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Intelligence Gap Poses Major Challenges In U.S.-Led Air War Against Islamic State

By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — In mid-September, as the U.S. military prepared to launch cruise missiles against Islamic State militants in Syria for the first time, CIA analysts lobbied to expand the target list to include eight possible locations for leaders of a band of battle-hardened al-Qaida operatives moving between towns west of Aleppo.

The previously obscure Khorasan Group, believed to be led by a 33-year-old Kuwaiti named Muhsin Fadhli, was getting closer to being able to execute a terrorist attack on a passenger jet by concealing explosives in clothing or cellphones, the analysts feared. Fadhli reportedly moved to Syria last year to recruit European militants to launch terrorist strikes in the West.

Intelligence officials in Washington also worried that the group’s leaders would stop using phones and other traceable devices once the bombing began. If they didn’t hit the tight-knit cell — and Fadhli in particular — in the initial wave of airstrikes, the CIA analysts argued, they didn’t know when they’d get another chance.

The CIA prevailed, and the analysts believed Fadhli was visiting one of the compounds in northwestern Syria that was pulverized in the opening salvo of 47 Tomahawks on Sept. 23. Early communications intercepts gave the CIA hope he had been killed.

But nearly two months later, U.S. spy agencies have not been able to confirm Fadhli’s death, according to two U.S. officials briefed on the operation. The intelligence gap reflects far broader problems for the expanding U.S.-led air war against the heavily armed Islamic State fighters and others considered terrorists who have captured large parts of Syria and Iraq.

“It’s a black hole,” one U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in discussing intelligence, on the challenge of tracking terrorists and assessing casualties in a war zone that is in effect off-limits to U.S. personnel.

U.S. counterterrorism officials have identified about a dozen Americans fighting with militants in Syria or Iraq, for example, including some who have joined the Islamic State. But U.S. intelligence analysts have struggled to develop a complete picture of their movements or what roles they play in the militant groups.

U.S. intelligence agencies have poured resources into the war since the spring, and the CIA has set up a training camp in Jordan for Syrian fighters. They also rely on information gathered from U.S.-backed rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army.

The White House now is considering expanding the CIA’s role in arming and training fighters deemed friendly, The Washington Post reported Saturday. The clandestine operation now vets and trains about 400 fighters a month, but the CIA-backed factions have struggled to take and hold territory. In one recent battle, they fled positions in a battle with the Nusra Front, abandoning their weapons to the group, which is al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria.

So far, U.S. aircraft have launched at least three raids on targets associated with the Khorasan Group. U.S. officials say the network operates in coordination with the Nusra Front and poses a direct terrorist threat to the United States and its allies, although some counterterrorism experts in the region question that analysis.

How successful the raids were remains an open question.

In the second attack, on Nov. 7, a U.S. drone fired a missile at a vehicle in Syria’s Idlib province. The intended target was French-born militant David Drugeon, a 24-year-old convert to Islam who is believed to be a skilled bomb maker operating with the Khorasan Group.

Early intelligence reports indicated that Drugeon may have been killed in the strike. But analysts are still working to confirm his death.

“We’d like for him to be dead,” a U.S. official said.

American officials similarly had their hopes raised when Iraqi state television reported last week that airstrikes in northern Iraq had killed or severely wounded Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of Islamic State.

But a 16-minute voice recording released Thursday by the group appeared to contradict those reports. Al-Baghdadi sounded very much alive as he boasted that his network was expanding to include militant groups in Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria.

U.S. intelligence relies heavily on information gleaned from intercepted telephone conversations, text messages, email, and Internet communications.

Spy plane and satellite images can help analysts estimate how many were killed in a missile blast and, in some cases, those in attendance, but they cannot identify specifically who died.

Without the ability to go into a rebel-held area and collect tissue samples for DNA analysis after an airstrike, U.S. intelligence must use reports from local informants and allied forces in the area.

“Having an American spotter in the bulrushes when the building is blown up, he comes in and takes a chunk of hand — that’s the gold standard” for confirming who was killed in an airstrike, said a senior intelligence official who has extensive experience in tracking terrorist organizations, speaking in an interview.

“Sometimes the liaisons bring in a hand,” the official said. Without tissue samples, intelligence analysts must rely on “lesser” pieces of evidence such as monitoring a beacon hidden on a target’s car that shows it arriving at a location, or a Predator drone seeing the target enter the building but not exiting after the strike.

The lack of reliable intelligence in Iraq is especially frustrating for the CIA given that the agency built a massive spying operation after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and during the eight-year war that followed.

But the agency closed most of its satellite posts and withdrew much of its staff when U.S. troops were pulled out at the end of 2011, leaving little direct intelligence from Anbar province and other areas where Islamic State now has established control.

U.S. intelligence hasn’t had a robust covert presence in Syria since the civil war erupted there more than three years ago, officials said. It is heavily reliant on the intelligence services of Arab allies in the region for information on the shifting front lines and deadly mix of militant groups.

“We lack good intelligence resources on the ground and we don’t have good resources of human intelligence,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

The militants already have learned to use counterintelligence techniques. In intercepted communications, Schiff said, intelligence analysts guard for both deliberately misleading claims and mistaken claims that people have been killed.

