Instead of being astonished by the ease with which an Israeli firm’s software can hijack ‘secure’ devices, we need to put in place laws governing how all actors can use this personal data.
An iPhone in front of NSO Group's headquarters in Herzliya, Israel, August 28, 2016.Jack Guez, AFP
“There is something intimate and insidious about a telephone,” observed former CIA officer William Johnson, in his 1987 monograph on the spy trade. “No matter how careful I am when using the telephone, I cannot help giving away information of value to somebody investigating me.”
If you want to put this to the test, try setting up a meeting with someone without using any words that could allow a third party to work out where or when it will take place, or the subject to be discussed.
Today’s spies are just as quick to acknowledge that phones — and especially smartphones — are not secure. These devices leak revealing personal information to anyone who takes an interest, and yet outside the intelligence community the news of the latest vulnerability is met with an amnesic surprise.
The most recent example was the discovery of Pegasus — malware developed by an Israeli company that, when installed by a user who unwittingly clicks on a link in a seemingly innocent text message, can in effect hijack the user’s iPhone or iPad. It can transmit all data stored on the device, from passwords, photos, calendars and address books to text messages, voice calls and the location of the device itself. In addition, it can commandeer the gadget’s microphone and camera, turning the user into a virtual spy.
These capabilities were revealed after Ahmed Mansoor, a human-rights activist from the United Arab Emirates, forwarded a suspicious text message containing a link to Citizen Lab. Researchers at the internet watchdog, which is based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, clicked on the link, studied the effects of the malware and notified Apple, which quickly released a security patch update for iOS, the operating system for the company’s mobile devices.
Pegasus is certainly one of the most complete hacking tools to come to the public’s attention. Any one of its capabilities are highly revealing; being able to build a map of someone’s location for example will quickly reveal their daily routine, friends, work, where their children go to school and much more. Combined, Pegasus’s capabilities would leave little personal information undiscovered if used against an unsuspecting target.
But it is naïve to think that Pegasus is unique in its invasiveness or sophistication, and equally naïve to think that such abilities are restricted to a handful of nation states. The company responsible for Pegasus is Israel’s NSO Group, set up by former members of Israel’s security services, and partly owned by an American private equity firm, Francisco Partners, with offices in London.
NSO Group has not been very discriminating with its customers. Pegasus is believed to have been sold to the governments of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Mexico and other states. Yemeni intelligence officers demonstrated remarkable bravado in showing journalists that they can access their communications. The point is that this one tool has been supplied widely to some countries on the opposite end of armed conflicts, and there is evidence that it has been used by other cybersecurity companies. And there are many comparable tools.
The history of communications technology has developed along two consistent lines. Technologies have become more sophisticated, and have become steadily smaller and more user friendly. The phone itself is a case in point, from landline to mobile to smartphone, ever more powerful and convenient. There is every reason to think hacking tools will follow a similar trend, with less and less need for users to manually crack into a system, or to understand the underlying coding.
This poses some unpleasant problems that need to be faced. We often discuss the importance of privacy, but phones are neither private nor secure and the ability to access the treasure trove of personal information that they hold is going to become easier, and doable by a far broader range of actors. Moreover it is inconceivable that people are in consequence going to stop holding large volumes of personal information on smart devices. It is, quite simply, too convenient, and while some may fall victim to criminal hacking, for the majority the risk will have been worth it.
The public response to hacks tends to be a mixture of outrage, surprise, and an expectation that their devices are secured. Pegasus shows that we should be asking more fundamental questions. The first is that if these tools are going to be used by law enforcement — using location data from phones, for example, to link a suspect to a crime scene — we need very clear laws and oversight of how this data is accessed by police, what information should be available and what procedures should allow officers to access devices that alongside relevant evidence contain personal information that is not germane to the case, but cannot be readily distinguished from other data. There are some precedents for answering these questions.
There are far fewer precedents when we come to consider who should be allowed to manufacture and sell powerful tools like Pegasus, and to whom. If they are the weapons of cyberwarfare, should they be monitored with comparable rigor to arms? Should the use of such tools require licensing of the vendor, and proof of compliance?
Of particular relevance to Mansoor and other activists targeted by repressive states, is the question of public attitudes toward hacked information. There is a widespread acceptance that hacked information is the concealed truth made public. With the modern craze for mass data leaks little work is done to verify that the data has not been subtly tampered with.
But as was recently demonstrated in Russia, hackers manipulated records from the Open Society Foundation to try to link George Soros and Russian anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny. The fabrication was only noticed because two hacking groups independently released discrepant versions of the same material. To put this in the context of mobile devices, suppose a hacker were able to enter an iPhone and change the location data, placing someone at the scene of a crime when they were not. It is hard to imagine a jury, representative of the current pervasive attitude, seriously doubting the veracity of such evidence.
It is easy to look ahead and see a dystopian future, dominated by surveillance, public and private. Trying to counter these trends individually is a sure path to paranoia. But if we can get the frameworks surrounding the use of these powerful tools right, if we have those difficult conversations now, then we can hope to transform them from a sinister threat to another transformative step in the advance of technology.
Originaly published by Haaretz.
British experts say it’s impossible to prevent every cyber attack – but staff can be trained to notice more irregularities in the system.
Just before lunch on a spring day in London a financial officer received an email from their CEO asking that they make a payment to a supplier with whom the CEO had just had a meeting. The payment was large, but no larger than they had expected. Seeing the CEO’s secretary the financial officer asked when the payment needed to be made. “I’ll just check,” the secretary replied.
A few minutes later the secretary came back looking worried. The CEO had not sent an email requesting a payment. On closer inspection the financial officer noticed an ‘a’ replaced by an ‘e’ in the company email. At first there was a wave of relief - a fluke had saved the company from falling victim to a fraud – but then came the hard questions: how had the fraudsters known about the meeting with the supplier? How had they been able to so closely mimic the CEO’s writing style? Had the fraudsters hacked into the company system?
“This sort of attack wouldn’t normally be considered a cyber attack, unless they got access to the system,” explained Stephen Ridley, Senior Development Underwriter at Hiscox, who provide cyber insurance to over 3000 businesses in the UK. “But our policies trigger on a suspected data breach.”
Once hackers have access to a company’s system there are a range of ways they can get money, from gathering information to perpetrate fraud, to encrypting company records and demanding a ransom to return them. A compromised company can provide a backdoor for hackers into the databases of their partners, clients and suppliers. Companies have a responsibility to deal with suspected data breaches, and it comes at a high price.
“You have to find the breach, then shut it off, assess the system’s weaknesses and work out how to improve security, train staff, get legal support,” said Ridley. Even in the event of unsuccessful frauds, “the costs can be huge. Most claims are straight into the tens of thousands of pounds.”
And then there is PR. If it is found out that a system has been breached then the reputational damage can destroy a business. With an ever-growing volume of online transactions, who wants to give their data to a hacked company? For this reason companies often try and keep incidents quiet.
“We see non-disclosure to various degrees,” said Ridley.
Awareness of the threat is growing. Hiscox has reported a threefold increase in UK companies taking out cyber insurance over the past year, driven by a string of high profile hacks against large companies including Sony, Ashley Madison and Linkedin. But according to a survey by the Institute of Directors, only 57% of British businesses have cyber security strategies in place. That figure does not reflect the number of companies taking active security measures, which is far lower. Nor does it reflect the global picture, as the UK is far ahead of similarly developed economies.
“The problem is that a lot of people see minimum security standards as the target to meet,” said Peter Shepherd, Head of Digital Investigations at London based Hidden Security, who specialize in testing the vulnerability of Small and Medium Sized Businesses. “The attacker has the advantage. They will always get in. The question is how far?”
Describing a typical cyber operation Shepherd explained how a hypothetical criminal would scan an area for vulnerable devices: routers, using fake Wi-Fi to gain access to employees’ phones, and pulling company information from social media. A mixture of public and private information then allows for targeted attacks.
“In one case where we were testing a company we learned that they had just signed a deal with a sports company, so we sent around a fake email from the company to staff offering discounted tickets. A few people opened the link and we got access to their system.”
“However,” said Shepherd, “some reported the email to IT. So we sent another email pretending to be from IT warning about the previous email with a link to allow IT to check that their computer wasn’t affected. Everyone clicked on it. Then we had access to everything.”
The easiest way of converting a breach into cash is through ransom-ware, which encrypts a company’s system, demanding a payment to give back control. Ransom cases represent the largest proportion of cyber related claims according to Hiscox. But most cases go unreported.
“Ransoms used to be big,” said Shepherd. “Now they are typically around 250 pounds. At that cost it is easier – and cheaper – to just pay, which most victims do. But if you do these attacks across London, you are going to be collecting a lot of ransoms; earning more than your usual cyber security professional.”
Some frauds are more elaborate however. Many SME directors take the attitude that their businesses are too small to be the target of a major attack. With awareness of cyber crime driven by public hacks of major corporations and governments, there is a widespread perception that SMEs are below the radar.
In reality SMEs often provide the perfect entry into larger businesses. Big companies can afford to have dedicated security staff and sophisticated IT defenses. SMEs by contrast are, as Shepherd points out, “the weak link in the chain.”
“Big companies rely on SME partners, and once you get into the SME you can exploit the trust relationship between them and the big company to get into their systems.”
With 23% of transactions in the UK taking place online in 2016, and the proportion projected to grow dramatically, the exposure of SMEs, and therefore larger businesses is only going to increase. Britain is especially relevant because the UK is far ahead of the rest of the world, and so the cyber threat against the British economy showcases what others will face in years to come. Germany, the second most digitized economy currently has half as many online transactions each year, while the G20 average is just 6%. How Britain responds will provide lessons for others.
But countering the threat is difficult. Most breaches are the result of human error. There are ways of avoiding the simplest attacks, and ways of protecting vitally sensitive information systems by identifying and isolating the data, but cyber security experts acknowledge that almost any system will be breached under normal operational conditions. The biggest variable is awareness and attitude; two things that are currently in short supply.
“It is impractical to mandate security measures,” said Ridley. Hiscox does not insure based on a company’s infrastructure meeting arbitrary standards. “The assumption is that attacks will to some extent succeed.”
Instead Hiscox focuses its discussions with potential clients on their attitude. Shepherd agrees; strong defence is based on awareness. Companies can’t be vigilant 100% of the time, but they can encourage awareness by having their IT department send out fake fraudulent emails, and reward staff that spot it, while training staff who fall for the scam. Paying bonuses to IT staff who find breaches is another way of encouraging them to do the dull but essential task of scouring logs to look for irregularities, a job that is usually done around their core duties.
The growing volume of cyber fraud is also driven by a lack of policing. Government responses to cyber crime have been pioneered by the intelligence community, associated with the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). The capability of law enforcement lags behind, and few victims expect to catch the perpetrators. Police do not always distinguish between cyber and traditional fraud, and investigation is hampered because plugging the breach often destroys the tracks of the criminals. As a senior security officer at Morgan Stanley put it, “the police just don’t have a clue.”
The Metropolitan Police declined to comment on this article.
Originally published by Haaretz.
A lack of transparency enables corrupt officials worldwide to continue in lucrative racketeering of state assets. A new initiative aims to establish set of global standards for defense governance.
In the summer of 2015, Lt. Col. Elie Tarpaga was commanding a battalion of Burkina Fasan peacekeepers in Timbuktu, the gateway to Mali’s vast northern desert. It was a tense time: With 850 men and minimal logistical support, he was responsible for protecting a disparate civilian population from raging banditry and rival armed groups with a limited regard for a recently signed truce.
In spite of his difficulties, Tarpaga had an affable and jocular manner. But his broad smile quickly disappeared when asked how he felt about such a large proportion of Burkina Faso’s army being sent abroad. “How do you know it is such a large proportion?” he asked.
The Burkinan Army is estimated to consist of around 6,500 men, of whom three battalions are trained for peacekeeping and are regularly deployed. Last summer, two were in Mali but Tarpaga shook his head. “You may think you know how many soldiers we have, but no one would tell you the exact numbers. And if they said they did, they would be lying. It’s sensitive information.”
He was reflecting an attitude that is common across many militaries: Defense spending, and the size of units, are important national secrets – because a potential enemy shouldn’t know your hand in the event of war.
