Eye on Extremism: May 19

Voice Of America: IS Kills Scores In Central Syria Surprise Attack

“Under siege in other parts of Syria, Islamic State forces staged a surprise attack Thursday on two government-held villages in central Syria's Hama province that killed more than 50 people, according to media reports and sources in the region. Fierce clashes between IS fighters and pro-Syrian government forces in the villages of Aqareb and Al-Mabujeh left at least 15 civilians and 27 pro-regime troops dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has monitors in the area. IS suffered 15 casualties, the observatory said. Syria's state news agency put the death toll at 52, including 15 children. There were reports of IS militants torturing villagers and looting homes.”

Washington Post: The Islamic State’s Last Stand In Mosul Will  Test The Best Of Iraqi Forces

“After making rapid gains in a new offensive, Iraqi forces are close to choking off the last bastion of several hundred Islamic State fighters dug into the twisting alleyways and narrow streets of Mosul’s Old City. The final push will be led by Iraqi’s U.S.-trained Counter Terrorism Service units, the same forces that first entered the eastern reaches of the city in October when the battle to retake the city began, officers said. The plan involves clearing the final few neighborhoods north of the Old City and surrounding the square-mile-wide neighborhood. With tens of thousands of civilians packed into an area defended by Islamic State fighters, snipers and car-bombers, the battle could quickly turn into a humanitarian crisis.”

CBS News: Russia, Syria Fume Over U.S. Strike On Syrian Troops

“A Syrian military official said Friday that an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition on a government military position near the border with Jordan had killed several soldiers and caused material damage. The unnamed official's comments were carried by Syrian state TV a day after the U.S.-led coalition said a U.S. airstrike had struck pro-Syrian government forces that the coalition said posed a threat to American troops and allied rebels operating near the border with Jordan. The attack was the first such close confrontation between U.S. forces and fighters backing President Bashar Assad."

Reuters: Iraqi Shi'ite Paramilitaries Seize Air Base From IS

“Iraqi Shi'ite paramilitaries captured an air base from Islamic State militants on Thursday, gaining a strategic foothold in the western desert as they push toward the Syrian border. While regular Iraqi security forces engage in grueling urban combat inside Mosul, the paramilitaries have been advancing against Islamic State through thinly populated terrain to the southwest.  Last week, the paramilitary groups, known collectively as Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), or Hashid Shaabi, launched an offensive to retake the Qairawan district, around 95 km west of Mosul.  The Sahl Sinjar airbase is around 65 km east of the Syrian border.”

CNN: Erdogan: Turkey Will Not Take Part In Raqqa Offensive

“Turkey will not participate in an offensive on Raqqa, an ISIS stronghold in Syria, because the US-led coalition will include Kurdish militia fighters, who Turkey considers terrorists, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. Erdogan made the comments Thursday while addressing Turkish businessmen in Istanbul after returning to Turkey from a Tuesday visit to the White House. ‘I saw that America is very sensitive about [the] Raqqa operation,’ Erdogan said. ‘We said, 'We cannot be in an operation where there are terror organizations. Wish you the best.' He also warned that Turkey would respond to any threat posed to it.”

The Washington Post: Israel Wants Trump To Stop Palestinian Payments To Prisoners And Families Of ‘Martyrs’

“The Aida refugee camp is a warren of alleys, a scene of frequent clashes between Palestinian youth and Israeli soldiers — and a welfare ministate. A plaque at the entrance lists the names of 36 residents killed by Israelis whom the Palestinians call ‘martyrs’ and the Israelis call ‘terrorists.’ Activists at Aida say that among the 5,500 residents at the camp are 500 Palestinians who are currently serving time in Israeli prisons or have been released. Many of these prisoners, in jail and out, receive monthly payments from Palestinian authorities, while the families of those killed or severely injured by Israel get a stipend.”

The Jerusalem Post: UN Counterterror Chief: Europe Faces Return Of 'Dangerous' ISIS Fighters

“Europe will face an exodus of Islamic State fighters defeated in Syria and Iraq this year, more dangerous and battle hardened than previous returnees, the head of the UN Security Council's counterterrorism agency said on Thursday. Speaking to reporters following meetings with EU officials, Jean-Paul Laborde said several European countries estimate that the rates of fighters returning from conflict zones has increased by one-third over the past year. Threat levels in Western Europe are high following a spate of deadly attacks that killed dozens over the past two years, with many nations concerned about their ability to guard their borders.”

