Thursday, October 18, 2007


November - NOX magazine

A year after Hizbullah kicked Israel in the proverbial balls, the Lebanese resistance movement has brought out a computer game for wanna-be fighters to take on the Israelis in a partial re-enactment of the 34-day war.
To find out more about Special Forces 2: The Tale of The Truthful Pledge, Hizbullah invited Nox to meet with the game’s project manager in Beirut’s southern suburbs at Bayt al Ankabout (‘House of the Spider’), a museum to the recent war that gets its name from an expression: a spider’s web is not as strong as it looks.
The bunker shaped museum is a testament to what Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sayeed Hassan Nasrallah, called the party’s Nasr min Allah (‘Victory from God’) against the Israeli invasion, proving that the Middle East’s most powerful army could be successfully resisted. As the saying goes in Lebanon, “Hizbullah won because it didn’t lose, and Israel lost because it didn’t win.”
Spoils of war litter the grounds of the ‘spider’s house’, with the entrance to the museum flanked by a partly buried Israeli tank and an artillery piece. Inside there is a brief history of the war, infamous statements by Bush, Rice, Olmert and co., pictograms of Israel’s war arsenal, photos of the conflict and its devastation, captured Israeli gear (including a bust-up iPod), and a guide to identifying Israeli army regiment badges. The pièce de la résistance of the exhibit is an Israeli tank at the bottom of a crater with a small cinema set-up around it.
Fuad Rastoum is waiting in a large, sparsely furnished security shed. A middle-aged and softly spoken man, Rastoum has the rather curious title of Executive Manager of the Hizbullah Central Internet Bureau, the department in charge of website development and creating Hizbullah’s latest computer game, which comes four years after Special Forces 1 hit the shelves.
Rastoum says the idea of developing a computer game came from a child. “It was like a flash: America is issuing games so why don’t Arab countries do it?”
Indeed. Washington has gone as far as bringing out a game, America’s Army: Empower Yourself, Defend Freedom (2002), which was deliberately aimed as recruitment tool to encourage youths to join the under-manned US armed forces. America’s Army is just one of dozens of other shoot-‘em up games in which Arabs are portrayed as the baddie-terrorist, with (take your pick) Special Forces, Delta Force, Navy Seals, the US Army etc. battling it out in what is more often than not a desert against bearded Arabs in jalabas, kaffiyehs and flip-flops. One only has to see images of Hizbullah’s fighters decked out in camouflage, night-vision goggles, and M-16s to realise that these crude generalisations are far from reality. And secondly, just for the record, Lebanon has no desert.
“If a child plays these games they grow up seeing Arabs as terrorists. We felt there should be an opposite to fight this current,” says Rastoum. “When the US invents these games it is because their mentality comes from hegemony, to control the world. They don’t believe in the independence of other countries,” he adds.

Hizbullah's Fuad Rastoum at Bayt Al Ankabout (PC).

A partly submerged Israeli tank forms part of Hizbullah's Bayt Al Ankabout exhibition in the Southern suburbs of Beirut (PC).

