Tunisian army kills two Islamist militants near Algerian border

(Reuters) – Tunisian police killed two Islamist militants during clashes near the Algerian border, where the military has been targeted previously in ambushes, the army said on Wednesday.

The fighting came after army and police launched a major operation this week to flush out militants from a base in the Chaambi mountains near Algeria.

“Our special forces killed two members of the terrorist group in Chaambi mountains in an exchange of fire,” said army spokesman Bel Hassen Ouslati. “The Tunisian army seized weapons, after the confrontation with terrorists,” he added.

Last month, four Tunisian police were killed in a militant attack in the same central region of Kasserine.

With its transition to democracy complete after a 2011 uprising against autocratic leader Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s government is turning its attention to tackling economic reforms and also tightening security.

Several militant groups emerged after 2011, including Ansar al-Sharia, which is listed as a terrorist organization by U.S. and European officials.

Additionally, more than 3,000 Tunisians have left to join the war in Syria and Iraq, and the government is concerned about the prospect of returning jihadi fighters.

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Anti-Semitism and Islamist Fundamentalism in France

PARIS — One month after 17 people were killed in the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, the sense that things may not go back to “business as usual” is palpable.

Perhaps these atrocities will serve as a wakeup call for France, after years of similar incidents — the murder of Ilan Halimi in 2006, the murders in Toulouse in 2013 and at the Jewish museum in Brussels committed by a French man in 2014. After all, nearly four million French people went into the streets to express their outrage, and seven million copies of Charlie Hebdo have since been sold. A number of governmental and legal initiatives are in the works, including beefed-up intelligence, steps against radical Islamist indoctrination in prisons, educational programs and more than 100 proceedings against people charged with publicly condoning acts of terrorism.

Most importantly, our leaders seem to understand the problem. French President Francois Hollande has made the fight against racism and anti-Semitism a “great national cause.” And Prime Minister Manuel Valls, in an historic speech, declared: “Today we are all Charlie, we are all policemen, we are all French Jews,” and pledged to address terrorism in a spirit of “firmness, serenity and unity.”

But others are not shouldering their responsibilities. To avoid wasting more time and more lives, we must look reality in the face.

First, there are the passive bystanders, the cowards who did not and still do not see the reality of Islamist fundamentalism and anti-Semitism, or who see it but look away, refusing to name it, leaving this monster the space to grow more and more every day. They are ordinary French people, journalists, politicians, even former ministers, political commentators and intellectuals from across the political spectrum.

Second, much worse, are the active accomplices. Some of France’s local or national politicians have allowed themselves be associated with anti-semites and terrorists. Most representatives of the new Anti-Capitalist Party as well as some officials from the Green and Communist parties participated in last summer’s pro-Palestinian demonstrations that were banned by the government because they were considered dangerous and antisemitic. They walked alongside Islamic State, Hezbollah and Hamas flags at Place de la République and elsewhere where swastikas appeared, Israeli flags were burned, and “death to the Jews” was chanted in the streets.

Third, mainstream local and national politicians for years have pandered to extremist voters in order to achieve and stay in power. They give in to the fundamentalists, populists, Salafists, anti-semites and their thuggish, gangster, drug-dealing accomplices.

As Malek Boutih, Member of Parliament and co-founder of the biggest anti-racist organization in France recently reminded us, for over 20 years these politicians preferred to buy social peace by leaving some of these neighborhoods in the hands of dubious Islamist organizations and other hate mongers.

We have to clean up in our own ranks. We cannot continue to let supermarkets of drugs prosper in our cities where gangsters and Islamo-Nazis are holding hands. This is the case in cities led by the left, the right and the center.

Elected officials also have named convicted Palestinian terrorists honorary citizens of their cities. Thirteen mayors have made Marwan Barghouti an honorary citizen, despite (or perhaps because) he was sentenced to five sentences of life imprisonment for the murder of five Israeli civilians, and for his involvement in four terrorist attacks.

Even worse, the Mayor of Bezons (a city of Val-d’Oise) made Majdi Ihrima Al-Rimawi an honorary citizen of his city. Al-Rimawi is in prison, sentenced to 80 yearsfor involvement in the 2001 assassination of Israeli Minister of Tourism Rechavam Zeevi. When the Administrative Court of Pontoise overruled this action, the mayor named 4,500 Palestinian prisoners honorary citizens.

