News & Current Affairs

February 20, 2010

Dubai killing awakes ghosts of assassinations past

Dubai killing awakes ghosts of assassinations past

CCTV footage of alleged assassination team
Mossad has form. Assassination has been one of its specialities since the time that Israel was killing Nazis in the 1950s

Jeremy Bowen assesses the fall-out in the Middle East from the alleged assassination of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh by Mossad agents in a luxury Dubai hotel.

“Shame you are not filming on a Friday,” said a local resident.

Jimmy, the BBC cameraman, was trying to get some decent pictures of the Dubai skyline, but there was a haze that was not helping.

“Why Friday?” we asked.

“Well, there is less building on a Friday,” he said, “so the air is not so dusty.”

Even with Dubai’s well-advertised economic problems there is still a lot of construction going on, by the standards of most places.

This is my first proper trip to Dubai since the late 90s and it is unrecognisable.

Back in the 1960s, according to my uncle who was here with the British army, the runway lights at Dubai airport were barrels of burning tar.

Burj Khalifa
The long war, the century or so of conflict between Arabs and Jews, cannot be defeated by property developers

When I was here first, on my way to Afghanistan in the late 80s, a fairly compact city was surrounded by a sweep of open desert, which just is not there any more.

They must have poured tens of millions of tonnes of concrete to build this sprawling city state.

As I write, I can see a burnt orange sun setting behind the Burj Khalifa, the new skyscraper that is the world’s highest building. It is extraordinarily tall.

Acres of gardens and golf courses in Dubai are green and lush, in a place with almost no rain, thanks to hugely expensive desalination plants.

The climate is wonderful right now, but in the summer it is appallingly hot and humid.

Never mind, everywhere is air-conditioned, especially the indoor ski slope, where they make real indoor snow and have a black run for experts.

‘Unobtainable dream’

Love it or hate it, they have tamed nature to build an incredible city.

Perhaps they never thought they could tame the Middle East too, though minds that could conceive the Burj Khalifa are not short of ambition.

But if not tame it, they were hoping to insulate this place from its dark, violent ways.

The assassination of the Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh proves that was one unobtainable dream.

Mahmoud al-Mabhouh

It is assumed Mossad is behind Mr Mabhouh’s death

The long war, the century or so of conflict between Arabs and Jews, cannot be defeated by property developers.

Its capacity to generate and export violence is unparalleled in today’s world.

Was Mr Mabhouh killed by Mossad, the Israeli secret service?

I do not know. But there is circumstantial evidence that he was.

Bloody hands

And he was an enemy of Israel, according to the press there, involved with arms shipments into Gaza.

In the kind of phrase Israelis use, he had Jewish blood on his hands.

Hamas gave him a hero’s funeral.

Mossad has form. Assassination has been one of its specialities since the time that Israel was killing Nazis in the 1950s.

If Israel was behind the assassination, then its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might well be troubled by the ghosts of assassinations past.

In 1997, during his first stint as prime minister, he authorised a Mossad hit on an up-and-coming man in Hamas, a Palestinian called Khaled Meshaal.

Two Mossad agents approached Mr Meshaal as he was walking down a street in Amman, the Jordanian capital.

Map of United Arab Emirates

They sprayed poison into his ear, but they bungled their escape and were found to be carrying false Canadian passports.

King Hussein, who hadn’t long since signed a peace treaty with Israel, was outraged. For him, it wasn’t just a breach of trust.

Rumours started that he was somehow complicit in the attack. With Mr Meshaal close to death, King Hussein demanded that Israel gave his doctors the formula for the poison and the antidote.

To get their two captured agents back, the Israelis was forced to release dozens of Jordanian and Palestinian prisoners.

They included the spiritual leader of Hamas sheikh Ahmed Yassin. He was a thorn in Israel’s side until he too was assassinated in an air strike in Gaza in 2003

Khaled Meshaal survived and is now the most senior political figure in Hamas, living behind heavy security in Damascus.

Netanyahu’s ‘fiasco’

So it was not a good time for Mr Netanyahu.

King Hussein refused to see him when he went to Amman to apologise and the then head of Mossad was forced to resign.

Israelis viewed the affair as a costly fiasco. It was one of the factors that contributed to a comprehensive defeat of Mr Netanyahu in an election two years later.

Benjamin Netanyahu [File pic]

Benjamin Netanyahu lost an election after a Mossad killing

There is one very significant difference between then and now.

