Iraq’s enemies fire a warning shot with Hisham Al-Hashimi’s murder

Iraq’s enemies fire a warning shot with Hisham Al-Hashimi’s murder
Mourners carry the coffin of slain Iraqi jihadism expert Hisham al-Hashemi, who was shot dead yesterday outside his house in the Iraqi capital, during his funeral in Baghdad’s Zayouna district on July 7, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 12 August 2020

Iraq’s enemies fire a warning shot with Hisham Al-Hashimi’s murder

Iraq’s enemies fire a warning shot with Hisham Al-Hashimi’s murder
  • Gunshots that killed security analyst on Monday reverberate across the Arab world
  • Use of murder to scare critics viewed as a familiar tactic of Middle East terror groups

ERBIL, IRAQI KURDISTAN: In an act that shocked the Arab world late on Monday, unidentified gunmen on a motorcycle shot and killed Hisham Al-Hashimi, a leading Iraqi expert on Daesh and other armed groups. As with so many unsolved murders of prominent public personalities in Iraq since 2003, there is no dearth of suspects. The big question is what action Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi can afford to take under the circumstances.

The 47-year-old Al-Hashimi was a well-respected Iraqi academic and political analyst. His expertise on Daesh earned him the position of adviser to the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. After the destruction of Daesh’s self-styled caliphate in 2018, he shifted his focus to the workings of the Hashd Al-Shaabi (or Popular Mobilization Forces) units that participated in the anti-Daesh campaign.

Al-Hashimi had expressed fears in recent weeks that Iranian-backed constituents of Hashd had him in their crosshairs. A medical source at the hospital where he was taken after Monday’s shooting said he had suffered “bullet wounds in several body parts.”

Iraq witnessed a spate of deadly attacks on intellectuals, academics and moderate politicians at the height of the insurgency. More than 500 people have been killed since protests erupted in Oct. 2019, demanding an end to corruption and Iran’s overarching influence. But analysts believe that with Al-Hashimi’s killing, a loud warning shot has been fired across Al-Kadhimi’s bow.

“The assassination is intended to signal militia displeasure with Al-Kadhimi and his inner circle,” said Michael Knights, a noted Iraq analyst and Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“They are saying that there is a cost to the Al-Kadhimi team for arresting militia members and disrupting militia money-making enterprises,” he added.

The use of murder to scare critics is of course not something new to terror groups in the Middle East.

The assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri and the subsequent attacks that killed or maimed critics of Syria and Hezbollah in the 2000s are prominent examples of this.

Late last month, Al-Kadhimi had 14 members of the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah arrested in Baghdad when the group was preparing to carry out a rocket attack on bases hosting US troops.

(Video: Protesters aiming their anger at Kataib Hezbollah, who they blame for orchestrating the Al-Hashimi killing. Twitter)

Although the militants were quickly released, the action suggested that the new government was prepared to take a firm stance against rogue Hashd elements.

Knights’ view is echoed by Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, who says Kataib Hezbollah is a prime suspect in Al-Hashimi’s murder.

“The message was a simple one,” he told Arab News. “Those who criticize their activities will be threatened like Al-Hashimi was, and can be killed with impunity.”

Wing says groups such as the Kataib feel they are part of the state now and “therefore have free rein to kill protesters, critics and anyone else they feel fit to execute, because no one has stopped them before.”

The US-led invasion of 2003 brought the turbulent Saddam Hussein era to an abrupt end, but new troubles cropped up in the form of insurgency, terrorism, sectarian politics and finally Daesh. Today Iraq is torn between a pro-Iran camp, which wants to get rid of the last vestiges of US military presence, and nationalists, who resent the pervasive influence of Tehran in their country’s affairs.

Lawk Ghafuri, an Iraq analyst and journalist for the Erbil-based Kurdish media outlet Rudaw, views Al-Hashimi’s assassination as a “clear message to all writers and researchers in Iraq that there are red lines, and if you cross them, you’ll be murdered.”

He said: “This is a huge step backward for freedom of expression and a free press in Iraq.”

