Guatemala/MS-13 – Police in Guatemala say they have captured a leader of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, street gang it was reported on the 14 Oct 17. They tweeted that Ángel Gabriel Reyes Marroquín, known as Blanco (White), was found in the town of Chimaltenango, 50km (31 miles) west of the capital. He was reportedly wanted in connection with a gun attack on a hospital two months ago. The gang operates internationally and was linked to the killings by machete of two girls in New York this year. It originated in Los Angeles but has roots in Central America. It has a reputation for extreme violence. One FBI gang specialist who has investigated the gang says its motto is "kill, rape, control". Local media report that the authorities believe Mr Reyes co-ordinated an armed attack on a hospital in August in which seven people were shot dead. Police suspect the attackers were trying to free one of their leaders, who was jailed and in the hospital under armed guard. In 2014 Mr Reyes faced charges including murder and was detained in a maximum security prison. Prosecutors reportedly believed him to be connected to the deaths of at least 287 people. But he escaped, reportedly with the help of a group of people on motorbikes, while attending a medical appointment.
United States/France/Islamic State: Defeating the virtual caliphate (06 Oct 17) – The Islamic State group may soon be defeated in Iraq and Syria but "virtual caliphate" could be harder to conquer, experts and officials have warned. The jihadist propaganda machine will continue to exist in hidden corners of the dark web, inciting sympathisers to action, they say. "Defeating ISIL on the physical battlefield is not enough," General Joseph Votel, the top commander for US military forces in the Middle East, warned in a paper earlier this year. "Following a decisive defeat in Iraq and Syria, ISIL will likely retreat to a virtual safe haven - a virtual caliphate - from which it will continue to coordinate and inspire external attacks as well as build a support base until the group has the capability to reclaim physical territory, "said Votel. He described this online network as "a distorted version of the historic Islamic caliphate: it is a stratified community of Muslims who are led by a caliph (currently Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), aspire to participate in a state ruled by sharia, and are located in the global territory of cyberspace. " The Islamic State group's loss of almost all its territory in Iraq and in Syria has damaged its online communication efforts, following a boom in propaganda operations in 2014-2015. But it does not end well. The IS "news agency" and propaganda machine Amaq continues to claim responsibility for attacks and incite further violence. Most recently, he claimed that Stephen Paddock, the gunman who massacred 58 people in Las Vegas on Sunday, was an "IS soldier" - an assertion met with widespread skepticism. One theory is that IS is seeking to keep up publicity efforts to maintain relevance with its sympathisers and continue to recruit support, even as it faces military defeat on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Researcher Charlie Winter, who wrote a report on IS`s web presence for British think tank Quilliam, says the group will work to persuade followers that the idea of a caliphate is more important than its physical presence. "Censoring the internet is not going to work," he told AFP. "Policy makers are focusing their attention on the wrong part of the internet, and that`s problematic given that it`s going to be a phenomenon to be dealt with in the next few years. " Terrorists are now hiding in the deep web using encryption. "There will always be a safe place for them on the internet regardless of what politicians like to say." Under pressure from public authorities, internet providers and major online players are beginning to put in place measures and procedures to disrupt IS`s exploitation of the web. "But despite the increased vigilance of authorities and social networks, the Islamic State has demonstrated significant resilience due to its flexibility and ability to adapt to the suppression of online jihadist content," according to French researchers Laurence Binder and Raphael Gluck. "It manages to still disseminate sufficiently to reach a pool of sympathisers and recruits."
