Showing posts with label Islamophobia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Islamophobia. Show all posts

November 27, 2009

Book review: Post-September 11 "Homeland Insecurity"

Barbara Aswad, The Electronic Intifada, 26 November 2009

After the 11 September 2001 attacks there have been many books and articles regarding the misuse of justice and harsh treatment of Arab Americans and Muslims in the United States. Louise Cainkar's extensive research and excellent analysis is the most complete published so far. Homeland Insecurity is an ethnography which took three years to complete and benefits from more than a hundred interviews. Cainkar conducted 80 percent of the interviews personally and participated in local events in Chicago's Arab-American community. This rich source base allows her to examine the effects of national, global and local events on individuals and communities that are viewed as a potential threat to the security of the US.

Cainkar argues convincingly that the anti-Arab, and Anti-Muslim attitudes were not created solely by an 11 September backlash, but that instead the images of the Arabs and Muslims as an "other" were present much earlier. Although Orientalist tropes about Arabs and Muslims were present in the US prior to the Second World War, they were more common in Europe, which had a longer history of interaction with the "East." Thus the fear, xenophobia, nativism and suspicion in the wake of the attacks was accompanied and reinforced by government attempts to implement and enforce policies of racial and ethnic profiling, expulsion and arrest.

In Cainkar's review of the history of Arab immigration to and racial formation in the US, she finds that their social status changed by mid-century. In the early part of the 20th century, Arab immigrants were largely comprised of Christians from present-day Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Palestine and Egypt and were generally viewed as "marginal" whites which provided them with a degree of belonging to American society. Arab-American political organizations and associations were formed from 1915 to 1951. They opposed the partition of Syria into Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Jordan by Britain and France, the partition of Palestine and US support for the creation of Israel.

However, integrating into American society was not as easy for Muslims. The establishment of Israel in 1948 and the erasure of Palestine and the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War were major consciousness raisers for Arab-Americans, and significant Arab-American organizations were formed. The "brain drain" immigrants in the 1960s were active in these organizations. Meanwhile, Hollywood consistently portrayed Arabs and Muslims as villains. Thus began the social and political exclusion as their official classification as white was overridden by a racial narrative of them being basically different

Cainkar reports that there has been a dramatic growth in Muslim American communities over the past half-century. By some estimates there were toughly two to three million Muslims residing in the US by 1987, the majority of whom were not members of a mosque. By 2005, this estimate is between six to seven million, although there are figures much lower and much higher. About a third are African-American, another third of South Asian descent, and a quarter of Arab descent. Cainkar discusses how this demographic growth was accompanied by an increase in Muslim organizations and schools. However, when the 11 September attacks occurred, Arabs and Muslims experienced increased marginalization, discrimination and hostility and Cainkar argues that it began to change to a characterization of "social pariah and political outcast" (p. 72).

Homeland Insecurity opens with five oral histories, and demonstrates the complexity of and differing affects of the 11 September attacks on members of Chicago's Arab-American community. This is an important introduction to the subject, since it provides context and demonstrates diversity in the treatment and fears experienced by members of the community. While there may be demographic variables in other US communities, Cainkar asserts that it is fair to say most Arab-Americans experienced similar anxieties. She states that substituting the words "Arab and Muslim men" for the word "terrorist" in a statement by former US Attorney General John Ashcroft provides a proximate rendering of the US government's anti-terrorism policies in the aftermath of the attacks and reflects the way those policies were perceived especially by Arab and Muslim men (p. 114). Ashcroft warned of using every available statute and prosecutorial advantage on terrorists, stating that "If you overstay your visa -- even by one day -- we will arrest you" (p. 114).

Cainkar extensively and clearly discusses the laws passed in the wake of 11 September and their consequences. Hate crimes and emotions of victims are discussed extensively, and provide an inventory of the damage done to individuals. She chronicles how the USA Patriot Act expanded the power of the federal government, including: the use surveillance and wiretapping without probable cause, permitted secret searches and access to private records, detention of immigrants on alleged suspicions and denial of admission to the US based on speech, FBI interviews, a special registration program for persons mainly from Muslim countries, and deportations. It also inspired the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002.

