Monday, 20 April 2015

Avoiding the Creation of a 21st Century “Stasi” in France

France has powerful intelligence agencies and highly sophisticated capabilities. However, similar to all Western agencies they do not possess the requisite legal powers, manpower or resources to conduct highly intrusive and persistent surveillance of thousands of individuals, many of whom will have never been charged with a crime.

Even if they did, the public attitude to and willingness to support blanket surveillance of large segments of the population, plays to the fears of many who see in that action echoes of George Orwell's dystopian concept of “thought crime” surveillance.

The challenge is to identify which networks of individuals deserve further attention. In light of recent events, the upswell of public outrage at the Hebdo attacks, the mass migration to Southern Europe of refugees fleeing the conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa and Sub Saharan Africa as well as Eritrea, Somalia and Yemen and a general perception in France that French society is under attack from within, would it be possible to speculate that the French are unwittingly considering the creation of the own Stasi? Albeit in a more benign guise and with best intentions. 


The Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (MfS) or The Ministry for State Security commonly known as the Stasi was the official state security service of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), colloquially known as East Germany. The service was headquartered in East Berlin and has been described as one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies to have ever existed.

One of its main tasks was spying on the population, mainly through a vast network of citizens turned informants, and fighting any opposition by overt and covert measures, including hidden psychological destruction of dissidents. Without the aid of modern technology the Stasi in East Germany ran a network of over 2,000,000 informants and ostensibly had an entire nation under active surveillance and effectively so.

The Buttes-Chaumont Network & the Charlie Hebdo Watershed

The protagonists of the Charlie Hebdo attacks were known not just to the French authorities but to other European authorities and their counterparts in the United States. It is well known and has been widely reported that one had travelled to Yemen over a three-year period and another had been convicted of earlier seeking to travel to Iraq and that they were both associated with long-established European jihadist networks.

Cherif was part of the "Buttes-Chaumont network" that assisted would-be jihadists fight for al-Qaeda in Iraq after the invasion in 2003. He was detained in 2005 just as he was about to board a plane for Syria which at that time was a gateway for jihadists looking to fight US troops in Iraq. The Kouachi brothers had allegedly attended a mosque near Buttes-Chaumont, an area of northern Paris, where they came under the influence of a radical imam called Farid Benyettou.

Following Cherif's imprisonment between January 2005 and October 2006, he first came into contact with the man who would become his mentor - Djamel Beghal. Beghal was sentenced to 10 years in prison in France in 2001 for his part in a plot to bomb the US embassy in Paris. In 2008, Cherif was again jailed for three years for his role in sending militants to Iraq, 18 months of the sentence was suspended.

AQII Flag


                                        
Another key figure in the Buttes-Chaumont network was Boubaker al-Hakim, a militant linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq. al-Hakim also recruited militants to fight in Falluja, an Iraqi city that became an al-Qaeda stronghold in 2004. 

al-Hakim is also wanted in Tunisia over the murder of two Tunisian left-wing opposition politicians in 2013 - he claimed the murders in the name of the Islamic State militant group. A French court jailed al-Hakim for seven years in 2008.
That action appeared to break up the jihadist network that Beghal, al-Hakim and Cherif Kouachi had created.

In 2010 Cherif Kouachi was named in connection with a plot to assist in the escape of another Islamist, Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, from jail. 

A plot hatched by Beghal, according to French anti-terror police. 

Belkacem used to be in the outlawed Algerian Islamic Armed Group (GIA) and was jailed for life in 2002 for a Paris metro station bombing in 1995 which injured 30 people.
Original GIA Flag

                       

AQAP Flag

The older Kouachi undertook military training in Yemen in 2011, where he met the influential preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. 

Awlaki was a senior figure in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). 

The branch of al-Qaeda that has proven most effective at placing bombs on Western-bound aircraft, and which claimed responsibility for the Hebdo attacks.

It is important to remember, however, that thousands of people would have been connected to these very same networks, some of which are well over a decade old. On top of this, more than 1,200 French nationals - a large proportion of whom would be previously unknown - have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight with Islamic State in the last few years. About 350 have returned according to unofficial figures.



The “Five Eyes”

The French authorities and their foreign counterparts, especially those in Yemen and the US, shared intelligence that might, taken together, have thrown up insight that the individual portions could not. One report suggests that France de-prioritized the Kouachi brothers because Yemen was a US priority, whereas American officials left it to the French.

France is not a member of the US-led Five Eyes intelligence alliance – a fact which may have contributed to the threat detection failure that led to the recent attacks.

