Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Russia and Estonia conduct Cold-War-style spy swap

The Russian and Estonian intelligence services have exchanged two men accused by each country of spying for the other, in a rare public example of what is commonly referred to as a ‘spy-swap’. The exchange took place on Saturday on a bridge over the Piusa River, which forms part of the Russian-Estonian border, separating Estonia’s Polva County from Russia’s Pskov Oblast.

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said that it had handed to the Estonian government a man going by the name of Eston Kohver. Last year, Estonian officials accused Moscow of abducting Kohver, an employee of the Internal Security Service of Estonia, known as KaPo, from the vicinity of Luhamaa, a border-crossing facility in southeastern Estonia. But the Russian government said that Kohver had been captured by the FSB on Russian soil and was found to be carrying a firearm, cash and spy equipment “relating to the gathering of intelligence”.

Kohver was exchanged for Aleksei Dressen, a former Estonian KaPo officer who was arrested in February 2012 along with his wife, Viktoria Dressen, for allegedly spying for Russia. The Dressens were caught carrying classified Estonian government documents as Viktoria was attempting to board a flight to Moscow. Aleksei Dressen was sentenced to 16 years in prison, while Viktoria Dressen to six, for divulging state secrets. Russian media have since reported that Dressen had been secretly working for Russian counterintelligence since the early 1990s.

Soon after the spy- swap, KaPo Director Arnold Sinisalu told a press conference that the exchange had been agreed with the FSB following “long-term negotiations”, during which it became clear that “both sides were willing to find a suitable solution”. Kohver, sitting alongside Sinisalu, told reporters that it felt “good to be back in my homeland”.

NATO General Worried About Russian Military Build-Up In Syria

The Pentagon says Russia has sent at least 500 troops, along with fighter jets, artillery units, tanks and other military hardware to an airbase in the Latakia region on Syria's Mediterranean coast.

Breedlove suggested the weaponry included SA15 and SA22 surface-to-air missile defense systems, used to take down enemy planes.

"I have not seen ISIL flying any airplanes that require SA15s or SA22s," he said, using an alternative acronym for the IS group.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Barack Obama sparred over the crisis in Syria in dueling UN speeches on Monday, each accusing the other of fueling the carnage.

The two leaders were due to meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly later.

Breedlove said Russia was trying to protect Assad's regime "against those that are putting pressure on" it.
Using military jargon, he warned of Russia forming an "A2AD" (Anti-Access Area-Denial) exclusion zone.

"It's one of the things we are beginning to watch (them) develop in the northeast Mediterranean as we see these very capable air defense capabilities beginning to show up in Syria," Breedlove said.

"We are a little worried about another A2AD bubble being created in the eastern Mediterranean."

He noted Russia already had created such a zone in the Black Sea, thanks to missile batteries sent to Crimea after its annexation by Russian forces.

They are also using the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad to create a bubble over the Baltic, he said.

Breedlove's comments come as the West frets over Russia's intentions in Syria and in eastern Ukraine, where it is supporting pro-Moscow rebels in an ongoing conflict.

"Russia very much wants to be seen as an equal on the world stage, a great power on the world stage," he said.

Moscow "wants to maintain warm water ports and airfield capabilities in the eastern Mediterranean and they saw that possibly being challenged on the ground by those opposing the Assad regime."

France has opened a war crimes inquiry against Assad

A Syrian man carries two girls covered with dust following a reported air strike by government forces on July 9, 2014 in the northern city of Aleppo

French authorities have launched a criminal probe against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for alleged war crimes committed between 2011 and 2013, sources told AFP on Tuesday.

Paris prosecutors opened a preliminary war crimes inquiry on September 15, a source close to the case and a diplomatic source said.

The investigation is drawing in particular on evidence provided by a former Syrian army photographer known by the codename "Caesar", who defected and fled the country in 2013, bringing with him some 55,000 graphic photographs of scenes from the brutal conflict.

Taliban attack airport after seizing northern Afghan city

Taliban fighters clashed with Afghan government forces near Kunduz airport on Tuesday, a day after the militants seized control of the northern city in arguably the biggest victory of their 14-year insurgency.

Heavy fighting just meters from the airport, where police and soldiers had retreated on Monday, suggested the Taliban were not going to be easily dislodged.

“There are no reinforcements yet in Kunduz, as the Taliban have destroyed parts of the Baghlan-Kunduz highway,” said Abdullah Danishy, a deputy governor of Kunduz. “They may join us tonight.”

Beleaguered security forces in Kunduz had been banking on support from other provinces, but in a well-coordinated operation, the Taliban have disrupted some supply routes.

“Now Afghan forces have started a counter-attack near the airport. We assure you that they haven’t entered the airport,” Danishy added. “Our forces will not let them enter.”

The evening Taliban advance came despite the US military carrying out its first air strike in support of government troops since Kunduz fell.

It was the first time a provincial capital had fallen to the Taliban since the hardline Islamist movement was toppled from power in 2001 in the US-led military campaign.

The swift gains in Kunduz are a major setback for the government of President Ashraf Ghani, which marked its first year in power on Tuesday, and raised questions over how ready Afghan forces were to tackle the Islamist insurgency alone.

Ghani announced in a televised address that more reinforcements were on their way to regain the city, which he said had fallen partly because government troops had shown restraint to avoid civilian casualties.

“The government is responsible, and cannot and will not bomb its own citizens.”

Supply lines to Kunduz city have been disrupted by fighting in surrounding areas, according to Western and Afghan security officials. To the south, clashes in Baghlan province closed a main route from the capital Kabul, while one convoy carrying security personnel was ambushed by Taliban insurgents.

Further afield, and independent of the action around Kunduz, fighting broke out in Nangarhar province bordering Pakistan.

At least 30 insurgents claiming loyalty to Islamic State were killed when militants attacked police checkpoints in Achin district, said Nangarhar police spokesman Hazrat Hussain Mashriqiwal. An official said four security personnel also died.

Several small groups have broken away from the Taliban to follow Islamic State, which security experts fear will seek to exploit any divisions in the dominant Afghan militant movement.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said one reason for the assault on Kunduz was to prove the group was united, after the appointment of a new leader in July angered many key figures.

Earlier in the day, the government said its forces had regained the Kunduz city prison and provincial police headquarters, which were overrun on Monday night, but the Taliban quickly refuted the claim.

More than 100 Taliban fighters were among the 600 prisoners who escaped during the jail attack, National Directorate of Security chief Rahmatullah Nabil told reporters on Tuesday.

US military planes struck Taliban positions on the outskirts of the city in the morning.

Police said 83 Taliban were killed in the US action, a claim also denied by the Taliban.

Afghan Defence Minister Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai told reporters that 17 Afghan security personnel had been killed and 18 wounded in the past 24 hours across the country.

Isis planning 'nuclear tsunami' on West claims German journalist embeded with terror group

The Islamic State is planning a "nuclear holocaust" to wipe the West off the face of the earth, German journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer claims in his new book, Inside IS - Ten Days In The Islamic State. The 75-year-old journalist reportedly spent 10 days embeded with the terrorist organisation.

