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Another Face of Abu Qatada: Speaking on the Principle of Terrorism

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Abu Qatada, Photo: ICSVE

Abu Qatada, who many have called the spiritual father of al Qaeda in Europe, is a scholar of Islam and what many might deem a terrorist instigator, or an ideologue who puts out arguments in support of militant jihad, but never himself fights jihad or spills blood. Yet, in these interviews, the third and fourth ICSVE researchers have made with him over the past year, he spoke candidly about his views on terrorism—making statements that will surprise many.

Palestinian by birth, Abu Qatada grew up in refugee camps in Jordan, carrying within himself a heritage of bitterness over his lost homeland. He is angry and rebellious against what he believes to be Western hegemony. He does not hide his strong desire to see a fundamental reordering of the Arab world. In this interview, we spoke to him about the changes he longs to see in the Middle East and the guiding principles by which to influence such changes, including his predictions as to what might actually happen.

Earlier in his career, Abu Qatada resided in London, where he was editor in chief of the Usrat al -Ansar weekly magazine, a propaganda media outlet that he started on behalf of the Groupe Islamique Army’s (GIA). In the early 90s, Abu Qatada issued a fatwa, which was published in his weekly bulletin Al-Ansar, after the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win elections in Algeria but was denied an impending electoral victory by a military coup. Some hold his issued fatwa against the military responsible for justifying GIA massacres against innocent civilians, including unleashing a rampage of beheadings. [1] In 2006, the GIA who Abu Qatada was aligned with in London, announced a union with Al-Qaeda, and by 2007 the group changed its name to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

In 2000, Abu Qatada was deemed by the UK as a security risk and was arrested as a terrorism suspect, imprisoned and subjected to a secret parallel system of justice. He was held in Belmarsh Prison without a conviction, on and off for 10 years, under an emergency legislation that authorized indefinite detention of “certified” foreign nationals in the U.K. representing a national security risk.

Held with the aim of disrupting a network of extremist ideologues from promoting acts of violence in the UK, he was never officially and directly linked to any terrorist plots in Europe. A source close to the case, however, shared that intercepts of those who visited Abu Qatada revealed that they were later contacted and invited to meet others actually involved in terrorism, although nothing was ever found to directly implicate Abu Qatada.

Abu Qatada’s angry grievances and teachings against the West are believed to have inspired numerous al-Qaeda- related terrorists plots and killings, allegedly including, through second generation ties, the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacres.

While a Jordanian court convicted Abu Qatada in 2002 in absentia on terrorism charges related to the thwarted millennium terrorist plots aimed at attacking Western and Israeli targets in Amman, such charges were overturned in 2014 on the grounds that evidence may have been acquired by torture. In 2013, after many delays, due to concerns that he might be tortured in Jordan, or again convicted on the basis of evidence taken under torture, Abu Qatada was deported back to Jordan. Already railing against the West and siding himself with al-Qaeda, Abu Qatada does not forget his time in Belmarsh. He is still angry over it, though, as we were able to witness, his anger profoundly resonates with a power of righteousness and moral superiority that must also affect his followers.

No longer in prison, Abu Qatada now resides in his stone hewn home on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan. Dressed in a long dark thobe and his grey beard reaching over his chest, he hosts us in a large diwan, with its walls filled with collections of books—translations of histories and philosophies from around the world, and books about Islam. Surrounded by towering shelves supporting hundreds of such books, mostly in Arabic, one could not help but be drawn to the “intellectual warmth” we sensed, including the room’s distinct touch and setting that offered a glimpse into Abu Qatada’s character, interests, and passions.

During our two days of conversing with him, he covers a whole range of topics and makes numerous statements. The most surprising to us, however, is that Abu Qatada, the supposed terrorist instigator, does not appear to support terrorism at all. Despite expecting armed conflict in the Middle East and hoping for the demise of regional dictatorships and the rise of an Islamic State of sorts, he strongly condemned the use of terrorism.

This is our third time talking to Abu Qatada and we already know he is a fervent advocate of the Palestinian cause. Speaking about the defensive posture he feels he was born into, Abu Qatada states, “We [Palestinians] have only one choice. [We were] forced to take one choice of adapting to a reality on the ground. If you are put in the corner, you have to scratch out to defend yourself.”

Having witnessed the Palestinian-Israeli peace process fail repeatedly, he is also cynical. “I’m very afraid of the word peace, because it’s the word most used by the oppressor,” he says. Furthermore, he adds, “You talk about peace after you take your rights…you are not given rights, through oppression. For the Palestinian, regardless of other identities, ‘peace’ is not in his interest.”

“Twenty-five years ago, when they told us the word ‘peace,’ they presented it to us as hope, but now after the experience of ‘peace,’ we found out it is a lie. Now, when I hear the word ‘peace,’ I hold my pocket, for the new theft going on, ”Abu Qatada says with a smile crossing his face.

“Beautiful things are only built with strong foundations,” he explains. “When you entered the house, you saw the book shelves and chandelier, but didn’t see the foundation that is represented under the stones. You can’t talk about dialogue without a fundamental basis.”

“Principles?” I ask, eager to discuss this very thing, as we want to hear where he stands on the principles underlying terrorism.

“No, before principles, it’s rights,” Abu Qatada answers.

We discuss Trump and his recent recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, while we wait for the opportunity to ask him about how he justifies Palestinian terrorism. Using the example of Wafa Idris, the first female suicide bomber whose surviving family members I interviewed in 2000, I tell him about my visit to her family and ask him about Wafa’s attack on civilians. A number of Palestinians I spoke to at that time told me, “We have to use our bodies to fight back against a much better armed force, to explode ourselves to equalize the battle.” But she exploded herself among civilians, in a shoe store. Do you agree with this?” I ask.

“To talk about details distracts!” Abu Qatada answers, with his face reddening in sudden fury. “To take the whole Palestinian issue and to drill down to such details!” he sputters.

