Battles Escalate, Spanning Borders at Syria-Lebanon Frontier

Rebels, Hezbollah Fighters Pour Across Border for Yabroud Fight

The fighting continues to pick up around the Syrian border town of Yabroud, the last rebel-held town on the border with Lebanon. The fighting is escalating all the time, as both sides get reinforcements from across the increasingly meaningless border.

yabrudThe Sunni town of Arsal, in Lebanon, has become a rebel haven, as they smuggle weapons into Syria regularly through that town. Hezbollah, meanwhile, continues to send more fighters for the Assad government’s side across the border.

The value of Lebanon as a smuggling route for the rebels is the primary target of the recent military offensive, and if the Syrian Army manages to retake Yabroud it will effectively shut the border to the rebels, weakening their hold in the region.

Rebels have treated border crossings across the country as particularly important, often fighting with one another over the control of crossings into Turkey, where they can demand a cut of any arms smuggled in by other factions.

by Jason Ditz

Russia Warns Sanctions Could Backfire on US, EU

Much of Western Bailout Likely to Wind Up in Russian Hands Anyhow

As Western officials continue to ratchet up threats for sanctions on Russia, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that the move could “boomerang” and hit the sanctioners, particularly in the European Union, much harder than Russia itself.

lavrovLavrov warned the US push for sanctions was “poorly thought out,” a comment that reflects EU concerns about the plan as well, since many EU nations are highly dependent on Russian natural gas.

The natural gas concern has fueled calls for the US to open up its exporting of gas, though the White House downplayed that prospect, and says that they are several years away from allowing significant exports of natural gas.

Ironically, Western officials that have been pledging billions of dollars to bail out the Ukraine economy in the wake of regime change are going to be finding a lot of that money going to Russia to pay bills owed to major Russian companies. Gazprom alone is owed nearly $2 billion for natural gas shipments to the Ukraine.

Proximity and historical ties make Russia by far the most important business partner for the Ukraine, though the recent protest movement has caused many Russian companies to dramatically reduce the estimated value of their business there.

by Jason Ditz

US military presence in Africa growing in small ways

WASHINGTON — Amid a surge of Islamic militancy in North Africa, a team of fewer than 50 U.S. special operations troops with a single helicopter arrived at a remote base in western Tunisia last month.

Their mission: train Tunisian troops in counterterrorism tactics.

The operation was one of dozens of U.S. military deployments in Africa over the last year, often to tiny and temporary outposts. The goal is to leverage American military expertise against an arc of growing instability in North Africa and many sub-Saharan countries, from Mali in the west to Somalia in the east.

The small-scale operations by the Pentagon’s 6-year-old Africa Command reflect an effort to avoid provoking anti-U.S. militants in the region — and wariness of getting drawn into new conflicts after 13 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. commanders for Africa face tight limits on the forces and equipment they can put on the ground or in the air, despite responsibility for a vast geographic area.

Classified guidance approved by the White House last fall called for the Pentagon to “deter” terrorist attacks from Africa on U.S. territory, facilities or allies without creating a large military footprint, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified material.

Based in Stuttgart, Germany, Africa Command has only about 2,000 military and civilian personnel assigned to coordinate U.S. defense programs in about 38 African countries, although 5,000 or more U.S. troops are frequently on the continent for operations and training missions.

It’s still a tiny fraction of the combined forces under Central Command, which oversees the war in Afghanistan and bases in the Middle East, or under Pacific Command, which has become a Pentagon priority since the White House announced a strategic “rebalancing” of forces to Asia in 2012.

U.S. military commanders working in Africa thus rely on small teams of special operations troops, U.S.-trained forces from friendly African countries, and European allies, especially France, that have stepped up their own military presence and operations.

In Niger, for example, U.S. and French air forces based at an airport in Niamey, the capital, are flying unarmed Reaper drones to gather intelligence. They conduct aerial surveillance across several Saharan countries where some members of the Tuareg minority group have joined Islamist warlords and farther south in Nigeria, U.S. military officers say.

Three violent extremist organizations are the chief U.S. concern. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is active in northern and western Africa, especially Mali, and is considered the greatest threat to Americans.

But U.S. troops also are advising the Nigerian army as it establishes a special operations command to combat Boko Haram — which has launched hundreds of violent attacks across Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria — and supporting African Union troops against extremist al-Shabab militants in Somalia.

The U.S. command acknowledged in January that it had sent a small team of advisers to Somalia in December, the first time American troops have been stationed there since militia fighters in Mogadishu, the capital, shot down two helicopters and killed 18 U.S. servicemen in the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident.

“Most of the countries we’re dealing with don’t want a large U.S. presence,” said Army Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee Magee, the commander of a 130-soldier “crisis response” unit stationed in Djibouti, a tiny former French colony in the Horn of Africa, where the U.S. maintains its only major military base on the continent. National security adviser Susan Rice is scheduled to visit the base this weekend.

