On 16 June, Russia’s Defense Ministry disclosed that it was checking information that a Russian air strike near the Syrian city of Raqqa may have killed Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in late May.
In a statement, the Ministry disclosed that the airstrike was launched after Russian forces in Syria received intelligence that a meeting of IS leaders was being planned. The statement indicated, “on May 28, after drones were used to confirm the information on the place and time of the meeting of IS leaders, between 00:35 and 00:45, Russian air forces launched a strike on the command point where the leaders were located.” The statement went on to say that “according to the information which is now being checked via various channels, also present at the meeting was Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was eliminated as a result of the strike.” The Russian Defense Ministry statement further disclosed that the strike is believed to have killed several other senior leaders of the group, as well as around thirty field commanders and up to 300 of their personal guards, adding that IS leaders had gathered at the command centre, in a southern suburb of Raqqa, in order to discuss possible routes for the militants’ retreat from the city. So far the US-led coalition that is fighting IS has disclosed that it could not confirm the Russian report that Baghdadi may have been killed. The Russian military however has stated that the United States was informed in advance about the place and time of the strike.
While the world awaits confirmation on whether IS’ elusive leader has been killed or not, Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, has already cast doubt on the report, stating that according to his information, Baghdadi was located in another part of Syria at the end of May, when the strike occurred. Abdulrahman disclosed that “the information is that as of the end of last month Baghdadi was in Deir al-Zor, in the area between Deir al-Zor and Iraq, in Syrian territory.” When questioned what Baghdadi would hae been doing in that located, he stated, “it is reasonable that Baghdadi would put himself between a rock and a hard place of the (US-led) coalition and Russia?”
Born Ibrahim al-Samarrai, Baghdadi is a 46-year-old Iraq who broke away from al-Qaeda in 2013, just two years after the capture and killing of the terrorist group’s leader Osama bin Laden. The last public video footage of Baghdadi shows him dressed in black clerical robes declaring his caliphate from the pulpit of Mosul’s medieval Grand al-Nuri mosque back in 2014.
IS fighters are close to being defeated in the twin capitals – Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria – of the group’s territory. Russian forces support the Syrian government, which is fighting against IS mainly from the west, while a US-led coastline supports Iraqi government forces who are fighting IS from the east.
This month, United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that the US is considering sanctions on countries that do illegal business with North Korea stating that the White House would soon have to decide whether to impose “secondary sanctions” on those nations.
Mr Tillerson’s warning came during a hearing at the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday 13 June during which he stated, “we are in a stage where we are moving into this next effort of ‘Are we going to have to, in effect, start taking secondary sanctions because countries we have provided information to have not, or are unwilling, or don’t have the ability to do that?’” While Mr Tillerson did not name any countries, Washington currently has no trade links with North Korea, and it has been considering sanctioning companies from third countries who deal with the secretive regime of Kim Jong-un in violation of UN resolution. Mr Tillerson did however disclosed that the North Korea issue would be discussed with China, which is Pyongyang’s major ally, during high-level talks this week. Asked whether China has been fulfilling its pledges to put more pressure on North Korea, Mr Tillerson responded by stating that “they have taken steps, visible steps that we can confirm.”
The Trump administration has sought to increase pressure on North Korea over its nuclear and missile activities. Pyongyang’s recent missile tests, which are banned by the United Nations, have sparked international alarm. It is believed that North Korea is making progress towards developing a ballistic missile that is capable of reaching the US.
A US student was freed this month by North Korea after spending eighteen months in prison, with his family stating that he has been in a coma for a year.
The parents of Otto Warmbier, 22, confirmed shortly after he was released that he was in a coma, stating that he was “brutalized” by a “pariah regime.” The 22-year-old is currently being treated in a US hospital after the flight carrying him landed in Ohio on 13 June.