“But it’s not details, it is the principle behind details. Is it correct to say that if I’m fighting a much stronger enemy I can attack children, for instance?” I ask.

“No, this is not accepted,” Abu Qatada responds, still unable to avoid the barrage of angry expressions showing on his face. “But I am not talking about people talking with their emotions,” he continues. “I am Abu Qatada talking from a scientific [i.e. religiously defended] position. This I will not allow it. I consider it a destruction to the issue that I believe in.”

He goes on to tell me that Wafa Idris was acting from emotions, and that we cannot possibly know the depth of pain for what motivated her to engage in suicide bombing and target civilians. Indeed, having interviewed her family members, I know her story intimately. I know that she served as a nurse on Fridays with the Red Crescent during the Second Intifada and witnessed countless casualties from demonstrations against the Israelis. For instance, shortly before the suicide bombing, she was helping to transport a man whose skull had been fractured by Israelis. Her job was to hold his skull together as the ambulance bounced over rough Palestinian terrain, but she ended up with his brains falling out into her hands as he died. Her brother stated she was never the same again.[i] While Abu Qatada might not necessarily know all the details of her story, he does not have any trouble imagining them.

“This attempt to enter details to discuss the moral reality of the fight from our side, it is like a denial, a journalist denial,” he practically shouts, as he stands up now. “Like being mad at a child under the boot of a solder because he doesn’t have the right appearance, ” he adds. His face is now red with anger, and I wonder if our interview will be abruptly terminated. I wonder if I have touched a raw nerve of Abu Qatada or trampled upon what he views as the Palestinian right to fight back, even using terrorism as a weapon.

“Definitely Wafa Idris was mobilized by her emotions and her anger,” he continues, calming somewhat. “The question should be why a young girl’s emotions would be moved to this extent.”

That is a powerful and meaningful statement indeed. Having traveled throughout the West Bank and Gaza during the second Intifada, I know what it is like to be mistaken for a Palestinian woman and hauled out of buses at Israeli gunpoint or nearly run off the road by Israeli Humvees. It is a constant feeling of threat with no rights, except in my case when I presented my American passport. Then everything changed—for me at least.

“I know my mother, my wife, my daughter. I know how they think. I know what mobilized her. A human emotion that should not be discussed ideologically,” he continues.

“I was in her home,” I counter. “Her nieces and nephews were playing beneath this giant-sized poster glorifying her and her act. Do you think that’s the right thing to do?” I ask, trying to draw him out on the principles of the battle for the things he wants most in life and for which he is willing to encourage others to fight.

“To consider her an icon within her society just because she represented the anger,” Abu Qatada sputters again. “It’s not whether she went into a shoe shop or a military camp,” he states. Piercing me with his eyes and standing tall in his dark thobe, he gestures with his hand warning me, “I’m angry now.”

That was already obvious, but he has put it out there, so I try to calm the situation, keep him talking, as I want to know what he really thinks.

It does matter if it was a shoe store frequented by civilians or a military camp—that is the heart of the matter. I want to hear him address it, but we will not get there if he abruptly ends our interview.

“If we brought the Muslim world, not just the Arabs, and put them on a scale and compared their deeds to the deeds of the Westerners,” Abu Qatada states. “And talk about history. How many people did you kill? How many bodies did you bury?”

The argument amounts to what I often heard all through my time in Palestine: that the Israelis killed civilians at a much higher rate than Palestinians killed Israeli citizens. The question I always countered with was whether the Israelis specifically targeted Palestinian civilians, as the Palestinian terrorists targeted the Israeli civilians? The answers were often vague: that Israelis did not aim for civilians but when they targeted their enemies they knew full well that they were killing civilians as well, and in high numbers, and still did not refrain from carrying out their acts. “So, what is the difference?” the Palestinian terror leaders would ask me and that would be our stalemate—perhaps to be repeated here as well.

For me the difference between targeting civilians vs allowing for collateral damage is important, although one could argue that the moral difference between the two can become slim indeed. When premised upon the right to live a full life, the morality of killing innocent human beings becomes unjustifiable in both scenarios, but is still much different when the intention is to kill innocents versus acts aimed at heinous criminals in which innocents also get killed. Nonetheless, these issues have troubled many even former Shabak (Israeli Security Agency) leaders who discuss these very points as documented in the 2012 Israeli film, the Gatekeepers.

“These are the guys, these are the Jews, who went into villages and massacred them—the Egyptians, slaughtered them with kitchen knives,” Abu Qatada states referring perhaps to the Rafah and Qibya events.

“Then you come to a society, you don’t know how a young girl in our society can…” Abu Qatada booms, but his voice trails off, overcome with emotion. “I am a man, I am an extremist, a terrorist, but I cannot explain Wafa. On a human level, I don’t understand what mobilized Wafa. But, the explosion of emotions and the anger I can understand,” he states, his eyes blazing, still towering above us.

“The pain, people do things that cannot be understood ideologically,” he continues, as I recall him telling us in the first interview that he feels the pain of his lost homeland every day. The gnawing bitterness inside. “I am not going to apologize for what she did.”

We talk a bit about the recent recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and as we talk politics, Abu Qatada sits down again and calms himself down.

“Those barbaric settlers have no values,” he states. Suddenly, the conversation veers into the issue of settlements and my unpleasant experience way back at a checkpoint in Nablus with settlers supported by Americans. I shared my fear and anger when Israelis pointed guns at my face, including my feeling of disappointment and temptation at the time to remind them that “my tax dollars probably paid for the rifles they pointed at me.”

“I don’t hate very many people, but I hated them,” Abu Qatada states, clearly glad to hear that I also did not think well of the settlers’ misbehavior at their checkpoint. “They take from Americans the weapons,” he continues. “Everyone knows that a solution would come if America disengages from Israel.”

