Saudi Royal Court Advisor Saud al-Qahtani is Using Bad Science to Inflame Tensions with Qatar

Saud al-Qahtani, is no stranger to controversy. Nicknamed Dalim by some, he is the Advisor to the Saudi Royal court and General Supervisor of the Center for Studies and Information Affairs. He was recently in the news claiming that Saudi had unearthed thousands of fake, pro-Qatar Twitter accounts, despite providing no evidence in the former instance.  Now he appears to be using social media trends and polls as a means of insinuating popular Qatari opposition to Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar’s ruler. 

While his profile states that his opinions reflect only his personal point of view, it’s still the point of view of an advisor who specialises in information. Perhaps it should be surprising, given his expertise, that his recent Twitter activity has reached Trump-levels of antagonism. كوففيف. His latest Tweets have ranged from potential reveals about Saudi’s role in the assassination of Talal Al Rashid in 2003 (something he denies), to obtusely encouraging peaceful anti-regime protests in Qatar.

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Also, it’s just his personal opinion…

His Tweets

Yet this post concerns al-Qahtani’s apparent and worrying use of Twitter as a barometer and litmus test of public opinion in Qatar. Specifically, al-Qahtani appears to be suggesting that what’s trending on Twitter in Qatar reflects public opinion there, and, more importantly, that public opinion in Qatar is against the current Qatari regime.  On 21st August al Qahtani tweeted the following:

‘The top trend in Qatar now is #LeaveTamim

(Slogan of the Arab Spring)

The second highest trend is Abdullah is the future of Qatar

(the name of his highness Shaykh Abdullah bin Ali)

 

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The first trend is fairly self explanatory, it means Go Tamim (Go as in Leave, not Go as in Tamim you da man). It would certainly fit the anti-Qatar rhetoric to make  people believe that Qataris are dissatisfied with Tamim, and wish for regime change. After all, this suits the Saudi-led coalition. Also, it is extremely noble of al Qahtani to care about the democratic will of the Qatari people, and to encourage peaceful protest. But, as we know, that’s just personal point of view…

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The number 2 trend in ‘Qatar’ that al-Qahtani mentions, is ‘Abdullah is the future of Qatar’. As al-Qahtani clarifies, the Abdullah here refers to Abdullah bin Ali al Thani. Shaykh Abdullah was put under scrutiny recently after  he visited Saudi, reportedly in a personal capacity. He has now become somewhat of a cause celebre, with some asking whether he is being groomed as a potential new leader to replace Tamim. One Saudi news account on Twitter  that al-Qahtani retweeted claim that Abdullah’s son was ‘captured’ by the government of Qatar and forced to take an oath of allegiance to Tamim and share it on social media. Another commentator posited ‘are they worried about his father’s (Abdullah) popularity’. Bloomber reported:

Al Bayan, a Dubai-owned daily, described Sheikh Abdullah on its front page as “the voice of reason to whom the hearts of Qataris have opened.”

Clearly this rhetoric is designed to drive a wedge within  the al-Thani family.

If we assume that al-Qahtani was not simply bemused by Qataris overt outpouring of their dislike of Tamin on Twitter, we can assume al-Qahtani is engaging in an aggressive form of subtweeting. His following tweets, which I should remind everyone, are simply a reflection of al-Qahtani’s personal opinion, seem to suggest that he believes these trends reflect the will of the Qatari people. He proceeds to make some veiled threats about Qatar’s treatment of any potential insurrection.

Al Qahtani then tweets and retweets some other things that corroborate this result. The top tweet below states, ‘Qatar (Gaddafi of the Gulf) should know that any attempt to repress a peaceful movement of the brotherly Qatari people by foreign forces shall be punished severely, it is a war crime’.

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He also retweets the results of a dodgy, Al Jazeera style-poll set up by a Twitter user to see what Qataris wanted with regards to their royal family. The results in the poll indicate that the majority who voted want Tamim to go. 

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Again, this would contribute to the idea that Tamim is an autocrat whose continued rule is very much against the will of the Qatari people. We don’t actually know who voted in this, although it is perhaps more likely to be non-Qataris if the following analysis are to go by.  