“Even if you have a credible intercept, they could be deliberately trying to deceive you and sometimes they do,” he said.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, said a closer relationship with rebel groups in Syria would allow the CIA to develop a deeper network of informants.

“We just don’t have the assets on the ground — that would have been one advantage of arming the Syrian moderates two years ago,” he said. “Syria is such a fluid environment, it would be very difficult to develop assets now.”

MCT Photo/Raja Abdulrahim/Los Angeles Times

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Suspected Western Jihadists In ‘Evil’ IS Beheading Video

Beirut (AFP) — Authorities were on Monday investigating the suspected involvement of Western jihadists in the brutal video by the Islamic State group claiming the beheading of U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig.

The killing of Kassig and the simultaneous beheadings of at least 18 Syrian military personnel in the video sparked global horror, with U.S. President Barack Obama calling it “an act of pure evil”.

It was the latest in a series of atrocities by IS, a Sunni Muslim extremist group that has seized control of large parts of Iraq and Syria.

The video showed the Syrian men kneeling on the ground each before a separate executioner, whose faces were uncovered.

Among the militants shown beheading the Syrian servicemen were some known foreign fighters, including at least one Frenchman and possibly a Briton, an Australian, and a Dane.

French authorities identified one of the executioners as Maxime Hauchard, a 22-year-old from a small village in Normandy in northern France who left for Syria in August last year.

The Paris prosecutor’s office said “circumstantial evidence confirms the involvement of a Frenchman in the decapitation of Syrian prisoners shown in an IS video released on Sunday.”

An investigation into Hauchard was opened in August by French authorities “for criminal association in relation to a terrorist organisation,” a judicial source said.

– Lured by online videos –

Interviewed in July by French TV station BFM via Skype, Hauchard said he had decided to join IS after watching videos online.

“The personal objective of everyone here is (to become a) shahid (martyr). That is the greatest reward,” he said.

An intelligence source said it was also being verified whether a second French citizen was among the jihadists seen in the video.

Thousands of foreign fighters have flocked to join IS in Iraq and Syria, and experts say they are often among the most violent and brutal of the jihadists.

A British-accented jihadist has been at the center of previous IS beheading videos and appeared again in Sunday’s recording claiming Kassig’s killing.

The father of another British jihadist fighting with IS initially told the media he had also seen his son in the video, but later said he was mistaken.

Britain’s Foreign Office refused to comment on speculation about the identity of the fighters in the video, but a spokesman said: “We are analyzing its contents.”

Kassig, who took the name Abdul-Rahman after converting to Islam, was captured last year and became the fifth Western hostage beheaded by IS after two U.S. reporters and two British aid workers.

“Abdul-Rahman was taken from us in an act of pure evil by a terrorist group that the world rightly associates with inhumanity,” Obama said in a statement.

In the undated video released on Sunday, the jihadist stands above a severed head he claims is Kassig’s and urges Obama to send more troops to the region to confront IS.

“Here we are burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive,” the militant says, referring to a northern Syrian town.

Washington is preparing to double its military personnel in Iraq to up to 3,100 as part of the international campaign it is leading against the jihadists.

Kassig, an Iraq war veteran, had risked his life to provide medical treatment and relief supplies to those suffering from Syria’s civil war.

– Flags lowered in mourning –

Kassig’s parents said they were “incredibly proud” of his humanitarian work to help Syrians trapped in a bloody civil war.

“(He) lost his life as a result of his love for the Syrian people and his desire to ease their suffering,” Ed and Paula Kassig said in a statement posted on Twitter.

Flags were to be lowered at government buildings in Kassig’s home state of Indiana on Monday, Governor Mike Pence said in a statement, calling the killing “an unspeakable act of barbarism”.

Sunday’s video was substantially different from previous IS recordings of beheadings.

Kassig was not shown alive in the footage, and no direct threats were made against other Western hostages.

The video came as IS suffered battleground setbacks in Iraq backed by U.S.-led air strikes, with government forces Saturday breaking the jihadists’ months-long siege of the country’s largest oil refinery.

Monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday it had documented the execution of 1,429 people in Syria by IS in the five months since it declared the establishment of a “caliphate” in areas under its control.

AFP Photo

Suicide Bomber Kills 48 High School Students At Nigeria School

By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times

Dozens of schoolboys were killed Monday in a suicide bomb attack on a high school in the town of Potiskum in Nigeria’s Yobe state, Nigerian police confirmed Monday.

Monday’s attack happened at about 8 a.m. as students gathered for school assembly, according to local media.

Dozens were killed and injured, with 48 killed in the attack, carried out by an attacker disguised in a school uniform, according to AP. A police spokesman, Emmanuel Ojukwu, said 47 were dead and 79 injured.

“Many bodies of students are presently on the ground in pools of blood. We are running home now,” an unnamed witness told Nigeria’s Premium Times newspaper.

