Thursday, March 20, 2008
Bin Laden Who?
Question: When Osama Bin Laden speaks, who’s listening? That’s what we want to know as bin Laden releases not one, but two audio messages this week.

This image taken from a militant Web site shows an undated photo of Osama bin Laden as part of an audiotaped speech posted late Wednesday.

In the first, released on an al Qaeda Web site, he talks of a new crusade against Islam as evidenced by the publication of Danish cartoons that ridicule the Prophet Mohammed. He says, “Although our tragedy in your killing of our women and children is a very great one, it paled when you went overboard in your unbelief and freed yourselves of the etiquettes of dispute and fighting and went to the extent of publishing these insulting drawings. This is the greater and more serious tragedy, and reckoning for it will be more severe.”

In the second, an audiotape broadcast by Al Jazeera, bin Laden called on Muslims to keep up the fight against U.S. forces in Iraq as a path to "liberating Palestine." He says: "My speech is about the Gaza siege and the way to retrieve it and the rest of Palestine from the hands of the Zionist enemy," Bin Laden adds. "Our enemies did not take it by negotiations and dialogue but with fire and iron. And this is the way to get it back."

Neither message could be independently authenticated although security services around the world are now trying to assess if the messages are the recorded words of Osama bin Laden and when he might have issued his warnings.

Just a few months ago, a message from bin Laden would have rated among the top stories in any newspaper or on any newscast. Now, that’s just not the case. Most news organisations reported the messages but there didn’t seem a need for in-depth analysis or pundit panels about the imminent threat. Even security services seem less alarmed by bin Laden’s messages with one Italian security source telling “Obviously we can't ignore it but at this moment that doesn't mean the threat is being taken seriously," the source said.

It gets you thinking. We debate this here at CNN but we’ve come up with no real definitive answers as of yet. When we cover bin Laden’s messages, do we give him too much credibility? Or given his iconic position as the head of al Qaeda, are we not taking his messages seriously enough?

But most importantly, to those who still see bin Laden as a guiding force for jihad, how do they interpret his messages? We’re still looking for those answers, and as always looking for your comments.

By Paula Newton, CNN’s International Security Correspondent.
Monday, March 17, 2008
Talking Peace with the Enemy
Can you really? Apparently, if you’re the British prime minister and the issue is Northern Ireland, the answer is ‘yes’. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, gave a rare interview to The Guardian newspaper this weekend. Powell’s new book documents the behind the scenes Northern Ireland peace process and how talking to your enemies may be the only way to get rid of them.

However, Powell’s Northern Ireland experience gave him enough confidence to venture into another peace-making business that isn’t going so well. Powell argues, "if I was in government now, I would want to have been talking to Hamas, I would be wanting to communicate with the Taliban and I would want to find a channel to al-Qaeda".

Can talking to your enemies really destroy them?

Back in November I asked Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai if he were willing to talk to the Taliban. Surprisingly, he answered in the most candid of ways, “we are willing to talk to those of the Taliban who are not part of Al Qaeda or the terrorist networks,” said Karzai. A qualified maybe?

Before this he sounded even more conciliatory pointing out that he and his staff had ‘increasing’ contacts with the Taliban, as many as five points of contact in the last week alone. He went on to say, “If we are talking of such contacts, they are there, if we are speaking of a centralized authority in the Taliban with whom we can talk for peace that is not there.” But he made it seem as if, when there is that centralized authority, sure, we'll talk.

I and others took this as a qualified ‘yes’, it’s acceptable, even desirable to open a channel of communication to your enemy, if only to continually assess any opportunity for peace.

Just weeks later, Karzai’s government expelled two diplomats for, essentially, talking to the Taliban.

Confused? I still am. The only lesson I can take from this: If you are talking to the enemy, keep it a secret. It seems Tony Blair and his advisors took that to heart.

Friday, March 14, 2008
Dutch nab Pakistani man "linked to Barcelona plot"
In January, Spanish police arrested 14 men in Barcelona suspected of plotting suicide attacks on the city's public transport network. Four bomb timers were discovered but no explosives.

