Friday, February 22, 2008

Several dead in Pakistan blast

At least 14 people have been killed after a vehicle carrying a wedding party was struck by a roadside bomb in the northwestern valley of Swat, officials say.

The vehicle was passing through Matta, a town north of Mingora, the main town in Swat, on Friday when it was hit by the blast.

Haroon Khan, a local police officer, said: "There was a remote-controlled bomb explosion which targeted a wedding party."

"Two cars were destroyed including the car in which the bride was travelling. She died."

He also said that more than a dozen were wounded by the blast.

Several children, four women and the bride's father were also among the dead, while five children were among the wounded.

"Almost everyone in the family had injuries. Many had shrapnel in the head and face," said Javed Khan, a doctor at the hospital in the main town in the Swat Valley.

Continued conflict

Pakistani troops have been locked in combat with pro-Taliban fighters in the area for months.

More than 450 people have been killed in the violence since the beginning of the year. Many of the fatalities have been in the Swat valley, where the military began an offensive in October to clear out suspected al-Qaeda-linked fighters who had infiltrated from strongholds on the Afghan border.

Via Al Jazeera.


What could have been the motive for this? It's difficult to mistake a wedding procession for a military convoy. They knew who they were killing. Are they attempting to intimidate the local populace? Was there something about the wedding they deemed "un-Islamic"? Do they just want to spread as much sorrow and death as possible?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Profile: Key 9/11 suspects

Six prisoners being held by the US in Guantanamo Bay are to face charges over their alleged involvement in the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US.

The following profiles and what is known of the allegations against the suspects are compiled from BBC and news agency reports and information released by the Pentagon and US intelligence officials.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
Ramzi Binalshibh
Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi
Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali
Walid Bin Attash
Mohammed al-Qahtani

Via BBC.


It will be interesting to see how they'll plan their respective defenses (and they will defend themselves; to waste our time if for no other reason). KSM and Ramzi bin al-Shibh are both dead men; all the prosecution needs to do is play the jury the Al Jazeera documentary they appeared in.

As for al-Hawsawi, the his defense thus far seems to be, yes, he did know virtually everyone involved, and yes, Ramzi bin al-Shibh did tell him on September 10 to flee to Pakistan because a huge attack was about to occur, and yes he did receive large sums of money from the hijackers right before the attack, but that doesn't mean that he was involved in any way. I mean, who hasn't received $17,860 from a group of known terrorists? I'm not sure what he has to say about all the al-Qaeda expense accounts and payroll lists he was captured with. He was probably "holding" them for a "friend."

Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, on the other hand, may well be innocent. Going by the evidence raised at his Combatant Status Review Tribunal, it appears that he may have just been used by his uncle, KSM, and had no knowledge of the plot itself. This is strongly supported by the fact that when he left the country right before 9/11 due to his work visa being revoked, he was caught off-guard and didn't even have time to pack. Also, much of the government's evidence is either classified or ridiculous (e.g. he was in frequent contact with his uncle). It also seems kind of peculiar that the plot would have two head financiers. This will be an interesting trial to follow.

Walid bin Attash appears to have been a mid-level administrator involved in the Embassy Bombings and the U.S.S. Cole attack. He has already confessed, so his trial should be fairly short.

Muhammad al-Qahtani's case is also tricky. He was tortured pretty extensively once his identity became known, causing the DoD to call him "unprosecutable." On the other hand, he was definitely a member of al-Qaeda, and tried to enter the States shortly before 9/11 with a one-way ticket, and he probably wasn't sight-seeing. Also, if I recall, he is named as the 20th hijacker in KSM's confession.

We will have to see.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Taliban commander 'captured'

Pakistani security forces have captured Mansour Dadullah, a senior Afghan Taliban commander, in the country's southwest, according to officials. Dadullah was seized on Monday near the village of Gawal Ismail Zai in Baluchistan province, close to the Afghan border, along with four other fighters.

Ahmed Zeidan, Al Jazeera's Islamabad bureau chief, reported Dadullah was seriously injured in the battle. One military official claimed that Dadullah had died of his wounds while being flown to a hospital with the other injured men.

A military statement said Dadullah and his men were "trying to enter Pakistan" across the border.

Mansour Dadullah had succeeded his elder brother, Mullah Dadullah, a senior military commander who was killed in an Afghan and Nato operation in southern Afghanistan in May 2007. The Taliban said in a statement last December that they had sacked the commander "because he disobeyed orders of the Islamic Emirate" of the Taliban. But a spokesman for the commander denied that he was fired, leading to speculation of infighting among the movement.



