Obama to visit a Saudi Arabia deep in turmoil

The New York Times reports: The images of the past year have been deeply unsettling for the people of Saudi Arabia, long accustomed to oil-fueled prosperity and regional clout: militants firing at communities along the country’s southern border; protesters storming the Saudi Embassy in Tehran; civil wars raging in three nearby states.

The view from Riyadh has become increasingly bleak as stubbornly low oil prices constrain the government’s ability to respond to crises and as the kingdom’s regional rival, Iran, moves aggressively to expand its influence at Saudi Arabia’s expense.

Under huge stress, the Saudis have responded in unpredictable ways, often at odds with Washington’s interests. They have launched a costly military offensive in neighboring Yemen that has failed to defeat the Houthi rebels and has empowered the Qaeda affiliate there. They have executed dozens of men on terrorism charges, including a prominent dissident Shiite cleric. And they have largely walked away from Lebanon, suspending billions of dollars in promised aid as Iranian influence there grows. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Path of $681 million: From Saudi Arabia to Malaysian premier’s personal account

The New York Times reports: How did $681 million end up being deposited in the personal bank account of Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, last year?

Not in any corrupt way, officials insist.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said on Thursday that an unspecified Saudi source had given a large sum of money as a “genuine donation” with no obligations attached. He joined top Malaysian leaders in waving away any suggestion of scandal.

For those who have never had fortunes deposited into their personal bank accounts with no obligations attached, this may sound suspicious. Indeed, Mr. Najib has been subject to fierce international scrutiny, including a United States Justice Department investigation, as he continues to deny any wrongdoing. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Saudi Arabia threatens economic fallout if Congress passes 9/11 bill

The New York Times reports: Saudi Arabia has told the Obama administration and members of Congress that it will sell off hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of American assets held by the kingdom if Congress passes a bill that would allow the Saudi government to be held responsible in American courts for any role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The Obama administration has lobbied Congress to block the bill’s passage, according to administration officials and congressional aides from both parties, and the Saudi threats have been the subject of intense discussions in recent weeks between lawmakers and officials from the State Department and the Pentagon. The officials have warned senators of diplomatic and economic fallout from the legislation.

Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, delivered the kingdom’s message personally last month during a trip to Washington, telling lawmakers that Saudi Arabia would be forced to sell up to $750 billion in treasury securities and other assets in the United States before they could be in danger of being frozen by American courts. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Sisi’s stature melting away

David Hearst writes: President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been burning the candle at both ends. Having burned his way through Egypt’s largest political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi went on to give secular liberals who supported his coup against Mohamed Morsi the same treatment: imprisonment, torture or banishment. A significant part of Egypt’s political and intellectual elite is now in exile. He has one source of legitimacy left – the international community. This week, he’s been burning his way through that.

Sisi’s week should have started on a high – the visit of the Saudi King Salman. After all the tension between the two countries (at the time of Salman’s succession, the pro-Sisi media declared the then crown prince not fit for office) and after all the reports of money from Saudi drying up, this should have been an occasion to silence all doubters: Salman was investing $22bn in Egypt. The Egyptian presidency described Salman’s visit as “crowning the close brotherly ties between the two countries.”

Salman’s visit had been much hyped, as indeed Sisi’s visit to Britain was in November last year. Sisi expected each to be a breakthrough of its kind. And yet during his visit to London, Cameron cancelled all British flights to Egypt as a result of the downing of a Russian airliner over Sinai, sounding the death knell of the Egyptian tourist industry. A similar disaster awaited Sisi in Salman’s visit. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Britain’s covert war in Yemen

Vice News reports: In a rural valley in southern Yemen lies Wadi Rafad, a collection of farms 50 miles from the provincial capital of Ataq. Amid an arid landscape dotted with lemon orchards and cornfields, villagers were used to the peace being disturbed by the buzzing of US drones flying overhead. But on the afternoon of May 6, 2012, something changed.

Around 4.30pm an aircraft came into view, its white fuselage clearly visible against the stark blue sky. Rather than overfly the valley, the CIA drone fired Hellfire missiles straight at Fahd al-Quso, who was working his land. He was killed instantly — but shrapnel from the blast also engulfed Nasser Salim Lakdim, a 19-year-old student who had just returned home to tend his family’s plantation. Nasser’s father came rushing back to the farm to find his son in pieces. “It was horrifying, I can barely describe it,” he told VICE News.

