Terrorism & Security
A daily summary of global reports on security issues
Washington went on the defensive over the weekend as new reports citing unnamed US intelligence sources gave embarrassing details of the National Security Agency's surveillance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Barack Obama's knowledge thereof.
German media on Sunday aired new details and accusations of the depth of the NSA's spying in Germany, ramping up the tensions between Berlin and Washington.
Bild am Sontag quotes an unnamed NSA official saying that NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander had briefed Obama in 2010 on the agency's surveillance of Mrs. Merkel, reports Agence France-Presse. "Obama did not halt the operation but rather let it continue," the source added. And Der Spiegel reports that according to documents it obtained, Merkel was first put under surveillance by the NSA in 2002.
But US officials, on the record and anonymously, deny that Obama knew the particulars of the NSA spying on world leaders, including that Merkel was specifically targeted.
The Wall Street Journal reports that, according to an unnamed US official, the decision to spy on Merkel would have been made within the NSA, and Obama would not have been consulted. "These decisions are made at NSA," the official said. "The president doesn't sign off on this stuff."
The Journal notes further that if Der Spiegel's report that the spying dates back to 2002 is true, "it is less likely NSA would have had a reason to brief the Obama White House without a specific reason to do so, because it would have been seen as one of many continuing surveillance programs at the agency."
And the NSA denied the Bild report outright, with a spokesperson saying that General Alexander "did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel," according to AFP.
Still, the episode adds to shakier German-American relations. Der Spiegel indicates that regardless of Obama's personal knowledge, the US spying has been long and systemic.
Der Spiegel reports that the NSA's "Special Collection Service" unit has been operating out of the Berlin embassy, apparently from an office located on the roof of the embassy building in the heart of Berlin's government district.
A "top secret" classified NSA document from the year 2010 shows that a unit known as the "Special Collection Service" (SCS) is operational in Berlin, among other locations. It is an elite corps run in concert by the US intelligence agencies NSA and CIA.
The secret list reveals that its agents are active worldwide in around 80 locations, 19 of which are in Europe -- cities such as Paris, Madrid, Rome, Prague and Geneva. The SCS maintains two bases in Germany, one in Berlin and another in Frankfurt. That alone is unusual. But in addition, both German bases are equipped at the highest level and staffed with active personnel. ...
[British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, analyzing the American embassy in Berlin,] refers to window-like indentations on the roof of the US Embassy. They are not glazed but rather veneered with "dielectric" material and are painted to blend into the surrounding masonry. This material is permeable even by weak radio signals. The interception technology is located behind these radio-transparent screens, says Campbell. The offices of SCS agents would most likely be located in the same windowless attic.
Der Spiegel adds that the scandal is fueling opposition to the proposed US-EU free-trade agreement. Some 58 percent of Germans support breaking off negotiations with the US due to the NSA spying, and Bavarian Economy Minister Ilse Aigner, a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats, called for putting talks "on ice until the accusations against the NSA have been clarified."
Oddly, despite all the outrage, at least one historian suggests that the US spying in Germany may actually be legal. Historian Josef Foschepoth told Deutsche Welle that in the aftermath of World War II, the West German government granted the Allies, including the US, special surveillance rights in the country that still apply today.
In other words, as the historian points out, it's possible that even the tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone had some sort of legal basis. Although the treaty documents do not explicitly allow the US secret service to spy on the German government, they do not explicitly forbid it, either.
In the treaty, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer granted the Allies certain rights that prevailed over the confidentiality laws pertaining to mail and telecommunications as stipulated in the German Basic Law. "This is how the big German-Allied intelligence service complex came into being," said Foschepoth.
But Nikolaos Gazeas, an expert on international law at the University of Cologne, told Deutsche Welle that it is unlikely that spying on the West German government itself would be allowed. "Even if one assumes that the Allies were granted these kinds of rights back then, the intentions of the parties involved in the contract still need to be taken into account – and even back then it would not have been considered acceptable to spy on the German government," he said.
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Germany and France want a new set of spy rules in place by the end of the year, leaders said early Friday morning at a European Union summit, where allegations of American surveillance have dominated the agenda.
If not, they say, it could hurt the fight against terrorism.
The “joint initiative” by Germany and France, which have been at the center of new allegations of US spying this week, called for renegotiating intelligence service cooperation with the US by year's end, and was signed by all 28 members of the EU.
According to The New York Times, the statement read that all members “took note of the intention of France and Germany to seek bilateral talks” and “noted that other EU countries are welcome to join this initiative.”
The push followed reports that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had listened to the telephone calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a shock to a leader who is one of the most media-shy in office, as The Christian Science Monitor detailed in a profile of the German leader.
“I think the services need to come to agreement between each other on yardsticks and other norms and standards,” Ms. Merkel said at a press conference after the first day of the two-day EU summit, which continues today in Brussels. “Words are not sufficient. True change is necessary.”
“This partnership . . . is a partnership that has stood the test of time,” Merkel also said of the German-American relationship. “But for the future, things have to change and they have to change radically.”
