MS Risk Blog

A Brief History of Major Incidents During the Hajj

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More than 1.75 million worshippers from 168 countries arrived in Saudi Arabia this week for the five-day ritual, which is a once-in-a-lifetime religious duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it.

All the pilgrims will arrive by Thursday morning at Mount Arafat, about 15 km (10 miles) east of Mecca, for a day-long vigil to atone for their sins and seek God’s mercy. The Eid al-Adha, or feast of the sacrifice, starts on Friday.

Saudi Arabia stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam’s holiest sites — Mecca and Medina — and organising the pilgrimage. Officials say they have taken all necessary precautions this year, with more than 100,000 members of the security forces and 30,000 health workers on hand to maintain safety and provide first aid. Security services are also on high alert for terrorist activity, however, they state that so far, no plots have been detected.

The world’s largest annual gathering of Muslims has in the past seen deadly stampedes, fires and riots, with authorities sometimes struggling to respond.

The Largest disaster occurred on 24th September 2015. Over 2000 pilgrims were killed in a crush and stampede incident in Mina. The Saudi Interior Ministry stated that the stampede was triggered when two large groups of pilgrims intersected from different directions onto the same street. The area was not previously identified as a dangerous bottleneck despite being positioned between two camps. Pilgrims from 42 countries were killed, with the most victims coming from Iran.

Between 2001 and 2006 approximately 614 people were killed in other stampede-related incidents, most occurring during the stoning ritual in Mina.

In 1997, a fire erupted, allegedly caused by exploding canisters of cooking gas, killing around 300 people, although the death toll has never been confirmed. The fire was fanned by winds of nearly 40 miles per hour (64 km/h) causing the destruction of an estimated 70,000 tents. Officially, 1,290 were injured and 217 killed, though witnesses and local newspapers claimed at least 300 were killed, many trampled in the panic. The fire was fought by three hundred fire engines as well as helicopters, and controlled in three hours. The tents are now fire-proof.

In 1987, a clash between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi Arabian security forces resulted in the death of around 400 people. During the Hajj, Iranian pilgrims began a demonstration against the “enemies of Islam” – including the US and Israel. At some point, the protest march was blocked by Saudi riot police and was diverted towards the Great Mosque. At this point, individuals nearby began harassing the demonstrators, throwing bricks and stones. The violence escalated and resulted in a violent clash with security forces, who reportedly used truncheons and electric prods, whilst the demonstrators were armed with knives and clubs. Saudi security personnel reportedly opened fire on the demonstrators, a charge which Saudi officials deny. The rioting, and the resulting stampede caused a reported 402 dead (275 Iranians, 85 Saudis including policemen, and 42 pilgrims from other countries) and 649 wounded (303 Iranians, 145 Saudis and 201 other nationals). The details are controversial. Iranian officials maintain that the Saudis had fired on the protesters without provocation, and that the demonstrations had been peaceful. Saudi officials insist that no shots were fired, and that all deaths were caused by the melee and stampede.

Eid al-Adha is the commemoration of Abraham’s dedication to God, through the readiness to sacrifice his son. It is the most sacred holiday of the Muslim faith. Abraham and his son later built the Kaaba as a site of worship for God. God commanded Abraham to proclaim a pilgrimage to the site to all mankind so that they can come together in one place to show their devotion to God.

Southeast Asian States Vow to Work Together to Combat “Growing” Militant Threat

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Southeast Asian countries have announced that they will cooperate more closely with intelligence and law enforcement authorities from the Middle East amidst “grave concerns” about an elevated threat from the so-called Islamic State (IS) group in the region.

Late last month, representatives from four Southeast Asian nations, along with Australia and New Zealand met in the Indonesian city of Manado to develop a response to the increased danger posed by IS, which has been highlighted in recent months by the occupation of parts of the southern Philippines city of Marawi by militants who have pledged allegiance to the terror group. The battle has sparked fears that as IS continues to suffer setbacks in Iraq and Syria, it is seeking to create a new stronghold in the region, buttressed by Southeast Asian fighters who are returning from the Middle East and by other militants who have been inspired by the group and by the Marawi conflict.

A joint statement released by the participants described the regional threat from Islamist militants as growing and rapidly evolving, with the countries calling for enhanced information sharing, as well as cooperation on border control, deradicalisation, law reform and countering Islamists’ prolific use of social media to plan attacks and lure recruits.

The meeting was co-hosted by Indonesia and Australia, with the other participants being Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and New Zealand. The main initiative was a law enforcement dialogue to be co-hosted by the Indonesian and Australian police forces in August brining together key stakeholders affected by IS. Two senior law enforcement sources at the Manado meeting have disclosed that countries from the Middle East, including Turkey, would attend the summit in order to kick off cooperation across the two regions.

IS has a dedicated military unit that is made up of hundreds of Southeast Asian fighters in Syria and Iraq and led by Indonesian militant Bahrumsyah. According to Indonesian police, there are 510 Indonesian supporters of IS in Iraq and Syria, including 113 women. About twenty Islamist fighters from Indonesia are believed by counterterrorism authorities to be fighting in Marawi, which is a predominately Muslim city on the Philippines Island of Mindanao that has been a hotbed of Islamist unrest for decades and a magnet for militants from around the region. One of the leaders of the militants in Marawi is a Malaysian Islamic studies lecturer, Ahmad Mahmud, who arranged financing and the recruitment of foreign fighters.