Most of the men arrested were Pakistani nationals. Their cover was apparently blown by an informant, who also told Spanish police the group was planning additional attacks in Britain, France, Germany and Portugal, according to El Pais newspaper.

Early this morning Dutch police made a follow-up arrest in that investigation. A 26-year old Pakistani national, who Dutch authorities had been watching for six weeks, was arrested in the southern Dutch town of Breda. Officials said he was detained on suspicion of belonging to an "international jihadist network" preparing attacks in western Europe. However there was nothing to suggest he planned to launch an attack in the Netherlands, they said.

The arrested man had arrived in the country in September last year on a student visa having secured a place to study at a vocational college. CNN was told he had not attended lessons and had worked instead as a painter and decorator. 

The arrest comes just weeks after a series of media reports suggesting police in Europe were hunting a man called Akeel Abassi as a possible accomplice of the Barcelona cell. Several reports suggested Abassi was being hunted in connection with a possible attack in Germany.

 Alleged plot is not home-grown

Spanish authorities have indicated they believe most of the people involved in this alleged plot have been rounded up. As prosecutors in Spain and the Netherlands work on building a case they can present in court, what is striking is how it appears to subvert so much of the received wisdom. 

For the last three years or so all the talk in Europe has been about "home-grown terror." The focus has been on European nationals - mainly British, but also German and Danish to name just two - who've been radicalised at home, probably gone to Pakistan to receive some training, and then returned to Europe to carry out their attacks. 

Those accused of this alleged conspiracy are Pakistanis. On top of that it was reportedly masterminded by Pakistani Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud. That points strongly to the idea that if the alleged plot had a raison d'etre then it was Afghanistan. And, in fact, that should come as little surprise. For there is a growing belief in European counterterrorism circles that it is Afghanistan - rather than Iraq, rather than Palestine, rather than Egypt or Saudi Arabia - that is the 'cause celebre a la mode' for jihadist extremists.

By Andrew Carey
Hezbollah and Cyber War

CNN has learned intelligence officials in Britain and the US believe Hezbollah sleeper cells could use their computer expertise to launch a cyber attack, on the orders of Iran. Hezbollah has been described as Iran’s surrogate army. For years US, Israeli and European security services have accused Iran of exporting terror around the world, using Hezbollah operatives. Now, cyber space may be the new battlefield, especially if Iran believes its nuclear program is under threat.

While Hezbollah’s capability in launching such an attack has been questioned, the US and Israeli military are taking the threat very seriously. In fact, the FBI says it now considers Hezbollah operatives more capable and robust than even Al Qaeda terrorists.

Hezbollah showed its increasing technological sophistication during its war with Israel in 2006. The moment Israel starting bombing Hezbollah targets in Beirut, the US government says it was being attacked on another battlefield in cyber space. A US Congressional research report detailed more than 10,000 breaches including the Pentagon, the House of Representatives website and NASA.

“There’s an argument out there shared by most independent specialists on Hezbollah that Hezbollah is actually better at using and understanding cyber warfare against the Israelis, than Israel is,” says Bilal Saab, a Middle East analyst with the Brookings Institution.

In 1994, 85 people were murdered and hundreds injured when a white van, packed with explosives was detonated at a Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires. Prosecutors in Argentina still believe the Iranian government gave Hezbollah agents the ‘kill’ order and wouldn’t hesitate to attack again.

“What I can say with certainty is that they can quickly launch a terrorist attack. Because they have the sleeper cells ready, they have the research ready, they have the agents.” says Marta Nercellas, an Argentine lawyer working with victims and their families. Iran and Hezbollah deny any involvement in the attack and Hezbollah declined to be interviewed for this report telling CNN, 'they don't answer these kinds of questions'.

While analysts believe conventional terror is still Hezbollah’s main weapon, some now are looking at the possibility that it could activate sleeper cells in order to open a second front in cyber space.

“The ambition is there, they would have a vested interest in retaliating and working with the Iranians,” says Saab.

For Iran, Hezbollah still serves as a potent threat and a warning that if and when the US, Israel or Europe try to block its nuclear ambitions, it is ready to fight back.

