Sunday September 15, 2019

Security tactics being updated by Saudi after 2015 attacks at the world’s largest annual Muslim gathering ‘Haj’

Relations between Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, which back opposing sides in Syria and other conflicts, plummeted after the 2015 crush

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Muslim pilgrims and rescuers gather around the victims of a stampede in Mina, Saudi Arabia, during the annual hajj pilgrimage, Sept. 24, 2015 (VOA)

The world’s largest annual Muslim gathering, bringing some two million to Islam’s most sacred sites in Mecca, will also be a focus of concern about militant violence after a suicide bomber killed four soldiers in early July in the nearby city of Medina, Islam’s second holiest.

Custodian of Islam’s most revered places, Saudi Arabia stakes its reputation on organizing haj, one of the five pillars of Islam which every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to is obliged to undertake at least once.

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Its prestige was damaged by the 2015 disaster, in which Riyadh said 769 pilgrims were killed – the highest haj death toll since a crush in 1990. Counts of fatalities by countries who repatriated bodies showed that over 2,000 people may have died in the crush, more than 400 of them Iranians.

People stand near the site of an explosion in Medina, Saudi Arabia, July 4, 2016 (VOA)
People stand near the site of an explosion in Medina, Saudi Arabia, July 4, 2016 (VOA)

Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, blamed the disaster on organizers’ incompetence. An official Saudi inquiry has yet to be published, but authorities suggested at the time some pilgrims ignored crowd control rules.

This year, efforts are being made to strengthen crowd management.

Thousands of civil servants, security personnel and medics have been conducting drills in preparation for the pilgrimage, which officially starts this week.

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The kingdom says it is deploying extra staff and increasing coordination with haj missions from pilgrims’ home countries to ensure worshippers comply with agreed schedules to perform various rituals. Hundreds of new surveillance cameras had been installed at the Grand Mosque.

“The scheduling program is the most important part of the operational program,” Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Mansour Turki told Reuters.

“This is the area we have to concentrate on, to make sure pilgrims comply with it once they get there.”

Muslim pilgrims gather around the bodies of people crushed in Mina, Saudi Arabia during the annual hajj pilgrimage on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015 (VOA)
Muslim pilgrims gather around the bodies of people crushed in Mina, Saudi Arabia during the annual hajj pilgrimage on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015 (VOA)

Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat said last month the Mecca Development Authority had set up electronic paths and gates to manage crowds heading to Jamarat, the symbolic stoning of the devil where many previous disasters have occurred.

The kingdom also is kitting pilgrims out with electronic wristbands to enable authorities to track the flow of people and get early warnings of crowd build-ups.

No politics

Relations between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, which back opposing sides in Syria and other conflicts, plummeted after the 2015 crush.

Riyadh then broke diplomatic ties when its Tehran embassy was stormed in January over the Saudi execution of a Shi’ite cleric.

Wary that some pilgrims may seek to use haj for ideological purposes, Saudi Arabia said it would not tolerate any attempt to politicize haj – remarks widely seen as referring to Iran.

Iran said in May its pilgrims would not attend, blaming Riyadh for “sabotage” and failing to guarantee their safety.

Saudi Arabia blamed Iran, saying it had demanded the right to hold demonstrations that would have created chaos.

But Saudi Arabia is worried that Iranian pilgrims coming from abroad or pro-Iranian pilgrims from other countries could still exploit the gathering to spread anti-Saudi messages. (VOA)

  • Arya Sharan

    It is sad to see religious places being targeted by terrorist groups who advocate for their respective religions.

  • Manthra koliyer

    The stampede resulted in the death of many people

  • Manthra koliyer

    The stampede has led to an increase in the security force!

Next Story

After 9/11, America Still In A Never-Ending War To Ensure Safety

For the past 18 years, there is one question that has rarely strayed for long from the minds of a majority of people living in the US: Are we safe?

