New Intercept Exposé Uncovers SEAL Team 6’s Ghastly Trail of Atrocities, Mutilations, Killings

A stunning new exposé published today in The Intercept about the elite military unit SEAL Team 6 reveals a darker side of the group best known for killing Osama bin Laden. National security reporter Matthew Cole spent two years investigating accounts of ghastly atrocities committed by members of the unit, including mutilating corpses, skinnings and attempted beheadings. According to sources, senior command staff were aware of the misconduct but did little to stop it—and often helped to cover it up.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a stunning new exposé published today in The Intercept about the elite military unit SEAL Team 6. Known as the “President’s Own,” the group is best known for killing Osama bin Laden, as well as other high-profile rescue missions, including that of Captain Richard Phillips from the Maersk Alabama. But Intercept national security reporter Matthew Cole reveals a darker side of the celebrated group. Cole spent more than two years investigating accounts of ghastly atrocities committed by members of the unit, including mutilating corpses, skinnings and attempted beheadings. According to sources, senior command staff were aware of the misconduct but did little to stop it—and often helped to cover it up. In the article, “The Crimes of SEAL Team 6,” Cole quotes one former leader as saying, “You can’t win an investigation on us. You don’t whistleblow on the teams … and when you win on the battlefield, you don’t lose investigations.”

Well, for more, we’re joined by Matthew Cole.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

MATTHEW COLE: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you found, what we don’t know about—and there’s much we don’t know about—this unit.

MATTHEW COLE: Yeah. I think the biggest takeaway is, is that after 15 years of war and unquestionable successes on the battlefield, there have been virtually no accounts of SEAL Team 6 outside of the parameters of heroism, and they’ve become almost mythic in terms of the American public and how popular they are. And what was missing from those accounts was that after 15 years of continuous warfare, very personal, up-close warfare, there were some very, very dark things that occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere that were largely suppressed and hidden from the public, and actually from the military itself, as a way of protecting the command and those who had gone over the line to commit war crimes.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the bombing that occurred—you write about it in the opening part of this very lengthy article—in Afghanistan.

MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, so, in March of 2002, there was a operation that was—JSOC had video footage of a tall man in white garb—

AMY GOODMAN: It’s Joint Special Operations Command.

MATTHEW COLE: Joint Special Operations Command—and saw someone that they thought was bin Laden, and was afraid he was going to get away. They didn’t have much intelligence, but they had the notion that he was—people around him were showing deference, and he was leaving a compound. So they sent SEAL Team 6 in some helicopters to go investigate and, basically, to do an interdiction. But fearing that the convoy was going to get across the border into Pakistan before the SEALs would get there, JSOC officers ordered a bombing, and they dropped two bombs on the convoy. And they killed a lot of people pretty quickly, almost instantaneously. As the helicopters were coming down onto the scene, they then fired their—the helicopter guns, miniguns, onto the remaining survivors, if—regardless of whether they were armed, because it was all presumed that everyone there was al-Qaeda.

When the SEALs got down onto the ground and inspected, what they found right away was that it was all civilians and that the men, the few men who were armed, were carrying family weapons, because in Afghanistan it’s traditional and customary for each male, at least, and certainly each family, to have one weapon. And, in fact, what they saw were dead women and children, along with men. And it was a horrific sight for the SEALs, who were on their first deployment in the war. And remember, this is right—this is shortly after 9/11 and shortly after the war in Afghanistan begins. And they weren’t veterans yet of those kind of wars.

And according to my sources, the—one of the officers who was on the mission allegedly mutilated one of the victims, one of the civilian victims, after he had been killed. And it was so upsetting to his teammate in the unit, that he then came back and reported it to his leader. And what transpires then is a meeting with everyone in the unit who was enlisted, and not the officers, the next day to discuss battlefield ethics. How are we going to treat the dead? How are we going to conduct ourselves on the battlefield? And the decision in the meeting was, hey—you know, one person who was there told me, “We shoot them, and we move on. If they’re bad guys, we shoot them, and we move on. That’s fine. But we don’t mutilate. That’s not part of the game.” And they essentially ostracized the officer who they believed had done so. But they didn’t turn him in. They didn’t report it. They didn’t tell anyone. It was strictly within the unit. And that’s one of the things—

AMY GOODMAN: And the officer’s name was?

MATTHEW COLE: Was—his name was Lieutenant Commander Vic Hyder. And just to be clear, in the article, on the record, he denies that he stomped this man’s head in. But that story became—it really becomes a sort of blueprint for how SEAL Team 6 has kept war crimes, excessive violence, criminal brutality a secret for 15 years. They keep it in house, and they have their own system of justice—prison rules, if you will. And there is a real divide between the officers, who have the commission by law for law and order, and the enlisted, who make up most of the command.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the SEAL Team 6 officer who made so-called bleed-out videos?

MATTHEW COLE: OK, he wasn’t an officer. He was an enlisted—he was enlisted. He was a very troubled SEAL, a member of Red Team—Red Squadron, who filmed—his job, he had a responsibility, which was to film the aftermath of an operation for intelligence gathering. So he had a camera. It was part of the normal course of duties. After an operation would end, he went around and filmed to identify—you know, later they can try to identify who had been killed, in terms of the militants.

And he began doing what he—what was described to me as bleed-out videos and what were known as bleed-out videos within the team at the time. He would bring them back, and having—on the battlefield, having taunted people who were dying, essentially telling them that they weren’t—they couldn’t die yet, they weren’t going to heaven, they weren’t going to see Allah, there were no virgins, and then bring the videos back and then spend time reviewing them, rewinding them over and over with a group and doing a countdown, to watch the last few moments of a person’s life as they expired.

And that was done—this wasn’t done in some corner of, you know, some dark hole in Afghanistan. It was done at Bagram Air Base in front of a lot of people. And no one would do anything about it. It was not considered morally reprehensible. And that was—we use that as an example because, in and of itself, it’s not illegal, but it gives you a sense of sort of the dark nature of what this war brought for members of elite special operations forces, in particular, SEAL Team 6.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what happened to U.S. Navy SEAL Neil Roberts.

MATTHEW COLE: So, Neil Roberts was the first SEAL Team 6 member and the first special operations soldier to die after 9/11. He was killed by—he fell off the back of a helicopter during Operation Anaconda in early March of 2002 in eastern Afghanistan. And there was a—later became known as the Battle for Roberts Ridge, was an effort to save him. But Roberts fell off, was killed fairly quickly by al-Qaeda fighters, who had already established a stronghold on the mountaintop. And Predator drone feed later sees one of the fighters standing over him, attempting to behead him, and, in fact, mutilated him very significantly. And so, when his body was brought back to Bagram and his teammates found that not only had they lost their teammate and pierced their sense of invincibility, which is appropriately built up for your best warriors, they were devastated by the manner, and the gruesome manner, in which his body had been treated.

And so, Objective Bull, which happens about 18 hours later, we don’t know, but we believe that the alleged stomping in and mutilation of the civilian armed man in Objective Bull was very much—

AMY GOODMAN: Objective Bull is the story you describe before.

MATTHEW COLE: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the operation, they called it.

MATTHEW COLE: That it was the beginning of what was sort of a tit for tat against al-Qaeda, which was “You do this to ours, we’ll do this to yours.” But the Roberts death and the manner of his death really shook up SEAL Team 6. And although there have been an enormous amount of accounts of the Battle of Roberts Ridge and some of the heroism and valor in trying to get him back, and there were others who died, what had—

AMY GOODMAN: And others who died—

MATTHEW COLE: Up on the—up on the—

AMY GOODMAN: —and didn’t die, as it was originally thought, and survived and then died.

MATTHEW COLE: Right. And so—but what was never told was this incident that happens 18 hours later. And there’s—looking back, it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t tell the story. But the Pentagon itself, they had announced a week after the bombing of—in Objective Bull, that they had killed civilians, but even then, they made—they said that they were associated somehow with—affiliated somehow with al-Qaeda. So they left the impression that although they killed civilians, it was a justifiable bombing. In fact, it was only civilians, and they had no intelligence whatsoever.

AMY GOODMAN: It was a wedding party?

MATTHEW COLE: It was—they were on their way to a wedding party, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Where does Britt Slabinski fit into this picture?

MATTHEW COLE: Well, that’s very interesting. Britt Slabinksi is sort of at the heart of all of this, although we have to remember that he was an enlisted SEAL and not an officer, although he became a very senior enlisted. Britt Slabinski was on Roberts Ridge. It was—Neil Roberts was part of his team. He was the leader of the team that went back to get Neil Roberts. He won a Navy Cross for his efforts on the top of Takur Ghar, which was the mountaintop in eastern Afghanistan. And he was in the meeting at Bagram after Objective Bull, in which the discussion about how Vic Hyder had behaved and what he had done during Objective Bull was determined that was just not how SEAL Team 6 was going to operate.

Slabinski was devastated by Roberts’ death. And frankly, according to sources who spoke with him at the time, he sought revenge. He wanted to go back out on the battlefield and get payback. And we unearthed, in the course of reporting, some exclusive audio that had never been found before of Slabinski giving an interview to an author, who was writing a book about Roberts Ridge, in which he describes a third operation that happens after Objective Bull, in which they ambushed a group of al-Qaeda fighters who had been on top of Takur Ghar, who had been in the Battle of Roberts Ridge. And he was a sniper who led a sniper team at the time. And they killed roughly 18 or 19 al-Qaeda fighters in eastern Afghanistan in mid-March 2002. And in the audio, what you hear him talk about is the operation as payback and revenge, essentially, for what happened on Roberts Ridge, as a way for the guys and his men to get their confidence back, as I think he says, is to get back in the saddle again.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the SEAL Team 6 member Britt Slabinski, here describing the aftermath of an operation to take down a convoy they believed was filled with al-Qaeda fighters trying to escape to Pakistan. Slabinski and the team of snipers had killed what? Nearly 20—

MATTHEW COLE: Nearly 20.

AMY GOODMAN: —al-Qaeda—

MATTHEW COLE: Fighters.

AMY GOODMAN: —fighters.

BRITT SLABINSKI: After I shot this dude in the head, there was a guy that had his feet, just his feet, sticking out of some little rut or something over here. I mean, he was dead. But, I mean, you know, it got—people got nervous. I shot him about 20 times in the legs. And every time you’d kick him or shoot him, he would kick up, and you could see his body twitch and all that. And it was like a game. Like [inaudible]. And the guy would just, you know, twitch again. It was good therapy. It was really good therapy for everybody that was there.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Navy SEAL Team 6 member Britt Slabinski, this audio being played publicly for the first time—

MATTHEW COLE: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —that you got at The Intercept. And the significance of this?

MATTHEW COLE: Well, I think what it does is it gives you a window into the mindset of someone who became a very senior—first of all, he was—after the Battle of Roberts Ridge, he became a legendary SEAL. He had a Navy Cross. He was a hero. He became a very influential member of SEAL Team 6. And at a command that is referred to and known as an enlisted mafia, run effectively by the enlisted SEALs who spend a decade or more in the unit, he was a top leader. And as a result, he ended up in a position running a squadron.

And there were a series of events that occurred, that I report exclusively for the first time, about the fallout of his leadership. And what you get to see—what you get to hear in that is the mindset. I mean, the thing that was most disturbing to me, I think, in listening to it was the gleefulness in his voice, that it was therapy for him. And I don’t—that, I think, gives us some understanding. And as I was talking to a former senior leader of SEAL Team 6 about that tape—he had never heard it, and I showed him the transcript. And one of the things he said, he said, “What’s so scary is, is that this guy undoubtedly influenced so many of our guys with that kind of attitude.”

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Cole, one of the most disturbing forms of atrocities Navy—the SEAL Team 6 committed was called “canoeing.” If you can talk about that and then talk about whether you believe Osama bin Laden was canoed?

MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, so, one of the—I would say one of the, if not the darkest secret in the last 15 years is that over the course of the war, SEAL Team 6, as well as other elements of JSOC, were involved in something called canoeing, which is a form of firing a bullet in the top of the forehead that splits the head open in the most gruesome manner and leaves, frankly, the brain matter exposed, and looks like a—puts the head, the top of the head, in the shape of a V, with a negative space that looks like a canoe would fit in there or that a canoe went through it. And it can happen incidentally in battle, and it does happen incidentally in battle.

What I found was that for a period of years SEAL Team 6 was photographing—they photographed their dead for documentation and preservation. And for a period of years, canoed dead took up an enormous amount of space in those—in that catalog. And it was not mathematically possible. And what my sources said were, it became a sport. You shoot a person when they’re dead or dying, at very close range, for the sake of seeing the gruesome results.

AMY GOODMAN: And Osama bin Laden?

MATTHEW COLE: Well, what happened to Osama bin Laden was hiding sort of in plain sight. The man who claims that he killed Osama bin Laden, Robert O’Neill, did an interview, a long interview in Esquire in 2013, in which he described what bin Laden’s face looked like after he shot him three times in the face and forehead. And there it is. Without using the word “canoe,” he describes this gruesome scene of splitting the top of his skull open into a V, you know, with the negative space in the shape of a V, and his brain matter exposed. And one of the points that I make in the story is, is that SEAL Team 6 then branded Osama bin Laden. That was—it’s an act of dominance, and it is a form of sport, and it’s reflexive. And it doesn’t—in this case, it does not necessarily mean that Robert O’Neill committed a war crime, but there is no question that the ritualistic manner in which and the frequency in which it occurred and the fact that it had no military necessity was criminal.

AMY GOODMAN: You believe that bin Laden was killed unarmed and in the dark?

MATTHEW COLE: Absolutely. I think one of the things that my story presents fairly conclusively is that the order from the beginning was to kill him, regardless of the situation inside. And, in fact, one of my sources who was a—

AMY GOODMAN: We have four seconds.

MATTHEW COLE: —senior member, said, “Kill him. Bring the body back.” That was the order.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do Part 2 of this conversation, post it online at democracynow.org. Matthew Cole, we’ll link to your piece at The Intercept.

Part 2: Intercept Exposé on How SEAL Team 6 Killed Osama bin Laden, “Canoeing” & Other Atrocities

We continue our conversation with reporter Matthew Cole about his stunning new exposé published this week in The Intercept about the elite military unit SEAL Team 6 that reveals a darker side of the group best known for killing Osama bin Laden. National security reporter Matthew Cole spent two years investigating accounts of ghastly atrocities committed by members of the unit, including mutilating corpses, skinnings and attempted beheadings. According to sources, senior command staff were aware of the misconduct but did little to stop it—and often helped to cover it up.

Watch Part 1: New Intercept Exposé Uncovers SEAL Team 6’s Ghastly Trail of Atrocities, Mutilations, Killings

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we turn to Part 2 of our discussion about the stunning new exposé published in The Intercept about the elite military unit SEAL Team 6. It’s called the “President’s Own,” the group best known for killing Osama bin Laden, as well as other high-profile rescue missions, including that of Captain Richard Phillips from the Maersk Alabama. But Intercept national security reporter Matthew Cole reveals a darker side of the celebrated group. Cole spent more than two years investigating accounts of atrocities committed by members of the unit, including mutilating corpses, skinnings, attempted beheadings and canoeings, which we’ll talk about in a moment. According to sources, senior command staff were aware of the misconduct but did little to stop it—often helped to cover it up. The article is called “The Crimes of SEAL Team 6.” Cole quotes one former leader as saying, “You can’t win an investigation on us. You don’t whistleblow on the teams … and when you win on the battlefield, you don’t lose investigations.”

Matthew Cole, thank you for staying with us for Part 2 of this conversation. And I want to start where we left off on Democracy Now!, talking about the killing of Osama bin Laden. but now we have a little time, so take us through what happened in May of 2011.

MATTHEW COLE: Well, I think the first thing—the first place to start is that, despite what the Obama administration was at pains to try to say in the hours and days after the raid, was that, from the beginning, the order to the SEALs were—was to go in and kill Osama bin Laden. And it went further than that. The order was to go in and kill all males on the compound, regardless of whether they were armed. It was an assassination, an execution, however you’d like to call it. It was murder. And the SEALs went out and did it, very effectively. And what we know is that despite the fact that—

AMY GOODMAN: You write that even before the killing, that two of the Team 6 members, Matt Bissonnette and Robert O’Neill, had an argument that had to be broken up by their fellow SEALs about who would tell the story after.

MATTHEW COLE: Right. So, the two SEALs who have come out from that raid and given first-hand accounts, one in the form of a book, the other in a magazine article and then in a Fox News special identifying himself as the shooter, were involved in an argument prior to the raid, before they had even gone to Afghanistan and Pakistan, over how they were going to work together to sell the story afterwards, and then had to be separated by their teammates, because they were—it wasn’t a physical fight. They got into a screaming match. And lo and behold, after the raid, they, of course, were the first to get out of the unit, and there was—as one of their former bosses said to me, they were in a race to write a book and make money off of the operation.

And so, after their accounts came out, in addition to the Obama administration’s account, everything sort of got muddled in terms of what happened. And one of the impressions that was left was that bin Laden was killed because he was a threat, because he hadn’t laid down on the ground and said, “I surrender.” But that was always fiction. He was killed because there was an order to kill him, no matter what. And he was killed by a SEAL who was the first to encounter him. He was unarmed. He was wearing, effectively, his pajamas. He was standing with two female relatives to the side—on each side of him. And he was put down with two shots, one to the chest and a second which glanced off his hip as he fell back onto the floor.

And that’s a key point, because he falls down on the floor, and then the man who says that he ended bin Laden’s life, Robert O’Neill—and no one disputes that he put the bullets into bin Laden and effectively ended his life, but the way O’Neill tells the story is that bin Laden was standing, had his wife in front of him, holding his wife’s shoulders as a sort of shield, and has a weapon nearby, and so that he’s scanning the scene and making the determination that—based on his training, that this man is a threat, and he can be killed. And so he shoots him, he drops, and then he puts a third bullet in his forehead. And by his own words, he describes in Esquire magazine a canoeing, which is the intentional splitting open of the skull with a round to the top of the forehead. And what my reporting found was that he wasn’t standing. There was no threat. He was—he would have died had he not been shot by Mr. O’Neill. He was on the ground bleeding out from his—the shot to his chest.

And what was interesting, actually, is how much, I learned over the two years—how much animosity was directed towards the two SEALs who spoke out and exaggerated or lied, whatever you want to say, falsehoods. They spun a story to make themselves heroic and make money off of it, and it wasn’t accurate. And so, there’s an enormous amount of animosity inside the unit at these two guys.

AMY GOODMAN: What did Matt Bissonnette say? You say that he lied in No Easy Day, his book.

MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, so his book—his account, effectively, of how bin Laden died is actually mostly accurate. The issue is, is that he actually wasn’t a witness. He makes—he makes it sound as though he was there and next to O’Neill and, with O’Neill, fires the last shots that kill bin Laden. In fact, he was much further back down the line, comes in later. But prior to that, his team was to go after bin Laden’s courier. And they killed him. Both in the book but then also in the official debrief that SEAL Team 6 did with a lawyer in Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, he lied and said that he had killed the courier. And, in fact, he had not.

And that became a big deal, because that’s something you—even within their code, that’s something you don’t do. You don’t take credit for another man’s work. And so, in the subsequent years afterwards, their teammates viewed that lie, that he had killed the courier outside in the adjacent compound, as the beginning of Bissonnette’s effort to shape his story so that he could sell it, because you need to have drama whenever you’re selling a myth. And in the case of both O’Neill and Bissonnette, and in SEAL Team 6 at large, that’s what we have here. We have a set of myths. We have narratives that are filled with—you know, let’s say 75 percent of the facts are true, but a quarter of them are false or omitted. And it makes a big difference in terms of understanding what really happened.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew, you write, “‘The beauty of what they have constructed,’ said a former teammate about how Bissonnette and O’Neill cornered the market on the bin Laden raid, [quote] ‘is that there is only one guy, essentially, who can come forward and say they’re lying—and he won’t ever talk.’”

MATTHEW COLE: Yeah. So that’s in reference to what is known as sort of the lead assaulter on the mission, whose nickname in the unit is “Red.” And he was the first to get up the stairs onto the third floor of Osama bin Laden’s house and is the first to see bin Laden peeking through the doorway of his bedroom. And he fires two shots into bin Laden. And he then waits to see what happens. And they slowly get to the door. One of the things that’s interesting, just as an aside, in learning about special operations and the SEALs is that there’s not a whole lot of running. They have a whole terminology, which is, “Don’t run to your death. Walk to your death.” You take your time to make decisions. And that’s one of the things—you know, their training is—their brilliance is at the tactical level. It’s minutiae. And so, he did exactly as he was trained to do, which was to go slowly to the doorway and see and assess whether or not the person he shot was still a threat.

And he says to his—to the debrief and to the team later, he wasn’t a threat, so he then wraps his arms around two of the women who are in the room, who are becoming hysterical. And that’s described in both O’Neill and Bissonnette’s book. And what’s funny is, is they give him credit for doing something very heroic, that had they been wearing suicide vests, he put himself on top of them and would have absorbed the blast. But what they’ve left out is that the only reason why he made that decision to do that was because he had already determined that bin Laden was either dead or was going to die in a matter of moments.

And he is the one who, effectively, is the only one who could come out and say, “Here’s what really happened,” because he was the first in the room, the first up and the one who fired the shots. And one of their teammates said to me that quote that you just read, which is, there was a cleverness to what O’Neill and Bissonnette did to make it so that it’s just—you know, they’re not going to have people contradicting them in public. And as a result, they’ve made a lot of money.

AMY GOODMAN: And why won’t he contradict them?

MATTHEW COLE: Well, because he is a silent professional. I mean, in a world where silence is part of the—is supposed to be part of the norm. He sticks by it and is still in.

AMY GOODMAN: So explain how, as you put it, Osama bin Laden was canoed.

MATTHEW COLE: So, essentially, O’Neill, who is the second to fire shots in bin Laden, puts two rounds in his face or his forehead. And after he’s down, at a very close range, O’Neill fires a third round. And that round hits him in the top of the forehead. And that’s—canoeing requires a certain location in the head. And by his own description, by O’Neill’s own description, it split open his head and exposed his brain matter and split open his head in a V shape. And that V shape is the canoe.

And what I know, and is not in the story, but what I know is that his face was so disfigured, when they brought his body back to Jalalabad and they took him out of the body bag, they had him nude with only his genitals and his face covered, because—genitals, out of respect, and face, because it was so disfigured, they put a small towel or tissue over his face. And splitting his head open disfigured him so much that the SEALs in the compound couldn’t recognize him. He was unrecognizable. And so, it required one of the SEALs who was there, who was doing—who spoke Arabic, to go around and get confirmation, double confirmation, that this was Osama bin Laden. So there was a practical side to it, too. But splitting his face open, I think, is, it’s very safe to say, a significant reason why the Obama administration never released the photo of bin Laden’s face. It was just too gruesome to show.

AMY GOODMAN: As they had released the photo, for example, of capturing Saddam Hussein.

MATTHEW COLE: Right, or his sons, killing his sons. They put out Uday and Qusay pictures shortly after he was killed. I mean, it was a curious thing to do, given the—what you knew would be conspiracy theories and questions about whether he had even been killed. But his face was just too gruesome to show.

AMY GOODMAN: So you say bin Laden was killed unarmed and in the dark.

MATTHEW COLE: Absolutely. He was killed 15 minutes after the mission began. No lights. Could hear certain things, but there wasn’t a lot of noise. I mean, their suppressed weapons are very quiet. And he dies with no—he has two weapons in the room that they find later in a search. They are—they have no bullets in them. They’re essentially trophies. Certainly wasn’t carrying them or holding onto them. He died in the dark in his pajamas, listening to the sounds of people moving through the house. And with very little—you know, he sticks his head out of his room, and he gets shot.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is your sense of why the Obama administration wanted him dead, not alive?

MATTHEW COLE: Well, I think it was just a heck of a lot easier to not have to worry about the spectacle of a trial, that the story was over and a case closed. And it certainly would easier to sell to the American people that, to some end, part of the war was over. So, you know, and I still think that there are questions that remain unanswered about the mission, the operation and how the—what the administration knew about his location. But by and large, I think the order to kill him was just to have everything tied up neatly.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Cole, as you talk about, really, in some of these cases, for the first time, what this unit has done, Team—SEAL Team 6, and you talk about canoeing, in general, there are those who wanted to expose this, like a CIA paramilitary officer’s attempt to blow the whistle on this. Explain what happens to someone who wants to challenge the practices.

MATTHEW COLE: So, in 2008, a former Navy SEAL 6, Team 6, member himself, who was retired and went to the CIA as a paramilitary officer, named Richard Smethers, was upset with some of the conduct that SEAL Team 6 was up to in the late end—the end of the year in 2008. He was upset about civilians being killed, unarmed people being killed, excessive violence and an overall failure of leadership at SEAL Team 6 in not policing their men. And so, he was put forward by a small group of CIA officers at a base in Northeast Afghanistan to complain and to blow the whistle, effectively, on SEAL Team 6. And it began a very rancorous fight between SEAL Team 6 and the CIA in Afghanistan over what to do. And SEAL Team 6 said very quickly he needed to be quiet. And his response was “I’ll go to the press.” And, in fact, I think, specifically, he threatened to go to The New York Times. And SEAL Team 6 told the CIA, “If this guy goes public, we will end his career. He will lose his clearances. He will never work again,” and also told the CIA, “Hey, we’re working together here. If this stuff comes out or there are investigations into war crimes or excessive criminality and excessive violence and brutality, it’ll hurt all of us.” And so the CIA agreed to send him home. He was up for going back home anyway. There was a natural change both with him and with the SEAL unit that was in at the time. And so, the two sides said, “Listen, we will calm things down. You send him home, keep him quiet. And we will go about taking care of our guys.”

And what happened shortly after that is, Admiral Bill McRaven, who was then the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, had come in, and the complaints from the Afghan government about night raids and civilians, unarmed civilians, being killed had grown—the complaints about them had grown loud inside Afghanistan. And politically, Karzai was hitting U.S. forces. So McRaven orders a stand-down, about a two-week stop in almost all special operations forces. And a lot of that was meant to pull the leash on SEAL Team 6. And he issued new guidelines in terms of how they operated in country. And those guidelines were, in a lot of ways, done to protect SEALs. You know, it is important to remember that in all of this, most members of SEAL Team 6, the majority of SEAL Team 6, did not commit war crimes and atrocities. This was more like a persistent virus. But a significant number did. And they had gotten out of control. And the man who led them, at a very high level, understood that. And so, McRaven orders the stand-down, gives them new rules. And the Smethers issue, the whistleblowing, just sort of fades off into the sunset.

