Two Britons Poisoned by Novichok, Nerve Agent Used to Attack Ex-Spy, Police Say

A British couple who both fell ill on Saturday after visiting Salisbury, the English town where a former Russian double agent and his daughter were poisoned in March, were exposed to Novichok, the same military-grade nerve agent used in that attack, Britain’s top counterterrorism official said on Wednesday.

Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu told reporters that tests carried out by chemical weapons experts at Porton Down, the British military lab near Salisbury, “confirm that the man and woman have been exposed to the nerve agent Novichok, which has been identified as the same nerve agent that contaminated both Yulia and Sergei Skripal.”

The couple, identified by the British media as Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, were hospitalized on Saturday and are currently in critical condition in Salisbury District Hospital, where the Skripals were treated after an apparent assassination attempt in March.

Although Basu said that the poison was Novichok, one of a series of chemical weapons developed by Russia, “we are not in a position to say whether the nerve agent was from the same batch that the Skripals were exposed to.”

The new victims live in the town of Amesbury, but reportedly visited Queen Elizabeth Gardens in Salisbury last week. That park is one of five sites now cordoned off by the police.

Investigators are currently trying to determine if Sturgess and Rowley might have accidentally come into contact with residue of the nerve agent left behind by the Skripal attackers, according to Frank Gardner, a BBC security correspondent.

Dan Kaszeta, a chemical weapons expert based in London, noted that the class of Russian nerve agents known as Novichoks were designed during the Cold War to outlast defensive measures taken by enemy soldiers.

Mark Urban, the diplomatic editor of the BBC program Newsnight, reported on Wednesday that Britain told NATO allies in March that it had intelligence showing that Russia had been keeping the Skripal family under surveillance and Russian military intelligence had hacked into Yulia Skripal’s email accounts.

Even the accidental poisoning of two British citizens by a Russian nerve agent is a blow to Russia’s campaign to rehabilitate its international reputation. The news broke as Russia is earning plaudits for hosting a successful World Cup tournament, in which its national team has so exceeded expectations that it could even reach the semifinals next week, where one of two possible opponents is England.

That match is scheduled for Wednesday, the same day that Donald Trump arrives in Europe for a NATO meeting, a visit to Britain and a summit with President Vladimir Putin.

The post Two Britons Poisoned by Novichok, Nerve Agent Used to Attack Ex-Spy, Police Say appeared first on The Intercept.

An American Century of Brutal Overseas Conquest Began at Guantánamo Bay

It is a testament to the Washington establishment’s rhetorical dexterity that it labeled Guantánamo Bay home of the world’s most dangerous terrorists. U.S. leaders meant, of course, to refer to the hundreds of non-Americans detained at the base over the past 16 years. But a closer look at the history of Guantánamo tells a different story — one in which the United States, beginning 120 years ago this June, used the enclave in southeastern Cuba to launch decades upon decades of terroristic overseas conquest.

Cuba was the intended target of many such terror plots. Long before Donald Rumsfeld homed in on the country to imprison “enemy combatants” in the aftermath of 9/11, then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy sought to visit “the terrors of the earth” on Cuba as part of Operation Mongoose, a covert CIA effort to overthrow leader Fidel Castro. Mongoose envisioned acts of sabotage, including U.S.-created food shortages, potentially induced via biological weapons. And another 1960s plot, Operation Northwoods, sought to create a pretext for invading Cuba. “We could develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area,” read a document presented to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We could blow up a U.S. warship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba.” The U.S. famously concocted a number of contemporaneous plans to assassinate Castro; at least one involved enlisting the Mafia. These plots proved to be a less-than-subtle ideological precedent for George W. Bush’s 2003 jest to Iraq administrator Jay Garner that, following Garner’s efforts to rebuild that country, the U.S. would, “for the next one,” invade Cuba, which ranked among the Bush administration’s “axis of evil” countries.

Today, GTMO, as the base is called in military parlance, boasts a gift shop at its Navy Exchange, a stone’s throw from the Guantánamo McDonald’s. There, for $15, you can buy a Joint Task Force GTMO detainment operations T-shirt, embossed with a graphic of an armed prison guard tower and finished with barbed wire filigree. The memento is a troubling reminder of the normalcy with which U.S. empire has infiltrated our everyday, an iteration of what revisionist historian William Appleman Williams called “a way of life.” Indeed, U.S. malignancy in Cuba, from the Cold War to the so-called war on terror, is only part of the aggression that stemmed from the taking of Guantánamo. This June marks an important birthday for the Navy base, and for American overseas empire, too. Indeed, their origin story is one and the same.

In early June 1898, U.S. Marines arrived at Guantánamo Bay and staged the first successful landing in what would become known as the Spanish-American War. Aside from avenging the sinking of the battleship USS Maine in Havana harbor, the U.S. sought to “liberate” Cubans from imperial rule. That pretense conveniently ignored Cuba’s preceding 30-year struggle for independence from Spain, an effort born of plantation society in the eastern part of the island, not all too far from Guantánamo. Indeed, 1898 proved the denouement of the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878), the Little War (1879-1880), and the final Cuban War of Independence, which began in 1895.

The invasion at Guantánamo marked the formal beginning of an American penchant for intervening militarily in the affairs of other nations. Historians of U.S. empire have long acknowledged 1898 as a watershed in the trajectory of America’s global posturing. The U.S. had always had its eye on the Caribbean and Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida: Southern-sympathizing filibusters sought to incorporate the island as an additional slave territory from the early-to-mid 1800s, and in 1823, John Quincy Adams predicted what many saw as the inevitable U.S. acquisition of Cuba, arguing that “if an apple severed by the tempest from its native tree cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba … can gravitate only towards the North American Union which by the same law of nature cannot cast her off from its bosom.” But the U.S. only got around to invading Cuba after its territorial acquisitions in North America had reached their western and southern limits — a fulfillment of Manifest Destiny and the realization of a settler-colonialist dream that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Thus, in 1890, the U.S. Census Bureau declared the frontier “closed.” Within a decade, the U.S. attacked the Spanish empire, achieving a swift victory that effectively handed Spain’s remaining colonial possessions to the United States: Puerto Rico and Guam became U.S. territorial holdings, and the United States undertook a brutal and bloody war against Filipino nationalists to annex the Philippines.

“Cuba can gravitate only towards the North American union, which by the same law of nature cannot cast her off from its bosom.”

Cuba, meanwhile, fell under U.S. military occupation from 1898 to 1902. An American military government ostensibly sought to guide the fledgling nation on the path toward full autonomy, and agreed to end the occupation once the first Cuban republic drafted and ratified a constitution to Washington’s liking — a constitution that would have to include the full text of the Platt Amendment, which granted the United States final say in Cuban treaties and made it legal for the United States to intervene whenever it deemed necessary “for the preservation of Cuban independence.” Article VII of the amendment mandated the lease of Guantánamo with no termination date, to be annulled only upon the agreement of both the U.S. and Cuban governments. The stated purpose of the lease was to ensure that, by granting the U.S. a space for a coaling and naval station, it would “enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba.”

So began a legacy of quasi-sovereignty in Cuba. Both governments renewed the coercive Guantánamo lease in 1934, and it is under the terms of that lease that the 40 detainees currently held at the base find themselves indefinitely incarcerated on a breathtaking 45 square miles of Cuban territory, the natural beauty of which they will most certainly never see.

A short drive from Camps 5 and 6, where “low-value detainees” are held, military personnel and their families enjoy the fruits of effectively stolen territory, land that Castro demanded be returned after his 26th of July Movement came to power in 1959 and sought to undo some 60 years of U.S. imperial machinations on the island. At one point, Castro shut off water to the base, a less-than-subtle suggestion that the United States vacate the premises. The U.S. retaliated: More than 2,000 Cubans employed at the base were summarily dismissed. Despite these antagonisms, the United States Treasury still sends the Cuban government a check of $4,085 annually for “leasing” Guantánamo. To this day, the revolutionary government refuses to cash the checks.

