Analysis: The Islamic State is far from dead; it is regrouping and rebranding itself

Islamic State ISISIn a recent series of interviews to promote his new book, Anatomy of Terror, former FBI special agent and current counterterrorism expert Ali Soufan insists that the Islamic State remains potent and dangerous. Speaking last week to the British newspaper The Guardian, Soufan warned that, even though the Islamic State was unable to hang on to its self-described caliphate in the Middle East, the group has ample opportunities to regroup. In the days of al-Qaeda, “we only had one vacuum, in Afghanistan”, from where Osama bin Laden’s organization operated from and spread its message, said Soufan. “Now we have so many vacuums —Syria, Yemen, Libya, northern Nigeria, Tunisia, the Philippines— and it’s expanding. That’s very dangerous”, he warned.

Soufan, a well-read analyst and complex thinker, who today presides over The Soufan Group and oversees the Soufan Foundation, is right to warn against the notion that the Islamic State is on its way out. The group’s meteoric rise marked a watershed moment in the modern history of militant Sunni Islam. Even if it is militarily annihilated —a prospect that is far from certain— its physical absence will in no way erase its impact and influence among its millions of supporters and sympathizers. In fact, experts warn that the group is —like al-Qaeda before it— proving to be resilient and able to withstand intense military pressure from its enemies. Currently, all signs show that the Islamic State is actively reorganizing under the command of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The prolonged absence of the Iraqi-born al-Baghdadi has prompted wild speculation about this supposed demise or severe incapacitation. There are even some who claim that he was killed by an Islamic State faction in an internal coup.

But most intelligence agencies agree that al-Baghdadi —and his core lieutenants— remain very much alive and well. Three weeks ago, The Washington Post cited anonymously a “senior United States counterterrorism official” who confirmed that, by all indications, al-Baghdadi was alive and was coordinating the group’s activities in its last strongholds in eastern Syria. This is supported by communications intercepts, detainee interrogations and statements by informants, said The Post. It is important to note that Al-Baghdadi continues to have alongside him some of the militant group’s most hardened commanders, most of whom were trained in intelligence and military tactics during the reign of Saddam Hussein. Under their guidance, retreating Islamic State forces are leaving behind cell-based formations of underground fighters in areas that are liberated by the fragile US-led coalition. Read more of this post

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Opinion: Bizarre fake murder plot points to Ukrainian state’s recklessness, unreliability

Arkady Babchenko

Arkady Babchenko

Western audiences were treated to a small taste of the bizarreness of Eastern European politics this week, when a Russian journalist who had reportedly been assassinated by the Kremlin, made an appearance at a live press conference held in Kiev. On Tuesday, Ukrainian media reported that Arkady Babchenko, a Russian war correspondent based in Ukraine, had been shot dead outside his apartment in the Ukrainian capital. A day later, after Babchenko’s murder had prompted global headlines pointing to Russia as the most likely culprit, Babchenko suddenly
appeared alive and well during a press conference held by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). The SBU then said that Babchenko’s killing had been staged in an attempt to derail a Russian-sponsored plan to kill him. The bizarre incident concluded with Babchenko meeting on live television with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who praised him as a hero. Later that night, the Russian journalist wrote on his Facebook page that he planned to die after “dancing on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s grave”.

Welcome to Ukraine, a strange, corrupt and ultra-paranoid state that is on the front lines of what some describe as a new Cold War between the West and Russia. Like the Cold War of the last century, the present confrontation is fought largely through information. The Russian government, which appears to be far more skillful than its Western adversaries in utilizing information for political purposes, immediately sought to capitalize on the Babchenko case. In fact, this baffling and inexplicable fiasco may be said to constitute one of the greatest propaganda victories for the Kremlin in years.

Ever since accusations began to surface in the Western media about Moscow’s alleged involvement in the 2016 presidential elections in the United States, Russia has dismissed these claims as “fake news” and anti-Russian disinformation. When Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned in England in March, the Kremlin called it a false-flag operation. This is a technical term that describes a military or intelligence activity that seeks to conceal the role of the sponsoring party, while at the same time placing blame on another, unsuspecting, party. Most Western observes reject Russia’s dismissals, and see the Kremlin as the most likely culprit behind the attempt to kill the Skripals.

As one would expect, Russia stuck to its guns on Tuesday, when the world’s media announced the death of Arkady Babchenko in the Ukraine. Moscow claimed once again that we were dealing here with a false flag operation that was orchestrated by anti-Kremlin circles to make Russia look bad at home and abroad. It turns out that Moscow was right. Babchenko’s “murder” was indeed a false flag operation —admittedly a sloppy, shoddy and incredibly clumsy false flag operation, but a false flag operation nonetheless. Moreover, Babchenko’s staged killing could not possibly have come at a worse time for Ukraine and its Western allies. In the current environment, global public opinion is extremely sensitive to the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and disinformation. Within this broader context, the Ukrainian state and its intelligence institutions have placed themselves at the center of an global disinformation maelstrom that will take a long time to subside. In doing so, the government of Ukraine has irreparably harmed its reputation among the general public and in the eyes of its Western allies. The Kremlin could not possibly have asked for a better gift from its Ukrainian adversaries.