And that was the only case and it was the only time there was someone who had whistleblown on SEAL Team 6, where there was some threat, and they were worried about being exposed for what they were doing on the battlefield. And I think the lesson you can learn from that is, is that they go to great lengths to make sure that it goes away. And it hurts—you know, their view to the CIA, I think, was really interesting. It doesn’t just hurt us. It hurts you. It’ll hurt the administration. It’ll hurt the war. And I think that’s a very compelling argument for people who work in the government or the military when you’re in the middle of a war. And so, it’s swept under the rug. And that—that’s the kind of thing that has occurred at a small level for SEAL Team 6 and at a bigger level. And that’s really what the story is trying to—attempted, and I hope succeeded, in uncovering, are these various levels in which it was obvious that things were going on that were illegal, that were immoral, that were unconscionable, and they were either quietly and implicitly, sort of tacitly encouraged, or people in charge just looked the other way.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew, talk about how Linda Norgrove fits into this picture and who she was.

MATTHEW COLE: So, Linda Norgrove was a aid worker working in Afghanistan in 2010, when she was kidnapped by factions of the Taliban or militants in Northeast Afghanistan. And she was taken from a road and sent up into a very mountainous place, and was a U.K. citizen, was actually from Scotland originally. And the only unit that was capable, both at the time and in general, to operate in Afghanistan for a high-risk rescue mission was SEAL Team 6. So, the British government requested that SEAL Team 6 go save her. And as SEAL Team 6 was putting the mission together, the British government kept giving her location with a very precise—with total precision. And SEAL Team 6 said, “How do you know where she is with such precision, in a place where we’ve been operating for years, and you just don’t get that kind of fidelity in such short time?” And the British government disclosed, according to my sources, to four sources, that she was working for MI6 and had been essentially working undercover for British intelligence, and so they had a—some form of tracking on her and knew her exact location. And that was a bona fides that SEAL Team 6 needed to feel comfortable with sending their men out to find her at this location. And she was unfortunately killed in the raid, unintentionally, by SEAL Team 6, as the—as a firefight broke out when they arrived.

And the initial story that the SEALs presented to their superiors and to the British government was that she had been killed by one of her captors, who had detonated a suicide vest that he was wearing, and it blew up, and she was nearby, and it killed her. Well, it turned out that that was not what happened. And, in fact, what had occurred was that one of the SEALs, a young SEAL operative on his first hostage rescue mission, had thrown a grenade and hadn’t seen her, and initially had reported that he had thrown the grenade. And what came there was a slow—sorry, I should say, a fast cover-up by three members of SEAL Team 6 who were on the mission, to avoid the embarrassment of what had just happened, which was that, in fact, the captor had not killed her, SEAL Team 6 had.

And that was another case where the punishment, you know, the way the command tried to hold itself accountable, was considered insufficient. And so, Admiral McRaven stepped in and conducted what’s called an admiral’s mast, which was unprecedented. And it’s a—SEAL Team 6 is a—you know, it has a law unto itself. It’s in its own world. It’s its own tribe. And one of the things that it uses is a Navy system called non-judicial punishment. And what it allows you to do is to punish an individual without any form of court-martial. It’s a reprimand. And you can be removed from a unit, but it saves your career. And he stepped in and conducted a mast and punished, threw out, three members of SEAL Team 6. And it was considered this total insult that the admiral had to come to the command and conduct a proceeding that normally would be done by a captain. But I think one of the things I say in the article is, is that this was very dramatic in the world of SEAL Team 6, but even within their own mores, two of the three later returned to the unit. So, you don’t get justice or accountability at SEAL Team 6. It just doesn’t happen. It hasn’t happened. I have sources that argue that it hasn’t happened since they were started in 1980. And I think one of the reasons—one of the motivations for sources to talk to me over the last couple of years has been their frustration, some of them over two decades, to get the command’s leadership to hold itself accountable for what it’s been doing.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk a lot about Britt Slabinski, the legendary member of SEAL Team 6. Talk about the story of this man, who was a Navy Cross winner, telling his men he wanted a head on a platter.

MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, so, in 2007, Britt Slabinski was the Blue Squadron master chief, which is one of the assault teams within SEAL Team 6. And they deployed to Afghanistan late in the year into Kandahar and Helmand, which at the time was, and still is, an incredibly violent, incredibly destabilized section of the country where the Taliban effectively rule. They had encountered an enormous amount of resistance and violence from the Taliban. And at some point during that deployment, he tells his men that he wants a head on a platter. One of his men interpreted that remark as an order, as a direction to be given and followed through. And so, on December 17th, 2007, they conduct a raid into a compound in Helmand province, killing three or four Taliban fighters. And in the aftermath, one of the young operators begins to try to cut off the head of one of the fighters.

And the officer of the unit, who was Slabinski’s superior, happens to be on the mission, and he walks by a window of a compound and peers in and sees this young operator standing over this dead fighter and what he believes is the sawing action over this man’s neck. And he sends Britt Slabinski, who is his senior enlisted leader, into the room to inquire what happened. And Slabinski comes back and says, “No foul play. He was just trying to take gear off of the man’s body, and nothing—nothing was untoward.” But the officer doesn’t believe it. He still has suspicions, thinks there was something wrong with what he saw, and so he goes back and reports it to the command, to his leadership, at SEAL Team 6 and demands an investigation. And two subsequent investigations, first one for JSOC, and which is effectively an internal investigation, and one for the Navy—Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the federal law enforcement organization that the Navy has that conducts criminal investigations—

AMY GOODMAN: NCIS.

MATTHEW COLE: NCIS—find no evidence to support a violation of the law of armed conflict. And part of what they found was that Slabinski tells his story, the officer tells his story, and they—the young SEAL, who was alleged to have done this, refused to testify—he took the Fifth—and was moved out of the country, was sent home. And my sources—from the beginning, it was never a question of whether this operator had mutilated this guy. In fact, he had severed a good portion of this man’s head off before he was stopped by Slabinski. The real question became: Why had he done it? And after some internal inquiries at the command, what became clear was that he believed that he was following an order.

And when Britt Slabinski was up for a promotion a few years later, they did two informal internal inquiries. You can’t call them in investigations. And again, this—you know, these words, they mean something in terms of understanding how subtle SEAL Team 6 operates. They were inquiries. And they were inquiries because there’s no paper record of this. And what they found was that during that deployment, Slabinski had, A, said that he wanted a head on a platter. Some of the men who were more veteran and savvy saw him as speaking metaphorically and didn’t pay attention. The younger ones didn’t. And, B, that this young man, this young SEAL—and, by the way, he wasn’t young. He was young for SEAL Team 6. When you join SEAL Team 6, you already have six years of experience as a SEAL. So he wasn’t a kid. He was just a kid relative to someone like Slabinski, and impressionable and easily influenced. He believes he’s following an order. So, after a mission, he tries to cut a man’s head off. And Slabinski tries to protect him, but also protect himself.

And the inquiry finds that, you know, he—was no question that this was a result of Slabinski’s leadership. And then they find additionally that there was another operation in which he ordered—Slabinski ordered all the men on the operation shot, regardless of whether they were armed. Now, that order is illegal. It is effectively—it’s tantamount to ordering murder or an execution, precisely as the SEALs were ordered in the bin Laden raid to do. As it happened, in that operation, the subsequent investigation found that all the people who were killed in that operation had been armed. But the order itself was illegal. And so, in 2010, Britt Slabinski was told that he could never come back to SEAL Team 6. He was not allowed to be back. And one of my sources, who was a former senior member of the command, said to me something—I’m paraphrasing roughly, but he said, “You know, to this day, Slabinski thinks that the guys turned on him. And they did. But what they didn’t do was turn him in.” And that was—to me, that was so telling. Their justice was to throw him out of the unit. That’s their justice. It wasn’t to bring him up on charges or suggest that he should retire, or provide any other sense of accountability. It was to make sure he couldn’t be among them.

And so, what happens? He is then requested by a—someone who was close to him, who had been another SEAL Team 6 officer, who was in Afghanistan during the Roberts Ridge, Neil Roberts’ death, and that deployment, who was one of the investigators and the senior SEAL Team 6 member on the ground when the young SEAL had tried to behead the Taliban. He—upon learning that Slabinski had been blackballed out of the unit for substantiated allegations of war crimes or criminal activity, what does he do? He requests that he be promoted and come in as his senior enlisted leader at his command. And that man is currently a two-star admiral, Rear Admiral Tim Szymanski. And he is now in charge of all SEALs in the United States. So, that’s the—that really gets at the heart of what is at this story, which is that they knew what was going on. When they had an opportunity to do something about it, not only did they not do anything about it, they effectively encouraged it by promoting their own. There was no punishment whatsoever. And Slabinski, Britt Slabinski, is really—his story, which is really a tragic one, and it starts in 2002 on Roberts Ridge, and it extends all the way out to being blackballed by SEAL Team 6, is really indicative of sort of the worst of what can happen at a unit like this.

AMY GOODMAN: But he is awarded a Navy Cross.

MATTHEW COLE: He was awarded a Navy Cross, and that won’t ever be taken away from him. And he—by all accounts, what he did on the battle—on the top of Takur Ghar during Roberts Ridge to try to retrieve his teammate was heroic. And it’s not—you know, what happened subsequently is not meant to take away from what he did on this day in this mission. But it—you know, the command had opportunities, specifically with Britt Slabinski. The command had opportunities. They understood that he had deep psychological scars from what happened on Roberts Ridge. And they knew he was troubled. And I think the audio that we played, that you played earlier, is indicative of someone who does not have his head right. And I shared that, the transcript of it, with two of his former bosses, who were horrified that he said this, and not only that he said it, but that he said it in an interview to an author, and that the younger men around him were undoubtedly influenced by that kind of talk, by that kind of bravado and bloodlust.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to that clip, which we played in Part 1 of the conversation. Again, it’s being played here publicly for the first time. A Team 6 member at the time, Britt Slabinksi, describing the aftermath of an operation to take down a convoy that they believed was filled with al-Qaeda fighters trying to escape to Afghanistan—Slabinski and a team of snipers, who killed nearly 20 al-Qaeda fighters.

BRITT SLABINSKI: After I shot this dude in the head, there was a guy that had his feet, just his feet, sticking out of some little rut or something over here. I mean, he was dead. But, I mean, you know, it got—people got nervous. I shot him about 20 times in the legs. And every time you’d kick him or shoot him, he would kick up, and you could see his body twitch and all that. And it was like a game. Like [inaudible]. And the guy would just, you know, twitch again. It was good therapy. It was really good therapy for everybody that was there.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that is, at the time, SEAL Team 6 member Britt Slabinski—actually, not at the time, because this is recounted afterwards. Is that right? And he was—

MATTHEW COLE: No, he was—he was a member. That was in 2004, 2003-2004. He was a member of SEAL Team 6 at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: The title of your investigative exposé in The Intercept is “The Crimes of SEAL Team 6.” The crimes. So, you are putting this out at the end of the Obama administration. Talk about exactly what you found, the crimes as you’ve been telling us, and what you think should happen now.

MATTHEW COLE: I think that what this investigation has found, what I’ve found over the last couple of years, is that there was a consistent and persistent forms of largely mutilations and desecration of bodies in Iraq and Afghanistan, beginning in 2002, continuing all the way through at least 2011. To be honest with you, I don’t think it stopped. I think it might have lessened. I mean, I’ve got some indications that, simply from the lowering of the—slowing down of the tempo of the wars, both in Afghanistan and then the pullout in Iraq, simply brought things to—mostly to a halt. There were a series of pretty horrific acts. We had canoeing, as we described, which is this particular type of firing a bullet into someone’s head after they’ve been killed or are mortally wounded; skinnings, which were done under the excuse of needing DNA and became sort of a cover to pull large sections of skin off of someone with a knife, using these specialized hatchets that were given to some members of the—of SEAL Team 6 to hack bodies after they were killed or, again, dying. There were, frankly, a whole host of criminal activity, excessive violence, brutality, unjustified killings, some of which were not criminal in nature or intent, but were certainly problematic and poor judgment. And again, just there’s not a case—there is not a single case of punishment or legal action against any member of SEAL Team 6 in 15 years for accusations of unjustified killings, in particular, or any atrocity or what would be deemed a war crime, mutilating a body.

You know, one thing that I didn’t mention before, and one of the things that needs to be said, is that what they were doing, in large part, was a form of psychological warfare. I spoke to several SEAL Team 6 members and people who worked with SEAL Team 6 who witnessed war crimes, who said that this was a message that they were sending, and they felt encouraged to send, to al-Qaeda, to the Taliban, that they, too, fought dirty. And that, to me, was one of—I mean, you know, in a large sense, this has been going on since the beginning of time, in terms of warfare. But with such a professional force, it was really startling to hear that America’s most heralded unit, the best of the best, the “President’s Own,” were so emotionally involved with this war and these battles that they felt the need to conduct a form of psychological warfare on the enemy.

And what I think—what I took away from this investigation, what I hope happens is that the senior leaders of the command, who knew about it or should have known about it, are held to account from the standpoint of their ability to be promoted. And I think—we put this story out now. It comes at the end of the Obama administration. It is a very thorough accounting of what this unit became, first under President Bush and then under President Obama. And the senior leaders who knew about it, who failed to hold their men to account, are now senior people inside JSOC and special operations who end up being who President Trump will have at his beck and call to conduct operations. And that is the significance. The real significance here is, is a lot of this is history, but when no one gets punished and people get promoted, you’re bringing that history forward. And you’re saying to people who made decisions when they were, you know, young officers, who are now—have stars on their lapels, who are making serious decisions for the United States and making recommendations to the president about what they’re going to do on a mission or in general in a war zone, they are now in positions of great responsibility and authority, and there has been no accounting. So, if there was something that we hoped could happen out of this, it would be that some of these people’s careers would effectively end. Not fired. There’s—you know, there’s very little chance that anyone will look back into and reopen these investigations. This is more about trying to determine whether particular officers who had served at SEAL Team 6 did their job, whether they, you know, did what they were supposed to do, which was provide law and order.

AMY GOODMAN: And the names of the officers you feel should be challenged?

MATTHEW COLE: There are three in particular that my story goes into. One is current Rear Admiral Hugh Wyman Howard, who is a one-star admiral at JSOC. Another is rear admiral, two-star, Tim Szymanski, who is the commander of WARCOM, which is the overall SEAL command out in California, is effectively the highest-ranking SEAL or the—in charge of all Navy SEALs in the Navy. And Captain Pete Vasely, Peter Vasely, who is—who may in fact be—have already made promotion to admiral, who is—also has a senior position inside JSOC. These are people who have—and, by the way, we spent months, in some cases years, trying to get these people to answer questions, to talk to us. They refused. The military refused to respond to this story for five months, with dozens of questions, specific questions, to get them to say, “Hey, we’d like your help here.” And it was total silence. Total silence.

AMY GOODMAN: And your allegations of what Vasely did?

MATTHEW COLE: Vasely initially reported the beheading in Afghanistan in 2007, but, effectively, allowed Slabinski to cover it up. And so, there was a—in a very subtle way, he made sure that there were no charges. And he—there was pressure applied to him from above to make the charges go away, and he did his duty. He certainly was fully aware of what occurred in that room, and walked away from it.

AMY GOODMAN: And Howard?

MATTHEW COLE: Howard was—Howard is a very interesting individual. He is a descendant of an admiral, a long history of naval officers in his family, graduate of the Naval Academy. And Wyman—he’s known as Wyman in the SEAL world. Wyman Howard was commander of Red Squadron. And he came up with the idea of purchasing $600 custom-made hatchets to give to his men, because their unit insignia and moniker was a Native American warrior. They wear patches. They have tattoos. He thought it would be great to give them a hatchet and then encourage them to wear them on the battlefield. They had no military purpose whatsoever. And then he would—he would tell some of his men and others that he wanted them to go out and bloody their hatchet. And it was largely a euphemism, but not unlike the way Britt Slabinski tells his men that he wants a head on a platter, what occurred was people started using those hatchets to hack bodies and commit war crimes with them. And Howard later became the commander, overall commander, of SEAL Team 6 and has had, frankly, quite a rising career. And when you look deeply at some of the things that happened under his command, it’s quite disturbing. And that’s the point, you know, that no one has looked deeply at what’s occurred.

AMY GOODMAN: And President Obama’s knowledge of all of this?

MATTHEW COLE: Can’t speculate. I mean, I—you know, on the bin Laden raid, obviously, he has very good knowledge. But, you know, overall, my impression and what I’ve been told is that the—what was so, you know, in a way, sinister about what occurred on the battlefield by SEAL Team 6 was their way—their ability to suppress the information from getting out beyond even to the admiral level or the generals level. They kept it in the unit. And so, I don’t know, you know, who knew or how many people knew. I certainly know that senior leaders at JSOC had an idea. They certainly—I’ve spoken to some officers from JSOC who said, “We feared it. We had inclinations. But we never could prove anything.” And, you know, I think that’s probably largely true for a lot of people. “We feared it, but we couldn’t prove anything.”

AMY GOODMAN: And, Matthew Cole, the difference between your piece for The Intercept, your piece called “The Crimes of SEAL Team 6,” and The New York Times in the summer of 2015, “SEAL Team 6: A Secret History of Quiet Killings and Blurred Lines”?

MATTHEW COLE: The Times did a very good job of introducing the public to some of the darker side of SEAL Team 6, which—you know, that article was very well reported. And what it did was it raised a lot of questions, I think. But it didn’t provide a whole lot of answers. And what I tried to do was get past that, which was there was a lot there. And they—their story, in particular, quotes, on the record, Britt Slabinski denying that he ever gave an order to kill all men on an operation, that the young man who—young SEAL who was cutting off the head of another—of a militant had done anything other than having his knife slipped when he was trying to get, you know, military equipment off of a dead body. And my story pieces together what really happened.

And one of the things that was so interesting was that SEAL Team 6 has essentially a—what we call a rock of shame. They have a rock that sits in one of their senior leaders’ offices that has names on of former SEAL Team 6 members that are no longer welcome to come to the command physically. And two names that are on there are Matthew Bissonnette and Rob O’Neill from the bin Laden raid, because of their publicity. After The New York Times article was published, Britt Slabinski’s name was added to that list. And I was talking to my source, who had told me about it, and he was—he was disgusted, but he said—and I think we quoted him in the story—he said, “That’s the problem with SEAL Team 6. They didn’t put his name on after they blacklisted him for suspicion of war crimes. They put his name on after he went and spoke on the record and lied to the press.”

And, you know, I felt—we felt we had to put that in there to explain sort of the full narrative of what the values are, sort of how the values are off at SEAL Team 6. The Times did a very good job with their story, but it didn’t go far enough. It didn’t go deep enough. And I won’t speculate as to why. I’m glad that they did the story. I think we need to have more stories about SEAL Team 6 that are not putting them on a pedestal. They do great work. They do important things. I’m not vilifying them in any way. But they need to be held to account, because the secrecy has insulated them, and their elite stature has insulated them from any kind of accountability or justice.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we turn to another of Donald Trump’s picks for his Cabinet. This piece in The Intercept is headlined “Trump’s Pick for Interior Secretary Was Caught in ‘Pattern of Fraud’ at SEAL Team 6.” In it, Matthew Cole writes, “A Montana lawmaker tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to be secretary of the interior committed travel fraud when he was a member of the elite Navy SEAL Team 6, according to three former unit leaders and a military consultant. In announcing the nomination of Republican [Rep.] Ryan Zinke, a retired Navy SEAL commander, Trump praised his military background. [He said,] ‘As a former Navy SEAL, he has incredible leadership skills and an attitude of doing [whatever] it takes to win.'” Matthew Cole, you dug deep into Zinke’s history. Talk about what he did as a Navy SEAL and why, ultimately, he was forced out.

MATTHEW COLE: So, Congressman Zinke was a member of SEAL Team 6 as a mid-career officer and junior officer in the 1990s. And he—during the war in Bosnia, in which SEAL Team 6 was assigned, he frequently came home to the United States after a deployment and, instead of coming back to Virginia Beach, would fly to Montana, where he’s from, Whitefish, and work on a house that he had there, that he was hoping to live in when he retired. And he did this several times and was warned, I think after one or two times, that what he was doing was travel fraud. He was expensing it to the U.S. government and calling it work, when in fact it was personal. And he was warned verbally not to do it, and then he got caught doing it again. And after he shifted positions inside SEAL Team 6, the people who followed him discovered his paperwork and realized he had been—he had a long pattern of it. And so they brought it to the command’s attention.

And the command—this was in 1999 or 2000, before the wars—decided that he had to leave the unit. They were going to, you know, spank him. But he wasn’t going to—they weren’t going to punish him or reprimand him in any way. And as one source said to me, the commander of—commanding officer of SEAL Team 6 at the time said, “We don’t want to punish him, because it will hurt his family. He’s got a family, and, you know, he’ll lose pay. And we don’t want to do that. He’s a nice guy.” And so, they wrote his evaluation report in such a way that he wouldn’t be allowed into SEAL Team 6, but he could leave the unit and continue on as a—in his career as an officer in the Navy SEALs. And that’s exactly what happened.

And, you know, in a lot of ways, Zinke is sort of too small a crook to be nominated for Trump’s Cabinet. But it gets at the issue of integrity and leadership in SEAL Team 6, the officer corps. And here was someone who made some serious mistakes and—

AMY GOODMAN: And explain further what he did and how many times he did it.

MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, oh, I’m not sure the specific number of times. We were told multiple times, in the range of four or five times. He would fly out to Montana and claim that it was some kind of SEAL Team 6-related endeavor. Publicly, he has stated that these were training trips. My understanding is, is that he never claimed that they were training trips, and that, in fact, what he was doing was helping to rebuild or renovate a house that he intended to live in when he retired from the military. He was—he’s a native of Whitefish, Montana. And so, he got caught. I couldn’t get a sense, actually, of—my sources couldn’t remember, because it was a long time ago—how much money was the total dollar figures.

He has—in his 2014 campaign, to give him his side of it, he reported that he wrote a check—returned a check to the Navy for something like $214, that covered a travel voucher that he did, and that he had been duly punished for this. He had made a poor decision. He didn’t—he portrayed it as a—something that was justifiable, but that the Navy ultimately decided they wouldn’t pay for.

My sources, who were both contemporaries of his at the time at SEAL Team 6, as well as senior to him, said that that was not an honest portrayal, that he in fact did it several more times than that and for higher amounts, and that there was nothing close to a justifiable reason for his travel. He was spending government time and resources for his own personal efforts on a home, essentially.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what kind of response—you wrote this in December, after, of course, Donald Trump chose him to be his nominee for secretary of interior. What kind of response did you get to your piece?

MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, you know, a lot of silence. I mean, Zinke has still never responded. The Trump team, the transition team, called me to say that—they didn’t dispute any facts in the story. They only said this was old news. And, you know, they had confidence, the president-elect had confidence in the congressman.

AMY GOODMAN: They called you because you called them?

MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, we had called—we had sought comment before the story ran. They responded after the story published. Zinke’s team never responded. You know, there’s been some response. Actually, a lot of people from Montana responded to our story, on both sides, saying that he was honorable, other side saying that, you know, he was terrible. And he’s their congressman, so it’s a political issue. I think I do—I do know—and it wasn’t in this piece, but there is more to—you know, he had some subsequent positions in the Navy SEALs that were—had some—there were some ethical flags raised in those positions, as well, towards the end of his career. And we may or may not get to those in the coming days. But there was—this was not an isolated incident, is the sense that I have from talking to folks who were in the Navy with him.

AMY GOODMAN: And he was forced to leave?

MATTHEW COLE: He was effectively forced to leave SEAL Team 6. He was not officially forced to leave the Navy. He retired at retirement age.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain the difference.

MATTHEW COLE: The difference between being forced to leave versus?

AMY GOODMAN: Forced to leave SEAL Team 6 but not the Navy.

MATTHEW COLE: So, SEAL Team 6 has—and any unit can do this, but there are effective ways to get someone to move on, which is that when their time is up, when their pre-assigned task is over, their assignment, the evaluation is written in such a manner, as I understand it, that they cannot get another job within that command afterwards, because of the way the evaluation is written. And so, you’re never fired. You are never dismissed. You are—your time is up, and you are quietly told that you just won’t be able to come back here. But no one else is told, going forward, in any other assignment that you get, that that’s what happened to you.

AMY GOODMAN: You write about a celebration, a reunion, really, of Navy SEALs back in Virginia at the headquarters. Describe where that his and what happened.

MATTHEW COLE: So, each year in October, SEAL Team 6 has what it calls its annual stump muster, which is like a reunion, and it brings back old members of the command, original members of the command, people who have just recently retired, current members and their families. And, you know, they—it’s a party. And my story ends with a former senior leader of the command who went back in October of 2011. The organization, the headquarters, had just completed a $100 million building and facility and essentially were christening it. And it was under the command then of Captain Wyman Howard, who had just taken over at SEAL Team 6.

And he was—this former SEAL team leader was standing in a group with old friends, and he was handed a portfolio, a ring-bound book. And he opened it up, and someone said to him, “This is our greatest hits.” And he looked down, and they were a collection of canoed heads since 9/11. And what he realized, and I subsequently was able to confirm, was that this collection was not the private collection of some member of SEAL Team 6. This was the SEAL Team 6 official collection and photo book that they were sending around as entertainment at a private party, essentially, but out in the open. And the senior who saw it decided after he left—he was disgusted with what he saw, and decided he was never going to—he has not gone back to the command for a reunion since, because of how upset he was with the lack of morality and the sort of, you know, bloodlust and glee, you know, the gleefulness around essentially what is their professional work.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Cole, I want to thank you for being with us, national security reporter for The Intercept. We’ll link to his new exposé, just out, “The Crimes of SEAL Team 6.” This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

JANUARY 10 and 11, 2017

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Going global: the UK government’s ‘CVE’ agenda, counter-radicalisation and covert propaganda

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) efforts, the government tells us, “address the root causes of extremism through community engagement”. But could this globalising project have counter-productive consequences?

