MENA ReportApril 25, 2013 in Egypt, Libya, MENA, Saudi Arabia, Terrorism, Tunisia, Yemen
Canadian Authorities Thwart Terror plot linked to al Qaeda in Iran
24 April: Canadian authorities foiled a potential threat and took two men into custody for plotting to destroy a Toronto passenger train. Chiheb Esseghaier of Montreal, and Raed Jaser of Toronto were charged with conspiring to interfere with transport facilities on behalf of a terrorist organisation and conspiring to commit murder.
According to officials, the men’s plot allegedly had support from al Qaeda’s network inside Iran, although there appeared to be no sign of state sponsorship. Iran has denied any links with the suspects.
In court in Montréal, Esseghaier, who declined representation by a court appointed lawyer, said “The conclusions were made based on acts and words which are only appearances.” In Toronto, a lawyer for Jaser said he would “defend himself vigorously.” Jaser’s lawyer also questioned the timing of the arrests, which occurred as the Canadian parliament debates an anti-terrorism bill which could reintroduce preventative detention and investigative hearings. Neither suspect entered a plea.
The investigation began following a tip from a concerned imam in the Toronto Muslim community, who feared that some youths in the city were being corrupted by extremists. The investigation was a collaborative effort between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). RCMP Cheif Superintendent Jennifer Strachan said that the alleged attack was “definitely in the planning stage but not imminent.” A spokesperson for VIA Rail, which operates passenger rail services across Canada, said the public was never in danger.
RCMP Assistant Commissioner James Malizia believes that the two suspects received “direction and guidance” from al Qaeda elements in Iran. Esseghair’s LinkedIn page briefly displayed an image of an al Qaeda’s flag which has been adopted by several AQ affiliates. The image has since been removed.
At the outset, the link between al Qaeda and Iran seems incompatible. Al Qaeda espouses a radical anti-Shia ideology that starkly contradicts the beliefs of the majority Shia Iran. However, a large number of high-ranking al-Qaeda figures live in Iran, having fled from Afghanistan in 2001 when US forces and the Northern Alliance headed towards Kabul to overthrow the Taliban government. Among those who are said to have fled to Iran are Osama Bin Laden’s son, Saad Bin Laden; and former security chief Saif al-Adel. The Iranian government never publicly acknowledged their presence, but the two were allegedly held under house arrest by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard.
According to US intelligence, Saif al-Adel’s father-in-law, Mustafa Hamid, is the link between al-Qaeda and the Iranian government. In the 1990s, Hamid “reportedly negotiated a secret relationship between Osama Bin Laden and Iran, allowing many al Qaeda members safe transit through Iran to Afghanistan.” The US believes that Hamid negotiated safe relocation to Iran for many high-ranking al-Qaeda members and their families in 2001. The AQ members and their families were restricted and watched by the Revolutionary Guard, but it is believed that some members were able to establish contacts with the al Qaeda network, raising funds and providing assistance unbeknownst to Iranian authorities. In 2009, and again in 2011, the US government added several Iran-based al Qaeda operatives to its list of global terrorists, including Mustafa Hamid, Saif al Adel, and Saad Bin Laden, who was later killed in a drone strike in Pakistan.
In February 2012, the US Treasury Department designated the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) “for its support to terrorist groups.” A press release from Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen said the designation was due to MOIS support for groups including al Qaeda, al Qaeda in Iraq, Hizballah and HAMAS, believing Iran to be involved in state-sanctioned terrorism. MOIS has provided terrorist operatives with documents, identification cards, passports and “provided money and weapons to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)…and negotiated prisoner releases of AQI operatives.” In 2012, Canada also severed diplomatic ties with Iran over the nation’s support for terrorist groups, as well as its nuclear programme.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi dismissed claims of the Canadian police linking the plotters to al Qaeda in Iran. “If the news that you are announcing is true, this is the most hilarious thing I’ve heard in my 64 year [sic],” Salehi said, calling al Qaeda in Iran as “a new fake issue and a really ridiculous word.” A spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry also commented, “No shred of evidence regarding those who’ve been arrested and stand accused has been provided.”
Bail hearings are yet to be set for the defendants.
Car Bomb Attack on French Embassy in Libya
23 April: A car bomb destroyed nearly half of the French Embassy in Libya, in the first significant attack on a Western target in Tripoli since the ousting of Ghadaffi in 2011. The bombing occurred at around 7 am local time, breaking windows, bursting a main water pipe, and damaging nearly two dozen buildings. Two French guards were injured, one critically, but most employees had not yet arrived.
Though no one has claimed responsibility, there are many speculations. The explosion came a day after the French Parliament voted to extend the deployment of those troops to neighbouring Mali, which has raised the anger of militants who are opposed to the intervention. Some Islamist militants also believe that Western powers are attempting to “seize the revolution” and rebuild Libya as a secular Western democracy.
French President François Hollande said in a statement that the bombing had been “aimed, by way of France, at all the countries of the international community engaged in the struggle against terrorism.” The Libyan government has vowed “to cooperate with all parties to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.”
