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    Counter-terrorism specialists face choices over where to base efforts to break group as it reaches 25th anniversary

    Al-Qaida's leadership is a shattered remnant, reduced to begging funds and munitions from local allies and with its most capable members heading to Syria, according to recent briefings from Pakistan's intelligence services.

    But western analysts say the group retains the ability to regenerate quickly and dangerously and its ideology remains a potent threat around the world, as the closure of US embassies across the Middle East this week shows.

    With fewer than 100 leaders, fighters and trainers and few experienced operators, the ability of the group's Pakistan-based "general command" under Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian-born militant who replaced Osama bin Laden after he was killed by US special forces in 2011, to launch overseas attacks is limited, Pakistani officials have said.

    As demands mount elsewhere in the Islamic world, policymakers and specialists have to decide the focus of counter-terrorist efforts. But there is still little consensus on which elements of the al-Qaida phenomenon pose the greatest threat. In July, it was reported that the CIA would be shifting resources from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Middle East and Africa.

    The current capabilities of the core leadership element of al-Qaida, founded in the Pakistani frontier city of Peshawar 25 years ago on 11 August and still based in the country, is a particularly controversial topic.

    US intelligence services and many of their counterparts overseas, including British agencies, broadly concur with the Pakistani view that the al-Qaida "senior leadership" or "general command" in the troubled south Asian state has been significantly damaged by the elimination of the majority of its senior operatives and by lower levels of support in the Muslim world. However, some argue that it remains a significant threat, particularly with most US and international forces due to leave Afghanistan within 18 months.

    Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, a Washington thinktank, said: "Al-Qaida central has been degraded, but what does that mean? Their ability to regenerate is probably greater than most analysts believe."

    A recent report published by Canadian intelligence services referred to al-Qaida's "hardcore" having "a deeper bench" of leaders and operatives. This, among other factors, suggested that "Al-Qaida Core is extremely likely to exist in 2017 much as it existed – despite predictions and assessments to the contrary – in 2007," the report said.

    The approaching withdrawal from Afghanistan has intensified the debate. The departure of most international troops could, some fear, provide a propaganda victory which would reinvigorate extremists both internationally and locally. Another concern is heightened lawlessness in Afghanistan which would help militant groups there and in Pakistan.

    "The … withdrawal of US forces and Isaf [International Security Assistance Force] troops from Afghanistan by 2014 further suggests that core al-Qaida may well regain the breathing space and cross-border physical sanctuary needed to ensure its continued existence," the Canadian report says.

    Some analysts point out that together these factors partially replicate the circumstances in which al-Qaida emerged.

    "It is back to the future – you can't help but see parallels," said one Middle Eastern diplomat who was stationed in the region in the early 1990s.

    'All won their battles'

    Al-Qaida was founded by veterans of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The victory over the massive conventional forces of the USSR was a key factor in the formulation of the group's radical new global approach, which sought to target the US – the so-called "far enemy" – to weaken regimes in the Middle East – the "near enemy" – and overcome the parochialism and infighting that plagued Islamist extremists at the time. The chaos in Afghanistan that followed the Soviet withdrawal and its destabilising effect on Pakistan helped al-Qaida to thrive through the following decade.

    Bin Laden (pictured right) left Pakistan for Saudi Arabia in 1991, though many militants remained, and then went to Sudan. He arrived in Afghanistan in 1996 at the invitation of local warlords. He then became close to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban, and was sheltered by the hardline movement until the war after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 that led to the end of its rule.

    Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador in Washington and analyst, said: "The effect on militants [of the US withdrawal] depends on how the war [in Afghanistan] ends. There is a danger that the extremists see this as yet another defeat for another superpower and that would embolden them." Lodhi said a political settlement in Afghanistan would make such a narrative difficult to sustain. However, progress in negotiations between the Taliban, the US and the Afghan government has been slow. Afghanistan also faces new presidential elections late next spring and violence is rising.

    The coming international withdrawal is already having an impact even on long-running conflicts where there has never been any al-Qaida involvement.

    In the parts of the disputed Himalayan former princedom of Kashmir, where insurgency has pitted local and Pakistani-based militant groups against security forces for more than two decades, the "success" of the Taliban is seen by some as an argument for resuming a strategy of violent resistance that has largely been abandoned in recent years.

    In the town of Sopore, a hotbed of insurgent violence in northern Indian-administered Kashmir, young men spoke to the Guardian in between bouts of throwing rocks at local police during a morning's rioting last month. Events in Afghanistan, they said, had inspired them.

    "The US forces have pulled out because they could not beat the Taliban. This is an example for us. If we fight back we too can achieve something," said Shakeel Ahmed, a 24-year-old pharmaceutical representative. Muzaffar Ahmed Wani, a 50-year-old schoolmaster in the southern village of Tral whose teenage son is fighting with the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen group, said events in Afghanistan would "definitely have an impact".

    In Peshawar itself, few doubt that the withdrawal will encourage local fighters.

    "My father's father fought the British, my father fought the Soviets, my brother fought the Americans. All have won their battles even with small guns and stones against tanks and helicopters. This shows that when you fight in the way of God you will always win, whatever is against you," said Mohammed Rasheed, who works in a restaurant near the city's main bus station.

    But it is less clear that events in Afghanistan will have the same effect further afield. Internet forums and propaganda websites are dominated by news from Syria or other Middle Eastern countries. Al-Qaida "general command" has also lost its most effective propagandists: Bin Laden himself and Abu Yahya al-Libi, a younger militant who was killed last year. Al-Zawahiri, the current leader, lacks the charisma of either.

    A key factor determining the evolution of the remnant of al-Qaida's core in Pakistan in coming years will be its local allies, analysts agree. If either the Afghan Taliban or the rough coalition of groups known as the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) are definitively defeated, significantly degraded or conclude an agreement to lay down their weapons, al-Qaida could find itself without the haven that has given a modicum of precarious security over the last decade. Allies such as the Haqqani network, another organisation based on the Afghan-Pakistani frontier, could also withdraw support, though this is considered unlikely in the short term.

    "In some scenarios al-Qaida could be badly squeezed," said Ejaz Haider, a security analyst in Islamabad.

    Tenacious ideology

    For many years, the local outfits were junior partners to the prestigious international group. This is no longer the case, according to Pakistani officials.

    "We see [al-Qaida] more and more dependent on local networks who have funds and weapons and recruits, but with less and less to offer them. The overall picture is very fragmented," said one senior officer based in the western Punjab province.

