Analysis: British report into Russian meddling leads to uncomfortable conclusions

British parliamentBritain is abuzz today with news of the long-awaited release of the Parliament’s report [.pdf] into Russian meddling in British politics. The report is the work of the Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. Since 2013, the Committee has been appointed to oversee the work of Britain’s intelligence agencies. Almost all of its meetings are conducted behind closed doors, and its reports are vetted by the spy agencies prior to release. By law, the Committee cannot make its reports public without previously submitting them for approval to the Office of the Prime Minister.

In the past it has taken no more than 10 days for the Committee’s reports to be approved by the prime minister. This particular report, however, which concerns —among other things— Russian meddling into British politics, took considerably longer. It was given to the prime minister on October 17. But by November 6, when parliament was dissolved in preparation for the election that brought Boris Johnson to power, it had not been approved. It finally came out yesterday, after numerous and inexplicable delays. Many speculated that the government did not want to deal with the uncomfortable conclusions in the report.

Like all reports of its kind, this one will be politicized and used by Britain’s major parties against their rivals. But behind the politicking, the report makes for uncomfortable reading indeed. It shows that, not just British, but Western intelligence agencies as a whole, remain incapable of combating online psychological operations from foreign state actors —primarily Russia— aiming to influence Western politics on a mass scale.

This is ironic, because Western spy agencies used to be really good on Russia. In fact, during the Cold War that is all they did. Many years have passed since then, and many leading Western experts on Russia have either retired or died. Additionally, the attacks of September 11, 2001, turned the attention of Western spy agencies to terrorism by groups like al-Qaeda, and away from Russia. Meanwhile, back in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, rebuilt the state and sought to reclaim Russia’s lost international prestige. This plan includes a page from the old KGB playbook: destabilizing Western nations through psychological operations that accentuate existing extremist tendencies from the left or right. Read more of this post

Analysis: Will ISIS claim responsibility for Istanbul airport attack? (updated)

Istanbul Airport TurkeyTurkish security and counterterrorism officials are blaming the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria for Tuesday’s bloody attack at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport, which left at least 41 people dead and nearly 300 injured. But will ISIS claim responsibility for the attack? And if not, why not? ISIS is indeed the most likely culprit of Tuesday night’s terrorist attack. The modus operandi of the three attackers, which some unconfirmed reports suggest Turkey has now confirmed were foreign nationals, matches that of previous ISIS attacks on high-profile international targets. More importantly, the style of the attack does not fit the profile of the secessionist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as PKK, which almost always targets uniformed personnel in Turkey.

There is no shortage of motives for ISIS to target Turkey. The militant group wants to destabilize Turkey, which it sees as a prime market for spreading its ideas, especially among the country’s disenfranchised religious working class. The attack at Istanbul’s airport happened in the holy month of Ramadan, the most revered time on the Muslim religious calendar, during which ISIS said would launch a wave of violence around the world. Last but not least, foreign and domestic intelligence agencies had warned the Turkish government in recent weeks of an impending large-scale attack by ISIS, saying that the group was anxious to re-galvanize its supporters after suffering heavy military defeats in Iraq and Syria. Since the start of 2015, experts have connected ISIS to at least seven different attacks on Turkish soil, most of them in large urban centers like Ankara and Istanbul. However, the only attacks the militant group has claimed responsibility for were against Syrian anti-ISIS activists based in southern Turkey. In contrast, ISIS has shied away from officially linking itself with deadly attacks against high-profile targets in Turkey. This latest attack may fall in line with that pattern.

But why would ISIS not claim responsibility for such a media-savvy strike? There is no question that the Sunni Islamist group wants to destabilize Turkey’s economy, a goal that it sees as key to its success. That explains Tuesday night’s attack on one of the country’s busiest transport hubs during the peak of the tourist season. At the same time, however, ISIS is aware that Turkey’s main concern in the Middle East is not Sunni Islamism, but the rise of the PKK and other secessionist Kurdish groups. The latter are some of ISIS’ most formidable military adversaries, and the Islamist group would rather not distract Turkey from its escalating war against the Kurds. What’s more, because Ankara has been paying most of its attention to Kurdish separatists, ISIS has been able to build an extensive network of operatives inside Turkey, and it does not want to see it demolished by Turkish security forces. ISIS is therefore engaged in a delicate balancing act: on the one hand it wants to destabilize Turkey so as to export its sectarian war to one of the world’s most populous Sunni Muslim nations. On the other hand, however, it does not want to alter Turkey’s security priorities, which are mostly focused on Kurdish militias.

