ECHELON, PROMIS, PRISM: Global Interception to Global Deception

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The history of spying and being spied upon is as old as dirt, but lately there’s this feeling that, left unchecked for too long, it’s got out of hand. We have an equally long history of allowing previous chances to pay attention slip from our grasp. Looking back just a few years, ECHELON is one example:

Global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON)

Global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON)

From the European Parliament website Report (11 July 2001) on the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system):

The system known as ‘ECHELON’ is an interception system which differs from other intelligence systems in that it possesses two features which make it quite unusual:

The first such feature attributed to it is the capacity to carry out quasi-total surveillance. Satellite receiver stations and spy satellites in particular are alleged to give it the ability to intercept any telephone, fax, Internet or e-mail message sent by any individual and thus to inspect its contents.

The second unusual feature of ECHELON is said to be that the system operates worldwide on the basis of cooperation proportionate to their capabilities among several states (the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), giving it an added value in comparison to national systems: the states participating in ECHELON (UKUSA states(8)) can place their interception systems at each other’s disposal, share the cost and make joint use of the resulting information. This type of international cooperation is essential in particular for the worldwide interception of satellite communications, since only in this way is it possible to ensure in international communications that both sides of a dialogue can be intercepted. It is clear that, in view of its size, a satellite receiver station cannot be established on the territory of a state without that state’s knowledge. Mutual agreement and proportionate cooperation among several states in different parts of the world is essential.

Possible threats to privacy and to businesses posed by a system of the ECHELON type arise not only from the fact that is a particularly powerful monitoring system, but also that it operates in a largely legislation-free area. Systems for the interception of international communications are not usually targeted at residents of the home country. The person whose messages were intercepted would have no domestic legal protection, not being resident in the country concerned. Such a person would be completely at the mercy of the system. Parliamentary supervision would also be inadequate in this area, since the voters, who assume that interception ‘only’ affects people abroad, would not be particularly interested in it, and elected representatives chiefly follow the interests of their voters. That being so, it is hardly surprising that the hearings held in the US Congress concerning the activities of the NSA were confined to the question of whether US citizens were affected by it, with no real concern expressed regarding the existence of such a system in itself. It thus seems all the more important to investigate this issue at European level.

(my emphasis)

As this excerpt illustrates, there is an established, ongoing programme of mutual cooperation, and individual citizens of their respective countries don’t make a fuss because they wrongly assume they are not targets. The hidden truth here is really sad: neither government or people are concerned about bad stuff happening in other countries. We’re fine with investing, trading, travelling, or studying abroad, but if there’s a problem, we want to scurry home and pull up the drawbridge.

More recently, we heard about “PROMIS” – for example, in this post from 2006 which states:

“National Security Agency (NSA) computers have been downloading financial and personal files of all American citizens as a result of upgrades to the Echelon satellite network and software program which is part of the Prosecutor’s Management Information System (PROMIS).

SOG says that NSA also has a “7-10 second lead time” which effectively affords the agency the opportunity to delay the release of currency, stock and bond sales transactions which permits a criminal advantage to agency officials and other high-level associates who game the system of the world’s financial markets”

(my emphasis)

These historic reports explain why so many people, myself included, maintain that the current media revelations about PRISM are not actually news. We have been aware for some time that nothing and no one is “safe” from prying electronic eyes. For most of us, this issue is not about having “something to hide”: it’s about exercising the right to go about your business and not have your private and personal life intruded on without good reason by anyone, and especially not the government that is supposed to serve you. Worse, and decidedly more underhand, is the notion of another country’s government spying on you, then sharing that information with your government in some shady secret information exchange deal. It is about being innocent until proven guilty in a public court of law, with the right to defend yourself. Basically, we don’t want our phone conversations, correspondence or bank accounts to be the target of extrajudicial electronic snooper drones. We don’t want government more loyal to its clandestine relationships with other countries than to the electorate.

Are4D7z - ImgurIf you were not previously aware, or not focussed on these risks, you can thank Edward Snowden and the media coverage of PRISM for bringing these concerns to the front page.The PRISM reports are being issued with exceptionally useful timing, coinciding initially with meetings between China and the US, and then just ahead of the G8 summit.  This inevitably leads to speculation over why non-news is being pushed so hard, and whether there is an alternative agenda. We can’t know for sure what the deal is with these PRISM revelations, we can only throw around a few guesses or wait for more information to come to light. There are several possibilities being mulled over, from diverting attention away from other news items, to inciting civil unrest and manufacturing dissent among grassroots movements on a par with the Occupy protests. Proponents of the latter point out that Edward Snowden’s story also contains some subtle, and not so subtle, messages targeting anti-establishment activists. For example, reports mention he had an Electronic Frontier Foundation  bumper sticker on his laptop lid, and his responses in the Guardian’s Q&A include a plug for an upcoming “Restore The Fourth Amendment” 4 July march. The main thing to keep in mind is that all news must be regarded with a critical if not cynical eye. There is enough evidence of news being used to misdirect and manipulate popular opinion; what matters is how, and if, we choose to react.