I try to steer the conversation back to the discussion on principles. Which principles does Abu Qatada stand by when he advocates for fighting back to win back Palestine, to bring down corrupt and unrighteous governments in the region, or to bring his hoped-for ideal of an Islamic state in the Middle East? I tell him how the Palestinian terrorist leaders I spoke to in the West Bank and Gaza would argue that it was permissible to kill Israeli civilians, even children, because they all eventually end up serving in the military—that Israeli society is militarized with the aim of keeping Palestinians down.

“I told you from the start, religiously I oppose the idea of killing children and all civilians. But I understand the emotions. Israel is a militarized society, but it does not justify killing children.”

“I cannot understand, not just psychologically but religiously also, how could anyone justify killing a child,” he states unequivocally.

“We are talking about when we can control the battle,” he adds, and I nod.

“Throughout history, Westerners were the ones who first started using civilians to put pressure on soldiers,” Abu Qatada explains, citing various examples from history. “ Even Hitler, they used civilians to pressure soldiers to submit,” Abu Qatada argues.” If there were those [civilians] affected by us, they were more affected by the West. We never used [killing] civilians to pressure as a strategy.”

I ask again, as I’m surprised to learn that Abu Qatada’s views seem to stand in stark contrast to those of other Palestinian terrorist leaders I spoke to in the West Bank and Gaza. They justified terrorist killings of Israeli citizens by arguing that Israeli men and women are part of the military—arguing that even their children who will grow up to serve. They also argued that Israelis have modern equipment while Palestinians have only their bodies to explode in terror attacks. None of this sways Abu Qatada from his clear denunciation of terror attacks against innocent civilians, particularly against killing children.

“I am surprised that there is any Islamists who will support it,” he says. As we have spoken for hours at this point, he tells us we need to adjourn the interview until two days later.

When we return, Abu Qatada begins the interview telling us that he told his wife about our discussion on suicide terrorism aimed at civilians. The topic has clearly caught his attention, and he has been brooding on the subject.

“From that day to today, I have been thinking how can anyone with feelings issue a fatwa of killing women or children outside of the battle, I honestly ask you?” Abu Qatada asks, his big brown eyes sincerely gazing into mine as he speaks.

I have been thinking about it as well and am ready to list Palestinian leaders for him who justified killing innocents using suicide terrorism. Khaled Mashal [the leader of Hamas] and Ahmad Sa’adat [the General Secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, PFLP, an organization that engaged in terrorism], we mention for starters.

“Who was Hamas following?” Abu Qatada asks.

When I tell him that Sheik Yassin supported martyrdom operations against civilians during the second Intifada, Abu Qatada answers that Yassin did not have the ability to issue a fatwa of this type.

“Fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] doesn’t deal with things like symbols,” Abu Qatada explains. “In the sharia [Islamic law derived from the Quran and Hadith], there is a big difference between targeting civilians and targeting a military man, as with collateral damage, trying to reach a military target and the consequences of reaching a target.”

“No one announces that they target civilians, like the Russians did. This is not the act of a person of resistance or of ideology. This is an act of revenge. I cannot imagine an Islamist or a Palestinian who does this,” Abu Qatada states with what appears to be full sincerity, as I wonder where he was during the Palestinian second Intifada, when Palestinians were engaged in suicide bombings in crowded Israeli restaurants, nightclubs, and grocery stores. I find his stance on the issue surprising to say the least.

“I really thought about our talk,” he continues, appearing disturbed. “The people inside [Palestine] are more aware of things than me. They look at every [Israeli] man and woman as a military person. Israeli society is a military society. They look at the Jewish guys in Palestine as military guys.”

“I cannot imagine going against children,” he repeats.

What about beheading journalists like ISIS has done in recent years?” I ask, curious to know if he is willing to condemn such acts as terrorism as well.

This gets us off on a discussion of whether journalists are who they say they are, as Abu Qatada references what he calls, “the dirty work of the CIA.”

“[What] if you catch someone who says I’m one thing and is something else?” he asks. Yet, ISIS has assassinated numerous journalists who were highly unlikely to have been spies, James Foley being one of them, I tell Abu Qatada, also mentioning that I have met and spoken to his bereaved mother in person, hoping this human element will make him feel the horror of it.

“You judge a journalist as you judge a messenger,” Abu Qatada answers. “A messenger is never to be killed. But if there is a journalist who is really a soldier, he will be dealt with as a soldier.”

I press him on the journalist James Foley and Nicholas Berg, both beheaded by terrorists (ISIS and al Qaeda) in Iraq.

“I don’t know this issue. I didn’t study this issue,” Abu Qatada answers. He appears sincere in what he is saying. Perhaps he is so buried in his religious and political studies that he just blanks out all the violence carried out by those on his side?

“I understand the grudge and bitterness that is carried against the Americans,” Abu Qatada explains, kindly excluding me from that hatred, which makes me wonder if sharing my many experiences of being mistaken as a Palestinian in dealings with the Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza, and how I, too, felt under threat and sometimes felt the urge to fight back has somehow softened his heart these days when he is talking with us, or is this how he normally feels when it comes to terrorism. We are two women talking to him after all, I wonder if he is showing a softer side on these days for us, but it is not how he really feels? But it does not seem that way, as he continues to repeat himself.

“You can never kill civilians intentionally,” Abu Qatada stands firm in his statement. “Our battle is not with civilians. This is an indisputable rule.”

“Why do people around the world think you say something else?” I ask, dumbfounded to hear him disavow terrorism.

“No one has interviewed me,” Abu Qatada answers a smile crossing his face. “I expected to sit with you once only. Most come only once,” he states. This is our fourth time visiting Abu Qatada. With each visit, we have ensured that we do not overstay his welcome, but have talked with him for hours. Although considered the spiritual father of al-Qaeda in Europe, I cannot underestimate his wide range of knowledge on the most pressing global issues, not to mention his intellectual potency and immutability in character when it comes to narrating the story of human suffering, particularly as it pertains to Palestine and the Palestinians. He is clearly well read, follows politics closely, and has a fire inside for justice: “No one has heard of me and sat with me, except [when] he was stunned by what I said,” Abu Qatada explains as his friendly smile covers his face. “It’s a big propaganda [about me], ”he adds.