The Trends

While both trends  #LeaveTamim (#ارحل_تميم ) and #AbdullahIsTheFutureOfQatar (#عبدالله_مستقبل_قطر) are clearly selected by al-Qahtani because they seem to fit some sort of narrative about the Qatari regime suppressing the genuine wishes of the Qatari people, an analysis of around 40,000 tweets suggests most of the accounts operating on the hashtags are located in Saudi. On the Leave Tamim hashtag, which brought back 10,600 tweets from unique accounts, approx 5,300 accounts had the ‘location’ field on Twitter filled in. Without cleaning up the data you can see in the below chart that the largest segment is ‘the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’, with most of the other significant chunks being cities or areas  in Saudi or the UAE (e.g. Riyadh etc). Again, without tidying up the data, if we filter the results for Saudi and Qatar (in Arabic) highlights the following:

Number of unique accounts in sample located as Saudi: 1576

Number of unique accounts in sample located as Qatar: 141

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While we must always take with a pinch of salt user input fields of location on Twitter, that same rule applies equally to all accounts, whether in Qatar or Saudi, so in theory the potential error would be the same across all fields. It is also important to note that Al Qahtani does not mention anything of the fact that a lot of the tweets, particularly those located in Qatar, are expressing support for Tamim, not a desire for him to leave.

So, important points to summarise:

  1. The trends in Qatar mentioned by Saud Al Qahtani that lend potential legitimacy to Qatari a desire for Tamim to go appear to be created mostly by  Twitter accounts where people input their location as somewhere in Saudi.
  2. Twitter trends in Qatar can obviously be gamed in such a way as to be influenced by those not in Qatar
  3. Al Qahtani using Twitter trends as a veiled attempt to claim that Qataris oppose Tamim are underscored by his other tweets that issue veiled threats to the Qatari government about opposing the will of the people
  4. It could be that population discrepancies mean a smaller number of hashtags are required by Qataris to create a local trend (without knowing too much about Twitter’s trending algorithm hard to know for sure)
  5. Saud’s tweets are simply a reflection of his personal opinion

Experimenting in Mapping Online Anti-Shia Sectarianism on Twitter in the Middle East

ballsWouldn’t it be interesting to see if sectarianism itself was more dominant in one place than an other, at least online? Are some countries/cities more sectarian than others? Is sectarianism a localised phenomenon, despite what we might see in the news? If we knew this, we could then highlight where to prioritize tackling it.

Methods

In  order to do this, I conducted an preliminary experiment. Firstly, I would require some way of trying to determine where a piece of sectarian discourse came from. I decided to locate sectarian tweets, as often Twitter accounts come with information about location.

I thought I’d approach ‘anti-Shia’ sectarianism, as the terminology is familiar, and more prevalent (See Alexandra Seigel’s work). I will be doing the same with ‘anti-Sunni’ Tweets too. (I should add, for the record, that I find the terms somewhat grotesque, as the nature of sectarianism cannot be reduced to a binary). Hopefully though, locating the geographic prevalence of specific discourses challenges the problems of essentialising sectarianism as a monolithic and ubiquitous muslim-wide global issue.

Anyway, to test/experiment with this method, I extracted approximately 10,000 tweets that ranged over a four day period (8th – 12th May 2017). These tweets contained at least one of the following, commonly used derogatory terms referring to Shia.

Twitter Search Rule: “ابناء المتعة” OR “روافض” OR “رافضة” OR “اولاد المتعة” OR “مجوسي” OR “المجوسي” OR “صفوي”

The terms largely relate to religious-sectarianism, such as Rafida, Awlad/Ibna al-Muta’, Majusi and Safavid (although this one could be more contested). The archiver, theoretically, takes an ‘almost’ random sample of Tweets from Twitter (see Wang et al for sampling info).

To determine the location of the Tweeter, I did not use the geodata (as this is rarely used by ppl), but information input by the user themselves on their Twitter account.  Of course there is no way of knowing if this is accurate or not, but for the sake of this analysis, we must assume a significant amount are true.  After filtering out erroneous names, such as people who claim to live in Hogwarts, we were left with around 4500 usable tweets from the original 10,000 tweet sample. I then ran these tweets into Tableau, filtering out duplicate entries (i.e. multiple tweets from the same account). This resulted in about 3,640 unique tweets from unique accounts.

