Tag Archives: ISIS

Brussels On Edge: Fear at the Heart of a European Capital

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Since the attacks in Paris on November 13, Belgium has come under extensive international scrutiny. On November 26, the Belgian Government reduced the threat level in Brussels from 4 (the highest level) to 3. That concluded a five day period during which Brussels came to a virtual standstill. From November 21 to 25, the city was placed on a level 4 terrorism alert with public buildings, schools and public transit systems closed. In addition, the Belgian Government warned people not to gather in public or participate in demonstrations. On November 23, NATO and European Union facilities opened for the week with increased security and only essential personnel working. The headquarters of Belgium’s largest bank, KBC Groep NV, remained closed at the start of the business week.

In a highly unusual decision, the Belgian Government deployed hundreds of members of the Belgian Armed Forces onto the streets of Brussels. Hundreds of Belgian police officers searched for Salah Abdeslam (one of the Paris attackers) and other ISIS operatives. As of November 27, Abdeslam has not been captured and the public has been warned to remain vigilant. Even when the transit system was reopened on November 26, over 200 police officers were deployed at throughout the system. Belgium had previously conducted large counter-terrorism operations in January, but the November Brussels lockdown was far bigger in scale.

The intensity of the Belgian police operations over the past week has been unprecedented. On November 21-22 alone, police conducted at least 20 raids in Brussels and surrounding suburbs. Of the 16 people detained, 15 were ultimately released. The one individual kept in custody was charged on November 23 for his involvement with the Paris attacks and ISIS. Dozens of more police raids followed on November 21, with 21 people being detained with 17 being released. Two of the men arrested in the second round of raids were linked directly to the November 13 Paris Attacks. Hamza Attou and Mohammed Amri admitted they drove Salah Abdeslam from Paris back to Brussels on the evening of November 13. However, they denied any direct involvement with the attacks. Two other men, an unidentified French national and Moroccan national, were arrested in the Molenbeek neighbourhood. According to police, the Moroccan man’s vehicle contained two handguns.

Senior Belgium Ministers have said the increased alert level was due to specific intelligence about possible attacks in the Brussels area. Belgium’s Interior Minister, Jan Jambon, said there were particular fears of an imminent attack on November 22. Foreign Minister Didier Reynders has also stated that Belgian police are searching for “maybe 10 or more people in Belgium, maybe in neighbouring countries, present in the territory to organise some terrorist attacks.” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has assured his country that there were no longer imminent fears of a terrorist attack. However, he has warned Belgians that the threat of an attack, particularly in Brussels, is still a serious concern. Though the largest lockdown in modern Belgian history may have ended, anxiety continues to linger about Salah Abdeslam and ISIS.

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Al-Shabaab Warns Against Shifting Allegiance to IS

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Al-Shabaab insurgents have warned that they will “cut the throat” of members who shift allegiance from al-Qaeda to the so-called Islamic State (IS). The news emerges amidst reports that some factions have already been punished for doing so.

On Monday, in a radio broadcast, top al-Shabaab official Abu Abdalla stated that, “if anyone says he belongs to another Islamic movement, kill him on the spot,” adding, “we will cut the throat of any one…if they undermine unity.” Al-Shabaab, which has been a long-time branch of al-Qaeda in East Africa, is fighting to overthrow the internationally-backed government in Mogadishu. While the insurgents have lost much ground in recent years, they continue to be a threat in both Somalia and neighboring Kenya, where they have carried out a series of deadly attacks.

Reports of divisions within al-Shabaab come at a time when IS in Iraq and Syria has become what many see as being the jihadist franchise of choice. It has attracted fighters from abroad as well as the allegiance of other militant groups, such as Boko Haram, which operates in northeastern Nigeria. However recently, al-Qaeda expanded its territory in Yemen, which is located just across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia, and has proven that the group continues to have the capabilities to carry out deadly attacks despite, to a certain degree, being overshadowed by IS. Sources have reported that while a handful of al-Shabaab factions have switched allegiance from al-Qaeda to IS, the shift has failed to gain momentum. Furthermore, pro-IS groups have been attacked and their leaders assassinated as al-Shabaab emir and al-Qaeda loyalist Ahmed Diriye seeks to shore up his control. Last month, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud disclosed that “the now-public dispute” within al-Shabaab demonstrated that the group had “lost its way.” On Monday however, top al-Shabaab official Abdalla maintained that the insurgent group remained united, stating, “the world wanted us to be divided…This is a collective decision and anybody who wants to join another Islamic group must leave the country to meet them where they are,” adding, “I swear by the name of God we will not tolerate the acts of saboteurs.”