The amateurishness and recklessness of some Eastern European countries that the West sees as allies in its confrontation with Russia, such as Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, and others, would be humorous if it were not so dangerous. The manifest idiocy of the Babchenko fake plot also poses serious questions about the West’s policy vis-à-vis  Russia. It is one thing for the West to be critical of the Kremlin and its policies —both domestic and foreign. It is quite another for it to place its trust on governments and intelligence services as those of Ukraine, which are clearly unreliable, unprofessional, and appear to lack basic understanding of the role of information in international affairs.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 June 2018 | Permalink

Analysis: Will the mass expulsion of diplomats affect Russia’s spy capabilities?

Russian embassy in WashingtonRelations between Russia and much of the West reached a new low on Monday, with the expulsion of over 100 Russian diplomats from two dozen countries around the world. The unprecedented expulsions were publicized on Monday with a series of coordinated announcements issued from nearly every European capital, as well as from Washington, Ottawa and Canberra. By the early hours of Tuesday, the number of Russian diplomatic expulsions had reached 118 —not counting the 23 Russian so-called “undeclared intelligence officers” that were expelled from Britain last week. Further expulsions of Russian diplomats are expected in the coming days.

It is indeed difficult to overstate the significance of this development in the diplomatic and intelligence spheres. Monday’s announcements signified the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence personnel (intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover) in history, and is remarkable even by Cold War standards. In the United States, the administration of President Donald Trump expelled no fewer than 60 Russian diplomats and shut down the Russian consulate in Seattle. Such a move would have been viewed as aggressive even for Mr. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is known for her hardline anti-Russian stance. In Europe, the move to expel dozens of Russian envoys from 23 different countries —most of them European Union members— was a rare act of unity that surprised European observers as much as it did the Russians.

RUSSIA’S ESPIONAGE CAPABILITY

However, in considering the unprecedented number of diplomatic expulsions from an intelligence point of view, the question that arises is, how will these developments affect Russia’s espionage capabilities abroad? If the Kremlin did indeed authorize the attempted assassination of the Russian defector Sergei Skripal, it must be assumed that it expected some kind of reaction from London, possibly in the form of limited diplomatic expulsions. The resulting worldwide wave of expulsions must have caught Russian intelligence planners by surprise. There is little question, therefore, that these are difficult hours for the GRU, Russia’s military-run Main Intelligence Directorate, and the SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. These agencies will be losing as much as two thirds of their official-cover officers in Europe and North America. The last time this happened on such a massive scale was during World War II, as Soviet embassies across Europe were unceremoniously shut down by the advancing Nazi forces. Read more of this post

Analysis: Decoding Britain’s response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal

Russian embassy LondonAs expected, Moscow snubbed the British government’s demand for information into how a Russian-produced military-grade nerve agent ended up being used in the streets of Salisbury, England. As British Prime Minister Theresa May addressed the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon, Sergei Skripal continued to fight for his life in a hospital in southern England. His daughter, Yulia, was also comatose, having been poisoned with the same Cold-War-era nerve agent as her father. This blog has followed the case of Sergei Skripal since 2010, when he arrived with his family in the United Kingdom after he was released from a Russian prison, having served the majority of a 13-year sentence for spying for Britain.

Just hours after the attack on the Skripals, British defense and intelligence experts concluded that it had been authorized by the Kremlin. On Wednesday, Prime Minister May laid out a series of measures that the British government will be taking in response to what London claims was a Russian-sponsored criminal assault on British soil. Some of the measures announced by May, such as asking the home secretary whether additional counter-espionage measures are needed to combat hostile activities by foreign agents in the UK, are speculative. The British prime minister also said that the state would develop new proposals for legislative powers to “harden our defenses against all forms of hostile state activity”. But she did not specify what these proposals will be, and it may be months —even years— before such measures are implemented.

The primary direct measure taken by Britain in response to the attack against Skripal centers on the immediate expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from Britain. They have reportedly been given a week to leave the country, along with their families. When they do so, they will become part of the largest expulsion of foreign diplomats from British soil since 1985, when London expelled 31 Soviet diplomats in response to revelations of espionage against Britain made by Soviet intelligence defector Oleg Gordievsky. Although impressive in size, the latest expulsions are dwarfed by the dramatic expulsion in 1971 of no fewer than 105 Soviet diplomats from Britain, following yet another defection of a Soviet intelligence officer, who remained anonymous.