It's been a busy day in the War on Terror. I'm not sure how it escaped me, but I hadn't realized that the Taliban had allegedly fired Dadullah, and I'm not entirely certain why they would have done so. It could perhaps explain why Mustafa Abu al-Yazid has been becoming more visible recently, but it's also quite possible that it was just disinformation.

Six men face 9/11 charges

The US government has announced charges against six Guantanamo Bay detainees over the September 11 attacks, including alleged mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The charges are the first from the court at Guantanamo alleging direct involvement in the 2001 attacks and the first in which the US has sought the death penalty.

"These charges allege a long-term, highly sophisticated, organised plan by al-Qaeda to attack the US," said Brigadier General Thomas Hartmann. In a transcript released by the Pentagon last year, Mohammed was quoted as saying he planned the attacks in New York and Washington in 2001 and others.

Last week the US admitted it had used the controversial waterboarding interrogation method to extract Mohammed's confession. The procedure is widely considered to be torture and human rights groups have strongly condemned it. The military judge hearing the cases would decide on the admissability of evidence obtained under duress, Hartmann said. The full charges against the six are conspiracy, murder in violation of the laws of war, attacking civilians, attacking civilian objects, intentionally causing serious bodily injury, destruction of property, terrorism, and material support for terrorism.

Military tribunals

Apart from Mohammed, the other men include Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who was captured in Pakistan in 2002. The rest are Mohammed al-Qahtani, Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, known as Ammar al-Baluchi and a nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Baluchi's assistant Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, from Saudi Arabia, and Waleed bin Attash, reportedly from Yemen. The tribunals at the US military facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba are the first US war tribunals since World War Two. They were established after the attacks to try non-US captives whom the Bush administration considers "enemy combatants" not entitled to the legal protections granted to soldiers and civilians. However, if convicted and sentenced to death, any execution could take years to carry out as the sentence would have to be examined by civilian appeals courts, the New York Times reported. Hartmann said the trials would be "as completely open as possible" and that the defendants and their legal teams would even see the classified evidence against them. "There will be no secret trials. Every piece of evidence, every stitch of evidence, every whiff of evidence that goes to the finder of fact, to the jury, to the military tribunal, will be reviewed by the accused," he said. About 275 detainees remain at the facility, about 80 of whom the US hopes to try. Clive Stafford Smith, a human rights lawyer who has represented Guantanamo detainees, told Al Jazeera that neither military tribunals nor the death penalty should be considered in these cases. "Mohammed has announced he wants to be a martyr and to execute him merely makes him a martyr and fulfills his wishes," he said. "I think the United States is going to loose an awful lot of support from its allies in the West who are very strongly opposed to the death penalty."


Mohammed, a Pakistani national of Kuwaiti descent, was arrested in Pakistan in March 2003 and handed over to the United States. He is alleged to have been the "Number Three" in the al-Qaeda network after Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri.

Mohammed is reported to have also confessed to the 1993 bombing of New York's World Trade Centre, the bombing of a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia, and an attempt to down two American aeroplanes using shoe bombs. The alleged al-Qaeda operations chief is also said to have confessed to the murder of US journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in February 2002. "I was responsible for the 9/11 operation from A to Z," he was quoted in the Pentagon transcript as saying. However, Mohammed's reported confessions remain controversial after the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) said that he, along with two other al-Qaeda suspects, had been waterboarded, an interrogation "technique" which simulates drowning. The other two suspects were were Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. Almost 3,000 people died in the September 11 attacks, in which 19 hijackers crashed four planes into the World Trader Center in New York City, the Pentagon building in Washington DC and a field in the state of Pennsylvania.

Via Al Jazeera.


Finally. The timing of this probably has something to do with the coming election, but I don't care. It's high time justice is done.

The list of defendants is interesting. I would expect Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, as well as the other "twentieth hijacker", Muhammad al-Qahtani, but I was not familiar with the other three. And where is Abu Zubaydah? I somehow suspect he's being saved for later on in the campaign, but it could be they just don't want to give him up yet.

In the coming days I plan on posting profiles on each of these men.

Also, my replacement laptop should be arriving sometime today.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Al-Qaeda 'will avenge US strike'

Al-Qaeda's leader in Afghan -istan has vowed revenge for the killing of one of its top commanders in neighbouring Pakistan last week, saying Abu Laith al-Libi was killed by the weapon of "despicable cowards". US officials said al-Libi died when a US missile struck a compound outside the town of Mir Ali in Pakistan's North Waziristan province.

