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March 2014

The inside story of MIT and Aaron Swartz

More than a year after Swartz killed himself rather than face prosecution, questions about MIT’s handling of the hacking case persist

Aaron Swartz, a brilliant young programmer and political activist, helped launch several progressive political groups and was a major force behind a national wave of protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act, which targeted unauthorized sharing of videos and music.


, a brilliant young programmer and political activist, helped launch several progressive political groups and was a major force behind a national wave of protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act, which targeted unauthorized sharing of videos and music.

CAMBRIDGE — The mysterious visitor called himself Gary Host at first, then Grace Host, which he shortened for his made-up e-mail address to “ghost,” a joke apparently, perhaps signaling mischievousness — or menace. The intruder was lurking somewhere on the MIT campus, downloading academic journal articles by the hundreds of thousands.

The interloper was eventually traced to a laptop under a box in a basement wiring closet. He was Aaron Swartz, a brilliant young programmer and political activist. The cascade of events that followed would culminate in tragedy: a Secret Service investigation, a federal prosecution, and ultimately Swartz’s suicide.


But in the fall of 2010, Swartz was still a stranger in the shadows, and the university faced a hard question: How big a threat was the “ghost” downloader? And a harder one: What should be done about him?



Surveillance footage shows a man officials claim to be Aaron Swartz entering a wiring closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on Jan. 4, 2011. These images come from documents MIT provided to the US Attorney's office. //credit: US Attorney's office//

Surveillance images from Aaron Swartz case

Answering those questions would prove a particularly knotty puzzle for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a place long supportive of the free flow of information and so famously friendly to pranks, known in MIT lingo as hacks, that a book published by the MIT Museum in the 1990s offered pranksters such tips as “always have two ways to run.”


And yet, MIT is a cradle of world-class scientific research with unpublished data and unpatented inventions on its network, and its leaders felt vulnerable to the rising tide of high-tech espionage.

“There is some speculation that this might have been an MIT student experimenting with a robot,” one MIT employee noted in an e-mail after a second breach by Swartz was discovered. But another pointed out that “sinister foreigners’’ may have stolen credentials or compromised a computer.

MIT’s efforts to track down Swartz, while under intense pressure from JSTOR, the not-for-profit that ran the journal database, eventually would lead to felony computer crimes charges that might have brought years in jail. Swartz, 26, was under indictment when he committed suicide in January 2013.

Critics, both on campus and around the world, have accused MIT of abandoning its values celebrating inventive risk-taking by helping to doom a young man whose project — likely an act of civil disobedience to make information freely available — didn’t in the end cause serious harm.

MIT has insisted it maintained an appropriate, even compassionate, neutrality toward a determined hacker who stole 4.8 million articles and eluded numerous efforts to stop him before the college sought help from police.

But MIT’s brand of neutrality proved one with notable limits, according to a Globe review of more than 7,000 pages of discovery documents — many of them e-mails — from Swartz’s court case. In the wake of his death, both MIT and JSTOR posted online documents that they had turned over to authorities, a trove that drew little if any notice at the time. The Globe also obtained a number of e-mails related to the case not available publicly.

Only with a patient review of the complete record does the full picture of the dilemma MIT faced become clear. The aftershocks of the choices the institution made in the wake of the “ghost” continue to reverberate, on campus and off, more than a year after Swartz’s death.

Most vividly, the e-mails underscore the dissonant instincts the university grappled with. There was the eagerness of some MIT employees to help investigators and prosecutors with the case, and then there was, by contrast, the glacial pace of the institution’s early reaction to the intruder’s provocation.

MIT, for example, knew for 2½ months which campus building the downloader had operated out of before anyone searched it for him or his laptop — even as the university told JSTOR they had no way to identify the interloper.

And once Swartz was unmasked, the ambivalence continued. MIT never encouraged Swartz’s prosecution, and once told his prosecutor they had no interest in jail time. However, e-mails illustrate how MIT energetically assisted authorities in capturing him and gathering evidence — even prodding JSTOR to get answers for prosecutors more quickly — before a subpoena had been issued.

In a handful of e-mails, individual MIT employees involved in the case aired sentiments that were far from neutral. One, for example, gushed to prosecutor Stephen P. Heymann about the quality of the indictment of Swartz.

“Nicely done Steve and kudos! All points . . . are as accurate as I’ve ever seen,” wrote the information technology employee. “(I only say that because every time I’ve ever given an interview, details are always slightly to horribly munged; not that I ever expected any less, it’s just a true relief and very refreshing to see your accuracy and precision).”

Yet if MIT eventually adopted a relatively hard line on Swartz, the university had also helped to make his misdeeds possible, the Globe review found. Numerous e-mails make it clear that the unusually easy access to the campus computer network, which Swartz took advantage of, had long been a concern to some of the university’s information technology staff.

Some at MIT believed that officials had failed to pay serious attention to what one person called “poor, limited, or outdated security protections” on resources like the JSTOR database.

The documents also put JSTOR’s role in the case in a new light. In contrast to MIT, the journal archive organization has been widely hailed for publicly distancing itself from Swartz’s prosecution, declaring that once Swartz returned the documents, it “had no interest in this becoming an ongoing legal matter.”

But a number of JSTOR’s internal e-mails show a much angrier face in the months that Swartz eluded capture, withemployees sharing frustration about MIT’s “rather tepid level of concern.” JSTOR officials repeatedly raised the prospect, among themselves, of going to the police, e-mails show.

“What’s wrong with us . . . alerting the cyber-crimes division of law enforcement and initiating an investigation, having a cop search a dorm room and try to retrieve any hard drive that contains our content?” asked one JSTOR official, whose name — like most — was redacted in the released documents.

In the end, JSTOR neither called the police nor asked MIT to do so, according to its president.

Eric Grimson, who recently stepped down as chancellor of MIT, defended the university’s handling of the case as a judicious effort to protect the community without seeking retribution. MIT’s first steps, he said, were simply to deny the downloader access to the network. They didn’t search for the laptop for many weeks because they thought he had been thwarted.

When Swartz proved undeterred, he said, MIT had to do more.

“We were confronted with a situation of an unknown user accessing our network,” he said in an interview, “using it to download massive amounts of material . . . for a three-month period, and evading our efforts to try and stop it.”

MIT was harmed in the process, Grimson said, with 10,000 researchers denied an important resource for several days as JSTOR sought to cut off the mass downloading.

Helping investigators pursue the campus intruder was the only reasonable course, he said.

“I think we should as a matter of principle cooperate with law enforcement in an investigation of an alleged crime being committed on our campus,” he said. “That’s protecting our community.”

Video footage of allegedly shows Aaron Swartz in a wiring closet at MIT on Jan. 4, 2011.