So why doesn’t Hizbullah produce games on other countries getting slapped around, such as through the eyes, and via the trigger fingers, of an Iraqi or Palestinian resistance fighter? Or a hypothetical game that takes on the US if Washington decides to attack Iran?
“Hizbullah has one enemy, the entity of Israel. Hizbullah doesn’t see other countries as enemies. And a game about the US attacking Iran? The Iranians could do it themselves,” he says.
Special Forces 2 however, says Rastoum, is about educating the Lebanese youth about the Israeli war machine and learning how to use resources effectively. “We want a child to grow up as a man who will not be meek before his enemy,” he says.
It is also about partly re-creating the 34-day war, and depicting southern Lebanon. A six-stage game, The Tale of The Truthful Pledge is your standard 3D shoot-‘em up and roll play scenario, set in the battlefields of last year’s war.
Photographs were taken of the major battle sites – Bint Jbeil, Taybe, and the south’s numerous valleys – and then converted to 3D graphics.
“Anyone from Bint Jbeil would recognize his town when playing the game – they can see the football pitch, the hospital…” says Rastoum.
The game starts, as the war did, with the capture of the two Israeli soldiers, once the player has fired off a rocket and secured the area to make the seizure.
One level, set in Bint Jbeil, requires the player to prevent the Israelis from placing the Israeli flag on the town’s football pitch, where Nasrallah in year’s past had given a speech. “The player then goes to the hospital to purify it from the Zionists,” says Rastoum.
A next stage is to re-enact one of Hizbullah’s most notorious stunts in the war, hitting an Israeli navy boat with a rocket. But as the navy vessel was far out at sea, Rastoum says they had to create a virtual island for the player to get to, “purify,” collect a rocket launcher and then fire at the target.
Other missions require firing off Katyusha rockets at Israeli settlements, but Rastoum says you don’t see where they strike.
Such a move was not intended to downplay the violence of the game, which was questioned by some of the foreign media.
“Questions are asked repeatedly about whether we think this game encourages violence,” says Rastoum. “Children living through the horrors here, especially last July, saw buildings hit by one-tonne bombs collapse in front of them. The Israelis are teaching the children hatred, not us.”
The game has quite clearly hit a mark with the Lebanese. In the month since the game was launched – timed to coincide with the anniversary of Harb Tamouz (the July war) on August 14 – some 25,000 copies of the $10 game have been sold and, most likely, additional thousands have been copied and sold on through Lebanon’s rampant counterfeit market.
The bureau is now working on a multi-language version of Special Forces 2 in English, French and Farsi, but internationally marketing a Hibzullah game does have its problems.
With the party designated a terrorist organization by the US government and most countries weary of being labelled “terrorist lovers,” the game has faced the same resistance as pro-Hizbullah TV channel Al Manar. The channel, which had its studios pummelled to dust last summer, is on the US Terrorist Exclusion List, and is banned on Australian, Dutch, French and Spanish satellite providers for allegedly “inciting violence”.
“Because this is a Hizbullah game we will not be allowed in the US. We will be banned for sure in other places. There are always pressures applied by Zionist organizations around the world, they are powerful,” says Rastoum.
Copies are making their way around the Middle East though, with individuals allegedly smuggling in copies to peddle to Palestinians in the beleaguered West Bank and Gaza Strip.
After all, as Rastoum says, “It’s just playing a game in a virtual world, pulling the trigger on the Israeli enemy.”

Box - Gaming in the Middle East

Hizbullah is not the only group to have brought out a computer game to take on their enemies. In 2002, Damascus-based games producer Afkar Media brought out Under Ash, which views the Palestinian Intifada through the eyes of Ahmad, a Palestinian teenager resisting the Israeli occupation. Based on reality, players have to harness their stone throwing skills.
The sequel,Tahta al-Hisar (Under the Siege), was brought out in 2005 and is based on the second Palestinian uprising. The company’s latest is Al Quraysh, a strategy game that tells the story of the first 100 years of Islam's history from the viewpoint of the Bedouins, Arabs, Persians, and Romans.
Last December, a Lebanese gamer in France known as Ziad El-Hajj brought out The Battle for the Serail, which requires players to kill soldiers, battle with militia men in the US embassy’s lobby that are supervised by political leaders Walid Jumblatt, Saad Hariri, Samir Geagea and current PM Fouad Siniora, and in the final stage storm the Lebanese parliament (Serail) and kill “all the traitors and thieves” in Siniora’s government.
Pro-government media linked Hizbullah to the game, but the party denies any involvement. “The game really hurt us somehow,” says Hizbullah’s Fuad Rastoum. “Some started blaming Hizbullah, but it is an independent thing.”
The concept of El-Hajj’s game is not that different from the Global Islamic Media Front’s 2006 free online game Quest for Bush, aka Night of Bush Capturing, where players navigate various missions that include “Jihad Growing Up,” “Americans’ Hell” and “Bush Hunted Like a Rat.” In the final stage, players fight the president. As Bush famously said in his challenge to the Iraqi resistance in 2003: “Bring it on.”


