Analysis: Despite tragic deaths, New York attack reveals a weakened ISIS

Lower Manhattan attackNews reports hastened to describe Tuesday’s atrocity in Lower Manhattan as “the worst terror attack in New York since September 11, 2001”. The comparison may be numerically accurate. Moreover, the deaths caused by the attack are nothing short of tragic. But if the Islamic State’s deadliest response to its retreat in the Middle East is a clumsy truck driver armed with a pellet gun, then Americans have little to fear from the terrorist group.

For months now, Western counter-terrorism experts have been bracing for a change of tactics by the Sunni group, which in 2014 controlled territory in Iraq and Syria equal to the size of England. The prevailing theory in security circles is that, as the Islamic State is forced to retreat in the Middle East, it will unleash waves of sleeper cells against Western targets abroad. This concern is logical, given the militant group’s obsession with its public image. At every turn since its dramatic rise in 2013, the Islamic State has consciously tried to project an appearance of strength that is far greater than its actual capabilities. In its public statements, the group has consistently extolled its ability to strike at distant targets regardless of its territorial strength in the Middle East. This applies especially to attacks by the Islamic State in Europe, which have tended to come in response to intense media speculation that the group’s territorial hold may be weakening.

One presumes that a terrorist attack in New York, a symbolic site in the ‘war on terrorism’, would aim to do just that: namely project an image of continuing strength and convince global audiences that the group remains potent. Yet, despite the tragic loss of eight lives, Tuesday’s attack in Manhattan did nothing of the sort.

To begin with, an attack on cyclists with a rented utility vehicle is hardly ground-breaking at this point. In the past 18 months, we have seen similar types of attacks in London (on two separate occasions), in Barcelona’s Las Ramblas mall, in downtown Berlin, and in Nice, where a 19-ton cargo truck was used to kill 86 people. Terrorist groups are by nature conservative in their operations, preferring to use low-tech, time-tested methods to dispense violence, rather than risk failure by breaking new ground. But at a time like this, when the very existence of the Islamic State hangs in the balance, one would think that the group would consciously try to intimidate its opponents by showing off some kind of revolutionary new weapon. That did not happen on Tuesday.

Additionally, the perpetrator of the attack, Uzbek immigrant Sayfullo Saipov, is hardly an inspiring figure for Islamic State supporters. After running over a group of unsuspecting cyclists, the 29-year-old Florida resident clumsily smashed his rented truck head-on into a vehicle that was far larger and heavier than his own, thus completely destroying his vehicle’s engine and effectively disabling his only weapon. He then jumped out of the truck, apparently wielding a pellet gun and a paintball gun. Mobile phone footage captured from a nearby building shows Saipov walking in a disoriented manner through Manhattan traffic before being shot by police officers. If —as it seems— the Islamic State was behind that attack, it would mean that modern history’s most formidable terrorist group failed to get a pistol in a country where firearms are in some cases easier to secure than nasal decongestant.

Choice of weapon aside, one does not need to be a counter-terrorism expert to conclude that Saipov lacked basic operational and planning skills. His attack behavior shows that he had failed to carry out even rudimentary prior reconnaissance of the area where he launched his attack. He even appears to have failed to read Tuesday’s New York Post. Had he done so, he would have known that the heavily attended annual Village Halloween Parade was scheduled to take place on the very same street, just two hours after he launched his deranged attack.

Once again, the question is: if the Islamic State does not utilize its deadliest and most capable operatives now, when its very existence in its Middle Eastern stronghold is being directly challenged, then when will it do so? By all accounts, the militant group’s leaders are well-read on recent history. They are therefore fully aware that, in the post-9/11 age, clumsy, low-tech, limited terrorist strikes by lone-wolf operatives lack the capacity to intimidate civilian populations, especially in New York.

Western counter-terrorism agencies and citizens alike should remain vigilant; but early evidence shows that the Islamic State is simply too weak to launch sophisticated, large-scale strikes against Western targets abroad. As I have argued before, the threat level would change if the militant group acquires chemical weapons or other tools of mass terrorism. For now, however, it is safe to state that the Islamic State’s capabilities do not pose anything close to an existential threat to the West.