By glorifying terrorists, calling them “resistance fighters,” elected officials go much farther than simply expressing support for the Palestinian cause. These terrrorists’ crimes are no less horrific than those of Amedy Coulibaly, the Kouachi brothers, Mohammed Merah or Mehdi Nemmouche. Extolling them adds fuel to the fire that will encourage more indiscriminate killings of innocent civilians.

If more than a hundred cases have been filed against French citizens for condoning terrorism these past few weeks, shouldn’t the French courts look into the actions of these elected officials as well?

After the attacks at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket, the government identified education as key in the fight against antisemitism, racism and extremism. But if we want our children to make the distinction between right and wrong, if we want them to understand and protect themselves from fundamentalist ideology, we need to condemn elected officials who play with fire.

How do we prevent our youngsters from “importing the conflict,” a term that is regularly being used by our political leaders when they denounce antisemitic violence, if our mayors excuse and even glorify hatred of Israel and Jews? The moral confusion of this kind of behavior undermines the very idea on which the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and even terrorism is based on.

If we really want the genius of France to prosper, if we want to fight terrorism, anti-Semitism and racism, if we want our children to understand the values of the republic, such as tolerance and pluralism, we need to mount a firm attack on this kind of behavior, especially when it comes from our political leaders. Maybe then will be able to renew the French spirit that made our country great.

Simone Rodan-Benzaquen is Director of the American Jewish Committee’s Paris Office (www.ajc.org).

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Islamist Faction in Libya Now Strikes From the Sky

CAIRO — The Islamist-backed faction in Libya’s civil conflict said Tuesday that it had carried out its first airstrike, targeting opponents in the town of Zintan in an escalation of the violence tearing the country apart.

The attack occurred two days after the Islamic State, the extremist group also known as ISIS or ISIL, released a video showing fighters for one of its Libyan branches beheading as many as 21 Egyptian Christians. In retaliation, Egypt carried out an airstrike on Monday against a town in eastern Libya that is a hub of Islamist militancy and the home of another Islamic State branch.

The extent of the damage was unclear. But the attack on Tuesday raised the possibility of an air war between the rival Libyan factions and diminished hopes for United Nations-sponsored talks about ending the conflict.

“This may well upend the U.N.’s mediation efforts,” said Wolfram Lacher, a Libya researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Word of the bombing on Tuesday came as Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, visited the United Nations in New York, intending to push for a Security Council measure to strengthen what he called the “legitimate government of Libya.” That government has moved to two towns near the border with Egypt because the conflict has left its Islamist-backed opponents, who call themselves Libya Dawn, in control of Tripoli. The Security Council plans to meet Wednesday and discuss the Libya crisis.

Mr. Shoukry said, “We believe a more expanded form of assistance to the Libyan government is necessary in view of the threat terrorism poses.”

With no effective government since the ouster of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, Libya has largely disintegrated into a patchwork of fiefs controlled by local or ideological militias. Over the past year, those militias have picked sides with one of the two warring coalitions.

Libya Dawn includes moderate and extremist Islamists. The other coalition, calling itself Operation Dignity and vowing to eradicate the Islamists, includes former Qaddafi soldiers as well as fighters from Zintan, a powerful Western mountain town. That faction has the support of Libya’s internationally recognized government, which is under Operation Dignity’s protection.

Operation Dignity’s main advantage in the fight has been the use of a small air force of helicopters and Russian-made fighter planes left over from Colonel Qaddafi’s military, which its officers have said the Egyptian military helped to repair and maintain. Operation Dignity has used the force to strike armed opponents and occasionally their civilian neighborhoods.

Under pressure from the United Nations and the West, Dignity’s leader, Gen. Khalifa Hifter, recently suspended airstrikes against civilian targets in the opposing cities of Tripoli and Misurata in order to make the peace talks possible, Mr. Lacher said by email. But Libya Dawn’s airstrike on Tuesday “now threatens a spiral of retaliation,” he said.

Leaders of the Libya Dawn coalition had long threatened to repair their own damaged jets and helicopters left over from Colonel Qaddafi’s air force and use them to strike back. It was unclear how they had made the aircraft flight-worthy.