The strike was among the foremost successes of the US counterterrorism effort in Yemen. Al-Quso, its target, was a senior field commander in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). He had participated in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and had threatened to attack American embassies.

It was also an example of successful cooperation between British and American intelligence agencies. The US had hunted al-Quso for half a decade, and the intelligence that led to this strike came from a British agent working for the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) — commonly known as MI6 — who had infiltrated AQAP.

Far from being a one-off tip, a VICE News investigation can exclusively reveal that this was a high point in systemic collaboration between SIS and the CIA to degrade AQAP through a combination of special forces operations and drone strikes.

A former senior CIA official responsible for operations in Yemen told VICE News that “the most important contribution” to the intelligence for the strike came from “a very important British capability.” The UK agent provided the CIA with al-Quso’s position, allowing a drone to track his car. “That was quite unique,” the former official explained, “it was something we didn’t have.”

The use of drones in Yemen has long been characterized as a unilateral US policy. In response to a 2014 parliamentary question on Britain’s role in the US drone program, UK Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hugh Robertson said: “Drone strikes against terrorist targets in Yemen are a matter for the Yemeni and US governments.”

However, following interviews with more than two dozen current and former British, American, and Yemeni officials, VICE News can reveal that the UK played a crucial and sustained role with the CIA in finding and fixing targets, assessing the effect of strikes, and training Yemeni intelligence agencies to locate and identify targets for the US drone program. The US-led covert war in Yemen, now in its 15th year, has killed up to 1,651 people, including up to 261 civilians, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Cash, candy, and ‘collateral damage’: An anatomy of a CIA-MI6 drone assassination

Vice News reports: “I was on my way to play football with my friends when the airstrike hit,” Amin Ali al-Wisabi told VICE News, recounting the day when a CIA drone struck his hometown of Azzan in Yemen. “We had stopped to sit down and plan the match when all of a sudden an explosion hit a passing al-Qaeda car.”

Recovering from his shock, 13-year-old Amin realized he had been hit by shrapnel. “Blood was pouring from my leg.”

Next to Amin, his friend Hamza Khaled Baziyad lay unconscious. In total, five children aged between 10 and 14 were injured as they gathered close to the local mosque.

Though the number of people injured in covert US strikes is not officially recorded, they play a crucial role in the struggle for hearts and minds across Yemen’s southern hinterland. Bystanders and family rushed the children to a local clinic, where Hamza awoke while shrapnel was extracted from his chest. All of the children survived. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Two ways the war in Yemen is turning into a disaster for the U.S.

Ishaan Tharoor writes: Two significant reports last week illustrated the awkward role of the United States in the ongoing conflict in Yemen, which has claimed thousands of lives, seen the virtual collapse of the fragile Yemeni state, and sparked a grim humanitarian crisis in what was already the Middle East’s most impoverished nation.

An investigation by Human Rights Watch published on Wednesday alleged that at least two deadly airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition last month used munitions supplied by the United States. The attack, which hit a town in northwestern Yemen, killed at least 97 civilians, including 25 children.

Last month also marked the anniversary of Saudi Arabia’s entrance into the civil war on its southern border — an intervention that has seen Riyadh and its allies get bogged down in a difficult battle with the country’s Houthi rebels, who still control the capital Sanaa and much of northern Yemen.

Separately, a Reuters special report raised the possibility that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror group’s influential Yemeni wing — long the target of U.S. counterterror operations — has gained ground in the shadow of the Saudi-led war, exploiting Yemen’s security vacuum to consolidate its position in a string of coastal cities while building up an impressive treasury of plundered wealth. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Time to declassify 28 redacted pages of a report that holds 9/11 secrets

60 Minutes reports: In 10 days, President Obama will visit Saudi Arabia at a time of deep mistrust between the two allies, and lingering doubts about the Saudi commitment to fighting violent Islamic extremism.

It also comes at a time when the White House and intelligence officials are reviewing whether to declassify one of the country’s most sensitive documents — known as the “28 pages.” They have to do with 9/11 and the possible existence of a Saudi support network for the hijackers while they were in the U.S. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

How Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has made al Qaeda stronger – and richer

Reuters reports: Once driven to near irrelevance by the rise of Islamic State abroad and security crackdowns at home, al Qaeda in Yemen now openly rules a mini-state with a war chest swollen by an estimated $100 million in looted bank deposits and revenue from running the country’s third largest port.

If Islamic State’s capital is the Syrian city of Raqqa, then al Qaeda’s is Mukalla, a southeastern Yemeni port city of 500,000 people. Al Qaeda fighters there have abolished taxes for local residents, operate speedboats manned by RPG-wielding fighters who impose fees on ship traffic, and make propaganda videos in which they boast about paving local roads and stocking hospitals.

The economic empire was described by more than a dozen diplomats, Yemeni security officials, tribal leaders and residents of Mukalla. Its emergence is the most striking unintended consequence of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. The campaign, backed by the United States, has helped Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to become stronger than at any time since it first emerged almost 20 years ago.

Yemeni government officials and local traders estimated the group, as well as seizing the bank deposits, has extorted $1.4 million from the national oil company and earns up to $2 million every day in taxes on goods and fuel coming into the port.

AQAP boasts 1,000 fighters in Mukalla alone, controls 600 km (373 miles) of coastline and is ingratiating itself with southern Yemenis, who have felt marginalised by the country’s northern elite for years.

By adopting many of the tactics Islamic State uses to control its territory in Syria and Iraq, AQAP has expanded its own fiefdom. The danger is that the group, which organised the Charlie Hebdo magazine attack in Paris last year and has repeatedly tried to down U.S. airliners, may slowly indoctrinate the local population with its hardline ideology.

“I prefer that al Qaeda stay here, not for Al Mukalla to be liberated,” said one 47-year-old resident. “The situation is stable, more than any ‘free’ part of Yemen. The alternative to al Qaeda is much worse.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Yemen: U.S. bombs used in deadliest market strike

Human Rights Watch: Saudi Arabia-led coalition airstrikes using United States-supplied bombs killed at least 97 civilians, including 25 children, in northwestern Yemen on March 15, 2016, Human Rights Watch said today. The two strikes, on a crowded market in the village of Mastaba that may have also killed about 10 Houthi fighters, caused indiscriminate or foreseeably disproportionate loss of civilian life, in violation of the laws of war. Such unlawful attacks when carried out deliberately or recklessly are war crimes.

Human Rights Watch conducted on-site investigations on March 28, and found remnants at the market of a GBU-31 satellite-guided bomb, which consists of a US-supplied MK-84 2,000-pound bomb mated with a JDAM satellite guidance kit, also US-supplied. A team of journalists from ITV, a British news channel, visited the site on March 26, and found remnants of an MK-84 bomb paired with a Paveway laser guidance kit. Human Rights Watch reviewed the journalists’ photographs and footage of these fragments.

“One of the deadliest strikes against civilians in Yemen’s year-long war involved US-supplied weapons, illustrating tragically why countries should stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The US and other coalition allies should send a clear message to Saudi Arabia that they want no part in unlawful killings of civilians.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Saudi Arabia passes Russia as world’s third biggest military spender

The Washington Post reports: Global military spending reached almost $1.7 trillion in 2015, marking a year-on-year increase for the first time since 2011, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks arms expenditure around the world.

The United States remained far and away the top spender, which despite a dip from 2014, accounted for more than a third of total global spending. It was followed by China and then, perhaps surprisingly, Saudi Arabia, which supplanted Russia in third place. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

As long as there is no real democracy in the Middle East, ISIS will continue to mutate

David Hearst writes: The betting is that neither the pro-Assad coalition nor the Saudi-backed one will prevail in Syria. The likeliest outcome of a ceasefire is a Syria permanently fragmented into sectarian statelets in the way Iraq was after the US invasion.

This could be regarded as the least worst option for foreign powers meddling in Syria. Jordan, the Emirates and Egypt will have stopped this dangerous thing called regime change. Saudi will have stopped Iran and Hezbollah. Russia will have its naval base and retain a foothold in the Middle East. Assad will survive in a shrunken sectarian state. The Kurds will have their enclave in the north. America will walk away once more from the region.

There is just one loser in all this – Syria itself. Five million Syrians will become permanent exiles. Justice, self-determination, liberation from autocracy will be kicked into the long grass.

The history of the region has lessons for foreign powers. It proves that fragmentation only leads to further chaos. The region needs reconciliation, common projects and stability as never before. That will not come from creating sectarian enclaves backed by foreign powers.

The Islamic State is a distraction from the real struggle of the region, which is liberation from dictatorship and the birth of real democratic movements. IS is not a justification for the strong men. It is a product of their resistance to change. History did not start in 2011 and it won’t stop now. The revolutions of 2011 were empowered by decades of misrule. There is a reason why millions of Arab rose – peacefully at first – against their rulers and that reason still exists today.

As long as there is no real democratic solution in the Middle East, the Islamic State group will continue to mutate like a pathogen that has become antibiotic-resistant in the body politic of the Middle East. Each time it changes shape, it will become more virulent. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

ISIS turns Saudis against the Kingdom, and families against their own

The New York Times reports: The men were not hardened militants. One was a pharmacist, another a heating and cooling technician. One was a high school student.

They were six cousins, all living in Saudi Arabia, all with the same secret. They had vowed allegiance to the Islamic State — and they planned to kill another cousin, a sergeant in the kingdom’s counterterrorism force.

And that is what they did. In February, the group abducted Sgt. Bader al-Rashidi, dragged him to the side of a road south of this central Saudi city, and shot and killed him. With video rolling, they condemned the royal family, saying it had forsaken Islam.

Then they fled into the desert. The video spread rapidly across the kingdom, shocking a nation struggling to contain a terrorist movement seen as especially dangerous not just because it promotes violence, but also because it has adopted elements of Saudi Arabia’s conservative version of Islam — a Sunni creed known as Wahhabism — and used them to delegitimize the monarchy.

“Wahhabism is fundamental to the Islamic State’s ideology,” said Cole Bunzel, a scholar of Wahhabi history at Princeton University and the author of a recent paper on Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State. “It informs the character of their religion and is the most on-display feature, in my opinion, of their entire ideology.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Growing international movement seek to place arms embargo on Saudi Arabia

The Intercept reports: A lawsuit filed last week in Canada is seeking to halt a major $15 billion sale of light-armored vehicles to the government of Saudi Arabia, part of a growing international movement to stop arms sales to the Saudi government over its alleged war crimes in Yemen.

The suit, filed by University of Montreal constitutional law professor Daniel Turp, argues the vehicle sales to Saudi Arabia violate a number of Canadian laws, including regulations on the export of military equipment, which prohibit arms sales to countries where human rights are “subject to serious and repeated violations” and there is a reasonable risk exported equipment “will be used against the civilian population.” Saudi Arabia, which has a deplorable human rights record at home, has inflicted considerable civilian casualties in Yemen as part of its yearlong bombing campaign in support of the contested government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

“The suppression of human rights in Saudi Arabia and the Saudi government’s actions during the war in Yemen make the sale of these armored vehicles legally unacceptable,” Turp said.[Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Lahore bombing is faction’s boldest bid to stake claim as Pakistan’s most violent terrorists

The Guardian reports: Christian leaders have expressed horror at the massacre of more than 70 people in Lahore on Easter Sunday, the most significant day in the church calendar.

The Vatican said Pope Francis was praying for the victims and their families in the aftermath of the suicide bombing, which “casts a shadow of sadness and anguish on the feast of the Easter”. [Continue reading…]

Jason Burke reports: The bombing of Lahore’s most popular park is the bloodiest attempt yet by a new Islamic extremist faction to establish itself as the most aggressive and violent of the many such groups active in Pakistan.

The target was the country’s long-beleaguered Christian community, according to a credible claim of responsibility from Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a group founded about two years ago after a split within the fragmented movement known as the Pakistan Taliban.

However, many Muslims were among the scores of victims when a suicide bomber detonated a nail-filled device near a children’s playground. This is unlikely to bother the perpetrators.

Extremist clerics have made sustained efforts to find theological justification for such casualties in recent decades and, though such arguments are contested by mainstream scholars, they are preached in hardline mosques and taught in many religious schools in Pakistan.

The Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, like the broader Pakistan Taliban, follow an extremist branch of the rigorously conservative Deobandi strand of Islam which, along with equally intolerant schools of practice influenced by those in the Gulf, has made major inroads in Pakistan in recent years at the expense of more open-minded local traditions. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail