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Sectarian Abuses in Iraq help ensure Islamic State (IS) Survival

Tens of thousands of civilians already have fled IS-held areas, and an estimated 1 million additional civilians are in Mosul

ISIS group members with their flag. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

August 26, 2016: In its frenzy to clear Iraq of Islamic State and erase any trace of the extremists’ self-declared caliphate, Baghdad is running the risk of laying the foundation for the terror group’s resurgence.

Human rights groups already have voiced repeated concerns about the treatment of civilians from areas once controlled by IS, and point to a growing anxiety among Iraqi Sunnis living under IS that they will be targeted no matter what.

“A large number of people have simply disappeared, who were picked up when they left ISIS,” Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser, told VOA, using an acronym for the terror group.

“Pretty much everybody coming out of ISIS areas now is considered to have been there by choice and cooperated,” she said.

FILE - Iraqi security forces and allied Sunni tribal fighters help trapped civilians cross from neighborhoods under control of the Islamic State group to neighborhoods under control of Iraqi security forces in Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 4, 2016.
FILE – Iraqi security forces and allied Sunni tribal fighters help trapped civilians cross from neighborhoods under control of the Islamic State group to neighborhoods under control of Iraqi security forces in Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 4, 2016.

Most of those who have vanished are believed to have been taken by Shi’ite militias that operate parallel to the Iraqi military with the blessing of the Baghdad government.

Males suspected to have collaborated with IS have disappeared from checkpoints — such as the Hezbollah-controlled point of Razazah, near Karbala — or from extrajudicial security screening centers run by Shi’ite militias near Fallujah.

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And the fear is that human rights abuses and a lack of accountability will only increase as Iraqi federal forces, Kurdish Peshmerga and the coalition further tighten the noose around the IS stronghold of Mosul.

Fear of revenge

Although Shi’ite militias have stayed away from the Mosul front line so far, there are concerns they may move into the city as it falls to Iraqi forces.

“I fear that if the Shi’ite militias play a large role in Mosul, there will be significant revenge and retaliation actions, similar to what happened in Fallujah,” said David Witty, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel and former adviser to the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service.

As Mosul falls, Iraqi officials increasingly will be forced to decide the fate of many of the more than 1 million civilians who have lived under IS rule for more than two years.

“There are questions as to whether the judicial system could cope with these numbers,” said Francesco Motta, director of the office of human rights at the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, or UNAMI.

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“No judiciary could handle an influx of possibly thousands of cases,” Motta told VOA.

Failing system

Already, human rights groups say the system is failing.

In Anbar province, where the former IS-held cities of Ramadi and Fallujah are located, there are thousands of detainees with very few people conducting interrogations, low-quality lawyers, and few examining magistrates looking at cases, according to Amnesty’s Rovera.

“Not only did they not have the expertise, the place was like a market house on a busy market day,” Rovera said of one processing point that Amnesty visited.

“No one can do a good job in those circumstances, even if they had the skills,” she added. “With the background of a dysfunctional judiciary, that does not give a good result.

“Hopefully, for Iraqi collaborators with IS, they will get turned over to the legal system, but many will probably not make it that far,” Witty said.

Flood of suspects

Making the situation even more treacherous is the lack of resources dedicated to the official screening processes run by the Iraqi government and the Kurdish regional government.

Iraqis and foreign fighters suspected of affiliation or of fighting with IS will be transferred immediately to Ministry of Interior detention centers known as tasfiraat, or held in military prisons and charged under Iraq’s counterterrorism laws.

The problem is there could be thousands of suspects. Tens of thousands of civilians already have fled IS-held areas, and an estimated 1 million additional civilians are in Mosul.

Women and children also may be found guilty.

“It is a concern that the families will be treated similarly to the fighters,” Motta said. “The issue of accountability is becoming extremely important.”

The U.N. has been advocating for an international tribunal or investigation mechanism and appropriate domestic mechanisms to be put in place to ensure that IS victims are not unfairly charged.

