Easter nightmare in Pakistan

First off, Happy Easter to those who are celebrating it today (Orthodox Christians won’t celebrate it until May 1).

Unfortunately, Easter Sunday has been turned into a horror story for people living in the Pakistani city of Lahore:

A suicide bomber killed at least 65 people and injured more than 280 others, mostly women and children, at a public park in the Pakistani city of Lahore on Sunday, striking at the heart of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s political base of Punjab.

The blast occurred in the parking area of Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, a few feet (meters) away from children’s swings.

I’m seeing reports on Twitter that the death toll has climbed past 70, and you can probably expect it to keep rising for the next few hours. As you might expect given where the explosion happened, most of the dead are reportedly women and children. It’s very possible (likely?), though there’s no real way to confirm this unless and until some group takes credit for the attack and explains its motive, that the bombing intentionally targeted Christians in the park celebrating the holiday.

As I say, there has not yet been a claim of responsibility. The alleged bomber hails from Muzaffargarh, a district in the southern part of Punjab, but that doesn’t say much about his allegiances. The nature of the target would certainly fit the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), who have shown in the past that they’re more than happy to get their rocks off by slaughtering children. The Punjab region, where Lahore is located, isn’t the TTP’s typical stomping ground, but they did carry out an attack in Lahore–one that targeted the city’s Christian population, no less–just last year. However, a 2013 bombing in Lahore was claimed by a Balochi separatist group, the Baloch Liberation Tigers, and Pakistan has no shortage of terrorist groups operating on its soil (many with the tacit or not so tacit help of Pakistan’s intelligence services), so it’s best not to jump to any conclusions.

On a possibly related note, Pakistani authorities are also dealing with a major protest taking place in Islamabad, denouncing the execution of Mumtaz Qadri late last month. Qadri assassinated the then-governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, in 2011, after Taseer spoke out against Pakistan’s blasphemy law (which ostensibly prohibits speaking out against all religions but is almost always enforced against non-Muslims who allegedly defame Islam in some way). Taseer was particularly outspoken about the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to execution in 2010 for supposedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad (she remains in prison while her case is being processed). Qadri was a police officer and part of Taseer’s bodyguard at the time. Given the Punjabi and Muslim-Christian overtones inherent to Qadri’s case, I think it would be premature to rule out a connection between his execution and the Lahore bombing, whether or not the bombing was carried out by the TTP.

UPDATE: A splinter-ish faction of the TTP, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, claimed responsibility for the bombing and said they were indeed targeting Christians. It was believed back in 2014 that this group had pledged allegiance to ISIS, but they announced about a year ago that they’d only expressed support for ISIS and were actually coming back into the TTP fold. They were likely also trying to send a message to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is from Lahore and has emphasized security in Punjab (to such an extent that he’s been criticized for easing up in other parts of the country). For a TTP faction (and/or ISIS affiliate, I guess) to pull off an attack in Lahore is a pretty direct challenge to Sharif’s government.

Today in European history: the (third) Siege of Algeciras ends (1344)

Modern Algeciras is the main city on the Bay of Gibraltar and one of the busiest commercial ports in Europe. It’s pretty old, too, since it was founded by early Berber-Arab invaders all the way back in 711–“Algeciras” is a European corruption of the city’s original name, al-Jazirah al-Khudra (“the green island”). And, if we’re being totally comprehensive, those Muslims only rebuilt a city that had previously been a major Roman port before it was destroyed by Germanic invaders.

They say the three rules of real estate are “location, location, location,” and I suppose that’s as true when you’re looking for a city to conquer as it is when you’re looking to buy a house. Algeciras was in an incredibly important location that made it a hub both for commerce and for the transit of human beings (often heavily armed human beings) from North Africa into what in 1344 was al-Andalus (Andalusia, Iberia, Spain, call it whatever you like). So for the various European principalities who were participating in the so-called Reconquista, capturing Algeciras was a major goal. That helps to explain why this 1342-1344 episode was the third of four sieges of the city undertaken in the 13th and 14th centuries, though it was the final Christian siege. The first, in 1278, ended when a relief army from Morocco broke through a Castilian naval blockade and then drove off the Christian besiegers, and the second, in 1309-1310, ended when disease ravaged the Castilian camp and forced then-King Ferdinand IV (d. 1312) to withdraw.