In Africa, 40 percent of countries publish no official figures on defense spending, and the rest rarely publish any budget breakdowns. With upward of $40 billion spent annually on defense across the continent, oversight remains minimal.
Far from improving security, however, there are many reasons to believe that a lack of transparency makes states more susceptible to corruption, organized crime and state failure.
“A lack of accountability in the security sector and the growth of secretive defense spending is a major risk to international stability,” said Katherine Dixon, director of Transparency International UK’s Defence and Security Programme.
Mali is an excellent case in point. In the wake of a rebellion by Tuareg separatists in 2012, and an incursion of extremist groups in the country’s north, Mali has become a significant recipient of security aid, but doesn’t publish its defense spending or require competitive tenders for defense procurement.
In addition, the military is not subject to independent auditing and parliamentary scrutiny of its activities is minimal.
The irony is that, far from improving security, this culture of secrecy – and corresponding poor governance – was directly threatening the lives of Tarpaga’s men.
Earlier in the week, militants from Le Groupe Autodéfense Touareg Imghad et Allies (GATIA), a pro-government militia hostile to Tuareg independence, had ignored cease-fire lines agreed in early June and risked a firefight with separatists from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Had fighting erupted, the peacekeepers would have scrambled to intervene – as has occurred on numerous occasions. Twenty-four soldiers from MINUSMA (the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali) were killed in the first six months of 2016.
“GATIA was armed by the government,” a senior MINUSMA officer, formerly responsible for operations in Kidal where the infraction took place, told Haaretz. “GATIA has heavy weapons. The MNLA, too, with 120mm. mortars, 107mm. recoilless rifles.” Mortars have been used to shell UN compounds.
“There is seepage of weapons from the government stockpiles to traffickers, but we don’t know how much,” the UN officer continued. “The armed groups all have connections with smugglers.”
This seepage to non-state actors is facilitated by the lack of transparency in procurement and budget secrecy in the Malian state. Arsenals are not subject to independent auditing, meaning the UN cannot establish the volume of arms moving out of government hands.
The lack of independent scrutiny enables corrupt officials to continue in lucrative racketeering of state assets, and allows shoddy record-keeping to go unnoticed and unpunished.
In one of the most egregious incidents, the Malian Armed Forces signed off on a contract after being invoiced for 500 percent of the budgeted cost.
MINUSMA Director of Communications Radhia Achouri notes that “there are many people who do not want a stable country” profiting from smuggling made possible by insecurity, and by a lack of transparency or governance, which sees heavy weapons flow into a smuggling route connecting Libya to the militant group Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Confronting corruption in the face of defense secrecy depends upon reshaping the attitudes of officers like Lt. Col. Tarpaga. Fortunately, a new initiative is seeking to do just that. According to Transparency International UK, over a dozen states – including major economies, arms exporters and regional powers – have expressed an interest in establishing a set of global standards for defense governance, aimed at strengthening oversight and security.
Although the terms of this agreement are yet to be set, at their core they will encourage states to publish defense budgets and set up procedures for independent oversight of procurement and expenditure, in line with national defense strategies.
The initiative is still at a very early stage, but there are many reasons for states to support it. From the point of view of Mali’s benefactors, ensuring their aid is well spent is a key interest. With the spread of terrorism, governance and the management of arms is a growing security interest, while corruption and the weakening of state institutions provides opportunities for non-state actors to thrive. Meanwhile, for those states rapidly increasing their defense spending, ensuring that they have a national strategy against which they can judge the utility of military programs, ensures greater value for their investment.
Jeff Kaye chairs Transparency International UK’s Defence and Security Programme and was a former director at British defense firm Marconi. “Large Western nations should be receptive to such standards,” he said, “as governments of the 21st century nation-state should be eager to show that their fundamental responsibility to ensure peace, safety and security for [their] citizens cannot be delivered without transparency and accountability.”
(Additional reporting by Paul Raymond in Mali).
Originally published in Haaretz.
To ensure that escalation remains an option and not an imperative in the world, Western resolve in the face of Russian aggression must be clear and credible.
Russian Mi-35 military helicopters fly during the Victory Day parade, marking the 71st anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, above the Red Square in Moscow, May 9, 2016. Grigory Dukor, Reuters
The release by Canada’s Secret Intelligence Service of a report arguing that Russia is “mobilizing for war” is the latest in a growing list of documents detailing the expanding militarism of Putin’s government. Media warnings about World War III are vastly overblown, but Russia’s aggressive diplomacy is ratcheting up tensions with NATO in a high-risk bid to assert Russian influence on the world stage.
Crucial to understanding the modernization of Russia’s military is the difference between wanting to fight a war, and having the capacity to do so. As Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged last week America is the world’s only superpower. Should a conflagration erupt between the two nations, the outcome would either be an American victory, or a defeat for humanity if the conflict turned nuclear.
Russia does not want a war, but neither does the West. And so long as Western leaders see escalation in response to Russian moves as a choice, rather than an imperative, they will invariably choose to perpetuate the peace that underpins prosperity.
It is this line that Putin has become adept at exploiting. When Russian forces seized Crimea in February 2014, they did so because Moscow judged that Western governments would fail to respond, in spite of treaty obligations to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty, because the risk of escalation was not considered to match the damage to Western interests that Crimea’s loss represented.
Putin had used this tactic before in Georgia, and would do so again in Syria, where Russian planes bombed Western-backed groups, knowing that the West is not prepared to risk escalation in order to head the Russians off. And there is nothing to suggest that this mode of operation will not go on working, as the report by the Canadian intelligence service (CSIS) argues, although, “'more of the same’ is an unfashionable and… risky conclusion for a foresight paper… The main direction of Russian foreign and security policy is likely to remain consistent.”
The entire tactic, however, relies on the threat of escalation being credible; if the balance of forces is too lopsided, the risk is less acute.
The post-Soviet Russian military was in no shape to combat NATO, and in the wake of the First Gulf War in 1991, Russia’s vast armored fist lacked menace.
Putin’s 2010 overhaul of the military, to be concluded in 2020, set out to turn a mechanized behemoth into a muscular, agile and modern fighting force with effective command and control over integrated combined arms operations.
Furthermore, the Kremlin addressed an imbalance in the sophistication of military technology by expanding the scope of conflict, threatening to shut down America’s power grid via cyber attack, and other branches of hybrid warfare.
The reforms are getting Russia in better shape to confront NATO, and a conflict would exact a much greater cost. Western leaders are therefore far more likely to avoid confrontation.
The mobilization that CSIS discussed was not the mustering of troops with the intention of fighting, but the rallying of Russia’s military to give Putin’s aggressive diplomacy credibility as the Kremlin exerts disproportionate influence on conflicts far beyond Russia’s immediate neighborhood.
So long as Russia continues to be militarily assertive there is always the danger of miscalculation, where NATO finds escalation to be imperative rather than optional. There are indications – as with the shooting down of a Russian jet by Turkey in November 2015 – that in such circumstances Russia would seek to avoid escalation, but to make sure that this is the case Western resolve needs to be clear and credible.
The challenge is to reduce uncertainty by setting out clear lines. President Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his own red lines in Syria, and the West’s brushing over its treaty obligations to Ukraine have undermined confidence to the point where even NATO members are uncertain whether the alliance will respond to Russian aggression against NATO signatories.
Exacerbating the uncertainty is that while Russia can act unilaterally, and therefore quickly, NATO decision making can take upward of three weeks, with a recent Chatham House report noting how “the lack of existential decisions meant that ‘complacency had become the norm’ within NATO headquarters.”
Recent reforms at NATO, and the creation of new forces in Eastern Europe, are an attempt to bolster the alliance’s deterrent credibility. This poses a painful dilemma for Western policy-makers, however.
In chess the fork is a move in which a player threatens two opposing pieces simultaneously, forcing the opponent to decide which he wants to lose. This is the position that NATO finds itself in today. The alliance must establish red lines, but where? The less confrontational approach would be to set those lines at a distance from Russia’s borders, and to acknowledge Putin’s Eurasian "sphere of influence."
This would establish clear limits to Russian influence, and would reduce the likelihood of miscalculation, but giving Putin what he wants would also vindicate Russia’s belligerent approach, and send a terrible message: that military might trumps international law.
The alternative is to state that NATO will stand by its treaty commitments to the utmost, and will continue to strengthen relations with Georgia and Ukraine, which as sovereign states are under no obligation to kowtow to Russian threats. This approach would require clear and substantive responses to incursions of airspace, the presence of "little green men" or serious hybrid provocation.
The danger of this approach is that if Putin is lured into a game of brinkmanship both parties could find themselves dragged over the precipice. Moreover this policy would likely cause NATO to be perceived to be the aggressor, and could vindicate Russia’s claim that NATO is seeking aggressive expansion, thereby ceding ground in the information war to the Kremlin.
The risk of war should not be exaggerated; it is not in the interest of either party. But in an increasingly unstable period, with growing isolationism in the United States and burgeoning military and diplomatic clout in China, Russia and Iran, the potential for escalation should not be dismissed, and complacency and ambiguity exacerbate those dangers.
In chess there are two ways of escaping a fork; putting your opponent in check and so regaining the initiative, or moving one of the threatened pieces so that taking the one left behind becomes too costly. Both of these options may be on the table if NATO is more decisive in defining or pursuing its interests. But so long as Putin continues to test the West’s resolve, the CSIS paper won’t be the last report warning of the potential for catastrophe.
Originally published by Haaretz.
The West decided to make fighting al Qaeda its top priority — and only ended up making things worse.
By Jack Watling and Namir Shabibi
Military training has become a centerpiece of Western counterterrorism and state-building efforts around the world. From Tunisia and Mali to Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. and U.K. personnel are hard at work to professionalize national armed forces and develop specialist counterterrorism units. The thinking is straightforward: an effective military can bolster a troubled state, allow its institutions to function, and secure its countryside to facilitate economic regeneration.
The track record of these programs has been patchy at best, but few have been as disastrous as in Yemen. Eight years of Western training not only failed to build a military that could defend the state, but led to a myopic focus on counterterrorism that accelerated its implosion. The mistakes made in Yemen — where military trainers were deployed without consideration for local political dynamics — provide a clear demonstration of the unintended consequences of a military-centric approach to the war on terror. Throughout the period of U.S. and U.K. military assistance to Yemen, al Qaeda expanded both its territory and membership year on year.
The initial battle against al Qaeda in Yemen was remarkably successful. Between 2001 and 2005, U.K. and U.S. special forces, in conjunction with the Yemeni government, rapidly shut down jihadist training camps and imprisoned al Qaeda leaders. Deeming the mission accomplished, policymakers in Washington and London severely curtailed military assistance to Yemen, and turned their attention to democratization. This infuriated President Saleh, who lost access to considerable funds and opportunities for patronage. Then, in 2006, 23 senior al Qaeda militants escaped from a Yemeni jail. Al Qaeda had returned — and with it came renewed Western military aid.
The response set the worst possible precedent. It effectively tied millions of dollars in aid — and the corresponding support for President Saleh — not to al Qaeda’s elimination, but to its continued presence. From that moment, Yemeni efforts to confront the insurgency lost their previous vigor.
“I went in thinking that we had a reasonable partnership with the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh,” explained Stephen Seche, U.S. Ambassador to Yemen from 2007-2010. “He was an extraordinary manipulator. He was continuously sounding the alarm, [warning] that al Qaeda was encroaching further in territory that was thought to be secured. That captured the imagination of CIA and Department of Defense officials who would go back to Washington with a firm determination to provide more assistance, more training.”
Britain deployed a training team to the capital of Sanaa to work alongside Yemen’s paramilitary Central Security Forces (CSF), and another team to Aden to mentor the coast guard. U.S. trainers were responsible for the Yemeni army and special forces.
The training program was comprehensive, covering weapons skills, logistics, intelligence procedures, and urban and desert warfare maneuvers. “We brought it back to first principles,” one of the British trainers told us. “We started teaching them our targeting cycle: find, fix, finish, exploit and analyze.”
Under British guidance, the CSF set up a Counterterrorism Unit (CTU) and an Intelligence Fusion Center, recruiting the first female section in the Yemeni military to track down al Qaeda fixers and facilitators.