Indeed, Guantánamo is at once the oldest military base outside of the United States and the only one maintained against the expressed will of the government of the country it occupies. This rendered the legal status of those at the facility particularly murky, and this same legal ambiguity enabled the indefinite detention of suspected war-on-terror combatants, some of whom have never been charged with a crime. Prior to a handful of Supreme Court cases that have extended limited legal protections to detainees, the Bush administration seized upon Guantánamo’s legal liminality to argue, among other things, that the base was under the sovereignty of the Republic of Cuba, ostensibly negating constitutional protections or obligations to abide by international treaties, and thereby making the base an ideal place to commit human rights abuses. A handful of Supreme Court cases have mitigated some of this legal ambiguity: Rasul v. Bush ruled in 2004 that U.S. federal courts do have jurisdiction over Guantánamo Bay, thereby providing detainees access to the courts as a means of challenging the legality of their detention, though the ruling left unsettled the question of constitutional protections extending to noncitizens held at the base. And in 2008, Boumediene v. Bush established that detainees also have the right to a habeas corpus review.

There is a similarity in rhetoric and logic between the Platt Amendment and Guantánamo’s role in the war on terror: the United States’s argument for coercively leasing the territory as a coaling and naval station to “protect Cuban independence” closely echoes the call to torture and illegally detain enemy combatants for the sake of U.S. national security.

But these parallels run deeper, insofar as all roads lead back to Cuba, where the United States still somehow manages to do whatever it wants. Guantánamo persists as a place of imperial reinvention and forgetting, an ever-evolving hydra where stationed military personnel can receive their scuba diving certification and take their kids to the movies a short drive away from the black site where the CIA carried out torture at the base. Were it not for the “Cuba” section of the GTMO gift shop, where pictures of Havana adorn keychains, postcards, and magnets, you might forget you were in Cuba at all — indeed, this imperial amnesia, in conjunction with the  120 years of imperial machinations that began at the deep-water bay, may very well make Guantánamo the most American place on Earth.

Top photo: Photo of Gitmo’s northeast gate separating it from Cuba proper.

The post An American Century of Brutal Overseas Conquest Began at Guantánamo Bay appeared first on The Intercept.

An American Century of Brutal Overseas Conquest Began at Guantánamo Bay

It is a testament to the Washington establishment’s rhetorical dexterity that it labeled Guantánamo Bay home of the world’s most dangerous terrorists. U.S. leaders meant, of course, to refer to the hundreds of non-Americans detained at the base over the past 16 years. But a closer look at the history of Guantánamo tells a different story — one in which the United States, beginning 120 years ago this June, used the enclave in southeastern Cuba to launch decades upon decades of terroristic overseas conquest.

Cuba was the intended target of many such terror plots. Long before Donald Rumsfeld homed in on the country to imprison “enemy combatants” in the aftermath of 9/11, then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy sought to visit “the terrors of the earth” on Cuba as part of Operation Mongoose, a covert CIA effort to overthrow leader Fidel Castro. Mongoose envisioned acts of sabotage, including U.S.-created food shortages, potentially induced via biological weapons. And another 1960s plot, Operation Northwoods, sought to create a pretext for invading Cuba. “We could develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area,” read a document presented to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We could blow up a U.S. warship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba.” The U.S. famously concocted a number of contemporaneous plans to assassinate Castro; at least one involved enlisting the Mafia. These plots proved to be a less-than-subtle ideological precedent for George W. Bush’s 2003 jest to Iraq administrator Jay Garner that, following Garner’s efforts to rebuild that country, the U.S. would, “for the next one,” invade Cuba, which ranked among the Bush administration’s “axis of evil” countries.

Today, GTMO, as the base is called in military parlance, boasts a gift shop at its Navy Exchange, a stone’s throw from the Guantánamo McDonald’s. There, for $15, you can buy a Joint Task Force GTMO detainment operations T-shirt, embossed with a graphic of an armed prison guard tower and finished with barbed wire filigree. The memento is a troubling reminder of the normalcy with which U.S. empire has infiltrated our everyday, an iteration of what revisionist historian William Appleman Williams called “a way of life.” Indeed, U.S. malignancy in Cuba, from the Cold War to the so-called war on terror, is only part of the aggression that stemmed from the taking of Guantánamo. This June marks an important birthday for the Navy base, and for American overseas empire, too. Indeed, their origin story is one and the same.

In early June 1898, U.S. Marines arrived at Guantánamo Bay and staged the first successful landing in what would become known as the Spanish-American War. Aside from avenging the sinking of the battleship USS Maine in Havana harbor, the U.S. sought to “liberate” Cubans from imperial rule. That pretense conveniently ignored Cuba’s preceding 30-year struggle for independence from Spain, an effort born of plantation society in the eastern part of the island, not all too far from Guantánamo. Indeed, 1898 proved the denouement of the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878), the Little War (1879-1880), and the final Cuban War of Independence, which began in 1895.

The invasion at Guantánamo marked the formal beginning of an American penchant for intervening militarily in the affairs of other nations. Historians of U.S. empire have long acknowledged 1898 as a watershed in the trajectory of America’s global posturing. The U.S. had always had its eye on the Caribbean and Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida: Southern-sympathizing filibusters sought to incorporate the island as an additional slave territory from the early-to-mid 1800s, and in 1823, John Quincy Adams predicted what many saw as the inevitable U.S. acquisition of Cuba, arguing that “if an apple severed by the tempest from its native tree cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba … can gravitate only towards the North American Union which by the same law of nature cannot cast her off from its bosom.” But the U.S. only got around to invading Cuba after its territorial acquisitions in North America had reached their western and southern limits — a fulfillment of Manifest Destiny and the realization of a settler-colonialist dream that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Thus, in 1890, the U.S. Census Bureau declared the frontier “closed.” Within a decade, the U.S. attacked the Spanish empire, achieving a swift victory that effectively handed Spain’s remaining colonial possessions to the United States: Puerto Rico and Guam became U.S. territorial holdings, and the United States undertook a brutal and bloody war against Filipino nationalists to annex the Philippines.

“Cuba can gravitate only towards the North American union, which by the same law of nature cannot cast her off from its bosom.”

Cuba, meanwhile, fell under U.S. military occupation from 1898 to 1902. An American military government ostensibly sought to guide the fledgling nation on the path toward full autonomy, and agreed to end the occupation once the first Cuban republic drafted and ratified a constitution to Washington’s liking — a constitution that would have to include the full text of the Platt Amendment, which granted the United States final say in Cuban treaties and made it legal for the United States to intervene whenever it deemed necessary “for the preservation of Cuban independence.” Article VII of the amendment mandated the lease of Guantánamo with no termination date, to be annulled only upon the agreement of both the U.S. and Cuban governments. The stated purpose of the lease was to ensure that, by granting the U.S. a space for a coaling and naval station, it would “enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba.”

So began a legacy of quasi-sovereignty in Cuba. Both governments renewed the coercive Guantánamo lease in 1934, and it is under the terms of that lease that the 40 detainees currently held at the base find themselves indefinitely incarcerated on a breathtaking 45 square miles of Cuban territory, the natural beauty of which they will most certainly never see.

A short drive from Camps 5 and 6, where “low-value detainees” are held, military personnel and their families enjoy the fruits of effectively stolen territory, land that Castro demanded be returned after his 26th of July Movement came to power in 1959 and sought to undo some 60 years of U.S. imperial machinations on the island. At one point, Castro shut off water to the base, a less-than-subtle suggestion that the United States vacate the premises. The U.S. retaliated: More than 2,000 Cubans employed at the base were summarily dismissed. Despite these antagonisms, the United States Treasury still sends the Cuban government a check of $4,085 annually for “leasing” Guantánamo. To this day, the revolutionary government refuses to cash the checks.

