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Transnational Strategies of ISIS Post Baghdadi

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From being proclaimed dead on multiple occasions to the actual confirmation of his death by the Islamic State, the life of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been shrouded in mystery in both life and death. Rising from extremely ordinary ranks, the self proclaimed caliph had made immense progress in causing a wave of violence and threatening the security of superpowers like the US for a while now. However this all changed as Donald Trump announced the success of a US raid conducted in northwest Syria on the 26th of October, 2019. This announcement soon raised questions on the future of the Islamic State and the announcement of the new Caliph.

Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi, parted ways from Al-Qaeda in 2013 and declared a Caliphate and himself as the Caliph. His main aim being, to consolidate the Muslims around the world in the name of Islam and form an Islamic State. Baghdadi, who had been particularly careful about making public appearances was seen in the pulpit of a mosque in Mosul on July 5, 2014. In a 21 minute long video which was made public, Baghdadi is seen speaking in Arabic and states that “the establishment of a Caliphate is an obligation.” However, he also claims his righteousness by saying that “I am not better than you or more virtuous than you,”. He further adds, “If you see me on the right path, help me. If you see me on the wrong path, advise me and halt me. And obey me as far as I obey God.”

These appealing sermons of Baghdadi, showcase only a part of his personality. ISIS under his rule has been infamous for subscribing to violence  and is considered one of the most brutal in the world. The confirmation of his death along with the death of the potential future heir, was made public by ISIS via an audio tape on 31st of October. The audio release was made by the organization’s central media arm , al-Furqan Foundation. Moreover the announcement was made by a new spokesperson who identified himself as Abu Hamza al-Qureshi, and warned the US government against rejoicing over this victory. The proclamation of the new caliph, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qureshi was also made along with the news of the death of a previous spokesman of the organization Abu Hassan al-Muhajir. These corroborations on part of the organization has raised questions about the dwindling future of the so called Islamic State.

Implications of the loss of a leader

Financial struggles

So far ISIS, has enjoyed an estimate of 800 million dollars of annual income from multiple sources. Majority of its income was a result of extortion and exploitation of people living under their rule. The rest came from illegal oil trade, kidnappings, and lootings. A great portion of the funds was also facilitated by foreign donors and illicit activities on the dark web. However, after the considerable loss of territory  due to a series of US raids carried out in Syria and Iraq, a sizeable amount of damage has been done to the institution’s economy. In spite of losing 98% of its territory ISIS still seems pretty confident with its financial reserves. Till the time the organization gets hold of its previous territories it would be largely dependent on its foreign donors and illegal trafficking networks. Foreign donors, usually use the hawala system to transfer money into the ISIS bank account. In light of ISIS’s present circumstances, and bearing in mind the rising number of sympathizers, these kind of  commiserate funding are probably to rise.

 A New leader

Until Baghdadi’s reign, he was the sole authoritative figurehead of the organization. Even though he was aided by a Shura (consultative) council, the appointment process of the council was usually his doing. This made him an unchecked figurehead who was in charge of sanctioning any kind of decision. Close associates of the organization were directed by him, however his command on overseas affiliates remains unclear. The death of Baghdadi has clearly created a major power vacuum in the administration of the system. The Shura council, even though the second most powerful entity, still was largely dependent on its leader for any decision- making process. It would be especially rare if the organization is able to find a leader as influential as Baghdadi. In the absence of which, internal skirmishes for assimilating power is absolutely possible. Barely any information is available about, the new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qureshi, except that he traces his lineage to one of the primary tribes of prophet Muhammad. This however is not enough to determine one’s headship qualities, and taking into account, ISIS’s dire straits, it is desperately in need of a capable commander.

Increased social media influence

As a relatively new terrorist organization, that took roots in 2006, ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has not been unaware of the influence of social media and cyberspace. Social media has been exploited to a great extent and has been a great aid in propagating the Jihadist ideology. However, after the death of its leader probabilities of ISIS making an extensive appearance on social media sites have increased. The organization makes use of a psycho-cyber approach that has two advantages- reaching a larger audience and manipulating minds in a lucrative way.

Ever since the news of Baghdadi’s death was made public, the internet has experienced a mixed reaction to the situation. As many were busy applauding the US government for taking such a bold step against terrorism, there were many others who swore their allegiance to Jihad. Pro-ISIS ideology has also surged, especially on social media sites such as Telegram (one of the primary sites used by ISIS). With the loss of a Caliph, posts swelling with sentiments have come forward, that vow to keep fighting in the name of Jihad, irrespective of a Caliph.

Apart from the crafty use of cyberspace, ISIS has also made use of language as a medium of publicity. Dabiq the English magazine that is published by the organization aims at making the Jihadi ideology open to all. The use of Arabic in the posts, tweets and other such documents creates the effect of being closer to the agenda and the teachings of Quran. Videos released by the organization too feature in multiple languages thereby radicalizing a larger group.

Ever since Baghdadi’s death, there have been more than a thousand tweets and retweets on pro-ISIS ideas on Twitter. Even though Twitter has worked tirelessly to take down these accounts, there are always a few that spring back up. The best way to garner more support and appear in most pages is by using hashtags. ISIS has exploited this possibility too and posts pictures with multiple hashtags so as to increase their visibility in the cyber domain.

ISIS’s social media strategy includes- recruiting sympathizers, subverting its opponents, reaching a larger audience, influencing the public with their propaganda. After the loss of its leader, ISIS is making use of the internet to the best of its abilities to keep its supporters united as well as enlist more individuals to the cause, in order to make an impactful comeback.

Retaliatory attacks

The terror of Islamic State does not simply end with the death of Baghdadi. Nations worldwide have feared being attacked by the institution and have also openly shared their concerns regarding the matter. The United States and the EU (European Union), both have increased vigilance in their security forces, fearing retaliation from the organization.

However, in order to form a structured revenge plan, the ISIS needs to have sufficient means to do so. After the loss of territory in Iraq and Syria, the followers of the group have been  scattered along the region. Not to mention having a considerable amount of supporters from Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia and Pakistan. Yet, the lack of a consolidated leadership limits the chances of a large scale attack. Speculations about lone wolf attacks have been made, however none of such cases have been reported so far.

The simple aim of organizing such an attack can however lead to a greater solidarity among its supporters. Collusions among lone wolves or individual entities and local terrorist organizations  are most likely to occur, yet the extent of a major retaliation would require a lot of time. Resources and funding are also areas to look into, and given the current weak stance of the Islamic State, seeking vengeance is still a long way to go.

However, ISIS is a determined group and most likely will rise again. The loss of territory along with the loss of its most influential leaders has tarnished its reputation. Meaning that in the long run, the organization would definitely want to rebuild its empire, the question is how?

Regaining lost glory- in search of the new Caliphate

Ever since its inception, Iraq and Syria have been the main strongholds for ISIS. This was primarily due to the fact that ISIS rose as a segment of Al-Qaeda which was established in the region. After Baghdadi’s revolt against the functioning’s of Al-Qaeda he founded his Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Baghdadi who was an Iraqi national himself was well informed about the region and had good knowledge of the local affiliates who would be willing to join him.  The political turmoil in the region, also served in providing the organization with a conducive environment to grow. Hence, Iraq and Syria became one of the most prized locations for the organization. However, this all changed as the Caliphate kept losing its territory at the hands of multiple entities. Even today, the US Homeland Security Forces are keeping the sleeper cells of the organization on a run. This however doesn’t answer the question to the recent power vacuum that has been created in the region as well as in the organization and in all likelihood, the organization will venture out to seek better avenues.

Southeast Asia

After the announcement of Baghdadi’s death, European nations were not the only ones to express their concerns about the possibility of retaliatory attacks. Officials from Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia have also been perturbed by the returning of attackers, given the dominant presence of ISIS in the region. Over the past few years Southeast Asian authorities have seen a rise in the number of individuals who choose to migrate to Iraq and Syria in order to fight for the organization. The region is constantly threatened by the increasing influence of the group and the escalating numbers of sympathizers it has managed to gain over a short period of time. Thus making it highly incorrect to limit the identity of the Islamic State to Iraq and Syria alone.

ISIS as an organization, currently faces a power vacuum in its system. This can only result in the formation of new affiliates in the region or an increasing probability of a brand new terrorist organization taking form from the  remaining shambles of ISIS. The death of Baghdadi would hence be used as a tactical measure to gain more supporters in the region as well as to create a wave of radicalization in Southeast Asia. However, there are multiple challenges that the organization itself needs to address before starting to rebuild its empire.

The nations in the pacific that are highly affected by ISIS are namely- Indonesia, Philippines, and Malaysia. The paper shall take a brief look at the recent terrorist activities in each of the countries and speculate on the possibilities of an emerging Islamic State.

Malaysia

In 2016, the nation experienced one of its first terrorist attacks caused by the ISIS. According to reports it was the first successful attack that the organization had managed to conduct in the country. A grenade attack was carried out in a nightclub, located in Puchong in Selangor state. Eight Malaysians and one  Chinese were injured. Irrespective of the magnitude of the attack, the authorities nabbed two Malaysians who were affiliated with the Islamic State.

This is not the only case of radicalization that has been experienced in the nation. In July of 2019, the Counter Terrorism division of Malaysia allegedly caught hold of – 12 Indonesians, 3 Malaysians and one Indian on charges of plotting attacks against unnamed politicians and non- Muslims. On interrogation , the accused were found guilty of spreading the Salfi Jihadist teachings and recruiting members for the ISIS, through social media. As per interrogation reports, the suspects were aged between 22 and 36 and were heavily involved in enlisting new members for the Islamic State from Indonesia and Malaysia, and also planned on launching attacks after the recruitment procedure was completed. They have also been associated in channeling funds for the Maute terrorist group based in the Philippines.

