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Indian PM Manmohan Singh Renews Kashmir Talks Offer

As reported by BBC

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has renewed an offer of talks with Kashmiri separatists who shun violence. He made the comments during a visit to a university in Indian-administered Kashmir. He is on a two-day trip to the state to review development schemes. Separatists have called a shutdown. The PM has disappointed those who expected him to announce a political package, the BBC’s Altaf Hussain in Srinagar says.

“We felt that the people of the state are not only interested in financial assistance and development projects, but also desire a political process that meets their aspirations,” Mr Singh told gathering at the agricultural university in Srinagar.

“We want to take the dialogue process forward. We are ready to talk to representatives of all sections who are opposed to terrorism and violence,” he said. ‘Strict instruction’  The prime minister repeated his government’s policy of “zero tolerance” for human rights violations.

“The security forces in Jammu and Kashmir have been strictly instructed to respect the rights of the civilians. We’ll act to remove any deficiency in the implementation of these instructions,” he said. The PM’s visit was greeted by protests against human rights violations  The prime minister’s visit came a day after the Indian army suspended a senior officer accused of killing three civilians in a staged gun battle.

The incident happened at Machhil near the Line of Control, the de facto border which separates Indian-administered Kashmir from Pakistani-administered Kashmir, in April. The Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley staged a total shutdown to protest against the prime minister’s visit. The strike was called by a hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

Mr Singh’s visit has also disappointed the moderate faction of the separatist Hurriyat Conference, headed by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, our correspondent says. Mr Farooq had urged the prime minister to announce a political package during his visit.

He had demanded withdrawal of troops from cities and towns and release of political prisoners to facilitate talks between the separatist leadership and the government, our correspondent adds. Violence has declined in Kashmir in recent years, but analysts say militants opposed to Indian rule are now trying to regroup. There has been a spate of clashes in recent months along the LoC. Hundreds of thousands of Indian troops are based in Kashmir, where there has been a two decade-old insurgey against Indian rule.

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India, Pakistan And U.S. Strategic Dialogue

By Apoorva Shah for The American Enterprise Institute

At this week’s first U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue in Washington, D.C., talks between the two countries will cover the spectrum of bilateral and multilateral issues, from trade and economic cooperation to terrorism and regional security. 

American participants may even feel the need to bring up India’s strained relationship with Pakistan. But it would serve them well to first consider a Times of India story from earlier this year, which went almost unreported in the United States.

According to an interview in the Indian newspaper with former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, India and Pakistan in 2007 were days away from reaching a comprehensive accord on their territorial dispute over Kashmir, the axis of the countries’ six-decade-long rivalry and casus belli of three wars between the two nations.

Kasuri, Pakistani leader General Pervez Musharraf’s chief diplomat from 2002 to 2007, said in April that the secret deal had been in progress for more than three years and would have led to a full demilitarization of both Indian- and Pakistani-occupied areas of Kashmir and would have awarded the region a package of loose sovereignty at a point “between complete independence and autonomy.” Not only were Indian and Pakistani leaders on board (including, most importantly, the Pakistani military), so was every Kashmiri leader except for one hard-line separatist, Syed Ali Shah Gilani.

The accord was slated to be signed during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s scheduled visit to Islamabad in February and March of 2007, but before the trip ever occurred, a country-wide lawyers’ protest in Pakistan had turned into a broader opposition campaign against General Musharraf. The rest of the year would be one of the most tumultuous in Pakistan’s history, marked by the siege of the Red Mosque in July, the return of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in October and her subsequent assassination in December, and the return of popular leader Nawaz Sharif from exile in September.

By August of the following year, public opposition had peaked, and Musharraf was forced to resign his post as president, ending his decade-long tenure as leader of Pakistan. After Musharraf’s ouster, it appears that the deal had lost much of its momentum.

