Saturday, September 10, 2011

Panel upholds Al Qaida filmmaker’s life sentence


A military appeals court ruled Friday that Osama bin Laden’s media secretary was properly convicted of being a propagandist for al-Qaida and deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison.

The panel of seven senior U.S. military officers also found that Yemeni Ali Hamza al Bahlul, 41, had not demonstrated any potential for rehabilitation after nearly a decade at the U.S. prison camps in southeast Cuba. He’s Guantánamo’s lone convict serving a life sentence.

Unlike bin Laden’s driver, who is free in Yemen after serving a quick support-for-terror sentence, Bahlul demonstrated no remorse during his military commission trial, the panel ruled in a 139-page decision written by Navy Capt. Eric Price.

Prosecutors argued at a four-day no-contest trial in November 2008 that Bahlul incited suicide bombers before the 9/11 attacks by producing a crude al-Qaida recruiting film. The two-hour video spliced footage of fiery bin Laden speeches with the aftermath of the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors off Aden, Yemen.

Pentagon paid appeals lawyers said the punishment didn’t fit the crime.

“We are unmoved by appellant’s argument that he was a ‘media man,’ who was sentenced to confinement for ‘life without parole for producing a video, writing speeches and providing tech support,” the military judges wrote in their ruling for the U.S. Court of Military Commission Review.

Rather, the panel ruled that Bahlul’s “contributions to al-Qaida were of strategic significance to recruiting, indoctrination, retention and inciting others to support or join al-Qaida” – notably two of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers whom he helped swear loyalty oaths to bin Laden.

Bahlul refused to mount a defense at trial and instead offered a 40-minute monologue that paid homage to bin Laden. During the prosecutor’s closing, Bahlul also waved a tiny boat and airplane, fashioned from folded paper, while the prosecutor sought to link the Cole bombing video to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Bahlul’s attorneys had sought to get the sentence overturned on constitutional grounds, arguing the Yemeni was punished for unpopular political speech and that he has a First Amendment protection as a U.S.-held prisoner.

The court disagreed. The U.S. military judges acknowledged that the U.S. Supreme Court granted Guantánamo detainees the right to challenge their detention in federal courts, through a writ of habeas corpus, but said the Yemeni could not claim the protections of the First Amendment.

Bahlul made his film in Afghanistan, and with “no lawful connection with the United States,” they wrote. “His only subsequent connection to the United States was his capture, detention and trial. Such a connection does not thereby recast speech made years before with First Amendment protections.”

According to the court, Bahlul turns 42 on Sunday, the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks the Yemeni at times celebrated in his military commissions hearings. A November 2007 Guantánamo risk assessment uncovered by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks listed his date of birth as only 1969. But the panel listed his birth date as Sept. 11, 1969.

Friday’s decision was the conviction upheld by the panel established as the first stop for appeals of Guantánamo war court cases. The judges issued the ruling Friday at about 6:30 p.m., said Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman. Next, Bahlul’s lawyers could take their challenge to a civilian court in Washington, D.C.

Bahlul’s Pentagon appointed appellate attorney, Michel Paradis, a Defense Department employee, declined to comment on the decision Friday night, citing respect for “Bahlul’s wishes.”

It was not immediately known whether the convict had been handed a copy in remote Guantánamo, and whether and how arrangements might be made to translate the decision into the prisoner’s native Arabic.

YEMEN: Displaced to be moved out of schools in south

ADEN, 9 September 2011 (IRIN) - The government and humanitarian agencies are studying different options for relocating thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) sheltering in around 70 schools in the southern governorates of Aden and Lahj, ahead of the new academic year scheduled to begin on 17 September.

Up to17 public places have been identified in Aden and are currently being assessed by the government and humanitarian organizations, Raul Rosende, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Yemen, told IRIN on 8 September.

"Tents could be provided depending on the conditions at these sites as some have buildings with limited capacity or no buildings at all," he said.

It is estimated that up to 100,000 people have been displaced by ongoing fighting between government troops and Islamic militants in the southern governorate of Abyan since May. Most fled fighting in the regional capital Zinjibar.

A recent report by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said some 3,800 IDP families (26,600 individuals) are sheltering in schools while the rest are living with host families or in rented flats. Some IDPs are afraid that leaving school accommodation may adversely affect their access to assistance.

According to UNHCR, in July 2011 there were nearly 56,000 IDPs in Aden Governorate.

