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Counter-Terrorism and Mosques

On January 2nd, U.S soldiers raided the Sunni al-Tabool mosque in southwestern Baghdad, where they found a large cache of weapons. Among the items hidden in the mosque were three packages of TNT explosives, a 60 mm mortar tube, eight improvised grenades, bomb-making equipment and two bags of gunpowder. A total of 32 people were arrested in the raid on the mosque, which was clearly being used for to coordinate militant activities. The raid was based in an intelligence tip from local Iraqis, as part of the coalition efforts to counter a relentless insurgency.

The unprecedented raid sparked angry Muslim protests and emotional demonstrations. Protester accused U.S. troops of trampling on the Quran and entering the Mosque with their shoes on and with drawn weapons. Although U.S troops may well have tried to take the greatest possible care to respect the sanctity of the mosque, the result demonstrates a lack of operational preparation.

The Mosques as staging ground

From past and present experience in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, it is well known that radical Islamic terror organizations have no compuctions against using Mosques as platform for their infrastructure and operational activities. Mosques have been frequently abused as a platform for radical Da’awa activities (socio-economic activities and incitement), Emotion-laden sermons serve to mobilize sympathizers and recruit new militants for planned terror attacks; arms and explosives are hidden on the mosque premises; and the muezin’s loud speakers are used to call the community to arms.

Mosques have also been used or abused by terrorist operatives, who use the building as a safe haven for meetings, and use prayers as a cover for their operations. The rough panelling of the mosque’s walls are often used as to pass secret massages and instructions between operatives. Radical Islamic militancy does not hesitate to use and abuse the sanctity of holy places as a significant part of their fight against all that is not radical Islam. All methods are legitimate and justified in the service of Jihad against those who pose a threat to the Umma. There are no morals or rules of fair play and nothing is off-limits.

A delicate balancing act

The harsh reality of this mindset must be taken into consideration by the Americans and their allies when conducting operations in Iraq. Each community, whether in a heavily-populated city or a remote village, is centered on its local mosque. In many cases, the mosque is the heart of the community both socially and spiritually. Any counter-terrorism activity in these places must be carefully planned. This includes not just the raid itself, but includes activities in the stages prior to and after the raid. Foreign forces entering a mosque will always be accused of harming Muslim sensibilities. The side carrying out the raid will naturally be attacked in the local and international media for lack of sensitivity and abusing the sanctity of the mosque, regardless of whether the mosque was used for terrorist activities. This asymmetric situation gives the advantage to which ever side is perceived as the weaker party in the confrontation—a fact that will be exploited to undermine the legitimacy of the “aggressor” in local and international public opinion. Western values are ill-prepared to deal with this situation, where radicals, unlike democracies, have no boundaries, and were the basic values are so utterly different.

This asymmetry must be taken into consideration when planning any military operation in a mosque. Troops must to be well-briefed in the sensitive and highly explosive nature of their mission and in its potential side effects. Without going into operational details, it is possible to provide some guidelines that may be helpful in future operations:

  • Entering a mosque should be done only under the direction of a high-ranking commander with extensive experience. Even if the operation must be carried out under severe time constraints or as a response to events, it should proceed only after the highest-ranking commander within reach as arrived and taken control, in order to prevent the situation from deteriorating.
  • Shoes off! In an initiated preemptive operation, the search team must remove their shoes before entering the Mosque (once the area is secured). This act reflects humility, and shows respect for the other’s religion, and demonstrates basic sensitivity even if other Muslims misused the Mosque. The uninvolved silent population and its more moderate leaders will appreciate this gesture, which, in the long run will pay off as an additional factor in building a pragmatic working relationship with the moderate elements of the local community. I may say from personal experience that it works!
  • Videotaping. Troops entering a mosque must film every stage of the operation. This serves two purposes. First, it provides documentation of findings in the search, which can be used for future indictments against the Mosque officials and to show that the raid was in fact justified. Second, clear interior shots after operation is over provide proof that no harm was done to the mosque, to counter the inevitable allegations of misconduct and lack of respect for the sanctity of the mosque. Radical Islamic propaganda has proved to be extremely effective, and must be countered pro-actively by videotapes taken in real time, and released immediately after the raid in order to counter the spread of rumors.

In conclusion, operations in mosques are fraught with potential pitfalls for the unwary. However, such operations need not play into the hands of the radicals. If properly handled, they can even be instrumental in building relations with the more moderate “silent majority” in the local community.