If one were to simply take a look at the Movida club attacks, one would realize how the roots of terror have slowly penetrated into the fabric of Malaysian society.  Muhammad Wanndy Mohamed Jedi, was a Malaysian national moved to Syria in order to join the ISIS. Since then he has been listed as one of the top recruiters and handles nearly all social media sites in the region. He was in charge of setting up nearly 100 WhatsApp groups which were all managed by Syrian social media hackers. The participants of these WhatsApp groups were usually college and university students from across the nation. Muhammad Wanndy who was responsible for setting up numerous sleeper cells in Malaysia, passed away in 2017 in a drone attack in Syria. One of the cells being the ‘Black Crow’ or Gagak Hitam. This was a well networked group that consisted of citizens from all walks of life, who secretly took orders from Wanndy. The Black Crow was simply an example of one of the many sleeper cells in the area, that continuously conspired against the government.

Apart from the presence of underground cells, terrorist organizations such as the Katibah Nusantara (Islamic State’s Malay Archipelago Combat Unit) have been pretty active in the region. In spite of being active even before the formation of the Islamic State, the group pledged its allegiance to ISIS in 2013. Since then it has utilized the Malay speaking population as an asset to promulgate their agenda. By using language as a medium, the group has successfully managed to create a better solidarity among members as well as found ways to enlist new comrades on similar grounds. One of the other benefits of encouraging Malay as a language of communication, is to reach a larger sects of Malaysian and Indonesian Sunni Muslims. Releasing videos and articles in the native language only makes its impact on the cyberspace stronger.

Katibah Nusantara is not the only organization that sympathizes with the cause of the Islamic State. The seeds of the notions encouraging the Islamic State had been long implanted in Malaysia by one of the most notorious terrorist organizations in the region KMM (Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia). If one were to take a look at the ideological formulations of both KMM and the ISIS, one could easily recognize the similarities. Both the institutions vouch for transnational terrorism and aim at forming a global Islamic State. With the promotion of such  identical objectives KMM could be called as the precursor of ISIS in the region. With the recent demise of Baghdadi, these sentiments are only being fueled as more and more recruits willingly sympathize with the cause.

Malaysia which enjoys a prime location in the Pacific, has to be extensively careful regarding its maritime security, in light of the rising terror groups. In the recent past, Malaysia has been accused of smuggling in illegal weapons. However, officials have denied any such claims.

Malaysia, along with its neighboring nations Indonesia and Philippines appears to be the perfect breeding ground for terrorist activities. With 61.3% of the population being predominantly Muslim, it is easy to influence the public with radical ideas in the name of jihad. A majority of the pro-ISIS sympathizers, willingly went to Iraq and Syria to become a part of the larger jihadi movement. However after the destruction of the caliphate, the returnees from the Middle East pose a greater threat to the national security, as they serve as a catalyst to instigate more extremist propaganda in the region.

Indonesia

In 2013, when ISIS split from Al-Qaeda, terrorist organizations worldwide were forced to pick sides. Especially the ones based in Southeast Asia. One of such groups that pledged its loyalty to ISIS was Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) An organization that has been wrecking havoc in the region by inspiring families to participate in suicide bombings, across the nation. One of such cases occurred a year ago in Surabaya when a family of six carried out a deadly suicide bomb attack in a church. What appeared to be a simple countryside family, was actually being radicalized by joint group for Islamic studies on a weekly basis. According to investigators, there were multiple families that met every Sunday to preach about Islam and in turn presented extremist views on the subject. The family which included a daughter of nine, were held responsible for carrying out the attack in a church, which injured many. A total of three such families were held accountable, and in all probability one of the families had recently returned from Syria. A similar attack took place at a police headquarters, in the same region. The attack was carried out by a family of five.

All these families bear their allegiance or have been impacted by the teachings of  Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), the organization too confirms its strategy of radicalizing families in the name of jihad. However, JAD is as recent as ISIS. Both the organizations were formed around the same time and ever since then JAD has looked up to ISIS for training and financial aid. JAD is composed of nearly two dozen extremist groups that pledge its allegiance to ISIS. However, there have been disputes among two Indonesian ISIL militants based in Syria namely – Bahrumsyah, aka Abu Ibrahim [Abu Jandal] and Bahrun Naim regarding the control over the pacific rim. As per intelligence sources Bahrumsyah has been made in charge of Katibah Nusantara, which is operational from Malaysia. Whereas Bahrun Naim had taken charge of JAD. Bahrun Naim, himself had an extremely impressive background. From being a student of informatics engineering to being in charge of one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations. He is the mastermind who introduced bitcoin technology and the basics of artificial intelligence to ISIS. However, after his death in 2018 in a US air strike, the leadership of JAD has been under Aman Abdurrahman, who is currently in Indonesian custody, yet remains influential.

Apart from JAD, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) is also equally powerful in radicalizing entities and promoting lone wolf attacks in the region. Both these organizations work hand in hand and also enjoy the support of well networked group of terrorist organizations from the neighboring countries of Malaysia and the Philippines.

Indonesia has a 99% Sunni Muslim population. The remaining minorities are under constant threat from these extremist entities that usually attack government properties and  Christian or western places of importance within the nation. Over the past 5 years, Indonesia has experienced a surge in terrorist activities as more of its youth is being radicalized by the use of social media. The arsonist masterminds, very intelligently hack into the social media networks that eventually do the damage. The local madrasas, or Islamic study centers are considered to be breeding grounds for  such extremism. In the Surabaya case which was mentioned above, families as a unit are being used as agents of terror. This includes using women and children alike. In 2017, a women was sentenced to seven and a half years of prison, after having plotted to carry out a suicide bombing outside the presidential palace. It was the first time that a woman had been arrested for such a crime.

One of the most damaging ways in which the organization has chosen to break the structure of Indonesia is by attacking the governments. In May 2019, right before the declaration of the presidential election, the police forces nabbed eight ISIS inspired militants who planned to stage a suicide bomb attack, during the announcement of the results. Most of these members have been migrants from Syria and Iraq, who were inspired by the idea of fighting for their Middle Eastern brothers and sisters. However, with the downfall of the Caliphate and the loss of their most prominent leader, in all likelihood, they will be equally inspired to create a new Islamic state in their very homeland.

Philippines

It would be foolish to consider that the mission of Islamic State to conquer land is only limited to Iraq and Syria. In 2017, the city of Marawi experienced something similar to what the people in Mosul would have experienced under the ISIS. The siege of Marawi is one of the best examples of the increasing power of terrorist organizations in the Philippines. In a duration of a 5 month long siege, which resulted in the loss of lives as well as property the city was completely left in ruins. The massive destruction was the work on two highly active terrorist organizations of the region – Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group, both of which have pledged their allegiance to ISIS. The ruined walls of the remaining buildings were covered with paintings and marks that read- “I love ISIS”.

As the city and the people still recover, the terrorist groups do not seem to rest. Two years after the incident, a case of suicide bomb attack rises up in January of 2019. A Roman Catholic Cathedral in Jolo, Mindanao island suffered two explosions after a couple of  suicide bombers unleashed the attack. This time the militants were affiliated with Abu Sayyaf group. Soon after the attack, an illustration was made public. In which the President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte was seen kneeling down on a pile of skulls while a militant held a knife at his neck, this picture was captioned- “The fighting has just begun”. As if the horrors of bombings and large scale destruction weren’t enough, the group is also psychologically affecting the public’s notions of safety. The illustration made the general citizens question their security at the hands of the state, a tactic used to sow seeds of suspicion in order to breakdown the government.

Considering all the recent attacks, the name of one terrorist group repeatedly resurfaces- Abu Sayyaf group (ASG). However, this organization is not the only culprit. Other terrorist groups such as the Maute group are also equally to blame. But these groups used to be a part of a larger organization called the MNLF ( Moro National Liberation Front ), that used to be closely associated with Al-Qaeda and the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). After being exceptionally active in the 1990’s and the 2000’s, the group eventually fizzled out due to internal disputes. Its last known attack was reported to be in 2017, ever since which it has remained relatively dormant. The group used a form of collective leadership and vouches for the formation of a separate Muslim nation or state called as the Bangsamoro, as the group is presided over by the Moro community. Moros are followers of Islam, yet some of their practices differ from the other religious sects, hence making them a separate ethnic group. It wasn’t clear wheatear MNLF agreed with the ideologies of ISIS. The group had also changed its name to MILF (MoroIslamic liberation front) and had ties with other terror groups in the region. Both MNLF and MILF were primarily located in the island of Mindanao in southern Philippines.

The other terror groups include Abu Sayyaf group (ASG), which is notorious for carrying out kidnappings in the area. Yet in the recent past. The group has advanced enough to carry out suicide bombings and attacks in the island of Mindanao. ASG lost one of its most prominent leaders Isnilon Hapilon, during the siege of Marawi. Isnilon Hapilon began his occupation as a jihadi terrorist under MNLF. Later on he aided in forming the ASG which predominantly consisted of tausug filipo Muslims, unlike the moros. He was one of the first in 2014 to pledge his alligence to al-Baghdadi, and eventually rose in the ranks to manage the jihadist movements in the pacific rim. After the death of Hapilon, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan has taken over the command. However, due to some differences within the group, ASG has two separate factions- one of which is based in Jolo and the other in Basilan. The faction in Basilan has pledged its allegiance to ISIS, but the one in Jolo has yet to make any definitive statement. This makes the linking of the attacks to either of the ASG groups a tough task.

Along with ASG, the other crucial terrorist group that works in the same area is the Maute group. The group has rather disillusioned beginnings, and it is unclear as to what triggered the radicalization among its key founders, yet the Mautes played an essential role in the Marawi siege. The group’s key founders – Omar and Abdullah Maute belonged to influential and well- off families in the town of Buting. During its initial stages they closely worked with the MILF, but soon disbanded and started to associate themselves with other groups in the region, one of them being the ASG. In May of 2017, Mautes took over Marawi and started their bloody regime, executing and looting people. The masterminds of the Marawi siege were Omar and Abdullah Maute, who were allegedly killed during the five month long blockade. However, there have been speculations that the prime person behind the scenes is Farhana Maute, which makes sense as the Mautes belong to a matriarchal tribe. Ever since the Marawi siege, the Mautes have been working closely with the ASG. Both the groups are notorious for kidnapping foreign nationals, mostly Indonesians and holding them for ransom.

