Pakistan and the Islamist challenge
By A H Nayyar & Zia Mian
The motives of Al-Qaeda by Rizwan Tahir Khan
Why the U.S. should leave Afghanistan by Terrell E. Arnold
Obama quotes Muslim Holy Scripture
Satanic Verses' polarising untruths by Lawrence Pollard
Italy: Rome Grand Mosque shuns meeting of radical mosques
The Saharan Conundrum by NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE
Compiled by New Age Islam News Bureau
Pakistan fighting for survival against Taliban: Zardari
14 Feb 2009, 1249 hrs IST, IANS
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan is fighting a war for its survival against the Taliban, who have a presence in large parts of the country, President Asif Ali Zardari has said.
"Taliban want to overtake the state of Pakistan," he told a US TV channel. "It is indispensable to halt the rising influence of Taliban by using force as they desire to change our living style."
The interview will be broadcast Sunday.
Noting that the military was backing the government in its war against terrorism along the country's restive border with Afghanistan, Zardari said that but for this the Taliban would have overrun Islamabad.
Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani Friday jointly presided over a high-level meeting to review the situation in tribal areas and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and decided to continue the military operation against Taliban militants in the turbulent Swat valley to re-establish the government's writ.
"The meeting expressed satisfaction over the way the fight against militancy was proceeding and vowed to continue the campaign till the eradication of militancy and complete restoration of the writ of the government," Dawn reported Saturday.
Pakistani Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, ISI Director General Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, NWFP Governor Owais Ahmed Ghani provincial Chief Minister Haider Khan Hoti and Asfandyar Wali Khan, who heads the province's ruling Awami National Party, were among those who attended the meeting.
The meeting was informed that the government would install jammers in Swat to block FM radio transmissions being used by militants for anti-government propaganda and for sermons inciting the people to attack the security forces.
"The meeting was of the view that the government had no other option but to root out terrorism and militancy from the region," Dawn said.
"The absence of options makes the choice abundantly clear," Zardari said.
Lauding the role of the armed forces in the region, Zardari said: "Many of them have laid down their lives and many others have been injured in the line of duty. They are our heroes."
Dawn added: "The meeting also praised the courage of local people for standing up to the militants and refusing to abandon their homes and land."
News roundup: "60 Minutes" looks at Pakistan's fight against Taliban; Fox News explores stimulus package; Sunday morning guests
posted by halboedeker on Feb 13, 2009 5:22:13 PM
The weekend news menu features a Fox News special, a "60 Minutes" reports on Pakistan and Sunday morning talk about the economy.
Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan's next president, tells CBS' "60 Minutes" that his country had ignored the threat of the Taliban for years and is now fighting for survival because of that mistake. Steve Kroft conducts the interview, which can be seen at 7 p.m. Sunday on WKMG-Channel 6. (Zardari, right, is pictured meeting U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke on Tuesday in Islamabad.)
Fox News Channel presents "Trillion With a T: How to Spend $1,000,000,000,000.00," about the stimulus legislation, at 10 p.m. Saturday. Bret Baier hosts the special. The speakers include Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.; Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.; and Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union.
The economy and stimulus package will be discussed on Sunday morning programs. Here are the guests:
CBS' "Face the Nation" welcomes Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.; Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.; and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. The program airs at 10:30 a.m. on WKMG-Channel 6.
CNN's "State of the Union" features Gibbs and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The program starts at 9 a.m.
ABC's "This Week" features Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.; Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif.; and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. The round-table discussion brings together George Will, Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts and Donna Brazile. The program airs at 11 a.m. on WFTV-Channel 9.
NBC's "Meet the Press" talks to Obama senior adviser David Axelrod. The round-table discussion brings together Ron Brownstein, Eugene Robinson, Roger Simon and Kimberley Strassel. The program starts at 9 a.m. on WESH-Channel 2.
"Fox News Sunday" also features Axelrod. Economic analysis comes from Google Chariman Eric Schmidt and Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Economy.com. The program airs at 9 a.m. on WOFL-Channel 35.
Pakistan and the Islamist challenge
A H Nayyar & Zia Mian
The murderous assault on Bombay by Islamist militants, at least some of whom were from Pakistan, has exposed once again the grave danger that radical Islamist movements pose to Pakistan, its neighbors, and the world. The urgent challenge now is for Pakistan and its neighbors, together with the international community, to work together to confront the risk of Pakistan spiraling into chaos and collapse. Ten years ago, the political thinker and activist Eqbal Ahmad wrote that “conditions for revolutionary violence have been gathering in Pakistan since the start in 1980 of the internationally sponsored Jihad in Afghanistan.” He argued that “revolutionary violence in Pakistan is likely to be employed by religious and right-wing organizations which have not set theoretical or practical limits on their use of violence.” He then warned that Pakistan “is moving perilously toward a critical zone from where it will take the state and society generations to return to a semblance of normal existence.
When such a critical point of hard return is reached, the viability of statehood depends more on external than internal factors.” Pakistan’s leaders have failed for a decade to heed this warning. Sadly, the recognition of the need to act against the Islamist violence that now imperils Pakistan has come not from the terrible war that jihadi groups have unleashed on state and society, wreaking havoc from remote border areas to the heart of the capital city, targeting both the powerful and the powerless. It has come from external pressure. The Americans demanded action against the Islamists following the attacks of September 11, 2001. The attack on India’s parliament in December 2001, and the military crisis that followed, generated new demands for action. The 2005 attacks on London’s underground system and buses triggered further pressure. The list is long. The assault by Islamist militants on the people of Bombay in December 2008 is only the most recent, and it is unlikely to be the last. Pakistan’s western neighbors have also suffered. The Afghan Taliban who fled the U.S. invasion found sanctuary in the border areas of Pakistan. They now organize their resistance against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from the tribal areas and the province of Balochistan. The Afghan government has demanded Pakistan do more to halt these attacks. Iran also sees itself threatened by Pakistan based militants. Islamist militants of the radical Sunni group Jundallah, based in Balochistan, are said to be involved in attacks on Iran, including a recent suicide bombing. Seymour Hersh has claimed that Jundallah is supported by the United States as part of its covert war against Iran. Iranian officials have complained that Pakistan has not been cooperating in efforts to counter Jundallah. All these indicators point in the same direction: Pakistan’s failure to confront Islamic militants is a threat to itself, its neighbors, and the world.
The threat facing Pakistan is broad and deep. There is on the one hand the armed Islamist groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), its parent organization Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JD), and similar Pakistani groups, many originating in the Punjab, but with a presence in towns and cities across the country. They are radical Islamist nationalists with the goal of turning Pakistan into a fundamentalist Islamic state. They are opposed to the democratic process. Created by the Pakistani state as a proxy army to wage war with India over Kashmir, these groups oppose any peace process with India and seek to heighten the conflict. They see the United States and its allies as a threat to their ambitions.