According to Ghafuri, if the assassins are revealed as Iran-backed members of Hashd, Al-Kadhimi’s promise of action might prove difficult to fulfill, since he already faces pressure from the same elements over the arrest of the Kataib militants.

In his final commentaries, Al-Hashimi had rebuked the Hashd, among other groups, for operating outside of the control of the state, a criticism they are extremely sensitive to, Ghafuri said.

He added: “Al-Hashimi had outlined in detail the new structure, difficulties, challenges, and internal issues within the Hashd Al-Shaabi. He described the way they are operating, and he also illustrated the divisions in Hashd, where some are loyal to Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani and others loyal to Iran.”

Regardless of Al-Kadhimi’s next course of action, Ghafuri warns that Iraqis must be prepared for more chaos going forward.

The least we can do is to expose these criminals and bring justice to ensure that security and peace prevails for our country.

Barham Salih, President of Iraq

“If you stay silent, the rule of law will be in a bad situation. But if you implement the rule of law, the Iranian-backed militias will cause trouble for you,” he said.

However, as Knights says, Al-Hashimi enjoyed a lot of respect among Iraqis and was a supporter of last year’s anti-government protests. As a result of this, his murder could prove a step too far for Iranian-backed Hashd fighters.

“The militias killed a popular supporter of the protest movement and a recognizable face of Iraqi academia when they targeted Al-Hashimi,” he said, adding that “the action may prove counterproductive for the militias."

Wing said that, while Al-Hashimi’s death has led to an international outcry, “it is still a dangerous game for the prime minister to respond.”

At the most, Al-Kadhimi “might be able to pull off an arrest of a few members, if the authorities can find direct evidence in the assassination,” he said.

“Anything else could bring a wave of protests in the Green Zone, as happened after the raid on Kataib Hezbollah. It could bring even more rocket attacks on facilities that host Americans in defiance of his demands that they stop, and even the fall of his government if the ‘Fatah List’ decides he has gone too far,” he added.

Wing was referring to a powerful bloc in parliament that vigorously defends Iran’s interests and policies in Iraq.

Wing does not believe Al-Hashimi’s murder was a direct response to the arrest of Kataib members, but sees it as “another poke in Al-Kadhimi’s eye, saying they don’t believe he has the power to stop their activities.”

He said: “When the Hashd were made part of the security forces, praised for their war against Daesh, and their crimes were actively covered up, it gave them the sense that they could do what they wanted. And this is just the latest example.”

He added: “If they could get away with destroying part of Tikrit and the surrounding towns after the city was retaken, kidnapping and murdering hundreds of men during operations in Anbar, and displacing thousands of people during the war, who is going to stop them for killing one analyst?”

Still, Knights believes Al-Kadhimi’s people will not back down because of the July 6 assassination, although they may move more cautiously now.

“When intelligence suggests future militia attacks or justifies arrest operations, they will probably detain more militia fighters,” he said, adding: “The tit-for-tat pattern has begun, but Al-Kadhimi is not easy to intimidate.”



Iranian hackers posed as aerobics instructors to target defense workers

A fake Facebook page that was controlled by an Iranian hacker, according to reports. (Screenshot)
A fake Facebook page that was controlled by an Iranian hacker, according to reports. (Screenshot)
Updated 10 min 28 sec ago

Iranian hackers posed as aerobics instructors to target defense workers

A fake Facebook page that was controlled by an Iranian hacker, according to reports. (Screenshot)
  • They sent “flirtatious” videos to build rapport and later delivered malware to targets’ devices
  • It is unclear whether any sensitive information was stolen

LONDON: A group of Iranian hackers posed as aerobics instructors from Liverpool, UK, and sent flirtatious messages in an attempt to steal sensitive information from defense and aerospace industry personnel.

The hackers’ false identities were exposed by Facebook and the cybersecurity company Proofpoint, which said the operation proves the effort that Iran is putting into targeting individuals of interest.

The hackers have been identified as part of the TA456 group, which also goes by the name of Tortoiseshell — a group widely believed to be aligned with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Proofpoint described the group as “one of the most determined Iranian-aligned threat actors” that it tracks, due to tactics of spending months or years building up a relationship with targets across various platforms, as well as its “general persistence.”

The operatives created fake Facebook, Instagram and email accounts for a woman named Marcella Flores. She was depicted as a smiling, tanned and dark-haired Spanish woman working as a fitness instructor in Liverpool. They created a fake education and work history for her.

Proofpoint said that Flores would target people who publicly identified themselves as employees at defence contractors on social media accounts, befriending them before starting up a conversation.

In one case, she sent the target benign messages and photographs, as well as a “flirtatious” video to build a rapport, before later sending a link to a dietary survey but that in fact contained a malware download that would steal usernames, passwords and other data.

Proofpoint did not say whether the attacks were successful, but if they were, the stolen information could be used to gain access to larger aerospace companies that the original target was a subsidiary or contractor for.

Facebook banned her account and that of several others earlier this month, saying that they were all fake online personas created by the Iranian operatives to “conduct espionage operations across the internet.”

Facebook said: “Our investigation found them targeting military personnel and companies in the defence and aerospace industries primarily in the US, and to a lesser extent in the UK and Europe.”

When the comprehensive campaign was revealed, Amin Sabeti, an expert in Iranian cyber-operations, told Arab News that the strategy — which he dubs “social engineering” hacking — is a go-to tactic for Iranian operatives, or those working on behalf of the state.

“It’s the same pattern that Iranian state-backed hackers have been following for years,” he said.

Sabeti explained that they rely on manipulating targets into providing sensitive information or account details that can then be exploited for their gain — and, since they are operating from Iranian soil, “they have the consent of the regime.”

Sabeti said: “It’s easy, cheap, there’s plausible deniability and it works, it’s effective.”

Delta variant drives Mideast virus surge: WHO

Delta variant drives Mideast virus surge: WHO
Updated 46 min 8 sec ago

Delta variant drives Mideast virus surge: WHO

Delta variant drives Mideast virus surge: WHO
  • WHO said the highly transmissible strain has been recorded in 15 out of the region’s 22 countries
  • Tunisia has been struggling to contain the outbreak

CAIRO: The World Health Organization said Thursday the Delta variant has led to a "surge" in coronavirus outbreaks triggering a "fourth wave" in the Eastern Mediterranean region, where vaccination rates remain low.
The global health body said the highly transmissible strain, first detected in India, has been recorded in 15 out of the 22 countries of the region under its purview, stretching from Morocco to Pakistan.
"The circulation of the Delta variant is fuelling the surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths in an increasing number of countries in WHO's Eastern Mediterranean Region," it said in a statement.
"Most of the new cases and hospitalised patients are unvaccinated people. We are now in the fourth wave of Covid-19 across the region," said Ahmed al-Mandhari, director of WHO's Eastern Mediterranean region.
Infections have increased by 55 percent, and deaths by 15 percent, in the last month compared to the month before. More than 310,000 case and 3,500 deaths have been recorded weekly.
Countries such as Tunisia, which has suffered the biggest number of Covid-19 deaths in North Africa, have been struggling to contain the outbreak.
Critical shortages of oxygen tanks and intensive care beds have stretched the capacities of healthcare systems regionally.
WHO noted the rapid spread of the Delta variant was quickly making it "the dominant strain" in the region.
According to a recent paper in the journal Virological, the amount of virus found in the first tests of patients with the Delta variant was 1,000 times higher than patients in the first wave of the virus in 2020, greatly increasing its contagiousness.


In Iraq, vaccine hesitancy gives way to jabs as Covid spikes

In Iraq, vaccine hesitancy gives way to jabs as Covid spikes
Updated 29 July 2021

In Iraq, vaccine hesitancy gives way to jabs as Covid spikes

In Iraq, vaccine hesitancy gives way to jabs as Covid spikes
  • "In the last 10 days, the number of (vaccination) patients has risen to 600 or 700 people a day" compared with 200 to 400 previously
  • This week Iraq reported 12,000 new infections in 24 hours, a milestone previously unreached since the pandemic hit in March last year

BAGHDAD: A soldier exposes his shoulder and awaits a jab to the amusement of fellow troops, a familiar scene in Iraq where a Covid spike is prompting more vaccinations despite widespread hesitancy.
At a Baghdad hospital administering the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, chaos reigns as dozens of men and women of all ages stream into an inoculation center where doctors are unaccustomed to seeing such crowds.
An elderly man shuts his eyes as the needle approaches, a young woman poses for her friends, and patients emerge from a room clutching certificates and looking relieved.
“In the last 10 days, the number of (vaccination) patients has risen to 600 or 700 people a day” compared with 200 to 400 previously, says Dr. Abbas Mohammed.
“The increase in the number of infections and deaths is really starting to scare people,” he says.
This week Iraq reported 12,000 new infections in 24 hours, a milestone previously unreached since the pandemic hit in March last year.
On Wednesday, a new daily high was reached with 13,515 cases. The government is ramping up warnings and incentives for people to get vaccinated as well as to comply better with poorly followed health protocols.
“Up until now, I was afraid (of vaccination), but the worsening of the situation has convinced me,” says Ali, a young man now “very excited” about getting his first dose.
The wait can last several hours, says 50-year-old Adnan Abdelhamid, bemoaning the “lack of organization” and “the people who know someone and go before the others.”
But the majority of patients are satisfied, like Salima Mehdi, an elderly woman whose head is veiled by a chequered scarf.
“I am so happy to be vaccinated, thank God,” she says, her eyes gleaming behind her facemask.
Dr. Mohammed says the number of people vaccinated in the country each day has risen from 23,000 to 110,000 of late.
And despite the blazing summer heat, queues are getting longer in front of vaccination centers in the capital, in the eastern province of Wasit and in Iraqi Kurdistan to the north.
The number of people to have received two doses reached 1.5 million this week in Iraq, a country with a 40-million strong population and where distrust of vaccines has been particularly strong.
“There is a jump in the rate of vaccination in all provinces,” health ministry spokesman Saif Al-Badr told AFP.
Fifty-year-old Ali admits he has long been afraid of the side effects of vaccines, an anxiety fueled by misinformation, including from health professionals.
“But more and more doctors on TV are explaining why you should get vaccinated. We also see people around us leaving. So I took the plunge,” he says, although the rest of his family have yet to decide.
“They are waiting to see; I am their guinea pig,” he says with a loud laugh.
A doctor at a private clinic says his patients prefer to get treated for Covid rather than get vaccinated.
“Too many people still don’t realize the importance of the vaccine and preventive measures,” says the doctor who requested anonymity.
But “opinions change easily in the face of the gravity of the situation,” he adds, and notes that the recent growing awareness is a “very good thing.”
Iraq launched its inoculation campaign in March and uses the Pfizer/BioNTech, AstraZeneca and Sinopharm vaccines.
On a visit to Washington this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhemi said some 500,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine were to be delivered in the coming weeks.
More than 18,000 people have officially died of Covid in Iraq in the past 18 months, and the country has recorded nearly 1.6 million cases of infection.

Jewish founders of Ben & Jerry’s back West Bank boycott decision

Jewish founders of Ben & Jerry’s back West Bank boycott decision
Updated 29 July 2021

Jewish founders of Ben & Jerry’s back West Bank boycott decision

Jewish founders of Ben & Jerry’s back West Bank boycott decision
  • Move comes amid pressure from Israeli government, Knesset and in the US to reverse stance
  • Vermont firm’s chair denies that the decision was motivated by antisemitism

LONDON: The Jewish co-founders of American ice cream-maker Ben & Jerry’s have given their “unequivocal” backing to the company over its “brave” decision to stop selling products in the occupied West Bank.
The move comes amid a backlash against the Vermont firm, with the Israeli government putting pressure on its parent company, Unilever, and the chair of the board of Ben & Jerry’s forced to deny accusations of antisemitism.
Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who set up the company in 1978, wrote in an article for The New York Times: “We are the founders of Ben & Jerry’s. We are also proud Jews. It’s part of who we are and how we’ve identified ourselves for our whole lives. As our company began to expand internationally, Israel was one of our first overseas markets. We were then, and remain today, supporters of the State of Israel, but it’s possible to support Israel and oppose some of its policies, just as we’ve opposed policies of the US government.
“As such, we unequivocally support the decision of the company to end business in the occupied territories, which the international community, including the UN, has deemed an illegal occupation.”
The pair added that while they no longer controlled Ben & Jerry’s they believed it to be “on the right side” of history.
“Ending the sales of ice cream in the occupied territories is one of the most important decisions the company has made in its 43-year history.
“That we support the company’s decision is not a contradiction, nor is it antisemitic. In fact, we believe this act can and should be seen as advancing the concepts of justice and human rights, core tenets of Judaism,” they said, adding that it was important to note Ben & Jerry’s would continue to sell products inside Israel.
In a statement, the ice cream-maker said it had parted company with the Israeli firm responsible for manufacturing and distributing its products in the region, adding: “Although Ben & Jerry’s will no longer be sold in the OPT, we will stay in Israel through a different arrangement. We will share an update on this as soon as we’re ready.”
Unilever has said it is “fully committed” to doing business in Israel, despite heavy political pressure against the decision in the country and abroad.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett vowed to “act aggressively” to reverse it, whilst Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, blamed the assembly for fostering an environment where Israel was condemned by the international community while others, such as Syria and Iran, faced less scrutiny.
“When this council fails to take strong action against the world’s worst human rights violators like Iran and Syria and instead singles out the world’s only Jewish state, it is no wonder that companies like Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever allow themselves to single out Israel for boycott,” he said.
On Wednesday, 90 of the 120 members of the Knesset signed a letter addressed to Ben & Jerry’s calling on it to reverse its “shameful, immoral and regrettable” move, adding that it could be in violation of Israeli law.
The Israeli government also wrote to 35 US states with anti-boycott laws asking them to consider action against Ben & Jerry’s, while in New York City, a Jewish owner of a Ben & Jerry’s store pledged to donate 10 percent of all his profits to Israel.
“We couldn’t sit back and watch without speaking up,” Joel Gasman, the store owner, said. “(The company’s decision) has definitely hurt our bottom line and our overall store value. We did fear boycotts from customers. We still do.”
In the Long Island town of North Hempstead, which signed local laws against boycotts of Israel in 2017, officials called the decision “dangerous and anti-Israel.”
Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth said: “North Hempstead’s anti-BDS legislation ensures that taxpayer money is never used to do business with or support any company that engages in a boycott of Israel.
“North Hempstead is a community of unity and inclusion. We remain committed in the fight against intolerance and we are unwavering in our condemnation of this BDS movement.”
The chair of the board of Ben & Jerry’s, Anuradha Mittal, however, spoke out against criticism of the company, and refuted accusations of antisemitism.
“I am proud of @benandjerrys for taking a stance to end the sale of its ice cream in the Occupied Palestinian territory,” she tweeted. “This action is not antisemitic. I am not antisemitic. The vile hate that has been thrown at me does not intimidate me. Pls work for peace — not hatred!”

US state secretary visits Kuwait to boost ties

US state secretary visits Kuwait to boost ties
Updated 29 July 2021

US state secretary visits Kuwait to boost ties

US state secretary visits Kuwait to boost ties

DUBAI: The top diplomat of the United States on Thursday began a visit to Kuwait, where he held talks with high-ranking officials in the Gulf Arab sheikhdom that has long been a US ally in the region.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed a group of American diplomats, toured the country’s Parliament and met at the royal palace with Kuwait’s ruling Emir, Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, the crown prince and foreign minister. The State Department said Blinken would advance discussions with Kuwait on military cooperation, regional security and investment during his short visit.
Blinken arrived in Kuwait City late Wednesday from India. American forces are completing their withdrawal from war-scarred Afghanistan after a 20-year military campaign, a drawdown that’s rippling through the wider region.
Kuwait has been a critical US partner since the 1991 Gulf War expelled the occupying Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein.
The country hosts some 13,500 American troops, most based at Camp Arifjan south of Kuwait City, and the forward command of US Army Central.