BBC News: Laptop Bombs A Question Of When, Not If - UN Official

“The head of the UN's counter-terrorism committee has warned it is a question of ‘when, not if’ terrorists use laptops to smuggle bombs on to planes. Jean-Paul Laborde spoke to reporters after officials decided not to ban laptops from aircraft cabins on flights to the US from EU countries. Such a ban currently applies to flights from eight other countries. Mr Laborde also said Islamic State (IS) fighters returning to Europe would be ‘more dangerous’ than previous waves. IS has been losing territory in Syria and Iraq, and Mr Laborde said these fighters, originally from Europe, would be hardened from years of war. He said several European countries believe the rate of fighters returning has increased by a third over the past year. ‘On average, these people are much more committed, more experienced and more skilled,’ he said.”

Newsweek: Boko Haram Is Growing Stronger In Nigeria Thanks To Corruption In The Military

“Nigeria is set to pass a record-breaking federal budget. After months of political wrangling, several governmental departments are in line to receive hundreds of millions of dollars from state coffers. Among the biggest beneficiaries is the country’s Ministry of Defense, which will receive around $440 million in capital expenditure alone. But for Nigerians in the country’s troubled northeast, the planned cash injection isn’t necessarily good news. For years, the federal government has been amping up defense spending, hoping to stamp out Boko Haram, a militant group that has waged an armed insurgency in Nigeria since 2009.”

USA Today: Times Square Witnesses Feared Terrorism

“New Yorkers feared terrorism for a fleeting moment late Thursday morning when a U.S. Navy veteran plowed into crowds on a Times Square sidewalk, killing a teen and injuring 22 others. But shortly after the motorist with a history of driving-while-intoxicated staged the explosive scene, city officials declared they did not believe the tragedy was a terror attack. ‘Based on the information we have at this moment, there is no indication that this was an act of terrorism,’ Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters. Still, witnesses and people visiting or working in Times Square said the incident appeared purposeful, and they said they feared the worst.”

Reuters: Macron Heads To Mali To Reaffirm French Commitment To Battle Jihadists

“President Emmanuel Macron undertakes his first trip as commander-in-chief on Friday when he meets troops fighting Islamist militants in Mali where the security situation has worsened despite French intervention more than four years ago. The Sahel, a politically fragile area whose remote desert spaces spanning from Mauritania in the west to Sudan in the east host a medley of jihadist groups, is seen as vulnerable after a series of attacks in recent months. That has been brought further to light after a spike in violence across Mali, where the former colonial power intervened more than four years ago to drive out al Qaeda-linked militants who hijacked a rebellion in 2012 by ethnic Tuaregs and attempted to take control of the central government in Bamako.”

United States

The New York Times: U.S. Warplanes In Syria Hit Pro-Government Militia Convoy

“American warplanes in Syria attacked a pro-government convoy on Thursday after it ignored warnings and violated a restricted zone around a base where United States and British Special Forces train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State, Pentagon officials said. The American strike, corroborated by both pro- and anti-government fighters on the ground, was at least the third time in recent months that the United States military has attacked forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. On Thursday, American officials said, more than 20 vehicles drove within 18 miles of the al-Tanf base in southern Syria housing the American and British Special Forces, breaching the so-called deconfliction zone radius around the encampment.”

Newsweek: President Trump's Travel Schedule Includes Stops In Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy And Belgium

“Donald Trump is set to make his first trip abroad in his new role as president of the United States. He departs Friday for an eight-day tour that includes stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy and Belgium. First Lady Melania Trump will join her husband for the full trip, as will National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Others who will participate include Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Press Secretary Sean Spicer and his deputy Sarah Huckabee Sanders.”

NBC News: Flynn Delayed Anti-ISIS Plan That Turkey Opposed

“A former senior Obama official confirmed to NBC News that after months of disagreement, the Obama administration had decided to arm the Syrian Kurds — but in January incoming National Security Adviser Mike Flynn asked his counterpart, Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice, not to do it. McClatchy first reported that Flynn had blocked the plan to arm the Syrian Kurds for an attack on Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria, a move that was opposed by the Turkish government, which Flynn had been paid $500,000 to represent.”

Bloomberg: Trump Meets Resistance In Push To Expand NATO’s Islamic State Fight

“European nations including France and Germany are pushing back against pressure from the U.S. for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to step up its involvement in the fight against the Islamic State, according to three officials with knowledge of the matter. While each NATO member country has already joined a U.S.-led international coalition against the terrorist organization, European nations are wary of the alliance becoming more involved due to the potential implications of its role, the people said, asking not to be named as the matter is sensitive. Diplomats are seeking a compromise over the wording in an internal ‘chairman’s report’ on the matter before NATO leaders meet in Brussels next week.”

Reuters: Mattis: U.S. Isn't Widening Role In Syria's War, Despite Strikes

“The United States is not deepening its role in Syria's civil war but will act defensively when needed, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Thursday, after strikes against advancing militia backed by Syria's government. ‘No. We are not increasing our role in the Syrian civil war. But we will defend our troops. And that is a coalition element made up of more than just U.S. troops, and so we will defend ourselves (if) people take aggressive steps against us,’ Mattis said, when asked about the strikes.”


Reuters: Fresh Syria Peace Talks Off To Another Stumbling Start

“Syria peace talks hosted by the United Nations in Geneva spawned a new series of meetings on Thursday with no hint of tangible progress toward a deal to end the six-year-old civil war.  U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura had promised a refreshingly brisk pace of business-like meetings over a short four-day round, with new elections, a new constitution, reformed governance and counter-terrorism on the agenda. He opened proceedings on Thursday by proposing setting up a ‘consultative mechanism’, which he would head, to avoid a power vacuum in Syria before a new constitution is in place.”

Reuters:  Says U.S.-Coalition Strike In Syria Hit Civilians - Agencies

“Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Friday that a U.S.-coalition strike in Syria on May 17 had hit civilians and was unacceptable, Russian news agencies reported. Gatilov, who the agencies said was speaking in Geneva, said the strike had violated Syria's sovereignty and would not help efforts to find a political solution to the conflict there. Separately, the U.S. military carried out an air strike on Thursday against militia supported by the Syrian government that posed a threat to U.S. and U.S.-backed Syrian fighters in the country's south, U.S. officials told Reuters. Gatilov said he was referring to a strike on Wednesday May 17, not the air strike on Thursday. The United States has not spoken about any strikes carried out by the U.S.-led coalition on that date.”

Reuters: Syria, Iraq Discuss Direct Cooperation Against Islamic State - SANA

“An Iraqi envoy met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Thursday to explore direct military cooperation against Islamic State (IS) militants, Syrian state media said. The Syrian state news agency SANA said Iraqi national security adviser Faleh al-Fayad and Assad discussed ‘practical measures for military coordination on both sides of the border in light of the victories the Iraqi army is achieving in Mosul’. U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have been chipping away at the remaining districts of Mosul under Islamic State control, seven months into a campaign to recapture Iraq's second largest city. ‘They (Assad and Fayad) explored the prospect of direct cooperation soon between the Syrian and Iraqi armies to fight terrorism collectively,’ SANA said.”


Reuters: Turkey Ready To Retaliate Against Any Threats, Erdogan Warns

“Turkey is ready to retaliate if it faces a threat from the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia and will not shirk from launching a military campaign if need be, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday. In his first public address since returning from a visit with U.S. President Donald Trump, Erdogan said he told the United States that Ankara would ‘exercise its rights under the rules of engagement’, without consulting anyone, if it felt it needed to. Turkey regards the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is deemed a terrorist organization by the United States, Turkey and the European Union. Washington sees the YPG as distinct from the PKK and as a valuable partner in the fight against Islamic State in Syria.”

Associated Press: US, Turkey Spar Over Erdogan Visit Violence, Kurdish Support

“The Trump administration faced growing calls Thursday for a forceful response to violence by Turkish presidential guards on American soil, who were briefly detained this week but then set free. The unseemly incident added to U.S.-Turkish tensions that are being compounded by a growing spat over U.S. war strategy against the Islamic State group in Syria. The United States said it summoned Turkey's ambassador to the State Department, where the No. 2-ranked U.S. diplomat raised concerns about the security detail for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Washington, after they were captured on video violently breaking up a protest. U.S. lawmakers demanded stronger action. The government should ‘throw their ambassador the hell out’ of the country, Republican Sen. John McCain said.”

