Leaders of the terrorist group, Islamic State, are sneaking battle-hardened jihadis from Syria into Nigeria to train terrorists for possible attacks in Britain.
Fanatics, including Boko Haram insurgents, were also being sent to the Middle East for training in a chilling “exchange programme,” The UK SUN reported on Monday.
The paper said there were fears that strong links between Nigeria and the UK would make it easier for IS to send its killers to Britain to orchestrate terror attacks, death and destruction.
It noted that more than 150 British troops are conducting counter-terror training with Nigerian forces in an attempt to stem the bloody tide — and stop IS from taking hold in the West African region.
At one training mission in Kaduna, a senior Nigerian Air Force commander revealed how local jihadi groups were learning from IS after swearing allegiance to its black flag.
Group Captain Isaac Subi, 46, who has been fighting terrorism across Africa since 1991, said, “They come and train their fighters here and some of our insurgents too are granted access to their training in Yemen and Syria, acquiring those skills and they come back and teach others.
“They have this exchange programme of fighters.”
The report stated that the poisonous influence of the fighters had already ended in horror attacks on British streets, citing the stabbing to death of Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013 in London by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, both of Nigerian descent.
The Nigeria Immigration Service spokesman, Sunday James, said the agency has strengthened border security to ensure that “no foreign entity is allowed by whatever means into the country by land, air or waterways.”
He added in a statement that NIS operatives have been proactive, “going by the several arrests in recent past around the country by the Special Border Patrol Corps operatives of the NIS trained and deployed to carry out reconnaissance patrol.”
James admonished Nigerians to report suspicious individuals or groups to the Immigration Service or other security agencies for necessary action. (Punch)
A gunman claiming allegiance to ISIS who holed himself up inside a French supermarket after killing three people in a terror attack has been shot and killed by police.The attacker told police hostage negotiators he wanted a terrorist involved in the Paris attacks to be released from jail, as officials fear they will find more victims.
The incident is being treated as terrorism by French prosecutors
Police stormed the supermarket in in the town of Trebes at roughly 1.45pm and shot the attacker. A policeman has reportedly suffered a gunshot wound.
The gunman, believed to have been carrying grenades and a handgun, was heard shouting “Allahu Akbar” and “vengeance for Syria” during his rampage in the neighbouring towns of Trebes and Carcassonne.
A third victim was later found dead in a ditch in Carcassonne near the police barracks with a gunshot wound to the head. Another victim was also seriously injured.
At 1.45pm there were reports police had stormed the supermarket and shot the attacker. A source said the gunman’s mother and sister were brought to the scene to try to convince him to surrender.
The gunman was known to the French intelligence service and his name was on an anti-radicalisation list which was created after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January 2015 to identify and monitor people who may carry out a terror attack.
Negotiators were in contact with the man, who demanded the release of Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving terrorist involved in the November 2015 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, sources told French media.
Abdeslam, who has refused to answer questions at his trial in Brussels, is a Belgium-born French national of Moroccan descent. He was captured by anti-terror police in Brussels in March 2016.
He was charged with participation in terrorist murder and participation in the activities of a terrorist organization and attempted murder over a shootout with police which occurred days earlier as he eluded capture during a raid.
He is currently in solitary confinement in a high-security prison near Paris while awaiting trial. Abdeslam has admitted helping coordinate the 2015 attacks but failed to let off his suicide bomb vest out the Stade de France, France’s national sports stadium, during a football match between France and Germany.
Terrified shoppers fled the supermarket as the gunman stormed the building shouting “Allah Akbar” and “You are bombing Syria, you will die”, local media reported.
Around 20 hostages in the supermarket were released shortly after 12.15pm, but a police officer remained inside with the gunman. There were fears the suspect was armed with grenades, a handgun and knives.