Then there are the Taliban militants in the tribal areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. These are essentially local religious warlords who have established theocratic rule in their respective areas of influence, with unheard of brutalities and barbarism. While each Pakistani Taliban group has its own base in the respective tribal agency, they have organized themselves into the Tehrik-e- Taliban-e-Pakistan (the Taliban Movement of Pakistan). They are inspired by the Afghan Taliban, who were created by Pakistan in the 1990s as a proxy army to achieve Pakistani military and political ambitions in Afghanistan.
These groups have given sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda forces that fled Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion. They now fight alongside them against the United States and its allies in Afghanistan. They too consider themselves Pakistani nationalists. In the midst of the crisis triggered by the attacks on Bombay, Baitullah Masud, the leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan offered to have his men “fight alongside the army,” even under Pakistan army command, if India were to attack. The Pakistani Taliban militants offered a ceasefire in the tribal areas, and a Pakistani military spokesman described the militants as “patriotic.” These two movements, which Pakistan now needs to confront, are not necessarily separate. They represent two heads of the same monster. Many fighters in both groups were spawned in the madrassas and have been nurtured and sheltered by Pakistan’s mainstream Islamist political parties and missionary orders. The first generation of these groups – from the key leaders and activists to the model for their organization, strategy and tactics, their politics, and vision of success – were nurtured by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan in the war against the Soviet Union. In recent years, the Punjabi groups have taken shelter with and provided training to their Taliban brothers in the tribal areas as well as access to their networks in the towns and cities of Pakistan. Both groups are part of an even larger network that includes the Islamist sectarian militias in the country, hard-line activists in Pakistan’s mainstream Islamist political parties and organizations, and sympathizers in government institutions and across social classes.
Pakistan’s leadership has talked about the danger of the jihadi groups for a long time. As prime minister in 1999, Nawaz Sharif escaped an assassination attempt, Pervez Musharraf survived at least three attacks, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz survived at least one, and Benazir Bhutto was not that fortunate. And thousands of ordinary people have been killed, their names never reported. Regardless, the jihadi groups have endured and their leaders have flourished. The government of Asif Ali Zardari claims that the war against the jihadis is now Pakistan’s war (and, for Zardari, a personal war), and he has promised to wage this war with all the capacities of the state. But even today, not all in Pakistan seem convinced that confronting the jihadist movement is an urgent need for Pakistan’s survival as a democratic country. Some hardline nationalists, and even some on the left who are concerned more about defying the imperialist agenda, are resisting the external pressure to defeat the Islamists.
Why the U.S. should leave Afghanistan
By Terrell E. Arnold
Beginning early in the presidential election campaign last year, both candidates asserted that they would increase the heat in Afghanistan. Between 2001 and early 2009, military operation in that country, which so far have accomplished nothing, occupied virtually the entire Bush presidency and burned roughly $200 billion of the U.S. treasury.
So far over 500 Americans have been killed, along with 150 allies and thousands of Afghani people. Wounded and traumatized military and civilian personnel number in the tens of thousands. In the Pakistan phase of this campaign, begun late in the Bush term and now started in the Obama term, the U.S. has conducted at least 38 mainly drone raids, killing more than 150 people, few if any of whom are provably terrorists. With that the U.S. is now courting the enmity of 50 million Pushtun people who by agreement with Islamabad rule that region of Pakistan.
One would think that such a gruesome track record, coupled with the fact that the only result to date is that the Karzai Government controls the capital city of Kabul, while five or more heroin-financed drug lords control the countryside, would raise at least a few questions of utility. But no! Rising costs, declining prospects, and the fact that no outsider has ever won a war in Afghanistan be damned, the war will go on. Americans have a right to know why. Indeed, so does everybody else on the planet.
The truth is depressing. One of the earliest disfavours George W. Bush did for Americans was to crudely define the purposes of this war: He targeted his campaign on al-Qaeda, saying ""We will fight them over there so that we won't have to fight them over here."" That became the central Bush administration mantra of the War on Terrorism.
The Bush strategy slowly morphed into selected drone and manned flight bombings in north-western Pakistan, the region known as Waziristan. Although Bush claimed that Pakistan was an American ally, he and his team apparently saw no inconsistency in claiming an alliance while selectively killing the Pushtun people of Pakistan and other regional tribals in the ally's backyard.
Obama signed on to this strategy when he authorized a drone attack in Waziristan earlier this week. But the campaign narrative changed; all of a sudden the target was the Taliban, not al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
With that shift, the purposes of the war suddenly changed. The U.S. was no longer ostensibly fighting terrorism in Afghanistan. Instead, the Obama mission had become a fight against Islamic fundamentalism.
Somehow, overnight, the U.S. was thrust back to 2001. The new game is not precisely to throw the Taliban out. It is to keep them from coming back into power. Keeping them out of Afghanistan presumably would also limit the power and freedom of action of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
Just what is in this strategy for us? Let's look first at what the Taliban had done to deserve this awkward distinction. When the Soviet Union had enough of Afghanistan warfare and withdrew in defeat in 1989, the country experienced about five years of factional in-fighting and change, reasonably defined as political chaos. During that period the Taliban emerged as a force, first by being hired by Pakistan to protect or facilitate traffic through contentious regions like the Khyber Pass, and second by being supported spiritually, politically and financially by fundamentalist religious schools in Pakistan. The Taliban proved very effective, better motivated, organized and supported than anybody else, and they grew quickly as a power centre in Afghanistan's fragmented political environment. Then, in 1996, they took the country away from its U.S. and western supported, but weak, post-Soviet era government.
The Taliban, under their traditionalist leader Muhammad Omar, qualify as hard-core, strict constructionist Muslims. Among their first actions they forbade any provision of education to women. They also objected to opium and heroin production and shut down the industry throughout Afghanistan. But from a U.S./western point of view, their main sin on taking over the government in 1996 was to provide a safe-haven to Osama bin Laden.
In August 1998, al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists carried out brutal raids on U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. In fact, bin Laden's power base was then split between Sudan and Afghanistan, and that accounts for President Clinton's bold but largely ineffective U.S. missile strikes on reputed al-Qaeda targets in those two countries. The collateral damage, meaning the many civilian casualties, of the Clinton attacks was largely ignored in the U.S. But it is not unlikely that those two missile attacks were part of the motivation for the 9/11 events.
For the past seven years the U.S. has known loosely where Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda may be. So far, it has spent seven years, nearly $200 billion, over 500 American lives. 150 allied lives, and a good piece of its reputation on an as yet unsuccessful effort to bring them down.
