Nice attack: Not in our name

NICE, FRANCE - JULY 15: Forensic police investigate a truck at the scene of a terror attack on the Promenade des Anglais on July 15, 2016 in Nice, France. A French-Tunisian attacker killed 84 people as he drove a truck through crowds, gathered to watch a firework display during Bastille Day celebrations. The attacker then opened fire on people in the crowd before being shot dead by police. (Photo by Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images)

Forensic police examine on July 15, 2016, the truck used by a terrorist to kill people on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France.

This column appeared in Arab News on July 17, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The horrific attack in Nice, France, on Friday in which more than 80 people were killed, and more than 200 injured, after a terrorist drove a truck through Bastille Day crowds, sweeping right and left to hit more victims, has left the whole world in shock.

The driver of the truck has been identified as 31-year-old Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhel, a deliveryman of Tunisian origin and a Nice resident. He was married, had children, and had moved to France in the 2000s and eventually received French nationality. His Arab and Muslim roots have already triggered rabid right-wing extremists across the globe, who are calling for an all-out war on what they call “Islamic extremism.”

In the US, former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich declared that all Muslims living in America who believe in Shariah should be thrown out. In France, far-right politician Marine La Pen called for a declaration of war against “radical Islam.”

The Kingdom condemned the attack and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman; Crown Prince Mohammad bin Naif and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent a cable of condolence to French President Francois Hollande. The Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Iyad Madani, said the “perpetrator and those behind him are an affront to humanity and all moral and human values.”

In especially poignant words, the General Secretariat of the Council of Senior Scholars said, “Islam magnifies the sanctity of human blood and criminalizes terrorism that kills and terrorizes innocent people in their homes, markets and facilities teeming with men, women and children, and that all humanity rejects and condemns it.”

We have to realize that the terrorist groups Daesh and Al-Qaeda are both nihilistic movements, virtual cults, where young men are brainwashed into believing that in attacking innocent civilians they are somehow defending and even ennobling Islam. But how can that be? Since when is killing defenseless people a noble act, either in Islam or any other religion? This killing can never be justified or accepted.

Unfortunately, our enemies use the actions of a few extremists that call themselves Muslims, and paint our whole religion and culture as being one of death, backwardness, violence and barbarity.

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe — roughly nine percent of its population is Muslim. Most of these Muslims are immigrants from its former colonies in Africa, or the descendants of the first wave of immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s that came to France to fill the need for low-cost labor. Unfortunately, unlike the United Kingdom and North America, where Muslim immigrants have been better integrated into local society, French Muslims have largely been marginalized and never fully integrated into French society.

This is providing fertile recruiting grounds for groups like Daesh. Already France has suffered two major terrorist attacks since January 2015, first on the Charlie-Hebdo offices in Paris and then in November 2015 on multiple targets across the French capital and now this third attack in Nice.

No wonder the right-wing Front Nationale must be looking more and more attractive to some French citizens who are terrified and worried that more attacks are coming. Being a democracy, France obviously faces the need of tightening security without running roughshod over its citizens’ civil liberties, whether they be Muslim or not. Security had already been extra tight for the Euro Cup finals in Paris last week, but there is a limit to what any government can do to prevent terror attacks short of putting all potential suspects into concentration camps. The Nice attacker was not known to be particularly religious, but did have a criminal record for petty crimes such as robbery and violence. Security experts and government officials admit that it is impossible to track every single suspect 24-hours a day. Countries have to decide how to intelligently deploy their security resources, and sadly many times they are unable to stop bloody attacks.

The sad fact remains that the majority of the victims of Daesh and Al-Qaeda are Muslims themselves. But we should be very alarmed at their attacks in the West because this is stoking anti-Muslim sentiments across the globe. And these sentiments breed hatred of Arabs, Islam and of people and cultures that are different from western, Christian ones. We have already experienced the extremely bloody Crusades between the 11th and 15th centuries. We don’t ever have to experience that again, and we certainly do not want a Crusade in reverse, by attacking soft targets in Europe.

If these radicalized Muslim immigrants in Europe are so disgusted and upset at living there they should immigrate back to Muslim-majority countries. Killing innocent civilians, especially children, is not the answer today and never shall be, to the grievances that the twisted minds of these terrorists may think they have.