Video footage of allegedly shows Aaron Swartz in a wiring closet at MIT on Jan. 4, 2011.

After Swartz’s arrest, Grimson said, the university went out of its way to be fair to the defense, voluntarily making staff members available to answer questions from Swartz’s attorneys.

“I would like to suggest we took a path to try to balance being empathetic to Aaron’s situation while acknowledging that there was a legal process involved,” he said.

Allure of openness

Swartz was an Internet prodigy. By age 19, he had helped to build RSS, a service that allowed users to create personalized news feeds; to develop the social news website Reddit; and to establish Creative Commons, an alternative to traditional copyright more friendly to sharing.

In his 20s, the restless Stanford dropout turned his energies to political activism. He helped launch several progressive political groups and was a major force behind a national wave of protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act, which targeted unauthorized sharing of videos and music, but which Swartz and others saw as an attack on free speech.

While Swartz’s motive for downloading the JSTOR archive remains unknown, there is one simple and plausible possibility: to make academic research freely available to the public. In 2008, he published a “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto” in which he avowed a “moral imperative” to share scholarship locked behind exorbitant subscription walls.

“It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture,” he wrote.

But why use MIT as his gateway — or, to some eyes, his victim? He had a fellowship at Harvard at the time, which gave him access to JSTOR, but apparently worried about getting himself or his colleagues in hot water, since bulk downloading is forbidden by JSTOR.

Since MIT had been known for generations for its idealistic devotion to the spirit of openness, venturing a couple of miles down Massachusetts Avenue may have seemed irresistible to Swartz. He had no formal tie to the university but had friends there and had been involved in campus activities.

A blog entry Swartz wrote in 2009, titled “Honest Theft,” neatly details his view of the school as a haven for rebelliousness. He described friends who he said secretly lived for free on campus, sleeping on couches in common rooms and stealing food from the cafeterias — and using the money they saved “to promote the public good.”

“MIT has a notoriously relaxed security policy,” he wrote, so his friends “likely wouldn’t get in too much trouble.”

Indeed, MIT’s own 180-page internal report on the Swartz case, released in July by a panel led by professor Hal Abelson, described a “culture of creative disobedience where students are encouraged to explore secret corners of the campus, commit good-spirited acts of vandalism . . . and resist restrictions that seem arbitrary or capricious.”

Student “hacks” have included putting a faux firetruck on the MIT Great Dome and turning a high-rise facade into a working Tetris game. They are meant to be public and harmless, but often involve trespassing and “borrowing” materials without permission, like a 3-ton cannon brazenly snatched from Caltech.

The ethic of openness extends to MIT’s computer network, where anyone on campus can get onto the wired network for 14 days by logging on as a guest, an extremely unusual perk for visitors to a university campus.

As an MIT manager of network security noted in an e-mail reviewing the downloading case as it unfolded in October 2010, misuse of the MIT network was made possible by the fact that there was “no authentication of visitors” and “no identity verification.”

The open-door policy meant Swartz could easily sign in, as he did, as an anonymous guest with fake names and disposable e-mail addresses.

Between 5 p.m. on Sept. 25, 2010, and 4 a.m. the next morning, the code Swartz wrote, which he called “keepgrabbing,” downloaded 450,000 JSTOR articles.

It was the opening salvo in a cat-and-mouse game that would extend over three months. JSTOR would cut off the Internet protocol address Swartz was using; he would switch to another. MIT detected and shut down the registration for his computer; he altered his computer’s identifying information.

Officials would conclude the ghost downloader had moved on, then he’d reappear weeks later.

The maddening pursuit prompted some MIT technology personnel to say, essentially, I told you so. Databases like JSTOR’s, some said, should have been kept behind a virtual gate — though this would inconvenience legitimate users.

“I frankly don’t know why it’s not used more,” an employee wrote about such a security measure.

Another employee in network security lamented that only the Swartz case prompted MIT to smarten up. “I hope it helps enlighten them to the need to really think long and hard about these issues. Kind of silly that it took a JSTOR crawling issue to get everyone a little frenzied.”

MIT and JSTOR did agree to a security upgrade after Swartz’s second round of downloading was discovered in October 2010, requiring those seeking access to have MIT credentials. But it took JSTOR weeks to prepare for the change, the e-mails show.

That delay would prove fateful. Aaron Swartz had only gotten started.

Drawing concern at JSTOR

Given the institution’s global stature, MIT inevitably drew most of the public focus. But what Swartz did was more of a threat to JSTOR, a small organization in a precarious position. Its business is selling access to journal articles, but it doesn’t own those articles. If it can’t protect them, the journals could yank their material out of the library and threaten JSTOR’s survival.

Swartz ultimately downloaded 80 percent of JSTOR’s archive, 4.8 million articles. At one point his downloading was so rapid, JSTOR e-mails said it created “a monstrous amount” of traffic that was “threatening the website.”

The stakes for MIT were murkier. The university’s contract with JSTOR promised that it would guard against misuse, so there was some risk of losing an important library resource. And a rogue stranger poking around MIT’s network could be truly dangerous. The discovery shortly before Swartz’s arrest that his computer was being contacted from China raised passing fears of a foreign cyberattack, e-mails show, although such probing from overseas is quite routine.

Yet MIT was used to seeing excessive downloading — albeit on a much smaller scale — and some staff downplayed the threat.

“There will always be one person a semester who, regardless of intent, will write a script to crawl through some catalog,” an MIT employee wrote when JSTOR first cut off the portion of campus where Swartz was operating. The MIT worker called JSTOR’s move “draconian” and “knee-jerk.”

The result of their differing vulnerabilities, e-mails indicate, was that JSTOR was far more bellicose toward the interloper than was MIT — at least until the days right before Swartz’s arrest.

JSTOR pressed again and again for MIT to find the downloader. Some of the archive’s employees said MIT was being cooperative, but other staff members were irate at the university.

“I am sure that if they had lost an equivalent number of books from their library overnight (what 25,000-30,000 books) they would not be so nonchalant,” someone at JSTOR wrote in an e-mail.

“This is an astronomical number of articles — again, real theft,” another wrote. “Does the university contact law enforcement? Would they be willing to do so in this instance?”

When Swartz popped up again in late December after weeks of quiet, the tension was even plainer.

“I might just be irked because I am up dealing with [the downloader] on a Sunday night,” a JSTOR employee wrote, “but I am starting to feel like [MIT needs] to get a hold of this situation and right away or we need to offer to send them some help (read FBI).”

These were “heat of the moment” reactions by officials anxious about an unknown threat, said Kevin M. Guthrie, president of ITHAKA, JSTOR’s parent organization.