The terrorist groups in Philippines were divided on the lines of ethnicity at the start of the decade. However, with the split of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, most organizations in the region have come together in the name of Islam, with a common goal of setting up their own caliphate. As the nation is chiefly Roman Catholic, the 5.6% of the Muslim in the region consider the government to be biased towards Christians. This instigates the terrorist groups furthermore as they repeatedly attempt to take down the “Christian” governance. The main concentration of the Muslim population lies in southern Philippines, which is geographically closer to the archipelagos of Indonesia. This close proximity of the nations and the heavy transnational involvement of terrorist groups in the region pose a major security threat.

Southeast Asia the next Caliphate?

As the command of the Caliphate dwindles in the Middle East, there can be seen a Suring sympathy in Southeast Asia. Currently ISIS exists in the form of sleeper cells in Iraq and Syria, that to face a hard time due to the counter terrorism measures taken by the government of the region. However, a Caliphate is not legitimized without a territory, the one that the organization has recently lost. Keeping in mind the siege of Marawi in Philippines , the possibility of a new Caliphate arising in southeast Asia cannot be denied. The primary nations that have been associated with the functioning of the Islamic State are Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Recent cases have also highlighted the rising numbers of Singaporean civilians who are being inspired by the same cause. Its is vital to keep in mind that these nations are an accumulation of archipelagoes that can be easily captured. If the current terrorist factions in the region were to unite and capture even one of these islands, a new Caliphate could be easily established. Given its prime location in the Pacific, the area receives the maximum traffic in terms of trade. Disrupting healthy trade between nations, in order to serve as a means of income for the organization through piracy and abduction is possible. If in all probability one of the islands in the region were to be the next Caliphate, then weapons supply would become a cheaper alternative for the Islamic State, as well as receiving FTFs (foreign terrorist fighters) via the sea route.

However, capturing an island and declaring it as the Islamic State is not enough. Precautionary measures are to be kept in mind. An island is a small piece of land. In such a case, a mere annihilation of an island would mean the end of the Islamic State. This move would then only work in favor of global peace.

However, the chances of such a scenario manifesting would require to many factors to be taken into consideration. One of them being the assimilation of all the terror groups and lone wolves  in the region and creating a strong leadership which is capable of doing so. Within a week of al-Baghdadi’s death, the organization announced its next leader- Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qureshi. As is custom, the caliph should belong to one of the families that were close to Prophet Mohamed. Little is known about Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qureshi, and little is known about his leadership qualities. So far, it hasn’t been established whether he is a namesake or an actual figurehead with powers of governance. Thus it is not difficult to imagine that there could be internal power struggles within the ISIS. In such a case, the probability of a competent leadership that consolidates the southeast Asian groups seems bleak.

But in such dire straits, would ISIS be joined by its old friend al-Qaeda? In all probability no. Both al-queada and ISIS currently face a power vacuum in their structure. However, in no way would al-Qaeda be willing to join ISIS. Post the announcement of Baghdadi’s death, it was reported that al-Qaeda celebrated the event. According to sources, the loss of such a wanted terrorists was no loss to them at all. Not to mention that the statement made by Ayman al-Zawahiri, in 16 minute long video that was posted post the split of both the organizations, clearly emphasized that Baghdadi was no longer welcome. The dislike towards Baghdadi has still been maintained and is often reflected in the hostility that the splinter groups maintain towards each other. In contrast, this does not lessen the probability of a brand new terrorist organization emerging in southeast Asia. The terrorist groups that used to work on the lines of differences and for separate causes, have now been acting under a single banner of the Islamic State. If such a thing were to occur, the effects would be equally disastrous.

Conclusion

Witnessing the sway that the IS has over its Southeast Asian counterparts, it would be incorrect to limit the location of the Islamic state simply to Iraq and Syria. Speculating on the possibility of a new Caliphate in Philippines, Malaysian and Indonesia does not seem far from reality. In light of the recent events, there has been a sizeable growth in the number of sympathizers of the IS. The Islamic State too, will not leave no stone unturned to regain its lost glory. This includes exploiting social media posts and financing and inspiring lone wolf attacks throughout the region. When even civilians are being radicalized and used as mediums of terror, it becomes tricky for the counter- terrorism forces to deal with them. Transnational terrorism has become a real thing and the threat is real. The question is how and who puts an end to it?

Research Analyst at Centre for Security Studies at O.P Jindal Global University, India.

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Emerging Cyber warfare threats to Pakistan

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The potential for the next Pearl Harbor could very well be a cyber-attack.” -Leon Panetta

In the modern era, war has been revolutionized due to rapid advancements in technology. As a result, cyber security along with its pros and cons is contributing increasingly to modern warfare. Pakistan, however, is still in the developmental phase of cyber security. Although Pakistan has passed its first law related to cyber-crimes, in the form of the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crime Act, the overall legislation related to cyber security is still vague and not as strong to deal with the dynamic and broad-ranging nature of threats that emanate from the realms of cyber security.

In recent years, the government has taken some initiatives in order to build capacity amongst the general public such as through PAK-CERT, Presidential Initiative for Artificial Intelligence & Computing (PIAIC), Skills for all Hunarmand Pakistan, Kamyab Jawan, and National Vocational & Technical Training (NAVTTC).Yet, as has been the case for quite some time, most of these initiatives are aimed simply at spreading greater awareness to help lay the foundations for a more robust cyber security architecture. Amidst such developments, the question that arises for Pakistani policymakers is thus where their country currently stands in the cyber domain and how cyber warfare is posing threats to its national security.

In this era of innovation and connectivity even major powers such as the U.S, Russia, China, Israel and the United Kingdom remain vulnerable to an evolving spectrum of cyber threats. Across the world, states are now increasingly dependent on cyber technology which has greatly increased their chances of vulnerability. The most known example is 2015 Stuxnet virus, whereby a devastating cyber-attack on Iranian nuclear facilities wreaked havoc such as at the Nantaz Nuclear facility, significantly rolling back the Iranian nuclear program. Similarly, the WannaCry outbreak in 2017 caused mass disruption by shutting down vital computing systems in more than 80 NHS organizations in England alone. This resulted in almost 20,000 cancelled appointments, 600 GP surgeries having to return to pen and paper, and five hospitals simply diverting ambulances, unable to handle any more emergency cases. Widely attributed as being state sponsored, the attack set another devastating precedent testifying to the wide-ranging vulnerabilities that exist even in some of the world’s most advanced countries. 

Pakistan’s cyber space too is insecure for many reasons because Pakistan is dependent on others for technology. According to leading global cyber security firms such as Symantec, Pakistan is among the ten most targeted countries in the world. Main targets include Pakistan’s nuclear and other critical installations, with publicly revealed assaults on an assortment of media houses, as well as the communications networks, of key government departments including, transport and, basic utilities. Such threats for instance were further confirmed by the Snowden documents released between 2013-2014 that had showed how the NSA was keeping an eye on Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders, utilizing a malware called SECONDATE.

Recently in the year 2019, Rising Security Research Institute has captured the attack launched by the internationally renowned Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) organization “Rattlesnake” through the Rising Threat Intelligence System. This time, the organization had targeted the Pakistani Navy via Target collision hijacking method. Specifically targeting the Pakistan Naval Public Relations Bureau, the attempt was aimed at stealing vital information from secure military networks while planting misleading documents masquerading as official statements from the Pakistan Navy regarding its regional neighbors such as China and India.  Based on such threats, Pakistan must be readily prepared for any kind of cyber espionage and take steps towards establishing a strong national cyber policy to protect its civilian and military infrastructure.

Therefore, at this stage it is imperative that Pakistan seriously focus on the development of a robust cyber war apparatus. This would especially help mitigate the numerous threats being posed to its banking system, as well as major government networks such as its ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as other military networks that have been previously targeted such as in the case shown above. As such Pakistan can take a number of initial steps by developing strategies to prevent malwares and denial of service (DOS) attacks to reduce such threats at least to a certain level.

Yet, Pakistan has still not developed a cohesive Cyber Command or any National Cyber Policy to deal with the regional cyber threats being posed to Pakistan. Even though Pakistan has recently developed a cyber-security auditing and evaluation lab, it is still in its formative stages. There is still immense space to develop advanced tools and research technologies to protect Pakistan’s cyberspace, sensitive data, and local economy from cyber-attacks while restricting illegal penetrations in it. Especially such as the initiative taken by the newly setup National Centre for Cyber Security which aims increase the number of indigenously trained cyber security professionals within the public sector.

Keeping to this trajectory Pakistan should emphasize more on indigenously developing its own cyber security industry so that in the near future it could benefit both its civilian and military infrastructure in the long run. Hence, while Pakistan may be limited in its ability to wage a strong offensive campaign within the realm of cyber warfare at the moment, such steps would go a long way in helping lay the foundations to build something greater on.

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Are we aware of Black Biology?

Sabah Aslam

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Biology is the study of life but many in the recent times, when conventional warfare is almost disappearing, the study of life is used for killing humankind. Despite all the marvels that this particular field gifts human beings with, one must not forget its role in almost wiping out life from the face of earth. The same biological research that was initiated as a savior of homo sapiens have been turned into an assassin by some realist powers. What could have been used for the uplifting of a civilization, is now used to turn it into a memory.

History has witnessed various moments where biological hazards infected the cities and countries. Black death in 14th century  hadleft a significant footprint on the history of Europe. Plague of Justinian in 541-542 was another nightmare, which Europe went through. It is said that it wiped half of the continent’s population with approximately 25million dead. However, with the passage of time the severity lessened. While various states are trying to eliminate other such diseases that pose threat to human life,  there is always another side of the coin and in this regard the other side is dark and chaotic.

Smallpox was said to be used as a weapon in conquests of inca by pizarro. It is also said that the Black death which was scorched upon Europe was initiated when Mongols used infected carcasses and catapulted them into the city of Kafa of now known as Feodosia.  In the contemporary history,WW1 saw the use of Anthrax while WW2witnessed the use of biological warfare aside of nuclear. Similarly, Iraq used Sarin, Tabun and chemical agents during Iran- Iraq war and on Kurds.