United States/Da’esh – A jihadist plot to attack New York City including Times Square and the subway system was foiled with the help of an undercover FBI agent, officials reported on the 7 Oct 17. One man in the US and two others in Pakistan and the Philippines are under arrest and face charges of plotting the attacks which they hoped to carry out in the name of the Islamic State group. One of the suspects allegedly said he wanted to create "the next 9/11". The trio allegedly used chat apps to plan their attack. It was prevented last year with the help of an undercover FBI agent - posing as an IS supporter - who communicated with the three plotters. Details of the alleged plot were released on the 7 Oct 17 as prosecutors revealed the charges. Police announced charges against Abdulrahman El Bahnasawy, 19, a Canadian citizen detained in New York; Talha Haroon, also 19, a US citizen based in Pakistan and Russell Salic, 37, from the Philippines. El Bahnasawy was arrested in May 16 and pleaded guilty last October to seven terror-related charges. He is awaiting his sentence. Haroon was arrested in Pakistan in Sep 16, while Salic was arrested in the Philippines the following April. Both men are due to be extradited to the US. "The planned attacks included detonating bombs in Times Square and the New York City subway system and shooting civilians at specific concert venues," a Department of Justice statement said. The trio hoped to carry out the attacks during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan in 2016, inspired by an attack the previous year on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris and by an attack on the metro in Belgium. There was an attempted car bomb attack in Times Square in 2010 - for which Faisal Shahzad was sentenced to life in prison after the petrol and fertiliser device he planted failed to go off. The Pakistani-born US citizen was described by prosecutors as a "remorseless terrorist".
Abdulrahman El Bahnasawy: is alleged to have sent the undercover FBI agent an image of Times Square, saying that "we seriously need a car bomb" to attack it. He allegedly wanted to "create the next 9/11"
Talha Haroon: is alleged to have told the agent that the subway would be a "perfect" target, and that suicide vests could be detonated after their ammunition was used up
Russell Salic: known as "the doctor", he is accused of sending "approximately $423" to finance the attacks with the promise to supply more cash
United States/Hezbollah – The US is offering multimillion-dollar rewards for two high-level officials of the Lebanese group Hezbollah as the US administration prepares to unveil a strategy to counter Iran's perceived regional influence it was reported on the 11 Oct 17. The US will pay up to $7m for information leading to the arrest of Talal Hamiyah, head of Hezbollah's foreign operations, and up to $5m for Fuad Shukr, a senior Hezbollah military officer, the US state department said on the 10 Oct 17. The rewards are the first offered by the US for Hezbollah officials in a decade, Nathan Sales, the US counterterrorism coordinator, said. "Today's rewards are another step to increase the pressure on them and their organisation," said Sales. Other people for whom the US is offering rewards include Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, and Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the commander of the Syrian armed group Tahrir al-Sham. Hamiyah has been on the department's foreign terrorist list since 2015 and Shukr was added in 2013. The US named Iran-backed Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organisation in 1997. Winning support for an intensified campaign against Hezbollah could prove difficult for the administration. Hezbollah is part of Lebanon's fragile coalition government and commands enormous support for the social services it provides. Sales indicated that as part of President Donald Trump's soon-to-be-unveiled Iran strategy, the US would press countries that have yet to designate Hezbollah as an international terrorist group to do so. "Additionally, some countries have chosen to designate only Hezbollah's military wing, leaving its so-called political wing untouched," he said, apparently referring to the 28-member European Union. "But that is a false distinction. Make no mistake. Hezbollah has no political wing. It is a single organisation, a terrorist organisation, and it is rotten to its core." Designating the group as a terrorist organisation is "not merely symbolic," Sales said. By not doing so, he said, countries "limit other governments' ability to freeze Hezbollah's assets, to shut down its front companies, to eliminate its fundraising and recruiting capabilities and to prosecute Hezbollah associated networks. The United States will need allies in this fight".
United States/Iran/Nuclear Deal – President Donald Trump will unveil a new US Iran strategy on the 13 Oct 17 and is expected to withdraw backing from the Iran nuclear accord, undermining a landmark victory of multilateral diplomacy. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump would unveil a broad plan to counter Iran at 1245 hrs local (1645 hrs GMT). She did not elaborate, but Trump is expected to declare to Congress that retaining the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement is no longer in the US national interest. This in itself does not mean the deal will collapse. US lawmakers will have 60 days to decide whether they want to "snap back" the sanctions Washington has suspended. But it will mark a clear break with America's allies, who have pleaded with Trump to respect the accord, and a fierce blow to the multilateral international order. The agreement was signed between Iran and six world powers (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the US) at talks coordinated by the European Union. UN nuclear inspectors say Iran is meeting the technical requirements of its side of the bargain, dramatically curtailing its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. So, while US officials still insist that "America First" does not mean "America Alone," on this issue they are starkly isolated. The other signatories all back the deal. "This is the worst deal. We got nothing," Trump thundered to Fox News on the 11 Oct 17. "We did it out of weakness when actually, we have great strength." Trump, whose address to this year's UN General Assembly was a hymn to national sovereignty, has been railing against the Iran deal since before he was elected.
