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 on: Sep 17, 2014, 06:58 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
China's Xi on Charm Offensive ahead of First India Visit

by Naharnet Newsdesk
17 September 2014, 09:58

President Xi Jinping pledged China's help in developing India's infrastructure and said the relationship between the Asian superpowers was the most "dynamic and promising" of the 21st century, in a charm offensive ahead of his first state visit on Wednesday.

Xi said the "the world's factory and the world's back office" made a winning combination, welcoming Indian businesses to China and calling for greater cooperation between two countries that have traditionally viewed each other with suspicion.

"With rich experience in infrastructure building and manufacturing, China is ready to contribute to India's development in these areas," Xi wrote in an article published in The Hindu daily.

"India is advanced in IT and pharmaceutical industries, and Indian companies are welcome to seek business opportunities in the Chinese market.

"The combination of the 'world’s factory' and the 'world's back office' will produce the most competitive production base and the most attractive consumer market."

The Chinese president will begin his three-day visit on Wednesday in Ahmedabad, home city of India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The nuclear-armed neighbors fought a brief but bloody war in 1962 over the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern Himalayas, and are still embroiled in a bitter dispute over the territory.

But both leaders are eager to stress cooperation during the visit, with Modi keen to secure Chinese funding to develop the country's dilapidated infrastructure, blamed for holding back the economy.

Xi said that under the new Modi-led government, which came to power in May, "a new wave of reform and development has been sweeping across India... attracting keen international interest in its opportunities.

"China-India relations have become one of the most dynamic and promising bilateral relations in the 21st century," he said.

Japan has already promised to double its investment in India over the next five years.


Chinese government makes life difficult for international journalists

the Guardian

The Chinese communist party continues to make life difficult for foreign journalists, says the latest report by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC).

It states that international reporters are restricted in where they can travel. Their sources are vulnerable to intimidation, or worse. If they write stories that displease the Chinese government, they face retribution in various forms - threats, effective expulsion by a refusal to renew visas and reprisals against local staff.

According to an FCCC survey of China-based foreign correspondents, 80% of those surveyed thought that their work conditions had worsened or stayed the same compared to 2013.

On the basis of its evidence, the FCCC argues that China is rapidly eroding the progress it made in "opening up" to the world prior to the 2008 Olympics.

"China's poor record on allowing open and unfettered reporting is in conflict with its desire to be seen as a modern society deserving of global respect," says the report. It continues:

    "It is in great contrast with the wide access Chinese journalists have enjoyed when reporting in many foreign countries.

    Yet as China embraces and leverages press freedoms abroad for its own media, it is going in the opposite direction at home."

The FCCC, which has 243 correspondent members from 31 countries, believes that foreign reporters operating in China should enjoy the same access and freedoms that Chinese reporters enjoy in most other countries.

In advocating the elimination of barriers to free reporting, it wishes to see the establishment of a level playing field and welcomes enhanced dialogue with authorities to agree on standard operating procedures for the coverage of news events.

The FCCC has identified six areas for action: restrictive reporting conditions, interference with news assistants, interference with sources, denial of access to government information, denial of foreign media access to the Chinese market, and punitive immigration policies.

China ranks 175 out of 180 in the 2014 Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.

 on: Sep 17, 2014, 06:57 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Iran Highlights Gripes with U.S. on Eve of Nuclear Talks

by Naharnet Newsdesk
17 September 2014, 12:50

The office of Iran's supreme leader published a series of graphics on Wednesday highlighting how little he believes the country has gained from dialogue with Washington as nuclear talks resume.

The graphics posted on Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's official website include a cartoon of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry standing and pounding the negotiating table flanked by aides.

"The military option is still on the table if Tehran wants to relaunch its uranium enrichment program," the cartoon Kerry thunders.

"Dialogue with the Americans has not reduced their animosity and has not been useful," the graphic complains, quoting Khamenei's words in an August 13 speech.

"The Americans' tone has become tougher and more insulting."

A separate graphic sets out the U.S. economic sanctions still in force against Iran and the fines totaling 9.5 billion dollars (7.3 billion euros) imposed on international firms for breaching them.

Khamenei's office did stress he had authorized the continuation of nuclear talks with major powers that are to resume in New York on Thursday, despite his misgivings about the lack of benefits from the dialogue with the United States.

President Mohammad Javad Zarif opened the dialogue with an historic telephone conversation with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly last September.

It is still unclear whether Zarif will attend this year's General Assembly which opens next week.

Khamenei has the final word on all matters of state in Iran.

Source: Agence France Presse

 on: Sep 17, 2014, 06:55 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad

Passenger rage forces Pakistan politician who delayed flight to flee

Former interior minister Rehman Malik chased back to terminal building after turning up 90 minutes after scheduled departure

Jon Boone in Islamabad, Tuesday 16 September 2014 15.52 BST      

Fury with a "VIP culture" that routinely sees commercial flights in Pakistan delayed to accommodate the schedule of politicians boiled over this week when passengers angrily prevented the country's former interior minister from boarding an aircraft.

Fuming travellers had been waiting in their seats when Rehman Malik, one of the country's most recognisable politicians, sauntered down the air bridge to the Pakistan International Airlines jet more than 90 minutes after its scheduled departure from Karachi to Islamabad on Monday.

Malik promptly turned tail when a furious group of travellers waiting by the door to the aircraft began heckling, with some chasing him back to the terminal building shouting and calling him a "stupid dog".

"Rehman Malik sahib, 250 passengers had to suffer because of you!" One man could be heard shouting. "You are not a minister any more and even if you were a minister we don't care, we don't care any more!"

Video of the event captured on passengers' phones went viral in a country where politicians are widely regarded as corrupt and deeply resented for the disruptions to daily life that they cause.

That includes traffic jams created by the security convoys of ministers and the habit of turning up to political rallies many hours after the crowds who come to see them.

One Facebook page hosting the video said the incident demonstrated the growing clout of Pakistan's middle class over traditional elites.

"The common man starts believing that respect is not about how much money you have or about the position that you hold," said Faheem Azam, an arts personality. "When they understand that respect has to be earned by being fair, humble, honest, committed and sometimes by just being respectful towards others."

While the former minister fled back to the safety of the airport, another government party politician called Ramesh Kumar Wakwani managed to board the plane only to be vigorously interrogated by suspicious passengers who demanded to know who he was.

Initially he described himself merely as a "doctor" before eventually admitting to being an elected member of Pakistan's national assembly.

That prompted jeers that he was behaving like a feudal lord and demands for him to leave the plane. Amid cries of "shame" he eventually surrendered his prized extra legroom seat in the front row of the economy class cabin.

Malik defended himself on Twitter, saying he had not been responsible for the delay, which the state-owned national carrier said was due to technical reasons.

"I suffered equally," he said on Twitter – although unlike the other passengers he was allowed to wait in the comfort of the lounge.

The stalwart of the opposition Pakistan People's party is one of the country's most colourful politicians, famous for his purple rinse hairstyle, odd pronouncements and for dashing to the scenes of the regular terrorist attacks that blighted his time as interior minister.

Widely regarded as a buffoon, he compared himself to Winston Churchill, Peter Mandelson and David Miliband in an interview last year.

 on: Sep 17, 2014, 06:53 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad

Antarctic sea ice set for record high as Arctic heads for sixth lowest extent

Antarctica poised for record high as figures show Arctic sea ice was millions of square kilometres below long-term average

Adam Vaughan, Wednesday 17 September 2014 09.42 BST      

The extent of sea ice in Antarctica is set to reach a record high, scientists said on Tuesday, as they announced that Arctic sea ice appeared to have shrunk to its sixth lowest level ever.

The NSIDC said that satellite data was expected to shortly confirm whether the maximum extent of sea ice at the opposite pole, in Antarctica, had set a new record.

“Antarctic sea ice is poised to set a record maximum this year, now at 19.7 million sq km (7.6m sq m) and continuing to increase,” the centre, considered one of the world’s top authorities on sea ice data, said in a statement.

Jan Lieser, of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Co-operative Research Centre (CRC), told Australia’s ABC News that: “This is an area covered by sea ice which we’ve never seen from space before.”

The conundrum of why Antarctic sea ice appears to be expanding as the Arctic decreases had puzzled polar observers, but scientists have suggested that the reason Antarctic ice extent appears to be increasing is due to changing wind patterns.

Figures released by the National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder, Colorado, show that the so-called Arctic sea ice minimum – the point where the extent of sea ice there is at its lowest after the summer, before it begins to refreeze for winter – is expected to be confirmed imminently and would be millions of square kilometres below the long-term average.

At 5.09m sq km, the extent of Arctic sea ice this year would be the sixth lowest on record, slightly worse than last year, though not as extreme as the record set in 2012 when it plunged to less than 3.5 million square kilometres.

However, the centre noted that there had been a particularly strong retreat of sea ice in the Laptev Sea and although the reasons for that were not yet clear, sea temperatures there had been up to 5C higher than average.

The amount of sea ice cover in the Arctic has been showing a long-term decline as climate change takes hold, with temperatures rising more rapidly in the Arctic than the rest of the planet.

 on: Sep 17, 2014, 06:51 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
09/16/2014 03:45 PM

Islamic State in Iraq: 'They Know Exactly What They Are Doing'

Interview conducted by Dieter Bednarz

Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi played an infamous role in spurring the 2003 American invasion of his country. In an interview, he tells SPIEGEL about the rise of Islamic State, why the West misjudged the jihadists and whether it is time to cooperate with Assad.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Chalabi, how close have fighters from Islamic State come to Baghdad?

Chalabi: They are 26 kilometers away. That is menacingly close, but the situation is calm at the moment and Islamic State has not made any more advances on Baghdad. Thank God.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe they will attack?

Chalabi: The extremists have long since brought their terror to Baghdad. Islamic State has sent its suicide bombers, has detonated explosives in front of our homes. I could show you parts from a car bomb that rained down on our roof not long ago. But Islamic State will not attempt to attack Baghdad militarily. Of the six million residents in the city, four million are Shiites. And almost every adult Shiite in the city owns a weapon. Islamic State well knows that it would be ground down by a brutal house-to-house fight.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, many Baghdad residents have fled while others have at least begun making preparations.

Chalabi: Such reports are exaggerated. We are not panicking because we know that Islamic State cannot conquer the capital.

SPIEGEL: Until recently it also seemed impossible that Islamic State might overrun Iraq's second largest city. But now, Mosul is under the control of the jihadists.

Chalabi: Yes, but the situation was different in Mosul. There are Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens and Yazidis living there, all of whom have suffered under the sectarian central government. They feel excluded and cheated out of participation in the government. What happened there was predictable. Six months earlier, we already had clear indications that Islamic State was preparing to attack. The Islamists have long been levying their own taxes in Mosul, totaling some $5 million per month. As early as January, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani warned the government of an impending disaster.

SPIEGEL: And the government did nothing?

Chalabi: No. Maliki saw Islamic State as a way to exert pressure. If I am not re-elected, terror will befall you -- that was his message.

SPIEGEL: Would Islamic State have been able to conquer even more territory if the autonomous Kurdish government not gone on the attack?

Chalabi: The Kurds' achievement was outstanding, both militarily and diplomatically. European governments recognized this and abandoned their resistance to weapons deliveries. Germany, too, acted correctly. Now, we need a joint military leadership so that the Kurds and the army can retake Mosul.

SPIEGEL: The Kurds believe they are closer than ever to having their own state. Are you concerned about secession?

Chalabi: The Kurds know that they won't achieve their own state by force of arms but through international recognition. And they have certainly heard what the German foreign minister said in connection with the arms deliveries: There is no Kurdish state. But that shouldn't prevent the Kurds from continuing to develop their own institutions. Still, the best thing for them would be to remain a part of Iraq, but in return we must treat them with respect -- their nationality, their language and their culture.