The incident is happening in Trebes in the south of France
France has been on high alert following a string of jihadist attacks since 2015. In January of that year, an attack on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo left 12 people dead.Later in 2015, in November, ISIS terrorists killed 130 people when they attacked multiple locations in Paris, including bars, restaurants, the Bataclan concert venue and the national stadium.
The hostages are being held in a Super U supermarket which has been surrounded by police
In July 2016, in another attack claimed by ISIS, a man drove a truck through revellers celebrating Bastille Day in the southern coastal city of Nice, killing 84 people.
A state of emergency put in place just after the Paris attacks in 2015 was finally lifted in October last year, but soldiers continue to patrol major tourist sites and transport hubs under an anti-terror mission. (Mirror)
Following the kidnapping of a British couple in KwaZulu-Natal earlier this month, the British government has warned its citizens of a legitimate terror threat from extremists linked to ISIS in South Africa (SA). The British report highlighted the security risk posed by South African nationals who have travelled to Iraq, Syria and Libya to receive training and indoctrination, and the danger they present upon their return. The seriousness of this report emphasizes the result of the ongoing presence of violent extremist elements in SA in recent years, and the circumstances that have allowed it to blossom.
Among the most salient impediments to effective recognition and prevention of terror activity in SA is the popular opinion that such threats simply do not apply, as terrorists have not yet carried out attacks within the country borders. In June 2016, for example, both the U.S. Mission to SA and the U.K. warned their citizens against attacks targeting places where foreigners congregate, by ISIS militants. Responding to the alert, SA Minister of State Security David Mahlobo claimed that, “we remain a strong and stable democratic country and there is no immediate danger posed by the alert.” With that said, representatives of EXX Africa, a specialist intelligence consultancy, alleged that “there is ample evidence to suggest that South Africa is a long-established and preferred thoroughfare for international terrorist organizations.” Tellingly, Mahlobo himself acknowledged that “a growing number of South Africans were associating themselves with terrorist organizations.” In fact, SA has been moving steadily upwards in the Global Terrorism Index, which measures incidents of terrorism geographically, climbing from a rank of 140 out of 162 in 2010, to 47th place in 2017.
These troubling facts were officially recognized by the SA government who, in November 2016, publicly stated that ISIS has been using SA as a “logistics hub and hideout,” and that the government has identified foreign militant “sleeper cells” in their territory. A 2016 report by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), pointed to several Islamist fighters with South African passports who had been apprehended. This included top al-Qaeda militant Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (who was killed in 2011), and the infamous “White Widow,” Samantha Lewthwaite, who was married to one of the terrorists responsible for the 7/7 bombings in London, and lived in Johannesburg under a false SA passport while an Interpol warrant sought her arrest. ISS has further pointed out that SA is so appealing to ISIS because recruits tend to come from average-income families with little need for additional support, and the ease with which South Africans can travel without arousing suspicion.
Among the strongest indications of the simmering extremism that has taken root in SA can be observed from 2015 reports that 140 young South Africans had travelled to ISIS territory to join the group.
Though initially dismissed, 11 of these youth returned home months later to share their experiences. This provided a chilling example of so-called “terror-travel,” and served as evidence of this phenomenon making its way from established areas of extremism such as in Northern Africa and the Maghreb, to sub-Saharan Africa. As South Africans would inevitably comprise the largest number of extremist fighters in the south, it is rapidly becoming the most important country in the region for ISIS, especially now that their bases in Iraq and Syria have been effectively destroyed.
If one were to take a step further back, however, the truth is much more disturbing. While there has not been a serious terror attack in SA since the bombings by People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) in Cape Town in the 1990’s, there are continuous links between SA and violent, extremist international organizations. Since the 1990’s, Iran-backed Hezbollah has run training camps in SA, and there is proof of al-Qaeda’s presence there dating to 1997, taking advantage of the lax counter-terrorism policy in the country. Hussein Solomon, a senior professor at the University of Free State’s Political Studies Department, has elaborated on the key roles SA has played in global terror networks since the 1990’s. According to Solomon, “the 2007 London bombers got their orders to launch their attack from a terror cell in Johannesburg,” and that an al-Shabaab terrorist attack against U.S. and U.K. teams and supporters during the 2010 World Cup, was only foiled “after a cellphone call from South Africa was intercepted by US authorities monitoring al-Shabaab in Somalia.”
