Europe on alert for jihadist attacks

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Saturday, 30th December 2023

From schools in France and New Year’s Eve parties in Belgium to Hanukkah services in Denmark and Christmas markets in Germany, potential targets across much of western Europe are spending the final hours of 2023 under the shadow of jihadist violence, reports today’s London’s The Times. Hamas’s onslaught on Israeli civilians on 7th October and the subsequent war in Gaza have sent a wave of radicalisation washing across the West, shaking previously-dormant networks awake and stirring up new resentments. Since then there have been two terrorist attacks in France and one in Belgium. There have been further alerts or terror-related arrests in Vienna, Copenhagen, Madrid, Rotterdam, and the German cities of Berlin, Duisburg, Cologne, Leverkusen, Hanover, and Bielefeld. There is concern in security circles that the Islamic State (ISIS) is using the anger in many European Muslim communities to rebuild an organisational base that had almost completely crumbled away in the second half of the 2010s.

On Friday, Gérald Darmanin, the French interior minister, said he had issued orders for some 90,000 police officers to be deployed on Sunday night, as well as 35,000 firefighters and 5,000 soldiers and gendarmes to be mobilised during this weekend’s New Year festivities because of a “highly elevated terror threat”. For the first time, the police will use drones as part of security work.

The situation is similar in Belgium, which remains on its second-highest level of terrorism threat alert after the fatal shooting of two Swedish football fans in Brussels on 16th October.

A cell of ISIS-K supporters from Tajikistan and neighbouring states are said to have discussed launching an attack on the cathedrals in Cologne or Vienna, or possibly against another target in Madrid. Four suspected Islamists have been arrested in Austria and another Tajik national was detained in the far west of Germany.

In Sweden, which like Belgium is still on the second-highest level of national terror alert, ISIS recruiters are targeting much the same deprived and gun-crime-ridden urban areas that have provided the country’s violent drugs gangs with their foot soldiers. Local Islamists draw not only on outrage against Israel but also on a spell of Quran burnings and conspiracy theories about the Swedish social services systematically removing children from Muslim families.

Meanwhile, Ankara’s intelligence forces have arrested 32 people, believed to belong to ISIS, on charges of planning attacks against churches, synagogues, as well as the Iraqi embassy in Turkey. In statements released after their capture, three of those arrested said that they had visited churches and synagogues with the aim of attacking them.

Air in Times Square filled with coloured confetti

Visitors to New York’s Times Square got a small preview of New York City’s famed New Year’s Eve party on Friday, as the event’s organisers heaved handfuls of coloured paper skyward in an event to test their confetti. Thousands of people are expected to pack into Times Square for the festivities. At the stroke of midnight on Sunday, some 1,360kg of confetti will be dropped over Times Square by about 100 volunteer “dispersal engineers” to ring in the new year.

Photo: X/@TimesSquareNYC

South Africa files genocide case against Israel over Gaza war

South Africa has filed an application at the International Court of Justice to begin proceedings over allegations of genocide against Israel for its war against Hamas in Gaza, the court said on Friday. South Africa accuses Israel of being “in violation of its obligations under the Genocide Convention” in its application, and argues that “acts and omissions by Israel are genocidal in character, as they are committed with the requisite specific intent to destroy Palestinians in Gaza”. Israel has rejected South Africa’s claims and application to the world court, saying through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs that South Africa “is calling for the destruction of the State of Israel” and that its “claim lacks both a factual and a legal basis”. Its statement said: “Israel is committed to international law and acts in accordance with it… and every effort to limit harm to the non-involved and to allow humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip”.

Photo: AP

US fast-tracks second arms sale to Israel

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken fast-tracked the sale of munitions to Israel on Friday, bypassing, for the second time this month, Congressional review over weapons being sent to Israel for its war against Hamas. Explaining Blinken’s latest decision to waive congressional review, the US State Department said that the secretary of state determined that an emergency exists that required the immediate sale of 155mm artillery shells and related equipment to Israel. The State Department said Israel requested that fuses, primers and charges be included in a previous request for the 155mm shells. The estimated total value of the sale was $147.5 million. Blinken had used the same emergency authority to fast-track the sale of $106 million in roughly 14,000 tank shells to Israel on 9th December. Both moves have come as US President Joe Biden’s request for a $106 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel, and other national security needs remains stalled in Congress.

