Spain fires intelligence chief amid phone hacking scandals

Spain fires intelligence chief amid phone hacking scandals
The government recently revealed that an ‘external’ power infected the cellphone of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, above, with the Pegasus spyware last year. (AP)
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Updated 10 May 2022

Spain fires intelligence chief amid phone hacking scandals

Spain fires intelligence chief amid phone hacking scandals
  • Top intelligence agency has been under fire for its role in spying on Catalan separatists
  • Paz Esteban became the first woman to head the CNI in July 2019

BARCELONA, Spain: Spain’s government fired the director of the country’s top intelligence agency Tuesday following the hacking of politicians’ cellphones, including the devices of the prime minister and several supporters of the Catalonia region’s secession.
The National Intelligence Center, or CNI, has been under fire for its role in spying on Catalan separatists and for taking a full year to discover that the handsets of the prime minister and leading defense and security officials were infiltrated, possibly by a foreign power.
Defense Minister Margarita Robles, who was among the hacking targets, announced after Cabinet meeting that Paz Esteban would be relieved as CNI director.
“That (the hacks of government phones) took a year to discover, well, it is clear there are things that we need to improve,” Robles said. “We are going to try to ensure that these attacks don’t happen again, even though there is no way to be completely safe.”
Esteban’s replacement will be Esperanza Casteleiro, “a woman who has worked for almost 40 years” at the intelligence agency, Robles said.
Esteban acknowledged during a closed-door parliamentary committee hearing last week that with judicial permission, her agency had hacked the phones of several Catalan separatists.
In a separate case, the government recently revealed that an “external” power infected the cellphones of Robles and of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez with the Pegasus spyware last year.
The phone of Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska, the head of Spain’s police and border control agencies, also was infected with the spyware at the same time as the defense minister’s phone.
Sánchez’s minority left-wing coalition has often had to rely on votes Parliament from Catalan separatist parties, which have threatened to withdraw their support if the government does not accept responsibility for the hacking.
The leader of Spain’s opposition conservatives, Popular Party president Alberto Nuñez Feijóo slammed the decision to remove Esteban. He said the government had sacrificed her to the Catalan separatists.
“It is a monstrosity that Sánchez offers the head of the CNI director to the separatists, once again weakening the state to assure his survival,” Popular Party President Alberto Nuñez Feijóo wrote on Twitter.
Esteban, 64, became the first woman to head the CNI in July 2019, initially on an interim basis. Her appointment was made permanent in February 2020.
The previous CNI director had received criticism for failing in 2017 to stop preparations by Catalan separatists to hold an independence referendum that had been deemed illegal by Spain’s top courts.
The alleged phone hacks of more than 60 Catalan politicians, lawyers and activists was denounced last month in a report by the Canada-based digital rights group Citizen Lab.
The list of phones that were allegedly infected by Pegasus spyware, which the Israeli company NSO says it only sells to government agencies, includes the current regional head of Catalonia. The Citizen Lab report said the hacks started in late 2019, with Esteban in charge of the CNI.
Robles has defended the targeting of Catalan politicians for their involvement in a separatist plot that tried and failed to separate Catalonia from the rest of Spain five years ago.
Gabriel Rufián, the parliamentary spokesman for the Catalan party ERC, said that dismissal of Esteban was not about appeasing the separatists. He noted that the CNI has also been accused of neglecting the tech security of top government officials.
“It seems logical, with all my respects to Esteban, that in a country that admits that the phones of the prime minister and defense minister have been illegally spied upon, for the head of the CNI to assume the responsibility,” Rufián said.


