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Saudis in US targeted as kingdom cracks down on dissent

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Saudis in US targeted as kingdom cracks down on dissent

WASHINGTON (AP) — A graduate student at Boston’s Northeastern University, Prince Abdullah bin Faisal al Saud seldom mentioned he was a member of Saudi Arabia’s sprawling royal family, friends say. He avoided talking about Saudi politics, focusing on his studies, career plans and love of soccer.

But after a fellow prince — a cousin — was imprisoned back home, Prince Abdullah discussed it with relatives in calls made from the U.S., according to Saudi officials, who somehow were listening. On a trip back to Saudi Arabia, Prince Abdullah was imprisoned because of those calls. An initial 20-year sentence was hiked to 30 years in August.

Prince Abdullah’s case, detailed in Saudi court documents obtained by The Associated Press, hasn’t been previously reported. But it’s not isolated. Over the last five years, Saudi surveillance, intimidation and pursuit of Saudis on U.S. soil have intensified as the kingdom steps up repression under its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to the FBI, rights groups and two years of interviews with Saudis living abroad. Some of those Saudis said FBI agents advised them not to go home.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington, responding to an inquiry by the AP, said, “The notion that the Saudi government — or any of its institutions — harasses its own citizens abroad is preposterous.”

But in the same month that Prince Abdullah’s sentence was lengthened, Saudi Arabia gave a 72-year-old Saudi-American, Saad al Madi, a virtual life sentence for tweets he had posted from his home in Florida. Al Madi was unexpectedly accused and imprisoned on a visit home to the kingdom. In sentencing al Madi, the kingdom split from a longstanding Saudi practice of sparing citizens of the U.S., its longtime military protector, from the worst of punishments.

Also in August, it gave a 34-year prison sentence to a 34-year-old Saudi student in Britain, Salma al Shehab, when she, too, visited the kingdom after tweeting about it.

All three sentences were imposed weeks after President Joe Biden set aside his past condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record to travel to the kingdom, despite criticism from lawmakers, rights groups and Saudi exiles.

It was a moment when the U.S. urgently needed the kingdom to keep up oil production. But Biden has ended up with neither more oil — the Saudis and OPEC have cut production — nor any improvement in human rights.

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Saudi rights advocates say the imprisonments validate their pre-trip warnings: Biden’s attempts to soothe the crown prince have only emboldened him.

Several authoritarian governments illicitly monitor and strike out against their citizens in the United States, often in violation of U.S. sovereignty, in what’s called transnational repression. Many of the cases the U.S. prosecutes involve rivals, particularly China.

But Saudi Arabia’s actions under Prince Mohammed stand out for their high-tech intensity, orchestration and, often, ferocity, and for coming from a strategic partner.

Freedom House, a research and advocacy group, says Saudi Arabia has targeted critics in 14 countries, including targeting coordinated and run from the United States. The aim is to spy on Saudis and intimidate them, or compel them to return to the kingdom, the group says.

“It’s disturbing, it’s terrifying, and it’s a major violation of protected speech,” Freedom House’s Nate Schenkkan said of the recent imprisonments of Western-based Saudis.

In its statement rejecting claims it targets critics abroad, the Saudi Embassy said: “On the contrary, our diplomatic missions abroad provide a broad array of services, including medical and legal assistance, to any citizen that requests assistance when traveling outside the kingdom.” The statement did not address the imprisonment of the Boston-based prince.

The State Department said it was looking into Prince Abdullah’s case. In an email, it called transnational repression in general “an issue of significant human rights and national security concern” and said it would keep pursuing accountability. It did not directly address any questions about Saudi actions.

The FBI declined to comment.

Prince Abdullah, 31, comes from one of the branches of the royal family most targeted by detentions as perceived critics or rivals since Prince Mohammed consolidated power under his aged father, King Salman.

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A photo from Prince Abdullah’s Northeastern undergraduate ceremony shows him in cap and gown, clean-shaven, chin lifted and beaming.

Friends say Saudi officials took Prince Abdullah into custody after he returned in 2020, on a government-provided ticket, to study remotely during the pandemic.

Saudi courts sentenced him to 20 years in prison and a subsequent 20-year travel ban. A Saudi court in August lengthened the term by 10 years.

As with others it imprisoned, including writers, journalists and advocates, Saudi Arabia accused Prince Abdullah of acting to destabilize the kingdom, disturb social unity and support the kingdom’s opponents.