Issuing the threat in a video statement released on Wednesday, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid said al-Qaeda fighters would retaliate against the "enemies of God" for al-Libi's death.

"The men he trained ... will not rest until they avenge him and realise his aspirations and hopes, God willing," he said in the video recording. "The enemies of Allah were incapable of confronting [al-Libi] on the battlefield, nor were they able to compete with him as equals, for they are too cowardly and despicable for that. No, they used the weapon of treachery and betrayal." The 12-minute clip which was posted on a website bore the logo of al-Qaeda's media wing, as-Sahab, and had English subtitles.

'Tomorrow is close'

Al-Yazid said the martyrdom of al-Libi and other top al-Qaeda leaders only "strengthens, stabilises, sharpens and stimulates" the fight against infidels. "So, the killing of these heroic chiefs doesn't, and won't, end the march of jihad or extinguish its torch or put out its light as the enemies imagine," he said, adding: "Tomorrow is close." Up to 13 foreign fighters were killed in the attack in North Waziristan.



They're hiding in the mountains, and we're "despicable cowards"? Al-Libi struck from the shadows, sending out other people's sons to blow them up, and we refused to meet him on the field of battle? Things are apparently in such a state of disarray that it takes al-Yazid a week to put together and release an enraged video promising vengeance to the evildoers, and the movement is "stabilized"? Somebody needs a reality check.

Tomorrow is indeed close, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, as is the next day, and the day after that. Which day will be yours?

Time to forget the Crusades

The following is an editorial written by John Tolan for Al Jazeera:

French historian Joseph Francois Michaud (1767-1839), in his Histoire des Croisades, affirmed that the Crusades had proven the superiority of Europeans over Muslims and showed the way to the conquest and civilisation of Asia.

Shortly thereafter, Louis Philippe, the King of France from 1830 to 1848, commissioned a Salle des Croisades at Versailles, replete with monumental romanticised paintings of scenes from the Crusades. It is perhaps no accident that at the same time the French were embarked upon the conquest of Algeria.

For numerous French and British of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, the Crusades were a precursor to their brave new colonial adventures in the Orient.

In reaction, Turkish and Arab writers denounced the European colonial enterprise as a re-enactment of the fanaticism and violence of the Crusades.

The Crusades have long stirred emotions of admiration or revulsion, from Tasso's epic Gerusalemme Liberata (1580) to Youssef Chahine's film Saladin the Victorious (1963) and beyond.

Arguing the clash

The legacy of crusading, simplified and distorted, is evoked to argue the inevitability of a present and future "clash of civilisations".

When Osama bin Laden speaks of countering the attacks of American and European "crusaders", he taps into a 19th-century European tradition of seeing the medieval crusades as precursors to the colonial (and subsequently post-colonial) relations between Europeans and Arabs.

But, the Crusades played little part in Arab conceptions of history from the 14th to the 19th centuries.

Until that time, the Crusades were a relatively minor phenomenon in the broad sweep of Muslim history. Of course, chroniclers such as Ibn al-Athir, Ibn Al Qalanisi or al-Maqrizi, close to rulers who fought against the Faranj (rulers like Saladin, al-Kamil, Baibars), made much of the threat posed by the Europeans and the heroic exploits of the sultans who defeated them.

Ibn al-Athir explained that the attack on the Muslim Mashreq (Middle East) was part of a movement of Faranj that included the Castilian capture of Toledo (in 1085) and the Norman conquest of Sicily (1072-91).

Yet for other Arab writers of the Middle Ages, the invasions of the Faranj were a minor inconvenience: they were simply another group of Christians who, like the Byzantines or Armenians, could seize small territories and pose threats to local Muslim rulers.

The Mongol threat

Far more troubling were the invasions of the Mongols, who captured and plundered large swaths of the Muslim heartland, sacking Baghdad in 1258 and Damascus several times.

The Mamluks' victory over the Mongols at Ayn Jalut in 1260 was far more vital than their victories over the string of small and powerless crusader enclaves such as that of Acre, which the Mamluks captured in 1291, ending the Crusader presence in the region.

Ibn Khaldun, in his great works of historiography, the Muqaddima and the Kitab al-'Ibar, has little to say of Crusades and Crusaders, much more about Mongols (including Timur, whom he met) and about the Berber dynasties of the Maghreb.

Few Arab authors of the following centuries take much interest in the Crusades, which are largely seen as a footnote to the sweep of Muslim history.

