Tag Archives | benghazi

Not your grandma’s al-Qaeda

Don’t ignore the possibility that attacks against the U.S. in Egypt and Libya were coordinated.

On Tuesday, the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya and the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt came under attack.  In Cairo, an enraged mob, numbering — at first, about 50 — and later, hundreds, breached the embassy compound, took down the American flag and supposedly replaced it with al-Qaeda’s flag.  In Benghazi, the attack turned far more serious and resulted in the deaths of the U.S.’s ambassador to Libya, a consulate staffer, and two U.S. marines.

We are told that the reason behind the attacks was a movie entitled “Innocence of Muslims” by one Sam Bacile, an Israeli living in California, which depicts the Prophet Mohammed in poor light.  Excerpts of the movie have been published on Youtube, from where the attackers apparently first viewed its contents.  The film is being promoted by controversial pastor, Terry Jones, who was involved in the very public burning of the Quran, two years to the day of these recent attacks.

But mystery surrounds the person who is said to have directed the movie.  By some accounts, Sam Bacile has gone into hiding following the violent reaction to this film.  However, no current or historical records of the existence of an individual named Sam Bacile exist in the state of California or anywhere else in the U.S.  There are some suggestions that Sam Bacile might be a pseudonym of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a resident of Los Angeles.

News media in the U.S. has focused much of its energy on the Benghazi attack.  But earlier this morning, this blogger had tweeted that coordination between the attacks in Libya and Egypt cannot (and must not) be ruled out.  My contention was that these were per-meditated attacks against U.S. interests abroad on the anniversary of 9/11 and that the film itself may have offered an excuse to inflame passions, but was not the motive behind the attack.

Over the past many hours, U.S. officials have confirmed that they believe that the attack was planned in advance, and that protests merely offered a diversion.  The use of RPGs against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi makes this a distinct possibility.  In Egypt, Mohamed al-Zahwahiri, brother of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zahwahiri, claimed responsibility for the attack.  Mohamed al-Zahwahiri had only recently been released from prison, as part of the political upheaval following the so-called “Arab Spring” freedom movement in that country.  The irony is lost in the tragedy.

The attack in Benghazi is being linked to Ansar al-Shariah (AS), a group that has historically been affiliated with the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) umbrella.  AS continues to be active in Yemen and played a defining role in political realignments in Tunisia (as part of Asar al-Shariah in Tunisia, or AST), post the fall of the Ben Ali regime.

It could be likely, therefore, that militants from AST, already involved in the ouster of Muammar al-Qaddafi, were responsible for the attack, given the geographic proximity to Tunisia.  Both attacks bear the signature of al-Qaeda, or its affiliated groups.  Osama bin Laden may be long gone, but this isn’t the al-Qaeda of yore.

These events pose new challenges to the U.S. and other countries.  The threat vector of jihad is evolving.  A decade ago, al-Qaeda relied on a dedicated core of foot-soldiers to attack the U.S. and U.S.-interests — even at the cost of their own lives — around the world.  Today, a voluntary cadre of foot-soldiers, ready to forsake their own lives, may not be a necessity.

There is a growing trend of utilizing social media and the Internet to inflame public opinion, which can then be employed as the agent of attack.  Indeed, in India last month, the use of websites and SMSs to, at once, highlight the plight of Muslims in Myanmar and Assam, and terrorize Northeast Indians into leaving their adopted cities without over having to employ direct force indicates the evolving mindset of extremist organizations and state sponsors of terrorism.

The U.S., India and other like-minded countries would do well to take cognizance of these changing attack vectors and co-operate to address mutual and evolving threats.

 

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In Pragati: Bringing our citizens home

A very belated blogpost: in this month’s Pragati, I review India’s evacuation efforts as uprisings raged in Egypt and Libya.  While the government can indeed be pleased about the overall effectiveness of its response, there are lessons to be learned from the experience:

India is no stranger to security uncertainties in the Middle East. At the time of the first Gulf War, India had about 180,000 citizens living in Kuwait and 20,000 in Iraq. Over the course of the war, India dispatched ferries to Dubai and chartered Air India flights to Amman, Jordan to evacuate citizens from the region. Direct evacuation from Kuwait was impossible because of air and sea blockades by the US-led coalition, a point that drew repeated protests from Inder Kumar Gujral, then foreign minister. India incurred costs exceeding $1 billion, having evacuated over 100,000 citizens via 500 flights from Amman to Mumbai. Again, in 2006, when conflict broke out between Israel and Hizbullah in South Lebanon, India dispatched four warships of Task Force 54 (INS Mumbai, INS Brahmaputra, INS Betwa and INS Shakti) to rescue not only the 2,000 Indian citizens but also Sri Lankans and Nepalis, as part of Operation Sukoon.

[T]he bulk of India’s evacuation efforts were concentrated on Libya, where over 18,000 Indian citizens lived and worked. As anti-Gaddafi forces gained momentum in Benghazi, the MEA launched Operation Safe Homecoming on February 28, its largest evacuation exercise since the Gulf War. The initial focus of New Delhi’s efforts was Scotia Prince, a passenger ferry with a capacity of 1,200, chartered to evacuate its citizens from Benghazi and Eastern Libya to Alexandria, Egypt. From Alexandria, four special flights (including one Indian Air Force IL-76 transporter) operated to fly evacuees back to India. The Indian government also chartered MV Red Star One, which evacuated citizens to Malta, from where they were flown back to India via flights operated by Kingfisher and Jet Airways. [Pragati]

Read the article in its entirety in April 2011′s Pragati (webpage, pdf).

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India at the UNSC on Libya

India’s 50-50.

There has been considerable uproar on India’s decision to abstain from voting on the imposition of a No Fly Zone (NFZ) in Libya at the UNSC.  Some have suggested that the decision to abstain doesn’t bode well for a nation seeking a place at the high altar in the congress of nations.  India’s non-vote however, has short- and long-term implications, which need further consideration and analysis.

UNSC’s resolution No. 1973 on Libya reads as follows:

[T]he Council authorized Member States, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory — requesting them to immediately inform the Secretary-General of such measures. [UN]

India, in its explanation for abstaining from the vote indicated that its reservations were based partly on “far reaching” measures adopted by the UNSC.  Indeed, there is now indication that the inclusion of the phrase “all necessary measures” went beyond what the Arab League initially envisaged when it first appealed to the UNSC for an NFZ in Libya.  The resolution, for instance, did not rule out airstrikes against Col. Qaddafi’s land forces advancing towards  Benghazi.  It also empowered a collection of states (e.g., Britain and France, the Arab League) to act unilaterally against the Libyan army as it saw fit.

There now appear to be considerable gaps in perception on approach and objectives among the primary actors, U.S., Britain and France, and the Arab League.  The question that India must answer is whether or not it is in India’s interests to see a change in regime in Libya.  To be sure, Muammar Qaddafi has been a thorn in India’s flesh for many years — on clandestine nuclear co-operation with Pakistan, on Kashmir — but how certain is India that the alternative to Col. Qaddafi couldn’t be as bad, if not worse?

For many reasons, India’s economic interests in Libya are minimal.  Bilateral trade has steadily declined over the past several years.  Libya just about figures among India’s top 50 import partners*, right below the People’s Republic of Congo (we also export less to Libya than we do to any other Arab country*). India’s energy interests in Libya are not substantial when compared to other countries in the region, and recent reports indicate that ONGC Videsh and OIL had, or were in the process of  relinquishing their stakes in at least four exploration blocks in Libya.

On security issues, Libya has had a history of cooperation with Pakistan on financing and acquiring nuclear technology.  However, under agreement with the U.S. and in an apparent bid to end its international isolation, Tripoli surrendered its nuclear weapons components —  including centrifuges, uranium and sensitive documentation —  in 2004. Though, to be fair, Col. Qaddafi’s calculations on the utility of nuclear weapons may change, should he survive the uprising.  As for Col. Qaddafi’s periodic rants about Kashmir at international forums, they are about as likely to have an impact on the status of J&K as OIC’s time-honored traditions have had of routinely issuing statements of concern at the behest of Pakistan about J&K all these years.

Taking these arguments as a whole, India’s decision to abstain from the vote may not have been imprudent.  However, the issue of whether and to what extent the ruling coalition’s stance was influenced by what it considers “domestic political compulsions” requires discussion.  In the long-term, it raises troubling questions on what sort of a role India will likely play in shaping the world’s security.

If the ruling government abstained from the Libyan vote because of domestic sensitivities, then what is to stop it from doing likewise on any future UNSC votes against nations that may happen to be Arab?  To be candid, it is not Saudi Arabia that is going to favorably influence the UNSC to grant India permanent membership, even if a UNSC expansion were remotely likely.  Secondly, if India is going to abstain from every vote on contentious issues, they why even ask for a permanent seat at the high altar?  Contentious issues will always be put to vote at the UNSC, by the very nature of the Council.  The UNSC is hardly going to sit around debating whether India should be playing an extra bowler vs. Australia in the quarter finals of the World Cup.

It is no use saying India deserves a permanent seat at the UNSC because it represents 1/6th of humanity, if that 1/6th of humanity seldom expresses an opinion.  UNSC membership is not granted based on entitlement — if it were, there would be no place in it for either Britain or France.  While it would be impractical to expect domestic political compulsions not to play a role in how India conducts itself in international affairs, it must also recognize that its aspirations to be regarded as a global actor are untenable if it is not willing to pursue those hard choices that promote its national interests, but impact international or domestic political considerations.

* Department of Commerce, April 2010 — September 2010 figures

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