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When in Rome… Watch out for the Free Surveillance Tips!


By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD — I got a Whatsapp message from a very dear Christian friend on Friday asking for a moment of solidarity with those massacred in the Minya attack. The act of solidarity was to not use Facebook for the rest of that day because the terrorists in question found out about the bus ride to Saint Samuel the Confessor from Facebook.


Two-Way Surveillance

As (good or bad) luck would have it, just earlier in the day I’d overheard a discussion about Facebook and how it was exactly that it made any money. The whole point of Facebook is that it’s free, after all. Nowadays companies, in Egypt at least, set up a Facebook account to avoid having to make their own webpage, something that costs subscription fees and a salary to the lowly programmer you hire for the job. The whole social media explosion is part and parcel of this trend. So what gives? How ‘does’ Facebook survive and even thrive up against the electronic competition? One of the people conversing said that Facebook itself was basically a kind of market research. Everything advertised to you via Facebook is targeted and customised to your tastes, based on data its gathered about you from your preferences and activities via this social media forum. Every picture you download. Every search term you punch in. Whenever you click like or dislike, and on and on and on.

My naive answer was contracts with the CIA, via surveillance projects like PRISM, that Edward Snowden famously exposed. But then that itself lead to another question. If Facebook is a giant market monitoring mechanism (sorry for all the m’s) to begin with, and it cooperates with intelligence agencies like the CIA too, then how were the Americans not able to see this coming?

I’m saying this, of course, in response to Mr Trump’s casual quip about how ‘the bloodletting of Christians must end’ following the attack.[1] If you watched his wife and daughter in Saudi Arabia – heading there to declare an intellectual war on extremism – you’ll note their hair isn’t covered. That’s no big deal in itself, the onus is on the hosts, but what is annoying is Trump’s trip to the Vatican to meet the new Pope. If you look there you will most definitely find that his wife and daughter are dressed very conservatively – in black, in fact – while their hair is thoroughly covered.


Diplomatic Norms

Note that National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen refused to don a hijab for her scheduled meeting with the Grand Mufti of Lebanon. (Whatever happened to the maxim about doing what the Romans do when you’re over there?)

In other words, Trump isn’t serious about fighting terrorism. He isn’t even aware that his callus behaviour will fan the flames of extremism. Not to mention his neglect of the intelligence front. Could there be a relationship between what happened in Egypt and the flurry over nominating a new FBI director and his wrangles with the CIA over Russian hackers? His concerns are clearly elsewhere and that by itself is a worrying sign.

The timing of this attack is also disturbing and indicative. The target ‘may’ have been dreamed up at the lastminute be the said terrorist group operating out of Libya, using Facebook as a form of free surveillance, but the timing is very much like what took place with the Palm Sunday attacks in Tanta and Alexandria. President Sisi had just returned from his trip to America, just as the president was returning from Saudi Arabia this time round. And the attack comes on a Friday, the day before Ramadan, and straight after the Manchester attack which also originated in Libya and at the behest of ISIS.

Talk about connecting the dots, something Americans have never been particularly good at. Or so they say. If we were to cut them any slack, and there’s no reason to, we could the say the problem lies in the outdated paradigm they’re still using. They’re thinking of ISIS and its offshoots as a centralised entity sending out commands to its branches, the same misguided model they had for Al-Qaeda, a model that originated in their perception of the Communist threat during the Cold War.


Systematic Neglect

An African Studies professor who’d worked in Libya had told me on a very previous occasion that the so-called Islamic State people in Libya were most likely leftovers of the Qaddafi regime. He said this because Qaddafi himself – like all Arab regimes, progressive or otherwise – had employed Islamists (specifically Salafis) in his war with Chad. There were whole networks down there, gunrunners and smugglers and armed groups, that they could hitch up with to weather the storm. Going after ISIS then in its native Iraq wouldn’t have much of an effect on the tentacles of the octopus, so to speak. They’d still quiver and lash out at anyone in the immediate vicinity, regardless of the commands coming from the main body. Egypt is the natural target for Libyan terrorists, given the long, porous border and the two-way flow of people, and the fact that Egypt is the only regional player that can threaten them. It’s lone-wolf terrorism that we need to worry about, not the state-sponsored variety.

Just read a ridiculous novel called Assignment – Burma Girl (1961), with a communist insurgency in the said country working on behalf of Red China to redraw the border between the two countries. (The Americans win in the end, typically). The whole storyline has regional actors either getting out of hand and being betrayed by their paymasters, or passive regional actors who only get their act together when foreign powers egg them on. That’s bipolar syndrome for you. No wonder the Americans lost the Vietnam War. They didn’t realise that balance of power logic didn’t apply when it came to Third World nationalism.

The regional actors were setting the agenda, not the superpowers. In the modern context the Americans probably lulled themselves into thinking they were winning against Islamic State – not that they had anything to do with it in Iraq and Syria – and so got careless.

Even so, you’d still think that the CIA and NSA would be on alert for any internet chatter portending to a new attack at specifically this time. But no, they’ve clearly got more important things on their plate. Like unelecting their chief executive officer!

[1] Quoted in Clark Mindock, “Minya bus shooting: Donald Trump says ‘bloodletting of Christians must end’ after 28 die in Egypt gun attack”, The Independent, May 26, 2017,


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