“You get a report that 100,000 articles have been downloaded on a Saturday, you’re trying to figure out what to do,” he said in an interview.

As for JSTOR’s internal comments about calling the police, he said, “We talked about it, but we made a decision — no, this wouldn’t be appropriate; it’s not our role to indicate that law enforcement should be called.”

When it came to Swartz’s prosecution, JSTOR was notably reticent. It insisted on being served with a subpoena before it would provide information to the government and then, according to Abelson’s report, tried to limit its answers.

Guthrie told the Globe that the not-for-profit was simply trying to be careful. As for its decision to publicly oppose prosecution, he said, once Swartz returned the files, the journal provider was no longer interested in the matter.

JSTOR was “trying to balance our obligation both to be good stewards of the content for the content owners and publishers, for our own viability, for broad access to information, and then the personal situation, the human situation,” Guthrie said.

JSTOR’s very existence, he said, is all about broadening access to scholarly journals. Its fees go to support the archive, and it provides free access in developing countries.

E-mails from before Swartz was captured suggest that JSTOR might also have been worried about its public image. The archive is already viewed in some quarters as a greedygatekeeper constricting the pursuit of knowledge. One JSTOR employee, in an e-mail addressing the possibility of bringing in law enforcement, noted several technical obstacles after opening with, “aside from the considerations about the PR of it all . . . ”

A sudden shift

If MIT was initially slow to react to the “ghost,” even tepid about the whole thing as some at JSTOR surmised, that changed drastically after the university learned of another breach in December 2010.

 After the laptop Swartz was accused of setting up to download JSTOR articles was found in a wiring closet at MIT, investigators left the computer up and running and installed a hidden camera.come from documents MIT provided to the US Attorney's office


After the laptop Swartz was accused of setting up to download JSTOR articles was found in a wiring closet at MIT, investigators left the computer up and running and installed a hidden camera.

On the night after Christmas, JSTOR discovered a new round of downloading. It had actually started some 10 weeks earlier, but Swartz had slowed the process enough to avoid tripping alarms.

Out on a furlough, MIT staff did not get the urgent messages from JSTOR until Jan. 3, 2011. “This is a heck of a way to start the new year,” one person at MIT wrote. “We need to escalate the seriousness of our response. This looks like grand theft.”

And escalate MIT did. The academic building where the activity seemed to emanate from had been pinpointed in mid-October. But only on the morning of Jan. 4 did a network engineer began searching Building 16. He quickly discovered a laptop, hidden under a cardboard box, connected to the network from a wiring closet in the basement.

MIT police decided they needed more help, and called a Cambridge police detective who belonged to a regional electronic crimes task force. He showed up with another task force member, a Secret Service agent named Michael S. Pickett.

Seeking not only to find the downloader but to collect as much evidence as possible, they set up a hidden camera in the wiring closet. And instead of shutting down the laptop, the authorities decided to “leave it up and running for a couple of days while the investigation continues,” a library employee wrote in an e-mail.

“Now a federal case,” the library staffer wrote in separate notes she took on a conversation with an MIT security analyst. “We [MIT] are considered the victim. All we provide is by choice — not subpoenaed.”

A laptop that was hidden under a box in a wiring closet.


A laptop that was hidden under a box in a wiring closet.

That cooperation with law enforcement also extended to a senior MIT network engineer who monitored traffic to and from Swartz’s laptop and appeared to be looking to Pickett for instructions. On Jan. 5, having collected 70 gigabytes of network traffic, he e-mailed the agent, “I was just wondering what the next step is.”

Swartz’s lawyers argued that MIT, by monitoring Swartz and turning over materials to law enforcement without a court order, violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Abelson, who wrote MIT’s own review, disagreed, and legal experts interviewed by the Globe differed on whether those arguments had merit. They were never ruled on by the judge in the case.

Grimson, the former university chancellor, acknowledged in an interview that it would have been “cleaner” to ask prosecutors to seek a court order sooner. Turning over evidence without a subpoena raised, in some eyes, painful questions about MIT’s avowed neutrality.

Swartz was identified by the hidden camera and arrested on Jan. 6 after allegedly trying to flee police on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.

The startling discovery that the “ghost” downloader was a well-known activist prompted a few MIT employees to share their opinions with Pickett, the Secret Service agent, or their colleagues.

“Looks like he is a big hacker, i googled him,” one wrote to Pickett at midnight the morning after Swartz’s arrest.

That afternoon, someone from the IT security department wrote to Pickett, deeming Swartz a “really intelligent kid that just got buried under an avalanche of dumb.”

A few days later, Swartz took to Twitter to ask his followers if they knew anyone at JSTOR, presumably hoping he could defuse the situation. One person at MIT responded by circulating among colleagues a made-up messagepurporting to be what Swartz wanted to say to JSTOR.

“hi, jstor, I’m still a few million pdf’s shy of grabbing your whole db; really had high hopes on collecting the whole set by 1/1/11,” it read. “could you tell me what number I left off at, because I don’t currently have access to my lappy that was keeping track. k thnx bye.”

The MIT employee’s commentary on his or her own fictional tweet: “LOL.”

The documents say little about what MIT was thinking and doing once the case morphed from an investigation into an active prosecution. But MIT’s own report on the case raises serious questions about the wisdom of MIT’s neutrality stance.

The report noted that some within MIT believe “there has been a change in the institutional climate over recent years, where decisions have become driven more by a concern for minimizing risk than by strong affirmation of MIT values.”

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act has been widely condemned as extreme in both its sweeping scope and its grave punishments. Sentencing guidelines suggest Swartz faced up to seven years in prison.

To his supporters, MIT bears some responsibility for that fact. MIT officials privately told the prosecutor that the university had no interest in jail time, but refused to oppose his prosecution publicly or privately, despite repeated entreaties from Swartz’s father, his lawyers, and a couple of faculty members, who argued MIT had the institutional heft to influence the US attorney’s office.

MIT may have also missed an opportunity to point out a potentially serious flaw in the case against Swartz.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act charges centered on the claim that Swartz had unauthorized access to MIT and JSTOR’s networks. But even if he was doing something improper, Swartz was logged on at MIT as a guest, leading Abelson and some legal observers to conclude that his access could be construed as authorized.

Aaron Swartz


Aaron Swartz

It was hardly a clear-cut case, and the judge may not have agreed. But either way, MIT — resolute about not getting drawn into a criminal case to which it was not a named party — “paid little attention to the details of the charges,” Abelson found. The institute simply did not consider whether Swartz may have been an authorized user under the terms of the law, according to the report.

The defense didn’t raise it, either, until close to Swartz’s death.

