Sunday, September 7, 2014


Aqsa Mahmood

In November of last year, 19-year-old Aqsa Mahmood gave her father, Muzaffar, a long hug goodbye. He remembers, he says, because she looked especially beautiful. He remarked upon it to his wife, saying there was something different about his daughter.

The night before, she had asked her sisters to sleep together in one big bed. Aqsa gave a lingering farewell to her bedridden grandmother, and that's when Khalida, her mother, knew something was wrong.

Standing in her daughter's empty bedroom, Khalida told CNN, "There was something about the way she said 'Khuda Hafiz' (God's Blessings) while taking leave that day, which made us all wonder. My husband even asked if everything was OK, and I said she is fine."

Four days later, Aqsa called her parents back in Scotland, just as she was crossing into Syria from its border with Turkey. Her parents were left heartbroken and confused.

Father and mother

Her father says when he spoke to her about coming home, she said that she would see her family on Judgment Day and would like to be a martyr.
She has been prolific on social media, advocating ISIS and Islamic caliphate beliefs, and calling for attacks to be carried out in Western countries. She posts photos of AK-47s and exults in ISIS executions. Her recent posting online has called to follow the example set by "brothers from Woolwich, Texas, and Boston."

Family lawyer Aamer Anwar talked about the family's heartbreak.
"There was nothing they (Aqsa's parents) could have done different. She was a bedroom radical. And if this could happen to Aqsa, who had all the life chances, the best education that money can buy, a family that was moderate, liberal ... if it could happen to her, somebody who was so intelligent, then it could happen to any family," Anwar said.

Aqsa is said to be influenced by watching sermons online and coming in contact with people through social media that helped her make the trek from Glasgow to Syria.

Living the dream in Scotland
The Mahmood family was, in many ways, living the dream of many immigrants. Muzaffar moved to Glasgow from Pakistan in the 1970s. He was the first Pakistani cricket player for Scotland. He and Khalida bought a home in an affluent neighborhood and had four children. They went to the prestigious private school Craigholme down the road.

"She was the best daughter you could have. We just don't know what happened to her. She loved school. She was very friendly. I have never shouted at her all my life, all my life," Muzaffar laments.
Her parents insist there were no signs that the Glasgow teenager harbored any extremist beliefs.

She listened to Coldplay and read "Harry Potter" books. On her desk, colorful loom bands and bracelets hung from a goosenecked lamp, a dog-eared copy of "The Hunger Games" nearby.

But when the civil war in Syria flared, Aqsa grew increasingly concerned about the violence. She grew more religious, praying and reading the Quran. And when she went to her university, she gave up her music and childhood fiction. But her parents did not suspect anything extreme.
"She didn't go out much. Just with her sisters, she would go out to watch movies and go out eating. We all went together," Muzaffar says.

Her family was stunned when they learned she was headed for the rebel-held territory of Aleppo in northern Syria. Khalida says her daughter was afraid of the dark and didn't even know what bus to take downtown, much less how to cross the border into Syria.

'I don't know when she became this brave'
"She didn't like shouting. I don't know when she became this brave. She was scared to talk, scared to fly, and this is a very big step -- her flying to Syria. I can't believe this," Khalida tearfully says, explaining the shock the family feels about her daughter's decision.

"I know she is my daughter, but I feel that she is my friend. But she made one mistake, but otherwise, she is really a very good girl. Sometimes I am angry."

Her family describes her as a loving daughter who brought her mother tea in bed, helped massage her mum's tired feet and often assisted her handicapped grandmother. Her mother says Aqsa never complained despite being asked to help with housework.

Soon after her arrival in Syria, Aqsa told her family that she would marry.
Her father said she sent a message saying: "That's the process here. They don't let a girl stay alone. Now we have to find a mahram (male guardian). We have to get married here. Don't worry. I'll be OK. My heart is good."
But her parents, still worried, attempted to dissuade her.

"We used to tell her ... this is not Islam, some of these groups are not Islam. They are doing wrong things which we don't approve of. Obviously, no Muslim approves this."

Despite Aqsa's active role on social media, her father says he reads little of what she writes online because it hurts him.
"We don't know what happened and how she changed so quickly. God knows why she is doing this."

In one of the exchanges Muzaffar had with his daughter, she told him that she is praying every day to become "shahid," or a martyr.

Praying for the return of their daughter
The family hopes and prays that Aqsa will come home.
One of her sisters has been suffering from depression since Aqsa left. Her mother says that Aqsa is leading a very hard life, often sleeps on the floor in the cold and has suffered from pneumonia. Her mother says that in her random chats online, she asks Aqsa to be safe and often reminds her to eat.

