Suicide bomber hits meeting of Afghan religious figures condemning terrorism, killing 14

 0:45
Several killed in suicide blast in Afghanistan

At least 14 people were killed in a suicide blast outside a two-day peace gathering of Muslim clerics in Afghanistan’s capital on June 4. 

June 4 at 1:12 PM

 A suicide bomber killed 14 people Monday outside a large gathering in Kabul where top religious figures had just condemned suicide attacks as violations of Islam.

The attack occurred near the main entrance to a large tented compound in the Afghan capital, where about 2,000 Muslim clerics had assembled to deliberate on the war and attacks by the Taliban and the Islamic State, which are battling the Afghan government as well as U.S. and allied troops.

The group, called the Afghan Ulema Council, had issued an unprecedented religious edict earlier in the day that said the insurgency in Afghanistan has no religious basis. It also declared that suicide attacks, often used by Taliban and Islamic State insurgents, are “haram,” or forbidden by Islam.

Police said seven of the victims were clerics who had been invited from various parts of Afghanistan by President Ashraf Ghani’s government, which has been seeking ways to make peace with the Taliban with the strong support of the U.S. government and Western donors.

Many people at the meeting had left the tent by the time the bomber detonated his explosives, reducing the potential number of casualties.

The Taliban distanced itself from the attack, and no other group immediately claimed responsibility. The blast occurred after several months of frequent bombings and other attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in the country. The insurgents have targeted mosques, government ministries, voter identification offices, charities, hotels and police stations.

 While singling out the insurgents’ lethal tactics for condemnation, the council called on Afghan government forces and militant groups to halt the fighting, agree on a cease-fire and hold peace talks.

It was the first time in 17 years of conflict that the nation’s senior Muslim clerics have made such an appeal. Many are deeply conservative Pashtuns who share religious and tribal roots with the Taliban and whose views could carry weight with the insurgents. However, they have much less connection or potential influence on the Islamic State, a foreign-based extremist group with few Afghan roots.

Shortly before the attack, a member of the council read an edict, or fatwa, from the group, saying that the war is “illegal according to Islamic laws, and it does nothing but shed the blood of Muslims.”

“We, the religious Ulema, call on the Taliban to respond positively to the peace offer of the Afghan government in order to prevent further bloodshed in the country,” it added.

The fatwa also said that killings by any means, including suicide attacks and crimes such as armed robberies and kidnappings, are sins in Islam.

Enatullah Balegh, a senior council member and adviser to Ghani, told the meeting that clerics also do not support the presence of foreign troops and that religious scholars should form a larger gathering and find a way to end the war.

Pamela Constable in Essex, Conn., contributed to this report.

COURTESY: TWP

‘Islamic State’ follower convicted for trying to create ‘army of children’ in London

British “Islamic State” supporter Umar Haque has been found guilty of trying to recruit children to carry out attacks across London. Haque had shown children videos of beheadings and made them re-enact previous attacks.

UK | trial of Umar Haque (picture-alliance/empics/E. Cook)A sketch of Umar Haque during his final hearing at the Old Bailey in London

A 25-year-old British man was found guilty on Thursday of trying to recruit children to carry out attacks in the British capital.

London’s Old Bailey Court heard how Umar Haque was “fascinated by the warped and extreme ideology” of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) jihadi group. Haque was accused of trying to radicalize children he taught at a mosque and two private Islamic schools.

Read more: Germany: How do terrorist groups compare?

Despite having no teaching qualifications and being employed as an administrator, Haque used the guise of teaching Islamic studies to indoctrinate children into becoming militants for IS. His tactics included showing the children violent beheading videos and forcing them to re-enact attacks on London, such as Khalid Masood’s attack on Westminster Bridge last year.

“His plan was to create an army of children to assist with multiple terrorist attacks throughout London,” the head of the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command, Dean Haydon, said. “He tried and he did, we believe, radicalize vulnerable children from the ages of 11 to 14.”

Prosecutors said Haque had targeted popular landmarks in the British capital, including Big Ben, Heathrow Airport, and the Westfield shopping center in east London.

Watch video04:00

Terror in Europa – its economic impact

Children ‘paralyzed by fear’

Some 110 children had come into contact with Haque’s teachings in the past year, authorities said. Of those, 35 are undergoing long-term safeguarding measures through social services and other authorities.