In Amman in 1997 the would-be assassins were apprehended, along with their false Canadian papers.

This time round the alleged assassins’ faces have been published, along with their assumed names.

If they are Israeli agents, or freelance killers, then their identities have been blown.

But they are not in custody and that makes it much harder to prove that Israel did it.

If Israel had nothing to do with the killing, or with the theft of the identities of six British-Israelis for the alleged assassins’ passports, then Mr Netanyahu, now in his second term, has nothing to worry about.

But if Mossad is responsible, and that is the assumption in Israel as well as here in Dubai, then he has some sweating to do in the next few weeks.

July 26, 2009

US urges Syria on Mid-East peace

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 3:18 pm

US urges Syria on Mid-East peace

The United States has called for Syria’s “full co-operation” in trying to achieve a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement.

Speaking after talks in Damascus, Barack Obama’s envoy George Mitchell said discussions with Syria’s president had been “candid and positive”.

Mr Mitchell said restarting peace talks between Syria and Israel was a “near-term goal”.

He later arrived in Israel, to try to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Mr Mitchell’s visit to Damascus was his second since June, amid a renewed US push for peace since President Obama took office earlier this year.

The envoy’s trip comes ahead of a string of visits to Israel this week by leading Obama administration officials, at a time when US-Israel relations are unusually strained.

‘Historic endeavour’

Mr Mitchell said he had told Syrian President Bashar Assad that Barack Obama was “determined to facilitate a truly comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace”.

Naturally, in the context of friendly relations between allies, there isn’t agreement on all points
Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli prime minister

“If we are to succeed, we will need Arabs and Israelis alike to work with us to bring about comprehensive peace. We will welcome the full co-operation of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic in this historic endeavour,” he said.

Correspondents say the visit was not expected to bring a breakthrough, but Syrian officials have been encouraged by Washington’s new willingness to listen.

Damascus is a major player in the region, because of its support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas, its backing for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and its close links with Iran.

In the past, this made Syria a pariah in the eyes of the Bush administration, which cut virtually all ties with Syria, the BBC’s Natalia Antelava reports from Beirut.

Washington is a long way away from getting Damascus on its side, but for now at least, the atmosphere of hostility which dominated during the Bush administration seems to be a thing of the past, our correspondent says.

Syria was expected to lobby Mr Mitchell on the issue of the Golan Heights, a strategic mountainous area seized by Israel in 1967 which Syria wants back.

Syria’s official news agency quoted President Assad as stressing to Mr Mitchell “the Arab right to recover occupied lands through achieving a just and comprehensive peace.”

Direct talks between Israel and Syria broke down in 2000 over the scale of a potential Israeli pull-back on the Golan Heights.

Sticking points

The diplomatic flurry comes at a time of strained relations between the US and Israel.

The BBC’s Middle East correspondent Katya Adler says Mr Obama has been leaning on Israel’s government unusually hard for an American president.

Washington has called on Israel to stop all Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank, but Israel says it will not curb what it calls “natural growth” there.

Mr Mitchell arrived in Israel later on Sunday and met defence minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv.

In an effort to kick-start stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks, the envoy is due to meet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Monday and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday.

Shortly before Mr Mitchell’s arrival in Israel, Mr Netanyahu said he hoped to reach an agreement with the US.

“This relationship is important and strong. Naturally, in the context of friendly relations between allies, there isn’t agreement on all points, and on several issues we are trying to reach understanding,” he said.

As well as Mr Mitchell, US defence secretary Robert Gates and National Security Advisor James Jones are also due to hold talks in Israel.

Our correspondent says Iran and its nuclear programme will certainly be discussed.

Israelis say that is their top priority but arguably the focus of the visits will be the possibilities for peace between Israel and the Palestinians and also the wider Arab world, she notes.

January 12, 2009

Israeli reservists sent to Gaza

Israeli reservists sent to Gaza

Soldier in APC on Israel-Gaza border

Israel says its military pressure on Hamas is proving effective

Israel has confirmed that reserve units have been sent to the Gaza Strip, as its campaign there enters a 17th day.

But military officials denied this heralded a new phase in Israel’s offensive against Hamas militants.

Earlier, PM Ehud Olmert said Israel was nearing its military goals and operations would go on.

Israel says it carried out 12 overnight airstrikes. One rocket attack was reported from Gaza on Monday morning but there were none overnight.