Bangladesh floods leave 3.5 million children needing clean water: UNICEF

Flood affected people queue in knee-deep flood waters to collect food relief following heavy monsoon rainfalls in Sunamganj
Flood affected people queue in knee-deep flood waters to collect food relief following heavy monsoon rainfalls in Sunamganj
Updated 6 sec ago

Bangladesh floods leave 3.5 million children needing clean water: UNICEF

Flood affected people queue in knee-deep flood waters to collect food relief following heavy monsoon rainfalls in Sunamganj
  • The floods have also disrupted health facilities, shut schools and disrupted malnutrition treatment for hundreds of children, Yett told a briefing in Geneva

LONDON: Fifteen children have drowned in flash floods that swept through Bangladesh with another 3.5 million urgently needing clean drinking water as the risk of waterborne diseases grows, UNICEF’s country representative said on Friday.
“That’s a staggering number of children and an increase over the last couple of days. Huge areas are fully underwater and are disconnected from safe drinking water and food supplies. Children need help right now,” Sheldon Yett said.
Government and aid agencies have rushed to provide relief including water and other supplies after flash flooding across a quarter of the South Asian nation.
The floods have also disrupted health facilities, shut schools and disrupted malnutrition treatment for hundreds of children, Yett told a briefing in Geneva.
Cases of diarrhea have risen to 2,700 as of the middle of this week, he added.
Authorities in Bangladesh and neighboring India have warned of a risk of a disease epidemic. In total, more than 4.5 million people have been stranded and dozens killed in Bangladesh, many in the worst flooding in the Sylhet region in the northeast for more than 100 years.
In the eastern Indian state of Assam, Indian air force helicopters have been deployed to drop food and other supplies to cut-off communities.


US Supreme Court strikes down right to abortion

US Supreme Court strikes down right to abortion
Updated 25 June 2022

US Supreme Court strikes down right to abortion

US Supreme Court strikes down right to abortion

WASHINGTON: The US Supreme Court on Friday struck down the right to abortion in a seismic ruling that shredded five decades of constitutional protections and prompted several right-leaning states to impose immediate bans on the procedure.
The conservative-dominated court overturned the landmark 1973 “Roe v. Wade” decision enshrining a woman’s right to an abortion, saying individual states can restrict or ban the procedure themselves.
“The Constitution does not confer a right to abortion,” the court said in a 6-3 ruling on one of America’s most bitterly divisive issues. “The authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives.”
A somber President Joe Biden called the ruling a “tragic error” stemming from “extreme ideology” and said it was a “sad day for the court and the country.”
“The health and life of women in this nation are now at risk,” Biden said, warning that other rights could be threatened next, such as same-sex marriage and contraception.
The Democratic president urged Congress to restore abortion protections as federal law and said Roe will be “on the ballot” in November’s midterm elections.
Hundreds of people — some weeping for joy and others with grief — gathered outside the fenced-off Supreme Court as the ruling came down.
“It’s hard to imagine living in a country that does not respect women as human beings and their right to control their bodies,” said Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat, 49, a mother of two daughters who was choking back tears.
“You have failed us,” read a sign held up by one protester. “Shame,” said another.
But Gwen Charles, a 21-year-old opponent of abortion, was jubilant.
“This is the day that we have been waiting for,” Charles told AFP. “We get to usher in a new culture of life in the United States.”
Just hours after the ruling, Missouri banned abortion — making no exception for rape or incest — and so did South Dakota, except where the life of the mother is at risk.
Abortion providers in Wisconsin said the procedure was now banned there.
“This is a monumental day for the sanctity of life,” Missouri attorney general Eric Schmitt said.
About two dozen states are expected to severely restrict or outright ban and criminalize abortions, forcing women to travel long distances to states that still permit the procedure.
In the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said Roe v. Wade was “egregiously wrong.”
“Abortion presents a profound moral issue on which Americans hold sharply conflicting views,” he said. “The Constitution does not prohibit the citizens of each State from regulating or prohibiting abortion.”
The court tossed out the legal argument in Roe v. Wade that women had the right to abortion based on the constitutional right to privacy with regard to their own bodies.
While the ruling represents a victory in the struggle against abortion by the religious right, leaders of the largely Christian conservative movement said it does not go far enough and they will push for a nationwide ban.
“While it’s a major step in the right direction, overturning Roe does not end abortion,” said the group March for Life.
“God made the decision,” said former Republican president Donald Trump in praising the court’s ruling.
The ruling was made possible by Trump’s nomination of three conservative justices — Neil Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.
Alito’s opinion largely mirrors his draft opinion that was the subject of an extraordinary leak in early May, sparking nationwide demonstrations, with an armed man arrested this month near the home of conservative justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, called the ruling “outrageous and heart-wrenching,” while leading abortion provider Planned Parenthood vowed to “never stop fighting.”
The three liberal justices on the court dissented from the ruling — which came a day after the court ushered in a major expansion of US gun rights.
“One result of today’s decision is certain: the curtailment of women’s rights, and of their status as free and equal citizens,” they said.
Abortion providers could now face criminal penalties and “some States will not stop there,” they warned.
“Perhaps, in the wake of today’s decision, a state law will criminalize the woman’s conduct too, incarcerating or fining her for daring to seek or obtain an abortion,” they said.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 13 states have adopted so-called “trigger laws” that will ban abortion virtually immediately.
Ten others have pre-1973 laws that could go into force or legislation that would ban abortion after six weeks, before many women even know they are pregnant.
Women in states with strict anti-abortion laws will either have to continue with their pregnancy, undergo a clandestine abortion, obtain abortion pills, or travel to another state where it remains legal.
Several Democratic-ruled states, anticipating an influx, have taken steps to facilitate abortion and three of them — California, Oregon and Washington — issued a joint pledge to defend access in the wake of the court’s decision.
The ruling goes against an international trend of easing abortion laws, including in such countries as Ireland, Argentina, Mexico and Colombia where the Catholic Church continues to wield considerable influence.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called it a “huge blow to women’s human rights and gender equality.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described it as “horrific” while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was a “big step backwards.”