“Many reports credit you as having issued a fatwa to kill civilians in Algeria,” I say, letting the harsh words come out between us like the wood table that separates us as we talk. I am afraid it will anger him again, but better to get it all out in the open.

“What I said was…if the Algerian army used our women and children to pressure our fighters, the mujahideen are allowed to use the threat of killing their women and children, if they continue in this way,” Abu Qatada explains. “It was a battle to stop the ugly way of killing civilians if this battle continued. On this message it would not have continued,” he explains. “It was the reason to stop an ugly battle going on.”

“If the only way I can stop your killing my wife and children is by threatening to kill your wife and children, then so be it,” he explains, looking exacerbated at this point. “The reality of this fatwa was not to open the door to actual killing of women and children,” he explains.

“Sometimes a surgery will take you 15 minutes to do but will give you rest for the rest of your life,” Abu Qatada says, suddenly feeling defensive. He is obviously disturbed knowing that he many have repeatedly blamed him for the carnage that resulted after his fatwa was issued. It appears it was not his intent, as our conversation today indicates.

“My picture is an atom on the head of a needle compared to bombs dropped on a city to stop a war,” he says, while remaining defensive. “Were the Japanese killing women and children for the other side to threaten them?” he asks, and continues, “There is a difference between threatening to kill innocents and actually doing it.”

I decide to ask him what I asked Ahmad Sa’adat in a prison interview with him during the second Intifada, telling him to imagine I am dedicated to the “cause.” “I want to go bomb myself in Jerusalem for al Aqsa, will you give me your blessing?” I ask.

“No I won’t give you my blessing. I won’t give my blessing to kill a clear civilian,” he answers, again unequivocally and without hesitation denouncing terrorist acts aimed at innocents.

“Do you remember when the Palestinian groups started hijacking planes?” he asks. “ Wadie Haddad, [the Palestinian leader of the militant wing of the PFLP] was the architect. He was with George Habash [the founder of the PFLP]. They asked him why he was doing this? I want the world to hear the Palestinian message,’ he answered.”

“In this thing now,” Abu Qatada asks, “What will a civilian target accomplish for me now?”

“Even when the military targets a civilian target, it’s a loss from a military perspective,” he adds.

“So, 9-11, was it wrong?” I ask.

“I went to prison for 11 years because I answered a question that wasn’t right,” Abu Qatada fires back, referring to his time in British prisons. “I don’t like my answer to look like I want sympathy from Americans,” he demurs.

“If Hamas did something against civilians, if they went to a religious kids school [to attack it], is it up to me to condemn or to be hung?” Abu Qatada asks, placing the responsibility back on the group.

“There is an area of agreement between us, and all Muslims: that it is not allowed to kill women and children,” he explains. “We all agree on this, but in any dialogue, someone will come and tell me, I did this in different circumstances. This is a sub dialogue and could create an exception,” he states. Referring to when there are disagreements on exceptional cases, he adds, “This disagreement that will come out would not make me go towards my enemy. At the same time, to be honest, I will have no sympathy for my opponent. I cry for my family, my people.”

He further explains that it is important for him to show solidarity for his own people. “The sheiks, because of their positions, from certain times, they started sympathizing with the opponents of the nation; they went against those in the ummah who fight their enemies,” he explains. “I will not go against anything an Islamist did,” he adds.

“So you will not go against ISIS?” I ask.

“My problem with ISIS is that they killed Muslims,” Abu Qatada explains. “And I never said anything against them when they killed Muslims, he adds, reflecting how he doesn’t like to break ranks even when he fundamentally disagrees with [such] tactics and principles.

“My priority is my nation,” he continues. “I always want to be in sync with their feelings. I am not willing to upset Hamas or the mujahedeen in exchange for hand clapping by the West.”

I can see his point, but ask him all the same. “Does not a person of principle have to have his principles and openly state them?”

“My principle is to be on the side of my nation. If a Palestinian is listening to me saying I condemn the killing of James Foley, then what is this in comparison to what Human Rights Watch documents?”

I tell him that I see resemblance in his response to what Shamil Baseyev, a Chechen terrorist, admitted to a journalist after over 300 schoolchildren and their parents were killed in the 2004 Beslan siege. While he grudgingly admitted to being a terrorist in that interview, he also demanded that the journalist add Putin to his terrorist list, as an even worse terrorist, as Basayev killed over 300 while Putin killed 40,000 civilians in carpet bombing the capital of Chechnya. “Yet, his terrorists shot those children in their backs as they tried to escape,” I point out as Abu Qatada reaches out to his toddler granddaughter who has entered the room. She is adorable, with curly dark hair and a red dress.

“To take them as hostages to use them,” Abu Qatada states, referring to the Beslan children, then kisses his granddaughter on the head as she passes by. “There is a difference between using and killing the children,” he concludes. “I will be guilty if I show compassion,” he adds.

“But, is there right and wrong?” I press as my heart breaks that we are discussing such things while he is kissing his grandchild so sweetly.

“With my words, I cannot simplify 99 rights and concentrate on one wrong.

It will condemn all 99 rights,” Abu Qatada explains. “They [Westerners] will use our words against us,” he warns, while admitting, “We do have an internal debate, and it’s known that I don’t handle these debates.”

I remind him of how mercilessly the terrorists shot the children while attempting to flee the school during the Beslan siege. His granddaughter is running around our table as we talk, and I cannot wipe from my memory, while gazing at her pure innocence, the images of the bereaved parents I talked with—whose children had been killed there and the traumatized siblings who survived when their brothers and sisters did not.[ii]

“I’m 58 years old and I learned how to resist my emotions, even when I see a documentary of what happened to my opponents,” Abu Qatada answers. Everyone is sympathizing with our opponents. No one is sympathizing with us. I understand. You, as an American, want to be just in distributing your sympathies, but me as a Palestinian, I visit my father every two weeks, and he cannot sit with me once without talking to me about Palestine.”

