Choosing an Internet service provider is something millions of individuals do every year, with pricing, speed and reliability major considerations. But what if there was an option to choose a broadband provider that not only offered decent service for a fair price, but also ran its very own pirate site for customers? Believe it or not, one actually exists.
Despite being widely discredited, a British-designed bomb detector based on pseudoscience continues to be used at sensitive security sites across the world.
The CEO of a Pakistani company called Axact, which called itself the country’s largest software exporter, was arrested yesterday in Karachi. Axact and its CEO, Shoaib Ahmed Shaikh, are accused of running a global network of selling fake diplomas.
Local television showed pictures of a room filled with the fakes, according to reports in The New York Times and The Guardian. The documents were stamped with letterhead from fake Axact-owned universities with names like Bay View, Cambell State, and Oxdell.
Other Axact institutions adopted names that mimicked well-known US universities, such as “Barkley” and “Columbiana.”
“We have seized hundreds of thousands of fake degrees,” Shahid Hayat, a director for Pakistan’s federal investigative agency, told The Guardian.
Shaikh was shown on Pakistani TV being led to a waiting government car, according to The New York Times. As he got into the car, he told the officials arresting him that he would “see to every one of them.”
Several other Axact officials were arrested as well. The charges include forgery, fraud, and illegal money transfers.
Pakistan has requested FBI assistance to deal with the case, since many of the fake universities are US-based.
The nature of Axact’s business was brought to light in a New York Times article published earlier this month. That article described Axact as employing some 2,000 people, offering “Silicon Valley-style employee perks like a swimming pool and yacht.”
But the company’s real business was selling fake academic degrees on a network of some 370 websites. It was estimated to be earning several million dollars per month. The websites included slick videos, with actors hired to portray professors and students.
Telephone salespeople at Axact worked around the clock, sometimes catering to “customers who clearly understand that they are buying a shady instant degree for money,” according to the Times. Other times, agents would “manipulate those seeking a real education, pushing them to enroll for coursework that never materializes, or assuring them that their life experiences are enough to earn them a diploma.”
The company called the New York Times expose “baseless, substandard, maligning and defamatory,” and a “massive conspiracy by the seths of the Pakistani media industry.”
The arrests come as Axact was on the verge of launching its own TV network and newspaper group. It isn’t clear what will come of those plans.
In the fall of 2013, Rafiq ur Rehman, a school teacher from the remote tribal region of North Waziristan, in Pakistan, stood with his 12-year-old son, Zubair, and 9-year-old daughter, Nabila, in Washington, D.C., preparing to challenge one of the U.S. government’s most secretive means of killing.
The Rehmans say a missile fired from a U.S. drone killed 68-year-old Momina Bibi — Rehman’s mother, and grandmother to the two young children — in an October 2012 airstrike. Both Zubair and Nabila were present when the attack happened and suffered injuries. The missile had struck their grandmother straight on, obliterating her completely. There were no others killed in the attack and no substantiated reports of terrorists at the scene.
According to the family’s account, Bibi was killed tending okra while her grandkids played nearby.
The family came to the U.S. to demand answers. They were treated as honored guests among the human rights community in New York City, but when they met with lawmakers on October 20, 2013, a total of five members of Congress showed up.
For Pakistani attorney Shahzad Akbar, who represents 150 victims of the strikes, including the Rehman family, President Barack Obama’s recent apology for the killing of two Americans merely underscores the double standard that exists for civilian death.
“Today, if Nabila or Zubair or many of the civilian victims — if they are watching on TV the president being so remorseful over the killing of a Westerner, what message is that taking?” Akbar said Thursday in an interview with The Intercept.
The answer, he argued, is “that you do not matter, you are children of a lesser God, and I’m only going to mourn if a Westerner is killed.”
The absence of transparency, despite the Rehman family’s tremendous efforts, has been a defining feature of the Obama administration’s drone program. Typically, no amount of evidence gathered by journalists, human rights investigators or researchers indicating the death of a civilian from a drone strike will elicit an on-the-record response from the U.S. government — let alone an admission of responsibility — or prompt an independent investigation.
That was not the case on Thursday morning when President Barack Obama delivered a press conference describing a strike gone wrong. In the unprecedented address, Obama detailed how a failure in intelligence-gathering had left two civilians dead. Numerous anonymous U.S. officials said the attack occurred in Pakistan and that the CIA was responsible, though Obama and his press secretary, Josh Earnest, refused to explicitly confirm either. Unlike past cases, the unintended victims killed in the attacks were Westerners, one an Italian, the other a U.S. citizen.