Can crisis-stricken Afghanistan be prevented from becoming an extremists’ sanctuary again?

Can crisis-stricken Afghanistan be prevented from becoming an extremists’ sanctuary again?
Updated 25 June 2022

Can crisis-stricken Afghanistan be prevented from becoming an extremists’ sanctuary again?

Can crisis-stricken Afghanistan be prevented from becoming an extremists’ sanctuary again?
  • Concerns growing about the future of bankrupt, unstable and internationally isolated country
  • IS-K exploiting disunity among Taliban over whether to embrace pragmatism or ideological purity

LONDON: Nearly a year into the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan following the US military withdrawal, there is mounting concern that the bankrupt, unstable and internationally isolated country could once again become a sanctuary for extremist groups and even a launchpad for global terrorism.

The US beat a rushed retreat from Afghanistan in August 2021 after reaching a shaky peace deal with the Taliban, whose leaders pledged to never again offer sanctuary to extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda, which had plotted the 9/11 attacks from Afghan soil.

The hope was that Afghanistan would not become a hotbed of international terrorism as it had been in 2001, and that a plot for an attack of 9/11’s magnitude would never again emanate from the country.

But in common with millions of Afghans, not many South Asian observers were convinced of the Taliban’s sincerity, believing instead that the country was being hijacked yet again by a violent and insular fundamentalist group.

“I do think that Afghanistan has already become a hive of terrorism,” Ahmad Wali Massoud, a former ambassador of Afghanistan to the UK, told Arab News.

“Already we can see many strands of terrorism, from Al-Qaeda to Daesh. They are already staying inside Afghanistan, they are being protected by the Taliban, they are protected by the government of Taliban inside Afghanistan.”

Massoud is the younger brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Tajik guerrilla commander who until the Taliban’s return to power last year was feted as Afghanistan’s national hero.

Daesh’s Afghanistan franchise, IS-K, remains a threat to the Taliban’s grip on power. (AFP)

“The US departure from Afghanistan was very unrealistic, very irresponsible, it was not coordinated well, and ignored the people of Afghanistan,” Ahmad Wali Massoud told Arab News.