MIT was helping the prosecution “understand how to prosecute, what information is necessary to prosecute, but not taking steps to help them understand the limits to their prosecution,” said Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor who was close to Swartz. “Nobody would call that neutral. That’s aiding and abetting the prosecution.’’

Grimson defended MIT’s decision to leave it up to the justice system to decide Swartz’s fate, given that MIT leaders believe he harmed the school. And he disagreed that MIT is less driven by its ideals than it once was. He pointed to the Abelson report as an example of MIT’s willingness to soul-search and learn from a tragedy.

Still, he said, MIT will be second-guessing itself for a long time, and the university is still considering some policy changes in light of what happened to Swartz. Its first concrete move, last month, was to set up a presidential committee that will create an online data privacy policy.

A famously sensitive person, Swartz had some history with depression. Yet loved ones insist that he was not clinically depressed before he hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment on Jan. 11, 2013, but overwhelmed by the threat of years injail and the toll of fighting the charges.

His father, Bob Swartz, believes that MIT’s lack of compassion helped destroy his son’s life.

“We can’t bring Aaron back, he can no longer be the tireless worker for good,” he said at a memorial service for his son held at MIT last spring. “What we can do is change things for the better. We can work to change MIT so that it . . . once again becomes a place where risk and coloring outside the lines is encouraged, a space where the cruelties of the world are pushed back and our most creative flourish rather than being crushed.”

Matt Carroll contributed to this report. Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeMarcella.

Aaron Swartz, MIT & JSTOR: The Inside Story

In Aaron Swartz, Archive, JSTOR, MIT on March 30, 2014 at 11:28 PM




The mysterious visitor called himself Gary Host at first, then Grace Host, which he shortened for his made-up e-mail address to “ghost,” a joke apparently, perhaps signaling mischievousness — or menace. The intruder was lurking somewhere on the MIT campus, downloading academic journal articles by the hundreds of thousands.

The interloper was eventually traced to a laptop under a box in a basement wiring closet. He was Aaron Swartz, a brilliant young programmer and political activist. The cascade of events that followed would culminate in tragedy: a Secret Service investigation, afederal prosecution, and ultimately Swartz’s suicide.

read full article here

The Unknown Known: Errol Morris’ New Doc Tackles Unrepentant Iraq War Architect Donald Rumsfeld (DM)

click on image


Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris joins us to talk about his new film, “The Unknown Known,” based on 33 hours of interviews with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The title refers to an infamous press briefing in 2002 when Rumsfeld faced questions from reporters about the lack of evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. “The Unknown Known” is Morris’ 10th documentary feature. He won a Best Documentary Oscar for his film “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.” His other films include “Standard Operating Procedure,” about alleged U.S. torture of terror suspects in Abu Ghraib prison, and “The Thin Blue Line,” about the wrongful conviction of Randall Adams for the murder of a Dallas policeman. The release of “The Unknown Known” comes in a month marking 11 years since the U.S. invaded Iraq, leaving an estimated half a million Iraqis dead, along with at least 4,400 American troops.

Syria : Suspects into Collaborators


Peter Neumann argues that Assad has himself to blame

You are invited to read this free essay from the London Review of BooksRegister for free and enjoy 24 hours of access to the entire LRB archive of over 12,500 essays and reviews.

Three years ago, it was hard to find anything significant about Syria in books about al-Qaida. Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, which many consider the definitive history of al-Qaida, contains only five references, while Fawaz Gerges’s The Rise and Fall of al-Qaida mentions Syria just once, as the home of Osama bin Laden’s mother. Today, by contrast, Syria is widely – and correctly – seen as the cradle of a resurgent al-Qaida: a magnet for jihadist recruits, which offers the networks, skills and motivation needed to produce a new generation of terrorists. How did this happen? And why did it happen so quickly?

For Bashar al-Assad, the blame lies with outsiders – especially Turkey and the Gulf monarchies – who have used their money and influence to sponsor the uprising, arm the rebels and supply foreign recruits. This is certainly the case, but it’s only part of the story. In the years that preceded the uprising, Assad and his intelligence services took the view that jihad could be nurtured and manipulated to serve the Syrian government’s aims. It was then that foreign jihadists first entered the country and helped to build the structures and supply lines that are now being used to fight the government. To that extent Assad is fighting an enemy he helped to create.

To make sense of his policy, it is important to understand the long history of confrontation between Islamists and the Baath Party governments of Bashar and his father Hafez. Violent clashes between the government and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood broke out in 1964 – less than a year after the Baath Party seized power. From the Islamists’ perspective, the country had been taken over by people who were diametrically opposed to everything they stood for: the Baath Party’s stringent secularism ruled out the creation of an Islamic state; its socialism threatened the interests of the small traders and businessmen who were the Brotherhood’s main constituency; and its strong support among minorities – especially Christians and Alawites – meant that the Sunni majority was going to be ruled by ‘unbelievers’ and ‘apostates’.

It was not until 1976, however, that a sustained uprising took shape. Initiated by the so-called Fighting Vanguard (an aggressively sectarian group on the Brotherhood’s fringes) it eventually gained support from all factions of the Brotherhood, parts of the secular opposition and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The confrontation culminated in a three-week battle in the city of Hama in February 1982 during which government forces killed thousands of people and caused virtually every known supporter of the Brotherhood to flee the country. This marked the end of the Muslim Brotherhood inside Syria and explains why its voice and presence during the current conflict has been so marginal: the Syrian Brothers, unlike their Egyptian counterparts, have had no organisation, no structure, and most of their (surviving) leaders haven’t set foot inside the country for decades.

The ruthless elimination of the Brotherhood didn’t mean that the country was exempt from the ‘religious turn’ which many Arab societies experienced during the 1990s. Fuelled by economic and political grievances, widespread corruption and a sense that Syrian society in its existing state offered no hope, direction or opportunity, many Sunnis embraced Islam and adopted more religious lifestyles. Conscious of what was happening, Bashar, who succeeded his father in 2000, sought to co-opt and control this revival. In the first years of his presidency, he spent much of his time grooming religious leaders, controlling mosques, and making sure that the burgeoning Islamic sector was playing by the regime’s rules. He also funded religious institutions, created Islamic banks and loosened government regulations on public displays of piety, such as the wearing of headscarves in public buildings and prayer in the armed forces. InIslamic Revivalism in Syria (2011), the academic Line Khatib noted that Bashar’s conciliatory attitude towards Islam stood in marked contrast to the Baath Party’s original doctrine, which regarded any mention of religion as politically deviant and denounced Islam as a ‘reactionary ideology’.