SPIEGEL: And if that isn't enough for the Kurds?

Chalabi: Then it wouldn't spell the end for Iraq. Germany lost East Prussia. Isn't Germany a strong country today anyway?

SPIEGEL: In Syria, Islamic State is fighting against opposition groups rebelling against President Bashar al-Assad, who has left them alone as a result. But now, the jihadists are also endangering the regime. Do you believe that Assad regrets not having gone after Islamic State earlier?

Chalabi: No, I don't. Yes, the Islamists are now the only ones that can offer significant resistance. After taking over Mosul, Islamic State sent 75 trucks full of weapons captured from our army to Syria. But Islamic State also weakened all those forces that could have been dangerous for Assad. As such, he was able to concentrate on solidifying his power in metropolitan areas like Damascus and on the coast. Now we are faced with the question: Who is the lesser evil?

SPIEGEL: And what is your answer to that question?

Chalabi: I think it is clear. We need a united front against Islamic State and Assad happens to be the decisive power that can fight them. But the situation is preposterous because we also have to respect the calls for change. I would be in favor of a dignified change.

SPIEGEL: A senior American diplomat in Baghdad told us that Islamic State fighters are "sociopaths led by psychopaths."

Chalabi: That may apply to the fighters from the West who feel excluded in Europe and come here for that reason. But the leaders are former officers in the Iraqi army or professors. They are not psychopaths, they know exactly what they are doing, are very well organized and have a strict hierarchy.

SPIEGEL: What is so fascinating about Islamic State that hundreds of Sunnis are rushing to join?

Chalabi: Islamic State isn't corrupt. That makes it very attractive in a country like Iraq. And of course many are attracted by its military success. For the first time, the Sunnis have an effective fighting force. For Sunnis, Islamic State has a function similar to that of Hezbollah for Shiites. Before they conquered Mosul, Islamic State had maybe 10,000 fighters, but now they have many more. Their recruitment rate is enormously high: Each month, some 2,000 men are trained. And their success radiates to Jordan, Libya and the Arabian Peninsula -- even as far as Mali and Pakistan.

SPIEGEL: Yet the backbone of Islamic State is the Sunni clans that Maliki basically forced into revolt.

Chalabi: Many Sunnis joined Islamic State because they felt they were being treated poorly. Winning back their trust is the primary task of the new government. That will be difficult, but it is possible.

SPIEGEL: Where will the next battlefield be?

Chalabi: Islamic State is following a clear strategy. First, it wants to solidify its power in Iraq and Syria. Then, their fighters will try to advance to Syria's Mediterranean coast. If they are successful, that will be seen as their next great triumph. And then, their target will be Jordan, where things will be easy for them. Already, Islamic State has broad support in many cities there. And when they get there, it will once again come as a great surprise to everybody.

SPIEGEL: Why were we so wrong about the situation in Iraq and Syria?

Chalabi: You thought Islamic State was just a bunch of gunmen and underestimated their strategic and military abilities. When Sunni clans near Fallujah rebelled at the beginning of the year, Islamic State in Syria sent just 150 fighters. Now, the extremists control a huge area in Iraq. Until the US airstrikes began, they were able to move about completely freely.

SPIEGEL: US President Barack Obama announced his intention to expand airstrikes on Islamic State fighters to Syria. Do you welcome this declaration of war on the terrorists?

Chalabi: I hope we can take advantage of this new, forward-looking approach. It is shameful, but without American support, Islamic State would have taken over many more places in Iraq. Just yesterday, they wanted to capture the Haditha Dam, but airstrikes kept them from doing so. Now, our army has to make the best use of this assistance.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe that the US can stop Islamic State just with airstrikes?

Chalabi: No, effective ground troops are necessary as well. The anti-Islamic State coalition has to be totally realistic on that score.

SPIEGEL: You wouldn't be opposed to ground support?

Chalabi: The US is already supporting us with around 1,000 specialists. But it should stay at that. I am opposed to a larger military intervention with ground troops. That wouldn't be helpful.

SPIEGEL: When the last American soldier was pulled out of Iraq in 2011, Obama said that the country was a sovereign, independent and democratic state. Was that a lie, or a colossal misjudgment?

Chalabi: At the time, the president was prepared to do anything to get out of here. He had promised to withdraw the troops during the campaign and he had to fulfill that pledge, no matter what the price.

SPIEGEL: When you look around today, at the terror, the human suffering, the economic misery, do you still believe it was worth it to get rid of Saddam Hussein? And do you regret providing false information to the US to justify the 2003 invasion?

Chalabi: I don't regret anything. And we didn't provide any false information. We provided the Americans with three informants and also gave them our own assessment. But the decision to invade was one the Americans made on their own. And, as difficult as the situation in Iraq currently is, it was still right to topple Saddam Hussein. We had no future under him. Today, we at least have hope that better times are coming.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Chalabi, thank you for this interview.


09/16/2014 11:17 AM

Airstrike Uncertainties: Obama's Dangerously Vague New War

By Markus Feldenkirchen, Christoph Reuter and Holger Stark

Obama has spent much of his term withdrawing the US from quagmires abroad. But now, in the battle against Islamic State extremists, he has a war of his own. His plan of attack, though, is filled with uncertainties and America's ultimate goal remains unclear.

The City of Rabbits. That is the bucolic alias once attached to the Syrian town of Marea. But it is no longer in use. Now, one of the most important frontlines in the war in northern Syria runs through the town. Some 5,000 rebels have established themselves in the potato fields surrounding Marea in an effort to stop Islamic State jihadists from continuing their advance on Aleppo.

Thus far, they have been successful -- thanks largely to assistance from the US. In Marea, an American-supported rebel command center coordinates the rebels' defense. The entire front is divided into sectors, which are each under the control of a single group. They have names like "Defenders of the Faith," "Islamic Front" and "Nureddin Senki Brigade" and are fairly obscure. Even so, they now have satellite images, ammunition for Kalashnikovs and larger caliber weapons, night-vision devices and provisions. A few anti-tank rockets also arrived a few months ago.

All of the materiel was provided to the fighters by the US. The CIA has established a military operations center in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli which it uses to support Syrian rebels. Those given a green rating by the CIA receive both arms and a salary. Those coded yellow receive help but no weapons. Those marked red receive nothing. Nine groups with a total of around 10,000 fighters are now said to be operating north of Aleppo to stop the march of the Islamic State.

Witnesses who have visited the operations center and who work with the US. have described a curious alliance -- the cast of characters ranges from bearded Islamists to defected army officers. The fighters aren't radical. They aren't exactly secular either. Above all, they aren't corrupt; they are disciplined and capable.

Waiting for Air Strikes

"We are holding our lines, but we aren't going to attack," says one of the Syrian rebel commanders who just came to Turkey for two days. The fighters have plenty of arms and ammunition, he said, but also have a fear of the Islamic State and its extreme brutality. "To advance against the Islamic State, we need heavy weaponry, artillery and rocket launchers." He says that the Americans need to provide Syrian fighters with the kind of weapons that the Islamic State has been able to plunder from the Iraqi army. "We are now waiting for US airstrikes," the commander says. "Nothing will happen before that."

On the eve of the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, US President Barack Obama announced that such airstrikes were on the way, in a speech that was designed to demonstrate America's power and determination. Standing in the White House, the president informed his fellow Americans of a war against the Islamic State that could take years to achieve its goals. The appearance marked a complete reversal for Obama. He is now no longer the president who only brings wars to an end; he has now become a war president himself. As Obama announced the operation's aim, he sounded eerily reminiscent of George W. Bush, his predecessor: "We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL," Obama said, using one of the many acronyms used to refer to the Islamic State.

For Obama, there is something almost tragic about this moment. A rapid withdrawal from Iraq was once one of his central campaign promises, and now he is in danger of leaving his successor a country deeply mired in an intransigent conflict not unlike the ones he inherited from Bush.

Unclear Goals

That speech marked the moment Obama gave up on his "lead from behind" doctrine, which imagined a superpower pulling the strings backstage rather leading the charge. The about-face became necessary in part because of the West's earlier hesitation to get involved in the Syrian civil war, a delay which allowed the jihadists to gain strength.

The risks associated with the new operation, which Obama has sought to sell as an anti-terrorism campaign, are immense. And important questions remain unanswered. What, for example, does Obama seek to achieve? Is the US only interested in the destruction of the terror group to prevent it from being able to carry out possible terror strikes in the US? Or is Washington also tempted by regime change in Syria?

The bombs, after all, won't be targeting the cause of the Islamic State's rise -- Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is leading a destructive war in his effort to cling to power. Attacking the Islamic State helps Assad, but it also, more than anything, helps rebel groups in Syria.

"Nobody knows what our strategy really looks like in Syria," says former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution. "The strategy in Iraq is clearly a military one, with the Iraqi army as a partner. In Syria, it sounds like a counterterrorism mission like those in Yemen and Somalia." In those places, though, drone attacks have done little to weaken Islamist groups. On the contrary. And experts agree that airstrikes are not enough to destroy a well-organized pseudo-army like the one belonging to the Islamic State.

The Assad Question

It also remains unclear how the US intends to fly bombing raids in Syria without cooperating with Assad's regime. In Iraq, the government explicitly requested American assistance, but Obama has ruled out working together with the Syrian government. Assad maintains effective anti-aircraft systems, though Pollack believes that Assad would not fire at US fighters and drones. "The last thing that Assad wants is an additional fight with the US," he says. But it isn't a certainty.

Russia has been vociferous in its criticism of Obama's plans, with the Foreign Ministry in Moscow saying in a statement that airstrikes would be "an act of aggression" and that such a step, "in absence of a UN Security Council decision, would be ... a gross violation of international law" and would further increase tensions.

Should it come under attack, the US may then feel forced to destroy Syrian airports, fighter jets and anti-aircraft batteries, which would end Syrian control of airspace over large areas now under rebel control. Assad's Syria would shrink to a small strip from Damascus to the coast.

It is more likely that the Assad regime will silently tolerate US airstrikes. Indeed, Western diplomats and intelligence personnel in southern Turkey say that the US has been secretly negotiating with Damascus in recent weeks in the hopes of getting the green light for air raids.

Damascus is eager to win the US as an ally. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem has said that any airstrikes must be carefully coordinated -- though there are large differences between Washington and Damascus's notions of who exactly the enemy is.

Rebels Caught in the Middle

When Islamic State fighters began shelling rebel-controlled Marea from three sides in August, the Syrian air force flew several air raids. But their bombs didn't hit the Islamic State. They instead struck exactly the rebels that are receiving support from the US.

Yassir al-Haji, head of the political opposition in Marea, says two girls died in the town late last week, one after being struck by an Islamic State tank shell and the other as a result of a regime airstrike. "Both sides are shooting at us. Assad's air force is flying sorties against us every day. At the same time, more than 1,000 Islamic State fighters are just five kilometers away -- and are not being bombed," Haji says.

The Islamic State was long a useful enemy for the regime in Damascus, with the jihadist group's brutality making Assad look like the lesser of two evils. Indeed, the Syrian air force refrained from attacking Islamist State positions at all until mid-June. In return, the Islamists focused their fight on other opposition groups -- and financed themselves through oil deals with Damascus. Both Assad and the Islamic State were apparently trying to use each other.

Rise of the Islamic State

But suddenly, the Islamic State became much more powerful than expected. The CIA recently estimated that the group may have as many as 30,000 fighters. Since the jihadists began attacking regime positions in the east, the Syrian air force has been attacking them there. But only there.

