Thursday, September 30, 2010

Insurance Companies Plan Private Navy Against Piracy

Major London-based maritime insurers as well as shipping companies have joined forces to create a private security force that would shield vessels traversing the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Oceans.

The plan, spearheaded by Jardine Lloyd Thompson Group (JLT), comes as a new piracy season opens and amid fears that Islamist forces on both sides of the Red Sea is muscling in on what has become a lucrative business.

British officials said they would consider the creation of a private maritime security force favorably provided it worked closely with the international naval force in the region. Industry sources say the plan is being welcomed by the British and other governments because the international force does not have the resources to fully patrol an area the size of the Indian Ocean and because the British Navy potentially faces severe budget cuts as part of the government’s austerity measures.

The private force would consist of 20 patrol boats carrying armed personnel that would escort vessel and act as a rapid response unit in protection of shipping in the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean. Industry sources estimated that establishing the force would cost Euros 12 million, but would substantially reduce insurance costs that currently range per voyage from Euros 60,000 to 360,000 for an large oil tanker as well as ransom payments. Ransom payments and associated costs have cost insurance companies approximately Euros 230 million in the last two years.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Europe Plot Focuses Attention on Laskhar-e-Taibe

A plot to launch commando-style attacks in Britain, France or Germany reinforces Western intelligence concerns for much of this year that the next attack may come from an Al-Qaeda linked group that has faded from public attention: Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Pakistani group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which ten gunmen killed 166 people in attacks on several targets in the city.

In testimony earlier this year before the US Congress, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair asserted that LeT is "becoming more of a direct threat and is placing Western targets in Europe in its sights." Pointing to the group's ability to raise funds, particularly in the Gulf, and its global logistics, support network and operations in Europe and Asia, Blair said confronting LeT was a high priority for Washington.

Blair made his remarks months after the FBI arrested and charged Pakistani American David Headley with involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks and working with LeT on planned attacks in Denmark and India. Danish officials said earlier this year that they believed that LeT was planning an attack on the newspaper that in 2005 published controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

Headley's interrogation further led to the recent arrest of several LeT operatives in Bangladesh who allegedly were preparing suicide car bombings of the US, British and Indian embassies in the capital Dhaka.

Concern that LeT may be setting its sights on Europe for its next operation were compounded by the group's history of involvement in international terrorism. LeT members have fought in Tajikistan's civil war and Bosnia Herzegovina and operate in Kashmir. US and European officials believe that by targeting India or Indian targets in Europe and Asia, LeT hopes to disrupt fragile efforts by Pakistan and India to resolve their differences and work more closely together in combating militant Islamic groups.

It's believed al Qaeda may be using LeT to provoke conflict between India and Pakistan. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned on a visit in January to New Delhi that al Qaeda was using LeT to provoke renewed conflict between India and Pakistan in a bid to further destabilize Pakistan. Earlier, Gates told the US Senate that al Qaeda was providing LeT with targeting information to help the group plot attacks in India.

Dispute over U.N. Tribunal Puts Lebanon at a Crossroads

By James M. Dorsey

World Politics Review

An increasingly vicious battle that has broken out between pro- and anti-Syrian factions in Lebanon is likely to determine the country's ability to resist Syrian interference in its internal politics.

Also at stake in the conflict is the future of a United Nations investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The assassination sparked a protest movement that blamed Syria for Hariri's killing and forced Damascus to withdraw its troops after a nearly 30-year presence in Lebanon. The anti-Syrian groundswell paved the way for Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri's son, to become prime minister. Syria and its ally, the Shiite militia Hezbollah, have both denied involvement in the former prime minister's death.

The latest battle erupted when Saad Hariri refused to cave in to demands by Hezbollah and Syria to withdraw his support for the U.N. investigation, which has polarized Lebanese politics from the outset. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem cautioned U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a meeting in New York on Monday that Syria would oppose the issuing of indictments by the U.S.-backed U.N. Special Tribunal on Lebanon (STL). Speaking after the meeting, Moallem charged that the tribunal had been irredeemably "politicized" and risked plunging Lebanon into a new round of sectarian strife.

Hezbollah, concerned that the tribunal will accuse some of its operatives of involvement the assassination, believes that a withdrawal of support by the prime minister would all but thwart the inquiry. Hezbollah officials maintain that the investigation's expected conclusions are based on false testimony by key witnesses, a claim backed by the Lebanese judiciary and Prime Minister Hariri. The Shiite militia says it has evidence that Israel killed Rafik Hariri, and it wants the tribunal to investigate its assertion.

Hezbollah and Syria appeared to have won their battle earlier this month when Hariri, giving in to pressure from the militia, backed away from his accusation that Syria was responsible for the death of his father. In a stunning statement that infuriated many of his followers, Hariri apologized to Syria, saying his previous repeated accusations had been "politically motivated."

For Hezbollah and Syria, however, that was not enough. "We gave Hariri and the coalition until September to bring the STL down," a Hezbollah official said. "That has not happened. We will now deal with the STL differently. There will be no cooperation, no acceptance, and no funding." Hezbollah, which has two ministers in Hariri's cabinet, urged the government last week to stop funding the tribunal.

Hezbollah and Syria tightened the screws on Hariri by encouraging Brig. Gen. Jamal al-Sayyed, the former Lebanese security chief, to publicly denounce the prime minister as a liar and accuse him of paying witnesses to make false statements. Al-Sayyed demanded that Hariri take a lie detector test. Hezbollah officials privately claim that former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, former President Amin Gemayel and the head of the Lebanese Forces party Samir Geagea are among those who gave false testimony. Al-Sayyed, known for his close ties to Syria and Hezbollah, was released from prison last year along with three other officers, all of whom had been held for four years without charges on suspicion of involvement in Hariri's murder.

