Crypto terror: Pakistan warns of digital currency crime spike

Crypto terror: Pakistan warns of digital currency crime spike
Police in Pakistan say the use of digital currencies, including bitcoin, for international terror financing, as well as crimes such as extortion and ransom, is on the rise. (File/AFP)
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Updated 04 February 2021

Crypto terror: Pakistan warns of digital currency crime spike

Crypto terror: Pakistan warns of digital currency crime spike
  • Militants push supporters to donate through bitcoin, police say amid crackdown
  • Bitcoin is the most common virtual currency and is used as a vehicle for moving money around the world quickly and anonymously

KARACHI: Police in Pakistan say the use of digital currencies, including bitcoin, for international terror financing, as well as crimes such as extortion and ransom, is on the rise as authorities move to crack down on illegal methods of money transfer.
Bitcoin is the most common virtual currency and is used as a vehicle for moving money around the world quickly and anonymously via the web without the need for third-party verification.
Militant groups worldwide, including Daesh, are increasingly calling on supporters to donate using the digital currency.
Pakistan recently moved to meet 27 targets set for it in 2018 when the South Asian nation was placed on a Financial Action Task Force (FATF) “grey list” of countries with inadequate controls over terror financing. The task force has urged Pakistan to complete an internationally agreed action plan by February 2021. The next virtual plenary of the task force is scheduled for February 22-25.
“We are seeing this trend (of using bitcoin for crimes) since we tightened the noose around illegal systems of transferring funds,” Raja Umar Khattab, head of the Transnational Terrorists Intelligence Group in Sindh’s counterterrorism police, told Arab News.
Last month, Khattab arrested Hafiz Muhammad Omar bin Khalid, a Pakistani engineering student charged with sending bitcoin donations to militants in Syria.
Khalid had transferred over Rs.1 million ($6,200) when he was caught, according to Omar Shahid Hamid, counterterrorism department (CTD) deputy inspector general.
The student had also previously been arrested, and released, in 2018 for extending financial support to an Al-Qaeda militant in Afghanistan, officials said.
In December 2019, Khalid came across a Telegram account online that guided him on how to help the widows of Daesh militants in Syria.
“Help jihadis and their families by sending money through bitcoin,” said one user on the Telegram group, leading Khalid down a rabbit hole of searches into bitcoin wallets. That, in turn, led him to an associate named Zia Shaikh Turk, based in Hyderabad, who converted cash into bitcoin and sent it off to “jihadi brides” in Syria, according to Hamid.
The Pakistani widow of a militant, whom Khalid identified as Umm-e-Bilal, also asked him to open a mobile wallet account, according to interrogation reports made available to Arab News.
“Umm-e-Bilal asked me to open an EasyPaisa (Pakistani digital payment system) account as some of her acquaintances hadn’t heard of bitcoins, but wanted to contribute,” one intelligence report said, quoting Khalid. “I got Rs. 450,000 into my account, added another Rs. 100,000 of my own, converted them into bitcoin and sent them to Syria.”
Last year, a US citizen of Pakistan origin, Zoobia Shahnaz, was sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment for providing material support to foreign militant organizations, specifically more than $150,000 to Daesh.
Shahnaz, 27, from Long Island, admitted to wiring more than $150,000 to individuals and shell entities that were fronts for Daesh in Pakistan, China and Turkey in 2017. She was engaged in a scheme to scam Chase Bank, TD Bank, American Express and Discover by fraudulently obtaining six credit cards, according to a court filing. She then bought more than $62,703 in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, and converted them into cash.
An official at the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) told Arab News the unit had received numerous complaints in recent months by victims asked to pay ransom and extortion in the form of bitcoin. The official did not go on the record as he was not authorized to discuss the cases with the media.
“Cryptocurrency has been used in international as well as local cases of extortion, kidnapping for ransom, harassment and money laundering as there is no centralized monitoring system,” the official said.
In December, a female student in Karachi was blackmailed by an unknown sender who had uploaded her private photos to a pornographic website and demanded Rs. 3 million in bitcoin to remove them. The FIA traced the case to a man in an African country who had hacked the girl’s Snapchat account and eventually taken control of her phone. The alleged blackmailer has since removed the pictures himself.
In another case, a truck contractor in Karachi told Arab News he got a call from an Afghanistan number by a man who knew where he lived and had intricate details of his family’s movements. The man demanded extortion money in bitcoin or else his family would be harmed. The trader declined to be named out of fear for his family’s safety, but said he eventually paid the money using digital currency.
Such cases have led to calls for a ban on virtual currencies in Pakistan, while advocates for regulation have also become more active.
Last month, Rehan Masood, a lawyer for the Pakistani central bank, told the Sindh High Court the state bank had issued a warning about dealing in cryptocurrencies but not banned them.
Pakistan’s central bank issued a circular dated April 6, 2018, advising financial institutions, including banks and payment service providers, “to refrain from processing, using, trading, holding, transferring value, promoting and investing in virtual currencies/tokens.”
The circular said financial institutions “will not facilitate their customers/account holders to transact in VCs/ICO tokens. Any transaction in this regard shall immediately be reported to (the) Financial Monitoring Unit (FMU) as a suspicious transaction.”
TV host Waqar Zaka, an advocate for allowing cryptocurrency in Pakistan, who last January filed a court case against the FIA for arresting people for possessing bitcoin, described trading in virtual currencies as a fundamental right.
“Any ban will deprive Pakistanis of earning the biggest profits,” Zaka told Arab News. “The top countries on FATF have been dealing in cryptocurrency because they know that bitcoin doesn’t work without the Internet, which has a digital trace.”
Independent blockchain and cryptocurrency expert Hassan Raza agreed, saying a complete ban on blockchain-based payment networks should be “out of the question.”
“Terror financing is also done via the banking system, but those have not been banned,” he said, adding that the government should regulate digital tokens.
“Since every transaction in a public blockchain network like bitcoin is stored in a permanent and immutable distributed, public database, anyone is free to view them and conduct data analysis of any complexity on them,” Raza said.
“In fact, several people allegedly involved in illegal activity have been caught in this very manner.”