Repercussions of Paris attacks


By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The terrorist attacks in Paris are having a backlash on Muslims around the world and a lot of questions have been raised about ways to fight this perversion of a religion that does not endorse attack on defenseless civilians.
The attackers, all of Arab and Muslim descent, were very young, ranging from 20 to 26 years old. All were born in Europe, either France or Belgium. And all were well known to indulge in things like drinking alcohol, going to bars and clubs, selling drugs and involvement in petty crimes. Photos of the terrorist showed them looking like any other young European, wearing jeans, T-shirts, and none of the women covered their hair. A photo released of one of the terrorists, the cousin of the mentor of the attacks Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Hasna Ait Boulahcen, showed her bathing. She was killed when police raided her apartment where she was hiding Abaaoud, who was also killed in the operation.
The question that keeps repeating itself in my mind, is how did all of these young people make the transition from being non-religious to becoming extremists who want to blow up everything in the name of their religion and as revenge for what they see as attacks on Islam and the Arab world, especially the daily bombardment of Syria by France and Russia. Daesh in whose name the attackers in Paris said to have undertaken the attacks, has a very long and powerful reach, recruiting young Muslims in Europe through the Internet. After attracting them, Daesh brings these young people to Syria to be trained and turns them into killing machines.
The question is how to detect and stop this recruitment? Several of those involved in the attacks in Paris had criminal records and were on the radar of the French authorities. Even though they had been questioned returning from training in Syria, the French authorities did not have enough evidence to stop them.
But back to the attacks in Paris, the impact in terms of Islamophobia worldwide has been terrible. US Republicans in Congress managed to pass a new law restricting the number of Syrian refugees that the country could accept. President Barack Obama already said he would veto the law. In Brazil, a new survey has shown that attacks on Muslims in Rio de Janeiro’s streets grew 1,016 percent in one year. Most were verbal attacks on Muslim women wearing the veil. There were 67 cases reported by these women just from January to August this year, with most being called “suicide bomber.” Of course, this aggression against Muslims has been happening for many years, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
It is unfortunate that a group of extremists, like those of Daesh, can cause so much damage against innocent civilians and against Muslims around the world. We need to stop this madness of Daesh, which is not in the least representative of moderate Muslims. The Muslim world should use its vast reserves of moderation to preach the peace in Islam. Western countries in turn cannot fall into the trap of wanting to be suspicious of every Muslim to the point of putting them in detention camps like the Americans did with their citizens of Japanese descent during WWII. I think we have evolved enough to distinguish the good from the bad in any population and religion. Terrorists want the West to mistreat and kill Muslims in acts of revenge for the attacks in Paris. We cannot succumb to it, and we should not give this pleasure to irrational terrorists.

Don’t let the terrorists win


By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The horrific terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday night that left around 127 people dead, and more than 200 wounded, was a bloodbath of epic proportions. The Bataclan Theater, where a heavy metal concert was in progress when terrorists burst in firing with semi-automatic weapons, was the scene of the worst violence. According to survivors, the gunmen ran in shouting “This is for Syria!” and continued shooting into the crowd of spectators, reloading their guns several times as they ran out of bullets.
A couple of suicide bombers also blew themselves up outside the National Stadium in northern Paris while France played a friendly match against Germany. Two loud bangs could be heard by spectators of the game, but except for a short pause the game itself continued and the crowd was not informed of what was happening.
French President Francois Hollande was watching the match in the stadium, but after the explosions outside the venue he was quickly whisked away by his security. French police say that eight attackers were killed or blew themselves up around Paris in Friday’s carnage.
A French journalist speaking on BBC TV noted that three things important to French citizens were attacked on Friday night: Sports, music and cafés. Some misguided people blamed the Paris attacks on the Syrian refugees that have been flooding into Europe.
US Rep. Jeff Duncan, a Republican congressman for South Carolina’s third congressional district, tweeted “How’s that Syrian refugee resettlement look now? How about that mass migration into Europe? Terrorism is alive & well in the world. #No.”
The Palestinian journalist, Rula Jebreal, rebutted this accusation, saying: “Even before victims’ bodies cool, disgraceful politician exploits horrific #ParisAttack to blame desperate refugees.”
Other commentators on Twitter were quick to blame a radical interpretation of Islam as the prime motivation for the attacks. Kenneth Rapoza, a journalist who writes for Forbes magazine, in a series of tweets said he believed that all single Muslim men should be kept out of Europe as a way of keeping potential terrorists out. Many regurgitated the old accusation that Saudi Arabia was in any way funding terror outfits. This is an absurd accusation that they regularly bring up.
While some misguided Saudis may have given money to and even joined terror groups, this certainly does not mean that the Saudi government aids any terrorist organization. This is a crazy anti-Saudi accusation with no evidence to back it up, and is thrown about by people whose anti-Muslim and anti-Arab feelings are kept barely under the surface.
The terrorists certainly want to scare the French government into stopping their bombing of Daesh positions in Syria and Iraq, and to make the French fear for their lives as they go about their daily lives doing the things they love most. Hopefully the Parisians will bounce back from these terrible attacks, and continue going to cafés, concerts and watch football games in stadiums as usual.
Likewise, I hope that French authorities and the public at large do not fall prey to anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hatred because of these attacks. France has the largest Muslim population of any European country, an estimated 4.7 million, or 7.5 percent of the total population. It would be a great shame if the French moved back on their great traditions of liberty, equality and fraternity. The openness and freedom of western societies is one of their biggest strengths, and it would be terrible if these were to suffer because of the attacks. It is obvious that security measures and intelligence gathering need to be beefed up in France, especially when it was only 10 months ago that the deadly attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket took place in Paris. But the spirit of freedom and welcoming refugees should not be lost in a fit of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hysteria unleashed by these latest attacks.
That is exactly what the terrorists want to provoke. Let’s not give them that pleasure, and instead show the world that Muslims and Christians, Arabs and Europeans, can live together in peace and respect. We owe it to the world and to ourselves.