Then in November, the accord suffered another setback as ten Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists took India’s largest city, Mumbai, hostage for almost 72 hours, killing more than 160 people and injuring scores more. The attack was quickly coined “India’s 9/11,” and the evidence pointed directly to Pakistan, where the gunmen had been trained and equipped.

In protest, India cut off all diplomatic talks with Pakistan almost immediately; there were even rumors that the country was preparing military action against its northern neighbor. Within a span of less than two years, the India-Pakistan relationship had traveled the spectrum from apparent rapprochement and compromise to mutual suspicion and renewed hostility.

Since then, the signs have only appeared to worsen: for example, in 2009, when Indian Army chief General Deepak Kapoor publicly introduced revisions to his country’s “cold start” military strategy.

This military modernization and training program, which was developed in response to the army’s sluggish mobilization to the Pakistani border following the December 2001 terrorist attacks on the Indian parliament, remained mostly under the radar for most of the early 2000s, relegated to defense journals and the occasional news article.

It was only following the 2008 attacks that “cold start” began to receive renewed attention from the media on both sides of the border and was more publicly discussed by Indian military officials like General Kapoor. Indeed, it appeared as if the next breakthrough in Indo-Pak relations would occur through hard rather than soft power.

Concomitantly, India and Pakistan’s post-Mumbai attempts to return to diplomatic talks also appeared fraught with danger and seemed to only fuel more discord rather than reconciliation.

In February this year, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir resumed high-level talks for the first time since November 2008, but both sides appeared unprepared (they could not even agree on the specific subject of the talks prior to sitting down) and spent more time bickering through separate press conferences.

For example, while Bashir accused India of covertly supplying weapons to militants in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, Rao complained that Pakistan had “not gone far enough” in the 2008 Mumbai attack investigation. As India presented a dossier of evidence against one of the Mumbai attack perpetrators, Pakistan responded by calling it a “piece of literature not a dossier.”

It’s hard to see how any progress could be made on improving Indo-Pakistani relations in the midst of this hostility. But does Kasuri’s revelation provide hope that a resolution on Kashmir could be revived? First, excepting Musharraf and Kasuri, many of the supporters of the failed 2007 accord—including Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s current track II special negotiator Riaz Mohammed Khan, and, on the Indian side, Prime Minister Singh—still hold high-level positions in their respective governments.

And second, the secrecy of the original deal shows that outward indifference, or even enmity, between the two countries can belie an internal desire for change. In a relationship where hostility is status quo and where amicable relations seem aberrant if not bizarre, a furtive accord lets ruling elites make slow, institutional changes in the relationship while preserving outward form and precedent. It also allows deal-makers to keep tempestuous domestic politicians and party leaders at arms length while deliberating sensitive issues.

Even India’s traditionally hyperactive media seems to understand: A subsequent editorial in the Times of India noted, “the fact that such a deal exists emphasizes the importance of maintaining contact with Islamabad.”

So what can we expect in the months ahead? Indian officials will undoubtedly continue to pressure Pakistan to confront Lashkar-e-Taiba and other terrorist groups that plan to attack India, and another attack could indeed result in Indian military action. There will also be more bickering between the sides—on water rights, “most-favored-nation” clauses, and even cricket.

Yet the revelation of the secret deal should be both a lesson and a sign of hope. It is a lesson because it proves that progress on an entrenched conflict like Kashmir can occur without the United States’ public mediation.

American officials at the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue this week should keep in mind that the accord was pursued during the final years of the Bush administration, in which the United States made it a point to separate the U.S.-India relationship from the more sensitive Indo-Pak relationship.

It is a sign of hope because, despite the outward appearance of discord between the countries, internally, leaders on both sides have—at least at some point in recent memory—wanted to move forward on a resolution.

As Pakistan continues its domestic offensive against terrorists and India pursues closer economic engagement with its northern neighbor, wanting change may be the best sign that change is on the way.

