UK ambassador to Saudi completes Hajj after conversion to Islam (& a leader too radical for IS)

September 16, 2016

Britain’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia Simon Collis (above, right) has been inundated with congratulations from across the Islamic world after he revealed on twitter that he converted to Islam and carried out the first Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca ever performed by a senior UK diplomat.



1. “British ambassador to Saudi Arabia completes Hajj pilgrimage after converting to Islam” (Daily Telegraph, Sep 15, 2016)
2. “This man who survived Auschwitz will finally get a bar mitzvah, a century late, at age 113” (Washington Post, Sep 15, 2016)
3. “Palestinian women take to social media to get back their names [after Fatah and Hamas take them away]” (Haaretz , Sep. 13, 2016)
4. “Iran’s British Hostage” (Wall Street Journal, Sep 12, 2016
5. “Libyans like me are grateful to Cameron for his airstrikes” (The Independent, Sep 15, 2016)
6. “Behind Boko Haram’s split: A leader too radical for Islamic State” (Wall St Journal, Sep 15, 2016)


[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach six articles below on various subjects.

In relation to the first article, from the Daily Telegraph, this has also been reported elsewhere in the British media, for example here in The Guardian:

In relation to the second article from the Washington Post, this has also been widely reported in Israel, where the world’s oldest man lives, for example here in Yediot Ahronot:,7340,L-4855338,00.html

In relation to the fourth article, about Iran’s latest British hostage (a mother of a 2-year-old girl), while the Wall Street Journal was condemning Iran’s latest provocations on its editorial page, it should be noted that on the same day the New York Times’s editorial page carried a gushing propaganda article by Iran’s foreign minister.

In relation to the sixth article on Boko Haram, you may wish to view my on-stage interview with one of the schoolgirls who escaped from Boko Haram.


* You can also find other items that are not in these dispatches if you “like” this page on Facebook



British ambassador to Saudi Arabia completes Hajj pilgrimage after converting to Islam
By Raf Sanchez
Daily Telegraph (London)
September 15, 2016

Britain’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia has been inundated with congratulations from across the Islamic world after it emerged that he converted to Islam and carried out the first Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca ever performed by a senior UK diplomat.

The conversion of Simon Collis, the UK envoy to Riyadh, became public after pictures posted on Twitter showed him and his wife Huda wearing the traditional white garments of Muslim pilgrims in front of the British consulate in Mecca.

The 60-year-old diplomat, who speaks fluent Arabic, confirmed the news in response to messages on Twitter.

“God bless you. In brief: I converted to Islam after 30 years of living in Muslim societies and before marrying Huda,” he wrote.

The news led to a wave of online congratulations from Saudi Arabia and across the Islamic world, with many Muslims saluting Mr Collis as “Haji Simon” using the title reserved for those who make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Mr Collis converted in 2011 shortly before marrying his wife, who is Syrian. While his conversion was known to some fellow diplomats it was not public knowledge in Riyadh.

The Foreign Office declined to comment, saying Mr Collis’s religion was a personal matter.

While Mr Collis acknowledged many of the congratulatory messages coming in on Twitter, he declined interviews about his faith.

The pictures of him and his wife were first posted by Fawziah Al-Bakr, a Saudi women’s rights activist. “The first British ambassador in Saudi Arabia is performing the Hajj with his wife Mrs Huda after he converted to Islam. Thanks be to God,” she wrote.

He is believed to be the first British ambassador to carry out the Hajj pilgrimage although other ambassadors are thought to have converted to Islam in the past.

Mr Collis took up the post in Riyadh in early 2015 after a long career across the Middle East. He was the ambassador to Syria from 2007 until 2012 and angered the Assad regime after he criticised the government’s crackdown on peaceful protesters.

He left Damascus in February 2012 when the British government suspended diplomatic ties with Syria.

Mr Collis also served as ambassador to Iraq from 2012 until 2014 and before was the UK enjoy to Doha.

He is a graduate of Christ’s College, Cambridge and has five children.

Mr and Mrs Collis were among 1.8 million Muslim pilgrims from across the world to make the Hajj this year, according to the Saudi government.

Islamic scripture calls for all able-bodied Muslims to make the journey to Mecca at least once in their lives.

Mecca, the Saudi city where the Prophet Mohammed is said to have received the first revelations of the Koran, is the holiest site for Muslims and believers pray towards it every day.



This man who survived Auschwitz will finally get a bar mitzvah, a century late, at age 113
By Julie Zauzmer
Washington Post
September 15, 2016

In 1916, Israel Kristal was a motherless Jewish child whose father was away fighting in World War I and would soon be killed in action.

