July 7th, 2011
08:49 AM ET

Security brief – July 7, 2011

Compiled by Tim Lister

Islamist militants kill ten soldiers in Yemen; close in on Aden

Saudi tanker attacked and set on fire off Yemen coast

Syria's underground doctors network – CNN exclusive

Syria: Tanks pull back from Hama – for now

Libya: rebels make fresh advances in west; try to break Misrata siege in east

Libya: former NATO Sec-General says alliance has failed

Body-bombs: speciality of al Qaeda in Yemen

Captured Somali reignites Gitmo v courts debate

Pakistan-Afghan cross border fighting worsens

Human Rights Watch wants criminal investigation of Bush officials

What happened to the Arab Spring?

Islamists in Yemen kill ten soldiers, close in on Aden 

Militants gunned down 10 soldiers at a military checkpoint in southwestern Yemen, authorities said Thursday. The incident occurred Wednesday in the town of Lawdar, security officials said.

In an unrelated incident Wednesday, the Yemen Defense Ministry said it had killed Waleed Osairi, an al Qaeda commander, along with several other suspected al Qaeda militants. The deaths occurred in Abyan province and is part of an effort to clear the area of the terror group, the government said.

See Nic Robertson's exclusive report from Aden here

and his blog.....

By the accounts of families we met in al Naqib hospital almost no one is left in Zinjabar. Even the foolhardy and brave who had remained are getting out, as the battles intensify and the causalities mount.

Dozens of government soldiers have been killed and Yemen’s air force is dropping bombs with an apparent callous abandon that’s killing and maiming the very civilians it can only be assumed they are aiming to protect. The train wreck has arrived. The only problem, very few people know it because access to this remote corner of a remote country is so hazardous. This is a government that has imploded and al Qaeda is filling an ever growing vacuum.

Conflicting reports surfaced over the fate of Saudi oil tanker Brillante Virtuoso raided by Somali pirates near the Gulf of Aden. Local sources told China's official Xinhua news agency that the supertanker was on fire and the captain was missing after clashes between Yemeni forces and Somali pirates. The pirates had attempted to seize the vessel Wednesday.

Yemeni forces were trying to put out the fire that erupted after the attempted hijacking. Xinhua notes that an official in Yemen's Aden province said a state of emergency was declared for the shipping lane and naval vessels were out in full force.

An official at the company managing the ship says the fire has been extinguished. Though a large-scale oil disaster appears to have been avoided, news of the fire on the 1 million barrels tanker will revive security fears on a shipping route that has suffered increasingly bold attacks from Somali pirates. The fire “was extinguished,” said Andreas Louka, a legal adviser at Athens’ Central Mare Inc., the company managing the Brillante Virtuoso tanker. Asked if the tanker, which was on its way from Ukraine to China, could still deliver its cargo, Louka said “they are going to assess” the damage first.

Syria's underground doctors

They call themselves the Damascus Doctors, an illegal underground network of medics fighting to save lives. They operate from hidden secret locations, operate and treat patients on concrete floors. The founder says demonstrators are afraid to go to government hospitals where they believe they will be detained or killed. Often they die. In secret, CNN's Arwa Damon meets the founder and some of his patients, among them a 17 year old now in a wheelchair.

Hama becomes focal point of Syrian revolt 

Associated Press reports: A Syrian activist says hundreds of people are fleeing the city of Hama fearing a crackdown by government forces. Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says dozens of families left Thursday.

Last week, hundreds of thousands of Hama residents staged the largest protest of the four-month old uprising. They now fear Syrian forces will mount a full-scale offensive into Hama as part of attempts to crush an uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime. At least 20 people have been killed in recent days in Hama as authorities try to quell more protests.

But, sources inside the city tell CNN Thursday that tanks are withdrawing from the outskirts....

Security forces have begun removing tanks from Hama, a sign that the tensions there could be easing. Ammar Qurabi, chairman of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria and Omar Habbal, a prominent opposition activist in Hama told CNN that tanks just inside the city are withdrawing.