Cultural constraints

Ahmad al-Kuhlani, head of the government-run IDP Office, believes the sites identified so far may not be able to accommodate all the IDPs currently sheltering in schools, and he was skeptical about setting up an official camp: A 1,000 tent camp would cost US$1,000,000, he said. "Establishing a camp is the last option due to the lack of funds."

Also, according to UNHCR, many Yemenis could not live in a camp for cultural reasons: In this conservative society, women are not allowed to be seen by men other than their close relatives.

"It is a big shame if you allow your wife, sister or daughter to meet male strangers [from outside their own families]. Living alone in a desert is more tolerable than mixing together with other families," said Radhi Mohammed, 30, sheltering with his eight-member family in a two-room apartment in Aden for YR22,000 (US$90) a month. "We can hardly afford the rent, but what else can one do… It is impossible for one to break this tradition so easily in a fortnight."

According to al-Kuhlani, many families currently sheltering in schools refuse to live with other families in the same classroom. "Each family wants its own classroom… How could they live in official camps where families often lack privacy?" he wondered.

“If the locations being identified are not enough to accommodate all the IDP families currently in schools, giving financial assistance to the families to rent their own apartments could be a possibility," said OCHA’s Resonde.

"Under this option, families without income sources may need a monthly grant of YR10,000 [US$45], which is 50 percent of the average rent of a low-quality apartment," al-Kuhlani said.

Brennan: Al-Qaeda offshoot in Yemen gaining strength as a powerful domestic insurgency

By Karen DeYoung


Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen is becoming a powerful domestic insurgency, as political turmoil in that country has allowed the group to take and hold territory there, according to the Obama administration’s counterterrorism chief, John O. Brennan.

U.S. intelligence officials have described al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as the world’s “most operationally active” global terrorist organization, traditionally focused on regional and international targets in coordination with al-Qaeda’s core group in Pakistan’s tribal regions.

But since widespread opposition to the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh broke out in March, AQAP has extended its focus in Yemen itself, taking over the port city of Zinjibar and other areas in the south. The government’s “ability to confront” AQAP has become limited, Brennan said Thursday. With government and political opposition “guns pointed at each other…it undercuts their ability to confront their common enemy.”

Brennan insisted that joint U.S.-Yemeni counterterrorism efforts are “not losing ground,” and that the United States would not “get involved in a domestic conflict” between Yemen and AQAP.

The Obama administration, he said, continues to encourage President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resolve Yemen’s political strife by turning over power to a transitional government that would hold elections early next year under a proposal made by the Gulf Cooperation Council of governments on the Arabian peninsula.

Saleh, who has been in Saudi Arabia since he was severely wounded in an attack on the presidential palace in June, has refused. In a two-day meeting this week, his ruling General People’s Congress agreed to send a delegation to Riyadh to ask Saleh to delegate the “necessary constitutional authority” to initiate a dialogue with the opposition about some version of the GCC proposal.

“It’s time to move forward to the transfer of power,” Brennan said. “The Yemenis know our position.”

Even if the government manages to coalesce around a common position, however, the opposition remains divided among youth groups who initially took to the streets as part of the Arab Spring, powerful tribal and political leaders, and dissident military forces.

Brennan spoke to reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, one of several public appearances he has made this week as the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks approaches.

In other comments, he said that an ongoing examination of intelligence gleaned from the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout in May has not revealed any official involvement in supporting the al-Qaeda leader.

“We all assumed when we found out” where bin Laden was that “there may have been some kind of Pakistani complicity,” Brennan said. “We haven’t seen it. The Pakistanis were as surprised as we were” that bin Laden had been living for years, more or less in plain sight, in the north-central city of Abbottabad.

Asked about detention policy, Brennan said that the United States has legal authority to hold captured terrorism suspects aboard ships at sea, as it did for more than two months last spring with Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, an alleged member of the Somali organization al-Shabab with ties to AQAP. Warsame was captured in April aboard a fishing vessel in the Gulf of Aden. In June he was secretly flown to New York, where he was indicted on federal charges.

The case of Warsame, the first terrorism suspect detained abroad who was transferred to this country for civilian trial, is unlikely to be easily repeated, however. Many lawmakers have strenuously objected to holding such trials here, and Congress has specifically prohibited transferring detainees being held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo.