It is important to note, however, that in 1971 there were more than 500 Soviet diplomats stationed in Britain. Today there are fewer than 60. This means that nearly 40 percent of the Russian diplomatic presence in the UK will expelled from the country by next week. What is more, the 23 diplomats selected for expulsion are, according to Mrs. May, “undeclared intelligence officers”. In other words, according to the British government, they are essentially masquerading as diplomats, when in fact they are intelligence officers, whose job is to facilitate espionage on British soil. It appears that these 23 so-called intelligence officers make up almost the entirety of Russia’s “official-cover” network on British soil. This means that the UK Foreign Office has decided to expel from Britain nearly every Russian diplomat that it believes is an intelligence officer. Read more of this post

Analysis: All evidence points to professionals behind Skripal poisoning

Skripal SalisburyMost state-sponsored assassinations tend to be covert operations, which means that the sponsoring party cannot be conclusively identified, even if it is suspected. Because of their covert nature, assassinations tend to be extremely complex intelligence-led operations, which are designed to provide plausible deniability to their sponsors. Consequently, the planning and implementation of these operations usually involves a large number of people, each with a narrow set of unique skills. But —and herein lies an interesting contradiction— their execution is invariably simple, both in style and method. The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal last Sunday in England fits the profile of a state-sponsored covert operation in almost every way.

Some have expressed surprise that Skripal, a Russian intelligence officer who was jailed in 2004 for selling Moscow’s secrets to British spies, would have been targeted by the Russian state. Before being allowed to resettle in the British countryside in 2010, Skripal was officially pardoned by the Kremlin. He was then released from prison along with four other Russian double agents, in exchange for 10 Russian deep-cover spies who had been caught in the United States earlier that year. According to this argument, “a swap has been a guarantee of peaceful retirement” in the past. Thus killing a pardoned spy who has been swapped with some of your own violates the tacit rules of espionage, which exist even between bitter rivals like Russia and the United States.

This assumption, however, is baseless. There are no rules in espionage, and swapped spies are no safer than defectors, especially if they are judged to have caused significant damage to their employers. It is also generally assumed that pardoned spies who are allowed to resettle abroad will fade into retirement, not continue to work for their foreign handlers, as was the case with Skripal, who continued to provide his services to British intelligence as a consultant while living in the idyllic surroundings of Wiltshire. Like the late Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London of radioactive poisoning in 2006, Skripal entrusted his personal safety to the British state. But in a country that today hosts nearly half a million Russians of all backgrounds and political persuasions, such a decision is exceedingly risky.

On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Police Service announced that Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, had been “targeted specifically” by a nerve agent. The official announcement stopped short of specifying the nerve agent used, but experts point to sarin gas or VX. Both substances are highly toxic and compatible with the clinical symptoms reportedly displayed by the Skripals when they were found in a catatonic state by an ambulance crew and police officers last Sunday. At least one responder, reportedly a police officer, appears to have also been affected by the nerve agent. All three patients are reported to be in a coma. They are lucky to have survived at all, given that nerve agents inhaled through the respiratory system work by debilitating the body’s respiratory muscles, effectively causing the infected organism to die from suffocation.

In the past 24 hours, at least one British newspaper stated that the two Russians were “poisoned by a very rare nerve agent, which only a few laboratories in the world could have produced”. That is not quite true. It would be more accurate to say that few laboratories in the world would dare to produce sarin or VX, which is classified as a weapon of mass destruction. But no advanced mastering of chemistry or highly specialist laboratories are needed to manufacture these agents. Indeed, those with knowledge of military history will know that they were produced in massive quantities prior to and during World War II. Additionally —unlike polonium, which was used to kill Litvinenko in 2006— nerve gas could be produced in situ and would not need to be imported from abroad. It is, in other words, a simple weapon that can be dispensed using a simple method, with little risk to the assailant(s). It fits the profile of a state-sponsored covert killing: carefully planned and designed, yet simply executed, thus ensuring a high probability of success.

By Wednesday, the British security services were reportedly using “hundreds of detectives, forensic specialists, analysts and intelligence officers working around the clock” to find “a network of highly-trained assassins” who are “either present or past state-sponsored actors”. Such actors were almost certainly behind the targeted attack on the Skripals. They must have dispensed the lethal agent in liquid, aerosol or a gas form, either by coming into direct physical contact with their victims, or by using a timed device. Regardless, the method used would have been designed to give the assailants the necessary time to escape unharmed. Still, there are per capita more CCTV cameras in Britain than in any other country in the world, which gives police investigators hope that they may be able to detect the movements of the attackers. It is highly unlikely that the latter remain on British soil. But if they are, and are identified or caught, it is almost certain that they will be found to have direct links with a foreign government.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 March 2018 | Permalink

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?

Read more of this post

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.