Islamic State militants seize Kurdish villages in northern Syria

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Rights activists say 21 villages have fallen to Isis fighters advancing on Kobani

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Reuters in Beirut

theguardian.com, Thursday 18 September 2014 08.21 EDT

Islamic State (Isis) fighters have captured villages and besieged a Kurdish city in northern Syria near the border with Turkey in a major assault that prompted a commander to appeal for military aid from other Kurds in the region.

With the United States planning to expand military action against Isis from Iraq to Syria, a surveillance drone was spotted for the first time over nearby Isis-controlled territory in Aleppo province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks Syria’s civil war, said on Thursday.

It was not immediately clear who was operating the drone.

President Barack Obama said last week that he would not hesitate to strike the radical Islamist group that has used Syria as a base to advance its plan to reshape the Middle East.

The US is conducting air strikes against Isis in Iraq and last month Obama authorised surveillance flights over Syria.

iraq isis kobani

In an advance near the border with Turkey, Isis fighters using heavy weaponry including tanks seized a group of Kurdish villages near the city of Ayn al-Arab, also known as Kobani. The Observatory said 21 villages had fallen to Isis fighters advancing on the city.

“We’ve lost touch with many of the residents living in the villages that Isis seized,” Ocalan Iso, deputy head of the Kurdish forces in Kobani, told Reuters via Skype.

He said the group was committing massacres and kidnapping women in the newly seized areas. It was not possible to immediately verify his account.

The Kurds were appealing for military aid from other Kurdish groups in the region including the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), he said. Support from Kurdish fighters who crossed from Turkey helped to repel an Isis attack on Kobani in July.

The Observatory said there were fears of massacres in the areas seized by Isis. “This is a very important advance for them,” Rami Abdulrahman, the Observatory’s founder, told Reuters, speaking by phone.

Redur Xelil, spokesman for the main armed Kurdish group in Syria, the YPG, said Isis had encircled Kobani. The group was using tanks, rockets and artillery in the attack. “We call on world powers to move to halt this barbaric assault by Isis,” he told Reuters via Skype.

Isis has been trying to establish control over a belt of territory near the border with Turkey, expanding out of its strongholds further east in the provinces of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour, which borders Iraq.

The group advanced westwards into northern Aleppo province in August, seizing territory from less well-armed groups that have been fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Since Obama authorised aerial surveillance over Syria, activists have reported drones in the skies over Raqqa, which is 250 miles north-east of Damascus.

Residents had seen at least one drone over the Isis-controlled towns of al-Bab and Manbij in north-eastern Aleppo province on Thursday, said Abdulrahman.

“They hadn’t seen them before,” he said. Isis had evacuated buildings it was using as offices in the area, he added.

It reflects the pattern in other Isis-controlled areas of Syria. In apparent anticipation of US action, the group has evacuated bases and moved its fighters and heavy weaponry.

Al-Bab is 25 miles north-east of Aleppo, which is a crucial theatre of the war between Assad and the insurgents. Assad’s forces and his opponents are battling for control of the city.

The top US military officer said on Tuesday the United States was planning “a persistent and sustainable campaign” against Isis in Syria. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said the US was not preparing to unleash a “shock and awe” campaign of overwhelming air strikes in Syria.

Australia raids foil reported ISIS beheading plots

Islamic State militant group was planning public beheadings in two Australian cities

Australian counterterrorism forces detained 15 people Thursday in a series of suburban raids after receiving intelligence that the Islamic State militant group was planning public beheadings in two Australian cities to demonstrate its reach.

About 800 federal and state police officers raided more than a dozen properties across 12 Sydney suburbs as part of the operation — the largest in Australian history, Australian Federal Police Deputy Commissioner Andrew Colvin told the Associated Press. A sword was removed as part of evidence at one of the homes.

Separate raids in the eastern cities of Brisbane and Logan were also conducted.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that the plan involved kidnapping randomly selected members of the public off the streets in Sydney and Brisbane, beheading them on camera, and releasing the recordings through Islamic State’s propaganda arm in the Middle East.

Later Thursday, Attorney General George Brandis confirmed that a person born in Afghanistan who had spent time in Australia and is now working with the Islamic State group in the Middle East ordered supporters in Australia to behead people and videotape the killings.

“If the … police had not acted today, there is a likelihood that this would have happened,” Brandis told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Brandis did not name the Australian. But Mohammad Ali Baryalei, who is believed to be Australia’s most senior member of the Islamic State group, was named as a co-conspirator in court documents filed Thursday. Police have issued an arrest warrant for Baryalei, a 33-year-old former Sydney nightclub bouncer.