Hama has been wracked with violence and a general strike this week after a series of peaceful demonstrations, including a huge anti-government demonstration on Friday.

Video of huge protest Wednesday here.

The Guardian adds: The death toll from the siege of Hama had by Wednesday night reached 28, with dozens more wounded, according to residents and activists. One resident told the Guardian he had counted 93 tanks on the outskirts of the city – an indicator of what may lie ahead if Hama's 800,000 people continue to defy the regime's leaders in Damascus.

After four months of almost daily uprisings across Syria, Hama has become a focal point of a nationwide revolution. Residents claim they are standing up to the might of President Bashar al-Assad's military with rocks, slingshots and some light weapons.

They suggest that the regime no longer knows what to do with Hama, which it has at times during the past two months saturated with troops and at other times abandoned.

Libya: rebel victories in west change landscape 

Rebel victories in Libya’s western mountains are shifting the focus of efforts to topple Moammar Gaddafi’s regime, as fighters close in on cities that control the government’s main supply routes.

On Wednesday, the rebels claimed a new victory in a march toward the capital that, in recent weeks, has won them tanks, rocket launchers and an large ammunition dump seized from Gaddafi’s military. The rapid gains in the west come in sharp contrast to battlefields in the east, where the front lines have remained largely stagnant for months.

The hours-long battle that began before dawn on Wednesday included thundering barrages of artillery and rockets fired from both sides, and ended as truckloads of rebels returned from the battlefields with a new hoard of captured weapons.

Until now, rebels in the flat terrain east of the capital have received more support from NATO fighter planes and trainers than those in the west. Rebel leaders in the west attribute their successes to a well-thought-out battle plan and to familiarity with the hilly desert terrain, but they say they have also been helped by NATO’s recent strikes targeting Gaddafi’s fighting positions in and around the mountains.

After Wednesday’s battle, rebel leaders said they forced Gaddafi troops out of the town of al-Qualish, putting rebels within striking distance of Gharyan, a city 60 miles south of Tripoli along the government-controlled supply route that leads south. Rebels leaders contend that the regime is using the route to resupply its arsenals. Battle gains on the northern edge of the mountains, meanwhile, have extended the rebel-controlled area closer to Zawiyah, a city 40 miles west of the capital along the coastal road that connects Tripoli with Tunisia.

Juan Cole argues NATO is within its rights to support rebel advances

A NATO bombing campaign on checkpoints of security forces in the Western Mountains helped the rebel advance, and was denounced by the government in Tripoli, which predicted that the bombing would not in fact allow the Free Libya forces to move forward. Gadhafi brigades ran a long and bloody operation to subdue the western mountains towns, bombarding noncombatants with tank and mortar shells for weeks, long after the United Nations Security Council strictly instructed him to stop attacking his population and to allow them to demonstrate peacefully.

Clashes in Tripoli?

From the Guardian's reporter in Tripoli: Numerous witnesses tell the same story: that when night falls, out come the police checkpoints aimed at locking down restive districts, but so too do rebel militias opposed to Moamar Gaddafi. Under cover of darkness, it is said, they emerge from hiding to ambush his security forces. In some neighborhoods the gun battles rage every night, but the bodies of those killed and all other traces are swiftly removed. With security tight and little sign of a major uprising in Tripoli, these audacious guerrilla tactics appear to be the rebels' best hope of chipping away at the Libyan leader's defenses.

Misrata: rebels try to break Gadhafi siege 

Libyan rebel forces in besieged Misrata launched their biggest attack in more than a month to try to break through the government troops entrenched around the coastal city, as the head of the NATO alliance said that the "momentum is against" regime leader Moamar Gadhafi.

Rebel infantry, aided by mortars, advanced across no-man’s land and seized ground from pro-Gadhafi forces. Previous attempts have failed to break through government lines close to the town of Zlitan, west of Misrata.