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IS Attacks Claim More than 800 Lives Abroad This Year

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Over this past year, the so-called Islamic State (IS) group has dramatically expanded its theatre of operations, moving from its hub in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, to either executing or inspiring a series of attacks across three continents that have already claimed more than 800 lives this year.

The mayhem that has been created by those attacks, which include the downing of a Russian airline and gun and suicide bombings in Paris France, has attracted a lot of attention. Furthermore, the scope of the recent attacks, coupled with the number of those killed and wounded, has demonstrated a level of sophistication and determination. The attacks have also revealed the extents to which the group is willing to go in a bid to surpass al-Qaeda and to prove itself the most dominant jihadi movement on the planet. Furthermore, last week’s announcement by IS that it had killed Norwegian and Chinese capital reflects its intention to continue to kidnap and kill hostages inside its self-declared “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq while at the same time pursuing mass casualty attacks abroad.

Over the past year, thousands of people have been killed by IS militants both in Syria and in neighbouring Iraq in mass executions, bombings and other attacks.

Timeline of attacks outside of Syria and Iraq this year:

  • 13 November – At least 129 people are killed in Paris with over 350 wounded, most at a concert hall, but some at trendy restaurants and several near a national Stadium. IS claims the attack, which is the worst in the history of Paris, calling it retaliation for France’s ongoing role in US-led airstrikes that have targeted IS operations in both Syria and Iraq.
  • 12 November – Powerful twin suicide bombings targeted a crowded Shi’ite neighbourhood in Beirut. At least 43 people are killed and more than 200 are wounded. IS claims responsibility for the attack.
  • 31 October – A bomb downs a Russian airliner just 23 minutes after it takes off from the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. The plane was en route to St Petersburg, Russia. The plane crashes in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, which is home to a potent IS affiliate. All 224 people on board, most of them Russian tourists, are killed. IS claims the attack.
  • 10 October – Two suicide bombings kill at least 100 people at a peaceful rally in Ankara, Turkey. While the attack has not been claimed by IS, Turkish prosecutors investigating the attack have disclosed that it was carried out by a local IS cell.
  • 6 October – Suicide car bombing targeted exiled Yemeni officials and the Saudi and Emirati troops baking their efforts to retake the country kill at least fifteen people in the port city of Aden. A new IS affiliate claimed responsibility for the attack, which officials had earlier blamed on Yemen’s Shi’ite rebels.
  • 6 August – A suicide bomber attacks a mosque inside a police compound in western Saudi Arabia. Fifteen people are killed in what is the deadliest attack on the kingdom’s security forces in years. Eleven of the dead belonged to an elite counterterrorism unit whose tasks include protecting the hajj pilgrimage. The attack was later claimed by IS.
  • 26 June – A gunman killed 38 tourists, mostly Britons, in the coastal resort of Sousse, Tunisia.
  • A bomb rips through one of Kuwait’s oldest Shi’ite mosques during Friday prayers, killing 27 people. This is the first major militant attack to take place in Kuwait in more than two decades. The attack is claimed by IS.
  • In a third attack that same day, a truck driver once known for radical Islamic ties crashes into a US-owned chemical warehouse in southern France and hangs his employer’s severed head on a factory gat, along with banners with Arabic inscriptions.
  • 29 May – A suicide bomber disguised as a woman blows himself up in the parking lot of a Shi’ite mosque in the Saudi Arabian port city of Damman, killing four people. IS later claimed responsibility for the attack
  • 22 May – A suicide bomber strikes a Shi’ite mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia as worshippers commemorate the birth of a revered saint. Twenty-one people are killed in the attack and dozens are left injured. The attack occurred in the eastern Qatif region, which is the heartland of Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite Muslim minority. The attack, which was claimed by IS, was the deadliest militant assault in the kingdom in more then a decade.
  • 18 April – Afghan President Ashraf Ghani blames IS for a suicide bombing in the country that killed at least 35 people and wounded 125 others.
  • 20 March – An emerging IS affiliate in Yemen claims responsibility for a series of suicide bombings that kill 137 people and wound 345.
  • 18 March – Extremist gunmen open fire on foreign tourists at Tunisia’s National Bardo Museum, killing 22 people in the country’s worst attack on civilians in thirteen years. IS later claimed responsibility for the attack.
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Officials Warn that IS May Be Seeking to Develop Chemical/Biological Weapons

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Late last week, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned that France could face a chemical or biological attack from terror groups, as deputies voted to extend the state of emergency, which was imposed after the attacks, for another three months from 26 November. Speaking to the lower house of Parliament on Thursday ahead of the vote, the prime minister stated that “terrorism hit France not because of what it is doing in Iraq and Syria…but for what it is,” adding, “we know that there could also be a risk of chemical or biological weapons,” however he did not talk of a specific threat.

