Osama bin Laden’s pre-9/11 terror hints ‘the coffin business will boom’

Osama bin Laden’s pre-9/11 terror hints ‘the coffin business will boom’
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A TV grab from MBC program shows Baker Atyani, left, with terrorists Osama bin Laden, right, and Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
Osama bin Laden’s pre-9/11 terror hints ‘the coffin business will boom’
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Terrorist Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan before 9/11. (AN photo by Baker Atyani)
Updated 14 September 2017

Osama bin Laden’s pre-9/11 terror hints ‘the coffin business will boom’

Osama bin Laden’s pre-9/11 terror hints ‘the coffin business will boom’

DUBAI: It took us about three hours to reach Kandahar. Caught up in my thoughts, I barely spoke with my travel companion Othman, the man assigned by Osama bin Laden — who would soon become the world's most infamous and wanted terorist — to handle logistics for my interview with him in June 2001.
It was dark when we entered the city. Our transport turned from the main road into a maze of semi-paved streets, then on to sand. Most of the houses in the area were built of mud and their condition spoke volumes about their owners’ financial circumstances.
Stopping overnight at a house in Kandahar, I struggled to sleep under the stress of the situation and the scorching heat of the city.
Around 6 a.m., Othman woke me up. It felt as if I had slept less than an hour. Another man entered the room. I did not recognize him at first, but when he introduced himself as Abu Hafs, I knew the name. This was Mohammed Atif, aka Abu Hafs, the military leader of Al-Qaeda.
He joined me and Othman for breakfast: Naan bread, butter, jam and eggs. While we ate, he said they now had enough trained fighters to fight the “coming battle” and were in full mobility mode. In any emergency, he explained, they could evacuate their bases and move to other battle-ready locations within half an hour. After 9/11, I remembered what Abu Hafs had said and how the Tora Bora caves were prepared to shelter Al-Qaeda’s leadership and soldiers.
We resumed our journey after breakfast. I could feel the terrain change from cracked road to rigid and wild track, over which the old rust-bucket bus bounced and juddered most of the way to our destination.
After three hours we stopped at a residence renovated in the form of a fortified compound, with unscaleable boundary walls and a massive gate. This was perhaps the lion’s den. I could see a small contingent of men inside. The compound was like the fortress of an “underground world.” There were enough weapons and ammunition to bring an entire city under siege. After a thorough security inspection and body pat down, I was pointed toward one of the rooms, and men turned monsters stared back as I made my way inside.
Dressed in a white-smoke colored traditional Arabic thobe, and with a typical bright white Middle Eastern turban on his head, a commanding personality stood in the center of the room waiting to greet me along with his trusted companion — a variant of the famous Russian AK-47. This was Osama bin Laden, the most wanted man in the world, a declared terrorist with a $5 million bounty on his head even then. Next to him was Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the second most-wanted terrorist in the world, who now leads the remnants of Al-Qaeda.
As I stepped farther into the room, Bin Laden moved forward and hugged me in the customary Afghan greeting style. The others followed suit. I was being hugged by the most notorious personality on the planet, surrounded by all his men, declared by the world as “terrorists with evil plans.” The thought of a laser-guided missile striking the compound and annihilating us all at any moment loomed large in my mind.
As we sat down on a cotton mattress on the floor, Bin Laden said: “The plan has changed, I will only give reserved comments.” He said he was restrained by an understanding with the Taliban not to talk to the media. Of course, I had no idea that the twisted statements he gave me later would materialize in the catastrophic attacks on the Twin Towers, which killed over 3,000 innocent people.
Bin Laden had been openly criticized by his followers and the leadership of Al-Qaeda for backtracking on his commitments. His promise to the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, that he would refrain from media statements and meeting journalists, was broken. But his pledge not to use Afghan soil as a base for attacks on any foreign country was the most vital of Bin Laden’s broken accords with the Taliban, a deceit that cost his hosts their fiefdom and led to a war with consequences that have been unfolding since 2001.
I asked him what news he wanted to give me. He repeated that the news was about some future attacks. Abu Hafs intervened, and said: “In the coming weeks, there will be a big surprise; we are going to hit American and Israeli installations.” Chillingly, he added: “The coffin business will increase in the United States.”
I looked at Bin Laden and asked if he was serious, seeking confirmation. He smiled at me and nodded in agreement. Bin Laden had few words, but Al-Zawahiri was anxious to talk. He said they would strike the head of the snake first, meaning the US, and confirmed that the Egyptian militant group Islamic Jihad had merged with Al-Qaeda in April of that year.
Tea was served, then Bin Laden’s personal photographer was ready to snap a few shots, and to film the three of us as I sat on the right of Al-Zawahiri with Bin Laden on his left.
Bin Laden shook hands with me and said he would be inviting me again after the success of their objective. His parting words to me were: “If something big happens, I will be hiding in the tribal areas of Pakistan. That’s where you can come again to interview me.” He left the room, followed by Al-Zawahiri and Abu Hafs.
By “something big,” of course, he meant the 9/11 attacks. It felt odd to hear Bin Laden say this, since a fugitive of his stature, the most wanted man in the world, would surely not disclose his whereabouts or divulge operational secrets. To me, it felt misleading. Later, Abdullah, Bin Laden’s son, wrote that his father actually planned to settle in Kunar province in northeast Afghanistan, but when US forces took control of the province he moved to Peshawar city in Pakistan, then Haripur, before settling in Abbottabad, where he was eventually found and killed.
After the meeting, I was taken back to the same house in Kandahar where I had spent the previous night. I was anxious to get back to civilization and break this news to the world.
After crossing the border to Pakistan, I sat in the departure lounge in Quetta waiting for my flight to Islamabad, deep in thought, wondering about the dilemma I faced. Should I report the truth, the news, however bad? Or would I be projecting violence and terror?
In the end, the truth won, as it should. My story was broadcast on MBC on June 23, 2001. In my concluding remarks, I said the coming days would reveal who would attack first, and how big this attack would be. As we all now know, it was huge, catastrophic and terrifying, and it shook the world, but the ripple effect brought much chaos and disaster back to where it was planned. Southeast Asia in general, and Afghanistan in particular, still yearn for peace and stability 16 years on.
In November 2001, my phone rang again. It was Othman. “The person” was ready to meet me as promised, he said. “Will you?”


