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Religious aspects of the conflict in Yemen – no easy answers

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — an attempt to make it clear how complex the various religious affiliations in the Yemeni conflict are ]

My latest piece for LapidoMedia, briefing journalists on religious aspects of contemporary news, is now posted there under a slightly modified title:

BRIEFING: The roots of conflict in Yemen – no easy answers

by Charles Cameron – 22nd April 2015

Credit: screencap from PBS Frontline, The Fight for Yemen

Credit: screencap from PBS Frontline, The Fight for Yemen

THE prophet Muhammad is recorded as saying: ‘When disaster threatens, seek refuge in Yemen.’

He spoke those words after he and his small band of followers had been driven out of Mecca, and before it was clear that their emigration – the Hijra – to Medina would prove the success that turned the tide in favor of the new religion. Not surprisingly, then, religion means much to the Yemeni people and Yemen much to pious Muslims.

Indeed, less than a minute into the April 2015 PBS Frontline special on Yemen, reporter Safa Al Ahmad is told by a Houthi informant ‘Our borders are the Holy Quran and the Islamic and Arab world’.

In an article titled The Middle East’s Franz Ferdinand Moment: Why the Islamic State’s claimed attack in Yemen could spark an Arab World War, JM Berger of Brookings gives us context:

‘The crisis in Yemen is one of the more complicated stories to emerge from a complicated region. It involves a cyclone of explosive elements: religious extremism, proxy war, sectarian tension, tribal rivalries, terrorist rivalries and US counterterrorism policies. There is little consensus on which element matters most, although each has its fierce partisans.’

Berger offers the bombing of two Sanaa mosques on March 20 as his candidate for the spark that ignited the current situation in Yemen – just as the bombing of the Shiite al-Askari Mosque in Samarra was a turning point leading to all-out sectarian civil war in Iraq.


Since Lapido commissioned this piece, they deserve your clicks: please read the rest of the article on the Lapido site.

The Middle East in two War Games — and a tribute to Ibrahim Mothana

Friday, September 6th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — with regard to Mothana: the voice of sanity is not easily heard in the asylum ]

Here’s most everything you need to know about the complexities of the Middle East, spelled out in two simple war games:


  • McCain plays poker during Syria war hearing
  • Detail from Yemeni Politics — The Board Game
  • **

    The Yemen politics game was the work of 24 year old Ibrahim Mothana, who died this week. His moving NYT op-ed about his beloved Yemen in June last year told us:

    Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants; they are not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of revenge and despair. Robert Grenier, the former head of the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center, has warned that the American drone program in Yemen risks turning the country into a safe haven for Al Qaeda like the tribal areas of Pakistan — “the Arabian equivalent of Waziristan.”

    Anti-Americanism is far less prevalent in Yemen than in Pakistan. But rather than winning the hearts and minds of Yemeni civilians, America is alienating them by killing their relatives and friends. Indeed, the drone program is leading to the Talibanization of vast tribal areas and the radicalization of people who could otherwise be America’s allies in the fight against terrorism in Yemen.

    His written testimony for the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights can be found in this Guardian post from Glenn Greenwald in May of this year.

    Mothana had many admirers across the spectrum, as this tweet from Gregory Johnsen attests:

    We mourn his loss, and ask for peace.

    Jottings 2: Dr Fadl book announcement

    Friday, May 3rd, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — I got the announcement via Cole Bunzel, and Kévin Jackson kindly informed me that Dr Fadl is currently free ]


    Dr Fadl‘s announcement, in Arabic, is here — I had to use Google Translate, which wouldn’t pass a Turing test. However…


    A while back, I made a post here titled Will Dr Fadl retract his Retractions? in which I wrote:

    Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, popularly known as Dr Fadl, wrote two of the key works of jihadist ideology, The Essential Guide for Preparation and the thousand-page Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge, in the late 1980s — thereby providing his friend from student days, Ayman al-Zawahiri, with powerful scholarly backing for the doctrines of militant jihad and takfirism. Lawrence Wright refers to Fadl as an “Al-Qaeda mastermind” in a detailed 2008 New Yorker analysis.