One of the most popular images of official incompetence these days is that of the person who does the same thing over and over again while each time expecting different results. President Barack Obama seems to be trapped in this illusion. He is facing the most compelling of political fears: If he were to stop the war in Afghanistan and a major terrorist attack were to occur in the United States, his critics will be quick to say it was his fault.
As of now, for nearly three decades the U.S. has been variously devoted to bringing peace to Afghanistan. That has achieved little so far beyond returning the Afghan countryside to its drug producing overlords and permitting Afghanistan to supply 90% of the world's heroin. Yet it appears that the safest domestic political course for any but the boldest of American presidents is to continue this useless war.
However, the consequences of this war are mounting as the U.S. shreds it alliance with Pakistan and goads the Pushtun people into defending themselves. The U.S. simply does not have the military resources to deal with 50 million angry Pushtun people defending themselves at home in one of the remotest places on earth. The correct appreciation is to know not when we have lost but when we cannot win and back gracefully out of it.
The writer is the author of the recently published work, A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on rense.com.
The motives of Al-Qaeda
Rizwan Tahir Khan
What exactly is the Al-Qaeda? What is their motive? What do they want since they are not seeking territorial gains, than what are they trying to establish. Well. If one is to look intensively in to their motives. Their determination, efforts and energies are focused on just one point agenda that is the establishment of Shariat laws to bring the Muslims Ummah by adoption of this law on one common platform.
This Al-Qaeda group follows Salla Fiyya-or known as Salaf AS Saalih (The pious predecessors) who want s to reinforce their Islamic laws as practice by the pious predecessors presently there are many Muslim states in the world, rich in oil, who are Islamic but have divergent views on religion which according to this so called fundamentalist or Al-Qaeda group is not in total conformity with the Shariat Laws and thus is not acceptable to this group. As they follow the principles of the religious movement Salla Fiyya to re-inforce Islamic laws as practice by their fore fathers, although Saudi Arabia is to some extent follows the Wahabism, but it is not enough for this religious fundamentalist groups.
It may seem ironical but not many Muslim states are inclined towards enforcement of Shariat laws in their respective countries and have divergent views therefore the Muslim state remain divided on its enforcement. It is for the Muslim states to decide what laws they wish to incorporate in their constitution and country and no one group can should be allowed to challenge the writ of the State. The Al-Qaeda ir the fundamentalist groups therefore launched the massive movement of recruiting like minded people to their cause and did so via religious schools or Madarassas where young and venerable minds could be easily regimented for their movement. By way of funding they did reach out to religious leaders in various countries who furthered their cause, knowingly and unknowningly.
United States ironically gave impetus to this movement as no one knew or was interested in this group till 9/11. The fall of the twin towers somehow accelerated their cause as the reaction of the Americans was exactly as expected. Already this fundamentalist group was of the view that west was against Islam the very words uttered by former president George Bush “as these peoples”, Terrorist, evil doers and generalized at times in terminology “Axis of evil” and the utterance of the word “The CRUSADE” struck the right cord, as this is exactly what was needed by this group to unite all the worlds Muslim on one common platform to unite once again to fight these infidels. As crusade reminds one of the battle between the Christians and Muslims. As it is they were already spreading the word that the west is against Islam and the western countries are all out to obliterate Islam.
The more stringent measures adopted by United States by it actions in Iraq, threats of imposition of sanctions on Iran, drone attacks in Pakistan’s frontier areas , accelerated the movements of uniting various Muslim fundamentalist group under the banner of Al-Qaeda. Unknowingly the actions by United States cause ripples where masses rose in reactions and even turned against their state leaders whom they suspected of being close to the United States or were stooges imposed by the US. Unfortunately US foreign policy has been based on its arrogance as a super power with dual standards. US carried out intervention directly on indirectly in many Latin American countries in guise of defence of democracy and human rights. E.g. Chile 1973, Nicaragua in 1980, Grenada in 1983, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala amongst others. Though US did manage to secure their markets but at the cost of planting into powers, those who had little or no respect for democracy and were also violators of human rights. These double standard of the American foreign policy was already the basis of hatred of United States regarded as a bully all over the world.
Pakistan is caught in this quagmire as a frontline states in the war against terror, considered as a US ally for its role played in the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, already it was host to millions of Afghan refugees who fled the war and came across the border which was another reason why the fundamentalist groups incited all such vulnerable people. US must pay special attention to Pakistan and try to help Pakistan as it has got a large porous open border and thus has also become a victim of terrorist attacks.
United States must if at all it wants to see peace in this region, resolve the Kashmir issue at its earliest. If it wants to stop terrorism in the Muslim world it must settle the Palestine issue and focus on the development of infrastructure of all underdeveloped Muslim states and developing states, help to eradicate poverty , so that no terrorist group can recruit anyone under the garb of eradication of poverty. Balance of power has to be maintained in this region and US must not seen to be leaning towards India ( a Hindu state) which has its own vested interest in Pakistan and there are reasons to believe raw ‘s involvement in Balochistan. India wants to emerge as an Asia’s super power and is a close ally of Russia, and Pakistan is seen by Indian intelligence as a stumbling block in its ambition to be a super power.
The fact that the Al-Qaeda is looking for a place to establish itself for propagation of Salla Fiyya, India too should be aware that the Indian Hindus are idol worshippers and once Al-Qaeda manages to form its basis in this region they would not even spare India, therefore it is in the interest of the Indians to open their fist and join hands with Pakistan instead of blame game and get rid of the menace of terrorism from this region.
US must look deep into all aspects of these movements who is fanning and funding these terrorist groups and with what motives. And must come to the help of Pakistan in helping to flush out these terrorist in an amicable way acceptable to the government of Pakistan. Drone attacks are not helping at all but rather accelerating the determination of these groups.
—The writer is a former journalist and was assistant editor of women world magazine.
Obama quotes Muslim Holy Scripture
President Obama, speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast, quoted the hadith - oral traditions relating to the words and deeds of Mohammed - as Muslim concurrence with the Golden Rule.
Friday, February 13, 2009
Remarks of President Barack Obama National Prayer Breakfast As Prepared for Delivery
Good morning. I want to thank the Co-Chairs of this breakfast, Representatives Heath Shuler and Vernon Ehlers. I’d also like to thank Tony Blair for coming today, as well as our Vice President, Joe Biden, members of my Cabinet, members of Congress, clergy, friends, and dignitaries from across the world.
Michelle and I are honoured to join you in prayer this morning. I know this breakfast has a long history in Washington, and faith has always been a guiding force in our family’s life, so we feel very much at home and look forward to keeping this tradition alive during our time here.
It’s a tradition that I’m told actually began many years ago in the city of Seattle. It was the height of the Great Depression, and most people found themselves out of work. Many fell into poverty. Some lost everything.