What will it mean if ISIS breaks with the typical pattern and does claim responsibility for Tuesday’s attack in Istanbul? That would be equivalent to an official declaration of war by the Islamic State against the Turkish Republic, a call for arms issued to all pro-ISIS networks in Turkey for the opening of a northern front in this widening regional conflict. It could also spell trouble for Turkey’s beleaguered security forces, which will be forced to divide their attention between two foes, the PKK in the east and in urban centers, and ISIS in the south and in popular tourist resorts throughout the country.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 30 June 2016 | Permalink

Opinion: Islamic State’s strategy will affect America’s gun control debate

Orlando shootingOut of the myriad of questions emerging from Sunday morning’s massacre in Orlando, two are perhaps most pressing. One concerns internal security in the United States; the other relates to the broad strategy of the Islamic State, the militant Sunni Muslim group that claimed responsibility for the bloody attack. The two topics are closely related.

Like most issues in modern-day America, the topic of internal security is heavily politicized, with public debate dominated by Democratic and Republican partisans. Predictably, each side is using Sunday’s massacre to advance its political agenda. It cannot be denied that, rightly or wrongly, gun ownership is a deeply entrenched feature in the American understanding of citizenship for a variety of social and historical reasons. It is equally undeniable that America’s liberal gun laws make it extremely easy for aspiring terrorists to acquire weapons. Recent mass shootings show that even those with documented mental illnesses or individuals who have been questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for possible links to terrorism, like Omar Mateen, are legally able to purchase high-powered weapons. This reduces the number of people that are needed to inflict mass casualties and directly assists the work of terrorist groups. Furthermore, the ability of aspiring terrorists to legally acquire high-powered weaponry exceeds America’s law enforcement and intelligence capabilities, and thus directly threatens the security of daily life in the country.

Judging by other recent mass shootings, and the speed with which the relentless news cycle moves on to other stories, this latest massacre is unlikely to have a major impact on US gun laws. However, if the attack in Orlando proves to be part of a broader strategy by the Islamic State, then the center of the debate on gun control in America may shift in unprecedented directions.

Most commentators agree that the Islamic State is currently retreating not only in its Syrian and Iraqi strongholds, but also in Libya, where it appears to be losing its control of the strategic port of Sirte. The possibility of losing its territorial base may radically alter the group’s modus operandi and strategic goals. Historically, the Islamic State has focused on what can be described as its core terrain, which includes Iraq, Syria, the Sinai Peninsula, and to a lesser extent Jordan and Lebanon. Back in 2014, Islamic State leaders could have urged the group’s tens of thousands of followers in the West to carry out the jihad there. But they didn’t, because the grand strategy of the Islamic State is to secure a territorial base in the Middle East before taking on bigger tasks. Islamic State supporters were therefore urged to join the fight to establish a territorially secure caliphate in the Middle East instead of attacking Western targets. The latter have of course been attacked, but this has been done primarily for two reasons: first, to discourage Western countries from getting directly involved in the war against the Islamic State; second, to encourage Islamophobia in the West and further-marginalize already disaffected Western Muslim youth, driving them to join the Islamic State.

But should the militant Sunni group be territorially defeated, it might decide to change its tactic and begin unleashing its followers in the West. Or if it is sensing that it is losing control of its self-proclaimed caliphate, it may already be already changing its strategy. There is currently no evidence that Omar Mateen was in touch with the Islamic State prior to committing Sunday’s massacre. But if he did, the Orlando massacre may have been an early indication of the Islamic State’s change of direction. Perhaps, then, the US is in for a lot more of these carefully targeted and lethally executed strikes.

It may be that the blood of over 50 people spilled in Orlando will not seriously affect the gun control debate. But if these killings increase in frequency and lethality, American society will face a number of unprecedented dilemmas that combine the issues of gun rights, domestic security and citizenship.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 June 2016 | Permalink

Russian-Iranian alliance over Syria is not as strong as some believe

Rouhani PutinThe governments of Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran are arguably the two most important allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But the Russian-Iranian alliance over Syria is not as solid —and may not be as durable— as some believe. On Monday, Iranian news agency ISNA reported that Iran’s minister for intelligence condemned Russia’s increased military involvement in Syria and said it would weaken Iran’s security. The minister, Mahmoud Alavi, opined at a press conference in Tehran that the intensification of Russia’s military operations in Syria would backfire against Iran, because it would prompt the Islamic State to “redouble its efforts to destabilize Iran’s security”.

