UAE minister, intel chief get unexpected briefing in Syria

By Igor Taro and Chloe Mayer, Special to CNN • Updated 7th March 2017

In the first high-profile visit to Syria by an Emirati minister since the start of the Syrian conflict, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan , the United Arab Emirates’ minister of foreign affairs, visited Syria with other Gulf officials on Monday, sources with knowledge of the matter say.

At the same time, the United States reportedly intercepted intelligence messages between the leader of the Islamic State group and a top aide suggesting the terror group may be preparing another attack on U.S. soil, CNN has learned.

According to one U.S. official with direct knowledge of the intercepted communications, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has advised the leader of the IS affiliate in Iraq, Abu-Abbas al-Jazrawi, to prepare for another attack against the United States and American interests inside Iraq.

The messages between al-Baghdadi and al-Jazrawi were intercepted through channels the United States and its allies have not used before.

IS had not conducted an attack on U.S. soil previously and many members of the U.S. counter-terrorism community had not guessed the terror group would target the country.

CNN has not confirmed the authenticity of the messages.

The Obama administration was briefed on the intercepts last week, a senior administration official told CNN.

During his visit, Sheikh Abdullah met with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, according to the U.S. official.

CNN has not confirmed the meeting and Reuters, citing a Syrian source, reported the visit.

CNN has not reached out to the UAE’s ministry of foreign affairs for comment.

Sheikh Abdullah also discussed Syria’s ongoing civil war and the 2014 outbreak of an IS-led insurgency in Syria.

Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are all at odds with Assad, who is allied with his major regional rival, Iran.

A central front in the battle against ISIS has been along the Syrian-Turkish border.

Bahraini and Emirati tanks joined a joint Syrian-UAE military operation against the IS in November 2016.

A senior U.S. official said the special purpose U.S. force that launched the operation now maintains a permanent presence in Syria.

Also on Monday, Russia said it had transferred its heavy artillery to Syria in a move “designed to deliver the full power of the strike force to military targets.”

“These missiles can carry and strike targets in very deep parts of areas, including urban centers,” Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told reporters.

Konashenkov said the three battalions had nearly 700 rocket launchers and an additional 600 tanks and armored vehicles.

An escalation of violence on Syria’s eastern border with Iraq added to the anxieties of U.S. officials on Sunday.

“The kinds of activities that have been taken place recently in al-Raqqa, and recent (The Islamic State) assaults in Iraq, have definitely triggered an increase in concern about a potential similar campaign in Syria,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

In January, government forces in Iraq attacked an ISIS-held city on the Syrian border that was the most significant advance by the extremists in two years.

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