He turned 13 without celebrating his bar mitzvah.

A century later, Kristal will finally get the chance.

Kristal, who is the oldest man in the world, according to Guinness World Records, turns 113 on Thursday. His daughter, Shulimath Kristal Kuperstoch, told the DTA news agency that his family is planning a bar mitzvah for him, and about 100 relatives will attend. “We will bless him, we will dance with him, we will be happy,” she said.

Born in what is now Poland, Kristal has survived 113 years of Jewish history. He was in his 30s when the Nazis invaded, and he was imprisoned with his wife and two children in the Lodz ghetto and then at Auschwitz. His wife and children died.

Speaking about the horror of Auschwitz, he once told Haaretz, “Two books could be written about a single day there.”

He moved to Israel in 1950 and lives in Haifa. He remarried and had two children, and is now a grandfather and great-grandfather.

His daughter told the BBC that on his bar mitzvah day, Kristal will put on tefillin, the small boxes containing prayers that Jews above the age of bar mitzvah wrap around their arms and heads, and will say the blessings for the Torah.

He has maintained his faith throughout his life, she said. Talking to the Jerusalem Post about her father surviving the Holocaust, she said, “He believes he was saved because that’s what God wanted.”

As for himself, Kristal said in March when he was named the world’s oldest man, “I believe that everything is determined from above and we shall never know the reasons why. There have been smarter, stronger and better-looking men … who are no longer alive. All that is left for us to do is to keep on working as hard as we can and rebuild what is lost.”

And, after 113 years, to celebrate a century-delayed milestone.



Palestinian women take to social media to get back their names

Some lists for the now-postponed local elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip replaced the names of female candidates with ‘wife of’ or ‘sister of.’

By Haaretz
September 13, 2016

Palestinian women are taking to social media to protest the exclusion of the names of female candidates in campaign materials for local elections in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, according to a report in al-Monitor.

The elections were postponed by the Palestinian Supreme Court last week, but the protests have continued – and widened into other areas of Palestinian life, such as weddings.

The immediate cause of the outcry was the omission of women’s names from some of the electoral lists, which replaced the names with “wife of” or “sister of.”

One of the places where that happened was the village of Tammun, near Jenin, where Palestinians – both women and men – took to social media to express their anger. The Arabic hashtag they used – which translates into “Our names should not be covered” – soon went viral.

“Our names are not mere terms; our names refer to our identity,” rights activist Sumaya al-Mashharawi said in a statement.

That message was picked up by newspaper and television channels, coalescing into a campaign for greater female participation in public life.

“I think it’s shameful that some people still believe that women’s names should be omitted,” said Amal Habib, presenter of the “Beitna” women’s show on the Hamas-run Al-Aqsa TV channel.

“I’m shocked at this culture and how it was embraced. Women should be called by their names out of respect and our names should not be hidden.”

Women’s rights activists have taken to Facebook to make their case. “Our names are not mere terms; our names refer to our identity, which ignorant people do not understand,” wrote Sumaya al-Mashharawi.

Activist Diana Maghribi, a member of Filastiniyat Association, told Al-Monitor that the “Our names should not be covered” campaign is a call to all educated women to urge the patriarchal society to stop neglecting this powerful social driver.”



Iran’s British Hostage
The mullahs use a five-year prison sentence as leverage for ransom.
Editorial, Wall Street Journal
Sept. 12, 2016

President Obama says the $400 million he paid Iran in January for the release of four hostages was leverage, not ransom. If so, the mullahs have apparently developed a taste for it. Witness the five-year prison sentence handed to their latest Western hostage, which came to light Friday.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual citizen, had traveled to the Islamic Republic to visit relatives. She and her 2-year-old daughter, Gabriella, were detained in April at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport as they were about to fly home to London.

The exact charges haven’t been disclosed, but Iran’s Revolutionary Guards accuse her of plotting revolution. Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe works at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the company that owns the Reuters news agency. She wasn’t involved in coverage of Iran.

One purpose of the harsh sentence is to remind Iranians in the diaspora tempted to return home in the wake of the nuclear deal that the regime sees them as traitors. It’s also no accident that the sentence came shortly after the U.K. upgraded its diplomatic relations back to ambassador level.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson cheered the new opening to Tehran last Monday, only to receive a rude awakening days later. Now the regime has a new political and financial bargaining chip, and Mr. Obama has created a cash-for-hostages incentive system with his earlier ransom. Let’s hope the British government is wiser than to stuff briefcases with unmarked bills.



Libyans like me are grateful to Cameron for his air strikes – and westerners crying imperialism need to accept that

If you knew the facts about the civil war in Libya, you would understand why we wished the air strikes had come sooner. White British people advocating on my behalf keep calling it ‘neo-colonialism’, but that’s not the truth

By Rema Abdulaziz
The Independent (London)
September 14, 2016

Four and a half years ago, on the 19th of March, 2011, Mohamed Nabbous was killed by a sniper while covering the latest updates of the Libyan revolution against Muammar Gaddafi. Nabbous, at just 28 years old, represented the ambitions of so many young Libyans; he founded the Libya Alhurra TV Channel, which all Libyans at home and abroad were glued to during those early days of the uprising, myself included. Hours after his death, French and British aeroplanes entered Libyan airspace to enforce a no-fly zone, as was authorised by the United Nations Security Council.

Today, David Cameron was attacked over what many headlines referred to as the “collapse” of Libya as a country. In particular, media outlets and MPs suggested that Cameron should never have allowed Britain to carry out air strikes. As a Libyan I couldn’t disagree more with this, and I’ll tell you why.

The Libyan revolution kicked off very rapidly. It started in Benghazi, and all of a sudden, pockets all over the country started uprising in non-violent protest. We were all surprised: uprisings in Libya were uncommon, and in the past the Gaddafi regime had responded to them with an iron fist. But this time, people were buoyed by the support of their Tunisian and Egyptian neighbours, and social media was an invaluable weapon.

Gaddafi, of course, ordered his forces to quash the uprising – and what Nabbous was reporting on the day that he died was the advancement of Gaddafi’s arsenal into the second capital city. If they hadn’t been stopped by the coalition air strikes, God only knows what would have happened – the torture and death of a million people is my best guess, taken from experience.

My hometown Zawiya, some 40km to the west of Tripoli, was one of the first cities to follow in the footsteps of the East and revolt. Gaddafi wouldn’t have this. It was the first and only major city that his troops regained control of, as it was close to his stronghold in Tripoli. What happened there was ugly; the firsthand accounts I heard daily from my family were terrifying. My grandmother witnessed Gaddafi’s troops enter Zawiya from her house on the eastern edge of the city by the motorway. She told me that you could not see where the line of military tanks started or ended.

The battle for Zawiya was gruesome – not only did they kill a lot of people, but they even dug up the graves of people who had died in the main square and been buried by their families, and threw the bodies into pits in unknown locations. When some of Gaddafi’s troops were captured, it turned out that most of them weren’t even Libyans themselves: they were hired mercenaries from other African countries. Gaddafi couldn’t find enough Libyans to fight for him, but he had enough money to buy vast armies of these mercenaries from surrounding areas.

The fact that our dictator had access to these kinds of funds made the playing field spectacularly uneven. If he had been allowed to continue his reign of terror with an unending supply of troops from throughout the continent, there’s no doubt that he would have retaken every city in Libya the same way. The people of Zawiya were yearning for an intervention to happen earlier like it did in Benghazi. Months of suffering were endured in Zawiya before it was liberated again. The air strikes were welcome, and they should have come sooner.

To many western people, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Comparisons with Iraq, for example, always seem to be used, and the terms “imperialism” and “neo-colonialism” thrown around (mainly by white British people attempting to advocate on my behalf). But every situation is different, and Muammar Gaddafi was a genocidal maniac. Public executions and “disappearings” were common under his dictatorship; executions were even broadcast during children’s TV programmes. The secret police in Libya were so terrifying that nobody dared speak a word against Gaddafi in public, and their reach extended into the UK. Even when I moved to London, I only criticised Gaddafi’s reign in private, with a select group of friends who were under strict instructions to never repeat anything I’d said in public.

In hindsight, of course Cameron could have done things differently. The real issue is that there was no plan in place for what was to happen after Gaddafi was deposed. No boots on the ground was the deal, which was probably the wrong decision – although who can blame the Libyan people for brokering that deal after centuries of suffering under colonialism before Gaddafi’s rule?

A UN army of peacekeepers should have been dispatched to Libya after the war to collect weapons at the very least, as so much weaponry from Gaddafi’s supplies became available to militias and vigilante groups in the aftermath of the air strikes. This abundance of armoury is the root cause of the problems Libya suffers from today, including the fact that it has become an enclave for Isis.

The situation worsens the longer we leave it, and it’s time for the UN to step up: a peacekeeping mission can still be done. It will be difficult, but it will make a positive difference in Libya and, ultimately, for the world. As for David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, Libyans will always feel indebted to them and their countries.



Behind Boko Haram’s Split: A Leader Too Radical for Islamic State

Extremist group’s appointment of rival commander could lead to one faction focusing only on Christian targets, possibly reviving its public support

By Yaroslav Trofimov
Wall Street Journal
Sept. 15, 2016

Some people can be too extreme even for Islamic State.

The self-proclaimed caliphate’s biggest and deadliest franchise outside the Middle East, the “West Africa Province” also known as Boko Haram, fractured in recent weeks over Islamic State’s decision to replace its notorious leader, Abubakar Shekau.

Mr. Shekau hasn’t recognized the August appointment of a rival Boko Haram commander, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, as the group’s new “governor.” The two factions have repeatedly clashed since then and their followers have accused each other of abandoning the true faith.

This split, while weakening Boko Haram in the immediate term, could have dramatic consequences for how jihadists continue their struggle in Nigeria and in neighboring countries. Boko Haram’s areas of influence were cut down by the recent offensives of regional militaries, which were aided by U.S., British and French advisers. But the group still controls large chunks of northeastern Nigeria and operates in parts of Niger, Cameroon and Chad.

Mr. Shekau took over Boko Haram after its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed in Nigerian police custody in 2009. He unleashed a strategy of unbridled terror, treating Muslim villages that didn’t join his organization as legitimate targets. Over the past year, he sent scores of children on suicide missions to blow up markets and mosques—with local Muslim civilians making up the vast majority of the casualties.

“You can’t really be more barbaric and more savage than Shekau. He’s the pinnacle of barbarism,” said Issoufou Yahaya, a political analyst and head of the history department at the Niamey University in Niger.

Dispatching child suicide bombers to Sunni mosques was apparently too much even for Islamic State’s leadership in Syria and Iraq. In August, the organization’s newspaper al-Naba published an interview with Mr. Barnawi that made no mention of Mr. Shekau. Instead it referred to Mr. Barnawi, who is rumored to be a son of the Nigerian group’s founder, Mr. Yusuf, as the new “governor” of the West Africa Province.

A surprised Mr. Shekau responded by accusing his rival of apostasy and by complaining that Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been tricked.

Nigeria’s military, which has repeatedly announced Mr. Shekau’s death in the past, claimed to have seriously injured him in a late August airstrike. There has been no independent confirmation of that claim.

In an implicit criticism of Boko Haram’s strategy until now, Mr. Barnawi told al-Naba that the jihadists should focus on combating Nigeria’s Christians—a target largely ignored by Mr. Shekau in recent years. The new approach should be “booby-trapping and blowing up every church that we are able to reach, and killing all those we find from the citizens of the cross,” Mr. Barnawi announced.

Such a shift has the potential to revive a degree of popular support for Boko Haram, especially if the group succeeds in exploiting existing communal tensions in areas with mixed Muslim and Christian populations. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is roughly 40% Christian, and there is a large Christian minority in Chad and a Christian majority in Cameroon.

“Shekau’s approval of attacking Muslims indiscriminately led to a situation of significant loss of support within the Muslim community. The fact that he could kill Muslims praying in a mosque convinced the locals that he is not really fighting for Islam,” said Jibrin Ibrahim, director of the Center for Democracy and Development in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. “The return to systematic attacks against Christians would be very dangerous. It could lead to a wider confessional conflict.”

Paradoxically, out of the two Boko Haram leaders, it’s Mr. Barnawi who is closest to Islamic State’s main ideological rival in the jihadist universe, al Qaeda. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a North African affiliate, has adopted a similar focus on targeting Christians and Westerners, attacking hotels in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast in the past year. Back in 2012, Boko Haram militants close to Mr. Barnawi trained in al Qaeda-controlled northern Mali, a fact that he mentioned in his al-Naba interview.

Still, the vast distance between Boko Haram’s area of operations and other jihadist front lines means that neither al Qaeda nor Islamic State’s leadership can do much to intervene in the dispute beyond issuing statements.

“The local dynamics of the insurrection are much more important here,” said Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, an expert on Boko Haram at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. “We shouldn’t assign too much significance to them pledging allegiance to Islamic State or making references to al Qaeda. The only expertise that was actually transferred is how to make HD videos.”

Since the split, Mr. Shekau has resumed using the name Boko Haram, which it dropped when he pledged allegiance to Islamic State last year. Subsequent video releases showed large formations of Boko Haram fighters expressing their loyalty to Mr. Shekau, condemning Mr. Barnawi and threatening Nigeria’s Muslim president, Muhammadu Buhari.

“In the context of this conflict, Shekau’s group is likely to be stronger, unless Barnawi manages to get a lot of support from Islamic State,” said Atta Barkindo, a specialist on the Nigerian insurgency at the SOAS University of London. “Shekau was in control of territory and of the wealth, Barnawi won’t be able to acquire the resources that Shekau already controls – and the way these guys operate is they always go to where the resources are.”

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.