"As a mother, I want my daughter safe."
In a special message to Aqsa through CNN, her parents made a personal appeal to their daughter.
"We just want her back. We miss her too much. We love her. We just want to see her back and want to hug her. She was such a good daughter," her father said.

Looking directly into the camera, Khalida said, "Aqsa, my dear daughter, please come back. At this moment, I am missing you a lot. Your sisters and brother miss you a lot. My dear daughter, in the name of Allah, please come back. I miss you a lot. I love you. I love you, my dear daughter. Please come back."

Both parents are quick to denounce ISIS, which also calls itself the "Islamic State," and the atrocities that are being carried out in the name of religion.
''We are against all this ISIS carrying on. This is no Islam. Islam is peace. Any killing we are against, whoever it is. That's what we have been taught by our prophet -- peace be upon him," Muzaffar says.

Anwar, the lawyer, says Aqsa is not directly responsible for committing any crimes and is safe to return home.
The Mahmood family says they are speaking out in the hope that their other children and the community don't face any backlash, and they publicly condemn their eldest daughter's callous decision.

Both parents are worried that time is running out for Aqsa to safely return home. But they say they are still holding hope that one day, she will come back.

CNN News

Monday, August 25, 2014


The United States cannot go it alone in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the extremist group known as ISIS whose ruthlessness and killing has dumbfounded and horrified the civilized world.

American airstrikes and other assistance from the United States have brought some measure of relief to religious minorities and others that ISIS has threatened. But defeating, or even substantially degrading, ISIS will require an organized, longer-term response involving a broad coalition of nations, including other Muslim countries, and addressing not only the military threat but political and religious issues.

The recent persecution of Christians and Yazidis and the murder of James Foley, an American journalist, has brought ISIS’s savagery into full view. On Thursday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said ISIS posed an “immediate threat” to the West, in addition to Iraq, because thousands of Europeans and other foreigners who have joined the group and have the passports to travel freely could carry the fight back to their home countries — including the United States.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was equally emphatic. ISIS, he warned, is “beyond anything that we’ve seen” because it is extremely well-financed and has demonstrated sophistication and tactical skill in its campaign to impose an Islamic caliphate by brute force. 

Other analysts have gone so far as to describe ISIS as one of the most successful extremist groups in history because of its ability to seize and hold large sections of two countries — Iraq and Syria — with what seems like blinding speed.

While the group poses a risk to the United States and the West, those paying the biggest price are Muslims. That’s why President Obama was correct to argue that “from governments and peoples across the Middle East, there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread.” 

Making this happen will take American leadership, but, so far, neither he nor America’s allies have laid out a coherent vision of exactly what this fight might entail or how to achieve success.

The response to the immediate crisis has been prudent. The United States has insisted that Iraq’s government and army set aside longstanding rivalries and work with the pesh merga militia of Kurdistan to back up American airstrikes by fighting ISIS on the ground. Germany, Italy, Britain and France have promised weapons.

The politics of Iraq, however, remain dangerously unsettled. The United States successfully pressed for a change from Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as prime minister in Iraq because only a more inclusive leader would have any chance of unifying the country against the ISIS threat. And, in a rare convergence of interests, Iran also withdrew its support from Mr. Maliki, resulting in the appointment of a new leader, Haider al-Abadi. But Parliament has yet to give final approval to the new government, thus prolonging political uncertainties that undermine the fight against ISIS.

The prospects of defeating ISIS would be greatly improved if other Muslim nations could see ISIS for the threat it is. But, like Iraq, they are mired in petty competitions and Sunni-Shiite religious divisions and many have their own relations with extremists of one kind or another. ISIS has received financing from donors in Kuwait and Qatar. Saudi Arabia funneled weapons to Syrian rebels and didn’t care if they went to ISIS. Turkey allowed ISIS fighters and weapons to flow across porous borders. All of that has to stop.

Creating a regional military force may be required, including assistance from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Turkey. It certainly will require money, intelligence-sharing, diplomatic cooperation and a determined plan to cut off financing to ISIS and the flow of ISIS fighters between states. 

France’s suggestion for an international conference deserves consideration.
No matter how many American airstrikes are carried out — Mr. Obama is also considering strikes against ISIS in Syria — such extremists will never be defeated if Muslims themselves don’t make it a priority. To their credit, some leaders are speaking out. Among them is Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, the grand mufti, who called ISIS and Al Qaeda the “enemy No. 1 of Islam.”

But they must go further and begin a serious discussion about the dangers of radical Islam and how ISIS’s perversion of one of the world’s great religions can be reversed.

Sources : New York Times, August 24, 2014

Sunday, August 24, 2014

U.S. Officials and Experts at Odds on Threat Posed by ISIS

WASHINGTON — Earlier this year, President Obama likened the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to a junior varsity basketball squad, a group that posed little of the threat once presented by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
But on Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called ISIS an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” adding, “This is beyond anything that we’ve seen.”

With the rapid advance of ISIS across northern Iraq, and the release this week of a video showing one of the group’s operatives beheading an American journalist, the language Obama administration officials are using to describe the danger the terrorist group poses to the United States has become steadily more pointed. 

But some American officials and terrorism experts said that the ominous words overstated the group’s ability to attack the United States and its interests abroad, and that ISIS could be undone by its own brutality and nihilism.

“They have a lot of attributes that should scare us: money, people, weapons and a huge swath of territory,” said Andrew Liepman, a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation and former deputy head of the National Counterterrorism Center. “But when we’re surprised by a group, as we have been in this case, we tend to overreact.”

These notes of caution from inside the government and from terrorism watchers come as the White House considers expanding military action against ISIS, including possibly striking across the border in Syria.
American intelligence agencies are working on a thorough assessment of the group’s strength, and they believe that its ability to gain and hold territory could make it a long-term menace in the Middle East. Intelligence officials said there were indications that ISIS’ battlefield successes had attracted defectors from Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Africa, who are eager to join a group with momentum.

But experts say ISIS differs from traditional terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and its affiliates, primarily because it prefers enlarging what it calls its caliphate over discrete acts of terrorism. It has captured dams and oil fields, and has seized spoils of war like armored personnel carriers and tanks.
Bin Laden’s goal was also to create an Islamic caliphate, but he often said that it was years away and could be achieved only under the proper conditions. 
ISIS, on the other hand, has renamed itself “Islamic State” and declared that the caliphate has arrived.

“This is a full-blown insurgent group, and talking about it as a terrorist group is not particularly helpful,” said William McCants, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said the Defense Department did not believe that ISIS had “the capability right now to conduct a major attack on the U.S. homeland.”

“We do believe they have aspirations to strike Western targets,” Admiral Kirby said, adding that the “urgency of the threat” was driven by the belief that ISIS had enlisted thousands of foreign fighters and was holding its ground in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS is now under pressure from American airstrikes in Iraq. And the group must defend its gains from advances by a host of adversaries, like Iraqi Kurdish troops, the forces of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and other Syrian rebels.

“Attacking the U.S. is not their first priority,” Mr. Liepman said.
In addition, American officials said that the group’s brutal methods of governing the territory it has seized, while effective in the short term, could create internal factions that would weaken its grip on power.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that the group’s ambition was to remake the Middle East by absorbing nations including Israel, Jordan, Kuwait and Syria into its caliphate. “If it were to achieve that vision, it would fundamentally alter the face of the Middle East and create a security environment that would certainly threaten us in many ways,” he said.
 But some experts are skeptical that ISIS could ever realize that goal.

The victories gained by the militant group calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria were built on months of maneuvering along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
OPEN Interactive Graphic

“ISIS can expand, but it can’t dominate alone,” said George Friedman, chairman of Stratfor, a geopolitical risk analysis company. Even in Iraq, the group “can’t defeat the Kurds,” Mr. Friedman said. “It certainly doesn’t have the power to defeat the Shiites in the south.”

But for a population that is not accustomed to images of Americans at the mercy of foreign militaries, the video of the killing of the American journalist, James Foley, was bound to strike a chord and exacerbate a feeling of being under threat.

Some experts said the fear of ISIS was driven partly by how little is known about the organization. While the United States has spent more than a decade studying Al Qaeda, officials know comparatively little about the structure and leadership of ISIS, beyond the information they have on the group’s self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

But a large segment of the United States’ counterterrorism apparatus is now devoted to filling in the intelligence picture about ISIS. Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Mr. Hagel said as much. “We must prepare for everything,” he said. “And the only way you do that is that you take a cold, steely, hard look at it and get ready.”

It is generally agreed that it is far more difficult to carry out a terrorist attack inside the United States today than it was before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, because of the steps taken since to prevent would-be terrorists from entering the country.
 But that does not mean that ISIS cannot present a significant threat in the Middle East.

“I’m worried about Turkey, I’m worried about Jordan, I’m worried about regional destabilization,” said Jarret Brachman, the author of “Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice” and an adviser to the United States government on ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Mr. Brachman said that he did not believe the group had the ability, at the moment, to attack the United States, and that such an attack would bring about an American response so destructive that it would undermine the militants’ goal of territorial expansion.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Hamas official claims 'breakthrough' in talks, while deputy chief of Islamic Jihad says forthcoming accord 'moves us from state of war to rehabilitation.'

