Category Archives: Arab and Middle East unrest
Russia claims the Assad regime has agreed in principle to attend next month’s peace conference in Geneva while the opposition consider whether it will turn upMatthew WeaverGuardian readers
Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre will convene, in wake of killing and al-Qaida martyrdom video rhetoric heard on London street
Counter-terrorism officers and security officials will doubtless fear that Woolwich fits into the category of crime that they can do little to thwart; random, lone-wolf, unsophisticated attacks, conducted by people who are not on the radar of the police or MI5.
The spectrum in which investigators will be working now is broad, and the characters within it unstable and unpredictable.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack in south London, detectives might have been reluctant to tell the home secretary, Theresa May, conclusively that this was the work of jihadists, but as the hours passed any doubts must have evaporated.
The language attributed to one of the men filmed at the scene, and brandishing a bloodied knife, was stark: “We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. The only reasons we have done this is because Muslims are dying every day. This British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. We must fight them.
“I apologise that women had to witness this today, but in our land our women have to see the same. You people will never be safe. Remove your government. They don’t care about you.”
This is classic al-Qaida rhetoric, similar to the phrases used by suicide bombers who have left martyrdom videos. Though the man did not appear to mention Afghanistan, this is the only country in which British soldiers are now directly embroiled in a conflict.
More than 440 soldiers have been killed in the 12-year war in Afghanistan, including some shot by members of the Afghan security forces they are supposed to be supporting. British and Nato involvement in the fight against the Taliban is winding down, but the UK will still have a presence there until the end of next year.
The decision last night to convene Cobra, the Cabinet Office committee that deals with security emergencies, came after the home secretary took soundings from the new head of MI5, Andrew Parker, and the Scotland Yard commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe.
The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), which includes members from MI5, MI6, GCHQ, the police and Ministry of Defence, will convene to decide what conclusions can be drawn from what has happened, even at this early stage.
Crucially, JTAC will recommend whether to alter the national threat assessment level, which now stands at “substantial”.
If there is any suggestion that this attack might be the start of a wave, the threat level will be increased to either severe or the highest level, critical.MI5 and Scotland Yard have warned repeatedly in recent years about self-starters – people who have been radicalised in the UK, affected, perhaps, by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or by Arab spring events, or by emerging al-Qaida networks in Africa.
Hundreds of Britons are known to have gone to Syria over the last two years to support the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian conflict is now the “jihadist destination of choice”, according to Whitehall officials. Britons are also known to have been involved with the al-Nusra front, which is heavily infused with al-Qaida elements from Iraq and has been designated a terrorist group by the US.
Some of those people going abroad from the UK were already known to MI5 and MI6; some have now returned home. Many others will have come and gone without investigators knowing.
The same thing has happened in Somalia, where a smaller number of Britons have been in recent years, to support the al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabaab.
“What they do when they come back here is more worrying to us than what they do when they are out there,” is how one official put it.
Even if those responsible for the Woolwich attack had not been abroad, they could have been motivated closer to home or online.
Security officials have highlighted the dangers posed by the al-Qaida online magazine, Inspire, which is constantly urging its readers to undertake attacks, rather than wait for training or orders from above.
Inspire, which is the work of al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsular (AQAP), has been causing concern since it was first published in 2010; the latest edition has just been published and is said to include an “Open Source Jihad (OSJ) section … for aspiring jihadists seeking to assassinate US and European leaders”.
Though some academics have doubted whether Inspire is such a powerful tool, there is evidence that people inclined to commit violence have been tipped into action by such entreaties.
Some of the biggest counter terror operations of recent years have involved suspects who have turned by Inspire.
Three men from Birmingham were convicted this year of plotting the biggest potential terrorist atrocity than the 7 July attacks. They had read the magazine and been influenced by the preachings of Anwar al Awlaki, the now dead former AQAP leader.
Attempts have been made to shut down the magazine, and to disrupt it by cyber warfare. Two years ago MI6 and GCHQ hacked into an article which set out how to make a bomb, and replaced the recipe with one for cupcakes. However, the magazine is still disseminated via internet forums.
Other extremists who have used Awlaki as motivation to mount terror attacks in the UK include Roshonara Choudhry, who attacked the Labour MP Stephen Timms in his constituency surgery.
Choudry, who was jailed for life in 2010, is also said to have named a US-based website as a source of inspiration. In 2007 a group of extremists in Birmingham plotted to behead a British Muslim soldier to undermine the morale of the British army and inhibit its recruitment of Muslims. The leader, Parviz Khan, admitted the plot and was sentenced to life imprisonment, to serve at least 14 years.
Though the number of people arrested for terrorist offences have fallen in recent years, the police and MI5 still make arrests, and still uncover plots. “They haven’t given up,” an official said.
