Donald Trump’s Muslim Laptop Ban Could Be a Protectionist Scheme

THE DEPARTMENT OF Homeland Security announced an unprecedented new restriction on travelers from 10 airports in eight Muslim-majority countries on Tuesday.

The DHS restriction states “that all personal electronic devices larger than a cell phone or smart phone be placed in checked baggage at 10 airports where flights are departing for the United States.”

It’s a Muslim laptop ban.

The 10 airports are in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

American-based airlines do not fly directly to the United States from these airports, so these restrictions will not apply to them. The impact of this move will instead fall on nine airlines, including Gulf-based carriers that U.S. airlines have been asking President Trump to punish since the day after his election.

The U.S. carriers have long complained that Gulf carriers such as Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways are unfairly subsidized by their national governments.

Executives at Delta Airlines, United Airlines, and American Airlines met with Trump in early February. The day before the meeting, a group representing these American airlines, called the Partnership for Open & Fair Skies, distributed a slick video using Trump’s own words to argue against the subsidies.

With this new travel impediment, Trump may be throwing these executives a bone. The new restrictions appear to be targeting airports that serve as flight “hubs” for these airlines — such as Dubai International, which is the hub of Emirates. Airlines use these hub airports to transfer passengers between flights, delivering significant savings.

California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who is the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, quickly rose to the defense of Trump’s DHS on Tuesday, calling the restrictions both “necessary and proportional to the threat”:

Ranking House Intel Dem Schiff backs new electronics ban on US-bound flights from 8 Muslim-maj countries – critics say measure is arbitrary pic.twitter.com/3zPwehf2ZW

— Jessica Schulberg (@jessicaschulb) March 21, 2017

In 2015, Schiff was one of 262 Members of the House who signed a letter protesting subsidies for the Gulf airlines. The letter is featured on the website of the Partnership for Open & Fair Skies.

Whatever the motivation, the security justifications are unclear at best. The Guardian interviewed a number of top technologists about the new policy on Tuesday, and they were puzzled. “If you assume the attacker is interested in turning a laptop into a bomb, it would work just as well in the cargo hold,” Nicholas Weaver, who is a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute, told the paper.

“From a technological perspective, nothing has changed between the last dozen years and today. That is, there are no new technological breakthroughs that make this threat any more serious today,” Bruce Schneier, a top technologist at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, told the Guardian. “And there is certainly nothing technological that would limit this newfound threat to a handful of Middle Eastern airlines.”

The United Kingdom enacted similar restrictions hours after the United States, but with two puzzling differences. The U.K. ban includes 14 airlines, including six based in the U.K. And it does not include airports in Qatar or the UAE — which are the epicenter of the subsidies dispute. Canada is reportedly weighing its own restrictions.

For its part, Emirates responded by inviting customers to sample its in-flight entertainment in lieu of tablets and laptops — by repurposing an old advertisement featuring Jennifer Anniston:

Let us entertain you. pic.twitter.com/FKqayqUdQ7

— Emirates airline (@emirates) March 21, 2017

Zaid Jilani
March 21 2017, 7:51 p.m.
Find this story at 21 March 2017

Copyright https://theintercept.com/

The Many Mysteries of the Muslim Laptop Ban

A new Homeland Security rule will ban electronics on flights from airports in Muslim-majority countries. Is this protectionism or prudence? Well, it’s complicated.

Travelers from eight different Muslim-majority nations will no longer be allowed to carry laptops, tablets, or certain other electronic devices with them in the cabin on flights inbound to the U.S., according to new rules that take effect on Tuesday. The U.K. was quick to announce that it would follow suit with a Muslim laptop ban of its own.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration say that the new rules reflect a potential threat of terrorists smuggling explosive devices on board planes using portable electronic devices—iPads, Kindles, and the like. The DHS guidance cites a 2016 attempted airliner downing in Somalia as one recent incident that could be linked to a laptop bomb. The U.S. rules affect last-point-of-departure airports from 10 airports—some of them the busiest hubs in the Middle East—from Saudi Arabia to Istanbul to the UAE.

Behind the order, though, lies a long history of conflict between America’s big three carriers—Delta, United, and American—and their peers in the Gulf. Critics spied an ulterior motive behind the Trump administration’s new rule: a protectionist measure for U.S. carriers promised by President Donald Trump.

Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman floated this notion in the Washington Post, suggesting that the financial security of United, American, and Delta might be behind the new counterterrorism measures. The U.S. airlines have grumbled for years that their counterparts from the Gulf—specifically Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways—benefit unfairly from government subsidies. Those carriers have recently expanded their service to U.S. cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C. (as any Washington Wizards fan can tell you, since Etihad is a major advertiser in the Verizon Center).

Back in February, the chief executives of United, American, and Delta sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson complaining about the “massive subsidization of three state-owned Gulf carriers … and the significant harm this subsidized competition is causing to U.S. airlines and U.S. jobs.” In a meeting with the executives shortly thereafter, Trump promised “phenomenal” tax relief, broad deregulation, and other forms of support to the industry.

It’s not yet clear whether this laptop travel ban applies exclusively to all inbound flights from Muslim-majority airports or just those from Gulf carriers. If the latter, that would be a boon to U.S. operators. International business-class travelers—and there are a lot of them circulating between the U.S. and the Middle East—are bound to prefer flights that allow them to work on the plane. During a 14-hour nonstop haul from Dubai to Dulles, passengers are likely to appreciate all the electronic conveniences and entertainment they can carry.

But a one-sided ban would also be a plain violation of trade rules. Global airline carriers have been duking it out over national subsidies for years. In September, the World Trade Organization ruled that the European Union had been illegally propping up Airbus to the tune of $22 billion, a decision that the Washington Post described as “the most expensive dispute in international history.”

A U.K. electronics ban in the Gulf would bite the hand that feeds British Airways.
The Financial Times reports that the rule applies only to non-U.S. carriers: Saudi Arabian Airlines, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Kuwait Airways, Turkish Airlines, EgyptAir, and Royal Air Maroc. Several of these state-owned airlines have indeed enjoyed massive subsidies from their governments. But there’s nothing in the guidance released by Homeland Security that specifies those carriers or otherwise exempts U.S. domestic airlines from the electronics ban. DHS is specific only about the 10 affected airports.

According to CNN, domestic carriers are not affected by the ruling because they do not operate any direct flights to the U.S. from those airports. A travel engine search corroborates and complicates that explanation. Delta runs flights from Cairo to Washington, D.C., that are operated by Air France, for example. British Airways operates American Airlines flights from Istanbul to New York. Both Delta and United operate inbound flights by other carriers—Lufthansa, KLM, and so on—from the restricted airports.

Homeland Security has not responded to a request for clarification. Across the pond, an electronics ban is even more more complicated, since Qatar Airways has increased its ownership stake in the parent company for British Airways to 20 percent after Brexit. A U.K. electronics ban in the Gulf would bite the hand that feeds British Airways.

These bans may be motivated by urgent and legitimate national security concerns. Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a Democrat, says that the electronics ban is justified. There is a debate to be had even if the threat is real, though. The tradeoff between travel security and convenience is an enormous drag on productivity (not to mention a cost for airports and airlines). The new rules may sidestep that debate. If an electronics ban applies solely to Gulf carriers, exempting domestic airlines, then it’s pretty plainly a protectionist measure, of the kind that Trump has explicitly promised to deliver for U.S. airlines.

The risk, of course, is that Gulf states could respond in kind—meaning that no one gets to binge on Netflix on international flights. Trade battles have a way of escalating quickly. After the European Union restricted hormone-treated beef from America in 1999, the Clinton administration retaliated with a 100 percent tariff on Roquefort from France. The Bush administration escalated the conflict—totally arbitrarily!—with a 300 percent duty on Roquefort in 2003. The ensuing cheese war lasted nearly through the Obama administration.

Depriving Americans of imported fromage is one thing; taking screens away from their toddlers could represent a whole other degree of inconvenience. Whether or not the Trump administration is pushing protectionist trade policies under the guise of national security, it seems likely that international flights are going to feel a whole hell of a lot longer.

KRISTON CAPPS @kristoncapps Mar 21, 2017 10 Comments

Find this story at 21 March 2017

Copyright 2017 The Atlantic Monthly Group.

Saudi Arabia: prime centre of content blocking

The Communication and Information Technology Commission (CITC) the Internet Services Unit (ISU)

Surveillance and censorship of the Internet, relentless in the kingdom for many years, intensified after the popular uprisings in the Arab world in 2011, cutting still further the only free space where non-official views, news and information could be published. The latest target in the Saudi authorities’ sights is the video platform YouTube, which has been blocked since last December. Six months earlier, the Viber messaging service was cut off.

The main Internet Enemies are the Communication and Information Technology Commission and the Internet Services Unit. Far from concealing their actions, the authorities openly attest to their censorship practices and claim to have blocked some 400,000 sites.

The main regulatory agencies

The Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) has been responsible for regulating the Internet in the country since 2006, censoring thousands of websites.

The Saudi Arabian National Center for Science & Technology (SANCST) was established as an independent scientific organization in 1977 to promote the development of science and technology in Saudi Arabia. There was a change of direction in 1985, when the centre became the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST). This is the backbone of the Internet in Saudi Arabia and the place where all Saudi domain names are registered. Since October 2006, the CITC has taken over its content-filtering role.

Citizens are encouraged to report sites with a view to having them blocked. These requests, previously centralized and managed by the Internet Services Unit (ISU), linked to the KACST, are now handled by the CITC, as stated on the ISU site. It takes just a few mouse-clicks for a user to report a site or a page to be blocked or unblocked.

Late last year, after an article was published in the newspaper Al-Hayat, there was a rumour that the Saudi broadcasting authorities wanted to create a new body to censor and monitor video content on YouTube and other sites.

Another idea under consideration was to require Saudis who wanted to share videos online to obtain a permit from this new agency and comply with its terms and conditions for the production of content. Only YouTube use compatible with Saudi “culture, values and traditions” would be permitted. It was not clear whether such censorship would apply to videos posted in Saudi Arabia itself or to all YouTube content. The head of the commission was critical of the article, but he stopped short of denying it.

The whole thing was tied together by the state-owned company Saudi Telecom Company (STC), which for long was the country’s sole telecoms operator for mobile and Internet technology before the market was opened up. However, all licences of private companies are granted by the STC.

Internet cafés are also monitored. They must have concealed video cameras and keep an accurate record of their customers and note their identities.

The licence – stamp of approval

Culture and information minister Abdul Aziz Khoja, published new regulations for news and information websites in January 2011 aimed at reinforcing Internet censorship and dissuading Web users from creating their own sites and blogs.

According article 7 of the regulations, online media, the websites of so-called traditional media and platforms offering audio and video content or advertising now have to register with, and receive accreditation from, the culture and information ministry for a licence that must renewed every three years. A licence is valid for only three years. An applicant must be a Saudi national, aged at least 20, have a high school qualification and be able to produce “documents testifying to good conduct.”

All these online media will also have to identify the company that hosts them. According to the original regulations, the ministry would also have had to approve the editor of each online newspaper, who would be the guarantor of the site’s entire content. However, the minister scrapped this provision after an outcry. The ministry will now just have to be notified of the editor’s name. Its approval will not be required.

Online forums, blogs, personal websites, distribution lists, electronic archives and chat sites thereafter had to be registered. Bloggers were able to identify themselves “if they want,” but anonymity was clearly regarded as undesirable. Last month the authorities ruled that bloggers must use their real names.

Under article 17, any breach of these regulations will incur a fine and a partial or total block on the website concerned. Fines can be as high as 100,000 Saudi rials (20,000 euros). The ministry retains the right to broaden the scope of these measures.

Strict content filtering policy

A strict filtering policy is applied to any content deemed by the authorities to be pornographic, or “morally reprehensible”. Websites that discuss religious or human rights issues or the opposition viewpoints are also blocked.

Prohibited websites now include the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), and the sites gulfissues.net, saudiinstitute.org and saudiaffairs.net. Other sites have been blocked in response the Arab uprisings. In addition, there is increased surveillance of online forums and social networking sites, especially those that are participative.

The CITC announced in June last year that it had cut off access to the Viber messaging service, a free voice-over-Internet application, because it had failed to meet “the regulatory requirements and laws in Saudi Arabia”.

The authorities decided to target YouTube last December after the success of the campaign to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia and of the video No Woman, No Drive” a parody of the Bob Marley song “No Woman, No Cry” by the Saudi comedian Hisham Fageeh.

Last month, the NGO Arab Network for Human Rights Information, reported the closure of dozens of sites that were “opposed to the values of the Saudi government” and that 41 others had been shut down on the grounds that they had not complied with legislation requiring them to be registered.

Cyber dissidents jailed

Bloggers who dare to tackle sensitive subjects are liable to retaliation by the censors. Last July a Jeddah criminal court sentenced the cyber-activist Raef Badawi to seven years in prison and 600 lashes. The founder of Saudi Liberals, a website for political and social debate that has been censored since its creation in 2008, Badawi has been held in Jeddah’s Briman prison since his arrest on 17 June 2012.

He was accused of creating and moderating a website that insulted religion and religious officials, including the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, and violated the Sharia’s basic rules. Judge Faris Al-Harbi added three months to his sentence for “parental disobedience.”

Tariq al-Mubarak, a blogger and columnist who writes for the London-based Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, was arrested on 27 October last year after he wrote opinion pieces for the newspaper on subjects regarded as controversial in Saudi Arabia. In one of his stories published in its print edition on 6 October and headlined “It’s Time to Change Women’s Place in the Arab World”, he criticized the ban on women drivers. In another column published on 26 October and entitled “When the mafia threatens…”, he deplored the reign of terror in Arab societies that prevented people from fully enjoying fundamental freedoms. He was released after spending eight days in detention.

In late October, human rights lawyer Waleed Abu Al-Khair — Raef Badawi’s counsel – was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for signing a petition in 2011 that criticized the heavy sentences imposed on 16 Saudi reformists.

This entry was posted in Enemies of the Internet and tagged Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC), Internet Services Unit (ISU), Raef Badawi, Tariq al-Mubarak, The Saudi Arabian National Center for Science & Technology (SANCST), Waleed Abu Al-Khair on 11 March 2014 by moyenorient3.

Find this story at 11 March 2014

The Iranian-Saudi Proxy Wars Come to Mali (2015)

The Iranian-Saudi Proxy Wars Come to Mali
In schools, mosques, and cultural centers, Shiites and Sunnis are battling for African hearts and minds.

BAMAKO, Mali — In a country where two-thirds of the adults are illiterate, it is a privileged few who have the chance to study at the Mustafa International School.

Located in the western suburbs of Bamako, a few blocks from the U.S. Embassy, the college-level seminary has just 180 students — 150 men and 30 women. They engage in an intensive curriculum that encompasses theology, history, philosophy, Arabic, Farsi, and world religions. They work in the school’s computer suite, equipped with 12 desktop computers, and get three meals a day at the seminary’s expense. And they do it all under the watchful eyes of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, former supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose likeness gazes down on them from his portrait, which hangs above the bookshelves of the school’s library.

These young students are part of Mali’s tiny Shiite community: a group of about 10,000 families nationally, in a country where the Sunni majority makes up an estimated 95 percent of the population of 15 million.

They’re also the stuff of Saudi nightmares.

Historically, West Africa has had a tolerant approach to religious differences, shunning — at least until recently — the sort of Sunni-Shiite sectarian rivalries that have plagued the Middle East in favor of a patchwork of beliefs that incorporate Sufism, Maliki Islam, and traditional animist practices. But Mali — home to seminaries with ties to Iran, like the Mustafa International School, and where diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks this summer reveal that Saudi Arabia is scrambling to fund its own competing schools, mosques, and cultural projects — provides a case study in how the enmity between Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam may be being spread, via Iranian and Saudi proxies, to places thousands of miles from the Middle East.