Gaza shore
A Hamas official claimed Thursday night that the five-day ceasefire extension was agreed upon at the last minute because of breakthrough in the talks. He claimed that there are encouraging indications that a definitive agreement may be reached within the next days. 

"The formula proposed by Egypt over the last two days could lead directly to what we see as a breakthrough and an answer to our demands," he said.
Deputy chief of Islamic Jihad, Ziad Nakhleh, said that an agreement on a permanent ceasefire accords was imminent, and that the agreement would include guarantees for the lifting of the blockade on Gaza.
He claimed that the ports issue would be discussed a month after the agreement in accordance with the Egyptian proposal.
Nakhleh said the two sides agreed on the openings of the crossings, easing the restrictions on material import into Gaza, the expansion of the limited fishing zone around the Strip, and the dismantling of the security "perimeter" maintained by Israel along the border.
"The agreement moves us from a state of war to the rehabilitation phase," he said.
Nakhleh further claimed that Egypt helped block Israel's demands for a demilitarization of the militant groups, an end to the smuggling operations, weapon manufacturing, and tunnel construction. He said Egypt also promised significant relief through its border crossing in Rafah.
Palestinian delegation chief, Azzam al-Ahmad, revealed Thursday that – before he made his announcement Wednesday on the extension of the ceasefire – Hamas leader Khaled Mashal called him and asked him to thank the Egyptian leadership for mediating the talks.
Al-Ahmad sharply criticized Hamas' media outlets for trying to paint Egypt as an unfair mediator leaning towards Israel, and stressed that "these publications were intended to ruin everything."

"We have agreed on a ceasefire for five days," said al-Ahmed, noting that there had been "significant progress" in a final agreement, but that disagreements remained over the wording on security arrangements, reconstruction efforts for the Gaza Strip and the permissible fishing zone for Gazans.

Y, Roi Kais contributed to this report.Elior Levy, August 14, 2014

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Mosul dam

President Obama said Monday that Iraqi and Kurdish forces, aided by waves of U.S. airstrikes, had recaptured the country’s largest dam, hailing the development as “important progress” against from Islamic State fighters.

While he said other U.S. goals had also been met in Iraq, including stopping a militant surge toward the Kurdish capital of Irbil, Obama declined to set a time frame to limit U.S. military action in the country.

“A lot of it depends on how effectively the Iraqi government comes together,” Obama said.
The president said his primary goal in Iraq is to “make sure we have a viable partner” and a “government formation process that is credible, legitimate and can appeal to Sunnis” and other Iraqi minorities. “We’ve made significant progress on that front, but we’re not there yet,” Obama said.

Iraq’s new prime minister-designate, Haider al-Abadi, has said he will form a new government within the next two weeks. “When we see a credible Iraqi government,” Obama said in remarks in the White House press briefing room, “we are then in a position to engage in planning” for the future.

Kurdish fighter

Iraq's army spokesman claims security forces and Kurdish fighters have taken back the strategic Mosul Dam from the Islamic State fighters who captured it less than two weeks ago. (AP)

Asked whether he was concerned about U.S.“mission creep,” Obama said that “if we have effective partners on the ground, mission creep is much less likely.” When U.S. officials “start deciding that we’re the ones that have to do it all ourselves, because of the excellence of our military, that can work for a time, we learned that in Iraq. But it’s not sustainable, it’s not lasting.”

In Iraq, fighting continued on the western bank of the lake at the head of the Mosul Dam on Monday, and government troops were unable to enter the facility because it was booby-trapped by the retreating militants, officials said.

But Iraqi and Kurdish officials claimed that Islamic State fighters were on the run after the offensive launched by Iraqi special forces and Kurdish pesh merga fighters backed by U.S. air support Sunday.

The U.S. military’s Central Command said the airstrikes continued Monday, with a mix of fighter jets, bombers and drones successfully conducting 15 strikes against Islamic State targets near the Mosul Dam. It said the airstrikes damaged or destroyed nine fighting positions, a checkpoint, six armed vehicles, a light armored vehicle, a vehicle-mounted antiaircraft gun and an “emplacement belt” for improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs.

“All aircraft exited the strike areas safely,” the Central Command said in a statement. It said U.S. forces have carried out a total of 68 airstrikes in Iraq since Aug. 8, of which 35 have been in support of Iraqi forces near the Mosul Dam.

US air strikes

Lt. Gen. Qassim Atta, an Iraqi army spokesman, told journalists in Baghdad that the joint operation “fully liberated the dam” and that the troops “hoisted the Iraqi flag over it.”

