His financial network consists of close to 40 front companies that own over 20 properties with cash, vehicles, real estate and other assets sitting in 36 bank accounts spread throughout Venezuela, Panama, Curacao, St. Lucia, Southern Florida and Lebanon. This network became integrated with the larger Ayman Joumaa moneylaundering network that used the Lebanese Canadian Bank to launder hundreds of millions of dollars and move multi-ton shipments of cocaine on behalf of Colombian and Mexican drug cartels as well as Hezbollah.
The Wall Street Journal reported in 2014 that while El Aissami was its governor, Aragua was home to the explosives company Parchin Chemical Industries and the drone-makers Qods Aviation, two companies owned by Iran’s military and sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council for their involvement in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. After Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Venezuela last August, Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, speculated that one of the reasons for the trip was to shore up Iran’s ballistic missile program. Ottolenghi cited a recently-discovered contract between the two countries to jointly produce solid rocket fuel. Tower senior editor Ben Cohen observed at the time that alliances with Iran are often costly for the people of the nations that have them:
Iran will continue to back Latin American governments out of favour with their own citizens. Zarif’s presence in Venezuela, at a time when the majority of the country’s voters are demanding a referendum on the future of its current leader, Nicolas Maduro, is a clear signal that Iran is intent on maintaining a mini-empire of its own, despite Tehran’s protestations about American meddling. Maduro’s policies, based on those of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, have brought Venezuela to its knees. Hunger is rampant, crime has reached record levels and hospitals have run out of basic medicines.
Indeed, one look at the sorry state of Venezuela – once the richest Latin American country, with huge oil reserves – should be enough to persuade the most sceptical observer that an alliance with Iran is part of a package that also includes economic ruin and political repression. But until we take the necessary steps in Latin America, and in other regions vulnerable to Iranian influence, the mullahs have no incentive to pull back.
This article is published courtesy of The Tower
Iran/United States – A US Navy destroyer fired three warning shots at four Iranian fast-attack vessels after they closed in at a high rate of speed near the Strait of Hormuz, two US defence officials said on the 9 Jan 17. The incident, which occurred on the 8 Jan 16 and was first reported by Reuters, comes as US President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office on Jan. 20. In September, Trump vowed that any Iranian vessels that harass the US Navy in the Gulf would be "shot out of the water." The officials said the USS Mahan established radio communication with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps boats but they did not respond to requests to slow down and continued asking the Mahan questions. The Navy destroyer fired warning flares and a US Navy helicopter also dropped a smoke float before the warning shots were fired. The Iranian vessels came within 900 yards (800 meters) of the Mahan, which was escorting two other US military ships, they said. The IRGC and Trump transition team were not immediately available for comment. Years of mutual animosity eased when Washington lifted sanctions on Tehran last year after a deal to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions. But serious differences still remain over Iran's ballistic missile program as well as conflicts in Syria and Iraq. One official said similar incidents occur occasionally. Most recently in Aug 16 another US Navy ship fired warning shots towards an Iranian fast-attack craft that approached two US ships.
