Posts Tagged ‘Saudi’

Defence minister: Saudi, UAE intended to invade Qatar

February 3, 2018

Al Jazeera

Qatar's defence minister stressed the need for open dialogue as a means to end the ongoing GCC crisis [Reuters]
Qatar’s defence minister stressed the need for open dialogue as a means to end the ongoing GCC crisis [Reuters]

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had intentions to invade Qatar at the beginning of a diplomatic crisis that erupted in June, according to Qatar’s defence minister.

In an interview with the Washington Post on Friday, Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah said his Gulf neighbours have “tried everything” to destabilise the country, but their intentions to invade were “diffused” by Qatar.

“They have intentions to intervene militarily,” said Attiyah.

When asked to confirm whether he thought such a threat still existed today, he responded: “We have diffused this intention. But at the beginning of the crisis, they had this intention.

“They tried to provoke the tribes. They used mosques against us. Then they tried to get some puppets to bring in and replace our leaders.”


Q: You have Turkish troops in your country. Were you actually afraid that Saudi Arabia or the UAE might invade?

A: I wouldn’t say afraid. They have intentions to intervene militarily.

Q: Saudi and UAE?

A: Yes, for sure. They have this intention. But our relations with Turkey go way back before the crisis.

Q: But you seriously think the UAE and Saudi Arabia have intentions to invade? Today?

A: We have diffused this intention. But at the beginning of the crisis, they had this intention. They have tried everything. They tried to provoke the tribes. They used mosques against us. Then they tried to get some puppets to bring in and replace our leaders.

Source: Washington Post

Attiyah, who met US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last week during a visit to Washington, DC, described the beginning of the crisis by the Saudi-led bloc as an “ambush” that was “miscalculated”.

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt and Bahrain cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed a land, sea and air blockade after accusing it of supporting “terrorism” and “extremism”.

Qatar has strongly denied the allegations.

Attiyah said Qatar is the only country that has signed a memorandum of understanding with the US to counter terrorism in the region – namely in IraqAfghanistan, and Syria.

He stressed the need for open dialogue as a means to end the ongoing crisis.

Asked about Doha’s relations with Saudi’s rival, Iran, Attiyah noted that Qatar maintains “friendly relations with everyone”.

“We are responsible for the supply of [an enormous amount] of the world’s energy. We have to have a smooth flow of energy, and that means we have to eliminate having enemies,” he said, referring to the country’s shared oilfield with Iran.

According to Attiyah, the Saudi-led bloc had planned to replace Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani with a new leader.

“They put their puppet, [Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali Al Thani, a relative of a former Qatari emir], on TV,” he said of the “failed” attempt.

“They can’t do anything. The Qatari people love their emir.”

On January 14, Sheikh Abdullah released a video statement, saying he was a “prisoner” in the UAE, and that if anything happened to him, “Sheikh Mohammed” is responsible.

While he did not specify, Abdullah appeared to be referring to Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Days later, he was hospitalised in Kuwait. Later, reports emerged he threatened suicide.



Apple and Amazon in talks to set up in Saudi Arabia — Affluent market already boasts some of the highest internet and smartphone use in the world.

December 28, 2017


RIYADH (Reuters) – Apple and Amazon are in licensing discussions with Riyadh on investing in Saudi Arabia, two sources told Reuters, part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s push to give the conservative kingdom a high-tech look.

 Image result for FILE PHOTO: A man speaks on the phone as he walks past the Kingdom Centre Tower in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 5, 2017.

FILE PHOTO: A man speaks on the phone as he walks past the Kingdom Centre Tower in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser – /File Photo

A third source confirmed that Apple was in talks with SAGIA, Saudi Arabia’s foreign investment authority.

Both companies already sell products in Saudi Arabia via third parties but they and other global tech giants have yet to establish a direct presence.

Amazon’s discussions are being led by cloud computing division Amazon Web Services (AWS), which would introduce stiff competition in a market currently dominated by smaller local providers like STC and Mobily.

Riyadh has been easing regulatory impediments for the past two years, including limits on foreign ownership which had long kept investors away, since falling crude prices highlighted the need to diversify its oil-dependent economy.

Luring Apple and Amazon would further Prince Mohammed’s reform plans and raise the companies’ profile in a young and relatively affluent market, which already boasts some of the highest internet and smartphone use in the world.

