The ugly face of terrorism?? 30, March 2010Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Saudi Arabia.
Tags: Al Sharq Al Awsat, Journalism, Terrorism, Terrorism cliches
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There’s an article in Sharq Al Awsat titled ‘The Ugly Face of Terrorism‘. What sort of a title is that? Such a title absurdly insinuates that there is a ‘pretty’ side to terrorism.
The article itself is simply the dullest of recapitulations of all the good ‘ol fashioned clichés about terrorism: it’s an unfair, evil, indiscriminate thing; it’s a scourge for us all; there’s nothing noble about a suicide attack and so on.
I realise that journalists have deadlines and editors demand column inches, especially in the aftermath of an attack that Moscow has just experienced, but this is the most banal, pointless, repetitious and redundant of articles and is a spectacularly bad indictment of ASAW that it was printed.
Muslim scholar condemns terrorism 2, March 2010Posted by thegulfblog.com in Terrorism.
Tags: Denouncing terrorism, Fatwa, Fatwa against terrorism, Tahir Ul Qadri, Terrorism
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The BBC wesbite has a list of the articles from its website that have been shared the most i.e emailed from one person to the next. At 6:00AM GMT on the 3rd March 2010 the number one most sent article has the title ‘Muslim Scholar Condemns Terrorism’. Am I reading far too much into this or are people ‘so surprised’ that ‘a’ Muslim scholar is condemning terrorism, that they’ve just got to read it and send it onwards to a friend? That the phrase ‘Muslim Scholar condemning terrorism’ is so rare that the chance to read about one such proponent and share his ideas simply must be taken?
The article is referring to Dr Tahir ul-Qadri, a Pakistani scholar who has written a 600 page fatwa wholly condemning al Qaeda’s ideology. Whilst he is far from the first scholar to denounce terrorism, seemingly the length and rigor of his fatwa is unusually thorough. The BBC article is well worth a read.
Student arrested for reading Arabic flashcards on plane 12, February 2010Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
Tags: Arrested for reading arabic, Terrorism, US homeland security
US authorities have arrested a student at Philadelphia International Airport for reading his Arabic flashcards on a plane. He was arrested and ‘aggressively’ questioned for two hours without being informed of his rights by FBI and police officers. One can but marvel at the idiocy and bare stupidity of such people. If I were an American I’d be terrified at the caliber and intelligence of the authorities protecting me.
From bum bomb to body bomb? 1, February 2010Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
Tags: Airline terrorism, Body bomb, Bum bomb, Daily Hate, Daily Mail, PETN, Terrorism
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Fears have been raised of a new generation of suicide bombers secreting explosives inside their bodies to evade airport security. This story appeared in the Daily Mail (a.k.a the Daily Fear), a newspaper that loves nothing more than whipping up an unjustified frenzy about illegal immigrants, security issues and Princess Diana.
The article quotes MI5 officials voicing such fears based on information from “observing increasingly vocal internet ‘chatter’ on Arab websites this year.” The Daily Hate goes on to quote “a leading source” who suggests that bombers might insert explosives near the appendix or their breasts if they are a female bomber.
Something like this is, in many ways, a logical progression. From bombs strapped to vests, to bombs in shoes, to bombs in underwear to bombs inserted up the bomber’s bottom, bombs stitched into, for example, the chest may well be the next evolution. If PETN, the explosive of choice for recent bombers, was used, a frighteningly small amount of it would be needed to punch through the thin skin of a plane. The Daily Hate suggest that as little as 8oz properly shaped can penetrate as much as five inches of armor.
A few thoughts:
- In the aftermath of the horrific Madrid train bombings in 2004, I remember various articles discussing the next generation of Al Qaeda ‘sleeper agent’. These omnipotent agents would dress, act, live, eat and drink like ‘us Westerners’, only harboring their deep, dark secret within, waiting to unleash their bombs at an opportune time. Also, they did not have any real contact with the Al Qaeda ‘base’ in Afghanistan/Pakistan but were instead inspired over the internet. These supposed terrorists were, therefore, the very apogee of terrorism: undetectable, driven and deadly. Yet, such terrorists essentially do not exist. This story was more of an apocryphal warning for the maintenance of impossible levels of vigilance than anything else.