“We were waiting for the principal to address us, around 7:30 a.m., when we heard a deafening sound and I was blown off my feet, people started screaming and running, I saw blood all over my body,” 17-year-old student Musa Ibrahim Yahaya told AP, speaking in a hospital.

Since 2013, multiple attacks on schools and colleges in Yobe state in Nigeria’s troubled north-east have targeted schoolboys, students and teachers, often killing dozens at a time. The attacks are believed to be the work of the extremist Islamist militia, Boko Haram, which is bitterly opposed to Western-style secular education.

Boko Haram emerged about a decade ago, fighting for an Islamic state, but has stepped up attacks in recent years, killing thousands of Nigerians in the north east. Nigeria’s military, often accused of fleeing attacks or abandoning its posts, has been criticized for failing to halt the insurgency.

In north eastern Nigeria, extremists have also abducted hundreds of women and girls, including 279 abducted from a school in Chibok town earlier this year.

Nigerian authorities have repeatedly claimed progress in the fight against insurgents in the northeast of the country, only to be proven wrong. Boko Haram, or Islamist militia splinter groups have seized control of dozens of towns and villages in neighboring Borno and Adamawa states in recent months.

Last month, Nigerian authorities claimed to have reached a ceasefire deal with Boko Haram, but attacks and abductions have continued. A video purporting to be from the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau recently repudiated any deal and said the Chibok girls had been married off to fighters. (The authenticity of the video hasn’t been established.)

In June last year, gunmen suspected to be from the extremist Islamist militia, Boko Haram, invaded a government high school in Damaturu, the Yobe state capital, shooting down eight boys and a teacher in the dining room. A month later, gunmen attacked a boys boarding school in Mamudo village, Yobe state, killing 42 people. The victims were shot to death or burned alive in their dormitories.

In September last year, gunmen invaded a dormitory at an agricultural college in the Gujba district of Yobe state, in the early hours of the morning and shot dozens of students in their beds, killing at least 42 students.

In February this year, gunmen attacked a school in Buni Yadi, Yobe state. They sent female students away, before killing 59 boys. The attackers threw petrol bombs into dormitories were students were sleeping, and sprayed the rooms with gunfire. Some students had their throats cut as they tried to flee.

Monday’s attack follows a suicide attack last week in Potiskum on a Shiite religious procession, killing 30 people.

AFP Photo

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Al-Qaida-Linked Group Drives Back U.S.-Supported Fighters In Syria

By Laura King and Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times

AMMAN, Jordan — Al-Qaida-linked fighters have overrun key northern bastions of U.S.-backed Syrian rebels, dealing a heavy blow to American hopes that moderate Syrian factions would provide significant aid in the battle against the militants of the Islamic State.

The onslaught by the Nusra Front in the northern province of Idlib routed the U.S.-equipped fighters, the group boasted in a statement Sunday that largely corroborated activists in the area Monday.

Internecine fighting among rebel factions had been going on for months in Idlib, but over the weekend the Nusra Front seized major positions of the U.S.-supported Syrian Revolutionaries Front, and members of another Western-backed faction, Haraket Hazm, then fled or surrendered, activists reported.

Dozens defected to the Nusra Front, according to the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based watchdog group. An undetermined amount of U.S.-provided weaponry also fell into the attackers’ hands, with Nusra Front supporters taking to social media to gloat.

Working with moderate Syrian rebels is a linchpin of the Western strategy against the Islamic State, with the U.S. and its allies staging airstrikes but not providing ground troops. The Syrian Revolutionaries Front and Haraket Hazm had been the first to receive heavy weaponry from the United States, such as TOW antitank missiles.

Israfil Yilmaz, the nom de guerre of a fighter claiming to be in Idlib, said on Twitter that tanks, antitank missiles and “much more equipment” had been seized from the Syrian Revolutionaries Front as the Nusra fighters advanced.

The Islamic State juggernaut has been concentrated in northern and eastern Syria, and large swaths of western Iraq. In Iraq’s Anbar province, Islamic State extremists have been reported by tribal figures to have executed several hundred members of the Ablu Nimr, a tribe that had tried to hold them off.

The Islamic State has also been besieging the northern Syrian town of Kobani for six weeks. Defenders, bolstered by a contingent of Iraqi Kurdish soldiers who arrived last week, have managed to hold them off, with the help of American airstrikes. But the Islamic State has bragged in propaganda videos that the town is about to fall.

The Islamic State, which has declared a “caliphate” in the territory it holds, enforces its rule with a reign of terror that has included beheadings, crucifixions and sexual slavery.

The Nusra Front, which is loyal to al-Qaida, is not as extremist as the Islamic State, but it has been designated a terrorist group by the United States, and has been targeted by U.S.-led airstrikes.

Rival groups have accused the Nusra Front of trying to carve out a “caliphate” of its own, at the expense of the fight to topple President Bashar Assad.

Jamal Maarouf, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front’s top commander, railed against the group in a video posted on YouTube. “We are defending Syria … you who have distorted Islam, you who have distorted religion, why do you fight us?” he shouts.

The Nusra Front said it was willing to observe a cease-fire, but demanded that Maarouf appear before an Islamic court.

AFP Photo/Karam al-Masri

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