Six others gave evidence during Haque’s trial, detailing how he made them do push-ups and taught them to fight.

Haydon told the court that the children had been “paralyzed by fear” into not telling their parents or other teachers, warning that if they did they would suffer the same fate as those in the videos he had shown them.

Read more: Madrid to Manchester to Barcelona: A chronology of terror in Europe

Questions were also raised over why no issues had been raised at the school, which had been rated outstanding by government inspectors.

“He shouldn’t have been teaching, so that’s a concern,” the Metropolitan Police’s Haydon said. “We have had challenges with both the local community and some of these institutions.”

As he was dragged from the dock by court officers, Haque yelled at the court: “You will clearly see Islamic State establish itself in the Arabian peninsula and that droughts will affect Europe and America.”

Two other men were also convicted of aiding and abetting Haque. They will be sentenced at a later date.

DW editors send out a selection of the day’s hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.

dm/aw (AP, Reuters)

Watch video03:32

“Islamic State” recruits return to Europe – Q&A with Maxim Bratersky

COURTESY: DW

Nigeria frees 475 Boko Haram suspects for lack of evidence

The freed suspects will undergo rehabilitation before reuniting with their families. The trials are part of Nigeria’s biggest legal probe into the militant Islamist insurgency that has plagued its northeastern region.

Boko Haram militants stand in a queue after surrendering

A Nigerian court has released 475 people allegedly affiliated with Boko Haram due to lack of evidence, the justice ministry said on Sunday.

The release order was issued on Friday.

The freed suspects will be returned to their home states for “proper rehabilitation” before being sent back to their families, ministry spokesman Salihu Othman Isah said.

The court handed a second 15-year-jail sentence to Haruna Yahaya, the first person convicted for the kidnapping in 2014 of the Chibok schoolgirls. Yahaya was also sentenced to 15 years imprisonment last week.

Both jail terms will run back-to-back, the justice ministry said in a statement.

The trials are the latest in a string of mass hearings which began in October at four specially-constituted civilian courts at the Kainji military base in central Niger state.

Read moreTrial of Boko Haram suspects in Nigeria poses legal nightmare

Watch video04:15

Boko Haram conflict threatens food security in Nigeria

Infringing on suspects’ rights

Humanitarian groups have criticized the Nigerian authorities’ for holding the Boko Haram suspects for years without trial or even contact with a lawyer.

Isah said the freed Boko Haram suspects were accused of either belonging to the terrorist organization or for concealing information about the group.

Read moreOpinion: Is Boko Haram really on its way out?

“However, the Prosecution Counsel could not charge them with any offence due to lack of sufficient evidence against them. Therefore, the suspects were released,” he said on Sunday.

In October, 45 people suspected of Boko Haram links were convicted and jailed. A further 468 suspects were let off.

The nearly decade-long insurgency fanned by Boko Haram militants in northeastern Nigeria has caused more than 20,000 deaths and has forced two million to flee their homes. Civilian militia leaders blamed the group for three suicide bombings which left 19 people dead at a fish market in Borno state on Friday.

ap/jm (AFP, Reuters)

Each evening at 1830 UTC, DW’s editors send out a selection of the day’s hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.

Watch video12:02

World Stories – Free Chibok Girls in Nigeria

COURTESY: DW

Taliban attacks cast doubts on US’ Afghan strategy

It seems as if there is no end in sight to the spate of deadly attacks occurring relentlessly in Afghanistan, killing scores and throwing lives in disarray. Is the new US strategy responsible for this spike in terror?

Watch video01:04

Afghanistan: IS militants attack Kabul military base

A string of brutal attacks over the past several weeks, killing and injuring hundreds of innocent Afghans, have shown the world the fragile and worsening state of security in Afghanistan and made it once again a staple of international headlines.

The incidents have plunged war-weary Afghan citizens into a state of despair and highlighted the limitations faced by the government in Kabul in ensuring public security.

Both the Taliban and the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) have claimed responsibility for the violence.

A bloody start

2018 did not start on a positive note for the nation ravaged by the vagaries of conflict and turmoil over the past several decades. Many Afghans believe the attacks they have witnessed in January mark only the beginning in the latest bout of violence. Fears abound about the number of casualties rising in the coming months. The alleged peace talks that were mentioned only a few weeks ago are now but a distant memory.