In office, he has chafed at being required under US law to re-certify Iran's compliance with the accord every 90 days, declaring that Tehran has broken it "in spirit." Now, as he prepares to roll out a broader US strategy to combat Iran's expanding power in the Middle East, he feels the time has come to turn his back on the deal. Right up until the last minute, America's closest allies have urged Trump to think again. After his nationalist UN speech, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned that the deal "doesn't belong to one country, it belongs to the international community." US allies have not been convinced by the argument that the deal fell short because it left Iran free to develop ballistic missiles and sponsor proxy militias in its region. "Mixing everything means risking everything," a French diplomatic source said. "The existential threat is the bomb. The nuclear deal is not meant to solve Lebanon's problems." Europe fears not only that Iran will resume the quest for the bomb but that the US is relinquishing its leadership role in a stable, rules-based international system. On the 10 Oct 17, British Prime Minister Theresa May called the White House to impress upon it her government's "strong commitment to the deal alongside our European partners." In parallel, her foreign minister, Boris Johnson, told his US counterpart Secretary of State Rex Tillerson "that the nuclear deal was an historic achievement." "It was the culmination of 13 years of painstaking diplomacy and has increased security, both in the region and in the UK," he argued. But the US administration barely acknowledged the calls, and European diplomats in Washington privately complain that their message is not getting through.
'We will see'
One Western diplomat said that once Trump "decertifies" the deal their efforts will move to Congress, where they will urge US lawmakers not to re-impose sanctions. "Our embassy is working with the legislature," German foreign ministry spokesman Rainer Breul said this week. "We are looking for dialogue, to explain our arguments." They will find some sympathetic ears in Congress but this won't move Trump. His most senior foreign policy advisers have also urged him to back the deal, to no avail. Last week, Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis was asked whether he believes the Iran deal remains in the US national interest. "Yes, senator, I do," he replied. "I believe at this point in time, absent indication to the contrary, it is something that the president should consider staying with." Since that testimony, Mattis and Tillerson have had lunch with Trump and discussed Iran, but Trump later spoke once more against the deal on Fox television. "We will see what happens pretty soon," Trump warned. On the 12 Oct 17 in another dramatic sign of Washington's foreign policy direction, the US announced that it was withdrawing from the United Nations science and cultural organization UNESCO. France's UN ambassador expressed dismay, warning "we need an America that stays committed to world affairs."
United States/Iran/Nuclear Deal – U.S. President Donald Trump struck a blow against the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement on the 13 Oct 17 in defiance of other world powers, choosing not to certify that Tehran is complying with the deal and warning he might ultimately terminate it. Trump announced the major shift in U.S. policy in a speech in which he detailed a more aggressive approach to Iran over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its support for extremist groups in the Middle East. He accused Iran of “not living up to the spirit” of the nuclear agreement and said his goal is to ensure Tehran never obtains a nuclear weapon, in effect throwing the fate of the deal to Congress. He singled out Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for sanctions and delivered a blistering critique of Tehran, which he accused of destabilizing actions in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. “We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror and the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout,” Trump said. Trump’s hardline remarks drew praise from Israel, Iran’s arch-foe, but was criticized by European allies. The move by Trump was part of his “America First” approach to international agreements which has led him to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. His Iran strategy angered Tehran and put Washington at odds with other signatories of the accord - Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union - some of which have benefited economically from renewed trade with Iran. Responding to Trump, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on the 13 Oct 17 on television that Tehran was committed to the deal and accused Trump of making baseless accusations. “The Iranian nation has not and will never bow to any foreign pressure,” he said. “Iran and the deal are stronger than ever.” European allies have warned of a split with the United States over the nuclear agreement and say that putting it in limbo as Trump has done undermines U.S. credibility abroad, especially as international inspectors say Iran is in compliance with the accord. The chief of the U.N. atomic watchdog reiterated that Iran was under the world’s “most robust nuclear verification regime.” “The nuclear-related commitments undertaken by Iran under the JCPOA are being implemented,” Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency said, referring to the deal by its formal name. U.S. Democrats expressed scepticism at Trump’s decision. Senator Ben Cardin said: “At a moment when the United States and its allies face a nuclear crisis with North Korea, the president has manufactured a new crisis that will isolate us from our allies and partners.” While Trump did not pull the United States out of the agreement, he gave the U.S. Congress 60 days to decide whether to re-impose economic sanctions on Tehran that were lifted under the pact. If Congress re-imposes the sanctions, the United States would in effect be in violation of the terms of the nuclear deal and it would likely fall apart. If lawmakers do nothing, the deal remains in place. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker was working on amending the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act law to include “trigger points” that if crossed by Iran would automatically re-impose U.S. sanctions. The trigger points would address strengthening nuclear inspections, Iran’s ballistic missile program and eliminate the deal’s “sunset clauses” under which some of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program expire over time. Trump directed U.S. intelligence agencies to probe whether Iran might be working with North Korea on its weapons programs. The president, who took office in Jan 17 had reluctantly certified the agreement twice before but has repeatedly blasted it as “the worst deal ever.” It was negotiated under his predecessor, former President Barack Obama. Trump warned that if “we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated.” “We’ll see what happens over the next short period of time and I can do that instantaneously,” he told reporters when asked why he did not choose to scrap the deal now.
