Istanbul bombing picture becoming clearer

Turkish authorities have reportedly arrested 13 people in connection with Tuesday’s terrorist attack on Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, an attack that has now claimed at least 42 lives with another 239 people injured. The bombers themselves have been identified, or at least their nationalities have been determined: one was Chechen (Russian), one Uzbek, and the third Kyrgyz.

This new information about the bombers’ nationalities probably puts to rest any chance that this was a Kurdish attack, leaving ISIS or some unknown group as the likely culprits. And the more that’s learned about the bombers the likelier ISIS becomes:

Turkish officials have strong evidence that the Istanbul airport attackers came to the country from the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in Syria and that ISIS leadership was involved in the planning of the attack, a senior Turkish government source told CNN on Thursday.

Officials believe the men — identified by another Turkish official and state media as being from Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan — entered Turkey about a month ago from Raqqa, bringing along with them the suicide vests and bombs used in the attack, the source said.

They rented an apartment in the Fatih district of Istanbul, where one of the attackers left behind his passport, the Turkish government source told CNN.

The attack was “extremely well planned with ISIS leadership involved,” the source said.

My anecdotal impression is that there seems to be some disbelief on US media that the (alleged) attackers were Caucasian and Central Asian rather than, I guess (?), Arab. I have to say this is one of those times where I don’t know if our cable news networks are just being collectively dumb or if ISIS activity in the Caucasus and Central Asia is really not a widely known thing. Because I feel like this is something we (“we” here meaning the general US public) already knew, but I don’t have any real basis to support my feeling. This is particularly true with respect to Chechnya–people were writing pieces on the very effective (and now maybe dead) Chechen-Georgian ISIS commander Abu Omar al-Shishani (“al-Shishani” means “the Chechen”) and ISIS’s Chechen recruits at least as far back as 2014, and the prevalence of Chechen fighters in ISIS’s ranks was cited (by me, at least) as one of the factors that might have motivated Moscow to get involved in Syria last year (whether it actually was one of the factors that motivated Moscow to get involved in Syria last year or not is another question).

It’s been a little trickier to get a handle on ISIS’s ability to project into and recruit from Central Asia, in part because the various horror-show dictators of that region have long since seized on ISIS as a bogeyman they can wave around to deflect attention from their own human rights abuses. But there’s no doubt that ISIS has been trying to recruit from the former Soviet republics for a while now, and while it’s not really known how successful they’ve been it’s clear that they have been successful to some degree. For example, Russian, still to some extent the lingua franca of Central Asia, is the third most commonly used language in ISIS’s propaganda materials, and that’s not because ISIS is trying to get its message out to the St. Petersburg media market, and the group also produces materials in Uzbek, Kazakh, Tajik, etc., meant to target young people who are less likely to know Russian than their elders. Some of the same conditions fueling radicalization in the Middle East–repressive governments, for example, and widespread social and economic inequality–are also manifest in Central Asia.


Emergency Brexit

bj simpsons alcohol

His work (?) done, would-be UK prime minister Boris Johnson is slinking out the back door instead of, as expected, campaigning to replace David Cameron:

The battle for the Conservative leadership was dramatically transformed today after Boris Johnson ruled himself out of the race.

It followed the shock declaration from Michael Gove that he would throw his hat in the ring because he didn’t believe his close friend was up to the job.

He said: “I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead. I have, therefore, decided to put my name forward for the leadership.”

Conservative MPs who turned up for what they thought would be Boris Johnson’s decision to stand for the Tory leadership at the St Ermine hotel near Scotland Yard are absolutely furious.

Johnson’s live announcement produced one of the greatest political theater tidbits I’ve ever seen, which generated the title of this very post:

It’s not that Johnson is shrinking from the spotlight voluntarily, it’s more that he just got kneecapped by his erstwhile pal Gove, the current Justice Secretary who is probably going to face a rockier road to the big job than Johnson would have (the early betting favorite now is actually Home Secretary Teresa May). To be fair to Gove, though, Johnson kind of kneecapped himself when he declared after the referendum, with a sort of deer-in-headlights air, that, if it were up to him, wink-wink nudge-nudge, he’d be in no particular hurry to follow up on the vote to leave the EU by actually, uh, taking steps to leave the EU. Though to be even fairer to everybody, Gove has said much the same thing, and at the same time there are some European lawyers wondering if the referendum, non-binding on UK lawmakers as it may have been, has actually already triggered the infamous Article 50, starting the UK’s 2 year clock to full-on Brexit.

