On Monday, United States Secretary of State John Kerry defended the capture of an alleged al-Qaeda leader who was apprehended on Saturday during two raids that were carried out by US commandos in Libya and Somalia. The US Secretary of State has indicated that the operations in Libya and Somalia showed that the US would never stop “in its effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror.”
On Saturday, the Pentagon confirmed that US commandos captured an alleged al-Qaeda leader, Anas al-Libi, who has been suspected of masterminding the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa. His capture was confirmed by his son, Abdullah al-Raghie, who stated that his father was seized by masked gunmen in Tripoli early on Saturday as he was parking outside his house after returning from morning prayers. He has claimed that the Libyan government was implicated in his father’s disappearance, however officials in Tripoli have denied any involvement.
Amidst calls by officials in Libya on Sunday to receive an explanation pertaining to the special forces raid on its territory, US Secretary of State John Kerry defended the capture, stating on Monday that Anas al-Libi was a “legal and appropriate target.” Speaking to the media on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit in Indonesia, the Secretary of State further noted that “with respect to Anas al-Libi, he is a key al-Qaeda figure, and he is a legal and an appropriate target for the US military.” When questioned whether the United States had informed Libya prior to the raid, Kerry refused to confirm or deny, stating only that “we don’t get into the specifics of our communications with a foreign government on any kind of operation of this kind.” The operation to capture Libi has drawn fury from the Libyan government, which has since stated that the operation was unauthorized and that Libi had been kidnapped. Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s office has also stated that the Prime Minister has requested full clarification on the raid, stressing that Libya was “keen on prosecuting any Libyan citizen inside Libya.”
According to sources, Anas al-Libi, 49 and whose real name is Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, was married with a daughter and three sons, one of whom was killed in a battle with pro-Kadhafi forces when the rebels entered Tripoli in October 2011. Libi, a computer specialist, left Libya during the early 1990’s when Kadhafi was cracking down on Islamist groups. During that time, Libi joined Bin Laden’s terror organization in Sudan and would later follow the group to Afghanistan before securing political asylum in Britain in 2000. He is believed to have been one of the masterminds behind the 1998 US embassy attacks, which killed more than 200 people in Kenya and Tanzania. On 7 August 1998, a car bomb explosion outside the American embassy in Nairobi killed 213 people, and wounded 5,000. Almost simultaneously, a truck laden with explosives detonated outside the US mission in Tanzania, killed 11 people and leaving another 70 wounded. Al-Qaeda later claimed responsibility for both attacks. When a US court indicted him in connection with the bombings, he fled to Pakistan. Sources have indicated that he returned to Libya shortly after the outbreak of the revolt against Kadhafi, and probably would have fought against the rebels who ousted the longtime dictator.
Libi has been on the FBI’s most wanted list for more than a decade with a US $5 million (£3.1 m) bounty on his head. The raid to capture him came as Western Intelligence agencies increasingly feared that he had been tasked with forming an al-Qaeda network in Libya. According to a US official, shortly after the raid, Libi was taken to a US Navy warship in the region, where he was being questioned. This was confirmed by the Pentagon, which stated that he was being “lawfully detained under the law of war in a secure location” outside Libya. The operation in Tripoli ended a thirteen-year manhunt for Libi who was one of the last remaining high-level operatives from the core terror network that was established by bin Laden in the 1990‘s. His arrest paves the way for his extradition to New York to face trial.
With authorities and officials in Libya insisting that they were unaware of the US operation, the capture of the senior al-Qaeda militant is definitely an embarrassment for the fledgling government and could result in outrage amongst the country’s Islamist extremists. While authorities in Libya have been struggling to assert control over the countless numbers of militias that emerged during the 2011 uprising against Moamer Kadhafi, many militias have refused to disarm and effectively now control large portions of the country. Some of the militias in question include hardline Islamists who have accused the post-Kadhafi government of being too close to the West. In turn, reactions to his capture in Libya have been mixed, effectively demonstrating the divide in the country amongst Islamists and their secular opponents.