“The US left their allies, the people of Afghanistan, the security forces of Afghanistan, which they helped for almost 20 years. They completely ignored them. They left them alone to the mercy of terrorism, of the Taliban, of extremism.”

Today, Ahmad Wali Massoud’s nephew, Ahmad Massoud, heads the National Resistance Front against the Taliban in his native Panjshir, north of Kabul, where his father had famously resisted the Soviets and the Taliban decades earlier.

Recent fighting in Panjshir does not still represent a challenge to the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan, but it is the most significant and sustained armed opposition the group has faced since returning to power.

For Massoud and others, the idea that, once in power, the Taliban would act less like an insurgent movement and more like a government for all Afghans, was not quite grounded in reality.

With political violence now rife across the country, freedom of speech curtailed, and the rights of women and girls eroding steadily, war-weary Afghans’ mood is one of deepening pessimism.

Responding to the developments since last August, the US and global financial institutions have frozen Afghanistan’s assets, withheld aid and loans, and sought to isolate the Taliban regime.

A recently released UN report says IS-K has between 1,500 and 4,000 fighters, “concentrated in remote areas” of Kunar, Nangarhar and possibly Nuristan provinces. (AFP)

As a result, the Afghan government is perpetually on the brink of economic collapse and, in some parts of the country, the specter of famine looms. Almost half the population — 20 million people — is experiencing acute hunger, according to a UN-backed report issued in May.

On Wednesday, the country faced a new humanitarian crisis when a magnitude 5.9 earthquake struck the country’s east, killing more than 1,000 people and injuring another 1,500. Most of the deaths occurred in the provinces of Paktika, Khost and Nangarhar,

Additionally, the Taliban finds itself battling a violent insurgency led by Daesh’s local franchise, the Islamic State in Khorasan, or IS-K, which in recent months has repeatedly targeted members of minority communities including Shiites, Sikhs and Sufis.

A recently released UN report says IS-K has between 1,500 and 4,000 fighters, “concentrated in remote areas” of Kunar, Nangarhar and possibly Nuristan provinces. According to the study, smaller, covert cells are located in northern and northeastern provinces, including Badakhshan, Takhar, Jowzjan, Kunduz and Faryab.

While the Taliban is satisfied with setting up an Islamic polity within Afghanistan, the goal of IS-K is to create a single state for the entire Muslim world, according to scholars of political Islam.

IS-K is seeking to exploit dissension within the Taliban ranks over whether the group should embrace pragmatism or ideological purity. The tensions are intensified by the hodge-podge of entities in Afghanistan, including Daesh, the Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

INNUMBERS

* 20m Afghans experiencing acute hunger.

* 1,000+ Death toll of June 22 earthquake.

* 1,500+ UN estimate of IS-K fighters in Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s dilemma as it tries to govern a country that has experienced 20 years of Western-led modernization was predicted by Kamran Bokhari in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 27, 2021.

“The Afghan Taliban have to change but can’t — not without causing an internal rupture,” he wrote. “Such changes ... require a long and tortuous process, and even then, transformation remains elusive.

“The risk of fracture is especially acute when a movement has to change behavior abruptly for geopolitical reasons.”

On the one hand, the number of bombings across Afghanistan has dropped since last August and Taliban 2.0 cannot be accused of directly sponsoring terrorism. On the other hand, the ensuing collapse of state authority in some rural areas and the loss of Western air support for counterinsurgency operations have been a blessing to extremist groups.

“The Taliban takeover has benefited militant groups in multiple ways,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, told Arab News. 

“It has galvanized and energized an Islamist extremist network for which the expulsion of US troops from Muslim soil and the elimination of US-aligned governments are core goals. The takeover has also brought into power a group with close ideological and operational links to a wide range of militant groups.

“This means at the very least that the Taliban won’t try to expel these groups from Afghan territory, and in the case of the one group that it is targeting, IS-K, it lacks the discipline and capacity to undertake careful and effective counterterrorism tactics.

