UK police detail ‘remarkable’ probe into Daesh ‘Beatles’ cell

UK police lifted the lid Wednesday on a years-long probe into the notorious Daesh kidnap-and-murder cell dubbed the “Beatles” by their captives. (AFP)
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Updated 17 August 2022
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UK police detail ‘remarkable’ probe into Daesh ‘Beatles’ cell

  • Counter-terrorism officers said the hostages' recollections helped "zero in" on three of the British captors
  • The Daesh cell members were known to their captives as the "Beatles" because of their distinctive British accents

LONDON: UK police lifted the lid Wednesday on a years-long probe into the notorious Daesh kidnap-and-murder cell dubbed the “Beatles” by their captives.
Counter-terrorism officers said the hostages’ recollections helped “zero in” on three of the British captors.
The Daesh cell members, who tried to keep their identities hidden, held dozens of foreign hostages in Syria between 2012 and 2015 and were known to their captives as the “Beatles” because of their distinctive British accents.
Two of them — 38-year-old Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, 34 — have been brought to justice in the United States for their part in the gruesome beheadings and killings of several Americans.
Another, Mohamed Emwazi — dubbed “Jihadi John” — died in Syria in 2015.
A fourth alleged British member was remanded in UK custody last week on terrorism charges after Turkey deported him following a jail term there.
Ahead of Elsheikh’s sentencing on Friday, British police have now detailed how their nearly decade-long probe unearthed key evidence used by US prosecutors to convict him in April.
“The building of the case is described as like putting together very small pieces of a jigsaw,” Richard Smith, the head of London police’s counter-terrorism unit, told reporters at a briefing Wednesday.
“What we pieced together here is a trail of breadcrumbs, fragments of breadcrumbs really, among a huge amount of other inquiries, which we were then able to present... to a court to assist the prosecution in the US.”
London’s Metropolitan Police first began probing what would become known as the “Beatles” cell in November 2012, when a spate of kidnappings of Western journalists and aid workers began in northern Syria.
Following some hostages’ release, as well as videos of other captives being beheaded by an executioner with a British accent, officers discovered some of the suspected perpetrators were UK citizens.
From the accounts of freed hostages, alongside other information and intelligence, they first identified the executioner as Emwazi.
Born in Kuwait but raised in the UK since aged six, he was killed by a US drone strike in Syria in 2015.
As British police worked to identify others, Smith said a “snippet of conversation” between captors and captives provided the key breakthrough.
Kotey and Elsheikh had revealed they were once arrested in central London at a far-right English Defense League (EDL) protest, which featured a counter-demonstration by an Islamic group.
Officers were able to trawl back through records of arrests at such events and discovered a September 2011 incident in which the pair were held over a stabbing.
Police then unearthed video footage of the duo from the day, data from their seized mobile phones that showed links to Emwazi, and other evidence leads.
“(That) one piece of information emerged from the hostages we spoke to, which was fairly unremarkable on the face of it to the hostage but proved very significant to us,” said Smith.
Officers also used a 2014 firearms conviction of Elsheikh’s brother to find further evidence from his mobile phone seized in that case.
It included images of Elsheikh in Syria in combat gear with a gun, and graphic pictures of severed heads which the 34-year-old had labelled “Syrian casualties.”
Meanwhile, officers discovered a 2009 police interview with him over an unrelated case that featured his voice, which experts were able to conclude was the same as a captor’s heard in Daesh hostage videos.
The “Beatles” cell is accused of abducting at least 27 journalists and relief workers from the United States, Britain, Europe, New Zealand, Russia and Japan.
Kotey and Elsheikh were captured in January 2018 by a Kurdish militia in Syria and turned over to US forces in Iraq before being sent to the US with UK permission.
There they faced charges of hostage-taking, conspiracy to murder US citizens and supporting a foreign terrorist organization.
Kotey pleaded guilty to his role in the deaths last September and was sentenced to life in prison in April.


