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.”


Australia ends defense cooperation with Myanmar over coup

Australia ends defense cooperation with Myanmar over coup
Updated 1 min 52 sec ago

Australia ends defense cooperation with Myanmar over coup

Australia ends defense cooperation with Myanmar over coup
CANBERRA, Australia: Australia has suspended its defense cooperation with Myanmar and is redirecting humanitarian aid because of the military takeover of the government and ongoing detention of an Australian citizen.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Monday that Australian diplomats only had access to economic policy adviser Sean Turnell twice since he was detained in early February. She described the access as “very limited consular support.”
“We continue to absolutely call for the release of Professor Sean Turnell,” Payne told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Australia announced late Sunday it had suspended a defense training program with Myanmar worth about 1.5 million Australian dollars ($1.2 million) over five years. The program had been restricted to non-combat areas such as English-language training.
Australian humanitarian aid will be directed away from Myanmar government and government-related entities. Instead it will focus on the immediate humanitarian needs of the most vulnerable and poor in Myanmar including the Rohingyas and other ethnic minorities, Payne said.
Australia had previously imposed sanctions including an arms embargo and sanctions targeting several individuals. These sanctions would continue to be reviewed, Payne said.
Turnell was detained within weeks of arriving in Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon, from Australia to take up a job as adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.
Australia has also called for the release of Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and others who have been arbitrarily detained since the Feb. 1 military coup.

UAE breaks ground for Sheikh Zayed Mosque replica in Indonesia

UAE breaks ground for Sheikh Zayed Mosque replica in Indonesia
Updated 08 March 2021

UAE breaks ground for Sheikh Zayed Mosque replica in Indonesia

UAE breaks ground for Sheikh Zayed Mosque replica in Indonesia
  • $20m replica of UAE’s largest mosque was gifted by Abu Dhabi crown prince

JAKARTA: Top Emirati officials have broken ground for a replica of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Indonesia.

The mosque will be constructed in Solo in Central Java province, the hometown of Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

The replica of the UAE’s largest mosque was gifted to Widodo during the visit of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan to Jakarta in July 2019. 

The crown prince’s visit to Indonesia was the first by a UAE leader since that of his father Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan in 1990.

On the Emirati side, the ground-breaking ceremony was attended by Energy and Infrastructure Minister Suhail Al-Mazroui, and General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments Chairman Dr. Mohammed Al-Kaabi. 

On the Indonesian side, it was attended by Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, State-Owned Enterprises Minister Erick Thohir and Solo Mayor Gibran Rakabuming Raka, who is Widodo’s eldest son.

“The mosque will be almost 100 percent similar to the one in Abu Dhabi, but it will also incorporate some Indonesian ornaments and will maximize the use of local materials,” Husin Bagis, Indonesia’s ambassador to the UAE, told Arab News on Sunday.

The mosque, which will be built on a 3-hectare plot, will feature four minarets, with the main dome surrounded by smaller domes. It will be able to accommodate about 10,000 worshippers.

The ambassador said it could become a major religious tourism destination in the Muslim-majority Southeast Asian country. “Now worshippers can go to Solo to marvel at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque’s splendor,” he added.

The $20 million mosque project is expected to be ready to welcome worshippers in September 2022. 

Construction is being fully financed by the UAE, Qoumas said during the ground-breaking ceremony.

“The mosque, which has a contemporary historical value, will be dedicated to all Muslims and will be managed by the Indonesian government,” he added.

The mosque compound will include an Islamic center to provide UAE-sponsored training for clerics to promote religious moderation.

The ground-breaking ceremony capped a series of events as part of Indonesia-Emirati Amazing Week in Jakarta, Solo, Bandung and Surabaya, which started on March 1 and witnessed the signing of a number of agreements.

The visit by Al-Mazroui and his delegation is a follow-up to $22.9 billion worth of UAE investment deals signed by Widodo during his visit to Abu Dhabi in January 2019.

The agreements, which cover energy, infrastructure, defense and mining, are seen as the biggest foreign investment in Indonesia’s history, and a major advancement of its ties with the Gulf state.

In October 2020, one of the roads in Abu Dhabi’s diplomatic quarters was renamed President Joko Widodo Street.

The Indonesian ambassador said: “Following the grand mosque construction in Solo, the UAE will also construct a mosque named after President Widodo on a location near President Joko Widodo Street.”