Iran – Iranian lawmakers approved plans on the 9 Jan 17 to expand military spending to five percent of the budget, including developing the country's long-range missile program which U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to halt. The vote is a boost to Iran's military establishment – the regular army, the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and defence ministry - which was allocated almost 2 percent of the 2015-16 budget. But it could put the Islamic Republic on a collision course with the incoming Trump administration, and fuel criticism from other Western states which say Tehran's recent ballistic missile tests are inconsistent with a U.N. resolution on Iran. The resolution, adopted last year as part of the deal to curb Iran's nuclear activities, calls on Iran to refrain from work on ballistic missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons. Tehran says it has not carried out any work on missiles specifically designed to carry such payloads. Tasnim news agency said 173 lawmakers voted in favour of an article in Iran's five-year development plan that "requires government to increase Iran's defence capabilities as a regional power and preserve the country's national security and interests by allocating at least five percent of annual budget" to military affairs. Only 10 lawmakers voted against the plan, which includes developing long range missiles, armed drones and cyber-war capabilities. The Obama administration says Iran's ballistic missile tests have not violated the nuclear agreement with Tehran, but Trump, who criticized the accord as "the worst deal ever negotiated", has said he would stop Iran's missile program. "Those ballistic missiles, with a range of 1,250 miles, were designed to intimidate not only Israel but also intended to frighten Europe and someday maybe hit even the United States," he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee AIPAC in Mar 16. "We're not going to let that happen." The increase in military spending is part of a growth plan for 2016-2021 first announced in July 2015 by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei supported last year's nuclear deal with world powers that curbed Iran's nuclear program in return for lifting of international sanctions. However, he has since called for Iran to avoid further rapprochement with the West, and maintain its military strength. Iran has test-fired several ballistic missiles since the nuclear deal and the U.S. Treasury has imposed new sanctions on entities and individuals linked to the program. Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last year that the missile launches were "not consistent with the constructive spirit" of the nuclear deal, but did not say whether they actually violated the U.N. resolution. The United States, Britain, France and Germany wrote to Ban in Mar 16 about the missile tests, which they said were "inconsistent with" and "in defiance of" the council resolution. Most U.N. sanctions on Iran were lifted after the deal but Iran is still subject to a five-year U.N. arms embargo - unless approved in advance by the U.N. Security Council. Although the embargo is not technically part of the nuclear agreement, the U.N. resolution enshrining the deal requires the U.N. Secretary-General to highlight any violations.
In a report submitted to the Security Council before he was succeeded by Antonio Guterres on 1 Jan 17 Ban expressed concern that Iran may have violated the embargo by supplying weapons and missiles to Hezbollah. The Lebanese Shi'ite organization is one of several groups backed in the Middle East by mainly Shi'ite Iran in its regional rivalry with Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab states, a competition for influence that is played out in conflicts or power struggles in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)/Muslim Brotherhood/United States – A group of prominent US Senators have proposed two bills that will require the US State Department to hold to account both the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Muslim Brotherhood, and list them as terrorist radicals for their part in spreading violence it was reported on the 14 Jan 17. The bill has been proposed by Republicans Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Michael McCaul and Senator Mario Balart. Senator Cruz argued in his proposed bill that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Muslim Brotherhood, adopted violent Islamist ideology with the intention of destroying the West. As such - he stated – the two foreign entities should be designated as terrorist organizations. He said he was proud to reintroduce the bills, that would arrange reforms needed for America’s war against radical Islamic terrorism, especially, he said, with the IRGC being a main pillar for the Iranian regime. He added that the threat had intensified under the Obama administration due to the ‘willful blindness’ of new direction of US policies that hampered the country’s safety and security. Senator McCaul said it was time for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to be held accountable, adding that for years the IRGC had been allowed to operate clandestinely using front companies and illicit networks to evade being listed as a terrorist group. He said he believed the Obama administration had chosen to turn a blind eye to these activities for the sake of the ‘flawed nuclear agreement’ with Iran. Senator Ballart said the US had already listed members, branches and commissions affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, namely Hamas, al-Qaeda and the Palestinian Jihad group on the terrorism list. He added that he is also proud to have worked with Senator Cruz on this project because the MB was still supporting and fostering terrorism.