Another serious risk confronting SA is the threat of seemingly legitimate organizations who are aligned with and support the activities of violent extremist groups. One of the most compelling examples is the Al-Aqsa Foundation. The Foundation is registered with the Department of Social Development with a focus on providing aid to Palestinians, and is an ardent and vocal supporter of the BDS SA movement, an organization that claims to be a peaceful, non-violent movement, but are actually strong supporters of extreme Islamic groups and violence against citizens that oppose their cause. In SA, the BDS movement serves as a breeding ground for youth indoctrination and recruitment towards such support, dominantly on university campuses.
The Foundation is also a known member of the Union of Good, a charity coalition headed by global Muslim Brotherhood leader and internationally wanted terrorist Yussuf Qaradawi. In 2003, the Foundation was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and U.K. due to its fundraising for Hamas, which continues to happen in SA in conjunction with the BDS SA movement. Moreover, Germany banned it in 2002, the Netherlands froze the group’s assets in 2003 and Denmark has charged three members of the Foundation with supporting terrorism. Even in SA, the Foundation ultimately had its activities with two South African banks suspended in 2013 for funnelling money to the extremist group, Hamas.
It may, therefore, be understood that, though SA has managed to avoid being a theatre for violent extremist and militant Islamist attacks, it has served as a “launch site” for some of the most radical international organizations. The lack of modern legislative mechanisms to confront such activities, and the absence of dedicated task forces to uproot them, have left SA vulnerable to exploitation, particularly by organizations registered in SA under false pretence, which claim to be “peaceful, and non-violent”. However, one should recognise that funding terror falls in the same category as committing it. As long as SA remains a popular thoroughfare for the logistical, financial and strategic elements of terror planning, the risks of an attack in-country, and of the continued recruitment of South African youth to violence, will only increase. (Israellink.co.za)
An American citizen fighting for the so-called Islamic State is currently in the U.S. military’s custody. If Donald Trump decides to keep him there, it could spark a far-reaching legal challenge that could have a catastrophic effect on the entire war against ISIS, leading national security lawyers to say.
The unnamed American, whom the Pentagon says surrendered to U.S.-allied forces battling ISIS in Syria around Sept. 12, is currently held by the military as an enemy combatant. Multiple officials told The Daily Beast that the Trump administration has yet to decide whether that will be his long-term fate.
Neither the Defense Department nor the Justice Department would comment Monday on active deliberations concerning whether the American will face criminal charges in the United States or remain a military detainee. “The disposition for any detainee is ultimately determined by what best supports the national security of the United States and of our allies and partners, consistent with domestic and international law,” said the Pentagon’s detentions spokesman, Maj. Ben Sakrisson.
Should the Justice Department ultimately take custody of the American and charge him with a terrorism-related crime, further legal controversy is unlikely, at least beyond the specifics of his case.
But Trump has long indicated he would take a different, more contentious route. Throughout the presidential campaign, Donald Trump indicated that his preference was toward military custody for ISIS fighters, even going as far as to be open to Guantanamo detention for a U.S. citizen facing a military tribunal—which would be illegal, as the Military Commissions Act of 2006 applies only to “alien unlawful enemy combatant[s].”
Asked if the Defense Department believes it can hold a U.S. citizen at Guantanamo, Sakrisson indicated it was a complex question.
“There is nothing that prohibits detaining a U.S. citizen as an enemy combatant at Guantanamo,” Sakrisson said. “But the actual likely disposition for any potential detainee would take into account what would be appropriate with respect to legal, diplomatic, intelligence, security, and law enforcement considerations.”