Cainkar calls this enhanced power "the security spotlight" and she contends that it greatly affected the conduct of everyday life. It helped to dehumanize individuals and groups, divesting them of human values and feelings shared by other groups. They are "not like us," do not enjoy weddings, holding children or show affection. Of those interviewed, 53 percent said they experienced discrimination, and the largest proportion spoke of workforce discrimination. Schools were also an area of confrontation and although her interviewees were more than 19 years of age, these scenes were recounted by parents. The fact that most Americans did not attack them did not reduce the effect of fear when other persons or mosques were attacked. They said they felt most safe in Arab communities or in the mosques. An additional result of these fears is that many innocent members of families left the US if they felt a member of their family had violated a visa requirement. Other families left because they feared discrimination and harassment for themselves and their children. However, a very important conclusion of Cainkar's study is found in her statement, "This study shows that when weighed against each other, the American people provoked much less fear among Arab and Muslim Americans than did the federal government -- the Bush administration" (p. 8).

One of the most interesting discussions is that of gendered nativism, whereby men are threatened the most by laws, but that women, especially those wearing the hijab (headscarf), are perceived as a cultural threat to everything "American." Cainkar argues that although no Arab or Muslim citizens of the US were implicated or convicted of supporting the 11 September attacks, the hijab was a convenient way of demonizing and further marginalizing the population.

Barbara Aswad, PhD is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Wayne State University.

November 11, 2009

Tampa police: Marine reservist attacked Greek priest

Attorney Jeff Brown - The police initially called the Marine a "hero" and said the priest was "mentally ill"

By Alexandra Zayas and Demorris A. Lee
Saint Petersburg Times
November 11, 2009

TAMPA — Marine reservist Jasen Bruce was getting clothes out of the trunk of his car Monday evening when a bearded man in a robe approached him.

That man, a Greek Orthodox priest named Father Alexios Marakis, speaks little English and was lost, police said. He wanted directions.

What the priest got instead, police say, was a tire iron to the head. Then he was chased for three blocks and pinned to the ground — as the Marine kept a 911 operator on the phone, saying he had captured a terrorist.

Police say Bruce offered several reasons to explain his actions:

The man tried to rob him.

The man grabbed Bruce's crotch and made an overt sexual advance in perfect English.

The man yelled "Allahu Akbar," Arabic for "God is great," the same words some witnesses said the Fort Hood shooting suspect uttered last week.

"That's what they tell you right before they blow you up," police say Bruce told them.

Bruce ended up in jail, accused of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. He was released Tuesday on $7,500 bail. Marakis ended up at the hospital with stitches. He told the police he didn't want to press charges, espousing biblical forgiveness.

But Tuesday, Bruce wasn't saying sorry.

• • •

The two men are a year apart in age, and a world apart in life experiences.

Father Michael Eaccarino of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs says Marakis, 29, entered a Greek monastery as a teenager and became a priest nine years ago. He is studying theology at Holy Cross, a Greek Orthodox school in Massachusetts, and traveled to Tarpon Springs two months ago to work on his master's thesis. He has taken a vow of celibacy.

Eaccarino says the visiting priest got lost Monday after ministering to the elderly in a nursing home.

Jasen Bruce, 28, enlisted as a reserve Marine as a teenager, was discharged honorably when he finished his contract, and enlisted again this March. He has never been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, a Marine Corps spokesman said. He got married last month in full dress uniform.

Bruce is a sales manager for APS Pharmacy in Palm Harbor. His blog entries tout the benefits of increasing testosterone and human growth hormones. He was charged with misdemeanor battery in 2007 for hopping over the bed of a tow truck and shoving its driver. He pleaded no contest.

Online photo galleries depict him flexing big muscles wearing little clothing.

An exterior surveillance video of Tuesday's chase captured the two men in motion, said Tampa Police Department spokeswoman Laura McElroy:

"You see a very short, small man running, and an enormous, large muscular man chasing after him."

