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Terrorism & Security

A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Attacks in Russia's Dagestan grab international attention after Boston

By Staff writer / 05.01.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Six people, including two teenagers, were reportedly killed in two separate attacks in Dagestan, a Russian region in the Caucasus mountains plagued by an ongoing Islamic insurgency.

Independent Russian news agency Interfax reports that two teenagers died when a bomb planted in a package exploded outside a housewares shop in the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala today.  The package had been left on the side of the road near the shop, and the teenagers, aged 15 and 17, were killed trying to open it, according to a Dagestani interior ministry official. Two other teenagers were wounded in the explosion.

State news agency RIA Novosti adds that a third man died later from the blast, which police said was equivalent to two kilograms (4.4 pounds) of TNT.

And Agence France-Presse reports that three police officers were killed last night in the city of Buinaksk when their cars came under attack by gunmen.

"Unidentified persons ... opened automatic gunfire" at the two cars the policemen were travelling in, said a statement on the Investigative Committee website.

"Two more policemen were taken to the hospital with various wounds," the statement said.

Dagestan and the rest of the Caucasus republics of Russia have been the site of a long-running Islamic insurgency against Moscow and its local allies. In 1999, Russian forces invaded Chechnya, located just west of Dagestan, to squelch a regional separatist movement. Over the years, the movement has radicalized into an Islamist terrorist operation, which has launched repeated deadly attacks over the years both in the Caucasus and against the Russian homeland, including Moscow itself.

The Causasus have come under greater scrutiny from the West recently, due to the Boston Marathon bombers' connections with the region. The parents of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev both live in Dagestan, and in 2012, Tamerlan reportedly visited relatives there. Neither brother registered on Dagestani security forces' radar however, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

The Dagestani Interior Ministry, the main law enforcement body in the Caspian republic of Dagestan, where Tsarnaev spent as many as seven months in 2012 visiting relatives, said in a statement Saturday that "the Tsarnaev brothers are not on our databases of those wanted."

The independent Interfax agency quoted a source in the Chechen security service as saying that "according to our information, these people did not appear on the republic's territory." Interfax also quoted a senior security source in Moscow, presumably from the FSB secret service, as also denying any knowledge of the Tsarnaevs. "Since the brothers Tsarnaev lived outside Russia, our special services were unable to provide our foreign partners with any operationally relevant information," the source is quoted as saying.

Street cleaners remove debris on the road after a car bomb exploded in Diwaniyah province, 95 miles south of Baghdad, Monday. (Imad al-Khozai/Reuters)

Car bombs cap week of violence that underscores Iraq's fragility

By Correspondent / 04.30.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

A fresh wave of violence in Iraq yesterday underscores the fragility of the country's nascent democratic practice, and how easily it could once again devolve into sectarian conflict. 

More than 30 people were killed when four car bombs went off in heavily populated areas in the cities of Amarah, Karbala, Diwaniyah, and Mahmoudiya, all located in Shiite areas of south and central Iraq, the Associated Press reports. The bombings come after a week of attacks on both Shiite and Sunni targets across the country that have collectively killed more than 240, prompting the government to announce a crackdown on media outlets it accuses of stoking the violence with “unprofessional reporting.”

As The Christian Science Monitor reported in March, a drumbeat of antigovernment protests has been building since December, driven by widespread Sunni dissatisfaction about their place in postwar Iraq, which is led by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite State of Law coalition.  

While many discount the possibility of a coup, rising sectarian tension and an ongoing political crisis have raised fears that there is a new battle looming between Baghdad and the provinces….

"We're being marginalized," said one young [Sunni] man who did not want to give his name. "We're not against the government, but the government could take action on this issue."

Protesters in Sunni areas have demanded the release of several thousand prisoners held under antiterrorism laws, reinstatement of former Army officers, and the hiring of more Sunnis in the Shiite-dominated security forces.

The latest wave of violence began a week ago, when security forces stormed an antigovernment Sunni protest camp in the northern city of Hawija. The subsequent fight killed 23 people, including three soldiers, according to the AP. From there, conflict rippled outward, as Sunni militants clashed with Iraqi soldiers and scattered car bombs – a favorite tactic of Al Qaeda – exploded in towns and cities around the country.