But Karen Greenberg, director of Fordham Law’s Center on National Security, pointed to George W. Bush’s seminal Nov. 13, 2001, executive order on detentions, which explicitly says that only someone “who is not a United States citizen” was eligible for military captivity.
“It’s only for foreigners,” said Greenberg, who wrote a book on the early days of Guantanamo Bay detentions.
Keeping the unnamed American detained by the military—according to several attorneys with deep experience with post-9/11 detention-law questions—risks a showdown in court over the very foundations of the war against ISIS.
That’s because the legal authority for the U.S. to attack ISIS is the fateful 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), passed by Congress days after the Twin Towers fell to avenge the 9/11 attacks. As the path of least political resistance, Barack Obama based the war against ISIS on the AUMF, despite ISIS not having existed on 9/11. Obama instead treated ISIS’ high-profile split from al Qaeda in 2014 as a legally insignificant fact.
Repeated efforts at passing a new AUMF to cover the anti-ISIS war have foundered. The Trump administration has ruled out seeking “additional authorization” to replace or update the AUMF for an era of ISIS, according to a letter the State Department sent to Capitol Hill last month.
That decision has implications for the current debate on whether ISIS detainees are a military or civilian matter. Military detainees have the right to challenge the basis for their detentions in federal court, the Supreme Court has ruled, a fundamental right known as habeas corpus. U.S. citizens, like the man detained last week, possess habeas corpus rights under the Constitution.
Not only would a U.S. citizen be able to challenge their military detention in court, attorneys say, but doing so would permit a judge to rule whether the AUMF applies to ISIS—and potentially invalidate it. Those attorneys suspect the Trump administration holds a weak hand, even if it wants to risk a judge ruling that the war against ISIS is illegal, and are watching closely to see if Trump reverses his rhetoric and charges the American detainee in a civilian court.
“The Obama and Trump administrations have relied on a very controversial, stretched interpretation of the 2001 AUMF to cover their military operations against ISIS, but there hasn’t been much opportunity for anyone to challenge that interpretation in court,” said Matthew Waxman, a Columbia University law professor who served as a senior Pentagon detentions official in the Bush administration.
“A habeas corpus suit brought by a citizen-detainee like this could be that opportunity.”
The Obama administration evaded that opportunity by charging ISIS detainees—even those captured on an active battlefield—in federal court with specific violations of U.S. law. Trump’s thus-far unfulfilled pledge to load Guantanamo Bay up “with some bad dudes” has also forestalled a legal reckoning. Waxman noted that “bringing captured ISIS detainees, even non-Americans, to Guantanamo,” carries the potential of a legal challenge to the AUMF as the basis for the war against ISIS, “since all Guantanamo detainees have a right to bring habeas challenges.”
Thus far, the Trump administration has drawn a line short of openly endorsing U.S. military detention. Trump has yet to sign a long-expected executive order opening Guantanamo to new detainees. This summer, the Justice Department charged an al Qaeda suspect—someone whose connections to the AUMF are stronger than an ISIS suspect’s—captured overseas in federal court.
Steven Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor and national-security law expert, said receiving a habeas petition from an ISIS detainee was “the most obvious way that a court would be asked—and would have to decide” the applicability of the AUMF to ISIS. “Why the administration might choose a test case where the detainee is also a U.S. citizen (which would make that argument that much harder) is, frankly, beyond me,” Vladeck emailed.
With each passing day the administration keeps the detainee in military custody, the prospect grows less hypothetical. An attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, Wells Dixon, said that the human rights group was currently attempting to ascertain the American detainee’s identity, locate his family, and see if the family wishes to challenge his military detention.
“We will consider filing a habeas case on his behalf,” Dixon told The Daily Beast—something Dixon said carried “massive political, diplomatic, and legal consequences,” as it would be the first challenge to ISIS applicability of the AUMF in the three years since the U.S. war against the jihadist group began.
“If a court was to conclude the AUMF does not cover ISIS, that could collapse the entirety of U.S. military operations against ISIS, including in Syria,” Dixon said.
“Why would the Trump administration want to buy that problem? The president could wake up on the wrong side of the bed, make an impulsive decision to send [the American] to Guantanamo,” Dixon continued, “and then we’re off to court.” (The Daily Beast)
At least 13 people were confirmed dead yesterday after a van mowed down pedestrians in Barcelona city centre and 80 people were injured, Catalan police and the regional interior ministry said.
As at press time, two suspects have been arrested according to CNN. The van plowed into crowds in the heart of the city and Spanish police said they were treating the incident as a terrorist attack. The death toll was reported by news agencies, citing police sources. At press time, police said they said were searching for the driver of the van. Media reports said the driver of the vehicle had fled on foot.
Spanish newspaper El Periodico said two armed men were holed up in a bar in Barcelona’s city center, and reported gunfire in the area, although it did not cite the source of the information.
It was not immediately clear whether the incidents were connected.
A source familiar with the initial United States government assessment said the incident appeared to be terrorism, and a White House spokeswoman said President Donald Trump was being kept abreast of the situation.
Media reports said the van had zigzagged at speed down the famous Las Ramblas avenue, a magnet for tourists. “I heard screams and a bit of a crash and then I just saw the crowd parting and this van going full pelt down the middle of the Ramblas and I immediately knew that it was a terrorist attack or something like that,” eyewitness Tom Gueller told the BBC. (The Sun)
The boys who survived were then taken to Raqqa in Syria, Isis’ “capital” where they were forced to join something the group called “The Caliphate Cubs”.
Here he was trained how to fight for the group using rocket launchers and automatic rifles.
They were shown videos of suicide attacks and told to look up to the perpetrators.
He said he was taken to a military camp for six months and told he must kill Kurds and rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army as they were all “infidels”.
Kurdish authorities told CNN last year that as many as 600 Yazidi children had been abducted by the group but around 200 had managed to escape.
It said they feared they were being used as cannon fodder as the terrorists lose ground and fighters.
Isis is said to be putting its most experienced fighters on the front line and was using child soldiers in sentry positions and suicide bomb squads.
Arsem said: “Every day after training we were shown the latest videos of suicide attacks. We were told: ‘Look up to these brothers’.
“We were told whoever blows themselves up will go to heaven. There will be 70 virgins waiting for us and rivers of wine.”
There was the talk of sending some of the boys through Turkey to launch attacks in Europe.
“They said: ‘Don’t worry. We will do a big, big attack in Europe. Isis is working hard on that.’”
Coalition forces, backed by US-led air strikes, managed to push Isis out of its second city, Mosul in Iraq, last month. US-backed Kurdish forces are also closing in on Raqqa, Isis’s ‘capital’ in Syria.
Arsem was captured by Kurdish fighters as they moved towards the outskirts of Raqqa and he will soon be reunited with his family.
He said he was looking forward to seeing his mother again and would tell her “I have been born again”. (The Independent)
PARIS, April 20 (Reuters) – A French policeman was shot dead and two others were wounded in a shooting in central Paris on Thursday night before the gunman himself was killed by officers, police and the Interior Ministry said.
The Islamic State group claimed the shooting, days before French presidential elections, via its Amaq news agency, naming the attacker as Abu Yousif the Belgian. President Francois Hollande said he was convinced it was a terrorist attack.
A second suspect who might have been involved in the incident on the Champs Elysees shopping boulevard may still be on the loose, authorities said. The famous wide street that leads away from the Arc de Triomphe that had earlier been crowded with Parisians and tourists enjoying a spring evening remained closed off hours after the incident.
France has lived under a state of emergency since 2015 and has suffered a spate of Islamist militant attacks, mostly perpetrated by young men who grew up in France and Belgium, and that have killed more than 230 people in the past two years.
Interior ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said it was too early to say what the motive of the attack was, but that it was clear the police officers had been deliberately targeted.
“A little after 9 PM a vehicle stopped alongside a police car which was parked. Immediately a man got out and fired on the police vehicle, mortally wounding a police officer,” Brandet said.
Officers at the scene said they were searching for a potential second assailant, and Brandet said it could not be ruled out that there was another or others involved.
Officers also conducted a search at the home in eastern Paris of the dead attacker.
“I came out of the Sephora shop and I was walking along the pavement…. A man got out of a car and opened fire with a kalashnikov on a policeman,” witness Chelloug, a kitchen assistant, told Reuters.
“The policeman fell down. I heard six shots, I was afraid. I have a two year-old girl and I thought I was going to die… He shot straight at the police officer.”
Police authorities called on the public to avoid the area.
TV footage showed the Arc de Triomphe monument and the top half of the Champs Elysees packed with police vans, lights flashing and heavily armed police shutting the area down after what was described by one journalist as a major exchange of fire near a Marks and Spencers store.
The incident came as French voters prepared go to the polls on Sunday in the most tightly-contested presidential election in living memory.
“We shall be of the utmost vigilance, especially in relation to the election,” said President Francois Hollande, who is not himself running for re-election.
Earlier this week, two men were arrested in Marseille who police said had been planning an attack ahead of the election.
That incident brought issues of security and immigration back to the forefront of the campaign, with the anti-immigration National Front leader Marine Le Pen repeating her call for Europe’s partly open borders to be closed.
A machine gun, two hand guns and three kilos of TATP explosive were among the weapons found at a flat in the southern city along with jihadist propaganda materials according to the Paris prosecutor.
Candidates in the election said they had been warned about the Marseille attackers. Francois Fillon, who is the conservative candidate, said he would cancel the campaign events he had been planning for Friday. In November, 2015, Paris was rocked by near simultaneous gun-and-bomb attacks on entertainment sites, in which 130 people died and 368 were wounded. Islamic State claimed responsibility. Two of the 10 known perpetrators were Belgian citizens and three others were French.
(Reporting by Richard Balmforth; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Leigh Thomas and Andrew Callus, Ralph Boulton)
President Donald Trump released a statement Tuesday blaming a chemical attack in Syria on Obama administration’s policies.
Dozens of people were reportedly killed on Tuesday when a hospital treating civilians injured in chemical attacks was bombed. Activists described the attack as among the worst in the country’s six-year war.
“Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world,” Trump said in a statement. “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.”
Trump cited President Barack Obama’s inaction after issuing a “red line” in 2012 that suggested that the US would intervene militarily if the Assad regime used chemical weapons.
When evidence emerged that Syrian forces did use chemical weapons to attack civilians, the US declined to use military action in retaliation, instead opting to broker a deal in which the Assad regime agreed to remove chemical weapons from Syria.
“President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing,” Trump said. “The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.”
But it doesn’t appear that the Trump administration is planning to urge Assad to step down. And Trump didn’t seem to want Obama to enforce the red line at the time, tweeting in 2013, “AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA — IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!”
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters while he was in Turkey last week that the “longer-term status” of Assad would “be decided by the Syrian people.” And US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told reporters that the Trump administration’s “priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”
The remark signaled a shift in America’s official position on the Syrian strongman. Though they were criticized for failing to act against Assad, Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry had long called for Assad to step down in a monitored transition of power.
Tillerson released his own statement on the chemical attack on Tuesday, saying the US “strongly condemns” such actions.
“While we continue to monitor the terrible situation, it is clear that this is how Bashar al-Assad operates: with brutal, unabashed barbarism,” Tillerson said in the statement, which stopped short of calling on him to leave power.
Tillerson instead shifted responsibility to Russia and Iran, two of Assad’s biggest allies, saying they “bear great moral responsibility for these deaths.”