Germany and France did not elaborate on what new spying protocols would look like. But some officials, according to the Financial Times, said it could resemble the “five eyes” deal between the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, “in which the English-speaking allies work almost seamlessly on signals intelligence.”
France joined the push with Germany after new revelations this week published in Le Monde showed massive spying on the part of the NSA on French telephone data, including that of French politicians, according to The Christian Science Monitor.
But anger was not limited to the two major powers within the eurozone. Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt shared his indignation with BBC Radio 4's Today program: "There is no reason to spy on Angela Merkel. It's a real scandal," he said, as quoted in the Guardian. "A new agreement is needed between the EU and the US; this cannot continue.”
Dismay in the EU is likely to mount further with allegations that the NSA was listening in on the conversations of 35 world leaders, according to a report in the Guardian detailing a 2006 NSA memo provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The statement Friday from EU leaders read: "A lack of trust could prejudice the necessary cooperation in the field of intelligence-gathering."
The spying allegations could influence a host of issues between the US and Europe that go beyond actual spying.
Michel Barnier, the EU's internal market commissioner, told the BBC that he wanted to develop a European data cloud, independent of American oversight.
The European Parliament, meanwhile, has pushed for stronger data privacy rules that are controversial among member states as they increase the cost of business. But it could gain more proponents as European anger over American spying mounts.
Such rules could indirectly impact a key deal between the US and EU right now: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). This is because the US might balk atthe high costs of potential new privacy data laws in Europe. The Christian Science Monitor explained how such rules could impact American companies like Google and Facebook.
Yet while the NSA scandal has also led to direct calls by some European politicians to call TTIP talks off, it seems that for now both the US and EU are attempting to control the damage and keep the negotiations moving forward.
“I always take the view that when you leave the room, you have to always contemplate how to get back in again,” said Merkel, according to The New York Times. “In such a tense situation, such talks may be even more important than usual.”
A daily summary of global reports on security issues
US-Saudi relations, a bedrock of the American relationship with the Middle East since World War II, forged on the back of oil wealth and defense partnerships, have been put under unprecedented public strain over the past week.
In the past week, Saudi Arabia rejected a seat on the United Nations Security Council (which it said was intended as a message to the US) and its intelligence chief announced he would be scaling back US-Saudi cooperation on war-torn Syria.
The general consensus seems to be, "You should have seen this coming," as the two countries have been moving at cross-purposes on important regional issues for months.
The US has launched an unprecedented push to reach an agreement with Saudi Arabia's chief rival, Iran, while Saudi Arabia has undermined US efforts to punish Egypt's military for a July coup by filling Egyptian coffers with promises of more money than the US has yanked back. The US abruptly retreated from a full march toward a military strike on Syria – a move Riyadh strongly backed.
As a senior US official told The Wall Street Journal, "Our interests increasingly don't align."
Saudi officials have been quite blunt. Prince Turki al-Faisal, a member of the royal family and former director of Saudi intelligence, said in Washington that President Obama's Syria policy was "lamentable" and scoffed at the US-Russia agreement on Syria's chemical weapons deal, Reuters reports.
"The current charade of international control over Bashar's chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious. And designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down (from military strikes), but also to help Assad to butcher his people," said Prince Turki.
Foreign Policy's Colum Lynch explains the very public, abrupt shift:
For decades, Riyadh and Washington have been bound by a basic tradeoff: America guarantees protection from potential predators in the region, while Saudi Arabia supplies the lifeblood – relatively inexpensive oil – to run the world economy and pumps billions each year into the US arms industry. But America's failure to back Saudi Arabia on matters it considers vital to its security is raising questions in Riyadh about the value of that exchange.
"This is not how a protection racket is supposed to work," said Christopher Davidson, a scholar and author of After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies. "Saudi Arabia is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with a relationship it thought it had in the bag, despite having handed over several percent of their GDP to Western arms companies." As a result, he said, "Saudi Arabia is retreating into its shell of countries that surround it and who rely on its aid and good will."
Saudi Arabia has been quite clear about its opposition to US-Iran rapprochement, Bloomberg reports.
Saudi King Abdullah has urged the US to attack Iran, “cut off the head of the snake” and halt its nuclear program, U.S. diplomats reported in cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010. After last month’s accord on chemical weapons, Prince Saud said Assad’s government would probably use the deal as an opportunity “to impose more killing and to torture its people.”
“We don’t know what the Americans are trying to do with Syria,” said Khalid al-Dakhil, a political science professor at King Saud University in Riyadh. “They seem to be using Syria as a bargaining chip with Iran. They handed Iraq to the Iranians, and the Saudis won’t let them do the same thing to Syria.”
And on backing the Syrian rebels, an issue on which Washington and Riyadh were initially aligned, the divide is growing. An anonymous Saudi official told Bloomberg yesterday that Riyadh's support for Syrian rebels would not be "constrained" by US efforts to keep the money from Islamist groups.