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Algeciras in relation to the other major cities of the region (Wikimedia | falconaumanni)

For this third bite at the apple, Castilian King Alfonso XI (d. 1350) obtained considerable assistance from the Republic of Genoa, from Portugal, and from Aragon. In the interim since the previous siege, the Marinid rulers of Morocco had taken Algeciras from the Emirate of Granada and made it the capital of a planned expansion of their territory into Europe. So the Castilians weren’t just fighting an offensive campaign this time, they were acting to some degree in self-defense. Alfonso had already seen the Marinids’ intentions and Algeciras’s importance during his successful defense of Tarifa in 1340. During that operation, Marinid reinforcements from Morocco landed in Algeciras and might have made the difference in the siege if the Marinid ruler, Abu al-Hasan Ali b. Uthman (d. 1350) hadn’t proven to be, in technical military terms, a blockhead.

Alfonso besieged Algeciras in early August, 1342, after his naval allies from Portugal and Genoa had driven off the Marinid ships in the area and established a blockade. Continue reading

Talking about the thing we never talk about

Tuesday’s terrorist attacks on the Maalbeek metro station and Zaventem airport in Brussels killed 34 people (including three perpetrators) and injured another 300, many critically. This was the worst violence that Belgium has seen since the Second World War. It was a despicable act, and many of us here in the US have expressed and should express our anger that it happened, and our sympathies for the victims and their families.

Today, in Iskandariya Iraq, a suicide bombing killed 29 people and injured 60 more in a soccer stadium. This was the worst violence on Iraqi soil since, well, March 6, when 61 people were killed in a terrorist attack in Hillah. Between February 25 and that March 6 attack, ISIS terrorists killed over 200 Iraqis. So far, March has been a relatively quiet month in Iraq; according to the Iraq Body Count, “only” 822 Iraqi civilians (that figure probably doesn’t include today’s count) have been violently killed this month, compared with over 1000 last month and nearly 1200 in January. And, you know, I don’t see too much about those deaths on my American news programs. I don’t read too much about those deaths in my American online media. I don’t see a lot of people on Twitter or Facebook posting photos of the Iraqi flag or changing their avatars to reflect their sadness over the loss of life in Iskandariya or Hillah. I’ve seen constant coverage of Brussels since Tuesday, which is fine, but the only stuff we Americans seem to talk about when we talk about Iraq is which battle is coming up next, like it’s all some kind of war drama series on HBO. Like the people dying every day in Iraq aren’t real people somehow.

I’m guilty of this too. I used to have a regular feature on this blog in 2013 called “The Daily Iraq,” because it seemed to me that nobody was paying attention to the daily reports of violence coming out of the country. I stopped running it because I honestly didn’t know what to say about 12 dead yesterday, 8 dead today, 25 dead tomorrow. Writing about the violence was repetitive, because the violence itself was repetitive. Then Mosul fell to ISIS, and suddenly Iraq was back on everybody’s radar again. But look, when 120 dead in Paris dominates the news for weeks, maybe we should pause and note that Iraq suffers the equivalent of 8-10 Paris attacks every month. When 34 dead in Brussels is big breaking stuff, maybe we should recall that even in a “slow” month like this one, nearly 34 Iraqis are killed violently every day. Because, not to reopen old wounds point out wounds that have been festering for 13 years now, but we did this to Iraq. The United States created a world in which Iraqis suffer nearly every day through the kind of violence that causes us to freak out when it happens in a major Western city once or twice a year. I read plenty of articles wondering if Europe is facing a “new normal” with a heightened risk of terror attacks, but very little about the current normal in Iraq, where terror attacks are a fact of daily life.

I’m not saying that we should relentlessly obsess over the daily carnage in Iraq, just that we should stop completely ignoring it because we don’t like what it implies about us and our legacy in the Middle East. There are a whole host of reasons, from uncontrollable psychological responses to overt bigotry, why Brussels gets more American media coverage than Baghdad. One of those reasons is that terrorism in Brussels is unexpected, in American minds, while terrorism in Baghdad seems commonplace. But the fact that terrorism in Baghdad seems commonplace to Americans should in itself shock and appall each and every one of us. There’s nothing inherently violent about Iraq or Iraqis, no more than there’s something inherently violent about Belgium and Belgians. There’s nothing that makes an ISIS victim in Brussels any more or less tragic and unjust than an ISIS victim in Baghdad. I think maybe it’s worth remembering that every now and then.

Security theater in action

The terrorist attack on the Zeventem Airport in Brussels yesterday targeted one of the softest spots in the entire transportation system: the security queue at any major airport. Our “shoes off, belt off, take out your laptop, measure your liquids, put your left foot in and shake it all about” security screening process creates another inviting target for anybody looking to get maximum carnage for their effort. Most major airports in the world will let anybody in to the terminal without much or any kind of security check, so there’s nothing really stopping somebody from doing exactly what the attackers did yesterday. In order to prevent terrorists from getting at one target, the plane, we’ve created another one for them: the security line. And this is not the first time a terrorist has taken advantage of easy access to an airport terminal: in 2011, a suicide attack at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport killed dozens of people in that other great airport bottleneck, the baggage claim area.

In the aftermath of Brussels, and because we always like to Do Something whenever a horrible thing happens that actually catches our attention, there’s now talk of changing airport security procedures to put the security check (or a security check, anyway) outside the terminal:

The relative openness of public airport areas in Western Europe contrasts with some in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where travelers’ documents and belongings are checked before they are allowed to enter the airport building.

In Turkey, passengers and bags are screened on entering the terminal and again after check-in. Moscow also checks people at terminal entrances.

“Two terrorists who enter the terminal area with explosive devices, this is undoubtedly a colossal failure,” Pini Schiff, the former security chief at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport and currently the CEO of the Israel Security Association, said in an interview with Israel Radio.

Well, theoretically screening people before they go in would make airport terminals safer. But have you noticed the problem? That Reuters piece goes on to explain it: Continue reading

Today in South Asian history: Nader Shah sacks Delhi (1739)

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Nader Shah (Wikimedia)

The Mughal Empire was easily the richest of the three so-called “Gunpowder Empires”–the Ottomans and the Safavids were the other two–that dominated the Islamic world from the 15th century (for the Ottomans; 16th century for the other two) into the 18th century (and, at least in the Ottoman case, well beyond that). In the patterns of east-west trade in Eurasian/North African world, until modern times, India was a seller far more than it was a buyer–its goods moved west while everybody else’s money moved east until it wound up in Indian royal treasuries. Indian products were in such demand that they helped spur the Age of Exploration, when rich merchants were able to stick people on wooden ships to sail for months in terrifying conditions on the hope that they might eventually find a direct route from Portugal to India. So clearly people were willing to go to some lengths for whatever India was selling, and consequently the Mughal court was, by all accounts, a pretty opulent place.

There was no greater symbol of that opulence than the “Peacock Throne,” a reportedly dazzling regal chair constructed for the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (d. 1666), the emperor who also, for the burial place of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, commissioned the construction of the Taj Mahal. Allegedly cast in solid gold and covered in countless diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pearls, and other gems, this throne…well, it probably looked completely ridiculous, and it’s a wonder the Mughals’ subjects didn’t beat the French Revolution to the punch by a century or so, but now I’m ranting. It was probably a great tool for a Mughal emperor to make other emperors jealous, which is the main reason why emperors and kings have always prized these kinds of silly things in the first place. It got its name from the bejeweled, carved peacocks (there may have been one, two, or more, the various descriptions of the throne don’t seem to agree) that sat atop its canopy. Did anybody ever actually sit on this thing for anything other than ceremonial royal events? Would it have been at all comfortable? Who cares? When you’re a fancy monarch who needs to let the world know just how fancy you are, physical comfort becomes irrelevant. I say screw that. Once they name me Emperor, which should be any day now, I’ll be ruling things from some kind of massaging chair.

