The U.S. Has Conducted 550 Drone Strikes in Libya Since 2011 — More Than in Somalia, Yemen, or Pakistan

The United States has conducted approximately 550 drone strikes in Libya since 2011, more than in Somalia, Yemen, or Pakistan, according to interviews and an analysis of open-source data by The Intercept.

The Intercept’s reporting indicates that Libya has been among the most heavily targeted nations in terms of American remotely piloted aircraft and radically revises the number of drone strikes carried out under the Obama administration, doubling some estimates.

During a four-month span in 2016, for example, there were approximately 300 drone strikes in Libya, according to U.S. officials. That’s seven times more than the 42 confirmed U.S. RPA attacks carried out in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan combined for all of 2016, according to data compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based nonprofit news organization. The Libya attacks have continued under the Trump administration, with the latest U.S. drone strike occurring last week about 50 miles southeast of the town of Bani Walid.

Tracking drone strikes can be confusing, so much so that even the U.S. military has difficulty accurately tallying them. Since last fall, the Trump administration has carried out 18 airstrikes in Libya, according to official U.S. Africa Command press releases and confirmed media reports, but only 11 according to an AFRICOM spokesperson. Before a congressional committee in March, even AFRICOM’s own chief, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, provided an incorrect count of airstrikes in Libya in 2016. Changes in how strikes are defined and counted, a refusal to provide information on the aircraft used and where they originate from, and new Trump administration policies limiting disclosures of attacks have made already opaque operations even more secretive and difficult to track.

“Probably very few people outside the U.S. government are even aware the U.S. is fighting in Libya, let alone conducting hundreds of lethal drone strikes there. And the U.S. seems to be quite selective about which strikes it publicizes and which it doesn’t,” said Daphne Eviatar, director of security with human rights at Amnesty International USA. “Because these are unmanned aircraft that are launched remotely from bases abroad, it’s very easy for the U.S. to keep these operations secret if it chooses to. And we’re seeing increasingly that, especially outside acknowledged areas of armed conflict such as Iraq and Syria, the U.S. has been operating in secret and not even sharing publicly the rules or legal framework it’s operating under.”

Smokes rises after an airstrike on an Islamic State militants held area in Sirte, Libya, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

Smoke rises after an airstrike on an Islamic State-held area in Sirte, Libya, on Sept. 28, 2016.

Photo: Manu Brabo/AP

Libya — subject to U.S. military interventions since 1804 and the site of the world’s first modern airstrike, by an Italian pilot, in 1911 — found itself in America’s crosshairs again a century later. During the short-lived Operation Odyssey Dawn and the NATO mission that succeeded it, Operation Unified Protector, the U.S. military and eight other air forces flew sorties against the military of then-Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, leading to his demise and the end of his regime.

Since 2012, the United States, three other countries, and three Libyan armed factions have continued air operations there, conducting at least 2,158 airstrikes, including drone attacks, according to “Air Strikes and Civilian Casualties in Libya,” a report released Wednesday by New America, a Washington-based think tank, and Airwars, a U.K.-based airstrike monitoring group. The report estimates that the attacks killed between 242 and 392 noncombatants from 2012 to 2018, and injured as many as 524. “Hundreds of civilians have been killed by all parties to this very complex conflict in Libya, and none of them are taking responsibility,” said Chris Woods, the director of Airwars. “All of them are off the leash — often bombing without any accountability.”

AFRICOM stresses that it complies with the laws of war and takes “all feasible precautions during the targeting process to minimize civilian casualties and other collateral damage.” A Department of Defense analysis released last month found “no credible reports of civilian casualties resulting from U.S. strikes in Libya in 2017.”

“I don’t think AFRICOM has ever admitted a civilian harm event in Libya, including during the 2011 NATO campaign,” Woods said. “The U.S. is not taking responsibility where harm does occur, but neither is any other belligerent, foreign or domestic.”

New America and Airwars found that reported civilian deaths from airstrikes in Libya are fewer than in other war zones, like Syria and Yemen. U.S. attacks in Libya, for example, have resulted in 10 to 20 civilian fatalities, with as many as 54 additional civilian deaths attributable to strikes of possible U.S. origin, according to their research. Attacks by the Libyan National Army, led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar, resulted in 95 to 172 noncombatant deaths — the highest reported number for any belligerent.

The toll of some attacks is still in dispute. A U.S. drone strike in Libya on June 6, for example, killed four “ISIS-Libya militants,” according to AFRICOM. AFRICOM “performed a thorough review and determined the allegations of civilian casualties to be not credible,” according to a statement released Wednesday. The Libya Observer and the Libyan Foundation for Human Rights, however, reported that only one of the dead was a militant and that the others were civilians.

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Satellite communication relay pads at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily.

Photo: Henrik Moltke/Field of Vision

The Intercept’s count of 550 U.S. drone strikes in Libya over the last seven years is based primarily on five U.S. military sources. The first is a retired Air Force squadron commander who said his unit executed 241 drone strikes out of a U.S. base in Sicily in 2011, when the air campaign in Libya began. The second is an Air Force wing commander based in Nevada who told the audience of the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium that drones conducted approximately 300 strikes in the second half of 2016, when the U.S. was attacking the Libyan city of Sirte to oust Islamic State militants. The third is a 2017 Air Force news story that provided roughly the same figures. The fourth and fifth sources are AFRICOM and Pentagon officials, who confirmed that 11 strikes carried out in Libya during the Trump administration involved remotely piloted aircraft.

The more than 550 drone attacks in Libya since 2011 exceed the number of airstrikes since 2001 in Somalia, Yemen, or Pakistan. Between 2001 and 2011, the United States built up its drone forces and developed a framework for employing RPAs in combat. Since then, Libya has served as a laboratory for new tactics and a proving ground for the next era of drone warfare.

U.S. engagement in Libya began in 2011, when the so-called Arab Spring uprisings swept across the Middle East, imperiling autocrats from Tunisia to Bahrain. On March 25, 2011, the Air Force’s 324th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron and its MQ-1 Predator drones began operating from Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy. Less than a month later, the U.S. military confirmed its first drone strike in Libya — an attack on a Gaddafi regime military target near the city of Misrata.

For the next six months, U.S. drones flying from the Italian air base stalked the skies above the north African nation, conducting a campaign of previously under-reported size and scope. “Our Predators shot 243 Hellfire missiles in the six months of OUP, over 20 percent of the total of all Hellfires expended in the 14 years of the system’s deployment,” retired Lt. Col. Gary Peppers, the commander of the 324th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron during Operation Unified Protector, told The Intercept. When OUP ended in October 2011, Peppers noted, fewer than 1,200 Hellfire missiles had been fired by U.S. RPAs across the entire world, including in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Peppers recalled that the 243 missiles fired constituted 241 individual strikes. Neither the Pentagon, AFRICOM, nor U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa could corroborate Peppers’s figures.

After Gaddafi’s overthrow and death on October 20, 2011, Libya collapsed into chaos and militia-fueled insecurity, allowing terrorist groups to flourish and the so-called Islamic State to take over the Mediterranean coastal city of Sirte. By early 2013, the Italian government provided “a temporary authorization to deploy additional U.S. assets at the Sigonella base,” including MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers, the larger and more lethal cousin of the Predator, according to a report prepared by the foreign policy think tank CeSI for Italy’s parliament and ministries of defense and foreign affairs.

After several years of limited activity, the U.S. air war in Libya accelerated in 2016 with Operation Odyssey Lightning. That summer, the fledgling post-Gaddafi regime — the Libyan Government of National Accord, or GNA — asked for American help in dislodging ISIS fighters from Sirte. The Obama administration designated the city an “area of active hostilities,” loosening guidelines designed to prevent civilian casualties and allowing the U.S. military a freer hand in carrying out airstrikes.

“I only asked for U.S. airstrikes which must be surgical and limited in time and geographical scope, always carried out in coordination with us,” GNA Prime Minister Fayez Serraj told Italy’s Corriere della Sera in late summer 2016.

Between August and December 2016, according to a statement from AFRICOM, the U.S. carried out “495 precision airstrikes against Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices, heavy guns, tanks, command and control centers, and fighting positions” in Sirte. Then, in March, Waldhauser, the AFRICOM chief, told the House Armed Services Committee that the U.S. actually “conducted over 500 strikes” during the operation.

AFRICOM spokesperson Samantha Reho clarified Walhauser’s numbers, telling The Intercept that while there were “some subsequent strikes in some desert camps in Libya on January 18, 2017 … 495 is the correct number for the [Odyssey Lightning] campaign.”

Of those 495 strikes, more than 60 percent — approximately 300 — were carried out by MQ-9 Reapers, with the balance conducted by manned Marine Corps aircraft flown from Navy ships off Libya’s coast, according to Col. Case Cunningham, the commander of the 432nd Expeditionary Wing at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, the headquarters of the Air Force’s RPA operations.

“That’s a really significant number,” said Chris Woods of Airwars. “That’s 300 drone strikes on Sirte in just five months. That is a fierce tempo compared to other drone conflicts the United States has been involved in.” The use of drones in Sirte was more intense than across Iraq and Syria during a comparable period of time, Woods added: “This was a significant number of resources focused on a small area.”

Sirte became ground zero for testing new concepts of urban combat involving multiple drones working in sync with indigenous forces and U.S. special operators. “Some of the tactics were created and some of the persistent attack capabilities that hadn’t been used widely before were developed because of this operation,” one of the drone pilots involved in Odyssey Lightning said in an Air Force news release. According to Cunningham, about 70 percent of the Reaper strikes were close air support missions to back up local GNA forces engaged in street-to-street fighting. The drones often worked in tandem with one another, as well as with Marine Corps helicopters and jets, with the drones helping to guide the conventional aircraft as they attacked, Cunningham said.

Cunningham’s statistics were also published by the Air Force in 2017. Again, neither the Pentagon, AFRICOM, nor USAFE-AFAFRICA could corroborate Cunningham’s figures.

Cunningham explained that the ability of MQ-9s to loiter for many hours overhead allowed the U.S. to “find, fix, track, target, and engage in a very low — single-digit — number of minutes with extremely high precision,” and that it was “not unheard of to see times of less than one minute from a target-find to weapons-effects.” AFRICOM estimated that 800 to 900 ISIS fighters were killed during Operation Odyssey Lightning, according to Long War Journal, but Cunningham said that not one allegation of a civilian casualty due to U.S. strikes surfaced. New America and Airwars, however, found reports of civilian deaths due to U.S. attacks on Sirte.

Waldhauser told Congress that Odyssey Lightning “can serve as a model for future U.S. operations in the region.” But he admitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year that expelling ISIS from its stronghold in Sirte and general disorganization among terrorist groups have “not translated into a stable Libya.” Despite hundreds of airstrikes in support of the GNA and $635 million in U.S. assistance since 2011, Libya is one of the most fragile states on earth, deemed so dangerous that its U.S. Embassy is located in neighboring Tunisia. “Libya remains politically and militarily divided, with loyalties shifting based on tribal interests and personalities involved in the struggle for power,” said Waldhauser. “Given this turmoil, the risk of a full-scale civil war remains real.”

The view from a hidden position looking into a mirror, where fighters of the Libyan forces affiliated to the Tripoli government remain out of sight from snipers and scan for possible targets in the street outside, from their vantage point inside a building at the western front line in Sirte, Libya, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

Libyan fighters affiliated with the Tripoli government remain out of sight from snipers and scan for possible targets from inside a building on the western front line in Sirte, Libya, on Sept. 27, 2016.