Al-Sayyed issued his statement three days after meeting in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Few in Lebanon doubt that Al-Sayyed would have picked a fight with Hariri without Syrian endorsement. The statement came only days after Hariri visited Syria for talks with Assad, which the Lebanese prime minister described as "excellent" and as "opening a new phase in our relations."

A shift in relations between the two countries could well be underway, although not as Hariri envisioned when he left Damascus. By raising the stakes, Syria and Hezbollah appear to be driving a wedge between Hariri and some of his key supporters. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose father is believed to have been killed by Syria in 1977, cautioned last week that "if the STL is creating a crisis, let us all agree on canceling it."

For now, however, Hariri is playing hardball. Lebanese state prosecutor Said Mirza has ordered an investigation of Al-Sayyed on charges that he threatened Hariri and state institutions. Sources close to Hariri say Al-Sayyed attempted to blackmail Hariri, demanding that he be paid $7.5 million in exchange for not going public with his accusations against Hariri. Al-Sayyed has countered by filing a lawsuit against the Lebanese state prosecutor in a Syrian court and at the UN tribunal.

The crisis heated up when Hezbollah, which also accuses the tribunal of being "politicized," said that it would not allow Al-Sayyed to be questioned by the Lebanese judiciary and warned that it would "cut off the unjust hand" threatening the general. Hezbollah raised the temperature further by sending an armed escort to pick up Al-Sayyed from the Beirut airport on his return from Damascus.

Hezbollah's show of force and Al-Sayyed's allegations leave the prime minister on the horns of a dilemma. To preserve Lebanon's fragile balance of power, Hariri may have to cave in to Syria and Hezbollah's demands on the tribunal. But doing so could split his ruling coalition and put him at odds with the Obama administration. On the other hand, should he refuse to disavow the tribunal or arrest Al-Sayyed, Hariri risks increasing tensions and raising the specter of renewed sectarian violence. Either way, Lebanon is at a crossroads.

Monday, September 27, 2010

AQIM Kidnappings Spark Criticism of Ransom Payments

Last week’s kidnapping of five French nationals in northern Niger by an Al Qaeda affiliate is likely to be a watershed in regional and international efforts to combat terrorism in the Sahel.

The kidnapping also threatens to open a rift between European Union members about how to confront the threat to foreign nationals in northern Africa. In an apparent about face following a failed French-Mauritanian attack in July on Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Al Qaeda affiliate, and the subsequent murder of a French hostage, France has signaled that it is willing to negotiate with the kidnappers of five employees of state-owned Avera, the world’s largest operator of nuclear plants. The apparent reversal of French policy has sparked criticism from Britain as well as Algeria.

Speaking at the United Nations, British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned that paying ransom to hostage takers would only encourage more abductions and killings of foreign nationals. Hague’s remarks constituted not only a shot across the bow of France but also criticism of Spain which is believed to have paid AQIM up to Euros 8 million earlier this year for the release of three Spanish aid workers.

Algerian President Abdelazi Bouteflika for counter terrorism, Mohamed Kamel Rezag Bara, told the UN this week that AQIM had earned $25 million from ransoms in the past two years, making it wealthier than its parent. The UN Security Council on Monday issued a statement expressing concern about the rising number of kidnappings and reminding UN members of their duty to prevent the financing of terrorist acts. Analysts note that various international conventions and Security Council resolutions implicitly ban ransom payments, but do not do so explicitly. The African Union last year called for the criminalization of the payment of ransoms, a call that is likely to find enhanced support in the wake of the abductions in Niger.

Analysts say further that the resolution of the French hostage crisis is likely to determine the future of the fight against terrorism in the Sahel. Tension, they say, could drop if France achieves a negotiated release of the French captives. Military action or the assassination of the hostages by their abductors would, however, likely lead to a more sustained series of clashes with regional and possibly French-led forces in the Sahel.

US House Committee Investigate Gosaibi and Maena

A US House Committee on Financial Services inquiry will this week focus on the multi-billion dollar dispute between al Gosaibi business family of Saudi Arabia or their former associate, Maan al Sanea, the head of the Saudi conglomerate the Saad Group as part of an investigation of money laundering by Middle Eastern and US financial institutions.

In a hearing scheduled for September 28, the committee will hear evidence from witnesses concerning the movement of US$1 trillion of funds between Middle East financial institutions and US banks over a six-year period ending last year. That evidence is not expected to involve links to finance of terrorism or illegal activity such as drugs or human trafficking, but will include transactions of Al Gosaibi and Al Sanea. The dispute between the two Saudi groups erupted when institutions of both entities defaulted on payments amid accusations of forgery, fraud and theft.

One focus of the inquiry will be to what degree institutions like Bank of America complied with the obligation for “red flag” notifications of transactions requiring a suspicious activity report (SAR) by banks or regulators. The witnesses appearing before the committee include regulators, officials, financiers and New York lawyer Eric Lawyers wto represents the al Gosaibi family. Al Sanea’s spokesman declined to comment on the House hearing, but reiterated denials that the group had been involved.

The hearing could revive US legal interest in the dispute between the Saudi groups. A New York and Cayman Islands court ruled in July that the dispute should be settled by Saudi authorities rather than in a foreign jurisdiction.

A Saudi committee that includes business, financial and political and political leaders has been looking into the dispute for the past year, but has yet to propose a solution. Global creditors are trying to recover $20 billion owed by the two groups as a result of the defaults.