Iran The Iranian regimes birth of terrorism and expansion policies by Tony Duheaume 14 Jan 17) – As far as world terrorism is concerned, the defining moment came about when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stepped triumphantly from a plane at Tehran Airport in 1979, and within hours, in a series of vicious, murderous acts, which would become the hallmark of his unique terror machine, he immediately ordered the elimination of all those that opposed him, in a wave of slaughter in which thousands died, using a process of production-line murder which is still in place today. On the fateful day Khomeini arrived on the world stage, he immediately sparked off a wave of terror across Iran, with all those connected to the leadership or armed forces of the defunct regime of Shah Pahlavi, being hunted down across the country, and then brutally murdered. But such was Khomeini’s determination to consolidate his power, just to make sure that he had eliminated all opposition to his rule, many of the Islamic groups that had fought alongside him in the Revolution, ended up in his mind as potential threats to his newly formed Islamic state. As Khomeini strengthened his hold on power, many had begun to revolt against him, realising they had just replaced one despot for another, and as street protests became larger, these groups eventually suffered the full wrath of Khomeini. Then as the dust settled on his revolution, with the country in the grip of oppression, the newly elected Supreme Leader turned his sights on the rest of the globe, and from that time on, the world began to get a taste of Khomeini’s hegemonic doctrine, as suicide terror began to be perfected at IRGC training camps, and due to the Iranian regime’s use of various proxies, its enormity will never be fully assessed in both number of attacks or death toll. From setting up terror camps to train its foreign proxies, to supplying them with bomb-making equipment and automatic weapons, the Iranian regime has sent out its indoctrinated minions across the globe since the creation of its “Islamic” state, to cause mayhem and slaughter. This path of terrorism was put in place by the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in an effort to export revolution to other states, its sole purpose to bring down neighbouring governments through acts of terror, or to indoctrinate Shiite communities with Khomeini’s extreme form of Shiite ideology, in an attempt to cause insurrection, and through revolution, create new Shiite republics. This is a path that the regime will always adhere to, as Khomeini’s doctrine is set in stone, and no future leader will be brave enough to deviate from. During the regime's violent days in power, its brain-washed subordinates – from Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qods Force, the Basij militia, and its notorious Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) - have slaughtered countless numbers of innocent people; even sending out death squads to track down dissidents living abroad. Many of these dissidents had escaped to Europe, where several of their number died terrible deaths, in which both men and women were horrifically mutilated, in an assassination spree carried out by MOIS operatives, the slaughter of which became aptly named the “chain murders”. But back at home, imprisonment, torture and an overzealous use of the hangman’s noose took care of dissenters. While out on the streets, those taking part in peaceful demonstrations ended up facing severe punishment, some rounded up by the attack dogs of the regime, the Basij militia, who waded into protesters on motorbikes, dragging many of the ringleaders off to prison, while those that remained were beaten with batons or picked off by regime snipers using live ammunition, many arrests ending in execution. Today, under the so-called "moderate" President Hassan Rouhani, a man who is in the pretence of reaching out to the world with the hand of peace, the Iranian war machine is building up in strength like never before. Using money returned under the agreement of the Iran Deal, the regime has acquired new military technology and weaponry, and has also bankrolled its military campaigns in Iraq and Syria, as well as supplying rebel groups like the Houthis in Yemen, and its faithful proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon. While on Iranian soil, the hangman's noose is busier than ever, in an all-out drive to show its citizens that the regime hasn’t gone soft over its deals with the West, and that its iron fist is still firmly in place at home. In Iran, all cultures perceived as non-Persian are suppressed by the regime, only the Persian language of Farsi is allowed to be taught in schools and used in printed word, and all but Persian ceremonies are banned. Poverty is still rife in many areas, mainly those inhabited by Arabs, such as the Iranian annexed state of Al-Ahwaz, renamed by the Persian administration as Khuzestan. With medical facilities in these areas virtually non-existent, those who break the strict rules on the printed word; teachers, authors, journalists, bloggers and academics, end up in the regime’s hell-hole prisons or dangling from a rope. This is the true face of the Iranian regime under Rouhani, an evil entity that the West is making deals with, in the hope of mass rewards through trade deals. In recent years, while Sunni countries have been bombed by the West, suffering shock and awe with a multitude of casualties, Iran has always escaped its wrath. No matter what atrocity the mullah regime has committed, through the various acts of terror it has carried out since the regime came into existence, through its Quds Force or its proxies, its terror machine has continued to thrive. While commanders of the regime’s elite military force, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, still continue to make threats against the West and Israel, it has also been carrying out the testing of long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and at the same time