“On a related note, the Taliban lack the capacity to operate air power, which had been the main means used by NATO forces and the Afghan military to manage the IS-K threat. Furthermore, the Taliban has no ability to ease an acute economic crisis, and the widespread privation fosters an environment ripe for radicalization. This benefits the IS-K.”

One of the deadliest earthquakes in decades on June 22 has added to Afghanistan’s woes. (AFP)

Since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the international community’s patience has flagged and attention has shifted toward the war in Ukraine and the alarming prospect of a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO states.

Kugelman believes the terror threats emanating from Afghanistan fell off the radar long before Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

“I would argue that the world was letting the terrorism threat in Afghanistan fester well before the Ukraine war, mainly because the US had struggled to build out the capacity to monitor and target terrorist threats in Afghanistan from outside the country,” he told Arab News.

“This isn’t a big problem now, given that the threat is not what it used to be. But if this neglect allows the global terrorism threat in Afghanistan to gradually grow back and the US and its partners still don’t have a plan, then all bets are off and there could be big problems.”

To be sure, the situation in Afghanistan is still very different from that of pre-2001, when the entire Al-Qaeda leadership was based in the country as guests of Mullah Omar, the founder and then-leader of the Taliban.

Al-Qaeda and its then-leader Osama bin Laden had initially been welcomed to Afghanistan by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a Mujahideen leader, after bin Laden’s 1996 expulsion from Sudan.

In Afghanistan’s political and geographic isolation inherited by the Taliban, Al-Qaeda was able to freely plot its attacks against the US.

In April 2001, just a few months before 9/11 and his own assassination at the hands of Al-Qaeda operatives, Ahmad Shah Massoud had addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg, warning the West would pay a heavy price if it continued to allow extremism to fester in Afghanistan.

Does that fateful speech have any relevance to the current situation?

Afghan residents and family members of the victims gather next to a damaged vehicle inside a house, day after a US drone airstrike in Kabul on August 30, 2021. (AFP)

“While one should never be complacent, it’s safe to say the global terrorism threat emanating from Afghanistan isn’t as serious today as it was when Massoud issued his warning in 2001,” said Kugelman.

“Al-Qaeda has become much weaker and the only other group in Afghanistan with globally focused goals is a Daesh chapter that currently can’t project a threat beyond the immediate region.

“That said, let’s be clear: With NATO forces out of Afghanistan and an Al-Qaeda-allied regime now in power, the ground is fertile in the medium term for international terror groups to reconstitute themselves — and especially if we see new influxes of foreign fighters into Afghanistan that can bring shock troops, arms, money, and tactical expertise to these groups.”

In exile in Europe, Ahmad Wali Massoud is convinced that the Trump and Biden administrations made a grave error in deciding to negotiate with the Taliban and in withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Allowing the group to return to power, he believes, will inevitably transform Afghanistan into a terror heartland — a development he is convinced, just as his brother warned, will come back to haunt the West.

“I think, by now, they must have realized, after almost a year, that they have made a mistake, because they know now that the Taliban is out of control,” Massoud told Arab News.

“I do think that if the situation remains like this, they will pay a very high price. Of course, Afghanistan has already paid a very high price. But I’m pretty sure the US will also pay a very high price.”

 


Female tribal politician is front-runner in India’s presidential race

Draupadi Murmu. (Supplied)
Draupadi Murmu. (Supplied)
Updated 25 June 2022

Female tribal politician is front-runner in India’s presidential race

Draupadi Murmu. (Supplied)
  • Draupadi Murmu almost certain to be elected as her party holds a majority in parliament
  • If successful she will become only the second woman to hold the post

NEW DELHI: Draupadi Murmu, the presidential candidate for India’s ruling party, filed her nomination in parliament on Friday and looks set to become the first tribal politician and only the second woman to hold the position.

