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Terrorism & Security

A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

This citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network, taken on Sunday, Aug. 26, purports to show people killed by shabiha, pro-government militiamen, being buried in a mass grave in Daraya, Syria. According to activists' accounts, government forces retook the Damascus suburb of Daraya from rebel control three days ago and have since gone on a killing spree. (Shaam News Network/AP)

'Atrocity on a new scale'? Syrians piece together story of Daraya massacre

By Staff writer / 08.27.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

New video footage has provided graphic evidence of a massacre reportedly committed by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Damascus suburb of Daraya.  If reports from the London-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights of more than 300 dead are confirmed, "it would be an atrocity of a new scale" in the Syrian conflict, a British diplomat warned.

Over the weekend, activists posted multiple bloody videos of the victims of what they say was a coordinated massacre of citizens of Daraya – mostly young men of fighting age, although women and children were killed as well – that began on Friday. 

“The Assad forces killed them in cold blood,” Abu Ahmad, a resident of Daraya, told The New York Times.  “I saw dozens of dead people, killed by the knives at the end of Kalashnikovs, or by gunfire. The regime finished off whole families, a father, mother and their children. They just killed them without any pretext.”

The Local Coordination Committees activist group said that some 150 bodies were found Saturday night in the basement of a mosque in what seems to be the largest single killing site, though additional sites continue to be found – another 15 bodies were found in the basement of a home on Sunday.  The LCC puts the death toll for the week in Daraya at more than 630.

“Daraya, a city of dignity, has paid a heavy price for demanding freedom,” the group said in a statement, adding: “The death toll has doubled in the past few days due to field executions and revenge killings.”

Foreign journalists remain largely unable to confirm reports on the ground in Syria, due to violence and government restrictions.  But British Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt said that “If confirmed, it would be an atrocity of a new scale, requiring unequivocal condemnation from the entire international community,” reports the Telegraph. 

“It is clear that was collective punishment,” Khaled Al-Shami, an activist from Damascus, told the Associated Press. “I am certain that the coming days will reveal more massacres, but by then others will have taken place and people will forget about Daraya.”  Mr. Shami also said that Daraya was under a de facto curfew Sunday, as Syrian government forces carried out house-to-house searches.

The AP adds that the regime's campaign in Dayara is being carried out by an elite division of the military led by President Assad's brother, Maher.  Although it is unclear what prompted the campaign, the AP notes that Daraya abuts the capital's military airport, which activists say Assad intends to use as a gateway out of Damascus should the situation turn fully against the regime.

The Independent of London writes that the attack on Daraya began last week with five days of bombardment by tanks and helicopters. Late Friday, regime troops began systematically moving through the suburb, advancing 200 yards at a time.  "They would then shell the streets in front of them and raid the area," activists told The Independent.

Syrian state media blamed rebels for the violence, reports Agence France-Presse, and claimed that regime forces had "purified [Daraya] of terrorist remnants."

Pro-government television Al-Dunia said "terrorists" carried out the attacks, as it interviewed residents including traumatised children and showed a number of bloodied bodies lying in the streets.

"Our valiant armed forces cleared Daraya of the remnants of armed terrorist groups which committed crimes that traumatised the citizens of the town and destroyed public and private property," government newspaper Ath-Thawra said.

Assad, at a meeting with a top official from regional ally Iran, accused Western and neighboring powers of being behind a "conspiracy" against the Syrian regime, and promised he would not yield to pressure.  "The Syrian people will not allow this conspiracy to achieve its objectives" and will defeat it "at any price," he said.

IN PICTURES: Conflict in Syria

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In this Aug. 5 photo, a Pakistani Taliban militant holds a rocket-propelled grenade at the Taliban stronghold of Shawal, in Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan along the Afghanistan border. US missiles killed 18 suspected militants in Pakistan along the Afghan border today, just one day after Pakistani authorities met with a United States diplomat to protest drone strikes in the country. (Ishtiaq Mahsud/AP)

US drone attack kills 18 in restive North Waziristan, despite Pakistan protests

By Staff writer / 08.24.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

American missiles targeting suspected militants in Pakistan along the Afghan border killed 18 today, just one day after Pakistani authorities met with a United States diplomat to protest drone strikes in the country.

The US drone campaign has been a serious contributor of tension between the US and Pakistan, and today’s attacks were the fourth in one week, reports the Associated Press. All of this week’s attacks took place in North Waziristan, an especially restive area where the Pakistani military has yet to conduct any operations against militants.

