State Department Issues Travel Alert Over Potential Al-Qaeda Attack

State Department
U.S. Department of State

The State Department has issued a worldwide travel alert that Al-Qaeda is planning an attack in the Middle East or North Africa in the month of August.

The press release, which has not yet appeared on the State Department website [Update: Here's the alert] but is reprinted by Business Insider in full, warns,

“The Department of State alerts U.S. citizens to the continued potential for terrorist attacks, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, and possibly occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula. Current information suggests that al-Qa’ida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond, and that they may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now and the end of August. This Travel Alert expires on August 31, 2013.”It adds, “We strongly recommend that U.S. citizens Traveling abroad enroll in the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). STEP enrollment gives you the latest security updates, and makes it easier for the U.S. embassy or nearest U.S. consulate to contact you in an emergency. If you don’t have Internet access, enroll directly with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.”

CNN is reporting that some U.S. embassies in the region, including those in Egypt and Israel, will close starting on Sunday for an unspecified length of time.

As of this writing, there is no detail about the nature of the threat.

Update: August 5, 10:07 a.m.
Nineteen U.S. diplomatic posts have also been closed, at least through this week.

Posts in 19 Countries to Remain Closed

UNESCO Reports Damage To Timbuktu Worse Than Previously Reported

Timbuktu
Emilio Labrador

A team from UNESCO has visited Timbuktu in Mali to make its first on-the-ground assessment of the damage caused by last year’s occupation by the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith).

The group took over Timbuktu in April 2012 and imposed a harsh form of Shariah law. Believing the city’s famous shrines and medieval manuscripts to be against Islam, even though they were created by Muslims, they began to destroy them. Early this year a coalition of Malian and French forces pushed Ansar Dine out of the city and into the northern fringes of the country, where they remain a threat.

Now that the situation has temporarily stabilized, UNESCO sent a team to investigate the damage. They had some grim findings. While recent reports stated that the damage wasn’t as bad as originally thought, that turns out not to be true.

Expedition leader Lazare Eloundou Assomo of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre said, “We discovered that 14 of Timbuktu’s mausoleums, including those that are part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, were totally destroyed, along with two others at the Djingareyber Mosque. The emblematic El Farouk monument at the entrance to the city was razed. We estimate that 4,203 manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba research center were lost.”

Thousands of other manuscripts were taken away from Timbuktu before the Islamists could get their hands on them. Most are now in the capital Bamako. While this saved them, Mr. Assomo told the BBC that they need to be returned to the controlled environment of the research center before the humid rainy season sets in and causes damage to the fragile pages.

Damage To Timbuktu’s Antiquities Not As Bad As Originally Thought

Timbuktu, Mali
Earlier this week we reported on the possible destruction of Timbuktu’s collection of medieval manuscripts. Now it turns out those initial reports were exaggerated.

Timbuktu in Mali is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its many shrines to Muslim saints and its collection of some 300,000 manuscripts dating as far back as the beginning of the 13th century. They’re in several languages and cover everything from the history of the Songhai Empire to medical texts. They’re the biggest collection of texts from west Africa and are immeasurably important in our understanding of the continent’s past.

Sadly, the city got captured by the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) last April as part of a war against the government. The Islamists enforced a harsh version of Sharia law and destroyed many of the shrines. It was also feared that they had destroyed all the manuscripts.

Now that Timbuktu has been liberated by French and Malian forces, it turns out the damage isn’t as bad as previously reported. Reuters reports that most of the manuscripts were hidden in private homes and secret caches. The people of Timbuktu have had to do this many times in the face of invaders, and so they got together to protect their heritage.

The two libraries that housed tens of thousands of the manuscripts were not significantly damaged. About 2,000 manuscripts are missing. Some were burned and others may have been stolen to be sold on the international antiquities market. Also, it appears that only “dozens” of the more than 300 shrines were destroyed or significantly damaged.

An Agence France-Presse report today states that some manuscripts were smuggled all the way to the capital Bamako in the south, where they were out of reach of the rebels. The furniture in one of the main libraries was looted and there’s a pile of ash on the floor from where the Islamists burnt some of the manuscripts, but the library and collection as a whole are fine.

So it looks like the ancient heritage of Timbuktu has survived another war. Hopefully soon the situation will stabilize and the famous city will once again become a destination for scholars and adventure travelers.

[Photo courtesy Gina Gleeson]

Islamists Renew Attack On Timbuktu’s Heritage

Timbuktu
The ancient treasures of Timbuktu have come under renewed attack by Islamists, the BBC reports.

The Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) has vowed to destroy all the city’s medieval shrines of Muslim saints, which they say are contrary to Islam. The city in northern Mali has been under the control of a coalition of Tuareg and Islamist rebels since April. They declared the independent state of Azawad and soon fought among themselves, with the Islamists gaining the upper hand and imposing harsh Sharia law.

Ansar Dine came under international condemnation when it destroyed some of the shrines earlier this year. Reports indicate they destroyed four more on Sunday. It is not yet clear what Ansar Dine will do with the hundreds of thousands of early manuscripts preserved in Timbuktu.