While the operation in Libya achieved its objective, it remains unclear whether the raid on a beachfront villa in southern Somalia was a success.
On Saturday, US commandos carried out an operation to capture one of the leaders of al-Shabaab however unconfirmed reports have indicated that SEAL commandos were forced to withdraw before confirming the kill. Reports have indicated that the mission was aborted after the commandos encountered fierce resistance from al-Shabaab fighters. The operation, which was carried out by members of SEAL Team Six, the same unit that killed Osama Bin Laden, occured Barawe, which is located 180 kilometers (110 miles) south of the capital city of Mogadishu. A US official has identified the militant as Ikrima, a Kenyan of Somali origin, however Washington has yet to formally name the intended target. When asked on Sunday as to whether officials in Somalia had been aware of the raid, Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon Saaid stated that “our co-operation with international partners on fighting against terrorism is not a secret.”
In response to the raid, an al-Shabaab military operations spokesman, Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, a fighter was killed during the raid. Al-Shabaab’s commander in the southern Somali port of Barawe, Mohamed Abu Suleiman, also noted that “the enemy of Allah tried to surprise the mujahedeen commanders with a night attack using a military helicopter, but they were taught a lesson and they have failed.” Residents of Barawe reported they were woken by heavy gunfire before dawn prayers and some of them saw commandos, presumed to be from a Western nation, rappelling from a helicopter and attempting to storm a house belonging to a senior al-Shabaab commander. Local media has also reported that two helicopters were involved in the raid. By Saturday morning, residents reported that al-Shabaab militants were heavily deployed on the streets of the town.
The raid comes shortly after al-Shabaab confirmed that it had carried out last month’s attack on the Westgate shopping centre in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, leaving at least sixty-seven people dead. Sources have indicated that while Ikrimah was not linked to that attack, the raid has prompted fears that the target could be planning a similar assault on other Western targets in the region.
Multiple nations currently operation Special Forces in the wider Horn of Africa region, and many have carried out similar missions in the past. In recent years, both US and French Special Forces have carried out raids on coastal targets in Somalia. Last year, US Navy Seals flying at least six military helicopters carried out an operation to rescue two aid workers held by pirates in northern Somalia. Washington has also used drones in Somalia to support the local government and African Union (AU) forces in their battle against al-Shabaab militants. And earlier this year, France carried out an unsuccessful raid to free a French intelligence agent. On 12 January, elite French forces carried out an overnight operation, involving some fifty troops and at least five helicopters, in southern Somalia. Two French commandos were killed and al-Shabaab later reported that it had killed the agent. With minimal information being released pertaining to Saturday’s raid, it currently remains unclear whether either of these countries was involved. Furthermore, Western navies are present in the region, patrolling the seas off Somalia, which has been beset by conflict for more than two decades. While they have been tasked with fighting piracy, in 2009, US Navy commandos attacked and killed an al-Qaeda leader, Kenyan-born Saleh Ali Nabhan, during a daylight raid on Barawe.
Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, a prominent member of Bangladesh’s leading opposition party the BNP, was this morning sentenced to death for war crimes committed during the country’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. The on-going war crimes trials of numerous individuals who resisted separation has already caused disorder and violence across the nation, exposing deep divisions in Bangladeshi society. Following Chowdhurys sentencing, security has been increased across the country including in his home region of Chittagong, with potentially violent strikes and protests both for and against the verdict now expected.
Established in 2009 by the then recently elected Awami League (AL), the Bangladeshi International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) has been investigating and prosecuting individuals for involvement in genocide and mass killings perpetrated by those who rejected independence and collaborated with the Pakistani military during Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War. The 1971 war lasted 9 months, with eventual Indian intervention in favour of the separatists inflicting a humiliating defeat on the Pakistani army. The campaign was marked by brutality, mass murder and atrocities on both sides, but the Pakistani armed forces and their supporters are widely regarded as being among the worst offenders. The ICT has however faced accusations of human rights violations and a disregard of due process in its activities from various international organisations, with opponents within Bangladesh claiming the trials are politically motivated.
