Daesh gunman’s fugitive widow convicted in 2015 Paris attacks

Tributes left outside the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris after the 2015 attack. (AFP/File)
Tributes left outside the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris after the 2015 attack. (AFP/File)
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Updated 16 December 2020

Daesh gunman’s fugitive widow convicted in 2015 Paris attacks

Daesh gunman’s fugitive widow convicted in 2015 Paris attacks
  • Hayat Boumeddiene was one of 14 people on trial for the attacks
  • Satirical Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a kosher supermarket were targeted in January 2015

PARIS: The fugitive widow of a Daesh gunman and a man described as his logistician were convicted Wednesday of terrorism charges and sentenced to 30 years in prison in the trial of 14 people linked to the January 2015 Paris attacks against the satirical Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a kosher supermarket.
The verdict ends the three-month trial linked to the three days of killings across Paris claimed jointly by the Daesh group and Al-Qaeda. During the proceedings, France was struck by new attacks, a wave of coronavirus infections among the defendants, and devastating testimony bearing witness to bloodshed that continues to shake France.
Patrick Klugman, a lawyer for the survivors of the market attack, said the verdict sent a message to sympathizers. “We accuse the executioner but ultimately it is worse to be his valet,” he said.
All three attackers died in police raids. The widow, Hayat Boumeddiene, fled to Syria and is believed to still be alive. The two men who spirited her out of France are thought to be dead, although one received a sentence of life in prison just in case and the other was convicted separately.
Eleven others were present and all were convicted of the crime, with sentences ranging from 30 years for Boumeddiene and Ali Riza Polat, described as the lieutenant of the virulently anti-Semitic market attacker, Amédy Coulibaly, to four years with a simple criminal conviction.
The Jan. 7-9, 2015, attacks in Paris left 17 dead along with the three gunmen. The 11 men standing trial formed a loose circle of friends and criminal acquaintances who claimed any facilitating they may have done was unwitting.
One gambled day and night during the three-day period, learning what had happened only after emerging blearily from the casino. Another was a pot-smoking ambulance driver. A third was a childhood friend of the market attacker, who got beaten to a pulp by the latter over a debt.
It was the coronavirus infection of Polat that forced the suspension of the trial for a month.
Polat’s lawyer, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, described him as a scapegoat who knew nothing about Coulibaly’s plans. She said he would appeal.
“He knew from the beginning it was a fictional trial,” she said afterward.
In all, investigators sifted through 37 million bits of phone data, according to video testimony by judicial police. Among the men cuffed behind the courtroom’s enclosed stands, flanked by masked and armed officers, were several who had exchanged dozens of texts or calls with Coulibaly in the days leading up to the attack.
Also testifying were the widows of Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, the brothers who stormed Charlie Hebdo’s offices on Jan. 7, 2015, decimating the newspaper’s editorial staff in what they said was an act of vengeance for its publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad years before. The offices had been firebombed before and were unmarked, and editors had round-the-clock protection. But it wasn’t enough.
In all, 12 people died that day. The first was Frédéric Boisseau, who worked in maintenance. Then the Kouachis seized Corinne Rey, a cartoonist who had gone down to smoke, and forced her upstairs to punch in the door code. She watched in horror as they opened fire on the editorial meeting.
“I was not killed, but what happened to me was absolutely chilling and I will live with it until my life is over,” she testified.
The next day, Coulibaly shot and killed a young policewoman after failing to attack a Jewish community center in the suburb of Montrouge. By then, the Kouachis were on the run and France was paralyzed with fear.
Authorities didn’t link the shooting to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo immediately. They were closing in on the Kouachis when the first alerts came of a gunman inside a kosher supermarket. It was a wintry Friday afternoon, and customers were rushing to finish their shopping before the Sabbath when Coulibaly entered, carrying an assault rifle, pistols and explosives. With a GoPro camera fixed to his torso, he methodically fired on an employee and a customer, then killed a second customer before ordering a cashier to close the store’s metal blinds.
The first victim, Yohan Cohen, lay dying on the ground and Coulibaly turned to some 20 hostages and asked if he should “finish him off.” Despite their pleas, Coulibaly fired the killing shot, according to testimony from cashier Zarie Sibony.
“You are Jews and French, the two things I hate the most,” Coulibaly told them.
Some 40 kilometers (25 miles) away, the Kouachi brothers were cornered in a printing shop with their own hostages. Ultimately, all three attackers died in near-simultaneous police raids. It was the first attack in Europe claimed by the Daesh group, which struck Paris again later that year to even deadlier effect.
“This is the end of a trial that’s been crazy, illuminating, painful but which has been useful,” said Richard Malka, a lawyer for Charlie Hebdo.
Prosecutors said the Kouachis essentially self-financed their attack, while Coulibaly and his wife took out fraudulent loans. Boumeddiene, the only woman on trial, fled to Syria days before the attack and appeared in Daesh propaganda.
One witness, the French widow of a Daesh emir, testified from prison that she’d run across Boumeddiene late last year at a camp in Syria and Boumeddiene’s foster sisters said they believed she was still alive. Testifying as a free man after a brief prison term, for reasons both defense attorneys and victims described as baffling, was the far-right sympathizer turned police informant who actually sold the weapons to Coulibaly.
Three weeks into the trial, on Sept. 25, a Pakistani man steeped in radical Islam and armed with a butcher’s knife attacked two people outside Charlie Hebdo’s vacated offices.
Six weeks into the trial, on Oct. 16, a French schoolteacher who opened a debate on free speech by showing students the Muhammad caricatures was beheaded by an 18-year-old Chechen refugee.
Eight weeks into the trial, on Oct. 30, a young Tunisian armed with a knife and carrying a copy of the Qur’an attacked worshippers in a church in the southern city of Nice, killing three. He had a photo of the Chechen on his phone and an audio message describing France as a “country of unbelievers.”


