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Online Advertising CEO of Backpage.com Arrested on Sex Trafficking Charges in Texas, US

CEO Carl Ferrer was arrested on a California warrant after arriving in Houston, Texas, on a flight from Amsterdam

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This photo released by the Texas Office of the Attorney General shows Carl Ferrer. VOA

October 7, 2016: Police in Texas have arrested the CEO of online advertising website Backpage.com and raided the company’s offices on charges of prostitution and sex trafficking.

CEO Carl Ferrer was arrested on a California warrant after arriving in Houston, Texas, on a flight from Amsterdam. California Attorney General Kamala Harris accused Ferrer and his partners of setting up “the world’s top online brothel” and aiding criminals who used the site to advertise prostitutes.

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“Raking in millions of dollars from the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable victims is outrageous, despicable and illegal,” Harris said in a statement.

Backpage.com is primarily used to host advertisements for adult escorts but is also used to advertise goods, services and jobs.

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Internal revenue reports obtained by the attorney general’s office show Backpage.com made 99 percent of its revenue between January 2013 and March 2015 from its “adult” advertisements, according to the statement. During that time, the company made around $51 million in revenue just in the state of California.

The charges came after a three-year investigation, in which the California Department of Justice used undercover agents to set up meetings with people who advertised in the “escort” section to confirm the meetings were arranged for commercial sex.

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Ferrer, along with Michael Lacey and James Larkin, controlling shareholders of Backpage, were all charged with conspiracy to commit pimping, a felony. Ferrer also received charges for pimping a minor, as some of the prostitution ads were for victims younger than 18, according to Harris’ office. (VOA)

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Rebecca Portnoff: A Doctoral Candidate from US Fights Human Trafficking Using Algorithms

Rebecca Portnoff has developed two algorithms aimed to fight human trafficking

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Ethnic Uighur Muslim boy stands inside a police van in Khlong Hoi Khong of southern Songkhla province, Thailand. He was in a group of 200 people rescued from a human trafficking camp
Ethnic Uighur Muslim boy stands inside a police van in Khlong Hoi Khong of southern Songkhla province, Thailand. He was in a group of 200 people rescued from a human trafficking camp. VOA
  • The new research uses an algorithm that analyzes writing styles to identify authors and could be applied to online trafficking ads
  • A second algorithm can use time stamps to trace ad payments to accounts known as wallets at Bitcoin

A U.S. researcher Rebecca Portnoff says that she has developed automated ways to identify links between online sex trafficking ads and the digital currency Bitcoin, techniques that may help locate children being sold for sex.

Law enforcement and anti-trafficking groups could use the methods to investigate Backpage.com, an online classified advertising site where sex ads can be found, according to a statement by the University of California Berkeley, where the research was based.

About 1.5 million people in the United States are victims of human trafficking, mostly for sexual exploitation, according to anti-trafficking groups.

Most sex trafficking victims are children, and most are advertised or sold online, according to a U.S. Senate subcommittee report released this year.

Algorithms do the digging

The new research uses an algorithm that analyzes writing styles to identify authors and could be applied to online trafficking ads, Rebecca Portnoff, its lead author, said Thursday.

A second algorithm can use time stamps to trace ad payments to accounts, known as wallets, at Bitcoin, a web-based digital currency that allows money to move quickly and anonymously.

Comparing time stamps of ad purchases on Bitcoin and time stamps and information on Backpage ads could help identify who is paying for them, said Rebecca Portnoff, a UC Berkeley doctoral candidate in computer science who developed the techniques as part of her dissertation.

“Where previously you might have five different phone numbers that you had no idea were connected when you can see that they all came from the same wallets, that the same person paid for them, that’s a concrete sign that these five phone numbers are all related to each other,” Rebecca Portnoff said.

Rebecca Portnoff added, “I knew this was an issue that law enforcement was especially interested in.”

ALSO READ: Human Trafficking is one of the most derogatory Criminal Activities, should be Nipped in the Bud

Boost for law enforcement

Having automated style and time stamp analyses to identify sex ads by authors and Bitcoin owners is significant, said Damon McCoy, a New York University Tandon School of Engineering assistant professor of computer science and engineering and a co-author of the research.