Watch video00:40

Deadly blast in Kabul

What are the reasons for this surge in violence?

The latest attacks can be regarded as a response to the recent US military offensive in the Afghan provinces Helmand, Nangarhar, Kunduz and others, said A.D. Mohammad Arif, an Afghan security expert.

“The Taliban usually start their offensive after the winter (as a spring offensive), but they have now brought it forward in response to the US’ new Afghanistan strategy. They want to show that they are far from being defeated,” Arif told DW.

Unlike in previous years, the US, along with Afghan security forces, began its offensive against the insurgents in the winter this year. The move is part of the US’ new Afghan strategy, unveiled by President Donald Trump in August 2017.

Trump then affirmed that he would increase the number of US troops in Afghanistan and remain engaged in the country until it no longer needed them. The US president also blamed Pakistan as the main reason for the lack of progress in Afghanistan.

To lend weight to his words, Trump even froze US military aid to Islamabad.

Washington’s stated objective is to put pressure on Pakistan until Pakistani authorities revoke their alleged support to outfits like the Afghan Taliban and other insurgent groups.

The right solution?

At a press conference on Monday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani indirectly blamed Pakistan for the recent series of attacks. “(The Taliban) have claimed responsibility without hesitation, as per their masters’ wish. These masters have made it clear that they will not bow to pressure from the outside,” said Ghani.

Read more:

–  Trump is good for Afghanistan, tough on Pakistan, say experts

– What Donald Trump can really do to ‘rein in’ Pakistan

Nicole Birtsch, an Afghanistan expertat the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), is also of the view that the recent attacks could be a reaction to the air strikes and anti-insurgent operations the US military and Afghan security forces have been jointly carrying out against the Taliban.

Birtsch is unconvinced about the effectiveness of the US strategy to pressure Pakistan. “The strategy does not lead to a conducive environment for the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan to hold talks on an equal footing.”

The analyst says she is not optimistic about the near future, suspecting that the coming weeks will continue to be characterized by escalating violence. “I fear that people in Kabul, in particular, are losing hope for a more stable future because of the violence. They are therefore merely surviving rather than living.”

 

COURTESY: DW

Afghanistan: Bomb blast leaves dozens dead in Kabul

At least 95 people have been killed in an attack in an area that hosts the EU’s headquarters in Afghanistan. An Afghan security expert told DW that the Taliban-claimed assault was in response to the US’s new strategy.

Watch video00:40

Deadly bomb blast rocks Kabul

At least 95 people have been killed and 158 others wounded by a bomb attack in the Afghan capital of Kabul, according to the Health Ministry.

The attack happened near the old Interior Ministry building in an area known for housing the European Union’s headquarters in Afghanistan and other diplomatic missions, demonstrating how militant groups can reach even secure areas of the capital.

Read more: ‘The consequences of failure in Afghanistan will reach Germany,’ says Hamid Karzai

‘Massacre’

  • A suicide bomber filled an ambulance with explosives and detonated them upon arriving at a police checkpoint.
  • Aid workers described the attack as a “massacre.”
  • The Taliban issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, saying it had targeted a police convoy in the area.
  • Last week, the militant group laid siege to the Intercontinental Hotel, killing 20 people, including 14 foreign nationals.

Interior Ministry deputy spokesman Nasrat Rahimi told the AFP news agency: “The suicide bomber used an ambulance to pass through the checkpoints. He passed through the first checkpoint saying he was taking a patient to Jamuriate hospital, and at the second checkpoint he was recognized and blew his explosive-laden car.”

Afghan security expert Brigadier General AD Mohammed Arif told DW: “Normally, the Taliban start their offensive after winter, but they have now brought this offensive forward in response to the US’s new Afghanistan strategy. They want to show they are far from being defeated.”

Read more: The Afghan security problem

An EU official said the bloc’s delegation to Afghanistan was in a designated “safe room,” adding that the officials did not suffer any casualties.

Police were targeted by the Taliban's latest attack in KabulPolice were targeted by the Taliban’s latest attack in Kabul

Why does the Taliban target security forces: The Taliban launched an insurgency in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, seeking to push out international forces and topple the Western-backed government.

