The Middle East Channel

Questions are raised after Australian report of Israel’s “Prisoner X”

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr has ordered a review of his ministry's handling of a 2010 case in which an Australian man, allegedly a Mossad agent, reportedly hanged himself in a secret Israeli jail. On Wednesday, Carr admitted that the Department of Foreign Affairs knew about the detention of the man referred to as Prisoner X, who the report revealed is likely Ben Zygier. He changed his name to Ben Alon in Israel. Initial reports of his death were leaked in 2010, but the story was highly censored by Israel. On Tuesday, Israeli news organizations were forced to remove content concerning the case, but the ban was partially lifted on Wednesday after Knesset members raised questions. Israel's prime minister's office has declined to comment. According to ABC, Zygier was 34 when he died, and was married to an Israeli woman with two young children. It is unclear why he was incarcerated. He was held at the Ayalon high security prison in central Israel, in a wing constructed to hold Yigal Amir, the Israeli who assassinated former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, with a surveillance system installed to prevent suicide.  

Syria

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay addressed the U.N. Security Council Tuesday calling for action to resolve the conflict in Syria, saying the death toll is approaching 70,000. Severe fighting has continued in Damascus. The government has targeted opposition positions in the neighborhood of Jobar as well as the suburb of Daraya. Russia said it will continue its weapons supplies to the Syrian regime, saying "in the absence of sanctions" it will fulfill its "obligations on contracts for the delivery of military hardware" which it maintains are not offensive weapons, but mainly air defense systems. Meanwhile, Qatar has decided to hand over the Syrian embassy in its capital Doha to the opposition Syrian National Coalition.

Headlines

  • Iran has announced it is upgrading its centrifuges ahead of renewed negotiations on its nuclear development program set to begin Wednesday.
  • Hundreds of Egyptian police began a strike protesting against President Mohamed Morsi on Tuesday, shutting down headquarters at about seven provincial capitals in a rare case of open dissent.
  • Egyptian security forces have flooded smuggling tunnels between the Sinai and the Palestinian Gaza Strip in efforts to shut them down, angering Hamas leaders.
  • Debt stricken carrier Bahrain Air has announced it will shut down amid political unrest while leaders enter into a new round of reconciliation talks. 

Arguments and Analysis

How to Start a Battalion (in Five Easy Lessons) (Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, London Review of Books)

"In the cramped living room of a run-down flat near the Aleppo frontline, two Syrian rebels sat opposite each other. The one on the left was stout, broad-shouldered, with a neat beard that looked as though it had been outlined in sharp pencil around his throat and cheeks. His shirt and trousers were immaculately pressed and he wore brand-new military webbing - the expensive Turkish kind, not the Syrian knock-off. The rebel sitting opposite him was younger, gaunt and tired-looking. His hands were filthy and his trousers caked in mud and diesel.

The flat had once belonged to an old lady. Traces of a domestic life that had long ceased to exist were scattered around the room and mingled with the possessions of the new occupiers. A mother of pearl ashtray sat next to a pile of walkie-talkies. Small china figurines stood on top of the TV next to a box of cartridges. Guns and ammunition lay on the rickety wooden chairs and a calendar showing faded landscapes hung on the wall. In the bedroom next door clothes were piled on the bed next to crates of ammunition. The stout rebel was shifty, on edge and keen to finish what he came to say and leave quickly. The other looked like a man waiting for a disaster to unfold.

But like a couple trying to conduct the business of their divorce with civility they spent a long time on pleasantries: each asked the other about his village and praised the courage and strength of his people. Outside a machine gun fired relentlessly down the street, interrupted only by the occasional thud of a mortar shell."

Al-Qa'ida and the Jihadi Dynamics in the Sahel (Jean-Pierre Filiu, Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore)

"Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) was launched in 2007 as the last offshoot of Osama bin Laden's organization. It has therefore attracted significant international interest, especially after murderous suicide attacks in Algiers and repeated abductions of Western nationals in the Sahara. But AQIM media exposure could not mask its failure to live up to its commitment to strike Europe from North Africa. Hence AQIM increasingly bet on its commandos operating in the Sahel region to upgrade its jihadi profile.

In order to understand the complexity of the jihadi dynamics in the Sahel region, one must take into full consideration four specific and interlinked dimensions of those groups and networks:

  • They are led by veterans from the "black decade" of the 1990s in Algeria, who escaped both repression and purges, therefore developing a strong resilience in an extremely inhospitable environment.
  • Those "survivors" were initially smugglers who were in charge of the logistical needs of the jihadi hierarchy in northern Algeria before reaching a militant capacity of their own, enhanced by the extreme mobility of their commandos.
  • This trans-Sahara mobility nurtured increased cooperation with criminal networks active in the region, with repeated exchanges of favors and services, blurring the lines between gangsterism and jihadism.
  • After one generation of activity, Algerian "veterans" and "survivors" are still firmly in command, fueling the popular feeling of a "foreign" occupation in Mali that paved the way for the recent French rollback in Timbuktu and Gao.
The Sahel region became only recently a focus for jihadi escalation. During the 1990s, the jihadi insurgency of the Islamic Armed Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, or GIA) focused on the main cities of coastal Algeria, with the support of activist cells in the countryside and the mountain ranges. The Sahara katiba (battalion) of the GIA was led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, nicknamed "the one-eyed" (Belaouar) because of the wound he claimed to have suffered fighting in Afghanistan from 1991 to 1993 (suspiciously two years after the Soviet withdrawal).  But this katiba was not involved in active combat; its priority was the channeling of weapons and funds to the GIA heartland."

 

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/JACK GUEZ

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