Indeed, Guantánamo is at once the oldest military base outside of the United States and the only one maintained against the expressed will of the government of the country it occupies. This rendered the legal status of those at the facility particularly murky, and this same legal ambiguity enabled the indefinite detention of suspected war-on-terror combatants, some of whom have never been charged with a crime. Prior to a handful of Supreme Court cases that have extended limited legal protections to detainees, the Bush administration seized upon Guantánamo’s legal liminality to argue, among other things, that the base was under the sovereignty of the Republic of Cuba, ostensibly negating constitutional protections or obligations to abide by international treaties, and thereby making the base an ideal place to commit human rights abuses. A handful of Supreme Court cases have mitigated some of this legal ambiguity: Rasul v. Bush ruled in 2004 that U.S. federal courts do have jurisdiction over Guantánamo Bay, thereby providing detainees access to the courts as a means of challenging the legality of their detention, though the ruling left unsettled the question of constitutional protections extending to noncitizens held at the base. And in 2008, Boumediene v. Bush established that detainees also have the right to a habeas corpus review.

There is a similarity in rhetoric and logic between the Platt Amendment and Guantánamo’s role in the war on terror: the United States’s argument for coercively leasing the territory as a coaling and naval station to “protect Cuban independence” closely echoes the call to torture and illegally detain enemy combatants for the sake of U.S. national security.

But these parallels run deeper, insofar as all roads lead back to Cuba, where the United States still somehow manages to do whatever it wants. Guantánamo persists as a place of imperial reinvention and forgetting, an ever-evolving hydra where stationed military personnel can receive their scuba diving certification and take their kids to the movies a short drive away from the black site where the CIA carried out torture at the base. Were it not for the “Cuba” section of the GTMO gift shop, where pictures of Havana adorn keychains, postcards, and magnets, you might forget you were in Cuba at all — indeed, this imperial amnesia, in conjunction with the  120 years of imperial machinations that began at the deep-water bay, may very well make Guantánamo the most American place on Earth.

Top photo: Photo of Gitmo’s northeast gate separating it from Cuba proper.

The post An American Century of Brutal Overseas Conquest Began at Guantánamo Bay appeared first on The Intercept.

U.S. Military Surveys Found Local Distrust in Niger. Then the Air Force Built a $100 Million Drone Base.

Before the U.S. military began building its $100 million drone base in Agadez, Niger, U.S. Africa Command and the State Department took the temperature of locals through public-opinion surveys. The results indicated mixed feelings about the United States and its motives in the region — and take on added resonance in the wake of an ambush last October in Niger that killed four American soldiers.

“The devout of Agadez are divided on variables associated with violent religious extremism,” reads a military report that contains data from surveys conducted in 2012 by the polling firm ORB International. The 2013 report by U.S. Army Africa, which is the Army component of AFRICOM, is titled “Special Assessment: Agadez, Niger – Strategic Crossroads in the Sahara,” and was obtained by The Intercept via the Freedom of Information Act.

A July 2012 survey found that 83 percent of Agadez respondents believed that American and European cultures pose a threat to traditional Muslim values. Nearly 50 percent were convinced that the United States is fighting Islam, rather than terrorism, across the Muslim world. And 40 percent believed that using violence in the name of their religion was always or sometimes justified.

The surveys were carried out just before Niger signed a status of forces agreement with the U.S. in 2013 that provided legal protection for American personnel, setting the stage for expansion of U.S. military activity there. Since then, the 100 troops sent to carry out drone reconnaissance missions have multiplied eightfold and one drone base in the capital, Niamey, will soon be joined by an outpost deemed the “top MILCON [military construction] project for USAFRICOM,” according to formerly secret AFRICOM documents published by The Intercept in 2016.

While residents of Agadez expressed strong support for cooperating with the U.S. and Europe to “combat terrorism” and positive overall opinions of the United States before the escalation in U.S. military activity in their country, the report nonetheless noted, “Skepticism is high regarding U.S. intentions in the region.”

That skepticism has since given way to something far more malign. The country is now a hotbed of extremist groups — including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham-Islamic State West Africa, ISIS-Greater Sahara, ISIS-Libya, and Boko Haram — according to the U.S. State Department.  Most of the organizations weren’t operating in Niger or didn’t even exist when ORB conducted its polling.

In April 2016, U.S. Air Force personnel may have foiled a potential attack on the Agadez base by aiming their rifle-mounted lasers at people in trucks speeding toward the perimeter fence, according to a posting on the official Air Force Facebook page. In fact, Agadez, and every other location in Niger outside of Niamey, is now deemed so dangerous by the U.S. government that embassy personnel are “required to travel only during daylight hours in a minimum two-vehicle convoy accompanied by armed Nigerien government security escorts,” according to the State Department.

One of the new terror groups in Niger, ISIS-Greater Sahara, claimed responsibility for the October 4, 2017, attack near the Mali border, about 600 miles from Agadez, that killed the four U.S. soldiers and wounded two others.  Some reports suggest that villagers with whom U.S. personnel were attempting to make inroads instead tipped off the Islamic State affiliate. In the wake of that debacle, the general in charge of United States Special Operations forces in Africa reportedly ordered U.S. troops on the continent to “plan missions to stay out of direct combat or do not go.” Doundoun Cheffou, the militant leader that U.S. troops were pursuing when they fell victim to the October ambush, is suspected of involvement in the 2016 abduction of American aid worker Jeffery Woodke from a region neighboring Agadez.

Kidnapping is endemic to the area. While African migrants are most often targeted, Westerners (like the German humanitarian worker kidnapped in April) have also been victims.  In 2010, members of AQIM abducted seven foreigners, including five French nationals, working at the French Areva uranium mine in Arlit, north of Agadez. Three years later, Islamist militants carried out coordinated attacks on a Nigerien military base in Agadez, killing 23 soldiers and one civilian, and at the Areva mine, killing one worker. ORB polling for AFRICOM in July 2012 found that a significant minority of respondents in Agadez believed that foreign corporations were legitimate targets for attack. Some 44 percent said they believed that using violence against large corporations was justified.

“The Agadez region is one of the most strategically important locations in northwest Africa,” reads the military assessment that includes the polling data. The report, which references agreements concerning “drone basing operations” and efforts to increase cooperation between the U.S. and Niger, cryptically notes that one of its objectives was to “develop early warning indicators.”

Top photo: Flags of the United States and Niger fly side by side at the base camp for Air Force and other personnel supporting the construction of Niger Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger on April 16, 2018.

The post U.S. Military Surveys Found Local Distrust in Niger. Then the Air Force Built a $100 Million Drone Base. appeared first on The Intercept.

U.S. Military Surveys Found Local Distrust in Niger. Then the Air Force Built a $100 Million Drone Base.

Before the U.S. military began building its $100 million drone base in Agadez, Niger, U.S. Africa Command and the State Department took the temperature of locals through public-opinion surveys. The results indicated mixed feelings about the United States and its motives in the region — and take on added resonance in the wake of an ambush last October in Niger that killed four American soldiers.

“The devout of Agadez are divided on variables associated with violent religious extremism,” reads a military report that contains data from surveys conducted in 2012 by the polling firm ORB International. The 2013 report by U.S. Army Africa, which is the Army component of AFRICOM, is titled “Special Assessment: Agadez, Niger – Strategic Crossroads in the Sahara,” and was obtained by The Intercept via the Freedom of Information Act.

A July 2012 survey found that 83 percent of Agadez respondents believed that American and European cultures pose a threat to traditional Muslim values. Nearly 50 percent were convinced that the United States is fighting Islam, rather than terrorism, across the Muslim world. And 40 percent believed that using violence in the name of their religion was always or sometimes justified.

The surveys were carried out just before Niger signed a status of forces agreement with the U.S. in 2013 that provided legal protection for American personnel, setting the stage for expansion of U.S. military activity there. Since then, the 100 troops sent to carry out drone reconnaissance missions have multiplied eightfold and one drone base in the capital, Niamey, will soon be joined by an outpost deemed the “top MILCON [military construction] project for USAFRICOM,” according to formerly secret AFRICOM documents published by The Intercept in 2016.

While residents of Agadez expressed strong support for cooperating with the U.S. and Europe to “combat terrorism” and positive overall opinions of the United States before the escalation in U.S. military activity in their country, the report nonetheless noted, “Skepticism is high regarding U.S. intentions in the region.”

That skepticism has since given way to something far more malign. The country is now a hotbed of extremist groups — including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham-Islamic State West Africa, ISIS-Greater Sahara, ISIS-Libya, and Boko Haram — according to the U.S. State Department.  Most of the organizations weren’t operating in Niger or didn’t even exist when ORB conducted its polling.

In April 2016, U.S. Air Force personnel may have foiled a potential attack on the Agadez base by aiming their rifle-mounted lasers at people in trucks speeding toward the perimeter fence, according to a posting on the official Air Force Facebook page. In fact, Agadez, and every other location in Niger outside of Niamey, is now deemed so dangerous by the U.S. government that embassy personnel are “required to travel only during daylight hours in a minimum two-vehicle convoy accompanied by armed Nigerien government security escorts,” according to the State Department.

One of the new terror groups in Niger, ISIS-Greater Sahara, claimed responsibility for the October 4, 2017, attack near the Mali border, about 600 miles from Agadez, that killed the four U.S. soldiers and wounded two others.  Some reports suggest that villagers with whom U.S. personnel were attempting to make inroads instead tipped off the Islamic State affiliate. In the wake of that debacle, the general in charge of United States Special Operations forces in Africa reportedly ordered U.S. troops on the continent to “plan missions to stay out of direct combat or do not go.” Doundoun Cheffou, the militant leader that U.S. troops were pursuing when they fell victim to the October ambush, is suspected of involvement in the 2016 abduction of American aid worker Jeffery Woodke from a region neighboring Agadez.

Kidnapping is endemic to the area. While African migrants are most often targeted, Westerners (like the German humanitarian worker kidnapped in April) have also been victims.  In 2010, members of AQIM abducted seven foreigners, including five French nationals, working at the French Areva uranium mine in Arlit, north of Agadez. Three years later, Islamist militants carried out coordinated attacks on a Nigerien military base in Agadez, killing 23 soldiers and one civilian, and at the Areva mine, killing one worker. ORB polling for AFRICOM in July 2012 found that a significant minority of respondents in Agadez believed that foreign corporations were legitimate targets for attack. Some 44 percent said they believed that using violence against large corporations was justified.

“The Agadez region is one of the most strategically important locations in northwest Africa,” reads the military assessment that includes the polling data. The report, which references agreements concerning “drone basing operations” and efforts to increase cooperation between the U.S. and Niger, cryptically notes that one of its objectives was to “develop early warning indicators.”

Top photo: Flags of the United States and Niger fly side by side at the base camp for Air Force and other personnel supporting the construction of Niger Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger on April 16, 2018.

The post U.S. Military Surveys Found Local Distrust in Niger. Then the Air Force Built a $100 Million Drone Base. appeared first on The Intercept.

Farmers at Gaza’s Edge Try to Make Ends Meet Between Economic Squeeze and Israeli Sniper Fire

In late March, Amr Samour and his friend Ahmed al-Shami left their homes at 2:30 a.m. to harvest parsley in fields not far from the city of Khan Younis, in the eastern part of the Gaza Strip. For the men, it was their fifth day in a row going to the same place to do the same work, which neither particularly enjoyed, but the 25 shekels — about $8 — they were offered at the end of a tiring 10-hour shift helped put food on their families’ tables.

They had no reason to think the morning of March 30 would be any different. By about 4 a.m., they had already filled a number of boxes of freshly cut parsley when they heard a loud boom from the east, where just a kilometer away, Israeli troops are permanently positioned. Al-Shami recalled Samour asking what the sound was before the early morning’s dark blue sky exploded in a flash of red. Both men were knocked to the ground.

Al-Shami, covered in shrapnel, managed to get up and check on Samour, who had suffered more severe wounds on his abdomen and head. Moments later, another shell exploded near them. Al-Shami was knocked to the ground again. Not long after, both men were taken to the hospital where al-Shami would learn that Samour had succumbed to his wounds.

Israel later said that its army fired on men who it said were engaged in “suspicious activity” near its border fence with Gaza.

The violence directed at protesters was another reminder of how deadly the Gaza Strip can be for Palestinians. Those who toil in the fields of this occupied territory, though, never needed reminding.

In recent months, the world turned its attention to the Gaza Strip, where Palestinians held a number of demonstrations along the 1949 armistice line that separates the besieged territory from Israel. The demonstrators, many of whom are refugees from lands on the other side of the fence, have been calling for their right to return. Israeli snipers, perched across the fence, used live fire to kill more than 100 Palestinians. Thousands more have been injured.

For those who don’t follow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict closely, the violence directed at protesters was another reminder of how deadly the Gaza Strip can be for Palestinians. Those who toil in the fields of this occupied territory, though, never needed reminding.

Farming in Gaza become a dangerous profession during the Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s, when Israel, citing security concerns, created a “buffer zone” of 1000 meters into the Gazan side of the armistice line. More than one-third of Gaza’s farmlands are located in this area, and in an immensely overcrowded and blockaded territory, that’s agricultural land that’s too valuable to not use.

The Israeli blockade, which began not long after it unilaterally withdrew settlements from Gaza in 2005, means that Palestinians have no control over crossings in and out of the territory. Importing pesticides and other crucial farming materials is difficult and expensive, while the export markets for fruits and vegetables are entirely unpredictable, such that they exist at all. Much of the produce grown in Gaza can therefore only be sold in local markets.

Yet the prices for produce are suppressed inside the territory. Palestinians’ inability to consistently access the outside world — and three major Israeli assaults in the last decade — have left the territory’s economy in a shamble. Youth unemployment is around 60 percent, while 80 percent of Palestinians in Gaza are dependent on foreign aid. All of this means that food prices remain so low that Gazan agriculture as an industry is an unsustainable venture.

Were it not for aid packages from international aid organizations — which, for its part, the Trump administration ended U.S. contributions to earlier this year — the farming industry would collapse, and so, too, would Gaza’s food security.

Despite the economic pressures and Israeli sniper fire, Palestinian farm workers continue to spend their days in the fields, not knowing if each might be their last.

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Poland’s New Surveillance Law Targets Personal Data of Environmental Advocates, Threatening U.N. Climate Talks

A new Polish law with sweeping surveillance measures threatens free speech and the success of an important climate conference scheduled to take place in Katowice, Poland, later this year.

The conference, COP24, is billed as “Paris 2.0” — an crucial follow-up the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference, where the Paris Climate Agreement was negotiated. Around 40,000 people from all over the world are expected flock to the industrial city in December, where participating countries will decide on the rulebook for implementing the historic climate accord.

In advance of the conference, a growing number of international NGOs and United Nations agencies have raised concerns about a law passed by Poland’s parliament — a bill “on specific solutions related to the organization of sessions of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in the Republic of Poland.” While the vast majority of the law does little more than establish rules on governing how to host and finance the conference, one statute allows Polish authorities to “collect, obtain, gather, verify, process and use information, including personal data about persons posing a threat to public safety and order, including outside the borders of the Republic of Poland” if there is a “justified assumption” they will be staying in Poland. 