Bashar’s more accommodating approach towards Islam did not, at the time, extend to the jihadists, who had quietly gained a following among Salafist communities in Syria’s deprived suburbs and the countryside: places like Dara in the south, Idlib in the north, and the outskirts of Aleppo. In late 1999 a jihadist ambush resulted in four days of clashes and prompted a nationwide crackdown, resulting in the arrest of 1200 suspected militants and their supporters. Following the 11 September attacks, Bashar offered his government’s assistance in the war on terror. Though wary of his motives, the Bush administration agreed to co-operate, rendering ‘high-value’ jihadist suspects to Syria until at least 2005.

The Syrian government’s ‘secret weapon’ against jihadists was to infiltrate their networks and turn suspects into government collaborators – a technique that had been used with great success against the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s and 1980s. The director of one of Syria’s intelligence services told visiting US officials, according to a WikiLeaked US State Department cable, that ‘we have a lot of experience and know these groups.’ He went on: ‘We don’t attack or kill them … We embed ourselves … and only at the opportune moment do we move.’ This approach, he said, had resulted in ‘the detention of scores of terrorists, stamping out terror cells’.

The American invasion of Iraq in March 2003 caused outrage among Syrian Salafists, who considered the occupation of ‘Muslim lands’ a legitimate reason to take up arms. The regime’s well-honed strategy for dealing with such events – organising staged demonstrations, allowing people to vent their anger on state television – was no longer an option: the Salafists were unappeasable, they wanted to go to Iraq and kill Americans. For Assad and his intelligence chiefs, this presented a serious challenge; after weeks of hesitation, they decided to embrace a bold new strategy: rather than suppressing the Salafists’ rage, they would encourage it.

Allowing the Salafists to go to Iraq was thought to be a good idea for two reasons: first, it got rid of thousands of the most aggressive Salafists with a taste for jihad, packing them off to a foreign war from which many would never return to pose a threat to Assad’s secular, minority-dominated government; second, it destabilised the occupation of Iraq and thwarted Bush’s quest to topple authoritarian regimes (everyone in Assad’s inner circle feared that Syria would be next). According to Assad’s biographer David Lesch, ‘Damascus wanted the Bush doctrine to fail, and it hoped that Iraq would be the first and last time it was applied. Anything it could do to ensure this outcome, short of incurring the direct military wrath of the United States, was considered fair game.’

Practically overnight, Syria became the principal point of entry for foreign jihadists hoping to join the Iraqi insurgency. Inside the country, Assad’s intelligence services activated their jihadist collaborators. The most prominent among them was Abu al-Qaqaa, a Salafi cleric from Aleppo who had studied in Saudi Arabia and whose sermons attracted hundreds – sometimes thousands – of people. Before the invasion of Iraq, Abu al-Qaqaa’s followers acted as religious vigilantes, meting out punishments for ‘indecent behaviour’ and stirring up hatred against the infidel governments of Israel and America. After the invasion, his group turned into a hub which provided Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq with Syrian recruits. Qaqaa’s efforts were so successful that for most of 2003 Syrians constituted the largest foreign fighting contingent of the (emerging) insurgency. Four years later, when the political calculus had changed and the Syrian government wanted to slow down the traffic, Qaqaa was shot dead in mysterious circumstances. His funeral was attended by members of the Syrian parliament along with thousands of Islamists. According to a Lebanese media report, ‘his coffin was draped in a Syrian flag and the affair had all the trappings of a state occasion.’

Qaqaa was important, but he was not the only person involved in sending foreign fighters to Iraq. According to records captured by the US military in the Iraqi border town of Sinjar, the logistics were handled by an elaborate network of at least a hundred facilitators, who were spread throughout the country and maintained weapons caches and safehouses in Damascus, Latakia, Deir al-Zour and other major Syrian cities. They, in turn, worked closely with tribes along the Iraqi border whose smuggling business had suffered as a result of the war and for whom facilitating the flow of jihadists was a welcome substitute.


Less than a year after it had been set up, the Syrian pipeline was so well established that it started attracting jihadists from countries like Libya, Saudi Arabia and Algeria, who flew into Damascus or travelled via one of the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. In 2007, the US government estimated that 90 per cent of suicide bombers in Iraq were foreigners, and that 85-90 per cent of the foreign fighters had entered Iraq through Syria. The jihadist networks in Syria had, in essence, become an extension of those in Iraq and operated without the Assad government’s active support, though almost certainly with its knowledge.

By 2005, it was already obvious that Operation Iraqi Freedom was in trouble and that the Syrians wouldn’t have to worry about being next on the list. The constant flow of refugees from Iraq put a heavy burden on the Syrian economy (by 2008 it was clear that Syria wanted to see stability, not turmoil, in Iraq). Moreover, al-Qaida in Iraq – the group with which Abu al-Qaqaa had collaborated so closely – was turning its attention away from fighting the US towards the possibility of a civil war with the Shiites, a prospect the Syrian government, dominated by Alawites, viewed with horror. There was, however, no chance of simply turning off the tap. The jihadist networks had expanded so quickly, even Abu al-Qaqaa, who was told to call for ‘moderation’ when the insurgency started turning into a sectarian war, had lost much of his influence; and the smuggling of fighters had become so lucrative and deeply ingrained that it would have taken a full-scale conflict with the tribes to stop it. The regime had created a phenomenon it could no longer control.


For some of the jihadists who started returning to Syria after 2005, Assad’s intelligence services came up with what seemed like an ingenious plan. Once again, they sought to externalise the jihadist threat while turning its protagonists into the (unwitting) tools of Syrian foreign policy. This time the target was Lebanon, where Syria had recently been forced to end a 30-year military occupation and was held responsible for the assassination of the prime minister, Rafik Hariri. As a result, many of the foreign jihadists who had entered Iraq through Syria were now told to return to the Palestinian camps near Sidon and Tripoli where they had started their journey into Iraq. Neither Fatah al-Islam nor Usbat al-Ansar, the local jihadist groups, were fully controlled by Syrian intelligence, but both were corrupt enough to serve its purposes in Lebanon, where they hoped to destabilise the political order, stir up sectarian conflict and derail the investigations of the special tribunal set up to investigate Hariri’s assassination.

It soon transpired that sending jihadists to Lebanon didn’t solve the problem. A good many jihadist returnees decided to stay in Syria, where they embarked on a terrorist campaign. This included high-profile attacks against government buildings, state television, the US Embassy and a Shiite shrine, all reported by the international press. But there were hundreds of smaller incidents and failed attacks which the government kept secret, and outsiders had little way of knowing about. Representatives of European intelligence services stationed in Syria at the time say that they received reports about terrorist incidents ‘on a monthly basis’. The leaked State Department cables mention bombings and numerous shoot-outs in the years 2004 and 2005; a suicide bombing and several armed clashes and attempted bombings in 2006; more gun battles, several attempted car bombings in Damascus and the seizure of ‘suicide belts, vehicles and 1200 kg of explosives’ in 2008; as well as the bombing of a bus carrying Shiite pilgrims in March 2009.

