Turkey on Sunday arrested more suspected Islamic State (IS) jihadists in a major crackdown on the extremist group ahead of high-security New Year celebrations overshadowed by the first anniversary of an attack that left 39 dead.
Just minutes into 2017, Istanbul was rocked by an attack by an Uzbek gunman acting on behalf of IS who fired indiscriminately on revellers at the Reina nightclub on the Bosphorus.
It was another body blow to Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a year of attacks by jihadists and Kurdish rebels as well as a failed coup.
However there has been no major attack in Turkey in 2017 since the Reina murders, and security forces this year appear to be taking every possible precaution to ensure this New Year passes without incident.
In pre-dawn raids Sunday, authorities detained 20 suspected IS members in Istanbul, 15 of them foreigners, who are believed to have spent time in Syria or Iraq, the Dogan news agency said.
Turkish media have said the authorities had already detained some 200 suspected jihadists in recent days — including 75 in Istanbul and Ankara on Friday — fearing they could launch an attack over the New Year.
According to some reports, the government is particularly anxious that IS fighters who left the Syrian city of Raqa after its capture by pro-Kurdish militia this year have flooded back into Turkey.
– Police disguised as lottery sellers – A total of 37,000 police will be deployed in Istanbul alone on New Year’s night, more than double the number last year, according to Istanbul governor Vasip Sahin.
Some 4,000 members of the gendarmerie and coastguard are also being put on duty.
Meanwhile, authorities have either scrapped or banned any New Year celebrations in some of the most popular areas for revellers, including the major hub of Taksim Square, the buzzing area of Besiktas and upscale shopping district of Sisli.
Turkish state news agency Anadolu said that police disguised as lottery ticket and hot chestnut sellers would be deployed around Taksim to ensure security.
Officers also frisked passengers on the city’s ferries while heavy goods vehicles are banned from accessing the city centre from Sunday morning to Monday.
“We are having very serious security measures to ensure that our citizens, God willing, see in the New Year in peace and security,” Sahin said.
In the capital Ankara, similar measures have been taken with 9,700 police deployed and roads closed on the way to the central Kizilay Square.
– Reina shut, attacker on trial – The local authorities are planning a small ceremony at 1300 GMT Sunday to remember the victims of the Reina attack at the scene, attended by foreign consuls and Besiktas mayor Murat Hazinedar.
The Reina nightclub — once the haunt of Turkish football stars and even foreign celebrities — meanwhile is no more. It never reopened after the massacre and the authorities later bulldozed it on May 22, saying its owner had violated planning regulations.
Gunman Abdulkadir Masharipov was arrested after a 17 day manhunt hunkering down in a humdrum residential district of Istanbul, in a major triumph for the Turkish police that gave access to a potential goldmine of intelligence about IS activities.
He confessed to have taken his orders to carry out the attack from a Syria-based Russian jihadist with the codename Abu Jihad. Masharipov had first intended to attack Taksim Square but seeing the high security switched his target to the Reina club.
Masharipov and more than 50 other suspects went on trial in Istanbul on December 11. The Uzbek faces 40 life sentences for each of the victims and the crime itself.
Facing similar charges is his wife Zarina Nurullayeva, who denied any involvement in the plot. Masharipov has refused to testify in the trial, which is now due to resume on March 26.
Of the 39 people killed in the Reina attack, 27 were foreigners, including citizens from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iraq and Morocco.
US prosecutors have charged a New York woman with using Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies to send funds to the Islamic State group.
Zoobia Shahnaz, 27, was arrested at her Long Island home on Thursday for sending over $150,000 through shell accounts in China, Pakistan and Turkey to benefit IS extremists.
Much of the money came from bank loans and credit cards, the Justice Department said. With that, she bought $62,000 worth of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which can offer owners anonymity in transfers and payments.
After making the transfers, Shahnaz tried to travel to Syria, prosecutors alleged.
She booked a flight to Pakistan that included a layover in Istanbul, which they called “a common point of entry for individuals travelling from Western countries to join ISIS in Syria.”
Shahnaz was charged with five counts of bank fraud and money laundering, but not for supporting a designated terrorist organization, the usual charge for people helping or planning to help the Islamic State.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday declared “victory” over the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria as the jihadists cling to just a few remaining scraps of territory.
Iran is one of the main international backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and has sent military advisers and thousands of “volunteers” to fight IS on the ground in Syria and Iraq.
In a televised speech Rouhani thanked “all the fighters of Islam”, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the armed forces of Iraq and Syria for “the end of this group that brought nothing but evil, destruction, murder and savagery”.
