Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Chief Iraq War Crimes Investigator Visits Kuwait

The imminent prosecution of former Iraqi regime stalwarts for war crimes hasn't received much coverage lately in the American press. But in the January 24 broadcast of the Arabic-language Radio Free Iraq, the story is alive and kicking. Here's a translated excerpt from one report:

Informed Kuwaiti legal sources say that the matter of Iraqi war criminals will witness some movement in the next few days, after a visit which the judge Ra'id al-Juhi -- of the Iraqi War Crimes Office, which is an offshoot of the general prosecutors' office -- will pay to Kuwait, to deal with a number of cases against alleged Iraqi war criminals. The sources said that al-Juhi -- who has been put in charge of the investigative office of the Iraqi Criminal Court, and who is also in charge of the investigation of the deposed President Saddam Hussein and other former regime members -- will speak with Kuwaiti officials about the latest arrangements and manner of transmission of Kuwaiti evidence and allegations.

It seems that Al-Juhi and his team would like to increase its coordination with Kuwait, which has already prepared 200 charges' worth of indictments of Saddam and members of his former inner circle. Most of these are allegations of war crimes and human rights violations arising out of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait over a decade ago.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Imagined Community: Reading a Pro-Hamas Newspaper

At first glance, you might say that Dick Cheney couldn't have put it better himself. The preelection issue of Al-Zaytouna--a pro-Hamas Arabic-language newspaper printed in Bridgeview, Illinois--endorses John Kerry for president. "The question is not so much whether John Kerry is better than George Bush," writes editor-in-chief Usama Abu Irsheid on the biweekly's front page, "but whether we want four more years of Bush." (The paper is published in Arabic; translations are mine.) He says the Patriot Act has "been cast upon our necks like a sharp sword" and declares that it would be "nihilistic on the part of our community not to vote, particularly as the very future of our existence in this country is at issue." Republicans might be inclined to take heart at what amounts to a backhanded compliment: the concern on the part of prominent Palestinian Islamists that their embattled infrastructure in America will be totally snuffed out unless Bush goes home to Texas.

The political preferences of a pro-Hamas newspaper are, obviously, irrelevant. (You could easily find equally awful people--say, Klan members--expressing vigorous support for Bush.) What's noteworthy here is that somewhere between the claim of "racist assaults on our religion" and familiar tropes assailing the administration's policy toward Israel lies the blurring of a key distinction--between America's millions-strong Muslim community on the one hand, and the subset who actively support Islamist militancy on the other. Whether this ethnically diverse community has truly closed ranks or a pro-Hamas editor is merely pretending it has, there's a problem here that Democrats and Republicans alike will need to address after next Tuesday.

A sense of embattlement often brings people together who would otherwise disagree. Four years ago, a sense of embattlement brought together secular Muslims, radical Islamists--and, of all people, Bush. After the talks in Camp David between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat broke down, and the second intifada broke out, esteem among Arab Americans for a White House-brokered peace hit an historic low. The new alliance of PLO and Islamist fighters in the Palestinian territories was echoed by expressions of solidarity among secular and Islamist-leaning Arabs and other Muslims in the United States. "The majority [of American Muslims] determined to vote for the Republican candidate at that time ... against the Democrat Al Gore and his running mate Joe Lieberman," writes the Al-Zaytouna editor, "...the position of the community having been largely determined as the result of a call from Islamic institutions which had gathered together ... to establish a clear choice for the direction of the American Arab and Muslim vote." I recall visiting several American mosques during that period and noticing leaflets signed jointly by the leaders of Saudi-funded Islamist groups in the United States--overwhelmingly Palestinian and Egyptian imams--urging the faithful to vote for Bush.