Photo: Manu Brabo/AP

In July 2016, just before Odyssey Lightning commenced, the Obama administration issued a report acknowledging 473 drone strikes by the “U.S. Government against terrorist targets outside areas of active hostilities” between January 2009 and December 2015. The report noted that “areas of active hostilities” in that seven-year period included Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, but didn’t state which other countries might have met that definition and when. By December 2016, those three war zones had been joined by “certain portions of Libya.” But within a month, Libya had been removed from the list.

At the same time, a number of organizations that track drone strikes, as well as news outlets, offered up estimates of how many such attacks the outgoing president had overseen, all of them focused on countries that were far from any traditional American battlefields. USA Today reported “at least 526” drone strikes during the Obama years. The Council on Foreign Relations cited “542 drone strikes that … killed an estimated 3,797 people, including 324 civilians.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism came up with “563 strikes, largely by drones, [that] targeted Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen … compared to 57 strikes under [President George W.] Bush.”

The 541 drone strikes in Libya during the Obama years, therefore, equal or possibly exceed the number of attacks carried out in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen at the same time.

“These drone strike numbers are shockingly high and not widely known,” Hina Shamsi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project, told The Intercept. “They underscore that the Obama administration’s record on transparency about its use of lethal force abroad was deeply inadequate.”

When it comes to analyzing drone strikes, Libya apparently fell through the cracks. RPA attacks go largely uncounted in designated “areas of active hostilities,” which included Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria — and, at times, Libya — under Obama. With already limited media and NGO resources focused on countries like Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan, few noticed as Libya became one of the most targeted nations on earth.

The situation in regard to “areas of active hostilities” has become even more muddled today.

Daphne Eviatar of Amnesty International USA notes that while it has been reported that the Trump administration has loosened restrictions on drone strikes outside armed conflict zones — Libya among them — the government has refused to publicly acknowledge this shift in policy.

“When it complied with the congressional mandate to report on changes to its legal framework earlier this year, the bulk of the information, including any changes in the rules on who can be targeted and protection of civilians, was classified,” said Eviatar. “That was a huge step backward from the Obama administration, which, after years of its own secrecy, in 2016 finally did at least explain the legal and policy framework it was operating under.”

“Strikes and counterterrorism operations are conducted under authorities provided by Congress in the Authorization for the Use of Military Force and in accordance with international law,” Maj. Sheryll Klinkel, a Pentagon spokesperson, told The Intercept. “There is no additional or specific information on authorities that are publicly available.”

“I do not see a role in Libya,” said President Donald Trump last April. “I think the United States has, right now, enough roles.”

And for the first eight months of the Trump administration, there were no acknowledged U.S. drone strikes. But last fall, that changed. Three days of attacks in September, two in October, and two in November were followed by strikes this year in January and March. Two more strikes this month bring the total to 18 airstrikes, according to AFRICOM press releases and confirmed media reports. The command has, however, officially redefined these 18 attacks to 11 strikes in order “to better align with AFRICOM’s internal operational reporting,” spokesperson Samantha Reho told The Intercept.

Referencing a September 24, 2017, press release that noted that U.S. forces had conducted “six precision airstrikes in Libya” two days earlier, Reho explained that the command now “counts that incident as one strike with six separate engagements, whereas we initially wrote it as six strikes.” An AFRICOM official, speaking on background, claimed that the higher counts were a “blunder” and the command changed policies after realizing that the numbers reported to Congress did not match those being released to the public.

AFRICOM’s change in how it defines and counts airstrikes comes at a time when the Trump administration has sought to keep such information under wraps. In a break from past policy, AFRICOM no longer proactively announces attacks in Libya, increasingly offering comment about airstrikes only when questioned. According to New America and Airwars, less than 50 percent of reported airstrikes by all parties to the conflict are officially declared, and the United States is the most transparent. But the bar is set very low. The U.S. military refuses, for example, to provide even basic information about acknowledged attacks. “We usually don’t disclose which bases and aircraft are involved and where they originate from for strikes,” Klinkel, the Pentagon spokesperson, told The Intercept.

“President Obama left a legacy of expansive claims of war authority without congressional authorization in multiple parts of the world, with lethal strike and civilian casualty counts largely shrouded in secrecy until the end of his administration,” said Shamsi of the ACLU. “That legacy is now in the hands of President Trump, who is using it to the detriment of our system of checks and balances, the transparency needed for democratic accountability, and meaningful recognition of harm to civilians.”

Top photo: Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily.

The post The U.S. Has Conducted 550 Drone Strikes in Libya Since 2011 — More Than in Somalia, Yemen, or Pakistan appeared first on The Intercept.

U.K. Won’t Cancel Trump’s Visit Despite “Deeply Disturbing” Images of Caged Children

Donald Trump is still welcome to visit Britain next month, Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday, despite widespread revulsion at what she called “deeply disturbing” images of children being held in “what appear to be cages” along America’s border with Mexico.

May, who is pursuing a trade deal with the United States to mitigate the looming economic catastrophe of Brexit, has generally been reluctant to criticize Trump, but in the House of Commons on Wednesday she was forced to address the American president’s abduction of immigrant children.

“President Trump has locked up 2,000 little children in cages and is refusing to release them unless he’s allowed to build a wall,” Gavin Shuker of the opposition Labour party pointed out during Prime Minster’s Questions. “What does this man have to do to have the invitation she has extended revoked?” he asked.

In May’s response, she referred to Trump only by his title, and suggested that her meeting with the president of the United States would be an opportunity to raise the issue with him. “When we disagree with the United States,” the prime minister said, “we tell them so.”

May was accused of hypocrisy by some Britons who recall that, in her prior role as Britain’s home secretary, she had hired vans to drive the streets threatening to jail undocumented immigrants.

Faced with the prospect of mass protests already being planned for London and Edinburgh, few details have been released ahead of Trump’s “working visit” to his mother’s homeland, scheduled for July 13. But outrage has been stoked this week over the images and audio of abducted children circulating online, Trump’s repeated lies about a refugee crime wave in Germany, his decision to withdraw from the U.N. Human Rights Council, and his use of the word “infest” to equate immigrants to vermin.

Among those who expressed disgust at the images from inside the U.S. internment camps were Trump’s friend Piers Morgan and Lord Sugar, the star of the British version of “The Apprentice.”

Sugar, perhaps channeling Trump too much, was also forced to apologize on Wednesday for posting a racist tweet, in which he joked that African soccer players taking part in the World Cup were also selling cheap sunglasses and handbags on the pitch.

Top Photo: British Prime Minister Theresa May with President Donald Trump at the White House in January, 2017, when she invited him to visit Britain.

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Democratic Megadonor Haim Saban Attacks Senators for Urging Humanitarian Aid to Gaza Strip

Television mogul and Democratic Party megadonor Haim Saban is privately reprimanding lawmakers who spoke out about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza Strip. Saban emailed the senators, some at their personal addresses, to directly express his displeasure with a letter organized last month by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Twelve Democrats and Sanders signed the May 11, 2018, letter calling for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “act urgently in order to help relieve the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.” The letter, which came amid a deadly Israeli response to a protest movement in the Gaza Strip, said that the Trump administration should restore funding to a United Nations humanitarian effort and encourage Israel to ease restrictions on Palestinians living in Gaza. Three days after the senators sent the letter, Israel fired on another round of protests, leaving dozens dead and hundreds more wounded.

On Tuesday, The Intercept obtained a copy of an email Saban sent to six of the senators, along with a handful of staffers for others, expressing his “dismay” that they signed.

“Do your homework, unless you have chosen to blindly follow Senator Sander’s ill advised, misinformed, simplistic, and ignorant lead.”

“Senators, for you to listen to Senator Sanders and accuse Israel of being the main culprit is outrageous, misinformed, offensive and shows a lack of understanding of the region’s basic fundamentals,” Saban wrote. “Do your homework, unless you have chosen to blindly follow Senator Sander’s ill advised, misinformed, simplistic, and ignorant lead.”

Saban’s email mostly addresses the Gaza protests and Israel’s deadly response. He organized his missive as a fact check, using bold, underlined text in all capital letters to enumerate various pro-Israel talking points about the Gaza crisis. But his “cold, hard facts” frequently had nothing to do with anything in the letter or remarks made by any of the senators on the crisis.

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For instance, nowhere in the Sanders letter did the senators accuse Israel of being the “main culprit” of the humanitarian situation in Gaza. While the letter noted that Israel’s “restrictions on the freedom of movement, legitimate goods, and equipment in and out of Gaza” have “made the humanitarian situation worse,” it also placed blame on the Palestinian faction ruling the strip: “Hamas — due to its ongoing repression, corruption and insistence on pursuing a violent struggle against Israel — bears significant responsibility for the deteriorating situation.”

Saban did not respond to repeated requests for comment, including one made to his night secretary.

“The uncouth and belittling language is directed at these 13 Senators for daring to suggest that Palestinians suffering in Gaza deserve humanitarian relief.”

“As this condescending letter attacking several leading Senate Democrats shows, Saban is, as he once described himself, a ‘one issue guy’ and ‘that issue is Israel,’” said Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “The uncouth and belittling language is directed at these 13 senators for daring to suggest that Palestinians suffering in Gaza deserve humanitarian relief. The tone sounds less like a sincere attempt to convince anyone and more like the bitter ramblings of a political investor who knows the base of the party he has long supported is uninterested in backing Israel’s heinous human rights abuses any more.”

Saban is a powerful figure in the Democratic Party, a massive donor to party organs and one of the top contributors to Hillary and Bill Clinton’s political careers. His most visible political advocacy, however, is for hawkish pro-Israel causes. “I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel,” he told the New Yorker in 2010. Saban played an early, leading role in fighting against progressive Rep. Keith Ellison’s failed bid to win the Democratic National Committee chair, calling the Muslim Minnesota Democrat an “anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual.”

Sanders, who supported Ellison’s campaign, has pushed the Democratic Party toward more progressive positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the 2016 Democratic presidential primary race, Saban’s benefactor Hillary Clinton struck a traditional pro-Israel line on the conflict, but Sanders spoke out against Israel’s policies and led delegates to the party’s platform committee in an unsuccessful push for progressive positions to be included on the issue. According to Pew polls, Democratic voters are increasingly more in line with Sanders than their party on a range of questions about the Mideast conflict.

In his email, one of the “facts” offered by Saban states that “terrorists regularly disguise themselves as civilians, including as members of the press.” This spring, amid the Gaza protests, Israeli soldiers shot five journalists, two of whom died. A photograph published afterward by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz showed one of the journalists jacket clearly marked “PRESS.” In his email to the members of Congress, Saban added, “FACTS are stubborn things and are not debatable.”

The Sanders-led letter — whose signatories included Sens. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio — noted that, in 2012, U.N. experts warned that the Gaza Strip would be “unlivable” by 2020. More than 50 years of Israeli occupation and 10 years of a blockade have left the strip in a state of severe humanitarian crisis. The travel and import restrictions imposed by Israel led humanitarian groups to call Gaza the “world’s largest open-air prison.” Gaza residents receive as little as four hours of electricity per day and the vast majority of groundwater is contaminated at dangerous levels.

“Saban’s one issue may be Israel but so long as Israel’s policies continue to deny freedom, justice, and equality to millions of Palestinians, progressives and liberals will increasingly reject them,” said Munayyer. “He’d be wiser to send letters with that message instead and address it to Tel Aviv.”

Top photo: Haim Saban arrives before the start of the third U.S. presidential debate on October 19, 2016, in Las Vegas, Nev.