But as the unit expanded, the number of missions undertaken was cut back to around two per month, baffling Western officials. “There was a real reluctance to use them. I never got to the bottom of why,” one officer recalled.
The reason was twofold. In the first place, eradicating al Qaeda would have removed the justification for these units’ existence. The second reason was that the government lacked the political capital to conduct extensive operations across the rural hinterland without coming into conflict with Yemen’s tribal groups, which locally hold much of the political power.
“They very sporadically deployed to some of these sensitive regions and then came back without any permanent presence established,” said Seche.
“The coalition between extremist groups and tribal units made it difficult to fight the terrorists,” said Colonel Yahya Saleh, nephew of then-President Saleh, who commanded the CSF until 2012. “Some tribes sympathized with the terrorists.”
Tribal sympathies not only caused the tribes to oppose the Yemeni military but also caused problems within the CSF. “As soon as they knew they were going [on an operation], the members of the Counterterrorism Unit who had family connections with the target were already on the phone to tell them that they were being scrambled,” one British soldier recalled. “So when the CSF actually got there, the target had done a runner!”
Frustrated by the reluctance of Yemeni units to confront al Qaeda, U.S. and British forces began to conduct their own operations. Initially these were highly secretive. “As soon as they’d done the hit,” explained a British soldier involved in the operations, “they’d scramble the [Yemeni] Counterterrorism Unit, who’d turn up and claim the kill.”
Eventually they moved to more overt intervention. Colonel Saleh said that the limitations of the CSF “meant the Yemeni government had to work with the American drone program.” But this further alienated tribal groups from the central government, and strengthened al Qaeda’s claim to be fighting on the behalf of local people.
“There were mistakes that killed civilians and there was no excuse for them. Al Qaeda would exploit these to recruit angry people,” said Colonel Saleh. “It got out of control, which provoked religious groups to oppose the state and helped to spread extremism.”
It was hoped that humanitarian aid would win over key constituencies. The U.K.’s Department for International Development funded irrigation, Germany worked on archaeological sites to boost tourism, and USAID had a wide-ranging portfolio of projects. But as al Qaeda began to take hostages, many of these programs were stopped, and the rest were relegated to a lower priority than counterterrorism, as it was felt that little could be done so long as it was unsafe for aid workers to leave the capital. “We just found that there was a non-permissive environment, making it difficult for us to move into areas where the development needs were the greatest,” said Seche.
A senior Yemeni diplomat, who wanted to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of ongoing negotiations, noted how tribes would occasionally stir up trouble to get attention from the government to build roads, schools or irrigation. What they increasingly received instead were air strikes.
The myopic focus on counterterrorism blinded Western officials to Yemen’s real crisis, which was first and foremost political. Al Qaeda had a foothold because it was sheltered by tribal groups hostile to the government, not because it was in itself powerful enough to oppose government forces.
For years, President Saleh had been amassing political power for himself, his family, and his allies. Western military training programs only extended this power, allowing him to attack his enemies more forcefully — and thus engendering fiercer opposition. Saleh loyalists were trained at Sandhurst and other Western military academies and given command of units including the CSF and the National Security Bureau, Yemen’s main intelligence agency. Saleh’s family members held these positions before 2006, but by making Western training a benchmark for promotion to senior ranks, and selecting Saleh’s allies to participate, the training programs entrenched their position. As a result, key posts went to people who had the least interest in addressing Yemen’s imbalance of power and resources.
When the Arab Spring swept through Yemen in 2011, threatening Saleh’s 34-year rule, the political loyalties of the Western-trained officers became all too apparent — the British-trained and equipped Public Order Battalion, a subunit of the CSF, set about assaulting demonstrators with gusto. Although British trainers had emphasized rules of engagement and human rights law, and tried to train the CSF to control rather than to confront crowds, this advice was politely received and rejected.
Eventually, some military units began to take up the cause of the demonstrators. Alarmed at the deteriorating security situation, the British and the Americans encouraged Saleh to agree to a deal negotiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council in which he would leave office, so long as he could stay in Yemen. In February 2012 the former vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, took power at the head of a transitional government.
That government was riven by infighting within Yemen’s military and political elite, even as it presided over an economic catastrophe. Senior officers were chased from their posts, opportunities to dismiss Saleh loyalists were taken, and clashes broke out between different units of the Yemeni military. But at a time when the government was most in need of good relations and support from tribal groups, 2012 saw a massive escalation in the Western campaign of direct strikes against al Qaeda, which led to a rapidly growing list of civilian casualties.
Western efforts in Yemen remained tightly focused on counterterrorism. Few resources were reallocated from the counterterrorism program to supporting the political transition. Stephen Seche, by then back in Washington, noted how “there were fires running all over the region from Tunisia to Libya, to Egypt, to Syria and if there was any prospect of a process in Yemen not requiring the fire brigades to go rushing in, we would say fine, let the Yemenis sort this out.”
What emerged — the U.N.-led National Dialogue Conference — achieved little in terms of distributing power or mending the rift between the government and tribal groups. Shortly afterwards, the Houthis, a Zaydi Shia political movement, went into revolt, supported by tribes allied to former President Saleh. In September 2014, they drove the government from the capital, precipitating the collapse of the Yemeni state.
Throughout this period, CSF personnel — who were highly skilled and well equipped, having been drilled for eight years by U.K. and U.S. trainers — remained in their barracks, entirely impotent. They were unable to act, not because they could not fight, or lacked weapons, but because it was politically impossible to deploy them, as their command was divided between Yemen’s vying political factions.
Washington and London had sought to increase training and assistance to the bitter end, but without political reform, it had been rendered entirely useless. Today, al Qaeda is in direct control of a large swathe of southern Yemen and is no longer entirely dependent on its tribal allies.
The futility of the Western training program is reflected in the bitter recollection of some British personnel who took part. One lamented the fact that “most of the guys we were mentoring are dead now. There are two who I know are working for Yemeni headquarters in Saudi, but the rest of them are dead.”
“What happened in Yemen,” explained another British official, “was just a lot of money spent, a lot of time wasted, and nothing whatsoever was achieved.”
In the photo, members of Yemen’s counterterrorism unit train in a suburb of Sanaa on July 7, 2007. Photo credit: KHALED FAZAA/AFP/Getty Images
Originally published by Foreign Policy on 18 May 2016.
By Namir Shabibi and Jack Watling
"I was on my way to play football with my friends when the airstrike hit," Amin Ali al-Wisabi told VICE News, recounting the day when a CIA drone struck his hometown of Azzan in Yemen. "We had stopped to sit down and plan the match when all of a sudden an explosion hit a passing al-Qaeda car."
Recovering from his shock, 13-year-old Amin realized he had been hit by shrapnel. "Blood was pouring from my leg."
Next to Amin, his friend Hamza Khaled Baziyad lay unconscious. In total, five children aged between 10 and 14 were injured as they gathered close to the local mosque.
Though the number of people injured in covert US strikes is not officially recorded, they play a crucial role in the struggle for hearts and minds across Yemen's southern hinterland. Bystanders and family rushed the children to a local clinic, where Hamza awoke while shrapnel was extracted from his chest. All of the children survived.
The targeted car as it continues to burn following the CIA drone attack in Azzan on March 30, 2012. (Photo by Ayman al-Bariki)
Representatives of Ansar al-Sharia — al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP) political wing — would later visit the children, bringing candy and 100,000 Yemeni riyals each (then worth $465). The militants also swore to take revenge on the families' behalf, tapping into the Yemeni tradition of blood feud.
Saleh Muhammed al-Sunna, a 55-year-old pedestrian on his way to Azzan's vegetable market, was just 15 meters (50 feet) from the targeted vehicle. The intensity of the blast tore his body to pieces. Days later Ansar al-Sharia gave his family 200,000 riyals.
"The deaths of innocent bystanders has a moral dimension but also a huge strategic dimension in cultures which have a very strong sense of honor," said British MP David Davis, chair of the UK's All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drones. "It will make the problem worse."
The Azzan strike, on March 30, 2012, is clear proof of the risk. "We were devastated by the news of Saleh's death," said Abdelhakim al-Hadad, al-Sunna's cousin. "We would have done anything to avenge his death. America and Britain are the ones who deprived our family of its breadwinner."
The ID card and portrait of Saleh Muhammed al-Sunna, who was killed by the drone strike while on his way to buy vegetables. Witnesses found his body in pieces. (Photo by Abdelhakim al-Hadad)
The target of the strike was Ahmed Said Saad, who five Azzan residents described to VICE News as a Syrian doctor and a member of Ansar al-Sharia. Documents from GCHQ, Britain's signals intelligence agency, leaked by Edward Snowden, described Saad using the codename "Khalid Usama," as part of a group of radical surgeons working for AQAP.
According to another account, Saad is believed to have worked with bomb maker Ibrahim al-Asiri to surgically implant undetectable explosives in would-be suicide bombers.
Al-Asiri had already experimented with inserting explosives into the anal cavity but found that the volume of explosives that could be held there struggled to project through the body. Instead he moved on to producing explosives to be placed in the potential suicide bomber's "love handles."
Earlier that day, Saad gave a talk seven miles down the road in the town of al-Houta in Shabwa governorate. As a VICE News investigation revealed, the doctor was found by an agent working for Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6) who tagged his vehicle, allowing it to be picked up by the Overhead program — a surveillance network run by the US, UK, and Australia integrating satellite imagery with digital and telephonic communications.
The Overhead program, of which GCHQ is a part, then informed the CIA, who sought corroboration of the target's location from officers at Yemen's National Security Bureau (NSB), who SIS agents were mentoring, before routing a drone to intercept the car. It is likely GCHQ was tracking Saad as part of the program, before passing on the information for the strike. As a former senior CIA official responsible for operations in Yemen explained: "The sharing there was very, very extensive... particularly with the Brits. There was very clear coordination and cooperation."
Although Saad's 4x4 was in open ground on its short journey, the Reaper drone tracking his vehicle did not fire until the car entered Azzan, a town of approximately 10,000 people. The CIA drone unleashed a Hellfire missile as the vehicle passed by a vegetable market near a mosque in the western district of Azzan's inner town. The two militants were killed instantly.
The proximity of al-Sunna, only 15 meters from the blast, and the shrapnel injuries to five children in a populated area raise questions about the CIA's rules of engagement. US military documents leaked to The Intercept in 2015 show that one condition required before a strike is that there is a "low" risk of collateral damage, as determined by a pre-strike Collateral Damage Environment (CDE) assessment.
"CDE-Low," according to US rules of engagement guidelines, means that no civilian should be within the "kill radius" of the strike, which for a Hellfire missile is 15-20 meters from the point of detonation. The strike is deemed to be CDE-Low if civilians are within the "casualty radius," the area within which there is a risk of shrapnel injury. While the five children were within the casualty radius of the strike, al-Sunna was within the kill radius, suggesting that the CIA did not conform to the US military's rules of engagement.
The attack also raises questions in Britain about the legality of SIS' intelligence sharing, which was critical to the find-and-fix phase of Saad's assassination. UK rules of engagement require that there is no risk of collateral damage according to the pre-strike CDE, either within the kill or casualty radius of the strike.
"Where the British state knows the intelligence will lead to an assassination, we ought to be confident that it meets our own rules and guidelines, by which I mean laws," Davis, the UK MP, told VICE News.
SIS shared the targeting information because Saad's name was added to a shared kill list by President Barack Obama. At the time, the addition sparked debates within the US intelligence community. According to Daniel Klaidman, author of Kill or Capture, several US intelligence officials were skeptical of Saad's involvement in al-Asiri's work. There were also concerns about the implications of targeting doctors.
But as one former senior CIA official, responsible for operations in Yemen, told VICE News, al-Asiri was undoubtedly "among the most dangerous threats to Western nations." By extension that included his acolytes and, once Obama had ruled on Saad's fate, the CIA and SIS were cleared to engage.
That they eventually did so inside a densely populated town alarmed many of Azzan's residents. Mohsen Hassan Salem, who took his injured nephew Amin for treatment in the provincial capital of al-Mukalla some 140 miles away, told VICE News that "the family really struggled" to meet the $1,500 cost of treatment. "They could've hit them on open road, away from a built-up area. Why didn't they do that?"
Nearly a year after the strike, the CIA arranged for $50,000 in freshly minted dollar bills to be paid to al-Sunna's family via the NSB, Yemen's principal intelligence agency. But they never compensated the children. This is only the second publicized case of secret CIA condolence payments.
A spokesman for the White House's National Security Council told VICE News: "Although we will not comment on specific cases, were non-combatants killed or injured in a US strike, condolence or other ex gratia payments, such as solatia, may be available for those injured and the families of those killed."
But the CIA's gesture was likely too little too late. By then AQAP had already twice visited the injured children to pay condolences, bringing 50,000 riyals on each occasion and promising revenge on their behalf. The CIA's cash delivery was not accompanied by any recognition of its mistake or apology. The NSB official who handed al-Sunna's family representative the money suggested but never conceded that the money had come from "the Americans."
Al-Hadad, authorized to represent the family, said that in exchange for receiving the cash, the NSB official demanded he bring a signed declaration from the family stating that they would forfeit any legal recourse. The encounter with the NSB was cold, he said. "It was as if a sheep had been slaughtered, nothing more."
The Yemeni government has long struggled to maintain a strong presence outside of Sanaa, and such interactions engendered hostility among the local population, making them less willing to provide information about al-Qaeda, and even sympathize with the jihadist cause. Since 2011, Azzan has been regularly occupied by AQAP militants, who once again took the town last February.
Professor Jillian Schwedler, of City University of New York, recently wrote that historically Yemen's Islamists saw no place for jihadists in the country's politics. But the secret war in Yemen, now in its 15th year, helped change that. "For al-Qaeda, the drone program is a gift from the heavens. Its recruiting narrative exploits common misperceptions of American omnipotence, offering an alternative route to justice and empowerment," she noted.
The British government has never publicly admitted involvement in the US' covert war in Yemen. Moreover, in 2013, UK Ambassador to Yemen Jane Marriot categorically stated: "We don't support any form of extrajudicial killing." But, as a VICE News investigation revealed, British SIS officers and seconded military personnel provided systematic and sustained support for the CIA strikes in Yemen. And in Saad's case, British intelligence was crucial to his assassination.
VICE News put its findings to the CIA, GCHQ, and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which represents SIS, but all declined to comment.
Letta Tayler, senior counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch, commented: "When AQAP does a better job than the US government at providing redress for civilian deaths in US drone strikes, the Obama administration should realize it has a serious problem."
"These allegations raise serious questions about the role the UK is playing in Washington's legally dubious drone program, The UK should immediately make public any role it played in US drone strikes in Yemen, and explain the basis for these actions under international law."
Originally published by VICE News.
By Namir Shabibi and Jack Watling
In a rural valley in southern Yemen lies Wadi Rafad, a collection of farms 50 miles from the provincial capital of Ataq. Amid an arid landscape dotted with lemon orchards and cornfields, villagers were used to the peace being disturbed by the buzzing of US drones flying overhead. But on the afternoon of May 6, 2012, something changed.
Around 4.30pm an aircraft came into view, its white fuselage clearly visible against the stark blue sky. Rather than overfly the valley, the CIA drone fired Hellfire missiles straight at Fahd al-Quso, who was working his land. He was killed instantly — but shrapnel from the blast also engulfed Nasser Salim Lakdim, a 19-year-old student who had just returned home to tend his family's plantation. Nasser's father came rushing back to the farm to find his son in pieces. "It was horrifying, I can barely describe it," he told VICE News.
The strike was among the foremost successes of the US counterterrorism effort in Yemen. Al-Quso, its target, was a senior field commander in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). He had participated in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and had threatened to attack American embassies.
It was also an example of successful cooperation between British and American intelligence agencies. The US had hunted al-Quso for half a decade, and the intelligence that led to this strike came from a British agent working for the UK's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) — commonly known as MI6 — who had infiltrated AQAP.
Far from being a one-off tip, a VICE News investigation can exclusively reveal that this was a high point in systemic collaboration between SIS and the CIA to degrade AQAP through a combination of special forces operations and drone strikes.
A former senior CIA official responsible for operations in Yemen told VICE News that "the most important contribution" to the intelligence for the strike came from "a very important British capability." The UK agent provided the CIA with al-Quso's position, allowing a drone to track his car. "That was quite unique," the former official explained, "it was something we didn't have."
The use of drones in Yemen has long been characterized as a unilateral US policy. In response to a 2014 parliamentary question on Britain's role in the US drone program, UK Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hugh Robertson said: "Drone strikes against terrorist targets in Yemen are a matter for the Yemeni and US governments."
However, following interviews with more than two dozen current and former British, American, and Yemeni officials, VICE News can reveal that the UK played a crucial and sustained role with the CIA in finding and fixing targets, assessing the effect of strikes, and training Yemeni intelligence agencies to locate and identify targets for the US drone program. The US-led covert war in Yemen, now in its 15th year, has killed up to 1,651 people, including up to 261 civilians, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
"The involvement of the British state is something that the government ought to make plain to parliament," David Davis MP, chair of the UK's All-Party Parliamentary Group on drones, told VICE News. "If we know we're handing intelligence over which will be used in a killing then we ought to be confident that it meets our own rules and guidelines. If there are deaths of civilians there's a moral and legal problem."
Nasser was not the first unintended casualty in strikes targeting al-Quso. The strike on Rafad was the fourth attempt and collectively these killed 32 people. US military documents published by The Intercept in 2015 cite a sample study of strikes in Afghanistan where almost nine out of 10 people killed were never identified, casting doubt on the robustness of methods for establishing a positive identification of the target.
THE RISE OF AQAP
The Western counterterrorism effort in Yemen began in 2001. UK and US intelligence agencies identified al-Qaeda training camps in Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland and US Central Command requested that the UK's Special Air Service (SAS) be on standby to conduct "stiletto" attacks — or precision raids — to destroy the camps. The following year, the CIA carried out its first drone strike against al-Qaeda in Yemen.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh proved an enthusiastic ally, and most of al-Qaeda's leaders were soon killed or captured. Saleh expected to be rewarded with US help in defeating a rebellion by the Houthis; a political movement dominated by Zaydi Shia Muslims. Instead he got encouragements to introduce democracy and tackle corruption, while military aid was slashed.
Weeks after an angry Saleh returned from meetings in the US in 2006, two dozen al-Qaeda suspects escaped from a maximum-security prison in what Gregory Johnsen, an expert commentator on Yemen, described as AQAP's "genesis moment." In response, military aid was restored, and UK and US trainers were deployed to mentor Yemen's counterterrorism forces.
Britain sent two teams: a Maritime Training and Advisory Team of Royal Marines and Navy personnel, tasked with training Yemen's coastguard to tackle smuggling and piracy, and a Counterterrorism Training Advisory Team, initially made up of special forces, deployed to bolster Yemen's Central Security Forces (CSF), a paramilitary unit run by President Saleh's nephew, Colonel Yahya Saleh.
"It was the British who pushed the Americans to work with us," Colonel Saleh told VICE News. "They provided live ammunition training, ops preparation and information gathering. They helped to set up the Intelligence Fusion Center."
Operating in a dangerous environment, the trainers sought to maintain a low profile. Colonel Saleh described the UK trainers as highly secretive: "They stipulated that we couldn't take their photos, or mention their names; even when we were honoring the American trainers the British avoided having their names mentioned."
But the CSF faced major problems in operating outside Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. Khalid Ahmed al-Radhi, then a contractor with US special forces and a close ally of President Saleh, noted that "these special forces, they take years [to train], it is not something you can get in one year."
Stephen Seche, US ambassador to Yemen between 2007 and 2010, said "it took an awful lot of work to get [Yemeni special forces] into a more effective counterterrorism force." Basic logistical issues and political rivalries hampered attempts to intercept al-Qaeda suspects. "That forced us to go back and reassess to what extent we put Yemeni forces out in front." In many cases, US special forces would take the lead.
British forces also, on occasion, took the lead. In Sanaa, the British training team was living in a team house, moved every six months for security reasons, with a permanent medic. However, according to UK military personnel who served in Yemen, some rooms were kept empty for "temporary visitors" — British special forces who were flown in for short missions. Due to the low profile maintained by the British trainers, these teams could avoid drawing attention.
Some "visitors" were described as taking part in "hits," or missions to kill-or-capture AQAP fixers and facilitators. "If they were coming to do a hit, they would come in, do their thing, and then disappear again," recalled one British soldier. But these methods could only be used close to Sanaa, and on a small scale. While operations to capture fixers were valuable for intelligence, they could not counter the growing threat posed by AQAP.
AQAP continued to expand both its membership and its capabilities. In 2007, the group added to its ranks Ibrahim al-Asiri who would earn a reputation as a master bomb maker after finding a foot soldier to trial his latest invention. This militant, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attempted to detonate explosives in his briefs on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 above Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. The detonator failed, but al-Qaeda and the "Underwear Bomber" had almost claimed 290 lives.
US President Barack Obama then admitted that there had been a "systemic failure" of the nation's security apparatus. Under pressure to act, American security agencies flooded Yemen with intelligence resources. In January 2010, General David Petraeus, then the head of US Central Command responsible for Yemen, met President Saleh in Sanaa, who agreed that the Americans should deploy drones to help increase the precision of operations, following a devastating US cruise missile attack on a Bedouin encampment in al-Majala in 2009, when 45 civilians — including 12 women and 22 children — were killed.
The UK government also reacted with concern. Abdulmutallab had lived in Britain for three years while studying at University College London, where he was president of the Islamic Society. Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised an expansion of UK support to Yemen.
Underscoring the seriousness of the threat, al-Asiri was then implicated in the creation of two "undetectable" bombs placed on international cargo planes. Both bombs were intercepted on October 29, 2010 — one at the UK's East Midlands airport, the other in Dubai. Later that day, Sir John Sawers, chief of SIS, made his first-ever public speech in which he identified Yemen as one of three "real threats," concluding: "Our intelligence effort needs to go where the threat is."
THE HUNT FOR TARGETS
Operating in Yemen presented innumerable challenges. Seche explained that the risks were often too high to operate in the field, adding: "I'm frustrated to this day that we lost opportunities, because I didn't want to call Washington and say we lost lives today."
Networks of human intelligence — sources on the ground — were therefore invaluable in locating targets, and this is where the British came in. "The defense attaché of the British embassy was much more active than the American. He was meeting with everybody," recalled al-Radhi. "If you know Yemen, people act differently when you chew qat [a stimulant plant] with them; they get used to you and they start opening up. The British got closer to people."
A former colleague describes the defense attaché as going "totally native. He was chewing qat three or four days a week. But the Yemenis loved him for it."
The defense attaché was not involved in intelligence work, but he illustrates some of the skills that Britain brought to the counterterrorism effort. The SIS team in Yemen was by all accounts highly effective. "The British have been in Gulf states for decades. They have a reservoir of knowledge, contacts, and expertise that is very important," a former senior CIA official, responsible for operations in Yemen, explained. "If you look at what capabilities each side has, that starts to tell you something about precisely where the actionable intelligence is coming from."
One British official, working in an intelligence capacity, was more blunt: "Our station people were pretty shit-hot."
The Americans valued Britain's connections and networks of human intelligence, but the British also wanted to be involved in American operations to learn about potential threats to the UK. A former senior Yemeni diplomat said: "The British wanted to know every arcane detail because Britain had become a target. For that reason, Britain had to take part on an operational level... but they didn't want it to be known."
The operational level included drone strikes, for which British sources fed into the hunt for targets. Seche explained: "We had a targeting list with names that we could pursue." He described working with UK officers as, "very collaborative, and it was very useful for both [Britain and America] to sit and help triangulate what we were hearing from our different sources."
"If we are providing explicit intelligence to identify individuals who we know the Americans are going to go and kill by drone strike then that's a kill list," David Davis MP told VICE News.
Once SIS or the CIA had identified a target, they would collaborate on preparing a Target Package — outlining the actionable intelligence — and the CIA would request permission to strike from Ammar Saleh, deputy director at the Yemeni National Security Bureau (NSB), its principal intelligence agency.
Al-Radhi explained that the NSB would try to corroborate the intelligence: "The Americans would say we have a target. People from the NSB wouldn't give permission until they contacted their people on the ground and confirmed what the Americans said."
The British also played a key role here. US, UK, and Yemeni military and diplomatic sources confirmed that British personnel worked in a Joint Operations Room at the NSB, assisting in intelligence gathering. Ali al-Ahmadi, NSB director between 2012-2015, told VICE News that, "SIS co-operated with us a lot in mentoring our surveillance team, which prepares for raids and arrests, observation of targets, and fixing them. That was really one of the reasons for the success of the NSB."
Al-Ahmadi confirmed that UK mentoring was both "theoretical and operational" and that "the surveillance teams were a British specialism."
British personnel serving in Yemen confirmed that two of the trainers were operators from the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (a special forces unit), who had been seconded to SIS. This made their presence deniable by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD), which said in a 2014 statement to human rights NGO Reprieve: "The UK does not provide any military support to the US campaign of Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) strikes on Yemen."
The secondment allowed British military personnel to assist with the drone program, but under the aegis of intelligence operations managed by the FCO.
Three other trainers were SIS intelligence officers. In addition to the NSB they helped to train Yemen's Political Security Organization (PSO), the country's secret police, in surveillance, communications, and intelligence-gathering — all of which helped to establish positive identifications of targets before drone strikes. The PSO has been implicated in systemic human rights abuses.
Parallel to SIS efforts, British military trainers were responsible for training the Yemeni Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU), including setting up their surveillance section and an Intelligence Fusion Center, used to manage networks of sources and analyze intelligence gathered during hits on AQAP fixers. The CTU included a unit of women, who specialized in surveillance. CIA officers would visit the Fusion Center on a weekly basis to collect its product.
Just how many strikes occurred as a result of intelligence provided by SIS remains a closely guarded secret. However, British human intelligence, including the agent who provided the information leading to the strike on al-Quso, played a prominent role in the hunt for the master bomb maker al-Asiri. In this they collaborated closely with Saudi Arabia.
Mustafa Alani, a director at the Gulf Research Institute, who has close ties to the Saudi Interior Ministry, told VICE News that the SIS agent involved in the strike that killed al-Quso was also crucial in eight additional missions. He was "able to help electronic identification of the targets," said Alani, allowing SIS and the CIA to match cell phones and other electronic devices to names on the list of targets. "None of these operations could be successful without that."
The usual process, as Abubakr al-Qirbi — Yemen's foreign minister between 2000 and 2014 — explained, was that the British would help with "tracking and informants would say that Mr. X is moving from one place to the other. They would pass it to the Americans and the American drone would try to follow the target."
A former senior CIA official would not confirm the number but conceded that the same SIS agent was involved in multiple strikes. VICE News has established that civilians were killed in at least two of these strikes; one of which targeted al-Quso.
The second strike, based on intelligence provided by the same British agent, killed a doctor who is referred to in GCHQ documents leaked by Edward Snowden as "Khalid Usama... who pioneered using surgically implanted explosives." A disciple of al-Asiri, the target was believed to be part of a concerted AQAP effort to develop an explosive that could be placed inside a human body and walked onto aircraft without alerting security.
That strike took place on March 30, 2012. A Reaper fired three Hellfire missiles at a car that it had been tracking, killing the AQAP surgeon and a fellow militant, as well as a civilian bystander — 60-year-old Saleh Muhammed Saleh al-Sunna — and injuring six children.
Nabeel Khoury, US deputy chief of mission in Sanaa from 2004 to 2007, wrote in 2013 that, "Drone strikes take out a few bad guys to be sure, but they also kill a large number of innocent civilians. Given Yemen's tribal structure, the US generates roughly 40 to 60 new enemies for every AQAP operative killed by drones."
David Davis concurred: "Killing people from a clear sky who are guilty of nothing is a very fast way of signing up a lot of people to our enemies."
Jennifer Gibson, staff attorney at human rights NGO Reprieve, which represents the family of Nasser Salim, killed in the strike targeting al-Quso, said: "For years, the British government has denied any involvement in the US's covert drone war in Yemen, saying it's 'a matter for the states involved.' It's now beyond dispute the UK is one of those states — working hand in glove with the Americans to create the very kill list that drives those strikes. Even more disturbing, the UK has copied wholesale the US model of outsourcing the military to the intelligence agencies in order to hide their involvement and avoid any accountability."
In 2011 — one year into the escalated drone offensive — Yemen was thrown into turmoil by the Arab Spring, weakening Saleh's 34-year grip on power. With demonstrations in Sanaa, British military trainers were withdrawn. Although SIS remained active, and the drone campaign continued, the disintegration of central control allowed AQAP to wrest control of Abyan and Shabwa provinces from government forces.
Under pressure from the US and UK, President Saleh agreed to hand over the reins to his deputy, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, on condition that he could stay in Yemen. When President Hadi was sworn into office in February 2012 Yemen was riven by internal political feuding in the face of an expanding jihadist insurgency and a poverty rate of 54.5 percent. Desperate to regain full control Hadi gave permission for over 100 US Navy, Marines, and Army personnel to set up in al-Anad airbase. Whereas Saleh had told General Petraeus that "you must stay in the joint operations room... out of sight," Hadi gave the US more freedom to engage AQAP openly.
The effect was immediate. In 2012 alone the US launched almost twice as many special operations attacks in Yemen as they had over the previous decade. Abubakr al-Qirbi — who served as foreign minister under both Hadi and Saleh — accused Hadi of giving the US and UK a "blank check."
The security crisis also prompted the relaxation of the rules of engagement. Seche, by then back in Washington, explained that "there was a sense that AQAP was metastasizing and therefore we should broaden the target base and move down into mid-level operatives."
The subsequent targeting process of "signature striking" proved to be the most controversial aspect of the drone program. Rather than hitting identified targets, US drones began to fire on unidentified groups engaging in "suspicious" activity, arising from observed patterns of behavior — or signatures — by military-aged males. Former US, British, and Yemeni officials all told VICE News that these strikes targeted AQAPs moneymen, couriers, and fixers.
Seche commented that this "made us all very uneasy... it is hard to corroborate... and it is very risky because you can get into miscalculations and really get into civilian casualties."
On August 29, 2012, a CIA drone fired on five men sitting by a car at the edge of Khashamir village in eastern Yemen. One was a local policeman. Another, Salem bin Ali Jaber, was a local preacher who regularly denounced al-Qaeda in his sermons. The other three were unknown to locals.
For the British these strikes were unacceptable. Michael Stephens, a Middle East research fellow at the Royal United Service Institute, told VICE News that, "our rules of engagement are tighter than the US, and I would say these very difficult interpretations of what constitutes a combatant and what doesn't are where we can find a disagreement with the Americans. Our involvement is very much in an intelligence supporting role."
As a result of the shift in tactics, British military personnel were informed that they could no longer collaborate with the US on intelligence sharing. According to a British official familiar with the program, when military trainers returned to Yemen in early 2012, they were told that "all the routine intelligence sharing... we couldn't do because of the drone program and our requirement for counterterrorism rule of law."
Once again they were working with Yemen's CSF, but were reduced to four personnel and a liaison from the FCO counterterrorism team. Rather than working from a team house, they were billeted in the Sheraton Hotel in Sanaa, were not allowed to join Yemeni forces in the field, and were banned from carrying weapons.
However these rules did not apply to SIS, who are overseen by the FCO, or to special forces seconded to SIS. The strike targeting al-Quso occurred after the shift to signature striking, and SIS continued to find and fix targets for the drone program throughout this period, according to British, American and Yemeni officials. British special forces operators also continued to mentor Yemen's intelligence agencies.
A British official noted that, "once they are seconded, the MoD loses any control over what they get up to." This allowed the MoD to remain in compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights, while British troops were nonetheless used to assist in the assassination of targets.
Dr. Emile Nakhleh, a former senior officer in the CIA who set up the agency's Political Islam Center and testified before Congress on the Underwear Bomber, emphasized that the UK and US had "disagreements over procedures rather than strategic objectives" and that "the UK's role has been pretty critical" in the counterterrorism campaign in Yemen.
Body bags of the five men killed by a CIA drone strike in Khashamir, including an anti-AQAP imam and policeman. (Photo by Faisal bin Ali Jaber via Reprieve)
By 2014, however, those strategic objectives were thrown into confusion by the unraveling of the Yemeni state. Unimpressed by the reforms proposed by President Hadi, the Houthis rebelled once more, and with the counterterrorism effort focused on al-Qaeda made rapid gains. Military trainers were withdrawn. By September, Sanaa fell and the government was exiled, first to Aden, then out of the country as the Houthis continued to push south. In the confusion, AQAP expanded its territory, taking over al-Mukalla, a major provincial capital.
Saleh too made a comeback, allying with the Houthis to regain a grip on Sanaa. Expressing his frustration at events, Seche said the "idea [had been] to provide economic support to allow Hadi to strengthen his position... We should have seen that Saleh was just going to use that as an opportunity to come in here and throw a monkey wrench into everything we were trying to do."
With the withdrawal of the embassies and collapse of governmental structures, many of the networks of human intelligence fell away, and in early 2015 US special forces abandoned their listening post at al-Anad airbase. The US drone program is still active, made easier by AQAP holding identified territory. British intelligence sharing also continues, said Ali al-Ahmadi, former head of the NSB.
However Britain has failed to persuade Saudi Arabia, which intervened at the head of a coalition of Gulf States in Yemen in March 2015, to target AQAP. The coalition air campaign has principally targeted the Houthis and forces loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh. The bombing campaign has devastated towns and cities, and led to a humanitarian crisis.
Even when the drone campaign was at its peak intelligence capacity, mistakes were common. Numerous strikes targeting AQAP leaders actually hit unidentified individuals and the criteria for establishing a positive identification were shown to be far from watertight. In the absence of human intelligence, capabilities are greatly reduced. Meanwhile the laws surrounding the sharing and use of intelligence by allied governments are entirely opaque.
Responding to the VICE News' investigation, an FCO spokesperson said: "We have previously provided counter-terrorism capacity building support to the Yemeni security services to increase their ability to disrupt, detain, and prosecute suspected terrorists in line with Yemeni rule of law and international human rights standards. Following the closure of the Embassy in Sanaa in February 2015 we suspended this activity. We continue to work with regional and international partners to tackle the threat posed by terrorist organizations including AQAP and Daesh-Yemen [using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group] and to build regional capacity on counterterrorism."
An MoD spokesperson said: "The MoD does not comment on special forces operations, or intelligence matters."
British MP Harriet Harman — chair of the UK's Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights — emphasized the need to clarify the rules for intelligence sharing. "We must look at governance where we hand intelligence to others, such as the US, leading to a strike," she told an audience at the Royal United Service Institute conference on drones in November 2015. "We are culpable in that process."
Jack Watling and Paul Raymond
The U.N. mission in Mali is mistaking aggrieved cattle-herders and bandits on motorbikes for an Islamist menace. Here’s why it matters that they get it right.
BAMAKO, Mali — On Friday, November 20, two gunmen attacked the Radisson Blu hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako, taking 170 hostages and killing 19 before security forces stormed the building.
Three years after Al Qaeda-linked fighters overran northern Mali, the country is ravaged by terrorism. In spite of a French counter-insurgency operation, U.N. peacekeepers, and a peace agreement signed this summer between the government and Tuareg separatists, attacks plague communities from north to south. The Radisson is the highest-profile target to date. Two Islamist groups immediately claimed joint responsibility: Algerian-led Al Mourabitoun and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
But two days later, a third group — the Macina Liberation Front (known by its French acronym, FLM) — declared that it had carried out the attack. Based in Mali’s central region, east of Mopti, this little-known group has been conducting small-scale raids on police stations and assassinating local officials since early 2015. It is believed that most of its fighters are disadvantaged Fulani, a mostly nomadic, cattle-herding people spread across west and central Africa.
There were good reasons to doubt the FLM’s claim. The group said there were five gunmen rather than two, and hostages described the attackers as speaking English — more likely for foreign jihadists than for impoverished Fulani. Nevertheless, Mali’s President announced the following Monday that “it is the FLM who are behind this,” pledging to defeat terrorism.