Previous nights have seen as many as 60 pre-dawn Israeli strikes.

I think we could sum it by saying that it’s been a living hell for the Palestinians
Dr Mads Gilbert


“We’re keeping the military pressure up on Hamas, we think our pressure has been effective and continues to be effective in taking apart their military machine,” he said. The Israeli military said some reservists were being used to refresh troops currently in action in Gaza, but that this did not yet constitute an escalation of the campaign.

Brig Gen Avi Benayahu, Israel’s chief military spokesman, said thousands more – who are to comprise a new, expanded phase in the ground operation – were still in training and had not been deployed.

On Sunday Israel dropped new leaflets into Gaza and left phone messages warning Gazans to stay away from areas used by Hamas, saying its operation would soon enter “phase three”, the Associated Press reported.

In Cairo, talks between Hamas and Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman were described by an unnamed intelligence official as “positive”, the state news agency reported, without providing details.

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, now Middle East envoy for the Quartet – the US, EU, UN and Russia – is due to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on Monday morning.


On Sunday, after an Israeli cabinet meeting in Jerusalem to consider the country’s next move, Mr Olmert praised the military’s “impressive gains” in Gaza and said it was time to “translate our achievements into the goals we have set”.

“Israel is nearing the goals which it set itself, but more patience, determination and effort is still demanded.”

Referring to last week’s UN Security Council call for an immediate ceasefire, Mr Olmert said “nobody should be allowed to decide for us if we are allowed to strike”.

Both Hamas and Israel have rejected the UN resolution.

Civilian patients

In Gaza the main hospital is close to collapse, according to two Norwegian doctors who have been working there during the conflict.

They said patients at al-Shifa hospital are dying because of a lack of specialist doctors and basic medical equipment.

Doctors Mads Gilbert and Erik Fosse said half of their patients were civilians, some of them young children with shrapnel and blast wounds.

They told the BBC that 12 ambulance staff had been killed in shelling, despite their clearly-marked vehicles.

Frequent power cuts mean surgeons are having to perform some operations by torchlight, they said.

“I think we could sum it by saying that it’s been a living hell for the Palestinians,” said Dr Gilbert.

Aid agencies say Gaza’s 1.5 million residents are in urgent need of food and medical aid.

Meanwhile, Israel’s army denied deploying white phosphorus bombs in Gaza, after Palestinian medics said they had treated patients for burns caused by the munitions.

Israel began Operation Cast Lead just weeks before parliamentary elections in the country, as a six-month truce with Hamas unravelled.

A Palestinian boy near a burning car hit by Israeli air strike in the southern Gaza Strip near the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, 11 January 2009

December 25, 2008

Pope appeals for Mid-East peace

Pope appeals for Mid-East peace

Pope Benedict XVI has used his traditional Christmas Midnight Mass to call for an end to “hatred and violence” in the Middle East.

Addressing a huge congregation at the Vatican’s St Peter’s Basilica, he appealed for a new understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.

Thousands of pilgrims celebrated the start of Christmas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, amid tight security.

The Pope will deliver his Christmas Day message from St Peter’s later.

Appealing for new efforts to end the cycle of violence in the Middle East, Pope Benedict urged people to pray that “hearts will be opened, so borders will be opened”.

The 81-year-old pontiff plans to visit Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories next May, although final details of his trip have yet to be worked out.

Also in his homily, Pope Benedict appealed for an end to child abuse.

“Let us think of those street children who do not have the blessing of a family home, of those children who are brutally exploited as soldiers and made instruments of violence, instead of messengers of reconciliation and peace,” he said.

“Let us think of those children who are victims of the industry of pornography and every other appalling form of abuse, and thus are traumatised to the depths of their soul.

Children being blessed by Pope Benedict during Midnight Mass at St Peter's Basilica, Vatican

The Pope blessed a number of children in his congregation

As Midnight Mass began, Pope Benedict, dressed in white and gold-coloured vestments, walked up the main aisle of the flood-lit St Peter’s Basilica, smiling and stopping several times to shake outstretched hands and bless children.

For those unable to enter, giant screens were set up in St Peter’s Square.

Most of the world’s 2.1 billion Christians mark Christmas this week.

Others, chiefly from among the 200 million Orthodox Christians who use the Julian Calendar for their feast days, celebrate the Nativity on 7 January.