A 22-year-old Sydney man, Omarjan Azari, appeared in court Thursday and is accused of conspiring with Baryalei and others to act in preparation for or plan a terrorist act or acts.

Prosecutor Michael Allnutt said he was involved in a “plan to commit extremely serious offenses” that was “clearly designed to shock and horrify” the public. It is not immediately clear what sentence Azari faces if convicted. The accused did not apply for bail and did not enter a plea. His next court appearance was set for November 13.

Azari’s attorney, Steve Boland, said during the hearing that the allegation against his client was based “on one phone call.” He did not speak to reporters outside court.

Dozens of police spent Thursday searching Azari’s home and a car parked across the street from his house. One officer pulled a memo out of the car from the Australian National Imams Council outlining concerns about Australia’s new anti-terrorism proposals. The council did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

A second man was charged Thursday night in connection with the raids. The 24-year-old, who police didn’t name, was charged with possessing ammunition without license and unauthorized possession of a prohibited weapon. He was released on bail and ordered to appear in court next week.

Nine of those detained were later released, New South Wales police said.

A crowd of around 300 people protested the raids at a rally in Sydney on Thursday night.

Uthman Badar, a spokesman for the Islamist group Hizt ut-Tahrir, warned of a growing unrest within Australia’s Muslim community.

“We are tired of being made scapegoats. The government is the terrorist,” he said in front of supporters wearing anti-government placards, according to News.com.au.

“We would be fools to think we can now wake up and feel safer,” he added. “We are not fools to be deceived. There is anger in the community. We have been victimized for years and years.”

Meanwhile, Abbott told reporters that he had been briefed on Wednesday night about the operation and discussed the planned beheadings.

“That’s the intelligence we received,” he told reporters. “The exhortations — quite direct exhortations — were coming from an Australian who is apparently quite senior in ISIL to networks of support back in Australia to conduct demonstration killings here in this country.”

The planned violence resembled the murder of Lee Rigby, a British soldier who was attacked and killed in May 2013 by two Nigerian-born Muslim converts near the Royal Artillery Barracks in southeast London.

“This is not just suspicion, this is intent and that’s why the police and security agencies decided to act in the way they have,” Abbott added.

The arrests come just days after the country raised its terror warning to the second-highest level in response to the domestic threat posed by supporters of ISIS.

“Police believe that this group that we have executed this operation on today had the intention and had started to carry out planning to commit violent acts here in Australia,” Colvin said. “Those violent acts particularly related to random acts against members of the public. So what we saw today and the operation that continues was very much about police disrupting the potential for violence against the Australian community at the earliest possible opportunity.”

New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said right now is a “time for calm.”

“We need to let people know that they are safe, and certainly from our perspective, we know that the work this morning will ensure that all of those plans that may have been on foot have been thwarted.”

Last week, Australian police arrested two men in Brisbane for allegedly preparing to fight in Syria, recruiting jihadists and raising money for the Al Qaeda offshoot group Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front. Colvin said the raids conducted in Brisbane on Thursday were a follow-up to that operation. It was not yet clear how the investigations in Sydney and Brisbane were linked, he said.

However, Fairfax Media reported that the arrests of the men averted a terror attack by mere days.

The government raised its terrorism threat last week from “medium” to “high” on a four-tier scale on the advice of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization. The domestic spy agency’s Director-General David Irvine said the threat had been rising over the past year, mainly due to Australians joining ISIS to fight in Syria and Iraq.

When announcing the elevated threat level, Abbott stressed that there was no information suggesting a terror attack was imminent.

Police said at the time there was no terrorist threat to the Group of 20 leaders’ summit to be hosted by Brisbane in November which will bring President Barack Obama and other leaders of the world’s 20 biggest economies to the Queensland state capital.

Australia has estimated about 60 of its citizens are fighting for ISIS and the Nusra Front in Iraq and Syria. Another 15 Australian fighters had been killed, including two young suicide bombers.

The government has said it believes about 100 Australians are actively supporting extremist groups from within Australia, recruiting fighters and grooming suicide bomber candidates as well as providing funds and equipment.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Obama To Micromanage War Against ISIS, Military Can’t Attack Until He Signs Off On Every Strike

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Because it worked so well in Vietnam?