Alavi’s comments came two weeks after Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps said that Iran cared about the stability of al-Assad’s regime in Syria more than Russia did. Jafari was responding to earlier comments made by Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who said that Moscow would not insist in keeping al-Assad in power in Damascus as a matter of principle. When asked to comment on Zakharova’s comments, Jafari said Iran had to accept that Russia “may not care if al-Assad stays in power as we do”. The difference between Tehran and Moscow, said Jafari, was that “we don’t know any better person to replace him”.

So does that spell changes in the dynamics of the Russian-Iranian alliance over Syria? Such an eventuality should not be discounted, says Sergey Aleksashenko, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He explains that, although both the Russians and the Iranians have aided al-Assad, their reasons for doing so are very different. Russia’s interests in Syria center on maintaining access to its naval base in Tartus, and on retaining a geopolitical presence in the Middle East. Iran’s support for Assad aims to prevent Tehran’s traditional foes, namely Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, from turning Syria into their protectorate. Additionally, says Aleksashenko, Iran appears much more willing to deploy ground troops in the fight against ISIS than Russia. The Islamic Republic is also much more willing to go against the wishes of other regional powers, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which Moscow tends to court.

Ultimately, says Aleksashenko, “although Russia has strategic interests in Syria, it has no intention to keep a military presence in the Middle East forever”. The Iranians, however, have no choice but to dwell in one of the world’s most unstable regions. Al-Assad’s removal would add significantly to that instability, and that is not something that Tehran is willing to permit.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 18 November 2015 | Permalink

Analysis: French are upset, but not surprised, by news of US spying

Before Edward Snowden, the revelation that the United States National Security Agency spied on three successive French presidents would have shocked many. But in the post-Snowden era, the news came and went without much tumult. The French President, Francois Hollande, called two emergency meetings of senior government officials at the Élysée Palace; the American ambassador to France was summoned for an official protest; but nothing more came of it. It was reported that US President Barack Obama spoke directly with his French counterpart on Wednesday, and assured him in no uncertain terms “that the US is no longer spying on France”.

The French leader, who is one of three French presidents mentioned in the WikiLeaks documents as a target of the NSA, is genuinely upset. And there will be some in his government who will push for a harder response than simply summoning the American envoy in Paris to file an official protest. But nobody in Paris or Washington thinks that Mr. Hollande, or indeed any other senior French official, was shocked or even surprised by the revelations of American espionage against France. Nor will the revelation cause any drastic disruption in the intelligence cooperation between France and the US. The two countries depend on each other to address a number of international issues that affect both, such the worrying situatioQ Quoten in Syria and Iraq, the continuing crises in Ukraine and in Libya, as well as the financial meltdown in Greece. So there is a recognition that their intelligence agencies must continue to work together on several pressing issues.

However, the French response may become a lot more direct if WikiLeaks publish further revelations about US espionage against French officials. The whistleblower website noted on Tuesday that “French readers can expect more timely and important revelations in the near future”. Unlike Edward Snowden, who is known to release progressively more damning documents in stages, WikiLeaks does not have a history of aiming for a crescendo through progressive releases of classified information. But there is speculation that Edward Snowden may in fact be the source of this latest WikiLeaks disclosure. If that is the case, we should not exclude further releases of relevant documents, and thus a more robust French response.

And what about America’s retort? Washington has suffered considerable diplomatic blowback from revelations in 2013 and 2014 that it spied on the leaders of Germany, Brazil and Argentina. Is the NSA still spying on America’s allied leaders? I am of the opinion that the NSA is not currently targeting the personal communications of allied government leaders as a matter of Q Quoteroutine practice. However, I do believe that this regimen can easily be changed to address particular needs, through what is called a “presidential finding”, basically a direct order issued by the president of the United States to target an individual foreign leader.

In the past two years, we have witnessed the diplomatic fallout that can result from publicly revealing these practices. However, for an intelligence agency like the NSA, having access to the personal communications of a foreign head of state is a temptation that is simply too difficult to resist. Moreover, it should not be assumed that political leaders are always completely in the know about the practices of their country’s intelligence agencies. American intelligence history amply demonstrates this truism. Finally, I would point to the well known maxim that intelligence agencies do not typically distinguish between adversaries and allies. All targets are considered fair game. This will admittedly do little to appease the French, but it will at least give them an accurate impression of what to expect in the brave new world of wholesale communications interception.