India’s economy grows at its fastest pace in six quarters in election boost for Modi

Updated 29 February 2024
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India’s economy grows at its fastest pace in six quarters in election boost for Modi

  • India’s economy grew 8.4% in the October-December quarter, much faster than 6.6% estimate
  • India has beaten market expectations, is ranked as one of fastest-growing economies in the world

NEW DELHI: India’s economy grew at its fastest pace in one-and-half years in the final three months of 2023, led by strong manufacturing and construction activity and bolstering Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic record just months before a national election.
Asia’s third largest economy grew 8.4 percent in the October-December quarter, much faster than the 6.6 percent estimated by economists polled by Reuters and higher than the 7.6 percent recorded in the previous three months.
“The ongoing growth momentum is indicative of the Indian economy’s resilience, notwithstanding global headwinds,” said Sunil Kumar Sinha, economist at India Ratings, noting that industrial growth continued its good run in the quarter.
India has consistently beat market expectations and is ranked as one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with China struggling to recover after the pandemic and the euro zone narrowly escaping a recession.
India revised its growth estimate for the current fiscal year to March 31 to 7.6 percent from 7.3 percent.
Such a strong showing in the last major economic data release before elections due by May could bolster Modi’s chances after he made high economic growth one of his main platforms at rallies across the country.
The December growth “shows the strength of Indian economy and its potential,” Modi said in a social media post.
Modi has sharply raised government spending on infrastructure and offered incentives to boost manufacturing of phones, electronics, drones and semiconductors to help India compete with likes of Vietnam and Thailand.
The manufacturing sector, which for the past decade has accounted for 17 percent of Asia’s third-largest economy, expanded 11.6 percent year-on-year in the December quarter, while investment growth was above 10 percent for the second consecutive quarter, and the construction sector grew by more than 9 percent.
“Manufacturing sector growth was supported by lower input costs,” said Rajani Sinha, Economist at CareEdge
Private consumption, accounting for 60 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), recovered slightly in the quarter, with a 3.5 percent year-on-year rise, compared with 2.4 percent in the previous three months.
Government spending contracted 3.2 percent year-on-year, compared with 1.4 percent growth in the previous quarter.
RURAL WEAKNESS
The farm sector, which accounts for about 15 percent of the $3.7 trillion economy, continued to struggle due to unfavorable monsoon rains. It contracted 0.8 percent in the December quarter, compared with 1.6 percent growth in the September quarter.
Slowing rural growth dragged down farm incomes and some farmers have hit the streets
demanding higher procurement prices.
Rural weakness has led to slower growth for major retail companies like Hindustan Unilever and Britannia Industries.
The pace of growth in real rural wages was around 1 percent in 2023 after contracting nearly 3 percent in the previous two years, according to ICRA, while average salaries in urban areas have been going up by nearly 10 percent a year.
However, policymakers remain optimistic about rural recovery.
“With the anticipated better value addition in the farm sector next financial year, rural demand growth and rural income growth will be even better and more evident in FY25,” country’s Chief Economic Adviser V Anantha Nageswaran said.


Indonesian artists seek to amplify Southeast Asian aesthetics at Art Dubai

Updated 29 February 2024
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Indonesian artists seek to amplify Southeast Asian aesthetics at Art Dubai

  • 17th edition of Art Dubai runs from March 1-3 in Madinat Jumeirah
  • Over 65% of the fair’s presentations are from the Global South

Jakarta: Indonesian artists are hoping to amplify Southeast Asian aesthetics in the Middle East with their showcase at Art Dubai this week, where they will join a diverse group of Global South artists from 40 countries.

The 17th edition of Art Dubai, which runs from March 1 to 3 in Madinat Jumeirah, will showcase leading artists and galleries from developing countries, as it seeks to provide a platform for art from typically underrepresented regions and communities. This year, over 65 percent of its presentations are drawn from the Global South.

Indonesia’s artists, represented by various galleries such as Gajah Gallery and Yeo Workshop, are among a group of Southeast Asian creatives presenting works focused on the region’s heritage.

Erizal As, a painter from Indonesia’s West Sumatra province, is hoping that Dubai will help boost the global visibility of his, and other Southeast Asian artists’ work.

“I am indeed hopeful to garner greater recognition in the Middle East, a region experiencing rapid growth and burgeoning appreciation for the arts. I am confident that the universal themes and expressive depth of my work will resonate with the discerning Gulf audience, fostering a meaningful dialogue transcending cultural boundaries,” Erizal told Arab News on Thursday.

“I also think that the inclusion of more Indonesian and Southeast Asian artists may bring a fresh perspective to the local art scene … Maybe the different visual language that we bring actually has the same soul or essence as what Dubai has been feeling and communicating through their arts. The two visual languages can communicate with each other.”

After spending the COVID-19 years painting outdoors in the West Sumatra mountains, Erizal returned to his studio to transform his experiences into a series of abstract paintings, presenting various forms through texture and strokes, to capture the essence of nature. Some of those works are being showcased in Dubai this week.