Visualizations

Using Tableau, I first created a cloropeth map that shows the prevalence of sectarian tweets across the region. In the below map, red means a  higher prevalence. As you can see, Saudi Arabia and Egypt appear the reddest, and are the places with the highest number of sectarian tweets in this sample.

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Prevalence of Arabic Language Anti Shia Discourse Across Arab World

Yet the above map suggests Egypt and Saudi are alike in terms of tweets. However, the below diagram gives a breakdown of the numbers of tweets, while the surface area of each block represents the proportion of Tweets emanating from each country. As we can see, Saudi Arabia takes the crown with 1,656 Tweets. It is followed by Egypt (420), Kuwait (111), Iraq (71), UAE (56), Yemen (50), Syria (38), Bahrain (36) and Qatar (25) and then Lebanon. (It is worth noting that all countries returned positive hits).

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Diagram showing countries with largest number of sectarian tweets

These figures haven’t been controlled for population, or Twitter penetration, the latter of which is difficult to determine (furthermore, figures from the Arab Social Media reports  are perhaps distorted by a large number of bots). Nonetheless, if we are to use these figures from the Arab Social Media Report 2017, we can see that in Egypt that for every 3089 Twitter users, there is one sectarian tweet. In Saudi, there is one sectarian Tweet for 1570 Twitter Users. For Kuwait, as another example, there is one sectarian tweet for every 4504 Twitter users. Thus crudely speaking, the results do not balance out when considering Twitter users, meaning that according to this data, the country with the larger amount of tweets are still the ‘more sectarian’.

More detail

Where possible, I added latitude and longitude points for location input by users. This allowed me to create a map that shows a more detailed breakdown of Twitter users. As you can see from the below map, Arabic, anti-Shia sectarian Tweets are focused on the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt, with the majority occurring in Saudi, specifically Riyadh, Jeddah, and clusters along the Eastern Province. Northern Egypt is also particularly interesting with regards to the amount of discourse.

 

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Anti Shia Sectarian Hate Tweets by Specific Locale (where possible)

Indeed, it would appear from this map, that sectarian discourses online radiate outwards from the middle of Saudi. Of course Riyadh and Jeddah are Saudi’s most populace cities, so it may not be significant in this regard, yet it is interesting to see that Saudi appears to be the centre of this discourse. Also, the rhetoric is almost non-existent across the rest of North Africa and Sudan. It is also not very common in Oman.

The data then, could suggest a number of things:

Online anti-Shia sectarianism are most prevalent in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

Such discourses originated in the Gulf and have traveled abroad

Such discourses are much less common outside the Arabian Peninsula, where there are mixed populations with different histories of national struggle

Of course some potential caveats:

Lexically speaking, the terms used for this study may just be a preferred choice used by those Arabic speakers in the peninsula. Sectarianism in other languages other than Arabic would be interesting to explore in a similar way. Similarly, Arabs in others parts of the ME may use different terms, although I am not sure this is the case.

As yet it’s not sure whether long term analysis would yield similar results. Short term, similar sized samples I have done on individual words or phrases leading up to this blog have returned identical results. Inevitably, a longer sample would mostly likely return more and more sectarian tweets from every country outside the Gulf. As these would also likely increase across every country, the proportionality of sectarian tweets would still likely stay the same.

Similar ways of finding other platforms to analyse would be useful, e.g. Instagram and FB. (Although not sure if people would be inclined to be less or more sectarian on different platforms).

To be clear this is not stating sectarianism does not occur everywhere, just maybe that it is more common in some places than others.

 

 

 

A Personal History of Trolling

Bahrain in 2011, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. J/k, but it’s always fun to use a Star Wars quote. Am I right?Anyway, was going through some old notes and found multiple instances of all the trolling, harassment, or cyberbullying I faced over the past few years. This is very ‘normal’ if you’re critical of the Bahraini goverment, and I thought it would be good to compile some of them into a blog for people to read.

From being threatened with rape, to being impersonated in the letters page of the local paper, I’ve organzed them according to theme and genre, so you don’t have to!

The ‘gay’ insults, including one from someone who is radio DJ on Bahrain National Radio.

The rape threats (including one against my mum)

The vulgar…

The generally libelous about  being a paid stooge

The impersonators:

Or that time someone pretended to be and won the star letter award in the local newspaper for writing an article praising the Bahrain regime. (I am still waiting on that prize)..You can read more here.

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All the caricatures

Let’s not forget the the drawings of me, carried out by the anonymous @WatchBahrain

 

The unauthorised biography

When this website trawled the internet for anything about me, and concluded that not only was I a cyber narcissist, but also a failed musician and actor….(Read the full piece here).

 

Marc Owen Jones – What Are You Bahrain Views

The time I was called a troll (threat level ‘orange’)…

To be fair, this one says I have an ‘irresistible’ smile, but my troll threat level was orange. Also, this one argued that I would attempt to seduce you by singing in Arabic…

Please don_t feed these trolls… Bahrain Views

The time I was accused of attempting to hack the person who ran the above website…

After the above posts about me and other Bahrain activists, I was accused of illegal activity…

Back to Back stabbing Trolling Bahrain Views

The time I was accused of belonging to a media ‘cell’ designed to harm Bahrain’s reputation…

 

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“الاول : فهد ديشمك باكستاني الجنسية كان في البحرين وذويه مازالوا هنا حيث أن أبيه يعمل في البحرين منذ فترة طويلة، هذا الشخص حسابه في تويتر هو @chanadbh وهذا الشخص يعمل لدى مركز البحرين لحقوق الإنسان التابع لنبيل رجب ويعمل كتف بكتف مع مريم الخواجة بل أحيانا تطلب منه السفر لدول معينة وحضور مؤتمرات ومنتديات بالنيابة عنها، بدأ حملته التشويهية على البحرين منذ عام 2004 تقريبا، وعندما تقدم بطلب للجنسية البحرينية وأثناء فترة تقدمه للطلب كان يقود حملة أكاذيب وتشويه على البحرين في المدونات والإنترنت. فاكتشفت وزارة الداخلية أمره ورحلته من البحرين، وظيفته الحالية هو تقديم الإسناد لمركز البحرين لحقوق الإنسان، والتواصل مع الإعلام الخارجي خصوصا في محيطه لتشويه سمعة البحرين، وكذلك كتابة المقالات في الإنترنت ضد البحرين مع تحريف الحقائق، أيضا هو ينسق مع الخلية الإعلامية في بريطانيا والتي تقاد من @se25a @marcowenjones وينسق كذلك مع الخلية الإعلامية في أمريكا تحت قيادة @alphaleah”

Iran-backed plotters need to get their shit together: Iran plots through the ages

It has become a well worn and familiar trope in Bahrain, ‘Government foil Iran-backed plot’. Usually when there’s a bout of unrest, dozens are arrested and most miraculously ‘confess’ to being part of the plot. Most of the plots involve the conspirators stockpiling guns and weapons and confessing. There have also been plenty of fake news stories about non-existent dows heading to Bahrain to bring weapons. Ironically, when Bahrainis aren’t smuggling weapons into Bahrain they are attempting to take weapons out of Bahrain back to Iran. Naturally this begs the question, can’t all these Iranian agents decide if they’re trying to flea Bahrain or overthrow the regime? Whereas I am being ironic, presumably the Bahraini government are just being liberal with the truth….

Some news stories about Iran-backed plots, 1981, 1996, 2014, 2017

Below are a few news clippings from various papers about Iran-backed plots. This is not exhaustive, just a flavour.

In 1981, roughly 65 people were arrested for being part of a coup attempt backed by Iran. At least 52 confessed.

1981

In 1996, another Iranian-backed plot was discovered. Not only were they trained in Iran, but apparently they reported directly to Iran’s leader, Ali Khamenei! Of the 44 Bahrainis, 34 confessed to being behind the plot. Apparently they were also tasked with gathering information on US forces in Bahrain (not sure how this works exactly, dressing up like Uncle Sam and striding into a nightclub frequented by US marines?)

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A few plots have been unearthed since 2011. In 2014, more confessions were extracted about an Iran backed plot. Like the 1981 plot, this was led by Hadi al-Mudarrasi.

2014

In March 2017, the authorities have announced yet another Iran-backed plot. Again, these guys were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and Hezbollah. Yet again, the authorities seized bombs and automatic weapons. The evidence also implicated people in the Feb bomb blast. (Presumably if you are planning an assassination attempt, you carry out low level bomb attacks to draw attention to yourself first, oh yeah, and like with the other occasions, you rarely use the automatic weapons). Expect confessions soon….