United States/Ian – The US military said on the 13 Oct 17 it was identifying new areas where it could work with allies to put pressure on Iran in support of President Donald Trump’s new strategy, which promises a far more confrontational approach to Tehran. Trump struck a blow against the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement on Friday in defiance of other world powers, choosing not to certify that Tehran is complying with the deal and warning he might ultimately terminate it. He also promised to address Iran more broadly, including its support for extremist groups in the Middle East. Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Defence Department spokesman said that the Pentagon was assessing the positioning of its forces as well as planning but offered few details. “We are identifying new areas where we will work with allies to put pressure on the Iranian regime, neutralize its destabilizing influences, and constrain its aggressive power projection, particularly its support for terrorist groups and militants,” he said. US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said his first goal would to talk with US allies in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere to gain a shared understanding of Iran’s actions. “Certainly we intend to dissuade them from shipping arms into places like Yemen and explosives into Bahrain and the other things they do with their surrogates, like Lebanese Hezbollah,” Mattis said. The US military has long been a strident critic of Iran, accusing it directly and indirectly of trying to undermine the United States and its allies, including in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The tensions escalated in recent months in Syria, where American pilots shot down two Iranian-made drones this summer. Still, a more aggressive approach to Iran could trigger a backlash from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and forces that it backs. That includes in Iraq, where US troops are fighting ISIS and trying to keep their distance from Shi’ite militia aligned with Iran. “US forces in Iraq are quite exposed, and coalition forces are quite exposed to the risk of attack if Iranian elements so choose,” said Jennifer Cafarella, lead intelligence planner at the Institute for the Study of War, a think-tank in Washington. The US military is analyzing an explosively formed penetrator, or EFP, that killed an American soldier in Iraq this month. The reappearance of the device, which Iran-backed Shi’ite militia routinely used to target American troops in Iraq before their withdrawal in 2011, has startled US officials.
Link to Iran?
CIA Director Mike Pompeo noted the device was detonated in an area controlled by a militia backed by Tehran. “We do not have evidence of a direct link to Iran, but we are closely examining this tragic incident,” Pompeo said on the 11 Oct 17. Cafarella said the killing of the US soldier may have been a warning from Iran. “I think it is possible that the Iranians have been attempting to signal their commitment to retaliate against the US strategy,” she said. Mattis said the United States was watching for any new provocations from Iran. Asked whether he thought Tehran might retaliate, he said: “It would be ill advised for them to attack us.” Reuters has previously reported that options to increase pressure on Iran include more aggressive US interceptions of Iranian arms shipments, such as those to Houthi rebels in Yemen, It could also direct US naval forces to react more forcefully when harassed by armed IRGC speed boats. The Pentagon on the 13 Oct 17 detailed a series of major concern about Iran, including its ballistic missile development and cyber attacks against the United States and US allies. The Pentagon promised to review US security cooperation activities with allies in the region, something that could lead to alterations in US arms sales and military exercises. It also signalled a willingness to re-examine the positioning of the roughly 70,000 American troops the Pentagon says are stationed in the Middle East.