Despite the discrepancies, the narrative gained traction, with journalists making fantastic claims about the group’s reach. Newsweek labeled the FLM “Mali’s Boko Haram,” comparing an inchoate collective of bandits on motorbikes to the world’s deadliest Islamic insurgency. According to a Jamestown Foundation report, the FLM has up to 4,000 fighters and “represents a new militant trend in southern Mali.” Residents of Mopti find such assertions overblown.
“I call that propaganda,” said Mamadou Bocoum, director of a radio station in the city, who has reported on dozens of attacks attributed to the FLM. “They open fire, then disappear into the bush,” he said.
“All the attacks they have carried out were done by a maximum of six people. They’ve never made it to seven.”
To the uninitiated, these claims and counterclaims might seem like hairsplitting. But behind the dispute over the nature of this new terrorist group lies an important cautionary tale about the so-called “war on terror.” Rushing to attribute a global agenda to groups that are primarily motivated by local grievances can boomerang, spurring radicalization and escalating violence against civilians. The FLM is just such a case.
While the FLM does get guns from Ansar Dine, one of the largest jihadist groups in Mali, analysts familiar with the central region warn that the FLM’s membership is a nebulous group of young bandits and dispossessed cattle herders motivated by poverty and local concerns. Only a minority of its members have been radicalized — and stemming the violence necessitates negotiation, not repression. Some experts warn that treating them all like jihadists is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, pushing local insurgents to seek support and solidarity with jihadist groups pushing internationalist agendas.
Rumors of a new jihadi movement around Mopti began to circulate in early 2015 following a wave of shootings, assassinations and attacks on state infrastructure. The violence grabbed the attention of MINUSMA, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, set up after French and Malian forces liberated the north in 2013 to provide security, protect civilians, and restore state authority. The attacks around Mopti were alarming because, until that point, the central region had been relatively stable. Many began to speculate about a new jihadist insurgency.
“No one knew what was happening,” recalled Aurelien Tobie, who at the time was an analyst with the EU’s delegation in Bamako.
But in January 2015 a declaration in Al-Akhbar, a Mauritanian news outlet that regularly publishes statements by jihadist groups, announced the formation of the FLM. The announcement said the group, led by Amadou Koufa, a radical cleric, was dedicated to the resurrection of the Macina Empire: a nineteenth-century theocracy that spanned central Mali.
That answer, as Tobie notes, seemed to confirm fears that the tendrils of global jihad had penetrated Malian society. MINUSMA staff cited the declaration in their briefings. “Decision-makers arrived at meetings with briefings claiming that there was a new Islamist movement,” said Tobie.
“Even though there was only one source, the number of briefings made it seem like there was more.” Soon any attack in the central region was being attributed to this new jihadist group, creating a feedback loop that reinforced the false narrative. The attacks were real, but they were presented as evidence of an organized group linked to Al Qaeda.
The problem, according to Tobie, is that “that wasn’t what was happening.”
Among the diplomatic community in Bamako, Tobie was known as “Mr. Mopti” for his extensive contacts among the Fulani in Mali’s central region. By June 2015, he had conducted a survey of community leaders that painted a very different picture of the recent attacks. Many Fulani are nomadic cattle herders who pay wealthier landowners for grazing rights. The government and NGOs concentrate services on the fixed settlements, which primarily benefits the landowners, and has caused resentment among herding communities. Tobie found that the attacks attributed to the FLM were actually carried out by Fulani cattle herders against the Fulani land-owning elite and the Malian government over pastoral rights and political representation. The alleged jihadist agenda was, in this reading, an afterthought.
In 2012, Fulani landowners feared that Ansar Dine and other jihadist groups would push south into their lands, and armed local herders to defend them. But after the jihadists were driven back, the herders kept their guns and started to demand more rights. “So members of the upper class started grassing on people, telling the government that they had collaborated with jihadists,” Tobie explained.
Following the denunciations from local landowners, the state attempted to stamp out what it perceived to be a jihadist insurgency. It implemented a crackdown that Human Rights Watch claims involved “physical and psychological abuse — notably death threats, torture, and denial of food, water, and medical care.” The army moved into communities and seized Fulani who were suspected of being jihadists. Herders who felt that the government was persecuting them retaliated by turning their weapons against informants, the army and peacekeepers.
“When you look at the attacks, they are directed against members of the Fulani elite, and against symbols of state authority,” Tobie said.
“The FLM haven’t tried to establish sharia or other trademarks of Islamist movements.”
As the violence escalated, the herders found that they needed more weapons. Fulani landowners were no longer willing to supply them. Amadou Koufa, a radical local preacher who was close to the leadership of Ansar Dine, saw an opportunity. If Ansar Dine provided cash and guns, the FLM would carry out attacks under the black flag of jihad. It was a marriage of convenience: the FLM got arms to continue their fight with the government, and Ansar Dine could use the FLM in propaganda as the Malian face of jihad. While this did not mean that the FLM were all now jihadists, it confirmed the government’s simple narrative that the country faced a jihadist insurgency that needed to be crushed by force.
But a lot of the violence attributed to the FLM is simply banditry. Some suspected FLM militants captured in the spring didn’t seem to known which group they were fighting for. Taking advantage of the region’s instability, Ansar Dine has been known to hire bandits to carry out raids for $160 — another reason the jihadists’ presence seems larger than it really is.
As long as the relationship between Ansar Dine and the FLM persists, there will be continued opportunities for radicalization. Some FLM members have already taken on the jihadist ideology of their more extremist partners. This is reflected in a minority of attacks that bear a closer resemblance to attacks by other jihadist groups. In August, the FLM claimed an attack on a hotel in Sévaré, near Mopti, killing 13 people, including four MINUSMA contractors.
This has further convinced the government that the only way to solve the FLM problem is by force. On November 16, the Malian army announced it had arrested a key financier of the movement, based on local denunciations. But many fear this approach will exacerbate the problem.
“This is a marginalized group that has its own local concerns,” said Yaya Ag Mohamed Ali, Mali’s former Minister for Tourism and an influential member of the Fulani elite. “The state should try to talk to this group and the international community should facilitate dialogue.”
There are good precedents for negotiation. MINUSMA has talked directly to Tuareg separatists, who were also once allied with jihadist groups, to dissuade them from attacking civilian settlements and convoys of school children.
As long as MINUSMA considers FLM to be affiliated with Al Qaeda, negotiation is prohibited. “What would we negotiate with them about?” asked Radhia Achouri, MINUSMA’s head of communications.
“We don’t negotiate with terrorists.”
The international community’s failure to grasp the nuances of Mali’s local conflicts has undermined its efforts to ensure stability. In spite of the peace agreement in June, MINUSMA field reports show that there are three or more violent incidents a day carried out by bandits, separatist fighters and members of pro-government militias. Recognizing that many of these violations are driven by local rivalries is key to bringing stability to the country.
As the government ratchets up the rhetoric against the FLM, locals in Mopti fear that it is alienating Fulani, who feel they are being targeted as an ethnic group.
“You run the risk of Mopti becoming worse than the north,” said the radio director, Mamadou Bocoum. “We thought all the Tuaregs were rebels. But all the Tuaregs weren’t rebels and all the rebels weren’t Tuareg. We should avoid doing the same thing and jeopardizing social cohesion in Mopti.”
This reporting was supported by funding from the International Reporting Project.
First published on Foreign Policy on 16 December 2015.
Jack Watling and Paul Raymond
Last week’s deadly attack on a Bamako hotel was only the latest example of the government’s weakness, which has fostered a dangerous climate of sectarianism
When fighters linked to al-Qaida swept into Timbuktu on 1 April 2012, Dr Ibrahim Maiga found himself living a nightmare. The new rulers of west Africa’s most famous centre of Islamic scholarship immediately set about destroying its history. Over the following months they set fire to thousands of ancient manuscripts, destroyed the mausoleums of local holy men and forced musicians into exile. For the invaders, many of whom were from Algeria and other parts of the region, “saint worship” and music were un-Islamic. The new sharia court wasted no time issuing death sentences to anyone who violated its creed.
State officials fled before the onslaught, and Dr Ibrahim became the most senior medic in Timbuktu. Overnight, he found himself responsible for providing healthcare to a population of 60,000. “The first responsibility of government is governance, then security,” he said. “But the state left. They all ran away.”
The rebellion had started that January. Tuareg nationalists who had served in the army of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had returned from Libya the previous summer, armed with heavy weapons plundered from the collapsing regime’s arsenal. They then launched an uprising in pursuit of an independent Tuareg homeland in northern Mali. The government’s shambolic mismanagement of the uprising angered army chiefs, and in March they conducted a coup in the capital Bamako, hundreds of miles to the south. With the state in disarray, the Tuareg rebels teamed up with Islamist groups, and together they drove the army out of northern Mali – an area the size of Spain. But the jihadists soon cast the Tuaregs aside and imposed their own brutal form of governance across the northern regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
The occupation lasted 10 months. On 28 January 2013, French and Malian troops retook Timbuktu, and it was placed under the protection of United Nations peacekeepers. UN vehicles still patrol the town, guarding it from bandits who raid the surrounding villages. But while the UN provides essential services, the government has yet to return. The few officials who have ventured north have been threatened, or simply assassinated. This June, a senior UN official in Timbuktu told us that “the return of administrators is a key priority”, but they admitted that many of the Malian officials who had been flown into the north on UN planes quickly abandoned their posts.
In the state’s absence, Mali’s northern desert has become a vast, lawless expanse at the centre of west Africa; a crossroads for drugs, people and arms that links territories held by Boko Haram in Niger and Nigeria to the bases of veteran jihadists in Libya and Algeria. It is a security nightmare for west Africa, and increasingly for Europe, which fears the creation of yet another haven for terrorism.
Despite the presence of UN peacekeepers and ongoing French counter-insurgency operations, Islamist militants have attacked civilian targets all over Mali. At least 342 people have been killed this year alone. Driving into towns on motorbikes, gunmen have torched government buildings and executed local officials. In March, a lone attacker hurled a grenade into La Terrasse, a popular nightclub in Bamako, then opened fire with an automatic weapon, killing five people. The most deadly attack came last week, on Friday 20 November, when 170 people were taken hostage at the Radisson Blu, a luxury hotel in the capital. Before the captives could be liberated, 19 were killed. Two foreign jihadist groups, al-Mourabitoun and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility.
The next day, the Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta delivered a defiant statement outside the hotel, declaring that terrorism would not win. But the attack highlighted once again the chronic weakness of the Malian state.
The army’s ousting from the north, political turmoil in Bamako and the rise of banditry and terrorism have exposed a system that is corrupt and ineffective at almost every level. With the government unable to provide basic services to much of the population, many Malians have turned to more traditional sources of social support, material assistance and moral leadership – their imams.
In Timbuktu, three years after the jihadist occupation, one of the most prominent local religious leaders is Daouda Ali Maiga, who presides over a vast mosque on the outskirts of the city. When we met one evening earlier this year, lightning flashed outside and the wind whistled around the building as the first rainstorm in 18 months thrashed down on the roof. The electricity was out, and the ageing imam’s face was illuminated from below by a solitary torch. Around him, his students sat in the shadows, listening to his measured words. Like Dr Ibrahim, he stayed in Timbuktu throughout the occupation. As the headmaster of the Askia Daoud Centre, he ran one of the largest schools in the city.
“Today we have over 400 students and 19 teachers. We teach all subjects, not just Islam, but languages and modern sciences. We teach boys and girls, from seven years old onwards,” he said.
There are other schools in Timbuktu, but Daouda’s is special: when the economy was shattered by war he decided to stop charging fees. To fill the funding gap, he tapped into Islamic charities based in the Gulf, and activated his personal network of contacts from the years he spent in Saudi Arabia. He has even secured funding to send the best students to study in the Gulf. When he set up the centre, the imam of the Sacred Mosque in Mecca sent his own son to attend the opening ceremony.
But locally, Daouda’s reputation has been tarnished by his involvement with the jihadists during the occupation. One day, a 25-year-old called Mahaman Diedou was accused of stealing a sack of rice. He was brought before the sharia court, which ruled that he should have his hand amputated. It was Dr Ibrahim, the medic, who had to tend to his stump after the sentence was carried out. Daouda was one of the judges.
Daouda insists that he took up the position under duress. During the occupation, armed jihadists would come to his mosque for Friday prayers. “If someone came to your mosque to pray and had a gun, would you refuse to pray with them?” he asked. “They forced people to do things. If you are with someone in appearance but oppose them in your heart you are not really with them.”
But there was a reason why the jihadists selected him as a judge. Daouda is a Salafist, a Saudi-trained scholar who had long preached against the Sufi practice of praying at the graves of holy men. He continues to espouse a deeply conservative faith that is at odds with the syncretic Islam, which blends many religious customs, that is traditionally practised in Mali.
Daouda eventually resigned from the sharia court, not because its sentences were too extreme, but because the jihadists refused to execute one of their own Arab fighters who killed a child. “They believed that the soul of a white person is more important than the soul of a black person,” he explained.
Despite his role in abuses during the occupation, Daouda has remained an influential figure in Timbuktu. With state authorities all but absent from the region, an investigation into his collaboration with the jihadists has been dropped, and his school remains one of the biggest providers of education in town.
The collapse of the state has if anything increased Daouda’s influence and drawn greater attention to his teachings, but his Salafism was controversial before 2012. Daouda’s beliefs, at odds with the religious practices of a majority of his community, are deemed by many to be, like the jihadists, foreign. His connections to Saudi Arabia lead to accusations that he serves foreign interests. And yet, for all that, he continues to attract followers, expanding a communal divide.
The divisions that have hung over Timbuktu since the jihadist occupation reflect a struggle that affects the whole of Mali. The November attack was a reminder that a plethora of militant Islamist groups, many with their origins in Algeria, are free to operate in Mali. However they are not the only foreign forces seeking to change the way Islam is practised there. Local religious leaders, backed by foreign charities and governments, are pushing rival interpretations of the faith that are creating deep tensions in Malian society.
* * *
In July 2012, when the Malian government decided to send an envoy to talk with the jihadists occupying Timbuktu, they did not send a diplomat. They sent Mahmoud Dicko, president of the High Islamic Council of Mali. When Mali was desperate for foreign help in resolving the ongoing crisis in the north, it was not the foreign minister who toured Europe, but Dicko and his deputy, Chérif Ousmane Madani Haïdara, along with the Roman Catholic archbishop of Bamako, Jean Zerbo. When a local community needs a new mosque, they do not call the Ministry for Religious Affairs. They call Dicko. Neither Dicko nor Haïdara holds government office, but they have the power to mobilise street protests that can prevent laws being passed.
Although they work together, the two men are bitter rivals. Dicko heads the minority Salafist community, a recent addition to Mali’s colourful patchwork of religious groups. Haïdara, who has roots in the Maliki tradition that has dominated Mali since the 13th century, is one of the richest, most influential holy men in west Africa. Malikism, a school of Islamic jurisprudence, incorporates communal custom to assist in interpreting the Qur’an and hadith, a practice rejected by more literal interpretations of the faith.
Both Dicko and Haïdara exemplify how religious patronage has supplanted the institutions of the Malian state. In their spiritual role, they wield immense moral authority, and through the essential services they fund, have a practical relevance to the lives of ordinary Malians in regions where the government has disappeared.
Dicko was born in 1954 in the desert village of Tonka, near Timbuktu. Son of a religious judge, he was raised by a conservative family and memorised the Qu’ran by the age of 15. Wahhabism, the austere form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia, has had a presence in Mali since the 19th century, when it was brought back by Malians who had travelled to Mecca on hajj. It won few converts as it rejected the mixing of local traditions with strict Islamic law. But during Dicko’s teenage years, Saudi charities began to fund mosques and schools in Mali’s cities, and some young Malians were offered the chance to go to Saudi Arabia to study. Dicko was among them. After a short spell studying Arabic in Mauritania, he headed to Medina, the second most holy city in Islam, where he studied Islamic theology.
On his return to Mali, Dicko worked briefly as an Arabic teacher, then, like many of the early Gulf-educated graduates, became an itinerant preacher, giving sermons and leading prayers around Bamako. He quickly built up a following, and in 1983 a community of Salafists invited him to become imam of a mosque in Badalabougou, a middle-class suburb of Bamako.
Haïdara was born a year after Dicko, near the city of Ségou in the south of Mali. Educated at a French school, he began preaching as a teenager in Bamana, a language spoken across Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Senegal. He continued his religious education under Saad Touré, a local scholar steeped in Mali’s Maliki traditions. Haïdara moved to Bamako and began to distribute his sermons on cassette. By 1991, when mass protests prompted the army to overthrow the dictatorship of Moussa Traoré, Haïdara had gathered a large following.
Traoré’s government had long suppressed civil society, but the 1991 constitution created a new space for cultural and religious expression. Religious organisations were quick to take advantage, and hundreds of new Islamic associations were founded. Few would be as influential as Haïdara’s Ansar Dine (Arabic for “defenders of the faith”). Over the course of the 1990s, its membership grew into the tens of thousands. Relying on private donations, Haïdara established a nationwide network of schools, hospitals and mosques.
But given the country’s secular constitution, these associations had little political clout. Mali has been officially secular since its independence, a legacy of French colonialism. The state has become so detached from religious institutions that a senior UN official liaising with the Malian government in Bamako earlier this year told us that “Malian society is not fundamentally religious”.
In 2002, a group of senior imams set out to change this state of affairs by establishing the High Islamic Council, widely referred to by its French acronym, HCIM. The council brought together around 400 Islamic associations, giving them a platform through which they could coordinate their activities and influence government. Dicko and Haïdara, both influential preachers and respected imams, were elected to its executive committee. In 2007, Dicko was elevated to the presidency. The Salafists were on the rise, and the council was to become a key player in Malian politics.
In August 2009, the Canadian government and other donors pressed the Malian parliament to change the country’s conservative Personal Status and Family Code. Under the proposed new law, girls would have more inheritance rights, women would no longer be required to obey their husbands, and only secular marriages would be recognised. The HCIM saw the bill as un-Islamic. Dicko and his colleagues mobilised protests across the country. Tens of thousands demonstrated on the streets of Bamako. Weeks later, under intense pressure from the HCIM, the then president Amadou Toumani Touré refused to sign the bill into law. It was a turning point in Mali’s hitherto largely secular politics: a religious organisation had shown it could stop the government in its tracks.
The events of 2012 only increased the HCIM’s power. The army’s rapid retreat from the north exposed widespread corruption, prompting a collapse of confidence in the political class. Imams became the sole surviving source of moral authority. Unlike any of the country’s politicians, Dicko and Haïdara are both treated like rock stars by their supporters. And theirs is a popularity that politicians cannot afford to ignore. These days, President Keïta telephones Dicko twice a week.
Dicko stays aloof from the day-to-day business of politics, but he wields immense influence behind the scenes. Despite being a small minority of the population, Salafists have come to dominate the HCIM’s executive committee. This position gives them enormous influence, from the presidential palace to the poorest villages in Mali.
One consequence of religion in Mali becoming politicised is that differences in religious practice have become markers for political allegiance, fuelling an increasingly sectarian shift in Malian society. Where people once simply referred to each other as Muslim, they are now labelled Wahhabist, Sufi or Shia – and these labels, meant to suggest links to foreign political agendas, often accompany accusations of sinister intent.
Among the Maliki majority, the Salafist minority’s takeover of the elected leadership of the Islamic Council is the subject of endless speculation. Imam Diallo, a Maliki leader and member of the HCIM executive committee, accuses Dicko of being “a moral referee who has started to kick the ball. How, in a country where only 15% of the population are Salafi, do they have so much power? With funding from Saudi Arabia. Dicko is trying to take over the country.”
* * *
A few days before the start of Ramadan in June, Combey Adamah explained his faith. Sitting in a small breeze-block shack, nestled amid wiry trees at the top of a hill overlooking Bamako, he was surrounded by a wicker tray of shells, a bible open at Leviticus, and an array of mystical symbols drawn onto the electric blue walls of his dwelling. Adamah is a witch doctor and member of a community of Rastafarians who live above the village of Lassa. In their hilltop retreat, the Rastas smoke weed, listen to reggae music and try and purge themselves of the material excesses of the world. Their beliefs are diffuse, combining Rasta wisdom, new-age spirituality and west African animism.
Adamah is the son of a Christian father and Muslim mother. In Mali this is not unusual. The country has a long tradition of religious tolerance, and most Muslims incorporate indigenous religious practices into their daily lives, along with Islam. The Rastafarians of Lassa rub along happily with their Muslim neighbours.
“Muslims and Rastas are all equal here,” said Dani Camara, the son of a village elder. Lightly bearded and dressed in a long robe that would not be out of place in the Arabian Gulf, Camara was preparing for the Ramadan fast. “We get on fine. We all face the same problem: lack of water.” It was soon clear that Camara had more pressing concerns than the religious beliefs of his neighbours: the village has neither a pharmacy nor a medical clinic. Even in a village that is being swallowed up by the expanding capital, the government does not provide irrigation, decent roads or basic medical facilities. This is a common situation across the country, and a gap that Islamic charities are keen to fill.
One of the most powerful of those charities has its offices just down the hill from the Rasta sanctuary, in a multistorey office block beside a large mosque in north-western Bamako. Al-Farouk – named after the epithet for Omar, the austere second caliph of Islam who is a hero for Salafists – manages projects across Mali. Al-Farouk’s director, Imam Ibrahim Kantao, sat behind an ornate desk in his immaculate, air-conditioned office, signing cheques and approving plans for new initiatives. As well as sponsoring more than 300 mosques, 30 medical clinics and several schools, Al-Farouk runs the University of the Sahel, where 400 students learn Arabic, Islamic law and computer science.
Al-Farouk’s financial backers come from across the Gulf, Turkey and the UK. The charity moves more than $3m into Mali every year. It is charities such as Al-Farouk that provide crucial funding to Salafist schools, including the centre run by Daouda Ali Maiga in Timbuktu.
But Kantao is much more than the director of a charity. He is a leading figure in the Salafist movement and a founding member of the HCIM’s executive committee. He has risen to the post of HCIM’s director of external relations. The voting system within the HCIM gives each member association one vote, granting disproportionate sway to the Salafists, who also control many of Mali’s NGOs and the funds they disburse.
Kantao was open about wanting to exercise that power to advance their cause: “If you don’t speak out politically then you leave your country to rot,” he said.
He is well connected across the Gulf. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, sends Al-Farouk 400 computers a year for the charity to distribute to its schools and colleges. Maktoum’s charity also worked with Kantao to distribute 20,000 sets of clothes to Malian children in 2013. The best students from the University of the Sahel are sent for further study in Saudi Arabia, where Kantao himself trained as a young man. Kantao is also Dicko’s fixer when it comes to securing connections with the Kingdom.
"If Dicko wants a mosque he often asks me and I raise the funds,” he said. “If he wants contacts in Saudi Arabia he talks to me.” But despite the material benefits it brings into Mali, the Salafist bloc’s Gulf connections make some Malian Muslims deeply uneasy. Saudi diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have shown, in considerable detail, the extent of Riyadh’s efforts to deploy aid in the service of promoting Salafism and to advance the kingdom’s political objectives – including in Mali, where many people now accuse local Salafists of serving foreign interests.
“We totally reject the idea of sending people to Saudi Arabia or elsewhere out of Mali,” said Mohammed Makiba, president of the Young Muslims’ Association of Mali. Makiba’s association was set up in 2007, the same year as Dicko’s election, to create educational and work opportunities for young people. The activities of its members range from establishing a scouting movement to organising blood donations to local hospitals and teaching the elderly to read the Qu’ran. Makiba believes that Islam should be a means for young people to get an education, find work and participate in development – not serve as a conduit for foreign agendas.
“Foreign funding for mosques and schools is a vehicle for foreign ideologies, because the Malian state has no policy on religion,” he said. The state’s history of laïcité has left it blind to the growth of religious groups, and powerless to tackle the expanding sectarian identification within communities. Until the jihadist insurrection of 2012, there was no government department overseeing mosques and religious schools.
Theirno Diallo, a former diplomat who is now minister for religious affairs, is tasked with monitoring an influx of foreign donations to Islamic charities and countering extremism. He has his work cut out: he admitted his department has no data on how many mosques there are in Mali, who runs them, or who funds them. “Today, with all the security problems, we can’t just let people build mosques as they like,” he said. “We need to know who is financing them, why they are being constructed, who are the imams and what message they bring.”
He agreed that the Salafist camp had more access to funding – and more political clout – than the traditional, Maliki majority. “The Salafists are more strategic,” said Diallo. “The other camp is scattered. Even if they’re the majority, they are divided.”
* * *
The man who many Malakis look to for a counterweight to the Salafist rise is Cheikh Chérif Ousmane Madani Haïdara, who is said to be descended from the prophet Muhammad. For Haïdara, who is a multimillionaire, the connection between the Gulf-educated Salafists and the spread of extremism is indisputable, and he has used the funds at his disposal to promote religious education closer to home.
“All extremists come from the Gulf. All of them,” Haïdara pronounced in the thunderous tones of a man who is a spiritual guide to millions. We met Haïdara on the first night of Ramadan in the fourth-floor lounge of his palatial residence in north-eastern Bamako. Sat on one of a dozen white leather sofas, he explained how “students who go to those countries change their views. They make them into Islamists. That’s what we’re concerned about.”
It has become a cliche in the Francophone press to write of Haïdara’s ability to fill a stadium with worshippers. But a visit to his vast complex, which includes a hospital, a school, a fleet of Hummers, a mosque and his vast home, guarded by his army of security men, makes the claim seem like a careless understatement.
As he strode into his mosque to lead Friday prayers, his red silk robe flowing behind him, cries of “Allahu akbar!” and “Haïdara!” rang out from the congregation. Worshippers knelt to kiss his feet. At the entrance two devotees ran up, each to bear away one of his sandals. Inside, he settled on a low stool, in front of two television cameras and a ring of disciples, and as one of his entourage fanned his neck, began the evening’s lesson.
Despite the hundreds of people in the stifling building, Haïdara quickly built an air of intimacy with the congregation. He answered questions and even cracked jokes as he worked through that night’s Qu’ranic text. A young follower at his side read each verse in turn, then Haïdara translated it, explaining the Arabic in Bamana. With his height, deep voice and easy manner, he exuded charm and authority.
Haïdara has become deeply concerned by the politicisation of religion. “The constitution is secular,” he explained. “But some of Mali’s Islamic leadership got involved in politics. I totally reject this.
“Everybody needs religious leaders: they go to them with their dead so they can pray over the funeral. If they have a wedding, they need them to lead the ceremony. If there is a conflict between two people, the imams resolve the situation. Politicians are all against each other. An imam shouldn’t be against anyone.”
Although Haïdara sided with Dicko to block the reforms of the Personal Status and Family Code in 2009, his political interventions have been sporadic and ambiguous. Unlike his Salafist rivals, who are open about the need for religious figures to be moral guides in politics, Haïdara declared emphatically that “as long as we are alive we will resist” making the religious political. It is a battle that most Malians think may already be lost – and there are other reasons why Haïdara is not the best candidate to oppose what he describes as “foreign influence”.
On the wall above the plush couches in his reception room hangs a picture of Haïdara and King Mohammed IV of Morocco. For centuries, Moroccan kings, revered by Muslims across west Africa, have led the Tijaniyyah school of Sufism and taken the title Commander of the Believers. Mali has strong historical connections with Morocco; many of the notable families of Timbuktu hail from Fez, another centre of Islamic learning. Through his connections with the Moroccan royal court, Haïdara has been influential in promoting an initiative to educate 500 Malian religious students in Fez, ostensibly part of Morocco’s efforts to counter extremist ideologies. The fear is that this training is being used as a political tool in the nation’s regional struggle for soft power against Algeria.
Then there are Haïdara’s ties to Turkey. Boxes of Turkish Qu’rans were piled high in his waiting room. On the first night of Ramadan he dined with representatives of Turkey’s Gülen movement, an Islamic organisation that runs a vast network of schools around the world, including in Bamako.
Haïdara’s work with the Moroccan government has provoked criticism even from people who are deeply opposed to the Salafist project. Some accuse the Moroccan programme of only selecting elite candidates and failing to educate those most in need. But others see it as yet another vehicle for foreign religious influence in Mali. Hanan Keïta, a prominent female theologian, voiced an increasingly common fear that the competing agendas of religious communities – often with foreign support – had encouraged Malians to embrace sectarian identities. The schools and training programmes funded by specific sects, she said, deepened fractures among Muslims rather than uniting Malians to confront the many challenges that they and their country face.
“Students learn to be sectarian and only to serve their own constituency – rejecting other sects. That is fanaticism,” she said. “We are not a society where you say the wrong thing and they kill you the next day, but we could become that way.”
* * *
At his modest house on a muddy back street in Bamako, Mahmoud Dicko trimmed his grey goatee, put on a simple black robe and a yellow turban, descended past the chalkboard in the porch where two of his children were doing their chemistry homework, and climbed into an SUV with a hulking bodyguard and two fellow imams. The car rolled to the end of the street, past goats scavenging in a pile of rubbish, and turned towards Senou, where Dicko had been invited to lead prayers at a newly constructed mosque a week before the start of Ramadan.
At the approach to the town, about 25 miles south of Bamako, hundreds of children lined the main road: boys on the left and girls on the right. “God is great,” they cheered in Arabic, “Welcome!” As the car turned onto a muddy track, they raced alongside, laughing, shouting and stretching out to touch the vehicle and get a glimpse of Dicko. A girl of about 12 fiddled with her niqab as she ran. The full face-covering is a rare sight in Mali.
Dicko’s car came to a halt before the mosque, a pristine blue and white building that dwarfed the surrounding mud-brick huts. Over a thousand people had gathered to pray at the opening ceremony, and were spilling out onto the sun-baked courtyard and the dusty street beyond. The imam was lovingly mobbed as he climbed out of the car. His bodyguard pushed through as Dicko picked his way into the mosque. Minutes later, the call to prayer rose from the minaret.
Dicko appeared at the microphone and began his sermon. “The face of Allah delights in he who builds a mosque,” he said in Arabic, quoting the prophet Muhammad. He instantly translated, switching between Arabic and Bamana, his voice booming from the gleaming loudspeakers.
After the sermon and prayers were over, he and his entourage politely muscled their way back through the crowd. Dicko slipped 10,000 franc notes – enough to feed a small family for a week – to a few needy souls. Then he was off, back into town to inaugurate another mosque.
“For 10 years it has been like this,” he said as he took a brief break for a lunch of fish stew. He spoke in clear Arabic with a slight Gulf accent. “Yesterday I was in the office from morning until evening. Sometimes I go for a whole month and only pray once on my own. I have my mosque in Bamako too, but sometimes I go out 100km to a mosque and preach.”
It is easy to see why Dicko is adored by his followers. Approachable and given to smiling, he makes time for anyone. His phone rang every few minutes as he made his rounds. Politicians, fellow imams and villagers in rural Mali constantly call to ask for advice and prayers. Even after dozens of conversations, he never showed a sign of impatience, but carefully considered each request and offered his counsel and blessings. He never turns his phone off. “I don’t want people who need me not to be able to reach me. I find that hard. Even at night I leave it on, out of respect for people,” he said. When asked how many people in Mali have his number, he chuckled. “I don’t know. Maybe all of them.”
Dicko’s sincerity and approachability has enabled him to reach an audience far beyond his core Salafist constituency. His austere lifestyle and dedication to his followers give him a powerful authenticity that many admire, including a large number of young people.
“There has been a big change,” he said, smiling with satisfaction. “Every day people embrace Islam more. Didn’t you see the crowds? It’s like this at every opening of a mosque. It’s the same at openings of schools. And it’s not just the poor, it’s every social class. Now there are mosques in the government schools, colleges, even in military bases and at police stations there are prayer rooms.”
To underline the point, as Dicko’s car passed a police checkpoint on the way to his next engagement, two officers raised their hands in a sharp salute – a remarkable gesture in an officially secular state. This transformation of Malian society is testament to the effectiveness of the Salafist movement. For Dicko, Kantao and Daouda the shift is something to be celebrated. Daouda, the Imam in Timbuktu, talks up the benefits of sending religious students to the Gulf. “People who go abroad find ideas different to those at home. They learn more about the world,” he said.
For the Maliki traditionalists, these changes represent an existential threat that they do not hesitate to associate with the jihadist incursion in the north – and the Malakis are not shy about equating the Salafists’ foreign funding with the foreign jihadists menacing the country. Mohammed Makiba, president of the Young Muslims of Mali, said: “We learned a lesson from 2012. When Malians study abroad they come back with dangerous ideas. These universities abroad don’t just teach Islam. They teach ideologies that are alien to Mali.”
This reporting was supported by funding from the International Reporting Project
This article first appeared in the Guardian on 25 November 2015
Boubacar O Keita
I got up at one o’clock this morning, like every morning, to pray with my fellow disciples. Our living space is upstairs, but our guide, Sheikh Bilal, leads prayers in the mosque room on the ground floor
We kneel together under the Quranic inscriptions and chant the names of Allah. The meditation is called a zikr, and it lasts until dawn. Sufism is about seeking inner purity and peace; it lets the individual move closer to the spiritual and away from the world.
I’ve been living in this Sufi community for 16 years. When I was 5, my parents decided that I should become a Sufi, so my uncle brought me here to be adopted by Sheikh Bilal. The sheikh is my spiritual guide, and he is everything to me now: my father, brother, mother and sister. My parents still visit me, but the Sufi community became my family.
At the start it wasn’t easy. There was no money — the sheikh had few followers — and it wasn’t certain that we’d eat every day. When I became a disciple there were only 12 of us, living in a small cabin. Now, there are hundreds of students, and we live in this four-story zawiya, a Sufi monastery. The sheikh always said it would be like this one day. I was really happy; the new home was such a step up in the world.
The trouble is I have so many ambitions.
We eat once a day. After the dusk prayer, we all make rice and eat it together. Alongside my duties here I’m studying law at the University of Bamako. Next year, I will start taking courses in journalism, because that’s my passion. I want to study journalism in a European country, probably in France, because I already speak the language. God knows whether we will have money. If the sheikh has it, he will share it. Most Sufi students spend their time praying and meditating, but the sheikh agrees with my professional ambitions, and he’s going to help me.
The trouble is I have so many ambitions. I want to become a sheikh, a leader and spiritual guide of a Sufi community. I’d like to get married and to have kids. Studying law is hard work, but it is very nice moving between these two worlds, the spiritual and the professional. Both are rewarding. My time here is devoted to prayer, and at university, it’s devoted to study. I have to balance them.
Some people see a conflict between the two, but there isn’t. There are Sufis working in government, in factories. They carry their spirituality into the workplace. My father is a policeman, and my mother teaches at private schools around Bamako; both of them are Sufis. If I became a journalist, I would still practice my faith.
But if I am to become a sheikh, I must devote myself to God. In Sufism, there is always the ambition to rise. Sufism focuses on meditation and spirituality, not just studying. You can’t just read about God, you must know him. Sheikh Bilal shows us how to experience him. We have a strong spiritual love for our guide, for the prophet and for God. It is this love that moves me. In most zawiyas, disciples stay bonded to their guides for life. But Sheikh Bilal is an innovator — he frees his disciples after their education. He says that Sufism should not stop me from following a normal life.
Soon I am going to have to choose a path. It is hard, because Sufism isn’t understood in Mali. Some see us as Rastas who wear weird shoes and grow dreadlocks. But I have lots of friends. I’m a son of Bamako. We meet and socialize like anyone else, but then I come home in the evening and do the prayers I’ve missed. My fellow disciples spend most of the day here, praying and worshipping. After dinner, I go to bed. I have to be up again at 1 a.m.
As told to Jack Watling and Paul Raymond
This reporting was supported by funding from the International Reporting Project
First Published by OZY
Jack Merlin Watling
Jack is a journalist and historian. He formerly worked as planning editor at NewsFixed, and has contributed to Foreign Policy, Reuters, the Guardian, Vice, the Herald Group and the New Statesman.