Earlier this week the advocacy group CAGE and the Guardian both published revelations concerning a covert propaganda programme run by the UK Home Office as part of the Prevent programme.

We have been investigating the government Research and Information Communications Unit (RICU), the PR agency Breakthrough Media and the many ‘grassroots’ campaigns they worked with for almost a year with varying degrees of complicity. We have only published a small amount of the information we amassed and expect the Guardian and other journalists to reveal more in the coming days.

In this article we show how those orchestrating the campaigns have global ambitions – and despite the abject lack of debate – how the UK’s “industrial scale propaganda” programme is already being held up as best practice by the EU and UN.

The story so far
Over the past five years, the Home Office and a secretive government department called RICU, the Research, Information and Communications Unit, has been cultivating a network of ‘grassroots’ Muslim voices to promote ‘counter-narratives’ that combat the appeal of an ill-defined ‘extremism’ among Britain’s Muslim youth. Parliament has not been informed of these activities and the policy has been kept from public scrutiny by draconian secrecy legislation and the veil of ‘national security’.

Working with specialist PR agencies and new media companies to target young people who fit the profile of ‘vulnerable young Muslim’, RICU’s interventions represent the first concerted foray into cyberspace by the British state with the aim of covertly engineering the thoughts of its citizens. In practice this means the chosen ‘grassroots’ organisations and ‘counter-narratives’ receive financial and technical support from the government for the production of their multimedia campaigns (videos, websites, podcasts, blogs etc).

These state-sponsored ‘counter-narratives’ are in turn promoted to specific groups of internet users, chosen on the basis of their demographics, the websites they visit, the social media accounts they ‘follow’, and the search terms they use.

It has now been revealed that the following ‘grassroots’ campaigns have received some kind of support from the Home Office, RICU or Breakthrough Media: My 2012 Dream, Return to Somalia, Help for Syria, Faith on the Frontline, Families matter, Imams online, Not another brother, Ummah Sonic, The fightback starts here, Open Your Eyes: Isis Lies, The truth about Isis, and Making a Stand. At issue is not what these initiatives stand for, or even that they are government supported, but that they are presented as independent, community-based campaigns.

While the government has defended RICU’s programme as some kind of ‘necessary evil’, we should not be duped. When democratic governments start using community groups and NGOs to disseminate government propaganda and hoodwink the public into believing they are authentic ‘grassroots’ campaigns, it damages everyone in civil society. Democracy requires clear lines between the security state and the police on the one hand, and civil society, public and social services on the other.

Breakthrough Media – an official secret no more

Fair use.
Breakthrough Media is the government’s go-to creative media agency for its “counter-narratives”. It specializes in “emotionally driven films, campaigns and other communications products” and its clients include government and intergovernmental agencies (UK, US, European Union, African Union, United Nations) and various NGOs. It has offices in London, Nairobi and Mogadishu and employs 100 people across Europe and East Africa.

Some of Breakthrough’s work for the UK government has been protected by the Official Secrets Act – an extraordinary use of national security legislation to conceal the activities of a government-contracted PR company.

Breakthrough was founded by Managing Director Robert Elliot, and originally called “Camden Creative”, which was incorporated in 2008. Camden Creative operated as a drama and documentaries production company that delivered a ten-part reality drama series for Channel 5 and a one-off documentary about the Mayor of Mogadishu for Al Jazeera English. The name of the company was changed to “Breakthrough Media” on 27 November 2012. Breakthrough’s CEO is Scott Brown, appointed on 17 August 2012. Brown was formerly an account director at M&C Saatchi and Deputy Chief of Staff at Bell Pottinger (the UK’s biggest PR company) in Nairobi.

Breakthrough has earned £11.8m from the UK government since 2012. Lest there be any doubt about the commitment of the UK government to this cause, it has just asked PR companies to pitch for a further £60 million.

Horizon PR

Fair use.
Horizon PR was incorporated in March 2015 and is part of the M&C Saatchi Group, the international PR and advertising group formed by Maurice and Charles Saatchi after they were ousted from their original firm, Saatchi and Saatchi. Horizon has five directors: Robert Elliot and Scott Brown of Breakthrough Media, and Andrew Blackstone, Molly Aldridge and Marcus Peffers from the M&C Saatchi group. Blackstone and Aldridge are senior executives at M&C Saatchi, while Peffers was a senior account director who founded the company’s World Services division in 2011 to bring the “experience and creative capabilities” of the agency to “help tackle complex behavioural and social issues in fragile states and developing markets”. M&C Saatchi’s World Services works with a range of national and international governments, IGOs, INGOs and foundations and is among the group’s most successful divisions. Feffers has also worked at a senior advisory level with successive UK governments, including HMT, the FCO, the Home Office, HMRC and Number 10, and oversaw M&C Saatchi’s campaign to keep Scotland in the Union on behalf of the three main UK political parties.

Horizon provides PR solutions to “ethnic, social and faith based issues” to clients including “non-government and civil-society groups who want to improve and increase the impact and scale of their activity and better reach audiences at a local, regional, national and international level”. This is achieved through “creative news generation, traditional and social media campaigns and targeted events”. In launching Horizon, Breakthrough and the Saatchis are clearly betting on a big future in communicating government messages on sensitive issues such as “terrorism” and “extremism”.

Hand-in-hand: censorship and propaganda
The lengths of the UK’s covert propaganda programme appear even more extraordinary in the context of the government’s mass censorship of the internet – something which can only be achieved with the cooperation of internet service providers and social media companies.

Since the Edward Snowden revelations, and having realized that working hand-in-glove with the “Five Eyes” global surveillance system was not good for their reputation or business prospects, Silicon Valley appears to have enjoyed a much less comfortable relationship with western governments. Some of its biggest names have taken formal positions that distance themselves from government surveillance, and introduced corresponding procedures designed to reassure and protect their users.

But Silicon Valley has been unable to extricate itself from the broader ‘war on terror’ and ad hoc public-private partnerships have emerged to address demands from law enforcement and intelligence agencies to block “terrorist propaganda”. In the UK, this process has essentially replicated the model developed to combat the proliferation of child pornography on the internet.

As with child porn, states have passed laws banning the production and dissemination of terrorist propaganda, providing grounds for the state to request companies to close accounts or block websites (so-called “notice and take-down” requests) said to contravene national law. In the absence of obvious legal breaches, the censors argue that the content breaches the provider’s terms of service.

The UK has pioneered the censorship of “terrorist” content, having established the world’s first Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CITRU) in 2010, modelled on the Child Exploitation and Online Protection agency. CITRU is the central contact point for police and intelligence officers seeking to block web pages or close social media accounts, and refers their requests to service providers, search engines and content platforms. By December 2015, CITRU claimed to have taken down “more than 120,000 pieces of unlawful terrorist-related content online” since 2010, with one-third removed in 2015.

In practice, content hosted outside the UK (as most “terrorist propaganda” is) is not actually “taken down” – access is instead blocked by British ISPs (and can therefore be easily circumvented). Nor do these figures include independent action by social media companies. In February 2016, Twitter announced that it had shut down more than 125,000 ISIS related accounts.

Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the EU launched a Europe-wide blocking system modelled on CITRU. The EU Counter-terrorism Internet Referral Unit began operating in July 2015 and is housed at Europol.

You would instinctively think that “terrorist propaganda” means the horrific videos of ISIS beheadings and such like, yet violent material is said to make up just 2% of what is blocked. Regardless, the level of censorship of terrorists and extremists has now reached levels that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. But this is only one side of the story.

Silicon Valley and counter-narratives
Having played ball with content take-down, the Silicon Valley behemoths have also increasingly embraced the “counter-narrative” agenda – an agenda they are of course uniquely placed to implement. In February 2015, a “White House Summit To Counter Violent Extremism” gathered foreign leaders, United Nations officials, and “a broad range of international representatives and members of civil society”.

Following the summit, the White House announced several new initiatives. First, the US government would organize “technology camps” alongside social media companies, which will “work with governments, civil society and religious leaders to develop digital content that discredits violent extremist narratives and amplifies positive alternatives”. Second, the US will partner with the United Arab Emirates to create a “digital communications hub that will counter ISIL’s propaganda and recruitment efforts, both directly and through engagement with civil society, community, and religious leaders”. In other words: the stratosphere that includes organisations RICU, CITRU, Breakthrough, ‘grassroots’.

While Facebook and Google were tight-lipped, a Twitter spokesman stated that they “support counterspeech efforts around the world and we plan to participate in this effort through third-party NGOs”. Twitter has also run a series of workshops for UK NGOs concerned with countering extremism to help them enhance their presence on social media.

Giving evidence to the House of Commons’ Home Affairs Select Committee in February 2016, Google announced that it was going one step further and “piloting two pilot programmes. One is to make sure that these types of videos [counter-narratives] are more discoverable on YouTube. The other one is to make sure when people put potentially damaging search terms into our search engine… they also find this counter-narrative”. It was later clarified that the programme took the form of “free Google AdWords” to enable NGOs to place “counter-radicalisation adverts against search queries of their choosing”.

To be clear about what this means in practice, imagine an internet user fitting the profile of ‘impressionable young Muslim’ (as defined by Prevent), searching Google for “Syria war” (or clicking on a Facebook link about it) and being referred to Breakthrough’s Open Your Eyes: Isis Lies campaign, among others. And as we know from the Snowden revelations, these searches will be logged and investigated by the intelligence services.

The symbolism of all of this cannot be understated. Removing one kind of ‘propaganda’ and promoting another at the request of governments – or via government-backed NGOs or contractors – is a far cry from the free speech-cum-great leveller Silicon Valley told us to believe in.

And as well-intentioned as their interventions may be, having embarked on this slippery slope, can or should we now expect the likes of Google to assist in re-directing would be white supremacists to #blacklivesmatter websites, or Europe’s growing army of neo-Nazis to #hopenothate?

Your answer to this question should help you think through the legitimacy of what has been revealed to address ‘radicalisation’ among Muslims.

Against Violent Extremism Network

Fair use.
The Against Violent Extremism (AVE) Network is a partnership between Google Ideas, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and Gen Next Foundation (GNF). GNF, which initially described itself as an “exclusive membership organization and platform for successful individuals” committed to social change through venture capital funding, “aspires to solve the greatest generational challenges of our time using a unique hybrid of private sector and non-profit business models – called a venture philanthropy model”. Its core areas are education, economic opportunity and global security.

AVE was hatched at the 2011 Google Ideas (now ‘Jigsaw’) Summit Against Violent Extremism and is managed by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. It claims to have brought together “hundreds of former extremists and survivors of violent extremism to fight back against online extremist messaging and recruitment”. In 2015, AVE claimed to have “over 2,000 members globally”, “over 60 counter-extremism projects” and “partnerships with global technology firms including Twitter and Facebook”.

The counter-narratives projects incubated and assisted by AVE are believed to include myextremism.org, a juvenile platform for “extremists against extremism”, and Abdullah X, the former extremist turned ‘down with the kids’ cartoon ‘Jihobbyist’.

‘Abdullah-X’ – the counter-narratives’ poster boy
Abdullah-X says: “I am here to deliver awareness, develop and divert young Muslims from the path of relying solely on information that can take them on a journey towards extremism and hate. You will find me in content that is created to instil critical thinking and understanding in the minds of those who are often vulnerable to the messaging of extremist ideologies.”

The ‘street-savvy’ looking cartoon character, complete with chains and corn-rows, is given a Muslim name with the suffix ‘X’, an obvious reference to Malcolm X, and a means of co-opting a legacy that disenfranchised youth may respect. Abdullah-X’s videos attempt to take on contentious issues within the Muslim world, providing a ‘counter-narrative’ to questions that many Muslims have. In one video, he considers Palestine and the growing call to boycott Israel, by questioning what it can achieve: “I wonder, is all my plaque waving and shouting in anger to others a Sunnah? I mean in truth, will my ‘peaceful protest’ for Gaza truly aid the Palestinian people or does it aid my ego… What is the bigger picture?”

For Abdullah-X, the bigger picture is not Israeli occupation and apartheid, but the failure of the Arab world to intervene in Gaza: “Because they live in the shadow of their paymasters… sadly their paymasters are not those who follow the Sunnah.” This ahistorical presentation is part of a wider trend in which Abdullah-X seeks to depoliticise British Islam in favour of shallower spiritual reflection.

Abdullah-X claims that he was a former adherent of Abu Hamza al-Masri and Omar Bakri Mohammed. He claims that his position as a former extremist uniquely places to deter others from following similar routes. He now has a female sidekick in Muslimah-X.

One of the most astonishing achievements of the counter-radicalisation industry is its burial of the idea that the people best-placed to deter individuals from extremism, might actually be those who have never engaged in any form of it.

In an interview with On the Media on 19 June 2015, Abdullah-X was asked if he is funded by MI6 or some other entity. He responded with the claim that the cartoon is “…a self funded project of myself and a few like-minded people.”

Fair use.

Going global
The 2015 White House Summit on Combating Violent Extremism was more a product than a catalyst of the global CVE agenda, which has been developing under the auspices of the Global Counter Terrorism Forum (GCTF). The GCTF is an informal group of 29 states plus the European Union launched in no small part because of resistance to the dominant security and counter-terrorism paradigm at the UN on the part of many developing countries, which served to prevent those states most invested in the ‘war on terror’ from enhancing their operational cooperation through UN mechanisms.

The UK co-chairs, in partnership with the United Arab Emirates, the GCTF’s CVE working group, which held its inaugural meeting in Abu Dhabi in April 2012. The minutes report that “The UK opened the session by underscoring the belief common to many GCTF members: that countering violent extremism is a battle of ideas; in such a battle, altering the grounds of debate and countering radical messages are vital.”

The following year, the GCTF organised the UN Conference on “Best Practice in Communications” in June 2013 in London. The meeting was co-chaired by Richard Chalk, then head of RICU. It recommended that “practitioners must take a strategic approach to CVE communications work and articulate the totality of a government’s engagement on a given issue”; that “messages should be simple, concise, tailored, and delivered by credible messengers”; and that “policies must be aligned with messages in order to be credible”.

Countering violent extremism… with our friends in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh
The GCTF has also launched the Hedayah Center of Excellence in Countering Violent Extremism, based in Abu Dhabi, to which at least one British government official is seconded. Hedayah’s publications include “National CVE Strategies: Guidelines and Good Practices”, a document that draws heavily on the Prevent school of counter-extremism. Hedayah has been lavished with US, EU and Gulf state funding, and is the obvious home for the UAE-based “digital communications hub” to counter ISIL propaganda announced by the White House last year.

Hedayah also hosted the GLOBAL CVE EXPO in December 2014, which stressed the need for “more effective collaboration on counter-narratives, drawing from experiences of policymakers, practitioners and industry/private sector representatives”. The month before it held an expert workshop on counter-narratives which extolled the virtues of using “victims, formers and ex-prisoners” in counter-narrative products.

The irony of establishing an International Center of Excellence on Countering Violent Extremism in a country whose CVE efforts include a strict ban on the regime’s political opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood, the mass deportation of Shi’a residents, and hiring Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater (now Academi), to form secret, mercenary armies, is not lost on all observers. In advance of the White House CVE summit, Steven Hawkins, director of Amnesty International USA, warned that abusive regimes could take advantage of ‘CVE-mania’ and use international funding to violate human rights in the absence of appropriate safeguards.

The UK is also exporting its counter-narratives programme through the EU and the UN. The former has established the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) under the ‘PREVENT’ strand of the EU Counter-Terrorism strategy, which has a dedicated Communication and Narratives Working Group. The WG is co-chaired by Najeeb Ahmed, a Home Office Prevent coordinator, and Guillaume de Saint Marc, CEO of the French Association of Victims of Terrorism. The RAN network also has a Working Group on the Internet and Social Media, co-chaired by Yasmin Green (Google Ideas) and Rachel Briggs (Institute for Strategic Dialogue). RAN’s Issue Paper on Counter Narratives and Alternative Narratives reads as if it was written by RICU.

Similarly, the UN had a Working Group on the Use of the Internet for Terrorist Purposes, under the auspices of the UN Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force. This appears to have been disbanded, and its work taken-up the GCTF, but not before it had staged the Riyadh Conference on “Use of the Internet to Counter the Appeal of Extremist Violence” in 2011. This in a country declared an “Enemy of the Internet” by Reporters Without Borders and notorious for the mass beheading of alleged terrorists, apostates and blasphemers.

The Riyadh conference, which was co-funded by the German government and the Saudi royal family, brought together around 150 policy-makers, experts and practitioners from the public sector, international organisations, industry, academia and the media. The speakers included Christopher Wainwright (RICU) and Jared Cohen (Google Ideas). Top of the list of summit Recommendations was to “Promote counter-narratives through all relevant media channels (online, print, TV/Radio)”.

Under the heading “Credible Messengers as Important as the Message”, the summary of the proceedings produced by the CTITF records:

Leaving aside the many dubious assertions in this passage, when a UN Working Group meets in Saudi Arabia to recommend that security and intelligence agencies recruit former extremists and provide them with institutional homes in fake NGOs to produce state propaganda, things have clearly gone badly awry.

Do as I say not as I do
As we said in our report, there is nothing objectionable in principle about grassroots activism that tries to steer people away from violence and ‘extremism’ – or any form of other ‘-ism’ for that matter. Indeed, freedom to engage in whatever kind of non-violent activism one chooses gets to the heart of what it means to live in a democracy that holds freedom of expression dear.

But there has to be a basic degree of transparency and accountability, without which communities will not trust government, and people will not trust anyone. They need to be confident in the difference between government propaganda and genuine activism. They need to know that non-governmental organisations and grassroots organisations are independent of government and corporations, or otherwise open about their relationship to them. When civil society organisations become tools of government or business, it damages the non-profit sector as a whole.

This week’s revelations are symptomatic of the capture of government policy by an increasingly influential counter-radicalisation industry. Yet for all the best practice and international recommendations described above, radicalisation theory is still mired in Islamophobic bunkum, with no reliable metrics through which to substantiate its claims of effectiveness, and no evidence to support the assertion that the UK’s Prevent programme has been anything other than a divisive failure.

As a paper by the International Centre for Counter-terrorism in the Hague suggests: “Doing the right thing rather than saying the right thing produces, ideally, the stronger narrative and in that sense the interaction patterns between host community and vulnerable youth constitute a non-verbal message that might better manage to prevent extremists gaining more ground in a community”.

BEN HAYES and ASIM QURESHI 4 May 2016

Find this story at 4 May 2016

British anti-extremism agencies are working at an ‘industrial scale and pace’ and using Cold War tactics to combat ISIS propaganda

Terror group puts out around 18 messages a day to its followers
Government has set up covert group to counter radical propaganda
David Cameron is to announce new laws targeting hate preachers

A covert unit set up to tackle extremism is working ‘at an industrial scale and pace’ as it attempts to counter the barrage of ISIS propaganda online.

The Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), a little-known group set up by the UK government, is using Cold War tactics to stop the spread of radical jihadism.

Some of the methods used by the unit emerged today as David Cameron prepares to announce tough new laws to crack down on extremism.

Radical material is now available to anyone wanting to access it as jihadists flood the web with propaganda
+3
Radical material is now available to anyone wanting to access it as jihadists flood the web with propaganda

RICU was set up in response to the July 7 terror attacks in 2005, but the importance of its role has increased with the rise of ISIS, who now put out an estimated 18 messages a day to their followers.

The slick production techniques behind ISIS’s infamous beheading videos and the terrorists’ use of social media to spread them has meant even the most extreme propaganda can be accessed in homes, schools and workplaces around the world.

It emerged today that RICU often conceals the origin of information it sends out over fears that knowing it came from the government would undermine its credibility in the eyes of some young Muslims.

One initiative, which portrays itself as a campaign providing advice on how to raise funds for Syrian refugees, has spoken to thousands of students at university freshers’ fairs without any of them realising they were engaging with a government programme.

The Help for Syria campaign has distributed leaflets to 760,000 homes without the recipients realising they were government communications.

Meanwhile, some of the group’s work has been outsourced to a communications firm, Breakthrough Media Network, which produced websites, leaflets and social media pages with titles such as The Truth about ISIS,The Guardian revealed.

The tactics used by a government counter-extremism group, which include setting up the Help for Syria campaign (website pictured), emerged today as the government plans a new crackdown on hate preachers
The tactics used by a government counter-extremism group, which include setting up the Help for Syria campaign (website pictured), emerged today as the government plans a new crackdown on hate preachers

The methods have been criticised as ‘deceptive’ by critics, with human rights lawyer Imran Khan telling the newspaper: ‘This government needs to stop thinking of young British Muslims as some sort of fifth column that it needs to deal with.’

But the Home Office insisted RICU’s work could involve ‘sensitive issues’ and some of the organisations it worked with did not want to publicly reveal the relationship with the Government.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: ‘The battle against terrorism and extremism must be fought on several fronts including countering its twisted narrative online and in our communities. The need for this work is recognised at a national and international level.

Videos including those of Jihadi John, since killed, have been used by ISIS to spread hate
Videos including those of Jihadi John, since killed, have been used by ISIS to spread hate

‘As the Prime Minister has said, we face a generational challenge and it is vital we work in partnership with communities, civil society groups and individuals to confront extremism in all its forms.

‘This has been a key part of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy since publication of the Prevent review in 2011.

‘We are very proud of the support RICU has provided to organisations working on the front line to challenge the warped ideology of groups such as Daesh [ISIS], and to protect communities.

‘This work can involve sensitive issues, vulnerable communities and hard to reach audiences and it has been important to build relationships out of the media glare.

‘We respect the bravery of individuals and organisations who choose to speak out against violence and extremism and it is right that we support, empower and protect them.

‘Our guiding principle has to be whether or not any organisation we work with is itself happy to talk publicly about what they do. At the same time we are as open as possible about RICU’s operating model, and have referenced the role of RICU in a number of publications and in Parliament.’

By RICHARD SPILLETT FOR MAILONLINE
PUBLISHED: 08:16 GMT, 3 May 2016 | UPDATED: 10:02 GMT, 3 May 2016

Find this story at 3 May 2016

© Associated Newspapers Ltd

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

Blair government’s rendition policy led to rift between UK spy agencies MI5 chief’s complaint over MI6 role in ‘war on terror’ abductions caused prolonged breakdown in relations

British involvement in controversial and clandestine rendition operations provoked an unprecedented row between the UK’s domestic and foreign intelligence services, MI5 and MI6, at the height of the “war on terror”, the Guardian can reveal.

The head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, was so incensed when she discovered the role played by MI6 in abductions that led to suspected extremists being tortured, she threw out a number of her sister agency’s staff and banned them from working at MI5’s headquarters, Thames House.

According to Whitehall sources, she also wrote to the then prime minister, Tony Blair, to complain about the conduct of MI6 officers, saying their actions had threatened Britain’s intelligence gathering and may have compromised the security and safety of MI5 officers and their informants.

The letter caused a serious and prolonged breakdown of trust between Britain’s domestic and foreign spy agencies provoked by the Blair government’s support for rendition.

The letter was discovered by investigators examining whether British intelligence officers should face criminal charges over the rendition of an exiled Libyan opposition leader, Abdul Hakim Belhaj.

A critic of Muammar Gaddafi, the former Libyan dictator, Belhaj was seized in Bangkok in March, 2004 in a joint UK-US operation, and handed over to the CIA. He alleges the CIA tortured him and injected him with “truth serum” before flying him and his family to Tripoli to be interrogated.

Abdul Hakim Belhaj, centre, speaks during a press conference in Tripoli in 2012.
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Abdul Hakim Belhaj, centre, speaks during a press conference in Tripoli in 2012. Photograph: Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images
According to documents found in Tripoli, five days before he was secretly flown to the Libyan capital, MI6 gave Gaddafi’s intelligence agency the French and Moroccan aliases used by Belhaj.

MI6 also provided the Libyans with the intelligence that allowed the CIA to kidnap him and take him to Tripoli.

Belhaj told the Guardian that British intelligence officers were among the first to interrogate him in Tripoli. He said he was “very surprised that the British got involved in what was a very painful period in my life”.

“I wasn’t allowed a bath for three years and I didn’t see the sun for one year,” he told the Guardian. “They hung me from the wall and kept me in an isolation cell. I was regularly tortured.”

The secret role played by MI6 was revealed after the fall of Gaddafi, when documents were found in ransacked offices of his intelligence chief, Moussa Koussa.

One, dated 18 March 2004 was a note from Sir Mark Allen, then head of counter-terrorism at MI6, to Moussa Koussa. It said: “I congratulate you on the safe arrival of Abu Abd Allah Sadiq [Abdul-Hakim Belhaj]. This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over the years. I am so glad. I was grateful to you for helping the officer we sent out last week.”

Allen added: “[Belhaj’s] information on the situation in this country is of urgent importance to us. Amusingly, we got a request from the Americans to channel requests for information from [Belhaj] through the Americans. I have no intention of doing any such thing. The intelligence on [Belhaj] was British. I know I did not pay for the air cargo [Belhaj]. But I feel I have the right to deal with you direct on this and am very grateful for the help you are giving us.”

Scotland Yard has concluded its investigation into the alleged involvement of intelligence officers and officials in Libyan rendition operations and an announcement about whether or not to prosecute is imminent.

Whitehall sources have told the Guardian that police and prosecutors have been reviewing the issue for months. They say investigators have been frustrated by the way potentially key witnesses have said they were unable to recall who had authorised British involvement in the rendition programme, who else knew about it, and who knew the precise details of the Belhaj abduction.

“This is an extremely difficult area for police and prosecutors,” said one source. “The problem is, the CPS cannot bring a charge against a government policy.”

The letter to Blair sent by Manningham-Buller, who was director general of MI5 from 2002 to 2007, reflected deep divisions within Britain’s intelligence agencies over the methods being used to gather information after the 9/11 attacks on the US.

Though MI5 has been criticised about some of the tactics used, the letter suggests Britain’s security service had serious misgivings about rendition operations and the torture of suspects.

The Guardian has been told the MI5 chief was “shocked and appalled” by the treatment of Belhaj and vented her anger at MI6, which was then run by Sir Richard Dearlove.

“When EMB [Manningham-Buller] found out what had gone on in Libya, she was evidently furious. I have never seen a letter quite like it. There was a serious rift between MI5 and MI6 at the time.”