The leaders of the community did all that they could for those who were suffering in their midst. And then they decided to do something more: they prayed. It didn’t matter what party or religious affiliation to which they belonged. They simply gathered one morning as brothers and sisters to share a meal and talk with God.
These breakfasts soon sprouted up throughout Seattle, and quickly spread to cities and towns across America, eventually making their way to Washington. A short time after President Eisenhower asked a group of Senators if he could join their prayer breakfast, it became a national event. And today, as I see presidents and dignitaries here from every corner of the globe, it strikes me that this is one of the rare occasions that still brings much of the world together in a moment of peace and goodwill.
I raise this history because far too often, we have seen faith wielded as a tool to divide us from one another – as an excuse for prejudice and intolerance. Wars have been waged. Innocents have been slaughtered. For centuries, entire religions have been persecuted, all in the name of perceived righteousness.
There is no doubt that the very nature of faith means that some of our beliefs will never be the same. We read from different texts. We follow different edicts. We subscribe to different accounts of how we came to be here and where we’re going next – and some subscribe to no faith at all.
But no matter what we choose to believe, let us remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate. There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. This much we know.
We know too that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to “love thy neighbour as thyself.” The Torah commands, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” In Islam, there is a hadith that reads “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists. It is, of course, the Golden Rule – the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.
It is an ancient rule; a simple rule; but also one of the most challenging. For it asks each of us to take some measure of responsibility for the well-being of people we may not know or worship with or agree with on every issue. Sometimes, it asks us to reconcile with bitter enemies or resolve ancient hatreds. And that requires a living, breathing, active faith. It requires us not only to believe, but to do – to give something of ourselves for the benefit of others and the betterment of our world.
In this way, the particular faith that motivates each of us can promote a greater good for all of us. Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times. This is not only our call as people of faith, but our duty as citizens of America, and it will be the purpose of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships that I’m announcing later today.
The goal of this office will not be to favour one religious group over another – or even religious groups over secular groups. It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely drew between church and state. This work is important, because whether it’s a secular group advising families facing foreclosure or faith-based groups providing job-training to those who need work, few are closer to what’s happening on our streets and in our neighbourhoods than these organizations. People trust them. Communities rely on them. And we will help them.
We will also reach out to leaders and scholars around the world to foster a more productive and peaceful dialogue on faith. I don’t expect divisions to disappear overnight, nor do I believe that long-held views and conflicts will suddenly vanish. But I do believe that if we can talk to one another openly and honestly, then perhaps old rifts will start to mend and new partnerships will begin to emerge. In a world that grows smaller by the day, perhaps we can begin to crowd out the destructive forces of zealotry and make room for the healing power of understanding.
This is my hope. This is my prayer.
I believe this good is possible because my faith teaches me that all is possible, but I also believe because of what I have seen and what I have lived.
I was not raised in a particularly religious household. I had a father who was born a Muslim but became an atheist, grandparents who were non-practicing Methodists and Baptists, and a mother who was sceptical of organized religion, even as she was the kindest, most spiritual person I’ve ever known. She was the one who taught me as a child to love, and to understand, and to do unto others as I would want done.
I didn’t become a Christian until many years later, when I moved to the South Side of Chicago after college. It happened not because of indoctrination or a sudden revelation, but because I spent month after month working with church folks who simply wanted to help neighbours who were down on their luck – no matter what they looked like, or where they came from, or who they prayed to. It was on those streets, in those neighbourhoods, that I first heard God’s spirit beckon me. It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose – His purpose.
In different ways and different forms, it is that spirit and sense of purpose that drew friends and neighbours to that first prayer breakfast in Seattle all those years ago, during another trying time for our nation. It is what led friends and neighbours from so many faiths and nations here today. We come to break bread and give thanks and seek guidance, but also to rededicate ourselves to the mission of love and service that lies at the heart of all humanity. As St. Augustine once said, “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”
So let us pray together on this February morning, but let us also work together in all the days and months ahead. For it is only through common struggle and common effort, as brothers and sisters, that we fulfil our highest purpose as beloved children of God. I ask you to join me in that effort and I also ask that you pray for me, for my family, and for the continued perfection of our union. Thank you.
Satanic Verses' polarising untruths
By Lawrence Pollard
It must be both the most talked about and the least read book of recent times. Since it came out in 1988 The Satanic Verses has seemed more a principle to be argued over than a book to discuss.
From the very first call for it to be banned - made by Indian MP Syed Shahabuddin - its critics have proudly announced they didn't have to read it to know it was wrong.
And anecdotally, as I have been sitting re-reading the book, many colleagues have come up and admitted they had either bought it but never opened it or started and given up. So what is it like?
The Satanic Verses is three stories, told in three styles, threaded together in one novel.
In the first story, two contemporary Indians fall out of an exploding aeroplane and survive. One seems to become an angel floating around London; the other grows horns and cloven hoofs.
In another story a poor Indian girl of great beauty, surrounded by butterflies, leads a pilgrimage of Muslim villagers into the Arabian Sea, where they drown.
And in the third, most controversial strand, a prophet founds a religion in the desert. Although this story makes up only 70 of the 550 pages of the novel, it is the part which provoked the furious reaction we now call the Satanic Verses controversy.
The story is inspired by an apocryphal incident in the life of the Prophet Muhammad called (in the West at least) the Satanic Verses.
These are verses of the Koran which Muhammad later retracted as incorrect and blamed on the prompting of Satan - rather than being revealed to him (as was the Koran proper) by the Angel Gabriel.
The issue is a controversial one for scholars and religious teachers and in basing part of his novel on the incident Rushdie knew he was dealing with potentially inflammatory material. So what did he do?
Rushdie created a prophet called Mahound. Living in a city built of sand, Mahound founds a radical religion as revealed to him by the Angel Gabriel.
Slowly, Rushdie introduces doubt over the nature of this revelation, until one of his disciples expresses his disillusion.
He "began to notice how useful and well timed the angel's revelations tended to be, so that when the faithful were disputing Mahound's views on any subject, from the possibility of space travel to the permanence of Hell, the angel would turn up with an answer, and he always supported Mahound".
Speaking at the time of publication, and before the fatwa, Rushdie said he'd gone to what he thought were enormous lengths to avoid confrontation.
"I had no intention to be disrespectful towards the religion itself or its founder," he said.
"I thought let's not call him Muhammad, let's not call it Mecca, let's not call it Islam, let's put it into a dream… how much further can you go before you say I am not trying to make a literal attack on Islam but a discussion about some of the themes which arise out of the religious experience."
Untruth, hallucination and dream
Elsewhere in the book characters have mystic visions, hallucinations and suffer doubt.