According to the The Express, Todenhöfer was allowed to integrate and interview members of the jihadi group because he is an outspoken critic of US policy in the Middle East. During his time with Isis, the German journalist allegedly learned that the group plans a "nuclear tsunami" against any Western nation that opposes its plans for an Islamic caliphate.

Todenhöfer claims that once he and his son arrived in Isis-controlled territory, they were forced to turn over their mobile phones. However, before they were even allowed to enter Isis territory, the former German MP spoke to the terrorist organisation for months over Skype.

"Of course I'd seen the terrible, brutal beheading videos and it was of course after seeing this in the last few months that caused me the greatest concern in my negotiations to ensure how I can avoid this. Anyway, I made my will before I left," Todenhöfer told The Express.

Once in Isis territory, Todenhöfer and his son, who filmed there, was allegedly chauffeured around by the notorious British terrorist "Jihadi John," whose real name is Mohammed Emwazi. "People there live in shellholes, in barracks, in bombed-out houses. I slept on the floor, if I was lucky on a plastic mattress. I had a suitcase and a backpack, a sleeping bag."

The reporter said the terrorists use their beheading videos to instill terror into the civilian population they aim to control. He also warned the group is the most dangerous terror organisation he has ever witnessed. "The west is drastically underestimating the power of Isis," he said.

"They are the most brutal and most dangerous enemy I have ever seen in my life," he continued. "I don't see anyone who has a real chance to stop them. Only Arabs can stop IS. I came back very pessimistic." 

UN leaders agree on how to defeat ISIS. Doing it is the hard part.

President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin dueled at the United Nations this week over how best to defeat the Islamic State. Much of their debate was over the role Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should – or should not – play in the fight.

But when Mr. Obama chaired a summit at the United Nations Tuesday on countering the Islamic State and other forms of violent extremism, the focus was more on the community-relations building, civil society involvement, and youth outreach measures.

Obama’s argument that “Ideology is not defeated with guns [but] … with better ideas” appeared to ring true with the leaders at the summit, as they presented their own visions of how to reverse a global rise in extremist ideology. ​

The contrast between the diplomatic and geopolitical considerations for defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State one day and the “hearts and minds” focus of Obama’s summit the next suggests how comprehensive the battle to defeat IS and other Islamist extremist groups will have to be.

“We have to stop the process [of radicalization] at the start, not at the end,” which means that preventing the “incubation” of an “extremist worldview” in young minds around the world will be “as important as the military [and] political steps we all take as part of this effort,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron in addressing the summit.

In other words, airstrikes on IS positions, training of more Iraqi troops to push the militants out of their strongholds, and high-level efforts to craft a political transition in Syria will continue to be essential to defeating IS – but increasingly crucial will be the war of ideas.

Tuesday’s summit comes a year after Obama held another gathering at the UN to launch an anti-IS coalition to lead the fight against the extremist group controlling large swaths and major cities of Syria and Iraq.

But a year later and by almost any measure, that battle is not going well – showing starkly the depth of the problems to be addressed and the failure to make a substantial impact so far.

Coalition airstrikes have killed some IS leaders, and the group’s fighters have been pushed out of some areas they controlled, particularly along the Turkey-Syria border. But in May, the militants seized the Iraqi city of Ramadi, less than 80 miles from Baghdad, and Iraqi efforts to retake the provincial capital have sputtered to a halt.

The flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria was a major focus of last year’s summit, with leaders pledging tough measures to close borders, share intelligence, and interdict the fighters’ travel.

But if anything that flow has increased, experts say, with estimates of up to 30,000 foreign fighters now in Syria and Iraq – about double estimates of a year ago.

What that means, US officials and others say, is that the international community is losing the message war with IS and other extremist groups, particularly among growing numbers of Muslim youth around the world – including in the US. (For details, see the Monitor's ongoing series about ISIS in America.)

That explains why one leader after the other at Tuesday’s summit underscored the need to nip extremist ideology in the bud – before it becomes an army of fighters on the field – if the battle is to be won.

“Governments need to do more, but that will not suffice,” said Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. Noting that the terrorist group Boko Haram “changed its tactics and ideological outreach” since it pledged allegiance to IS earlier this year, he added, “We need to find as way to prevent young people from turning to terrorism in the first place.”

Last year’s summit was a gathering largely limited to leaders of countries most affected by the rise of IS and the growth of foreign fighters. But this year, the guest list was expanded to include community groups, experts in countering violent ideologies, and social media specialists – a nod to the more comprehensive strategy Obama and other world leaders say will be necessary to defeat IS.

In particular, that strategy must zero in on Muslim youth and on countering the messaging – or “siren song,” as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described it – that IS so successfully disseminates via social media, leaders said.

To launch the “youth” dimension of that strategy, the White House organized a parallel “global youth summit to counter violent extremism.” That meeting, which was headlined by Lisa Monaco, Obama’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, drew more than 80 youth leaders from 45 countries with the objective of developing outreach and social-media intervention initiatives that can be shared globally.

But overshadowing the proceedings was evidence that the “hearts and minds” efforts undertaken to this point by the US and its partners have hardly delivered impressive success.

A recent State Department assessment of the US “countermessaging” program against IS propaganda found they were getting nowhere, with the extremist groups thousands of messages a day and sophisticated online recruiting campaign far outstripping US efforts. The report also found little coordination and unified messaging among the few allied propaganda efforts.

Obama’s organization of a summit focused on social media messaging and youth outreach is also not likely to impress critics of the US effort against IS like Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who insists the US is not winning, “and if you’re not winning in this kind of warfare, you are losing.”

But the chorus of leaders’ voices Tuesday on the need to counter the IS message indicates the ideological threat is real. The problem may be that, as the early evidence suggests, no government has yet proven it knows how to do it.

Russians In Syria Building A2/AD ‘Bubble’ Over Region: Breedlove

Syria Airstrike map Sept 24

In keeping with its increasingly aggressive behavior over the past two years, Russia is deploying lethal and long-ranged anti-aircraft defenses to keep Western forces out of three key regions: the Baltics, the Black Sea, and, now, the Levant. From where NATO’s top commander Gen. Philip Breedlove sits, the Russian forces flowing into Syria don’t look like counter-terrorists out to stop the Islamic State, which Vladimir Putin has said is his highest priority. They look like the first pieces of a layered “anti-access/area denial” system that could complicate US and allied operations in Syria and well beyond.

“Anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD, is a growing problem,” Gen. Breedlove told the German Marshall Fund this afternoon, speaking just hours before Putin’s teeth-clenched meeting with President Obama on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

The northernmost danger zone or “bubble” is the oldest, based out of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad between Poland and Lithuania. “Kaliningrad is a large platform for A2/AD capability,” Breedlove said. His subordinates Gen. Frank Gorenc and Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges have warned taht Kaliningrad-based missiles reach well into Polish airspace and could shut down NATO reinforcements to the Baltics in a crisis.