Last year, the Royal United Services Institute [RUSI] thinktank published a report which set out the difficulties now facing counter-terrorism officers; with al-Qaida fragmented and “franchised” across the Arab world and in Africa, identifying suspects was seen as harder than ever.
The report warned: “Though the death of Bin Laden began a succession of counter-terrorist victories in 2011, the threat from Jihadist terrorism has not diminished. If anything, the risk has evolved from plots carried out by organised cells within a leadership structure, to one carried out by lone wolves, radicalised by material on the internet.
“The latter is harder to track down and is potent given the uncertain international situation; where the outcome of the Arab spring has not been settled, and where there are frequent returns of British citizens from war zones such as Somalia and Yemen.”
The institute noted the arrival home of self-radicalised fighters would coincide with the steady release from prison of people convicted of terrorist offences in Britain over the last decade. It says their sentences, for good legal reasons, typically have not been very long.
Michael Clarke, the director of RUSI, said: “More experienced lone-wolf terrorists are likely to be returning to Britain in the next couple of years, not from training camps in Pakistan and via airports in Karachi and Dubai, but from wars in Somalia, Yemen, or Nigeria, from the renewed violence in Iraq, and from destinations and via routes that will be far more difficult for security services to monitor.”
Syria opposition is gathering in Turkey to discuss whether it plans to attend next month’s peace conference in GenevaGuardian readersMatthew Weaver
Administration weighing its options as intercepts reveal identity and whereabouts of suspects in attack that left four dead
Officials in the US say they have identified five men who might be responsible for the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 and there is enough evidence to justify seizing them by military force as suspected terrorists or killing them with a drone strike. However, there is not enough proof to try them in a US civilian court as the Obama administration prefers.
The men remain at large while the FBI gathers evidence. The investigation has been slowed by the reduced US intelligence presence in the region since the 11 September 2012 attacks and the limited ability to assist by Libya’s post-revolutionary law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which are still in their infancy since the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime.
The decision not to seize the men militarily underscores Washington’s desire to move away from hunting terrorists as enemy combatants and holding them at the military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The preference is towards a process in which most are apprehended and tried by the countries where they are living or arrested by the US with the host country’s co-operation, and tried in the US criminal justice system.
A senior Obama administration official, speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said the FBI had identified a number of individuals it believed could have information or may have been involved and was considering options to apprehend them. But taking action in remote eastern Libya would be difficult and America’s relationship with Libya had to be considered.
The Libyan embassy did not respond to multiple requests for comment, the AP said.
The FBI and other US intelligence agencies identified the men through contacts in Libya and by monitoring their communications, officials said. They are thought to be members of Ansar al-Shariah, the Libyan militia group whose fighters were seen near the US diplomatic facility prior to the attack.
US officials say FBI surveillance has gathered proof that the five men were either at the scene of the first attack or somehow involved. In intercepts at least one of them bragged about taking part. Some of the men had also been in contact with a network of well-known regional jihadists, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the officials said.
The attack on the US diplomatic mission killed the ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans weeks before president Barack Obama’s re-election. Since then, Republicans in congress have condemned the administration’s handling of the situation, criticising the level of embassy security, questioning the talking points provided to UN ambassador Susan Rice for her public appearances to explain the attack and suggesting the White House tried to play down the incident to minimise its effect on the president’s campaign.
The FBI released photos of three of the five suspects earlier this month. The images were captured by security cameras at the US diplomatic post during the attack, but it took weeks for the FBI to see and study them. It took the agency three weeks to get to Libya because of security problems.
No related posts.
Citing ‘multiple’ rebel commanders, the US claims Iranian troops are fighting alongside Hezbollah and Syrian government forces in the battle for QusairMatthew WeaverGuardian readers
Israeli troops have shot at targets in Syria in response to gunfire at its forces in the Golan Heights as the violence in Syria also spills over into Lebanon and IraqMatthew WeaverGuardian readers
British foreign secretary warns of regional ‘catastrophe’ as al-Qaida and Hezbollah clash in battle for Qusair
Britain is seeking to amend the EU arms embargo on Syria to press Bashar al-Assad into holding peace talks with the rebels because the escalating conflict is threatening a regional “catastrophe”, William Hague warned on Monday.
Speaking as combat raged around the strategic town of Qusair, where Lebanese Hezbollah miltiamen are now fighting alongside Syrian troops, the foreign secretary said the case for amending the embargo was “compelling”. Weapons would be supplied only “under carefully controlled circumstances” and with clear commitments from the opposition, he told MPs.
The UK aim was to support a recent US-Russian call for talks between Assad and the rebels, though neither side has yet shown any readiness to attend.
“We must make clear that if the regime does not negotiate seriously at the Geneva conference, no option is off the table,” Hague said. “We have to be open to every way of strengthening moderates and saving lives rather than the current trajectory of extremism and murder.”