South Sudan president dissolves parliament

South Sudan president dissolves parliament
Updated 10 May 2021

South Sudan president dissolves parliament

South Sudan president dissolves parliament
  • Activists and civil society groups welcomed the dissolution of parliament, saying it was long overdue but also expressing distrust

JUBA: South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir has dissolved parliament, opening the way for lawmakers from opposing sides of the country’s civil war to be appointed under a 2018 peace accord. Kiir’s decision was announced on public television but no date was given as to when the new parliament will begin working.

The setting up of a new legislative body was part of an accord signed in September 2018 between Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar, for years on opposition sides during the five-year civil war that left 380,000 people dead and four million displaced.

Activists and civil society groups welcomed the dissolution of parliament, saying it was long overdue but also expressing distrust.

“It is a welcome development and we hope that the dissolution (will not) also open the way to a lengthy process toward reconstituting the parliament,” Jame David Kolock, chairman of the South Sudan Civil Society Forum.

“The civil society is getting frustrated and no longer believes that even if the parliament is reconstituted it will be a very viable parliament.”

In accordance with the 2018 accord, the new assembly will number 550 lawmakers, the majority — 332 — from Kiir’s governing SPLM party. The parliamentarians will not be elected but nominated by the different parties.

The dissolution of parliament came on the eve of a visit to the capital Juba by US special envoy to South Sudan Donald Booth.

“Of particular concern to the United States is the slow implementation of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan, ongoing violence, and deteriorating economic and humanitarian conditions,” the US State Department said in a statement.

Kiir and Machar formed a coalition government on February 22, 2020 after nearly a year of delays.

However few provisions of the truce have been honored, and analysts have warned of a return to war.

The oil-rich country remains severely underdeveloped and poorly managed.

Despite the peace deal, brutal communal conflicts — often over cattle raiding — continue, with more than 1,000 killed in violence between rival communities in the last six months of 2020.