The "Five Eyes", often abbreviated as "FVEY", refer to an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These countries are bound by the multilateral UKUSA Agreement, a treaty for joint cooperation in signals intelligence.

Click image to enlarge

The origins of the FVEY can be traced back to World War II, when the Atlantic Charter was issued by the Allies to lay out their goals for a post-war world. During the course of the Cold War, the ECHELON surveillance system was initially developed by the FVEY to monitor the communications of the former Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, although it allegedly was later used to monitor billions of private communications worldwide.

In the late 1990s, the existence of ECHELON was disclosed to the public, triggering a major debate in the European Parliament and, to a lesser extent, the United States Congress. As part of efforts in the ongoing War on Terror since 2001, the FVEY further expanded their surveillance capabilities, with much emphasis placed on monitoring the World Wide Web.

The former NSA contractor Edward Snowden described the Five Eyes as a "supra-national intelligence organisation that doesn't answer to the known laws of its own countries". Documents leaked by Snowden in 2013 revealed that the FVEY have been spying on one another's citizens and sharing the collected information with each other in order to circumvent restrictive domestic regulations on surveillance of citizens.

In 2013, documents leaked by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of numerous surveillance programs jointly operated by the Five Eyes. The following list includes several notable examples reported in the media:










  • PRISM – Operated by the NSA together with the GCHQ and the ASD
  • XKeyscore – Operated by the NSA with contributions from the ASD and the GCSB
  • Tempora – Operated by the GCHQ with contributions from the NSA
  • MUSCULAR – Operated by the GCHQ and the NSA
  • STATEROOM – Operated by the ASD, CIA, CSEC, GCHQ, and NSA








Despite the impact of Snowden's disclosures, some experts in the intelligence community believe that no amount of global concern or outrage will affect the Five Eyes relationship, which to this day remains the most extensive known espionage alliance in history.

The Emergence of “Boutique” Terrorism

Recently extremists groups based in conflict hotspots have called on sympathisers in Western countries to take the initiative and plan and execute terrorist actions locally with little or no external assistance.

Simplistically many people tend to seek to place terrorist attacks into one of two categories: low-tech, independent operations by individuals ("lone wolf") or small groups ("wolf packs"), or complex and large scale operations resourced and commanded by organizations.

The last six months has seen a profusion of low-level attacks across Europe and North America, giving the impression that even slightly larger attacks - involving higher-calibre weaponry or better preparation - must represent formal plots by established terrorist groups.


In the Hebdo case, the attackers themselves claimed to have been sent by AQAP, which itself claimed to have "directed" the plot. But we should treat this claim sceptically. As the Australian counterterrorism analyst Leah Farrall reminds us, the al-Qaeda operatives who attacked US embassies in 1998 were given only general instructions to strike Americans.

Al-Qaeda's leadership learned of the targets while the attack was under way. This is closer to inspiration or encouragement than direction or command. This was the model in the Paris attacks, particularly as AQAP's past plots have been built around advanced bombs rather than the use of gunmen. Amidst the rise of IS, al-Qaeda - and especially its Yemeni branch - remains a potent threat for this type of action.


However, the Paris attacks are not a new kind of terrorism. The use of gunmen, the seizure of hostages, the focus on screen-time rather than death toll, and the role played by complex networks of individuals cutting across different countries and groups have been features of attacks over the past 50 years. The new challenge isn't the prioritisation of threats, but the growing mismatch between the number of potential threats and limited resources.

Cell” Structures & Suicidal Tendencies

Many of the recent plots appear to have been developed without foreign direction which minimises the possibility of eavesdropping. The concept of the “terrorist cell” developed in the 1970s to counter the prevailing intelligence gathering techniques at that time were difficult, if not bordering on the impossible, to detect.

For example in the 1970's the IRA overhauled its internal structures, greatly reducing the numbers of volunteers who engaged in attacks and organising them into closed cells, or "active service units", so that the information any one IRA man would have about the organisation would be limited to five or six people.

This process reduced the numbers of active IRA personnel greatly. At its peak in the early 1970s, the Belfast Brigade had had up to 1,500 members. By the early 1980s, this had been reduced to about 100 men in active service units and another 200-300 in supporting roles.

The cell structure also increased the control of the Brigade's leadership over its volunteers, since all weapons were held by one "quartermaster" attached to each unit and could only be used for operations authorised by the Brigade leadership.

The objective was to preserve high value operatives and their skills for continued and ongoing use against their targets.

