Analysis: Well-trained spy agency adds to strength of Islamic State

ISIS parade in SyriaBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
The militants of the Islamic State, who now control large parts of Syria and Iraq, boast a well-trained and agile intelligence apparatus that is partly responsible for the group’s continuing expansion and strength. Sources on the ground in Iraq report that many of the intelligence officers that staff the Islamic State’s spy agency are former employees of the Syrian and Iraqi governments. They were trained by either Russian or American spies during their government service, and are now lending their advanced intelligence skills to the Islamic State. Al-Monitor’s Ali Mamouri, who is based in Iraq, writes that the Islamic State’s intelligence agency is similar to other government intelligence apparatuses around the world in both structure and operational tactics. Principal among its tasks is political protection of the militant regime’s senior commanders, several of whom have already been killed in Mosul and other cities of northwestern Iraq. Islamic State intelligence officers have tightened security precautions in recent weeks, advising Islamic State leaders to limit their public appearances and arresting individuals suspected of acting as informants for Kurdish or other opposition groups linked to the Iraqi or Syrian governments. Another task of the Islamic State’s intelligence apparatus, Mamouri reports, is counterintelligence —i.e. detecting and preventing attempts by Iraqi and Syrian government spies to infiltrate Islamic State governing structures or military outfits. The intelligence agency also works closely with armed groups reminiscent of the German Nazi Party’s Sturmtruppen (Stormtroopers), namely uniformed street thugs whose task is to identify, monitor and physically eliminate opponents of the regime. The list of undesirables includes Shiites, moderate Sunnis, as well as leaders of tribes who cooperated with the Syrian or Iraqi governments in the recent past.

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Secret Russian spy base in Syria seized by Western-backed rebels

Screenshot from FSA videoBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Rebel forces aligned to Syria’s Western-backed opposition have announced the seizure of a joint Syrian-Russian spy base, which observers say reveals the extent of Russia’s intelligence cooperation with Syria. The base is located at the base of the Tel Al-Hara Mountain, in southern Syria’s Golan Heights region, just south of the border crossing with Israel in the now largely destroyed Syrian city of Quneitra. The Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) said it took over the spy base on Sunday, following several weeks of fighting against rival groups, including Syrian government soldiers and members of Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. The FSA said the base, referred to as “Center C” by Russian intelligence, had been under Russian command until it was abandoned at a time and for reasons that remain unknown. In a three-minute video released by the Western-backed rebel group on YouTube, an FSA officer appears to be guiding the cameraman around part of the seized base. He points to several diagrams and captions on the walls, which are both in Arabic and in Russian. At some point in the video, the seal of Syrian intelligence is clearly visible, placed next to the seal of the GRU’s 6th Directorate, the branch of Russian military intelligence that is tasked with collecting signals intelligence (SIGINT). At another point in the video, a series of photographs can be seen that depict Syrian and Russian intelligence officers working together in gathering and analyzing intelligence. Interestingly, one of the walls in the base features a map of northern Israel, an area that is adjacent to the Golan Heights, and appears to show the location of Israeli SIGINT stations and military encampments. It is unclear when exactly the spy base was abandoned by the Russian and Syrian intelligence officers that staffed it, Read more of this post

US sharing intelligence with Syrian government, say sources

ISIS parade in SyriaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The United States is secretly sharing intelligence about the Islamic State with the government of Syria, according to sources. On Monday, American officials told the Associated Press that US President Barack Obama had authorized reconnaissance flights over Syrian airspace with the aim of gathering intelligence on the Islamic State —known previously as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS. Pentagon officials said the reconnaissance flights are intended to collect “additional intelligence” on the Islamic State’s troop movements in Syria. Their ultimate goal is reportedly to assist the president and his advisors as they contemplate whether the US should launch airstrikes against Islamic State targets on Syrian soil. One American official told the news agency that the reconnaissance flights constituted “an important avenue for obtaining data” and said they would satisfy the “need for reliable intelligence from Syria”. But another source told French news agency Agence France Presse on Tuesday that the intelligence gathered from US reconnaissance flights was being shared with the Syrian government “through Iraqi and Russian channels”. Quoting “a regional source”, the Paris-based news agency said Damascus has been receiving lists of Islamic State targets on Syrian territory “from a Western country” since before mid-August. If these reports turn out to be accurate, it would mean that Washington is essentially collaborating for the first time with one of its arch-enemies in the Middle East, a regime which, in the past, it has come close to bombing. It would also bring American policy in the region closer to that of Russia, which has supported the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the start of the civil war, arguing that it is preferable to the instability represented by opposition forces. Read more of this post