After outcry, BJP denies setting up COVID-19 help desks for cows

After outcry, BJP denies setting up COVID-19 help desks for cows
Updated 09 May 2021

After outcry, BJP denies setting up COVID-19 help desks for cows

After outcry, BJP denies setting up COVID-19 help desks for cows
  • Last week, Uttar Pradesh announced the establishment of 700 help desks ‘for the welfare of cows’
  • Uttar Pradesh is one of the worst-affected states amid surge in virus cases

NEW DELHI: Facing a wave of criticism following an announcement to set up help desks to protect cows in the wake of a pandemic crisis, the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh was on Sunday forced to deny the plan.  

The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, known as a hardline Hindu politician of the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been promoting cow protection since the beginning of his term in 2017. The state already had 4,500 shelters and some 170 sanctuaries for the bovines, which are sacred in Hinduism.

With the country facing a drastic surge in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases and its hospitals enduring a shortage of beds and oxygen, many were shocked to read in a circular widely quoted by the Indian media last week that Adityanath’s administration had announced the establishment of 700 help desks “for the welfare of cows.” 

The centers, the notice said, would be equipped with “51 oximeters and 341 thermal scanners” in order to “ensure better animal care and testing.”

Following an outcry prompted by the cow help desk plan, Navneet Sehgal, the state’s additional chief secretary for information, told Arab News the reports were “false, slanderous and nonsense.”

The administration, however, has not denied issuing the circular.

India recorded over 400,000 new COVID-19 infections on Sunday and 4,000 related deaths. With Uttar Pradesh suffering as one of the worst-affected states with more than 26,500 new cases and 300 deaths in the past 24 hours, the focus on cows has dumbfounded the state’s residents.

“I feel very angry as a resident of Uttar Pradesh with the way we are being treated and our lives are being compromised,” Kulsum Mustafa, a journalist and activist based in the state’s capital of Lucknow, told Arab News.

“India is asking for support to tide over the crisis posed by COVID-19 ... People are dying without hospital beds and oxygen and our focus is different,” Mustafa said.

Lucknow-based former bureaucrat and political analyst Surya Pratap Singh said the cow help desk plan was a “political tactic to divert the attention from COVID-19 mismanagement.”

He described the situation in the state as “terrible, with people dying in large numbers in villages which are not being reflected in the official figure. Cremation grounds are full.”

Ram Dutt Tripathi, another political analyst in Lucknow, said: “Maybe the government’s feedback channel is choked, and their communication is only one way. The BJP regime is not connected with the grassroot sentiments.”

He added that the move might be related to next year’s elections in Uttar Pradesh — the country’s most-populous state — where winning the vote traditionally spells victory in national polls.

“The BJP thinks that communal polarization will work again and again,” he said, adding: “That’s why they are not focusing on governance and people are suffering.”


Boats carrying hundreds of migrants arrive in Italy’s Lampedusa

Boats carrying hundreds of migrants arrive in Italy’s Lampedusa
Updated 09 May 2021

Boats carrying hundreds of migrants arrive in Italy’s Lampedusa

Boats carrying hundreds of migrants arrive in Italy’s Lampedusa
  • About 400 migrants of various nationalities got off one of the boats, a drifting fishing vessel
  • Another boat carrying 325 people was intercepted eight miles off Lampedusa

MILAN: Seven boats packed with hundreds of migrants arrived on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa on Sunday, and officials said more people were expected as the weather improved.
More than 1,000 people got off the vessels at Lampedusa, one of the main landing points for people trying to get across the Mediterranean into Europe, ANSA news agency said.
“Migrants arrivals are resuming alongside good weather,” Lampedusa’s mayor Toto Martello told state broadcaster RAI. “We need to restart discussions about the immigration issue.”
Numbers in recent years have been down from 2015-2017, when Europe took in hundreds of thousands of migrants, many of them fleeing poverty and conflict across Africa and the Middle East.
But the issue still sharply divides European governments and has fueled anti-immigration sentiment and parties across the continent.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s far-right League party, called on Prime Minister Mario Draghi to tackle the issue.
“With millions of Italians facing difficulties, we cannot care for thousands of illegal migrants,” he wrote on Twitter.
Some of the boats were intercepted off the coast of the Mediterranean island by the Italian tax police, who deal with financial crime and smuggling, ANSA said.
About 400 migrants of various nationalities got off one of the boats, a drifting fishing vessel, the agency reported.
Another boat carrying 325 people was intercepted eight miles off Lampedusa, the agency added.


Afghanistan mourns 60 schoolgirls killed in deadliest attack in years

Afghanistan mourns 60 schoolgirls killed in deadliest attack in years
Updated 09 May 2021

Afghanistan mourns 60 schoolgirls killed in deadliest attack in years

Afghanistan mourns 60 schoolgirls killed in deadliest attack in years
  • Taliban deny involvement, and insist they have not carried out attacks in Kabul since February last year
  • Violence on rise in recent weeks after US postponed withdrawal of troops from country

KABUL: Sixty girls were buried during a mass funeral on Sunday, after a gruesome bomb attack on a school in a poor neighborhood of Kabul a day earlier.

The carnage outside the Sayed ul-Shuhada school in the Shia-dominated suburb of Dasht-e Barchi began when a car bomb detonated as students were leaving classes to break their Ramadan fast.

Witnesses said that as people rushed to take the wounded children to hospital, another explosion and mortar fire tore through the scene, killing some of the rescuers.

“Books and body parts were everywhere ... cries, wailing,” local resident Rahim Dad said.

Over 100 people were wounded in the attack, the deadliest assault in years, coming just a week after a bomb attack killed another 21 children in Logar province, south of Kabul.  

“We buried sixty of the victims, all girls and students of the same school,” Dr. Ali Sadaat, who organized the funeral, told Arab News.

“These students until a few days ago were complaining to school authorities about a shortage of textbooks,” Sadaat said. “They had an enormous desire to earn a bright future. May God never show such a thing to any country. There were some students who were beheaded, some whose faces were beyond recognition.”

While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, President Ashraf Ghani blamed the Taliban, who denied the accusation, saying a Daesh network was behind the massacre. 

Last June, at least 24 people, including newborns, mothers and nurses, were killed by Daesh gunmen at a maternity ward, also in Dasht-e Barchi.

In November, Daesh claimed responsibility for an attack on Kabul University, in which 32 people were killed.

“We are safe nowhere in Afghanistan,” Shamsuddin, an elderly resident of Kabul, told Arab News. “People are being targeted in classes, (at) university, wedding halls, mosques. How long this will last?”

Violence has been on the rise in Afghanistan in recent weeks after the US postponed the withdrawal of its troops from the country to September from a May 1 deadline Washington had negotiated with the Taliban last year.

Under the US-Taliban deal, the latter promised, among other things, not to allow its members and other militant groups to use the soil of Afghanistan for terrorist attacks.

In a statement issued on Sunday, which has been attributed to Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, the elusive Taliban leader said that as the US had again failed to live up to its commitments, “the world must bear witness and hold America accountable for all consequences.” 


India’s daily COVID-19 deaths near record, calls for nationwide lockdown mount

India’s daily COVID-19 deaths near record, calls for nationwide lockdown mount
Updated 09 May 2021

India’s daily COVID-19 deaths near record, calls for nationwide lockdown mount

India’s daily COVID-19 deaths near record, calls for nationwide lockdown mount
  • India’s health ministry reported 4,092 fatalities over the past 24 hours
  • Many Indian states have imposed strict lockdowns over the past month to stem the surge in infections

MUMBAI: India’s COVID-19 deaths rose by more than 4,000 for a second consecutive day on Sunday as calls for a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the virus mounted.
India’s health ministry reported 4,092 fatalities over the past 24 hours, taking the overall death toll to 242,362. New cases rose by 403,738, just shy of the record and increasing the total since the start of the pandemic to 22.3 million.
India has been hit hard by a second COVID-19 wave with cases and deaths hitting record highs every other day. With an acute shortage of oxygen and beds in many hospitals and morgues and crematoriums overflowing, experts have said the actual numbers for COVID-19 cases and fatalities could be far higher.
Many Indian states have imposed strict lockdowns over the past month to stem the surge in infections while others have announced restrictions on public movement and shut down cinemas, restaurants, pubs and shopping malls.
But pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to announce a nationwide lockdown similar to the one imposed during the first wave last year.
India on Saturday reported its highest ever single-day COVID-19 death toll of 4,187 fatalities. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that India will see 1 million COVID-19 deaths by August.
Support has been pouring in from around the world in the form of oxygen cylinders and concentrators, ventilators and other medical equipment for overwhelmed hospitals.