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On Bin Laden’s burial 7, May 2011

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Clearly, Glenn Beck is a deranged fool who deserved as much sympathy as mockery, but [I can barely believe I’ve inserted a ‘but’ there] I’m not wholly sure if he didn’t have a teensy, tiny point the other day.

Given that OBL clearly, wholly and profoundly does not represent Islam in any way, shape or form, does it matter whether he had a true Islamic burial or not? Surely he was the absolute opposite of practically all that Islam is about? So on what grounds are people complaining about his burial? Granted, I would not go as far as Beck would (you’ll be pleased to hear) which involved wrapping him in bacon and burying under an American football field in New Jersey, but, well, I just don’t care and – more to the point – don’t really see why Muslims would care either. Indeed, surely he apostatized himself many a year ago?

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Al Qaeda’s caves 3, March 2010

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This is what an Al Qaeda-ish cave looks like.

Not this.

Rumsfeld was such a spectacular liar.

Muslim scholar condemns terrorism 2, March 2010

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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.

Who killed Abdullah Azzam? 1, March 2010

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One of the many mysteries involved in the birth of Al Qaeda and similar groups in 1980s Afghanistan is the death of Abdullah Azzam. The founder of Maktab Al Khidmat (Office of Services – MAK), usually considered to be the direct forerunner to Al Qaeda, Azzam was assassinated in November 1989. Yet no-one really has much of an idea who lay in wait to explode the IED that killed him. Rather, there are plenty of ideas, but no proof whatsoever. The finger of blame swings from the KGB to the CIA to the Mossad to the ISI to Osama Bin Laden to Iranian Intelligence and on to any number of interested parties.

Interestingly,Thomas Hegghammer of  Jihadica, the one-stop-shop for all that needs to be known on the nitty-gritty of Islamic movements and personalities, thinks that there is some reasonably good evidence that it was in fact Jordanian Intelligence that did the deed. Go have a read and decide for yourself.

Explosives found at Irish Airport 5, January 2010

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Irish authorities have found 7 items of contraband including explosives in luggage at Dublin airport. The man who arrived from Bratislava, Slovakia, has now been released. It transpires that the illicit items were planted in his luggage by Slovakian authorities as a blind test of airport security. Very proactive…though they could have alerted the Irish authorities before the man was arrested and his house sealed off and searched for explosives.

Lynch on OBL’s latest video 15, September 2009

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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?”

3) –

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

5) –

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 2009

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5 stages of al qaeda

…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?

Al Qaeda as ideology or organisation? 25, September 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East, Terrorism.
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In the aftermath of the US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the US government pursued those responsible with vigour. However, they soon came across difficulties when deciding how to proceed with indictments and other legal proceedings because of the nature of the terrorists involved. Because the US authorities did not have a deep and thorough understanding of Islamic militancy at the time (one assumes that they do now) they resorted to the next best thing and essentially used analogy to guide their policy. These terrorists, the mused, are not that dissimilar to the mafia in the US, which the authorities had been fighting for decades. Therefore, they used associated legal proceedings and particularly the RICO (Racketeering and Organised Crime) law as a vehicle to bring the Embassy bombers to justice. To proceed with this, they argued that the terrorists involved were part of a larger, loosely affiliated group. The name of this group was Al Qaeda.

It is a fascinating intellectual question as to who first deemed this group (such as it was) to be called Al Qaeda. There is ample evidence to suggest that it was because of the American legal proceedings that Al Qaeda as a name came into existence. For sure, the phrase had been used for at least a decade: but in what context? In Arabic Al Qaeda translates as the base of some description. So when militants were seeking to go from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or anywhere else to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets back in the 1980s, they were told to go to the base. In short, one wonders how things would have been different had those people directing want-to-be fighters directed them to Omar’s house, for example, instead.

Either which way, this group Al Qaeda were soon blamed (and took responsibility for) for various bombings including the 9/11 attacks. This group was described as being some kind of monolithic, super terrorist group, with a fanatical leader, enormous resources, innumerable bases, and a typical command and control structure was inferred. This is because people, when confronted by an unfamiliar concept, seek to use analogy to find similarities and thus aid understanding. For example, it could be suggested that this happened with British people familiar with the IRA’s long terrorist campaign and them as a rigid, structured para-miliraty group. Thus many British peoples idea of a terrorist group was already clear in their mind. Therefore, Al Qaeda – rightly or wrongly – took on these familiar qualities.

Indeed, this impression was reinforced by the American administration as a whole and Donald Rumsfeld in particular with the absurd cave diagram, or rather, to give its official title, “Bin Laden’s Mountain Fortress”.

It was a work of absolute fiction plucked from the ether and grounded in as much reality as George Lucas’ Death Star, yet it built on and reinforced notions of what people expected: a structured group with a structured base.