Unlike most of Mali’s private schools and universities, which charge hefty fees, the Mustafa International School selects students from outside the capital and gives them free room and board. Few of the students hail from Mali’s elite families; rather, they are selected via tests administered to Shiite youth across the country. The highest achievers are offered the chance to continue their study in Iran.

The school is able to afford such generous support for its students because it is backed by an Iranian university in Qom, a city considered holy by Shiite Muslims and famed for its Islamic learning. The state-run University of Qom provides funding and sets the school’s curriculum, which covers various schools of Islamic thought, as well as Shiite jurisprudence.

“The teaching is very good,” said Adam N’Diaye, a 22-year-old student at the facility who recently converted from Sunnism. He aims to become a teacher when he graduates. A quick survey of his classmates revealed that most of his colleagues are aiming to become imams and missionaries.

It’s unclear how many schools and seminaries in Mali have ties to the Islamic Republic or just how close these ties are. There’s also no direct evidence to indicate that schools like the Mustafa International School are necessarily part of a larger effort by the Iranian government to make Shiite converts. Officials at the Iranian Cultural Center in Bamako declined to give any details about the number of educational institutions to which they have ties; the Saudi-based paper Al Yaum has previously reported that the cultural center runs 10 schools in Mali. Other sources place the number around 13.

Iran and Mali have a warm, if limited, relationship. When Iran’s then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visited Bamako and Timbuktu in 2010, he spoke in glowing terms about solidarity between the two countries and signed a raft of agreements on development aid and Iranian investment in agriculture and extractive industries. The Mustafa International School’s director, Mohamed Diabaté, who studied in Iran and maintains links with clerics there, makes appearances on Malian television to talk about his understanding of Islam. (He argues that the Tidjaniya school of Sufism common across West Africa has roots in Shiite, rather than Sunni, teaching.)

The presence of Shiism here isn’t something Saudi Arabia is taking lightly. Among the nearly 60,000 diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks on June 19 are a slew of documents detailing the kingdom’s fear of a “rising tide of Shiism” resulting from proselytization on the part of Saudi Arabia’s rival in the Middle East, Iran. Cables detailing specific Iranian charities, schools, and media outlets from Kazakhstan to Spain — as well as vague fears of “Shiite activities” elsewhere — show that Saudi diplomats see Shiism not only to be a vile heresy, but a movement inseparably tied to Iranian political clout. And even the smallest Shiite community is considered a threat.

“Despite the Iranian Embassy’s efforts [in Mali], there hasn’t been a lot of uptake, but it is possible that their thinking could spread in the future in a broader way and their Shiite activities could gain a base,” reads a cable from the Saudi Embassy in Bamako to the Foreign Ministry in Riyadh in early 2009. It recommends funding rival projects — mosques, schools, cultural programs, proselytization, and summer courses — to “strengthen the growing position of the [Saudi] kingdom” in Mali and promote Saudi Arabia’s image as “the protector of the noble Islamic faith.” It adds that this should be done “in a way that promotes peaceful coexistence between different ideologies and counters the Shiite spread.”

Mali offers a potentially rich source of converts to Shiism. “People in Mali love the family of the Prophet,” Diabaté said. The Tidjaniya Sufi order, which has a long history throughout West Africa, honors members of the Prophet Mohammed’s family as pure, devout individuals. It’s a small leap from that to the belief, fundamental to Shiism, that members of the Prophet’s family should have taken over leadership of the Islamic community upon his death. It’s a link that has not gone unnoticed in Riyadh.

“Iran is exploiting the Sufis’ love for the family of the Prophet in order to show Iran as a great Islamic nation that is an enemy of the infidels and supports all the Muslims,” reads the cable.

“Many Malians don’t realize the truth of Shiite thinking: fanatical, racist, and the enemy of other Islamic doctrines.”
But though the cables ring of paranoia, the notion that Mali’s tiny Shiite community has outsized political significance and links to Tehran seems to have found traction among some Sunni locals.

“There are not even 1 percent of the population who are Shiite in Mali. But there is a political presence, run by the Iranians,” said Mahmoud Dicko, the president of the High Islamic Council of Mali and one of the country’s most powerful clerics.