About 70 percent of the Saudi population is under 30 and frequently glued to social media.

A licensing agreement for Apple stores with SAGIA is expected by February, with an initial retail store targeted for 2019, said two sources familiar with the discussions.

Amazon’s talks are in earlier stages and no specific date has been set for investment plans, they said.

Apple already holds second place in the Saudi mobile phone market behind Samsung, according to market researcher Euromonitor.

Amazon acquired Dubai-based online retailer earlier in 2017, opening access for Amazon retail goods to be sold in the kingdom.

Both companies declined to comment, while SAGIA was not immediately available to answer questions about the discussions.


While Saudi reform plans call for luring foreign investment broadly across sectors, officials have courted Silicon Valley players especially strongly over the past two years to complement their high-tech ambitions.

 Image result for A woman speaks on a mobile phone in a cafe in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia October 6, 2016. Picture taken October 6, 2016

FILE PHOTO: A woman speaks on a mobile phone in a cafe in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia October 6, 2016. Picture taken October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser – /File Photo

Prince Mohammed is an avowed technophile and has styled himself a disrupter in the model of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.

During an official visit to the United States last year he met executives at Facebook, Microsoft and Uber, in which the sovereign wealth fund he chairs later took a $3.5 billion stake.

Since then, he has also set up a $45 billion technology investment fund with Japan’s SoftBank and announced plans to create a futuristic $500 billion mega-city with more robots than humans.

Apple and Amazon have both been on a Saudi priority list of foreign firms which officials hope to attract to further their reforms, one of the sources said.

“Many tech multinationals now in Saudi Arabia are either vendors to the Saudi government or, in the case of Uber, have benefited from a sizable Saudi investment,” said Sam Blatteis, who heads Dubai-based tech advisory MENA Catalysts Inc.

“Amazon entering the Saudi market would be a step-change.”

For Amazon, the move underscores how AWS is looking to take an early lead in selling data storage and computing services to customers in the Middle East.

AWS, the world’s biggest cloud business by revenue, has embarked on a slower global expansion than No.2 Microsoft, which now offers cloud services in twice as many regions.

However, Microsoft has yet to announce plans for data centers in the Middle East, with three regions in India serving as its closest operations.

AWS said in September it would set up data centers for the region in neighboring Bahrain.

The kingdom has been streamlining its many overlapping laws which could apply to cloud computing for more than a year in order to attract service providers.

If completed, a cloud deal could pave the way for an expansion of Amazon retail warehouses in Saudi Arabia.

Although Amazon operates its diverse business units separately, it has rolled out its near-full suite of retail, third-party marketplace and cloud services in countries of operation over time.

Apple stores would raise the profile of the company’s products and offer repairs and community events in line with its strategy to brand its stores as “town squares”.

Reporting by Katie Paul; Additional reporting by Jeffrey Dastin and Stephen Nellis in SAN FRANCISCO; Editing by Saeed Azhar and Philippa Fletcher

Saudi Commander of Tahrir Al-Sham Assassinated in Idlib

September 14, 2017



Saudi Commander of Tahrir Al-Sham Assassinated in Idlib

TEHRAN (FNA)- A Saudi commander of Tahrir al-Sham Hay’at (the Levant Liberation Board or the Al-Nusra Front) was assassinated in the Eastern parts of Idlib province.

News websites affiliated to the terrorists reported that Abu Mohammad al-Share’i was killed by unknown assailants in Saraqib city in Eastern Idlib.

Image result for Abu Mohammad al-Share'i, photos

They added that he was formerly a commander of Jund al-Aqsa terrorist group.

Relevant reports said on Tuesday that Abdullah Muhammad al-Muhaysini, the commander and Mufti (religious leader) of Tahrir al-Sham Hay’at has left the terrorist group only hours after leaked audio files indicated widening of rifts among the commanders of the Al-Nusra Front (Tahrir al-Sham Hay’at or the Levant Liberation Board), reports said.

Al-Muhaysini together with another mufti of Tahrir al-Sham named Mosleh al-Aliyani in a statement released on social networks on Monday declared their separation from the terrorist alliance, the Arabic-language media reported.

Al-Muhaysini and al-Aliyani mentioned the reason behind their separation as to be recent clashes between Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham in Idlib province and also leakage of the audio files and disrespecting the religious leaders (muftis).

