Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

April 20, 2013

Saudi Student Recounts ‘Overwhelming’ Impact of Boston Bombing

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By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

17 April 2013

When the twin explosions struck near the finish line of the Boston Marathon Monday afternoon, Saudi pharmacy student Shatha Jameel Mufti did what everyone else did. She ran.
She didn’t flee immediately because her first reaction was that a bomb didn’t go off.
“I didn’t see it, but it was something like a big pipe had fallen,” she told Arab News in a telephone interview. “But then I felt the impact and we all just started running.”
The explosions left three people dead and more than 170 injured. Other eye witnesses described the blasts as a “sudden shock.” Medical personnel said injuries included serious limb and head injuries and ruptured eardrums.
The 22 year-old, a fourth-year student at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, watched the marathon on Boylston Street with about a dozen of her friends and fellow students. The day started perfect. Temperatures hovered around 18 C, pleasantly warm and dry after a brutally cold winter.
But as she watched the runners cross the finish line, the impact of the explosion jolted her. “It was to my right and about a mile away,” she said. “My first instinct was that it was an accident.”
She then saw runners falling and police pushing people away. She began running from the explosion. She saw many people injured and blood covering the street.
“There was a lot of young children crying and screaming,” she said. “I tried to calm some children down until a mother came and found her child.”
Emergency personnel were immediately at the scene and aiding the injured. Fully staffed medical tents serving marathon participants had been converted into instant triage areas, so her medical training was not necessary.
Many of the people running with her began to fill nearby shops and restaurants in a bid to find safety. “I went into a Starbucks,” she said.
She headed for the train station to get home. “They had stopped the trains and people were gathering at the station. It became overwhelming for me and I started running home.”
She ran a good 45 minutes until she was home in the Longwood area of Boston.
She said she became separated from her friends. City authorities shut down the mobile phones and everyone was in the dark about what had happened to each other. The first thing she said when the phones opened up was to call her mother in Saudi Arabia. “She was trying to reach me, and I told her when I called that I was all right.”
The bombings had a lingering effect on her, but returning to her normal schedule is the only option.
“To be honest, all of us were scared about going back to school,” Mufti said. “But school opened today and there is grief counseling available for those emotionally impacted. I plan to go to school today.”



