Posts Tagged ‘Islamic militants’

Indonesian police shoot dead three suspected militants

July 15, 2018

Indonesian anti-terrorism officers shot dead three suspected Islamic militants on Saturday in the central Java city of Yogyakarta, police said.

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Police detain a suspect following the shooting of three suspected Islamic militants in Sleman, Yogyakarta, Indonesia July 14, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Andreas Fitri Atmoko/via REUTERS

National police spokesman Mohammad Iqbal said the officers from the elite unit had shot the suspects after being attacked with “sharp weapons and a firearm”.

Two officers suffered arm wounds and police seized four machetes and a revolver.

Iqbal’s statement said the men were believed to be members of Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), a loose grouping of hundreds of Islamic State sympathizers that is on a U.S. State Department terrorist list.

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Indonesian Muslims demonstrate, March 2017 File photo

The majority-Muslim Southeast Asian nation has faced a surge in homegrown Islamist militancy in recent years. In May, around 30 people were killed in suicide bombings in Surabaya, the deadliest attack in over a decade.

Reporting by Bernadette Christina Munthe; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Kevin Liffey

Reuters

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Israeli aircraft strike Hamas targets in Gaza Strip

June 18, 2018

Israeli jets struck nine targets belonging to the Islamist Hamas group in the northern Gaza Strip early on Monday in response to incendiary kites and balloons Palestinians sent from the territory that have damaged Israeli property, the military said.

Sirens also sounded in Israeli areas near the Gaza Strip at daybreak and the army said three rockets had been launched towards Israeli territory but one fell short in the Gaza Strip. No casualties were reported from the rockets or air strikes.

In recent weeks, Palestinians have sent kites dangling coal embers or burning rags across the Gaza border to set fire to arid farmland and forests, others have carried small explosive devices in a new tactic that has caused extensive damage.

The Israeli military has fired warning shots from the air and destroyed property belonging to the kite launchers but has refrained from targeting them. Some Israeli ministers have called for those launchers to be targeted directly.

Palestinians prepare kites before trying to fly them with incendiaries over the border fence with Israel, in

Israel has drafted in civilian drone enthusiasts as army reservists, instructing them to fly their remote-controlled aircraft into the kites, an Israeli general said, but an effective means to stop the kites has yet to be found.

“These are terrorist acts that endanger Israeli residents living in southern Israel and damage extensive areas in Israeli territory,” the military statement said of the kites and balloons.

At least 125 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops during mass demonstrations along the Gaza border since March 30 and the men sending the kites over the fence believe they have found an effective new weapon.

© AFP | An explosion is seen in Gaza City after an airstrike by Israeli forces

Israel’s deadly tactics in confronting the weekly Friday protests have drawn international condemnation.

Palestinians say they are a popular outpouring of rage against Israel by people demanding the right to return to homes their families fled or were driven from on Israel’s founding 70 years ago.

Israel says the demonstrations are organized by the Islamist group Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip and denies Israel’s right to exist. Israel says Hamas has intentionally provoked the violence, a charge Hamas denies.

Around two million people live in Gaza, most of them the stateless descendants of refugees from what is now Israel. The territory has been controlled by Hamas for more than a decade, during which it has fought three wars against Israel.

Israel and Egypt maintain a blockade of the strip, citing security reasons, which has caused an economic crisis and collapse in living standards there over the past decade.

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Writing by Ori Lewis, Editing by Darren Schuettler

Reuters

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Israel strikes launchers of burning kites from Gaza Strip

June 17, 2018

It marked an escalation in Israel’s response to a phenomenon that has wreaked havoc on agriculture in southern Israel

Palestinians prepare kites before trying to fly them with incendiaries over the border fence with Israel, in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza Strip on May 4, 2018 (Said Khatib/AFP)
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The Israeli military says its aircraft have struck a vehicle belonging to someone who sends burning kites into Israel from Gaza.

No one was wounded in Sunday’s strike but it marked an escalation in Israel’s response to a phenomenon that has wreaked havoc on agriculture in southern Israel in recent weeks. Fields were once again set ablaze on a hot, windy, dry Saturday.

