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ISIS Expansion hits a Dead-end

Marwa Osman

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It’s been a year since ISIS declared its caliphate, which is a form of an Islamic government headed by a political and religious successor to the prophet Muhammad (pbuh). While some analysts might argue that it has been a great year for the terrorist group since it was able to hold its ground, others view their current status quo as their peak position which will see a grave downhill ride over the upcoming few months.

To fully comprehend the real power of the Islamic State (known as ISIS) and the breaking point which has in fact begun and will be shrinking it down, one has to start form the very beginning.

Less than a month before declaring their so called “Islamic State”, last year on June 10, 2014, ISIS had surprised the world by capturing Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, from a fleeing Iraqi army. The terror group suddenly dominated headlines for seizing large swaths of land in northern Iraq. After Mosul, they took over Tal Afar, and as the summer of 2014 wore on, they took Zumar, Sinjar, and Wana.

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Source: www.google.com.lb/maps/place/Mosul,+Iraq

 

Shortly after that came the executions in the now-iconic propaganda videos of mainly Western journalists and aid workers, which later developed into systematic beheadings of everyone who defies the group’s will. However, long before ISIS became a household name in the West, it was penetrating underground and plotting its resurgence ever since the start of the US invasion of the sovereign Iraqi state back in 2002.

Rise of the Islamic State Timeline

OCT 2002: Abu Musab Al-Zarkawi, a militant extremist from Jordan who ran a paramilitary training camp in Afghanistan, relocates to Iraq amid high tension before the US invasion began.

AUG 2003: Zarkawi orchestrates the Jordanian embassy and UN headquarters in Baghdad. In Najaf also the Imam Ali Shrine is targeted sighting deep sectarian Sunni-Shia tension in the country.

OCT 2004: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, pledges allegiance to Osama bin Laden and renames his group “al Qaeda in the land of the two rivers” (AQ-1).

NOV 2005: AQ-1 bombs hotels in Amman, Jordan.

OCT 2006: AQ-1 announces formation of the the Mujahideen Shoura Council, and umbrella group comprised of six Iraqi-based insurgent groups allegedly to fight US occupation forces in Iraq.

FEB 2006: AQ-1 bombs the Golden Mosque of Samarra, igniting Iraq’s civil war.

JUN 2006: Zarqawi killed in a US airstrike. Abu Ayub Al-Masri assumes leadership and rebrands the group as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).

OCT 2006: Abu Ayoub Al-Masri disbands Mujahideen Shoura Council and names Anou Omar Al-Baghdadi as leader of ISI.

2007-2008: US military signs Awakening agreement and turn against ISI which goes underground.

AUG-DEC 2009: High ISI profile attacks which signals resurgence into the Iraqi scene.

APR 2010: Iraqi army and US military kill Abu Ayub Al-Masri in a raid. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is named emir of ISI in May 2010.

MAR 2011: Syrian uprisings begin which then shifts into a regional crisis with insurgents from all over the world joining in as Mujahideen.

JAN 2012: Amid Syria’s devastating war, militants launch a new al Qaeda branch in the country called the Nusra Front. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISI back in Iraq, claims he’s behind the birth of the group. The militants go on to capture a swath of Syrian territory, including the province of Raqqa, which will later become ISIS’ de facto capital.

APR 2013: Al-Baghdadi announces the merger of the Nusra Front and ISI into one organization under his leadership. He calls the new group the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). But the Nusra Front rejects the merger and reiterates its allegiance to al Qaeda’s central leadership with Ayman Zawahiri as their leader.

JUN 2013: Top al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri denounces the merger as well and tells ISIS to stay focused on Iraq. Al-Baghdadi rejects the order.

JUL 2013: ISIS attacks prisons in Iraq and frees hundreds of the most dangerous extremists.

JAN-FEB 2014: Clashes erupt between ISIS and other Islamist extremist groups in Syria. ISIS seizes parts of Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq. Al-Zawahri disavows ISIS, making it the first local branch to be formally kicked out of the al Qaeda network.

