Rumours of chemical weapons emerge as ISIS ‘anniversary’ approaches

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“Daesh is likely to have amongst its tens of thousands of recruits the technical expertise necessary to further refine precursor materials and build chemical weapons. The use of chlorine by Daesh and its recruitment of highly technically trained professionals, including from the west, have revealed far more serious efforts in chemical weapons development.”

These were the comments of Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop at a meeting of the Australia Group, an informal international forum that focuses on stopping the export and development of chemical and biological weapons which took place on 6th June in Perth.

She further stated that, “Apart from some crude and small scale endeavours, the conventional wisdom has been that the terrorist intention to acquire and weaponise chemical agents has been largely aspirational.”

The Syrian opposition has always had, and occasionally used, chemical weapons, as, formerly, did the Syrian government. However in an era in which the Free Syrian Army scarcely exists anymore, its former fighters have either joined ISIS or Jebat al Nusra, taking their modest stock of chemical weapons with them.

Multiple reports from the area where the battle with ISIS is currently raging have suggested that the group has already used chemical weapons, although in an arena in which few journalists are present it is hard to distinguish fact from intelligence agency feeds. Kurdish authorities had previously claimed that ISIS had used chlorine gas against Peshmerga fighters. One alleged incident took place when Peshmerga fighters were busy reinforcing their positions on a highway between Mosul and the Syrian border when they came under attack from an ISIS suicide bomber driving a truck filled with toxic chlorine gas early this year. The truck was destroyed before it had a chance to detonate near soldiers. However, shortly after the attack, it was reported that dozens of fighters had experienced “dizziness, nausea, vomiting and general weakness” after being exposed to gas.

Chlorine gas is a strong oxidizer, which may react with flammable materials. The toxic gas, which was first used as a weapon during WWI by Germany, is on the banned list of chemicals under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.

As the one year anniversary of the so-called “caliphate” declared by ISIS approaches, the group will be seeking to make itself appear stronger, according to Charlie Winter, a researcher at the London-based counter extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation. He claims ISIS will be “more active than ever” over the coming month. “There is a concerted effort to appear as relevant as ever, stronger than ever and more defiant than ever in the face of international opposition,” he added, saying the group would be planning “more violence, more advances, more attacks”.

ISIS and the destruction of history

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Following the capture of the ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Syria, there are mounting fears for its ancient relics at the hands of ISIS. The deplorable scenes of ISIS militants toppling and smashing statues and carvings in Mosul’s museum and the destruction of the ancient Iraqi city of Hatra in early March 2015  sent shock waves throughout the international community, providing insightful evidence of ISIS’s complete disregard for cultural property.

ISIS’s destruction of ancient cities and its antiquities has evoked strong memories of the Taliban’s annihilation of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001. However, experts claim that the practice of destroying what the group argues are false idols – known as iconoclasm – is nothing more than a PR exercise. According to Shiraz Maher, a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, the destruction represented a stated effort to combat polytheism – the worship of multiple gods – and encourage a return to monotheism – the belief in a single deity, “But the world eventually returned to polytheism, before the Prophet Mohammed arrived and smashed the idols again, once again in the cause of monotheism.” He said the practice was central to Salafism, a doctrine within Sunni Islam followed by IS, which insists on the promotion of the literal truth as understood by its apparent meaning in the scripture of the Koran. “It is very much at the heart of the Salafist tradition. But we saw it with the Taliban in 2001 and we now see this group doing the same thing.”

“It is also a means of asserting their authority and saying ‘We are in charge, we will do what we want and we don’t care about the outrage this causes’.” He suggested the group was following the example set by the Prophet Mohammed’s destruction of idols in Mecca. “These statues and idols, these artefacts, if God has ordered its removal, they became worthless to us even if they are worth billions of dollars,” said Maher.

James Noyes, author of The Politics of Iconoclasm: Religion, Violence and the Culture of Image-Breaking in Christianity and Islam, told international affairs think-tank Atlantic Council that modern iconoclasm was “not an accident of warfare”. “It is at the heart of a theological and territorial struggle which stretches back to the origins of Islam – with Syria and Iraq situated on the fault-line of that struggle,” he said. “As ISIS fights to define the frontiers of its co-called caliphate, iconoclasm represents a means of bridging the principles of theological and political unity.”

However this is nothing new.

Last July, ISIS demolished shrines cherished by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, such as the tomb of the Prophet Jonah in Mosul and the shrine of Prophet Seth, who was considered the third son of Adam and Eve.

Despite public denouncements, no concrete action has so far been taken by any government or intergovernmental organization. Poor security in the region has enabled ISIS to seize control of vast territories in Iraq and Syria, allowing it to enforce its puritanical interpretation of Islam unabated.

The Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities asked the international community to intervene to help it protect its cultural heritage but the U.S. issued a statement ruling out airstrikes to protect Iraqi antiquities for lack of sufficient partners “on the ground.” This is not the first time Western powers have declined to intervene to protect Iraqi cultural property. During the Gulf War, the U.S. and British governments promised to protect the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, but failed to do so resulting in the major looting of thousands of antiquities in the museum.

If the world continues to sit by and do nothing then the history of civilization will be slowly wiped out.

Yemen Crisis continues to escalate

Earlier today (24th April), an Iranian flotilla bound for Yemen, suspected of carrying weapons for Houthi rebels, averted its course and turned back. According to U.S officials, Iranian cargo ships, accompanied by two Iranian warships, shifted course as a U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt moved within 200 nautical miles of the flotilla. This move averted a potential confrontation between the Iranian and American warships. Following this incident which took place in the Gulf of Aden, officials claim it is still too soon to tell if a crisis has been averted.

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The conflict has sent tensions soaring between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, raising fears that Yemen could become a new front in what some believe to be proxy war between Middle East powers. Yemen’s Foreign Minister Riyadh Yassin accused Tehran of trying to break a naval blockade on his country, describing the war as an “Iranian plot implemented by the Houthi militia”.

President Obama said that Iran has been warned to not challenge the United Nations arms embargo on the Houthis. He went on to say, “What we’ve said to them is that if there are weapons delivered to factions within Yemen that could threaten navigation, that’s a problem.”

After four weeks of ruthless airstrikes, more than a 1,000 civilians have been killed with over 4,000 injured and 150,000 displaced in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition has destroyed many of the Houthi rebels’ sites and weapons but with Iran’s support they seem to be surviving. The Saudis are nowhere near to restoring the Yemeni president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi who was driven into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The US has been helping Saudi Arabia with intelligence and tactical advice and by deploying warships off the Yemeni coast. However with the numbers killed rising and no resolution in sight, they are now urging them to end the bombing. The Obama administration seems to have realised that the Saudis appear to have no credible strategy for achieving their political goals, or even managing their intervention.

Saudi Arabia’s much-publicised creation of a Sunni coalition to fight “the Iranian and Shiite threat” in the Middle East took two major blows when Pakistan and Turkey opted out of the coalition after having initially indicated that they would join. Riyadh worries that Iran is emerging as a legitimate player on the regional and global stage and Washington no longer perceived as a reliably anti-Iranian force thus potentially jeopardising its relationship with the Americans.

The United Nations had previously led a diplomatic initiative which made some progress, but was not given enough support and attention and the official leading the negotiations, Jamal Benomar, resigned. Finding a political solution will not be easy. For one, it will require Saudi Arabia to accept the Houthis as part of the governing power structure if there is any hope of bringing some stability to the country.

The ‘King of Clubs’ is dead

wanted-_izzat_ibrahim_al-duri_is_the_king_of_clubs_1Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, baptised the King of Clubs by the Americans, has been killed according to various news reports. The 72 year old allegedly died in the northern town of Hamreen. General Haider al-Basri, a senior regional commander in the Iraq army claimed that al-Douri and nine bodyguards were killed by gunshots while riding in a convoy outside Tikrit. The governor of the Saladin province, Raed al-Jabbouri confirmed his death, claiming he was a “mastermind of ISIS in Iraq” and that his death “was a blow to the group.”

The group he headed, the men of the Naqshbandi, have been providing critical assistance to ISIS in Iraq. It has been suggested that Izzat al-Douri encouraged Iraqi people to become more religious A report by Stanford University claims that al-Douri could have acted as commander of ISIS forces as their success in seizing Iraqi cities “was dependent on the military expertise and local connections brought by the members of the Naqshbandi.”

In 1993, al-Douri was involved in the state-sponsored Return to Faith Campaign which sought to encourage devotion to Islam in Iraqi social life. This saw aspects of Islam fused into the Iraqi media, educational system and judicial system. Then in 2013, al-Douri addressed the Sunnis saying: “The people of Iraq and all its nationalist and Islamic forces support you until the realisation of your just demands for the fall of the Safavid-Persian alliance”.

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Al-Arabiya news station published a photograph which they alleged was of al-Douri’s body; DNA tests are underway to confirm the identity of the body as that of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. There have been no reports on the Naqshbandi website and the former Iraq Baathist party have released a statement denying the death of al-Douri.

Following the 2003 Iraq war and the fall of Saddam, al-Douri spent nearly a decade in hiding, with many believing him to be dead,before re-emerging as the spiritual figure head of a movement dedicated to restoring the Ba’ath Party to power. The US set a $10m bounty on him. Izzat al-Douri was one of Saddam’s most trusted aids, helping to lead his 1968 coup.

