Friday, December 26, 2008

Huge Saudi Security Operation Foils Al-Qaida Plot Against Hajj - Afghanistan: The Arrogance and Ignorance - A Compelling Picture - Terrorists in Pakistan planning over 20 attacks on Britain

(Middle East Times Intelligence Correspondent )
Published: December 16, 2008
Saudi security officers monitor Hajj pilgrims through surveillance cameras in Mina valley, near Mecca, Saudi Arabia on Dec. 9 as some 3 million Muslims head to the holy city of Mecca to make the annual Hajj pilgrimage. (UPI)

Alerted by Saudi and other intelligence agencies that al-Qaida planned to launch a bloody assault on Muslim pilgrims taking part in the annual pilgrimage - the Hajj - the Saudi government last week launched a huge counterterrorism operation, one of the largest in recent memory, according to U.S. intelligence officials.

Over 3 million Muslims flocked to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage which retraces a route taken by the Prophet Mohammed 14 centuries ago. This year's event began Dec 6 under the nervous eye of Saudi security forces that included 20,000 ground forces, flights of combat helicopters and a large number of armored vehicles deployed at key locations, U.S. officials said.

In and around Mecca, one of the two most holy sites in Islam, technical and other surveillance was increased and the site was monitored by 10,000 security cameras and Saudi agents mixed in with the pilgrims. Communications between Saudi fast reaction and special security units was improved and capability augmented, U.S. sources said.

No four-wheel vehicles were allowed because of fears of car bombings, these sources said.

There was also a much more strict enforcement of permits required of pilgrims. Those who didn't have current permits were deported, U.S. officials said.

The Saudi operation began three months ago with preemptive raids by Saudi security forces on suspected al-Qaida cells, according to a former senior CIA official. Several hundred suspects were taken into custody, he said.

U.S. officials would not comment on the nature of the intelligence of a probable terrorist incident, but in November 2007, Saudi security forces arrested 208 al-Qaida suspects accused of planning an attack during the Hajj. Another 28 suspects were arrested the following month.

"The number of al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia isn't very large, but they are just as lethal as ever," said a former senior U.S. intelligence official.

Washington-based Middle East expert Tony Cordesman agreed: "It only takes one truck with a fertilizer bomb to cause a major calamity."

Several U.S. officials said that al-Qaida is withering within the kingdom thanks to repeated defeats and continual assaults by Saudi security sources. Abdel Aziz bin Saqr al-Ghamdi, president of the Gulf Center for Strategic Studies and Research told the Saudi Gazette that a recent letter distributed by the Al-Qaida Organization of the Southern Arabian Peninsula to its Saudi followers declared that the terrorist organization in planning to shift some of its operations to Yemen in order to target tourists there. He attributed the shift to the incessant pressure on the terrorists.

The Saudi government's war with al-Qaida got off to a shaky start. After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the kingdom's rulers were evasive and shifty about the existence of the terrorist group and its presence in the country since 15 of the 9/11 attackers were Saudis.

Yet Riyadh's mood turned to vengeful implacability after suicide attacks occurred on May 12 and Nov. 8, 2003, killing 93 people, demonstrating that ordinary Saudis along with members of the House of Saud were the terrorists' primary targets, even more than Americans.

The government's next actions were forceful and incisive. They began arresting radical clerics, closed militant religious schools and started rounding up suspects. Later that year Saudi security forces put up wanted posters in restaurants, shop windows, and the front pages of daily newspapers of 26 top al-Qaida suspects. A bounty of $287,000 was posed for each. The reward for supplying leads on an al-Qaida cell was $1,867,000.

The countrywide crackdown had begun.

The government also closed down al-Qaida's shadowy financiers and also moved toward educational and gender reforms, U.S. officials said.

The al-Qaida attack on the kingdom was not a smart move," said Cordesman. "It backfired and mobilized the ordinary Saudi."

One example of this took place early 2004 when a resident of Riyadh phoned a Saudi anti-terrorist hotline to report that Othman al-Amiri, one of the 26 had stopped at his home while driving through the neighborhood. Othman was tracked and later killed by Saudi security forces.

U.S.-Saudi intelligence cooperation has grown by leaps and bounds from the Saudi stonewalling days of the 1996 terror attacks on Saudi Arabia's Khobar Towers, U.S. officials said. Currently teams of U.S. Treasury Dept. agents along with FBI and CIA operatives and analysts are based in Riyadh and working together.

"Coordination couldn't be better," said a former senior CIA official.

Thanks to U.S. prodding, the Saudis installed heat sensitive cameras on barbed wire fences along weapons smuggling routes into the country from Yemen, Syria and Iraq, sources said.

For the last few years, Saudi efforts to disperse and disrupt al-Qaida have known no rest. In March 2006, 40 suspects were arrested and weapons seized in several parts of the country including the cities of Mecca and Medina. In 2007, another operation captured 172 would-be terrorists in April, and another 139 suspects were arrested that year including a would-be suicide bomber. In March 2008, the leader of al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia, Fahd Feraj al-Juwair, was among five terrorists killed by eastern Riyadh security forces, and by June of 2008, the government had arrested 701 al-Qaida suspects accused of plotting attacks against the kingdom's economic and oil installations and preparing to free jailed members, in one of the largest dragnets executed by the Saudi government at that time.

According to Ghamdi, 9,000 al-Qaida suspects have been arrested and another 3,106 remain in detention.

Said Cordesman: "The fact is that al-Qaida has not enjoyed a major success [in the kingdom] since 2003," when it launched a series of suicide bombings.

Thanks to the intensity of current Saudi efforts directed against the group, "the place today is a lot more relaxed, " he said. 

The Arrogance and Ignorance

By Yvonne Ridley

December 10, 2008 "Information Clearinghouse" --- THE Taliban now holds a permanent presence of 72 per cent of Afghanistan according to the latest report by an influential think tank.

But within hours of the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) releasing this news various politicians and ambassadors from Afghanistan, America and Britain criticised its contents.

The reality is none of these people really know what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan because it is not safe to travel and if any of them do venture out it is rarely beyond the confines of Kabul.

The reason I know the ICOS report carries weight is because I have just returned from Afghanistan myself and, unlike most politicians, diplomats and journalists who go to the country, I went in unescorted.

The Taliban is forming an ever tightening noose around Kabul with, as ICOS says, three out of four main highways into the capital city now compromised by Taliban.

How do I know? Because I drove around Afghanistan with film-maker Hassan al Banna Ghani and saw the evidence with my own eyes - we nearly got our heads blown off for our troubles as well, having inadvertently driven into a firefight between Taliban fighters and Afghan police 30 minutes from Kabul on the main road to Ghazni.

We drove up from Peshawar, through the dramatic and historic Khyber Pass, down into Torkham and from there we had a straight run via Jalalabad to Kabul.

It's an amazing drive, possibly one of the most scenic routes in the world but it wasn't the backdrop of the Hindu Kush or the fertile green valleys cloaked in a gossamer-like morning mist peaking out from rows of jagged mountain peaks ahead which took my breath away on this occasion.

It was the fresh roadside carnage which punctuated the drive to the Afghan capital. We must have seen the skeletons of nearly 20 oil tankers targetted by rocket propelled grenade launchers in the hands of the Taliban.

These are images British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, US President elect Barack Obama or Hamid Karzai are unlikely to see for themselves because the only safe way to get to Kabul is to fly in to the airport.

We didn't have the luxury of choice, so our decision to drive this treacherous route was based on the fact we couldn't hang around Islamabad for another we before getting a seat on a flight.

But I am glad we did because it gave us a chance to see for ourselves what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan. it gave us an opportunity to talk to ordinary people who have to live day in and day out without the luxury of a heavily armed military escort, or a heavily fortified place to work and an even more heavily guarded place to sleep.

For the next week we travelled by road, by car, unescorted in to areas and provinces that other foreigners dare not go and as I said earlier, we nearly paid a heavy price for our amazing footage.

And thanks to that experience, I can read the ICOS report coming from a point of knowledge that the Western leaders and all of their advisers simply do not have.

That is why it would be foolish to dismiss ICOS claims that the Taliban now holds a permanent presence in 72% of Afghanistan, up from 54% a year ago. They have advanced from their southern heartlands, where they are now the de facto governing power in a number of towns and villages, to Afghanistan's western and north-western provinces, as well as provinces north of Kabul.

Norine MacDonald QC, President and Lead Field Researcher of ICOS told a London press conference: "The Taliban are now controlling the political and military dynamic in Afghanistan.

"Despite increasingly dire levels of security in Afghanistan in recent months, there has been surprisingly little change in response from the international community. The insurgency continues to turn NATO's weaknesses into its own strengths," she added.

"The Taliban are closing a noose around Kabul, and there is a real danger that the Taliban will simply overrun Afghanistan under the noses of NATO," said Paul Burton, Director of Policy for ICOS.

The British Ambassador to Afghanistan Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles commented on the report on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme on Monday morning in a dismissive fashion, saying: "I'm afraid the methodology in the report is seriously flawed. I mean for example its map of Kabul, which I have in front of me, shows the area where I'm sitting talking to you from now, across which I drove this morning to see President Karzai, as being under heavy Taliban influence.

"It's quite the reverse: Afghans are strolling in the streets, celebrating the Eid. It counts as one incident in the province the size of Yorkshire, meaning that that province is under permanent Taliban control. It's a very thin peace of work".

The arrogance and ignorance of Sir Sherard is nothing short of breath-taking. No foreigner dare venture out for a stroll in Kabul unescorted because of kidnap fears. And I'd like to bet he went under heavily armed escorts to do his interview.

I have seen the British Embassy in Kabul - it is hidden behinds vast mounds of concrete bunkers, barbed wire and a heavily armed guard presence. You can't just stroll in to the embassy there like I did in March 2003.

I know nothing about Sir Sherard, but I'd like to bet he doesn't go for a stroll anywhere in Kabul, but I do know Norine MacDonald, author of the report. She is one gutsy lady who comes from a point of knowledge because she does get out on the ground - Kabul and beyond.

Furthermore I've seen her sit on her hunkers and talk with Afghan men - and women - about their hopes, needs and fears in some of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan.

Also speaking on the Today programme was Afghan MP Shukria Barakzai who when asked about the report said: "I'm surprised. This is not the truth. If Taliban's that much powerful so where's these Coalition forces and Afghan Government themselves? I don't think the Taliban will be that much powerful although there is a lack of security, this is the truth.

"The Taliban is still a threat for security and somehow the Coalition forces, also in some places they are threat for security, particularly for civilians, but I completely disagree with such figures which has been made."

I've also had the pleasure of meeting Shukria, an amazing woman from an extremely wealthy and privileged background - being rich is not a crime but I can tell you that Shukria will not have stepped outside of Kabul unless by air.

She is a bright, intelligent woman and I was delighted when she became an MP because she has a good heart and a deep love for her country.

I am really fearful about plans to vastly increase the US and British presence in Afghanistan. I can tell you the Taliban are rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of what they regard as a "bigger army, bigger target and more shiny new weapons to take from the toy soldiers".

The American presence is loathed in Afghanistan even among those who don't want to see the Taliban back in power. This is down to many things not least of all their arrogance, refusal to acknowledge or even try and understand the culture and their habit of shooting at any motorist who tries to overtake their slow-moving convoys.

Think about it - when you have an open road ahead why should you have to sit behind a bunch of armoured personnel vehicles doing less than 20mph.

And try talking to an Afghan motorist who sits patiently in a traffic jam only to have his car scrunched and shunted to the side by a US convoy which has decided to create its own traffic free lane. he will tell you exactly what he thinks about the behavior of Uncle Sam's boys.

Then there's the endless list of US missile strikes on wedding parties which have slaughtered innocent Afghans - very rarely are these murders followed up by an apology but they continue to happen.

