Aftershocks of Berlin Christmas market attack lead to counter-terrorism debates in Germany

It is now almost a year ago that Anis Amri, a Tunisian man who had arrived in Germany in 2015 and claimed to be a refugee, steered a lorry into a Berlin Christmas market, killing 12 and injuring 56.

New report on intelligence failings

Almost immediately after the event, growing evidence pointed to severe failings on the part of the authorities. Not only had they not noticed the danger emanating from Amri; different sections of the justice system had also failed to arrest the young man following any of his multiple brushes with the law.

Amri, whose legal right to remain in the country had expired long ago, had had repeated run-ins with the police not only on the grounds of suspected Islamist radicalism but also for violations of residence requirements and for a range of drug infractions.

Now, a new report, commissioned by the government of Berlin, has attempted to chronicle the events leading up to the December 2016 attack. Its author, former federal prosecutor Bruno Jost, paints a dismal picture of German counter-terrorism efforts.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/fall-anis-amri-sonderermittler-wirft-behoerden-versagen-vor-a-1172571.html ))

Lack of cooperation and of personnel in the counter-terrorism sector

Jost describes how large gaps opened up in Germany’s counter-terrorism architecture that allowed Amri to slip through the cracks for more than a year. The vertical information flow between different levels of the security apparatus remained deficient, so that high-level counter-terrorism bodies – who discussed Amri and his potential plans – never held all the relevant information that had been collected.

Horizontally, cooperation between the different institutions – various police departments, domestic intelligence agencies, and prosecutorial bodies – was equally haphazard. Moreover, security agencies did not share information across Germany’s internal federal boundaries, meaning that the states of Berlin, North-Rhine Westphalia, and Baden-Württemberg left each other in the dark regarding their respective insights into Amri’s persona and intentions.

Finally, Jost highlighted severe staff shortages particularly in Berlin: although the capital’s authorities had for a time designated Amri as the most dangerous individual with jihadist linkages in the city, they were unable to keep track of him. Notably, he could only be monitored on weekdays: on weekends, there was a lack of staff.

Solving the staffing problems

As a response to the Amri case, politicians from across the political spectrum have called for greater centralisation of counter-terrorism efforts at the national level. Similarly, there is cross-partisan agreement on the need to replenish Germany’s police, whose forces had been depleted over the course of several years of budget cuts.(( http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/nach-bericht-zu-anis-amri-das-ist-wirklich-eine-bittere.694.de.html?dram:article_id=398118, http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2017-10/terrorismus-union-forderung-reform-ueberwachung-anis-amri ))

More personnel, however, will most likely not solve all problems but may also generate new issues of its own. In fact, the reliability of German counter-terrorism staff has come repeatedly into question in recent months.

Questions about the reliability of intelligence personnel

First, the country’s domestic intelligence agency – the Verfassungsschutz – was rocked by revelations about an alleged Islamist mole. In this somewhat bizarre case, a former porn actor and bank clerk, who had recently joined the agency, had passed on classified information online to a supposed member of the Salafi scene – who, in fact, turned out to be another member of the Verfassungsschutz working undercover.

While it was initially suspected that the man had acted out of jihadist motivations, he ultimately turned out to be not driven by political or religious terrorism but by “boredom”: in different internet fora, the man had enjoyed playing different ‘roles’, passing himself off in turns as a hard-core militarist, a far-right neo-Nazi, and a fervent jihadist.(( http://www.mdr.de/nachrichten/vermischtes/urteil-maulwurf-verfassungsschutz-100.html ))

A state informer as an Islamist agent provocateur

In the case of Anis Amri, intelligence personnel has played an occasionally dubious role, too. Prior to his attack on the Christmas market, Amri moved in the orbit of hard-line preacher ‘Abu Walaa’, arrested in November 2016 for being the central node of ISIS’s network in Germany. Recent investigations have shed light on the potentially pivotal role of an inside man employed by the Verfassungsschutz within these circles.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/anschlag-in-berlin-die-mysterioese-rolle-eines-v-manns-im-fall-amri-1.3689391 ))

The undercover informer, working under the codename “Murat”, had driven Amri to Berlin on at least one occasion in 2016. Moreover, there is evidence that Murat pushed Amri to commit an attack in Germany: a Muslim man who had witnessed interactions between Murat and Amri turned to the police after the Christmas market attack, alleging that Murat had been a crucial influencer inciting Amri to violence against German targets.

Murat had reported to his superiors at the agency that Amri was considered a candidate for travelling to Syria in order to join local jihadist groups – rather than being prepared to mount an operation in Germany. Now the possibility emerges that Murat himself may have overplayed his role as an agent provocateur, thereby helping to pave the way for the Berlin attack.

Blurring lines between state intelligence bodies and terror groups

The case of “Murat” thus highlights the possibility that the inside agents of the Verfassungsschutz – called V-Männer in German intelligence jargon – may become important factors in the terrorist groups they are supposed to observe.

