Privacy International launches ‘Big Brother Incorporated’ project on sale of surveillance tech to authoritarian regimes

I’m happy to announce that Privacy International has launched its new big project called ‘Big Brother Incorporated’, which will (among other things) investigate the sale of surveillance technologies to authoritarian regimes. Read all about it here.

PI has now put together a comprehensive online database of companies that sell surveillance products. It also added some opinion pieces about the topic (including one by me on the need to strengthen due dilligence and export licenses for tech companies) and a handy guide to the technical jargon that is being used in the surveillance industry. PI is also in the process of building strategic litigation against some of the Western companies complicit in human rights abuses by governments and intelligence agencies across the Middle East and North Africa.

The Washington Post has just published a big article on this topic here  and Wikileaks today has released a bunch of documents (“the Spyfiles“) related to this issue as well.

I will host an open roundtable on some of these issues in Brussels on the 27th of January in Bozar (Ravensteinstraat 23). Everybody’s more than welcome.

Don’t be evil – Technology companies’ role in supporting and suppressing human rights activists
Mathias Vermeulen (VUB – chair)
Marcel Rosenbach (Der Spiegel – moderator)

Marietje Schaake (ALDE Member of the European Parliament)
Ben Roome (Nokia Siemens Network)
Chris Soghoian (ACLU)
Ahmed Ghappour (Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights)
Eric King (Privacy International)

2011 EHHR Special Issue on Protecting Human Rights while Countering Terrorism a Decade after 9/11

The Essex Human Rights Review has issued a ‘Special Issue on Protecting Human Rights while Countering Terrorism a Decade after 9/11’, which  focuses on the practical implications and challenges of the changing landscape of counter terrorism measures since 9/11 and their impact on human rights. All articles can be downloaded from the website.


You Can’t Always Get What You Want: The Kadi II Conundrum and the Security Council 1267 Terrorist Sanctions Regime

Unilateral Exceptions to International Law: Systematic Legal Analysis
and Critique of Doctrines to Deny or Reduce the Applicability of Human
Rights Norms in the Fight against Terrorism

An Interview with Jeremy Sarkin, Chair-Rapporteur of the United Nations
Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, on the Study
on Global Practices in Relation to Secret Detention

Kafka, Sisphus, and Bin Laden: Challenging the Al-Qaida and Taliban Sanctions Regime Rights

Limits to Counter-Terrorism: Comparing Derogation from the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on

The Margin of Appreciation and Human Rights Protection in the ‘War on
Terror’: Have the Rules Changed before the European Court of Human

Section 44: Repeal or Reform? A Home Secretary’s Dilemma

Narco-Terror: Conflating the Wars on Drugs and Terror

State Secrets, Impunity and Human Rights Violations: Persecution Restricted in the Abu Omar Case

Torture Papers, Never Again. Guarantees of Non-Repetition for the
Torture Committed by the Bush Administration during the ‘War on Terror’

A brief note to our readers

Due to many other work-related commitments, this blog will not be updated anymore. Instead I’ll continue to post links to what I think are interesting articles on Twitter. Visit or follow me @legalift.
This blog published 3370 posts in 77 different categories between January 2008 and June 2011, and received a total of 300,000 views. It was featured on the sites of Le Monde and The Guardian, and quoted by academics in their work.  My current views don’t necessarily reflect some of the content of my previous postings, but I will leave the site up as an archive for counter-terrorism related news. Thanks for reading!

EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator on the Arab uprisings and the need for security sector reform

“The current situation in North Africa is one of great potential risk, but also great opportunity. The success of The European Union post Lisbon will be judged by the effectiveness with which we respond to these extra-ordinary opportunities, and this means successfully managing the risks involved. The way in which the autocratic regimes of the Middle East behaved in the past, including their repressive and unaccountable security services, non-respect of rule of law and human rights, in practice created conditions very much conducive to the spread of terrorism and contributed to radicalization. Responsive, representative government based on the rule of law and respecting human rights is the best way in which to address the grievances which can create the ground on which terrorism can grow. However, democracy on its own is not enough. Crime, terrorism and sectarian tensions all exist in long-established democracies. Violent extremist groups still exist in the region and beyond, which will continue to act against Europe and European interests. Already arrests have been made in Tunisia apparently linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