By Paula Newton, CNN’s International Security Correspondent.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
Swimming Upstream

The great and the good of British counter-terrorism policing were in Brighton a couple of weeks ago for the first ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) Counter Terrorism Conference. There were plenty of top cops present, British and overseas, as well as Government officials, legal professionals and academics.

Opening the conference, in his last week as head of Counter Terrorism Command at the Met Police, Peter Clarke told delegates they needed an open mind if they were going to "understand the picture," adding that "old or stereotyped thinking simply will not do." It's worth paying attention to the speakers at a conferences like this one because they're providing the brain food upon which Britain's counterterror cops are being encouraged to feed.

One topic everyone wants to get a handle on is radicalisation. How does it happen? How can we recognise it? And how can we stop it from happening?

Martin Innes, a Professor of Criminology at Cardiff University, presented some interesting research. Muslim communities, he suggested, are pretty well functioning, certainly compared to British society as a whole. They have a high level of social capital - shared goodwill, sense of fellowship and shared values - and a collective efficacy. Crucially, according to Innes, that means people from these communities feel safe within their own environment.

This seems to me to be pretty profound. If a community feels cohesive, if individuals within it feel secure - and we're talking about a pretty fundamental human need here, a sense of security - then why would they have any interest in integrating with the wider community, when to do so, they feel, would be to put at risk their feelings of safety and security?

To put it another way, individuals from a tight-knit Muslim community look out at the rest of neighbouring society and take the view, rightly or wrongly, that it cannot look after their security as well as they can look after it themselves. That means they don't call the police when there's a problem.

The second interesting finding, related, is that within Muslim communities there is - relative to society as a whole - a high degree of awareness of "deviant behaviour", as sociologists call it. In other words people know who is up to no good in the neighbourhood. Crucially, however, there is a reluctance to give up that information to authority figures - like the police - drawn from outside the community. To do so carries a risk to family and wider kin, even those abroad.

This also strikes me as important because it appears to run counter to the assertion, often heard, that parents have no idea what their children are up to; indeed can’t be expected to know what they’re up to. In well-functioning communities, this research suggests, parents do know. That's not to suggest the parents of a suicide bomber are aware of their son's intentions. But it is to suggest that parents, or other authority figures from within the community, might be well-placed to spot signs of a possible drift towards violent extremism.

Put these two points together and you have a scenario where the police are not seen as the best guarantors of security ... but where there is a high level of potential intelligence available from within the community. The conundrum for the police is how they can best get hold of it.

From Andrew Carey
Update on kidnapped Austrian tourists

Three days after it announced it had captured them, the group calling itself Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has now posted pictures of Wolfgang Ebner and Andrea Kloiber on the internet. Kloiber's face is obscured in all the pictures by what appears to be a crude post-production effect.

A message accompanying the pictures said that the pair's security lay in Austrian hands and that they'd be released if all AQ prisoners in Tunisia and Algeria were set free. The message set a deadline of three days.

Just where the pair are being held remains a mystery. Two days ago an Algerian paper said they had been taken through Libya and Algeria into Mali. Austria's Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed to CNN that it was working with Malian authorities, along with those in Tunisia and Algeria, to try to find them.

From Andrew Carey

Monday, March 10, 2008
Al Qaeda claims "kidnappings" in Tunisia
Al Qaeda's north Africa branch says it has kidnapped two Austrian tourists in Tunisia. The claim comes in an audio message, broadcast on Al Jazeera, by a man identifying himself as Salah Abu Mohammed. The message says the hostages are in good health and were taken in retribution for Western co-operation with Israel. It also says that conditions for their release will be announced in due course.

Austria's Foreign Ministry spokesman told CNN they're still trying to investigate "how real the message is" but says they are certainly taking it seriously. Until they are satisfied the pair have been kidnapped, however, they remain classified as missing.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is essentially an Algerian organisation, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (known by its French initials, the GSPC), re-badged under the AQ brand. The group has been blamed for a series of bombings in the last twelve months, including an attack in December on the United Nations offices in Algiers that killed 17 UN staff.