“Any technique that can surface commonalities between ads and potentially shed light on the owners is a big boost for those working to curb exploitation,” McCoy said in a statement.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has said more than 70 percent of the reports it gets of trafficked children involve Backpage, based in Dallas, Texas.

Backpage did not respond to a request for comment.

The findings will be published by the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining, UC Berkeley said.

It said the work was funded by the Amazon Web Services Cloud Credits for Research Program, the technology, and security firm Giant Oak, Google, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education. (VOA)

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‘They Slept With Us, Mistreated Us, Beat Us, And Shot People’, Recalls Nigerian Trafficking Survivor in a Chilling Account

The Nigerian survivor reveals chilling details in her account, saying 'too many' young migrant women and boys were shot because they resisted sexual advances of Libyan captors.

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An increasing population of Nigerians are illegally smuggled for prostitution.
'Beauty' (pseudonym), a Nigerian ex-prostitute at a social support centre for trafficked girls near Catania in Italy, Sept. 14, 2016. VOA

Martinsicuro, Abruzzo, Italy, August 9, 2017: The thick-set 23-year-old Nigerian woman exudes strength, keen to overcome what she suffered in Libya and Italy before she escaped from the shadows in Rome and jumped on a train heading for Ancona on Italy’s Adriatic coast.

Not that she knew the train’s destination before boarding — she just wanted to flee her tormentors, run from beatings and sexual abuse. But it will take longer than a three-and-half-hour railway trip to forget the torments of the past.

Anna (the name she chose to protect her identity for security reasons) is one of more than 16,000 young Nigerian women — including many underage girls — who’ve been trafficked into Italy by Nigerian crime syndicates over the past two years, joining thousands of Nigerians who now make up nearly half of the street prostitutes working in Italy.

Prostitution

Many outreach workers suspect that most of the Nigerian girls, especially the more recent arrivals — although not all — knew before leaving Nigeria that their traffickers would put them to work as prostitutes. Many may have been sex workers before in Nigeria, something charity workers say shouldn’t matter when it comes to helping the women, arguing they are all abused and in need of compassion and help.

Sex trafficking cases are on a rise in Italy.
A Nigerian woman involved in street prostitution waiting at the main street in Castel Volturno. VOA

 

Either way, the trafficked women, they say, didn’t know how grueling their work would be in Italy, how appalling their living conditions, how poorly paid they would be and how long it would take them to pay off debts to traffickers, who charge the women upwards of $41,000 (35,000 euros) for the journey.

But staff at On the Road, an Italian charity that helps women break from sex work, say they don’t believe Anna was one of those who knew what she would be doing in Italy. They say she was duped.

Eight months after her escape from her “madame” Anna described her journey north from Nigeria’s Benin City through Niger and Libya. She is now living with nearly a dozen trafficked Nigerian girls in a shelter, going to school and learning Italian.

Libyan ordeal

Anna said she was raped repeatedly for almost two months just outside the Libyan town of Bani Walid. There she witnessed young migrant women and boys shot because they resisted the sexual demands of their Libyan captors.

She said she couldn’t give a precise number of those murdered but added, sadly, “Too many, too many.”

She made the journey to Italy because her uncle told her to go. After her parents died when she was 14-years-old, she and her three siblings — a brother and two sisters — lived with their uncle.

“He was not really taking care of us in the way he should. He is a drunkard and had no job. So we could barely afford a square meal a day. He always say we should leave his house,” she explained.

She did go to high school and was learning how to sew before she set off for Italy.

“One day my uncle came and said there was a woman who had a business here in Italy that needed someone to work with her. So he said I would go with the woman and work with her in Italy. So I had no choice.”

She never met the mysterious business woman, who she was told owned a supermarket, but did meet a woman who claimed to be the woman’s sister, who told Anna she would owe more than $47,000 (40,000 euros) for the journey and would have to pay it off.

Juju oath for debt repayment

Like thousands of other Nigerian women trafficked to Italy via Libya by Nigerian crime syndicates, she was taken to a voodoo priest to swear a juju oath to repay the debt.

After what she said was a rough journey through Niger, she and a group of Nigerian migrants arrived in Libya’s southern desert town of Sabha, spent a few weeks there before going to Bani Walid.

