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The terrorist who wasn’t

Vilified by the press and falsely branded a terror threat by Interpol, Tunisian-born Mohamed Ali Har

The Arab spring has changed the status of certain North African dictators. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, formerly a valued ally of the west in the so-called war on terror, has fled in disgrace to Saudi Arabia. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt - propped up for decades by the US - faces charges of mass murder. Tony Blair's friend Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi got lynched. Life has changed, too, for the victims of these dictators. For years the British media, and western intelligence agencies, collaborated with Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi. One of the ways they did this was by defining domestic political opponents as "terrorists" while allowing the dictators to present themselves as "moderate" allies of the west. Now these "terrorists" are recast as freedom fighters.

Take the case of Mohamed Ali Harrath, a Tunisian dissident who endured spells of imprisonment and torture before escaping across the border to Algeria and eventually to London. Harrath's torturers asked for him to be added to Interpol's "Red Notice" list, a system of international alerts aimed at detecting suspected criminals or terrorists. The international police agency was happy to oblige.

There was no evidence that Harrath was more than a dissident. Nevertheless, for years he has been unable to travel without risk of arrest and extradition. After he set up the Islam Channel, a television station popular among Britain's two million Muslims, Harrath's fugitive status was ruthlessly used against him by a new set of persecutors: critics of Islam in the British political and media establishment.

When I visit Harrath at his offices in Bonhill Street in central London, his assistant shows me a bulging file of press attacks. These range from a campaign of character assassination in the Times and ignorant abuse in the Express to Andrew Gilligan of the Telegraph at his most fluent and a rant by Melanie Phillips on her Spectator blog. Harrath, sporting a dark, bushy beard, jokes: "I have been called an extremist, an Islamist, a terrorist - all the -ists."

He was born in 1963 close to the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, where Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire just over a year ago, prompting the Tunisian revolution and the Arab spring. He came from an upper-middle-class family, which sent him to, in his words, a rigidly conservative boarding school. Harrath says he became politically active at the age of 13.

His first experience of journalism involved preparing news sheets, designed to be pinned up on the wall of the local mosque, which he says was the only vehicle for free speech in the western-backed Tunisian dictatorship. "I was fascinated by the power of the word," Harrath says. "I always believe the word is stronger than the bullet. Sometimes the bullet can silence the word, but then the word prevails."

He was arrested for the first time at the age of 18, while a student of textile engineering in Tunis, for "degrading the status of the president" - any criticism of the head of state was illegal. He was a founder of the Front Islamique Tunisien (FIT), whose avowed purpose was the destruction of the government. One ally was Rachid Ghannouchi, now leader of al-Nahda, the party that won last autumn's elections. Harrath insists that even though FIT urged armed insurrection as the only way of removing the regime, he was never involved in violence.

He spent most of his twenties on the run, in and out of jail. But, he says, "the prison is not the problem. As bad as it is, it cannot be compared to when you go through investigation." Those interrogated were sodomised with sticks and bottles, faeces were shoved into their mouths, they suffered mock-drowning and electric shocks. Amnesty International has described how some victims were tied to a chair for a week with an apparatus that pierced their neck with a needle whenever their head dropped through exhaustion.

“We were unable to go to the toilet on our own," Harrath recalls, "so we were carried by four or five friends." He knows of 30 people who died under Tunisian government torture. After a decade of struggle he realised there was no point fighting the regime in Tunis because Ben Ali was just a puppet ruler. The real enemy, he realised, was France, the former imperial power that provided security assistance and (through the European Union) diplomatic and economic backing.

Nomad's land

Harrath's predicament bears comparison with that of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda leader held for many years in Egyptian jails. Zawahiri famously came to distinguish between the "near enemy" and the "far enemy" - between Mubarak's US-backed regime and the US itself. It was this analysis that led Zawahiri to move out of Egypt and launch his struggle against the US. Harrath says he wanted nothing to do with violence, so he abandoned the battle against Ben Ali and fled, walking from Tunisia to neighbouring Algeria via an uncharted route.

He got lost along the way and feared for his life. For five years he wandered the globe using false documents, "with a new name and personality every week". This nomadic period was used against him by critics who repeated Tunisian government claims - as usual with no evidence - that he worked with al-Qaeda.