She has since said the aim of engaging with Gaddafi to persuade him to abandon his chemical and nuclear weapons programme was not “wrong in principle”.

However, she added: “There are clearly questions to be answered about the various relationships that developed afterwards and whether the UK supped with a sufficiently long spoon.”

The police files with the CPS are understood to describe how Belhaj, his pregnant wife, Fatima Bouchar, and children, and Sami al-Saadi and his family were abducted from the far east to Gaddafi’s interrogation and torture cells in Tripoli in 2004.

The British government paid £2.2m to settle a damages claim brought by al-Saadi and his family. Belhaj has refused to settle unless he receives an apology.

Jack Straw, who as foreign secretary was responsible for MI6, and Allen have always denied wrongdoing.

UK government ‘seeking to avoid responsibility’ for renditions
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In December 2005, when the first evidence emerged that Britain was colluding in CIA rendition operations, Straw told MPs: “There is simply no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop.”

When the Libyan renditions came to light, Straw said: “No foreign secretary can know all the details of what its intelligence agencies are doing at any one time.”

He has been interviewed by the police but only as a potential witness. Government officials, insisting on anonymity, said MI6 was following “ministerially authorised government policy”.

Blair said he did not have “any recollection at all” of the Belhaj rendition.

The Blair and Straw denials appeared to be contradicted by Dearlove.

He has said: “It was a political decision, having very significantly disarmed Libya, for the government to cooperate with Libya on Islamist terrorism. The whole relationship was one of serious calculation about where the overall balance of our national interests stood.”

Neither MI5 nor MI6, nor Manningham-Buller, wanted to make any public comment. Whitehall sources insist the relationship between MI5 and MI6 has now been repaired after a difficult period.

Belhaj is demanding an apology and an acceptance of British guilt. He has taken his case to the supreme court, which has yet to hand down a judgment.

Last year, the court was confronted with the prospect of Straw and British intelligence officers deploying the “foreign act of state doctrine” – that is to say, the courts here cannot rule on the case since agents from foreign countries, notably the US and Libya, were involved, and they are granted immunity.

Section 7 of the 1994 Intelligence Services Act, sometimes described as the “James Bond clause”, protects MI6 officers from prosecution for actions anywhere in the world that would otherwise be illegal. They would be protected as long as their actions were authorised in writing by the secretary of state.

However, lawyers for Belhaj say many cases involving deportation or asylum seekers, for example, relate to actions of foreign states and that, in any case, torture overrides all legal loopholes.

An inquiry under Sir Peter Gibson, a retired senior judge, into earlier rendition programmes in which British intelligence was involved, was abandoned because of the new and dramatic evidence about Belhaj’s abduction.

After insisting that the issues were so serious that it needed a judge-led inquiry rather than one carried out by the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, David Cameron reversed his position. After the Gibson inquiry was dropped, he said the issues should be taken up by the committee after all.

Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general and now chair of the committee, said shortly after he was appointed last October: “Our longer-term priority is the substantial inquiry into the role of the UK government and security and intelligence agencies in relation to detainee treatment and rendition, where there are still unanswered questions.”

The Gibson inquiry published a damning interim report before it folded. It concluded that the British government and its intelligence agencies had been involved in rendition operations, in which detainees were kidnapped and flown around the globe, and had interrogated detainees who they knew were being mistreated.

It said MI6 officers were informed they were under no obligation to report breaches of the Geneva conventions; intelligence officers appear to have taken advantage of the abuse of detainees; and Straw, as foreign secretary, had suggested that the law might be amended to allow suspects to be rendered to the UK.

It raised 27 questions they said would need to be answered if the full truth about the way in which Britain waged its “war on terror” was to be established.

The questions include:

• Did UK intelligence officers turn a blind eye to “specific, inappropriate techniques or threats” used by others and use this to their advantage in interrogations?

• If so, was there “a deliberate or agreed policy” between UK officers and overseas intelligence officers?

• Did the government and its agencies become “inappropriately involved in some renditions”?

• Was there a willingness, “at least at some levels within the agencies, to condone, encourage or take advantage of a rendition operation”?

Nick Hopkins and Richard Norton-Taylor
Tuesday 31 May 2016 17.56 BST Last modified on Wednesday 1 June 2016 17.20 BST

Find this story at 31 May 2016

© 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited

‘Jihadi John’ case raises questions about UK counter-terrorism strategy (2015)

Emails released by CAGE revealed how MI5 repeatedly tried to recruit Mohammed Emwazi as an informant and put him on a terror watchlist to stop him leaving Britain

The identifying of “Jihadi John”, a masked militant who has beheaded and tortured hostages held by the Islamic State in Syria, as 26-year-old British national, Mohammed Emwazi, has ignited a debate about the young recruit’s life, identity and path to Islamist militancy.

Observers have pointed to Emwazi’s privileged upbringing – Emwazi came from a “well-to-do family,” growing up in West London and graduating from college with a degree in computer programming, according to the Washington Post – as proof that poverty did not fuel his radicalism.

Jihadi John is middle class & educated, demonstrates again that radicalisation is not necessarily driven by poverty or social deprivation.

— Shiraz Maher (@ShirazMaher) February 26, 2015
Less attention has been paid to the alleged interactions between Emwazi and the British security services and how, if at all, these may have impacted on the young militant.

Emails exchanged between Emwazi and Asim Qureshi, director of CAGE, a group which primarily lobbies on behalf of detainees held on terrorism charges, suggest that, before he travelled to Syria in 2012, Emwazi had several encounters with British authorities.

In Amsterdam in 2009 an officer from MI5, Britain’s domestic security agency, tried to recruit Emwazi after accusing him and two others of trying to reach Somalia, where the militant group al-Shabab is based, according to emails he sent to Qureshi.

“Listen Mohammed: You’ve got the whole world in front of you; you’re 21 years old; you just finished Uni – why don’t you work for us?” Emwazi recalled an MI5 officer asking him in Amsterdam’s airport in a June 2010 email he sent to Qureshi.

CAGE has been accused of sympathising with some of the foreign fighters it is regularly in contact with.

Qureshi, a graduate of the London School of Economics, has taken part in rallies by Islamist groups in the UK who call for “jihad” in Chechyna and Iraq.

He told Middle East Eye he had met with Emwazi in the fall of 2009 shortly after he returned to the UK to discuss what had happened.

“Mohammed was angry about the way he had been treated, he felt they (MI5) had bullied and disrespected him,” Qureshi said.

In 2010 counterterrorism officials in Britain detained Emwazi again – fingerprinting him and searching his belongings – and later preventing him from travelling to Kuwait, his birthplace, where he had landed a job working for a computer company.

“I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started,” Emwazi wrote in a June 2010 e-mail to Qureshi. But now “I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London. A person imprisoned & controlled by security service men, stopping me from living my new life in my birthplace & country, Kuwait.”

Qureshi said he last heard from Emwazi in January 2012.

“Mohammed was harassed repeatedly by MI5 from the summer of 2010 until 2013. He told me he was once strangled by an officer at Heathrow airport during interrogation,” said Qureshi.

Qureshi said that Emwazi, who has been described by those who knew him as “polite with a penchant for wearing stylish clothes while adhering to the tenets of his Islamic faith,” had used “every means possible” to try and change his personal situation.

“Suffocating domestic policies aimed at turning a person into an informant but which prevent a person from fulfilling their basic life needs would have left a lasting impression on Emwazi,” said Qureshi.

“When are we going to finally learn that when we treat people as if they’re outsiders they will look for belonging elsewhere?”

We have an entire system of injustice that allows peoples lives to be ruined. Security services create suspect communities #MohammedEmwazi

— CAGE (@UK_CAGE) February 26, 2015
Analysts have dismissed CAGE’s assertion that the security services had a role in Emwazi’s radicalisation.

“I think it’s a bit rich that Jihadi John has decided to go to Syria and participate in this conflict because of some interaction with the security services,” Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, told the Telegraph. “As if he (Jihadi John) is resolved of all responsibility, as if he is not a salient individual capable of making his own decisions.”

Haras Rafiq, managing director of the anti-radicalisation think-tank the Quilliam Foundation, called the claim that Britain was in anyway to blame “rubbish.”

“It’s not the British or Kuwaitis fault. It is his fault and the people who radicalised him. Jihadi John is a cold-hearted killer,” he said.

Moazzam Begg, a British-Pakistani citizen and former Guantanamo Bay detainee, said that British security forces were not to blame but that their increasingly intrusive strategies had contributed to a “climate of fear and alienation” amongst Muslims in Britain.

“It’s not an excuse, it’s part of an explanation why this man must have felt greatly alienated,” said Begg.

“Scores and scores have been harassed, stopped whenever they travel, approached by security services … There are people who feel they are stuck, they have nowhere to turn to, it’s crucial we get this point across, some of us have had our lives completely destroyed.”

Begg said the British government was still refusing to engage with the idea that British policies, foreign and domestic, might be influencing potential jihadists.

“When people get alienated, they feel unwelcome and afraid … I feel that way all the time, I’ve been arrested, I’ve had my house turned upside down, I’ve been prosecuted and made to feel like I don’t belong here. If I was to leave tomorrow for Syria would it be right to say that the security services drove me away?”

Thursday 26 February 2015 22:48 UTC
Last update: Tuesday 3 March 2015 22:30 UTC

Find this story at 26 February 2015

© Middle East Eye 2014

Revealed: How torture was used to foil al-Qaeda 2010 plot to bomb two airliners 17 minutes before explosion (2015)

Exclusive: Information from terror suspects about 2010 plot was used in a ‘Jack Bauer real-time operation’

The former head of MI6 has revealed that torture “does produce intelligence”

The former head of MI6 has said torturing suspected terrorists produces “useful information”, as The Independent on Sunday reveals that “real-time” intelligence understood to have been obtained by torture in Saudi Arabia helped to thwart a terrorist bombing on British soil.

In his first interview since stepping down from Secret Intelligence Service in January, Sir John Sawers told the BBC yesterday that torture “does produce intelligence” and security services “set aside the use of torture… because it is against the values” of British society, not because it doesn’t work in the short term. Sir John defended the security services against accusations they had played a role in the radicalising of British Muslims, including Mohammed Emwazi, who it is claimed is the extremist responsible for the murder of hostages in Syria.

The IoS can reveal details of a dramatic “Jack Bauer real-time operation” to foil an al-Qaeda plot to bring down two airliners in 2010. According to a well-place intelligence source, the discovery of a printer cartridge bomb on a UPS cargo aircraft at East Midlands airport was possible only because two British government officials in Saudi Arabia were in “immediate communication” with a team reportedly using torture to interrogate an al-Qaeda operative as part of “ticking bomb scenario” operation.

4-John-Sawers-AFPGet.jpg
Sir John Sawers has advised increasing defence spending to counter the security threat posed by Russian aggression (AFP/Getty)
The terror plot was to use cartridge bombs to bring down two aircraft over the eastern United States. However, British authorities intercepted the first device at the cargo airport hub after what they described as a “tip-off” from Saudi Arabia. A second device was intercepted aboard a freight plane in Dubai; both aircraft had started their trips in Yemen.

The IoS understands there was a frantic search prompted by “two or three” calls to Saudi Arabia after the tip-off, with security services battling to find the device. French security sources revealed the device was within 17 minutes of detonating when bomb disposal teams disarmed it.

One intelligence source said: “The people in London went back on the phone two or three times to where the interrogation was taking place in Riyadh to find out specifically where the bomb was hidden. There were two Britons there, in immediate communication with where the interrogation was taking place, and as soon as anything happened, they were in touch with the UK. It was all done in real time.”

There is growing frustration on the part of some UK security officials at Britain’s lack of candour about aspects of intelligence work. “There is a lack of understanding in that most people, if they knew about a ticking bomb scenario, would say torture was defensible, yet we insist on saying ‘we never do it’. Yet we are very happy beneficiaries of it,” one official said.

CIA torture report: The 10 most harrowing stories
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The human rights group Cage said the use of torture by MI5 and MI6 allegedly played a role in radicalising young British Muslims, including Michael Adebolajo, convicted of murdering soldier Lee Rigby in London in 2013. In the interview, Sir John said blaming the security services for radicalisation was “specious” and offered a vigorous defence of the methods used by MI5 and MI6. He said torture had been used for “thousands of years in order to extract useful information”.

He said: “The whole problem about torture and maltreatment is sadly is that it does produce intelligence. And that’s why in a civilised society like ours we have to set aside certain methods, even though they might be effective in the short term. In the longer term they are very counterproductive; they are undermining the values of our society.”

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of campaign group Liberty, said: “That is a low ebb, even for a senior spook in this country. After 9/11, I could have predicted internment without charge or trial. I could predict more invasions of privacy and blanket surveillance, but the one thing I could never have predicted is in 2015 we would be having to talk about torture in the UK.”

4-lee-Rigby-memorial-get.jpg
Floral tributes to Fusilier Lee Rigby at the spot where he was killed (Getty)
According to a source close to the East Midlands bomb operation, the British officials “would have made sure they were not actually in the room” where the torture was allegedly taking place, but there was “no way” the intelligence that thwarted the bombing “wasn’t procured under duress”. “It is a fair inference to say he was being tortured. He wasn’t volunteering the information, that’s for sure,” the source said. “Of course we use intelligence from torture. We take it from wherever we can get it, but we are never, ever going to say ‘we don’t want that’. Or ask too many questions about where it has come from. It is the difference between intelligence and evidence.”

Earlier this month, in what aides confirmed as a reference to the plot, Prime Minister David Cameron alluded to a “piece of information” from Saudi Arabia that “saved potentially hundreds of lives”.

While in office Sir John described torture as “illegal and abhorrent”, but in 2010 said the security services faced “real, constant operational dilemmas” to avoid using information which has been gathered by torture. Two year later, he admitted British agents went “close to the line” when questioning alleged terrorists.

4-Shami-Chakrabarti-TP.jpg
Shami Chakrabarti is shocked that in 2015 “we would be having to talk about torture in the UK.” (Teri Pengilley)
However, senior Tories said the case raised serious issues. Dominic Grieve, the Conservative former attorney general, said: “History shows us that torture can work but that it also often results in completely misleading information. It’s utterly unlawful, totally repugnant, and contrary to our national practices.”

Andrew Tyrie MP, chair of the Parliamentary all-party group on rendition, said: “Allegations of British complicity in rendition, torture and kidnap just keep coming. The case for an independent judge-led inquiry into them has been overwhelming for years.”

There are growing calls backing Mr Tyrie’s long-held argument that the next chair of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) be elected by MPs and not the Prime Minister.

Social media and terrorist threats

Facebook, Twitter and other technology firms have been savaged by a former spy chief for refusing to “fulfil their responsibilities” by protecting people from terrorists.

Sir John Sawers, the former head of MI6, told Radio 4’s Today programme that the leaks by Edward Snowden had “driven a wedge” between the security services and social media companies which had hampered counter-terrorism efforts.

His comments were echoed by the shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, who said social media firms “can’t just stand back and ignore” evidence of their users engaging in extremist activity.

Sir John said: “Before the Snowden leaks took place, there was a good working relationship between technology companies and the intelligence agencies that kept us all safe. That has now gone down to the absolute legal minimum.

4-Edward-Snowden-AP.jpg
Edward Snowden’s revelations sparked outrage about the scope of government snooping (AP)
We cannot just leave the security of society to the intelligence agencies. Technology companies have to find a way whereby they can fulfil their responsibilities and play their part.

“They need to have mechanisms whereby they can identify this dangerous activity, and they are sitting on a mine of data which they use extensively for commercial purposes, but which they are not allowing to be used for purposes of public good like national security.”

Ms Cooper told The IoS: “At the moment, some of the online social media organisations will do more around child abuse than on counter-terror or terrorist threats. I don’t think people can just stand back and ignore it.”

Jamie Merrill, James Hanning, Mark Leftly, Nick Clark @Jamie_Merrill Sunday 1 March 2015

Find this story at 1 March 2015

Copyright http://www.independent.co.uk/

The “Torture Works” Story (2015)

After Adam Goldman exposed the identity of Jihadi John, ISIL’s executioner, as Mohammed Emwazi, it set off an interesting response in Britain.

CagePrisoners — the advocacy organization for detainees — revealed details of how MI5 had tried to recruit Emwazi and, when he refused, had repeatedly harassed him and his family and prevented him from working a job in Kuwait (where he was born).

While that certainly doesn’t excuse beheadings, it does raise questions about how the intelligence services track those it has identified as potential recruits and/or threats.

And seemingly in response to those questions, the former head of MI6 has come forward to say that torture has worked in a ticking time bomb scenario — that of the toner cartridge plot in 2010.

In his first interview since stepping down from Secret Intelligence Service in January, Sir John Sawers

…defended the security services against accusations they had played a role in the radicalising of British Muslims, including Mohammed Emwazi, who it is claimed is the extremist responsible for the murder of hostages in Syria.

The IoS can reveal details of a dramatic “Jack Bauer real-time operation” to foil an al-Qaeda plot to bring down two airliners in 2010. According to a well-place intelligence source, the discovery of a printer cartridge bomb on a UPS cargo aircraft at East Midlands airport was possible only because two British government officials in Saudi Arabia were in “immediate communication” with a team reportedly using torture to interrogate an al-Qaeda operative as part of “ticking bomb scenario” operation.

The terror plot was to use cartridge bombs to bring down two aircraft over the eastern United States. However, British authorities intercepted the first device at the cargo airport hub after what they described as a “tip-off” from Saudi Arabia. A second device was intercepted aboard a freight plane in Dubai; both aircraft had started their trips in Yemen.

The IoS understands there was a frantic search prompted by “two or three” calls to Saudi Arabia after the tip-off, with security services battling to find the device. French security sources revealed the device was within 17 minutes of detonating when bomb disposal teams disarmed it.

One intelligence source said: “The people in London went back on the phone two or three times to where the interrogation was taking place in Riyadh to find out specifically where the bomb was hidden. There were two Britons there, in immediate communication with where the interrogation was taking place, and as soon as anything happened, they were in touch with the UK. It was all done in real time.”

At the time, multiple sources on the Saudi peninsula revealed that authorities learned of this plot — and therefore learned about the bombs — from an apparent double agent(and former Gitmo detainee), Jabir al-Fayfi, who had left AQAP and alerted the Saudis to the plot. If so, it would mean what was learned from torture (if this account can be trusted) was the precise location of the explosives in planes that boxes that had already been isolated.

that may mean this “success” prevented nothing more than an explosion in a controlled situation, because it had already been tipped by a double agent who presumably didn’t need to be tortured to share the information he had been sent in to obtain.

The toner cartridge story significantly resembles the UndieBomb 2.0 plot, which was not only tipped by a double agent, but propagated by it …in that case, the double agent came not via Gitmo and Saudi “deradicalization,” but via MI5, via a recruitment effort very like what MI5 used with Emwazi.

Indeed, it is not unreasonable to imagine that Emwazi knew that double agent

the treatment of a range of people implicated in Yemeni and/or Somali networks (MI5 accused Emwazi of wanting to travel to the latter) derives from the growing awareness among networks who have tried to be recruited who else might have been recruited.

Which might be one reason to tie all this in with “successful torture” — partly a distraction, partly an attempt to defer attention from a network that is growing out of control

2015-03-01 / N/A / www.emptywheel.net

Find this story at 1 March 2015

© 2016 INFOSOURCES

British authorities foiled ink cartridge plot to bring down two planes ‘after tip-off obtained from torture’ (2015)

British authorities intercepted bomb at East Midlands airport after ‘tip off’
Plastic explosives discovered on cargo planes travelling to the US
Intelligence from Saudi Arabia ‘came after torture of al-Qaeda operative’
Ex-spy chief says torture ‘does produce useful information’

Information obtained using torture was used to help foil an al-Qaeda plot to bring down two planes, it has been claimed.

British authorities intercepted a bomb at East Midlands Airport after being ‘tipped off’ by Saudi Arabian security forces, reportedly following the interrogation by torture of an al-Qaeda operative.

The claim comes as former MI5 head Sir John Sawers said torture does produce ‘useful information’ and can be ‘effective in the short term.’

Intelligence obtained via torture was reportedly used in a ‘Jack Bauer real-time operation’ to foil an al-Qaeda plot to bring down two planes and intercept a bomb at East Midlands Airport (pictured)
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Intelligence obtained via torture was reportedly used in a ‘Jack Bauer real-time operation’ to foil an al-Qaeda plot to bring down two planes and intercept a bomb at East Midlands Airport (pictured)

A major security alert was launched after plastic explosives concealed inside inkjet printer cartridges were discovered on two cargo planes travelling from Yemen to the US in October 2010. Pictured is the package found at East Midlands Airport
A major security alert was launched after plastic explosives concealed inside inkjet printer cartridges were discovered on two cargo planes travelling from Yemen to the US in October 2010. Pictured is the package found at East Midlands Airport

A major security alert was launched after plastic explosives concealed inside inkjet printer cartridges were discovered on two cargo planes travelling from Yemen to the US in October 2010.

It is believed the bombs were designed to go off mid-air and bring the huge planes down over the US.

After what was described as a ‘tip-off’ from Saudi Arabian security forces, the planes were stopped at East Midlands Airport in Leicestershire and the United Arab Emirates and the bombs uncovered.

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A group called Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) later took responsibility for the plot.

Now it has been claimed the discovery at East Midlands Airport was only possible because British officials in Saudi Arabia were in communication with a team believed to have been using torture on a member of terror group al-Qaeda.

‘The people in London went back on the phone two or three times to where the interrogation was taking place in Riyadh to find out specifically where the bomb was hidden. There were two Britons there, in immediate communication with where the interrogation was taking place, and as soon as it happened, they were in touch with the UK. It was all done in real time,’ an intelligence source told Jamie Merrill, James Hanning, Mark Leftly and Nick Clark at The Independent On Sunday.

A major security alert was launched after plastic explosives concealed inside inkjet printer cartridges were discovered on two cargo planes travelling from Yemen to the US in October 2010. Pictured is a packaged being launched onto a police helicopter at East Midlands Airport
A major security alert was launched after plastic explosives concealed inside inkjet printer cartridges were discovered on two cargo planes travelling from Yemen to the US in October 2010. Pictured is a packaged being launched onto a police helicopter at East Midlands Airport

It is claimed the discovery at East Midlands Airport was only possible because British officials in Saudi Arabia were in communication with a team believed to have been using torture on a member of al-Qaeda
It is claimed the discovery at East Midlands Airport was only possible because British officials in Saudi Arabia were in communication with a team believed to have been using torture on a member of al-Qaeda

A source close to the operation said there was ‘no way’ that the information which led to the plot being exposed ‘wasn’t procured under duress’, but that the British officials would have ensured they were not present.

He added: ‘Of course we use intelligence from torture. We take it from wherever we can get it, but we are never, ever going to say “we don’t want that”. Or ask too many questions about where it has come from. It is the difference between intelligence and evidence.’

Last month, following the death of King Abdullah, Prime Minister David Cameron defended Britain’s ties with Saudi Arabia – despite the country’s record on human rights.

He also said that a piece of counter-terrorism intelligence supplied by the Arab state had ‘saved potentially hundreds of lives’ in the UK, which aides have confirmed was a reference to the bomb plot.

He added: ‘Now, you can be Prime Minister and say exactly what you think about every regime in the world and make great headlines, and give great speeches.

Former MI5 head Sir John Sawers said yesterday that torture does produce ‘useful information’ and can be ‘effective in the short term’
Former MI5 head Sir John Sawers said yesterday that torture does produce ‘useful information’ and can be ‘effective in the short term’

‘But I think my first job is to try and keep this country safe from terrorism and if that means you have to build strong relationships sometimes with regimes you don’t always agree with, that I think is part of the job and that is the way I do it. And that is the best way I can explain it.’

Former spy chief Sir John, who was head of MI6 from 2009 to 2014, yesterday hit back at claims that security services played a role in the radicalisation of British jihadist Mohammed Emwazi.

Asim Qureshi, research director of Cage, claims Emwazi, who was nicknamed Jihadi John, was interrogated by MI5 and subjected to security agency harassment before becoming a militant.

But Sir John said arguments that harassment drove Emwazi to join IS were ‘very specious’.

‘The idea that somehow being spoken to by a member of MI5 is a radicalising act, I think this is very false and very transparent,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Sir John also told presenter Mishal Husain: ‘Torture had been used for “thousands of years in order to extract useful information.

‘If you decide in 2015 that it doesn’t work at all then that would be to misunderstand the problem.’

He added: ‘The whole problem about torture and maltreatment is sadly is that it does produce intelligence. And that’s why in a civilised society like ours we have to set aside certain methods, even though they might be effective in the short term. In the longer term they are very counterproductive; they are undermining the values of our society.’

By LUCY CROSSLEY FOR MAILONLINE
PUBLISHED: 14:28 GMT, 1 March 2015 | UPDATED: 14:32 GMT, 2 March 2015

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© Associated Newspapers Ltd

Knowing too much: My disastrous Syria trial (2015)

On the first anniversary since my arrest for Syria-related terrorism I explain just why the trial against me was heading for disaster
It was the early morning of 24 February 2014. The doorbell rang. My wife answered and called my name, sounding scared. I was out of bed and already half-dressed when the police walked into my room. It seemed like they had filled the house. They asked me to confirm my name and then told me I was under arrest for terrorism.

I had been on edge since police seized my passport on my return from South Africa, so I was half expecting this. The police herded all my family into one bedroom. They allowed me to hug them all and say goodbye – unlike the Americans did. I told them to be strong, not to cry and have hope in Allah. I promised I would be back soon.

After dispersing my family between four households, the police scoured every inch of my house and filled 50 large evidence boxes with literally anything they could find. I didn’t know it at the time, but my car had been bugged since September 2012 and my every conversation recorded.

I was taken to a police station and kept there for four days. This was very serious. Over 150 police officers were involved. Additionally, the Home Office, the Treasury, the intelligence services and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had gone to extraordinary lengths to refuse me bail, freeze my assets and classify me as a Category A high-risk prisoner in HMP Belmarsh, five hours away from home.

The Government must have also anticipated the damage my arrest would have done to community relations and predicted allegations that they were doing this to prevent me from exposing British complicity in torture.