Anyway, the Peacock Throne was lost to history sometime after 1739, which is coincidentally when it was also lost to the Mughals and was carted off by Nader Shah (d. 1747), the founder of Iran’s Afsharid dynasty. Continue reading

Terror attacks in Brussels kill at least 34, story developing

Terrorist bombings at a subway station in Maalbeek and at Zaventem Airport have killed at least 34 people and injured another 170. Two bombs, at least one of which is believed to have been a suicide bombing, struck the airport early this morning, and an hour later another bomb hit the subway station. There are reports of suspicious packages being found all over the city, but in the immediate aftermath of something like this pretty much any package can look suspicious, so it’s best to reserve judgment on reports like that until they’ve been investigated. Belgian authorities say they are conducting raids on suspected terrorist targets, and the city of Brussels is on highest alert. I’m now seeing a breaking report that a nuclear plant in Belgium has been evacuated, but I’m not sure whether that’s in response to a specific threat or just part of the government’s terrorism response plan.

No formal claim of responsibility has come out yet, but it’s highly likely that this was the work of an ISIS cell–specifically, the cell that formerly included Salah Abdeslam, the suspect in November’s attack in Paris who was arrested last Friday after a police raid and gun battle. Abdeslam, who was planning to blow himself up as part of the Paris attack but decided to cut and run instead, reportedly told Belgian police that he was planning more attacks when they finally tracked him down, and today’s bombings would suggest that he was telling the truth. The timing of this attack, so soon after Abdeslam’s capture (along with four other alleged cell members), lends itself to a “revenge” scenario, but I would argue that the more likely explanation is that the cell members decided to push forward any plans they were considering, before Abdeslam and/or any of the other four suspects could be interrogated.

Belgium is, to put it mildly, over its head in terms of dealing with its own homegrown terrorist problem. On a per capita basis, Belgium has sent more foreign fighters to the Iraq-Syria conflict zone than any other European country, and while some of those are presumably fighting with other groups, it’s safe to say that the majority have gone there to fight for ISIS. The presence of intricate terror networks in Brussels was illustrated in the relative ease with which Abdeslam was able to evade capture in the months after Paris, and the level of violence it took police to finally bring him in. The existence of a relatively large, economically and politically disconnected immigrant community is part of the picture, and it doesn’t help that the Saudi-financed Great Mosque of Belgium preaches a form of Salafi (and occasionally Takfiri) Islam that can help radicalize potential terrorists. The upshot is that Belgium, a small country with limited resources, just can’t keep up with the number of potential threats.

Today in Middle Eastern history: Iran becomes “Iran” (1935)

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Reza Shah

I don’t mean to seem obscure with that title, but it’s a historical oddity that the nation (kingdom, empire, whatever it was at any particular point in history) of Iran was never officially called “Iran” by anybody other than Iranians until 1935, even though most Iranians had been calling it “Iran” for millennia. The rest of the world didn’t catch on until Reza Shah Pahlavi (d. 1944) requested, in December 1934, that as of the next Iranian New Year (Nowruz), all foreign governments should henceforth stop referring to his country as “Persia” and start calling it “Iran.” Sometimes you’ll see this related by Western writers as “Reza Shah changed the name of the country from Persia to Iran,” but that’s dumb and wrong, because, again, Iran was always the name of the country. “Persia” was, for the most part, what’s known as an “exonym,” which is the term used when a group, place, language, or some other national feature is given a different name by people who aren’t part of that group, or don’t live in that place, or don’t speak that language, or all of the above.

With all due respect to Herodotus or whichever Greek writer convinced the rest of the world that the land between Mesopotamia and the Indus River was properly called “Persia,” this was never true. You can go back to inscriptions from the second century CE that refer to the place as “Iran,” and that word or its variants (Iranshahr, Iran-zamin) go back far earlier than that. The ethnic identifier “Aryan,” from which “Iran” derives, can be found in use as far back as the Achaemenid period (500s BCE) and in the Zoroastrian scripture, the Avesta, which at least reflects a tradition that goes back earlier than that (though the earliest extant complete copy of the Avesta dates to the 14th century). The label “Persia” is essentially a historical error: Cyrus the Great (d. 530 BCE), who founded the Achaemenid dynasty, started out as the king of Parsa, the region of southern Iran that is today called Fars, the “p” having been swapped out for an “f” when the Arabs conquered it because Arabic has no “p” sound. Greek writers, demonstrating that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, applied the word Parsa to the entirety of Cyrus’s domains, even though the actual Parsa only referred to one part of his vast empire. Continue reading