World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant

World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant
Updated 28 November 2021

World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant

World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant
  • Scientists are still learning about the variant, first identified at the start of this week
  • Several countries, including in the Gulf, institute travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa

JEDDAH: Fears mounted on Saturday that a highly infectious new COVID-19 strain was pushing its way into Europe as the world brought the shutters down to contain the new omicron variant.

Britain confirmed its first two infections and suspected new cases emerged in Germany and the Czech Republic, while Dutch authorities quarantined 61 passengers from South Africa who tested positive for COVID-19.

South Africa complained it was being “punished” with air travel bans for first detecting the strain, which the World Health Organization has termed a “variant of concern.”

South Korea, Australia, and Thailand joined the US, Brazil, Canada, and a host of other countries around the world restricting travel from the region, fearing a major setback to global efforts against the pandemic.

Saudi Arabia was among countries in the Middle East and North Africa to ban travelers from several African nations.

The Saudi Interior Ministry and authorities in the UAE said visitors from seven African countries were barred from entry.

They listed the countries as South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Eswatini.

The Saudi ban comprises flights to and from those countries. But foreign nationals from the seven countries could enter the Kingdom if they had spent the previous 14 days in another country and comply with Saudi health protocols.

In a separate announcement on Saturday, the Interior Ministry said the Kingdom will allow direct entry to travelers from all countries who have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine starting next Saturday. The ministry added the travelers would need to quarantine for three days.

Scientists are racing to determine the threat posed by the heavily mutated strain, which is more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant, and whether it can evade existing vaccines.

Anxious travelers thronged Johannesburg international airport, desperate to squeeze onto the last flights to countries that had imposed sudden travel bans. Many had cut holidays and rushed back from South African safaris and vineyards.

“It’s ridiculous, we will always be having new variants,” British tourist David Good said, passport in hand. “South Africa found it but it’s probably all over the world already.”

The WHO on Friday declared the recently discovered B.1.1.529 strain of COVID-19 to be a variant of concern, renaming it omicron.

Professor Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the omicron variant.

He said most of the mutations appear to be in similar regions as those in other variants.

South Africa is worried that the curbs will hurt tourism and other sectors of its economy, the Foreign Ministry said, adding the government is engaging with countries that have imposed travel bans to persuade them to reconsider.

Omicron has emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in COVID-19 infections, and some have re-introduced restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread. Austria and Slovakia have entered lockdowns.


Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron

Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron
Updated 28 November 2021

Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron

Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron
  • Manila imposes new travel curbs over omicron variant fears

MANILA: The Philippines has imposed new restrictions and is considering expanding its travel ban to include new countries, officials said on Saturday, amid concerns over the emergence of the new omicron COVID-19 strain.
The new variant was reported to the World Heath Organization from South Africa earlier this week. It has already been detected in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel. The organization on Friday declared the new variant, dubbed omicron, as being “of concern” — the most serious category the agency uses for tracking outbreaks.
The announcement came as the Philippines said that it would start accepting vaccinated foreign tourists from low-risk countries from Dec. 1, after more than 20 months of having its borders shut to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Soon after the update, Manila moved to ban inbound travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique. On Saturday, acting presidential spokesperson Karlo Nograles said in a statement the ban “shall take effect immediately and until Dec. 15.”
Dr. Beverly Ho, director at the health promotion and control bureau, told reporters the list of banned destinations may be expanded further.
“There is already an ongoing discussion, and expect that there will be developments,” she said in a press briefing.
“The decision will be based on the data that we will get,” she added, saying that the response to any infectious disease “always starts with strict border controls.”
As the omicron variant has been reported in Hong Kong, home to more than 232,000 Filipino expats, many of whom will be heading home for Christmas holidays, Ho said that restrictions on travel from the region are now under discussion.
Since the WHO’s preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of infection with the omicron strain, Philippines media have been quoting health experts as urging caution to keep the country’s caseload in check.
“If omicron has many mutations, we presume that the behavior of this virus is more transmissible compared to the delta variant,” Dr. Rontgene Solante from the Philippine College of Physicians said, as quoted by the local media.
The number of COVID-19 infections in the Philippines has been steadily falling since mid-September, when the country was recording more than 26,000 new cases per day due to the spread of the highly infectious delta variant.
For the past few days, the country has been recording fewer than 1,000 new cases a day, with 899 reported on Saturday.


Indian PM orders review of COVID-19 response amid new variant fears

Indian PM orders review of COVID-19 response amid new variant fears
Updated 28 November 2021

Indian PM orders review of COVID-19 response amid new variant fears

Indian PM orders review of COVID-19 response amid new variant fears

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi directed local authorities on Saturday to increase their COVID-19 preparedness and review the country’s reopening for foreign arrivals, amid global concerns over the emergence of a new coronavirus strain.
The emergence of the omicron variant comes as India has managed to control the outbreak after facing a deadly COVID-19 wave which, fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant, killed over 450,000 people between March and May.
The South Asian nation announced on Friday it would reopen for international flights from Dec. 15, after more than 20 months of having its borders shut to stop the spread of COVID-19. On Saturday, Modi requested that the reopening plan be reviewed.
“PM asks officials to review plans for easing of international travel restrictions in light of the emerging new evidence,” his office said in a statement.
Modi also requested that technical support be provided to regions reporting high numbers of new infections and ordered coordination to ensure the proper functioning of oxygen plants and ventilators.
As India has so far fully vaccinated some 35 percent of its 1.3 billion population, the prime minister’s office said he had told officials to accelerate second-dose coverage.
Authorities in Mumbai, the financial center and industrial hub of India, have already announced that inbound passengers from South Africa will be quarantined on arrival and those who test positive for COVID-19 will have their samples sent for genome sequencing.
“There are concerns in Mumbai about the new variant of coronavirus,” Mumbai mayor Kishori Pednekar told reporters on Saturday. “There is an increased risk of COVID-19 in other nations, so those coming from abroad will have to undergo genome test.”
Prof. Rama V. Baru, epidemiologist at the Center of Social Medicine and Community Health at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said genomic sequencing may prove crucial in containing the spread and that a strategy to implement it should be introduced by the Indian Council of Medical Research — the country’s top medical research body.
“Testing can be done, but after testing you need to know what is the variant. For that you need genomic sequencing,” she told Arab News. “There has to be a design by which the ICMR comes up with a protocol because they have a network of institutions in different parts of the country. We need to be proactive and quick before the number of patients increases. Once the number increases, our capacity for genomic sequencing is very limited.”


