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ISIS POSES ‘ACUTE’ THREAT TO U.S. Evacuation Efforts in Kabul, Sullivan Says

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A crowd waited by an entrance to the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, as U.S. Marines secured the perimeter on Sunday. Credit...Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

President Biden’s national security adviser warned of mounting but unspecified terrorist risks to the U.S. mission to evacuate thousands of Americans and Afghan allies.

By Eric Schmitt

WASHINGTON — President Biden’s national security adviser warned on Sunday that the threat of a terrorist attack by the Islamic State posed a serious danger to the administration’s evacuation of thousands of Americans and Afghan allies from the international airport in Kabul.

“The threat is real. It is acute. It is persistent. And it is something that we are focused on with every tool in our arsenal,” Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

His comments were the most urgent so far regarding a range of steadily increasing threats that intelligence and military officials have privately briefed Mr. Biden and his top aides on in recent days, officials said.

Neither Mr. Sullivan nor other senior American military or intelligence officials provided details about the threats or their specificity. Current and former officials say, however, that they range from a missile attack against a transport plane taking off or landing at Hamid Karzai International Airport to a bomb-laden truck or suicide bombers infiltrating the crowd outside the airport.

Mr. Biden said on Friday that U.S. military and counterterrorism officials were closely watching for threatened ISIS attacks, noting that thousands of prisoners had been released in Kabul and other locations. While the Taliban is unlikely to have consciously let out the Islamic State fighters, the chaos in Afghanistan in recent weeks allowed all manner of prisoners to be freed from custody, including the Taliban’s enemies.

“ISIS-K has been waiting for an opportunity like this, where its fighters can exploit the chaos of the situation on the ground for a chance to kill American soldiers,” said Colin P. Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst at the Soufan Group, a New York-based security consulting firm, referring to the Islamic State’s Khorasan affiliate in Afghanistan.

U.N. counterterrorism officials said in June that ISIS had carried out 77 attacks in Afghanistan in the first four months of this year, up from 21 in the same period in 2020. The attacks last year included a strike against Kabul University in November and a rocket barrage against the airport in Kabul a month later. Some analysts say the group also has links to the Haqqani network, another militant organization.

For the past week, U.S. officials have warned about threats against the airport and American operations to evacuate civilians from Kabul. By Friday, officials said, the threat reporting was growing more acute.

An attack on the airport, current and former officials said, would be a strategic blow against both the United States and the Taliban, who are trying to demonstrate that they can control the country.

The Taliban have fought ISIS in recent years, and leaders of the Islamic State in Afghanistan denounced the Taliban takeover of the country, criticizing their version of Islamic rule as insufficiently hard-line.

Mr. Sullivan said that American commanders on the ground were using “a wide variety of capabilities” to defend the airfield against an attack, and were working closely with spy agencies to identify and defeat any threats. He did not provide details.

“It is something that we are placing paramount priority on stopping or disrupting,” Mr. Sullivan said. “And we will do everything that we can for as long as we are on the ground to keep that from happening. But we are taking it absolutely deadly seriously.”

Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, warned on Sunday of the growing threat of a terrorist attack by the Islamic State. Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Indeed, American officials said on Saturday that the U.S. military was establishing alternative routes to the Kabul airport for Americans, Afghan allies and citizens from other Western nations because of the threat ISIS posed to the airfield and its surroundings, a development previously reported by CNN.

On Thursday night, CH-47 Chinook helicopters picked up 169 Americans at a hotel meeting place and whisked them to safety, rather than having them walk 200 yards to an airport gate where a large, unruly crowd had gathered.

American and Western cargo planes taking off from the airport have dispensed flares and chaff, a common precautionary practice in conflict zones like Afghanistan and Iraq to fool heat-seeking missiles fired from the ground, military officials said.

U.S. military officials in Kabul who are communicating with senior Taliban leaders to provide safe passage to the airport for Americans and Afghan allies are also in this rare instance of cooperating to thwart a common enemy: ISIS.

A deadly attack against American and Afghan civilians would be a disaster not only for the United States, but also for the Taliban, who are moving to consolidate control over Kabul. The Taliban and the Islamic State have been enemies, fighting each other on the battlefield for control of parts of the country.

Western counterterrorism analysts say a high-profile attack by ISIS during the evacuation would most likely lift the group’s flagging fortunes, recruiting and prestige.

A United Nations report in June assessed that the Islamic State’s “territorial losses have affected the group’s ability to recruit and generate new funding.”

Although the ISIS affiliate was still believed to have 1,500 to 2,200 fighters in small areas of Kunar and Nangarhar provinces, the report said, “it has been forced to decentralize and consists primarily of cells and small groups across the country, acting in an autonomous manner while sharing the same ideology.”

While the group suffered military setbacks starting in summer 2018, the report concluded that since June 2020, under its ambitious new leader, Shahab al-Muhajir, the affiliate “remains active and dangerous,” and is seeking to swell its ranks with disaffected Taliban fighters and other militants.

“Given that ISIS-K and the Taliban are enemies, it will be a challenge for ISIS-K,” Mr. Clarke said. “Nevertheless, the Taliban now has its hands full with governing, which will consume considerable bandwidth within the organization.”

Nathan Sales, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator in the Trump administration, said on Sunday that if the ISIS affiliate was capable of attacking the airport in Kabul, “that suggests Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal will be a permissive environment for all sorts of terrorist groups, even those hostiles to the Taliban.”

Defense Department officials have been tight-lipped about the threats and what they are doing to defeat them, citing operational security.

John F. Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, declined on Saturday to comment on any specific threat information, but he acknowledged that the security situation at the airport was extremely volatile.

“I’m not going to get into specific threat assessments,” Mr. Kirby said. “The situation in Kabul, in the whole city, is fluid and dynamic. And it changes. It changes almost by the hour, and it changes in locations around the airport. It’s very, very fluid and dynamic.”

Julian Barnes contributed reporting.

The New York Times

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UN CONDEMNS DEADLY MOSQUE ATTACK IN PAKISTAN

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Rescue workers carry the remains of the blast victims from the debris of a damaged mosque after a blast inside the police headquarters in Peshawar on January 30, 2023. - A blast at a mosque inside a police headquarters in Pakistan on January 30 killed at least 25 worshippers and wounded 120 more, officials said. (Photo by Abdul MAJEED / AFP)

The United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres and other top officials, have strongly condemned the suicide bombing at a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan on Monday, that left at least 59 dead and 150 injured.

According to reports, a militant group had claimed responsibility for the attack, which occurred at the crowded mosque.

Reports showed that the bombing caused the roof to collapse on top of worshipers inside.

“It is particularly abhorrent that the attack occurred at a place of worship,” Guterres said in a statement issued by his spokesperson, Stephanie Dujarric.

“Freedom of religion or belief, including the ability to worship in peace and security, is a universal human right.”

Extending his condolences to the victims’ families and wishes for a prompt recovery to those injured, Guterres reiterated the solidarity of the United Nations with the government and people of Pakistan in their efforts to address terrorism and violent extremism.

Also condemning the attack, the High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, emphasised that all forms of violence and acts of terror against civilians and religious sites on account of their religion or belief, are intolerable and unjustifiable and should be unequivocally condemned.

“Houses of worship are sacred places where worshippers should be able to practice and declare their faith safely and freely,” he said, also expressing deep concern at the overall rise in instances of discrimination, intolerance and all acts of violence directed against members of any religion or other communities.

This includes incidents motivated by Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianophobia and prejudices against persons of other religions, beliefs, gender or race.

Calling for mutual respect for all religions and faiths and for fostering a culture of fraternity and peace, he asked governments and other stakeholders to support the UN Plan of Action to safeguard religious sites, which had been developed by the alliance, at the request of the secretary-general.

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NORTH KOREA DENIES ARMS DEALING WITH RUSSIA

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North Korean President, Kim Jong-un and Russian President, Vladimir Putin

North Korea on Sunday denied providing arms to Moscow after the United States said the nuclear-armed state supplied rockets and missiles to Russia’s private military group Wagner.

Washington earlier this month designated the Wagner group as a “transnational criminal organisation”, citing its weapons dealings with Pyongyang in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

The White House showed US intelligence photographs of Russian rail cars entering North Korea, picking up a load of infantry rockets and missiles, and returning to Russia, according to national security spokesman John Kirby.

In a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, a senior North Korean official rejected the accusations, warning that the US would face a “really undesirable result” if it persisted in spreading the “self-made rumour”.

“Trying to tarnish the image of (North Korea) by fabricating a non-existent thing is a grave provocation that can never be allowed and that cannot but trigger its reaction,” said Kwon Jong Gun, director general of the Department of US Affairs.

He also called it “a foolish attempt to justify its offer of weapons to Ukraine”.

Earlier this week, US President Joe Biden promised 31 Abrams tanks, one of the most powerful and sophisticated weapons in the US army, to help Kyiv fight off Moscow’s invasion.

The move drew a rebuke Friday from Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who accused Washington of “further crossing the red line” by sending the tanks into Ukraine.

During a meeting with South Korean foreign minister Park Jin in Seoul on Sunday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged concerns about Pyongyang’s “reckless missile tests and nuclear programmes” and the ramifications of the Ukraine war in South Korea.

“We also know that North Korea is providing military support to the Russian war efforts with the rockets and missiles,” he added.

Along with China, Russia is one of the North’s few international friends and has previously come to the regime’s aid.

Other than Syria and Russia, North Korea is the only country to recognise the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk, two Russian-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine.

Russia, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, has long held the line against increasing pressure on nuclear-armed North Korea, even asking for relief from international sanctions for humanitarian reasons.

Kim Jong Un declared North Korea an “irreversible” nuclear state in September, and the country conducted sanctions-busting weapons tests nearly every month last year — including firing its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile.

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ANGER AND PROTEST IN MEMPHIS AFTER POLICE BEATING VIDEO RELEASED

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This still image from a Memphis Police Department body-cam video released by the city of Memphis on January 27, 2023, shows Tyre Nichols handcuffed on the ground surrounded by police officers, in Memphis, Tennessee.

About 50 protesters gathered Friday night in Memphis, in the southern United States, demanding justice after a video was released showing police violently arresting Tyre Nichols, a young Black man who died a few days after the incident.

Waving signs reading “Justice for Tyre” and “End police terror,” they headed to Martyrs Park in the center of Memphis.

Five police officers have been charged with second-degree murder in the beating of the 29-year-old, who died in a Memphis hospital on January 10 three days after being stopped on suspicion of reckless driving.

At 6:00 pm on Friday, (0000 GMT Saturday), the few dozen protesters, chanting “No justice, no peace,” managed to block a major road in the city, causing traffic jams.

The procession carried on to a bridge crossing the Mississippi River.

“Whose bridge?!” shouted an activist with a megaphone; “Our bridge” came the reply from the crowd.

Monica Johnson, a community organizer from Atlanta, said it was “sick” that all the accused policemen were also Black, an anomaly among recent high-profile killings of Black men, which often involve white officers.

“But it doesn’t surprise me, because we’ve seen for years and for decades that Black people have — for a check, for their occupation — done the same thing and served the same system of white supremacy and capital,” the 24-year-old said.

She said the protesters demanded “accountability, conviction for all of the cops involved and a stop to the police making those traffic stops where they kill people.”

“For me there is no good cop,” said LJ Abraham, a community organizer in Memphis.

“And so for me, it does not matter what the race of the cop is. They’re hired to protect us and serve — they’re failing on that across the country, and to say ‘murder’ is the proper word to describe what happened, he was murdered,” she added.

For David Stacks, a Black Memphis resident who owns a car detailing business, Nicols’ death “should draw everybody together, open the eyes of” the country’s African-American population.

“Like, this is bigger than all other obstacles and whatever y’all have, going on amongst each other,” the 38-year-old said.

Authorities had feared that fury triggered by the video could spark widespread violence, but the center of the city remained calm, with businesses still open.

Earlier in the day, at a Memphis skate park where Nichols was a regular, Robert Walters, a 67-year-old blues musician visiting the city from Virginia, said the fact the officers were Black “hurts.”

“I’m a Black man living in America. And that fear is always something that me and my son, we grew up with and we live with,” he told AFP, in reference to police brutality.

“These guys, you’d think, of anybody, should know (better), but it just goes to show you that anybody can fall into that trap,” he said.

“I just want people to just be calm and not do anything stupid, not destroy or hurt.”

Candles and flowers had been laid in Nichols’ honor at the skate park.

“Rest in peace Tyre,” read a handwritten message on the flowers.

“We’re so sorry.”

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