BBC News: Turkey Says 'Pro-Kurd' US Envoy Brett Mcgurk Should Leave

“Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has accused a senior US diplomat of backing Kurdish militants and said he should be sent home. He said Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the coalition against so-called Islamic State, was ‘definitely’ supporting the YPG in Syria and the separatist PKK. The minister was in Washington with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who met US President Donald Trump. Tensions were high after Mr Trump said he would arm the Syrian Kurds. Turkey sees the YPG (Popular Protection Units) as a terrorist group linked to the PKK, which has been fighting inside Turkey since the 1980s. But last week the Pentagon said it was directly arming YPG fighters as they moved towards IS's Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.”


Associated Press: Official: Policeman Kills 5 Colleagues In Afghanistan

“A local official says a policeman has shot and killed five of his colleagues as they slept in eastern Afghanistan. Abdul Wahab Momand, district governor, says the policeman turned his rifle on colleagues Thursday night in eastern Nangarhar province at an outpost in the district of Ghanikhil. Momand says that after the shootings, the attacker, whose name was only given as Nasratullah, collected all the victims' firearms and fled the scene. Neither the Taliban nor the Islamic State group - the two militant groups who operate in the area - immediately claimed responsibility.”


Reuters: Attack On Yemen's Port Would Push Country Nearer Famine: U.N.

“An attack on Yemen's Hodeidah port would push the country closer to famine as humanitarian agencies have no other way to deliver all the food and aid that is needed, a U.N. official said on Thursday.  A Saudi-led military coalition has been preparing an assault on the key Red Sea port, which is the point of entry for nearly 80 percent of Yemen's food imports. Earlier this month, a coalition source said the alliance was preparing facilities in Aden and Mukalla in south Yemen as alternative entry routes for urgent aid in the event that Hodeidah port was affected by military operations. But U.N. World Food Programme director of emergencies Denise Brown said the agency had found no alternative route to cover all the country's aid needs.”

Saudi Arabia

The New York Times: Saudi Arabia, Ignoring Trump’s Slights, Will Give Him A Royal Welcome

“When President Trump heads to Saudi Arabia on Friday for his first trip overseas since taking office, it will be for much more than a run-of-the-mill state visit. The Saudis have internationalized the event, organizing a sprawling ‘Arab Islamic American Summit’ with leaders from dozens of Muslim countries, as well as talks with the king, the inauguration of a counterterrorism center, forums for business executives and young people, and a country music concert. Saudi Arabia, home to some of Islam’s holiest sites, will be pulling out all the stops for a man who has declared ‘Islam hates us’ and said the United States was ‘losing a tremendous amount of money’ defending the kingdom.”


The Jerusalem Post: Egypt's Sisi: Trump Vital To Resolving Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

“Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Wednesday that US President Donald Trump serves as a crucial link in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Speaking at a meeting with the chief editors of three Egyptian newspapers, Sisi expressed his confidence in Trump, saying ‘I believe in him and his abilities to resolve conflict.’ ‘Trump is a great man who is not satisfied with anything but success, and we have confidence in his abilities and his promises,’ the Egyptian leader said.  Sisi made the remarks ahead of Trump's first presidential foreign trip that includes stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican. Trump is due to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on May 22 and with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem on May 23.”

Middle East

Associated Press: Israeli Group To Appeal Facebook Palestinian Violence Case

“An Israeli rights group suing Facebook on behalf of families of victims killed by Palestinian attackers said on Thursday that it will appeal after the case was dismissed by a New York court. Nitsana Darshan-Leitner said the court dismissed the lawsuit on grounds of immunity, according to the communications decency act. She said her group Shurat Hadin will appeal the decision. The group claims the social network is providing a platform for militants to spread incitement and violence. ‘We believe there is a fatal mistake in their ruling because the court totally did not address the issue of aiding and abetting terrorism,’ she said.”