► About the author: Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis is Associate Professor in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University. Before joining Coastal, Dr. Fitsanakis built the Security and Intelligence Studies program at King University, where he also directed the King Institute for Security and Intelligence Studies. He is also deputy director of the European Intelligence Academy and senior editor at intelNews.org.

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Attack kills wife of Ukraine commander behind alleged plan to assassinate Putin

Amina Okuyeva Adam OsmayevAn armed attack in the outskirts of Kiev has killed the wife of a Chechen commander of a Ukrainian paramilitary unit, who is wanted in Russia for an alleged plan to kill President Vladimir Putin. Adam Osmayev is believed to have survived the attack, but his wife, Amina Okuyeva, was reportedly shot in the head and died on the spot. Osmayev, a Russian Chechen, became widely known in Ukraine in February of 2012, when he was arrested by police in Odessa, a major port city located on the northwestern shore of the Black Sea in the country’s south. He was found to be carrying forged identity documents. When police searched his apartment, they found large quantities of illegal explosives. Authorities in Moscow told the Ukrainian government that Osmayev was involved in a conspiracy to kill Russian President Vladimir Putin. A Chechen associate of Osmayev, Ilya Pyanzin, was handed over to Russia by the Ukrainians and was given a 10-year prison sentence by a Moscow court.

But Osmayev’s legal team was able to argue that his human rights would not be guaranteed if Ukraine extradited him to Russia. In 2013, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Osmayev should serve his sentence in Ukraine, at which point Kiev rejected Moscow’s extradition request. In late 2014, Osmayev was released from prison and allowed to remain in Ukraine. Soon after his release from prison, Osmayev entered the ranks of the Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion. The armed group was one of over 30 paramilitary units organized by Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense to combat pro-Russian separatists in southeastern Ukraine. By early 2015, Osmayev had risen to the rank of commander of the battalion and was increasingly treated as a celebrity by Ukrainian nationalists. But he continued to face threats from Russia and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. On June 1 of this year, Osmayev and Okuyeva survived an apparent assassination attempt by a man who was wounded but managed to escape following a shootout with the couple.

Ukrainian media reported on Monday that Okuyeva was killed earlier that day, after the car that her husband was driving was ambushed by a group of masked assailants on the outskirts of Kiev. According to eyewitnesses’ accounts, the assailants opened fire at Osmayev’s car as it was passing through a railway crossing. Osmayev was reportedly injured in the attack, but Okuyeva was shot in the head and died at the scene. Footage aired on Ukrainian national television showed Osmayev’s heavily damaged car, which reportedly sustained “a hail of bullets” fired by the attackers. The Chechen paramilitary commander told reporters that the attackers’ main goal was to assassinate him. No group or government has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 October 2017 | Permalink

Islamist gunmen who stormed Mogadishu hotel posed as intelligence officers

Mogadishu SomaliaA group of Islamist gunmen who stormed a well-known hotel in the Somali capital on Saturday, killing and wounding dozens, convincingly posed as officers of the country’s intelligence agency, according to officials. The attack began when a truck was driven in broad daylight through the front gate of Naso-Hablod, a hotel located a few blocks from the presidential palace in Mogadishu. Shortly after the hotel’s front entrance was demolished, five heavily armed men rushed to the scene and entered the building. They told police forces and the hotel’s private security guards that they were officers of the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) of Somalia. According to police reports, the men wore uniforms displaying NISA insignia and displayed NISA identity cards bearing their photographs and names.

But the men were members of al-Shabaab, a Somali-based Sunni insurgency group that claimed responsibility for the attack on the Naso-Hablod less than an hour after the truck bomb exploded. After gaining entrance into the hotel, three of the heavily armed men fought back attempts by Somali police and security forces to enter the building. The remaining two Islamists entered guest rooms and shot guests, ultimately killing 30. The killings continued for 12 hours, until three of the five attackers were shot dead. Two more were captured alive, still dressed in NISA uniforms with what appeared to be NISA-issued identity cards pinned on them. Government officials told local media that the uniforms and identity cards worn by the attackers did not differ from those issued to actual NISA employees.

