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Terrorism & Security

A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

In this 2004 file photo, Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world, is seen from Karakorum Highway leading to neighboring China in Pakistan's northern area. (Musaf Zaman Kazmi/AP/File)

Pakistan: Militants kill 10 mountaineers in 'well planned' attack

By Staff writer / 06.24.13

The Pakistani government has halted mountaineering expeditions on Nanga Parbat, a day after armed militants attacked and killed 10 foreign climbers and a local guide.

A Pakistani mountaineering expert told Agence France-Presse that some 40 climbers on the mountain, the second-tallest in Pakistan and ninth-tallest in the world, have been evacuated and that no further climbs would be allowed this summer.

“Local authorities have evacuated them. They have all been informed of this incident,” Manzoor Hussain, president of the Alpine Club of Pakistan, told AFP. “We are reviewing the overall security situation. The fallout apparently will be serious.”

“This [mountaineering] season is over for them,” Mr. Hussain added.

AFP reports that the 10 foreign climbers have been identified "as an American with dual Chinese citizenship, three Ukrainians, two Slovakians, two others from China, a Lithuanian and a climber from Nepal."

The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday that the attack took place in the middle of the night, as several militants, dressed as members of the local paramilitary police, ambushed the base camp at the foot of Nanga Parbat. A spokesman for the banned terrorist group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) told the Monitor and other media outlets that his group claimed responsibility for the attack.

“We will continue to target the foreigners until the drone strikes stop. This attack was particularly in revenge for the killing of our commander Wali-ur-Rehman. Our local Taliban faction in the area carried it out under our instructions,” TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said.

The Los Angeles Times reports that another militant group that operates in the area, Jundullah, also claimed responsibility for the attack in separate calls to the media. The Times writes that it isn't yet clear which group – if either – is responsible, and notes the claims could be a smokescreen by a third group, trying to deflect attention.

The BBC notes that because of the mountain's remoteness, the ambush – launched by up to 20 attackers – likely required a great deal of planning and preparation, not just tactically but physically as well. The BBC's M Ilyas Khan writes:

Officials in the Diamir district of Gilgit-Baltistan say the area where the gunmen struck is extremely remote and there are no roads and no means of transportation other than mules.

They say the attackers must have been well trained and well acclimatised. A lot of planning must have gone into conducting this operation. The area is a vast mountain desert, having approaches from three sides, each requiring 20 hours of walking; in practice two days of trekking.

The BBC adds that officials say the mountain's isolation should aid in the search for the gunmen, as they ought to be easy to spot from the air. Unconfirmed reports from local media claim that 37 people have been arrested so far in the investigation.

The attack is of particular concern to Pakistan's struggling tourism industry. The country's mountains were among the few regions regarded as safe from its ongoing struggle with Islamist militants. Experts told the Monitor that the attack could shatter that confidence, costing the country "billions of rupees."

“Around fifteen to twenty thousand tourists including mountaineers came to Pakistan each year during the summer season. Each one of them spends over five to six thousand dollars. The loss to Pakistan because of this attack will be in billions of rupees,” says Ghulam Nabi, a representative of Pakistan Tour Operators’ Association. “And it’s not just tourists that run away then, it also affects the foreign investor confidence."

The image of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho, an American soldier missing since 2009, is worn by an audience member as Bergdahl's father Bob, not pictured, speaks at the annual Rolling Thunder rally for POW/MIA awareness, in Washington, May 2012. The Taliban said yesterday it would consider releasing Bergdahl if the US released five members of the group being held at Guantánamo. (Charles Dharapak/AP/File)

Taliban offers to exchange US prisoner as it seeks international support

By Staff writer / 06.21.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

A Taliban spokesman said yesterday the group would consider releasing Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier missing since 2009, if the US released five members of the Taliban being held at the US military prison in Guantánamo bay, Cuba.

The swap, the spokesman implied, could be the initial step of larger peace talks that have so far proved elusive but could be nearing as the Taliban makes a bid to lessen its status as an international pariah.

Blocking the release of the five men in exchange for Sergeant Bergdahl, who has been held by militants since 2009, is concern that they could return home to organize new attacks on US troops still in Afghanistan.

The strict security conditions that the Obama administration required to prevent them from fighting again – releasing the detainees to Qatar and barring them from leaving there –  scuttled the last attempt at peace talks in 2011, The New York Times reports.

