday night just hours after a large blast in the capital, Abuja, killed at least 71 people

Updated Tuesday 1:42 p.m. ET

Terrorists reportedly attacked a school in Chibok, Nigeria, and abducted about 100 schoolgirls Monday night.

A government official from Borno state told the BBC that around 100 girls had been taken from a local school school to the east of the country. The BBC had previously reported that 200 girls were abducted based on reports from parents, but they have since revised their count. The AP also reported that 100 girls were taken, although some were able to escape from the back of the open truck after grabbing onto low hanging branches to swing out of the slow moving vehicle.

The attackers are thought to be from the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram.

The girls were reportedly ordered into trucks and driven away. Local media is reporting that two members of the school’s security were killed and there were many other properties that were burned down during the attack, the BBC reports. It’s at least the second major attack on a school in Nigeria this year.

On Monday, bombings in Abuja, Nigeria that killed 70 people were also blamed on Boko Haram. The extremist group is opposed to Western education, and wants to turn Nigeria into an Islamic state. Over 1,500 deaths this year are blamed on the group.

[BBC]

This post was updated to reflect the revised number of girls who were abducted as well as new information from government officials.

MORE: Another Deadly Blast in Nigeria As Country’s Stability Erodes

TIME Terrorism

Boston Marks Anniversary of Marathon Bombings

Crosses bearing the names of victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing are displayed in a memorial at the Boston Public Library on April 14, 2014 in Boston.
Crosses bearing the names of victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing are displayed in a memorial at the Boston Public Library on April 14, 2014 in Boston. Andrew Burton—Getty Images

Survivors, first responders and dignitaries congregated Tuesday to remember the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings last year

Updated at 3:31 p.m.

One year after four people were killed and hundreds more injured in the Boston Marathon bombings, the city marked the grim anniversary Tuesday with a day of tributes amid preparations for a record number of entrants to this year’s race.

The day began with a group of dignitaries, including the family of the youngest victim, walking with an honor guard to the site of the April 15, 2013, bombings. Bagpipes played as wreaths were placed at the site of the tragedy and no public comments were made.

Around 3,000 survivors, first responders and dignitaries were in attendance at a ceremony at the Hynes convention center Tuesday marking the one year anniversary of the bombings.

“I know that no memorial, no words, no acts can fully provide the solace that your hearts and soul still yearn to acquire,” Vice President Joe Biden said in remarks during the event. “I hope it eases your grief a little bit.” Biden praised the courage of survivors and the families of the dead. “America will never, ever, ever stand down,” he said. “We are Boston. We are America. We respond, we endure, we overcome, and we own the finish line.”

After speeches by Biden, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and others, survivors walked to the finish line to observe a moment of silence, USA Today reports. Church bells throughout Boston sounded at 2:49 p.m., a year to the minute from the moment the bombs exploded.

President Obama released a statement asking for remembrance of those injured and the four innocents killed, each of whom he called by name. “We also know that the most vivid images from that day were not of smoke and chaos, but of compassion, kindness and strength,” the president said. “A man in a cowboy hat helping a wounded stranger out of harm’s way; runners embracing loved ones, and each other; an EMT carrying a spectator to safety. Today, we recognize the incredible courage and leadership of so many Bostonians in the wake of unspeakable tragedy.” Obama and a small gathering of aides will join Bostonians for a moment of silence at 2:49 p.m. in the Oval Office.

Officials expect a crowd of roughly a million people to cheer on 36,000 runners in this year’s race on Monday, April 21, a 33 percent increase from the cap on entrants in previous years. The field in this year’s Boston Marathon will be larger than any in the race’s 118-year history but one: the 1996 centennial Boston Marathon, at which more than 38,000 started the race. Security will be tight this year, with 3,500 police on duty for the race, double the size of last year’s deployment.

TIME Terrorism

Up in the Sky—It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s the FBI

Members of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team practice their parachuting skills. FBI

About an hour outside its headquarters in Quantico, Va., the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team offers “advanced skydiving techniques and training" so that agents can drop in undetected. (Or just maybe so they can reenact scenes from Point Break)

You never know how and where the bad guys are going to strike next. That explains the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team’s need for “advanced skydiving techniques and training”—so the good guys can also strike in unexpected ways, like from above.

While the HRT doesn’t disclose much about its business, it made clear Tuesday that its special needs require it to train with a Virginia parachuting outfit because no other firm can meet its unusual requirements.

FBI Special Agent Ann Todd declined to discuss the contract. “Due to to the sensitive nature of HRT’s work, we don’t release information involving specific tactical training or capabilities,” she said.

But it’s a nifty option to have when it comes to trying to rescue hostages. Under cover of darkness, for example, highly-trained HRT members could silently swoop in and surround an isolated location without betraying their arrival with the noise that accompanies helicopters.

Skydive Orange is the only available tactical drop zone within a one-hour driving distance from where the HRT is stationed,” the FBI says, referring to the team’s home base at Quantico, Va., about 35 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. “The facility has aircraft and crew on standby 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”

Plus, training locally saves money. “The amount of equipment to support the training is in excess of 2000 lbs. and is driven to the site via agency vans,” the FBI says. “The use of other drop zones would require substantial and additional costs including airfare, shipping, lodging, meals, rental vehicles, and related.” The FBI blacked out the value of the contract.

The 31-year old HRT, created to help protect the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, is “federal law enforcement’s only full-time counterterrorism unit,” according to the FBI. The government decided it needed such a unit following the kidnapping and killing of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics in 1972. It’s ready to deploy anywhere in the nation on four hours’ notice.

“The operational tempo for HRT has been high in the years since the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01,” says the FBI, which says it has deployed elements of the team 800 times since 1983, both at home and overseas. “For the first time, the FBI is seeking candidates with special tactical qualifications, to become Special Agents, and to serve as HRT Operators.”

The HRT consists of individual “tactical units,” made up of team members specializing as assaulters or sniper/observers, and backed up by transportation, logistics, intelligence, communications, and command personnel.

Since its founding, only about 300 FBI agents have made it through the eight months of training required before joining the HRT. “They are trained to be superior marksmen, proficient in a variety of breaching techniques—including explosives—and experts in close-quarter tactics,” the bureau says. “Each operator’s skill and training ensures that the HRT can launch assaults with speed, precision, and, if necessary, deadly force.”

 

 

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