strengthening its military forces with much more sophisticated modern hardware. So with no certainty that any deal with the West will last, the regime has also been busily strengthening security around its nuclear and military installations, to protect against attacks from the air. By using air defence systems acquired from Russia, it would ensure that should it fall out with the West, it could successfully shoot down a large proportion of any US bombers sent to attack it. All atrocities carried out by Iran, whether within its borders or across the world, have only ever been punished by sanctions as far as the West is concerned, and never by military action. In recent years, Western leaders have turned a blind eye to Iranian regime atrocities on home soil, as hangings have massively increased under the so-called “moderate” Hassan Rouhani, and just to ensure that the Iran Deal goes through smoothly, hardly a word of condemnation is ever uttered. But where aggressive acts against its neighbours are concerned, as far as the Iranian regime stands, they are just on hold as it consolidates its grip on what it hopes will become its Shiite Crescent. With its acquisition of Iraq through infiltration of both administration and military, plus its hold over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who will need Iranian firepower to back up his battered regime, a combination of the two submissive regimes will ensure that its Shiite Crescent will become a reality, giving it access to the Mediterranean Sea, a land route through which to supply its proxy Hezbollah, and a springboard for future attacks on its neighbours. So as far as further acts of terror are concerned, leaders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps are already making provocative threats against states in the region, in support of the regime’s bid to further its hegemonic advancement. In a statement to the official Islamic Republic News Agency the deputy commander of the IRGC, General Hossein Salami commented: “The victory in Aleppo will pave the way for liberating Bahrain.” With the Iranian regime having already claimed Bahrain as its14th province, in a statement by Ayatollah Khomeini when he first came to power, with this being later enforced in February 2009, by Ali Akbar Nuri, an advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the die has been cast for further expansionist policies by the regime.
Iran/United States – US "hostility" to Iran is growing day by day despite Tehran's nuclear deal, a senior Iranian official said on the 15 Jan 17 ahead of the first anniversary of the historic accord. "The United States has done whatever it can to slow down Iran's progress" after the deal, said Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, the chief Iranian negotiator in the agreement that took effect on the 16 Jan 16 last year. "In the last 12 months, we have witnessed delays and the disrespecting of promises by the US and some countries. Their hostility increases by the day," Araghchi told reporters. The agreement between Tehran and six world powers saw a range of international sanctions lifted in exchange for limits on Iran's nuclear programme. Iran has seen a rise in oil exports and increased investment in manufacturing since it came into force. But Iranian officials have accused Washington of failing to abide by the deal, including with a raft of other sanctions related to non-nuclear issues that have helped deter major Western banks from returning to Iran. US President-elect Donald Trump vowed during last year's campaign to tear up the agreement, considered a key victory for President Barack Obama. Araghchi said it made little difference who was in the White House as international law required Washington to implement the deal. "Whether its Obama or Trump, the US president is committed to cancelling laws that are against it," Araghchi said, adding that there would be no further discussions with US officials. "Our nuclear negotiations with the Americans are finalised and we have no other political talks with them," he said. "In our view, everything is over."
Iraq/Da’esh – The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb attack that killed at least 32 people on the 2 Jan 17 in Baghdad. The jihadist organisation took responsibility for the blast via its propaganda agency Amaq, claiming the "martyrdom operation" had killed around 40 people. The suicide car bomb attack in a densely-populated neighbourhood of Baghdad on the 2 Jan 16 killed at least 32 people and left dozens wounded, police and hospital officials said. Many of the victims were daily labourers waiting for jobs at an intersection in Sadr City, a sprawling majority Shiite neighbourhood in the northeast of the capital that has been repeatedly targeted. According to a police colonel, at least 32 people were killed and 61 wounded in the blast, the second major attack in Baghdad in three days. There was no immediate claim for the suicide blast but the Islamic State jihadist group has claimed all such attacks recently, including the double bombing on New Year's Eve. Observers have voiced fears that the group, once it definitively loses its status as a land-holding force, could increasingly revert to targeting civilians in Iraq's cities.
Iraq/Turkey – Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim will be visiting Iraq during the reporting period to discuss the fight against terrorism and the future of Iraq, the government's spokesman said on the 2 Jan 17. "The Prime Minister will be travelling to Iraq on the 5 Dec 16 to start a new era with the Iraqi central government," Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told a news conference. "A new peace perspective in Iraq is just around the corner," Kurtulmus added. Yildirim's office said in a statement he would be visiting both Baghdad and Erbil. Relations between largely Sunni Muslim Turkey and the Shi'ite-dominated central government in Iraq have been tense in the past, particularly over the presence of Turkish troops at the Bashiqa camp north of Mosul.