With the emergence of the extremist jihadi threat in Europe in recent years and the seemingly vast pool of resources from which these groups can draw from – the “cell” structure is used to avoid detection pre-event but not so much concerned with the preservation of the “cell”, "lone wolf" or "wolf packs" post event. 

Manpower has ceased to be an issue.

Where plots use more easily available resources, such as firearms rather than sophisticated explosives, then the challenges faced in implementing a robust prevention strategy are exponentially greater.

The reasons for the decision by the French intelligence services to lift their surveillance of Said Kouachi after his return from Yemen is not clearly known. Likely it was based on balancing the perceived threat from Kouachi versus other competing threats and was also informed by what initial surveillance of him had yielded post his return to France.

It is a matter of the size of the competing needles in a very large haystack rather than an example of an intelligence failure or a systemic problem with the tactics being employed by the French authorities.

Information Myopia

Intelligence agencies globally suffer from a modern problem best defined as “information myopia”*. There is simply too much data available from too many sources much of which is of questionable value but all of which ends up in the same “cube” available for analysis. Extending the remit and sources that are under the surveillance lens will only exacerbate this problem and will not necessarily lead to improved security outcomes.

If the “cube” of data to be analysed is vast then the sieving process that is employed is the key to the success of the analysis. This sieving process though is currently largely based on keywords or watchwords and prone to error. Unless a would be attacked is incredibly naïve then most of this processes effectiveness is rendered useless.

Pattern analysis too has its pitfalls – simply because someone is a frequent visitor to sites that would seem to indicate extremism does not make them an extremist. What about researchers, journalists, the genuinely curious?

There is reason to think that the French failed to get some information they ought to have had. The Kouachi brothers had succeeded in building up a cache of arms in their apartment. Neighbours discovered that cache, but they were then intimidated into silence.

This, however, might represent more a failure of local policing - and poor relations between the local Muslim community and the authorities - than national intelligence. Nevertheless, assault rifles and rocket launchers are not easily available in Western Europe, and the French authorities could reasonably be expected to have had a tighter grip on the supply networks.

* The terms "myopia" and "myopic" (or the common terms "short-sightedness" or "short-sighted", respectively) have been used metaphorically to refer to cognitive thinking and decision making that is narrow in scope or lacking in foresight or in concern for wider interests or for longer-term consequences. It is often used to describe a decision that may be beneficial in the present, but detrimental in the future, or a viewpoint that fails to consider anything outside a very narrow and limited range. Hyperopia, the biological opposite of myopia, may also be used metaphorically for a value system or motivation that exhibits "farsighted" or possibly visionary thinking and behavior; that is, emphasizing long-term interests at the apparent expense of near-term benefit.

What is the French word for PRISM?

Last December (2014) the French government published a decree enacting an internet surveillance law that was passed a year before. The measure allowed authorities 'administrative access to connection data,' and came into force on the 1st January 2015. The decree, providing French officials with access to data from a wide range of telecom services in the country - including phone calls, text messages and internet access by both private users and operators - was published over the Christmas holidays, France's Le Point reported. 

The legislation was passed in December last year, and was a surprise to many as less than two months before it was approved, the country's president François Hollande - during a phone conversation with Barack Obama - expressed his "deep disapproval" at revelations that the NSA had been intercepting millions of phone calls in France, having described it as an "unacceptable practice." 


Notwithstanding that comment from 1st January 2015, the French government itself is in control of its residents' connection data, with an "interdepartmental group" being in charge of security interceptions and administrative access, gathering requests for certain data and obtaining it from operators. Departments, authorized to issue data requests, include several branches within the Interior Ministry, the Ministry of Defense and a directorate at the Ministry of Finance. 

Laws, empowering state officials to monitor the population by means of communication and information access, have been passed under the flag of protection from the terrorist threat. Powers, granted to the government by the new surveillance law, have been met with protests in France. Before it was eventually enacted, authorities set up an oversight body - National Control Commission for Security Interceptions (CNCIS), which will supervise governmental data control powers. Although it is allowed to oversee documents and information asked to be disclosed to the authorities, it has no power to sanction anyone, or alert any third party of an alleged abuse.

"THIS IS NOT A FRENCH PATRIOT ACT" - Prime Minister Manuel Valls

From the 13th April 2015 French lawmakers spent four days debating a controversial anti-terrorism bill that, if passed, would dramatically expand the government's surveillance powers. 


The law's backers describe it as a necessary measure to thwart terrorist attacks, and it has strong support on both sides of the aisle. But the bill has drawn sharp criticism from French internet companies over fears that it could harm business, and from privacy advocates who say it would severely curtail civil liberties. 