Pakistan’s Mosques, Media and Intolerance

By Zeeshan Haider for Reuters

Pakistan has been fighting Islamist militants for years, but tough measures are needed to overturn a system breeding religious intolerance after the long failure of authorities to confront mullahs and hardline groups.

Analysts say the notion of religious mistrust is deeply entrenched in the predominatly Muslim country — even in the school system — and it is now up to leaders to mobilise public.

Last week’s massacre in the city of Lahore of more than 80 Ahmadis – a minority religious sect deemed non-Muslim and heretical by the constitution – has generated a heated debate in Pakistan, a U.S. ally, on how to tackle the issue.

In a sign of how hatred is propagated, The News newspaper said one of the two surviving gunmen caught by security forces said he had been persuaded that Ahmadis were “blaspheming” Islam.

Identified as Abdullah, he told investigators that his mentors had him believe that Ahmadis were drawing caricatures of Prophet Mohammad during a recent online contest and “so their bloodshed was a great service to Islam”, the newspaper said. That raised alarm bells in a country combatting militancy.

“The nagging feeling that the government has already lost the battle against extremism has now acquired the force of conviction,” Zafar Hilaly, a former ambassador, wrote in The News last week.

After joining the U.S.-led war on terrorism after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Pakistan mounted a crackdown on militancy, outlawing several groups, arresting hundreds of suspects and warning hardline mullahs against delivering hate speeches and distributing hate literature.

The government also vowed to reform tens of thousands of Islamic seminaries, known as madrassas, many of which are considered as breeding grounds for militancy. Almost none of these measures, however, has been implemented.

Most outlawed groups have re-emerged under new names. Radical clerics still deliver fiery speeches against sects. The U.S. Embassy acknowledged the difficulties, given the importance placed on Pakistan helping Washington battle al Qaeda and its extremist allies.

“We recognise this is a problem,” an embassy official said, adding that the embassy encouraged Pakistanis to take part in exchange programmes to see a multi-faith United States.

Analysts say Pakistani leaders dating back to the 1970s, however popular, took no action to counter radicals. Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based political and security analyst said governments have lacked the stomach to implement reforms, particularly in school curricula.

“In textbooks used in government schools, Pakistan is equated with Muslims…They teach Pakistan is a country only for Muslims. They don’t teach that non-Muslims also live here,” he said.

Journalist and analyst Ahmed Rashid described school programmes as “the most sensitive issue. But it is an issue in which any attempt to change the curriculum would have a whole host of fundamentalist groups oppose you.”

In 1974, Pakistan’s first popularly elected Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, bowed to Islamic groups and won approval of a constitutional amendment declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims. He also switched the weekly day off from Sunday to Friday.

But much of the upsurge in militancy occurred in the late 1970s and 1980s during the “Islamisation drive” by late military leader General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq and Pakistan’s support for the U.S.-baked Afghan jihad or holy war against the Soviet invasion which saw a rapid growth of radical groups and madrasas.

Haq introduced several laws, such as the notorious blasphemy law, which are deemed discriminatory against non-Muslim minorities and fuelled tensions between different Muslim sects. Subsequent governments did nothing to reverse the laws.

Military dictators, who ruled Pakistan for more than half of its existence, have also used militant groups to further policy objectives in Afghanistan and India and marginalise liberals.

“In earlier years, in order to pursue its foreign policy using the instrument of jihad, the state actively sought to create a religiously charged citizenry,” said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist and analyst. “But, now that the Pakistani military and political establishments have become a victim of extremism, they are foundering in confusion.”

Former President Pervez Musharraf, a military ruler, though he espoused a modern and liberal version of Islam, repeatedly failed to get the laws reviewed while in office from 1999-2008.

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a pro-West politician and a vocal opponent of the militants, was killed in December 2007 in a suicide attack blamed on militants linked to al Qaeda. Civilian leaders are made even more cautious now in tackling radical groups by the tremendous fear of militants who have unleashed bomb and suicide attacks across the country.

“Religious intolerance is getting worse in Pakistan because the political leadership lacks the will to fight this,” said analyst Rizvi. “They don’t want to face the wrath of mullahs.”

A Journey into America, Past and Present

By Akbar Ahmed for The Guardian

Muslims are for Americans what the Russians were for Churchill: “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” While the post-9/11 period brought an interest in the Qur’an and its language, the gap between Islam and mainstream America has steadily widened. It remains more urgent than ever for the US to comprehend Islam, a religion practised by one out four people in the world, not only for the sake of its ideals (which include religious tolerance) but also for its geopolitical needs and strategy as America remains militarily involved in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Somalia.

The reality is that Islam remains unknown to most Americans, who, on top of all the other insecurities and fears about the religion, have recently added another: the “homegrown terrorist”, which President Obama has named as one of his administration’s top national security priorities.

I have been in a unique position to observe America’s attitudes towards Islam, travelling with a team of young Americans for over a year throughout the length and breadth of the United States to over 75 cities, visiting more than 100 mosques and talking to thousands of Muslims and non-Muslims.

I realised that it was impossible to study Islam in America without studying America itself and its identity, which I determined goes back to the first Mayflower settlers. In short, there are three basic identities that define American society: primordial, pluralist, and predator. Primordial identity is rooted in the seminal landing at Plymouth and provides the foundation of the two other identities. The aim of the early settlers was to survive and create a Christian society under the rule of law. The majority of the Founding Fathers in the next century would subscribe to what I call pluralist identity – believing in civil rights and liberties, religious freedom and tolerance.

America has a strong foundation in which to solve the challenge of the Muslim community if Americans look to their past and revive the spirit of some of their truly great leaders. Roger Williams, in the 17th century laid the groundwork for separation of church and state and welcomed people of other faiths. The state, said Williams, should allow all religions, including the “Turkish” (Islamic).

Thomas Jefferson owned a Qur’an and we found a statue of Jefferson at the University of Virginia advocating “Religious Freedom, 1786” with the words God, Jehovah, Brahma and Allah carved on the tablet he embraces.

A treaty, which was sponsored by George Washington and signed by John Adams in 1797, pertained to Tripoli and assured that the United States “has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen.” Even the Prophet Muhammad was praised by the Founding Fathers; Adams called him one of the world’s “sober inquirers after truth” alongside such figures as Confucius and Socrates, and Benjamin Franklin cited the prophet as a model of compassion.

As primordial identity was taking shape at Plymouth, however, and new trends were already emerging. The more zealous of the settlers argued that the land was given to them by God, and they were to occupy it regardless of who was living there. As their confidence grew, they began to prey on the weaker natives, justifying their force in the name of protecting the community, generating an arrogance that did not encourage self-reflection and making it easy to demonise and destroy the enemy. This marked the birth of a predator identity.

It is this understanding of American society which allows us to put the Muslim community in America into context. Our findings from the field bring both bad news and good news. The bad news is that every one of the major American Muslim categories – African Americans, immigrants, and converts – has been involved in recent violence-related cases in the United States. In view of the bankruptcy of Muslim leadership and American failure to truly understand the Muslim community, it is not difficult to predict that violence will increase in both frequency and intensity. I am sorry to say that the government and its various agencies still do not have an adequate policy towards the country’s Muslim population. Some Muslims are affected by US actions taken in response to 9/11, which included the arrests and deportation of thousands, prompting many others to flee the country. These realities have reinforced the sense of being a mistrusted community. Others resent the Islamophobia they see in the media.

The good news is that American and Muslim leaders alike are now conscious of the problem of terrorism and its scale and are actively discussing the position of Muslims in America. Some of our findings challenge the received wisdom telling us that most Americans are hostile to Muslims. Of those questioned for our study, 95% said that they would vote for a Muslim for public office, for example, and an equally high number of respondents had no problem with Muslims being “American”, although some inserted “if” clauses. We found a patriotic and vibrant Muslim community committed to contributing to the country. Dialogue and understanding are urgently recommended.

