Brazil arrests: Is Daesh spreading its tentacles?
This column was printed in Arab News on July 24, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The 10 Brazilian supporters of the terror group Daesh, who were arrested on Thursday across Brazil, didn’t seem to be prepared to launch attacks in the country. According to intercepted WhatsApp and Telegram messages sent to each other, the members were planning to take martial arts and shooting classes. One of them inquired online about buying an AK-47 rifle from a shop in Paraguay.
All those arrested appear to be Muslim converts, ranging in age from 20 to 50 years. A few of them knew each other personally, but most of them knew each other only through the Internet. A few of them ran their own blogs online where they praised Daesh and the various terrorist attacks the group claimed responsibility for such as the Orlando and Nice massacres. One of them, Ahmed Andrade Santos Junior, 34, from Joao Pessoa in the state of Paraiba, learned about Islam online and radicalized himself by regularly visiting extremist forums online.
O Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper characterized him as a former Christian who was not at all religious and who used to box. His expounding of extremists ideas got him banned from a local mussala by the imam. He visited Egypt and was photographed there posing next to the flag of Daesh. When he returned to Brazil he openly defended Daesh and its dastardly acts.
Another suspect that was arrested was Vitor Barbosa Magalhaes, 23, of Guarulhos in greater Sao Paulo. He taught himself Arabic online and then got a scholarship to learn Arabic in Cairo for six months in 2009. It is there that he learned more about Islam and converted. His wife said in an interview that she believes him to be innocent and that he is non-violent.
Brazilian authorities are on full security alert ahead of the Rio Olympic Games, which open on Aug. 5. Already 6,000 National Force military troops have been deployed in Rio de Janeiro to ensure the safety of the expected 500,000 athletes and visitors. But many Brazilian commentators have noted that visitors to Rio have more to fear from being robbed or killed by local criminals, rather than be caught in a terror attack.
Brazilian Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes gave several interviews to the press on Thursday stressing the amateurism of the 10 suspects that were arrested, noting that two more suspects were still at large. He added that the deportation last week of the Franco-Algerian physicist Adlene Hicheur, who had been teaching at a university in Rio, but had been previously been sentenced to three years in prison in France in 2009 for allegedly planning terror attacks in France with Al-Qaeda operatives, was part of Brazil’s actions against possible terror threats before the Rio Olympics. The Brazilian Defense Minister Raul Jungmann also downplayed the threat of the arrested suspects, saying that they were “bat-crazy.”
President Michel Temer was reportedly unhappy with the comments of his two ministers. It is clear that Brazil, which has never endured terror attacks before, is being pressured by the United States and France to beef up its security for the Olympics, and to show it is doing something by rounding up Muslim suspects that support Daesh.
“Brazil is being pressured greatly by countries that are really targets and are demanding security guarantees. Brazil does not have expertise, but it’s making an effort. It has done an important monitoring of online chatter on social media,” said Paulo Velasco, a professor and researcher at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in an interview with Estado de Sao Paulo.
But some in the Muslim community here feel that the government is overreacting to please foreign governments and adding fuel to the fire of Islamophobia in Brazil, a largely Catholic nation. “The Muslim community supports the actions of the federal police as long as they are done with transparency and proof,” said Jihad Hammadeh, the president of the National Union of Islamic Entities in Sao Paulo.
“There is a growing Islamophobia, principally on the part of entities that should bring security to society,” warned Hammadeh, who is also an imam. “The National Union of Islamic Entities manifests its profound preoccupation with the recent events and reports that Brazilian citizens are associated with terrorism in Brazil. At the same time, we vehemently support the actions of the federal police for the investigation of these facts, but with concrete evidence and much transparency so that no injustice and persecution occurs against any citizen or group,” he stressed in a statement.
Hammadeh warned that the sensational fashion in which the arrests of the 10 suspects was being reported by some media outlets in Brazil is bringing terror to the population at large and discrimination to Muslims. Unfortunately this is true. Even the big media here treats the whole issue in a sensational way.
The 10 suspects are being held initially for a 30-day period. If authorities are unable to prove any of the more serious terror charges against them, they will be released and could be made to wear electronic bracelets to monitor their movements and banned from approaching certain public sites such as sensitive government buildings, military installations and stadiums.
I understand the worry of the Brazilian government to nip any potential terror threat in the bud before any attacks take place. Despite the comments of the two ministers stressing how amateurish the 10 suspects had been, one can never be too safe, as we have seen from the Orlando and Nice attacks that were undertaken by lone wolves that had slid below the radar.
The problem is that the Brazilian population at large still does not know enough about the real Islam, and therefore ends up believing that all Muslims are bloodthirsty terrorists. This is some of the real damage that Daesh is doing to the image and reputation of Muslims worldwide — damage that will take a long time to repair.
Nice attack: Not in our name
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.
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.
Russia extends agony of Syrian civil war
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The formal entry of Russia into the Syrian civil war last week, with its bombing of rebel targets in Homs and Hama, places which by the way have no Daesh forces, is a bad omen for the region. A visibly weakened Bashar al-Assad regime was having difficulty holding on to the smaller Syria that it still controlled and if not for Russian intervention in its favor, it may have been forced sooner rather than later to the bargaining table.
The United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have been supporting various Syrian rebel groups that are fighting for a new Syria without Assad and all of his thuggish allies. Forty-four years of Assad family rule has been far too much for the Syrian people, who emboldened by the Arab Spring revolts in the Arab world in 2011, decided to peacefully protest against their government. The regime’s answer was violence, arrests, torture and “disappearances”. It is no wonder then that the opposition soon took up weapons to defend itself from the merciless attacks of government forces.
But if you listen to the Assad regime, you hear another story which sounds like a fairytale it is so ridiculous. On Friday, the regime’s favorite cheerleader Buthaina Shaaban appeared on the BBC’s Newsnight program to stupidly claim yet again that there was no civil war in Syria, and that in fact the Syrian government was fighting “terrorists” hell-bent on blowing up schools and hospitals, not fed-up civilians who have formed rebel militias to topple a regime that has held Syria in its blood-stained hands for far too long.
The Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir stressed the struggle to get rid of Assad in a speech to the United Nations on Oct. 1, lamenting that “the international community continues to be unable to save the Syrian people from the killing machine that is being operated by Bashar al-Assad. …Those whose hands are stained with the blood of the Syrian people have no place in a new Syria.”
The U.S. under the administration of President Barack Obama has been extremely reluctant to get too involved in the Syrian conflict, limiting itself to bombing Daesh targets in Syria and Iraq from the air, action that has yet to seriously affect Daesh’s capability to rule and hold on to its territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sensed this American hesitation as weakness and decided to step in by expanding an air base in Syria and stationing Russian bomber jets there. After their first bombing runs, in which they hit a rebel group that is funded by the Americans and killed 33 persons, the US government issued barely a peep in protest.
For sure the Russians are not rushing ground troops into Syria, having learned a hard lesson in the 1970s during their bloody occupation of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, Iran is rushing more soldiers and commanders into Syria to bolster the Lebanese Hezbollah forces already there. This only adds to the sectarian dimension that the Syrian civil war has taken on.
With approximately 300,000 Syrians already dead in a civil war half-way into its fifth year, the beginning of an active Russian military intervention and more Iranian troops arriving, the prospects of a peace settlement seem remoter than ever. European Union members should be at the forefront of trying to resolve the Syrian civil war as soon as possible, given the huge numbers of refugees that is has been forced to deal with this summer coming from Syria.
While the U.S. and its allies took pains not to target Syrian government forces in their bombing raids of Daesh targets in Syria, the Russians have had no such compulsions. The long talked about no-fly zones over northern areas of Syria near the border with Turkey to provide safe-havens for rebel groups and civilians, were never undertaken by the US because of Obama’s hesitation and hand-wringing over how far to get involved in Syria. For sure the many losses that Americans were subjected to in their 10-year occupation of Iraq are one of the main reasons that Obama and many other Americans were reluctant to okay no-fly zones in Syria. But if they had been implemented two years ago, the war would have taken a different turn for sure. Now, the rebels without any protection are going to be much more vulnerable to Syrian regime attacks thanks to the powerful Russian air cover and attacks that are bolstering the Assad regime.
It’s a shame really given that the US maintained no-fly zones over parts of Iraq for years before Saddam Hussein was overthrown in order to protect the Kurdish population. The Kingdom footed the bill then, and perhaps could have contributed to help maintain no-fly zones over Syria, but Obama did not have the guts to do so. His administration will be remembered for that, and not kindly.