Drone strikes: The brand of detached warfare that Obama made his own

The Guardian reports: Faheem Qureshi’s uncles sat with their neighbors, chatting, cracking jokes and sipping tea, in their family’s lounge for male guests. Qureshi, almost 14, stood nearby, bored and restless, thinking about when he could go to the nearby playground where he and the other Ziraki village kids played badminton and cricket.

It had been a long day – Friday prayers, a food shopping errand at his mother’s behest, hosting – but also a happy occasion, as people stopped by to welcome an uncle home to North Waziristan, in tribal Pakistan, from a work excursion to the United Arab Emirates. Then he heard a sound like a plane taking off.

About two seconds later, the missile punched a hole through the lounge. Qureshi remembers feeling like his body was on fire. He ran outside, wanting to throw water on his face, but his priority was escape. The boy could not see.

This was the hidden civilian damage from the first drone strike Barack Obama ever ordered, on 23 January 2009, the inauguration of a counter-terrorism tactic likely to define Obama’s presidency in much of the Muslim world. It was the third day of his presidency. [Continue reading…]

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Pakistan learns from news reports that it’s now part of new Saudi ‘coalition’ against ‘terrorism’

The Express Tribune reports: Saudi Arabia’s inclusion of Pakistan in a 34-nation military alliance against terrorism sparked much confusion on Tuesday after officials in Islamabad said they were unaware of any such development.

In a rare news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman announced the formation of new military alliance of Islamic countries, including Pakistan. He said the alliance will coordinate efforts against terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan, but offered few concrete indications of how the military efforts might proceed.

The announcement cited “a duty to protect the Islamic nation from the evils of all terrorist groups and organisations whatever their sect and name which wreak death and corruption on earth and aim to terrorise the innocent.”

Asked if the new alliance would focus just on the Islamic State, the Saudi minister said it will confront “any terrorist organisation that appears in front of us.”

The Saudi state new agency, SPA, mentioned Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan among the 34 Islamic countries which are part of the military alliance – Iran, Syria and Iraq are not part of it. It added the coalition will have a joint operations centre in Riyadh to coordinate and support military operations.

When contacted, a senior official of Pakistan’s Foreign Office said they were gathering details about the newly formed alliance. “We came to know about it (the alliance) through news reports. We have asked our ambassador in Saudi Arabia to get details on it,” he said, suggesting that Pakistan has been caught off guard by the Saudi announcement. [Continue reading…]

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Pakistani Shi’ites fighting for Iran in Syria

Reuters reports: For years, websites linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have posted articles eulogizing Shi’ite fighters who die in Syria. But two men heralded last month for dying to defend a shrine near Damascus were different from most martyrs given such treatment in the past: they were Pakistanis.

The men were part of the Zeinabiyoun, a unit of Pakistani fighters named for a granddaughter of the prophet Mohammad buried in the shrine, the latest contingent in an Iranian drive to recruit Shi’ites from the region to fight in Syria.

The increase in the number of “martyrdom” notices of fighters from the group this year indicates they are taking a more active role in the conflict. A posting in mid-November on a Twitter account bearing the group’s name displayed the pictures of 53 men, described as fighters killed in battle.

While there has been no official announcement of their total numbers, a regional source familiar with the issue said there were hundreds of Pakistanis fighting in Syria, many stationed around the shrine of Mohammad’s granddaughter Zeinab.

Iran’s recruitment of the Pakistani fighters adds yet another international dimension to Syria’s 4-year-old civil war, which has deepened sectarian divisions across the Muslim world and drawn in most regional and global powers. [Continue reading…]

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Pakistan stops foreign reporters’ probe into radicalization of California shooters

The Times of India reports: Pakistan has begun preventing western reporters from investigating the radicalization of the San Bernardino terrorists even as it emerged that the Pakistani wife of the Chicago-born Pakistani-American Syed Rizwan Farooq may have “honey-trapped” him into entering the United States.

Correspondents who made their way to the city of Multan in Pakistan’s Punjab province, considered the hotbed of sunni extremism where Farooq’s jihadi wife Tashfeen Malik studied pharmacy, reported they had been corralled in a local hotel and are not being permitted to go out to investigate.

“Pakistani ‘officials’ not letting some journalists out of our hotel in Multan this morning to do reporting. I am still barred from leaving hotel in Multan and Pakistani ‘officials’ strongly suggest I, as foreign journalist, ‘go back to Islamabad”‘ tweeted Washington Post’s Tim Craig, who has been reporting from Pakistan.

