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

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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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

Who are the Real Terrorists in North East Syria?

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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Earlier this week President Trump abruptly changed course and green-lighted a Turkish incursion into north east Syria with disastrous results. The subsequent invasion has unleashed a hellish nightmare of carnage and chaos in what was a dangerous, but relatively peaceful, area governed by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who had just defeated ISIS territorially.

In recent days, over 30 civilians—including Kurds, Christians and minorities, and very young children—have been killed in indiscriminate Turkish bombings and mortar fire. Likewise, the UN reports that over 130,000 Syrians have suddenly become displaced, fleeing Turkish violence. In addition to these massive displacements, Turkey insists that it will forcibly repatriate 1 to 2 million of the 3 million Syrian refugees it is currently housing back into the SDF-held areas it is now overtaking. That 83% of these Arabs never lived in the areas they are to be forcibly resettled in, begs the question of whose homes and lands will they be overtaking? 

Turkey claims to be fighting a terrorist group and wanting to clean their border area of terrorists, but the pictures coming out of northeast Syria instead make Turkey look like the terrorist aggressor. Countless photos and videos, many of them validated, circulate of Syrian civilians lying bloodied and dead on the ground while their family members wail unconsolably. Hevrin Khalaf, a female, and the Secretary-General of the pro-Kurdish Future Syria Party, is reported to have been dragged from her car and assassinated by Turkish-hired thugs who said while filming her corpse, “this is the corpse of pigs.” Likewise, video footage of bearded mercenary soldiers backed by the Turks, shooting their Kurdish captives while calling them “kufar scum” (unbelievers) are said by U.S. forces to appear authentic. If so, these actions are war crimes.

These bearded assassins, backed by Turkey are likely the same unemployed ISIS, al Nusra, and other former jihadists still happy to kill in the name of Allah, who Turkey used to clear Afrin in 2018. Indeed, they have shown a brutality akin to their mother groups, some even shouting ISIS slogans as they kill, such as “Baqiya wa tatamadad!” meaning we (ISIS) will remain forever, and expand. 

That Turkey would use former ISIS cadres to fight the Kurds is no surprise, given they worked closely with ISIS to try to quell the Kurds early on in the Syrian conflicts and continue to see their interests in destroying Kurdish power to lie with militant jihadist and Islamist groups. An ISIS emir that ICSVE interviewed in 2019 went into great detail about his work on behalf of ISIS, about how he negotiated with the Turkish MIT and military regarding border entry for the 40,000+ foreign fighters that streamed across Turkey into ISIS-controlled areas of Syria, agreements for sending wounded ISIS fighters back into Turkey for medical treatment, supplying water for the Tabqa dam to provide electrical power for ISIS, and so on. According to this emir, even then, Turkey was insisting on a buffer security zone. Now it appears they will go to any lengths to get it.

Meanwhile, General Mazloum Kobani Abdi told U.S. Ambassador William Roebuck, the U.S. Deputy Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS “You have given up on us. You are leaving us to be slaughtered.” He also asked in confused despair how the U.S. could also insist that the Kurds not turn to others, like the Russians for support, effectively boxing them in for slaughter.

When ISIS foolishly attacked Kobani in 2014, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) rose up and fought valiantly and since 2015, they fought with U.S. military backing, to defeat ISIS.  They have been our “boots on the ground”, sustaining most of the casualties and doing all the heavy lifting in defeating a global foe. While U.S. forces lost less than 20 troops after they aligned with the Kurds to fight ISIS in Syria, our hardy allies lost 11,000 male and female brave fighters who faced down this global foe.

Indeed, while ISIS was an active force on the ground in Syria, it external emni (intelligence arm), threatened the globe, mounting and inciting attacks in many major cities from New York, to Brussels (where two Americans were killed), to Paris, Nice, Stockholm, London and Istanbul to name but a few.

In serving as our “boots on the ground” forces for the territorial defeat of ISIS, and continuing to battle the remnants of ISIS, the Kurds saved, and continue to save, countless Americans and Westerners from being slaughtered by a heinous force willing to attack, anywhere, at any time.  

Yet their current aggressor, Turkey, calls these Kurds terrorists. That picking up arms against ISIS gave them the sudden opportunity to rule a considerable swathe of Syrian land that they had liberated from ISIS is no one’s fault, except those who supported ISIS in the first place—Turkish government officials among them. No doubt, the Kurds once in power, made some mistakes, but it is notable how quickly they moved to incorporating minorities into their ranks and transitioning to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who have had a good record of building a grassroots democracy amidst the ashes of war. That their majority Kurdish leadership may have long-term aspirations to one day become a fully independent Kurdish state should be no surprise, but that they were acquiescing to all U.S. demands upon them to remain within Syria and negotiate some kind of governance agreement with Assad also needs to be noted. The trouble in that regard, is Assad wants to appoint top-down leaders in the area and thereby destroy the grass-roots nature of the Kurdish democracy building. From a position of strength and good governance, with U.S. backing behind them, the SDF had a chance of becoming a real island of democracy, perhaps even one day spreading such, within the Syrian state.

In the meantime, with ISIS defeated territorially, ISIS is still far from total defeat. In recent months ISIS has been attacking on a weekly basis in both Syria and Iraq, and the SDF were busy rounding up ISIS sleeper cells while also holding more than 70,000 ISIS prisoners and their family members, thousands of which are from European and Western countries who have refused to repatriate and bring them home to justice.

Now, amidst the chaos unleashed by Turkey, up to 800 ISIS cadres have escaped when their prison was shelled, with hundreds more ISIS women and children escaping from their bombed and burning camps. Where they will run to amidst the chaos is uncertain, but Turkey and beyond, is certainly a possibility given that when cornered in Hajin, and later Baghouz, SDF leaders told ICSVE that ISIS leaders were asking to be bussed out of Syria into Turkey—presumably believing they would be welcomed into a country that had helped them in the past. 

500 of the worse ISIS cadres are said to have been transferred by U.S. forces from Syria, into Iraq, and possibly more will befall the same fate. For those of us who still believe in human rights and rule of law, even when applied to ISIS cadres, it’s unfortunate that in Iraq these prisoners—many of them Westerners—can expect forced confessions, hurried court proceedings and almost certainly sentence of life imprisonment, or death, based on very little, if any, evidence presented against them. Whereas, in our ISIS interviews conducted in SDF territory, with 100 of the ISIS foreign terrorist fighters, the prisoners stated that they were not being subjected to torture and were fairly treated by the SDF. Likewise, the SDF was working patiently, including in efforts with ICSVE, to gather testimonies and data to prod Western countries into action that have been reluctant to take their ISIS citizens home for prosecution.

While the SDF could only do its important work with U.S. support, this support was not costing us much. Few troops were deployed on the ground and our air support was operating out of Iraq, where it is likely the U.S. forces will stay for some time. That we should not involve ourselves in endless wars or that the troops need to come home is something most agree with, but how and when is also of great importance.

Any U.S. withdrawal of support for the SDF should only occur because they are no longer serving our interests and must take place in a planful and secure manner without allowing for an all-out slaughter of civilians or of the allied forces who, by fighting ISIS, saved Americans countless lives.

Given that the Kurds sacrificed greatly to defeat ISIS territorially on the ground, and when in power, began at once to build one of the only democracies in the middle east that is respecting minority rights and following Western rule of law, while being surrounded by dictatorial and corrupt regimes, it seems we should have continued to give them our full support. Instead Trump has unleashed Turkish forces on a group that Turkey universally treats as terrorists and is willing to violently displace and kill. This sudden betrayal of our loyal allies is a matter that needs to be quickly resolved in Washington, D.C. 

Our American ideals, and our reputation as stalwart and reliable allies, are at stake right now, and this disastrous decision needs to be reversed immediately.  

From our partner ICSVE Brief Reports.

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Terrorism

Strategies for combating international terrorism in Central Asia

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After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asia has been cast as the site of a new “great game”. Central Asia has been largely influenced by international developments and the emergence of persistent sources of instability and tension in other parts of the world, including the Middle East and North Africa. Some states in the region have succeeded in expanding their relationships with other actors. For example, Kazakhstan has tried to advance its goals by participating in important international issues and designing appropriate policies. Although Kazakhstan has succeeded in this path, most of the countries in the region face major challenges.

At the moment, Central Asian states are facing serious menaces to their security from various challenges like drug trafficking, water disputes, religious fundamentalism and expansion of terrorist and takfiri groups such as ISIS.

Given the increased risk of terrorist groups infiltrating the region, the key question is: “What strategies exist to counter international terrorism in the Central Asian region?” This study suggest that an integrated long-term strategy is an effective and comprehensive way to combat international terrorism.

Central Asia and international terrorism

The war in Syria and Iraq has significantly altered modern terrorism, with radical Islamic militants from Central Asia being no exception. Most importantly, for the first time travelling outside of the region to fight in the ranks of militant and terrorist organisations became a mass phenomenon. In Syria, the radical Islamic militants from Central Asia have established terrorist organisations of their own. These terrorists have Salafi-Wahhabi inclinations and are among the backers of al-Qaeda, al-Nusra Front, and Daesh Takfiri groups. They have turned into a potential threat for countries in Central Asia as these international and organized terrorists may one day find their way to other regions and states after Syria. 

Activities of extremist networks which send their members and devotees to Syria have a determining role in the region. Many of the foreign rebels operating in Syria had links to these groups in their own countries. A portion of them are being encouraged by their relatives and friends in Syria to join the ranks of the Takfiri militants, especially older brothers motivate the younger ones to join the terrorists.

The terrorists’ method for recruiting forces is almost the same in most of the countries in the Central Asia. They usually do this through local sources and Islamist groups and organizations that have close ties with al-Qaeda, Salafists and Wahhabists. However, this is not done openly.

A number of terrorist groups are tasked with recruiting individuals to send them to fight in Syria. In fact, all terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and the al-Tahrir Party are busy with the recruitment. The Takfiri groups of al-Nusra Front and the so-called Islamic Jihad Union are also employing nationals from Central Asia. In some countries, the process of employment is done through indigenous people. For instance, one-third of all Kyrgyz people who have traveled to Saudi Arabia in pursuance of religious education have turned into extremist Salafi-Wahhabi preachers in Kyrgyzstan. That is why today the Kyrgyz are employing their people to prevent this. 

The Challenges of Combating Terrorism in Central Asia

Fighting terrorist threats in Central Asia is a complex issue. To counter these threats, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian governments have been reevaluating their national counter-terrorism strategies. Counter-terrorism cooperation under the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has its limits because not all the Central Asian governments are members of the organizations. Also these strategies have been mainly established to counter-terrorism within the member states, not the ones stemming from other regions. 

On the other hand, some external actors play a destructive role in improving the security situation in the region. Indeed none of the great powers are not serious fight against terrorism. At present, the security conditions of the region can be made more complicated for several reasons:

First, the spread of terrorism and extremist groups;
Second, U.S. competition to increase penetration;
Third, ISIS’s willingness to be present in the region;
Fourth, the presence of people from the countries of Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the ranks of ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria;

Iran and Fighting Terrorism in Central Asia

The rising threats of extremism in Central Asia represent a strong menace for Iran interests. Due to the increasing presence of ISIS forces in Afghanistan, the security of Central Asia remains a top priority on the Iran security agenda. The Iran-Central Asia Strategy should include in its objectives the challenges of foreign fighters and radicalization, drug trafficking and organized crime, and conflicts that require cooperation between Central Asia and Iran.

No one and no country can deny the constructive and positive role of Iran in fighting the scourge of terrorism in the region and the world. Iran’s efforts and assistance to regional countries have helped reign in the violence and bloodshed of ISIS terrorist group in various parts of the world by bringing the self-proclaimed statehood of ISIS to an end in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic Republic of Iran will continue to advocate dialogue, cooperation and trust among regional countries as the only viable way to end terrorism and devastating wars in the Middle East. In result no country would benefit from weakening Iran in the region.

In the past years, Iran has acted as a buffer zone and has prevented the entry of terrorist groups from Middle East to Central Asia. Iran has always tried to fight with terrorist and takfiri groups. Among foreign actors in the region Iran and Russia have a good cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Iran and Russia are winning the Fight against Terrorism in Syria. Undoubtedly Iran and Russia can offer their experience in combating terrorism to Central Asian countries.

Conclusion

No doubt, security, peace and respect for the sovereignty of countries, as well non-interference in their internal affairs, and an effective fight against terrorism without double standards will be in the interest of all countries in the world.

Fight against Terrorism Requires a holistic and coordinated approach. For the implementation of the international Counter Terrorism Strategy in Central Asia need a Regional Joint Action Plan. Integrating counter-terrorism strategy to political, economic and social development policies is an important part of the comprehensive approach.

In order to combat terrorism in Central Asia, there are a few issues to consider:

1. All States in region to combat terrorism must take coordinated action.

2. Fighting terrorism in Central Asia will not succeed without creating peace and stability in Afghanistan.

3. Combating terrorism requires the formation of a regional and international coalition with States that really have a concern for countering terrorism, not the countries that have been sponsors of terrorist groups.

4. The fight against terrorism requires the use of past experiences in this regard. Iran and Russia have considerable experience in combating terrorism.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Terrorism

Fighting Terrorism Online: EU Internet Forum committed to an EU-wide Crisis Protocol

MD Staff

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The participants of the 5th EU Internet Forum, hosted by Commissioners Avramopoulos and King, have committed to an EU Crisis Protocol – a rapid response to contain the viral spread of terrorist and violent extremist content online. The Commission, Member States and online service providers, including Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Dropbox, JustPaste.it and Snap have committed to working together on a voluntary basis within the framework set out by the Crisis Protocol, while ensuring strong data protection and fundamental rights safeguards. The EU Internet Forum also discussed the overall progress made in ensuring the removal of terrorist content online since its last meeting in December 2018 as well as how to strengthen cooperation on other challenges, such as child sexual exploitation online.

Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos said: “Since I launched the EU Internet Forum 4 years ago, it has gone from strength to strength, offering Member States and online platforms an effective framework to work together to tackle terrorist content online. We have managed to build a strong relationship of trust and mutual understanding with the internet platforms. I am pleased with the progress we are making and the remarkable results we have achieved. Today, we are taking this cooperation another step further with an EU Crisis Protocol. With this, we will be ready to act quickly, effectively and in a more coordinated way to stop the spread of terrorist content.”   

Commissioner for the Security Union Julian King added: “The events in New Zealand earlier this year were a stark reminder that terrorist content spreads online at a tremendous speed. While our response might be quick, it isn’t quick enough. The Protocol is an EU response to contain the havoc created by such events – in a coordinated way.”

In the aftermath of the terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, government leaders and online platforms agreed on the Christchurch Call for Action. On this occasion, President Juncker announced the development of an EU Crisis Protocol in the context of the EU Internet Forum. The EU Protocol will allow Member States and online platforms to respond rapidly and in a coordinated manner to the dissemination of terrorist content online in the event of a terrorist attack.

The EU Crisis Protocol endorsed by the EU Internet Forum today will:

    Provide a coordinated and rapid reaction: Member States’ authorities, together with Europol, the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) and online service providers will be able to respond quickly, in a coordinated manner to ensure that the spread of terrorist or violent extremist content is swiftly contained.

    Facilitate public and private sector cooperation: In the event of a crisis, law enforcement authorities and online service providers will share relevant information on the online content (e.g., URLs, audio-visual media, and metadata) on a voluntary basis, in a secure way and in real time.

    Facilitate a voluntary arrangement: The Protocol does not replace national legal frameworks or existing national crisis management mechanisms. It should apply only to extraordinary situations where those national measures are no longer sufficient to coordinate a rapid and cross-border response.

The EU Internet Forum also discussed the overall progress made in ensuring the removal of terrorist content online since its last meeting in December 2018 and looked at the emerging challenges. This included, for the first time, a discussion on the global threat of online child sexual abuse and exploitation. Cooperation between public authorities and online platforms is key to fight against these horrible crimes effectively. Participants also took stock of the work to tackle the challenges presented by right wing extremism and the radicalising effect of violent political discourse.

Background

The EU Internet Forum was launched by Commissioner Avramopoulos in December 2015 to address internet misuse by terrorist groups. It brings together EU Home Affairs Ministers, the internet industry and other stakeholders who work together voluntarily to address this complex issue. Since its creation, the EU Internet Forum meets annually to take stock of the progress made in removing terrorist content online and to discuss emerging challenges. In 2015, an efficient referral mechanism to flag and remove terrorist content online was created at Europol.

In 2016, at the EU Internet Forum, the industry announced the creation of the “database of hashes” to make removals permanent and irreversible. The database is a critical tool in stemming the spread of terrorist content online. Since its launch, the database has gathered over 200,000 hashes (pictures, videos, etc.) and has helped both large and small platforms to remove such content quickly.

President Juncker announced the development of the EU Protocol in Paris earlier this year when he attended a meeting of government leaders and CEOs of major online platforms that was co-hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

A first exercise to operationalise the Protocol already took place at Europol on 11 September 2019.

The EU Crisis Protocol will contribute to efforts undertaken at global level in the context of the Christchurch call, in particular the Crisis Response Protocol as announced in September at the margins of 2019 UNGA.

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