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, this week holds talks with the Sultan of Oman before going to Jordan to discuss with 10 of America’s closest European and Arab partners how to advance a political transition.
On the ground, meanwhile, Syrian and Hezbollah forces on Monday pushed deep into the border town of Qusair after a ferocious artillery and mortar barrage that is thought to have killed more than 50 residents and laid bare the Lebanese militia’s direct support for the Assad regime.
The battle for the town, which marks the first time in the Syrian civil war, or anywhere else, that Sunni al-Qaida and Shia Hezbollah have fought a direct and large-scale engagement, is believed to be edging in favour of loyalist forces who had hammered rebel-held areas with overwhelming firepower before launching a much-awaited advance on Saturday.
“We have lost civilians and fighters,” aid worker Murhaf Baker told the Guardian. “The density of the shooting was completely mad. I have not seen such a thing all my life. The shooting did not stop for a single minute. Now the city is completely cordoned off by Hezbollah and the Syrian army – it is impossible to reach people there to give them food.”
Rebels in Qusair have vowed to withstand the advance of Hezbollah from the Lebanese border to the south and Syrian troops from the north.
Qusair-based rebels are mainly a homegrown mix of civilians and army defectors. However, Jabhat al-Nusra, a group with links to al-Qaida, has gained in both prominence and numbers in recent months and is believed to be leading the defence of the southern outskirts, where it is clashing directly with Hezbollah.
Members of the two groups have fought sporadically in other parts of the country over the past two years, often unknowingly. But the current confrontation breaks new ground in the conflict and underlines the sectarian element in Syria’s war. President Assad is from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. Activists in Qusair, which lies at a crucial junction between Damascus and Homs, suggested up to 30 Hezbollah members may have been killed and dozens more injured. Those figures are impossible to verify.
What is clear is that Hezbollah’s prominent role marks yet another escalation in a crisis that continues to alarm the region and force a mass exodus of Syrian citizens into neighbouring states.
Hezbollah, whose raison d’etre is ostensibly resistance against Israel, has shifted focus as the civil war has intensified. The group owes much to the strategic depth provided to it by the Assad regime, which offers a supply run, weapons depots and a refuge for key figures.
Iran, the key patron of both groups, is also heavily invested. Hezbollah, over the past year in particular, has tried to condition its followers to the fact that it is fighting a war in a neighbouring Arab state, rather than the Israeli military.
“It isn’t even a secret any more,” said one 25-year-old resident of a Hezbollah enclave in Daheyah, who refused to be named. “There are dozens of martyrs coming home. I know of at least four myself. People are talking about it openly.” If opposition groups are ousted from Qusair, loyalist forces will have control of a supply line from Damascus to Syria’s third city, Homs, which would allow the regime to consolidate in a part of the country it regards as a strategic corridor. Its core support bases in the nearby Alawite hinterland, which runs from near Homs towards Latakia and Tartus on the Mediterranean coast, have been exposed at times by rebel gains in the area. A regime victory would also offer it an uncontested link to the northern Bekaa, where Hezbollah and surrounding Shia villages can offer ongoing support to loyalist forces.
“With every week that passes we are coming closer to the collapse of Syria and a regional catastrophe, with the lives of tens of thousands more Syrians at stake,” said Hague.
Hague also revealed that 70-100 jihadis with UK links have been in Syria, part of a trend of radicalisation that has alarmed EU governments and fuelled a controversial debate over supplying arms to the rebels.
Additional reporting by Mona Mahmoud
As a result of the rush to make quick money, open-air refineries have been set up in al-Raqqa provinceMona Mahmood
Ancient manuscripts on science and history are symbols of Africa’s cultural heritage, say guardians of priceless library
There is a proverb in Timbuktu, the legendary medieval city in Mali’s desert, that says: “The ink of a scholar is more precious than the blood of a martyr.”
What Ahmed Baba, the 16th-century intellectual who said it, would make of recent developments is hard to imagine. At the multimillion-dollar Timbuktu institute bearing his name, fragments of ancient texts litter the corridors. The charred remains of not just scholarly ink, but the antique leather-bound covers that protected them against the harsh desert elements are blown by the hot Saharan wind.
During the last days of the Islamist occupation of northern Mali, the al-Qaida-linked groups who seized control of the territory for almost nine months turned on the Ahmed Baba Institute. In what many people believe was a final act of revenge, and a senseless crime against some of Islam’s greatest treasures, they set the manuscripts alight.
“When the French started bombing, [the Islamists] set the manuscripts on fire as they were leaving,” said Abdoulaye Cissé, interim director of the institute. “Even after most had fled the town, a small group of jihadists returned to make sure that the fire was still burning.”
“We are all Muslims, and in Timbuktu our practical version of Islam has existed for centuries,” added Cissé, a native of the city who remained there throughout the occupation.
