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Tension in the Gulf: Not just maritime powder kegs

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A recent interview in which Baloch National Movement chairman Khalil Baloch legitimized recent militant attacks on Iranian, Chinese and Pakistani targets is remarkable less for what he said and more for the fact that his remarks were published by a Saudi newspaper.

Speaking to Riyadh Daily, the English language sister of one of Saudi Arabia’s foremost newspapers, Al Riyadh, Mr. Baloch’s legitimization in the kingdom’s tightly controlled media constituted one more suggestion that Saudi Arabia may be tacitly supporting militants in Balochistan, a troubled Pakistani province that borders on Iran and is a crown jewel of China’s infrastructure and energy-driven Belt and Road initiative.

Riyadh Daily interviewed Mr. Baloch against the backdrop of heightened tensions between the United States and Iran that many fear could escalate into military conflict, past indications of Saudi support for religious militants in Balochistan, and suggestions that countries like the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are united in their opposition to Iran but differ on what outcome they want maximum pressure on the Islamic republic to produce.

The interview followed publication in 2017 by a Riyadh-based think tank with ties to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman of a call by a Baloch nationalist for support for an insurgency in the Baloch-populated Iranian province that borders Pakistan and is home to the crucial Indian-backed port of Chabahar on the Arabian Sea.

It also juxtaposes with Pakistani anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian militants who operate madrassahs along the Iranian-Pakistani border reporting stepped up Saudi funding. The monies are believed to come in part from Saudi nationals of Baloch descent, but the militants suggest the funding has at least tacit government approval.

Balochistan has witnessed multiple attacks on its Hazara Shiite minority as well as in May on a highly secured luxury hotel frequented by Chinese nationals in the Chinese-backed Baloch port city of Gwadar and a convoy of Chinese engineers as well as the Chinese consulate in Karachi. Militants killed 14 people in April in an  assault on an Iranian revolutionary guards convoy and exploded in December a car bomb in Chabahar.

Saudi Arabia is also suspected of supporting the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a controversial Iranian exile group that seeks the fall of the Iranian regime and enjoys support of senior Western politicians and former officials as well as US national security advisor John Bolton prior to his appointment and ex-Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal.

For now, tacit Saudi support for Baloch militants is likely to be more about putting potential building blocks in place rather than the result of a firm decision to wage a low-intensity proxy war.

“The recent escalation in militant attacks is a direct reaction to Pakistan army’s growing atrocities in Balochistan and China’s relentless plunder of Baloch resources,” Mr. Baloch said.

Asserting that the Pakistani part of Balochistan has been occupied by Pakistan since 1948, Mr. Baloch insisted that the “Baloch nation is resisting against this forced accession. This insurgency is the continuation of that.”

The alleged Saudi support coupled with plans for a US$10 billion Saudi investment in a refinery in Gwadar and a Baloch mine has sparked discussion in Beijing about the viability of China’s US$45 billion plus stake in the region’s security and stability.

Iranian officials see a pattern of foreign support for insurgents not only in Balochistan but also among Iran’s Kurdish, Arab and Azeri minorities. Their suspicions are fuelled by statements by Mr. Bolton prior to his appointment calling for support of insurgencies and Prince Mohammed’s vow that any battle between the Middle East’s two major rivals would be fought in Iran rather than Saudi Arabia.

Complicating the situation along Iran’s borders is the fact that like in the waters of the Gulf where naval assets are eyeing one another, it doesn’t take much for the situation to escalate out of control. That is particularly the case with Iran having shifted tactics from strategic patience to responding to perceived escalation with an escalation of its own.

Iran moreover has been preparing for a potential covert war waged by Saudi Arabia and possibly US-backed ethnic insurgent groups as well as the possibility of a direct military confrontation with the United States by building a network of underground military facilities along its borders with Pakistan and Iraq, according to Seyed Mohammad Marandi, an Iranian academic who frequently argues the Tehran government’s position in international media.

Iran recently released a video showcasing an underground bunker that houses its missile arsenal.

In a further heightening of tension, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards attacked on Friday Iranian armed opposition groups in the Kurdistan region of Iraq with drones and missiles. Iranian artillery separately shelled villages in a region populated not only by armed anti-Iranian and anti-Turkish Kurdish groups but also smugglers.

The strikes followed the killing of three Iranian revolutionary guards. A spokesman for the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) denied responsibility for their deaths.

The risk of escalation is enhanced by the fact that while the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel agree on the principle of maximum pressure, they do not necessarily see eye to eye on what the end goal is.

