MS Risk Blog

Brit in Jail after Leaving IS-Controlled Territory

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A 21-year-old man from Oxford, who travelled to the Islamic State (IS) – controlled area of Syria in 2014, has now told the BBC that he is currently being held by Kurdish forces fighting the terrorist group.

Jack Letts, who has been dubbed “Jihadi Jack,” is suspected of going to Syria to fight for the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, although he claims that he is opposed to IS and has left that area.   Mr Letts spoke to BBC home affairs correspondent Daniel Sandford via voice and text messages. When asked about leaving the IS-controlled territory, Mr Letts stated, “I found a smuggler and walked behind him through minefields,” adding that he and the smuggler “eventually made it near a Kurdish point where we were shot at twice and slept in a field.” He further disclosed that he is currently in solitary confinement in a prison in Kurdish-held northeastern Syria.

Mr Letts converted to Islam while at Chewell comprehensive school in Oxford. At the age of 18, he travelled to Jordan in 2014 and by the autumn of that year, he was in IS-controlled territory in Syria. He married in Iraq and now has a child. His family has maintained that he did not travel to the region to fight, and instead went there as he was motivated by humanitarian reasons. Speaking to the BBC Mr Letts disclosed that he had been injured in an explosion and had gone to Raqqa, the defacto capital of IS in Syria, in order to recuperate, claiming that he became disillusioned with the terror group about a year ago after it killed its former supporters. He stated, “I hate them more than the Americans hate them…I realized they were not upon the truth so they put me in prison three times and threatened to kill me.” He claimed he had escaped from low-security detention and had been in hiding when he managed to find a people smuggler to take him out.

His parents have also been affected by this ordeal. They have pleaded not guilty to charges of funding terrorism after being accused of sending money to their son. John Letts and Sally Lane have told the BBC that after not hearing from their son for several weeks, they suddenly received a message stating that he was in a safe zone. They have disclosed that they believe that their son is not being treated badly, noting however that they are concerned about his mental health. Neither they nor the BBC have heard from Mr Letts since 1 June. His parents are now calling on the British government to do “whatever they can” in order to help him. According to Ms Lane, the British government had told them that they could only help if he left IS-controlled territory but now he is out “no –one wants to take responsibility.” His family has also acknowledged that if their son returns to Britain, “he will have to account for his actions.”

The UK government advises against all travel to Syria and parts of Iraq and a number of people who have returned from these areas have been prosecuted. In a statement, the Foreign Office disclosed “as all UK consular services hare suspended in Syria and greatly limited in Iraq, it is extremely difficult to confirm the whereabouts and status of British nationals in these areas.

EUROPOL: EU Jihadist Arrests on the Rise for Third Year

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This month Europol reported that the number of people arrested on suspicion of Islamist terrorism in the European Union (EU) increased in 2016 for the third year in a row.

In its annual EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, Europol reported that 718 jihadist terror suspects were arrested, up from 687 in 2015 and 395 in 2014. The report notes however that the number of jihadist attacks fell from 17 in 2015 to 13 in 2016, of which six were linked to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group. The report also noted a rise in violent assaults carried out by right-wing groups.

The European police force has disclosed that in 2016, there were a total of 142 “failed, foiled and completed” attacks reported by member states that included attacks by jihadists, nationalists and other groups. It added that 142 people died in terrorist attacks and 379 people were injured, noting that nearly all fatalities and most of the injuries were caused by jihadists.

The 62-page report also disclosed hat women were playing an increasing role in jihadist attacks. The report states, “female militant jihadists in the West perceive fewer obstacles to playing an operative role in a terrorist attack than men, and successful or prevented attacks carried out by women in Western countries may act as an inspiration to others.”

The report noted that the largest attacks last year were carried out by “ethno-nationalist and separatist extremists.” According to the report, attacks by left-wing extremists have been rising since 2014, reaching a total of 27 in 2016 of which sixteen were reported by Italy.

The EU’s security commissioner, Julian King, has stated that the figures reinforced the need for closer co-operation in intelligence sharing.

Jihadist Attacks in the EU (2016) – Key Numbers

  • 13 reported attacks: France – 5; Belgium and German – 4 each
  • 135 people killed
  • 718 suspected jihadists arrested, including 429 in France
  • 26% of those arrested were women

France Forms New Counter-Terrorism Task Force in Wake of Latest Attack

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France this month created a new counter-terrorism task force, which is comprised of all intelligence services that will coordinate responses to attacks. The formation came just a day after a man carrying Algerian papers attacked police officers outside the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.

On 6 June, a 40-year-old Algerian student armed with a hammer and kitchen knives shouted “this is for Syria.” A source close to the investigation has disclosed that a video, in which the attacker pledged allegiance to IS, had been found in his flat during a police raid on Tuesday evening. Government spokesman Christophe Castaner disclosed that the assailant had not previously “shown any signs of radicalisation.” Surveillance video near the scene depicted the assailant running up to three police officers in the square outside Notre Dame and attempting to land a blow with the hammer. One officer was hurt before the aggressor was shot in the chest.

Sources have indicated that last month newly-elected President Emmanuel Macron, who was portrayed by rivals a weak on security during the presidential campaign, instructed that the task force be created in order to bring France’s multiple security agencies inside the Elysee presidential palace. On 7 June, President Macron appointed Pierre de Bousquet de Florian to head the new intelligence task force known as the National Centre for Counter Terrorism. It will be under the direct authority of the president. It will include some twenty people representing the various security services and will be operations 24 hours seven days a week. According to a French presidency official, “this has been created to ensure that the intelligence services truly cooperate.” Bousquet de Florian once headed France’s DST regional intelligence service, which was disbanded under former president Nicolas Sarkozy. President Macron also named career diplomat Bernard Emie, who served as ambassador to Britain, Turkey, Libya and Jordan, as head of the DGSE external intelligence service.

