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Militants Make More Threats in Russia, Gain Toehold in Albania

Plus, researchers find a troubling new aspect to drug-resistant TB in Russia and a court upholds a landmark anti-torture verdict in Kazakhstan.

by Piers Lawson, Ioana Caloianu, Barbara Frye, and Karlo Marinovic 27 January 2014

1. Fear of casualties rises in Russia as Olympic Games approach

 

Islamist militants are threatening Russians with more attacks, as figures revealed by various news agencies show that Islamic extremists in southern Russia are increasingly using suicide bombers in the run-up to the winter Olympic Games.

 

The militant group that claimed responsibility for last month's suicide bombings in Volgograd, which killed at least 34 people, told Russians on Saturday to rebel against President Vladimir Putin or face further attacks, Reuters reports.

 

The threat came from a group calling itself Vilayat Dagestan, an Islamist militant group from the violence-ridden province of Dagestan in Russia.

 

In a statement on its website, Vilayat Dagestan said the bombings of a train station and trolleybus in Volgograd bombings were in retaliation for “atrocities carried out by the disbelievers on the ground of the Caucasus,” according to Reuters.

 

The warning comes as a regional newspaper reports a rise in suicide bombings in the North Caucasus from seven to nine in the last year, according to Bloomberg.

 

It says the number of civilians killed in clashes rose 20 percent last year to 104, although the total number of deaths fell by 24 percent from 2012.

 

Deaths dropped to 529 last year from 700 in 2012, with 26 percent fewer militants and 39 percent fewer law-enforcement personnel killed, according to Bloomberg calculations based on Caucasian Knot’s data.

 

Most of the violence occurred in Dagestan, a mainly Muslim province at the heart of the insurgency to create an Islamist state in the North Caucasus.

 

In response to the threat, the Kremlin has significantly strengthened its security measures, and Islamist leader Eldar Magatov was killed in a recent clash.

 

The authorities have released the names of two women – Jhannet Tsakhaeva from Dagestan and Oksana Aslanova from Turkmenistan – believed to planning an attack in the run-up to the Games.

 

2. Albania’s would-be jihadists recruit for Syria on social media

 

Islamic militant groups in Albania are gaining “a small but significant foothold” in what once was a “self-declared atheist state,” Global Post reports.

 

 

The news agency says the outbreak of conflict in Syria has enabled militants to establish themselves in this former communist country by using social networks, uploading dozens of videos and creating Facebook pages in support of extremism.

 

More Albanians are joining Al Qaeda-related groups in Syria, according to Global Post.

 

The International Center for the Study of Radicalization estimates that there about 8,500 foreign fighters from 74 countries fighting in Albania, most for two opposition groups close to Al Qaeda.

 

The center estimates that up to “300 fighters of Albanian descent from Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania have joined opposition forces inside Syria,” according to Global Post.

 

The numbers have remained relatively low despite attempts for years by younger Muslims educated in Arab religious schools to radicalize religious communities in the Balkans.

 

Facebook groups such as Krenaria Islame (Islamic Pride), which has 2,800 members, show photos of men identifying themselves as “Albanian mujahedin of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” as well as videos encouraging jihad (holy war).

 

Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy told Global Post that social media sites cannot keep up with the proliferation of such sites and posts.

 

“It’s impossible to catch everything because there’s so much out there,” Zelin said.

 

But he said it is less the existence of the sites than the circumstances surrounding specific conflicts that lures foreign fighters. “Jihadi groups in North Africa, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere use [media sites] as well and haven't been able to recruit people to their cause.”

 

3. Research in Russia reveals a new wrinkle in fight against TB

 

The spread of tuberculosis strains that resist traditional antibiotic treatment in Russia and other parts of the post-Soviet world has long been attributed to mismanaged health care, but new research indicates that “biological factors also play a big part,” Nature magazine reports.

 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, TB rates in the region skyrocketed, in part because of “incomplete antibiotic regimens some patients received … [that] sparked rampant drug resistance,” the magazine notes.

 

Recent research in the Samara region of Russia, about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) southeast of Moscow, showed that nearly half of the TB isolates were multidrug resistant, which means that “they were impervious to the two common first-line antibiotics that cure most TB infections, while 16 percent of these isolates also harbored mutations that made them impervious to ‘second-line’ drugs,” Nature reports.

 

“The worst scenario is that the organisms are developing resistance, compensating for it, and evolving into something that’s new and different, that’s much less treatable,” Megan Murray, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, told Nature.

 

“These infections are more expensive to treat, and patients who receive ineffective drugs are more likely to spread TB.” Nature notes.

 

The news comes at an especially difficult time in the fight against tuberculosis, New Scientist magazine reports.

 

The World Health Organization recently set ambitious targets for ridding the world of the disease, but “global spending on new drugs that will kill it has fallen – and the purse strings are expected to tighten,” New Scientist writes.

An estimated 12 million people in the world have TB, which kills 1.4 million each year.

 

At a meeting in Switzerland this month, the WHO's member countries set out their plans to fight TB.

 

Their goal is to halve the number of cases and cut by 75 percent the number of deaths by 2025 – and to reach 1.2 million cases and 95 percent fewer deaths by 2035.

 

New Scientist says more new drugs are needed in the fight against TB – in 2013, for the first time since 2005, both public and private funding for research into new TB drugs fell.

 

4. Historic anti-torture ruling in Kazakhstan will stand

 

A landmark 2 million tenge ($13,000) award to a man in Kazakhstan who sued police for being beaten while in custody will stand, an appeals court in that country has ruled, Radio Free Europe reports.

 

Aleksandr Gerasimov
In the first Central Asian abuse case to go before the UN Committee Against Torture, construction worker Aleksandr Gerasimov said “he suffered permanent health and psychological damage after police beat him and repeatedly held a plastic bag over his face to induce suffocation,” according to RFE.

 

Kazakhstan is deemed “not free” by Freedom House, a Washington, D.C.-based civil liberties watchdog. Courts there have closed independent newspapers, opposition voices are shut out of politics, religious groups are held on a tight leash, and the police “at times abuse detainees and threaten their families, often to obtain confessions, and arbitrary arrest and detention remain problems,” according to Freedom House.

 

Gerasimov said he had been detained and abused after going to a police station in 2007 looking for his stepson, who had been arrested in connection with the killing of an elderly woman.

 

The UN committee ruled in his favor in May 2012 and urged authorities in Kazakhstan to investigate his case. A court ordered police to compensate Gerasimov in November. Police appealed that ruling, and the appeals court dismissed their case last week, RFE reports.

 

Bakhytzhan Kashkumbaev
Last week also saw a court in Kazakhstan drop charges of extremism against a 67-year-old Presbyterian pastor, RFE reports. Police arrested Bakhytzhan Kashkumbaev in October, saying an investigation had revealed evidence of “elements of an extremist nature” in the church's activity, the Forum 18 news service reported at the time. Authorities did not elaborate.

 

Kashkumbaev’s arrest came minutes after he had been transferred from prison to house arrest on previous charges of harming the health of a parishioner – a parishioner who told Forum 18 last year that her health had not been harmed. Although the court threw out the extremism case, Kashkumbaev still faces the earlier charges, which carry a maximum penalty of eight years in prison, according to Forum 18.

 

5. Polish prosecutors to probe allegations of officials’ role in CIA rendition

 

Polish prosecutors are to investigate allegations that Poland allowed the CIA to set up a secret prison for terror suspects back in 2002 in exchange for $15 million, The Sofia Globe reports. 

 

The allegations were first aired in The Washington Post on 23 January. The newspaper reported that the American agency needed somewhere to incarcerate “high-value” detainees, and eventually plumped for Poland after hearing from the Polish intelligence service about “a training base with a villa that the CIA could use in Stare Kiejkuty, a three-hour drive north of Warsaw.”

 

The Post alleges that CIA officials paid Polish intelligence the $15 million – handed over in cardboard boxes – in exchange for access to the villa, which is tucked away in the Polish lake district. CIA operatives ran a secret prison there, The Post reported, and employed interrogation techniques that amounted to torture.

 

Terrorist suspects Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaida were among those held at the site and subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which included “slapping, sleep deprivation, and waterboarding,” according to The Post.

 

Polish officials have denied the existence of a secret CIA prison in the country.

A spokesman for prosecutors in Krakow told Reuters last week that the office would look into the allegations. They will be finding out what role – if any – Polish officials played in creating or operating the facility.

 

The European Court of Human Rights is expected to issue a decision later this year that will determine whether Poland violated international law by allowing an alleged American torture facility to operate on its soil.

 

Prime Minister Donald Tusk told a news conference on Friday, “These allegations that appear in the public sphere are allegations about prisons and torture committed by the CIA, not Poles but Americans,” according to Reuters.

 

Rights groups accuse prosecutors of ignoring evidence of the role played by Polish officials in the rendition program and of delaying prosecution in the five-year investigation for fear of “political fallout,” according to Reuters. Prosecutors have denied dragging their feet.
Piers Lawson is a TOL contributing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Karlo Marinovic is a TOL editorial intern.
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