Hong Kong democracy activist Agnes Chow released from prison

Hong Kong democracy activist Agnes Chow released from prison
Agnes Chow rose to prominence as a student leader in the now defunct Scholarism and Demosisto political groups, alongside other outspoken activists. (AP)
Updated 13 June 2021

Hong Kong democracy activist Agnes Chow released from prison

Hong Kong democracy activist Agnes Chow released from prison
  • Chow, along with Wong and Nathan Law, who has since been given asylum in Britain, came to prominence as teenage activists during the 2014 protests to demand universal suffrage

HONG KONG: Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow was released from prison on Saturday after serving nearly seven months for her role in an unauthorized assembly during anti-government protests in the city in 2019.
The 24-year-old activist had been convicted together with her long-time activist colleague, Joshua Wong, for their involvement in an illegal rally near police headquarters in the Chinese-ruled city.
Wong remains in prison and the reason for Chow’s early release after being sentenced to 10 months in jail was not clear.
Some of her supporters wore black T-shirts and yellow masks and one held a yellow umbrella, a symbol of protests in the former British colony dating back to 2014.
Chow, along with Wong and Nathan Law, who has since been given asylum in Britain, came to prominence as teenage activists during the 2014 protests to demand universal suffrage.

FASTFACTS

• Agnes Chow was also arrested last year on suspicion of ‘colluding with foreign forces’ under the security law but has not faced any charges related to that.

• Fluent in Japanese, Chow has a sizable following in Japan, particularly on social media and had traveled to the country frequently before her arrest.

The three founded the democracy group Demosisto in 2016, which dissolved hours after Beijing passed a contentious national security law for the city last year amid fears it could be targeted under the legislation.
The law has stifled the pro-democracy movement and raised concern about prospects for the autonomy Hong Kong was promised under a “one country, two systems” formula when it was handed over to China in 1997.
Chow was also arrested last year on suspicion of “colluding with foreign forces” under the security law but has not faced any charges related to that.
Fluent in Japanese, Chow has a sizable following in Japan, particularly on social media and had traveled to the country frequently before her arrest. She often posted on Twitter in Japanese.


Pakistan steps up vaccine rollout with 100m target

Pakistan steps up vaccine rollout with 100m target
Government employees wait their turn to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Peshawar. (AP)
Updated 13 June 2021

Pakistan steps up vaccine rollout with 100m target

Pakistan steps up vaccine rollout with 100m target
  • Health authorities budget $1.1bn for Pfizer, Sinovac and AstraZeneca jabs

LAHORE: Pakistan has received 14.5 million coronavirus vaccine doses since it began its vaccination campaign in February, and plans to buy a further 90 million doses to inoculate the adult population in the second half of the year, the country’s health ministry has said.