The kingdom uses terrorism and cybercrime laws — applied in cases involving phone or computer communication — to issue unusually tough sentences.

Saudi court documents allege Prince Abdullah used a Signal app on his mobile phone in Boston to speak to his mother and other relatives about the cousin imprisoned by Prince Mohammed, and had used a public phone in Boston to speak to a lawyer about the case. They say Prince Abdullah acknowledged sending about 9,000 euros ($9,000) to pay bills at his cousin’s apartment in Paris.

It is not known how Saudi Arabia monitored private phone conversations that originated in the U.S. But in recent years, it has honed spy tactics old and new.

Rights groups believe a citizen’s snitching app developed by the Saudi government, and still available on Google Play, may have been used to report the tweets of al Madi and al Shehab.

Investigations by the Citizen Lab research group, media organizations and Amnesty International alleged Saudi Arabia uses military-grade Israeli spyware. Amnesty said the spyware was installed on the phone of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancee before Saudi officials killed him in 2018.

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Saudi documents and anecdotal accounts from Saudi exiles depict years of Saudi government employees and student informants tracking perceived subversion by students in the U.S.

For Saudi exiles, “it’s a repression machine,” said Khalid al Jabri, whose once highly placed family has been targeted by the crown prince. That includes siblings imprisoned by Prince Mohammed, and what the family charges was a Saudi assassination squad sent, unsuccessfully, to kill his father in Canada in 2018.

“They just want you to look over your shoulder. And that’s what I do,” said Danah al Mayouf, creator of a YouTube channel critical of Saudi officials.

At least since 2017, the FBI said in a bulletin this year, Saudi government-supported “Saudi agents and U.S.-based Saudi nationals, have monitored, harassed and threatened critics of the Saudi regime in the United States through both digital and in person means.”

Federal authorities under Biden have taken some steps regarding transnational repression. That includes stepped-up monitoring and a warning delivered to embassies in Washington.

Federal prosecutors recently brought two of the first cases over Saudi spying and harassment of its nationals in the United States.

A San Francisco federal jury in August convicted a former Twitter employee who prosecutors said was accessing private data of Twitter users, including critics of the Saudi government.

A federal court in New York is wrapping up a case against a Saudi government-paid Saudi citizen living in Mississippi. Ibrahim al Hussayen sent Saudi dissidents in the U.S. messages via social media, including “MBS will wipe you of the face of the earth” and “Do you think you are safe,” according to federal authorities.

Al Hussayen’s lawyers notified the court last week he intends to plead guilty to lying to FBI agents. In an unusual move, the lawyers asked authorities to waive further investigation.

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Numerous Saudis in the U.S. in interviews describe meeting with FBI agents over fears or suspicions of being stalked. Four Saudis said the FBI informally advised them against going to Saudi Arabia or entering the Saudi Embassy. Two said FBI agents advised them they were on a Saudi list for retaliation. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Saudi dissidents and advocates say the U.S. isn’t doing enough to assure either exiles or Prince Mohammed that Washington will act when Saudi Arabia targets critics in the United States. They describe a life in the United States punctuated with suspicion-raising interactions with Saudi officials, strangers and acquaintances, abuse online, and fears of speaking openly on unencrypted apps. Khashoggi’s killing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul destroyed the long understood ground rules between Saudi rulers and ruled.

“It’s targeting more people and, yeah, it’s — nothing happens,″ said Bethany al Haidari, a researcher with the Washington-based Freedom Initiative for Middle East political prisoners.

”You know, if you can get away with murder, what else?” al Haidari asked.

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Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.

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Israel hails ‘success’ after blocking unprecedented attack from Iran

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Israel hails ‘success’ after blocking unprecedented attack from Iran

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli leaders on Sunday credited an international military coalition with helping thwart a direct Iranian attack involving hundreds of drones and missiles, calling the coordinated response a starting point for a “strategic alliance” of regional opposition to Tehran.

But Israel’s War Cabinet met without making a decision on next steps, an official said, as a nervous world waited for any sign of further escalation of the former shadow war.

The military coalition, led by the United States, Britain and France and appearing to include a number of Middle Eastern countries, gave Israel support at a time when it finds itself isolated over its war against Hamas in Gaza. The coalition also could serve as a model for regional relations when that war ends.

“This was the first time that such a coalition worked together against the threat of Iran and its proxies in the Middle East,” said the Israeli military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari.