Elsewhere, the law empowers Polish authorities to solicit other countries for information on COP24 attendees coming from abroad, including any police records and intelligence gathered by state surveillance. This information can be collected “without the knowledge or consent” of the people it’s collected from, and stored through March 2019. The legislation would ban spontaneous protests within Katowice city limits, permitting only demonstrations approved by the city in advance.

Bartosz Kwiatkowski, director of Frank Bold Foundation, a Polish civil liberties group, calls Poland’s COP24 measures “completely unconstitutional.” But not unusual.

“It’s not really new,” Kwiatkowski says of the COP24 security measures. “Similar regulations were introduced before. From my perspective, there’s no terrorist threat or security threat to justify introducing such severe regulations. It’s a chance to collect data on NGOs.” Although the law itself doesn’t specify exactly what types of information will be collected, Kwiatkowski suspects, based on previous and existing rules, that authorities will collect metadata on COP attendees — logs of who made phone calls, text messages, and emails, for instance.

The new law comes in the context of a conservative political shift throughout Eastern Europe. The right-wing Fidesz party now ruling Hungary recently won a massive victory following record voter turnout, and in a move believed to be an intimidation tactic, a Hungarian magazine with close ties to the regime recently published a list of 200 journalists, academics, opposition politicians, and NGO representatives it claims are part of a plot funded by Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros — the target of a number of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories worldwide. On June 20, the parliament passed a suite of “Stop Soros” laws criminalizing the provision of aid to undocumented immigrants, leveraging a punitive 25 percent tax on non-profits engaged in that type of aid work. The anti-Soros measures also restrict NGO workers’ freedom to cross Hungarian borders.

Even before the current right-wing party took power, Poland had invasive data protection laws requiring telecommunications firms to hand over metadata when police requested it. The Polish government pushed regulations similar to its COP24 bill in advance of 2016’s NATO summit and before a papal visit that year, again invoking the threat of terrorism as justification. The 2016 law granted state security services the right to conduct surveillance on foreign citizens for up to 3 months without a court order. It also extended the amount of time that suspects could be held without being charged from 48 hours to 14 days, though authorities required a court order to hold suspects for that long.

“Hosting a U.N. conference is not supposed to be used as an opportunity to strengthen police powers in a manner that curtails civil liberties,” says Sébastien Duyck, senior attorney in the Climate & Energy Program of the Center for International Environmental Law. CIEL and several other international NGOs have expressed concern that the bill violates the Aarhus Convention, which ensures that the general public can access information about, and participate in, decision-making around environmental issues. “The fact that the COP is being used as an argument to strengthen the restrictions on how you can protest in Poland is particularly damaging from the point of view of human rights.”

Duyck worries that hyper-focusing on COP-related security and governance concerns could distract from the actual substance of the negotiations, which have existential implications for life on earth. As he points out, COP24 will be “the most important COP” since Paris. Parties to the Paris Agreement will be finalizing how the landmark deal will be actualized and taking stock of preliminary efforts to cap warming. Civil society groups fear that limitations on the protests that typically surround these talks could also limit negotiators’ ambitions: If national delegations feel less heat from environmental activists, they may be less likely to compromise.  

Some international groups planning to attend COP24 see the bill not just as a threat to the productivity of the conference, but as part of a broader, anti-democratic trend of governments targeting environmental advocates. Opponents on that front include the Cordillera Women’s Education Action Research Center in the Philippines — a nation of islands to which climate change and rising sea levels present a pressing danger. Alma Sinumlag, research and publications coordinator for CWEARC, joined 81 other Global South-based civil society groups in denouncing the Polish law, arguing that it sets a “dangerous precedent that undermines the basic human rights and fundamental freedoms” enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

“Here in the Philippines, the attacks against environment defenders have been escalating,” she told The Intercept via email. “State security forces has [sic] been surveilling activists, harassing them through text messages, discrediting their work through character assassination, filing trumped up cases, carrying out illegal arrests and detention, declaring environment defenders as terrorists, and committing out extra judicial killings.”

A report from advocacy group Global Witness found that the Philippines is the third most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists. In 2016 alone, there were at least 28 environmental defenders killed, largely by paramilitary groups hired by mining companies to suppress opposition to the country’s newly booming coal sector. Around the world last year, at least 197 environmental defenders were killed at a rate of roughly four per week. “Activism is becoming a dreadful word in this time when people fear for their lives,” Sinumlag wrote.

At the urging of civil society groups, various U.N. agencies have sent letters raising these issues to Poland’s Ministry of Environment, which oversees COP24, and the Bureau of the U.N. Framework Conventions on Climate Change, which presides over COPs generally. Five U.N. special rapporteurs also sent a joint letter expressing their concerns about the law to the Polish government in late April, stating that “implementation of the law may lead to human rights violations that may be considered as acts of reprisals against individuals for their cooperation with the United Nations.”

Polish authorities insist that the measures are standard for large public events and global summits more generally. “The primary responsibility of the country hosting the COP24 Summit is to ensure the safety of its participants,” a representative from Environment Minister Henryk Kowalczyk’s office wrote in an extended statement to The Intercept. “Due to the importance and nature of the meeting, as well as the specific terrorist threat associated with it, it is a major challenge for the services dealing with protecting the security of the state and public order, which the Polish Police is ready to face.”

Indeed, COP24 won’t be the first climate talks to place under heightened security measures. The talks which generated the Paris Agreement, COP21, took place just days after massacres at a Parisian nightclub and restaurant killed 130 people. France was under a state of emergency as the conference began. Demonstrations throughout were suppressed, and campaigners involved in planning actions around COP21 had their homes raided by police and were placed under house arrest. The difference with the COP24 legislation, Duyck told The Intercept, is that the law “targets specific individual liberties with regard to the COP,” so the talks themselves are being used as an excuse to curtail freedom of expression.

Kowalczyk’s office defended the law as being similar to the powers Polish police already have over people suspected of crimes. Needless to say, such a stance assumes that civil society group members coming to participate in climate talks should be treated as potential security threats, even terrorists.

Concerns about the surveillance provisions in the new legislation align with broader reservations about Poland — a longtime foe of stringent climate rules — hosting the talks at all. When the location of COP24 was announced, environmental campaigners criticized the government’s choice to hold the conference in Katowice, smack in the heart of Polish coal country. The city itself is home to the EU’s largest coal company, Polska Grupa Górnicza, and critics worry that the placement is intended to have a dampening effect on the negotiations. There’s precedent to think this might be the case: A corporate watchdog group described COP19, held in 2013 in the Polish capital of Warsaw, as the “most corporate climate talks we have ever experienced.” In what was perceived as an indiscreet political message, the Polish government sponsored the International Coal and Climate Summit at the same time as the COP19 climate conference.

The Ministry of the Environment has cited the Warsaw talks as evidence that it can be trusted to ensure COP24 is open to public participation, noting that it invited business representatives and regional and municipal government officials to participate in 2013. As Duyck points out, though, “Neither of these two groups would be considered as part of the ‘public’ – the participation of which is required under the Aarhus Convention.” That business interests will have a front-row seat to the talks doesn’t exactly allay campaigners’ concerns that civil society could be shut out.

Kowalczyk attempted to reassure the UNFCCC that it “will ask the Mayor of Katowice to advise what procedures could be put in place to permit public demonstrations within the city during COP 24.” UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa similarly assured civil society groups that the “process of requesting peaceful demonstrations within the official U.N. zones remain unchanged.”

But Duyck says the Polish government’s response has done “little to address the substantive concerns and … demonstrates a lack of understanding regarding the issues with the law.”