The Times describes the five men in question:

Two were senior Taliban commanders said to be implicated in murdering thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan. When asked about the alleged war crimes by an interrogator, they “did not express any regret and stated they did what they needed to do in their struggle to establish their ideal state,” according to their interrogators.

There is also a former deputy director of Taliban intelligence, a former senior Taliban official said to have “strong operational ties” to various extremist militias, and a former Taliban minister accused of having sought help from Iran in attacking American forces.

The men are among the most high level detainees at Guantánamo. Without this deal, they would be among the last prisoners to be removed from the facility if it is closed, The New York Times reports. There are 18 Afghans total remaining at Guantánamo, but the others are not high level enough to be "bargaining chips."

Meanwhile, the possibility of peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government may have evaporated. CBS News reports that a senior envoy of Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the Taliban delegation "is still not sending the signals which would allow peace talks" to begin.

During a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Taliban's new office in Doha, Qatar, the group flew a flag representing the "Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan,” the name the group used during its rule over Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

"In taking the name 'The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,' the Taliban is pretending it is a sovereign power," Ismail Qasimyaar, the government High Peace Council's chief international adviser, told CBS News. "They are trying to give the impression that the Doha office is an embassy or quasi-diplomatic mission."

The Los Angeles Times reports that the possibility of Taliban talks is causing regional players to pay sincere attention to the group, which has become a more formidable diplomatic foe as it becomes more politically savvy.

"It's early days, but India's watching this very carefully," said Rana Banerji, a New Delhi-based Central Asia expert and former Indian Cabinet Secretariat intelligence official. "The Taliban's moved on, become pretty sophisticated. Their media management is quite good, they're Internet savvy, things have moved on from 1996." 

Although the US pressured the Taliban to take down its provocative flag, "it succeeded in putting Karzai on the defensive with public relations antics and showmanship" and shining the spotlight on itself as it spoke about international cooperation, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

This is part of a broader Taliban image makeover, analysts said. The militants have softened their opposition to secular education and video technologies they once vehemently opposed as un-Islamic and embraced social media, frequently used to exaggerate the effectiveness of their attacks against international and Afghan forces or to take credit for attacks they didn't plan. Their website now issues news releases in five languages, complemented by a Twitter feed with more than 8,000 followers.

At a conference in December with Afghan officials, Taliban representatives expressed a willingness to share power and grant more rights to women, allowing them to choose their husbands, own property, attend school and hold jobs, all rights denied during Taliban rule.

Whether this is heartfelt or mere window dressing in an effort to better appeal to an increasingly educated and worldly Afghan electorate remains to be seen. Also unclear is how representative these initiatives are of different factions and generations in the Taliban.

The Taliban are trying to set themselves up well in the longterm, an analyst in Kabul told the Los Angeles Times. The US withdrawal in 2014 may not be the end of political dealings with the group.

"The Taliban vision is not 2013 or 2014, but beyond 2015," he said. "The Taliban are trying to get rid of the international and especially US sanctions and get their names removed from the black list. And they want political power in Afghanistan."

A general view of the Taliban office in Doha before the official opening in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. (Osama Faisal/AP)

Symbolism of Taliban flag and banner upends Afghan peace talks

By Staff writer / 06.20.13

A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The first talks between the US and Taliban set to take place in Qatar today are expected to be postponed, following diplomatic tensions related to the opening and naming of a Taliban office in Doha.

"It is a kind of Taliban establishment which we don't want," a member of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, Muhammad Ismael Qasemyar, told the BBC, referring to the newly opened Taliban office.

The opening on Tuesday was meant to be a step in the Afghan peace process after a year and a half of stalled efforts. However, the Taliban used the opportunity as a publicity stunt. The Taliban hung its flag along with a banner outside the office naming it “the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan,” the name the group used during its rule over Afghanistan from 1996-2001. The group also said they planned to host meetings with members of the international community like the United Nations.

Essentially, what was meant to be an office dedicated to facilitating the peace process after a 12-year war in Afghanistan appeared to be something more akin to an embassy, according to The New York Times.  

“Through those pictures of the Taliban flag waving in the air and the banner on the office, it took people to see two countries, two flags, two legitimacies. The damage is already done,” a former Afghan official in Doha told the Times.

Many Afghans who saw footage of the Taliban office opening felt removed from a process that inherently involves them: bringing peace to Afghanistan, reports the Times. Editorial cartoons from the months leading up to the talks highlight a sense of skepticism, including one of a skewered dove and another showing US surprise at who they were entering into negotiations with.

