Eye on Extremism: Apr 30, 2020

Reuters: After U.S., Israeli Pressure, Germany Bans Hezbollah Activity, Raids Mosques

“Germany banned all Hezbollah activity on its soil on Thursday and designated the Iran-backed group a terrorist organisation, a much-anticipated step long urged by Israel and the United States. Police also conducted early morning raids on mosque associations in cities across Germany which officials believe are close to the heavily armed Shi’ite Islamist group. “The activities of Hezbollah violate criminal law and the organization opposes the concept of international understanding,” said the interior ministry in a statement. The move means that Hezbollah symbols are banned at gatherings and in publications or in the media and Hezbollah assets can be confiscated, said the ministry, adding as it is a foreign organisation, it is not possible to ban and dissolve it. Security officials believe up to 1,050 people in Germany are part of what they describe as Hezbollah’s extremist wing. Israel, which with the United States had been pushing Germany to ban the group, praised the move. “It is a very important decision and a valuable and significant step in the global fight against terrorism,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz.”

Voice Of America: Somalia’s Al-Shabab Publicly Executes 3 For Spying

“Somali militant group al-Shabab has executed three of its own members for alleged spying on behalf of Western intelligence agencies, local residents and regional officials said. El Bur district commissioner Colonel Nur Hassan Gutale says the three men were executed by a firing squad late Tuesday in the center of the town as dozens of people watched. “According to our sources, the men are not from the town. The militants brought them there to execute and they executed them in public late Tuesday,” Gutale told VOA over the phone. According to local residents speaking on condition of anonymity, an al-Shabab judge at the scene of the execution said the men had admitted to working for Western intelligence agencies and collaborating with the federal government of Somalia. Al-Shabab has been trying to overthrow Somalia's government and turn the country into a strict Islamic state. El Bur was once the commercial hub of Central Somalia and now is one of the main strongholds of al-Shabab in the Galgudud region. They lost the control of the town late 2014 to Ethiopian troops backing Somali government forces but retook it in April 2017 when the Ethiopians withdrew from the town, forcing its administrators including Colonel Gutale to flee to nearby towns.”

Associated Press: Prosecutors Charge Neo-Nazi With German Politician's Murder

“German prosecutors have charged a far-right extremist with the killing of a regional politician from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party last year, and a near-fatal attack on an Iraqi asylum-seeker in 2016. Federal prosecutors said Wednesday that Stephan Ernst, 46, who has previous convictions for a string violent anti-migrant crimes, is accused of murder, attempted murder, serious bodily harm and firearms offenses. A second man, identified only as Markus H. due to privacy rules, was charged with accessory to murder and breaking firearms laws for allegedly helping Ernst improve his marksmanship while suspecting that he was considering a politically motivated attack, prosecutors said. Walter Luebcke, who led the regional administration in Germany's central region of Kassel, was shot on his porch on June 1, 2019, and died later that night. His killing sparked widespread outrage in Germany and warnings about the growing danger of violent far-right extremism. Prosecutors said in a statement that Ernst and Markus H. both attended an October 2015 town hall event where Luebcke defended the German government's decision to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees into the country.”

United States

CNBC: Here’s Why Coronavirus Is Being Classified As A Biological Agent

“Bad actors have defied stay-at-home orders and are threatening to spread the coronavirus by coughing or spitting on essential workers. Under new direction from Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, these actions could be punishable by law under terrorism charges. In a March 24 memo, Rosen wrote that “Because coronavirus appears to meet the statutory definition of a “biological agent” under 18 U.S.C § 178(1), such acts could implicate the Nation’s terrorism-related statues.”  After charging similar offenders with lesser crimes, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewall charged a man named George Falcone with making terroristic threats after he allegedly coughed on a Wegmans employee and claimed he had coronavirus. If convicted, Falcone could face 10 years in prison and a $150,000 fine. Since bringing up charges against Falcone, Grewall’s office has charged more than 30 others with making terroristic threats. “You need to use whatever levers you have to make sure people abide by those orders from your governors and that they don’t, in this midst of this crisis, take advantage of their fellow citizens by engaging in criminal conduct,” Grewall said in an interview.”

