Freebird: the Saudi spy vulture affair

If it had been the first day of April yesterday and not boring old 4 January (1/4 not 4/1) I don’t think many people would have believed that story about the vulture that was "arrested" in Saudi Arabia on suspicion of spying for Israel.

Titter ye not, it seems to be true.

What on earth has possessed the Saudi authorities here takes some figuring out. Sure, Israel has an active intelligence capability (many countries do). Sure, you COULD do some very limited surveillance with trained birds (I think), but is Mossad really going to use vultures to gather information about Saudi Arabia? Is it that … er, desperate?

OK, I’ll admit it – I don’t really know whether it’s even possible to use a vulture rigged up with a transmitter to carry out espionage (certainly is sceptical).

Most media reports on the “spying vulture” are also mentioning the Egyptian official Muhammad Abdel Fadil Shousha’s reported remarks that the sharks that attacked swimmers near Sharm el-Sheikh could have been trained by Israel to attack Egypt’s tourists. Not weird enough? Well Sky’s Tim Marshall gives us a quick run-through of other recent alleged incidents involving squirrels, rats, antelopes, llamas and boars, and – on the even wilder fringe – also recalls last year’s story in the Chinese press about how the Taliban were supposedly training monkeys to fire Kalashnikovs and other weapons so as to sneakily attack foreign forces.

What next, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard training teams of poisonous spiders? Russia’s FSB mesmerising migrating birds and getting them to divulge their secrets in one-to-one debriefs (free seeds as long as they spill the beans)?

Actually, I know there’s a long history of humans horribly exploiting animals in warfare (and in peace-time, come to that) but I’m inclined to side with those who see the vulture story as a sign of Saudi (and regional) concern/paranoia about Israel’s military-intelligence capability, and not some imaginative feat of avian espionage.

When they get around to freeing this particular bird, I would also urge the Saudi authorities to properly charge or release a couple of their other detainees. One is the law professor Dr Mohammed ‘Abdullah al-‘Abdulkareem (detained on 5 December, apparently just for questioning the legitimacy of the Saudi royal family on his Facebook); and the other is a 27-year-old man in Jeddah who is reportedly behind bars for five years (and facing 500 lashes) solely because of his sexual orientation (please take action for him here).

And that’s it. Pick the bones out of that!

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