links for November 23rd

Automatically posted links for November 23rd:

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Total Falafel Awareness

FBI Mined Grocery Store Records to Find Iranian Terrorists:
Bay Area FBI agents wanting to find Iranian secret agents data-mined grocery store records in 2005 and 2006, hoping that tahini purchases would lead them to domestic terrorists, according to Congressional Quarterly's Jeff Stein. The head of the FBI's criminal investigations unit - Michael Mason - shut down the Total Falafel Awareness program, arguing it would be illegal to put someone on a terrorist watch list for simply sticking skewers into lamb, Stein reports.
Really this is getting ridiculous. Is that the best lead they can come up with? I also like the idea that would-be terrorist hiding in America are somehow exclusively eating their national foods. I bet Muhammad Atta and company ate tons of Twinkies, mexican food and loved the spicy chicken wings at Hooters.
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Al Qaeda in the Maghreb recruits among teenagers

Le : En Algérie, des adolescents sont les proies des recruteurs d'Al-Qaida:
Treize adolescents algériens ont été condamnés le 23 septembre à trois ans de prison avec sursis pour avoir entretenu des contacts avec Al-Qaida au Maghreb islamique, l'ex-Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat (GSPC). Un suivi psychologique a été ordonné, et leurs parents se sont engagés à les surveiller de près. Arrêtés en juin à Thénia, dans la préfecture de Boumerdès, région où le groupe islamiste armé est très actif, trois d'entre eux avaient été placés sous mandat de dépôt alors que les dix autres, des collégiens âgés entre 14 et 16 ans, avaient été laissés en liberté provisoire. Selon la police, ces jeunes avaient commencé à recevoir, dans les maquis environnants, des entraînements au maniement des armes et au transport de bombes. Certains avaient été gratifiés de noms de guerre. Des disques compacts avec des cours d'entraînement au combat avaient été découverts à leur domicile.
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Bomber strikes Sunni-Shiite reconciliation meeting

Bomber strikes Sunni-Shiite meeting:
BAQOUBA, Iraq - A suicide bomber struck a U.S.-promoted reconciliation meeting of Shiite and Sunni tribal sheiks as they were washing their hands or sipping tea Monday, killing at least 15 people, including the city's police chief, and wounding about 30 others. Two U.S. soldiers were also wounded in the 8:30 p.m. blast at a Shiite mosque in Baqouba, a former al-Qaida in Iraq stronghold about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials, who gave the overall casualty toll. The brazen attack, which bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida in Iraq, represented a major challenge to U.S. efforts to bring together Shiites and Sunnis here in Diyala province, scene of some of the bitterest fighting in Iraq. About two hours after the blast, U.S. soldiers at nearby Camp Warhorse fired artillery rounds at suspected insurgent positions near Baqouba. There were no reports of damage or casualties. Witnesses and officials said the bomber struck when most of the victims were in the mosque courtyard cleaning their hands or drinking tea during Iftar, the daily meal in which Muslims break their sunrise-to-sunset fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
What a terrible, terrible mess.
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Let's not forget Lebanon