After World War-I states went for bio weaponizing themselves in order to have superiority over their nemesis. In this regard, many biological facilities were established for research. Although, later after the establishment of United Nations numerous treaties and regimes came into force and banned any such actions which can harm the human race. The Biological weapons conventions remains as one of the most efficient one in order to halt such horrendous actions to eliminate humans. Despite the fact that the first multilateral agreement, the Geneva Protocol, was made in 1925 which was signed by 108 states it seems that laws are subject to moral obligations, thus many states continue to do so in order to have sufficient knowledge of bio-synthesis. In 1968 about 6000 sheep near a government facility in US were poisoned by a chemical weapon known as VX, which was created in a facility. Not only this in 2002 a group of scientists in New York at Stony brook created the first artificially synthesis Polio virus. Later the news was covered by New York Times and it was revealed after subtle investigation by the agencies that the study was funded by the DARPA, a US government entity. It is clear that states are being sneaky in researches on biosynthesis and are looking forward to have an edge in bio-weaponry.

What differentiates biological warfare with conventional one is that biological weapons needs a single entity, mostly humans as, carrier and human body becomes potential weapon. While the Europe and West, along with engaging in such acts are finding solutions as well, yet the underdeveloped part of the world remains aloof from any such understanding.

Pakistan facing many problems had rarely focused or done some work to counter in case of emergency. Being the immediate neighbor of China and keeping in view the rising threat of Corona virus the authorities in Pakistan should be alarmed and show maximum restraint in order to combat what apparently seems a biological threat. In case of Pakistan, the question is simple that how much are we prepared in order to combat any sort of mischief event.

Most of the time, any parochial outbreak is politicized like any other social issue and politicians rant while death toll rises. Recent dengue outbreak is one of the examples where there were no ample resources and management either on federal or provincial level. Despite the fact that after 18thamendment health was no longer, a matter of federal concern and was made the provincial subject in order to make things more effective. However, things did not go as planned. The politicians stuck in parochial politics deliberately neglected the fatal effects of not focusing on health.

Under these circumstances, Pakistan needs proper structural understanding of not only about pandemics but also needs to focus on the discourse of biological warfare. Academia and professionals need to be employed with maximum possible resources. The country needs proper professional and academic facilities in order to cope-up with the growing threat of epidemics and biological warfare. Keeping the status-quo of Pakistan in consideration it would be a tough nut to crack but it is high time that we look towards the professional practitioners.

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Intelligence

Deep Dive: Bezos, anti-Saudi activists and a character assassination campaign against the Crown Prince

Irina Tsukerman

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With the latest spurious allegations concerning the alleged hack of his phone by the Saudis, Jeff Bezos brought himself back into an unwelcome and embarrassing spotlight, involving nude pictures of himself cheating on his ex-wife, all seemingly for the sake of destroying the reputation of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. His claim that Mohammed bin Salman taunted him with photos of the supposedly “secret” affair and then somehow used his own phone’s Whatsapp account to hack Bezos’s phone and to expose the nudes, which were then leak to the public remains unsubstantiated despite the mention of undisclosed forensic investigators supposedly responsible for these latest disclosures to the soap opera.

Background

The story about the alleged hack broke exactly a year ago, after Jeff Bezos and his wife filed for divorce in January 2019. Soon after, the National Enquirer publicized pictures of Bezos’ affair with his girlfriend, including “intimate texts and photos.” Bezos accused the Enquirer of extortion & blackmail. Bezos, backed by his security chief, accused Saudis of having taken part in a hack that led to the leak of these photos. The Saudis denied having anything to do with that. Soon after, information came out that Bezos’ girlfriend gave the photos and texts to her brother, who leaked them to the media.

Bezos had further alleged that the owner of the Enquirer had a business relationship with Mohammed bin Salman, but after the revelation came out concerning his girlfriend & her brother’s involvement in the leak, did not appear to pursue this matter further. The story died down despite Bezos’ personal op-eds with accusations, but in January 2020 Bezos doubled down on his initial allegations. He produced a poorly sourced UN report produced by Agnes Callamard, and an equally questionable forensics report by investigators he paid for, claiming that there was a hack and that the hack came from the Crown Prince’s account.  Increasing evidence point in other directions.

For instance, US prosecutors tasked with investigating the alleged leak/hack say they have evidence that the girlfriend and her brother are the culprits. Bezos is yet to explain what connection, if any, there is between the Crown Prince and Bezos’ girlfriend. Was she in possession of Mohammed bin Salman’s phone? Did he first hack the account and then have her leak it to the press in exchange for a princely sum of money?  The increasingly embarrassing situation went from bed to worse in terms of optics for Bezos himself when a number of cyberexperts started questioning the conclusions in the forensics report, stating that Bezos has not actually established a technical link between Mohammed bin Salman’s account and Bezos’ phone.

At issue now is Bezos’ central claim—that his phone was hacked at all. Whether Bezos will spin these developments into a conspiracy theory—in which his girlfriend was in on it with Mohammed bin Salman, seduced Bezos to get into his good graces and ruin his marriage and personal life, and then, after the Crown Prince hacked Bezos phone, took the resulting leak and shared it with a tabloid—remains unclear. Increasingly, however, pressure is mounting on Bezos to back his claims, as his allegations appear increasingly fantastical yet persistent.

These accusations raise several inconvenient questions that neither Bezos, nor the mainstream media which parroted his side of the story without doing the basics of any ethical journalist—which is to say, demanding evidence of these scandalous claim—bother to address.

For instance, why did Jeff Bezos keep silent about the Crown Prince’s alleged knowledge and “taunts”, allegedly made BEFORE the hack, all this time? Why did he not say anything even at the time when he first reported the incident?

Further, he does not explain how Mohammed bin Salman would even know about this clandestine liaison. Did he have a gaggle of spies follow the Amazon founder around? Or was Bezos always so careless with his online activity that the Saudis could have hacked him long before and been tracking him for some time?

Which raises yet another natural question: how is it that Jeff Bezos, the founder of a gigantic company with millions of accounts, could have failed to secure his own personal data? And can any of his customers trust him with their own privacy? Supposedly bad blood between Bezos and the Saudis is related to a business dispute over his interest in building Amazon in KSA, but failing to address Saudi concerns over Amazon’s handling of Saudi customers’ data. If so, Bezos’ behavior is fraught with irony.

The next question any reasonable person could/should ask is why would the heir to the throne of a major Middle Eastern country use his own personal account to engage in any sort of illicit and unethical activity, much less something blatantly criminal as a hack of one of the wealthiest individuals in the world? Is there no one Mohammed bin Salman could hire, even if that is something he was contemplating for unknowable reasons? Why would he make himself so vulnerable, especially considering the many other character attacks he’s been facing since early on in his tenure?

Finally, even IF there is technical evidence linking Mohammed bin Salman’s Whatsapp account to the hack, how do we know that the Crown Prince’s phone was not hacked or spoofed, which is more than likely? For all it’s worth, Bezos himself probably had interacted with the Crown Prince over that account and could have easily leaked it elsewhere. But why would Bezos be involved in a set-up that discredited him in light of his own personal drama unfolding before the world’s eyes?

Rather than speculating on Bezos’ motivations, I invite the readers to examine his actions, which indicate that this story is about far more than just Bezos’ personal issues with the Saudis (if any of these rumors are even true).

Shortly following the break out of the media storm over the renewed allegations, Bezos tweeted a picture of himself from Jamal Khashoggi’s memorial with the hashtag “Jamal”. Who else attended that memorial? Jamal Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancé, known for her support of Turkey’s authoritarian president Erdogan, and none other than the UN rapporteur Agnes Callamard, a fierce defender of Qassem Soleimani against US strikes, and the allegedly impartial UN official responsible for the UN investigation of the Saudi role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Discrediting her claims to objectivity, the very same Callamard has now sided with Bezos demanding an international investigation into the hacking allegations against Mohammed bin Salman, despite the lack of evidence. What a coincidence!

Bezos was also pictured with the founder and executive director of CAIR, Nihad Awad, at the memorial. CAIR is an unindicted co-conspirator in investigations concerning money laundering to Muslim Brotherhood-backed terrorist organizations, such as Hamas, and has extensive links to the Brotherhood.

By tweeting this image shortly after the renewed claims, Bezos admits the following:

He has a political agenda in going after the Saudi Crown Prince, beyond any business dispute

The Washington Post, which Bezos owns, is not objective but rather openly sides with the ex-Saudi spook cum turncoat cum Qatari agent Jamal Khashoggi—despite the Washington Post’s own admission that the Qatar Foundation International fed Khashoggi the articles he used to attack the Crown Prince in the pieces basically rewritten to the level of readability by his editor Karen Attiah. The Washington Post, if it has benefited financially from this arrangement, may itself be implicated as an unregistered foreign agent in violation of US laws, and Bezos is openly hinting at that. Karen Attiah, after all, also took part in the memorial.

Finally, Bezos’s accusations against Mohammed bin Salman are directly tied to Qatar and the Khashoggi matter. This thinly veiled message affirms that Bezos, Callamard, and others are deeply involved with state actors who are fueling the ongoing political campaign to discredit, smear, and ultimately oust the Crown Prince.

What could be Bezos’ political calculus in this unseemly scenario, where he is publicly making himself into a laughingstock at least as much as he is turning Mohammed bin Salman into fodder for supposedly reputable national publications, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal (who published all of this uncritically)? Furthermore, why is he returning to the apparently debunked story after a year and subjecting himself to potential embarrassment and discreditation, likely knowing fully well that there is no “there, there”?

There is no mystery. The strategy by Mohammed bin Salman’s enemies, from the very beginning of the Khashoggi affair, has been to make it appear that the Khashoggi death is not an isolated incident; rather, the claim has been that Mohammed bin Salman has a strategy of surveilling, hacking, physically intimidating, and even trying to abduct dissidents, critics, and opponents of his policies. Since Khashoggi’s death, both the NY Times and WaPo, known for taking conspiracy theories and baseless allegations from the Qatar-funded Arabic and English language media and giving them legitimacy without ever providing counterpoints or raising doubt about these claims, have printed numerous articles giving space to known leftist, pan-Arabist and pro-Muslim Brotherhood critics of the Crown Prince and his Vision2030 reform plan, who reside in Canada, the UK, and the US and who have all claimed that they had been threatened, harassed, or surveilled by Saudi intelligence in the wake of Khashoggi.

