News roundup — May 9

Bin Laden’s death doesn’t end his fear-mongering value

Glenn Greenwald writes: On Friday, government officials anonymously claimed that “a rushed examination” of the “trove” of documents and computer files taken from the bin Laden home prove — contrary to the widely held view that he “had been relegated to an inspirational figure with little role in current and future Qaeda operations” — that in fact “the chief of Al Qaeda played a direct role for years in plotting terror attacks.”  Specifically, the Government possesses “a handwritten notebook from February 2010 that discusses tampering with tracks to derail a train on a bridge,” and that led “the Obama administration officials on Thursday to issue a warning that Al Qaeda last year had considered attacks on American railroads.”  That, in turn, led to headlines around the country like this one, from The Chicago Sun-Times:


The reality, as The New York Times noted deep in its article, was that “the information was both dated and vague,” and the official called it merely “aspirational,” acknowledging that  “there was no evidence the discussion of rail attacks had moved beyond the conceptual stage“  In other words, these documents contain little more than a vague expression on the part of Al Qaeda to target railroads in major American cities (“focused on striking Washington, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago,” said the Sun-Times):  hardly a surprise and — despite the scary headlines — hardly constituting any sort of substantial, tangible threat.

But no matter.  Even in death, bin Laden continues to serve the valuable role of justifying always-increasing curtailments of liberty and expansions of government power. (Salon)

Bin Laden killing in legal gray zone

David Axe writes: The early-morning raid that killed Osama bin Laden was, according to CIA Director Leon Panetta, “the culmination of intense and tireless efforts on the part of many dedicated agency officers.” Panetta also thanked the “strike team, whose great skill and courage brought our nation this historic triumph.”

But it’s unclear who was on the strike team — the 25 people aboard two specially modified Army helicopters. Most of the “trigger-pullers” were, apparently, Navy commandos from the famed SEAL Team Six.

At the “pointy end” — a Beltway euphemism for combat — the operation targeting bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, looked overwhelmingly military. But the months-long process of gathering intelligence and planning had a CIA flavor.

Indeed, President Barack Obama described it as agency-led. The intelligence community pinpointed bin Laden’s location. Panetta monitored the raid in real time from Langley. The assault team may have included CIA operatives. Senior administration officials called it a “team effort.”

But did the CIA have people on the ground in Abbottabad? It’s not an academic question. Exactly who was on the strike force that killed bin Laden has major policy implications.

CIA presence places the operation on one side of an increasingly fuzzy legal boundary between two distinct U.S. legal codes: one exclusive to the military and another that defines the terms of open warfare for the whole U.S. government.

The extent of the CIA’s involvement also has serious implications with regard to a chain of presidential executive orders that prohibit Americans from participating in the assassination of foreign leaders. (Politico)

US spy in Pakistan outed as White House demands intelligence from bin Laden raid

White House has demanded that Pakistan hand over intelligence seized from Osama bin Laden’s compound as relations between the two allies hit a new crisis over the outing of America’s top spy in Islamabad.

Mark Carlton, the purported CIA station chief, was named by a Pakistani newspaper and a private television news network over the weekend, the second holder of that post in less than a year to have his cover blown by the media, presumed to have official consent.

The reports documented a meeting between Mr Carlton and the head of Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter- Services Intelligence, suggesting that the information came from them.

Washington has refused to comment on the development, which comes amid worsening relations between the US and Pakistan over how bin Laden came to be sheltering in a fortified compound in a garrison town.

Anger is mounting in Pakistan over how the US was able to carry out the raid in Abbottabad without detection, with calls for the Government to resign. (The Times)

Leak of CIA officer’s name is sign of rift with Pakistan

The prime minister’s statements, along with the publication of the name of the C.I.A. station chief, signaled the depths of the recriminations and potential for retaliation on both sides as American officials demand greater transparency and cooperation from Pakistan, which has not been forthcoming.

The Pakistani spy agency, Inter Services Intelligence Directorate, gave the name of the station chief to The Nation, a conservative daily newspaper, American and Pakistani officials said.

The name appeared spelled incorrectly but in a close approximation to a phonetic spelling in Saturday’s editions of The Nation, a paper with a small circulation that is supportive of the ISI. The ISI commonly plants stories in the Pakistani media and is known to keep some journalists on its payroll.

Last December, American officials said the cover of the station chief at the time was deliberately revealed by the ISI. As a result, he was forced to leave the country. (New York Times)

U.S. raises pressure on Pakistan in raid’s wake

President Obama’s national security adviser demanded Sunday that Pakistan let American investigators interview Osama bin Laden’s three widows, adding new pressure in a relationship now fraught over how Bin Laden could have been hiding near Islamabad for years before he was killed by commandos last week.

