Oh the humanity

December 29, 2008

Robyn Creswell contemplates the provocations of Faisal Devji, whose fascinating new book, “The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics,” upturns conventional accounts of al Qa’eda by investigating ‘the rich inner life of jihad’. From the National:

To Faisal Devji, Gandhi is the embodiment of a kind of humanitarian sacrifice, and ‘would probably have welcomed the comparison between his methods and those of Osama bin Laden, whose practices he might have seen as the evil perversion of his own.’ Courtesy Corbis

To Faisal Devji, Gandhi is the embodiment of a kind of humanitarian sacrifice, and ‘would probably have welcomed the comparison between his methods and those of Osama bin Laden, whose practices he might have seen as the evil perversion of his own.’ Courtesy Corbis

The field of jihadi studies, situated at the crossroads of policy-making, intelligence work, journalism and academic research, sprang up almost overnight following the attacks of September 11. It now boasts all the infrastructure that comes with the discovery of a glittering new frontier, as fascinating in its way as superstrings or Martian ice. Conferences, courses and research centres are devoted to explaining the intricacies of holy war. Amidst this mushroom patch of interlocking institutions and individuals, the work of Faisal Devji – an assistant professor at the New School for Social Research in New York – sticks out like a rare flower. Devji’s studies, which focus on the doings and sayings of al Qa’eda, are so at odds with what passes for common sense in this field that one sometimes wonders if he isn’t merely thumbing his nose at received wisdom. In his latest book, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity, he suggests that al Qa’eda has in some sense inherited the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. He also argues that the ideology of jihad is a “humanitarian” one, and that the militants of al Qa’eda are “the intellectual peers” of environmentalists and pacifists. What does he mean by such provocations?

The Terrorist in Search of Humanity is in many ways a sequel to Devji’s equally provocative 2005 book, Landscapes of the Jihad. In that work, rather than concentrating on the spectacular violence that has been the focus of most experts, Devji argues that al Qa’eda’s real achievement is to have created “a new kind of Muslim”, one whose attachments to the traditions and institutions of Islam are radically unlike those of his predecessors. The new militancy cannot be understood by inserting it into a now-familiar history of Islamic extremism (Wahhabism, Sayyid Qutb, the Taliban, etc.), because what is significant about the jihadis of today is their relation to the present, or even to the future. “Al Qa’eda’s importance in the long run,” Devji writes, “lies not in its pioneering a new form of networked militancy… but instead in its fragmentation of traditional structures of Muslim authority within new global landscapes.”

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A foreign face beloved by Afghans from all sides

December 25, 2008

John F. Burns in International Herald Tribune:

Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Alberto Cairo, right, heads the orthopedic rehabilitation program of the International Committee of the Red Cross, a job dedicated to helping disabled Afghans live normally again by equipping them with artificial legs and arms. Photo: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Kabul: History has fostered a notion here that all foreign occupations of Afghanistan are ultimately doomed.

There was the catastrophic retreat of a British expeditionary force in 1842. Nearly 150 years later came the Soviet troop withdrawal of 1989. Now, with the Taliban pressing in on this city and dominating the countryside, there are fears that this occupation, too, will eventually fail.

But whatever the outcome, Afghans of all ethnic and political stripes, even the Taliban, seem likely to count Alberto Cairo as one foreigner who left the country better than he found it.

Cairo, once a debonair lawyer in his native Turin, Italy, is almost certainly the most celebrated Western relief official in Afghanistan, at least among Afghans. To the generation who have been beneficiaries of his relief work for the International Committee of the Red Cross, he is known simply as “Mr. Alberto,” a man apart among the 15,000 foreigners who live and work in this city.

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In the lair of the Taliban

December 8, 2008

They were ousted in 2001, yet across Afghanistan the Taliban are steadily regaining control. The writer Nir Rosen ventured into their heartland – and lived to tell the tale. From the Sunday Times:

talibanOn the outskirts of the capital we are stopped at a checkpoint manned by the Afghan National Army. The soldiers are suspicious of my foreign accent. My Afghan companions, Shafiq and Ibrahim, convince them that I am only a journalist. As we drive away, Ibrahim laughs. The soldiers thought I was a suicide bomber. Ibrahim did not tell them that he and Shafiq are mid-level Taliban commanders escorting me deep into Ghazni.

Until recently, Ghazni, like much of central Afghanistan, was considered reasonably safe. But now the province, 100 miles south of Kabul, has fallen to the Taliban. Foreigners who venture there often wind up kidnapped or killed. In defiance of the central government, the Taliban governor in the province issues separate ID cards and passports for the Taliban regime, or the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

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Amitav Ghosh on the attack on Mumbai and the metaphor of ‘9/11’

November 30, 2008

From the Hindustan Times:

logoSince the start of the terrorist invasion of Mumbai on November 26, the metaphor of the World Trade Center attacks has been repeatedly invoked. In India and elsewhere commentators have taken to saying, over and again, ‘This is India’s 9/11.’ There can be no doubt that there are certain clear analogies between the two attacks. In both cases the terrorists were clearly at great pains to single out urban landmarks, especially those that serve as points of reference in this increasingly interconnected world.