Announcing its 2020-21 federal budget, Pakistani Minister of Finance Shaukat Tarin said that the government has allocated $1.1 billion to buy coronavirus vaccines and plans to vaccinate 100 million people out of the country’s 216 million population by July 2022.
It has also set aside 100 billion Pakistani rupees ($641 million) to combat coronavirus in the next fiscal year.
According to data shared with Arab News by health chief Dr. Faisal Sultan, as of June 9, the country had received 14.5 million vaccine doses, of which 11.06 million had been bought from pharmaceutical companies, 2.7 million donated by China and a consignment of 1.34 million contributed by Covax, the global dose-sharing platform for poorer countries.
Last November, Pakistan’s government allocated $150 million to buy COVID-19 vaccines from international manufacturers. The fund has been used to buy 11.06 million doses as well as pay transportation costs and buy the equipment needed to administer vaccines across the country, according to Dr. Rana Muhammad Safdar, director-general of health in Islamabad.

HIGHLIGHTS

• As of June 8, about 9.9 million doses of the 14.5 million total doses received had been administered, according to data provided by the health chief.

• According to a government portal, 3.6 percent of Pakistan’s 70 million adult population has been fully inoculated so far.

As of June 8, about 9.9 million doses of the 14.5 million total doses received had been administered, according to data provided by the health chief. According to a government portal, 3.6 percent of Pakistan’s 70 million adult population has been fully inoculated so far.
Of the doses administered, most people — 3,513,088 — have received a Sinovac jab, Sultan said, adding that 2,548,788 people have been given the Sinopharm vaccine.
There are 1,876 vaccination centers in the country, which the government aims to increase to 4,000.
Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, has vaccinated the highest number of eligible individuals — 320,000 — or 27 percent of the city’s adult population.
Most of those vaccinated in Pakistan have been men, data showed, with the ratio of men to women receiving vaccinations being 60:40.
The country has already placed orders for an additional 90 million doses of the vaccine, the health chief added.
He said that authorities expected to receive 34 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine later this year, including 4 million in June, and a further 5 million doses each month until December.
Pakistan is also securing 18 million doses of the China-produced CanSino vaccine, which includes delivery of 3 million doses of the drug every month from July to December.
The US Pfizer vaccine will be administered across the country as well, with 1 million arriving in July and 11 million between July and  December, totaling 12 million doses.
Separately, Pakistan will receive another 1.23 million dose delivery of the UK-produced AstraZeneca jab this month, donated through the Covax platform.
However, the government has voiced concern at people failing to show up to receive a second jab.
“About one in five people fail to have their second dose,” Sultan said.
But Safdar said that the missed appointments might be the result of a backlog in late May, and that “people are now turning up, including those who missed their dose.”


Pro Palestinian rally in London calls on UK government to impose Israel sanction

Pro Palestinian rally in London calls on UK government to impose Israel sanction
Updated 12 June 2021

Pro Palestinian rally in London calls on UK government to impose Israel sanction

Pro Palestinian rally in London calls on UK government to impose Israel sanction
  • Groups say 8,000 attended protests, with 185,000 writing to MPs ahead of debate

LONDON: Pro Palestinian protesters gathered outside Downing Street in the British capital, London, on Saturday to call on the UK government to impose sanctions on Israel over its bombardment of the Gaza Strip last month.
The demonstration comes two days before Parliament is set to debate a petition to introduce sanctions against Israel, after it received more than 380,000 signatures, above the 100,000 threshold required for it to be considered.
The protest, which also comes on the eve of a G7 meeting of world leaders in Cornwall, is part of the “Resist G7 Day of Action for International Justice”organized by a coalition of groups calling on the G7 nations to “end all military-security cooperation with Israel, and employ targeted sanctions until Israel complies with international law,” the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) said.
Organizers said over 8,000 people attended the protest, and 185,000 people directly contacted MPs to “pressure the UK government to hold Israel accountable for repeatedly violating International law, via the imposition of sanctions.”

Organizers say over 8,000 people attended the protest in central London calling on the the British government to introduce sanctions on Israel. (FOA)

Moreover, 10,000 people requested a meeting with their MPs on Wednesday to ask them to attend the parliamentary debate on Monday and speak in favor of sanctions on Israel, as part of a national lobby organized by UK-based NGO Friends of Al-Asqa (FOA).
“Over a space of 10 days, 185,000 people sent a letter that we were organizing through our website on the back of Shiekh Jarrah and what was happening at Al-Aqsa Mosque to ask for a call of sanctions,” FOA’s Shamiul Joarder told Arab News.
Israel’s 11-day campaign in Gaza followed heightened tensions in the West Bank, after Israeli security forces stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque several times during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and wounded hundreds of worshippers, while in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem, dozens of Palestinians face evictions from their homes.
“Israel violates over 40 UN resolutions; the campaign to impose sanctions will continue until Israel is held to account for failing to abide by international law,” said Joarder.
He added that what they have found over the years is more people are becoming politically aware, astute and literate, and are more understanding of the political dynamics in the region.

“Social media has really helped to see what is happening on the ground, to help see on your phone the apartheid taking place in Palestine, and that has really allowed people to galvanize and understand that us giving money is not the solution here, we need to become politically active,” he said.
“Even though the bombs have stopped in Gaza, the occupation remains, and it is really welcoming and a blessing that so many people are still engaged, which is a slight difference to 2008 and 2014. I feel as though people really understand that just because there is a cease-fire, it does not mean the occupation has ceased, it does not mean the apartheid has finished, or the settlements have finished, or the colonial project has come to an end. People understand that the occupation remains and they need to continue to campaign.”
The FOA and PSC organized the protest along with Stop the War Coalition, Palestinian Forum in Britain, and the Muslim Association of Britain.


Authorities shut down six ‘illegal’ Iranian schools in southwest Pakistan

Authorities shut down six ‘illegal’ Iranian schools in southwest Pakistan
Photo/Quetta Assistant Commissioner
Updated 12 June 2021

Authorities shut down six ‘illegal’ Iranian schools in southwest Pakistan

Authorities shut down six ‘illegal’ Iranian schools in southwest Pakistan
  • Schools were teaching foreign curriculum in violation of Pakistani law, officials say
  • Management and faculty of the schools consisted of Iranian nationals

KARACHI: Pakistani authorities have closed six Iranian schools operating illegally in southwestern Balochistan province, officials said on Saturday.
All six schools shut on Friday were run by Iranian nationals in Quetta, the capital of the province bordering Iran.
“We have sealed six schools, which were being illegally run by Iranian nationals and where a foreign syllabus was being taught in violation of the country law,” Quetta Assistant Commissioner Muhammad Zuhaib-ul-Haq told Arab News.
Shabbir Ahmed, monitoring and evaluation director of the provincial government’s Balochistan Education Foundation, said that four more schools are being investigated for teaching a foreign curriculum.
“It’s likely that the remaining four schools will also be sealed since they don’t fulfil requirements,” Ahmed said. “Foreign-funded schools with foreign faculty and foreign syllabus are unacceptable.”
Both the management and faculty of the schools consisted of Iranian nationals, he added.
It remains unclear when the schools were established. All the schools had 1992 “no objection” certificates on display, Ahmed said, but this was not sufficient for them to operate as they had failed to register with the provincial home and education departments.
The schools attracted the attention of local authorities five months ago and were asked to register properly.
“A form was handed to them to get themselves registered, but registration was declined after they failed to fulfil requirements,” Ahmed said.
“If you are teaching in Pakistan, which is a sovereign state, you have to teach Pakistani syllabus,” he added. “It is not possible to teach a foreign curriculum in a sovereign state.”

 

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Afghan official: Bombs hit 2 minivans in Kabul, 7 dead

Afghan official: Bombs hit 2 minivans in Kabul, 7 dead
Updated 12 June 2021

Afghan official: Bombs hit 2 minivans in Kabul, 7 dead

Afghan official: Bombs hit 2 minivans in Kabul, 7 dead
  • The first explosion killed six people and wounded two and the second explosion killed one and wounded four
  • The area where the explosions happened is largely populated by the minority Hazara ethnic group

KABUL: Separate bombs hit two minivans in a mostly Shiite neighborhood in the Afghan capital Saturday, killing at least seven people and wounding six others, the Interior Ministry said.
The attacks targeted minivans on the same road about 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) apart in a neighborhood in western Kabul, Interior Ministry deputy spokesman Ahmad Zia Zia, said.
It wasn’t immediately clear what type of bombs were used and no one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks. Daesh has carried out similar bombings in the area, including four attacks on four minivans earlier this month that killed at least 18 people.
The first explosion killed six people and wounded two and the second explosion in front of Muhammad Ali Jinnah hospital, where a majority of COVID-19 patients are admitted, killed one and wounded four.
The area where the explosions happened is largely populated by the minority Hazara ethnic group who are mostly Shiite Muslims. Shiites are a minority in mostly Sunni Afghanistan, and the local Daesh affiliate has declared war against them.
Hundreds of Afghans are killed or injured every month in violence connected to the country’s constant war. But Hazaras, who make up around 9 percent of the population of 36 million people, stand alone in being intentionally targeted because of their ethnicity and their religion.
Violence and chaos continue to escalate in Afghanistan as the US and NATO continue their withdrawal of the remaining 2,500-3,500 American soldiers and 7,000 allied forces. The last of the troops will be gone by Sept. 11 at the latest.