When he arrived in London in 1995 he studied for a degree in politics at the University of Westminster, writing his undergraduate dissertation on Karl Marx ("good on the analysis but bad on the solutions" is Harrath's own verdict), and started to dabble in business. "I was working here and there, buying and selling - I did everything."

For 15 years he lived the life of a political exile. Then in 2004 he set up the Islam Channel. It was then, he says, that the harassment began: "I was vilified." First to strike, he claims, was the Inland Revenue. "They came here and stayed for nearly a month going through every single receipt, every single paper. What astonished me is that they were asking politically motivated questions. They are asking about our content, they are asking about programmes. They are the taxman, they have to see whether we are paying our taxes or not, but they went further than that."

The press attacks were persistent and vicious. Again and again his Interpol Red Notice status was used to turn him into a pariah. By now he was wanted in Tunisia for "counterfeiting, forgery, crimes involving the use of weapons/ explosives, and terrorism". In 2009 he spoke at a City Hall-sponsored event in London. The Sunday Express responded with a story headlined: "Boris terror link". The Times launched an innuendo-filled campaign, highlighting Harrath's alleged links to terrorism, while asserting that he was an adviser to the Metropolitan Police. "[It] was part of the vilification," he says. "It was aimed at damaging me within the community."

Harrath was never a police adviser and the claim was based on his having spoken from time to time (like many other Muslims) to the Met's Muslim Contact Unit. This did not stop the Conservative Party's shadow security minister Baroness Neville-Jones demanding in 2008 that he should be sacked from his non-existent post. In deference to the Ben Ali regime, Neville-Jones said: "The Tunisian government, an ally in the fight against terrorism, has asked for extradition of this man."

The Tories, then in opposition, showed a shocking readiness to operate within parameters set for them by a notorious North African dictatorship. There were some reasonable grounds for criticising Harrath. His channel broke Ofcom's impartiality rules, and one employee won an appeal for unfair dismissal and gender discrimination. Yet the central - and endlessly repeated - claim that Harrath has a background as a terrorist was false, a fact now officially acknowledged. In April 2011, shortly after the fall of Ben Ali, Interpol removed its Red Notice, telling Harrath that, "after re-examining all the information in the file", the organisation "considered that the proceedings against you were primarily political in nature".

End of al-Qaeda

Life is still not easy for Harrath, or for other Tunisian refugees. He is still subject to a European travel ban within the Schengen area and was arrested last year in South Africa. Nevertheless he feels reasonably optimistic about the future. "If the Arab spring is allowed to evolve without western interference, there will be no reason for al-Qaeda to exist," he says, "as its ideology is based on combating western support for Arab dictators."

He predicts that power will bring moderation to the victorious Islamist parties, which "will realise there are economic and social realities they have to adapt to", and because they have to adapt to these will have a more pragmatic approach. The danger, he warns, is if western powers try to suppress these parties.

I left Harrath's offices feeling ashamed. He arrived in Britain as a refugee from tyranny. Instead of being welcomed, he was treated like a criminal.
Interpol has questions to answer. For almost two decades its system of Red Notices appears to have been used by Tunisia's Ben Ali to harass and torment a leading dissident. The agency's purpose should be to help national police hunt down criminals, not to round up opponents
of dictatorship.

Meanwhile not one of the newspapers that so eagerly played up Harrath's non-existent terrorist past has apologised - or even reported how Interpol has lifted him off the red list. They have been far too ready to operate within the moral guidelines set for them by a dictatorship. Like Interpol, they owe Harrath a generous apology.

Peter Oborne is chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt

NEAL FOX FOR NEW STATESMAN
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They know where you live

Imagine your house being raided by armed police. That’s what happened to Mumsnet’s Justine Roberts after she fell victim to an internet hoaxer.

At around midnight on Tuesday 11 August 2015, a man dialled 999 to report a murder. A woman had been killed in her London home, he said, before hanging up without offering his name. A second call followed. This time, the man claimed to be the killer. He told the operator that he had now taken the woman’s children hostage at the Islington address. They were locked with him inside a room in the house, he said. The police responded with reassuring speed. Fifteen minutes later, eight officers, five of them armed with automatic weapons, accompanied by saliva-flecked dogs, arrived at the scene and took up position in neighbouring front gardens. When one officer banged on the front door of the house, the team was greeted, moments later, not by a masked murderer but by a blinking and bewildered au pair.