While US President Donald J. Trump appears to want to force Iran back to the negotiating table, Israel and Mr. Bolton are believed to advocate gunning for regime change ignoring the risk that the effort could produce a government that is even less palatable to them.

That outcome would suit Saudi Arabia that does not want to see a regime emerge that would be embraced by Western nations and allowed to return to the international fold unfettered by sanctions.

A palatable government would turn Iran into a Middle Eastern powerhouse with a competitive edge vis a vis Saudi Arabia and complicate the kingdom’s ambition to become a major natural gas player and sustain its regional leadership role.

Writing in the Pakistan Security Report 2018, journalist Muhammad Akbar Notezai warned: “The more Pakistan slips into the Saudi orbit, the more its relations with Iran will worsen… If their borders remain troubled, anyone can fish in the troubled water.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Coronavirus: Bioterrorism or Not, Who Is the Winner?

Sajad Abedi

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Authors: Sajad Abedi and Mohammad Amin Zabihi*

It has been so long since the early instances of using toxins, chemicals, and diseases as agents of assassinations and/or even mass murder. There are numerous historical and even modern instances of using toxins in assassinations, or using contagious diseases in warfare without even knowing about the bacteria or virus. For example, (allegedly) the first registered event of such method goes back to 14th century when Tatar army, desperate to win after three years of siege, threw corpses of plague victims to the Caffa city[1], causing an outbreak of this disease within the city. But the most important part happened afterwards; some soldiers could manage to escape on boats – Caffa was a port city on the Crimea Sea – to Italy, unaware of the fact that they were already infected. Nevertheless, most of them died along the way, but infected rats and remaining bodies caused one the major waves of plague pandemic[2] all over the Europe.

The paramount point is that in our modern world, it is just a matter of hours to leave New York and land somewhere else, thousands of miles away, even before the first symptoms of your disease manifest itself. In fact, the most horrifying factor of any contagious disease could be its latent period.

On the other hand, considering the unprecedent pace of ever-growing biological technologies, many developed countries possess the ability to develop an intelligent virus equipped with customized features in order to remain unnoticed on the victim’s (vector’s) body for quiet a time, and only manifest itself after it infected a considerable number of surrounding people. More interestingly, such customized virus can be planned whether to disable a specific organ or to metastasize within the whole system of the host. Even more, it can be planned according to the genetic map of people within a given region.

Looking at the whole picture with broader perspective, it does not matter whether the agent is toxic, chemical, or biological. The capability to produce and employ a virus, bacteria, or toxin by malicious actors, namely terrorists or criminals, could bring disastrous results.As we witnessed such case during 1990s in Japan – the Aum Shinrikyo Cult.

In fact, if we are going to prevent such disasters, first we should find the potential actors who may resort to such actions, investigate the probable ways, and also understand the costs, benefits, motives, and risks of which for these potential actors.

Of course, terrorists and criminals are the first probable examples which may pop up in our minds, but looking more rigorously, state actors are also among the potential cases. In the case of Coronavirus outbreak, if one considers it as an instance of bioterrorism/biological-war act, the probability of participation of terrorist or criminal organizations seems to be low, due to the complexity of production process and the highly advanced technologies required to produce such virus at the first place. On the other hand, a terrorist organization typically claims the responsibility of such attack in order to earn the reputation, and a criminal organization may demand ransom prior to release the virus – otherwise it would not be beneficial, unless they already have the cure (vaccine/antidote) ready to sell. In any case, it doesn’t seem probable. 

Considering the fact that, in the case of a pandemic, finding the main cause and the zero patient in this complex, interconnected world is significantly difficult (if possible), state actors may resort to such options due to multiple reasons. They may try to initiate a hidden biological war against another country (countries), in order to cause economic interruptions, socio-political chaos, create power vacuum in a specific area, forcing another actor to leave a region, or just simply to enjoy the economic benefits of selling the vaccine or antidote to victims. Obviously, there will be some serious prosecutions and consequences in the case that some concrete evidence shows any tracks of participation of an actor – whether a sovereign state or even a pharmaceutical company; but in such cases, states usually start to throw allegations at each other anyway.

We are living in a world that any kind of news affect the open markets immediately; the more important the news is, the deeper it affects the markets. In this case – Coronavirus – we witnessed a serious drop in international stock markets –especially oil markets – all over the world, which coincided with Russia’s ambivalence approach regarding the cutting supply decision made by OPEC – and also Saudi Arabia’s reaction to the whole story. Altogether, these factors caused a serious drop in different markets which, in fact, started with the news of Coronavirus outbreak at the first place. Who gets the best use of such scenario? The oil and gas producers are the main victims, obviously; but if one (the alleged perpetrator) knows the whole story before it happens, he would sell at the highest price and buy at the lowest price again – after the price crash, president Trump ordered to stock up the US oil reserves.

