“Thanks to God I have made it here. I am free, I am alive!”
By Jesse Rosenfeld
Lesbos, Athens, and northern Greece—In the baking midday August heat on the Greek island of Lesbos, Ziad Mouatash bounces out of an overcrowded inflatable raft and touches EU soil for the first time. The 22-year-old from Yarmouk—the Palestinian refugee camp on the edge of Damascus that has been besieged and bombed since 2012 by Bashar al-Assad’s forces and recently invaded by ISIS and the Al Qaeda–affiliated Nusra Front—hugs everyone around him, ecstatic to be alive.
From the Greek shore, activists and locals had looked on helplessly as the boat’s motor broke down two miles away, water pouring into the barely floating rubber dinghy. Children and adults alike cried desperately for help, until they were towed to Greece by another boat of refugees coming from Turkey.
Mouatash paid human traffickers in Turkey over 1,000 euros for this near-death experience, but as far as he’s concerned, it was a far less risky choice than continuing to hide out in deteriorating Damascus, which he’d abandoned for Turkey two weeks before. As a Palestinian who grew up in Syria’s refugee camps, he is stateless, but he has a brother in Paris and hopes to start a new life in France.
He paces up and down the shoreline, unsure of which direction to go, while local activists try to bring the new arrivals together to tell them that they need to start a 40-mile walk to a registration center on the other side of the island.
Although he has escaped the horrors of Syria’s grinding civil war, Mouatash is just beginning the difficult journey through Europe. He will have to cross more borders illegally; rest in filthy, makeshift camps; pay traffickers to help him cross those borders; dodge border police; and sleep in parks and fields, before he can reunite with his brother. Still, Mouatash is one of the lucky ones. Four days after his arrival, a raft off the Greek island of Kos capsized and six Syrians—including a baby—drowned.
The death of Pakistan Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a drone attack on November 1 is a dramatic reminder that US President Barack Obama remains determined to use drones to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan despite all the criticism his policy has generated. It works.
The reaction inside Pakistan is a revealing insight into the struggle under way in the country between those who want to fight terror and those who want to appease it. The US’s already dysfunctional relationship with Pakistan has taken another hit as well.
According to one count, the US has used the drones in 378 lethal strikes since 2004. Obama has ordered 327 of them in the four and half years he has been in the Oval Office. According to Pakistan’s Defence Ministry, these have killed 2,160 terrorists and only 67 civilians. These have been remarkably effective in putting al-Qaeda in Pakistan on the defensive.
The Wanted Man
Mehsud worked closely with al-Qaeda in December 2009 to use a Jordanian al-Qaeda triple agent, Humam Khalil al Balawi, to get into a CIA forward operating base on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Balawi blew himself up, killing seven CIA officers, two women and five men, as well as a Jordanian intelligence officer. It was one of the worst days in the agency’s history. Mehsud appeared sitting with Balawi in a martyrdom video released by the Taliban after the attack.
Mehsud was also involved in a plot to attack Time Square in New York City in May 2010 using a car bomb. A Pakistani American, Faysal Shahzad, was trained by Mehsud and al-Qaeda to build the bomb. Another video was released with Mehsud and Shahzad.
Fortunately, an alert hotdog vendor, a Muslim, spotted the vehicle emitting smoke and alerted the NYPD before it exploded. The NYPD later told me that had it gone off as planned, the results would have been catastrophic.
But most of Mehsud’s victims in his violent life were not Americans; by far the majority were his fellow Pakistanis. The Pakistan Taliban has murdered thousands of innocent Pakistanis in the last decade. It has fought a bitter and dangerous war against the Pakistani state and army. Its terror has helped to turn Karachi into a lawless mega city. It tried to murder young Malala Yousafzai and has warned it will kill her if she ever returns to Pakistan. Dozens of other young Pakistani children have been murdered by Mehsud’s followers.
Zubair ur Rehman is afraid of blue skies. After all, it was a bright, clear day when his grandmother, Mamana Bibi was killed by a drone strike in a field outside of his home in Pakistan’s Waziristan region.
“When the sky brightens and becomes blue, the drones return and so does the fear,” the thirteen-year-old told members of Congress at a briefing organized by Representative Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat, yesterday.
Zubair wasn’t always so anxious. Not even on that day when he was out collecting okra with his grandmother, siblings, and cousins in preparation for the Eid holiday.
“As I helped my grandmother work in the fields,” he said through a translator, “I could hear the drone hover overhead, but I didn’t worry. Why would I worry? Neither I nor my grandmother were militants.”
That is why it was so surprising when a hellfire missile fell from the sky and shattered his family’s life. Zubair’s sister, Nabila, nine years old, recalled what happened next. “I was very scared and all I could think of doing was just run. I kept running but I felt something in my hand. I looked at my hand and I saw that there was blood. I tried to bandage my hand but the blood kept coming. The blood wouldn’t stop.”
The two were badly injured along with four of their cousins. Their grandmother did not survive the attack.