The 64-year-old veteran politician from the eastern state of Orissa is a strong favorite as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party holds a majority in parliament. If successful, she would take over from President Ram Nath Kovind, whose term expires next month.

The Indian presidency is a largely ceremonial post, as executive authority is held by the prime minister. The president is elected indirectly by both houses of parliament and the legislative assemblies of each of India’s states and territories. Voting will be held on July 18.

“I thank all and seek cooperation from everyone for the presidential election,” Murmu said a day before filing her nomination. “I will meet all voters and seek their support.”

The primary duty of the president is to preserve the constitution and appoint the attorney general. The president is also the supreme commander of the Indian Armed Forces, and as such can declare war or conclude peace.

“The president of India reigns but does not rule,” Sanjay Hegde, a constitutional lawyer from the Supreme Court, told Arab News. “In India’s parliamentary system, he or she occupies a place as the constitutional head of state, who is almost invariably bound by cabinet advice.”

But the president does have some influence.

“In the event of a fractured mandate after a general election, the president has the choice of appointment among potential prime ministers,” Hedge said. “He or she can choose the person best placed to command the confidence of the lower house.”

Murmu will compete for the post with opposition candidate Yashwant Sinha, who was a senior BJP leader before he left the party in 2018 following a divergence with Modi on economic issues.

Sinha, 84, served as finance minister under a BJP government from 1998 to 2002 and as foreign minister between 2002 and 2004.

Political analyst Satish Kumar Singh told Arab News Murmu’s appointment was “a clever choice by the BJP,” as the ruling party was trying to expand its outreach among the marginalized tribal community which constitutes about 10 percent of India’s population.

“Droupadi Murmu comes from Orissa, where the BJP has been trying to make inroads for years. By nominating a local tribal leader, Modi is trying to improve his party’s position among the crucial tribal population,” he said.

It will be very difficult for tribal members of parliament who sit in the opposition ranks to vote against a tribal woman.

“Murmu’s candidacy also created a rift in the opposition camp with some opposition-run states like Orissa and Jharkhand deciding to back the tribal presidential candidate,” Singh added.

“This might be a presidential election but the whole calculation has been done keeping in mind the future electoral process.”

 


World faces unprecedented global hunger crisis, UN chief says

World faces unprecedented global hunger crisis, UN chief says
Updated 24 June 2022

World faces unprecedented global hunger crisis, UN chief says

World faces unprecedented global hunger crisis, UN chief says
  • More than 460,000 people in Somalia, Yemen and South Sudan are in famine conditions
  • Millions of people in 34 other countries are on the brink of famine

UNITED NATIONS: There is a “real risk” of multiple famines this year, UN chief Antonio Guterres said on Friday and urged ministers meeting on food security to take practical steps to stabilize food markets and reduce commodity price volatility.
“We face an unprecedented global hunger crisis,” Guterres told the meeting in Berlin via video. “The war in Ukraine has compounded problems that have been brewing for years: climate disruption; the COVID-19 pandemic; the deeply unequal recovery.”
More than 460,000 people in Somalia, Yemen and South Sudan are in famine conditions under the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) — a scale used by UN agencies, regional bodies and aid groups to determine food insecurity. This is the step before a declaration of famine in a region.
Millions of people in 34 other countries are on the brink of famine, according to the IPC.
“There is a real risk that multiple famines will be declared in 2022. And 2023 could be even worse,” said Guterres, calling mass hunger and starvation unacceptable in the 21st century.
Guterres said there could be no effective solution to the crisis unless Ukraine and Russia, which produce about 29 percent of global wheat exports, find a way to properly resume trade.
Shipments from Ukrainian ports have been halted by Russia’s invasion of its neighbor. Moscow wants certain Western sanctions lifted in order to resume its grain and fertilizer exports.
The United Nations and Turkey are trying to broker a deal.
Guterres did not elaborate on the talks, saying: “Public statements could hinder success.”
He also asked ministers at the Berlin meeting to address a finance crisis in developing countries.