Residents of Saraqeb town in Syria's Idlib province rose up and drove off fighters of the local al-Qaeda affiliate after jihadists fired on a protest demonstration. The incident began July 18, when Saraqeb residents held self-organized elections for the town council, and raised the Free Syria flag from the radio tower in celebration. Fighters from Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) responded by tearing down the flag, trampling it, and firing in the air in a display of defiance. This sparked general protests against the group's presence in Saraqeb. The following day local media activist Musaab al-Ezzo was killed as HTS militants fired on demonstrators. This only escalated the protests; after his funeral the next day, residents marched on HTS positions chating "Out, out, cowards out!" and "Saraqeb is free, Jolani out!"—a reference to HTS commander Abu Mohammed al-Jolani. HTS again opened fire, but in the face of nearly universal opposition among residents they finally withdrew from the town.
Under the slogan "The People Are Stronger Than You," thousands of local residents have repeatedly taken to the streets of Ma'arat al-Numan, a town in Syria's northwestern Idlib governorate, to oppose the rule of jihadist forces that have seized control there. The protests broke out after the Qaeda-affiliated militia that controls the town, Hayat Tahrir a-Sham (HTS, an offshoot of the Nusra Front) raided the local headquarters of the Free Syrian Army's Division 13, killing and detaining several FSA fighters on June 8. The biggest reported protest came on June 11, when thousands of residents and civil resistance activists waving Free Syrian flags mobilized to demand the release of the detained fighters. "We will continue to resist [HTS] in the same way that we peacefully resisted the Syrian regime, and endured its crackdown on protests," Khaled al-Hamid, a 22-year-old protest organizer, told independent news site Syria Deeply. (More at Global Voices)
After threatening to do it for months, the Philippines' ultra-hardline President Rodrigo Duterte on May 23 declared martial law on the conflicted southern island of Mindanao. The declaration takes immediate effect and will last for 60 days—officially. But in his comments upon the declaration, Duterte said it could last up to "a year"—and (not for the first time) favorably invoked the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, under whose harsh rule the Philippines saw a decade of martial law. "To those who have experienced martial law, it would not be any different from what president Marcos did," Duterte said. "I'll be harsh."
In a strange imbroglio, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen and the Maldives on June 5 all announced that they are breaking off diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism. All but Egypt also cut off all travel links with the country. The Saudi statement accused Qatar of "adopting various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region including the Muslim Brotherhood Group, Daesh (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda, " and of "supporting the activities of Iranian-backed terrorist groups" in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Days earlier, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain all blocked Al Jazeera and other Qatar-based news websites after Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani was quoted as saying "There is no reason behind Arabs' hostility to Iran"—an obvious reference to the Saudis and Bahrain. Qatar quickly responded that the comment had been "fabricated" when hackers took control of the official Qatar News Agency website (which appears to still be down, although the QNA Twitter account is up). (BBC News, Al Jazeera, May 5; BBC News, Al Jazeera, May 25)
A new Qaeda-affiliated faction, the Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (Group for Support of Islam and Muslims, JNIM), is said to be behind a string of recent deadly attacks in Mali's conflcited desert north. The group claimed responsibility for a May 7 suicide assault on a military base at Almoustarat, outside the northern city of Gao, that left seven Malian soliders dead. The jihadists breached the base perimeter, and were able to capture at least three vehicles and large amounts of weapons before French troops arrived. JNIM also claimed a May 3 raid on a camp of the MINUSMA peacekeeping force outside Timbuktu that killed a Liberian solider. Under the nominal command of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), JNIM is apparently attemtping to reunite the fragmented jihadist insurgency in northern Mali. It has apparently absorbed the Murabitoun group, until now the most active jihadist faction in Mali. (Journal du Mali, May 9; Long War Journal, May 8; UN News Centre, May 4)
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.
The US military will keep an unspecified number of ground troops in Libya to help local forces further degrade the ISIS faction there, and also seeks greater scope to target insurgents in Somalia, Africa Command chief Gen. Thomas Waldhauser told reporters at the Pentagon March 24. "We're going to maintain a force that has the ability to develop intelligence, work with various groups as required, or be able to assist if required...to take out ISIS targets," said Gen. Waldhauser, boasting that the ISIS presence in coastal Libya has fallen below 200 from an estimated 5,000 only a year ago. In Somalia, where al-Qaeda affiliate Shabaab remains a threat, Waldhauser hopes the Trump White House will loosen rules of engagement established by the Obama administration to avoid "collateral damage." "I think the combatant commanders, myself included, are more than capable of making judgments and determinations on some of these targets," he said. (Military Times, March 24)
More than 850 family members of victims of the 9-11 attacks filed a lawsuit (PDF) March 20 against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, alleging that the Saudi state provided support to al-Qaeda in multiple ways. First, it alleges that Saudi Arabian charities ran terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, working hand-in-hand with Osama bin Laden. The suit also claims that the Saudi government directly aided al-Qaeda by providing passports and transportation across the globe. Finally, the suit contends that certain Saudi officials worked with the hijackers in the US for the 18 months leading up to the attacks. The suit seeks unspecified damages, with the primary motive to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the attacks.