Pakistan sees the use of drones as a violation of their sovereignty, but the US argues that drones are vital in combatting militants, including members of Al Qaeda and Taliban, active along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The drone strikes are unpopular in Pakistan for other reasons as well – many believe they kill mostly civilians, something the US disputes.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry said yesterday that an unnamed American diplomat was told that drone strikes are “unlawful, against international law, and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty,” adding that the attacks are “unacceptable.” Pakistan has long been a vocal opponent of the drone strikes.

In 2010 the US conducted 117 drone strikes in Pakistan's border region, according to the Long War Journal. In 2011, that number dropped to 64, and there have been an estimated 33 so far this year, including today’s.

According to AP, despite the Pakistani government's public opposition to the drones, it has surreptitiously backed their use.

The [Pakistani] government is widely believed to have supported the attacks quietly in the past. That cooperation has come under pressure as the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated.

“This is a product of sleeping with the enemy,” wrote a reader in a comment on a story in the Pakistani newspaper The Express Tribune on a drone strike earlier this week.

The debate over the use of drones is heated in the US as well. In an International Herald Tribune blog post this week, Mark McDonald explores whether drones are worth their cost – not just militarily, but socially and politically as well.

Drones are seen as more efficient than sending in US troops, Mr. McDonald notes:

Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that drones are a useful and effective way of combating the likes of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, especially in remote terrain and difficult warscapes. Get in, gather the intel, launch a surgical strike, get out, no troops lost.

“Any time you can use a drone instead of using a Marine, I think it’s a good thing,” said Stephen A. Cheney, a retired Marine general who is CEO of the American Security Project, a research group in Washington.

“Policymakers like drones because they are considered an efficient, effective way to gather intelligence and target suspected terrorists,” said a fact sheet recently published by the security project.

Drones also can be deployed (or reassigned) quickly. Their missiles are relatively precise. They are seen as better data collectors than ground-based sources. And they don’t get tired.

But despite all the potential “pluses” to implementing drone strikes, there are many costs, McDonald points out. Targeted killing can have large social and political costs in the country where they take place, and some question whether the potential negatives are worth the security achieved.

Are drone strikes legally and morally defensible? There has recently been some reporting that suggests drone pilots are now carrying out “double-tap” attacks, firing on people who arrive to help the wounded from an initial strike, or to carry away the dead, or to salvage vehicles and equipment.

And what of the collateral damage at home? Even thought they fly their drones remotely, nearly half of all Reaper, Predator and Global Hawk operators report “high operational stress,” as my colleague Elisabeth Bumiller has reported.

Another issue concerns targeting. Is the intelligence on the ground reliable? Men with weapons “acting suspiciously” – is this reason enough to fire at them?

“What did the person do that made them drone-worthy?” says Christine Fair, a South Asia scholar and professor at Georgetown University

And what about compensation for collateral damage and civilians being killed in drone strikes? Merely establishing that real, identifiable innocents have been killed can be problematic, especially in the tribal areas where physical access is difficult and census records are unreliable.

“If we kill someone innocent, there should be compensation,” says Ms. Fair. “We do it in Afghanistan.”

Pakistani intelligence said today’s drone-fired missiles hit three suspected militant hideouts, and that each of the compounds were hit by two missiles. These hideouts are frequently used by militants crossing into Afghanistan, reports AP. An additional 14 people were injured in the attacks.

Pakistan’s Foreign Office Spokesman Muazzam Khan said today that it has been in contact with the US over the use of drones and that they are reviewing different options, according to Pakistan’s News International. 

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UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon speaks to the media during a press conference in Dili, East Timor, Wednesday, Aug. 15. (Kandhi Barnez/AP)

UN chief plans to attend summit in Iran, drawing both support and fire

By Staff writer / 08.23.12

 • A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will attend next week’s summit of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran, drawing criticism from the United States and Israel and dealing a setback to their effort to isolate Iran.

It is not unusual for a UN secretary-general to attend a meeting of the NAM, which is made up of 120 largely developing nations. But this year's host, Iran, has a controversial nuclear program and is accused of aiding the Assad regime in Syria and threatening the existence of Israel, prompting many Western leaders, politicians, and NGOs to express disapproval of Mr. Ban's decision to attend.

"The fact that the meeting is happening in a country that's in violation of so many of its international obligations and posing a threat to neighbors ... sends a very strange signal with regard to support for the international order, rule of law, etc.," US State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last week.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also spoke out against Ban’s attendance, saying: "To grant legitimacy, however unintentional, to a regime that openly calls for the elimination of another UN member state will stain you and the organization you lead."

But many see Iran’s contentious statements and international isolation as the very reason Ban should attend the conference, focusing on a diplomatic opportunity. Ban has raised the volume on his criticism of Iran's leadership in the leadup to the summit, just last week describing the verbal attack of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Israel as “offensive and inflammatory,” according to the Associated Press.