September 3, 2012

OP-Ed: Israeli Youths Assume Occupiers’ Privilege

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News/Al Arabiya

3 September 2012

ON a trip to northern England, I ran into an Israeli studying for her postgraduate degree. After a while the conversation turned to her hopes and aspirations once she received her master’s degree. She replied simply, “To leave Israel. I never want to go back.”
The student described Israel as “racist.” The hate many Israelis felt for minorities, especially Arabs, was too much for her.
Her attitude was shocking, not so much because of her attitude about her country, but because she openly acknowledged its racism to a stranger. It’s an issue that many Israelis wrestle with as the government grapples with the influx of African immigrants. One legislator described African immigrants as “a cancer in our body.”
Americans by nature are drawn to stories of triumph over evil and the victories of the underdog. Our parents and grandparents may have learned the details of the founding of the state of Israel through newspapers and news magazines, but Leon Uris’ 1958 novel, “Exodus,” about the beginnings of Israel cemented the country’s underdog status in the minds of Americans. And when the movie arrived two years later with the blue-eyed Paul Newman in the lead role, the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel blossomed.
The 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinians only strengthened that relationship.
But the Israel of 2012 is not the Israel of 1958. Not only do we have generations of Palestinians growing up and living under occupation, but we now have generations of Israelis who view occupation as a fundamental right.
Israel has been in a state of denial for decades over its cruelty to the Palestinians, but recent incidents have awakened a handful that recognize that as occupiers they are now also considered “terrorists.” This is not a new revelation to anyone living in the Middle East irrespective of one’s religion or ethnicity, although it’s become the uncomfortable truth to conservative Americans who unblinkingly give Israel victim-hood status. Israel’s terrorism is well documented although excused under the guise that it’s under constant attack by Palestinians and hostile Arab neighbors.
Westerners now have an opportunity to reconsider Israel’s place in the international community following the arrests of three Israeli teenagers who firebombed a Palestinian taxi on Aug. 16 that left its four occupants severely burned. The attack followed an attempted lynching and beatings of Palestinians youths on the same day by an Israeli mob in Jerusalem. Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon uncharacteristically described the incidents as “terrorists attacks” that “constitute first and foremost an educational and moral failure.”
Law authorities arrested seven Israeli teens, including two 13-year-old girls, in connection with the lynching attempt. Apparently the only failure the teenagers saw was not finishing the job.
“For my part he can die, he’s an Arab,” one 15-year-old suspect told the Israeli media of one of the victims. “If it was up to me, I’d have murdered him.”
The firebombing and beating incidents have alarmed human rights organizations that report the rising tide of violence from Jewish settlers against Palestinians. Settlers have claimed responsibility for a series of attacks, described as a “price tag” campaign, on Palestinians and Israeli security forces as retaliation against Israeli policies and Palestinians living to close to Jewish settlements. The term “price tag” is the price Jewish extremists take against the Israeli military and Palestinians perceived to have threatened the existence of the settlements.
The attacks against Palestinians prompted the New York Times to report that Israelis have engaged in “soul-searching” in their attempt to understand how the country produced racist, violent children. “Soul-searching’ is a term rarely applied to Muslims or Arabs following a terrorist attack, and implies that Jewish settlers get a free pass in their hatred for Palestinians. Maybe it’s that underdog-turned-occupier status that gives them souls while Palestinians are just mindless thugs.
But consider what makes a mindless thug. Israeli gunboats attacked Palestinian fishermen at least twice last month. Soldiers told a father and son to strip naked and then swim toward the gunboat where they were handcuffed, blindfolded and their boat seized. Another Palestinian vessel was heavily damaged in an attack. In another incident gunboats chased six Palestinian fishing boats out of fishing waters by laying down gunfire. Palestinian fishermen no longer know which waters are safe and what is off limits to fish.
According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, an independent organization that monitors civil liberties issues in Israel and the Occupied Territories, Israel systemically discriminates against the Negev Bedouin tribe, which numbers about 160,000 and live in unrecognized villages in Israel. The Israeli government is attempting to pressure Bedouins to abandon their lifestyle and move urban centers.
In addition, an Israeli court last month denied Bir Hadaj’s 4,500 residents in Northern Negev the right to vote. The refusal to grant the residents permission to vote stems from a master plan that left about 60 percent of the residents outside the town limits in the Abu Basama Regional Council. The master plan received approval in 2003. However, Israel’s Interior Ministry has done nothing to implement the plan that would allow the residents to move inside the town limits and to legally build their homes. Since villagers are technically outside the town limits, they have no voting rights.
This potent mix of institutionalized government discrimination, military firepower and youths raised in a culture of occupiers’ privilege has created nation without accountability and without the will to guarantee civil liberties and preserve human dignity.

October 19, 2011

For Saudi Terror Suspects, a Legal Fog

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

19 October 2011

Judges define terrorism on the fly, lawyers hesitate to defend them

The trials of suspected terrorists this month in Saudi Arabia bring good news and bad news. The good news is that accused extremists are getting their day in court after as long as five years of detention without trial. The bad news is that justice remains elusive.

Christoph Wilcke, the Saudi Arabia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), told The Media Line that kingdom has improved its approach to bringing suspected terrorists to trial. But he says continuing “flawed” court proceedings may deny justice.

“There were two major shifts in late 2008 to mid-2009 when Saudi Arabia decided to move [defendants] to trial,” Wilcke says. “All of these guys were put on trial and some were let out of prison. And earlier this year they [the Saudi government] decided to open trials.”

Saudi authorities see the new wave of public trials a huge step towards legal transparency. HRW sees the deck stacked against the defendants.

Wilcke says that terror defendants lack competent legal representation, a clear-cut understanding of the charges against them and due process.

In Riyadh, 16 Saudis and one Yemeni are on trial in Specialist Penal Court on 97 charges of belonging to a terrorist cell with links to Al-Qaeda in Syria. Prosecutors allege the defendants, who the court does not identify, plotted attacks in Saudi Arabia to destroy oil wells. The cell also allegedly planned to assassinate a Shiite cleric in an effort to spark sectarian violence.

In a Jeddah court, a top member of the notorious Turki Al-Dandani extremist cell admitted to unspecified terrorism charges against him. The cell leader rejected an offer for a lawyer and asked for the death penalty in order to become a martyr. Saudi authorities say the Turki Al-Dandani cell is responsible for the bombings of three residential compounds in May 2003 that left 239 people dead and injured.

