Texas terrorist demanded release of Al-Qaeda figure months after similar call by Anjem Choudary

a sign is displayed outside of the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, some 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of Dallas. (AFP)
a sign is displayed outside of the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, some 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of Dallas. (AFP)
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Updated 17 January 2022

Texas terrorist demanded release of Al-Qaeda figure months after similar call by Anjem Choudary

a sign is displayed outside of the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, some 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of Dallas. (AFP)
  • Malik Faisal Akram was shot by police on Saturday after holding four people hostage at a Texas synagogue
  • He called for release of Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving an 86-year sentence for her part in a 2008 New York terror plot

LONDON: Extremist British cleric Anjem Choudary recently urged his supporters to help free notorious Islamist Aafia Siddiqui “physically or by ransom” — the same person a British terrorist demanded be released while he occupied a synagogue in Texas on Saturday.

Choudary, who was profiled by Arab News in its “Preachers of Hate” series, called in September last year for the release of Siddiqui, known as “Lady Al-Qaeda.” It came three months after his release from a British prison where he had served time for supporting the terrorist group Daesh.

“The obligation upon us is to either free her physically or to ransom her or to exchange her,” Choudary wrote on social media platform Telegram. “However, until such time as we can fulfill one of these obligations the minimum that we can do is to use all that we have to raise awareness about her case, to keep her name in the hearts and in the minds of Muslims.”

His call for action was allegedly echoed by Malik Faisal Akram, the man who held four people hostage for 10 hours at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas on Saturday. It is 25 miles from the federal facility at Fort Worth where Siddiqui is serving an 86-year sentence.

Akram, 44, died during a shootout with law-enforcement officers that ended the synagogue siege.

Choudary is believed to have influenced about 100 British jihadis through his online lectures and videos.

Siddiqui was arrested in Afghanistan in 2008 while carrying 2kg of sodium cyanide and plans for a chemical attack on New York City. During her trial she demanded jurors be subjected to DNA testing to check whether they were Jewish. She also attempted to shoot a guard during interrogation.

A neuroscientist by training who earned a scholarship to study biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1991, Siddiqui attended the same mosque later frequented by the Boston Marathon bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. She took part in firearms courses run by the National Rifle Association, was for a time on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Most Wanted list, and was publicly named by Daesh fighters as a candidate for a prisoner-swap deal for James Foley, the American photojournalist who was murdered in 2014.

A profile of Siddiqui by the Boston Globe in 2014 suggested that she had been radicalized by the outbreak of the war in Bosnia, after which she became a member of Al-Kifah Refugee Center, thought to have been Al-Qaeda’s operational hub in the US at the time.

Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism expert, told the Globe: “Aafia was from a prominent family with connections and a sympathy for jihad. She was just what they needed.”

Waqas Jilani, at the time a graduate student at Clark University, told the Globe that Siddiqui had boasted she would be proud to be on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and urged fellow Muslims to take up arms and fight.

“She was always mouthing off about the US and the FBI being so bad and all,” he said.

Siddiqui’s former husband, Mohammed Amjad Khan, described how, having married her over the phone from Pakistan, he arrived in the US to discover she would regularly watch videos of Osama bin Laden and spent weekends at training camps with other members of Al-Kifah.

“I discovered that the well-being of our nascent family unit was not her prime goal in life,” he said. “Instead, it was to gain prominence in Muslim circles.”

He added he felt unable to introduce her to professional colleagues because she would “only want to talk about them converting to Islam. Invariably this would lead to unpleasantness.”

He added: “Her focus had shifted to jihad against America, instead of preaching to Americans so that they all become Muslims and America becomes a Muslim land.”

After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, Siddiqui demanded that the couple return to Pakistan and get divorced. It is thought she later married Ammar Al-Baluchi, the nephew of 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.


Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs

Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs
Updated 21 May 2022

Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs

Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs
  • Trapani judge Samuele Corso must rule whether or not to proceed to trial after a five-year investigation mired in controversy
  • The charities are accused of coordinating their actions with smugglers just off Libya