This is what police say happened at 6:35 p.m. Monday:

The priest's GPS gave him the wrong directions, leading him off Interstate 275 and into downtown Tampa. He followed a line of cars into a garage at the Seaport Channelside condominium to ask for help.

He found Bruce, whose back was turned, bending over the trunk of his car, and he tapped his shoulder before saying, in broken English, "please" and "help."

That's when Bruce reached for the tire iron. Police say that by the end of the chase, he had hit the priest four times.

Hours after his release from Orient Road Jail on Tuesday, Bruce stood silently as his attorney, Jeff Brown, told his version:

The bearded man wearing a robe and sandals was clearly trespassing in the garage. In a sudden move, the stranger made a verbal sexual advance and grabbed Bruce's genitals. The Marine defended himself. And immediately, he called 911 as he chased him.

Brown said the police initially called the Marine a "hero" and said the priest was "mentally ill."

He called the police's account "one-sided" and said the department should investigate a sergeant he said made derogatory comments about the Marine's military background.

Police said that sergeant is, himself, a veteran. They say that the priest was disoriented when they found him at the corner of Madison and Meridian avenues, but a translator at Tampa General Hospital helped him communicate. And that the GPS corroborates the priest's story.

When police arrived at Bruce's apartment at 1:30 a.m., before they had mentioned charges, he had already called an attorney.

Television news stations showed the priest's photo on Tuesday and mentioned what the Marine said he did. If the priest had watched, he wouldn't have understood it.

He'd spent the day in great spirits, his fellow priest said. His main worry was that he inconvenienced the others who had to care for him. Then, a man named Jerry Theophilopoulos got in touch with him. He's a lawyer, speaks Greek and served as a former board member of the church. The lawyer said he told the priest what the Marine said. Marakis was stunned. His eyes grew wide. He said it was a lie.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report.

November 09, 2009

Can attacks on a military base constitute "terrorism"?

If attacks on soldiers now qualify, how is it possible to exclude many American actions?

November 9, 2009

The incomparably pernicious Joe Lieberman said yesterday on Fox News that he intends to launch an investigation into "the motives of [Nidal] Hasan in carrying out this brutal mass murder, if a terrorist attack, the worst terrorist attack since 9/11." Hasan's attack was carried out on a military base, with his clear target being American soldiers, not civilians. No matter one's views on how unjustified and evil this attack was, can an attack on soldiers -- particularly ones in the process of deploying for a war -- fall within any legitimate definition of "terrorism," which generally refers to deliberate attacks on civilians?

The obvious problem with answering that question is that, as even the U.S. State Department recognizes, "no one definition of terrorism has gained universal acceptance" -- despite the centrality of that term in our political discourse. In its 2001 publication, Patterns of Global Terrorism, the State Department did define "terrorism" to mean "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets," and in turn defined "noncombatant targets" to include "military personnel who at the time of the incident are unarmed and/or not on duty." Only by accepting that definition (or one similar to it) could the attack on Fort Hood possibly be defined as "terrorism."

But if one accepts that broadened definition of "terrorism" -- that it includes violence that targets not only civilians but also combatants who are unarmed or not engaged in combat at the time of the attack -- it seems impossible to exclude from that term many of the acts in which the U.S. and our allies routinely engage. Indeed, a large part of our "war" strategy is to kill people we deem to be "terrorists" or "combatants" without regard to whether they're armed or engaged in hostilities at the moment we kill them. Isn't that exactly what we do when we use drone attacks in Pakistan? Indeed, we currently have a "hit list" of individuals we intend to murder in Afghanistan on sight based on our suspicion that they're involved in the drug trade and thus help fund the Taliban. During its war in Gaza, Israel targeted police stations and, with one strike, killed 40 police trainees while in a parade, and then justified that by claiming police recruits were legitimate targets -- even though they weren't engaged in hostilities at the time -- because of their nexus to Hamas (even though the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said the targeted recruits "were being trained in first aid, human rights and maintaining public order").

Is there any legitimate definition of "terrorism" that allows the Fort Hood attack to qualify but not those above-referenced attacks? The U.S., of course, maintains that it is incapable of engaging in "terrorism," by definition, because "terrorism" is something only "subnational groups or clandestine agent" can do, but leaving that absurdly self-serving and incoherent exclusion aside, how can the Fort Hood attacks targeted at soldiers be "terrorism" but not our own acts?

