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U.S. helps Bahrain spy on social media — and proudly
Bahraini police, who have a reputation for torturing critics, are getting American training to fight "disinformation" and "terrorism" online.
The U.S. State Department is helping the government of Bahrain, which has a history of torture, spy on its citizens’ social media. The program is no secret. In fact, the U.S. Embassy in Manama just tweeted it out on Tuesday:
Congratulations [Bahraini ministry of interior] law enforcement officers for successfully completing Advanced Social Media Investigations training. The training focused on how terrorists and terrorist organizations use social media for operations, recruiting, and disinformation. This initiative was organized by the U.S. Embassy’s Regional Security Office and the Antiterrorism Assistance program.
The Bahraini government has a very different definition of “terrorism” and “counterterrorism” than Americans might understand those words. Bahraini authorities consider calling for the end of the monarchy or running a human rights organization to be terrorist acts. The State Department knows, because it mentioned these cases in its annual human rights report.
Nor does the Bahraini government target only the most hardcore anti-government posts online. Najah Yusuf, a mother of four, was allegedly arrested and tortured for a Facebook post complaining that the Formula One race sportswashes Bahrain’s human rights record. Ebrahim Al-Mannai, a lawyer, was arrested for tweeting a very mild call for reform:
If Bahrain is interested in highlighting the Bahraini parliament to the world and obtaining international renown, it should reform the legislative system and parliament in particular, and make it a positive influence over people's lives, and an influential partner in political and legislative decisions.
The Gulf states in general seem to have an extremely petty and vengeful attitude towards social media. In 2018, the Saudi government arrested Abdulrahman al-Sadhan for mocking Saudi leaders on his anonymous Twitter account. According to his sister, torturers broke al-Sadhan’s fingers while saying “this is the hand you tweet with.”
Of course, the State Department trainers probably do not tell Bahraini police to arrest citizens over mild criticism. (A spokesperson insisted to me that the Bahraini police are “vetted for human rights violations.”) But the same tactics used to hunt down militants online can also be used to round up concerned mothers and gadfly lawyers. It’s the logical conclusion of the fight against “disinformation” and “extremism” on social media.
The training in Bahrain comes on the heels of a U.S.-Bahraini security agreement, which is meant to lay the groundwork for a U.S.-Saudi-Israeli “mega-deal.” I’ve written about the geopolitics behind the deals for Reason Magazine, if you’re interested in knowing more.
Much has been written and said about the U.S. government helping foreign governments repress people for geopolitical reasons. A lot has also been written and said about how the War on Terror provides an excuse to expand that repression. It’s rare, though, to see them just tweet it out.
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