Gove, who while lacking Johnson’s hilarious head of hair, would as PM undoubtedly be fodder for larfs (thought I’d throw in a little British for you there) in his own right:

was perhaps most famous before the “Leave” campaign for, back when he was Education Secretary, insisting that all schools in the UK could and should be performing at a level above the national average, showing that innumeracy among our political leaders is really an international crisis. My impression from the little I’ve read about him is that he’s thought to be smart but also conniving and even devious, and his maneuvering here isn’t going to do anything to change the latter perception. The important thing, as Gove opens his campaign to be the UK’s next PM, is that he thinks he’s “constitutionally incapable” of doing the job and “[doesn’t] have what it takes.” So…good luck with that.


Today in North African history: Muhammad Ahmad declares himself the Mahdi (1881)

Long before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided to make himself the Caliph (on June 29, 2014), a move that probably hasn’t worked out the way he’d intended it, a Sudanese Sufi named Muhammad Ahmad (d. 1885) had similar, though really even more spectacular, delusions of grandeur and proclaimed himself the Mahdi. The Mahdi, of course, is a once-in-history messianic redeemer who is supposed to appear in the Last Days–usually, at least for Sunnis, either accompanied by or around the same time as Jesus returns to Earth–to rule the world, defeat evil, all the usual things one does in preparation for the Day of Judgment. Declaring yourself to be that guy is way more grandiose than declaring yourself to be a caliph–for one thing, there have been a lot of caliphs over the centuries, but the next Mahdi to show up will, kind of by definition I guess, be the first.


Drawing of Muhammad Ahmad, “the Mahdi” (Wikimedia)

Muhammad Ahmad was by all accounts a devoted student of Islam, known even when he was a young man for his seriousness as a scholar and for the depth of his piety. In an earlier time he might have been called a “Holy Man” and remained an object of religious veneration, like the 5th century Saint Simeon the Stylite or any of the legendary founders of the major Sufi schools. But in 19th century Sudan, which was living under the yoke of an Egyptian domination that gradually, over the course of the century, became a British domination via Egypt, it was probably inevitable that a man who attracted a large following of religious devotees would also become a figure of political resistance. Continue reading

Syria’s twists and turns

There’s such a constant barrage of news from Syria, somebody always advancing on this or launching air strikes on that, and it can be easy to slip into a sort of hazy feeling that things are going a certain inexorable way. Lately, for example, ISIS always seems to be struggling, as it is in Manbij and may soon be in and around Raqqa, and it’s sort of become accepted that the heavy Russian intervention left Bashar al-Assad in the driver’s seat when it comes to taking back control over the country. But ISIS isn’t done yet, and there are serious problems plaguing Assad’s forces that have to some extent been papered over by Russian air power.

A rebel group called the New Syrian Army is learning the former on the fly, having encountered a great deal more resistance than it probably expected in driving ISIS out of the eastern Syrian town of Al-Bukamal:

The New Syria Army rebel group had launched an operation on Tuesday aimed at capturing the town of Al-Bukamal from Islamic State and cutting supply and communications lines for the group between Syria and Iraq, the U.S. coalition fighting IS said.

One rebel source said Islamic State fighters had encircled the rebels in a surprise ambush. They had suffered heavy casualties and weapons had been seized by the jihadists, the source said.

“The news is not good. I can say our troops were trapped and suffered many casualties and several fighters were captured and even weapons were taken,” he said.

A spokesman of the New Syria Army, Muzahem al Saloum, confirmed the group’s fighters had retreated. “We have withdrawn to the outlying desert and the first stage of the campaign has ended,” Saloum told Reuters.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the New Syria Army had been driven entirely from the province of Deir al-Zor, where Al-Bukamal is located.


Al-Bukamal (via Google Maps)

The NSA (not to be confused with any other NSAs) has received US training and assistance and is part of the (at least formally) secular Free Syrian Army. Al-Bukamal is located near the Syrian-Iraq border and, as the except above says, driving ISIS out of there would help curtail its cross-border (to the extent there still is a border) traffic and deal a symbolic blow to the organizations “Death to Sykes-Picot” rhetoric. The NSA’s base of operations was also targeted earlier this month by Russian airstrikes (maybe; Russia denies this), so June hasn’t really been great for them.