Across the world, believers have been attending Christmas church services and, in some countries, families gathered for a traditional festive dinner at midnight on Christmas Eve.

‘Explosion of love’

There was a heavy security presence in the West Bank town of Bethlehem as thousands of Christian pilgrims celebrated the start of Christmas.

Bethlehem is like the soul of the universe
Stefano Croce
Italian fashion photographer

Among those who attended the service in Bethlehem, which Christians believe is the birthplace of Jesus, were about 200 worshippers from the Gaza Strip whom Israel granted special permission to make the journey.

Extra Palestinian security personnel were deployed to Bethlehem from the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Jericho to safeguard visitors.

Correspondents in the town met elated pilgrims, gathering around nightfall outside the Church of the Nativity, considered the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

A dozen believers from India, Canada, Britain, the US and other countries sung impromptu renditions of Christmas carols, the Associated Press reported.

US citizen David Bogenrief, 57, played the trumpet, telling a gaggle of local children who were listening: “Jesus was the prince of peace, and he can bring that peace to you. We pray for you.”

In Manger Square, vendors sold roasted peanuts and Santa Claus hats to the crowds, among whom were some local Muslims out enjoying the annual international fuss over their town.

Correspondents say a relative lull in violence in the Middle East seems to have encouraged pilgrims to return to the “Holy Land”.

“Bethlehem is like the soul of the universe, and it’s like an explosion of love here,” said Italian fashion photographer Stefano Croce, 46.

In his traditional Christmas Day “Urbi et Orbi” speech – Latin for “to the city and to the world” – from the balcony of St Peter’s, Pope Benedict is expected to touch on current events and issues of concern to the Vatican.

He will then issue Christmas greetings to the faithful in more than 60 languages.

November 18, 2008

UK minister in Damascus meeting

UK minister in Damascus meeting

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband talks to reporters on arrival in Damascus

Mr Miliband wants Syria to play a role in Middle East peace-building

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband is holding talks with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The visit, the first to Damascus by a top-level British official since 2001, is part of a tour that includes Israel, the West Bank and Lebanon.

Mr Miliband told that Syria had a role to play as a force for stability in the Middle East.

The visit is the latest in a run of exchanges between Syria and European nations aimed at easing tense ties.

It comes a month after Mr Miliband met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in London for talks.

‘Understanding’

Building mutual understanding between the UK and Syria was important, Mr Miliband told .

“Syria has a big potential role to play in stability in the Middle East – it can be a force for stability or it can be a force for instability,” he said.

“Over the last 18 months I’ve been talking with the Syrian foreign minister about her (Syria’s) responsibilities in the region, in respect of terrorism, in respect of Iraq, in respect of the Middle East peace process, and we’ve got the chance now to take those discussions further forward.”

Mr Miliband will meet the Syrian president and other top officials on Tuesday morning, before flying on to Lebanon.

Syria has faced diplomatic isolation since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, even though it denies any role in the killing.

It has also been shunned by the US because of its ties with Iran, the Palestinian group Hamas and the Lebanese Shia political and militant movement Hezbollah.

But European nations, led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, are now initiating steps to bring Syria back into the international fold, arguing that engagement is the way forward.

On Monday David Milliband visited Israel and the West Bank for talks with top leaders.

He called on both Israelis and Palestinians to maintain the five-month-old ceasefire in Gaza, following recent outbreaks of violence that have triggered an Israeli blockade of the territory.

September 24, 2008

Which direction for Turkey now?

Filed under: Latest, Politics News, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:24 pm

Which direction for Turkey now?

Guards at Ataturk's Mausoleum in Ankara

The US had feared Turkey was facing too much towards the East

Not so long ago the question of “who lost Turkey?” seemed to dominate US think tank discussions and conferences.

Turkey’s refusal to allow US troops to use its territory to open a second front against Saddam Hussein provoked the worst crisis in relations between Ankara and Washington that many commentators could remember.

Worse, the arrival into power of the Justice and Development Party (the AKP) with its Islamist roots, which then embarked upon a new foreign policy of outreach towards the Middle East, seemed to confirm the fears of many in Washington.

Turkey, they felt, was inexorably being drawn back into the Middle East and Asia and away from its long-standing anchorage in Nato and the West.

With the US presidential election fast approaching, and with the multiplicity of problems in the Middle East set to be at the top of the next administration’s agenda, I came to Turkey to try to answer the question – was this staunch Cold War ally being lost to the West?