There is clearly a dilemma in deciding at what moment the institutions in these countries have gained sufficient legitimacy for it to be right for us to begin discussing these questions of hard security. This is a dilemma for our Arab partners in the reform process, as much as it is for us. (…) It is too early to go into detail, but over the next few months we need to plan a comprehensive model of support to reform of the security sector, and parallel reform of the judicial sector, together with the emerging democratic Governments of the Arab World. I welcome the inclusion of reform of the security and law enforcement sector under “Supporting Deep Democracy” in the joint communication of the Commission and High Representative “A new response to a changing neighbourhood”, and I look forward to the policy dialogue envisaged later this year on Justice and Home Affairs under the Stockholm Programme.”

Read more here.

9/11 Ten years on: Detection Technologies and Counter-Terrorism in Europe Conference – Brussels, 7 September 2011

DETECTER (Detection Technologies, Terrorism, Ethics and Human Rights) is an EU-funded FP 7 Security Research project which examines ethical and legal norms governing the use of detection technology in counter-terrorism. The project began in December 2008 and comes to an end in December 2011.  The project has carried out original research on controversial topics, like counter-terrorism data mining programmes, monitoring of Internet activity and the role of technology in pre-entry screening of foreign migrants.  It is also making contributions to debates on how privacy should be viewed in the counter-terrorism context. The project has pioneered private exchanges of views between technology developers, police, intelligence personnel, ethicists and human rights lawyers. These have produced constructive proposals for the modification of detection technology design and use.

On 7 September DETECTER are presenting their findings and recommendations – with responses from key policy makers and industry representatives, including Jeff Jonas, the Chief Scientist of IBM entity analytics group, and Sir David Pepper, former head of GCHQ.
If you are interested in attending or would just like more information please get in touch at

The intelligence that led to Bin Laden’s arrest

Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo have (as usual) the best sources:

Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, detainees in the CIA’s secret prison network told interrogators about an important courier with the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti who was close to bin Laden. After the CIA captured al-Qaida’s No. 3 leader, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he confirmed knowing al-Kuwaiti but denied he had anything to do with al-Qaida.

Then in 2004, top al-Qaida operative Hassan Ghul was captured in Iraq. Ghul told the CIA that al-Kuwaiti was a courier, someone crucial to the terrorist organization. In particular, Ghul said, the courier was close to Faraj al-Libi, who replaced Mohammed as al-Qaida’s operational commander. It was a key break in the hunt for in bin Laden’s personal courier.

Finally, in May 2005, al-Libi was captured. Under CIA interrogation, al-Libi admitted that when he was promoted to succeed Mohammed, he received the word through a courier. But he made up a name for the courier and denied knowing al-Kuwaiti, a denial that was so adamant and unbelievable that the CIA took it as confirmation that he and Mohammed were protecting the courier. It only reinforced the idea that al-Kuwaiti was very important to al-Qaida.

Was information obtained through waterboarding? No.

Mohammed did not discuss al-Kuwaiti while being subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, former officials said. He acknowledged knowing him many months later under standard interrogation, they said, leaving it once again up for debate as to whether the harsh technique was a valuable tool or an unnecessarily violent tactic.

It took years of work before the CIA identified the courier’s real name:
Sheikh Abu Ahmed, a Pakistani man born in Kuwait. When they did
identify him, he was nowhere to be found.

SEALS got order to kill, not capture Osama Bin Laden?

An interesting detail in the story about Osama Bin Laden is that the 40 Navy Seals went to “kill, not capture Bin Laden” according to Reuters, quoting an anyonymous U.S security official. In a statement released 20 minutes before the  Reuters news the EU counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles De Kerchove, however  saidthat

Based on the available information, the circumstances of this difficult operation made it impossible to capture Osama Bin Laden alive.

(Update: Just listened to BBC World. A White House official tells the reporter that “there was no decision to automatically go for a kill. US military personnel are not authorised to kill if a subject surrenders, but because of who Bin Laden was it was widely assumed that there would be a kill. The White House also says it was Bin Laden who ‘cowardly hid’ behind a woman.”)