- This potentially undetectable bomb strikes me as somewhat similar in nature. Especially so being as it is the Daily Fearmongerer that has the story. Apologies for belaboring the point but they are such a disreputable paper, so callously playing on peoples’ fears that I find it difficult to believe a word that they write. Lord Northcliffe the founder of the Daily Mail, after all, based the paper on the notion of giving readers “a daily hate“ to keep them coming back for more.
- Yet, such a bomb is clearly possible and however unlikely it may be, it needs to be taken seriously. I’d suggest that this further goes to show that profiling of some form or another may well be a larger part of the answer than scanners.
Hat tip: CKU
‘Strip search all 18-28 year old Muslim men’ 3, January 2010Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
Tags: Airline terrorism, Fox News, profiling, Racial profiling, Terrorism
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…is what retired Lt. General Thomas McInerey thinks should happen at US airports. He said this during an interview on – quelle surprise – Fox News. Though, in fairness, the presenter did then retort that that such a policy of singling out people because of their religion would be [I'm paraphrasing] neither fair, sensible, reasonable not effective in the longer term. Never mind the question of how you know that such a man is Muslim in the first place…
Plotting the trajectory of airline terrorism 30, December 2009Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
Tags: 9/11, Airline attack, Airline terrorism, Bonjika, Bum bomb, Full body scanners, hijacking, PETN, Suicide terrorism, Terrorism
This article appeared in The Daily News Egypt on the 29/12/2009.
The terrorist who attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day did so with 80g of explosives. Considering that 100g of this explosive — pentaerythritol trinitrate or PETN — is capable of destroying a car, as one expert put it, 80g would easily have ripped a gaping hole in the fuselage. Whether the pilot could have subsequently landed the plane is a moot point. What is of infinitely more concern is the next attack and what methods it will employ. One way of pondering such questions is to place this latest attempted outrage in its historical context and to try to extrapolate some kind of evolutionary trajectory.
Christmas Eve 1994 saw the first hijacking of a plane where the intention was to use it as a weapon. Thankfully, the Air France plane hijacked in Algiers landed in Marseilles on Christmas Day where it was stormed by French GIGN Special Forces ending the siege and killing the terrorists, thwarting their plans to blow up the plane over the Eiffel Tower. In 1995, thanks to an accidental explosion at an apartment in the Philippines, Operation Bonjika was discovered and stopped. This was an audacious attempt to hijack and destroy up to 12 intercontinental airplanes with American affiliation over the ocean. The terrorists planned to use liquid explosives stored in contact-lens solution bottles. Had they succeeded, up to 4,000 people could have been killed.
These examples of terrorism are all but forgotten in the face of the 9/11 attacks where all it took were some box cutters. These attacks ushered in a new era of terrorism and a new era of countermeasures. Yet, come 22nd December 2001 and Richard Reid attempted to circumvent these by concealing explosives in his shoes. He too was — thankfully — thwarted and this led to all shoes being x-rayed in American airports and many out with the US too. 2006 saw the arrest of several British citizens when their plan to blow up several transatlantic airliners using liquid explosives was discovered. This resulted in liquids being banned from being taken on planes.
There is an obvious pattern of after the fact catch up in these examples by the security transport authorities. Nevertheless, the failure of these three post-9/11 attacks appears to have relied more on luck than any particular countermeasure.
In the past week, hand baggage has been restricted, GPS positioning entertainment features are being switched off, passengers are not being allowed to get up in the last half hour of the flight and blankets are not allowed to be kept on laps. These measures may well contribute to thwarting someone trying to do exactly the same things as previous failed attempts, but authorities need to seek to plan for the next, modified attack.
At the end of August 2009 a terrorist came to Saudi Arabian Interior Minister Prince Nayef to give himself up, as is often the custom. After going through security and sitting across from Prince Nayef for several minutes the man then exploded, his arm getting embedded in the ceiling. Nayef emerged with only a scratch on his cheek and his hand. It soon transpired that the man had fashioned presumably the world’s first ‘bum bomb’ and had anywhere up to 500g of explosives secreted inside himself. Therefore, when the explosives were detonated, the overstuffed couch and his body absorbed practically all of the energy.