On Thursday, US and Iraqi intelligence officials also reported that IS is aggressively pursuing development of chemical weapons, setting up a branch that is dedicated to research and experiments with the help of scientists from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the region.   While US intelligence officials currently do not believe that IS has the capabilities to develop sophisticated weapons, such as never gas, that are most suited for a terrorist attack on a civilian target, the Islamist terror group has in the past used mustard gas on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq. Militants have used mustard gas against Iraqi Kurdish fighters and in Syria. In mortars that hit Kurdish forces in northern Iraq earlier this year, preliminary tests by the US showed traces of the chemical agent sulphur mustard. Furthermore, US intelligence agencies have consistently underestimated IS, which has shown itself to be more capable and innovative than al-Qaeda and has greater financial resources.

According to a senior Iraqi military intelligence officer and two officials from another Iraqi intelligence agency, IS has set up a branch that is tasked with pursuing chemical weapons. While these officials have not provided details of the programme, including how many personnel it is believed to have or its budget, Hakim al-Zimili, the head of the Iraqi parliament’s security and defense committee, citing intelligence reports he has access to, disclosed that the group has managed to attract chemical experts from both abroad as well as Iraqi experts, including ones who once worked for Saddam Hussein’s now-dissolved Military Industrialization Authority. Iraqi intelligence officials have disclosed that the foreigners include experts from Chechnya and southeast Asia. According to Al-Zmili, IS recently moved its research labs, experts and materials from Iraq to “secured locations” inside Syria, adding that the move was apparently out of concern of an eventual assault on Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which ws captured by IS in the summer of 2014. Iraqi officials have also expressed their concern that the large safe haven the extremists control since overrunning parts of Iraq and Syria last year has left Iraqi authorities largely in the dark in regards to the IS programme. A senior Iraqi intelligence official has disclosed that “they now have complete freedom to select locations for their labs and production sites and have a wide range of experts, both civilians and military, to aid them.” It is evident that Iraqi authorities fear that the use of chemical weapons could be expanded. Over the summer, Iraq’s military distributed gas masks to troops deployed in the regions west and north of Baghdad. According to a senior officer in the province of Salahuddin, which is located north of Baghdad, 25 percent of the troops deployed there were equipped with masks. More recently, Hakim al-Zamili, the head of the Iraqi parliament’s security and defense committee reported that the country’s military had received from Russia 1,000 protective suits against chemical attacks.

What is known is that developing chemical weapons has been an ambition of the group, and various other jihadi movements, for years. According to two senior officials, in a 2013 report on IS’ weapons procurement efforts, a senior deputy of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wrote of “significant progress” toward producing chemical weapons. The officials further disclosed that in the report, Sameer al-Khalifawy wrote that chemical weapons would ensure “Sift victory” and “terrorize our enemies,” adding that what was needed was “to secure a safe environment to carry out experiments.” Al-Khalifawy was killed by rebels in Syria in early 2014, just months before IS overran Mosul and much of northern and Western Iraq. Furthermore in May 2013, Iraqi security forces, acting on a tip from US intelligence officials, raided a secret chemical weapons research lab in Baghdad’s Sunni-majority district of al-Doura. According to Iraqi intelligence officials, security forces arrested two militants running the lab, Kefah Ibrahim al-Jabouri, who held a master’s degree in chemistry, and Abdel Mahmoud al-Abadi, who has a bachelor’s degree in physics and who worked at Saddam’s Military Industrialization Authority before it was disbanded in 2003. Iraqi officials have disclosed that the two men were working with al-Baghdadi, citing IS correspondence that they seized from al-Jabouri. International officials however have disputed these claims, stating that the men were not connected with IS. Iraqi officials have also complained of a lack of cooperation from neighbouring Syria, citing the case of a veteran Iraqi jihadist and weapons expert, Ziad Tareq Ahmed, who fled to Syria after Iraqi security agents raided his home in Baghdad in 2010 and arrested several members of his cell. At the time, Iraqi agents found large amounts of material that could have been used for making mustard gas. Ahmed, who holds a master’s degree in chemistry and who has worked with several Islamic militant groups without formally joining any, was arrested by the Syrians last year. While the Syrian government allowed Iraqi officials to interrogate him in prison, they refused to hand him over. According to Iraqi intelligence officials, last month, Syrian officials released him. One of the officials has since stated that “this is a very grave development, adding that “his release adds significantly to our concerns.”