JUN 2014: ISIS takes over Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, seizes Iraqi army arsenal and eventually establishes a land base about the size of the U.K. ISIS advances southward as Iraqi forces collapse. ISIS declares establishment of Caliphate, changes name to the Islamic State (IS). Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential Iraqi Shiite cleric, calls on his fighters to defend holy sites in Iraq against ISIS.

AUG 2014: The United States conducts its first airstrike against the Islamic State group in Iraq and forms coalition of several international and regional states to allegedly fight back ISIS via air assaults.

APR 2015: Iraqi military forces and Shiite defense forces drive Islamic State militants out of Tikrit, Iraq.

MAY 2015: Iraqi forces abandon a military base in Ramadi, leaving the city to fall to Islamic State. The Iraqi army and Shiite defense forces launch an offensive to retake the city. Islamic State forces take the historic city of Palmyria in Syria. This gives the militant group control of a strategic highway.

JUN 2015: Battle breaks out between the Islamic State group and the Lebanese Resistance group Hezbollah along Lebanon’s northeast border with Syria. Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrullah vows to finish the fight against Islamic State Group. ISIS takes responsibility for several terrorist attacks in France, Tunisia, KSA and Kuwait.

JUL 2015: ISIS-affiliated militants unleash a wave of simultaneous attacks, including suicide car bombings, on Egyptian army checkpoints in the northern Sinai Peninsula.

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ISIS Expansion hits a Dead-end

Advertising its violence online, the extremist group has successfully become a brand name for terrorism all over the world, turning into a magnet for regional and foreign radicals willing to join jihad. Last month’s deadly terror attacks in the KSA, Tunisia, France and Kuwait demonstrate how lone-wolf strikes by those sympathetic to the group across the globe pose as much of a risk to human life as trained terrorists operating directly under the ISIS banner on the actual battlefield.

Meanwhile, in ISIS heartlands, the group has profited from a power vacuum as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi struggle to maintain control of their increasingly-lawless countries, however there is one specific area where ISIS has been unable to spread its terror and further expand. That area is Lebanon’s northeast border with Syria. Similarly, the Nusra Front has been also losing grounds near Lebanon’s southeast border with Syria, especially in the Syrian Al-Suwayda province near the Syrian Golan Heights occupied by the Israeli Forces.

ISIS had been training new recruits and defectors from smaller rebel factions for several years now in Qalamoun, a militarily strategically important province in the south-west of Syria that borders Lebanon. The growth of the group in the area meant its fanatic fighters in Syria were now at the edge of the Lebanese heartland of its arch enemy the Lebanese resistance, Hezbollah.

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As it was obviously anticipated, Hezbollah was not about to stand still in the face of ISIS expansion while knowing that leaving the responsibility for the Lebanese army to fight back ISIS alone will only leave the already weak military institution in jeopardy.

Starting June 2015, a battle broke out between the Islamic State group ISIS and Hezbollah along Lebanon’s northeast border with Syria. Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrullah, stood firm after several ISIS attempts to infiltrate Lebanese villages were aborted by Hezbollah fighters, declaring that the resistance would “finish” the fight.

As such, Hezbollah fighters have been holding off several attacks from ISIS in the mountainous region near the Syria-Lebanon border bearing a number of their own fighter as martyrs while killing Abu Balqis al-Baghdadi, ISIS’s “emir” for Qalamoun, in a shelling that targeted the area of Wadi Hmayed, on the outskirts of Lebanon’s Arsal.

For the past month, the Qalamoun battles have focused on Arsal’s eastern and southern outskirts, and on the western outskirts of the Syrian town of Flita, which lies roughly 23 kilometers southeast of Arsal.

