Middle East Updates / Kerry to Meet Iranian FM Next Week in Geneva

U.S citizen, 19, indicted for seeking to join ISIS; Abu Hamza gets life in prison on U.S. terrorism conviction; Saudi blogger publicly flogged for insulting Islam, watchdog says.

Reuters

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9:30 P.M. U.S citizen, 19, indicted for seeking to join ISIS

A federal grand jury has indicted a 19-year-old suburban Chicago man on a terrorist charge for allegedly seeking to join Islamic State group militants in Syria.
Prosecutors said Friday Mohammed Hamzah Khan faces a single count of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Khan has been in federal custody since he was arrested in October at O'Hare International Airport.

Khan was originally charged in a criminal complaint in October. The indictment returned late Thursday formalizes that charge. It carries a maximum 15-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine.

Khan's defense attorney has called the government's case weak and says Khan appeared to have fallen under the influence of Islamic State group propaganda.
Khan lived with his parents. His arraignment is set for January 13. (AP)

8:22 P.M. Abu Hamza gets life in prison on U.S. terrorism conviction

Radical imam Abu Hamza al-Masri was sentenced to life in prison on Friday, eight months after he was convicted of federal terrorism charges in New York.
U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest in Manhattan imposed the sentence on the one-eyed, handless Abu Hamza, whom jurors had found guilty of providing a satellite phone and advice to Yemeni militants who kidnapped Western tourists in 1998, leading to the deaths of four hostages.

The defendant was also convicted of sending two followers to Oregon to establish a militant training camp, and dispatching an associate to Afghanistan to aid al Qaeda and the Taliban against the United States.  "Abu Hamza was not convicted for his words," federal prosecutor Edward Kim told Forrest prior to the sentencing. "His crimes truly spanned the globe, from Yemen to Afghanistan to the United States."

Abu Hamza, 56, had gained notoriety for his incendiary sermons at the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, which U.S. and U.K. authorities said helped inspire a generation of militants, including the would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid. "I still maintain my innocence," Abu Hamza told the judge prior to being sentenced. (Reuters)

6:05 P.M Kerry to meet Iranian FM next week in Geneva

A senior U.S. official says Secretary of State John Kerry will meet Iran's foreign minister in Switzerland next week to discuss the current state of nuclear negotiations as a March target date for the outline of a deal approaches.

The official said Kerry will see Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Wednesday, just days before negotiators resume detailed talks in Geneva. Iran and six powers — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — are hoping to agree on a framework by March and a final agreement by June 30.

Iran's supreme leader said this week that the U.S. cannot be trusted to lift sanctions in a future nuclear deal and that Tehran should instead develop an "economy of resistance." (AP)

3:55 P.M. Saudi Arabia arrests 7 Saudis, Syrians over suicide border attack 

Saudi Arabia has arrested three Saudi nationals and four Syrians over links to a suicide bombing and gun attack on the kingdom's border with Iraq, the first ground assault by militants on the frontier in years.

On Monday, militants killed two Saudi border guards and their commanding officer on the frontier with Iraq, the interior ministry said, in an assault one analyst called Islamic State's first assault on the kingdom. On Friday, state news agency SPA quoted an interior ministry spokesman as saying three of the four attackers - who were all killed during the raid - were Saudi nationals and described them as members of the "deviant group", a phrase authorities have used to describe Al-Qaida.

Security forces also seized weapons including AK47 automatic guns, hand grenades, explosive belts and cash including Iraqi and Syrian bank notes, from the scene where the attack took place. Seven people - three Saudis and four Syrians - have been arrested, he added.

No group claimed responsibility for the assault in a remote desert area next to Iraq's Anbar province, where ISIS is fighting Iraqi army forces backed by Shi'ite Muslim militias, who are close to Riyadh's foe Iran. (Reuters)

3:05 P.M Saudi blogger publicly flogged for insulting Islam, watchdog says

Saudi Arabian authorities on Friday flogged liberal blogger Raif Badawi in public after convicting him of insulting Islam, a rights group said. London-based Amnesty International, citing a witness, said Badawi had been flogged after Friday prayers in Jeddah.

According to the witness, Badawi- a Saudi national - was removed from a bus in shackles and taken to a public square in front of a mosque. Surrounded by a crowd made up of the public and a number of security officers, he received 50 consecutive lashes on his back, the unnamed witness said.

Friday's flogging was the first round of 1,000 lashes to which Badawi has been sentenced, allegedly for defaming Islam on an internet forum he had created for public debate. The flogging will be carried out weekly. (DPA)

2:13 P.M. UN envoy meets with Libya's warring militias to pursue talks

The UN's special envoy to Libya says he has met with stakeholders in Libya's ongoing violence, including powerful General Khalifa Hifter, in a bid to end the fighting and convene a national dialogue session.

Bernardino Leon is proposing a temporary freeze in hostilities in order to "create a conducive environment" for the talks; he said Friday in a statement that he had met with Hifter as well as with commanders of the Islamist-allied militias who control the capital, Tripoli.

Hifter responded positively, while the miltia commanders "will consider the proposal," Leon said. Hifter has joined forces with the elected internationally recognized government. That government has been forced to convene in the eastern city of Tobruk due to the militia takeover of Tripoli. (AP)

10:00 A.M. Nusra Front attempts to capture two Shi'ite villages in north Syria

Syria's Al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front and other Sunni Muslim militants fought during the night to capture two Shi'ite villages in the country's north but were repelled, activists on both sides of the war and a monitoring group said on Friday.

The insurgents were briefly able to control streets in the southern part of Zahra and buildings in the nearby village of Nubl, north of Aleppo city, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The militants, who used tanks, were pushed back from both areas by the National Defense Force, a grouping of loyalist militias under the umbrella of the army, it said.

Pro-government activists published photos on social media that they said showed the bodies of Nusra Front fighters in a ditch near the villages. Reuters could not confirm the authenticity of the photos.

The clashes were not reported on the state news agency SANA and the Ministry of Information was not immediately available for comment on Friday. (Reuters)

5:00 A.M. Syrian opposition calls for aid amid Mideast snow storm

Syria's main Western-backed opposition group on Thursday appealed to the international community to help Syrian refugees and internally displaced people suffering amid a snowstorm that struck the region this week, killing at least five people.

The wintry weather, which swooped across much of the Mideast on Tuesday, mostly silenced the guns in Syria and grounded government warplanes because of bad visibility. It killed three Syrians in Lebanon and two in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Wednesday, according to Lebanese security officials and Syrian activists.

The Syrian National Coalition's interim premier, Ahmad Touma, said in Istanbul on Thursday that the situation on the ground is "catastrophic" because of low temperatures and lack of tents in refugee camps. (AP) Full story