    One indication is the flow of recruits. Intelligence services are picking up signs that the TTP or even other "international" groups with a presence on the frontier are being preferred by volunteers. In one recent case, a young Pakistani who was studying in the UK returned to his homeland and sought out the TTP despite attempts by al-Qaida to recruit him. In another case volunteers chose the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has long been based in the tribal areas.

    One key development is what analysts call the "Pakistanisation" of al-Qaida in the country. Senior al-Qaida leaders established a local branch to develop operations and links in Pakistan several years ago and have recently ramped up propaganda directed at south Asian Muslims.

    "You are seeing a lot of material related not just to fighting in Afghanistan but focusing on Bangladesh, India and Burma that we have not really seen previously," said Aaron Zelin, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

    But now analysts see a growing influence of locals inside the formerly almost exclusively international "al-Qaida hardcore". Recently, a Pakistani cleric has taken on the role of ideologue and spokesman for al-Qaida. The reported movement of al-Qaida operatives to Syria, if confirmed, could be evidence of a possible split, as those unhappy with the increasingly local character and focus of what was once the centre of an international network focus on waging "global jihad" elsewhere.

    Much of the expert testimony heard by a US House of Representatives foreign affairs sub-committee in August examined the future threat posed by the broader al-Qaida movement to the west. This threat was largely seen as coming from a tenacious ideology, affiliated groups, so-called "lone wolves" and veterans of conflict in Syria.

    "The overall situation today is reminiscent of – though not identical to – that of the 1990s, when, like now, several jihadi groups with local and regional agendas were operating across the Muslim world," Thomas Hegghammer, an expert at Stanford University, told the subcommittee. "Then as now, western governments were unable or unwilling to pursue them militarily, and the [local] groups themselves were unable or unwilling to attack in the west. Then as now, Europe had semi-radical communities operating just within the confines of the law and regularly sending foreign fighters to conflicts in the Muslim world."

    In the 1990s al-Qaida was barely known, and its strategy of targeting the west was largely untested. Today, going global represents a shorter ideological leap for extremists than for their predecessors. One possibility is an entirely new group forming. "Such an initiative could emerge within a faction of an existing organisation or it could occur as a result of a dynamic of competition [for outside funds and recruits] between grouplets in an area with many actors. That could certainly happen in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area," Hegghammer said.

    The men who founded the international terrorism group

    On 11 August 1988, a small group of men met in Peshawar to discuss the formation of an international group of committed Islamic extremists that would continue to fight beyond Afghanistan now that Soviet forces were pulling out of the country. On 20 August they met again and formally established "al-Qaida" as an "armed Islamic faction".

    Among them were:

    Osama bin Laden, the former leader of al-Qaida. He was killed by US special forces in May 2011, aged 54.

    Ayman Al-Zawahiri, former head of the Egyptian militant group Islamic Jihad, now leader of al-Qaida. Aged 62.

    Mohammed Atef, aka Abu Hafs. Al-Qaida's military commander, killed in Afghanistan in 2001 by one of the first missile strikes from an unmanned US drone. Died aged 57.

    Jamal al-Fadl. Of Sudanese origin, he fell out with bin Laden in the mid-90s and volunteered for the US witness protection scheme. He provided key testimony in the US v bin Laden trial in the spring and summer of 2001. Aged 51.

    Wael Hamza Julaidan. A veteran organiser of international Arab volunteers in the 1980s. He was still in touch with bin Laden in 2000. Current whereabouts unknown. Aged 55.

    Abu Ubaidah al-Panjshiri, Egyptian veteran fighter in Afghanistan. Died in boat accident in Africa in 1996, aged 46.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    A lawyer representing families of the 'disappeared' says there are 450 habeas corpus petitions seeking release of detainees

    Every two weeks in recent months, a tired, middle-aged woman has made her way through the crowd of lawyers, policemen and detainees at the main courthouse in Peshawar, the restive Pakistani frontier city.

    She is Hameeda Bibi, the mother of Farmanullah, and is an unlikely figure to be taking on Pakistan's powerful security services. Last week, she was in court once more to hear further discussion of how 1m Pakistani rupees (£6,400) should be paid to her in compensation by the state for the presumed murder of her son, a night watchman and vegetable seller who disappeared from their home in Nauthia, near Peshawar, last year and whose body, bearing torture marks, was found on a motorway 50 miles away.

    "My son was picked up in broad daylight but returned in a sack," the 55-year-old widow said. "I think others should also do as I have done. I had only one son, the sole bread earner of my family, and I lost him. This money will help."

    The cash has yet to be formally handed over, but the case has set an important precedent, giving hope to the families of thousands of others who have disappeared in unclear circumstances or are known to have died while in the custody of intelligence agencies.

    Arif Jan, a lawyer for the families of the "disappeared", said there were 450 habeas corpus petitions – demanding the release of detainees alleged to be held by intelligence services in Pakistan – pending in Peshawar high court alone. "This case [of Hameeda Bibi] is a single case, but it is a step forward," he said.

    Muhammad Yousaf, 45, the father of Amjad Ali, a farmer whose body was recovered from the tribal areas after he was missing for a year, said that he too would seek compensation.

    "This amount should be enhanced as it will not meet the basic requirements of my son's family since he has left four children and a widow."

    The Pakistani government, at federal or state level, has been reluctant to acknowledge responsibility and it has taken a new activism by courts to force the issue into the open.

    "The provincial government was not agreeing to [this payment] but … we could not defy court orders and cannot stop people from claiming for compensation," said Naveed Akhtar, a senior government lawyer at Peshawar high court.

    Observers say the judgment in favour of Hameeda Bibi would have been inconceivable until very recently and is in part due to the battered reputation of Pakistan's military among the public.

    Most of the "disappeared" are thought to have been detained by the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the main military spy agency, which has led the effort against the Islamic extremists who kill thousands every year in Pakistan, and against militants fighting for greater autonomy for the resource-rich southwestern province of Balochistan.

    But failures to find Osama bin Laden or to detect the successful US mission to kill the al-Qaida leader in his hideout in the northern garrison town of Abbottabad in May 2011, and to effectively combat extremist violence generally, have sapped popular support for all military institutions. This has encouraged activist judges and journalists to take on a previously "untouchable" target, say analysts.

    "There is an unprecedented public debate on the role and efficacy of the armed forces," said Raza Rumi, an analyst and commentator in Islamabad. "It was just never discussed before and that is opening up space for all sorts of new developments."