Not seeing the valley for the billboards

Commentary – Executive magazine (Middle East) November

Earlier this year Sao Paolo’s conservative mayor, Gilberto Kassab, made a radical decision when he introduced a Clean City Law that banned all public advertising in the metropolis, saying it constituted as “visual pollution.” All 15,000 billboards, outdoor video screens and ads on buses were removed.
The advertising industry through up their arms in horror but the public will prevailed, with more than 70% of Paulistas approving, according to surveys, and some $8 million in fines issued to cleanse Sao Paulo’s urban landscape.
In Lebanon such a development seems otherworldly. Take a drive north from Beirut to the Casino du Liban and you are bombarded with images of scantily clad ladies, scantily clad men, bottles of booze, tinned meat, watches, political propaganda, and so on.
Billboards obscure signposts and traffic dividers, in places, have adverts every five meters – it is serious overkill. Indeed, one of the reasons billboards are banned on highways in much of the world is because ads are a distraction, especially if you are a male with wandering eyes and an gargantuan image of a woman’s bursting cleavage heaves into view; just enough of a distraction to ram into the car in front.
It would arguably be all right if this plethora of billboards were confined to urban areas, but billboards pop out of the Lebanese landscape in the most wonderful spots – instead of an unimpaired view of a valley stretching into the distance you get to see a hair replacement ad. Nice.
It was not ever thus. In the early 1990s the billboard epidemic was similar to what it is today, with hoardings mushrooming all over the place as the country struggled to get back on its feet.
Then the government decided to tear down all the billboards and establish regulations that stipulate where billboards could be placed and the distance between each hoarding. There was a brief respite for the visually weary, and a few years later the practice started again, with a vengeance.
Although billboard companies are now individually abiding by the law by erecting hoardings 100 meters apart, the problem is that a firm will place their billboard in-between a rival’s, and have the next ad 100 meters on, meaning billboards are every 25 or 50 meters.
“There has been a total misapplication of the law and a major laissez faire by companies, sometimes municipalities, who have profited from the income,” said Danny Richa, president of the International Advertising Association’s Lebanon chapter. “This is in addition to a lot of political figures who profited from free adverts for the elections and gave backing and blessing to some companies to break the law.”
Herein lies the conundrum for the sector and the state. Billboards are a major income earner for cash-strapped municipalities, but the more billboards there are the less effective advertising becomes and the less money there is to be made by municipalities.
Richa said that in the first year after the regulations were enacted a company would need to advertise on just 200 billboards to get a result, with the average price of a 3x4 meter billboard $100 a week. Today, to get the same reach a company would need to advertise on 1,000 billboards, paying an average of $20-$25/w per hoarding.
“It’s costing billboard companies more to place these ads, maintain them, and bill post them, and the advertisers are getting less efficiency,” said Richa.
So what is to be done? Outdoor marketing is estimated at some $14 million a year (not including wall ads), an important income earner, and billboards do serve a purpose as a form of visual entertainment when stuck in traffic, as people increasingly are. Equally, outdoor adverts have proven to be morale boosters, such as after the July War when numerous companies lifted people’s spirits through witty billboard campaigns – something the international media picked up on and reported.
Part of the problem though is that alternative forms of advertising have not taken off in Lebanon, such as direct marketing or internet advertising, as mass advertising is cheap and effective in terms of geography and reaching the country’s small populace.
Going Sao Paulo’s route is therefore not an option for the foreseeable future. What is called for is tighter regulations, such as applied by Beirut’s municipality, which permits fewer billboards but charges higher prices.
“We have reached a point where we’d like the billboard owners to get together and immediately start to apply the law again by removing the excess, because if they don’t we will be obliged to lobby the government and could find a situation where all billboards are removed: the good, the bad, and the ugly,” said Richa.
The less draconian solution is to implement regulations area by area, fining violators and entitling companies that play by the book the visibility they are paying for. As for the countryside, let’s be able to see the valley without the billboards.

Terror finance trail vanishes in Saudi Arabia

The kingdom has pledged to crack down on funding activities for the likes of al-Qa'ida. So why the secrecy? Paul Cochrane reports
Published: 30 September 2007 The Independent On Sunday

Six years on from the atrocities of 9/11, in which 19 terrorists, 15 of them Saudi nationals, flew jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon – with the fourth plane crashing in a field – Saudi Arabia is still a major obstacle in the fight to crack down on terrorist financing.

