Archive for January 18, 2019


January 15, 2019

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Extremists launched a deadly attack on a luxury hotel in Kenya’s capital Tuesday, sending people fleeing in panic as explosions and heavy gunfire reverberated through the complex. A witness said he saw five bodies at the hotel entrance alone.

Al-Shabab — the Somalia-based Islamic extremist group that carried out the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi that left 67 people dead — claimed responsibility. “It is terrible. What I have seen is terrible,” said Charles Njenga, who ran from the bloody, glass-strewn scene.

The coordinated assault began with an explosion that targeted three vehicles outside a bank, and a suicide bombing in the hotel lobby that severely wounded a number of guests, said Kenya’s national police chief, Joseph Boinnet.

Authorities sent special forces into the hotel to flush out the gunmen believed holed up inside. Well after nightfall, more than five hours after the attack began, Boinnet said the counter-operation was still going on.

It was not clear how many attackers laid siege to the complex, which includes the DusitD2 hotel, along with bars, restaurants, banks and offices and is in a well-to-do neighborhood with large numbers of American, European and Indian expatriates.

Boinnet did not disclose the number of dead. However, a Kenyan police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media said that bodies were seen in restaurants downstairs and in offices upstairs, but “there was no time to count the dead.”

Also, a witness who gave his name only as Ken said he saw five bodies at the entrance. He said that other people were shouting for help and “when we rushed back to try to rescue them, gunshots started coming from upstairs, and we had to duck because they were targeting us and we could see two guys shooting.”

Kenyan hospitals appealed for blood donations even as the number of wounded remained unclear. Associated Press video from inside the hotel showed Kenyan security officers anxiously searching the building and scared workers emerging from hiding while gunfire could still be heard. Some women climbed out of windows. One man got up from the floor where he appeared to be trying to hide under a piece of wood paneling, then showed his ID badge.

As officers searched luxury fashion displays, wounded people were carried away on stretchers. Like al-Shabab’s Westgate Mall attack, this one appeared aimed at wealthy Kenyans and foreigners living in the country. It came a day after a magistrate ruled that three men must stand trial in connection with the Westgate Mall siege. A fourth suspect was freed for lack of evidence.

Al-Shabab has vowed retribution against Kenya for sending troops to Somalia since 2011. The al-Qaida-linked group has killed hundreds of people in Kenya, which has been targeted more than any other of the six countries providing troops to an African Union force in Somalia.

In the Westgate Mall massacre, al-Shabab extremists burst into the luxury shopping center, hurling grenades and starting a dayslong siege. In 2015, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for an attack on Kenya’s Garissa University that killed 147 people, mostly students. Tuesday’s violence also came three years to the day after al-Shabab extremists attacked a Kenyan military base in Somalia, killing scores of people.

Gunfire could be heard for hours after Tuesday’s attack began. Several vehicles burned, sending black smoke rising over the complex. Some people ducked behind cars, screaming, while others took cover behind fountains and other features at the lush complex.

Ambulances, security forces and firefighters converged along with a bomb disposal unit, and vehicles were cordoned off for fear they contained explosives. Police said they blew up a car that had explosives inside. An unexploded grenade was also seen in a hallway at the complex.

Security forces hurried out a large group of women, one of them still in curlers. Dozens of others were rushed to safety as plainclothes officers went shop to shop in the complex. Some people held up their hands to show they were unarmed.

A Kenyan intelligence official said the country had been on high alert since November, with information about potential attacks on high-profile targets in Nairobi. The official was not authorized to talk to the media and spoke on condition of anonymity.

A Somali diplomat who likewise spoke on condition of anonymity said Somali officials were in the hotel for meetings at the time of the attack and several were feared to still be inside. Despite the years of bloodshed, the Kenya-Somalia border remains porous, with al-Shabab extremists able to easily bribe their way across, according to a U.N. panel of experts.

The hotel complex in Nairobi’s Westlands neighborhood is about a mile (2 kilometers) from Westgate Mall on a relatively quiet, tree-lined road in what is considered one of the most secure parts of the city. The hotel’s website says it is “cocooned away from the hustle and bustle in a secure and peaceful haven.”

On Monday, the hotel promoted its spa by tweeting: “Is your new year off to a rough start?”

Associated Press writer Abdi Guled in Nairobi contributed.

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January 14, 2019

The CEO of Israeli spyware company NSO Group has admitted that its software was used to spy on the Emir of Qatar.

In an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth this weekend, Shalev Hulio admitted that his company’s product was used to spy on Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, as well as Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani.

The interview disclosed that NSO’s “Pegasus” software – which can be used to remotely infect a target’s mobile phone and then relay back data accessed by the device – was used to intercept phone calls and text messages made by both the Qatari foreign minister and the Emir. These conversations reportedly concerned “hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom to Iran and Hezbollah for the release of several Qataris,” some of which was allegedly sent to the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani.

This spying was seemingly undertaken at the behest of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Hulio revealed that the Israeli Defense Export Control Agency (DECA) authorized three deals with the UAE for the sale of NSO software, despite the fact that DECA is only supposed to give authorization for the “purpose of fighting terrorism and crime”.

These deals – allegedly mediated by former senior Israeli defense officials with close ties to a senior Emirati official – raised a total of $80 million in revenue for NSO.

NSO’s Pegasus software has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months after the product was revealed to be complicit in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Though Hulio stressed in the interview with Yedioth Ahronoth this weekend that “Khashoggi was not targeted by any NSO product or technology, including listening, monitoring, location tracking and intelligence collection,” it appears that Saudi Arabia used NSO software to spy on many of Khashoggi’s friends and associates.

US whistle-blower Edward Snowden has been at the forefront of these claims, telling the Israeli newspaper: “I do not pretend that NSO is involved in hacking [directly] into Khashoggi’s phone, so their denial does not take us to a different conclusion. The evidence shows that the company’s products were involved in hacking into the phones of [Khashoggi’s] friends Omar Abdel Aziz, Yahya Assiri, and Ghanem Al-Masarir.”

The UAE is also known to have been using NSO’s software for some time. In 2016, Citizen Lab and Apple revealed there were attempts to infect an iPhone owned by the Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor. Mansoor had raised the alarm after receiving suspicious text intended to “bait to get him to click on a link, which would have led to the infection of his Apple iPhone 6 and control of the device through a spy software created by the NSO Group”.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190114-israeli-company-admits-spying-on-emir-of-qatar/.

Baghdad (AFP)

Jan 13, 2019

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with his Iraqi counterpart in Baghdad on Sunday for wide-ranging talks, including on US sanctions against Tehran.

The visit came just days after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise stop on his regional tour to urge Iraq to stop relying on Iran for gas and electricity imports.

Washington has granted Baghdad a waiver until late March to keep buying Iranian gas and power, despite reimposing tough sanctions on Tehran in November.

After a two-hour meeting on Sunday, Iraq’s top diplomat Mohammed Ali al-Hakim said he had talked through the restrictions with his counterpart.

“We discussed the unilateral economic measures taken by the US and are working with our neighbor (Iran) on them,” Hakim said.

Zarif slammed Washington’s role in the region.

“These failures have continued for the past 40 years and my proposal to countries (in the region) is to not bet on a losing horse,” he told reporters.

Iran’s foreign minister went on to meet Iraqi premier Adel Abdel Mahdi, who released a statement affirming: “Iraq’s policy is built on seeking the best ties with all of its neighbors.”

Zarif is expected to attend several economic forums in various Iraqi cities, including Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdish north.

While in Baghdad, he discussed numerous political and economic issues with his Iraqi counterpart including Syria and Yemen.

Hakim said Iraq was in favor of the Arab League reinstating Syria’s membership, eight years after suspending it as the conflict there unfolded.

Following Zarif’s visit, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is also expected to travel to Iraq in the near future.

Iran is the second-largest source of imported goods in Iraq.

Besides canned food and cars, Baghdad also buys 1,300 megawatts of electricity and 28 million cubic meters of natural gas daily from Iran to feed power plants.

That dependence is uncomfortable for Washington, which sees Tehran as its top regional foe and expects Iraq to wean itself off Iranian energy resources.

But energy ties between Baghdad and Tehran appear to have remained close, with Iran’s oil minister visiting Baghdad last week to denounce US sanctions as “totally illegal”.

Source: SpaceWar.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Iran_foreign_minister_in_Baghdad_for_talks_999.html.