In the midst of the retaliatory back and forth, the government announced two days ago that it was revoking the licenses of 10 satellite TV channels, including Al Jazeera Arabic, which it accused of coverage that was "provocative, misleading, and exaggerated, with the objective of disturbing the civil and democratic process,” the news channel reported on its website.

The attacks and media crackdown come as Iraqis vote in a series of provincial elections, a crucial test of the fragile democratic process in the runup to its parliamentary election next year.

Voters in 12 of Iraqi’s 18 provinces cast their ballots April 20. At least 13 candidates and two political party officers were killed in the weeks leading to election day, the Monitor reports. Although turnout hovered around 50 percent and two Sunni-majority provinces rescheduled their elections due to security concerns, they were “considered to be perhaps the most democratic in Iraq’s post-war history,” according to the Monitor.

As one Iranian analyst noted in an op-ed for the Tehran Times, the elections suggested the shifting terrain of Iraqi politics.

The provincial election provided an opportunity for the government to prove its ability to maintain order and security without the help of foreigners. Since the withdrawal of the occupation forces in 2011, many were expecting that Iraq would be unable to exercise democracy on its own. However, the government organized a successful election, and Saturday's voting was mostly peaceful.

However, the elections were delayed in two provinces because of unstable security conditions, but officials later announced that those provinces would vote on July 4. Any misstep by the government in the electoral process in those areas may complicate the situation since the opposition is looking for an opportunity to highlight the weaknesses of the government and create a new controversy.    

Still, he noted, the rising violence did not bode well. “The rise of sectarian disputes in Iraq over the past few months has greatly jeopardized the prospects for a stable Iraq,” he wrote. 

Pakistani police officers cordon off the site of attack in Peshawar, Pakistan, Monday. A suicide bomber targeting policemen killed at least eight people in northwestern Pakistan on Monday in the latest attack ahead of next month's parliamentary election, police said. (Mohammad Sajjad/AP)

Will pre-election violence impact Pakistan's elections?

By Correspondent / 04.29.13

At least eight people were killed and 40 more injured in a suicide bombing on a busy road in the Pakistani city of Peshawar Monday morning. The attack capped off a weekend of election-related violence as the country prepares to go to the polls May 11.

The bomber missed his ostensible target, a local commissioner, instead crashing his motorcycle into a passenger bus, Pakistan’s News International reports. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the Pakistani Taliban have carried out a range of similar attacks against secular political parties over the past several weeks.

Indeed, the explosion came just a day after two Taliban attacks targeting political candidates in northwestern Pakistan killed at least eight and injured dozens more. The Taliban and other groups have been responsible for at least 77 deaths in 44 election-related attacks since the beginning of April, Human Rights Watch told The New York Times.

"We are not in favor of democracy. Democracy is for Jews and Christians," Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud said in a recent propaganda video, according to CNN. He implored Pakistanis not to participate in the upcoming elections.

"We want the implementation of Sharia [law], and for that jihad is necessary,” he said.

The May elections will be the first in the country’s checkered political history when one democratically elected government will make way for another, and the uptick in militant violence leading to the historic vote has rattled both domestic and international observers.

But they remain divided on whether or not the spate of attacks will have a significant affect on the election’s outcome at the national level, particularly since neither of the two parties leading in polling over the past three months are among those targeted by the attacks.

As one analyst writing in the Pakistani daily Dawn argues, the violence, though significant, is too sporadic and narrowly targeted to create the kind of chaos necessarily to significantly sway the election’s results.

As for violence making elections impossible, the quantum would have to jump multifold and that too in key urban towns to spread the kind of fear that would result in elections being postponed. The ‘threshold rule’ applies here: the state has virtually no capacity to prevent targeted violence up to a certain threshold; beyond this, the militants have little chance of carrying out a coordinated campaign of major attacks in city centres in a short time. There is little reason to believe this will be upended over the coming fortnight.

Two of the frontrunners in the national campaign are the center-right Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and the centrist party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Taliban attacks, on the other hand, have largely targeted left-leaning parties, including the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), and the Awami National Party (ANP).