Iraq/Da’esh – A car bomb in eastern Baghdad claimed by ISIS killed six civilians and wounded 15 on the 5 Jan 17 police and medics said. The Amaq news agency, which supports ISIS, said a parked car loaded with explosives in the al-Obeidi area had targeted a gathering of Shiite Muslims. Attacks across Baghdad in the past week, some claimed by ISIS, have killed more than 60 people, with violence escalating as US-backed Iraqi forces try to drive the militants from the northern city of Mosul. ISIS has lost most of the territory it seized in northern and western Iraq in 2014, and ceding Mosul would probably spell the end of its self-styled caliphate. However, its insurgent capabilities in Iraq persist.
Iraq/Da’esh – ISIS militants attacked an Iraqi army outpost and a police station near the city of Tikrit on the 6 Jan 17 killing at least four soldiers and wounding 12 others, military and police sources said. The militants used a car bomb and two suicide attackers in their assault shortly after midnight on the army outpost in the town of al-Dour on Tikrit’s outskirts, killing two officers and two soldiers, the sources said. Gunmen separately attacked the police station a short distance away and set fire to the building before fleeing the area. There were no casualties from that attack, the sources said.
Iraq/Da’esh – A suicide bomber targeted Baghdad's main vegetable market on the 8 Jan 17 killing at least 12 people in the latest attack claimed by the Islamic State group as Iraqi forces battle the jihadists for Mosul. "A soldier at the gate of Jamila market opened fire on a suicide car bomb after noticing a suspect vehicle but the terrorist blew up his car," interior ministry spokesman Saad Maan said. Jamila is the main wholesale vegetable market in Baghdad and lies in Sadr City, a vast, mostly Shiite neighbourhood in the northeast of the capital which has been repeatedly targeted. IS issued an online statement claiming the attack, using a nom de guerre indicating the bomber was Iraqi and saying that he targeted members of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority. IS claimed an attack on the 2 Jan 16 also in Sadr City when a suicide bomber blew up a vehicle packed with explosives among a crowd of day labourers waiting for work, killing 35 people.
Iraq/Da’esh/Mosul – Iraqi Special Forces battled ISIS militants inside the Mosul University campus on the 14 Jan 17 in a second day of fierce clashes in the complex and also discovered chemicals used to try to make weapons, officers said. “There are still clashes. We entered the university and cleared the technical institute, dentistry and antiquities departments,” Lieutenant General Abdelwahab al-Saadi of the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) said. CTS troops had gathered in the university canteen. As they unfurled a map of the area, a suspected Islamic State drone flew overhead and they shot at it. The Iraqi forces also found chemical substances ISIS had used to try to make weapons, CTS commander Sami al-Aridhi said. The United Nations says the militants seized nuclear materials used for scientific research from the university when they overran Mosul and vast areas of northern Iraq and eastern Syria in 2014. ISIS have used chemical agents including mustard gas in a number of attacks in Iraq and Syria, US officials, rights groups and residents have said. Recapturing the university would be a crucial strategic gain and allow Iraqi forces to advance quicker towards the Tigris river, from where they will be able to launch attacks on the city’s west, still all under IS control, military officers say.
