Friday, February 26, 2016

US, China Agree on North Korea Sanctions

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, applauds during a concert in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, Feb. 23, 2016. U.N. diplomats told reporters about a new sanctions agreement Wednesday, a day before the U.N. Security Council is set to hold closed consultations on the issue.

The United States will submit to the U.N. Security Council a draft resolution calling for new sanctions on North Korea for its recent nuclear test and long-range missile launch.

The move Thursday comes a day after the U.S. and North Korea's most important ally, China, agreed on imposing further sanctions on Pyongyang.

"We look forward to working with the Council on a strong and comprehensive response to the DPRK’s latest series of tests aimed at advancing their nuclear weapons program,” said Kurtis Cooper, acting spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the U.N. He used the acronym for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The announcement came during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's visit to Washington, where he met Tuesday with Secretary of State John Kerry and Wednesday with National Security Adviser Susan Rice.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said Rice and Wang agreed on a "strong and united" response to the North Korean tests, including new U.N. sanctions.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Cho June-hyuck, on Thursday called the draft resolution "strong and comprehensive."

"It contains many effective components which are stronger than anything in past," he said.

The agreement will likely represent a compromise between Washington’s support for crippling economic sanctions to pressure Kim Jong Un to give up its nuclear weapons program and China's emphasis on maintaining stability and resolving the conflict through dialogue.

Secretary of State John Kerry talks with with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as they wrap up their news conference at the State Department in Washington, Feb. 23, 2016.
Secretary of State John Kerry talks with with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as they wrap up their news conference at the State Department in Washington, Feb. 23, 2016.
However, by uniting with Washington to support new international sanctions, Beijing may be signaling that a conciliatory approach to Pyongyang has not been working and stronger measures are needed.

"China is going to take North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat far more seriously than it used to," said Bong Young-shik, a national security analyst with the Asan Institute for Policy Studies here.

North Korea has been under U.N. sanctions since 2006 because of its multiple nuclear tests and rocket launches. In addition to a U.N. arms embargo, Pyongyang is banned from importing and exporting nuclear and missile technology and is not allowed to import luxury goods.

Measures target ministries, agencies, banks
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency is reporting the draft resolution will target the North Korea's Ministry of Atomic Energy Industry and its National Aerospace Development Agency (NADA), the body responsible for February's rocket launch.

The secretive General Reconnaissance Bureau will also reportedly be blacklisted. This secretive government organization has already been sanctioned by the United States for its suspected role in the 2014 cyberattack on Sony Pictures.

Some analysts are skeptical that targeting North Korean officials and agencies will have any impact. They question whether the final agreement will impose real economic pain on Kim Jong Un and other leaders.

"The details we have at the moment are insufficient. They do not reach the level of effective and strong sanctions," said Kim Kwang-jin, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy, an organization affiliated with South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.

Banning the exports of North Korean coal and other minerals, the import of oil and restricting North Korean access to international ports were among the measures Washington had supported.

FILE - South Korean army soldiers pass by a TV screen showing the live broadcast of South Korean President Park Geun-hye's speech, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016.
South Korean army soldiers pass by a TV screen showing the live broadcast of South Korean President Park Geun-hye's speech, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016.
Washington also wanted to tighten restrictions on North Korean banks' access to the international financial system.

Chinese and South Korean media reported this week that China has ordered a halt to its coal trade with North Korea and that some Chinese banks have frozen accounts belonging to North Koreans. China’s Foreign Ministry said it was not aware of these developments, but analysts say popular support is increasing in China to cut off potential funding for North Korea’s nuclear program.

"China has been intensively discussing how to internally block oil and cash from flowing into North Korea," said Woo Su-keun, a professor of international relations at Donghua University in Shanghai.

There was speculation that Beijing was holding up the agreement on U.N. sanctions to pressure Washington and Seoul to drop plans for the possible deployment of the controversial Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system.

China and Russia oppose THAAD deployment in Korea, saying it can potentially be used against their military forces in the region.

This week, the Chinese Ambassador to South Korea, Qiu Guohong, indicated Beijing would cut ties with Seoul over THAAD deployment.

South Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Hong-kyun and leaders of the ruling Saenuri Party criticized the Chinese ambassador for attempting to exert influence over South Korean national security issue.

FILE - A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched during a successful intercept test, in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Department of Defense.
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched during a successful intercept test, in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Department of Defense.
US measures
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama signed legislation imposing new U.S. sanctions against North Korea in response to Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests.

The bill calls for imposing mandatory sanctions on anyone assisting Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs, cyberattacks and human rights abuses.

The expanded sanctions are designed to deny North Korea the money it needs to develop miniaturized nuclear warheads and the long-range missiles required to deliver them.

The measure also authorizes $50 million over five years to transmit radio broadcasts into North Korea and support humanitarian assistance programs.

Syrian army recaptures town in Aleppo province from IS group

Syrian government troops backed by Russian airstrikes recaptured a town in Aleppo province from Islamic State militants on Thursday in a key advance just two days ahead of a U.S. and Russia-engineered cease-fire that is set to take effect in Syria.

In the rebel-held suburb of Daraya, opposition activists said the army escalated its attacks, dropping dozens of barrel bombs from helicopters on the devastated town located a few kilometers southwest of the Syrian capital, sending plumes of smoke rising into the sky.

Russia and the United States have set a deadline of midnight on Friday for the temporary cease-fire to take effect between the Syrian government and opposition forces. But fighting is expected to continue in many places, because the deal excludes groups deemed terrorist by the U.N. Security Council including Islamic State and the al-Qaida branch in Syria, the Nusra Front.

The town of Khanaser captured by the army Thursday was seized earlier this week by the Islamic State group, cutting state forces' access to the provincial capital, also called Aleppo, said the Syrian government and the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring group.

SANA said the army took Khanaser, around 50 kilometers (30 miles) southeast of Aleppo city, after three days of heavy battles and that intense fighting was still underway to reopen the road. On Tuesday, IS seized Khanaser and surrounding hills, severing the government's main land route to the city.

In the push on Khanaser, the Syrian army and pro-government Shiite militias were backed by Russian airstrikes, The Observatory said.

The cease-fire meant to start on midnight Friday is aimed at achieving a temporary "cessation of hostilities" that would bring back the Syrian government and its opponents to the negotiating table in Geneva.

The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said he will convene the first meeting of a task force meant to monitor the cease-fire. Speaking to reporters Thursday in Geneva, he predicted a "crucial" day ahead of the start of the truce brokered by the United States and Russia.

The Syrian opposition has agreed to abide by the truce but expressed major concerns and reservations about what it said were ambiguities and the lack of any clear mechanism to implement the agreement.

Turkey's prime minister echoed those concerns on Thursday, saying he is worried that Russia will continue to hit Syrian civilians or the moderate opposition during the truce. Ahmet Davutoglu has accused Russia of striking the moderate opposition in Syria over the past five months under the guise of hitting militants.

Davutoglu said the cease-fire would have "no meaning if Russia continues with its irresponsible bombings."

Meanwhile, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told state-run Anadolu Agency that Saudi aircraft would arrive "today or tomorrow" at the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey to join the fight against Islamic State in Syria. Cavusoglu did not say how many planes Saudi Arabia would be sending to the base.

A key element of the cease-fire deal is humanitarian access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas across Syria. The United Nations announced the first high-altitude airdrop of 21 metric tons of aid Wednesday over the city of Deir el-Zour, which is under siege from Islamic State extremists. But the World Food Program said later it faced "technical difficulties" and indicated the drop may have been off target.

In a further reflection of the complicated terrain across Syria's zigzagging front lines, Davutoglu also warned Syria's main Kurdish militia, a U.S.-backed group that has been fighting the Islamic State, against taking advantage of the truce for actions that threaten Turkey's security.

Turkey would respond to such actions and will not be bound by the cease-fire agreement, the Turkish premier said.

Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish group, known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG, a terror organization because of its links to Turkey's own Kurdish rebels and has been shelling its positions inside Syria along the border with Turkey, particularly in the northwestern region of Afrin. Kurdish officials have called for the group to be added to those excluded from the truce agreement.

US, Russian spies often cooperate despite differences, says CIA director

John Brennan

Russia is being “very aggressive” toward the United States, but cooperation on counter-terrorism between Moscow and Washington is “highly active” despite the differences between them, according to the director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency. John Brennan, a longtime CIA career officer, who has led the Agency for nearly three years, spoke on National Public Radio on Wednesday about US-Russian relations, Syria and the Islamic State. He told the Washington-based radio station that Russian President Vladimir Putin sees Russia as a superpower that has to assert its influence beyond its immediate region. Thus, said Brennan, Moscow’s actions in Ukraine could be understood in the context of Russia’s regional-power doctrine; but its “very assertive, very aggressive” support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is part of a wider strategy of geopolitical domination that includes the Middle East.

Brennan said that Russia is losing ground in Ukraine because its “hybrid war” is “not going as planned” and Putin “has found that he’s in a bit of a quandary” in the former Soviet republic. Not only is Putin “not realizing his objectives” in Ukraine, added the CIA director, but the widening geopolitical confrontation between Russian and the West is “causing a chill […] even in intelligence channels”. He added, however that the CIA continues to work closely with the Russian intelligence community in counter-terrorism operations directed against Islamist militants. Brennan described the CIA’s relationship with Russian intelligence operatives as a “very factual, informative exchange. If we get information about threats to Russian citizens or diplomats, we will share it with the Russians”, said the CIA director, adding: “they do the same with us”.

Brennan, a fluent Arabic speaker who spent many years in Saudi Arabia, used the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, as an example of a collaborative project between the CIA and its Russian counterparts. “We worked very closely with them” during the Sochi games, said Brennan, in order to “try to prevent terrorist attacks”. “And we did so very successfully”, concluded the CIA director.

Report: How 51 Companies Are Legally Supplying ISIS With Bomb-Making Material

More than 50 companies worldwide are legally supplying the Islamic State with bomb-making material, either willingly or because they and the countries in which they operate are failing to monitor the sales, according to a Conflict Armament Research report released today.

CAR is a non-governmental organization funded by the European Union that identifies and tracks conventional weapons and ammunition in contemporary armed conflicts. While there is no evidence in the report released today to prove direct transfer between the countries and firms involved, and IS, it shows that companies are extensively supplying local markets with material such as chemical precursors, detonating cords, detonators, cables, wires and other electronic components, and that the Islamic State has the reach to acquire them.

The way it works is that large manufacturers are selling material and components to regional distributors, who then sell to local distributors, CAR's Executive Director James Bevan told ABC News, adding: "it gets fuzzy at the local level. Operatives [for IS] or friendly parties for them buy [components and material] from the local market in reasonable bulk," Bevan said.

CAR established in its report that in some cases it has taken as little as one month for bomb-making material to get from legal distributors to the hands of IS.

Working with Iraqi and Syrian forces to recover material left after battles, investigators from CAR have examined more than 700 components used in improvised explosive devices by IS and established their link to 51 companies in 20 countries.

One example is Microsoft and the use of its Nokia mobile phones by Islamic State in Iraq. The report has found that IS uses the Nokia 105 RM-908 phone in a remote-controlled IED.

"Microsoft Corporation, of which Microsoft Mobile is an affiliate, has provided CAR with extensive information on the chain of custody of ten mobile telephones seized from IS forces in Iraq," the report says. 

Among them, at least five were legally purchased by a regional distributor in Yemen, Ghamdan General Trading & Import. They were then delivered to local providers in Erbil, Iraq or Dubai, where they were likely purchased by IS intermediaries or operatives. When asked by ABC News for comment, Microsoft said they have nothing to add that isn't said in the report.

Turkey has the largest number of companies involved in supplying IED components to IS, according to the report.

One of the problems is that local providers are generally not aware what components can be used for IEDs, Bevan said. "Many components that can be used in the manufacture of homemade explosives, such as aluminium paste and urea, are not subject to transfer controls, including export licensing," the report says.

"As such, their supply within the region is largely unregulated and weakly monitored."

Another problem is that governments don’t necessarily have the regulatory framework to control the market, Bevan added. "Both Iraq and Turkey have large agricultural and mining sectors, in which many such chemicals and explosive components are employed extensively," the report says, adding that aluminium mixed with fertilizer is one of the most common forms of homemade explosives used by IS in Iraq and Syria.

IEDs are being manufactured and deployed by the Islamic State on a massive scale and fighters with degrees in physics, chemistry and computer science have been recruited to manufacture lethal weapons from raw substances, according to a December 2015 briefing by the European Parliamentary Research Service, which calls itself "the European Parliament's in-house research department and think tank."

When CAR approached representatives of the companies involved in the supply chain, some were surprised at the findings and others were shocked, Bevan said. "Western companies with subsidiaries in Turkey could tell their distributors that they do not want their products going to IS anymore," Bevan said. "We hope that’s going to happen and we think it will."

Russia uses ceasefire process to seize key Syria territory

Syria's civil war in pictures

The Russian military has used the time while Moscow and Washington hammered out a ceasefire in Syria in recent weeks to take key territory that could dramatically increasing Russia's influence in the country, according to U.S. officials.

The moves could allow Russia to control a large section of Syria's western border with Turkey, raising critical questions about how reliable allies the groups inside Syria that the U.S. is supporting remain, the officials said.