Timbuktu was a center of trade and learning from the 12th to the 17th centuries and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its many early buildings. It has long been a popular destination for adventure travelers but is far too dangerous to go to now. The BBC reports that Ansar Dine recently cut the hands off of two people they claim were criminals. It’s unclear what their crime was. Perhaps they didn’t want to see their Islamic heritage destroyed.

The BBC has an excellent slideshow of Timbuktu’s endangered treasures here.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

A Solo Stroll Through Baghdad

Baghdad, Iraq, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism
I am alone in Baghdad. After a farewell dinner and a visit to an Iraqi amusement park my travel companions have left for the airport. Our guards from the Interior Ministry have gone off to other duties and I’m staying unguarded in my hotel. I don’t fly out until tomorrow.

I’m not supposed to leave the hotel. Guards are supposed to be with me at all times. While I understand why the government insists on this rule, I’ve found the guards annoying. They’ve often made me move on when I’ve wanted to linger at a place or continue a conversation, and I get the feeling some people didn’t approach me because of their presence.

Now I finally have a chance to see Iraq without them. I’m not nervous about this. Well, not too nervous. My hotel is in a good neighborhood and I walked in Basra without a guard and had no trouble. Besides, the biggest risk here is from car bombs and I don’t really see what a guard can do about that.

I don’t have much of an area to explore. I can’t go through a checkpoint alone. The best result I could get from that stunt would be a stern lecture and a police escort back to my hotel. The worst result is something better left unexplored. So my Baghdad tour is limited to one neighborhood circumscribed by police barricades.

The neighborhood is a good one by Baghdad standards, shops and apartment blocks and a few official buildings. The main landmark is the National Theater and a couple of swank hotels. It’s considered an up-and-coming and reasonably safe area.

The only problem is that it’s the last day of Eid al-Adha, a celebration of Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael, known in Christianity and Judaism as the story of Abraham and Isaac. It’s one of the biggest holidays in the Muslim calendar and most places are closed.

I pound the pavement past rows of steel shutters. It looks like most people are taking the day off. A middle-aged man and his son come up and say hello. Their English is almost as bad as my Arabic and the conversation soon falters. What I want is to find a like mind, someone with open eyes, a good education, and good English who can explain his country to me. The National Theater seems a likely place. I head over there. Closed.

I continue on my quest. I have a few more “Welcome to Iraq” conversations, each time cut short due to language. I curse myself for not studying more Arabic. One young guy says he’d love to smoke some hash with me but he’s all out. Yeah, pot paranoia on the streets of Baghdad. That would have made an interesting article.

%Gallery-173222%One of the few stores I pass that’s open is a liquor store. The owners, two guys who look to be in their late 20s, wave me inside. “Where are you from?” “How do you like Iraq?” The usual conversation starts, hampered by bad English and terrible Arabic.

They invite me behind the counter and give me a glass of whiskey and some string cheese. String cheese. I kid you not. I didn’t know they had string cheese. Yet another insight into Iraqi culture.

My two companions really, really want to leave Iraq.

“But business is good here,” I say, eying the wad of bills in the cash drawer.

“Yes, but too many troubles,” they say. “Sometimes Muslim militia come here, take bottles, and no pay.”

I shake my head. A lot of the so-called Islamists are actually simple criminals grabbing an opportunity.

They ply me with questions about how to move to Canada, my home country. They’re disappointed to hear that Canada wants people with money who can speak English but seem hopeful about the refugee angle. They’re from one of Iraq’s many persecuted minorities.

As we talk a steady stream of customers come through. None look at me. Muslims always have this guilty look on their faces when they buy booze. It’s the same look Western guys get in porn shops. As a joke I start serving customers. My two buddies think this is hilarious. None of the customers bat an eye. Iraqis act nonchalant when stuck in a strange situation they’re trying to size up. It’s a survival technique. To show that you notice is to become part of the scene, and that’s not always healthy.

One of the liquor store owners runs over to a nearby bakery and brings back some fresh, hot pita. Ah, Arab hospitality! This is followed by a second (third?) round of whiskey, another form of hospitality that isn’t as rare in the Middle East as you might think. As they break out more string cheese I notice it’s getting dark outside. My day of independence is ending. My one real chance to have an immersive experience in Iraqi culture ends with string cheese and an alcohol buzz in a liquor store.

It would have to be good enough. When I told a friend back in Spain that most of my interactions in Iraq were friendly but all too brief and superficial, he replied that Westerners and Iraqis need to have more friendly, superficial meetings. At least it’s a start, he said.

Good point, but I wanted more.

Guarded group travel has insurmountable limitations that one day of partial freedom can’t break. Those serendipitous experiences don’t come on demand. You need time and luck. For me they came a few times on this trip – with pilgrims at the Shia holy shrines, with a child refugee in my hotel lobby, and with an artist on the tough streets of Nasiriyah. Each time these experiences could have – should have – turned into daylong interactions. Each time, though, the group agenda and my guards’ concerns meant we had to move on.

Luckily the security situation is slowly improving and there’s talk of individual travel opening up throughout Iraq like it already is in Kurdistan. Perhaps in a few years I’ll be able to come back and explore Iraq the way adventure travel is supposed to be done – slowly, with no itinerary, and alone.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Ten Random Observations About Iraq!”

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]