“Sympathy is not the same as principles,” I press.

“I don’t own a media podium that will be equal to what my opponents have when I talk about the pain of my nation,” Abu Qatada explains. “But when I talk about what my brother does, the whole world will listen to it and use it? Which is about something that is right but reaches a wrong. You should not [judge] as the act itself but the end itself.” While what he is saying might read as “the end justifies the means”, he does not quite mean that. He proceeds to explain that he is referring to the possibility of his standing up for principles being used to delegitimize what he holds sacred, such as the Palestinian struggle, or the Muslim/Arab struggle, for that matter.

“When my word is being used, whether in right or wrong against my people,” Abu Qatada explains, while temporarily halting his speech. “I saw how people who made this type of mistake and were coopted into the fold of the opponent, whether they meant to be or not. We have a saying: don’t hang your dirty laundry outside. Don’t do that especially now, when we are at the point of weakness. He goes on to explain that he does not want his words condemning attacks on civilians to be twisted against the Palestinian or the greater Muslim struggle, especially when he feels that instead of his call for a reordering—even if by armed struggle, if necessary—to bring justice to both, only that particular sound bite will be extracted from his many statements,

“Once I am able to reach out my word to the nation’s enemies in the same strength as my opponent is using against my brothers, then I can speak out,” he comments

“It’s not a question that just happened now,’ he continues. “The whole time I was in prison [in the UK] it was the same. I could have gone out in public and condemned 9-11… and become a hero, well known…and obtained UK nationality, among others. I didn’t accept it. It would be a betrayal.”

“When a nation is in a battle, you must balance what you should and should not say,” he metaphorically encapsulates his reticence to publicly condemn terrorism at this point in time. “When things are more relaxed, it’s the time to talk. It’s dumb to give your opponent a weapon,” Abu Qatada concludes.

Drinking coffee together, we end our chat with Abu Qatada. We drive away trying to make sense of the so-called spiritual father of al Qaeda in Europe apparently being against attacks against innocent civilians or terrorism essentially. We wait to hear if he will deny having said it or quietly accept his words in print—hopefully not used to harm the legitimate bases of his cause in any way.

Reference for this Article: Speckhard, Anne (February 14, 2018) Another face of Abu Qatada: Speaking on the Principle of Terrorism. ICSVE Research Reportshttp://www.icsve.org/research-reports/another-face-of-abu-qatada-speaking-on-the-principle-of-terrorism/

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). She has interviewed over 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and many countries in Europe. She is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Follow @AnneSpeckhard

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Terrorism

Human rights must be ‘front and centre’ in the fight against terrorism

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A family runs across a dusty street in Herat, Afghanistan. (file photo) UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya

Responses to terrorism must be anchored in the rule of law, human rights, and gender equality to ensure their effectiveness, Secretary-General António Guterres told a UN-backed counter-terrorism meeting that opened in Málaga, Spain, on Tuesday. 

“As a moral duty, a legal obligation, and a strategic imperative – let’s put human rights where they belong: Front and centre in the fight against terror,” Mr. Guterres said in a video message to the High-Level International conference on Human Rights, Civil Society and Counter-Terrorism

The two-day event is taking place against the backdrop of the growing threat of terrorism across the globe, and the resulting increase in related legislation and policies. 

Assault on human rights 

During the conference, governments, international organizations, civil society and human rights defenders will examine how to formulate terrorism responses that comply with human rights and the rule of law, and ensure meaningful participation of civil society in counter-terrorism efforts. 

“This gathering reflects a central truth. Terrorism is not only an attack on innocent people. It represents an all-out assault on human rights,” said the Secretary-General. 

The threat is growing and global, he added, listing examples such as the continued expansion of Da’esh and Al-Qaeda in Africa, and resurgent terrorism in Afghanistan. 

The UN chief spoke of how extremist groups are targeting women and girls with gender-based violence, including sexual violence, while terrorists are also using technology to “spread and export lies, hatred and division at the touch of a button.” 

Meanwhile, xenophobia, racism and cultural and religious intolerance are accelerating. 

Reaffirm core values 

Mr. Guterres warned that at the same time, global responses to terrorism can make things worse. 

“In the name of security, humanitarian aid is often blocked – increasing human suffering. Civil society and human rights defenders are silenced – particularly women. And survivors of terrorism and violence are left without the support and access to justice they need to rebuild their lives,” he said. 

The Secretary-General called for reaffirming commitment to core values, including by investing in health, education, protection, gender equality, and justice systems that are accessible to all people. 

This must also include safeguarding humanitarian action, respecting international law and “opening the door to civil society – and especially women – to meaningfully engage with counter-terrorism efforts.” 

Ensuring long-term efforts 

The high-level conference is jointly organized by the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) and Spain. 

In his opening remarks, Mr. Vladimir Voronkov, UN Under-Secretary-General for Counter-Terrorism, stressed that “countering terrorism helps protect human rights, but only if human rights are protected while countering terrorism.”  

Moreover, he added the violation or abuse of human rights only plays into terrorists’ hands, as they seek to provoke heavy-handed and indiscriminate responses from security forces. 

“Terrorists do this with the aim of undermining public confidence in the ability of governments to protect their own citizens.  That is why a human rights-based approach is not aimed at challenging or frustrating counterterrorism initiatives,” he said. 

“On the contrary, it’s essential to ensure effective, long-term, and sustainable counter-terrorism efforts.” 

Global strategy 

The conference follows a virtual dialogue held last year with human rights and civil society partners, also convened by the UNOCT and Spain.   

Several thematic sessions will focus on issues such as human rights, the rule of law and principled humanitarian action in the context of counter-terrorism efforts; and support for victims and survivors of terrorism. 

Prior to the opening, a workshop and six side events were held to accelerate momentum and commitment towards implementing the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in a balanced manner. 

The strategy, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006, includes measures that range from strengthening State capacity to counter terrorist threats to and better coordinating the UN’s System’s counter-terrorism activities. 

The Foreign Minister of Spain, José Manuel Albares Bueno, who also addressed the opening ceremony, expressed high hopes for the conference.  

“The diversity of the themes is a true reflection of the comprehensive nature of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in its seventh review, which was co-facilitated by Spain and adopted by consensus by the General Assembly in June last year,” he said. 

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Terrorism

The UK’s “Separation Centres”: Re-visiting counter-terror measures

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afghanistan terrorism

Prisons are breeding grounds for radicalisation within their walls and recruitment for terrorism acts carried out post the inmates’ release. The leaders’ personality and ability to cultivate a cult-like following among the potential recruits mould the fruition or failure of these security threats worldwide. While this is not a novel security challenge, as the following portion about the rise of the Islamic State attests, the Boris Johnson-led administration appears to now bolster its efforts to confront the complex reality.

For example, the emergence of the Islamic State traces its roots to Camp Bucca in Iraq, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its earliest leader, received absolute leeway in conducting his virulent sermons and fomented the surge in radical recruits. His followers eventually assumed leadership positions in one of the deadliest terrorist outfits of the modern era. However, the prison officials had essentially allowed him to run amuck due to his ability to contain in-fighting and resolve tensions between his fellow jihadist prisoners, despite his record of violence displayed during the Sunni insurgency after the United States-led invasion in 2003. Having found themselves in a foreign land and inadept at recognising the socio-cultural and sectarian sensitivities, the American officials presumably refrained from challenging the status quo that had emerged within the camp to minimise tensions and violent episodes engulfing the Iraqi state. However, this meant that the radical Islamist narrative spun by him and disseminated by his followers played a central role in laying the foundations of the carnage and the now dismantled “caliphate” that would follow suit.

The United Kingdom’s (UK) counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation strategy is now being revamped. Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, has announced the strengthening of a team, to the tune of £1.2 million, to assist the British government in devising a framework to segregate radically influential and “charismatic” Islamist terrorists from at-risk inmates serving their sentence. This would primarily happen by isolating them in specialised centres to house such high-risk prisoners. Nevertheless, there is a catch. The challenge that this administration will face is in determining who poses a substantial threat and will find a place in the centres. Although three of them are currently operational, until April 2022, only 15 individuals in one prison have made it to the list.

Mr. Raab asserted that the current dispensation is “going to take a more decisive approach in [our] prisons, not allowing cultural and religious sensitivities to deter [us] from nipping in the bud early signs of terrorist risk.” He argued his case by underlining how the right to socialise in prisons traditionally accorded as per the Human Rights Act would remain suspended. In addition, inmates making their arguments against their referrals to such centres would find it a mounting challenge to plead their claims successfully. Furthermore, the empowered Prison Governors will notably have considerable authority to strike down any attempts by radical inmates to undermine national security and instigate chaos spurred by radicalisation.

Driving the policy change

On the surface, this comes on the heels of the recommendations made by Jonathan Hall QC, an independent reviewer of terrorist activities in Welsh and English prisons. Nevertheless, it is improbable to disassociate this policy decision from the debates concerning the viability of Prevent, which is a core tenet of the UK’s counter-radicalisation strategy. It was initially introduced in 2003 by former Prime Minister Mr. Tony Blair. Understandably, the brutal assassination of former parliamentarian Sir David Amess in October 2021 and the subsequent conviction of Ali Harbi Ali for life, the perpetrator in April 2022, have triggered the incumbent administration to counter the catapulting national security crisis decisively.

On the other hand, violent incidents within jails in the recent past are the root of why Mr. Raab appears driven to confront this dilemma head-on. In May 2020, HMP Belmarsh’s-High Security Unit, one of the most secure prisons countrywide, witnessed a horrifying attack on Paul Edwards, a prison officer. He nearly lost his life due to a near-fatal assault by a trio of inmates. He was punched, thrashed, and struck with a chair after Hashem Abedi (the “emir” and brother to Salman Abedi; the Manchester Arena bomber), Muhammed Saeed, and Ahmed Hassan (Parsons Green Bomber) stormed his office. Led by Abedi, Saeed and Hassan were radicalised to retaliate against perceived unfair treatment by prison authorities.

Reportedly, these individuals were housed along with other violent criminals, sowing seeds for intensifying attacks, where discussions about their upcoming trials and information about jihad and terrorism were frequently exchanged. 

What is worrisome is that this prison has served as the scene for a spill-over to its other corners. Mohiussunath Chowdhury, who was imprisoned in HMP Belmarsh on terrorism charges after his sword attack on police officers stationed outside the Buckingham Palace in 2017, had a close affiliation with fellow jihadis, including Hassan, Abedi, and Mohammed Emwazi, the Islamic State terrorist infamously known as “Jihadi John.” He was re-convicted in 2020 for planning terrorist attacks after being cleared of prior charges in 2018. Additionally, Sudesh Amman, who stabbed two people and was subsequently shot dead in February 2020, also had a prior conviction.  He was jailed for possession and dissemination of terrorist propaganda, before securing an early release days before his knife attack. He and Chowdhary were imprisoned around the same time.

It is equally problematic to discover that Anjem Choudhary, a militant and radical Islamist preacher who, until recently, was banned from making public speeches, and Usman Khan, the London Bridge attacker, are the by-products of a militant Islamist climate cultivated within the same prison as terrorists mentioned above. Khan and Choudhury also spoke alongside each other at a conference in 2009 about Sharia. Individuals like Khan were also mandated to undergo a de-radicalisation initiative termed “Desistance and Disengagement Programme” alongside his fellow detainees.