They live in Mumbai, in London, in the countryside, they suffer racism, violence, riot, terror - this is a broad canvas, on which many people are shown struggling with the stresses of immigration and of revelation.
But the echoes in the story of Mahound are what caused the trouble, being too close to the story of Muhammad's Satanic Verses for the comfort of some Muslims.
The book was not well-reviewed when it came out - and seemed to cause confusion. Bear in mind this was 1988, before the fall of communism and long before the so-called clash of civilisations between Islam and the West became the news of the day.
For Professor John Sutherland, critic and Booker prize judge, The Satanic Verses should now be seen as Rushdie's best novel, prophetic and the fruit of his obsession with on the one hand the magic of the Arabian Nights and on the other the literal truth claimed for the Koran.
"Rushdie is fascinated in the way that novels are true and the ways in which they become true through multiple untruths," he said.
"People looking for something offensive, heretical or blasphemous won't find it. It's not a diatribe, a calculated insult. It's an extremely good novel."
Indeed, the book is full of untruth, hallucination and dream - but it feels so real and convincing. There is a suggestion that just as writing is a great trick, so too is religion. A trick of language, like a novel.
But whether it was a good or a bad book soon seemed irrelevant, as it began to reframe debates over race relations and freedom of speech.
In a new book on the affair, the Indian-born British writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik argues that the row over The Satanic Verses led many British Muslims to define themselves as Muslims anew, and heralded a retreat from freedom of speech in the UK.
"I think the fatwa has been internalised in that there's a level of self-censorship now [and] care not to offend in a multicultural society which nobody had really thought about much prior to the Rushdie affair," he writes.
"The critics lost the battle but they've won the war."
Italy: Rome Grand Mosque shuns meeting of radical mosques
Rome, 13 Feb. (AKI) - Rome Grand Mosque's Islamic Cultural Centre has boycotted a meeting being organised by several radical mosques from northern Italy, in a move welcomed by Moroccan immigrants in the country.
"I welcome the decision...moderate Muslims are now more than ever before showing their determination not to comprise with extremists," said centre-right MP for the ruling People of Freedom party, Souad Sbai.
Sbai praised Rome Grand Mosque's director, Abdellah Redouane. "He is ranked among the principal figures representing moderate Islam," she said.
"The fact that out of 10 people invited to attend Saturday's meeting, not a single one is a woman shows how it has been organised by extremists," said Sbai, who is also president of the Moroccan Women's Association in Italy.
Italy's largest Muslim organisation, the Union of Islamic Communities of Italy, UCOII, was organising Saturday's meeting with the northern city of Milan's radical Viale Jenner mosque to be held at a Rome hotel.
At the time of Israel's 2006 July war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, UCOII sparked controversy when it published an ad in several Italian newspapers likening Israel's actions in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories to Nazi atrocities during World War II.
It was subsequently thrown out of the Consulta Islamica, a body set up by the government in 2005 to represent Italy's various Muslim groups.
The secretary-general Italy's Association of Moroccans, Mustafa Mansouri, said the organisers of the meeting should acknowledge that radical mosques and their preachers cannot claim to be representatives of most Muslims.
"These people and the Italian public need to understand that the so-called imams of these prayer halls cannot represent the Muslim community, given that only a minority attends," he said.
Italy's Association of Muslim Intellectuals is also boycotting Saturday's meeting.
"Apart from setting itself up as a national meeting on Islam in Italy, the project seems to be reinstating the legitimacy of organisations close to fundamentalist movements, firstly the Viale Jenner mosque," said association president Ahmad Gianpiero Vincenzo.
Rome's Grand Mosque is the only official mosque in Italy, although other makeshift prayer halls exist in various towns and cities. Muslim immigrants are eager for more mosques to be built, but have encountered opposition from local residents.
The Saharan Conundrum
By NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE, February 13, 2009
IN THE MONTHS AFTER 9/11, American forces in Afghanistan bombed the Taliban and, in vain, hunted for Osama bin Laden, while in Washington counterterrorism experts worried about “the next Afghanistan,” a safe haven where terrorists would train, test their weapons and organize attacks on the United States. These discussions produced a double-barrelled national-security strategy that dominated President George W. Bush’s tenure. The first element of the strategy was to identify and eliminate terrorist networks that already existed. The second was to prevent new networks from flourishing by promoting open, democratic societies that, the thinking went, would be less susceptible to Al Qaeda’s message than closed ones. Hard and soft power would be brought to bear on all the potential Afghanistans, while Afghanistan itself would be kept from regressing.
The list of candidates for the next Afghanistan was long. Just about every Muslim-majority country, or even those with sizable Muslim minorities, was considered suspect. Intelligence analysts fixed their attention on remote islands and jungles in the Philippines and Indonesia and on the rugged mountains of Pakistan’s tribal areas. Africa emerged as one of the greatest areas of concern, and the Sahel, a scrubby band of ungoverned terrain straddling Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa, proved especially troublesome. An Islamist government in Sudan was host to bin Laden for five years during the 1990s. In Algeria, an Islamist insurgency ultimately commanded by the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, better known by its French acronym, G.S.P.C., was entering its second bloody decade. And in Mauritania only 3.5 million people occupied an area the size of Texas and New Mexico combined, making it — despite decades of oppressive military rule — one of the least-controlled parts of the world.
The Sahel soon became a laboratory for the United States to test its policies in the “global war on terror.” In 2002, the State Department started the Pan-Sahel Initiative, a counterterrorism program that involved working with local militaries in Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania. In 2005, the program, in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development and the Pentagon, expanded under a new name to Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Special Forces operatives remain in some of the countries year-round to train local armies at battling insurgencies and rebellions and to prevent bin Laden and his allies from expanding into the region.
Things haven’t quite gone according to plan. Rebels still threaten to overrun the capital of Chad, and in Sudan the violence in Darfur became worse. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda established sanctuaries in the Sahel, and in 2006 it acquired a North African franchise. Terrorist attacks in the region increased in both number and lethality.
Almost since the war on terror began, the Bush administration has been criticized for lecturing the Iraqis and the Iranians about democracy while supporting authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Despite an avowed national-security strategy that prized both democratic values and killing terrorists, the emphasis almost always fell on the latter. But in some places at least, the administration’s approach to counterterrorism has undergone significant changes. As the terrorist threat appeared to change its nature, certain administration policy makers responded with a level of nuance rarely associated with George W. Bush.
Nowhere was this shift more evident than in Mauritania, where, last summer, a military coup toppled a democratically elected government. The generals justified the coup on security grounds. The United States responded by suspending its military aid even as the junta highlighted the threat it faced from Al Qaeda. A month after the coup, militants claiming to be associated with Al Qaeda ambushed a military convoy in northern Mauritania and killed 12 soldiers. Was the United States putting its commitment to democracy ahead of its commitment to fighting terrorists? Or was the war on terror changing, with the United States no longer seeing every jihadist franchise as an existential threat?