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Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (Arabicهيئة تحرير الشام‎‎, transliterationHayʼat Taḥrīr al-Shām,[21] “Organization for the Liberation of the Levant” or “Levant Liberation Committee“),[19][20] commonly referred to as Tahrir al-Sham and abbreviated HTS, is an active Salafist jihadist militant group involved in the Syrian Civil War. The group was formed on 28 January 2017 as a merger between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front), the Ansar al-Din FrontJaysh al-SunnaLiwa al-Haqq, and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement.[2] After the announcement, additional groups and individuals joined. The merger is currently led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and former Ahrar al-Sham leaders, although the High Command consists of leaders from other groups.[22][23] Many groups and individuals defected from Ahrar al-Sham, representing their more conservative and Salafist elements. Currently, a number of analysts and media outlets still continue to refer to this group by its previous names, al-Nusra Front, or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.[24][25]

Despite the merger, Tahrir al-Sham has been accused to be working as al-Qaeda‘s Syrian branch on a covert level.[26][27] However, Tahrir al-Sham has officially denied being part of al-Qaeda and said in a statement that the group is “fully independent and doesn’t represent any foreign body or organization”.[28] Furthermore, some factions such as Nour al-Din al-Zenki, which was part of the merger, were once supported by the US.[29] Some analysts reported that the goal of forming Tahrir al-Sham was to unite all groups with al-Qaeda’s extreme ideology under one banner, and to obtain as many weapons as possible. They also reported that many of the former Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters still answered to al-Qaeda, and held an increasing amount of sway over the new group.[11] It has also been claimed that despite the recent formation of Tahrir al-Sham, the new group secretly maintains a fundamental link to al-Qaeda, and that many of the group’s senior figures, particularly Abu Jaber, held similarly extreme views.[26][better source needed] Russia claims that Tahrir al-Sham shares al-Nusra Front’s goal of turning Syria into an Islamic emirate run by al-Qaeda.

Saudi, Qatari Effort to Address Rift Backfires

September 9, 2017

Riyadh suspends dialogue after leaders’ phone call, accusing Doha of distorting facts

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, beard, hat and closeup

Saudi Arabia on Saturday suspended all contact with Qatar after the first known conversation between leaders of the two countries failed to defuse tensions between the U.S. allies.

Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, on Friday evening spoke with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the first time since Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries broke diplomatic ties with Qatar in June, blaming it for having alleged ties…

The phone call came a day after U.S. President Donald Trump offered to serve as a mediator to help resolve a dispute that has created more instability in a volatile region and complicated the joint fight against Islamic State.

But hopes the phone call marked a turning point in the monthslong diplomatic crisis were quickly dashed, with Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry accusing Qatar’s state media of distorting its account of the conversation between Sheikh Tamim and Prince Mohammed. The disagreement is essentially about protocol: Saudi Arabia says the phone conversation was requested by Qatar, not vice versa.

“What was published by the Qatar News Agency is a continuation of the distortion by the Qatari authority of the facts,” said a statement attributed to a Saudi Foreign Ministry official carried in the official Saudi Press Agency. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia declares that any dialogue or communication with the authority in Qatar shall be suspended until a clear statement explaining its position is made in public.”

What Qatar Owns And Which Countries It Trades With

Qatar’s official state news agency said the phone call between Prince Mohammed and Sheikh Tamim was facilitated by Mr. Trump and that during their conversation the two leaders “stressed the need to resolve this crisis by sitting down to the dialogue to ensure the unity and stability of the GCC countries,” a reference to the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional bloc whose members are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman.

Sheikh Tamim also welcomed an initiative by Prince Mohammed to assign two envoys in a bid to “resolve controversial issues in a way that does not affect the sovereignty of states,” the statement added.

A Qatari official said the angry Saudi response was an effort to make Sheikh Tamim look weak.

Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Bahrain and Egypt accuse Qatar of supporting regional extremist organizations and terrorist groups, and want the country to change its policies as a condition for dialogue.

Qatar denies it supports terrorism and says it has the right to pursue an independent foreign policy, including by maintaining links with Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha rejected a list of 13 demands issued by the four countries, which included curbing diplomatic ties with Iran, severing links with the Muslim Brotherhood and closing the Al Jazeera television network. Mediation efforts by neighboring Kuwait and the U.S. have so far struggled to break the deadlock.

Widespread speculation Saudi Arabia is pushing for regime change in Qatar has further complicated matters. Last month, the kingdom pushed into prominence an obscure Qatari royal called Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali Al-Thani, an effort many in both Saudi Arabia and Qatar saw as a first step toward promoting leadership change in Qatar.

Before tensions flared up again, Saudi Arabia on Saturday initially struck a more conciliatory tone. The official Saudi Press Agency said Prince Mohammed “welcomed the desire” expressed by Sheikh Tamim “to sit at the dialogue table and discuss the demands of the four countries to ensure the interests of all.”

“There’s a willingness by both parties to talk with each other. That’s progress,” said Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a Gulf States expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “High-level U.S. engagement is critical to making this happen. But it’s going to take a sustained, long-term effort to overcome the damage of the crisis on both sides.”

The White House on Friday said Mr. Trump spoke separately to Prince Mohammed and to the leaders of the U.A.E. and Qatar to convey the message that unity among its Arab partners is essential to promoting regional stability and countering the threat of Iran.

“The president also emphasized that all countries must follow through on commitments…to defeat terrorism, cut off funding for terrorist groups, and combat extremist ideology,” the statement said.

The U.S. president had initially appeared to take credit for the diplomatic rupture, praising the decision of Saudi Arabia and others to cut ties with Qatar as evidence of the success of his visit to the region in May, when he encouraged regional powers to crack down on support for extremist groups.

—Nicolas Parasie contributed to this article.

Write to Nikhil Lohade at and Margherita Stancati at

See also:

Trump’s Bid to End Saudi-Qatar Stalemate Ends in Recriminations



Shiite corridor from Tehran to Damascus)

 (John Bolton)

(Includes John Bolton’s Plan for Iran and the Nuclear Deal)

With a Wary Eye on Iran, Saudi and Iraqi Leaders Draw Closer

August 16, 2017

BAGHDAD/DUBAI — It was an unusual meeting: an Iraqi Shi’ite Muslim cleric openly hostile to the United States sat in a palace sipping juice at the invitation of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, the Sunni kingdom that is Washington’s main ally in the Middle East.

For all the implausibility, the motivations for the July 30 gathering in Jeddah between Moqtada al-Sadr and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman run deep, and center on a shared interest in countering Iranian influence in Iraq.

For Sadr, who has a large following among the poor in Baghdad and southern Iraqi cities, it was part of efforts to bolster his Arab and nationalist image ahead of elections where he faces Shi’ite rivals close to Iran.

For the newly elevated heir to the throne of conservative Saudi Arabia, the meeting, and talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in June, are an attempt to build alliances with Iraqi Shi’ite leaders in order to roll back Iranian influence.

Image result for Haider al-Abadi in saudi Arabia, photos

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud (R) receives Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, June 19, 2017. (photo by REUTERS/Bandar Algaloud)

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“Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia is a bold shift of his policy to deliver a message to regional, influential Sunni states that not all Shi’ite groups carry the label ‘Made in Iran’,” said Baghdad-based analyst Ahmed Younis.

This policy has assumed greater prominence now that Islamic State has been driven back in northern Iraq, giving politicians time to focus on domestic issues ahead of provincial council elections in September and a parliamentary vote next year.

“This is both a tactical and strategic move by Sadr. He wants to play the Saudis off against the Iranians, shake down both sides for money and diplomatic cover,” said Ali Khedery, who was a special assistant to five U.S. ambassadors in Iraq.


Ultimately, Sadr seeks a leadership role in Iraq that would allow him to shape events without becoming embroiled in daily administration, which could erode his popularity, diplomats and analysts say.

Such a role – religious guide and political kingmaker – would fit with the patriarchal status the Sadr religious dynasty has for many Shi’ite Arabs in Iraq, Lebanon, Kuwait and Bahrain.

Days after the Jeddah meeting, Sadr met Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, who has also taken an assertive line against Tehran, the dominant foreign power in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion ended Sunni minority rule.

Iran has since increased its regional influence, with its forces and allied militias spearheading the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and holding sway in Baghdad.

For Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the bastion of Sunni Islam, less Iranian influence in Iraq would be a big win in a rivalry that underpins conflict across the Middle East.

“There are plans to secure peace and reject sectarianism in the region,” Sadr told the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper last week, and it was “necessary to bring Iraq back into the Arab fold”.

Washington supports the Saudi-Iraq rapprochement, but the embracing of Sadr raises questions about whether it sees a man known for his anti-Americanism as a reliable figure.

“It is perhaps close to a necessary evil,” a U.S. official said of the visit, although it was a “very uncomfortable position for us to be in” due to the Sadr’s anti-Americanism, which had led to the deaths of U.S. citizens.

“His visits to the region, and broadly the high profile visits by Iraq, those things broadly are good, in that they get Iraq facing the Gulf nations and they help to turn their attention away from Iran,” the official said.


A politician close to Sadr said the Jeddah meeting was aimed at building confidence and toning down sectarian rhetoric between the two countries.

The rapprochement is “a careful testing of the waters with the Abadi government and some of the Shia centers of influence like Sadr and, the interior minister,” said Ali Shihabi, Executive Director of the Washington-based Arabia Foundation.

How far detente can go is unclear: Iran has huge political, military and economic influence in Iraq. Saudi Arabia is playing catch-up, having reopened an embassy in Baghdad only in 2015 after a 25-year break caused by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Whatever the Saudis and Gulf states do, “Iran will stay the key player in Iraq for at least the next 10 years,” said Wathiq al-Hashimi, chairman of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies think-tank.

Khedery said Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states were not skilled at exerting external influence.

“They usually just throw money at issues and the beneficiaries of that largesse become very, very wealthy and that’s it,” he said. The Iranians in Iraq offered intelligence, diplomatic support and cash and wielded “big sticks” against anyone stepping out of line, he said.

Still, the Jeddah meeting has produced practical results.

Sadr’s office said there was an agreement to study investment in Shi’ite regions of southern Iraq. Riyadh will also consider opening a consulate in Iraq’s holy Shi’ite city of Najaf, Sadr’s base.

Saudi Arabia would donate $10 million to help Iraqis displaced by the war on Islamic State in Iraq, Sadr said, while Iraq’s oil minister said Riyadh had discussed building hospitals in Basra and Baghdad.

After the Saudi trip, Sadr again urged the Iraqi government to dismantle the Tehran-backed Shi’ite paramilitary groups involved in the fight against Islamic State – a theme that is expected to become a top election issue.

A source from Sadr’s armed group told Reuters that after the visit orders were issued to remove anti-Saudi banners from its headquarters, vehicles and streets.

Sadr had called on the Saudis to “stop hostile speeches by fanatical hardline clerics who describe Shi’ites as infidels,” and Crown Prince Mohammed had promised efforts towards this, the politician close to Sadr said.

It remains to be seen how far Saudi Arabia can prevent anti-Shi’ite outbursts by its media or on social media, since Wahhabism, the kingdom’s official ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim school, regards Shi’ism as heretical.

But Saudi minister of state for Gulf affairs Thamer al-Subhan called for tolerance after greeting Sadr, using Twitter to decry “Sunni extremism and Shi’ite extremism”.

Saudi Arabia this week cracked down on Twitter users including a radical Sunni cleric who had published insulting comments about Shi’ites.


As part of the wider detente, Iraq and Saudi Arabia announced last month they are setting up a council to upgrade strategic relations.

The Saudi cabinet has approved a joint trade commission to look at investment while a Saudi daily reported the countries planned to reopen a border crossing shut for more than 25 years – a point raised by Sadr on his visit.

Another sign of rapprochement is an agreement to increase direct flights to a daily basis. Iraqi Airways hopes to reopen offices in Saudi airports to help Iraqis travel to the kingdom, especially for pilgrimages, Iraq’s transport ministry said.

Then there is coordination on energy policy.

As OPEC producers, the two cooperated in November to support oil prices. Their energy ministers discussed bilateral cooperation and investment last week.

Iranian reaction to the meetings has been minimal.

“Iraqi personalities and officials do not need our permission to travel outside of Iraq or to report to us,” foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said last week, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

(Additional reporting by Maher Chmaytelli in Erbil, William Maclean and Rania El Gamal in Dubai and Yara Bayoumy in Washington; editing by Giles Elgood)

UAE: Arab States Don’t Seek ‘Regime Change’ in Qatar

June 24, 2017

Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told reporters in Dubai that his country and its allies, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain, do not want “regime change” in Qatar, but a “behavioral change.”