America stands at a crossroads. It will have to choose either to embrace the Founding Fathers’ pluralist vision or the America that compromises the Constitution and the values of the Founding Fathers. Primordial and predator identity remain alive and well in today’s United States. In one way or another, people everywhere have a stake in America resolving its identity because America’s unique, universal vision of society formulated by its Founding Fathers attracts the world. A new chapter in the history of the United States has opened after 9/11 and America’s future will be decided on how it resolves its ongoing engagement and entanglement with Islam.

Official Admits Militancy’s Deep Roots in Pakistan

By Jane Perlez and Waqar Gillani for The New York Times

LAHORE, Pakistan — Days after one of the worst terrorist attacks in Pakistan, a senior Pakistani official declared in a surprising public admission that extremist groups were entrenched in the southern portion of the nation’s most populous province, underscoring the growing threats to the state.

 The statements by the interior minister, Rehman Malik, after the killing of more than 80 people at two mosques last week here in Lahore, were exceptional because few Pakistani politicians have acknowledged so explicitly the deep roots of militancy in Pakistan. They also highlighted the seeming impotence of the civilian government to root out the militant groups, even in Punjab Province, providing a troubling recognition that decades of state policy to nurture extremism had come home to roost in the very heart of the country.

 The extent of the problem has become an increasing concern for the United States, which has pressed the government to deal with the issue with renewed urgency since the failed attempt by a Pakistani-American to explode a car bomb in Times Square.

 “We’re dealing with a problem that is so deeply burrowed into the bosom of the society,” said a senior Western official about the difficulty of loosening the grip of the militant groups. “And we’re dealing with a government that is unhappy within itself.”

The problem for Pakistan, Western officials and some Pakistani politicians said, is not only the specific acts of terrorism by these groups, but the far more pervasive jihadi mentality that has been nurtured in the society by an extensive network of extremist madrasas and mosques.

Mr. Malik’s remarks — in which he rattled off a host of extremist groups once supported by the state — were a nod to these larger problems. In contrast to the tribal areas at the nation’s periphery, where the military is battling the Pakistani Taliban on several fronts, militants were “now active” in the southern part of Punjab and were trying to “destabilize the country,” he said.

Though Mr. Malik seemed to hint at possible military action in Punjab, the civilian government, led by the Pakistan Peoples Party, the more secular of the political parties in Pakistan, has little leverage to make it happen.

The Pakistani military, which still holds most power, has shown little interest in taking on extremist groups in Punjab. The province is a major recruiting area for the army, and many of the militant groups there were created by the state decades ago and have been fostered since as arms of Pakistan’s enduring anti-India strategy.

To a large degree, they have slipped from the control of their handlers in the military and intelligence services, according to Western diplomats and Pakistani security experts, and have linked up with Taliban fighters and other militant groups that are now striking deeper into Pakistan in an effort to overthrow the state.

Today these militants move back and forth easily between the tribal areas for training and Punjab, where they carry out a rising number of spectacular attacks.

“They — Lashkar-e-Janghvi, the Sipah-e-Sohaba Pakistan and Jaish-e-Mohammad — are allies of the Taliban and Al Qaeda,” Mr. Malik told reporters in Lahore after the mosque attacks. 

The loose conglomerate of militants that Mr. Malik listed is now being grouped by officials and others under the name of the Punjabi Taliban, a designation that itself highlights the expanding nature of the threat in Pakistan’s most important province and the militants’ shifting ambitions. Under that rubric also falls Lashkar-e-Taiba, an anti-India militant group. Like the others listed by Mr. Malik, Lashkar-e-Taiba has been banned by the state, but continues to operate under a different name and apparently with the blessing of the military.