After Bush's inauguration, many of the same imams engaged in some public boasting. After all, the swing state of Florida hosts a large Muslim community and just a few hundred votes had made the difference. Illinois-based cleric Jamal Sa'id, an outspoken supporter of Palestine's "Islamic resistance," praised a large crowd in Arabic at a fund-raising event I attended in Chicago for the Islamic Association for Palestine, declaring that their votes may have altered history. Palestinian Islamic leaders including Nihad Awad of the Council on American Islamic Relations and Abdel Rahman Alamoudi of the American Muslim Council each appeared on Middle Eastern satellite television hailing the Bush victory as evidence of their community's newfound political prowess. Glib claims of having tipped the electoral scale apparently became part of the fund-raising pitch for these organizations, both in the United States and overseas. They determined that both their fundraising power and their political prestige depended on their ability to make the American Muslim community seem to be a coherent whole, capable of speaking--and voting--with a single voice.

Now, of course, the same Islamist leaders are regretting their support of Bush--some from behind bars. Alamoudi was indicted by John Ashcroft's Justice Department in March 2004 for allegedly receiving $340,000 from Libya--a sanctions violation. The Islamic Association for Palestine, which used to appear on Al-Zaytouna's masthead, is a shadow of its former self, as numerous key staffers have been named in a 50-count terrorism indictment. So is its fund-raising affiliate, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development. Indeed, for the tightly-knit community of Wahhabi-oriented activists in the United States, the claim that Bush-era justice has landed "upon our necks like a sharp sword" is barely an exaggeration.

But which necks exactly are on the line? And how many don't deserve to be there? Al-Zaytouna makes its opinion clear. The pages of recent issues contain pointed coverage of each new indictment, uniformly asserting the innocence of those charged. In the October 15 edition, a favorable review of a new book, Silent Victims: The Plight of Arab & Muslim Americans in Post-9/11 America, reinforces the notion that all Arab and Muslim Americans are under siege in the United States today, regardless of their politics, regardless of their actual innocence or guilt.

Muslim groups that do not toe the Wahhabi line, on the other hand, tend to take a more nuanced view. For example, Ahmed al-Rahim of the American Islamic Congress told a Washington think tank in late 2003 of his "embarrassment" at the arrest of "prominent members of the old guard Muslim leadership. ... Now it seems that the government is beginning to crack down--at least on direct ties to terror states and terror groups. It is a case of chickens coming home to roost." Other Arab and Muslim organizations have hailed some of the major terror indictments of the past year in press releases of their own. Middle Eastern immigrant communities undoubtedly suffer from a unique social stigma in the United States, particularly after September 11, and baseless arrests have occurred far too often. But the assertion that the community faces a plight akin to Japanese Americans during the Second World War, as Al-Zaytouna's review of Silent Victims suggests, is not accepted by all American Muslims.

Whether Kerry or Bush wins the election, the new administration will face the challenge of engaging a polarized Arab and Muslim-American community, both as constituents and as partners in the struggle against militant groups. There is a crisis of leadership among the various organizations, their members, and a larger number of Muslims who do not identify communally. The "community" has not fully extricated the extremists in its midst--nor has it closed ranks as the pages of Al-Zaytouna would have us believe.

Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World. This piece first appeared in The New Republic Online, October 29, 2004.

Double WAMY: Saudi Charities on a Charm Offensive

Who can forget the Saudi telethon back in April 2002, which raised about $100 million for the Palestinian intifada? The images of the telethon, which found their way onto TV in the United States, told a story that alarmists in the West had been trying to put into words for years: A well-oiled international network of charities based in the Kingdom had so inculcated the connection between militant causes and the mandatory Muslim alms tax, or zakat, that it could raise vast sums of money, and fast.