Rebel leaders said NATO conducted air strikes against government forces around Zlitan in the past two weeks, and has used naval gunfire. While NATO jets circled the area today, there was no sign of their direct engagement in the battle. By evening, rebels said they were close to Zlitan. "We are three kilometers away," said a rebel commander, Hassan Duen. Asked if they would go on to try and capture Zlitan, he nodded affirmatively.

Former NATO Secretary General George Robertson criticizes NATO's performance in Libya:

"I think (former US Defense Secretary) Mr. Gates makes a fair point when he says this mighty alliance after only a few weeks against a pretty impoverished country finds itself out of ammunition. We don't have the right planes with precision bombing. We don't have enough deployable troops. We don't have the assets at sea that would allow the bombing campaign to take place. But we've pretended up to now that because the Europeans spend $300 billion a year in defense, that we must be well armed. We are. But it's the wrong stuff. It's for the Cold War not the next war.

Robertson says Libya has become a true turning point for the decades-old alliance. In a nutshell, the old contract between the Europeans and the United States - that the U.S. would supply the hardware as long as Europeans provided political cover to the operations - has ended.

Afghanistan: UN says security "generally improving" 

Security generally is improving in Afghanistan, making it a favorable time to transfer power to the Kabul government and hold peace talks with the Taliban, the UN special envoy to the country said Wednesday.

Staffan de Mistura declared that Afghanistan finds itself at a "special crossroad," despite a spate of recent attacks that have left scores dead in recent weeks. de Mistura, who heads up the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, said it is a propitious time to lay the groundwork for the next phase of governance, in which Afghanistan takes responsibility for its own security and governance.

"Transition: it's like a train and it's moving forward. According to every indicator I have, it is on track," the envoy said at a meeting of the UN Security Council.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron set a modest target for early British troop withdrawals from Afghanistan on Wednesday, deferring to British military commanders who had cautioned publicly against an accelerated schedule more closely paralleled on US withdrawals announced two weeks ago by President Obama.

As part of what he called a "hard-headed" approach to the war, Mr. Cameron told the House of Commons that the British pullout would be limited to 500 troops in 2012, on top of 460 being withdrawn this year. The 2012 number is about half of what Mr. Cameron and his Downing Street security team were previously considering.

Taliban: there are no negotiations

The Afghan Taliban reiterated its position against negotiating with foreign governments to end the resistance, and explained that the only negotiations in which it has engaged concern foreign prisoners. In a statement posted on its website in English and other languages on July 6, 2011, the Afghan Taliban said that such rumors of negotiations have become commonplace, and once they reject one rumor, another is spread by the media to "confuse the minds." They acknowledged that talks were held, but they were only in regard to prisoners, such as the South Korean missionaries in 2007 and the French reporters in 2011. The Afghan Taliban added that "direct and indirect" contacts about American and Canadian prisoners, referring to Bowe Bergdahl and Colin McKenzie Rutherford, continue.

More fighting across Afghan/Pakistan border

Pakistani media reporting: Hundreds of militants based in Afghanistan once again attacked Upper Dir villages bordering the Kunar province of Afghanistan but suffered 14 fatalities, officials and locals said on Wednesday.

Up to 33 Afghan cops and five civilians were killed in fighting that ensued after militants crossed over from Pakistan and launched an attack in Nuristan province. One member of the anti-militants Lashkar in Upper Dir, who suffered serious injuries in the fighting, died while three others were wounded in the daylong fighting.

An official based in Barawal, a major town of Upper Dir in the border region, said three militants had been captured alive during the fighting. He said they belonged to a militant organization but their nationalities were unknown.

Rare Pakistani operation into North Waziristan, HQ of most terror groups 

Clashes and gunfire occurred between Pakistani troops and Taliban fighters July 6 in Miranshah, North Waziristan Agency, according to media. Several Taliban fighters fired upon the Pakistan army check-posts in Miranshah with automatic weapons and rocket launchers, Express News reported. The militants also blew up an electric power transformer, media reported.

Troops responded with artillery, small and heavy weapons and attack helicopters, media reported. No casualty reports were available. Meanwhile, an aerial attack July 6 on a house killed four suspected militants and injured three others in Hamzoni, North Waziristan Agency, media reported.

Pakistan Taliban broadcasts – from Afghanistan

One of Pakistan's most notorious Taliban radio voices is back on the air after the army raided his stronghold last year and drove him across the border into Afghanistan.

The resurgence of Maulvi Faqir Mohammed – also one of the Pakistani Taliban's top commanders – illustrates the resilience of militants fighting to topple the U.S.-allied Pakistani government and the growing problem of sanctuaries in eastern Afghanistan that allow fighters to elude the army's grasp.

"We will return and enforce the golden system of Islam," Mohammed said in a recent radio broadcast from his new base in Afghanistan. "All of those who have turned their backs on us – like we are gone for good – should seek forgiveness from Allah." Many of the militants in Bajur, including Mohammed, simply slipped across the border into Kunar province, an area of Afghanistan where the U.S. has largely withdrawn its troops. Kunar has turned into a staging ground for large-scale attacks inside Pakistan, according to the Pakistani army.

AQ Khan: North Korea bribed Pakistani officials for nuke technology 

The founder of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb program asserts that the government of North Korea bribed top military officials in Islamabad to obtain access to sensitive nuclear technology in the late 1990s.

Abdul Qadeer Khan has made available documents that he says support his claim that he personally transferred more than $3 million in payments by North Korea to senior officers in the Pakistani military, which he says subsequently approved his sharing of technical know-how and equipment with North Korean scientists.

Khan also has released what he says is a copy of a North Korean official’s 1998 letter to him, written in English, that spells out details of the clandestine deal.

The body bomb threat

Although many airports use advanced imaging technology that can "see" through people's clothing, the technology might not pick up a bomb which is hidden inside a body.

"Due to the significant advances in global aviation security in recent years, terrorist groups have repeatedly and publicly indicated interest in pursuing ways to further conceal explosives," said Kawika Riley, spokesman for the department's transport security administration.

"As a precaution, passengers flying from international locations to US destinations may notice additional security measures."

Experts say the explosives could be implanted in abdomens, buttocks and breasts allowing suicide bombers to pass undetected through airport body scanners. Explosive compounds such as pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) could be implanted, then the person's wounds allowed to heal, making the material difficult to detect. On board the plane, the material could be detonated by injection.

Why are the warnings being issued? Al-Qaida operatives in Yemen has discussed surgically implanting an explosive device under the skin of a suicide bomber to get past airport detectors and blow up a U.S.-bound airliner, a U.S. official said Wednesday. One senior Homeland Security Department official said that the new intelligence surfaced about a month ago and had since been vetted. There is no indication of an immediate plot, but "the new intelligence indicated at least a fresh look at this possible tactic," the official said.

What is the focus of the threat? The Department of Homeland Security has "in recent days" warned foreign counterparts of the potential threat, said Greg Soule, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Agency. The focus is more on international flights, but domestic passengers are likely to see more security too.

See also from CNN's Mike Ahlers here.

Captured Somali wanted to export Shabaab terror

Reuters reports: An accused leader of the Somali militant group al Shabaab captured by U.S. forces and charged in a federal court sought to expand the group's operations beyond his home country, a U.S. official said on Wednesday Warsame was allegedly a high-ranking figure. One U.S. official said he was seen as a senior commander for al Shabaab and served as a liaison between his group and AQAP, which Obama administration officials have described as al Qaeda's most worrisome affiliate.

He was "trying to push Shabaab's reach," said the U.S. official, who requested anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

The administration, which was seeking to avoid sending a new prisoner to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, drew praise and criticism on Wednesday for its decisions involving the Somali suspect, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, accused of aiding Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen and the Shabab, the Somali militant group.

Kenneth L. Wainstein, who led the Justice Department’s national security division during the Bush administration, praised the Obama administration’s handling of the Warsame case, saying it showed the value of allowing the executive branch flexibility between using the military and criminal justice systems.

"From the government’s perspective, it’s better to maintain options for custody and prosecution and in each case to select that option that best fits the needs of a particular case," Mr. Wainstein said.

Republicans less impressed: "It is truly astonishing that this administration is determined, determined, to give foreign fighters all the rights and privileges of U.S. citizens regardless of where they are captured," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell while he spoke on the Senate floor Wednesday. For almost two years, McConnell says, Republicans in Congress have been asking the White House for answers about what it would do with captives picked up outside Iraq or Afghanistan.

And with Warsame, lawmakers may finally have an answer. "It is not necessary to bring or continue to harbor these terrorists within the United States," McConnell says. "The infrastructure is already in place to handle these dangerous individuals at Guantanamo."

Human Rights Watch wants criminal investigation of Bush, Cheney over torture 

The 107-page report, "Getting Away with Torture: The Bush Administration and Mistreatment of Detainees," presents substantial information warranting criminal investigations of Bush and senior administration officials, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and CIA Director George Tenet, for ordering practices such as "waterboarding," the use of secret CIA prisons, and the transfer of detainees to countries where they were tortured.

"There are solid grounds to investigate Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Tenet for authorizing torture and war crimes," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "President Obama has treated torture as an unfortunate policy choice rather than a crime. His decision to end abusive interrogation practices will remain easily reversible unless the legal prohibition against torture is clearly reestablished."

If the US government does not pursue credible criminal investigations, other countries should prosecute US officials involved in crimes against detainees in accordance with international law, Human Rights Watch said.

Famine in Horn of Africa complicates security picture

The Shabab, the Islamist rebel group fighting the government of Somalia, announced that it would again allow aid organizations to operate in the areas the group controls. A rebel spokesman, Mohamoud Raghe, said in a news conference in Mogadishu that the aid groups were going to be allowed to work in order to help bring relief to areas hard-hit by a severe drought. The Shabab said its drought committee would work with the organizations. The rebels in the past accused many aid groups of acting as spies and of being anti-Muslim.

Bahrain: how real is national dialogue? 

The main opposition party, Wefaq had hoped that the crown prince would lead the National Dialogue, only to be disappointed when the king named the more conservative al Dhahrani instead. The crown prince, for his part, has felt similarly sidelined, seen by hardliners as too soft on "treachery", his influence over the course of events diminished in recent weeks.

Save their participation in the National Dialogue, little more can be done by the Shia groupings at this point. Presently, the dialogue is a curious mixture of groups – and some 300 participants are due to take part, with the opposition political block comprising around 100 members. Yet Wefaq's allocated number of participants consists of just five seats, a pitifully small number for the country's largest political party.

Indeed, in each of the four areas of dialogue: political, social, economic and human rights, Wefaq will be granted just two per cent of the vote.

Bahrain's top cleric has issued an appeal on the eve of reconciliation talks in the Gulf kingdom, urging Sunni rulers not to use the dialogue to marginalize the Shiite opposition, which they tried to crush earlier this year. Sheik Isa Qassim's sermon reflects doubts over Bahraini king's efforts to draw the country's biggest Shiite block into the talks. The Al Wefaq party is to decide Friday whether it will join Saturday's talks.

After the Arab Spring...the winners and losers 

Richard Haas of the Council for Foreign Relations: The most organized groups in Arab societies tend to be the army and other security organs on one hand and Islamist entities on the other. Secular liberal groups (if they exist) tend to be weak and divided, and unlikely to prevail in any political competition in the near term. Facebook and Twitter matter but not enough.

Looked at more broadly, the stalling of the Arab spring has both revealed and widened the breach between the US and Saudi Arabia. Saudi leaders were alienated by what they saw as the US abandoning the regime in Egypt after three decades of close cooperation. The Americans, for their part, were unhappy with the Saudi decision to intervene militarily in Bahrain. But such independent, uncoordinated policies are now likely to become more frequent, especially if international efforts to stop Iran's nuclear program come up short.

Iran itself has both gained and lost from recent events. Higher oil prices, the fall of the staunchly anti-Iranian regime in Egypt, and projected reductions in US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan have all strengthened its hand. These gains are offset at least in part by the weakened status of Iran's close partner Syria – and by signs that Iran's leadership is divided against itself.

And from the Guardian...

The aftermath of revolution is never pretty or neat. But some Arab spring countries are coping better than others with the impact of this year's region-wide unrest and its unpredictable consequences. At one end of the spectrum stands Morocco. After much debate, and a series of largely peaceful demonstrations by the February 20 opposition movement, modest constitutional reforms proposed by King Mohammad received overwhelming support in a referendum last week.

That's not the end of the story. Thousands of people subsequently took to the streets of Rabat, Casablanca and Tangier, protesting that the reforms did not go far enough. "Morocco is being pushed towards a tipping point. The question is whether limited reform continues or whether much more is needed," said Susi Dennison, coauthor of a new study on how the EU might assist Morocco's democratic evolution, published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) thinktank. Similar considerations apply in Tunisia and Algeria, too.

At the other of the spectrum stand Syria and Libya where the political process, such as it is, has failed, and it's now increasingly possible the extreme violence of recent months could degenerate, in a post-revolutionary situation, into the sort of chaos that beset Iraq after Saddam Hussein's fall. Unlike Libya, western countries and their Gulf Arab allies have not (as yet) directly intervened in Syria.

Desert war: Mauritania repels al Qaeda attack 

Mauritanian security forces have successfully repelled a militant attack on an army base located south-east of the West African nation, news reports citing officials said Wednesday.

The attack on the military base in the town of Bassiknou near the border with Mali was reportedly attempted by members of the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the North African wing of the international terror organization. The Mauritanian military was quoted as claiming later that it had pushed the attackers into Mali and that its troops had managed to kill at least 10 of the attackers and capture several others in the counter-offensive. The development followed a joint Mauritania-Mali military operation that killed at least 15 AQIM fighters in Wagadou forest region in western Mali last month. Two soldiers were also killed in the joint anti-militant offensive.

Saudi clerics turn to Twitter

Within weeks of joining Twitter, Sheikh Abdullah bin Jebreen, a prominent Saudi scholar, had amassed nearly 6,000 followers.

"Retweet, God bless you!" he tweeted, after posting his recommended morning prayers. Followers ask about underage driving (answer: dangerous because of youths’ propensity for drag racing and therefore un-Islamic), the qualities of a good Muslim (they should neither drink nor watch pornography), and whether bathing on Fridays is a religious obligation (it is).

Sheikh bin Jebreen himself is not known for tweeting, having died two years ago at the age of 76. But his students have revived his fatwas to reach a new generation. Saudi clerics are embracing social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, attracting thousands of fans.

Albanian who killed US airmen charged 

German federal prosecutors say they have filed murder charges against a 21-year-old Kosovo Albanian in the slaying of two U.S. airmen outside the Frankfurt airport. Prosecutors said in a statement Thursday that Arid Uka was charged with two counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder in connection with the March 2 attack. If convicted, he faces a possible life sentence. They allege Uka is a radical Muslim who wanted to kill American soldiers because of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

German authorities arrested Harry Machura, a 19-year-old German convert to Islam, better known online as the jihadist "Isa Al Khattab," who allegedly operated a German-language website called the "Islamic Hacker Union" (IHU). Khattab, active on other online jihadist outlets such as the Shumukh al-Islam forum, is accused of supporting a terrorist organization by posting propaganda seeking to radicalize viewers and to recruit suicide bombers, while supporting the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

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