The president hasn’t yet given the green light for an attack on Islamic State militants in Syria, but the U.S. military campaign against the group there is being designed to allow President Barack Obama to exert a high degree of personal control–going so far as to require that the military obtain presidential signoff for strikes. The requirements for the strikes will be far more stringent than those targeting Islamic State in Iraq, at least at first. U.S. officials say it is an attempt to limit the threat the U.S. could be dragged more deeply into the Syrian civil war. After meeting with his top military advisers in Tampa yesterday, Mr. Obama insisted anew that U.S. ground forces won’t engage in combat in Iraq or Syria, despite suggestions by top military commanders that conditions could one day require that U.S. advisers and other military units play a limited front-line role (Here’s a look at why troops in Iraq don’t count as boots on the ground). Julian E. Barnes and Carol E. Lee report.

​ISIS publishes video of captive British journalist John Cantlie

http://rt.com/uk/188792-john-cantlie-isis-video/

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IS has released a haunting video allegedly showing British journalist John Cantlie, who was kidnapped by ISIS in Syria in November 2012.

A former reporter for The Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph, Cantlie sits at a table wearing an orange shirt and describes how he will dispel “manipulated truths” told by the Western media.

The video appears to be part of a targeted IS propaganda campaign using gruesome videos of Western hostages to convey the militant group’s message.

In what appears to be a rehearsed, scripted speech, Cantlie says: “I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking ‘he’s only doing this because he’s a prisoner – he’s got a gun at his head and he’s being forced to do this.”

He said that he cannot deny that he is a prisoner, but since being “abandoned” by his government his fate now lies in the hands of Islamic State and he has “nothing to lose.”

Cantlie says he wants to take the opportunity to “convey some facts,” so that other lives can be saved.

A war with the Islamic State would be “yet another unwinnable conflict” – a reference to the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan.

“I’m going to show you the truth behind the systems and motivation of the Islamic State.”

Cantlie criticizes the US and UK governments for refusing to pay ransoms for their citizens. He says that while other European nations (including Spain and France) were willing to negotiate with IS to secure the release of their citizens, “the British and Americans were left behind.”

Washington and London, he adds, “thought they could do it differently to every other European country.”

At the end of the video Cantlie asks viewers to join him again for the next program – indicating that this video may be just the first of a series of propaganda clips featuring him.

The Islamic State’s media wing ‘Al-Furqan’ is thought to have released the video.

YouTube has since removed the video, because it is “a violation of YouTube’s policy on violence.”

To-date IS has released three gruesome videos showing the beheadings of US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and British aid worker David Haines. The Islamic State has threatened to execute a fourth hostage, British aid worker Alan Hennings.

ISIS-related arrests in US, Europe, Australia as intel warns of ‘gruesome’ attacks

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The world is in the midst of a global crackdown on Islamic State and its ideas. European, American and Australian mass arrests were carried out amid frightening intelligence reports, as the US continues efforts at building an anti-IS coalition.

The effort to clamp down on any affiliation to the terrorist group has reached as far as France, the US, Spain and other countries – even the partially-recognized Kosovo.

Six potential recruits have been arrested in France, a judicial source said on Wednesday, with the number of French nationals traveling to sections of Syria and Iraq partly-controlled by the IS (formerly ISIS or ISIL) continuing to rise.

Two of the detained on Tuesday are minors, while another pair is a brother and sister; one other suspect is believed to be linked to Forsane Alizza (Knight of Pride), an organization calling for France to become an Islamic caliphate. It was banned in 2012.

As in the case with Britain and the United States, France worries its nationals will soon be returning with the training and determination to carry out terrorist attacks on home soil. The number of French having already gone off to fight and come back has risen to 930, according to Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.

That is a 74 percent increase in just eight months, authorities say. Currently, 175 are being monitored back home. But truly worrying is the French proportion of the total number of Europeans, which is approximately 2,000.

Young girls are being increasingly targeted. A few weeks back a series of detentions of young women around France, including a 16-year-old, took place. In one shocking example, a 15-year-old girl left the country believing herself to be on a humanitarian aid mission. She has not returned.

The National Assembly has just made it a criminal offense “[to plan] to travel abroad to take part in terrorist activities, war crime or crimes against humanity or in a theater of operations of terrorist groups.”

This follows on from Spain, which altered its penal code to prevent Spaniards from traveling to conflict zones to join up with radical groups, punishing those who do with terrorism charges.

José Manuel García Margallo, Spain’s foreign minister, has called on increased cooperation with international efforts on Tuesday, following accusations that the country isn’t doing enough to fight the IS.

“Spain has never been one to watch the bullfight from behind the barriers,” he was quoted by the EFE news agency as saying. “We have been and we will be wherever our presence is needed and can be put to good use,” he also told parliament, adding that the country has already taken part in a number of missions abroad as part of what he calls “one of the most complex threats of our time.”

