U.S. may close embassy in Syria
A rally in support of President Bashar al-Assad in Deir Zor, Syria
January 20th, 2012
04:35 PM ET

U.S. may close embassy in Syria

By Elise Labott

The United States is considering closing its embassy in Damascus, Syria because of security concerns, two senior U.S. officials tell CNN.

The embassy has only a "handful" of staff working with Ambassador Robert Ford.  Most of the staff were evacuated earlier in the year and the diplomatic team was further reduced last week.

"We have had increasing concerns of the safety of our personnel, one senior State Department official said. "We have not made any decisions but it is under serious consideration."

The U.S. has asked the Syrian government for increased security around the embassy.  In October, the U.S. pulled Ford after he was attacked by what a U.S. official described as an "armed mob" in Damascus.  He returned in December.

"Our decisions will be based on that" another senior official said. "It is not clear they will do what we need." FULL POST

To Russia with suspicion
Amb. Mike McFaul is sworn in by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on January 10, 2012
January 20th, 2012
03:14 PM ET

To Russia with suspicion

By Jill Dougherty

Just before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton swore in Mike McFaul on January 11 as the new U.S. ambassador to Russia, she told the audience packing the State Department's Benjamin Franklin Room that "Mike's reputation precedes him."

Yet it's that very reputation that has Russia eyeing McFaul with suspicion, wary that the ambassador, who arrived last Saturday, is looking to create a Russian version of the Arab Spring.

From the start, McFaul's mission to Moscow has been different. As Clinton explained to the audience that day, rather than send the Russian Foreign Ministry a diplomatic note announcing the appointment, the president took it upon himself to tell Russia's president, in person, about it.

"When President Obama saw President Medvedev at the G-8 summit in Deauville in May he simply said, 'I'm planning to nominate Mike to be the next ambassador to Russia,'" Clinton explained, "and President Medvedev responded immediately with a tone full of respect, 'Of course. He's a tough negotiator.' And that was that."

But it isn't his negotiation skill that has Russia nervous. FULL POST

January 20th, 2012
03:02 PM ET

Rise in killing of NATO troops by Afghans

By Adam Levine, with reporting from Tim Lister and Chris Lawrence

An Afghan soldier's killing of four French troops on Friday brought a disturbing issue to center stage in the long Asian war - attacks by local security forces against coalition troops.

"We believe that they do appear to be increasing in frequency in recent months," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters. "We've seen the numbers increase in recent months, certainly."

The incidents are a mere fraction of the total coalition deaths in the war.  But they may feed a climate of uncertainty and even mutual suspicion between Afghan units and their coalition partners at a time when NATO's International Security Assistance Force is trying to hand over control of more districts and provinces to the Afghan National Army.

The latest killings, in Afghanistan's eastern Kapisa province,  prompted French president Nicolas Sarkozy to suspend its training operations and combat help, saying "the French army is not in Afghanistan to be shot at by Afghan soldiers." FULL POST

January 20th, 2012
01:10 PM ET

Al Qaeda planner had ties to UK extremists

By CNN's Paul Cruickshank

A senior al Qaeda operations planner killed in a CIA drone strike last week was for several years a resident of the United Kingdom, and was associated with extremists and their activities before returning to Pakistan,  U.S. counterterrorism officials told CNN.

Although the U.S. officials did not elaborate on his links to UK radicals, they said  the al Qaeda operative - Aslam Awan - was a 29-year-old Pakistani citizen identified in British court documents as part of a group of Islamist extremists living in the Cheetham Hill area of Manchester.

By 2006 those extremists were increasingly attracting the attention of British security services, according to the court documents.

Awan, who arrived in Britain around 2002 on a student visa, had moved into an apartment in Cheetham Hill with Abdul Rahman, a school friend from Pakistan. Murad Iqbal, a Pakistani citizen from Karachi, also moved into the apartment, according to the court documents.

Strongly committed to al Qaeda's cause, the trio had begun recruiting other young men in the Manchester area, taking them on camping trips in the Lake District in March and June 2006, where they simulated suicide bombing exercises, according to the documents. Home movies of their training that were played in court show them "leopard crawling" in the snow.


January 20th, 2012
10:41 AM ET

What might Boko Haram do?

From Raffaello Pantucci, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Raffaello Pantucci is an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming "We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain's Suburban Mujahedeen" (Hurst/Columbia University Press).

After an explosive festive season that spilled into the New Year and growing stories of increased connections to other regional networks, Nigerian group Boko Haram is likely to be one of the main focuses of attention for counter terrorism experts in this coming year.

While definitively predicting whether it is going to metastasize into a global threat, or remain a regional one, is something dependent on many variable factors, some lessons from other regional violent Islamist networks can be drawn to understand better the general direction Boko Haram is going in.

Three groups are particularly useful to look at: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, al Shabaab in Somalia and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). All three are groups that have a clear globalist violent Islamist rhetoric and varying degrees of connectivity with al Qaeda core in Pakistan. FULL POST

On Iran, US and Israel not fully in synch
January 20th, 2012
08:09 AM ET

On Iran, US and Israel not fully in synch

By Kevin Flower reporting from Jerusalem

America's top military official began a series of high-profile meetings with Israeli leaders Friday amid growing international concerns that the Israeli government could act on its own to thwart Iran's nuclear program.

In his first trip to Israel since being named the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey appeared to downplay differences in policy between the two countries and stress U.S. – Israeli cooperation.

Meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Lt. General Benny Gantz, Dempsey said his visit reflected "the commitment we have with each other, and I'm here to assure you that's the case."

Gantz echoed the importance of cooperation between the two nations but appeared to allude to differences in policy approaches. FULL POST

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Filed under: Dempsey • Iran • Israel • Military