Mr Warmbier was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labour for attempting to steal a propaganda sign from a hotel. He was in North Korea as a tourist with Young Pioneer Tours when he was arrested on 2 January 2016. He appeared emotional at a news conference a month later, in which he tearfully confessed to trying to take the sign as a “trophy” for a US church, adding, “the aim of my task was to harm the motivation and work ethnic of the Korean people.” Foreign detainees in North Korea have previously recanted confessions, stating that they were made under pressure. After a short trial on 16 March, Mr Warmbier was given a 15-year prison sentence for crimes against the state. Early last month, his parents told CNN that they had had no contact with their son for more than a year.
News of his coma was released on 13 June, with Mr and Mrs Warmbier disclosing in statement “Sadly, he is in a coma and we have been told he has been in that condition since March 2016. We learned of this only one week ago.” They were quoted by the Washington Post as saying that they had been told that Otto had contracted botulism, a rare illness that causes paralysis, soon after his trial in March 2016. North Korea has stated that he was given a sleeping pill after becoming ill after his trial last year and did not wake up. Sources however have indicated that it remains to be seen if Mr Warmbier’s illness is the direct result of brutality in prison, with some stating that there may be added pressure on US President Donald Trump to take action against Kim Jong-un’s regime.
Who Else is Detained in North Korea?
There are reported to be three other US citizens currently in custody in North Korea. They are:
- Kim Dong-chul, a 62-year-old naturalized US citizen born in South Korea, who was sentenced in April 2016 to ten years of hard labour for spying.
- Korean-American professor Kim Sang-duk (or Tony Kim) who was detained in April 2017. The reasons for his arrest currently remain unclear.
- Kim Hak-song, like Kim Sang-duk, worked at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) and was detained in May 2017 on suspicion of “hostile acts” against the state.
The latest arrests have come at a time of heightened tensions between North Korea and the US and its regional neighbours. In the past, the Untied States has accused North Korea of detaining its citizens in a bid to use them as pawns in negotiations over its nuclear weapons programme.
An audio message released this week purporting to come from the spokesman of the so-called Islamic State (IS) group called on followers to launch attacks in the United States, Europe, Russia, Australia, Iraq, Syria, Iran and the Philippines during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began late last month.
The audio clip was distributed on Monday 12 June on IS’ channel on Telegram, which is an encrypted messaging application. The audio was attributed to the militant group’s official spokesman, Abi al-Hassan al-Muhajer. While the authenticity of the recording has not yet been independently verified, the voice was the same as a previous audio message purported to be from the spokesman.
Mali’s security minister reported on 19 June that Malian security forces have killed four militants involved in an attack on Sunday on a luxury resort popular with Western expatriates located outside of the capital Bamako. Security Minister Salif Traore told Radio France International “this was without doubt a terrorist attack…The anti-terrorist forces arrived on the scene immediately afterwards….” Traore added that five other attack suspects have been detained. On Sunday night, the authorities reported that at least two people were killed in the attack. One of those killed was a French-Gabonese citizen. A Malian soldier was also killed. Officials have reported that 36 hostages were freed after the operation.
The attack occurred at Le Campement Kangaba in Dougourakoro, near Bamako. It comes after the US Embassy in Bamako last week warned of an increased threat of attacks in the capital city. So far no group has claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attack, however it comes at a time when the security situation in Mali has been deteriorating. While attacks were initially concentrated in the northern desert region, in recent months, attacks have increasingly struck the central and southern regions of the country.
MS Risk advises against all but essential travel to Bamako, as there may be further attacks and extremists may target Westerners for kidnap. Anyone currently in Bamako is advised to avoid the area due to the ongoing security threat. MS Risk advises that you seek the advice of local authorities. Major hotels in the area are likely to be under a lockdown, and you should adhere to the advice of hotel staff and security. Anyone in the capital city is advised to remain alert as further incidents in other areas frequented by foreigners may be targeted. Please be advised that a curfew and possible restrictions on bridge crossings and and routes in and around Bamako. Expect heavy security forces presence. While no intelligence is known to exist to indicate secondary attacks, it would be prudent to evaluate the local security situation and disposition of resources across the region. MS Risk is currently monitoring the situation and will release further alerts as more information becomes available.