I. The Democracy Agenda
“I have always thought that democracy was our best antiterror weapon,” Mark Boulware, the American ambassador to Mauritania, told me when I met him in Washington last fall. Boulware arrived in Mauritania at an opportune time. In April 2007, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi became president after the country’s first transparent election. Cooperation with the United States on security issues immediately resumed, ending a two-year hiatus that followed a coup in 2005. With Abdallahi’s presidency, the Bush administration’s two dominant priorities, fighting terrorism and promoting democracy, appeared to dovetail perfectly.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte flew to Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, for Abdallahi’s inauguration ceremony. Months later, Bush invited Abdallahi to an intimate discussion among emerging democracies during the United Nations General Assembly meeting. Washington welcomed Mauritania into its Threshold Program, an anteroom to full membership in the Millennium Challenge Account — the flagship of the Bush administration’s approach to development aid, where funds became available only after countries achieved a certain score on a range of good-government indexes.
The democratic movement in Mauritania did not last long. Last August, Abdallahi’s generals overthrew him after he tried to fire them. The American partnership with Mauritania promptly collapsed. A high-tech American surveillance plane, which had been based in Mauritania to fly over the northern part of the country, searching for Al Qaeda training camps, was removed, as were the 80 or so Army and Marine Special Forces troops that were training a counterterrorism unit. The Threshold Program funds dried up, and Mauritania’s chances for membership in the Millennium Challenge Account disappeared.
“We were using Mauritania as an example of how countries should move forward with elections,” Dell Dailey, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, told me. Dailey served more than three decades in the army’s shadowy world of Special Operations, eventually leading such operations in Iraq and Afghanistan before joining the State Department in the summer of 2007. Dailey said the American message was simple: “When you hold elections, there are certain benefits, like assistance in security and law enforcement and economic development. The three pillars of trying to defeat terrorism and build a good society are development, good governance and security. In Mauritania, they were moving in that direction. The coup was extremely disappointing.”
The junta tried to convince the world otherwise, claiming that Abdallahi had been weak on terrorism. The new leaders said that, by legalizing an Islamist party and meeting with moderate Islamists to request help in challenging the growing militant Salafist movement in the country, Abdallahi paved the way for a string of terrorist attacks in Mauritania over the past two years. The military’s charges were ignored by Washington, however.
To this day, Washington considers Abdallahi the legitimate president of Mauritania. Two capitals coexist: one in Nouakchott, where Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz occupies the presidential palace; and one in Abdallahi’s hometown, Lemden, where he lives in internal exile. (On the anniversary of Mauritania’s Independence Day, Bush sent Abdallahi a congratulatory letter there.) Even the vocabularies used in the two capitals are different: Abdallahi and his supporters slip the words “democracy” and “election” into every sentence, while the junta talks about “terrorism” and “Al Qaeda” at every turn.
Now, the junta waits for President Barack Obama to give the country a fresh look. “We hope that your new president, a young man with the interests of Africa in mind, will be more understanding of our situation,” Mohamed Ould Moine, the minister of communication, told me.
II. The Franchise
When not pushing democracy, the Bush administration focused on finding and killing terrorists. Missiles from Predator drones were fired at militants in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. In the Sahel, counterterrorism officials faced people like Sidi Ould Sidna, a young Mauritanian who had a strange career as a foot soldier in an Al Qaeda affiliate. Sidna’s story demonstrates both how America’s jihadist adversaries have become more complicated than the Bush administration first envisioned and how, in the end, some figures on the administration’s counterterrorism team fashioned an unexpected response.
Late last year, I spoke to a number of sources in Mauritania and the United States, both inside and outside of government, about counterterrorism operations in the region and the activities of Al Qaeda associates there like Sidna. Many could not identify themselves in print because of the nature of their work, but from these interviews I was able to piece together a picture of jihadism in this part of the world.
Sidna grew up in a poor neighborhood of Nouakchott called Toujanine. When I went there one evening in December, I found kids playing soccer at dusk in a wide dirt road. Goats rummaged through trash that filled a ditch about five feet from the front door of Sidna’s home. According to friends, neighbors and relatives, Sidna had a reputation as a scrappy kid. “Sidi wasn’t a thief, because thieves rob you and run,” one childhood friend told me. “Sidi took your watch or your T-shirt right in front of you.” By his midteens, Sidna was smoking hashish, drinking wine and hanging out with an older crowd. He liked to dance and earned the nickname Lambada. Besides robbing people, he also stole cars. Friends and law-enforcement authorities claim that he was involved in multiple rapes.
But his conscience apparently caught up with him by his late teens. He joined a friend at a mahadra — an Islamic seminary — outside Nouakchott. He spent several months there and, like many restless young men in the region, grew fond of listening to jihadist audio recordings, particularly those of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Iraq’s Al Qaeda franchise, which circulated around the mahadra.
“Why Zarqawi?” I asked the friend who took Sidna to the mahadra. “What made his sermons appealing?”
“Everyone in the Muslim world wants to see American tanks blown up and their troops killed,” he said. “But bin Laden and Zarqawi were the only ones actually doing it. Sidna admired them for that.”
Sidna returned home to Toujanine a changed, yet no mellower, person. As part of his Zarqawi-fueled indoctrination, he adopted the ideology of takfir, or excommunication, which some extremists use to justify violence against non-believers. He began converting some of his fellow gang members into militant Salafists. Sidna ordered his sisters to cover their heads, patrolled the neighbourhood for unmarried couples walking together and spent long hours arguing with his father, a Sufi, during which times he called him an infidel. He told his younger brother that he wanted to wage jihad against the Americans. Then Sidna headed off to a training camp.
In the spring of 2006, Sidna traveled to a camp in northern Mali run by the G.S.P.C., the notorious Algerian-Salafi group. He prayed that those running the camp would send him to Iraq to fight against Americans. The invasion of Afghanistan followed by the one in Iraq, attracted young men from all over North Africa eager to wage jihad against the United States. Fernando Reinares, the director of a program on global terrorism at Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid, says G.S.P.C. camps served as one of the main conduits of foreign fighters into Iraq. “They recruited individuals at the local level, trained them and then sent them to Iraq,” he said. European police reported a growing number of G.S.P.C. cells in major cities. In 2002, authorities in Italy claimed to have disrupted a G.S.P.C. plot in Bologna to bomb the Basilica of San Petronio, which has a 15th-century fresco of the Prophet Muhammad being tormented by demons in hell.