Known as the East Africa Response Force, Magee’s unit was formed after the September 2012 attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound and nearby CIA base in Benghazi, Libya. Africa Command was unable to send troops in time to help CIA and State Department security personnel fend off militants who stormed the compounds and left four Americans dead, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

If a U.S. diplomatic post in East Africa comes under attack or U.S. citizens need to be quickly evacuated, Magee said, his unit can deploy within 18 hours and up to 1,500 miles from Djibouti.

Another new quick reaction force of 550 Marines, stationed at an air base in Moron, Spain, is charged with responding to crises in North and West Africa, officials say. The force has six V-22 Ospreys, tilt-rotor aircraft that take off and land like helicopters, as well as two refueling tankers. They give the Marines the capability to fly thousands of miles to remote locations in Africa, said Col. Scott Benedict, the commander.

The Pentagon said Friday that the Spanish government had approved an expansion of the force to 850 Marines in April, with the number of aircraft increasing to 16.

Both units were sent to South Sudan in December to help evacuate Americans and guard the U.S. Embassy after fierce fighting broke out between rival armed factions.

But the operation also highlighted the risks the Pentagon faces when it seeks to intervene with light forces in remote places. Three Ospreys were hit by gunfire and had to abort their mission.

The operation in Tunisia highlights another challenge.

Government security forces have been battling militants from the banned Islamist movement Ansar al Sharia, one of the radical groups to emerge since the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprising that ousted President Zine el Abidine ben Ali. Tunisia has seen a sharp increase in suicide attacks and assassinations in the last two years.

But because of Tunisian government concern that the presence of U.S. soldiers could provoke public opposition, the Americans operate far from the deserts of southern Tunisia, Algeria and Libya, where attacks by rebel groups, tribal gangs and Islamist militants, some with ties to al-Qaida, have been increasing, the officials say.

“They’re not able to do a whole lot, and they are in a place where there isn’t a lot of activity,” said a senior military officer who requested anonymity in discussing sensitive details of the U.S. force in Tunisia.

Anne Wolf, a Tunis-based analyst who has written for the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center, said even a small number of U.S. troops could inflame Tunisia’s tense security situation.

“Any involvement of foreign troops would risk provoking further responses from violent Salafists,” she said, referring to Tunisia’s Sunni Muslim extremists. “It would confirm their allegations that the government is controlled by foreign powers who are meddling into Tunisian affairs.”

Except for major exercises, Africa Command officials normally don’t announce deployments for reasons of operational security. They confirmed the current mission in western Tunisia, but the statement had few details, including how long the troops would remain.

“At the request of the government of Tunisia,” U.S. troops are conducting “an episodic training event … after months of planning” that “improves the capabilities of Tunisian forces to protect civilians from current and emerging threats,” the statement reads.

Ukraine’s Neo-Fascist Right Sector Leader Dmytro Yarosh to Run for President

Ukraine’s leader of the far-right Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) paramilitary movement Dmytro Yarosh has announced his presidential bid in elections planned for 25 May.

The ultra-nationalist movement’s chairman Andriy Tarasenko said that Right Sector will also become a political party.

“Dmytro Yarosh will run for president,” he said. “We are preparing for a congress, at which the party will be renamed, and we will participate in the elections in Kyiv, the elections in all local councils, towns and villages.”

“We remain the leaders of this revolution. We are mobilising, we are preparing to react to foreign aggression,” Tarasenko added, claiming that the movement was ready for a full-scale war with Russia.

A leading figure in the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, Yarosh advocated a “national revolution” during the protests and dismissed ousted Viktor Yanukovich’s administration as an “internal occupational regime”.

Yarosh, who considers the far-right Svoboda “too liberal”, wants to ban both the former ruling party (Party of Regions) and the Communist Party of Ukraine.

Tarasenko distanced the movement from the pro-EU government led by interim president Oleksandr Turchinov.

“There has been no reset of power. Only the names in the government offices have changed,” he was quoted as saying.

“Our struggle is entering a peaceful phase, a political phase and that is why we are going into politics,” he said.

Anti-government protesters from far-right group "Right Sector" train in Independence Square in central Kiev in January 2014

Anti-government protesters from far-right group “Right Sector” train in Independence Square in central Kiev in January 2014

Russia opened a criminal investigation against Yarosh for incitement to extremism and terrorism.

Right Sector was condemned by the US State Department for “inflaming conditions on the streets”.

In an interview with Time magazine, Yarosh revealed that the ultra-nationalist movement had amassed a lethal arsenal of weapons.

The movement’s ideology, which rejects any foreign influence over Ukraine, borders on fascism, according to reports.

“For all the years of Ukraine’s independence, Russia has pursued a systematic, targeted policy of subjugation toward Ukraine,” Yarosh told Time. “So of course we will prepare for a conflict with them.”

