Analysis: Iran’s energy sector is now a high-stakes espionage target

Iran Petroleum Oil MinistryThe state-owned energy sector of Iran, one of the world’s most lucrative, has become a major target of international espionage since the imposition of new sanctions by the United States this year. The purpose of Washington’s sanctions is to limit the Islamic Republic’s ability to export energy, and by doing so end the country’s reliance on its primary source of income. It is estimated that Tehran’s energy exports have fallen by about 80 percent during the past year, and may continue to fall if the US has its way. This means that American and Iranian intelligence agencies are currently engaged in an intense war of espionage that concentrates on what remains of Iran’s oil exports. Iran continues to entice international buyers by selling energy at below-market prices, while sales are facilitated through the use of throwaway bank accounts that are difficult to trace. Exports are then carefully smuggled into overseas destinations through a variety of means.

In an article published last week, The New York Times’ Farnaz Fassihi explains that every snippet of information about Iran’s oil industry has now become “a prized geopolitical weapon” in a “a high-stakes global game of espionage and counterespionage”. Fassihi quotes a recent statement by Iran’s Minister of Petroleum Bijan Zanganeh that “information about Iran’s oil exports is war information”. That includes information on how Iran manages to deliver its exports abroad and how it gets paid for doing so. Once the US tightened its sanctions on Tehran, Iranian energy officials began to suspect that most inquiries to purchase oil were from foreign spies in search of information on the methods of transaction, writes Fassihi. So the Ministry of Petroleum stopped allowing thousands of freelance energy brokers to mediate between it and buyers. It proceeded to concentrate all transactions into the hands of fewer than five vetted individuals with prior tenure in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and other vetted government agencies. It also began to train Ministry officials on security and counterespionage protocols.

When the Iranians made it difficult to access information through the Ministry of Petroleum, foreign spy agencies changed their tactics, writes Fassihi. They used foreign academic researchers, including PhD students, who offered payments in hard cash for information on Iranian oil export methods that would help them in their research. Others descended on Tehran offering visas to the US, alcohol, prostitutes, and cash payments ranging from $100,000 to over $1 million in exchange for intelligence on the Iranian energy export sector. There is an atmosphere of paranoia in the Iranian capital, writes Fassihi, and the process of purchasing oil from Iran resembles a Hollywood spy thriller. Representatives of foreign buyers are asked to come to Tehran in person and are regularly required to switch hotels in the middle of the night. Additionally, once a transaction is agreed upon, the buyer’s representative is required to stay at a Petroleum Ministry safe house until the funds are transferred into Iranian government coffers. After that, the representative is allowed to leave, writes Fassihi.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 August 2019 | Permalink

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Analysis: Tension grows between Iraqi state and Shiite militias that helped fight ISIS

Popular Mobilization ForcesA powerful alliance of about 50 Shiite militias, who helped Iraq defeat the Islamic State, is resisting calls by the Iraqi government to surrender its weapons and join civilian life, according to observers on the ground. Much of the territory captured from the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) in northern Iraq is currently controlled by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a collection of around 40 different Shiite militias consisting of over 150,000 armed fighters. The militias began to form in the summer of 2014, after Sayyid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shiite community, issued a fatwa (religious degree) that called or the destruction of ISIS. The Iranian-supported PMF proved instrumental in the territorial defeat of ISIS. However, the group’s leadership is ideologically aligned with Iran, and many of its members will not cooperate with the Iraqi Armed Forces, because of the latter’s proximity to the United States.

According to the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, northern Iraqi cities like Mosul, Bashiqa and Nineveh are largely under the command of the PMF today, a full 18 months after they were recaptured from ISIS. All political and economic activity in the region is controlled by PMF fighters operating under the command of the 30th Brigade, which is one of the most hardline pro-Iranian militias in the PMF. It is alleged that the militias receive economic kickbacks from Shiite-owned Iraqi firms who are awarded multi-million dollar contracts to rebuild the city. Meanwhile, as The Washington Post and other news media have reported, PMF militia members are beginning to exhibit “mafia-like” behavior, establishing protection rackets and kidnapping motorists at night in order to release them for a fee paid by their families. There are also allegations, made by Deutsche Welle and other Western media, that the PMF has conducted mass executions of Iraqi Sunnis as part of its goal to rid Iraq of Sunni Islam.

Last month, Iraqi Armed Forces tried to dismantle PMF-controlled checkpoints into Mosul, but was confronted by armed PMF forces who refused to cede contro. Following the failed attempt to recapture the checkpoints, Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi warned the PMF that it had until July 31 to disband. Its members were called to join a newly established gendarmerie under the command of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. Failure to do so would mean that the militias would be considered outlaws and would be treated as such by the Iraqi Armed Forces, the prime minister warned. But the PMF has requested more time to lay down its weapons, as some of its more moderate commanders are trying to convince the Iran-aligned militias to declare allegiance to a state army that they consider to be pro-American. The future will show how likely that is to happen.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 August 2019 | Permalink

Al-Qaeda is enduring security threat despite Hamza bin Laden’s death, experts warn

Al-Qaeda in YemenAl-Qaeda and its affiliate groups continue to be the most persistent transnational threats to the security of the West, according to experts who spoke after the alleged death of Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza. Last week The New York Times reported that Hamza bin Laden, widely seen as an ascending figure in the group that his father co-founded in the 1980s, was killed sometime after 2017. The paper cited two anonymous United States government officials who said that Hamza bin Laden died in 2017 or 2018 as a result of a military operation led by an unnamed state.

But experts have since warned that the death of Hamza bin Laden has not significantly weakened al-Qaeda. At a briefing in Washington on Thursday, Nathan Sales, a US Department of State acting under secretary who focuses on security and terrorism, stressed that “al-Qaeda is as strong as it has ever been”. The group’s relative quietness in recent years should not be perceived as an indication of weakness or resignation, said Sales. On the contrary, the Sunni militant group remains “very much in this fight”, he cautioned. Unlike the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), al-Qaeda has been patient in the past five years and has strategically allowed ISIS to “absorb the brunt of the world’s counterterrorism efforts”, said Sales. During that time, al-Qaeda patiently rebuilt itself and largely recovered from the blow it suffered in the years leading up to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Today al-Qaeda retains significant territory in northwest Syria and is also present throughout Yemen, where it counts on the support of many thousands of armed fighters, according to Sales. Its affiliate group in Somalia was behind a car bombing in Mogadishu in July, while the group also took responsibility for an armed attack in an upscale suburb of Kenya in January of this year. Another expert, Jason Blazakis, who until last year directed the US Department of State’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism, appears to agree with Sales. In an article published last Friday, Blazakis cautioned that Hamza bin Laden’s demise, if true, “doesn’t mean that al Qaeda no longer represents a critical threat to US national security”. On the contrary, he said, the group’s “strategic patience and focus on the ‘far enemy’”, i.e. the United States, make it “the most enduring transnational threat to US national security interests”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 August 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Did the US Central Intelligence Agency lose 17 spies in Iran?

US embassy IranIf the announcements from Tehran are to be believed, the United States Central Intelligence Agency lost at least 17 spies in Iran in the months leading up to March 2019. According to Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, the Islamic Republic busted an alleged “CIA network” operating in sensitive private sector companies and government agencies that relate to defense, aerospace and energy. At least some of the 17 alleged spies have reportedly been sentenced to death, though their exact number remains unknown.

Officials in Tehran said on Sunday that all of the purported spies are Iranian nationals and were lured by the CIA with promises of receiving visas to enter America. Others were already in possession of visas and were “blackmailed” to spy for the US in order to have them renewed by the US Department of State, according to Iranian media reports. Visa applicants were allegedly carefully selected based on their work in critical areas such as Iran’s nuclear program or defense procurement.

A government-sanctioned documentary, which aired on Iran’s state owned television on Monday, claimed that the 17 spies did not know each other, but all had been trained independently in clandestine tradecraft. This allegedly included setting up and using secret communications systems, as well as carrying out dead drops without being detected. Dead drops utilized containersQ Quote made to look like rocks, which were located “in parks and other mountainous areas” in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East, according to Iranian officials. Some of the assets communicated with their handlers while attending science conferences through- out Europe, Africa and Asia.

The Iranian television documentary claimed that the 17 arrests had “dealt a lethal blow to US foreign intelligence”. But US President Donald Trump said in a tweet that Tehran’s allegations were “totally false” and contained “zero truth”, just “more lies and propaganda” from Tehran.

Who is right? To begin with, there is no question that the CIA recruits heavily in Iran, given that the Islamic Republic is one of America’s —indeed the world’s— primary intelligence targets. What is more, since 1979, when Washington lost its embassy in Iran, the CIA have found it more difficult to collect accurate information from inside the energy-rich country. Therefore, the need for dependable assets inside Iran has increased exponentially, and has become even more pressing now, given the importance placed on Iran by Donald Trump. Additionally, Read more of this post

Analysis: Are US border security officials ignoring terrorism threat from Canada?

Canada borderSince the election of President Donald Trump, the issue of border security between the United States and Mexico has been a major topic of national debate. But is the incessant focus on America’s southern border by the news media and politicians ignoring security concerns emanating from the country’s northern neighbor, Canada? In a thought-provoking editorial in the English-language Emirati newspaper The National, Stephen Starr employs statistics to argue that the flow of extremism from Canada into the US may represent a greater security concern for Washington than immigration flows from Mexico.

According to US government sources, six foreigners whose names featured on the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) —the central terrorist watchlist maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Terrorist Screening Center— attempted to enter the US from Mexico in the first half of 2018. Starr points out that during that same period no fewer than 41 foreigners who were on the TSDB tried to enter the US from Canada. In the past three and a half years, four Canadian residents have been charged with carrying out or conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks on US soil. They include a Palestinian living in Toronto and a Tunisian living in Montreal, who planned to derail a passenger train making the journey from Ontario to New York. Both were jailed for life. Another resident of Canada, Abdulrahman el-Bahnasawy, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for trying to plant bombs in New York’s Times Square and on a New York subway train. El-Bahnasawy, who was 20 when he was sentenced, was directly guided by Islamic State handlers in the Philippines and Pakistan. Starr notes that nearly 200 Canadian citizens and residents are thought to have traveled abroad to fight for the Islamic State, and that around 60 of those are now back in Canada.

While all this is happening, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, America’s main border control organization, which operates under the Department of Homeland Security, appears to be ignoring the country’s northern border. It is worth noting that the 5,525 mile-long border is the longest in the world, but is monitored by no more than about 2,000 CBP agents. In contrast, over 16,000 CBP agents keep tabs on America’s border with Mexico. Responding to political pressure from the White House, the CBP keeps stationing more agents to the southern border. In the meantime, requests by CBP supervisors along the Canadian border to increase their force by 200 agents remain unfulfilled. This is despite the fact that the number of people detained while trying to enter the US illegally from the Canadian province of Quebec has nearly trebled since 2015, notes Starr.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 July 2019 | Permalink

ISIS could make bigger comeback than 2014 in Iraq and Syria, warns new report

ISIS meetingThe Islamic State is capable of make a sudden comeback in the Middle East that could be “faster and even more devastating” than 2014, when the group quickly conquered territory the size of Britain, according to a new report from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). The Washington-based think-tank’s report is based on the most recent data about the presence in the Middle East of the militant Islamist group, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The 76-page report (.pdf) is titled ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency, and is written by ISW’s researchers Jennifer Cafarella, Brandon Wallace and Jason Zhou.

The authors claim that the Islamic State moved its forces undercover during the multinational military campaign that eventually sacked its self-proclaimed caliphate. They go on to explain that by “deliberately withdrawing and relocating may of its fighters and their families”, the group managed to preserve a large part of its fighting forces, which are “now dispersed across [Iraq and Syria] and are waging a capable insurgency”. The latter is funded through ISIS’ global finance network and armed with weapons and other war materiel that the group managed to hide in tunnel systems and other hidden facilities. Islamic State insurgents have thus been engaged in a broad and largely successful campaign to assassinate village and town elders across Iraq, and have even reestablished a sharia-based taxation system in some of Iraq’s predominantly Sunni areas. The group also retains a significant presence in Syria, where it continues to battle the Syrian regime, US-supported Kurdish forces, and other Sunni militant groups, including al-Qaeda, according to the report.

Through its widening insurgency, the Islamic State has managed to subvert Iraqi and Syrian government efforts to reintroduce a semblance of stability and safety in areas previously conquered by the militant group. In fact, not only are government forces finding it “increasingly difficult to establish durable and legitimate security and political structures” in those areas, but they should be worried about the possibility of ISIS actually reconquering territory in both countries, the report warns. The report’s authors place much of the blame for ISIS’ resurgence at Washington’s door, describing America’s hasty military withdrawal from Iraq and Syria as “a critical mistake”. In its recommendations section, the report calls on the United States to develop and implement a long-term counter-terrorism strategy against ISIS, which will combine military and community-building measures. “Another limited [military] intervention will not be sufficient” to eliminate the threat, the report’s authors claim.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 June 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Yemen conflict shows small-drone warfare ‘is here to stay’, say experts

DroneThe current wars in the Middle East, especially the ongoing conflict in Yemen, are proof that the use of small drones in insurgencies is now a permanent phenomenon of irregular warfare, according to experts. Drones have been used in warfare in the Middle East for almost 20 years —including by outside powers like the United States. But National Public Radio’s Geoff Brumfiel reports that the wars in Iraq and Syria, and especially the war between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels, clearly demonstrate that we have entered “a new era of drone warfare”.

The use of off-the-shelf small drones has been increasing since 2010, with the Syrian Civil War having served as a testing ground for military uses of drones by all sides involved in the conflict. Belligerents quickly realized that the use of drones —whether remotely operated from the ground, or guided by GPS coordinates— could provide useful air power “for a fraction of the cost of fighter jets” employed by national militaries, according to Brumfiel. He quotes numerous drone warfare expects who agree that the ongoing Yemeni Civil War provides the clearest sign yet of the proliferation of drones for military and paramilitary purposes. The Houthi rebels have employed drones to attack government targets and targets such as air fields, oil installations and military bases in neighboring Saudi Arabia. Most of these drones, and the knowledge of how to modify them for military use, are given to the Houthis by Iran, according to RAND Corporation expert Ariane Tabatabai, who is quoted in Brumfiel’s article.

Iran has been developing military drone technology since the 1980s, but did not begin to employ drones outside of its airspace until 2015. The change was prompted by the emergence of the Islamic State emerged as a major Sunni threat to Shiite populations in the region. Iranian drones are now everywhere, from Iraq and Syria to Yemen. These drones, including drones used by the Houthis, are major sources of concern for conventional armies, because they are difficult to detect and destroy, according to Center for a New American Security researcher Nicholas Heras. He told Brumfiel that small drones are difficult to locate by radar, and their flight paths are far more flexible than those of airplanes. Additionally, those drones controllers can use GPS systems to “navigate through holes” in air defenses, said Heras.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 30 May 2019 | Permalink