* This editorial is based on an interview given by the author to the Spanish newspaper La Razón.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 25 June 2015 | Permalink: https://intelnews.org/2015/06/25/01-1722/

Analysis: The war between Israel and international arms smugglers

Sinai PeninsulaBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
The interception earlier this week of a civilian cargo vessel in the southern Red Sea by Israeli commandos has brought to light the ongoing war between weapons smugglers and the Israeli state. The vessel, named Klos-C, was seized by Israeli forces in international waters, over 1,000 miles away from Israel’s coast. Few observers were surprised by the location of the seizure, which took place in the waters between Eritrea and Sudan. Israeli security planners consider the East African country as a major link in the complex smuggling network that supplies goods and weapons to the Gaza Strip. Tel Aviv has long asserted that the smuggled weapons, which usually originate from Iran or Syria, are secretly carried from Port Sudan into Egypt before eventually ending up across the border into the Palestinian enclave that is controlled by militant group Hamas.

Regular readers of this blog will remember the October 2012 Israeli air attack on the outskirts of Sudanese capital Khartoum, which destroyed an alleged illicit weapons warehouse. In May of 2012, a missile attack in Port Sudan, which was also linked to Israel, killed Nasser Awadallah Ahmed Said, an eminent member of the Red Sea’s Ababda Bedouin tribe, whose members have a long history of smuggling weapons and goods to and from Sudan.

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Comment: Are Somalia’s militant Islamist ‘defectors’ genuine?

Al-Shabaab militants in SomaliaBy IAN ALLEN| intelNews.org |
During the past two years, the once powerful influence of Islamic militancy in Somalia appears to be steadily declining. Not long ago, much of the country was firmly controlled by al-Shabaab (The Party of Youth), formerly the youth wing of the Islamic Courts Union, which ruled Somalia until 2006. The group, which is thought to have approximately 5,000 armed members at its disposal, emerged as a powerful force in Somalia in 2009. Three years later, in 2012, it formally announced its operational alignment with al-Qaeda. Its power began to wane, however, once the Western-backed Somali government decided to confront it militarily, with the support of the United States Central Intelligence Agency and several European-funded private security companies. A major indicator of this optimistic trend seems to center on the unprecedented numbers of al-Shabaab members who are defecting –apparently en masse– and joining the ranks of the Somali armed forces. Many of these defectors are trained by private security companies employed by the European Union before being sent to the front to fight against their former comrades. Read more of this post

Comment: There Is No Such Thing as ‘Friendly Espionage’

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack ObamaBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
Last month we reported on a story published by The Associated Press, according to which the Near East Division of the United States Central Intelligence Agency views Israel as the most serious threat to its secrets. The report cited interviews with several current and former US intelligence officials, who said the CIA views the Israeli spy community as “a genuine counterintelligence threat” to American interests. But Daniel Pipes, founder of the Middle East Forum and well-known American supporter of Israel, has authored a well-researched response to the Associated Press piece, in which he argues that reciprocal spying has been a decades-old element in Israeli-American relations. He recalls the case of Yosef Amit, a Major in Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, who in 1986 was arrested for spying on behalf of the CIA. Amit is believed to have been recruited by US intelligence in Bonn, West Germany; it is said that his handler was Tom Waltz, a Jewish CIA officer from the Agency’s station at the US embassy in Tel Aviv. Amit was convicted in 1987 and stayed in prison until 1993, when he was released after serving two-thirds of his sentence. Pipes also quotes Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s Ambassador to Washington from 1993 until 1996, who has said that, during his tenure as Israel’s envoy in DC, it was common knowledge among embassy staff that “the Americans were […] tapping our phone lines”, including the embassy’s secure line. Consequently, claims Rabinovich, American intelligence potentially had access to “every juicy telegram” communicated to or from the embassy. Read more of this post

Comment: Bin Laden’s Alleged ‘Magazine Stash’ May be CIA PsyOp

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden

By IAN ALLEN| intelNews.org |
Rumors of an alleged discovery of “a stash of pornography” in Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan have spread like wildfire since Friday, when Reuters published an “exclusive” report on the subject. The report, written by Mark Hosenball and Tabassum Zakaria, cites “current and former US officials […] who discussed the discovery […] on condition of anonymity”. According to the allegations, “[t]he pornography recovered in bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, consists of modern, electronically recorded video and is fairly extensive”. The report was almost immediately picked up by several news outlets, including The New York Times, which notes that the disclosure “will be welcomed by counter-terrorism officials because it could tarnish [the al-Qaeda founder’s] legacy and erode [his] appeal”. Indeed. It appears that only Danger Room‘s Spencer Ackerman thought it wise to air a brief disclaimer to the effect that the “welcomed disclosure” may in fact be “a CIA information operation”. He has a point. Read more of this post

Comment: Was the Killing of Osama bin Laden Legal?