The criminal code enactment is yet to come into effect, but the FM did highlight that another, more comprehensive, series will follow in its footsteps.

Over in Germany, it is said up to nine citizens carried out suicide bombings for the IS this year alone. As with the rest of Europe, the government fears the trend for conversion to its ideology is growing fast.

The attacks were mostly carried out in Iraq.

A national research team reported alarm amongst the general public as well.

“We don’t want death being sent from Germany to Iraq. Exporting terror is unconscionable and must be stopped,” said German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere to the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper in response to the allegations that attacks were being carried out by Germans.

The German government has already banned the provision of any support to the terrorist group, a move that came on the heels of reports that an estimated 400 Germans have joined IS terrorists in Syria and Iraq.

The authorities have set for themselves the task of preventing further exports of nationals to the Middle East to join up.

“We’re looking at the security situation in Germany, but we also have a responsibility toward the people who live in Syria and Iraq,” the head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Hans-Georg Maassen, said, as reported by Deutsche Welle.

His fears are essentially those shared by all other European nations: that extremists will come back with training and plans to inflict terror.

Kosovo is another place where a sudden spike in Islamic State sympathy has resulted in numerous arrests. Authorities on Wednesday arrested a leading Muslim cleric, together with 14 other people, on allegations of operating a recruitment ring for righters heading to Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State’s strongholds.

The arrests spanned 16 locations, including Pristina. This is the second operation since August, when 40 people were arrested on similar charges.

Australia is on high alert for the first time in 11 years. Having upped the security level following serious allegations by the government that an attack is in fact being planned, the government then detained 15 people in suspicion of planning a gruesome, random attack in Australia.

This is the country’s largest counterterrorism operation to date.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott informed the public that a public beheading was supposedly being planned by the group.

“That’s the intelligence we received… the exhortations — quite direct exhortations — were coming from an Australian who is apparently quite senior in ISIL to networks of support back in Australia to conduct demonstration killings here in this country,” he told reporters.

“This is not just suspicion, this is intent, and that’s why the police and security agencies decided to act in the way they have,” he continued.

The authorities also issued an arrest warrant for a Sydney nightclub bouncer, Mohammad Ali Baryalei, 33, on suspicion that he’s the country’s most senior member of the Islamic State terrorist group.

Another suspect arrested, a 27-year-old, was reportedly planning to “gruesomely” execute a random person, authorities say, which is part and parcel of the IS’s purported shock tactics.

The Sydney arrests were part of an operation consisting of 800 federal and state police officers, according to Federal Police Deputy Commissioner Andrew Colvin.

“Police believe that this group that we have executed this operation on today had the intention and had started to carry out planning to commit violent acts here in Australia,” Colvin said. “Those violent acts particularly related to random acts against members of the public. So what we saw today and the operation that continues was very much about police disrupting the potential for violence against the Australian community at the earliest possible opportunity.”

The police declined to give further details, but said the attacks being planned were “very high level.”

As the global crackdown takes place, the US is in the midst of rounding up Middle Eastern countries, partners and rivals alike, to take part in an anti-IS coalition. The initiative has drawn mixed reviews back home.

Secretary of State John Kerry has been talking to a number of regional leaders, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while openly denouncing any possibility of an Iranian role in the operation. And yet, no clearly defined roles exist for the coalition members – only a vague idea of who is on board.

Kerry’s trips are also taking place amid American confusion over which language to apply to its anti-terror initiative against the Islamic State. The lingo swayed from “we are at war” to “this is a long, drawn-out counterterrorism effort” from one day to the next.

This reflects poorly on both the opinion of the government at home and the coordination of roles in the Middle Eastern coalition.

“This can’t be America’s fight alone,” US President Barack Obama stressed in his recent ISIS speech.

Indeed, the country has carried out over 150 airstrikes on militant positions so far. However, not everyone appears willing to join the fight.

Turkey and Jordan, key US allies in the region, are thought to be reluctant to intervene directly in the anti-IS fight.

Turkey was also absent during the signing of a joint communiqué on the situation in Iraq on Thursday.

As Kerry was making his rounds, a 30-year-old New York State man has been charged with allegedly aiding the IS. He is accused of helping three individuals travel to Syria to fight with IS and also plotted to murder US troops returning home from the Middle East.

This comes after very direct video threats by the terrorists to harm Americans, in response to Obama’s promise to “downgrade and destroy” the group.