“But they practise an archaic Islam and do not consider these writings as the authentic Qur’an because they cover not only religion but science, astronomy, history and literature. That’s their ideology and we don’t support it.”
Cissé, who wears a distinctive silver ring engraved with an Islamic blessing that he had to remove under Islamist rule, foresaw that Timbuktu’s occupiers could target his precious charge. He and colleagues in Bamako, along with guards at the institute, th e nightwatchman and his son, and numerous co-operative drivers and boatmen, worked for months by night, carefully packing most of the institute’s 45,000 manuscripts and ferreting them away by road or pirogue boat to the capital in the south.
“It was a dangerous thing to do, we would have been punished if we had been caught,” said Cissé.
“But people really came together to help us. Every time we told them what they were carrying, they all kept it secret and kept them hidden until they left the occupied area.”
These ancient manuscripts, which could number up to 400,000 across the region, are a source of pride in Mali – and across sub-Saharan Africa. As Africa gained independence from European colonial powers, the texts – the oldest of which date from the ninth century – became a means for the pan-African movement to refute racist notions of a primitive, unlettered continent with no written history.
“People think that African history is oral, that the blacks were not writing until the white man arrived in Africa,” said Cissé. “But we know written literature. That is our mission – to one day recreate the history of Africa through the knowledge contained in those manuscripts.”
Timbuktu, which is now a Unesco world heritage site, was founded in about AD1103 and flourished as a commercial hub of the caravan trade between black Africa and the Maghreb, Mediterranean and Middle East. The Ahmed Baba Institute, opened with much fanfare by the former South African president Thabo Mbeki in 2009, has just received about £65,000 in funding from Saudi Arabia to digitise its manuscripts.
“We want to digitally secure all the manuscripts before they are brought back to Timbuktu,” said Cissé. “But then they must be brought back. The manuscripts are meaningless if they’re not in Timbuktu.”
An unintended consequence of the Islamist occupation of the city has been a renewed global focus on the priceless manuscripts, which although mostly written in Arabic also include centuries-old writings in Greek, Latin, French, English and German.
But while the Ahmed Baba Institute is painstakingly working to preserve preserving this history, other manuscripts in Timbuktu are faring less well.
In a narrow, sandy street in the central Badjinde quarter, Kunta Sidi Bouya climbs a steep flight of cracked, mud-cement stairs to a special prayer room on his roof. He lifts half a dozen worn, fraying books from a shelf in the corner, bound exquisitely in antique and decaying leather, and lays them out on the rug on the floor.
Bouya’s home contains one of Timbuktu’s thousands of private manuscript collections, texts written by the family’s ancestors and handed down through the generations.
“My ancestor, Sheikh Sidi al-Bekaye, was a scholar who lived hundreds of years ago, he wrote these,” Bouya said proudly. “It feels special when you read something your own grandfathers have written. These are part of our family and they are private.
“You are only allowed to handle them when you have attained a certain level of Qur’anic education. Being able to read Arabic is not enough – you have to learn to understand them completely.”
Bouya, 35, a teacher at a Qur’anic school in Timbuktu, said he feared for the safety of his family’s manuscripts during the occupation.
“The jihadists attacked and destroyed the shrine to one of my ancestors and we feared they would come for the manuscripts,” he said. “But in the end they never came door to door looking for them.”
Life was complicated under Islamist rule, Bouya said, and they were happy when the French liberated the town. But now his manuscripts face another, older challenge.
“We fear for their survival. They are old and they are suffering from the elements here,” Bouya admitted. “We try to touch them as little as possible and when people come here asking to see them to do research, we hide them to protect them.”
Unesco said the plethora of private family manuscripts posed a huge challenge to efforts to conserve Mali’s cultural heritage.
“Something has gone wrong with Mali’s documentary heritage,” said David Stehl of Unesco. “There have been various programmes for their conservation but they have not created the conditions to adequately protect the manuscripts. They have lacked transparency and co-ordination.
“Even the legal question of who owns these private manuscripts is unclear. You have hundreds and thousands of them right across Mali and they are very much tied to families and private owners. We are concerned about the degree to which they were handled during the Islamist occupation – people started touching them, dispersing them and, especially for those that were moved to Bamako, they’ve now been exposed to completely different climatic conditions.
“Something has to be done to protect these collections, but it is a huge task – monstrous actually.”
Preserving the manuscripts is crucial, experts in Mali say, not just to learn about the past, but also the future.
“We have not even begun to exploit the knowledge included in these manuscripts,” said Cissé.
“Translation is not enough – we need specialists to analyse and interpret them. They are full of parables, hidden messages, images – all of which take specialists to understand. Only then can we understand the practical value of this wisdom that was written down hundreds of years ago.”