Both the adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, and Mr. Obama, in separate taped interviews, were careful not to accuse the top leadership of Pakistan of knowledge of Bin Laden’s whereabouts in Abbottabad, a military town 35 miles from the country’s capital. They argued that the United States still regards Pakistan, a fragile nuclear-weapons state, as an essential partner in the American-led war on Islamic terrorism.

But in repeatedly describing the trove of data that a Navy Seal team seized after killing Bin Laden as large enough to fill a small college library, Mr. Donilon seemed to be warning the Pakistanis that the United States might soon have documentary evidence that could illuminate who, inside or outside their government, might have helped harbor Bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, who had been the world’s most wanted terrorist.

The United States government is demanding to know whether, and to what extent, Pakistani government, intelligence or military officials were complicit in hiding Bin Laden. His widows could be critical to that line of inquiry because they might have information about the comings and goings of people who were aiding him. (New York Times)

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The forgotten frontline in Libya’s civil war

It is the unknown frontline in Libya’s civil war, a rebel town besieged by Gaddafi’s forces but almost ignored by the outside world.

Rockets and Scud missiles pour down. Water is running short. Tens of thousands are desperately trying to flee.

But transfixed by the horrors of Misurata, the international community – and the Nato military alliance – have all but overlooked the closely parallel drama in the mountain towns of Zintan and Yafran, little more than an hour’s drive from the capital.

“We have been under fire for about an hour and a half now,” said one Zintan resident, Mustafa Haider, by telephone from the town on Friday afternoon.

“From the south, from the north, from the east, from everywhere. They fire with Grad missiles, Scud missiles, anything. They have tried to enter Zintan many times but they couldn’t.” Homes, schools, and the town’s main hospital had been hit, causing panic, he said. (Daily Telegraph)

Libya: end indiscriminate attacks in western mountain towns

Human Rights Watch says: Libyan government forces have launched what appear to be repeated indiscriminate attacks on mountain towns in western Libya, Human Rights Watch said today.

Accounts from refugees who fled the conflict say the attacks are killing and injuring civilians and damaging civilian objects, including homes, mosques, and a school. Human Rights Watch called on Libyan forces to cease their indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas.

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 50 refugees from Libya’s western Nafusa mountains in Tunisia from April 26 to May 1, 2011, as well as doctors and aid workers assisting those in need. The refugees gave consistent and credible accounts of indiscriminate shelling and possible rocket attacks in residential areas of the rebel-controlled towns of Nalut, Takut, and Zintan. Human Rights Watch could not confirm the refugees’ accounts due to government restrictions on travel in western Libya but, taken together, they describe a pattern of attacks that would violate the laws of war.

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Syria death toll rises as city is placed under siege

Amnesty International says: At least 48 people have been killed in Syria by the security forces in the last four days, local and international human rights activists have told Amnesty International, as the crackdown on the coastal city of Banias intensified.

More than 350 people – including 48 women and a 10-year-old child – are also said to have been arrested in the Banias area over the past three days with scores being detained at a local football pitch. Among those rounded up were at least three doctors and 11 injured people taken from a hospital.

“Killings of protesters are spiralling out of control in Syria – President Bashar al-Assad must order his security forces to stop the carnage immediately,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Amnesty International has compiled the names of 28 people who were apparently shot dead by security forces on Friday and those of 12 others killed over the last three days.

The organization now has the names of 580 protesters and others killed since mid-March, when protests against the government of President Bashar al-Assad began.

‘House-to-house raids’ in Syrian cities

The Syrian government is continuing its weeks-long crackdown on anti-government demonstrations, arresting opponents and deploying troops in protest hubs.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said security forces were carrying out house-to-house raids targeting demonstration organisers and participants.

He said Monday’s raids were focused in the central city of Homs, the coastal city of Baniyas, some suburbs of the capital, Damascus, and villages around the southern flashpoint city of Deraa.
Live Blog Syria

Another activist said gunfire was heard in the town of Moadamiya, just west of the capital, Damascus, as troops carried out arrests. (Al Jazeera)

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Money, power and law-twisting: The makings of the real Ezz empire

Ten years ago, as the main thrust of Egyptian society and the legal sphere was moving towards amending the constitution to make it more democratic and just, the collective brain of the regime’s inner circle was working in the opposite direction: twisting laws to fit the interests of the inner few — the oligarchs who had both wealth and political influence.

Steel magnate Ahmed Ezz, who is facing trial Today, Saturday, on charges of illegal profiteering and misuse of public funds, along with dozens of businessmen and officials considered to be close to the ousted regime, perfectly represents the marriage of wealth, party politics and undue power. Ezz became one of the first symbols that the Egyptian people decided to bring down after the January 25 Revolution.

On the night of 28 January, the headquarters of Ezz Steel in the Mohandeseen district was destroyed, along with other government headquarters and police stations, symbolising the downfall of the old regime.