Attack on French Tourists in Saudi: The Frustration of Covering Breaking News

Family members of four Frenchmen killed in Saudi Arabia
arrive in Riyadh, late February 27, 2007. (Agence France Presse)

THE BLOODY attack this Monday on a group of nine French residents near Madain Saleh in the northwest of Saudi Arabia, which left four of them dead, was extremely hard to cover for all journalists, not only because of the traditional reluctance of local authorities to divulge too much information quickly to the public, but the fact that the French authorities were also being extremely tight-lipped.

As the French reminded the press this week, they have a policy of not divulging the names of victims of acts of terror. This of course obviously made our jobs as journalists very difficult. Who were these French people, what were their names, ages, why were they near the ancient ruins of Madain Saleh, were some of them Muslim and on their way to Makkah to perform Umrah (the lesser pilgrimage)? These were questions that no one was willing to answer either directly or quickly.

Luckily for us at Arab News we had an impeccable source that phoned us and tipped us off to the attack at around 6 p.m. on Monday. The story had not hit the newswires yet, and would not for nearly 40 more minutes. He told us that 3 Frenchmen had been shot dead near the ruins and told us the name of the company that two of them worked for in Riyadh: Schneider Electric. A few phone calls later and we had the names of two of the dead men.

But confusion still reigned. The French consul general in Jeddah was not answering his mobile phone, and the French embassy in Riyadh only took messages left for the press attaché and advised to call back in the morning.

Finally a Saudi Ministry of Interior statement was released saying that a group of nine French citizens, including women and children, had been attacked by machinegun-toting assailants as they rested along a road outside Madain Saleh. Two Frenchmen had died on the spot, one driven to a nearby clinic where he later died and a fourth victim, a 17-year-old, taken to Madinah to undergo surgery to remove a bullet from either his lung or shoulder. We got the number of a wife of one of the victims, but she was understandably too distraught to speak to us and declined comment.

We still were not clear who in the group were Muslim, either by birth or conversion, and who was not. We speculated that all in the group of nine must have been Muslim if they were allegedly going to Makkah, the holiest city in Islam, and open only to Muslims. But an Agence France Presse story later that night created more confusion when it quoted a French diplomat anonymously insisting that none of the nine were Muslims!

The age of the young Frenchman who was wounded and being operated on in Madinah also fluctuated because of a lack of certain information from any official source. The 17-year-old became a 22-year-old, then a 15 year-old, and finally a 17-year-old once again. What we did know for sure was that the nine French citizens had originally been part of a larger group of expatriates from Riyadh that had gone on a desert camping trip to Madain Saleh. On Monday morning, a group of 19 Belgians had left the French and returned to Riyadh. The French group was allegedly taking a quick side trip to Makkah to perform Umrah when they were so brutally mowed down by as yet unidentified assailants. All we know so far is that were masked, and that they separated the women and children from the male adults before shooting them.

On Tuesday I phoned the French consul general again, who had rushed to Madinah along with the French ambassador from Riyadh to look after the survivors, but I was told by a man who answered his phone that he was in a meeting and to call back after the midday prayers. Later that day we heard that the fourth victim had succumbed to his wounds and died. Sources at the hospital told us that his name was Mubarak and that he was the son of a Frenchwoman of Moroccan descent. Bingo! So we were right, some of the group were Muslim after all. That same day we would hear that funeral prayers were held at the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah for two of the victims.

Because of the French refusal to speak to the press about this case, many of the details are still vague and the exact sequence of events unclear. Some sources told us that the attack happened on Monday morning at around 11 a.m., but that Schneider Electric was not aware of the attack until around 3:30 that afternoon.

This being the first attack on Westerners in the Kingdom since the September 2004 shooting of French Laurent Barbot on a Jeddah street, has left many expats here jumpy and sad.

“Madain Saleh has been a major tourism spot for Western expats, so I don’t know what’s going to happen now,” one British woman, who has been in the Kingdom for 23 years, told me in an interview. “This is certainly going to cause an upset for the Kingdom’s plans of promoting tourism here.”

While many observers have jumped the gun and called this attack a terrorist one possibly linked to Al-Qaeda, no group has come forward to take responsibility yet, and the possibility that this was just a hate-crime directed at Western-looking tourists is possible.

Nevertheless, it is another blow in favor of those critics of the Kingdom who like to write this country off as being full of xenophobic extremists that hate everything foreign. One Italian resident here that I spoke to gave me hope though that all may not be as bleak as it seems.

“I’ve never had any problems in this country. Everywhere I have gone in this country, either in cities or in the desert, Saudis have always been happy to meet me,” said an Italian interior designer who has lived here for eight years.

“There is always that 0.5 percent of the population that will do such things such as the attack on Monday, but the majority of Saudis are very friendly,” he told me. Let’s hope he’s right and that the war in Iraq is not fueling a whole new generation of young Saudis who hate the West and everyone associated with it.

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