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March 28th, 2012
05:18 PM ET

Covering a deadly beat in Tijuana, Mexico

Mexican journalists risk their lives to report on drug cartel activity. CNN's Kaj Larsen rides to work with Adela Navarro Bello who is the Director of the Zeta newspaper in Tijuana, Mexico.

Filed under: backstory • Cartel Violence • journalists • Mexico
French killings refocus fears on 'solo' acts of terror
Getty Images/Police Surround Toulouse Shooting Suspect
March 21st, 2012
08:25 PM ET

French killings refocus fears on 'solo' acts of terror

By Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, CNN

(CNN) - Mohammed Merah is the sort of radicalized individual who makes Western counterterrorism officials very apprehensive: someone who is determined, trained, living legally in Europe or the United States and operating alone. One of dozens (perhaps hundreds) of militants either unknown to authorities or suspected of plotting a terrorist attack but whose real intentions and movements are difficult to track.

Merah is wanted in connection with the killings of seven people in the past 10 days. He twice visited the Afghan-Pakistan border area, in 2010 and 2011, French officials said Wednesday. And after the standoff began in Toulouse, he claimed to have been trained by al Qaeda, they say.

Paris prosecutor François Molins said Wednesday, "He has traveled to Afghanistan without using the networks known by French and foreign intelligence services, which means he went there by his own means and without going through facilitators known by intelligences services, and without going through countries usually monitored."

But Merah had appeared on the security services' radar, according to Molins. During his first trip to Afghanistan, "Afghan police checked his ID during a traffic stop, and as a result he was handed over to the U.S. Army, who then put him on board the first plane heading to France," Molins said. (A senior U.S. official gave a different account, saying Afghan forces had actually handed him over to French troops, who had him repatriated.)

Merah had been under surveillance by French intelligence for years, according to Interior Minister Claude Gueant. Even so, he was apparently able to visit the Afghan-Pakistan region a second time and then accumulate weapons after returning home, including an Uzi machine pistol and an assault rifle, plan a series of attacks in Toulouse and Montauban, and force the French government to step up security precautions nationwide.

The jihadist trail

French authorities believe that between 20 and 30 French nationals are tied to jihadist groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. However, one French intelligence estimate in 2010 put the potential number as high as 200 or 250.

In 2008, a group of militants traveled from France to Pakistan's tribal areas, where they joined al Qaeda, including Hamza el Alami, a French citizen of Moroccan descent. Alami was killed in fighting in the border region.

In fall 2010, another militant returning from the region and suspected of meeting with al Qaeda operatives was arrested on suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack in France.

France's growing Pakistani diaspora has added to concerns about travel flows to Pakistan. French intelligence services have invested heavily in keeping tabs on nationals who have made the trip recently.

In April 2011, two French nationals were arrested in Lahore, Pakistan, after meeting with Umar Patek, an Indonesian al Qaeda-linked operative. The two - one of whom was of Pakistani descent, and one of whom was a convert to Islam - met Patek so he could transport them for training in North Waziristan, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.

Radicalization in Europe

What is unclear is when and how Merah was radicalized, whether online or through membership of a radical Islamist group in Europe. Gueant said Wednesday that Merah became radicalized amid a small salafist group in Toulouse and had connections to a group called Forsane Alizza ("Knights of Pride"). But there is no evidence that any of its members was involved in or aware of his plans.

Forsane Alizza was outlawed in January by the French government, which alleged that it was a terrorist organization training members "for armed combat." For its part, the group said its mission was to fight Islamophobia and has said it will contest the government's decision.

But its website used militant language such as calling for "soldiers" to defend Muslim women. And while there is no evidence that Forsane Alizza has been involved in acts of violence, it has certainly promoted the threatening rhetoric of others, glorifying Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed last year.

One member suggested that the right-wing Swiss politician Oskar Freysinger deserved a "bullet in the forehead." Freysinger has campaigned against permitting minarets on mosques in Switzerland.

Forsane Alizza also seems to be tied to a group called the Force de Défense Musulmane sur Internet, which campaigns to have Islamophobic material removed from websites.

Forsane Alizza appears to have been strongest in Paris and the central French city of Limoges, where several of its members were arrested in 2010 after invading a McDonald's restaurant and shouting anti-Semitic slogans. The group has also protested a French law banning women from wearing a full veil in public places and posted a number of well-produced videos of its protests in French cities.

Its outlook appears very similar to other radical Islamist groups in Europe, such as Islam4UK in Britain and Shariah4Belgium, as well as Revolution Muslim in the United States. Videos purportedly produced jointly by Shariah4Belgium and Forsane Alizza have been uploaded to YouTube in the past month.

