In change of policy, Russia and US begin sharing intelligence with France

Hollande and PutinThe United States and Russia, which have traditionally been cautious about sharing Middle East-related intelligence with France, have both announced that they will begin giving classified information to Paris. On Wednesday, France’s Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said at a press conference that intelligence shared by the US had been instrumental in enabling the French Air Force to intensify its air campaign against the Islamic State. Asked to respond to Drian’s comments, US Department of Defense spokesman Peter Cook said that the US Armed Forces had indeed “increased intelligence-sharing with France”.

French officials described that development as a “change in the US position”. IntelNews readers will recall that the United States and France limited their intelligence cooperation last summer, after it emerged that the US had spied on the communications of three French presidents, from 1995 to 2012. Paris scaled back drastically its intelligence cooperation with Washington following subsequent revelations that the National Security Agency had targeted the personal cell phone of Francois Hollande, France’s current head of state.

Also on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed the Russian Armed Forces stationed in Syria to treat their French counterparts “as allies”. Putin reportedly told the leadership of the Russian military in Syria that they “must establish direct contact with the French and work with them as with allies”. This is a significant development, given that Russia is one of the few countries that continues to maintain an active intelligence-collection program on the ground in Syria. Unlike the US, France, and most other Western states, Russia has not closed its embassy in Damascus and is thus able to run networks of human sources throughout the country. The news of increased Russian intelligence-sharing with France came as Moscow announced//announced// on Wednesday that it was stepping up intelligence-gathering throughout the Middle East, according to Andrei Kartapolov, a senior official in the Russian Army’s General Staff.

Meanwhile, an unnamed Moroccan security official told Reuters on Wednesday that intelligence shared by the Moroccan intelligence services with their French counterparts led to a raid in an apartment in Paris in connection with the November 13 attacks there. Two people were shot dead or committed suicide and seven others were arrested during Wednesday’s dramatic raid in the Paris suburb of St. Denis.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 November 2015 | Permalink

ISIS bombing of Beirut is more important than Paris attacks

Bourj al-Barajneh The recent attacks by Islamic State militants in Paris continue to dominate the world’s headlines. But the double suicide blasts that struck Beirut three days earlier are far more significant for the future of the Syrian Civil War. The outpouring of grief that followed the attacks of November 15 in the French capital prompted charges of discrimination against the world’s media. The latter practically ignored the bombing of Lebanese capital Beirut on November 12, which killed 43 and injured over 200 people. The Islamic State, known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), claimed responsibility for the deadly blasts, which marked the bloodiest attack in the Lebanese capital since the end of the country’s civil war in 1990.

The contrast between the media’s treatment of the attacks in Paris and Beirut could not have been starker. The news of the double suicide blasts in Beirut hardly penetrated global headlines, with the exception of outlets like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Even the BBC, which typically pays more attention to non-Western news, relegated the incident to third place, behind a story about corruption in the international football association and the news of the killing of “Jihadi John”. There was no “safety check” app on Facebook, and no Lebanese flags were superimposed on users’ profile photos. Yet the blasts in Beirut are more significant than the attacks in Paris, for two reasons.

First, because attacking “soft targets” in Paris is far easier than attacking Beirut. Paris is a city of 2.2 million people, who are used to a life of relative security and hardly pay attention to their surroundings. The “city of light” features a café in nearly every corner, 13,000 restaurants and over 2,000 hotels; it is easy to enter and exit, and is hardly policed, even by Western standards. Beirut, on the other hand, is a tense Middle Eastern city with heavy police and military presence. The southern Beirut neighborhood of Bourj al-Barajneh, which was targeted by ISIS on November 12, is a Hezbollah stronghold, and probably one of the most tightly policed urban areas in the Eastern Mediterranean. There is little government presence there; but this does not mean that there is no security. On the contrary, Hezbollah militias and volunteers provide protection and conduct careful monitoring of nearly every street. Like its neighboring Dahieh, Bourj al-Barajneh is a world far removed from the fashionable streets of downtown Beirut, where Starbucks cafés and McDonald’s restaurants are frequented by fashionable Lebanese Christians and Western diplomats. Western intelligence has almost no presence Q Quotethere, and even the Mossad, Israel’s feared spy service, rarely ventures in the Hezbollah-controlled neighborhoods.