There are similarities too, in the unexpectedness of the attacks, the meticulousness of their planning, their shock value and the utter unpreparedness of the security services. But this is where the similarities end. Not only were the casualties far greater on September 11, 2001, but the shock of the attack was also greatly magnified by the fact that it had no real precedent in America’s historical experience.

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The future of terrorism

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri in Hindustan Times:

They may call the next several years the “Era of Mumbai Terror.” An increasing number of counterterrorism specialists say the nature of the attack is clearly different from the South Asian norm and possibly even by any global measure. And because it is was so successful – a score of armed men holding an entire country to ransom for three days – it may become a model for the next wave of jihadi fighters.

Colonel Jonathan Fighel of Israel’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism is among those who has pointed out that the Mumbai attacks are “unusual not only for India, but also on the international scale.” The subcontinental norm has been a “series of explosions undertaken simultaneously by radical Islamic organizations aiming to kill” masses of people. This was an “all-out offensive, with clear military hallmarks.”

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LeT, Al Qaeda and Global Terror Inc join hands

November 29, 2008

In Hindustan Times, Pramit Pal Chaudhuri and Haider Naqvi speak to Bruce Riedel, Barack Obama’s chief advisor on South Asia, on the global links behind the Mumbai terror strikes

US President-elect Barack Obama’s main advisor on South Asian terror said he believed that the Mumbai attack was a combined Al Qaeda-Lashkar-e-Toiba operation. Terrorism experts said this would explain the non-Indian focus of some of the terrorist teams who attacked the city.

Said Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institute and author of The Search for Al Qaeda, “This has the hallmarks of Al Qaeda: a very sophisticated attack at multiple targets. The US, the UK and Israel are global jihadist targets, not Indian Mujahedin targets. Thorough casing is an Al Qaeda trademark.”

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U.S. Intelligence Focuses on Pakistani Group

From the New York Times

American intelligence and counterterrorism officials said Friday that there was mounting evidence that a Pakistani militant group based in Kashmir, most likely Lashkar-e-Taiba, was responsible for this week’s deadly attacks in Mumbai.

The officials cautioned that they had reached no firm conclusions about who was responsible for the attacks, or how they were planned and carried out. Nevertheless, they said that evidence gathered in the past two days pointed to a role for Lashkar-e-Taiba or possibly another group based in Kashmir, Jaish-e-Muhammad, which also has a track record of attacks against India.

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Ringed by foes, Pakistanis fear the US, too

November 23, 2008

There is an increasing belief among some Pakistanis that what the U.S. really wants is the breakup of Pakistan. Jane Perlez from Islamabad in the New York Times:

Above are sections of maps that opriginally accompanied a speculative June 2006 article by Ralph Peters in Armed Forces Journal that has concerned pakistanis.

A controversial imaging of borders: Above are sections of maps that opriginally accompanied a speculative June 2006 article by Ralph Peters in Armed Forces Journal that has concerned pakistanis.

A redrawn map of South Asia has been making the rounds among Pakistani elites. It shows their country truncated, reduced to an elongated sliver of land with the big bulk of India to the east, and an enlarged Afghanistan to the west.

That the map was first circulated as a theoretical exercise in some American neoconservative circles matters little here. It has fueled a belief among Pakistanis, including members of the armed forces, that what the United States really wants is the breakup of Pakistan, the only Muslim country with nuclear arms.

“One of the biggest fears of the Pakistani military planners is the collaboration between India and Afghanistan to destroy Pakistan,” said a senior Pakistani government official involved in strategic planning, who insisted on anonymity as per diplomatic custom. “Some people feel the United States is colluding in this.”

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China, India set to be leading powers by 2025: US intelligence

November 21, 2008

IANS report in the Times of India:

China and India are likely to emerge atop a multipolar international system as the US economic and political clout declines over the next two decades, according to US intelligence agencies projections.

Not only will new players – Brazil, Russia, India and China – have a seat at the international high table, they will bring new stakes and rules of the game, said the National Intelligence Council analysis “Global Trends 2025- A Transformed World” released on Thursday.

The whole international system, as constructed following the Second World War, will be revolutionised, said the report based on a global survey of experts and trends by US intelligence analysts.

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Click here to read Globa Trends 2025: The National Intelligence Council’s 2025 Project

Al Qaeda’s Appeal to Falter

From the New York Times:

A new study of the global future by American intelligence agencies suggests that Al Qaeda could soon be on the decline, having alienated Muslim supporters with indiscriminate killing and inattention to the practical problems of poverty, unemployment and education.