Motta also pointed out that IS fighters are not the only people guilty of crimes in the two-year conflict.

“Any attempt to limit jurisdiction to one party to the conflict, or to one particular group of victims or to one particular crime, would potentially be highly detrimental in terms of ensuring justice and promoting community reconciliation,” he said.

IS has tended to lodge itself in Sunni-majority areas, exploiting deep sectarian grievances against Iraq’s majority Shi’ite governments.

If Sunni fears of sectarian abuses are realized, the future of Iraq could be bleak.

“At some point, four or five months down the road, six months down the road, a year down the road, when the governance is not being delivered, services are not being delivered, sectarian violence is taking place … [IS will] see an environment in which the conditions are ripe for them to re-establish themselves,” warned Patrick Martin, Iraq research analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. (VOA)


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Syrian Militia: End Is Near for Islamic State in Raqqa

Syria ISIS
Smoke rises near the stadium where the Islamic State militants are holed up after an airstrike by coalition forces at the frontline, in Raqqa, Syria. voa

Islamic State is on the verge of defeat in Syria’s Raqqa and the city may finally be cleared of the jihadists Saturday or Sunday, the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia told Reuters Saturday.

The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State said around 100 of the jihadist group’s fighters had surrendered in Raqqa in the last 24 hours and had been “removed from the city,” but it still expected difficult fighting “in the days ahead.”

It did not say how the fighters had been removed or where the fighters had been taken.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said remaining Islamic State fighters were being transported out of Raqqa by bus under a deal between Islamic State, the U.S.-led coalition and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the YPG. There was no immediate comment on that report from the coalition or the SDF.

Fighting since June

Civilians who escaped from Islamic State
Civilians who escaped from Islamic State militants rest at a mosque in Raqqa, Syria. voa

The SDF, backed by coalition airstrikes and special forces, has been battling since June to oust Islamic State from Raqqa city, formerly its de facto capital in Syria and a base of operations where it planned attacks against the West.

The final defeat of Islamic State at Raqqa will be a major milestone in efforts to roll back the group’s self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq, where earlier this year the group was driven from the city of Mosul.

“The battles are continuing in Raqqa city. Daesh (Islamic State) is on the verge of being finished. Today or tomorrow the city may be liberated,” YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud told Reuters by telephone.

In emailed comments to Reuters, coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon said about 100 Islamic State fighters had surrendered in Raqqa in the last 24 hours and were “removed from the city,” without giving further details.

“We still expect difficult fighting in the days ahead and will not set a time for when we think (Islamic State) will be completely defeated in Raqqa,” he said, adding that around 85 percent of Raqqa had been liberated as of Oct. 13.

Some civilians escape

Around 1,500 civilians had been able to safely make it to SDF lines within the last week, he added.

Omar Alloush, a member of a civilian council set up to run Raqqa, told Reuters late Friday that efforts were under way to secure the release of civilians and “a possible way to expel terrorist elements from Raqqa province,” without giving further details.

An activist group that reports on Raqqa, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, said on its Facebook page Saturday that dozens of buses had entered Raqqa city overnight, having traveled from the northern Raqqa countryside.

The Observatory said Syrian Islamic State fighters and their families had left the city, and buses had arrived to evacuate remaining foreign fighters and their families. It did not say where they would be taken.

During the more than six-year Syrian war, the arrival of buses in a conflict zone has often signaled an evacuation of combatants and civilians.

The campaign against Islamic State in Syria is now focused on its last major foothold in the country, the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, which neighbors Iraq.
Islamic State is facing separate offensives in Deir el-Zour by the SDF on one hand, and Syrian government forces supported by Iranian-backed militia and Russian airstrikes on the other. (VOA)

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Will the Latest Message From Islamic State Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Provoke New Attacks in the West?

IS remains a potent organization, despite its continued losses in United States and Europe

Islamic State
This image taken from a militant website July 5, 2014, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (VOA)

Washington, September 30, 2017 : U.S. intelligence officials examining the latest audio statement claiming to be from Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi say, so far, they have no reason to doubt its authenticity.

However, there are questions as to whether the message from the leader of the collapsing, self-declared caliphate will cause IS operatives to spring into action. Some analysts see Baghdadi’s continued call to arms as almost a shot in the dark, aimed at rekindling interest despite the terror group’s fading fortunes in Syria and Iraq.

The still-early U.S. intelligence assessment comes just a day after the Islamic State’s al-Furqan media wing issued the 46-minute audio recording featuring Baghdadi, in which he calls on followers to “fan the flames of war on your enemies, take it to them and besiege them in every corner.”

“Continue your jihad and your blessed operations and do not let the crusaders rest in their homes and enjoy life and stability while your brethren are being shelled and killed,” he says.

islamic state
A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter takes cover behind a wall on a street where they fight against Islamic State militants, on the front line on the western side of Raqqa, Syria (VOA)

Despite such threats, U.S. officials say the release of the latest audio message is not changing Washington’s approach.

“We are aware of the tape,” a National Security Council spokesman said Friday. “But whether it’s al-Baghdadi or any member of ISIS, the Trump administration’s policy is destroying ISIS in Iraq, Syria and around the globe.” ISIS is an acronym for Islamic State.

Still, intelligence and counterterror officials, both in the United States and in Europe, warn that IS remains a potent organization, despite its continued losses on the ground.

“We do not think battlefield losses alone will be sufficient to degrade its terrorism capabilities,” the head of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Nick Rasmussen, warned in written testimony to U.S. lawmakers earlier this week, calling IS’s reach on social media “unprecedented.”

And while Western counterterror officials say the expected wave of returning IS foreign fighters has yet to materialize, the experience and skill sets of the operatives who have made it back home are ample reasons to worry.

But some caution the new Baghdadi audio message may have more to do with the terror group’s long-term strategy than its desire to carry out attacks in the near term.

“The broadcast boosts morale by contextualizing the hardships facing the group as their losses accumulate by reminding Islamic State militants and their supporters that day-to-day actions are part of a broader struggle, and metrics of progress shouldn’t be assessed in a vacuum,” according to Jade Parker, a senior research associate at the Terror Asymmetrics Project (TAPSTRI).

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Parker also believes that while it is “extremely unlikely” the latest Baghdadi audio will spark or accelerate any IS plots, it might prevent fraying within the organization’s ranks.

“Baghdadi’s silence during the final days of IS’s battle for Mosul was a sore point for many IS fighters and supporters who felt confused and abandoned by their leader,” she added. “This statement was likely released in part to avoid that sentiment with respect to the fight to retain ground in Raqqa.” (VOA)

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Islamic State Flag saying “The Caliphate is coming”, Sighted in Pakistan

ISIS flag
Pakistani officials acknowledged that at least one IS flag was recently displayed on a billboard in Islamabad.(source: VOA)

Islamabad September 25: An Islamic State (IS), the flag was seen displayed near Islamabad which read “The Caliphate is coming,” slogan written on the flag, and was put up over a billboard Sunday on a major expressway in Islamabad.

Pakistan Interior Ministry authorities told that committee has been formed to investigate the incident. Pakistan authorities deny that IS may have established a foothold in the country.

Islamic State (ISIS) Militant Group to Soon have a Strong Hold in Southeast Asia: Report

“The group does not have an organized presence, resources or structure to be able to operate in the area,” Talal Choudhry, State Minister for Interior Affairs told VOA’s Urdu Service.

The IS terror group has taken roots in the mountain regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan since early 2015. It brands itself as the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K), a title that distinguishes the militant group in the region from its main branch in Iraq and Syria.

The Islamic State threat in Pakistan follows recent media reports and activities by local IS affiliates in various regions that indicate the group has been making inroads in the country.(VOA)