The fact that ISIS was able to penetrate and bomb Bourj al-Barajneh is a monumental development in the ever-widening Syrian Civil War. It demonstrates the advanced planning and operational sophistication of ISIS and places the ball squarely in Hezbollah’s court. What is more, it was the second time in less than two years that ISIS bombed southern Beirut. The Shiite group has been humiliated, having been shown to lack the resources to protect its heartland from Sunni attacks. Moreover, the Lebanese group, which is almost exclusively funded by Iran, will have to respond to that provocation. For several months, the Middle East has been buzzing with rumors that Iran and Hezbollah are preparing a two-front, large-scale ground assault against ISIS forces. Do last week’s twin suicide attacks bring that possibility closer? The answer to that question may change the entire course of the Syrian Civil War. Read more of this post

Analysis: The West should weigh carefully its response to the Paris carnage

Paris FranceParis is still reeling from Friday’s unprecedented carnage, which left at least 130 people dead and over 350 wounded. The six separate incidents included the first known suicide bombings in the country’s history and marked the deadliest coordinated attacks on French soil since World War II. The magnitude of the attacks prompted the French government to close the country’s borders and declare a nationwide state of emergency —the first since 1961. The shock from the mass killings is today reverberating throughout Europe, a continent that had not seen such a deadly incident since the Madrid train bombings of 2004, when a group of al-Qaeda-inspired militants killed 191 people in the Spanish capital. A response from France and its Western allies is to be expected. However, the West should pause and think very carefully before deepening its engagement in a chaotic and unpredictable war that is like nothing it has ever experienced. Specifically, Western leaders should consider the following:

I. The adversaries know and understand the West, its culture and way of life, far better than the West understands them. Ever since 9/11 and the London bombings of 2005, a number of Western observers have cautioned against the so-called “Islamization of Europe”. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the events of 9/11 caused a widening gulf between an increasingly Islamophobic West and Muslims; the latter are viewed by European critics of Islam as foreign bodies. What is far more prevalent and important is the Europeanization of Islam, which means that adherents of radical Islam are studying and interacting with European culture, norms and values, more intensely than ever before. Consequently, armed attacks carried out by Islamist militants against Western targets reflect a deep understanding of Western culture that far exceeds the West’s understanding of them. The November 13 attacks in Paris typify this: they were not “indiscriminate”, as some have suggested. They were carefully selected to achieve core political objectives, while at the same time sending a symbolic message against the Western way of recreation, which Islamists view as decadent. That was highlighted in a statement about the Paris attacks issued by the Islamic State, in which the group singled out the Bataclan Theater as Q Quotea venue where “a party of perversity” was taking place. Europe’s response to this phenomenon is dismissal and indifference. Most Westerners are still at a loss trying to understand the basic differences between Sunni and Shia Islam, let alone the ideological and spiritual underpinnings of groups like the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, and others. The idea that radical Islam can be defeated before it is understood is naïve and dangerous.

II. The West does not have the intelligence and security infrastructure that is necessary to take on the Islamic State. It should not be forgotten that last Friday’s attacks took place despite the state of heightened alert that France has been under after the Charlie Hebdo shootings of January 2015. Since that time, French authorities have reportedly managed to stop at least six advanced plots against civilian targets, while alert passengers were able to prevent a mass shooting aboard a French train in August of this year. However, if France deepens its involvement in the Syrian Civil War, these attacks will continue with a scale and complexity that is bound to stretch —and possibly overwhelm— the country’s security infrastructure. Nine months after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the presence of thousands of police officers and even troops in the streets of Paris has become common. But that did nothing to stop Friday’s attacks in a city of 2.2 million people, which features 35,000 cafés, 13,000 restaurants and over 2,000 hotels. The sheer number of these “soft targets” makes Paris a city that is virtually impossible to defend against determined suicide assailants. The French are also used to traveling with ease within their country and across Europe, as the borders between France and its neighbors, such as Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, have become practically meaningless. Moreover, French authorities estimate that at least 13,000 radicalized Muslims live in France —a fraction of the country’s nearly 6 million Muslim citizens, but large enough to overwhelm the French security services. Read more of this post

French prosecutors urge end to Yasser Arafat poisoning inquiry

Arafat funeralA government prosecutor in France has urged that a probe looking into whether the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was poisoned with a radioactive substance should be dropped, because evidence shows he died of natural causes. Arafat was the founder of Palestinian nationalist group Fatah and led the Palestine Liberation Organization for over three decades before becoming the first president of the Palestinian Authority. He died in November 2004 at the Percy military hospital in Paris, France, weeks after being transferred there from his headquarters in Ramallah, West Bank. His official records indicate that he died from a stroke, which he suffered as a result of a blood disorder known as disseminated intravascular coagulation.

However, a year-long investigation by a team of forensic pathologists at the Vaudois University Hospital Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland, suggested in 2013 that the late Palestinian leader was likely poisoned with radioactive polonium. According to the results of the study, which included tests on Arafat’s bones and on soil samples from around his corpse, there was “unexpected high activity” of polonium-210. Traces of the same substance were discovered on the personal artifacts that Arafat used during his final days in Paris. The Swiss lab followed its probe with a second set of tests, which confirmed the initial results and were eventually published in the British peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet.