The Polish government’s creep toward authoritarianism has been recognized by the EU. For the first time in history, the European parliament accused an EU member nation of violating the rule of law via a provision known as Article 7 last December. The move came after the Polish parliament implemented new rules allowing judges to be sacked over political disagreements, throwing the courts’ independence into question. Just today, the EU formally launched legal proceedings against the Polish government arguing that a new law that would force 27 of the country’s 72 Supreme Court judges into early retirement violates Article 19 of the Treaty of the European Union.  

All this makes Kwiatkowski skeptical that the COP24 measures will be reversed. There have been massive demonstrations against various right-wing policies, he says, but “people are getting tired.” The government, he explains, has consistently pushed rollbacks on civil liberties, and “is quite successful in introducing them” and getting them passed into law he says. Ordinarily, the Constitutional Tribunal — part of the Polish judicial branch — would hear objections to the rule, but Kwiatkowski says, “It is so politicized that there is no chance.”

Kwiatkowski doesn’t think the new law should dissuade anyone from attending COP24, but he urges those who are coming to take precautions, like encrypting emails and text messages.

“All of us have some hope that they will stop somewhere, all of us, and that the situation in the polls will change after they introduce these regulations against citizens,” he tells me of the situation in Poland. “Unfortunately nothing like this is happening.”

Top photo: Young environmentalists from international organizations protest in front of the Polish Ministry of Economy in Warsaw, where the Coal and Climate Summit was taking place on November 18, 2013.

The post Poland’s New Surveillance Law Targets Personal Data of Environmental Advocates, Threatening U.N. Climate Talks appeared first on The Intercept.

Europe: Embracing Immigrants Only in the World Cup Isn’t Good Enough

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed last week, when I came across the following message: “who r u rooting for: the colonial black team or the diaspora black team.”

The message, referring to a World Cup match between France and Peru, had been retweeted by a former colleague. Annoyed, I wrote back, “Let’s just enjoy the football. This thing of seeing race in everything is exhausting…” She put me in my place: “I actually really like this question! Besides, not seeing race in everything is not a privilege I have. And it actually makes the matches *more* interesting for me.”

She was right, of course. I’ve written about the dynamics of race and sport in the past, and I’ve read analyses about the impossibility of separating the two by countless others. But this time, I told myself I would forget about the negativity, at least for those three weeks, and focus on the sport. The Twitter exchange reminded me that that’s pretty hard to do.

On Thursday night, when England faced Belgium in the World Cup — my former home facing off against the country where I currently live — I couldn’t help but notice race.

On the English side, at least nine out of 23 players were of Caribbean or African descent. It is the most ethnically diverse group to ever represent the country in the tournament.

Away from the soccer pitch, the reality is starkly different.

The Belgian team is not far behind. The 24-man squad comprises 10 sons of immigrants. Other European teams that are thriving in the competition – France, Portugal, and Switzerland – are similarly diverse. Watching them take to the field, one would think that we on this side of the Atlantic Ocean live in a borderless utopia. (Belgium defeated England 1-0, and both teams advanced to the round of 16.)

But away from the soccer pitch, the reality is starkly different. As England and Belgium prepared to face each other on Thursday, European leaders gathered in the Belgian capital, Brussels, to discuss a number of issues. Chief among them was migration, as the European Union tries to keep migrants out, hoping to avoid a repeat of 2015, when hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers arrived at Europe’s shores.

Following weeks of diplomatic wrangling, EU member states reached a deal on Friday to establish secure centers in a yet-to-be-determined set of countries to process asylum claims. If rescued migrants establish that they meet the requirements for asylum, they will be resettled in the EU countries that agree to take them.

Italy, the entry point for thousands of African migrants who cross the Mediterranean Sea in overcrowded boats, has been pressuring other European nations to share the “burden.” Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who is a sort of godmother to the European family, is under pressure from her own government to stop new arrivals.

This clamor to keep migrants out of Europe reached a zenith in the summer of 2016, when Britain voted to leave the European Union. “Brexit” supporters believe, among other things, that leaving the bloc is the only way for the British government to regain control of its borders.

For immigrants and their descendants in the U.K., the Brexit referendum brought back memories of a not so distant past, when black and brown people across the country were conspicuously made to feel unwanted, giving racists carte blanche to spew their hate. “The environment after the referendum has made racial and ethnic minorities more vulnerable to racial discrimination and intolerance,” said Tendayi Achiume, the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Raheem Sterling, the Jamaican-born Manchester City and England midfielder, can attest to that. He has been the target of a vicious campaign by The Sun newspaper, a right-wing British tabloid and the country’s most popular daily. The Sun’s latest stunt: phoning up anti-gun groups asking if Sterling should be banned from the World Cup for getting a tattoo of a machine-gun on his leg. It didn’t work. Sterling is in Russia playing for England as I write this.

I lived in London for 14 years, but growing fed up with the Brexit talk and feeling the country was taking a turn for the worse, I accepted a job offer in Brussels two months ago.

But it hasn’t been all rainbows and butterflies. I quickly realized that here too, in the heart of Europe, in the shadows of the continent’s most prestigious institutions and the European diplomatic bubble, lives a sizeable, struggling African underclass. This is the same African diaspora the Belgium center-forward Romelu Lukaku was born into.

There is an obvious contradiction in the way Europe treats its immigrants.

In a touching piece for the Player’s Tribune earlier this month, Lukaku talked about growing up in abject poverty in Liege, a mid-size town in the east of Belgium: of the days with no electricity, no hot water, no food. When things weren’t going well for the team he played for as a teenage striker he was referred to as a player of Congolese descent. Today, as he represents Belgium on the world stage, he is embraced by a legion of Belgian football fans who’ve accepted him as one of their own.

There is an obvious contradiction in the way Europe treats its immigrants. Not even the most avid xenophobe can deny their contributions to building the continent’s social patrimony in the wake of its wars. Caribbeans and South Asians provided crucial labor to build Britain’s beloved National Health Service when the country was in desperate need of health professionals. In the 1950s, Turkish workers arrived in Germany to fill the demand for cheap labor in a booming post-war economy.

Fast-forward to 2018, and Europe risks tearing itself apart over the issue of new arrivals. The irony of course, is that immigrants come to Europe because Europe went to them first. The only reason we have a Lukaku is because Belgium colonized Congo for 52 years, leaving a legacy of war and human suffering that persists to this day. Many of the Congolese who were able to escape the horrors of their home settled in cities all over Belgium. In Jamaica, Sterling’s place of birth, the population is still feeling the effects of more than 300 years of British enslavement and colonization.

People like to look at sports as a beacon of hope in a world that feels hopeless. But I tend to see athletes as belonging to another world entirely. The same English fans cheering on Sterling at the World Cup are perhaps the same ones who voted for Brexit in 2016. Lukaku is now adored in Belgium, where he was born 25 years ago. But it wasn’t that long ago that he would come on the field as a youth player and be confronted by the parents of the opposing side, demanding to see his ID.

As Europe faces an identity crisis, it needs to accept the fact that there are countless Lukakus and Sterlings among us, contributing to every level of society. Embracing immigrants for three weeks when the World Cup comes knocking every four years is just not good enough.

Top photo: Danny Rose of England speaks with teammates during a pitch inspection prior to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group G match between England and Belgium at Kaliningrad Stadium on June 28, 2018 in Kaliningrad, Russia.

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How the Saudi-Qatari Rivalry Has Fueled the War in Syria

The Western debate over the protracted Syrian war has often taken place online or, worse still, on social media. As a result, it has become increasingly simplified and polarized to the point where only knee-jerk rooting and cheering, but not analysis or substantive discussion, is possible. Propaganda posing as analysis has dominated the discourse on Syria.

As a result, there are now two dominant narratives regarding the causes of the war. While they contain some grains of truth, both narratives are equally simplistic and thus, appealing for social media wars, but also quite misleading.