He congratulated Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its foreign arm the Quds Force for a “great victory” but insisted that the “main work was accomplished by the people and armies of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon”.
“We helped them in accordance with our religious and Islamic duties,” he said.
Iranian media on Sunday and Monday showed footage of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal, reporting he personally directed operations that recaptured the jihadists’ final urban bastion over the weekend.
In a message released by the Revolutionary Guards, Soleimani congratulated supreme leader Khamenei on this “decisive victory” over IS.
“I announce the end of this group,” the statement said.
He also hailed the role of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary coalition — dominated by groups backed by Tehran — and the “decisive” role of Lebanon’s Iranian-allied Hezbollah movement in the fighting in Syria.
IS jihadists are currently fighting for survival in just a few pockets of remaining territory in Iraq and Syria, after losing the vast bulk of territory they seized in a lightning offensive in 2014.
Neither the Syrian nor Iraqi governments have so far declared definitive victory over the group.
German police on Tuesday arrested six Syrian refugees suspected of preparing a terror attack in the name of the Islamic State jihadist group, with media reports saying their target was a Christmas market.
The suspects, aged 20 to 28, were detained in dawn raids that saw some 500 police officers swoop on residences in the cities of Kassel, Essen, Hanover and Leipzig.
The men are accused of belonging to “the foreign terrorist group that calls itself the Islamic State”, Christian Hartwig, a spokesman for the Frankfurt prosecutor’s office, said in a statement.
“The accused are also suspected of preparing an attack on a public target in Germany using weapons or explosives,” Hartwig said.
The investigators believe the men had not yet finalised their attack plan, he added.
But the local Hessischer Rundfunk radio station, citing sources close to the probe, said the accused “had planned an attack on the Christmas market in Essen”, a city in western Germany.
Such an attack would have revived painful memories of last December’s truck rampage in Berlin when a failed Tunisian asylum seeker smashed into a crowded Christmas market, killing 12 people.
Police and prosecutors declined to comment on reports citing Essen’s Christmas market as the target, which also appeared in Germany’s best-selling Bild newspaper.
The six detained Syrians all arrived in Germany as asylum seekers between December 2014 and September 2015, at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis.
Prosecutors gave no further details about the case, saying the inquiry was still ongoing.
German daily Die Welt said it was fellow refugees who tipped off the police about the suspects.
German security forces have been on high alert following a spate of Islamist attacks, of which the Berlin rampage was the deadliest.
Last month, police arrested a 19-year-old Syrian suspected of preparing an Islamist terror attack in the country using “powerful explosives”.
Domestic security services estimate there are some 10,300 radical Islamists in Germany.
About 700 of them are considered dangerous and capable of a violent attack.
The Syrian army and its allies were fighting on Saturday (September 2) in Islamic State’s last pocket in central Syria after taking the heavily defended village of Uqairabat, in the province of Hama, on Friday (September 1), a war monitor reported.
The Syrian army released footage showing Russian helicopters and artillery tanks firing at Islamic State targets on Friday in the eastern outskirts of al-Salamiya, near the village of Uqairabat.
The enclave has been the site of intense fighting for months. Evicting jihadists from the area is viewed as necessary to improve security on the main road running between the cities of Homs and Aleppo.
Late on Friday, a military media unit run by Lebanon’s Hezbollah said the army had captured Uqairabat, which it described as Islamic State’s stronghold in that region.
The war monitor, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the army and its allies had also taken other villages in the area, aided by Russian helicopters, and reported that intense fighting continued.
Spontaneous celebrations erupted throughout Iraq on Monday, following Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s formal declaration of victory over Islamic State in Mosul.
The declaration comes three years after the militants seized the city and made it the stronghold of a “caliphate”, adding that they said would take over the world.
Hundreds of Iraqis gathered in downtown Baghdad to celebrate the declaration.
Many driving in their cars honked horns and flew Iraqi flags out of windows.
A Baghdad resident Mahmoud Ahmed said: “As you can see, victory has brought happiness and joy to all the Iraqi people. We pray to the Almighty God that peace and security prevail in Iraq. Iraqi people have suffered a lot and we hope that Mosul people will return to their homes”.
Another Resident Abbas Hashim also said: “I feel happy about the victory achieved by the Iraqi security forces and the return of Mosul to the fold of the homeland. We pray to God for the quick return of displaced people to Mosul city”.
A 100,000-strong coalition of Iraqi government units, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shi’ite militias launched the offensive to recapture the city from the militants in October, with key air and ground support from a coalition led by the United States.
Around 300 civilians are still trapped inside Marawi City as fighting between government troops and Islamic State-linked militants enters its second month, the Philippine military said Friday.
At least 369 people have been killed during the month of hostilities, a quarter of them security forces and civilians, since Islamist militants occupied parts of Marawi on May 23.
The military said it has cornered the militants’ last 100 fighters from the 500 which initially overran the town, and is racing to recapture Marawi before this weekend. Authorities worry that rebel reinforcements could arrive in the city after Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Sitting in an evacuation centre amongst her and her family’s belongings, elementary teacher Panaudan Sumndad, who was about to file for retirement on the day fighting broke out, said she hopes no one else will ever experience what Marawi residents are currently going through.
More than 40,000 residents have been displaced by the siege.
The leaning al-Habda minaret that has towered over Mosul for 850 years lay in ruins on Thursday, demolished by retreating Islamic State militants, but Iraq’s prime minister said the act marked their final defeat in the country’s second city.
“In the early morning, I climbed up to my house roof and was stunned to see the Hadba minaret had gone,” Nashwan, a day- laborer living in Khazraj neighborhood near the mosque, said by phone. “I felt I had lost a son of mine.”
His words echoed the shock and anger of many over the destruction of the Grand al-Nuri Mosque along with its famous minaret, known affectionately as “the hunchback” by Iraqis.
The demolition came on Wednesday night as Iraqi forces closed on the mosque, which carried enormous symbolic importance for Islamic State. Its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi used it in 2014 to declare a “caliphate” as militants seized swathes of Syria and Iraq.
His black flag had been flying on the 150-foot (45-metre) minaret since June 2014, after Islamic State fighters surged across Iraq, seizing vast swathes of territory.
Russia said on Thursday there was high degree of certainty Baghdadi was now dead, according to RIA news agency. Moscow said last week its forces may have killed him, but Washington could not corroborate and Western and Iraqi officials were skeptical.
Baghdadi has left the fighting in Mosul to local commanders and is believed to be hiding in the border area between Iraq and Syria.
Some analysts said the destruction of the mosque could in fact speed operations to drive Islamic State out of what had been its chief Iraqi stronghold. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi went further.
“Blowing up the al-Hadba minaret and the al-Nuri mosque amounts to an official acknowledgement of defeat,” he said on his website.
The insurgents chose to blow up the mosque rather than see the flag taken down by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces battling through the maze of narrow alleys and streets of the Old City, the last district still under control of Islamic State in Mosul.
In the dawn light, all that remained was the base projecting from shattered masonry. A video on social media showed the minaret collapsing vertically, throwing up a pall of sand and dust.
Defense analysts agreed the decision to destroy the mosque could indicate that the militants are on the verge of collapse.
“They had said they would fight until their last breath defending the mosque,” Baghdad-based security expert Safaa al-A’sam told Reuters. “The fact is that they are no longer capable of standing in the face of Iraqi government forces.”
The assailants will be freer in their attacks as they don’t have to worry about damaging the mosque anymore, he said.
The minaret was built with seven bands of decorative brickwork in complex geometric patterns also found in Persia and Central Asia. Its tilt and the lack of maintenance made it particularly vulnerable to blasts.
U.S. Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the U.S.-led international coalition assisting in the Iraqi effort to defeat Islamic State, said Iraqi security forces were continuing to push into remaining ISIS-held territory,”
Singapore said on Monday that it has detained an assistant child-care worker suspected of trying to join the Islamic State and finding a militant husband in Syria.
According to a statement by the Ministry of Home Affairs said Izzah the suspect, Syaikhah Izzah Zahrah Al Ansari, 22, is being held under a tough security law the Internal Security Act, a colonial-era law that allows authorities to detain anyone seen as a threat to security for up to two years.
The detention of the first Singaporean woman for suspected Islamist radicalism comes as concern is growing about the spread of Islamic State in the region.
Singapore and its neighbours recently began intelligence cooperation aimed at stemming the movement of militants across their borders.
The island city-state off southern Malaysia has reiterated over the past year that it is a target of Islamist groups and has urged the public to be alert.
Islamic State claimed responsibility via Twitter on Saturday for an attack on a group of Coptic Christians travelling to a monastery in central Egypt on Friday via Twitter.
At least 29 people were killed and 24 wounded, with many children among the victims.
The tweet read “A security source to Amaq agency: a security group of the Islamic state conducted the attack that targeted a bus transporting Copts in Minya yesterday. It resulted in killing 32 of them.”
The assault follows a series of church bombings claimed by Islamic State in a campaign of violence against Copts.