Read more: Why are Afghan militants targeting aid workers?

What happens next: Authorities are likely to open a probe into the attack and bolster security in the area, which hosts several embassies and the EU’s headquarters in Kabul.

ls/rc (AP, dpa, Reuters)

COURTESY: : DW

Trump administration attempts to link terrorism cases with immigration

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

The Trump administration on Tuesday released a report attempting to link terrorism with migration, arguing that it was evidence of the need to dramatically reshape the nation’s immigration system.

The report, ordered by President Trump in an executive order last year, said that 75% of the 549 people convicted of terrorism charges since 9/11 were born outside the U.S. Administration officials called that a sign that the U.S. needs to scrap its policy of family preferences for visas, which they call “chain migration,” and a diversity visa lottery program.

But the report did not specify how many — if any — of the convicted terrorists entered the country through those means. It also did not detail how many of the convictions were related to attacks or plans in the U.S. versus overseas and how many involved people who went to fight overseas for the Islamic State or another terror group. Those details were not available, officials said.

“The focus of our immigration system should be assimilation,” a senior administration official said on Tuesday, speaking on condition that his name not be used. He said the nation should give priority to potential immigrants who speak English, who have an education and those who are “committed to supporting our values — not family members of people already here.”

“This report is likely just the tip of the iceberg,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the Senate Judiciary Committee during testimony Tuesday.

The report, due last year, is being released in a highly charged moment in the immigration debate, as Trump and some Republicans in Congress seek tough new border and immigration measures in return for a deal protecting the 690,000 people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals  program. The official said the timing of the report was coincidental.

Latest updates

White House doctor says Trump scored perfect marks on cognitive test, needs to lose weight

President Trump registered a perfect score on a cognitive screening test as part of his physical examination taken last week, the White House physician said Tuesday, adding that Trump requested the test to rebut accusations that his mental faculties are declining.

“There’s no indication whatsoever that he has any cognitive issues,” Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the chief White House doctor, whose tenure treating presidents began with George W. Bush, told reporters during a lengthy White House briefing. “He’s very sharp. He’s very articulate when he speaks to me.”

“Absolutely, he’s fit for duty,” Jackson said.

Congress White House

Senate advances bill to continue NSA surveillance program; passage expected this week

The National Security Agency campus at Ft. Meade, Md. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press) None
The National Security Agency campus at Ft. Meade, Md. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

A bill to continue the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs for five more years advanced Tuesday in the Senate, overcoming objections that it did not do enough to protect Americans’ civil liberties.

Opponents came close to filibustering the measure, which was approved by the House last week. But the Senate’s narrow 60-38 vote puts it on track for final passage this week.

Voting stretched more than an hour as senators lobbied key holdouts in dramatic fashion on the Senate floor.

A coalition of Republicans and Democrats sought to limit the program, operating under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s section 702, ever since former federal contractor Edward Snowden disclosed its reach in 2013.

Two years ago, Congress agreed to reforms requiring the government to seek warrants for bulk data collection.

But civil libertarians wanted further restrictions to prevent eavesdropping on Americans without a court-issued warrant. Others argued the surveillance system was vital for national security.

President Trump confused matters last week when he tweeted criticism of the bill before quickly reversing himself, after House Speaker Paul D. Ryan intervened, ahead of the House vote.

The bill would reauthorize the program, with some changes, through 2023.

This is the test Trump’s doctor says the president aced. How well can you do?

At a press conference Tuesday, Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the chief White House doctor, stated that President Trump aced a cognitive screening testas part of his physical examination taken last week.

The test administered, Jackson noted, was the widely used Montreal Cognitive Assessment, a brief written and oral examination covering basic recall exercises, language questions, abstraction and more.

The president, according to Jackson, received a perfect score of 30.

See how well you do below:

Congress Immigration White House

Sen. Cory Booker calls Homeland Security chief ‘complicit’; Nielsen testifies she never met a ‘Dreamer’

Sen. @corybooker: “When the Commander-in-chief speaks or refuses to speak, those words just don’t dissipate like mist in the air. They fester. They become poison. The give license to bigotry and hate in our country.”

Sen. Cory Booker rebuked Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen as “complicit” Tuesday for failing to recall — or object to — President Trump’s vulgar language about immigrants from Africa and other countries.