ISIS had controlled Arsal’s northern outskirts since last year, while the Nusra Front had deployed in its eastern and southern outskirts but now they have lost these positions. ISIS seemingly still has its own plans for the Lebanese town of Ras Baalbek. And as the group has a vision to expand their so-called Caliphate over much of the Middle East, and as a fragmented state plagued by old sectarian hatreds, Lebanon is a natural place for them to attack. However, fortunately so far, their efforts have hit a dead-end.

The Lebanese army and Hezbollah have found themselves battling ISIS alongside each other, if not necessarily together. Apart from Lebanon’s radical ISIS-backed population, which is largely concentrated in the northern town of Tripoli, all four of the country’s major sects (Sunni, Shia, Druze, and Christian) are having the unusual experience of standing united in at least the desire to prevent ISIS from gaining a foothold in Lebanon.

The joint forces of the Lebanese army and Hezbollah, as well as ISIS’s preoccupation with its efforts in Syria and Iraq to maintain its fragile position, make it unlikely the group will be able to easily take much more territory on the Syrian-Lebanese border.

Still, there have been worried murmurs about ISIS terrorist dormant cells planning to commit acts of terrorism within Lebanon but further military expansion within the Lebanese borderline has proved to be up to this moment a hurdle for the terrorist group known as ISIS.

Ms. Marwa Osman. PhD Candidate located in Beirut, Lebanon. University Lecturer and host of the political show “The Middle East Stream” broadcasted on Al-Etejah English Channel. Member of the Blue Peace Media Network and political commentator on issues of the Middle East on several international and regional media outlets.

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Terrorism

Gun Control: Lessons from the East

Devika Khandelwal

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28th April, 1996 is deemed as one of the darkest days in the history of Australia. The infamous and deadly Port Arthur massacre took place in the famous tourist spot of Port Arthur, Tasmania where a 28 year old Australian, Martin Bryant open fired with a semi-automatic weapon, killing many. Before the day was over, he had attacked people in different places killing 35 people and injuring 18 people in total. 

In the wake of this tragedy, government officials in each of Australia’s six states and two mainland territories decided to call a ban on semi-automatic and other military-style weapons from across the continent in almost 10 days after the massacre. The officials halted the import of these weapons and launched a nationwide program called ‘Gun-Buyback Program.’ Under this program, Australians were encouraged to freely give up their weapons and many of them agreed. The Australian government confiscated almost 650,000 automatic and semi-automatic rifles under this program. It also established a registry which kept a record of all guns that were owned in the country. It also introduced a new permit which became mandatory for all new firearm purchase.

These policies and reforms led to a significant decline in Australia’s firearm homicide rate and firearm suicide rate. Since the reforms took place, some experts believe that there has been an 80% drop in gun-related homicides and suicides. With limited access to guns and stringent laws put in place related to gun-purchase, number of mass-shootings and gun-suicides plummeted.

Recently, the world was shook by the deadly Christchurch mosque shootings that took place in New Zealand. There were two consecutive mass shootings which resulted in the death of almost 50 people. Six days after the attack, in a swift action, New Zealand announced a new ban on sale and distribution of a range of semi-automatic rifles and other weapons in the effort to curb gun violence. They also imposed a ban on ownership of previously-owned firearms and also initiated a buy-back program. Moreover, countries like Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and China have the lowest number of gun-related deaths in the world.

Simultaneously, western countries like the USA, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Venezuela account for almost half of all global deaths that occur from gun violence. In 2018 it was estimated that almost 250,000 number of global deaths happened due to gun-homicide or gun-suicide, and half of those deaths took place in 6 aforementioned countries. It is also estimated that suicide by shooting is on a rise and more number of people are using firearms to commit suicide each year. Over 150 mass shootings took place in the US alone in 2018 killing over 1,100 people and injuring as many. This devastation figure started a widespread discussion on gun-control in the US.

According to a research conducted by the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, ease of access to a firearm during a vulnerable moment, higher firearm-ownership and loose gun legislations in a country have led to higher gun violence. In the USA, the last substantial gun-control legislation was imposed in 1994 which placed a federal ban on military style assault weapons for 10 years. However, this ban was not imposed on people who already owned these arms. When the ban was lifted in 2004, many Americans acquired military-style rifles which also became a popular choice of weapon for mass shooting. It is surprising that in many parts of the US, an American can easily purchase a military style rifle before they are legally allowed to buy beer. Many people also justify purchasing and carrying of weapons in the name of self-defence.

I am aware of the fact that the USA and many other western countries are bigger in size and population compared to Eastern countries, however with the growing number of gun-deaths, we have to underscore the importance of strict gun-control legislations and vigilant policies on ownership of gun. Moreover, background checks of people wanting to purchase guns and acquisition of permits by gun-selling stores should be made mandatory. If the USA could place a ban on gun-sale all those years ago, it can do it again. The government must find a way to work around USA’s Second Amendment and place stricter laws in relation with gun-ownership. 

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Terrorism

Who is Brenton Tarrant: Insight on the New Zealand Attack

Hareem Aqdas

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A misfortunate incident hit by surprise the usually peaceful city of Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday. The attacker, Brenton Tarrant, 28, Australian, accused of carrying out attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, resulted in the deaths of at least 50 people, all worshipping Muslims, including children, was charged with murder as he appeared in a district court on Saturday. A global debate has aroused on the fact that the charge merely speaks of the killer being accused of murder and not terrorism, which is another debate.

The event has sprung up international attention, with gun-laws of New Zealand being revised, investigations underway and multiple gestures and actions given by the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern and globally in support of victims.  An incident as such has occurred in New Zealand after almost 30 years, taking the world by surprise.

The live video of the attack was uploaded by the attacker, which aired for almost 17 minutes- making plenty of room for criticizing the social media outlet for letting an act of violence being aired without action.

Tarrant, described by Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison as an “extremist, right-wing, violent terrorist”, expressed admiration for other violent white nationalists and his intention to “create an atmosphere of fear” and to “incite violence” against Muslims.

In a 74-page so-called Manifesto, Tarrant wrote: “My language originated in Europe, my culture is European, my political beliefs are European, my identity is European and, above all, my blood is European” before the attack on the Internet. It details an anti-immigrant, neo-fascist ideology and deplores the so-called decline of European civilization. and described himself as an “ordinary white man.” Tarrant did not have a criminal history and was not on any watch lists in New Zealand or Australia.

A set of questions that arise in the wake of this unfortunate condition are: Who is responsible for the massacre of 50 people- The man behind the attack? The social media platform that aired live the attack for 17 minutes? The 26-minute delayed response from the New Zealand police and government, who already were informed about the “manifesto” of the attacker 9 minutes prior to the shooting or the immigrants who have been a source of the highly debated emerging “Islamophobia” globally. Moreover, why did the attacker perform the heinous attack and under what influence?

A possible explanation to the posed questions can be given by a phenomenon given under the area of terrorism and counter-terrorism. By definition, the attack was all that defines a “terrorist attack” but the attacker is slightly different to what a “terrorist” is defined as- rather, is a “lone wolf”.

A solitary actor, a terrorist of solitary actors, or lone wolf, is someone who prepares and commits violent acts alone, outside any order structure and without any group aid material. They can be influenced or motivated by the ideology and beliefs of an external group and can act in support of this group. These people do not have connections to any organization, but are self-auto rotated through the construction of a certain ideology from the accumulation and assimilation of knowledge by their own.

Lone wolves are hard to identify. These are normal people dwelling in normal conditions, usually showing no sign of violent behavior. Keeping such people under check is as hard as recognizing their lethal abilities. They tend to be more dangerous than terrorist organizations since they take by surprise through their actions, they’re neither under check or suspected or, as a matter of fact, identified.

The attacker- a lone wolf- was not known to police in Australia for violent extremism or serious criminal behavior. Three other suspects were detained along with Tarrant on Friday, but police now say he acted alone. He doesn’t classify under psychologically disturbed- as most western attackers are in such cases by any means.