The Islamic State is like a parasite and has taken advantage of the weaknesses displayed by its hosts, Syria and Iraq. The terror group is not only made up of fanatics, but also of strategists who prefer eye-catching brutalities to staging provocative attacks in the West. Indeed, this dearth of large-scale attacks abroad led many experts to believe until recently that the Islamic State didn't play in the terrorist big leagues. In January, even Barack Obama compared the group to a high-school's second-tier ("JV") basketball team. What they all missed was that the Islamic State had turned al-Qaeda's concept on its head: Instead of starting off with global terror, the Islamic State was first focusing on conquering territory from which to operate.

In early August, though, Islamic State leaders made a crucial mistake that set off a chain reaction: They attacked the Yazidi and Christian communities in northern Iraq. The fate of the minority groups was greeted with international outrage, and led the US to bomb Islamic State positions in Iraq -- a development the jihadists had seemingly not expected.

The terrorists then beheaded two American journalists in an effort to intimidate the United States. This, too, was not a clever move: Since mid-June, popular US approval for military operations against IS has skyrocketed, with almost three quarters of Americans now in favor. Suddenly, the Islamic State is confronted with a significant opponent.

The Islamic State is made vulnerable by the fact that it behaves like an army instead of a terror organization; captured Humvees, artillery pieces and tanks are clearly identifiable military targets. Many of them have been destroyed by the over 150 sorties thus far flown in Iraq by the US. The Islamic State is much more difficult to fight in urban areas and no cities controlled by the group have been retaken yet.

'Enemies of America'

It is still difficult to predict the effect the American air attacks will have in Syria. Much will depend on who exactly they will be targeting. If Washington adheres to its terror list, it will also have to attack the al-Nusra Front, whose leader once pledged his loyalty to al-Qaida. Nusra's fighters are almost all Syrians -- and most are embittered enemies of the Islamic State. "An attack on Nusra would be the biggest favor that Washington could do to the Islamic State," warns one of the most knowledgeable experts on the Syrian opposition. "It would turn many Sunnis into enemies of America."

More than anything, though, the US need local support, given that Obama is reluctant to send ground troops. But the Syrian opposition has been worn down by fighting a two-front war against Assad and the Islamic State and is disillusioned about the West due to its apathy. Thousands of rebels have died while others have fled from the country with their families. The Free Syrian Army has fallen apart, old brigades have been dissolved and new ones have been founded under different names. The rich Syrian exiles that have long financed the opposition are cash-strapped after years of war, leading many fighters to cross over to Nusra or the Islamic State.

If Obama wants to convince the Syrians that he is serious, he will also have to present a political strategy. This would mean abandoning the course it has followed thus far -- that of trying to force both sides to come to a negotiated solution. The secret negotiations in Switzerland earlier this year did succeed in bringing them closer together, but the talks fell apart over one crucial point: Assad's hold on power. A best-case scenario would see Washington's new strategy result in a decisive breakthrough.

'Explicit Pro-American'

But the operation's success will be especially dependent on the "Coalition of the Willing" that Obama is now currently assembling. France's President Francois Hollande declared himself ready this past Friday to attack targets in Iraq from the air. British Prime Minister David Cameron has not fundamentally ruled out military participation in Syria. Only the German government doesn't want to get directly involved in the fight against the Islamic State. "But the last thing that the US wants is a new crusade of the West in the Middle East," says Brookings expert Kenneth Pollack. "The coalition against the Islamic State needs to be regionally anchored."

It is precisely this alliance that Washington has formed in the past weeks -- an alliance that, until recently, nobody would have thought possible: between the Kurds, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. They are to block the Islamic State's flow of money, allow the use of military bases, control borders and provide humanitarian assistance. Even Iran supports the offensive against the Islamic State -- even though it is simultaneously helping Assad. The Saudis, meanwhile, want to topple Assad and destroy the Islamic State -- but doesn't want to support their Shiite archenemies in Iraq. And crucially Turkey, the country through which most Jihadists make their way to Syria and Iraq, is not on-board.

It will soon become clear the degree to which the world is prepared to follow the US. The war in the Middle East will be a central topic at the UN General Assembly in September. Obama will give another keynote address and lead the meeting of the Security Council. Should he receive Security Council backing, it would mark a significant foreign policy success.

His strategy could also help Democrats in seven weeks, when Congressional elections are held. Even Newt Gingrich, a Republican detractor of the president's, was impressed last week. "This speech," he said, "is the most explicit pro-American speech he ever made."


Top Saudi clerics issue edict against terrorism

Saudi Arabia's highest body of religious scholars issued a stern ruling on Wednesday calling terrorism a "heinous crime" and saying perpetrators including Islamic State militants deserve punishment in line with Islamic law.


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia —

Saudi Arabia's highest body of religious scholars issued a stern ruling on Wednesday calling terrorism a "heinous crime" and saying perpetrators including Islamic State militants deserve punishment in line with Islamic law.

The Council of Senior Religious Scholars said in its fatwa, or religious edict, that it backs the kingdom's efforts to track down and punish followers of the Islamic State group and al-Qaida.

The clerics are appointed by the government and are seen as guardians of the kingdom's ultraconservative Wahhabi school of Islam. The statement by the group of 21 scholars underpins the kingdom's broader efforts to deter citizens from joining extremist groups that want to bring down the Western-allied monarchy.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Saudi Arabia last week and won support from the kingdom and other Arab allies to help fight the Islamic State militants who have seized large parts of Iraq and Syria. A State Department official told reporters ahead of the visit that Kerry planned to ask Mideast countries to encourage government-controlled media and members of the religious establishment to speak out against extremism.

The edict highlights the historically close relationship between the Wahhabi establishment in Saudi Arabia and the kingdom's rulers, and gives religious backing to the Saudi king's efforts to fight the Islamic State as part of an international coalition. The council is the only official authority in Saudi Arabia allowed to issue religious edicts concerning questions about how citizens should live their lives

The council's condemnations extended to others the Saudi government opposes as well, including the Shiite Hawthi rebel group in Yemen and Saudi Hezbollah, a Shiite militant movement that was engaged in attacks in the kingdom in the 1980s and 1990s. It also criticized what it called "crimes of terrorism practiced by the Israeli occupation."

The scholars said authorities have to track down instigators of conflict and financiers of terrorism because they commit "one of the greatest sins" which is "disobeying the ruler". They said they support the government's decision to prohibit citizens from fighting in conflicts abroad.

Though the council did not recommend specific punishments, it is considered a religious sin and a criminal act in Saudi Arabia to rebel against the king, who oversees Islam's two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina.

To help back up its religious ruling, the council referred to words of the Prophet Muhammad, who warned against following those who want to divide the nation.

"This is a warning to the advocates of division, strife and sedition, and a warning to those who followed them from going too far in order to avoid the punishment of torment in this world and the hereafter," the statement said.

The scholars added that any Muslim who thinks jihad -- or striving in the path of God-- means joining a terrorist group "is ignorant and has gone astray".

The Saudi king earlier this year called on scholars to speak out more aggressively against terrorism. Shortly afterward, the head of the council and grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al-Sheik, described the Islamic State and al-Qaida as Islam's top enemies.

All of the groups mentioned in the clerical statement were branded "terrorist" organizations by the Saudi government this year. Notably absent from the council's list is the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi authorities have outlawed and also branded as terrorist.


Isis video threatens to target White House and US troops

Video purports to be trailer for film entitled Flames of War with strapline 'fighting has just begun'

Matthew Weaver, Wednesday 17 September 2014 12.54 BST

Islamic State militants have threatened to target the White House and kill US troops in a new slickly made video response to Barack Obama's campaign to "degrade and destroy" the organisation.

The video, in the style of a blockbuster movie trailer for what is "coming soon", depicts a masked man apparently about to shoot kneeling prisoners in the head. Towards the end of the clip there is shaky footage of the White House filmed from a moving vehicle, suggesting the building is being scoped out for attack.

It was released on Tuesday after US defence chiefs suggested that American troops could join Iraqi forces fighting Isis, despite Obama's assurance that US soldiers would not be engaged in fighting on the ground.

The only words on the 52-second clip are those of Obama making that pledge. "American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq," it quotes him saying. This comes directly after footage of US troops being shot at, injured and taken away in an armoured vehicle, threatening what will happen if troops are redeployed to Iraq.

The video was released by the al-Hayat Media Centre, Isis's English-language propaganda arm. It includes the now-familiar high-production hallmarks of an Isis video, including super-slow motion footage of jihadis in combat, jump-cutting, and CGI explosions.

It purports to be a trailer for film entitled Flames of War with the strapline "Fighting has just begun".

It shows US tanks and positions being attacked by jihadis using shoulder-launched missiles. It also includes an image of the "Mission Accomplished" banner that was part of the backdrop to George Bush's infamous speech on an aircraft carrier after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. There is also footage of Bush's defence chief, Donald Rumsfeld, on a tour of Iraq.

Despite its slick production, experts in film and advertising have suggested the video threat would not require huge expertise or budget.

"These sort of effects are relatively simple to do nowadays. There are iPhone apps that add explosions and look quite real," said Luke Jacobs, an executive producer in TV commercials at Friend Productions.

"The video is slickly done and they have spent some time on it, but it's not something that would require access to a big post-production house. I'd say it's more likely been done by a guy with a laptop. It looks like there might be someone on team Isis who used to work at a TV network or knows his way around visual effects software, a compositor like Nuke or Adobe After Effects."

The video came as the Pentagon released details of more air strikes south-west of Baghdad and north-west of Irbil on Monday and Tuesday.

In a statement, the US military's central command said: "In total, two air strikes north-west of Irbil destroyed an Isil [Isis] armed truck and an Isil fighting position, while three air strikes south-west of Baghdad damaged an Isil truck and destroyed an Isil anti-aircraft artillery piece, a small Isil ground unit and two small boats on the Euphrates river that were re-supplying Isil forces in the area.

It said the strikes were conducted as part of US efforts to help an Iraqi offensives against Islamic State militants. The US has conducted 167 air strikes in Iraq since it launched the current campaign on 8 August.

Earlier, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told the Senate armed services committee that he could see himself recommending the use of some US military forces now in Iraq to embed within Iraqi and Kurdish units to take territory away from Isis.

"If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific [Isis] targets, I will recommend that to the president," Dempsey said, preferring the term "close combat advising".

It was the most thorough public acknowledgement yet from Pentagon leaders that the roughly 1,600 US troops Obama has deployed to Iraq since June may in fact be used in a ground combat role, something Obama has directly ruled out, most recently in a televised speech last week.

Dempsey, who has for years warned about the "unintended consequences" of Americanising the Syrian civil war that gave rise to Isis, said he envisioned "close combat advising" for operations on the order of taking Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, away from Isis.

Obama's prohibition on ground forces in a combat role was less ironclad than the president has publicly stated, Dempsey suggested.

"At this point, his stated policy is we will not have US ground forces in direct combat," Dempsey said, to include spotting for US air strikes. "But he has told me as well to come back to him on a case-by-case basis."


Pentagon: US ground troops may join Iraqis in combat against Isis

Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey refuse to rule out greater role for US ‘advisers’ if airstrikes

Spencer Ackerman in New York
The Guardian, Tuesday 16 September 2014 19.50 BST   
The Pentagon leadership suggested to a Senate panel on Tuesday that US ground troops may directly join Iraqi forces in combat against the Islamic State (Isis), despite US president Barack Obama’s repeated public assurances against US ground combat in the latest Middle Eastern war.

A day after US warplanes expanded the war south-west of Baghdad, Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate armed services committee that he could see himself recommending the use of some US military forces now in Iraq to embed within Iraqi and Kurdish units to take territory away from Isis.