One unknown is which of Israel’s neighbors participated in the shooting down of the vast majority of about 350 drones and missiles Iran launched. Israeli military officials and a key War Cabinet member noted additional “partners” without naming them. When pressed, White House national security spokesman John Kirby would not name them either.

But one appeared to be Jordan, which described its action as self-defense.

“There was an assessment that there was a real danger of Iranian marches and missiles falling on Jordan, and the armed forces dealt with this danger. And if this danger came from Israel, Jordan would take the same action,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi said in an interview on Al-Mamlaka state television. U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Sunday.

The U.S. has long tried to forge a regionwide alliance against Iran as a way of integrating Israel and boosting ties with the Arab world. The effort has included the 2020 Abraham Accords, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and four Arab countries, and having Israel in the U.S. military’s Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and works closely with the armies of moderate Arab states.

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The U.S. had been working to establish full relations between Israel and regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack sparked Israel’s war in Gaza. The war, which has claimed over 33,700 Palestinian lives, has frozen those efforts due to widespread outrage across the Arab world. But it appears that some behind-the-scenes cooperation has continued, and the White House has held out hopes of forging Israel-Saudi ties as part of a postwar plan.

Just ahead of Iran’s attack, the commander of CENTCOM, Gen. Erik Kurilla, visited Israel to map out a strategy.

Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, on Sunday thanked CENTCOM for the joint defensive effort. Both Jordan and Saudi Arabia are under the CENTCOM umbrella. While neither acknowledged involvement in intercepting Iran’s launches, the Israeli military released a map showing missiles traveling through the airspace of both nations.

“Arab countries came to the aid of Israel in stopping the attack because they understand that regional organizing is required against Iran, otherwise they will be next in line,” Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel’s military intelligence, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said he had spoken with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and that the cooperation “highlighted the opportunity to establish an international coalition and strategic alliance to counter the threat posed by Iran.”

The White House signaled that it hopes to build on the partnerships and urged Israel to think twice before striking Iran. U.S. officials said Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Washington would not participate in any offensive action against Iran.

Israel’s War Cabinet met late Sunday to discuss a possible response, but an Israeli official familiar with the talks said no decisions had been made. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing confidential deliberations.

Asked about plans for retaliation, Hagari declined to comment directly. “We are at high readiness in all fronts,” he said.

“We will build a regional coalition and collect the price from Iran, in the way and at the time that suits us,” said a key War Cabinet member, Benny Gantz.

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Iran launched the attack in response to a strike widely blamed on Israel that hit an Iranian consular building in Syria this month and killed two Iranian generals.

By Sunday morning, Iran said the attack was over, and Israel reopened its airspace. Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, claimed Iran had taught Israel a lesson and warned that “any new adventures against the interests of the Iranian nation would be met with a heavier and regretful response from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The foes have been engaged in a shadow war for years, but Sunday’s assault was the first time Iran launched a direct military assault on Israel, despite decades of enmity dating back to the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iran said it targeted Israeli facilities involved in the Damascus strike, and that it told the White House early Sunday that the operation would be “minimalistic.”

But U.S. officials said Iran’s intent was to “destroy and cause casualties” and that if successful, the strikes would have caused an “uncontrollable” escalation. At one point, at least 100 ballistic missiles were in the air with just minutes of flight time to Israel, the officials said.

Israel said more than 99% of what Iran fired was intercepted, with just a few missiles getting through. An Israeli airbase sustained minor damage.

Israel has over the years established — often with the help of the U.S. — a multilayered air-defense network that includes systems capable of intercepting a variety of threats, including long-range missiles, cruise missiles, drones and short-range rockets.

That system, along with collaboration with the U.S. and others, helped thwart what could have been a far more devastating assault at a time when Israel is already deeply engaged in Gaza as well as low-level fighting on its northern border with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are backed by Iran.

While thwarting the Iranian onslaught could help restore Israel’s image after the Hamas attack in October, what the Middle East’s best-equipped army does next will be closely watched in the region and in Western capitals — especially as Israel seeks to develop the coalition it praised Sunday.

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In Washington, Biden pledged to convene allies to develop a unified response. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. would hold talks with allies. After an urgent meeting, the Group of Seven countries unanimously condemned Iran’s attack and said they stood ready to take “further measures.”

Israel and Iran have been on a collision course throughout Israel’s war in Gaza. In the Oct. 7 attack, militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, also backed by Iran, killed 1,200 people in Israel and kidnapped 250 others. Israel’s offensive in Gaza has killed over 33,000 people, according to local health officials.

Hamas welcomed Iran’s attack, saying it was “a natural right and a deserved response” to the strike in Syria. It urged the Iran-backed groups in the region to continue to support Hamas in the war.

Hezbollah also welcomed the attack. Almost immediately after the war in Gaza erupted, Hezbollah began attacking Israel’s northern border. The two sides have been involved in daily exchanges of fire, while Iranian-backed groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have launched rockets and missiles toward Israel.

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Federman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Michelle L. Price in Washington; Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran; Samy Magdy in Cairo; Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan; and Giada Zampano in Rome contributed to this report.

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How to get rid of NYC rats without brutality? Birth control is one idea

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How to get rid of NYC rats without brutality? Birth control is one idea

New York lawmakers are proposing rules to humanely drive down the population of rats and other rodents, eyeing contraception and a ban on glue traps as alternatives to poison or a slow, brutal death.

Politicians have long come up with creative ways to battle the rodents, but some lawmakers are now proposing city and statewide measures to do more.

In New York City, the idea to distribute rat contraceptives got fresh attention in city government Thursday following the death of an escaped zoo owl, known as Flaco, who was found dead with rat poison in his system.

City Council Member Shaun Abreu proposed a city ordinance Thursday that would establish a pilot program for controlling the millions of rats lurking in subway stations and empty lots by using birth control instead of lethal chemicals. Abreu, chair of the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, said the contraceptives also are more ethical and humane than other methods.

The contraceptive, called ContraPest, is contained in salty, fatty pellets that are scattered in rat-infested areas as bait. It works by targeting ovarian function in female rats and disrupting sperm cell production in males, The New York Times reported.

New York exterminators currently kill rats using snap and glue traps, poisons that make them bleed internally, and carbon monoxide gas that can suffocate them in burrows. Some hobbyists have even trained their dogs to hunt them.

Rashad Edwards, a film and television actor who runs pest management company Scurry Inc. in New York City with his wife, said the best method he has found when dealing with rodents is carbon monoxide.

He tries to use the most humane method possible, and carbon monoxide euthanizes the rats slowly, putting them to sleep and killing them. Edwards avoids using rat poison whenever possible because it is dangerous and torturous to the rodents, he said.

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Some lawmakers in Albany are considering a statewide ban on glue boards under a bill moving through the Legislature. The traps, usually made from a slab of cardboard or plastic coated in a sticky material, can also ensnare small animals that land on its surface.

Edwards opposes a ban on sticky traps, because he uses them on other pests, such as ants, to reduce overall pesticide use. When ants get into a house, he uses sticky traps to figure out where they’re most often passing by. It helps him narrow zones of pesticide use “so that you don’t go spray the entire place.”

“This is not a problem we can kill our way out of,” said Jakob Shaw, a special project manager for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “It’s time to embrace these more common sense and humane methods.”

Two cities in California have passed bans on glue traps in recent years. On the federal level, a bill currently in committee would ban the traps nationwide.

“It ends a really inhumane practice of managing rat populations,” said Jabari Brisport, the New York state senator who represents part of Brooklyn and sponsored the bill proposing the new guidelines. “There are more effective and more humane ways to deal with rats.”

Every generation of New Yorkers has struggled to control rat populations. Mayor Eric Adams hired a “rat czar” last year tasked with battling the detested rodents. Last month, New York City reduced the amount of food served up to rats by mandating all businesses to put trash out in boxes.

While the war on rats has no end in sight, the exterminator Edwards said we can learn a lot from their resilience. The rodents, he said, can never be eradicated, only managed.

“They’re very smart, and they’re very wise,” he said. “It’s very inspiring but just — not in my house.”

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Coachella: Earthquake shakes SoCal desert during music fest

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Coachella: Earthquake shakes SoCal desert during music fest

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) — A small earthquake shook the Southern California desert Saturday near Coachella, where the famous music festival is being held this weekend. No damage or injuries were reported.

The quake, with a preliminary magnitude of 3.8, hit at 9:08 a.m. about 8 miles (13 kilometers) northeast of Borrego Springs in Riverside County, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The epicenter was about 20 miles (32 kilometers) southeast of Coachella. It struck at a depth of about 7 miles (11 kilometers), the USGS said.

A dispatcher with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said there were no calls reporting any problems from the quake.

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