Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Turkish-Syrian Cooperation Sparks Crackdown on PKK

Even Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has expressed surprised at the speed at which Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyeb Erdogan is pushing cooperation between the two erstwhile enemies, one a member of NATO, the other Iran’s closest ally and a supporter of militant Islamic groups.

Close cooperation between Turkey and Syria, which almost went to war a decade ago because of Syrian support for the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), is fueling mounting concern in Western capitals about a newly-found Turkish foreign policy focus on the Arab and Islamic world.

But closer ties with Syria have already produced results for Turkey: Syria is cracking down on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has been waging an intermittent guerrilla war in southeastern Turkey since the early 1980s that has cost some 40,000 lives. Syrian authorities have arrested hundreds of Kurds in recent months on suspicion of ties to the PKK, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

Erdogan paid a visit to Damascus this week to discuss cooperation between the two countries with Iran and Iraq in a bid to persuade them to join the crackdown on the Turkish Kurdish militants. Turkey has rewarded Syria with trade and tourism agreements and the lifting of visa requirements for Syrian nationals travelling to Turkey.

Stepped-up Turkish-Syrian cooperation comes as the Turkish parliament discusses extending the government’s mandate to conduct cross-border raids on PKK bases in predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq. Turkey has vowed to continue its fight against the militants despite the declaration in September of a unilateral ceasefire by the PKK.

The Turkish refusal and the raids are straining relations between Turkey and autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan and threaten to undermine Turkish efforts to normalize relations with the Iraqi Kurds and ensure stability on its southeastern border.

U.S., Europe Press GCC States on Yemen Membership

By James M. Dorsey

World Politics Review

The United States and Europe are pressuring oil-rich members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GGC) to forge closer ties with Yemen in a bid to link the fight against al-Qaida to tangible economic benefits for the Arab world's poorest nation.

U.S. officials say the Obama administration recently conveyed to GCC leaders Yemen's reiteration of its 10-year-old request for GCC membership. The officials believe that U.S. and European endorsement of the request will prompt GCC leaders to respond more favorably when they meet in Abu Dhabi in December.

The U.S. and Europe are exerting pressure against the backdrop of an increasing number of attacks in Yemen on foreign diplomats and nationals. Suspected operatives of al-Qaida's Yemen-based affiliate, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), last week fired a rocket at a British embassy vehicle in the capital San'a. Employees of Austrian energy giant OMV were injured in a separate incident. The attacks on foreigners follow scores of incidents targeting Yemeni military and government officials. AQAP has killed some 100 Yemeni security and intelligence personnel in recent months in hit-and-run attacks launched by assassins on motorcycles using grenades and AK-47s.

The GCC's vested interest in ensuring stability in Yemen coupled with the Gulf's reliance for its security on the U.S. -- and to a lesser extent Europe -- militates in favor of the GCC moving beyond its repeated rejections of Yemen's aspirations. Gulf states, first and foremost Saudi Arabia, see their security threatened by AQAP as well as the Yemeni government's intermittent war against tribal rebels in the north and its fight with secessionists in the south.

The GCC, in a prelude to closer relations, has admitted Yemen to several of its institutions, including its councils of health, education, sports and culture ministers. GCC members also contribute substantially to funding of the Yemeni government's payroll. The GCC agreed last month at a meeting in New York of the Friends of Yemen, which groups 22 nations concerned about the growing strength of jihadists in the country, to open an office in San'a that would "help all donors to plan, coordinate and deliver assistance to Yemen more efficiently." GCC members have held back billions of dollars in aid pledged to Yemen because of concerns that the country would not be able to absorb the funds, and also due to widespread Yemeni corruption -- a weak argument for Gulf states that have transparency issues of their own.

A political marriage between the Gulf states and Yemen is likely to prove difficult for the conservative GCC members. In many ways, Yemen and the GCC states have little in common beyond geography and their Arab identity. Yemen is a republican democracy, at least in name, that ousted its royals in the 1960s; GCC members are all authoritarian monarchies that have forgotten that they once wallowed in the same abject poverty Yemen suffers today. Gulf leaders, particularly in Kuwait, have never really forgiven Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh for his support of Iraq during the 1990 Gulf War, in which U.S.-led forces reversed Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Yemeni officials concede that in order to persuade the GCC, the government will have to improve the security situation, narrow the economic divide with the Gulf states and significantly reduce the country's addiction to qat, a plant stimulant consumed by a majority of Yemenis that is classified by the World Health Organization as a drug.

In lieu of granting Yemen full membership, the GCC is likely to look at ways of improving employment prospects for Yemenis. Yemen's economic problems were exacerbated in the early 1990s when Saudi Arabia expelled some 1 million Yemeni workers in retaliation for Yemen's support of Saddam. The expulsion deprived Yemen of badly needed remittances that were often invested into small and medium-sized enterprises that constitute the backbone of the Yemeni economy. GCC member states are discussing allowing Yemeni workers to return -- a move that segments of Gulf society, concerned about the high number of foreign, non-Arab workers in their countries, would welcome.

Twenty years on, many Yemeni workers lack the employment skills that Gulf states now require. One way GCC states may seek to compensate for that would be to grant Yemenis access to the same professional and technical training available to Gulf nationals. GCC states are also likely to fund job-creation programs in Yemen. A report commissioned by the Yemeni government recently estimated that Yemen needs to create 4 million new jobs in the next 10 years. A Saudi delegation visited Yemen this weekend as part of a project to develop Yemeni educational programs, prepare Yemeni trainers and help the government draft regulations for the Higher Yemeni Technical Institute, which is funded by the Islamic Development Bank and South Korea.

A recent report (.pdf) by a London School of Economics researcher suggested that stabilizing Yemen was a key GCC interest because the country's problems potentially foreshadow problems that could emerge elsewhere in the Gulf. "Yemen is the canary in the coal mine. It is an indication of what can go wrong when a country fails to develop political legitimacy and build a sustainable, productive non-oil economy," said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, the author of the report. "The challenges to government authority in southern and northern Yemen demonstrate how existing socio-economic discontent and regional marginalization can fracture and fragment social cohesion. Similar fissures and unequal patterns of access to resources exist in the GCC states and could become transmitters of conflict in the future."

The United States and Europe share GCC concerns about Yemen's lack of good governance. Getting the GCC to assume responsibility for helping Yemen ensure that its development aid is put to proper use will have the added advantage of focusing Gulf attention on transparency issues within the GCC itself.

Militant Islam gains ground in the Balkans

By James M. Dorsey

Deutsche Welle

It's feared that some Muslim charities could encourage Wahhabism
A recent online music video featuring Macedonians praising Osama bin Laden has fueled fears that Southeastern Europe could be emerging as the latest breeding ground for homegrown Islamist militants.

It has also focused attention on Muslim charities active in Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia and European Union member Bulgaria since the wars in former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s. Many of those charities are funded by oil-rich Saudi Arabia and propagate Wahhabism - the kingdom's austere and puritan interpretation of Islam.

A majority of Wahhabis favor peaceful proselytizing of Islam while Saudi King Abdullah has been seeking to soften Wahhabi practices as part of his reforms in the kingdom. Militant groups such as Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, the Taliban and jihadists in Somalia have however embraced significant elements of Wahhabism as part of their ideology.

Jasmin Merdan, a young Bosnian who wrote a book after disassociating himself from Wahhabis groups in Bosnia, warned that "they express their convictions with violence, introduce anarchy in mosques and preach intolerance." Women in the Albanian city of Skadar have reportedly started covering their heads or wearing the niqab, a full body covering that hides everything but the eyes, in newly found religiosity.

The video posted on YouTube is one of several produced by home grown jihadists in the Balkans and circulating in the region. "Oh Osama, annihilate the American army. Oh Osama, raise the Muslims’ honor," a group of Macedonian men chant in Albanian on the video. "In September 2001 you conquered a power. We all pray for you." Similar songs calling on Southeastern European Muslims to join the jihad have been produced in Bosnian.

Governments and security forces fear that that increased Wahhabi activity will produce committed jihadis that could destabilize already fragile nations in southeastern Europe and, in the case of Bulgaria - where one sixth of the country's 7.6 million people is Muslim - produce a pool of jihadists whose EU passports would grant them easy access to Western Europe and allow them to blend into society.
Bulgaria seen as potential breeding ground

Bulgaria is the only EU member whose Muslim population are not recent immigrants. Most Bulgarian Muslims like those elsewhere in the Balkans are descendants of ethnic Turks who arrived during five centuries of Ottoman rule.

Three ethnic Albanian brothers from Macedonia were convicted to life in prison in 2008 on charges of plotting to attack the US Army's Fort Dix military base in New Jersey. A fourth member of the group from Kosovo was sentenced to five years in jail.

Across the Balkans, minority Wahhabi groups seek to convert mainstream Islam to their more militant interpretation through the operation of cultural centers, mosques, schools and at times by battling for control of majority Muslim organizations and community-owned property. A majority of the region's Muslims are secular and analysts caution against overstating the Wahhabi threat.
"It should not be ignored, but neither should it be exaggerated," said Hajrudin Somun a former Bosnian ambassador to Turkey and history professor at Sarajevo's Philip Noel-Baker International University.

The analysts say militant Islam is gaining ground on the fringe of a more general return to religion in the Balkans. Several thousand Orthodox Christian Bulgarians demonstrated in Sofia recently demanding that religious instruction be made compulsory in schools - a demand supported by mainstream Muslim organizations.
Muslim organizations are believed to have spent large amounts of money over the last decade to build some 150 new mosques and educational centers in predominantly Orthodox Bulgaria. A minority are believed to promote Wahhabism.

Analysts say that radical Islam has gained ground in southern and northeastern Bulgaria where militant Islamists, according to former Bulgarian chief mufti Nedim Gendzhev, are seeking to create a "fundamentalist triangle" in areas of Bosnia, Macedonia and Bulgaria's Western Rhodope mountains.

Fears of increasing radicalism

Bulgarian authorities last year arrested a mayor and a village teacher in the south of the country on charges of preaching radical Islam. In 2003, authorities shut down several Islamic centers because they were financed by Saudi-funded Muslim groups believed to have links to militant Islamic organizations and "to prevent terrorists getting a foothold in Bulgaria." Some analysts estimate that 3,000 young Muslims have graduated from militant schools still operating in Bulgaria; it was not immediately clear what they went on to do following their graduation.

Relations are tense between Muslims and Serbs in BosniaThe threat posed by the Wahhabis is a major bone of contention in tense relations between Muslims and Serbs in Bosnia, which so far has successfully neutralized Wahhabi influence by controlling the appointment of imams in mosques and teachers at Islamic educational institutions and employing law enforcement.

Some Bosnian Wahhabis, estimated to number 3,000, are former foreign fighters who married Bosnian women and stayed in the country after the Bosnian war that ended in 1995. Bosnia recently stepped up its fight against militancy and organized crime to meet an EU requirement for visa-free travel for Bosnians and closer ties with the bloc.

In early September, Bosnian police uncovered a cache of weapons and detained a third suspect as part of their inquiry into a June bomb attack that killed one policeman and injured six others. The attack on a police station in the town of Bugojno was one of the most serious security incidents in Bosnia. Police arrested the suspected mastermind and an aide shortly after the blast.

Bosnia tries to crackdown on militants

Boris Grubesic, a spokesman for the Bosnian prosecutor's office, told reporters in mid-September that prosecutors were investigating several people from Bugojno and Gornja Maoca on suspicion of Wahhabi ties, terrorism and human trafficking.

In February, Bosnian and EU police raided Gornja Maoca and arrested seven men described as Wahhabis because of their beards and shortened trousers. Police said they were detained for suspected illegal possession of arms and threatening the country's "territorial integrity, constitutional order and provoking inter-ethnic and religious hatred."

Gornja Maoca was home to some 30 families who lived by strict Shariah laws, organized schooling in Arabic for their children outside the state system and opposed the primacy of Bosnia's mainstream Islamic Community. Nusret Imamovic, the town's self-proclaimed Wahhabi leader, endorsed suicide attacks on the group's Bosnian language website, saying they should be launched only in "exceptional circumstances." The site features statements by al-Qaeda and Islamic groups fighting in the Caucasus and celebrates suicide bombers as joyful Muslims.

Serbian officials say 12 alleged Wahhabis convicted last year to prison terms of up to 13 years for planning terrorist attacks, including on the US Embassy in Belgrade, had close ties to their brethren in Gornja Maoca. One of the convicted, Adnan Hot, said during the trial that Imamovic was one of only three Muslim leaders that he followed. Four other Wahhabis were sentenced in a separate case to jail terms of up to eight years on charges of planning to bomb a football stadium in the southern Serbian town of Novi Pazar.

In Macedonia, Suleyman Rexhepim Rexhepi, head of the official Islamic Religious Community (IVZ), recently called on the government and the international community to crack down on increasingly influential Wahabbi groups. Rexhepi is locked into a bitter battle with Ramadan Ramadani, the imam of the Isa Beg mosque in Skopje, that has caused a rift in the country's Muslim community.

Ramadani accuses Rexhep of financial msmangement and is seeking his ouster. He organized a petition signed by thousands of his followers supporting his bid for leadership of the community after Rexhepi banned him from organizing prayers. Ramadani denies that Wahhabis are active among Macedonian Muslims who account for roughly one quarter of the population as well as allegations that the pro-bin Laden music video was played in mosques he controls.

A Ramadani associate, radical Kosovo imam Sefket Krasnici, shocked Macedonians, when he recently denounced Mother Teresa, a native of Skopje whom many consider a saint, during a sermon in the Macedonian capital. "She belongs in the middle of Hell because she did not believe in Allah, the prophet and the Koran ... Even if she believed in God her belief was incomplete, with deficiencies. God does not accept such worship," Krasnici said.