12 individuals have so far been indicted by the tribunal. 10 of these are members of Bangladesh’s leading (and now banned) Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, while the other two are members of Bangladesh’s largest opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party. Salahuddin Chowdhury is the first of the BNP members, and the first sitting MP, to be sentenced by the court. He was found guilty of 9 of 23 charges, including genocide, abduction, atrocities against Hindus and the forcible conversion of Hindus to Islam, and has been sentenced to death. He is expected to appeal against the decision.
So far, the court has also convicted four members (and two former members) of Jamaat-e-Islami, which is a political ally of the BNP. All have been sentenced to death or life imprisonment for killings committed during the war. Another 5 trials remain currently.
The trial has revealed deep divisions at the core of Bangladeshi society that stem from the country’s birth over 40 years ago. Each verdict from the ICT has been marked by large protests both for and against the decisions. Those opposing the verdicts have been led largely by members of Jamaat-e-Islami, with demonstrations frequently turning violent and leading to deaths and the necessitating robust responses from the security forces. Major protests in favour of the trial earlier this year led to widespread disorder across the nation, and the eventual banning of Jamaat-e-Islami party by the Supreme Court.
Anticipating disorder, the Bangladeshi government has deployed paramilitary security forces to the city of Chittagong, Chowdhurys home region from which he has been elected as an MP six times, as well as in the capital city Dhaka. Anger and violent disorder is expected, with the broader politically unstable situation likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Foreigners in Bangladesh should remain highly aware of the dangerous security situation, and the potential for all political demonstrations to turn violent extremely quickly.
Following a devastating terrorist attack on members of Pakistan’s small Christian minority at the weekend, leading community figures are expressing concerns both about the reaction of major political figures and despair about the government’s apparent inability to prevent such attacks, along with fear about the possibility the community may be targeted again. Pakistan has seen widespread demonstrations and unrest as a result of the bombing, attributed to factions of the Pakistani Taliban and widely seen as likely torpedoing recent government overtures to the militants controlling large parts of the country.
The attack happened on Sunday, 22nd September. Two suicide bombers attacked the congregation at the 100 year old All Saints church in Peshawar just after the Sunday service had finished. 85 people were killed in the blasts, which left over 120 injured. This was Pakistan’s worst ever attack on the Christian minority, and it bore the hallmarks of many similar incidents targeting Pakistan’s Shia population.
Junood ul-Hifsa, a branch of Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP, the ‘Pakistani Taliban)’, claimed responsibility for the attack. This is the same group that reportedly murdered 11 foreign climbers at the base of the mountain Nanga Parbat in June this year. Junood ul-Hifsa was reportedly established to target foreigners and non-Muslims in retaliation for American drone strikes against militants. Another terrorist group with links to the TTP, Jandullah, also claimed responsibility for the attack, and it remains unclear who exactly perpetrated the bombing as yet. The TTP’s main spokesman officially denounced the bombing; however the TTP’s usual practice is to deny involvement in bombings with large civilian casualties.
The attack led to widespread protests and community anger throughout the country. Crowds took to the streets in Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi to demonstrate against the Government’s apparent failure to protect minority groups, with the police being forced to use tear gas in some cases. Increasing ethnic homogenisation has seen Pakistan’s ethnic minority population decrease from 15% to 4% currently. Christians make up only 1.8% of Pakistan’s population, and are an extremely politically weak ethnic group as a result.
While this is the first major terrorist attack on Christians (with past attacks often focusing on Shia Muslims instead), the Christian minority has for many years suffered from persecution in the country. Largely poor and impoverished, they have been a common target for vindictive prosecutions under blasphemy laws, which are largely used to settle scores. In March of this year, communal violence erupted after blasphemy accusations and saw the torching of dozens of Christians homes by a Muslim mob, while in 2010 a prominent politician who defended a Christian accused of blasphemy was murdered by his own police bodyguard. Members of Pakistan’s Christian community worry that the country’s spiralling Sunni/Shia violence will begin to spill over and target them in future after this latest attack.
The incident is also a blow for the Pakistani government’s hope to begin some form of peace talks with the TTP. The government of Nawaz Sharif had been criticised in the past for focusing on economic issues and lacking any clear political will to tackle Pakistan’s deteriorating security situation. However, late last month they made a controversial overture to the TTP regarding the possibility of negotiations. These talks divided the Taliban movement, with some rejecting any possibility of talks and others cautiously welcoming the possibility. The chances of success are now low, after both this attack and the murder of a senior army commander last week. Some analysts believe the offer of talks by the government is in fact a ploy – by offering seemingly impossible negotiations to an extremely fragmentary coalition of terrorists, the subsequent breakdown of talks may allow the government to build public support for a harsh military crackdown to restore some semblance of order.
While in the past foreigners were rarely targeted in the country’s endemic terrorist violence, the attack on Nanga Parbat on June and this recent bombing of Christian’s suggests attacks may be broadening in scope from their traditional targets of security forces or Shia Muslims. An extremely high degree of security awareness should be maintained at all times while in Pakistan.
In response to a “credible threat,” the United States has ordered that all non-essential government personnel leave its consulate in the Pakistani city of Lahore amidst a worldwide alert over al-Qaeda intercepts. A senior State Department official has stated that intelligence indicates that there is currently “credible threat” to the consulate and that all US personnel remaining in Lahore should limit non-essential travel within the country. The move comes as Pakistan’s troubled south-western city of Quetta was hit by a second attack in two days as gunmen shot dead at least nine people outside a mosque on Friday.
Officials in Washington have urged that they have received intelligence of a specific threat to its diplomatic mission in Pakistan’s second-largest city, ordering all non-essential staff to leave. The warning comes just one day after the United States reiterated a travel warning, advising all US citizens to defer non-essential travel to Pakistan. US officials have stated that “we are undertaking the drawdown due to concerns about credible threat information specific to the US Consulate in Lahore,” further noting that “an updated travel warning has also been issued,” adding that “US citizens remaining in Lahore…should limit non-essential travel within the country and be aware of their surroundings whether in their residences or moving about, and make their own contingency emergency plans.” The travel warning also indicates that “the presence of several foreign and indigenous terrorist groups poses a potential danger to US citizens throughout Pakistan.”
It currently remains unclear when the consulate in Lahore will open again. The US embassy and consulates in Karachi and Peshawar were closed Friday for the Eid public holiday however they are expected to open again on Monday. Earlier this week, the US closed nineteen other diplomatic missions throughout the Middle East and Africa in response to what it said was a threat of a terrorist attack. The diplomatic outposts are expected to be closed to the public until Saturday. Non-essential personnel were also evacuated from the US embassy in Yemen after US intelligence officials stated that they had intercepted a recent message from al-Qaeda’s top leader about plans for a major terror attack. None of the consulates in Pakistan, nor the US embassy in Islamabad, were affected by the earlier closures. Consequently it seems that the most recent evacuation in Lahore was undertaken as a precautionary measure and is not related to the closure of the other diplomatic missions.
Meanwhile authorities in Pakistan have placed the capital city on a state of high alert, with extra precautionary measures being placed on key Pakistan government installations. Britain has also placed travel warnings for Pakistan, however these are for specific locations and do not include Lahore or the capital. The UK Foreign Office has stated that it had yet to decide whether staff would be withdrawn from the British Council Office in Lahore however it did note that it was closely monitoring the current situation, stating that “we keep security measures and travel advice under constant review.”
In Quetta, Pakistan on Friday, worshippers were gunned down as they left prayers for Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The month of Ramadan was marred this year by at least eleven attacks which killed some 120 people. The day before, a suicide bomber struck at a police funeral in the city on Thursday, killing thirty eight people in an attack that was claimed by the Taliban.
