Despite retreat, ISIS still earns $50 million a year from oil, says expert

Oil field in SyriaDespite its ongoing territorial retreat, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is earning over $4 million a month from its involvement in the oil trade, according to a leading expert in the finances of the group. In the past, a sizeable portion of the Islamic State’s income came from oil revenues, as the group controlled several major oilfields in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. But the loss of its territory in the past year has delivered a sharp blow to the Islamic State’s finances. The group has lost virtually every oilfield that it used to control in northern Iraq, while two weeks ago it conceded Syria’s most lucrative oilfield, the Omar oilfield, which it controlled since July of 2013. In early October, the United States-led coalition estimated that the Islamic State’s oil revenues had fallen to approximately $4 million a month, down 90 percent from the group’s financial peak of $40 million a month in 2015.

But a leading expert in the Islamic State’s finances has warned that the group’s oil revenues remain formidable and should not be dismissed as insignificant. Dr. Patrick Johnston, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, told The Cipher Brief last week that the Sunni militant group will continue to profit from the oil trade in the foreseeable future. Johnston said that Islamic State coffers will most likely receive nearly $50 million this year from oil profits alone, an amount that remains formidable for any militant group. Much of that will come from extortion, said the RAND Corporation scientist, as groups of Islamic State fighters force commercial enterprises —including oil installations— in eastern Syria to pay them for “protection”. Additionally, the group continues to tax energy consumption in the areas that it controls, while also taxing fuel trucks that transit through areas under its control. As the militant group’s expenses shrink due to its loss of territory, and as its financial obligations decrease, its oil-derived revenue will be more than sufficient to sustain its operations, according to Johnston.

Essentially, as the Islamic State continues to transform from a state-like structure into an insurgency, its financial model is morphing accordingly, says Johnston. It follows that the US-led coalition must alter its approach into disrupting the group’s financial operations. So far, says the RAND scientist, the Counter-ISIS Finance Group (CIFG), which coordinates efforts to counter the militant group’s finances between coalition partners, has been relatively successful. A parallel effort by the US military, known as Operation TIDAL WAVE II, has managed to limit the Islamic State’s oil-related activities. But the coalition should be careful while restoring the oil industry in areas previously held by the Islamic State. Otherwise, “without rigorous monitoring and evaluation, reconstruction assistance could end up inadvertently resuscitating [the Islamic State] rather than contributing to its demise in Iraq and Syria”, warns Johnston.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 November 2017 | Permalink

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Western agencies warned Lebanese prime minister of assassination plot, say Saudis

Saad al-HaririWestern intelligence services warned Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri of an assassination plot against him, thus prompting him to resign on Sunday, according to Saudi news media. Hariri is a Saudi-born Lebanese politician, reputed to be one of the world’s wealthiest people. He is the second son of the late Rafiq Hariri, who ruled Lebanon for much of the 1990s but was assassinated in 2005. Saad al-Hariri spent most of his life in Saudi Arabia, the United States and France, but returned to Lebanon in 2014 to lead the Future Movement, a center-right political party supported by Sunni Muslims and some Christians. He became prime minister in 2016.

On Friday, Hariri flew from Beirut to Riyadh for a scheduled high-level visit. But on Sunday he shocked the Arab world by announcing his resignation from the post of prime minister. He did so in a surprise television address from the Saudi capital, which was broadcast live in Lebanon. Hariri told stunned Lebanese audiences that he was resigning in order to protect himself from a plot that was underway to assassinate him. He added that the political climate in Lebanon was intolerably tense and reminded him of the conditions that led to the assassination of his father 12 years ago. He also accused Iran and Hezbollah of acting as the primary destabilizing factors in Lebanon and much of the Middle East. Hariri and his supporters believe that Hezbollah was behind his father’s assassination in 2005. There was intense speculation in Lebanon on Monday that Hariri would remain in Saudi Arabia for the foreseeable future, fearing for his life if he returned to Lebanon.

On Sunday, the Saudi-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat claimed that Hariri decided to resign after he “received warnings from Western governments” that there would be an assassination plot against him. The newspaper did not name the Western governments, nor did it identify those who are allegedly trying to kill Hariri. Later on Sunday, Saudi television station al-Arabiya al-Hadath alleged that an assassination attempt against Hariri had been stopped at the last minute in the Lebanese capital Beirut earlier in the week. Both news media cited “sources close” to the Lebanese leader, but did not provide specific information, nor did they give details of the alleged plot or plots. It is worth noting, however, that Lebanese security officials denied these reports from Riyadh. Lebanese media quoted senior security official Major General Abbas Ibrahim as saying that no information about assassination plots had been uncovered. Major Ibrahim, who heads Lebanon’s General Directorate of General Security, said that his agency had no information about attempts to kill Hariri or other Lebanese political figures.