The American, 74-year-old Warren Weinstein, had spent 40 years working around the world. For the last decade he had lived in Pakistan, where he served as country director for a consulting firm working with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The second victim, Giovanni Lo Porto, was an Italian national. The 39-year-old had come to Pakistan four years ago, when severe floods ravaged the country. Both men ultimately found themselves hostages of al Qaeda — Weinstein was taken in 2011, Lo Porto in 2012. They had been held in a compound in Pakistan’s Shawal Valley, The New York Times reported Thursday night.
“We believed that this was an Al Qaeda compound, that no civilians were present and that capturing these terrorists was not possible,” Obama said of the January 15 strike. “And we do believe that the operation did take out dangerous members of Al Qaeda. What we did not know, tragically, is that Al Qaeda was hiding the presence of Warren and Giovanni in this same compound.”
The compound had been placed under “hundreds of hours of surveillance,” Obama said. U.S. intelligence officials chose to take the shot only after achieving “near certainty” that the building was a legitimate terrorist target and civilian lives would not be risked, Earnest added. When the dust settled, American spies watched as more bodies were pulled from the rubble than expected. It would take weeks, however, for the intelligence community to confirm that the dead included Weinstein and Lo Porto. Ahmed Farouq, an American and alleged al Qaeda leader, also died in the attack. A separate U.S. airstrike in the region on January 19 was also described in detail on Thursday. U.S. intelligence officials said they believed that attack killed Adam Gadahn, a U.S. citizen and al Qaeda propagandist. Again, the Americans said they did not know he was inside when they fired.
Neither of the two strikes targeted specific individuals, U.S. officials said. The attacks were signature strikes, a much-criticized tactic in which the CIA kills people without knowing their identities, instead relying on behavioral observations. In both of the January strikes, the U.S. only learned whom it had killed after the fact.
Earnest told reporters that neither Farouq nor Gadahn were considered high-value targets, meaning they were not eligible for the type of assassination of U.S. citizens the Obama administration has deemed legal in recent years, which requires additional layers of approval. “The president did not specifically sign off on these two operations,” Earnest said.
Earnest said an inspector general was conducting an independent review of the operation.
President Obama said the operation that killed the two Westerners would be declassified and disclosed publicly, “because the Weinstein and Lo Porto families deserve to know the truth.”
“One of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes,” Obama explained. “Already, I have directed a full review of what happened. We will identify the lessons that can be learned from this tragedy, and any changes that should be made.”
When asked by The Intercept if the president’s words meant there would be a policy change in how the U.S. deals with claims of civilian casualties resulting from counterterrorism operations, an administration official declined to comment.
Whether anyone from the CIA has been or will be held accountable for the strikes remains unclear. Writing for The New Yorker, Steve Coll raised the question of whether the March removal of the powerful head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center may have been linked to the attacks. For nearly a decade, a man named Mike — who uses the CIA cover name Roger — has overseen the agency’s drone program in Pakistan. Known for his apparently dark persona and chain-smoking, the counterterrorism chief is considered a principal architect of signature strikes, which in 2010 brought the number of U.S. kills in Pakistan to its highest-ever recorded total of 117.
“I predict that even this episode will have no effect,” Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert in U.S. counterterrorism operations, told The New York Times.
Though he did not identify the agency, the aircraft or the country, Obama, in his remarks Thursday, came as close as he ever has to directly and candidly addressing civilian casualties in the CIA’s drone war in Pakistan in public.
“As president and as commander-in-chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni,” Obama said. “I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.”
Weinstein’s family released a statement Thursday placing the ultimate responsibility for his death on the men who took him captive, but the family characterized elements of the U.S. government’s response — aside from that of lawmakers and the FBI — as “inconsistent and disappointing over the course of three and a half years.”
Following Lo Porto’s kidnapping, a petition calling on the Italian government to ensure that “all possible efforts” were made in securing his release amassed nearly 48,000 signatures. On Thursday, the Italian news agency ANSA reported that the Lo Porto family was grief-stricken by the news of Giovanni’s death. “Leave me with my pain,” his mother said. “I do not have much to add,” his brother told reporters. “Obama has apologized? Thanks.”
The January attacks brought the total number of Americans killed by a drone strike under Obama to at least eight. Of that total, the U.S. has intentionally killed one.
Mustafa Qadri, an investigator with Amnesty International, has spent years conducting investigations in Pakistan, including into the strike that killed Momina Bibi. Speaking to The Intercept on Thursday, the human rights investigator said he was pained by the death of Weinstein, but noted that there are scores of other innocent people who have been killed in drone strikes.
“Obama’s statement is really moving,” Qadri said. “And we welcome that, I welcome the fact he has done that.” But, he added, “there are hundreds, potentially thousands of others who deserve the same apology.”
Moath Hamza Ahmed al-Alwi, a Yemeni national who has been detained at the American prison facility at Guantánamo Bay since 2002, weighs only 98 pounds. Never charged with a crime, al-Alwi, now 35 years old, is one of many detainees at the camp who have gone on a prolonged hunger strike.