Jason Burke is a journalist for the Observer newspaper and wrote the definitive book on Al Qaeda which simply, unequivocally, and convincingly decimates the whole notion of Al Qaeda as some structured organisation, with clear lines of communication, head quarters and so on. His central argument is that such notions simply do not and have just about never fit the actual situation on the ground. He suggests that Al Qaeda can be best described as an ideology, adhered to be followers around the world. Whilst there are examples of carefully planned and executed plots by Al Qaeda, notably the African embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, proving the actual levels of communication and ‘direct direction’ from on-high are notoriously difficult. Indeed, overall, it is best to see Al Qaeda as an ideology that anyone can borrow. The clearest example of this can be seen in the Madrid bombings in 2004, where the culprits were clearly shown to have no links whatsoever with so called Al Qaeda in Afghanistan or Pakistan: It was an entirely indigenous operation borrowing ideas from Al Qaeda alone.

However, the recent court case involving the so-called ‘airline plotters’ suggests that perhaps some kind of rethink is in order. Burke suggests that as the protagonists in the case visited the tribal areas of Pakistan and allegedly met with several high up members of the remnants of the Taliban, that the link – however tenuous – between the older generation of terrorists (Al Qaeda) and the new recruits has been directly re-established. Indeed, the accused were charged that they received funding and tactical education from those they visited in Pakistan.

Ascertaining the exact kind of relationship in not far off impossibly difficult. Educated guesses are all that there are, no matter what some may claim. Nevertheless, the general weight of evidence suggests that today Al Qaeda may be best seen as a group of people with a common goal and ideology, who maintain some kind of transitory training camps in the Afghan-Pakistan border areas, who pass on their knowledge of bombs, equipment and the like and may suggest targets. Though if one were to ask Donald Rumsfeld no doubt they would morph, once again, into some kind of terrorist super-group, replete with throngs of minions and a mountain fortress.

The end of Al Qaeda – heard it before? 11, June 2008

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There have been many points at which various people have claimed that Al Qaeda and other such groups are on the wane. More often than not – indeed, just about every time so far – such predictions have been woefully early, plainly hopeful, poorly researched or just plain wrong. George Bush’s cringing ‘Mission Accomplished’ effort aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln is a moment that will surely live infamy. Nevertheless, experts, pundits, politicians, journalists and policeman are still tempting fate and prognosticating that Al Qaeda is something of a spent force, soon to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

One such article emerged this past week in The New Republic, authored by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank. Bergen especially is an acknowledged expert on Al Qaeda generally and Osama Bin Laden specifically. Despite his tactlessly and almost cringe-worthily titled book “The Osama Bin Laden I Know” Bergen is a knowledgeable expert who does not resort to hyperbole as quickly as many or even most Bin Laden experts, but instead relies on evidence and knowledge.

The crux of their argument is persuasive. In an extensive 5000 word article, they list several key former Al Qaeda supporters who have apparently seen the light and now campaign against Al Qaeda’s poisonous message. They extrapolate that the reasons for their changes are already persuading others to follow suit. However, it is the fact that such ‘experts’ and former Al Qaeda justifiers and supporters actually believe these reasons that it the key. Their conversions will, so goes the argument, convince many others to change.

Here is a brief summary of the protagonists:

– Sheikh Salman Al Ouda was one of the fathers of Saudi Arabia’s Sahwa (Awakening) movement in the early 1980s who riled against the presence of US troops in the Kingdom and indeed the House of Saud itself. He was thus an early inspiration for Bin Laden. Furthermore, he has repeatedly advocated attacks on US troops both in the Kingdom (in the past, obviously) and in Iraq today, castigating the US as occupiers and thus legitimate targets. Additionally, Al Ouda spent a considerable amount of time in jail in Saudi for his views and this would, therefore, enhance his credibility in certain circles.

– Sayyid Imam Al Sharif or Dr Fadh as he is better known was one of the ideological “Godfathers” of Al Qaeda as Bergen and Cruickshank put it. He laid down one of the central trysts that Al Qaeda and similar groups have used to designate swathes of people as legitimate targets: the notion of takfir and kuffar. Furthermore, Dr Fadh is well known for the time that he spent on the front lines of Jihad in Afghanistan in the 1990’s.

– Noman Benotman is the former head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group whose avowed aim was to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. The article reports several meetings between Benotman and Bin Laden, indicating a close relationship. However, he – like Dr Fadh and Al Ouda – have since performed a 180 degree turn and are now avowedly anti-Al Qaeda.

The three protagonists here have changed their opinions largely because of the escalating nature of Al Qaeda’s violence. Bombings such as in London and on the wedding in Amman, Jordan killing purely Muslims are crucial turning points for them. The three former Al Qaeda sympathisers/ideologues/soldiers say much the same thing: that these barbarous acts are forbidden in Sharia law and thus illegal.

Whilst this change of heart is to be encouraged, it must be questioned. I do not mean to suggest that they are lying to dupe ‘us’ into a false sense of security (we do not live in a Bond film, after all). Yet when those who fervently, passionately and concertedly preached, justified and carried out what many consider to be disgraceful acts of terrorism in the past suddenly ‘see the light’, I personally do not see why this is automatically a one-way street: what is stopping them from having another conversion back to the dark side?

In short, Bergen and Cruickshank’s article is, of its type, well reasoned, well argued and – who knows – perhaps prophetic, too. Yet the very nature of these peoples’ world and the values that they hold dear must not be forgotten. That is to say that they still have – theoretically – no problem with killing plenty of people, only now, they have shifted the goal posts and are much more selective, which is obviously a good thing. Yet nevertheless they still place scripture – now differently interpreted – above human life. This is something that I am deeply uncomfortable with and am thus not rejoicing just yet.

The controversies of the DNA database 29, February 2008

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Have you noticed a strange number of cases in recent years of old crimes being solved? I confess, I have hunted around for empirical evidence to back up that claim, but I simply can’t remember the names of the cases themselves. Nevertheless, like any good political scientist, I am still totally convinced that my initial notion is true, despite a dearth of evidence supporting it.Such a hypothesis would, however, fit in with the trend in recent years adopted by the UK government of collecting more and more people’s DNA. This elicits predictable responses from predictable people.

The government trot out the usual dynamic and positive adjectives defending their case along with statistics beseeching people to just see sense and eschew the dark side. According to the Government, if you’re against the plan it seems you are just begging for someone’s daughter to get murdered or raped. In an interview with the home affairs select committee, Meg Hillier the Home Office minister employed, to my mind, despicable and childish emotional blackmail to make her point when she said that she “wouldn’t want to be sat in the same room as someone whose family member was murdered, saying we could have prevented this but we didn’t.” The bizarre thing is that she needn‘t use such a distasteful argument. The figures that the Government quote are really quite impressive (but when are they not?). Apparently, DNA evidence has helped to solve 452 murders, 644 rapes, 222 sex offences and 2,000 violent crimes in recent years. Nevertheless, there are no plans for a mandatory nation wide DNA database.

On the other side of the debate you have, among others, Shami Chakrabarti the Director of Liberty.

“At the moment in Britain, if you were arrested of any offence ever, even if you’re never charged or cautioned, you’ll stay on the database forever…where do you draw the line – market manipulation, dropping litter?”

As far as I am concerned, Shami can keep on going: parking violations, not crossing the street at zebra crossings, gratuitously offensive clothing, talking loudly on a mobile on the train … no offence is too small for your DNA to be scooped up and put in the DNA database. I think it is simply irrefutable that were such a database to be mandatory, more crimes would be solved quicker. This is surely an obvious fact which does not need testimony to back it up. If it did, however, look to Detective Superintendent Stuart Cundy who arrested necrophiliac Mark Dixie for the murder of Sally Anne Bowman. Cundy was deported from Australia in 1999 and his DNA – as envisaged by the DNA register – would have been on file. However, it was not, and only when he was arrested for being in a pub brawl was his DNA sampled and the case closed. Therefore, as Detective Superintendent Cundy put it, “If there had been a national DNA register, with all its appropriate safeguards, then rather than nine months before Mark Dixie was identified, he could have been identified much sooner.”

However, this is not the real issue with the DNA database, so far as I see it. Indeed, Mrs Chakrabarti is perfectly correct when she asks whether the government is capable of safely storing such critical information about people. Their current record does not inspire confidence. From the loss of personal data of more than 25 million people by the Child Benefit office, to the loss of data regarding 1400 students here in Scotland, there appears to be systematic problems at all levels of the government and its appendages. Indeed, the fact that at present Britain’s DNA database holds the records of around 4-5 million people, making it percentage terms the biggest file of its kind in the world, may well leave people uneasy.

Were these inherent problems to be rectified then a modest expansion of the DNA database would, I imagine, have most people’s support. However, given that such a solution (or at least people’s confidence in it) is far off, if not impossible, it comes down to a judgement call. Perhaps this particular decision would be better informed in light of the case which is about to be heard by the European Court of Human Rights.

In 2001 an 11 year old boy with no previous warnings or cautions, was arrested for attempted robbery. He was subsequently exonerated and asked for his DNA to be taken off the register. The police refused and their decision was backed up by the High Court in 2002, owing to the 2001 Criminal Justice and Police Act, which allows the police to retain DNA samples, even if the person in question is cleared or indeed never charged in the first place. The boy in question, who is now a teenager, along with another man in a similar situation are currently in the process of bringing their case to the European Court of Human Rights. If they win their case, it is thought that some half a million names would have to be removed from the database.

That seems like a lot to me. Do you think that there is a chance that one of these half a million people is likely to commit a crime at some time in future? Or that someone whose DNA record is deleted in the future because of this change in law, is likely to commit a crime? Would their DNA being on file aid a quicker arrest and prosecution? Does the chance of this scenario coming to fruition outweigh the chance of the government posting their records to God knows where and losing their them? These are personal decisions for which there are, need it be said, no right or wrong answers. My own inclination is to err on the side of caution (my caution that is) and leave the names and records where they are.