To the south, by contrast, Russia lacked a suitable forward base — until last year. “[Since] their occupation of Crimea, Russia has developed a very strong A2/AD capability in the Black Sea,” Breedlove said.
“Essentially, their [anti-ship] cruise missiles range the entire Black Sea, and their air defense missiles range about 40 to 50 percent of the Black Sea.”

Now, it seems, comes Syria. “As we see these very capable air defense [systems] beginning to show up in Syria, we’re a little worried about another A2/AD bubble being created in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Breedlove said. “We see some very sophisticated air defenses going into these airfields. We see some very sophisticated air-to-air [fighter] aircraft going into these airfields.”

The Islamic State has no air force that Russia might use such sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons to counter, Breedlove continued. “These very sophisticated air defense capabilities are not about ISIL,” he argued, despite Putin’s publicly stated priorities.

Based on the military forces Russia is actually putting in place, Breedlove said, he believes Putin’s top priority is to protect Russian access to airfields and warm water seaports in the Eastern Mediterranean. The second priority, in service to the first, is to prop up Russia’s host, the Assad regime. Then third, he said, “After all of that, I think that they will do some counter-ISIL work to legitimize their approach to Syria.”

So what can NATO do about these expanding bubbles of no-go zones? First of all, in the Baltic and the Black Seas today, the alliance’s force can just go there, Breedlove said “to contest that they are not forbidden spaces” but international airspace and waters. Second, in case the shooting starts, it needs to invest in forces that can break the bubble.

“As an alliance, we need to step back and take a look at our capability in a military sense to address an A2/AD challenge,” Breedlove said. “This is about investment. This is about training.”

That investment must be across the board, Breedlove emphasized. “We have made great progress since Wales [i.e. the alliance’s 2014 summit],” he said. “We have increased the readiness and responsiveness of our NRF [NATO Response Force] and certainly the VJTF [Very High Readiness Joint Task Force]. We have given the SACEUR back authorities to alert and stage forces, etcetera….. but it’s not enough.”

“What really deters, I think, that is we increase the readiness and responsiveness of the entire NATO force structure,” Breedlove said, not just elite quick-reaction units like the NRF and VJTF. “We have to get to these investments, exercises, and training scenarios that raise the responsiveness and readiness of the whole force.”

Russia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, sign intel-sharing agreement against Islamic State

The governments of Russia, Syria and Iran have entered a formal intelligence-sharing agreement with Iraq, in an effort to defeat the Islamic State, it has been announced. Intelligence-sharing has been practiced for a while between Russia, Syria and Iran; but this is the first time that Iraq, an American ally, has entered the alliance. According to the Baghdad-based Iraqi Joint Forces Command, the agreement entails the establishment of a new intelligence-sharing center in the Iraqi capital. It will be staffed with intelligence analysts from all four participating countries, who will be passing on shared information to their respective countries’ militaries.

Iraqi officials said on Sunday that the intelligence-sharing agreement had been forged by Moscow, which was “increasingly concerned about the presence of thousands of terrorists from Russia undertaking criminal acts” as members of the Islamic State. The announcement of the agreement comes as Russia has been reinforcing its military presence in Syria, by deploying troops in Latakia. Security observers have interpreted the move as a strong message by the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin that it is prepared to safeguard the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The latter also enjoys strong support from Iran, which has poured billions of dollars in aid to support the regime in Damascus, and has deployed hundreds of Hezbollah advisers and militia members in defense of Assad.

Speaking from Baghdad, Colonel Steve Warren, the American spokesman for the Western-led military campaign against the Islamic State, said that Washington was respectful of Iraq’s need to enter into security agreements with other regional governments. But he added that the US objected to the Syrian government’s role in the intelligence-sharing agreement, because it was “brutalizing its own citizens”. The US government has also protested against the Russian government’s expansion of its base in Tartus and its increased military presence in Latakia. But, according to Foreign Policy, US officials have privately expressed support for the move, saying that “it could, in the short term, help rein in the Islamic state”.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

MI6 spy Gareth Williams was ‘killed by Russia for refusing to become double agent’, former KGB man claims

Gareth Williams was found dead, locked in a bag in his flat, in 2010

A Russian defector has claimed that the MI6 spy who was found dead in a padlocked holdall in his bath in Pimlico was “exterminated” by Russian intelligence agents because he refused to become a double agent and knew the identity of a Kremlin spy working inside GCHQ.

Codebreaker Gareth Williams was found dead at his home in 2010. He had been a cipher expert at GCHQ but was on secondment to MI6 when he died.

According to the coroner at the subsequent inquest, his death was likely a “criminally mediated” unlawful killing, though it was “unlikely” to be satisfactorily explained. Police investigating Williams’ death suggested he had died as the result of a sex game gone wrong.

But a defector, Boris Karpichkov, claims intelligence sources in Russia have admitted the MI6 spy was killed by the SVR, the current incarnation of the country’s espionage agency which was formerly known as the KGB.

Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Karpichkov claimed the SVR attempted to recruit Williams as a double agent, allegedly using details from the British cypher’s private life as leverage.

Police disclosed at the time of Williams’ death that he owned £15,000 worth of women’s designer clothing, a wig and make up. It had been suggested that Williams dressed as a woman outside of work, though a forensics expert has since said they believe the spy likely worked undercover as a woman.

Karpichkov, who is ex-KGB, claims the SVR threatened to reveal the Briton was a transvestite, before Williams in turn revealed he knew the identity of the person who had “tipped the Russians off” about him.

“The SVR then had no alternative but to exterminate him in order to protect their agent inside GCHQ,” he alleges.

Karpichkov, who also lives in the Pimlico area, said he had seen Russian diplomatic cars in the area around the time of Williams’ death but had believed they had been sent to monitor himself. He claims to have not seen the cars since Williams died.

Karpichkov has also claimed that Williams was killed by an untraceable poison which was pushed into his ear using a needleless syringe.

At the time of the inquiry the coroner said that the involvement of intelligence services in Williams’ death remained a “legitimate line of inquiry” but stressed “there was no evidence to support that he died at the hands” of a government agency.

Friday, September 25, 2015

France and Britain alarmed by Russian buildup in Syria

Paris (AFP) - France and Britain expressed their concern Thursday about the Russian military buildup in Syria after Moscow said it would conduct naval drills in the eastern Mediterranean.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking on a day of intense European diplomacy on the conflict, called on Moscow to justify the "very significant" Russian buildup.

Le Drian said: "We know what everyone can see, the very significant buildup of Russian forces both in the port of Tartus and above all, with the setting-up of a military airport to the south of Latakia and the presence of several fighter jets, combat helicopters and drone capacity there."

He said if Russia's main intention was "to protect President Bashar al-Assad", it should say so.

British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, speaking alongside Le Drian after they held talks, said he was "equally concerned" by the Russian buildup in Syria "which will only complicate what's already a very complicated and difficult situation".