Dicko was among 30 senior Malian clerics who signed a 2008 open letter in support of influential Egyptian Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s outspoken stance against Shiite evangelism. The letter warned of “the dangers of the rising tide of Shiism,” which aims to “turn Sunni societies Shiite, undermine their states, and impose Persian hegemony over them.”

Mali has raw memories of religious conflict. In 2012, an alliance of Tuareg separatists and Islamists linked to al Qaeda invaded the country’s northern half and imposed sharia law before being ousted by French forces. But a low-level insurgency has been rumbling on ever since. Militants have targeted the Malian army, U.N. peacekeepers, and foreign aid workers with drive-by shootings and roadside bombs. The extremist group Ansar Dine claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on a popular restaurant in Bamako in March and the killing of three soldiers in a village near the border with Mauritania in June.

Despite this, for most Malians the phenomenon of religious extremism is a foreign imposition. The fighters involved in the events of 2012 were from outside Mali, and the violence was an exception in a long history of religious tolerance here. Across West Africa, Sunni Islam, Sufism, and traditional animist practices have rubbed shoulders in relative peace for centuries.

One of Mali’s most prominent Baptists, Pastor Mohammed Yattara, is open about his apostasy, something that would be unthinkable across the Middle East and North Africa. Yattara converted from Islam to Christianity when he was 16. When he told his family he had become a Christian, his father disowned him and threw him out of the house. Yet the two stayed in touch until his father’s death, and Yattara’s act of leaving his faith has had few consequences for his personal security.

Among the Muslim majority, Sufi traditions and animist rituals remain important elements of religious practice. In poorer communities, few imams speak Arabic or are educated in the finer points of Islamic philosophy. Some fear that by funding schools, mosques, and much-needed infrastructure, foreign powers are creating divisions that once did not exist in this country, on the periphery of the Arab world.

Many in Dicko’s camp see institutions such as the Mustafa International School and the Iranian Cultural Center as a vehicle for Iranian political influence — an accusation Diabaté refuted, despite pictures of Khomeini in the school office, in the library, and on the back of his car.

“We will not accept the politicization of Islam,” he said. But he admitted that Shiites in Mali look to Iran for support in the face of Salafism. “Every state that represents a sect needs to protect its flock.”

Diabaté, sitting in a small office adjacent to the prayer hall and wearing the long brown robe and white turban of a Shiite scholar, explained how he “used to hate Shiites.” But in the late 1980s, he became part of a group of young scholars who participated in debates with Hassan Hambraze, then Iran’s chargé d’affaires in Bamako and son of a prominent Iranian cleric. In 1988, Hambraze was also responsible for sending a group of Malian students to the first Shiite school in West Africa. Diabaté converted and went on to study in Iran. On his return he became a prominent leader within Mali’s nascent Shiite community.

Today, he speaks of the country’s more hard-line Sunni leaders in conspiratorial terms: “The Salafi thinking is well known. They want to get into power and are planning for that. They plan to take control of the Islamic community.” After a pause, he added: “But we are not staying still. Everyone has their methods.”

Those methods seem clear: to proselytize and offer converts access to a good education and opportunities to travel and work in Iran. The Saudi strategy in Mali is more opaque (widespread rumors among Malians include tales of enormous checks coming from the Gulf to fund prominent Salafists). The diplomatic cables have thrown some light on Saudi activities in the country, which include funding for schools and preacher-training courses run by the Islamic University in Madinah and Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh.

Mali’s minister for religious affairs, Thierno Diallo, says he recognizes that Malian governments have long turned a blind eye to foreign-backed religious projects. Despite the country’s deeply religious population, Mali’s secular constitution means that the state has kept mosques at arm’s length. And while the government is aware of large sums of money entering Mali from unknown sources, it has few resources to reliably track them.

“It’s not documented,” he said, “and there’s no transparency. That’s a serious problem.”

Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia has explicitly promoted violence in Mali. Diabaté, along with his Sunni counterparts, makes it clear that “Shiites, like everyone else, know that extremist groups in the north show no mercy.” Yet the creation of previously nonexistent sectarian identities for political ends leads to divisions that become associated with political agendas.

Imam Baba Diallo, another member of the High Islamic Council of Mali, said he wants to organize interfaith dialogue between the different sects but has yet to find funding. He looks grave as he talks about the potential consequences of inaction.

“If we fail [to heal the divide], the next war will be between Sunni and Shiite,” he said.

(This reporting was supported by funding from the International Reporting Project.)

BY PAUL RAYMOND, JACK WATLINGAUGUST 19, 2015

Find this story at 19 August 2015
Copyright http://foreignpolicy.com

Saudi Arabia replaces intelligence chief

Prince Bandar bin Sultan replaced at his own request, reportedly after being sidelined in Saudi response to Syria crisis

Saudi Arabia has appointed a new intelligence chief to replace Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the official news agency SPA has announced.

It said Bandar was “exempted … from his position at his own request” and replaced by his deputy, Yousef al-Idrissi.

Bandar, a former ambassador to the United States, is widely regarded as among the most influential powerbrokers in the Middle East and headed the kingdom’s response to the Syrian conflict.

He went abroad for several months for health reasons, and diplomats said he had been sidelined in Saudi efforts to support Syrian rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

They said the Syria file had been transferred to the interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who cracked down on al-Qaida following a wave of deadly attacks in the Gulf state between 2003 and 2006.

Bandar’s management of the Syria file had triggered American criticism, diplomats said. The prince himself reproached Washington for its decision not to intervene militarily in Syria and for preventing its allies from providing rebels with weapons, according to diplomats.

Media run by the Syrian regime and its allies in Lebanon have repeatedly lashed out at Bandar, accusing him of supporting Sunni Islamist radicals in Syria.

theguardian.com, Tuesday 15 April 2014 20.05 BST

Find this story at 15 April 2014

© 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

Advanced U.S. Weapons Flow to Syrian Rebels

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have supplied Syrian rebel groups with a small number of advanced American antitank missiles for the first time in a pilot program that could lead to larger flows of sophisticated weaponry, people briefed on the effort said.

The new willingness to arm these rebels comes after the failure of U.S.-backed peace talks in January and recent regime gains on the battlefield. It also follows a reorganization of Western-backed fighters aimed at creating a more effective military force and increasing protection for Christian and other religious minorities–something of particular importance to Washington.

This shift is seen as a test of whether the U.S. can find a trustworthy rebel partner able to keep sophisticated weapons out of the hands of extremists, Saudi and Syrian opposition figures said. The U.S. has long feared that if it does supply advanced arms, the weapons will wind up with radical groups–some tied to al Qaeda–which have set up bases in opposition-held territory.

The White House would neither confirm nor deny it had provided the TOW armor-piercing antitank systems, the first significant supply of sophisticated U.S. weapons systems to rebels. But U.S. officials did say they are working to bolster the rebels’ ability to fight the regime.

Rebels and their Saudi backers hope the Obama administration will be persuaded to ease its long-standing resistance to supplying advanced weaponry that could tip the balance in the grinding civil war–especially shoulder-fired missiles capable of bringing down planes.

Some of the TOWs provided to rebels since March are equipped with a complex, fingerprint-keyed security device that controls who can fire it, said Mustafa Alani, a senior security analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center who is regularly briefed by Saudi officials on security matters.

“The U.S. is committed to building the capacity of the moderate opposition, including through the provision of assistance to vetted members of the moderate armed opposition,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said. “As we have consistently said, we are not going to detail every single type of our assistance.”

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states lobbied aggressively for the Obama administration to step up its support for the moderate opposition, especially since the collapse of the peace talks.

U.S. refusal to better arm the rebels has created strains with Saudi allies that President Barack Obama tried to mend on his recent visit to the kingdom. After the visit, senior administration officials said the two countries were collaborating more closely on material support for the rebels and the Central Intelligence Agency was looking at ways to expand its limited arming and training program based in Jordan.

A newly created moderate rebel group called Harakat Hazm said it had received about a dozen BGM-71 TOWs and was being trained on them by an unspecified allied country. It is the only group known to have received the weapons so far, though there may be others.

“To make it clear, our allies are only delivering these missiles to trusted groups that are moderate,” said one senior leader of Harakat Hazm. “The first step is showing that we can effectively use the TOWs, and hopefully the second one will be using antiaircraft missiles.”

Another Syrian opposition figure in the region confirmed the U.S., with Saudi assistance, supplied the TOW missiles.

Mr. Alani said the two countries oversaw the delivery through neighboring Jordan and Turkey to vetted rebels inside Syria. Rebels already had some types of recoilless rifles in their stocks, which can also be used against tanks and other targets. But U.S.-made TOWs are more reliable and accurate, opposition officials and experts say.

A senior Syrian opposition official in Washington who works closely with the Americans said the TOWs were part of a small, tailored program coordinated by U.S. and Saudi intelligence services to “test the waters” for a potentially larger arming effort down the road.

The official said the introduction of a small number of TOWs will have limited impact on the battlefield.

The main objective is to develop a relationship between vetted fighters and U.S. trainers that will give the Obama administration the confidence to increase supplies of sophisticated weaponry.

The U.S. has blocked Saudi Arabia from giving rebels Chinese-made man-portable air defense systems, known as Manpads.

Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia offered to give the opposition Manpads for the first time. But the weapons are still stored in warehouses in Jordan and Turkey because of U.S. opposition, according to Saudis and Syrian opposition figures.

“Basically, this is supposed to be the next step” in the eyes of rebels and their Saudi backers, Mr. Alani said of the hoped-for antiaircraft artillery.

Senior administration officials said the White House remains opposed to providing rebels with Manpads. Antiaircraft and antitank weapons could help the rebels chip away at the regime’s two big advantages on the battlefield–air power and heavy armor. The regime has used its air force to devastating effect in the civil war–frequently dropping crude barrel-bombs packed with explosives on opposition neighborhoods and cities.

In hopes of reinvigorating Western support, more moderate rebels began this year openly battling increasingly powerful extremist groups in their midst and reorganized their ranks in hopes of forming more effective fighting forces.

Harakat Hazm was created in January out of the merger of smaller secular-leaning rebel groups in the north, the main opposition stronghold. It was set up to assuage U.S. concerns that the Western-backed and secular-leaning Free Syrian Army was too fractured to be effective and that rebels weren’t doing enough to protect religious minorities.

The group is working closely with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, another large formation of several rebel brigades that turned their guns on the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in January. The Front was created in January to address U.S. criticism that rebels were too fragmented and that they were turning a blind eye to extremist groups. “The agreement is that the Syrian Revolutionaries and Hazm work together to get support from the international community but not step on each other,” said a member of the political opposition based in Turkey.

The official added that Hazm started to receive lethal and nonlethal aid from Saudi and the U.S. in March “because [rebels] are organizing like a proper army.”

The Western- and Gulf-backed Free Syrian Army has shaken up its ranks and strategy to try to reverse the regime’s consistent battlefield gains since last year.

“The U.S. wants pragmatic groups within the Free Syrian Army that can deal with a post-Assad Syria and secure Alawites and Christians,” said a member of the political opposition with ties to Harakat Hazm.

Syria’s conflict has strong sectarian undertones. President Assad is a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and his regime is dominated by the minority group while the opposition is made up largely of Syria’s Sunni majority. Many Christians have remained loyal to the regime, hoping it will protect them.

The fate of religious minorities has been a major concern of the U.S. Several extremist rebel groups were involved in massacres of Alawite villagers last year, and desecration of Christian and Alawite religious sites, according to human rights groups.

The opposition made a point of trying to secure the Christian village of Kassab in northern Syria this month after it was overrun by extremist groups, prompting a mass exodus of its population.

Opposition leader Ahmad Jarba visited the village earlier this month and vowed that the FSA wasn’t fighting a sectarian war.

Rudayna El-Baalbaky and Mohammed Nour Alakraa contributed to this article.

April 18, 2014, 7:18 p.m. ET
By Ellen Knickmeyer, Maria Abi-Habib and Adam Entous

Find this story at 18 April 2014

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