“Those who defend and support him, including Russia and Iran, should have no illusions about Assad or his intentions,” Tillerson said in the statement. “Anyone who uses chemical weapons to attack his own people shows a fundamental disregard for human decency and must be held accountable.”
Tillerson called on Russia and Iran to “exercise their influence over the Syrian regime and to guarantee that this sort of horrific attack never happens again.”
In the first official remarks by the group referring to President Donald Trump since he took office, spokesman Abi al-Hassan al-Muhajer said:
“America you have drowned and there is no saviour, and you have become prey for the soldiers of the caliphate in every part of the earth, you are bankrupt and the signs of your demise are evident to every eye.”
“… There is no more evidence than the fact that you are being run by an idiot who does not know what Syria or Iraq or Islam is,” he said in a recording released on Tuesday on messaging network Telegram.
Trump has made defeating Islamic State a priority of his presidency.
U.S.-backed forces are fighting to retake Islamic State’s two biggest cities – Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.
“Die of spite America, die of spite, a nation where both young and old are racing to die in the name of God will not be defeated,” al-Muhajer said.
Trump is examining ways to accelerate the U.S.-led coalition campaign that U.S. and Iraqi officials say has so far been largely successful in uprooting Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
The loss of Mosul, Islamic State’s last major stronghold in Iraq, would deal a major defeat to Islamic State.
U.S. and Iraqi officials are preparing for smaller battles after the city is recaptured and expect the group to go underground to fight as a traditional insurgency.
President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin had their first official phone conversation Saturday, agreeing to partner in the fight against terrorism and the Arab-Israeli conflict and to forge stronger economic and political ties between their two countries, the Kremlin said.
At a moment of badly strained relations between the United States and Russia, Trump has hoped to cultivate “a great relationship” with Putin despite domestic pressures to maintain sanctions against Moscow.
Trump’s call with Putin was one in a series of conversations he had Saturday with world leaders as he seeks to develop a personal rapport with the heads of such traditional U.S. allies as France, Germany and Japan.
His conversation with Putin comes during a period of tension for the two countries brought by Russia’s role in the Ukrainian crisis and the war in Syria, as well as the conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that Putin ordered systematic hacking of Democratic emails to tip the presidential election in Trump’s favor have strained. The leaders agreed to have their staffs determine a possible time and place for their first meeting, the Kremlin said.
“The current international issues were thoroughly discussed, including the fight against terrorism, the situation in the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the sphere of strategic stability and non-proliferation, the situation around the Iranian nuclear program and the Korean Peninsula,” the Kremlin said in a statement. “Also touched upon were the main aspects of the crisis in Ukraine. It was agreed to establish a partnership on all these and other areas.”
Trump spoke with Putin from behind his desk in the Oval Office, which was stacked high with papers and a glass of Diet Coke. The president was flanked by Vice President Pence, national security adviser Michael Flynn, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and press secretary Sean Spicer.
Trump began the day with a call to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to discuss security and trade issues between the two countries and the mutual threat posed by North Korea.
“President Trump affirmed the iron-clad U.S. commitment to ensuring the security of Japan,” a White House statement said. It continued, “President Trump and Prime Minister Abe said they would consult and cooperate on the threat posed by North Korea.”
Trump and Abe also discussed an upcoming visit to Japan and other countries in the region by newly installed Defense Secretary James Mattis. Abe, who during Trump’s transition phase became the first foreign leader to talk face-to-face with the president-elect, agreed to meet Trump during a visit to Washington on Feb. 10, according to the White House.
Trump then spoke by phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. His outreach to Merkel comes after his repeated attacks on her during the campaign, during which he blasted the German policy on admitting Syrian refugees for allegedly putting German citizens in danger of terrorist attacks.
Trump and Merkel covered a range of issues including strife in the Middle East and North Africa, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as well as relations with Russia, according to the White House.
“Both leaders affirmed the importance of close German-American cooperation to our countries’ security and prosperity and expressed their desire to deepen already close German-American relations in the coming years,” said a White House statement.