Top US diplomat calls for speedy negotiations over Ethiopia

Top US diplomat calls for speedy negotiations over Ethiopia
Updated 27 November 2021

Top US diplomat calls for speedy negotiations over Ethiopia

Top US diplomat calls for speedy negotiations over Ethiopia

NAIROBI: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is greatly concerned about Ethiopia’s military escalation and called for urgent negotiations over the crisis, a US State Department spokesperson said.
The comments came hours after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appeared on the frontline with the national army.
“Secretary Blinken expressed grave concern about worrying signs of military escalation in Ethiopia and emphasised the need to urgently move to negotiations,” Ned Price said in a statement late on Friday.
Price released the statement after a phone call between Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Blinken.
On Friday, Ethiopia’s state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting reported that Abiy was on the frontline with the army fighting rebellious Tigrayan forces in the northeastern Afar region. Abiy posted the same video on his Twitter account.
Abiy’s government has been fighting Tigrayan forces for more than a year, in a conflict that has killed thousands and displaced millions in Africa’s second-most populous nation.
Ethiopia has announced new restrictions on the sharing of information about the war in the north of the country which stipulate that battlefront updates can only come from the government.
“Disseminating information on military maneuvers, war front updates and results via any medium is forbidden,” except for information provided by a joint civilian-military command set up to oversee a state of emergency, the government’s communication service said late on Thursday.
The statement did not specify the implications of the new rules for journalists or media outlets covering the war, which broke out last November between the government and rebellious forces from the northern region of Tigray.
It did not, for instance, address the consequence of publishing information provided by unauthorized sources. Ethiopia’s media regulator did not return calls from Reuters seeking clarification on the matter.
The Prime Minister’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, told Reuters on Friday, “The state of emergency prohibits unauthorized entities from disseminating activities from the front via various channels including media.” She did not elaborate.
Ethiopia’s parliament designated the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the party that controls most of Tigray, a terrorist group earlier this year. In its statement, the government’s communication service instructed “those using freedom of speech as a pretext ... to support the terrorist group” to refrain from doing so.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed oversaw sweeping reforms when he took office in 2018, including the unbanning of more than 250 media outlets, the release of dozens of journalists and the repeal of some widely criticized media laws.
However, some rights groups say press freedom has eroded since then as the government has faced outbreaks of deadly violence, including the conflict in Tigray and neighbouring regions.
At least 38 journalists and media workers have been detained since early 2020, most of them since the conflict began, according to a Reuters tally.
Asked about the arrests in May, Ethiopia’s media regulator said “freedom of expression and the protection of the press are sacred values that are enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution.”


US, Turkey to step up war on financial roots of Daesh-K, experts say

US, Turkey to step up war on financial roots of Daesh-K, experts say
Updated 27 November 2021

US, Turkey to step up war on financial roots of Daesh-K, experts say

US, Turkey to step up war on financial roots of Daesh-K, experts say
  • Analysts refute Taliban claim that Afghanistan branch of terror group poses no threat to country
  • Ismatullah Khalozai’s property and interests in property under US jurisdiction are now blocked, while American citizens are barred from engaging in any transactions with him

ANKARA / KABUL: The US State Department on Monday imposed new sanctions on three leaders of the Afghanistan affiliate of Daesh, widely known as Daesh-K, and another man accused of operating a Turkey-based informal financial network.

The group’s leader, Sanaullah Ghafari, spokesperson Sultan Aziz Azam and Kabul province leader Maulawi Rajab were all named as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, while Ismatullah Khalozai, who is blamed for operating an informal money-moving network, known as a hawala, that has financially supported Daesh-K for the last two years, was also designated.

Khalozai is known as the financial facilitator for the group and has operated a financial scheme that involved the international resale of luxury items, whose earnings were used to finance Daesh-K. The US also accuses him of engaging in human smuggling operations, including bringing a Daesh-K courier from Afghanistan to Turkey.

Last year, Washington identified another critical financial facilitator for Daesh, the Turkey-based Adnan Mohammed Amin Al-Rawi.

Andrea Gacki, director of the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said of this week’s action against Khalozai: “(The) designation underscores the United States’ determination to prevent (Daesh-K) and its members from exploiting the international financial system to support terrorist acts in Afghanistan and beyond… The Biden administration is committed to rooting out terrorist financing networks around the world.”

All Khalozai’s property and interests in property under US jurisdiction are now blocked, while American citizens are barred from engaging in any transactions with him.