“When we got there, they put us in a compound guarded by many armed Arabs with many kinds of guns.” She recalled the scene with a shiver. “We don’t have anything to eat. You couldn’t escape. The place was secure.”

According to Anna, the compound was full of women, at least two hundred.

“They said we are going to Tripoli and they took us to a place that wasn’t far from the place where we were before and so I said to myself, ‘Tripoli is close to Bani Walid.’”

In fact, it wasn’t Tripoli and was only 10 minutes outside Bani Walid. They arrived at night and she was kept indoors for almost two harrowing, terrifying months.

“They slept with us, mistreated us, beat us, and shot people,” she said. “They killed many people — girls and boys, who refused to sleep with them. The people who refused to do what they asked, they killed them and threw them out of the place.”

Asked if she was raped, she responded: “I slept with several men, several times.”

A Nigerian Sex trafficking survivor shares chilling details of the trade.
A Nigerian sex worker mid conversation with a possible client on Via Bonifica, in Marche province of Italy. Authorities say one in every two sex workers on the roads of Italy are Nigerian. VOA

A smuggling chain

Let week, Amnesty International warned that “facilitating the interception and return of refugees and migrants to Libya results in their arbitrary detention in centers where they are at almost certain risk of being tortured, raped and even killed.”

Last year, Human Rights Watch interviewed 47 newly arrived migrants in Sicily who described severe abuses in Libya by government officials, smugglers and members of militias and criminal gangs.

With more women arriving, Anna’s captors moved her and her group along the smuggling chain. The smugglers’ inflatable boat, which Africans nickname balloon boats, capsized in the Mediterranean Sea. Several migrants drowned before an Italian coast guard rescued the survivors, including Anna.

In Italy, she was moved from a reception center in Calabria to another in Torino, where she contacted the business woman’s sister In Nigeria and was told a man would come and collect her.

The man, a Nigerian, took her to a house in Rome, where a woman beat her when she refused to prostitute herself. She was warned of the voodoo consequences of breaking her oath to repay the debt. “Juju works,” she said. “It is our tradition.”

For a month she did as she was told, sleeping with men in a house overseen by an older Nigerian woman, who would receive the money from Anna’s clients. But even juju couldn’t keep her doing the work. At Ancona railway station, an Italian man spotted her, and drove her to the Catholic charity Caritas, which passed her to On the Road.

“What has happened, has happened,” she said. Now she wants to get on with her life. She said the traffickers are “giving my family problems, my siblings” and are threatening them.

“I can’t go back to Nigeria,” she said. “I hope I have a good life in my future.” (VOA)

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Can Flourishing Islamic State (ISIS) be Stopped in Afghanistan?

The truth about IS and Afghanistan is definitely no picnic

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Taliban fighters react to a speech by their senior leader in the Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan, May 27, 2016.
Taliban fighters react to a speech by their senior leader in the Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan, May 27, 2016. The rise of IS in Afghanistan has become such a priority that U.S. and Afghan forces sometimes support the Taliban while battling IS, VOA
  • Depending on the location, the proliferation of IS has drawn varied resistance from the Afghan military, U.S. air support and ground troops, local militias, Taliban forces and other militant groups
  • Afghan army planes on Wednesday night accidentally air dropped vital supplies of food and water to IS militants in the Darzab district of northern Jouzjan province instead of to their own besieged troops
  • In the Tora Bora area, where IS has made a strong stand in recent days, local villagers and militias joined with Taliban to rout IS

June 25, 2017: The Islamic State group is rapidly expanding in parts of Afghanistan, advancing militarily into areas where it once had a weak presence and strengthening its forces in core regions, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.

Depending on the location, the proliferation of IS has drawn varied resistance from the Afghan military, U.S. air support and ground troops, local militias, Taliban forces and other militant groups.

Attacking IS has become such a priority in the country, that disparate forces sometimes join together in the ad-hoc fight, with Afghan and U.S. forces finding themselves inadvertently supporting the enemy Taliban in battling IS.

Confusion leads to mistakes

All too often, officials say, mistakes are made due to confusion on the ground.

Afghan army planes on Wednesday night accidentally air dropped vital supplies of food and water to IS militants in the Darzab district of northern Jouzjan province instead of to their own besieged troops, provincial police chief, Rahmatullah Turkistani told VOA. The supplies were meant to help Afghan forces that are countering twin attacks by IS and Taliban militants but were used instead by IS.