Local candidates for these parties complain that the violence has forced them to dramatically scale back their campaigning activities, leaving the field open for Islamist candidates to win over voters.

"If you tie my hands, and you want me to fight, I can’t,” Mian Iftikhar Hussain, a local candidate for the ANP in the city of Peshawar, told Dawn. 

Overall, however, there is halting optimism in many quarters for Pakistan’s fragile democratic institutions. As the Monitor reported in March, the Pakistani National Assembly recently completed a five-year term for the first time in the country’s history, a signal that the country is finding new and non-militaristic ways to respond to its political grievances.   

“These five years we saw many instances of corruption, confrontations with the judiciary, and absence of law and order,” says Rasul Bakhsh Raees, a professor of political science in Lahore, pointing to Karachi and Balochistan. “But the military decided not to intervene, which shows even their attitude is changing.” …

“Every phase of democracy in Pakistan has been a battle, but the trend shows it’s [heading] toward improving the overall institutional balance,” [he says].

Violence also cast a shadow over Pakistan’s last election, in 2008. On Dec. 27, 2007, Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister and the head of the PPP – then the leading opposition party – was assassinated after a campaign rally. Two months later, however, her party and the PLM-N emerged victorious from the campaign and formed a coalition government. That August, former military leader Pervez Musharraf stepped down as president and went into exile, formally ending his nine-year military rule.  

This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows Syrian firefighters extinguishing burning cars after a car bomb exploded in the capital's western neighborhood of Mazzeh, in Damascus, Syria, Monday, April. 29, 2013. (SANA/AP)

Site of assassination attempt on Syrian prime minister sends warning to regime

By Staff writer / 04.29.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The Syrian prime minister survived a bomb attack on his convoy this morning in a wealthy neighborhood of Damascus, though his bodyguard was killed and several others were injured in the blast.

The attack in the "upscale" neighborhood highlights the increasing vulnerability of the Assad regime, as it is home to many government officials and several embassies – including the Swiss embassy, located only 100 yards from the blast, according to The Associated Press.

According to Syrian state television, Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi was unharmed in the blast, which occurred as he was traveling through the western Damascus neighborhood of Mazzeh.  A Syrian official told AP that the explosion was caused by an improvised explosive device planted beneath a parked car that detonated as Mr. Halqi's convoy passed.

The state-run Al-Ikhbariya station said al-Halqi went into a regular weekly meeting with an economic committee straight after the bombing and showed him sitting around a table in a room with several other officials.

The TV said it was showing the video as a proof that al-Halqi was not hurt. But the prime minister's comments after the meeting did not refer to Monday's blast and he was not asked about it by reporters, leaving doubts as to whether the footage was filmed before or after the bombing.

The state-aired footage showed heavily damaged cars and debris in the area of the blast as firefighters fought to extinguish a large blaze caused by the explosion.

No one has claimed responsibility for the blast, but BBC News notes that similar bombings have been linked to Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadist rebel group affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Halqi, a Sunni, was appointed last August after his predecessor, Riyad Hijab, defected from the government after serving for only two months. Reuters noted that President Bashar al-Assad and his father, both of whom are Alawites, a minority Shiite-related sect, have consistently appointed members of Syria's majority Sunni community to the premiership, but the position is largely powerless. The presidency and most of Mr. Assad's security positions are held by Alawites.

Meanwhile, rebels continued an assault launched Sunday in northern Syria to seize three military air bases and choke off the Assad regime's air power. Lebanon's Daily Star writes that, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, rebels breached the Kweiras air base in Aleppo Province and the Abu Zuhour air base in Idlib Province on Saturday, and have been fighting government forces for control.

“The rebels have broken into the [Abu Zuhour] airport but they are still on the periphery and are engaged in violent clashes with soldiers,” Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman told AFP. “It’s an important military airport because it’s still functional.”

The rebels also invaded a helicopter base near the Turkish border yesterday, the Daily Star adds. The Islamist al-Burraq Brigades said that several rebel factions are attacking the base to capture it.

Aerial bombardments by the Syrian Air Force have been responsible for some 45,000 fatalities during the Syrian civil war, the Monitor reported at the start of this year. Rebels consider the regime's air power its "main threat" because they can do little to stop attacks by helicopters and jets, even in territory they hold on the ground.