In Europe, meanwhile, the Crusades, and their failure to galvanise and unify European Christendom, were an obsession to many authors. In the aftermath of the loss of Acre in 1291, various Europeans called on kings, princes and popes to organise fresh crusades against the Mamluks and increasingly against the Ottomans.

Most of the anti-Turkish "crusades", like those of Nicopolis (1396) and Varna (1443) ended in crushing defeat for the European troops. But various European Christian authors continued to use the language of the Crusades to try to fire their co-religionists into attacking the Ottomans or other enemies, including Protestants and "heathen" American Indians.

The historians and philosophers of the 18th-century Enlightenment, in contrast, vilified the notion of war in the name of God: for them, holy war represented the epitome of medieval fanaticism. Voltaire depicts the Crusaders as blood-thirsty fanatics, while portraying their opponents, particularly Saladin and al-Kamil, as wise and just monarchs.

European nationalism

Yet this negative vision of crusading is swept aside in 19th-century Europe by three powerful forces in European culture: Romanticism, nationalism, and colonialism.

The Romantics rehabilitated the Crusades which they portrayed as, at times, bloody and senseless, yet redeemed by a remarkable and admirable idealism. This idea is embodied in the novels of Walter Scott, such as Ivanhoe (1819) and the Talisman (1825).

Francois de Chateaubriand, in his Itineraire de Paris a Jerusalem (1811), takes umbrage at those who speak ill of the Crusades.

On the contrary, for him, despite their shortcomings the Crusaders were imbued with a faith and a selfless sense of mission that pushed them to abandon wives, children, lands and material riches to wrest Christ's tomb from the grasp of the Muslims.

In Jerusalem, at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Chateaubriand was dubbed into the Order of the Holy Sepulcher by a Franciscan friar wielding what was supposed to be the sword of Godfrey of Bouillon, knight and first ruler of Crusader Jerusalem.

Chateaubriand and other Europeans dreamed of a return to the heroic age of the Crusades.

European colonialism

Their dream was not long in the waiting. Beginning in 1830, French troops undertook the conquest of Algeria. French Crusader historians Francois-Joseph Michaud and Jean-Joseph Poujoulat praised kings Charles X and Louis-Philippe as new incarnations of Saint Louis.

In a preface to a school textbook on the Crusades, the authors present the feats of medieval French Crusaders as models for the youth sent off to conquer Algeria: "The narration of the great events of olden times shall serve as lessons of patriotism for our youth."

When Napoleon III addressed the troops ready to set off for Lebanon in 1860, he exhorted them to be "the worthy children of those heroes who gloriously carried Christ's banner into those countries".

The British similarly painted their victories over the Ottomans in the first world war: Richard the Lionhearted, who failed to take Jerusalem from Saladin, appears in the pages of Punch in December 1917, in the aftermath of Allenby's capture of Jerusalem, saying "At last, my dream come true!"

One could multiply the examples of British and French authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries who affirmed that their colonial empires were reviving the best traditions of medieval crusading: its idealism, its mission to bear European civilisation into the heart of the Middle East.

Independence dashed

At the Versailles peace conference at the close of the first world war, when the French and British argued over the partition of the Arab lands wrested from the Ottoman empire and the Arab envoys increasingly realised their hopes for independence would be dashed, one of the French representatives tried to ground his claims on French prominence in the Crusades.

Amir Faisal, in frustration, shot back: "Would you kindly tell me just which one of us won the Crusades?"

It is through the French and British, principally, that Arabs of the 19th and 20th centuries rediscovered the Crusades. Modern Arabic terms for the Crusades, such as harb al-salib, were coined in the 19th century as translations of European terms; there had previously been no Arabic word for "crusade".

Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) warns that "Europe is now carrying out a Crusade against us".

The first book in Arabic devoted specifically to the Crusades is Sayyid Ali al-Hariri's al-Hurub al-Ṣalibiya, published in Cairo in 1899. His work is grounded in both European scholarship and in knowledge of the medieval Arabic chroniclers.

Unify the Arabs!

Al-Hariri, like subsequent Arab scholars, accepted Michaud's assertion that the Crusades were a precursor for European colonialism. Arab nationalists responded by drawing their own historical lessons from this comparison: the new crusaders can be defeated just as their predecessors had been by the unification of the Arabs under leaders who, like Saladin and Baibars in the Middle Ages, will expel the intruders from Arab soil.

Since the middle of the 20th century, if Europeans or Americans compare the Crusades to colonialism, it is in order to denounce one, the other, or both. In the late 20th and 21st centuries, Westerners tend to see the Crusades as manifestations of violent fanaticism, not as expressions of admirable idealism.