But that was three years worth of joint American-Saudi crackdowns ago. A litter of Treasury Department press releases and Saudi Washington press conferences tells the official story that has ensued since September 11. Washington and Riyadh seized assets and closed down several overseas branches of the Al Haramayn Islamic Foundation, a charity that had allegedly provided logistical and financial support to Al Qaeda in Asia and Africa. Congress has called for investigating 27 Muslim charities, and Treasury Secretary John Snow has urged American Muslims to make sure that their future "generosity is not exploited for nefarious purposes" by avoiding those charities. And in a particularly dramatic move, the northern Virginia office of the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (wamy), a global foundation established in 1972, was raided by 50 federal agents in June 2004. Spokesmen for the organization--whose U.S. branch was partly founded by Abdullah Bin Laden, Osama's nephew--have denied any links to terrorist groups. (Full disclosure: I assisted the FBI in counterterrorist operations between 1994 and 1999.) Whether these joint crackdowns truly crippled the global organizations is unclear--90 other branches of wamy, including those in Saudi Arabia, are still up and running. But the publicity the wamy raid garnered appears at least to have reduced charitable giving to the group. Wamy's deputy chief told the Arab News in late October that donations to the group were down 40 percent this year, citing new restrictions and bad press. Meanwhile, Muslim nonprofits in the United States assert a post-September 11 boon in domestic giving, which they believe stems from American Muslims' fear of entanglement with law enforcement should they be caught sending money to relief groups overseas.

The Saudi charities have resolved not to take all this bad news lying down. They appear to have unleashed a new charm offensive in October just before the peak giving time of Ramadan, taking aim not at the American public but at their own wary base: wealthy Arab Muslims. And as anyone who followed the U.S. presidential campaign this year can attest, you can sure tell a candidate by the way he appeals to his base. There's an unpleasant fact at issue that American officials are still hesitant to admit: While some Muslims' generosity has truly been exploited, other Muslims genuinely support militant groups and would like to help them out financially, provided they can do so with impunity. Appealing subtly to both types of donors is the essence of the Arabic-language public relations challenge the Saudi charities now face--and the reason behind the seemingly contradictory rhetoric routinely expressed by their leadership.

"The broad Western campaign against the Islamic charitable institutions ... rests on false foundations," wamy director general Salih al-Wuhaybi told Al Hayat, an Arabic language newspaper, a few weeks back, citing a plot by "the Zionists and neoconservatives in America. They want a shake-up in the Islamic world and to sow tension between [Saudi Arabia] and other nations." (Translations from Al Hayat are mine.) His counterpart at the helm of the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), Adnan bin Khalil Basha, added, "the compassionate hand that pats the head of the orphan and wipes the tears of the poor cannot participate in the spreading of fear and terror among believers, whatever their religions may be." The U.S. Justice Department has tied IIRO branch offices to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa. To this charge, Basha offers a defense that falls short of a denial: "Saying that these institutions have transcended the limits of activity ascribed to them is a very slanderous thing to say about organizations that are governed by rules and regulations and strictly determined laws." The same paragraph quotes a pro-Saudi cleric in the United States, Jafar Sheikh Idris: "If every institution one of whose members had made a mistake were closed down and assaulted, there wouldn't remain a single institution, charitable or otherwise, on the face of the earth." After all, he goes on, some Western intelligence agencies failed to gauge the state of Saddam's weapons program, "but was the result that these agencies were disbanded? Why, therefore, make war on charitable institutions, given that what resulted from their mistakes, if mistakes were really made, is nothing compared to the results of the war on Iraq?"

The Al Hayat story spans five columns and extensively quotes leaders of several of the most established charities in the Kingdom. They line up to deny any ties to terrorism. But the piece also offers an explanation for repeated allegations to the contrary. "It is logical," opines Abd al-Rahman al-Habib, "that the first target of suspicion will be those entities that have a similar ideology but differ with [the terrorist organization] in the application of violence as a tactic." So the ends are the same but the means are different, hence the confusion by Western intelligence agencies. No militant group is mentioned by name in the piece, and only the expression "Al-Sahwa al-Islamiya [the Islamic awakening]" is used to denote the movement of Islamist resurgence, popular in the Kingdom, with which the charities identify and from which some armed groups may at one time have arisen.

