The US has dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb it has ever used in combat in eastern Afghanistan on a series of caves used by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, according to the Pentagon.
The GBU-43 bomb was dropped on Thursday from a MC-130 aircraft in the Achin district of Nangarhar province, close to the border with Pakistan, said Adam Stump, a Pentagon spokesperson.
Also known as the “mother of all bombs”, the GBU-43 is a 9,797kg GPS-guided munition and was first tested in March 2003, just days before the start of the Iraq war.
The US Central Command (CENTCOM) said the strike was designed to minimise the risk to Afghan and US forces conducting clearing operations in the area.
But the ultra-heavy explosive – equal to 11 tonnes of TNT with a blast radius of 1.6km on each side – could potentially cause many civilian casualties.
The non-nuclear bomb killed at least 36 fighters and destroyed a deep tunnel complex of ISIL, Afghan officials said on Friday, ruling out any civilian casualties.
“As a result of the bombing, key Daesh [ISIL] hideouts and deep tunnel complex were destroyed and 36 IS fighters were killed,” the defence ministry said of the strike.
The bomb landed in the Momand Dara area of Achin district, according to Esmail Shinwari, the local governor.
“The explosion was the biggest I have ever seen. Towering flames engulfed the area,” Shinwari told AFP news agency.
General John Nicholson, the head of US and international forces in Afghanistan, said the bomb was used against caves and bunkers used by ISIL in Afghanistan, also known as ISIS-K.
“As ISIS-K losses have mounted, they are using IEDs, bunkers and tunnels to thicken their defence, he said.
“This is the right munition to reduce these obstacles and maintain the momentum of our offensive against ISIS-K”.
ISIL’s offshoot in Afghanistan, created in 2015, is also known as the Khorasan Province.
Mark Kimmitt, a retired brigadier-general in the US army and former deputy assistant secretary of defence, played down the use of the GBU-43, saying it is “just another tool the military has”.
“It allows us to go after deeply buried and hardened structures. It’s good use against tunnels and it’s also good use because it’s going to set off IEDs in the area,” he told Al Jazeera.
Kimmitt said it was not at all certain that “political authorities” were informed of the raid before it was carried out.
“Although the size of the bomb was a bit larger than normal, it was a routine military mission against a routine military target,” he said.
The White House would not confirm whether or not President Donald Trump had authorised the use of the bomb.
“Everybody knows exactly what happened and what I do is I authorise my military,” Trump told reporters.
“We have the greatest military in the world and they’ve done their job as usual. So, we have given them total authorisation.”
US officials say intelligence suggests ISIL is based overwhelmingly in Nangarhar and neighbouring Kunar province, among tens of thousands of civilians.
Estimates of ISIL’s strength in Afghanistan vary.
US officials have said they believe the group has only 700 fighters, but Afghan officials estimate there are closer to 1,500 in the country.
Western and Afghan security officials believe fighters frequently switch allegiances between armed groups, making it difficult to know who is to blame for violence.
Peter Galbraith, a former US diplomat and former UN deputy special representative for Afghanistan, said ISIL would have to be targeted in different locations for the US military strategy to succeed.
“ISIL doesn’t concentrate its forces … so you have to target it in many different places,” he told Al Jazeera.
He said conditions for military operations in ISIL’s Syrian and Iraqi strongholds, Raqqa and Mosul, are different, as they are urban areas with civilian populations.
“A bomb of this magnitude could cause a lot of collateral damage,” Galbraith said.
“But when you’re using it in a remote, rural part of Nangarhar province in Afghanistan, you presumably can have some confidence that you’ll not have civilian casualties, or at least not many of them.”
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said a suspected chemical weapons attack was a “fabrication” to justify a US military strike, AFP news agency reported.
In his first interview since the April 4 incident prompted a US cruise missile attack on Syrian forces, Assad insisted his army gave up all of its chemical weapons three years ago and that Syrian military power was not affected by the US strike.
“Definitely, 100 percent for us, it’s fabrication,” Assad said of the poison gas incident.
“Our impression is that the West, mainly the United States, is hand-in-glove with the terrorists. They fabricated the whole story in order to have a pretext for the attack,” added Assad, who has been in power for 17 years.