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Another Death in Bahrain Raises Accusations of Foul Play

Yesterday morning, 22 year old Abdullah Al Ajooz died in Nuwaidrat. The Ministry of the Interior reported that he fell when he tried to flee the scene of the arrest. Abdullah was arrested in 2013 and sentenced to life in prison after being accused of being involved in terrorist activities that included the injuring of three policemen. He escaped from the Dry Docks in 2016.  As is usual, the MOI did not feel it necessary to provide much detail,  leaving people to speculate as the actual cause of Abdullah’s death. It is important to note that Abdullah is the 4th escaped prisoner to have been killed after coming into contact with the MOI. The other three were allegedly killed at sea in suspicious circumstances. As many Bahrainis know, it is important always to question the official narrative in Bahrain, as the MOI have previously lied about systematic torture. This is not to say that the MOI do not to tell the truth, but there is little evidence to suggest there has been a change in policing or political culture. It is therefore somewhat perverse then to not interrogate the official narrative (unless of course you, like my Twitter trolls, take pleasure in the deaths of people).

Abdullah’s Death

Initial reports stated that Abdullah had been shot, with his aunt being recorded saying he had bullet wounds in the head and chest. This story seemed very unlikely when images of the body revealed no visible bullet wounds. From the images of his body though, there is clear head trauma on the front right hand side.

The below photos of the building show that he fellow from a relatively low height. The shrine on the ground is where the body was found.

The images would suggest he landed on his head. Some have highlighted that the height is relatively low (certainly no more than 10m), and seem surprised by the nature of the traumatic injuries. Ebrahim Sharif,  a prominent political figure in Bahrain , who saw the body before burial, asked whether he should have fallen on his head, not hands or feet.

In the below tweet, Ebrahim Sharif also noted that an attempt to flee would be unusual if the house was surrounded.

Yet a fall of two stories, or less than two metres, perhaps surprisingly, frequently results in traumatic head injuries. According to one study, heights from falls less than 10 metres actual often result in severe head injuries.

Severe head injuries most frequently occurred in falls from heights below 10 m and above 25 m, whereas in the group that fell from 10 to 25 m, few head injuries were seen and they rarely were the cause of death. This finding might indicate that the falling position is changing during a fall, and the landing position is often head first in lower heights.

Thus it is possible that an accidental fall could result in such head injuries. The caving of the skull would suggest he landed on it, and in falls, usually blunt injuries are ‘planar impact’, confined to one plane of the body. Wrist injuries are also common.

This, of course, does not discount accusations that Abdullah was pushed, or killed beforehand and thrown off the edge. Furthermore, if he was fleeing, it is less likely he fell by accident but was facing the direction of travel, which would imply a different course of fall – perhaps one where he could have corrected his flight and not landed on his head. Indeed, similar accusations have been raised before about young men being thrown off building by the police in Bahrain. The distance of the body from the building is perhaps inconclusive, as most bodies falling from between 5 and 10m will land about 1m – 2m from the building. However, if he was fleeing, and jumped, you would expect that distance to be longer than one or 2m (unless it was a controlled drop, in which case you’d expect to land on your feet – not head).It is also not clear from the MOI narrative where they were during the ‘fleeing’. Were they chasing him on the roof? If they say he fell, presumably they saw what happened, or are claiming to know what happened? A helicopter was heard, is there footage thats shows what happened? Is there any evidence to suggest a chase or struggle on the roof, blood, etc?

Cause of Death

It is not clear either about the quality of autopsy given in Bahrain. The security forces pressured the family to conduct the burial as early as possible, just over 24 hours from the rough time of death (which was in the early hours of the 20th).Determining whether he was pushed is difficult, although some signs of a homicide as opposed to an accident may include fresh grab marks on the upper inner arms according to the aforementioned study (Indicating he was pushed). Were these looked for by who examined body? It is not clear whether the autopsy accounted for this. According to one study on Bahrain , ‘This problem has been exacerbated by the fact that autopsies are not generally practised in the country unless there is suspicion of crime’. As suspicion of a crime is dictated by the MOI, who state quite clearly that the suspect fell, then one has to wonder whether to independence of the coroner can be affected. The death of Yousef Mowali demonstrates the importance of independent forensic reports.