Surely things were more complicated? Was Turkey’s new orientation being misunderstood by some in Washington? And what did Turkey itself want from the next US administration?

‘Meaningful contribution’

My first port of call was a pavilion in the grounds of the last sultan’s palace on the edge of the Bosphorus. It is now the Turkish prime minister’s Istanbul office.

There I met Ambassador Ahmet Davutoglu, a quietly spoken academic who is widely acknowledged as the architect of the Turkish government’s new foreign policy.

Ambassador Ahmet Davutoglu (February 2008)
Turkey’s diplomatic power is an asset for our western orientation
Ambassador Ahmet Davutoglu

His 2001 book, entitled Strategic Depth, sought to chart a new course for Turkey in the aftermath of the Cold War.

“There was a need to reinterpret the geographical and historical context of Turkey,” he told me.

“The aim was to reintegrate the country into its surrounding region.”

Nonetheless, he was at pains to point out that these new relationships were compatible with Turkey’s long-standing Atlanticist and European tilt.

“If you have more influence in your own hinterland, you will be a more meaningful contributor to the EU or to Nato,” he told me.

“Turkey’s diplomatic power,” he said, “is an asset for our western orientation.”

There is no doubting the extent to which Turkey has played upon its extraordinary geographical position to develop new diplomatic and trading links.

Today it is as friendly with Syria as it is with Israel. It has close ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia. It has good relations with both Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah.

It has developed a strong relationship with Russia and it maintains its strong links with the US and western Europe.

Iraq concern

 

Mr Davutoglu is now the Turkish prime minister’s chief foreign policy adviser.

Turkey, he told me, was looking to play an ever-greater role in the Middle East, and despite all of the ups and downs between Ankara and Washington, ties between them were firm.

A Turkish youth holds a PKK flag (file image)

The US views the Turkish separatist PKK as a security threat

“The Turkish-American relationship is not an ordinary relationship,” he told me.

“It is well-established, it is well-institutionalised, and very sophisticated. Whoever comes to power in Washington, that institutionalised framework will set the basic parameters for the new president.”

It is certainly true that the Bush administration’s decision to view the Kurdish separatist organisation, the PKK, as a threat to US security interests as well as those of Turkey has gone some way to restoring trust between the two governments.

Iraq though, and especially the circumstances of any US troop withdrawal by a new US president, is a major concern for the Turkish authorities.

Veteran commentator Professor Iltar Turan told me that Turkey fears Iraq might simply break up if there is a too hasty US withdrawal; it might degenerate into full-scale civil war.

“Iraq needs to be integrated better,” he told me, “before a full US withdrawal can be entertained.”

We expect and hope that the new US administration will be more supportive of Turkey, but we will have to see
Suat Kiniklioglu
MP

There is also a strong sense here that Turkey’s diplomatic initiatives have not been fully understood or welcomed in Washington.

The Bush administration has been at best indifferent to Turkey’s major initiative in the region – its efforts to broker a peace deal between Israel and Syria.

Four rounds of indirect talks have been held in Istanbul, mediated by Mr Davutoglu himself.

He refused to touch on any detail, such were the sensitivities, but, he assured me, the progress had been remarkable.

Security matters

In Ankara, I went to see one of the AKP’s most prominent foreign policy experts, Suat Kiniklioglu, an MP and spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Committee.

On Syria, he said that the US administration “had been very distant”.

But he believed that the US was belatedly coming around, though he acknowledged that Turkey’s ties with Iran were something that the Bush administration would not favour.

“We expect and hope that the new US administration will be more supportive of Turkey. But you know,” he mused, “we will have to see – there are two very different candidates and there could be two very different Americas, depending upon who will win in November.”

 

So who do the Turks want to see as the next US president?

Not surprisingly, opinions differ.

I think a McCain presidency – especially with Ms Palin as vice-president, would be nothing short of catastrophic
Soli Ozel
Writer and academic

Prof Turan told me that Senator Barack Obama’s inexperience in foreign policy worries many Turks, along with some of the things he has said on issues that matter greatly to Turkey.

“Many of us,” Prof Turan told me, “think that the election of Senator John McCain who is familiar with security matters – and the US-Turkish relationship is to a large extent based on security concerns – is better.”

The leading writer and academic Soli Ozel took a different view. He told me that he favours Mr Obama.

“I think a McCain presidency – especially with Ms Palin as vice-president – would be nothing short of catastrophic,” he said.