Justine Roberts, the woman whom the caller claimed to have killed, was in fact nearly 2,000 kilometres away – in Italy, holidaying with her husband and children. After explaining this to the police, the au pair called Roberts, who assumed that the incident was an unfortunate misunderstanding, one that could be unpicked after the vacation. It was no mistake. Roberts had been the victim of “swatting”, the term given to a false emergency call designed to bait an armed unit of police officers to storm someone’s home. It wasn’t until a few days later, as the family was preparing to return to London, that Roberts discovered that she had been the target of a planned and sustained attack, not only on her household, but also on her business.

Roberts is the founder of Mumsnet, the popular British internet discussion forum on which parents share advice and information. A few days before the swatting incident, members of 8chan, a chat room that prides itself on being an open, anonymous platform for free speech, no matter how distasteful, had registered accounts on Mums­net with the aim of trolling people there. When legitimate Mumsnet users identified and then ridiculed the trolls, some retreated to 8chan to plot more serious vengeance in a thread that the police later discovered. Roberts wasn’t involved in the online skirmish but, as the public face of the site, she was chosen as the first target.

After the initial armed response, Roberts’s perception was that the police were unconcerned about the swatting attack. “We were told that there was no victim, so there was not much that could be done,” she told me. The hoax caller, however, was not finished. In the days after the incident, there was chatter on Mumsnet and Twitter about what had happened. A Mumsnet user whom I will call Jo Scott – she requested anonymity for her own safety – exchanged heated messages with a hacker who claimed responsibility for the 999 call.

“It descended into jokes and silliness, like many things do,” Scott said. “I didn’t take it seriously when the hacker said he had big surprises in store.” She doesn’t believe that what happened next was personal. “I think I was just easy to find.”

A few days after police were called to Roberts’s home, Scott was in her bedroom while her husband was sitting downstairs playing video games. At 11pm, she heard a noise outside. “I looked out of the window and saw blue flashing lights in the street,” she recalled. “I could hear shouting but I didn’t pay it much notice.” Then she heard her husband open the front door. Police rushed into the house. An armed officer shouted upstairs, asking Scott if she was hurt. When she replied that she was fine, he told her to fetch her two young children: he needed to see them. Scott shook her sons awake, explaining, so as not to alarm them, that the police had come to show the boys their cars. As the three of them went downstairs, the officers swept up through the house, repeatedly asking if there were any weapons on the property.

“I was beyond confused by this point,” Scott said. “Everyone was carrying a gun. They had little cutaway bits so you could see the bullets. My eldest asked one of the officers if he could have a go on his gun and went to touch it.”

As Scott sat with an officer downstairs, she asked what had happened to her husband. “I later found out that the noises I’d heard were the police calling for him to come outside,” she said. “He dropped the PlayStation controller as he left the room. It was only later that we realised it’s a good job he did: in the dark, the controller might have looked like a weapon.”

Outside, Scott’s husband had been surrounded and arrested. Other police ­officers were on the lookout in the front gardens of nearby properties, having warned the couple’s neighbours to stay indoors, away from their windows. “One of the officers said it was beginning to look like a hoax,” Scott said. “Then he mentioned swatting. As soon as he said that word, I twigged that I’d seen the term that day on Twitter in relation to the Mumsnet hack.”

***

The term “swatting” has been used by the FBI since 2008. “Swat” is an acronym of “Special Weapons and Tactics”, the American police squads routinely called to intervene in hostage situations. It is, in a sense, a weaponised version of a phoney order of pizza, delivered as a prank to a friend’s home, albeit one that carries the possibility of grave injury at the hands of police. For perpetrators, the appeal is the ease with which the hoax can be set in motion and the severity of the results. With a single, possibly untraceable phone call, dialled from anywhere in the world, it is possible to send an armed unit to any address, be it the home of a high-profile actor whom you want to prank or that of someone you want to scare.