Syria

Al Monitor: Intel: Pompeo Condemns Terrorist Attack In Syria’s Afrin

“Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned on Tuesday a terrorist bomb attack that killed at least 40 people in the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin. “The United States condemns the act of terror carried out today in Afrin, Syria, claiming the lives of dozens of people shopping in the central market as they prepared to break the Ramadan fast,” Pompeo said in a statement. “Initial reports indicate many victims were civilians, including children. Such cowardly acts of evil are unacceptable from any side in this conflict.” Pompeo reiterated UN calls to implement a country-wide cease-fire throughout the war-torn country. Why it matters:  Turkish forces and their Arab rebel allies from the Free Syrian Army have controlled Afrin since 2018 after ousting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the area. Turkey immediately blamed the attack on the YPG, which has yet to comment. The United States has not attributed blame for the attack. What’s next:  As tensions continue between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds, Ankara is also operating in Idlib province — the last rebel bastion — to conduct joint patrols with Russia, which backs Damascus in the conflict. While the patrols have tamped down conflict between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the Turkish-backed rebels, activists have also accused Turkey of shooting dead protesters demonstrating against the patrols.”

Iraq

The Jerusalem Post: A Rift Emerges Among Pro-Iranian Militias In Iraq

“Iraq’s politics may be getting even more divided after the acting Prime Minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, sought to affirm his office’s control over key Iraqi paramilitary groups. The powerful Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Units have been maneuvering to dominate Iraq since the ISIS war, but they are increasingly divided between those who want to play a role in Iran’s regional strategy and those who want to be a more local Iraqi force. A letter from the Prime Minister’s office emerged last week in which four brigades of the PMU, some 15,000 men, could be moved from the control of the PMU to the Prime Minister’s office. This would effectively remove them from control by key pro-Iranian influence such as a man named Abu Fadak, who replaced Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis after the US killed MUhandis and IRGC Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani in January. The real story is more complex. The PMU were formed in 2014 after a fatwa by Iraq’s most well known cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani. They were intended to be a popular mobilization of young men to fight ISIS. Some of the units that joined were historic Iraqi militias that are aligned with Iran. These included Kataib Hezbollah, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and the Badr Organization.”

Afghanistan

Associated Press: SEALs Tried To Locate US Citizen Taken By Afghan Militants

“In the days following the capture of an American contractor in Afghanistan earlier this year, Navy commandos raided a village and detained suspected members of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network while the U.S. intelligence community tried to track the cellphones of the man and his captors, The Associated Press has learned. While the circumstances surrounding the abduction remain unclear, the previously unreported operation described by multiple American officials over the past month shed new light on early efforts to locate Mark R. Frerichs, a contractor from Illinois whose disappearance has been shrouded in mystery and whose case has been the subject of minimal public discussion by the U.S. government. The new details emerge as violence and political infighting in Kabul threaten to scuttle a Taliban peace deal with the U.S. Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voiced frustrations after a failed attempt to mediate a power struggle between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and political rival Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. The Trump administration said it would cut $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan. Washington has urged Kabul to release Taliban prisoners, which is part of the peace agreement, arguing the detainees were at risk of spreading the coronavirus.”

Radio Free Europe: Afghans Claim Foreign Combatants Fighting Alongside Taliban In Violation Of Peace Deal

“Afghan officials say hundreds of foreign combatants are fighting alongside Taliban militants in a strategic northern province, a move that if proven true would violate the terms of the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement. Zakaria Sawda, the governor of the northeastern province of Badakhshan, said around 400 foreign militants, mostly from neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, had joined the Taliban and were fighting Afghan security forces in the province. Sawda told RFE/RL that the Taliban and foreign fighters were attempting to create a large terrorist “hub” in Badakhshan, adding that it was a “serious concern.” Sawda's claims could not be independently verified. But if confirmed, the Taliban's actions would constitute a violation of the agreement the militant group signed with Washington in February. Under that deal, the Taliban committed to severing ties with terrorist groups and preventing terrorists from using territory under its control to launch attacks against the United States and its allies, including the Afghan government. In exchange for the Taliban's counterterrorism guarantees, the United States agreed to withdraw all of its around 12,000 troops from Afghanistan by July 2021. There was no immediate comment from the Taliban, which controls and contests large parts of Badakhshan, a remote, mountainous province bordering Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan.”