The Punjabi Taliban took credit for the assaults on the two Ahmadi mosques last Friday. At least one of the men arrested by the Pakistani authorities in connection with the Times Square bombing case is connected to Jaish-e-Mohammed, according to law enforcement officials in Karachi.  Adding to the difficulty of clamping down on the groups, the Punjabi government, led by Shahbaz Sharif, a leader of the more conservative Pakistan Muslim League-N and a chief political rival of President Asif Ali Zardari, has stopped short of condemning the militants. In some respects, he has treated them as allies.

Two months ago, Mr. Sharif asked the Taliban to stay away from Punjab, arguing that his party and the Taliban had a common enemy in the United States. The Punjab government is “in a state of denial,” said Arif Nizami, a columnist with the newspaper The News. Mr. Sharif played down the attack on the two mosques in Lahore, Punjab’s capital. Instead, he visited the wounded survivors in a hospital quietly at night without the usual television coverage.

The groups hold such sway that Pakistani politicians frequently pander to some, like the pro-Taliban Sipah-e-Sohaba Pakistan, during elections.  In a bold illustration of the power of one of the militant groups in southern Punjab, the provincial law minister, Rana Sanaullah, campaigned alongside the leader of Sipah-e-Sohaba, Maulana Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, during a March by-election for the provincial assembly in the city of Jhang.

In an interview, Mr. Sanaullah, said he saw nothing wrong with campaigning with Mr. Ludhianvi. It was a good thing, he said, because it helped bring groups that he described as no longer militant into the democratic mainstream. “If they want to be law-abiding citizens, we should allow them to be,” Mr. Sanaullah said.  Mr. Sanaullah was not alone in seeking votes from Sipah-e-Sohaba. A candidate for the National Assembly running for the Pakistan Peoples Party also won with its support earlier this year. Though security is a paramount concern, government officials and others acknowledge that the problem of militancy will not be solved by military force alone. Having been nurtured through generations, it will also not be undone quickly.

A program announced by Mr. Zardari two years ago to rein in the madrasas has yet to get off the ground, blocked by bureaucratic inertia and fears of a backlash from powerful conservative religious groups, Pakistani officials say. As state-sponsored education becomes too expensive for poor parents, the number of madrasas has actually increased in the past three years, to more than 17,000 in 2010 from 13,000 in 2007. At least several thousand of the madrasas churn out militant students, experts say.

Facebook in Pakistan: Islamists vs. Liberals

By Adam B Ellick and Ahmad Ziadi for The New York Times

When Facebook was recently banned in Pakistan for hosting a “Draw Muhammad Day” fan page, one thing became very clear: Islamists here operate with organized precision, able to mobilize the masses in an instant, while the liberal voice remains paralyzed by fear and passivity.

Some media experts predicted that the ban – which a Pakistani court has now ordered the government to lift – might motivate the nation’s deeply disconnected liberal elite to take on the Islamists. After all, while members of the urban elite have been largely immune to the recent rise of violent militant attacks, the Facebook ban presented them with a personal vendetta.

In a nation without bars, and where entertainment options such as music concerts are rare, Facebook serves as a precious tool for the elite to organize discreet private events with music, drugs and alcohol. It has also helped mobilize social movements, including the lawyers’ march in 2009.

But the fervor that has followed the Facebook ban has been entirely one-sided in favor of the Islamists.

As the rest of Muslim world remains largely indifferent, tens of thousands of anti-Facebook Pakistanis protested in urban centers by burning American flags. A poll conducted by an IT portal called ProPakistani showed 73 percent out of about 8,000 voters favor a permanent ban on Facebook.

How did it get to this? There has been a widespread SMS campaign perpetuating a false narrative that Pakistan’s ban has brought a behemoth anti-Muslim company to its knees. One SMS attributes the recent fall in the Euro to the ban. Here’s another SMS I received:

THE BOYCOTT MADE BY MUSLIMS AGAINST FACEBOOK SINCE LAST 2 DAYS

CHARGE DEM A LOSS OF 2 BILLION EUROS..AND IF ITS CONTINUED AFTER 7 DAYS IT WOULD

REACH AROUND 40 BILLION EURO…. PLZ SPREAD AS MUCH AS U CAN.