Israel – A Palestinian has rammed a truck into a group of Israeli soldiers visiting a popular tourist spot in Jerusalem, killing four and wounding at least 15 people, in a shocking copycat of the Berlin and Nice terror massacres. Shocking video from the scene shows the driver reversing back over the soldiers, trapping ten under his wheels, during the sickening attack on the 8 Jan 17. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alleged the attacker 'supported' the Islamic State group, though he provided no details on what led to the finding. Speaking at the scene of the attack, Mr Netanyahu said the attacker has been identified and 'according to all the signs he was a supporter of the Islamic State.' The terrorist was shot dead by Israeli forces at the location overlooking holy sites in the Old City such as the Dome of the Rock and providing one of the most spectacular views of Jerusalem. Chaos broke out at the scene when the truck ploughed through the crowd, with hundreds of soldiers having arrived there as part of a tour for troops about the history of Jerusalem. 'A lone terrorist drove his truck into a group of soldiers standing on the side of the road,' police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told reporters at the scene. 'They got off the bus, and as they were getting off the bus and getting organised, he took advantage.' Israel's military said one of its soldiers fired on the attacker and distributed video of him saying he shot after realising it was not an accident. Multiple bullet holes could be seen in the windshield of the truck. Police only confirmed four people were dead, but a medic at the scene said they were soldiers. Medics also reported that three of the victims were women, while all four were in their 20s. Netanyahu says Israel has blockaded Jabel Mukaber, the east Jerusalem neighbourhood where the truck driver lived, and is planning other measures to prevent similar attacks. The group of soldiers were standing beside the bus on some grass when the truck bounced into the air onto the promenade and drove through the victims without warning. The killer then stood on his brakes and reversed, trapping some ten of his victims under the truck. Some of the surviving soldiers managed to jump clear and opened fire, shooting the cab of the truck killing the man. Hamas spokesman Abdul-Latif Qanou called it a 'heroic' act and encouraged other Palestinians to do the same and 'escalate the resistance.' Qanou said Sunday's attack proves the wave of Palestinian violence has not ended, despite a recent lull. He says 'it may be quiet, it may linger, but it will never end.' Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, is pledged to Israel's destruction. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat called on residents to be wary but carry on with their everyday life. The attack comes amid a more than year-long wave of Palestinian shooting, stabbing, and vehicular attacks against Israelis that has slowed of late. Sunday's incident marks the first Israeli casualties in three months. Since October 2015, 247 Palestinians, 40 Israelis, two Americans, a Jordanian, an Eritrean and a Sudanese have been killed in the wave of violence, according to an AFP news agency count.
Saudi Arabia – One of the two extremists killed on the 7 Jan 17 attack in Riyadh was identified as Tayea Salem Yaslam al-Sayari, who has been wanted to plotting the attack on the Prophet’s Mosque last year. Al-Sayari was said to have designed the explosive belts and other devices that were used in the attack on the Prophet’s Mosque in July 2016 as well as the attack on a mosque used by Saudi special forces in the southern Saudi city of Abha a month later. Saudi security forces killed another wanted extremist named Talal Samran al-Saadi during the security operation in the Yasmeen district on the 7 Jan 17 north of the capital Riyadh. The security services had received information on the presence of the wanted men, carrying weapons and explosive belts in a house north of Riyadh. The two dead fugitives were using the house in Riyadh to build explosive devices and suicide belts. "They tried to escape from capture by exchanging fire with security forces that injured one officer. The two were also wearing suicide explosive belts," Saudi Ministry of Interior Spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour Al-Turki said during a press conference. Several guns, one home-made hand grenade and suicide belts were confiscated from the house after the operation was completed. Another Saudi ministry official confirmed more details behind Al-Sayari's past."Tayea al-Sayari was a scholarship student in New Zealand in the past where he majored in engineering. He had gone to Syria to join ISIS fighters. Later on, he made his way to Turkey and then to Sudan and then to Yemen before coming back to Saudi Arabia to plot and design explosive devices that were used in two terror attacks last year," the official said.
Syria – At least 43 people have been reported killed after a car bomb struck Syria's north-western city of Azaz, according to a monitor group. Dozens were also wounded on the 7 Jan 17 attack, which took place in front of a court, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights added. The group said the toll was likely to rise. The attack was the latest in a string of bombings to hit Azaz, a city located near the border with Turkey, 16km south of the Turkish city of Kilis. The area is a stronghold of the Turkish-backed Syrian rebels involved in a major operation aimed at clearing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group from the border region. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. But ISIL has frequently targeted rebel factions with bombings, including an attack in Nov 16 that killed 25 civilians and opposition fighters in a car bomb on a rebel headquarters. At last 20 people were also killed in a separate car bomb attack in Oct 16. The blast comes as a fragile ceasefire is being observed across much of Syria. The truce negotiated by government ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey does not include ISIL or the former al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front.
Syria – A powerful blast caused by a suicide bomber hit a heavily policed district of the Syrian capital on the 12 Jan 17 with at least seven killed, a police source told state television. The source was quoted by state television as saying a suicide bomber blew himself in the Kafr Sousa neighbourhood where some of Syria's main security installations are located. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which tracks violence across the country said the death toll was expected to rise with several of the wounded in a critical condition. Footage on state media showed splattered blood and wreckage of several cars with dozens of heavily armed security personnel at the site of the explosion. Last Jul 16 a car bomb also hit Kafr Sousa near an Iranian school in an attack that killed several people in the area, close to the main Umayyad Square that connects the city with several highways. Insurgents fighting to topple President Bashar al Assad say the district houses many recruits from Iranian-backed militias fighting alongside the army.
Syria – A series of explosions ripped through a military airport on the western outskirts of Damascus overnight on the 13/14 Jan 17 Syrian state TV reported. An AFP correspondent heard several explosions and saw a large fire inside the Mazzeh military airport, with smoke visible across the capital. State news agency SANA also reported the blasts and said that ambulances were rushing to the scene. SANA TV, which is close to the regime, said the airport had been bombed. Syrian sources have reported several Israeli air strikes on Syrian territory in the course of the civil war, including in the Mazzeh area. Contacted by AFP, the Israeli army had no comment on the report.
Syria/Chemical Weapons – International investigators have said for the first time that they suspect President Bashar al-Assad and his brother are responsible for the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, according to a document seen by Reuters and reported in Al-Arabia on the 13 Jan 17. A joint inquiry for the United Nations and global watchdog the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had previously identified only military units and did not name any commanders or officials. Now a list has been produced of individuals whom the investigators have linked to a series of chlorine bomb attacks in 2014-15 - including Assad, his younger brother Maher and other high-ranking figures - indicating the decision to use toxic weapons came from the very top, according to a source familiar with the inquiry. The Assads could not be reached for comment but a Syrian government official said accusations that government forces had used chemical weapons had “no basis in truth”. The government has repeatedly denied using such weapons during the civil war, which is almost six years old, saying all the attacks highlighted by the inquiry were the work of rebels or the ISIS. The list, which has been seen by Reuters but has not been made public, was based on a combination of evidence compiled by the UN-OPCW team in Syria and information from Western and regional intelligence agencies, according to the source, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue. Reuters was unable to independently review the evidence or to verify it. The UN-OPCW inquiry - known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) - is led by a panel of three independent experts, supported by a team of technical and administrative staff. It is mandated by the UN Security Council to identify individuals and organizations responsible for chemical attacks in Syria. Virginia Gamba, the head of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, denied any list of individual suspects had yet been compiled by the inquiry. “There are no identification of individuals being considered at this time,” she told Reuters by email. The use of chemical weapons is banned under international law and could constitute a war crime. While the inquiry has no judicial powers, any naming of suspects could lead to their prosecution. Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), but alleged war crimes could be referred to the court by the Security Council - although splits among global powers over the war make this a distant prospect at present. “The ICC is concerned about any country where crimes are reported to be committed,” a spokesman for the court said when asked for comment. “Unless Syria accepts the ICC jurisdiction, the only way that (the) ICC would have jurisdiction over the situation would be through a referral by the Security Council.” The list seen by Reuters could form the basis for the inquiry team’s investigations this year, according to the source. It is unclear whether the United Nations or OPCW will publish the list separately. The list identifies 15 people “to be scrutinized in relation to use of CW (chemical weapons) by Syrian Arab Republic Armed Forces in 2014 and 2015”. It does not specify what role they are suspected of playing, but lists their titles. It is split into three sections. The first, titled “Inner Circle President” lists six people including Assad, his brother who commands the elite 4th Armoured Division, the defence minister and the head of military intelligence. The second section names the air force chief as well as four commanders of air force divisions. They include the heads of the 22nd Air Force Division and the 63rd Helicopter Brigade, units that the inquiry has previously said dropped chlorine bombs. The third part of the list - “Other relevant Senior Mil Personnel” - names two colonels and two major-generals. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, an independent specialist in biological and chemical weapons who monitors Syria, told Reuters the list reflected the military chain of command. “The decisions would be made at the highest levels initially and then delegated down. Hence the first use would need to be authorized by Assad,” said de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of British and NATO chemical and biological defence divisions who frequently visits Syria for professional consultancy work. The Syrian defence ministry and air force could not be reached for comment. Syria joined the international Chemical Weapons Convention under a US-Russian deal that followed the deaths of hundreds of civilians in a sarin gas attack in Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus in August 2013. It was the deadliest use of chemicals in global warfare since the 1988 Halabja massacre at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, which killed at least 5,000 people in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Syrian government, which denied its forces were behind the Ghouta attack, also agreed to hand over its declared stockpile of 1,300 tons of toxic weaponry and dismantle its chemical weapons program under international supervision. The United Nations and OPCW have been investigating whether Damascus is adhering to its commitments under the agreement, which averted the threat of US-led military intervention. The bodies appointed the panel of experts to conduct the inquiry, and its mandate runs until November. The panel published a report in Oct 16 which said Syrian government forces used chemical weapons at least three times in 2014-2015 and that ISIS used mustard gas in 2015. The October report identified Syria’s 22nd Air Force Division and 63rd Helicopter Brigade as having dropped chlorine bombs and said people “with effective control in the military units must be held accountable”. The source familiar with the inquiry said the October report had clearly established the institutions responsible and that the next step was to go after the individuals. Washington on the 12 Jan 17 blacklisted 18 senior Syrian officials based on the UN-OPCW inquiry’s October report - some of whom also appear on the list seen by Reuters - but not Assad or his brother. The issue of chemical weapons use in Syria has become a deeply political one, and the UN-OPCW inquiry’s allegations of chlorine bomb attacks by government forces have split the UN Security Council’s veto-wielding members. The United States, Britain and France have called for sanctions against Syria, while Assad’s ally Russia has said the evidence presented is insufficient to justify such measures. A Security Council resolution would be required to bring Assad and other senior Syrian officials before the International Criminal Court for any possible war crimes prosecution - something Russia would likely block.
Syria – A UK-based Syrian war watchdog reported on the 15 Jan 17 published data tallying the number of violent incidents targeting civilians carried out by all parties in the bloody conflict for last year 2016. The report from the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) found that Syrian regime helicopters dropped 12,958 barrel bombs in 2016 in total. The strikes resulted in the deaths of 653 civilians, SNHR found, including 166 children and 86 women. Most were dropped on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, followed by Aleppo, Hama, Idlib, Daraa, and Homs. Nov 16 - when the battle to retake Aleppo intensified - saw the highest number of barrel bombs dropped. Barrel bombs are among several particularly damage-inflicting types of bombs that have been dropped on rebel held areas by the Syrian government, with the help of the Russian air force. They are illegal under international law because they have too ‘indiscriminate’ a target area, putting civilians at risk. Since they cost considerably less than missiles and the Syrian government is able to manufacture them locally, they have been widely used by President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war. SNHR also found that barrel bombs had caused damage to 97 structures throughout the country classified as civilian, such as refugee camps, places of worship and schools, as well as 28 medical facilities. Both Damascus and Moscow were warned by the UN last year that such bombing, if deliberate, constituted war crimes. Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council in Dec 16 that the Syrian government had ceased to use barrel bombs, although SNHR found that not to be the case. There were at least 1,373 attacks in total on civilian infrastructure in 2016, the watchdog said. The majority - 761 incidents - were carried out by the Syrian air force and army, another 437 by Russian forces, 55 by the main Syrian opposition, and 33 by ISIS. Another 43 incidents were carried out by the US-backed international coalition. The report's’ authors called on the UN to insure the serious implementation of the current ceasefire in Syria, which has been marred by several violations, and to pressure all parties to refrain from attacks which endanger the human rights of civilians.
Yemen/al-Qaeda – A senior leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was killed in a US air strike on the 8 Jan 17 in Yemen, the Pentagon said in a statement on the 13 Jan 17. AQAP leader Abd al-Ghani al-Rasas was killed in the air strike in a remote area of al Bayda Governorate in Yemen, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in the statement.