Bloomberg: MTN Seeks To Dismiss U.S. Anti-Terrorism Case In Afghanistan

“MTN Group Ltd. filed court papers to dismiss a U.S. claim that Africa’s largest wireless carrier paid Taliban officials not to attack its operations in Afghanistan. “We have filed a motion to dismiss the case,” Chief Executive Officer Rob Shuter said by phone. “We believe that they have sued the wrong defendants, in the wrong courts, on insufficient allegations.” Families of almost 150 U.S. service members and civilians who were killed or wounded in attacks in Afghanistan opened a case against Johannesburg-based MTN late last year, accusing the company of making payments to avoid damage to its mobile-phone towers. MTN was also accused of providing support to the Taliban by deactivating cell towers at the group’s request. The South African mobile-phone company operates in 21 countries across Africa and the Middle East, including parts of the world seen as too risky by many other carriers, countries such as Syria, Iran, and South Sudan. In some instances that has left it vulnerable to legal entanglements, unpredictable politics and regulatory crackdowns. The company has been entangled in a legal battle over the granting of its Iranian license for years, though no claims have proven to be successful to date.”

Lebanon

Atlantic Council: Hezbollah Considers The United States, Not Israel, Its Greatest Enemy

“April 18, 1996 is an infamous date in Lebanese history, particularly, among south Lebanon’s Shia Muslims. Israeli forces, engaged in operation Grapes of Wrath against Hezbollah, struck a UN compound in Qana, killing 106 Lebanese civilians sheltering there. The group, however, placed ultimate blame for the strike on the United States, not Israel. In the same vein, while eulogizing Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani earlier this year, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah indirectly explained his group’s rationale, stating that America’s right place is that of “the primary enemy, the Greatest Satan.” Hezbollah’s antipathy towards Israel is more uncompromising than its anti-Americanism. The group rejects Israel’s very existence due to anti-Judaism, which is exacerbated by the Jewish state’s presence on what Hezbollah considers sacred Islamic and historically Arab land. Nevertheless, as Hezbollah’s 1985 Open Letter—the group’s binding manifesto—indicates, the group’s rivalry with Israel is secondary. The Open Letter reserves its highest level of opprobrium for America, labeling it the main root of evil and declaring the “confrontation with America” as the yardstick for all of Hezbollah’s other activities.”

Africa

The Washington Times: U.S. Counterterrorism Operations Hit Record Levels In Unstable Corner Of Africa

“The COVID-19 pandemic has upended U.S. military operations around the world, stalled some training at home and troop movements abroad, and halted a host of exercises with key allies from Asia to Europe. But one major American military operation has forged ahead with seemingly little impact from COVID-19: counterterrorism operations in Somalia, which have hit record levels over the past two months. Pentagon officials are racing to keep pressure on the al-Shabab terrorist network and are not allowing a global outbreak to offer even a small reprieve for U.S. enemies. So far this year, American forces have conducted at least 39 airstrikes against terrorist targets in Somalia. That figure has the U.S. on pace to set a record again this year in its war against terrorists in Africa. Last year, the U.S. carried out 63 strikes against al-Shabab and Islamic State targets in Somalia, according to numbers provided by U.S. Africa Command, which oversees military operations on the continent. The pace of America’s air assault in Somalia is rising for a number of reasons, analysts say. Broadly speaking, the U.S. in recent months has slowly and gradually reduced its direct military engagements in other corners of the continent, including in the Sahel region where French forces are now taking the leading role in counterterrorism operations.”

Europe

WTOP: The Hunt: Expert Believes A Terror Attack Is Coming

“Could a significant attack be imminent? On this week’s edition of The Hunt with WTOP National Security Correspondent J.J. Green, Hans Jakob Schindler, senior director of The Counter Extremism Project, said there are clear signs in Europe and beyond.”

Radio Free Europe: Man In North Caucasus Faces New Terrorism Charge After Serving 16 Years

“A man from Russia's North Caucasus region of Karachai-Cherkessia has been charged with masterminding the financial support of a terrorist organization just as he was to be released from prison after serving a 16-year term for the attempted killing of a law enforcement officer. Aslan Sanashokov's lawyer, Ramazan Uzuyev, told RFE/RL on April 28 that his client was charged with organizing a cash transfer in 2014 while in custody to a man allegedly linked to a terrorist group in Syria. According to Uzuyev, Sanashokov was charged on April 22, the day he was supposed to be released from a correctional institution in the Stavropol Krai region after finishing his 16-year term. Instead of being released, Sanashokov was sent to a pretrial detention center until June 22. Sanashokov rejects the charge, saying it wasn't possible to organize cash transfers to anyone while behind bars. He says officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB) fabricated the case against him after they interrogated his wife last year and planted a flashcard in his belongings, the contents of which were later used against him. In many former Soviet republics, the practice of filing new charges against inmates to keep them incarcerated right before their expected release has been common for years.”