The resulting blurring of the lines between intelligence agency and terror group is not confined to the Islamist spectrum: Investigations into the National Socialist Underground (NSU) cell, who killed 10 (mostly immigrant) victims between 2000 and 2006 and was responsible for two bomb attacks as well as 14 bank robberies, have uncovered systematic linkages between the neo-Nazi terror group and the German intelligence community.(( http://taz.de/Die-NSU-Serie-Teil-2/!5350062/ ))

Shadow of the NSU case

Seven intelligence agencies paid more than 40 men and women inside the NSU’s network. Among them were high-level neo-Nazi functionaries; and many informers had a long criminal history ranging from incitement of racial hatred to attempted murder.

A high-level agent the Verfassungsschutz is suspected of having been at the scene of at least one of the NSU’s murders; and the agency’s informers have been accused of having sheltered NSU members and of having delivered weapons and explosives. After the NSU was discovered, the agency shredded a large number of documents pertaining to the NSU affair, protecting its informers and preventing the full investigation of the group to this day.

The Verfassungsschutz’s heavy reliance on inside men also caused the failure of an attempt to ban the neo-Nazi NPD Party in 2003: the fact that high-level NPD leaders were in fact paid informers of the domestic intelligence agency led the Constitutional Court to decide that the party could not be banned because it was too close to the state and hence not independent in its decisions.(( http://www.focus.de/politik/deutschland/v-mann-affaere-fatale-frenz-connection_aid_204938.html ))

Demands for more electronic surveillance

It is perhaps against this backdrop that agencies have recently renewed their demands for enhanced legal and technological tools that can help dispense with reliance on controversial V-Männer. The President of the Verfassungsschutz, Hans-Georg Maaßen, reiterated  his call that his agency be given access to online messaging services such as WhatsApp and Telegram. He also demanded enhanced competencies for surveillance of internet browsing.(( http://www.handelsblatt.com/politik/deutschland/verfassungsschutzchef-maassen-fordert-mehr-technische-werkzeuge/20416986.html ))

One might be tempted to observe that none of these new tools would have been necessary to apprehend Anis Amri: existing legal possibilities would have been sufficient, had the various players in the police and intelligence communities only managed to work together and use them.

When asked about the failure to stop Amri, however, Maaßen continues to reject all responsibility. Instead, he places the blame at the feet of Angela Merkel’s (brief) open-door policy of summer 2015. Maaßen asserts that Amri crossed the border irregularly, that he had no legal claim to asylum, and that he should have been deported back to Italy under the rules of the Dublin system even before his agency should have become involved.(( http://www.fr.de/politik/geheimdienst-verfassungsschutz-fordert-mehr-befugnisse-a-1363344,0#artpager-1363344-0 ))

Two Frenchmen charged with plotting terror attack from their prison cells

Prosecutors have filed terror charges against two suspected jihadists believed to have been planning to carry out an attack after their upcoming release from prison, sources close to the case said Monday.
The men discussed the would-be plot, which included possibly taking hostages or machine-gunning victims, while they were serving time in Fresnes prison south of Paris.
“These two radical Islamists wanted to set up a group of fighters with the aim of… various actions outside prison,” said one of the probe sources.
One of the suspects is a 28-year-old Cameroonian described by authorities as an Islamic State group sympathizer, while the other is a 22-year-old Frenchman.
Both were behind bars for non-terror offenses and were suspected of being radicalized while serving their sentences. They were charged Friday with being part of a terrorist conspiracy. The Cameroonian man was also believed to have been in contact with a person in Iraq or Syria, where Islamic State is under pressure from a US-led coalition.

France hands maximum sentence to mother of jihadist

Christine Rivière was handed the maximum sentence for her “unfailing commitment” to jihad and for helping a number of women travel to Syria to marry jihadists, including her son.

The 51-year-old, nicknamed ‘Mama Jihad’ in the French press, was convicted for being part of a terrorist organisation.

The sentencing comes a week after the conviction of Nathalie Haddadi, a mother of a French jihadist who was given a two-year prison sentence for financing terrorism after transferring money to him. Rivière, who converted to Islam in 2012, travelled to Syria three times to meet her son Tyler Vilus between 2013 and 2014.

Vilus, 27, travelled to Syria to fight alongside the Islamic State group (ISIS).

He is believed to have been close to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind behind the Paris terror attacks.

He was arrested in Turkey in 2015 and is awaiting trial in France. Rivière was arrested in July 2012 as she was preparing a fourth visit to Syria.

She was accused of aiding her son’s terrorist activities by giving him money as well as sharing his extremist ideas. Rivière denied fighting for ISIS, but posted propaganda images and pictures of herself holding a Kalashnikov on Facebook.

Her lawyer Thomas Klotz said she was “completely lost” and only had a rudimentary knowledge of Islam.

Islam in crisis: Observations by German religious scholar Michael Blume

The assumption that ‘Islam’ – usually conceived as a monolithic force – is on an expansionary path is widely shared. Islamists herald the onset of an age of Islamic renewal and dominance; anxious Westerners take to the streets against the ‘Islamisation’ of the occident; and colourful videos highlighting that Islam is set to overtake Christianity as the world’s largest religious group in the coming decades regularly go viral in social networks.