Just to provide what ought to (but won't) be an unnecessary caveat: whether the U.S. is noble, righteous and good, and radical Muslims are rotten and evil, is completely irrelevant to the issue here. The laws of war and definitions of terrorism apply -- as is true, by definition, for all things that we call "laws" and "definitions" -- equally to everyone, regardless of how good or bad someone is. Nor do any of these issues have anything to do with whether an act is justifiable; many things that are wrong and evil -- indeed most -- are not "terrorism."

Isn't it fairly clear that the term "terrorism" is being applied to what Hasan did due to his religion rather than the acts themselves? Put another way, as ThinkProgress' Matt Duss put it: "the definition of terrorism is not 'any violence by any Muslim anywhere at any time for any reason'." But that -- along with the repellent claim that saying "Allahu Akbar" is "suggestive of terrorism," rather than suggestive of someone who is Muslim (obviously the same thing in the minds of the people claiming that) -- is exactly what seems to be driving discussions of this attack. It's likely that there will always be a lack of clarity about exactly what motivated Hasan -- some combination of mental instability, religious fervor and political conviction -- but, regardless of motive, the only way to define an attack on soldiers as an act of "terrorism" is to indict ourselves in the same way.

UPDATE: Just to underscore the last point, Tucker Carlson in his Washington Post chat suggested today that there is nothing that could fairly be called "Christian-inspired terror." The only way not to view the murder of numerous abortion doctors and the blowing up of gay bars as qualifying is if one believes that "terrorism," by definition, means: "violent acts committed by Muslims in which their religious beliefs play a role."

November 04, 2009

Italian Judge Convicts 23 CIA Officers for Kidnapping

Italian Officials Complicit in 2003 'Rendition' of Cleric

by Jason Ditz, November 04, 2009

Completing one of Europe’s most high profile terror related trials, an Italian judge today convicted 23 Americans, 22 of them confirmed by the prosecutor as CIA agents, to sentences of between five and eight years in prison related to the 2003 kidnapping of a cleric from the streets of Milan.

Fugitive Renditioner Robert Seldon Lady

The longest sentence went to Robert Lady, America’s former Milan CIA chief. All the Americans were tried in absentia and are now considered fugitives from justice by the Italian government. The CIA declined comment.

The incident, dubbed the “imam rapito affair” by the Italian press, involves the abduction of Milan’s imam, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, an Egyptian cleric who was in Italy on an asylum passport. The CIA agents kidnapped Nasr off the streets of Milan and shipped him to Egypt.

Once in Egypt, Nasr spent the next several years in and out of prison, where he was tortured repeatedly. An Egyptian judge finally ordered his release in 2007. His only charge during the whole time was membership in a banned organization, though even this was eventually dropped.

Lady has insisted he was acting on the orders of his superiors with respect to the “rendition.” Two Italian officials were also convicted today as accomplices to kidnapping, though the Italian government’s declaration of “state secrecy” prevented more serious charges and pointed to official complicity in the incident.


Feminism’s Freedom Fighter?

On Feminism, Atheism and Ayaan Hirsi Ali

By Sikivu Hutchinson - BAR - November 4, 2009

In mainstream media, public conversation about the intersection between atheism and what I will loosely term third world feminism is as rare as Halley’s Comet. In the corporate media universe, the groundbreaking work of feminists of African descent like bell hooks, Angela Davis and Patricia Hill Collins remains largely unknown, relegated to academe. Feminism, when invoked at all in mainstream media, is framed as the province of white women, a vestige of a less “enlightened” phase of American civil society.

