Archive for ‘9/11’

September 21, 2012

Restrictions on Religion Are Tightening, Study Finds

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Published: September 20, 2012

DAKAR, Senegal — Government restrictions on religion around the world were highest in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly in the period before the Arab Spring uprisings, a new study has found, underscoring a factor that fueled hostilities in the region and led to the rise of political Islam after the revolts.

The study, by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, said that in 2010 government restrictions on religion were “high or very high” in most of the Arab Spring countries, where suppression of Islamist movements contributed to the uprisings and spurred subsequent incursions of Islamists into political power.

Restrictions in Tunisia went from “high” in mid-2009 to “very high” a year later, the study found. The uprising there began at the end of 2011.

In Egypt, restrictions were already high and edged up further between 2009 and 2010, the year before the country exploded. And in Yemen, where there also was an uprising, restrictions increased sharply over the same period.

Over all, the study found a worldwide rise in religious restrictions. It measured two basic yardsticks: a government restrictions index, and a social hostilities index. Government restrictions include moves by authorities to ban faiths and conversions, and to limit preaching. Social hostilities encompass mob violence and “religion-related intimidation or abuse,” such as harassment over attire.

The study found 15 countries with very high levels of social hostilities in 2010, up from 10 in 2007, with the new additions being Egypt, Nigeria, the Palestinian territories, Russia and Yemen. It noted that “in Nigeria, violence between Christian and Muslim communities, including a series of deadly attacks, escalated throughout the period.”

However, in Nigeria at least, the religious dimension is often superseded by, or a mask for, more complex underlying factors — elements not noted by the broad-brush, numbers-based Pew study. In the central region of Nigeria, for instance, where much of the ostensibly Christian-Muslim violence takes place, the mutually hostile groups are often motivated as much by disputes over land and longstanding ethnic friction as they are by religion.

The study found that increases in religious restrictions outnumbered decreases in all five major regions of the world, with sub-Saharan Africa scoring the largest share of countries with significant increases.

Over all, countries with “high or very high restrictions” rose from 31 percent of the total in 2009 to 37 percent in 2010. The Pew study found that 63 percent of countries had “increases in government restrictions” from 2009 to 2010.

Separately on Thursday, United Nations human rights investigators in Geneva said that more than 300 Christians had been arrested since mid-2010 in Iran, where, they said, churches operate in a “climate of fear.” Iran is given a score of “very high” on Pew’s Government Restrictions Index.

The Pew study found that restrictions also increased in Europe, like the Swiss ban on construction of minarets, and in the United States, noting a rising number of instances in which people were prevented from wearing clothing or beards, and problems in building places of worship.

A version of this article appeared in print on September 21, 2012, on page A7 of the New York edition with the headline: Curbs Found Tightening On Religion.

September 21, 2012

Libya Envoy’s Killing Was a Terrorist Attack, the White House Says

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Published: September 20, 2012
WASHINGTON — The White House is now calling the assault on the American diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, a “terrorist attack.”

“It is self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack,” the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, told reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday. “Our embassy was attacked violently and the result was four deaths of American officials.”

Until now, White House officials have not used that language in describing the assault. But with the election less than two months away and President Obama’s record on national security a campaign issue, they have come under criticism from Republican lawmakers who say the administration is playing down a threat for which it was unprepared.

Mr. Carney offered the new assessment in response to a question about remarks by Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, who told a Congressional committee Wednesday that J. Christopher Stevens, the United States ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans had died “in the course of a terrorist attack.”

Asked if the president drew a connection between the Libyan attack, which occurred on Sept. 11, and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon 11 years before, Mr. Carney said, “The attack occurred on Sept 11, 2012, so we use the same calendar at the White House as you do.”

In a highly charged political atmosphere, the mere use of the term “terrorist” is loaded, not least, as one administration official acknowledged privately, because the phrase conjures up an image of America under attack, something the White House wants to avoid.

Beyond that, different government agencies have different definitions for what defines terrorism, said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism expert at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group.

The classic definition, Mr. Fishman said, “is an attack by a nonstate group on noncombatants with the intent to intimidate people.” He said that another reason the administration was shying from using that term is because “they really didn’t know who did it.”

