United States/Da’esh – The leader of the Islamic State (IS) group is probably still alive, a senior US general said on the 1 Sep 17 contradicting a claim by Russia that it probably killed him in a raid in Syria in May. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may be hiding in a remote border area between Iraq and Syria, said Gen Stephen Townsend, commander of the anti-IS coalition. He may have fled as IS strongholds have been under attack in both countries. Baghdadi's whereabouts have been unknown for some time. In Jun 17 Russia said there was a "high probability" that Baghdadi had been killed a month earlier in a Russian air strike on Raqqa, IS's de facto capital in northern Syria. Since then local anti-IS groups have intensified a ground assault on the city, where an estimated 2,000 militants are holed up. There have been several previous reports of Baghdadi's death. But on the 31 Aug 17 Gen Townsend said there were "indicators in intelligence channels that he's still alive". "We're looking for him every day. I don't think he's dead," he told reporters, repeating that he had "no clue" as to where the IS leader was. "The last stand of Da’esh will be in the Middle Euphrates River Valley," he added, using an alternative name for IS. "When we find him, I think we'll just try to kill him first. It's probably not worth all the trouble to try and capture him." Baghdadi was believed to be in Mosul, Iraq, before a US-led coalition began an effort to reclaim the city in Oct 16. He has made only one public appearance in recent years - in a video delivering a sermon in Mosul on the 5 Jul 14 shortly after IS captured the city. His last audio message was released on 2 Nov 16. Baghdadi - a nom de guerre rather than his real name - is believed to have been born in Samarra, north of Baghdad, in 1971. Reports suggest he was a cleric in a mosque in the city around the time of the US-led invasion in 2003. Some believe he was already a militant jihadist during the rule of Saddam Hussein. Others suggest he was radicalised during the four years he was held at Camp Bucca, a US facility in southern Iraq where many al-Qaeda commanders were detained. He emerged as the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, one of the groups that later became Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IS), in 2010. In October 2011, the US officially designated Baghdadi as a terrorist. It has offered a reward of up to $25m (£19.6m) for information leading to his capture or death.
United States/Pakistan – US banking regulators ordered Pakistan's Habib Bank to shutter its New York office after nearly 40 years, for repeatedly failing to heed concerns over possible terrorist financing and money laundering, officials said on the 7 Sep 17. Habib, Pakistan's largest private bank, neglected to watch for compliance problems and red flags on transactions that potentially could have promoted terrorism, money laundering or other illicit ends, New York banking officials said. The state's Department of Financial Services, which regulates foreign banks, also slapped a $225 million fine on the bank, although that is much smaller than the $629.6 million penalty initially proposed. Habib has operated in the United States since 1978, and in 2006 was ordered to tighten its oversight of potentially illegal transactions but failed to comply. New York regulators said Habib facilitated billions of dollars of transactions with Saudi private bank, Al Rajhi Bank, which reportedly has links to al Qaeda, and failed to do enough to ensure that the funds were not laundered or used for terrorism. "DFS will not tolerate inadequate risk and compliance functions that open the door to the financing of terrorist activities that pose a grave threat to the people of this State and the financial system as a whole," DFS Superintendent Maria Vullo said in a news release. "The bank has repeatedly been given more than sufficient opportunity to correct its glaring deficiencies, yet it has failed to do so." Habib permitted at least 13,000 transactions that were not sufficiently screened to ensure they did not involve sanctioned countries, the agency said. And the bank improperly used a "good guy" list to rubber stamp at least $250 million in transactions, including those by an identified terrorist and an international arms dealer, regulators said. In an August letter to the Pakistan Stock Exchange, Habib company secretary Nausheen Ahmad called the proposed fine of $629.6 million "outrageous" and "capricious" and said the bank had decided to close its New York operations "in an orderly manner." But DFS said Habib will have to surrender its license after it meets the agency's requirements. "DFS will not stand by and let Habib Bank sneak out of the United States," Vullo said.
United States/al-Qaeda – Al-Qaeda is on the rise again in the shadow of the Islamic State group in Syria, 16 years after the jihadists shocked the United States in the September 11, 2001 attacks, experts said on the 11 Sep 17. They said that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Sunni group that last month seized control of the northern Syrian city of Idlib, is simply a "rebranding" of Al-Qaeda that is positioning itself as more moderate than the Islamic State in hopes of a resurgence. "ISIS may be today's preeminent terrorist threat, but Al-Qaeda in Syria is worrisome. It is Al-Qaeda's largest global affiliate at this point," said former White House counterterrorism director Joshua Geltzer. Speaking on the current terror threat against the United States at the New America think tank, Geltzer and other experts said they expect HTS to take centre stage among jihadists as the Islamic State group loses ground on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq. HTS is simply a cosmetic name-change for Al-Qaeda, they said. In consolidating control of much of Idlib province, it has eliminated or absorbed rival groups, and is modernizing its propaganda on the web-savvy model of the Islamic State. "The organization itself seems to have more lives than a cat," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies. Gartenstein-Ross was speaking with Geltzer at the launch of a report on the current jihadist threat published by the New America think tank. He called Al-Qaeda a "much stronger" organization than in 2010, when its weakness gave way to the rise of Islamic State. "It has skilfully played itself off of ISIS to portray its organization as being the 'moderate jihadists', people who you might not like but you can do business with." As such it has more popular support, and some official support in the Gulf States. "Being more restrained than ISIS has been very helpful," Gartenstein-Ross said. The New America report stresses the need to focus on Islamic State as the most dangerous external threat at the moment, while noting that since 9/11 all lethal jihadist attacks in the United States have been by US citizens or permanent residents. But it says Al-Qaeda could resume the role of the foremost threat in the future, gathering followers turned off by the Islamic State's most extreme tactics. While current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is turgid and uninspiring, the younger leaders in Idlib are learning from the way that Islamic State mastered the use of social media to attract followers. "Al-Qaeda in Syria has undergone cosmetic changes to its naming and organizational design, but without truly renouncing its affiliation with its mother organization," the study said.