Saudi Arabia, the Middle East's economic powerhouse and major US ally, only criminalised money laundering and terrorist financing in 2003, after the kingdom itself was the target of terrorist attacks.

It claims it is clamping down on terrorist financing, but just one major report has been carried out into how effectively the kingdom is implementing legislation. This was in 2004 by the OECD's Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global body overseeing anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing initiatives.

Recent information on the kingdom's efforts is almost non-existent, which the US State Department considers a problem as it "impedes the evaluation and design of enhancements to the judicial aspects of its anti-money laundering system".

The FATF said: "We don't have any current information on Saudi Arabia." It recommended getting in touch with the International Monetary Fund and the Middle East/ North Africa FATF, a regional body based in Bahrain.

However, the IMF did not respond to queries and Mena-FATF could not provide any information – not even the central bank's phone number – on the kingdom's progress. Such a lack of detail raises questions about the organisation's claim that money laundering and terrorist financing have fallen by 90 per cent in the Middle East in recent years.

The private sector was also of little help in shedding light on Saudi Arabia's compliance with FATF and UN recommendations. The head of financial crime investigations at a leading Saudi bank said: "Rules within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia prevent me from discussing what Saudi Arabia or the bank has achieved in relation to anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing."

Such a glaring lack of transparency is not unusual. Saudi Arabia is secretive about its internal workings and press freedoms are non-existent. The Saudi media made no mention of the recent exposé by the British press of BAE paying a sweetener to Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

But the information blackout on terrorist financing is alarming as Saudi Arabia is considered a "moderate" Arab state by the US and UK governments and an ally in the "war on terror".

Moreover, Saudi Arabia's brand of Islam, the ultra-conservative Wahhabism, has been exported globally and is followed by al-Qa'ida and other Sunni fundamentalist groups responsible for terrorist attacks around the world.

Funding for such groups comes from charitable organisations and wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Exactly how much cash flows through or from Saudi Arabia is difficult to tell due to the country's cash-based society and because no personal income records are kept for tax purposes. Additionally, under the five pillars of Islam, Muslims have a religious obligation – zakat – to donate money to charity, which is often done anonymously.

Such donationscan be, knowingly or unknowingly, used to finance terrorist organisations. In the decade up to 2002, according to a report to the UN Security Council, al- Qa'ida and other Islamist bodies collected between £150m and £250m, mostly from Saudi charities and private donors. This practice is still occurring, with Saudi Arabia linked to funding Sunni jihadists in Iraq.

Stuart Levey, the US Treasury's under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, told the Senate Banking Committee last year that there were concerns over "deep-pocket donors" and the abuse of charities to fund militants. "Is money leaving Saudi Arabia to fund terrorism abroad? Yes," he was quoted as saying. "Undoubtedly, some of that money is going to Iraq. And it's going to South-East Asia and it's going to any other place where there are terrorists."

Several multilateral charities based in Saudi Arabia are under scrutiny by the US government, such as the Muslim World League (MWL), the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) for donations to Palestinian group Hamas, and the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), which has been linked to funding for al-Qa'ida, Islamic groups in Chechnya and the Philippines, and Hamas

Saudi Arabia has been directly linked to the funding of Hamas, with Israel issuing indictments in June claiming that millions of shekels were transferred from the Saudi Arabia-based Charity Coalition to operatives in Jerusalem.

However, Hamas is widely viewed in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East as a legitimate resistance group and political party. This in part explains why, according to the 2004 FATF report, the kingdom's legal definition of terrorist financing "does not conform to international standards as expressed in the UN International Convention on the Suppression of Terrorist Financing".

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia's unwillingness to curb such funding has been queried by the US government, which believes it is dragging its feet on multilateral charities.

According to the US Senate, assets of formerly suspected Saudi Arabia-based charities were slated to be merged into a new organisation last year, the Saudi National Commission for Relief and Charity Work Abroad, but as of this month, it has still not been established. The US Treasury has urged the commission to include the MWL, WAMY and IIRO under its watch.