“At the time he came to buy Alexandria National Iron and Steel Company (now Al-Ezz Al-Dekheila Steel Company) we had never heard of Ahmed Ezz,” said Ali Helmy, former chairman of the National Iron and Steel Company.

“The first time I met Ezz was in 1999 when Atef Ebeid, minister of the public enterprise sector at that time, invited managers of steel companies for a business dinner at a small factory in Sadat City producing galvanised iron,” recounted Helmy. “We were introduced to Ezz, a young engineer and owner of the factory.”

A few months later, continues Helmy, Ezz has already bought three million shares, accounting for LE456 million ($76.7 mln), of the Alexandria National Iron and Steel Company, and after a few months, he was appointed chairman of the company: first base for what would later become a great empire.

Ezz was born in 1959 to a family that was wealthy but not overly rich. After having graduated from the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University in the mid-1980s, he worked as a percussionist in one of the most famous music bands at that time, Moudy and Hussein. At the time, Ezz had shown no interest in business until in 1995 his father, a steel trader, bought him a small plot of land in Sadat City and helped him build a steel factory.

His friendship with Gamal Hosni Mubarak, son of Egypt’s then president, helped to make his fortune, culminating in the buying of a huge amount of shares in Gamal’s 1998 Future Generation Foundation (FGF), a non-profit organisation that provided courses for young people to prepare them for entry to the workforce.

Several leading figures in Egypt‘s private sector, including Ahmed El-Maghrabi, former minister of tourism, and Rachid Mohamed Rachid, former minister of trade and industry were involved, and both now face trial.

From that point on, Ezz accompanied Gamal to all meetings and despite being a newcomer to politics, gradually became a familiar political face.

In 1999, the Alexandria National Iron and Steel Company faced a financial crisis due to dumped steel imports from Ukraine and other Eastern European countries coming into Egypt. Ezz quickly offered to buy shares in the troubled joint stock company. “For some reason, the biggest figures in the government helped Ezz finalise this deal,” said Helmy.

According to a 2007 report on Strategic Economic Trends by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, In 1999, Ezz bought some 540,000 shares in less than a month. Ezz had seized more than three million shares of the company, accounting for 27.9 per cent of total shares.

By the late 1990s, Ezz started his acquisition move in the steel market, through a strategy of taking loans from the biggest banks to buy shares in steel companies.

In 1999, Ezz was appointed chairman of the National Iron and Steel Company, despite the fact that he hadn’t paid back the loans he had taken from Egypt’s major banks, according to the same report.

“The National Bank of Egypt and Bank of Cairo (Egypt’s largest public banks) favoured Ezz because of his relationship with Gamal Mubarak and helped him get the loans, while denying credit to viable businesspeople who lacked the right political pedigree; they had for instance refused to issue loans for the same company bought by Ezz (Alexandria National Iron and Steel Company) a few months earlier to help it get out of its devastating financial crisis,” said Helmy.

“Ezz’s strategy from that time on was to take loans from Egyptians banks, buy shares and take a greater role in the steel market, but the thing is, he never gave a loan back. He would pay older loans by getting new loans,” elaborates Helmy. (Ahram Online)

Hollow ‘reconciliation’ in Palestine

Ali Abunimah writes: By deciding to join the US-backed Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas risks turning its back on its role as a resistance movement, without gaining any additional leverage that could help Palestinians free themselves from Israeli occupation and colonial rule.

Indeed, knowingly or not, Hamas may be embarking down the same well-trodden path as Abbas’ Fatah faction: committing itself to joining a US-controlled “peace process”, over which Palestinians have no say – and have no prospect of emerging with their rights intact. In exchange, Hamas may hope to earn a role alongside Abbas in ruling over the fraction of the Palestinians living under permanent Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Whether Hamas realises it or not, it has effectively entered into a coalition with Israel and Abbas to manage the Occupied Territories, in which Hamas will have much responsibility, but little power. (Al Jazeera)

Ahmadinejad fights to preserve his dwindling power

Saeed Kamali Dehghan writes: No Iranian president has ever dared to challenge the supremacy of Ali Khamenei’s two-decade-long leadership as publicly as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did recently in an extraordinary power struggle between him and the ayatollah.

The unprecedented confrontation at the top of the Iranian regime began only a month ago when Khamenei, the supreme leader, intervened in a cabinet appointment by reinstating a minister who had initially resigned “under pressure from Ahmadinejad”.

In reaction to the reinstatement of Heydar Moslehi, the intelligence minister at the centre of the row, Ahmadinejad apparently staged an 11-day walkout from the presidential palace and refused to chair cabinet meetings.

At first glance, Ahmadinejad’s feud with the ayatollah seemed like a conventional disagreement between two leaders of one country but in Iran, where Khamenei is described as “God’s representative on Earth”, Ahmadinejad’s opposition was extremely serious. (The Guardian)

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