While not contradicting intelligence assessments suggesting that Al Qaeda remains a major threat with a strong presence in the tribal areas of Pakistan, the report says that the group “may decay sooner” than many experts have assumed because of severe weaknesses: “unachievable strategic objectives, inability to attract broad-based support and self-destructive actions.”

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Pakistan turns to ‘friends’ in its hour of need

November 19, 2008

Jeremy Page from Islamabad in the Times:

Welcome to Pakistan’s “Street of Dreams” – your chance to buy into a future free of suicide bombers, power cuts, crumbling infrastructure and bad shopping.

So goes the sales pitch for Canyon Views, a 1,000-acre complex of 5,000 luxury homes in Tuscan, Portuguese and Moorish styles being built on the outskirts of the Pakistani capital. “It’s a dream come true,” said a sales executive on a recent tour. “This is the new Islamabad.”

When a Dubai-based developer invested $2.4 billion (£1.6 billion) in this and two similar projects in Pakistan in 2006, the dream seemed almost real. The economy was booming, the consumer class spending, the stock market outperforming the world. The first 250 villas – costing as much as $400,000 each – sold in a flash.

How times have changed.

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An old army in a new war

The Pakistani army is engaged in a gritty battle with Afghan militants in a border area where it has never had authority. Jason Burke reports from Loesam in the Guardian:

Loesam is a long way from anywhere. Once a small town in north-west Pakistan, on the Afghanistan frontier, it has been razed to the ground. The bazaar is a pile of rubble, homes scraped down to their concrete foundations. The only building still upright is the mosque that stands in the corner of what once was the local petrol station. The population has fled.

A few hundred metres out of Loesam, the 25th Punjab regiment of the Pakistani army is digging in. Those few hundred metres were seized the day before in a short, sharp engagement with militants entrenched in mud-walled compounds, stands of slim ash, birch trees and dry valleys with their yellow dust walls on their outskirts.

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The success of the home-made bomb

September 21, 2008

Every month up to 300 improvised explosive devices are detonated somewhere in the world – and that’s outside Iraq and Afghanistan. Billions are being spent to find the technology to beat the home-made bomb – but the terrorists are always one step ahead. Philip Jacobson in The Sunday Times:

The Marriot Hotel burns after a suspected suicide car-bomb attack in Islamabad on September 20, 2008. Reuters

The Marriot Hotel burns after a suspected suicide car-bomb attack in Islamabad on September 20, 2008. Reuters

Jordan Spurlin’s riveting home movie opens with him at the wheel of a US army Humvee barrelling along a rubbish-strewn street in Baghdad. The radio is crackling with reports from other units patrolling in the same area, where the risk of being ambushed by insurgent fighters is high. Suddenly the vehicle rocks and the view from the dashboard-mounted video camera becomes blurred, while debris bounces off the reinforced windscreen. Spurlin knew immediately that his squad had been targeted by what the military designate as an improvised explosive device (IED), triggered by remote control. In the 10 months he had spent driving Humvees in Iraq, he had survived three previous attacks by roadside bombs.

“Right when it hits, you feel a blast wave come across you, then you hear the sound – you hear the actual explosion itself – and your head gets blown back,” Spurlin recalled. “You’re looking away and all the time you’re thinking, ‘I hope I’m all right.’” His tape, shown on CBS, vividly captures the moment the rest of the soldiers in the Humvee realise that nobody has been hurt. “Whooo-eee,” one shouts. “Wow, I have a f***in’ headache,” another exclaims. Then Spurlin’s voice is heard observing: “Hey, that’s four.” Evidently undeterred, the young man from Alaska later signed up for another tour of duty.

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Right at the Edge

September 6, 2008

The Taliban and Al Qaeda have established a haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border. This is where the war on terror wil be fought – and possibly lost. Dexter Filkins in the New York Times Magazine:

Late in the afternoon of June 10, during a firefight with Taliban militants along the Afghan-Pakistani border, American soldiers called in airstrikes to beat back the attack. The firefight was taking place right on the border itself, known in military jargon as the “zero line.” Afghanistan was on one side, and the remote Pakistani region known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, was on the other. The stretch of border was guarded by three Pakistani military posts.

The American bombers did the job, and then some. By the time the fighting ended, the Taliban militants had slipped away, the American unit was safe and 11 Pakistani border guards lay dead. The airstrikes on the Pakistani positions sparked a diplomatic row between the two allies: Pakistan called the incident “unprovoked and cowardly”; American officials regretted what they called a tragic mistake. But even after a joint inquiry by the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan, it remained unclear why American soldiers had reached the point of calling in airstrikes on soldiers from Pakistan, a critical ally in the war in Afghanistan and the campaign against terrorism.