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Suspected Ringleader of Paris Attacks Killed in Raid

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French prosecutors disclosed on Thursday that the suspected ringleader behind last week’s deadly attacks in Paris, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was amongst those killed in a French police raid that occurred in the early morning hours on Wednesday.

Early on Thursday, the Paris prosecutor’s office confirmed that Abaaoud was amongst those killed when anti-terror police raided a flat in the Paris suburb of Saint Denis. The prosecutor’s office has disclosed that his body was found riddled with bullets and shrapnel in a shattered apartment in the northern suburb. Officials however have noted that it still remains unclear whether Abaaoud had blown himself up or not. Abaaoud (28), a Belgian national, was identified from his fingerprints.

On Wednesday, eight people were arrested and at least two killed in the raid, which targeted the property in the Saint Denis district, near the Stade de France stadium. Sources have disclosed that heavily armed police stormed the building after they received a tip-off that Abaaoud was in Paris. A woman at the flat died during the raid after activating a suicide vest. French media have since reported that the woman, named Hasna Aitboulahcen (26), was Abaaoud’s cousin. Aitboulahcen is believed to be the first female suicide bomber in Western Europe. According to reports, the French-Moroccan citizen was born and grew up in Paris. She is understood to have worked at a construction company in the French capital until 2012. According to a witness to the raid, a woman with long, blonde hair, thought to be Aitboulahcen, was seen approaching the window in the apartment about an hour into the siege.  French authorises have indicated that the raid on the flat foiled another attack, which was reportedly planned for the La Defense business quarter of western Paris. The EU’s law enforcement agency, Europol, has warned that further attacks by IS are likely elsewhere in Europe.        

Hours later, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve disclosed that he had received intelligence that Abaaoud had passed through Greece. He further confirmed that the so-called Islamic State (IS) militant had left for Syria last year, adding that no European Union (EU) states signalled his return. He disclosed that a non-EU state had alerted French officials on Monday that Abaaoud was in Greece. The French minister also implicated Abaaoud in four out of six attacks foiled in France since this spring. The identification of Abaaoud raises serious questions for security services not only in France, but across Europe. Abaaoud was high on both French and Belgian wanted lists and yet he managed to travel from Syria to the heart of Paris without ever leaving a trace.

Investigators are still looking for another suspect, Salah Abdeslam, who is believed to have travelled to Belgium after Friday’s attacks. Earlier on Thursday, Belgian police raided properties linked to Abdeslam and fellow suspected attacker Bilal Hadfi, who was killed on Friday outside the Stade de France stadium. According to Belgian prosecutors, several raids took place in and around Brussels, with Belgian prosecutors reporting that one person has been detained.

On the ground sources have reported that most of the raids in the Belgian capital on Thursday targeted properties in Jette and Molenbeek connected to Bilal Hadfi, a Frenchman who was living in Paris and who was one of the seven attackers killed Friday night. Sources have also reported that a further raid, which targeted an address in the Brussels district of Laeken, was linked to Salah Abdeslam. Speaking to Belgian media, the prosecutor’s office indicated that the raids had been planned for some time and that they are not part of the manhunt. Sources have indicated that Belgian authorities were already investigating Hadfi as he was through to have travelled to Syria.

Meanwhile French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has called for Europe to adopt measures on sharing information about airline passengers as a way of protecting collective security. The call came as France’s lower house of parliament on Thursday voted on a bill to extend the state of emergency, which was declared by President Francois Hollande on Friday for 12 days. The French senate is due to vote on the bill on Friday. The bill includes extending the state of emergency for three months; placing under house arrest anyone deemed to be a public threat; barring suspects from communicating with each other; allowing police to carry out searches at any time, without the prior approval of a judge, if the public is believed to be in danger. Furthermore, under a police directive that was issued to coincide with the state of emergency, French police officers will be allowed to carry their weapons while off duty as long as they wear an armband to identify them. Paris police have extended their ban on gatherings and demonstrations until midnight on Sunday, however they will be allowed at the various sites that were attacked last Friday.

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