Pilot program gives Syrian rebels advanced Western weaponry

Syrian rebelsBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A pilot program operated by American and Saudi intelligence services has allegedly supplied Syrian rebel groups with sophisticated Western weaponry for the first time. Last weekend, The Wall Street Journal cited “people briefed on the effort” as stating that “a small number” of advanced American antitank missiles have been offered to Syrian rebel groups. The move is reportedly part of a new clandestine program, which, if successful, could open the door to “larger flows” of sophisticated Western-made weaponry in the hands of Syrian rebels. The paper said that Washington made the decision to give the weapons to the rebels following the collapse of the Western-backed peace talks early this year, coupled by the apparent military victories of Syrian government forces on the ground in the embattled Middle Eastern country. The effort is apparently part of a “small, tailored program”, which The Journal says is coordinated by American and Saudi intelligence services, aimed at “testing the waters” in Syria. Specifically, Washington and Riyadh are trying to discern whether these advanced weapons will fall into the hands of some of Islamist-inspired rebel groups on the ground, some of which have strong links with al-Qaeda. According to the paper, American and Saudi intelligence operatives have funneled “about a dozen” BCM-71 TOW armor piercing antitank systems to at least one rebel group on the ground. The group, Harakat Hazm, emerged earlier this year through the union of several small secular rebel groups in northern Syria. One weapons expert told The Journal that the antitank systems are equipped with a “complex, fingerprint-keyed security device” that should hopefully help limit the number of individuals that can fire the weapons. The article adds that US and Saudi intelligence services have entered a period of closer collaboration aimed at increasing material support for the Syrian rebels. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #867 (Syrian uprising edition)

Regional map of SyriaBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
►►Al-Qaeda breaks link with Syrian militant group. Al-Qaeda’s general command said on Monday it had no links with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in an apparent attempt to reassert its authority over fragmented Islamist fighters in Syria’s civil war. The move is likely to bolster a rival Islamist group, the al-Nusra Front, as al Qaeda’s official proxy in Syria. The switch is seen as an attempt to redirect the Islamist effort towards unseating President Bashar al-Assad rather than waste resources in fighting other rebels.
►►Is Israel secretly working to target al-Qaeda in Syria? Reports already indicate that Israel is providing humanitarian aid for Syrians, but do these contacts also include intelligence and military cooperation against radical groups linked with al-Qaeda? And, if so, does this mean that Israel is assisting troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?
►►Australians ‘flocking to Syrian front line’. Some experts say there are more Australians journeying to Syria to participate in the ongoing conflict than any other Western nation. The number of Australians killed in Syria’s civil war is at least 15 —double the number previously reported. The claim comes from a prominent member of the country’s Syrian community. He says there is no shortage of Australian support for the Syrian rebels —and that that support is being grossly under-reported.

Newspaper retracts report of Turkish jets attacking Syrian rebels

Turkish-Syrian borderBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
A Turkish newspaper has retracted a report stating that Turkish military jets entered Syrian territory and destroyed an outpost belonging to an al-Qaeda-linked rebel group, after its members attacked a Turkish military garrison along the Syrian-Turkish border. In a published correction, the paper said instead that the Turkish army opened fire from inside Turkey. Today’s Zaman, the English-language edition of Turkish daily Zaman, reported on January 29 that Turkish F-16s had entered Syrian territory and had bombed a stationary convoy of vehicles belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, an al-Qaeda-linked group that made its appearance in Syria in April of last year. The origins of ISIS are in Iraq, where it was founded in 2003 as a Sunni armed paramilitary force, in response to the invasion by the United States. In 2004, the group pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and changed its name to Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Many observers argue that, in recent months, ISIS has turned into “one of the most powerful forces on the ground” in Syria, with 7,000 well-armed fighters, many of whom are battle-hardened foreign Islamists. It is widely believed that ISIS now dominates Syria’s northwest, having established outposts in a series of “strategic towns” in the region, which are referred to by its leaders as “mini emirates”. Through these outposts, ISIS fighters are able to monitor border traffic between Syria and Turkey, and effectively control most border passages. After retracting its earlier report, Today’s Zaman said the Turkish military used “tanks and artillery fire” to attack the ISIL outpost. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #865