Fallon warned that the focus on Russia should not divert attention from the need to deal with Islamic State jihadists operating in Syria.

"We should not divert our focus from the need to deal with the threat of Daesh, the very direct threat to Britain and France, and the instability that Daesh is posing in both Syria and Iraq," he said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State (IS).

The foreign ministers of France, Germany and Britain are meeting with EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini on Syria in Paris on Thursday.

Russia's defence ministry said Thursday it will hold naval drills in the eastern Mediterranean region this month and next month.

It said the exercises had been planned since the end of last year and it did not link them to the Syria conflict.

Russia has supported the Syrian regime throughout the four-year conflict that has claimed some 250,000 lives.

U.S. Navy's F-35 test to include new helmet, full weapons load

FORT WORTH, Texas (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy's next round of carrier testing of the Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) F-35C stealth fighter jet will include new helmets and jets fully loaded with internal weapons, a company official told Reuters.

During the tests, scheduled for the first two weeks of October, two F-35s will also test the Joint Precision Approach and Landing System (JPALS), an all-weather, GPS-guided landing system being designed by Raytheon Co (RTN.N), Lockheed's F-35 program manager, Lorraine Martin, said in an interview. She spoke after a ceremony for the rollout of the first of the 52 F-35s that Norway will buy.

Martin said the second round of testing is a milestone for the jet, which has wider wings than Air Force and Marine Corps versions, holds more fuel, and is designed to be catapulted off the deck of an aircraft carrier, and then land, using a special hook and heavy arresting gear.

"We're really pleased with the momentum that we've got with the Navy," she said. "If you talk to the Navy's aviators, they know the aircraft has incredible importance for their ability to do what they need to do from the ship around the world."

Lockheed is building three models of the supersonic jet for the U.S. military and nine other countries: Britain, Australia, Norway, Italy, Turkey, the Netherlands, Israel, Japan and South Korea. Denmark and Canada are also considering orders.

The Pentagon plans to spend $391 billion to develop and produce 2,457 planes over the next few decades.

Total procurement is now slated to reach 3,150, but could rise, Martin told reporters this week.

She said the U.S. government is providing information about the aircraft to other countries, identified by sources familiar with the program as Singapore, Belgium, Switzerland, Poland, Finland and Spain.
The U.S. Marine Corps in July became the first service to declare an initial squadron of its F-35B jets ready for combat, with the Air Force due to follow suit next August.

The U.S. Navy, which carried out the first round of at-sea testing on the USS Nimitz last November, plans to have an initial squadron of jets ready for combat by late 2018 or early 2019.

Martin said the jets' performance during the first round of carrier testing had helped build confidence in the program.

This time, one Lockheed and three government pilots will be using the jet's improved Generation-3 helmet, which is already being used for testing on land. They will fly with a full store of internal weapons and full fuel tanks to test the jet's performance at higher weights. There are no plans to fire the weapons, officials said.

U.S. defense officials said the tests would also include catapult takeoffs with after-burner power, more night approaches and landings, engine runs for maintainers and other parameters aimed at creating conditions that are more similar to combat.

They said the tests would not include a portable version of the F-35's complex, computer-based logistics system, with the data required to be relayed via communications links instead.

Russia Unveils New Cockroach Spy Robot

Russian scientists and engineers have developed a micro-robot that looks and moves like an insect and can carry a tiny camera, the country's Baltic Federal Immanuel Kant University announced on Thursday.

The team being the project said that they plan to supply a sample of the bug-like robots to the armed forces next week, once they develop a prototype in camouflage colors.

The robot is 4 inches long and can move at the speed of 12 inches per second. It is equipped with a photosensitive sensor, as well as contact and contactless sensors meaning it can track obstacles while travelling. It can act as a scout and perform reconnaissance.

The current prototype can only move for 20 minutes at a time, but is intended by December to be able to move for longer, either autonomously or to follow a predetermined route.

According to the Kant University in Kaliningrad, where the robot was developed, it was designed to emulate the Blaberus Giganteus cockroach prevalent in South America. The developers usec a specimen of the similar-looking Blaberus Craniifer during development.

Scientists spent the first two months of development observing the movements of real cockroaches to ensure the robot's own movements were as insect-like and organic as possible.

Although the prototype does not currently have a camera mounted on it, it can carry a load of up to 10 grams that scientists say would be enough to carry a small portable camera, with which it will be able to penetrate hard-to-reach areas.

Developers from the university say that the Russian military are already interested in the project and a camouflage version of the robot will be submitted to the armed forces for testing next week. The university believes that the project can be very useful to Russia's emergency services, who are in charge of search and rescue missions in the country and often work in zones where infrastructure has been damaged.

Lockheed Martin unveils new amphibious assault vehicle

The ACV 1.1 is Lockheed's replacement candidate for the US Marine Corps amphibious vehicle fleet

The US Marine Corps's fleet of amphibious assault vehicles is over 40 years old and instead of fitting them with classic number plates, it's looking for a replacement. At this week's Modern Day Marine trade show in Quantico, Virginia, Lockheed Martin revealed its new candidate Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) 1.1. The armored eight-wheel-drive battle wagon can carry up to 13 marines over land or water and incorporates intuitive automatic systems into the design.

The job of the marines is to act as an amphibious assault force, but ever since the days of wooden landing boats, getting from ship to shore has been tricky. Amphibious vehicles seems like the logical answer, but it is more than just a car that can splash about and then drive home on the road – it's a vital instrument during the long, vulnerable trip to the beach that's designed to not only protect marines from enemy fire, but also from slogging hundreds of yards over sharp coral reefs, fighting through the surf, or wallowing in mud.

Lockheed compares the new ACV 1.1 to the famous World War II-era DUKW that is now a common sight in many large cities, where it's often used as a tour bus. The Allied-forces DUKW was a standard transport truck that had a flotation hull welded on and a prop on the back that engaged with the drive shaft by means of a clutch. It carried 25 men standing up, had no armor, and hauled itself using a measly 95 bhp petrol engine. Worse, despite its legendary robustness, it wasn't very good as either a boat or a land transport because the design was a compromise between the two, which don't have very much in common.

In contrast, the ACV 1.1 is designed as a vehicle that will not only float, but is also watertight and operates well under fire on both land and sea while carrying a significant payload. It has a sealed shell with 8x8 drive and Lockheed says it's built to be modular, easily upgradable, use off-the-shelf parts, and be compatible with other vehicles.

The ACV 1.1 is fully armored, weighs over 20 tons and is powered by a 700 bhp six-cylinder turbodiesel engine. It seats 13 and can carry over 16,000 lb (7,200 kg) of payload. It has upgradable sensors and communications, and can carry weapons ranging up to a 30-mm autocannon.