Gazans began flying kites with burning rags attached to them during mass protests against the crippling Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the territory. Israeli troops have fired on the protesters, killing more than 100 since the weekly demonstrations began in March.

The Islamic militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza, has led the protests. Israel says it holds Hamas responsible for the fires.

http://www.arabnews.com/node/1322856/middle-east

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Malaysia arrests Filipinos seeking to set up extremist cell

February 21, 2018

AFP

© AFP/File | Philippine soldiers prepare for an operation against the Abu Sayyaf in 2016: the group is now suspected of trying to set up a Malaysian cell

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – Ten suspected Islamic militants who were trying to establish a Malaysian cell of a Philippine kidnap-for-ransom group have been arrested in Borneo island, police said Wednesday.

Image result for Borneo island, map

The alleged extremists, mostly Filipinos, are also accused of trying to help fighters linked to the Islamic State (IS) group travel to the Philippines to join up with militants there, they said.

The southern Philippines has long been a pocket of Islamic militancy in the largely Catholic country. A long siege in Marawi, the country’s main Muslim centre, sparked fears IS was seeking to establish a foothold in the region.

Malaysian police made the arrests in January and early February in Sabah state on the Malaysian part of Borneo, not far from the southern Philippines. Borneo is a vast island shared between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.

Seven of those detained were Filipinos, including several senior members of Philippine extremist group Abu Sayyaf which has been behind the kidnappings of numerous foreigners, Malaysian national police chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun said in a statement.

“Early information obtained from the 10 suspects caught in Sabah revealed an attempt by the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group to set up a cell in Sabah,” he said.

One of those arrested was a 39-year-old believed to have received orders from a senior militant leader in the southern Philippines to bring IS members from the city of Sandakan in Sabah to join militant groups.

Another suspect was a 27-year-old identified as a senior member of the Abu Sayyaf leadership based in the Philippines.

The other three detained were Malaysians, police said. Officials did not disclose the suspects’ identities.

Malaysia has rounded up numerous suspected militants in recent times as fears grow that the influence of the IS group could encourage extremists to launch attacks in the Muslim-majority country.

Abu Sayyaf, originally a loose network of militants formed in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network, has splintered into factions, with some continuing to engage in banditry and kidnappings.

One faction pledged allegiance to IS and joined militants in the siege of Marawi, which claimed more than 1,100 lives.

Afghanistan can’t support army without US money more than 6 months – Afghan president — “This is the end game.” — ” We are under siege.”

January 16, 2018

Published time: 16 Jan, 2018 10:28

Russia Today, RT

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Without American assistance, Kabul can’t fight the many militant groups active in the country after 16 years of US involvement. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani says the national army won’t last longer than six months on its own.
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American taxpayers, who contribute around 90 percent of Afghanistan’s defense budget, are bankrolling a war against terrorists in the county, which the government would not be able to continue without the US funding, Ghani told CBS News on Sunday.

“We will not be able to support our army for six months without US support and US capabilities… Because we don’t have the money,” Ghani said.
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Saying that at least “21 international terrorist groups” are operating in his country, Ghani warned that “terrorists can strike at any time.”

“Dozens of suicide bombers are being sent. There are factories producing suicide bombers. We are under siege,” Ghani told the ‘60 Minutes’ program.

In August, US President Donald Trump announced a new Afghanistan strategy and pledged continued American support for the Afghan military. Trump also said that the US contingent in Afghanistan would be expanded. There are about 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan at present, including the 3,000 sent in September, following Trump’s announcement.

This continues the 16-year incursion that has seen over 2,000 US servicemen lose their lives and over $700 billion spent on military assistance, lined with repeated promises of a soon-to-come victory from three successive US presidential administrations.

Last week US military officials told the Wall Street Journal that the Pentagon hopes to increase the American military presence in Afghanistan in time for spring, by deploying an estimated 1,000 new combat advisers to Afghanistan. The Pentagon is also reportedly sending additional unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as well as helicopters and ground vehicles. With the new arsenal, the US hopes it can finally defeat the Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan.

“This is the end game. This is a policy that can deliver a win,” the commander of US Armed Forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, told CBS.

