Counter-Terrorism: Exploiting the Hajj

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January 19, 2006: The Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Islam's most holy places, has provided an opportunity for Islamic terrorists to move around. While attention has been focused on the 345 people killed in the January 12th "stampede" at one of the Moslem holy sites, and, to a lesser extent, on counter-terrorism preparations by the Saudi Arabians, the really important story about this year's pilgrimage to Mecca has been overlooked.

The movement of nearly three million Moslem pilgrims to and from Mecca from virtually every country in the world has provided Islamist extremists with excellent cover to move people and information around in an otherwise increasingly difficult world. Saudi Arabia does a pretty good job of monitoring the millions of pilgrims, allocating visas on the basis of the proportion of a country's population that is Moslem. So the movement of radicals into the country is probably less serious than it is between any two other countries. Most non-Moslem countries do not monitor the movement of pilgrims, and so it's rather easy for someone, ostensibly undertaking the Hajj, to actually wander off somewhere else. The usually happens in cases where direct travel to Saudi Arabia is not possible. For example, a pilgrim from Paraguay, where there is a small Moslem community that has been infiltrated by Islamist extremists, would have to fly to Madrid or some other European capitol before enplaning for Saudi Arabia. In Madrid, the pilgrim could just do a quick paper swap and head off somewhere else.

Even Moslem countries, which have much better controls on the pilgrims, can be affected by this. Bahrain is reportedly seeking about a dozen "lost" Pakistani pilgrims. They arrived in the country some days ago, ostensibly en route to Saudi Arabia, but have since "disappeared" -- there is no report of their having left the country nor evidence that they are still in it. This is a serious cause for concern.

 


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