In America, where swatting originated, the practice has become so widespread – targets have included Tom Cruise, Taylor Swift, Clint Eastwood and the Californian congressman Ted Lieu – that it is now classed as an act of domestic terrorism. In the UK, where Justine Roberts’s was one of the first recorded cases, swatting is classed as harassment, though that may change if these and other forms of internet vigilante attacks, such as doxxing, become increasingly commonplace.

Doxxing involves the publication of someone’s personal details – usually their home address, phone numbers, bank details and, in some cases, email address – on the internet. It is often the prelude to swatting: after all, the perpetrator of a hoax cannot direct the police to the target’s home address until this is known. (During the week of the Mumsnet attacks, one of the perpetrators attempted to locate another target using their computer’s IP address, which can identify where a person is connected to the internet, often with alarming precision. Their calculation, however, was slightly out; police were called to a neighbour’s address.)

Though doxxing has a less dramatic outcome than swatting, the psychological effects can be just as severe. For victims – usually people who are active on the internet and who have outspoken opinions or who, in the eyes of an internet mob, have committed some kind of transgression – the mere threat of having their personal information made available on the web can cause lasting trauma. A Canadian software developer whose home address, bank details, social security number and email history were published online in 2014 told me that he now keeps an axe by his front door. “I still don’t feel safe here,” he said. “It’s terrifying.”

Christos Reid, a social media manager for a software company, was doxxed last year. Reid’s information came from a website he had registered seven years earlier. “I woke up one morning to find a tweet announcing my personal details,” he told me. When he asked the Twitter account holder to take down the address, he was told to commit suicide. Reid said he was “OK for about half an hour”; but then, after he went out, he broke down in the street. “I’ve become more paranoid,” he said. He no longer gives out business cards with personal information.

Reid lives in London, but at the time of the doxx he was attending an event in Nottingham, home to the British police’s largest cybercrime division. He was impressed with the police response, even though they told him that they had not heard of the term “doxxing” before. “I was interviewed by two separate people about my experiences who then compiled everything into a case file and transferred it to the Met. When I arrived home, an officer visited me to discuss what happened and my options.”

The policeman explained harassment law to Reid, and offered advice on how to improve security at his flat and what to do if someone hostile turned up at the address. Reid shouldered the repercussions of what had happened alone; no suspects were identified. A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police similarly said that although detectives from Islington CID have investigated the swatting attacks made on Roberts and Scott, no suspects have been identified “at this time”, even as “inquiries continue”.

Doxxing may seem to be a mild form of harassment but it carries with it an implicit threat of impending violence; the worrying message is: “We know where you live.” Unlike swatting, which is always malicious, doxxing is sometimes viewed by its perpetrators as virtuous. In November 2014, hackers claiming to be aligned with the internet group Anonymous published personal information allegedly belonging to a Ku Klux Klan member from Missouri. The hackers said that their action was a response to the KKK’s threat to use lethal force against demonstrators in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, protesting against the killing of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer. In January 2015 hackers claiming to be from Isis took over US Central Command’s Twitter account and posted information about senior military officers, including phone numbers and email addresses. In each case, those carrying out the doxxing believed, however mistakenly, in the virtue of their actions and hoped that the information could be used to bring punishment or ruin to the subject.

The term “doxxing” may be new but the practice is an old one. The Hollywood blacklist revealed the political beliefs and associations of actors and directors in the late 1940s as a way to invite shame, deny employment and dissuade others from following their example. “But it has become a lot easier to find people’s private details with the help of the internet,” Jeroen Vader told me. Vader owns Pastebin, a website that allows users to upload and distribute text documents, and where much of the personal data is anonymously uploaded and shared. “People post their private information on social networks,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t aware that their information is so easily available to others.”

In Justine Roberts’s case, the perpetrator may not even have needed to look at social networks to mine her personal information. “If you’re on the electoral roll, you’re easy to find,” she said. “There’s not much you can do to stop people getting hold of your data one way or another, whether it’s for nefarious reasons or simply to better advertise to you. We live in a world that is constantly trying to gather more information about us.”

