Friday, July 1, 2011 Friday, June 24, 2011 Friday, June 10, 2011









(Photograph: Burhan Ozbilici/AP)

Monday, June 6, 2011

Yemen, setting the Arab Spring ablaze

For the first time in this most radiant and blossomy of springs, the fall of Ali Abdullah Saleh has driven home the potentially awful consequences of the Jasmine Revolution. The now-former President of Yemen’s flight to Saudi Arabia has thrust unto the world a complex and potentially explosive situation, one which distinguishes this small, arid republic from the other Arab nations which have succumbed to this infectious revolutionary fervour.

By and large, the Arab Spring has been a most positive and wonderful season, one which has exploded the myth that those who reside between the Nile and the Euphrates don’t possess the capacity or will to govern themselves or determine their own fate. From Tunis to Cairo, and onto Damascus and Manama, a youth-driven movement on a platform of individual economic and political empowerment has driven, or is attempting to drive out, undemocratic and unrepresentative regimes that have kept millions in conditions of poverty and paucity for decades.

Egypt in particular is undermining the narrative, oft perpetuated by Mubarak himself, that were he to be pushed aside, the void left behind in his absence would be filled by Islamists, in this case the Muslim Brotherhood. This fear kept President Obama from calling on Mubarak to step down earlier than he did, and it is this fear which keeps him from demanding that Bashar al-Assad be banished from Syria.

Such fears, as we’ve discovered, are misplaced. For sure, in any democratic election in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will attract perhaps around 20pc of the vote (more if the liberal parties don’t get their act together soon), but the Jasmine Revolution is a broad action based upon universal values. What did the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi represent if not a desire for dignity, self-determination and a better economic lot?

Yemen too has its broad revolutionary movement, driven by the young people of Sana’a, on an unwritten shared manifesto which calls for an end to Saleh’s autocracy and the creation of a new democratic constitutional government, which will help to turn about the country’s faltering economy. But Yemen also has deep structural problems and societal fissures which – in the unstable period after the fall of a pharaoh – have the potential to tear the country to pieces.

The first, from which many other problems do swell, is the economy. Yemen is an underdeveloped, low-income nation, with a GDP rate per capita of just $2,700 (below that of the West Bank), that is still largely dependant on dwindling oil reserves for income (some 70pc of government revenues). This, in combination with declining water resources and rapid population growth, has allowed the country to slip to a position of near-meltdown: the rate of inflation at 12.2pc is amongst the ten highest in the world, and unemployment stands at 35pc (a rate which is even higher amongst the Yemeni youth).

It is little wonder then, in a country where 45.2pc of the population live below the poverty line, that Yemeni society is susceptible to political instability and extremism. A newly unified nation in 1990, it is only seventeen-years removed from its last civil war, and its north-south factions still dominate the political culture. Since the beginning of the Jasmine Revolution, the South Yemen Movement has resumed its insurgency with a view to splitting the nation back in two, whilst the Hashid tribes of the north launched a campaign against Saleh which via a rocket attack on the presidential mosque drove him out of the country.

And then there’s al-Qaida. Amidst the chaos, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has found safety in Yemen, turning the country into a training camp in preparation for such terrorist atrocities as the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, and near-misses such as the failed Christmas Day ‘underwear bombing’ in Detroit in 2009. The principal reason for the United States’ hesitation with regard to Yemen has been Saleh’s cooperation during the War of Terror, allowing American special ops and drones to carry out attacks on suspected al-Qaida cells.

None of these factors demand that the West ought to wish for the resumption of the Saleh presidency. After all, who is to blame for the decline and fall of Yemen to the brink of collapse and ruin if not the country’s single ruler since unification? Moreover, it has been suggested that Saleh repeatedly used Islamism has a bogeyman in order to extort money and time out of the Americans. After it was speculated that al-Qaida might be involved with the South Yemen Movement and the insurgency, their leader Tariq al-Fadhli hoisted the Stars and Stripes outside his compound to express “his good intentions [and] willingness to cooperate with the United States in the fight against terrorism”.

Saleh’s removal and a carefully-managed transition to some sort of democratic, constitutional stability present a very real opportunity to heal tribal and national divisions, address Yemen’s economic ills and begin anew the War on Terror with the cooperation and consent of the Yemeni people. At the same time, in a nation so volatile and unstable, it is more likely than not that the country will slide into either an economic meltdown or civil war, or a hellish combination of the two with a violent Islamist terror campaign thrown into the mix.

The Jasmine Revolution has the potential to remake the Middle East. Should Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and one day soon Syria make the transition successfully from closed states to free states, then a part of the world previously tied to destructive habits and ancient customs will be transformed beyond recognition. Yemen, putting it mildly, is the joker in the pack. Already, reports suggest that after only one day, the ceasefire between Hashid tribesmen and the government has been broken. This poor and fractured nation could very well set Arabia ablaze, and destroy pan-Arab confidence in the validity and possibility of their noble ambitions.