The Do’s of counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation success & the need for overhaul

These are only a few of several examples within one prison to delineate why the British government is attempting to revamp its counter-terrorism strategy. Under a common roof, the amalgamation and collusion of violent extremist beliefs, followed by constant reinforcement undermines the stable ecosystem within and outside prisons. Moreover, despite their resources an well-trained personnel, the security agencies – MI5 and MI6 require adequate preparation and time to re-engage and subdue such terrorists between their release and their subsequent targeted attacks. During that time frame, these radicalised individuals persons have the potential for these radicalised persons to inflict more violence than before.

Therefore, the government’s rationale is evident and well-understood.

Overall, the presumption is that if such “separation centres” are set up and all high-risk terrorists isolated, the violence within and outside jails will become manageable, if not completely eradicated. This would provide the government, law enforcement, and security agencies sufficient room to re-allocate their resources and personnel towards nipping in the bud any potential radicalised recruits in the public domain before they join violent extremist organisations or carry out terrorist acts. It will also prevent the radicalisation of violent criminals and pre-trial prisoners as they remain disassociated from radical elements.

However, to ensure the centres’ success, challenges such as overcrowding, shortage of specially trained armed and civilian personnel (including de-radicalisation experts), and insufficient funds to procure advanced surveillance for monitoring the detainees’ daily activities need to be overcome. The government must also ensure that it sets up a core committee, comprising a therapists, a prison official, and a social welfare worker, and a law-enforcement and security officer (each), for each of these centres. In addition, 4 to 5 members to evaluate the successes and challenges after every months and accordingly underscore the scope of improvement and loopholes the centres face is also required. Only through a state of heightened monitoring, and constant re-evaluation can the administration hope to weed out terrorism and radicalisation from mainstream society and its fringes. Additionally, the political will of subsequent leaders and perseverance of MI5 and MI6 will also have a significant contribution to determining whether this initiative succeeds or whether is doomed to fail.

On the other hand, in conjunction with the government, the prison officials must also ensure prisoners being housed in such centres should not come into contact, particularly through illicit means, lest they develop a jihadist solidarity, strengthen their beliefs, and harm those safeguarding these places. Moreover, parameters, including the number of people these high-risk individuals have radicalised within and outside prisons, and those who have committed terrorist attacks post their release, the rigidity of their ideological indoctrination, record of violence, cyber activities, conduct as inmates, and the severity of crimes for which they have been convicted, should collectively feature into the framework laid down to decide who will be referred to the separation centres.

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Terrorism

U.S. Hunts Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi Groups

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KTJ Uzbek jihadists

The US Department of the Treasury and the State Department successfully and effectively conduct counter-terrorism operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups, putting constant and systematic pressure on them. The war on terrorism is fought on many fronts: diplomatic, intelligence, covert, sanctions, law enforcement, and military. Over the past two decades, the US designated the most vocal and violent Islamist extremist groups from Central Asia as the “Specially Designated Terrorist” (SDT) и “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” (FTO). Under the provision of the Act “Farrakhan Amendment,” US law enforcement freezes any assets and finances of global terrorist groups, designated SDT and FTO. The US has recently added the Uzbek jihadi group of Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad to global terrorist organizations.

US designated Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad

On March 7, 2022, the US Department of State added Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi group Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorist organizations. In addition to this designation, KTJ has been added to the UN Security Council’s ISIS and al-Qaeda sanctions list, which requires all UN member states to implement an asset freeze, a travel ban, and an arms embargo against Uzbek jihadist of KTJ.

The US designation noted that “al Qaeda-affiliated KTJ operates in Syria’s Idlib Province alongside Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and cooperates with other designated terrorist groups such as Katibat al-Imam al-Bukhari (KIB) and Islamic Jihad Group (IJG)” from the post-Soviet Central Asia.

The US Department of State’s statement also noted that “in addition to engaging in terrorist activities in Syria, KTJ has also been responsible for conducting external attacks, such as the St. Petersburg metro attack in Russia in April 2017 which killed 14 passengers and injured 50 others, as well as a suicide car bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan’s capital of Bishkek in August 2016 which wounded three people.”

The State Department further stated that as a result of the designation, all property and interests in property of KTJ are blocked, and foreign financial institutions that conduct any transaction on behalf of KTJ could also be subject to US sanctions.

Uzbek Jihadists in Syria denounce US designation of KTJ

On March 13, a week after the State Department designated KTJ as a global terrorist organization, the Shura Council of KTJ released a statement denouncing the US move. In its own statement, which was released on its Telegram channel, the major Uzbek jihadi faction questions the greatness of the US, as their decision was unfair. The KTJ states that “no matter how powerful a government or society might be, it will not be great in the eyes of people if it does not rule with justice and eliminate oppression.”

Uzbek Jihadi group in Syria denounces its designation by the US and claims that “KTJ consists of people who responded to the cries of the oppressed in Syria, because protecting the oppressed people is the duty of all humanity.”

KTJ leader Abdul Aziz al Uzbeki

The major Central Asian militant group further asserted that “it is not the policy of KTJ to launch attacks outside Syria” and its members have nothing to do with the suicide attacks on Russia’s St. Petersburg metro and the Chinese embassy in Bishkek in 20016-2017. At the end of their statement, KTJ ideologists claim that “our group does not belong to al-Qaeda or ISIS.” However, this claim is absolutely false.

It is noteworthy that al-Qaeda became the ideological mentor and inspirer of Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik radical Islamists from the Fergana Valley, opening the door to global jihad. KTJ was created by Sirojiddin Mukhtarov (alias Abu Saloh), an influential ethnic Uzbek jihadi Salafist from Kyrgyzstan’s Osh region, in northern Syria in 2013. Under his leadership, KTJ pledged allegiance (Bayat) to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri and joined the Al Nusrah Front in September 2015. Al Nusrah was an official branch of al-Qaeda in Syria at the time which described itself as al-Qaeda in the Levant.

During the preparation of this material, a group of experts on political Islam listened to KTJ’s bayat once again, in which Abu Saloh clearly pronounced the name Ayman al-Zawahiri and swore allegiance to al-Qaeda. Despite the fact that al-Qaeda and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the successor of al-Nusra, parted ways ‘peacefully’ in 2016, the Uzbek battalion remains loyal to al-Qaeda. KTJ has never disavowed its bayat to Ayman al-Zawahiri. Moreover, during this time, KTJ demonstrated its deft ability to spread the al-Qaeda ideology into the Fergana Valley and among Central Asian migrants in Russia.

To date, KTJ is the most combat-ready, well-equipped and largest foreign battalion in Idlib province, on a par with the Uyghur Salafi-Jihadi group of Turkestan Islamic Party from Chinese Xinjiang. Both are waging jihad under HTS’s auspices against Bashar al-Assad regime. The approximate number of Uzbek militants is about 500 people. It is known that long a hotbed of armed resistance and a center of al-Qaeda-related operations, northwest Syria has become a safe haven for Uyghur, Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz militants and their families.

The KTJ current leader Ilmurad Khikmatov (alias Abdul Aziz al-Uzbeki) is also one of al-Qaeda’s devoted followers. In April 2019, Abdul Aziz, an ethnic Uzbek of the Fergana Valley and former deputy emir of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) in Afghanistan, was elected the new leader of KTJ. According to a UN Security Council’s report dated 3 February, 2022, “KTJ’s capability is undermined by conflict between the current group leader Abdul Aziz and the former group emir Abu Saloh.” But this is a superficial assessment of the situation taking place among the Uzbek jihadists in Syria.

Noteworthy, Abu Saloh was removed from the leadership of KTJ under pressure of HTS for openly supporting its strongest jihadi opponent, al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din (HD), which directly challenged the leader of HTS Abu Mohammad al-Jolani. It is also known that KTJ new leader Abdul Aziz swore bayat to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Afg-Pak border zone as member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in 2008. Indeed, at that time, IMU became one of the strongest non-Arab al-Qaeda-linked groups in Central and South Asia. Abdul Aziz trained at the Haqqani Network’s military hub of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, which also hosted an al-Qaeda camp.

So, militant Salafism is the fundamental basis of KTJ’s jihadi ideology. In accordance with its ideological doctrine, the group aims to overthrow the five “tahut” (godless) regimes of post-Soviet Central Asia and build a single Caliphate with Sharia rule in the Fergana Valley. During the Jummah Khutbah, the new imam of KTJ and its major ideologist, Ahluddin Navqotiy, constantly glorifies Jihadi-Salafi scholars from the medieval to the present, such as Ibn Taymiyyah, Muḥammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Sayyid Qutb, al-Qaeda’s senior figures such as Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, Abu Yahya al Libi, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and prominent modern jihadi thinkers Abu Qatada al-Falastini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.

Thus, KTJ’s claim of no ties to al-Qaeda is a complete lie. Today, Uzbek jihadists of KTJ continue to benefit from close and trusted ties to al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the HTS, who act as an ideological mentor and militant umbrella for many foreign fighter groups from Central Asia and the Caucasus.

US continues pressure on Central Asian jihadi groups

This is not the first time that the US government has designated Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups as a global terrorist organization and imposed sanctions against them. It is known, the US State Department has designated the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list on September 25, 2000. The IMU was the veteran of the Central Asian jihad, first paving the hijrat to Afghanistan and establishing close relations with the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and al Qaeda in 1998. The IMU leader Tahir Yuldash (2009) and its military emir Juma Namangoni (2001) were killed as a result of US missile airstrike.

On June 17, 2005, the US State Department designated the Islamic Jihad Union to the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list. The IJU is a splinter faction of the IMU, and a substantial number of its members are from Central Asia. The IJU has been waging jihad in the Afghan-Pakistan region for more than a decade. It maintains close ties with al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. The US missile airstrike has killed several top IJU leaders, including its emir, Najmuddin Jalolov, in drone strikes in North Waziristan 2009.

According to the recent UN Security Council report, “IJU actively participated in fighting alongside the Taliban in the capture of Kabul and therefore its fighters now experiencing greater freedom of movement in the country. IJU, led by Ilimbek Mamatov, a Kyrgyz national, and his deputy, Amsattor Atabaev, of Tajikistan, is assessed to be the most combat-ready Central Asian group in Afghanistan. It operates primarily in Badakhshan, Baghlan and Kunduz Provinces.” Further, the UN report notes that “Central Asian embassies based in Afghanistan have observed with concern that several leaders of IJU have travelled freely to Kabul. In September 2021, Mamatov and Dekhanov separately visited Kabul.”

On December 29, 2004, the US State Department designated Uyghur Salafi-Jihadi group the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement to the Terrorist Exclusion List (TEL). The group leaders Hassan Mahsum (2003) and Abdul Shakur al-Turkistani (2012) were killed in US drone strike. However, on November 5, 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo removed ETIM from the Terrorist Exclusion List in accordance with the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

On March 22, 2018, the US State Department designated Uzbek jihadi group Katibat Imam al Bukhari to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorist organizations. Currently KIB wages jihad in Syria under the HTS umbrella against the Bashar al-Asad regime. KIB is now led by ethnic Uzbek from Tajikistan, Abu Yusuf al-Muhajir, who has a close and trusting relations with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Minister of the Interior of the Taliban government and leader of the powerful al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network. The group also operates in northern Afghanistan, specifically Faryab, or other ethnically Uzbek areas. KIB, like the IJU and KTJ, is also a splinter of the IMU and pledged loyalty to the Taliban.

In conclusion, the US government’s designation of Central Asian and Caucasian Salafi-Jihadi groups as a global terrorist organization provides a positive impetus to global counterterrorism efforts. Such a move will certainly help the governments of Central Asia and the Middle East in cutting off the channels of financial, material and military assistance to extremist groups associated with al-Qaeda and ISIS.

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