After criticizing NATO during his campaign, Trump and Merkel agreed on the alliance’s “fundamental importance to the broader transatlantic relationship and its role in ensuring the peace and stability of our North Atlantic community,” the statement read.
Trump accepted Merkel’s invitation to visit Hamburg, Germany, in July for the G-20 summit, and Trump invited her to visit Washington soon, the White House said.
Trump talked later Saturday with French President François Hollande, and planned to also call Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Ahead of the call, Hollande spoke out against comments Trump made about the European Union on at the White House Friday during his joint press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Speaking from Lisbon, Hollande said: “When there are statements that come from the president of the United States on Europe and when he talks of the Brexit model for other countries, I believe we have to answer him.”
Hollande insisted that Europe engage Trump in “dialogue with firmness.”
In Moscow, leaders expressed cautious hope that the new American leader could forge stronger ties than former president Barack Obama did. On Saturday, Nikolai Patrushev, the influential head of the Russian Security Council, welcomed the first contact.
“We will await the results, but I believe everything will be positive,” Patrushev said Saturday, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.
From Moscow’s point of view, lifting the sanctions imposed by the Obama administration for interference in the presidential election and Russia’s intervention in Ukraine would be a good start, as would a reduction of NATO’s military presence near Russia’s borders.
Washington’s European allies, meanwhile, have expressed concern over whether Trump’s first moves with Russia will signal a reduction of the U.S. commitment to European security.
But Trump, speaking Friday at a White House news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May, said that it is “very early” to discuss lifting sanctions on Russia. May also stated her commitment to keep the sanctions in place until the Minsk Agreement, a plan to end the conflict in Ukraine, has been implemented. And she added that she continues to argue that position “inside the European Union.”
Trump’s first contact with Putin as president comes after months of speculation over the Kremlin’s role in the 2016 election — starting with Trump’s frequent expressions of admiration for Putin and culminating in the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered in the campaign on Trump’s behalf.
Trump has vehemently denied allegations that his positive view of Moscow stems from business ties or blackmail by Russian intelligence, and he has sought to portray his upbeat words about Putin as a positive.
He has consistently argued that Russia can be a strong ally instead of a strategic ally, saying the two countries could cooperate on counterterrorism in general and rolling back the Islamic State in particular, as well as countering nuclear weapon proliferation. Trump has suggested that Washington can work with Moscow on the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine and that he might be ready to negotiate down NATO’s strong defensive posture on Russia’s western border.
U.S. lawmakers from both parties, and others including Trump Cabinet picks, have raised alarms or at least questioned his softer approach to Russia.
But on Friday, the president expressed more tempered expectations.
“As far as, again, Putin and Russia, I don’t say good, bad or indifferent,” Trump said. “I don’t know the gentleman. I hope we have a fantastic relationship. That’s possible. And it’s also possible we won’t. We will see what happens. I will be representing the American people very, very strongly, very forcefully.”
On a grander scale, the Kremlin seems to hope the Trump administration will relax what it sees as a policy of containment since the fall of the Soviet Union left the United States as the world’s sole superpower. In the new world order outlined by Putin, Russia would have greater influence in world affairs and, from Moscow’s point of view, feel more secure at home.
But Moscow has consistently cautioned about “excessive optimism” over what Trump’s presidency will mean for Russia, and Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stayed on script Friday. “One can hardly expect substantive contacts on the entire range of affairs from this call,” he told reporters. “Let us wait and see. Let us be patient.”
Moscow’s establishment has welcomed Trump as a pragmatist who will not try to enforce American values on the rest of the world.
“He is a businessman. He is a pragmatic person,” Andrei Norkin, co-host of a popular Russian political talk show, said this week. “I hope that his attitude to foreign policy will be like to some sort of business deal. People who will work with him will be telling him ‘Mr. President, we are taking a risk here,’ and he will agree.”
Filipov reported from Moscow. James McAuley in Paris and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.