“We’re killing them [Taliban] in large numbers. They can either lay down their weapons and rejoin society and be a part of the future of Afghanistan, have a better life for their children and themselves, or they can die,” Nicholson proclaimed.

While the Pentagon is focused on the Taliban fighters, who control approximately half the country, Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) militants are expanding their presence in Afghanistan, Russia warned late last month. Afghanistan watchers say that with the ever-growing threat from the Islamists the US is unlikely to defeat them anytime soon.

“The majority of the country is far worse than it was before the US and NATO came in… NATO at their peak had 150,000 soldiers, about five years ago, and they could not turn the tide,” military analyst Kamal Alam, told RT. “So militarily the US forces and NATO are far less now on the ground… The Taliban are taking more territories. There are more non-state actors like ISIS involved as well. So I think for the US it will be very difficult to turn the tide.”

“The Taliban has not only been able to strengthen itself but there are now 20 other international terrorists groups – that is 21 total, including the faction of ISIS,” Jennifer Breedon, an international criminal law attorney, told RT. “The problem is that the US lacks in its foreign policy understanding, its knowledge of foreign affairs, its knowledge of foreign states, its knowledge of terrorist regimes and why these regimes are able to flourish.”

https://www.rt.com/news/416066-afghanistan-army-us-funding/

U.S. weighs Pakistani blowback as it piles pressure on Islamabad

January 6, 2018

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is examining ways to mitigate any Pakistani retaliation as it piles pressure on Islamabad to crack down on militants, a senior U.S. official said on Friday, cautioning that U.S. action could extend beyond a new freeze in aid.

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People chant slogans as they take part in an anti-U.S. rally in Chaman, Pakistan, January 5, 2018. REUTERS/Saeed Ali Achakzai

Pakistan is a crucial gateway for U.S. military supplies destined for U.S. and other troops fighting a 16-year-old war in neighboring, landlocked Afghanistan.

So far, the Pentagon says Pakistan has not given any indication that it would close its airspace or roads to military supplies and U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis played down concerns on Friday.

But Washington has only just begun to work through its new plan to suspend up to roughly $2 billion in U.S. security assistance, announced on Thursday. It came days after U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that Pakistan had rewarded past U.S. aid with “nothing but lies & deceit.”

The senior Trump administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Washington hoped that the aid suspension would be enough to communicate its concern to Islamabad.

But the official cautioned that the freeze was also not the only tool that America had to pressure the country — suggesting it might resort to other measures, if needed.

“We are considering many different things, not just the (financial) assistance issue,” the official said.

“We are also looking at Pakistan’s potential response … and we are looking at ways to deal with that and to mitigate the risks to the relationship.”

The official declined to detail what steps were under consideration, including whether that might include possible unilateral U.S. military action against militants in Pakistan.

But as Trump allow the U.S. military to again ramp up its war effort in Afghanistan, including with the deployment of more U.S. troops alongside Afghan forces, the official acknowledged a sense of urgency.

The United States has long blamed the militant safehavens in Pakistan for prolonging the war in Afghanistan, giving insurgents, including from the Haqqani network, a place to plot attacks and rebuild its forces.

“We believe we owe it to the Americans in harms’ way in Afghanistan. We simply can’t ignore the sanctuaries if we are going to make progress in Afghanistan,” the official said.

MATTIS PLAYS DOWN CONCERNS

Mattis, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, said he was not concerned about America’s ability to use Pakistan as a gateway to resupply U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

“I‘m not concerned, no,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon, adding he had not gotten any indication from Pakistan that it might cut off those routes. Mattis traveled to Pakistan last month.

“We’re still working with Pakistan and we would restore the aid if we see decisive movements against the terrorists — who are as much a threat against Pakistan as they are to us.”

The United States has also said some of the frozen aid could be released on a case-by-case basis, and none of it will be spent elsewhere — leaving the door open to full reconciliation.

The Pakistani reaction has so far been limited to harsh rhetoric, with Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif saying the United States was behaving toward Pakistan as “a friend who always betrays.”

But opposition leader Imran Khan, a former cricket star tipped as the next Pakistani prime minister, said it was time for Pakistan to “delink” from the United States.