To keep the ACV 1.1 watertight, only the driver has a window and the hatches are on the top of the vehicle, with a large door in the rear for passengers to enter and exit. There's a sealing and locking system to make sure every entrance is secure, an automatic pump in the bottom of the vehicle to remove water, and a system to supply air to the engine and passengers. The hull is designed to be both seaworthy and able to deflect blasts. It can do 5 knots (5.7 mph, 9.2 km/h) in rough seas, and can handle large waves, currents, rugged terrain, and nighttime conditions.

In addition, the ACV 1.1 boasts automated systems that place an emphasis intuitive operation. For example, it switches automatically from "land mode" to "sea mode" and back at the touch of a button and does not require special controls. This allows the driver to use the steering wheel and other standard controls on both land and sea as the drive system automatically adjusts itself.

According to Lockheed, future versions of the ACV 1.1 are expected to be even more automated with an autopilot for sea mode. In addition, the company sees the ACV 1.1 one day being used by civilian rescue services for disaster relief, such as floods and hurricanes.

The New Chinese Missile That Has the U.S. Air Force Spooked

America has spent hundreds of billions on stealthy fighter jets to rule tomorrow’s skies. Could a new Chinese weapon negate that edge?

The U.S. Air Force—the most powerful military service of its kind on the planet—is nothing if not confident. So it’s exceedingly rare to hear the service’s top officers publically express alarm about specific weapons of potential enemies.

That’s why it was a big, big deal when Gen. Herbert Carlisle, the head of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, twice mentioned with concern a new Chinese air-to-air missile in mid-September. The missile, called the PL-15, boasts a sophisticated radar seeker and a powerful rocket motor, giving it the ability to hit targets from potentially 60 miles away or more—at least as far as American jets can fire their own missiles.

“Look at our adversaries and what they’re developing, things like the PL-15 and the range of that weapon,” Carlisle said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 15—the same day that China reportedly test-fired the PL-15 for the first time. “How do we counter that and what are we going to do to continue to meet that threat?” Carlisle asked rhetorically.

The very next day, Flight Global magazine published an interview with Carlisle in which the general doubled down on his worried tone. “The PL-15 and the range of that missile, we’ve got to be able to out-stick [sic] that missile,” he said, using an Air Force euphemism for “out-shoot.”

Now, it’s clear that the PL-15 is one sophisticated missile. What’s less clear is whether the missile itself is actually any better than America’s own main air-to-air weapon, the AIM-120. Indeed, in the wake of Carlisle’s comments, Air Combat Command hinted that it’s not just the capabilities of a single PL-15 that have got Carlisle and presumably other Air Force leaders so worried—it’s how many PL-15s the Chinese air force could fire at one time.

“Few weapons operate in a vacuum,” Maj. Michael Meridith, an Air Combat Command spokesman, told The Daily Beast in an email. “We are interested in a wide variety of operational characteristics like payload, guidance system, warhead type, portability, guidance, resistance to countermeasures, reliability/maintainability, speed, range, etc., which are different based on the weapons system and the other capabilities it employed with.”

Consider that China’s J-11 fighters—versions of the iconic Russian Flanker jet - could, with upgrades, haul as many as 12 missiles the size of the PL-15, plus two smaller missiles for a staggering 14 weapons in total.

By comparison, the U.S. Air Force’s top-of-the-line F-22 in its normal configuration carries a maximum of six AIM-120 missiles and two shorter-range Sidewinders.

That’s because, since the Cold War, American fighter design has emphasized stealth, the ability to avoid detection by radar. Stealth requires a smooth silhouette, which minimizes the reflection of radar waves. That means keeping weapons in internal bomb bays. But there’s less room in a bay than there is underwing and under the fuselage, where Chinese jets hang their own munitions.

Stealth is an advantage in certain situation, but in a straight-up fight it can result in a weapons deficit for the stealthy side. In the case of F-22s versus J-11s, the deficit for the American side is up to six missiles per jet. And it gets worse. Owing to their high cost, the U.S. Air Force bought just 195 F-22s. China has no fewer than 300 of the cheaper J-11s and counting, plus hundreds of smaller J-10s and other jets.

The Air Force is comfortable with the F-22’s smaller weapons load because the plane’s ability to avoid dectection should make it harder to hit, thus partially negating the enemy’s firepower advantage.

But there are too few F-22s, according to Carlisle. He called the Pentagon’s 2009 decision to end F-22 production the “biggest mistake ever.” To maintain a lead over the Chinese military and other potential enemies, the Pentagon is buying hundreds of new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. But in its own stealthy configuration, this plane carries even fewer missiles than the F-22 does—just two AIM-120s.

“The PL-15 is only one of the worries,” Peter Goon, an analyst for the Air Power Australia think tank, told The Daily Beast. “The bigger one is the fact the F-35A JSF carries only two AIM-120s—that will be keeping [Carlisle] up at night.”

It’s not hard to imagine the outcome if American fighter squadrons ever met in battle with Chinese squadrons packing potentially seven times as many missiles, each of which is the equal of America’s own latest munition.

It should come as no surprise, then, that one American company is offering to add missiles to some older U.S. jets. The same day that Carlisle worried aloud about the PL-15 and the Chinese first test-fired the new missile, Boeing proposed to add new weapons pylons to old F-15s, doubling the venerable fighter’s load of AIM-120s to an unprecedented 16, two more missiles than even an upgraded J-11 can carry.

More than 700 dead in Hajj stampede, Saudi Arabia authorities say

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A pilgrim walks among dead bodies gathered after a stampede killed hundreds in Mina, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 24, 2015. AP

At least 717 people were killed in a stampede on Thursday on the outskirts of the holy city of Mecca during the annual Hajj pilgrimage, according to Saudi Arabia officials, who said the incident would not have happened “if the pilgrims had followed instructions.”

The crush happened in Mina, a large valley about three miles from the holy city of Mecca that has been the site of Hajj stampedes in years past.

In addition to the deaths, at least 805 others were injured in the stampede, officials said.

It was the second major disaster during this year's Hajj season, raising questions about the adequacy of measures put in place by Saudi authorities to ensure the safety of the roughly two million Muslims taking part in the annual religious event. 

Mina is where pilgrims carry out a symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing pebbles against three stone walls, although Thursday’s crush did not happen at that exact site. The city also houses more than 160,000 tents where pilgrims spend the night during the pilgrimage.

Russian fighter jets enter Syria with transponders off

Washington (CNN)A U.S. official told CNN Thursday that Russian fighter jets turned off their transponders as they flew into Syria in an apparent attempt to avoid detection. The official said the fighters flew very close to a transport plane that had its transponder on and functioning.

U.S. satellites rapidly saw that the aircraft were there, according to the official.

The assessment over the weekend was that the fighter jets were on their way. The same official said the Russians have begun flying drones around the coastal city of Latakia.

With no ISIS fighters in the area, the move raises serious questions about the Russians' intentions with their military buildup, which the U.S. has questioned the purpose of and watched with wariness. The action points to a higher likelihood that the Russian plan is to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rather than fight the terror group.

The U.S. has its own effort underway to defeat ISIS but has also said that Assad must go.

