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Brother of ISIS fighter gets 10 year sentence after informant’s testimony

(TNS) – When news spread that former San Diego City College student Douglas McCain had died in battle in Syria — making him the first US citizen to be killed fighting for the Islamic State — the investigation quickly pivoted close to home. How had he gotten there, and who had been supporting him?

The FBI scrutiny landed on his brother, Marchello McCain, living in an apartment in east San Diego, and a close-knit group of friends the siblings had made growing up in Minnesota — some of whom were radicalized when they previously lived in San Diego.

On Friday, one arm of the investigation culminated with a 10-year prison sentence for Marchello McCain. The 35-year-old factory worker had pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of firearms and lying to the FBI as they probed his brother’s terrorism ties.

But, in arguing for a stiffer prison sentence, prosecutors accused Marchello McCain of far more sinister motives, laying out for the first time in great detail evidence they say shows he was part of a conspiracy to support terrorism in Syria, and that he planned to eventually join his brother in the jihad there.

Bolstering their case was an informant, a 22-year-old former San Diegan and one-time jihad supporter who testified for a few hours during the sentencing hearing in front of US District Judge Thomas Whelan.

The testimony by the informant, Abdirahman Bashir, gave incredible insight into how a network of young men in the United States became radicalized, the powerful recruiting methods they used on family and friends, and the logistics of leaving everything behind to fight for martyrdom overseas.

The McCain brothers grew up in Minneapolis, with Douglas moving first to San Diego in 2005 and Marchello following a year later. Douglas moved with two friends who were brothers — men who would end up radicalizing during their time in San Diego and recruit others in their circle to join the movement, Bashir testified.

Bashir, a middle-schooler at the time, and Hanad Mohallim, another youth who was cousins with the two men, were instructed to watch radical Islamic videos online that spoke of the paradise and blessings for foreign fighters, as well as the evils of American policies on Muslims.

“If you die a martyr you can intercede for family members, they are sinning,” Bashir said of some of the teachings. “If a few of us (die), generations can be saved from the hellfire.”

The two radical mentors — Hamsa and Hirsi Karie — later moved to Canada, strengthening their ideology, and continued to groom the two youth. Meanwhile, the McCain brothers also remained close associates. And then all that talk — about the duty of all Muslims to join jihad, about the paradise that awaited martyrs — was put into action. The Karie brothers left for Syria — the site of a bloody civil war between President Bashar Assad’s regime and numerous rebel groups. Some of those groups were more moderate and backed by the US, while others were developing a reputation for extreme violence and religious views. The Karie brothers joined the latter — the Islamic State.

Mohallim also wanted to follow in his cousins’ footsteps. According to testimony, he told Bashir that his original plan was to travel to Syria with Marchello McCain in January 2014. That didn’t happen.

But other plans were being made that January. Authorities say another cousin of Bashir’s — Abdullahi Ahmed Abdullahi, aka “Phish” — and others robbed a jewelry store in Edmonton, Canada, to fund his relatives’ journeys to Syria. (Although, in emails uncovered by authorities, he admitted it was harder than he imagined to unload the loot for cash, according to evidence presented in court. He is in custody for that crime but is also charged in San Diego in a newly unsealed indictment with conspiracy to provide support to terrorists.)

In March 2014, Abdullahi wired about $3,000 to Douglas McCain and Mohallim, authorities said. Marchello McCain then deposited $2,600 into his wife’s bank account, prosecutors said. On March 8, plane tickets to Turkey were bought with the wife’s credit card. Douglas departed for the Middle East the next day, from San Diego.

Mohallim also left that day, from Minneapolis. His friend Bashir drove him to the airport, Bashir testified. Bashir said that he had long struggled with what to make of the conflict in Syria, but he decided that moment that if Mohallim found that true jihad was being waged there, then he would try to join his brethren.

When Mohallim’s mother learned of the trip shortly after, she flew to Turkey to try to bring him home. She finally reached him in a phone call, and he refused her pleas to return from Syria, said Assistant US Attorneys Shane Harrigan and Caroline Han.