The performance of France’s intelligence services have come under close scrutiny since the November 2015 attacks in Paris, when militant gunmen and suicide bombers struck entertainment venues across the capital city, killing 130 people. In total, more than 230 people have been killed in a wave of attacks in France either claimed by or inspired by the so-called Islamic State (IS) group over the past two-and-a-half years.

Survey Shows Europeans Warm Again to EU after Brexit Vote

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A survey released this month has indicated that Europeans think much better of the European Union (EU) now than they did a year ago, when Britons voted to leave the bloc.

The Washington-based Pew Research Centre carried out a survey in 10 of the 28 members – the six biggest EU states and four of the next eight most populous. The survey however did not study reasons for changes in mood. The survey has found that support has surged by eighteen percentage points in both Germany and France, which just elected pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron as president. Sixty-eight percent of Germans and fifty-six percent of French had favourable views of the EU this spring. Even the British hold a much more favourable opinion of the EU, with 54 percent of them now viewing the EU positively. This is up ten points on a year ago. Forty percent view the EU unfavourable. In June 2016, Britons voted 52 percent to 48 for Brexit, with negotiations on leaving the bloc beginning on 19 June.

The latest survey also indicated that in none of the other nine countries that were surveyed did more than 35 percent of people want their country to leave the EU. Of those, the Italians, at 56 percent, and the Greeks were the least enthusiastic. Furthermore, despite growing frication between their nationalist governments and Brussels, people in Poland and Hungary remain amongst the keenest EU citizens. The survey also recorded more approval for the bloc’s handling of the economy and migration – two areas where anger has long been directed at Brussels. An EU deal with Turkey a year ago has stemmed chaotic migrant arrivals and along with income growth, opinions about the economy have improved – with the exception of Greece and Italy, where the proportion of people saying that their economy is in good shape declined by eighteen points to 15 percent. A huge 87 percent of the Dutch, whom eurosceptics failed to win over heavily in a March election, think that their economy is doing well. This is up by 25 points from a year ago. There was a 15-point upturn in Spain, even if still only 28 percent have a positive view.

Pew researchers wrote in a report that “the European Union has rebounded dramatically from its recent slump in public approval,” noting an “up-and-down cycle over the past decade.” The findings, which are in line with other research, will hearten EU leaders who are due to meet this month. Some had initially feared that the bloc’s survival was in doubt after the Brexit vote and following grave crises in the euro zone economy and irregular immigration.

Arab States Issue Ultimatum to Qatar

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On Friday 23 June, four Arab states – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – who imposed a boycott on Qatar earlier this month, issued an ultimatum to Doha to close Al Jazeera television, curb ties with Iran, shut a Turkish base and pay reparations.

The 13-point list of demands is apparently aimed at dismantling the small but wealth neighbour’s two-decade-old interventionist foreign policy, which has incensed them. Kuwait is currently helping mediate the dispute. An official from one of the four nations has disclosed that the offer would be “void” unless Qatar complied within ten days. Regional analysts have already warned that the uncompromising demands leave little prospect for a quick end to the diplomatic crisis, which is the biggest to take place for years between Sunni Arab Gulf states.

In response to the list, a Qatari government spokesman has disclosed that Doha is reviewing the list of demands and that a formal response would be made by the foreign ministry and delivered to Kuwait, noting however that the demands were not reasonable or actionable. In a statement, Sheikh Saif al-Thani, director of Qatar’s government communications office, disclosed “the list of demands confirms what Qatar has said from the beginning – the illegal blockade has nothing to do with combating terrorism, it is about limiting Qatar’s sovereignty, and outsourcing our foreign policy.” A Qatar semi-government human rights body has stated that the demands were a violation of human rights convention and should not be accepted by Qatar. Last week, Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani stated that Qatar would not negotiate with the four states until economic, diplomatic and travel ties, which were cut earlier this month, were restored.

The countries that imposed the sanctions have accused Qatar of funding terrorism, fomenting regional unrest and drawing too close to Iran. Qatar however rejects those accusations, stating that it is being punished for straying from its neighbours’ backing for authoritarian hereditary and military rulers.

Qatar has only 300,000 citizens who enjoy the riches produced by the world’s largest exports of liquefied natural gas. The rest of its 2.7 million people are foreign migrant workers, who are mostly manual labourers employed on vast construction projects that have crowned the small desert peninsula with skyscrapers as well as stadiums for the 2022 soccer world cup. While the sanctions have disrupted its main routes to import goods by land from Saudi Arabia and by sea from big container ships docked in the UAE, so far Qatar has avoided economic collapse by quickly finding alternative routes and stating that I has huge financial reserves that will meet any challenges. Qatar has also indicated that the sanctions have brought personal hardship for its citizens who live in neighbouring countries or have relatives there. The countries that imposed the sanctions gave Qataris two weeks to leave, which expired on Monday.

Points Included in the List

The official from one of the sanctioning states has disclosed that the demands tell Qatar to stop interfering in the four nations’ domestic and foreign affairs and refrain from giving Qatari nationality to their citizens. The lists also includes a demand for severing ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State (IS) group, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Jabhat Fateh al Sham, formerly al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, as well as the surrender of all designated terrorists on Qatari territory. Qatar denies that it has relationships with terrorist groups or that is shelters terrorists. The country was also ordered to scale down diplomatic relations with Iran, limit its commercial ties and expel members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which Qatar has denied that they are there. According to the official, the sanctioning countries further demanded that Qatar pay them reparations for any damage or costs incurred due to Qatari policies. Compliance with the demands would be monitored, with monthly reports in the first year, then every three months the following year, then annually for ten years.