Asked about what the U.S. can do about the situation, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told CNN at a press conference Thursday that "it's a matter of seeing what the Russians do."

Carter said he hopes the Russians will fight ISIS, "but if it's a matter of pouring gasoline on the civil war in Syria, that is certainly not productive from our point of view."

Russia announces naval drills in 'east Mediterranean'

Moscow (AFP) - Russia's defence ministry on Thursday said it will hold naval drills in the "east Mediterranean" in September and October, as the West frets over a military buildup by Moscow in Syria.

The exercises include three warships from Russia's Black Sea Fleet, including the Saratov landing ship, the Moskva guided missile cruiser and the Smetlivy destroyer, the ministry said in a statement.
The drills will involve "40 combat exercises, including rocket and artillery fire at sea and airborne targets," the statement said.

The ministry said that the Mediterranean drills -- which were restarted in early 2013 -- had been planned since the end of last year and did not link them to the conflict in Syria.

The United States has accused Moscow of sending troops, tanks and fighter jets to Syria in recent weeks, sparking fears that Russia could be preparing to join in fighting alongside its long-standing ally President Bashar al-Assad.

Syrian officials said this week that they have received new warplanes and sophisticated missiles from Russia and some reports in Russia alleged that Moscow has dispatched soldiers to the war-torn country.

In an interview with Interfax news agency, the Syrian ambassador to Russia Riad Haddad that Russia's support on the ground "will happen if it is needed."

"Russia's help will help Syria finally win over terrorist groups," he said, adding that there is a "high level of cooperation" between Syria, Russia and Iran on the conflict.

Russia officially alerted the airport in Cyprus earlier this month through the international aviation authorities to divert aircraft from the area between Syrian port of Tartus, where Russia has a naval facility, and Cyprus.

The Moskva cruiser, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, left its base in Crimea on Thursday and is now heading to the exercises, the ministry added separately.

Russia, which has supported the Syrian regime throughout the four-and-half year conflict that has claimed some 250,000 lives there, says any support is in line with existing military contracts and that personnel have been sent to train the Syrian forces.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

US embassy in Baghdad foiled two assassination attempts on PM Abadi, says Iraqi official

A handout picture released by Iraqi Prime Minister's office on August 27, 2015 shows Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi (C) and Defense Minister Khaled Al-Obeidi (C-R) attending the funeral in Baghdad of the deputy head of the Anbar Operations Command, Staff Major General Abdulrahman Abu Raghif, and 10th Division commander Staff Brigadier General Safin Abdulmajid, after they were both killed in a suicide attack in the Anbar province. (AFP PHOTO / HO / IRAQI PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE)
A handout picture released by Iraqi Prime Minister’s office on August 27, 2015 shows Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi (C) and Defense Minister Khaled Al-Obeidi (C-R) attending the funeral in Baghdad of the deputy head of the Anbar Operations Command, Staff Major General Abdulrahman Abu Raghif, and 10th Division commander Staff Brigadier General Safin Abdulmajid, after they were both killed in a suicide attack in the Anbar province. (AFP PHOTO / HO / IRAQI PRIME MINISTER’S OFFICE)

Baghdad and London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The United States embassy in Baghdad has recently foiled two assassination attempts on Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, a senior government official has said, hinting that they may have been prompted by what he described as the PM’s “bold positions.”

According to the official who requested to remain anonymous, one of the assassination attempts was “in an advanced stage of execution” when it was foiled. Iraqi police have arrested several officers who admitted responsibility to, the official maintained, what seems to have been an explosion at the entrance to Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone.

Speaking from his London residence, the official said that Abadi has recently survived several assassination attempts, two of them have been thwarted with the help of Washington’s embassy in Baghdad.

The other assassination plot was uncovered in its early stages, the official added.

Washington has informed Abadi of the attempted assassinations, the official said, adding that they seem to have been prompted by what he described as the PM’s “very bold” decisions and positions towards some of the political powers in Iraq.

One such decision, the official maintained, was when Abadi differed with a senior Popular Mobilization force commander over the number of vehicles to be allocated to escort the powerful Iranian general Qassem Suleimani during an unofficial visit to Iraq.

Tehran later reassured Abadi that he had the right to make that decision but the PM remained concerned about the consequences it may entail.

Abadi has introduced reforms to Iraq’s political system, including scrapping layers of senior government posts, cutting security details and other perks for officials, in response to street protests demanding better services.

The PM warned Monday that his reforms were facing strong resistance from those who “fear losing their privileges.”

He said he would “proceed to achieve equality and justice and would not back away from the reforms even if they cost me my life.”

In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, Iraqi State of Law Coalition MP Muwaffaq Al-Rubaie said: “Reforms undertaken by the Iraqi PM are facing major challenges, most prominently including those from the political class… and some of the influential figures within the political blocs.”

How ISIS Got Its Flag

On an August morning in 2014, someone noticed a black flag hanging outside a rundown duplex in suburban New Jersey. He could not make out its Arabic, but he recognized the design from horrific news reports about ISIS, in which masked jihadists fought under the banner to realize their dark vision of God’s rule on earth. Alarmed, the passerby sent a picture of the house and its flag to a friend, who promptly tweeted it and informed the Department of Homeland Security.

The flag’s owner, Mark Dunaway, had converted to Islam a decade prior, he explained to the police when they arrived, and he flew the flag to mark Muslim holidays. “Every Muslim uses that black flag,” he said. “You’ll find it in any mosque in the world.” Still, he took it down. “I understand now that people turn on CNN and see the flag associated with jihad, but that’s not the intention … at all. It says, ‘There is only one god, Allah, and the prophet Mohammed is his messenger.’ It’s not meant to be a symbol of hate.” Dunaway, like many Muslims and even Middle East experts, did not know that the flag had been designed by ISIS in 2006. He and others were confused because the Islamic State had used terror and Twitter to advertise its brand, and Islamic tradition to obscure its meaning.

Before the group declared itself the caliphate reborn that summer, it had been ambiguous about the flag’s meaning and the cause it represented. Was it the flag of an Islamic state, or the flag of the Islamic state—the caliphate that had once ruled land from Spain to Iran and whose prophesied return would herald the end of the world? The Islamic State encouraged the second interpretation but let the global community of jihadists read into the flag and the “state” what they would. The group’s cause proved so compelling among jihadists that in 2014 the organization supplanted its former master, al-Qaeda. The spread of the flag, then, traces the spread of an idea and chronicles a major changing of the guard in the global jihadist movement.

When the Islamic State first announced itself on October 15, 2006, it had no flag of its own. It was not until January 2007 that al-Qaeda’s media distribution arm, al-Fajr, released a picture of the Islamic State’s new flag. Anonymous authors affiliated with the Islamic State explained its design, quoting passages from Islamic scripture and historical accounts. “The flag of the prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, is a black square made of striped wool,” according to one account. Another describes Mohammed “standing on the pulpit preaching” surrounded by fluttering black flags. “On the flag of the prophet was written, ‘No god but God, and Mohammed is the Messenger of God.’” The flag even had a name: “the eagle.”

Although the authors acknowledged other reports of green, white, and yellow flags, they concluded the Islamic State’s flag would be black, because most of the reports about Mohammed mentioned a black flag. The authors were equally confident when explaining the banner’s text. “What is written on the flag is what is written on the flag of the Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him.”

The Islamic State’s design of the Muslim profession of faith is different from every other attempt to replicate the prophet’s flag: “No god but God” is scrawled in white across the top and “Mohammed is the Messenger of God” is stacked in black inside a white circle. As the anonymous authors noted, they took the circle’s design from a seal of the prophet used on a set of letters, now housed in Turkey’s Topkapi Palace, that were supposedly written on Mohammed’s behalf. (Modern scholars doubt the letters’ authenticity.) We are meant to believe the Islamic State had inherited the prophet’s seal, just as the early caliphs had.

Why make a flag? In addition to following the prophet’s example, the Islamic State wanted a symbol to rally people to its cause. The group quoted a 19th-century Ottoman historian and official, Ahmad Cevdet Pasha, to make the point:
The secret in creating a flag is that it gathers people under a single banner to unify them, meaning that this flag is a sign of the coming together of their words and a proof of the unity of their hearts. They are like a single body and what knits them together is stronger than the bond of blood relatives.
Yet the Islamic State’s choices display the modern sensibilities they try so hard to displace. The white scrawl across the top, “No god but God,” is deliberately ragged, meant to suggest an era before the precision of Photoshop, even though the flag was designed on a computer. Even the Islamic State’s quotation of Ahmad Cevdet Pasha unwittingly betrays a modern perspective. Influenced by European notions of nationalism yet desiring to hold together the multiethnic Ottoman Empire under sovereign Turkish rule, Cevdet Pasha imagined Islam and its symbols to be the glue. “The only thing uniting Arab, Kurd, Albanian, and Bosnian is the unity of Islam,” he said, according to Dominic Lieven’s book Empire: The Russian Empire and its Rivals. “Yet the real strength of the Sublime State lies with the Turks.”

The Islamic State ended the explanation of its flag’s design with a prayer: “We ask God, praised be He, to make this flag the sole flag for all Muslims. We are certain that it will be the flag of the people of Iraq when they go to aid … the Mahdi at the holy house of God.” The house of God is the Kaaba in Mecca, the holiest shrine in Islam, and the Mahdi is the savior who Muslims believe will appear there in the years leading up to the apocalypse. The Islamic State was signaling that its flag was not only the symbol of its government and the herald of a future caliphate; it was the harbinger of the final battle at the End of Days.

Legends of the black flag and the Muslim savior, the Mahdi, first circulated during the reign of the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled the Islamic empire from Damascus in the seventh and eighth centuries C.E. The dynasty’s founders, the Umayya clan, had seized the caliphate from Mohammed’s son-in-law and grandsons, which infuriated many Muslims. People unhappy with Umayyad rule circulated prophecies of a man of the prophet’s family who would return justice to the world. They called the man the Mahdi, Arabic for “the Rightly Guided One.” Many of the prophecies envision the Mahdi appearing during the End of Days to lead the final battles against the infidels.

Like most Islamic prophecies of the End of Days, those about the Mahdi are not found in the preeminent scripture of Islam, the Koran, which Muslims believe preserves God’s revelation to Mohammed, but rather in the voluminous compendia of the words and deeds of the prophet and his companions, known as hadith, which were written down decades or even centuries after the prophet’s death. Muslims argue over the veracity of individual hadith, and the contradictions between them, the way some Christians debate the reliability of the Gospels and their discrepancies.

End-Time prophecies were an especially inviting target for fabricators. In the internecine wars that tore apart the early Muslim community, each side sought to justify its politics by predicting its inevitable victory and the other side’s preordained defeat. Prophecies proliferated, reaching into the thousands. When the politics evaporated, the prophetic residue remained.

Supporters of the prophet’s family loosely aligned themselves as part of what historians call the Hashemite movement, which believed the Mahdi would be a descendent of Mohammed’s great-grandfather, Hashem. Many of the movement’s supporters were from Iran, where Zoroastrian legends prophesied the coming of a club-wielding savior who would appear at the End of Time followed by sable-clad disciples. Influenced by the prophecies, the revolutionaries donned black clothes, flew black flags, and carried around wooden clubs called “infidel-bashers.”

As the revolutionaries built support for their cause, they circulated prophecies of soldiers fighting under black flags who would come from the East to overthrow the Umayyads. Some were put in the mouth of Mohammed’s son-in-law, Ali, who allegedly foretold the coming of an army from Khorasan, the “land of the rising sun” that includes parts of eastern Iran and most of Afghanistan. Other black-flag prophecies were attributed to the prophet himself. “If you see the black banners coming from Khorasan,” instructs one, “go to them immediately even if you must crawl over ice because indeed among them is the caliph, al-Mahdi.”

In early Islam, the color black was associated not just with mourning but also with revenge for a wrongful death. According to the historian Ibn Khaldun, the opponents of the Umayyads adopted black as their color to avenge the Umayyads’ persecution of the prophet’s family. Black flags were also flown by the prophet in his war with the infidels. “Do not flee with [the flag] from the infidels and do not fight with it against the Muslims,” Mohammed reportedly told one of his generals.

Apocalyptic messages resonate among many Muslims today because of the political turmoil in the Middle East. In 2012, half of all Muslims in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia expected the imminent appearance of the Mahdi. And why wouldn’t they, given the revolutions sweeping the Arab world? The signs that herald his coming have only multiplied since. A great sectarian war tears Syria asunder. Iraq is in chaos. The “infidel” West has invaded. The “tribulations” are too awful and apparent to brook mundane explanations.

Mosul's Vigilante Brigades Risk It All To Take On IS

Civilians in Mosul say they support the armed groups that kill Islamic State (IS) militants.
Civilians in Mosul say they support the armed groups that kill Islamic State (IS) militants. "The city is suffering because of IS."

Their identities are secret. They work after sundown, preferring deserted areas of the city. No one knows where they will strike next. They target different neighborhoods each time.

Their mission is simple: to kill Islamic State (IS) militants.

Their targets never vary, but their methods do. Sometimes they use snipers to take out a militant. Sometimes they plant roadside bombs and blow up cars. Sometimes they stab their victims, sometimes strangle them.

They are Mosul's vigilante brigades, shadowy groups of civilians-turned-armed-assassins who risk their own lives to kill IS gunmen -- as well as those who support them.

IS has done its best to eliminate these assassins, tracking down and killing as many of them as it can. But local people in Mosul say these anonymous resistance fighters have had an impact, that IS has covered up the killings and changed how its gunmen operate in Mosul.

Hiding Behind Beards

"Do you know why IS ordered all men [in Mosul] to grow their beards?" the young man asks with a laugh. "It's because they don't want to be recognized."