While the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is the multilateral regional forum made up of ten nations, has long had a framework for cooperation on combating violent extremism, analysts and officials have stated that coordination has been poor. A report released late last month from the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict identified “formidable obstacles” to greater cooperation between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines – all of which are the front-line states that are facing the Islamist threat in Southeast Asia. According to the report, “these include the deep-seated political distrust between the Philippines and Malaysia that impedes information sharing; concern from Indonesia and Malaysia police about mixed loyalties of local counterparts in Mindanao, especially given clan and family links; and institutional disjuncture’s that give the lead in counter-terrorism to the police in Indonesia and Malaysia but to the military in the Philippines.”

After more than two months of intense fighting, IS-aligned militants continue to control part of Marawi. Over 600 people have been killed in the fighting, including 45 civilians and 114 members of the security forces, with the government reporting that the remaining figure is composed of the militants.

Poland Considering Demanding Germany Pay WWII Reparations

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Poland is in the process of considering whether to ask for reparations from Germany for damage caused during the Second World War.

According to an MP with the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, an analysis of whether the Eastern European country can make a claim is being prepared by the research office at the country’s parliament. Arkadiush Mularczyk, the politicians who requested the report, disclosed that he expects it to be ready by 11 August.

News of the move comes after the leader of the Law and Justice party disclosed last week that conversations were being held about the amount Germany could owe. Speaking to a radio station, Jaroslaw Kaczynski disclosed, “we are talking here about huge sums, and also about the fact that Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for World War II.”

On 1 August, Poland marked the anniversary of the start of 1944’s Warsaw Uprising, which led to the deaths of 200,000 Poles and the near destruction of the capital city. Nearly six million Polish citizens are estimated to have died during the conflict, with a huge amount of damage being caused across the country. Many churches and other cultural treasures were destroyed as entire cities were laid to waste.

US Official: 2000 IS Fighters Remain in Raqqa

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A senior United States official reported this month that some 2,000 Islamic State (IS) militants remain in the Syrian city of Raqqa, amidst an offensive to recapture the group’s stronghold. IS seized control of Raqqa in 2014, proclaiming it the capital of a “caliphate.”

According to Brett McGurk, special envoy for the coalition against IS, US-backed forces have seized about 45% of Raqq since the operation started in June, adding that the group is now fighting for its own survival and that the militants are likely to die in the city.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been gradually advancing on the city since November, and launched an offensive to take it on 6 June. While it currently remains unclear how many civilians are still in the city, the United Nations has estimate that the figure is between 20,000 and 50,000.

The loss of Raqqa would be another major setback for IS after the jihadist group was driven from its main Iraqi bastion of Mosul in July. According to Mr McGurk, the militants have also lost 78% of the territory they held in Iraq and 58% of what they had in Syria, adding, “today in Raqqa, ISIS (IS) is fighting for every last block…and fighting for their own survival…They most likely will die in Raqqa.’

More than 300,000 people have lost their lives in six years of conflict in Syria, which began with protests against President Bashar al-Assad before escalating into a full-scale civil war. Eleven million people have been displaced by the fighting.

Aid Groups Divided Over Italy’s New Migrant Rescue Rules

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According to the Italian Interior Ministry, five aid groups that operate migrant rescue vessels in the Mediterranean Sea have refused to sign up to the Italian government’s code of conduct, with three other aid groups backing the new rules.

The Italian coastguard has reported that charity boats have become increasingly important in rescue operations, picking up more than a third of all migrants brought ashore so far this year against less than one percent in 2014. Italy however is now becoming increasingly concerned that the groups are facilitating people smuggling from North Africa and are encouraging migrants to make the perilous passage to Europe. It has therefore proposed a code containing around dozen points for the charities, with the ministry disclosing that those who refused to sign the document had put themselves “outside the organized system of sea rescues, with all the concrete consequences that can have.” This statement comes after Italy last month threatened to shut its ports to NGOS that did not sign up. An Interior Ministry source however has since stated that in reality those groups would face more checks from Italian authorities.

One of the aid groups that has refused to sign the code is Doctors Without Borders (MSF). While it has taken part in many of the rescues of some 95,000 migrants brought to Italy this year, and attended a meeting at the Interior Ministry, MSF objected most strongly to a requirement that aid boats must take migrants to a safe port themselves, rather than transferring people to other vessels, which effectively allows smaller boats to stay in the area for further rescues. In a letter to Interior Minister Marco Minniti, MSF Italy’s director Gabriele Eminente disclosed “our vessels are often overwhelmed by the high number of (migrant) boats…and life and death at sea is a question of minutes.” He continued that “the code of conduct puts at risk this fragile equation of collaboration between different boats,” adding that MSF still wanted to work with the ministry to improve sea rescues. Germany’s Sea-Watch, Sea-Eye and Jugend Rettet as well as France’s SOS Mediterranee have abstained. MSF, SOS Mediterranee and Jugend Rettet have also called for clarity on the rules and took issue with a clause in the code, which would oblige groups to accept police officers on board. Jugend Rettet coordinator Titus Mokenbur disclosed, “for us the most controversial point…was the commitment to help the Italian police with their investigations and possible take armed police officers on board,” adding “this is antithetical to the humanitarian principles of neutrality that we adhere to, and we cannot be seen as being part of the conflict.”

Save the Children has given its backing to the code, stating that it already complied with most of the rules and would monitor closely to be sure that applying them did not obstruct their work. After the meeting, Save the Children Italy director Valerio Neri disclosed, “we would not have signed if even one single point would have compromised our effectiveness. This is not the case, not one single point of the code will hinder our activities.” Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) and Spanish group Proactiva Open Arms have also agreed to the conditions.