The whitewashing of Saudi charities among Arabs inside the Kingdom advances somewhat every time a domestic Al Qaeda cell is busted by the government. Saudi Channel One TV in early October, for example, aired videotaped confessions of local guerillas who admitted siphoning off funds from two charities and using the money to buy weapons for attacks in the Kingdom. This proved an opportunity for wamy's director general to appear on TV shortly afterward and announce new guidelines for donating money without fear that it would be diverted to arming local militants. The groups' commitment to snuffing out armed gangs inside the Kingdom, in consort with the government, is beyond doubt.

But nagging questions persist about these charities' support for armed adventures elsewhere in the Muslim world and beyond. The very reporter who gained access to so many directors general for the Al Hayat story is Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab al-Turayri, apparently the son of Abd al-Wahhab al-Turayri--who recently joined 25 other Saudi clerics to declare their support for the insurgency in Iraq. (The father-son connection is my own inference based on Saudi Arabic nomenclature, according to which Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab al-Turayri is understood to be the son of a man named Abd al-Wahhab who hails from the clan of al-Turayri. It is a statistical improbability, given the relatively small community of clerical elites in the Kingdom, that the two are unrelated.) The statement asserts the "legitimacy of the resistance and the illegality of cooperation with the occupier against the actions of the resistance." Another signatory to the document is Mahdi Muhammad Rashad al-Hakami, a professor of Islamic legal studies who described himself, in a 2002 petition he also signed, as regional director for wamy in the Saudi province of Jazan. Yet another signatory on the Iraq petition is Salman bin Fahd al-Awdah, a superstar among Saudi clergy, whose sermons have been distributed by wamy in the United States.

The link, however tenuous, between a mainstream Saudi charity and the cause of armed insurgency in Iraq may further sully its image in the United States. But for wamy's bottom line, it's also good business. The cause to drive back the American occupier is very popular among Sunni Muslims today--at least as popular as the Palestinian Intifada was back in April 2002.

Whether American officials are fully aware of these nuances remains unclear. wamy's website recently featured a photograph of the American ambassador in Saudi Arabia, James Oberwetter, attending Ramadan festivities sponsored during the recent fast month by the organization in Riyadh. This powerful image tells potential Muslim donors that the group has cleaned up its act in the eyes of the West. Coupled with links to a message of solidarity with Iraqi insurgents, it's a compelling pitch indeed.

Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World. This piece first appeared in The New Republic Online, December 3, 2004.

Captive Audience: The French Secret Recipe for Resolving an Iraqi Hostage Crisis

January 5- For the past couple of weeks, the massive devastation in Southeast Asia seems to have had a strange ripple effect in Iraq: it made TV airtime for a hostage video harder to come by. Tsunami disaster footage took center stage on Arabic satellite networks as it did everywhere else, leaving the comparatively banal image of a beheading wanting for an international audience.

Which is not to say that the country’s media-savvy insurgents have been sitting idly by. Witness Tuesday’s assassination of the Baghdad governor and a new spate of deadly car and roadside bombings in the Iraqi capital. These attacks send a potent message to local authorities and increase the likelihood of a delay in the country’s planned late-January elections, although they fall short of earning the global public outcry that earlier hostage spectacles have done. As a comprehensive study of Iraq’s hostage crisis shows, the tactic of kidnapping has been the insurgents’ most effective tool of all. Some countries have withdrawn their troops in exchange for their nationals’ release, many businesses and aid groups have been persuaded to leave Iraq or avoid coming, and countless Iraqis are afraid to cooperate with the provisional government and may shun the ballot boxes when elections eventually take place. So there is every reason to expect a new wave of masked men to appear in grainy videos soon. (At this writing, journalist Florence Aubenas has been reported missing and is feared to have been kidnapped.)