Emad ShahinBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
►►Renowned Egyptian scholar charged with espionage. Emad Shahin, a scholar of political Islam who has taught at Harvard, Notre Dame and the American University in Cairo and edited the Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics, has been charged along with several senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood with conspiring with foreign organizations to undermine Egypt’s national security. He is listed as ‘Defendant 33’ in a lengthy criminal complaint that also names former President Mohamed Morsi, who was deposed in last summer’s military takeover.
►►Al-Qaeda training Western Islamists in Syria to set up cells abroad. British newspaper The Telegraph reports that, according to security sources, Westerners fighting for the Islamist opposition in Syria are being trained and then encouraged to return to the UK to launch attacks on home soil. The paper quotes an “al-Qaeda defector” from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), who says that “recruits from Britain, Europe and the US were being indoctrinated in extremist anti-Western ideology, trained in how to make and detonate car bombs and suicide vests and sent home to start new terror cells”.
►►Snowden has “no plans” to return to the United States. Former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden has said he has “no chance” of a fair trial in the US and has no plans to return there. “There’s no no way I can come home and make my case to a jury”, he told the Free Snowden website. “Returning to the US, I think, is the best resolution for the government, the public, and myself, but it’s unfortunately not possible in the face of current whistleblower protection laws, which, through a failure in law, did not cover national security contractors like myself”, he said.

Confirmed: Secret talks between Assad officials and Western spies

Faisal MekdadBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The BBC says it has confirmed that secret meetings have been held between Western intelligence officials and senior members of the Syrian government, aimed at “combating radical Islamist groups” in Syria. In a report aired on Wednesday, the British news agency cited “informed sources” in confirming that Western intelligence officials had visited Syrian capital Damascus. While there, said the report, the officials held meetings with security agents loyal to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The confirmation came a day after Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, told BBC’s flagship Newsnight program that the Syrian government was cooperating with Western intelligence services against radical Islamist groups that have taken up arms against President Assad. The Syrian official told Newsnight that Western governments were “finally understanding” that there was “no alternative except al-Qaeda” to Assad’s rule in Syria, and that Western security officials were in secret contact with Damascus. Asked whether he was referring to officials from Western intelligence agencies, Mekdad said he would “not specify, but many of them have visited Damascus, yes”. He added that the al-Assad government was receiving regular requests from Western countries to have their diplomats —most of whom were withdrawn following the outbreak of the civil war— return to the Syrian capital. Read more of this post

Analysis: How al-Qaeda changed the Syrian Civil War

Regional map of SyriaBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
Until relatively recently, few observers believed that the government of Bashar al-Assad had a future in war-torn Syria. But the situation in the world’s most active battle zone has changed drastically in recent months, and now many suggest that the Assad forces are dominating the conflict. In a recent article in The New York Review of Books, Sarah Birke, a Middle East correspondent for The Economist, argues that it was the presence of al-Qaeda that changed the balance of power between the warring sides. She points the finger at the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, an al-Qaeda-linked group that made its appearance in Syria in April of last year. Since that time, ISIS has turned into “one of the most powerful forces on the ground”, with 7,000 well-armed fighters, many of whom are battle-hardened foreign Islamists. The origins of ISIS are in Iraq, where it was founded in 2003 as a Sunni armed paramilitary force, in response to the invasion by the United States. In 2004, the group pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and changed its name to Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The United States government has pledged $10 million in return for information leading to the capture of the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but with no success so far. In the spring of 2003, the Iraqi-born al-Baghdadi announced the merger of AQI with the Al-Nusra Front, AQI’s branch in Syria. Since that time, the two unified groups have been commonly referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham —al-Sham being a reference to ‘greater Syria’, known also as ‘the Levant’. Birke reports that ISIS now dominates Syria’s northwest, having established outposts in a series of “strategic towns” in the region, which are referred to by its leaders as “mini emirates”. Through these outposts, ISIS fighters are able to monitor border traffic between Syria and Turkey, and effectively control most border passages. This has crippled the Free Syrian Army, which used to dominate the Syrian opposition with the help of generous donations of money and war material coming in from Turkey. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #861 (Syria edition)