 

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Trump Lies About Germany, Again, to Cast Immigrants as an Existential Threat

The president of the United States told a blatant lie about Germany on Monday, claiming that the nation’s crime rate — which is at its lowest level in 25 years — has gone “way up” since Europe granted asylum to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the wars in Syria and Iraq.

The lie, posted on Twitter by Donald Trump, was an attempt to justify the exceedingly cruel measures he ordered to deter unauthorized immigration, including the arrest of asylum-seekers at the southern border and the removal of their children for detention in cages.

It was widely debunked and criticized by Germans, like the political scientist Marcel Dirsus.

As Mathieu von Rohr of the German magazine Der Spiegel pointed out, Trump’s false claim about crime in Germany — which is down 5.1 percent overall since last year and 2.4 percent for violent offenses — also misled readers about the continued popularity of Chancellor Angela Merkel, even as she resists calls for a crackdown on asylum-seekers from allied conservatives in the state of Bavaria.

Jeremy Cliffe, the Berlin bureau chief of The Economist, noted that Trump’s grasp of the politics of immigration in Germany is also shaky. While it is certainly true that Merkel’s party has lost some support to the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany, the far-right party is still supported by just 16 percent of the voters in recent polling, and its leader, Alexander Gauland, trails Merkel 50-12 in overall approval.

Undeterred by the facts, Trump followed his false claim with a second tweet, in which he revealed that the lie about Germany was part of a broader effort to cast immigration, at least by nonwhites, as an existential threat to both Europe and the United States.

While it was not clear what, exactly, Trump thinks is happening in Europe — where there has been a sharp decline in migration from the Middle East and Africa since 2015 — he repeated the comment in prepared remarks at the White House later on Monday. “The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility,” he said. “You look at what’s happening in Europe, you look at what’s happening in other places,” Trump added. “We can’t allow that to happen to the United States.”

As he has in the past, Trump seems to be implying that harsh measures — like those taken recently by his administration and by far-right leaders in Italy and Hungary — were necessary to defend both the physical security of Europe and America, as well as to preserve their white, Christian majorities.

That underlying racist theme was, of course, the very loudly spoken subtext of Trump’s first speech as a candidate for the presidency, when he attacked Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. It was there too, in his nearly obsessive criticism of Merkel during his campaign, when his speeches were punctuated — again and again and again — by false claims about a nonexistent crime wave destroying Germany, where his grandparents were born.

Just two weeks before Merkel responded to the migrant crisis of 2015 by opening Germany’s borders to refugees, Trump told Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business that the German chancellor was “a fantastic leader — I was with somebody the other day who thinks she’s the greatest leader in the world today, she’s the smartest and the greatest leader in the world today.”

Two months later, Trump told a crowd in Knoxville, Tennessee, that he no longer admired Merkel. “I think what she did to Germany is a disgrace,” he said. He went on to say that giving shelter to Syrians would “destroy all of Europe” and falsely claimed that “they’re having riots in the streets; they’re having crime that they’ve never had before.”

“We talk about immigration, we talk about borders. Do you see what she’s done to Germany?” Trump asked a crowd in New Hampshire two months later, after Merkel was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year instead of him. “The crime is astronomical. It’s not working. They’re having riots now in the street, and the German people are now saying, ‘We’ve had it; we’ve had it.’ We can’t let that happen to us.”

“Germany is a behemoth, an economic behemoth. It’s being destroyed by what Merkel has done there, what she has done to Germany,” Trump told supporters in South Carolina in February 2016. “I have friends from Germany, they’re leaving Germany,” he continued. “These are people who were so proud, a year ago, of being in Germany — German people. They were so proud, they used to brag. I said, ‘Are you still proud?’ Not so proud.”

The culmination of Trump’s attacks on the German leader for her openness to refugees from the Middle East and Africa was a line he trotted out in Ohio in August 2016. “Hillary Clinton wants to be America’s Angela Merkel,” Trump read from a teleprompter, before pausing to allow for boos. “And you know what a disaster this massive immigration has been to Germany and the people of Germany,” he continued. “Crime has risen to levels that no one thought they would ever, ever see. It is a catastrophe.”

Top Photo: German Chancellor Angela Merkel looked toward U.S. President Donald Trump during a gender equality meeting he arrived late for at the G7 Summit this month in Quebec.

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Iraq’s Courts Have Rushed to Convict Thousands of ISIS Fighters. This is One Family’s Struggle for Fairness, Truth, and Reconciliation.

One Car Bomb, Two Stories

One evening in the spring of 2015, Ahmed left his family home in a residential neighborhood of Baghdad and got into his red Toyota Corolla. Ever since his family had fled their hometown of Ramadi as the Islamic State advanced in 2014, the 20-something had been working as a taxi driver, ferrying passengers and their possessions between the capital and Anbar, a Sunni-majority province where Ramadi is located. But that evening, he planned to make a special delivery. An emir – a senior ISIS leader – had instructed him to collect a car rigged with explosives destined to detonate in the capital.

It wasn’t the first time Ahmed had participated in operations aimed at spreading terror in Shia-majority areas and retaliating against government forces fighting to uproot ISIS from its self-declared caliphate further north, according to Iraqi prosecutors. Since Ahmed had pledged bay’a, or allegiance, to the terrorist group, the prosecutors contended, ISIS had tasked him with transporting two other car bombs from Anbar. As before, this latest bomb would probably target Iraqi security forces in the capital. But it also might explode in front of one of Baghdad’s popular bakeries or ice cream shops, where Iraqi families sought to unwind in the cool evening air, or near a crowded Shia shrine, targeting thousands of pilgrims who had recently flocked to the capital to attend a religious festival.

Ahmed didn’t know the precise location of the car; this was a precaution to avoid alerting the security forces to the operation. He called another contact, who connected him with a third person to fetch the car. This third man drove the car bomb, a Kia Sorento, while Ahmed accompanied him in his red Toyota Corolla. As they made their way through Baghdad’s crowded streets, Ahmed called a fourth person, an ISIS operative who had gained a reputation for orchestrating attacks in the capital. The operative guided them to the drop-off location.

But as they arranged to meet in western Baghdad, intelligence officers were monitoring their phone calls and tracking their movements. Unbeknownst to Ahmed and the others, the ISIS operative they were talking to had been detained and forced to cooperate. He led the men and the car bomb straight into the hands of the security forces. An Iraqi government forensic team later confirmed that the Kia Sorento was indeed rigged with a bomb that could be detonated using a mobile phone.

In what the government considered a highly successful operation, Iraq’s intelligence services managed to foil a terrorist attack and penetrate an ISIS cell they say was responsible for masterminding many suicide blasts in Baghdad. Ahmed and two of the other operatives confessed to belonging to ISIS.

A few months later, the driver of the car bomb was acquitted after claiming that he did not know the car was rigged with explosives, but Ahmed and the other two detainees were sentenced to death by hanging. “The details of the crime clearly show they are a danger to society,” the verdict read. “Applying a harsh punishment is more suitable than being merciful.”

1 Ahmed and two others were found guilty under article 4/1 of Iraq’s counterterrorism laws, which mandates the death sentence for anyone who engages in acts of terrorism, whether as the main perpetrator or a minor participant. They were sentenced to death by hanging.

2 Cases that involve a death penalty are automatically passed on to the appeals court.

3 The verdict is signed by a panel of three judges.

4 The verdict states that Ahmed “confessed to joining ISIS and that he took part in delivering a number of car bombs.”

5 The court concludes that “the details of the crime clearly show their danger to society and its stability. By specializing in car bombs that cause the highest causalities possible, they showed their disrespect for the lives of innocent citizens.”

Caption TKTKTKTK

Ahmed’s verdict, condemning him and two others to death by hanging.

Justice had been served, at least according to the state. But this account represents just one version of events, laid out by institutions that many Iraqis, especially Sunnis, view with suspicion and fear.

None of it was true, said Ahmed’s family, who have been fighting to overturn the conviction in a federal appeals court. They feared that speaking publicly about the case could endanger Ahmed and his family, so The Intercept agreed not to identify them, instead using pseudonyms. Ahmed had never sworn allegiance to ISIS, the family claimed. To the contrary, he helped families victimized by its brutal rule. As a driver, he often snuck cars into Baghdad on behalf of displaced people who had been forced to leave them behind when they fled ISIS. Ahmed had been framed, his father said, a victim of security forces who harbor deep hatred against Sunnis, the sect ISIS purports to champion. Ahmed hadn’t known the car he had accompanied was carrying a bomb, his father said. He was to give the driver of the other car a ride once the man dropped off the vehicle. Ahmed had been targeted because he was from Anbar, a predominantly Sunni province known as a hotbed of extremism and a fertile recruitment ground for groups like ISIS.

Ahmed’s 18-page handwritten confession detailing the incident was a falsehood, the family said, extracted under severe torture. They viewed the judges as complicit: The court had turned down multiple requests for a medical examination to determine whether Ahmed had been tortured, which, if true, could have nullified his confession. Because Ahmed wasn’t the one driving the car bomb, there would have been little other evidence against him. If the Iraqi judiciary were fair, they said, Ahmed would have walked free.

Instead, his family had come to perceive the judicial process as deeply unjust, fraught with sectarian bias and corruption.

1 “Central Investigative Court”

2 “Statement of the accused”

3 In this handwritten statement, Ahmed allegedly admitted to accompanying the car bomb: “I drove my Toyota Corolla, while the accused [name redacted] drove the KIA car bomb towards Amiriya intersection near the grocery market, where the accused [name redacted] was waiting for us to receive the car bomb from me.”

4 The confession mentions the full names of the other alleged participants, which have been redacted. Suspects often accuse security forces of using force to obtain incriminating statements against others.

5 The last sentence of the statement reads: “I give this confession without any pressure or force, and that’s my statement.”

6 The confession is signed and fingerprinted by the accused, and signed by the appointed lawyer, the investigative judge, and a prosecutor. The names of the judge and prosecutor are not mentioned.

An excerpt from Ahmed’s 18-page, handwritten confession. His family asserts that the handwriting isn’t his, and that he was forced to sign and fingerprint the document after enduring severe torture.

For over three years, the Iraqi government and its Western allies battled ISIS, engaging in some of the fiercest urban combat since World War II. The grueling, nine-month operation to retake Mosul claimed tens of thousands of lives and left Iraq’s second-largest city in ruins. In December, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that the war was finally over. The terror group that had once held a third of Iraq’s territory had officially been defeated.

ISIS may be vanquished, but it has left behind a deeply divided Iraq. The group’s victims yearn for justice and, in many cases, revenge, a practice that is legitimized by tribal laws and often directed at families of ISIS fighters. Sunnis feel unfairly branded as extremists by other ethno-religious groups, who blame them for allowing ISIS to take root in their areas. Even though many Sunnis express gratitude for having been freed from ISIS, they remain deeply suspicious of the Iraqi state and its security forces that once again govern their territories, and whom they accuse of arbitrary arrests, looting, and forced evictions.

The Iraqi government must now separate good from evil, bring perpetrators to account, and deliver justice for victims of ISIS, while avoiding the corruption and unequal treatment that fueled the group’s rise in the first place. The scale of the undertaking is formidable, especially for the overburdened judicial system. Baghdad’s central criminal court delivered verdicts for around 2,800 ISIS suspects in 2017 alone, a judge there told The Intercept; hundreds of others were tried in other cities across Iraq. Thousands linger in crowded prisons, waiting months and sometimes years for a trial that only lasts a few minutes.