The Times Of Israel: Army Nabs Ambulance Driver Who Allegedly Blocked Israeli’s Escape From Riot

“The army and Shin Bet security service arrested on Friday the driver of an ambulance that blocked the escape of an Israeli man whose car was attacked by rioters in the northern West Bank the day before, the military said. Between Thursdaynight and Friday morning, security forces also picked up one of the suspected rioters and impounded a bus that is believed to have been used to shuttle people to the violent protest in Hawara, outside Nablus, the army said. The ambulance that blocked the road was seized by the Israeli military as well. On Thursday, as an Israeli resident of a nearby settlement drove through the demonstration, the protesters turned violent, swarming around his car, kicking it and pelting it with stones.”

The Times Of Israel: Settler Attacked By Palestinian Rock-Throwers Opens Fire, Kills 1 Man, Injures Another

“An Israeli man whose car was attacked by rioters shot dead a Palestinian man and injured an Associated Press photojournalist during a violent protest in the northern West Bank town of Hawara on Thursday, officials said. His car was pelted with stones and he said he believed he was going to be killed, and that he fired in self-defense. As the Israeli civilian, a resident of a nearby settlement, drove through a demonstration in the Palestinian village outside Nablus, the protesters turned violent, kicking his car and pelting it with rocks. The man tried to plow through the crowd, but his way was blocked by an ambulance, which had crossed into his lane. The ambulance appeared to be attempting to get around the protest, but the settler later claimed that the medics had deliberately tried to bar his passage.”


Reuters: Dozens Killed In Renewed Clashes Between Factions In Libya's South

“At least 60 people were killed as rival Libyan forces clashed at a southern air base on Thursday, medical and military officials said, dimming hopes that tensions in the area can be calmed. The violence erupted after a brigade from the western city of Misrata attacked Brak Al-Shati base, which they had previously ceded to an opposing faction aligned with the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA). The two sides are attached to loose and shifting alliances based in the east and west of Libya that have vied for power over the past three years, deepening the divisions that surfaced with the country's 2011 uprising.”


Associated Press: Nigeria Girl Freed From Boko Haram Not Among Chibok Ones

“The Nigeria-based movement campaigning for the safe return of all 276 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014 says a young woman freed from the Islamic extremist group is not one of them. #BringBackOurGirls said Thursday the girl is not on their list. The movement said Nigeria's presidency has confirmed she was not among those taken in the mass abduction. Nigeria's presidential spokesman on Wednesday said the government believed the escaped girl may have been from the Chibok group.”


Deutsche Welle: German Parliament Passes Tighter Asylum Laws

“German authorities will be allowed to deport rejected asylum seekers more quickly and regularly under a series of new asylum laws passed on Thursday. The Bundestag said the new laws would guarantee ‘the improved enforcement of deportation rulings.’ Rejected asylum seekers deemed to be a security threat will be deported faster or monitored with an electronic ankle bracelet. Deportation orders against rejected asylum seekers can now be imposed even without assurance that the person in question would be repatriated within three months. A migrant could therefore be issued a deportation order even if the country origin fails to provide the necessary documentation or passport papers."

Associated Press: Germany: 2 Charged With Co-Founding Far-Right Terror Group

“German prosecutors have filed terrorism charges against two alleged co-founders of a far-right group that planned to bomb a refugee home. Federal prosecutors said Thursday that the two German men, identified only as Daniel A. and Marcel L. in line with German privacy rules, were charged with membership in a terrorist organization, preparing an explosion and violating weapons laws. Prosecutors say the two were among early members of the Oldschool Society group in 2014. The group later grew to about 30 members. A plan to attack a refugee shelter in May 2015 was thwarted when four founding members were detained. In March, a Munich court sentenced those four to prison terms. Prosecutors allege that Daniel A. was responsible for internal discipline and Marcel L. for settling disputes within the group.”


Reuters: France Under Macron Signals Shift In Libya Policy, Towards Haftar

“France said on Thursday it was reviewing its position on the Libyan conflict and for the first time openly called for a united national army that included eastern militia commander Khalifa Haftar to battle Islamist militants. In the previous government, the Foreign Ministry openly supported the U.N.-backed Libyan government of Prime Minister Fayez Seraj, while the Defence Ministry worked closely with Haftar, who has waged a campaign against Islamists in eastern Libya but resisted a rapprochement with Seraj.”