Just ask Georges Malbrunot, a freed French hostage who has been making the rounds of radio and television since his December 21 release. Though attention to his story outside France has been relatively modest given the mega-tragedy to Iraq’s southeast, the world still wants to know how Malbrunot, his French journalist colleague, and their Syrian driver managed to escape death. And the world still does not have a complete answer. He told the BBC, NPR, and other Western networks that he did not know whether a ransom had been paid by France, although the French weekly Le Canard Enchaine has reported that there were in fact millions of francs in pay-offs. He also declined to throw much light on the negotiations that apparently took place. Instead, he mainly observed that his captors were not so much Iraqi patriots as pan-Islamists (he told a press conference in France, “…we were immersed in planet Bin Laden …”) and repeated the kidnappers’ warning to all foreigners (“They told us, ‘Iraq is a land of war now, and don’t come back to Iraq,’” Malbrunot explained to NPR’s Jacki Lyden, advising American journalists, “Don’t go there. Nothing is better than life…”). He also took pains to criticize a French Deputy, Didier Julia, for allegedly complicating matters by visiting Syria on his own initiative and trying to secure the hostages’ release through former Saddam loyalists.

But there is more to Malbrunot’s story which he appears to have saved for Al-Jazeera – to begin with, his support for the insurgents. In a half-hour interview he gave to the Arabic-language network which was broadcast Monday, January 3, he said,

I think the Islamic Army in Iraq should focus its work on resisting the American occupation and those who cooperate with it. The important thing is that there be a resistance. Islamic or non-Islamic, we believe in the sacred right of any resistance. Yet in the West, and even in the Arab world, when we see heads cut off, it does not lead to anything but the slandering of the image of the resistance in the entire world. The true resistance fighters should preserve their reputation, and demonstrate that their fight is a legitimate and just resistance …

Chalk it up to Stockholm Syndrome if you wish. But for a fluent Arabic speaker and author of two books who has spent ten years in the Arab Middle East, Malbrunot cannot claim to be ignorant of the incendiary effect these remarks have in the region. (It bears noting that he said he speaks Arabic but gave the interview in French. The above quote and all the ones to follow are my translation of the Al-Jazeera audio feed, which is in turn a running translation from French into Arabic; the original French is inaudible.) Malbrunot’s thumbs-up for “resisting the American occupation and those who cooperate with it” is understood by Al-Jazeera audiences to mean an endorsement of attacks on coalition forces in the broadest sense – including Iraqi government, police, and election officials. Coming not from an Islamist cleric but from a freed Western hostage, these comments are a morale boost to an insurgency whose bloody tactics and nihilism have been criticized by liberal Arab columnists across the region. They also serve to further endear France and its people to the more hard-line political players in Iraq and its periphery – a fact which is inseparable from the still-unanswered question of how Malbrunot and his friends escaped death.

The reason the question is so important is that other countries would like to help their own citizens escape captivity or worse in Iraq as well. The long months of hostage spectacles have caused angst and finger-pointing in Europe and the United States – both at TV media for fueling the trend by giving militants a platform to air their videos, and at various governments for allegedly paying ransoms. Arab pundits, too, are grappling with the problem. An Al-Hayat columnist in October called upon “the little countries” to stop incentivizing Iraqi militants by paying them off, and a more flippant writer in the Lebanese online daily Elaph advised Western governments to adopt the old school response of taking their own hostages – say, Iraqis who live in the West. All this, and the French secret recipe remains a secret.

At least we know what the secret is not. The French government’s robust opposition to war in Iraq clearly contributed to the kidnappers’ mercy on Malbrunot and his friends, but it is not by itself what saved them. “Our being French was to our interest …” he told Al-Jazeera. “France was occupied in 1939, and occupation means [we know] the necessity of having a resistance. Therefore, they [the kidnappers] fiercely distinguished being French from being American.” Leaving aside Malbrunot’s selective memory, which omits both the long history of French colonialism and the fact that it was American troops who ended the Nazi occupation of France, his point has merit as it reflects popular wisdom in the Arab world today – the only wisdom that matters to a hostage in Iraq. But all that this pro-French sentimentalism accomplished was to inspire the kidnappers to think more creatively about their demands. As there weren’t any French soldiers in Iraq to be withdrawn in exchange for the hostages’ release, the insurgents demanded instead that France rescind its law banning the head scarf in French public schools – and the French government publicly refused to do so. At which point France found itself in the same predicament as any other country facing an unacceptable demand from Iraqi kidnappers. (As of this writing, the presumed kidnapping of French journalist Florence Aubenas only underscores the fact that insurgents in Iraq do not play favorites among Westerners.)

By improvising its demands, however, the “Islamic Army” also exposed a potential weakness: its global agenda. And therein lies the secret of the French response. Malbrunot explained what he meant by “planet Bin Laden” on Al-Jazeera:

I meant to say that I discovered that the Islamic Army in Iraq did not have the solely Iraqi goal of putting a stop to the American occupation, but that this army identifies with the Bin Laden organization. The kidnappers repeatedly referred to Bin Laden. I spoke with one of the young men, who had been in a training camp in Afghanistan, who informed me that his organization has goals that exceed their differences with the Americans and transcend the ongoing war in Iraq. He said that they are present in 60 countries, and their priority is to depose the regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and establish a caliphate from Spain to the borders of China, in addition to ideas hostile to the West which he would express almost constantly. … I said that I lived on “planet Bin Laden,” because we had departed the realm of the Iraqi-American problem and entered with them discussions and topics of an international nature. Our discussions grew deeper and dealt with European and internal French issues including the [ban on the] head scarf and others.

The kidnappers’ hand was weakened by harboring global ambitions because they held fewer cards in international negotiations than in local ones. Bin Laden may well be an emperor in exile, but in the 60 “provinces” where he maintains cells, including France, his minions are embattled – operatives imprisoned, slush funds busted, front groups padlocked.

Malbrunot could not detail French government actions, except to note that they were extensive and coordinated between intelligence agencies and the foreign ministry, but some charming hints of what transpired came out indirectly in his interview anyway. At one point during his four-month ordeal, he recalled, “one of the [Al-Qaeda] officials came to the place where I was confined and told me, ‘You will be released soon…’ When I asked him about the reasons for the delay, he said, ‘there are several interventions and mediations, and there were Islamic personalities that had offered to pay sums of money to release you, and we had said to them, ‘we do not want monies,’ and this has delayed the release.’”

The implication here is that the French government deputized several groups to negotiate for the hostages simultaneously – perhaps in France as well as Iraq, some officially, some unofficially – including an Islamic organization, which offered a ransom. French Deputy Didier Julia’s maverick attempt to open a separate negotiating track with Saddam loyalists in Syria may have frustrated other efforts temporarily, but it also contributed to the pool of information France acquired on who the kidnappers were and who they were not. Perhaps not entirely by design, French authorities managed to size up their opponent by confronting the group with a series of ideological and moral tests – from Ba’thism to pan-Islamism, from political give-and-take to the prospect of a bribe. For several months, they did not get back their citizens but they did learn a lot about their captors.

In the meantime, there was nothing for the soldiers of the Islamic Army to do but sit around and watch satellite television. From the room adjoining that of his confinement, Malbrunot said he could hear the insurgents flipping channels. For local news, they watched the new Iraqi network Al-Iraqiya. Friday afternoons they watched the weekly sermon on Saudi satellite television. And for international coverage, they turned to Al-Jazeera. Which suited France just fine. The kidnappers watched Prime Minister Michel Barnier appear on the network to plead for the hostages’ lives. They also saw coverage of large, well-organized rallies of Muslims in Paris in support of the captives. Even the management of Al-Jazeera found it in its heart to issue its own call for their release. “They [the kidnappers] told us, ‘The Muslims in France are protesting for your benefit more than the Christians,’” Malbrunot recalled. “…I want to thank the entire Muslim community in France, which demonstrated its unity and sent this excellent message, and convinced the kidnappers that these journalists are not spies. These are messages that were repeated on your network Al-Jazeera.”

“You mean to say that the kidnappers were watching Al-Jazeera?” the interviewer asked, a twinkle in his eye.

Indeed, in the global village of “planet Bin Laden,” the kidnappers were a captive audience.