    Dr Fadl was imprisoned without trial in the Yemen shortly after 9/11, but it was after he had been transferred to an Egyptian prison in 2004 that he wrote Rationalizing Jihad, the first volume of his “retractions” — a work so powerful in its attack on his own earlier jihadist doctrine that al-Zawahiri felt obliged to respond with a two-hundred page letter of rebuttal. A second volume from Dr. Fadl followed more recently.

    If Dr Fadl regains his liberty, the question arises whether he will claim his critiques of jihadist dictrine were obtained by force, and effectively retract his retractions – or whether he will stand by them, as I somehow expect he might — still declaring, this time as a free man, that “There is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property,” and “There is nothing in the Sharia about killing Jews and the Nazarenes, referred to by some as the Crusaders. They are the neighbors of the Muslims … and being kind to one’s neighbors is a religious duty.”


    As late as October 2012, I was noting an Atlantic piece by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Aaron Zelin on How the Arab Spring’s Prisoner Releases Have Helped the Jihadi Cause, and asking whether Dr Fadl had been released in my post Quick update / pointer: GR & AZ on prisoner release — but now we know.

    In response to an inquiry I tweeted after seeing Bunzel‘s tweet above — asking whether Dr Fadl was still imprisoned, albeit more comfortably than most — Kévin Jackson replied:

    I’m no Arabist, but I’d guess we can take it that Sayyed Imam Al-Sharif aka Dr Fadl is talking freely in this book, which he says will cover both his experience of the history of AQ “from the womb (the Afghan jihad against communism) … to the end” in detail, with dates and names, and “all this with the background of the study of Islamic jurisprudence that distinguish between right and wrong, and this is a jurisprudential historical book.”


    Tricky that, the need to rely on Google Translate. Once again I regret my lack of umpteen languages.

    Thomas Hegghammer on Morten Storm

    Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — in case you missed TH’s tweets on Storm today ]


    Here’s a quick overview of Morton Storm, the complex figure who is reported to have brought Anwar al-Awlaqi a bride from Europe — and thus betrayed Awlaqi’s whereabouts to the Agency:

    After converting to Islam, a former member of a Danish motorcycle gang travels to Yemen to study the Quran and soon comes in contact with radical preachers waging holy war against the West.

    On the verge of becoming a jihadist, he abruptly abandons his faith and embarks on a dangerous undercover mission to help Western intelligence agencies capture or kill terrorists.

    Morten Storm, 37, claims he worked for six years as an informant for the CIA, Britain’s MI5 and MI6 and Denmark’s security service, PET. All declined to comment for this article.

    “Could they just say `he never worked for us’? Sometimes silence is also information,” Storm told AP in Copenhagen. “I know this is true, I know what I have done.”

    Storm’s unlikely story, told in a new book and an interview with The Associated Press, has the drama and intrigue of a “Homeland” episode. But the burly, red-bearded Dane insists his tale isn’t fiction.

    Storm said he decided to reveal his secret-agent life to the media – he first spoke to a Danish newspaper in October – because he felt betrayed by his agent runners.

    In particular, he was upset that he wasn’t given credit for the airstrike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior al-Qaida figure, in Yemen in 2011.


    Thomas Hegghammer, author of the two books depicted above, and a highly respected academic specialist in terrorism and poliical violence, tweeted:

    Enjoying new book on Danish ex-jihadi Morten Storm. Some highlights:

    1) Regents pk mosque da’i sends Storm to Muqbil in Yemen in 97

    2) Storm travels from Sanaa to Dammaj with “Rashid”, aging Afro-American Korea vet. They join 3000 Salafists in “gigantic boy scout camp”

    3) in 98, after 8 months wMuqbil, Storm goes to Sana’a to find wife. Connects with jihad vets from Bosnia, Afgh. Weds, divorces Djbouti girl

    4) Back to UK, Denmark; marries in Morocco; to Yemen again in 2001; almost goes to pre 9/11 Afgh; preaches jihad in Ta’iz (2001-2) instead.

    5) Returns to DK in 2002 with wife and son Osama. Joins radicals in Vollsmose. “Jihad training” (obstacle course and paintball) in Odense

    6) Moves to Luton in 2003; meets Omar Bakri, Taymour Abdelwahhab; demonstrates and jihad trains (in Barton Hills) with al-Muhajiroun

    7) Thought 7/7 bombings were “cool”; found Bakri and Choudhry too soft; went to Yemen again in Jan 2006 but found no jihadis to join

    8) Prepared to fight in Somalia in late 2006, but trip called off. Annoyed, he starts to doubt; turns completely after 2 weeks of googling

    9) becomes PET informant in Jan 2007; sent to Tripoli, Lebanon in April to report on Raed Hlayhel, Omar Bakri, Fath al-Islam.

    10) Meets w/MI6 and CIA (Jennifer Matthews) in spring of 2007; sent to UK for spy training; then travels between DK, UK, Kenya and Yemen.

    11) Storm had taken classes with Awlaqi in 2006; Awlaqi helped Storm find a wife. Storm back in Sana in Aug 2008, they reconnect.

    12) Aug: 2008: Awlaqi visits Storm’s flat; Awlaqi impressed by Dane’s Shabaab contacts. Awlaqi and Warsame speak on Storm’s mobile

    13) next meeting in Sep 2009 in al-Hawta (Shabwa); Awlaqi mentions plots in West; wants fridge to store explosives, and help finding wife

    14) Late 2009: Storm helps US-led operation against Saleh Nabhan in Somalia. Storm stays in touch w Awlaqi by email in 2009-2010

    15) late Nov 2009: random female Awlaqi fan from Croatia contacts Storm via FB fanpage. Storm vets her and puts her in touch wAA.

    16) Storm meets “Aminah” in Vienna in March 2010; shows her video from AA and records one of her for AA; gives her CIA-bugged suitcase.

    17) On 2 June 2010 Aminah flies to Yemen. On arrival, cautious AA aides discard her suitcase. Storm still gets $250k cash from CIA.

    18) New plan in spring 2011: go to Yemen, send AA a tracked USB. In Sanaa, Storm connects wAA, shops ladies items for Aminah on his request.

    19) early Sep 2011: AA courier picks up tracked USB from Storm. AA killed on 30 Sep. Storm, back in DK, expects recognition as key agent

    20) Storm, outraged at lack of recognition and reward, plots revenge. He secretly records next CIA meeting, then contacts press. THE END


    PS: E-book version of the Morten Storm biography (Danish only) available here: http://tiny.cc/2wfxqw Sorry for overposting – I’ll shut up now


    I’d asked Hegghammer’s impression of the book’s (and Storm’s) credibility, while Aaron Zelin had commented on TH’s #7 above:

    Right before the jailbreak in Feb ’06.

    To which Hegghammer responded:

    Exactly. It’s details like this (plus pics, receipts, recording etc) that makes it very credible

    Will McCants has the last word…

    also, his last name gives him superhero status


    The brief account of Morton Storm at the top of this post is from Huffington Post. Name links are to twitter feeds, all are recommended. Hegghammer’s books are available on Amazon.

    Sow wind, reap whirlwind

    Sunday, December 30th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — on blowback, in praise of a Gregory Johnsen post, and literacy ]

    William Blake, The Lord Answering Job Out of the Whirlwind


    ED Hirsch and Joseph F Kett‘s New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy doesn’t appear to have an entry for the phrase “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” which is straight out of the prophet Hosea and is now something of a proverb in the form “sow the wind, reap the whirlwind”. Hunh.

    It’s an elegant phrase. The translators of the King James Bible were masterful in their singular ear for English, and no doubt Hosea‘s original Hebrew (Hosea 8.7) is no less pithy. Seed preceding harvest is about as basic a notion of cause resulting in effect as one can find in the lived world of agriculture, with the actual mechanism through which it comes to pass hidden in the “black box” between them where, as another biblical passage (John 12.24) puts it:

    unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.


    Sow the wind…

    It doesn’t sound like much, does it? Put an airy nothing in the ground…

    reap the whirlwind.

    If you were within media reach of the devastation that Sandy caused to New York and New Jersey — or Haiti (yet again) for that matter — you know what reaping the whirlwind is about. And the proverb, with the prophet behind it, tells us we get it by sowing the wind.



    Gregory Johnsen, in a recent Waq-al-Waq post, Sowing the Wind: Three years of strikes in Yemen, pulls together three recent news pieces on Yemen to give us a view from 30,000 feet — in which blowback is clearly visible as the “whirlwind” his title implies we are already beginning to reap.

    This sort of “here’s how the weather system looks from above” picture comes from the juxtaposition of key quotes, and since that’s one of my specialties, I’ll present two quotes that Johnsen selected in my own format devised with just that sort of exercise in mind:

    That first quote is from Letta Tayler in Foreign Policy, and the second from Sudarsan Raghavan in the Washington Post.

    As Johnsen puts it:

    This is clear: the US bombs, kills civilians and AQAP sends compensation – ie, helps out the families that have been killed – and takes advantage of the carnage the US has sown to reap more recruits.

    This is at once all too sad, and at the same time all too predictable.


    There’s plenty more in Johnsen’s post, obviously, and being a trawler for religious details, I myself was particularly amused, or maybe alarmed, by this sentence:

    That opening strike in the US’ war against AQAP in Yemen was a disaster, a strike so bad that the Pentagon lawyer who authorized it famously said later: “if I were Catholic, I’d have to go to confession.”

    Indeed, as I hope to show shortly in a review of his book, The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, Johnsen has a great deal to tell us, and he tells it with the added grace of a real appreciation for the language he uses.

    Which brings me to the reason why I singled this particular post for commendation, given that I read a number of insightful people on a number of interesting topics each day.

    Gregory Johnsen is literate, lettered.


    I can’t estimate for myself just how many people would know and recognize the Hosea quote, nor how many more would at least know the proverb “sow the wind, reap the whirlwind” well enough to recognize its first half and provide the second half from memory… That’s why I looked it up in Hirsch’s New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. And when I didn’t find it there, I have to say I wasn’t surprised.

    Way back in 19232, was it, TS Eliot was dropping snippets of already obscure (obsolete?) texts in English, Italian, Latin, and French — from Thomas Kyd‘s Spanish Tragedy, Dante‘s Purgatorio, the Pervigilium Veneris, and Gérard de Nerval‘s El Desdichado — into his poem The Waste Land, with the comment “these fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

    As Eliot would note later in Burnt Norton, “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place…”… And how much more so the myths, fables and proverbs made of them — myths, fables and proverbs which pass down the embodied wisdom of generations, as this proverb from Hosea passes down embodied wisdom about blowback — or negative positive feedback loops, as a latter-day Hosea might call them.

    Johnsen is, precisely in this sense, literate, and in addition to the benefit his analysis brings, it’s a delight to read him for that very reason.

    But there’s an even bigger issue here — the one Eliot was on about — the question of what happens when we lose the cultural underpinnings which, I’ll repeat, pass down the embodied wisdom of generations?

    Johnsen speaks to the present, to Yemen, to the Yemeni people and to American politics. But in quoting that fragment of a proverb in his title, and expecting us to recognize it, he also speaks to memory, to culture, and to wisdom — wisdom, the capacity to act wisely — to which memory and culture are portals.


    William Blake painted The Lord Answering Job Out of the Whirlwind, which I’ve placed at the top of this post, and it is said in Job 38.1, “the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind”.

    In a forthcoming post — how often have I posted those words, and how seldom do I manage to fullfil them? — I hope to address the other possibility, the one in which as I Kings 19 has it (verses 11-12):

    And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

    But the Lord was not in the wind — it might be nice if the evangelists of righteous doom would remember that verse, before they inform us that a hurricane like Sandy is simply God reproving Cuba, Haiti and the eastern seaboard of the United States!

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