Friday, June 3, 2011









(Photograph: Reuters)

Monday, January 31, 2011

What Abdulmutallab and Choudhry teach us about the War on Terror

When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, UCL’s ‘underwear bomber’, was arrested on Christmas Day 2009, he became the fourth president of a London student Islamic society to face terrorist charges in three years. On top of this catastrophe, the case of Stephen Timms’ failed assassin Roshonara Choudhry – a KCL dropout – demonstrates in the worst possible manner than our universities have failed to deal adequately with the very serious issue of religious radicalism on London’s campuses.

Choudhry’s profile in Inspire – al-Qaida’s English-language magazine – has brought this potentially apocalyptic issue to the surface once more. “A woman has shown to the ummah’s men the path of jihad,” it says. “Take the example of this woman and you will find success in the afterlife.” From such Islamo-babble, the conclusion could be drawn that al-Qaida remains an ever present danger, not only in our universities but the country writ-large.

Yet what this after-the-matter tribute to Choudhry teaches us is that al-Qaida as an effective terrorist organisation is weaker than ever before. The War on Terror has – in spite of the best efforts of the American leadership – evidently had a great deal of success in minimising the destructive capability of militant Islamist cells.

Afghanistan and Iraq are no longer safe havens for al-Qaida, as a direct result of liberal invention in the Middle East. In the case of the former, the Taliban has been reduced to fighting a war of attrition, conducting operations out of rudimentary camps in Waziristan.

The scale of their attacks too has ever diminished. Richard Reid attempted to destroy an airliner in 2002 via explosive shoes; Abdulmutallab placed TAPN in his under-crackers. It is true that cities around have suffered great tragedies, including our own near the heart of the University of London at Tavistock Square, where 13 innocents lost their lives.

It is vitally important to stress nevertheless that 9/11 in the United States and 7/7 here have remained one-off events. Since then, al-Qaida has been unable to carry out another coordinated mass atrocity.

The examples of Choudhry and Abdulmutallab are too teachable moments, in terms of the different relationships the terrorists had with al-Qaida. On the one hand, Abdulmutallab was actively reaching out to extremists known the intelligence services, during his tenure as the President of UCL’s Islamic Society.

One such shady figure was Anwar al-Awlaki – the spiritual leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula – whose sermons Abdulmutallab attended sometime in 2007. It is widely believed that al-Awlaki personally directed him to Yemen for training by al-Qaida operatives. Abdulmutallab, then, was very much an active cog in the al-Qaida machine, who sought out extremism and terror.

 Choudhry in contrast had no direct connection with any terrorist organisation: she never attempted to contact al-Qaida, nor did they ever issue orders to her. Rather, in the latter portion of 2009, she began to watch and listen online to the radical sermons of al-Awlaki, isolating herself from the main. Her internal struggle, influenced by al-Awlaki, led her to stab Timms in June 2010 for his support of the liberation of Iraq. Choudhry’s association with al-Qaida, if there was one at all, was more passive. The ideas of al-Awlaki transcended the usual mechanisms of the group to which he is affiliated.

The transition from Abdulmutallab to Choudhry, and from 2001 to the present, is then one from which we can take some comfort. In a very apparent sense, the United States and her allies – the free world – are winning the War on Terror. It is important not to be too glib or bullish about this, and to never underestimate the agility of our enemies who caught us asleep at the wheel on said clear September morning. Yet the facts show that al-Qaida seem less and less able to carry out public acts of mass murder on our shores.

The titanic struggle between faith and enlightenment is perhaps the oldest argument in human history: from the Emperor Julian’s efforts to stop the spread of Christendom in the Roman world, to Galileo’s persecution by the Catholic Church, through to our own very real need to halt fascism with an Islamic face in its tracks.

Abdulmutallab and Choudhry show that the enemy is getting weaker, but that the ideas propagated by these fanatical, huckster-ish imams and mullahs continue to resonate with a small but terrifyingly significant sub-section of the religious community. If these incidents are to teach us anything, it is that whilst we can feasibly win the military battle, the war for hearts and minds is a much greater test.

This, then, is the challenge our universities must tackle head-on, and grapple with every day, to ensure all students feel as as though they are part of an inclusive yet dynamic campus, and do not retreat to isolation and extremism. Beyond the ivory towers, those of us on the side of the House for free thought, expression and inquiry will continue to make our case with gusto, for our ideals are strong and true enough to withstand the onslaught from those who wish to see our way of life obliterated.

An edited version of this article was published in London Student, entitled “Roshonara Choudhry: a teachable moment,” January 31, 2011.