Police said they found Mowali’s body floating in the water on January 13 in the Amwaj area, not far from his family’s home in Muharraq. A state doctor reported the cause of death as drowning and ruled out signs of violence.However, Al Jazeera has exclusively obtained a report from a second autopsy performed by an independent forensic pathologist that concludes Mowali was electrically tortured and unconscious when he drowned.

Death certificates also appear to produce a lot of erroneous results, according to this 2010 study in Bahrain. Furthermore, in Bahrain, death certificates in such cases are highly inconsistent . In 2015, the public prosecutor said Death Certificates only reported the physiological cause of death (As in Case with Ahmed Ismail). However, in the recent cases of the three killed at sea, only the proximate cause (gunshot wounds) was identified. Thus there seems to be wild inconsistency in stating what was the proximate, or immediate and determining causes of death. Thus a death certificate will not necessarily be useful.

Whatever happened, it is certainly unusual that the MOI’s confrontation with another fugitive has resulted in yet another death, making this the 8th death this year. Either way, there are important questions to be asked about the nature of the autopsy, and the events that happened under the cover of darkness, at a time when the government clearly feel able to get away with murder and/or extrajudicial killing.

*Many thanks to Fatima Halwachi for her help for the photos and general information on the ground

Burial of Those Allegedly Killed at Sea Adds to Suspicions of MOI’s Version of Events

Yesterday, the MOI supervised the burial of Redha Al Ghasra, Mustafa Yusif, and Mahmud Yusif. While the MOI usually release the bodies of those they kill to the families, including the three who were executed in January, they did not do so on this occasion. Instead, families were threatened and denied access to the burial site. It is not unknown for the MOI to prevent burial access to limit public disturbances, although it is not a reasonable justification as denial will also lead to similar disturbances. This has raised further suspicions about the true nature of their death (the MOI claimed they were shot at sea in an escape attempt…to Iran). Specifically, it has not allowed people to take photos or properly examine the bodies of those killed to help corroborate the MOI’s story.

Burial

There was also a report that those attempting to access the burial site were threatened with ‘repression’ if they did not leave.

Photo reportedly showing the burial site, surrounded by some close family and the security services

 Wounds

There were also detailed Tweets that presumably leaked out that documented the wounds on the bodies of the deceased.  Redha reportedly was shot three times in the head, as well as the chest and shoulder. Given the video of the shooting, which only showed the sec forces opening fire on one person, it is potentially surprising that the haphazard manner of firing resulted in three head shots.  The information on the bodies also suggests that Mahmood Yusif’s body in particular bore signs of torture, with numerous fractures and bruises. Mustafha Yusif’s body also reportedly had evidence of stab wounds in the neck, and shotgun pellet wounds on the legs/feet/. It is obviously difficult to determine without an independent forensic examination whether, for example, the wounds in the back of Mustafa Yusif were entry or exit wounds. However, if they are entry wounds, one must ask why he was shot in the back if the official version of events was that the group opened fire on the sec forces (Mustafa was also reportedly driving the boat).

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The account @Bahraindoctor posted a photo of Mahmud Yusif that materialised on the day of the shooting. As mentioned, Mahmud was reportedly not shot with live rounds, and according to this medical analysis, the bruising around the eyes is indicative of a non-recent skull injury. This potentially raises further questions of when and how he was killed.

Given that three of them were reportedly shot by the security forces in an exchange of gunfire, then it is interesting to explore why in particular one of those killed reportedly had no gunshot wounds. We still know that the MOI have videoed the event from three different angles, and so are sitting on information that would help clarify the sequence of events leading up to the alleged killing.

**Update**

The death certificates of the three killed were disseminated today (14 Feb). All deaths are attributed to gunshot sounds to various parts of the body. While there have been no independent verification of the wounds, the death certificates state he was killed by gunshots to the head and chest. If the above reports about Mahmud are correct, then he bore no notable gunshot wounds. None are clear from the alleged photo either. In such a well documented event, complete with videos, it not clear why each death certificate would say ‘about 5am’. Bear in mind the MOI in their statement said a ship was detected/intercepted (it is not clear) at 5.28am on the day of death.

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Mahmud

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Reda

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Mustafa