Speaking of Raqqa, an unsuccessful Syrian army (the old one, not the New one) advance on the Tabqa airbase in that province shows both that ISIS still has some fight left in it and that Assad’s forces may not have as much fight in them as you might think. The army timed its bid to retake Tabqa to coincide with the fighting around Manbij, thinking that ISIS would devote more resources to Manbij and leave itself vulnerable at the “back door,” so to speak. The Oryx Blog has a detailed look at the campaign and its failure, and concludes that the Syrian army has been wrecked as a fighting force: Continue reading

One of the (potentially) brighter sides of Brexit

While there’s much, good and bad, to sort out about Brexit’s impact on the UK and Europe, it may, presumably unintentionally, be good news for the Palestinians:

In a last minute pandering for votes, British Prime Minister, David Cameron — who, to his credit, had the dignity to resign after the vote — made a passionate appeal before a Jewish audience on Monday, June 20. He told the Israel supporters in the charity Jewish Care that staying in the EU is actually good for Israel.

He presented his country as the safeguard of Israeli interests at the Union. The gist of his message was: Britain has kept a watchful eye on Brussels and has thwarted any discussion that may be seen as hostile towards the Jewish state.

“When Europe is discussing its attitude towards Israel, do you want Britain — Israel’s greatest friend — in there opposing boycotts, opposing the campaign for divestment and sanctions, or do you want us outside the room, powerless to affect the discussion that takes place?” he told the largely Jewish audience.

Predictably, Cameron brought Iran into his reasoning, vowing that, if Britain remained in the EU, his country would be in a stronger position to “stop Iran (from) getting nuclear weapons.”

While the ‘Leave’ campaign was strongly censured for unethically using fear-mongering to dissuade voters, Cameron’s comments before Jewish Care — which were an extreme and barefaced example of fear-mongering and manipulation of Israel’s so-called ‘existentialist threats’ — received little coverage in the media.

Indeed, Britain has played that dreadful role for decades, muting any serious discussion on Israel and Palestine, and ensuring more courageous voices like that of Sweden, for example, are offset by the ardently and unconditionally pro-Israel sentiment constantly radiating from Westminster. Who can forget Cameron’s impassionate defense of Israel’s last war on Gaza in 2014, which killed over 2,200 mostly Palestinian civilians?

With Britain out of the picture, the thinking goes, the EU loses a major country that took a largely one-sided view of the Israel-Palestine conflict. EU foreign policy could shift in the Palestinian direction as a result.

I’m not sure I buy this argument, to be honest. The flip side of this coin is that the EU is already seen, at least on the Israeli right, as anti-Israel. It’s been particularly critical of Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank, insisting last year for example that some goods made on those settlements had to be labeled as such before they could be imported into Europe (the Israeli government sees labeling as the first step to boycotting). And, of course, the EU helped facilitate the Iran nuclear deal, though the UK was intimately involved in those negotiations and, if anything, was a softer touch on Iran than France. So anything that weakens the EU, like the departure of one of its three most powerful member states, could alternatively be seen as a good thing for Israel. And there are plenty of other EU member states, Germany in particular, who are just as one-sided as the UK, if not more so, in their approach to the I-P conflict.

Obviously any Brexit impact on Israel-Palestine depends on Brexit actually happening, which is a little up in the air at the moment to say the least. It also depends on Brexit happening in a way that doesn’t leave the UK with leverage over EU foreign policy, though it’s hard to imagine why the EU would want to give a non-member, or associate member, or whatever, that kind of power.


Istanbul airport attack kills at least 30, still developing

A terrorist attack involving at least three suicide bombers has killed more than 30 people and injured nearly 150 at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, the city’s main international airport (both figures, but particularly the death toll, may rise over the next few hours):

One of the attackers “randomly opened fire” as he walked through the terminal building, shortly before three explosions, a witness told Reuters.

“We came right to international departures and saw the man randomly shooting. He was just firing at anyone coming in front of him. He was wearing all black. His face was not masked. I was 50 metres away from him,” said Paul Roos, 77, a South African tourist on his way back to Cape Town with his wife.

“We ducked behind a counter but I stood up and watched him. Two explosions went off shortly after one another. By that time he had stopped shooting,” Roos said.

“He turned around and started coming towards us. He was holding his gun inside his jacket. He looked around anxiously to see if anyone was going to stop him and then went down the escalator … We heard some more gunfire and then another explosion, and then it was over.”

There’s been no claim of responsibility for the attack but, as with each of the tragically growing number of terror attacks that have taken place in Turkey over the past several months, suspicion revolves around either ISIS or a Kurdish group, possibly the PKK or its more violent offshoot, the TAK. If this attack was carried out by the Kurds it would represent a serious escalation in their war against Ankara, as Kurdish attacks have heretofore picked targets with obvious military and/or police connections (though of course there have been collateral casualties)–which is not to excuse those attacks, but they can at least be seen as part and parcel of the Turkish-Kurdish civil war. This attack, clearly aimed at civilians and, more than that, tourists, would be a marked departure from that pattern. Needless to say, if the PKK or TAK were found to be behind this attack, it would have serious ramifications in terms of both the Kurdish conflict inside Turkey and America’s work with the related YPG Kurdish forces in Syria.