The four countries presented a 13-point list of demands to Qatar through mediator Kuwait on Thursday and gave it 10 days to comply. Qatar says it is reviewing the ultimatum, which includes demands to shut Al-Jazeera, cut ties with Islamist groups including the Muslim Brotherhood, and curb relations with Iran.

Qatar’s neighbors insisted the list of demands was their bottom line, not a starting point for negotiations. The Arab countries signaled that if Qatar refuses to comply by the deadline, they will continue to restrict its access to land, sea and air routes indefinitely amid mounting economic pressure on the Persian Gulf nation.

The demands from Qatar’s neighbors amount to a call for a sweeping overhaul of Qatar’s foreign policy and natural gas-funded influence peddling in the region. Complying would force Qatar to bring its policies in line with the regional vision of Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s biggest economy and gatekeeper of Qatar’s only land border.

The four Arab states cut ties with Qatar over allegations that it funds terrorism — an accusation Doha rejects but that President Donald Trump has echoed. The move has left Qatar under a de facto blockade by its neighbors.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has tried to mediate and earlier this week called on the Arab nations to limit themselves to “reasonable and actionable” demands on Qatar. That call appeared to have been roundly ignored, and it was the Kuwaitis, who also offered to mediate, who delivered the list to Qatar on Thursday.


 (Includes links to earlier Saudi, Qatar dispute articles)

Threat of Islamic State Terrorism Attacks in Southeast Asia is Serious

June 19, 2017
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Congress last week a long-running US military operation to help Philippine forces contain extremist fighters was canceled prematurely three years ago. Small numbers of US special forces remain in an “advise and assist” role, and the US is providing aerial surveillance to help the Philippines retake Marawi, an inland city of more than 200,000 people. AP/Eugene Hoshiko, File

WASHINGTON – Southeast Asia’s jihadis who fought by the hundreds for the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria now have a different battle closer to home in the southern Philippines. It’s a scenario raising significant alarm in Washington.

The recent assault by IS-aligned fighters on Marawi has left more than 300 people dead, exposing the shortcomings of local security forces and the extremist group’s spreading reach in a region where counterterrorism gains are coming undone.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Congress last week a long-running US military operation to help Philippine forces contain extremist fighters was canceled prematurely three years ago. Small numbers of US special forces remain in an “advise and assist” role, and the US is providing aerial surveillance to help the Philippines retake Marawi, an inland city of more than 200,000 people.

But lawmakers, including from President Donald Trump’s Republican Party, want a bigger US role, short of boots on the ground. They fear the area is becoming a new hub for Islamist fighters from Southeast Asia and beyond.

“I don’t know that ISIS are directing operations there but they are certainly trying to get fighters into that region,” said Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, using another acronym for the group. “We need to address the situation. It should not get out of control.”

US intelligence and counterterrorism officials note that IS has publicly accepted pledges from various groups in the Philippines. In a June 2016 video, it called on followers in Southeast Asia to go to the Philippines if they cannot reach Syria.

About 40 foreigners, mostly from neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia, have been among 500 involved in fighting in Marawi, the Philippine military says. Reports indicate at least one Saudi, a Chechen and a Yemeni killed. In all, more than 200 militants have died in the standoff, now in its fourth week.

Video obtained by The Associated Press from the Philippine military indicates an alliance of local Muslim fighters, aligned with IS, are coordinating complex attacks. They include the Islamic State’s purported leader in Southeast Asia: Isnilon Hapilon, a Filipino on Washington’s list of most-wanted terrorists, with a $5 million bounty on his head.

US officials are assessing whether any of the estimated 1,000 Southeast Asians who traveled to Iraq and Syria in recent years are fighting in Catholic-majority Philippines. They fear ungoverned areas in the mostly Muslim region around Marawi could make the area a terror hub as in the 1990s.

Then, the Philippines was a base of operations for al-Qaida leaders like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Yousef, who plotted in 1994-95 to blow up airliners over the Pacific. The plot was foiled. But the same men were instrumental in the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

Other nations share the fear. Singapore recently warned of IS exerting a radicalizing influence “well beyond” what that of al-Qaida and Jemaah Islamiyah ever mustered. Jemaah Islamiyah carried out major terror attacks around the region in the 2000s. IS already has been linked to attacks in Indonesia and Malaysia, and foiled plots in Singapore, this past year.