The phenomenon of world renowned atheist feminist author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, however, would seem to defy this pattern. In a recent Los Angeles Times interview entitled “Feminism’s Freedom Fighter,” the Somalian-born Ali proclaimed women’s rights the human rights issue of the 21st century. An outspoken critic of Islam, Ali is a controversial and uncompromising figure with a compelling personal story of triumph over adversity. A victim of clitoral mutilation in her youth, she has dedicated her life to challenging institutional sexism and patriarchy in Muslim societies. Her activism against gender-based terrorism and repression of Muslim women has been influential in the West, generating international accolades as well as death threats from Muslim extremists. Rising to prominence in the post 9/11 anti-Muslim hysteria of the Bush era, Ali has elicited controversy for her perceived Muslim-bashing, garnering a plum position at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute and morphing into a champion of Israel.

Much of Ali’s feminist ideology is based on the contrast between the violent repression of women under Islam and the liberal humanist traditions that supposedly shape women’s rights in the West. In her writings and public discourse she is fond of making sweeping pronouncements deriding the cultures of Muslim societies, valorizing the West in ways that downplay its cultural hierarchies. In a 2007 interview with Reason Magazine she waxed, “Western civilization is a celebration of life…everybody’s life, even the life of your enemy.” Of course, in many Muslim societies feminism is still a dangerously radical concept. For many Muslim feminists, the very notion of women’s personal freedom is a space of epic struggle. Yet Ali’s totalizing assessments set up a false dichotomy between the West and Muslim societies. By portraying feminism as a battle that the West has already won, she absolves bourgeois democracies like the United States of their schizoid relationship to women rights and human rights, a relationship in which rape and domestic violence are part of the national “democratic” currency. And by ignoring the historical context of the “third world within the first world,” she ignores the very real socioeconomic differences that exist between American women of color and white women.

For Ali, white supremacy is no longer a credible threat or motivation for feminist struggle. In the Times interview she rightly criticized men of color for their perpetuation of sexist beliefs and practices, calling for heightened focus on the “internal” politics and tyrannies of misogyny in “third world” communities. Addressing the subject of President Obama’s recent trip to Cairo she stated, “It would have been fantastic if…Obama had said, we have taught the white man that bigotry is bad and he has given it up, at least most of it. Now bigotry is committed in the name of the black man, the brown man, the yellow man.” Ali’s apparent unwillingness to engage the connection between white supremacy, imperialism and sexism is a critical blind spot. Her failure to acknowledge the persistence of institutionalized segregation and its relationship to the disenfranchisement of women of color is problematic. These biases, and her paternalistic stance on Islam, explain why she has been such a darling of the European American conservative elite.

Certainly when one assesses women’s socialization into and investment in organized religion there are many commonalities between Muslim and Christian systems of patriarchy. Granted Western women are not subject to some of the more overtly terroristic and repressive social prohibitions that Muslim women are. Clitoridectomies and honor killings are not part of Western cultural practices (nor, as many critics of Ali have pointed out, do they occur in all Muslim societies, and in fact derive from tribal not Islamic law). And granted men of color are responsible for the very intimate interpersonal violations of the lives and bodies of women of color. However, legacies of colonialism and racist beliefs about the sexuality of women of color continue to limit equitable access to health care and social welfare in the U.S. Women of color in Western societies are still subjugated by the dictates of Judeo Christian culture masquerading as secularized society. Puritanical prohibitions on women’s sexuality and mobility inform institutionalized sexual and domestic violence against women. Rising rates of sexually transmitted disease and (in many highly religious white fundamentalist Christian and Latino Catholic communities) compulsory pregnancy due to failed abstinence-only sex education policies continue to imperil life conditions for women. Staggeringly high HIV/AIDS contraction rates, infant mortality rates and intimate partner homicide rates among African American women bespeak unequal access to health and social services in communities of color. Epidemic rates of sexual assault among Native American women reflect not only patriarchal control but the invisibility of Native communities vis-à-vis federal health public policy.

Thus Ali’s contention that the West has “adjusted” its cultural and institutional structures to redress the hierarchies of Judeo Christian ideology is short sighted. Indeed, one need look no further than the wide cultural berth given to the Religious Right to see that it is one of the most powerful contemporary threats to civil rights and civil liberty in American history. The white Christian fundamentalist movement’s assault upon human rights, women’s rights and reproductive justice have the potential to reverse gains women have made in the U.S. over the past few decades. In the aftermath of decades of abortion clinic vandalism, bombings and murders of practitioners there is still no international outcry over the insurgent white Christian fundamentalist terrorist movement in the U.S.