The mystery, at least part of it, was solved in July by four residents of Suran Dara, a Pakistani village a few hundred yards from the site of the fight. According to two of these villagers, whom I interviewed together with a local reporter, the Americans started calling in airstrikes on the Pakistanis after the latter started shooting at the Americans.

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The Taleban besiege Kabul

August 26, 2008

Jeremy Page from Kabul in The Times:

The lorry drivers who bring the Pepsi and petrol for Nato troops in Kabul have their own way of calculating the Taleban’s progress towards the Afghan capital: they simply count the lorries destroyed on the main roads.

By that measure, and many others, this looks increasingly like a city under siege as the Taleban start to disrupt supply routes, mimicking tactics used against the British in 1841 and the Soviets two decades ago.

Abdul Hamid, 35, was ferrying Nato supplies from the Pakistani border last month when Taleban fighters appeared on the rocks above and aimed their rocket-launchers at him, 40miles (65km) east of Kabul. “They just missed me but hit the two trucks behind,” he said. “This road used to be safe, but in the last month they’ve been attacking more and more.”

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Voices of victims

August 9, 2008

In The New York Times, a review of “My Guantanamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me,” by Mahvish Rukhsana Khan:

Mahvish Rukhsana Khan

Mahvish Rukhsana Khan

In 2005, while a law student at the University of Miami, Mahvish Rukhsana Khan decided to volunteer as an interpreter for Afghan detainees at Guantánamo Bay. The American daughter of Afghan immigrants (her parents are Johns Hopkins-educated physicians), Khan thought it unfair that the detainees could not understand their lawyers, who did not speak Pashto, and although she didn’t know whether they were guilty, she believed they were entitled to prove their innocence.

But after more than three dozen visits to the Guantánamo prison camp, Khan writes, “I came to believe that many, perhaps even most” of the detainees were “innocent men who’d been swept up by mistake.” A number of the men she met insisted they had been sold to the United States by bounty hunters, after the American military dropped leaflets across Afghanistan promising up to $25,000, or nearly 100 times the annual per capita income, to anyone who would turn in members of the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

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Mystery of Siddiqui disappearance

August 6, 2008

From BBC:

Aafia Siddiqui

Aafia Siddiqui

Aafia Siddiqui, whom the US accuses of al-Qaeda links, vanished in Karachi with her three children on 30 March 2003. The next day it was reported in local newspapers that a woman had been taken into custody on terrorism charges.

Initially, confirmation came from a Pakistan interior ministry spokesman. But a couple of days later, both the Pakistan government and the FBI publicly denied having anything to do with her disappearance.

Two days after Aafia Siddiqui went missing, “a man wearing a motor-bike helmet” arrived at the Siddiqui home in Karachi, her mother told the BBC. “He did not take off the helmet, but told me that if I ever wanted to see my daughter and grandchildren again, I should keep quiet,” Ms Siddiqui’s mother told me over the phone in 2003.

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Anger in Pakistan as ‘missing’ scientist resurfaces in US court on terror charges

From The Independent:

Aafia Siddiqui reappeared five years later in US custody in Afghanistan

Aafia Siddiqui reappeared five years later in US custody in Afghanistan

A US-trained neuroscientist’s appearance in a New York court charged with the attempted murder of American soldiers and FBI agents has sparked angry protests in her homeland of Pakistan.

Aafia Siddiqui, 36, is under suspicion of having links to the al-Qa’ida terror network of Osama bin Laden, and is the first woman ever sought by the US in connection with the group, which was behind the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

According to US officials, Ms Siddiqui, who reportedly studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, was arrested in Afghanistan on 17 July in possession of recipes for explosives and chemical weapons, as well as details of landmarks in the United States, including in New York.

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Spy games

July 25, 2008

The CIA and its partner in Islamabad, the ISI, are trapped in a very complicated marriage. From The New York Times:

Pakistan’s new army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, (with Pervez Musharraf, left) used to run the ISI.

Washington: As they complete their training at “The Farm,” the Central Intelligence Agency’s base in the Virginia tidewater, young agency recruits are taught a lesson they are expected never to forget during assignments overseas: there is no such thing as a friendly intelligence service.

Foreign spy services, even those of America’s closest allies, will try to manipulate you. So you had better learn how to manipulate them back.

But most CIA veterans agree that no relationship between the spy agency and a foreign intelligence service is quite as byzantine, or as maddening, as that between the CIA and Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.

[Photo: Pakistan’s new army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, (with Pervez Musharraf, left) used to run the ISI.]