Prior to Khashoggi’s death, however, these individuals resorted to broader statements claiming that Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for a crackdown on dissent (read: antagonistic activism) inside the Kingdom. The Khashoggi affair gave an opening to opportunists to push for creating an image of Mohammed bin Salman as an irredeemable villain who will never stop shutting down anyone who stands up to him. Bezos has clearly aligned himself with other agents of this strategy, and despite past evidence showing that other parties were responsible for the embarrassing leak of his “dick pics” (technical term), jumped in full throttle into this morass.

The calculus here is not so much to “prove” that Mohammed bin Salman is personally guilty of this cyberattack, which may ultimately prove impossible even if any evidence exists, but to embarrass him (again) to such an extent that his own family will decide that he deserves no more chances to fix his reputation in light of this ongoing PR/information warfare nightmare, and should be removed from a public role or at least from his current position.

As for the timing, if Bezos, as it increasingly appears to be the case, is in cahoots with foreign regimes and possibly elements of domestic intelligence agencies who have an ax to grind with Mohammed bin Salman, the recycling of the old conspiracy theory is nothing new. It follows a pattern of other such thinly veiled character attacks on the Crown Prince, and likely came from the same Qatari playbook. The aim is to weaponize the media and to cause a public fracas, at any cost. Furthermore, the thought is that that the public is heavily dependent on Amazon for services, and therefore anything will go. By contrast, the Western public does not perceive itself as being dependent on Saudi Arabia or its Crown Prince, and presumably has no loyalties to him, even if he is unjustly accused of crimes he did not commit. Timing, however, is of interest here.

The Iran-Qatar connection fueling Qatar’s interest in continuous attacks on Mohammed bin Salman

January 2020 started with the killing of the head of IRGC’s Al Quds Brigade Qassem Soleimani, which appeared to be a blow to the Iranian regime’s hegemonic ambitions, especially as it struggles to contain internal protests and faces uprisings against its proxies in Iraq and Lebanon. Responding to this event, Iran caused a self-inflicted PR disaster when it shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane with 176 civilians on board—and lied about it for three days. Following this fiasco, Qatar offered $3B to Iran to cover the costs of paying the families of the victims. There may have been some awkwardness to the exchange, as the US used the Al Udeid base in Qatar for the operation, and yet the Qatari officials traveled to Iran immediately thereafter to offer condolences on the death of Soleimani. 

Qatar’s public siding with a US adversary did not go unnoticed. Indeed, it constituted yet another political example of Qatar openly supporting Iran’s aggressive action in the region. Qatar’s past silence during the oil tanker crises resulted in an intelligence report indicating that Doha was in cahoots with Tehran and covered for Iran, rather than share information that could have prevented these attacks. Analysis of Qatar’s long-term relationship with Iran and its reaction to any steps by the US and others that would have had any negative impact on the regime indicates that Qatar may have even facilitated the attacks on ARAMCO in Saudi Arabia in September, widely attributed to Iran. 

Increased scrutiny over these geopolitical concerns are a massive headache to Doha, which had spent millions on lobbying efforts in the United States and Europe, and has developed a sophisticated media apparatus to cultivate an image of a pro-Western, friendly country open for business. After a series of missteps involving its close ally Iran, Qatar may have been desperate to distract from its own US government ire-raising role in these events, and sought to redirect the negative scrutiny and public outrage onto a favored scapegoat for all sorts of scandals, the Crown Prince, who was made vulnerable due to Qatar’s prior character assassination campaigns as well as the Saudi government’s complete lack of PR acumen. Bezos, who may have personal issues with Mohammed bin Salman, had already proven his usefulness against him through the consistent role the Washington Post has played in not letting the Khashoggi affair die down.

Indeed, Bezos himself made that issue highly personal by attending Khashoggi’s memorial alongside Callamard, Attiah, and Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancé.  On the one hand, here was an opportunity to give Iran time to recover from bad publicity long enough to be able to focus on strategy and shutting down protests—when the Western world is busy gossiping about the hapless Crown Prince, they are not paying attention to the violent crackdown and torture of protesters, and killing of journalists in Iraq and Lebanon; on the other hand, it was another opportunity to resurrect the ghost of Khashoggi, putting more salt on the wounds of Western perception of Saudis.

But why would anyone side with Qatar, especially someone as wealthy as Bezos, who needs not depend on Qatari largesse? And why have other media outlets, presumably with no business grievances with the Kingdom, and portions of Western intelligence agencies, be lending a hand to these dubious operations, which have turned the US media into a battleground for authoritarian foreign regimes and unregistered agents of influence?

With Bezos, those who are fueling this witch hunt have likely appealed to his vindictive motives following the business dispute with Saudi Arabia. Bezos has a reputation  going back years before Mohammed bin Salman’s ascent to his position. And aside from the Crown Prince, Bezos has engaged in public spats with other corporate leaders not so long ago. Motive, meet opportunity. The media did not need to be “sold”, as it has been aligned with Qatar’s agenda in the West since after the imposition of the boycott against Qatar by Saudi Arabia, and the ensuing Qatari campaign to win friends and to destroy Saudi Arabia’s image in the West.

How the Media Circus around Bezos’ Unfounded Claims Carries Water for Foreign Regimes

The Strange Case of Cybersecurity “Expert” and Khashoggi Ally Iyad El-Baghdadi

A Palestinian born critic of Saudi Arabia Iyad El-Baghdadi, in a lengthy soft-ball interview with the Deutsche Welle on the subject of the hack, writes:  “…Then, Bezos in February of 2019 wrote a Medium post saying that he had just experienced a blackmail attempt and hinted very strongly that Saudi Arabia was probably involved. We immediately put two and two together. Number one: We know that MbS has a problem with Bezos, that was very clear because the propaganda output of his regime was really aggressive against him. What we also know is that they had an ongoing business relationship. And we know that Jamal Khashoggi’s murder came in the middle of that. So we published our findings online and two days later we were contacted by the head of security for Bezos (editor’s note: Gavin de Becker, a longtime security consultant hired by Bezos), who said: ‘You guys are onto something and we have certain information we want to share with you as well.’”

El-Baghdadi claims to have “worked” with Bezos’ security team on investigating the incident. El-Baghdadi admits to having worked with Jamal Khashoggi in the past on his “MENA democracy” initiative. Khashoggi had been building an anti-Saudi think tank and engaging in cyberoperations against Saudi online activists when he was killed.  El-Baghdadi’s distaste for the Saudi government is not explicitly explained, nor is his fellowship with Khashoggi ever fully presented, but both have had a history of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood ideology and resented Saudi outreach to Israel. El-Baghdadi, for instance, wrote of “two Israels”, with one of which “no peace” is possible, claiming that there are no Israeli centrists or peace partners, only “colonial masters”, and calling for “resistance”.  Khashoggi was both opposed to normalization with Israel and wrote against Jews. What is interesting here is that El-Baghdadi was hired by Bezos’ security chief after the hack, but his role appears limited to propaganda, as he had no access to the technical information regarding any allegedly cyberattacks on Bezos and he admitted as much. His reputation of being affiliated with Khashoggi and attacking Saudi Arabia should, but somehow does not, discredit his professional conclusions of what must have transpired, even though they are based not on technical forensic evidence, but on ideological conclusions.  El-Baghdadi believes that Mohammed bin Salman was personally responsible for the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi based on Khashoggi’s personal criticism of the Crown Prince and his policies.

El-Baghdadi even states that Bezos’ security team and he started to “coordinate things”, without explaining what it is they coordinated—and the DW reporters do not challenge him on this issue. What is public knowledge, however, is that in the same year after Bezos’ alleged hack, El-Baghdadi, speaking to Qatar’s mouthpiece, Al Jazeera, claimed that he was in the “crosshairs” of the Saudi government, that he is a pro-”democracy” activist (does that mean he is calling for a violent internal coup against a popular heir to the throne?) despite having no connection to the Kingdom or its people, and many months after Khashoggi’s death (May 2019), and felt “in danger”. He apparently came to that realization after starting to work with  Bezos’ team in February 2019, after the scandal regarding Bezos’ hack had already waned in the public eye. Did Bezos put him up to that?

Or did Bezos hire El-Baghdadi to make these statements, that would not only keep the Khashoggi story alive well past its due date, but would appear to substantiate his own concerns about Saudi Arabi? If Qatar was supportive of this apparent collusion, El-Baghdadi’s claims would further the idea being propagated that Khashoggi was neither an isolated case nor an issue arising from “rogue operatives”, but rather part of a strategic and brutal crackdown against Mohammed bin Salman’s critics. This would further distract from the emerging information that Khashoggi himself was no white fluffy kitten, but an experienced intelligence operative who had sold out to Qatar, and was weaponized against Riyadh. The story was soon picked up without any criticism by various Western publications, including The Daily Beast, which claimed that the activist was “forced into hiding”—although he continued to tweet and speak to the media.

To return to the interview, DW, despite this suspicious background that undermined the story, did not in any way push back, but rather gave El-Baghdadi plenty of space to attack Mohammed bin Salman, repeat unproven claims that the Crown Prince massacred Khashoggi in the Consulate, and link all of that to the Bezos hack as revenge for the Washington Post’s coverage of the Khashoggi affair. Of course, once again, DW never asks about any possible collusion between the Washington Post and the Qatar Foundation International, nor whether El-Baghdadi benefited financially in any way from his relationship with all these actors.

Even when El-Baghdadi makes clear the case of his personal collusion with the Bezos team in describing the extent of their professional collaboration, and even after admitting that there is no evidence that the phone was compromised at the time Bezos alleged or earlier, the reporter lets the activist continue as an expert witness on this subject, without questioning any aspect of his story or motives. Thus, DW, by failing to do its job and remain skeptical of such sweeping claim, legitimized someone with a clear political agenda, gave him a platform, and introduced him to the public eye, not as a political actor, but as a victim who is the “good guy” in this confusing chain of events. DW relinquished its role as a neutral observer and objective medium of information and sided with Bezos and Team Khashoggi.

