Assessing the implications of Iran’s missile attack on Iraqi military bases

Iran IraqThe missiles that targeted American troops in Iraq a few hours ago offer significant clues about the evolving confrontation between Iran and the United States. The attack appears to have been largely symbolic —a somewhat rushed attempt to restore some of Iran’s wounded prestige following the assassination of its military commander, Qasem Suleimani. At the same time, however, it is also the prelude to a broader regional conflict that appears increasingly unavoidable.

There are two notable aspects in the attack. First, the fact that Tehran did not —as many expected— take aim at American targets using its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen. Instead, not only did the attack come directly from Iran, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), of which Soleimani was a leading commander, openly claimed responsibility for it. This is a major paradigm shift for the Iranians, who in the past have taken great care to avoid giving any indication of their direct involvement in military or paramilitary attacks on their opponents. It is clear that Q QuoteSoleimani’s killing is viewed by Tehran as too insulting to be responded to indirectly. This does not mean that Tehran will not revert to its standard method of employing proxies in the future. But the fact that it consciously chose to deviate from that time-tested method is in itself extremely important.

The second notable aspect of the attack is that it was markedly muted, especially considering the many options that are available to the Iranians. According to reports, 22 ballistic missiles were fired, most of which struck two military bases housing US troops in western and northern Iraq. The number of missiles fired is surprisingly low, given that Iran possesses the largest ballistic-missile force in the entire Middle East. Additionally, it is interesting that Tehran directed its attacks against the most obvious and predictable American target in the region —uniformed US personnel stationed in what is essentially Iranian-controlled territory. These troops have been on high alert since the moment Soleimani was assassinated. It is therefore highly unsurprising that no American casualties have been reported (although Iranian state media are apparently telling their domestic audiences that “80 terrorists” died in the attack).

The fact remains that, if Iran’s leaders truly wanted to cross the point of no return, they could have attacked American diplomatic facilities in over a dozen countries in the region, including Iraq, Israel, Jordan, and many others. Alternatively, they could have directed their ire against American political and commercial targets in Saudi Arabia, of which there are countless. They could have also sent an unmistakably ominous message to the global financial markets by attacking energy facilities in the region, or by blocking maritime traffic in the Strait of Hormuz. Or they could have carried out all of the above simultaneously, thus virtually ensuring a US response, which would in turn ignite an all-out war. But they didn’t —which should be interpreted that the IRGC is not, for now, interested in going to war. Read more of this post

Cyprus issues international arrest warrants for three Israelis wanted for spying

WiSpear surveillance vanThe government of Cyprus has issued international arrest warrants for three Israeli citizens, who are wanted in connection with a private security company that allegedly carried out espionage operations on the Mediterranean island. The warrants were sparked by what has become known in Cyprus as the “spy van case”.

It began on November 16, 2019, when Cypriot police arrested two local men and a woman who were registered as employees of a company called WiSpear. The firm was reportedly registered in Cyprus in 2013 and began offering services relating to communications interception and surveillance in 2017. Its owner is Tal Dilian, an Israeli former intelligence officer. WiSpear provides services to customers in Africa, the Gulf and Southeast Asia, but not to the government of Cyprus, or to Israel.

The company became widely known on the island following a promotional interview given by Dilian to Forbes, during which he allowed a film crew to tour a surveillance van (pictured) belonging to WiSpear. Dilian told the Forbes reporters that the van —a remodeled ambulance— had been fitted with over $9 million worth of surveillance equipment and could intercept Internet-based applications and telephone messages. The report became viral in Cyprus and prompted calls for an investigation into WiSpear.

On Thursday, the Cypriot government issued international arrest warrants for three Israeli citizens, including Dilian and Shahak Avni, a prominent member of Cyprus’ Jewish community. All are believed to be in Israel, and it is doubtful that they will ever be extradited to Cyprus. The Israeli government has not commented on the case. WiSpear said on December 26 that it was “cooperating fully with Cypriot law enforcement”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 7 January 2020 | Permalink

Analysis: Soleimani’s killing was tactically flawless, but was it strategically wise?

Qasem SoleimaniBy assassinating Qasem Soleimani, a Shia celebrity and the Middle East’s most influential military leader, US President Donald Trump has made the most fateful decision of his presidency to date. Tehran has no option but to respond. When it does, the way that Mr. Trump and his administration handle the situation will largely determine the future of the Middle East and the fate of his presidency. In the meantime,Quote it is becoming increasingly clear that victory, if and when it comes, will not be unblemished for whomever claims it.

Mr. Trump’s decision to assassinate General Soleimani was shocking because it was unexpected. It must be remembered that, not only has this president based his entire political program on his desire to end America’s decades-long military engagement in the Middle East, but he had also in recent months signaled his desire to negotiate with Tehran. In the summer he said he wanted to “make Iran rich again, let them be rich, let them do well, if they want”, adding that no regime change was necessary. In December, following a surprise prisoner exchange between the US and Iran, Mr. Trump tweeted: “Thank you to Iran on a very fair negotiation. See, we can make a deal together!”. The news prompted one notable expert to speak of “a very positive step, because it’s the first time under the Trump Administration that Iran and the US have agreed on anything”. That was on December 8, just 25 days before Soleimani’s Quoteassassination. And yet, while publicly thanking Iran, Trump was likely formulating plans to kill its leading general.

Why did the president do it? To some extent, one should not dismiss his argument that he wanted to put an end to the slow tit-for-tat escalation of tensions in the Middle East, before it boiled over. He wanted to make Iran listen. Writing in The Washington Times just hours after Soleimani’s assassination, former CIA official Charles Faddis noted that Mr. Trump’s decision honored US President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous dictum, “speak softly and carry a big stick”. Your adversary is more willing to listen to you if he is able to “see the big stick, and he needs to understand you will wield it”, wrote Faddis. A few hours later, David Petraeus, former director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, described Mr. Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani as “a very significant effort to reestablish deterrence, which obviously had not been shored up by the relatively insignificant responses up until now”. Read more of this post

Analysis: Middle East on verge of new regional war as US kills top Iran general

Qasem SoleimaniIn an act whose implications are impossible to overstate, the United States has assassinated General Qasem Soleimani, arguably Iran’s second most powerful official. In the early hours of this morning, the entire Middle East stood on the verge of a regional war as the US Department of Defense announced it killed Soleimani in a “defensive action […] aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans”. But Soleimani’s killing will be seen by the Iranian government as nothing short of an official declaration of war. Tehran’s next move will determine the precise form this new war will take.

The United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia have targeted Soleimani for assassination for over a decade. In 2019 alone, Iran reported over half a dozen alleged plots to kill the general, the most recent of which was in early October. Soleimani’s killing is therefore not surprising. Moreover, Washington’s move rests on a number of crucial calculations by the White House, which help explain why US President Donald Trump made the decision to kill Soleimani, and why he did so now.

In the not-too-distant past, some of America’s tactical security goals aligned with Soleimani and his Quds Force —an elite unit inside the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is tasked with exporting the Iranian Revolution abroad. The Iranian paramilitary unit helped Washington deal with the Afghan Taliban in the days after the 9/11 attacks, and its proxies in Iraq and Syria helped the US and its allies deliver fatal blows to the Islamic State. But in doing so, Tehran solidified its power within Iraq, turning its government into a satellite of Iran. The rise of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the Iranian-supported militias in Iraq, is largely a replay of the rise of Hezbollah, Iran’s paramilitary proxy in Lebanon, in the 1980s. Having painted themselves into a corner, America’s political leadership had to act. It chose to do so by essentially ‘decapitating’ the Quds Force, which is the main conduit between Iran and the PMF. It is worth noting that Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the PMF, was also killed in the same strike. Washington’s hope is that these killings can somehow prevent —or at least curtail— the Lebanization of Iraq. Read more of this post

Floor plans of MI6 headquarters in London ‘temporarily lost’ by contractor

MI6The floor plans of the headquarters of MI6, Britain’s foreign-intelligence agency, were temporarily lost by a contractor, an incident that led to a temporary lockdown of the building and the termination of the contract, according to media reports. The alleged incident took place at 85 Albert Embankment, a distinctive-looking building that has served since 1994 as the headquarters of MI6 —known officially as the Secret Intelligence Service, or SIS. The imposing structure is located on the bank of the River Thames alongside Vauxhall Bridge in downtown London.

Up until a few weeks ago, sections of the building were reportedly being refurbished by Balfour Beatty, a multinational construction services company based in London. Balfour Beatty employs over 25,000 workers worldwide and is known as a major British government contractor. According to reports, the company produced several floor plans of the sections of the MI6 headquarters that it had been hired to refurbish. The floor plans were kept in a secure location inside the MI6 building, and were accessible only to cleared Balfour Beatty employees.

A few weeks ago, however, over 100 pages of floor plans went missing, according to the British tabloid The Sun, which first reported the story. The alleged incident prompted a lockdown of the building, said the paper, even though the missing papers were not technically classified. They did, however, contain sensitive information about the layout of the MI6 headquarters, including information about entry and exit points, security features, and other potentially sensitive details.

After a while, “many” of the missing documents were found inside the building, said The Sun. The BBC’s security correspondent Gordon Corera said later that “[m]ost, but not all, of the documents were recovered” inside the building. It was eventually determined that the papers had gone missing due to “carelessness, rather than any hostile activity”, said The Sun, and the Balfour Beatty workers were allowed to leave the building. However, the company has reportedly been removed from the project as a result of what The Sun described as a “shocking security gaffe”.

The Sun and the BBC reached out to Balfour Beatty for comment, but were told that the company could not comment on sensitive matters involving government projects. The British Foreign Office also said that it did not comment on matters involving intelligence.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 December 2019 | Permalink

ISIS forces now patrolling nearly all of northern Iraq, says intelligence official

ISIS IraqThe Islamic State has regrouped, rearmed and refinanced itself, and its forces are now actively patrolling nearly all of northern Iraq, according to a senior intelligence official in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. The Islamic State, which is also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), used to control territory in the Levant that equaled the size of Germany. But its forces were pushed back by an international coalition of state armies and militias, a development that prompted several heads of governments, including United States President Donald Trump, to announce that ISIS had been defeated.

However, senior military and intelligence officials been warning in recent years that ISIS is far from defeated. In an new article published on Sunday, the BBC reports that Kurdish intelligence officials see ISIS as a resurgent organization. The report relies heavily on the views of Lahur Talabany, the head of Iraqi Kurdistan’s Information Protection Agency, which serves as the primary security and counterterrorism organization of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government.

Talabany told the BBC that ISIS is today “like al-Qaeda on steroids”. The group has “better techniques, better tactics and a lot more money at their disposal” than the al-Qaeda of old, he said. The abundance of financial resources allows ISIS to “buy vehicles, weapons, food supplies and equipment”, said Talabany, adding that he is not sure about the precise source of the funds.

In addition to utilizing its strong finances, ISIS has exploited an ongoing dispute between the Kurds of northern Iraq and the central government in Baghdad, which has left large regions of north-central Iraq without an effective government presence. The militant group’s forces are therefore able to carry out daily patrols over “a huge territory, from Diyala to Mosul, which encompasses nearly all of northern Iraq”, said Talabany.

A large portion of ISIS’s forces appear to be based in Iraq’s Hamrin Mountains, which are riddled with deep caves and ravines. But the group maintains nearly 10,000 fighters all over Iraq, said Talabany, of which 5,000 operate as members of sleeper cells and another 5,000 are armed and active members of ISIS.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 December 2019 | Permalink

Russian security services honor members of the Cambridge spy ring with plaque

Guy BurgessThe intelligence service of Russia has openly honored two British members of the so-called Cambridge Five spy ring, who caused great controversy during the Cold War by defecting to Moscow. The intelligence services of the Soviet Union recruited five Enlishmen, H.A.R. ‘Kim’ Philby, John Cairncross, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, as well as an unnamed fifth person, to spy for them in the 1930s. All five were recruited while they were promising young students at Britain’s elite Cambridge University, and entered the diplomatic and security services in order to supply Moscow with classified information about Britain and its allies.

In 1951, shortly before they were detained by British authorities on suspicion of espionage, Burgess and Maclean defected to the Soviet Union. They both lived there under new identities and, according to official histories, as staunch supporters of Soviet communism. Some biographers, however, have suggested that the two Englishmen grew disillusioned with communism while living in the Soviet Union, and were never truly trusted by the authorities Moscow. When they died, however, in 1963 (Burgess) and 1983 (Maclean), the Soviet intelligence services celebrated them as heroes.

On Friday, the Soviet state recognized the two defectors in an official ceremony in the Siberian city of Samara, where they lived for a number of years, until the authorities relocated them to Moscow. Kuibyshev, as the city was known during Soviet times, was technically a vast classified facility where much of the research for the country’s space program took place. While in Kuibyshev, Burgess and Maclean stayed at a Soviet intelligence ‘safe house’, where they were debriefed and frequently interrogated, until their handlers were convinced that they were indeed genuine defectors.

At Friday’s ceremony, officials unveiled a memorial plaque at the entrance to the building where Burgess and Maclean lived. According to the Reuters news agency, the plaque reads: “In this building, from 1952-1955, lived Soviet intelligence officers, members of the ‘Cambridge Five’, Guy Francis Burgess and Donald Maclean”. On the same day, a letter written by Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), one of the institutional descendants of the Soviet-era KGB, appeared online. In the letter, Naryshkin said that Burgess and Maclean had made “a significant contribution to the victory over fascism [during World War II], the protection of [the USSR’s] strategic interests, and ensuring the safety” of the Soviet Union and Russia.

Last year, Russian officials named a busy intersection in Moscow after Harold Adrian Russell Philby. Known as ‘Kim’ to his friends, Philby was a leading member of the Cambridge spies. He followed Burgess and Maclean to the USSR in 1963, where he defected after a long career with the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 December 2019 | Permalink