The Swiss investigation prompted Arafat’s widow, Suha Arafat, to file a civil suit at a court in Nanterre, which launched a murder inquiry in August 2012. Further tests were carried out on Arafat’s belongings and his body was exhumed from its burial place in Ramallah. Tests were also carried out by the Russian Federal Medical and Biological Agency, which concluded that the late Palestinian statesman had died “not from the effects of radiation, but of natural causes”. The French inquiry was concluded in April of this year, and the results communicated to the French government prosecutor in Nanterre, Catherine Denis.

On Tuesday, Denis said she had studied the results of the medical investigation and had concluded that the polonium-210 isotopes found in Arafat’s remains and at his gravesite, were without question “of an environmental nature”. Consequently, the case should be dismissed, she said, adding that her view represented the opinion of the prosecution in the case of Arafat’s alleged poisoning. The court must now determine whether to accept the prosecutor’s advice or continue with the case, as is the wish of Arafat’s family.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 July 2015 | Permalink:

French-US spy cooperation continues despite WikiLeaks revelations

 Ashton B. Carter and  Jean-Yves Le DrianA fortnight ago, I gave an interview to Spanish newspaper La Razón, in which I argued that last month’s WikiLeaks revelations about American espionage against France would not cause any drastic disruption in the intelligence cooperation between the two countries. I added that “the two countries depend on each other to address a number of international issues that affect both, such the worrying situation in Syria and Iraq, the continuing crises in Ukraine and in Libya, as well as the financial meltdown in Greece. So there is a recognition that their intelligence agencies must continue to work together on several pressing issues”.

This was confirmed on Monday morning, as the American and French defense secretaries met in the US. French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian paid his first visit to the Pentagon since Ashton B. Carter was appointed Secretary of Defense, in February of this year. After an extensive meeting behind closed doors, the two men told reporters gathered at the Pentagon that America’s security cooperation with France “has never been stronger”. Secretary Carter pointed to France’s leading military involvement in several African nations, including Mali, Chad, and Niger, and said that French forces deployed there could expect “more intelligence-sharing with the United States”. He added that actions had been taken during that morning’s meeting to “increase that [intelligence-sharing] yet further”.

The French Defense Minister agreed with his American counterpart and added that the “multiplication of international crises” were bringing the defense and intelligence establishments of France and the US closer. Both men pointed to examples of ongoing French-American security collaboration in Mali and Chad, where the Pentagon is providing French military forces with aerial cargo delivery and refueling facilities. They also mentioned the FS Charles de Gaulle, France’s flagship aircraft carrier, which has been deployed to the Arabian Gulf since March of this year. Secretary Carter told reporters that the Charles de Gaulle had “integrated seamlessly” with American forces in the region, and was helping the Pentagon launch airstrikes against Islamic State forces in Iraq.

The two men declined comment on last month’s claims by WikiLeaks that the US National Security Agency wiretapped three successive French presidents, including the country’s current head of state, Francois Hollande.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 08 July 2015 | Permalink:

Calls in France to offer asylum, citizenship, to Snowden and Assange

Assange and SnowdenLeaders from all sides of the French political spectrum urged the French government on Thursday to offer political asylum, and even French citizenship, to the American defector Edward Snowden and to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The calls were made in response to news earlier this week that the United States National Security Agency spied on the personal communications of three French presidents from the 1990s to at least 2012. The files were published on Tuesday by the international whistleblower website WikiLeaks. They consist of what the website described as “top secret intelligence reports and technical documents”, which detail NSA spying operations against the French presidency, as well as espionage directed at several French government ministers and at France’s ambassador to the US. As intelNews predicted on Wednesday, the French government’s response to the revelations has been relatively muted. But many French politicians, including one minister in the government of French President Francois Hollande, called for Paris to extend offers of political asylum, and even French citizenship, to Assange and Snowden.

The initial call was issued by Laurent Joffrin, the influential managing editor of Libération, the Paris-based newspaper that partnered with WikiLeaks to release the NSA documents earlier this week. In a leading editorial published in the paper on Thursday, Joffrin said that French protests against NSA spying “have no more effect than scolding a rude toddler”, and added that by offering asylum to Snowden, France would “stand up [to America] and send a clear and effective message to Washington”.