This month, Mattis told the region’s defense chiefs that “together we must act now to prevent this threat from growing.” In Congress this past week, he stressed intelligence sharing and nations like Singapore sharing the burden, rather than deploying U.S. troops.

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing and outdoor

Photo: Islamic State affiliates in the Philippines

More than 500 US special forces were based in the Mindanao region from 2002 to 2014, advising and training Filipino forces against the Abu Sayyaf, a group notorious for bombings and kidnappings. When it ended, Philippine and U.S. officials voiced concern the U.S. withdrawal “could lead to a resurgence of a renewed terrorist threat,” the RAND Corp. later reported. Months before the withdrawal, Abu Sayyaf pledged support to IS.

Supporting the Philippines isn’t straightforward in Washington. President Rodrigo Duterte is accused of overlooking and even condoning indiscriminate killings by his forces in a war on drugs. Thousands have died. But that campaign has involved mainly police and anti-narcotic forces, not the military leading the anti-IS fight.

Still, the Philippine government is partly to blame for Marawi’s violence, said Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia expert at the National War College. He said the root cause was the government’s failure to fulfill a 2014 peace agreement with the nation’s largest Muslim insurgency, which fueled recruitment for IS-inspired groups.

Ernst, who chairs a Senate panel on emerging threats, wants the US military to restart a higher-profile, “named operation” helping the Philippines counter IS. The Pentagon retains between 50 and 100 special forces in the region. At the request of the Philippine military, it has deployed a P3 Orion plane to Marawi. It gave more than 600 assault firearms to Filipino counterterrorism forces last week.

Duterte has retreated from threats to expel US forces from the Philippines as he seeks better ties with China. He said recently he hadn’t sought more US help, but was thankful for what he was getting.

“They’re there to save lives,” Duterte said.

Philippines air strike on rebel positions kills 10 government troops

June 1, 2017


A Philippine Marine fires his weapon towards the stronghold of Maute group in Marawi City, southern Philippines. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
By Neil Jerome Morales | MANILA

An air strike during Philippine military operations to drive Islamist rebels out of a southern city has killed 10 government troops, the defense minister said on Thursday, in a major blow to efforts to defeat fighters linked to the Islamic State group.

Seven other soldiers were wounded on Wednesday when two air force SF-260 close air support planes dropped bombs on a target in the heart of Marawi City, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told a news conference. The first plane hit the target but the second missed.

Government troops cross a bridge that Muslim militants tried to blow it up, to secure a village in the outskirts of Marawi city Tuesday, May 30, 2017, in southern Philippines. Philippine forces pressed their offensive to drive out militants linked to the Islamic State group after days of fighting left corpses in the streets and hundreds of civilians begging for rescue from a besieged southern city of Marawi. AP/Bullit Marquez

“It’s very sad to be hitting our own troops,” Lorenzana said. “There must be a mistake somewhere, either someone directing from the ground, or the pilot.”

The armed forces have used a combination of ground troops and rocket strikes from helicopters since the weekend to try flush rebels of the Maute group out of buildings. Wednesday was the first day the SF-260 planes were deployed.

The pro-Islamic State Maute group has proven to be a fierce enemy, clinging on to the heart of Marawi City through days of air strikes the military has said are “surgical” and on known rebel targets.

The Maute’s ability to fight off a military with greater numbers and superior firepower for so long will add to fears that it could win the recognition of the Islamic State leadership in the Middle East and become its Southeast Asian affiliate.

The deaths of the soldiers takes the number of security forces killed to 38, with 19 civilians and 120 rebel fighters killed in the battles in Marawi over the past nine days.

Lorenzana said militants who were Saudi, Malaysian, Indonesian, Yemeni and Chechen were among eight foreigners killed fighting with the Maute rebels.

In an earlier text message to reporters, he said of the “friendly fire” incident: “Sometimes that happens. Sometimes the fog of war … The coordination was not properly done so we hit our own people.”

The unrest started on May 23, when Maute rebels ran amok, torching and seizing buildings, stealing weapons and police vehicles, taking hostages, and freeing prisoners to join their fight.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is concerned radical ideology is spreading in the southern Philippines and it could become a haven for militants from Southeast Asia and beyond.

Lorenzana said the military might suspend air strikes, describing the rebels as a small force that “cannot hold that long”.

The military was carrying out air strikes on locations where it believes Isnilon Hapilon, the so-called “emir” of Islamic State, and point man for its operations in the Philippines, is hiding.

