Geopolitics

Report: US Says Intercepted Calls Prove Syrian Army Behind Chemical Attack

FOREIGN POLICY, REUTERS, BBC, RUSSIA TODAY, SANA (Syria)

Worldcrunch

DAMASCUS - American intelligence services say they have intercepted "panicked phone calls" between an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense and a leader of a chemical weapons unit last Wednesday, after the alleged chemical attack took place.

The magazine Foreign Policy, which reported the claim quoting an anonymous intelligence official, says this is the reason why US officials are certain the alleged nerve agent strike was carried by Bashar al-Assad's army.

However, according to Foreign Policy, the intercepted phone call does not establish if the alleged attack was the work of a Syrian officer "overstepping his bounds" or if the order came from senior officials, nor does it explain what the reason would have been for Assad's army to carry out the attack.

"We don't know exactly why it happened," the anonymous intelligence official said to the magazine. "We just know it was pretty (fu*#ing) stupid."

Late Tuesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem reiterated that the army had not used chemical weapons. He added, "Syria has immediately agreed to the UN requests and there was no delay, and I say to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that we are not obstructing UN inspectors' work." He said the US did not want a political solution because "Israel does not want this solution, but rather it wants the continuation of violence and terrorism."

The American intelligence reports come as the United States, backed by France and United Kingdom, are stepping up their preparations for a possible strike on military targets.

Syrian National Coalition official Ahmad Ramadan told AFP: "There is no precise timing... but one can speak of an imminent international intervention against the regime. It's a question of days and not weeks."

A branch of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaeda linked group that is among the rebels fighting in Syria, threatened the Syrian government with a "Volcano of Revenge," in response to the chemical attack, Reuters reports.

Meanwhile, the UN chemical weapons inspectors resumed their investigations on Wednesday morning. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement that the team of experts needed "time to do its job" and "to establish the facts." David Cameron announced on Twitter that Britain would put a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council "condemning the chemical weapons attack by Assad and authorising necessary measures to protect civilians."

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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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