Although it seems pretty convincing, but is it really rational? What are the risks and costs? In reality, the pandemic of a dangerous virus – one like Coronavirus – equipped with a two-week latent period, in a high-populated country like China can cause sever problems in almost every corner of the planet; in fact, the bigger economy you have, the deeper your challenge would be. The implications of such outbreak are considerably wide: (1) it causes decrease in oil prices which will result in budget deficits in oil-dependent countries – like Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia; (2) it interrupts the production process and consequently the sale chains – like China; (3) reduces the tourists travels which will consequently result in budget deficits in tourist-dependent countries – like Turkey and most of EU; (4) it causes sever socio-economic costs, especially for populated countries – like China, US, and Russia.

Altogether, if one state actor decides to initiate a biological war against another state, using a virus agent which has the potential to cause a global pandemic, it should consider the possibility of backfiring the same gun inside its own country in numerous ways. In an interconnected world like the one we are living in, such actions cause gargantuan reactions in different ways, one may not be able to predict all of them. Considering such costs and also the risk of being traced back and accused of committing such horrifying act, the possibility of state-sponsorship in these cases will be considered relatively low (but still possible). It is not like creating a computer virus – like Stuxnet – that may or may not blow back to your face; it is the matter of people’s lives. 

*Mohammad Amin Zabihi, MSc. Regional Studies, Allameh Tabatabaei University


[1] Nowadays it is Feodosia, Ukraine 

[2]Also known as Black Death

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The Prospect of Bioterrorism: The Threat of Pathogen, Biting Insects and Dirty Bomb in Europe and UK

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The recent coronavirus attacks authenticate my postulation of the intensification of bioterrorism in Europe and Asia in 2020. The blame game between Washington and China further prompted misunderstanding about the hegemonic role of the US army that it wants to mitigate the future role of nuclear weapons and missile technology in peace and war. Chinese Ambassador was summoned in Washington when Foreign Ministry in Beijing tweeted that the deadly coronavirus was seeded in Wuhan by the US military. US President Donald Trump also called Covid-19 a “Chinese” and “foreign” virus, earning condemnations not only from Beijing but also from much of the mainstream media. However, China categorically stated that the coronovirus attack was a hybrid war against its economy and industry. Moreover, initially, Iranian officials also declared that the coronavirus was a biological weapon created in US military laboratories. Some state in Europe demonstrated weakness in fighting the Coronavirus war against their population.

Italy and France have been irritated in overcoming the death rate from the disease, while the British Prime Minister become frustrated in changing his controversial approach to the pandemic spread across the country. On 22 March 2020, the Guardian newspaper reported frustration of Downing Street about the shameless statement of controversial adviser to the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Dominic Mckenzie Cummings, who argued in a private meeting that the government’s strategy towards the coronavirus was “herd immunity, protect the economy and if some pensioners die”. The allegations, which were widely circulated online widely criticised that the government response to the Coronavirus was initially too weak, frustrated and controversial based on a notion that rather than limiting its spread, enough people could be allowed to contract it to give population-wide “herd immunity”. Dominic Mckenzie Cummings was born 25 November 1971 is a British political strategist who has been serving as Chief Adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson since July 2019.

Since 9/11, the threat of nuclear and biological terrorism has been at the forefront of the international security agenda. Bio terror experts have stressed the need on prevention of terrorist groups operating in Europe and the UK from gaining access to weapons of mass destruction and from perpetrating atrocious acts of biological terrorism. Recent events in Europe have raised the prospect of extremist and jihadist groups using biological, radiological and chemical attacks against civilian and military installations. The greatest threat to the national security of Europe and the UK stems from smuggling of material of dirty bomb, pathogen and smuggling of biting insects. As international media focused on the looming threat of chemical and biological terrorism in Europe, extremist and jihadist groups are seeking these weapons to inflict fatalities on civilian population.

Bioterrorism is terrorism involving the intentional release or dissemination of biological agents. These agents are bacteria, viruses, fungi, or toxins, and may be in a naturally occurring or a human-modified form, in much the same way in biological warfare. Biological agents are used by the terrorists to attain their social or political goals and are used for killing or injuring people, plants and animals. Response of Europe to the threat of future bioterrorism seems limited due to political and economic reservations of some member states. The approach to searching for biological agents at airports and shipping container entry points, and promoting bio-hazard awareness raised several important questions. Biological terrorism can be loosely categorised based on the agent used. The virus threat including smallpox, influenza, dengue fever, yellow fever, Rift Valley fever, and haemorrhagic fevers like Lassa, Ebola, and Marburg. Smallpox spreads directly from person to person. The third category of bio-threat is ‘bacteria’, which includes anthrax, plague, and cholera. There are numerous reports on the genetically development of viruses by some states to use it and achieve their political and economic goal.