Two essential pieces on Lebanon appeared in the last few weeks. The first, a review piece by Max Rodenbeck in the NYRB, looks at the last two-three years and draws a convincing portrait of what happened. Considering how confusing Lebanon's politics are, that's quite a feat. Plus Max gets the way I react to Lebanese food (esp. when consumed with copious amounts of arak, as it must be) exactly right:
Yet it is true that while Lebanon whets appetites with its gorgeous landscapes, clement weather, energetic people, and wonderful food, trying to consume too much of it tends to bring on heartburn. Just ask the Ottoman Turks, the imperialist French, the US Marine Corps, the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Syrians, or any number of Lebanese would-be overlords. The country's infernally complex ingredients seem chemically incapable of melding into a digestible dish.
The second piece, by Jim Quilty for MERIP, focuses on the recent confrontation between the Lebanese army and an Islamist group operating out of the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli:
If Lebanese politicians on both sides of the government-opposition divide have emphasized support for the army over empathy for human suffering in the camps, their rhetoric betrays the marginality of the refugee community. It also reflects the centrality of the Lebanese army in the ongoing contest over the future direction of state policy. At the end of the day, it is entirely likely that the Palestinians in Lebanon will be three-time losers in this bloody episode: enduring the humanitarian crisis that grows out of it, shouldering the burden of containing it and suffering a backlash in Lebanese political opinion for being seen as somehow responsible for it. The anti-Palestinian feeling in Lebanon is all the more bitterly ironic since so few of the radical Sunni Islamists battling the Lebanese army in Nahr al-Barid are themselves Palestinian.
Another key paragraph, on whether March 14 is financing Salafist-Jihadists groups (as famously but unconvincingly alleged by Seymour Hersh), is this one:
Whether or not the Hariris and their Saudi supporters have a soft spot for salafis is not the point. Rather, it is the culture of cooptation that has marked the Lebanese government’s approach to the challenges confronting the country since the Syrian withdrawal. Rafiq al-Hariri deployed his financial resources to great effect during his political career, but his purchase of loyalties was embedded in the Syrian occupation’s security regime. With the Syrians gone, and with Sunnis set against their Shi‘i countrymen -- and with them the specter of Hizballah, the militants who stopped the Israeli army, Lebanese find the line between purchased loyalties and militant outsourcing a fuzzy one.
Although Quilty, like Rodenbeck, highlights the fact that some Syrian support for Fatah al-Islam operatives was probably necessary, he does not satisfactorily answer the various conspiracy theories about its origin -- except to say that whatever help they may have secured, the members of the group appear to be genuinely nasty Jihadists, not just hired guns. Read it all for the nitty-gritty detail of Palestinian camp politics.
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CoE report documents rendition program

More fine reporting by Stephen Grey, who literally wrote the book on rendition, about the upcoming Council of Europe findings on the CIA flights in Europe:
Although suspicions about the secret CIA prisons have existed for more than a year, the council's report, seen by the Guardian, appears to offer the first concrete evidence. It also details the prisons' operations and the identities of some of the prisoners. The council has also established that within weeks of the 9/11 attacks, Nato signed an agreement with the US that allowed civilian jets used by the CIA during its so-called extraordinary rendition programme to move across member states' airspace. Its report states: "We have sufficient grounds to declare that the highest state authorities were aware of the CIA's illegal activities on their territories." The council's investigators believe that agreement may have been illegal. . . . The 19-month inquiry by the council, which promotes human rights across Europe, was headed by Dick Marty, a Swiss senator and former state prosecutor. He said: "What was previously just a set of allegations is now proven: large numbers of people have been abducted from various locations across the world and transferred to countries where they have been persecuted and where it is known that torture is common practice." His report says there is "now enough evidence to state that secret detention facilities run by the CIA [existed] in Europe from 2003 to 2005, in particular in Poland and Romania".
Yet another reason I think the EU should have never expanded to include Eastern European countries. Update: Also see HRW's backgrounder on U.S. Responsibility for Enforced Disappearances in the “War on Terror”.
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The Brotherhood on US TV

I got home this evening after a day spent at NYU at a very interesting literary symposium (that I hope to blog about tomorrow). Flipping channels, I happened on a segment of the PBS series "America at a Crossroads" called "The Brotherhood." It's interesting but I can't help finding parts of it a bit tendentious and alarmist--the show's main question ("Does the Brotherhood support terrorism?") seems to be largely rhetorical. One problem is that when Brotherhood members express support for Hamas and Hezbullah, this is taken as evidence that the organization may be "terrorist." Typically, the narrators interview a Brotherhood member, saying something like "we do not support violence," and then cuts to a shot of masked Hamas members waving guns. The other problem is that the Brotherhood's goal of establishing "Islamic rule on earth" is seen as an actual practical aim (rather than an ideological statement) and as inherently troubling. The narrators show a document that mentions this goal, to a background of ominous music. Don't get me wrong, I'm not in favour of establishing any religious rule on earth, but would people be equally concerned about an organization that said its goal was to establish "Christian rule on earth"? I didn't see the whole segment (I think I caught the last half). I do think it's an interesting topic to cover--I've always wanted to find out more about the inner workings of the Brotherhood--and that it's great that it's being covered by a serious program on US TV. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the show left me with more questions than answers.
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'125 Release Orders' and Still Detained

When opposition politicians and rights groups complained that amendments to Egypt's constitution would enshrine the Emergency Law in the Constitution by giving police free rein to arrest, search, and spy on citizens without judicial warrants, some government officials responded with the line, "You just need to trust us. These powers are only for legitimate investigations into terrorism cases" (paraphrasing here). It was a line the Bush administration had previously used to respond to criticisms of the PATRIOT Act.

Last week, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated MP Farid Ismail petitioned Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and Interior Minister Habib al-Adli regarding a case that neatly illustrates why the "trust us" line doesn't work. Security forces arrested five kids, some of them as young as 15, from the al-Sharqiyya governorate in the Nile Delta on suspicion of belonging to Islamic Jihad following the 1997 terrorist attacks in Luxor. In the 10 years since, Ismail said, magistrates have ordered their release 125 times each, saying there was no evidence to keep them detained. No matter. A decade later, they are still in prison.

Now, I'm in favor of locking up people who want to blow up innocent people. And I can understand that in the wake of a big terrorist attack, you might want to err on the side of caution. But you've got to do it in a way that ensures that you get the right people, and that lets innocent people caught up in the sweep get back to their lives, ideally with compensation (though how do you compensate someone who's spent a week with electrodes on his tongue, nipples, and genitals? Mawlish doesn't quite cover it). This is why the legal protections are so important. I have no idea if these five are innocent, but 125 release orders (times five is what? 625) from magistrates who have seen all the evidence strongly suggests that they are.

If the good people working for Egypt's stability and security won't respect what slender legal protections exist today, how are we supposed to "trust them" when those legal protections are gone?

Right. Apologies for the rant, but this is a particularly outrageous case.
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Jack Bauer, torturing hero

For at least the last few years now, friends have been mentioning their suspicions that the popular US TV show "24" has a right-wing agenda of some sort, or at the very least legitimizes torture by showing its hero constantly "having to" torture terrorists to save LA from a nucler bomb or some such threat. Well, my conspiracy-minded friends, you were all right. Not only has Human Rights Watch come out with a report that shows that 76 people (excuse me, terrorists) got tortured in "24" last season--and that there's been a huge increase in torture scenes on American TV since 9/11. But a new article by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker profiles the show's creator, Joel Surnow--a good friend of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter who has been invited to the White House and who keeps on a wall of his office a framed American flag that was raised in Baghdad. And who sees no problem with the US torturning its enemies. If you read the article, you'll learn that the creators of "24" have actually been approached by army and intelligence officials concerned with the shows influence on soldiers and cadets and with the fact that it does not depict realistic interrogation techniques. You'll also learn that the "ticking bomb" scenario--which we are all so familiar with--comes from a French novel set during the Algerian war, a conflict in which torture was endemic. Another example of fact and fiction intersecting.
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Mauritanian hijacker foiled

Mauritanian hijacker gets in hot water By JUAN MANUEL PARDELLAS, Associated Press Writer Fri Feb 16, 2:12 PM ET SANTA CRUZ DE TENERIFE, Canary Islands - A fast-thinking pilot with passengers in cahoots fooled a hijacker by braking hard upon landing, then accelerating to knock the man down. When he fell, flight attendants threw boiling water in his face, and about 10 people pounced on him, Spanish officials said Friday.
If there is one thing 9/11 has changed "forever" amidst all the hyperbole, it's that you don't hijack planes anymore! (Incidentally, the guy was reportedly only seeking political asylum -- he wasn't going to blow himself up.)
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New ICG report on Sinai

I haven't had time to read it yet, but the ICG has just published a very interesting-looking report on Egypt's Sinai question in light of the three bombings that have taken place there in the past three years and the subsequent indiscriminate crackdown on the Bedouin population:
Thus, beneath the terrorism problem is a more serious and enduring “Sinai question” which the political class has yet to address. Doing so will not be easy. Since this question is partly rooted in wider Middle East crises, above all the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a definitive solution depends on their resolution. But the solution also requires the full integration and participation of Sinai’s populations in national political life, which means it is also dependent on significant political reforms in the country as a whole, which are not at present on the horizon. While a comprehensive solution of the Sinai question cannot be expected soon, the government can and should alter a development strategy that is deeply discriminatory and largely ineffective at meeting local needs. A new, properly funded plan, produced in consultation with credible local representatives and involving all elements of the population in implementation, could transform attitudes to the state by addressing Sinai’s grievances.
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US judge okays lawsuit against terrorists' bank

A question to any lawyer types out there: does the decision below set a precedent for any victim of terrorism to sue financial institutions whose clients were involved in those acts of terrorism? Would it apply to other types of violence, including state violence?
A Federal Court Judge in Brooklyn on Tuesday approved a lawsuit filed by victims of terror against the Arab Bank for alleged business links with terrorist organizations. Judge Nina Gershon accepted the feasibility of the joint claim filed by 1,600 people living in Israel, the U.S. and other countries who were hurt in terrorist attacks orchestrated by some of the bank's clients. In their lawsuit, complainants claimed the Arab Bank's Manhattan branch was used to channel funds to Hamas and other Palestinian militants.
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Labidi on Tunisia's Islamist problem

Our friend Kamel Labidi had an op-ed a few days ago in the Daily Star about the clashes last took place in December between Tunisian security forces and Islamists probably associated with the Groupe Salafiste pour le Combat et la Predication of Algeria. If you've followed this story you will remember that there was a total media blackout during which the Tunisian media pretended that those involved were a criminal gang rather than an Islamist group. The PR man for the government was later fired. Rumors abound on the Tunisian online opposition media and blogs that this might have been part of an assassination attempt, that French security services are currently in Tunis investigating, and that it's possible that the brother of First Lady Leila al-Trabelsi (the biggest mafia in Tunisia and, many complain, the real power behind Ben Ali) used his clout to sneak in a weapon shipment that was delivered to the Islamists. Of course none of this is confirmed. Kamel's op-ed highlights the failure of the Ben Ali regime's "tough stance" towards Islamists and the damage he has wrecked on political plurality and free speech in Tunisia.
Friday, January 26, 2007 Ben Ali's dictatorship is creating more Islamists By Kamel Labidi Tunisian President Zein al-Abedin Ben Ali has on official occasions often referred to the legacy of the great Arab writer Ibn Khaldoun, born in Tunis in 1332. The last time he did so was nearly two months ago on the 19th anniversary of his coup against President Habib Bourguiba. This frequent mention of Ibn Khaldoun is somehow designed to show that Ben Ali is committed to the writer's legacy. This led Amnesty International to remind the Tunisian president in 2003 of one of Ibn Khaldoun's most important sayings: "Since injustice calls for the eradication of the species leading to the ruin of civilization, it contains in itself a good reason for being prohibited." The deadly clashes in the suburbs of the Tunisian capital between security forces and Islamist gunmen at the end of December and in early January took by surprise those who were under the illusion that an Arab autocrat of Ben Ali's ilk could learn anything from Ibn Khaldoun. According to official sources, the clashes left 12 gunmen dead and 15 under arrest, as well as two security officers killed and two others wounded. The episode dealt an unprecedented blow to the reputation of a state often publicized as one of the most effective in fighting Islamists and maintaining stability.
The blow to the credibility of Ben Ali's police state seemed more severe than that caused by the terrorist attack on an ancient synagogue in Djerba in 2002, which the government falsely claimed was the result of a traffic accident. At the time, Tunisians and the international community would not have known the truth had it not been for the German authorities. They sought out and publicly announced what had happened, mainly because most of the 21 people who died in the attack were Germans. That kind of terrorist attack might occur in any country. However, the December-January clashes that shook the southern suburbs of Tunis for more than 10 days were more serious. According to Interior Minister Rafik Haj Qassem, they involved a group of 27 individuals armed with weapons and explosives. Speaking recently at a meeting in Tunis of members of the ruling party, Haj Qassem failed to explain how such a huge quantity of arms could have been smuggled into one of the most tightly controlled states in the world. Nor did he reveal how the weapons could have made their way from the Algerian border to the outskirts of Tunis. Most Tunisians doubt, with good reason, that the government will ever reveal the whole truth about the members of the armed group, or respect the right of the surviving militants to a fair trial. Many people are convinced that the policy of anti-Islamist repression conducted since the early 1990s by Ben Ali has, in fact, radicalized youths. Such a policy went hand in hand with an unprecedented crackdown against free expression and political dissent. Many Tunisians acknowledge that dissidents have never been so mistreated, even under the French Protectorate. In this climate, most youths have lost interest in public life and in the values of equality and tolerance. At the same time, many of them have been attracted by radical Islamist groups, including Al-Qaeda, with some Tunisians having traveled to Iraq to take part in the resistance against the US-led occupation. Others have been arrested while trying to leave Tunisia to receive training in neighboring Algeria, or trying to lend a helping hand to armed Islamist groups elsewhere. Similarly, the Tunisian regime's iron-fist policy has not prevented an increasing number of young women from defying the ban on the wearing of the Islamic headscarf, or former Islamists from returning to public life determined more than ever before to exercise their right to freedom of association and expression. The injustice inflicted on them led many political activists traditionally opposed to any dialogue with Islamists to cooperate with them against what both sides agree is the dire national threat of Ben Ali. The regime, by pursuing arbitrary arrests, torture, and unfair trials will only further empower Islamic radicals. After the recent deadly clashes, Ben Ali's top aides once again called for his "reelection" in 2009 (if that word can be used in what has been no better than a rigged selection process). The problem is that this might only further encourage those who believe that the only way to oust an Arab ruler like Ben Ali is through the resort to violent means. Kamel Labidi is a freelance journalist currently living in Arlington, Virginia. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.
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Debate on Hamas and terrorism

The Conflicts Forum held a debate about a week ago on "an elected Hamas is still a terrorist organization" in which, among others, Stephen Cook, Dan Ayalon, Mark Perry and Stanley Cohen participated. The point being debated is rather badly phrased -- it's obvious that Hamas has used terrorism as a tactic in its struggle for the liberation of Palestine -- but the debate is lively and stimulating. It's really a debate about one (really meaning the US or "international community" in this context) should embrace Hamas as a potential partner for peace rather than ostracize them. Since there are plenty of occasions where political groups that use terror tactics have been integrated politically (from the Zionist terrorist groups of the 1940s to the IRA to the PLO) that question should be moot. The really bigger question, it seems to me, is whether some partners on both sides are interested in peace at all. I don't think that in Israel either Likud, Kadima, or a good part of Labor is really interested -- hence the failure of Oslo and the continual race to expand West Bank settlements under various governments since the mid-1990s. On the Palestinian side Hamas has not resolved some of its ambivalence, although it is certainly seems more willing to consider a fair two-state settlement than a group like Islamic Jihad. Both sides have used, on purpose and with the intent to terrorize, unthinkable violence against civilians. But the Palestinians have done so largely out of self-defense against a foreign occupier while the Israelis have done so mostly to perpetuate an occupation internationally recognized as illegal and to crush a liberation movement. Correction: The debate was not hosted by the Conflicts Forum but rather by Intelligence Squared, which also chose the phrasing of the question.
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BBC poll: One third support torture

A BBC survey in 25 countries on the usage of torture showed some depressing results. One third of those surveyed insisted torture could be used in prison on circumstances.
More than 27,000 people in 25 countries were asked if torture was acceptable if it could provide information to save innocent lives.
In Egypt, according to the poll, 65% voted against employing all sorts of torutre, while 25% saw it legitimate under "some circumstances."
Egyptian citizen from Arish, Mohamed Sharif, tortured and sexually abused by police 2006
And surprise, surprise:
Israel has the largest percentage of those polled endorsing the use of a degree of torture on prisoners, with 43% saying they agreed that some degree of torture should be allowed.
You can read the full BBC report here. Related link: Egyptian police abuse videos
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Lawyer released after 14 years in detention!

Lawyer Mansour Ahmad Mansour has been finally released from prison after he spent 14 years in detention, Al-Masri Al-Youm reported today. The lawyer was initially detained by State Security police on suspicion of involvement in the assassination of secular intellectual Farag Fouda. A court had cleared Mansour of the charges but, as with the case of thousands of other detainees, the interior ministry kept him in custody for 14 years using the powers decreed by Egypt's notorious emergency law. Related links: Two more citizens tortured in Arish Chain of Hatred Forgotten victims of another war on terror Recommended Book: Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam
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War critic journalist murdered in Moscow

I read about this before I went to sleep last night, and sure put me in a bad mood. To be honest, I never heard of the woman before the terrible tragedy happened. But the more I read about her, the more grief I felt.
Anna Politkovskaya
I spoke with a veteran American journalist friend of mine in Cairo, who covered the war in Chechnya and was based in Moscow in the 1990s. He knew Anna, and described her as "very, very brave," he said. "Her coverage during the war was great, but more importantly her post-war coverage. She did many stories on the mass killings by Russians and their proxies, on atrocities against Chechnyan detainees... That made many in Moscow upset. They did not want to hear about this sort of thing... You know, in many ways, being a reporter in Russia is more dangerous that it is here in Egypt." My friend then went on listing names of reporters killed by gangs or local government officials for pursuing stories about corruption or human rights abuses. May she rest in peace...
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Germany: Part of the US gulag?

This is very interesting... New allegations are coming up regarding Germany being part of the US-run global gulag in the current "war on terror," where Islamist suspects are flown around the world, held, interrogated and tortured in secret detention centers.
Guardian Cartoon by Steve Bell
In an interview I conducted last May with Islamist lawyer Montasser al-Zayat, he said Egyptian cleric Abu Omar was beaten up in a US base in Germany, following his kidnapping in Milan by CIA agents, but stressed his client was not interrogated there:
“He was handcuffed, and blindfolded with a piece of cloth. The plane had flown for about an hour and half, when it landed in unknown location. But he was sure it was a non-civilian place. And it was a very cold place. He felt he was taken to a hall of a vast space. They stripped him off his clothes, and dressed him in blue overalls. They took the blindfold off his face. He saw in front of him a big number of people, wearing special forces’ fatigues. They were all dressed in black, and masked, without exceptions. All of them were masked. They were carrying guns. Then, they wrapped his face, all of it, with a sticking bandage. It was very tight. He said when he arrived in Egypt, and as they took the bandage off, his facial hear, moustache and beard were plucked off his face. Before they board him on another plane, they photographed him in the overalls. ‘Then they wrapped my face with sticking bandage, and put me on another plane,’ he said.� You also say he was beaten in that base which he thinks in Germany? “I am a precise person, and that is why I enjoy credibility. I’m saying what my client is saying, and nothing more. He says ‘I was beaten.’ But he didn’t tell me how he was beaten. I assume this was to pacify him. In Egypt, he said, ‘I was tortured.’ There’s a difference that I can understand well. ‘Tortured’ is different from ‘beaten.’ In these places (Italy and Germany) he received punches. “In the place where he thinks it was the American base in Germany, I’ll read to you what he said: ‘I was beaten. I found a number of persons, masked, dressed in special operations fatigues. They photographed me. They beat me. Then they put me in other clothes, and wrapped my face in a sticking bandage. And then, they took me and put me on board of a plane.’�
If it's true terror suspects were held and interrogated in Germany, then the German intelligence must have been let in on what's going on. It's hard to imagine the US conducting such activities without "someone" at least in the German intelligence knowing about it, if not aiding the operation like in the Italians' case. The new allegations put forward by a British legal group representing Gitmo detainees is suggesting, however, the same base Abu Omar was held in might have been used for interrogating terror suspects like Khaled Sheikh Mohamed. This is could well snowball into another political scandal, similar to the one that followed the disclosure that German BND agents aided the invasion of Iraq by supplying the Americans with coordinates of targets on the ground and Saddam's plan to defend Baghdad, despite Berlin's official anti-war position. I book I recommend on extraordinary renditions of Islamist suspects is Stephen Grey's: Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program
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