Photo: AFP

UN warns of deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Gaza

A top United Nations official warned Friday of deteriorating humanitarian conditions across Gaza and reiterated calls for Israel to immediately halt its bombardment to allow aid to get in. A week after the UN Security Council passed a resolution seeking to hasten aid to Gaza, Assistant Secretary-General Khaled Khiari said that “the humanitarian situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate”. Last week’s heavily-negotiated and long-delayed resolution called for immediately speeding aid deliveries to civilians in Gaza, but an appeal for an “urgent suspension of hostilities” between Israel and Hamas was taken out.

Photo: AP/Hatem Ali

Aid group warns of famine

The international aid group Mercy Corps is warning about famine and disease affecting Palestinians in Gaza as Israel and Hamas continue their war. Kate Phillips-Barrasso, vice president of Mercy Corps, said that relentless fighting and insufficient humanitarian aid were compounding the crisis. She said the amount of lifesaving goods being allowed inside Gaza is a drop in the ocean and has not yet increased to the level necessary to meet Gazans’ basic and critical needs, even after Israel opened its Kerem Shalom border crossing. She said half a million people face “catastrophic hunger and starvation”. Meanwhile, 81 trucks of humanitarian aid entered the Gaza Strip yesterday through the Israeli Kerem Shalom crossing and the Egyptian Rafah crossing, reported the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) of the United Nations (UN). “The volume of aid remains woefully inadequate,” OCHA commented in a statement.

Photo: Mahmud HAMS / AFP

Israelis raze Sinwar hideout, large tunnel system

The Israeli army has said its troops had located and demolished a hideout apartment belonging to Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar in northern Gaza along with a large tunnel system underneath it. The hideout apartment was located Friday on the outskirts of Gaza City. The IDF said it found significant evidence in the apartment that led to its conclusion that Sinwar used it as a hideout. The tunnel shaft was some 20 metres deep, and led to a 218-metre-long tunnel with several branches. The underground passages featured electricity, air filtration systems, plumbing, resting and prayer rooms, and other equipment aimed at allowing senior Hamas members to remain hidden for long periods. The tunnel was later destroyed by combat engineers. Sinwar has been accused of overseeing the preparations and planning for the 7th October onslaught, during which thousands of Hamas-led terrorists poured into Israel from the land, air and sea, killing more than 1,200 people, and seizing some 240 hostages.

UN rights chief urges Russia to halt Ukraine attacks

UN human rights chief Volker Turk condemned the deadly wave of Russian strikes across Ukraine on Friday and urged Moscow to cease the attacks “immediately”. Russia launched drone and missile strikes, killing more than 30 people and wounding more than a 160 in one of the biggest air attacks of the war. The attacks hit a wide range of civilian infrastructure, including residential buildings, a maternity hospital, schools, kindergartens, parks, a metro station, and a shopping mall, as well as energy infrastructure, he noted. The barrage also cut electricity in several regions, following damage to transmission lines, and rescue teams were still searching for people trapped under the rubble of residential buildings, he added. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia used “nearly every type of weapon in its arsenal” in the “terrorist strikes”, to which he pledged Ukraine’s military would respond.

Argentina formally rejects BRICS membership

Argentina has formally withdrawn from the expansion of the BRICS bloc. New far-right president Javier Milei has followed through on an election promise to reverse the country’s decision to join. He has sent letters to BRICS leaders to formalise his decision to withdraw his country from its planned entry into the alliance of major emerging economies, it was announced on Friday. Milei said the moment was not “opportune” for Argentina to join as a full member. The bloc – made up of G20 nations Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, last August announced it was admitting six new members. The membership of Argentina, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates was due to take effect from 1st January 2024.

Photo: Handout / Argentina’s Presidency Press Office / AFP

Grealish’s home targeted as “thieves steal £1m worth of jewellery”

Manchester City footballer Jack Grealish’s Cheshire mansion was targeted by a gang of thieves in a £1 million jewellery raid. According to reports in The Sun, the former Aston Villa star’s family were in the house while he was playing for City at Everton when it happened on Wednesday, 27th December. It is reported that the thieves broke in and made off with £1 million-worth of jewellery.  A Cheshire Police spokesperson told ITV Granada: “Officers, supported by police dogs and National Police Air Service, were deployed and searches were conducted in the local area but there was no trace of the suspects. No arrests have been made at this time and enquiries are ongoing.”

Main photo: AP/Christophe ENA

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