The proposed law would allow the government to monitor emails and phone calls of suspected terrorists and their contacts, without seeking authorization from a judge. Telecommunications and internet companies would be forced to automatically filter vast amounts of metadata to flag suspicious patterns, and would have to make that data freely available to intelligence services. Agents would also be able to plant cameras and bugs in the homes of suspected terrorists, as well as key-loggers to track their online behavior.

Privacy International, Amnesty International, and other human rights organizations expressed alarm over the bill when it was announced last month, urging Parliament to give it careful scrutiny. It's also been criticized by the National Digital Council, which advises France's government on technological issues, and by several French web hosting companies, which say the threat of constant government intrusion would undermine their business. 

Of particular concern is the provision requiring telecoms to automatically filter internet traffic. Under the law, internet service providers would have to install monitoring mechanisms — referred to by the French media as "black boxes" — that would use algorithms to detect, in real time, suspicious behaviors in internet metadata. 

The bill's supporters stress that this metadata would remain anonymous and that content of communications would not be automatically swept up, but the behaviors that would constitute a "terrorist-like" pattern are still unclear. Critics say the measure effectively amounts to mass surveillance of web traffic on a disproportionately large scale. 

Under the bill, recordings could be stored for up to one month, and metadata for up to five years. France's current data protection laws date back to 1978, and are among the strongest in Europe. "It's a comprehensive data protection framework that applies to both the public sector and all industries," Fabrice Naftalski, a data privacy attorney and partner at the legal firm EY in Paris, says of current French law. "Protection of personal data is a fundamental right." 

But the country's counter-terrorism laws haven't been revised since 1991, which was the original impetus behind drafting this bill last summer. The legislation took on a new sense of urgency following January's attacks, when Valls moved to fast-track it for passage by this summer. (A vote is expected early next month.)

It seems 2,000,000 East German HUMINT Stasi assets have been supplanted by 66,000,000 French SIGINT black boxes. Thats progress - at least technologically.  

References & Acknowledgements
  1. Perspectives on Terrorism The Modus Operandi of Jihadi Terrorists in Europe by Petter Nesser and Anne Stenersen terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/388/html
  2. The XX Committee: Intelligence, Strategy, and Security in a Dangerous World – www.20committee.com
  3. Darktrace – www.darktrace.com
  4. al-Araby al-Jadeed – http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english
  5. The Verge – www.theverge.com
  6. Russia Today – www.RT.com
  7. Science X Network – www.phys.org
  8. The Long War Journal – www.longwarjournal.org
  9. Academia – www.academia.com
  10. TMG Corporate Services – www.tmgcorporateservices.com
  11. Al Jazeera – www.aljazeera.com
  12. Al Monitor – www.al-monitor.com
  13. Le Monde 
  14. Le Figaro 
  15. Le Point
  16. Die Welt 
  17. CNN 
  18. Fox News 
  19. TIME Magazine -
  20. The New York Times 
  21. The Washington Post
  22. The Times 
  23. The Mail on Sunday 
  24. The Telegraph 
  25. Wikipedia

Friday, 17 April 2015

The Iranians are realizing the dream of a reborn Persian Empire

Iran is an empire once again at last, and its capital is Baghdad”
Ali Younesi, an adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Special Assistant on Ethnic and Religious Minorities Affairs


The eastern and southern regions of Iraq, with majority Shia populations, has always tended to fall within the orbit of Iran's influence. During the Iran-Iraq war - 1980 to 1988 - Iran funded Shiite militias with the aim of overthrowing Saddam Hussein's government.

The two countries ultimately ground each other into a stalemate but after the US invasion and subsequent withdrawal from Iraq, Iran's ability to project power into Iraq has only grown exponentially to the point where they are the predominant force influencing internal affairs in Iraq (2015).

Following the Islamic State group's blitz through Iraq and march toward Baghdad, Iranian-funded Shiite militias were remobilized. The most powerful of them was the Badr Organization, an Iranian-backed political and military organization that has carried out revenge attacks against Sunnis throughout Iraq.


Rampaging Shiite Militias Inflame the Sectarian Divide

The Khorasani Brigade is just one of dozens of similar militias that are essentially running their own show in parts of the country. These Shiite militias are supplied with weapons and equipment from the central government in Baghdad, which is now being assisted by a U.S.-led military alliance in its fight against the Islamic State.

There is mounting evidence that Iraq’s Shiite militias are using the fight against the Islamic State as cover for a campaign of sectarian violence targeting Sunni Arab communities.