Mr. Ahmadinejad stated that there was no place for the Jewish state in the Middle East, and in the past has questioned whether the Holocaust of World War II actually happened. Additionally, last week, Mr. Khamenei said Israel would one day be returned to the Palestinian nation and cease to exist. 

Nonetheless, a diplomatic source anonymously told Reuters news service that the nonaligned movement is “a very important bloc of nations … [Ban] can’t not go.”

A Security Council diplomat said it was important for the secretary-general to go. He said Ban should not turn his back on the entire non-aligned movement because one member, Iran, happens to have a president who doubts the Holocaust and questions Israel's right to exist.

A UN spokesman said the NAM represents two-thirds of UN member states, reports a second Reuters story.

According to Ali Reza Miryousefi, the press officer of the mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the UN, the Nonaligned Movement in Tehran will help the group of nations “realize the movement’s objectives,” reports the Tehran Times. In response to a Washington Post editorial published on Aug. 15, Mr. Miryousefi wrote an Op-Ed headlined “The Importance of the Tehran Summit,” criticizing the Post's stand:

The Post’s Aug. 15 editorial “Fool’s errand” unjustifiably smeared Iran and mocked the upcoming Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran as a “bacchanal of nonsense.” This ignored the growing importance of the movement, made up of the majority of UN member states, in international affairs.

In light of its focus on multilateral cooperation, disarmament, sustainable world peace, rights of nations and horizontal relations defying hegemonic structures, the Non-Aligned Movement is a major cross-regional group in the United Nations, and U.N. leaders have always participated in its summits. By bringing dozens of world leaders together, the summit promises to make significant contributions to the movement’s lofty objectives.

Diplomats don’t expect Ban to raise the topic of Iran’s nuclear program – which Iran says is a peaceful initiative and the West claims is working toward the nuclear weapons – during the summit, according to Reuters. Many believe he is likely to broach these topics, however, during his probable private meeting with the Iranian president, and UN Spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters that, "With respect to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Secretary-General will use the opportunity to convey the clear concerns and expectations of the international community." 

Ban is "fully aware of the sensitivities" linked to his visit, but he is also aware of his responsibilities as head of the United Nations, Mr. Nesirky said.

According to Foreign Policy, the US response to Ban’s attendance of the NAM summit, which will take place from Aug. 26-31, “reflects the heightened sensitivity to engaging Iran” during an election year.  

“Why the Washington furor? This is an election year in which Iran is perhaps the only foreign-policy issue that has political traction with any constituency in the United States," said Jeffrey Laurenti, an expert on the United Nations at the Century Foundation. "This is what a secretary-general is supposed to do – explore any diplomatic opening. The fact that Washington is in a period when all diplomatic openings are slammed shut does not mean that the rest of the world would automatically follow suit."

The NAM’s mission is to improve and enhance national development of member nations by “strengthening and expanding South-South Technical Cooperation” in international development, according to the Nonaligned Movement website.  Members include Egypt, Cuba, Ethiopia, Bolivia, the Maldives, and Iran, and according to Press TV, 31 heads of state are expected to attend the 16th NAM summit, where the rotating chairmanship will be transferred from Egypt to Iran.  

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In this Friday, Aug. 17, photo, a Syrian man walks by a building destroyed in an airstrike in Aleppo, Syria. (Khalil Hamra/AP)

Russia, US spar over threat posed by Syria's chemical weapons

By Staff writer / 08.22.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

An unnamed Russian official told leading Russian daily Kommersant that "confidential dialogue" with the Syrian regime has assured Moscow that President Bashar al-Assad will not use chemical weapons against the opposition in the country's civil war and that he remains capable of keeping them secure.

The disclosure was a response to President Obama's threat earlier this week of "enormous consequences" for the Assad regime if it seemed to be preparing to utilize its chemical weapons arsenal. "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized," Obama said, according to NBC News. "That would change my calculus."

According to the Kommersant report, the same Russian official said that Moscow thought it "entirely probable" that the US would act, Reuters reports.

Russia has vehemently opposed any outside intervention in Syria, blocking three United Nations Security Council resolutions to take stronger action against the Assad regime. Moscow's concern is that the US is using the threat of chemical weapons as an excuse for intervening in Syria militarily. Damascus shares those concerns. The Washington Post reports that Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil said yesterday, “If this excuse does not work, [the US] will look for another excuse."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said two days ago that only the Security Council could authorize action against Syria and urged the international community not to try to impose "democracy by bombs," according to a separate Reuters report. 

According to the first Reuters report cited here, Russia said that after a Syrian official warned it could employ chemical weapons against "external aggressors," Russia told Damascus that "even the threat to employ the arsenal was unacceptable." Last month, Syria publicly acknowledged for the first time that it had chemical and biological weapons, and said that if other countries tried to intervene, it could use them. 

The Washington Post reports that some analysts have voiced their disapproval of Obama's remarks, fearing that they will be interpreted as a message that the US will not take action unless chemical weapons are engaged – rendering the use of heavy weapons, for example, permissible. 

“I don’t like his formulation at all. It inadvertently tells the Syrians they can get away with anything but chemical weapons,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the nonpartisan Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The unusually direct US warning on Syria’s weapons of mass destruction echoes discussion of the “red lines” that Iran must not cross in developing its disputed nuclear program.

Iran has carefully assembled nearly all the resources it needs to build a bomb without crossing the boundaries that the United States and others have drawn – such as the expulsion of international nuclear inspectors or the enrichment of uranium to levels that would fuel a nuclear bomb. 

According to the Washington Post, the US is tracking at least four chemical weapons sites in Syria. It is concerned not only that the regime might use the weapons, but that the weapons might end up in Hezbollah's or Al Qaeda's hands amid the chaos of the civil war.

A senior Western official told the Post they've seen "no change" so far in either the location or level of safeguards on the weapons.

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Firefighters and police officers work at the scene of an explosion in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, on Monday. (Courtesy of Habip Demirci/Ihlas/Reuters)

Kurds deny hand in Turkey car bombing

By Correspondent / 08.21.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Kurdish separatists denied responsibility today for a car bombing in southeast Turkey yesterday that killed at least nine people, including four children, and wounded scores more.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a separatist militant group operating in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, immediately came under suspicion after a car bomb exploded late yesterday in the city of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border. But Reuters reports that Firat, a website with close ties to the PKK, writes that the rebels denied involvement, saying "Our fighters have nothing to do with this explosion."

Al Jazeera's Sue Turton, reporting from Gaziantep, said that many Turks were quick to accuse the PKK, which has been behind similar attacks in the past.

"A lot of people [were] chanting anti-PKK slogans, though it is not clear if they are responsible," she said. But she notes that Gaziantep is considered an unlikely target for the PKK. "People here are scratching the heads because, even if some towns are vulnerable to the PKK, this town is certainly not one of them."

Reuters notes that another Kurdish separatist group, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks, has sometimes conducted attacks outside of the PKK's usual sphere of operations.

The PKK has a long history in the region. The rebel group has waged a 28-year campaign to create an independent Kurdish state in southeast Turkey, and more than 40,000 people have died in the conflict. It is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union, and the United States

But the conflict has been stirred up as of late by the civil war in Syria, where Kurds make up 10 to 15 percent of the population – the largest ethnic minority in the country. Starting in mid-July, Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad began withdrawing from Kurdish regions in the northeast of the country, leaving them in the hands of Syria's Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), reports the Associated Press.

[The Syrians] ceded de facto control to armed Kurdish fighters who have since set up checkpoints, hoisted Kurdish flags, and [begun] exercising a degree of autonomy unheard of before.

It is an extraordinary development for a community that has long been oppressed and discriminated against by the Assad regime, one that threatens to upset a decades-long geopolitical balance involving Syria, Turkey and Iraq, and challenge old regional alliances.

"The Kurds are emerging as one of the major winners of the crisis in Syria," said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. "They have begun laying the foundation for an autonomous region like their counterparts in Iraq. It's a dream-like situation for them."

Writing at his blog Syria Comment, Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma's Center for Middle East Studies argues that upsetting the regional balance is just what President Assad intended by ceding ground to the Kurds, turning them against Turkey and Assad's rebel opponents, the Free Syrian Army.

Assad’s Kurdish strategy appears to be to help the PKK to take control of the Kurdish regions of Syria in the [northeast]. His aim is to hurt both the Free Syrian Army and Turkey, which are leading the opposition against him. In general, his strategy is to weaken the Sunni Arabs of Syria.

The PKK, masquerading as the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is the wing of the Kurdish movement that is most anti-Turkish and therefor anti-Free Syrian Army. It is also vocally pan-Kurdish in contrast to many of the other Kurdish parties in Syria, which have positioned themselves, at least for the time-being, around the more limited goal of seeking Kurdish national rights enshrined in an autonomous region within Syria. ... Because the PKK is better armed and more militant than other Kurdish groups, it has advantages because it is more prepared for war and the use of force.

The PYD commander in Syria's Kurdish territory, Commander Hassan, told the Voice of America that the PYD is not seeking independence for the region, which also includes several non-Kurdish communities. “The demographics [population distribution] do not support independence here and we are not looking for independence," Hassan explained. "All we want are our human rights and self-determination – not separation, just democratic autonomy.”

But Hassan said that neither Assad's regime nor the Syrian rebels have been willing to acknowledge the Kurdish minority, and so the PYD will continue to resist.

“Whatever happens, as long as the regime attacks the Kurdish people and maintains its policy regarding us, the Kurdish people will continue to sacrifice and will resist to the last drop of blood,” he said.

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United Nations observers embrace upon arrival in Damascus, Syria from Homs, as they prepare to depart the country, Monday, Aug. 20. (Muzaffar Salman/AP)

UN observers pull out of Syria as Western intelligence work ramps up

By Correspondent / 08.20.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Four months after entering Syria to observe a cease-fire that never took hold, United Nations monitors departed Damascus today, leaving the country in the throes of a civil war.

Reuters reports that several UN-tagged cars left a Damascus hotel this morning, carrying away the last of the unarmed observers.  Most of the observers, who numbered 300 at their peak, had already left after the mission was suspended in June.  The mission officially ended at 12:00 a.m.

"Our mission failed because the two sides did not abide by their commitments," one uniformed UN observer, who declined to be named, said at the Damascus hotel.

As the UN monitors left Syria, fighting raged across the country today, the second day of the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday.  The Associated Press writes that according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination committees, six people were killed today in Daraa, where the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime began.  Other reports say at least seven people were killed in the town of Moadamiyeh, possibly in connection to the defection of some 30 troops and a tank to the rebels in the area.  None of the reports could be independently confirmed.

The UN's new envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi of Algeria, told the AP yesterday that the UN mission is further handicapped by the Security Council's split over how to handle Syria.  Both China and Russia have repeatedly used their vetoes to block Western- and Arab-supported Security Council resolutions.

"The problem is not what I can do differently, it is how others are going to behave differently," Brahimi told The Associated Press at his Paris home on Sunday.

"If they spoke in one voice and were clearly supportive of what I will be doing on their behalf, that is what I need," Brahimi said in response to what he wants from the Security Council. "Without a unified voice from the Security Council, I think it will be difficult," the former Algerian foreign minister added.

There were also two separate reports yesterday that Britain and Germany have been offering intelligence support to the Syrian rebels.  The German newspaper Bild am Sonntag reported yesterday that members of Germany's foreign intelligence service are monitoring troop movements in Syria from ships stationed off the coast.  Agence France-Presse quotes Bild as saying the ships are equipped with "technology allowing them to observe troop movements 600 kilometers (400 miles) inside the country," and "They pass their findings onto US and British officers who then supply the rebels with the information."

The paper also cited an unnamed US official as saying that "no Western intelligence service has such good sources inside Syria" as Germany's does.

Separately, The Sunday Times in London reported that British intelligence is passing information to the Free Syrian Army from their bases in Cyprus, located off the coast of Syria, by way of the US and Turkey. The Daily Mail reports that a Syrian opposition official told the Times (paywalled) that "British intelligence is observing things closely from Cyprus. It's very useful because they find out a great deal. ... The British are giving the information to the Turks and the Americans and we are getting it from the Turks."

The official said that the British intelligence has been particularly helpful in monitoring the advance of regime forces toward the city of Aleppo, which has become a major battleground in the past month.  The rebels were able to use that intelligence to ambush the advancing columns.

The Daily Mail notes that Britain's MI6 and the CIA are believed to be "tacitly condoning" the supply of heavy machine guns from Gulf countries to the Syrian rebels.  A diplomat denied that the British were "facilitating" the supply of machine guns, but said that he could not rule out the possibility that third parties backed by countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia were enabling such transfers.

IN PICTURES: Conflict in Syria

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US troops arrive near the site of an incident in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 2. The so-called green on blue attacks (for the color of the Afghan and international coalition forces' uniforms) have resulted in the deaths of 36 international soldiers in 2012 alone, according to USA Today. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Number of NATO forces killed by Afghan recruits hits new high

By Staff writer / 08.17.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

For the sixth time in two weeks, a member of Afghanistan's fledgling security forces opened fire on his international trainers today, this time killing two US soldiers.

A local Afghan policeman in the far western province of Farah opened fire during the police inauguration ceremony attended by both American and Afghan national forces, shortly after receiving his weapon, USA Today reports. He joined the Afghan Local Police, a group of regional militias backed and trained by NATO, only five days earlier. 

Additionally, three foreign troops were wounded today in Kandahar Province when a member of the Afghan security forces opened fire, CBS News reports.  

The so-called green on blue attacks (for the color of the Afghan and international coalition forces' uniforms) have resulted in the deaths of 36 international soldiers in 2012 alone, according to USA Today (some news outlets reported higher numbers). They raise serious concerns about the viability of the plan to train Afghans to assume responsibility for security as the coalition forces' withdrawal in 2014 approaches.

There were only 11 such attacks in all of 2011 and only five in both 2009 and 2010.

NATO coalition forces say the attacks happen because of personal disputes, but yesterday the supreme leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, implied that militants had gained admission to the security forces.

“Mujaheddin have cleverly infiltrated in the ranks of the enemy according to the plan given to them last year,” he said in the message marking this weekend’s Eid al-Fitr festival, the Washington Post reports. “They are able to [safely] enter bases, offices and intelligence centers of the enemy. Then, they easily carry out decisive and coordinated attacks.”

A coalition spokesman, Jamie Graybeal, told USA Today that attacks by insurgents in the security forces or by people recruited by insurgents account for only 10 percent of the attacks by Afghan members of the security forces. Screening of potential members has intensified.

The Telegraph reports on some of the steps being taken to combat the problem:

Up to 300 extra specialist counter intelligence personnel have been drafted into the Afghan Army to spot potential assassins.

The head of the Afghan Army has ordered that 150,000 soldiers – three-quarters of the force – be vetted again and be enrolled on a biometrics database. 

Hundreds of soldiers who have shown signs of radicalisation, including travel to and from Pakistan, have been discharged. 

CBS News reports that the incidents are eroding the trust that is essential to the NATO strategy of having international and Afghan forces work alongside each other as NATO trains local forces.  

The trust between American forces and the Afghan police and soldiers they are training and supporting has been dealt such a blow by the green-on-blue attacks that the Pentagon instituted a "guardian angel" program early this year, whereby members of U.S. military units are picked to watch their fellow troops' backs as they eat, sleep or patrol with Afghan counterparts. 

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A masked man from a Lebanese Sunni group who blocked a road linked to the Lebanese-Syrian border, checks a Syrian car which carries Syrian passengers, in Masnaa, eastern Lebanon, Thursday, Aug. 16. They said their action was in retaliation to the abductions taking place by Shiites in Beirut. (AP)

Kidnappings tied to Syria threaten Lebanon's fragile peace (+video)

By Staff writer / 08.16.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

From the outset of the Syrian uprising, there have been warnings that a protracted conflict could undo the region's fragile balance of power, particularly in neighboring Lebanon, where sectarian divides are still strong beneath a veneer of quiet maintained by delicate political arrangements. 

But now, with a slew of tit-for-tat kidnappings and protests, months of harboring rebel fighters in Sunni-dominated border regions, and receiving retaliatory shellfire from the Syrian Army, the conflict is boiling over to Lebanon, too. Most Shiites in the country back President Bashar al-Assad – a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam – while most of Lebanon's Sunnis oppose him.

"This," said Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, according to Reuters, "brings us back to the days of the painful war, a page that Lebanese citizens have been trying to turn."

Yesterday the powerful Meqdad clan – a large, well-armed Shiite family from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley over which the government has minimal control – disclosed that it had kidnapped more than 30 people in the last day in retaliation for what they said was the Free Syrian Army's kidnapping of their family member, Hassan Selim Meqdad. The FSA believes him to be a member of the Shiite militia and political group, Hezbollah, and accused him of entering Syria with almost 1,500 members of the group, according to The Wall Street Journal

Hezbollah and the Meqdad family insist that he is not a member of Hezbollah. His family says he was in Syria for work, as an employee of a Lebanese bank. The Meqdad family also threatened to continue the kidnappings unless Hassan Selim Meqdad was released, WSJ reports. 

Meanwhile, news of a Syrian government offensive on the northern Syrian city of Azzaz brought Lebanese out onto the streets in protest, blocking the road to the airport. They were demanding the release of 11 Lebanese Shiites kidnapped in Syria months ago, who were being held in a building in Azzaz that was hit by government fire, according to The Wall Street Journal. There were unconfirmed reports that some of the captives were wounded or even killed in the offensive, according to BBC reports.

One of those kidnapped by the Meqdads is a Turkish national, and his captors said that he would be the first to be killed, according to Now Lebanon. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that a Meqdad spokesman said Saudis and Qataris might be kidnapped as well.

Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have been open supporters of the Syrian rebels.

In response, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar all urged their citizens in Lebanon to leave yesterday out of concern that their support for the Syrian rebels could make their citizens targets, the Financial Times reports. 

Lebanese "watched with apprehension as the government and security forces made no apparent attempt to intervene as boasts of mass kidnappings were playing out on national television," according to The Wall Street Journal:

The Lebanon kidnappings underscored the fragile balance in the country, where sectarian tensions are deep. The government is a delicate and often dysfunctional offset between rival camps—with parties allied with the Shiite Hezbollah militia and political party dominating government posts, and opposition Sunni and Christian factions controlling some institutions. Feudal-like political leaders rule local areas. The country's army, under the 1989 accord that ended Lebanon's 15-year civil war, is supposed to maintain neutrality.