The senior Trump administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity acknowledged that a Pakistani cut-off would greatly complicate U.S. resupply efforts in Afghanistan.

The official said the administration was developing “risk mitigation plans,” but acknowledged that examination of a northern network of alternative routes used in the past was “still at a very broad level.”

“If something were to happen to the ground lines of communication or air lines of communication through Pakistan, certainly that would be very difficult for the U.S. and we would have to look for alternatives,” the official said.

“And it would not be easy.”

Reporting by Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Jonathan Landay and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

Africa, Europe seek to boost Sahel anti-terror force

December 13, 2017

AFP

© AFP/File / by Daphné BENOIT, Jérôme RIVET | The world’s newest joint international force, the five-nation G5 Sahel, has already held operations with France’s regional Barkhane force

PARIS (AFP) – France’s Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday hosted a group of African and European leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, to drum up support for a new counter-terrorism force in the terror-plagued Sahel.Two years in the planning, the force brings together troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger in a desert region the size of Europe.

Former colonial power France is currently leading counterterrorism operations there through its 4,000-strong Barkhane force, but is keen to share the burden as its military is engaged on various fronts.

The ambitious goal is to have 5,000 local troops operational by mid-2018, wresting back border areas from jihadists including a local Al-Qaeda affiliate.

But Macron — who has had a busy week of diplomacy after a climate summit on Tuesday — has expressed frustration at delays, with the first mission only taking place last month in the volatile border zone between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

“It’s an initiative that’s getting more powerful, but speed is a problem,” French Defence Minister Florence Parly told RFI radio.

“We have to go faster,” she said. “The objective is to be able to move forward faster on financing and the military structure.”

The five Sahel countries are among the poorest in the world, and funding will be high on the agenda as their presidents join Macron at a chateau in Celle-Saint-Cloud outside Paris.

Officials from oil-rich Saudi Arabia — which may confirm a $100 million (85 million euro) contribution, according to the French presidency — are notably on the guest list.

UAE officials are also attending along with the Italian and Belgian prime ministers and representatives of the European Union, African Union and United States.

Priority number one is to re-establish law and order in the border zone where several hundred soldiers, backed by French troops, carried out last month’s debut mission.

Militants have mounted repeated attacks in recent months, including an assault in Niger on October 4 which killed four US soldiers and another two weeks later in which 21 Niger troops died.

In August, gunmen stormed a restaurant in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, killing 19 including foreigners.

– Strategic region –

The G5 force is set to work alongside Barkhane troops and the UN’s 12,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping operation in Mali — the most dangerous in the world, having lost 90 lives since 2013.

The International Crisis Group described the G5 force as a European efforts to “bring down the expense of their overseas operations by delegating them partially to their African partners”.

“The Sahel is politically and economically strategic, especially for France and Germany, both of which view the region as posing a potential threat to their own security and as a source of migration and terrorism,” it added in a report.

Wednesday’s talks are the latest effort by Macron to forge an influential role on the world stage, a day after he hosted an international climate summit.

They are designed to lay the groundwork for a summit in February, likely in Brussels, focused on raising funds for the G5 force.

The EU has so far pledged 50 million euros ($59 million) for the force and France another eight million, while each of the African countries is putting forward 10 million euros.

The United States has meanwhile promised to contribute a total $60 million.

But this leaves a serious shortfall, with France hoping to raise at least 250 million euros in the short-term, rising eventually to 400 million euros.

The arid Sahel region has become a magnet for Islamic militants since Libya descended into chaos in 2011.

In 2012, Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists overran the north of neighbouring Mali, including the fabled desert city of Timbuktu.

France intervened in 2013 to drive the jihadists back but swathes of central and northern Mali remain wracked by violence, which has spilled across its borders.

by Daphné BENOIT, Jérôme RIVET

Pakistani army: Militants attack patrol, killing 2 soldiers

December 12, 2017

Pakistan troops on patrol in Waziristan. (AFP)

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s army says militants opened fire on an army vehicle on patrol in the country’s mountainous northwestern region near the Afghan border, killing two soldiers.

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Tuesday’s statement says the military vehicle came under attack in the North Waziristan tribal region. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but Islamic militants have long been operating in the area.
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The military has carried out massive operation against them but militants are able to cross the porous Afghan-Pakistan border and shelter on the other side. They have also been able to carry out cross-border attacks.
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The Pakistani army has been constructing a series of fences along the border, which zigzags across a remote and difficult mountain terrain, to check the movement of militants.
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Afghanistan objects to the construction of the fences.

Philippines Faces Steep Task Rebuilding City Wrested From Islamic Militants

December 10, 2017

Battle for Marawi left southern city ruined and residents displaced, fueling fears of new Islamic insurgency if government doesn’t hold to promises

Part of the Grand Mosque in the southern Philippine city of Marawi was heavily damaged by more than five months of intense airstrikes and firefights between government troops and Islamic State-inspired militants.

MARAWI, Philippines—The Philippine military scored a victory against international extremism when it drove Islamic State-linked fighters from this city in October, but that success is now in peril as the government discovers as many pitfalls in rebuilding Marawi as in liberating it.

The city was decimated in the battle, fought over five months with U.S. surveillance support. The government is now turning to the task of rebuilding and resettling nearly 400,000 people displaced by the fighting, while it pushes for new legislation that would give greater autonomy to marginalized Muslim-majority areas of Mindanao, the Philippines’ southernmost main island, in the hope of deterring future conflict.

How it meets those challenges, residents and community leaders say, will determine whether the victory in Marawi can be a springboard to longer-term peace or end up providing new fervor for an insurgency inspired by Islamic State.

A Philippine government soldier inspecting the destruction caused in Marawi by months of heavy fighting between the military and Islamic militants.

The rebuilding process is beginning to fray before new bricks are laid, as sentiment turns against the government for what many residents see as its heavy-handed use of airstrikes in the campaign to recapture Marawi.

“We hate ISIS, but we also know the one who destroyed our homes, our properties, is the military, by using the airstrikes,” said Agakhan Sharief, a Muslim leader who served as an intermediary in unsuccessful talks between the militants and the government. “If they don’t fulfill what they have promised to the victims of Marawi city, [residents] could be turning to more radicalization.”

Officials say Islamist groups are already seeking to recruit young men from the many refugee camps crowded with people who lost their livelihoods in the battle.

Government soldiers in trucks last month examine the damage caused by months of fighting in the city of Marawi.

The cramped conditions in the camps feed frustration. Fever and flu are rampant and jobs are scarce. Each family is given either an outdoor tent or a tight space in a hall, separated from the next family by a thin piece of shoulder-high plywood. While food and water are provided, privacy is impossible. Many residents own nothing but the clothes they were wearing when they fled.

Much of Marawi remains closed as soldiers sweep for improvised explosives. The city was attacked on May 23 by hundreds of militants funded and inspired by Islamic State, who were joined by dozens of foreign fighters seeking to declare a caliphate, or Islamic kingdom. At least 165 Philippine security personnel and 47 civilians died in the ensuing battle, as well as nearly 1,000 militants.

Aerial bombardment left the city in ruins. The worst-hit area is almost devoid of life, save for wild dogs and mosquitoes. Every building has been severely damaged, with the belongings of former residents strewn on roadsides and hanging from windows.

Some people have been allowed to return to the few reopened parts of the city, only to find rubble where their homes used to be.

Hadj Esmail M. Abaton, 77, returned to his house in late November to find almost everything destroyed. The metal roof had fallen in, charred belongings dotted the floor and broken furniture was rusting away. Like most Marawi residents, the former textiles trader had no insurance.

“When we saw the house we cried because all of our effort and all our belongings are gone,” he said, flanked by four generations of relatives who lived in the house with him. “This is not just a house. This is our roots and all our hard work.”

While Mr. Abaton said he didn’t know who was responsible for destroying his house, his younger relatives blame the military. Found in the rubble were the remains of an artillery shell, a weapon used by the Philippine armed forces but not the militants.

Maisara Palala, 70, resting last month with her disabled son, Tao, 30, inside their makeshift shelter at an evacuation center in the town of Pantar outside Marawi.

A spokesman for the military didn’t directly address queries about public opinion or the airstrikes. The military has defended its use of airstrikes, noting the high-risk nature of close-quarters urban warfare.

Many displaced citizens lack documentation proving ownership of their land and worry it will be taken away when the city is rebuilt, though the government has assured them of fair treatment. Even if they can lay claim to their former homes, the process will take longer than many think, officials say. Millions of tons of rubble will need clearing, a dangerous task in light of the unexploded ordnance and improvised explosives left in structures.

“The reconstruction will take years,” said Felix Castro, a retired general now charged by the government with coordinating reconstruction. “It is very difficult considering the rubble. This is why the civilians are not allowed to return.”

In an interview in the bullet-strafed remains of Marawi’s Grand Mosque, Mr. Castro said the government hasn’t worked out how much the process will cost, though some estimates place it at up to $1.8 billion. He said a master plan for the city’s reconstruction is expected by March. The U.S. has promised $14.5 million in rehabilitation aid.

Dsiplaced Marawi residents living last month under cramped conditions in a makeshift evacuation center in Balo-i, north of Marawi.

Meanwhile, nearly 1,200 temporary shelters are being built for displaced people and more than 2,700 permanent houses are planned, to be funded by an undisclosed private donation.

Some residents say the government failed to heed warnings that the militants’ offensive was looming, such as local radio broadcasts warning of an attack and text messages militants sent urging their families to take shelter. There are signs the government was aware of the threat but didn’t adequately prepare to confront it. In December 2016, more than five months before the battle, President Rodrigo Duterte, in a show of bravado, told a business conference the militants “said that they will go down upon Marawi to burn the place, and I said: ‘go ahead, do it.’”

The government’s spokesman didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Recent reports from human-rights groups about soldiers torturing or executing civilians have further fanned hostility toward the liberators. The military said it welcomes any probe and doesn’t tolerate rights violations.

Some displaced Marawi residents working last month to build temporary shelters outside the city.

Underlying this broad distrust are decades of marginalization of the minority Muslim population of the southern Philippines by successive governments, including the colonial authorities of Spain and the U.S., which governed the country successively for about 350 years.

That experience spawned dozens of separatist groups before the recent wave of violent extremists inspired by Islamic State. Once-violent older groups that have rejected the extremists, such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, have sought peace in exchange for autonomous government.

An agreement on self-rule for the small majority-Muslim part of the country has been reached, but the Philippine Congress has been slow to pass the necessary legislation. MILF leaders warn they could lose control over their fighters if the legislation doesn’t pass.

The battle with Islamic State-linked groups has moved to marshlands south of Marawi, where MILF and government troops are allied in a firefight against militants who either didn’t join the battle in Marawi or escaped it.

Mr. Duterte has urged lawmakers to move fast on the legislation granting self-rule to the Muslim regions. If it doesn’t pass soon, he said in October, “we are headed for trouble.”

A government soldier takes in Marawi’s destruction.

Write to Jake Maxwell Watts at jake.watts@wsj.com

Sahel poses new risks after jihadists ambush US forces in Niger

October 19, 2017

AFP

© STR / AFP | UN troops carry on a stretcher the body of one of the seven UN peacekeepers from Niger who were killed in an ambush, at the airport in Abidjan.

Text by NEWS WIRES

Latest update : 2017-10-19

The Islamic militants came on motorcycles toting rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, killing four American service members after shattering the windows of the unarmored US trucks.

In this remote corner of Niger where the Americans and their local counterparts had been meeting with community leaders, residents say the men who came to kill that day had never been seen there before.

“The attackers spoke Arabic and Tamashek, and were light-skinned,” Baringay Aghali, told The Associated Press by phone from the remote village of Tongo-Tongo.

Who were these men and how did they know the Americans would be there that day?

 No automatic alt text available.

No extremist group has claimed responsibility for the deadly ambush on Oct. 4 and the languages reportedly spoken by the jihadists are used throughout the Sahel including Tamashek, spoken by ethnic Tuaregs.