A South Korean military vehicle crosses Unification bridge, which leads to the demilitarized zone separating North Korea from South Korea near the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea, Friday. Pyongyang rejected Seoul's request for talks about the Kaesong industrial park, where operations have been suspended for nearly a month as a result of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

Seoul pulls workers out of North Korea factory complex, ending cooperative experiment

By Staff writer / 04.26.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The last symbol of cooperation between North and South Korea may be in jeopardy after Seoul announced today that it is withdrawing its workers from a jointly-run factory complex just across the border.

Pyongyang rejected Seoul's request for talks about the Kaesong industrial park, where operations have been suspended for nearly a month as a result of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. About 175 South Koreans workers were left stranded inside the economic zone in North Korea, when the North closed the border and then recalled its own workers. 

Seoul said it established today as its deadline for a response on the possibility of talks because it is concerned about access to food and medicine for its citizens still at the complex, Associated Press reports. 

"We've made the inevitable decision to bring back all the remaining personnel in Kaesong for the protection of our people as their difficulties continue to grow," South Korea's Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said in a televised statement. 

About 120 South Korean companies set up shop in the complex, which employed 53,000 North Koreans, according to The Christian Science Monitor. The endeavor was meant to be a "mutually beneficial arrangement," providing South Korean companies with cheap northern labor and North Koreans with much needed income. North Korea earned about $80 million from the complex last year, which produced $470 million worth of goods. (The Monitor visited the complex in 2006.)

The Christian Science Monitor reported on April 8, five days after the complex was closed to new workers from the South, that it was already the longest interruption of "in-and-out traffic" at the complex since it opened. The state-run Korean Central News Agency said at the time that South Korea was "trying to 'turn the zone [Kaesong] into a hotbed of war'."

North Korea's National Defense Commission said Seoul's offer of talks on Kaesong was "deceptive," citing recent US-South Korea military drills as proof that the South did not truly desire reconciliation. It promised to keep South Korean workers safe during the withdrawal, but warned that was contingent on the South not taking any antagonistic steps until its citizens were back on the southern side of the border, AP reports.

"If the South's puppet group looks away from reality and pursues the worsening of the situation, we will be compelled to first take final and decisive grave measures," the statement said.

According to Agence France-Presse, some Korea experts say it's no longer "realistic" to consider dialogue an option "given that North Korea is as committed to its demand for recognition as a nuclear power as the United States is to refusing it."

With three nuclear tests under its belt, these experts argue, North Korea is no longer the country that negotiated a 1994 nuclear deal with the US or reached a 2005 denuclearisation accord under the six-party talks framework.

Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert with the International Crisis Group, believes the current diplomatic thinking on North Korea labours under the illusion that Pyongyang has a fallback, compromise position.

In reality, Pinkston argues, the North's "military-first" policy, maintained by its new young leader Kim Jong-Un, means the regime's legitimacy rests on a perception of strength, making it impossible for it to back down.

"It just isn't going to go anywhere," Pinkston told AFP.

"It's a bit like being infatuated with someone who can't stand you. You're desperately searching and prodding to find something you share in common, but there's nothing there."

Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Siegfried Hecker, an American nuclear scientist and leading expert on the North's nuclear program, both also told AFP that the North has clearly indicated that giving up its nuclear program is not an option. 

Civilians inspect the aftermath of a car bomb attack in the Husseiniyah area of northeastern Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, April 25, 2013. A car bomb exploded after sunset on Wednesday, April 24, 2013 near a bus stop in Baghdad's mostly Shiite neighborhood of Husseiniyah, killing and wounding dozens of people, police said. (Hadi Mizban/AP)

Anti-government protests in Iraq devolve into sectarian fighting

By Staff writer / 04.25.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Scores of Iraqis have been killed in two days of sectarian fighting in central Iraq, raising concerns about a new Sunni uprising against the Shiite central government.

Agence France-Presse reports that 128 people have been killed and 269 wounded since Tuesday in fighting between security forces and anti-government protesters in Sunni-majority regions of the mostly Shiite country. The protesters have been calling for the resignation of Shiite Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki, whose government they say has been targeting Sunnis.