Declining levels of orthopraxy

It is in order to go against this conventional wisdom that German religious scholar Michael Blume has written his latest book Islam in Crisis: A World Religion between Radicalization and Silent Retreat. Blume asserts that Islam is not about to conquer the world but rather that it is in existential trouble.

Blume paints a picture of a religion that is rapidly losing in relevance in the lives of those who are commonly seen as ‘Muslim’. Focusing particularly on figures taken from his native Germany, Blume shows how Muslim communities are marked by a pronounced decline in orthopraxy: young Muslims in Germany pray less than their ancestors, fewer girls wear headscarves, and fewer boys go to the mosque.(( http://cicero.de/kultur/islam-die-saekularisierung-als-symptom-der-krise ))

Detachment from the religious tradition

Concomitantly, Muslims are increasingly heterodox in their religious outlook: in 2013, 42 per cent of German Muslim respondents asserted that in their spiritual lives they “draw upon the teachings of different religious traditions”.(( http://cicero.de/kultur/islam-die-saekularisierung-als-symptom-der-krise ))

At the same time, Blume sees most Muslims as more and more distant from and disenchanted with the traditions of their own faith. Violent groups such as the ‘Islamic State’ only foment this disenchantment, according to Blume: their despicable acts further alienate many Muslims from the religion of their parents.

In fact, the warriors of the ‘Islamic State’ are engaged in a battle against the progressing secularisation of the Islamic world. In this respect, they are a product of the present age and of the crisis of Islamic thought, rather than an organic outgrowth of the religious tradition.

Intellectual and theological stasis

According to Blume, this civilisational crisis goes back to Sultan Bayezid’s fateful decision to ban the printing press from Ottoman lands after its invention in Europe in the 15th century. This decision, according to Blume, led to societal and intellectual stasis in the Arab heartlands of the Islamic world – a state of affairs that was perpetuated by subsequent authoritarian regimes buttressed by oil rent.(( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCgN5dsls0M ))

Ever since the 15th century, the Islamic religious establishment has been unable to develop answers that could be meaningful to all those Muslims who seek to live in the modern age, or so Blume argues. Yet inevitably Muslims do lead modern lives – a fact that fosters their increasing disconnect from petrified religious traditions.

Looking beyond jihadism

The refreshing element of Blume’s discussion resides in its unflinching focus away from the flashy band of religious radicals who, in spite of being small in number, have managed to capture the world’s attention by their jihadist violence. Instead, Blume seeks to shed light on the religious dynamics among the majority of the world’s Muslim population.

Equally important is the related observation that these ‘Muslims’ are not a homogeneous mass. The implicit assumption in popular discourses as well as in official statistics (for instance from the German government) is the fact that being born to parents from a Muslim-majority region makes one ‘Muslim’ – irrespective of actual levels of belief and observance.

A long-standing argument made anew

At the same time, the observation that the rise of political Islam and of present-day jihadism has gone hand in hand with – in fact proceeded via – a weakening of the authority of the Islamic tradition and its institutions is scarcely new.

There are, after all, entire bookshelves filled with studies demonstrating how local Islamic traditions have been remodeled by the rise of authoritarian nation-states,((For a concise overview of this phenomenon across the Muslim world, see Part I of Jocelyne Cesari’s book The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity, and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). A particularly insightful study of a single case is provided by Brinkley Messick in The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).)) how traditional modes of Islamic reasoning have ossified in this process,((For a monumental work in that category, see Wael Hallaq’s Shari’a: Theory, Practice, Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).)) and how Islamist laymen have stepped in to fill the void.((An excellent introduction is provided by the essays in the collection edited by Ali Rahnema, Pioneers of Islamic Revival (London: Zed Books, 1994).))

Differences between Islamic heartlands and the immigrant context

Nor have the processes of change undergone by Muslim communities across the world been completely uniform everywhere: Muslims lives in Germany are, surely, necessarily different from Muslim lives in Indonesia. One is left to wonder whether Blume at times underestimates the resulting diversity.

After all, detachment from traditional religion seems easier and more likely in immigrant settings, where religious networks are less deep, religious expertise less profound, and where Muslims are permanently forced to come to terms with a plurality of lifestyles and with an often hostile perception of Islamic religiosity.

Put differently, in a context where there are hardly any mosques and few well-educated Imams; where headscarf-wearing women are often seen with suspicion; and where halal meat is difficult to come by, it is not surprising to observe declining levels of orthopraxy.

Reaffirmations of orthopraxy

Yet even in the European or German context, from whence Blume draws most of his hard figures apparently demonstrating the decline of Islamic orthopraxy, we also observe countervailing dynamics.

Well-educated daughters of secularist Turkish parents are choosing to don a headscarf, in a statement of ostentatious orthopraxy serving to reaffirm their Muslim identity. Salafis carry this identitarian reemphasis of (allegedly) traditional behaviour to its extremes. Yet while Salafis use orthopraxy to withdraw from a mainstream society seen as ‘infidel’, the young woman wearing the hijab may have very different reasons.

A recent study observed that urban, well-educated Muslim women covered up more often in order to reconcile their Muslim faith with the demands of being out of their homes and with employment in gender-mixed environments.(( http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2016-09-02-veil-worn-muslim-women-may-signal-they-are-integrating-more )) Here, ‘modernisation’ – understood as female participation in the labour market – actually reinforced rather than undermined religious orthopraxy.

Modernisation = secularisation?

One is thus left to wonder whether the “silent retreat” and the “radicalisation” observed by Blume are really a convincing (let alone an exhaustive) portrayal of the possibilities of Islamic religiosity in the modern world. For Blume, these are the twin reactions in the face of the secularisation processes undergone by the Islamic world and by Muslim communities.

Yet at the heart of this argument lies the supposition that ‘modernisation’ always goes hand in hand with ‘secularisation’ – a teleological claim that social science has long abandoned for being overly simplistic.

Charlie Hebdo publishes provocative Islam cartoon

Charlie Hebdo  published a provocative front cover in reaction to the vehicle-ramming attack in Barcelona last Thursday, sarcastically calling Islam a “religion of peace.”

The magazine’s artwork shows a white van in the background with two cross-eyed, bloodied bodies lying motionless on the floor. The words read, “Islam, the religion of eternal peace.” Most of those implicated in the Barcelona vehicle-ramming attack and a second attack in the Catalonian town of Cambrils were Moroccan-born Muslims.

The magazine’s editor, Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau, justified the decision in an editorial, saying that the publication was sending a message that the French elite were too scared to communicate.

“The debates and questions about the role of religion, and in particular the role of Islam, in these attacks have completely disappeared,” he wrote.

Critics said the art risked exacerbating Islamophobia, and alienating more moderate Muslims who are not involved in extremist activity. A former Socialist minister, Stéphane Le Foll, said the cover was “extremely dangerous” because of the message it sent to others about all forms of Islam.

“When you’re a journalist you need to exercise restraint because making these associations can be used by other people,” he said in a tweet.

 

An ex-Guantanamo detainee rebuilds his life in France

 

(This article reposted from Al Jazeera) For days, the rain had battered the sides of the prison, pattering incessantly on its sheet metal walls. A hurricane was on its way ­ that much Mourad Benchellali had gathered. But no one had come to get him, and from what he could tell, it seemed unlikely that he or any of his fellow prisoners would be moved.

Staring out from a steel­mesh door, Benchellali struggled to contain his frustration. The number of guards he counted patrolling his cellblock had grown fewer and fewer, and those who remained were wearing survival gear. He remembers hearing rumours that the sea might rise and crash into the prison, as the storm tore closer.

One of the guards left on duty was someone he ordinarily enjoyed talking to: a religious man, well­versed in the Bible. Benchellali himself was the son of an imam, and usually, he appreciated the guard’s gentle presence, his willingness to stop and chat.

But this time, things were different. Benchellali was tense. He didn’t know if the hurricane would strike, or if it would swerve into another part of the Caribbean. Precious little information reached him from the outside world, isolated as he was in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“How is it that your lives are important, and ours aren’t?” he remembers calling out to the guard. “Us, we can drown. It’s not a big deal. But you guys? You save your skin.”

The guard, he recalls, replied with his usual fervour: “Don’t worry. God is with you.” The situation, the guard told him, reminded him of Noah, the man chosen by God to survive a world­levelling flood in both Christian and Islamic faiths. “With you, it’s the same. You detainees shouldn’t worry. Even if it rains, even if the water bursts its banks, you will be saved in the end.”

It wasn’t often that Benchellali felt treated like someone worth saving. After all, Guantanamo detainees were supposed to be “the worst of the worst”, a condemnation repeated by several Bush administration officials during the post­9/11 “war on terror”.

Even now, a shadow of suspicion follows Benchellali wherever he goes. Thirteen years have passed since he boarded a plane out of Guantanamo, back to his native France. But the stigma has never faded.

Sitting in a train station cafe on a rainy Saturday in Lyon, 36­ year ­old Benchellali wears the straight face of a man who isn’t prone to outbursts of sentimentality. And yet, looking back, he admits the guard’s words touched him ­ so much so that years later, “Noah” sprang to mind when it came time to name his only child, a son.

“He’s the most beautiful gift that I could ever have gotten,” Benchellali says, staring into his empty cappuccino cup. He credits his son for giving him the motivation to talk about his past, although sometimes, he gets fed up with being prodded about his story after all these years.

“It tires me out,” Benchellali says in French. He has tried to move on, building a life for himself teaching others how to lay tiles. “I often remind the people I encounter that I’m not just an ex­Guantanamo detainee.”

His dark hair slicked back with gel and his broad shoulders hidden under a brown leather coat, Benchellali looks strikingly unremarkable ­ just another commuter hunkering down in the cafe, waiting for the storm to end.

All the same, he keeps his eyes low. As he prepares to launch into his story once more, his fingers nervously start to rip and twist the empty sugar packets from his coffee into tiny, feathery ropes. Words like “al­Qaeda” and “bin Laden” invariably earn him glances from surrounding tables.

Benchellali didn’t expect to have the life he has now. During the nights he spent in Guantanamo, he says he kept having the same dream: of a little boy, someone he instinctively recognised as the son he’d have one day. But his fellow inmates tried to let him down gently, warning him not to get too attached to the idea. It was just a dream after all. Guantanamo was their reality.

When Benchellali first set foot in the Guantanamo Bay detention centre on January 17, 2002, he didn’t know if he would ever leave again. No one told him how long he would stay, or what he was charged with. He didn’t even know he was in Cuba when he arrived.

From that point on, Benchellali was known by the internment serial number 161, a mark of his status as a resident “enemy combatant” ­ a term used to designate people involved in hostilities against the United States and its allies. Pentagon documents from 2004 identify him as a “member of [al­Qaeda]” with a “commitment to Jihad” and “ties to other global terrorist networks”.

Those are allegations that Benchellali has long denied. He insists he’s not a dangerous man ­ just a young guy whose naivete led him into trouble. “It’s difficult to explain,” he says. “I knew appearances played against me.”

Like many of Guantanamo’s early detainees, Benchellali never had the chance to present his case at trial. He was a “terrorism” suspect with no means of arguing his innocence ­ or admitting to his mistakes.

“I never said I did nothing wrong. I’ve always said, ‘Yes, it wasn’t a good idea to go to Afghanistan. Yes, I found myself in an [al­Qaeda] training camp’. But what I don’t accept is that they called me a terrorist. That’s not true.”

Although Guantanamo’s detainees have been denounced as “battle­hardened terrorists”, few were ever charged, much less convicted. One high­ranking State Department official went so far as to describe many of the detainees as “victims” of incompetent vetting, imprisoned without solid evidence against them.

“There was no meaningful way to determine whether they were terrorists, Taliban or simply innocent civilians picked up on a very confused battlefield,” the official, Lawrence Wilkerson, said in testimony delivered to the US District Court for the District of Columbia.

The 2011 release of confidential Guantanamo documents, orchestrated by the anti­secrecy group WikiLeaks, revealed prisoners from a range of backgrounds. These included an Al Jazeera cameraman, a taxi driver, and even an 89­year­old Afghan man with symptoms of senile dementia, some of whom were explicitly assessed as “not affiliated with [al­Qaeda] nor as being a Taliban leader”.

Benchellali’s file is not so straightforward. It indicates that prisoner 161 had family ties to “terrorism”; that he admitted to being in an al­Qaeda training camp; and that officials considered him a “high risk” to the US and its allies.

By his own account, Benchellali was a small, skinny 19­year­old when he decided to leave for Afghanistan with a friend. He says his older brother Menad encouraged them to go, saying it would be a great opportunity to learn about Islam.

Benchellali knew Afghanistan was a dangerous country, with warring factions and a steady arms trade. That was kind of the point. Back home in Venissieux, Benchellali considered himself a weakling ­ and in his rough­and­ tumble neighbourhood, it was strength that counted. He saw visiting Afghanistan as a chance to prove himself, once and for all.

So when his brother offered to set them up with fake travel documents and arrange their travel, Benchellali says he ignored his misgivings and accepted. He trusted his brother, and he saw the whole process as an adventure.

Benchellali and his friend first stopped in London for the travel documents, then made their way to Afghanistan, where his brother’s friends awaited them. He says he thought he was going to scale mountains and explore the country. Fighting was the last thing on his mind.

“It wasn’t about jihad. When I left for Afghanistan, I wasn’t angry. I didn’t have any hate,” he says.

But one day, after arriving in Afghanistan, Benchellali and his friend fell into a trap. Their hosts, fellow French speakers, offered to take them on a trip to meet other young Muslims. Instead, Benchellali and his friend found themselves being dropped off at an isolated al­Qaeda training camp. There, Benchellali would come face­to­ face with one of the group’s leaders: a tall, bearded man he learned was Osama bin Laden.

Surrounded by desert in an unfamiliar land, Benchellali felt stuck. The camp’s al­Qaeda leaders refused to grant him permission to leave ­ not until he had finished two months’ worth of military training. It was the summer of 2001. By the time he left, the world would be a different place.

The September 11 attacks had triggered a global “war on terror”, and Afghanistan quickly became the subject of a massive bombing campaign. US forces also led a dragnet operation to arrest “terrorism” suspects on the ground ­ a campaign that allegedly offered bounties in exchange for prisoners.

In the tumult, Benchellali joined a group of men fleeing across the Pakistan border. When they stopped to have tea at a mosque, they ended up being locked inside and taken into custody.

A Department of Defense report ­ one of 779 files that WikiLeaks obtained and published ­ offers no specifics as to why Benchellali was transferred from there to Guantanamo, other than that he “possesses intelligence information”.

Ultimately, Benchellali said he wasn’t surprised that US forces detained him in Pakistan. “That they arrested me, I found that normal. I mean, they have the right to ask me about where I went and why I was there. What’s not normal is to send us to Cuba. What’s not normal is to remove all our rights.”

He was 20 years old by the time he arrived in Guantanamo, in January 2002. For the two and a half years, he spent there, Benchellali claims he was subject to insults, isolation and torture, including physical blows, sleep deprivation and sexual violence. All the while, life back home in France moved on without him.

By the time he flew back, the girlfriend he had left behind as a teenager had become someone else’s wife. The family he grew up with would be scattered and broken.

But Benchellali didn’t know all that when he boarded a plane out of Guantanamo in July 2004. He imagined his nightmare was over ­ that he would step onto the tarmac and into his parents’ arms. It was only later that he discovered his family would never be whole again.

His brother Menad ­ the same brother who arranged for him to go to Afghanistan ­ had been arrested for manufacturing deadly toxins in the family apartment, as part of an alleged plot to attack Russian targets in France on behalf of Chechen separatists.

Several relatives had been detained in connection to Menad’s activities, including Benchellali’s mother, a fact that left him devastated: “It was the worst period of my life,” he says.

Not only was his family in turmoil, but his individual ordeal was far from over too. Benchellali still faced “terrorism” charges in France, and he was sent to the same facility that housed his mother, the Fleury­Merogis prison. As his case, and eventual conviction, drew the media’s attention, he started to receive letters of support ­ including one from the woman who’d eventually become the mother of his child.

But some of the letters, however well intentioned, put Benchellali ill at ease. He got the feeling that, even among his supporters, he was perceived as a “jihadist”, he says. That suspicion lingered even after a Paris appeals court overturned his “terrorism” conviction.

Benchellali wrote a book about his experiences and reinvented himself as an “anti­radicalisation” activist, with the aim of educating others about groups like al­Qaeda. He hopes that, by sharing his story, he can prevent others from falling into the same trap he once did. His message is particularly aimed at youth.

“I tell them, ‘Me, I’m going to tell my story. Afterwards, do with it what you like.’ That’s to say, I’m not going to give you lessons, and I’m not there to say what’s good or bad,” Benchellali explains. “But after that, you can’t say you didn’t know.”

Over the years, Benchellali has been invited to tell his story to school groups, community centres and law enforcement officials as far away as Australia.

But every once in a while, even today, an invitation gets revoked. Benchellali suspects fear is the driving factor ­ fear that he might be a recidivist in disguise.

“Maybe he’s pretending. Maybe he’s playing a role ­ I know people think that,” Benchellali says. “I understand that they’re afraid. But I think they’re wrong.”

Political value of recidivism data

Benchellali maintains that he never converted to al­Qaeda’s ideology, nor participated in any violence. But of the 714 detainees transferred out of Guantanamo, 121 have, according to a January report by the US Director of National Intelligence, been confirmed as re­engaging “in terrorist or insurgent activities”. An additional 87 detainees are suspected of re­engaging.

But those numbers are misleading, says lawyer Mark Denbeaux, director of the Seton Hall Law School Center for Policy and Research. He is one of the most vocal critics of the bi­yearly report, which tracks recidivism among former detainees.

Denbeaux points out that no evidence is offered to indicate who is reengaging in “terrorist” activities, and in what way. His research has uncovered inconsistencies in past reports ­ including instances where criticising the US government was counted as a “return to the fight”.

Though Denbeaux dismisses the recidivism reports as fundamentally flawed, he admits the data “has political value in order to try and legitimise torture in Guantanamo”. He sees the reports as an attempt to skew the public’s perception. “Right now, the fight going on is: What should the narrative be for Guantanamo?”

The fight for Guantanamo’s legacy hits close to home for Benchellali. He personally has noticed a shift in how the French public perceives Guantanamo. “Today in France, there are people who call for a French version of Guantanamo,” he says. “That wasn’t the case five, 10 years ago.”

He also worries about US President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to continue using Guantanamo as a prison and “load it up with some bad dudes”.

Trump and Guantanamo’s resurgence in popularity

Currently, Guantanamo’s detainee population has dwindled to 41, but the Trump administration is considering plans to keep Guantanamo open indefinitely. Under one proposal, its cells would be filled with suspects with alleged ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). Benchellali fears the move would usher in a renewed era of public acceptance for Guantanamo and its abuses.

“We have rehabituated Americans to the fact that Guantanamo is a good thing,” he says. “The Americans are the biggest power in the world. It’s the model that everyone watches. So if the US tortures, it’s over ­ everyone will torture.”

Laurel Fletcher, the director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, believes that calls to close or reduce the prison population at Guantanamo were strongest in the late 2000s, in a brief period of “hiatus between episodes of active, violent extremism”.

At the time, the Bush administration had started to reduce the detainee population, and future President Barack Obama was campaigning on a promise to close Guantanamo.

But public anxiety has grown since then. Fletcher points to recent attacks, like the one in Barcelona this past August, as contributing to “a backdrop of perceived terrorist threat”.

“When you have those incidents that are regularly cropping up, I think it activates people’s fear,” Fletcher says. She believes it’s a normal “visceral response” to support strong action in the wake of “terrorist attacks” ­ and that’s why Guantanamo may be experiencing a resurgence in popularity, despite evidence that its methods fail to make the public safer, she says.

 

In the classrooms and community centres where he does his outreach work, Benchellali has increasingly heard a startling equivocation from the young people he speaks with. They tell him, more and more, that everyone ­ from the US to ISIL to Bashar al­Assad ­ is guilty of “terrorism”. For them, it is simply a tool.

“It’s a real problem when you explain to young people that violence doesn’t change things, and they say, ‘No, it’s the only thing that can cause change’,” he says. He prefers not argue with them. Instead, his strategy is to stick to telling his story, in the hope that his experience can serve as a warning.

But the increasing polarisation has made his task more difficult. When he visited Molenbeek, a Brussels neighbourhood that Western media sometimes calls the “jihadi capital of Europe,” one young student walked out in the middle of his presentation. His friends later told Benchellali that he was a bin Laden supporter who disapproved of Benchellali’s story.

On other occasions, it’s the teachers he meets who don’t want to listen. Benchellali says some of them are convinced that their students’ embrace of Islam is actually a descent into violence and perceived “extremism”.

It’s a frustrating topic to navigate, and Benchellali says he often considers quitting his outreach efforts altogether. In this age of increased tension, he feels discouraged, not least by the treatment he receives in his own country.

As a former “terrorism” suspect, Benchellali also has to deal with France’s “FIJAIT” system, which requires him to regularly update the government about his whereabouts. Each time his work takes him across an international border ­ to Switzerland or Belgium, for example ­ he has to check in with French authorities 15 days beforehand.

“How can I go see young people to talk to them when my own country considers me a suspect?” Benchellali asks. “The prevention work that I do nowadays, because of this supervision order, is difficult to carry out.”

One speaking trip in 2015 even landed him back in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs ­ a uniform he thought he’d left behind after his Guantanamo days.

Filmmaker Eileen Thalenberg had invited Benchellali to speak with students at several Canadian universities and colleges, as part of her documentary “A Jihadi in the Family”. But when Benchellali was due to meet Thalenberg outside Toronto’s international airport, he never showed up.

Thalenberg says she received a text message from him instead: “They want to ask me a few questions.” Benchellali was stuck at security.

It was around 7pm, and she and Benchellali were scheduled to catch a connecting flight that same day to Montreal. His arrival should have gone smoothly: After all, Thalenberg had checked with Canadian officials to make sure Benchellali would be allowed into the country.

Just to be safe, Thalenberg had taken other precautions too. She had furnished him with invitation letters from the colleges and universities he would visit, and she made sure his flight was routed through Iceland, to avoid passing through US airspace. American law, after all, effectively bars Guantanamo detainees, both past and present, from entering the US.

But her efforts were in vain. At around 1.30am, with their connecting flight long gone, Benchellali texted her to say he’d been arrested. He would later be moved to a maximum security prison, before being placed on a flight back to France.

“I felt so guilty,” Thalenberg said, reflecting on the incident. “I didn’t sleep for three days and three nights.” She remains astonished at how calm Benchellali was throughout the whole process, never getting angry.

“He was concerned about his little boy, how he wanted to be a good role model for his son,” she said. “It’s the right kind of revenge, not to allow yourself to be completely destroyed.”

Back in France, in the hometown where Benchellali himself grew up, his son is on the cusp of adolescence. He’s 10 years old now, with a deep love for video games and sharing videos on YouTube. It’s enough to make any parent nervous, but Benchellali especially.

His son already knows about his past, but Benchellali still worries about what he might find online ­ or that he might one day become the target of harassment. It’s with that in mind that Benchellali says he chooses to speak out and shape his own narrative.

“My prevention work, the youth outreach, all that ­ it’s for him,” he says. “I want to make this Guantanamo experience into something positive, so he won’t be ashamed of it later on.”

A faint smile drifts across his face, as Benchellali toys with the idea that having a son might have been his destiny. Fatherhood not only gave him a way to deal with his past, but also a way to escape it.

With all the anxieties that parenthood has to offer, he allows himself to forget his other worries. In those moments, the weight of his past is lifted. The nightmare is over. And the dream that once seemed so distant has become his reality.

2 men arrested near Paris planned terror attack, wanted to join ISIS

Two men who were arrested following the discovery of explosive materials and components at an apartment in a Paris suburb of Villejuif wanted to make a bomb to commit a terrorist attack, Paris’ prosecutor has said.

 

“They had agreed to commit an attack on the [French] territory to take revenge on the coalition but they had not worked out any specific plan to date,” Francois Mollins said at a news conference Sunday.

The prosecutor added that one of the suspects admitted the two considered attacking soldiers who were deployed to locations deemed vulnerable for the terrorist attacks. The plot was uncovered as part of Operation Sentinel that was launched following the November 2015 Paris attacks and is part of the ongoing state of emergency.

Both suspects admitted that they wanted to join Islamic State (IS, former ISIS/ISIL) and leave for Syria or Iraq as early as in 2015 but they could not because of a “lack contacts and financial means.” The pair added they were planning to carry out an attack in the name of the terrorist group.

One of the suspects identified as Frederique L, 37, was “in direct contact” with Rachid Kassim, a French jihadist, who joined IS and left France to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Kassim, who was killed in a US airstrike in February, is suspected of being the instigator of several terrorist attacks on French soil, including the double murder of police officers in Magnaville in June 2016 and the attack on the Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray church in northern France.