And the president, campaigning in Florida on Thursday, did not use the word terrorism when asked about the attacks.

Mr. Carney maintained on Thursday that Obama administration officials still were not calling the attack preplanned.

“According to the best information we have now, we believe it was an opportunistic attack on our mission in Benghazi,” he said. “It appears that some well-armed militants seized on that attack as the events unfolded that evening. We do not have any specific intelligence that there was significant advance planning or coordination for this attack.”Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said earlier in the week that there had been no intelligence warnings that an attack was imminent.

Mrs. Clinton said that F.B.I. investigators had arrived in Tripoli and that the United States, with the Libyan authorities, would find those responsible. She did not discuss any potential ties to Al Qaeda, but blamed extremists opposed to the democratic changes in places like Libya, Tunisia and Egypt for the violence and protests around the region generally.

On Thursday, Mrs. Clinton announced the creation of a panel to investigate the attack. The panel, called an Accountability Review Board, will be led by Thomas R. Pickering, a veteran diplomat and former under secretary of state. The board is authorized by a 1986 law intended to strengthen security at United States diplomatic missions.

“We are concerned first and foremost with our own people and facilities,” Mrs. Clinton said in an appearance at the State Department with the Indonesian foreign minister. “But we are concerned about the internal security in these countries, because ultimately, that puts at risk the men, women and children of these societies on a daily ongoing basis if actions are not taken to try to restore security and civil order.”

A version of this article appeared in print on September 21, 2012, on page A8 of the New York edition with the headline: U.S. Shifts Language On Assault In Benghazi.

September 21, 2012

After Attack in Libya, an Ambush Struck Rescuers

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The United States Embassy in Benghazi after the Sept. 11 attack.


Published: September 20, 2012

WASHINGTON — The survivors of the assault on the American Mission in Benghazi, Libya, thought they were safe. They had retreated to a villa not far from the main building where the surprise attack had occurred, and a State Department team had arrived to evacuate them. The eruption of violence had ended, and now they were surrounded by friendly Libyan brigades in what seemed to be a dark, uneasy calm.

A colleague’s body lay on the ground. They had no idea where their boss, Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, was, nor how in the confusion he had become separated from his bodyguard and left behind.

Then, shortly after 2 a.m. on Sept. 12, just as they were assembling to be taken to the airport, gunfire erupted, followed by the thunderous blasts of falling mortar rounds. Two of the mission’s guards — Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty, former members of the Navy SEALs — were killed just outside the villa’s front gate. A mortar round struck the roof of the building where the Americans had scrambled for cover.

The attackers had lain in wait, silently observing as the rescuers, including eight State Department civilians who had just landed at the airport in Benghazi, arrived in large convoys. This second attack was shorter in duration than the first, but more complex and sophisticated. It was an ambush.

“It was really accurate,” Fathi al-Obeidi, commander of special operations for a militia called Libyan Shield, who was there that night, said of the mortar fire. “The people who were shooting at us knew what they were doing.”

They also escaped, apparently uninjured.

Interviews with Libyan witnesses and American officials provide new details on the assault on American diplomatic facilities and the initial moblike attack, set off by a video denigrating the Prophet Muhammad, that transformed into what the Obama administration now, after initial hesitation, describes as a terrorist attack.

The accounts, which remain incomplete and contradictory, are broadly consistent with what is known about the attack, but they still leave many questions unanswered, including the identity of the attackers and how prepared they might have been to strike at an American target.

The attack has raised questions about the adequacy of security preparations at the two American compounds in Benghazi. Both were temporary homes in a dangerous, insecure city, and they were never intended to become permanent diplomatic missions with appropriate security features built into them.

Neither was heavily guarded, and the second house was never intended to be a “safe house,” as initial accounts suggested. At no point were the Marines or other American military personnel involved, contrary to news reports early on.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced on Thursday the creation of a review board led by a veteran diplomat and former under secretary of state, Thomas R. Pickering. She also briefed lawmakers behind closed doors on Capitol Hill. But the State Department now faces Congressional demands for an independent investigation of the attacks and any security failures that might have added to the death toll.