Syria, 24 April: Chechen fighters in northern Syria have released two Orthodox bishops. Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim, head of the Aleppo Syriac Orthodox diocese, and Boulos Yaziji, head of the Aleppo Greek Orthodox diocese, were abducted on Monday. Ibrahim is known for mediating the release of kidnap victims, particularly in cases involving the kidnapping of Christians.
The bishops were on a mission to free two priests who had been kidnapped two months ago when they were stopped in their car by an armed group in the village of Kafr Dael, an Aleppo province near the Turkish border. The driver and another person were forced out of the vehicle, where the driver was killed by a gunshot to the head.
Syria’s religious affairs ministry issued a statement on Tuesday saying “there is evidence that those who kidnapped the bishops were Chechen mercenaries working under the leadership of Al-Nusra Front.”
The French “Oeuvre d’Orient” group said that the two victims were already at Saint Elias cathedral in Aleppo.
KUWAIT, 20 April: Two men kidnapped an Asian woman from Sulaibiya, taking her to an open ground and raping her. The suspects threw the victim out of the vehicle and fled. The woman, who was a housemaid, was abducted as she was throwing garbage into a dumpster.
23 April: Bahrain authorities revealed that they prevented possible attacks before the nation’s Formula One race last weekend. The Interior Ministry reported that a weapons cache, including 1,000 homemade firebombs, was found in a warehouse Saturday, a day before the race. Two girls were arrested for plotting to carry out an attack.
Heavy clashes occurred across Bahrain between protesters and security forces in the weeks leading up to the Formula One Grand Prix. Pro-democracy groups demanded the race be cancelled over the Bahrain’s poor human rights record and slow reforms. Bahrain’s crown prince, Prince Salman bin Hamad Isa Al Khalifa urged Bahrainis not to politicize the race.
Egypt’s Justice Minister Steps Down
21 April: Egypt’s justice minister, Ahmed Mekki, submitted his resignation on Sunday. The move indicates strong disapproval of President Mohammed Morsi’s handling of a prolonged showdown with the Egypt’s judiciary, which is the sole branch of government not dominated by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood allies. Some judges believe Morsi has taken actions to undermine their authority.
On Saturday, Morsi announced he would reshuffle the cabinet amid calls for Mekki’s dismissal from both supporters and opposition of the Morsi regime. Opposition parties believe that Mekki has sided with Morsi and his policies, and the “reshuffle” would be an opportunity to infuse the judicial branch with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood party. Morsi’s backers believe that Mekki failed to make expedient reforms to the justice system. All parties were angered following a number of acquittals of members of the Mubarak regime, including officials charged with corruption, and nearly all policemen charged with killing protesters during the 2011 uprising.
In his resignation letter, Mekki states that his resignation came as a response to pressure from the president’s opponents and supporters. He also mentioned protests on Friday by pro-Brotherhood supporters urging a “cleansing” of the judiciary, as well as calls for a new judicial reform law.
Mubarak Still in Prison, Despite Ordered Release
20 April: An Egyptian court has ordered the release of Egypt’s ousted President Hosni Mubarak as he awaits further investigation into charges. However, Mubarak remains imprisoned on two other corruption cases. Mubarak, who has been ailing since shortly following his removal, has been in detention since 2011. He is currently in Tora prison in Cairo.
Days earlier, another court ordered Mubarak released pending his retrial in a case alleging responsibility for the deaths of nearly 900 protesters during the 2011 uprising. An appeals court in January threw out a life sentence against him.
Many Egyptians see the release of Mubarak as evidence that supporters of his regime remain in office, and the aims of the 2011 uprising were not met. Many of those who believe Mubarak’s release is justified are frustrated by changes in government since the Morsi regime has taken control.
Mubarak’s retrial in the case of the deaths which occurred during the revolution is set for 11 May.
Attempts to Kidnap IDF Soldiers on the Rise
According to the Israeli Shin Bet internal security service, 33 kidnapping attempts have been foiled since the beginning of 2013, compared with 24 thwarted attempts during all of 2012.
Senior officers in the IDF Central Command have warned that Hamas has increased efforts to kidnap soldiers and use them as “bargaining chips” in attempts to release Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. The prisoner exchange deal which secured the release of Gilad Shalit in 2011 encouraged Hamas to attempt additional kidnappings. These kidnapping attempts are normally conducted by two or three abductors carrying switchblades or pistols, and most likely using a contact within Israel to enter the country.
Saudi Arabia Deports Men for Being “Too Handsome”
17 April: Three men from the United Arab Emirates have reportedly been deported from Saudi Arabia for being “too handsome.” The men, who were visiting to attend the annual Jenadrivah Heritage and Cultural Festival in Riyadh, were minding their own business when members of Saudi Arabia’s religious police entered the pavilion and forcibly removed them from the festival, deporting them to Abu Dhabi.
The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice members feared female visitors could fall for them.