Western leaders including US President Donald Trump have accused Assad of being behind last week’s attack in the rebel-held town Khan Sheikhoun, saying his forces unleashed a chemical weapon during an air strike.
Assad said his forces had not been diminished by the 59 US cruise missiles launched at an Syrian airbase in Homs in retaliation for what Trump called a “very barbaric” attack.
“Our firepower, our ability to attack the terrorists, hasn’t been affected by this strike,” Assad said.
The chemical attack killed at least 87 people, including many children, and images of the dead and of victims suffering from gas poisoning provoked global outrage.
At the time of the incident Syria denied any use of chemical weapons, and Moscow said the deaths had been the result of a conventional strike hitting a rebel arms depot containing “toxic substances”.
But in his latest interview, Assad insisted it was “not clear” whether an attack on Khan Sheikhoun had even happened.
“You have a lot of fake videos now,” he said. “We don’t know whether those dead children were killed in Khan Sheikhoun. Were they dead at all?”
An open source investigation by journalist Elliot Higgins pieces together the timeline of the Khan Sheikhoun attack and attempts to debunk previous claims by the government in Damascus and Russia that the chemical cloud was released after Syrian jets targeted a rebel weapons depot in the town.
US military officials said they observed a drone flying over a hospital in Khan Sheikoun that was providing treatment for gas victims.
“About five hours later, the UAV [drone] returned, and the hospital was struck by additional munitions,” one official said.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has begun an investigation into the alleged attack, but Russia on Wednesday blocked a UN Security Council resolution demanding Syria cooperate with the probe.
A British delegation at the world’s chemical weapons watchdog said on Thursday that samples taken from the attack site tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.
Assad said Syria would only allow an “impartial” investigation into the poison gas incident.
He insisted several times his forces had turned over all chemical weapons stockpiles in 2013, under a deal brokered by Russia to avoid threatened US military action.
The OPCW has blamed Assad’s government for at least two attacks in 2014 and 2015 involving the use of chlorine.
In the lead up to the government takeover of the rebel-held half of Aleppo last last year, Human Rights Watch reported on the government’s “systematic” use of chlorine gas, marking at least eight incidents in which military helicopters dropped the chemical into residential areas.
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies
Washington, DC – In the United States, far away from Israel, there is a related storm a-brewing.
In recent months, state legislatures have been passing bills that target supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) that seeks to pressure Israel into ending its occupation of Palestinian and Arab territories, and to grant its own Palestinian citizens full rights.
At least 26 such bills have been introduced nationwide in 2017, according to Palestine Legal, a group that provides legal advice to US-based pro-Palestine civil rights activists.
The bills would financially punish organisations and companies that boycott Israel, for example by limiting their possibilities to get public contracts.
“We’re seeing an increase in efforts to stifle Palestine advocacy work,” said Rahul Saksena, staff lawyer at Palestine Legal. “One of the more recent trends is a shift towards state lawmakers to introduce and pass bills that aim to suppress or punish activism.”
Over the years, as hopes for a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict diminished, support for BDS rose among artists, companies, even churches. Israel has slammed those who boycott or divest from it as anti-Semites, and said that the real aims of the BDS movement are to undermine its right to exist.
BDS supporters here are pushing back. Using legal means and grassroots activism, they are educating politicians about the movement, and challenging anti-BDS bills by invoking First Amendment rights.
“We are focusing on fighting these new bills, to tell the public and lawmakers that BDS is a constitutionally-protected right,” Saksena said. “It’s important for lawmakers to know that, especially in this climate in the Trump era, where our right to dissent is increasingly necessary and valuable.”
Since Donald Trump was elected president, a growing number of anti-protest bills have surfaced.
Politicians in states such as Tennessee and Virginia have either voted on or introduced legislation that could curb protesters’ abilities by, for example, raising the stakes for blocking highways or banning the use of masks during demonstrations.
“It’s true we’ve seen a rise in [anti-BDS] bills even before the new administration,” said Naomi Dann, media programme manager at Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-occupation activism group. “But I think there’s another rise again that goes hand in hand with the way state legislators – under the Trumpadministration – have tried to pass laws that criminalise protesting.”