The administration has said it plans to try some of those detainees before military commissions in Guantanamo. But Brennan said that there was no legal impediment to bringing newly captured prisoners here for military trial.

“I’ve not heard anybody exclude inside the United States for such a procedure,” he said.

Brennan, who served for 25 years in the CIA, said he believed that the United States was far safer now then it was at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, and dismissed those who have said that another terrorist strike was inevitable no matter what counter measures were taken.

“I don’t subscribe to the idea of inevitability at all,” he said.

Asked whether current U.S. political polarization impeded the counterterrorism effort, he criticized “finger-pointing” on “both sides of the aisle” as “one of the things that dismay counterterrorism professionals.”

“If people haven’t ridden in the saddles of the counterterrorism cavalry,” he said, they don’t understand “how difficult it is.”

Yemeni army frees besieged brigade in south

ADEN | Sat Sep 10, 2011

(Reuters) - Yemen's army has managed to relieve a brigade that had been trapped on its base for four months by militants thought to belong to al Qaeda's Arabian Peninsula wing, a military official said on Saturday.

The 25th brigade was besieged in May, when Islamist fighters emboldened by months of upheaval in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state took over the coastal city of Zinjibar, just a few kilometres away from the barracks.

The official said provisions were delivered to the brigade and the army had entered Zinjibar to reinforce efforts to drive out militants, many of whom had already fled towards Jaar, another town they have taken over in the southern province of Abyan.

"We are pursuing limited pockets of militants, but the real battle will be to purify the town of Jaar," said General Mohammad al-Somali.

The army mounted an offensive against militants in Abyan two months ago but has so far failed to deal a decisive blow, despite regular reports of militant deaths.

Three militants were killed in clashes in and around Zinjibar and four soldiers were injured on Saturday, the official said.

The United States and Saudi Arabia fear lawlessness in Yemen's south will give al Qaeda's local branch more room to launch attacks in the region and beyond.

Opponents of President Ali Abdullah Saleh accuse him of exaggerating the threat of al Qaeda and even encouraging militancy to scare Washington and Riyadh into backing him.

He is clinging onto power despite international pressure on him to quit and months of protests against his 33-year rule.

Missing French couple saved by coalition forces: Yemen

Sana'a, September 10, 2011

A French couple who went missing in the Gulf of Aden off the Yemen coast have been rescued by coalition forces operating in international waters, a top Yemeni coast guard official has said.

"The tourist yacht had a technical problem 120 miles (193 kilometres) offshore in international waters and called for help," said a statement carried late Friday by Yemen's official news agency Saba.

"The tourist and his wife were rescued by a special boat belonging to one of the military ships of the friendly coalition forces present in the international waters," said the deputy director of the Gulf of Aden coast guard, Colonel Abdulrahman al-Musa.

The French daily Le Parisien has reported that the pair were from the country's southeastern Var region and were on a round-the-world voyage.

The French yacht which arrived on August 19 in Aden and then departed from the southern port on September 4 after the couple visited the city, Musa added.

But he did not mention another French catamaran which too has gone missing in the Gulf of Aden.

International authorities on Friday found the catamaran adrift in pirate-infested waters in the Gulf of Aden with no one on board, a source close to the probe said.

A German frigate, responding to a mayday call, discovered the empty yacht and it was towed to Djibouti where "suspicious marks" on the vessel are to be studied by agents of France's DGSE spy agency.

The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said four people had been on the yacht.

A Yemeni official previously told AFP that two yachts with a total of six French citizens aboard had entered Yemeni territorial waters on August 19 and left September 4.

French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said the crew of the catamaran issued a mayday signal but by the time the German frigate Bayern arrived there was nobody on board.

"Following the alert from the crew, we asked our German partners to send one of their ships taking part in Operation Atalanta," Valero said, referring to the EU anti-piracy mission off Somalia.

The 5,600-ton warship found the yacht, but "no-one was on board and we have no certainty about how many people had been aboard nor what may have become of the crew of the catamaran."

Atalanta spokesman Commander Harrie Harrison told AFP that the operation was "investigating and trying to work out why the yacht was empty.

"The next of kin details are yet to be confirmed, and we're obviously waiting for that confirmation. We're monitoring and doing what we can," he added. The German defence ministry had no further details.

While officials would not speculate on the fate of the missing crew, the waters between Yemen and Somalia are notorious for attacks by pirate gangs, and French yachts have been among the vessels seized in the past.