    This month, a leaked report by a government-appointed judicial commission, examining how Bin Laden was able to hide in Pakistan for almost a decade and how the US special forces were able to enter the country to kill him, was critical of the Pakistani military and intelligence services.

    Others are questioning the proportion of government spending that goes to the military. Pakistan's defence budget is about 3% of the nation's GDP, according to the World Bank, considerably more than is spent on education.

    Human rights groups accuse the ISI of torture, false detention and other abuses. Up to 4,000 people may still be held, they say, of whom around 700 have been identified.

    Last year, Pakistani officials admitted large numbers of people were in detention, but claimed they held only individuals who security services were "100% sure" were involved in extremist violence. Now, however, officials deny that any individuals are detained, saying the numbers of supposed "disappeared" are vastly exaggerated and include individuals who have "run away from home, been coerced into militant groups or are common criminals on the run".

    "I cannot speak about the past, but currently there is no one held," one official said on condition of anonymity.

    The earliest secret detentions identified by campaigners date back to the early 1990s. But cases increased in late 2001 as Pakistani authorities moved against militant groups following the 9/11 attacks. Some detainees were handed to US services or interrogated in their presence.

    The numbers of abductions rose dramatically between 2006 and 2007, when Pakistan became a victim of intense Islamic militant violence. They continued after the country returned to civilian rule in 2008.Any new accountability is very limited however. One recent case in Lahore resulted in police being granted an arrest warrant for a brigadier in the ISI named in witness statements during hearings about the disappearance of a businessman in 2005. The supreme court in Islamabad ruled that the warrant should not be executed out of "respect for the institution", the Daily Times newspaper reported.

    And not everyone is interested in financial compensation. "I will never sell my brother's soul," said Noor Bacha, 45, whose younger brother has been missing from their home in a village in Mardan district, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, since September 2011.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Ruling offers hope to Shakil Afridi, who was convicted of treason after helping CIA agents hunting Osama bin Laden

    A Pakistani administrator has overturned a judgment sentencing a doctor who helped CIA agents hunting the al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden to 33 years in prison.

    Lawyers for Shakil Afridi, who was convicted of treason in May last year, played down his chances of release, but experts said the decision could be related to a recent improvement in difficult relations between the US and Pakistan. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, raised the issue of Afridi's imprisonment when visiting Islamabad in July.

    Michael Kugelman, south Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC, said: "The US considers this a priority issue. It is a very dysfunctional relationship but has perhaps stabilised to the point where Pakistan is ready to act on a request like this."

    Afridi, a former public health officer who reportedly did not know exactly whom the CIA was trying to target when he agreed to work for them, was arrested following the night-time raid on Bin Laden's compound on 2 May 2011.

    As first revealed by the Guardian, in the weeks running up to the assault by US navy seals Afridi ran a bogus hepatitis B vaccination campaign for the CIA, designed to collect blood samples in the hope of finding people who matched the Bin Laden family DNA. A match would have helped to definitively identify the extremist leader.

    Afridi, 49, was not charged over that alleged offence but for his links with Lashkar-e-Islam, an Islamic militant group active in Khyber agency. He was found guilty of conspiring against the state.

    Sahibzada Mohammad Anees, who oversees the implementation of local laws in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal agencies, ruled that the official who heard the case exceeded his authority when handing down the sentence last year.

    That judgment was passed in consultation with tribal elders in Khyber agency, which lies between the frontier city of Peshawar and the border with Afghanistan. Anees ordered a new trial.

    Afridi's sentence angered the US, which withheld £22m in aid for Pakistan in retaliation. The then US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, publicly stated that Afridi "was not in any way doing anything that would have undermined Pakistan". However, it was welcomed by Pakistani security agencies who said the physician had got what he deserved.

    There have been signs that Pakistan's civilian bureaucracy and courts are increasingly prepared to challenge the country's powerful security establishment.

    A court in Peshawar recently ordered authorities to pay compensation to the mother of a man who was abducted and killed, reportedly by Pakistani security agencies.

    In July an unpublished report by a committee overseen by a former top judge seeking to answer questions as to how Bin Laden apparently remained undetected in Pakistan for nearly a decade was leaked to the media.

    It was fiercely critical of police and intelligence agencies, calling for a wholesale change in attitudes and working practices.

    However, more than two years after the killing of Bin Laden, Afridi is the only person to have been arrested in connection with the event.

    The raid, conducted by US special forces transported from Afghanistan in stealth helicopters that evaded Pakistan's air defences, was seen as a humiliation for the country's military establishment. It severely undermined relations between the US and Pakistan.

    Afridi's lawyer, Samiullah Afridi, said he was not hopeful about any retrial. "The [original] decision was announced by an assistant political agent, who is an administrator, and it is going back to him [to decide again].

    "We do not have any expectations because whatever happens will be according to what the [security] agencies want. We want that Dr Shakil Afridi should be tried by a lower-level judge, at the very least," he said.

    The appeal was heard by a bureaucrat because under the colonial-era laws in place in Pakistan's tribal agencies the decisions of political agents, the officials charged with administering justice in the agencies, cannot be heard in a court of law.

    The lawyer Afridi said he had been unable to contact his client and inform him of the ruling.

    "His lawyers and his family have not been able to meet him for at least eight to nine months, but perhaps he has seen the news if it has appeared in the media," the lawyer, who is not related to his client, told the Guardian.

    The hunt for Bin Laden

    The plan to obtain DNA samples from Osama bin Laden's family to confirm his presence in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad was set in motion after US intelligence agencies tracked a courier known to be linked to al-Qaida to a large, non-descript compound with high security where, they learned, a tall man with an extensive family lived.

    The agency monitored the compound from satellites and through surveillance from a CIA safehouse nearby, but wanted further confirmation that Bin Laden was present before mounting a risky operation inside another country. DNA from any of the Bin Laden children or grandchildren in the compound could be compared with a sample from the al-Qaida leader's sister, who died in Boston in 2010, to provide evidence that the family was present.

    So agents approached Dr Shahid Afridi, the health official in charge of Khyber, part of a tribal area that runs along the Afghan border close to Abbottabad. He agreed to help. The doctor went to Abbottabad in March 2011, claiming to have procured funds to give free vaccinations to locals against hepatitis B. Bypassing local health service officials, he paid generous sums to low-ranking local government health workers to administer vaccines door to door in Bin Laden's neighbourhood.

    One consequence of the operation has been to deepen existing suspicions among many in Pakistan that polio vaccines are part of a western plot against Islam. This has been described as a major setback in efforts to tackle the disease.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Pentagon had previously said it could not find records of DNA tests in response to freedom of information request

    Secret budget documents show that a US military laboratory in Afghanistan analysed DNA from Osama bin Laden's corpse and confirmed his identify shortly after he was killed by a Navy commando team.

    The Pentagon denied more than a year ago it had any records of these tests in a response to a freedom of information request filed by the Associated Press a day after President Barack Obama announced bin Laden's death.

    The Washington Post reported on Thursday that classified intelligence budget files provided by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden stated that a forensic intelligence laboratory run by the Defense Intelligence Agency performed the DNA testing. The Post reported that the tests "provided a conclusive match".

    The AP's request for records submitted on 2 May 2011 included DNA and facial recognition tests performed to ensure the body was bin Laden's, all videos and photographs taken during the raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the death certificate and other records related to the mission.

    Responding in March 2012, the defence department said it could not locate any of the files.

    The AP reported in July that the nation's top special operations commander, Admiral William McRaven, had ordered military files about the raid purged from defence department computers and sent to the CIA, where they could more easily be shielded from being made public.

    The secret move appeared to have sidestepped federal rules and perhaps the Freedom of Information Act. The CIA has special authority to prevent the release of "operational files" in ways that cannot effectively be challenged in federal court.

    Spokesmen for the Pentagon and CIA denied the move was intended to avoid the legal requirements of the information act. The bin Laden mission was overseen by the CIA, they said, which meant the records about the raid should be housed with the spy agency.

    The CIA has not responded to a separate request for many of the same records about the bin Laden mission the Pentagon said it could not find.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    The origins of the atrocity are in both Osama bin Laden's terror network and a growing radicalism among Kenyans and Somalis

    The Kenyan security forces are picking through the rubble of the Westgate mall, attempting to piece together the details of Saturday's attack. This was an atrocity that had both a clear international dimension and strong local roots.

    Ten nations – from Ghana to China – are mourning their dead. At least six British subjects were killed. President Barack Obama has promised FBI support in unravelling the plot, while British and Israeli experts are assisting the investigations.

    It is highly likely that the attackers also came from many nations. When he spoke to the nation last night, Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, acknowledged the possibility. "Intelligence reports had suggested that a British woman and two or three American citizens may have been involved in the attack," he said. "We cannot confirm the details at present."

    Whether Samantha Lewthaite – the 'white widow' and obsession of the British press – was part of the plot is, essentially, beside the point. There has been a steady flow of international supporters to join the ranks of radical Islamic movements in Kenya and Somalia for years.

    This is how Osama bin Laden planned al-Qaida. From the time he arrived in Sudan in 1991 until his expulsion five years later, bin Laden established cells across East Africa, including Kenya. Its members acquired safe houses, opened business fronts and married into the local Muslim community, which makes up nearly 30% of the population.

    The first suicide attacks in the region took place on 7 August 1998, when car bombs were simultaneously detonated outside the United States embassies in Nairobi and the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam. The explosions left 224 people dead and some 5,000 wounded.

    The real boost to regional terrorism came when the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia took power in June 2006, ousting the notorious warlords who had ruled Mogadishu. The Islamic Courts ran the most effective administration the city had known since the collapse of the Siad Barre government in 1991.

    The Islamic Courts reached out to the US, but President Bush's hardline Africa secretary, Jendayi Frazer, rejected the overtures. In late 2006 Frazer is believed to have quietly encouraged neighbouring Ethiopia to invade Somalia, expelling the Islamists from Mogadishu.

    The Union of Islamic Courts fled into exile, but its youth wing, al-Shabaab, took its place, launching an increasingly effective military campaign, until it held much of the capital, Mogadishu, as well as most of central and southern Somalia. Only African Union troops from Uganda and Burundi prevented Mogadishu from falling to the militants. Unable to capture the city, al-Shabaab hit back, bombing a sports club in the Ugandan capital Kampala in July 2010, leaving 74 dead.

    The regional dimension of the conflict was further ratcheted up in October 2011, when Kenya invaded Somalia. The Kenyan aim was to halt Islamic militant infiltration across its border from Somalia, by creating a "client" state in southern Somalia to act as a buffer state against Kenya's enemies. It took months of heavy fighting before Kenyan forces captured the southern Somalia port of Kismayo in May 2012 and the state of "Jubland" was established.

    For al-Shabaab, the Kenyan invasion was the last straw; they took the war on to Kenyan soil. Within days of the 2011 invasion a grenade was thrown into a pub in Nairobi. It was the first of many attacks targeting churches and police stations. These were all a prelude to Saturday's assault on Westgate.

    But the attack also has local roots.

    A report for the UN security council in July suggested that Kenyan radicals, including a movement known as al-Hijra, were an increasing threat. Al-Hijra operates through a network of preachers based in the Majengo slum, in the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh – home to many of the Somali exile community. President Kenyatta has been at pains to prevent cracks appearing in Kenyan society. He went out of his way to refer to Westgate as an attack on the "national family". Yet, to young, unemployed ethnic Somalis, living in Nairobi slums, this will have a hollow ring. Many feel discriminated against and persecuted by the authorities. With al-Shabaab holding out the promise of a $300 a month salary if they join the struggle, there has been a ready flow of recruits.

    It is the international and local dimension of the Westgate attack that makes it so difficult to respond to. The Kenyan government is right not to unleash the police or military against the vulnerable Somali community. At the same time it has to strengthen its security. The Kenyan reaction to Saturday's assault was slow and hesitant.

    The international community will have to find a means of matching al-Qaida's global reach if further local atrocities like this are to be avoided. Providing assistance after the event is just mopping up spilled blood. Intelligence needs to be shared, training provided and links put in place before the next attack takes place – because one thing seems certain: we will not have long to wait.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Al-Liby, on the FBI's most-wanted list with a $5m bounty on his head for 1998 embassy bombings, reportedly abducted in Tripoli

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    Islamist militiaman accused of masterminding 1998 embassy bombings detained 'peacefully' in custody, officials claim

    He was one of the world's most wanted men with a £3m FBI bounty on his head. Now Abu Anas al-Liby, the scarred Islamist militiaman accused of masterminding the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, is in US custody.

    Despite US accusations that the Libyan national was carrying out surveillance for the east African bombing missions in 1993, Liby – an opponent of the former dictator Muammar Gaddafi – did not always fly under the radar. He is even believed to have been granted asylum in Britain in 1995 and to have spent time living in Manchester. Scotland Yard arrested him four years later but was forced to release him for lack of evidence.

    When officers later raided his home, they found a terrorist training manual, dubbed the Manchester manual. Liby, however, had already fled the country. His involvement with al-Qaida would eventually take him back to his homeland, where there were fears he was involved in building an Islamist cell.

    The chairman of the Home Affairs select committee, Keith Vaz, said the case would be raised with the Home Secretary, Theresa May, when she appeared before the committee on 15 October, the Press Association reported.

    "This case raises serious questions about the motives behind asylum and national security decisions in the UK," Vaz said. "It is not the first time that someone who has been brought to the attention of the authorities and released has gone on to be linked to further terrorist activity."

    Some reports suggested Liby returned to Libya in about 2010 under a plan of reconciliation run by the former dictator's son Saif Gaddafi. Time magazine reported that his son was killed in the civil war which began soon after. Intelligence sources were thought to have been alerted to his presence in Tripoli, where he apparently lived in the open. But the precarious situation in the Libyan capital precluded any action against him.

    Liby is believed to have been an early associate of Osama bin Laden when he set up al-Qaida and went with him to Sudan in the early 1990s. Reports suggested he fled to Afghanistan. He was a renowned surveillance and computer specialist within the group.

    His wanted poster described him as between 5'10" and 6'2" (178cm and 188cm) and said he had a scar on the left side of face and usually wore a full beard.

    According to a US indictment, he "conducted visual and photographic surveillance of the US embassy in Nairobi" in 1993, five years before it was bombed. The following year, the indictment says, he carried out a review of files on possible terrorist attacks against the US embassy there, as well as the building that was then housing the US Agency for International Development in Nairobi and other British, French and Israeli targets in the city.

    In the end, his capture after a 15-year manhunt was carried out "peacefully", American officials claimed. They say his life thus far has been anything but. The bombings he is accused of having involvement in killed more than 200 people. A courtroom in New York is the likely next destination for a man whose work with al-Qaida has taken him across the globe.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Poem was found on laptop belonging to British terrorism suspect allegedly linked to Kenyan shopping centre attack

    The British woman allegedly linked to the Kenyan shopping centre attack penned an ode to Osama bin Laden, declaring: "My love for you is like no other," it has emerged.

    The 34-line poem was found on a laptop belonging to Samantha Lewthwaite, who was married to 7 July 2005 suicide bomber Germaine Lindsay. Last month, Interpol issued an international arrest warrant for Lewthwaite in connection with suspected terrorist offences in 2011.

    In the ode to Bin Laden, the 29-year-old told the dead al-Qaida leader he was "in a better place", adding: "Us we are left to continue what you started. To seek the victory until we are martyred. To instil terror into kuffar."

    The laptop was found by detectives at her house in the Kenyan city of Mombasa, Sky News reported. A flash drive found by police showed she had spent eight years researching chemicals, explosive ingredients and how to make bombs, it said.

    Among the documents she downloaded was one called the Mujahideen Explosives Handbook. But as well as bomb-making she appears to have been preoccupied with her personal appearance.

    Examination of the laptop's hard drive showed she had also Googled a significant number of workout and weight loss sites, as well as makeover sites which demonstrated how to have hair like the singer Taylor Swift. There were also self-portraits of Lewthwaite, including one with her children, Sky News said.

    There has been intense speculation linking Lewthwaite to the attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi for which the al-Qaida-linked Somali group al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility but the warrant does not relate to the atrocity, which left at least 67 dead. The Kenyan Red Cross says 23 people are still missing.

    Sky News said its investigation revealed that Lewthwaite had acquired three addresses in the Kenyan capital, including one where she lived for seven months in 2011.

    In the aftermath of the 7 July 2005 bombings in London, Lewthwaite insisted that she was horrified by them. But she later disappeared with the couple's two children, only to re-emerge in Kenya as a committed jihadi who is believed to be working with al-Shabaab.

    Full text of the poem found Samantha Lewthwaite's laptop

    Oh sheik osama my father, my brother

    My love for you is like no other

    Oh Sheik Osama now that you are gone

    The muslims must wake up they must be strong

    I know that you are in a better place

    That Allah has bestowed upon you grace.

    Us we are left to continue what you started.

    To seek the victory until we are martyred.

    To instill terror into kuffar.

    Until the world is governed by la illaha illala.

    Oh sheik osama no [sic] this for true

    My heart will not find peace until all muslims do.

    Everything you had you gave for Allah

    No surrender will take us all far.

    Your life an example of how we should be.

    Oh Muslims listen to our beloved sheik's words

    Let not his struggle and efforts go unheard

    Revive what he started and strive to success

    Then maybe we can be raised with the best.

    Oh sheik Osama we are jealous of you to be of those who the promise is true

    The promise is truth which is binding if only we knew

    Verily Allah has purchased the lives of the believers that theirs shall be paradise.

    They fight in Allahs cause, so they kill and are killed.

    It is a promise binding on Allah in taurat, injill and Qur'an

    And who is truer to his covenant than Allah?

    As for our enemies our words will be less.

    You picked the wrong army to contest.

    Al Qaeda are stronger and fiercer than ever.

    Thinking in the end you are stupid it will NEVER

    Be over until the day that we see our lands returned and governed by He Allah the almighty, whose law is complete.

    So make your plans and He is the best of planners.

    Their was no victory for you Mr Obama, the honour is his on martyred Osama!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Lawyers for Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, Osama bin Laden's cook and bodyguard, said CIA detention violated right to speedy trial

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    Dawkins tweeted 'Bin Laden has won' after his jar of honey was confiscated by airport security. Which other items of celebrity baggage have famously fallen foul of airport regulations

    He may have been dead for two and a half years, but this week Osama bin Laden achieved the unspeakably evil endpoint of his diabolical lifelong masterplan: he got an airport security team to confiscate a little jar of honey from Richard Dawkins. Distraught, the evolutionary biologist and world-famous atheist tweeted:

    Dawkins losing a minuscule amount of honey because he doesn't understand how rules work is clearly the worst thing that has ever happened to a famous person at the hands of airport security. But it's by no means the first of Osama bin Laden's victories over celebrity baggage. Here are five more:

    Justin Bieber's monkey

    In March this year, German authorities detained Justin Bieber's capuchin monkey Mally for travelling without the necessary paperwork. Mally is now the property of the German government, and has started a new life at the Serengeti Park, near Hanover. Which is exactly what the terrorists wanted.

    Krystian Zimerman's piano

    Shortly after 9/11, security officers at JFK airport confiscated and destroyed world-renowned pianist Krystian Zimerman's piano because the glue keeping it together "smelled funny". They were probably just worried it was actually honey.

    Rush Limbaugh's Viagra

    In 2006, customs officials confiscated a bottle of Viagra from the conservative US talkshow host because his name wasn't on the prescription.

    Yuzuko Horigome's violin

    The violinist had her million-dollar Guarnerius violin snatched by customs officers last year, after accidentally taking it through the Nothing To Declare gate.

    Sharon Osbourne's medication

    Osbourne found herself in trouble in June when she tried to take an improperly packed bag through customs. According to the Mirror, she lost her temper, told the authorities to keep it, and then sent an assistant five minutes later to ask for the bag back, only to be told it had been destroyed. She and Dawkins should set up a support group.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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  • 11/13/13--07:18: Sketching Guantánamo
  • Court artist's new book offers a rare and unique insight into the drama of the military hearings at US detention centre

    Janet Hamlin has been covering Guantánamo for seven years, making more than 25 trips to the prison. Her work provides an unusual view into the controversial military commissions proceedings - and the only view of the small number of detainees charged with crimes (of the 164 prisoners that remain at Guantánamo, only six face formal charges).

    Sketching Guantánamo, a compilation of her work with accompanying essays, has just hit the shelves. The artist exchanged ideas and answered questions last week over the phone and Gmail chat:

    Michael Bronner: The book is just out. How's it doing? What feedback have you had so far?

    Janet Hamlin: So far it's been well received. It's just come out so we'll see how that goes. There have been mostly positive reviews, and one that was a little critical that I had not taken a political stance, but my goal is to let the viewer/reader make his or her own opinions based on what I've sketched.

    MB: Understood. But there must have been an inspiration to assemble the images and essays in one volume...

    JH: After the third year of sketching it had become apparent that I had the unique sequential perspective of these trials gathered visually and many friends and colleagues asked if I'd be doing a book. The idea germinated, and here we are seven years later. It was a lot of work to figure out how to organise, fact check, etc., and with the help of many it's come to fruition. I am proud of how it's turned out. I am also pleased that there are other contributors featured in the book - the piece by Salim Hamdan and his translator about what the experience was like from his perspective, Carol Rosenberg's opener; Michelle Shephard's chapter on Omar Khadr, and others.

    MB:Carol Rosenberg is the Miami Herald reporter who has covered Guantánamo more than any other. Michelle Shephard, also very dedicated to reporting the story, is the author of a book on the case of Canadian former detainee Omar Khadr. It's the third contributor you named that's a real surprise: Salim Hamdan was Osama bin Ladin's driver, a former detainee from Yemen released in 2008 after six years of captivity. You solicited first-person insights from him. How did that come about?

    JH: Michelle Shephard put me in touch with Salim Hamdan's interpreter, Charles Schmitz, who was able to forward my sketch images to Hamdan for response as to how he felt in each scene. Here is his response to the first sketch I did of him in the courtroom:

    This was the first time I was in court and the first time I saw the motions and the judge and lawyers from each side like I had seen in the movies and I didn't understand anything about the law and the court procedures. I wondered whether the trial would be fair or only what the American government wanted. They weren't using civilian law or military law and they made up a new law that doesn't offer anything in favour of the prisoner...

    I wanted to provide a unique perspective from within – that of a detainee on trial – and I was able to get access to Hamdan. His was the first case tried that did not end up in a plea deal, and big news.

    MB: You have a perspective on Guantánamo that spans seven years, longer than all but a couple of reporters. Do you remember your thoughts upon getting that first assignment to go to Guantánamo?

    JH: The Associated Press needed to send a sketch artist to draw Canadian detainee Omar Khadr, who was 19 at the time. Going to Gitmo was foreign, and somewhat daunting. I had no idea what to expect. There were many rules I was concerned about – not being able to draw the detainee's face, for instance. That rule was lifted the following year with David Hicks (an Australian detainee, who has since been released).

    MB: I want to ask you in detail about the rules. But first I wanted to step back and ask you to give us a sense of the history of sketch art in legal settings. We've become used to cameras in courtrooms – photographs of nearly everything that transpires, really, from CTV to Youtube and iPhone images. Where does courtroom sketch art exist in the order of evolution?

    JH: It's one of the last vestiges of old-time image capturing. An observer at Gitmo brought in some printouts once of engravings from at least 200 years ago. Several courts still have sketch artists, but as you mention, more and more we are seeing cameras in the courtrooms. There are only about five artists in NY that cover the courts these days.

    MB: Do you consider yourself more an artist? A journalist? What is the interplay between the two callings? Interpretation, impression, objectivity - there must be times when they clash…?

    JH: One of the things the art director at AP asked is that I keep things as true to what I see as possible – not to move people around, but to sketch them where they are. To be a "visual journalist", in a way. But of course there are times when it's very difficult to be objective, and I do have to edit and interpret. The whole time I'm hoping to bring back a compelling image that is as true to what happened as possible.

    Sometimes the editing is part of the deal there, given the strict rules: no doors can be drawn, for example. Guards, anonymous witnesses, various security or other personnel cannot be sketched. Depending on the judge, even an outline of a military panel (the jury) cannot be sketched, so I ended up drawing huge blue tabs with numbers to indicate that there were jury members sitting there, as a visual compromise.

    MB: Guantánamo is a place where the rules are a moving target. How have they evolved (or devolved, as the case may be at times) in terms of your work?

    JH: There's a huge rotation going on all the time. Every six months there is a new crew of PAOs (public affairs officers who escort members of the press) who have been trained, yet interpret the rules differently. So sometimes reporters can bring in wire notebooks, other times not, for example. For me, I could bring in stadium glasses to help with the distant view (Court 2, the maximum-security courtroom, is a challenging venue, drawing from behind soundproof glass in back of courtroom). After three years of using the glasses to see a bit better, I was told no more stadium glasses.

    Sometimes I am asked to show a passport to get into court, other times not, so I always carry a passport (even though I have a media badge). One time I was told a detainee did not want his sketches shown, so was told by the court security officer, who has to sign off on all sketches before they go out (the same person that can censor the sound from the courtroom broadcast into the press booth), that I could not have my sketches back unless I blacked the detainee out. Instead, I remained in the court area and asked to have the military spokesperson help me by making calls from court until we had a valid reason for such censorship. It took us four hours, but we got the right to move the sketches.

    MB: What's so striking about your book is that it covers so many years. You actually see some of the detainees change physically – in the case of Omar Khadr, from a boy into a man – in your images. Are there cases that have affected you more than others?

    JH: Omar's hearings and trial were the most comprehensive, and there were many moving moments during those years. He really did grow from a boy to a man in those years. There were so many moments in his trial – a guard who took pity on him; the video of him as a child making a road bomb; the widow of the soldier killed by the grenade he plead guilty to throwing; his apology to her...The sketches in the book are the best explainers. In a nutshell, when I first drew Omar he was like a lanky puppy. The following year, an unhappy young man with untruly hair, quiet and withdrawn. The year after that he was in a white uniform (designating compliance) and engaged in the court happenings. He dressed in a suit when the trial itself began and apologised to the widow of the soldier killed during the battle in which he was captured. It was a very moving moment.

    Of course, the hearings involving the 9/11 accused – Khalid Sheikh Mohammad's declaration of guilt, for example – were very affecting. I was in Brooklyn when 9/11 happened and lived that day, so to see the man who claims to have masterminded that was a powerful experience.

    Equally so to meet the victims' family members who come to the court to share their stories and sit beside us in the media viewing room.

    MB: I understand you specifically displeased Khalid Sheikh Mohammad with one of your sketches?

    JH: Yes. The first time I drew Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, he did not like how I drew his nose, so the sketch was held on premises at the courtroom until I could print out a reference photograph, return to the court, alter the nose until it matched the printout, and then the security officer signed off so the sketch could move.

    Given the restrictions, when I draw close-ups of faces, the best views are actually from an entirely different building up the hill from the court. There they have monitors statically positioned with split-screen views of each detainee face-forward. Ironically, I draw better sketches from those. I'd pitched wearing noise cancelling headphones with two security agents bookending me while sketching so that I could get into the actual courtroom for a better view like we do here in New York courts, but I don't have the security clearance. The separate room with the monitors was the military's compromise.

    MB: The KSM sketch was the first opportunity for the world to "see" the face of the accused mastermind of 9/11 since his capture in March 2003 (we all remember the photograph of the unshaven, sweaty, about-to-be-rendered accused terrorist that the US government released). His lawyers were obviously aware of the potential impact of your sketch. Do all detainees have the right to review the images?

    JH: It had never happened before, but this time for some reason the security officer felt it should be shown to KSM's lawyers before he'd okay it. And then I saw through the glass KSM looking at it and shaking his head, clearly displeased. After that, there were no other times that the detainees shown sketches for approval until Majid Khan (a Pakistani detainee accused of conspiring with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in plotting terrorist attacks). The court security officer claimed that Majid had the right to not allow my sketches to be released and used by the media, but did not have anything in writing to substantiate his claim. I did not want to leave the court until I could leave with my sketches. It resulted in a standoff. A commander who assists the media had to come to the courtroom and make phone calls for several hours to verify if Majid Khad did indeed have the right to not allow sketches to go out. Four hours and several phone calls from the court later, we got the approval to keep the sketches and allow media to show them. Since then, there has not been a request to show detainees sketches for approval.

    MB: The book includes more than just the courtroom sketches – there several scenes from Guantánamo outside the courtroom. Are there a few you can describe that were particularly significant for you to include?

    JH: Sketches of the camps (the Pentagon's term for the prison areas) are no longer allowed during military commission (the trials and hearings), so having those sketches is important.

    MB: Seven years and more than 25 trips later, you continue to go to Guantánamo as a freelancer – in other words, by choice. How long do you see yourself staying with the story?

    JH: I hope to stay with it until the 9/11 trial has completed.

    MB: Given all the restrictions you've worked under; the constant escort, oversight and monitoring you describe in the book, and that all journalists are subject to; all the difficulties associated with even getting to and from the prison – I'm left with a sense that the very act of producing a beautiful, insightful, accessible volume providing a window into the proceedings in and of itself constitutes an act of defiance. Am I wrong?

    JH: In fact, many in the military were very pleased to know I was putting a book together of all the sketches. While it's true I have to jump hoops getting to and from Gitmo, and put up with changing rules and challenges, I try not to take these restrictions personally.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Shakil Afridi faces allegations over operating on boy in 2006, who died after surgery

    The lawyer for a Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden says his client has been charged with murder.

    Samiullah Afridi said on Friday that Shakil Afridi was charged with murder, in a case involving a boy who died after the doctor operated on him for appendicitis in 2006, in Pakistan's Khyber tribal area.

    The boy's mother filed a complaint against the Afridi, saying he was not authorised to carry out the surgery because he was a physician, not a surgeon.

    The lawyer said the case had no merit because too much time had passed. Afridi is currently in prison.

    He was convicted of "conspiring against the state" in May 2012 and sentenced to 33 years in prison.

    His sentence was overturned in August and a retrial ordered.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Jeremy Scahill's documentary about the shadowy world of the Joint Special Operations Command is an important story

    Jeremy Scahill is the national security correspondent for the Nation and his new film is about the strange case of JSoc, or Joint Special Operations Command. It's a military force that has long existed in its own shadowy world of deniability, taking out assumed terrorists, launching drone attacks and killing large numbers of innocent civilians in countries with which the US is not technically at war: Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen. For years, Scahill battled to find out more about JSoc in Afghanistan. Then, when Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, Scahill had the disconcerting experience of seeing JSoc come triumphantly out of the shadows, taking the credit, wallowing in glory. Its commander Admiral William McRaven, once so camera shy, now appeared front and centre on TV. Where did that leave Scahill's investigations? Well, his case is that JSoc is a strangely dysfunctional, even homicidal body – which has, in fact, become no more transparent or democratically accountable as a result of the Bin Laden publicity. Its bodycount may not be a matter of "collateral damage", but paranoid, punitive killing sprees: a semi-rogue body on whose behalf there will always be someone to dismiss dissenters as the enemy's useful idiot. The movie has rather silly, Bourne-style thriller graphics, which are unnecessary: it has an important story to tell.

    Rating: 3/5© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    US intelligence's fear of supervillain avatars sounds outlandish – but there's a solid precedent for using video games as political weapons

    Spies are paid to worry about unlikely scenarios, but the prospect of an immortal digital simulacrum of Osama bin Laden recruiting jihadis in cyberspace for centuries to come seems particularly remote. Yet that is what a just-declassified US intelligence study from 2008 suggested was one potential danger of the fast-developing technologies of virtual worlds, along with neo-Nazis digitally defacing your view by hacking into your Google Glass-style augmented-reality display, or China successfully exporting its "authoritarian-friendly" tech to the rest of the world.

    Keeping tabs on virtual congregations of al-Qaida types is apparently one of the main reasons why, as documents released by Edward Snowden last month showed, American spies have for years been infiltrating online games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life. It will no doubt be disappointing to learn that the cute elf you were chatting with in WoW was almost certainly a CIA agent. Meanwhile, it now seems likely that the vast majority of the population of Second Life are either professional spooks or academic researchers in the digital humanities. They probably have a lot to talk about.

    Using video games as political weapons is not new. The US military itself released a free game, America's Army, as a recruiting tool in 2002, and long before that had commissioned specialised versions of video games as training simulators. The US intelligence report notes this history, as well as propaganda games made by Syria and Hezbollah, but forgets to pat America on the back for the purely voluntary and commercial existence of the mega-selling Call of Duty shooter franchise, which is nothing if not one long ultraviolent advert for the heroism and sensitivity of US soldiering all over the planet and well into the future. When that is grossing billions, who needs official propaganda?

    As for a virtual Osama bin Laden: well he had effectively been a virtual figure for years – appearing so rarely in video and audiotapes of indeterminate provenance that according to some intelligence analysts he was dead – before he was disposed of bodily in the 2011 mission to "kill or capture" him. Indeed, many American players of online shooters had gleefully adopted Osama bin Laden avatars after George W Bush first declared the "war on terror" in 2001. Not inappropriately, web satirists gleefully doctored the photograph of Barack Obama watching the Bin Laden operation's feed by Photoshopping a videogame joypad into his hands.

    The idea of a new Robo Bin Laden – a cyber-supervillain who could, in the report's estimate, "preach and issue fatwas for hundreds of years to come" – sounds outlandish, but research on the psychology of online avatars shows they could be put to troubling use. In his forthcoming book, The Proteus Paradox, Nick Yee explains that people act differently both online and offline depending on what kind of avatar they are given to play with in a virtual space. And they like other avatars more if those avatars' faces have been imperceptibly blended with their own faces.

    Yee even hypothesises that such tricks could be deployed in a "persuasion chamber" to forcibly change minds, in a dystopian blend of The Matrix with A Clockwork Orange. Imagine having a virtual reality headset superglued to your face and being obliged to watch a version of David Cameron who subtly resembles you ranting about Romanians for days on end. Even the toughest of us might eventually crack and become puce-cheeked migration obsessives. But then again, can we be absolutely sure that the Cameron we see on TV isn't a virtual-reality simulation already?© 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Major General Michael Lehnert says detention facility has become a liability in struggle against terrorists

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    US military chief ordered his subordinates to destroy any photographs of Osama bin Laden's body or give them to the CIA

    Eleven days after the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, the US military's top special operations officer ordered subordinates to destroy any photographs of the al-Qaida founder's corpse or turn them over to the CIA, according to a newly released email.

    The email was obtained under a freedom of information request by the conservative legal group Judicial Watch. The document, released on Monday by the group, shows that Admiral William McRaven, who heads the US Special Operations Command, told military officers on 13 May 2011 that photos of Bin Laden's remains should have been sent to the CIA or already destroyed. Bin Laden was killed by a special ops team in Pakistan on 2 May 2011.

    McRaven's order to purge the bin Laden material came 10 days after the Associated Press asked for the photos and other documents under the US Freedom of Information Act. Typically, when a freedom of information request is filed to a government agency under the Federal Records Act, the agency is obliged to preserve the material sought – even if the agency later denies the request.

    On 3 May 2011, the AP asked Special Operations Command's Freedom of Information/Privacy Act Division office for "copies of all e-mails sent from and to the U.S. government account or accounts" of McRaven referencing bin Laden. McRaven was then vice-admiral.

    A response on 4 May 2011 from the command's FOIA office to the AP acknowledged the Bin Laden document request and said it had been assigned for processing. AP did not receive a copy of the McRaven email obtained by Judicial Watch.

    The Department of Defense FOIA office told the AP in a 29 February 2012 letter that it could find no McRaven emails "responsive to your request" for communications about the bin Laden material.

    The Special Operations Command is required to comply with rules established by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff that dictate how long records must be retained. Its July 2012 manual requires that records about military operations and planning are to be considered permanent and after 25 years, following a declassification review, transferred to the National Archives.

    Last July, a draft report by the Pentagon's inspector general first disclosed McRaven's secret order, but the reference was not contained in the inspector general's final report. The email that surfaced on Monday was the first evidence showing the actual order.

    In a heavily blacked-out email addressed to "gentlemen", McRaven told his unnamed subordinates: "One particular item that I want to emphasise is photos; particularly UBLs remains. At this point – all photos should have been turned over to the CIA; if you still have them destroy them immediately or get them" a blacked-out location. UBL refers to Bin Laden.

    At the time the inspector general's report came out, a spokesman for the Special Operations Command referred questions back to the inspector general.

    A CIA spokesman said at the time that "documents related to the raid were handled in a manner consistent with the fact that the operation was conducted under the direction of the CIA director", then Leon Panetta. The CIA statement also said "records of a CIA operation such as the raid, which were created during the conduct of the operation by persons acting under the authority of the CIA director, are CIA records".

    In a letter on 31 January this year to Judicial Watch in response to its request for all records relating to McRaven's "directive to purge", the Pentagon's office of general counsel said it had been able to locate only document – Raven's redacted email.

    The Judicial Watch president, Tom Fitton, said on Monday the email "is a smoking gun, revealing both contempt for the rule of law and the American people's right to know".© 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Suleiman Abu Ghaith is the highest-ranking al-Qaida official to stand trial in the US following September 11 terror attacks

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    Suleiman Abu Ghaith charged with conspiring to kill Americans as part of his role as al-Qaida spokesman after 9/11

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    New York prosecutors accuse Suleiman Abu Ghaith of acting as al-Qaida’s mouthpiece in propaganda videos and speeches

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    Saajid Badat, who was released early from prison in return for cooperation, to testify against Suleiman Abu Ghaith

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