The first wave of these attacks, from 2004 to 2006, was claimed by Jund al-Sham, an obscure group which experts believe had been started by Zarqawi, while the second, from 2008 to 2009, was the work of ‘rogue members’ of Fatah al-Islam. Whatever the label, the people responsible were, without exception, former foreign fighters who had been part of the Iraqi insurgency and fetched up in Syria, where they used their fighting experience and combat skills to attack the government and, increasingly, the Shiite population.

One of the most dramatic illustrations of the way in which Assad’s policy backfired were the Sednaya prison riots. After the Iraq invasion, Syrian intelligence officials offered Islamist inmates at this notorious facility just outside Damascus the chance to receive military training and fight against Coalition forces in Iraq. According to a leaked State Department cable, of those who accepted the offer and subsequently managed to return to Syria, ‘some remained at large … others were sent to Lebanon, and a third group were re-arrested and remanded to Sednaya.’ The ones who went back to prison felt ‘cheated’: they ‘had expected better treatment, perhaps even freedom, and were upset over prison conditions’. In July 2008 they rioted, taking a number of prison staff and military cadets hostage. Despite the deployment of special forces, the prisoners maintained control over part of the prison for several months. In January 2009 the long stand-off was resolved in a ferocious battle, which cost the lives of a hundred prisoners and dozens of soldiers. For the military, the episode was a ‘black mark’. The Syrian media never mentioned it.


The transfer of former fighters to Lebanon also caused problems for Assad. The leader of Fatah al-Islam, Syria’s main jihadist ‘partner’ in Lebanon, was widely believed to be a Syrian intelligence asset, and the original idea was for Damascus to turn the group into its own jihadist faction in Lebanon, rivalling efforts by the prime minister, Saad Hariri (the son of Rafik Hariri) and his Saudi allies. According to the French academic Bernard Rougier, an expert on Lebanon’s refugee camps, the Syrians succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. In addition to foreign fighters, the group attracted aspiring jihadists from across Lebanon. Based in the Palestinian camp Nahr al-Bared, Fatah al-Islam quickly grew to more than five hundred men, with money coming not just from Syria but from the Gulf and even from Hariri’s supporters (whose influence it was originally meant to counter). In Rougier’s words, ‘it took on its own life. It had a magnetic effect on Islamists in the country.’

By early 2007 the group had declared its intention to establish an Islamic emirate in the north of Lebanon and sparked a confrontation with the Lebanese army, culminating in a three-month stand-off and the group’s eventual defeat. The surviving members found refuge in the tightly knit Salafi communities of northern Lebanon or went straight back to Syria, where they launched attacks against Shiites and the Syrian government. During the current conflict, Fatah al-Islam emerged as one of the first rebel groups to adopt a jihadist agenda, and its supply routes and recruitment networks in Lebanon continue to be used by other jihadists.

The most significant, long-term consequence of Assad’s policy arose from the opening up of Syria to international jihadist networks. Before he turned his country into a transit point for foreign fighters, Syrian jihadists had been largely homegrown. If international links existed, they were to neighbouring countries. Al-Qaida had always had prominent Syrians as members – the strategist Abu Musab al-Suri, for example, or Abu Dahdah, who was sentenced to a lengthy prison term in Spain – but they had fled the country in the early 1980s, and there is no evidence that they directed jihadist activities inside Syria, sought to organise them, or even showed any interest in doing so. The terrorism experts were not entirely wrong, therefore, in believing that – for some time at least – Syria was outside al-Qaida’s orbit.

This changed in 2003 when Assad allowed the jihadists in his country to link up with Zarqawi and become part of a foreign fighter pipeline stretching from Lebanon to Iraq, with way points, safehouses and facilitators dotted across the country. With the active help of Assad’s intelligence services, Syria was opened to the influx – and influence – of experienced and well-connected jihadists from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen and Morocco, who brought with them their contact books, money and skills. Within a few years, the country ceased to be a black spot on the global jihadist map: by the late 2000s it was familiar terrain to foreign jihadists, while jihadists from Syria had become valued members of al-Qaida in Iraq, where they gained combat experience and acquired the international contacts and expertise needed to turn Syria into the next battlefront.

When the current conflict broke out, it was hardly surprising that jihadist structures first emerged in the eastern parts of the country, where the entry points into Iraq were located, and in places like Homs and Idlib, which were close to Lebanon; or that it was jihadists – not the Muslim Brothers – who could offer the most dedicated and experienced fighters with the skills, resources, discipline and organisation to hit back at the government. They were also the ones who found it easiest to prevail on international networks of wealthy sympathisers, especially in the Gulf, to supply weapons and funding. The clearest example is the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), a viciously sectarian player in the current conflict, descended from Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq, which draws on the same networks and supply lines that enabled the transfer of fighters from Syria to Iraq – except that now, of course, the traffic flows in both directions.

Given the history and genesis of groups like ISIS, many Syrian opposition figures now claim that the jihadist groups in Syria are puppets of Assad, and that they continue to be used and manipulated by Syrian intelligence in its efforts to discredit the revolution, divide the opposition and deter the West from intervening on their behalf. Indeed, there can be little doubt that many of the older and more senior figures in groups like ISIS will have records with Syrian intelligence, and that some are likely to be collaborating with the regime. Nor is there any question that the Syrian government, which is fighting large numbers of secular defectors from its own forces, has an interest in portraying the opposition as crazy fanatics, or that some of its actions – such as releasing more Islamists from Sednaya prison, or sparing ISIS-controlled areas from attack – have been designed to strengthen the jihadists vis-à-vis their rivals. There still is no solid evidence, however, that the jihadists as a whole are controlled by the regime, despite repeated announcements by opposition figures that such evidence would be forthcoming. No one doubts that jihadist groups in Syria draw on external support and international networks, including foreign fighters from across the Middle East and even Europe. But the reason they were able to mobilise them – and mobilise them quickly – is that Assad’s government had helped to set them up.

28 March



It’s all about the Squinch!