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The heretic

July 13, 2008

How Al-Qaeda’s mastermind turned his back on terror. Lawrence Wright in The Observer:

In May 2007, a fax arrived at the London office of the Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat from a shadowy figure in the radical Islamist movement who went by many names. Born Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, he was the former leader of the Egyptian terrorist group al-Jihad, and known to those in the underground mainly as Dr Fadl. Members of al-Jihad became part of the original core of al-Qaeda; among them was Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s chief lieutenant. Fadl was one of the first members of al-Qaeda’s top council. Twenty years ago, he wrote two of the most important books in modern Islamist discourse; al-Qaeda used them to indoctrinate recruits and justify killing. Now Fadl was announcing a new book, rejecting al-Qaeda’s violence. ‘We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that,’ Fadl wrote in his fax, which was sent from Tora Prison, in Egypt.

Fadl’s fax confirmed rumours that imprisoned leaders of al-Jihad were part of a trend in which former terrorists renounced violence. His defection posed a terrible threat to the radical Islamists, because he directly challenged their authority. ‘There is a form of obedience that is greater than the obedience accorded to any leader, namely, obedience to God and His Messenger,’ Fadl wrote, claiming thathundreds of Egyptian jihadists from various factions had endorsed his position.

[Photo: Osama Bin Laden walks with Afghanis in the Jalalabad area in this 1989 photo. Photograph: EPA / The Observer]

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Frontier years give might to ex-guerrilla’s words

July 5, 2008

Ahmed Rashid is a prolific chronicler of Afghanistan, Central Asia and his homeland of Pakistan, places that Western writers have often found difficult to gain access to. Jane Perlez from Lahore in The New York Times:

Fresh out of Cambridge University in the late 1960s, and steeped in the era’s favorites – Marx, Mao and Che – Ahmed Rashid took off for the hills of Baluchistan, a dry, tough patch of western Pakistan. He stayed for 10 years.

He was a guerrilla fighter and political organizer, and with a couple of like-minded Pakistani pals, led peasants seeking autonomy against the Pakistani Army. He emerged, after bouts of hepatitis, malaria and lost teeth, not exactly disillusioned but defeated, he recalled recently from the comfort of his study overlooking a garden of palms.

Yet the experience became the launching pad for his real career as a prolific chronicler of Afghanistan, Central Asia and his homeland of Pakistan, places that Western writers have often found difficult to gain access to, let alone comprehend in their full depth and complexity.

[Photo: Ahmed Rashid at his residence in Lahore, Pakistan. / NYTimes]

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Amid policy disputes, Qaeda grows in Pakistan

June 30, 2008

U.S. accommodation to Pakistan’s government and a shift from counterterrorism efforts to preparations for the war in Iraq in 2002 helped make Pakistan a haven for Al Qaeda. From The New York Times:

Late last year, top Bush administration officials decided to take a step they had long resisted. They drafted a secret plan to make it easer for the Pentagon’s Special Operations forces to launch missions into the snow-capped mountains of Pakistan to capture or kill top leaders of Al Qaeda.

Intelligence reports for more than a year had been streaming in about Osama bin Laden’s terrorism network rebuilding in the Pakistani tribal areas, a problem that had been exacerbated by years of missteps in Washington and the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, sharp policy disagreements, and turf battles between American counterterrorism agencies.

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Is Al Qa’ida in pieces?

June 22, 2008

It continues to mount brutally effective operations around the world, but from Saudi Arabia to the streets of east London, hardline Islamists are turning against Al-Qa’ida in unprecedented numbers. Is the global terror network self-destructing? A special report by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank in The Independent:

Within a few minutes of Noman Benotman’s arrival at the Kandahar guest house, Osama bin Laden came to welcome him. The journey from Kabul had been hard – 17 hours in a Toyota pick-up truck, bumping along what passed as the main highway to southern Afghanistan. It was the summer of 2000, and Benotman, then a leader of a group trying to overthrow the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, had been invited by Bin Laden to a conference of jihadists from around the Arab world, the first of its kind since al-Qa’ida had moved to Afghanistan in 1996. Benotman, the scion of an aristocratic family marginalised by Qaddafi, had known Bin Laden from their days fighting the communist Afghan government in the early 1990s, a period when Benotman established himself as a leader of the militant Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

The night of Benotman’s arrival, Bin Laden threw a lavish banquet in the main hall of his compound, an unusual extravagance for the frugal al-Qa’ida leader. As Bin Laden circulated, making small talk, large dishes of rice and platters of whole roasted lamb were served to some 200 jihadists, many of whom had come from around the Middle East. “It was one big reunification,” Benotman recalls. “The leaders of most of the jihadist groups in the Arab world were there and almost everybody within al-Qa’ida.”

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Old-line Taliban commander is face of rising Afghan threat

June 17, 2008

An attack has revealed the way former mujahedeen leaders, like Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, combine forces with foreign terrorist groups. From International Herald Tribune:

Kabul: The attack was little reported at the time. A suicide bombing on March 3 killed two NATO soldiers and two Afghan civilians and wounded 19 others in an American military base.