Jeroen Vader said he has noticed an “upward trend” in the number of doxxing posts uploaded to Pastebin in recent months, but insisted that when someone uses the site’s abuse report system these offending posts are removed immediately.

Across social media companies, action is more often reactive than proactive. Victoria Taylor, a former director at Reddit, one of the largest community-driven websites in the world, said that the rule against publishing other users’ personal information has been “consistently one of the site’s most basic policies” and that “any violation of this rule is taken extremely seriously by the team and community”. Still, she was only able to recommend that victims of doxxing send a message to the site’s administrators. Similarly, when asked what a person can do to remove personal details that have been published without permission, a Twitter spokesperson said: “Use our help form.”

The spokesperson added: “There has def­initely been an overall increase in doxxing since 2006, both on Twitter and on the internet more generally.” She attributed this rise to the emergence of search engines such as Intelius and Spokeo, services designed to locate personal information.

***

The surge in the number of dox­xing and swatting attacks is in part a result of the current lack of legal protection for victims. Confusion regarding the law on doxxing is pervasive; the term is even not mentioned in either US or European law. In a tutorial posted on Facebook in 2013, the writer claims: “Doxxing isn’t illegal as all the information you have obtained is public,” and adds: “But posting of the doxx might get you in a little trouble.”

Phil Lee, a partner in the privacy, security and information department of Fieldfisher based at the law firm’s office in Silicon Valley, said that differing privacy laws around the world were part of the problem. “Various countries have laws that cover illegal or unauthorised obtaining of data. Likewise, some of the consequences of releasing that data, such as defamation or stalking, cover elements of what we now term doxxing. But there is no global law covering what is a global phenomenon.” Indeed, Roberts believes that her London address was targeted from America – the 999 call was routed through a US proxy number.

One challenge to creating a law on doxxing is that the sharing of personal information without permission has already become so widespread in the digital age. “If a law was to state something like, ‘You must not post personal information about another person online without their consent,’ it wouldn’t reflect how people use the internet,” Lee said. “People post information about what their friends and family members have been doing all the time without their consent.

“Such a law could have a potentially detrimental effect on freedom of speech.”

Lee believes that a specific law is unnecessary, because its potentially harmful effects are already covered by three discrete pieces of legislation dealing with instances where a person’s private information is obtained illegally, when that information is used to carry out illegal acts and when the publication of the information is accompanied by a threat to incite hatred. However, this does not adequately account for cases in which the information is obtained legally, and then used to harass the individual in a more legally ambiguous manner, either with prank phone calls or with uninvited orders of pizza.

Susan Basko, an independent lawyer who practises in California and who has been doxxed in the course of her frequent clashes with internet trolls, believes that the onus should be on the law, rather than the public. She points out that in the US it is a crime to publicise information about a government employee such as their home address, their home and cellphone numbers, or their social security number, even if the information is already online. “This law should apply to protect all people, not just federal employees,” she said. “And websites, website-hosting companies and other ISPs should be required to uphold this law.”

Basko said that doxxing will continue to increase while police have inadequate resources to follow up cases. For now, it is up to individuals to take preventative measures. Zoë Quinn, an American game designer and public speaker who was doxxed in 2014, has launched Crash Override, a support network and assistance group for targets of online harassment, “composed entirely of experienced survivors”.

Quinn, who spoke about the problem at a congressional hearing in Washington, DC in April last year, recently posted a guide on how to reduce the likelihood of being doxxed. “If you are worried you might some day be targeted,” she wrote, “consider taking an evening to stalk yourself online, deleting and opting out of anything you’re not comfortable with.”

Both Scott and Roberts have changed their privacy habits following the attacks. Scott is more careful about interacting with strangers online, while Roberts uses scrambler software, which ensures that she never uses the same password for more than one online site or service.

For both women’s families, the effects of their encounters with armed police have also lingered. When one day recently Roberts’s husband returned home early from work, the au pair called the police, believing it was an intruder. And Scott is haunted by what happened.

“What if my husband had made a sudden move or resisted in some way? What if my eldest had grabbed the gun instead of gently reaching for it? What if people locally believed that my husband did actually have guns in the house?” she asks. “I don’t think the people making these sorts of hoax calls realise the impact.” 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism