Dozens of Western ‘freelance fighters’ embedded with anti-ISIS forces in Syria

Kurdish YPG SyriaDozens of Western European and American citizens are participating in the ongoing takeover of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State in Syria, despite being prohibited from doing so by their own governments, according to recent news reports. Much has been written about foreign fighters who enter Iraq and Syria in order to join the ranks of the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that previously went by the name Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But relatively little attention has been paid to the thousands of foreign fighters who have traveled to the region to join the war against ISIS.

In late 2015, independent researcher Nathan Patin published “The Other Foreign Fighters”, a rare examination of Americans who had joined the various armed groups fighting ISIS in the region. Patin found that at least 200 Americans had attempted to travel to the region in order to join the fight against ISIS as ‘freelance fighters’. Roughly half of those had managed to embed themselves with armed —primarily Kurdish— groups, and saw action on the ground. In 2016, three British and Irish anti-ISIS volunteers were jailed by Iraqi authorities while attempting to return to Europe after having fought for the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), a group that serves as the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Syria. The three were initially suspected of being foreign ISIS volunteers, but were released from prison in April of 2016, after the YPG verified their bona fides.

A recent report by The Los Angeles Times claims that there are still “several dozen” Western volunteers embedded with anti-ISIS militias in Syria. They are doing so in the face of warnings by European and American government agencies that freelance participation in the Syrian civil war is a potentially punishable offense. The Times cited “local estimates” and spoke to Daman Frat, a YPG commander stationed in the eastern outskirts of Raqqa, who said that “several foreign volunteers” were embedded in YPG units. Most, though certainly not all of them, said Frat, had prior military experience. According to the paper, at least three Western volunteers, one British and two American citizens, have died in recent days, as YPG forces are closing in on the de facto ISIS capital. The US Departments of State and Defense, which are tacitly in support of the YPG and other Kurdish groups operating in Syria, did not comment on The Los Angeles Times report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 July 2017 | Permalink

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US plans to beef up Cyber Command, separate cyberwar operations from NSA

PentagonThe White House will soon announce its decision to strengthen the United States Cyber Command and separate cyber war operations from intelligence functions, according to insider reports. For many decades, the National Security Agency has been in charge of protecting America’s cyber network and combating online threats. But in 2009, the Administration of US President Barack Obama established a brand new Cyber Command, proposing that the online environment represented a new theater of war. Since that time, the US Department of Defense has been campaigning in favor of strengthening the new Cyber Command and completely removing it from the patronage of the NSA –despite the fact that the latter is also a Pentagon agency.

According to media reports, US President Donald Trump has decided to follow the Pentagon’s suggestion. After several months of delay, his administration is now preparing to announce a major reinforcement of the US Cyber Command, and a formal separation between its functions and those of the NSA. According to the American news network PBS, which broke the news on Monday, the idea behind the move is to give the Cyber Command more operational autonomy and to allow it to establish its own mission statement, which will be distinct from that of the NSA. The latter is an intelligence organization, which means that it primarily seeks to exploit adversary networks for purposes of collecting information. Broadly speaking, therefore, the NSA finds operational adversary cyber networks far more useful than destroyed networks. That tends to clash with the goals of the US Cyber Command, whose tactical goals often center on launching destructive attacks on enemy networks. It is believed that the impending change will allow it to do so without the interference of the NSA.

According to PBS, which cited anonymous sources in its report, the details of the separation “are still being worked out”. Furthermore, some observers caution that the Cyber Command will continue to rely on NSA technology and expertise for years to come, until it is able to carry its own weight. There is even less discussion about the view of the NSA on the matter, which some claim is notably negative. However, the move appears to have been decided, and the Cyber Command’s budget will be increased by nearly 20% to $647 million in the coming year, reflecting its elevated role in US defense.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 July 2017 | Permalink

US spies confirm Qatar’s claims that its media were hacked by Emirates to spark crisis

Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-ThaniAmerican officials appear to confirm Qatar’s allegations that its news media were hacked by its Gulf adversaries, who then used the fake news posted by hackers to launch a massive campaign against it. Tensions between Qatar and other Muslim countries have risen since late May, when the country’s state-controlled news agency appeared to publish an incendiary interview with Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani. In the interview, which appeared on May 24, the sheikh appeared to praise Saudi regional rival Iran as a “great Islamic power” and to express support for the militant Palestinian group Hamas. On the following day, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain immediately banned all Qatari media —primarily Al Jazeera— from broadcasting in their territories and broke diplomatic relations with Doha. Later on, they declared a large-scale commercial embargo against the small oil kingdom. They have since threatened war unless Qatar changes its alleged support for Iran and for a number of militant groups in the region.

The Qatari government has dismissed the embargo as unjust and has claimed that Sheikh al-Thani’s controversial interview was fake, and was placed on the country’s state-owned news agency and social media as a result of a computer hack. It has also claimed to have evidence of a number of iPhones that were used from locations in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to launch the hacks on its networks. Qatari officials have also said that an investigation into the incident is underway, but their claims have been criticized as outlandish by Qatar’s regional rivals.

Now, however, a report by The Washington Post claims that American officials have uncovered evidence that Qatar’s allegations of a computer hack are true. The paper cited “US intelligence and other officials” who spoke “on the condition of anonymity”. The officials said that US intelligence agencies recently became aware of a meeting of senior UAE state administrators that took place on May 23 in Abu Dhabi. At the meeting, the officials discussed a plan to hack Qatari news websites and social media, in order to post incendiary messages that could be used to spark a row between Qatar, the Saudi government and its allies. The alleged computer hacks is reported to have taken place on the following day. According to The Post, the only thing that US intelligence is unsure about is “whether the UAE carried out the hacks itself or contracted to have them done” by a third party.

The Post said that several US intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, refused to comment on its report. The paper received a response from the UAE embassy in Washington, DC, which said that the Emirates had “no role whatsoever in the alleged hacking described in the article”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 July 2017 | Permalink

Senior Iraqi intelligence official rejects Russian claims that ISIS leader is dead

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiA senior Iraqi intelligence official has rejected assurances given by Russia that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of the Islamic State, is dead, insisting instead that the Iraqi-born cleric is alive in Syria. In mid- June, Russia’s Ministry of Defense said that, according to its sources, al-Baghdadi had been killed. Subsequently, many Russian officials and political figures appeared to confirm Moscow’s report. On January 23, Russian media quoted Viktor Ozerov, chairman of the Committee of National Defense of the Federation Council (the Russian Duma’s upper house) as saying that the likelihood that al-Baghdadi was dead was “close to 100 percent”. Last week, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it too was in a position to confirm that al-Baghdad had been killed, adding that the Islamic State had admitted as much in a statement issued to its senior commanders.

But Western governments, including the United States, have been reluctant to accept the Russian reports as accurate, saying that they prefer to wait for concrete proof of the Islamic State leader’s demise. On Sunday, the Iraqi government appeared to side with the skeptics. In an interview with the Baghdad-based daily Al-Sabah, senior Iraqi intelligence official Abu Ali al-Basri claimed al-Baghdadi was very much alive. Al-Basri, who supervises the Falcon Intelligence Cell, a US-trained counterterrorist unit operating under the Ministry of the Interior, said that the reports recently circulated about the rumored death of al-Baghdadi were “simply untrue”. He added that the founder of the Islamic State was “still living in Syria”, possibly at an Islamic State military facility on the outskirts of the organization’s de facto capital city of Raqqa.

Born in Iraq in 1971, al-Baghdadi has never been seen in public after his historic speech in June 2014, in which he proclaimed the creation of a so-called Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Speaking from the Grand Mosque in the old city of the Iraqi city of Mosul, which his forces had just conquered, al-Baghdadi issued a public call for supporters of the Islamic State around the world to join its ranks. But he never reappeared in public in the ensuing years, giving rise to occasional speculation that he may have been seriously wounded or even killed.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 July 2017 | Permalink

CIA whistleblower complains of seven-year inaction by Agency’s inspector general

CIAA contractor for the United States Central Intelligence Agency has complained in an interview that no action has been taken in the seven years since he revealed a “billion-dollar fraud” and “catastrophic intelligence failure” within the Agency’s ranks. John Reidy argues that his case illustrates the unreasonable delay that impedes investigations by whistleblowers like him inside the CIA. Individuals like him, he argues, are forced to seek justice through leaks to the media, something which could be avoided if the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General addressed concerns more promptly.

Reidy, 46, from Worcester in the US state of Massachusetts, joined the CIA in 2003, after graduating with a law degree from the University of San Francisco. But he left the agency soon after joining, initially to work for a security contractor before setting up his own company, Form III Defense Solutions. He continued to work with the CIA by subcontracting his services, focusing on Iran. Reidy’s company developed an intelligence study guide for Iran and advised the CIA on the use of human intelligence (known as HUMINT) in the Islamic Republic.

In 2010, Reidy submitted two complaints to the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General, the Agency’s internal watchdog that is tasked with investigating whistleblower allegations. The first issue related to what Reidy describes as large-scale “fraud between elements within the CIA and contractors”. The second issue involved a “massive [and] catastrophic” intelligence failure “due to a bungled foreign operation”. When he filed his concerns with the OIG, Reidy was hoping that attention would be given to his claims right away. However, seven years later, his case is still “gathering dust” at a CIA office, he says. When he realized that no progress had taken place in several years, a frustrated Reidy forwarded his case —which includes copies of 80 emails and nearly 60 other documents— to Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary. He also reached out to the McClatchy news service with his concerns.

The secrecy rules that apply to those who work for the US Intelligence Community prevent Reidy from disclosing details of the alleged fraud and intelligence failure, or from specifying the country in which these incidents took place —though it seems from his intelligence résumé  that they probably involve Iran. But in an interview with McClatchy news service, the intelligence contractor voiced grave concerns about the internal investigation process in the CIA. “I played by the rules [and] they are broken”, he said. “The public has to realize that whistleblowers [like me] can follow all the rules and nothing gets done”, added Reidy. He went on to warn that if the CIA does not improve its internal investigation system, leaks to the media “may grow worse”.