Saudi Arabia has also been accused of using current legislation to further its own political ends. In February, 10 Saudi individuals arrested for terrorist financing were alleged to be political dissidents by human rights groups.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Phishing for your money

Commentary - Executive magazine October 2007

When I was in London recently I tried withdrawing some cash from my British bank, but was denied access. On calling the bank I was asked if I had made several transactions – when “no, no, no and no” were my replies I was informed I’d been defrauded. Thousands of dollars had been taken from my account.
I’d get the money back, but would first have to sign a declaration form, get a new credit card and wait 10 days to be reimbursed. Whew.
Relating the story to friends it was surprising to find that all of them had either had a relative defrauded or experienced it themselves; in some cases more than once.
How it happens is by ‘phishing,’ where hackers send in what are called Trojans - software downloaded without knowledge of the user - that take screen shots of your computer, allowing the capture of passwords and credit card details.
In Britain the problem has become so acute that the Association for Payment Clearing Services, a banking industry body, said there had been an 8,000 percent growth in online fraud between 2004 and 2006, estimated at losses of $90 million last year alone. Online business is big business in Britain, with 26.5 million people undertaking an estimated 372 million online transactions a year.
As technology becomes more widespread phishing could increasingly happen in the Middle East. Indeed I had been ‘phished’ in Beirut, albeit by some crooks working through Italy, the destination for my looted cash. Whether Arab banks are facing this issue yet it is not making any headlines, but de-frauding will no doubt come to the region as banks and goods outlets increasingly adopt the online service and hackers size up another global region to plunder.
The other financial shocker of my trip to the overcast British Isles was the extent private debt was affecting the lives of most inhabitants. The majority of people I encountered had debt, with my former student friends (American friends are another story) owing thousands of pounds, years after they had graduated from a university system partially funded by the state. Such debt is hindering that all-important purchase, a property – but that of course requires going even further into the red.
For young people starting out in life such debt looms over them like a Damocles sword, with the average 18 to 24-year-old owing $5,720 in unsecured borrowing, and some 108,000 in the same age bracket having credit card debts of more than $10,000.
The willingness of Brits to go into debt is only rivalled by the Americans, with the average Briton owing twice as much in unsecured borrowing – overdrafts, personal loans, credit card debt – than the typical European.
According to consultancy firm Grant Thornton, Britain owes a collective $2,690 billion in mortgage and unsecured debt. For the fist time that figure is higher than Britain’s expected gross domestic product (GDP), forecast at $2,660 billion for 2007.
This debt has trebled in the decade that Labour has been in 10 Downing Street, and is largely based on a runaway housing market, which accounts for $2.261 trillion of debt while personal loans and credit card debt stands at $428 billion.
But such disproportionate debt in relation to GDP poses a problem. Britain is essentially consuming more than it produces, in goods and services. Adam Smith, that doyen of capitalist thinking now commemorated on the back of the new £20 note, would have been horrified. Smith disapproved of speculative fever (which is now getting hedge funds and banks in deep water) and an economic emphasis on buying and selling (Britain’s “buy now, pay later” culture) rather than producing actual assets. The true healthiness of an economy that is based on such intangibles is highly questionable.
Arab financial institutions should watch, very closely, how Britain and America deal with the current financial crisis, particularly as this part of the world is striving to emulate the Anglo-American economic model.
Such out of control debt, and the ease with which banks dish out cash, even to the unemployed, has caused serious reverberations around the world as well as negatively impacting on the lives of millions of home-owning Americans and now, Brits.
The run on Britain’s fifth-biggest mortgage lender, Northern Rock, last month – with $2 billion withdrawn in a day over fears the company could go bust – shows how dicey the interlinked financial system is. Northern Rock was forced to turn to the Bank of England to bail it out as the firm’s ability to withdraw from financial institutions had been compromised by the $200 billion valueless US mortgage market, where risk has been sold on to such an extent internationally that any its anyone’s guess which bank will be hit next.
The Arab world would do well to hedge its bets on a more realistic debt market that is in line with GDP as well as trying to avoid the pitfalls that have beset online transactions.