One of these reports on insect war is the investigative report of Bulgarian investigative journalist and Middle East correspondent Dilyana Gaytandzhieva (12 September 2018), who published a series of reports. Her current work focuses on war crimes and illicit arms exports to war zones around the world. The Alternative World Website and Zodlike Productions, a news forum has published her fresh analysis of future insect war. She has painted a consternating picture of US insect war in her investigative report, and warns that the prospect of biological terrorism is consternating:

“Pentagon’s scientists have been deployed in 25 countries and given diplomatic immunity to research deadly viruses, bacteria and toxins at US military offshore biolaboratories under a $2.1 billion DoD program. The US Embassy to Tbilisi transports frozen human blood and pathogens as diplomatic cargo for a secret US military program. Internal documents, implicating US diplomats in the transportation of and experimenting on pathogens under diplomatic cover were leaked to me by Georgian insiders. According to these documents, Pentagon scientists have been deployed to the Republic of Georgia and have been given diplomatic immunity to research deadly diseases and biting insects at the Lugar Center–the Pentagon biolaboratory in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi. In 2014, The Lugar Center was equipped with an insect facility and launched a project on Sand Flies in Georgia and the Caucasus. In 2014-2015 sand fly species were collected under another project “Surveillance Work on Acute Febrile Illness” and all (female) sand flies were tested to determine their infectivity rate. A third project, also including sand flies collection, studied the characteristics of their salivary glands. Sand flies carry dangerous parasites in their saliva which they can transmit to humans through a bite”.

With the establishment of Islamic State ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and its secret networks in Europe, international community has now focused on the proliferation and smuggling of chemical and biological weapons in the region. Recent debate in Europe-based think tanks suggests that, as the group retrieved nuclear and biological material from the Mosul University in Iraq, it can possibly make Nuclear Explosive Devices (NED) with less than eight kilogrammes plutonium. The debate about bioterrorism and bio-defence is not entirely new in the military circles of Europe; the involvement of ISIS in using biological weapons against the Kurdish army in Kobane is a warning for the UK and European Union member states to deeply concentrate on the proliferation of these weapons in the region.

  As Islamic State ISIS now controls parts of Iraq and Syria and has carried out successful attacks in France, Germany, UK and Brussels, the group now wants to expand its terror networks to the borders of Russia and China. According to some confirmed reports, hundreds of Pakistanis have joined the army of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, while a women brigade of the ISIS army is operating in Pakistan. The problem of nuclear and biological terrorism deserves special attention from the EU and UK governments because experts warned that the army of ISIS has retrieved capabilities to develop a dirty bomb in which explosives can be combined with a radioactive source like those commonly used in hospitals or extractive industries. The use of this weapon might have severe health effects, causing more disruption than destruction.

In Europe, there is a general perception that ISIS has already used some dangerous gases in Iraq, and it could use biological weapons against civilian populations in UK and EU. If control over these weapons is weak, or if their components are available in the open market, there would be huge destruction in the region. In July 2014, the government of Iraq notified that nuclear material had been seized by the ISIS army from Mosul University. The ISIS published a 19-page document in Arabic on how to develop biological weapons, and a 26-page religious fatwa that allows the use of weapons of mass destruction. “If Muslims cannot defeat the kafir (non-believers) in a different way, it is permissible to use weapons of mass destruction,” warns the fatwa.

The effects of biological weapons are worse as they cause death or disease in humans, animals or plants. The fatalities of dengue and ebola viruses in West Africa are the worst forms of bioterrorism. There are speculations that, in future, measles, dengue, polio and the ebola viruses can be used as weapons of bioterrorism in Europe and the UK. Some states might use drones for the purposes of bio-war against their rival states. In 2013, writing in the Global Policy journal, Amanda M Teckman warned that ISIS might possibly use ebola as a weapon against the civilian population: “It remains to be seen if a terrorist group like ISIS, which has demonstrated a willingness to engage in large scale mass murder, including the uninhibited murder of civilians, has the capability to produce a weaponised version of ebola.”