Photo: New York Daily News

Photo: New York Daily News

Who is Edward Snowden, and why should you care? He is being hailed as a hero by some, a traitor by others, and even an actor of sorts. Apart from establishing his credibility, there is really no good reason to form an obsession about Edward Snowden, especially if that diverts attention away from the far more important content of his message.

Did he really work for the US Government? Evidence that he did can be gleaned from a comment Snowden posted on the Ars Technica forum back in 2006, when he was considering his preferences for being sent overseas for two years on assignment:

“Although I’m not a diplomat, I work for the Department of State. I actually signed up because of the opportunity for foreign travel [...] I also don’t see the allure of “Scandinavian” countries, but that’s simply because I don’t want to live in a country where warmth and comfort are only spoken of in bedtime stories. China is definitely a good option career-wise, and I’ve already got a basic understanding of Mandarin and the culture, but it just doesn’t seem like as much “fun” as some of the other places. Who knows where the “needs of the service” will actually end up placing me, though. Azerbaijan, anyone? Scared

Despite his preferences, Snowden was apparently posted to Geneva. Since he already knew some Mandarin, I think that makes Hong Kong a less surprising choice of venue for his initial exile. Snowden may not like cold countries, but a lot has changed since 2006. Perhaps global warming can take care of the rest.

Is he now a wanted criminal? Despite reports that US government is angered by Snowden’s whistleblowing, it has yet to issue an international arrest warrant, meaning he should be free to travel anywhere, with the possible exception of the United States.

*Featured image for this post is from a platoon page on the “Battlefield 3″ gaming website for the Tom Clancy Splinter Cell MMO‘s “Third Echelon“.

Obama’s 23 May 2013 National Security Speech – Highlights

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Video: President Obama’s speech on counterterrorism at National Defense University in Washington, D.C. touched on drones, renewed efforts to close Guantanamo Bay, and was interrupted by CODEPINK’s Media Benjamin heckling loudly [1].

Highlights from Washington Post’s full transcript.

Americans Ambivalent After Over a Decade at War

Americans are deeply ambivalent about war, but having fought for our independence, we know a price must be paid for freedom.We have now been at war for well over a decade. I won’t review the full history. What is clear is that we quickly drove al-Qaida out of Afghanistan, but then shifted our focus and began a new war in Iraq. And this carried significant consequences for our fight against al-Qaida, our standing in the world and, to this day, our interests in a vital region.

Use of Torture and Illegal Detention Compromises American Values

169351796Meanwhile, we strengthened our defenses. Most of these changes were sound. But some, like expanded surveillance, raised difficult questions about the balance that we strike between our interests in security and our values of privacy. And in some cases, I believe we compromised our basic values — by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.

No Large-Scale Attacks on the US Since 9/11

Today Osama bin Laden is dead, and so are most of his top lieutenants. There have been no large-scale attacks on the United States, and our homeland is more secure. Fewer of our troops are in harm’s way, and over the next 19 months they will continue to come home.

Our nation is still threatened by terrorists. But we recognize that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11. With a decade of experience to draw from, this is the moment to ask ourselves hard questions about the nature of today’s threats and how we should confront them.

[O]ver the last decade, our nation has spent well over a trillion dollars on war, helping to explode our deficits and constraining our ability to nation-build here at home. Our service members and their families have sacrificed far more on our behalf.

From our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects, the decisions we are making will define the type of nation and world that we leave to our children.

America is at a crossroads

We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.

Neither I nor any president can promise the total defeat of terror. [We must] dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold.. From Yemen to Iraq, from Somalia to North Africa, the threat today is more diffuse, with al-Qaida’s affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, the most active in plotting against our homeland.

Unrest in the Arab world has also allowed extremists to gain a foothold in countries like Libya and Syria. ..we continue to confront state- sponsored networks like Hezbollah that engage in acts of terror to achieve political goals. Other of these groups are simply collections of local militias or extremists interested in seizing territory. And while we are vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat, most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based. And that means we’ll face more localized threats like what we saw in Benghazi, or the BP oil facility in Algeria, in which local operatives — perhaps in loose affiliation with regional networks — launch periodic attacks against Western diplomats, companies and other soft targets, or resort to kidnapping and other criminal enterprises to fund their operations.

The Future of Terrorism: Home-Grown Threats, Soft Target Attacks Abroad

And finally, we face a real threat from radicalized individuals here in the United States.

Deranged or alienated individuals, often U.S. citizens or legal residents, can do enormous damage, particularly when inspired by larger notions of violent jihad.

So that’s the current threat. Lethal, yet less capable, al-Qaida affiliates, threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad, homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism.

[W]e have to recognize that these threats do not arise in a vacuum. Most, though not all, of the terrorism we face is fueled by .. a belief by some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West and that violence against Western targets, including civilians, is justified in pursuit of a larger cause. Of course, this ideology is based on a lie, for the United States is not at war with Islam. And this ideology is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims — who are the most frequent victims of terrorist attacks.

We need all elements of national power to win a battle of wills, a battle of ideas.

First, we must finish the work of defeating al-Qaida and its associated forces.

In Afghanistan, we will complete our transition to Afghan responsibility for that country’s security.

Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless global war on terror but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America. In many cases, this will involve partnerships with other countries.

In Yemen, we are supporting security forces that have reclaimed territory from AQAP.

In Somalia, we helped a coalition of African nations push al-Shabab out of its strongholds.

In Mali, we’re providing military aid to French-led intervention to push back al-Qaida in the Maghreb

Much of our best counterterrorism cooperation results in the gathering and sharing of intelligence, the arrest and prosecution of terrorists.

[O]ur operation in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden cannot be the norm.

Drone Strikes Are Legal, Preferable to Doing Nothing, Will Reduce by 2015

[Drone]  technology raises profound questions about who is targeted and why, about civilian casualties and the risk of creating new enemies, about the legality of such strikes under U.S. and international law, about accountability and morality. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives. ..America’s actions are legal. We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law and international law, the United States is at war with al-Qaida, the Taliban, and their associated forces. [Yet]  America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion. To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance… by the end of 2014 we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we have made against core al-Qaida will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.

U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties…  for the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss.  [But to] do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties.. Remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.

So doing nothing’s not an option.

[I]t is false to assert that putting boots on the ground is less likely to result in civilian deaths, or less likely to create enemies in the Muslim world.

Congress Is Briefed On Every Drone Strike But Oversight Must Increase

Not only did Congress authorize the use of force, it is briefed on every strike that America takes. [including the one on Anwar Awlaki]

For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen … without due process. Nor should any president deploy armed drones over U.S. soil.

But the high threshold that we’ve set for taking lethal action applies to all potential terrorist targets, regardless of whether or not they are American citizens. This threshold respects the inherent dignity of every human life.

Now, going forward, I’ve asked my administration to review proposals to extend oversight of lethal actions outside of war zones that go beyond our reporting to Congress.

Foreign Aid – as Crucial as Force and Far Cheaper

[F]orce alone cannot make us safe. We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root.

This means patiently supporting transitions to democracy in places like Egypt and Tunisia and Libya, because the peaceful realization of individual aspirations will serve as a rebuke to violent extremism. We must strengthen the opposition in Syria, while isolating extremist elements, because the end of a tyrant must not give way to the tyranny of terrorism.

We are actively working to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians because it is right and because such a peace could help reshape attitudes in the region. And we must help countries modernize economies, upgrade education and encourage entrepreneurship because American leadership has always been elevated by our ability to connect with peoples’ hopes and not simply their fears.

For what we spent in a month in Iraq at the height of the war, we could be training security forces in Libya, maintaining peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors, feeding the hungry in Yemen, building schools in Pakistan and creating reservoirs of good will that marginalize extremists.

That has to be part of our strategy.

[W]e cannot neglect the challenge of terrorism from within our borders…this threat is not new… technology and the Internet increase its frequency, and in some cases its lethality… the best way to prevent violent extremism inspired by violent jihadists is to work with the Muslim American community, which has consistently rejected terrorism, to identify signs of radicalization, and partner with law enforcement when an individual is drifting towards violence.

And these partnerships can only work when we recognize that Muslims are a fundamental part of the American family. In fact, the success of American Muslims, and our determination to guard against any encroachments on their civil liberties, is the ultimate rebuke to those who say that we’re at war with Islam.

Investigating National Security Leaks Versus Press Freedom

You know, the Justice Department’s investigation of national security leaks offers a recent example of the challenges involved in striking the right balance between our security and our open society. I believe we must keep information secret that protects our operations and our people in the field. But a free press is also essential for our democracy. I’m troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.

Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs. I have called on Congress to pass a media shield law to guard against government overreach. I’ve raised these issues with the attorney general [and directed him] to report back to me by July 12th.

Ditching AUMF, Closing Guantanamo

I look forward to efforts to refine and ultimately repeal the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands.

The original premise for opening Gitmo, that detainees would not be able to challenge their detention, was found unconstitutional five years ago. In the meantime, Gitmo has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law. Our allies won’t cooperate with us if they think a terrorist will end up at Gitmo. During a time of budget cuts, we spend $150 million each year to imprison 166 people, almost a million dollars per prisoner. And the Department of Defense estimates that we must spend another 200 million (dollars) to keep Gitmo open at a time when we are cutting investments in education and research here at home and when the Pentagon is struggling is struggling with sequester and budget cuts… there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should have never been opened.

Today I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from Gitmo. I have asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions.

I am appointing a new senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries. I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen so we can review them on a case-by-case basis.

To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and our military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.

[One remaining issue will be] how to deal with those Gitmo detainees who we know have participated in dangerous plots or attacks but who cannot be prosecuted, for example because the evidence against them has been compromised or is inadmissible in a court of law. But once we commit to a process of closing Gitmo, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.

And I know the politics are hard. But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it. Imagine a future 10 years from now or 20 years from now when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country.

Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike. I’m willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack because it’s worth being passionate about. Is this who we are? Is that something our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children?

Transcript of Medea Benjamin’s interruption:

It’s not Congress. It’s you, sir. There are 102 people on a hunger strike in the Guantanamo Bay prison. These are desperate people. 86 have been cleared for release. You are Commander-in-Chief. You can close Guantanamo today. You can release those 86 prisoners today.

How about Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old American killed by drones. Is that the way we treat a 16-year-old American? Why was he killed? Can you tell us why Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was killed?

Can you tell the Muslim people their lives are as precious as our lives? Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activities? Will you apologize to the thousands of Muslims that you have killed? Will you compensate the innocent family victims? That will make us safer here at home.

I love my country! I love the rule of law! The drones are making us less safe. And keeping people in indefinite detention in Guantanamo is making us less safe. Abide by the rule of law. You’re a Constitutional lawyer!

via Brad Friedman of BradBlog.com

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Stupid Movies, Dumb Moves

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Today there is a big conference [ar] starting, organised by Mauritania’s Tewassoul party, with high-level delegates in attendance from many Arab states, including Tunisia, Kuwait, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Algeria. I’d expect increased security in and around Nouakchott, but have not seen the usual reports of any. Last night, the political opposition coalition held a licensed event which tens of thousands attended, but they were denied permission for a similar event a couple of weeks ago, with the authorities claiming the need to avoid large gatherings because of the security risks. Yet a few days ago, the American Embassy in Mauritania issued an oddly paranoid statement to nationals, warning them to be cautious in case of unrest or protests on or near December 14 and 19. These events are likely, they claim, because of the anticipated release of another film which is deliberately insulting to Muslims,  as well as a new video about Osama bin Laden.

The Embassy in Mauritania has a quiet little Facebook page that mainly posts friendly invitations to attend the regular sessions they host for throngs of hopeful student visa applicants at the “American Corner” of Nouakchott University. The statement is not posted on Facebook, and I would never have known about it, except for a tweet from the US State Dept’s travel advisory account:

To be honest, I had ignored an earlier “exclusive” report on a local website with little to commend it in the way of credibility, which claimed the embassy had sent all residents a warning note.

People in Mauritania were baffled by the embassy’s official warning. “When did we ever see a protest in Mauritania about bin Laden?” one asked. Another said “bin Laden is no prophet, people can make any film they want about him, and no one will care.” One replied to @TravelGov:

Bearing in mind that less than 5% of the population has internet access, and even then most of the time it’s like dial-up that has been heavily sedated,  there’s precious little chance either film will reach a sizeable audience even in Nouakchott. To be super helpful in case any random terrorists really do fancy their chances, Ould Abdel Aziz listed a few potential targets during his recent speech at a UNESCO event in Paris, his default location since the 13 October incident. Taking all this into account, and  in light of recent events in Egypt and the Maghreb region, it  makes sense to stay tuned.

Stupid Movie 2

Stupid Movie 2

The sequel to the highly successful (in terms of provoking riots, and making a few people in the State Department look foolish) but very stupid “Innocence of Muslims” movie is called “The Innocent Prophet” and was delayed by the Spanish authorities threatening to revoke the Pakistani film maker Imran Firasat’s refugee status if he released it on 14 December as planned. But it’s out now, and the news cycle has calmed down enough to make space for a bigger splash than it would have gotten on December 14, given the terrible tragedy that occurred in Connecticut that day. Like it’s fore-runner, The Innocent Prophet has a staggeringly small number of views so far. I suppose intelligence agency cyber trolls will have to post the link liberally on “jihadist” forums if they want to see more riots, arson attacks and deaths in time for Christmas.

Randy Wilson was arrested by FBI officers, just as he and his family were boarding a plane in Atlanta

Randy (Rasheed)Wilson was arrested by FBI officers, just as he and his family were boarding a plane in Atlanta

(Updated 21 Dec) While I am thinking about false flags, do be on the lookout for more news about the two Alabama men arrested separately in Georgia, allegedly planning to make their way to Mauritania to “wage violent jihad”. It’s possible* Mohammad Abdul Rahman Abukhdair** and Randy (Rasheed) Wilson***, like so many others before them, got the idea after speaking to an undercover FBI agent. Including the agent, that is three people I would not want to have near any weapons or explosives. In any case, you could probably staff an entire katiba of terrorists and the necessary weapons for the price of their air fare from Alabama, by recruiting within the region. It just does not make sense for people to travel half way across the world to do it, unless they were incredibly dumb, or were just playing along, intending to renege on their end of the deal and get a free desert safari in the process. Now that international aid and development agencies are more interested in hiring locally, would it be too much to expect the FBI to follow suit?

Still on jihad, something that is jarring my instincts: these pastebin posts allegedly from a new(ish) cyber army of angry “Qassam Cyber Fighters” who hate American banks so much they decided to give advance notice of their intention to take down their websites, and even apologised for the delay in staging their onslaught, codenamed “Operation Ababil”. Nice and polite, if not exactly stealthy, but thanks for giving all your targets time to tighten security, change passwords, etc. Anyone would think they were not a real cyber army at all. If you are a linguaphile, have fun analysing and comparing their use of Arabic and English. If not, have fun wondering why an Iranian regime cyber operation (as claimed) would use Arabic, when they apparently have a proud, Farsi-speaking, cyber army.

A late, but convenient addition to end with: a random tweet was posted yesterday about an alleged hacking ten months ago of  Bank of Israel by a group calling themselves “Mauritania Hacker Team”

Here’s their Facebook page, where the old news reports were reposted yesterday, which I assume explains the tweet.

Back in February, they posted this video claiming to show evidence of  an intrusion that netted “all” Bank of Israel customer accounts:

http://www.youtube.com/watch&v=ik9X1rSmRHo

Ignoring the fact that it looks decidedly fake, note the speed with which typing errors of English words are corrected, and use of words like “bingo” and the phrase “don’t try this at home”. Add to that the use of classroom French, typed more slowly with far higher accuracy in their next video. It gives the impression whoever created at least the first and probably the second would feel more at home in Oxshott than Nouakchott. No offence to Oxshottonians, it could be any cosy corner of over-privileged middle-class and perhaps even middle-aged (bingo? really?) England.

Additional information added 21 December 2012:

American terror suspect Omar Hammami, aka Abu Mansour al-Amriki

American terror suspect Omar Hammami, aka Abu Mansour al-Amriki

* In the criminal complaint that led to his arrest, Randy Wilson was said to be a former room mate of another Mobile, Alabama man, Omar Shafik Hammami (aka Abu Mansour al-Amriki), who was just reportedly kicked out of Somalian al-Qaeda franchise Al-Shabaab for spreading the wrong message in videos he posted online.  Although they did know one another about 10 years ago, the  information about Wilson and Hammami’s living arrangements turned out to be false (see below). There was a rather long delay between news about his first video - in which he said he feared his life was in danger – appearing in March 2012, and the 17 December reports of the announcement of Hammami’s expulsion. March was also when the coup in Mali was claimed to have accelerated the spread of rebel groups in the north, as the vast region was abandoned by both civil and military authorities along with most NGOs and aid agencies. This heightened activity was accompanied by reports that fighters from other al Qaeda groups were moving into Mali. Wherever Hammami – who incidentally is married to a Somali woman, and they have at least one child, a daughter – shows up next, it is unlikely to be America.

** According to this post, a Syracuse, NY native by the name of Mohammad Abdul Rahman Abukhdair was arrested in Egypt in 2010 on charges of suspected terrorist activity. In 2011, he was deported back to the U.S., taking residency in both Ohio and Alabama.

*** Randy Wilson appeared in court and was refused bail after the judge heard testimony from FBI Special Agent Tim Green, who had established an online relationship with the defendant and his co-accused over a period of two years, by pretending to have a shared interest in Islam. Green also confessed in court that the story about Wilson being a former room mate of Omar Hammami was a lie and claimed he” didn’t know where it came from”. Wilson’s case will be heard on December 27, local press reported. There are no similar reports for Mohammad Abdul Rahman Abukhdair as yet. Given the fact that the two New Jersey men arrested in the almost identical “Operation Arabian Knight” case in 2010 have still not been sentenced, despite accepting a plea bargain, we should not expect any swift justice.

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#Mauritania: Sex, Lies and Videotape

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Let’s break with tradition and do the sex part first. Yes, it has been suggested that there is a sex angle to the accidental shooting story of president Aziz in Mauritania! This is a quandary, as everyone is adamant that they do want the truth, but at the same time, no one wants it to be some sordid and sleazy tale of the president having an illicit relationship that went horribly wrong, and got him shot or injured or whatever. And yet, in the absence of any reasonable, logical and reliable alternative explanation, more people are gravitating towards this very unofficial yet somehow more credible version of events. I have to say right here: I have no way of knowing if the president was even attacked, let alone shot. All I know for certain is that something happened to him, and I have nothing to rely on apart from outright lies and half-truths peddled by the corrupt regime, or the meandering fantasies of observers (myself included!) whether inside or outside Mauritania.

In trying to keep an open mind I have to allow for two possibilities: that what happened to Aziz might have been staged, or might have been an accident. For me, only his prompt return will confirm the latter. Despite my efforts, I find myself increasingly convinced France and Mauritania are playing a dirty game, one designed to promote the prospect of a military misadventure in Mali. I could not for one moment believe that they are the only countries involved in such a farce.

Aziz’ post-surgery TV appearance last week reveals a gauze dressing on the left side of his lower neck

We have the president of Mauritania holed up in the Percy military hospital in Paris for additional care of an unspecified nature, despite being told his injuries in the October 13th incident were minor, and that the surgery performed in Nouakchott military hospital was a success. Close inspection of the footage of president Aziz’ post-surgery TV appearance last week reveals a gauze dressing on the left side of his lower neck, despite having the sheets pulled up to conceal it. Whatever happened in that area, it is unlikely to be related to the bullet which reportedly damaged in his colon and required a delicate 4-hour surgery.

Visible scarring on Aziz’ neck

Four days after the incident, when the French Minister of Defence, Jean-Yves Le Drian, paid a “social call” on Aziz, there was a small patch of scarred skin visible on Aziz’ neck, just visible above his over-sized pyjamas. It is difficult to tell what; it could just as easily be  a bullet wound or a burn. This is the time to note that the Percy hospital specialises in the treatment of burn injuries. The photos of Aziz and Le Drian were posted on the official ami.mr news site [ar] in Mauritania later on Wednesday, but not on the French Ministry of Defence website. The visit was largely ignored by the French and international media, despite Le Drian having just been widely quoted the day before  promising military action in Mali in “weeks, not months“. There was no press release, and the visit was not mentioned in the minister’s official engagements diary. A request for comment from the Ministry’s press office had not received a response at the time of writing this post.

Then there is the mystery of Ba Mamadou dit Mbaré, the only constitutionally legal replacement in case of the Mauritanian president’s incapacity, as President of the Senate. It was only discovered after Aziz left for Paris that Mr dit Mbaré was already on sick leave there himself. No mention had been made of this in any official media, and he was being reported on as normal, attending to his duties, until a few weeks ago. There has been no statement even now the news is out, and no comment on the nature or likely duration of his medical condition. This is being played as a non-issue, with officials asserting that Aziz is well enough to perform his duties while undergoing treatment. And so, for a week now, the country has been governed by an absent president, sundry unelected government representatives, and his Chief of Defence. The regular Thursday cabinet meeting was cancelled – this is important: because Aziz is the only validly elected official in the entire government, he has to sign off on everything, and every cabinet meeting has to be an “emergency meeting” convened by the president.

Now we are told that the French embassy is denying the President of the National Assembly, Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a travel visa to Paris. But this is not quite accurate. What is really happening is Ould Boulkheir allegedly objecting to being asked to attend the consular office to give his fingerprints in order to create his visa. Ould Boulkheir holds one of three posts named in the constitution as having the power to declare Aziz unfit to serve, and through this manufactured stalemate, he is effectively prevented from going to Paris to assess the president’s true condition and raising the alarm if required. The other two are the Prime Minister (Laghdaf, a lapdog) and the head of the Supreme Court (the incumbent was recently replaced before the end of his official tenure by Aziz).

While this play unfolds, the external PR and media offensive is being ramped up: trying to tie the “shooting” to terrorists; claiming Mauritania is “seriously concerned” about the terrorist threat; re-hashing of any old news story mentioning AQIM and Mauritania. Over to the East, it would seem we are witnessing a replay of events, uncannily similar to those which preceded the NATO force’s arrival in Libya last year, in which someone busted jihadist contractors out of prison presumably to boost the rebel forces in northern Mali and for all we know, financed by a bank robbery in Yemen. This contrasts with almost total silence about conciliatory gestures being made through negotiations between various groups, and last weekend’s regional Tuareg conference in Lere, Nigeria. We should be on the lookout for increased reports of hostile actions: violence, beatings, rapes, robberies, etc, followed by more in-fighting and divisions. We should also pay attention to a developing story [fr] from Mali, of northerners who originally fled returning home despite the imposition of Sharia by the Islamists, and finding free though erratic power and water supplies, reduced food prices, and paid work. Poverty and misery in the south is said to be providing the impetus for the reversal. Word of this will spread to the refugee camps and, as winter sets in, repatriation could become an increasing trend. No wonder one of the NLP-type catchphrases in the media for the Sahel is “a race against time”. [See here, here, here and here]

The mistaken marksman of Mauritania, Elhaj Ould Hamoudi

Internally, the website Sahel Media was mysteriously unavailable to users in Mauritania of the Mauritel phone service (51% owned by CMC Morocco Telecom) for almost an entire day. Access was lost almost immediately after Sahel Media published a story [ar] about French Islamists* breaching the Western Sahara barrier built by Morocco, near the border with Mauritania, through which is being smuggled cocaine from Colombia. Sites carrying articles quoting AQIM supposedly threatening France remained freely accessible.

Sunday night, Mauritanian national TV produced the poor sap who has been named and shamed as “the shooter” – a rookie lieutenant from Kiffa whom we are told “is normally based in the north”. He was shown on TV [vid, ar] at prime time, to reinforce the official story about mistakenly firing on Aziz as  the president sped past him, in an unmarked car, at top speed. Even after a whole week to prepare and rehearse, there were inaccuracies in the retelling between this on-air confession, and the original official statement [NYT En], and even the words of the president himself [CSM En].

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera managed to do a 2-part interview [vid, ar] with Mahfouz Ould al-Walid, aka Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, the former Al-Qaeda number 3. The interview took place inside Mauritania, where one might expect he would be under strict orders not to talk to the media about his former role with Al Qaeda, as a condition of his recent release from custody. This would appear not to be the case, but even if there are objections, Aziz has his “I was in Paris” alibi. I am actually hoping that both the US government and the jihadists in Mali take notice of Abu Hafs, because he talks a lot of sense.

As for the Mauritanian political opposition, they collapsed like a gurney before the bullet hit the kidney-dish, and declared they would suspend all planned protests out of respect for their opponent’s debilitated state. At this point, please note that every previously elected member of government – ruling party as well as opposition – has collected a year’s salary gratis out of the state coffers, while the poverty-stricken population waits to hear yet another excuse for why there is still no date for either of the postponed elections. The opposition did not stand idle however: they called for an investigation and convened a standing committee to try and determine the true events of  October 13, and have called a press conference for Monday 22 October. One of them, Mohammed Ould Moloud, kept busy with a series of meeting with officials from various EU countries.

February 25 Movement – nothing left in Mauritania but questions

The only breath of fresh air in this whole stinking scenario once again comes from the activist movement of 25 February [ar], who formed a human chain along the main street of Nouakchott last Thursday, each one of them silently holding up a poster which totally captures the mood of the country at this time: a large, solitary “?”.

Some of the members of “m25fev”, as they are known, will be interviewed on Chinguetti TV tonight or tomorrow, if all goes to plan.  The best part of the silent protest was that the police didn’t attack or arrest the demonstrators. The next day the police rediscovered their calling, and attacked and arrested the peaceful pro-morality protesters. People have to remind themselves every time this happens (and it happens too often) that Mauritania is an Islamic Republic.

*For more on France as a breeding ground for Islamists, see Marc Sageman’s 2004 article “Understanding Terror Networks”. Or Google.

News from Iran – Week 40 – 2012

Mohammad Ali Dadkah
Standard
Prisoners’ News

A- Transfers

  • Political prisoner Fayzollah Arabsorkhi has launched a hunger strike protesting denied medical care; he stopped when transferred to hospital.
  • Imprisoned Journalist Mohammad Reza Pourshajari (Siamak Mehr) taken to hospital after heart attack.
  • Keyvan Rahimian transferred from Evin to Rejaei Shahr prison.

B- Arrests/Incarcerations

  • Mohammad-Ali Dadkhah, prominent Human Rights lawyer, has gone to Evin to serve a 9 year prison sentence.
  • Children’s books translator Nazanin Daihimi reported to Evin to start serving her 8 months sentence.
  • Nava and Nika Khalousi, Baha’i, arrested during a raid against their home in Mashhad.
  • Mahsa Mahdavi, Baha’i, arrested during a raid against her home in Mashhad.
  • Mehdi Emami-Naseri, editor in chief of Maghreb newspaper arrested.
  • Two people arrested for publishing music on Internet.
  • On the pretext of ridding the Salmas in West Azerbaijan of thugs, security arrested 15 people – no charges known.

C-Liberations

  • Behrooz Alavi activist arrested at the earthquake site has been released.
  • Mohammad Azadi released from Evin.
  • Hamid-Reza Moseibian activist arrested at the earthquake site has been released.
  • Mehdi Rahmanian, editor in chief of Shargh newspaper, was released on 50 million toman bail.
  • Baha’i citizen Shahnaz Ranjbar summoned twice by Intelligence Bureau, arrested.
  • Esmail Salmanpour activist arrested at the earthquake site has been released.
  • Hooman Taheri activist arrested at the earthquake site has been released.

D-Other News

  • Saeed Malekpour, jailed web programmer who is sentenced to death, ‘expressed remorse and repented’.
  • Political prisoner Fardin Moradpour started a dry hunger strike to protest being severely beaten.

News of injustice in Iran

  • Shahab Abbasi, Arab activist, arrested in 2008 was sentenced to execution.
  • Hadi Albokhanfarnezhad, Arab activist, arrested in 2008 was sentenced to 3 years in exile in Ardebil.
  • Taher Eskandarian sentenced by Appeals to 3 years in prison.
  • Student activist Mohammad Haji Babaei sentenced to 5 months in prison.
  • Supreme Court has upheld the death sentences of Ebrahim Isapour on Moharebeh charges.
  • Sami Jadmavinezhad, Arab activist, arrested in 2008 was sentenced to 3 years in exile in Ardebil.
  • Abdolreza-Amir Khanafereh, Arab activist, arrested in 2008 was sentenced to execution.
  • Jasem Moghadam, Arab activist, arrested in 2008 was sentenced to 3 years in exile in Ardebil.
  • Abdolamir Mojdami, Arab activist, arrested in 2008 was sentenced to execution.
  • Supreme Court has upheld the death sentences of Sirvan Nezhavi on Moharebeh charges.
  • Civil rights activist Hamid Reza Ranjbar sentenced to 3 years in prison and 74 lashes.
  • Afrasiab Sobhani sentenced by Appeals to 1 year in prison.
  • Pouya Tabianian sentenced by Appeals to 6.5 years.
  • Hand amputation for the person convicted of theft to be carried out in public.
  • Three Afghan nationals hanged in Tabas on Monday.
  • Two hangings in Naghadeh on Tuesday.
  • One Afghan national hanged in Evin on Tuesday.
  • Two men charged with theft publicly lashed in Masjed Soleiman; one received 50 lashes the other 70.

University – Culture

  • San Sebastian Film Festival lauds works of Touraj Aslani, Majid Barzegar.
  • Iran lifts block on Gmail.
  • More than 50 female students of Shahrekord Uni expelled from dormitory for dress code violations
  • 9 Internet cafes have been closed in North Khorasan since the start of year.
  • Iranian websites that give current currency rates filtered.
  • Banned from filmmaking,yet Jafar Panahi has made another movie, says Abbas Kiarostami.
  • Iran student magazine “Arman” at Tehran Azad University banned; equipment confiscated.

Protests

  • Tehran bazar closed; bazari hold gathering to protest rising prices/dollar exchange rate; anti-riot police reported they arrested around 150 people, including 2 Europeans.
  • Iran Security forces clashed with people gathered at Ferdowsi Bazar in Mashhad.
  • A second petition by workers with 20,000 names protests government’s indifference to first petition.

Iran Economics

  • 200 workers laid off at Electric Khodro Shargh Company (EKS)
  • $1 = 2770 tomans on Saturday, 3050 on Sunday, 3500 on Monday, 4000 on Tuesday
  • Tehran Metro partly lying idle because of subsidy cuts.
  • The Pouya auto parts factory that laid off 1,300 workers in February has now completely shut down.
  • Tehran Bazaar partly closed on Monday because of currency crisis.
  • Trade in gold coins and US dollar in Tehran Bazaar ‘stopped’ on Tuesday.
  • Damash mineral water plant shut down.
  • Isfahan’s goldsmiths’ Bazaar half closed because of currency crisis.
  • Tehran’s bazaar remained closed on Thursday.

Iran  abroad

  • Ahmadinejad’s former-Basiji cameraman defects in New York; Debka File claims he was recruited last year, and brought secret nuclear site videos with him
  • Tehran transfers $10 billion to aid Assad war effort, and Ahmadinejad awards Iran’s highest national medal to Assad.
  • German investigators uncover more illegal exports.
  • First Vice President, Mohammad Reza Rahimi visits Turkey to discuss economic cooperation.
  • Three kidnapped Iranian nationals freed in Syria after four months.
  • Six Iranian pilgrims killed in Karbala.

Politics in Iran

  • French embassy in Tehran ‘under attack’.
  • Iran’s parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani cancels press conference.

Miscellaneous

  • More than 8,000 stray dogs have been killed in Mashhad this year.