Norine also called for a free and open media - that would be nice but there is also documented evidence that anyone writing against the US occupation can expect a visit from the Americans. I spoke to one young such journalist who ended up being kidnapped, beaten and thrown in a cell in Bagram for 18 hours after revealing out of date US army rations were being sold on the black market in Kabul.

Guess what, the story is true as I found out trolling through the goods on sale at an open air market in Kabul. There indeed were US army rations on sale - and we have Hassan's film to prove it.

The western leaders can either choose to remain in denial and send in more troops while listening to pompous civil servants, politicians and diplomats who say only what they think their masters want to hear, or they can sit down and read the ICOS report and act upon it.

There are solutions to the Afghan crisis and removing the arrogant, ignorant US military is one way - and take out the Brits too because Afghans can no longer distinguish between the two.

Bombard the people with genuine aid and not artillery shells and give the Afghan Government real support instead of aid with conditions attached.

Genuine job creation schemes offering decent money is a good start. And while it might be nice to have career women emerging from the rubble of Kabul, start with the men first. Give them their dignity back by providing real jobs.

Given the choice between starvation or fighting for the Taliban for around $40 dollars a month, I know what decision I would make. Think about it - it's a no brainer.

Yvonne Ridley and Hassan al Banna Ghani's documentary: In Search of Prisoner 650 will be broadcast on Press TV in early 2009.

A Compelling Picture

Children play with shoes owned by famous shoe thrower, President Bush's attacker Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zeidi outside his apartment in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Dec. 15, 2008. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

An Iraqi kid throwing a shoe that actually belong to the world's most famous shoe thrower, journalist Muntadar al-Zeidi. And then there's the little kid who appears to be smelling an al-Zeidi shoe. Again, some photo. How long before some of these shoes wind up on eBay?

Terrorists in Pakistan planning over 20 attacks on Britain, says Gordon Brown

More than twenty serious terrorist plots to stage attacks in Britain are being planned in Pakistan, Gordon Brown said.

By James Kirkup in Islamabad
Last Updated: 10:10AM GMT 15 Dec 2008

The Prime Minister named Pakistan as a haven for terrorists planning attacks in Britain, revealing that around three quarters of the most advanced plots monitored by MI5 are have Pakistani links.

Officials say that the Security Service is aware of around 30 serious plots at any given moment, suggesting that at least 21 of them are tied to Pakistani groups.

On a visit to Islamabad, the Prime Minister delived a blunt demand to President Ali Asif Zardari to improve his goverment's work to prevent al-Qaeda and other groups operating in the lawless area that borders Afghanistan.

"The time has come for action not words," Mr Brown told Mr Zardari.

At a press conference, Mr Brown revealed that he had told Mr Zardari that "three quarters of the most serious plots investigated by the British authorities have links to al-Qaeda in Pakistan".

Many known terrorists including Mohammed Siddique Khan, ringleader of the 7/7 bombings, are known to have trained at al-Qaeda inspired camps in the Pakistani border areas.

In a private meeting Mr Brown told Mr Zardari he must do more to close those camps.

Mr Brown told reporters: "We must break the chain of terrorism that links the mountains of Afghanistan to the streets of Britain."

Mr Brown also announced increased British support for Pakistani counter-terrorism work, including greater support for Pakistani police work on detecting and defusing bombs.

The UK will also fund more scanning equipment at Pakistani airports

British police will also work with their Pakistani counterparts providing help with forensic science and contingency planning for major terrorist incidents.

There will also be a £6 million British fund to help Pakistan counter the radicalization of young Muslims.

The Prime Minister said his aim was to form "the most comprehensive anti-terror programme Britain has with any country".

Mr Brown said: "I want to help Pakistan root out terrorism. It is right that we help Pakistan root out terrorism."

He added: "People know that what can happen in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan can affect directly what happens on the streets of our towns. I want to remove the chain of terror."

Mr Brown also demanded Pakistan do more to stop miliants moving over the border into Afghanistan to attack British troops.

He said: "We have talked about how we can do more to ensure there is more security at the border. It is in all our interests to root out the problem where there are people who practice terror who are moving with ease."

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