“If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific [Isis] targets, I will recommend that to the president,” Dempsey said, preferring the term “close combat advising”.

It was the most thorough public acknowledgement yet from Pentagon leaders that the roughly 1,600 US troops Obama has deployed to Iraq since June may in fact be used in a ground combat role, something Obama has directly ruled out, most recently in a televised speech last week.

Dempsey, who has for years warned about the “unintended consequences” of Americanizing the Syrian civil war that gave rise to Isis, said he envisioned “close combat advising” for operations on the order of taking Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, away from Isis.

He also opened the door to using US “advisers” to call in air strikes from the ground, something Dempsey said they have thus far not done but which the US Central Command leader, General Lloyd Austin, initially thought would be necessary when pushing Isis away from the Mosul Dam last month.

“He shares my view that there will be circumstances when we think that’ll be necessary, but we haven’t encountered one yet,” said Dempsey, himself a veteran of the last Iraq war.

Obama’s prohibition on ground forces in a combat role was less ironclad than the president has publicly stated, Dempsey suggested.

“At this point, his stated policy is we will not have US ground forces in direct combat,” Dempsey said, to include spotting for US air strikes. “But he has told me as well to come back to him on a case-by-case basis.”

Joined by Defense secretary Chuck Hagel, Dempsey said the latest US war in Iraq, and soon in Syria, will last several years and will not resemble the “shock and awe” aerial bombardment that characterized the opening phase of the 2003 US invasion.

Isis’s ultimate defeat will be a “generational” effort, Dempsey said, during which “moderate” Muslims abandon its ideology – raising questions about what the US military’s actual endpoint will be in pursuing the goal of “degrading and ultimately defeating” Isis, Obama’s stated goal.

Dempsey and Hagel, who described the US as being “at war” with Isis, were more thorough to the committee about US strategy in Iraq than against Isis in Syria, where Dempsey said “two-thirds” of its estimated 31,000 fighters currently are.

In Iraq, the US intends to build upon the 162 air strikes it has launched since August 8, in support of Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces’ efforts to take Iraqi territory away from Isis and “restore the border” with Syria, Dempsey said.

In Syria, the US is seeking to train “vetted” Syrian rebels to capture Syrian territory from Isis. Hagel and Dempsey acknowledged that an initial cohort of 5,000 Syrian opposition forces would not be ready until eight months at the earliest. The House of Representatives plans to attach authorization for the training mission to a must-pass stopgap funding bill with a vote on Wednesday – which will represent the most robust congressional debate thus far on a new Iraq-Syria war.

“Five thousand is not going to be able to turn the tide, we recognize that,” Hagel said. Neither he nor Dempsey ruled out requesting additional authorities and funding for building a Syrian proxy army in the future.

Dempsey said he hopes enlist unnamed Sunni Arab nations with “very considerable” special operations forces to sustain the Syrian rebel army on the ground, possibly a reference to Qatar. He and Hagel demurred when asked by Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and Congress’s most prominent hawk, if the US’s new allies would receive American air cover if attacked by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

“We’re not there yet, but our focus is on Isil,” another name for Isis, Hagel said.

Dempsey – whose resignation McCain has called for, owing to the general’s reluctance to use the US military against Assad –conceded that “if we were to take [fighting] Assad off the table, we’d have a much more difficult time” persuading Syrians to join the coalition, but said the administration nevertheless has an “Isil-first strategy”.

McCain said relying on the Syrian opposition to prioritize fighting Isis ahead of Assad, their primary foe, pointed to a “fundamental fallacy” in the Obama administration’s strategy.

On Wednesday, Obama will meet with Austin in Tampa, where Central Command is headquartered. Hagel said the general will brief Obama on upcoming “targeted actions against [Isis] safe havens in Syria”, the clearest signal yet of an imminent expansion of air strikes into Syria. On the targeting list, Hagel said, are Isis “command and control, logistics capabilities, and infrastructure”.

Dempsey said introducing US ground forces into Syria in support of its proxy rebel army would not yield lasting gains, part of his argument that defeating Isis – the administration’s stated ultimate goal – will only result from a “generational” decision by regional Sunni Arabs to reject its ideology.

“I don’t think that even if we were to go in on the ground, armored divisions with flags unfurled, I don’t think we would do anything more than push this problem further to the right,” Dempsey told Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

“If we don’t get the kind of coalition I’m describing, then we’re into a very narrow CT framework, in my view,” Dempsey said, referencing frequent but intermittent drone strikes against counterterrorism targets the US has launched in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Some senators of both parties expressed discomfort with Obama’s willingness to involve the US in a new war ahead of explicit congressional authorization. Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican, and Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, both said Congress should not end its pre-election session this month without a war vote. Manchin was one of relatively few senators on the panel who appeared inclined to vote against the latest US war in the Middle East.


General John Allen: the intellectual US hawk leading the coalition against Isis

Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns has unusual amount of foreign policy experience for senior military officer

Emma Graham-Harrison   
The Guardian, Tuesday 16 September 2014 18.35 BST   
The retired US marine general leading Washington's coalition against Islamic State (Isis) is a hawk with years of experience battling extremist insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he also boasts impressive intellectual credentials and an unusual amount of foreign policy experience for a senior officer.

Thoughtful and softly spoken, 60-year-old John Allen will not be a military commander in Barack Obama's effort to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic extremist group that has taken over swaths of Iraq and Syria.

Instead he will be trying to win pledges of firepower from those who have offered moral support, draw in more backers and coordinate and inspire the disparate partners.

He has seen first-hand that unmatched US military might can spawn violent resistance, as it did in Iraq, or secure only expensive and fragile gains as in much of Afghanistan.

He has, however, remained a staunch advocate of using force in the region, calling for Isis to be dealt a "hard blow" as early as June, and he is convinced that distant turmoil can be a threat to Americans at home.

"Make no mistake, the abomination of IS [Isis] is a clear and present danger to the US," he said in an editorial on the Defense One website in August, which reads almost like a pitch for his current job.

"The only question really is whether the US and its allies and partners will act decisively now … [the US] remains the only nation on the planet capable of exerting the kind of strategic leadership, influence and strike capacity to deal with IS. It is also the only power capable of organising a coalition's reaction to this regional and international threat."

Nearly two years at the head of the unwieldy international presence in Afghanistan provided useful practice in balancing an eclectic mix of national military skills and equipment, while protecting the easily wounded pride of dozens of senior commanders.

He knows the military leaders of many countries in the anti-Isis coalition from his posting as number two at Central Command, the US military's nerve centre based in Florida but responsible for operations in the Middle East, central Asia and north Africa.

A native of Virginia who still speaks with a slight southern drawl, Allen also won Obama's support after publicly backing plans for the US troop drawdown in Afghanistan in an election year. It was a time when the US president felt betrayed by, or distrustful of many other prominent officers who were pushing for a larger, more sustained presence, and his loyalty was noted.

In Iraq, he was deputy commander for Anbar province from 2006 to 2008 and played a major role in efforts convince Sunni tribes to turn against al-Qaida, some of the same groups the US may now be wooing again for help in fighting Isis.

In Afghanistan he replaced the media darling General David Petraeus in 2011, bringing a more low-key, deliberative leadership style. Petraeus had been charged with winning Obama's "good war", while Allen's brief was effectively to start winding it up honourably - although no one in the military would have put it that bluntly.

He spent two years trying to juggle the political imperative of accelerating troop departures with the reality of a still-powerful Taliban insurgency. His solution was to put more focus on training Afghan forces so they would have a better chance of protecting the government and major cities on their own.

"Our victory here may never be marked by a parade or a point in time on a calendar when victory is declared. This insurgency will be defeated over time by the legitimate and well-trained Afghan forces that are emerging today," Allen said in his farewell speech.

He was nominated as the supreme commander of Nato forces in Europe after leaving Kabul, but his appointment was put on hold when emails appeared to draw him into a tawdry scandal over an affair between Petraeus and his biographer Paula Broadwood.

Ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing, he left the military soon after, turning down the Nato job to spend more time with his ill wife, to whom friends say he is devoted.

"Kathy, I wish you were here with me today … I want to tell you how much I love you," he announced to a surprised auditorium of Nato allies and Afghan dignitaries, after saying more formal goodbyes to his fellow soldiers and the country he had battled to shape.

Shortly after returning to the US, his military experience and academic background were recognised in a job advising the defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, and secretary of state, John Kerry, on security issues in negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

He holds advanced degrees from Georgetown University, the National Defense Intelligence College and the National War College, and was the first marine to become a term member of the influential Council on Foreign Relations.

 on: Sep 17, 2014, 06:41 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
09/17/2014 12:46 PM

Islamic State: Germany Struggles to Deal with Returning Fighters


Hundreds of radical Islamists from Germany have headed to Syria and Iraq to fight for Islamic State. Many have since returned home. Now the country's court system is gearing up for the coming legal battles -- and facing myriad challenges.

The players at TuS Makkabit Frankfurt remember Kreshnik B. as a reliable defender. As a member of the Jewish football club's youth B-team, he kept opposing players away from his goal and even shot a few of his own. Kreshnik B., who is Muslim, happily wore the blue jersey of the team, despite it being decorated with Hebraic lettering and the Star of David. "He was proud to take the field with the star," club leader Alon Meyer recalls.

Not even three years after playing for the team, Kreshnik swapped the football field for the battlefield. In the name of Allah, he allegedly joined the radical Islamist organization Islamic State in its fight to set up an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East. "Jihad these days is an individual's duty," he wrote his sister from the Middle East and asked her to pray that he might fall as a martyr. "I'm chillin', fighting, doing my job for Allah. I take my Kalashnikov and bismillah," he rhymed.

The five months that Kreshnik B., now 20, spent in Syria fighting for Islamic State are now the subject of a case which began in Frankfurt on Monday. He stands accused of membership in a terrorist organization and of "preparing a serious act of violent subversion."

His trial marks the first time that a presumed Islamic State fighter has appeared in front of a German court. It won't be the last. The number of jihadists who have left the country for Syria along with the number of Islamic State's supporters in Germany is already much higher than it ever was during the Afghanistan conflict. Currently, there are around 140 investigations under way in Germany against Islamic State fighters or their supporters. And the number is climbing. Federal state prosecutors have taken on 33 cases involving more than 60 suspects, but the flood of cases has begun clogging up dockets across the country.

Politicians have also begun considering ways to stop the jihadists and their increasingly bold propaganda promoting the "holy war." Last Friday, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière made any form of support for Islamic State illegal and an association of state working groups under the leadership of the Hesse Interior Ministry is currently looking into ways of preventing young Muslims from sliding into the militant Islamist scene in the first place. The aim is to combat the consistently rising number of young Muslims joining the jihad.

'Tell Mom She Shouldn't Be Frightened'

In many ways, Kreshnik B., the son of refugees from Kosovo, is a typical representative of jihad Made in Germany. The indictment claims that he boarded an Istanbul-bound bus in Frankfurt with six others in 2013. From there, they continued on to Syria.

"I really don't care which group I end up fighting for," Kreshnik wrote to his sister during the journey. "The most important thing is that I fight for Sharia and that I can do many deeds to serve God." As fate would have it, he ended up joining Islamic State near the Syrian city of Aleppo.

Other extremist groups refused to accept the inexperienced men from the West, most of whom were unable to speak Arabic. But Islamic State took almost all of them, as cannon fodder, suicide bombers or, should it become necessary, hostages for ransom money.

Kreshnik B. went through a weapons training program, performed guard duties and fought. Back in Germany, his parents went to the police and were apparently ready to travel to Syria to convince their son to come home. "Tell mom that she shouldn't be frightened, because I have my weapon with me," Kreshnik wrote to his sister.

But the fun of jihad didn't last long. Soon, Kreshnik began complaining to his sister of harassment from his commander, and of arguments and boring guard shifts. On one day, he reported, "three or four people" from his group died. We "shot tanks and tried everything, but nothing worked."

Then, the head of the group came and said: "I need four people to go in who won't come out alive." The German jihadist wasn't prepared for such a mission after all and traveled back to Frankfurt on Dec. 12, 2013, where he was arrested.

Part of the Salafist Scene

Exactly what pushed young people like Kreshnik B. to risk their lives in faraway wars was long a mystery to German authorities. But security officials recently assembled an 18-page report examining the radicalization process. It has provided some initial answers, and its findings, in some cases, are surprising.

The report notes that, of the 378 people who had headed for Syria with "Islamist motivations" by the end of June, more than 40 were women. Sixteen of them were minors, with the youngest having just turned 15. Almost two-thirds were born in Germany and roughly half of them left with the intention of joining the jihad. The overwhelming majority, 84 percent, are believed by authorities to be part of the Salafist scene.

In no way were all of Germany's radicalized Muslims on the fringes of society or people without a future. More than 100 of them had received their diplomas by the time they left, with 41 of them having completed the Abitur, Germany's college-prep diploma. Forty-three were enrolled in universities.

The "most important factor for radicalization" were friends, the study found. In 114 cases, they had a significant effect on those who headed off to join the jihad. Indeed, a jihadist's circle of friends was found to be more important than the work of recruiters or radical preachers in Salafist mosques. In two-thirds of the cases, the Internet played a role in the radicalization process.

The report, which was commissioned by the Interior Ministry, conspicuously lacks ideas for how to address the growing number of fanatical Islamists. The fact that it took more than a year for the vast majority to become radicalized -- theoretically providing sufficient time to intervene -- offers a glimmer of hope. But family members, non-Islamist friends, teachers or social workers only rarely notice the subtle changes occurring in those close to them as they become more radical.

'I Love Allah More'

Ismail I. marks something of an exception -- his transformation took place extremely rapidly. He will likely become the next German to answer before a court for allegedly having joined the jihad in Syria. The trial is set to begin in Stuttgart at the end of October.

The Lebanese-born 24-year-old hasn't had much success in his life. He was able to receive his high school diploma, albeit at a lower-tier Realschule, but was unable to find a traineeship afterwards. Drugs and truancy led to his expulsion from a vocational college, after which he worked for short stints at a bakery and at a KFC in Stuttgart. His marriage only lasted a few months.

Ismail I. then became acquainted with several significant figures in the German Salafist scene, including the preacher Sven Lau, who recently made headlines by sending a "Sharia Police" out on patrol in Wuppertal. After taking part in a pilgrimage with Lau, Ismail I. is thought to have flown from Düsseldorf to the Turkish city of Gaziantep on Aug. 22, 2013. From there, he took a bus to the Syrian border. He left a letter behind for his family reading: "I love you, but I love Allah more."

In Syria, he allegedly joined Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, a Chechen-dominated group of Islamist fighters that merged into Islamic State over the course of last year.

In the autumn of 2013, Ismail I. apparently flew back to Stuttgart at the group's behest. There, he went on a shopping spree for the war, buying large amounts of camouflage clothing, night-vision devices, scalpels and Celox, a drug which slows bleeding. For €850, he also purchased an old station wagon that he and a helper planned to use to drive his purchases back to Syria. But they didn't get very far. They were arrested on Nov. 13 at an Autobahn rest area between Stuttgart and Ulm.

The case of Ismail I. illustrates the challenge facing the German judiciary as it addresses the muddled Syrian civil war 3,000 kilometers away. Several different groups, subgroups and sub-subgroups are involved in the fight there and it isn't easy to tell which ones are affiliated with Islamic State.

Federal prosecutors, who charged Ismail I. in May, must conduct precise investigations. They are responsible for all cases having to do with crimes committed in connection with membership in or support of a foreign terror organization.

'Unique Challenges'

History has shown that many such trials last more than a year. Officially, the federal prosecutor's office describes them as "unique challenges for criminal investigations." Unofficially, federal prosecutors recently sounded the alarm in the Justice Ministry -- if the number of such cases continue to rise, the office will sooner or later be overwhelmed.

In Kreshnik B.'s case, a deal is in the works which could provide some relief to all involved. The court this week indicated that Kreshnik B. may be given a lighter sentence should he provide a comprehensive confession. Ahead of the trial, his defense attorney and prosecutors reportedly met with the judge to pave the way for just such a deal. Either way, given the possibility that Kreshnik B. would be convicted under juvenile law, his sentence isn't likely to be severe. The defendant's attorney, Mutlu Günal, told SPIEGEL that he would be open to a plea bargain.

But policymakers face an even more difficult challenge than jurists when it comes to jihad tourists. Officials believe that 120 people have returned to Germany from Syria thus far, but in many cases it isn't clear what the person in question was doing in Syria -- whether they fought and, if so, for whom. Most importantly, it isn't clear in all cases whether they represent a threat now that they have returned home. The report compiled by security officials notes that only two dozen of those who have returned are "being cooperative with authorities." The others are refusing to talk -- and refusing to answer the question as to whether they intend to bring Islamic State's fight to Germany.

Domestic policymakers have recently spoken of "banning" Islamic State in Germany. But in order to do so, it has to be proven that the group has built up club-like structures here -- which it hasn't yet. Last Thursday, domestic intelligence officials from across the country held a telephone conference to discuss what rules could be put in place instead. The next day, Interior Minister de Maizière announced that all acts in support of Islamic State were banned.

Whether the ban will be effective in the fight against Islamic State activists remains to be seen. The edict will certainly be helpful in locking away individual Islamic State supporters for up to two years should they display the group's flag, use its symbols or spread its propaganda videos in the Internet. But banning Islamic State as a group isn't yet possible because the group as such doesn't exist yet in Germany. As such, de Maizière is operating in a legal gray area. "We want to nip the establishment of organized terror structures in the bud," he said last week.

'Deterrent Effect'

Another problem is the need to draw a clear line between Islamic State logos and normal symbols of Muslim belief. In individual cases, that might be tricky, one reason that the ban remained under consideration for so long. "We wanted to be sure that we wouldn't offend the religious sensibilities of Muslims," de Maizière said. He hopes the edict now issues will have a "deterrent effect."

Other proposals have gone much further. One which is particularly popular among members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats would see a provision added to the criminal code that was once used to combat Germany's left-wing terror group Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF).

"We have to once again make it criminal to solicit sympathy for terror organizations," says CDU domestic policy expert Armin Schuster. "That would likely hit Islamic State supporters in Germany the hardest."

The opposition in Berlin, however, continues to reject a further tightening of anti-terror laws. There are already "sufficient levers available to impose bans and limitations" on terrorists and their supporters, says Green Party domestic policy expert Irene Mihalic. "They just have to be forcefully applied."

By Jörg Diehl, Hubert Gude, Jörg Schindler, Fidelius Schmid and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt

 on: Sep 17, 2014, 06:39 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad

Case against Oskar Gröning highlights Germany judiciary's Holocaust problem

With only 50 out of 6,500 SS guards at Auschwitz convicted, critics say German law has been too slow to seek justice

Ben Knight in Berlin
The Guardian, Tuesday 16 September 2014 16.19 BST

He was once called "the accountant of Auschwitz," but he is also one of the few former Nazi death camp guards to speak out against Holocaust deniers. Now, at the age of 93, he is to face trial in Germany, and his case has highlighted what some historians see as the failure of the German judiciary to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice.

From 1942 to 1944, Oskar Gröning counted money taken from the luggage of murdered Jews and sent it back to SS headquarters in Berlin. He also stood guard as the transports of human beings entered the camp.

That much has long been known, not least because he himself described his experiences to the media, but it has taken a new investigation, carried out by Germany's central office for the investigation of Nazi crimes in Ludwigsburg, for charges to be brought against him. In February this year, the office searched the homes of several former members of the SS across Germany. Of these, Gröning is the only one to have been pronounced fit enough to stand trial.

For what state prosecutors called "legal and evidence reasons", Gröning's formal charges relate only to two months of his time at the camp – 16 May to 11 July 1944, the time of the so-called Hungary Operation, when "around 425,000 people from Hungary arrived at the camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau", of whom "at least 300,000 found their deaths in the gas chambers". Gröning has therefore been charged with 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.

Gröning caught public attention in 2005 when he appeared in the BBC documentary Auschwitz: The Nazis and the 'Final Solution', in which he described how being confronted by Holocaust deniers had led to him to speak out. "I see it as my task now, at my age, to face up to these things that I experienced, and to oppose the Holocaust deniers who claim that Auschwitz never happened," he said. "I saw the crematoria, I saw the burning pits."

But Gröning also denied his culpability, telling Der Spiegel magazine in the same year: "Accomplice would almost be too much for me. I would describe my role as a small cog in the gears. If you can describe that as guilt, then I am guilty, but not voluntarily. Legally speaking, I am innocent."

State prosecutors disagree – but only now. Despite high-profile trials in Nuremberg just after the war, and Frankfurt in 1964, the German judiciary has been notoriously sluggish about punishing those directly involved in the Holocaust. A previous case against Gröning himself was dropped for lack of evidence by Frankfurt prosecutors in 1985. The historian Andreas Eichmüller once calculated that of the 6,500 SS members who worked at Auschwitz and survived the war, only 49 had ever been convicted.

Jörg Friedrich, a historian and author of Acquittal for Nazi Justice: The Sentencing of National Socialist Judges since 1948, challenges the view that the German judiciary dragged its heels. "There were hundreds of thousands of investigations, kilometres of investigation documents," he told the Guardian. "I don't know of any state that did the same … A compromise had to be drawn between assimilation and prosecution, and I think Germany was a success in both cases."

The legal difficulty is in defining individual guilt; attempts to convict other SS members have failed in the past because they could not be linked to specific murders. Ingo Müller, law professor and author of Terrible Lawyers: the Past Our Judiciary Has Not Overcome, thinks this is a historical failure. "Just participating in the Holocaust doesn't count," he told the Guardian.

But Müller thinks that it is long past time that a German court recognised the Holocaust itself as a crime. "If two or three more people were to be convicted – they don't actually have to go to prison, they can stay in their old people's homes – it would have a symbolic effect," said Müller.

"We can't just let it stand that the German judiciary says participating in the Holocaust is not a crime. But I'm very sceptical that there will ever be another conviction."

 on: Sep 17, 2014, 06:37 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad

French chefs fight to put songbird back on menu

Michelin-starred cooks request annual waiver to serve ortolan, which diners devour while covering their faces with a napkin

Reuters in Paris
The Guardian, Tuesday 16 September 2014 17.58 BST   

Four French chefs are requesting a waiver to serve a long-banned delicacy – a small songbird called the ortolan that fans including one of the country's former presidents used to devour, bones and all, while wearing a napkin over their heads.

The request for the once-a-year waiver is being lodged by, among others, Alain Ducasse, the internationally acclaimed chef, Le Parisien newspaper reported. The ortolan, which is little bigger than a child's hand, has been banned from menus in much of Europe since 1999.

The seed-eating bird is believed to have been part of François Mitterrand's last meal before he died in 1996. One customary way of preparing ortolan consists of force-feeding it until fat and dousing it in Armagnac brandy before roasting it whole in the oven.

Fans often wear a large, usually white, napkin over their head while eating. Some say it serves to conceal them while they spit out bones, some say the headgear seals in aromas, while others say it serves to fend off the shame of being seen by God eating a songbird.

The request for the right to serve ortolan one day or one weekend a year would be lodged in coming days with the French authorities, Le Parisien newspaper cited Michel Guerard, another chef with three Michelin stars, as saying.

A representative for Ducasse did not immediately answer a request for comment.

 on: Sep 17, 2014, 06:35 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad

French government wins high-risk confidence vote

Prime minister Manuel Valls gets clear mandate from majority despite 31 abstentions from Socialist party MPs

Kim Willsher in Paris
The Guardian, Tuesday 16 September 2014 19.21 BST   
The French government has survived a high-risk confidence vote with a majority after prime minister Manuel Valls appealed to Socialist rebels to back him.

In spite of 31 abstentions from Socialist party MPs, a total of 269 MPs voted for the government and 244 against, giving Valls a clear mandate.

The result came as a relief to Valls and the beleaguered French president, François Hollande, whose popularity is at a record low, with recent polls showing up to two thirds of voters wanting him to go before the end of his term in 2017.

However, the abstentions and absences meant the Socialist government was 20 votes short of an absolute majority in the 577-seat Assemblée Nationale, the lower house of parliament.

Valls said afterwards: "If we – the president of the republic and I – have asked for confidence, it is to continue our work".

He said he hoped the vote would end the "incessant questions" over the Socialists' capacity to govern.

"Thanks to this vote, the government will continue its programme until the end of its five year term in office … I thank you for your confidence and I will live up to it."

Before the crucial vote, Valls, who had been received with applause from supporters and whistles from opponents, had outlined his government's programme.

He spoke of "an exceptional economic situation" with an absence of growth and inflation saying "nobody had anticipated this". He confirmed the government would reduce public spending by 50bn euro (£40bn) before the end of its term in office.

"Nothing must divert us from this promise. We have to control the growth of public spending," Valls told the house.

Parti Socialiste rebels from the left had threatened to derail the government in protest at what they see as its lurch to the right and submission to German-imposed austerity.

Among the rebels are the former finance minister, Arnaud Montebourg, former education minister, Benoît Hamon, and former culture minister, Aurélie Filippetti, of the Green party, who were sacked from the cabinet in August after publicly criticising the government.

In a nod to them, Valls said when it came to economic and budgetary decisions: "France will alone decide what she must do."

However, he added that the agreement between France and Germany was "indispensable for restarting growth and giving the European project its real ambition once again".

"Our common responsibility is historic," Valls said.

He also reassured the left wing by insisting his government would not abandon the 35-hour working week.

"Reforming doesn't mean breaking, or about going backwards. It's not about breaking our social model to which I'm attached.

"I invite you to defy fatalities, prognostics, received ideas that suggest our country is incapable of reforming itself. France is not condemned. France is a great country, she merits our respect and if we, public officials, aren't capable of defending her, who is?."

Christian Jacob, head of the opposition UMP parliamentary group, told Valls: "We're not in agreement with your remedies for getting France working again."

"You, like the president, are like old rope," Jacob said, adding that Valls had "neither the willingness nor the real political means to effect a real economic upturn."

"Monsieur prime minister, your days are numbered. If today your fate was in the hands of the French, you would have been sent packing."

 on: Sep 17, 2014, 06:33 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Scotland will struggle to make its way as a newly independent state

It is a tough world out there, and getting tougher – the SNP has blithely assumed Scotland will be unquestioningly welcomed

Simon Tisdall, Wednesday 17 September 2014 06.01 BST           

Newly independent states typically struggle to make their way in the world, even in the most favourable conditions. Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was enthusiastically backed by the US, Britain, and many other governments. But six years on, more than one third of UN member states, including five EU countries and four Nato members, continue to withhold recognition. Kosovo has yet to achieve the political stability, physical security and economic prosperity its leaders promised when they broke with Serbia.

An independent Scotland, with its developed economic infrastructure and abundant oil and other natural resources, appears to occupy a more advantageous position than Kosovo or, say, South Sudan (independent since 2011). It is worth noting that South Sudan's oil wealth did not save it from a descent into ethnic conflict and humanitarian crisis last year. But like East Timor (2002) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992), South Sudan's independence movement benefited massively from strong international and UN support.

By contrast, Scotland's independence bid has attracted scant international backing. Some of the world's more influential governments, including the US, Canada, India and Australia, are openly opposed.

Others within the EU, notably Spain, are deeply suspicious, given the precedent secession from the UK might set for their own minorities.

As with Kosovo, the silent ambivalence, bordering on hostility, to the SNP-led campaign points to a long and rocky road ahead should the yes camp prevail. All the indications are that full international acceptance of an independent Scotland will be a long time coming. It will certainly take years to achieve, if it is achieved at all, and not occur within the 18-month time-frame envisaged by Alex Salmond.

The Scottish government's white paper, Scotland's Future, identifies EU membership as a central aim, and foresees a "seamless transition" to be completed by March 2016.

But the SNP is already sharply at odds with Brussels over fundamental issues such as currency union, eurozone membership and immigration. And this before the issue of Scotland's putative "share" of the British EU budget rebate is even raised.

Olli Rehn, the EU's former enlargement and economic affairs commissioner, warned again last week that, in the absence of a currency union agreement, an independent Scotland would have to choose between using sterling and joining the EU.

The SNP's claim that Scotland will not have to wait at the back of the queue for EU membership but will automatically join the "top table" has been challenged by other leading officials, including the European commission president, José Manuel Barroso. And it is further undermined by Edinburgh's prospective refusal to join the Schengen agreement on open borders, which all new members are obliged to do.

Even if an independent Scotland did not join Schengen, the prospect of border controls and passport checks between Scotland and England (and Scotland and Northern Ireland) looms large, because Edinburgh's policy on immigration could be markedly different to that of London and Brussels.

Pete Wishart, SNP Westminster home affairs spokesman, suggests, in a recent post on the SNP's website, that, given its "history of depopulation", Scotland would encourage increased overseas immigration – the opposite of what London wants.

The SNP's ambition to immediately join Nato looks similarly fraught. The principal objection, strongly shared by Washington and London, is Salmond's pledge to rid Scotland of nuclear weapons by closing the Trident submarine bases at Faslane.

But SNP plans for building up an independent Scottish army, air force and navy, initially using assets such as Royal Navy frigates and minesweepers willingly donated by London, while simultaneously delivering a £500m "security dividend" by 2016-17, look like highly disruptive fantasy.

Mariot Leslie, a Scottish former UK ambassador to Nato, argued recently that an independent Scotland would continue to play its role within Nato, and that Nato members would support it. "No ally would wish to interrupt the integrated Nato defence arrangements in the North Sea and north Atlantic – least of all at a time of heightened tension with Russia," Leslie said. But Salmond's plans, whose credibility is not helped by a proposed defence budget of £2.5bn, will involve enormously complex negotiations and risky logistical upheavals. Russia's Vladimir Putin will doubtless be watching with interest.

SNP plans will also require an extraordinary degree of goodwill on behalf of the London government which, in the teeth of an unwanted and hugely expensive separation, might not be forthcoming.

For example, Salmond has valued the UK's overseas properties, including its embassies, at £1.9bn. Scotland's "share" would be worth £150m, which he would use to create a duplicate network of Scottish embassies. Salmond apparently expects this money to be handed over without demure on or before March 2016, the date of independence if it comes.

It is a tough world out there, and getting tougher all the time. For survival, friends and allies are indispensable. The SNP's blithe assumption that an independent Scotland will be speedily and unquestioningly welcomed into a range of other international bodies, including the World Trade Organisation, the OECD, the Council of Europe, and the OSCE, looks optimistic.

So, too, does Salmond's claim that Scotland, with a population of just over five million, can make a big, even unique, impact on international policy on democracy building, climate change, and development issues.

"There are inherent advantages in being a smaller, well-governed, independent state in a rapidly changing world," the SNP's white paper argues.

There are also significant disadvantages in a globalised, inter-connected and highly volatile age. An independent Scotland would be on a par, population-wise, with Lebanon, Slovakia, Kyrgyzstan, El Salvador, Turkmenistan and the Republic of Congo. Truth be told, these countries have little or no say about how the world works. Things happen to them; they don't make things happen. In seeking separation, Scotland risks irrelevance.


09/17/2014 12:10 PM

King Alex: The Man Behind Scotland's Independence Movement

By Christoph Scheuermann

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond is the architect of the independence referendum. This week could mark his biggest political triumph to date. Yet many Scots are wary of Salmond, believing him to be self-satisfied and arrogant.

When Alex Salmond is nervous or restless, he scrapes his right thumbnail over the back of his left thumb as though scratching an itch. It's a minor tic, one that only becomes apparent after spending some time with him. Salmond has been Scotland's first minister, a position akin to prime minister, for seven years and is fighting to split off from the United Kingdom. This Thursday, the Scots will vote in an independence referendum and polls indicate that Salmond is closer to his goal than ever.

Perhaps not surprisingly, he has developed a callous on his left thumb.

An assistant places a cup of Earl Grey tea on the table. Salmond is sitting in a café at the Foxlane Garden Center near Aberdeen, the port city in Scotland's northeast. Torrential rain is pouring down outside the window, but the first minister is beaming as if it's springtime. The day before, over 200 Scottish businesspeople had declared in an open letter that they planned to vote for independence, including the owner of the garden center. Salmond has come to thank the man.

For several months earlier this year, Salmond's opponents could relax, comfortable with the survey lead they enjoyed. But since August that lead has dwindled, and last week, in a poll conducted by YouGov, the separatists reached 51 percent support for the first time once undecided voters were taken out of the equation. Another poll found the pro-union side ahead once again, but with only a meager 52 percent support.

Since then, panic has made the rounds in Westminster. Prime Minister David Cameron, his Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Head of the Opposition Ed Milliband hastily travelled up north last week to advocate for the 307-year-old union with England. In a passionate speech, Cameron said it was a "decision about the next century."

Salmond takes a satisfied glance around the garden center and then explains how his wife tried to start her own asparagus patch in the garden at home, about 50 kilometers north of here. "That's a challenge in Aberdeenshire," he says. His laughter is loud and rumbling.

Thirst for Power

Salmond, the architect of this referendum, will turn 60 this year. The fight for an independent Scotland has been his life's mission, and decades of work have led him to this point. His fellow Scots call him -- half derisively, half admiringly -- "King Alex." Even so, many Scots will vote for independence on Sept. 18 not because of, but despite Salmond. Forty-three percent say they are dissatisfied with their first minister; many voters find him self-satisfied and arrogant and believe he is motivated by a thirst for power.

At first glimpse, Salmond -- with his coarse hands and thickset stature -- looks like an affable farmer stuffed into a suit. He is an easy man to underestimate, as the elites did for a long time. Politicians in London had recognized Salmond's political talent and audacity when he moved into the House of Commons in 1987 on behalf of the Scottish National Party, but nobody thought the Scots would be reckless enough to want to split from the United Kingdom. Just one year ago, the pro-union side was 30 points ahead of the separatists.

But the first minister did a lot of persuading. Salmond has a quality that is very helpful for a politician -- he can create a bond with people. He is a highly gifted speaker and self-confident enough to not always take himself seriously. At a mid-August podium discussion with the historian Tom Devine in Edinburgh, it took him less than two minutes to win over the audience with a few self-deprecating remarks.

During the second TV debate against Alistair Darling, his pro-Union adversary, Salmond was relaxed, repeatedly stepping away from his podium towards the audience. It helped him win the debate in a rout.

But behind the façade is a politician who can also be merciless. His advisors handle him with a mixture of awe and fear of making a mistake. He is considered a hardworking perfectionist who gets loud when he doesn't like something.