Swiss agree to outlaw facial coverings in ‘burqa ban’ vote

Swiss agree to outlaw facial coverings in ‘burqa ban’ vote
Updated 07 March 2021

Swiss agree to outlaw facial coverings in ‘burqa ban’ vote

Swiss agree to outlaw facial coverings in ‘burqa ban’ vote
  • The measure to amend the Swiss constitution passed by a 51.2-48.8% margin, provisional official results showed
  • The Central Council of Muslims in Switzerland called the vote a dark day for the community

ZURICH: A far-right proposal to ban facial coverings in Switzerland won a narrow victory in a binding referendum on Sunday instigated by the same group that organised a 2009 ban on new minarets.
The measure to amend the Swiss constitution passed by a 51.2-48.8% margin, provisional official results showed.
The proposal under the Swiss system of direct democracy does not mention Islam directly and also aims to stop violent street protesters from wearing masks, yet local politicians, media and campaigners have dubbed it the burqa ban.
"In Switzerland, our tradition is that you show your face. That is a sign of our basic freedoms," Walter Wobmann, chairman of the referendum committee and a member of parliament for the Swiss People's Party, had said before the vote.
He called facial covering "a symbol for this extreme, political Islam which has become increasingly prominent in Europe and which has no place in Switzerland".
The Central Council of Muslims in Switzerland called the vote a dark day for the community.
"Today's decision opens old wounds, further expands the principle of legal inequality, and sends a clear signal of exclusion to the Muslim minority," it said.
It promised legal challenges to laws implementing the ban and a fundraising drive to help women who are fined.
The proposal predated the COVID-19 pandemic, which has required adults to wear masks in many settings to prevent the spread of infection.
Two cantons already have local bans on face coverings.
France banned wearing a full face veil in public in 2011 and Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands and Bulgaria have full or partial bans on wearing face coverings in public.
Practically no one in Switzerland wears a burqa and only around 30 women wear the niqab, the University of Lucerne estimates. Muslims make up 5% of the Swiss population of 8.6 million people, most with roots in Turkey, Bosnia and Kosovo.
The government had urged people to vote against a ban.
"After the ban on minarets, a majority of Swiss voters has once again backed an initiative that discriminates against a single religious community and needlessly stirs up fears and division," Amnesty International said.
"The veiling ban is not a measure for women's liberation, but a dangerous symbolic policy that violates freedom of expression and religion."


Russia reports 10,595 new COVID-19 cases, 368 deaths

Russia reports 10,595 new COVID-19 cases, 368 deaths
Updated 07 March 2021

Russia reports 10,595 new COVID-19 cases, 368 deaths

Russia reports 10,595 new COVID-19 cases, 368 deaths
  • The government’s coronavirus taskforce said that 368 people had died in the last 24 hours

MOSCOW: Russia on Sunday reported 10,595 new COVID-19 cases, including 1,534 in Moscow, taking the national case tally to 4,322,776 since the pandemic began.
The government’s coronavirus taskforce said that 368 people had died in the last 24 hours, bringing the Russian death toll to 89,094.


Train derails killing 1, injuring 40 in southern Pakistan

Train derails killing 1, injuring 40 in southern Pakistan
Updated 07 March 2021

Train derails killing 1, injuring 40 in southern Pakistan

Train derails killing 1, injuring 40 in southern Pakistan
  • It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the derailment
  • Rescue official Muhammad Arshad said darkness and the remote location of the derailment hampered rescue efforts
MULTAN, Pakistan: Eight cars of a Lahore bound train derailed in southern Pakistan early Sunday, killing at least one passenger and injuring 40 others, officials said.
The accident took place between the Rohri and Sangi stations in southern Sindh province and caused a temporary suspension of railway traffic in both directions, said Kamran Lashari, a railway official.
It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the derailment. Train accidents are common in Pakistan, where successive governments have paid little attention to improving the poorly maintained signal system and aging tracks.
Lashari said eight cars of the 18-car train that departed from Karachi for the eastern city of Lahore derailed and six fell into a shallow ditch.
Rescue official Muhammad Arshad said darkness and the remote location of the derailment hampered rescue efforts. He said the body of the woman who died and 40 injured passengers were taken to hospitals in nearby towns. It wasn’t immediately clear how many passengers were on the train.
Railway Minister Azam Sawati told a local television station that the accident was being investigated and the government would provide financial compensation to the heirs of deceased woman and all the injured.