It was only weeks later, when Taliban militants put out a propaganda DVD, that the implications of the attack became clear. The DVD shows a huge explosion, with shock waves rippling out far beyond the base. As a thick cloud of dust rises, the face of Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, a Taliban commander who presents one of the biggest threats to NATO and United States forces, appears. He taunts his opponents and derides rumors of his demise.

“Now as you see I am still alive,” he says.

The deadly attack was also devastating for what it showed about the persistence of the Afghan insurgency and the way former mujahedeen leaders, like Maulavi Haqqani, combined tactics and forces with Al Qaeda and other foreign terrorist groups.

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The 14-year-old Afghan suicide bomber

June 10, 2008

A teenager caught on a lethal mission reveals how he was groomed to kill British troops. In The Independent, Kim Sengupta reports from Kabul:

The surroundings were grim and forbidding, a notorious jail run by Afghanistan’s feared security service for those taken prisoner in the bloody war with the Taliban.

Among the inmates: Shakirullah Yasin Ali; a small, frail boy, just 14 years old, arrested as he prepared to carry out a suicide bombing against British and American targets. “If I had succeeded, I would be dead now, I realise that,” he said in a soft, nervous voice.

“But those who were instructing me said that if I believed in serving God it was my duty to fight against the foreigners. They said God would protect me when the time came.”

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Drugs for guns

April 30, 2008

How the Afghan heroin trade is fuelling the Taliban insurgency. In The Independent, UK, Jerome Starkey reports from Kunduz:

The heroin flooding Britain’s streets is threatening the lives of UK troops in Afghanistan, an Independent investigation can reveal.

Russian gangsters who smuggle drugs into Britain are buying cheap heroin from Afghanistan and paying for it with guns. Smugglers told The Independent how Russian arms dealers meet Taliban drug lords at a bazaar near the old Afghan-Soviet border, deep in Tajikistan’s desert. The bazaar exists solely to trade Afghan drugs for Russian guns – and sometimes a bit of sex on the side.

The drugs are destined for Britain’s streets. The guns go straight to the Taliban front line.

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Rising leader for next phase of Al Qaeda’s war

April 4, 2008

The growing prominence of Abu Yahya al-Libi tracks Al Qaeda’s emphasis on information in its war with the West. In The New York Times:

On the night of July 10, 2005, an obscure militant preacher named Abu Yahya al-Libi escaped from an American prison in Afghanistan and rocketed to fame in the world of jihadists.

The breakout from the Bagram Air Base by Mr. Libi and three cellmates – they picked a lock, dodged their guards and traversed the base’s vast acreage to freedom – embarrassed American officials as deeply as it delighted the jihadist movement. In the nearly three years since then, Mr. Libi’s meteoric ascent within the leadership of Al Qaeda has proved to be even more troublesome for the authorities.

Mr. Libi, a Libyan believed to be in his late 30s, is now considered to be a top strategist for Al Qaeda.

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Pakistan tells US: There’s ‘a new sheriff in town’

March 26, 2008

Pakistani leaders delivered a strong message to American diplomats. Jane Perlez from Islamabad in The New York Times:

The top State Department officials responsible for the alliance with Pakistan met leaders of the new government on Tuesday, and received what amounted to a public dressing-down from one of them, as well as the first direct indication that the United States relationship with Pakistan would have to change.

On the day that the new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, was sworn in, Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte and the assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, Richard A. Boucher, also met with the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, whom they had embraced as their partner in the campaign against terrorism over the past seven years but whose power is quickly ebbing.

The leader of the second biggest party in the new Parliament, Nawaz Sharif, said after meeting the two American diplomats that it was unacceptable that Pakistan had become a “killing field.”

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Moderates hold key in Pakistan

Also in NYT, a report from Peshawar:

One of the most significant results of Pakistan’s elections in February was the defeat of the religious parties that ran this critical border province for the last five years. In their place, voters elected moderates from a small regional party that may now wield big influence over Pakistan’s changing strategy toward its militants.

The victory of the Awami National Party, or A.N.P., was welcomed by Western officials and Pakistanis as a clear rejection of the Taliban and the religious parties that backed them here in North-West Frontier Province. The party will now be part of the governing coalition in the national Parliament, and sees itself as critically placed to begin a dialogue with the militants, something the Bush administration has regarded warily.

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The jihadi next door

March 24, 2008

How does a law-abiding young man become a terrorist? Aryn Baker in TIME reviews ‘Leaderless Jihad‘ by  forensic psychiatrist Marc  Sageman:

jihadbook.jpgAhmed Omar Saeed Sheikh was the kind of guy you could have taken home to Mom. Smart and friendly, he once jumped in front of a train in a London tube station to rescue a fallen commuter. But he also, in the name of the Islamist cause, gleefully threatened a hostage with decapitation in 1994. That hostage survived, but Danny Pearl, the Wall Street Journal Pakistan correspondent whom Sheikh is charged with kidnapping in January 2002, did not. The video of Pearl’s beheading can still be found on the Internet (though the identity of the actual knife wielder remains unknown). How does someone like Sheikh–”the kindest, most gentle person you could meet,” according to his brother–turn terrorist?

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The war of drones

March 12, 2008

Pervez Hoodbhoy, professor of nuclear physics at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, in The Times of India:

A drone is a semi-autonomous, self-propelled system controlled by an external intelligence. Suitably equipped handlers guide it towards an assigned target. The MQ-1B General Dynamics Predator, connected to high-flying US military surveillance satellites, differs from the low-tech mullah-trained human drone produced in Pakistani madrassas. But they share a common characteristic. Neither asks why they must kill.

Drones, machine and human, have drenched Pakistan with the blood of innocents. In 2006, a bevy of MQ-1Bs hovering over Damadola launched a barrage of 10 Hellfire missiles, costing $60,000 apiece, at the village below. They blew up 18 local people, including five women and five children. The blame was put on faulty local intelligence. The same year, a Hellfire missile hit a madrassa in Bajaur killing between 80 and 85 people, mostly students. Pervez Musharraf’s credibility stood so low that few believed his claim that those killed were training to become Al-Qaida militants. Indeed, while these space-age weapons have occasionally eliminated a few Al-Qaida men, such as Abu Laith al-Libi in January 2008, the more usual outcome has been flattened houses, dead and maimed children, and a growing tribal population that seeks revenge against Pakistan and the US.

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Hillary Clinton on Afghanistan: As President I will…

March 8, 2008

The Council on Foreign Relations website has the full statement of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Afghanistan:

Hillary Clinton announced her plans to address the forgotten front line in Afghanistan as she met with a group of respected retired admirals, generals, and other senior officials to discuss current foreign policy and national security challenges.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban have largely recovered from the blows inflicted after 9/11. Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan have now merged into one of the most dangerous regions of the world, and one of the most strategically important to the United States. Today, Hillary pledged to make Afghanistan her highest security priority after Iraq, and outlined her agenda for winning the war in Afghanistan.

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A bloody stalemate in Afghanistan

February 26, 2008

Elizabeth Rubin in The New York Times Magazine.

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We tumbled out of two Black Hawks onto a shrub-dusted mountainside. It was a windy, cold October evening. A half-moon illuminated the tall pines and peaks. Through night-vision goggles the soldiers and landscape glowed in a blurry green-and-white static. Just across the valley, lights flickered from a few homes nestled in the terraced farmlands of Yaka China, a notorious village in the Korengal River valley in Afghanistan’s northeastern province of Kunar. Yaka China was just a few villages south and around a bend in the river from the Americans’ small mountain outposts, but the area’s reputation among the soldiers was mythic. It was a known safe haven for insurgents. American troops have tended to avoid the place since a nasty fight a year or so earlier. And as Halloween approached, the soldiers I was with, under the command of 26-year-old Capt. Dan Kearney, were predicting their own Yaka China doom. [Photo: Specialist Carl Vandenberge, right, and Staff Sgt. Kevin Rice, left, are assisted as they walk to a medevac helicopter after being shot by insurgents in the ambush.]

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Baitullah Mehsud: The hidden hand

February 16, 2008

In the February issue of Newsline, Rahimullah Yusufzai profiles Baitullah Mehsud (or Masood), the man the Pakistani authorities say ordered the killing of Benazir Bhutto. Reports from Pakistan say Mehsud has denied his outfit was involved in the assassination.

baitullah-mehsud.jpgThough he is the most powerful military commander of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud remains a shadowy figure with a larger-than-life reputation. One reason for his being largely unknown is his refusal to grant media interviews or be photographed. It appears he is following in the footsteps of his leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, founder of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, whose refusal to be photographed, as a matter of policy and due to Islamic reasons, has helped him evade capture.

Mehsud has given a few radio interviews, but that was a while ago when his February 2005 peace agreement with the Pakistan government was still intact and he wasn’t considered such a big threat. However, lately the Pakistani authorities have blamed him for most of the suicide bombings taking place in the country.

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Pakistan needs more than just an election

February 14, 2008

In The Spectator, Stephen Schwartz writes that in this failing state, the ballot box is also a tinderbox. Even if Monday’s elections do go ahead, Pakistan might well end up in a worse state than before: exporting terror, spawning confrontation and at war with itself:

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The most important country in the world right now faces the most dangerous election in recent times. The country is Pakistan, not America, and the elections for parliament take place this coming Monday. Policy experts speak of ‘failed states’, and Pakistan is just about as close to failure as it is possible for a state to be. That’s one reason the world will be watching on Monday. Another and more immediate reason for interest is the assassination at the end of last year of Benazir Bhutto, twice the country’s prime minister and the secularist leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

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Pre-election poll puts Bhutto party in the lead

February 11, 2008

An Associated Press report in International Herald Tribune:

The party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto is Pakistan’s most popular, while groups aligned with its president lag far behind, according to a survey released ahead of next week’s crucial elections. The survey, conducted last month for the U.S.-based Terror Free Tomorrow organization and released over the weekend, is the first since Bhutto was killed in a bomb and gun attack in December.

The survey also found that sympathy for al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and the Taliban has dropped sharply among Pakistanis.

Terror Free Tomorrow, which is based in Washington, D.C., is a not-for-profit organization that says it seeks to reduce support for international terrorism. Its bipartisan advisory board includes Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain.

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Some killings don’t get solved

February 10, 2008

John F. Burns in The New York Times:

Who killed Benazir Bhutto? How was it done? By bullet or bomb, or both? And who sent the killer – Islamic militants with links to Al Qaeda, rogue elements of the Pakistani Army, or political rivals in the election scheduled for Feb. 18?

Six weeks have passed since the assassination, and Pakistan seems no closer to a consensus on some of the most basic facts, making it ever more likely that the circumstances of Ms. Bhutto’s death will become grist for the political mills that grind remorselessly in that country, revitalizing the revenge and mistrust that have poisoned public life almost since the country’s founding in 1947.

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The boomerang effect

January 22, 2008

Editorial in the New York Times on President Pervez Musharraf’s failure to fight extremism, despite $10 billion in American aid since 9/11

For more than a decade, Pakistan’s powerful and secretive intelligence service has fueled a treacherous dynamic in South Asia by supporting Islamic militants in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Now comes the distressing, but not surprising, news that the ISI, or Inter-Services Intelligence, has lost control of some of these Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked networks. The militants have turned on their former patrons and helped carry out a record number of suicide attacks inside Pakistan in 2007, including possibly the one that killed Benazir Bhutto.

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Taliban revival in Peshawar

January 20, 2008

Jane Perlez in The New York Times

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PESHAWAR, Pakistan – For centuries, fighting and lawlessness have been part of the fabric of this frontier city. But in the past year, Pakistan’s war with Islamic militants has spilled right into its alleys and bazaars, its forts and armories, killing policemen and soldiers and scaring its famously tough citizens.
There is a sense of siege here, as the Islamic insurgency pours out of the adjacent tribal region into this city, one of Pakistan’s largest, and its surrounding districts.
The Taliban and their militant sympathizers now hold strategic pockets on the city’s outskirts, the police say, from where they strike at the military and the police, order schoolgirls to wear the burqa and blow up stores selling DVDs, among other acts of violence.

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Pakistan Struggles Against Militants Trained by Agency

January 15, 2008

Pakistani militants have turned against their trainers, write Carlotta Gall and David Rohde in the New York Times

Pakistan’s premier military intelligence agency has lost control of some of the networks of Pakistani militants it has nurtured since the 1980s, and is now suffering the violent blowback of that policy, two former senior intelligence officials and other officials close to the agency say.

As the military has moved against them, the militants have turned on their former handlers, the officials said. Joining with other extremist groups, they have battled Pakistani security forces and helped militants carry out a record number of suicide attacks last year, including some aimed directly at army and intelligence units as well as prominent political figures, possibly even Benazir Bhutto.

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Musharraf: ‘Pakistanis know I can be tough’

January 15, 2008

Newsweek

Fareed Zakaria talks to President Pervez Musharraf

Since Benazir Bhutto‘s assassination weeks ago, Pakistan has been plunged into one of the worst crises in its history. President Pervez Musharraf, having recently given up control of the nation’s army, remains firmly in charge and as reluctant as ever to share power, despite a rising tide of criticism. He spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Fareed Zakaria from his camp office in Rawalpindi. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What do you make of reports that the United States is thinking about launching CIA operations in Pakistan with or without Pakistan’s approval?
Pervez Musharraf:
We are totally in cooperation on the intelligence side. But we are totally against [a military operation]. We are a sovereign country. We will ask for assistance from outsiders. They won’t impose their will on us.

How do you take Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that the United States and Britain help Pakistan secure its nuclear weapons?
Does she know how secure [the weapons] are and what we are doing to keep them so? They are very secure. We will ask if we need assistance. Nobody should tell us what to do. And I’d ask anyone who says such things, do you know how our strategic assets are handled, stored and developed—do you know it?

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In Pakistan, deep distrust and one question: Is democracy possible?

January 14, 2008

Indian Express

Rarely has anyone in public life lost popularity as rapidly as Musharraf, reports Tavleen Singh from Lahore

Will there be an election in Pakistan on February 18? They ask this question in Lahore’s bazaars awash still with fraying posters of Benazir Bhutto and they ask it in Lahore’s drawing rooms where all conversation these days is about politics. There is distrust in the question and a sad sort of resignation.

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