IS splinter group

The ambush of US troops in Niger has been the center of controversy in America because President Donald Trump has been criticized in some quarters, including by one grieving family directly, for the way he spoke to the wife of one of the soldiers slain in that operation.

The Niger attack appears to be the work of the Islamic State of the Sahel, a splinter group of extremists loyal to the Islamic State group who are based just across the border in Mali, according to interviews with US officials and authorities here in the vast Sahel region bordering the Sahara Desert. It is led by Adnan Abu Walid who built ties with various extremists before forming his own group.

Some officials believe Walid’s militants are also holding an American, Jeffery Woodke, who was abducted in Niger a year ago. A rebel leader approached by Niger authorities to conduct negotiations for his release confirmed that Walid’s group is holding Woodke, who had spent 25 years as an aid worker in Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Now Walid’s group is suspected of the attack that killed four American soldiers this month.

The ambush in Niger highlights how extremist groups have shifted and rebranded since the 2013 French-led military operation ousted them from power in northern Mali. Those extremists lost Mali’s northern cities but regrouped in the desert, including the man suspected of ordering the attack on the Americans.

Walid, 38, also known in some circles as Adnan al-Sahrawi, descends from the Sahrawi people, who are found across southern Morocco, Mauritania and parts of Algeria. He has long been active with Islamic extremists in Mali, at one time serving as the spokesman of the Mali-based group known as MUJAO that controlled the major northern town of Gao during the jihadist occupation in 2012.

That group was loyal to the regional al-Qaida affiliate. But Walid parted ways and in October 2016 a video circulated on the internet in which he pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

In the year since then he has called for attacks on foreign tourists in Morocco and the UN mission in Western Sahara, according to audio messages released in his name. It is not clear if Walid is receiving financial help from the Islamic State group or if the links are purely ideological.

Walid’s following now includes numerous members of the Peul ethnic group in the Mali-Niger border areas, who are active in the area near where the attack on the US soldiers took place. Before the attack on the US troops in Niger, Walid’s followers are believed to have staged a series of bloody attacks on military installations in Niger. In February, they were blamed for an assault in Tliwa where a dozen Niger soldiers were slain.

Walid’s Islamic State in the Sahel does not yet pose a threat as great as the al-Qaida militants in the region though that could shift with time, said Ibrahim Maiga with the Institute for Security Studies in Bamako. Walid clearly appears to have learned from his former colleagues on how to infiltrate and influence locals, he said.

“He has succeeded … in creating links with local people despite the fact that he is a stranger to the area,” he said.

A ‘continuous downward spiral’

The growing threat posed by Walid’s group comes as the international community is already facing an escalation in violence across the Sahel. A report by the UN chief obtained this week by AP warned that the security situation in the Sahel is in “a continuous downward spiral.”

For several years American and French forces have provided training and support to the militaries of Mali, Niger and other vulnerable countries in this corner of Africa where Islamic extremism has become increasingly entrenched over the past decade. Now the UN is urging the international community to finance a 5,000-strong regional force, with the head of the UN saying “the stability of the entire region, and beyond, is in jeopardy.”

The 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission in Mali has become the most dangerous in the world as Islamic militants routinely attack UN convoys across the north.

And the future of the regional security force known as the G5 Sahel Multinational Force – made up of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – appears to be in jeopardy.

France, the former colonizer which has a 5,000-strong military operation to help stabilize the region – has been a major financial backer. Funding, though, has come up short.

The Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution in June welcoming the deployment, but at U.S. insistence it did not include any possibility of U.N. financing for the force. So far only one-quarter of the needed funds have been raised, throwing into doubt whether the regional forces will begin operations this month as scheduled.

Maiga, the Malian security expert, said winning the battle against extremism will not be only a question of firepower. If it were a conventional conflict with two armies respecting roughly the same rules, the G5 would come out stronger.

Jihadist groups, though, are infiltrating the population, exploiting the absence of government in some of these remote areas. That is how Walid’s group may have learned about the visit of the US troops to local communities. Within the communities where troops are attacked, someone is tipping off the extremists.

“The outcome of this battle will not depend solely on the size of the troops,” he said, “but also on the ability of states to regain the confidence of the population.”

(AP)