It is now principally in the circles of radical Islam that the 19th-century European paradigm equating Crusades with European colonialism lives on.

Sayyid Qutb in the 1960s affirmed that "the Crusader spirit runs in the blood of all Westerners".

Similar statements have been proffered by more recent Islamists, including bin Laden or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: Crusaders and Zionists are implacable enemies with whom one neither speaks nor compromises.

The mirror term among more extreme western writers is Jihadists: Islamists (or for some, more broadly Muslims) are seen to be inordinately hostile to non-Muslims, against whom holy war is a sacred duty.

What clash?

These Manichean world views fuel pessimistic scenarios such as Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilisations". Yet when one looks closely at the age of Crusades, one finds that the lesson to be drawn is far less simplistic than Huntington or bin Laden would have us believe.

It is a time of trade, when Egyptian merchants bought spices in India and sold them in Spain, when Venetians and Genoese traders sold English or Flemish wool cloth in Alexandria and brought back to Europe Egyptian glass, Damascene metalwork, Indian spices.

Pilgrims - Christians, Muslims and Jews - bound for Mecca and Jerusalem, travelled together on Genoese or Pisan ships, along with merchants, mercenaries and adventurers.

It is a time when storms tossed their ships and all raised their voices to God in a multilingual supplication. Conflict, as always, was endemic, but it often crossed confessional lines.

The Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem (and the other Crusader principalities) did not, as some have claimed, comprise an "apartheid" regime of boorish European louts lording over cultured but abject Muslims.

Its inhabitants were in fact a cosmopolitan mix of Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Italians, Normans, Provencaux, etc.

In religion they were Shia and Sunni Muslim, Druze, Catholic, Monophysite, and Jewish.

The Latin rulers gradually "orientalised", marrying the daughters of prominent indigenous Christians, learning Arabic, eating and dressing like natives, making truces and alliances with neighbouring Muslim rulers and promoting commerce.

Yet one should not imagine an idyllic land of tolerance: social distinctions were real, and often followed lines of religion and ethnicity.

Seeking historical understanding

In this, as in the violence with which they imposed and enforced their rule, the Latins differed little from other contemporary interlopers in Syria/Palestine: Turks, Byzantines, Kurds, Egyptian Fatimids and Mameluks.

The historical fallacy of identifying modern struggles with those of the Middle Ages continues to be an impediment to a real historical understanding of Arab-European (and more broadly Western-Muslim) relations.

The motivations for al-Qaeda's violence have more to do with internal Saudi politics and resentment of US policy in the Middle East than with a supposedly eternal clash between "crusaders" and "jihadists".

The roots of Iranian anti-Americanism can be found in decades of American alliance with the Shah, rather than in centuries of a supposed clash of civilisations.

The solution to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is to be found in the righting of the wrongs of the past 60 years, not in invoking the age of the Maccabees or Saladin.

It is time to put to rest simplistic notions of the clash of civilisations based on a falsified image of a long-vanished past. Our current problems are real enough to merit being understood on their own terms.

John Tolan is a Professor of Medieval History at the University of Nantes (France). He is the author of Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), Sons of Ishmael: Muslims through European Eyes in the Middle Ages (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008), and St Francis and the Sultan: An Encounter Seen Through Eight Centuries of Texts and Images (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008; French edition published in Paris: Seuil, 2007).

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Al-Qaeda claims Mauritania attack

Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for an attack on the Israeli embassy in Mauritania, which wounded at least three bystanders.

In a written statement issued on Saturday, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb said it had carried out the assault in response to Israeli policies in the Gaza Strip.

The group also demanded that Arab states have no ties with Israel.

The attack followed recent calls by political parties in Mauritania for the government to sever diplomatic ties with Israel.

At least one man opened fire on the embassy early on Friday, starting a battle with guards that wounded three French citizens, who had apparently been visiting a disco and restaurant adjacent to the embassy compound. Guards at the embassy returned fire, but no embassy staff were wounded.



So, the blood of innocents has been spilled in al-Haram. I hope the symbolism of this is not lost on al-Qaeda, but it probably is. (The name of the nightclub where the three civilians were shot is "Haram", which is Arabic for the sanctuary where no blood may be spilled. Depending on how it's spelled in Arabic, the word may alternately mean a forbidden action, such as shooting unarmed civilians).

I'm not entirely sure how they managed to hit people at the night club, which is tucked pretty deep within the block. Perhaps they attacked the embassy from the back.