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ISIS propagandist pleads guilty to aiding terrorist group

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A Canadian citizen who traveled to Syria to join ISIS nearly a decade ago pleaded guilty Friday to serving as one of the organization’s more prominent English-language propagandists.

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Mohammed Khalifa, 38, pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, resulting in death, at a hearing in US District Court in Alexandria. US District Judge T.S. Ellis III accepted the plea.

According to court records, Khalifa left Canada for Syria in 2013 after being inspired by the lectures of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US cleric who later became a leading figure in al-Qaeda.

Prosecutors said Khalifa narrated two notorious ISIS propaganda videos — “Flames of War” in 2014 and “Flames of War II” in 2017 — designed to recruit Westerners to join ISIS to kill Westerners as part of an international holy war campaign.

Khalifa also fought on the battlefield, according to prosecutors. He was captured by Syrian Defense Forces in 2019 and held overseas until he was brought to Virginia earlier this year to face charges.

According to an FBI affidavit, Khalifa told FBI agents he expected to be sent to an ISIS training camp when he joined the organization in late 2013. Instead, he was recruited to join the organization’s media department because of his English language skills and spent nearly five years as a leader in their English-language propaganda unit, it said.

The affidavit said Khalifa narrated numerous videos besides “Flames of War” and its sequel, which show prisoners being executed and decapitated. In another video, titled “Inside the Khilafah,” Khalifa urges listeners, if they aren’t able to travel to Syria to join ISIS to instead “terrorize the disbelievers with your jihad outside the khilafah by targeting them and shedding their blood.”

Khalifa told agents he was captured in January 2019 when he defied an ISIS order to flee from advancing forces in Shafaa, Syria. Instead, he said, he launched a solo attack of sorts on Syrian Defense Forces, surrendering after his AK-47 rifle jammed.

In a news release announcing the guilty plea, federal prosecutors said the “Flames of War” videos include scenes of a masked Khalifa executing a different Syrian soldier in each of the two videos — while other masked ISIS members also shoot the prisoners kneeling in front of each of them.

Khalifa is scheduled to be sentenced on April 15. He faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.

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NATO chief says reaching out to Russia but ‘prepared for worst’

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NATO on Wednesday delivered its proposals to Russia for a diplomatic solution to tensions triggered by Moscow's military build-up near Ukraine, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, but remained “prepared for the worst”.

“We are now reaching out to Russia once again to try to pursue a path of dialogue and find a political solution,” he said, after the alliance sent Moscow a written response to its security demands.

“But of course while we are hoping for and working for a good solution, de-escalation, we are also prepared for the worst,” he said.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko confirmed to the news agency Interfax that Moscow had received the response from NATO, which was handed to Russia's envoy in Brussels.

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Asked how long Russia could take to study the response, he said: “We'll read it. We'll study it. Our partners had taken nearly a month and a half to study our draft.”

Stoltenberg said US-led NATO was ready for a “real conversation” over Russian concerns — but rejected a key Moscow demand to close the door on Ukraine's hope of joining.

“We cannot and will not compromise on the principles on which the security of our alliances and security in Europe and North America rest,” he said.

The alliance's proposals were handed over the same time as the US delivered its own written response to the Kremlin.

Moscow blindsided the West by publishing two draft treaties for the US and NATO in December that would see Washington's influence rolled back in eastern Europe.

The demands were made as Moscow massed some 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, in a move the West warns could be the prelude to a large-scale invasion.

Stoltenberg laid out a raft of areas where he said NATO thought it could engage constructively with the Kremlin, including improving communications, increasing transparency around military exercises, and arms control.

NATO is hoping its offer is enough to convince Moscow to hold further talks with the alliance and de-escalate the tensions on the ground.

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Saudi Arabia, UAE, UK, US condemn Houthi attacks, reaffirm support to Gulf security

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Saudi Arabia, the UAE, UK, US, and Oman condemned the Houthi attacks which targeted civilian sites in the Kingdom and Emirati capital Abu Dhabi, and reaffirmed support to both Gulf countries’ national security, a joint statement issued by the Saudi foreign ministry said on Wednesday.

Senior representatives from the five countries met on Wednesday to discuss Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis’ attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE recently. The UN envoy to Yemen participated in the meeting.

Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia intercepted missile attacks launched by the Houthis targeting civilian sites in the Gulf countries within the two weeks.

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“The Quint strongly condemned the Houthis’ repeated attacks against civilians within Yemen, including US local staff in Sana’a and their continued heinous terrorist attacks against Saudi Arabia and more recently the UAE. Such actions are obstructing peace efforts and exacerbating suffering,” the statement said.

It added: “The Quint expressed full support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE and their legitimate national security concerns and called for an immediate end to attacks by the Houthis. The Quint acknowledged the legitimate right of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to defend themselves against terrorist attacks as per international law and following international humanitarian law, including taking all feasible precautions to avoid civilian harm.”

The five countries also discussed the “illicit Iranian provision of missiles and advanced weaponry to the Houthis.”

Iran did not comment directly on the recent attacks by the Houthis, but it commented on what it described as “recent Yemen-linked developments” by saying military attacks were not the solution.

Iran has long supplied the Houthis with financial and military support. However, it is not yet clear if Iran sanctioned the attack, or if it was completely a Houthi singular decision.

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Turkey’s Erdogan says Russia would be unwise to invade Ukraine

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Russia would be unwise to attack Ukraine and in that case Turkey would do what is necessary as a NATO member, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday.

In an interview with broadcaster NTV Erdogan said he had invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to Turkey under a proposal to host both sides for diplomacy and a path to peace, adding that he expects a response from Moscow.

Erdogan also said there was a need for comprehensive dialogue that addresses some of Russia's security concerns and that also explains to Moscow that some of its demands are not plausible.

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‘I hope that Russia will not make an armed attack or occupy Ukraine. Such a step will not be a wise act for Russia or the region,’ he said. ‘There is a need for dialogue that will listen to Russia and eliminate their reasonable security concerns.’

Ankara has good ties with both Kyiv and Moscow, but opposes Russian policies in Syria and Libya, as well as its annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. While forging cooperation with Russia on defence and energy, Ankara has also sold sophisticated drones to Ukraine, angering Moscow.

‘I repeat that we are ready to do whatever is necessary and I conveyed these messages to President Putin and President (Volodymyr) Zelenskiy,’ Erdogan said. ‘I think both countries are aware of the sincerity and good intent of Turkey,’

The crisis should be solved ‘avoiding the use of force,’ he added. ‘We hope the NATO initiative will be successful on this.’

Turkey first floated the mediation offer in November. Last week diplomatic sources said both Russia and Ukraine were open to Turkey playing a role in resolving the crisis.

Erdogan has said he would visit Zelenskiy in Ukraine in early February to discuss the crisis and would also meet or call Putin soon.

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