A spokesman for the provisional government that Libya Dawn has established in Tripoli said Tuesday night that its forces had used “two or three” Russian-made MIGs to hit a Zintan airstrip and another location where the city’s fighters had gathered.

The spokesman, Jamal Naji Zubia, accused Zintan’s militia of using the airstrip to import weapons, ammunition and military support.

A statement from the airport authority in Zintan said a warplane had bombed the airport around noon, just as a civilian flight was preparing to take off.

The attack “created panic among the passengers and families” and forced the cancellation of the flight, the statement said. It asked Libya’s internationally recognized government to condemn “this terrorist crime” and to “ensure accountability for those who carried it out so that it is not repeated again.”

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France prosecutes six Islamist recruiters

Six men of Chechen origin are facing terrorism charges in France over a suspected recruiting ring sending jihadi fighters to Syria, the Paris prosecutor’s office said Friday.

The men, aged 32 to 38, were handed preliminary charges Thursday for alleged preparation of terrorist acts and for terror financing, said a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office, which handles terrorism cases for France.

The six were arrested Sunday near the city of Toulouse and the town of Albi in southern France. Four were political refugees in France, one had dual French and Russian nationalities, and another received French citizenship in 2009. All six were ordered held without bail.

French police have conducted several anti-terror operations following last month’s terrorist attacks in and near Paris but authorities said the arrests of the six men of Chechen origin were not linked to those attacks.

Hundreds of French citizens are among thousands of Europeans who have travelled to Syria to join extremist groups fighting against President Bashar Assad’s forces.

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Belgian court jails Islamist group leader for 12 years on terror charges

(CNN)A Belgian court convicted the leader of an Islamist group and several of his followers on terror charges Wednesday for sending jihadist fighters to Syria, in a case in which 46 people were accused.

Fouad Belkacem, the leader of the Sharia4Belgium group, was jailed for 12 years by the court in the city of Antwerp, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office, Fabienne Nackaerts, told CNN.

Of the 46 people accused in the case, 36 could not be found and their arrests were ordered in their absence, a news release from the Antwerp court said. Of the 10 who appeared in court, one was acquitted.

Most of those who could not be found are thought to be still fighting in Syria or to have died there.

Those accused of being leaders in the terror group were sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison and fines of 24,000 to 30,000 euros ($27,170 to $33,940), the court said.

Those accused of active membership of Sharia4Belgium without leadership roles were given lesser sentences.

The offenses were committed in Antwerp and Brussels in Belgium as well as in Syria and Turkey between 2010 and 2014, the court said.

The court “also established that Sharia4Belgium has played an active role in the departure of several Syria fighters,” it said.

Radical British preacher Anjem Choudary’s name was mentioned several times by the prosecutor during the Antwerp trial as having helped Belkacem set up Sharia4Belgium.

Choudary acknowledged to CNN that Belkacem had consulted with him in 2010 on establishing the group, whose name refers to Sharia, or Islamic, law.

Speaking after the sentence Wednesday, Choudary said: “I believe nowadays in Europe if you call for Sharia you are considered to be guilty. Abu Imran (an alias for Belkacem) was just doing his Islamic responsibility.

“In 2010 he came to see me and he asked about how to set up a branch of our own body that we had in Britain. Sharia4 Belgium was under our own guidance. Abu Imran helped set up branches in Holland and France.

“I am extremely proud and I love Abu Imran and all the members of Sharia4Belgium.”

Choudary, who was a co-founder of the banned UK Islamist group Al Muhajiroun, told CNN last August that he believed the ISIS extremist groupwould spread rapidly and be in Europe and the United States within decades.

As of September, 350 Belgian citizens were known to have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join Islamist extremist groups fighting there, the Belgian Interior Ministry said then.

Given Belgium’s relatively small Muslim population, this is a high number, compared with other European nations that have seen radicalized citizens head overseas to fight.

Authorities fear some who return will seek to carry out attacks motivated by jihadist ideas.

Belgian authorities last month carried out a series of counter-terror raids on a suspected jihadist cell amid fears that its members were plotting an imminent attack on Belgian soil. A federal prosecutor said they planned to target police officers.

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