A new age of warfare: How Internet mercenaries do battle for authoritarian governments

The New York Times reports:

The man in charge of Saudi Arabia’s ruthless campaign to stifle dissent went searching for ways to spy on people he saw as threats to the kingdom. He knew where to go: a secretive Israeli company offering technology developed by former intelligence operatives.

It was late 2017 and Saud al-Qahtani — then a top adviser to Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince — was tracking Saudi dissidents around the world, part of his extensive surveillance efforts that ultimately led to the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In messages exchanged with employees from the company, NSO Group, Mr. al-Qahtani spoke of grand plans to use its surveillance tools throughout the Middle East and Europe, like Turkey and Qatar or France and Britain.

The Saudi government’s reliance on a firm from Israel, an adversary for decades, offers a glimpse of a new age of digital warfare governed by few rules and of a growing economy, now valued at $12 billion, of spies for hire.

Today even the smallest countries can buy digital espionage services, enabling them to conduct sophisticated operations like electronic eavesdropping or influence campaigns that were once the preserve of major powers like the United States and Russia. Corporations that want to scrutinize competitors’ secrets, or a wealthy individual with a beef against a rival, can also command intelligence operations for a price, akin to purchasing off-the-shelf elements of the National Security Agency or the Mossad. [Continue reading…]

Five ways the Syrian revolution continues

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A Syrian refugee child sits on the window of his family’s trailer home painted by refugee artists in a camp near Mafraq, Jordan.
AP/Raad Adayleh

By Wendy Pearlman, Northwestern University

Bashar al-Assad has “won” the war in Syria – or so many analysts tell us.

His regime has reconquered swaths of territory from rebel forces with starvation-and-surrender sieges, barrel bombs, chemical weapons and what one human rights investigator called “industrial scale” torture and killing of detainees.

Still, the regime might have fallen had Russia not stepped in and begun bombarding opposition strongholds in 2015.

In areas now under Assad’s grip, Syrians speak of exhaustion, forced complicity with government rule and the return of the very walls of fear and silence that they sacrificed so much to tear down.

No one should underestimate the crushing toll of this violence or overestimate the capacity of any people to endure more than Syrians already have.

“We’re tired and we can’t bear any more blood. We’re afraid for Syria,” an activist told me. And that was in 2012.

But that does not mean that the struggle for freedom, dignity and justice that Syrians launched eight years ago is over.

[Read more…]

Rogue state: U.S. bars entry to International Criminal Court investigators

The Associated Press reports:

The United States will revoke or deny visas to International Criminal Court personnel seeking to investigate alleged war crimes and other abuses committed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan or elsewhere, and may do the same with those who seek action against Israel, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday.

Pompeo, acting on a threat delivered in September by U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, framed the action as necessary to prevent the international body from infringing on U.S. sovereignty by prosecuting American forces or allies for torture or other war crimes.

“We are determined to protect the American and allied military and civilian personnel from living in fear of unjust prosecution for actions taken to defend our great nation,” Pompeo said.

U.S. officials have long regarded the Netherlands-based ICC with hostility, arguing that American courts are capable of handling any allegations against U.S. forces and questioning the motives of an international court.

The ICC and its supporters, including human rights groups that denounced Pompeo’s announcement, argue that it is needed to prosecute cases when a country fails to do so or does an insufficient job of it. [Continue reading…]

The ‘moral clarity’ of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ at 50

Kevin Powers writes:

When I was 24, I watched a small white car through the 4X scope attached to my M240B machine gun. The weapon rested on the wall of a rooftop on the outskirts of the city of Tal Afar, Iraq. The street down which the car drove was otherwise empty, the United States Army having previously informed the citizens of Tal Afar to evacuate their city or find themselves caught between military-strength deadliness and the people toward whom that deadliness was meant to be applied.

Though the day was hot and hazy, and I had been awake for all but a few of the preceding 48 hours, it was unmistakably clear that from a window of the small white car the occupant of the passenger seat had unfurled a white flag of truce. This was plain even without the aid of magnification provided by my scope. Through the scope, I saw a man in the passenger seat and a woman driving. They were old, and though I can’t say with any certainty how old, their age registered immediately as an important characteristic. Old people rarely try to kill American soldiers. I believe this to be both historically true and true in that place and at that time. Old couples waving white flags of truce from windows of small white cars are exceedingly unthreatening, even in a place like Tal Afar in September 2004, where many of the young men were very dangerous, including and perhaps especially us.

Someone said, “What ya got, Powers?” And I said: “Nothing. Just an old couple trying to get out.” There were perhaps a dozen people on that rooftop, some of whom I knew about as well as you can know a person, others whom I had only met a couple of days earlier. I think someone got on the radio but I can’t say that for sure. I do know that none of the people on that rooftop were afraid of the old man and the old woman in the small white car. Some distance away from us, perhaps on another rooftop, another group of soldiers had been watching the same white car, though I did not know that yet.

I don’t remember how much time passed between my saying, “It’s nothing,” and someone in that other group of soldiers opening fire, but it was likely less than 10 seconds. And I don’t know why they did it. But I know that .50-caliber machine-gun rounds tore into the small white car and tore into the old man and the old woman until the small white car stopped moving and the old man and the old woman were both dead. So it goes. They have been dying in my mind every day for the last 14 years. I suspect they will do so until I’ve exhausted my own days on this earth. This is my moment trapped in amber. [Continue reading…]

Syria: ‘The kingdom of fear is back’

Alex Simon writes:

Until recently, some [Syrians] found solace in the notion that conflict would end and life would improve. Today that prospect feels increasingly remote. The war has purportedly been won, yet many of the country’s most acute problems endure: Conscription, disappearances, and executions persist; state-led theft of property is on the rise; and a longstanding crisis of public services is, if anything, deepening. The result is that many are still finding ways to flee, and those who choose to remain often struggle to find any reason for optimism. A friend living in the Damascus suburbs summed up the hopelessness around her:

Many older people are just in this miserable state of despair; some refuse to deal with simple things, like fixing basic problems around the house. I know one person who stopped going to the dentist. He just says, ‘I’m going to die soon anyway.’ Young people are nihilistic in a different way. If the older generation has given up on everything, the younger one has given up specifically on Syria and is just looking to leave.

Those who sacrificed for the uprising often carry an additional layer of emotional bruises. Such wounds are partly self-inflicted, as many ask themselves what went wrong and what might, conceivably, have made it go right. Such introspection is often bound up with bitter resentment toward those who claimed to represent or support the revolution: from fickle Western governments to a failed political opposition to an array of armed factions now frequently derided as no better than the system they promised to overthrow.

“The opposition factions proved themselves mercenaries,” said an activist from the southern province of Deraa, where protests first broke out in March 2011. We spoke at a Starbucks in Amman, during a period—October 2018—when the mood within the Jordan-based opposition was dark. Pro-regime forces had recently retaken southern Syria after a campaign that lasted mere weeks. The speed of the victory—accelerated by a wave of Russian-brokered “reconciliation” agreements—took almost everyone by surprise. It revealed rebel factions’ willingness to cut a deal, alongside widespread fatigue and frustration among the South’s population—directed, in large part, at the rebels themselves. The activist elaborated:

Today, people see a choice between one dictator in the regime and 20 dictators in the opposition. So, they’ll choose the regime. Everyone in the south hates Bashar. But all that hate won’t make them willing to relive the past eight years, when they were the only ones who paid the price. The kingdom of fear is back. Everyone will submit in exchange for being allowed to eat.

The themes of submission and surrender hung like a pall over every conversation on that trip to Jordan. It extends to countries like Lebanon, where Syrians are caught between punitive legal measures and a threatening political discourse. Syrians who cannot safely return must opt either for indefinitely suffering the indignity and precariousness of life in Lebanon or for some form of escape—legal or otherwise—usually to Europe. A Beirut-based acquaintance from the ravaged eastern province of Deir Ezzor described, with chilling concision, his predicament: “The phase of war is over; the phase of vengeance is beginning. It’s bad here, too. Better to be far away.” [Continue reading…]

Trump is right, UK must take back ISIS fighters says ex-British army chief

The Guardian reports:

A former head of the British army has said Donald Trump is right to say British Islamic State fighters held in Syria should be brought back to the UK because they are the UK’s responsibility.

Gen Lord Dannatt said it was important they are seen to be treated fairly to help prevent others being radicalised and to set an example to the rest of the world.

He told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “Usually I disagree with Donald Trump, but on this occasion I think he’s right.

“If there are … a large number of foreign fighters in captivity in Syria who originate from countries like the UK, then they are our citizens and we have a responsibility to act responsibly towards them. That means they have got to come back to this country.” [Continue reading…]

Undefeated, ISIS is back in Iraq

Aziz Ahmad writes:

Inside a prison in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, vanquished Islamic State fighters who once swept through much of the country now mill about sullenly on a bare, tiled floor, reflecting on a cause they insist will endure. Many spend hours in fierce debate, apparently undeterred by their movement’s apparent military defeat. Their cause, they say, remains divinely ordained. Their capture incidental. “Hathi iradet Allah,” they say. This is God’s will.

A Kurdish guard called for a captive, whom I will call Abu Samya—a brooding Baghdad resident kidnapped first by the Islamic State’s forerunner group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and later by Shia death squads as sectarian lines hardened in 2006–2007. As he walked toward the guard, some fellow captives condemned him as “kha’in,” or traitor. Outside the walls, long before the caliphate crumbled, that charge carried a death penalty. The jaded jihadist shrugged it off.

After a curt introduction, the thin man leaned across the table, eyeballing me. “There is no life left for me,” he said, in a tone of resignation that seemed briefly to disguise the unmistakable sense of anger years in the making. “Ask me anything.”

For the next two hours, Abu Samya laid bare his transformation from a laborer in a mixed, well-to-do suburb to an inmate in Camp Bucca, the US-run prison that came to define an era of the American occupation of Iraq. The journey took him from political disillusion to ideological commitment, and back again, shaping his values, then shattering them within a decade. [Continue reading…]

House votes to halt aid for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen

The New York Times reports:

The House voted on Wednesday to end American military assistance for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, a defiant and rare move to curtail presidential war powers that underscored anger with President Trump’s unflagging support for Saudi Arabia even after the killing of a Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi.

The 248-177 vote, condemning a nearly four-year conflict in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians and inflicted a devastating famine, will pressure the Republican-controlled Senate to respond. Eighteen Republicans voted with the Democtatic majority. Congress’s upper chamber in December passed a parallel resolution, 56 to 41, in a striking rebuke to the president and his administration’s defense of the kingdom. But that measure died with the last Congress after the House Republican leadership blocked a vote.

Dozens of Democrats, however, softened the blow when they defected to a Republican amendment to allow intelligence sharing with Saudi Arabia to continue when “appropriate in the national security interest of the United States.”

Senate passage of the Yemen resolution could prompt Mr. Trump to issue the first veto of his presidency, and it would come after Republicans have registered their unhappiness over other foreign policy issues, such as the president’s plan to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan and his threats to pull the United States from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators introduced new sanctions on Moscow that would require the secretary of state to submit a determination of “whether the Russian Federation meets the criteria for designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.” [Continue reading…]

A deadly welcome awaits Syria’s returning refugees

Anchal Vohra writes:

As the Syrian war draws to an end and the barrel bombs stop terrorizing the country, Syrians are being encouraged to return home by the countries to which they have fled. Those who do so, however, are finding the persecution that caused them to flee has not gone away. Some Syrians who have returned have disappeared into the country’s notorious prison system, a stark reminder of the dangers the country’s former refugees face.

Foreign Policy has spoken to the relatives of two such Syrians, and activists claim there are many more. Several others, meanwhile, have been rounded up and conscripted into the army.

Syria was and continues to be a police state with the same government and the same security apparatus in place, which is accused of thousands of politically motivated detentions. But governments hosting large numbers of refugees, including Lebanon and Germany, are under domestic political pressure to give incentives to refugees to go back home. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has warned governments against forcible returns, which would be in contravention of international law. Even as host countries comply with this instruction, however, they continue to design policies that produce similar results, to the growing alarm of both refugees and activists. [Continue reading…]

Josh Rogin notes:

The State Department’s former war crimes ambassador, Stephen Rapp, has said … evidence [of Assad’s mass atrocities] is the strongest since the Nuremberg trials — and that Assad’s “machinery of death” is the worst since the Nazis. [Continue reading…]

U.S. weapons sold to Saudi Arabia, transferred to Al Qaeda

CNN reports:

Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners have transferred American-made weapons to al Qaeda-linked fighters, hardline Salafi militias, and other factions waging war in Yemen, in violation of their agreements with the United States, a CNN investigation has found.

The weapons have also made their way into the hands of Iranian-backed rebels battling the coalition for control of the country, exposing some of America’s sensitive military technology to Tehran and potentially endangering the lives of US troops in other conflict zones.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, its main partner in the war, have used the US-manufactured weapons as a form of currency to buy the loyalties of militias or tribes, bolster chosen armed actors, and influence the complex political landscape, according to local commanders on the ground and analysts who spoke to CNN.

By handing off this military equipment to third parties, the Saudi-led coalition is breaking the terms of its arms sales with the US, according to the Department of Defense. After CNN presented its findings, a US defense official confirmed there was an ongoing investigation into the issue. [Continue reading…]