One view — promoted by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and its supporters — holds that Western powers and Gulf regimes plotted the overthrow of the Assad government, instigated protests against it, and hired the rebels to do the job on the battlefield. In this telling, the conflict in Syria is primarily the byproduct of outside agitators.

The second narrative holds that the underlying causes of the war can be explained by the legitimate grievances expressed by the Syrian people against the regime, and that they revolted against it in the era of Arab uprisings. This narrative demands that one view the violence against the regime as a byproduct of legitimate protest by ordinary Syrian citizens against their repressive dictator.

Both sides are adamant about the validity of their narrative and the falsehood of the counternarrative.  In reality, both narratives are rather valid — simultaneously so.

The Syrian people had indeed accumulated plenty of grievances against the repressive dynastic rule of the Assad family and were fed up with a series of failed promises. Meanwhile, the Gulf regimes and the U.S. were plotting a regime change operation in Syria, dating from at least 2006.

But these two endlessly recycled narratives obscure a critical cause of the Syrian conflict and the longevity of the war: namely, the intense competition between Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Qatar on the other. The struggle between these two foreign powers has been a crucial dimension of the war — and their struggle and involvement has only been made possible with full U.S. and European Union support, although different Western countries sided more with one side or the other at different periods of the conflict.

To begin with, media coverage and debate about the Syrian war — in the East and West — have been largely colored with the propaganda interests of both Qatari and Saudi regimes. Both regimes control — directly or indirectly — almost all of the various media of the Arab world.

Beyond their media ownership, both regimes have been able to control or influence the narratives of Western journalists and pundits through heavy investments in the elite Washington foreign policy community, especially through think tanks and PR firms. Think tanks in Washington, such as the Brookings Institution, the Middle East Institute, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, are notoriously awash in funding from Gulf regimes and thus, reflect their agenda.

Most of the Middle East experts at leading think tanks who most prolifically commented on the war in Syria were, unsurprisingly, split along the Saudi-Qatari divide. The United Arab Emirates also invested in D.C. think tanks, and that regime’s policies (on Syria at least) mirrored those of the Saudi regime.

Not since the rise of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee have Middle Eastern governments been able to wield such influence in the nation’s capital. To be sure, AIPAC would have fought to undermine the influence of these newer Gulf players to shape the discourse had their views on Syria not been congruent with Israel’s interests. But when it comes to Syria, AIPAC and its affiliates largely echo the propaganda clichés of the Gulf state regimes.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (L) stands alongside Syrian President Hafez al-Assad (C) and Crown Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia 08 June at Damascus Airport at the end of a two-day meeting in the Syrian capital. The leaders called for an Arab summit later this month in Cairo to discuss the future of the peace process with Israel, warning Israelis against any step that could endanger peace. AFP PHOTO/SANA POOL / AFP PHOTO / SANA POOL (Photo credit should read SANA POOL/AFP/Getty Images)

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, left, stands alongside Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, center, and Crown Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia, on June 8, 1996, at Damascus Airport at the end of a two-day meeting in the Syrian capital.

Photo: Sana Pool/AFP/Getty Images

The competition between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in Syria is steeped in history. Both have had longstanding ties to the Syrian regime.

Many often forget that the Saudi regime was a benefactor of Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar, for close to three decades, and that the two regimes’ interests often converged in the region. Examples of an Assad-Saudi convergence include the crackdown against the Palestinian resistance and Lebanese left in 1976, the 1991 war on Iraq, the coordination of policies in the U.S.-sponsored peace plans, and the enmity to Yasser Arafat, the late leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The Saudi-Syrian convergence during these years was also important to the U.S. role in the region. American officials relied on the Saudi regime to sway Syrian foreign policy through the Saudis’ financial largesse. Hafez al-Assad was as a key member of the Syrian-Saudi-Egyptian axis that formed after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and this axis dominated Arab politics.

It was in the 1990s, after Hafez’s death, that the interests of Qatar and Saudi Arabia diverged. By the late 1990s, Qatar was basically isolated due to its conflict with Saudi Arabia (the new Qatari emir, Hamad bin Khalifa, had overthrown his pro-Saudi father).

Grudgingly, Qatar became a cautious member of the mumana`ah camp (literally “refusalness,” which opposed compromising positions in the Arab-Israeli conflict), while it also normalized relations with Israel and hosted U.S. troops. The new Qatari emir had accused the Saudi regime of trying to overthrow him in order to reinstall his father back to the throne (the emir’s accusation was most likely true).

When Bashar al-Assad began consolidating his power in Syria, he shifted its foreign policy in Lebanon against the interests of Saudi Arabia and Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. As a result, Qatar became Assad’s natural ally, while Saudi Arabia pulled away from the Syrian regime. This is the divergence and competition between Saudi Arabia and Qatar that has shaped the war in Syria to this day.

With Bashar in power, the Saudi regime has sought to undermine Syrian dominance in Lebanon (Syrian dominance over Lebanon had been sponsored since at least 1989 by the U.S., France, and Saudi Arabia). Indeed, Saudi Arabia was part of the coalition which, in 2004, pushed for United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, designed to end the Syrian role in Lebanon and disarm Hezbollah.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia sought to bring about regime change in Syria, relying on key elements in the ruling elite (mostly top advisers from the era of Hafez).

During this time, Saudi Arabia’s favorite Lebanese politician, Hariri, began clashing with Bashar. As a result, the Saudi break with the Syrian regime was almost complete, and the Saudi-sponsored clique inside Syria, also supported by Hariri, escalated their plot against Bashar. This was the beginning of the end of Syrian dominance in Lebanon. The discovery of this plot was most likely what brought an end to Hariri’s life in 2005 (he was assassinated).

As the Saudis broke from Bashar al-Assad, Qatar had other plans for the region. The Qatari regime was emboldened by the weaknesses of Saudi foreign policy and the rise of Recep Erdogan, its new ally in Turkey.  Both Qatar and Turkey developed a plan to spread the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region — from Palestine to Tunisia.

Those two regimes did not instigate the Arab uprisings. All Arab uprisings started spontaneously due to legitimate citizen complaints about repression, torture, socio-economic injustices, and Arab foreign policies being subservient to Western interests. But the two new competing alliances in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel on one hand, and Qatar and Turkey on the other — sought to exploit those uprisings for their own interests.

Demonstrators take to the streets of Wadi Khaled, on the Lebanese-Syrian border, during the Crawling Friday protest against the Syrian regime on December 30, 2011, waving Syria's old national flag (L) and a placard mocking President Bashar al-Assad. AFP PHOTO/SI MITCHELL (Photo credit should read Si Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images)

Demonstrators take to the streets of Wadi Khaled, on the Lebanese-Syrian border, during the Crawling Friday protest against the Syrian regime on Dec. 30, 2011, waving Syria’s old national flag and a placard mocking President Bashar al-Assad.

Photo: Si Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images

As soon as the Arab uprisings broke out in 2011, the Saudi-UAE alliance worked (often alongside Israel) to maintain the established order or return deposed tyrants to power.

By stark contrast, Qatar and Turkey tried to support (financially and through their media) the political ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood. The 2012 election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi as Egyptian president was the peak of this effort.

When the uprisings began in Syria, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar expected a quick fall of the regime. When, for a variety of reasons, that did not happen, they sped to sponsor and arm fighting groups inside Syria that they could control. The Saudis in particular saw an opportunity to turn Syria into a sectarian conflict for its own ends.

Armed rebel and opposition groups with different names sprouted inside the country. One of the most well-known was the Syrian National Coalition, an exile opposition group (with tenuous links to rebel groups), although others with fancy names also existed. This civilian opposition council in exile — modeled after the one neocons used so effectively before the 2003 invasion of Iraq — was set up in order to project a different image of Syrian rebels to the world.

