ISIS Hit Hard, But Iraq Offensive Could Be Year Away

iStock/Thinkstock(MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Florida) -- The combination of American airstrikes and Iraqi and Kurdish military operations are beginning to undermine ISIS’s confidence on the battlefield but an Iraqi offensive to take back territory is a long way off, U.S. military officials believe.

It could be as long as a year before Iraq’s military is capable of launching a major offensive operation to retake Mosul and maybe just as long before a force of U.S. trained Syrian rebels can begin their own offensive operations against ISIS, the militant Islamic group also known as ISIL or the Islamic State.

Officials at U.S. Central Command told reporters Thursday that it’s still too soon to determine the strategic impacts in the fight against ISIS, but they are encouraged by improved Iraqi military operations and the resistance of Syrian Kurdish fighters in Kobani.

The officials said ISIS wants to maintain its freedom of movement across the non-existent border between Iraqi and Syria, so it has focused its operations on establishing two major west-to-east supply routes between Iraq and Syria. A southern route links eastern Syria with Fallujah in Iraq’s Anbar Province. The Iraqi Army has continued to fight ISIS to prevent them from establishing full control of the highway to Fallujah, but their operations have been limited in scope.

A second northern route for ISIS extends from northeastern Syria past the Mount Sinjar area and into the Iraqi city of Mosul. Kurdish Peshmerga forces have taken back the Mosul Dam from ISIS and checked the group’s offensives east of Mosul.

One U.S. official said the Iraqi Army currently has “an ability to conduct localized counterattacks” to contest ISIS advances in Iraq, but he would not say they are in the midst of a counteroffensive.

“We need to help the Iraqi Army take the counteroffensive and that’s going to require a more sustained effort,” the official said noting it will need U.S. help in rebuilding its intelligence-gathering, logistics and military planning efforts.

While the official predicted it might be a matter of months before a sustained counteroffensive could be launched he also said it could still be “months, maybe a year” before Iraqi security forces attempt to retake Mosul. The official said that before that Iraq’s security forces have to overcome the neglect in recent years to their intelligence gathering, logistics and military planning.

The officials said ISIS has stopped moving in large ground formations because doing so makes them vulnerable to targeting by airstrikes. That happened earlier this week when a dozen airstrikes helped repel an ISIS offensive against Kurdish forces at the Mosul Dam.

While ISIS continues to attack outside of Baghdad, one official said the tactical change also means ISIS can no longer mount a large scale threat to Baghdad.

Meanwhile ISIS has decided to make the battle for Kobani a focal point of their ground campaign in Syria. One official said ISIS had “double-downed" on their attempt to take over the city by continuing to send reinforcements to take over the city.

While cautioning that Kobani could still fall into the hands of ISIS, the officials said that possibility has lessened as Kurdish fighters have held on to the western part of the city during a weeks-long assault.

One of the officials speculated that the resistance by the Kurdish fighters has challenged ISIS’ narrative of “inevitable victory” that is heavily promoted online by the group’s “information campaign” to attract new followers and garner international support

The officials also provided reporters with new details on the formation of a force of 5,000 Syrian moderate opposition forces to be trained by the U.S. in Saudi Arabia.

The actual vetting of potential recruits is still months away and officials have said the first trained teams might not return to Syria until the late spring.

According to one official, the goal of the training program is to train units of 100 to 300 men who will initially provide “local defense” for their towns and villages, partly as a means of ending refugee flows.

But it could be quite some time before they morph into a force that could conduct offensive operations against ISIS. “We see this kind of as a long-term thing,” said the official. “It could be a year to 18 months, what have you, to be able to see an effect on the battlefield, we’re talking about an offensive effect.”

Another official suggested that if the American strategy’s initial focus to degrade ISIS inside Iraq is successful, the trained moderate Syrian rebels might be facing a different kind of ISIS when they return to Syria.

“They’re going to be looking at a lot less mobile ISIL, a lot less capable ISIL, a lot more hunkered down and possibly insurgent ISIL,” said the official.

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Germany to Provide Arms, Possibly Training to Kurds Fighting ISIS

Aziz Karimov/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Add Germany to the list of those countries taking a bolder stand against the Islamic State.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced Thursday that his government would begin providing weapons to Kurdish groups in northern Iraq that are battling ISIS fighters.

In addition, Steinmeier suggested that Germany might also avail military advisers to assist in training armed Kurds.

"We have an exploratory mission which is examining what and whether something could work" in the northern city of Ebril, he said.

This assistance is an expansion of humanitarian aid that Germany is also providing to those in the region at war with ISIS.

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Canadian Muslim Groups Condemn Deadly Attacks

iStock/Thinkstock(OTTAWA, Ontario) -- This week's deadly attacks in Canada were condemned Thursday by Muslim groups who claimed that "violent extremist ideologies...have nothing to do with Islam."