This could mean that the information about a possible assassination plot against Hariri was given directly to him by Western intelligence agencies, probably because the latter fear that Lebanese security agencies are infiltrated by Hezbollah sympathizers. Or it could mean that the Saudi media reports are inaccurate. Lebanon is now awaiting further details by Hariri regarding the alleged assassination plot against him. In the meantime, the already fragile political life of Lebanon appears to be entering a period of prolonged uncertainty.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 November 2017 | Permalink | Research Credit: B.M.

Analysis: Dozens of royals arrested in weekend raids throughout Saudi Arabia

King Salman with Crown Prince MohammedDozens of Saudi senior figures, some of them among the world’s wealthiest people, have been fired or arrested, as the king and his son appeared to be removing their last remaining critics from the ranks of the security services. The unprecedented arrests took place without warning less than two hours after state-run media announced the creation of a new “supreme committee to combat corruption”. A royal decree issued on the same day named the head of the committee as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s 32-year-old son, who is first in line to the throne.

By Saturday night, nearly 50 senior officials, including at least 11 princes, had reportedly been fired or arrested. The substantial list features four current and at least 20 former ministers, most of them members of the Saudi royal family. Reports from Riyadh said that among those arrested were Saleh Abdullah Kamel, chairman of the General Council for Islamic Banks, Arab media baron Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a senior member of the Saudi royal family and one of the world’s wealthiest people. Prince Alwaleed is a major investor in technology companies such as Twitter and Apple, and is seen as a high-profile social reformer in the kingdom.

More importantly, Saturday saw the firing of Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah from the post of Minister of the Saudi Arabian National Guard Forces. He was replaced by Prince Khalid bin Ayyaf al-Muqrin, who until last week served as one of Prince Mutaib’s subordinates. The royal palace offered no precise explanation for the removal of Prince Mutaib and the three other government ministers. A statement released to the media said that the new effort against corruption was prompted by “the propensity of some people for abuse, putting their personal interest above public interest, and stealing public funds”. But there was no direct mention of Prince Mutaib in the statement, and no charges of corruption against him were made public. It is possible that the prince’s firing may not be directly related to the anticorruption drive.

However, few Saudi observers will believe that a genuine anticorruption crusade was behind last weekend’s arrests of senior officials. In a country were nepotism and corruption are not simply endemic, but serve as the driving engine of the economy, virtually nobody believes that the system can be reformed from within. Moreover, it cannot possibly be reformed by the royal family, which is the most prolific source of corruption in the oil-rich kingdom. So what exactly is going on?

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Netanyahu allegedly asked Trump to let spy Jonathan Pollard move to Israel

Jonathan PollardIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly asked the United States President Donald Trump to allow Jonathan Pollard, an American who spied on his country for Israel in the 1980s, to immigrate to Tel Aviv. Pollard, a former intelligence analyst for the US Navy, was released from an American prison in 2015, after serving 30 years for selling US government secrets to Israel. Throughout Pollard’s time in prison, the government of Israel lobbied for his release, claiming that the convicted spy did not harm American interests, but was simply trying to help Israel. But the US Intelligence Community has consistently rejected Israel’s claims, arguing that Pollard’s activities were severely detrimental to American interests. At the end, successive American presidents refused to pardon Pollard. He was released in November of 2015, after serving his entire 30-year sentence.

Pollard, who was given Israeli citizenship in recognition for his services to the Jewish state, has repeatedly stated his desire to renounce his American citizenship and immigrate to Israel. However, the conditions of his release prevent him from doing so. Since his release, he has been forced to wear a GPS monitoring device at all times and is not allowed to leave his New York apartment between 7:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., nor is he allowed to leave the United States for any reason. It is speculated that this restriction is designed to prevent him from accessing close to $1 million in spy wages that his Israeli handlers are reputed to have deposited in a Swiss bank account.

But with a new administration now in Washington, the Israeli government believes that it may be able to press for the relaxation of some of the restrictions imposed on Pollard. According to the Israeli television station Channel 2, Prime Minister Netanyahu has personally lobbied President Trump to allow Pollard to leave America for Israel. According to the report, the Israeli prime minister told Mr. Trump that, if allowed to move to Israel, Pollard would abide by the same restrictions that he currently follows in New York. These reportedly include a strict daily curfew and limitations on foreign travel. Channel 2 said that Israeli is seeking to get custody of Pollard in return for its alleged efforts to re-enter negotiations with Fatah, the Palestinian group that governs the Occupied Territories. The television station said that American officials appear hesitant to allow Pollard to go to Israel. Even if Israel’s request is granted, the American side does not want to link Pollard’s case to the Arab-Israeli peace process, it said.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 November 2017 | Permalink

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.

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