Lebanon's divisions are so deep that any intervention by the country's security forces risks making matters worse, according to Khaldoun al-Charif, an adviser to Prime Minister Najib Mikati. He said calls were being made to all political faction leaders to contain the crisis.

"The role of the government is to try to preserve the balance as much as possible to keep the country from imploding," said Mr. Charif.

The kidnappings and protests are only the latest in a series of skirmishes and small incidents that seem to be gaining momentum. In a report yesterday, the Monitor sketched out some of the events of the last few months:

Some Sunni villages strung along the northern border have become de facto safe havens for the FSA, with rebels slipping across the border at night to attack Syrian army positions. In retaliation, Syrian forces stage nightly bombardments of these Sunni villages to strike at rebel infiltrators and to punish the Lebanese for hosting the FSA.

Last week, clashes broke out between members of the Shiite Jaafar tribe and Sunni residents of the remote northern border town of Akroum. The Lebanese army deployed reinforcements in the mountainous area to help restore calm. In May, the abduction by the FSA of three Lebanese Shiites (one of them a Jaafar) who lived just inside Syria sparked a week of fighting and the retaliatory kidnapping by the Jaafars of more than 30 Syrians. The hostages were subsequently released in a prisoner swap. 

A Shiite resident of southern Beirut who is close to the Meqdad family told the Monitor yesterday, "Everyone is getting ready for action. The mood here is really bad. This is going to get much worse."

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Burnt vehicles are seen after a bomb exploded at a military site near a hotel used by United Nations observers in Damascus on Wednesday. (Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters)

Free Syrian Army rejects claim that it bombed UN observers' Damascus hotel

By Correspondent / 08.15.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Syrian rebels are claiming responsibility for a massive explosion today near a hotel in downtown Damascus that United Nations observers have been using, but they say that the bomb was a strike against the Syrian state military, and not the UN.

Abu al-Noor, a spokesperson for the Ahfad Al Rasoul brigade of the Free Syrian Army, told Al Jazeera English in a telephone interview that the bomb targeted a daily meeting of high ranking officials at a military headquarters near the hotel. Through a translator, he said that Syrian state media assertions that the UN hotel was the target were "false and untrue."

Mr. Noor told AJE, "We were targeting a security meeting. It was preplanned. It was timed, the place was already pinpointed. It was at 8 o'clock in the morning. It is the daily morning meeting of the chiefs of staff where all the military operations by the regime are planned and launched. The operation was carried out when 150 high ranking officers were inside the meeting."

IN PICTURES: Conflict in Syria

Noor also described the details of the attack, and claimed that the FSA had bribed Syrian officials to enable the attack. "Eight explosive canisters were planted inside the armed forces staff headquarters," he said, adding, "We managed to buy out some of the insiders, some of the officers inside the headquarters. We have been planning for this operation for one complete month."

Noor noted that the FSA was unable to determine how many were hurt in the attack due to the state's security lockdown.

BBC News reports that Maher Nuwaimi, a senior member of the FSA, also confirmed the rebel groups' responsibility for the blast.

The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reports that the explosion was the result of a tanker truck being blown up "behind" the UN observers' hotel, though all UN personnel are "safe." The agency says that three people were injured in the blast, which also caused "minor material damage in the surrounding area."

The BBC has posted a photo gallery of the explosion. While the photos do indicate that a tanker truck was caught in the explosion, they also show thick black smoke pouring out of the windows of a nearby building, giving credence to the FSA's claim that bombs were set off within the military headquarters.

Dutch journalist Sander van Hoorn also Tweeted a photo he took from several blocks away that indicates that the explosion took place at a "military base" across the street from the UN observers' hotel. BBC News notes that their building is in a high security area of central Damascus, and that several government and military buildings are in the vicinity. 

The bombing, which is reminiscent in intent of the bomb attack a month ago that killed several members of President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle, comes a day after Syrian Prime Minister turned defector Riyad Farid Hijab said that the Assad regime is near collapse. The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that Mr. Hijab said Assad only controls 30 percent of the country.

"The regime is on the verge of collapse morally, financially and economically in addition to cracks in the military,” Hijab told a news conference televised from the Jordanian capital, Amman.

And today, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is expected to vote to suspend Syria's membership in the group, which is meeting in MeccaReuters writes that while the suspension from the 57-member group is largely symbolic, it "will expose the divisions in the Islamic world over how to respond to civil war in a country that straddles the Middle East's main sectarian fault line. Syria's Sunni majority is at the core of the revolt. Its leadership is dominated by Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam."