Interpol has issued a global security alert linked to a suspected al-Qaeda involvement in a string of recent prison outbreaks that have taken place in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. The alert comes just days after the United States State Department issued a global travel alert and closed a number of Embassies because of fears of an unspecified al-Qaeda attack.
Citing prison breaks in three countries, Interpol has requested that its members examine whether or not al-Qaeda militants were behind the prison breaks. The police agency is also asking that member countries “swiftly process any information linked to these events.” In a statement that was released on Saturday, the French-based agency stated that “with suspected al-Qaeda involvement in several of the breakouts which led to the escape of hundreds of terrorists and other criminals, the Interpol alert requests the organizations 190 member countries‘ assistance in order to determine whether any of these recent events re coordinated or linked.” It also calls for Interpol to be informed “if any escaped terrorist is located or intelligence developed which could help prevent another terrorist attack.” The most recent escape occurred in north-west Pakistan, in which 248 prisoners escaped from a jail. On 30 July, Taliban militants used automatic weapons and bombs in order to break down the walls of the jail in Dera Ismail Khan. At least thirteen people, including six police officers, were killed during the attack. Authorities have since indicated that thirty of those who fled were “hardened militants” who were jailed for their involvement in a number of suicide bombings and other serious attacks. Meanwhile on 22 July, hundreds of inmates escaped from two jails in Iraq: Abu Ghraib, located to the west of Baghdad; and Taji, located to the north. Bombs and mortar fire were used to break into those two prisons in which al-Qaeda members were amongst those being housed in the facility.
US Extends Embassy Closure
Meanwhile the United States has announced that it will keep a number of embassies in northern Africa and in the Middle East closed until Saturday, due to a possible militant threat. After an announcement on Friday pertaining to a possible threat, twenty-one US embassies were closed on Sunday. On Monday, the State Department in Washington indicated that the extension of closures were “out of abundance of caution,” and not in reaction to a new threat. With the State Department announcing that the potential for an al-Qaeda-inspired attack being particularly strong in the Middle East and North Africa, the global travel alert will be in force until the end of August. Although US diplomatic missions in Algiers, Kabul and Baghdad remained open on Monday, its diplomatic posts in Abu Dhabi, Amman, Cairo, Riyadh, Dhahran, Jeddah, Doha, Dubai, Kuwait, Manama, Muscat, Sanaa and Tripoli will remain closed until Saturday. African missions including Antananarivo, Bujumbura, Djibouti, Khartoum, Kigali, and Port Louis are also on the list of closures. The US embassy in Tel Aviv, along with two consulates in Jerusalem and Haifa, were also closed on Sunday.
It is evident that security at US diplomatic facilities remains a concern following last year’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where the US ambassador, along with three other Americans, were killed. Officials in the United Kingdom also announced over the weekend that its embassy in Yemen would remain closed until the Muslim festival of Eid which will occur on Thursday. The UK Foreign Office is also advising against all travel to Yemen and is strongly urging British nationals in the country to leave. Several other European countries have also temporarily closed their missions in Yemen.
The embassy closures and US global travel alert came after the US reportedly intercepted al-Qaeda messages suggesting that they were between senior figures within the militant group who were plotting an attack against an embassy. While the details of the threat have remained unspecified, it is evident that those members of Congress who have been briefed on the intelligence, seem to agree that it amounts to one of the most serious in recent years, effectively pointing to the possibility of a major attack which may coincide with the end of the holy month of Ramadan, which ends this week.
In recent years, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, which is known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has attempted to carry out several high profile attacks, including one on Christmas Day in 2009 in which a man attempted to blow up a trans-Atlantic jet over Detroit, using explosives that were sewn into his underwear. Months earlier, the militant group had also attempted to assassinate the Saudi intelligence chief by using a bomb that was attached to the attacker’s body.