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Covered in dust, ash and falling debris on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, New York City Transit's express coach #2185 could have been written off and sent off to scrap. It was decided, however, to rebuild her as a symbol of NYC Transit’s resiliency and a rolling example of the dedication of the agency’s employees. Wikimedia Commons

For the past 18 years, there is one question that has rarely strayed for long from the minds of a majority of people living in the US: Are we safe?  Question of safety was etched into the American psyche following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists flew two planes into New York’s World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon, while a fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

“I looked out the window and I could see a mountain of concrete and steel just falling past the window, almost like in slow motion, like a curtain going down at a theater,” said Frank Razzano, who witnessed the collapse of the World Trade Center’s South Tower from his New York hotel room.

“I ran to the opposite side of the room and pressed myself against the wall and thought that those were the last few minutes that I was going to have on Earth,” he told VOA in 2013.

Since that day, the need to keep the U.S. safe from attack has been a constant for Americans, no matter their personal politics.

empire, state, building, us, 9/11, terrorism, safety
U.S. Department of Homeland Security election security workers monitor screens in Arlington, Virginia, Nov. 6, 2018. VOA

Top priority: protection from terrorism

According to a Pew Research Center survey, from 2002 through 2018, at least 7 in 10 U.S. adults said protecting the country from terrorism should be a top priority for both the president and lawmakers.

Eighteen years after the 9/11 attacks, the officials responsible for keeping the country safe say progress has been made.

“If you were to step back and think where we were … we are so much better off than we were on 9/12,” Frank Cilluffo, who worked in what was initially known as the Office of Homeland Security, told VOA.

“I think, by and large, the career civil servants and I think the 22 legacy agencies have recalibrated quite well to it to meet today’s demands and threats,” said Cilluffo, who now heads Auburn University’s McCrary Institute for Cyber and Critical Infrastructure Security.

But Cilluffo and other veteran officials called upon to make sure the U.S. would not again fall victim to a 9/11-type attack admit getting there was not easy.

empire, state, building, us, 9/11, terrorism, safety
Empire State Building, NYC. Wikimedia Commons

One of the first steps was to create the Department of Homeland Security, which brought together key agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Secret Service.

It was the first step in an effort to correct what some experts and lawmakers had identified as a key weakness that allowed the 19 terrorists behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to succeed — a failure of government agencies, some of which had vital bits of information about the plot, to communicate critical information and connect the dots.

Still, it wasn’t enough.

Determining mission

“Even then there was a challenge associated with trying to figure out what our mission profile really needed to be and the priorities within that mission profile,” said retired Admiral James Loy, who served as the new department’s first deputy secretary. “What was the business of this new department and how were we going to set about pulling it off?”

They settled on five words: awareness, prevention, protection, response and recovery.

“Those five words became the license, if you will, for all of us to continue doing what we were doing and begin the process of trying to do other things collaboratively that had never been done perhaps by this particular gathering,” Loy recalled at a gathering of former DHS deputy secretaries Wednesday.

There were also adjustments that had to be made by the many officials who came to DHS either from the military or the intelligence community.

“I found out that everything I thought I knew about the role of the federal government in dealing with security was wrong,” said Jane Holl Lute, who served as a DHS deputy secretary under U.S. President Barack Obama.

“Your relationship between the public, government and fear is very different,” she said.

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The 9/11 attacks. Wikimedia Commons

Instead of concentrating on carefully gathered information from well-placed spies or sources, DHS had to learn to partner with civilians.

“The men and women of this country know an enormous amount about what’s happening,” Lute said. “We actually found out that streetcar vendors in Times Square in New York have pretty valuable information.”

Lute and other former and current officials are confident that the government has been able to find ways to reach out to civilians and even to private businesses.

Still, as the threats have evolved to include disinformation campaigns and cyber attacks, they say more will need to be done.

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‘Woefully inadequate’

Some officials also see shortcomings despite yearly budgets that have more than doubled since Congress set aside $19.5 billion for Homeland Security in 2002.

“If you look at the infrastructure of the department, it is woefully inadequate,” said Paul Schneider, another former deputy secretary. He added that so much money is tied up in mandatory programs, such as disaster relief, that there is little left to make needed improvements.

“There’s CBP [Customs and Border Patrol] Border Patrol stations that look like, you know, a 1950s cowboy movie of the Pony Express,” he said.

But one of the biggest challenges for homeland security officials may be overcoming the language that so many in the U.S. have come to associate with the department — the war on terror.

“Our war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there,” former President George W. B