In a separate trial underway in Jeddah, seven men face charges of plotting bombing attacks against U.S. military installations in Kuwait and Qatar. They are also accused of operating a training camp near the Yemen border.

The current, public trials are in stark contrast to the largely secret proceedings held between 2003 and 2009. In those trials, 327 convicted terrorists received prison sentences of up to 30 years.

Saudi Arabia has garnered international praise for its counterterrorism efforts. Yet it appears the Saudi courts define terrorism much like the U.S. Supreme Court defines pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Wilcke says a fair trial is not possible when the crime of terrorism is not defined.

The international community has yet to agree on a criminal law definition of terrorism. United Nations members in 2005 rejected a panel’s recommendation that would establish parameters to define terrorism as an unlawful act. Consequently, Saudi terror defendants face a double whammy. There are no international laws available as a precedent and Saudi judges, instead of relying on codified law, make up the definition as they go through the proceedings.

“We find that people are convicted of rebellion on earth, which is a Qur’anic concept and not a definition of terrorism,” Wilcke says. “In Saudi Arabia, the judge defines the crime to fit the crime.”

A draft anti-terror law proposed earlier this year was sharply criticized by Amnesty International, which obtained and published a copy last July. The law defines “endangering… national unity” and “harming the reputation of the state or its position” as terrorist crimes and allows suspects to be held incommunicado for an indefinite period, if approved by a special court. It also calls for a minimum 10-year jail sentence for anyone questioning the integrity of the king or crown prince.

Since then, the kingdom has hinted that a revised law is in the works, although it hasn’t released any details. An activist told Reuters in August that the amended draft changes the offense to taking up arms against the king or crown prince or abandoning loyalty to them.

Meanwhile, the absence of codified laws has long plagued the Saudi judicial system, although the quasi-legislative Shura Council this year is nearing completion of a codified system. Domestic courts in particular have bedeviled Saudi women who must contend with tribal customs superseding sharia (Islamic law). Accused terrorists face vague charges of belonging to Al Qaeda or working with foreign agencies plotting against national security. Although specialized sharia legal assistance is essential for defendants to make their cases, the court’s inability to rely on written law tips the scales of justice in the government’s favor.

“It’s just the Saudi way of saying in essence, ‘trust me,’ ” Wilcke says.

Add to the mix the lack of legal representation and defendants are engulfed in a perfect storm of a flawed trial leading to flawed justice.

Wilcke expresses doubts that having a lawyer can even help. “Some lawyers in normal, non-political trials tell me that the judge can kick out a lawyer if he doesn’t like him,” he says. “It raises the question of whether lawyers are any good in trials.”

Indeed, attorneys have complained to HRW that Saudi courts sometimes pressure them not to represent defendants. Other lawyers have no qualms about not representing terrorism suspects.  Sultan bin Zahim, deputy head of the Saudi National Lawyers’ Association, told Al Watan newspaper that it’s “a national duty and a professional objective” not to defend accused terrorists because the “investigation and trial methods are very precise in terrorism cases.”

However, a Saudi lawyer, who asked not to be identified, told The Media Line the courts attempted to recruit him to represent a terror defendant but he turned it down because the legal fog surrounding cases. “I didn’t want the job because I never know what to expect when I go to court.”

International observers also have no access to trials. Wilcke says that since 2009 the Saudi government has banned his organization entirely from the kingdom. Requests for HRW to attend trials have gone unanswered, he said.

Although the inconsistent approach to dispensing justice rankles human rights activists, Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism efforts have been generally successful. Saudi law authorities view the trials as a successful coda to ending the reign of terror wielded by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from 2003 through 2006.

Maj. Gen. Mansour Al Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Interior, told The Media Line there has been little extremist cell activity inside the kingdom since trials started earlier this year. In August, the Interior Ministry reported that 5,696 people remain held in militant cases. Nearly 5,100 of those individuals have appeared in court.

“We are continuing our efforts and really keeping a preventative stand to any more activity,” Al Turki says. “We have our police ready, but here is really nothing to react to for the time being.”

Al Turki adds that the “terrorism threat remains a major concern to prevent Al Qaeda from continuing terrorists crimes, but the group continues to keep a low profile in the kingdom. The success is due to Saudi Arabia’s “soft” rehabilitation program to de-radicalize militants. The program has only 10% recidivism rate due in part to a post-release monitoring system of freed prisoners. The move by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to Yemen also has contributed a reduction in extremist activity in the country.

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.