It plays to Salmond's advantage that he has an optimistic message to deliver -- unlike the pro-union side, which, for a long time, could only offer a continuation of the status quo. And he had a strategy, as well as the will, to reach his goal from the start. "This kind of a referendum only happens once in a generation," he says during the visit to the garden center.

Amicable Debate

Will it be difficult to unite Scots after the vote, no matter how it turns out? "We're a country with a balance of opinion. We are not a divided country," he answers. The two sides are almost the same size, and are passionately fighting for their positions, "but we're debating independence in an entirely peaceful fashion." As far as he knows, there hasn't even been a bloody nose. He says he will accept the results of the referendum even if the Scots choose not to follow him.

His private life has always been inconspicuous. He has been married to Moira, the daughter of an auto mechanic, for 33 years. She is 17 years older than him and there are only few photos of her in circulation. Salmond met her when he worked in the Scotland office of the British government in the 1970s -- she was his boss. They married in 1981. The couple has no children and lives secluded in an old mill in the village of Strichen, north of Aberdeen. "Salmond is a very private person," David Torrance wrote in his biography, "Against the Odds."

In the 1990s, Alex Salmond built the SNP up from a nostalgic-patriotic movement into a modern center-left party. It is opposed to military interventions abroad and would like to make Scotland into a nuclear weapons-free zone. Salmond led the SNP into government in Edinburgh for the first time in 2007 and now enjoys an absolute majority in the Scottish parliament. He knows how to win over working-class voters; the competition from Labour, Liberals and Conservatives is weak.

Two days before the visit to the garden center, he has an appointment with the workers at the Ferguson shipyard in Port Glasgow. It was founded in the early 20th century and is one of the last ones in the country. Now, 77 workers are worried about losing their jobs here. Salmond, though, is there to deliver good news: Through his help and thanks to public pressure, an investor has been found.

But the journalists present aren't interested in the shipyard, instead asking why the Scottish first minister wants to split up the United Kingdom. Salmond becomes annoyed. He grumbles into a Sky reporter's microphone that he should stop imitating his opponent, Alistair Darling, with his questions. "Get with the debate, man! The people of Scotland are there. Maybe Sky News will catch up." For English journalists, Salmond is a figure of scorn, and with few exceptions all newspapers are against him. But he seems to draw energy from that.

A Poor Hamlet

Like many Scots, Salmond grew up with the belief that his homeland is a poor hamlet that would never survive without the South. He didn't change his mind until he began studying economics. Salmond became political during the 1980s because of Margaret Thatcher -- as a result of her cuts to social welfare, privatizations and the poll tax that was introduced in Scotland one year earlier than in the rest of Great Britain. The Iron Lady inspired an entire generation of Scottish patriots, among them Angus Robertson, one of Salmond's oldest confidants.

Robertson pushes open the door of an Indian restaurant in Elgin, one hour northeast of Inverness. He has just been canvassing, and is flush with excitement. Robertson joined the SNP in the mid-'80s as a teenager, managed two Scottish elections and has a leading position in the campaign for the referendum. As a student he worked in Salmond's electoral-district office, handed out pamphlets and knocked on doors. He is now 45, and all in all, little has changed in his political life.

Robertson is part of a generation of determined young SNP politicians, including Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, SNP Party Chairman Peter Murell and the Scottish secretary for rural affairs, Richard Lochhead. "We all knew each other as kids," Robertson says. They form a cocoon around Salmond, and are loyal to the point of self-denial -- another reason for SNP's success. "Alex expects the highest standards of everybody," Robertson says. Even though they've known each other for 28 years, he hesitates to call the first minister a friend. "We are on friendly terms with each other," says Robertson. Salmond doesn't have any friends, he has allies.

Salmond is now at the high point of his career, even if the strength of the campaign for independence isn't entirely his doing. "Alex was very lucky as a politician," says Alexander Bell, a former advisor to the first minister.

Salmond has touched a nerve with the Scots. Without the euphoria among the members of the working class who are closely attached to the SNP, the movement would have petered out long ago. As a result, the fact that Salmond can't -- or doesn't want to -- clear up many questions about the referendum hasn't had much impact. Question like: which currency an independent Scotland would have; how the British national debt would be divided up; or how much oil is left in the North Sea.

Indeed, it is possible that the person most surprised by the separatist movement's success is Salmond himself. In the last few days before the referendum, in the garden center near Aberdeen, he seems like a man who is enjoying his triumph. He calmly finishes his tea and disappears into the rain.


Scottish independence: campaigns make final pitches in last 24 hours before vote

Yes and no campaign leaders out in force across Scotland, as Alistair Darling admits vote will go 'right down to the wire'

Rowena Mason, Severin Carrell and Patrick Wintour, Wednesday 17 September 2014 12.53 BST   
The leaders of the yes and no campaigns are making their final pitches in the Scottish referendum campaign ahead of Thursday's historic vote, with the first minister Alex Salmond saying Scotland would be the "envy of the world" if it votes to leave the UK.

The three latest pollsfrom ICM, Opinium and Survation suggest the no campaign has a slight lead, showing support for independence at about 48% and those backing the union at about 52%. Alistair Darling, the leader of the Better Together campaign, said the vote would go "right down to the wire".

With just under 24 hours to go before polls open, campaigners will be out in force across Scotland making their final pleas and delivering millions of leaflets in an attempt to swing undecided voters.

Ed Miliband is due to make a series of campaigning visits over the next two days and Gordon Brown is leading a rally in Glasgow on Wednesday morning, as Labour battles to save the 307-year-old union in a part of the country that it considers part of its core constituency.

The Westminster party leaders have unveiled a package of devolution measures and made a promise to keep the Barnett formula, which ensures 19% more spending per head for Scots than the English, in a last-minute attempt to save the union.

The yes campaign is targeting older voters who are more likely to say no to independence and holding a rally of celebrity supporters in Glasgow. Salmond is giving a final speech in Perth on Wednesday night, after writing an impassioned open letter to Scotland urging people to vote so that they wake up on Friday in a better country.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Wednesday morning, he dismissed the offer of the Better Together campaign.

"These are the same package that was announced last spring, reannounced a week ago and repackaged in desperation yesterday by the three Westminster leaders. They've been heavily discounted by the Scottish people. And as for the currency we'll use? We'll use the pound."

On the same programme, Darling gave a final warning to the Scots that there would be no going back if independence did not work out.

"It's not like a general election where if it doesn't work out, or you don't like the government of the day, you can kick them out," he said.

"This time the vote we cast tomorrow is final. If we decide to go, there is no going back. I believe that voting no gets you a stronger Scotland, with a stronger Scottish parliament. Voting yes brings all sorts of risks, on currency, on jobs, and I think the majority of people in Scotland just don't want that. There are so many unanswered questions, so much uncertainty as to how it would affect families, with price rises and so on. Which is why I think, by the end of tomorrow, we'll win."

Better Together is facing a nervous wait, after losing its clear lead in the polls over the past few months. Recriminations have already started to fly within the no camp, and some Westminster MPs are angry that David Cameron and Ed Miliband have promised so much Scottish devolution without considering the needs of England or consulting parliament.

The prime minister is seen has having taken a gamble by offering the referendum with a misplaced degree of certainty that he would win.

Cameron defended his decision in the Times, saying: "I think that actually Scottish independence would be closer today if I had taken that approach than it is by having a proper, legal, fair and decisive referendum."

Both sides have been putting pressure on celebrities, business leaders and other opinion leaders to speak out in their favour with endorsements over the past few weeks.

A major coup for the no campaign was the support of Bill Clinton, the former US president, on the grounds that the new powers due to be devolved to the Scottish parliament would guarantee "maximum self-determination". He said: "I understand and sympathise with those who want independence … however, I hope the Scots people will vote to remain in the UK."

Fourteen former British military chiefs also issued an urgent warning to voters in Scotland, saying Thursday's referendum could prove "critical to our security".

Rupert Murdoch, the executive chairman of News Corp, who appeared to be flirting with the yes camp during a brief trip to Scotland over the weekend, has hedged his bets after the Scottish Sun declined to endorse either side. In an editorial on Wednesday the paper said the decision was so momentous people had to make up their own mind.

The final days of campaigning have been dominated by the battleground issues of the NHS and the UK constitution. Demonstrations have taken an abusive and chaotic turn in some areas, with Miliband forced to abandon a walkabout because he was being shouted at and insulted by yes supporters.

The Labour leader was caught in a crush with TV crews and journalists at the St James shopping centre in central Edinburgh. Yes campaigners hurled abuse at him, calling him a liar and a serial murderer, prompting him to say: "I think we've seen in parts of this campaign an ugly side to it from the yes campaign."

It was the latest in a series of incidents in which senior Scottish Labour figures campaigning for a no vote, including Jim Murphy and Gordon Brown, have been targeted by pro-independence protesters.

In one snatched interview during the melee, Miliband said he was in Edinburgh to argue for "more powers for a stronger Scotland as well as NHS funding guaranteed, and that's got to be weighed up against the big risks of voting yes. And that's the choice people are facing in the last couple of days of this campaign."

There were also claims that Alex Salmond had tried to put pressure on Prof Louise Richardson, the principal of St Andrews University to criticise the Westminster government's higher education policy. The Telegraph reported that the First Minister phoned Richardson after she refused to put out a statement penned for her by one of Salmond's aides.

In the referendum campaign's final surge, rival campaigns have sent out more than 4m leaflets. Yes Scotland targeted pensioners with 1.2 million personally addressed appeals.

Salmond suffered a blow when a leaked document raised significant questions about the Scottish government's funding of the NHS.

The paper for senior NHS managers revealed they were planning to have to deal with a £450m shortfall over the next two years. Sweeping cuts would be needed to fund the shortfall, the document said.

The leak sabotaged Salmond's efforts to put the future of Scotland's health services at the centre of the yes campaign, by alleging that NHS privatisation policy in England could force Scotland to cut health spending.


Scottish independence: thousands of activists to mobilise voters on big day

Both sides to take to streets during Thursday's referendum in Scotland's largest ever get-out-the-vote operation
Libby Brooks, Scotland reporter, Wednesday 17 September 2014 06.00 BST

Tens of thousands of activists from both sides of the Scottish independence referendum campaign will take to the streets on Thursday in the largest and most intensely coordinated get-out-the-vote operation the country has ever seen.

A mixture of seasoned party activists and first-timers radicalised by the referendum campaign will be making phone calls, knocking on doors and ferrying voters to polling stations from 7am.

Yes Scotland estimates that 35,000 activists coordinated by 300 local yes groups across the country will contact 1.5 million voters on the day, while Better Together has already made 50,000 calls in the past 48 hours and estimates upwards of 25,000 activists will mobilise on Thursday.

In a strategy that has proved successful in UK target seats and US elections, Better Together is asking core no voters to fill in a pledge card with the time they intend to visit their polling station, in order to allow local activists to stagger resources effectively.

The pro-union campaign has also been contacting 500,000 individuals it has identified as still undecided, by mail, phone and face to face in the runup to polling day.

On the yes side, grassroots organisations such as Women for Independence and the Radical Independence Campaign will work alongside SNP activists under the Yes Scotland umbrella for the day, sending their members to local yes hubs from which they will be organised to contact voters identified by the YesMo mobile app, which canvassers have been using to log voting intention.

The yes campaign in particular will concentrate on reaching those who don't normally vote and are newly registered. Yes Scotland believes that a high turnout will work in their favour, anticipating up to 86% and boosted by the good weather forecast for Thursday.

Both campaigns will be making vehicles available to drive people to polling stations, with coaches and multipurpose vehicles with sound systems in strongly yes areas. Yes vans with rooftop loudhailers can already be seen driving around Glasgow.

The no campaign is anticipating help from activists travelling up from other parts of the UK , including Labour MPs and Welsh assembly members, and there have been some suggestions that relying on diminished Scottish Labour party networks could leave them underpowered.

But Better Together insisted: "This will be a huge operation and we are very confident", saying its operation had already been road-tested in the first week of postal votes being sent out, with "very encouraging" results.

Yes activists are talking of generating a "carnival atmosphere" on Thursday, with some local groups planning marches with pipers and musicians. However, concerns have been raised that this could result in disruption or intimidation around polling stations.

A spokesperson for Better Together said voting was "a sensitive issue", adding: "Handing out leaflets with a happy smile is the right thing to do, but noisy groups marching is a worry if it turns people away." Yes Scotland said marches were not being organised centrally and should be conducted "peacefully and lawfully".

Kate Higgins, a coordinator for Women for Independence based in west Edinburgh, said the group was placing a particular emphasis on having activists available outside polling stations to answer last-minute questions, but added that training in Electoral Commission guidelines had been provided. She said: "We want tomorrow to be a happy and celebratory day."

Jonathan Shafi of the Radical Independence Campaign said that in Glasgow hundreds of new activists who had gained experience through the group's mass canvassing of estates would be linking up with eight yes campaign hubs across the city.

He said: "We have developed a new layer of activists who have got involved in politics for the first time as a result of the referendum. This is the crystallisation of everything that we've been working for over the last two years."


Spain says it could take independent Scotland years to win EU membership

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy also seeks to draw clear line between secessionist movements in Scotland and Catalonia

Ashifa Kassam in Madrid, Wednesday 17 September 2014 12.42 BST   
Spain's prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has said it could take years for an independent Scotland to be integrated into the EU, as all 28 countries would need to unanimously agree.

"It's clear that if one part of a state separates, it converts itself into a third territory with respect to the EU," he said, pointing to treaties and remarks by EU leaders. "They can ask to be integrated and begin a process that could take years. In the case of Spain it took eight years."

Rajoy has previously suggested he would block Scotland's entry into the EU.

With the referendum in Scotland only hours away, the strength of the yes campaign has buoyed separatists in Catalonia and put the Spanish government on the defensive. Madrid argues that unlike Scotland, any type of vote for independence in Catalonia would violate the country's 1978 constitution, which states that such issues must be decided by all Spaniards.

Rajoy's remarks to parliament on Wednesday came in response to a question from Aitor Esteban, a Basque Nationalist party MP, who asked: "If the yes campaign wins tomorrow's Scottish referendum, will your government facilitate the integration of Scotland in the European Union?"

Rajoy said he had spoken to representatives from the 28 countries in the EU and that "everyone in Europe thinks that these processes are tremendously negative because they generate economic recessions and more poverty for everyone".

They act like a "torpedo to the vulnerabilities of the EU, which was created to integrate states, not to fragment them. Strong states are what's needed today," he said.

Rajoy sought to draw a clear line between the secession movements in Scotland and Catalonia. "There are many differences between the process of Scotland and that of here. The main one is that Scotland has virtually no powers compared to Catalonia and other autonomous regions."

On Tuesday, Spain's foreign minister, José Manuel García Margallo, said his government would do everything it could to block any sort of referendum from taking place in Catalonia. "Each and every Spaniards is the owner of each and every square centimetre of the country," he said.

On Wednesday, he said Scottish secession would be a catastrophe. "It would start a process of Balkanisation that nobody in Europe wants," he said.

Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister, has long argued that it would be possible for the country to renegotiate membership of the EU from within. In a speech on the subject in April, he said it would be absurd to deny the people of Scotland entry.

"The Scottish government recognises that continued membership of the EU will require negotiations on the specific terms. That is only right and proper, but these negotiations will be completed within the 18-month period between a yes vote in September and achieving independence in March 2016," he said. "Scotland will ask for continued membership on the basis of 'continuity of effect'."

"Five and a quarter million people ceasing to be EU citizens against their will … is more than absurd. There is simply no legal basis in the EU treaties for any such proposition. And it is against the founding principles of the European Union."


Scottish independence referendum: the global view

How nations from Spain to China view the possible effects of Thursday's vote, Wednesday
17 September 2014 06.00 BST       


Scottish independence is being thought of in Germany mainly for its potential effect on the EU – especially its nascent separatist movements. And the general mood is wary. Die Welt newspaper has been sneering – describing separatism as a "virus" spreading through Europe that has already infected half the population in "northern Great Britain," before adding, "All Europeans are thinking: we really have other problems." More sober outlets such as Der Spiegel and the Süddeutsche Zeitung also warned of economic consequences, and voiced their fears that a yes vote would give the UK's Eurosceptics the ammunition they need to sever the country from Brussels.

The German left has been a lot more positive. Though agnostic on the question of independence itself, they have praised the yes campaign for vowing to get rid of nuclear weapons and for shaking up the complacency of the London establishment. In fact, the only corner of conservative Germany that has come out in full-blooded support is the tiny Bayernpartei – Bavaria's own independence party, which welcomes Scottish independence because, if nothing else, "our media would no longer find it so easy to negate the issue or make it ridiculous".

Ben Knight

China's official line is that the referendum is an internal matter. But it has not missed the parallel with demands for autonomy or even independence for Xinjiang and Tibet. Beijing takes a harsh line on separatism, and the state-run Global Times newspaper this week ran a second editorial attacking the referendum, saying a yes vote would have a wider impact beyond damaging the UK.

"An incredibly large number of nations will suffer from secessional movements if other nations follow Scotland's example," it warned. "If national self-determination has become a paramount principle overwhelming everything else, Europe will constantly break up into smaller and smaller fractions … This will also serve as a typical case where the interests of a minority are antagonistic to those of a majority. Most people in the UK are reluctant to see their country split apart."

Ordinary Chinese people have shown relatively little interest, though some have questioned British acquaintances: "Will there be fighting?" one asked this week.

On Weibo, a popular Twitter-like service, one user noted it was impossible for China to support independence, which would be "very dangerous politically, given the troubles in Hong Kong".

Another satirised the Chinese government's proclamations on territorial issues, arguing: "The prime minister did not need to weep and beg for Scotland to stay. He just need to make a three-point statement: one – Scotland has been an inalienable part of the UK since ancient times; two – Any attempt to separate Scotland from the union would be futile and unpopular; three – The Scottish people should keep their eyes open so as not to be used by foreign forces with ulterior motives."

Tania Branigan

Until the yes vote surged Australians were more likely to be talking about rose-growing season in Greenland than the faint possibility of Scottish independence, but once the odds shortened Australia finally decided to take it seriously.

The Age got its "Scot abroad" take on the referendum from a senior writer, Jill Stark, who migrated to Australia when she was 25 and is planning to take a day off work to watch the votes roll in on Friday (Aussie time).

"It is only fair for those who live there to decide its future, but it is not easy to watch this defining moment unfold from afar," she wrote.

"I feel locked out, my hands pressed up against the glass of history. When I was home I felt I had at least one foot inside the party, immersing myself fully in the carnival of it all. I have never seen Scotland so engaged in the political process."

The practical repercussions are also being raised, with National Australia Bank threatening to leave Scotland if it becomes independent and potentially costing shareholders $200m (£110m).

At the Murdoch-owned the Australian, the foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, an Irish-Australian, was torn between his Thatcheresque sensibilities and the appeal of Celtic "romance".

"It has been remarkable how little pro-British sentiment there has been. All the romance and all the calls of kinship and heritage have emanated from the Celtic sentiment of Scottish specialness," he wrote.

"In some ways, Scotland now is to Britain what Tasmania is to Australia, pretty, picturesque and constantly in need of subsidy."

The chief executive of AusFlag, which campaigns for a new national flag, knows an opportune moment when he sees it – despite a multitude of legal experts saying an independent Scotland would require no change to the union jack on the Australian flag.

"The notion that if Scotland leaves the union that we should possibly have to change our flag, it shows the absurdity of our flag," Scruby said. "We are not a colony, homeland protectorate or dominion of Great Britain."

Bridie Jabour

In India, a vast and diverse union of scores of different linguistic, ethnic and religious communities, and lots of separatist movements, commentators have been watching the Scottish referendum with interest. Policymakers in Delhi have long feared "fissiparous tendencies" that could lead to fragmentation of the 67-year-old nation.

In the financial newspaper Mint, its former London correspondent Dipankar De Sarkar offered lessons for India: stick with small local-level referendums but explore options beyond a straight yes or no; think more seriously about devolution; get ministers from "fringe states" such as Jammu and Kashmir and those in the remote north-east into central government and work on federating India further, not centralising it.

A second commentator, in the Times of India, said that "nation building is a fluid and evolving exercise" and that "the idea of a union needs constant nourishment … by leaders for it to survive".

Sushma Swaraj, the foreign minister, simply said "God forbid, I don't think any such possibility exists at the moment," when asked last week about the potential breakup of the United Kingdom at a press conference. Moments later she changed her response to "It is up to the people of Scotland to decide" after being passed a note by an official.

Jason Burke

Spain's press has seized on the forthcoming referendum, covering it prominently and in many cases, drawing parallels between the situations in Scotland and Catalonia.

Most have pointed out the glaring differences between the two, including Catalonia's greater contribution to Spain in terms of population. Madrid must also contend with the idea that any concessions it makes to Catalonia will likely have to be extended to other regions with an eye on independence, such as the Basque country.

Still, for many in Spain the two secessionist drives are impossible to untangle. Media sympathetic to Catalan independence have sought to highlight that while Scots will have the chance to vote on their future on Thursday, the same right has been thus far denied to Catalans. Others have taken aim at David Cameron for allowing a referendum in Scotland. In an opinion piece for Bilbao's El Correo, Javier Tajadura argued that the Scottish referendum is not an example for Europe to follow, but instead "the most irresponsible act a Western political leader has committed since the second world war." "Cameron has opened a Pandora's box with formidable destabilising potential," the law professor at the University of the Basque Country wrote. "Not only because it would fragment one of the west's top military powers but also because it feeds into the principle of self-determination under which 'cultural nations' must be able to convert themselves into independent states."

El País has covered the issue with a zeal often reserved for local issues, exploring Cameron's appeals against independence and asking what would happen after a yes vote. In a nod to Madrid's concerns about spreading secessionism, the Spanish daily has also covered how the referendum in Scotland has reawakened the spirits of separatists in Quebec. Coverage in El Mundo has meanwhile emphasised the consequences of separation, echoing how the rightwing daily often covers the Catalan issue. "Dreams will be shattered," read the headline of one anti-independence opinion piece on Tuesday.

Ashifa Kassam

Americans may be forgiven for having to play catch-up on the question of Scottish independence. Before a shock poll two weeks ago, not even London seemed particularly bothered by the prospect. Now, with global banks hollering and the prime minister on the verge of tears, the world has realised that a political earthquake is potentially at hand.

The US media has jumped into action to make worthy spectators of the American public of Thursday's moment of truth. "Scots, what the heck?" proclaimed the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman as he warned Scottish citizens: "Be afraid, be very afraid."

Despite the special relationship, the US media has laced its coverage with tones of desperation – frequently mentioning Cameron's "begging" and "pleading" to keep the union together. Clearly, the US is still clinging to centuries-old resentments from its own rebellion against the Empire a few hundred years back.

Hence certain easy equivalencies and hackneyed caricatures have crept into US coverage of the Scottish referendum. An NBC Nightly News on-the-ground report from Edinburgh began by describing Scotland as the "land of bagpipes and Braveheart," and went on to show a failed attempt to raise the Scottish flag over 10 Downing Street.

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