As described in a recent petition submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) by his lawyers, al-Alwi’s mental and physical state is seriously deteriorating after two years on hunger strike, and subsequent force-feeding.
Since commencing his strike in February 2013, al-Alwi alleges that he has been subjected to escalating physical and psychological abuse from guards, as well as increasingly brutal force-feeding procedures administered by medical personnel at the camp. Human rights organizations have described the force-feeding procedure employed at Guantánamo as torture, and the U.S. government has fought to keep video footage of the force-feeding of al-Alwi and other hunger-striking detainees from public view.
Al-Alwi, who has described his strike as “a form of peaceful protest against injustice,” has said that he will not resume eating until there is some sort of legal resolution to his case. Prison officials have responded to his hunger strike by placing him in solitary confinement, denying him access to prescribed medical items and subjecting him to extreme temperatures in his cell.
Osmakac was 25 years old on January 7, 2012, when he filmed what the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice would later call a “martyrdom video.” He was also broke and struggling with mental illness.
After recording this video in a rundown Days Inn in Tampa, Florida, Osmakac prepared to deliver what he thought was a car bomb to a popular Irish bar. According to the government, Osmakac was a dangerous, lone-wolf terrorist who would have bombed the Tampa bar, then headed to a local casino where he would have taken hostages, before finally detonating his suicide vest once police arrived.
But if Osmakac was a terrorist, he was only one in his troubled mind and in the minds of ambitious federal agents. The government could not provide any evidence that he had connections to international terrorists. He didn’t have his own weapons. He didn’t even have enough money to replace the dead battery in his beat-up, green 1994 Honda Accord.
Osmakac was the target of an elaborately orchestrated FBI sting that involved a paid informant, as well as FBI agents and support staff working on the setup for more than three months. The FBI provided all of the weapons seen in Osmakac’s martyrdom video. The bureau also gave Osmakac the car bomb he allegedly planned to detonate, and even money for a taxi so he could get to where the FBI needed him to go. Osmakac was a deeply disturbed young man, according to several of the psychiatrists and psychologists who examined him before trial. He became a “terrorist” only after the FBI provided the means, opportunity and final prodding necessary to make him one.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the FBI has arrested dozens of young men like Osmakac in controversial counterterrorism stings. One recent case involved a rudderless 20-year-old in Cincinnati, Ohio, named Christopher Cornell, who conspired with an FBI informant — seeking “favorable treatment” for his own “criminal exposure” — in a harebrained plot to build pipe bombs and attack Capitol Hill. And just last month, on February 25, the FBI arrested and charged two Brooklyn men for plotting, with the aid of a paid informant, to travel to Syria and join the Islamic State. The likelihood that the men would have stepped foot in Syria of their own accord seems low; only after they met the informant, who helped with travel applications and other hurdles, did their planning take shape.
Security researchers have uncovered highly sophisticated malware that is linked to a secret National Security Agency hacking operation exposed by The Intercept last year.
Russian security firm Kaspersky published a report Monday documenting the malware, which it said had been used to infect thousands of computer systems and steal data in 30 countries around the world. Among the targets were a series of unnamed governments, telecom, energy, and aerospace companies, as well as Islamic scholars, and media organizations.
Kaspersky did not name the NSA as the author of the malware. However, Reuters reported later on Monday that the agency had created the technology, citing anonymous former U.S. intelligence officials.
Kaspersky’s researchers noted that the newly found malware is similar to Stuxnet, a covert tool reportedly created by the U.S. government to sabotage Iranian nuclear systems. The researchers also identified a series of codenames that they found contained within the samples of malware, including STRAIGHTACID, STRAITSHOOTER, and GROK.
Notably, GROK, which Kaspersky said is a piece of malware used to secretly log keystrokes, is tied to secret NSA hacking tactics described in documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden. Last year, The Intercept revealed that the NSA was using a tool called GROK to log keystrokes as part of a toolkit it uses to hack computers and collect data.
The other codenames identified by Kaspersky on Tuesday—such as STRAIGHTACID, STRAITSHOOTER—are strikingly similar to known NSA hacking operations. Leaked NSA documents have revealed that the agency uses hacking tools known as STRAIGHTBIZARRE and FOXACID to break into computers and grab data.
According to Kaspersky, the malware found in the latest discovery is the most advanced ever found and represents an “astonishing technical accomplishment.” It hides deep within an infected computer and can stay on the machine even after attempts to wipe or reformat the hard drive. The security firm has dubbed different variants of the malware EquationLaser, EquationDrug and GrayFish, and they are calling its creators the “Equation Group,” because of the way the spy technology attempts to hide itself in an infected computer using complex encryption.