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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

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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.

Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security attorney and analyst based in New York. She has written extensively about geopolitics, foreign policy, and security issues for a variety of domestic and international issues and her writing has been translated into Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and Indonesian.

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Intelligence

Central Asian Jihadists’ Use of Cryptocurrencies in Bitcoin

Uran Botobekov

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Central Asian Jihadists in Syria. A screenshot from Telegram, April 6, 2019

On August 13, 2020, the US Justice Department announced that it seized $2 million in Bitcoin and other types of cryptocurrency from accounts of three Salafi-Jihadi extremist groups, including al Qaeda and the Islamic State, relied on to finance their organizations and violent plots. According to their statement, the U.S. authorities seized over 300 cryptocurrency accounts, four websites, and four Facebook pages all related to Sunni-Jihadi militant organizations. Indeed, the disclosed criminal case documents indicate that this was the largest-ever seizure of cryptocurrency by US intelligence agencies in the context of terrorism.

US counterterrorism agents analyzed transactions of cryptocurrency on the blockchain, a secure form of public ledger for the online funds, and employed undercover operations as well as search warrants on email accounts to establish a money trail of Sunni terror groups that was detailed in an 87-pages of the Washington DC federal court report

The banner calling for donations to Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad. A screenshot from Telegram, May 18, 2020

The revealed papers indicate, in some instances, al Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist groups in Syria acted under the cover of charities ‘Al Sadaqah’ and ‘Reminder for Syria’. In this regard, it should be noted that some al Qaeda-linked Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups also have frequently acted under the umbrella of the charity ‘Al Sadaqah’ for bitcoin money laundering and have solicited cryptocurrency donations via Telegram channels to further their terrorist goals.

But that doesn’t mean that Islamist terrorist groups from the post-Soviet space raised funds precisely through this charity ‘Al Sadaqah’ of al Qaeda, whose accounts were seized by the US Justice Department. It has become a tradition in the Islamic world that charity organizations and foundations widely give to themselves the names ‘Al Sadaqah’ and ‘Zakat’, as the Quranic meaning of these words (Quran 2:43; 63:10;9:103)exactly corresponds to the purposes of “voluntary charity”. Analysis of the finance campaigns of al Qaeda-affiliated Central Asian militant groups demonstrates that they frequently raised cryptocurrency donations through charities called ‘Al Sadaqah’ and ‘Zakat’.

In order to explore the scale of the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi Jamaats’ crowdfunding campaigns, we analyzed their social media activities where they raised Bitcoins, dollars, Russian rubles and Turkish lira over the past two years.The methods and sources of the Uzbek and Uighur Islamist militants’ crowdfunding campaigns in bitcoins are about the same as those of their parent organizations, the global Sunni terrorist groups ISIS and al Qaeda.Due to the inclusion in the list of terrorist groups, they carry out sophisticated cyber-operations for solicitation of cryptocurrency donations.

Before “mastering” the complex technology of cyber-tools in order to raise bitcoin funds in cyberspace, Central Asian jihadists used the simple ‘hawala’ money transfer system (informal remittance system via money brokers).Sometimes they have resorted to conventional ‘hand-to-hand’ cash transfer channels, where trust, family relationships or regional affiliations play an important role.

The banner requesting to provide Uzbek jihadists with modern military gear and equipment. A screenshot from Telegram, March 3, 2020.

According to a UN report, Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi terrorist group Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), Katibat Imam al Bukhari (KIB) and the Islamic Jihad Group (IJG) leading jihad in Syrian Idlib province have close financial ties with its cells in Afghanistan. The UN Security Council’s Sanctions Monitoring Team states that “regular monthly payments of about $ 30,000 are made to Afghanistan through the hawala system for KTJ.”

The UN report asserts that “similarly to KTJ, KIB sends financial assistance, from its cell in Istanbul, through the hawala system to Afghanistan. Funds are brought in by informal money exchangers for Jumaboi from Maymana, the capital of Faryab. The original source of this income is the smuggling of fuel, food and medicine from neighboring Turkmenistan.”According to the UN report, “suffering material losses, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)and Tajik militant group JamaatAnsarullah (JA) are forced to engage in criminal activity, including transportation of drugs along the northern route in Afghanistan.”For the Uighur jihadists of Turkestan Islamist Party (TIP) from China’s Xinjiang province operating under the umbrella of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in northern Syria, “funding comes primarily from the Uighur diaspora” in Turkey, Central and Southeast Asia.

Dark Web & Bitcoin: New Endeavor of Central Asian Terrorists

With the development of digital cryptocurrencies as Bitcoin, Central Asian jihadists actively began to exploit this innovative financial transaction system to support their attacks and other terrorist activities. It is known that al Qaeda-backed Salafi-Jihadi groups of the post-Soviet space are seeking to purify Islam of any innovations (Bid’ah) and strictly following the Sharia law. They live similarly to how the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his companions lived in the seventh-century and always oppose any form of Bid’ah, considering it to be shirk and heresy. However, the Uzbek and Uighur Wahhabis did not shy away from using bitcoin innovation.