Facts suggest otherwise. Facebook is not a publicly traded company, therefore, its earnings are not published. Still, some venture capitalists have valued Facebook at about $8 billion. Its annual revenue is estimated between $500 to $800 million.

In addition to the SMS campaign, this week, two new Muslim-friendly alternatives to Facebook have been launched. One of them, www.millatfacebook.com, was inaugurated by the bar association of the same Lahore court that banned Facebook. Millat means “Nation” in Urdu.

The site wooed more than 20,000 users with its slogan: “A site for Muslims by Muslims where sweet people of other religions are also welcome!!” Members are asked to specify if they drink alcohol. The founders are enraged at Facebook for curtailing Nazi-related hate speech while refusing to curb the Muhammad cartoons.

Their website says “Let’s prove to the world that if we can generate revenue for Facebook.com then we can also run our own website. Prove to the world that we are independent Muslims…” The other alternative site, www.Buddyflick.com , aims to “create/build/run our own network.” But where are Pakistan’s liberal and moderate voices?

Speaking out against the ban can be as hazardous as the forbidden cartoons. When those against the ban held a small news conference, the press mostly ignored it. After the press conference, several anti-ban activists were aggressively confronted by a large crowd of opposing activists as they left the venue. As tensions escalated, the anti-ban activists retreated into the building and waited for the crowd to dissipate.

One friend who is especially furious about the ban wouldn’t dare to speak out. “Nobody has the guts to go out and do something about it. The issue of Muhammad is so sensitive that you just never know.”

Instead, liberals are hashing out their frustrations in the low-traffic comment sections of liberal blogs and leftist newspapers, and, ironically enough, on their actual Facebook pages. Some have hacked into the banned site from the confines of their gated homes. Among the comment section in one newspaper is the latest joke: What’s the difference between Facebook and Lashkar  e Taiba? Answer: Facebook is banned!

Al Qaeda Aide Believed Dead- Drone Attack in Pakistan Said to Have Killed No. 3 Official

By Kimberley Dozier for AP

Al Qaeda’s third in command, who played key roles in a recently foiled terrorist plot against the U.S. and the 2001 terrorist attacks, is believed to have been killed by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal areas, potentially dealing a significant blow to the terrorist network. Mustafa al-Yazid, al Qaeda’s chief operating officer, was killed a little more than a week ago, according to two U.S. officials. This is the main person who everyone has been looking for,” one official said.

Al-Qaida announced Monday that its No. 3 official, Mustafa al-Yazid, had been killed along with members of his family — perhaps one of the most severe blows to the terror movement since the U.S. campaign against al-Qaida began. A U.S. official said al-Yazid was believed to have died in a U.S. missile strike.

A statement posted on an al-Qaida Website said al-Yazid, which it described as the organization’s top commander in Afghanistan, was killed along with his wife, three daughters, a grandchild and other men, women and children but did not say how or where.

The statement did not give an exact date for al-Yazid’s death, but it was dated by the Islamic calendar month of “Jemadi al-Akhar,” which falls in May.

A U.S. official in Washington said word was “spreading in extremist circles” of his death in Pakistan’s tribal areas in the past two weeks.

His death would be a major blow to al-Qaida, which in December “lost both its internal and external operations chiefs,” the official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

The Egyptian-born al-Yazid, also known as Sheik Saeed al-Masri, was a founding member of al-Qaida and the group’s prime conduit to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri. He was key to day-to-day control, with a hand in everything from finances to operational planning, the U.S. official said.

Al-Yazid has been reported killed before, in 2008, but this is the first time his death has been acknowledged by the militant group on the Internet.

Two Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said al-Yazid died in a U.S. missile strike on May 21 in the North Waziristan tribal area.

