By Paul Courson
There has been little improvement in religious freedom worldwide but some positive changes were seen in Turkey and Vietnam, according to an annual State Department survey of nearly 200 countries.
Secretary of State John Kerry, a former U.S. senator who helped push the law mandating the original report 15 years ago, helped announce the findings on Monday in the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.
"This report is a clear-eyed, objective look at the state of religious freedom around the world. And when necessary, yes, it does directly call out some of our close friends, as well as some countries with whom we seek stronger ties."
Government repression in China, North Korea and Saudi Arabia has kept all three countries on a list the report calls "Countries of Particular Concern."
By Hakim Almasmari
The deputy leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and one of the most wanted men in Saudi Arabia has been killed, a prominent jihadist announced Tuesday, though officials in the group's home base of Yemen said they had no evidence of his death.
Abu Sufyan al-Azdi, also known as Saeed al-Shahri, died "after a long journey in fighting the Zio-Crusader campaign," jihadist Abdulla bin Muhammad said on his Twitter account. The tweet was reported by SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors global terrorism.
It was not clear how al-Azdi died. SITE said media reports indicated he died of injuries incurred in a December drone strike.
The Arabic news network Al-Arabiya reported al-Azdi's death, citing his relatives.FULL STORY
By CNN's Mark Norman
An Iranian-American man from Texas on Wednesday pleaded guilty in Manhattan federal court to participating in a plot meant to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
Prosecutors said Manssor Arbabsiar, 57, tried to recruit a Mexican drug cartel to bomb a Washington restaurant where Saudi Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir dined. But the scheme unraveled when Arbabsiar's cartel contact turned out to be an undercover agent.
Arbabsiar acknowledged in court to conspiring with members of the Iranian military in the formulation of the plot and is expected to be sentenced in January.
Federal officials say Arbabsiar met "on a number of occasions in Mexico with a Drug Enforcement Administration confidential source."
By Mike Mount, with reporting from Suzanne Kelly and Pam Benson
Although officials have not made such an assertion publicly, they have characterized the attacks that occurred in recent months as initiated by a "state actor." The U.S. intelligence apparatus observed and tracked the attacks as coming out of Iran, a third official said Monday. The official would not describe further what was observed but said the belief is the perpetrators were surrogates working with the Iranian government.
“We strongly believe there is a relationship between the people typing the code and people running the government,” according to the official.
"It certainly is the case that Iran is improving its capabilities in the cyber field. We're paying attention. We are concerned about their increasing ability to operate in this realm," a U.S. intelligence official said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta noted the attacks in a speech last week and warned that United States must beef up its cyber defenses or risk a potentially devastating strike. FULL POST
By Mike Mount, CNN Senior National Security Producer
International weapons sales by the United States tripled last year to a record high of $66.3 billion, according to a congressional report that noted big fighter jet and helicopter purchases by Saudi Arabia.
The data by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service noted an "extraordinary increase" over 2010, saying the total U.S. figure accounted for almost 78 percent of sales globally.
Russia followed the United States at $4.8 billion with France at $4.4 billion, according to the report, "Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2004-2011."
By Elise Labott
As NATO leaders discuss the winding down of its 10-year war in Afghanistan and pat themselves on the back for helping in the bloody ouster of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, there is one increasingly deadly conflict that is taboo for the alliance to even think about wading into: Syria.
Practically every NATO leader has publicly condemned the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and called for him to step down and make way for a democratic transition in Syria. Yet U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder said Sunday that not one leader even raised the issue of Syria during the opening day of the summit.
Editor's Note: Barbara Starr is in Jordan covering the Eager Lion 2012 exercise. Read her reporting here. Watch her reports on Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer (4pET-6pET).
By Barbara Starr
It couldn't come at a more delicate time in the Middle East. No one will say it publicly, but the Eager Lion 2012 exercise - and the 12,000 multinational forces gathering in Jordan - are sending a not-so-quiet message to others in the region: they are ready for whatever comes.
From now until the end of May, one of the largest multinational military exercises the region has seen is taking place in Jordan. There are more than 19 nations, including the United States and a number of Arab and European allies, gathering to practice their combat skills, just in case.
Several U.S. military officials say while it's not the primary intention, the exercise is meant to be noticed by Syria and Iran especially. The message: even with the United States out of Iraq, and winding up the war in Afghanistan, there is a formidable U.S. presence in the region, and other countries are capable of filling in the gaps.
The U.S. Navy already is keeping two aircraft carriers in the next-door Persian Gulf region, and stepping up the presence of minesweepers in those waters. The Air Force has sent half a dozen F-22 fighters to the United Arab Emirates. The Joint Special Operations Command has conducted several deadly drone strikes against al Qaeda in Yemen. FULL POST
From Nasir Habib, for CNN
Pakistan says it is liaising with the governments of Yemen and Saudi Arabia before it decides when to deport several of Osama bin Laden's family members of back to their homelands.
The detention of the terrorist mastermind's three widows and two daughters ended Tuesday night. But as of late Wednesday, there were no signs that they had left the Islamabad house where they were held.
A judge had ordered earlier this month that the five women be deported back to their countries of citizenship after serving their sentence for living illegally in Pakistan. Two of the widows are Saudi while one is Yemeni.
By Ivan Watson reporting from Istanbul, Turkey
The bloody internal struggle over the future of Syria is increasingly taking on a wider, regional dimension that could be seen as a proxy war times two.
At one level, it is a showdown of the old Cold War dimension, pitting the United States and other Western countries against Russia and China. But there is a second proxy battle going on, as throughout the Middle East battle-lines are being drawn between governments that support and those that oppose the al-Assad, regime based mostly on allegiance to Shiite and Sunni heritage.
Turkey - Syria's most powerful neighbor - accuses Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of massacring his own citizens. The Turkish prime minister threatened new pressure tactics in an address to Parliament.
"We will start a new initiative at this point with those countries that will be on the side of the Syrian people, and not with the Syrian regime," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his Parliament. FULL POST