Rape and ransoms: Hilal al-Assad’s ‘thug’ legacy

Some accuse the regime of orchestrating the death of Assad’s cousin, Hilal al-Assad (L), to diffuse the Alawite sect’s growing resentment. (Photos courtesy: Facebook and Reuters)

Tuesday, 25 March 2014
“The lout and lowlife‪,‬ Suleiman al-Assad‪,‬ the son of Hilal‪,‬ the head of Military Housing in Latakia‪,‬ was arrested on Monday from the Meridian of Latakia after receiving a beating from the good boys ‪….‬ they said he cried and screamed‪. Among his entourage, was an official’s son called Amjad Aslan, also a friend of the Latakia Military Security Chief…‬ they are all a group of louts and low lives who have wreaked havoc and infested corruption in the city‪ …”‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Such statements, critical of the practices of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s clan, appeared on regime loyalist Facebook pages to the surprise of many Syrians. With loyalist calls for their arrest, Suleiman and his father Hilal al-Assad were perceived as a liability in the coastal region.

Hilal al-Assad. (Photo courtesy: Facebook)

SANA, Syria’s official news agency, announced the death of Hilal, the 47-year-old second cousin of Syria’s president on Monday, with some already accusing the regime of orchestrating his death to diffuse the Alawite sect’s growing resentment.

Certain reports claimed his death in the newly launched Alanfal campaign, a joint Islamist military operation against Syria’s coastal region. An Islamist group declared that Hilal, among other Allawite figures, died in a rocket attack on the city of Latakia.

Hilal is the grandchild of Ahmad al-Assad, the older half-brother of Hafez al-Assad, the late Syrian president. Following the revolution, he and his son were known for their thuggish practices, namely ransom kidnapping and rape, surpassing the reputation of his two notorious brothers, Haroun and Hail.

Suleiman with Shabiha at a Latakia, according to loyalist Facebook pages.

“Suleiman was dubbed ‘the President of the Syrian Coast’s republic; he acts in that capacity, a thug since his teenage years,’” according to an Alawite Latakia resident, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. “They are notorious for rape and ransom kidnappings, and their headquarters at sports city is a Bermuda Triangle for their detainees.”

The rise of Shabiha

The Shabiha is a term originally used to describe the Assad clan’s smugglers and racketeers and their Allawite henchmen in the late 1970s. They exploited the high demand for foreign goods, especially cars and cigarettes, following newly imposed government restrictions on imports. Malek al-Assad, the son of Ibrahim, Hafez’s half-brother, was a pioneer in smuggling; he became a liability for his involvement in weapons’ smuggling, according to this detailed account of the rise of Shabiha by Syria Comment. Hafez imprisoned his nephew for days. Years after losing his lucrative business, he ended up a taxi driver on the Latakia–Damascus route, dying in car accident.

Suleiman sometimes drove Syrian army tanks to ‘show off’. (Photo courtesy: Facebook)

Fawwaz al-Assad, being Hafez’s full nephew, enjoyed better immunity than Malek. He led a successful career in smuggling cars and cigarettes, gaining increasing notoriety for rape, driving in a multi-car convoy, and ransom kidnappings.

Hafez reportedly intervened occasionally to curtail his excesses. As the other nephews and cousins grew older, they competed for power and wealth, often parading their brand new cars, with tinted windows and bodyguards brandishing their Kalashnikovs. The Shabiha were notorious for their gangster looks, tattoos, funky haircuts, massive biceps and beards.

Orwa Nyrabia, a Syrian filmmaker and former Latakia resident, believes that Hafez, a cunning leader often praised for his Machiavellian tactics, intentionally left his extended family uneducated, paving the way for their thuggish behavior.

“There was an interest in repressing the coastal region through the clan. Hafez’s eldest son, Bassel Assad, periodically curtailed and unleashed their activities in a semi-organized manner,” said Nyrabia.

The Assads, originally peasants from the Latakia Mountains, mostly took the easy illicit road to fortune and power, the Tashbeeh. They moved to the city of Latakia, a mostly Sunni coastal city with a few hundred thousand residents. Sectarian tensions hid some class hatred, according to residents from both communities, as Allawites often cited their history as discriminated against peasants and servants of urban Sunnis.

The Shabiha instilled fear among the population, while amassing fortunes from smuggling; the regime kept them at bay to fulfill the regime’s two pillars of control: demoralization and fear. After the revolution, and as the regime’s dependency on local militias grew, their power was unleashed. They repressed demonstrators in the coastal region, tortured and humiliated them, like in this infamous video from Bayada, a town in the Banyas province.

After Hilal’s death

Syrian activists recently reported that Suleiman, Hilal’s son, harassed a girl at a DVD store in Latakia; when the owner confronted him, he was forced to lick his shoes, then get naked, and dash around the many squared meters of his shop.

Following news of his father’s death, Suleiman and his Shabiha indiscriminately shot at Sunni neighborhoods. “Young Sunni men were left with little choices in Latakia,” according to a half Alawite, half Sunni city resident.

“Either they stay in the city and risk arrest, conscription and harassment, or join the rebels in the mountains”, he said. “Most chose the latter.”

Last Update: Tuesday, 25 March 2014 KSA 12:24 – GMT 09:24

Dear White People: Film Tackles Racial Stereotypes on Campus & Being a “Black Face in a White Space”

click on image
amy_goodmanMonday, March 24, 2014 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES


As colleges across the country, from Harvard to University of Mississippi, continue to witness racism on campus, we look at a new film that tackles the issue through comedy and satire. “Dear White People” follows a group of black students at a fictional, predominantly white, Ivy League school. One of the main characters, Sam, hosts the campus radio show “Dear White People,” where she confronts the racist stereotypes and dilemmas faced by students of color. Racial tensions on campus come to a head when a group of mostly white students throw an African-American-themed party, wearing blackface and using watermelons and fake guns as props. We speak to actor Marque Richardson and award-winning, first-time director Justin Simien.

‘Nobody knew where I was, nobody… I was simply disappeared’: An Italian tourist’s Ben Gurion nightmare

My name is Andrea Pesce, I am 44 years old and I’m an Italian citizen.

For 15 years I had the chance to visit Israel and Palestine, thanks to my former job (I used to be a travel agent) and also because I’m interested in the political situation over there. I travelled as a normal person, without any official role or mission.

Last December I have been in Israel and Palestine for one week. I always stayed in a hotel in the Old city of Jerusalem and I went for one day visit to Bethlehem (twice), Ramallah and Nablus, always as a tourist. During my visit in Bethlehem I had the chance to learn about a non-profit organization, named Tent of Nations, which follows a non-violent approach to the conflict.

Between January and February I contacted Tent of Nations staff, and planned a visit in March to volunteer over there. Then I bought an El Al air ticket, from Venice to Tel Aviv and back, departure 18th March, return 16th April.

This is the background to my story and I want to say also that I have never participated in any event, manifestation or whatever against Israel, or have written something or declared something against Israel. On the contrary, in 1999 I wrote a book issued by a Italian publisher, specialized in Jewish Literature and subjects, (Casa editrice La Giuntina) with an afterword by Amos Luzzatto, who at that time was President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.