“In my judgment, which is informed by numerous briefings and discussions with experts, the attack in Benghazi was not a black swan,” Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said at a hearing on Wednesday, “but rather an attack that should have been anticipated, based on the previous attacks against Western targets, the proliferation of dangerous weapons in Libya, the presence of Al Qaeda in that country and the overall threat environment.”

Investigators and intelligence officials are now focusing on the possibility that the attackers were affiliated with, or possibly members of, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — a branch that originated in Algeria — or at least in communication with it before or during the initial attack at the mission and the second one at the mission’s annex, a half-mile away.

One extremist now under scrutiny is a former detainee at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Abu Sufian Ibrahim Ahmed Hamouda, a Libyan who is a prominent member of an extremist group called Ansar al-Sharia, which some have blamed for the attack. “It is safe to assume that any significant extremist in eastern Libya is going to be under a lot of scrutiny right now,” an American intelligence official said, adding that it was premature to draw any conclusions.

The most significant inconsistency between Libyan and American accounts is whether the attack that night began with a small protest over the trailer of “The Innocence of Muslims,” parts of which were broadcast on Egyptian television. American officials insist there was a protest that began peacefully, only to be hijacked by armed militants. But Libyan witnesses, including two guards at the building, say the area around the compound was quiet until the attackers arrived, firing their weapons and storming the compound from three sides, beginning at 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 11. A witness said that some of those attacking referred to the film’s insults to Islam.

Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said at a Senate hearing on Wednesday that the authorities believe “this was an opportunistic attack” that “evolved and escalated over several hours.”

What is clear, however, is that those who arrived at the mission — not officially a consulate, though Libyans call it that informally — came intending to inflict maximum damage on the building. They quickly overwhelmed a small security detail that included three guards from a force called the 17th of February Brigade and five Libyans employed by a British security company called Blue Mountain.

In a detail not previously disclosed, after storming the compound, the attackers poured diesel fuel around the exterior of the building where Mr. Stevens; a computer technician, Sean Smith; and a security officer had settled in for the night and ignited it. It is not clear if they knew anyone was inside.

By that time, according to officials, the three had moved into a part of the building designated as a “safe haven,” with fortified doors and no external exposure. The dense, billowing smoke from the fire, however, forced them to leave the haven and head for an exit. It was at that time that they became separated. The security guard, who has not been identified, made it out of the house, but Mr. Smith and Mr. Stevens did not. Both died of asphyxiation from the smoke.

The guard, now joined by others, found Mr. Smith’s body, but not the ambassador’s. By 11:20 p.m., nearly two hours after the shooting started, they retreated to the mission’s second compound, or annex, which had been rented after the fall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s government last year to provide additional space for a diplomatic team that now included roughly two dozen Americans in all.

It was only after they left that the fighting subsided and a crowd wandering through the compound discovered Mr. Stevens’s body and removed it through an exterior window, suggesting that he had left the designated haven inside but failed to find an exit. His body was taken to the hospital in Benghazi, where a doctor tried but failed to resuscitate him. The area around the hospital was under the control of a militia suspected of having extremist sympathies, and a video of Mr. Stevens’s corpse in the hospital’s morgue ultimately circulated to an extremist Web site, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, a monitoring agency that tracks militants’ Internet postings.

By then, the State Department’s operations center, now aware of the attack in progress, set in motion a contingency plan drafted for emergencies. A civilian airliner contracted by the department and on standby at Tripoli’s airport flew to Benghazi, arriving at 1:30 a.m. with the eight additional security officers.

Mr. Obeidi, the commander with the Libya Shield brigade, was ordered to meet them at the airport, take them to the mission’s annex and escort them back to the airport to be evacuated. Mr. Obeidi expected to find only a few people inside and was surprised to find the entire staff from Benghazi, more than two dozen people. “They told me that there would only be a few, but I saw a big number,” he said.

When the second attack began, it lasted only five minutes, “but when you are in that situation, it feels like an hour,” he added.

The evacuation to the airport did not begin until dawn, but the plane could not carry everyone. It left behind 11 security officers and three bodies. Mr. Obeidi said that the commander of the local operations center, Mustapha Boshala, then ordered a unit to the hospital to retrieve Mr. Stevens’s body. Two hours later the State Department’s plane returned to carry the last Americans out of Benghazi.