If al-Douri is indeed gone, who will be his successor? According to Ghassan Attiyah, head of the UK-based Iraqi Foundation for Development, al-Douri’s “death is no doubt a significant achievement for Baghdad. He represented one of the main figures of the Saddam regime. In a way, his demise could be an opportunity for the Baathists to reorganize themselves and elect a new leadership which is more accommodating and more willing to adopt a more moderate line.”

Below is a list of the Leadership of the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order with only Sheikh Abdullah Mustafa al-Naqshbandi remaining but little is known about his origins and whereabouts.

  1. Sheikh Abdullah Mustafa al-Naqshbandi, possible 2nd in command
  2. Wathiq Alwan al Amiri, Media Coordinator; arrested by Iraqi and US forces in Tikrit Iraq December 12, 2009
  3. Abd al Majid Hadithi, Former Media Manager, Propaganda Distributor; arrested by Iraqi and US forces in Tikrit Iraq December 12, 2009
  4. Muhanned Muhammed Abd al Jabbar al Rawi, Media Gatherer, Producer; arrested by Iraqi and US forces in Tikrit Iraq December 12, 2009

Naqshbandi is a branch of the Sufi order, a mystical Islamic sect that touts Arab nationalism, as evidenced by its Baathist links and the Arab World-encompassing graphic on the group’s website.

The Futility of the ICC in Sudan

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The relationship between the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the International Criminal Court (ICC) has continued to deteriorate since the decision in December 2014 to shelve Darfur war crimes probe. The ICC ruled that Sudan had failed to arrest Omer Hassan al-Bashir over alleged war crimes in the western region of Darfur and passed the case to the Security Council to take “the necessary measures they deem appropriate”. This request came three months after the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said she was suspending her criminal investigations of Darfur atrocities because they could not make progress without cooperation from Sudan and coercive pressure from the Security Council.

The pre-trial chamber II of the International Criminal Court (ICC) said that Sudan failed to cooperate with the court by not arresting and surrendering president Bashir to the Court. The chamber stressed that “if there is no follow up action on the part of the UNSC, any referral by the council to the ICC under chapter VII of the UN Charter would never achieve its ultimate goal, namely, to put an end to impunity.”

Sudan is not a state party to the ICC Rome Statute and has no obligation to cooperate with the ICC. Sudan cooperated with the court until the first arrest warrant against Janjaweed leader Ali Kushayb and former state minister for interior Ahmed Haroun were issued in 2007. Despite findings of non-cooperation being referred by ICC judges to the UNSC, the council has declined to take action mainly over China’s likely move to block any resolution that would compel Sudan to cooperate.

Following this, Sudan’s information minister Ahmed Bilal Osman stated that, “The decisions of the ICC are not in any way binding to the Sudanese government and raising Sudan’s case with the Security Council reflects the failure of the ICC.” He also went on to claim that “The ICC knows it doesn’t scare Sudan at all.” This clearly indicates the ICC’s standing in Sudan with Bashir and his fellow cronies continuing to thumb their noses at the court.

The ICC’s pre-trial chamber I issued an arrest warrant for President Bashir, on 4th March 2009 on charges of genocide and war crimes in Darfur, along with defence minister Abdel-Rahim Mohamed Hussein, former state minister for interior Ahmed Haroun and Janjaweed leader Ali Kushayb. The chamber claimed there were reasonable grounds to believe that Bashir is criminally responsible for five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes. The same chamber, albeit with a different composition, issued a second warrant of arrest for Bashir on 12 July 2010, for three counts of genocide.

UNSC referrals have proved the most contentious route to achieving ICC jurisdiction, as has been the case with Sudan and Libya. Therefore the controversy with ICC referrals by the UNSC is that they may be regarded as a violation of State sovereignty and non-intervention, two principles enshrined in international law.

Inaction by the UNSC may be due to the strong outrage from the African Union and controversy surrounding the arrest warrant for a standing Head of State. Following intense criticism from members of the international community, the UNSC should have perhaps chosen to pursue reconciliation in Sudan, rather than further exacerbate the problem by facilitating the prosecution of Bashir.

The biggest flaw of the ICC is that its effectiveness depends on the cooperation of governments. It is not the independent judicial body it pretends to be. Its jurisdiction can be dictated at the say-so of the Security Council. In the last six years, all the ICC and UNSC have done is pass the Sudan case back and forth between themselves with not one single suspect in custody.

Many experts are beginning to say that the ICC is a failed experiment. Given that the ICC operates in a hostile political environment with its personality clashes and poor management, it was only a matter of time before it faced serious obstacles. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning to launch a campaign to discredit the legitimacy of the ICC, following its announcement that it would pursue a war crimes probe against Israel over its 50-day attacks on Gaza last year.

Is the lack of backing from the US, Russia and China the reason for its lack of credibility and failure to be taken seriously as an international organisation? More than a decade after its creation, the ICC is still struggling to find its foothold, jeopardising its already fragile reputation as a truly global court.