Regional map of SyriaBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
►►Report from Syrian city controlled by al-Qaeda. Raqqa, a city in northeastern Syria with approximately one million inhabitants, is now under control of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the most powerful al-Qaeda affiliate currently operating in Syria. Since ISIS came to power in May, its abuse of Raqqa’s citizens has been well documented. On the surface, this violence appears to be indiscriminate and irrational. Yet, it is also organized and tactical.
►►US weighing closer ties with hardline Islamists in Syria. As the moderate faction of the Syrian rebellion implodes under the strain of vicious infighting and diminished resources, the United States is increasingly looking to hardline Islamists in its efforts to gain leverage in Syria’s civil war. On Monday, the State Department confirmed its openness to engaging with the Islamic Front following the group’s seizure of a Free Syrian Army headquarters last week.
►►Turkey shipped tons of arms to Syria rebels. Turkey has shipped 47 tons of weapons to Syrian rebels since June despite repeated government denials, a local newspaper reported on Monday. The Hurriyet Daily News, citing UN and Turkish Statistics Institute records, said 29 tons of military equipment were sent to opposition fighters in September alone. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a vociferous opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has openly supported the rebels but has always denied arming them.

News you may have missed #860

Edward SnowdenBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
►►Top US-backed rebel commander flees Syria. General Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army, who was the most senior Western-backed rebel commander in Syria, has fled the country amid growing infighting with Islamist rebels, American officials have said. The rebel military leader fled into Turkey and flew to Doha, Qatar on Sunday, after Islamist rebel groups took over his headquarters and warehouses of US-supplied military gear along the border between Turkey and Syria.
►►NSA co-worker calls Snowden ‘genius among geniuses’. Forbes magazine’s Andy Greenberg says he was contacted by a former co-worker of NSA technical expert Edward Snowden, who described the defector as “a principled and ultra-competent, if somewhat eccentric employee, and one who earned the access used to pull off his leak by impressing superiors [at NSA] with sheer talent”. The unnamed source continued: “that kid was a genius among geniuses […], I’ve never seen anything like it”.
►►Iran claims to have captured MI6 spy. Iran says it has captured a spy working for British intelligence agency MI6 in the south-eastern city of Kerman. The head of Kerman’s revolutionary court said the alleged spy had admitted being in contact with four British intelligence officers 11 times, both inside and outside the country. He said the accused was now on trial and had confessed. The nationality of the alleged spy is not yet known. The UK Foreign Office said it did not comment on intelligence matters.

Ship carrying 20,000 Kalashnikov rifles seized in Greece

The Nour-MBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The Hellenic Coast Guard in Greece has seized a cargo ship carrying explosives, ammunition, and about 20,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles, allegedly bound for Syria or Libya. The Associated Press quoted an anonymous official from the Greek Ministry of Mercantile Marine, who said that the ship, Nour-M, is flagged under Sierra Leone and set sail from Ukraine early last week. It was intercepted on Friday while passing through Greek territorial waters, near the Aegean island of Symi. Upon inspection, it was found to be carrying thousands of AK-47s, as well as ammunition and an undisclosed quantity of explosives. As the ship’s documentation did not mention the highly irregular cargo, the Greek authorities decided to escort the vessel to the eastern Aegean island of Rhodes, where it remains under Coast Guard protection. The ship’s crew of three Turkish nationals, including the captain, and three Indian nationals, have been arrested. Interestingly, some maritime transportation databases state the vessel’s destination port as Tartus in Syria, while others suggest it was headed to Tripoli in Libya. Adding to the perplexity of the case, the ship’s Turkish captain told Greek authorities that his destination port was Iskenderun in Turkey. The Greek government has refused to give details about the ship’s itinerary, stating simply that “the exact destination of the arms and ammunition has yet to be verified”, while no precise information has been provided about Nour-M’s cargo. There are unconfirmed reports, however, that, in the past, the same vessel has troubled international maritime authorities, who suspect its captain of involvement in international narcotics smuggling. On Friday, the Reuters news agency aired an insightful analysis on the strong connection between the political chaos that rains in the Middle East and North Africa and the increase in smuggling activity across the Mediterranean. Read more of this post