“A white man of 72 years of age who is a Republican – I don’t think that is what the world looks to in order to mend relations with America around the globe, so I think that whatever is going to be good for the world, ought to be necessarily good for Turkey.”

Official spokesmen obviously do not want to be drawn into the political fray.

But Mr Davutoglu told me that Turkey wanted greater US attention to the crisis around its borders.

“The Turkish foreign agenda is like the United Nation’s agenda”, he argues.

“What do you have on UN agenda today? The Palestinian question, the Iraqi question, the Iranian question, the Caucasian question, the Kosovo question – they are all on Turkish foreign policy agenda too,” he said.

“Without Turkish involvement,” he went on, “it is going to be difficult to solve any of these crises. So Turkish strength, in terms of hard power, of soft power, in terms of economic relations, is an asset for any American administration.”

‘Derivative policies’

 

To get the perspective of someone with a foot in both countries, I went to see Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

He heads their Turkish research programme and is currently in Istanbul teaching for three months.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana (R) welcomes Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan at the EU headquarters in Brussels (15/09/2008)

Turkey can look elsewhere if it is rejected by the EU

“Turkey policy in Washington,” he says, “has always been a derivative of other policies – of Iraq policy, of Afghanistan policy and maybe now even of Georgia policy.

“Turkey is important as a secondary partner, not as a primary partner, with which the US envisions its big foreign policy debate.”

Whoever takes over in Washington, he says, needs to take a view of Turkey from 30,000 feet up; to realise that it is important when the US plans policies, not only when it is implementing them.

“This,” he argues, “would probably give the Turks the sense of importance they are trying to find in the region, and it would be one way for the next US president to counter Turkey’s ongoing rapprochement with Russia and Iran.”

In my week shuttling between Istanbul and Ankara, it seemed clear that Turkey was proud and confident of its considerable diplomatic achievements .

It wants these to be seen as an asset by the West too.

Turkey’s new regional aspirations are not to be seen as being in conflict with its anchorage in the western camp.

But if the West rejects Turkey – and by this Turkish commentators generally mean the European Union – then Turkey does have other cards to play.

No wonder then that the EU’s ambivalence towards Turkey creates so much unease in Washington.

Analysing Bin Laden’s jihadi poetry

Analysing Bin Laden’s jihadi poetry

Undated file image of Osama Bin Laden

The tapes show Osama Bin Laden to be ‘an entertainer with an agenda’

To many people Osama Bin Laden is the ultimate barbarian, to others an elusive Muslim warrior. Most know him simply as the world’s most wanted man.

Few would imagine him as a published poet or wedding raconteur.

But now a host of previously unpublished speeches made by the man accused of planning the 9/11 attacks on the US are to be made public.

They include sermons and readings delivered at a wide range of events from weddings to jihadi recruitment sessions.

The material was discovered on a dozen of 1,500 cassettes found in al-Qaeda’s headquarters in Kandahar, Afghanistan, which was evacuated during the US-led invasion in 2001.

Encompassing recordings from the late 1960s until the year 2000, the collection includes hundreds of sermons by Islamic scholars, political speeches by al-Qaeda’s top strategists and even footage of live battles – as well as recordings of the group’s reclusive leader.

According to one US linguistics expert, Flagg Miller, who has spent five years analysing the material, the tapes provide an audio library of Bin Laden’s development as an orator.

The assistant professor of religious studies at the University of California, Davis said the recordings also offer “unprecedented insight” into debates within Bin Laden’s circle in the years leading up to the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001.

Jihad and weddings

Prof Miller’s analysis of the tapes shows Saudi-born Bin Laden to be a skilled poet who weaves mystical references as well as jihadist imagery into his verse, reciting 1,400-year-old poetry alongside more current mujahideen-era work.

“[The readings] were sometimes given to large audiences when he was recruiting for jihad in Afghanistan… and other times they were delivered at weddings, or to smaller audiences, possibly in private homes,” Prof Miller, a linguistic anthropologist specialising in the Middle East, told.

Poetry is important to Bin Laden’s core audiences of radical Islamists and disaffected youth, and his verses have been picked up by his followers around the world and used in their own work, said Prof Miller.

“The violence and barbarism of war can sicken anybody and poetry is a way to frame that violence in higher ethics,” he said.