From an atheist feminist of color perspective it is problematic to espouse reductive critiques of non-Western religions through the lens of a Western or American exceptionalism; particularly when these paradigms are based on the othering of people of color. The West has xenophobically demonized Muslim societies for their backwardness while “whitewashing” its own anti-democratic traditions and human rights transgressions. Ali’s perspectives unfortunately reinforce this propaganda.

As an atheist woman of African descent Ali’s life narrative and struggle for gender justice is a powerful example for women under the yoke of traditional Islam. Yet her analysis of the path to liberation has been severely clouded by superstar patronage from the very forces that would undermine the human rights mission of feminism.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and a commentator for KPFK 90.7 FM.

November 01, 2009

Police arrest Canadians tied to controversial U.S. mosque

Canwest News Service
October 31, 2009

WINDSOR, Ont. -- Two Canadian men linked to a fundamentalist Islamic leader who was gunned down in a shootout with FBI agents this past week were arrested Saturday in southern Ontario.

Yassir Ali Khan, 30, and Mohammad Philistine, 33 - also known as Mohammad Al-Sahli and Mohammad Palestine - were arrested around 8 a.m. Saturday in simultaneous early-morning raids in Windsor, according to local police and the FBI.

"They were arrested without incident," said Windsor police Staff Sgt. Dave Kigar.

Authorities have been searching for the men following the death this past week of the leader of a fundamentalist Islamic group, who was killed in a shootout with FBI agents after a raid on a warehouse in Dearborn, Mich.

Authorities allege the two men have links to a radical mosque in Detroit.

Both men were being held until an immigration and extradition hearing could take place. The FBI said that hearing was scheduled for Monday.

Their arrests come days after the police in Windsor also arrested 30-year-old Mujahid Carswell, also known as Mujahid Abdullah, a third man wanted in connection to Detroit mosque.

It was Carswell's father, Luqman Ameen Abdullah, who was killed in the shootout with FBI agents.

U.S. authorities allege Abdullah and his followers were part of a Sunni Muslim group with the mission of establishing a separate Islamic nation within the United States.

The FBI has charged 11 people with various federal felonies, none of which is tied to terrorism.

"The 11 defendants are members of a group that is alleged to have engaged in violent activity over a period of many years, and known to be armed," the U.S. Department of Justice said in an earlier news release.

The two newly arrested men were considered fugitives by the FBI, but Windsor lawyer Patrick Ducharme emphasized earlier the pair wasn't on the run or in hiding and that "they live here in this community, they are citizens of Canada and I expect them to be treated within the parameters of the law no matter what anybody thinks they've done."

The lawyer has reportedly said his clients plan to fight extradition.

Kigar said arrest warrants for the men were issued Friday night.

He said the city's police tactical squad made the arrest, assisted by members of the RCMP's immigration task force and the Canada Border Services Agency.

With files from Windsor Star - © Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

October 18, 2009

UK Gov. Spies on ‘Innocent Muslims’

Inayat Bunglawala
October 18, 2009

A British spying program targeting thoughts & beliefs of innocent people

The British newspaper The Guardian carried this weekend a highly disturbing front page story revealing that the British government’s ‘Prevent’ program – which is meant to be aimed at halting Muslims from being lured into the world of violent extremism – is actually being used to gather intelligence on innocent people who are not themselves suspected of involvement in terrorism.

The information being gathered by the UK authorities includes, says The Guardian according to documents it says it has seen, political and religious views, information on mental health, sexual activity and associates, and other sensitive information.