For graphic on battle of Marawi, click:

For graphic on Islamic State-linked groups in Philippine south, click:

(Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato and Karen Lema; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Paul Tait)

Hezbollah Says Saudi on Path to More Bloodshed in Iran Struggle

May 25, 2017


MAY 25, 2017, 2:45 P.M. E.D.T.

BEIRUT — The Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah said on Thursday Saudi Arabia was on a losing path to more bloodshed in its struggle with Iran and instead urged Riyadh to seek dialogue and negotiations with Tehran.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Iran-backed group, said Riyadh aimed to pull the United States into its conflict with Tehran after a summit where President Donald Trump signaled firm backing for Saudi Arabia while criticizing Iran.

Image result for Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah,

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah

Nasrallah’s group is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States.

“I advise Saudi to set aside struggle, hatred and war. Your only solution for the sake of all Muslims, the whole region … is dialogue with Iran and to negotiate with Iran,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech.

“This path you are taking will only lead to spending billions more dollars and spilling more blood and you will be the ones who lose. You will fail,” he said.

Rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is fuelling conflicts across the region, including the war in Syria where Hezbollah’s powerful armed wing has played a critical role fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

Speaking at the Riyadh summit, Trump said the Iran was responsible for instability in the region and was funding, arming and training militias that spread destruction and chaos.

Trump signed a $110 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia during his visit.

Trump’s policy marks a repudiation of the regional policy of his predecessor Barack Obama, whose administration held the first direct talks with Tehran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Although Washington and Tehran were still a long way from normalizing their relations, Obama reached an accord to lift sanctions in return for Iran curbing its nuclear program, which Trump condemned as “the worst deal ever signed”.

Nasrallah said the goal of the Riyadh summit was to convince the United States “to intervene in direct confrontation” with “Iran and the resistance axis” – a reference to an Iran-backed regional alliance including Hezbollah.

Hezbollah was founded in 1982 by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to fight Israeli forces that had invaded Lebanon. Nasrallah was speaking on the anniversary of Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

Tensions have climbed in recent months between Israel and Hezbollah, which last fought a major war in 2006. Nasrallah said this month that any future conflict could take place inside Israeli territory.

(Writing by Tom Perry/Laila Bassam; Editing by Alison Williams)


Britain apologises after egg thrown at Saudi general

April 2, 2017


© AFP/File | Saudi Brigadier General Ahmed Assiri, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition forces fighting rebels in Yemen, gives an interview to AFP at the King Salman airbase in central Riyadh, on March 16, 2016
RIYADH (AFP) – Britain has apologised after an egg was thrown at a Saudi military official during a visit to London, Saudi state media said Sunday.

An anti-war activist last week attempted a citizen’s arrest of General Ahmed Assiri, spokesman for the Saudi-led Gulf coalition fighting rebels in Yemen, before another threw an egg that hit Assiri in the back.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, son of the Saudi king and the country’s defence minister, to apologise for “the attack on General Ahmed Assiri, counsellor to the prince, by protestors,” the state-run SPA news agency said.

Assiri told AFP he had been “subject to aggression” by protestors critical of Riyadh’s operations in Yemen.

Video posted on Twitter showed anti-war activist Sam Walton approaching Assiri, putting his hand on the general’s shoulder and announcing he was placing him under citizen’s arrest before being pushed aside by security personnel.

Walton can be heard saying, “I’m placing you under citizen’s arrest for war crimes in Yemen.”

Civilians in Britain are permitted to arrest anyone suspected of committing an indictable offence.

Another protestor followed Assiri’s security detail to the entrance of a building, where he threw an egg that hit the general in the back. Video showed Assiri turning around and giving the protestor the finger.

Rights groups have harshly criticised Saudi Arabia over its military action in Yemen, where thousands of civilians have been killed in the two years since Riyadh intervened against Iran-backed Huthi rebels.

Amnesty International last month condemned Britain for transferring arms to Saudi Arabia, saying Yemeni civilians continued to “pay the price”.

The London-based rights group described the transfers as a “shameful contradiction” of British aid efforts in Yemen.

Britain has in recent weeks moved to strengthen ties with Gulf states including Qatar, which last week announced plans to invest $5 billion in the United Kingdom in the coming three to five years.

Prime Minister Theresa May also attended a Gulf Arab summit in December for talks on trade.