Islamic radicalization increased in France in the 2000s, fueled by growing militancy in social media, the role of French troops in Afghanistan, and the Palestinian issue. Bleak socioeconomic prospects in the suburbs of French cities where many French Muslims of North African descent live, the rise of the far right in France and the government's ban on the niqab (full veil) has added to the sense of grievance felt by some young French Muslims.

Unlike in the United States or Britain, French laws restricted the ability of French radical groups to freely proselytize, but according to some analysts, the lack of a public pressure valve may have itself been dangerous.

Before his death, Osama bin Laden tried to tap into the grievances of Muslims living in France. In an October 2010 audio recording attributed to bin Laden, he attacked the French ban on the niqab.

"The equation is very clear and simple: As you kill, you will be killed; as you take others hostages, you will be taken hostages; as you waste our security, we will ... waste your security," bin Laden said.

That message, and similar audio and video postings from the likes of Awlaki, resonate with a fringe of marginalized young Muslim men living in the poorer quartiers of French cities, with little prospect of work and regular confrontations with police. According to French officials, Merah had a series of convictions for petty crime and had been turned down for army service.

Al Qaeda changing gears

Al Qaeda propaganda and recruitment efforts have shifted emphasis in recent years, from spectacular attacks on the scale of 9/11 to "do-it-yourself" attacks that require less training and planning. In June 2011, the group's media production arm As Sahab released a video titled "You Are Only Responsible for Yourself,"encouraging followers to carry out acts of individual terrorism in the West.

In the recording, Oregon-born al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn said it was easy for American al Qaeda sympathizers to go to a gun show and purchase an automatic assault rifle without having to submit to a background check.

Al Qaeda's Yemeni branch has been especially vocal in encouraging lone acts of terrorism. Its English-language magazine Inspire has a section dedicated to helping terrorist sympathizers in the West carry out attacks, including bomb-making recipes.

According to authorities, one such formula, "How to Make a Bomb in Your Mom's Kitchen," has been downloaded by individuals plotting terrorist attacks in both the U.S. and the UK.

March 15th, 2012
08:43 PM ET

Touring Libya after the revolution

Five months after the liberation of Libya, the country remains largely unstable.  But that's not keeping some adventurous tourists from venturing in to explore the country.  They're curious to learn about what Libya was like before - and since the revolution - despite the possible dangers.  Jomana Karadsheh has the BackStory.

March 8th, 2012
10:41 PM ET

Journey into the abyss

Lt. Don Walsh & Jacques Piccard made the decent to the deepest part of the ocean in 1960.

Filed under: backstory • History • Interviews • Science and Technology
March 8th, 2012
05:36 PM ET

An American in Cuba

In recent years, you've seen CNN's coverage of events in Cuba fronted by our friend, Shasta Darlington, but Shasta has moved on to a post in Brazil... and friend-of-BackStory Patrick Oppmann has taken over in Havana. Being the ultimate self-sufficient reporter that he is, Patrick documented his entire journey to Havana... including his long wait for a truck load of belongings to show up. Take a look...

Also, be sure to check out one of our all time favorite Back|Story pieces from CNN photographer Jose Armijo and, then, Havana producer David Ariosto as they made one of the most unique commutes we've seen back in 2009:

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Filed under: backstory • Cuba • journalists • Latin America • U.S. • Uncategorized
Iran Votes
March 5th, 2012
09:41 PM ET

Iran Votes

CNN Photographer Joe Duran gives us a look at life in Tehran as citizens vote in parliamentary elections.

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Filed under: backstory • Iran • photography
March 5th, 2012
08:50 PM ET

Wounded UK journalists recalls deadly attack and harrowing escape from Syria

From Nima Elbagir, CNN

London (CNN) - From his London hospital room, journalist Paul Conroy recalled Sunday his harrowing journey to hell and back from Syria - speaking out against what he called its "murderous regime" in tribute to those, including his colleague Marie Colvin, killed in the chaos.

Few foreign journalists have been in the Middle Eastern nation in recent months, as Syria's government has stringently restricted access amid widespread violence that the United Nations estimates has left more than 7,500 people dead.

President Bashar al-Assad's government blames "armed terrorist groups" for the bloodshed. Yet senior U.N. official Lynn Pascoe told the Security Council last week that often over "100 civilians a day, including women and children" are being killed - most of them the victims of what activists and witnesses have described as brutal attacks by Syrian government forces.

Conroy spoke to CNN at length, days after surviving a bloody attack and surreptitiously escaping from the ravaged city of Homs to Lebanon and eventually back to his native Britain. After spending several days in Syria, both reporting and lying wounded in an embattled medical center, he had no doubts about who was responsible.

Part 2 of CNN's Interview with Paul Conroy:

"It's really hard when you've got people presenting you with bits of people saying, 'Why aren't you helping?' What can I tell them?" Conroy said. "It's not like we don't know what's happening anymore. We do know."

His colleague at Britain's Sunday Times' newspaper, Colvin, had been with him earlier in February when they sneaked into Homs, which has been a hub of the resistance movement and government crackdown.

Conroy called the experience - without government minders, into what had been a largely imagined situation until then - "an eye-opener (given) the level of butchery going on."

After what they'd seen already, Colvin couldn't stand to just head home, he said.

"Marie was on fire," Conroy said. "She couldn't let this go. Two days wasn't enough."

So they returned to Homs to find "the situation was going downhill, almost by the hour." They talked with CNN and the BBC, intent on doing whatever possible to get the news out.

Around 8:15 a.m. the next morning, February 22, the building they were in took a direct hit, filling the air with dust and smoke. Several more blows followed.

Conroy remembered feeling "massive pressure" and knowing he'd been hit. He later was found to be severely wounded in his stomach and leg.

"So I ran through where the door had been and, on the way out, more or less tripped over Marie's body and fell down next to her," he said. "Her head was covered in rubble, her legs were covered in rubble, and she was obviously dead."

Activists soon risked their lives and dragged Conroy outside, threw him in a car and took him to the field hospital - "ironically, what we'd been trying to get to for two days."

A room, fitted with mattresses, became home to Conroy and another wounded journalist, Edith Bouvier of France, for the next five days. He learned that, in addition to Colvin, another journalist, Remi Ochlik, also was killed, while colleague William Daniels had survived the attack.

Yet there was little peace. Conroy said. Every day, there was "the most savage and ferocious bombardment" imaginable - reporting even what he called an "Iranian drone flying around, looking for targets."

Then late one afternoon, ambulances descended on the hospital. The initial word was first that there was a cease-fire and that Red Cross representatives would be on hand soon to take him, Bouvier and others home.

But Conroy said Red Cross workers didn't show up, just civilian Red Crescent members "with no diplomatic presence."

A delegation member who was trusted by the Free Syrian Army - the armed opposition group, made up largely of Syrian military defectors, who had looked after the journalists - said that he heard Syrian state television planned to film the two being put on ambulances, then government forces would stage an attack that they'd later blame on the Free Syrian Army.

Conroy said he was confused, but determined to get out.

"When you see bodies of kids with sniper rounds through the head, what's a journalist who had two of their roommates killed (to think)?" he said. "I'd rather die on the ground than wait for some lunatic to come in and start (shooting)."

A short time later, after borrowing shoes and pants, Conroy said he got an injection from doctors - "I just said put anything in, because I knew it was going to be a very painful experience" - and got into a Free Syrian Army vehicle. He emerged on a street, then found "most of the buildings" that had been there a few days before were "gone."

Part 3 of CNN's Interview with Paul Conroy:

Conroy said a rope was tied around him, and he was lowered about five meters (16 feet) into a tunnel. There, he and a seriously wounded boy, roughly 10 years old, joined a driver on a small motorbike.

"We just drove off, into this night, in this tunnel," he said, adding that he learned Syrian forces shot up the same tunnel some 20 minutes later.

Yet he got out safely on the other end, being put on a stretcher and then placed in a "van full of dead and sick guys." The rest of his voyage consisted of "a series of motorbike rides (and) car journeys," at times past sporadic attacks and through battlefields.

Finally, Conroy said he was dropped off at a house, where three men were sitting watching television, with their machine guns nearby.

"And I thought, well, I better ask: Are we in Syria or Lebanon? They went, 'Lebanon,'" he said. "I just kind of sat down and had a toke of a ... cigarette...

"That's the first time that I felt I could actually allow myself to celebrate. I made it out. But I couldn't be delighted because nobody else was there with me. I was on my own."

Soon he was in the home of Tom Fletcher, Britain's ambassador to Lebanon, and eventually back in his native England. Last Friday, both Bouvier and Daniels returned to France - with the opposition group Avaaz claiming it helped them escape.

Now, dressed in a hospital gown, Conroy is on another mission: to get the word out about what's really going on. That is the best way, he figures, to reflect the spirit and mission of Colvin and other journalists killed in Syria.

And he would return, he says, if only to challenge the Syrian government to an open debate about what they have done and what they'll do next. Conroy said he's convinced "this regime will continue to exterminate civilians. They will massacre them. They will not stop."

"If you are big enough to throw your army in to kill the women and children, then be big enough to have a conversation about it," he said. "If you've got nothing to hide, come and do it.

"I'd go back, absolutely."