The anonymous comments come on the heels of a London meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts from countries backing the Syrian rebels. At the meeting, they agreed to send aid exclusively through the moderate Syrian National Coalition's armed wing to "curtail the influence of extremists."
"Syrian opposition factions backed by the US are disorganized and largely ineffective, so directing assistance only to them would be handicapping the fight against President Bashar al-Assad," the anonymous Saudi official said.
In a piece extensively detailing the decline in relations, the WSJ reports that the US was keeping Saudi Arabia in the dark on issues about which Riyadh was usually informed.
In the run-up to the expected U.S. strikes, Saudi leaders asked for detailed U.S. plans for posting Navy ships to guard the Saudi oil center, the Eastern Province, during any strike on Syria, an official familiar with that discussion said. The Saudis were surprised when the Americans told them U.S. ships wouldn't be able to fully protect the oil region, the official said.
Disappointed, the Saudis told the U.S. that they were open to alternatives to their long-standing defense partnership, emphasizing that they would look for good weapons at good prices, whatever the source, the official said.
In the second episode, one Western diplomat described Saudi Arabia as eager to be a military partner in what was to have been the U.S.-led military strikes on Syria. As part of that, the Saudis asked to be given the list of military targets for the proposed strikes. The Saudis indicated they never got the information, the diplomat said.
"The Saudis are very upset. They don't know where the Americans want to go," said a senior European diplomat not in Riyadh.
Yet the anonymous Saudi official quoted by Bloomberg said that reports of a "major split are overblown," citing common interests in oil price stability and combating terrorism. Just last week, the US Department of Defense announced it would sell $10.8 billion in "advanced weaponry" to Saudi Arabia and ally United Arab Emirates.
A Western diplomat told the WSJ that Saudi Arabia's top priority is a more effective US or UN plan for helping the Syrian rebels.
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US drone attacks in Pakistan have killed at least 29 noncombatants since 2012 – deaths that could be categorized as war crimes, Amnesty International said today in a report released just a day before Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is set to meet with President Obama.
The report, “‘Will I be Next?’ US Drone Strikes in Pakistan” was released by Amnesty International in conjunction with a separate report by New York-based Human Rights Watch on US drone attacks in Yemen. The Amnesty report analyzed 45 publicly known drone attacks in the most commonly targeted region of Pakistan where the Taliban has been particularly active, North Waziristan, between January 2012 and August 2013.
The timing of the report's release puts perhaps the most sensitive issue in US-Pakistan relations in the spotlight as the two leaders meet.
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President Obama publicly acknowledged a drone program in Pakistan in January 2012, and promised greater transparency in May 2013. “There must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured,” Obama said, noting that civilian deaths from drone strikes would haunt him and others involved in the administration’s hierarchy “as long as we live.”
Amnesty wrote in its report release that despite this, the US “still refuses to divulge even basic factual and legal information” on its drone program, which means little opportunity for victims’ families to press for compensation or take legal action.
“Secrecy surrounding the drones program gives the US administration a license to kill beyond the reach of the courts or basic standards of international law,” said Mustafa Qadri, author of the report.
“The tragedy is that drone aircraft deployed by the USA over Pakistan now instill the same kind of fear in the people of the tribal areas that was once associated only with Al Qaeda and the Taliban,” said Mr. Qadri.
According to Reuters, the Pakistani Taliban largely controls North Waziristan, in northwestern Pakistan, offering “safe havens to Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban who are fighting NATO troops across the border.”
The United States has carried out 376 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, the [London based] Bureau of Investigative Journalism says, with the death toll put at between 2,525 and 3,613. Local media reported that up to 926 of the dead were civilians.
Most of the time, the dead are militants although their rank is often unclear, residents, militants and Pakistani security sources have told Reuters. Government officials frequently say militant groups have killed 40,000 Pakistanis since 2001.
In the first publicized drone attack since Obama’s May speech, the Pakistani Taliban’s second in command, Wali-ur-Rehman, was killed in a strike along with at least five others.
"This is a huge blow to militants and a win in the fight against insurgents," one security official told Reuters at the time.
The Pakistani government has long condemned drone strikes, often citing civilian casualties, as well as territorial integrity and Pakistani sovereignty. Obama is set to meet Sharif at the White House tomorrow, and on Friday the United Nations is set to debate drones and transparency.
In its report, Amnesty found that US drones killed a grandmother, Mamana Bibi, in October 2012 while she was picking vegetables near her grandchildren. Another strike in July that same year killed 18 laborers near the Afghan border as they sat down to eat dinner. A subsequent missile strike killed many of those who came to the rescue of the first victims.
A big challenge in tallying civilian deaths is the difficulty of saying with certainty whether or not a military-aged victim of a strike is part of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or another extremist group, the report authors acknowledge. However, family and friends often insist their loved ones “had no connection to extremists,” reports the Los Angeles Times.
“American intelligence officials and their congressional overseers argue that in almost all cases the strikes have hit legitimate targets. Sorting out the truth in individual cases is often impossible,” the LA Times reports.
According to The New York Times, in communities often targeted by drones – for example, the northwest Pakistani town of Miram Shah, which has been hit 13 times since 2008 – the psychological stress has been palpable.
While the strike rate has dropped drastically in recent months, the constant presence of circling drones — and accompanying tension over when, or whom, they will strike — is a crushing psychological burden for many residents [of Miram Shah].
Sales of sleeping tablets, antidepressants and medicine to treat anxiety have soared, said Hajji Gulab Jan Dawar, a pharmacist in the town bazaar. Women were particularly troubled, he said, but men also experienced problems…. ...
In the aftermath of drone strikes, things get worse. Many civilians hide at home, fearing masked vigilantes with the Ittehad-e-Mujahedeen Khorasan, a militant enforcement unit that hunts for American spies. The unit casts a wide net, and the suspects it hauls in are usually tortured and summarily executed.
A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
Both the French and Mexican governments are demanding answers from the US regarding new reports that the National Security Agency has been conducting large-scale interceptions of French telecommunications and hacked the email of the last president of Mexico.
The French government summoned the US ambassador today to answer questions about a report in Le Monde that detailed the volume of NSA spying on French telecommunications in December 2012 and early January 2013 – which the French newspaper totaled at 70.3 million phone calls and text messages.
"I have immediately summoned the US ambassador and he will be received this morning at the Quai d'Orsay (the French Foreign Ministry)," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters on the sidelines of [a European Union] meeting in Luxembourg.
Earlier, France's interior minister, Manuel Valls, said Le Monde's revelations that 70.3 million pieces of French telephone data were recorded by the NSA between Dec. 10, 2012 and Jan. 8, 2013 were "shocking."
"If an allied country spies on France or spies on other European countries, that's totally unacceptable," Valls told Europe 1 radio.
The US ambassador, Charles Rifkin, declined to comment on being summoned to the French ministry, Reuters adds, though he noted that French-US relations on military and intelligence issues were "the best [they've] been in a generation."
According to an English version of the report published on Le Monde's website, documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show a pattern of high-volume, though apparently targeted, spying on French telecommunications. Le Monde writes:
Amongst the thousands of documents extracted from the NSA by its ex-employee, there is a graph which describes the extent of telephone monitoring and tapping (DNR – Dial Number Recognition) carried out in France. It can be seen that over a period of 30 days – from 10 December 2012 to 8 January 2013, 70.3 million recordings of French citizens' telephone data were made by the NSA. This agency has several methods of data collection. According to the elements obtained by Le Monde, when a telephone number is used in France, it activates a signal which automatically triggers the recording of the call. Apparently this surveillance system also picks up SMS messages and their content using key words. Finally, the NSA apparently stores the history of the connections of each target – or the meta-data.
Although the exact subjects of the intercepted messages are unknown, Le Monde writes that what information is available "leads us to think that the NSA targets concerned both people suspected of association with terrorist activities as well as people targeted simply because they belong to the worlds of business, politics or French state administration."
Le Monde adds that American authorities declined to comment on the report, but pointed the paper towards a June 8, 2013, document offered by US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that said foreign citizens could not be spied upon "without a valid foreign intelligence purpose."
In a separate article, Le Monde notes that almost all of the NSA's focus in France seems to be on two communications websites: wanadoo.fr and alcatel-lucent.fr. Orange and Alcatel-Lucent, the respective owners of the two sites, declined to comment on Le Monde's report.
Le Monde's revelations about the scope of NSA spying in France come on the heels of a report in Der Spiegel, published Sunday, that the US agency had also successfully hacked the email of former Mexican President Felipe Calderon while he was in office.
A report classified as "top secret" said: "[NSA division Tailored Access Operations] successfully exploited a key mail server in the Mexican Presidencia domain within the Mexican Presidential network to gain first-ever access to President Felipe Calderon's public email account."
According to the NSA, this email domain was also used by cabinet members, and contained "diplomatic, economic and leadership communications which continue to provide insight into Mexico's political system and internal stability." The president's office, the NSA reported, was now "a lucrative source."
American journalist Glenn Greenwald and Brazilian broadcaster O Globo reported last month that both Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff had also been spied upon by the NSA.
The Los Angeles Times reports that the Mexican government has demanded that the US investigate the spying, which Mexico calls "unacceptable, unlawful and contrary to Mexican law and international law." The Times also notes that:
Some Mexicans will consider it particularly galling that the US targeted Calderon. The conservative president, who served from 2006 to 2012, allowed US security agencies an unprecedented amount of access to Mexico in an effort to fight off the powerful drug cartels. Some here viewed the increased US presence as a breach of Mexican sovereignty.
The tangled trail of last month's terrorist attack on a Kenyan shopping mall has led investigators more than 4,000 miles to the north in Norway, according to local police.
The New York Times reports that Norwegian police are investigating whether Hassan Abdi Dhuhulow, a Norwegian citizen born in Somalia, was one of at least four militants involved in the September attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, that left more than 60 people dead. The police have been questioning friends and family of Mr. Dhuhulow.
His sister, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said in an interview that officers from the Norwegian security police had asked her whether her brother had placed calls from Nairobi, including from the Westgate shopping mall, during the siege. She said that he had not and that the family was unaware of any role he might have played in the attack.
“My mother and father and me, we don’t even know if he is dead or alive,” she said. “We are waiting for the whole issue to become clearer.”
A spokesman for the Norwegian Police Security Service, Martin Bernsen, said investigators were also unsure whether Mr. Dhuhulow was still alive. Several explosions and a fire at the mall have made it difficult to distinguish between the remains of the victims and attackers. The authorities have been unable thus far to identify any of the militants among the bodies pulled from the rubble.
According to his sister, Dhuhulow has been taking "long vacations" to Somalia – home of Al Shabab, the terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the attack – since 2009. The Times adds that a man with the same name as Dhuhulow was arrested in Somalia in March in connection with the murder of a radio journalist, but was later released for lack of evidence.
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Review of surveillance footage is helping to fill in some of the blanks surrounding the attack, which increasingly appears to have been committed by attackers who were chillingly calm at the time, reports CNN.
As they strolled through Westgate Mall, guns strapped to their torsos, the attackers chatted on their cell phones while they sprayed bullets at terrified shoppers.
Ruthless and nonchalant, they randomly gunned down shoppers at the upscale mall in the Kenyan capital.
At one point, they took turns to pray, removing shoes to perform the ritual washing in a room stacked with boxes. They bowed down in Islamic prayer, taking a break from incessant gunfire.
In addition to video evidence, authorities are sifting through physical evidence from the scene, including weapons and remains presumed to belong to attackers, writes the Associated Press.
But despite – or because of – the wealth of witnesses, physical evidence, and video documentation, many aspects of the massive mall attack remain mysterious to investigators. Agence France-Presse presents some of the remaining questions, including the final official death toll, the precise names of the attackers, and the possible involvement of British Muslim convert Samantha Lewthwaite, sometimes referred to as "the White Widow."
A recent Monitor story looked at Ms. Lewthwaite's involvement in a high-profile terror cell in Kenya and her links to a man that US Navy SEALs tried to capture in a raid in Somalia.
US officials Monday named Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir “Ikrima” as the “high value target” Seal Team Six was hunting. He escaped unharmed as the commandos retreated under heavy fire to avoid civilian casualties.
Reports by Kenya’s National Intelligence Service, seen by The Christian Science Monitor, say Ikrima, who is Kenyan, was “coordinator” of a cell including Ms. Lewthwaite and another Briton, Jermaine Grant, that planned “multiple attacks” on targets in Nairobi in late 2011 and early 2012.
The impact of the Kenyan mall attack is resonating internationally in a variety of additional ways. Security in Uganda has been stepped up after the US warned of a terror threat similar to the mall attack, the BBC reported this week. A judge in California ruled in favor of a man that his ex-wife may not take their 19-month-old daughter to Kenya, the mother's home country, out of concerns of future terrorism. And the city of London has reviewed its security plan in the wake of the Kenya attack, reports the Evening Standard.
– A daily summary of global reports on terrorism and security issues
The Syrian opposition is at risk of being painted as the obstructionist in efforts to negotiate an end to Syria's war now that the Assad regime has voiced its support for peace talks in November.
The opposition has so far vowed to boycott the talks – known as Geneva II – which will be held Nov. 23, according to an announcement by Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil at a Moscow press conference today.
"Geneva is a way out for everyone: the Americans, Russia, the Syrian regime and the opposition. Whoever realizes this first will benefit. Whoever does not realize it will find himself overboard, outside the political process," Mr. Jamil said, according to Reuters.
The US and Russia have intensified efforts to bring the two sides to the table since President Bashar al-Assad agreed last month to a plan to dismantle his country's chemical weapons arsenal and join the Chemical Weapons Convention, averting a military strike by the US.
Jamil voiced optimism that the talks would happen and the opposition would participate. Although he did not give a reason for his confidence, Russia's RIA Novosti reports that a United Nations diplomat told the news organization that the UN was working to convince the Syrian National Council – the "core" of the opposition's main political body, the Syrian National Coalition – to attend the talks.
But even if the Syrian National Council attends, it is a much weaker group. The council is losing the support of anti-Assad parties, with jihadi groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra rejecting the idea that they are represented by the umbrella organization. Even the less-religiously motivated Free Syrian Army has distanced itself from the SNC.
Michael Young, opinion editor at Lebanon's Daily Star, writes in The National, that the opposition's rejection of the Geneva talks – although they have little chance of success – "will only help Assad."
The Syrian National Coalition is aware that it risks further undermining its legitimacy and relevance – already weak and growing weaker because of the increasingly powerful jihadist groups on the ground – if it appears to accept Assad's continued rule of Syria by negotiating with his representatives. While those concerns have real grounding, refusal is risky, Mr. Young writes. It would allow Assad to "reaffirm that the opposition has no desire for peace" at a time when Washington and Moscow are eager for an agreement.