“Why is this so important? Why is this so disturbing? Why am I frankly seething with anger?” Booker asked at the Senate Judiciary Hearing.

“We have this incredible nation where we have been taught it doesn’t matter where you’re from. … It’s about the content of your character,” he said.

“You’re under oath,” he told Nielsen. “You and others in that room that suddenly cannot remember? … Your silence and your amnesia is complicity.”

The impassioned exchange came as Nielsen testified that she had never met with any “Dreamers” — the young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, who now face deportation under Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA.

The personal stories of Dreamers’ accomplishments have captivated lawmakers. Trump last week rejected a bipartisan deal to help them during a White House meeting.

Trump ignited furor when he criticized the plan for allowing immigrants from Africa, Haiti and other “shithole” countries. Trump told the lawmakers he wanted more Europeans, specifically from Norway.

Two Republicans, Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, have given shifting accounts of the meeting, first saying they didn’t recall Trump using the word and then denying he did.

Nielsen told senators she did not hear Trump’s specific comments, but was struck by other “rough talk” in the Oval Office.

Booker, invoking Martin Luther King Jr. and other human rights leaders, described the president’s “shithole” remarks as part of a racially tinged pattern that included his support of “both sides” of the deadly neo-Nazi protest over the summer in Charlottesville, Va.

“We know what happens when people sit back and are bystanders and say nothing,” Booker said, noting the death threats he and other senators of color have received.

“When the commander in chief speaks or refuses to speak, those words don’t dissipate like mist in the air. They fester. They become poison. They give licenses to bigotry and hate in our country.”

Nielsen told the senator she shares his passion against white supremacists and insisted the department is going after those groups. “It can’t be tolerated in the United States,” she said.

Trump administration confirms it halved payment to U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees

 (EPA)
(EPA)

The Trump administration said Tuesday it had cut in half a scheduled annual payment to the United Nations relief agency that serves millions of Palestinian refugees across the Middle East.

A funding cut had been anticipated since Jan. 2, when President Trump complained on Twitter that the United States gives what he described as hundreds of millions dollars a year to the Palestinians, who do not show “respect or appreciation” in return.

After Trump’s tweet, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put a hold on the annual U.S. payment to UNRWA, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, while the State Department launched a review.

On Tuesday, the State Department said it would pay $60 million to UNRWA but would withhold an additional $65 million pending the review. As the world’s richest country, the U.S. is the largest donor to the U.N. agency.

Trump’s tweet followed widespread condemnation of his Dec. 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and eventually to move the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv. Palestinians, who consider Jerusalem the capital of a future state, said Trump’s move crippled chances for a negotiated peace deal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The White House was especially angered on Dec. 21 when the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly voted, 128-9, to approve a nonbinding resolution that declared Trump’s decision “null and void,” despite Trump’s threats to cut funding from the world body.

According to its website, UNRWA helps provide education, healthcare and social services to more than 5 million Palestinians in parts of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Created in 1949, it isn’t associated with the Palestinian government and doesn’t take part in peace talks with Israel.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said administration officials had considered cutting off all money to the relief agency but were convinced by neighboring Arab states that such a drastic move would be highly destabilizing.

She said the Trump administration wants to see other countries pay more to support the U.N. agency’s mission.

“This is not aimed at punishing anyone,” she said. “It has long been a concern … how UNRWA manages its money.”

DACA to remain in effect while Trump administration asks Supreme Court to overturn judge’s order

President Trump sits and Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)
President Trump sits and Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

The Justice Department said Tuesday it will ask the Supreme Court to overturn a federal judge’s ruling that prevents President Trump from ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which currently offers protections from deportation for about 700,000 people who came to the U.S. as children.

But the administration has not asked courts to put the ruling by U.S. District Judge William Alsup on hold while the Supreme Court considers what to do. The effect will be to allow the DACA program to continue while the litigation proceeds.

“Until further notice … the DACA policy will be operated on the terms in place before it was rescinded” by Trump, a spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said Tuesday. “We are still accepting applications.”

Although the administration is seeking a speedy review by the high court, the justices are under no obligation to expedite the case — or even to hear the administration’s appeal. They could send the case back to a lower court for further proceedings.