ROME: Charities running migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean faced a pre-trial hearing in Sicily Saturday over alleged collusion with people traffickers after a controversial probe that involved mass wiretapping.
Twenty-one suspects, including crew members of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Save the Children and German NGO Jugend Rettet rescue ships, are accused of “aiding and abetting unauthorized entry into Italy” in 2016 and 2017.
“Our crews rescued over 14,000 people in distress from unseaworthy and overcrowded boats... and are now facing 20 years in prison,” Kathrin Schmidt, who sailed with Jugend Rettet’s ship Iuventa, said ahead of the hearing.
Trapani judge Samuele Corso must rule whether or not to proceed to trial after a five-year investigation mired in controversy for the mass wiretapping of charity workers, lawyers and journalists in what critics say is a politically motivated bid to stop sea rescues.
Italy has long been on the front line of seaborne migration from Africa to Europe, with a record 180,000 arrivals in 2016, dropping to 120,000 in 2017.
It has registered some 17,000 arrivals so far this year, according to the interior ministry.
Prosecutor Brunella Sardoni told AFP she expected the preliminary hearings process to last “several months, considering the complexity” of a case file with some 30,000 pages and hundreds of CDs.
Corso set the date for the next hearing as June 7.
Supporters of the rescue charities held a sit-in at the port in Trapani featuring large paper boats bearing the date and location of shipwrecks, and the number of victims.
The charities are accused of coordinating their actions with smugglers just off Libya, returning inflatable dinghies and boats to them to be reused, and picking up people whose lives had not been in danger.
The rescuers say anyone attempting the central Mediterranean crossing to Europe — the “world’s deadliest” according to the UN — on rickety boats or unseaworthy dinghies is at risk, and should be saved.
At least 12,000 people have drowned on this route since 2014. Many shipwrecks go unrecorded.
The charities also deny ever communicating with smugglers, who are sometimes armed and can be spotted loitering near rescues in the hope of retrieving valuable engines from migrant boats.
Save the Children told AFP it “strongly rejects” the accusations, as did MSF, which slammed a “period of criminalization of humanitarian aid” it hoped would soon end.
The Iuventa was impounded in 2017 shortly after Jugend Rettet and others refused to sign a new and contentious interior ministry “code of conduct” accord, and as the European Union scaled up surveillance and policing in the Mediterranean.
“Despite the fact that mobile phones and computers were seized and analyzed, not a single contact with Libyan smugglers... has been found,” said Nicola Canestrini, lawyer for the Iuventa crew members.
Pre-trial hearings are held behind closed doors, but representatives from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and Amnesty International have requested the judge allow them to sit in for transparency.
ECCHR senior legal adviser Allison West has condemned “improper investigative practices” in the investigation, led by a prosecutors’ office more used to exposing Mafia crimes.
The probe was launched after ex-policeman Pietro Gallo, working as a security contractor on Save the Children’s Vos Hestia ship, sent allegations against the charities in October 2016 to Italy’s secret services, Canestrini told AFP.
He and a fellow ex-policeman also sent them to the head of the anti-immigration League party, Matteo Salvini, before reporting their suspicions to the police.
Gallo has since said in an interview that he regrets it. Asked if he ever saw any contact between the charities and traffickers, he replied “no, never.”
The damage was done. Police placed an undercover agent on the Vos Hestia in May 2017, who would provide information including elements used to charge the four Iuventa crew members, Canestrini said. Those included alleged hand signals between the crew and smugglers.
Iuventa’s case has been studied by Forensic Architecture, an agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, which uses advanced reconstruction techniques to investigate police, military and state facts.
It discredited the police theories for all three Iuventa rescues in question.


Russia declares travel ban on 963 Americans including Biden and Blinken

Russia declares travel ban on 963 Americans including Biden and Blinken
Updated 21 May 2022

Russia declares travel ban on 963 Americans including Biden and Blinken

Russia declares travel ban on 963 Americans including Biden and Blinken
  • Travel bans have only symbolic impact but form part of a constant downward spiral in Russia’s relations with the US

LONDON: Russia said on Saturday it was banning entry to 963 Americans including US President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA chief William Burns
The travel bans have only symbolic impact but form part of a constant downward spiral in Russia’s relations with the United States and its allies since its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.


Joe Biden signs $40 billion for Ukraine assistance during Asia trip

Joe Biden signs $40 billion for Ukraine assistance during Asia trip
Updated 21 May 2022

Joe Biden signs $40 billion for Ukraine assistance during Asia trip

Joe Biden signs $40 billion for Ukraine assistance during Asia trip
  • The legislation was passed by Congress with bipartisan support
  • The new legislation will provide $20 billion in military assistance

SEOUL: President Joe Biden on Saturday signed legislation to support Ukraine with another $40 billion in US assistance as the Russian invasion approaches its fourth month.
The legislation, which was passed by Congress with bipartisan support, deepens the US commitment to Ukraine at a time of uncertainty about the war’s future. Ukraine has successfully defended Kyiv, and Russia has refocused its offensive on the country’s east, but American officials warn of the potential for a prolonged conflict.
The funding is intended to support Ukraine through September, and it dwarfs an earlier emergency measure that provided $13.6 billion.
The new legislation will provide $20 billion in military assistance, ensuring a steady stream of advanced weapons that have been used to blunt Russia’s advances. There’s also $8 billion in general economic support, $5 billion to address global food shortages that could result from the collapse of Ukrainian agriculture and more than $1 billion to help refugees.
Biden signed the measure under unusual circumstances. Because he’s in the middle of a trip to Asia, a US official brought a copy of the bill on a commercial flight so the president could sign it, according to a White House official.
The logistics reflect a sense of urgency around continuing US support for Ukraine, but also the overlapping international challenges facing Biden. Even as he tries to reorient American foreign policy to confront China, he’s continuing to direct resources to the largest conflict in Europe since World War II.