Kidnappings have the effect of frightening off tourists, of course, which is why countries like Tunisia, where tourism plays such a vital economic role, are so keen to avoid them. But that's not generally the motivation behind them. Kidnappings are about money, and western tourists have often been exchanged for sizable sums. When the GSPC kidnapped 32 tourists in southern Algeria in 2003 the total ransoms paid ran into the millions of dollars. A report from the Council on Foreign Relations suggests that money was used to purchase surface-to-air missiles, heavy machine guns, mortars, and satellite-positioning equipment.

From Andrew Carey
Sunday, March 9, 2008
Good Guys Finish Last - Lessons from the Irish
The retirement of Ian Paisley as Northern Ireland’s First Minister last week brought forth a series of homilies in praise of Dr. No and his amazing political journey. From hardline Unionist rejectionist to the sharing of power with republican Sinn Fein, his is, to be sure, an extraordinary story. But whether it should be held up, either by the misty-eyed or the more devious, as proof positive that “good things come to those who wait” – in this case to those who truly sought an end to persecution and division in Northern Ireland – received a proper slap round the cheeks by Simon Jenkins writing in the Guardian newspaper.

Jenkins’s argument is simple enough. It is, in essence, that the real visionaries, like moderate Nationalist John Hume, and the real risk-takers, like moderate Unionist David Trimble, were smashed by the extremists – Paisley’s DUP and Gerry Adams’ Sinn Fein – and that they were aided and abetted in this by the political establishments in London and Dublin.

Here’s David Trimble, asked for his thoughts on Paisley by the Irish Times this weekend: “One thing we can be sure of is that without Ian Paisley, there would have been a political settlement in Northern Ireland a generation earlier. And if Tony Blair had kept his promises to me at the time of the Good Friday Agreement [in 1998], Paisley’s political demise would have come a decade ago.”

And with that demise, presumably, peace.

Anyway… what do you think? Does conflict resolution mean talking to everyone, including the extremists, in an effort to bring them into the fold? Is that the simple truth of how lasting progress is made? Or is it a fatal compromise to speak to the hardliners ... with the price being paid by those seeking to build bridges?
Thursday, March 6, 2008
'Data Snatchers' II
Biometrics. Get used to the word. It describes the technique of using a person's unique physical characteristics for identification. They can include fingerprints, voice and face recognition, and iris scans.

Biometrics is making news in Britain this week as the government rolls out its national ID cards. First up will be foreign citizens living in Britain who will begin carrying biometric ID cards by the fall. By next year, ID cards will be extended to those in sensitive government jobs, like those who work at airports. Next up will be students, all government workers, and on and on the list goes.

Europe is well on its way to implementing its own biometric data registration. Why is it so attractive to governments? British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith puts it this way;

“We will be able to better protect ourselves and our families against identity fraud, as well as protecting our communities against crime, illegal immigration and terrorism. And it will help us to prove our identity in the course of our daily lives”

She adds that personal details of each person will be held separately from biometric data making it ‘incredibly difficult’ for anyone to steal another’s identity. But she didn't say it would be impossible. She works for the same government that lost computer discs with the personal banking details of more than 25 million British citizens last year, that admits that in January a stolen Ministry of Defence laptop contained the details of 600,000 people interested in joining the forces and that a computer disc marked "Home Office - confidential" turned up in a laptop purchased on eBay last month.

You’d be crazy not to ask yourself if we can trust these governments with biometric information.

Dr. Gus Hosein of Privacy International says flatly, you can't. Dr. Hosein points out politicians have put too much faith in biometric technology without exploring the real risk. He explains that even with biometrics it would still be possible to steal someone’s identity and finding and rectifying that crime would be much more difficult since biometrics are viewed as infallible. That does not even begin the cover the risks associated with keeping biometric data on one centralized data base and how vulnerable that information could be to abuse or negligence

Stay tuned. Biometrics is an emerging trend to watch, and an important debate to follow.

By Paula Newton, CNN’s International Security Correspondent.
News and observations on the threats to international security and the challenges posed by terrorism to societies around the world. From breaking news to background stories, from serious analysis to casual asides, if we think it's interesting we'll post it here.
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