However, some scholars have objected to the publication of Bin Laden’s poetry, saying the work has only sparked interest because of the notoriety of its author, and that publishing the verse gives a forum to a reviled figure.

In one of his own poems, Bin Laden, whose whereabouts remain unknown, refers to a youth “who plunges into the smoke of war, smiling”.

“He hunches forth, staining the blades of lances red. May God not let my eye stray from the most eminent humans, should they fall,” continues the recital.

The words are believed to have been recorded in the mountainous Afghan cave complex of Tora Bora in 1996, as the al-Qaeda chief made his first declaration of war against the US.

Performer with an agenda

Often identifiable by his distinctive monotone, Bin Laden’s recitals show him to be “the performer, the entertainer with an agenda”, said Prof Miller, who is researching a book analysing the poetry and its role in jihad.

Flagg Miller
Bin Laden uses poetry to tap into the cultural orientation, the history and the ethics of Islam
Prof Flagg Miller
University of California, Davis

“They also show his evolution from a relatively unpolished Muslim reformer, orator and jihad recruiter to his current persona, in which he attempts to position himself as an important intellectual and political voice on international affairs.”

Earlier material is littered with references to tribal poetry, Koranic verses and mystical allusions – mountains, for example, are used as metaphors to help his followers avoid the temptations of the secular world.

In one instance the man accused of orchestrating bombings in East Africa, Indonesia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as the US, describes himself as a “warrior poet”, whose words will lead his followers to an idyllic refuge in the Hindu Kush mountains.

More recent recordings are both more professionally produced and more overtly political – the anti-Western rhetoric with which the world has become familiar since the 9/11 attacks.

Prof Miller said that if alive, Bin Laden would still be writing poetry, which is central to the oral traditions of his tribal culture.

“Poetry is part of the oral tradition in the Arab world, which Bin Laden uses to tap into the cultural orientation, the history and the ethics of Islam,” he said.

The tapes are currently being cleaned and digitised at Yale University in the US and public access is expected to be granted in 2010.

Prof Miller’s findings are published in the October issue of the journal, Language and Communication.

September 17, 2008

Deadly US embassy attack in Yemen

Deadly US embassy attack in Yemen

A car bomb and rocket attack on the US embassy in Yemen has killed at least 16 people, including civilians and Yemeni security guards, Yemen officials said.

The bomb targeted the main security gate as staff were arriving for work.

An exchange of heavy fire followed between embassy security guards and militants, who eyewitnesses said were dressed as policemen.

The White House said the attack was a reminder of continuing threats from “extremists both at home and abroad”.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe added: “We will continue to work with the government of Yemen to increase our counter-terrorism activities to prevent more attacks from taking place.”

Security sources said six members of the Yemeni security forces, six attackers, and four bystanders were killed in the attack, which occurred in the capital, Sanaa, at about 0830 (0530 GMT).

‘Massive fireball’

British citizen Trev Mason described hearing explosions while in his residential compound near the embassy.

We saw… a massive fireball very close to the US embassy
Trev Mason
eyewitness

“We heard the sounds of a heavy gunbattle going on,” he told CNN television.

“I looked out of my window and we saw the first explosion going off, a massive fireball very close to the US embassy.”

The new attack is the second on the embassy in the past six months.

A group calling itself the Islamic Jihad in Yemen said it carried out the attack, and threatened to target other foreign missions in the region unless its jailed members were released.

The authenticity of the claim could not be immediately verified.

Earlier this year, the US ordered the evacuation of non-essential personnel from Yemen after mortar bombs were fired towards the embassy. They missed but hit a nearby school.

Map of Yemen

Yemen, the ancestral home of Osama Bin Laden, has long been a haven for Islamist militants.

In 2000, 17 US sailors were killed when suicide bombers with alleged links to al-Qaeda blew themselves up on an inflatable raft next to the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden.

The government of Yemen, which backs America’s “war on terror”, has often blamed al-Qaeda for attacks on Western targets in the country.

US special forces have been helping the government fight the Islamist militants.

But analysts say there has been only limited success in restraining the militant groups.

Yemen is a desperately poor corner of the Middle East and, like Afghanistan, there is rugged mountainous terrain, with a vast supply of weapons.


Are you in the region? Have you been affected? Send us your story

September 9, 2008

Indian painter cleared by court

Indian painter cleared by court

MF Husain

This is not the first time Mr Husain’s work has caused controversy

India’s Supreme Court has refused to launch criminal proceedings against one of the country’s best-known and controversial artists.

MF Husain has been accused of obscenity in several cases filed against him in a number of Indian states.

He is alleged to have offended Hindus with a painting in which he represented India as a nude goddess.

The court said Mr Husain’s paintings were not obscene and nudity was common in Indian iconography and history.

The Supreme Court also upheld a lower court ruling in May that dropped legal proceedings in three cases against the painter and cleared him of obscenity charges.

Under Indian laws, obscenity is a criminal offense.

In its ruling, the court said that the nudity portrayed by Mr Husain had a long history.

“There are many such pictures, paintings and sculptures and some of them are in temples also,” it said.

‘Victory’

Mr Husain has been living in the Middle East. He welcomed the court’s decision and said he was looking forward to returning home

“At last they have understood the dignity of Indian contemporary art,” he was quoted as saying by the Times of India newspaper.

“This is not a victory for me only, but one for the Indian contemporary art movement.”

Last year, art auction house Christie’s rejected demands by a group of expatriate Indians to withdraw the work of Mr Husain.

The group had threatened to hold demonstrations unless the auction was dropped.

In 2006, Mr Husain had publicly apologized for the painting.

He promised to withdraw the controversial painting from a charity auction, after Hindu nationalist groups accused him of hurting their religious sentiments.

Mr Husain, 92, is one of India’s leading painters.

His paintings are much sought after and are auctioned for millions of dollars.

He has also made two Bollywood films, although both failed at the box office.

September 6, 2008

McCain is just part of Washington crowd, Democrats say

McCain is just part of Washington crowd, Democrats say

Sen. John McCain got one thing right Thursday when he said the Republicans had let Washington change them, Democrats said after his speech.

On Thursday, Democrats called John McCain "a Bush partisan 90 percent of the time."

On Thursday, Democrats called John McCain “a Bush partisan 90 percent of the time.”

The proof was in his voting record when he supported President Bush’s policies 90 percent of the time, they said.

That meant a McCain presidency would be four more years of Bush policies, said Barack Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton.

In his speech, McCain said that his party “was elected to change Washington” but that Republicans “let Washington change them.”

“He admonished the ‘old, do-nothing crowd’ in Washington but ignored the fact that he’s been part of that crowd for 26 years, opposing solutions on health care, energy and education, ” Burton said.

“He talked about bipartisanship but didn’t mention that he’s been a Bush partisan 90 percent of the time, that he’s run a Karl Rove campaign and that he wants to continue this president’s disastrous economic and foreign policies for another four years,” Burton said. “With John McCain, it’s more of the same.”

But with Obama, Americans can look forward to changes that will directly help them and fight special interests, Burton said.

“That’s not the change Americans need. Barack Obama has taken on the special interests and the lobbyists in Illinois and in Washington, and he’s won.,” Burton said. “As president, he’ll cut taxes for 95 percent of all working families, provide affordable health care to every American, end the tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas and eliminate the oil we import from the Middle East in 10 years.”

Robert Gibbs, Obama’s senior adviser, said that after days of speeches that included nothing regarding the economic policies Americans care so much about, he was waiting to see whether McCain would finally address those issues.

“I think, like me, a lot of those people are still sitting around wondering why they didn’t hear that tonight,” Gibbs said.

Hillary Clinton campaign manager Terry McAuliffe also attacked McCain’s speech, which pitted Obama’s proposed policies against his own. McCullough said that McCain distorted Obama’s record and that many of the statements he made were “patently false.”

Gibbs said that after hearing McCain’s policies, which he outlined in his speech, he is confident McCain is the wrong man for the job. iReport.com: Your thoughts on McCain’s big night

“I’ll put Barack Obama’s judgment against John McCain’s three decades in Washington any day of the week,” Gibbs said.

Clinton, who was praised for her achievements during the Republican National Convention, said in a statement that McCain’s speech put a cap on a convention drastically different than that of the Democrats the week before.

Clinton said that although Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden, offered new ideas to solve America’s problems and bring change, the Republican ticket did not.

“After listening to all the speeches this week, I heard nothing that suggests the Republicans are ready to fix the economy for middle-class families, provide quality affordable health care for all Americans, guarantee equal pay for equal work for women, restore our nation’s leadership in a complex world or tackle the myriad of challenges our country faces,” Clinton said in the statement. “So, to slightly amend my comments from Denver: No way, no how, no McCain-Palin.”

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