Shortly after Joffrin’s editorial, Jean-Christophe Lagarde, president of the centrist Union of Democrats and Independents in the French Parliament, said that France should have given Snowden political asylum back in 2013, when he originally requested it. Lagarde was quoted in the French press as saying that “the French nation has already been dishonored by refusing to accept Edward Snowden’s request for political asylum when he asked for it in 2013”. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leftist member of the European Parliament, agreed with Lagarde, adding that Assange and Snowden must not only receive political asylum in France, but also be given “the French nationality”.

On Thursday afternoon, Jean-Pierre Mignard, a close friend and longtime political advisor to President Hollande, said that “given the service they have rendered to the cause of human freedom, France could accommodate a request for asylum from Assange and Snowden, should they request it”. Mignard added that “French law allows the Republic to grant asylum to any foreign subject who faces persecution for taking action in favor of human freedom”.

When asked by BFM TV, France’s most popular news channel, whether political asylum could be extended to Snowden and Assange, France’s Justice Minister Christiane Taubira said that she was “absolutely shocked by the idea”, because such a course of action would drive a powerful wedge between France and the US, two countries with deep historical ties. But she added that such a move would constitute a strong “symbolic gesture” against espionage, and thus remained on the table as a possible policy maneuver to be adopted by the government of France.

Late on Thursday, however, France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls indicated that any discussion of an offer of asylum to Assange and Snowden by the government of France was premature. Speaking at a hastily organized press conference to discuss the NSA espionage revelations during an official visit to Colombia, Valls told reporters that the question of offering asylum to the two men “did not arise” during internal government talks. “And in any case”, said Valls, such an initiative “would not address the issue at hand”, namely American espionage against the French presidency. France’s goal is to extract guarantees from Washington that all espionage against French officials would stop, noted the French prime minister. If France offered asylum to Assange and Snowden, American espionage against French targets would likely reach unprecedented levels, he added.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 June 2015 | Permalink:

Analysis: French are upset, but not surprised, by news of US spying

Before Edward Snowden, the revelation that the United States National Security Agency spied on three successive French presidents would have shocked many. But in the post-Snowden era, the news came and went without much tumult. The French President, Francois Hollande, called two emergency meetings of senior government officials at the Élysée Palace; the American ambassador to France was summoned for an official protest; but nothing more came of it. It was reported that US President Barack Obama spoke directly with his French counterpart on Wednesday, and assured him in no uncertain terms “that the US is no longer spying on France”.

The French leader, who is one of three French presidents mentioned in the WikiLeaks documents as a target of the NSA, is genuinely upset. And there will be some in his government who will push for a harder response than simply summoning the American envoy in Paris to file an official protest. But nobody in Paris or Washington thinks that Mr. Hollande, or indeed any other senior French official, was shocked or even surprised by the revelations of American espionage against France. Nor will the revelation cause any drastic disruption in the intelligence cooperation between France and the US. The two countries depend on each other to address a number of international issues that affect both, such the worrying situatioQ Quoten in Syria and Iraq, the continuing crises in Ukraine and in Libya, as well as the financial meltdown in Greece. So there is a recognition that their intelligence agencies must continue to work together on several pressing issues.

However, the French response may become a lot more direct if WikiLeaks publish further revelations about US espionage against French officials. The whistleblower website noted on Tuesday that “French readers can expect more timely and important revelations in the near future”. Unlike Edward Snowden, who is known to release progressively more damning documents in stages, WikiLeaks does not have a history of aiming for a crescendo through progressive releases of classified information. But there is speculation that Edward Snowden may in fact be the source of this latest WikiLeaks disclosure. If that is the case, we should not exclude further releases of relevant documents, and thus a more robust French response.

And what about America’s retort? Washington has suffered considerable diplomatic blowback from revelations in 2013 and 2014 that it spied on the leaders of Germany, Brazil and Argentina. Is the NSA still spying on America’s allied leaders? I am of the opinion that the NSA is not currently targeting the personal communications of allied government leaders as a matter of Q Quoteroutine practice. However, I do believe that this regimen can easily be changed to address particular needs, through what is called a “presidential finding”, basically a direct order issued by the president of the United States to target an individual foreign leader.

In the past two years, we have witnessed the diplomatic fallout that can result from publicly revealing these practices. However, for an intelligence agency like the NSA, having access to the personal communications of a foreign head of state is a temptation that is simply too difficult to resist. Moreover, it should not be assumed that political leaders are always completely in the know about the practices of their country’s intelligence agencies. American intelligence history amply demonstrates this truism. Finally, I would point to the well known maxim that intelligence agencies do not typically distinguish between adversaries and allies. All targets are considered fair game. This will admittedly do little to appease the French, but it will at least give them an accurate impression of what to expect in the brave new world of wholesale communications interception.

* This editorial is based on an interview given by the author to the Spanish newspaper La Razón.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 25 June 2015 | Permalink:


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