Debate among the European Union intelligence experts normally starts with the assumption that without a professional intelligence analysis on law enforcement level, prevention of bioterrorism is impossible. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, security experts raised the question of intelligence-sharing failure, which caused huge infrastructural destruction and the killings of innocent civilians. Terrorists killed more than 34 innocent people and injured over 200 in Brussels. The failure of French and Brussels intelligence agencies to tackle the menace of extremism and the exponentially growing networks of the Islamic State (ISIS) prompted a deep distrust between the law enforcement agencies and civil society of the two states. The French and Belgium intelligence infrastructure also suffered from a lack of check and balance. This huge intelligence gap has badly affected the intelligence cooperation with other EU member states. The Belgian Foreign Minister warned that more intelligence on home-growing extremism was a must after the EU secret agencies came under heavy criticism immediately after they failed to share intelligence with France about the Paris attackers. French Interior Minister complained that no information about possible attacks was provided by EU secret agencies.

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Cybercrime effecting banking sector/economy of Pakistan

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Cyber-crime is not a conventional offence as its ramifications transcend borders.  It affects a society in different ways. The term “cybercrime” denotes any sort of illegal activity that uses a computer, cell phone or any other electronic device as its primary means of commission. The computer and electronic devices serve as the agents and the facilitator of the crime. Cyber criminals take full advantage of obscurity, secrecy, and interconnectedness provided by the internet and are able to attack the foundations of our modern information society. Breaching of cyber space is an issue of utmost concern for the banks and financial institutions. The menace of data theft is growing in magnitude with huge financial impact. As custodian of highly valuable customer information, banks have always been the favorite target of the cyber-attacks.

Moreover it is estimated that banks are more frequently targeted by the hackers than any other business organization. IT based financial solutions of the banks such as ATMs, mobile banking and internet banking are exposed to various forms of frauds including skimming and phishing etc. Affected banks may also witness decline in their share prices. Banking industry is more susceptible to the breach of cyber security due to its financial lure for the transgressors. In Pakistan, banking is increasing its user base at a brisk pace; the resulting threats are also multiplying. Financial services in Pakistan i.e. credit cards, accounts information and other, can also be acquired for theft or fabrication. During last few years Pakistan faced some serious cyber breaches in the banking sector. In 2018 it lost US $6 million in cyber-attacks as online security measures failed to prevent breach of security in which overseas hackers stole customer’s data.Data from 19,864 debit cards belonging to customers of 22 Pakistani banks has been put on sale on the dark web, according to an analysis conducted in year 2018 by Pakistan’s Computer Emergency Response Team, PakCERT.

However Cyber breaches of January 24 and January 30, 2019 included such data in large quantities pertaining to bank Meezan Bank Ltd. Gemini Advisory; a body that provides guidance with addressing emerging cyber threats stated that the compromised records posted between January 24 and January 30, 2019 is associated with a compromise of Meezan Bank Limited’s internal systems. Cyber security company “Group-IB”on  a February  22,2019  in advisory stated that money mules use the fake cards, to either withdraw money from ATMs or buy goods” that are later resold by fraudsters. Despite efforts of banks to eliminate ATM card fraud, criminals still find ways around security measures to acquire card data at the point of sale.

The impact of a single, successful cyber-attack can have far-reaching implications including financial losses, theft of intellectual property, and loss of consumer confidence and trust. The overall monetary impact of cyber-crime on society and government is estimated to be billions of dollars a year. While, the banks in Pakistan claim that they have insurance policies, they do not seem much interested in securing their system and the public remains highly affected by such attacks. There is growing sense of distrust in the online banking. Several banking organizations fail to provide proper insurance to their customer. That is why people are more comfortable in keeping their money and reserves at home rather than banks. This is one of the major factors that add to country’s severe economic decline.

Pakistan needs to develop its cyber capabilities infrastructure and should invest in the youth to build a cyber security force of young experts. Simultaneously, there is a need to focus on artificial intelligence, block chains and software robots as suggested by Chief Technology Officer Huawei (Middle East and European Union) Jorge Sebastiao in the recent international seminar on Global Strategic Threat and Response (GSTAR). Establishing a stronger cyber infrastructure will provide stronger security guarantees to the IT enabled services especially to the banking systems of Pakistan. This will in turn enhance the economic growth and security. Furthermore, the transnational nature of cyber-crime makes cyber-security a global challenge and, hence, demands collective and collaborative measures at the international level with flawless and strong legal and cyber policy framework.

In this regard, Pakistan’s cyber-law provides for ‘international cooperation.’ It has the membership of the International Multilateral Partnership against Cyber Threats (ITUIMPACT) and participates in Asia Pacific Security Incident Response Coordination Working Group (APSIRC-WG). However, cyber-security does not appear to be a priority on the country’s agenda for international dialogue and agreements.  Pakistan needs to review the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill which will contribute mainly to increase the security of banking systems.

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