“With my recent creations, my foremost aspiration is to evoke contemplation on the intrinsic essence of nature, spirituality, and the profound energy that permeates our existence,” Erizal said.

Yunizar, who is also from West Sumatra and is known for his childlike creations seeking to capture the psyche of ordinary individuals, will present his paintings and bronze sculptures at Art Dubai.

“My work depicts my observations of life around me. I mix visualizations of objects with things that are fantastical in nature,” Yunizar told Arab News.

Indonesian artist Yunizar working on his “Detail of Bonsai,” 2021. (Gajah Gallery)

He believes in the “common relatability towards art between humankind everywhere” and hopes to amplify the reach of his work at the international art fair.

“Dubai, in my opinion, has a burgeoning art scene with a rich cultural background that can support the development of new visual trajectories. Showcasing my work on such a global scale, I can only strive and attempt to deliver my best work,” he said.

“I believe that my work transcends cultural boundaries and reverberate with viewers from diverse backgrounds. In terms of quality, my work is not less than that of artists from other regions, such as those from Europe. And with its rich visual language and unmistakable Southeast Asian essence, in my opinion, my art will find resonance among the Gulf audience, fostering meaningful dialogue and appreciation for art across borders.”


Amnesty welcomes news NGO ship crew charges could be dropped

Updated 29 February 2024
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Amnesty welcomes news NGO ship crew charges could be dropped

  • Crew of Iuventa charged with ‘facilitating irregular immigration to Italy from Libya’
  • Prosecution said this week a lack of evidence means case should be dismissed

London: Amnesty International has welcomed news that charges against the crew of NGO ship the Iuventa, which worked to rescue thousands of people from the Mediterranean, could be dropped.

An investigation was opened by Italian authorities in 2017 into the activities of the Iuventa. Four crew members were eventually charged with “facilitating irregular immigration to Italy from Libya,” amid suggestions that they had collaborated with people traffickers, with possible sentences of up to 20 years in jail.

A court in the Italian city of Trapani is set to rule on whether the crew, alongside members of Medecins Sans Frontieres and Save the Children, will be indicted on Saturday, but on Wednesday prosecutors said a lack of evidence meant the charges should be dropped.

“The Iuventa crew has endured six and a half years of court proceedings with unfaltering grace and resilience, and we are glad that there is new hope that the court case will finally be thrown out,” said Elisa De Pieri, regional researcher at Amnesty International.

“The Iuventa ship has saved more than 14,000 lives, including children, and its crew has done so upholding the law of the sea.

“We urge the authorities to stop misusing criminal proceedings and charges of facilitation of irregular migration to obstruct life-saving activities.

“Humanity must come first as we recognize the fearlessness of the Iuventa crew and others who work to battle the horrors that take place in the treacherous waters across the Mediterranean.

“Their acts of solidarity with refugees and migrants should be championed and never be punished. Without them, the already horrific death toll in the central Mediterranean would only get worse.”


Russia’s Putin warns West of risk of nuclear war, says Moscow can strike Western targets

Updated 29 February 2024
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Russia’s Putin warns West of risk of nuclear war, says Moscow can strike Western targets

  • War in Ukraine has triggered the worst crisis in Moscow’s relations with the West since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis

MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin told Western countries on Thursday they risked provoking a nuclear war if they sent troops to fight in Ukraine, warning that Moscow had the weapons to strike targets in the West.
The war in Ukraine has triggered the worst crisis in Moscow’s relations with the West since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Putin has previously spoken of the dangers of a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia, but his nuclear warning on Thursday was one of his most explicit.
Addressing lawmakers and other members of the country’s elite, Putin, 71, repeated his accusation that the West was bent on weakening Russia, and he suggested Western leaders did not understand how dangerous their meddling could be in what he cast as Russia’s own internal affairs.
He prefaced his nuclear warning with a specific reference to an idea, floated by French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday, of European NATO members sending ground troops to Ukraine — a suggestion that was quickly rejected by the United States, Germany, Britain and others.
“(Western nations) must realize that we also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory. All this really threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons and the destruction of civilization. Don’t they get that?!” said Putin.
Speaking ahead of a March 15-17 presidential election when he is certain to be re-elected for another six-year term, he lauded what he said was Russia’s vastly modernized nuclear arsenal, the largest in the world.
“Strategic nuclear forces are in a state of full readiness,” he said, noting that new-generation hypersonic nuclear weapons he first spoke about in 2018 had either been deployed or were at a stage where development and testing were being completed.
Visibly angry, Putin suggested Western politicians recall the fate of those like Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler and France’s Napoleon Bonaparte who had unsuccessfully invaded Russia in the past.
“But now the consequences will be far more tragic,” said Putin. “They think it (war) is a cartoon,” he said, accusing Western politicians of forgetting what real war meant because they had not faced the same security challenges as Russians had in the last three decades.
MORE TROOPS FOR WESTERN BORDER
Russian forces now have the initiative on the battlefield in Ukraine and are advancing in several places, Putin said. Russia must also boost the troops it has deployed along its western borders with the European Union after Finland and Sweden decided to join the NATO military alliance, he added.
The veteran Kremlin leader dismissed Western suggestions that Russian forces might go beyond Ukraine and attack European countries as “nonsense.” He also said Moscow would not repeat the mistake of the Soviet Union and allow the West to “drag” it into an arms race that would eat up too much of its budget.
“Therefore, our task is to develop the defense-industrial complex in such a way as to increase the scientific, technological and industrial potential of the country,” he said.
Putin said Moscow was open to discussions on nuclear strategic stability with the United States but suggested that Washington had no genuine interest in such talks and was more focused on making false claims about Moscow’s alleged aims.
“Recently there have been more and more unsubstantiated accusations against Russia, for example that we are allegedly going to deploy nuclear weapons in space. Such innuendo... is a ploy to draw us into negotiations on their terms, which are favorable only to the United States,” he said.
“...On the eve of the US presidential election, they simply want to show their citizens and everyone else that they still rule the world.”


South Korea seeks talks with striking medics as return to work deadline looms

Updated 29 February 2024
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South Korea seeks talks with striking medics as return to work deadline looms

  • Nearly 10,000 junior doctors – about 80 percent of the trainee workforce – handed in their notice and walked off the job last week

SEOUL: South Korea said Thursday it was seeking its first talks with striking junior doctors, warning them to return to hospitals ahead of a looming deadline or risk legal action over work stoppages that have plunged hospitals into chaos.
Nearly 10,000 junior doctors — about 80 percent of the trainee workforce — handed in their notice and walked off the job last week to protest government plans to sharply increase medical school admissions to cope with shortages and an aging society.
Doctors say the plan would hurt the quality of service, and the Korean Medical Association (KMA) has slammed the government’s “intimidation tactics.”
Under South Korean law, doctors are prohibited from striking, and the government has threatened to arrest and suspend the medical licenses of medics who do not return to work by Thursday.
Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo said he had contacted doctors involved in the strike seeking talks and hoped to meet them later Thursday, adding he was unsure “how many people will attend.”
Doctors had begun trickling back to work in hospitals, Park said. “We have confirmed a downgrade in the walkouts for two days in a row,” he told a press briefing.
But Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong told local media on Thursday that “a full-scale return has not yet materialized.”
“As today is the last day (to) return, I implore them to do so for the patients,” he said, adding medics who returned to work before the deadline expired would not be punished.
Cho said the government was committed to its reform plan, which would increase medical school admissions by 65 percent, citing shortages of health professionals and a looming demographic crisis.
The KMA has not commented on possible talks, but a social media account run by young doctors shared a screenshot of a text message from the government and said: “You must be joking.”
Analysts say the government’s hard-line stance may play well for them ahead of legislative elections set for April 10.
“If the government were to back down now, they would perceive it as a major setback ahead of the upcoming general elections,” Kim Jae-heon, the secretary general of an NGO advocating free medical care, said.
But doctors “believe that stepping back at this point would result in their own disadvantage. It seems the current standoff will continue for a while.”
Proponents of the reform say doctors are mainly concerned the changes could erode their salaries and social status. The government says South Korea has one of the lowest doctor-to-patient ratios among developed countries.
Polling shows up to 75 percent of the public support the reforms, and President Yoon Suk Yeol, who has taken a hard line on the striking doctors, has seen his approval ratings tick up.
Kim Sung-ju, head of the Korean Cancer Patients Rights Council, said that patients’ lives were being held “hostage.”
“If the entire system comes to a halt simply because (junior doctors) have left, it truly highlights the shortage of doctors,” he said.
“It is astonishing that they are... using patients’ lives as leverage to further their own interests.”
The mass work stoppage has resulted in cancelations and postponements of surgeries for cancer patients and C-sections for pregnant women, with the government raising its public health alert to the highest level.
Kim Tae-hyeon, the head of the Korean ALS Association, said the striking doctors were “worse than organized criminals.”
“In hospice wards and intensive care units, (patients) are struggling to stay alive,” he added.