Ihsaan Gardee, the executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, added that an attack on one Canadian is an attack on all those who denounce terrorism.

Muslims in the country are hoping there is no backlash against them following Wednesday's shooting death of a guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a recent convert to Islam.  Zehaf-Bibeau was gunned down after trying to shoot up Parliament.

Earlier this week, Martin Couture-Rouleau, who also converted to Islam, killed a Canadian Forces member with a vehicle in a small Quebec town.  He was chased down by local police and then shot dead.

Despite the conversion of these individuals, mainstream Muslims contend the killers' acts have no basis in their religion.

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Watch the Canadian Parliament Attack Unfold

Mike Carroccetto/Getty Images(OTTAWA, Ontario) -- Canadian police officials released surveillance footage and a description Thursday that gives a moment-by-moment breakdown of the Wednesday attack near and inside Parliament.

Here is a detailed account of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's attack that shocked Canada:

9:50 a.m.: Zehaf-Bibeau approached the rear of the National War Memorial and fired twice at Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, who was on guard at the time. Zahef-Bibeau fired another shot at a second guard at the memorial, but he missed. Witnesses recalled hearing Zehaf-Bibeau yell something, but it is unclear what. He then flees the scene in the used beige car that he had purchased the day before the attack.

9:52.23 a.m.: Just as the police received their first calls about the shooting, surveillance footage showed Zehaf-Bibeau pulling up and parking his car at the entrance to Parliament. Passersby are seen looking back down the street towards the War Memorial, presumably because of the shots. One witness even approached Zehaf-Bibeau's car before running away when he saw him get out of the vehicle with a large gun.

9:53.16 a.m.: Zehaf-Bibeau ran through a row of iron posts and approached a black car with a driver waiting for one of the ministers. The driver got out of the car and Zehaf-Bibeau took his place, driving the vehicle over to the entrance to the Centre Block building about 20 seconds later.

9:53.46 a.m.: He entered the Centre Block building and footage shows that there were three cars filled with members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police pursuing him. They followed him in the building, but dropped back when they heard shots being fired.

Zehaf-Bibeau headed down the main hall, where he was confronted by Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers and others who got in a shootout with him.

Vickers and others were hiding behind pillars while shooting at Zehef-Bibeau. At one point, Zehef-Bibeau repositioned himself to get a better shot at Vickers, but Vickers shot him first.

Zehef-Bibeau was pronounced dead.

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Canadian Gunman Was Hoping to Leave for Syria

A law enforcement official confirms to ABC News that this is a photo of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. The photo was posted to a pro-ISIS Twitter account that has since been suspended.(OTTAWA, Ontario) -- The Canadian man who was shot dead after he killed a soldier and invaded the country's Parliament was in Ottawa for a passport issue and was hoping to leave for Syria, a top police official said on Thursday.

Police released more information about Wednesday's shooting as information emerged that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, 32, had become homeless and his angry demeanor prompted a mosque last year to ask him to leave.

Zehaf-Bibeau had been in Ottawa since Oct. 2 to deal with a passport issue, police said, and that he "was hoping to leave for Syria."

Syria has become a magnet for radicalized Islamists fighting for the militant ISIS or other radical Islamic groups.

An American source briefed on Zehaf-Bibeau, 32, has revealed that he crossed over into the United States in the past, most recently in autumn 2013.

Around the same time as Zehaf-Bibeau's most recent trip to the U.S., he was caught trying to illegally live out of a mosque in Burnaby, British Columbia.

Aasim Rashid, a spokesman for British Columbia's Muslim Association, told ABC News that while he didn't know Zehaf-Bibeau personally, former administrators of the Masjid al-Salaam mosque told him that Zehaf-Bibeau was "in and out" for a couple of months in 2013.

"He had a problem speaking politely, used some vulgar language," Rashid said.

"He had some discussions with the administration that he was complaining that the mosque was so open and welcoming to Muslims as well as non-Muslims," Rashid told ABC News. "The chairman sat him down and said, 'Look, this is how we run this mosque....The mosque has always been welcoming and will stay that way. And if you have a problem with that you're going to have go somewhere else.'”

Zehaf-Bibeau was reportedly arrested at some point during that period of time and after he was released, someone found him sleeping at Masjid al-Salaam, Rashid said.

"He had found a key there. He had been using the mosque to camp out. He did not have a home. The mosque asked him to leave and changed the locks," he said.

"He wasn’t acting all that normal. His demeanor was such that people around him didn't feel comfortable around him," Rashid said.

The gunman, whose full name is listed as Michael Joseph Paul Zehaf Bibeau in Vancouver court documents, had been arrested in the past.

In 2004, he was arrested on drug-related charges when he lived in Montreal, according to court documents.

He was later charged with robbery in 2011 in Vancouver, though the outcome of both cases were not immediately clear, the documents indicate.

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Hero of Canada's Parliament Shooting Greeted with Standing Ovation

Alex Boutilier/Toronto Star via Getty Images(OTTAWA, Ontario) — The hero sergeant-at-arms who killed the shooter in Wednesday's attack on the Canadian Parliament was welcomed back into the building Thursday morning with a prolonged standing ovation.

Kevin Vickers, 58, nodded to acknowledge the spontaneous applause that washed over him by the officials in the chamber, which included Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Vickers, a retired Royal Canadian Mountie, holds the ceremonial post of sergeant-at-arms but he confronted and killed gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the suspect in the shooting death of a soldier at the National War Memorial, before invading the main Parliament building.

Parliament was back to work Thursday morning, and the crowd ushered Vickers into the room with applause which went on for several minutes. At one point, a few tears appeared to roll down his cheek. The group then sang the national anthem, and held a moment of silence before the prime minister spoke.

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Air New Zealand Releases 'Most Epic Safety Video Ever Made'

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- As the "official airline of Middle-earth," Air New Zealand would naturally want to capitalize on the final movie in The Hobbit trilogy, scheduled to be released in December.

The theatrical release of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a few months away, but Hobbit lovers can get a fix by watching "The Most Epic Safety Video Ever Made," featuring cast members from all three films in the trilogy -- Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Dean O'Gorman (Fili the Dwarf) and Sylvester McCoy (Radagast).

The video, directed by Kiwi filmmaker Taika Waititi, also features cameos from The Hobbit trilogy director Sir Peter Jackson, Weta Workshop co-founder Sir Richard Taylor and Waititi himself, who appears as a wizard.

Not one moment of the safety video actually takes place in an airplane.

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It's not the first time the airline has made an airline safety video in connection with The Hobbit films. In 2012, director Peter Jackson and The Hobbit characters appeared in a Middle-earth-themed safety video. "An Unexpected Briefing" has been viewed more than 12 million times online.

"We're confident our final Hobbit-inspired on board safety video will delight fans as much as the first one and inspire even more people to consider a visit to Middle-earth," said Jodi Williams, Air New Zealand Head of Global Brand Development.

Since its release Wednesday, the video has been viewed more than 1 million times on YouTube.

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Pope Francis Speaks to Prison Chaplains, Discusses Imprisonment

iStock Editorial/Thinkstock(ROME) -- Pope Francis had some frank words Thursday about the prison system, saying imprisonment is often promoted by unscrupulous politicians and journalists stirring up society's desire for revenge.

Speaking to a group of prison chaplains in Rome, Francis said imprisonment is often used to punish the weak in society while the "big fish" go free. He reiterated the Vatican's call for the abolition of the death penalty but went a step further, calling life sentences "hidden deaths."

He said that each time after he makes a Sunday phone call to someone in prison in his home city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, he asks himself, why is he in there and not me?

The pope went on to call the "one billion people trapped in absolute poverty" a real crime, one that damages human dignity and the common good.

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US Military Conducts 15 Airstrikes Against ISIS in Syria, Iraq

iStock/Thinkstock(TAMPA, Fla.) -- The U.S. military continued its attack against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets in Syria and Iraq, launching 15 airstrikes on Wednesday and Thursday.

According to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), six of the strikes were in Syria. Four near Kobani destroyed fighting positions, a vehicle, and an ISIS command and control center. The other two were east of Dawr Az Zawr and destroyed oil holding tanks.

The remaining nine airstrikes in Iraq destroyed a vehicle and hit four small units near Mosul Dam; destroyed a fighting position south of Bayji; and destroyed an ISIS building and training facility and hit a large unit near Fallujah.

CENTCOM said all the aircraft used in the attacks managed to exit the areas safely.

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How to Safely Watch the Last Partial Solar Eclipse of the Year

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Get ready for a partial solar eclipse Thursday when the new moon obscures part of the sun, darkening the skies and casting a spectacular shadow.

It's not safe to look at the sun with the naked eye and regular sunglasses won't suffice. NASA suggests viewing the solar eclipse -- the fourth and final eclipse of the year -- with a special solar filter.

If those aren't available, there's a quick and fun hack to make your own viewfinder.

You'll need a long box (a shoe box is ideal), a small piece of foil, a white piece of paper, tape and a box cutter.

If it's not a soggy day outside, get ready to use your new pinhole projector. Never look directly at the sun. Instead, peer through the viewing hole while pointing the side with the foil toward the sun.

You should be able to view the partial solar eclipse on the white screen inside of the box.

For those in the U.S., the eclipse will begin around 1:35 p.m. in Seattle. As the Earth turns, the rest of the country will be treated to the phenomenon closer to sunset, with it reaching New York at 5:49 p.m. and Tallahassee, Florida, at 6:09 p.m.

NASA has posted a list of what time the eclipse is expected to happen in major United States cities here.

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