Views on the process differ starkly. Judges and prosecutors say that ISIS has trained its members to sabotage the judicial process by exploiting their rights as defendants and alleging procedural violations that sometimes result in dismissal. Private lawyers stay away from complicated and controversial cases, fearing retribution, arrest, and social stigma. Suspects’ relatives see the process as yet another tool to oppress the Sunni minority, while some accuse lawyers and investigators of financially exploiting desperate families.

Rather than mending intercommunal rifts to pave the way for reconciliation, the ISIS trials risk further polarizing Iraq’s fractured society. Unlike the justice and reconciliation process in post-genocide Rwanda, for example, Iraq’s state has offered little space for truth-telling and victim participation. The country’s harsh counterterrorism laws don’t differentiate between leaders and lowly aides, providing few opportunities for minor perpetrators to repent in return for lower sentences. Far from setting the stage for reconciliation, the rapid-fire trials of ISIS suspects appear aimed at a single goal: to purge ISIS from Iraq’s society as quickly as possible, with little regard for victims or concern that innocent people could be caught up in the system. Instead of mending old wounds, the process risks tearing open new ones; the ripple effects of decisions made in Iraq’s courts today could be felt for years, perhaps decades, to come.

 

“We All Confessed Under Beatings”

Nabil fiddled nervously with the plastic cup on the table in front of him. His dark eyes scanned the cafe, scrutinizing new arrivals as they ordered sweet tea and settled into stiff wooden chairs. This was Nabil’s first time in Baghdad since his arrest in 2015. “I go from my house to work and straight back. I don’t go anywhere to avoid trouble,” he mumbled, his voice nearly inaudible in the crowded cafe. Like Ahmed, Nabil comes from Ramadi, where the two grew up together. When Ahmed vanished that fateful spring evening, Nabil tried to help his friend’s family look for him. “We had no idea where he was. We didn’t know if he was arrested or kidnapped,” he said.

Nabil didn’t have to search for long. A few days later, in the middle of the night, security forces knocked on the door of his temporary home in Baghdad, where Nabil’s family had relocated, like Ahmed’s, when ISIS took control of Ramadi. The soldiers, who wore black uniforms with insignia that read “Special Operations,” didn’t explain why they had come. Nor did they present an arrest warrant when they handcuffed and blindfolded Nabil, his cousin, and another friend. “For an hour or an hour and a half, they kept us in the apartment, asking questions and beating us,” Nabil recalled.

The men were ushered into Humvees and driven to an interrogation facility at Baghdad International Airport, run by the Interior Ministry’s Directorate of Intelligence and Counterterrorism. The days that followed were the worst in Nabil’s life. The torture began around midnight and lasted until dawn. First came the beatings. Then they would hang him from the top edge of a door with his hands bound behind his back in a position known as “Palestinian hanging” because it is said to be used in Israeli prisons. Once suspended, he said, they would whip him with cables. On one occasion, Nabil told me, he was electrocuted, with wires attached to his ear and genitals. Although no witnesses could corroborate Nabil’s account, a Human Rights Watch researcher told The Intercept that “there are multiple prisons at the Baghdad airport, and Human Rights Watch has heard accounts of incidents of torture there. … I have heard accounts and seen photos depicting the types of torture you are describing in Iraq.”

After it was over, they would drag Nabil back to his tiny cell, where he would fade in and out of consciousness until the ordeal resumed a few hours later. After three days, he was ready to do anything to make it stop. “I told them, ‘Bring me any paper you want me to sign. You can write whatever you want on it,’” Nabil said.

On the fourth day, Nabil finally saw Ahmed. He had heard his voice earlier, but thought that perhaps his mind, muddled by the beatings, was playing tricks on him. When the prisoners were brought into a courtyard to get some sunlight, the two friends exchanged brief accounts of their arrests, and quickly realized they were linked. Nabil’s cousin had been taken because the Toyota Corolla that Ahmed had driven at the time of his arrest was registered in the cousin’s name. Nabil, they figured, had been arrested because he was young, male, and living in the same house as his cousin.

Like Nabil, Ahmed had endured several days of torture and appeared broken.

“I confessed,” Nabil recalled Ahmed telling him.

“To what? You haven’t done anything.”

“I confessed under the beatings.”

“We all confessed under beatings,” Nabil tried to console him. But Ahmed was certain that he’d soon swap his yellow jumpsuit for a red one, the color reserved for convicts. Before the men parted, Ahmed asked Nabil to promise that if he got out, he would pass a message to Ahmed’s parents. He wanted them to know that he’d been detained and to ask their forgiveness for what they were about to go through.

Terrorism trials in Iraq unfold in three phases: the investigation, the trial, and the appeal. While the entire process is fraught with challenges, defense lawyers and judges say that the most serious violations occur during the initial investigative phase, when defendants are in the hands of often vindictive security forces. On paper, suspects can only be detained with an arrest warrant. Within 24 hours of their arrest, they must see an investigative judge, who determines whether there’s sufficient evidence to keep them for further investigation. The judge can extend the period of detention up to a maximum of six months, at which point the suspect must be released if the case against him isn’t strong enough to trigger an indictment. If there’s sufficient incriminating evidence, the investigative judge, who in the Iraqi system leads the investigation in collaboration with the prosecution, refers the case to the criminal court for trial.

But the process is rife with abuses, according to interviews with human rights experts, as well as more than a dozen lawyers, judges, and prosecutors. As in the case of Nabil, security forces frequently detain individuals without arrest warrants. Arrests are often driven by tribal disputes or sectarianism, and investigators routinely extort payments from relatives in return for dubious promises of better conditions or a quick release. Suspects often don’t see a judge within 24 hours, and torture is endemic, with investigators regularly resorting to beatings, electrocution, solitary confinement, and other harsh treatment. Until the investigation is complete and confessions have been written, suspects are rarely granted access to family or lawyers.

It took Nabil, his cousin, and the friend arrested with them two months to see an investigative judge, much longer than the 24 hours required by law. The investigative judge ordered their immediate release due to insufficient evidence, but it took a few more weeks, and, according to the family, about $100,000 in bribes to members of the security forces before the three men walked free. In all, they had spent three months in jail.

As soon as Nabil was released, he traveled north to the Kurdish capital Erbil, where he remained until the end of the war against ISIS. He considered it a small price to pay to avoid getting arrested again.

 

A Desperate Search

With Nabil’s release, word of Ahmed’s arrest finally reached his family. The news ended three months of uncertainty over his whereabouts, but it would also turn out to be the heaviest in a series of blows this Sunni family had suffered since the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated government.

In May 2003, in a quest to eliminate all remnants of the former regime, the U.S.-led transitional government dissolved the Iraqi army. Ahmed’s father, Omar, an army officer, was dismissed. With that, the family lost its main source of income. Omar was utterly humiliated. “What greater disgrace can you feel?” he asked. The disastrous policy left over 300,000 Iraqi soldiers unemployed and disgruntled. Many joined the various armed insurgencies that mushroomed across Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion to fight what they perceived as an unjust occupation.

Al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, a precursor of ISIS, thrived in the chaos, drawing recruits from among marginalized Sunnis who had been disproportionally affected by attempts to purge the country of Saddam loyalists. But Sunnis, like all Iraqis, were often victims of the insurgency against American and Iraqi security forces. Omar’s youngest son was seriously injured in a suicide attack in 2005 that left him permanently disabled.

Over the next decade, the family endured as one battle after another engulfed Ramadi, a famous site of rebellion against the Americans and, after their withdrawal in 2011, against the Iraqi government. When ISIS launched a major assault on the city in early 2014, the family sought refuge in nearby Hit, which was still under government control. But as the terror group gained ground, capturing Hit in October of that year, the family was uprooted again, this time joining tens of thousands of people who fled Anbar province for Baghdad.

In the capital, the family was relatively safe, but growing sectarian mistrust fueled by the war soon began to trouble them. Sunnis who had fled former ISIS strongholds lived under a cloud of suspicion that they were ISIS sympathizers. Omar constantly feared for his three sons, especially Ahmed, whose work as a taxi driver making frequent trips to Anbar brought him into contact with vengeful Shia militias and security forces who manned checkpoints along the route and stood accused of arbitrarily arresting young Sunni men.

When Ahmed didn’t return home that spring evening, Omar feared that he might have fallen into the hands of the security forces. Looking for a detainee meant approaching dozens of different armed actors, many of whom ran their own secret prisons.

Working his old army contacts, Omar spent countless hours and much of the family’s fortune trying to find his son. “People started extorting us,” Omar told me at the family’s home in a middle-class neighborhood of Baghdad. “They would say, ‘Your son is being detained in this place. Pay us $20,000 so he gets released.’” Three men who purported to hold powerful positions in the security forces promised to help in return for money. Desperate, Omar doled out one daftar — a $10,000 stack of bills — after another, driving his family to the brink of financial ruin. A total of $55,000 in bribes reportedly changed hands to find Ahmed and later, to grease the wheels of the justice system. Omar sold the family’s land and his wife’s and daughters’ dowry gold. “I would sell anything I own as long as my son walks,” Omar said.

But soon after the men received the money, all three disappeared. Their mobile numbers were disconnected, and Omar never heard from them again. He wasn’t entirely surprised. He had filmed himself giving money to one of them in a futile attempt to hold him accountable.

The psychological burden and social stigma of Ahmed’s arrest were far greater than the financial toll. One evening in late 2015, Omar received a distressed phone call from his brother, urging him to tune into state-run Al Iraqiya television, where an episode of a reality show called “In the Grip of the Law” was underway.

“In the Grip of the Law” started filming in 2013 to garner public support for the security forces in the wake of humiliating battlefield setbacks in the early days of the war against ISIS. The concept was controversial: Prisoners suspected of belonging to ISIS recount or re-enact crimes to which they have confessed. Relatives of victims sometimes appear at the crime scene, taking turns scolding the men they hold responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. The show has proven very popular, especially in Shia areas that are often targeted by jihadi groups. Sunnis like Omar, on the other hand, see it as an embodiment of Shia dominance, a tool for oppressing Sunnis who are forced to confess under torture to crimes they didn’t commit.

There, in the glare of the cameras and for everyone to see, was Ahmed. He was led into the studio by a man wearing black fatigues and a black balaclava over his face. Ahmed wore a yellow jumpsuit, plastic handcuffs and a blindfold. It was the first time Omar had seen him since his arrest six months earlier. Dramatic music played as Ahmed was made to sit on a chair in front of a large, white poster that read “Ministry of Interior, Falcon Intelligence Cell.” The man in black, presumably an intelligence officer, removed Ahmed’s blindfold. Then the interrogation began.

“Tell me about your joining process. Where did you join? What year?” an investigator asked from behind the camera.

“In 2015,” Ahmed answered with a shaky voice.

“And who recruited you?”

“Through Abu Jaafar, the man in charge of Baghdad, and Abu Islam. And they handed me over to Al-Mufti Abu Mohammed. I pledged allegiance with him.”

“Where?”

“In Hit, the district of Hit.”

“Why did you join the death gangs? Why did you join the Daesh gangs?” the investigator insisted, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

“The idea was to just be a driver, for material purposes,” Ahmed replied.

Omar was shocked to see his son paraded on TV like a convict even though, at that time, his guilt had yet to be proven in court. He was introduced as a “terrorist” and granted no opportunity to protect his identity, a right that courts were quick to invoke when The Intercept requested permissions to film trials of suspected ISIS members during a trip to Baghdad in January. As the interrogation progressed, the conversation became increasingly one-sided, with Ahmed uttering mostly monosyllabic responses as the investigator hurled accusations.

“So you joined to do anything in the organization,” the interrogator said.

“Just as a driver,” Ahmed answered.

“One day a driver, another day a transporter, another day as a passenger, another day as the perpetrator of operations!”

“I was notified that I was just to transport cars.”

“Whatever the case, if you’re transporting a car, what is this car, booby-trapped or not?”

“Booby-trapped, yes.”

“You knew it was booby-trapped.”

“Yes.”

“You knew it was going to explode on people.”

“Yes.”

“You knew, or you didn’t?”

“Yes, yes.”

“So in the end, you’re complicit in this operation to kill people. A part of this organization that participates in murder, yes or no?”

“Yes.”

“So, your principle is to kill!”

“Yes.”

“What do you say to Daesh now?”

“I mean … it’s injustice … harming people because … if you’re still young, it’s better to leave such things behind because your fate is with the police forces,” Ahmed stammered.

“How did you come to realize this?”

“Because, I mean, the police forces are in control,” Ahmed replied obsequiously. Satisfied with the response, the interrogator backed down, and the show cut to another scene.

Omar was convinced that just like his confession on paper, his son’s televised testimony had been brought about by force. The family decided to hire a lawyer, but finding a trustworthy advocate was difficult in a country where defending people caught up in sweeping antiterrorism laws has grown into a profitable business.

Ahmed’s uncle, himself a lawyer who helped behind the scenes, was unwilling to represent his nephew in court. “As soon as you go there, and the case is linked to terrorism, you will also be arrested. Even if you are a lawyer!” he told me.

Last year, at least 15 lawyers were arrested for defending ISIS suspects in the northern, Sunni-majority province of Nineveh. Two lawyers were sentenced to death in December for joining ISIS and obstructing justice, according to court records. What was needed, the family concluded, was someone with good government connections — someone who, by virtue of his background, wouldn’t be suspected of belonging to ISIS.

 

“It’s a Matter of Blood”

Mohammad Al-Khafaji, a short, round man with a meticulously shaved, angular buzz cut and goatee, comes from a family of lawyers. His office, monitored by four security cameras, is located on the first floor of an inconspicuous building just off a busy commercial street in the affluent Harthiya neighborhood of Baghdad. All four attorneys in his office specialize in terrorism cases, and the waiting room always seems to be filled with anxious families in search of help for relatives charged under Iraq’s draconian laws.

Over the years, 38-year-old Al-Khafaji has acquired a reputation for taking his work seriously. He talks about his cases with such avidity and detail that there’s little doubt about his intelligence or his fascination with his work. Unlike many other lawyers who are seen as merely pocketing the money of desperate families, he is known for rolling up his sleeves. That doesn’t mean he isn’t making a fortune. On average, he charges at least $10,000 to take on a counterterrorism defense, more than 20 times the average monthly salary of a government employee.

At first, Al-Khafaji hesitated to work on Ahmed’s behalf. Even though Ahmed wasn’t driving the car bomb, the investigators had built a compelling case against him. “I told the family, ‘This case is lost, 100 percent,’” he told me in his office one cold day this past winter.

Al-Khafaji is Shia and well-connected in Baghdad, but even he approaches defending ISIS suspects cautiously. He has secured his career in part by avoiding cases involving men captured in Mosul, the city where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the so-called caliphate and where the group made its final stand.

But an even more important factor guides Al-Khafaji in choosing his clients. He paused, then pointed at the two golden nameplates on the desk in front of him. “Do you know who this is?” he asked. One of the plates bore his own name, the other that of his sister, Suhad Al-Khafaji, a well-known lawyer who was killed in 2011 in a high-profile case that led to a death sentence for former vice president Tariq al-Hashemi and his son-in-law. Hashemi, a Sunni, was accused of running a hit squad aimed at eliminating his Shia opponents. He, in turn, claimed the case against him was politically motivated.

“It’s a matter of blood,” Al-Khafaji said. “If Iraqi blood was shed, I won’t accept the case. We as Muslims, we support the oppressed against the oppressors. It’s not acceptable to represent the perpetrators.”

In Ahmed’s case, there was no blood. Omar kept insisting, and after mutual acquaintances swore by Ahmed’s innocence, Al-Khafaji relented and took the case. In an effort to cast doubt on Ahmed’s confession, he approached the prosecutor’s office, which penned a letter to the central investigative court demanding a medical report. When the first letter went unanswered, he submitted a second request just days before Ahmed’s court date. He didn’t get a response to that one, either.

Although Iraq’s constitution and criminal law prohibit the use of force to extract confessions, they don’t explicitly mention the right to medical exams. But a spokesperson for the Higher Judicial Council, which oversees Iraqi courts in an effort to ensure the judiciary’s independence, told The Intercept that such exams constitute an inalienable right for defendants. “We aren’t denying that there is torture by members of the security forces. But any evidence that is brought through torture isn’t recognized,” said senior judge Abdulsattar Bayraqdar, the spokesperson. If a defendant claims he has been tortured, the council immediately sends him to a “medical committee” charged with examining prisoners and verifying their claims, Bayraqdar said. In reality, though, judges have broad discretion over whether or not a prisoner receives a medical exam.

1 The letter was written by “Supreme Judicial Council, General Prosecutor Presidency, Human Rights Department,” and addressed to “The Central Criminal Court.”

2 Reminding the court of a previous request that went unanswered, the letter requests once again that Ahmed be sent to the medical committee to examine allegations of torture.

3 The letter is signed by the chief prosecutor.

At the behest of Ahmed’s lawyer and family, the human rights department at the general prosecutor’s office sent two requests to the criminal court to refer Ahmed for a medical exam to confirm whether he had confessed under torture. Both requests went unanswered.

Ahmed never got one. Even if he had, Al-Khafaji says, it would have made no difference in light of the evidence intelligence officers had gathered against his client. The lawyer approached a couple of defense witnesses to vouch for Ahmed, but he said they were too frightened to speak out in favor of an ISIS suspect in a public court. Ahmed’s conviction seemed inevitable.

Tears streamed down Omar’s face as he recalled seeing his son on the day of the trial. Families weren’t allowed inside the courtroom, but the two exchanged fleeting hugs and a few words in a room next door. Then Omar was asked to leave, handing his son’s fate to a justice system he had little reason to trust.

A few hours later, Al-Khafaji called Omar to his office, where he broke the news: Ahmed had been found guilty. His trial at Baghdad’s Central Criminal Court lasted only a few minutes. As usual in these cases, the panel of three judges, seated on a high bench in front of the accused, hastily read out the findings of the investigation. Ahmed pleaded not guilty. No witnesses were present to testify for or against him. The verdict made no mention of allegations of torture, nor did it mention the two requests for medical exams. In line with Article 4 of Iraq’s counterterrorism laws and no matter how minor his role may have been, Ahmed received the same sentence as the mastermind of the planned suicide attack: death by hanging.

 

The Road to Reconciliation

Since Ahmed was sentenced, the relationship between his family and Mohammed Al-Khafaji has soured. Ahmed’s father, Omar, accused Al-Khafaji of sectarianism and of colluding with the investigators to exploit the family. In Omar’s eyes, Al-Khafaji had failed miserably in building what should have been a straightforward defense for his son.

Ahmed’s only remaining hope to escape execution was the appeals court, and, in a peculiar twist, the man who had sentenced Saddam Hussein to death. Munir Haddad, now in his 50s, rose to fame while presiding over Saddam’s 2006 court case, described by some as a show trial. He personally oversaw the former dictator’s hanging “because all the other judges refused to do it,” he said. After he was forced out of his post in 2008 on what he says were political grounds, he opened a private law practice in Baghdad. He has made a reputation – and a fortune – defending people charged with terrorism, rebranding himself as an advocate for marginalized Sunnis and as a champion of reconciliation.

Omar found Haddad on a friend’s recommendation. When I visited Haddad, who has more than 900 clients, he asked his assistant to bring Ahmed’s legal file. “Maybe he is telling the truth, maybe he is lying. But he didn’t kill anyone,” he said as he scanned the documents. While Haddad also won’t take any case that involves Iraqi bloodshed, he is ready to defend the guilty from punishment he views as overly harsh. “I may be convinced that he did it, but I may not be convinced that he should be executed,” he said. “When there’s no blood, it’s possible to give the young man a chance.” He had promised Omar that he could reduce Ahmed’s sentence to life in prison.

Haddad wasn’t against the death sentence per se. “If someone killed hundreds, of course he should be executed.” But harsh punishments weren’t conducive to reconciliation, and reconciliation was what Iraq now needed most. “Saddam is gone, the Baath era has finished, so we have to start from the beginning,” he said.

Haddad knew this from personal experience. Dozens of his own relatives, including two brothers, had been killed and many more imprisoned under Saddam. Haddad himself had served almost six years in prison. “When you are released, you can have two personalities. Either you seek revenge or reconciliation.”

Haddad chose the latter. He went to law school and recently ran for a seat in parliament on a platform of judicial reform. (Because of widespread allegations of fraud in the June election, votes are being manually recounted and it’s still unclear whether Haddad has earned a seat in parliament.) He wants investigations to be carried out by the judiciary, instead of by security forces, so as to reduce the incidence of torture, and he has pledged to get rid of some of Iraq’s harshest laws. “We are building a state, and a state cannot be built on vengeance,” he said. “It must be built on forgiveness.”

But few politicians in Iraq seemed to think a reconciliatory approach toward low-level ISIS members was politically feasible, especially during an election year. “It’s very difficult for anyone to talk about [forgiveness] at the moment. Anyone who does will lose all credibility with the public,” said Hisham al-Suhail, who heads the Justice, Accountability and Reconciliation committee in Iraq’s parliament. A 2017 amnesty law could pardon ISIS members who didn’t commit serious crimes, but judges have been reluctant to apply the law to terrorism cases. “Most prisoners who are released with a pardon, frankly, return to terrorist activities,” Suhail said, though he did not offer evidence to support that claim.

Given the political climate, the quest to reduce Ahmed’s death sentence at the appeals court seemed quixotic, the idea that he could one day be pardoned almost foolish. Yet Omar’s faith in his son’s innocence was unshakable, underpinned by a feeling of marginalization that had taken root in the family over the past 15 years. Omar broke down in tears several times during the hours we spent talking about his son. In the first instance, his tears were those of a heartbroken father who felt powerless to end his son’s suffering. But at times, I wondered if they could also be the tears of a father who feared that his son had strayed, and who blamed himself for having failed to prevent it.

Whether Ahmed was guilty or not, the utter rejection of the judicial process by one segment of society was a sign of the justice system’s inability to mend the fissures in post-ISIS Iraq, which seemed to deepen with each passing day. If Ahmed had committed a crime, the courts hadn’t offered his victims an opportunity to participate, or a chance to repent in return for a lenient sentence that might allow him to eventually return to his community. If he was innocent, the state had denied him a reasonable chance to prove it.

Absent the truth, the long road to reconciliation had not even begun.

This story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

The post Iraq’s Courts Have Rushed to Convict Thousands of ISIS Fighters. This is One Family’s Struggle for Fairness, Truth, and Reconciliation. appeared first on The Intercept.

“It Took Us Over a Week to Find All the Body Parts”

On April 23, the villagers of Al-Raqah, in northern Yemen, gathered to celebrate the town’s second wedding in as many days. They had walked as much as an hour from surrounding towns to sing, dance, and congratulate the 20-year-old groom, Yahya Ja’afar. The party was simple: a wedding tent constructed of thick tree branches and colored fabric, the couple’s one-room home filled with men and boys playing drums and wearing wreaths of jasmine on their heads, the women over the hill in another tent, singing and dancing alike. With the sound of the music, no one heard the warplane as it circled overhead.

“We were singing and dancing, everything was winding down. We were about to leave,” said Saleh Yahya, a 35-year-old villager. “Then, all the sudden, I was on the ground, I couldn’t hear anything. We totally lost control of our senses. There were body parts around me, I was just looking for my children.” He found one whole and alive; the other’s body was broken beyond repair.

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The drum that had been played by the groom and wreaths which had been worn by those celebrating at the wedding sit amid the rubble on May 6, 2018.
Photos: Alex Potter for The Intercept

The missile had struck around 11 p.m., killing 23 of the revelers, and wounding over 60, according to villagers who spoke with The Intercept. Most of the dead were in pieces.

“It took us over a week to find all the body parts,” Saleh Yahya said in an interview in Al-Raqah on May 6, two weeks after the strike.

Al-Raqah isn’t on most maps; it’s no more than a blip on a hillside two and a half hours from the city of Hajjah, and over an hour from any paved road. To get to Al-Raqah, one follows a rocky and nearly dry river bed, and the directions offered by locals. There are few vehicles around, other than the occasional motorcycle; anything more would break down on the rough path. This is a place for farmers, not fighters.

Yemeni men show off the scars from fragmentation injuries on a young man from the village on May 6, 2018 in al Ragha Village, Bani Qais District, Hajjah, Yemen.

Yemeni men show the scars from fragmentation injuries on a young man from the village on May 6, 2018 in Al-Raqah Village, Bani Qais District, Hajjah, Yemen.

Photo: Alex Potter for The Intercept

Yet for some reason, the wedding of Yahya Ja’afar and his bride Fatum Allam came into the sights of the 10-country coalition led by Saudi Arabia that has waged a devastating, three-year war in Yemen.

The coalition’s aim is to subdue the Houthis, a politico-religious group in Yemen that took over the government and ousted its Saudi-allied president in 2014. The coalition, supported by the U.S. military with refueling, munitions, and targeting information, has ruthlessly bombarded the country. This week, the coalition invaded the Houthi-controlled port city of Hudaydah, an attack which many fear will result in a humanitarian disaster. In all, more than 5,000 civilians have been killed in the war, the majority of them in coalition airstrikes, according to the United Nations. Saudi Arabia has drawn widespread condemnation and accusations of war crimes for hitting civilian targets like homes, schools, markets, hospitals — and weddings.

A bridge lays destroyed from an airstrike on May 6, 2018 in al Ragha Village, Bani Qais District, Hajjah, Yemen.

A bridge which connects Hajjah with the Bani Qais District is partially destroyed after an airstrike on May 6, 2018.

Photo: Alex Potter for The Intercept

The Saudis have provided no explanation for the strike on Al-Raqah (a request for comment to the Saudi embassy in Washington went unanswered.) The men in Al-Raqah say they do not carry weapons (I saw none during my visit), and fighters did not attend the wedding. In the village, all of the men wore a simple sarong and button-up shirt, nothing to hint at a military affiliation. Some insisted on showing me the inside of their houses, pointing out what little they possessed: a bed or two, bags of food, and some kitchen supplies.

According to eyewitnesses I spoke with, when the strike hit in Al-Raqah, women poured out of their celebration, screaming, looking for their children and relatives. Rescuers who had arrived to help from nearby villages told the others to run, since planes were still circling overhead. Rendered temporarily deaf from the explosion, family members ignored them and continued to pull out the bodies of their loved ones from the rubble. It was hours before ambulances arrived from Hajjah, delayed by the difficult terrain.

Saleh Yahya, 35, walks through one of the graveyards where the dead of the wedding strike were buried on May 6, 2018 in al Ragha Village, Bani Qais District, Hajjah, Yemen.

Saleh Yahya, 35, walks through one of the graveyards where the dead from the wedding strike were buried.

Photo: Alex Potter for The Intercept

As we spoke at the site of the strike, Othman Ali, 35, a thin man wearing a straw hat, held his son’s hand.

“This went from a very happy day to a catastrophe,” he said. “The women are terrified. Most of them won’t come out of the house to work, and some of them when they hear a loud noise, they wet themselves.”

More villagers appeared, all eager to describe what happened, all eager for answers. Everyone I spoke with still had trouble hearing, especially the groom, Ja’afar, who survived the strike. His brother, Ali, spoke close to his ear and motioned for him to come over. We went to his parents’ home, where he and Allam now live, since their home was damaged in the strike. (Allam was initially reported killed.) Ja’afar’s speech was stilted, like someone who can’t quite hear themselves over the din of a noisy room, except that the small and plain house was completely silent.

Yahya Ja'afar, 20, sits with his wife Fatum Alam, 20, on May 6, 2018 in al Ragha Village, Bani Qais District, Hajjah, Yemen. Their wedding celebration turned into a nightmare when an airstrike hit the mens side of the celebrations. They only officially moved in together and married two weeks after the destroyed wedding.

Yahya Ja’afar, 20, sits with his wife Fatum Allam, 20, on May 6, 2018.

Photo: Alex Potter for The Intercept

“We only officially got married and moved in together yesterday,” said Ja’afar, as he and Allam looked away from each other shyly. “We couldn’t do it right after the strike; we were too shocked. We lay awake at night now, worrying something will happen still. You never forget something that happens on a special day.”

At the hospital in Hajjah, children who were injured in the strike awaited reconstructive surgery. Some of their fathers sat vigil at their bedsides, occasionally passing them juice or fresh mango. None of the victims could recall much of the strike, only that they were celebrating, and then they were in pain. Nearly all of them were malnourished, their bone-thin bodies unable to keep up with the metabolic demands of injury and recovery.

Mohammad Ali picks up his son, Abdo, on May 6, 2018 at Jumhuri Hospital in Hajjah, Yemen. Abdo was among the those celebrating when the wedding in Al Ragha was hit by an airstrike. He sustained a compound fracture to his arm and abdominal trauma; he was scheduled to remove his colostomy later that day.

Mohammad Ali picks up his son, Abdo, on May 6, 2018, at Jumhuri Hospital in Hajjah, Yemen.

Photo: Alex Potter for The Intercept

Nine-year-old Abdo Mohammad Ali sustained a compound arm fracture and abdominal trauma; surgeons took him away to stitch his intestines back together. Brothers Abdo and Suleiman Mohammad looked in better spirits, despite the fact one had lost a foot and the other the use of a foot, and despite that 12 members of their family died in the strike. Thirteen-year-old Hussein Hasan slept with a shawl partially covering his face, stretched out in the bed in such a manner that the shawl might have been his shroud.

His father, Hassan Saghreer, woke him up to speak, revealing the major chest and abdominal trauma that will prevent him from going home for weeks. The family’s village is two hours from the nearest health care facility. “He spent 10 days in intensive care and had many surgeries; we didn’t think he was going to survive,” Saghreer said.

Hussein Hasan lays in bed on May 6, 2018 at Jumhuri Hospital in Hajjah, Yemen. Hussein was at the wedding when it was hit by an airstrike; he sustained severe abdominal and chest trauma and spent 10 days in intensive care.

Hussein Hasan lays in bed on May 6, 2018, at Jumhuri Hospital in Hajjah, Yemen. Hussein sustained severe abdominal and chest trauma and spent 10 days in intensive care.

Photo: Alex Potter for The Intercept

Back in the village, Allam Yahya, the father of the bride, dragged a stick through the dirt, making circles in the dry earth near the remains of the wedding tent. Though the villagers have attempted to return to their normal lives, he remarked that things would never be the same again.

“We won’t have weddings anymore. Even if someone wants to have one, no one will come. It is finished,” he sighed, and walked slowly back under a tree, taking shelter from the late-morning sun.

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

Top photo: A Yemeni man walks through the rubble of a wedding tent on May 6, 2018, in Al-Raqah Village, Bani Qais District, Hajjah, Yemen.

The post “It Took Us Over a Week to Find All the Body Parts” appeared first on The Intercept.

The U.S. is Exacerbating the World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis by Outsourcing Its Yemen Policy

Three years of civil war in Yemen have created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with the United Nations estimating that 22 million people — three-quarters of the country’s population — urgently need humanitarian aid.

But aid groups have seen their worst fears realized this week, as U.S.-backed forces organized by the United Arab Emirates launched an assault on the rebel-held port of Hodeidah — the entry point for 70 to 80 percent of the food, medicine, and aid supplies entering Yemen.

Oxfam has warned that a prolonged battle or siege would “massively escalate this humanitarian crisis while millions already are on the brink of famine,” and the U.N. has said it would damage the prospects for long-term peace negotiations. Martin Griffiths, the U.N. peace envoy for Yemen, warned the U.N. Security Council that the assault “would, in a single stroke, take peace off the table.”

The Intercept interviewed more than a dozen former White House and State Department officials, humanitarian leaders, and Yemen experts, many of whom characterized the offensive as a major failure by the U.S. to restrain its coalition partners, who are largely dependent on American weapons, intelligence, and logistical support. Those sources said the attack was a sign that the U.S. is allowing allies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to drive American policy decisions in Yemen.

“The UAE’s assault on Hodeidah is just another example of the Trump administration outsourcing U.S. policy in Yemen — and really the region writ large — to the Gulf states,” said Kate Kizer, policy director at the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Win Without War.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE began bombing Yemen in March 2015, with the aim of restoring the former Saudi-backed president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to power. Hadi was deposed after a rebel group commonly known as the Houthis stormed the capital in 2014; he eventually fled the country.

The Obama administration wholeheartedly backed the Saudi- and Emirati-led intervention and blockade, and provided the coalition with intelligence and tens of billions of dollars in weapons. Under Obama, the Pentagon also helped refuel coalition aircraft, continuing even after they bombed civilian targets like schools and hospitals.

But even as Obama administration officials watched a growing humanitarian crisis unfold in Yemen, the White House firmly opposed a coalition attack on Hodeidah. The coalition had long wanted to attack the crucial port; doing so would have aligned with the Emiratis’ broader strategy of seizing ports along Yemen’s southern and Red Sea coasts. In 2015, UAE-backed forces seized the southern port city of Aden. In 2016, they retook the city of Mukalla from Yemen’s Al Qaeda affiliate and later pushed up the Red Sea coast, retaking the port city of Mokha last year.

In a country as dependent on foreign goods as Yemen, ports are extremely lucrative for whoever controls them. Experts have estimated that the Houthis collect tens of millions of dollars a month in customs and import fees on cargo coming in through Hodeidah.

When the Saudis and Emiratis tried to get Obama administration support for an assault on Hodeidah, their arguments were reminiscent of promises they had made in 2015 before launching an attack on Aden, said Jeremy Konyndyk, who served as director of foreign disaster assistance under Obama.

“Then, too, they argued that taking the town would put political pressure on the Houthis and enable the free flow of humanitarian aid through the port,” Konyndyk said. “Three years later, none of those promises have panned out.”

Even if the assault on Hodeidah is a military success, he said, it will be devastating to Yemeni civilians.

“When you place a frontline directly between a port and the population it serves, it effectively cuts off that population,” Konyndyk said. In Aden, those consequences were less extreme because most Yemenis weren’t entirely dependent on it. “But if Hodeidah is cut off, there is no backup option. Food will run out, fuel to support water systems and aid operations will run out, and people will begin dying in large numbers.”

At one point in 2016, when the White House learned that the UAE wanted to move forward with an operation to seize Hodeidah, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, personally called UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and told him that the U.S. would not support the offensive, according to three former senior U.S. officials. The UAE backed down.

But the Trump administration has been less forceful in its opposition to the attack. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to various Emirati officials and cautioned against damaging the port infrastructure and hampering the flow of aid through Hodeidah, but did not pressure them to stop the offensive.

“The United States has been clear with Saudi, Emirati, and Yemeni officials at every level that the destruction of critical infrastructure or disruption of the delivery of vital humanitarian aid and commercial goods is unacceptable,” a State Department spokesperson told The Intercept.

But activists and aid groups say that there is no way to attack the city without hampering access to aid, at least for a period of time. Coalition warplanes have already bombed the main road from Hodeidah to the Houthi stronghold of Sanaa in an attempt to keep reinforcements from reaching the port, according to The Guardian.

“Rather than preventing the offensive, which the U.S. has done twice before, Pompeo releases a weak statement giving the UAE the green light to potentially kill hundreds of thousands of people with no political strategy or end goal,” said Kizer of Win Without War.

Pompeo’s statement represents a softening of the State Department’s public position against any offensive that posed a danger to the port. Compare it with what David Satterfield, the acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April, as Emirati-backed forces gathered ominously in Mokha, which is just south of Hodeidah.

“I’ll be quite explicit,” Satterfield said then. “We have told the Emirates and the Saudis there is to be no action undertaken that could threaten the ports of Hodeidah and Salif, or any routes to and from the port for delivery of assistance.”

When Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., asked how the U.S. would respond if the Saudis or Emiratis were to “bomb the port of Hodeidah,” Satterfield replied: “We would not view such an action as consistent with our own policy, upon which our support is based.”

However, just two days later, at a private, off-the-record roundtable at the Middle East Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., several former Obama administration officials began to worry that a very different message was being conveyed to the Emiratis and Saudis.

At the roundtable, Matthew Tueller, the current U.S. ambassador to Yemen and the State Department’s primary diplomatic liaison with the coalition, was asked what he’d heard about a coming offensive against Hodeidah and its potentially catastrophic impact, according to two people in the room.

According to those present, Tueller said that a direct attack would be a “roll of the dice” that might meet with popular support and expel the Houthis from the city, though whether the chances of success were “50-50” or “10-90,” Tueller couldn’t say. He added that Hodeidah’s importance for aid delivery was overstated, and suggested that an assault on the city would not have the catastrophic effect aid groups claimed, according to the people who were there.

Several who attended the briefing said they were surprised by the contrast between Tueller’s private comments and the State Department’s public statements. “It was an early sign that even the State Department wasn’t taking its own policy seriously,” said one person who was there but asked not to be named because speaking about what was said would violate the terms of the meeting.

“We are not going to comment on alleged statements made at an off-the-record event,” a State Department spokesperson told The Intercept.

Tueller has a history of taking positions that are favorable to the coalition. According to two former Obama administration officials and one current State Department official, Tueller believes that a successful military offensive against the Houthis would improve the prospects for peace talks because it would pressure them to negotiate a settlement.

Meanwhile, Griffiths, the U.N. envoy, has called on the coalition to “exercise restraint and give peace a chance,” warning that further escalation “will have an impact on my efforts to resume political negotiations to reach an inclusive political settlement to the conflict in Yemen.”

Kizer put it more bluntly: “Believing that this offensive will bring the Houthis to the negotiating table is living in a fantasyland.”

Last month, as Emirati-backed forces moved north along Yemen’s Red Sea coast toward Hodeidah, aid workers began to worry that the State Department was tempering its warnings to avoid directly criticizing its coalition partners.

On May 25, the State Department held a closed-door roundtable discussion between Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green, and D.C.-based representatives from humanitarian organizations working in Yemen. The meeting was the fourth such discussion in a series of roundtables since December 2017, and the conversation quickly turned to the Hodeidah offensive.

According to three people in attendance, Sullivan and Green listened keenly to nongovernmental organizations’ warnings against attacking Hodeidah. Humanitarian leaders argued that coalition-controlled ports like Mokha and Aden couldn’t bring in enough aid to compensate for restricted access at Hodeidah. But when the discussion turned to how the State Department would respond to the offensive, “the response was equivocal,” one attendee told The Intercept.

Something had changed. A month after Satterfield publicly testified that “there is to be no action undertaken that could threaten the port,” State Department officials wouldn’t repeat that position in private.

According to CNN, the U.S. has rejected coalition appeals for direct military and intelligence support. However, on Friday, the U.S. voiced opposition to a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on the coalition to stop the assault.

The mixed messages from the U.S. are seen by humanitarian groups as signaling cautious approval for the operation. Earlier this week, one unnamed U.S. official described the message to the Wall Street Journal as a “blinking yellow light” of caution.

“I knew we were in trouble when an anonymous source described it that way,” the director of a U.S.-based humanitarian organization told me. “In Washington, blinking yellow lights mean, ‘Floor it and keep moving.’”

Top photo: Yemeni men inspect the rubble of a destroyed house after it was hit by Saudi-led airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen, on June 6, 2018.

The post The U.S. is Exacerbating the World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis by Outsourcing Its Yemen Policy appeared first on The Intercept.

Fact-Check: America Was Not on the Brink of War With North Korea When Trump Took Office

It is difficult to believe this needs to be said, but the United States was not about to go to war with North Korea in the final days of Barack Obama’s presidency.

While most Americans are well aware of this fact, Donald Trump made rewriting very recent history his first priority on Wednesday as he returned to Washington from a summit meeting in Singapore with North Korea’s hereditary dictator, Kim Jong-un, and fired off a series of tweets.

Shortly after Air Force One landed, Trump tweeted that the declaration signed by Kim, reaffirming a vague commitment made 25 years ago by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” meant that Americans were “much safer than the day I took office.”

There is no doubt that the world is a safer place now that Trump has decided to stop threatening to “totally destroy North Korea,” and pursue an arms control agreement instead. But his claim that the mission was already accomplished in Singapore is like spiking the football when you are still 90 yards from the end zone, as journalists like Mathieu von Rohr of Spiegel observed.

As the day wore on, and observers questioned the president’s claim that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” Trump upped the ante by claiming in a subsequent tweet that before he took office, Americans “were assuming that we were going to War with North Korea.”

In fact, the widespread fear over possible war with North Korea began just 10 months ago, after Trump took office and unleashed a stream of belligerent rhetoric, taunting Kim and threatening a preemptive nuclear attack.

Fears spiked in January when Victor Cha, Trump’s pick for U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, revealed in a Washington Post opinion piece that the White House was seriously considering a military strike on North Korea — a risky plan intended to give Kim’s regime “a bloody nose.”

As Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, observed, Trump’s tweet was a blatant effort to mislead the public about which president brought America to the brink of war.

Michael Fuchs, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, argued that Trump hardly deserved credit for embracing diplomacy only after he needlessly threatened war.

Miffed by news coverage that correctly pointed out how premature the president’s celebration of peace in our time seemed to be, Trump later tweeted that reporters for CNN and NBC were “fighting hard to downplay the deal with North Korea.”

At the very start of his term, Trump claimed, those same reporters “would have ‘begged’ for this deal,” because, he claimed, it “looked like war would break out.”

Fox News aided Trump in his attempt to gaslight the American public about who was to blame for tensions with North Korea, and what the president had achieved in Singapore. After the summit, Sean Hannity claimed, repeatedly, that the talks in Singapore meant that the “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the entire Korean peninsula” was already underway.

When Hannity incorrectly described the joint declaration with Kim to Trump as an agreement for the “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the entire Korean peninsula,” the president responded, “True, and so without that we could not have had a deal.”

As William Saletan argued in Slate, Trump’s post-summit strategy seems to be based on lying to American voters, with help from Fox, by passing off talks that achieved nothing concrete as a huge breakthrough for peace. “Trump is indeed a skilled salesman, and his presentation of the new U.S.–North Korean denuclearization agreement is a fine sales job,” Saletan wrote. “But the target of that sales job isn’t Kim. It’s you. Trump and Kim are working together to pass off their toothless pact as a milestone. It’s a con, and you’re the mark.”

The post Fact-Check: America Was Not on the Brink of War With North Korea When Trump Took Office appeared first on The Intercept.

Italy Tilts Trump‘s Way, Refusing Safe Haven to Child Migrants Saved From Drowning

Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who seems ready to vie even with his hero Donald Trump in cruelty toward the most vulnerable, declared victory on Monday in his campaign to defy international law by refusing to accept more than 600 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean this weekend.

Salvini, who is also Italy’s new deputy premier, put his Trump-inspired “Italians First” campaign slogan into practice over the weekend by closing the country’s ports to a rescue ship, the Aquarius, which is carrying 629 migrants saved from drowning, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 babies and seven pregnant women.

The migrants were left stranded at sea, with no idea where they might land until Spain’s new socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, intervened on Monday to offer the migrants safe haven in Valencia.

Spanish journalists on board the rescue vessel have reported on the increasingly desperate plight of the migrants over the past 24 hours.

Valencia, however, is 800 nautical miles away from the point between Italy and Malta, where the ship has been stranded, and took on emergency rations of food on Monday.

Malta’s prime minister, who had resisted Italian pressure to take the migrants, thanked Spain’s new government for defusing the crisis.

Since Italy’s navy had coordinated the initial rescue effort, and even transferred some of the migrants its own navy had saved to the rescue ship staffed by volunteer aid workers, it was obliged by international law to ensure their safety.

But Salvini, who channeled Trump last week by telling reporters at a refugee camp in Sicily that Tunisia “isn’t exporting gentlemen, it seems more often they’re exporting convicts,” responded defiantly to calls for mercy, even from the Vatican. On Sunday evening, he posted an image of himself on Twitter with his arms crossed above the message “we are closing the ports” rendered as an Italian hashtag.

Salvini’s nationalist Lega party has promised to expel the 600,000 undocumented immigrants who have arrived in Italy since 2014, mostly from Africa, but he was only able to close the country’s ports with the support of his coalition partners in the populist Five Star Movement, which leads Italy’s new coalition government.

As the crisis was unfolding over the weekend, the Five Star leader, Luigi Di Maio, shared a tweet from Trump in which he praised the coalition’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte.

While Trump was alienating America’s other close allies at the Group of 7 meeting in Canada this weekend, Conte had echoed the American president’s call for Russia to be readmitted to the club it was suspended from for seizing Crimea and fomenting war in Ukraine.

Salvini, who met with Trump during the 2016 campaign, has also called for an end to sanctions on Russia.

After his party made a strong showing in the March elections, Salvini posted an image of himself on Twitter beaming in front of a bookshelf adorned with a “Make America Great Again” hat and a photograph of Vladimir Putin.

Also on the shelf was a copy of a book about the cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party that Salvini signed in Moscow last year on behalf of his own far-right party. While the details of that agreement were not made public, Salvini told Russians at the time that his goal was to work “so that Italy has real parliamentary elections, just as open as in your country.”

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Lacking Birth Control Options, Desperate Venezuelan Women Turn to Sterilization and Illegal Abortion

Darling was up at 4:30 a.m. on a warm and windy April morning, breastfeeding her 1-year-old baby in the one-bedroom house she shared with her three children and her sick mother, in the El Junquito slum in western Caracas, Venezuela. From the top of her hill, she could see the city sparkling in the distance, its streets deserted since sunset. People rarely dared to venture out into the darkness anymore, in a city that has become notorious for being the most violent capital in the world.