"The Russians have used the last three weeks to press their position," a U.S. official said. This maneuvering is now leading to "general suspicion about Russia in the short term" and questions inside the administration about whether Moscow will fully back the ceasefire agreement.

A significant public indication of the concern came in a statement from the British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond before Parliament.

"What we have seen over the last weeks is very disturbing evidence of coordination between Syrian Kurdish forces, the Syrian regime and the Russian air force, which are making us distinctly uneasy about the Kurds' role in all of this," said Hammond.

U.S. officials said they are watching closely for signs the Russians are not only joining forces with Afrin Kurds in the west, but other Kurdish groups in eastern Syria that the U.S. supports for their fight against ISIS.

For now, that support is expected to continue as long as the Kurds fight ISIS.

U.S. intelligence indicates the Afrin Kurds are working with the Russians to attack moderate opposition groups that the U.S. is supporting, two additional U.S. officials told CNN.

As those Kurds push eastward, other Kurdish group are pushing west. The result is they are all close to being able to control the border in the coming weeks, officials said. While that could keep ISIS from coming into Syria from Turkey, it also cuts off a route from Aleppo for civilians currently under siege who might still be trying to escape north.

All of this has raised the question at the White House of what happens if the ceasefire fails due to lack of Russian support.

The U.S. won't cut support for Kurds fighting ISIS or give up on trying to get Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of office. But there could be additional sanctions against Russia, as well as an effort to make more information public about Russia's bombing of civilians.

Officials said one of the reasons a "Plan B" idea is already being discussed inside the administration is skepticism among the Pentagon leadership, including Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford, that the Russians will quickly and fully comply.

Evidence of that, officials said, is the recent solidification of Russian military positions and influence in key towns like Qamishli along the eastern border with Turkey and other town southwest of Raqqa.

In the face of Russian maneuvering, U.S. officials are concerned other countries could be developing their own military options for helping moderate opposition groups.

In particular, officials said they are deeply opposed to the possibility of Persian Gulf allies such as Saudi Arabia putting man-portable anti-aircraft missiles into the hands of the opposition because it will not only escalate hostilities, but those weapons could find their way across the border into Turkey, posing a threat to European aviation.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

4 arrested in Spain, Morocco for IS armed group ties

Spanish and Moroccan police on Tuesday arrested four suspected members of a jihadi cell that sought to recruit fighters for the Islamic State group, including one described as a former Guantanamo detainee who once fought with militants in Afghanistan.

Three people were arrested in Spain's North African enclave city of Ceuta while a Moroccan was arrested in the Moroccan border town of Farkhana, next to Melilla, Spain's other North African enclave, statements from the two nations' interior ministries said.

One of those detained in Ceuta was the former Guantanamo detainee who was not named by Spanish authorities but described as "a leader who was trained in handling weapons, explosives and in military tactics." After being captured in 2002 and held in Guantanamo, he was returned to Spain in 2004, said Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz.

Another suspect was the brother of a fighter who blew himself up during an attack in Syria and man detained Tuesday "was inclined to do the same thing," he said.

The suspects had set up contacts to try to acquire weapons and bomb-making materials and were aiming "to carry out terrorist acts in Spanish territory," the Spanish ministry statement said, without specifying possible targets.

They also worked to recruit teenagers from Ceuta to join IS in Iraq and Syria, the Spanish statement said.
Spanish police arrested about 100 suspected Islamic extremists last year and more than 600 total since the 2004 train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people and injured nearly 2,000.

Hard-line media groups in Iran increase the bounty for killing Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie

The fatwa issued 27 years ago by Iran’s former supreme leader calling for Salman Rushdie to be killed seems like a relic of a bygone era.

But not to a group of hard-line Iranian media organizations that announced it has raised $600,000 to add to a bounty for the death of the British novelist for writing “The Satanic Verses.”

The announcement published this week by the Fars news agency, which has close ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, is a sign of political infighting in the run-up to Friday’s elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the body that will choose the next supreme leader.

Opponents of President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts to improve relations with the United States and its allies have been taking every opportunity to show there will be no opening to the West, even after a milestone nuclear deal negotiated last year, analysts said.

Farshad Ghorbanpour, a political analyst close to the reformists, said Iran’s young, educated city dwellers have largely forgotten the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini months before he died in 1989. But he said religious hard-liners “will bring back a mammoth from the ice age” if it serves their political purposes.

The announcement of the new bounty, which came at a digital media exhibition last week, was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the fatwa, according to Fars. The agency said it was one of 43 contributing organizations.

Their pledges theoretically raise the reward money available to anyone who carries out Khomeini’s edict to nearly $4 million. A religious organization called the 15 Khordad Foundation had offered $3.3 million.

Rushdie’s 1988 novel suggested that parts of the Koran were not the words of God, which Khomeini deemed blasphemous against Islam.

His fatwa prompted Britain to sever diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic for nearly a decade.

Rushdie spent several years in hiding and has lived under police protection ever since. Several other people involved in the book’s publication have been attacked, including the Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi, who was stabbed to death in 1991.

In 1998, Iran’s then-president, Mohammad Khatami, a reformist, said the fatwa was “finished,” but the country’s religious authorities never lifted the edict. Last year, the country pulled out of a book fair in Frankfurt, Germany, when it was announced that Rushdie would be a speaker.

“Imam Khomeini's fatwa is a religious decree, and it will never lose its power or fade out,” Iran’s Deputy Culture Minister Seyed Abbas Salehi said at the time, according to Fars.

Isis video targets Twitter and Facebook CEOs over suspended accounts

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. A spokesperson for Twitter said these kind of threats happen ‘all the time’.

Islamic State has released a 25-minute video featuring the faces of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg being riddled with mock bullet holes.

Isis has begun to respond with increasing urgency as Facebook and Twitter have attempted to block terrorist content on the network. Representatives from both companies were among those who met senior White House officials in January to discuss how to deal with terrorism online.

During the latest video, overwritten text proclaims: “If you close one account we will take 10 in return and soon your names will be erased after we delete you [sic] sites, Allah willing, and will know that we say is true”.

In the video the terrorists claim they control more than 10,000 Facebook accounts, 150 Facebook groups and 5,000 Twitter profiles.

A screengrab from the video which singled out Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg.

A Twitter spokesperson said the company wouldn’t be releasing any response, mostly because these threats are now so common.

“It just happens all the time,” the spokesperson said. All the time? With Dorsey’s face?

“All the time,” the spokesperson confirmed. Isn’t that a little scary?

“Welcome to our everyday life.”

The spokesperson declined to detail exactly how many threats the company has received, though the video seemed to specifically be targeting Twitter for closing Isis related accounts.

“You announce daily that you suspend many of our accounts,” the text reads.

“And to you we say: Is that all you can do? You are not in our league.”

Officer Wilson Ng from the San Francisco police department said he wasn’t aware of any “credible threats” against Twitter HQ, yet what is more remarkable is how unremarkable these threats have become.

A widely circulated Isis statement in March 2015 was addressed directly to Dorsey: “Your virtual war on us will cause a real war on you,” it reads. “You started this failed war. We told you from the beginning it’s not your war, but you didn’t get it and kept closing our accounts on Twitter, but we always come back.”

The post features an image of Dorsey’s face overlaid with the cross sights of a gun.

“But when our lions [brave men] come and take your breath, you will never come back to life,” the post reads.

Twitter, which posits itself as a “global town square”, has had to reckon with a difficult reality: they’re a major pathway for Isis propaganda. The company has shut down about 125,000 Isis-related accounts, a move which has had significant impact curtailing the terrorist network’s reach, according to a recently released report from the University of Washington.

New Isis accounts pop up, but, as many new users soon realize, it takes some time to get as many followers.

Facebook is also pushing for an aggressive response to Isis. The company’s COO Sheryl Sandberg has even suggested the social networks can engage in their own warfare against Isis using “a ‘like’ attack”.

“The best thing to speak against recruitment by Isis are the voices of people who were recruited by Isis, understand what the true experience is, have escaped and have come back to tell the truth,” she said.

“Counter-speech to the speech that is perpetuating hate we think by far is the best answer.”

German Facebook users organized a campaign to “like” the Facebook page of the neo-Nazi party and then post positive messages on the page, she said as an example. “What was a page filled with hatred and intolerance was then tolerance and messages of hope,” she said.

The US government has lately been tapping social media giants to help in its fight against Isis’ spreading influence. A secretive summit in San Jose in January involved companies including Apple, Facebook and Twitter and senior security officials including National Security Agency director Michael Rogers. The goal was to launch a social media campaign against Isis.

A briefing sent out to the Silicon Valley executives beforehand and obtained by the Guardian read: “We are interested in exploring all options with you for how to deal with the growing threat of terrorists and other malicious actors using technology, including encrypted technology. Are there technologies that could make it harder for terrorists to use the internet to mobilize, facilitate, and operationalize?”