Eye on Extremism: May 28, 2020

NBC News: Feds Charge Ex-Venezuelan Politician With Recruiting Terrorists To Attack U.S. Interests

“A former Venezuelan politician was charged Wednesday with participating in a vast narco-terrorism conspiracy in which he traded drugs for weapons and recruited terrorists from Hezbollah and Hamas to orchestrate attacks against U.S. interests. The charges against Adel El Zabayar come three months after the Justice Department unsealed a sweeping indictment against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and several politicians, accusing them of taking a leading role in an international drug trafficking network. New York federal prosecutors say El Zabayar, acting under the direction of the president of the Venezuelan assembly, traveled to the Middle East in 2014 to obtain weapons and recruit members of Hezbollah and Hamas to train at hidden camps in Venezuela. The goal, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, was to “create a large terrorist cell capable of attacking United States interests on behalf of the Cartel de Los Soles.” U.S. authorities say the Cartel de Los Soles, or the Cartel of the Suns, is a criminal organization focused primarily on exporting cocaine to the U.S. The Justice Department has previously said the cartel works with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other designated terror groups.”

Hindustan Times: Facebook Knew Its Algorithms Promoted Extremist Groups, But Did Nothing: Report

“Facebook has been struggling for a while dealing with extremist content on its platform and that’s not new. Right from the 2016 US elections where Russians used polarising ads to manipulate American voters to the violence in Myanmar - the social networking platform has neither cracked down on these instances hard nor have they taken a stand. A report in the Wall Street Journal by Jeff Horowitz and Deepa Seetharaman suggests that Facebook “knew that its algorithm was dividing people, but did very little to address the problem”. The report notes that internal presentations from 2018 illustrated how Facebook’s algorithm “aggravated polarising behaviour in some cases”. A slide from that presentation pointed out that if these algorithms are “left unchecked then they would feed users more divisive content”. “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness. If left unchecked, Facebook would feed users more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform,” the slide read. The WSJ report says that Zuckerberg and his team shelved the presentation and “decided not to apply its observations” on any of their products. Facebook’s Chief of Policy Joe Kaplan was of the opinion that “these changes might have affected conservative users and publications.”

United States

Tampa Bay Times: Tampa Supporter Of Islamic State Terror Group Nabbed In Undercover Sting, FBI Says

“A Tampa man faces federal charges after FBI agents said he gave “material support” to the Islamic State and may have scouted Honeymoon Island State Park for a possible attack. Muhammed Momtaz Al-Azhari, 23, is charged with attempting to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization, the Department of Justice announced Wednesday. Al-Azhari was arrested Sunday in a federal sting operation in which he acquired weapons from an FBI informant with whom he’d shared his desires to carry out a mass shooting on behalf of a terror group, according to a criminal complaint. The document refers to the terror group as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS. Al-Azhari, a U.S. citizen, served three years in prison in Saudi Arabia after being convicted in 2015 of attempting to join a terrorist organization there while traveling to Syria to fight against the Syrian government, according to the complaint. In late 2018, he returned to the U.S. — first to California, where his grandmother lives, and then to Tampa. He spent much of this spring trying to illegally acquire guns from an undercover FBI agent posing as an eBay seller, the complaint said. Al-Azhari called off the deal after Tampa police arrested him for trying to carry a pistol into a Home Depot.”

Syria

Arab News: Separate Blasts In Syria’s Idlib Kill 6 Militants, Turkish Soldier

“Six militants were killed on Wednesday in an explosion that hit their arms depot in northwest Syria while Russian warplanes flew overhead, a war monitoring group said. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights did not say if Russia was behind the blast that killed the non-Syrian militants allied with the Turkistan Islamic Party, a Uighur-dominated militant group. “We don’t know if it is the result of aerial bombardment or an explosion inside the warehouse,” Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman said. If confirmed, it would mark the first Russian strike on the Idlib region since a cease-fire went into effect in March. Home to some 3 million people, the last major opposition bastion in Idlib is controlled by the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) alliance, led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate. A Russian-backed regime offensive between December and March displaced nearly a million people in the northwest, but at least 140,000 have returned since a cease-fire went into effect, according to the UN. The truce, which coincided with the novel coronavirus crisis, had put a stop to the relentless air strikes by the regime and Russia that killed at least 500 civilians in four months.”

Iran

Reuters: Iran Changes Tack In Iraqi Politics After Mastermind's Assassination

“Two diplomats are quietly leading Iran’s push to influence politics in Iraq, in a departure from the more blunt enforcement employed by Qassem Soleimani, a top commander slain in a U.S. air strike. The consensual tactics in a country where Iran has wrestled with Washington for influence for nearly two decades was designed to break a political deadlock in Baghdad and hasten the departure of nearly 5,000 U.S. troops from Iraq, according to three senior Iranian officials involved in the process. “Sometimes you need to step back, observe and plan based on realities on the ground,” said a senior Iranian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We want the Americans to leave the region. If there is chaos in Iraq ... Americans will use it as an excuse to extend their stay.” A U.S. State Department spokesman said Washington did not interfere in Iraqi politics. Washington and Tehran came close to war earlier this year after rocket attacks on Iraqi bases hosting U.S. forces and U.S. air strikes against militia groups, including the one that killed Soleimani in January in Baghdad. The powerful commander of the elite Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) had steered political allies in Iraq, fought proxy wars across the Middle East and sought to impose his will on politics in Baghdad.”