Responding to his own question “Is there a particular person that radicalized you the most?”, Tarrant wrote: “Yes, the person that has influenced me above all was [US conservative commentator] Candace Owens… Each time she spoke I was stunned by her insights and own views helped push me further and further into the belief of violence over meekness”, having an “unhealthy narcissism” common among “terrorists”.

People with firm ideologies- as Tarrant- believe they are correct and it is hard to convince them otherwise (as religious ideologies e.g. Muslim ideology or nationalistic ideology e.g. Hindutva, Zionism etc). All writing over the attacker’s weapons, if read, explained and translated signify a certain incident where immigrants (particularly Muslims) have been a threat to the white, in acts of violence against the white race, justifying the attacker’s action for fighting against a group that threatens the existence of the white race.

In this situation, neither social media for airing live (not enough evidence on the attacker’s social media outlet to take prior action) nor the government (informed 9 minutes prior to attack, too small a gap for stopping a terrorist attack, not including a location or specific details) can be blamed for the incident as identification and keeping check is almost impossible.

In the case of the attacker, even after being convicted, believes has done nothing wrong, was smirking throughout the process of his detainment whilst making a hand gesture of white supremacy throughout, with the belief that he might get 27 years in prison just like Nelson Mandela and be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

The reason to this radicalization is unchecked information, quick and easy access has led to the production of numerous such lone wolves, who will unleash their preposterous ideologies into violent acts if the content that is available is not censored. Another step that may prove helpful is the production of correction centers as a strategy towards counter terrorism since just convicting and killing the terror mongers does not kill an ideology they were triggered by, but only glorifies and promotes it. These centers are particularly necessary in educational institutes, weapon clubs, online portals, social media and mainstream media etc. Immediate action is required globally with amendments in counterterrorism strategies reverting to psychological correction rather aggression against the violator, else wise, the world has no less Tarrants currently to deal with- but many more.

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Terrorism

The Impact of Words: Christchurch Shooting

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New Zealanders and Australians (two English-speaking Commonwealth nations closely knit by culture, geography and history) have been horrified by a major white extremist terrorist event in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday 15 March. 

Forty-nine Muslim worshippers, at Friday prayers in two Christchurch mosques six kilometers apart, were murdered in concurrent gun attacks led by an Australian far-right nationalist extremist, Brenton Tarrant, who filmed his whole attack from a head-held video camera while he shot worshippers at random with a semi-automatic weapon. Forty people were injured, some critically. Major mainstream and social media are being asked to remove Tarrant’s deeply evil video footage, but much of it had already got out online as was his intention. 

The mosques were unguarded, New Zealand having hitherto been entirely terrorism-free. Tarrant and four other unnamed persons involved, three men and a woman, who are believed at this stage to be New Zealanders, are under arrest. Tarrant’s trial is listed for April. A shaken NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern vowed immediate government action to tighten NZ’s lax gun laws, to tighten NZ border controls, and to strengthen NZ-Australia intelligence agency information-sharing on extremist groups. 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who faces an early election which has to be held by May, and which he is tipped to lose heavily, expressed sympathy and shock. He conspicuously visited Sydney’s most important mosque, in solidarity with Australian Muslim communities. But many Australians may doubt his sincerity in view of his and his Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s long personal history of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim public sentiments. 

Tarrant had issued a racial-hate manifesto online, minutes before his group’s attack began, calling for an end to all Muslim migration into Australia and NZ. His views are shared within a small but vocal group of white extreme nationalist extremists in Australia who hold provocative public meetings and seek out media attention. Such a meeting is still scheduled to go ahead today in Moorabin, Melbourne, at which Senator Fraser Anning from the state of Queensland will criticise Australia’s immigration policies. A counter-demonstration is planned in protest. Police will be present. 

At federal political level, Islamophobic and anti-immigrant views are most stridently represented by Senator Pauline Hanson’s minority One Nation Party and by Senator Anning, who was elected as a Queensland state senator on the One Nation Party ticket but subsequently broke with Senator Hanson. Queensland is a state characterised by high youth unemployment and a declining coal industry. It is a focus of far-right white nationalist extremism.

Anning, who is not expected to be re-elected, desperately seeks publicity. Just hours after the Christchurch shootings, he published a highly offensive media release blaming the shootings on Muslim immigration to Australia and NZ, alleging that the governments had created a climate of racial tension. His media release effectively endorsed much in Tarrant’s manifesto. It has been almost universally condemned in Australia. 

This well-planned politically-motivated mass murder is being compared to the Anders Breivik mass murder of young Norwegians in 2011. It is also being compared to recent targeted terrorist attacks, in US and elsewhere, on people at prayer in mosques and synagogues. 

Questions are being asked about context and coincidence. 

How was it possible for an Australian with known links to white supremacist extremist organisations in Australia to fly to New Zealand without NZ Security agencies being alerted to monitor him? How was it possible for his group to buy guns and ammunition in New Zealand without security agencies being alerted? Are Australian and New Zealand security agencies too focused on monitoring alleged threats from Islamist extremist groups, to the neglect of even more dangerous far-right white nationalist extremists? 

Also: the attack coincided with a day of major ‘school strikes’ and street demonstrations by many thousands of young people in all major cities around Australia, protesting at Australian federal and state governments’ inadequate climate change policies, including their failure to ban opening of new coal mines. Similar demonstrations were taking place in New Zealand, supported by PM Ardern. Australian PM Morrison had criticised the demonstrations as inappropriate on a school day. In any event, the NZ shooting tragedy totally eclipsed media attention to the young people’s climate change and anti-coalmines demonstrations. Was this planned by the perpetrators, and who might have advised them? 

Some critics claim, I believe correctly, that right-wing politicians who now dominate the governing party coalition, and right-wing mainstream media, have over recent years fostered and helped to generate a supportive climate for an anti-immigrant extremist movement in Australia, helping it to gain respectability and take root among economically depressed and politically alienated white Australian youth. These critics say that these politicians and media must now accept shared responsibility for fostering a political climate that encourages such terrible acts as the massacre of innocents in Christchurch. 

Senior police leaders in Australia have appealed to politicians and media to consider the impact of their words. I hope they will do so. 

Though this terrorist event has visibly shocked decent mainstream opinion in Australia and New Zealand, it may push race relations and immigration issues into greater prominence in the forthcoming Australian federal election. There is a danger of polarisation under Scott Morrison’s clumsy leadership: he could as in past Australian elections try to talk up racial fears to his party’s presumed advantage. 

Australia’s and New Zealand’s foreign policies are also coming under scrutiny in the wake of this attack. Both countries are members of the ‘Five Eyes’ Intelligence-sharing network. Their military forces are deeply enmeshed in US-led past and present military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Sophisticated US-Australian joint defence facilities at Pine Gap, Central Australia are believed to be in current use to assist US military targeting in Syria. The Australian arms industry is selling weapons technology to Saudi Arabia that is being used by the Saudi Air Force in lethal bombing operations against Yemeni civilians. 

The danger is that, after the initial public shock and horror at this attack has passed, the desperate and failing Morrison government may be tempted to exploit it to try to create a ‘national security’ and anti-immigration pre-election climate. The Labor Party Opposition and its leader Bill Shorten will need to watch its own words and policies in coming weeks. So will Australia’s mainstream and social media. 

I believe the lessons for all responsible governments and politicians are: firstly, to consider the impact of their policies and words on disaffected youth, and always to uphold inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony; secondly, to task national security agencies to monitor equally extremist elements of all persuasions. I believe by both these yardsticks the Russian Federation has a very good record. I wish I could currently say the same of Australia. 

First published in our partner RIAC

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