Sidna was disappointed when he reached the camp. The G.S.P.C. was in the midst of an overhaul. He found that the group was no longer looking for able-bodied young men to dispatch to Iraq, in part because of American pressure on North African leaders to clamp down on the migration of jihadists to Iraq. But it was also by choice. Now the G.S.P.C. had a new mission, to recruit non-Algerian militants to spread jihad south of Algeria.
Sidna fit into the group’s plans perfectly. The G.S.P.C.’s finances couldn’t keep pace with its ambitions, however. So G.S.P.C. leaders reached out to Zarqawi, who, until he was killed by American forces in Iraq in June 2006, enjoyed not only name recognition but also a seemingly endless pile of money. With Zarqawi as matchmaker, the G.S.P.C. courted Al Qaeda itself. After lengthy negotiations, bin Laden’s deputy, the Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced the “blessed union” between the G.S.P.C. and Al Qaeda on Sept. 11, 2006. He declared that the merger would be “a bone in the throat of American and French crusaders.” Months later, the G.S.P.C. proclaimed its new name: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or A.Q.I.M.
A.Q.I.M. immediately set its sights on Mauritania. Not only was the country mostly vacant space and therefore a potential site for training camps, but as a close ally of the United States and one of only three Arab League states to maintain full diplomatic relations with Israel, it presented an easy propaganda target. The G.S.P.C. had already sent Khaddim Ould Semane, a Mauritanian militant, back to Nouakchott with instructions to establish a cell. Semane named his group Al-Ansar Allah al-Murabitun, the Army of Allah in the Lands of Murabitun. (Murabitun was the 11th-century Islamic empire in North Africa.) He would eventually become a leader of A.Q.I.M. in Mauritania. Sidna was sent back to Nouakchott with orders to stay on the lookout for possible targets. Sidna returned to Mauritania feeling frustrated, according to his younger brother, whom I spoke to in December. Sidna knew how to shoot a gun (having served a year in the Mauritanian army), had an extensive background in theft and showed the vigor of a fundamentalist. But if he wanted to be part of Al Qaeda, he would have to earn the privilege.
Eight months after Abdallahi’s election established Mauritania’s democratic credentials and won it new support in the West, Sidna struck. On Christmas Eve 2007, Sidna, now 21, and two accomplices decided to stalk five French tourists just outside the town of Aleg, 150 miles east of Nouakchott. The French were picnicking in the shade of a tree around lunchtime when, authorities charge, Sidna or one of his accomplices opened fire with a Kalashnikov and killed four of them. The militants hopped into hired cars and escaped. After a three-week manhunt, through Senegal, Gambia and finally Guinea-Bissau, French intelligence agents arrested them.
On the day of his extradition to Mauritania, Sidna looked more like a club kid than a terrorist: blue jeans, brown leather jacket, clean-shaven. As he strutted past a battery of cameramen while walking toward the tan DC-3 waiting to fly him back to Nouakchott, he stared into one camera and said, “Guinea-Bissau will pay dearly for mistreating God’s warriors.” The tape played on Mauritanian television and radio for days.
Sidna escaped from prison three months later. He hid in a two-story villa that had been rented by Semane in an upscale neighbourhood of Nouakchott. It was painted yellow with a white railing that wrapped around the upstairs porch. Inside, a handful of terrorists had amassed weapons, explosives and suicide belts. The day before Sidna arrived; they stole a car and parked it in the garage. (They didn’t know it, but the car was being used by Mauritania’s ambassador to the United States.)
Days after Sidna’s jailbreak, the police responded to a tip and encircled the yellow house. The militants shot and killed one policeman, sparking an intense gun battle that pockmarked the villa. The sound of automatic weapons resounded through Nouakchott’s usually placid streets. After 15 minutes, the terrorists piled into the ambassador’s car. Sidna filled ammunition clips in the backseat while Semane drove and others sat on the ledges of the open windows. As the garage door opened, the car burst out, broke through the police cordon and raced down the dirt roads. A terrorist was shot and fell out of a car window. But Sidna, once again, had disappeared.
Police arrested him three weeks later. On the day he was brought before the court, Sidna taunted the judge, shouting, “Our martyrs are in heaven, yours are in hell.”
The Algerian leader of A.Q.I.M. later said that Sidna and his companions were “connected” with his group, although the murder in Aleg, at least, seemed to bear Sidna’s personal stamp more than that of Al Qaeda or its North African franchise. “This is the shape of the future for Al Qaeda — free agents laying claim to the mantle of ideological coherence, all of which goes under the name of Al Qaeda,” said Mike McGovern, a professor at Yale University and former West Africa director for the International Crisis Group, an independent research and advocacy group.
III. End of the War As We Know It?
Are legions of these “free agent” jihadis, operating loosely in the name of Al Qaeda, more worrying or less worrying than a centralized Al Qaeda? Western intelligence agencies no longer agree on the nature of the threat. The Europeans generally consider A.Q.I.M. a far greater danger than do the Americans. This past fall, Germany’s intelligence service stated publicly that A.Q.I.M. had established training camps in the desert of north-eastern Mauritania, in addition to those already present in Algeria and Mali. But when I asked one American counterterrorism official about the claim, he sniggered. “What are we calling a training camp?” he said. “Guys shooting small firearms? That happens at the local skeet range. A training camp suggests a level of organizational structure that I don’t think is there.”
In the early years after 9/11, scare-mongering about Al Qaeda dominated counterterrorism analysis in the United States. Almost anyone who partook in violence within the general confines of the Islamic world was tagged as a potential member of Al Qaeda, regardless of whom or what they were fighting for.
But political and religious violence in the Sahel usually had nothing to do with militias fighting for Shariah or bidding to join Al Qaeda. More often than not, the fighting involved long-running territorial disputes; ethnic, clan or tribal quibbles like those constantly plaguing Chad; and Muslims fighting Muslims, seen most vividly in Darfur. It is difficult to isolate and identify the extent to which Islam does or doesn’t play into each instance of violence in the Muslim world.
There is little question that A.Q.I.M. is composed of anti-American Islamic militants, but some regional experts stress that this doesn’t mean they take orders or receive money from bin Laden — or pose a serious threat to American security. What, if any, are the entitlements of membership in the Al Qaeda franchise? I asked Dell Dailey, the counterterrorism coordinator at the State Department, what the G.S.P.C. gained by changing its name to A.Q.I.M. He told me that when A.Q.I.M. members joined with Al Qaeda they received a “burst of money, maybe a couple of hundred thousand dollars, which allowed them to knock out a few early suicide bombings with a strong Al Qaeda flavour.” The string of lethal attacks included explosions aimed at government buildings and naval barracks, and the bombing of a United Nations building in Algeria that killed more than 40 people, including, for the first time, a large number of foreigners. Dailey added, “Once they jumped on the A.Q. name, they showed an internationalist choice of targets that G.S.P.C. just hadn’t done before.”