Soon after the attack, officials reported that two foreigners were among the 10 people killed, but did not know their identities. Five women and two children were also wounded in the attack, which occurred in the village of Boya near the main town in the area, Miran Shah.

The intelligence officials said they received word of al-Yazid’s death last week and confirmed it by speaking to local tribal elders and Taliban members. They said their sources had not seen al-Yazid’s body and did not know where he was buried.

Al-Yazid has been one of many targets in a U.S. Predator drone campaign aimed at militants in Pakistan since President Barack Obama took office. Al-Yazid made no secret of his contempt for the United States, once calling it “the evil empire leading crusades against the Muslims.”

“We have reached the point where we see no difference between the state and the American people,” al-Yazid told Pakistan’s Geo TV in a June 2008 interview. “The United States is a non-Muslim state bent on the destruction of Muslims.”

The shadowy, 55-year-old al-Yazid has been involved with Islamic extremist movements for nearly 30 years since he joined radical student groups led by fellow Egyptian al-Zawahri, now the No. 2 figure in al-Qaida after bin Laden.

In the early 1980s, al-Yazid served three years in an Egyptian prison for purported links to the group responsible for the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. After his release, al-Yazid turned up in Afghanistan, where, according to al-Qaida’s propaganda wing Al-Sabah, he became a founding member of the terrorist group.

He later followed bin Laden to Sudan and back to Afghanistan, where he served as al-Qaida’s chief financial officer, managing secret bank accounts in the Persian Gulf that were used to help finance the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. After the U.S. and its allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001, al-Yazid went into hiding for years. He surfaced in May 2007 during a 45-minute interview posted on the Web by Al-Sabah, in which he was introduced as the “official in charge” of the terrorist movement’s operations in Afghanistan.

Some security analysts believe the choice of al-Yazid as the Afghan chief may have signaled a new approach for al-Qaida in the country where it once reigned supreme.

Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA unit that tracked bin Laden, believes bin Laden and al-Zawahri wanted a trusted figure to handle Afghanistan “while they turn to other aspects of the jihad outside” the country.

Al-Yazid had little background in leading combat operations. But terrorism experts say his advantage was that he was close to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. As a fluent Pashto speaker known for impeccable manners, al-Yazid enjoyed better relations with the Afghans than many of the al-Qaida Arabs, whom the Afghans found arrogant and abrasive.

That suggested a conscious decision by al-Qaida to embed within the Taliban organization, helping the Afghan allies with expertise and training while at the same time putting an Afghan face on the war.

Al-Yazid himself alluded to such an approach in an interview this year with Al-Jazeera television’s Islamabad correspondent Ahmad Zaidan. Al-Yazid said al-Qaida fighters were involved at every level with the Taliban.

“We participate with our brothers in the Islamic Emirate in all fields,” al-Yazid said. “This had a big positive effect on the (Taliban) self-esteem in Afghanistan.”

A September 2007 al-Qaida video sought to promote the notion of close Taliban-al-Qaida ties at a time when the Afghan insurgents were launching their comeback six years after their ouster from power in Kabul.

The video showed al-Yazid sitting with a senior Taliban commander in a field surrounded by trees as a jihad anthem played. The Taliban commander vowed to “target the infidels in Afghanistan and outside Afghanistan” and to “focus our attacks, Allah willing, on the coalition forces in Afghanistan.”

There is also evidence that al-Yazid has promoted ties with Islamic extremist groups in Central Asia and Pakistan, where other top al-Qaida figures are believed to be hiding.

“He definitely seems to have significant influence among the Pakistani Taliban and the Central Asian groups,” terrorism expert Evan Kohlman said. “They regularly post and share his videos on the Web, just as they would with bin Laden or al-Zawahri.”

In August 2008, Pakistani military officials claimed al-Yazid had been killed in fighting in the Bajaur tribal area along the Afghan border. However, he turned up in subsequent al-Qaida videos, all of which had clearly been made after the Bajaur fighting.

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