On Sunday, the government of Somalia announced the firing of NISA’s Director-General, Abdullahi Mohamed Ali. The head of the federal police, General Abdihakim Saeed, was also dismissed at the same time. According to reports from the Somali capital, the government is concerned about a possible NISA connection to the Naso-Hablod attack. There are fears that al-Shabaab may have systematically infiltrated the intelligence service, or that the group may have sympathizers within the ranks of the agency. Two weeks ago, the Somali capital witnessed the worst terrorist attack in its recent history, when a massive bomb killed over 350 people. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but most observers believe that al-Shabaab was behind it.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 October 2017 | Permalink

Officials puzzled by attacks that killed 16 in relatively stable Mozambique

Filipe NyusiIn a surprise move, the president of Mozambique has fired the head of the military and the director of the country’s intelligence service, two weeks after attacks by an unidentified group left 16 people dead in a northern town. The attacks occurred on October 5 and 6 in Mocimboa da Praia, a small town of about 30,000 people located along Mozambique’s extreme northern coastline. The town lies only a few miles south of Mozambique’s border with Tanzania and within sight of several offshore gas fields in the Indian Ocean. According to local reports, several dozen assailants targeted police stations in Mocimboa da Praia with firearms and explosives, killing two police officers. An estimated 14 assailants also died in the coordinated attacks, while at least 12 more were wounded. Police forces were able to reclaim control of the town only after the eventual arrival of reinforcements from the tourist resort of Pemba, located 350 miles to the south of Mocimboa da Praia.

Two weeks after the attacks, however, the ideological backgrounds and motives of the assailants remain unclear. Mozambique has seen armed attacks by guerrillas before, but these are usually attributed to Renamo, a rightwing paramilitary group that was financially supported by Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa during the Cold War. The group is still in existence, but has mostly transformed itself into a political party. Its military wing declared a unilateral ceasefire in December of last year, which has been broadly observed. Importantly, the government did not attribute the Mocimboa da Praia attacks to Renamo. But if Renamo was not behind the attacks, then who was it? Local reports have mentioned a so-called “radical Islamist sect”; but Mozambique is a predominantly Christian country and does not have a history of Islamic radicalism. Nor is there known activity in Mozambique of African Islamist groups like Boko Haram or Al-Shabaab, which are strong in western and eastern Africa respectively.

In the days following the attacks in Mocimboa da Praia, police detained 52 people, including Muslim religious leaders, and confiscated half a dozen firearms, as well as hundreds of rounds of ammunition. But by the middle of last week, police officials began to dismiss earlier claims that the attackers were linked to an organized terrorist group. Some southeastern Africa watchers have suggested that the assailants were members of Swalissuna, a locally based militant opposition group that rejects the authority of the central government in capital Maputo, located in Mozambique’s south. The group is virtually unknown and is believed to have been founded in 2011 or 2012. It has no religious affiliation and its members are motivated by domestic grievances related to economic restructuring, corruption and political reform.

On Tuesday, Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi announced the surprise replacement of the country’s two most powerful security officials. Lagos Lidimo, director general of the State Information and Security Service (SISE), which reports directly to the President, was dismissed overnight and replaced by Julio Jane, who until Monday was the commander of the Mozambican National Police. Also replaced was Graça Chongo, head of the country’s armed forces. His replacement has not yet been named.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 October 2017 | Permalink

Russian spies arrested by the FBI in 2010 had targeted Hillary Clinton

Hillary ClintonA major reason behind the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s decision to arrest ten Russian spies across the United States in 2010 was their increasing proximity to the then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it has been claimed. The spies had been specifically instructed by their handlers in Moscow to target Clinton, who was seen as the most likely successor to US President Barack Obama, according to recently released FBI files. Ten Russian deep-cover spies, who had no official cover and thus no diplomatic immunity, were arrested by the FBI in June 2010, following a ten-year counterintelligence investigation codenamed Operation GHOST STORIES.

The ten had entered the country from various destinations, including Canada, Latin America and Europe. Some were posing as citizens of third countries, while others had fraudulently assumed the names of dead Americans. They had been tasked by the SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, with blending into American society and finding their way into senior policy circles in Washington, DC, and other major decision-making hubs of the US government. US Justice Department documents refer to the SVR spy ring as “the illegals program” or “the Russian illegals program”.

On Sunday, the Washington-based newspaper The Hill said that it was able to shed more light into the Russian illegals program, after accessing recently unsealed FBI documents and interviewing US government officials. The paper said that the SVR had specifically instructed some of the illegals to concentrate on penetrating the Department of State. Their primary goal was to uncover information about the Obama administration’s policy on Russia. A key target of the Russian illegals was US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was seen by Moscow as the leading voice on Washington’s Russia policy. Read more of this post

Analysis: West should prepare for chemical attacks by the Islamic State

Biochemical terrorismA German newspaper reported last week that at least one European intelligence agency has already warned that the Islamic State is exploring the use of chemicals for attacks in Europe. Such an eventuality would be a radical departure from prior attacks by the Islamic State in the West. In the past, the militant group has shown a strong preference for low-tech means of dispensing violence, such as firearms, vehicles and knives. But it has utilized chemical substances in Iraq and Syria, and its technical experts have amassed significant knowledge about weaponized chemicals.

Last week, several European and American counter-terrorism experts participated in a bioterrorism preparedness exercise in Berlin. Codenamed WUNDERBAUM, the exercise was one of several anti-terrorism drills that have taken place in the German capital this year alone. But last week’s drill was the first with an exclusive focus on preparing for a bioterrorist attack. German authorities insisted that the drill was not sparked by concrete intelligence of a pending biological or chemical attack. But the Berlin-based national newspaper Die Welt claimed on Friday that it had information about at least one such warning by a European intelligence agency. The paper did not name the agency, but said that “a foreign intelligence agency” had warned European security authorities of a possible terrorist attack by the Islamic State using chemical weapons. According to Die Welt, the warning was “explicit” and cautioned that the Sunni militant group may be preparing to use improvised bombs utilizing chemicals, including toxic gasses. The warning was communicated to European intelligence agencies, including Germany’s said Die Welt.

How likely is such a scenario? Terrorist groups tend to be conservative in their use of lethal technologies. They typically opt for time-tested methods using explosives or firearms, because these have a higher of success in comparison to more sophisticated, hi-tech weapons. The latter are also more expensive to build and require scientific and technical capabilities that are not typically available to terrorist organizations. Militants are usually strapped for cash, and are not science-savvy, so exceptions to this general trend are rare. But the Islamic State is different. Read more of this post

Security and mass murder after 9/11: Lessons from Las Vegas

Las Vegas shootingThere’s a reason why America has not experienced another 9/11, and it’s not because militants are not trying. Through a series of sweeping reforms prompted by the tragic events of that day, United States intelligence and security agencies have become extremely efficient at preventing large-scale terrorist and criminal violence. Using increasingly sophisticated methods of intelligence collection, analysis and even prediction, counter-terrorism and security experts have neutralized countless attempts to replicate —or even surpass— the horror of 9/11.

But aspiring terrorists and mass murderers are learning fast. Despite their relatively young age, many are now disciplined enough to resist the temptations of the networked culture that surrounds them, and abstain from social media. They isolate themselves physically and emotionally from family and friends, creating a virtual wall that prevents even those close to them from noticing unusual signs of behavior. They effectively replicate the isolation of Ted Kaczynski, the infamous Unabomber, but without the hermit beard and the log cabin in the backwoods of Montana. Most important of all, they work alone, which makes it immensely difficult to sense their murderous intentions. Counter-terrorism and security experts are trained to detect possible attacks by penetrating the communications between members of a conspiracy. When the operative is a lone wolf, and does not communicate his or her plans, the points of possible penetration diminish, as does the possibility of detection.

The case of Stephen Paddock, the 64-year-old retired accountant who perpetrated the Las Vegas shooting earlier this month, is indicative of the above trends. So secretive and emotionally isolated was he, that there exists no discernible evidence of his motive for killing 58 and injuring 546 people at an outdoor concert on the Las Vegas Strip. Moreover, Paddock had access to an expensive, sophisticated and extremely lethal arsenal. As is common with post-9/11 mass murderers, he avoided resorting to using bomb material, because he knew that these types of purchases are being carefully monitored by authorities after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Read more of this post