But this opposition council, pleasing as it was to Western ears, was, in fact, cut off from the rebels actually doing the fighting inside Syria. As a result, they were an effective propaganda force for the West but had little relationship to the realities on the ground in Syria.

Indeed, most of these exiled leaders — divided in loyalty between Qatar and Saudi Arabia — did not dare to step foot in areas of Syria controlled by opposition groups. As the war against the regime increasingly assumed a sectarian cast, fanatical jihadi groups were the logical beneficiaries and they were the most effective — both on the battlefield and in sectarian advocacy.

It is not that civilian protesters suddenly grew beards and switched poles on the ideological spectrum, as some Western media narratives would have it. Rather, the political climate in Syria, long influenced by Islamist currents, was rather hospitable to those sectarian, religious ideologies much more than secular or leftist ideologies. (The Syrian regime had a history of merciless repression against leftist dissidents, and this made the left even weaker in the face of sectarian rebel factions).

Qatar found the Al Qaeda organization in Syria most convenient for its purposes, while Saudi Arabia preferred the Army of Islam along with other armed bands using different names. There was a preference of both Qatar and the Saudi regime to give non-threatening — often civilian — names to rebel groups, but the trick did not last long and, very quickly, the blatantly Islamic and fanatically religious names prevailed. But Qatari and Saudi funding was not an independent affair: Early on, the New York Times pointed out that financial and arms transfers to Syria from the Gulf had the blessing of the Obama administration.

This was because, at the time, it was expected that the Assad regime would quickly fall, and each side hoped to install its own puppet regime. This deadly competition did not go as planned, and the involvement of regional and international players in the Syrian conflict prolonged the war and the suffering of Syrians.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar later got distracted with their own conflict, as well as the Yemen war. But the welfare of the Syrian people was never a priority of either regime — nor was it a priority for any of the outside parties that intervened in Syria.

While other narratives are more digestible, and others still serve the interests of outside regimes, the competition between Saudi Arabia and Qatar was a leading factor, and still is, in the destruction of Syria. Nevertheless, the deadly involvement of both regimes had substantial Western support and was in no way isolated from the reckless Western policies in the Middle East at large.

 

Top photo: A Syrian man helps evacuate an injured victim following Syrian government air strikes on the Eastern Ghouta rebel-held enclave of Douma, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on March 20, 2018.

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Young Jews Walk Out of Birthright Trip to See the Reality of Occupied Palestine Firsthand

For decades, Birthright Israel has offered free trips to Israel for young Jews around the world.

The purpose is to grow the bond between the global Jewish population and the state of Israel. But while the trips help connect young Jews with Jewish heritage and culture in Israel, what they don’t do is expose them to the realities of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians — the people displaced by the creation of Israel and currently living in refugee camps and behind military checkpoints.

This is no surprise, as the program is partly sponsored by philanthropists associated with the Jewish and Israeli right — casino magnate and GOP donor Sheldon Adelson pledged $70 million toward it this year.

On June 28, five program participants on the 10th and final day of their Birthright trip decided to take a stand. They walked off their bus and met up with the group Breaking the Silence, an anti-occupation group run by former Israeli soldiers. From there, they went to occupied Hebron, where they met Palestinians living under occupation.

Before they walked off the bus, they read a statement to fellow participants.

“We each came on this trip separately with hope that — especially in light of the recent killings of more than a 100 protesters in Gaza and Trump moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem — Birthright would trust its participants enough to give us an honest education,” they said. “We came with questions about what’s happening in the occupied territories and wanted to engage with new perspectives, but what became clear over the course of 10 days was that Birthright did not want to truthfully engage with our questions. It’s clear that young Jews who have critical questions about Israel are not welcome on Birthright. It’s shocking that given all the recent violence Birthright would continue to act as if we can’t handle the truth.”

In the mid-2000s, as Israel was building its separation wall through occupied territory, Birthright faced a similar issue, with trip participants walking off and joining protests against the construction of the barrier.

Katie Fenster, 25, was one of the participants who walked off of the bus this time. Going on Birthright was important to her as means of connecting to a larger Jewish community.

She had just moved from Philadelphia to the town of Brookings, South Dakota. “I’m the fifth Jew in the town I moved into, I’m number five!” she told The Intercept, laughing. “I came on the Birthright trip because Birthright’s just so huge in the Jewish community, and it’s so huge in the education of the Jewish community.”

During her time in Philadelphia, she had met activists from If Not Now, a group of young Jews who work to pressure Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinians. She began to question Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, and was hoping the Birthright trip would also be an opportunity to meet Palestinians and explore the dynamics that sustain the occupation.

“I really wanted to learn more and try to reconcile my feelings between knowing that Judaism is about social justice and seeing all the violence that is happening in Gaza,” she explained.

But whenever she and a small group of other participants asked the Birthright tour leaders about the occupation, they would be evasive. At one point, they traveled to a beach near the West Bank, and they started asking questions about the occupation nearby. “We were told, ‘No, that’s not part of the program,’” she said.

If Not Now has launched a formal campaign — called “Not Just a Free Trip” — to encourage Birthright participants to pressure the organization to educate young Jews about the occupation.  “[Birthright] brings 40,000 Jews every summer to Israel on its trip. It has a responsibility to be honest about what’s going on in the region, and we’re saying that … as young Jews, we are going to demand that they tell the truth, and we can handle the truth, and we need to know that complexity,” spokesperson Sarah Brammer-Shlay told The Intercept.

Fenster also noted that while the trip advertises itself as apolitical, participants were handed a map of Israel that does not demarcate the occupied territories — a message that Israel owns all of the land and that the Palestinians are not to be recognized.

Toward the end of the trip, the five participants contacted Breaking the Silence and decided to make a statement by walking off the bus and meeting Hebron’s Palestinian residents instead.

“We needed to really make a statement that probably the greatest educator of Jews in the diaspora is actively ignoring talking about the occupation. That’s unacceptable. The occupation is polluting the soul of Judaism. Judaism is about social justice,” Fenster said.

Fenster was taken aback by the acerbic reaction from many of the participants who did not join them. “This is going to go to the heads of Birthright Israel,” the tour guide can be seen telling them in the video. Another participant told them they would be killed or raped if they ventured into the West Bank.

“We really value the relationships we made on the trip, with the tour guide, with our fellow participants. It’s a sacrifice for us to end it this way without a proper goodbye. Some people were so actively against it … and a lot of people thought it just wasn’t the time and the place,” Fenster told us.

When they arrived in Hebron, Fenster was shocked by what they found there. “It’s like a ghost town. We walked down a street, and we saw a photo of what the street looked like in 1994 — it was a bustling spice market, and it was profoundly sad to see what has been lost because of this violence,” she reflected.

Over the summer, If Not Now plans to continue a campaign it started in the winter aimed at reaching Birthright participants. “We’re going to be at airports, handing out materials for people going on Birthright, saying, ‘Hey, we know you’re going on this trip, and we hope that it includes talking about the occupation, and if it doesn’t, here’s ways to ask those questions, and here’s ways to get the learning that you deserve,” Brammer-Shlay told The Intercept.

Fenster had no ill will toward Birthright or the participants who did not join them in the walkout. But she wanted the program to engage with the reality of what is happening to the Palestinians. “It’s their responsibility to honestly educate us about the occupation. And we really want Birthright to engage in this and to not hide what is happening,” she said.

“Since we respect the ability of our participants to formulate their own views, we reject the promotion of any agendas, attempts at manipulation or provocations from either political side,” Birthright told the Times of Israel in a statement.

Top photo: Five Birthright participants on Breaking the Silence tour of Hebron, in the occupied West Bank, after the walkout of their Birthright trip.

The post Young Jews Walk Out of Birthright Trip to See the Reality of Occupied Palestine Firsthand appeared first on The Intercept.