The Los Angeles Times writes that observers have long feared that violence would erupt from the protests, which began in December.

The protests brought together a combustible mix of Islamists, former insurgents, tribes and competing political camps across central and northern Iraq.

The government’s suspicions about the protesters and slow response to their demands had raised the prospect of an armed Sunni uprising. After Tuesday’s violence, it was no longer clear that such an uprising could be averted.

The Los Angeles Times writes that according to Iraqi authorities, the bloodshed began in the town of Hawija, near the northern city of Kirkuk, with 50 people killed, though the violence spread across the country quickly.

The Iraqi Defense Ministry said in a statement on Thursday that gunmen seized control of the town of Suleiman Beg, located north of Baghdad, after fighting with security forces on Wednesday, according to the Press Trust of India.  AFP writes that five soldiers and seven gunmen were killed and 63 wounded in the town when the gunmen attacked in apparent revenge for Tuesday's violence.  PTI adds that the gunmen seized the police station, and that the town is under siege by security forces.

The Associated Press sums up several other instances of violence across Iraq, including an attack on a security checkpoint near Mosul that left three gunmen dead; a car bomb north of Baghdad that hit a police patrol, killing one policeman and two civilians; and a car bomb at a bus stop in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad that killed seven and wounded 23.

The violence comes just days after Iraq held its first elections since US troops withdrew from the country. But the Monitor reported that those elections came "against a backdrop of widening violence, a record number of assassinations of political candidates, and deepening political division."

Although overall attacks are at roughly similar levels as they were for the last provincial elections in 2009, at least 13 candidates and two political party officers have been killed in targeted attacks in the past few weeks – a record number.  Almost 150 candidates have so far been struck off the list of candidates, most of them for alleged ties to the banned Baath Party of Saddam Hussein.

“It’s a showdown,” says Iraqi political analyst Saad Eskander. “They use 'legal' methods – expelling the ones they don’t want or by force – physical liquidation. This is an extension of politics, not an extension of terrorism.”

The elections were postponed in the Sunni provinces of Anbar and Ninevah for security reasons "in an indication of the growing divide between Iraqi provinces and the central government," the Monitor noted. And the northern Kurdish region will not hold elections until September.

This undated combo photo shows Bishop Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church (l.) and John Ibrahim of the Assyrian Orthodox Church (r.) who were kidnapped Monday, in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria. The fate of two prominent Orthodox bishops remains uncertain, after their churches were unable to verify a claim that the pair had been released by their 'terrorist' captors. (SANA/AP)

Kidnapped Syrian bishops still missing, despite reports otherwise

By Staff writer / 04.24.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The fate of two prominent Orthodox bishops reportedly kidnapped in northern Syria remains uncertain, after their churches were unable to verify a claim that the pair had been released by their "terrorist" captors.

BBC News reports that Greek Orthodox Bishop Boulos Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim, both leaders of their churches in Aleppo, are still missing and their families remain concerned about their well being. The two men were seized and their driver killed on Monday by an "armed terrorist group" according to Syrian state television, which routinely describes all rebels as terrorists.

The French Oeuvre d'Orient Christian association claimed yesterday that Bishop Yazigi and Bishop Ibrahim had been freed and returned to Aleppo, but members of Bishop Yazigi's archdiocese told Agence France-Presse that they had no evidence of that.

"We have no new information," Ghassan Ward, a priest at the archdiocese, told AFP. "We can say that (as far as we know) they haven't been freed," he added of Greek Orthodox Bishop Boulos Yaziji and Syriac Orthodox Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim.

....Ward told AFP on Wednesday that there had been "no contact with them," adding that "efforts are continuing" to secure their release.

"We are very worried," he said.

The Oeuvre d'Orient Christian association backed away from its claim on Wednesday, telling AFP that "no tangible proof of the release has been obtained. The situation remains unclear..."

According to a Syriac member of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) rebel group, the bishops were grabbed by the gunmen while traveling to Aleppo from the rebel-held Bab al Hawa crossing with Turkey. Bishop Ibrahim has reportedly traveled the route several times before, Reuters reports.