It would be wrong to think that terrorists are intrinsically either irrational or stupid because of what they do. The cliché that they are all poor, uneducated men is also not true: the recent would-be bomber had a degree from one of the UK’s best institutions. It would be prudent to assume, therefore, that it is but a matter of time before PETA explosives and the idea of secreting them inside one’s body are married together.
In recent days many people have been highlighting the efficacy of full-body scanners. They are quicker and arguably more effective than methods currently employed but the machines are quite expensive (around $170,000) and civil liberties groups are vocally against their introduction. In the most recent example, it is likely (though not certain) that such a scanner would have seen the small package near hidden in the terrorist’s clothing but would be highly unlikely to see anything inside a body cavity.
The only way to avoid this persistent game of attack, response, change, attack, is to stop thinking purely technologically. Of course, scanners and the like will be a key way of mitigating such threats, but whatever technological impediment is placed in front of a terrorist will — eventually — be circumvented, necessity being the mother of all invention. In short, the human part of the equation must not be forgotten and ugly arguments about profiling need to be rehashed. I am not referring to blanket ‘stop him, he’s got a beard’ profiling, but nuanced profiling linked up with already existing intelligence information.
I would suggest that a well-trained official, versed in subtle interrogation and questioning techniques and cognisant of his past would have, at the very least, remanded the terrorist on flight 253 to stricter security measures. Needless to say, this is no panacea and it would be expensive and problematic to train sufficient security staff, but a more nuanced approach is needed as surely with three failed attempts in recent years our luck has nearly run out.
The Yemen debacle spills over 21, September 2009Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf, Yemen.
Tags: Gulf, LSE, Saudi Arabia, Terrorism, The bum bomb, Yemen
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(Abdullah Asiri: the bum bomber [what an ignominious failure...])
You will not find a better or more knowledgeable article tying together the recent assassination attempt in Saudi Arabia (the bum bomb) and the mess currently unfurling in Yemen than the one in the National by Kristian Ulrichsen. Academic journalism at its best.
Lynch on OBL’s latest video 15, September 2009Posted by thegulfblog.com in Terrorism.
Tags: bin laden video, Marc Lynch, Terrorism
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Marc Lynch has some interesting things to note about Bin Laden’s recent video.
1) It is quite hard to get hold of a copy: are Al Qaeda having issues with their “distribution mechanisms”
2) There are no English language subtitles on a video purported to be ‘for’ the American people: “quite odd…degraded capabilities?”
The speech itself represents a vintage bin Laden appeal to the mainstream Muslim world, with a heavy focus on Israel and the suffering of the Palestinians and very little reference to salafi-jihadist ideology. This is important, because one of the reasons for al-Qaeda’s recent decline has been its general exposure — or branding, if you prefer — as an extreme salafi-jihadist movement rather than as an avatar of Muslim resistance. It has lost ground from the brutality and ideological extremism of its chosen representatives in Iraq, because of nationalist outrage over its ‘near enemy’ attacks in a variety of Arab and Muslim countries, and because of the battles it has chosen with far more popular Islamist movements such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. But this does not mean that it can not learn from its mistakes.
This tape seemingly represents an effort by bin Laden to recapture the mantle of a generalized resistance to the West and to Israel and to downplay the salafi-jihadist tropes so beloved of the jihadist forums. Where the ideologues of the forums eviscerate Hamas, bin Laden speaks in general terms about Palestine. Where the forums obsess over fine points of salafi-jihadist doctrine, bin Laden speaks only about political conflicts in Palestine and Afghanistan. American strategic communications efforts towards the end of the Bush administration and into the Obama administration had considerable success in hurting al-Qaeda’s image by making it a debate about them, not about us. It appears that al-Qaeda Central has absorbed this lesson and is attempting to turn the tables and it make it once more about America and Israel.
Bin Laden’s heavy focus on Israel is not new, despite the frequent attempts to argue the opposite. He has frequently referred to Israel and the Palestinians since the mid-1990s. Whether he “really” cares about it is besides the point — he understands, and has always understood, that it is the most potent unifying symbol and rallying point for mainsteam Arab and Muslim audiences. Al-Qaeda and the salafi-jihadists in general hurt themselves quite badly over the last few years with rhetorical attacks on Hamas and with the emergence of the Jund Ansar Allah group in Gaza. Tellingly, bin Laden says nothing of either of these and sticks to generalities about Palestinian suffering and Israeli perfidy.
4) A focus on the American ‘Israel Lobby’ is more nuanced then previous ‘clash of civilizations’ rhetoric
Overall, this tape struck me as something significant. Al-Qaeda has been on the retreat for some time. Its response thus far to the Obama administration has been confused and distorted. Ayman al-Zawahiri has floundered with several clumsy efforts to challenge Obama’s credibility or to mock his outreach. But bin Laden’s intervention here seems far more skillful and likely to resonate with mainstream Arab publics. It suggests that he at least has learned from the organization’s recent struggles and is getting back to the basics in AQ Central’s “mainstream Muslim” strategy of highlighting political grievances rather than ideological purity and putting the spotlight back on unpopular American policies. Several recent commentaries by leading Arab analysts – including today’s column by the influential al-Quds al-Arabi editor Abd al-Bari Atwan – suggest that this may be paying off. American strategic communications efforts will need to up their game too.
The 5 ages of Al Qaeda 14, September 2009Posted by thegulfblog.com in Terrorism.
Tags: Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, Bukner diagram, jason burke, rumsfeld, Terrorism, The Guardian
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…is an excellent pictorial article in the Guardian co-authored by the insightful Jason Burke who is, as far as I am concerned, far and away the world’s leading expert on Al Qaeda. His book ‘Al Qaeda – the true story of radical Islam‘ was as groundbreaking on its release as it is today still essential for anyone wanting to understand what’s what with the amorphous phenomenon that came to be called Al Qaeda.
Burke moves away from the notion that Al Qaeda is or was some Machiavellian, secret, super-sleuth like terrorist organization (a la Rumsfeld’s hideous ‘bunker complex diagram‘ [a shocking bald-faced lie of immense proportions]) to describe how it evolved from the resistance in post-Soviet Afghanistan and resembles an ideology more than an organization. Al Qaeda means, after all, the base; as in the place that people were sent to to join in the anti-Soviet jihad: “go to Peshwar, to the base, to join the fighting” was, perhaps how the conversations went. I wonder, therefore, what we’d all be talking about today if instead of recruits being told to ‘go to the base‘ they were instead told ‘ithab ila bayt Omar‘…would we all be discussing this devilish terrorist group called Omar’s House?
Tags: Finkelstein, Israel Paleastine, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Terrorism
The soft spoken Norman Finkelstein took the stage some 15 minutes late: not so bad for a visiting lecturer. For the next two and a half hours he gave a professional and persuasive lecture entitled ‘Israel and Palestine: the roots of the problem and the prospects for peace.’ He was, of course, preaching to the converted. This event was the last of a five stop UK tour which began in Manchester and ended last night at the George Square theatre in Edinburgh. It was organised by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) and had the typical adornments of such events: the pro-Palestinian pamphlets, the selection of hippies, and the communists – literally – outside in the cold.
He began with the almost iconoclastic phrase that the Israeli-Palestinian situation was not, in any way shape or form, complex. It is not – he continued – controversial; too difficult to understand or comprehend; it does not defy analysis; and it is, above all else, quite simple. This was the theme throughout the lecture, and it was well argued.
He cites the four issues of the conflict, which are often said to be the most intractable:
1) the question of the legal borders of Israel and Palestine
2) the question of the legality of the Israeli settlements
3) the questions of East Jerusalem
4) the question of the Palestinian refugees
These are the four questions which are the kernel of the problem, he maintains, which are consistently portrayed as being so complex as to be nigh-on insoluble. However, they are not at all that controversial and this confusion is sowed specifically to muddy the issues, he continued.
Finkelstein explained that in July 2004 the highest judicial body in the world, The International Court of Justice (ICJ) gave an advisory opinion as to the legality of the wall that the Israelis were (and are) constructing. In order to render this opinion, the court had to consider preliminary questions which correspond to the first three questions above.
On the question of Israeli borders the ICJ was unequivocal. Since, according to international law, land may not be acquired by force, and since Israel acquired land in Gaza and the West Bank this way, it is, ipso facto, illegal. There is, therefore, in effect, no dispute regarding the disputed territories: international law is clear and straight forward – the land does not belong to the Israelis. Therefore, following on from this judgement, Israeli settlers are settled on land that was obtained illegally, and are thus in flagrant violation of international law.
On the question of East Jerusalem the court is similarly unambiguous. It was acquired during the 1967 war and thus, again, because land may not be seized by force according to international law, this is Palestinian land and Israelis have no title to it.
However, the crucial aspect is how many judges voted on or for the above arguments? The final tally was a resounding 14:1. This is where Finkelstein gets his ‘there is no confusion or complexity’ notion from: it has already been overwhelmingly decided upon by the ICJ. Even the one vote against the motion from the American judge was not a rejection but a more neutral lack of acceptance, and furthermore, he did accept the notion that the wall that the Israelis are building was illegal because they had acquired the land illegally and thus, on that specific question, the vote was 15:0.
The second theme that he addressed was around the issue of terrorism semantics. A crucial difference, it is often claimed, is that the various Arab terrorist groups strive to maximize civilian fatalities, where as the Israelis, whilst killing three or four times as many people, at least do not have this as an avowed aim. Finkelstein defines terrorism as ‘the targeting of civilians to further a political end’ and retorts that if the Israeli army launch artillery into a town or spray a crowd with bullets then the “inevitable and foreseeable consequence” of this is the deaths of civilians and therefore, these actions are ipso facto purposeful and intentional. Israeli actions are thus the intended targeting of civilians. The stated Israeli aim of many such actions (eg. the shelling of a village) is to put pressure on the leaders to do x and y, which is wholly political. Thus, Israel are pursuing a political end by the specific targeted killing of civilians, which is terrorism.
In order to answer the fourth ‘intractable’ question, he used his own situation as an analogy to good effect. When he was denied tenure at his former university, he firmly believed that had he gone through the court system, he would have won eventually. However, he was told that this would take around six years and would cost an exorbitant amount of money. He said that whilst he will always believe that he does have the right to tenure at the university, just as the Palestinians have the right to return, in terms of practicality, for him it was just not feasible to pursue it, just as he believes, the Palestinian right of return is not feasible.
He also eloquently argued against several other perceived injustices surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Returning to his central theme, he pointed out that every year the UN security council vote on a resolution on a peaceful settlement of the conflict. The vote is typically utterly one sided. E.g. 1981: 151:3, 1997: 155:2, 2002: 160:4, 2007: 161:7. Although the numbers of dissenters appears to have been rising in recent years, it must be forgotten that one is always the US and the other Israel, whilst the others are states such Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu, the Federal States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands.
Another interesting point that he made was about the comparison of the conflict with others in the past. Whist to some there seems to be an apt comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa, such notions, if they make it to mainstream media are drowned out in a sea of vitriol and outrage. This was the case when former American President Jimmy Carter released a book titled ‘Palestine: Peace not Apartheid’ to considerable opprobrium .Those defending Israel from this comparison, inevitably end up discussing the holocaust and using it to garner sympathy and obfuscate generally. However, the list of people who do think that such a comparison is warranted is lengthy and impressive, including Jimmy Carter, Haaretz the leading Israeli newspaper, Israel’s former attorney general, education minister and even Ariel Sharon.
Finkelstein concluded by saying that all is not lost. Much or even most public opinion is against Israel in this situation and that while the Israeli lobby may be strong; those fighting for the Palestinians have truth on their side.
Overall, Finkelstein was impressive, but there are, without doubt, several points to be raised with Finkelstein’s argument. The ICJ is a famously toothless body, rendering opinions for those that want to hear them. There is no coercion there whatsoever. Israel can ignore their injunctions and motions continually. They will have to be made to adhere to such motions by some other source. Also, in his section comparing Palestinian and Israeli terrorism, he defined terrorism in a self-serving manner, referring to it as ‘targeting of civilians for a political end.’ Whole books (and not small ones) have been written discussing the difficulties of defining terrorism. However, the vast majority these definitions include some notion of a sub-state actor in the definition. This would, thus, exculpate Israel from committing terrorism in a semantic way. I am not sure if simply glossing over this is the way to deal with this particular argument. Israel will simply refer back to the semantics which are in their favour. However, if – somehow – a concerted effort could be made to change the definition to one that included actions of states against civilians for political ends, then this would be enormously fruitful.