Iraq

Asharq Al-Awsat: Iraq Military Spokesman To Asharq Al-Awsat: ISIS No Longer Poses A Threat

“Since the start of 2020, ISIS has been mounting activities that suggest the group has reorganized its ranks after the defeats it sustained in the past few years on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi borders. The Iraqi army, however, is showing no signs of concern over the growing activities of the terrorist group. Military spokesman Yehya Rasool said ISIS no longer poses a threat to Iraq and that its cells are nearly completely destroyed and unable to threaten Iraqi towns and civilians. The lack of public display of concern does not mean that Iraqi authorities aren’t taking the threats posed by ISIS seriously. In the last few weeks, dozens of security campaigns were carried out against ISIS hideouts across the country. Rasool, in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, clarified that these raids are preemptive and are based on intelligence reports. This indicates that Iraqi security apparatuses own a substantial corpus of intelligence on ISIS cells, extracted from interrogating hundreds of the group’s operatives and leaders who were arrested during the course of the past years. Other than Iraqi raids, the Arab- Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces have been mounting anti-ISIS campaigns with the aid of the US-led international coalition in Syria.”

Afghanistan

Agence-France Presse: Afghan Forces Killed In First 'Taliban Attack' Since Ceasefire End: Officials

“Seven members of the Afghan security forces were killed Thursday in an attack officials blamed on the Taliban, the first deadly assault since a three-day ceasefire ended. The militants attacked a checkpoint in Parwan, north of the capital, said Waheeda Shahkar, spokeswoman to the provincial governor. “The Taliban have also suffered casualties,” Shahkar added. District police chief Hussain Shah said Taliban fighters set fire to the checkpoint, killing five security force personnel. Two more were shot dead. The Taliban have not commented. It is the first attack that Afghan officials have blamed on the Taliban since the ceasefire -- held over the Eid al-Fitr festival -- ended on Tuesday night. According to Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, civilian casualties fell by 80 percent during the temporary truce. A drop in violence has largely held since it ended on Tuesday night, although Afghan security forces carried out air strikes in the south on Wednesday that killed 18 “militants,” police said. The surprise truce offer from the Taliban and the lull in fighting has raised hopes that stalled peace negotiations between the insurgents and the Afghan government could begin soon.”

Yemen

The Jerusalem Post: Iran Is Increasingly Promoting Antisemitic Houthi Leader From Yemen

“Although Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei reject claims that their views are antisemitic, they have increasingly been highlighting their Yemenite Houthi allies of the Ansar Allah movement, whose slogan is “curse the Jews.” The Houthis rose to prominence in 2015 when they rapidly conquered part of the country and threatened to take Aden. Iran backs the Houthis against Saudi Arabia, which had intervened to prevent Aden from falling. Iran’s role in Yemen gives it the ability to project power into the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandab Strait. It has shipped drones and missiles to the Houthis. The Houthi rebels call themselves Ansar Allah (God's Helpers) and they make no secret of their views on Jews. Their official slogan is “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews, victory to Islam.” Iran began to see the Houthis as a proxy force against Saudi Arabia in 2016 and 2017, and encouraged them to use drones and ballistic missiles to strike at Riyadh. The Houthis complied, and in 2019 their drones were hitting Saudi cities weekly. Their ballistic missiles were flying hundreds of kilometers. Iran’s love affair with Ansar Allah grew to such an extent that when it planned the drone swarm attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq in September 2019, it gave the Houthis credit for the attack.”

Middle East

Agence-France Presse: Coalition Against IS To Meet Virtually Amid Virus

“Foreign ministers from nations fighting the Islamic State group will meet virtually next week to coordinate action as the coronavirus pandemic disrupts operations, the United States announced Wednesday. Top diplomats from the 82-nation coalition will hold talks on June 4 to “discuss ways to keep continuous pressure on ISIS's remnants in Iraq and Syria and strengthen our collective approach to defeat ISIS's global ambitions,” the State Department said. The nations will also look to manage “the challenges the coalition faces due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” it said in a statement. The United States, the host of the last ministerial meeting in November, is leading the virtual talks alongside Italy, which had hoped to hold a major counterterrorism meeting before being hit hard by the pandemic. President Donald Trump last year declared the defeat of the Islamic State group, which once held vast swathes of land, as he moved to pull US troops out of Syria. A raid in October by US special forces killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the movement notorious for its grisly attacks against civilians and enslavement of non-Muslims. But alarm has been growing over attacks by the extremists around the world including in Africa and Afghanistan.”