The Baghdad authorities have turned a blind eye to these militias’ crimes, while foreign governments have ignored the militias’ use of their military aid to pursue their campaign against Sunni Arabs.


That became an issue for the US, because such sectarian militias, generally loyal to Iran, killed and maimed hundreds of American troops during the Iraq war.

"It's a little hard for us to be allied on the battlefield with groups of individuals who are unrepentantly covered in American blood," Ryan Crocker, a career diplomat who served as the US ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, told US News.

More recently the so-called Special Groups have played a pivotal role in halting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, after the Iraqi Army disintegrated.

"Iran and its Iraqi proxies have been carving out a zone of influence in eastern Iraq for well over a decade," writes Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute. "And this zone, as [US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey] noted, is expanding."

Qassem Suleimani & Iran's QUDS Force

Iran's military mastermind, Qassem Suleimani, has played pivotal roles in the deployment of Iranian assets against ISIS in Iraq. Suleimani was present during the successful siege of Amerli in August 2014, and he is on the frontlines of the battle against ISIS in Tikrit.

Suleimani is the head of the Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, putting him in charge of directing Iranian proxies throughout the Middle East. 


His constant presence in various frontline battles serves to underscore the propaganda of an ascendant Iran with its forces battling for control throughout the region.

The Battle for Tikrit

Tikrit is under siege by a coalition of Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Iraqi army forces. The offensive is being overseen by Suleimani. 

Should the forces liberate Tikrit from ISIS, Iran will have scored a significant propaganda win.

The seizure will place Iranian-backed forces on the road to ISIS-controlled Mosul, Iraq's second-biggest city, and humiliate Sunnis by having Iran take control of Saddam Hussein's hometown.

Furthermore, the US has to sit back and watch. The image below by Ahmad Al-Rubaye shows Iraqi Shiite militia fighters after pushing back ISIS militants on September 3, 2014 on the road between Amerli and Tikrit in Iraq.


US Attitude to Suleimani & Iraq

"There's just no way that the US military can actively support an offensive led by Suleimani"  says Christopher Harmer, a former aviator in the United States Navy in the Persian Gulf. 


Harmer, who is now an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, also told Helene Cooper of The New York Times that Suleimani is  "a more stately version of Osama bin Laden."

To assist in the siege of Tikrit and further military operations against ISIS, Iran has moved advanced rockets and artillery systems into Iraq, The New York Times reports.

These systems have introduced a new level of sophistication into the Iraqi warzone and could further inflame sectarian tensions as the artillery is often imprecise and has the potential to cause collateral damage.

"The Fajr-5 rocket and Fateh-110 missile launching systems are typically carried on a specially designed truck and are formidable additions to the Iraqi arsenal," The Times notes. "Fajr-5 rockets, which are named after the Persian word for dawn, have a range of about 45 miles. Each is 20 feet long and weighs more than 2,000 pounds. The Fajr-5 warhead alone weighs 375 pounds ... The Fateh-110 missile is even more capable than the Fajr-5."

In November 2014, Iranian pilots bombed ISIS positions in Diyala, a religiously mixed Iraqi province that abuts Iran.

The presence of Iranian planes conducting airstrikes at the same time and in the same region as US military operations showed at least a deconfliction between the two countries' militaries. (The same thing is happening in Syria.)

'Export the Revolution'

Iran's ambitions go far beyond Iraq and are taking them increasingly closer to the borders of the country's regional adversaries.

Last month, Suleimani gloated: "We are witnessing the export of the Islamic Revolution throughout the region. From Bahrain and Iraq to Syria, Yemen and North Africa."

Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explains what Iran's military mastermind means by this: "When he talks about exporting the Islamic Revolution, Suleimani is referring to a very specific template. It's the template that the Khomeinist revolutionaries first set up in Lebanon 36 years ago by cloning the various instruments that were burgeoning in Iran as the Islamic revolutionary regime consolidated its power.

"As a result, Hezbollah remains the most comprehensive and developed export of the Iranian model ... Now the Islamic revolutionary model is being reproduced in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen as well, by setting up those same structures."

That is why Ali Khedery, who served as a special assistant to five US ambassadors and as a senior adviser to three heads of US Central Command between 2003 and 2009, told The New York Times in December that Suleimani was "the leader of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen," adding that "Iraq is not sovereign. It is led by Suleimani, and his boss," Iranian Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei."