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What's behind the latest Israeli media frenzy on Iran?

By Correspondent / 08.14.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Israeli media speculation that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to launch a preemptive attack against Iran kicked into high gear over the weekend.  But the frenzy seems to lack any basis in changes on the ground in Iran, and may simply be an effort to win over a skeptical Israeli public.

Israel has been warily eying Iran's nuclear program for many months, even as Western sanctions against Iran continue to bleed it of oil revenues.  But over the weekend, speculation in the Israeli media about an imminent Israeli attack on Iran reached a fever pitch.  "[I]t was two articles last Friday that kicked off the current storm," reports the Guardian.

Writing in Israel's biggest-selling daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, Nahum Barnea and Simon Shiffer, both respected commentators, said: "Insofar as it depends on [Prime Minister] Binyamin Netanyahu and [Defense Minister] Ehud Barak, an Israeli military strike on the nuclear facilities in Iran will take place in these coming autumn months, before the US elections in November."

...

Barak is also widely assumed to be the "decision maker", the anonymous key figure whose views were spread over two pages of Haaretz's weekend magazine on Friday. This thinly disguised figure said that time was running out to act against the Iranian nuclear program, and the "immunity zone" – the point when key components of the program are beyond reach in deep bunkers – was approaching.

Time notes that two other Israeli newspapers echoed those sentiments in their own headlines.

Maariv informed us in its banner headline that 37 percent of the Israeli public believes that “If Iran gets the bomb, it might result in a second Holocaust.” And Yisrael Hayom said: “Iran significantly speeds up its progress toward the bomb.” The following day, the latter paper included a headline claiming that, according to Israeli TV, a “Decision by Netanyahu and Barak to strike Iran is almost final.”

Mr. Netanyahu and his cabinet also spoke out strongly on Aug. 12 against the perceived threat of Iran's nuclear program.  The Associated Press reports that Netanyahu told his cabinet, "All threats directed at the Israeli home front are dwarfed by another threat, different in its magnitude and substance, and so I have repeated and shall repeat: Iran must not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons."

And Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon called on the United Nations Security Council's permanent members and Germany, known collectively as the P5+1, to declare that talks to negotiate an end to Iran's uranium enrichment "have failed," reports The New York Times. Such a declaration will make “clear that all options are on the table,” including a military strike, he said. 

But despite the common alarm in the Israeli media over the perceived Iranian threat, it isn't clear that any real event or new information has precipitated the recent flurry of articles. In an op-ed for Israeli newspaper Maariv (and translated from Hebrew by Al-Monitor), Ben Caspit writes that "You can all relax – in the last two weeks, nothing new has happened with regard to an attack on Iran. The cabinet hasn’t convened, the defense minister hasn’t summoned the IDF general staff and no new information has been received. Everything that is known today was known two months ago."

Ynet News reports that Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, accused Israeli government officials of "stirring up overblown drama."

During a meeting with students at Ono Academic College, Olmert said that "the current situation does not require Israeli military action – now or in the near future."

...

Referring to the public discussion surrounding a potential military strike in Iran, the former PM admitted that he was very worried by recent newspaper headlines. "This issue inflicts massive public damage to Israel. I live among my people; I hear and see the anxiety on the faces of the citizens. This does not contribute anything to our ability to deal with the Iranian threat. (On the contrary) It only makes it harder."

The Associated Press adds that "All of Israel's recently retired security chiefs oppose an attack, and several have come out swinging against Barak and Netanyahu personally. It's a shocking public rift between the political and defense establishments."  Some experts speculate that it is the military's distrust of Netanyahu that has spurred the prime minister to take his case to the public in an effort to build up a bulwark of support for his policy on Iran.

"They're doing it because they want partners to the decision, because they understand it's a very dangerous risk," he said. But he added that the discussion may serve the public good: "You have a situation that is so complicated and so dangerous, that in a democratic society, you might need a debate over whether to do it because so much hangs in the balance."

But Netanyahu doesn't appear to have much support in the media either, despite the flurry of headlines this weekend.  Haaretz writes that "during the past week alone, Netanyahu personally called two writers – one Israeli and the other American – and praised them for the articles they wrote on the Iranian issue."  Haaretz reporter Barak Ravid writes:

Other than his “home newspaper,” Yisrael Hayom, most of the media in Israel, Europe and the United States have expressed their opposition to an attack on Iran. In such an atmosphere, it’s no wonder that Netanyahu regards any article that doesn’t totally rule out a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran as precious and even makes a point of expressing his satisfaction to the writer.

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Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

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