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Qatar Just Isn’t That Evil 15, September 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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The following article was published by the New America Institute and by Vox under a different title.

Cutting deals with the enemy is a part of American – and Western – history. America has negotiated with terrorists and guerrilla fighters since the days of William Howard Taft. The UK, too, has conferred with the violent Irish Republican Army and Spain with its domestic terror group ETA.

But some policy pundits argue that Qatar’s latest negotiating behavior is different. Sinister, even. In the past few weeks, Qatar successfully brokered the release of U.S. reporter Theo Curtis and U.S. service man Bowe Bergdahl from the Al Qaeda affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra and the Taliban. Along with the homecoming celebrations came an uneasiness about Qatari motivations, and the nature of those terrorist organization relationships. Aside from these two examples, Qatar’s close relationship with Hamas concerns many. Some of the commentary on these issues makes some valid points that need to be answered, while some are faintly ludicrous. So let’s look at the facts.

The leader of Hamas has long been based in Doha, and Qatar seemed to play animportant role in recent discussions regarding ceasefires in Israel. Qatar also has long-held a panoply of links to moderate Muslim Brotherhood associated groups throughout the Middle East. Particularly notable, for example, is Qatar’s hosting since 1961 of one of the leading Brotherhood Imams: Yusuf Al Qaradawi. He vastly expanded his influence under Qatari auspices using Al Jazeera as a vehicle to reach millions of Arabs. Qatar is also one of two states where the austere creed of Salafi, Wahhabi Islam prevails; the other is Saudi Arabia. To some, such links and associations are a context of enough circumstantial evidence to condemn Qatar as some kind of terrorist financier.

But this caricature of Qatar as a Machiavellian nation, secretly and actively supporting terrorism, just does not chime with the reality of the state.

But this caricature of Qatar as a Machiavellian nation, secretly and actively supporting terrorism, just does not chime with the reality of the state. Its leadership in recent decades has been arguably the most liberalizing in the Arab Middle East, though granted that’s hardly a difficult title to claim.

When offered several choices of how to reform Qatar’s schools by US think-tank the RAND Corporation, Qatar’s leadership chose the option with the deepestchanges explicitly modelled on the US school system. In higher education, six US and three other Western Universities have been established in Doha grafting a font of predominantly US soft power onto Qatari society providing the option of a liberal arts education.

What’s more, Qatar is home to one of the most iconic and powerful female role models in the Middle East. Sheikha Moza, the wife of the former Emir and the mother of the current Emir, is a highly visible stateswoman and the only Gulf first lady to be regularly seen. She is the founder and driving force behind the Education City project (where most Western universities are housed) as well as a raft of domestic social policies and charitable foundations, such as the WISE education awards, seen as the Nobel prize of the education world.

Nor should it be forgotten that Qatar actively cultivated relations with Israel in the early 1990s. There was an Israel trade office in Doha from 1996 to the late 2000s as Qatar actively sought (but eventually failed) to boost relations, such as by selling gas to the Jewish state.

Unless it is being suggested that Qatar undertook these efforts as some kind of a divisionary tactic, which is surely a ludicrous notion, it is difficult to peg Qatar as some kind of retrograde, terrorist-supporting state.

What is more likely is that Qatar wants to use its role with the likes of the Taliban and Jabhat Al Nusra as political gambits to reinforce the critical niche role that it can fulfil for important international allies. In a region that sees a major conflict every decade and where Qatar is a tiny, relatively intrinsically defenceless state, boxed in by historically belligerent, far larger states – Saudi Arabia and Iran – the central tenet of Qatar’s modern foreign policy has been to make the state as important as possible to as wide a range of important actors as possible.

Of course, these policy underpinnings don’t explain the actions and motivations of all Qataris. It is entirely possible if not likely, as some reports have noted, that there are individual Qataris not connected to the government that actively support groups like ISIS and who take advantage of lax Qatari financial controls. Indeed, the US Government has criticized the Gulf States including Qatar for not controlling personally collected, charitable money. Qatari authorities must do more to stop and sanction these individuals.

Some would sensibly counter, however, that the level of support or the freedom that states like Qatar show some apparent terrorist financiers indicates that, secretly, they support their cause. While it is possible that there may be some sympathisers in the elite (there was an example of this in the 1990s, see thissummary) there are more persuasive explanations.

To understand the Qatari perspective, you need a realistic view of the Middle East. Hamas may be a violent terrorist organisation by most definitions, but is also an elected political group that commands significant support. Though Qatar’s support facilitates the group, it is a fact on the ground that is not changing with or without Qatar’s help. That many in the Middle East see Hamas as engaging in resistance with what little means they have against one of the most advanced militaries in the world further complicates the issue.

The worst that can then be said of Qatar is that it is supporting regional groups to augment its own regional influence, in which case it joins the list including all Middle Eastern and Western countries trying to do exactly that.

So too with Jabhat Al Nusra. A reprehensible terrorist group it may be by most definitions, but it is often understood as representing a significant force on the ground: it is an actor that needs to be reckoned with.

None of this is an attempt to excuse terrorism or to try to claim that, for example, Hamas is anything other than a terrorist group. But it is to say that there are great swathes of people who would disagree with that characterisation and therefore it is pragmatic in a Kissinger-esque way to deal with the realities as we find them not as we wish they were.

The overarching tone of Qatar’s domestic and foreign policies of recent decades suggests that its interaction with these groups stems not from a blood-thirsty desire to wage war to facilitate the shelling of Israelis. Instead, Qatar acknowledges the realities that, for example, Hamas, like it or not, is a powerful and popular actor in the central conflict of the Arab world or that with more extreme groups like Nusra, it is better to have a contact with them than not.

Not only can these contacts contribute to releasing hostages – without ransoms being paid in this case – but demonstrably without an ideological motivation to support killing, Qatar must be using these links for a future political process. The worst that can then be said of Qatar is that it is supporting regional groups to augment its own regional influence, in which case it joins the list including all Middle Eastern and Western countries trying to do exactly that.

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The ugly face of terrorism?? 30, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Saudi Arabia.
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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 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in 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 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
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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 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
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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 readersa 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 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
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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 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
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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 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf, Yemen.
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bum bomber

(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 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in 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?”

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

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Terrorism.
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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?