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden

By IAN ALLEN* | intelNews.org |
The reaction of Americans to news of the assassination of Osama bin Laden has been overwhelmingly jubilant. Many will say that the killing of al-Qaeda’s founder was justified. But was it legal? Responding to news of the killing, famed linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky suggested that “we might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic”. Commenting from a different viewpoint, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin argues that the legal complications of arresting bin Laden would have been immense, and would have perhaps signaled “the most complex and wrenching legal proceeding in American history”.  We could would add to this that the White House was probably concerned about a prolonged state of heightened security for American embassies and civilian or military installations around the world, which could have lasted for as long as bin Laden’s hypothetical trial continued —which could have been years. Read more of this post

Analysis: Myths and Questions on bin Laden’s Assassination

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden

By J. FITSANAKIS and I. ALLEN | intelNews.org |
The assassination of al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, has helped dispel several myths about him and the organization he founded in 1988 in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. Among them is the idea that the Saudi-born militant was leading a primitive existence in some remote hillside in Waziristan, sheltered by mountainous tribes that were supposedly loyal to him. Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite his reputation as a hardened mujahedeen, bin Laden had chosen to spend his days in the unmatched comfort of a sprawling luxury compound located only an hour’s drive from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. The compound is located in a relatively wealthy suburb of the city of Abbottabad, which is also home to the Kakul Military Academy, Pakistan’s elite army training school. More importantly, the descriptions of bin Laden’s luxurious hideout fly in the face of the predominant view of al-Qaeda as an organization that knows how to blend in with its surroundings. Not only did the compound stand out, but, according to one American official, it was “eight times larger than the other homes in the town”. It featured 3,000 feet of living space, to house bin Laden, his four wives, and several advisors and guards. It appears to have been custom-built to bin Laden’s specifications in 2005, which would explain the existence of numerous built-in security features, including at least two heavily fortified security gates, seven-foot-high perimeter walls, and even solid blast-proof enclosures on all balconies. Continue reading →

Comment: Defector’s Wish to Return to Iran Not Unusual

Shahram Amiri

Shahram Amiri

By IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
This website has covered extensively the case of Dr. Shahram Amiri, a scientific researcher employed in Iran’s nuclear program, who disappeared during a religious pilgrimage to Mecca in May or June of 2009. Tehran maintains that Dr. Amiri was abducted by CIA agents. However, most intelligence observers, including this writer, believe that the Iranian researcher willfully defected to the West, following a long, carefully planned intelligence operation involving the CIA, as well as French and German intelligence agencies.

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Comment: Major changes in Australian, NZ spy agencies

Kevin Rudd

Kevin Rudd

By IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
This website has been keeping tabs on the ongoing transformation of New Zealand and Australian intelligence agencies. Recent media reports from both countries indicate that the changes, many of which are still underway, will mark the broadest reorganization in New Zealand and Australian intelligence agencies’ operational focus and mission in over half a century. Read more of this post

Analysis: NASA Spy’s Israel Ties Deeper Than Initially Thought

Stewart David Nozette

S.D. Nozette

By I. ALLEN and J. FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
New court documents show that Stewart David Nozette, an American scientist arrested for attempted espionage during an FBI sting last October, had deeper ties to Israel than initially believed. Nozette, a former employee of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was arrested for attempting to share classified US government data with an undercover FBI officer posing as a handler of Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. At the time of Nozette’s arrest, the US Justice Department argued for keeping him in jail, as he “might flee to Israel if not confined”. Interestingly, however, US officials said at the time that Israel had no role in Nozette’s attempted espionage, and the FBI’s own indictment admitted that the Bureau “does not allege that the government of Israel or anyone acting on its behalf committed any offense under US laws in this case”. But is this so? We examine the increasing complexities in the Stewart Nozette espionage case, as well as its significance for US-Israeli relations. Read article →

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Comment: Is There a ‘DNA Problem’ in US Spying?

Sam Tanenhaus

Sam Tanenhaus

By IAN ALLEN* | intelNews.org |
The controversy of the apparent ineffectiveness of US intelligence agencies to uncover the so-called Christmas Day bomb plot has reignited the discussion about the operational shortcomings of the US intelligence community. Sam Tanenhaus, editor of of The New York Times Book Review, has authored an interesting commentary, in which he delves into some of what he sees as the design deficiencies in American intelligence.

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