Africa

Reuters: Forty Villagers Killed In Massacre In Northeast Congo

“Suspected Islamist militants have killed at least 40 people in northeastern Congo, a rights group said on Wednesday, the latest in a wave of attacks against civilians in the mountainous jungles near the Ugandan border. Fighters from the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) group, which was driven out of Uganda in the late 1990s, attacked Samboko village around 100 km (60 miles) southwest of the city of Bunia, early on Tuesday, said Omar Kavota from rights group CEPADHO. They killed at least 40 people with machetes and looted food and valuables, Kavota added, a day after killing at least 17 in the nearby village of Makutano. More than 400 people have been killed in attacks attributed to the ADF since the army began an offensive to oust the group from its bases last year, according to the Kivu Security Tracker (KST), a research initiative that maps unrest in the region. Following two months of relative quiet, the area has seen a rise in deadly attacks in the last three weeks, KST said. Rachel Tarwayo, a government administrator, said she was aware of the Samboko incursion but could not provide any further details. “On the ground some people have fled and others have given themselves the courage to stay for the moment,” said Gili Gotabo, a rights activist in the region.”

Germany

Associated Press: Anti-Semitic Crime Rises In Germany, Most From Far Right

“Anti-Semitic crimes in Germany last year reached their highest level since the country started keeping statistics, amid an overall strong increase in right-extremist criminality that is a cause for “great concern,” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said Wednesday. Overall, politically-motivated crimes were up 14.2% in 2019 over the previous year, which is the second highest level since authorities began tracking such crimes in 2001, Seehofer told reporters in Berlin. Crimes by the extreme left rose the most, increasing 23.7% to 9,849, but the majority of politically motivated crimes were from the extreme right, with 22,342 cases and an increase of 9.4%. At the same time, crimes linked to a foreign ideology dropped 23.7% to 1,897 and those motivated by a religious ideology fell 27.5% to 425. “The largest threat, as in the past, is the threat from the right,” Seehofer said. “Extreme-right politically motivated cases make up more than half of all of such recorded crimes — it is an order of magnitude that causes us concern, great concern.” Nearly 40% of all political crimes were classified as “propaganda crimes” — such as displaying banned symbols like the swastika. Violent crime dropped 15.9% to 2,832 cases.”

Europe

New Europe: Experts Warn Of Bioterrorism After Pandemic

“The Council of Europe has warned of an increased possibility of a deliberate use of biological weapons, like viruses or bacterias, as acts of terrorism in a post-coronavirus world. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how vulnerable modern society is to viral infections and their potential for disuption,” the council’s Committee on Counter-Terrorism said in a statement. The committee warned that the damage to humans and economies could be significantly higher than the one of a traditional terrorist attack. It therefore called on the 47 Council of Europe member states to do training exercises and prepare to tackle a biological weapons attack. “The Council of Europe has no concrete evidence of a heightened threat from bioterrorism due to the pandemic. It does, however, underline the need for continued international cooperation in this field”, a spokesperson said.”

Southeast Asia

BBC News: Crossing Divides: The Bomb Maker Turned Peacemaker

“I am an expert bomb maker. I can make bombs in just five minutes.” Ali Fauzi was a key member of Jemaah Islamiyah, a militant group with links to al-Qaeda, which was responsible for Indonesia's worst attack - the 2002 Bali bombing that killed more than 200 people. “My brothers carried out the Bali bombing. It was huge bomb in the heart of the island's tourist district.” The group went on to carry out a string of bombings in Indonesia. They were deadly attacks on major hotels and Western embassies. The seemingly sleepy village of Tenggulun in Lamongan, East Java was the group's base camp. Now Ali Fauzi's mission is very different. He works to help former jihadis leave a life of violence and to stop new recruits from joining the next wave of militant groups in South East Asia. “The reality is that it is much easier to recruit people to terrorist groups,” he says. “They only have to pull a trigger and lots of people will join them but the process of deradicalisation takes time. It has to be done step by step.” And his new mission has come at a high personal cost. “The threats against me are intense, it's not just verbal attacks but death threats. But, honestly, I am not scared because I know what I am doing is right. I am ready and prepared to die doing this.”

Technology

Daily Mail: Facebook Bans Adverts From Muslim Campaign Group Cage Which Claim Coronavirus Is A Punishment From God

“Facebook has banned advertisements from a campaign group who has claimed that coronavirus is a punishment from god. London-based Cage have been using Facebook and YouTube to raise £400,000 during Ramadan, as reported by The Times. The advocacy group ran 16 adverts as part of its campaign called Reviving Divine Justice, but four were banned, including one on coronavirus, launched on April 22. The video that references the deadly pandemic is called 'One deed that can change the world' and opens with a news clip showing hospital staff working on a patients, as a journalist says 'they are fighting a war here, they are losing.' It then switches to an image of the world and a voiceover says 'the world is in crisis and no one seems to know how to stop it.' The person adds: 'While we exhaust ourselves in finding a cure...isn't it time that we also reflect?' 'Isn't it time we search for the roots of our problems.'  The video adds that 'Allah has his ways which he has informed us about. They do not change, so pay attention! 'Allah has warned us: 'Whatever misfortune befalls you it is because of what your own hands have done'.'  It also says that 'Allah will not change our condition until we change what is within ourselves.' The video is available to view on the Cage's YouTube account.”