At minimum, the high court would likely take several weeks to consider the case. That could buy congressional negotiators additional time to come up with a legislative solution for the so-called Dreamers, the young immigrants who came to the country illegally as children.

The Homeland Security Department announced Saturday that it would once again start processing applications for renewal of DACA permits because of Alsup’ ruling. The judge’s ruling also ordered the department not to terminate any existing permits.

The judge, who is based in San Francisco, made his ruling applicable nationwide.

“It defies both law and common sense for DACA … to somehow be mandated nationwide by a single district court in San Francisco,” said Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions.

UPDATE

11:50 a.m.: This article was was updated throughout with additional details and background.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham: Let’s end this ‘s-show’ on immigration

Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks on Capitol Hill. (Alex Brand/Associated Press)
Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks on Capitol Hill. (Alex Brand/Associated Press)

A leading Republican senator on immigration urged President Trump to abandon his harsh and profane statements about Africa and some other countries and return to an attempt to get a bipartisan deal to protect young immigrants and boost border security.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who confronted Trump at a White House meeting last Thursday after the president apparently complained of immigrants from “shithole countries,” said Trump may have gotten bad advice from his staff before the meeting.

“This has turned into an s- show and we need to get back to being a great country,” Graham said Tuesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

He said Trump needed to return to his mood and language of Jan. 9, when the president said he wanted a bipartisan deal that continued to protect from deportation about 800,000 people brought to the country illegally as children and was made with “love.”

The so-called Dreamers were allowed to apply for deferral from deportation under an Obama-era program known as DACA, but Trump last year moved to phase out the protection, kicking the sensitive issue to Congress for a solution.

Shortly before the meeting on Thursday, Trump had an agreeable conversation with Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, Graham said.

“What happened between 10 and 12?” Graham asked Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of Homeland Security, who testified to the House committee. “I don’t [know] either and I’m going to find out.”

“Tuesday we had a president I was proud to golf with and call my friend,” Graham said. “I don’t know where that guy went. I want him back.”

Graham said Congress and the White House still could come up with a deal on DACA, as long as it contained some measures on border security and changes to the legal immigration system. He said Republicans would not support a so-called clean bill on DACA, that excludes other issues.

“I’m telling my friends on the other side – DACA and nothing else is not going to happen,” he said.

Homeland Security head, in sworn testimony, says she did not hear Trump call African countries ‘shitholes’

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

The head of the Homeland Security Department denied that President Trump referred to some countries as “shitholes” during a White House meeting about immigration —  though she didn’t dispute that Trump used vulgar language.

“The conversation was very impassioned,” secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I don’t dispute that the president was using tough language. Others in the room were also using tough language.”

“I did not hear that word used, no sir,” Nielsen said, responding to a question from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). She didn’t specify what Trump did say. Nielsen is the only Cabinet member who was in the room.

Pressed about Trump’s expressed preference during the meeting for immigrants from Norway, Nielsen also said she couldn’t be sure that the country’s population is mostly white.

“Norway is a predominantly white country, isn’t it?” Leahy asked.

“I actually do not know that, sir, but I imagine that’s the case,” she said.

Reports last week said that Trump said he wanted fewer immigrants from “shithole countries” in Africa and more from places like Norway. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) confirmed Trump’s statements after the first reports.

Pressed by Durbin on Tuesday, Nielsen said she did not “specifically remember the categorization of countries in Africa.”

“Do you remember him saying, “I want more Europeans; why can’t we have more immigrants from Norway?” he asked.

Nielsen said she remembered Trump calling immigrants from Norway hard-working.

The White House did not deny that Trump made the comment after reports on the meeting surfaced last week. Over the weekend, the president and some Republican senators have disputed it. Some White House aides have said Trump actually used the word “shithouse.”

Trump’s language has further inflamed the debate on how to address immigration and a deal on the DACA program, which provides protections from deportation.

White House

A week after California mudslides, Trump sends condolences through press secretary statement

 (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Nearly a week after horrific mudslides hit California’s Central Coast and killed at least 20 people, President Trump sent his condolences to those affected in his first public statement on the disaster.

The two-sentence statement was released by the White House press secretary on Monday.

“The President has been briefed and will continue to monitor the mudslides in California. The President and First Lady extend their deepest sympathies to the families affected, their appreciation for the first responders saving lives, and their prayers for those who remain missing.”

Trump’s belated response stood in contrast to his repeated statements and tweets of condolences and promises of aid after hurricanes slammed Texas, Louisiana and Florida last year — all states that, unlike California, backed Trump for president in 2016.

The mudslides’ toll could go higher. Four people remain missing, and authorities said Sunday their focus has gone from search and rescue to recovery. The disaster has wiped out 73 homes and damaged hundreds more.

Courtesy: Los Angeles Times

2017: A Year of Change… and No Change

Charles Shoebridge
Charles Shoebridge is an international politics graduate, lawyer, broadcaster and writer. He has formerly served as an army officer, Scotland Yard detective and counter terrorism intelligence officer.
2017: A Year of Change... and No Change
Charles Shoebridge takes a look at some of the last year’s security and foreign policy developments.

The Arrival of Trump

One year ago, expectations for 2017 were running high. Donald Trump was about to take office, and predictions ranged from a new era of US policy pursuing peace and international partnership, to the US becoming a puppet of Russia, and even World War III. Of course, none of these happened, and such forecasts now seem as fanciful as they probably should have at the time.

On the day of his inauguration, I suggested that Trump’s evident ignorance of foreign and security issues, combined with his lack of loyal allies within Washington’s political establishment, would make him vulnerable to the pressure and influence of the politicians, officials, think tanks, lobbyists, advisors and journalists representing the same special interest groups that had long driven US foreign policy. Within weeks, Trump confirmed senior officials with largely the same hostility for example towards Russia and/or Iran that might have been expected of Hillary Clinton.

Seeing him as a threat to the established order, elements within what might be called the Deep State targeted Trump in a relentless campaign to undermine his credibility and threaten his removal from office. Perhaps fearing international isolation if Trump delivered on his campaign promises to restore good relations with Russia and end US support for the war in Syria, the intelligence services of the UK appear to have been a key driverof this.

Regardless, UK PM Theresa May rushed to be the first leader to pay homage to the new US president, while Trump left no doubt as to US priorities by making Saudi Arabia and Israel his first overseas visits – coinciding with a massive Saudi arms deal and planned increase in US military aid to Israel.

For the Washington lobbyists and US foreign policy establishment, this was business as usual. Yet it was in respect of Syria a month earlier that Trump learned how he was expected to behave.

Syria, Iraq and the Middle East

In response to an alleged chemical attack at Khan Sheikhun in April, Trump without waiting for any investigation launched cruise missiles at Syrian forces – reversing his and the previous Obama administration’s stated policy of non-overt intervention in Syria. In doing so, he immediately gained the (albeit short lived) approval of the same US politicians and media who for months had remorselessly condemned him.

Trump’s missile attack was largely symbolic however, causing little damage to Syria’s military capability and having no impact upon the largely successful prosecution of the war against Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and other rebel groups that over the last year has arguably brought the country now closer to a restoration of peace than at any time since 2011. This was helped not only by the military support of Russia and Iran, by also by their cooperation with Turkey in attempting to forge a realistic peace process, with the long and destructive ‘Assad must go’ mantra of the US and its allies now rendered irrelevant.

2017 was particularly a year of relative tranquility for the people of Syria’s largest city Aleppo, which until its retaking by Syrian forces in December 2016 had for years been largely occupied by US UK backed, Islamist dominated rebels.

US UK politicians and media had for months daily warned that massacres would be perpetrated by the Syrian government “if Aleppo fell,” but these didn’t occur – just as they also hadn’t occurred in other recaptured cities, such as Homs. Meanwhile, throughout 2017 displaced civilians began returning in large numbers to their homes – suggesting that US UK claims that it had been Assad they’d been fleeing from, rather than war or the rebels the US and UK had backed, were likely wrong.

While perhaps forced to do so by the reality of the battlefield, Trump did honor his pledge to stop US funding and arming of Syria’s rebels. With it largely at an end, the massive scale of the arming program was at last publicly revealed, laying to rest the long US UK media-propagated myth of US UK policy in Syria having been one of non-intervention.

Not only did the arming of Syria’s rebels fuel and prolong a war that has killed some 400,000 people, but also many of the armssupplied by the US and its allies ended up in the “wrong hands” of the same Islamic State and Al-Qaeda terrorists the US and its allies were purporting to fight.

This of course was exactly as many had long predicted – and indeed was so predictable that some suggest so-called ‘moderate’ rebels were supplied with often sophisticated weapons in the knowledge they would be passed to extremists who, from the war’s outset, comprised the most effective fighting force against Assad.

Such a scenario would not be a surprise. After all, the US and its allies have long regarded Islamist forces as a useful foreign policy tool, regardless of their disdain of democracy, human rights or other claimed ‘US values.’

Even three years after its air campaign to “degrade” IS began, evidence continued to emerge over the last year to suggest the US and its allies still see IS as much as an asset as an enemy to be destroyed. In December 2016 for example, despite intensive US surveillance, IS forces were able to cross open desert to attack Palmyra, just at the time US backed rebels were under intense military pressure in Aleppo.

Similarly, the US reportedly facilitated the escape of IS fighters from Raqqa, and appeared to strike a deal with IS fighters to allow the US’ SDF proxies an unopposed advance in their race to seize Deir ez-Zor oilfields, thereby preventing their retaking by forces loyal to Assad. This illustrates how even now, the uninvited and hence unlawfulUS presence in Syria continues.

As in Syria, 2017 also saw IS largely defeated in Iraq. US-led airstrikes undoubtedly played a role in this – but at great civilian loss of life that barely featured in US UK media, unlike the daily coverage of alleged mass civilian casualties when Syria and Russia were, for example, carrying out operations in Aleppo. Indeed, only now is the extent of US-led killing of civilians in, for example, Raqqa and Mosul starting to receive prominent coverage in US UK media.

The same applies to the Saudi air campaign and blockade against Yemen which, using US and UK supplied weapons, continued throughout the year at catastrophic civilian cost, yet which receives only infrequent and mainly uncritical coverage in a US UK media that mostly would rather parrot US and Israeli claims that Iran is the source of the region’s instability.

Terrorism

Predictably, IS losing their physical ‘caliphate’ didn’t end terrorist attacks elsewhere. In April, an attack on the St. Petersburg Metro killed 15, and 8 died in Manhattan. Attacks in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Egypt and elsewhere killed very many more.

The UK suffered its worst incidents since 2005, including 22 killed in Manchester in what appears to be one of the clearest examples of blowback resulting from the policies of the UK government and its intelligence services in facilitating the destabilization of states such as Libya.

Russia, Russia, Russia

2017 was the year Russia was blamed by Western politicians and media for everything. Notably, this wasn’t only the usual ‘Russia threat’ stories of aircraft and ships that turn out to be entirely routine, in international waters and airspace, and which when the same activities are carried out by NATO forces are instead described as ‘a response’ or ‘reassurance.’

Russia was also blamed for cyber-attacks, despite little evidence being offered, and despite that in some cases the blame for the attack seemed to shift according to which ‘enemy’ state was most in need of vilification at the time. For example, a hacking of emails of UK parliamentarians was first blamed on Russia but later on Iran, whereas another attack was blamed first on Russia, then on North Korea.

In reality, accurate attribution in cyber-attacks is notoriously difficult – particularly given that the CIA and doubtless others have developed tools specifically designed to blame attacks on those innocent of them.

Throughout 2017, it was also repeatedly reported that Russia is interfering in other countries’ elections and referendums. These claims are often reported as fact yet, despite long running and intensive investigations, the hard evidence to support such allegations remains almost entirely absent – for example in GermanyFrance, the US and the UK.

US Decline?

The recent UN votes against Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and for example the US position on climate change and Iran, show a US arguably more isolated from world opinion, including even its close allies, than at any time in recent history.

Yet rather than work to cultivate partnerships to deal with common issues such as Korea or terrorism, the US continues to publicly designate potential allies as enemies, as for example in its recent security strategy document – and to seek confrontation rather than cooperation, as arguably in its decision to send arms to Ukraine.

The US remains the world’s most powerful nation. But unless it can learn to carry its immense power more softly and responsibly, to act in the interests of peace, stability, of its own people and the wider world rather than in the narrow interests of those that often appear to be driving its policies, its influence in an increasingly multipolar world will likely decline. If 2017 is any guide, it seems perhaps even less likely now that Trump will prevent this than it did a year ago.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

Courtesy: RT

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