ISIS has claimed responsibility for an April 18 attack on a security checkpoint near the gates of St. Catherine's Monastery in Egypt's Sinai peninsula, in which one officer was slain and four injured. Founded in the 6th century and located at the foot of Mount Sinai, St. Catherine's is believed to be the world's oldest continuously used Christian monastery, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is affiliated with the Eastern Orthodox church. The attack came just 10 days before Pope Francis was scheduled to visit Egypt, and nine days after two deadly suicide bombings on Coptic churches, also claimed by ISIS. (Al Jazeera, BBC News, April 19)
"More Than 7,000 People Evacuated From 4 Besieged Syrian Towns." That's the somewhat misleading headline in the New York Times of April 14. Reads the lede: "After nearly two years of punishing siege and bombardment by their enemies, more than 7,000 people were bused out of four towns in Syria on Friday in the most recent population transfer during six years of war." Note the euphemistic language. This isn't "evacuation," which implies it is voluntary and in response to some objective disaster. This is "sectarian cleansing," part of an intentional Assad regime strategy to purge its growing areas of control of Sunnis, all of whom are apparently deemed official enemies. "Population transfer," as it is dubbed in the lede, is another euphemistic term, one all too familiar to those who have followed the growing consensus for territorial purging of perceived ethno-sectarian enemies in Israel.
Egyptian authorities have declared a three-month state of emergency after twin ISIS bombings killed 43 at two Coptic churches in the Nile Delta cities of in Tanta and Alexandria on Palm Sunday. Dozens more were injured in the attacks, which came as the churches were filled with worshippers. The first suicide blast, at Mar Girgis (St George) Church in Tanta, killed 27. Hours later, a second blast struck outside Saint Mark's church in Alexandria, where Coptic Pope Tawadros II was leading a service, killing a further 16. ISIS warned of more attacks in its statement. "The Crusaders and their apostate followers must be aware that the bill between us and them is very large, and they will be paying it like a river of blood from their sons, if God is willing," the group said in Arabic.
Fierce clashes broke out in Damascus this week after rebel fighters infiltrated the city through tunnels, breaching the regime's security perimeter. The surprise offensive marked a rare advance after months of steady losses for rebel forces across Syria. The Iraqi Shi'ite militia Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba announced that it has joined pro-regime forces in the defense of Jobar and Abbasin districts, the outlying areas that came under attack. The militia is said to be effectively led by officers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, against ponting to Tehran's critical role in support of the Bashar Assad regime.
A new Qaeda affiliate in Syria has claimed responsibility for a March 11 double bomb attack targeting Shi'ite pilgrims in Damascus that killed at least 40 Iraqis and wounded 120 more. Footage broadcast by Syrian state TV showed two buses with their windows blown out, the surroundings splattered with blood and littered with lost shoes and clothing. The attack took place near Bab al-Saghir cemetery, named for one of the seven gates of the Old City of Damascus. The pilgrims had arrived to pray at the cemetery after visiting the Sayeda Zeinab shrine outside Damascus, where the grand-daughter of the Prophet Mohammad is said to be buried. In a statement claiming responsibility, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Liberation of the Levant Organization) said the attack was "a message to Iran" over its support for the Bashar Assad regime. The group is identified as a breakaway faction of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the former Nusra Front) that has maintained ties with al-Qaeda. (BBC News, Reuters)
A suicide attack on a Sufi shrine Feb. 16 killed at least 75 worshippers and wounded dozens more—the deadliest in a string of blasts in Pakistan this week. At least 250 others were wounded, with the only hospital in the area overwhelmed. The blast went off outside the shrine of Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in the town of Sehwan, Sindh province. The blast took place during Dhamal, a weekly dance ritual, with hundreds of devotees present inside the shrine and lined up to enter. The Islamic State's Khorasan Province claimed responsibility for the attack. (Hindustan Times, Indian Express, BBC News, Al Jazeera)
A Pakistani anti-terrorism court acquitted 112 individuals suspected of taking part in the 2013 burning of 150 Christian homes and two churches in Lahore's Josep Colony. Ghulam Murtaza Chaudhry, the lawyer defending the suspects, stated that the suspects were acquitted because of a lack of evidence. Chaudhry stated the testimony of the plaintiffs was inconsistent and they could not identify those accused. The suspects were being charged under Pakistan's blasphemy law, which outlaws blasphemy against any recognized religion and provides penalties that range from a fine to death. At the time the acquittal was handed down, all 112 suspects were out on bail.
Iran's government and companies close to the elite Revolutionary Guards have signed major economic contracts with Syria, gaining control of large areas of the country in what appear to be lucrative rewards for helping President Bashar Assad regain control of territory from rebels. Five memorandums of understanding were signed during a visit by Syrian Prime Minister Emad Khamis to Tehran on Jan. 17, including a licence for Iran to become a mobile phone service operator in Syria, and phosphate mining contracts. "We greatly appreciate Iran's major role in combating terrorism and standing by the Syrian people in every way, politically and economically," Khamis said. Syria will give Iran 5,000 hectares of land for farming, and 1,000 hectares for setting up oil and gas terminals. A deal was also signed on providing lands for animal husbandry.