The Spy Files

WikiLeaks: The Spy Files

Mass interception of entire populations is not only a reality, it is a secret new industry spanning 25 countries

It sounds like something out of Hollywood, but as of today, mass interception systems, built by Western intelligence contractors, including for ’political opponents’ are a reality. Today WikiLeaks began releasing a database of hundreds of documents from as many as 160 intelligence contractors in the mass surveillance industry. Working with Bugged Planet and Privacy International, as well as media organizations form six countries – ARD in Germany, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK, The Hindu in India, L’Espresso in Italy, OWNI in France and the Washington Post in the U.S. Wikileaks is shining a light on this secret industry that has boomed since September 11, 2001 and is worth billions of dollars per year. WikiLeaks has released 287 documents today, but the Spy Files project is ongoing and further information will be released this week and into next year.

International surveillance companies are based in the more technologically sophisticated countries, and they sell their technology on to every country of the world. This industry is, in practice, unregulated. Intelligence agencies, military forces and police authorities are able to silently, and on mass, and secretly intercept calls and take over computers without the help or knowledge of the telecommunication providers. Users’ physical location can be tracked if they are carrying a mobile phone, even if it is only on stand by.

But the WikiLeaks Spy Files are more than just about ’good Western countries’ exporting to ’bad developing world countries’. Western companies are also selling a vast range of mass surveillance equipment to Western intelligence agencies. In traditional spy stories, intelligence agencies like MI5 bug the phone of one or two people of interest. In the last ten years systems for indiscriminate, mass surveillance have become the norm. Intelligence companies such as VASTech secretly sell equipment to permanently record the phone calls of entire nations. Others record the location of every mobile phone in a city, down to 50 meters. Systems to infect every Facebook user, or smart-phone owner of an entire population group are on the intelligence market.

Selling Surveillance to Dictators

When citizens overthrew the dictatorships in Egypt and Libya this year, they uncovered listening rooms where devices from Gamma corporation of the UK, Amesys of France, VASTech of South Africa and ZTE Corp of China monitored their every move online and on the phone.

Surveillance companies like SS8 in the U.S., Hacking Team in Italy and Vupen in France manufacture viruses (Trojans) that hijack individual computers and phones (including iPhones, Blackberries and Androids), take over the device, record its every use, movement, and even the sights and sounds of the room it is in. Other companies like Phoenexia in the Czech Republic collaborate with the military to create speech analysis tools. They identify individuals by gender, age and stress levels and track them based on ‘voiceprints’. Blue Coat in the U.S. and Ipoque in Germany sell tools to governments in countries like China and Iran to prevent dissidents from organizing online.

Trovicor, previously a subsidiary of Nokia Siemens Networks, supplied the Bahraini government with interception technologies that tracked human rights activist Abdul Ghani Al Khanjar. He was shown details of personal mobile phone conversations from before he was interrogated and beaten in the winter of 2010-2011.

How Mass Surveillance Contractors Share Your Data with the State

In January 2011, the National Security Agency broke ground on a $1.5 billion facility in the Utah desert that is designed to store terabytes of domestic and foreign intelligence data forever and process it for years to come.

Telecommunication companies are forthcoming when it comes to disclosing client information to the authorities – no matter the country. Headlines during August’s unrest in the UK exposed how Research in Motion (RIM), makers of the Blackberry, offered to help the government identify their clients. RIM has been in similar negotiations to share BlackBerry Messenger data with the governments of India, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Weaponizing Data Kills Innocent People

There are commercial firms that now sell special software that analyze this data and turn it into powerful tools that can be used by military and intelligence agencies.

For example, in military bases across the U.S., Air Force pilots use a video link and joystick to fly Predator drones to conduct surveillance over the Middle East and Central Asia. This data is available to Central Intelligence Agency officials who use it to fire Hellfire missiles on targets.

The CIA officials have bought software that allows them to match phone signals and voice prints instantly and pinpoint the specific identity and location of individuals. Intelligence Integration Systems, Inc., based in Massachusetts – sells a “location-based analytics” software called Geospatial Toolkit for this purpose. Another Massachusetts company named Netezza, which bought a copy of the software, allegedly reverse engineered the code and sold a hacked version to the Central Intelligence Agency for use in remotely piloted drone aircraft.

IISI, which says that the software could be wrong by a distance of up to 40 feet, sued Netezza to prevent the use of this software. Company founder Rich Zimmerman stated in court that his “reaction was one of stun, amazement that they (CIA) want to kill people with my software that doesn’t work.”

Orwell’s World

Across the world, mass surveillance contractors are helping intelligence agencies spy on individuals and ‘communities of interest’ on an industrial scale.

The Wikileaks Spy Files reveal the details of which companies are making billions selling sophisticated tracking tools to government buyers, flouting export rules, and turning a blind eye to dictatorial regimes that abuse human rights.

How to use the Spy Files

To search inside those files, click one of the link on the left pane of this page, to get the list of documents by type, company date or tag.

To search all these companies on a world map use the following tool from Owni

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