On Wednesday, 105 grams of TATP were accidentally discovered in an apartment located in Villejuif along with a liter of sulfuric acid, a liter of hydrochloric acid as well as 8 liters of acetone and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.

Mollins said “the substances discovered at the scene could be used to produce between three and four kilos of TATP.” Investigators also found components needed to make a detonator, including wires, electric batteries, match heads and bulbs from Christmas wreaths.

A USB device containing videos showing a series of explosives tests on the terrace of the Villejuif apartment raided by the police was also found at the scene. Islamic State propaganda videos on a computer belonging to one of the suspects and leaflets with inscriptions in Arabic were also found in the apartment.

Muslim workers at Paris airport sue after fired for refusing to shave beards

An industrial tribunal will hear the case of four Muslim former security guards at Orly airport who say they were discriminated against when sacked for refusing to shave off their beards in the wake of the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris.

Soon after those jihadist attacks that left 130 dead, management from the Securitas security firm summoned several male staff members working for it at Orly, all of them Muslim and all of them bearded.

They were told that with passengers on edge, it would be appreciated if they could all trim or shave off their beards to adhere to the firm’s strict grooming policy.

Most of the men, who worked at the security points where passengers and their hand luggage are screened, complied, but four did not, and launched discrimination complaints.

Their case is to be heard at an industrial tribunal in Bobigny.

The men were suspended a week after refusing to shave and some months later received a letter telling them they were sacked. Securitas denies any discrimination, and argues that the ex-employees simply refused to adhere to company rules stating that facial hair needed to be kept short and well-groomed.

The tribunal hearing is likely to be dominated by arguments over what length of a beard is “acceptable” and whether a beard can be considered a religious symbol.

The European Court of Justice ruled in March that companies should be allowed to to ban their staff from wearing visible religious symbols.

Security was tightened at Orly airport in the wake of the November 13th attacks in Paris, with authorities screening all workers at the two Paris airports – Charles de Gaulle and Orly.They decided to revoke “secure zone access” to almost 70 workers, with the head of Aeroports de Paris citing the main reason as “cases of radicalization”.

 

German Muslim leaders react to Barcelona attacks

Following the recent attacks in Barcelona and the Catalan town of Cambrils that left 15 dead, Muslim figures in Germany have expressed their condemnation of the events and their solidarity with the victims.

Germany’s main Islamic associations condemn the attacks

DİTİB, the country’s largest Islamic association, issued a press release rejecting all forms of terrorism. Fellow organisations VIKZ and IGMG made similar moves. ZMD chairman Aiman Mazyek also denounced the attacks and called for unity in the face of the common terrorist threat.(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/08/19/religionsvertreter-bestuerzt-nach-anschlaegen/ )) Other Islamic movements, such as the German Ahmadiyya community, followed suit.(( http://www.n-tv.de/politik/Die-Welt-trauert-mit-Barcelona-article19989536.html ))

These routine condemnations did little, however, to conceal the enduring divisions among Islamic organisations and leaders that continue to preclude a fresh and concerted approach against violent Islamism.

A superficial show of unity

A tweet under the #Barcelona hashtag by Ercan Karakoyun, chairman of the Foundation Dialogue and Education, central institution of the Gülenist movement in Germany, puts this division into dramatic relief.

Taking aim at the current repression of his movement in Turkey, Karakoyun pugnaciously asserted that “as long as many a state can designate an educational movement a terrorist organisation no common fight against terror is possible!”(( https://twitter.com/ercankarakoyun/status/898239034169974784 ))

Against this backdrop, calls to withstand the attackers’ attempt to play off Muslims against non-Muslims ring somewhat hollow: the Muslim figures making these statements have so far failed even to mend the rifts among their own associations. How they could meaningfully contribute to healing the divisions within European societies is therefore anyone’s guess.

Grassroots activism vs. stagnation at the top

To be sure, there are many Muslim grassroots movements in Germany that seek to stand in the way of violent ideologies: they range from Jewish-Muslim educational projects and neighbourhood initiatives to important de-radicalisation schemes aiming to offer an exit perspective from the Salafi scene. Overall, German Muslims’ civil society activism is high.

Yet at the level of the country’s Islamic associations, the picture is one of stasis. Unfortunately for German Muslims, those most likely to be heard as their representatives in the aftermath of any attack have little by way of a constructive response to offer.

Prominent Muslim clerics form national council

Senior Muslim Imams are creating a national body to promote an understanding of Islam that reflects British values. Qari Asim, a prominent British Imam of a Leeds mosque, said the community needs a central authority to deal with doctrinal, theological, and social issues.

Asim said, “The attempt is to embed Islam in a 21st-century British context. It’s about contextualising Islam in Britain.”

The national body will not be state-backed, which will help it maintain credibility. The body would supplement the Muslim Council of Britain which does not determine religious doctrine.

Asim related the need for theological clarity to the dangers of radicalisation. He hopes the new body can show that the Muslim community is actively and resolutely against terrorism, which is needed especially after the terrorist attacks in Spain.