US airport screenings failed to detect 70% of hidden weapons in tests

TSA screeningAttempts by undercover investigators to smuggle weapons, explosives and contraband aboard American passenger flights were successful between 70 and 80 percent of the time in the past year, according to reports. The results of the investigations were revealed in Congress behind closed doors on Wednesday of last week, prompting lawmakers to severely criticize the United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The TSA was founded in November 2001 in direct response to the tragic events of September 11 of that year. It is primarily concerned with air travel and is responsible for ensuring the safety of the traveling public across the US.

The TSA’s security systems in airports across America are regularly tested by undercover investigators, who are hired to examine and assess the effectiveness of these systems. Last week, several US news media reported that the latest round of tests showed that undercover investigators were more often than not able to sneak dangerous items onboard civilian aircraft. Smuggled items allegedly included guns, explosives and knives, which could be used to carry out hijackings similar to those that brought down four commercial airliners in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. The precise rate of success of the recent tests has not been confirmed, because it has not been released to the public. ABC News said that the rate was close to 80 percent, while CBS reported that it was closer to 70 percent.

Remarkably, similar tests conducted in 2015 were successful 95 percent of the time, meaning that the TSA did considerably better in this year’s tests, despite its abysmally low rate of detection. On Wednesday, members of the US House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security expressed serious concerns about the TSA’s lack of success. They aired their criticisms in the presence of Vice Admiral Peter Pekoske (ret.) who currently serves as the TSA’s Administrator. Some members of the committee also criticized the insistence of the White House on building a border wall instead of investing in air travel security. On Thursday, the TSA released a statement saying it took the results of the recent tests “very seriously” and that it was already taking active measures to “improve screening effectiveness at [airport] checkpoints” across America.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 November 2017 | Permalink | Research credit: C.F.

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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.

Saudis say they busted spy ring, foiled suicide attack on defense ministry

Saudi security forcesOfficials in Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday that they foiled an elaborate suicide attack on the country’s defense ministry headquarters and infiltrated a foreign spy ring in the Kingdom, arresting its members. The near-simultaneous announcements were made by a member of the Presidency of State Security, an intelligence body founded only in July of this year, which is directly accountable to the county’s prime minister.

The government-controlled Saudi Press Agency reported that two Yemeni and two Saudi nationals were arrested in early-morning raids in the capital Riyadh. The four men, said the news agency, were preparing to launch a sophisticated attack against the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense, which is centrally located in the nation’s capital. According to the report, the four would-be attackers had trained in explosives and in the use of suicide belts. Upon searching their safe house in Riyadh, Saudi security officers reportedly found firearms and hand grenades, as well as knives and at least two ready-to-use suicide belts, each weighing in excess of 15 pounds, or 7 kilos. The four men are believed to be members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

In a near-simultaneous announcement, the Presidency of State Security said that its officers had managed to infiltrate an alleged foreign spy cell. The Reuters news agency quoted an anonymous Saudi government source who said that “a group of people” were arrested in Riyadh for carrying out “intelligence activities for the benefit of foreign parties”. The members of the alleged spy ring had regular “contacts with external entities, including the Muslim Brotherhood”, said the anonymous source, referring to the Egyptian-based group that has branches in many Arab countries. The source added that the leaders of the alleged spy ring had received intelligence training and financial support from two foreign countries, which have not been publicly named.

It was not clear on Wednesday morning whether the two developments —the arrest of the alleged terrorists and the spy ring infiltration— were related.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 September 2017 | Permalink

British tip helped French police foil ‘imminent’ terrorist attack

DGSEA tip from British intelligence helped French counterterrorist officials arrest two men who are thought to have been in the final stages of planning a large-scale terrorist attack, according to French media. Government sources in Paris say officers from the country’s domestic intelligence agency, DGSE, arrested two men on Monday. Both men are reportedly French citizens from France’s northern regions. They were residing in the southern port city of Marseilles, where they were arrested by the DGSE. They were later named as Merabet Mahiedine, 29, and Clement Baur, 23. It is alleged that Mahiedine has North African roots, but that Baur is a Caucasian convert to Islam. Both were allegedly known to French police for having repeatedly stated views in support of radical Islamist policies.

According to France’s Minister of the Interior, Matthias Fekl, the two men were planning to carry out a large-scale armed attack in Marseilles this week, which is the last before the long-awaited presidential election in the country. Some sources in the French intelligence community claim that the two men planned to kill one of the major candidates in the election. A number of reports suggest that their target was François Fillon, a conservative presidential candidate who served as Prime Minister from 2007 to 2012 under President Nicolas Sarkozy. It is not known why Fillon may have been targeted, though some observers speculate that radical Islamists seek to promote the aspirations of Fillon’s main rival, the far-right candidate Marine LePen, whom they see as someone whose policies would further-radicalize Muslims in France and North Africa.

Reports in the French media state that DGSE officers confiscated several guns and significant quantities of bomb-making material that were found in an apartment belonging to one of the two men. Meanwhile, an aide to Mr. Fillon told the Paris-based newspaper Le Figaro that the primary tip that led to the arrest of the two men in Marseilles came from British intelligence. The subsequent capture of the two men prevented an attack that would have almost certainly taken place “in the next couple of days”, according to sources in Paris.

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

German security agencies had watched Berlin market attacker for a year

Berlin Christmas market attackThe central suspect in the Berlin Christmas market attack had been on the radar of German security agencies since January of this year, because he had links with radical Islamists and sought to buy guns for a terrorist attack. Anis Amiri, 23, left his native Tunisia in 2011, soon after the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring there. He lived in Italy for three years before arriving in Germany in July 2015. In April of this year, he applied for an asylum in Germany. According to German authorities, Amiri was arrested multiple times in Tunisia for drug-related offenses. He is also believed to have used at least six different aliases since moving to Europe, and to have claimed to be a citizen of Lebanon and Egypt at different times.

On Wednesday, German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung revealed that Amiri’s cell phone and email accounts had been monitored by German security agencies at least since January of this year. The decision to monitor his telecommunications was reportedly taken by officials at Germany’s Center for Terrorism Defense (GTAZ). The agency functions as a fusion center for intelligence cooperation between German police and spy services. The newspaper said that Amiri was deemed suspicious because of his connections with several radical Islamists, who were arrested in Germany in recent months. They include Abu Walaa, a vocal supporter of the Islamic State who was captured in Northern Germany in November. According to anonymous German officials, Amiri had also told friends that he was seeking people to help him purchase weapons and use them to carry out attacks on civilians in Europe.

Last summer, Amiri was involved in a scuffle between rival drug gangs in Berlin, in which at least one knife was used. But he disappeared for several weeks when police tried to question him about it. He was eventually arrested and questioned by police in Berlin. It was discovered that, according to one German official, Amiri “was highly mobile”, moving between Berlin and northern Germany every few weeks. But, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, German authorities did not have enough evidence against him to keep him in detention. Shortly after Amiri’s arrest and subsequent release, German authorities decided to turn down his application for asylum due to security concerns. He was due to be deported from Germany before December 31. The German police is now offering up to €100,000 for Amiri’s capture.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 December 2016 | Permalink

Paris attack mastermind evaded Athens police raid in January

Abdelhamid AbaaoudThe man who masterminded November’s Islamist attacks in Paris was based in Athens, and last January managed to escape arrest during a joint Greek-Belgian police operation aimed at capturing him. Moroccan-born Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who had lived in Brussels for years, died in a gun battle with French police on November 18, just days after the multiple attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and injured hundreds. It is believed that the perpetrators of the attacks, who were based in Belgium, were guided and directed by Abaaoud. He, however, was not based in Belgium, but in Athens, Greece. It was from there that he directed the Islamist cells, mostly by phone, according to the BBC.

Citing “a Belgian anti-terrorism source” the BBC said on Tuesday that Belgian and Greek authorities were aware of Abaaoud’s general whereabouts and were able to trace some of his phone calls to Islamist militants in Belgium. Eventually, a senior Belgian law enforcement official traveled to Athens to help coordinate a Greek police operation aimed at capturing Abaaoud. By that time, the Moroccan-born militant had been sentenced by a Paris court to 20 years imprisonment in absentia for his role in at least four planned attacks in France —all of which had been foiled by police. Upon capture, Greek authorities planned to extradite Abaaoud to France, where he would serve his sentence. However, the militant was able to get away, though the BBC said that the circumstances of his escape remain unclear. According to the report, an Algerian associate off Abaaoud was arrested during the operation in Athens and was extradited to Belgium.

Abaaoud was not the only Islamic State-linked militant known to have operated in Greece. The two suicide bombers who tried to enter the Stade de France in Paris on November 13 had entered the European Union through the Greek island of Leros, after crossing the Aegean by boat from Turkey. Meanwhile, another of Abaaoud’s associates, Belgian-born Frenchman Salah Abdeslam, whose current whereabouts are unknown, is believed to have traveled by ferry from Italy to Greece in August.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 December 2015 | Permalink

Mossad allegedly behind arrest of ‘Hezbollah bomber’ in Cyprus

Larnaca police stationA team of officers from Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency were heading to Cyprus late yesterday to be briefed on the arrest of a dual Lebanese-Canadian citizen, who was found to be in possession of 67 thousand packages of ammonium nitrate. It is not yet clear whether the passports held by the 26-year-old man are genuine. Cypriot police said he used his Canadian passport to enter the Mediterranean island about a week ago. But he was arrested on Wednesday, after police found 420 boxes of ammonium nitrate in the house where he was staying. The boxes amount to nearly 2 tons of the highly flammable fertilizer. They were discovered in the basement of a house in a residential neighborhood of the city of Larnaca, on the southern coast of Cyprus.

On Monday, Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida said the Lebanese-Canadian man was arrested after Cypriot police were tipped off by the Mossad. The Kuwaiti newspaper, cited “exclusive sources from Israel” in saying that the 26-year-old is thought to be an operative of the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah. Al-Jarida added that the man is thought to have contacted several Hezbollah operatives in recent months, and that he has even met Hezbollah’s reclusive leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Cypriot police are working on the assumption that the ammonium nitrate was going to be used to blow up the Israeli embassy on the island, or to attack Israeli tourists holidaying there. But he was stopped because the Israelis were able to monitor his phone calls to other Hezbollah operatives, said Al-Jarida.

The Kuwaiti newspaper’s claims appeared to be confirmed on Monday morning, as the alleged Hezbollah operative was brought under heavy police protection to the Larnaka District Court. The authorities then promptly admitted a request by the prosecutor to conduct the proceedings behind closed doors, due to “concerns pertaining to the national security of the state”. Meanwhile, a local Cypriot newspaper, the Famagusta Gazette, said a team of Mossad officers were on their way to the island to be briefed by the police and possibly speak to the detainee. Speaking to reporters on Monday, Israel’s Minister of Defense, Moshe Yaalon, said the house in Larnaka was a “Hezbollah hideout” that served as a safe house for the Shiite group’s “international terrorism network”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 02 June 2015 | Permalink: https://intelnews.org/2015/06/02/01-1707/