Before Mohallim left, he gave Bashir access to an email account that he and the other fighters were using to communicate in secret: The friends would write draft emails to one another — fighters would update their movements in Syria, describe exciting battles and urge fellow Muslims to join them, while those in the US would write letters of support and ask about logistics in getting there, according to evidence presented in court.

The emails used code words, often basketball and football terms, to speak of battle and jihad. “A good three point shot” was expert marksmanship and “skills on da court” were battle skills, Bashir testified.

Marchello McCain was one of the people on that email chain, Bashir testified, writing under the nickname “Vicious” and also being referred to as “Jabril.”

In one email draft, Marchello wrote to “Phish” about their duty to join their friends: “I know that you know we missing out on all the rewards and blessings akhi (brother)… We supposed to be with them and we need to make the preparation to get to them ASAP,” according to the evidence.

Marchello also allegedly asked his friends already in Syria if it was safe to bring his wife, who was pregnant at the time, plus their other child: “is there other sisters there. I hear there is a lot of sisters from the (European Union)” read one message. He also wrote his wife was willing to go: “She would rather be there then here cuz she know how grimy these devil worshippers are and she knows what plans they have for the mumineen (faithful believers of Islam).”

One of the fighters asked if Marchello’s wife had any friends who might be willing to travel to Syria and marry him, but Marchello allegedly shot the idea down quickly, saying he didn’t want anyone to tip off law enforcement about their travels: “About the friend situation: you already know that not too many people see things the way they are and they are probably gonna say we crazy for going in the first place.”

Douglas McCain, too, wanted his wife with him in Syria. In a WhatsApp message with his wife the summer of 2014, he wrote: “I have to send for you and bring you to the islamic state … it is the khilaafah said we must bring our family under the islamic state … woman I am in jihad … bombs go off in the everyday … Kids are dying here.”

When they discussed her travel there, she told Douglas, “I thought I was leaving with Jibril (Marchello)” and he responded “he (Marchello) needs to come by himself,” according to court documents.

Even Bashir made an attempt to join his cousins and friends, but his travel plans were foiled as the FBI caught on and other youth in Minnesota were getting arrested. He eventually turned into a cooperator and worked as an informant, testifying against six friends on terrorism-related charges.

Douglas, 33, died in August 2014 fighting in a battle against the Free Syrian Army. That November, the Karie brothers and Mohallim were also killed.

The FBI came knocking on Marchello’s door soon after his brother’s death. In many interviews, he lied about his brother’s reason for travel and denied any personal involvement.

He was arrested months later, in January 2015, on charges of being a felon in possession of firearms. Social media showed he had shot at a San Diego firing range three weeks before Douglas’s departure, and a raid of his apartment, garage and a storage unit turned up multiple firearms, including a stolen gun, and body armor, as well as drug sales paraphernalia dirtied with traces of marijuana and methamphetamine, authorities said.

Marchello is prohibited from possessing guns following a 2005 conviction in Minnesota. The crime involved Marchello firing several shots at two employees of a fitness center who had asked him and his friends to leave, according to records.

He ultimately pleaded guilty to the gun, ammunition and body armor possession charges and to three lies, but maintains that he thought his brother was traveling to Syria to fight against the country’s dictator, not for terrorists and certainly not for the Islamic State.

“… Terrorists are supposed to be people at war with Western governments and the United States. That is simply not true of Douglas McCain nor Marchello McCain,” said Marchello’s attorney, David Zugman, in sentencing papers. “They had no intention of taking up arms against the US or committing gruesome acts to usher in the 12th Imam. Our best defense against the terrorists is the superiority of our rule of law. Those rules require that we not fight the irrational with the irrational. This is a war of ideas and this Court has the chance to show that ours are better.”

In a letter to the judge, Marchello’s mother describes her son as sweet, hardworking, caring and “not the monster the news say he is.”

Marchello turned to his mother at the end of the hearing Friday and apologized to her and vowed to move on with his life.

Zugman is expected to appeal the sentence.

©2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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US-led coalition helps build new Syrian force, angering Turkey

BEIRUT/ISTANBUL – The US-led coalition is working with its Syrian militia allies to set up a new border force of 30,000 personnel, the coalition said on Sunday, a move that has added to Turkish anger over US support for Kurdish-dominated forces in Syria.

A senior Turkish official told Reuters the US training of the new “Border Security Force” is the reason that the US charge d’affaires was summoned in Ankara on Wednesday. The official did not elaborate.

The force, whose inaugural class is currently being trained, will be deployed at the borders of the area controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – an alliance of militias in northern and eastern Syria dominated by the Kurdish YPG.

In an email to Reuters, the coalition’s Public Affairs Office confirmed details of the new force reported by The Defense Post. About half the force will be SDF veterans, and recruiting for the other half is underway, the coalition’s Public Affairs Office said.

The force will deploy along the border with Turkey to the north, the Iraqi border to the southeast, and along the Euphrates River Valley, which broadly acts as the dividing line separating the US-backed SDF and Syrian government forces backed by Iran and Russia.

US support for the SDF has put enormous strain on ties with NATO ally Turkey, which views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a group that has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey.

Syria’s main Kurdish groups have emerged as one of the few winners of the Syrian war, and are working to entrench their autonomy over swathes of northern Syria.

Washington opposes those autonomy plans, even as it has backed the SDF, the main partner for the US-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria.

The coalition said the BSF would operate under SDF command and around 230 individuals were currently undergoing training in its inaugural class.

“Efforts are taken to ensure individuals serve in areas close to their homes. Therefore, the ethnic composition of the force will be relative to the areas in which they serve.

“More Kurds will serve in the areas in northern Syria. More Arabs will serve in areas along the Euphrates River Valley and along the border with Iraq to the south,” the coalition’s Public Affairs Office said.


“The base of the new force is essentially a realignment of approximately 15,000 members of the SDF to a new mission in the Border Security Force as their actions against ISIS draw to a close,” it said.

“They will be providing border security through professionally securing checkpoints and conducting counter-IED operations,” it said, adding that coalition and SDF forces were still engaging Islamic State pockets in Deir al-Zor province.

IED stands for improvised explosive device.

The United States has about 2,000 troops in Syria fighting Islamic State, and has said it is prepared to stay in the country until it is certain Islamic State is defeated, that stabilisation efforts can be sustained, and there is meaningful progress in U.N.-led peace talks on ending the conflict.

The Syrian government in Damascus has declared the United States an illegal occupation force, and its SDF allies as “traitors”. A top Syrian Kurdish politician told Reuters last week the United States appeared in no hurry to leave Syria.

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Where is the latest Iranian ‘revolution’ headed?

The protests in Iran appear, for now at least, to be subsiding. The key moment was the decision to task the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps with security in the three provinces that formed the center of the unrest – Hamadan, Isfahan and Lorestan.

It is still too soon to say that the wave has entirely spent itself. Demonstrations are still taking place, despite the IRGC’s announcement on Monday of an end to the unrest. In the cities of Sanandaj, Zahedan, Meybod, Abarkuh, Kordkuy, Aqqala, Alvand and Buin Zahra, among other centers, rallies were held. But the number of those attending the demonstrations is decreasing.

The wave of unrest was the most intensive to hit the country since 2009. Its details constitute evidence of broad alienation from the regime of a significant section of Iran’s youthful population. The unrest at its height spread to over 80 cities and towns. The average age among those arrested was 25. Demonstrators chanted anti-regime slogans and attacked facilities of the Basij paramilitaries and other regime-associated institutions.

Notably, Tehran’s costly policy of regional interference formed a focus for the protesters’ rage. Slogans such as “Leave Syria, think about us!” and “Death to Hezbollah!” were heard. More general anti-regime slogans, including “We don’t want an Islamic Republic” and “Death to the dictator” were also chanted by demonstrators.

The protests began in the pro-regime, conservative city of Mashhad. Their initial focus was new austerity measures introduced by President Hassan Rouhani. There is evidence that the initial instigators of the demonstrations were themselves from among the hard-line “principalist” opponents of Rouhani.

But these elements did not anticipate the rapid growth of the demonstrations or their intensity. The regime, clearly taken by surprise, reacted in the only way it knows – with a strong hand. Twenty-two people are dead. Hundreds more are wounded.

Iran protests grow, death toll mounts, January 2, 2018. (REUTERS)

A NUMBER of conclusions can be drawn from the direction of events so far.

1. For those hoping for the downfall of the Islamist regime, a major absence in the Iranian context is that of a revolutionary “party.” This does not necessarily mean a formal political party but, rather, a revolutionary trend with a level of organization and popular appeal, a vision for the future and a broad strategy for defeating the Islamist regime. At present, nothing of this type exists in the Iranian context – neither as a network inside the country, nor as a widely respected focus on the outside.

Because of this absence, the 2009 protests, which were concerned with the apparently rigged reelection of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were diverted through the election of the “moderate” Rouhani.

The current protests, meanwhile, which are economic in nature, may well be similarly diverted by a combination of a strong hand, some cosmetic concessions, and probably, ironically, also by the scapegoating of the “moderate” president.

Such diversionary moves are possible because of the dispersed and divided nature of the opposition. As long as no nucleus of political (and, probably, military) opposition to the regime emerges, it is difficult to see a way that a wave of unrest can smash the edifice of the Islamic Republic.

2. The regime has been keen, naturally, to blame the unrest on foreign agitators. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s Twitter feed suggested that a “pattern activating these events” was apparent. According to the supreme leader, a “scheme by the US and Zionists” with money from a “wealthy government near the Persian Gulf” (obviously Saudi Arabia) was responsible.

Given the Iranian regime’s penchant for interference in neighboring countries – with Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen chief among them – it is tempting to hope that the supreme leader’s fears are justified. There is, however, no actual evidence to support such a claim.

In US President Donald Trump’s recent speech outlining his national security strategy, he referred to Iran as “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism” and identified the need to “neutralize Iranian malign influence.”

One way to help the achievement of the latter goal would be to keep the Iranian home fires burning. Tehran foments unrest in neighboring countries in order to keep neighbors weak. There is now an opportunity to return the compliment. There are a variety of ways that this might be achieved – from ensuring that protesters and demonstrators remain organized and in communication with one another, to punitive means to disincentivize those countries and individuals assisting the regime in acquiring the means of repression.

3. Among the most difficult type of people to unseat from power through revolution are revolutionaries themselves – at least as long as the revolutionary elite does not begin to crumble from within. There are as yet no signs of this in Iran. Rather, the rising force within the elite is precisely that force most committed to the values of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 (and to spreading its influence into neighboring lands) – namely, the IRGC and associated hard-line figures.

The rising, militant elements within the regime were themselves participants as young men in the revolution of 1979. Even if there were a similarly determined and organized leadership seeking to make revolution against the Islamic Republic, it would find this cadre a tough nut to crack. And as we have seen above, currently there is not.

Nevertheless, the protests of the past two weeks are significant. They point to the sharp fissures within Iranian society and the extent to which the regime is detached from large sections of the population and its wants and needs.

The guardians of the Islamic Republic of Iran have in recent years proved masters at identifying and exploiting the fissures in neighboring societies. The field is now ripe for this process to turn into a two-way street, depending on the will and the ability of Iran’s opponents to recognize the opportunity and make use of it.

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Gaza: Egyptian fire kills Palestinian at sea

GAZA – The Egyptian navy opened fire on a Palestinian fisherman at sea and killed him, the Gaza Health Ministry said on Saturday.

Egyptian officials had no immediate comment on the incident which happened late on Friday after dark near the southern border-town Rafah, according to Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra.

It could not be confirmed whether the fisherman was attempting to cross into Egyptian waters. Egyptian naval forces have previously opened fire on Gazans they accused of crossing the maritime border.

Fishermen from Gaza have often brought in catch from Egyptian territory to sidestep restrictions imposed by Israel’s naval blockade of the enclave, which Israel maintains citing security concerns.

Gazan fishermen say that the limited fishing zone imposed by Israel is not big enough to meet demand of the coastal strip’s 2 million people.

Gaza is run by Islamist group Hamas, which has fought three wars with Israel and is designated a terrorist group by Western countries and Israel.

Israel withdrew troops and settlers from the territory in 2005 but remains the conduit for the passage of goods and supplies most of its electricity. Israel and Egypt, citing security concerns, maintain tight restrictions on the passage of Palestinians through their borders with the enclave.

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Iran threatens retaliation after U.S. nuclear deal ultimatum, new sanctions

MOSCOW – Iran said on Saturday it would retaliate against new sanctions imposed by the United States after President Donald Trump set an ultimatum to fix “disastrous flaws” in a deal curbing Tehran’s nuclear program.

Trump said on Friday he would waive nuclear sanctions on Iran for the last time to give the United States and European allies a final chance to amend the pact. Washington also imposed sanctions on the head of Iran’s judiciary and others.

Russia – one of the parties to the Iran pact alongside the United States, China, France, Britain, Germany and the European Union – called Trump’s comments “extremely negative.”

The ultimatum puts pressure on Europeans, key backers of the 2015 nuclear deal, to satisfy Trump, who wants the pact strengthened with a separate agreement within 120 days.

While approving the waiver on US sanctions related to the nuclear deal, Washington announced other sanctions against 14 Iranian entities and people, including judiciary head Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, a close ally of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Describing sanctions against Larijani as “hostile action,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry said the move “crossed all red lines of conduct in the international community and is a violation of international law and will surely be answered by a serious reaction of the Islamic Republic,” state media reported.

It did not specify what any retaliation might involve.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had earlier said on Twitter that the deal was “not renegotiable” and that Trump’s move “amounts to desperate attempts to undermine a solid multilateral agreement.”

Iran says its nuclear program has only peaceful aims and says it will stick to the accord as long as others respect it. But it has said it would “shred” the deal if Washington quit.

European powers urge Trump to preserve Iran nuclear deal (REUTERS)


Trump, who has sharply criticized the deal reached in Barack Obama’s presidency, had chafed at having to once again waive sanctions on a country he sees as a threat in the Middle East.

“Despite my strong inclination, I have not yet withdrawn the United States from the Iran nuclear deal,” Trump said in a statement, saying the options were to fix “the deal’s disastrous flaws, or the United States will withdraw.”

“This is a last chance,” Trump said, pushing for a separate agreement and saying the United States would not waive sanctions again to keep Iran in the pact without such an agreement.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called Trump’s remarks “extremely negative,” RIA state news agency reported. “Our worst fears are being confirmed,” he said.

The EU said in a statement it had taken note of Trump’s decision and would assess its implications. “It’s going to be complicated to save the deal after this,” said one European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Britain, France and Germany had called on Trump on Thursday to uphold the pact.

Senior US administration officials told reporters Trump would work with Europeans on a follow-on deal to enshrine triggers that the Iranian government could not exceed related to ballistic missiles.

Republican Senator Bob Corker said “significant progress” had been made on bipartisan congressional legislation to address “flaws in the agreement without violating US commitments.”


Trump laid out conditions to keep Washington in the deal. Iran must allow “immediate inspections at all sites requested by international inspectors,” he said, and “sunset” provisions imposing limits on Iran’s nuclear program must not expire.

Trump said US law must tie long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs together, making any missile testing by Iran subject to “severe sanctions.”

The president wants US Congress to modify a law that reviews US participation in the nuclear deal to include “trigger points” that, if violated, would lead to the United States reimposing its sanctions, the official said.

This would not entail negotiations with Iran but would be the result of talks with European allies, the official said.

A decision to withhold a waiver would have effectively ended the deal between Iran and the other international signatories. The other parties to the agreement would have been unlikely to join the United States in reimposing sanctions.

Two EU diplomats said EU foreign ministers would discuss next steps at their next regular meeting on Jan. 22 in Brussels.

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Where does Trump’s showdown with Tehran leave Iran’s nuke program?

It is coming down to a game of chicken.

That’s right. The very complicated and important issue of a nuclear Iran, the future of the nuclear deal with the West, and the long-term security for the West and Israel, have all come down to a staring contest.

After months of hearing President Donald Trump threaten to tear up the nuclear deal, Iran has escalated its threats at the US and the West in the past few days.

Iran’s atomic energy agency said on Wednesday that reimposition of sanctions on Iran by the US would violate the nuclear deal and that Tehran would likely respond by increasing its enrichment of uranium.

Trump is expected to decide any day now whether to continue suspending US sanctions on Iran’s oil exports as part of the deal that reduced economic pressure on the Islamic Republic in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program.

“Iran is ready to increase the speed of its nuclear activities in various areas, especially enrichment, several times more than [in the] pre-JCPOA [nuclear deal] era,” Behrooz Kamalvandi, the deputy chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told Iranian national TV on Wednesday.

Kamalvandi said, “If suspension of the sanctions will not be extended, Iran will take the first retaliatory action immediately.”

Before that, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, said on Monday that Tehran might reconsider its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency if the US reneged on sanctions relief.

The IAEA is responsible for overseeing Iran’s compliance with the deal’s nuclear restrictions.

Where do these threats leave things?

First, it seems likely that Trump will opt for some kind of middle-of-the-road solution – pushing for sanctions on Iran’s nonnuclear activities, which are not part of the deal, or kicking the can down the road a few more months for more negotiations in Congress and with Europe.

But Iran’s threats also expose each side of the Iran nuclear debate.

On the one hand, it would seem to be the height of foolishness to see whether Iran will follow through with its threat and to allow the opportunity for it to possess a nuclear weapon in the near future when it is currently complying with the agreement according to both Israeli and US intelligence.

Keeping watch for violations of the deal and being ready to punish Iran if it does violate it is far different than ending the deal when there is no evidence that Iran is breaking with its terms and while there is no plan in place to slow Iran from a sprint to the bomb.

On the other hand, Iran’s threat also exposes some of the deal’s shallowness and therefore the need for it to be modified. If Iran can so quickly kick the IAEA out and immediately start enriching uranium at a faster and higher rate than before the accord, what safety has it bought?

Don’t Iran’s threats prove the deal’s critics’ point that the sunset clauses – permitting Iran to continue experiments with advanced centrifuges and having Tehran disassemble instead of destroy its thousands of centrifuges – mean that it will be able to walk out to a nuclear weapon at the end of the deal?

And even as Trump’s threats about the deal have escalated, Iran has not reduced its adventurous behavior in the Middle East one iota.

A number of top Israeli and US intelligence officials have told The Jerusalem Post that the US must maneuver Europe and its allies into sanctioning Iran’s Middle East terrorism and its ballistic missile tests, and then, when the deal is close to winding down, rally global support for extending its nuclear restrictions.

It is unclear if that will resolve the Iranian nuclear threat, but Iran’s ultimatums seem to confirm that whether the US exits the deal now or leaves it as it is, Iran is left with most of the cards.

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Justice Dept. reopens Hezbollah drug probes

WASHINGTON — US Attorney General Jeff Sessions is setting up a special task force on Hezbollah’s drug trade activities to revive investigations that languished during the Obama administration.

“The Justice Department will leave no stone unturned in order to eliminate threats to our citizens from terrorist organizations and to stem the tide of the devastating drug crisis,” Sessions said Thursday in announcing the establishment of the Hezbollah Financing and Narco-terrorism Team.

The announcement follows the publication by Politico last month of an article on Project Cassandra, a probe of Hezbollah drug trafficking led by the Drug Enforcement Agency that languished toward the end of the Obama administration. Politico quoted some of the former agents who ran the project as saying that the Obama administration’s eagerness to seal the nuclear deal led it to obstruct the program. Hezbollah is an ally of Iran.

Obama officials denied that claim, saying that inter-agency spats and broader concerns about US interests caused the problems.

“In an effort to protect Americans from both threats, the Justice Department will assemble leading investigators and prosecutors to ensure that all Project Cassandra investigations as well as other related investigations, whether past or present, are given the needed resources and attention to come to their proper resolution,” Sessions said in a statement.

“The team will initiate prosecutions that will restrict the flow of money to foreign terrorist organizations as well as disrupt violent international drug trafficking operations,” Sessions said.

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Tunisia deploys army in several cities as violent protests intensify

TUNIS – Over 300 protesters were arrested overnight and the army was deployed in several Tunisian cities in violent demonstrations over prices, taxes and unemployment that have swept the country.

In Thala, near the Algerian border, troops were sent in after protesters burned down the national security building forcing police to retreat from the town, witnesses told Reuters.

Violent anti-government protests have raged in other towns in the North African country since Monday, among them the tourist resort of Sousse, against price and tax rises imposed by government to cut a ballooning deficit and satisfy international lenders.

While Tunisia is widely seen as the only democratic success story among “Arab Spring” nations, it has also had nine governments since the overthrow of authoritarian leader Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, none of which have been able to deal with growing economic problems.

“Three hundred and thirty people involved in acts of sabotage and robbery were arrested last night,” interior Ministry spokesman Khelifa Chibani said bringing the number of detainees since the protests began to around 600. The army was also deployed in several other cities, including Sousse, Kebeli and Bizert to protect government buildings that have become a target for protesters.

Uprisings in 2011 and two major militant attacks in 2015 damaged foreign investment and tourism, which accounts for eight percent of Tunisia’s economic activity.

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed on Wednesday accused the opposition of fueling dissent by calling for more protests.

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Syrian govt defends Idlib campaign, condemns France

BEIRUT – The Syrian government hit back on Thursday against French criticism of its military campaign in rebel-held Idlib, saying it was targeting terrorist groups that were not party to an agreement to reduce fighting in the rebel-held region.

France said on Wednesday it was extremely concerned by the government offensive in Idlib, the biggest remaining chunk of Syria still held by anti-government rebels, and demanded that commitments made to reduce hostilities there be respected.

Turkey, which borders Idlib, has also called on Russia and Iran to put pressure on Damascus to halt the offensive in a corner of Syria whose population has been swollen by Syrians fleeing government offensives elsewhere.

Syrian state media, citing a foreign ministry source, said the French foreign ministry had shown “great ignorance about what was happening in rural Idlib province,” which it said the army was fighting to “liberate from the terrorism of the Nusra Front and the other terrorist organizations that belong to it.”

The statement also denied the army had targeted civilians or hospitals, as alleged by France.

Turkey has accused the Syrian government of using the presence of the Nusra Front, which now fights under the banner of the Tahrir al-Sham alliance, as an excuse to attack civilians and moderate opposition groups.

Syrian government forces backed by allied militia are targeting an air base in southeastern Idlib province.

Humanitarian aid organizations, rescuers and activists allege the Syrian and Russian air forces strike hospitals, schools and market places in congested residential areas in rebel-held towns.

Both the Syrian army and Moscow deny hitting civilian areas and say intensive raids only strike at militants.

Earlier this month, jets bombed a maternity hospital in the city of Maarat al Numan in Idlib province, a major hospital serving thousands of people, killing five people including a newborn baby and injuring scores, according to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and other relief groups.

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Abbas to meet Putin in February to discuss Trump’s Jerusalem moves

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia in the first half of February to discuss US President Donald Trump’s changes to American policy on Jerusalem, a Palestinian diplomat said on Thursday.

Abbas, a graduate of a university in Russia, last visited Putin in Moscow in May.

US President Donald Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announces embassy to relocate

“[Abbas] will discuss with him the situation in the Middle East including Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” the PLO Ambassador to Moscow Adbel Hafiz Nofal told Sputnik, a Russian-government owned website.

In a speech at the White House in early December, Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and initiated the relocation of the US Embassy in Tel Aviv to the holy city, breaking with decades of American policy.

Russia has publicly opposed Trump’s decisions on Jerusalem.

In the past couple of weeks, Russia voted in favor of United Nations Security Council and General Assembly resolutions criticizing Trump’s decisions on Jerusalem.

In a phone call, Fatah Central Committee member Azzam al-Ahmad said that Abbas will ask Putin “to undertake a greater and more meaningful role in the peace process in order to save it.”

Palestinian officials have said they would like to establish a multilateral framework for the peace process that includes Russia.

Israel has long opposed initiatives to grant countries other than the US a prominent role in the peace process.

According to Abbas, Trump’s decisions on Jerusalem have disqualified the US from sponsoring the peace process between the Palestinians and Israel.

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