Some social justice groups believe that Trump’s administration, which welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in its first month, and appointed a fervently pro-Israel ambassador to Tel Aviv, has given state legislators added impetus to showcase their support for Israel.
But the groups say that this political climate has only emboldened them.
“In some ways [these anti-BDS bills] have had the opposite effect, in the sense that local coalitions have sprung up in many states to try and fight them,” Dann said. “And it’s resulted in BDS activists having better relationships with local legislators, and with each other.
“Most recently there was a vote on a bill in North Carolina that moved through the House. About quarter of legislators voted against it. It’s not as high as we hoped it would be but it shows there are increasingly more lawmakers willing to speak up against these bills, particularly on the grounds of free speech.”
In early March, the New York Senate fast-tracked and passed three anti-boycott bills. Unlike the heavily Republican-sponsored bills targeting protesters in general, these pieces of legislation were widely supported by Democrats. Each of these bills targeting BDS had been introduced in different versions and rejected in the past, but this time passed without debate or public input.
One of the bills stipulates that the state would cease to invest in or contract with companies and organisations that support boycotts for Palestinian rights – a prohibition already in effect through a highly criticised executive order signed last year by Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo.
Other states have since followed suit. The Minnesota state legislature is currently considering two similar bills that would deny state benefits, including contracts, to those who boycott or divest from Israel. In Maryland, legislators introduced a bill that, like its Minnesota counterpart, would prohibit companies or individuals from contracting with the state should they support BDS.
Free speech debate
These tactics are not new, but part of “a decades-long attempt by pro-Israel advocacy groups to stifle pro-Palestinian speech in the US,” said Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“When, in the 1970s, [founding] PLO member Shafiq al-Hout was scheduled to speak at several US universities, pro-Israel groups not only called – ironically – to boycott the events, but to cancel them. They also lobbied the state department to revoke al-Hout’s visa and deport him,” Thrall said.
Supporters believe their push-back against these bills, coupled with the backlash against Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban entry into the US of travellers from six Muslim-majority countries, has shifted the discourse on Palestine into the larger debate on free speech and the fundamentals of democracy in the US.
“It is actually helping us expand our support because the issues are now part of a broader debate rather than a debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is now part of the discourse on the values that run American society,” said Hatem Bazian, director of the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project at the University of California, Berkeley.
“The political discourse in the US, amidst the rising tide of right-wing policy, has created a greater opening for more assertive engagement on Palestine and the coalescing of Palestinian issues in the general discourse.”
Since its inception, the BDS movement has grown in support and power, and with it an increase in pressure on artists, writers and academics to end their collaboration with Israel. Initially, Israel and the movement’s critics trivialised BDS, pointing to its low economic impact.
But in recent years, BDS initiatives have been undertaken by dozens of local councils in Europe and Australia, and by several US churches and Quaker bodies. Artists, notable scientists and public figures have heeded the campaign’s call to boycott Israel, while some academic institutions in Europe and North America voiced support for the movement.
BDS says its campaigns have led to soft-drink company SodaStream closing its factory in an illegal West Bank settlement, French telecom Orange leaving the Israeli market, and the Bill Gates Foundation cutting ties with G4S, a company that provides security services to Israeli checkpoints and prisons.
Since then, Israeli government officials have become more vocal about their disgruntlement with BDS initiatives, and earmarked millions of dollars to fight them. Last month, authorities arrested Omar Bargouthi, cofounder of the BDS movement, on alleged tax evasion. The BDS National Committee said his detention was an intimidation tactic to silence and intimidate him.
Recently, Israel passed a bill denying entry to foreigners who support boycotting it or its West Bank settlements. Its Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan – who is in charge of government efforts to combat BDS – announced plans for a database of Israelis who support the movement.
With anti-BDS efforts on the rise, analysts believe that these measures have the potential to backfire.
“At present BDS is a fairly marginal movement, embraced by only a fraction of even those people who care deeply about Israel-Palestine,” Thrall said.
“But it has the potential, thanks in significant part to anti-BDS legislation, to become something much larger: a leading cause for advocates of free speech. The risk for pro-Israel groups is that their legislative victories wind up paving the path to a popular defeat.”
Source: Al Jazeera News