Brig. Gen. Abdulwahab al-Saidi, an Iraqi special forces commander, said: “The dam is completely under our control. Our soldiers are now relaxing swimming in the lake.”

Iraqi Kurd families are returning to the town of Makhmur near Irbil, after Kurdish fighters retook the town from the Islamic State militants. (Reuters)
The claims came a day after Iraqi and Kurdish commanders said they had made unexpectedly swift progress after the operation was launched. They said their forces sliced through a series of villages and reached the dam after a wave of U.S. attacks in which fighter jets, drones and bombers pummeled the extremists’ positions.

It was the biggest offensive since the latest U.S. intervention in Iraq was announced 10 days ago, and it signaled an expansion of what was originally defined as a narrowly focused mission to protect American personnel in Iraq and help fleeing Yazidi villagers trapped on a mountain.

In Sinjar mountain
In a letter released Sunday notifying Congress of the action, Obama said the militants’ control of the dam posed a threat to the U.S. Embassy 200 miles away in Baghdad, which could be inundated if the dam were breached.
“The failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, endanger U.S. personnel and facilities, including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services to the Iraqi populace,” he wrote.

Obama had signaled in a statement last week that protecting “critical infrastructure” would be part of what officials have described as a limited military intervention. This was, however, the first time Iraqi, Kurdish and U.S. forces had come together to launch a major ground assault.

A week ago, U.S. airstrikes helped clear Islamic State positions, enabling Kurdish fighters to retake two small towns south of the Kurdish capital, Irbil. That marked the Kurds’ first successful effort to recapture territory they had lost to an Islamic State offensive launched two weeks ago.

Kurdish and Iraqi officials said that Sunday’s operation was going better than expected and that the dam would soon be under full government control. “We expect to finish this within hours,” said Helgurd Hikmat, a spokesman for the pesh merga.

A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, also said that the operation had “made significant progress.” But he said that recapturing the dam would take time “because there are a lot of IEDs.”

Late Sunday night, a senior Kurdish official said that Islamic State fighters had abandoned their positions at the dam but that Iraqi and Kurdish forces had refrained from entering the facility because of concerns that it was booby-trapped.

“Everybody is being really careful about their sinister tactics. When they leave their positions, they mine them,” said Hoshyar Zebari, a former Iraqi foreign minister who is working closely with the Kurdish government.
“But we don’t see any resistance whatsoever.”
‘Beat them, beat them’

The Islamic State’s Aug. 7 capture of the Mosul Dam, just hours before Obama announced his decision to send U.S. warplanes back into action in Iraq, was a high point in the group’s campaign to establish a caliphate across the Middle East, putting the militants in control of one of Iraq’s most vital facilities.

Ten days on, it seemed that the intervention was starting to turn the tide.
At the Badriya checkpoint, six miles north of the dam, spirits were high among pesh merga troops blocking the road ahead, citing the danger posed by explosives planted by the retreating militants. Several Islamic State fighters had been captured trying to sneak through Kurdish checkpoints in a bid to escape, said Yunus Said, a volunteer fighter. Others had retreated to the western bank of the Tigris River, he said.

As he spoke, a convoy of SUVs and armored vehicles sped past from the direction of the front line, escorting a pickup in which a bound, blindfolded captive sat.
The soldiers cheered. “Daish,” they shouted, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “Beat them, beat them.”

Iraq’s elite special forces, which worked closely alongside U.S. Special Forces units before U.S. troops withdrew in 2011, took the lead in the fighting around the dam, while pesh merga troops closed in on the surrounding villages from the north. Saidi, the special forces commander, said the Iraqi air force and SWAT teams also were involved.

Their advance was preceded by the most intense U.S. bombardment yet, with 17 airstrikes Sunday destroying armed vehicles, Humvees, armored personnel carriers and a checkpoint belonging to the militants, according to U.S. Central Command statements. The strikes followed nine in the area the previous day near Irbil and the Mosul Dam.

The assault was the worst setback for the Islamic State since the militants embarked on their stunning rout of the Iraqi army across northern Iraq in June. The group has since continued to expand across Iraq and Syria.
The extremists also came under pressure in Syria on Sunday, with activists in their northern stronghold of Raqqah reporting 23 bombing raids by Syrian government warplanes against Islamic State targets there. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were 84 Syrian airstrikes Sunday, an unusually high number. Of them, 43 were against the Islamic State, signaling a significant escalation of Syrian attacks against the group, which the government had for many months steered away from confronting.

Craig Whitlock contributed to this report. Sly reported from Badriya, Iraq. Morris reported from Baghdad.

Source : Washington Post