Following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August and rapid Taliban takeover, Daesh-K has gained a wide presence in 34 provinces and has stepped up its bloody attacks. The group most recently claimed responsibility for a double bomb attack in the Afghan capital Kabul this month.

Turkey’s Financial Crimes Investigation Board has been regularly going after Daesh’s illegal money transfer system and it cooperates with the US to track the hawala chain system.

Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a nonprofit organization focusing on violent extremism, said: “Turkey needs to open the books to the US Treasury Department and share intelligence on any terrorist networks known to operate on Turkish soil.”

He added that Turkey and the US should cooperate further to crack down on the financial roots of terror groups, regardless of any powerbroker that may benefit from the current arrangement. “So cracking down on this activity will cause some tensions,” Clarke told Arab News.

“After 9/11, the international community fell into the analytic trap of thinking that failed states like Afghanistan are the ideal safe haven for terrorist groups. However, countries like Turkey are far more valuable because they are connected to the trappings of globalization, from communications to transportation to global finance,” he added.

In 2019, Turkey disrupted another of Daesh’s illegal money transfer systems, which used Turkish and Syrian-based jewelry firms and foreign exchange offices as front companies.

Nihat Ali Ozcan, a security policy analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey in Ankara, said the illegal mobility of Daesh money did not appear as a result of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, but was ongoing before then.

“As the US began publicly tracking and announcing the origins of these money transfers, (it) means that there is ongoing cooperation between authorities in Ankara and Washington behind the scenes to cope with global financial crimes, because both countries are obliged to respect the relevant international commitments on this issue,” Ozcan told Arab News.

Ozcan said that, when the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August, half of the country’s parliamentarians had Turkish citizenship because of the assets and investments they had previously had in Turkey.

“Therefore, there are great legal and illegal financial flows in Turkey that also eventually involve human smuggling and drug trafficking. It is not a surprise that some illegal groups use the hawala system through Turkey to finance (Daesh-K) because of this global ecosystem of money and human mobility that goes across borders,” he added.

During the course of the summer, hundreds of Afghans crossed from Iran into Turkey every day. Experts underline that such human flows resulted in uncontrollable money movements within the country.

Ozcan expects that, from now on, the US and Turkey, both victims of terrorism, will step up their efforts to track the roots of the illegal transactions that have fed back to terror cells.

“This latest announcement by the US Treasury is just the beginning of a new process and this bilateral cooperation against global financial crimes will not be restricted to Afghanistan but will probably spread to the regions where Daesh is gaining presence,” he said.

An official Taliban spokesperson in Kabul said Daesh-K does not pose a threat to the country. Bilal Karimi, of the Taliban prime minister’s office, said: “They (Daesh-K) don’t have any adverse effect on Afghanistan. Those names in the list are the unknown faces, and one of them has already been killed two or three years ago. So they are not familiar to anyone; overall, Daesh is not a threat for Afghanistan’s Islamic emirate government or the Afghanistan people.”

He added: “You know that this type of criminal activity happens all over the world, but the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan arrested several people involved in those cases, and many of them were killed. Also, we have dismantled many groups of Daesh in Kabul and other provinces. This group (Daesh-K) doesn’t have any support from the people or any other organization. All of these actions are just show-offs for the Daesh group; they are not a threat. So they cannot do anything to Afghanistan’s Islamic emirate.”

However, Ahmad Sayeedi, an international relations expert, told Arab News that Daesh-K was a significant threat to Afghanistan because it has international support. “What I mean is that they have a lot of money and financial support. Daesh will be the most significant danger for Afghanistan. They will be based mainly in Jalalabad (in Nangarhar Province), the main base of Daesh; and in the cities of Sheberghan and Baghlan.”

Qais Zaheer, another international relations analyst, agreed. “Daesh is a potential threat to Afghan peace; they are the ugly face of terrorism in Afghanistan,” he said. “I think the reemergence of this group can provide an opportunity for the intervention of regional and international powers in Afghanistan.

“Unfortunately, due to the (return) of the group and also Taliban mistakes, the group has turned to action and, with the available financial resources of the group, it can pose threats to the Taliban regime. So putting their officials in US sanction lists can help Afghanistan and also the Taliban regime to fight and weaken Daesh-K in Afghanistan,” Zaheer added.