“On one hand officials say Tashfeen Malik wasn’t radicalized here in Multan, yet on other hand they say ‘it’s too dangerous’ for foreigners,” Craig tweeted, adding, “I’ve lost track of how many different security/intel officials I’ve had to talk to, copy my passport, etc in past 17 hours – think 12 to 16.”

By putting “officials” in quotes, the correspondent seemed to indicate they are ISI roughnecks who are frequently tasked with tailing foreign reporters to make sure they do not get too close to the truth, in this case the fact that Multan and surrounding areas in Pakistan’s Punjab is the hotbed of state sponsored Sunni sectarianism and extremism.

The country’s security apparatus uses rough methods, including beating up foreign journalists as it happened with New York Times’ Carlotta Gall, to protect its interests. It also uses the grisly example of Daniel Pearl’s murder to advise foreign reporters that they are treading in dangerous territory, which in this case appears to be the state-protected Southern Punjab region. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Dr. Shah, of the [Bahauddin Zakariya] university faculty, said he was shocked by the news that Ms. Malik was suspected of committing a mass killing. He said he did not think she had become radicalized at the university, because it does not have a reputation for extremism.

But neither Multan nor Ms. Malik’s university have been immune to extremist currents. A proliferation of hard-line religious schools across southern Punjab have obtained a reputation as incubators for sectarian and militant groups, some of which enjoy the tacit support of political leaders and elements of the Pakistani security forces.

In response, the university kept a “very vigilant eye” on its students, said Dr. Janbaz, the lecturer, and coordinated with intelligence agencies to install surveillance cameras. Ms. Malik, however, never came under scrutiny, he said.

“We never heard anything suspicious about her activities,” he said. “She kept to herself and seemed to just focus on her studies.”

But the authorities did little to stop a virtual witch hunt on campus that led to a nationally publicized death after Ms. Malik left the university.

In 2013, Islamist students there accused Junaid Hafeez, a young lecturer in English who had traveled to the United States as a Fulbright scholar, of insulting the Prophet Muhammad in comments he made on his Facebook page. Mr. Hafeez was later charged with blasphemy, a crime that carries a possible death penalty in Pakistan, and he is currently in jail awaiting trial.

Mr. Hafeez has struggled to find legal representation since two men fatally shot his lawyer, Rashid Rehman, in May 2014, in what was seen as punishment for daring to defend someone accused of blasphemy.

Pakistani security officials say there is no indication yet that Ms. Malik moved in extremist circles on campus or in the city. Yet they have sought to restrict reporting from the area in recent days, often by issuing quiet threats to Pakistani reporters to back off. The officials conducted a search of Ms. Malik’s former home in Multan on Saturday. [Continue reading…]

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How four federal lawyers paved the way for Obama to order the execution of Osama bin Laden

The New York Times reports: While the lawyers believed that Mr. Obama was bound to obey domestic law, they also believed he could decide to violate international law when authorizing a “covert” action, officials said.

If the SEALs got Bin Laden, the Obama administration would lift the secrecy and trumpet the accomplishment. But if it turned out that the founder and head of Al Qaeda was not there, some officials thought the SEALs might be able to slip back out, allowing the United States to pretend the raid never happened.

Mr. Preston wrote a memo addressing when the administration had to alert congressional leaders under a statute governing covert actions. Given the circumstances, the lawyers decided that the administration would be legally justified in delaying notification until after the raid. But then they learned that the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, had already briefed several top lawmakers about Abbottabad without White House permission.

The lawyers also grappled with whether it was lawful for the SEAL team to go in intending to kill Bin Laden as its default option. They agreed that it would be legal, in a memo written by Ms. DeRosa, and Mr. Obama later explicitly ordered a kill mission, officials said. [Continue reading…]

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There’s just one problem with those Bin Laden conspiracy theories

Mark Bowden writes: Without a shred of evidence, without contradicting a word that I wrote, Jonathan Mahler in The New York Times Magazine this week suggests that the “irresistible story” that I told about the killing of Osama bin Laden in my 2012 book, The Finish (excerpted in Vanity Fair), might well have been a fabrication—“another example of American mythmaking.” He presents an alternative version of the story written by Seymour Hersh as, effectively, a rival account, one that raises serious doubts about mine, which is all but dubbed “the official version.” It’s not meant kindly.

Mahler’s think piece about the iffiness of reporting and the hazards of trying to shape history into a narrative is a great gift to conspiratorial thinkers everywhere. It’s not often that the most distinguished journalistic institution in America wades so fully into the crackpot world of Internet theorizing, where all information, no matter its source, is weightless and equal. Mahler is careful not to side with either Hersh or me, but allows that “Hersh’s version doesn’t require us to believe in the possibility of a government-wide conspiracy.”

In fact, that’s exactly what it does. [Continue reading…]

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Pakistani military says its drone killed 3 suspected militants

The Washington Post reports: An unmanned Pakistani aircraft killed three suspected terrorists Monday, marking the first time that the country’s military has used drone technology on the battlefield, officials said.

In March, Pakistan’s military declared that it had successfully armed an indigenously produced drone, which it calls the Burraq, with a laser-guided missile. But the weapon had not been used in combat until now, officials said.

Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, a spokesman for the military, said in a brief statement that three “high-profile terrorists” were killed in the strike in the Shawal Valley in northwestern Pakistan. Bajwa did not identify them but said details would be forthcoming.

With the announcement, Pakistan appears to have joined a handful of nations that use armed drones as instruments of war. [Continue reading…]

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Ex-intelligence chief: ‘Pakistan is at war against the Afghan people’

Der Spiegel reports: In an interview, former Afghan secret service chief Amrullah Saleh discusses the recent wave of Taliban violence aimed at cementing power for its new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. He says the attacks are backed by Pakistan.

SPIEGEL: More than 100 people have been killed in the recent series of attacks in Afghanistan. What are the perpetrators seeking to achieve with this new wave of violence?

Saleh: The Taliban have a reputation for brutality and mercilessness to defend. Their new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor wants to prove that he can maintain these capabilities. All the major attacks require enormous military and financial resources. They are planned and executed with the aid of ISI, Pakistan’s secret service. The aim of the attacks is to establish Mansoor as the new strong man. The violence is intended to show that the Taliban brand still exists, and the message as the same as before — that the Talban is united and powerful.

SPIEGEL: Why was the death of Mullah Omar, his predecessor, kept secret?

Saleh: We don’t know if he died two years ago or five. The only thing that is certain is that Mullah Omar was living under the patronage of the ISI. Pakistan always denied this, just as the leadership in Islamabad denied that Osama bin Laden lived in the country with their protection. But how can we lead a peace process together with Pakistan when everyone lies — from the army chief right up to the president? [Continue reading…]

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Mullah Omar’s death revelation could divide Taliban, undermine peace talks

The Washington Post reports: By the time Mohammad Omar’s death in 2013 was confirmed Wednesday, he had long been the ghost leader of the Taliban. His Afghan acolytes had not seen or heard from him in more than two years, even as they continued to fight and die in the name of the Islamist movement he founded two decades before.

Like Osama bin Laden, confined to watching TV in a Pakistani safe house before he was killed by U.S. commandos in 2011, Omar was still an inspiring symbol for his followers but he was no longer calling the shots. All the messages he sent out were scripted by someone else — props in a campaign to keep the splintering insurgents united.

Now that the truth is out, analysts in Kabul said Wednesday, two questions loom for the Taliban and the future of Afghanistan. First, with no immediate successor in place, can anyone else keep the fractured insurgency unified, or will disillusionment and power struggles pull it apart? Second, with peace talks just beginning to gain momentum, will the sudden leadership vacuum bring them to a chaotic halt? [Continue reading…]

Reuters reports: The Taliban have chosen late supreme leader Mullah Omar’s longtime deputy to replace him, two militant commanders said on Thursday, as Pakistan announced that peace talks between the insurgents and the Afghan government had been postponed.

Pakistan cited reports of Omar’s death as the reason for the delay in negotiations, amid fears they could trigger a potentially bloody succession battle and further deepen divisions within the militant movement.

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was appointed leader at a meeting of the Taliban’s top representatives, many of whom are based in the Pakistani city of Quetta, according to the sources who were present at the shura, or gathering.

“The shura held outside Quetta unanimously elected Mullah Mansour as the new emir of the Taliban,” said one commander at the Wednesday night meeting.

“The shura will release a statement shortly.”

Siraj Haqqani, leader of the powerful Haqqani militant faction, will be a deputy to Mansour, both commanders added. [Continue reading…]

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Pakistan tried to tap international web traffic via underwater cables, report says

AFP reports: Pakistani intelligence sought to tap worldwide internet traffic via underwater cables that would have given the country a digital espionage capacity to rival the US, according to a report by Privacy International.

The report says the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency hired intermediary companies to acquire spying toolkits from western and Chinese firms for domestic surveillance.

It also claims the ISI sought access to tap data from three of the four “landing sites” that pass through the country’s port city of Karachi, effectively giving it access to internet traffic worldwide. [Continue reading…]

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Pakistan expels aid agency Save the Children

The Washington Post reports: Pakistani authorities expelled the U.S.-based aid agency Save the Children from the country on Thursday, sealing its office in the capital and giving staff members 15 days to leave because of “anti-Pakistan activities,” according to the Interior Ministry.

The move, which could have a chilling effect on dozens of charities that work in Pakistan, was carried out after extensive monitoring of the group’s members and activities, a ministry official said in an interview.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, declined to discuss the specific reason for the action. But the move appeared to be related to long-standing allegations of Save the Children’s ties to the Pakistani physician recruited to help the CIA gain information about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts prior to the 2011 U.S. military mission that killed him in northwestern Pakistan. [Continue reading…]

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Carlotta Gall corroborates parts of Seymour Hersh’s Bin Laden story

Carlotta Gall is one of the New York Times’ most respected reporters. There are few if any journalists who have covered the Afghanistan-Pakistan war for longer or in greater depth. She has, as far as I can tell, no political axe to grind.

In response to Seymour Hersh’s London Review of Books article on the killing of Osama bin Laden, Gall writes:

Beginning in 2001, I spent nearly 12 years covering Pakistan and Afghanistan for The Times. (In his article, Hersh cites an article I wrote for The Times Magazine last year, an excerpt from a book drawn from this reporting.) The story of the Pakistani informer was circulating in the rumor mill within days of the Abbottabad raid, but at the time, no one could or would corroborate the claim. Such is the difficulty of reporting on covert operations and intelligence matters; there are no official documents to draw on, few officials who will talk and few ways to check the details they give you when they do.

Two years later, when I was researching my book, I learned from a high-level member of the Pakistani intelligence service that the ISI had been hiding Bin Laden and ran a desk specifically to handle him as an intelligence asset. After the book came out, I learned more: that it was indeed a Pakistani Army brigadier — all the senior officers of the ISI are in the military — who told the C.I.A. where Bin Laden was hiding, and that Bin Laden was living there with the knowledge and protection of the ISI.

I trusted my source — I did not speak with him, and his information came to me through a friend, but he was high enough in the intelligence apparatus to know what he was talking about. I was confident the information was true, but I held off publishing it. It was going to be extremely difficult to corroborate in the United States, not least because the informant was presumably in witness protection.

I do not recall ever corresponding with Hersh, but he is following up on a story that many of us assembled parts of. The former C.I.A. officer Larry Johnson aired the theory of the informant — credited to “friends who are still active” — on his blog within days of the raid. And Hersh appears to have succeeded in getting both American and Pakistani sources to corroborate it. His sources remain anonymous, but other outlets such as NBC News have since come forward with similar accounts. Finally, the Pakistani daily newspaper The News reported Tuesday that Pakistani intelligence officials have conceded that it was indeed a walk-in who provided the information on Bin Laden. The newspaper names the officer as Brigadier Usman Khalid; the reporter is sufficiently well connected that he should be taken seriously.

This development is hugely important — it is the strongest indication to date that the Pakistani military knew of Bin Laden’s whereabouts and that it was complicit in hiding a man charged with international terrorism and on the United Nations sanctions list. [Continue reading…]

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Seymour Hersh’s 10,000-word bin Laden story — told four years ago in 640 words by Larry Johnson

When Seymour Hersh releases each of his blockbuster reports, what supposedly makes his claims authoritative is, more than anything else, the mere fact that they come from Seymour Hersh.

The reader is meant to trust the word of retired intelligence officials, consultants, and other unnamed experts, because Hersh trusts them. And we are meant to trust Hersh because of his stature as a veteran investigative journalist.

We are being invited to join a circle of confidence. Which is to say, we are being hooked by a confidence trick. Hersh is the confidant of (mostly) anonymous sources of inside information of inestimable quality, and we then become confidants of Hersh when he lets us in on the secrets.

To say this is not to imply that everything Hersh reports should be doubted, but simply to note that his egotistical investment in his own work — the fact that Hersh’s stories invariably end up being in part stories about Hersh — inevitably clouds the picture.

As a result, ensuing debate about the credibility of Hersh’s reports tends to devolve into polarized contests of allegiance. Each side sees the other as having been duped — either duped by a conspiracy theorist (Hersh) or duped by government officials and the mainstream media.

*

A week after Osama bin Laden was killed, Larry Johnson wrote a blog post that reads like an outline draft of Hersh’s latest report. Johnson is a retired senior intelligence official who claims to be knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. Maybe he was the “major U.S. source” on whom Hersh relied.

On May 9, 2011, Johnson wrote:

I’ve learned some things from friends who are still active that dramatically alter the picture the White House is desperately trying to paint. Here is what really happened. The U.S. Government learned of Bin Laden’s whereabouts last August when a person walked into a U.S. Embassy and claimed that Pakistan’s intelligence service (ISI) had Bin Laden under control in Abottabad, Pakistan. Naturally the CIA personnel who received this information were skeptical. That’s why the CIA set up a safehouse in Abottabad in September 2010 as reported yesterday in the Washington Post.

The claim that we found Bin Laden because of a courier and the use of enhanced interrogation is simply a cover story. It appears to be an effective cover story because it has many Bush supporters pressing the case that enhanced interrogation worked. The Obama operatives in the White House are quite content to let the Bushies share in this part of the “credit.” Why? It keeps most folks from looking at the claims that don’t add up.

Anyway, the intel collection at the safe house escalated and the CIA began pressing Pakistan’s ISI to come clean on Osama.

As Pakistan’s Dawn notes in an editorial, the Pakistani version of events — the Abbottabad Commission report — has yet to be officially released.

Buried after initial promises that it would be made public, one version of the report has already seen the light of day via a leaked copy to Al Jazeera. That version alone contains a deep, systematic, even fundamental critique of the manner in which the ISI operates.

Surely, it is morally and legally indefensible of the state to hide from the public the only systematic inquiry into the events surrounding perhaps the most humiliating incident in decades here. National security will not be undermined by the publication of a report; national security was undermined by the presence of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil.

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Pakistanis knew where bin Laden was, say U.S. sources

NBC News reports: Two intelligence sources tell NBC News that the year before the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, a “walk in” asset from Pakistani intelligence told the CIA where the most wanted man in the world was hiding – and these two sources plus a third say that the Pakistani government knew where bin Laden was hiding all along.

The U.S. government has always characterized the heroic raid by Seal Team Six that killed bin Laden as a unilateral U.S. operation, and has maintained that the CIA found him by tracking couriers to his walled complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The new revelations do not necessarily cast doubt on the overall narrative that the White House began circulating within hours of the May 2011 operation. The official story about how bin Laden was found was constructed in a way that protected the identity and existence of the asset, who also knew who inside the Pakistani government was aware of the Pakistani intelligence agency’s operation to hide bin Laden, according to a special operations officer with prior knowledge of the bin Laden mission. The official story focused on a long hunt for bin Laden’s presumed courier, Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.

While NBC News has long been pursuing leads about a “walk in” and about what Pakistani intelligence knew, both assertions were made public in a London Review of Books article by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. Hersh’s story, published over the weekend, raises numerous questions about the White House account of the SEAL operation. It has been strongly disputed both on and off the record by the Obama administration and current and former national security officials. [Continue reading…]

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Blogger accuses Seymour Hersh of ‘plagiarism’ for bin Laden raid story

Politico: In the day following the publication of Seymour Hersh’s scandalous alternative account of the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the prize-winning investigative journalist has been pilloried as a fabulist, a fool, and even a fibber.

But one national security expert has a new insult to throw into the mix: plagiarist.

R.J. Hillhouse, a national security blogger and former college professor, wrote on her blog, “The Spy Who Billed Me” that she had accused the Obama administration of fabricating accounts of its raid that killed Osama bin Laden back in August 2011. Hersh’s story, published in the London Review of Books on Sunday, is “either plagiarism or unoriginal,” wrote Hillhouse.

The blog post Hillhouse is referring to dates back to August 7, 2011, only a few months after Osama bin Laden’s death. In it Hillhouse wrote, like Hersh, that the informant who led the CIA to bin Laden was a walk-in seeking financial compensation, that Pakistani officials were keeping bin Laden under house arrest with Saudi financial support, and that Pakistani officials had cooperated with the clandestine U.S. operation that killed him. [Continue reading…]

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