McClatchy contacted the CIA about Reidy’s concerns and was told by a spokesperson, Heather Fritz Horniak, that, “as a general matter, [the CIA does] not comment on ongoing litigation”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 July 2017 | Permalink

Russian aid center in Serbia rejects claims that it is an intelligence base

Russian-Serbian Humanitarian CenterStaff at a Russian disaster relief center in southern Serbia have rejected claims by American officials that the facility operates as an espionage arm of Moscow’s foreign policy in the Balkans. The Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center was built in 2012, at a cost of nearly $40 million, following an agreement between Belgrade and Moscow. Its stated mission is to “provide humanitarian emergency response in Serbia and other Balkan states” through the provision of humanitarian assistance to those in need and training local emergency response crews. The center is located in the outskirts of Serbia’s fourth largest city of Niš, not far from the country’s border with Kosovo, a former Serbian province that unilaterally declared independence in 2008. Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence, a decision that is strongly backed by Russia. It is also close to the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s peacekeeping force stationed in Kosovo, which houses 4,000 international troops, including 600 Americans.

Western officials have raised concerns that the disaster relief center is in reality an intelligence base, from which Russia conducts some of its espionage operations in the Western Balkans. It has also been suggested that the center could operate as a military base in a potential Russian military operation in the former communist state. In June, the United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Hoyt Brian Yee, publicly described the compound as “the so-called humanitarian center” in Serbia. Speaking during a US Senate hearing on southeastern European politics, Yee said the Department of State was concerned about the center’s unofficial use. He also expressed reservations about Moscow’s request that the Serbian government grants the center diplomatic immunity, similar to that which covers the activities of the Russian embassy in Belgrade.

Moscow responded to American allegations of espionage by inviting local and international media representatives to the center on Wednesday. The center’s co-director, Viacheslav Vlasenko, told reporters that the center was “very open”, adding that its staff consisted of 15 Serbs and five Russians who were dispatched to Serbia from Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations, known as EMERCOM. Vlasenko said that Moscow’s request for diplomatic immunity for the center was solely aimed at reducing the annual taxes that the facility had to pay.

Regular readers of intelNews will recall allegations made last October by authorities in Serbia’s neighboring state of Montenegro —later repeated by Britain— that nationalists from Russia and Serbia were behind a failed plot to kill the country’s then-Prime Minister Milo Dukanović and spark a pro-Russian coup in the country. The allegations surfaced after 20 Serbians and Montenegrins were arrested by police in Montenegro on election day, October 16, as Montenegrins were voting across the Balkan country of 650,000 people. In response to allegations that the coup had been hatched in neighboring Serbia, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić said that he would not allow Serbia to “act as the puppet of world powers”, a comment that was clearly directed at Moscow. Russia has vehemently denied the allegations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 July 2017 | Permalink

Russia allegedly planning to expel 30 American diplomats in a few weeks

US embassy in MoscowRussia is planning to expel approximately 30 American diplomats from its territory, and seize buildings and property belonging to the United States Department of State, according to Russian media reports. The expulsions will be in response to the expulsion last December of 35 Russian diplomats stationed in the US by the administration of President Barack Obama. In addition to expelling the diplomats, Washington also reclaimed two “recreational facilities” (in reality intelligence outposts) that were used by the Russians in New York and Maryland. The White House said that the expulsions were ordered in response to alleged efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election.

Observers, including the present author, were confident at the time that the Kremlin would respond in kind. In a surprising move, however, the Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would not respond to Mr. Obama’s move, in the hope that US-Russian relations would improve with the arrival of the new president in the White House. He added that Russia reserved the right to retaliate at a later time. Moscow’s response was met with praise by the then-president-elect Donald Trump and his transition team.

But Russia’s hopes for warmer relations with the US under Mr. Trump’s leadership do not seem to be materializing. A recent article in the daily Russian newspaper Izvestia reported that the Kremlin thought it was “outrageous” that the Trump White House had not yet returned the two seized compounds to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and not rescinded the expulsions of the 35 diplomats and their families. It also claimed that President Putin raised the issue with his US counterpart during their July 7 meeting in the German city of Hamburg. The Moscow-based newspaper quoted unnamed senior Russian officials, who said that Russia was preparing to expel dozens of American diplomats and seize US diplomatic facilities soon.

It appears that Russia will wait until the upcoming meeting between the US Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon and the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, which has been scheduled for later this month in St. Petersburg. If no US assurances for the return of the compounds and diplomats are made at that time, Moscow will proceed with its tit-for-tat plan. When asked about Izvestia’s article, the Russian Minster of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, replied that the Kremlin was “weighing specific measures” in response to last December’s expulsions of Russian diplomats from the US. However, Mr. Lavrov said he did not want to elaborate at the present time, while also refusing to deny the newspaper’s allegations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 July 2017 | Permalink