Middle East Ticker

Terrorists Attack Tourist Spot in Spain, Yemen’s Rebel Coalition Fractures, Netanyahu Criticized for Tepid Response to Anti-Semitism

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, August 22, 2017, 9:30 AM

Spain Reeling from Terrorist Attacks, Islamic State Claims Credit

Spain is reeling from two terrorist attacks last week. The violence began on Wednesday night when an explosion ripped through a house in Alcanar; what was at first believed to have been a gas explosion in a sleepy tourist town authorities now think was an accidental detonation in a bomb workshop that killed two plotters. The next day, a man drove a rental van 1,700 feet down a pedestrian walkway in Las Ramblas, Barcelona, killing 13 people at the scene; the driver, now believed to have been a 22-year-old Moroccan immigrant, Younes Abouyaaqoub, fled into the crowd and remained on the lam until he was shot by police on Monday. Then, on Friday, five young men in an Audi A3 plowed down a street into a police checkpoint in Cambrils, killing one; they were killed when they exited the vehicle and tried to attack bystanders. Authorities discovered that they were wearing vests with fake explosives. The Islamic State promptly took credit for the attack, but there is no evidence yet that the terrorist group was directly involved.

Investigators now believe that the attack had been planned over the course of a year and involved a cell of approximately a dozen young men culled from Moroccan immigrant communities in Catalonia. Local residents describing the attackers outlined a lifestyle of adolescent ennui and mild criminal activity—including dealing and doing drugs—with few outward signs of extremism. It’s a pattern familiar from attacks in Belgium, France, and the Tsarnaev brothers who detonated improvised bombs at the Boston Marathon in 2013. “We don’t know them; we saw them maybe once a year,” an official at a local mosque near where two of the attackers lived told the New York Times. “The young ones want to party; these kids, 24 years and younger, they feel they are in jail here.” Relatives and acquaintances expressed surprise to the Washington Post that young men they had dismissed as nerds who enjoyed soccer and smoking hash could be responsible for the violence. “It’s impossible these kids did all of this on their own,” a cousin of two brothers in the terrorist cell said. “Who is behind all this? Who is the big fish?”

Local residents describing the attackers outlined a lifestyle of adolescent ennui and mild criminal activity—including dealing and doing drugs—with few outward signs of extremism.

Suspicion has fallen on Abdelbaki Essati, an imam in Ripoll who police believe died in the explosion last Wednesday. But it is still unclear if Essati, or any of the attackers, had any direct links to the Islamic State.

Spain has been a conduit for foreign fighters traveling to Syria to fight with jihadist groups, but there has been little violence in the country itself. The attacks last week were the deadliest since the bombing of a train in Madrid in 2004. That’s partially because of Spain’s efficiency in dismantling plots honed in its fight against Basque separatists; since 2004, Spanish authorities have arrested more than 700 jihadists in connection to terrorism plots, the New York Times reports. But the terrorist cell that carried out the attacks last week appears to have passed entirely under the government’s radar.

 

Houthi-Saleh Alliance Showing Signs of Rupture

The tenuous alliance of convenience between Houthi rebels and ousted Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh that has held power in Sanaa since 2014 and withstood a two-year Saudi-led intervention may finally be fracturing. Earlier this month, Al-Arabiya reported that Houthi forces executed Saleh loyalists in the Republican Guards after clashes in Shabwa province. The Houthis have also cracked down on dissent in Sanaa; there’s been a rash of government seizures and arrests in recent weeks, including of Hisham al-Omeisy, a prominent activist and social media presence whose detention drew condemnations from human rights groups. As the Washington Post notes, “What makes Omeisy’s detention surprising is that he was mostly critical of the Saudi-led coalition backing the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is trying to oust the rebels from Sanaa and much of the north.” Over the weekend, leaders of the two factions engaged in public accusations and counter-accusations that could turn into violent clashes this week.

“We have been stabbed in the back,” Houthi said in a speech.

