Geopolitics

In Baghdad, Shia Militias Strike As Much Fear As ISIS

In this file photo, Shia militia march through the holy city of Najaf, Iraq
In this file photo, Shia militia march through the holy city of Najaf, Iraq
Benjamin Barthe

BAGHDAD — Ten years ago, this was a park for children. The young boys of Adhamiya, a Sunni district in Baghdad, used to come here to play soccer.

Now, this bare patch of land on the bank of the Tigris river is a makeshift cemetery. A forest of tombstones grew during the darkest years of the civil war, between 2006 and 2008. At the time, the people in this neighborhood, surrounded by Shia houses, did not even dare set foot outside.

“All the people buried here are martyrs, victims of the militias,” sighs one of the cemetery’s employees. “There are about 8,000 of them.”

In the shade of a eucalyptus tree, Abdel Rassoul Mansour is waiting patiently for the women of his family to be done washing the body of his cousin. The 50 year-old taxi driver was shot dead the previous evening as he was coming out of a mosque in Dora, a Sunni district in southern Baghdad.

Untouchables

Located in the “Triangle of Death,” where the fights between U.S. troops and al-Qaeda militants were concentrated during the 2000s , the site is locked down by security forces and Shia militias, who think it is infested with sleeping cells of the Islamic State — the jihadist militant group previously known as ISIS. When asked about the murderer of his cousin, Abdel Rassoul gives a wry smile. “You know better than me,” he replies.

Baghdad is not Benghazi. Militiamen do not hurtle down the streets at breakneck speed in weapons-packed pickups. They know how to work discreetly, in unmarked cars and either ordinary clothes or uniforms. This make it difficult to distinguish, for instance, members of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s private army Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq (“the League of the Righteous”) from official security forces.

The group, which pretty much has free rein over the area, is everywhere: at the gates of the Green Zone — a fortress within the fortress, where most government buildings are located — and at the cities most troubled checkpoints, in Dora, Hamadia and Saadiya, the former strongholds of the anti-American rebellion regularly beset by violence.

Its young fanatical Shia members, freed from all control except that of the prime minister, have become an obsessive fear for Sunnis. “We are more scared of the Shia militias than of ISIS jihadists,” admits an employee from a Western embassy, who wished not to be named.

The ordeal of Liqaa Salman, a small woman with her hair tied in a bun, says a lot about this silent terror. She welcomes us in her house’s kitchen, the smell of fried eggplants still lingering in the air. Since a group of men wearing balaclavas came to arrest her brother Nabil in the middle of the night, on May 2, she has not heard from him. Not a word. Every police and intelligence service officer she went to for help told her they knew nothing about that case.

Nabil, who owns a small supermarket, had already been arrested by the police two weeks before the elections of April 30, along with many people from their district of Zayouna. He was then released the day after the elections. “Who could have an interest in arresting him again, ten hours after he was released?” Liqaa asks, tormented by anguish. “I pray he’s not in the hands of Asa’ib.”

At the end of 2013, the marja’ (Shia Islam’s highest authority) had urged al-Maliki to put behind bars all the leaders of the militias that had committed abuses. Only Wathiq Al-Battat, the head of the Shia military group Mukhtar Army and a well-known anti-Sunni provocateur, had been arrested; the procedure was cancelled a few days later, officially because no charges could be brought against him.

At the same time, the Baghdad Governorate was working on a project to install security cameras all over the capital. “Several companies had been contacted,” explains a person close to the matter. “When the prime minister got wind of it, he ordered all security forces in the governorate to retreat. The following day, the project was suspended.” Al-Maliki’s militias are untouchable.


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Economy

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.


Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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