And after all that effort – it cost the taxpayers over £1million – they just gave up, apparently because of a meeting I had with MI5? The police claimed that my trial collapsed because they were not aware that I had met with MI5 before I travelled to Syria, but that’s not true because the article in which I mention my meeting was served as evidence by the prosecution. Surely, if the police and CPS truly believed I was involved in terrorism how could MI5 allow me to travel abroad for the purposes of terrorism?

The truth is the case was going to collapse on its own merits and was going to set a precedent that successfully challenged Britain’s policy on Syria and the meaning of terrorism.

I first became aware of the probes during police interrogation and like most people, I was horrified at the idea of having my personal conversations recorded. My reality, however, was that I could have been facing up to 15 years in prison for providing fitness training and a generator to the Syrian rebels, if found guilty.

After arriving at prison, the task of preparing for trial began in earnest. I knew I’d committed no crime and I was ready for a fight. The CPS case, however, was served in a disjointed and inconsistent manner. My lawyers had never seen anything like it in decades of advocacy.

The prosecution tried to create a narrative that didn’t exist because they were missing the key component: mens rea – the guilty mindset. After eight months of this, the desperation of their case coupled with the inability to understand their own evidence became apparent.

One example of this was regarding a train journey home with a military historian friend of mine who’d given a presentation at the CAGE office about the contribution of Indian subjects to the British war effort in both world wars. While we were on the train, unbeknown to us, an ex-British soldier seated opposite overheard us – two Asian-looking men talking about soldiers and war. That was enough for him to secretly photograph us and report it to the police. The incident was served in evidence by the prosecution – which is how I found out.

My copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, an article explaining the difference between jihad and terrorism and my piece entitled Syria: Britain’s new war on terror explaining the UK’s confused Syria policy were all served in evidence against me. The CPS’s 183-page expert witness report by Matthew Wilkinson was scrapped before the trial because it couldn’t show a terrorist mindset.

In November 2013, UK border police were prepared to potentially facilitate my travel to Syria after making me miss my flight to Istanbul where I was to attend a conference. They had wrongly assumed my trip was for onward travel to Syria. They offered to rebook my flight despite the reason they’d stopped me.

Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) translations of my Arabic conversations were a cause of hilarity:

Me: “nusrat al-mustadhafeen (help the oppressed)”

CTU: Name of a jihadi group

Me: “Free Syrian Army Battalion 313” (number of fighters at historic 7th century Battle of Badr)

CTU: Battle in Syria, 2013, in a town called Badr

Me: “Here is the generator and some [spare] parts”

CTU: Here is the generator. It has many uses.

Me: “He’s gone to Lattakia” [Syrian city]

CTU: He’s gone through the attack list

Me: “Even if you are completely jahil (ignorant)”

CTU: Even when you do jihad

The CPS didn’t care about my beliefs, even though they had recorded them, because they needed the charges to fit their narrative and not the truth. These are just two of numerous examples:

CTU probe, 24/06/2013: “I am telling you…they [ISIS] will commit numerous atrocities in the name of jihad and mujahideen.”

CTU probe, 24/06/2013: These people are very scary…and they all do it in the name of shariah…Where is the mercy in your people? It’s all about killing…with enemies and friends

The night before my arrest I had posted on social media and called ISIS extremists after they had killed a rendition victim I’d met in Syria in 2012. I spent much time responding to one of their supporters who objected to my description. Western media was not particularly concerned with ISIS back then because they were only killing Muslims. But I was very concerned.

This is taken verbatim from my last Facebook conversation before my arrest:

“I saw people who went on to join ISIS beat and torture brothers, with ridiculous allegations. They claimed beating them was from the Sunnah, I challenged them after I heard the brother’s screams.

“I saw muhajireen (foreigners), locked in cages, by Allah worse, than my Guantanamo cell.

“They beat people to make them confess…just like the Arab regimes, there is no difference.

“I have been to many places, Bosnia, Afghan… but never seen this kind of fitnah [turmoil] and such dangerous extremism and readiness for takfeer.

“Syrians on the ground have started to hate foreigners because of them.

“ISIS have even detained and killed aid workers…brothers from UK who have taken convoys [have] been looted by ISIS, guns shoved in faces of brothers who have crossed Europe to bring aid.

“And what’s the basis of detaining the non-Muslim aid worker [Alan Henning] who came in as a guest of Muslims, under their protection? They’ve probably murdered him too, just like many Muslims they’ve done that to.

“You have no idea how dangerous these people are and I will be writing about it in detail.”

That night I changed my Facebook status: “Sometimes knowing too much can be a curse.” Perhaps now it makes sense.

– Moazzam Begg is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee and currently the director of outreach for UK-based campaigning organisation CAGE.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Protesters demonstrate outside Westminster Magistrates Court in London, on March 1, 2014, as former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg appeared (AFP)

Moazzam Begg
Tuesday 24 February 2015 17:28 UTC

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© Middle East Eye 2014 –

Cooperation between British spies and Gaddafi’s Libya revealed in official papers (2015)

Links between MI5 and Gaddafi’s intelligence during Tony Blair’s government more extensive than previously thought, according to documents

Britain’s intelligence agencies engaged in a series of previously unknown joint operations with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s government and used the information extracted from rendition victims as evidence during partially secret court proceedings in London, according to an analysis of official documents recovered in Tripoli since the Libyan revolution.

The exhaustive study of the papers from the Libyan government archives shows the links between MI5, MI6 and Gaddafi’s security agencies were far more extensive than previously thought and involved a number of joint operations in which Libyan dissidents were unlawfully detained and allegedly tortured.

At one point, Libyan intelligence agents were invited to operate on British soil, where they worked alongside MI5 and allegedly intimidated a number of Gaddafi opponents who had been granted asylum in the UK.

Previously, MI6 was known to have assisted the dictatorship with the kidnap of two Libyan opposition leaders, who were flown to Tripoli along with their families – including a six-year-old girl and a pregnant woman – in 2004.

However, the research suggests that the fruits of a series of joint clandestine operations also underpinned a significant number of court hearings in London between 2002 and 2007, during which the last Labour government unsuccessfully sought to deport Gaddafi’s opponents on the basis of information extracted from people who had been “rendered” to his jails.

Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
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UK intelligence agencies sent more 1,600 questions to be put to the two opposition leaders.
In addition, the documents show that four men were subjected to control orders in the UK – a form of curfew – on the basis of information extracted from victims of rendition who had been handed over to the Gaddafi regime.

The papers recovered from the dictatorship’s archives include secret correspondence from MI6, MI5 reports on Libyans living in the UK, a British intelligence assessment marked “UK/Libya Eyes Only – Secret” and official Libyan minutes of meetings between the two countries’ intelligence agencies.

They show that:

• UK intelligence agencies sent more than 1,600 questions to be put to the two opposition leaders, Sami al-Saadi and Abdul Hakim Belhaj, despite having reason to suspect they were being tortured.

• British government lawyers allegedly drew upon the answers to those questions when seeking the deportation of Libyans living in the UK

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• Five men were subjected to control orders in the UK, allegedly on the basis of information extracted from two rendition victims.

• Gaddafi’s agents recorded MI5 as warning in September 2006 that the two countries’ agencies should take steps to ensure that their joint operations would never be “discovered by lawyers or human rights organisations and the media”.

In fact, papers that detail the joint UK-Libyan rendition operations were discovered by the New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch in September 2011, at the height of the Libyan revolution, in an abandoned government office building in Tripoli.

Since then, hundreds more documents have been discovered in government files in Tripoli. A team of London-based lawyers has assembled them into an archive that is forming the basis of a claim for damages on behalf of 12 men who were allegedly kidnapped, tortured, subject to control orders or tricked into travelling to Libya where they were detained and mistreated.

An attempt by government lawyers to have that claim struck out was rejected by the high court in London on Thursday , with the judge, Mr Justice Irwin, ruling that the allegations “are of real potential public concern” and should be heard and dealt with by the courts.

The litigation follows earlier proceedings brought on behalf of the two families who were kidnapped in the far east and flown to Tripoli. One claim was settled when the government paid £2.23m in compensation to al-Saadi and his family; the second is ongoing, despite attempts by government lawyers to have it thrown out of court, with Belhaj suing not only the British government, but also Sir Mark Allen, former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, and Jack Straw, who was foreign secretary at the time of his kidnap.

Abdel Hakim Belhaj is suing the British government.
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Abdel Hakim Belhaj is suing the British government.
Belhaj has offered to settle for just £3, providing he and his wife also receive an unreserved apology. This is highly unlikely to happen, however, as the two rendition operations are also the subject of a three-year Scotland Yard investigation code-named Operation Lydd. Straw has been questioned by detectives: his spokesman says he was interviewed “as a witness”.

Last month, detectives passed a final file to the Crown Prosecution Service. No charges are imminent, however. The CPS said: “The police investigation has lasted almost three years and has produced a large amount of material. These are complex allegations that will require careful consideration, but we will aim to complete our decision-making as soon as is practicably possible.”

The volte-face in UK-Libyan relations was always going to be contentious: the Gaddafi regime had not only helped to arm the IRA, bombed Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie with the loss of 270 lives in 1988, and harboured the man who murdered a London policewoman, Yvonne Fletcher, four years earlier; it had been responsible for the bombing of a French airliner and a Berlin nightclub, and for several decades had been sending assassins around the world to murder its opponents.

The Tripoli archives show that the rapprochement, which began with the restoration of diplomatic ties in 1999, gathered pace within weeks of the al-Qaida attacks of 9/11. Sir Richard Dearlove, who was head of MI6 at the time, has said that these links were always authorised by government ministers.

The week after the attacks, British intelligence officers met with Moussa Koussa, the head of Libyan intelligence, who offered to provide intelligence from Islamists held in the regime’s jails.

Two months later, British intelligence officers held a three-day conference with their Libyan counterparts at a hotel at a European airport. German and Austrian intelligence officers also attended.

According to the Libyan minutes, the British explained that they could not arrest anyone in the UK – only the police could do that – and that there could be difficulty in obtaining authorisation for Gaddafi’s intelligence officers to operate in the UK. They also added that impending changes to UK law would give them “more leeway” in the near future.

Other documents released under the Freedom of Information Act detail the way in which diplomatic contacts between London and Tripoli developed, with a British trade minister, Mike O’Brien, visiting Tripoli in August 2002, the same month that the dictator’s son, Saif, was admitted as a post-graduate student at the London School of Economics. Blair and Gaddafi spoke by telephone for the first time, chatting for 30 minutes, and in December 2003 the dictator announced publicly that he was abandoning his programme for the development of weapons of mass destruction.

With the war in Iraq going badly, London and Washington were able to suggest that an invasion that had been justified by a need to dismantle a WMD programme that was subsequently found not to exist had at least resulted in another country’s weapons programme being dismantled.

Three months later, in March 2004, the new relationship was sealed by a meeting between Gaddafi and Blair, during which the British prime minister announced that the two countries had found common cause in the fight against terrorism, and the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell announced that it had signed a £110m deal for gas exploration rights off the Libyan coast.

However, the Tripoli archive shows that beneath the surface of the new alliance, the Blair government was encouraging ever-closer co-operation between the UK’s intelligence agencies and the intelligence agencies of a dictatorship which had been widely condemned for committing the most serious human rights abuses; MI5 and MI6, and the CIA, would begin to work hand-in-glove with the Libyan External Security Organisation.

Eliza Manningham-Buller, who was head of MI5 during most of the period that the UK’s intelligence agencies were working closely with the Libyan dictatorship, has defended the decision to open talks with Gaddafi on the grounds that it helped to deter him from pursuing his WMD programme. However, when delivering the 2011 Reith Lecture, she added: “There are questions to be answered about the various relationships that developed afterwards and whether the UK supped with a sufficiently long spoon.”

The archive clearly shows that Gaddafi hoped that this intelligence co-operation would result in British assistance in his attempts to round up and imprison Libyans who were living in exile in the UK, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Mali. All of these men were members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an Islamist organisation that had attempted to assassinate him three times since its foundation in the early 90s. A largely spent force since the late 90s, many of the members of the LIFG had been living peacefully in the UK for more than a decade, having arrived as refugees. Some had been granted British citizenship. Koussa’s agency asked British intelligence to investigate 79 of these men, whom they described as “Libyan heretics”.

Two weeks before Blair’s visit to Libya, Belhaj and his four-and-a-half-months pregnant wife, Fatima Bouchar, were kidnapped in Thailand and flown to Tripoli. Bouchar says she was taped, head to foot, to a stretcher, for the 17-hour flight.

In a follow-up letter to Koussa, Allen claimed credit for the rendition of Belhaj – referring to him as Abu Abd Allah Sadiq, the name by which he is better known in the jihadi world – saying that although “I did not pay for the air cargo”, the intelligence that led to the couple’s capture was British.

Three days after Blair’s visit, al-Saadi was rendered from Hong Kong to Tripoli, along with his wife and four children, the youngest a girl aged six.

Libya’s foreign minister Moussa Koussa was head of Libyan intelligence.
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Libya’s foreign minister Moussa Koussa was head of Libyan intelligence.
Both men say that while being held at Tajoura prison outside Tripoli they were beaten, whipped, subjected to electric shocks, deprived of sleep and threatened.

Belhaj says he was twice interrogated at Tajoura by British intelligence officers. After gesturing that the session was being recorded, Belhaj says he made a number of gestures to show that he was being beaten and suspended by his arms. One of the British officers, a man, is said to have given a thumbs-up signal, while the second, a woman, is said to have nodded.

Belhaj alleges that following one of these encounters he agreed to sign a statement about his associates in the UK after being threatened with a form of torture called the Honda, which involved being locked in a box-like structure whose ceiling and walls could be shrunk, provoking extreme claustrophobia and fear as well as discomfort.

According to the claim being brought against the British government, the attempt to track down other leading members of the LIFG resulted in the intelligence agencies of Libya and the UK throwing their net still wider.

In late 2005, a British citizen of Somali origin and a Libyan living in Ireland were arrested in Saudi Arabia and allegedly tortured while being questioned by Saudi intelligence officers about associates who were members of the LIFG. The men say they were shackled and beaten. The British citizen says he was also interrogated by two British men who declined to identify themselves and who appeared uninterested in his complaints of mistreatment.

Many of the questions put to the two men concerned the whereabouts of Othman Saleh Khalifa, a long-standing member of the LIFG. Khalifa was detained in Mali a few months later and rendered to Libya. The Tripoli archive shows that summaries of his interrogations were sent to British intelligence, and that both MI5 and MI6 submitted questions that they wished to be put to him. A memorandum from MI6 to Koussa’s deputy, Sadegh Krema, was accompanied by questions “which you kindly agreed to pass to your interview team”.

Khalifa says that he was beaten during interrogations for around six months during the second half of 2006 and that he did not see daylight.

The Tripoli archive shows that during the same week that Khalifa was being rendered to Libya, MI5 and MI6 officers met Libyan intelligence officers in Tripoli and informed them that they were to be invited to the UK to conduct joint intelligence operations. The Libyan minutes of the meeting say that MI5 informed them that “London and Manchester are the two hottest spots” for LIFG activity in the country. The aim was to recruit informants within the Libyan community in the UK.

The Libyan minutes of the meeting also say that the British told them: “With your co-operation we should be able to target specific individuals.” The Libyans, meanwhile, said that potential recruits could be “intimidated” through threats to arrest relatives in Libya.

The following August, senior MI5 and MI6 officers and two Libyan intelligence officers met at MI5’s headquarters in London. According to the Libyan minutes, MI5 warned the Libyans that individuals could complain to the police if they believed they were being harassed by MI5, and could also expose the British-Libyan joint operations to the media.

The minutes also state that the British suggested that Libyan intelligence officers should approach potential recruits in the UK, and that if they refused to cooperate, arrangements could be made for the targets to be arrested under anti-terrorism legislation, accused of associating with those same Libyan intelligence officers, and threatened with deportation.

Sami al-Saadi has been paid £2.23m in compensation.
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Sami al-Saadi has been paid £2.23m in compensation.
One of the targets was a 32-year-old Libyan, associated with the LIFG, who had lived in the UK for 10 years and had been a British citizen for six years. The Libyan intelligence officers repeatedly telephoned him, claiming to be consular officials, and he eventually agreed to meet them at the Landmark hotel in Marylebone, London, on 2 September 2006. According to the Libyan notes of this meeting, the British insisted that two MI5 officers, one calling herself Caroline, should be present, so that the target should know that he was the subject of a joint UK-Libyan approach.

The target was told that he was to be given time to think about the approach. In Libya, meanwhile, the target’s brothers, sisters and mother say they were each detained in turn and told that they should persuade him to return to the country.

The Libyan intelligence officers also visited Manchester, calling at the home of another man targeted for recruitment. According to their notes, MI5 warned them not to enter the house but to persuade him to go with them to a public place where they could be photographed together. As he was not at home, the Libyan spies went instead to a mosque in the Didsbury district, where they told the imam that they were importing and exporting books.

On 5 September, shortly before the two Libyan intelligence officers returned home, they had another meeting with their British counterparts. Their notes show that the British warned that steps should be taken jointly to “avoid being trapped in any sort of legal problem [and] to avoid also that those joint plans be discovered by lawyers or human rights organisations and the media”. The Libyans assured MI5 and MI6: “We have effectively reassured them that we will stick by the joint plan to avoid any blame if the operation fails.”

The target says he was approached by “Caroline” and a second MI5 officer on a number of other occasions, but declined to travel to Libya and still lives in west London.

Six Libyan men, the widow of a seventh, and five British citizens of Libyan and Somali origin are bringing a number of claims, which include allegations of false imprisonment, blackmail, misfeasance in public office and conspiracy to assault.

The case is being brought against MI5 and MI6 as well as the Home Office and Foreign Office. Government departments declined to comment on the grounds that the litigation is ongoing.

When making their unsuccessful bid to have the case struck out, government lawyers admitted no liability. They argued that the five claimants who were subjected to control orders were properly considered to pose a threat to the UK’s national security, and denied that the government relied on information from prisoners held in Libya in making that assessment. They also argued that the LIFG had been a threat to the UK. They are expected to appeal Thursday’s high court decision.

Allen has declined to comment on the rendition operations, while Straw says: “At all times I was scrupulous in seeking to carry out my duties in accordance with the law, and I hope to be able to say more about this at an appropriate stage in the future.”

Thursday 22 January 2015 14.24 GMT Last modified on Saturday 7 May 2016 11.17 BST

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© 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited

The circus: How British intelligence primed both sides of the ‘terror war’ (2015)

‘Jihadi John’ was able to join IS for one simple reason: from Quilliam to al-Muhajiroun, Britain’s loudest extremists have been groomed by the security services
Every time there’s a terrorist attack that makes national headlines, the same talking heads seem to pop up like an obscene game of “whack-a-mole”. Often they appear one after the other across the media circuit, bobbing from celebrity television pundit to erudite newspaper outlet.

A few years ago, BBC Newsnight proudly hosted a “debate” between Maajid Nawaz, director of counter-extremism think-tank, the Quilliam Foundation, and Anjem Choudary, head of the banned Islamist group formerly known as al-Muhajiroun, which has, since its proscription, repeatedly reincarnated itself. One of its more well-known recent incarnations was “Islam4UK”.

Both Nawaz and Choudary have received huge mainstream media attention, generating press headlines, and contributing to major TV news and current affairs shows. But unbeknown to most, they have one thing in common: Britain’s security services. And believe it or not, that bizarre fact explains why the Islamic State’s (IS) celebrity beheader, former west Londoner Mohammed Emwazi – aka “Jihadi John” – got to where he is now.

A tale of two extremists

After renouncing his affiliation with the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), Maajid Nawaz co-founded the Quilliam Foundation with his fellow ex-Hizb member, Ed Husain.

The Quilliam Foundation was set-up by Husain and Nawaz in 2008 with significant British government financial support. Its establishment received a massive PR boost from the release of Ed Husain’s memoirs, The Islamist, which rapidly became an international bestseller, generating hundreds of reviews, interviews and articles.

In Ed Husain’s book – much like Maajid Nawaz’s tome Radical released more recently to similar fanfare – Husain recounts his journey from aggrieved young Muslim into Islamist activist, and eventually his total rejection of Islamist ideology.

Both accounts of their journeys of transformation offer provocative and genuine insights. But the British government has played a much more direct role in crafting those accounts than either they, or the government, officially admit.

Government ghostwriters

In late 2013, I interviewed a former senior researcher at the Home Office who revealed that Husain’s The Islamist was “effectively ghostwritten in Whitehall”.

The official told me that in 2006, he was informed by a government colleague “with close ties” to Jack Straw and Gordon Brown that “the draft was written by Ed but then ‘peppered’ by government input”. The civil servant told him “he had seen ‘at least five drafts of the book, and the last one was dramatically different from the first.’”

The draft had, the source said, been manipulated in an explicitly political, pro-government manner. The committee that had input into Ed Husain’s manuscript prior to its official publication included senior government officials from No. 10 Downing Street, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, the intelligence services, Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Home Office.

When I put the question, repeatedly, to Ed Husain as to the veracity of these allegations, he did not respond. I also asked Nawaz whether he was aware of the government’s role in “ghostwriting” Husain’s prose, and whether he underwent a similar experience in the production of Radical. He did not respond either.

While Husain was liaising with British government and intelligence officials over The Islamist from 2006 until the book’s publication in May 2007, his friend Nawaz was at first in prison in Egypt. Nawaz was eventually released in March 2006, declaring his departure from HT just a month before the publication of Husain’s book. Husain took credit for being the prime influence on Nawaz’s decision, and by November 2007, had joined with him becoming Quilliam’s director with Husain as his deputy.

Yet according to Husain, Nawaz played a role in determining parts of the text of The Islamist in the same year it was being edited by government officials. “Before publication, I discussed with my friend and brother-in-faith Maajid the passages in the book,” wrote Husain about the need to verify details of their time in HT.

This is where the chronology of Husain’s and Nawaz’s accounts begin to break down. In Radical, and repeatedly in interviews about his own deradicalisation process, Nawaz says that he firmly and decisively rejected HT’s Islamist ideology while in prison in Egypt. Yet upon his release and return to Britain, Nawaz showed no sign of having reached that decision. Instead, he did the opposite. In April 2006, Nawaz told Sarah Montague on BBC Hardtalk that his detention in Egypt had “convinced [him] even more… that there is a need to establish this Caliphate as soon as possible.” From then on, Nawaz, who was now on HT’s executive committee, participated in dozens of talks and interviews in which he vehemently promoted the Hizb.

I first met Nawaz at a conference on 2 December 2006 organised by the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC) on the theme of “reclaiming our rights”. I had spoken on a panel about the findings of my book, The London Bombings: An Independent Inquiry, on how British state collusion with Islamist extremists had facilitated the 7/7 attacks. Nawaz had attended the event as an audience member with two other senior HT activists, and in our brief conversation, he spoke of his ongoing work with HT in glowing terms.

By January 2007, Nawaz was at the front of a HT protest at the US embassy in London, condemning US military operations in Iraq and Somalia. He delivered a rousing speech at the protest, demanding an end to “colonial intervention in the Muslim world,” and calling for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate to stand up to such imperialism and end Western support for dictators.

Yet by his own account, throughout this very public agitation on behalf of HT from mid-2006 onwards, Nawaz had in fact rejected the very ideology he was preaching so adamantly. Indeed, in the same period, he was liaising with his friend, Ed Husain – who at that time was still in Jeddah – and helping him with the text of his anti-HT manifesto, The Islamist, which was also being vetted at the highest levels of government.

The British government’s intimate, and secret, relationship with Husain in the year before the publication of his book in 2007 shows that, contrary to his official biography, the Quilliam Foundation founder was embedded in Whitehall long before he was on the public radar. How did he establish connections at this level?

MI5’s Islamist

According to Dr Noman Hanif, a lecturer in international terrorism and political Islam at Birkbeck College, University of London, and an expert on Hizb ut-Tahrir, the group’s presence in Britain likely provided many opportunities for Western intelligence to “penetrate or influence” the movement.

Dr Hanif, whose doctoral thesis was about the group, points out that Husain’s tenure inside HT by his own account occurred “under the leadership of Omar Bakri Mohammed,” the controversial cleric who left the group in 1996 to found al-Muhajiroun, a militant network which to this day has been linked to every major terrorist plot in Britain.

Bakri’s leadership of HT, said Dr Hanif, formed “the most conceptually deviant period of HT’s existence in the UK, diverting quite sharply away from its core ideas,” due to Bakri’s advocacy of violence and his focus on establishing an Islamic state in the UK, goals contrary to HT doctrines.

When Bakri left HT and set-up al-Muhajiroun in 1996, according to John Loftus, a former US Army intelligence officer and Justice Department prosecutor, Bakri was immediately recruited by MI6 to facilitate Islamist activities in the Balkans. And not just Bakri, but also Abu Hamza al-Masri, who was recently convicted in the US on terrorism charges.

When Bakri founded al-Muhajiroun in 1996 with the blessings of Britain’s security services, his co-founder was Anjem Choudary. Choudary was intimately involved in the programme to train and send Britons to fight abroad, and three years later, would boast to the Sunday Telegraph that “some of the training does involve guns and live ammunition”.

Historian Mark Curtis, in his seminal work, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, documents how under this arrangement, Bakri trained hundreds of Britons at camps in the UK and the US, and dispatched them to join al-Qaeda affiliated fighters in Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya.

Shortly before the 2005 London bombings, Ron Suskind, a Wall Street Journal Pulitizer Prize winning investigative reporter, was told by a senior MI5 official that Bakri was a longtime informant for the secret service who “had helped MI5 on several of its investigations”. Bakri, Suskind adds in his book, The Way of the World, reluctantly conceded the relationship in an interview in Beirut – but Suskind gives no indication that the relationship ever ended.

A senior terrorism lawyer in London who has represented clients in several high-profile terrorism cases told me that both Bakri and Choudary had regular meetings with MI5 officers in the 1990s. The lawyer, who works for a leading firm of solicitors and has regularly liaised with MI5 in the administration of closed court hearings involving secret evidence, said: “Omar Bakri had well over 20 meetings with MI5 from around 1993 to the late 1990s. Anjem Choudary apparently participated in such meetings toward the latter part of the decade. This was actually well-known amongst several senior Islamist leaders in Britain at the time.”

According to Dr Hanif of Birkbeck College, Bakri’s relationship with the intelligence services likely began during his “six-year reign as HT leader in Britain,” which would have “provided British intelligence ample opportunity” to “widely infiltrate the group”. HT had already been a subject of MI6 surveillance abroad “because of its core level of support in Jordan and the consistent level of activity in other areas of the Middle East for over five decades.”

At least some HT members appear to have been aware of Bakri’s intelligence connections, including, it seems, Ed Husain himself. In one passage in The Islamist (p. 116), Husain recounts: “We were also concerned about Omar’s application for political asylum… I raised this with Bernie [another HT member] too. ‘Oh no’, he said, ‘On the contrary. The British are like snakes; they manoeuvre carefully. They need Omar in Britain. More likely, Omar will be the ambassador for the khilafah here or leave to reside in the Islamic state. The kuffar know that – allowing Omar to stay in Britain will give them a good start, a diplomatic advantage, when they have to deal with the Islamic state. Having Omar serves them well for the future. MI5 knows exactly what we’re doing, what we’re about, and yet they have in effect, given us the green light to operate in Britain.”

Husain left HT after Bakri in August 1997. According to Faisal Haque, a British government civil servant and former HT member who knew Ed Husain during his time in the group, Husain had a strong “personal relationship” with Bakri. He did not leave HT for “ideological reasons,” said Haque. “It was more to do with his close personal relationship with Omar Bakri (he left when Bakri was kicked out), pressure from his father and other personal reasons which I don’t want to mention.”

Husain later went on to work for the British Council in the Middle East. From 2003 to 2005, he was in Damascus. During that period, by his own admission, he informed on other British members of HT for agitating against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, resulting in them being deported by Syrian authorities back to Britain. At this time, the CIA and MI6 routinely cooperated with Assad on extraordinary rendition programmes.

Husain then worked for the British Council in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, from late 2005 to the end of 2006.

Throughout that year, according to the former Home Office official I spoke to, Husain was in direct contact with senior Whitehall officials who were vetting his manuscript for The Islamist. By November, Husain posted on DeenPort, an online discussion forum, a now deleted comment referring off-hand to the work of “the secret services” inside HT: “Even within HT in Britain today, there is a huge division between modernisers and more radical elements. The secret services are hopeful that the modernisers can tame the radicals… I foresee another split. And God knows best. I have said more than I should on this subject! Henceforth, my lips are sealed!”

Shortly after, Maajid Nawaz would declare his departure from HT, and would eventually be joined at Quilliam by several others from the group, many of whom according to Nawaz had worked with him and Husain as “a team” behind the scenes at this time.

The ‘ex-jihadists’ who weren’t

Perhaps the biggest problem with Husain’s and Nawaz’s claim to expertise on terrorism was that they were never jihadists. Hizb ut-Tahrir is a non-violent movement for the establishment of a global “caliphate” through social struggle, focusing on the need for political activism in the Muslim world. Whatever the demerits of this rigid political ideology, it had no relationship to the phenomenon of al-Qaeda terrorism.

Nevertheless, Husain and Nawaz, along with their government benefactors, were convinced that those personal experiences of “radicalisation” and “deradicalisation” could by transplanted into the ongoing “war on terror” – even though, in reality neither of them had any idea about the dynamics of an actual terrorist network, and the radicalisation process leading to violent extremism. The result was an utterly misguided and evidence-devoid obsession with rejecting non-violent extremist ideologies as the primary means to prevent terrorism.

Through the Quilliam Foundation, Husain’s and Nawaz’s fundamentalist ideas about non-violent extremism went on to heavily influence official counter-terrorism discourses across the Western world. This was thanks to its million pounds worth of government seed-funding, intensive media coverage, as well as the government pushing Quilliam’s directors and staff to provide “deradicalisation training” to government and security officials in the US and Europe.

In the UK, Quilliam’s approach was taken up by various centre-right and right-wing think-tanks, such as the Centre for Social Cohesion (CCS) and Policy Exchange, all of which played a big role in influencing the government’s Preventing Violent Extremism programme (Prevent).

Exactly how bankrupt this approach is, however, can be determined from Prime Minister David Cameron’s efforts to express his understanding of the risk from non-violent extremism, a major feature of the coalition government’s Orwellian new Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. The latter establishes unprecedented powers of electronic surveillance and the basis for the “Prevent duty,” which calls for all public sector institutions to develop “risk-assessment” profiles of individuals deemed to be “at-risk” of being drawn into non-violent extremism.

In his speech at the UN last year, Cameron explained that counter-terrorism measures must target people who may not “encourage violence, but whose worldview can be used as a justification for it.” As examples of dangerous ideas at the “root cause” of terrorism, Cameron pinpointed “conspiracy theories,” and most outrageously, “The idea that Muslims are persecuted all over the world as a deliberate act of Western policy.”

In other words, if you believe, for instance, that US and British forces have deliberately conducted brutal military operations across the Muslim world resulting in the foreseeable deaths of countless innocent civilians, you are a non-violent extremist.

In an eye-opening academic paper published last year, French terrorism expert and Interior Ministry policy officer Dr Claire Arenes, noted that: “By definition, one may know if radicalisation has been violent only once the point of violence has been reached, at the end of the process. Therefore, since the end-term of radicalisation cannot be determined in advance, a policy intended to fight violent radicalisation entails a structural tendency to fight any form of radicalisation.”

It is precisely this moronic obsession with trying to detect and stop “any form of radicalisation,” however non-violent, that is hampering police and security investigations and overloading them with nonsense “risks”.

Double game

At this point, the memorable vision of Nawaz and Choudary facing off on BBC Newsnight appears not just farcical, but emblematic of how today’s national security crisis has been fuelled and exploited by the bowels of the British secret state.

Over the last decade or so – the very same period that the British state was grooming the “former jihadists who weren’t” so they could be paraded around the media-security-industrial complex bigging up the non-threat of “non-violent extremism” – the CIA and MI6 were coordinating Saudi-led funding to al-Qaeda affiliated extremists across the Middle East and Central Asia to counter Iranian Shiite influence.

From 2005 onwards, US and British intelligence services encouraged a range of covert operations to support Islamist opposition groups, including militants linked to al-Qaeda, to undermine regional Iranian and Syrian influence. By 2009, the focus of these operations shifted to Syria.

As I documented in written evidence to a UK Parliamentary inquiry into Prevent in 2010, one of the recipients of such funding was none other than Omar Bakri, who at the time told one journalist: “Today, angry Lebanese Sunnis ask me to organise their jihad against the Shiites… Al-Qaeda in Lebanon… are the only ones who can defeat Hezbollah.” Simultaneously, Bakri was regularly in touch with his deputy, Anjem Choudary, over the internet and even delivered online speeches to his followers in Britain instructing them to join IS and murder civilians. He has now been detained and charged by Lebanese authorities for establishing terror cells in the country.

Bakri was also deeply involved “with training the mujahideen [fighters] in camps on the Syrian borders and also on the Palestine side.” The trainees included four British Islamists “with professional backgrounds” who would go on to join the war in Syria. Bakri also claimed to have trained “many fighters,” including people from Germany and France, since arriving in Lebanon. Was Mohammed Emwazi among them? Last year, Bakri disciple Mizanur Rahman confirmed that at least five European Muslims who had died fighting under IS in Syria had been Bakri acolytes.

Nevertheless in 2013, it was David Cameron who lifted the arms embargo to support Syria’s rebels. We now know that most of our military aid went to al-Qaeda affiliated Islamists, many with links to extremists at home. The British government itself acknowledged that a “substantial number” of Britons were fighting in Syria, who “will seek to carry out attacks against Western interests… or in Western states”.

Yet according to former British counterterrorism intelligence officer Charles Shoebridge, despite this risk, authorities “turned a blind eye to the travelling of its own jihadists to Syria, notwithstanding ample video etc. evidence of their crimes there,” because it “suited the US and UK’s anti-Assad foreign policy”.

This terror-funnel is what enabled people like Emwazi to travel to Syria and join up with IS – despite being on an MI5 terror watch-list. He had been blocked by the security services from traveling to Kuwait in 2010: why not Syria? Shoebridge, who was a British Army officer before joining the Metropolitan Police, told me that although such overseas terrorism has been illegal in the UK since 2006, “it’s notable that only towards the end of 2013 when IS turned against the West’s preferred rebels, and perhaps also when the tipping point between foreign policy usefulness and MI5 fears of domestic terrorist blowback was reached, did the UK authorities begin to take serious steps to tackle the flow of UK jihadists.”

The US-UK direct and tacit support for jihadists, Shoebridge said, had made Syria the safest place for regional terrorists fearing drone strikes “for more than two years”. Syria was “the only place British jihadists could fight without fear of US drones or arrest back home… likely because, unlike if similar numbers of UK jihadists had been travelling to for example Yemen or Afghanistan, this suited the anti-Assad policy.”

Having watched its own self-fulfilling prophecy unfold with horrifying precision in a string of IS-linked terrorist atrocities against Western hostages and targets, the government now exploits the resulting mayhem to vindicate its bankrupt “counter-extremism” narrative, promoted by hand-picked state-groomed “experts” like Husain and Nawaz.

Their prescription, predictably, is to expand the powers of the police state to identify and “deradicalise” anyone who thinks British foreign policy in the Muslim world is callous, self-serving and indifferent to civilian deaths. Government sources confirm that Nawaz’s input played a key role in David Cameron’s thinking on non-violent extremism, and the latest incarnation of the Prevent strategy; while last year, Husain was, ironically, appointed to the Foreign Office advisory group on freedom of religion or belief.

Meanwhile, Bakri’s deputy Choudary continues to inexplicably run around as Britain’s resident “terror cleric” media darling. His passport belatedly confiscated after a recent pointless police arrest that avoided charging him, he remains free to radicalise thick-headed British Muslims into joining IS, in the comfort that his hate speech will be broadcast widely, no doubt fueling widespread generic suspicion of British Muslims.

If only we could round up the Quilliam and al-Muhajiroun fanatics together, shove them onto a boat, and send them all off cruising to the middle of nowhere, they could have all the fun they want “radicalising” and “deradicalising” each other to their hearts content. And we might get a little peace. And perhaps we could send their handlers with them, too.

– Nafeez Ahmed PhD, is an investigative journalist, international security scholar and bestselling author who tracks what he calls the ‘crisis of civilization.’ He is a winner of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian reporting on the intersection of global ecological, energy and economic crises with regional geopolitics and conflicts. He has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Friday 27 February 2015 14:35 UTC

Find this story at 27 February 2015
© Middle East Eye 2014

Lost in translation: Moazzam Begg reveals intelligence blunders (2015)

The case against Begg ‘was going to set a precedent that successfully challenged Britain’s policy on Syria and the meaning of terrorism’

A series of what appears to be translation mistakes and failure to grasp common sense by intelligence services have cost the British government over £1 million and could have landed an innocent man in jail, revealed former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg.

In an opinion column published in the Middle East Eye on Tuesday, Begg, who is currently the director of outreach for UK-based campaigning organisation CAGE, detailed what appears to be unprofessional methods of investigation by the Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU).

“I could have been facing up to 15 years in prison for providing fitness training and a generator to the Syrian rebels, if found guilty,” he wrote.

Begg was further astonished to learn how serious were the accusations levelled against him, given what seemed to be a lack of credible evidence.

“Over 150 police officers were involved. Additionally, the Home Office, the Treasury, the intelligence services and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had gone to extraordinary lengths to refuse me bail, freeze my assets and classify me as a Category A high-risk prisoner in HMP Belmarsh, five hours away from home,” he wrote.

It remains unclear why the authorities went to so much trouble when Begg posed no threat, nor was he involved in any wrongdoing. But he did hint in the article the reason for his release.

“The truth is the case was going to collapse on its own merits and was going to set a precedent that successfully challenged Britain’s policy on Syria and the meaning of terrorism,” he wrote.

“The CPS didn’t care about my beliefs, even though they had recorded them, because they needed the charges to fit their narrative and not the truth,” he added.

Tuesday 24 February 2015 19:46 UTC
Last update: Wednesday 25 February 2015 9:17 UTC

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© Middle East Eye 2014

Former MI5 head: Torture is ‘wrong and never justified’ (2011)

The use of torture is “wrong and never justified”, the former head of the security service MI5 has insisted.
Eliza Manningham-Buller said it should be “utterly rejected even when it may offer the prospect of saving lives”.
Giving the second of her BBC Radio Reith lectures, she acknowledged recent disclosures about alleged British intelligence operations in Libya would “raise widespread concerns”.
“No-one could justify what went on under Gaddafi’s regime,” she added.
Baroness Manningham-Buller’s lectures examine the issues of terrorism and security on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
She said that the use of torture had not made the world a safer place, adding that the use of water-boarding by the United States was a “profound mistake” and as a result America lost its “moral authority”.
Allegations have recently emerged that the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) was involved in the rendition of Libyan terror suspects, following the discovery of papers suggesting close ties between MI6, the CIA and the Gaddafi regime.
Find out more

The second of Eliza Manningham-Buller’s Reith Lectures will be broadcast on Tuesday 13 September 2011 at 09:00 BST on BBC Radio 4.
Listen via the Radio 4 website
Download the Reith Lectures podcast
Explore the Reith Lectures archive
Baroness Manningham-Buller, who was director-general of the security service MI5 between 2002 and 2007, stated that she “would like to say more” on the recent allegations.
However, her position made it difficult to do so as she anticipates being called to give evidence to the Gibson Inquiry which will investigate the subject.
Sir Peter Gibson is chair of the ongoing detainee inquiry, which was set up last year by Prime Minister David Cameron to investigate the alleged involvement in torture by UK security agencies.
A statement issued by the inquiry said it would also be considering the new allegations of UK involvement in rendition to Libya. Some of the inquiry will be held in secret to protect intelligence sources and methods.
Following the lecture, which was held in Leeds City Museum, Lady Manningham-Buller answered questions posed by members of the audience.
The Conservative MP, David Davis, asked the former MI5 head if she thought Britain’s resistance to the use of telephone intercept evidence in court had hindered the conviction rate of terrorists in the UK.
Baroness Manningham-Buller replied that MI5 had first suggested the use of intercept evidence in 1988, and she would “still like to see that happen” – but successive British governments have found the idea “procedurally difficult”.
The second of Eliza Manningham-Buller’s Reith Lectures, which is entitled Security, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, 13 September.

8 September 2011

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Copyright © 2016 BBC

Geheimdienste nach den Anschlägen, Wir haben versagt, gebt uns mehr Macht

Wenige Stunden nach den Anschlägen von Paris forderten die ersten Beamten bereits neue Überwachungsmaßnahmen. CIA-Chef Brennan gibt Whistleblower Snowden eine Mitschuld an den Taten. Dabei haben die Dienste offenbar selbst versagt.

Wenn Geheimdienste öffentlich in eigener Sache zu argumentieren versuchen, hat das immer etwas Surreales. Oft treten sie nur in Gestalt ungenannter “hochrangiger Beamter” in Erscheinung, die dem einen oder anderen Medium anonym verraten haben, was sie selbst gerade dringend brauchen – in der Regel geht es um noch mehr Befugnisse.

Geheimdienste sind die einzigen Organisationen, die öffentliche Lobbyarbeit betreiben, ohne konkrete Belege für die Richtigkeit ihrer Behauptungen liefern zu müssen. So auch diesmal.

Noch einmal zu den tragischen Fakten: In Paris haben mehrere Attentäter in der Nacht von Freitag auf Samstag 129 Menschen getötet und Hunderte weitere verletzt. Alle bislang bekannten Attentäter bis auf einen waren dem US-Geheimdienst bekannt, das berichtet zumindest ein amerikanischer Abgeordneter. Die Namen der Täter hätten auf einer amerikanischen Flugverbotsliste (no fly list) gestanden.

Auch den französischen Behörden waren mehrere der Täter und der mutmaßliche Kopf hinter der Terrorserie bekannt. Mehrere von ihnen waren augenscheinlich nach Syrien gereist und von dort offenbar unbemerkt nach Europa zurückgekehrt. Die Täter stammten aus Frankreich und Belgien. Auch der mutmaßliche Drahtzieher der Morde kam aus Belgien, auch er war den dortigen Sicherheitsbehörden bekannt, reiste nach Syrien, trat dort als Protagonist grauenhafter Propagandavideos in Erscheinung und reiste irgendwann unbemerkt nach Europa zurück.

Telefongespräche abgehört, Handy problemlos ausgewertet

Auf die Spur der Terrorverdächtigen, gegen die die französische Polizei am Mittwoch im Pariser Vorort Saint-Denis vorging, kamen die Ermittler dem französischen Oberstaatsanwalt zufolge durch die Auswertungen überwachter Telefongespräche.

In Paris ist offenbar außerdem ein Handy gefunden worden, das die Attentäter am vergangenen Freitag benutzt haben. Französischen Medien zufolge wurde es nahe dem Musikklub Bataclan in einem Mülleimer entdeckt. Auf dem Smartphone sollen sich den Berichten zufolge ein Plan von den Räumen des Bataclan und eine SMS mit den Worten “Wir sind los, wir fangen an” befunden haben. Es hat der französischen Polizei offenbar keine Probleme bereitet, das Handy auszuwerten.

Den Geheimdiensten in Frankreich, Belgien und den USA lagen offenbar zahlreiche Informationen zu den Mördern von Paris vor. Trotzdem konnten die Männer sich unbemerkt bewegen, bewaffnen und organisieren. In Frankreich gibt es bereits seit Jahren eine sehr umfassende Vorratsdatenspeicherung. Sogar Passwörter etwa zu E-Mail-Konten müssen die Anbieter dort 12 Monate lang speichern, Verbindungsdaten sowieso. Außerdem gilt dort seit dem Sommer ein neues Überwachungsgesetz, das die Befugnisse der Geheimdienste noch einmal deutlich ausgeweitet hat.

“Ohne dafür Beweise vorzulegen”

Der Chef des US-Geheimdienstes CIA behauptet nun – ohne dafür einen einzigen Beleg vorweisen zu können: Wenn Edward Snowden den globalen Spähapparat der NSA und ihrer Verbündeten nicht offengelegt hätte, wären die Anschläge von Paris womöglich verhindert worden.

Die “New York Times” veröffentlichte am Sonntag einen Artikel (hier archiviert), in dem unter anderem ungenannte “europäische Beamte” mit der Behauptung zitiert wurden, die Angreifer hätten verschlüsselt kommuniziert. Die “NYT” entfernte den Artikel jedoch wenige Stunden später und ersetzte ihn durch eine Version, in der nur die Rede davon ist, dass “europäische Beamte sagten, dass sie glauben, dass die Angreifer von Paris irgendeine Form verschlüsselter Kommunikation benutzt hätten, ohne dafür Beweise vorzulegen”.

In Deutschland forderte der stellvertretende Vorsitzende der Gewerkschaft der Polizei (GdP), Jörg Radek, schon Stunden nach den Anschlägen von Paris: Um Attentate wie diese zu verhindern, müsse die “unsinnige Debatte über den sogenannten Überwachungsstaat” jetzt vermieden und stattdessen das “eng gefasste Gesetz zur Vorratsdatenspeicherung überdacht” werden. Sein Kollege Arnold Plickert, GdP-Vorsitzender für Nordrhein-Westfalen, stimmte ihm zu und sprach sich für eine Speicherfrist von mindestens einem Jahr aus.

In den USA war vor den Anschlägen von Paris gerade eine Debatte über das Thema Verschlüsselung mit einer Niederlage für die Geheimdienste und das FBI zu Ende gegangen: Die Behörden dort fordern schon seit Längerem, dass es keine Verschlüsselungstechnik geben dürfe, die ihnen verschlossen bleibt, die großen Tech-Konzerne und Bürgerrechtler stellen sich dem entgegen.

“Das könnte sich im Fall eines Terroranschlags ändern”

Die Regierung Obama entschied letztlich, wirksame Verschlüsselung nicht zu verbieten. Schon im August zitierte die “Washington Post” aus einem Schreiben des Anwalts Robert Litt, der für das Büro des US-Geheimdienstdirektors arbeitet. Litt erklärte darin gegenüber Kollegen, dass das “legislative Umfeld” für Anti-Verschlüsselungs-Gesetzgebung derzeit zwar “sehr feindselig” sei, dass sich das aber “im Fall eines Terroranschlags oder eines Verbrechens ändern könnte, wenn dabei nachgewiesen werden kann, dass starke Verschlüsselung die Strafverfolger behindert hat”.

Brennan und seine ungenannten Kollegen nutzen also nun wie von Litt vorgeschlagen die Anschläge von Paris, um ihre Vorstellungen von einer Welt ohne wirksame Verschlüsselung erneut in Szene zu setzen – ohne jedoch Belege dafür vorlegen zu können, dass die Anschläge von Paris mit noch besseren Überwachungsmöglichkeiten womöglich hätten verhindert werden können. Und deutsche Polizisten fordern eine Maßnahme, die in Frankreich seit Jahren umgesetzt ist, die Anschläge aber augenscheinlich nicht verhindern konnte.

Über ihre eigenen offenkundigen Versäumnisse dagegen ist von den Sicherheitsbehörden dies- und jenseits des Atlantiks erwartungsgemäß nichts zu hören.

Unklar bleibt, wie es sein kann, dass bereits als Terrorverdächtige bekannte Männer unbemerkt nach Syrien und zurück reisen konnten. Unklar bleibt, warum man offenbar die Telefone von vermutlich in die Tat verwickelten Personen abhören, die Taten aber dennoch nicht voraussehen konnte. Unklar bleibt, warum der schon 2002 verabschiedete Rahmenbeschluss des Europäischen Rates, in dem eine enge Abstimmung der nationalen Behörden bei der Terrorbekämpfung vereinbart wurde, augenscheinlich nicht befriedigend umgesetzt wurde. Sonst hätten sich französische und belgische Behörden wohl effektiver über die Täter ausgetauscht, die in ihren jeweiligen Ländern lebten.

Lieber “den Verdächtigen” überwachen

Einmal mehr zeigt sich stattdessen: Die Massenüberwachung, die sich, angeführt von der NSA, bei den Diensten als Standardparadigma durchgesetzt hat, läuft augenscheinlich ins Leere. Obwohl sie bereits Informationen über die Täter hatten – wie übrigens auch im Fall der Attentate auf “Charlie Hebdo” im Januar – gelang es den Behörden nicht, sie gezielt so zu überwachen, dass man ihre Taten hätte verhindern können.

Den Standort des Handys eines Verdächtigen zu verfolgen beispielsweise wäre sogar ohne Vorratsdatenspeicherung problemlos möglich. Der nun als Terrorhelfer gescholtene Edward Snowden selbst wirbt übrigens immer wieder für “traditionelle, effektive Überwachung” im Kampf gegen den Terrorismus. Das bedeute, keine Bevölkerung, keine Technik, keinen Dienst zu überwachen, sondern den Verdächtigen.

19. November 2015, 09:59 Uhr
Von Christian Stöcker

Find this story at 19 November 2015

© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2015

FROM PARIS TO BOSTON, TERRORISTS WERE ALREADY KNOWN TO AUTHORITIES

WHENEVER A TERRORIST ATTACK OCCURS, it never takes long for politicians to begin calling for more surveillance powers. The horrendous attacks in Paris last week, which left more than 120 people dead, are no exception to this rule. In recent days, officials in the United Kingdom and the United States have been among those arguing that more surveillance of Internet communications is necessary to prevent further atrocities.

The case for expanded surveillance of communications, however, is complicated by an analysis of recent terrorist attacks. The Intercept has reviewed 10 high-profile jihadi attacks carried out in Western countries between 2013 and 2015 (see below), and in each case some or all of the perpetrators were already known to the authorities before they executed their plot. In other words, most of the terrorists involved were not ghost operatives who sprang from nowhere to commit their crimes; they were already viewed as a potential threat, yet were not subjected to sufficient scrutiny by authorities under existing counterterrorism powers. Some of those involved in last week’s Paris massacre, for instance, were already known to authorities; at least three of the men appear to have been flagged at different times as having been radicalized, but warning signs were ignored.

In the aftermath of a terrorist atrocity, government officials often seem to talk about surveillance as if it were some sort of panacea, a silver bullet. But what they always fail to explain is how, even with mass surveillance systems already in place in countries like France, the United States, and the United Kingdom, attacks still happen. In reality, it is only possible to watch some of the people some of the time, not all of the people all of the time. Even if you had every single person in the world under constant electronic surveillance, you would still need a human being to analyze the data and assess any threats in a timely fashion. And human resources are limited and fallible.

There is no doubt that we live in a dangerous world and that intelligence agencies and the police have a difficult job to do, particularly in the current geopolitical environment. They know about hundreds or thousands of individuals who sympathize with terrorist groups, any one of whom may be plotting an attack, yet they do not appear to have the means to monitor each of these people closely over sustained periods of time. If any lesson can be learned from studying the perpetrators of recent attacks, it is that there needs to be a greater investment in conducting targeted surveillance of known terror suspects and a move away from the constant knee-jerk expansion of dragnet surveillance, which has simply not proven itself to be effective, regardless of the debate about whether it is legal or ethical in the first place.

map-3 Map of 10 recent attacks carried out in Western countries by Islamic extremists. freevectormaps.com
1. Paris attacks: November 13, 2015

Victims: 129 dead. 400+ wounded.
Named suspected perpetrators: Ismaël Omar Mostefaï (29; French), Samy Amimour (28; French), Ibrahim Abdeslam (31; French), Bilal Hadfi (20; French), Abdelhamid Abaaoud (27; Belgian), Salah Abdeslam (26; French).
Weapons: Assault rifles, hand grenades, suicide vests.

Known to authorities? At least three of the men involved in planning and carrying out the French attacks were known to European authorities and at least four were listed in a U.S. terrorism watchlist database. Ismaël Omar Mostefaï, who helped carry out the massacre at the Bataclan concert venue, had been flagged as a radicalization risk in 2010. French police reportedly ignored two warnings about Mostefaï before he carried out the attacks. Some of his friends claimed to have tried to alert French police about his radical views, but said they were told the authorities could do nothing. Samy Amimour, another of the men involved in the Bataclan massacre, had been previously charged with terrorist offenses “after an abortive attempt to travel to Yemen,” according to Paris prosecutors.

The alleged ringleader of the attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was also well-known to European police. In 2013, he booked a flight from Cologne to Turkey, which was flagged to German authorities because he was reportedly on an EU watchlist. But he was not detained and was able to board the flight. From Turkey, Abaaoud entered Syria, where he joined ISIS. Abaaoud later returned to Europe and was named as a wanted extremist in January following a gun battle in Belgium. In February, he featured prominently in ISIS propaganda magazine Dabiq boasting about how he had been able to evade police detection in Europe.

Others involved in the Paris attacks are also likely to have been on the radar of police and intelligence agencies due to their travels to Syria. Bilal Hadfi, for instance, was living in Belgium after having returned from Syria, where he is believed to have fought with Islamic State militants. Hadfi apparently attended the Instituut Anneessens-Funck college in Brussels; his former history professor recalled that, following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015, Hadfi defended the attacks. The professor reported him to management due to concerns about his radical views, but management “decided not to intervene, to avoid stigmatizing the young student.” In June, Hadfi reportedly posted on his Facebook page encouraging terrorist attacks: “Those dogs are attacking our civilians everywhere. Strike them in their community of pigs so they can’t feel safe again in their own dreams.” The family of Ibrahim Abdeslam, who detonated a suicide vest inside a cafe during the attacks, said he too had spent “a long time” in Syria before returning to Europe.

Rescue workers gather at victims in the 10th district of Paris, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Several dozen people were killed in a series of unprecedented attacks around Paris on Friday, French President Francois Hollande said, announcing that he was closing the country’s borders and declaring a state of emergency. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon) Rescue workers gather to treat victims in Paris’ 10th arrondissement, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Photo: Jacques Brinon/AP
2. Thalys train attack, France: August 21, 2015

Victims: No deaths. Two wounded.
Alleged perpetrator: Ayoub El Khazzani (26; Moroccan).
Weapons: Pistol, assault rifle, box cutter, bottle of petrol.

Known to authorities? Khazzani was reportedly known to European authorities for his Islamic radicalism. While living in Spain, he had come to security agencies’ attention after he was observed defending jihadis and attending a radical mosque in Algeciras, Spain.

French police stand guard along the platform next to a Thalys train of French national railway operator SNCF at the main train station in Arras, northern France, on August 22, 2015, the day after an armed gunman on the train was overpowered by passengers. The gunman opened fire on the train travelling from Amsterdam to Paris, injuring two people before being tackled by several passengers including off-duty American servicemen. AFP PHOTO PHILIPPE HUGUEN (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images) French police stand guard on the platform next to a Thalys train at the station in Arras, northern France, on Aug. 22, 2015, the day after an armed gunman was overpowered by passengers. Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images
3. Curtis Culwell Center attack, Garland, Texas: May 3, 2015

Victims: One wounded.
Perpetrators: Elton Simpson (30; American) and Nadir Soofi (34; Pakistani-American).
Weapons: Assault rifles, handguns.

Known to authorities? Elton Simpson had reportedly been placed on the U.S. no-fly list and had been convicted of a terror-related offense in 2011 after being caught discussing traveling to Somalia to engage in violent jihad. Soofi, on the other hand, was reportedly “relatively unknown to federal investigators,” though he lived with Simpson. A third man, Abdul Malik Abdul Kareem, was allegedly responsible for supplying the guns and ammunition used in the attack. Kareem was investigated in 2012 after he was suspected of developing a plot to attack a Super Bowl game in Arizona with explosives.

GARLAND, TX – MAY 4: A member of the FBI Evidence Response Team investigates the crime scene outside of the Curtis Culwell Center after a shooting occurred the day before, on May 04, 2015 in Garland, Texas. During the “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest,” on May 03, Elton Simpson of Phoenix, Arizonia and Nadir Soofi opened fire, wounding a security guard. Police officers shot and killed Simpson at the scene. The provocative cartoon event was billed by organizers as a free speech event while critics deemed it to be anti-Islamic. (Photo by Ben Torres/Getty Images) An FBI evidence response team member investigates the crime scene after a shooting outside of the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, May 4, 2015 . Photo: Ben Torres/Getty Images
4. Shootings in Copenhagen, Denmark: February 14-15, 2015

Victims: Two dead. Five wounded.
Perpetrator: Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein (22; Danish-Jordanian-Palestinian).
Weapons: Assault rifle, pistols.

Known to authorities? Hussein was reportedly well-known to Danish security agencies. Prior to the Copenhagen shootings, he had been imprisoned for stabbing a teenager in the leg on a train. While he was in jail, prison officials filed a concern report to the Danish intelligence agency PET, warning that his behavior had changed and that he had become extremely religious. Two weeks after he was released from jail he went on the shooting rampage that left three dead and five wounded in different parts of Copenhagen. Shortly before the attacks, Hussein had apparently sworn allegiance to ISIS in a post on his Facebook page.

In this image made from TV The lifeless body of a shooting suspect lays on the pavement as Danish police forensic officers examine the scene after Danish police shot and killed the man early Sunday suspected of carrying out shooting attacks at a free speech event and then at a Copenhagen synagogue, in Copenhagen Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015. The suspect is not yet identified by police. A man opened fire Saturday killing a Danish documentary filmmaker and a member of the Scandinavian country’s Jewish community and wounding five police officers in the attacks. (AP Photo / TV2 Norway) NORWAY OUT – DENMARK OUT – TV OUT The body of a shooting suspect lies on the pavement as Danish forensic police officers examine the scene, Feb. 15, 2015, Copenhagen Denmark.Photo: TV2 Norway/AP
5. Shootings in Paris (Charlie Hebdo and Jewish supermarket): January 7-9, 2015

Victims: 17 dead. 20 wounded.
Perpetrators: Chérif Kouachi (32; French), Saïd Kouachi (34; French), Amedy Coulibaly (32; French).
Weapons: Assault rifles, submachine guns, grenade launcher, pistols, shotgun.

Known to authorities? Chérif Kouachi was well-known to French security agencies as an Islamic extremist. In 2005 he was detained trying to board a plane for Syria and in 2008 he was jailed for three years for his role in sending militants to Iraq. Both Chérif and his brother Saïd were alleged to have been involved in a 2010 plot to free from prison Smaïn Ait Ali Belkacem, the French-Algerian extremist responsible for the 1995 Paris metro station bombing. The brothers were never prosecuted over the prison-break plot due to a lack of evidence. In 2011, Saïd traveled to Yemen and allegedly trained with al Qaeda. The U.S. reportedly provided France with intelligence in 2011 showing the brothers received terrorist training in Yemen and French authorities monitored them until the spring of 2014. Amedy Coulibaly was also well-known to the authorities. In 2013 he was sentenced to five years in prison for providing ammunition as part of the 2010 prison-break plot that the Kouachi brothers were also suspected of involvement in. However, Coulibaly reportedly only spent about three months in jail and was released in March 2014.

paris-attack-charlie-hebdo Screen grab of the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine, Paris, France, Jan. 7, 2015.Photo: Youtube
6. Cafe seige, Sydney, Australia: December 15-16, 2014

Victims: Two dead. Four wounded.
Perpetrator: Man Haron Monis (50; Iranian-Australian).
Weapon: Shotgun.

Known to authorities? Two months prior to taking 17 people hostage in a Sydney cafe, Monis wrote a letter to Australia’s attorney general seeking advice about the legality of communicating with ISIS. He was “well-known” to federal and state police, as well as the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, and had sent “hate letters” to families of Australian soldiers killed in overseas conflicts. Before carrying out his attacks, Monis apparently pledged allegiance on his website to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This was reported to Australian authorities, who reviewed Monis’ website and social media posts but (erroneously) concluded he was unlikely to carry out an act of violence.

FILE – In this Dec. 15, 2014 file photo, a hostage runs to an armed tactical response police officers for safety after she escaped from a cafe under siege at Martin Place in the central business district of Sydney, Australia. The man who took 18 people hostage at a Sydney cafe last year was educated and erratic, secretive about his own life and public about his many grievances, and a self-obsessed fabulist who grew increasingly defiant as he edged closer to launching his deadly attack, lawyers told an inquest Monday, May 25, 2015. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith, File) A hostage runs toward tactical response police officers after escaping from a cafe under siege in the central business district of Sydney, Australia, Dec. 15, 2014.Photo: Bob Griffith/AP
7. Canada attacks (Quebec car ramming and parliament shooting): October 20 and 22, 2014

Victims: Two dead. Four injured.
Perpetrators: Michael Zehaf-Bibeau (32; Canadian-Libyan) and Martin Couture-Rouleau (25; Canadian).
Weapons: Rifle, car.

Known to authorities? Couture-Rouleau was known to Canadian authorities prior to an attack in which he rammed two Canadian soldiers, killing one and injuring another. He had reportedly been “considered some kind of threat by the Canadian government” and had posted a variety of pro-jihadi materials on his Facebook page. Police had been monitoring him over concerns that he had become radicalized and his passport had been seized to prevent him from traveling abroad to join militants. Zehaf-Bibeau, who shot dead a soldier at a war memorial near the Canadian parliament, was a habitual offender who had a criminal record for a number of offenses, including robbery and drug possession. Zehaf-Bibeau was reportedly “on the radar” of federal authorities in Canada and his email address had been previously found on the computer hard drive of someone charged with a “terrorist-related offense.”

Image #: 32693473 OTTAWA, CANADA – OCTOBER 22: Police, bystanders and soldiers aid a fallen soldier at the War Memorial as police respond to an apparent terrorist attack on October 22, 2014 in Ottawa, Canada. A GUNMAN is believed to have shot a soldier as he was standing guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, Canada, this morning (Wednesday, October 22). It is believed police then chased the man into the main parliament building at Parliament Hill, where more shots were fired. Police are hunting the streets and buildings for further suspects and have asked the public to stay away from the area. There is also a report of shootings at the Rideau Centre mall in downtown, a short distance from the War Memorial. The wounded soldier was taken into an ambulance and treated by medical personnel and is condition is unclear. The incident comes after Canada raised its terror threat level from low to medium after a Muslim convert deliberately ran over two soldiers, killing one of them. Wayne Cuddington/Barcroft Media /Landov Police, bystanders and soldiers aid a fallen soldier at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, Canada, the site of an apparent terrorist attack, Oct. 22, 2014.Photo: Cuddington/Barcroft Media /Landov
8. Jewish Museum killings in Brussels: May 24, 2014

Victims: Four dead.
Perpetrator: Mehdi Nemmouche (29; French)
Weapons: Automatic rifle, handgun.

Known to authorities? Nemmouche had been incarcerated on five occasions in France for various crimes, including armed robbery. In 2013 he had traveled to Syria. When he returned to Europe he was reportedly placed under surveillance by French counterterrorism police, who suspected he had joined with Islamic extremist fighters while in Syria.

A forensic expert enters the site of a shooting, at the Jewish museum in Brussels, Saturday, May 24, 2014. Three people were killed and one seriously injured in a spree of gunfire at the Jewish Museum in Brussels on Saturday, officials said. The attack, which came on the eve of national and European Parliament elections, led officials to raise anti-terror measures.(AP Photo/Yves Logghe) A forensic expert enters the Jewish Museum in Brussels, May 24, 2014. Photo: Yves Logghe/AP
9. Beheading in Woolwich, London: May 22, 2013

Victims: One dead.
Perpetrators: Michael Adebolajo (28; British-Nigerian) and Michael Adebowale (22; British-Nigerian).
Weapons: Cleaver, knives, pistol.

Known to authorities? Both attackers were known to British authorities and were suspected of having been radicalized prior to their murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, London. According to a U.K. parliamentary report published following the attack, Adebolajo was investigated under five separate police and security service operations. He was believed to have links to several extremist networks and was suspected of having tried to travel overseas to join a terrorist organization. Adebowale was investigated by British spies after he was identified as having viewed extremist material online. London counterterrorism police also received an uncorroborated tip that Adebowale was affiliated with al Qaeda. Investigators reviewed Adebowale’s cellphone records and apparently did not find anything of interest. But they did not check his landline call records, which if they had would have revealed that he had been in contact with an individual in Yemen linked to al Qaeda. Covert surveillance of both Adebolajo and Adebowale had ceased prior to their attack in London in May 2013, though Adebowale was still the subject of a terrorism-related investigation at the time.

Image #: 22463877 epa03712953 A British police officer carries a knife in an evidence bag close to the scene where a soldier was murdered in John Wilson Street, Woolwich, south-east London, Britain, 23 May 2013. Two attackers with kitchen knives killed a British soldier on a street 22 May in south-east London afternoon in a case that police were treating as a suspected terrorist attack. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe said officers from the counterterrorist unit were leading the investigation into the ‘shocking and horrific’ slaying in Woolwich with two people arrested. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who was in Paris for a meeting with French President Francois Hollande, cut short the visit to return to London later 22 May. He called the incident ‘shocking’ and ordered a crisis meeting to coordinate British government response. British Home Secretary Theresa May led a meeting of the government’s emergency response committee, with another meeting planned for 23 May. EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA /LANDOV A British police officer carries an evidence bag containing a knife near the scene where a soldier was murdered in Woolwich, Britain, May 23, 2013. Photo: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA /Landov
10. Boston Marathon bombing: April 15, 2013

Victims: Five dead. 260+ wounded.
Perpetrators: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (19; Kyrgyzstani-American) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (26; Kyrgyzstani-American).
Weapons: Pressure-cooker bombs, semi-automatic pistol, improvised explosive devices.

Known to authorities? Dzhokhar’s older brother, Tamerlan, who orchestrated the attacks, was placed on two different U.S. government watchlists in late 2011. Russian security agency FSB tipped off the FBI and CIA in 2011 that Tamerlan “was a follower of radical Islam,” and he and his family were subsequently interviewed by American agents, according to the Associated Press. The CIA reportedly “cleared [Tamerlan] of any ties to violent extremism” two years before he and his younger brother carried out the bombing of the marathon.

Image #: 21996457 Runners continue to run towards the finish line of the Boston Marathon as an explosion erupts near the finish line of the race in this photo exclusively licensed to Reuters by photographer Dan Lampariello after he took the photo in Boston, Massachusetts, April 15, 2013. Two simultaneous explosions ripped through the crowd at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday, killing at least two people and injuring dozens on a day when tens of thousands of people pack the streets to watch the world famous race. REUTERS EXCLUSIVE REUTERS/Dan Lampariello (UNITED STATES – Tags: CRIME LAW SPORT ATHLETICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY ) MANDATORY CREDIT: REUTERS /STRINGER /LANDOV Boston Marathon participants run toward the finish line as an explosion erupts at the race, Boston, Mass., April 15, 2013. Photo: Dan Lampariello/Reuters /Landov

Ryan Gallagher
Nov. 18 2015, 7:03 p.m.

Find this story at 18 November 2015

Copyright https://theintercept.com/

How French intelligence agencies failed before the Paris attacks

Authorities knew of at least three of the Paris attackers but did not act – and ignored a warning about a potential attack

Do the arithmetic and it is hard not to feel sympathy for the French intelligence agencies. Every day they face a dilemma created by the gap between available staff and the huge number of suspects.

French intelligence and police have only an estimated 500-600 staff whose task is to physically follow people. But the agencies have about 11,000 people on their books classified as potential threats to national security.

To mount an operation to monitor one person 24-hours-a-day requires about 30 to 40 people. So they have to make hard choices about which people to prioritise.

They often get it right, foiling many plots. But when they get it wrong, as they have twice this year, first in the Charlie Hebdo attack and in last Friday’s massacre, they have come under huge pressure.

French MPs vote to extend state of emergency after Paris attacks
Read more
There will inevitably be an inquiry into the failings. But the French government has already proposed new legislation introducing tougher security measures.

Senior members of the US intelligence community, still smarting from the loss of the bulk data collection of phone records in the Freedom Act this summer, are taking advantage of events in Paris to renew arguments over surveillance.

In New York on Wednesday, the director of the FBI, James Comey, complained that too much of the internet had gone dark. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies both needed faster and better access to communications data, he said.

The stripped down argument is that if you have access to everything, it is easier to keep everyone secure. When there are attacks such as those in Paris, the agencies say they quickly need to search back through data to see who suspects had been talking to, helping to identify the networks and prevent potential other attacks.

French intelligence under scrutiny in wake of Paris attacks
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The problem with this, as with almost every terrorist incident since 9/11, is that the French intelligence agencies already knew at least three of the attackers.

Abelhamid Abaaoud was known as an accomplice of two jihadis killed in Belgium in January. The police had a file on Omar Ismaïl Mostefai even before he travelled to Syria in 2013, while Sami Amimour had been detained in 2012 on suspected terrorist links.

In other words, the failure of the French intelligence agencies is not that they did not have enough data – but that they did not act on what they had.

The three could have been the subject of traditional targeted surveillance. While physical surveillance is difficult in terms of staffing, keeping tabs on their communications is less labour-intensive.

Tracking such suspects does not require the collection of the communications data – phone records, emails, Facebook postings, chat lines – of every French citizen, only the suspects.

One of the key arguments put forward by Comey and earlier in the week by the director of the CIA, John Brennan, is that terrorists have become better at covert communications. But the discarded mobile phone that led police to the St-Denis hideout contained unencrypted text.

CIA chief criticises recent surveillance rollbacks in wake of Paris attacks
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One of the biggest failings was not the French intelligence agencies’ lack of sufficient surveillance powers but the long-running lack of cooperation between European intelligence agencies – and reluctance to share information – due to fears about leaks. When they do cooperate, the process is slow – even over things as simple as translation.

The Iraq government sent warnings to French intelligence about a potential attack that were ignored. Such warnings are regularly received by the agencies struggling to work out which ones reflect a genuine threat.

A more serious omission is the French failure to respond to the Turkish government when it flagged up concern about Mostefai. Added to that is the lack of cooperation between France and Belgium, where some of the attackers were based.

Such failures are where the French and US intelligence agencies should be looking, rather than exploiting the tragedy to make the case for bulk data surveillance.

Ewen MacAskill Defence and intelligence correspondent
Thursday 19 November 2015 18.51 GMT Last modified on Friday 20 November 2015 01.05 GMT

Find this story at 19 November 2015

© 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited

Authorities missed many ‘red flags’ before Paris shootings

In January, Turkish authorities detained one of the suicide bombers at Turkey’s border and deported him to Belgium. Brahim Abdeslam, Turkish authorities told Belgian police at the time, had been “radicalized” and was suspected of wanting to join Islamic State in Syria, a Turkish security source told Reuters.

Yet during questioning in Belgium, Abdeslam denied any involvement with militants and was set free. So was his brother Salah – a decision that Belgian authorities say was based on scant evidence that either man had terrorist intentions.

On Nov. 13, Abdeslam blew himself up at Le Comptoir Voltaire bar in Paris, killing himself and wounding one other. Salah is also a suspect in the attacks, claimed by the Islamic State, and is now on the run.

In France, an “S” (State Security) file for people suspected of being a threat to national security had been issued on Ismail Omar Mostefai, who would detonate his explosive vest inside Paris’ Bataclan concert hall. Mostefai, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, was placed on the list in 2010, French police sources say.

Turkish police also considered him a terror suspect with links to Islamic State. Ankara wrote to Paris about him in December 2014 and in June this year, a senior Turkish government official said. The warning went unheeded. Paris answered last week, after the attacks.

A fourth attacker missed at least four weekly check-ins with French police in 2013, before authorities issued an arrest warrant for him. By that time he had left the country.

On any one of these occasions, police, intelligence and security services had an opportunity to detain at least some of the men who launched the attacks.

That they did not, helps explain how a group of Islamist militants was able to organize even as they moved freely among countries within the open borders of Europe’s passport-free Schengen area and beyond.

Taken one by one, each misstep has its own explanation, security services say. They attribute the lapses in communication, inability to keep track of suspected militants and failure to act on intelligence, to a lack of resources in some countries and a surge in the number of would-be jihadis.

But a close examination by Reuters of a series of missed red flags and miscommunications culminating in France’s biggest atrocity since World War Two puts on stark display the mounting difficulties faced by anti-terrorism units across Europe and their future ability to keep the continent safe.

“We’re in a situation where the services are overrun. They expect something to happen, but don’t know where,” said Nathalie Goulet, who heads up the French Senate’s investigation committee into jihadi networks.

Many point to Belgium as a weak link in European security.

“They simply don’t have the same means as Britain’s MI5 or the DGSI (French intelligence agency),” said Louis Caprioli, a former head of the DST, France’s former anti-terrorism unit.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel defended his country’s security services and praised them for doing “a difficult and tough job.” French President Francois Hollande also praised his country’s security services, who hunted down and shot dead the man they identified as the ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, five days after the attacks.

Europol, the European Union’s police agency, says it has been feeding information to the Belgian and French authorities but acknowledges that some member states are better at sharing information than others.

FOCUS ON FIGHTERS RETURNING FROM SYRIA

The focus of investigators over the past few years has been men and women who have grown up in Europe, have European passports and who travel to Syria to train and fight.

As the number of those fighters has increased, authorities have struggled to keep up. The French Interior Ministry estimated about 500 French nationals had traveled to Syria and almost 300 had returned. French authorities reckon up to 1,400 people need 24-hour surveillance. Yet France has only about the same number of officers to carry out the task, a tenth of those needed.

Some 350 people from Belgium have gone to Syria to fight – the highest per capita number in Europe. A Belgian government source said Belgium has a list of 400 people who are in Syria, have returned or are believed to be about to go there. There are another 400-500 people who authorities believe have radicalized. The number of people in the Belgian security services carrying out surveillance is believed to be considerably fewer than this.

The numbers partially explain why many of the attackers in Paris were well-known faces still at large.

The attacks killed 130 people at various locations, including the Bataclan concert hall where 89 concert-goers were gunned down or blown up. Others were killed outside the Stade de France sports stadium and in bars and restaurants around central Paris.

Seven assailants died during the attacks. Abaaoud was killed in a police raid north of Paris on Wednesday along with one other suicide attacker and a woman believed to be his cousin.

Dozens of people have also been detained, some with weapons and explosives, in raids since then.

Abaaoud himself had been well-known to authorities for several years. After a raid in January in the Belgian town of Verviers, police suspected the 28-year-old of plotting to kidnap a police officer and kill him.

In February, Abaaoud said in an interview with an Islamic State magazine that he had returned to Syria after the raid in Verviers. By this time, he knew he was being sought.

If it is true that he returned to Syria from Verviers, Abaaoud made his way back into Europe at some point after January. French authorities did not know this until they were tipped off by Morocco after the attacks.

“If Abaaoud was able to go from Syria to Europe, that means there are failings in the entire European system,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

WARNINGS

Mostefai, the Bataclan suicide bomber, also traveled back and forth. Although he had eight convictions as a petty criminal, he had never been in prison, a place French authorities can watch for signs of radicalization.

Police say they suspected him of being in Syria between late 2013 and early 2014, before returning to France unnoticed.

In December of last year, Turkey contacted France about Mostefai. They raised an alarm again in June 2015 by letter.

There was no response from French authorities, according to a senior Turkish government official and a security source.

“It seemed there was a connection between this person and Daesh (Islamic State) and we reported it,” the Turkish security source said. “We followed all international procedures. But they (the French) didn’t display the same level of sensitivity.”

French officials declined to comment on this, but say that coordination with Turkey over potential French jihadis has improved markedly in the past year.

Determining how dangerous a person is, and whether they might carry out an attack, is a key challenge for security services, experts say.

“The other difficulty is that if you have nothing concrete for several years, you can’t keep either a sophisticated technical alert system or human resources on a person who makes himself forgotten for three or four years,” said Arnaud Danjean, a former intelligence officer and now a member of the European Parliament.

Bilal Hadfi, who blew himself up outside the Stade de France, was another of the suicide attackers under surveillance.

After visiting Syria in February, the 20-year-old French national, who was living in Belgium, returned to Europe by an unknown route and evaded police even though the Belgian Justice Ministry said microphones had been placed at the house where he was thought to be staying.

Then there’s the case of Sami Amimour. French authorities had launched an official investigation into Amimour’s possible terrorism-related activity in October 2012. Prosecutors suspected him of planning to join militants in Yemen.

Amimour was a bus driver who had been radicalized in a mosque near his hometown of Drancy, north of Paris. Because of the investigation, police had ordered Amimour to check in with them every week. As reported by Reuters on Nov 20, he missed four weekly checks in 2013. But it was only after nearly a month that the authorities put out an international arrest warrant.

By then Amimour was already in Syria. His tracks were picked up a year later, in December 2014, when his father gave an interview to French daily Le Monde describing how he had traveled to Syria but failed to convince his son to return.

THE MEN FROM THE BAR

Police are still looking for Salah Abdeslam, who is known to have survived the attacks.

Until six weeks before the attacks, Salah and his brother Brahim – one of the suicide bombers – were running a bar called Les Beguines on a quiet street in Molenbeek, a low-rent area of Brussels which has been linked with several attacks.

After the attacks, Salah Abdeslam went to ground. Authorities say he was stopped on his way back to Belgium after the Paris attacks, but police waved him on. It is not clear what role he played on the night of the attacks and why he managed to survive.

Two men who were arrested later, Mohamed Amri, 27, and 21-year-old Hamza Attou, said they brought Abdeslam back to Brussels after receiving a call from him saying his car had broken down. Police checks meant they were pulled over three times, including a last check around 9 a.m. near Cambrai just short of the Belgian border.

Missteps did not just happen in France and Belgium.

The Syrian passport found near one of the suicide bombers at the Stade de France had been used by a man registering himself as a refugee on the Greek island of Leros on Oct. 3. That man traveled through Macedonia and claimed asylum in Serbia, counter-intelligence and security sources said.

The French prosecutor has confirmed that fingerprints taken on arrival in Greece showed that man traveled with a second man, who also blew himself up near the Stade de France.

The pair may have reached Paris relatively easily because, at the height of the migration crisis in Europe this year, asylum seekers were rushed across some national borders without checks.

It is unclear whether the passport issued under the name of Ahmad al-Mohammad, a 25-year-old from the Syrian city of Idlib, was genuine or was stolen from a refugee. Whatever the truth, it has helped fuel right-wing criticism in Europe of the number of migrants allowed in this year.

By the time the two men were making their way up through the Balkans to western Europe, France had received more evidence an attack was imminent.

French former anti-terrorism judge Marc Trevidic says a French Islamist he questioned on his return from Syria in August said Islamic State had asked him to carry out an attack on a concert venue.