More problematically, by rejecting the principle of negotiations, the National Coalition will deny itself a natural venue in which it can participate. Neither the council nor the coalition is a military force. Their comparative advantage comes from their role as political representatives, requiring negotiations without which it is difficult to see what role the coalition can play, beyond issuing statements.
… This may not mean much today; the opposition has been disappointing and its international and domestic performance has been inadequate. Relations between the two are at low point, but that does not mean the National Coalition can afford to let this situation worsen and to be regarded as an obstacle to a settlement.
As the jihadists gain ground, many countries will buy into Mr. Al Assad’s narrative that his regime is a barrier to extremist groups. That he has done everything in his power to bring about this outcome is secondary. If the conflict is redefined as one between a supposedly “secular” regime and religious extremists, Mr. Al Assad will have the latitude to gradually regain lost territory and many governments will turn a blind eye to his most barbaric crimes.
That is why Mr Sabra and his colleagues should maintain themselves as a reasonable, temperate alternative to the armed groups and to Mr Al Assad. A continuation of the military status quo is likely, which means that at some point the parties, out of sheer exhaustion, will have to negotiate, whatever their prior conditions.
Frederic Hof, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center on the Middle East and a former liaison between the US government and the Syrian opposition, writes that the public refusal by George Sabra, president of the Syrian National Council, was "wrong in tone and unhelpful in substance."
Mr. Sabra should have said something like this, in a private venue, Mr. Hof writes:
There is, at present, no basis for a Geneva peace conference. There is no agreement between the P3 (the United States, France, and the United Kingdom) and the P2 (Russia and China) about the meaning of political transition in Syria. The regime is clear: the person, position, and power of Bashar al-Assad are not up for discussion at Geneva.
… The P3 seems desperate to have a meeting anyway; maybe even to start a drawn-out Syrian peace process. But this puts our people in peril. Surely the regime will step-up its artillery and air assaults on our towns and cities. Surely it will use its troops, criminal gangs, and foreign militias to increase ground assaults. The announcement of a meeting date will be a starting pistol for enhanced slaughter. … Unless this conference has agreed terms of reference on full political transition consistent with the June 30, 2012 Geneva Final Communiqué, and unless it is preceded by confidence-building measures consistent with Annan's six point plan, we should demand of our friends to postpone it indefinitely. If we fail, we are finished, one way or the other.
"Nothing would please the Assad regime more than to see what remains of its Syrian nationalist, nonsectarian opposition broken and discredited by coming to Geneva while regime artillery, air, rocket, and missile forces kill and terrorize Syrians," Hof writes. "Does the United States and its allies really want the opposition to show up under these murderous circumstances? … What good would the West expect such a gathering to produce?"
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A Russian appeals court today suspended the five-year prison sentence handed down over the summer to opposition leader and anticorruption blogger Alexei Navalny. The ruling, some observers say, highlights the administration's attempts to keep opposition demonstrations under control and international criticism of Russia to a minimum, particularly in the lead-up to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.
“The political motivation in this case is obvious,” Mr. Navalny told the judge in today’s hearing, noting that the prosecution’s case was based on false testimony and that he was refused any opportunity to bring witnesses of his own.
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“Everything that happened last summer and everything that happens today depends on Putin,” Navalny said. “All the prosecutors, all the lawyers, all the judges are just extras here.”
In July, a lower court handed down an embezzlement conviction to the outspoken lawyer who rose to prominence during large-scale street protests against President Vladimir Putin in 2011 and 2012. He was released the next day pending the outcome of his appeal.
Some political observers felt jailing Navalny could empower the opposition and make him into a martyr, reports Russia’s official RIA Novosti news agency.
In the interim, Navalny ran in the high profile Moscow mayoral race where he won a solid – and some say legitimizing – 27 percent of the vote against a Putin-allied incumbent. His campaign touched on widespread corruption under President Putin and anti-migrant sentiments, reports Agence France-Presse.
Since the court today did not overturn Mr. Navalny’s guilty verdict, he is unable to run for public office until his suspended sentence is fulfilled. He has expressed interest in running for president in 2018.
“The suspension of the sentence Wednesday suggested a willingness of the Kremlin to accept the trade-off in greater legitimacy for the political system here in exchange for tolerating Mr. Navalny’s often stinging criticism of Mr. Putin,” reports The New York Times.
Reuters notes that if he had been jailed today, street protests could have exploded once again and it would have invited more international attention and criticism of the rule of law and democracy in Russia.
The Christian Science Monitor’s Russia correspondent, Fred Weir, reported in July that when asked “Do you think that the trial of Alexei Navalny is the result of his political activities and his opposition views?” nearly 60 percent of Russian respondents answered "yes," while just under 20 percent said "no."
“Increasing numbers of people insist that they have no faith in Russia's courts, nor in the law enforcement bodies that choose which investigations to pursue and what evidence to admit,” Mr. Weir wrote.
They include US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who issued a distinctly undiplomatic Tweet after hearing of the [July 18, 2013] verdict: "We are deeply disappointed in the conviction of @Navalny and the apparent political motivations in this trial." Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who has repeatedly lambasted Mr. Putin for hijacking Russia's democratic experiment, posted a comment on his foundation's website contending that the conviction of Navalny "is proof that we do not have independent courts" in Russia.
The key reason that many long-term observers of Russia have arrived at this conclusion is that Navalny, who is one of Russia's best-known opposition figures due to his highly-effective anticorruption blogging, is far from the only anti-Kremlin politician to have been targeted with elaborate criminal charges.
A string of criminal cases have been brought against Navalny in recent months, a move AFP describes as resembling “an attempt to neutralise an opposition figure seen as a potential national force.”
Navalny isn’t alone. According to a study by political scientist Mikhail Tulsky, nearly half of all independent mayors in Russia have been arrested or kicked out of office over various criminal allegations over the past three years, reports the Monitor.
And since Putin reclaimed the presidency in elections last year, other “leading lights of the informal opposition” have undergone prosecution, reports the BBC. It raises “suspicions that the Kremlin is using the legal system to disable its enemies.”
– A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
The US government is using foreign technology companies and intelligence agencies to collect hundreds of millions of address books and friend lists around the world, including those of millions of Americans, in an end run around US privacy laws, according to a Washington Post report.
The Post article, published Monday and based on documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, says the NSA uses a collection program to intercept contact lists from email and instant messaging services – including major companies like Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft – as they are transmitted through international servers. The aggregated lists, which the Post calls "a sizable fraction of the world’s e-mail and instant messaging accounts," is then analyzed by the NSA to map relationships and search for connections with specific foreign intelligence targets.
The program relies on intercepting the data as it is transmitted across borders, taking advantage of the fact that many major service providers operate servers abroad in order to balance their workload. And rather than accessing corporate servers directly, the program instead grabs data as it is synced between the servers and clients – a procedure that happens whenever users log in or compose a message. That data is nominally a list of names of contacts, but can also include real world information such as street addresses, phone numbers, family and business information, and the first few lines of messages.
Because of the way it culls data, the program in theory does not run afoul of restrictions set by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which governs such data collection in the US and on American targets. Instead, the program is subject only to executive branch oversight and presidential authority.
However, the Post notes that the program is not "technically able to restrict its intake to contact lists belonging to specified foreign intelligence targets," according to an anonymous US official.
When information passes through “the overseas collection apparatus,” the official added, “the assumption is you’re not a U.S. person.”
In practice, data from Americans is collected in large volumes — in part because they live and work overseas, but also because data crosses international boundaries even when its American owners stay at home. Large technology companies, including Google and Facebook, maintain data centers around the world to balance loads on their servers and work around outages.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said the privacy of Americans is protected, despite mass collection, because “we have checks and balances built into our tools.”
NSA analysts, he said, may not search within the contacts database or distribute information from it unless they can “make the case that something in there is a valid foreign intelligence target in and of itself.”
British technology news site The Register reports that in a speech Mr. Snowden gave last week, but was only published Monday by Democracy Now, he criticizes the volume of data that the US is collecting, and appears to be citing, at least in part, the program revealed by the Post report.
"These [surveillance] programs don’t make us more safe. They hurt our economy. They hurt our country. They limit our ability to speak and think and to live and be creative, to have relationships, to associate freely," said Snowden, who has been accused of aiding terrorists and America's enemies....
Snowden said: "There's a far cry between legal programs, legitimate spying, legitimate law enforcement, where it's targeted, it's based on reasonable suspicion and individualized suspicion and warranted action, and sort of dragnet mass surveillance that puts entire populations under sort of an eye that sees everything, even when it's not needed."
And Alex Wilhelm asks in a story for IT news and commentary site TechCrunch, "if the NSA is willing to accept data from foreign intelligence agencies that it is not able to collect [under FISA restrictions], why not in other cases as well?"
If the NSA won’t respect the constraints that are put in place on its actions for a reason, and will instead shirk its responsibilities and find a way to get all the data it could ever desire, then we have even less reason to trust its constant petitions that it follows the law, and is the only thing keeping the United States safe from conflagration.
The Post includes comments from Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Yahoo, all of which deny knowledge of and voluntary participation in the US program. The Post notes that according to the documents provided by Snowden, Yahoo sees a disproportionate share of the data the US collects, perhaps due to the fact that it has yet to encrypt all its users' communications. (In contrast, Google was the first to encrypt all its user messages, starting in 2010.) A Yahoo spokesperson told the Post that the company would begin encrypting all email communications in January.
The kidnapping of six international Red Cross employees and one employee of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in Syria has added more fuel to worries about the growing hazards of providing aid to hundreds of thousands of Syrians displaced by the country's ongoing civil war.