As a result of the office-opening debacle, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced his delegation would not attend the talks until the Taliban’s symbolic representation as an independent government was removed. Mr. Karzai also suspended bilateral talks with the US over extending its military presence in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 withdrawal date.

According to Reuters, the “squabble” could set the tone for “long and arduous negotiations to end a war that has raged since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan that followed the September 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on U.S. targets.”

The Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy writes:

Karzai continues to gamble that the US can be bent to his will in a high stakes game of chicken, counting on President Obama to make compromises in his favor for fear of being seen as the president who "lost" Afghanistan. But whatever happens over the SOFA, or whether talks with the Taliban start in Qatar or not, they are not likely to mitigate the looming storm-clouds over the troubled country.

In a statement, Karzai rejected any US mediation role with the Taliban and insisted that talks take place inside Afghanistan. But the Taliban office in Qatar – a country that uses its oil and gas wealth to support Sunni Islamist causes around the world – had been in the works for 18 months. Inasmuch as the US has an exit strategy designed to prevent a hot civil war erupting again in Afghanistan, like the one that broke out after the Soviet Union's withdrawal in 1989, this is it. 

To be sure, the notion is now far-fetched of any negotiated settlement between the Taliban and Karzai, who is term-limited out of office next year at the same time America is scheduled to withdraw the last of its combat troops. US and other NATO forces are more capable than the Afghan National Army, and the Taliban is looking forward to more favorable fighting terrain. Make concessions now? Why would they? 

One unnamed US official told Agence France-Presse that “it was hoped talks would take place ‘in the next few days.’

But Bruce Riedel from the Brookings Intelligence Project told AFP, "If the prize is peace in Afghanistan it's got to become a process in which Afghans talk to Afghans. And Karzai has said he's not going to talk."

In an exclusive interview with the Associated Press, Taliban spokesman Shaheen Suhail in Doha said the Taliban first wanted to negotiate with the United States.

"We want foreign troops to be pulled out of Afghanistan," Mr. Suhail said. "If there are troops in Afghanistan then there will be a continuation of the war." Suhail also said a prisoner exchange is top on the Taliban’s agenda before beginning peace talks, saying it would “build bridges of confidence to go forward."

The only US soldier known to be held captive by the Taliban is Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, from Idaho. The proposed exchange would exchange Bergdahl for five senior militants currently held at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

NATO soldiers walk towards a Chinook helicopter after a ceremony at a military academy on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday. The Taliban killed four American troops at Bagram Airbase overnight and the Afghan government announced it was suspending negotiations with the US on an extended troop agreement Wednesday. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

Bagram Air Base attack: Four US soldiers killed as US seeks talks with Taliban

By Staff writer / 06.19.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack that killed four American troops and the Afghan government announced it was suspending negotiations with the US on an extended troop agreement today, casting a double shadow over peace talks between the US and the Taliban scheduled to begin tomorrow.

Sky News reports that the Taliban acknowledged it was behind a rocket attack last night on Bagram Air Base, launched just hours after the US announced it would be holding peace talks with the Islamist group on Thursday. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said: "Last night two big rockets were launched at Bagram which hit the target. Four soldiers are dead and six others are wounded. The rockets caused a major fire."

A senior defense official confirmed to NBC News that the four killed were Americans.

Separately, the US and Afghanistan had been discussing an extended presence for American troops in the country past 2014, when NATO forces are set to withdraw from all combat operations in the country. But in a statement released by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office, the government said today that it was suspending those talks "in view of the contradiction between acts and the statements made by the United States of America in regard to the peace process."

Although the initial statement did not elaborate on the contradiction, a senior Afghan official told Reuters that the issue was over the "official identity" being given to the Taliban, who opened an office in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday.

"The Doha office gave the Taliban an official identity, something we didn't want," the Afghan official said.

"The U.S. officials told us the office will be used to move peace talks forward, but not to give them an identity.

"The Taliban's flag and the banner of the Islamic Emirate was something we did not expect at the office," the official said, referring to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name the Taliban used during their rule.

The BBC's Jonathan Beale, however, reports that the real issue is anger at Afghanistan not being included in the US-Taliban talks.

President Karzai clearly feels a sense of anger and betrayal over the way the US made that announcement. He thought there would be a commitment from the Taliban to engage with the Afghan government, to recognise the constitution and to renounce violence.

None of those promises were made. Hopes that these talks with the Taliban will go very far must be fading fast. Without the involvement of the Afghan government there is no peace process.

The deadly Bagram attack and the Afghan government's anger cast a pall over the planned Taliban talks, which US officials had been optimistic about. The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday that the US was cautiously upbeat over a Taliban statement "committing to two principles that the United States had been calling on the Taliban to publicly adopt: One is simply that the Taliban support an Afghan peace process, while the second is that they oppose the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries" -- the latter meant by the US as a reference to sheltering groups like Al Qaeda.

But the Monitor adds that even if Taliban negotiators are on board with such principles, that commitment may not extend to fighters on the ground -- a concern underscored by the Bagram attack last night.

Senior Afghan officials involved in reconciliation efforts said in comments to the Monitor last month that signals from Taliban leaders continued to be mixed and “confused,” with some factions suggesting an interest in pursuing a peace process while others demonstrated a prevailing interest in pursuing the summer fighting season and even planning ahead for efforts to disrupt next April’s national elections.

Indeed, one of the biggest potential challenges to any peace process will be the same one that has long been present, some regional experts say: the divisions in the Taliban’s vision for the way forward. What happens if the Taliban’s political leadership based in Pakistan signs on to a peace accord, only to have military leaders in the field reject the peace and vow to keep fighting?

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, left, shakes hands with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen during a ceremony at a military academy on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday. Karzai announced at the ceremony on Tuesday that his country's armed forces are taking over the lead for security nationwide from the US-led NATO coalition. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

After 12 years, NATO passes security responsibility to Afghan forces

By Staff writer / 06.18.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

NATO troops in Afghanistan officially passed security responsibility to national forces at a ceremony in Kabul today, marking an important transition in the country’s 12-year war.

“Today is a historic day for Afghanistan,” President Hamid Karzai said, standing alongside NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. The transition began in July 2011, followed by three subsequent rounds of provincial handoffs, reports Reuters.

“[NATO] will no longer plan, execute or lead combat operations," Mr. Rasmussen said, referring to the nearly 97,000 troops from NATO countries still stationed in Afghanistan. “By the end of 2014 our combat mission will be complete.” Until then, international troops will continue in a support role, providing training, intelligence, and ground forces as needed, reports the BBC.

Many at home and abroad harbor doubts that Afghan forces are prepared for the myriad security challenges that still exist. A December Pentagon report noted that “just one of the Afghan National Army's 23 brigades is capable of operating on its own without NATO support,” reports Foreign Policy. The transition has placed an outsized burden on Afghan troops, according to Reuters: “In one year, the Afghan state has lost more troops than NATO has across the entire war.”

Issues of insufficient training and low morale plague the 350,000-strong Afghan national army, according to the Los Angeles Times:

[The Army] isn’t ready, but is nevertheless being pushed into a commanding role by NATO members keen to withdraw their combat troops by late 2014 and end the high costs and body count of a protracted conflict.

Just 90 minutes before today’s ceremony in Kabul a bomb exploded killing three civilians and wounding at least 21 others, reports CNN. The bombing targeted parliamentarian Mohammad Mohaqiq, a senior member of the Afghan peace council. Mr. Mohaqiq survived the attack. 

Just last week the Taliban launched an attack on the Kabul airport, where NATO has an base. According to the LA Times, today’s bombing was the fifth high-profile attack in Kabul in a month and a half.

The Taliban said it would target foreign troops, UN officials and Afghans working with international forces at the start of its spring offensive, a time when warmer weather generally brings more intense fighting.

Proving that Afghan troops are capable of tamping down Taliban violence is an immediate goal, but a full peace agreement was high on the mind today as the Taliban is expected to open a political office in Qatar. President Karzai announced he would send a team of peace negotiators from a council formed in 2010 to the Gulf state, reports Bloomberg.

An Afghan diplomatic source told Reuters that the Taliban would open an office in Qatar as early as today. "This will help start the peace talks again," the unnamed source said. Reuters reports:

Karzai said three principles had been created to guide the talks - that having begun in Qatar, they must then immediately be moved to Afghanistan, that they bring about an end to violence and that they must not become a tool for a "third country's" exploitation of Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron watch as students work on a school project about the G-8 summit during a visit to the Enniskillen Integrated Primary School in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Monday, June 17, 2013. The visit takes place before leaders from the G-8 nations are to gather to discuss the ongoing conflict in Syria, and free-trade issues. (Evan Vucci/AP)

As G8 kicks off, Snowden documents reveal snooping at past summit

By Staff writer / 06.17.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The latest leaks from the US National Security Agency - that the US and UK have used past summits as an opportunity to spy on foreign officials - have cast a pall over the G8 summit set to start today in Northern Ireland.

The NSA and and its UK counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), conducted extensive surveillance during the 2009 G20 summit in London, according to information Edward Snowden provided to the The Guardian. The surveillance included intercepting communications, hacking smartphones, and even setting up fake Internet cafes where they could steal diplomats' passwords.

In the latest of its reports based on documents from Mr. Snowden, the Guardian writes today that internal GCHQ documents reveal a broad range of surveillance measures rolled out against opponents and allies alike during the summit, including:

• Setting up internet cafes where they used an email interception programme and key-logging software to spy on delegates' use of computers;

• Penetrating the security on delegates' BlackBerrys to monitor their email messages and phone calls;

• Supplying 45 analysts with a live round-the-clock summary of who was phoning who at the summit;

• Targeting the Turkish finance minister and possibly 15 others in his party;

• Receiving reports from an NSA attempt to eavesdrop on the Russian leader, Dmitry Medvedev, as his phone calls passed through satellite links to Moscow.

The information acquired was relayed to analysts "in near real-time" and to "ministers" in the government of then Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The operation ran for at least six months, according to one GCHQ internal review.

Another review said that "in a live situation such as this, intelligence received may be used to influence events on the ground taking place just minutes or hours later. This means that it is not sufficient to mine call records afterwards – real-time tip-off is essential."

The revelations come at an uncomfortable moment for the US and Britain, as both President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron are in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland today for this year's G8 summit, hosted by Britain. The two leaders will likely face difficult questions from their fellow world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose predecessor and current prime minister was one of those being spied upon.

The Guardian reports that according to a briefing prepared by the NSA, the spy organization successfully eavesdropped on the communications of then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during his visit to London for the G20 conference.

Medvedev arrived in London on Wednesday 1 April and the NSA intercepted communications from his delegation the same day, according to the NSA paper, entitled: "Russian Leadership Communications in support of President Dmitry Medvedev at the G20 summit in London – Intercept at Menwith Hill station." ...

The report says: "This is an analysis of signal activity in support of President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to London. The report details a change in the way Russian leadership signals have been normally transmitted. The signal activity was found to be emanating from the Russian embassy in London and the communications are believed to be in support of the Russian president."

The Guardian notes that Russian and American intelligence services can be expected to spy on each other. Public confirmation of such spying is rare and highly embarrassing.

But geopolitical rivals were not the only targets of NSA and GCHQ scrutiny: allies were as well. The Guardian notes that the scrutiny of Turkey – a British and American ally under NATO – appears to have had no security implications at all. Rather, the communications observed were "the everyday talk of financial civil servants and central bankers," apparently watched to give British diplomats a slight advantage in negotiations over financial regulation and reform.

"So why is GCHQ bugging them if the potential gains are so marginal?" the Guardian writes in an editorial. "The answer seems to be because it can, both technically and legally."

The Guardian goes on to say that "[t]he only boundary GCHQ appears to recognise is membership of Five Eyes, the tight coalition of western English-speaking states that share their signals intelligence: the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand." Any surveillance involving the citizen of another member of the coalition requires informing that citizen's government.

The revelations about the GCHQ and NSA efforts may cause trouble on both sides of the Atlantic, due to the closeness of the two organizations. Richard Aldrich, a professor of international security who has studied GCHQ, told The Christian Science Monitor last week that “All intelligence agencies share a lot of intelligence now because the targets are global, but the Anglo-American relationship is special to the extent that, since the 1970s, with processes and projects, at various points GCHQ and NSA are effectively the same organization.”

Smoke rises during what activists say was military operations led by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad against rebels, in Aleppo's countryside, Thursday. (George Ourfalian/Reuters)

Russia warns of Syria chemical weapons fabrication as US ups involvement

By Staff writer / 06.14.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

A senior Russian lawmaker accused the US of fabricating evidence of Syrian government chemical weapons use, comparing it to America's incorrect claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq ahead of the US invasion of that country in 2003.

The already slim hope that a joint US and Russia-organized peace conference on Syria planned for next month would accomplish anything, or even happen at all, got slimmer after the US announcement.

“Information about the usage of chemical weapons by [Syrian President Bashar al] Assad is fabricated in the same way as the lie about [Saddam] Hussein's weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq],” Alexei Pushkov, leader of the Russian lower house’s international affairs committee, said in a twitter comment, according to RIA Novosti.

The White House has insisted that Mr. Assad using chemical weapons would cross a "red line" prompting possible US military involvement. The Assad regime has been openly receiving weapons from outside sources, including Russia, throughout the conflict. 

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said today that Britain agrees with the US assessment that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons, Reuters reports. 

Mr. Pushkov said that President Barack Obama "is going the same way" as former President George W. Bush did, RIA Novosti reports. In the leadup to the Iraq war, the US released a slew of intelligence reports alleging that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which it cast as a viable enough threat to justify invading. The WMDs never materialized.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Ushakov said that information the US provided to Russia "didn't look convincing," the Associated Press reports. 

He also said that Russia will not lift its hold on delivery of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems it sold to Syria. President Vladimir Putin said the stay on delivery is to maintain the "regional balance of power," Bloomberg reports. “We’re not in competition over Syria,” Mr. Ushakov said.

He also warned that the peace initiative was threatened by the Obama administration's "hardening" of its stance, Bloomberg reports.

White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said that the White House had decided to provide additional support, including military support, to the rebels, but resisted saying explicitly that the US would provide arms. However, he did say that US aid from now on would be very different "in scope and scale" from previous assistance. 

The goal is to "strengthen their effectiveness," he said, according to RIA Novosti.

Business Insider reports that Russia may finally be looking to extricate itself from Syria. The Obama administration reportedly told Russia that it should "pull its support" from the Syrian regime, and analysts Business Insider spoke to say that Russia may heed the warning.

As we've already reported, there are Russian troops in Syria, and should a fight take place, those troops would be in harm's way.

Now Washington has kindly advised Moscow that a fight will take place, and, for fear of appearing aligned with chemical weapons use, Russia will likely make its exodus.

"Should the 'red line' of chemical weapon use be crossed, I think Russia will just want to be completely removed from the situation, and make sure that they retain influence in a post-Assad Syria," Ingrid Pederson, an expert in Near East and Russian geopolitics, told Business Insider.

"Russia is very self-interested and continuing to back Assad at this point does nothing for them and in fact could hurt their image with those who may come to control Syria after Assad falls," Pederson concluded.

Britain is holding back, at least for now. A spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said today that Britain is not ready to provide arms, but would consider a no-fly zone or other measure, Reuters reports. 

"Nothing is off the table," the spokesman said. "We are in urgent discussions with our international partners."

The picture of Edward Snowden, bottom, a former CIA employee who leaked top-secret documents about sweeping US surveillance programs, is displayed on the front page of South China Morning Post at a news stand in Hong Kong Thursday, June 13, 2013. Snowden dropped out of sight after checking out of a Hong Kong hotel on Monday. The South China Morning Post newspaper said it was able to locate and interview him on Wednesday. (Kin Cheung/AP)

Chinese cartoonists have field day with NSA revelations

By Staff writer / 06.13.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The Chinese media are gleefully reporting recent leaks about widespread US surveillance programs, while a prominent Chinese dissident is expressing dismay that the US is "behaving like China." 

The top-secret programs came to light last week after contractor Edward Snowden divulged information about the scale of government reach into phone and online communication records.

Mr. Snowden’s journey has been covered by news outlets from Spain to Saudi Arabia, with headlines like “Obama Isn’t Bush, But He’s Like Him,” “Edward Snowden, Freedom Fighter,” “NSA surveillance: The US is behaving like China,” and "Dangers of blowing the whistle in the digital age" slapped on front pages and websites.

The Chinese media have been particularly interesting to watch, given Snowden’s decision to seek refuge in Hong Kong. Snowden told The Guardian he chose to flee to Hong Kong because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent” – and China’s own history of state surveillance.

"For months, Washington has been accusing China of cyberespionage, but it turns out that the biggest threat to the pursuit of individual freedom and privacy in the US is the unbridled power of the government," The China Daily quoted Li Haidong from China Foreign Affairs University.

A cartoon in the paper’s opinion section depicts a US emblem of freedom – The Statue of Liberty – trailed by a shadowy spy wearing headphones and carrying recording devices.

Mr. Snowden’s leaks now put Chinese media in an interesting position. They can speak out against the US program, but must walk the fine line of not drawing too much attention to China's own cyberprograms, reports The New York Times. They cite another Chinese outlet, The Global Times, which wrote this week: “We are not bystanders. The issue of whether the U.S. as an Internet superpower has abused its powers touches on our vital interests directly.”

The Atlantic posted a cartoon from The Global Times as well, depicting the US National Security Agency seal: but the bald eagle in the center of the seal is dressed as a classic spy.

China’s state media today implied the scandal could hurt US-Chinese relations, a comment that comes just days after President Obama met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in California. In the leadup to Mr. Xi’s visit last week, The Christian Science Monitor wrote that “Strategic trust between the world’s top two economies is at a dangerously low level, worn away recently in a number of ways.” Top on that list? Accusations from Washington that Beijing used “massive commercial espionage.”

The New York Times reports that the presidents seemed to “speak past each other” last week when it came to “American accusations that Chinese corporations linked to the military had pilfered military and economic secrets and property in cyberspace.”

Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei wrote in the Guardian this week that the US is “behaving like China.” He referred to the program, Prism, as “abusively using government powers to interfere in individuals' privacy. This is an important moment for international society to reconsider and protect individual rights.”

In our experience in China, basically there is no privacy at all – that is why China is far behind the world in important respects: even though it has become so rich, it trails behind in terms of passion, imagination and creativity….

[Prism] puts individuals in a very vulnerable position. Privacy is a basic human right, one of the very core values. There is no guarantee that China, the US or any other government will not use the information falsely or wrongly. I think especially that a nation like the US, which is technically advanced, should not take advantage of its power. It encourages other nations….

When human beings are scared and feel everything is exposed to the government, we will censor ourselves from free thinking. That's dangerous for human development…. We must not hand over our rights to other people. No state power should be given that kind of trust. Not China. Not the US.

South Korean workers dismantle a signboard at the venue for the Koreas' first high-level meeting at Grand Hilton Hotel in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday. The Koreas' first high-level talks in years were scrapped a day before they were to begin Wednesday because of a dispute about the rank of officials who would lead their delegations. (Lee Jin-man/AP)

South Korea calling, but North pretends that nobody is home

By Staff writer / 06.12.13

North Korea refused to take calls from Seoul Wednesday, a day after proposed cabinet-level talks between the two Koreas fell apart over a dispute about the rank of officials who would lead their delegations.

Reuters reports that South Korea received no response from two calls, sent at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. local time, to the North via a Red Cross hotline reestablished just last week after Pyongyang shut it down earlier this year. The lack of response is most likely a result of this week's collapsed talks, reports the BBC.

Representatives for the two Koreas had met on Monday to arrange high-level discussions planned for today, in what would have been the first such meeting since 2007. But, reports The New York Times, the two sides broke off their preliminary discussions on Tuesday after the two sides split on what officials would attend.

South Korea said it would send its vice unification minister, Kim Nam-shik, to the meeting as its chief delegate. North Korea said that Mr. Kim was not senior enough and demanded that the South send Mr. Kim's supervisor, the Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae as chief delegate. The South retorted that the proposed chief North Korean delegate — Kang Ji-yong, director of the secretariat of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea — was already below Mr. Kim "in status."

Last-minute negotiations for a compromise had failed, with both Koreas accusing each other of hurting their ego. Then, on the eve of the talks, North Korea pulled out of the planned Seoul meeting, accusing the South of “an insult,” South Korean officials said.

Any hopes of the two Koreas soon reducing tension and getting back to business as usual were dashed.

In recent months, North Korea has been using particularly heated rhetoric toward the South and the US, and it staged several weapons tests this spring. It has also refused to return to the negotiating table over its nuclear weapons program -- despite UN sanctions supported even by its sole ally, China. Gi-Wook Shin, a professor at Stanford University, told The Christian Science Monitor that the North's willingness to entertain even preliminary talks with the South could be a result of pressure from China, whose president, Xi Jinping, recently met with President Barack Obama.

“What we should pay attention to is the timing of all this, as the agreement [to hold meetings] came just before the Obama-Xi summit. With the North's dialogue gesture, China could urge the US to talk to the North. In this sense, North Korea's agreement to talks can be seen as targeting China and the US as much as South Korea,” says Stanford University professor Gi-Wook Shin.

South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won said in a parliamentary session today that it was a matter of "the pride of the South Korean people" that the North and South meet on equal terms, writes Yonhap News. "Dialogue can be accepted by each other when two sides are on the same level. Talks made by a unilateral push would not have sincerity," he said.

In an editorial, South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo argued that "It is common courtesy and global protocol to match the ranks of participants in government talks," and that "North Korea has been spoiled" by the South's previous willingness to fudge the difference in ranks between diplomats.

In previous talks that were billed as "ministerial," the South Korean delegation was always helmed by a minister, as the name suggests, whereas North Korea repeatedly got away with sending some underling, evidently to demonstrate just how little store it set by these meetings. Now its bluff has been called, it sulks, suggesting that it was never sincere about the negotiations in the first place. ...

Seoul did the right thing by refusing to blindly accept all the North's conditions for the sake of talks. It was a necessary decision on the road to putting inter-Korean relations on a more sensible footing. South Korea should not shut its doors on North Korea, but it needs to set firm conditions for constructive dialogue.

But Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea scholar at Seoul’s Dongguk University, told the Associated Press that the dispute is in part due to disagreement over how officials within the two Koreas' different political systems match up. Regardless, he said, it will likely take some time before new discussions are held. “The two sides are offended by each other now. The relations may again undergo a cooling-off period before negotiations for further talks resume,” he said.

Syrian army soldiers stand guard at a scene of two explosions in the central district of Marjeh, Damascus, Syria, Tuesday. Two explosions hit a central Damascus square Tuesday, killing at least 14 people and injuring scores of others. (SANA/AP)

Double suicide bombings brings war back to Damascus streets

By Staff writer / 06.11.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

A pair of suicide bombs exploded today in a downtown Damascus square, killing at least 14 people and injuring scores of others.

These bombings come just days after US news outlets reported that the US could approve military assistance for Syria’s rebels as early as this week. With similar past attacks claimed by Al Qaeda-linked, rebel-allied militant groups, today's bombings highlight the difficulty the international community will face as it tries to handpick which rebel groups will receive arms. 

The attack took place in or near a police building on Marjeh Square, according to state media and activist groups. The square, also known as Martyrs Square, has witnessed multiple bombings since the outbreak of violence in 2011, including one just six weeks ago, reports Reuters. State TV showed footage of destroyed storefronts and normally bustling streets filled with glass and debris, reports the BBC.

Syrian state media blamed terrorists, the term they commonly use when referring to antiregime rebels. The Al Qaeda-linked faction Jabhat al-Nusra has claimed responsibility for past suicide attacks and car bombs. For international powers debating the merits of arming rebels, Jabhat al-Nusra is emblematic of a central challenge: how to arm rebels without empowering and arming terrorist groups.

In April, The New York Times examined the increase in the use of car bombs in Syria’s fight, and how Jabhat al-Nusra’s presence created a marked shift in how the battle in Syria was being fought.

In December 2011, when car bombs began hitting government security buildings — and killing civilians nearby — government supporters and opponents alike viewed the explosions as an ominous turn in the conflict.

Until then, the fighting had largely pitted rebels with small arms and roadside bombs against the army and security forces. But suddenly, the Syrian capital was witnessing scenes reminiscent of the Iraqi insurgency. Checkpoints and blast walls went up everywhere.

Some in the opposition said they suspected the government of setting the bombs to tarnish the uprising. But one rebel group, the extremist Nusra Front, began claiming responsibility for many of those attacks. That led to one of the first signs of the split in the armed opposition, between those who said they were defending themselves against a violent government crackdown and a minority who called for an Islamic state. And it repulsed some civilian activists who then distanced themselves from the movement.

Now, the Nusra Front has become a major force on the battlefield, leading other rebel groups in more conventional fights. That poses a quandary for the United States, which supports the opposition but rejects the Nusra Front and accuses it of ties to Al Qaeda.

Some countries, like France, are looking into ways to "safely" arm rebels via weapons technology that could deactivate a weapon from afar if it falls into the wrong hands or include GPS tracking.

The Associate Press reported this week that the US – motivated by recent gains by the Assad regime in reclaiming strategic towns like Qusayr on the Lebanese border and aims to retake Homs, which could cut off rebel access to the south of Syria – could send arms to “vetted, moderate rebel units.” The US has long been hesitant to send weapons into Syria for fear that they could fall into the wrong hands.

Obama already has ruled out any intervention that would require US military boots on the ground. Other options such as deploying American air power to ground the regime's jets, gunships and other aerial assets are now being more seriously debated, the officials said, while cautioning that a no-fly zone or any other action involving US military deployments in Syria were far less likely right now….

Any intervention could have wide-reaching ramifications for the United States and the region. It would bring the US closer to a conflict that has killed almost 80,000 people since Assad cracked down on protesters inspired by the Arab Spring in March 2011 and sparked a war that has since been increasingly defined by sectarian clashes between the Sunni-led rebellion and Assad's Alawite-dominated regime.

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Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

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