It’s partly because this attack looks so uncharacteristic for the Kurds that suspicion will gravitate, already has gravitated, toward ISIS (the Turkish government has already fingered ISIS as the perpetrator). There are a lot of things about this attack that lead people to that conclusion. It targeted an airport, like the Brussels attack in March. It happened during Ramadan, when ISIS pledged to ramp up its activity. Tomorrow is the second anniversary (on the Western calendar) of the day ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself the caliph. And, of course, ISIS has been making Turkey one of its regular targets since last summer, starting with a 5 June 2015 suicide attack in Diyarbakır.

ISIS has not yet announced any claim of responsibility for the attack. It typically takes anywhere from a few hours to a few days for its official declarations after terrorist attacks, so we’re still easily within the window for that to happen. But, importantly, ISIS has never publicly taken responsibility for a major attack in Turkey (it has claimed credit for assassinating a handful of Syrian activists there) despite the fact that it’s strongly suspected of carrying out in the past year and the fact that it has been increasingly critical of Turkey online since last spring. The large-scale ISIS attacks in Turkey began shortly after the rhetorical attacks increased.

The simple explanation for ISIS’s decision not to claim credit for attacks in Turkey is that leaving even a sliver of doubt as to whether its attacks might actually have been carried out by the Kurds works to ISIS’s benefit. ISIS needs Turkey to continue to treat the Kurds as its greatest national security threat, because that works to ISIS’s benefit in Syria, but it also wants to deter Turkey from taking further direct military action against ISIS. So it carries out attacks that are almost certainly ISIS attacks, but doesn’t take the step that would eliminate all doubt by claiming credit.


Did Iran foil a “major terrorist attack” last week?

Last Monday the Iranian Intelligence Ministry announced that it had “thwarted” a planned terrorist attack on Tehran that would have been one of the “biggest” the country has ever experienced. They claimed that the attack, which was supposed to happen on the anniversary of the death of Khadijah, Muhammad’s first wife (which is a minor holiday for Muslims), was planned by “Wahhabi takfiris.” This is obviously, maybe intentionally, imprecise, but Tehran generally uses takfiri to refer to Sunni terrorists (ISIS would be the logical example here) and “Wahhabi” to refer to anything emanating from Saudi Arabia. So they could have been pointing a finger at ISIS while also taking a shot at Riyadh, or they could have been suggesting, without really suggesting, that Saudi agents were behind the plot. There is an acknowledged (including by the US) Sunni terror group, based in Iran’s portion of Balochistan, called Jundallah, or the “People’s Resistance Movement of Iran” (not to be confused with Pakistan’s Jundallah, an offshoot of the Pakistani Taliban that targets tourists, Christians, and Shiʿa and that reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014), which may have financial and ideological ties to Saudi Arabia (at least the Iranians say it does). So it’s possible that they may have been behind the plot.


Iran’s Sistan and Balochistan Province, for those who are curious; Balochistan is more the southern part, and historic Balochistan extends east into Pakistan (Wikimedia | Uwe Dering)

Assuming, of course, that there really was a plot. There’s no independent reporting on this story and probably never will be; all the information that made it into Western media about the supposed plot came courtesy of the ministry and Iranian state media. The Daily Caller trawled through the right-wing DC think tank world and found a bunch of Iran experts ready to claim that this story was either entirely or mostly made up. And they may very well be right, in fact I’m inclined to think they are, but let’s not pretend they’re not also serving an ideological agenda just as the Iranian government is. Certainly, though, the Iranians have plenty of motive to invent, or at least greatly exaggerate the scope of, a Sunni terror plot aimed at Tehran, particularly if they can throw in some innuendo linking it to the Saudis. That’s some nice red meat for domestic consumption, if nothing else.

In general, the only terror attacks you can be sure were really terror attacks are, unfortunately, the successful ones. It’s too easy, and too potentially beneficial, for countries and agencies to claim that they’ve foiled this or that grand terror plot to take reports like that without a whole shaker of salt. Even our own FBI doesn’t seem to be above that sort of thing. It’s not a well you can dip into very often, you don’t want to be the government that cried “wolf” after all, but it is a well.