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Activists question Central America-US security cooperation deal

Guatemala City – Central American and Mexican activists are questioning their governments’ focus on security to address migration following meetings this week with US Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. Nielsen met with Mexican officials on Tuesday and attended a summit Wednesday in Honduras with security ministers from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The meetings…

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Activists question Central America-US security cooperation deal

Guatemala City – Central American and Mexican activists are questioning their governments’ focus on security to address migration following meetings this week with US Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

Nielsen met with Mexican officials on Tuesday and attended a summit Wednesday in Honduras with security ministers from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The meetings dealt with border security and the ongoing exodus of Central American migrants and asylum seekers.

The summit in Honduras ended with the signing of a regional memorandum of cooperation between the three Central American countries and the United States. According to the Department of Homeland Security, the memorandum “aims to better synchronise cooperation between the countries in order to bolster border security, prevent the formation of new migrant caravans, and address the root causes of the migration crisis”.

In a series of tweets, Nielsen described the memorandum as a “first-ever regional compact” and “a HISTORIC agreement to confront the root causes of the crisis on our border”.

The sole focus of the memorandum, however, is security cooperation in four areas: human trafficking and smuggling; organised crime and gangs; intelligence sharing; and border security. It is a non-binding document that essentially entails a commitment to continue ongoing talks and cooperation efforts.

Addressing the factors behind migration from a security perspective is questionable, says Iduvina Hernandez, director of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy, a Guatemalan non-governmental organisation.

“It is accepted up to a certain point that insecurity and violence are a factor in driving certain populations to migrate,” Hernandez told Al Jazeera.

“The problem is standardising the approach to the origins of migration and instituting policies only on that basis,” she said.

Ignores historical and structural foundations

The approach also ignores the historical and structural foundations behind the insecurity and violence plaguing the region, according to Hernandez.  

“They have their point of departure in structural problems linked to inequality and linked to the issue of corruption,” she said. “In the case of Guatemala, it’s a framework of corruption that has completely co-opted the state.”

The Guatemalan Ministry of the Interior, which includes the national police force, is a case in point. Headed by Enrique Degenhart, who sat next to Nielsen during the recent summit in Honduras, the ministry has been embroiled in scandals for years. 

Degenhart’s initial vice minister, Kamilo Rivera, is accused of participating in a torture and extrajudicial execution ring run from within the ministry in the past and is now a fugitive from justice. Mauricio Lopez Bonilla, Degenhart’s predecessor, is on trial in Guatemala for corruption and has also been indicted in the US on drug trafficking and weapons charges.

Earlier this month, the US Department of Defense suspended aid to several Guatemalan inter-agency task forces. The US halted training and equipment transfers to the task forces due to the repeated misuse of donated vehicles, Department of Defense spokesperson Johnny Michael told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement.

Jeep J8 vehicles donated for border region counter-narcotics task forces were deployed in August 2018 to the streets around the offices of a UN-backed anti-corruption commission, generating alarm and condemnations of intimidation and misuse.

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, his relatives, and his political party had all come under investigation for corruption, and his attacks on the anti-corruption commission sparked a constitutional crisis that continues to fester.

Along with its suspension of aid to the inter-agency task forces, the US Department of Defense is also evaluating other transfers to Guatemala on a case-by-case basis.

A convoy of J8 Jeeps, military vehicles donated by the US government, is seen while arriving to the Guatemalan Air Force in Guatemala City on March 15 [Luis Echeverria/Reuters]

“The Guatemalan government is a partner and supporter of US security efforts in the region. However, the repeated misuse of US-provided military vehicles has necessitated a review of support to security cooperation programmes,” Michael told Al Jazeera.

One day after the March 14 announcement, more than 130 donated Jeep J8s gradually all began arriving to capital city airport area air force base grounds, where they were lined up in front of a hangar used by the US. 

In response to criticism earlier this year, Guatemala’s secretary of state intelligence had offered to drop the jeeps off in front of the US Embassy and another defiant offer to return the donated vehicles seemed imminent. But after days of silence, the Guatemalan government claimed the jeeps had been recalled for mechanical review and deployed them back out into the country days later.

“It is very likely that that absurd action of positioning all the jeeps in front of the US hangar will also have consequences down the line,” said Hernandez.

Despite the military aid suspension and questionable Guatemalan government response, Nielsen cited “improved cooperation” with the Central American countries involved in the security cooperation memorandum.

‘Misguided’

Concerns about US security aid to Central American security forces goes far beyond the misuse of donated vehicles, however. State violence, extrajudicial killings, and repression have long been issues in the region, and ongoing abuses in Honduras have been of particular concern in recent years. 

Democratic Congresswoman Norma Torres criticised the memorandum in a statement Thursday, calling it a “misguided agreement” and highlighting the involvement of security forces with drug trafficking and organised crime.

“Far too many Central Americans have already suffered at the hands of corrupt and abusive security forces; they are demanding justice, not a blank check for soldiers and police,” wrote Torres.

Also on Thursday, Democratic Congressman Hank Johnson and his colleagues reintroduced the Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras Act. Named after a prominent Honduran indigenous rights and social movement activist murdered in 2016, the bill would place further restrictions and conditions on US aid to Honduran security forces.

“For years, members of the Honduras police and military have engaged in corrupt practices and gross human rights abuses without consequence. By limiting funding, we have the opportunity to force the Honduran government to investigate and prosecute these crimes,” Johnson said Thursday in a statement. 

Over the course of the past five months, Al Jazeera has spoken with many Hondurans who cited targeted repression and violence by state forces as their reason for fleeing north, though poverty, unemployment, and gang violence are more often cited. Individuals’ reasons vary, as does whether or not they travel in visible caravan groups, but either way, the exodus continues.

Mexican secretary of the interior Olga Sanchez said Wednesday that the Mexico is expecting a “mother of all caravans” from Honduras that could include as many as 20,000 people. Her comments came on the heels of a meeting Tuesday with Nielsen.

Announcements for a Honduran caravan leaving Saturday from San Pedro Sula have been circulating on social media, but the source of Sanchez’s dubious claims concerning its size is unclear. Honduran deputy foreign affairs minister Nelly Jerez contested the claim.

“Intelligence forces, not just those from Honduras but also the ones that were here meeting with secretary Nielsen in a Northern Triangle meeting we had in our country, none of us has any information about the formation of a mass departure or mobilisation of people,” Jerez said Thursday in an interview with Mexican newspaper El Sol de Mexico. 

Migrant rights activist group Pueblo Sin Fronteras accused Sanchez of serving Trump’s immigration policy interests by inciting fear to justify harsh measures against Central American migrants.

“The only certainty is that after the meeting with Nielsen, the Mexican government put forward the ‘mother of all caravans’ idea in its discourse to justify the US mandated containment,” the group said Thursday in a public statement.

Sanchez also announced the Mexican government was sending federal police and other personnel to set up immigration checkpoints in southern Mexico, where a caravan of some 2,500 people, most of them Central Americans, has been gradually advancing northward this week.

Trump threatens to close the border

Meanwhile, Trump appeared to contradict Neilsen’s celebration of the regional security cooperation memorandum, accusing Central American countries and Mexico of “doing nothing”.

On Thursday, he threatened to close the southern border in a tweet, saying “Mexico is doing NOTHING to help stop the flow of illegal immigrants to our Country”.

He added, “Likewise Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have taken our money for years, and do Nothing”.

Trump has made the threat several times before, but has never acted. On Friday, he repeated the threat, however, saying he would close the border next week if “Mexico doesn’t immediately stop ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States throug (sic) our Southern Border”.

Mexico’s foreign relations secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, responded, saying “Mexico doesn’t act based on threats”.

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New Daesh leader was informant for US, says counter terrorism report

NEW YORK: The man widely believed to be the new leader of Daesh was once an informant for the US, according to a new report from the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), a research body at the US military academy of West Point in New York. “Stepping Out from the Shadows: The Interrogation of the Islamic State’s…

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New Daesh leader was informant for US, says counter terrorism report

NEW YORK: The man widely believed to be the new leader of Daesh was once an informant for the US, according to a new report from the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), a research body at the US military academy of West Point in New York.

“Stepping Out from the Shadows: The Interrogation of the Islamic State’s Future Caliph” is based on Tactical Interrogation Reports (TIRs) — the paper trail the US military creates when enemy fighters are detained and interrogated — from Al-Mawla’s time in captivity in the late 2000s.

Before his release in 2009, Al-Mawla named 88 extremists involved in terrorist activities, and the information he divulged during his interrogations led US forces in the region to successfully capture or kill dozens of Al-Qaeda fighters, the report claims.

The CTC said it is “highly confident” Al-Mawla became the new leader of Daesh after the previous leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was killed in a US air raid in Syria in October 2019.

Although Daesh announced that a man called Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurashi was Baghdadi’s successor, US officials have also stated that Al-Qurashi’s true identity is actually Al-Mawla — also known as Hajj Abdullah.

Before joining Daesh, Al-Mawla is believed to have been the deputy leader of Al-Qaeda.

While details about the operation resulting in his capture are scarce, the TRIs reveal that he was captured on January 6, 2008.

The following day, US Central Command announced the capture of a wanted individual who “previously served as a judge of an illegal court system involved in ordering and approving abductions and executions.”

In his interrogations, Al-Mawla offered up details of terrorist plots to his interrogators, while minimizing his own involvement. He identified many jihadists by name and offered descriptions of their roles in the terrorist organization and details of their involvement in attacks on US-led coalition forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Al-Mawla — a former officer in Saddam Hussein’s army and once Baghdadi’s speechwriter — emerges from the TIRs as a mysterious personality with a vague past, whose ethnicity could not be determined with certainty. The statements in the reports are rife with contradictory elements and open to a wide range of interpretations. As the authors point out in their introduction: “It is incredibly difficult to ascertain whether what Al-Mawla divulges regarding himself or ISI (the forerunner of Daesh) as an organization is true.”

Details of the specific demographics of Al Mawla’s birthplace of Al-Muhalabiyyah in Iraq’s Tal Afar district are sketchy, but it is generally accepted to have a predominantly Turkmen population. The authors of the report point out that some sources have suggested “this could pose legitimacy problems for him because (Daesh) mostly has Arabs in its senior leadership echelons,” but add that at least two other senior members of the group were reported to have been Turkmen.

Al-Mawla also claimed to have avoided pledging allegiance to ISI because he was a Sufi. The report’s authors cast doubt on that claim, given his quick rise to prominence in the terrorist group and the fact that ISI and Daesh branded Sufism as heresy.

But the authors do believe the TRIs give some valuable insights into Al-Mawla’s personality.

“The fact that he detailed activities and gave testimony against (fellow jihadists) suggests a willingness to offer up fellow members of the group to suit his own ends,” they wrote. “The amount of detail and seeming willingness to share information about fellow organization members suggests either a degree of nonchalance, strategic calculation, or resignation on the part of Al-Mawla regarding operational security.

“He appears to have named individuals in some capacity across all levels of the organization, while describing some individuals in some detail,” they continued.

The US Department of Justice has offered a $10million reward for information about Al-Mawla’s identification or location.

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The poisoning of Alexey Navalny: Five key things to know

What happened on the day Navalny fell ill? On August 20, a Thursday, Alexey Navalny, Russia’s leading Kremlin critic, had finished up campaigning for opposition politicians in Siberia for local elections, which were taking place from September 11 to 13.  He left Xander Hotel and headed for the Tomsk Bogashevo airport. There, he drank a…

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The poisoning of Alexey Navalny: Five key things to know

What happened on the day Navalny fell ill?
On August 20, a Thursday, Alexey Navalny, Russia’s leading Kremlin critic, had finished up campaigning for opposition politicians in Siberia for local elections, which were taking place from September 11 to 13. 
He left Xander Hotel and headed for the Tomsk Bogashevo airport. There, he drank a cup of tea. He was on the way to Moscow.
In the first half-hour of the flight, he fell ill and witnesses said he screamed in pain. He was later in a coma.
He was airlifted to Germany’s capital, a six-hour flight, to the Berlin Charite hospital.The plane made an emergency landing at Omsk. He received treatment in the Russian city, where doctors said he was too unwell to be moved, but two days later on August 22, a Saturday, they said his life was not in danger.
Was he poisoned? 
Navalny’s team believes he was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, a claim several European countries support.
A laboratory in Germany said it had confirmation on September 2, followed by laboratories in France and Sweden on September 14.
Samples from Navalny have also been sent to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague for testing.
Russia says there is no evidence to prove Navalny was poisoned, while its ally Belarus has also doubted the claim. The doctors in Omsk said they had not detected poisonous substances in Navalny’s body. 
US President Donald Trump has been criticised for towing Russia’s line, saying on September 4 – two days after Germany’s claim to have “unequivocal evidence” – that “we have not had any proof yet”.
How is Navalny’s condition now?
On September 7, more than two weeks after falling ill on the plane, Navalny’s doctors in Germany said he was out of a coma and that his condition was improving. His spokeswoman said, “Gradually, he will be switched off from a ventilator.”
On September 15, Navalny posted on Instagram that he was breathing alone. He has said he plans to return to Russia. 
If he was poisoned, who may have poisoned him and where?
Navalny’s team believes he was poisoned at the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin – a claim the Kremlin has strongly denied. 
Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh had initially said she believed Navalny’s tea at the airport was poisoned, but on September 17, his team said the nerve agent was detected on an empty water bottle from his hotel room in the Tomsk, suggesting he was poisoned there and not at the airport. 
What effect has the alleged poisoning had?
The alleged attack has widened a rift between Europe and Russia, with Germany and France leading calls for a full investigation but stopping short of outrightly blaming the Russian government. 
MEPs have called for sanctions against Russia, saying on September 17, “The poison used, belonging to the ‘Novichok group’, can only be developed in state-owned military laboratories and cannot be acquired by private individuals, which strongly implies that Russian authorities were behind the attack.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has summoned Germany’s ambassador to Moscow, while the United Kingdom has summoned the Russian envoy over the incident.
For its part, Moscow rejects what it called the politicisation of the issue.
Significantly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is under pressure to halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which transfers Russian gas to Germany. Once again, the Kremlin has warned not to involve the Navalny case in any discussion about the pipeline, with Dmitry Peskov saying on September 16, “It should stop being mentioned in the context of any politicisation.”
 
A timeline of events surrounding the alleged poisoning attack on Navalny: 
August 20 – Navalny falls ill on flight; plane makes emergency landing in Omsk; his spokeswoman says he was poisoned, perhaps by the tea he drank at the airport
August 22 – Navalny airlifted to Berlin Charite hospital 
September 2 – Germany says it has ‘unequivocal evidence’ Navalny was poisoned, Russia responds by saying the claim is not backed by evidence
September 4 – US President Donald Trump says ‘we do not have any proof yet’
September 6 – Heiko Maas, German foreign minister, threatens action over gas pipeline project, saying, ‘I hope the Russians don’t force us to change our position on Nord Stream 2’
September 7 – German doctors say Navalny is out of an artificial coma
September 11-13 – Russia holds local elections; Navalny’s allies make gains in Siberian cities
September 15 – Navalny posts on Instagram that he is breathing alone
September 16 – Kremlin spokesman warns against politicising Navalny issue in discussions over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project with Germany
September 17 – Navalny’s team now suspects he was poisoned in his hotel room, not the airport, citing traces of nerve agent on an empty water bottle
September 17 – MEPs call for sanctions against Russia 

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Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan to lend voice to Amazon’s Alexa

Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan will be the first Indian celebrity to lend his voice to Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant starting next year, as the Silicon Valley giant expands its presence in the significant market.The 77-year-old actor has been a household name in India for nearly half a century, and his deep baritone is instantly recognisable…

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Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan to lend voice to Amazon’s Alexa

Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan will be the first Indian celebrity to lend his voice to Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant starting next year, as the Silicon Valley giant expands its presence in the significant market.The 77-year-old actor has been a household name in India for nearly half a century, and his deep baritone is instantly recognisable to listeners in the country of 1.3 billion.Foreign firms such as Amazon have spent tens of billions of dollars in India in recent years as they fight for a piece of the Asian giant’s burgeoning digital economy.In a blog post on Monday, Amazon India said Bachchan’s “voice experience” feature will become available for purchase on Alexa next year.”It will include popular offerings like jokes, weather, shayaris (poetry), motivational quotes, advice and more,” the firm said.Alexa first rolled out celebrity voice option last year with actor Samuel L Jackson, following a similar move by Google the year before, which gave users the option of hearing singer John Legend on the Google Assistant.”I am excited to create this voice experience,” the Bollywood megastar said on Amazon’s blog.”With voice technology, we are building something to engage more effectively with my audience and well-wishers.”His earlier foray into vocal blogging in 2010, Bachchan Bol-Bachchan Speak, allowed fans to listen to pre-recorded messages by the star at the push of a button.In addition to competing with voice-activated devices such as Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant for consumers, Amazon is battling Walmart-backed Flipkart and JioMart, owned by Asia’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, for a share of the online retail market.The tech giant, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, is also trying to win eyeballs with its streaming service that competes with Netflix and Disney+ Hotstar.Bachchan and his family have been among India’s highest-profile coronavirus patients. The superstar, his actor son Abhishek, actress daughter-in-law Aishwarya Rai, and granddaughter Aaradhya were all admitted to hospital in July. All four have since been released.The veteran star returned to work last month filming India’s version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? after authorities eased coronavirus curbs on movie and TV shoots.Nevertheless, with cases in India nearing five million, authorities in Mumbai – the home of Bollywood – have asked production houses to ensure that common facilities are regularly sanitised, masks worn and social distancing “followed as far as possible”.Bachchan’s last film, comedy-drama Gulabo Sitabo, went straight to Amazon’s streaming service in June, after theatres in India shut down in March due to pandemic fears.

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