(Update 2: John Brennan, the White House’s chief counterterrorism advisor, was asked at a press conference whether the mission was to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. He says that the forces were prepared for “all contingencies,” but if the forces had an opportunity to capture bin Laden, they would have done so.)

(Update 3: It’s getting more complicated. The Daily Telegraph now  reports that now the White House acknowledged that bin Laden did not have a weapon at the time he was shot, and did not fire back. However, U.S. officials continued to insist, while not offering details, that bin Laden resisted the U.S. military team. A bit more details can be found here, while Slate provides context on how to ‘read the Bin Laden coverage’)

(Update 4: UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay asks the US for details on the precise circumstances of Bin Laden’s death.)

In any case any order to kill, rather than detain OBL would be entirely unsurprising and in line with Obama’s general detention practices in the fight against terrorism. There was little to be gained politically by arresting and detaining OBL. It only would have caused the President (again) many domestic headaches.  Where should the US detain and interrogate OBL? Guantanamo was not an option for the president, the Parwan Detention Facility in Afghanistan was off limits, and bringing Osama to the US would have created political mayhem as well. “Bringing Osama to justice” therefore always meant killing him, and not giving him a military or civilian trial.

It is also interesting to see that the use of drones, the US’ favorite technique to kill terrorist suspects in Pakistan to date, apparently wasn’t really contemplated to use in the case of such a high value target as Osama Bin Laden. There’s no clear explanation for this: was it because drones are mainly used to target “mere foot soldiers” or “lower-level fighters” anyway? Probably not. Was it because the US really wanted to make clear Osama Bin Laden had died, and there wasn’t enough intelligence to know for sure that Osama was in the compound? Perhaps. We know that Navy Seals checked the identity of Osama Bin Laden with a DNA test and face-recognition technology. (I hope they used better equipment than this one by the way.)

NATO’s counter-terrorism policy

This article takes stock of what NATO has been doing until now, and what it could do next.

Tajik Supreme Court frees three convicted terrorists and lowers sentence of others involved in Tavildara events

The Supreme Court of Tajikistan released three convicts who were sentenced to up to 30 years of prison due to terrorism charges. The court also significantly relieved punishment of 26 others convicted in collaboration with terrorist groups, illegal possession of weapon, anti-government activities and other charges. They were part of 46 citizens arrested in connection to Tavildara 2009 events and convicted by the same court last June. The Supreme Court says that, although 29 of the convicts asked for the retrial of the verdicts, all 46 cases were revised. The Court generally confirmed its previous verdicts, but reduced the punishment.

Bourgass & Anor lose segregation appeal vs Secretary of State for Justice [2011] EWHC 286

The High Court has upheld as lawful the segregation of two high-profile Islamic terrorist prisoners accused of intimidating and bullying other prisoners over matters of faith.

Ricin plot conspirator Kamel Bourgass and “liquid bomber” Tanvir Hussain claimed their human rights were violated when they were put in segregration units for long periods. But on Friday, Mr Justice Irwin rejected their claims that they had been treated unlawfully and unfairly.

They had been segregated after allegations that they were trying to influence and dictate the beliefs of other prisoners, accusations they denied.

The judge said Bourgass was accused of attempting to exert control over other prisoners, especially fellow Muslims whom he “pressurised” to attend prayers.

He was reported to have told them “when and how to pray and what to eat and read” and was suspected of being involved in organising an assault on one prisoner who needed 50 stitches to his face.

He had also attempted to persuade fellow inmates “not to speak to staff, especially female staff.”

In the Hussain case, the judge said: “Security intelligence suggested that Mr Hussain had preached Islamic ideals through his cell window in ‘determined attempts to convert non-Muslim prisoners to his own interpretation of Islamic ideals.'”

Bourgass, 34, an Algerian, is serving 17 years for conspiracy to commit public nuisance by using poisons or explosives in relation to the 2002 ricin terrorist plot

He is also serving a life sentence for murdering Detective Constable Stephen Oake, 40, with a kitchen knife during his 2003 arrest at a flat in Manchester.

Hussain, 30, was one of three men convicted of a plot to launch suicide attacks on flights from Heathrow to America and Canada using liquid bombs made of hydrogen peroxide hidden in soft drink bottles.