The escalating tension is leading up to a planned celebration on Thursday marking the 35th anniversary of the founding of Saleh’s political party, the General People’s Congress. As Yemeni political analyst Afrah Nasser observed on Twitter, the event is intended as a shot across to the bow to the Houthis; the factions are now one year into a joint governing council in which the Houthis appear to have more influence, Nasser writes, and Saleh is looking to reassert his authority. But the Houthis are not letting Saleh’s power play proceed unhindered. Gunmen believed to be affiliated with the Houthis tore down banners and posters promoting the GPC rally over the weekend, and on Saturday, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the leader of the Houthi faction, accused Saleh loyalists of abandoning Houthi forces on the front lines and coordinating with the Saudi coalition. “We have been stabbed in the back,” Houthi said in a speech.

Saleh dismissed the accusations in a recorded address on Sunday and complained that the Houthis have dominated the political apparatus in Sanaa. The factions have always been an unlikely alliance—as president, Saleh fought a series of wars against the Houthis in the early 2000s, so it was something of a surprise when he bandwagoned to their cause as a means to reassert his influence in the country’s politics. Saleh is notorious for his ability to manipulate partners and rivals to his benefit—“dancing on the heads of snakes”—but his goal is and always has been to maintain and grow his power, and possibly even reassert control over the country. A confidential U.N. report, leaked recently to Foreign Policy, concluded that the Saudi intervention has driven Saleh and the Houthis closer together, but the past couple weeks suggest that both sides may be reaching the limits of their alliance.

 

Netanyahu’s Muted Response to Charlottesville Draws Criticism

Already under intense political pressure amid multiple corruption investigations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being criticized this week for his belated and tepid response to the white nationalist and neo-Nazi rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11 and 12. Throughout most of last week, Netanyahu declined to address the violent protests that featured Nazi flags, salutes, and slogans beyond a mildly worded tweet: “Outraged by expressions of anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism and racism. Everyone should oppose this hatred,” he posted last Tuesday. The next day, the Israeli press overwhelmingly condemned Trump’s disastrous press conference in which he equated neo-Nazis and white nationalists, some of whom he said were “fine people,” with counterprotesters. By Thursday, Netanyahu’s relative silence had begun drawing criticism from politicians and the Israeli public.

Netanyahu’s spokesman, David Keyes, dismissed the criticism of the prime minister, saying the tweet was “unequivocal” and “made his view on the repugnancy of any neo-Nazism abundantly clear.” Israeli Communications Minister Ayoub Kara also defended Netanyahu’s response, telling the Jerusalem Post that he had tempered his comments to avoid criticizing Trump. “Due to the terrific relations with the US, we need to put the declarations about the Nazis in the proper proportion,” Kara said. “We need to condemn antisemitism and any trace of Nazism, and I will do what I can as a minister to stop its spread. But Trump is the best US leader Israel has ever had. His relations with the prime minister of Israel are wonderful, and after enduring the terrible years of Obama, Trump is the unquestioned leader of the free world, and we must not accept anyone harming him.”

That political calculation was evident to analysts and observers, many of whom, unlike Kara, saw it as a stinging indictment of the malleability of Netanyahu’s convictions. “The man who built his rhetoric around the Holocaust is willing to speak softly about anti-Semitism and revived Nazism, and to excuse the president who has inspired the ugliness, for the sake of avoiding interference from Washington,” Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg wrote in the Washington Post.

That political calculation was evident to analysts and observers, many of whom...saw it as a stinging indictment of the malleability of Netanyahu’s convictions.

Netanyahu’s response—or lack thereof—received vociferous criticism from his opponents in the Zionist Union and Labor parties, including the head of the Knesset caucus focused on U.S.-Israeli relations. “Our relations with the US and with the president are important, but Israel also has a deep obligation to the American Jewish community. This is the time to prove our shared values and make unequivocally clear that Israel will fight antisemitism at any time and any place,” Nachman Shai, the head of the caucus and a Zionist Union member of the Knesset, told reporters. That concern was echoed by Chemi Shalev, a senior columnist for Haaretz, who wrote last week that “Israel’s tepid reaction...casts Israel as a country that continues to curry favor with Trump despite his flirtation with anti-Semitic scum. It portrays Netanyahu as a leader willing to sacrifice American Jews in exchange for continued support for his policies and for the occupation.” Netanyahu even drew rebukes from some corners of his own government. Israel “must not stammer or hesitate in the face of anti-Semitism,” Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan said, expressing frustration that “some don’t want to enrage Trump.”