Bishop Tony Yazigi, a relative of the kidnapped Bishop Boulos Yazigi, told the Associated Press that the gunmen are believed to be Chechen fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, the jihadist rebel group affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq.

The bishops' kidnapping has been roundly condemned, reports AFP. Pope Francis on Wednesday called for the pair to "be returned quickly to their communities," while the SNC blamed the Assad regime for their kidnapping and said the rebel Free Syrian Army was not involved.

"Efforts ... to uncover the identities of the clerics' kidnappers and to liberate them indicate that the Syrian regime is responsible for the kidnapping, and [the] killing of Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim's driver," the SNC said.

Bishop Ibrahim told Reuters in September that the ongoing conflict in Syria had been devastating for Aleppo and its Christian population, which has fled the city in droves. "In its modern history Aleppo has not seen such critical and painful times ... Christians have been attacked and kidnapped in monstrous ways and their relatives have paid big sums for their release," he said.

In an extensive look at Syria's Christian population, the BBC notes that the minority makes up about 10 percent of the country's 22 million people. Syria's Christians have "long been among Syria's elite," though "they are generally not seen to have any real power compared with their Alawite and Sunni colleagues," who make up most of the country's Muslim population.

A general view shows Khan al-Assal area near the northern city of Aleppo, near the site where forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad say was a chemical weapons attack in March. (George Ourfalian/Reuters)

Israel charges Syria with lethal chemical weapons use

By Staff writer / 04.23.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

A senior Israeli military intelligence analyst said today that the military has evidence that the Syrian regime used lethal chemical weapons in a much-scrutinized March attack – the most decisive ruling on those events yet. 

The Associated Press notes that this is the first time Israel has made such accusations against the Syrian regime. Western officials seem to widely believe that chemical agents of some kind were used in a March 19 attack, but are at odds over what type. 

Amid the flurry of initial accusations – regime and rebel forces each alleged that the other had used chemical weapons – experts told The Christian Science Monitor there was no early evidence that lethal chemical weapons agents were used and that the attack bore signs of nothing more toxic than "a riot-control agent designed to cause irritation."

“In the end, all I can say with confidence is that whatever the conventional or non-conventional munition was, it was not a CW [Chemical Weapons] agent as defined by the CWC [Chemical Weapons Convention],” said Charles Blair, senior fellow for state and non-state threats at the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists, at the time.

But governments have continued to pursue the issue, amassing evidence to make a case that the Assad regime used such weapons, violating international law.

Last week Britain and France sent a confidential letter (subsequently leaked) to United Nations Secretary General Ban ki-Moon asserting that they had proof that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons in around Aleppo, Homs, and possibly Damascus, The New York Times reports.

Brigadier-General Itai Brun, who is head of military intelligence research for the Israeli Defense Forces, said Israeli evidence – including photographs taken of the area after the attacks – indicated sarin gas, a deadly agent that killed 13 in the Tokyo subway system in 1995, as well as a second agent, "a retardant of some kind," Israeli newspaper Haaretz notes.

"To the best of our professional understanding, the regime used lethal chemical weapons against the militants in a series of incidents over the past months, including the relatively famous incident of March 19," he said, according to AP. "Shrunken pupils, foaming at the mouth and other signs indicate, in our view, that lethal chemical weapons were used."

The Israeli assessment goes further than intelligence from other countries, including the US, which have resisted making conclusions about the type of chemical used in the March 19 attack near Damascus. In fact, some maintain that the agent may not have been lethal, according to Haaretz.

That camp includes experts interviewed by the Monitor and conclusions drawn from interviews with Syrian refugees and rebel fighters:

Syrian television showed crowded hospital scenes with dozens of people being treated for apparent respiratory problems. But the footage of the victims and the lack of pictures from the scene of the blast itself undermined the mutually-traded accusations of a chemical weapons attack.

“I am not convinced that the footage and pictures I have seen prove a CW attack,” wrote Jean Pascal Zanders, a senior research fellow at the Paris-based European Union Institute for Security Studies, on the Arms Control Law blog. “There are no images of the site of the attack; just of some affected people. These people do not show outward symptoms of a CW attack. Definitely not mustard; definitely not a nerve agent.”

The Monitor has heard similar unproven allegations from Syrian refugees and rebel fighters of a paralyzing agent being used near Qusayr, a rebel-held town five miles north of the border with Lebanon. During a nighttime battle in mid-January in Jusiyah, a village south of Qusayr on the border with Lebanon, rebel fighters were allegedly incapacitated by a smoke from a bomb they believe was dropped by a passing jet. Fighters who came to the assistance of their comrades said they found men lying “paralyzed” on the ground, some choking and most unable to speak. 

The New York Times reports that the Israeli conclusion has "potentially broad-reaching implications" for the US role in Syria. President Barack Obama said last month in Israel that the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons would be a "game changer," but the US has appeared reluctant to delve deeper into the growing body of intelligence pointing to chemical weapons use.

If American officials have been more reluctant that their allies to come to firm conclusions, it may be because it would force Mr. Obama’s hand. In August, the president told reporters that any evidence that Mr. Assad was moving the weapons or making use of them could prompt the United States to act.

“That would change my calculus,” he said. “That would change my equation.”

But when strong evidence emerged earlier this year that Mr. Assad’s forces were in fact moving their weapons -- at least from one depot to another -- the White House insisted that the action did not cross the line that Mr. Obama set. By “move'’ the weapons, a White House spokesman said, Mr. Obama meant transferring them to a terror group, like Hezbollah. He said there was no evidence of that. 

According to The New York Times, the US has plans for taking control of such weapons, but would rather neighboring countries take charge. "But if the weapons were actually used, as three American allies now contend, it would be far more difficult for Mr. Obama to argue that his 'red line' has not been crossed," the paper wrote. 

There is little pressure on Israel to intervene in Syria and it has little interest in taking sides in a war in a country with whom it has had a cold, but stable, relationship for 40 years. But Israel is concerned about where advanced weapons, including chemical ones, might end up amid the chaos – specifically in the hands of Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, an Assad ally, or Islamist extremists fighting alongside the Syrian opposition. 

The Christian Science Monitor reported shortly after the March attack that there are at least four sites where chemical weapons are suspected of being manufactured, as well as 50 or more storage facilities. The regime is believed to have moved some of the weapons to more secure storage facilities in areas with strong regime control. 

Former Taliban militants stand in line, hand-cuffed after turning in their weapons during a ceremony with the Afghan government in Herat, Afghanistan in early April. (Hoshang Hashimi/AP)

Taliban seize international hostages from helicopter

By Staff writer / 04.22.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

A group of Turkish engineers and their pilots were captured late last night by the Taliban after their helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing in eastern Afghanistan.

BBC News reports that the civilian helicopter was carrying seven Turkish construction workers, two Russian pilots, and an Afghan when it was forced down by bad weather and seized by insurgents in the Azra district of Logar province, located south of Kabul. The Taliban confirmed to BBC that they were holding the group.

There are conflicting reports on the exact composition of the captured group. Reuters writes that there were eight Turks and only one Russian pilot, as well as an Afghan, while Agence France-Presse cites the group as containing only eight Turks and one Afghan. An emailed statement from Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the crew included American military officers, but the insurgents frequently make false battlefield claims.

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Levent Gumrukcu told the press that the captives were believed to be in good health, and that Turkish officials were in contact with their Afghan counterparts about the situation, reports Reuters.

American military newspaper Stars & Stripes reports that the helicopter came down next to a former medical clinic that is now being used as a military post by the Taliban, according to Logar Provincial Council member Dr. Abdul Wali Wakil, who is from Azra district.

Wakil said he and other provincial representatives are working with tribal leaders to negotiate for the hostages’ release and warned that it was not the time for military action. He said the Taliban are strong in the area and that no other insurgent groups operate there.

“The Taliban took them to the mountains,” Wakil said. “Right now we are seriously looking into this issue because we are afraid if a military action is taken, maybe it will have negative results, maybe civilian casualties or damage.”

The BBC notes that civilian helicopter flights occur frequently in Afghanistan, averaging 100 per day across the country, and are a "vital link for remote bases, carrying workers and supplies." Reuters adds that crashes and "hard landings" are relatively frequent occurrences there.

Reporting last March, when a Turkish helicopter crash in Afghanistan killed at least 12 soldiers, The Christian Science Monitor noted that Turkey contributes 1,845 troops to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Most of those troops are stationed in Kabul.

The Monitor also noted that while most of the Western nations that contribute forces to the ISAF are growing weary of the conflict in Afghanistan and are under pressure from their respective publics to withdraw, Turkey has a much closer connection to the country. As such, incidents like last year's crash – or this weekend's kidnapping – are not apt to change attitudes in Ankara toward Afghanistan.

“Turkey sees opportunities in Afghanistan quite differently than France would or any other player in Western Europe,” Candace Rondeaux, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Afghanistan, told the Monitor last year. "There are cultural ties, there are ethnic ties, historical ties, and all of these factors play into the calculus of how Ankara would view an incident like this."

Policemen stand guard at a polling centre in Baghdad Friday. A suicide bomber blew himself up inside a Baghdad cafe on Thursday evening, killing at least 32 and wounding dozens more. The late evening blast in west Baghdad came just two days before provincial elections that will be a major test of Iraq's political stability more than a year after the last American troops left the country. (Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters)

Pre-election violence rocks Baghdad, capped with cafe bombing today

By Staff writer / 04.19.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

A bomb attack in Baghdad has left dozens dead and scores injured just days before provincial elections are slated to take place. The elections are an important test of Iraq’s political stability more than a year after US troops departed.

At least 32 people have been reported killed in a suspected suicide bomb blast, which took place in a popular cafe on the third floor of a building in the capital city, reports the Associated Press.

"It was a huge blast," a police official at the scene told Reuters. "Part of the building fell in and debris hit people shopping in the mall below." Rescue workers continue to search for victims.

There has been a slew of deadly incidents in the leadup to Saturday’s elections. A separate AP report notes that on Thursday a police officer was killed by gunmen at a security checkpoint in the capital and a car bomb went off near an army convoy in the northwest of the country.

Sunni extremists are believed to be behind the cafe bombing, which may be an attempt to destabilize the Shiite-led government. According to The Christian Science Monitor, “The divide between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis that brought the country to civil war has widened again recently, with many Sunni Iraqis saying the Shiite-led government has discriminated against them since Saddam [Hussein] fell.”

According to Reuters:

Ten years after the US-led invasion, Sunni Islamists linked to Al Qaeda carry out at least one major attack a month, but insurgents have stepped up suicide attacks since the start of the year as part of a campaign to provoke confrontation between the country's Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

More than 30 people were killed in a series of bombings across Iraq on Monday and more than a dozen election candidates have been killed in the run-up to the vote.

CNN reports that some fear recent violence could impact voter turnout. The United Nations special representative to Iraq, Martin Kobler, encouraged heightened security at polling places this weekend so that citizens could cast their ballots in safety.

Iraqi leaders, Mr. Kobler said, must "collectively endure a transparent and peaceful election, free of intimidation or political interference." Kobler also addressed Iraqi citizens, asking them to cast ballots this weekend. He appealed specifically to youth at one point, calling them “the future of this country.”

March marked 10 years since the US invasion of Iraq. Monitor correspondent Dan Murphy noted in the lead up to the historic date that “the war never really ended” for Iraqis.

Though Iraq is much more peaceful than it was during the height of its sectarian civil war from 2003 to 2009, which claimed more than 165,000 lives, it remains one of the world's most dangerous places. In 2011 it suffered more terrorist attacks and deaths from terrorist attacks than any other country but Afghanistan….

The Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has sidelined Sunni political rivals, when it hasn’t pursued politically-motivated terrorism investigations against them.

In Sunni majority areas … the grievances that have simmered since the US departure from Iraq have come close to boiling again.

What that means is not only more recruits for Sunni militant groups, but also a greater willingness of Sunnis not directly involved to look the other way when they stumble across a neighbor preparing a suicide car bomb in his garage.

That Iraqi unity and “reconciliation” that the US troop surge was supposed to set the stage for in the country? That never happened. 

Parliamentary elections are set to take place in 2014, and many view this weekend’s vote as a test of the “political muscle” of Prime Minister Maliki’s power-sharing government, notes Reuters.

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