Once they had spent the initial infusion of money, however, A.Q.I.M. reverted to its former ways. These methods included car theft, credit-card fraud, smuggling and kidnapping. Jean-Luc Marret, a fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris who is also affiliated with Johns Hopkins University’s Centre for Transatlantic Relations, said that A.Q.I.M.’s fund-raising “is not about Saudi banking and global Islamic N.G.O.’s, but small, encrusted cells, trabendo (contraband) and petty smuggling.”
Dell Dailey said that A.Q.I.M.’s impulse to indulge in criminal activities is partly born out of the fact that they “can’t connect to the central branch anymore,” which affects personnel and finances. Not only are “raw recruits” like Sidna less able to get to Iraq or Afghanistan, but as an organization, Dailey told me, Al Qaeda is more constrained now. “They can’t move, communicate, recruit and post money as successfully as they could in the early days after 9/11,” he said. “We have given Al Qaeda too much credit from 9/11 onwards. We have embellished them more than they deserve.”
But just because aspiring militants in Algeria, Morocco or Mauritania might find it tougher to buy a plane ticket to Amman and slip across the border into Iraq doesn’t mean their grievances have disappeared. With, in the words of one American military official, “the demand signal [for jihadists] way down in Iraq,” there appears to be a reverse migration of North African fighters coming home to join A.Q.I.M. A result has been an injection of free-agent militants into the Sahel with crisscrossing loyalties, and no one is sure who is in command. There are even rumours of splits among the A.Q.I.M. leadership. “The A.Q.I.M. folks in northern Mali are not a monolithic group,” the official, who is a specialist in North Africa, told me. “Are the Mauritanians part of A.Q.I.M.? The debate remains unresolved. Some of them are taking orders directly from A.Q.I.M. Some have gone to the camps and then went back to Mauritania to start their own franchise. And there’s some home-grown factor. In Mauritania you see all of it.”
IV. The Attack
In early September, a month after the coup, top Mauritanian army officials learned that five vehicles carrying A.Q.I.M. fighters had crossed from northern Mali into Mauritania and were racing across the desert toward Zouerate, an iron-mining town about 500 miles north of Nouakchott. Zouerate is the heart of Mauritania’s economy. Iron accounts for almost half of the nation’s exports. Any disruption in Zouerate’s daily routine could cripple the country. A hastily organized government patrol — composed of 4 light-brown Land Cruisers, 19 soldiers, an officer, a civilian guide and 2 .50-caliber mounted machine guns — headed into the desert to take on the militants.
“Al Qaeda wants to destabilize our country,” Col. Mohamed Ould El Hadi, Mauritania’s director of national security, told me last month in his office in Nouakchott. It has had considerable success already. Even though A.Q.I.M.’s attacks have been less grand in scale than the bombing of the United Nations building in Algiers in December 2007, its Mauritanian operations have proved more debilitating. The murder of the four French tourists in late 2007, followed by a gun assault on the Israeli Embassy in Nouakchott in early 2008, dealt a devastating blow to the tourism industry. Not two weeks after the French tourists were killed, organizers of the annual Paris-Dakar Rally, whose route normally covers a considerable stretch of Mauritania, cancelled the race. (The 2009 rally relocated to South America.) Some estimate that the number of tourists who visit Mauritania is down by half.
No one in the patrol sent from Zouerate had received American counter-terrorism training, and they soon went from hunters to hunt. Shortly after dark, they discovered a line of fresh tire tracks in the sand — made by A.Q.I.M. fighters, who had camped on a dune in the distance. The patrol motored up the tracks while the militants watched the headlights bounce over the dunes. The militants waited as the lights grew brighter and the whine of the engines of the Land Cruisers grew louder. The lead vehicle had just climbed into view when A.Q.I.M. opened fire.
Initial reports suggested that A.Q.I.M. had kidnapped the soldiers. Hoping to stop the terrorists before they returned to their sanctuary in northern Mali, the Mauritanian military asked the United States for help. The Americans refused, reaffirming the position that the junta should restore Abdallahi first.
Two days after the ambush, while the U.S. Embassy was still refusing to assist the ruling junta and the search for the missing soldiers continued, A.Q.I.M. issued a communiqué. The group boasted of a “new attack in the city of Zouerate in northern Mauritania against those who obey the Jews.” The communiqué went on, “By God’s grace, the brigades of Mujahideen set an ambush for the army of unbelief and apostasy that managed to take 12 soldiers prisoner, including a commander by the rank of captain . . . while the rest of Allah’s enemies escaped, fleeing their failure and defeat.” The next day, a Mauritanian official told me, a search-and-rescue team moved to an area where vultures were circling overhead and found 12 bloated, naked corpses, lined up side by side. Three of them were booby-trapped with dynamite. All but one was beheaded.
At the end of its second term, the Bush administration’s strategy for the war on terror remained within the framework in which the war was first conceived — destroy terrorist networks and promote democracy — but the manner in which those principles were put into effect had clearly changed. Even someone like Dell Dailey, who was deeply involved for years in fighting terrorists with traditional military tactics, had come to reject the idea of embracing a military government in Mauritania just because of the presence of an Al Qaeda affiliate inside the country. In its final year, the Bush administration seemed to understand that, in places like Pakistan, it had created legions of enemies with its unflinching support for President Pervez Musharraf. It hoped to avoid doing the same thing in Mauritania, even as the junta, like Musharraf, decried the former civilian leaders as corrupt and weak on terrorism.
The Obama administration is continuing the recalibration of counterterrorism. President Obama has promised to close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently cautioned against the militarization of foreign policy. “Armed forces may not always be the best choice to take the lead,” he said during a speech in Washington in January, adding later that “we need to reallocate roles and resources in a way that places our military as an equal among many in government.” Similar themes have been echoed lately by the secretary of defence, Robert Gates, and others engaged in counterterrorism policy. The coup by the Mauritanian junta may have been badly timed. Part of the new strategic thinking in Washington involves being less optimistic about the power of militaries to solve political problems.
The war against Al Qaeda will undoubtedly continue, but a more nuanced analysis of Al Qaeda has led to a more nuanced approach to combating terrorism and a reconsideration of how the strategy that guided the war on terror in its early years should be put into effect. This is partly a result of new thinking in Washington and, according to security officials, partially a result of bin Laden’s questionable business model: the franchise. “Where G.S.P.C. was, to where A.Q.I.M. is today, I just don’t see the merger as a force multiplier for them,” a senior defence official familiar with Special Operations told me. The war on terror is being reconceived, and the result may not look very much like a war at all.