The first advertisements of Central Asian terrorist groups crowdfunding campaigns accepting bitcoin for Jihadi purposes in Syria appeared on the Telegram channel in 2017. In November of that year, a self-proclaimed charity group al-Sadaqah began a fundraising campaign on the internet from Western supporters to help the Malhama Tactical, the first private military contractor team from Central Asia working exclusively for jihadist groups in Syria.Al-Sadaqah in English on Telegram, explicitly relying on the English-speaking western sponsors, called on them to make bitcoin donations to finance the Malhama Tactical and the Mujahedeen fighting against the Assad regime in northeastern Syria.

As we have previously analyzed, Malhama Tactical is a private jihadi contractor operating in the Idlib-Aleppo region of Syria. The group, founded by an Uzbek jihadist Abu Salman (his real name is Sukhrob Baltabaev) from Osh City of Southern Kyrgyzstan in May 2016, is closely allied with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the strongest militant factions in northern Syria. The Malhama Tactical is known to have regularly conducted military training for jihadists of HTS, Ahrar al-Sham, Ajnad al Kavkaz and the Turkistan Islamic Party.After the death of Abu Salman in August 2019, Ali Ash-Shishani, the native of Russia’s North Caucasus became the new leader of Malhama Tactical.

In 2017-18, al-Sadaqah charity on Telegram called on followers to donate via a “Bitcoin wallet anonymously and safely for the Mujahedeen brothers of Malhama Tactical”. The charity group urged potential cryptocurrency contributions to benefit from “the ability to confuse the trail and keep anonymity”.

We do not know how much bitcoin money al-Sadaqah managed to raise for the activities of the Central Asian Muhajireen. But according to Malhama Tactical’s report on the internet, crowdfunding has been “fruitful.” In an effort to explain how donations were spent, Malhama Tactical has advertised extensively to followers on 17 October 2018, in a video posted on Telegram, that a new training camp had been built and purchased airsoft rifles, night vision devices and other modern ammunitions.

Since 2018, Uzbek and Uighur militant groups KTJ, KIB and TIP have begun an agitation campaign to fundraising bitcoin money on the Internet. Judging by the widespread call for Bitcoin donation online, their need for anonymous, secure, and hassle-free funding streams have made cryptocurrencies of some potential value to them. These properties are the anonymity of fundraising, the usability of remittance and transfer of funds, the security of attack funding, acceptance of funds, reliability, and volume of web money.

And every time they announced a crowdfunding campaign, they clearly declared for what purpose the collected bitcoins would be used. For example, al Qaeda-linked KTJ’s most recent call for bitcoin appeared on Telegram in May 2020 as a banner that asks to “Equip a jihadist”. The poster showed a masked jihadist and the exploitation of the Quran’s Hadith in Uzbek, calling on the believers to prepare and equip a fighter going on a raid for the sake of Allah.

Another picture shows a jihadist with a Kalashnikov AK-74 in his hand, over whose head enemy planes and helicopters fly. The picture gives a symbolic meaning about the empty-handed jihadists in Syria, fighting against the Russian and Syrian powerful military aircraft to protect the Islamic Ummah. Then goes on with KTJ’s call to make donations in bitcoins and rubles to purchasing equipment and ammunition for the Central Asian Mujahedeen in Syria. On the bottom it was displayed the long address of the virtual wallet for Bitcoin donations along with KTJ’s Telegram and web contacts promising the anonymity of potential donors.

On June 18, 2020, KTJ militants published the opinion of the well-known ideologue of modern jihadism Abu Qatada al-Falastini in Telegram from whom they asked whether the crowdfunding campaign of Bitcoin for the purposes of Jihad contradicts Islam. As it is known, there are still ongoing disputes among the world’s top Islamic scholars about whether cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, are deemed Sharia-compliant.

Abu Qatada from a religious point of view justified the acceptability of using Bitcoin to protect the Islamic Ummah and wage holy Jihad, but at the same time warned against full confidence in Bitcoin. In his opinion, the enemies of Islam can destroy this cryptocurrency in the future, and if it loses its current value, and then the devout Muslims who have invested their savings in Bitcoin could go bankrupt. Abu Qatada al Falastini is a greatly respected Salafi thinker among Central Asian jihadists and he gave a pep talk to KTJ when it pledged bayat (Oath of Allegiance) to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri in 2015.

On June 25, 2020, KTJ posted another Crypto Crowdfunding campaign announcement on its Telegram channel to provide Uzbek jihadists with modern military gear and equipment. For clarity, the group published a picture entitled “Perform jihad with your property” in Uzbek, which indicates the prices for military clothing and weapons. For example, the AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle costs $300, unloading vest for AK-47 cartridges – $20, Field Jacket – $50, Military Combat Boots – $30.In total, $400 will be needed on the full provision of one Mujahid with weapons and uniforms. On the upper side of the picture is a Hadith quote about “He who equips a fighter in Allah’s path has taken part in the fighting.”

A month later, the group’s Telegram channel reported that it had managed to raise $4,000, for which 8 sets of weapons and uniforms were purchased for the Uzbek Mujahedeen. Also, KTJ’s media representative announced that the group is stopping the fundraising campaign for this project.

Other projects of the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups were the Bitcoin crowdfunding campaign for the purchase of motorcycles for Inghimasi fighters (shock troops who  penetrate into the enemy’s line with no intent to come back alive), cameras, portable radios, sniper rifles and night vision devices. For each project, a separate closed account was opened on the website of jihadist groups in Telegram, after which the Bitcoin and Monero accounts, as well as contact information, were closed.

Another crowdfunding project posted on January 29, 2020, in Telegram, called ‘Helping captive Muslim sisters’ and claims to raise money to free Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek ISIS women hold in the al-Hol refugee camp in northeast Syria controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. The KTJ jihadists posted pictures of Central Asian women with their children holding posters “We need help” in Kyrgyz, and asked the fellow Muslim believers to raise money to ransom them from the captivity of the Kurdish communists. It was not clear to us how much money was raised as a result of the crowdfunding campaign since this channel was later blocked by the Telegram administrator.

The annual largest crowdfunding project for the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups is being implemented on the eve of the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, during which believers pay Zakat (obligatory tax) and Sadaqah (voluntary alms).According to the Quran, recipients of the Zakat and the Sadaqah include the poor and needy, debtors, volunteers in jihad, and pilgrims.

The websites of the Central Asian Jihadist Jamaats revealed that their crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the jihad was particularly active during Ramadan. Ramadan is known as a holy and generous month, but this year was especially generous to notorious al Qaeda-linked Central Asian extremist groups. KTJ, KIB, Uighur’s TIP and Russian-speaking North Caucasian militant group Liwa al Muhajireen wal Ansar (LMA), that pledged allegiance to HTS, have boosted their military budget during Ramadan.

To avoid the risk of being blocked or tracked, they created a temporary mirror group called ‘Zakat’, where the donation money was received. Zakat’s wallet received donations from Central Asian labor migrants in Russia in the amount of $150 to $220 each time to purchase livestock, which was then slaughtered in sacrificial prayer on behalf of the donors. After Ramadan and the holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, the ‘Zakat’ mirror group in Telegram was closed.

The Central Asian Islamist extremist groups have asked their supporters to make Bitcoin donations mainly at the following two virtual wallet addresses:

– 3HoWzYwaBbTg7sKGtHz3pAZxdHZoXUJRvG;

– 12SxsxvrE8zrtRveSeFJYA6sgbJZbyHDGk.

Our analysis confirmed that multiple transactions were made to these bitcoin addresses. In addition, other transactions were made in digital currencies, the addresses of which were blocked on Telegram.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the significance of the crowdfunding campaigns in bitcoin should not be given exaggerated importance, even though they have improved the position of the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups in Syria and Afghanistan, and boosted their budget. Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi terrorist groups’ technical abilities are not currently suited to bypass the financial controls of international counterterrorism organizations and discreetly conduct money laundering.

The history of their activities has shown that small Uzbek, Uighur and Russian-speaking Islamist extremist groups from the post-Soviet space and China have been assimilated with more powerful global Sunni terrorist organizations such as ISIS, al Qaeda and HTS. And accordingly, their potential for crowdfunding campaigns in bitcoin should be viewed through the prism of their global parent organizations.

In any case, the governments of Central Asia and Russia do not have sufficient mechanisms and leverage to combat illegal cryptocurrency transactions on the dark web by global Salafi-Jihadi movements waging jihad in the Middle East. As noted at the beginning of this article, such opportunities to monitor and investigate jihadist crowdfunding activities are available to the US government and financial institutions. For example, the U.S. Treasury“ has access to unique financial data about flows of funds within the international financial and commercial system,” which is invaluable for tracking illicit flows of money.

Consequently, Central Asian governments must rely not only on Moscow but also actively cooperate with Western counter-terrorism and financial institutions to disrupt the Salafi-Jihadi group’s external crypto crowdfunding sources.

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Intelligence

The Afghan intelligence services

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Still today the Afghan Intelligence Services’ ability to collect information is definitively scarce. This is mainly due to the limited specific training of staff and the very scarce and even improper use of the most recent technologies.

The Afghan Intelligence Services collect information mainly in major cities and in the areas most controlled by the government and this often leads the decision-makers who use this “complacent” or rhetorical intelligence to make severe evaluation errors.

The National Directorate of Security (NDS) does not correctly disseminate its news in the traditional “information cycle” of a Service and therefore it leaves decision-makers with scarce, incomplete and often inaccurate information. Established in 2001 and heavily supported by the United States, the NDS is based in Kabul but is strongly supported by Germany, GBritain and obviously the United States. It should be noted that its first Director was Mohammed Arif Sarwari, one of the leaders of the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, i.e. the old “Northern Alliance”.

 It was precisely the NDS that in 2015 caused the fall of Kunduz into the hands of the Taliban, who were, indeed, a full invention of the Pakistani Intelligence Services, which were in search of an Afghanistan that could only play the role of “depth area” for a possible nuclear or even conventional confrontation with India. Ironically, it is from the Pakistani Intelligence Services that the United States received the largest or almost total amount of news and information precisely, or apparently, against the Taliban. Quos Deus lose vult, dementat.

 Moreover, the current relations between the NDS, the National Security Agency of Afghanistan (NSA), i.e. another Intelligence Service in Kabul, the Defence Ministry and the Interior Ministry show a very poor ability of communication and exchange of news between them, which makes them often be late in their operations or even useless.

 Or sometimes voluntary collaborators of what Westerners would call the “enemy”, but for some operatives or executives of the NDS or of the other Afghan Intelligence Services could also be an “Islamic brother”. Sometimes it has happened.

 In the case of Kunduz, the very evident and aggressive Taliban operations were deemed ineffective or irrelevant. Nobody took seriously the news coming from the most reliable “sources” among the rebels. No agency of the Afghan Service took seriously or even studied the Taliban operations in Kunduz.

 The NDS, however, was established mainly with the support of the American CIA.

 But there is a strategic and conceptual problem that should not be overlooked at all: all NATO countries that participated or still participate in military operations in Afghanistan have very different ideas about their role in the war against the “rebels” and in the country.

 The Resolute Support Mission, composed of about 13,000-16,000 soldiers from 39 NATO countries and from other countries, operates from Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, Kandahar and Laghman, and focuses mainly on the training of Afghan forces, as well as on military consultancy and assistance, hoping that the local Afghan forces will reach a level capable of ensuring at least fictitious national independence.

At least until 2014, akey year for the new relationship between NATO and the Afghan government, the Italians – who are still training the Afghan police very well – went there especially not to displease the usual U.S. Big Father that the Italian strategic system still sees as unquestionable and unassailable.

This participation “to bring democracy” has led to some positive effects for Italy, especially on the technological-intelligence level. But it has never been enough.

Nevertheless, the silly servility and sycophancy of Italian politicians, who closely resemble the character of Nando Mericoni played by Alberto Sordi in the movie An American in Rome, is still largely widespread. Italian politicians – even starting from the text of the Constitution – do not know or do not want to understand the eternal rules of foreign policy and strategic thinking, of which they know nothing yet.

Certainly you cannot obtain votes, additional funding and small favours from foreign policy. This is the level of Italian politicians, especially in current times more than in the past.

 France, as long as it stayed in Afghanistan, interpreted its presence in Kabul as a way to control Asia’s intermediate axis so as to avoid Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Iranian and even American expansion.

The Brits went to Afghanistan to fight against a “terrorism” of which – like everyone in the West-they do not know the organizational and doctrinal roots or even the purposes, but see as the maximum destabilization of their unreasonably “multi-ethnic” and hence inevitably “multipolitical” societies.

 This is the terrible case of a propaganda that stifles even the ruling classes that should be immune to it.

Certainly this was not even true in Afghanistan because the bad guy, namely Osama bin Laden, was often elsewhere. He was considered the only mastermind of the aforementioned “radical Islamic terrorism” – or whatever can be defined with this rather rough terminology – and hence to be killed, like a horse thief in the Far West. As has precisely happened, the killing of Osama bin Laden did not change anything.

He had to be killed because he had killed American citizens. True, right. But foreign policy is never the extension of any country’s domestic criminal law.

 There was even Germany present in Afghanistan to contemplate its military decline, but above all to show – even eighty years later – that it was no longer a Nazi country. As Marx would have said, le mort saisit le vif.

In short, the varied presence of NATO and of the initial coalitions of the willing in the War on Terror had no clear ideas and probably did not even know where it really was.

Meanwhile, since 2014 – the year of the actual withdrawal from Afghanistan by the United States and its attack forces (after rigged elections, but in any case, whenever the United States participate in operations abroad, it always has acoitus interruptus)– the Taliban have started their great and real campaign to conquer the territory and, above all, the Afghan “souls”.

 In 2015 NATO and the United States had planned to keep 13,000 military plus 9,800 U.S. soldiers for counter-terrorism activities. Later, however, the withdrawal from the Afghan territory – coincidentally after the great Battle for Kunduz – ended in December 2016, but leaving alive and operational as many as 8,400 soldiers on the ground.

Currently as in the past, the real problem for Afghanistan is Pakistan. General Musharraf, the former Pakistani President from June 20, 2001 to 18 August 18, 2008 (note the dates) and perpetrator of the 1999 military coup, clearly stated that the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI), i.e. the Pakistan single intelligence structure, supported and trained all terrorist groups in Pakistan so as to later send them to Afghanistan, with a view to carrying out “terrorist” attacks on NATO, Western and Afghan targets.

 In 2015 -a key year for Afghanistan – in an interview with The Guardian, Musharraf clearly said that the ISI had always “cultivated” the Taliban mainly to destabilize the government led by Karzai (a man also linked to India) but, in particular, to carry out harsh actions against India.

Pakistan keeps on supporting terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan and in other parts of the world – not only the Taliban, but also the other groups.

Rahmatullah Nabil, the Chief of the NDS -i.e. the new Intelligence Service affiliated to CIA but entirely Afghan – also officially showed documents proving that the funds long granted by the United States to Pakistan to “fight terrorism” shifted to the Pakistani Service ISI, precisely to train, recruit and support terrorism.

Hence the forgetfulness – so to speak – of the Afghan governments with regard to intelligence comes from far away.

 At the time of the Soviet invasion, the KGB and the GRU created their two local counterparts, namely the Khadamar e-Aetela’at Al-Dawlati (KHaD) and the Wazeelat e-Amniat-e-Daulati (WAD), respectively.

 The two agencies disappeared when Najibullah’s government fell in 1992, pending the great Russian crisis. As a result, however, also the Afghan State in all its forms collapsed. Therefore also the two agencies linked to the Soviet intelligence Services evaporated.

What there was, anyway, in the Afghan Intelligence Services before the Soviet invasion?

 The first governments that had just come to power, after Russia’s arrival, organized four agencies: Kargarano Amniyati Mu’asasa (KAM), i.e. the “Workers’ Intelligence Service”;Da Afghanistan da Gato de Satalo Adara (AGDA), i.e. the “Agency for Safeguarding Afghan Interests”, Amin’s real longa manus, and the aforementioned WAD and KhAD.

The President of the time, Noor Tarakai, had little power, while Hafizullah Amin made sure that both the Communist Party (or, more precisely, the Afghan People’s Democratic Party) and the Agencies were divided in two, always following the policy line of the Khalq and Parcham factions.

 The Khalq (meaning “masses” or “people”) was directly supported by the USSR. It was largely made up of Pashtuns and was particularly popular among the working classes.

The very superficial Marxism shown by the faction was often only a way to defend the Pashto world from the pressures of other ethnic groups.

The Parcham (meaning “flag”) was the most widespread faction of the party in the urban classes and in the middle and upper classes.

 Eternal separation between rural and urban areas, a typically Maoist and classic crux of every practical and extra-Western interpretation of Marxism-Leninism.

The Parcham reunited laboriously with the Khalq faction during the 1978 Revolution, but it really came to power only after the Soviet operation, the local coup, i.e. Operation Tempest 333 of December 27, 1979, when the Alpha divisions of the KGB quickly took the Tajbeg palace and assassinated Hafizullah Amin.

 Meanwhile, it was Amin himself who had ordered the assassination of his predecessor, Mohammed Taraki.

 In the intermediate phase of his regime, Amin also had many Afghans assassinated – and not only his known opponents.

 A possible, future “Cambodian” twist of Afghan Communism? Probably so.

 At that juncture the USSR intervened since it did not want ideological deviations or Afghan approaches to Chinese Communism, as practiced in Vietnam or, precisely, in Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia. Hence Operation Shtorm 333 was carried out which, apart from Amin’s assassination, lasted approximately three months, to definitively “settle” the remaining issues.

With specific reference to the Afghan intelligence services, Hafizullah Amin mainly used the AGSA, but also the KAM, only to settle his scores. The two agencies, however, received technical assistance and training from East Germany and the USSR.

Nevertheless, the shift between the different ethnic groups is precisely the key to understanding the Afghan intelligence services prior to the U.S. and NATO operations. I believe that, in any case, ethnic factionalism – probably dating back to the old political-tribal faith – was the key to the functioning of the new Afghan Intelligence Services, even during the naive Western administration.

 In January 1980 the KHaD fully replaced the KAM.

Furthermore, the KHaD was placed outside the administration of the Interior Ministry, dominated by the Khalq and then immediately transferred to the office of the Prime Minister, who later also became National Security Minister.

 The Directors of the Afghan Intelligence Services always reported directly to the KGB and, in 1987, the standard situation was that the Afghan Intelligence Service employed almost 30,000 operatives and officials and over 100,000 paid informants.

 Each element of the Afghan Intelligence Service had at least one KGB “advisor” behind them. As also shown in Syria, Russia paid but did not trust it too much.

 Between 1983 and 1993, the Pakistani Intelligence Service ISI -established by a British officer – trained, with the support of CIA, almost 90,000 Mujahideen to send them fighting the USSR in Afghanistan.

 The KHaD had also the statutory obligation to “defend the Communist regime” and “unite all Afghan ethnic groups under one single political system”, especially in collaboration with the Ministry of Borders and Tribal Affairs.

 Again in the 1980s, the KHaD always had both East German and Soviet instructors and numerous secret mass executions took place.

 About 60,000 Afghans were sent to the USSR between 1980 and 1984.

Again in those years, as many as 10,000 KHaD officers received special training from the KGB.

In an old confidential document, CIA also estimated that the total cost of the Soviet engagement in Afghanistan was over 15 billion roubles, plus additional 3 billion roubles for the period when it did not directly occupy Kabul.

 Since currently the 1979 rouble is still worth 22.26 Euros, in principle we can calculate a Russian occupation expenditure of 233 billion and 930 million, plus the extra three billion roubles.

 The KHaD also created tribal militias on the borders, while the KGB organized the internal tribes on its own, mainly for sabotage and to spread dezinformatsjia.

After the USSR’s final collapse and the arrival of the United States, however, a new Afghan Service, the NDS, was immediately created.

It was made up mainly of former KHaD agents and Mujahideen. Indeed, there was no other population available.

The Service, however, was known to be bad or even very bad: its operatives and analysts were selected only on a tribal level or by simple political affiliation.

 They never went to school for education and training. They had no serious training centres and they did not professionally check their networks of informants.

 Even the United States, however, spent a lot of money in Afghanistan: the Congressional Research Office has calculated a 1.6 trillion dollar spending in Afghanistan and Iraq only for the “War on Terror”.

 The Afghan Service costs the USA 6.4 billion dollars every two years.

 And spending always tends to increase, regardless of the poor results reached.

 What about China? First of all, China wants the political stability of Afghanistan, which is a neighbouring and Islamic country. In particular, it controls Kabul to prevent Uyghur jihadism from finding a safe and secure place there. It prevents the Uyghurs from having contacts with the Taliban. It has already happened.

 Everything will happen when the United States definitively leaves Afghanistan, since China now regards that country as an essential pawn in its relationship with India, while – through Pakistan – China strengthens its relations with the Taliban, which the Chinese view as the next and inevitable masters of Kabul. This forecast is really easy to make.

 Moreover, China provided 70 million per year to the Afghan government to support its counter-terrorism efforts, while there have long been Chinese soldiers in Badakhstan and, above all, in the Wakhan Corridor, where it is said that China has already created a military base and has even already deployed a brigade of the People’s Liberation Army.

 China has also put pressures on Kabul for Afghanistan to accept its satellite positioning system, instead of the GPS developed and managed by the United States.

Some Chinese troops, however, have also been stationing in Tajikistan for long time, again to protect the Wakhan Corridor.

Since his rise to power in 2014, however, also Ashraf Ghanihas thought to immediately improve his relations with China so as to use, first of all, China’s influence on Pakistan to avoid the Pakistani support to the Taliban – which is unlikely – as well as ensure that China begins to invest significantly in Afghanistan, now that the civil and international war is on the wane.

 The China-Pakistan Corridor, one of the first axes of the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative, is now worth 62 billion U.S. dollars of costs alone.

 There is also a new railway line leaving from the port of Gwadar, the axis of China’s projection, and arriving in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan and beyond.

In 2016 China also signed an agreement with Afghanistan for the Belt & Road Initiative, with the promise of 100 million U.S. dollars for infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, which have not been provided yet.

 Trade between Afghanistan and China is fully asymmetric and, until Afghanistan is completely pacified – certainly by others and not by China -we believe that that the issue will not be very relevant, at least for China.

 And until the triangulation between the Taliban, Pakistan and China – which has still many doubts about the reliability of the Pakistani “students” operating in Afghanistan (precisely, the Taliban) -is not even clear, the Afghan economic revival – if at China’s expense – will be slow or unlikely.

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Intelligence

The way in which the Chinese intelligence services operate

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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 Since the time of Empress Wu Chao, who created the first Chinese intelligence service in 625 A.D., much has changed, but we could also say that some traits have not completely changed, as we might believe at first sight.

Later there was China’s extraordinary adventure in the modern world, which began with the fall of the last Emperor Pu Yi, who was also guilty of collaborationism with the Japanese in Manchukuo and ended his days artistically drawing the phrase “today the people are sovereign” at the court of Mao Zedong.However, as early as 1934, the British intelligence Services deciphered MASK, the code used by the Komintern to encode information from Moscow to Shanghai which, at that time, was the CPC’s pole.

 However, it was in 1957 that the United States began to fly its U-2s over China, starting from Peshawar.

In 1966, two years after the beginning of the Great Cultural and Proletarian Revolution, there was the great purge of the intelligence services in China carried out by the very powerful Kang Sheng. He was the mover of the fall of Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and Lin Biao, but then he was associated with the “Gang of Four” and hence suffered the usual damnation memoriae. A man of Mao Zedong who knew too much, but died in his bed.

 Then, as is well-known, in 1971 Li Biao was killed while fleeing to the USSR with his plane.

Not surprisingly, again in 1971, Kissinger began to deal secretly with China. Lin Biao’s death was the seal on the definitive strategic separation between China and the Soviet Union – which was what the United States was interested in.

 In 1973 the first CIA “station” was created at the U.S. liaison office in Beijing, while China took the Paracel Islands and CIA left its main station in Taiwan.

 In 1975 the first Chinese Electronic Intelligence satellite (ELINT) was launched, but the following year saw the death of Zhou Enlai, the true master of Chinese foreign policy and Kissinger’s friend who protected Mao from his mistakes.

 The Armed Forces returned to power: with the support of all the military, Deng Xiaoping quickly put Hua Guofeng aside and became the CPC Secretary, but reforms were still being studied. Initially Deng was not as reformist as currently believed in the West.

Hence in Deng’s reformist phase, the U.S. diplomatic recognition was shifted from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China – and that was China’s real goal at the time.

 Shortly afterwards, China also opened diplomatic offices in the United States.

In 1981, however, the Americans developed programmes for controlling the Chinese agents operating in the USA, while Deng Xiaoping himself started China’s nuclear rearmament.

The China National Nuclear Corporation was established in 1988.

 Ten years later, in 1999, the Chinese Armed Forces built a base for intercepting military signals in Cuba but, in 2002, the Chinese cyber attacks on some U.S. networks – known as TITAN RAIN – began, while the FBI even opened a liaison office in Beijing, with assignments also extended to Mongolia.

 In 2004, China put the Nanosatellite I into orbit, but there was also a further cyber attack – probably of Chinese origin – on the U.S. Army Information Systems Engineering Command, as well as on the Naval Ocean Systems Center, and finally on the space and strategic installation in Huntsville, Alabama.

In 2010, Google suffered an AURORA cyber attack. A long, powerful and initially uncontrollable attack.

Probably also Symantec, Northrop Grumman, Morgan Stanley and Dow Chemical were hit by AURORA cyber attacks – albeit this fact is not confirmed.

Hence data collection, mainly economic and technological intelligence for China, but also a complex relationship with the United States to be penetrated informally, but not to be damaged too much.

 In any case, the reins of the Chinese Service (or rather, the intelligence services) were held by the State Security Ministry.

A legal difference should be underlined: while, legally speaking, the KGB was a Central Committee’s Department, the Communist China’s intelligence Service was a real Ministry.

The Interior Ministry was represented by the Public Security Ministry but, in general terms,it should be said that – unlike the old Soviet ones – the Chinese intelligence Services are less obsessive in their relationship with possible “sources”, anyway preferring ethnically Chinese people.

Furthermore, the Chinese Foreign Service seems to prefer sources that – unlike what happened with the Soviet KGB – have no money or personal crisis problems, which become dangerous or ambiguous.

 Again unlike the old Soviet ones, the Chinese intelligence Services do not willingly pay for news and information. They do not blackmail and they do not extort. Quite the reverse. They do not pay at all. If anything, they help Chinese abroad for relatives or other matters.

Hence rarely do the Chinese intelligence Services pay for the data they receive.

 The Chinese intelligence Agencies are therefore interested in people who,only rarely, come within the range of attention of the enemy intelligence Services. Operationally speaking, this is an excellent choice.

Again unlike the old Soviet ones, China’s intelligence Services do not organize rezidenture abroad. They also rarely hold clandestine meetings and almost never use covert communications.

 “The floating bird is existence, if it dives it is non-existence”. The mind is like the moon: it is reflected in the water at a speed that man does not perceive. The mind should not be stopped, but left free to grasp the void, the invisible, the Nothing.

 The Chinese intelligence Services, however, organize closed areas where a “source” finds itself – with its pace and needs – providing the materials needed by the Chinese government.

The width of the network, however, is such that the slow and non-invasive pace of Chinese operatives is capable of reaching the same – or even larger – quantity of sensitive material collected by a Service that does not follow the Tao, i.e. the natural flow of events and people.

Moreover, the Chinese intelligence Service often operates with real academics, real students, real journalists and very real businessmen.

 The cover is often irrelevant, but also very true. Indeed, it is considered a cover attracting excessive interest –  like jealousy which, as Karl Kraus used to say, “is a dog’s bark which attracts thieves”.

Obviously, in this respect, the Chinese intelligence Services have a significant advantage, since they can legally use real journalists and real academics, while in the West – including in Italy – it is forbidden to use “journalists, clergymen, parliamentarians and town councillors” as agents. Stupidity has been tormenting the intelligence Services with a ferocity worthy of a better cause.

Hence no one who can really be useful. This leads the Western intelligence services to fabricate useless complicated “stories” that are often easily discovered by the adversaries.

 Not to mention the forty-year defamation of the intelligence Service – as is the case in Italy – which causes other damage.

 For the intelligence Services, the Chinese technological companies operating in the West must be economically self-sufficient and, indeed, make profit, without weighing on the Service’s or State’s coffers.

 An often predatory “Western-style” profit is also allowed, at least as long as this does not negatively affect intelligence operations.

 Therefore, the Chinese companies using up technology and data – which are the primary material of current Chinese intelligence – must be the most obvious and natural enterprises, without hidden compartments or ambiguous operatives that the host country’s intelligence Services can discover – albeit possibly not so easily.

 Another problem in the control of Chinese operations in the West is the difficulty – and, indeed, we could say the reluctance- with which our companies, including SMEs, report the often harshly blackmailing cyber attacks, or even the crises resulting from fraud and scams often carried out by managers and employees.

 The obsession of being always listed on the Stock Exchange makes companies, including the small and medium-sized ones, excessively afraid of disclosing such adverse operations.

According to Leonardo-Finmeccanica, during the Covid-19 phase, there have been 230,000 malspam operations worldwide, 6% of which in Italy.

This year 51% of all Italian companies have suffered one or more significant cyber attacks, with a 125% average expansion for the domains called “Covid”.

In China, however, there has recently been a change of the State system.

While in the past, before globalization, also thanks to an “imperial” psychology, the Service had above all to defend borders and, to some respects, also the “purity” of the Chinese ethnic balance, today – considering the global economic role played by China – the Service has to deal with 1) the security of raw materials supplies from abroad and 2) the stability of the productive system in a phase of great social transformations.

 Hence the necessary current complexity of the Chinese Party’s and State’s decision-making system: the top level is the National Security Leading Small Group (NSLSG), which also has many informal strategic decision-making mechanisms within the Chinese ruling class. An elite that has always been more informal than we might think.

Certainly, at institutional level, there is also the Politburo Standing Committee, but there is still Hu Jintao, a man still essential to the power architecture of Xi Jinping, who listens to him carefully.

There is also the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group, which is less involved in relations with the United States – of which the aforementioned National Security Leading Small Group is in charge – but mainly controls the work of the Agencies and connects them.

 In addition to the intelligence Services’ role, a fundamental role is also played by the various and often excellent academic and non-academic think tanks.

Also the results of these structures are assessed by the Small Groups.

 But how is foreign policy decided in China?

 First of all, there is the CPC but, more precisely, the “Politburo Central Committee”, in addition to the aforementioned Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC).

With its 204 members and 167 “alternate” members, the Central Committee meets once a year.

The “Politburo Central Committee” is composed of 25 members, elected by the Central Committee. It meets once a month and five of its members do not usually live in Beijing.

 The PBSC, the Central Committee Standing Group for Foreign Affairs, meets once a week and has nine members.

 The Meeting is often coordinated by the Central Committee’s Foreign Affairs Office.

 Within the Standing Committee, the Foreign Affairs Office has a specific area responsibility, but we should not think that Chinese Communism is authoritarian, at least in the childish sense of the term.

 The bigger the issue, the wider and freer the discussion. The leader’s policy line is always to buildthe broadest consensus among his advisers.

With specific reference to the thorniest issues, the leader often appoints a “first collaborator” but usually the “central” meetings are routine for minor issues, even geopolitically, while the leader speaks and decides on the essential issues: the relations with the United States – still a constant obsession of the Chinese intelligence Service – with Japan, Taiwan or, most likely, the Russian Federation.

 The policy line at the top of the decision-making system – and this also pleases Xi Jinping – is still the old and stable policy line developed by Jang Zemin, which was defined in 1999: “collective leadership, democratic centralism, individual preparation and decisions that always result from meetings”.

 In this way, the Standing Committee and the Central Committee’s Foreign Affairs Office prepare briefings and distribute them among the Central Committee’s offices.

 Often there is no voting, but discussions are held until consensus is reached.

For example,a rare case of voting was when North Korea conducted a nuclear test in 2009 and China had to decide whether to withdraw its support for the country. Seven negative votes were cast against support for North Korea.

 The establishment of the aforementioned National Security Leading Small Group (NSLSG)mainly followed the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.

 A fact that has marked China’s recent political history.

 Hu Jintao, whom the PSBC defined as a “main personality”, leads a complex office: eight Ministers from the State Council; two from the Foreign Ministry; the National Security Minister; the Minister of Commerce; the Taiwan Affairs Office, the Office dealing with Hong Kong and Macao; the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office and finally the Information Office.

 There are also two Party’s bodies: the Propaganda Department and the International Department.

The Armed Forces are represented by the Defence Minister and the Chief of Staff.

Therefore, the Chinese intelligence Services have a completely different style and modus operandi compared to the Westerners’ intelligence practices. They also have a complex and technically refined organization of political control over the Services’ operations, and finally a different finalization of the Chinese Agencies’ operations in the West, at least for the time being.

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