“It’s not getting better in Afghanistan in terms of IS,” U.S. Chief Pentagon Spokeswoman Dana White told VOA this week. “We have a problem, and we have to defeat them and we have to be focused on that problem.”

Reinforcements for the IS cause reportedly are streaming into isolated areas of the country from far and wide. There are reports of fighters from varied nationalities joining the ranks, including militants from Pakistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Russia and Central Asian neighbors.

Confusing scenarios

Still, the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK) as IS is known in Afghanistan remains a fragmented group composed of differing regional forces with different agendas in different parts of the country.

“IS-K is still conducting low-level recruiting and distribution of propaganda in various provinces across Afghanistan, but it does not have the ability or authority to conduct multiple operations across the country,” a recent Pentagon report said. But where it operates, IS is inflicting chaos and casualties and causing confusing scenarios for disparate opponents.

In the Tora Bora area, where IS has made a strong stand in recent days, local villagers and militias joined with Taliban to rout IS. IS regained ground after a few days, leading to U.S. military air attacks on IS positions in conjunction with Afghan intelligence instructions and army operations.

IS fighters reportedly have fled from mountain caves of Tora Bora, where al-Qaida’s leader Osama bin Laden hid from U.S. attack in 2001.

Families displaced

IS fighters were also reportedly advancing in neighboring Khogyani district, displacing hundreds of families, according to district officials. It is one of several areas in Nangarhar province, near the Pakistani border, where IS has been active for over two years.

Fierce clashes in the Chaparhar district of Nangarhar last month left 21 Taliban fighters and seven IS militants dead, according to a provincial spokesman. At least three civilians who were caught in the crossfire were killed and five others wounded.

“IS has overpowered Taliban in some parts of Nangarhar because the Taliban dispatched its elite commando force called Sara Qeta (Red Brigade) to other parts of the country, including some northern provinces to contain the growing influence of IS there,” Wahid Muzhda, a Taliban expert in Kabul, told VOA.

ALSO READ: Flashback to Terror: 1993 Mumbai Blasts Judgement to Hail on June 27 After 24 Years

Recruiting unemployed youths

IS has also expanded in neighboring Kunar province, where, according to provincial police chief, it has a presence in at least eight districts and runs a training base, where foreign members of IS, train new recruits.

Hundreds of miles from Nangarhar, IS is attempting to establish a persistent presence in several northern provinces where it has found a fertile ground for attracting militants and recruiting unemployed youths, mostly between the age of 13 and 20.

IS has been able to draw its members from the Pakistani Taliban fighters, former Afghan Taliban, and other militants who “believe that associating with or pledging allegiance” to IS will further their interests, according to the Pentagon report.

Hundreds of militants have joined IS ranks in northern Jouzjan and Sar-e-Pul province where local militant commanders lead IS-affiliate groups in several districts.

Darzab district

Qari Hekmat, an ethnic Uzbek and former Taliban militant who joined IS a year ago, claims to have up to 500 members, including around 50 Uzbek nationals who are affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) — previously associated with al-Qaida and Taliban in Afghanistan.

IS and Taliban are reportedly fighting over the control of Darzab district in Jouzjan which they stormed this week from two different directions and besieged scores of government forces. The Taliban has reportedly captured the center of the district while IS militants control the city outskirts.

Afghanistan faces a continuing threat from as many as 20 insurgent and terrorist networks present or operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, including IS, the Pentagon said.

“In areas where the government has limited influence and control, IS attempts to emerge and expand there,” Ateequllah Amarkhail, an analysts and former Army general in Kabul told VOA.

Hit-and-hide strategy

IS has also claimed responsibility for several recent attacks in urban areas, however, with a hit-and-hide strategy that is proving effective. And it is engaging too in more skirmishes with U.S. forces that initially were sent to the country to help Afghan forces halt the spread of Taliban.

Three American service members based in eastern Afghanistan were killed in April during operations targeting IS militants, according to the Pentagon.

“ISIS-K remains a threat to Afghan and regional security, a threat to U.S. and coalition forces, and it retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks in urban centers,” the Pentagon said. (VOA)