Acknowledgements & References
  1. Michael Knights, Fellow at the Washington Institute
  2. Ralph Lengler, Experience Consultant, https://www.quora.com/Ralph-Lengler
  3. The Foreign Policy Group
  4. Al Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East
  5. Ali Mamouri, Columnist, Al-Monitor's Iraq Pulse
  6. Shahir ShahidSaless, Political Analyst and Freelance Journalist
  7. Dmitri Rybak, TMG Corporate Services
  8. Charles Davis, intelography.com
  9. Business Insider
  10. Associated Press
  11. Reuters
  12. Getty Images
  13. Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Yarmouk burns and the world fiddles

The terror attack on Garissa University in Kenya, and the taking by ISIS militants of most of Yarmouk - the largest Syrian Palestinian camp on the outskirts of Damascus - indicate a dire deterioration in the security situation in the Middle Eastern and North African region.

In the south of the Syrian capital lies the neighbourhood of Yarmouk. Yarmouk was once a sprawling neighbourhood, home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees and Syrians but has been caught up in the country's fighting and besieged by regime forces for more than a year. 

About 18,000 residents are estimated to remain in the camp after many fled the fighting. Populated now by mostly Palestinian refugees the camp has been ceaselessly barrel bombed and heavily shelled by Assad government forces since the ISIS launched an offensive against an armed Palestinian group there. 


Thousands of civilians have been trapped for weeks without receiving aid. Fighting has been raging since Wednesday (04.01.2015) between ISIS and rival armed groups. However, an activist in Yarmouk, speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said that the government's bombardment of residential areas has been the main cause for civilian casualties and the humanitarian crisis. 

Doctors & Hospital Staff Flee

According to the activist and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, government helicopters have dropped barrel bombs, which are highly indiscriminate and destructive explosives, on the district. There were no details on casualties. The Yarmouk activist said doctors and hospital staff were part of the group of people that managed to flee the district, further crippling its already deprived medical system.

Food & Water Shortages

There are shortages of food and water causing rampant hunger and suffering among civilians. Palestinian officials in Damascus and other Syrian activists have said that ISIS seized control over up to 90 percent of Yarmouk and have been battling opposition groups across the district. 

Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis Arrest ISIS Fighters

But the Yarmouk activist denied reports that ISIS took most of the district, saying the cause for the intrusion of the group - coming from the nearby district of Hajr al-Aswad - was not to seize territory there, but to punish the Palestinian faction Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis for arresting ISIS fighters accused of assassinating one of their leading figures.

ISIS Expansion from Hajr al-Aswad

Fighting between the two sides has continued mainly in the southwestern outskirts of Yarmouk. Marwan Kabalan, a Syrian political analyst, told Al Jazeera that ISIL may be trying to expand its control in Damascus from the adjacent district Hajr al-Aswad, where it has been based for months. But he also noted that it would probably be "too difficult to take control over all of Yarmouk" for several reasons, including its urban nature and the number of armed groups that have established their foothold there.

"It [Yarmouk] is quite a big area. It was once the most populated area in Damascus, and now there are many armed groups there," he said. "The regime has failed to seize the district from rebels for more than two years." Activists reported that reinforcements from rebel groups, including Jaish al-Islam, arrived in Yarmouk on Sunday and managed to recapture several areas from ISIS.

Ahrar al-Sham, Nusra Front, FSA & Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis

Besides ISIL, control over Yarmouk is divided between the armed opposition groups of Ahrar al-Sham, the Nusra Front, Free Syrian Army groups, and Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Sunday that ISIS captured at least 10 fighters from Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis and other rebel groups.

Pro-ISIL social media accounts published pictures showing 11 rebel fighters captured by ISIS beside some ammunition they seized. 

Ali Haidar, the Syrian minister of information, told Al Jazeera that the government had been working on a reconciliation deal under which the Palestinian factions would lay down their arms, and in return the government would end the siege. "We were days away from an agreement. However, rebel groups who are not Palestinian are against reconciliation, like Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham. This is why these groups allowed ISIS to come into the camp," he said.

Barrel Bombs

A barrel bomb is a type of improvised explosive device (IED). Sometimes described as a "flying IED", they are made from a large barrel-shaped metal container that has been filled with high explosives, with possibly shrapnel, oil or chemicals, and then dropped from a helicopter or airplane.

Due to the large amount of explosives (up to thousands of pounds), their poor accuracy and indiscriminate use in populated civilian areas (including refugee camps), the resulting detonations have been devastating. 

Critics have characterized them as weapons of terror and illegal under international conventions. The earliest known use of barrel bombs in their current form was in Croatia in 1991, where they were deployed from An-2 agricultural airplanes against Serbian positions around Vukovar. 