Israeli intelligence ‘critical’ in US case for strikes on Syria

Regional map of SyriaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
As the United States prepares to make its case in support of military action against the Syrian government, there are reports that Israeli intelligence will be playing “a central role in cementing” Washington’s argument. The White House indicated this week that it is prepared to launch military strikes against Syrian government targets, following reports that chemical weapons were fired at a Damascus suburb. Western intelligence sources suggest that last week’s chemical weapon strikes killed “hundreds of people” and wounded “at least a thousand”, including many civilians. Interestingly, while the US administration of President Barack Obama is collating the evidence of the Syrian government’s complicity in the attacks, reports from Israel have identified even the Syrian Army unit that allegedly fired the chemical rounds. Late last week, Israel’s Channel 2 claimed that the attack was launched by the 155th Brigade of the Syrian Army’s 4th Armored Division, which is known to be commanded by Maher al-Assad, brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. German media reports suggest that the source of the claim was Unit 8200, the electronic interception division of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). It is believed that the IDF has in its possession intercepted conversations between senior Syrian military commanders allegedly discussing last week’s chemical attack. Most analysts appear confident that Israel would play no visible part in a possible US-led military strike on Syria. But many senior Israeli cabinet ministers are voicing strong support for direct Western military involvement in the Syrian civil war. On Tuesday, Naftali Bennett, Israel’s Economy and Commerce Minister, said the time for intervention had come: “it cannot be that less than 100 kilometers from Israel, children are being gassed to death and we let the world remain silent and ignore it”, he told reporters. Read more of this post

Israel spy agency has presence in Syria, says senior rebel general

Regional map of SyriaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Israel is one of several countries that maintain a significant intelligence presence inside Syria, according to the top commander of the Syrian rebel forces. General Salim Idriss, Chief of Staff for the Free Syrian Army, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that the Jewish state has “many, many” intelligence officers in various parts of Syria. The Arab country has been rocked since 2011 by a violent civil war, which has cost the lives of at least 60,000 people. Idriss was responding to comments made earlier this week by Brigadier General Itai Brun, senior intelligence analyst for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Brun, who heads the Division for Research and Analysis of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate, was speaking at a conference hosted in Tel Aviv, Israel, by the Institute for National Security Studies. He told an audience of intelligence experts that the IDF was “quite certain” that the Syrian government headed by President Bashar al-Assad had resorted to the use of chemical weapons against rebel forces on at least one instance. According to Brun, footage obtained by the IDF of rebel casualties from a March 19 attack by Syrian government forces, pointed to the use of sarin nerve gas. He referred to evidence such as the victims’ dilated pupils and “the foam coming out of their mouths” as strong proof of the use of weaponized sarin nerve gas in the battlefield. Responding to Brun’s allegations, General Idriss suggested that Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons repeatedly in a variety of locations, including Aleppo, Homs, and the outskirts of capital Damascus. Read more of this post

Spy equipment discovered near Russian military base in Syria

One of the fake rocks on Al-Nami islandBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Sophisticated intelligence-collection devices hidden inside faux boulders have been discovered on an island situated across from a Russian naval base in Syria. The devices were found on Al-Naml, an uninhabited islet of only 150 square meters, which overlooks the Syrian port of Tartus, site of a major Russian naval military facility. According to Al-Manar, a satellite television station affiliated with the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, the fake boulders were carefully placed on Al-Naml by Israeli commandos during a nighttime operation. Television images showed a system of satellite dishes and cameras, which appear to be connected to custom-made batteries via a series of cables. The imitation boulders, which conceal the electronic surveillance devices, seem to have been carefully designed in order to blend in with the surrounding rocks and brushes on Al-Nami. Al-Manar said on its website that at least three such devices were “discovered by local fishermen”. It added that the camouflaged contraptions appear to be aimed at tracking the movements of Russian vessels sailing to and from Tartus. Moreover, the devices appear to be capable of transmitting pictures of vessels to Israel in real time, via satellite. The naval base at Tartus was first leased to the Soviet Navy by the Syrian government in 1971. In response, the Kremlin forgave a multi-billion dollar debt owed by Damascus. Today, Tartus constitutes Russia’s sole military facility situated outside the regions of the former Soviet Union. It is also Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean, and many strategic analysts consider it as the primary geopolitical justification behind Moscow’s support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Read more of this post

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