What makes this situation still more sinister is that, like the BBC, DW receives public funding from the German government. In other words, Germany, as a state, is essentially taking part in this situation and siding with Bezos, El-Baghdadi, and promoting unsubstantiated claims about Khashoggi’s death. Aside from Qatar, then, European governments and their media tools, are playing an interventionist political role in this campaign.

Agnes Callamard, meanwhile, appears to be backing an El-Baghdadi-like activist in UK, who is funded by unknown forces (possibly Qatar, some pro-MB foundations, or Bezos), Ghanem Almasarir, who hails from the Kingdom, but shares El-Baghdadi’s virulently anti-Saudi views. Almasarir now came out to allege that he, too, was being electronically surveilled by Saudi intelligence, allegedly hacked through the use of the same Israeli malware that was supposedly used to spy on Khashoggi and El-Baghdadi, and now has been allowed by the UK to sue the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for these alleged activities. Even if the case ultimately is thrown out, it is clear that he will get the attention he wishes, and the indelible damage to Saudi Arabia as a country, and Mohammed bin Salman personally, will have been done.

In yet another recent incident, the FBI—which since Robert Mueller’s time has had CAIR and other Islamist organizations involved in sensitivity trainings— supposedly foiled an attempted abduction of a young Saudi YouTuber, Abdulrahman Almutairi, by the Saudis. The Daily Beast report is almost entirely based on Almutairi’s own story, in which he claims that Mohammed bin Salman sent a hit team for him in the airport to kidnap him because he had criticized the Crown Prince. The likelihood of such a plot against such an unknown person is extremely low.


But what is obvious is that The Daily Beast and other publications are eager to report such sensationalist accounts, without verifying details, because they confirm the inherent bias against the Crown Prince and in favor of the “dissidents”, young people without jobs, funded by unknown organizations, and living abroad, whose sole raison d’etre seems to be making low quality podcasts and videos trash-talking Mohammed bin Salman. All these individuals are supposedly of such importance to the Crown Prince that he would risk a major scandal with the United Stated government in an attempt to illegally recover them and bring them back home rather than ignore their yammerings. The readers are invited to believe this version of the events on the ground that “reputable journalists” wrote it up.

In the case of Almutairi, if they media had so much as checked his social media account, they would have discovered a self-revealed history of mental health issues (Almutairi has written about being bipolar), discussing his hospital stays and mandatory medication for his condition. A cursory review would also disclose that he was studying on a Saudi government scholarship and KSA was also paying his medical bills. Due to his frequently erratic behavior, the government finally cut off his tuition. Almutairi complained about it on Instagram (screenshot); in short, he was a mentally unstable, disgruntled individual, who ended up calling the FBI on his own father, accusing him of working with the Saudi government to abduct him. (It is possible that his father came to visit to persuade him to return home for continued medical treatment.) In other words, he is less than a credible source, yet the media did not look into any of these details, thus essentially misinforming the public and creating the impression that Almutairi’s story was exactly what it appeared to be. These media outlets used a mentally ill individual to push their agenda, without disclosing the facts, shamefully exposing him to the kind of public attention that could aggravate his condition.

It seems that Bezos and Callamard are working together to identify anyone who may be persuaded to make similar claims against Saudis to bolster Bezos’ own credibility, but also in order to discredit the Crown Prince.

The Clown Choir Whitewashed Qatar’s Hacking but Echoes Baseless Claims Against the Saudis

The rest of the so-called “mainstream media” has hardly been any more professional nor has demonstrated any journalistic integrity over this matter.

The Philadelphia Inquirer covered this story with the following headline (thinly veiled as an opinion piece): “Saudi Arabia murdered a journalist and hacked Jeff Bezos. Trump sent them U.S. troops”. The rest of the piece is very much along the same vein, embracing unproven or discredited and openly biased assertions, without even an attempt to present a counterpoint that could shed light on the otherwise outrageous scenario being presented. Given the increasing public distrust in the media and the disappearing skill of distinguishing between opinion & fact, even if such an article is categorized as an “opinion” piece, at best it will feed into existing perceptions, at worst some may take it as information, rather than a personal position.

The NY Post, in its initial coverage, took Bezos allegations as “evidence“ rather than claims.

The Washington Post, not surprisingly, has followed its owner’s line with fierce loyalty. It has published multiple stories on this issue, all of them equally one-sided, and despite the paucity of technical evidence, reaffirms that these allegations “implicate” Mohammed bin Salman in the hack.

The Daily Beast coverage runs was about the same.

The NY Times makes an effort at appearing objective by covering what the “UN experts” have said about the hack, but does not question their expertise nor their conclusion nor the fact that the same experts had previously produced a one-sided report on Khashoggi lacking in facts or evidence.

Vanity Fair amps up the drama by using a conclusive description of the “MBS-Bezos” hack as a potential “ticking time bomb”.

AP News follows the lead claiming, again, with very little backing or follow-up investigation, that the Saudi Crown Prince’s phone is linked to the alleged hack.

NBC News once again focuses on the UN experts, and their completely unproven (and likely unprovable claim) that the alleged hack was aimed at influencing Washington Post coverage of Saudi Arabia. It is hard to take seriously such an allegation, given that the chickens have already flown the coop and the incriminating information against Bezos has already been published; he has divorced and lost half his fortune. How could he possibly be influenced by that incident to change all of the coverage about KSA? 

The Hill takes fearmongering to the next level, with the writers claiming that now everyone who is critical of KSA could be endanger of being hacked.

MarketWatch echoes the mass media hysteria.

Ditto for Axios.

PBS also takes Jeff Bezos’ claims as proven fact. If only the media had stuck to following the late Jim Lehrer’s  rules for ethical journalism, perhaps the issue of public trust would not have been quite so evasive. 

And on and on it goes.

In short, once again, the scions of journalism have beclowned themselves with premature, one-sided coverage based on a high profile figure’s sensationalist claims, and have failed to follow-up with their own investigation on any of these comments or even to wait for other experts to weigh in.  In the fray to be the first to “break” the “news” that Bezos claimed something that has already been largely discredited, these outlets once again put their own credibility at question.

Why would they take such a risk? There are several observations to be made of this baseless kerfuffle.

First, these same outlets reacted in exactly the same way to the initial reports of Khashoggi’s disappearance and death. They based their reports on leaks and claims made by the foreign media (Turkish intelligence affiliates known for their outright disinformation), and in some cases had to publish retractions of debunked histories concerning the case. They had failed to inform the public of essential facts concerning Khashoggi’s past, and to this day, many of these outlets, particularly the Washington Post, refer to Khashoggi as a “dissident” and “journalist” without disclosing his relationship to intelligence, to Qatar, and to the fact that others were basically writing his columns for him.  These outlets have worked to shape a narrative about Khashoggi, just as they are currently working to shape a narrative about Jeff Bezos’ phone, and have not allowed facts to get in the way of spinning these tales. At no point have any of these outlets set their own reporters to investigate the situation on the ground in Turkey after Khashoggi’s disappearance. Adopting a Turkish intelligence agency’s narrative is not merely lazy, unethical journalism, but rather turns the US press into agents for foreign governments and their intelligence agendas. 

Second, in both cases, the outlets have used very similar language to describe the stories. For instance, many have used sensational and personal language to describe the Crown Prince, referencing the “bone saw”, or describing him as “dark”. Similarly, now, the same outlets are peddling the Bezos narrative almost word for word, and rely on the same UN “experts” for “analysis”.  After the Saudi Embassy denied the accusations, not one probed further or contacted the Saudis for a more detailed comment on the allegations.  Just as the slogan of the “MeToo” movement has become “believe all women” (with questionable results), the slogan of the current craze around the Saudis appears to be “believe all attackers/dissidents/anyone with a grievance”. Investigative rigor of pursuing all perspectives has gone out the window, perhaps because the agenda is not to inform the public, but to shape the narrative, and also to give a particular portion of the readership what they are inclined to believe and want to hear. Would these outlets make a successful American businessman a villain of a story that also involves a controversial Saudi prince, whose reputation they themselves had already undermined with previous reporting? Doing so would amount to an admission of incompetence or malice against Mohammed bin Salman in previous reporting.

Finally, it is Qatar rather than Saudi Arabia that has a reputation for hacking critics. An Arab journalist details the cyberattack on him following his investigation into Qatar’s policies, one of 1,500 celebrities reportedly hacked by the agents of the country. Elliott Broidy, a former Republican Party apparatchik who has gained his own renown for allegedly plotting policies to counter Qatar’s influence in the US with an Emirati operative, unsuccessfully sued Doha for the alleged hack and leak of his email, which revealed embarrassing personal and professional information, leading to his resignation from his post. However, while his legal attempt at holding Qatar and its agents accountable for the hack has thus far failed, his efforts at disclosing the various parties involved in illicit Qatari schemes found their way into the press. Even the NY Times was forced to acknowledge that hacking has become a strategic method of promoting its agenda and intimidating potential critics, as well as a pathway to espionage for Qatar.

And those who have followed Qatar’s increasingly aggressive interference in the West and foreign affairs, as David Reaboi has, have noted that even as Qatar openly engaged in aggressive and criminal activity, the US media has become a “megaphone for foreign agitprop”. The above-mentioned outlets all continued to support the pro-Qatar, anti-Saudi narrative, even after Qatar’s hacking scandal broke, revealing that it was not merely a coincidence, but pecuniary and political motives, that drove some in the media to align with a country openly using its intelligence to meddle and spy in the US, and hack US citizens. 

Given the ironic role these outlets have played whitewashing Qatar’s hacks at the time, the contrast with the coverage of the allegations concerning Mohammed bin Salman is striking. What gives this different treatment, where in the first instance, over a thousand reputable critics came forward as witnesses against Qatar’s hacking, and where various well known entities were implicated in the recruitment of agents for the leak and distribution of Broidy’s kompromat, and where in the second instance there is little more than Bezos’ personal vendetta backed by weak poorly sourced reports by his political allies?

How did Mohammed bin Salman Arouse the Media and Intelligence Agencies’ Ire?

Why are the campaigners against the Crown Prince so relentless in their hounding?

David Reaboi outlines some of the ignoble role the media has played in this gruesome saga, not as an impartial arbiter of some moral standards, nor as an objective pursuer of truths, but rather as nothing more than crude tools employed by various autocratic foreign regimes in pursuit of their anti-Saudi foreign policy.

However, there is more to the story (and a long litany of Mohammed bin Salman’s enemies) than just the media.

No sooner had Mohammed bin Salman burst onto the political scene than controversy and media speculation about the heir to the throne began. That event coincided with the announcement of the boycott against Qatar following Doha’s rejection of the thirteen demands put forth by the members of the Anti-Terrorism Quartet (KSA, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain) and which included the calls to shut down Al Jazeera, an appeal to move away from Iran, the push to drop support for various terrorist groups and the funding of Muslim Brotherhood, and a warning against further meddling in the politics of various MENA states. Simultaneously dealing with the Qatar crisis, the Crown Prince was also handling the ongoing war in Yemen, an aggressive push for domestic reform, and the necessary move to consolidate power, which included a corruption probe against some Royal Family members and their associates with a reputation for involvement in dubious financial and political schemes.

Not too long after, the rumors began.

Some were focused on Mohammed bin Salman’s alleged personal hypocrisy, including the supposedly shocking allegations that the Prince who went after some people for corruption himself had purchased an expensive yacht, chateaux, and a painting. Some of these rumors were so poorly sourced that the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal were forced to withdraw these stories. New rumors started flying with the corruption probe, each more incredible than the next. The rumors began with a story in an obscure Arabic language Qatari-backed publication in London, quickly moved to the known pro-Qatar vehicle the Middle East Eye, and from there, in various forms and with details increasingly vague and unverifiable, migrated to The Guardian, NY Times, and other major publications.

The story, which sounded dubious from the start, concerned some official under investigation for corruption allegedly being tortured to death. His personal details and circumstances of his supposed demise increasingly disappeared as the story moved up in ranks. No New York Times or other journalist ever bothered following-up on the story and either collaborating or dismissing these allegations, and nothing ever came of it due to the lack of detail. However, the story circulated for months firmly embedding itself in the public mind, even as details faded over time, perhaps deliberately so.

The spread of similarly emotionally appealing but vague and unsupported stories attacking Mohammed bin Salman’s character were published with increased frequency as his first visit to the United States drew closer. By the time he arrived for a three week series of meetings, the media war, mostly consisting of subtle attacks on his image as a reformer popular with young people and with a mindset for a blossoming relationship with the West, appeared to be at its apogee. Most of these allegations smacked of an old Soviet-style smear campaign. Thanks to the widespread network of Qatari and Qatar-funded media, character assassination was back in vogue

.

The Aim of the Attacks is to Discredit the Crown Prince and to Demoralize His Supporters

Character assassination can be broadly defined as the “malicious and unjustified harming of a person’s good reputation”. It can, but not always does, fall under the legal category of “defamation of character”; however, the smear techniques used to destroy one’s reputation are not always false, nor necessarily carry legal culpability. In international relations, various forms of character assassination have been used as part of information warfare strategy to smear, demoralize, and, ultimately, to disarm their opponents. Information warfare is not a simple concept to define. According to some sources, information warfare involves information collection, transport, protection, and manipulation with the aim of gaining a competitive advantage over one’s adversary, whether in the military, intelligence, political, or business context. Other elements may include information disturbance, degradation, and denial. Another way of looking at it is as a combination of electronic warfare, cyberwarfare, and psy-ops (psychological operations).

Information warfare utilizes cyberspace, advanced computing, mobile networks, unmanned systems, and social media to gather intelligence, disrupt the operational capabilities of the other adversary, and to engage in a variety of tasks to advance the mission of the governmental or non-state actors.

Character assassination is an element of information warfare that can be pursued through a variety of disinformation tactics and is generally considered a type of psy-ops. More recently, however, traditional means of character assassination, has also relied on various types of cyberwarfare, such as hacking to advance the agenda of destroying the reputation of the target. In the course of the past two years, all of these methods had been used with the clear aim of bringing about the downfall of the Crown Prince, or at least weakening his relationships with Western countries and portions of the Arab world. The death of the former Saudi government spokesman and intelligence officer Jamal Khashoggi sparked a spike in attacks on the Crown Prince, which bordered on obsessive. For months, not a day passed without some supposedly objective Western outlet characterizing him in highly negative terms and by contrast, falsely painting Khashoggi to be an innocent journalist, whose only crime was his criticism of the monarchy and who met his end at Mohammed bin Salman’s hands for that reason.

The attacks were soon interspersed with negative publicity related to a group of women’s rights activists, both men and women, who were detained and eventually put on trial after being accused of working with foreign entities against Saudi Arabia. Indeed, journalists and political operations seemed to merge into one as increasingly negative stories about Saudi Arabia, regardless of how irrelevant, superficial, or one-sided continued to proliferate. Most journalists somehow managed to tie in literally anything that happened in US politics or in the region to Jamal Khashoggi and to the Crown Prince—whether it was the war in Yemen or the story of runaway Saudi girls who have had conflicts with their strict families. Mohammed bin Salman’s face was brought to every publication and was made to embody some abstract evil, while the incorrect narrative about Khashoggi’s death, often based entirely on leaks from Turkish newspapers affiliated with the local intelligence agencies, took on increasingly gruesome and often contradictory iterations.

The result of this coordinated series of attacks included the withdrawal of various lobbyists and business partners from work with Saudi Arabia, two Congressional resolutions holding Mohammed bin Salman personally responsible for Khashoggi’s death, a joint Congressional resolution pushing for US withdrawal from Yemen (which was vetoed by President Trump), and negative coverage of Saudi Arabia even following terrorist attacks and acts of war committed against its people and infrastructure by Iran and its proxies. The character assassins who went after the Crown Prince were successful in creating negative impressions of his person because, they took advantage of three factors: 1.) the bitter political climate in the US, 2.) the information vacuum left by the Saudis themselves, and 3.) unsuspecting Western audiences who were overwhelmed with one-sided stories from a multitude of seemingly respectable outlets. The non-stop coverage permeated every conceivable type of institutions, and while the Khashoggi-related discussions waxed and waned, the attacks on the Crown Prince himself never fully abated.

The media played a significant role in facilitating these attacks.

Who are the Forces Behind the Media and Political Campaigns to Punish or Oust the Crown Prince?

The media has allowed Turkish leaks to drive the narrative, showing little concern for truth or justice, and willingly publishing even the wildest stories, taking little responsibility when these tidbits from Erdogan’s table changed momentarily. Essentially, the leading Western Press, as Lee Smith writes, has become a tool of political operatives and foreign and domestic intelligence agencies with an agenda—to take down Mohammed bin Salman, and to replace him with members of the reactionary faction that was at the helm prior to his surprising rise to power. Ironically, the same people who blame the Saudi government for its alleged support for Saudi members of Al Qaeda who perpetrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks are gunning to remove the very person who pushed that faction from power. Is their agenda modernization and, however gradual, liberalization and reform of Saudi Arabia, or are they merely concerned with access to their old and well-known players?

The Old Guard, with its connections to the Western intelligence agencies, was at the forefront of assorted leaks and fabrications that plagued the early months of investigations into Khashoggi’s death and subverted the assessment of the security situation. Turkish President Erdogan immediately took advantage of the events to push his own narrative, claiming to have a secret tape tying the Crown Prince to the murder; however, the tape itself was never fully released and to this day, nothing concrete is known about what actually happened. It was obvious that at the time that Turkey, which was pushing for a pathway into Syria and which was enduring increasing tensions with the United States, was using this opportunity to extort Saudi Arabia and the United States, with bad optics if nothing else, in exchange for significant leeway to pursue its own agenda.

Mohammed bin Salman’s corruption probe may have recovered some money for the country and temporarily stopped some Islamist sympathizers and funders from their destabilizing activities inside the country and plots against the Crown Prince, but he, without a doubt, has further angered those who already had grievances against him, whether as a result of competing claims to power, different political priorities, old family grudges, or condescension towards a young prince who surpassed many older pretenders with his quick rise to prominence. Alwaleed bin Talal, the son of the Soviet-sympathizing “Red Prince”, who is known for funding interfaith efforts in the West but also for his financial schemes, was a backer and promoter of Jamal Khashoggi, as was Turki al-Faisal, the former Chief of Intelligence, who has strong contacts with Western intelligence agencies, especially the US, UK, and Germany. Turki al-Faisal was not imprisoned during the probe, but Alwaleed was placed under arrest. The famous former Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan, whose daughter is the new Saudi Ambassador to the United States and whose son is the Ambassador to the UK, is alleged to be under a travel ban. He, too, was a Washington insider, who once was a press favorite and feed information to US intelligence agencies.

The backers of former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef—who was surrounded by Muslim Brotherhood supporters, such as the Governor of Mekka (Turki al-Faisal’s half-brother, Khalid al-Faisal)—are using the grievances of those implicated in the corruption probe who lost their money, freedom, and/or dignity to undermine the Crown Prince, going so far as to align with Turkish, Qatari, Muslim Brotherhood, and Western intelligence actors with an interest in weakening, extorting, or displacing the Crown Prince with someone more pliable, such as bin Nayef or another familiar candidate.

All these actors knew they could not act directly in a palace coup against Mohammed bin Salman as he has managed to consolidate the support of the National Guard and other security agencies, but the intelligence apparatus within the country could—and given what happened with Khashoggi—very likely was infiltrated by those looking to subvert his agenda—and who, via the likes of Turki and Bandar—could have worked with their old Western contacts and counterparts to pursue that common goal. None of that is spoken of in public in Saudi Arabia, particularly to foreigners—and yet, without understanding the extent of penetration of Western institutions by the enemies of the Crown Prince, we cannot begin to understand the seriousness of the unfolding situation. Essentially, we have portions of Western intelligence agencies working against the security interests of the United States in having a stable, liberalizing, economically prosperous Saudi Arabia with a leading role in the Middle East. The supposedly independent and private media has been disinforming the public, and taking part in political operations that impact the events both in the United States and abroad. And now it appears that the business community, or at least some individuals such as Jeff Bezos, can also be coopted by these foreign and domestic interests, in pursuit of the same goals, even if their own grievances and agendas are entirely personal. 