Luxury Rehab Centre opens for al Qaeda
21 April: Saudi Arabia has opened a luxury rehabilitation centre in Riyadh to wean al Qaeda terrorists off religious extremism. The centre, which spans approximately 10 football pitches, provides counselling and religious discussions while also providing spa treatments, an Olympic-size indoor swimming pool, a sauna, gym and a television hall. Twelve buildings will host 19 prisoners, who will have access to special suites to spend time with visiting family members, and will be rewarded for good behaviour with a two-day break with their wives. The new centre is the first to provide a luxury setting as incentive for moderation. Three additional centres are planned in regions around the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia’s al Qaeda prisoners are required to go through rehabilitation centres before they can be released from prison. “In order to fight terrorism, we must give them an intellectual and psychological balance… through dialogue and persuasion,” said Said al-Bishi, director of the rehabilitation centers. To date, 2,336 prisoners have been through these centres, with only 10% of them rejoining the “deviant minority”, as they are referred to. There have been some high-profile returns to the ranks, such as Saeed al-Shehri, who became deputy leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) after his treatment.
Opponents are critical of the religious content of the program which they say draws on an ultra-conservative version of Islam not so different from al-Qaeda’s own. Social scientist Khaled al-Dakheel says, “To treat the problem at its root, one should challenge jihadist thought with an enlightened philosophy, not just with other Salafist ideas that are only slightly less extreme. There must be pluralism and an acknowledgement of the rights of others to be different.”
Tunisia to Begin Crowd-Mapping Crime and Corruption
13 April: Tunisia’s “I-Watch” organisation launched a new online “crowd-map” for reporting cases of corruption. The site, called “Billkamcha” (slang term for someone “caught in the act”) attracted 7,000 supporters within its first 48 hours of going live.
I-Watch President Achraf Aouadi explained, “This interactive website is designed to enable the victims of corruption to immediately report what happened to them whether this corruption is financial, administrative or in the form of favouritism.” Reporters will have the option to remain anonymous while submitting information.
Critical factors which cause corruption to worsen are the acceptance by society of bribery and toleration of it, the failure of regulatory institutions, and the lack of transparency. According to statistics, 90 % of Tunisians consider corruption a crime, yet one out of three individuals has either accepted a bribe or paid it.
I-Watch will work with several lawyers to process incoming reports. The site has six active members in charge of receiving reports, and ten bloggers who will expose cases of corruption received by the site.
Tunisian Salafists storm female student hostel to stop dancing
18 April: Female university students in the Bardo district hostel in Tunis were performing the first of a weekly dance and music show when dozens of hardline Salafists broke into the premises after scaling its walls. The Salafists smashed windows and threw stones and bottles, and fled after almost an hour of disruption. There were no serious injuries. No arrests have yet been made in connection to the occurrence, although witnesses report that the police were “present and did not move”. The Interior Ministry had no comment.
According to hostel administrator Raja Madyouni, the university had now tightened security. Salafists had previously threatened female students because of their Western dress and in some cases smoking and relations with young men, according to Madyouni.
Salafists conducted several similar disturbances to what they deem to be “anti-Islamic activities”, prompting secularists to accuse them of having formed a religious police and threatening the state. The moderate Ennahda party heads the coalition government in Tunis, but Salafists are pressing for Islam to be made the law of the land. Secularists say Ennahda is doing little to safeguard individual and women’s rights.
Tunisian Mufti Speaks out against fighting in Syria
20 April: During a press conference, the Mufti (senior cleric) of Tunisia, Othman Battikh, said that a “Muslim mustn’t fight a Muslim” under any pretext. He continued that the youth who went to fight in Syria under the banner of Jihad were “fooled and have been brainwashed.” The Tunisian cleric also commented on young girls going to Syria for “sexual jihad”, calling it a form of prostitution and adultery.
Battikh spoke out as many Tunisian youths are being recruited by terrorist networks to go to Syria and fight against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian government believes the chaos in their nation is being orchestrated from outside the country, and there are reports that a very large number of the militants are foreign nationals.
Yemen to stand against weapons smuggling
23 April: Yemen Foreign Minister Dr Abu Bakr al-Qirby, speaking in Sana’a at a meeting of the UN Security Council Monitoring Group for the arms embargo on Somalia and Eritrea proclaimed that Yemen is ready to act as a partner to stand against weapons smuggling.
During the 2011 uprising in Yemen, extremists groups and weapon smugglers took advantage of the breakdown in security to turn Yemen into a weapons trafficking haven. Over 12 months, intelligence reports showed that both Ansar al-Sharia and al-Shabab in Somalia had exchanged men and weapons, which were smuggled by sea. The government is now seeking partnership with the global community to curb the trend.
Yemeni court sentences 11 al Qaeda militants
23 April: Eleven convicted al Qaeda militants were sentenced to up to 10 years in prison in a court in Sana’a. The militants were charged with forming armed gangs to destabilize the country, and planning attacks on foreign embassies and security forces.
Ahmed al-Hababi, one of the defendants, threatened to kill the judge, shouting, “We will teach you a lesson and we will drag you on the ground.” Two of the convicted raised an al Qaeda flag inside the defendants’ cage.
The sentencing occurred as militants attacked a military camp in Radda, 100 miles south of Sanaa, in a skirmish that resulted in the deaths of three soldiers and eight militants. During Yemen’s 2011 uprising, al Qaeda occupied large areas in the southern region before being driven to mountainous areas by the new government. The group has retaliated with assassinations and bombings at military compounds.