The young man says he is part of an anti-IS group called the Brigades of Mosul that assassinates IS militants.

He tells RFE/RL's correspondent in Mosul that his group has taken out IS gunmen using sniper rifles. Since then, the militants have tried to disguise themselves so they blend in with the public, the young man claims.

The young man, who refuses to give his name, says he and his friends have also planted bombs in Mosul to target IS vehicles. Because of the attacks, IS militants now drive unmarked cars so they are not so visible, he claims.

Resistance Is Not Futile?

Armed anti-IS groups are not a new phenomenon in Mosul, according to RFE/RL's correspondent in the Iraqi city.

They sprang up almost as soon as the militants overran the city last summer. Their names -- the Brigades of Mosul, the Revenge of Nineveh, the Lions of Nineveh, the Brigades for the Liberation of Mosul -- are testament to their members' pride and intense desire to retaliate against IS.

Some of the groups are no longer operating. In some cases, IS tracked down and killed their fighters. Some say they had to disband when they got no support from the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

But neither IS nor a lack of resources has been able to stamp out resistance in Mosul, according to testimony from local residents, who say that armed vigilante groups are causing problems for the militants.

Covering Up

IS tries to cover up the assassinations of its gunmen, witnesses in Mosul say, a sign that the militant group is embarrassed by the killings.

A worker in one of Mosul's morgues tells RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that he receives IS corpses from time to time, though he will not give a precise number.

"IS don't talk a lot about these dead bodies," the morgue worker says. "But if the group has to give some kind of explanation, they say the gunmen were killed in combat or in coalition air strikes."

But the corpses do not show injuries consistent with IS's explanations of their deaths.

They were shot with Kalashnikovs or guns with silencers, or they were strangled or stabbed to death, the morgue worker says.

IS tries to keep the deaths a secret, he adds. The militants only operate under cover of darkness. They bring the bodies to the mortuary and return them to their families only at night.

Hitting Back At Shadows

Mosul residents tell RFE/RL that IS is trying to crush the armed resistance. As usual, the main weapons IS uses to try to force compliance are fear and brutality.

According to the Mosul morgue worker, when an IS militant is assassinated, IS gunmen arrest former security personnel and execute them in public to terrify others. The victims are accused of spying and cooperating with the Iraqi forces.

"[IS] goes crazy when one of theirs is killed," the morgue worker says.

Killing Collaborators

Groups like the Brigades of Mosul do not only target IS militants. They say they also kill those who collaborate with and support them.

The young man from the Brigades of Mosul vows to take revenge on Mosul residents who support IS, including those he says stole and destroyed property in private homes and public buildings.

He and his friends have already killed five local residents, the young man claims. "We did it because they deserve it. They are supporting IS," he says. "Those people betrayed their own city."

'We Are Ready To Fight IS'

Civilians in Mosul say they support the armed groups that kill IS militants.

"Every so often we hear about the killing of one or two IS guys," says Ahmad Ghanim, a Mosul resident whose name has been changed for security reasons. "Most of the people of Nineveh encourage and support such operations. I'm one of them."

It's not true that people in Mosul support IS, Ghanim adds. "Me, most of the men, even women and children are ready to fight IS and support the army or any Iraqi forces or joint forces who came to liberate Mosul," he tells RFE/RL. "The city is suffering because of IS."

A female resident of Mosul, who identifies herself only as M.M., tells RFE/RL that she is ready to take up arms against IS herself.

Failing that, M.M. says she is prepared to help resistance efforts by caring for injured resistance fighters or smuggling weapons on her person.

"It's time to get out and fight these extremists," says M.M., who says she doesn't understand the "global silence" about what is happening in Mosul.

First of 20,000 Syrian refugees arrive in UK

The first Syrian refugees to be resettled in the UK since the government announced it was expanding its protection scheme have arrived. 

The government has not disclosed how many were in the group nor clarified whether they were already due to arrive before the scheme was expanded.

The prime minister has pledged to take 20,000 Syrians from camps by 2020.

But there is no agreement yet between the government and local authorities about how to manage and pay for them.

The arrivals were announced on the day EU ministers backed a controversial migrant quota plan, which the UK has opted out of.

David Cameron discussed the migrant crisis with French President Francois Hollande when the leaders met at Chequers on Tuesday night, ahead of an EU leaders' summit on Wednesday.

They agreed that the summit must "focus on a more comprehensive approach, in particular increasing assistance for the countries neighbouring Syria to enable more refugees to stay there", a Downing Street spokesman said.

They also agreed that EU countries should do more to return migrants who do not have a genuine claim for asylum to their home countries.

What happens when the migrants arrive?

Refugees at the Zaatari Refugee Camp, in Jordan 

Once someone has been identified and approved, they have full legal rights to settle in the UK for five years - and for the first months, they will be accompanied every step of the way into their new life.

When they arrive in the UK, they are met at the airport by a welcome team who take them to their new home. And the next morning, their personalised integration plan begins.

Just like anyone else, they can work and claim benefits. Everything about life in the UK is explained to them in briefings and classes.

School places are ready for their children, there is a GP already set up to take them on and, where necessary, specialists to work on their long-term health problems.

There are trips to the job centre and colleges for those ready to go back to work or study.

What awaits refugees arriving in the UK?

The refugees who arrived in the UK as part of the vulnerable persons resettlement (VPR) scheme will join others who have been given legal protection and access to housing, employment, education and, where they need it, expert medical care.

The government has not disclosed where they will be resettled.

A Home Office spokeswoman said it was working closely with the UN refugee agency and local authorities to make sure the UK was "ready to welcome more Syrians who desperately need our assistance".

BBC home affairs correspondent Daniel Sandford said the first arrivals amounted to "little more than a handful" of "very vulnerable" refugees.

Eventually the UK will have to take about 400 refugees a month in order to meet its 20,000 target by 2020.

The refugees will be brought to the UK from camps in countries neighbouring Syria, with those being resettled selected by the UN on the basis of need.

Syrian refugees in the UK

more refugees will be resettled in the UK by 2020
Syrian asylum seekers have been allowed to stay since 2011
  • 25,771 people applied for asylum in the UK in the year to end June 2015
  • 2,204 were from Syria
  • 87% of Syrian requests for asylum were granted
  • 145 Syrian asylum seekers have been removed from the UK since 2011

Under the VPR scheme, they will be granted five years' humanitarian protection, which includes access to public funds and the labour market, as well as the possibility of family reunion, if a person was split up from their partner or child when leaving their country.

After those five years they can apply to settle in the UK.

Mr Cameron said the scheme would be funded for the first 12 months by the government.

Britain has been under pressure to take in more people as Europe struggles to deal with a huge influx of refugees - most fleeing conflict in Syria but large numbers also fleeing violence and poverty in Afghanistan, Eritrea and Kosovo.

Between 2011 and last month, some 4,980 Syrian asylum seekers were allowed to stay in the UK.