As The Guardian’s editorial observes regarding the collection of this data:

“It hardly needs saying that it would be incredibly dangerous if innocent Muslims were to come to believe that [divide and rule] tricks were now being deployed against them, whether through the recruitment of agents or overt spying operations. Yet when, as we report, the authorities are actively seeking information on sexual activities, this must surely be a risk. What use could such data have apart from blackmail? How is news of its collection to be explained, other than in terms of a desire to dominate?” (1)

Biggest Spying Program Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty, the human rights organization, responded to The Guardian’s revelations by voicing outrage that the government appeared to be engaged in:

"...the biggest domestic spying programme targeting the thoughts and beliefs of the innocent in Britain in modern times. It is information-gathering directed at the innocent and the spying is directed at people because of their religion, and not because of their behaviour." (2)


  1. Surveillance of Muslims: The lives of the other
  2. Government anti-terrorism strategy 'spies' on innocent

October 15, 2009

Particle physicist 'falsely accused', claims brother

By Geoff Brumfiel - October 13, 2009

The brother of a particle physicist under investigation for having possible links to terrorism says that the charges are "completely false" and his brother is innocent.

Yesterday, French authorities placed Adlène Hicheur, a postdoc at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), under formal investigation for possible 'criminal association in relation to a terrorist undertaking'. He has been held by police since 8 October, after a raid at his family's home in the town of Vienne, southeastern France.

According to press reports, anti-terrorism police apparently have evidence that the 32-year-old may have had e-mail correspondence with "al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" — the North African branch of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda — about potential targets for terrorist attacks within France. The public prosecutor's office in Paris, whose anti-terrorism unit is in charge of the case, said they could not comment as the case was ongoing.

But speaking exclusively to Nature, Adlène Hicheur's brother Halim Hicheur claims that the charges are unjustified. He does not deny that family members frequently trade e-mails with people in Algeria. But he categorically denies there was any email correspondence with al-Qaeda. "Most of my family is from Algeria," he says. But he maintains that there is nothing in his family's background "that would have made us think about violence".

"We are Muslims, we have never hidden this," Halim adds.

Contrary to several press reports, Halim is a 30-year-old postdoc in biomechanics working in Germany and says that he was not arrested with Adlène on Thursday. "I have never been contacted by the police," he says, explaining that it was their 25-year-old youngest brother who was picked up by police and released without charge on 10 October.

Based on conversations with other family members, Halim believes that Adlène's arrest is probably connected to a land purchase in Algeria. Halim told Nature that just before the police raid, Adlène withdrew €13,000 (US$19,200) in cash with which to purchase land near the family's ancestral home of Setif in northeastern Algeria. He says that the police were initially asking questions about the money.

Atom smasher

Colleagues of Adlène consider him to be a shy but brilliant young physicist who specializes in esoteric data analysis and the alignment of massive particle detectors. "For everybody here it's really a surprise," says Jérôme Grosse, a spokesperson for EPFL, where Adlène has worked since 2006.

Adlène was born one of six siblings — three brothers and three sisters — to a working-class French-Algerian family. He placed first in theoretical physics in his class at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon, before enrolling in 2000 at the University of Savoie near Chambéry in France. While pursuing his PhD there, he studied the oscillations of particles containing bottom quarks, working at the BaBar experiment at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California.

"He was very brilliant," says one physicist who has worked with Adlène but declined to be named because of the ongoing investigation. He often kept to himself but, the physicist adds, in a lab of theoretical physicists, his reserve was not seen as odd. "This personality is quite usual for our staff," he says.


Adlène graduated in 2003, then later moved to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Didcot in Oxfordshire, UK, where he helped with the alignment of ATLAS, one of the detectors on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) — the world's most powerful particle accelerator located at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland. At EPFL, he worked on another LHC experiment known as LHC beauty (LHCb), testing and preparing a giant detector to collect more data on bottom quarks. Understanding such quarks and their anti-quark partners, physicists hope, could help explain the imbalance between matter and antimatter in the Universe.

In a statement, CERN said that it "does not carry out research in the fields of nuclear power or nuclear weaponry" and that it addressed "fundamental questions about the nature of matter and the Universe". The physicist who worked with Adlène adds that there is nothing from Adlène's high-energy physics training that could have been used in a terrorist attack. "We don't have any material or anything you could use for bad things," he says, "except maybe a hammer."

With additional reporting by Declan Butler


Adlène Hicheur placed first in theoretical physics in his class at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon prior to attending the University of Savoie in 2000. The story has been changed to reflect this.