They were also used in Sudan in the 1990s, where they were rolled out of cargo-doors of transport planes. 

Barrel bombs have been used extensively by the Syrian Air Force during the Syrian Civil War and later by the Iraqi forces during Anbar clashes. Experts believe they will continue to be embraced by unstable nations fighting insurgencies since they are cheap to make and utilise the advantages of a government's air-power.

Barrel bomb attacks throughout Syria have killed more than 20,000 people since the conflict began in March 2011, according to a December 2013 statement by the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC). 

It is estimated that, as of mid-March 2014, between 5,000 to 6,000 barrel bombs have been dropped during the war and their use has escalated. Aleppo has been the focal point of the Syrian government's use of barrel bombs. 

Over time, government forces have refined their use of the barrel bomb to cause maximum damage - dropping one device and then waiting 10 to 30 minutes to drop another bomb on the same location. According to opposition activists, the aim is to ensure that those who flood the scene to rescue the victims are then themselves killed.

Yarmouk Camp

Yarmouk Camp (Arabic: مخيم اليرموك‎) is a 2.11-square-kilometre (0.81 sq mi) district of the city of Damascus, populated by Palestinians, with hospitals and schools. It is located 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) from the center of Damascus and inside the municipal boundaries but when established in 1957, it was outside the surrounding city. Yarmouk is an "unofficial" refugee camp; it is home to the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria. As of June 2002, there were 112,550 registered refugees living in Yarmouk. During the Syrian Civil War, Yarmouk camp became the scene of intense fighting between the Free Syrian Army and the PFLP-GC supported by the Syrian Army government forces.

Yarmouk was established in 1957 on an area of 2.11 square kilometres (0.81 sq mi) to accommodate refugees who were squatters. Though it is not officially recognized as a refugee camp, road signs leading to this sector of the city read "Mukhayyam al-Yarmouk", meaning "Yarmouk camp".

Administratively, Yarmouk is a city (madina) in the Damascus Governorate. Over time, refugees living in Yarmouk have improved and expanded their residences. Currently, the district is densely populated, with cement block homes and narrow streets. Two main roads are lined with shops and filled with service taxis and microbuses that run through the camp.

According to the BBC, although Yarmouk "is identified as a camp, there are no tents or slums in sight. It is a residential area with beauty salons and internet cafes". Living conditions in Yarmouk appear to be better than in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and residents of the camp are made up of many professionals, such as doctors, engineers and civil servants, as well as many who are employed as casual laborers and street vendors. 

There are four hospitals and a number of government-run secondary schools. UNRWA operates 20 elementary schools and eight preparatory schools in the camp and sponsors two women's program centers. There are three UNRWA health care centers in Yarmouk, two of which received upgrades in 1996 with contributions from the government of Canada. 

In 1997, six schools were upgraded with contributions from the government of the United States, and a kindergarten was built with funds from the government of Australia. In 1998, the UNRWA was also able to construct a health center funded by the government of the Netherlands. 

There is another Health Center whose expertise is devoted to prevention and treatment of thalassemia. The Center was built in 2009 thanks to funds provided by the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID). 

During the Syrian Civil War, Yarmouk camp became the scene of intense fighting between the Western backed rebel Free Syrian Army and its Palestinian ally Liwa al-Asifa on one hand and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) supported by Syrian Army government forces on the other. 

Subsequently the Syrian Army has besieged the camp, leading to many leaving the area and a significant deterioration in conditions for the more than 18,000 Palestinian refugees and other Syrians remaining inside the camp, whom the UN describes as living in "complete deprivation". 

On 1 April 2015, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters entered the camp from the Hajar al-Aswad district, sparking clashes with Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis and the Free Syrian Army. ISIL initially took over much of the camp, but was later pushed back from some areas, before regaining control. 

On 2 April, it was reported that ISIL was in control of the entirety of the Yarmouk camp and was handing out bread to refugees. Later reports confirmed that Palestinian fighters along with local rebels managed to push ISIL fighters out of Yarmouk.

Acknowledgements & References: Al Jazeera; Joseph Willits @josephwillits; Shona Murray independent.ie; Wikipedia

Saturday, 4 April 2015

My answer to "Why can't Palestinians vote in Israeli elections?"

My answer to "Why can't Palestinians vote in Israeli elections?"

Original question and other contributors' answers can be read on QUORA at: https://www.quora.com/Why-cant-Palestinians-vote-in-Israeli-elections

The question is basically flawed and demonstrates a lack of understanding regarding the difference between Palestinians and Israelis and the states of Palestine and Israel. Like most of the debate on this subject the question is attempting to be rhetorical, it is emotive, uninformed and leads the debate down the usual "cul-de-sac" which is typically nuanced by anti-Israeli sentiment and blind support for a Palestinian cause that is flawed and fundamentally at odds with and supported by elements totally alien to Western / Israeli interests.

Palestine, Gaza, the West Bank, Hamas, Fatah, Hezbollah and so on are all subjects on which many Westerners are prepared to hold very strong opinions regarding a subject on which they are generally thoroughly misinformed (based on biased media reports or blanket "liberal" agendas) or regarding which they possess no context or actual information - based on facts - that would inform an educated view on the matter.


The Palestinians do exercise their votes locally and most recently did so to choose Hamas - a terrorist organization - as their "democratically" elected representatives. Hamas - a group - who have zero interest in democracy.

Iran & Saudi Arabia - Proxy Wars

Iran and Saudi Arabia have been and are presently fighting proxy "sphere of influence" wars across the region via terrorist / extremist groups such as Hamas / Hezbollah / Fatah / ISIS and most recently in Yemen via Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis / AQAP.


Hamas -  Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah Islamic Resistance Movement

Hamas (Arabic: حماس‎ Ḥamās, "enthusiasm", an acronym of حركة المقاومة الاسلامية Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah Islamic Resistance Movement) is a Palestinian Islamic organization, with an associated military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere in the Middle East including Qatar. Hamas or its military wing is designated as a terrorist organization by Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The organization was also banned in Jordan.


Elections in Gaza and the West Bank

In the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, Hamas won a decisive majority in the Palestinian Parliament, defeating the PLO-affiliated Fatah party. Following the elections, the Quartet (the United States, Russia, United Nations and European Union) made future foreign assistance to the PA conditional upon the future government's commitment to non-violence, recognition of the state of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements. 

Hamas rejected those changes, which led to the Quartet suspending its foreign assistance program and Israel imposing economic sanctions on the Hamas-led administration. In March 2007, a national unity government headed by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was briefly formed, but this failed to restart international financial assistance.

Internal Fighting - The Battle of Gaza 2007

Tensions over control of Palestinian security forces soon erupted in the 2007 Battle of Gaza, after which Hamas took control of Gaza, while its officials were ousted from government positions in the West Bank. Israel and Egypt then imposed an economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, on the grounds that Fatah forces were no longer providing security there. 

In 2011, Hamas and Fatah announced a reconciliation agreement that provides for creation of a joint caretaker Palestinian government. Progress has stalled, until an April 2014 agreement to form a compromise unity government, with elections to be held in late 2014. In 2006, Hamas used an underground cross-border tunnel to abduct the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, holding him captive until 2011, when he was released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. 

Since then, Hamas has continued building a network of internal and cross-border tunnels, which are used to store and deploy weapons, shield militants, and facilitate cross-border attacks. Destroying the tunnels was a primary objective of Israeli forces in the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict – Operation Protective Edge.

The Palestinian National Authority

Elections in the Palestinian National Authority refers to elections held in Palestinian Autonomous areas from 1994 until its transition into the State of Palestine in 2013. Elections were scheduled to be held in 2009 per the state's own laws,[1] but the Next Palestinian general election was disrupted amidst a conflict between Hamas and Fatah.

President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to stay on until the next election, but he is recognised only in the West Bank and not in Gaza. The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) has held several elections in the Palestinian territories, including elections for a president, legislature and local councils. Until 2007, the National Council had 133 members, with 66 members elected in 16 multi-seat constituencies, 66 elected proportional to the vote for each party, and the president as ex officio member. 

In 2007, the voting system was changed by Presidential Decree to abolish the constituency seats, and also prohibiting parties from contesting the election which did not acknowledge the PLO's right to represent the Palestinian people (specifically Hamas). An opinion poll suggested that a majority of Palestinians supported the change, while Hamas called it illegal. 

Fatah and Hamas / Gaza and the West Bank

The PNA has a multi-party system, with numerous parties. In this system Fatah was the dominant party. The first Legislative and presidential election were held in 1996; the first local elections in January–May 2005, organized by PNA president Yasser Arafat before his death. Previous (failed) legislative Council elections were held in 1923 under the British Mandate. Previous municipal elections were held in 1972 and 1976 and were organized by Israel.

The January 2005 presidential election, won by Mahmoud Abbas, preceded the Hamas victory during the legislative election in January 2006.

Sources & Acknowledgements: Wikipedia / TMG Corporate Services / BBC News