According to many Saudis social media giants inflict unequal crackdowns, shadow bans and account suspensions, for those who praise the Crown Prince while anti-Saudi bots and accounts are allowed to replicate and spread propaganda. We are already seeing the impact of such alliances in the Silicon Valley and the tech world, as much as on K Street and in intelligence agencies. These institutions may not need to be paid off by Qatar or Turkey, but they may have domestic political agendas that are in line with the anti-Saudi forces, and although they may not agree on long-term goals, they can certainly be more immediate allies.

Qatar and Muslim Brotherhood activists had a ball with their own media in smearing the Crown Prince, who stood in the way of Qatar’s sponsorship of terrorist groups and Islamists in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and even in the United States, and who expelled Muslim Brotherhood ideologues from their positions in the mosques inside KSA. Iran lobbyists and former Obama officials, who were threatened by Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the nuclear deal and Iran’s assorted regional proxies, too, had a hand in promoting the anti-Crown Prince narrative, which soon became an expertly organized and coordinated media and political campaign, with the same type of language describing Mohammed bin Salman appearing in multiple, otherwise divergent outlets and channels.

It helped that the PR campaign concerning his role was superficial and it took only a rumor to besmirch a pristine image. The Crown Prince was described only in terms of his own image as a young dynamic reformist leader, but his substantive accomplishments inside the Kingdom have not been explored in depth, particularly in the period leading up to Khashoggi’s demise. Whatever positive impression he made on the Western public was easily destroyed by the very first scandal and rumors.

The media was a willing partner to all of these interests in part and parcel because they, too, viewed the Crown Prince as a disruptive force that threatened a comfortable status quo. Many of the media were connect to the “Old Guard” and benefited both financially and in terms of social status from those relationships. Mohammed bin Salman’s focus on internal reforms and reduction of media related expenditures upstaged their access, their influence, and supposed expertise on Saudi Arabia, which consisted ultimately of the leaked crumbs of information from the country’s intelligence officials. Ultimately, none of the smear attacks against Mohammed bin Salman were about human rights, Saudi Arabia’s role, or anything other than bringing down a political leader that stood in the way of power and influence.

Qatar’s economic and political interests in distancing US from KSA and becoming the primary investor and counterpart played their part, for sure. Muslim Brotherhood saw this as an opportunity to promote their own ideology, particularly if their adversary was weakened and his credibility suffered. The lack of interest in the human side of the Saudi story was transparent and obvious: there was no real attempt by the Western scolds to engage with the Saudis and provide opportunities for professional networking or to volunteer their skills in a variety of productive ways, any of which could have had practical utility towards making Vision 2030 easier to achieve. Many Westerners did not necessarily share in all of Qatar’s, Turkey’s, the Old Guard’s, or Obama’s political agendas, were nevertheless otherwise threatened by the possibility of Saudi Arabia rising, developing its own industries, and assuming independent leadership in the region.

For that reason, even the defense sector that benefited the most from deals with Saudi Arabia, did not lean on Congress particularly hard to ensure that the relationship endured, but just enough to get these deals to pass. Universities, tech companies, and assorted would be cultural and business counterparts that ultimately abandoned Saudi Arabia, may not have had a specific anti-Saudi agenda to begin with, but ultimately yielded to the increasingly radical left movement in US institutions and its partnership with both Sunni and Shi’a Islamists.

At the end of the day, Mohammed bin Salman found himself isolated not because he did anything worse than any other leader in the region, or the world, but because he is not a convenient presence for anyone who does not wish to see Saudi Arabia to become a powerful and modern country, or who is opposed to the reforms—cultural, and religious, as much as political and economics. Thus assorted radicals, Islamists, leftists, self-interested Iran stooges, and corrupt media and institutional apparatchiks made a strange alliance, all focused not on building bridges or overcoming any specific issues or making either Saudi Arabia or the West better places, but rather on bringing down the one person who stood in their way to full control of institutions, narratives, minds, and self-enrichment. Islamists, in the past, had colluded with the media and assorted social institutions and felt comfortable in that alliance.

Mohammed bin Salman ruined the party—and what better way to pay him back for these political operatives who imagined themselves to be central to journalism and the gatekeepers of truth and morality than by humiliating him where he should have been reaping success and destroying every potential for anything positive? They took advantage of existing vulnerabilities in Arab culture & media and in Western polarization and increasing lack of critical thinking, and sold everyone a dark fairy tale that too many people with too many interests were all too ready to swallow. Ultimately, the only way to overcome these issues, to repair the Crown Prince’s reputation in the West, and to expose this unholy alliance seeking to undermine him, is by working to shift the perspective of the West towards KSA from viewing it as a “necessary evil” or an inconvenient ally to understanding that there is a lot of good will, and genuine interest, in deepening cooperation and collaboration.

Eventually, even the internally focused Crown Prince started to wise up and take measures to protect his own reputation from these attacks.

What are the Options for Shutting Down These Attacks and to Prevent Further Reputational Damage?

As Dr. Najat Al Saeed explains, Mohammed bin Salman, in his recent visit to the UAE, inaugurated a joint KSA-UAE Committee to Combat Character Assassination. The idea is to counter psychological/information warfare against the leaders of these countries by various forces. However, so far, there is no evidence that the Committee has been able to produce anything of value. The response from the Embassy to this latest attack has been extremely mild and did not yet shut down this meritless discussion. If anything, it invited further leaks by Bezos. For now, Bezos is acting like he has nothing to fear. He has calculated the risk of engaging in likely defamatory tactics, and having seen how paralyzed the Saudis get in the wake of such extremely bad publicity, decided that he is better off taking his chances, since the Kingdom will not wish to dignify his below-the-belt tactics with a substantive strategic response.

If Mohammed bin Salman wishes to put an end to this resource-draining, distracting, and needless damaging bullying smear campaign, he should pursue an active, forward-looking strategy aimed at both preventing and shutting down these disinformation campaigns at the root, before they take on a life of their own. The strategy should include at least four major prongs:

Legal—it should be legally costly to engage in any sort of deliberate defamation, especially where the allegations are likely to be proven false. Bezos’ ill intent and the extent of reputational damage may be the easiest elements to prove here; even if there is ultimately a settlement of some sort, KSA should make it clear that there will be a legal pushback and that Bezos himself will be embarrassed and lose credibility in the process.

PR—Saudis should not be waiting for the events to resolve themselves. Left to their own devices, the Crown Prince’s enemies will continue searching for new, additional angles of attack. Saudis should identify strong spokespeople not afraid of engaging in deliberative and strategic confrontations, and have them respond to these attacks, attend panel discussions, make frequent appearances on TV, and be fairly assertive in combating these allegations before the public. Such spokespeople should be well prepared to keep calm, and to understand the Western mentality. At the same time, they should not forget about the positive aspects of public outreach and communication, and be able to engage with the public itself, to explain the situation, to introduce the people to the country in a positive way that makes it easy to examine its position, and to focus on relevant issues, not just what feels like “fun” to the insiders (i.e. talk about Saudi accomplishments in hosting Western-style events, which have no bearing on these attacks or most Westerners’ interests).

Furthermore, the media has to be held accountable for failure to do due diligence, but more importantly based on emerging evidence of collusion by various outlets in support of foreign interests and with clear agendas to convey false narratives and to inflict reputational damage on Mohammed bin Salman as a person, and on the Kingdom. Recently, CNN was forced to settle with an American high school student Nick Sandmann, after painting him in a false light and demonizing him for his alleged role in the March of the Living. The standard of proof of defamation by the media is substantially higher for a public figure, but nevertheless not impossible to meet, at least to the extent of sending a strong message that such campaigns are damaging to the public confidence in journalism and destructive to the United States, as much as to Saudi Arabia.

The media has been able to use a few cases of disgruntled activists to play on public sympathies and proclivity for bleeding heart Americans and anti-Saudi bigots to favor anyone who appears to be acting in pursuit of “democracy”. But if the events of the Arab Spring have taught anyone anything, it is to be skeptical of the claims made by such “do-gooders” and to vet carefully both the claimants and their agendas. Saudis can play an invaluable role as partners to the United States in educating the public about fallacious arguments, deceptive organizations, and doublespeak narratives. That means, however, that they can no longer afford the luxury of isolating themselves and refusing to take an active social role.

Cybersecurity—Saudis should invest into this sector, first by hiring the best in the business from the West, and second by having them train young Saudis (including the top echelons of the government) in secure communications and best practices. For the instant crisis, they should hire independent forensics experts to examine the accounts in question and not rely on Bezos to make their case for them. As far as Bezos is concerned, truth doesn’t matter. The Saudis are already a step behind, but finding out exactly what happened will help them immensely.

Information Warfare—the Saudis should understand that they cannot ignore the crisis into dissolving as after over two years of the tensions with Qatar, Turkey, Muslim Brotherhood, assorted infiltrators of the Western intelligence agencies, and others, it is obvious that they are invested in having the Saudis in general, and Mohammed bin Salman specifically, fail. They should, therefore, invest into media mechanisms that could win public hearts and minds, as well as identify the vulnerabilities of their enemies’ and hit at them.

For instance, Amazon’s poor information security is an opportunity for some great billboards in Times Square outlining how Bezos’ poor practices endanger millions of users, and also to develop Saudi or Saudi & Western joint ventures, alternatives to Amazon that are better, more responsive to individual needs, and are more secure. Amazon is a great service, but is not beyond competition and is certainly not too big to fail if its founder is more invested in fighting wars on behalf of foreign regimes than in ensuring cyber security for his customers.

Most importantly, the Saudis should remind the public that the burden is on the accuser—in this case, Jeff Bezos—to prove his claims. Allegations should not be given the weight of evidence to be used as weapons to discredit, smear, and destroy reputations even of individuals in positions of wealth and power, such as Mohammed bin Salman.  His position in life does not nullify his basic human right to be treated with justice and not to have his life destroyed by rumors, hearsay, and malicious campaigns.

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