Darling dropped her three sleepy children at her father’s house right below hers, climbed the hundreds of steps and steep dirt path leading to the main road, jumped in a bus, rode the subway, and finally, at 7:10 a.m., entered the waiting room of a private clinic in the upscale neighborhood of Sabana Grande, in central Caracas. At 8 a.m., doctors would cut a four-inch incision in her stomach and remove a piece of her fallopian tubes, sterilizing her for life at 21 years old. A 30-minute surgery, which would last forever. But at least Darling knew she wouldn’t end up like her sister Jennifer, just 23 and with five children and no food to feed them.

An increasing number of young Venezuelan women are going to extreme lengths not to give birth to another child. They are in an impossible bind, in a country where abortion is forbidden by law and a box of contraceptive pills costs the equivalent of up to 10 months’ salary at the minimum wage. Their determination illustrates the depth of Venezuela’s economic crisis, the worst in the country’s history, and its disproportionate impact on women.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gestures during his second-term sworn in ceremony, at the Congress in Caracas on May 24, 2018. (Photo by Federico Parra / AFP) (Photo credit should read FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images)

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro gestures during his second-term swearing-in ceremony, at the Congress in Caracas on May 24, 2018.

Photo: Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

On May 20, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro won a second term in an election that was boycotted by most opposition parties and denounced by a coalition of other Latin American countries. The minimum wage is currently 1 million bolivars per month, or the equivalent of $0.56, and inflation has skyrocketed an estimated 13,779 percent over the last 12 months, according to the opposition-led National Assembly (the government stopped giving an official figure last year.) For most Venezuelans, that means contraception — and nearly everything else — has become either unavailable or unaffordable.

Women in Venezuela are in an impossible bind, in a country where abortion is forbidden by law and a box of contraceptive pills costs the equivalent of up to 10 months’ salary at the minimum wage.

“Women’s power to decide whether they become mothers or not is violated,” said Magdymar León, psychologist and coordinator at AVESA, a local NGO focusing on sexual health. “It’s some sort of forced maternity.”

There are shortages of between 80 to 95 percent of all medications nationwide, according to local NGO Médicos por la Salud, and contraceptives are especially affected. “Contraceptive methods are not considered essential medicines. So, in the crisis, the ministries and providers favor other kinds of medicines, like antihypertensives or cancer treatment,” León explained. “We consider that contraceptive methods should be included as well, because sexuality is now being pushed to the margins of public policies, which has a direct impact on women’s lives.”

So far, Maduro has consistently refused to open a humanitarian aid channel or recognize the depth of the crisis, condemning instead an “economic war” waged by the United States though sanctions. Indeed, President Donald Trump has issued sanctions that ban U.S. entities from buying bonds from the Venezuelan state or its oil company, PDVSA. There are concerns that since oil accounts for 95 percent of Venezuela’s export revenue, which is in turn used to import goods like food and medicine, oil-related sanctions only increase the suffering of the population.

The government’s positions on reproductive health are contradictory. On one hand, it offers stipends to pregnant women and for every new child born, even as Venezuela holds the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Latin America. Inflation has rendered these already small stipends minuscule – 700,000 bolivars ($0.39) per pregnancy and 1 million bolivars ($0.56) per newborn — but León argues that they have contributed to a culture that encourages motherhood at any age. “It’s a cultural thing, more accentuated in lower-income areas: Maternity is not a choice, but part of your fate,” she said.

On the other hand, the government also funds periodic national campaigns for free sterilization days in public hospitals. There are no publicly available statistics on these campaigns or on the rates of sterilizations, but all factors indicate a rise in demand. Dr. Wilson Torrealba, surgeon and chief of the obstetrics and gynecology service at Altagracia de Orituco hospital in Guárico state, was supervising the campaign in his hospital when it started in April 2017. ”We knew it was a political move but even so, we participated because we were going to help many patients who had a large amount of children,” he said. “We were solving a social problem.”

Before the crisis started, sterilizations in Torreabla’s hospital were only made available for women over 35 with three or more children, or for younger women suffering from an illness that made pregnancy a risk. The sterilization campaigns were supposed to follow those guidelines, but Torrealba said that at his hospital, it quickly spiraled out of his control.

“Some patients got sterilized at 18 or 19 years old with only one child, which shouldn’t have happened.”

“Some patients got sterilized at 18 or 19 years old with only one child, which shouldn’t have happened,” he said. For these reasons, Torrealba said he gave up coordinating the campaign after four months, during which he estimated around 400 to 500 women were sterilized.

Catherin, a medical student who interned in a public maternity clinic and the gynecology department of a public hospital for six months in 2017, said that she had to screen girls as young as 14 who were asking for a spot in the free sterilization days. It had become their only solution: “We wouldn’t have 18 year olds asking to get sterilized if they weren’t desperate,” Catherin said. (She asked that her real name not be used out of concerns it could jeopardize her career.)

Doctors in private clinics also noticed an increase in demand. Rhayza Martinez, a gynecologist who worked in four different private clinics all over Caracas, said that five of the 15 patients she received every day asked for sterilization.

“I am scared and I think about a lot of things, like the fact that later on, I would like to have another son,” said Krisbell, a 27-year-old mother of two girls who was planning on getting sterilized. (The Intercept is using only the first names of the women who spoke to us about their ordeals for this story, for their privacy and safety.) “But those are decisions that you have to think through, and given the current situation, it’s better to give comfort and security to the kids you already have than to think about having another one that you could be bringing into the world to suffer.”

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Natalie, 31, lost a child because she could not pay for medicine.

Still: Daisy Squires and Lou Marillier

Krisbell’s fears are well grounded: a recent government report showed that infant mortality rose by 30 percent in 2016.

Natalie, 31, had just been through what the other women were doing all they could to avoid. She lived with her five children in a house on the edge of the “Punta Brava,” or “crazy hill,” a part of the Antímano slum that owed its nickname to regular shootings. Before the crisis, Natalie could feed her five children, but by the time her sixth child was born in the summer 2017, the situation had deteriorated. “CLAP boxes” filled with subsidized food that Maduro introduced in 2016 had started arriving much more sporadically than they used to, and without essentials like milk or beans. Sometimes, Natalie ended up selling some of the sugar in the box to buy cigarettes to sell, and then buy a little more food from that money — often just chicken skin, bones, bananas, and yucca. But it wasn’t enough, and her children often went to bed hungry.

In the fall of 2017, her baby got asthma. He started swelling and had a hard time breathing, becoming so weak that he couldn’t even cry. She tried to find medicine, but the treatment was too expensive and too intermittent. Not long after he was hospitalized, Natalie’s baby had two heart attacks and died at 9 months old. “My son died because I didn’t have the money for his medicines,” Natalie said. Beyond the grief, Natalie was scared for two of her other children, who had also developed respiratory infections.

Because of equipment shortages, many public hospitals and maternities have also stopped offering sterilization days for now, local sources said. Women who can afford it go through PLAFAM, the country’s main family planning organization, or pricier private clinics. Krisbell and her husband saved up for three months in order to afford the 13 million bolivars (then $19) that the surgery would cost at PLAFAM, the equivalent of more than a year at minimum salary. They work as “bachaqueros,” an often derogatory term that designates people who buy food and medical supplies at the government-controlled price to then sell it at an inflated price on the black market. Like most Venezuelans and even more so because of her occupation, Krisbell spent a big part of her days standing in lines to buy food or medicine. There, she met Darling and other young women who bonded over their fear of getting pregnant and sharing tips on where to get sterilized.

On the day of Darling’s sterilization, Krisbell came along, relaxing the atmosphere with her wit and energy. Her own sterilization was meant to take place a week later, but as Darling’s anesthesia started wearing off in the clinic’s windowless room and she vomited on the floor, Krisbell wasn’t so sure anymore. “I’m gonna shit myself,” she said matter-of-factly to Darling’s stepmother Maria. In the corner of the room, the sectioned pieces of Darling’s fallopian tubes had been thrown in a plastic bottle split in half, releasing a pestilential smell. Later, Maria would carry the bottle back home to Darling’s father.

Darling’s sterilization at a private clinic cost 78 million bolivars, she said, the equivalent of $118 at the time of the operation, and a fortune for most Venezuelans. She had received the money from family in Peru, and although her and her sister’s children barely had enough to eat, her family considered the operation to be a priority investment. “It’s much better for her. She won’t have the same problems I’m going through with the baby, not having diapers, not having milk or money to buy it,” said her sister Jennifer. She had gotten sterilized as well, right after she gave birth to her fifth child. The newborn was malnourished, as the lack of nutritious food during Jennifer’s pregnancy meant that her breast didn’t produce milk, and she could rarely find baby formula.

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Cytotec pills, used in dangerous home-induced abortions.

Still: Daisy Squires and Lou Marillier

For women who don’t have the kind of support Darling had and can’t afford sterilization, a last, and far more dangerous, option exists: home-induced abortion.

Venezuela, where 70 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, has among the strictest abortion laws in Latin America. Abortion is forbidden even in the case of incest or if the fetus displays life-threatening malformations, and punished by six months to two years in prison. (Because of those penalties, The Intercept has changed the names of the women who shared their stories of illegal abortions.)

“There aren’t even diapers or anything. I don’t work. What can I do? If the situation was different, I would have my baby.”

Despite this, Anna, a 27-year-old single mother of two who was a month-and-a-half pregnant, had decided to go through with it. “Imagine if I have another baby now in these conditions. There aren’t even diapers or anything. I don’t work. What can I do?” she said. “If the situation was different, I would have my baby.”

Anna went to her neighbor, Janine, who had been through an abortion herself and had been dedicated to helping other young women. Janine had instructed her on what to buy: four Cytotec pills — originally meant to treat stomach ulcers but widely used for abortions — for a total of 8 million bolivars ($12 at the time) on the black market, as well as rue herb and a malt soda.

“If the government’s help is not enough, then who is going to help these girls? It’s not ideal and I don’t agree with it, because it’s murder, since a baby in the womb is a life already. But when you think about it, the baby would suffer,” said Janine, as she put the rue herb and the soda to boil. Once the mix was ready, Janine instructed Anna to drink four cups of it, along with two pills of Cytotec, and to insert the two remaining pills in her vagina.

The procedure wasn’t only illegal, it was also risky. “Most of them induce their abortions using pills like Cytotec or introducing foreign objects in the vagina,” said Torrealba, the hospital doctor. “We quite frequently get patients with severe hemorrhages that get their hemoglobin levels so low that they need blood transfusions.”

If anything went wrong, Anna said she would rather endure the pain at home than go to a hospital; she had heard stories of about doctors mistreating women who had attempted abortion or refusing them care. (Torrealba denied this, saying that all emergency cases are treated as though they were spontaneous abortions, meaning the fetus died for some other reason.)

Magdymar León, the AVESA coordinator, said that many women shared Anna’s fear. “It’s not an isolated perception. Effectively, this happens and obviously since women think it will, they’d rather not go,” she explained. The consequences of not going to the hospital could be grave. “These insecure abortions add to maternal death rates,” added León. Ministry of Health bulletins indicate a 65.8 percent increase in instances of maternal mortality from 2015 to 2016.

Those numbers are a stark reminder that women have born the brunt of Venezuela’s crisis. As she was waiting for Darling to wake up from her surgery, her stepmother Maria remarked, “We women suffer for everything. Having children, and stopping having them.” That sparked laughter from Krisbell. “Men couldn’t take this,” Krisbell said. “They really couldn’t.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.

The post Lacking Birth Control Options, Desperate Venezuelan Women Turn to Sterilization and Illegal Abortion appeared first on The Intercept.