March 1, 2011

News Analysis: Saudi Student’s Arrest Will Have Unplanned Repercussions in the U.S.

By Rob L. Wagner


Published March 1, 2001

Saudi student Khalid Aldawsari can rest easy if he thinks his suspected attempts to engage in terrorism in the United States have failed.

He accomplished more than he knows.

Aldawsari, 20, is accused of plotting to bomb several targets in the United States, including the Dallas residence of former President George W. Bush. According to the FBI, he apparently had childhood dreams of waging war against the U.S. for a variety of transgressions against Muslims. He never outgrew those fantasies and had planned to use his student status as cover for his alleged terrorist activities.

The FBI alleges in an affidavit filed with the Texas U.S. District Court that Aldawsari apparently acted alone. Yet he accomplished at least one goal of Al-Qaeda: He drove the wedge a little deeper between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

There are about 30,000 Saudi university students studying in the United States, nearly four times as many students in 2001. Every one of them has now become a terror suspect.

Following 9/11, the number of Saudi students applying at U.S. universities dramatically fell. The U.S. government tightened its visa requirements and Saudis were reluctant to study in the west because they feared backlash from Americans.

The U.S. consulate in Jeddah shut down its visa application center and sent Saudis to Riyadh where they often waited in long queues outside the embassy. Saudis also feared the U.S. would revoke their visas at any time, increasing the chances that they could lose credits that may not transfer to another university.

Many Saudis decided to study in the United Kingdom, where they numbered about 16,000 in 2010.

Efforts by the Bush and Obama administrations and the Saudi government turned things around. In 2008, the U.S. granted about 10,000 visas to Saudi university students. That number grew to 26,744 in 2010. The Jeddah consulate recently re-opened its office for visa applications.

Already, though, there are calls for tightened visa requirements on foreign students.

Within a day of Aldawsari’s arrest, Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas said, “We shouldn’t be surprised that terrorists continue to enter the U.S. on visas when our immigration laws are so loosely enforced. The 9/11 hijackers entered the U.S. after obtaining visas. And the Christmas Day bomber was able to board a plane en route to Detroit because he too had a visa.”

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up an Airbus 330 in Detroit in 2009 further increased scrutiny of Muslim travelers. Saudis, for example, now undergo supplemental screening for visas in which a separate form asks applicants to identify their tribe, their charitable affiliations, weapons expertise and whether they belong to any terrorist organizations.

Most Saudis gladly accept the additional scrutiny for the opportunity to study in the U.S., but Aldawsari’s arrest will prompt legislators already skittish about immigration to further tighten regulations. Smith is now arguing for strengthening the Patriot Act and immediate implementation of the 2005 REAL ID Act that establishes a national standard for issuing identification to prevent suspected terrorists from receiving driver’s licenses.

Aldawsari’s actions played into the hands of immigration foes. According to the FBI affidavit, Aldawsari earned good grades and learned English in secondary school for the sole purpose of winning a university scholarship to further his plot in the U.S. The Saudi government and private Saudi companies approved his applications for a full scholarship. But he chose a private scholarship from Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) because it offered more money to finance his alleged plot.

He studied English beginning in 2008 at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University before transferring a year later to Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. He then transferred to South Plains College in January. Aldawsari was careful to comply with immigration regulations by notifying authorities when he changed colleges. His Saudi classmates told investigators Aldawsari was antisocial.

American universities take it for granted that students by the time they reach 18 understand the cultural differences between U.S. and foreign students. Young Saudis, however, come from a closed society. Many are naïve and lack critical thinking skills. Some Saudis are unprepared for an open society. Universities can identify these students by incorporating cultural awareness and dialogue sessions in their required English language programs. By identifying young people struggling with a free society, university personnel can also get a better handle on a student’s ideology. Simply asking a young Saudi man to write an essay on the differences between U.S. and Saudi societies guarantees illuminating results on how he thinks.

For now, however, Saudis can expect further delays in their visa approvals, which will jeopardize their studies to the point that they will go elsewhere for an education.

It’s particularly troublesome for Saudi women who have seen the field of studies widened for them. University degrees in science, law and the arts allow young Saudi women to compete against men in the Kingdom’s workplace, which is a goal among human rights groups.

If the U.S. restricts foreign student immigration to the point that young people don’t want to study there, then it compromises its policy of helping Saudi women gain their rights. This, of course, accomplishes the goal of militants who want Saudis out of the U.S. and back in Saudi Arabia.

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