In Tripoli on Thursday, Libya’s new government held a memorial service for the four Americans who died. Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns attended. “If Chris were here this evening,” he said, referring to the ambassador, “I know he would be the first to say that for all the pride and jubilation of the revolution, for all the pain we feel tonight, it is the days ahead which matter most.”

Steven Lee Myers and Michael S. Schmidt reported from Washington, and Suliman Ali Zway from Benghazi, Libya. David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting from Cairo, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

September 10, 2011

U.S. will never forget 9/11: Covering the World Trade Center Attack

I just happened to be in New York when the attacks occurred, and it was the biggest story of my life.

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My esteemed colleague Doug Kriegel, editor of Sherman Oaks Patch, recalls his 9/11 experience.

The World Trade Center in New York was destroyed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Credit World Trade Center

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was having breakfast with my brother-in-law, getting ready to play a round of golf with him on Long Island, when suddenly my sister Gail, who had been watching morning television in the den, came running into the kitchen and said, “Wow, a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!”

We rushed to the television and were horrified when, about 15 minutes later, another plane smashed into the smoldering center.

Within minutes my cellphone rang. It was Paula Madison, the general mananger of KNBC in Los Angeles, where I worked as a news reporter. Her voice was full of emotion.

“Kriegel, you’re in New York, right?” she said. “Get on this story immediately. Get on the air.”

Reaching Manhattan was a major chore. The Long Island Expressway was immediately a four-lane parking lot. Traffic wasn’t moving, because people on Long Island were rushing toward the city in cars to pick up their relatives and friends who worked in Manhattan, but who had no way of getting home, because the authorities had shut down public transportation as a precaution.

“Look at the skyline, it looks terrible,” said Gail who was in the car with me, pointing at the smoke shrouded skyline of lower Manhattan.

Indeed, the World Trade Center looked like it had been decapitated, and instead of blood there was enormous smoke and ash pouring out of the top of the building, and it was feeding across the downtown skyline of New York City.

Once we got close, a police officer told us, “Sorry, you’re going to have to wait, we’re not letting people into Manhattan.”

I found a route, the 59th Street Bridge, that was guarded by a woman who was a parking meter officer. I showed her my news credential and she was nice enough to let us drive over the bridge.

The bridge itself was clogged with people who were walking out of Manhattan. Literally thousands of people who had come to work that day were forced to walk out of the city because there was no public transportation available.

It was quite a sight: People in office dress, suits and ties, evacuating Manhattan. I remember thinking, this must have been what it was like when the Nazis marched into Paris in 1940 and thousands of French people evacuated the city.

The next 24 hours were a fog. I got on the air. A friend of mine at KNBC told me he cried when he saw me report that “New York City has been brought to its knees.”

I coudn’t believe it myself.

The hard part of covering this story was just beginning.

In the next several weeks, it was heartening to see New York City get off its knees and back on its feet. But in the aftermath, I met hundreds of people who had lost loved ones in the attack.

Many of them continued to hold out hope that, somehow, their relatives were still alive, perhaps in a hospital ward somewhere in the city.

They would hold out photos of loved ones and ask reporters, have you seen my husband or mother or brother in your travels around the city?

It was heartbreaking to tell them that I had not seen that person in the photo.

I’ll never forget going to a firefighter’s funeral in the Bronx. It was an Italian neighborhood, and the man who’d died trying to rescue others was the father of two children.

People at the service were furious.

Afterward, one of the older men in the neighborhood started talking to me. There was fury in his eyes as he pointed to a store on the next corner of the busy street we were standing on.

“You see that place,” he said angrily. “The people who work in that store were cheering when the World Trade Center was attacked.”

“We’re going to pay them a visit,” he vowed.

During the next couple of weeks I continued covering various other stories in the aftermath of the attacks.

I never found out if they paid those people a visit.

Of course, the American military paid a visit to the people responsible for the attacks, and we’re still paying.

Two weeks ago, I visited Ground Zero. There was a big crowd around the gleaming skyscraper that is being constructed there. Many of the visitors were clearly from abroad, including Muslims speaking Arabic.

Despite the pounding construction noise, there was a quiet sense of harmony at the site. The city and its people had recovered, and they were preparing to remember.

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