“The guy admitted that he was asked to hit a rock concert. We didn’t know if it would be Bataclan or another, he didn’t know the exact location that would be designated. But yes, that’s what they asked him to do,” Trevidic told Reuters.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari has also said that his country’s intelligence services shared information indicating that France, as well as the United States and Iran, was being targeted for attack. He has not given details.

Germany’s top prosecutor is also investigating allegations that an Algerian man detained at a refugee center in the western town of Arnsberg told Syrian refugees an attack was imminent in the French capital.

Europe is scrambling to respond to the attacks.

France declared a nationwide state of emergency which will now last three months. Police now have the power to conduct searches without obtaining judicial warrants and can hold anyone suspected of posing a threat to security under house arrest for 12 hours a day. Internet sites deemed to incite or advocate “acts of terrorism” can be blocked and public demonstrations banned.

Belgium has also announced a security crackdown, saying it will spend an extra 400 million euros ($430 million) on security and take measures such as stopping the sale of mobile phone cards to anonymous buyers. Police will be allowed to conduct night searches of homes and it is now easier to ban, convict or expel hate preachers.

Whether such measures will be enough is uncertain. Brussels is on high alert this weekend because of what authorities there called the “serious and imminent” threat of attack. In a video last week, Islamic State warned it would strike again.

“When a large operation is prepared, they are told to keep a low profile in the months before. As‎ they are no longer on police radars, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” said Roland Jacquard, president of the Paris-based International Terrorism Observatory.

(Robert-Jan Bartunek reported from Brussels and Orhan Coskun reported from Turkey; additional reporting by Nick Tattersall in Turkey, Alastair Macdonald in Brussels, Silvia Aloisi in Athens; writing by Timothy Heritage; editing by Alessandra Galloni, Simon Robinson, Janet McBride)

World | Sun Nov 22, 2015 5:37am EST Related: WORLD, FRANCE
PARIS | BY JOHN IRISH, ROBERT-JAN BARTUNEK AND ORHAN COSKUN

Find this story at 22 November 2015

Copyright http://www.reuters.com/

France Reportedly Received Warnings About at Least One of the Paris Attackers

French officials received multiple warnings about Paris attacker Omar Ismail Mostefai before Friday’s terror attack but Turkey didn’t get a response from French authorities until after the attack, a Turkish official said on Monday.

“On Oct. 10, 2014, Turkey received an information request regarding four terror suspects from the French authorities,” a Turkish official told the New York Times. “During the official investigation, the Turkish authorities identified a fifth individual, Omar Ismail Mostefai, and notified their French counterparts twice—in December 2014 and June 2015.”

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Mashable also quoted a senior Turkish official as saying that Mostefai, the first gunman identified in the attack, was known to security officials and that France never followed up on shared information until after the attack took place.

“This is not a time to play the blame game, but we are compelled to share the information to shed light on Omar Ismail Mostefai’s travel history,” the senior official told Mashable. “The case of Omar Ismail Mostefai clearly establishes that intelligence sharing and effective communication are crucial to counter-terrorism efforts. The Turkish government expects closer cooperation from its allies in the future.”

The Associated Press reported a more general warning had been given to coalition countries by senior Iraqi intelligence officials the day before the attack. The warnings were vague, though four Iraqi intelligence officials told the AP that they warned France specifically of an attack and two said they warned France beforehand about details French authorities hadn’t yet made public, including that the planning for the attack occurred in ISIS’s de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria. The officials also said a sleeper cell in France helped the attackers execute the plan after they arrived and the operation included 24 people—19 attackers and five working on planning and logistics.

The AP also reported that a senior French security official responded to the claims by the Iraqi officials by saying French intelligence receives such warnings “all the time” and “every day.”

Belgian’s Justice Minister Koen Geens also reportedly told CNN’s Ivan Watson that authorities knew some of the Paris attackers were foreign fighters in Syria but were unaware they had returned.

“Belgium has a foreign fighters problem,” Geens said.

Writing in Slate on Monday, Brian Michael Jenkins explained why even advanced knowledge about suspected ISIS sympathizers and fighters might not be enough to prevent such attacks:

[O]ne should not underestimate the difficulties of intelligence collection in Europe today. France’s intelligence services are being overwhelmed by the many individuals who have gone to join jihadi fronts in Syria (some of whom have returned), those suspected of preparing to go, and still others suspected of being involved in plotting or supporting terrorist plots. The total number easily runs into the thousands. Keeping every one of them under close surveillance is not possible. Choices have to be made. Some plots will be thwarted. Others will inevitably evade detection.

By Jeremy Stahl
NOV. 16 2015 12:14 PM

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How the Paris Attackers Honed Their Assault Through Trial and Error

PARIS — The gunfire had still not subsided, and those who could were running for their lives. But one man was crossing Paris to get close to the scenes of death.

Just after 10 p.m. on Nov. 13, the man, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, parked his rented getaway car in the eastern suburb of Montreuil, leaving behind the Kalashnikov he is believed to have used to shoot diners in central Paris a half-hour before. Apparently unconcerned as security cameras recorded his movements, he boarded the No. 9 subway line and returned to the part of the city that was still under siege. Before the night was over, investigators say, he had walked past the shattered cafes and bloodied concert hall that had been among his targets.

After a year of plotting terror in Europe but only producing four fizzled attempts, Mr. Abaaoud made sure this time was different. This time, he was on the scene, not directing from afar. This time, he monitored his team of assassins — old friends and new zealots — and surveyed the suffering. This time, investigators say, he had prepared for a second wave of assaults days later, and planned to die himself as a suicide bomber in the heart of the Paris region’s business district.

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How the Organizer of the Paris Attacks Slipped Through Authorities’ Hands
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who organized the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, crisscrossed Europe and the Middle East, even though he was on a Belgian watch list.

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A foot soldier turned lieutenant in the Islamic State’s hierarchy, Mr. Abaaoud, a 28-year-old Belgian, had been under increasing pressure to deliver something big, Western intelligence officials say. “All these operations in 2015 had been failures, embarrassing failures,” said Louis Caprioli, a former deputy head of France’s domestic counterterrorism unit. “He needed to make sure this operation succeeds.”

Two weeks after the attacks, as France buries its dead and a lengthening list of Mr. Abaaoud’s suspected confederates are rounded up, more evidence has emerged about how the group of at least nine militants pulled off the assaults, and the intelligence and security lapses that allowed them to do so.

There had been repeated hints of their intentions and efforts to hone their skills, according to dozens of interviews, court documents and government disclosures. Despite growing alarm in French counterterrorism circles about the threat they posed, the overburdened security apparatus proved ill equipped against an enemy practicing what one official calls “dartboard terrorism,” hurling multiple lethal darts at a distant target until one hits the mark.

In January, the police raided a safehouse in the Belgian town of Verviers, thwarting a plot that proved to be a chilling precursor to the synchronized murder that played out across the French capital 10 months later. The raid uncovered an arsenal that included the ingredients to make the same volatile explosives used in Paris, according to an American intelligence document.

The militants have become “more professional,” learning from their mistakes, said one intelligence official. Earlier this year, a plotter linked to Mr. Abaaoud planned to mow down the congregation at a French church but instead shot himself in the leg. But the gunmen in Paris — a majority of them battle-hardened in Syria — were well trained. After phone taps uncovered the Verviers plan, Mr. Abaaoud began using encryption technology and may have concealed his communications in that way with his Paris team, intelligence officials said.

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State of Terror
Articles in this series examine the rise of the Islamic State and life inside the territory it has conquered.

Exploiting Europe’s passport-free zone and patchy intelligence sharing, Mr. Abaaoud and his team moved not just across the Continent, but also to Syria and back. They did so despite being questioned at airports, flagged by security services or pulled over during routine traffic stops.

“Abaaoud was in the database of every single European country, but he returned to Europe like he was going on a vacation to Club Med,” said the mother of an 18-year-old Belgian jihadist who died earlier this year after joining the same Islamic State brigade to which several of the Paris plotters belonged.

The attack in Paris was the deadliest terrorist assault on the Continent in a decade, killing 130 people. It reverberated across the region, forcing Brussels to lock down for four days, spurring Germany to cancel a soccer match and prompting Britain to increase its military budget after years of cutbacks.

Trying to reassure a grieving nation, President François Hollande of France has pledged to defeat the Islamic State’s “cult of death.” Yet intelligence officials warned of the West’s vulnerabilities. Paris, they fear, heralds a new era of terror, one that could play out on the streets of European capitals for years to come.

“They try, they fail, they learn, they try again,” said one French official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They have patience and they have an army of willing martyrs that feed on an ideology that is immune to bullets.”

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The Expanding Web of Connections Among the Paris Attackers
Warning Signs

Earlier this year, an official at Europol, the Continent’s law enforcement agency, paid an urgent visit to Athens to ask for help tracking down a Belgian named Abdelhamid Abaaoud, according to news media reports.

For months, investigators had been intercepting suspicious calls originating near Pangrati, a neighborhood of Athens, said a retired European official who was briefed on the details.

Mr. Abaaoud, then 27, appeared to be planning an attack in his native land — a possibility considered improbable at first. He seemed like other young Europeans who had joined the Islamic State: a fanatic who made grandiose threats online, but did not have the know-how or the network to pull off mass murder on European soil.

But after the calls were tracked to Verviers, a SWAT team raided a residence there on Jan. 15, turning up evidence of surprising sophistication. The police found automatic weapons, a large quantity of cash, a body camera, multiple cellphones, hand-held radios and fraudulent identification documents, according to a United States Department of Homeland Security intelligence assessment.

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Paris Victims, Remembered
They also found the precursor chemicals for the explosive triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, according to the document, which was the same chemical compound used in the suicide belts in Paris. The compound is highly volatile, according to Claude Moniquet, who spent two decades at the French spy agency D.G.S.E. “If you don’t get it just right, you’ll either blow off your hand, or it won’t go off at all,” Mr. Moniquet said. “It suggests the presence of a bombmaker.”

The discovery set off a manhunt in Greece, but Mr. Abaaoud’s SIM card stopped transmitting immediately after the raid. The police found his DNA in an Athens apartment, according to news media reports. But officials lost his trail.

A few weeks later, Mr. Abaaoud resurfaced in the Islamic State’s online magazine, bragging about having plotted terrorism under the noses of the European authorities. “My name and picture were all over the news yet I was able to stay in their homeland, plan operations against them, and leave safely,” he said.

Until then, said David Thomson, the author of a book on French jihadists, Mr. Abaaoud had been seen inside the Islamic State as nothing special. “They spoke of him as they would of anyone else — and not as an important guy,” Mr. Thomson said.

If anything, he was known mostly for his appearance in a grotesque Islamic State video, whooping and laughing while dragging corpses behind a 4-by-4 truck.

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How ISIS Expanded Its Threat
Yet Europe’s most notorious jihadist was once a hapless delinquent.

In 2010, he planned to break into a garage in the Belgian countryside with a childhood friend. But he slipped off the roof, and the pair were later found soaking wet and nearing hypothermia on a river edge, recalled his former lawyer, Alexandre Château.

The bungled burglary was unremarkable, but the partnership was not: His accomplice was one of two brothers who would later be at Mr. Abaaoud’s side during the Paris attacks.

Mr. Abaaoud’s father said his son began showing signs of extremism after a stint in prison.

On March 23, 2013, the authorities intercepted a call Mr. Abaaoud made on a Turkish cellphone to a friend in Belgium. He said he was leaving for “The Camp,” according to court records. His brother told Belgian security officials that Mr. Abaaoud had said he was going to Syria “to do jihad,” according to a court transcript.

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When the police went to search his home in the Molenbeek district of Brussels months later, the items found inside his abandoned residence included pepper spray, gloves and two crowbars, along with the keys to a stolen Audi and three license plates.

Inscriptions praising the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, were on his door. On the wall, the court filing noted, was “a crude drawing of the ISIS flag, drawn with a marker.”

Sometime between late 2013 and early 2014, he joined a brigade called the Mujahedeen Shura Council based in Aleppo, Syria, which would soon pledge allegiance to the Islamic State.

One of his first jobs was searching the bodies of freshly killed troops. “He was in charge of emptying the pockets of cadavers after battle,” Mr. Thomson said.

Even when Mr. Abaaoud — by then called Abou Omar — joined the Katibat al-Battar, or Battar Brigade, an elite squad made up of French-speaking fighters that rose to prominence in 2014 within the Islamic State, his name surfaced only in passing, said Mr. Thomson, who spent months exchanging private messages with the French members of the unit as research for his book.

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In January, the police raided a terrorist safe house in Verviers, Belgium, and uncovered an arsenal of weapons. Credit Olivier Hoslet/European Pressphoto Agency
That changed abruptly after the Verviers plot. Though the operation had failed, Mr. Abaaoud’s ability to travel in and out of Europe impressed his fellow fighters in Syria, turning him from an ordinary soldier into an inspiration. “They would say, ‘Look at Abou Omar,’ ” Mr. Thomson recalled. “By which they meant: ‘If Abou Omar succeeded, then anyone can.’ ”

Battlefield Bonds

Investigators say they believe that it was in Syria that Mr. Abaaoud and most of the Paris attackers found one other.

As early as 2013, a well-established pipeline was funneling young men from Belgium to the Islamic State. Some took out loans with few questions asked from institutions like ING Belgium, where one future jihadist received 15,000 euros, or about $15,800, according to a recent court filing. Others bought cheap “burner” phones that are often discarded in an effort to avoid detection. One man stole flashlights and GoPro cameras, a favored tool for recording atrocities, according to court documents.

They knew to leave via trains or buses to other European countries before boarding flights to Turkey, evading relatively greater scrutiny at airports in their home countries.

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A photograph of Abdelhamid Abaaoud that was published in the Islamic State’s online magazine Dabiq. Credit via Associated Pres
Mr. Abaaoud, for example, accompanied his 13-year-old brother, Younes, to Syria, apparently by first making their way by land to Germany.

On Jan. 20, 2014, they checked in for a flight to Istanbul from Cologne. At passport control, an alert flashed: Mr. Abaaoud was on a Belgian watch list. When he claimed to be visiting family in Turkey, he was allowed to proceed.

Even when suspects are properly classified, they can fall through the cracks because of the lack of a centralized European database. There are currently 1,595 jihadists in the Europol terror database, said Jean-Charles Brisard, who has testified as an expert witness in terrorism trials. The actual number, if European countries shared their information more efficiently, should be well over 6,000, he said.

Many of the future Paris attackers ended up in the Battar brigade in Syria. Only Mr. Abaaoud and the two brothers from Molenbeek, Salah and Ibrahim Abdeslam, appear to have known one other before they were radicalized.

Several came from intact, middle-class families, including Mr. Abaaoud, a shop owner’s son who had been sent to an exclusive Catholic school. Second- and third-generation immigrants of Moroccan and Algerian descent, the attackers included a bus driver, a bar owner and a mechanic for the Brussels Métro. The oldest was 29, the youngest just 20 — he wept, his mother recalls, the day he left for Syria.

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The plotters Clockwise from top left; Samy Amimour, one of the suicide bombers who attacked the Bataclan concert hall; an unidentified man, one of the suicide bombers at the Stade de France stadium; Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected architect of the Paris attacks; Ibrahim Abdeslam, a Bataclan attacker; Ismaël Omar Mostefaï, a Bataclan attacker; an unidentified man suspected of being involved in the attacks; Bilal Hadfi, one of the suicide bombers at the stadium; and Salah Abdeslam, who remains at large. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Some had criminal records, and their families were reassured at first when they began to show signs of piety.

Mohammed Abdeslam said he had believed his two brothers were cleaning up their act. “When your brother tells you that he will stop drinking, it’s not radicalization,” he told a Belgian broadcaster.

Bilal Hadfi, the youngest of the group, had been smoking and doing drugs until one month before his departure to Syria in January, his mother told the Belgian news media, and started fasting on Mondays and Thursdays.

“He was by no means the cliché you’d expect,” recalled one of his mentors at the Instituut Anneessens-Funck in Brussels, where Mr. Hadfi, 20, was studying to become an electrician. “He didn’t have a beard.” He had “excellent grades” and was “extremely intelligent,” said the professor, who asked to remain anonymous in talking about a student. Then Mr. Hadfi stopped coming to class.

Mr. Hadfi is believed to have arrived in Syria last, on Jan. 15, eventually joining a team that included two hardened French jihadists: Ismaël Omar Mostefaï, a 29-year-old from the Courcouronnes suburb of Paris, and Samy Amimour, a 28-year-old bus driver from Drancy, northeast of the French capital.

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A mosque outside Chartres, France, that was attended by Ismaël Omar Mostefaï, whose contact with hard-line Islamists prompted officials to a database of those considered a potential security risk. Credit Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
Mr. Mostefaï was arrested eight times for petty crimes, and in 2010 his contact with hard-line Islamists at the local mosque prompted officials to add his name to the “S list,” a French database of those considered a potential security risk.

Mr. Amimour’s route to jihad began with an aborted trip to Yemen in 2012. After he stopped reporting to the police station in September 2013 as required, it took a month for an arrest warrant to be issued. By then, he had crossed into Syria — the same day as Mr. Mostefaï, officials say they believe.

As Frenchmen, the two would most likely have come across an older French jihadist who had already made a name for himself in the Islamic State: Fabien Clain, who had been to prison for recruiting fighters from France and Belgium to Iraq a decade ago. Mr. Clain, investigators said, was the speaker in an Islamic State audio recording claiming responsibility for the Paris massacre.

Intelligence officials call him a “bridge” between the French and Belgian jihadists who may have facilitated links between Mr. Abaaoud and his fellow plotters. Described as one of the most senior operatives in the Islamic State hierarchy, he works under Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the group’s chief of external operations. Mr. Abaaoud was lowlier, “a platoon leader, not the head of the armed forces,” said François Heisbourg, a former defense official and counterterrorism expert.

By August, Mr. Abaaoud’s blueprint and team for attacking Europe may have been nearly ready.

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Marc Trévidic, who served as France’s chief antiterrorism judge until three months ago, said he had heard Mr. Abaaoud’s name numerous times over the past year. Credit Remy De La Mauviniere/Associated Press
That month, Montasser AlDe’emeh, the author of two books on jihad and a former neighbor of Mr. Abaaoud’s in Molenbeek, heard his phone vibrate with a WhatsApp message. It was an audio recording from a Belgian jihadist in the same unit as Mr. Abaaoud.

“This is a message for the Belgian government from the mujahedeen of ISIS,” the audio begins. “It’s not a threat or a stupid thing, or just talk. This is a declaration of war. We have the plans.”

Raising the Alarm

The man who served as France’s chief antiterrorism judge until three months ago had heard Mr. Abaaoud’s name numerous times over the past year. Dozens of young French Muslims returning from Syria were brought to his office for questioning.

“Abaaoud came up all the time,” the judge, Marc Trévidic, recalled in an interview last week. “Especially after the January raids in Verviers.”

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Fans left the Stade de France after the soccer game between France and Germany amid confusion caused by the attacks in the area. Credit Christophe Ena/Associated Press
It was always the same story: Mr. Abaaoud had told his young disciples to “do whatever they can” to inflict death and damage at home. They described him as obsessed. “He was mentioned as someone who wanted, at all cost, to recruit volunteers to carry out attacks in Belgium and France,” said Mr. Trévidic, now vice president of the high court in Lille, northern France.

But there was never a specific target, nor a date for an attack. The mission was always vague.

That changed on Aug. 15. In one of the last interviews the judge conducted, he found himself opposite a young Frenchman who had been handed money, encryption software and the most concrete target to date: “a rock concert hall” in Paris.

The young man, Reda Hame, had been arrested coming back from Syria, accompanied by a Muslim from Belgium. His companion had told the police that Mr. Hame was planning an attack in France.

Mr. Abaaoud had asked Mr. Hame to hit a soft target where he could achieve “maximum casualties.” He had given Mr. Hame an email address to reach him on and a USB stick with an encryption key he was to download on his computer. Mr. Abaaoud had promised further instructions by email on where to obtain weapons for the attack and which specific concert hall to strike.

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Emergency workers removed the bodies of victims at a cafe in Paris. Credit Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
It was two weeks before Paris’s annual Rock en Seine musical festival. Was the target one of dozens of concerts playing over the three-day event in a Paris suburb? Was it one of the city’s many other music venues, like the Bataclan, which had been mentioned as a possible target at least twice before?

Mr. Trévidic placed an urgent call with the domestic intelligence services, the D.G.S.I., and asked them to trace Mr. Abaaoud’s email address.

“From late summer we knew something big was being planned,” said one French intelligence official. “We knew Abaaoud was involved in it but we didn’t know what, or where, or when. Everyone was on high alert.”

The sense of alarm only spread when, six days after Mr. Hame’s interview, a 26-year-old Moroccan, Ayoub El Khazzani, also linked to Mr. Abaaoud, stepped out of the bathroom of a high-speed train barreling toward Paris with a Kalashnikov before being subdued by three Americans.

With hindsight, some suggest the lone-wolf style attacks — single gunmen sent on missions to kill — that were thwarted in recent months were never the main focus. Whatever his intention, Mr. Trévidic said, Mr. Abaaoud “kept security services busy and distracted with these mini-plots while preparing the real attack.”

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Three Hours of Terror in Paris, Moment by Moment
Many of the attacks were just minutes apart.

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The United States had also picked up intelligence in recent months that showed the Islamic State was plotting an attack in France, senior American officials said. But they had nothing specific about targets or timing.

By late September, Mr. Hollande’s government launched airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Syria.

On Oct. 8 and 9, French fighter jets targeted training camps near Raqqa, the stronghold of the self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria. Mr. Hollande has publicly denied that the strikes were targeting an individual. But according to two Western intelligence officials, the hope was also to take out operatives including Mr. Abaaoud.

“When you don’t know where to hit the enemy here, you have to try to hit him over there,” Bernard Squarcini, the former head of France’s domestic intelligence agency, said in an interview.

A Calculated Attack

While the security services had their eyes on Syria, most if not all of Mr. Abaaoud’s team was already back in Europe, quietly putting in place the modern logistics of mass murder.

At least two are believed to have entered through the refugee flow on the Greek island of Leros, where the authorities fingerprinted them in October.

In the period leading up to the attack, the support network expanded — though just how far is not yet clear — to include radicalized family members and loyal friends, landlords and online arms dealers. Mr. Abaaoud’s cousin helped hide him after the attacks before dying alongside him in a police raid. Five friends of Salah Abdeslam, who dumped his suicide vest in a trash can and remains at large as the only surviving member of the attackers, have been arrested in Belgium for allegedly helping him escape. In Germany, one man who may have sold the group assault rifles over the Internet was placed in custody last week.

The plan involved three teams, whose members set off in at least three rental cars from Belgium and booked rooms in at least two locations in and around Paris, including two hotel rooms in the suburb of Alfortville and a house with bunk beds in Bobigny. Like tourists, they used online services including Booking.com and Homelidays.com, with the Abdeslam brothers handling the logistics.

In September, Salah Abdeslam made a foray to the edges of Paris to buy half a dozen electronic components used to make fireworks explode. He spent 390 euros in Les Magiciens du Feu, or “Fire Magicians” shop, said the shop’s in-house lawyer, Frédéric Zajac. “Unlike other clients, he did not ask any questions about how it all worked,” he said.

Mr. Abaaoud had learned from past mistakes: Unlike the plot in January, when his accomplices were still searching for an ice machine to store the TATP explosive, he made sure they had refrigerators. At the Appart’City hotel where four of the attackers stayed, rooms come with a kitchenette.

And rather than sending a single gunman or picking a single target, Mr. Abaaoud sent teams to a variety of locations — hedging the risk of failure and forcing the police to spread themselves thin. “They found out that if you use this ‘swarm theory’ you will exhaust the resources of law enforcement,” explained Ron Sandee, the former chief Al Qaeda analyst for Dutch military intelligence.

The roster for each team suggests more forethought: The two jihadists with more than four years of battlefield experience in Syria between them, Mr. Amimour and Mr. Mostefaï, were assigned the most important target, the Bataclan, with a third, still-unidentified man. Witnesses say they saw the Bataclan gunmen flanking each other, with one fighter reloading his magazine while another kept firing.

By contrast, the attackers at the Stade de France, the national soccer stadium, included the youngest and least experienced jihadist — the 20-year-old Mr. Hadfi. He was dropped off strapped with an explosive belt that needed only detonating. (Neither of the other two suicide bombers at the stadium has been identified.) “They said to themselves, ‘The kids will get as far as they can,’ ” and after that only need to “hit a button,” said Mr. Moniquet, a veteran of France’s intelligence agency who now directs the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center.

Mr. Abaaoud himself was believed to have gone to a busy stretch of restaurants on the Rue de Charonne, equipped with the Kalashnikov that was later recovered bearing his DNA. Phone records released by the French prosecutor indicate that he left the house at Bobigny in a rented Seat car at 8:38 p.m. accompanied by another still-unidentified attacker and Ibrahim Abdeslam, his accomplice in the bungled garage theft five years ago.

It remains unclear if Mr. Abaaoud joined his troops to fire on the bars and cafes, though it seems likely: Witnesses saw gunmen leaning out of the black Seat rental car, and in front of each shattered establishment, investigators recovered “hundreds” of 7.62-millimeter cartridges, according to the French prosecutor.

Between 8:40 p.m. and 9:21 p.m. the phone “most probably” used by Mr. Abaaoud was in “sustained contact” with the one used by Mr. Hadfi, according to the Paris prosecutor. That was when Mr. Hadfi tried to enter the soccer stadium near Gate D, only to be turned away.

Moments later, at 9:20, he detonated the explosive.

The last attempted call between the two phones came a minute later — the platoon leader checking up on the recruit.

Correction: December 3, 2015
Because of a transcription error, an article on Tuesday about the intelligence and security lapses that allowed the Paris attackers to practice their assault misstated the size of the cartridges recovered by investigators in front of the bars and cafes targeted. They are 7.62 millimeters, not 0.762.

Reporting was contributed by Nabih Bulos, Aurelien Breeden and Lilia Blaise from Paris; Eric Schmitt from Washington; Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura and Andrew Higgins from Brussels; and Alison Smale from Berlin.

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A version of this article appears in print on December 1, 2015, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Plot Honed by Trial and Error . Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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