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokesman Robert Mardini wrote this morning that the Syrian and three of the other kidnapped aid workers have been released, but also drew attention to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the country.
RECOMMENDED: Syria's refugee crisis
The BBC reports details of the kidnapping:
A convoy carrying six ICRC staff members and one Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteer was intercepted by unidentified armed gunmen near the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province, ICRC spokeswoman Rima Kamal told the BBC.
"We call for the immediate release of the seven colleagues abducted this morning... who work tirelessly to provide assistance to those most in need in Syria. Incidents such as this one unfortunately will undermine our capacity to assist those who need our help," she said.
The ICRC has declined to reveal the identity, gender or nationality of the abducted workers but they are believed to include both local and international staff, who are mainly medical specialists.
The ICRC is active in conflict spots around the globe, but also operates in less overtly dangerous realms - the Red Cross has been in the news recently for delivering food aid in Britain and advocating the punishment of war crimes in video games.
The dangerous atmosphere in Syria seems unlikely to fade anytime soon, despite international diplomatic pressure. Proposed talks in Geneva hit a major speed bump when a large rebel group refused to participate in them.
Syrian National Council leader George Sabra said the group would pull out of the umbrella coalition if it took part in the talks.
He said his faction would not negotiate with the Syrian government, adding that conditions for talks were not right while Syrians continued to suffer.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has also been pushing an end to the violence, albeit on a temporary basis. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning group, working with Syria and the international community to identify and destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, has been challenged by the violent conditions of the civil war and told the BBC that it is calling for local, short-term cease-fires to allow its experts to work.
In his first interview since the OPCW won the prize, Mr Uzumcu told the BBC's Today programme that Syrian officials had been co-operating and facilitating the experts' work.
He said they had been taken wherever they wanted to go, and that they had already reached five out of at least 20 facilities capable of producing chemical weapons.
However, Mr Uzumcu said, routes to some of the sites went through opposition-held territory and this prevented access.
"They change hands from one day to another, which is why we appeal to all sides in Syria to support this mission, to be co-operative and not render this mission more difficult. It's already challenging," he said.
The chaos of the civil war has made untangling the origins and motivations of specific violent acts difficult if not impossible. A car bomb Monday killed at least 12 people in the rebel-held town of Darkoush in Idlib Province, reports The Associated Press.
And an evacuation has given some relief to a rebel-held suburb of Damascus where hunger has become a serious scourge, according to The New York Times:
Hundreds of people were allowed to leave a besieged, rebel-held suburb of Damascus, the Syrian capital, on Sunday in a rare cease-fire, according to the government and its opponents.
But aid workers said they were still unable to enter the town, Moadhamiyeh, which international organizations have been trying to reach for months and where six people have reportedly died of malnutrition.
The challenge of moving food, medical aid, and international observers around in a civil war is a serious one, reports the Times in a story about the country's highways.
Road tripping in Syria reveals the sometimes surreal experience of Syrians’ trying to move themselves and their goods around a country that has become a patchwork of rebellion and control, where government and rebel fighters share the roads with families and traders trying to go about their business.
Part of the problem lies with the nature of the rebellion, a much contested and increasingly complicated part of the story of Syria's civil war. The Washington Post looked at the rival Al Qaeda-linked groups within the rebellion:
The two rebel groups [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and Jabhat al-Nusra], with their distinct lineages to the terrorist network founded by Osama bin Laden, have become the focus of Western fears that jihadist influences within Syria’s rebel movement are rising. Two and a half years after the conflict in the country started, Islamists are carving out fiefdoms and showing signs of digging in.
As factionalism mounts among rebels, so have rebel-linked atrocities. The Economist looked at attacks on Alawites, the minority group to which the ruling Assad family belongs.
But is President Bashar al-Assad actually lucky to have so many jihadis squaring off against him? Perhaps, says a Monitor story, which suggests that Mr. Assad may have aided the radicalization of the rebels in hope of winning international support for his besieged regime:
Even the Assad regime is believed to have played a role in establishing a hard-line salafist presence within the armed opposition. In May 2011, when the rebellion was in its infancy, the Assad regime granted amnesty to political prisoners, releasing hundreds of them from jail, including members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. The newly released Islamists went on to play leading roles in the armed opposition, including helping found Ahrar ash-Sham.
But whether hard-line Islamists make up a large percentage of anti-regime fighters is an open question that is difficult to resolve. The Monitor does its best to break it down and finds that there is much wiggle room between confirmed facts and sometimes dubious analysis:
Consider a headline yesterday from The Telegraph of the UK. "Syria: nearly half rebel fighters are jihadists or hardline Islamists, says IHS Jane's report."
Pretty scary sounding, no? But in fact, based on the work of the Jane's analyst Charles Lister, at least as it's cited in the report, the headline could have easily been: "Only 10 percent of Syria rebels aligned with Al Qaeda" or "A majority of Syria rebels not fighting for Islamist causes."
RECOMMENDED: Syria's refugee crisis