Last 18th March, my day of departure, I arrived at Venice airport at 11 am, 3 hours before scheduled take off. For this kind of flight, there is an Israeli security staff interviewing passengers, according to an agreement between the Italian and Israeli governments. I waited around one hour, as Israeli staff are always allowed to pass Israeli passengers before me and other Italians waiting. Then one woman interviewed me, quite softly, but with some incredible questions like:

“You are going to stay one month away from home, isn’t your daughter sad because of this?”

There is no security reason behind this kind of question, not even to check if you get nervous because you have something to hide: it’s pure harassment, nothing more, nothing less.

I asked, “Why are you asking questions like this ? It’s too personal!”

She seemed to understand, and started to apologize.

Then I was told that my backpack had to be searched and that I cannot bring my camera (old fashioned) with me, it had to go in the hold. They checked everything, which included doing a body search on me.

Eventually they told me that maybe my baggage cannot arrive with me in Tel Aviv on the same flight: I complained a lot, saying that I had been waiting for two hours and I couldn’t understand why they waited so long. At the end they let me leave, I have to say, including my backpack.

During the flight I was tired but also happy: eventually everything was ok, and I was on the way to start my holiday and a wonderful life experience for one month in Israel and Palestine.

I couldn’t imagine what was waiting for me at Ben Gurion Airport.

Once I arrived, at passport control, I was told to wait in a corner of the hall, beside the “passport control office”. Several people were there already. I waited around one hour and then I had the first dialogue. It focused on what I was going to do during this month, I said “nothing special, I will go around”, ok, then wait again other half an hour, and then a second person interviewed me about my job, and what I was going to do it in Israel for one month, and I repeated the same answers again.

Then wait again around half an hour, and then the third interview with other people asking same questions, but in harder way, intimidating me and trying to scare me.

They argued that I was a liar because I didn’t say that somebody was waiting for me in Bethlehem, and that those who lie at the border will be not allowed to enter the country.

At that point I had been traveling for almost twelve hours, I was confused, tired and a little bit scared. But I had nothing to hide and I said, “check whatever you want, I’m a normal person, do what you have to do”. At that point it was pretty clear to me that they had read my emails and knew everything in advance.

Finally around 11.30 pm, I was interviewed by other people (they said they were from the Ministry of Internal Affairs) and after some minutes they told me that my entry was denied because I was a liar: I started to cry, more because of the stress itself, than for the final decision to reject me, even though it has been hard to me to accept the “destruction” of my travel, planned for months.

They started to laugh a little bit, saying that if only I said at the beginning I was going to volunteer they would let me in without any problem. But since I lied about it, I have to be rejected.

Until now, it was hard but not terrifying. But I  still couldn’t expect what I was in for.

Around 1 am they brought me in another airport room where my baggage has been searched again and I had a second body search. Then they took away my backpack, empty, because they said that it was detained for security reason. They gave me a big plastic bag to put all my belongings in.

Funny detail: the bag has a broken zipper.

They brought me back to the same hall, where I was told to not go around. I had to stay near their office.

Please note that I could only drink some water because another tourist gave me some coins to buy a bottle water from a machine. And security staff gave me a sandwich only because I asked for it. In the meantime every request I made — to have some water or to make a phone call to my embassy or simply to alert my hotel in Jerusalem that I couldn’t go there — was refused. And refused is not the right word: I was not a normal person anymore, I started already to be seen like a second class person. I want to say that for the very first time I really felt what racism is.

As they decided to send me back to Italy, the problem was how and when: flights to and from Venice are only once per week. So I was told that I was going to stay in a separate facility, waiting for the flight back to Italy.

This is the beginning of the nightmare.

The separate facility is a “migration facility”, as they call it, which is actually a sort of prison. Around five minutes by car outside of Ben Gurion Airport, I was transferred to this “house” surrounded by iron net, with bars on windows. I was told to leave everything in a room, including my mobile. Strange, but I definitely realised I was under arrest when I was told I could not bring a ballpoint pen with me to my “room”. But actually it was not a room, it was a jail. So around 3 am on the 19th March started my new life experience: being detained in a prison.

I cannot express my feelings exactly: maybe I can say that, having fallen deeply into a total irrational system, the only way to avoid becoming crazy, was to start to think in a completely different way. But it wasn’t easy.

The jail has soundproof doors, so you cannot ask for anything, not even scream. You can only beat the door until somebody, maybe, is willing to listen to you. But you already feel completely unsafe and you are scared even to ask, because you know that they can do everything with you, about you. I cannot say what I thought and felt during that night.

By 7:00 am I was destroyed, I was imploring them to send me home. One man, never seen before just opened the door and screamed to me: “so you go tonight at 06.30 pm, okay or not ?!” I said “Okay, okay, please let me go, I didn’t do anything, I don’t even know why I’m here”. They say “Okay, you will go tonight”.

At that stage nobody knew where I was, nobody. I was simply disappeared.

At 9:00 am I was allowed to call the Italian embassy: an Italian official told me “once you are in that place we cannot do anything, you simply don’t exist for us if you are in that place”. She also expressed sympathy for what I was going through, but the fact I was leaving in the afternoon was decisive. She also called my wife in Italy, as I was not allowed to do it directly.

Then the wait for departure started: I was in another jail, alone, with the door open. But I couldn’t go out, and it’s hard to explain, but I was afraid to ask anything. When around noon they gave me some food (to consume it in the room, without any table, only sitting on the bed) I did ask for some water, they said “We will bring it to you.” They didn’t and I didn’t ask again.

All and all, during my 14 hours in the “migration facility” I had the chance to stay outside in the open courtyard for a total of around 40-45 minutes (in two visits during the morning, none in the afternoon).

Again: I cannot explain my feelings during the time between 4:30 pm and 5:30 pm, knowing that my flight was scheduled for 6:20 pm. I was scared to death that they wouldn’t let me go….

It the end, at 5:35 pm they did open the door, let me take my belongings (always in their plastic bag), transferred me to the airplane and let me go. My passport was delivered to me by an Italian officer at Milan airport, after it was handled to him by the El Al staff.

I won’t share anything about the fact that being flown to Milan cost me more fatigue, finding a hotel that night and then catching a train to Venice the next day (20th March).

Nobody, never, in those 24 hours, declared their identity or role to me (they all have a badge, but it’s not easy to read and you don’t’ have the courage to show that you want to know their name). In the end there is no written proof of what they did to me, not even the reason for my rejection and detention. Nothing, nothing at all. I only have a stamp on my passport saying “entry denied”.

The lessons for me at this moment are two questions:

  1. Why do you want me to hate you ?!
  2. If you can do this to me, what you can do to the Palestinians ?!




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