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Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air

Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air
Updated 21 May 2022

Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air

Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air
  • Previously they had only been required to wear a headscarf
  • Television channels have already stopped showing dramas and soap operas featuring women, following orders from Taliban authorities

KABUL: Women presenters on Afghanistan’s leading TV channels went on air Saturday without covering their faces, defying a Taliban order that they conceal their appearance to comply with the group’s austere brand of Islam.
Since surging back to power last year the Taliban have imposed a slew of restrictions on civil society, many focused on reining in the rights of women and girls.
Earlier this month Afghanistan’s supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada issued a diktat for women to cover up fully in public, including their faces, ideally with the traditional burqa.
The feared Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice ordered women TV presenters to follow suit by Saturday.
Previously they had only been required to wear a headscarf.
But broadcasters TOLOnews, Shamshad TV and 1TV all aired live programs Saturday with women presenters’ faces visible.
“Our female colleagues are concerned that if they cover their faces, the next thing they will be told is to stop working,” said Shamshad TV head of news Abid Ehsas.
“This is the reason they have not observed the order so far,” he told AFP, adding the channel had requested further discussions with the Taliban on the issue.
Taliban orders such as this have caused many female journalists to leave Afghanistan since the hard-line Islamists stormed back to power, a woman presenter said.
“Their latest order has broken the hearts of women presenters and many now think they have no future in this country,” she said, requesting not to be named.
“I’m thinking of leaving the country. Decrees like this will force many professionals to leave.”
Mohammad Sadeq Akif MoHajjir, spokesman for the vice ministry, said the women presenters were violating the Taliban directive.
“If they don’t comply we will talk to the managers and guardians of the presenters,” he told AFP.
“Anyone who lives under a particular system and government has to obey the laws and orders of that system, so they must implement the order,” he said.
The Taliban have demanded that women government employees be fired if they fail to follow the new dress code.
Men working in government also risk suspension if their wives or daughters fail to comply.
MoHajjir said media managers and the male guardians of defiant women presenters would also be liable for penalties if the order was not observed.
During two decades of US-led military intervention in Afghanistan, women and girls made marginal gains in the deeply patriarchal nation.
Soon after they took over, the Taliban promised a softer version of the harsh Islamist rule that characterized their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.
Since the takeover, however, women have been banned from traveling alone and teenage girls barred from secondary schools.
In the 20 years after the Taliban were ousted from office in 2001, many women in the conservative countryside continued to wear a burqa.
But most Afghan women, including TV presenters, opted for the Islamic headscarf.
Television channels have already stopped showing dramas and soap operas featuring women, following orders from Taliban authorities.


Zelensky: Only ‘diplomacy’ can end Ukraine war

Zelensky: Only ‘diplomacy’ can end Ukraine war
Updated 21 May 2022

Zelensky: Only ‘diplomacy’ can end Ukraine war

Zelensky: Only ‘diplomacy’ can end Ukraine war
  • War ‘will be bloody, there will be fighting but will only definitively end through diplomacy’

KYIV: The Ukraine war can only be resolved through “diplomacy,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Saturday amid a deadlock in negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow.
“The end will be through diplomacy,” he told a Ukrainian television channel. The war “will be bloody, there will be fighting but will only definitively end through diplomacy.”
“Discussions between Ukraine and Russia will decidedly take place. Under what format I don’t know — with intermediaries, without them, in a broader group, at presidential level,” he said.
“There are things that can only be reached at the negotiating table,” he said.” We want everything to return (to as it was before)” but “Russia does not want that,” he said, without elaborating.
The results of negotiations, which could have a variety of subjects “according to the timing of the meeting,” would have to be “fair” for Ukraine, Zelensky stressed.
The president spoke of a document about security guarantees for his nation, saying it would be signed by “friends and partners of Ukraine, without Moscow.” A bilateral discussion would be held with Russia at the same time, he added.
He also recalled Kyiv’s absolute precondition for continuing talks that Russia does not kill Ukrainian troops who defended the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol.
Zelensky noted Russian troops “offered the possibility, found a way for these people to come out alive,” from Azovstal.
“The most important thing for me is to save the maximum number of people and soldiers.”
According to Moscow 2,439 Ukrainians have surrendered at the plant since May 16, the final 500 on Friday.
On Tuesday, Kyiv’s lead negotiator Mykhaylo Podolyak said talks with Russia were “on hold” after taking place regularly in the earlier stages of the conflict but without substantial results.
The following day Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Kyiv authorities of not wanting to continue talks to end hostilities.
“Talks are indeed not moving forward and we note the complete lack of will of Ukrainian negotiators to continue this process,” he said.
The last talks took place on April 22, according to Russian news agencies.
After failing to take Kyiv following the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Russian troops are now concentrating on the east of the country, where fierce clashes are ongoing.